Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Back of an Oxcart

The beginning of something great occurred 150 years ago when an oxcart laden with books lumbered into the town of Adrian, Michigan. As the legend goes, that's how my alma mater, Adrian College, got its start. The Michigan Union College in Leoni, Michigan closed its doors and the library holdings were transferred to the brand new Adrian College.

To me, there is something truly compelling about that image. Picture a spring day in Michigan. The roads would have been mud and the weather at that time of year is unpredictable, anything from deep snows to warm and sunny with the possibility of anything in between. Sixty miles by oxcart could have taken a week or more. On the other end Asa Mahan, founder and President of Adrian College awaited that precious cargo so that the school could truly begin the task of educating young people. (Leoni had been deemed a bit too immoral as it had become known as "Whiskey Town.")

I attended Adrian College in the mid 1990s, a time of quiet turmoil for the school. Attendance reached near all time lows and the school was struggling to survive. Truthfully, the school could have easily slipped into obscurity and become a footnote in the annals of Michigan history. Something needed to be done and that something came in the form of an intelligent, charming, energetic and captivating new President, Dr. Jeffrey Docking.

Before I get to him, I'd like to talk a little bit about why I love my school. First, I never really thought about going to college. I struggled in school with a solid B/C average. The thought of going to college, well, that's what other kids did. My friends, for example. My three best friends were the top five students in our class. AA was a co-Valedictorian, CP was the Salutatorian and JB came in number 5. I ranked 45 in a class of 145.

I think the struggle for me involved figuring out what I wanted to with my life. A question, I might add, that I'm struggling with again 16 years later. In high school the thought made me shut down. Then I took a yearbook class and I found my calling, so to speak.

I love to write and I love design and the deadlines and ink and rustling papers. I love talking to new people and trying to get answers to questions or explain difficult topics. I have an insatiable curiosity. I want to know! Yearbook gave me the smallest taste of that. It also taught me time management, hard work, and the gratification of accomplishment.

Suddenly the no-direction girl wanted desperately to go to college. But I'd messed around and ruined my grade point average. I don't do well on standardized tests. Taking the ACT nearly drove me insane - twice.

Then came the search for the right school. I found one in Maine that I liked and there were the ones in Michigan, too. Once I actually visited Maine and the reality of the distance from home hit, that school was out. I visited campus after campus in Michigan, but nothing appealed to me. Nine schools. Finally I decided to check out Adrian College.

There is a thing with me. I just know stuff. I know what car I will buy or apartment I will live in or man I will marry. I just know, within a second, that this is the one. Late into the spring of my Senior year I stepped foot on the campus of Adrian College. I knew as soon as my foot hit the ground. I would be going here.

I loved the campus and the people were so nice. Not overly friendly or sugary sweet, but genuine. I couldn't believe how refreshing that felt after so many failed excursions to other colleges and universities.

I didn't know that my greatest lessons at college would be both academic and interpersonal. I made friends at Adrian College that I have to this day. My professors showed concern for students because they knew them as more than just students. I flourished academically, getting on the Dean's List seven of eight semesters, and personally, making friends from all walks of life.

Adrian College is the place I consider home. That's what it came down to for me and so many other alums.

Dr. Docking became Adrian College President the same time that I joined the Adrian College Alumni Board of Directors in 2005. He came in at the lowest point for the school. Enrollment hovered around 800 students, the lowest levels in many decades. The attitude on campus had become stagnant and even negative. What could this new guy possibly have to offer? How could he really make things better?

I'll tell you how.

It's called Renaissance I and Renaissance II. In phase one, build sport facilities, develop new teams, encourage intramural sports, develop extra curricular activities. Hire coaches and advisers and then have those people go out and recruit. Boost the enrollment. Flush with new funds boosted by the enrollment, revamp the academic programs. Implement new institutes of learning. Reorganize departments and renovate buildings. It works.

Enrollment has grown by leaps and bounds. New construction and renovation projects dot the campus. The once struggling institution is better now than it has ever been. The negative attitude has vanished. .

