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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website


Watching NBC's production of Peter Pan got me thinking.  I imagined I was a youngster attending a live stage performance, with no prior knowledge of what was about to happen.

The play starts a century ago in a conventional way, with characters conversing in English accents about domestic matters.  Then a strange boy enters through a window and tells strange stories about his home in a strange place called Neverland.

PETER:  Come with me.

WENDY:  To Neverland?

PETER:  Yes.  We’ll fly!

WENDY:  You can ... fly?

PETER:  Yes, of course.  Delta Airlines offers four daily non-stops.

No, wait, that’s not how the line goes.  Peter claims he can actually soar up into the air all by himself.

PETER:  You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts, and up you go!

Another tall tale, I think.  Unless they bring out a trampoline, this actor’s feet are going to remain firmly planted on the stage.  People can’t fly.

But then he actually does rise into the air!  To me, this is the most sensational moment in the play.  The impossible is happening, right before my eyes.  He’s flying!

Soon Wendy's little brother is encouraged to think his own lovely, wonderful thoughts.  In his case, that means candy, or Christmas.  Amazingly, the little boy also soars straight up, wriggling and squealing in delight!

And now the whole company is soaring about the stage!  This can’t be happening!

Nothing that follows, not pirates nor Indians nor ticking crocs, will be able to surpass this magical sight.


DEC. 4, 2019   

Time for another post about complicated intersections I've recently figured out.

Sometimes I get a hankerin' to hop in my car and head out to get some of that good ol' country ham.  There are three Cracker Barrel restaurants within twenty-some miles of my apartment, but I've found the farthest drive to be the most challenging.

That requires taking the Pennsylvania Turnpike southeast to westbound Interstate 70 and then hunkerin' down at Exit 57.  This interchange has been improved in the past couple of years.

As I descend the exit ramp, the sign on the right warns that I'll need to stay in the left lane, which will end at a traffic circle.  I'll want to circulate 270° counterclockwise and then head towards Hunker.

When I arrive at the circle, another sign on the left warns me that “traffic from left does not stop.”

But the signs don't tell even half of the story.  The new interchange features a double traffic circle!

After the first 270° (shown in green), I'll tunnel under the Interstate and immediately make another 200° around a second circle (shown in red).  From there, eschewing the first egress to Hunker, I'll descend the second ramp.  That will deposit me onto West Pennsylvania Avenue in New Stanton, where the restaurant resides.

To head home afterwards, getting back on the Interstate will be much easier, requiring only a white ramp on my right (preferably the first one) and then a gold ramp.

But I still haven't told you the whole story!  

Remember that yield sign warning of non-stopping traffic from the left?  On the map above, I've depicted said traffic as a big black arrow entering the underpass.  It's hidden from my yield sign because of the huge embankment that holds up the Interstate.  I must carefully creep up to the four white triangles.  There I make not a yield but a full stop.  I lean forward over the steering wheel and look to my left, as far as I can.  Seeing nothing so far, I then hit the gas to proceed double-time into the traffic circle before I'm clobbered by a not-yet-visible oncoming truck.

It would be safer if all of the “green” circle could see all of the “red” one through the underpass.  The highway engineers should have made the embankment shorter and built the bridge longer.  However, doing so would have cost slightly more of our tax dollars.


DEC. 2, 2009 flashback   RAINLAND

You’ve heard of the Viking explorer and real estate salesman known as Eric the Red.  To entice settlers from Iceland to move to his new project, he named it Green'land.  Later his son, Leif Ericsson, also became a famous explorer.

You may not know about the rest of Eric’s family.  He had two daughters, Helga Ericsdottir and Freydis Ericsdottir.  There was also another son, Rudy Ericsson, who was called Rudolph the Red because of his resemblance to his dad.

After Eric the Red and his family established a settlement on Greenland in the year 986, his son Rudy sent for his new wife to join him.  However, when she arrived, she discovered she had been the victim of her father-in-law’s false advertising.  This land wasn’t green.  On the contrary, it was covered by a huge glacier.  And the weather was even more inhospitable than it had been back home.

