About Site

ArchiveAPRIL 2021


APRIL 29, 2011 flashback   OUR COWBOY FRIEND

The newspaper in my old hometown, the village of Richwood, Ohio, features old news items.  Yesterday I received an inquiry from one of my high school classmates:

Tom, in this week’s Gazette – 50 Years Ago, April 27, 1961 – it says:

“Western star Roy Rogers is spreading the good word for Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet. Right now, he says, it is easier than ever to own America’s easiest riding truck.”

Was this a general Chevrolet commercial he did or something more specific for your dealership?  I probably knew at the time, but 50 years later it doesn’t ring a bell with me!

Well, Roy Rogers did advertise Chevrolets on a national basis.  For example, he and the Sons of the Pioneers filled in 14 times for Dinah Shore on her Sunday-night NBC-TV Chevy Show from 1958 through 1960.  But I don’t think he ever made a special pitch for my father’s dealership.

Most likely, General Motors prepared artwork showing Roy with a Chevy pickup and sent it to Chevrolet dealers so that they could use the picture in their local newspaper advertisements.  The suggested copy was probably something like “Western star Roy Rogers is spreading the good word for Hometown Chevrolet ... 0000 Main Street, Anytown, USA.”  We’d fill in the local details.

However, my parents and I had in fact crossed paths with Roy two years earlier.

We were on a three-week vacation trip, driving through the West.  As we passed through Idaho on Friday morning, July 17, 1959, I began checking the guidebooks to pick out a place to stay when we arrived at Salt Lake City.  We planned to visit the Mormon Tabernacle that evening, so my first choice was the Utah Hotel Motor Lodge, located on the other side of North West Temple Street.  (On this Google Earth image, the site where the Motor Lodge used to be is marked with a yellow pushpin.)  It sounded like a very good place, but perhaps a little too expensive.


Across West North Temple Street from the Motor Lodge, in the right foreground of the above picture, there was a cheaper place:  the Salt Lake City TraveLodge.  That’s where we stayed.  It was quite close enough; our room was only 800 feet from the domed Tabernacle.

The next day kicked off the week-long Days of ’47 celebration, commemorating Mormon leader Brigham Young’s arrival in 1847 when he proclaimed, “This is the place.”  On this Saturday night in 1959, there was going to be a big rodeo at the State Fairgrounds, located on land that’s now a part of the airport.  The star was going to be Roy Rogers.  That morning we went downtown and bought three $1.50 tickets, then visited an open-pit copper mine 28 miles southwest of the city, then returned to our motel.

Before heading out to the rodeo, we wanted to eat supper.  The nearest restaurant was the café in the Motor Lodge across the street, so we walked over there, were seated in a booth, and placed our order.  Then Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and their family were seated at a large table not far behind me! 

My mother remarked, “And you thought that we should get a room in this hotel!  This is the fancy place, where the movie stars stay.”  She asked whether I wanted to switch sides with her in our booth so I could watch the famous folks dine.  At first I declined, not being one to get all excited about celebrities, but later I changed my mind and switched places.  However, we didn’t approach the celebrities for autographs or anything like that.

Later that evening, we and Roy and 11,000 other spectators traveled about four miles west to the big rodeo.  (The photo above, showing the family in a 1959 Chevy but probably at a different event, comes from strangecosmos.com.)

My review that night:  “not too many contestants; Rogers troupe made it interesting.”  I found the show less exciting than another rodeo we attended two nights later in Cody, Wyoming.



APRIL 27, 2021    IMMUNITY!

It's been two weeks since my second injection of the Pfizer vaccine, so as of today, I am officially fully protected against COVID-19.

I had been warned that the second dose might cause side effects, but for some reason those mostly seem to affect women.  In my case, an hour after the second injection I was unusually hungry.  An hour later my temperature had dropped 1½ degrees and I was shivering and shaking and my teeth were chattering.  I've previously attributed these transient symptoms, commonly called “chills,” to viral infections.  But they soon went away, and afterwards there was only a slight soreness around the injection site for a day or two, like when I've gotten a flu shot.

So I'm fully vaccinated.  However, no vaccine is 100% effective, and not all of my neighbors have received it.  For now, I'll continue keeping my distance from other people.  Will I dare to dine out, not taking my mask off until the food arrives?  Maybe once a week, perhaps at 3 PM on a Tuesday or a Wednesday when most tables will be empty.