After 150 years, going strong. Not bad for a place that got its start on the back of an oxcart.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Nifty Little Note

Just a quick note about this blog: in looking at the labels, I noticed that my two most popular are "Happy" and "Wonderful." Not that they are used very much, but I feel it is very nifty that those two are the most used labels. The other labels are pretty interesting as well and include: Yoda, Walleye, Pork Chop and Silly Putty. That's nifty, too.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Moonbeam and Firefly

At Christmas this year my mother gave me a gift with a key chain taped to the wrapping paper. It made me smile. The little yellow canvas high top shoe reminded me of exactly who I am.

I remember the first time I saw the shoes. My dad and I were shoe shopping at a local store. I never expected to find them, but there they were and I knew they were destined to be mine. I was not accustomed to asking my dad for things. Growing up on a tight budget meant that us kids learned to do without or get a job to get the things we wanted. My brother wanted baseball cards and so he started a window cleaning business at the age of 8, the next year he bought a brood of chickens and started selling eggs. From then on he has worked non-stop, even two and three jobs at a time to pay for college. Today he co-owns a very successful company.

That's why I hesitated so long to ask my dad for the yellow canvas high-tops. He noticed and asked me what I wanted. I showed him the shoes. Dad smiled and nodded. "Get them." he said. I couldn't have been more surprised.

I named the yellow canvas high-tops Moonbeam and Firefly. Who names their shoes? Well, that would be me. I didn't know it then, but the shoes would come to mean a whole lot more that just a pair of sneakers.

I got the shoes the summer before my freshman year of high school. That fall I needed a pair of athletic shoes for gym class. Moonbeam and Firefly got drafted. My gym teacher was not amused. Mr. N felt that my shoes were a slap in the face to the very serious business of being physically fit. I wore them because I didn't want to bug my parents with getting traditional athletic shoes.

As the weeks wore on I quickly came to realize what Mr. N's real motives were all about. He turned out to be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and conformist. Me and my shoes proved to be a complete affront to his beliefs. I, shy, blend-in-with-wallpaper me, found myself in the position where I could not stand by while he offended my friends and I. I started to stand up for myself, my beliefs and my friends. Much to my own amazement.

Moonbeam and Firefly were my way to flip him the bird without ending up suspended from school. They set me apart from the hordes and established my own uniqueness in a world where just about everyone wanted to fit in. I could care less about following the crowds and fitting in.

Chip off the old block, it turns out. My mom and dad have never been followers. They don't go out of their way to be different, they just are different and they make no apologies. I think it makes them better people.

My dad was a teacher for 33 years. In the last five years he took a job teaching at a charter high school. There he chose not to "teach to the test," as they say. Rather he taught his students how to think about history and their role in the world. What good are dates, names and places when you don't even know why things happen? What good is studying history when you have no connection to how it relates to you?

A history book that he sometimes used as a guide referred, in one small paragraph, to the Trail of Tears - the violent removal and forced walk of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their lands to reservations in Oklahoma - as a "migration." Angered, he threw the book across the room then turned to our personal library for help. There he found first hand accounts from individuals and observers who were there. He found reference material about what the Trail of Tears meant to America at that time ("Yea! More land! Contained savages!") and what the reservations meant to the future including Hitler, who used them as a model for his concentration camps.

Dad began the lesson by having a student read the "migration" description from the textbook. He separated the class into groups, then gave them each a source to read and report back on. One by one the groups read their sources and explained what they read. Finally the "migration" text was read again. The students were in tears, even sobbing. "They LIED to us!" they raged. "How could they lie to us!" They talked about why adults might lie, and why students might believe. Dad taught his students how to think.

As for teaching to the test? His students received many of the highest scores in the state. So much for that theory.

My mom found her place in the world as a community worker. She started off innocently enough teaching CPR back when that was brand new concept in the late 70s and early 80s. She took a job as the coordinator for the child abuse prevention council in our area, also a new concept. She worked a few jobs directly in intervention. (Very difficult.) Then started a Kinship Care program helping grandparents and other relatives raising children. She handed the reins over after several successful years and hit her stride facilitating a human services network, pulling people together from seemingly unrelated agencies and finding common ground to solve serious social problems like poverty, child abuse, and the prevention of child death.