Rudy tried to convince his bride that Greenland wasn’t as gloomy as she thought.  “You’ll see,” he said.  “Conditions will improve once the rainy season is over.”

“Rainy season?!” she exclaimed.  “This stuff falling from the clouds isn’t rain.  It’s frozen!”

“No, it’s rain,” he reassured her.

“It’s sleet and snow!”

But her husband was insistent.  “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”

2019 UPDATE:   I first heard this punch line 60 years ago, but in those Cold War days “Rudolph the Red” was a Communist from Moscow.  By the way, CBS-TV will repeat the animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at 8:00 ET tonight — just as it did on this date in 2009!


NOV. 29, 2019

Seventy years ago, my parents and I took up residence in a “Charm Home” that was only six years younger than I.  The location was atop a hill on a brick-paved road on the outskirts of Cambridge, Ohio.

This month's 100 Moons article features vintage photos.


NOV. 26, 2014   CLUTTER

When I was a boy, a television program was brought to me by a single sponsor.  For example, Dinah Shore’s variety show was sponsored exclusively by Chevrolet, and the closing credits ran over Chevy’s theme song.

Dinah & Ella

When I was a young man, advertisers realized that not everyone watched Dinah, so it was better to spread their message around to different audiences by buying “spots” in several different programs.  But there were rules.  For example, no more than one competing car company could buy time in a given show.

Also when I was a young man, CBS decided viewers deserved to be updated about news that broke between Walter Cronkite at 7 pm and their local newscast at 11.  The network introduced, right in the middle of prime time, a 30-second headlines update.  It was anchored by Connie Chung, as I recall.  Almost immediately, however, the local stations claimed this time.  At first, like CBS, they used it to inform us about stories that would be covered in more detail at 11.  But then they stopped giving us any facts at all.  The “newsbriefs” became merely teases — promos to whet our curiosity so we would tune in at 11 to find out what was happening.

Now that I'm an old man, the automotive sector is very competitive, and every car company wants to buy advertising.  On a show last night, when the two-minute window for local commercials came along, I first saw the station’s weatherman.  “There’s a big storm coming.  Will you have to change your Thanksgiving travel plans?  Join us at 11 to find out.”  And then an announcer said, “This news update is brought to you by Chrysler, imported from Detroit.”

Fair enough.  That was immediately followed by a car commercial, which I assumed would be for Chrysler.  But no, when they finally got around to identifying the product it turned out to be Infiniti.  Then there was a commercial for Chevrolet.  And then there was a commercial for Nissan.

Four competing advertisers, back to back!  How is a viewer supposed to know which car to buy?


NOV. 25, 2009 flashback   EXTRA

News report:  California growers are developing large-scale olive tree farms to undercut Europe’s domination of the oil market.

The story mentioned “extra-virgin olive oil,” a term that's always puzzled me.  I tried to reason it out.  If virgin olive oil has never “gone all the way,” has extra-virgin oil never even “gone to second base”?  What would any of that mean, anyway?

And what would non-virgin oil be?  In what way has it been sullied, its virtue defamed?  Perhaps it's used cooking oil.  The little bits of food have been skimmed off and filtered out, and the oil has been recycled.

Well, I finally decided to look it up.  No, non-virgin oil has not been defiled by prior experience in the kitchen.  However, I was partly right:  it has, in fact, been filtered and refined to artificially reduce extraneous flavors and acidity.  But virgin oil is “all-natural,” straight from the fruit.  Extra-virgin applies to virgin oil that naturally happens to have less acidity and a better taste.  And none of it has even reached first base.


NOV. 23, 2019    FOCUS ON THE FIELD!

The University of Pittsburgh football team was shut out at Virginia Tech yesterday, as I watched on ESPN2.  Fortunately I had turned down the sound to listen to the Pitt radio broadcasters, or I might have almost missed the game.

The TV producer and director seemed to want to show as little of the action as possible.  They preferred to cut away:  to rain-soaked fans, to graphics about national standings, but mostly to coaches staring out at the field and occasionally pointing and shouting.