Daniel Engber writes in The Atlantic, “The country is in the hands of the vaccine-hesitant.  If patterns of refusal continue to develop along partisan lines — Gallup had the spread between Republicans and Democrats at 40 points in January, and they tend to cluster in different places — a large partisan gap in vaccine uptake would likely lead to hot spots of infection.”

Paul Harris, double-dosed like me, believes that the vaccine-resistant group “also includes a certain percentage who have gotten  the shots but continue to tell pollsters otherwise, because ‘owning the libs’ remains an important part of their makeup.  I think all those ‘resistant’ numbers are going to decline in the coming weeks thanks to pressure from family members or employers or friends who have escaped the cult and reported no negative effects.  I'm not saying all of them will line up for shots, but enough to get us a wee bit closer to herd immunity.  But if they don't, well, I was never gonna have dinner with them anyway.”



I provided graphics for Wrestlemania VI in 1990.  The arrival in Toronto of that spectacular pay-per-view event was a major story in all the local media.

The following year, I was in Los Angeles for Wrestlemania VII.

Unfortunately, the chosen date in 1991 was the night before the ACADEMY AWARDS.  The newspapers were full of Oscar talk and didn't even mention the wrestlers, and because of poor ticket sales the event had to be moved from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to a smaller arena.

Yes, folks in the Entertainment Capital of the World are obsessed with Oscars and Emmys. Therefore, TV comedy writers very often make sure to include an episode centered around a highly-anticipated awards ceremony.

The characters are usually not in Hollywood, so the writers have to invent local honors for them to win.

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Minneapolis had the Teddys; on The Office, Scranton had the Dundies; and on Schitt's Creek, the regional hospitality industry awarded the Hospies.

Of course, that's television.  Plots about striving towards a goal, like “who'll win the big game,” lead to happy endings.

Among the many sitcom story lines about craving formal recognition, the longest running must have been Sheldon Cooper's quest for a Nobel Prize.

On Young Sheldon, he excitedly followed the ceremony via shortwave from Sweden.  As a grownup on The Big Bang Theory, he chose whichever scientific pursuit he thought might enable him to reach his lifelong dream.  Sure enough, at the end of the 12th season he received the coveted Nobel in physics.

But I must point out that the goal of a real Sheldon Cooper isn't to earn a medal or to cash in on a patent.  Awards merely validate and promulgate a scientist's actual accomplishment:  a discovery that promises to be of the “greatest benefit to mankind.”

For example, I predict that when next round of Nobel Prizes is announced in October, one will go to Katalin Karikó.  She's the Hungarian biochemist who in 1978 (left) started to work on mRNA technology.  Coming to America in 1985, she eventually developed her methods at the University of Pennsylvania along with immunologist Drew Weissman.

When COVID-19 emerged, we were told we might have to wait years for a vaccine.  But as soon as Chinese researchers published the genetic sequence of the virus in January 2020, the ability to quickly edit mRNA enabled scientists to create the Moderna vaccine in only 48 hours!  And within days, BioNTech's laboratories in Germany had launched “Project Lightspeed,” which led to the fastest vaccine trials in the history of science — and to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that's protecting me now.


The Trump administration had to announce a vaccine project even faster than the speed of light, but there is nothing, so in May they went with the militaristic Operation “Warp Speed” — a fictional concept from Star Trek.

Sidebar from a Mormon writer, Eric D. Snider:

“The LDS Church has been pro-vaccine for decades, but there are some anti-vax church members who see this as the church's one (1) flaw.  If you fasted and prayed for relief from the pandemic but you're not getting one of the three vaccines that were developed in less than a year, I have to wonder what you thought ‘relief from the pandemic’ would look like.”


Please help us with the pandemic!



[delivers three vaccines with miraculous speed]



Please, anything! We're desperate!


There are already gold medals in Katalin's family.  Her daughter Francia was a member of the winning US rowing team at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Without Katalin Karikó's grueling efforts to make mRNA technology work,” writes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic,  “the world would have no Moderna or BioNTech.  But the triumph of mRNA is not a hero's journey, but a heroes' journey.

“Without government funding and philanthropy, both companies might have gone bankrupt.  Without HIV-vaccine failures forcing scientists into strange new fields, without an international team of scientists unlocking the secrets of the coronavirus's spike protein, we might not have known enough about this pathogen to design a vaccine.  mRNA technology was born of many seeds.”