Her innovative thinking changed our little patch of the universe. When funding was threatened for a newborn welcome program she took the team on field trip to the maternity ward of the hospital. There they met my niece, mom's newborn granddaughter. Funding stayed in place and that program is still operating nearly 19 years later. When funding for another vital program was on the chopping block in the state congress she went to the capital and met with every single legislator that she could and explained the program's importance with a view from the trenches. Funding passed thanks to her determination and sore feet.

She started a conference camp for Grandparents Raising Grandkids families. She humanized people who have stood in her path and turned them into friends. She spoke up, even when she wasn't supposed to and her voice changed minds and the outcomes of decisions that directly affected the people to whom she has dedicated her life. She changed people's lives, sometimes by the thousands, sometimes one person at a time.

Hero worship? Maybe. They are truly wonderful people. I pale in comparison, but the little yellow canvas shoe key chain reminded me of some aspects of myself that set me apart from my peers.

In high school, my locker sat next to the meanest, toughest bully in the school. Fights were a weekly, sometimes daily occurrence. She could have pounded me to dust if she wanted to, but she didn't. Why? Because every morning I said, "Hello. How are you?" I wasn't scared or sucking up. I wasn't just saying it to be nice. I was just being me. I could care less who hated her or who she hated. I treated her like I treated the jocks and the class clown and smart kids and the poor kids and the ones who looked funny. I treated her like a human, with respect.

The kid who looked funny had a harelip. We had the same gym class together. He was tall, shy and gawky. The day of the rope climb came as a dreaded moment for us all. With the exception of the jocks, we all struggled to get to the top except DS. I cheered him on, happy with his victory. Years later he told a mutual friend that he had nothing but respect for me because I was the only one to cheer him on as he climbed to the top of the rope. (I recall others cheering, too . . .)

One of the other girls from gym class also remembered me years later when we were out of school. She was poor and I could tell she had been sexually abused. Kids picked on her relentlessly. When we were in our junior year we had an American History class together. She and I sat next to each other at the front of the class. The teacher had to step out of the class for a moment and that's when the other kids really started in on TG, calling her names and asking her demeaning and inappropriate questions. She sat there and took it, tears rolling down her face. I had enough. They crossed the line.

I turned around and yelled, "Hey! Shut the F$%K up!"

Everyone sat there stunned. They had never heard me speak that way, or for that matter seen me angry and many had known me since kindergarten.

"What, are you her friend now?" one sneered.

"No," I answered, "she's a human being, just like you, and she deserves to be treated with respect. Leave. Her. Alone."

The teacher returned. He was greeted by a crying TG, a glowering me and a class shocked into silence.

Word spread about the incident. Even the bully next door asked me about it.

"If we pick on her again, what are you going to do? Kick our asses?"

"Probably not. You'll just get a good talkin' to." She thought that was the funniest thing ever. She also left TG alone and the bullying of TG lessened a great deal.

Six years later I ran into TG far from our hometown. I barely recognized her; she had changed a great deal. She gave me a big hug.

"Do you remember that day in history class?" she asked. I nodded, though it took me a moment to register to what exactly she was referring. "I just wanted to thank you for that. It was the first time anyone ever stood up for me."

I credit Moonbeam and Firefly. They taught me to be unique, to follow my own voice and my own heart. They taught me to stand up for what I believe in and to speak out.

I still have them in a closet somewhere. The rubber has cracked, the metal lace grommets missing, and the canvas frayed. They're a little bit of the best parts of me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Wish for the Fish

They are out there, lurking at the bottom, hibernating in the cold icy waters. We had snow last night and into this morning. Temperatures got up to a sweltering 18 degrees and are expected to drop below zero tonight. Just knowing they are there makes me warm and fuzzy.

Walleye. Yes, the fish.

Living here in the Great Lakes means we LIVE for the water. We have the largest freshwater resources in North America and 22 percent of the world's surface fresh water. (Threatened, I might add, by bottled water companies and the desert states out West.)

We all have our favorite places: Salmon fishing in Ludington, on Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes just up the coast, Mackinac Island, Lake Superior Provincial Park where you can see 800 year old pictographs painted on the cliff walls by the native inhabitants. There are regattas on Lake Huron, the Soo Locks at Sault Saint Marie between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, crashing waves at Point Presquile in Lake Erie, walking the planks at Cave of the Winds underneath Niagara Falls between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and, oh, so much more.

