Saturday, May 13, 2017

Football and French Teachers

     Due to tight budgets, high schoolers across America are subjected to athletic coaches being distributed amongst the real teachers. Often, these coaches end up “teaching” easy and/or undesirable subjects like social studies - or in the case of the Anglo-centric South, foreign languages. One of my favorite high school memories is of a particular day in French class. I don’t know what possessed me to take French over Spanish, but that’s what I did - probably the most interesting thing about this class was that it was taught by the head football coach.
     Coach Lowe was a very typical coach-teacher: Mondays were spent analyzing our team’s successes or failures the previous Friday night; Tuesday through Thursday was handled by distributing worksheets to be completed open-book style in class; and Friday was blown off entirely in anticipation of that night’s game. We also had some Tuesdays off – sometimes for our school-wide assemblies and sometimes because the Coach had to go to his Rotary Club meeting.
     One day, though, Coach Lowe decided to take a rare spin around the blackboard – planning, in fact, to actually teach a little French. Before entering the classroom he was distracted by some assistant coach in the hallway, and we wisely used this time to write all over the board and then throw the erasers into the prickly bushes outside the classroom. Returning to the class he quickly discovered the problem and went out to procure an eraser. By the time he came back, we had also disposed of all the writing instruments for the board. Quite confused but not yet defeated, he left again to remedy the situation. Feeling the need to ramp up the disturbance, we began removing desks and chairs from the classroom and hiding them along the outer wall of the school. This time when he returned, we had students with no seats for his eagerly anticipated teaching lesson. Frustrated, he grabbed a handful of his football players (oh, yes, excellent French students – no coincidence they were in the coach’s class) to obtain desks from an unoccupied classroom. Miraculously, when the new desks were brought in, we were still short about the same number of desks. Baffled, the entourage went on a second mission to transfer desks into our classroom only to discover the same shortage on their return. Now at this point, the Coach realized two things: 1) there were only 8 minutes of class remaining and 2) the previous teacher had really left that classroom a mess and needed a stern talking-to.

     To the uninitiated, there’s just no adequate way to describe a Southerner’s obsession with the sport of football. For so many of us, it is the first sport we learn – probably tossing a football before throwing a baseball. It’s the way of life.
     The entire year revolves around football: in the spring, we gather players and formulate strategies for the available personnel. In the summer we begin our grueling two-a-day workouts leading up to the start of the season. Joyously we know that fall has arrived because football is being played. We pore over statistics and injuries and records and opponents. We faithfully attend every game we possibly can and watch those we can’t. Birthdays, anniversaries even funerals must be planned around the football schedule. When the all mighty farm gods require we harvest during the football season, all attempts are made to break for the game, and if that is impossible, we play that home-team, Larry-Munson-style radio broadcast while on the tractor or combine. As winter arrives, we rabidly root for the highest prize possible – that state championship, the national championship, the super bowl championship. If by some cruel misfortune our home team is out of the mix, we diligently play basketball and baseball and track through winter and spring to keep us in shape for football season. We will continue year round to analyze our school, your school, the rules, the system, the possibilities…
     During the football season, every day of the week revolves around football. On Monday we are discussing the results of the weekend and if players, sharpening our skill for next weekend. On Tuesday we are evaluating where we stand and where our college and professional teams stand. On Wednesday as we continue to prepare – judging the weekend’s matchups to either play or cheer or adjust our fantasy picks – we are looking ever more closely at our opponents’ tactics. Thursday puts the finishing touches on all our adjustments for the upcoming game(s). Friday is game day in our hometowns. With no movie theaters or dance clubs to compete with, our rural communities attend the Friday Night Lights as if that game was the resurrection of Jesus Himself. By Saturday we are caravanning to our college game where 100,000 other die-hard fans cram with us into our massive Southern football stadiums in support of our team. Sundays we are glued to our televisions rooting for all those homegrown heroes who made it to the big leagues, and when Monday comes around…  we do it all over again.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Three Wise Men