And, according to Thompson, the story likely will not end with COVID-19.  “This year, a team at Yale patented a similar technology to vaccinate against malaria.  Pfizer says that it is planning to use it against seasonal flu.  BioNTech is developing individualized therapies to teach the body to fight off advanced cancer.  Synthetic-mRNA therapies have been shown to slow and reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis

“For years, mRNA technology looked like a shrub.  In 2020, it blossomed in full view!”

“So,” writes Greg Bardsley, “let us thank the scientists.  Let's sing their praises.  Let's give them ticker tape parades that would have made Neil Armstrong blush!”



When I was a boy, I noticed a difference between reality and fiction.  Mundane events happened in real life — IRL, as the online folks say — but extraordinary events happened on the radio or in movies or on my grandparents' TV sets.  (Our house didn't have television yet.)

As a kindergartener who was sometimes bored IRL, I began imagining my own fictional tales as I paced the floor.  If my parents interrupted me, I wailed “You spoiled my story!”  They probably didn't understand.

As a second-grader, one of my more elaborate narratives was a series about birds living on an island and flying around in steam-powered airplanes.

Also, when I accompanied my mother on business trips to the county seat, I imagined that a camera crew was accompanying us to shoot a documentary. 

Also, when I talked with a classmate on the school bus — he had the aisle seat, I was on the window — he spun a story based on World War II movies he'd seen, and I sometimes turned to the window as if it were a camera and delivered a witty aside.

I wasn't the only youngster who did this.  On a podcast with Jeff Bayer, answering a question about which movie character is similar to you, Eric D. Snider once told of making up his own stories.  But none of his “TV shows” were picked up by the networks, alas.



When I was a boy, my father and I used to play tabletop games including dominos and Monopoly.  I usually lost the latter because, in order to build houses or buy additional properties, I needed to mortgage some of those I had.  I was reluctant to do so because it meant going into debt.  My father knew better, and I ended up paying him a lot of rent when I landed on his non-mortgaged houses and hotels.

Debt isn't necessarily bad.  If a company borrows to build a factory and create jobs and make a profit, that's good business.  If a person borrows to buy a car so he can get one of those jobs and pay off his loan, there's no cause for alarm.

Does the same apply to our national debt, in particular when the purpose is to stimulate the economy?  “That is not something that the general public should be worried about,” says Nobel laureate Esther Duflo.  Interest rates are very low.  And American government bonds are one of the safest assets to hold, so it's unlikely that the government will ever be called upon to repay this debt.



Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, was celebrated three weeks ago.  But because ancient calendars were based on the phases of the moon, the official date does move around.  Seventy-eight years ago, Palm Sunday was on April 18th.

On this very date in 1943, my future father was 90 miles west of his Cambridge, Ohio, home, attending a Palm Sunday service at Fort Hayes in Columbus.  (Twenty-six years later, on July 8, 1969, I would fail my draft physical at that installation.)

Why was he at a War Department reception center?  The day before, he had been inducted into the Army.

The story of his World War II service, a desk job in an exotic location halfway around the world, is this month's 100 Moons article. 


APRIL 15, 2021    EMPATHY

It's the small things in life that catch my attention nowadays.  I'm sitting in my parked car.  On the pavement nearby is a discarded food wrapper.  A blackbird spots it and comes in for a landing, though he prudently selects a landing spot several feet away.  Szqeet, he says.  Keeping a careful eye on his surroundings, he slowly walks over to the wrapper.  He takes a close look.  No food.  Szqeet, he mutters.  Just then, one of his friends comes by at low altitude.  Szqeet, he calls, and the two of them fly off together.

Birds must lead a fairly interesting life:  flying around, exploring their surroundings, sampling things to eat, avoiding the occasional predatory cat or angry crow, socializing with their neighbors, mating.

On the other hand, when I was a boy we had a parakeet who was happy to live in a cage.  If we took her out she was very anxious to get back home, where she would be safe.  There wasn't much variety, though we did periodically bring in new supplies of birdseed and gravel and water and a new sheet of paper for the cage floor.  For entertainment, she could observe our household activities.  And the cage was beside a window, so she could look out at the driveway and, beyond it, the sheep in their barnyard.

If we went on vacation, we had to leave the parakeet with relatives who would keep her fed.  That required carrying the cage out to the car in the driveway.  On those brief trips, the bird would jump up to cling to the bars of her cage, wide-eyed, maybe a little frightened — but fascinated by the fact that the dim view from her window had now come brilliantly to life and was surrounding her on all sides.