We love our lakes.

Those are the big ones. Michigan is dotted by thousands of other smaller lakes. We love those, too.

Our lake is actually a reservoir. It stretches perhaps six miles from the dam to the bridge one town over. There are beautiful inlets all along the reservoir, no wake zones and areas where you can let 'er rip!

Last year I became a boat owner. The 14 foot pontoon is not too big and not too small. An acquaintance won the boat in a divorce, but it sat in her yard for two years without being run. She had to get rid of it and we happily took it off her hands.

On a cold April day we pulled the boat from the snowbank and drove it two hours away. We could not wait for spring to really begin. A couple of weeks later we took the boat out for the first time. I had never owned a boat, or, for that matter, ever really been around one (also, I can't swim). The first trip bordered on disaster. The boat started fine, but sputtered a bit. Not far from shore it started to quit. We made a mad dash for shore and pulled back in.

Getting the boat back on the trailer proved difficult that first time. The front of the pontoon bumped into the back of the trailer and I learned a valuable lesson in physics: You know the one, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." As the boat moved away from the dock (rapidly, I might add) the rope popped out of my hands and into the water. I looked at it for a moment and then realized that THE BOAT IS FLOATING AWAY! I shrugged my shoulders and jumped in after it.

Let me tell you this, April is not the best month to go for a swim around here. The ice left the waters just a week or two before. A million needles stabbed me and I couldn't breathe. I lunged for the rope and pulled it back towards the trailer. I stood on the dock, stunned and shivering.

After replacing the spark plugs and the gas line connection the boat ran smooth. Every weekend and day off we spent on the water. Many worms met an untimely end. There is still a red and white bobber hanging high in the branches of a tree. (I checked, it's still there.)

We started to stake out our favorite spots. The cove off the no wake zone, the beach where we lounged for hours swimming and sunning. The inlet by the dam where I caught a huge walleye.

Oh, yes, the walleye.

First of all my lure got mocked as soon as I took it out of the package. The blue silvery minnow-looking thing had been designed for bass, but I liked it anyway. We trolled back and forth at the mouth of the inlet. Then, in a shocking turn of events, I caught something. Moments before I asked what it would feel like to snag a walleye. "Bang! Yank it and hold on!" I was told.

Bang! I held on and my pole bent precariously. But, being inexperienced, I lost the fish under the boat and it snapped the line. Silence. We turned the boat around and headed toward the nearest bait shop to buy another lure. Twenty minutes later we were back on the water, lure wobbling along.

Bang! This time I knew what to do. Yank, reel, pull. REEEEEEL! Don't let it go under the boat. In seconds the walleye appeared at the side of the boat and a mad scramble to get the fish in the boat ensued. After the brief wrestling match, we sat back exhausted: 22 inches, and least 5 pounds. Holy . . .

The rest of the summer we trolled the same waters in hopes of lightening striking twice or rather, three times. No such luck. At the end of August tragedy struck. In the middle of the reservoir the engine quit. We hailed another boat with the sun quickly setting in the west. They towed us in.

As it turns out we had been putting the wrong oil/gas ratio in the tank. A piston seized up, blowing the engine. Depression set in as we went from one repair shop to another with quotes ranging from $1,000 to $1,800 to fix the engine. Then a hot tip came in. We found an older guy who's been working on engines since he was 6 years old. Now in his seventies, he agreed to fix the engine for $300. It's sitting in his garage, hibernating with rest of us.

The reservoir is quiet this time of year. A few ice fishermen are attempting to brave the sub zero temps. It's funny what a simple fish can do to you.
Frankly, I can't wait for the ice to clear. I'm polishing my lures and stocking the boat.
Walleye fever, you know.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Just Another Day

The night JP and I left, Labor Day fireworks shot into the night sky, as if to say, "Welcome to the open road!" Maybe that's a little dramatic. JP does this every week. Every Sunday night he packs up the semi with a week's worth of food and clothes, hooks up his satellite radio, GPS and phone charger, and heads out. There's just no telling where he'll go and what he'll see. Last September JP took me along on two week-long journeys at the beginning and the end of the month.