        After college I took a temporary job as a wrangler on a 137,000 acre ranch in northern New Mexico. My first duty station was in a remote location – It was me and five boys in a barn. We had no electricity and no running water – just an outhouse and a rainwater shower.
On occasion, we would ride our horses bareback down to the little road to the little town (population: 800) and leave them in the little field while we went to the saloon. Nestled in the historic St James Hotel, there was an old saloon where the likes of Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James and Black Jack Ketchum rested their heads – and shot up the ceiling in a few places. It was a great treat to go to town since we had no real entertainment out there in the woods – just us, thirty to fifty horses and some cattle.
Once we got to the lower field, we took the reins off our horses, threw ‘em over our shoulders and set out on foot. We were all dressed pretty much the same in short-sleeved button-down shirts, blue jeans and cowboy boots – plus or minus chaps. This was standard wear in Cimarron, and we fit in seamlessly as we strolled the half a mile or so to the hotel where it sat – and still sits – on the edge of town. There we’d spend a couple of hours imbibing, playing pool and telling tales.
The very first time we entered the saloon, I pulled the bartender aside. She was a skinny thing, probably in her thirties. She was definitely a local – knowing her way around those parts and around all those cowboys, too.
“Ma'am, you see those boys?” She glanced over at the boys – all Texans – and nodded her head. “I’m out at camp with them.” I stopped there and looked at her. She met my eyes. “Me. And them.”
Her eyes got wider. “You’re the only girl? Out there with all those guys?”
“That’s right.” I answered.
“Sounds dangerous.”
“They’re a good bunch of boys – protective of me, actually. However… I do not intend to get intoxicated and return to a barn full of boys.”
“I see.” She said.
“Here’s a contribution to your tip fund.” I handed her a twenty dollar bill. “I’d appreciate it if you’d help me out.”
She took the money from me and said, “Darlin’, don’t you worry about a thing.”
From then on we had a regular agreement. Whenever she came around to collect empty beer bottles and bring another round to our rowdy crew, she picked up my full beer and gave me a new one. Whenever the boys ordered shots, she gave me a virgin one.
Occasionally, one of the boys was chatting her up, and she had to give me a liquor shot with the boys. They were most fond of ordering “The Three Wise Men” – Jack, Jim, and Jose. I wanted no part of those wise men, thank you very much. The bartender would give me a little sign or just stare at me really hard when she’d had to pour me a real one. Then, when we made our toast, I’d lift my drink and throw my head back just like the boys – only I’d throw my shot over my shoulder and onto the floor. Usually they were too drunk to notice, and the bartender just discreetly cleaned it up as we moved back over to pool table and our bar stools. On the off chance they did notice, we’d all just laugh it up that I was too drunk and had missed my mouth.
After the boys got good and sloshed, we’d headed back up the road – the distance not long enough to sober ‘em up before we reached the horses. This field, while smaller than most we had, was still an acre or two. We had to catch our horses in there. Generally, my palomino gelding Questa was usually fairly easy to catch – not easy to ride as he had a tendency to buck off riders he didn’t like. So, most nights I was sitting astride Questa before the boys had caught their horses.
Oh the scene of four or five boys weaving around drunk trying to catch a horse. Even worse was when one of ‘em tried to mount up. Sober as a saint, I’d watch as one managed his way up only to fall off on the other side or see one get halfway up only for the horse to run out from underneath him. Now that was entertainment.
Eventually, we would all be ready. Then we would ride the half hour or so in the dark back to the barn. The boys would pass out in their cots as I settled down in mine behind the particle board partition, snuggling in for dreams of five drunken cowboys and three wise men.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Walter Camp: The Father of American Football

