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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website


SEPT. 21, 2017    OUT THE DOOR?

Last month, the French Embassy tweeted:  “Flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata was born #OTD.  Picasso, who heard him in Arles, proclaimed ‘This man is of greater worth than I am!’”

I admire de Plata for overcoming his congenital disorder.  However, what does it mean to be “born OTD”?  Is it like being “born blind” or “born HIV positive”?  Or did his mother merely have an On Time Delivery?

I'd forgotten that OTD is tweetspeak for On This Date.  My bad.

And I've often had to remind myself that my initials TBT are tweetspeak for Throw-Back Thursday.



There was a buffet dinner Saturday evening at Oberlin College for the volunteers planning the next two 50th anniversary reunions.  I happened to find a seat between Wayne Alpern, president of the Class of 1969, and our classmate Christie Seltzer Fountain.  Thanks to George Spencer-Green for the photo below, which I've flanked with yearbook portraits. 

Our after-dinner conversation was mostly about Oberlin history.  Wayne related that the college's charismatic early leader, evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, agreed to become a professor only on the condition that the young institution would accept Black students.  That was in 1835.

In May of this year, Oberlin named Carmen Ambar as its 15th president, the first African American leader in the institution's 184-year history.  She spoke to us on both Friday and Saturday and made a great impression.

However, all three of us at the table Saturday evening had noticed fewer Blacks currently on campus than we remembered from the 1960s.  Alan Goldman, our committee's liaison with the college, forwarded the official numbers yesterday.

Two different ways of counting are in use. 

According to the federal reporting method, there are 151 students who identify as Black.  (That's only a fraction of the 1,013 students who by this method are non-white.)

According to a method which allows checking more than one box, there are 248 calling themselves at least partly African American.

Those numbers respectively translate to 5.3% and 8.8% of the college's 2,827 total students.  For the nation as a whole, the corresponding numbers are 13.3% and 14.5%.  Oberlin's legacy demands that we do better.



Oberlin College plans ahead.  Way ahead.  My Class of 1969 will celebrate the 50th anniversary of our commencement on May 24 through 27 of the year 2019, and I'm privileged to be part of the preliminary planning.

Our committee held meetings over the last three days at The Hotel at Oberlin, located across Main Street from the site of the Historic Elm.

This new building replaces the Oberlin Inn that I knew in my day.  When I was last in town two years ago, the new Hotel was under construction, as shown in the photo below.

In future posts I'll have more to say about this weekend.  Other alumni were also in attendance, including the committee for the 2018 reunion.

But for now, let me show you the anti-war vigil that took place at the Elm site at noon on Saturday, proving that Oberlinians of my age group are still keeping alive the tradition of demonstrating for peace.

Among the many old friends with whom I got to talk was Jan Weintraub Cobb, who is now the president of the Class of 1971.  She recalled, with amusement, my only musical performance on our campus radio station WOBC.

Some background:  We had decided to become a 24-hour station by adding an overnight shift, 2:00 to 6:00 AM.  We entrusted these hours to a robot, a blue metal box with lights and switches that controlled playback machines loaded with pop music.  We called this sequencer "Igor."

Every 15 minutes, while switching from one tape to another, Igor played a short voice announcement.  I recorded his computer voice, speaking in a monotone through a telephone and then speeding up the playback to a slightly higher pitch.

Igor's catchphrase:  THIS IS IG OR YOUR AU TO MA TED DISC JOCK EY WHOOP EE DO.  He was also one of my voices in this promo.  Audio Link

For one of his overnight announcements, Igor volunteered a tune of his own, but his data got out of sync.  The lyrics file was one note ahead of the melody file.  (I didn't come up with this gag myself.  The concept goes back at least as far as a 1954 recording by a band led by Stuart McKay, the famous jazz bassoonist.  Yes, I said "jazz bassoonist.")  Our automated disc jockey sang the "oldie" notated below.  All audio recordings of his unnerving performance were destroyed shortly afterward.


As I was leaving the parking lot yesterday to head back to Pennsylvania, a vintage automobile passed in front of my eyes.  It looked very much like this 1906 Thomas Flyer touring car, beautifully restored in pearl gray with shiny brass fittings.  I'd seen cars like this in museums, but I'd never encountered such an ancient vehicle out in the wild, just driving down East College Street.  The driver was sitting on the right with his passenger on the left, which was the style at the time.

The antique turned left on Main Street, and I turned after it, hearing the loud puttering of the engine and smelling the puffs of smoke from the exhaust.  I followed it for a couple of miles, as far as the US 20 intersection, before turning back toward town.  I only hope I'm that spry and handsome when I'm 111 years old.