I'd never ridden in a semi for any long trips, just little jaunts down the road. When this opportunity arose, I couldn't say no. I wanted to know what it is really like to see the road from the vantage point of a semi.

Judging from other people's questions, JP's job provokes a lot of interest. JP happens to have very colorful and enlightening answers. Most people base their knowledge of truck drivers on 1970s movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Convoy" which made truckers out to be outlaws and rough necks. Some of that still exists, but that generation of trucking is almost extinct. Today, there are vast gleaming truck stops and paperless logs will soon be putting the outlaw truckers out of business. In addition, truck driving is a bit more colorful these days as drivers from other races and cultures, as well as women, take their place behind the wheel. Don't be surprised to see a Sikh turban or a Mexican flag.

JP's schedule took some getting used to. Driving through the night and the into the morning means sleeping through the day, resting a bit in the afternoon and evening and then up again to drive all night. It takes stamina, a strong back and an ass that can take the abuse. That first night I struggled to get adjusted. My back and butt hurt. I leaned on the arm rest and my elbow got a blister. Banging around in the truck is very hard on the body. I had no idea.

By 2:30 a.m. that first night, I simply could not keep my eyeballs open. What had I gotten myself into? JP switched through the channels on the radio, stopped for a moment on Willie Nelson singing, "On the Road Again," then moved on. In the truck, everything moves on. Weary and in pain at 3 a.m., I finally collapsed into the bunk. JP kept right on driving.

The thing about the truck is that it never stops moving. It is either moving forward or humming as it sits in the lot. But, it never stops moving. There is never quiet, no silence and rarely peace. There is, however, pressure. Be on time, don't be over-weight, don't get into an accident, stay out of trouble. On the road there is always trouble.

Every driver has a million stories. JP has been shot at, propositioned by "lot lizards," lost in cities and the backwoods, defended the helpless and helped the desperate. Regularly he sees naked people while on the road (less so in the wintertime). He's seen horrible, unspeakable accidents and many, many incredible sunrises. Watching the sky change from velvet black to golden blue will make you think about your place in the scheme of things.

After that first brutal (to me) night, we still had to pick up our second load of the trip, a long-haul to Texas. Zombie-eyed and exhausted, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with nature on one of those golden blue mornings. Out of nowhere, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped down, captured breakfast on the side of the road and took flight, all just a few feet from the truck. It flew up into the air, and, wings spread, eyeballed us. Real eye contact for a millisecond. Chills instantly spread over my body.

One of the best parts of the job is honking the horn for little kids as they pass us in their shiny, quick cars. The kids hop and cheer. JP just smiles; it's a nice little perk.

I love collecting the names of interesting streets and roads. On this journey I noticed one called "Marked Tree Road." Some of my other favorites over the years include "Witness Tree Road," "Molly's Backbone Ridge," and "Starbird Road."

Another great hobby: collecting graffiti. Some truck stops are spotless and shocking in their cleanliness. They are also barren of the kind of graffiti humor that I have come to love. At the less-loved stops the graffiti gets good. Some gems from these journeys:
  • One by one, garden gnomes are stealing my family!

  • Let the people speak! (In another hand:) "No! They say stupid shit!"

  • Stop writing on the doors. Thank you, The Management. (graffiti on a door)

  • Beware the Ass Critters!!!! (In a foul outhouse at a job-site in Texas)

We knew, for at least a few days in advance, what our most scary moment would be in the truck. Hurricane Gustav was predicted to hit the exact area we were traveling into. I'll admit, fear got the better of me on that trip. At truck stops headed down into the affected area truckers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, two and three deep in front of the weather on TV. Some shook their heads and walked away. JP just fueled up and drove on.

JP has the reputation of being a bit crazy. Snowstorms in Sheboygan, Wisconsin do not scare him. Ice in the mountains of Tennessee? Not a problem. Michigan to Carlsbad, New Mexico and back in five days? Check out my dust. (While Michigan had two feet of snow on the ground, JP came back with a bug-splattered truck.) While getting shot at in Cincinnati, JP collected his paperwork from the security guard who had taken cover on the floor. Crazy.