However, in her life she never had the opportunity to fly, explore, sample, avoid, socialize, or mate.  Apologies to Maya Angelou, but I don't think I know why a caged bird would sing.



Because I own a small portion of my old hometown's bank, I've attended several annual dinner meetings of Richwood Bancshares stockholders (in 1990, 1994, 2012, and 2017).  The 2020 meeting was scheduled for April 13 of that year, and I considered again joining my former neighbors.  But when the pandemic came along, the affair had to be first postponed, then canceled.

Six months later, I received a two-pound box which had cost $8.70 in priority-mail postage to send.  It was labeled 2020 STOCKHOLDERS MEETING.  What?  I thought the meeting never took place.  But the outside of the box quoted Walt Disney: “It's kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Opening the lid, I found the colorful 2019 annual report which would have been distributed at the dinner.  And the inside of the lid read, “We wouldn't miss an opportunity to connect with you.  That's why we're bringing the annual meeting to you!  Enjoy the show!”  There was a smaller folder labeled 2020 STOCKHOLDERS PRESENTATION.  I opened it, and a five-inch screen began playing sounds and pictures!

The half-hour video included studio appearances by five bank officials including a keynote address (shown above) by the president, Chad Hoffman.  I went to school with his parents.  He's been with the bank for 26 years, and Richwood Bancshares has expanded to include offices in six other Ohio cities.

The video was produced by Nick Marzluf at his firm 30 miles south of Richwood in Dublin, Ohio.  Because the president's theme was “Back to the Future,” brief clips from that movie were included, along with footage of bank operations and improvements and, of course, excellent graphics.

Although the internal battery lasted for only a couple of plays, elsewhere in the box I found a USB cable — not to mention two custom-labeled packages of microwave popcorn.

Pretty fancy for a business in the little village where I grew up!  

The next stockholders meeting, the 2021 edition, was scheduled to be held tonight in the hope that COVID-19 would be under control by now.  But it was not a surprise when this spring we received a letter from Mr. Hoffman.

“The pandemic proved that strong communities were more resilient than many would have imagined, and we were proud to be a part of their strength,” he wrote, but “we want to make sure to do our part to keep everyone safe.  ...We have moved the meeting to Monday, August 9.”

However, the shareholders won't need to gather in a big room in August if they would prefer otherwise. 

“The Board of Directors has approved a new twist on this year's meeting.  We will be filming the presentation and will make it available on your investor website.  We will also send a copy via mail to your home if you choose.  We want to bring everyone together in late summer, but also want you to feel safe and enjoy our presenters.”  Video once again is going to come to the rescue!  



A mile southwest from my apartment, Wally Sommer used to run a little two-stall repair shop, Wally's Auto Service, on East 7th Avenue in Tarentum, Pennsylvania.

One block down the hill is East 6th Avenue.  Its far curb is supported by a retaining wall (yellow arrow).  Beyond that wall, on the lower level eight feet below, what do we find?  Well, it used to be the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal!  However, that waterway has long since been replaced by railroad tracks and the former railroad depot.

In 2010, Wally began painting a 180-foot mural on the retaining wall to depict local history.

For my 2015 articles about the canal, I found a photo of a small portion of his artwork hanging in a nearby mall.  Only last year did I discover the entire mural.

I've dined at the railroad depot many times.  It's now JG's Tarentum Station Grille (left).  However, because the entrance I use faces the tracks instead of 6th Avenue, I never noticed the station's artistic backdrop.

Only a few freight trains use the tracks nowadays, but there's a picture of a train right back there!

aerial view from Google Earth 3D Buildings

Among other historic details, Wally's mural remembers Samuel Kier from Saltsburg, who became the “Grandfather of the American Oil Industry.”  Kier helped found a canal boat operation in 1838 that shipped coal from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.  He had many other business interests, including salt wells in Tarentum.

In 1846 Kier's salt wells became fouled with petroleum.  At first, he dumped the useless oil into the canal, but then he discovered he could sell “rock oil” for medicinal purposes.  Supposedly it would cure everything from blindness to cholera, and an eight-ounce bottle could be purchased for 50 cents.  A chemist suggested that portions of the oil could be refined into an illuminant, so by 1854 Kier had established an oil refinery — America's first — in downtown Pittsburgh.  It turned crude oil skimmed from the Tarentum salt wells into clean-burning Kierosene selling for $1.50 a gallon.