A director ought to cut back to the “game camera” at least a few seconds before the ball is snapped, so we can take note of the offensive and defensive formations.

However, on several occasions, we didn't return to the action until half a second after the snap.  It was hard to tell who had the ball!

I assume the announcers wanted to talk about the coaches instead of the players, so that's whom the director showed us.  We saw assistants sitting in the pressbox looking down at their notes and even, for one long stretch, a former coach who was interviewed on camera in the booth while the game proceeded unseen or on a half-screen insert.

A writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, “On Pitt's opening drive of the third quarter, it drove down to Virginia Tech's 29-yard line.  There, on a second-and-2, [Kenny] Pickett found V'Lique Carter for a 21-yard gain inside the Hokies' 10 ... but it was negated on a holding call.  The penalty was credited to center Jimmy Morrissey, who didn't appear to be involved in the play.  There was no replay or explanation from the ESPN crew, though.  The announcers instead discussed fishing and the College Football Playoff committee with former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer for 40 seconds in the booth.”

I've always thought we telecasters pay too much attention to the grownups, hoping for an emotional reaction, instead of showing the student-athletes out there on the field.  As Teddy Roosevelt reminded us, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”



Why, it's my Fictional Uninformed Interlocutor!


I haven't seen you lately, Fui.  Why so sad?

My father had surgery last week.

Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

Mom is taking care of him.  I'm praying for him; it's the least I can do.

You're praying that God will heal him?

That's right.

That's called “intercessory” prayer.

I know.  My family goes to church, at least twice a year.

Then God should already be aware of your Dad's condition.

Of course He is.  God knows everything.

So why do you need to tell God what He already knows?

Huh?  Well, I'm reminding Him.

He's forgetful?

And I'm asking Him to do my family a special favor.

But I thought you believed God has already laid out a Plan for your life?

Of course he has.

And for your father's life?

Of course.

Do you dare to think you can prevail upon God to change His divine Plans?

Of course.  We're good Christians.  Prayer can work miracles.

Phooey, Fui!  Prayer doesn't do what you think it does.  Scientists have tested it and found it ineffectual.

Our family believes in prayer, but we do not believe in science.

Many, many experiments have been conducted, and they've produced no reliable evidence that prayer can cure disease at all!

Our faith is in the Bible.

Haven't you read anything else?  Of course not, you're Uninformed.  Here, I looked up some facts from the scientific literature.

A double-blind study of 799 coronary surgery patients at the Mayo Clinic in 2001 concluded that “intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes.”

Five years later, a meta analysis of 14 controlled studies concluded that “There is no scientifically discernable effect for intercessory prayer.”  Those investigators recommended “that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.”

Don't confuse me with evidence.  My mind is made up.  Prayer works!  Besides, our pastor told us that Korean women are twice as likely to conceive after they've been prayed for.

That particular study was by Columbia University researchers, but it turned out to be flawed.  It was retracted.

So are you trying to tell me that praying for Dad won't do any good?

No, actually that's not at all what I'm saying.  It will do some good, three ways.

You see, prayer involves putting your hopes and fears into words.

Tell your father how you feel, and it will reassure him.

Remind yourself how you feel, and it will ease your worry.

Tell your mother how you feel, and it will sustain her.

Tell the Man Upstairs?  Don't bother.  Won't help.



Mobile phones have a speaker near the top and a microphone on the bottom, so they can be held like a traditional telephone receiver.  But what's the deal with the guy on the right?

Josh Fruhlinger tweets, “I see people out in public who are sort of talking into the bottom of their phones but holding the top away from themselves, and the volume of the person on the other end is playing full blast, and I always wonder: why?  Who does this?”

He retweets a description of an overheard Presidential phone call.  “Holmes says he heard Trump ask Sondland, ‘So, he's gonna do the investigation?’  Sondland wasn't on speakerphone, but held the phone out because it was so loud.”  So maybe you move the phone away from you lest its excessive volume blow out your ear.

Another possible explanation:  If you want to see the screen, it can't be plastered up against your cheek.  You have to reposition it in front of your eyes.

Even the keypads of some old-timey phones presented a similar difficulty.