Hurricane Gustav? Bring it on.

I've never been in a hurricane before. I had never seen rain like that. Never. We drove from Texarkana, Arkansas to Dallas, Texas in torrents of horizontal rain. Fierce winds lashed the truck. JP drove like he happened on a rain squall on a Sunday afternoon drive while I gripped with white knuckles the whole way. At about 12:30 a.m. we pulled into a rest stop and got the only spot left, right by the door, no less. Trucks lined the entire entrance and exit, as well. We crawled into our bunks and tried to catch a few winks.

I pulled myself onto the top bunk and tucked the blanket around me. Winds fiercely lashed the truck and I lay there with eyes the size of saucers. What had I been thinking? Drive into a hurricane? Sure! Not a problem.

"Will you stop moving around like that?" JP called from the bottom bunk.

"It's not me-E-e!" I sang from up top.

"That's the wind?!"

Oh, yes. The wind.

We stayed for about an hour and then hit the road again. We hooked up with another trucker and freight-trained through the storm. We didn't see another vehicle on the road the whole time. It ended up being the scariest 200 miles of my life.

Just another day for JP.

Glossary of Terms
Air Bags: Refers to Ride and Suspension, giving the driver (and passenger) a smoother ride
Air Lines: Hoses that connect to the trailer and provide air to the brakes
Bear: Sheriff's Officer or police, in general
Beaver: A hot chick
Bobtail: Traveling from point A to point B without a trailer
Chicken Coop: A weigh station
Chicken Lights: An overly lit truck (in an attempt to look cool). If even one of the lights are out, the driver can be written up at a Chicken Coop.
Commercial Company: The services offered by a hooker
Covered Wagon: Soft top trailer resembling a covered wagon
DC: Distribution Center
Dead Head: Traveling from point A to point B with an empty trailer
Disco Lights: Flashing lights on police vehicles
Dollies: The legs that the trailer rests on when not attached to the truck. See also "Landing Gear."
Drives: The wheels behind the cab of the truck and directly under the Fifth Wheel where the trailer and truck meet.
DT: Down time
An Empty: Empty trailer
Fifth Wheel: A large metal plate on the back of the tractor where the King Pin attaches.
Full Grown: As in Full Grown Bear. A State Police Officer.
Glad Hands: The clamps that connect the Air Lines from the truck to the trailer
King Pin: Pin on the trailer that fits into the Fifth Wheel, attaching the trailer to the truck
Landing Gear: The legs that the trailer rests on when not attached to the truck. See also "Dollies."
Local Yokel: City Police
Lot Lizard: A prostitute who works the truck stops
Love Letter: A note of reprimand from a trucking company after a transgression such as an accident or a ticket
Low Boy: Type of flat bed trailer with the bed below the wheels
Meat Wagon: An Ambulance
Panda Bear: Female State Police Officer
Pigtail: The electrical wiring harness that plugs into the trailer from the truck. It is always green.
Pin Puller: A metal rod used by the driver to pull the lever on the King Pin, unlocking the trailer from the truck.
Pogo Stick: The pole in the back of the truck where the Air Lines and Pigtail emerge
Reefer: No, not something having to do with pot, but rather a refrigeratoed trailer
Skateboard: Flat bed trailer
Steers: Wheels at the front of the truck that are controlled by the steering wheel
Suicide Jockey: A driver who takes dangerous loads such as explosives or fuel
Tandems: Wheels at the back of the trailer. They are adjustable to distribute the weight of the tractor and trailer. A tractor trailer can weigh up to 80,000 pounds with 12,000 pounds on the Steers, 34,000 pounds on the drives and 34,000 pounds on the tandems.
Through the Woods: Taking the back roads to avoid a weigh station when overloaded
Tire Thumper: A heavy stick used to hit the tires to check for flats
Yardstick: A mile marker

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Oasis of Absurdity

The first thing you see when you walk through the doors of the Dort Mall in Flint, Michigan, is an old helicopter. It is followed by five or six old row boats and dorys. Next is the root system of a sycamore fig tree and then a huge fish tank with an enormous fish circling around.