Intercollegiate sports were chaotic in the 1800s. Many of the games played were relatively new, such as tennis and baseball. Colleges and universities were slowly beginning to fund athletic programs and to form conferences and leagues in which to compete against one another. Accordingly, this time period was marked by ongoing disputes over format and scoring, as well as, necessary rule changes to address the many deaths in the contact sports. 
The Northeastern schools - that would eventually become the Ivy League - were at the forefront of intercollegiate athletics during this time, and possibly the most contentious evolution of sport came as those universities slowly morphed rugby into gridiron football - American football. In particular, Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia wanted to have more clearly defined rules of the rugby-style game they were playing against one another. To that end, they convened in 1876 to set some ground rules. 
At first this brand new Intercollegiate Football Association basically stuck to England's Rugby Union Code with some small changes like awarding some points for a touchdown - instead of only awarding points on the kick afterwards (at that time the object of the game was to score points by kicking a goal either after a touchdown or from the field during the course of play).  This version of rugby was generally 15 players a side on a 140 yard field, and back then Princeton dominated the half dozen or so schools that competed in the sport. It is in this setting that Walter Chauncey Camp entered Yale as an undergraduate in 1876. 
Camp was an all around athlete excelling in track and field events, baseball, tennis, and swimming. Not only was he rapidly added to the Yale football team at the position of halfback, but he quickly became captain and player-coach. His contemporaries and coaches considered him one of the premiere football players of that time. Beyond being a great player and having a keen mind for coaching, Camp was deeply invested in developing and defining the game. His innovations and ongoing impact on the sport earned him the title: Father of American Football. 
Even while he was still a player he was active in the Intercollegiate Football Association - at first as a representative of Yale and then continuing on as one of their members until his death in 1925. He began in the late 1870s lobbying to have the player number reduced to 11 per side, which he eventually saw adopted in 1880. He pressed for further changes in the 1880s most notably creating the scrimmage and the quarterback with one stroke.
As football followed the rugby leads, the ball changed possession rapidly and with little strategy most of the time. Frustrated by this, Camp invented the idea of the scrimmage. The possessing team would now start a "down" from the line of scrimmage. By controlling the possession and creating a scrimmage, the game not only slowed a little bit but also allowed for an entire new system of attack - and defense. As they moved from kicking the ball backwards from the line of scrimmage to handing the ball off behind the line to the increasingly important quarterback, strategies developed for how many players on the line, how many fullbacks or halfbacks and where to place them, and eventually even the evolution of the forward pass. (On this point, Walter Camp was originally opposed, but he did finally accept the forward pass.) 
Of course, the system of scrimmage and downs required great revision. Initially the new scrimmage rules allowed teams to effectively stall, holding the ball once they took the lead. This was boring for players and fans alike, and by 1882 they had devised the down system whereby possession would go to the opposing team if a certain mark - initially 5 yards, later changed to 10 yards - hadn't been reached in three (later changed to four) downs. This is when gridiron football was truly seen as lines marked off every five yards of the field. 
Also during the 1880s the Intercollegiate Football Association began tinkering with the scoring rules. In 1882 there was a strange system of 4 touchdowns equalling a goal (kick through the uprights) from the field and 2 safeties equalling one touchdown... It was messy. In 1883 Camp prompted the points be changed to: 5 for goal from the field; 4 for goal after touchdown; 2 for touchdown and 1 for safety. This was quickly revised months later to: 5 for goal from the field; 4 for touchdown; 2 for goal after a touchdown and 2 for safety. It wouldn't be until 1912 that our modern scoring system with 6 points for a touchdown was accepted.
Other significant changes occurred during the late 1800s. The field was shortened from 140 yards to 110, and it's width shrank from 70 yards to 53 1/3. The time of game was set to two 45 minute halves with a 15 minute break. The officials were actually paid (only one referee and one umpire per game back then), and they were authorized the use of whistles. Additionally Camp lobbied - successfully - to eliminate the flying wedge play that had been responsible for numerous deaths during games. 
Interestingly,  and possibly a contradictory change from a safety standpoint, in 1888 tackling below the waist was legalized. This actually created several changes to the game itself. Now the line of scrimmage pulled in - for it was necessary to form up a secure wall of protection for the quarterbacks, halfbacks and running backs from these brutal blows. This would actually clog up the game again until more forward passing began and thus open field running returned to the game.
Walter Camp was at the center of all these changes. Those he didn't directly create, he certainly contributed to nonetheless. Even while working as a businessman and establishing himself as a model citizen in his Connecticut hometown, he wrote hundreds of articles and over 25 books on sports and football. Camp was a lifelong member of the Intercollegiate Football Association and on its Rules Committee. He also aided the United States Armed Forces and gained notoriety with Walter Camp's Daily Dozen - a series of 12 exercises to be completed in 8-10 minutes each morning. 
Walter Camp, the Father of American Football, edited every American Football rule book published in his lifetime. He was well respected by all within the sport - from collegiate to the American Football Association to the National Football League. Camp has been credited with bringing "an almost mythical atmosphere of manliness and heroism to the game not previously known in American team sports." He continued his work perfecting the rules of football right up until his death, where at age 65 Walter Camp died of a heart attack while attending the 1925 meeting of the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Butch and Sissy’s Double Wide Café