NASCAR teams can regulate the temperature of their engines by controlling how much air comes in through the grille.

During yesterday's championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the track cooled off after sundown.

Denny Hamlin's team reduced the airflow by sticking small pieces of tape over the grille.

But that wasn't enough, so they slapped on a big ol' foot-long chunk.

The predictable result:  a geyser of steam.  Hamlin's emergency pit stop dropped him from third to 19th.

My question:  why is tape the preferred airflow-modulating method?  Couldn't there be adjustable louvers controlled by the driver?


NOV. 16, 2019    MASCOT TALK

Thomas Jefferson admired “yeomen,” the small landowners who worked individual farms to feed their families.  He considered them ideal American citizens.

When I was a college student, I broadcast the feats of a different sort of “Yeomen.” Oberlin's athletes were known as “ye O men.”

Recently a costumed student has begun appearing at games to inspire the Yeomen and Yeowomen.  Does this new mascot strike fear into the hearts of Oberlin's opponents?  Does it depict a Jeffersonian farmer with a spade?  No, that would be silly.

Instead, Obies have chosen a rodent with a striking genetic abnormality.

I tell the story in a new article, Respect the Crimson Eye.



While watching Steelers-Browns last night, I put Pittsburgh's local CBS and NBC affiliates on my auxiliary TVs.  Both stations devoted the entire last half of their 11:00 PM newscasts to winter weather!  Archived scenes of sliding cars and snowplows; interviews about school-closing and runway-clearing procedures; predictions of monthly snow totals; “freezing rain” vs “sleet.”  Possible reasons for this highly unusual programming?

• Newscasts normally end with sports coverage, but the Steelers game couldn't be recapped before its conclusion at 11:40.

• We had a little snow earlier in the week, leading to the usual panic.  Gotta get bread and milk!


Fifty years ago tonight, Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke to a group of Iowa Republicans.

President Richard Nixon's administration, not yet 10 months in office, was fuming at the lack of deference they were receiving from the media — particularly broadcast media, especially following a recent Presidential address.  Agnew had been dispatched to launch a counterattack.

Because he was representing the executive branch of the Federal government, newsmen felt threatened.  His criticisms caused quite a kerfuffle in the broadcast community.  This included my Syracuse University graduate class in Television and Radio, which met the very next day.

I revisit the incident in a new article titled This Little Group of Men, which was Agnew's description of TV news executives and commentators.



NOV. 11, 2009 flashback   THE MONSTER OF THE ALLEGHENY

Sunday was a nice day in Pittsburgh, so I drove to the North Shore and took a walk to see some sights.

A helicopter was hovering over the Allegheny River, filming a River Rescue boat for a scene in the new Russell Crowe movie, The Next Three Days.  Replicas of the Niña and the Pinta, two ships from the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, were tied up outside Jerome Bettis' Grille 36, where I ate lunch.  A few hundred yards downstream, the new Rivers Casino was open.  And in between, a pier from the 1915 Manchester Bridge once again has a purpose.


For nearly four decades, since the structure was replaced by the Fort Duquesne Bridge and demolished in 1970, this abandoned stone eyesore loomed over the riverbank.  But now workers have cleaned it up and cut an archway through it.

As shown in the artist’s rendering below, it frames a new statue honoring the late host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers is depicted twice as large as life.  He’s sitting down and tying his shoe, as he did to open each episode of the long-running children’s program he produced at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh.

Approaching the memorial from the direction of Heinz Field, as depicted in the drawing, I saw only the back of the figure.

Unfortunately, the sculptor was Robert Berks.  He prefers a very rough texture, as on his memorials to Albert Einstein and the late Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri.  From the rear, this statue looks like a giant hairy gorilla, slumped on a stump, brooding over the river.

In front of the figure, I could recognize Mr. Rogers’ smiling face, sort of.  But his huge teeth are enough to frighten little kids.

The statue “doesn’t resemble him at all,” according to the director of the nearby Warhol Museum.  “It doesn’t look beckoning and warm.”

And Jimmy Kimmel told his TV audience the statue “made the nicest man in the world look like a mud monster.”