Half-pint of
Kier rock oil

Gallon of Kier

400 miles 
of canal

 Back then



$25 million




$700 million

That Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was an early example of infrastructure paid for by taxpayers, a “public works” project.  How many of today's dollars did it cost the Commonwealth?  Nearly three-quarters of a billion.  “Large-scale public investment is the American way,” writes economist Paul Krugman.  “We've relied on government infrastructure investment to jump-start economic growth ever since the construction of the Erie Canal by the government of New York State” two hundred years ago.

Below is a wider view of the part of the mural that depicts Tarentum's canal in operation.  Click it to enlarge.


APRIL 6, 2021   

Ten years ago today, I worked from 9:00 to 5:00 at a computer keyboard inside a 53-foot trailer underneath an empty baseball stadium.  What was I doing there?

In case you want to know, I've recorded the minute-by-minute details in an article called My Set Day.


APRIL 5, 2021   

Cadbury's chocolate Easter eggs went on display last December 26. But as Ken Levine once noted on his blog, today is the day when all the stores that sell Easter candy sweep it out and get ready for Halloween.

“There are enough preservatives in Easter candy to last until the next century,” he tells us.  “What happens to all those leftover Peeps and bunnies?  Are they just going to be thrown out?  What do you think?  I suspect they go back to the warehouse and wait until next year.

“Or the year after.

“Or the year after that.”


APRIL 3, 2011 flashback   AN "AMAZING" PRE-DIXON

To make electricity, the fission reaction that powers an atomic bomb can be controlled (hopefully) in a nuclear reactor.

We could generate power even more abundantly and safely if we could likewise control the fusion reaction that powers a hydrogen bomb.  However, that achievement is still 25 years in the future.  It has remained 25 years in the future for many decades now.

As a college student in the 1960s, I read that Soviet scientists were making progress toward a fusion reactor.  They were developing an electromagnetic containment device called TOKaMaK, which is a Russian acronym.  Of course, most Americans didn’t know about this; they weren’t involved in science as I was.

Then I read a prediction by Jeane Dixon, the astrologer and alleged psychic.  She prophesied that in the coming year, the Russians would announce an invention that would provide the world with unlimited energy.  She added that the name of this machine “sounds something like Tomahawk.”

The name was the key.  I realized that Dixon had needed no supernatural insight to arrive at her unusually specific prediction.  She had merely read an obscure news story.

(Her prediction turned out to be incorrect anyway.  Tokamaks still have not produced usable power, though construction of a 2,000-megawatt reactor is currently projected to begin in the year 2024.  [2021 UPDATE: After a ten-year “progressive ramp-up” of a $65 billion 500-megawatt reactor which will not actually generate electricity, the timeline now calls for full operation by 2035.])

Until the Dixon statement, I had hoped that perhaps psychics could make better predictions than ordinary folks because they could magically foresee the future.  But this incident, followed by further research, eventually led me to realize that they can’t.



A century or two ago, when actors played on a stage in a huge theater, it was necessary for them to EXAGGERATE their gestures and PROJECT their voices so that the people in the last row of the top balcony could tell what was going on.

But then technology arrived.  It didn't take long for movie actors to learn to “bring it down” considerably for the big screen.  Subtlety was much more realistic, and a raised eyebrow was often enough.

Eventually, technology reached the live stage.  Wireless microphones now make it possible to amplify a person's voice in real time, and video cameras can even amplify a person's face.

I worked a corporate presentation in 1985 where we “magnified” the podium speaker, something like this (except that Alex Haley didn't have backup dancers). The executives at first feared that the audience would become confused and wouldn't know whether to direct their attention to the larger-than-life TV screen or the real person at the podium, but it worked.

In 2012, London's 02 Arena hosted 20,000 people for a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.  The enormous stage was backed by an equally enormous video screen, displaying images synchronized to the music.

On that screen, a performer like Tim Minchin could be magnified ten times.  The audience could even see his eyebrows.  (I've added a gold arrow to point him out among the three tiny figures downstage:  Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas.) 

This performance contained details I'd never noticed before.  For example, why does the music require Pilate to leave great pauses when he sings “Who? Is? This broken man? Cluttering up? My hallway?”  As played by Alexander Hanson, he's apparently just come from a workout and he's out of breath.

It must be exciting to attend an event like this, but last year I saw the television version of the performance.  Although it's $3.99 on Prime Video, composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber made it available free online for 48 hours last Easter, proclaiming that despite the coronavirus, “The Shows Must Go On.”