Or 77 years old, at least.  When I got home, there was a mass e-mail awaiting me from Stephen FitzGerald, the chairman of Oberlin's Department of Physics and Astronomy.  He was informing me, along with 538 other alumni who majored in physics, that there's going to be a big event on April 8, 2024.  That afternoon, the next great American solar eclipse will pass right through Oberlin, providing almost four minutes of totality on campus.  Plans for an observation are already under way!



I'm on a committee embarking on a 20-month project with a couple dozen other members of my Oberlin Colllege graduating class.  We're planning for our 50-year reunion, to be held in May 2019.

Yes, we graduated way back in 1969.  But today I'm thinking even further back in history, to the summer when the college celebrated its own 50th anniversary.

I have a new article about a speech given by a famous alumna on the Fourth of July, 1883, in which she urged that women's rights be elevated at least above those of a notorious traitor.  She called it Oberlin and Woman.


SEPT. 12, 2017

When a dog goes to heaven, can he bring along a zucchini?

More to the point, do dogs go to heaven?

And how do we know?

As I wrote in 2009, “We might as well inquire into the pay scale for elves at Santa's workshop, or ask about next year's enrollment at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”

This month's 100 Moons article is my short story about a man who realizes that, in the absence of facts, he can invent any answer that suits his mood.  He no longer thinks as a child.




The pickups above seem to be blatantly disregarding the "No Truck Parking" regulation.  But on further review, it turns out that they belong to a nearby Ford dealer who is doing nothing wrong.  The sign refers to big trucks, tractor-trailers, and it's addressed to the public half of the lot on the near side of the curbs.  There's no foul on the play.

However, the sign on the right does bother me.  I agree that motorists should always watch out for pedestrians, especially school kids.  But I also think children shouldn't be walking in the road.  They ought to be taught to use the sidewalk.  It's right there!



I figured out the solution only last year.  The solution to what?  Whilst entering a high school football roster into an Excel spreadsheet, I encounter a column for “Class.”

After I've typed in my first Freshman, the spreadsheet knows that when I subsequently type F in a cell below, it can auto-complete the cell as Freshman.  That saves a lot of repetitive keystrokes.

After I've typed in my first Junior, the spreadsheet auto-completes the next J as Junior.

But when I type S, the spreadsheet needs a little more information: does that mean Senior or Sophomore?

Pro tip:  For a 12th-grader, I do type in Senior (and subsequently merely S).  But for a 10th-grader, I type in Osph (and subsequently merely O).  Later, after the entire roster has been entered, I can correct the spelling by using control-F to globally replace every Osph with Sophomore.



Most public high schools begin classes far too early in the morning.   This article says the average start time is 7:59 AM.  Students are still drowsy, impairing their health and learning ability.

In the 1960s, my school was apparently very progressive.  As I detailed here, Richwood High School students didn't have to report until 8:45 AM, with our first class at 8:50.

But that meant we didn't get out until late afternoon, right?  Not that late.  School was dismissed at 3:30, but some activities like athletic practice could begin as soon as 8th Period was over at 2:45.


SEPT. 3, 2007 flashback   GO MAUKA, THEN GO FREEPORT

I returned yesterday from Michigan, where I was part of the Big Ten Network football telecast (Appalachian State upset the #5 Wolverines).

After my plane landed, the last leg of my trip involved driving Pennsylvania Route 28 from Pittsburgh to my suburban home.  The state calls it "northbound" Route 28.  Around here, however, the road parallels the Allegheny River and actually goes more east than north.  To avoid confusion, traffic reporters usually call it "outbound" Route 28.

That got me thinking.  Sometimes our situation is better suited to coordinate systems other than the standard directions of north, south, east, and west.

Inside a shopping mall, if someone asks us how to get to the Hologram Hut, we don't say "walk west and it's on your left."  We say "walk toward Sears and it's on your left."

In my neighborhood, where streets are oriented to the river, it isn't quite correct to say "go north, then turn right and go east."  It would be more accurate to say "go north-northwest, then turn right and go east-northeast," but that's as difficult to visualize as it is to pronounce.  So I prefer to say "go away from the river, then turn right and go upstream."

And in the state of Hawaii, where the typical island is an extinct volcano surrounded by a ring of habitable land sloping down to the shore, the locals avoid the usual Cartesian coordinates (north, south, east, and west).  Instead, they use the radial coordinate system (in, out, clockwise, and counterclockwise).  "In" is mauka, toward the mountains.  "Out" is makai, toward the sea.  At Honolulu, "clockwise" is ewa, toward Ewa Plantation, and "counterclockwise" is waikiki, toward Waikiki Beach.


SEPT. 1, 2017    BRAUN, AS IN "BRAWN"

This summer I saw a news clip from Cincinnati's WKRC, channel 12.  One of the anchors was identified as Rob Braun (left).

Hmm.  I remember Bob Braun from Cincinnati, a singer and talk show host popular with the ladies.  Later he was a commercial pitchman for Craftmatic Adjustable Beds.

It turns out that Bob was Rob's father.