Only in the Deep South will you find a popular restaurant with “double wide café” in the title. Indeed, there once was a comfort food place established in Atlanta, GA named Butch and Sissy’s Double Wide Café. While it’s long been closed down, I still have fond memories of my time there… and really funny ones, too. Let me start by putting things into context, drifting off the main story for a bit to explain how I came to work there…
When I graduated from college with my Bachelors in Biomolecular Science degree, I didn’t go directly to medical school. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even apply while I was a senior. Instead I spent almost 14 months doing other things – anything I could find.
My first adventure was working as a wrangler on a 137,500 acres ranch in northern New Mexico. (Rumor has it the land used to total 300,000 acres.) I’ve got excellent stories from those days that I’ll save for another post. After New Mexico, I moved to Atlanta. I applied to medical school and proceeded to work a wide variety of jobs while I waited to get in and then to start. I was a carpenter’s helper, gutting warehouses and turning them into condominiums. My resume could include demolition enthusiast, clean-up artist, stair-building master and sheet rock repairman. Early on it was clear that the construction job wasn’t gonna pay very much, so I started some side jobs. I was a theme park actor at Six Flags. For various movies, I stood in as an extra – or I took acting jobs in industrial films. I actually got paid quite well for doing a voice over for Home Depot. By the end of my time in Atlanta, my only job was as a lifeguard – truly a jack-of-all-trades.
Throughout the whole time there the longest job I had was as a waitress. I worked at two different restaurants. By far, Butch and Sissy’s Double Wide Café was the most hilarious. And, yes, I have witnesses to its existence – and uniqueness.
Down in Atlanta’s Five Points, there once was a restaurant plopped between a recycled clothing store, comic book/record store and a pharmacy. As years grew on, this restaurant went through many owners, many names and many types of cuisine. When I lived there, it was being converted from a pizza joint into a comfort food/Southern-style establishment.
Before I was even employed by Butch and Sissy’s, I helped out my friends with the renovations. I painted, moved equipment, renovated tables, etc. We didn’t have to paint walls, of course, because they were all true trailer park wood paneling… good stuff.  :~)  The kitchen was mostly set up from all the previous owners with burners, ovens, grills, warmers, stainless steel work spaces, and the essential Hobart (king of industrial dishwashers – what Otis is to elevators.) The most needed work was to upgrade the tables and hang paintings on the walls. They wanted to give the restaurant that certain flair.
To that end, we began with all of the tables. We took each one, sanded them down and an artistic friend painted them. We had one with Marilyn Monroe, one with a gorgeous horse, one with the ocean, etc. After she painted them, we coated them with a thick coat of shellac. Those were some hilarious nights – maybe because of the banter, maybe because of the fumes or maybe a combination of both. We would sit around for hours visiting afterwards if we had time. Other times we rushed off to softball or rugby games we were scheduled to play in that night.
As for those wall pictures… well, the owners started with the two kings: the king of rock and the King of soul. They mounted two velvet pictures – one of Elvis and one of Jesus. Additionally, just as you walked in the door, we hung an original painting. The artist friend painted a picture of a tornado with all of the employees’ heads sticking out of different portions of the storm. We were all portrayed caricature-style. It was so cute – from the skateboarder to the skinny girl to the bike rider to the constant baseball cap wearer (me). She was a great artist. Even strangers could pick us out from the painting.
After those weeks of decorating, they pretty much just opened the doors for business. No fan-fare, no grand opening…just “let’s get goin’.” I’d never actually intended to work there. They found themselves needing extra hands, though, so I jumped on board. I officially became employed at Butch and Sissy’s Double Wide Café.
Working at Butch and Sissy’s wasn’t quite like any other restaurant. You weren’t hired as a server or a cook or a hostess – you were just hired. Most days, I was a waitress. The clientele was widely varied. The majority of folks were locals – laid back, casually dressed, working-class people from the neighborhood. We had comfort food for low prices, and it was an easy place to hang out. You could overhear music from the record store or from the local street guys. Five Points is that eclectic kind of place that many tourists like to visit, so we also got a lot of out-of-towners including some celebrities wanting to get a real feel of Atlanta while staying off the beaten path. We had the occasional actor/actress, but we were more likely to see the musicians. To be honest, half the time I didn’t even recognize them. (They look so different when they’re being themselves.) Those customers made it fun to serve them, though. I really don’t remember any disgruntled ones. Mostly I remember all the customers who were kind, patient, generous and best of all, had a great sense of humor. They admired the kitschy décor and the constant variety in our menu due to chef changes. No matter who cooked it, though, the food was always good. That and the laid back atmosphere kept ‘em coming in to hand out and eat.
While I was primarily a server, on some days, though, I was a busser and runner and hostess… Occasionally, I was the dishwasher (I really do love the Otis) and the go-to-the-store-to-get ___. At times, I even stepped in as the “chef” – ok, “cook” would be a better description. One day, I showed up to wait tables and the chef had run away. I’m not kidding – the chef didn’t quit. We just lost the chef. So, in a pinch I subbed in… we were, after all a Southern comfort-food restaurant, which is perfect for a born and raised farm girl from South Georgia. I made meatloaf, collard greens, rice, tomato gravy, baked mac-n-cheese, corn-on-the-cob, fried chicken, sweet potato soufflé and fried okra. Fortunately, I was raised well and could pull off Southern cooking just fine. Everyone was full, fat and happy. I was still hostessing and waiting tables at the time since we were shorthanded. It was actually kind of fun, and none of the customers complained.
There was another night when the infamous “somebody” had forgotten to do inventory and make the weekly supply order. On that night, each table I sat, I explained to them: “welcome to Butch and Sissy’s – tonight you will be eating… “ I explained I would bring seat #1 fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans; seat #2 ham with collard greens and creamed corn; seat #3 meatloaf with collard greens and black-eyed peas; etc. Not one table got to order. They ate what I brought them or swapped out with their neighbor. Still – no complaints. That was just how we rolled at Butch and Sissy’s, and everybody knew it.
It was a wonderful joint and a hilarious time. More stories will surface over the years, I’m sure. No matter what, though, I will never forget Butch and Sissy’s Double-Wide Café or all the people I encountered working there. Hopefully, the newest restaurant installed is just as fun.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Snow Stories