The walls are covered with lighted vintage neon and tin signs. Airplanes and soapbox derby cars suspend from the ceiling along with every imaginable kind of sign and advertising. Every square inch of the space is occupied by some artifact from American history: from the 1600s to the present. Absorbing it all may just put you into sensory overload.

The collector of this astounding compilation is Bob Perani, a local minor league hockey star and the founder of the largest independent hockey store in the country. The flagship store anchors the mall that once fell on hard times as the surrounding community struggled with drugs and violence. Things are getting better, though. Dort Mall serves as an oasis of absurdity in an often harsh world. Who cannot smile at the Dort Mall car, after all? Not to mention the full-sized anamatronic elephant or the one-of-kind heli-boat? Or the gigantic golf ball or the 1910 drunk tank from Otisville, Michigan. And, yes, that is Spiderman on top.

The Dort Mall also features a large selection movie memorabilia, including life-sized versions of R2D2 and C3PO, Yoda, Darth Mal and Darth Vader among many, many others. There is also a huge selection of movie miniatures including a large viking ship that was used in Ben Hur and a variety of mini battle ships.

Perani definitely loves the nautical collection and there are some astounding finds: Original deep sea diving suits, a wooden periscope from one of the first submarines, carved figures from the front of ships in an astounding variety and cannons in varying conditions.

There are merry go rounds and carnival rides, "Wate and Fate" machines and other carnival contraptions, most in working order. If a sign can be lit, it is, and the same goes for the rides and machines.

The collection is called the "Museum," but I really wouldn't go that far. Many of the items are tagged, but many others are just there. Every few years part of the collection is sold to make room for more stuff. And, oh, the stuff that is there.

Dort Mall is located on Dort Highway about a mile and a half south of I-69 in Flint, Michigan. A visit is highly recommended. Take a camera and eat at the Star Diner. Be sure to order a coney dog. They only use Koegel hot dogs and everyone knows those are the best. Made in Flint, by the way.


Monday, December 22, 2008

A Wonderful Day

She wore a little black dress with blue swirling prints. The zipper on her hoochie boots made a fart noise which made us all giggle. The plan for the day included a little shopping and a visit with Santa. As soon as she heard about going out for Chinese food she ran circles around us yelling, "Chinese! Chinese!"

Earlier in the year I made her a sock monkey. I even gave it an embroidery tattoo that read "LL + JJ" circled by a heart. About 8 minutes before she arrived I quickly wrapped the little guy; I forgot that little kids like to rip open presents. She loved the sock monkey, hugged it and wouldn't put him down. A good name for the monkey eluded us.

Instead we headed off to "Chinese!" This little girl, I'll call her "L," is about as sweet as they come. Beautiful and loving. She talked about her daddy, an uncle that treats her like his own. She snuggled with her older cousin and happily played with her ice cream instead of eating it. We let her. What could it hurt?

The fortune cookies came and we each picked one out. You can't open the cookie that you pick, you have to give it to someone else. A fast-paced, laughter-filled game of hot potato ensued. We reviewed our fortunes, lucky numbers and word of the day. L's word: Zhu Pai, pork chop. The monkey got a new name.

After the food it was off to the mall to visit with Santa. Despite the long line she patiently waited, sometimes dancing with Pork Chop and saying hello to a little friend she knew from baseball. She danced and wiggled, patiently waiting with Pork Chop to see the Big Guy.

When L's turn came she danced over and sat next to him in a huge over-stuffed green chair. He asked her name and how old she was. L held up five fingers. Had she been good? Oh, yes. She gave him her list (short and simple). Santa shook her hand and she danced back to us.

"Did you give Santa a hug good-bye?" I asked. She gasped, ran back to Santa and tackled him with a huge hug. As we left I touched his arm and said, "Thank you, Santa, for all that you do." He smiled and patted my hand.

Shopping involved the dollar store. A scrub brush and some lotion for L's mama. While we shopped a young man came up to us.

"We watched her with Santa," he said. "She was wonderful, so happy." He couldn't help but smile.

L fell asleep in the back seat of the car on the way home, Pork Chop snuggled in her arms.

We had a wonderful day and, frankly, we can't stop smiling either.