In 1971, Bob came to our little black-and-white TV studio in Marion, Ohio, and we taped an interview with him — in color!  I've added that tale here to my recollections of Those '70s Shows.

I've also updated my update of my update about laugh tracks in TV comedies, adding to this post a paragraph about an ancient episode with Dick Van Dyke as a "Hillbilly Whiz."

AUGUST 30, 2017    CLUTTER

As I perform my morning home-office activities like check writing and Internet checking, I usually have my radio tuned to Pittsburgh's WDVE.  I only half listen, perking up when certain comedy routines come on.  I can ignore the radio much of the time because so much of it consists of advertisements.

This morning I decided to quantify this observation by keeping a log.  In the 6½ minutes before the 7:01 AM station ID, there were ten commercials back to back, as follows:




Steelers mobile app






Xfinity personal appearance by Josh Bell


Mattress Firm


latemodels4less.com (used cars)


ADT Security Services


Golden Oak Lending


Body by Cochran (collision service)

I'm reminded of my 1988 visit to South Korea.  I may not be remembering this exactly, but it seemed that their television stations didn't want to interrupt programs with advertisements, so they scheduled 22-minute programs followed by solid 8-minute blocks of commercials.  Whatever works.



All right, this is getting ridiculous.  A Major League Baseball player now wears a different uniform almost every game — home, road, national holiday, camouflage, alternate, throwback, Negro League, cancer awareness, and a special color for Sundays only.  Maybe in spring training they're even a-wearin' of the green on March 17.  This affords the merchandisers an opportunity to sell dozens of different jerseys to every fan.

On April 15 each year, every player's uniform number is 42 to honor Jackie Robinson.  These were the Pirates starters this year.

As a graphics operator who has to type up the lineup, I can tolerate this madness for one day.  All the familiar names are there, and on my computer each player's stats are linked to his everyday number.




























But now it's Players Weekend, “a first-of-its kind opportunity for players to show their individual flair and allow fans to get to know them better.”  In uniform, they look like softball teams.  Each player wears a Little League-styled jersey, and the name on the back is replaced with a nickname of his own choosing.




























This was Friday's Pirates lineup, as seen on TV.  I can't make heads or tails out of it.

Well, maybe heads.  True fans know that #6 is Starling Marte, for example.  We often do refer to Josh Harrison as “J Hay,” and Ivan Nova has been called “Super Nova.”  But who are the rest?

Some of the nicknames are even misleading.  “The Rook” is no longer a rookie.  In fact, he's celebrating his 31st birthday today.

But John Jaso is in fact an “easy” J.  Last month he was an easy out, with only one hit in 36 at-bats (.028) from July 3 through 26.  And Dave is in fact a human.  As the story goes, David Freese has a dog named Bob, and his friend Bob has a dog named Dave, so when the four of them get together they're Davehuman, Bobdog, Bobhuman, and Davedog.


AUGUST 26, 2007 flashback   21-DAY-OLD BREAD

I worked a minor-league baseball telecast on August 4.  The Washington (PA) Wild Things held a promotion that night, giving away loaves of Sara Lee bread.

The spectators numbered 3,527, including women and children.  And lo, they did partake of the bread that was given unto them.  And afterwards the disciples took up of the loaves that remained twelve baskets full.

"What ought we to do with these leftover loaves?" they asked each other.  "It would be sinful for us to waste them."  And behold, they offered them unto the workers upon the hill, including the television technicians who were putting away their equipment.

Now I'm not a cook.  I usually eat in restaurants, so I don't normally buy bread myself; maybe a package of sandwich buns now and then.  But this was free, and it was the healthy whole-wheat kind.  I took a loaf.

From time to time during the month, I opened the plastic wrapper and removed about four slices to make a couple of sandwiches for myself.  I noticed that the product was indeed "soft & smooth," as labeled.

I figured that since I wasn't consuming it very quickly, the bread would eventually become stale and I would have to throw the rest of the loaf away.  How soon this would happen, I didn't know.  My mother used to freeze bread to prevent staleness, unless we were going to feed it to the ducks.  I had heard that bakeries sell day-old bread at a discount.  Bread-Maker.net says that the shelf life of French and Italian bread is one day.  White, whole wheat, and sourdough are supposed to last two to three days, and ryes three to five.

But this bread, which I received on August 4, was labeled "Best if purchased by Aug. 16."  And every time I opened the plastic bag and removed some slices, they were still soft & smooth.  I didn't finish the loaf until yesterday (August 25), three weeks after the game.

Let's hear it for plastic bags and preservatives!


AUGUST 22, 2017    SHADING

You may have heard that there was a solar eclipse yesterday afternoon.  In most places, including Pittsburgh, it was a partial eclipse.  I've seen those before, so I didn't run outside to gape at this one.  I observed it from inside a TV truck at PNC Park, where we were preparing for that night's Dodgers at Pirates baseball game.

I've simulated above what I saw on one of our monitors while the eclipse progressed.  Unlike the eyes of the gapers, one of our cameras near a dugout was not being adjusted to compensate for the dying of the light.  Therefore, over an hour and a half, the picture gradually grew dimmer.  At maximum magnitude, 82% of the sun was covered by the moon.

Thirty years ago this afternoon, I grasped a control and partially eclipsed the entire CBS Television Network!  The story is this month's 100 Moons article.



It's been a rather mild summer here in Pennsylvania.  However, people living elsewhere have not been so fortunate.


Normally cloudy and rainy Portland, Oregon, went 57 days without precipitation.  Two weeks ago the thermometer read 105°.

Down in the desert Southwest, it was 119° in Phoenix on June 20.  Some planes weren't allowed to take off, and a sign for my namesake road began to melt.

And on June 29, the temperature in Ahvaz exceeded 129°, with a heat index over 140°.


Ahvaz is a city of over a million people in Iran.  Its official reading of 129.2° may tie the record for the highest temperature ever measured on Earth, according to the Washington Post.  "These temperature extremes are consistent with what climate scientists expect to see in a warming world.  A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2015 cautioned that by the end of the century, due to climate change, temperatures in the Middle East may become too hot for human survival."


AUGUST 17, 2017    SINGLE IN THE '70s

The Reelz cable TV network will show a documentary on the late Mary Tyler Moore tonight.

When the Mary Tyler Moore show premiered in September 1970, I identified with the character Mary Richards.  That very month, I too was tackling my first job in local television.  And, like Mary, I was a single young professional.

Unlike Mary, however, I was still living with my parents.  I envied her studio apartment.

Other residents in the building were Phyllis and Rhoda.  Mary had to be polite to her landlady, the rather annoying Phyllis, who lived downstairs with her husband and daughter.

However, Rhoda lived upstairs, and in the beginning I actively disliked her.  She kept dropping in on Mary and disrupting her privacy.  What good is having your own apartment if you can't keep the neighbors out?

Veteran television writer Ken Levine remembers the actress Mary Tyler Moore.  "More than just a beloved entertainer, she helped paved the way for feminism in the 1970's.  She affected people's lives.  The Mary Tyler Moore show, in my humble old-school opinion, is one of the finest sitcoms ever produced.  It hit all the targets — consistently laugh-out-loud funny, characters you cared about, and groundbreaking subject matter that helped shape society in a positive way."

He gave some examples of that subject matter.  They reminded me of another young woman of the 1970's whose letters I quoted here last year.

"Storylines that were somewhat revolutionary back then — a single woman working, a single woman   spending a night at a man's apartment, a single woman on the pill, a single woman fighting for equality in a man's world — those stories no longer have the same punch.  The series feels and looks a little dated.  So the bottom line is you don't see Mary Tyler Moore in syndication as much.  It's on nostalgia channels and streaming services but you have to really seek it out.  By the way, it's worth seeking out."



Everyone's talking about observing the total eclipse of the sun next Monday.  If you can't watch it, I can show you news coverage of a similar event that took place before almost all of us were born.  I'll even throw in footage of a related event whose 92nd anniversary is only three weeks away.

This is Hangar No. 1 in Lakehurst, New Jersey.  The year is 1924.

On the far right: a German-built dirigible that recently flew non-stop across the Atlantic, then was renamed USS Los Angeles.  Alongside it: the first rigid airship built by the U.S. Navy, the USS Shenandoah.

The Germans filled their airships with hydrogen.  That would prove unlucky 13 years later when the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed at Lakehurst.  The Americans preferred helium, which was non-flammable but much more expensive at $55 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf).  Helium was so scarce that at one point the Shenandoah had to loan its 2,100 Mcf, much of the world's reserves, to its sister airship.

Fully gassed up, the Los Angeles took off to observe a solar eclipse on January 24, 1925.  (On the ground, the eclipse was total in Manhattan, but only north of 96th Street.)  Here's the footage.  The first minute shows a different airship, a blimp that appears to have been patched with duct tape.

The other dirigible, the Shenandoah, was refilled, and seven months later it headed west.  But it ran into bad weather over Ohio and crashed on September 3, 1925.

Here's the musical story of how "the ship gave up the flight," and here's film footage of the aftermath.  Near the end of that newsreel, you can see men tearing off pieces of the airship's fabric covering and carrying them away.

As I wrote here, the scene was visited by two of my uncles.  (This photo shows two other guys.)  Jim Buckingham had just entered Byesville High School as a freshman, and his brother Ralph was a junior.  Having heard that an airship had come down not far away, they hopped in a car and drove ten miles south on the Marietta Road to see the crash scene.  They brought a piece home.  As a result, a scrap of the Shenandoah has been passed down to me.