It’s a well-known fact that it doesn’t snow very often in the South – and when it does it’s not even deep enough to cause a regular snow area to even blink (read that as Colorado, Montana, the Dakotas, Michigan, New Jersey, Maine, etc…) Recently we have experienced a couple of annoying cold weather “storms of the century” (that’s the newscasters’ dramatic words – not mine.) So…I thought it was appropriate to tell some Southern snowstorm stories – don’t worry they are few and short – thank the Good Lord. (Ok - well you know I can drag a story out sometimes...)

I reckon the best place to start is how I experienced snow growing up in the South. Well… I think we got a dusting of snow once or twice in the 17 years I was a consistent resident down close to the GA-FL line. I do remember being excited and intrigued about those times, but I don’t think they were heavier than even being able to build a tiny snowball before it all melted away. The worst part of snow or even unusually cold weather was frozen pipes and dead plants and/or crops. Those weren’t necessarily my concerns at the time – I just remember some adult discussion about “the freeze” ruining this-or-that.  And… I’m not sure how much was sadness from loss of yard work versus loss of crop/livelihood money.

Now, there were opportunities to venture to the great north (Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC) where snow does fall a few times a year, and occasionally a bad storm will put them under inches – even feet – of snow. However, we mostly chose to visit that region on the every other yearly vacation - in the summer. (FL was so close…why would we drive to the north every winter?) These were wise decisions made by our parents. So… I can’t really remember being north enough to see a “real” amount of snow before we went to West Virginia. It was quite a fun trip. At the time, I was dating a guy I truly loved – and still do – who was an excellent travel companion. He and I had a similar sense of humor, so the 8, 10, whatever hour drive to my aunt and uncle’s house went by quickly. We amused ourselves – and others on the trip. Besides torturing drive-through clerks (I apologize – that was wrong. Funny, but wrong.) we may have possibly created some discord in a store when one of us pretended to be blind and knocked over an entire rack of clothing… That was a fun trip filled with juvenile pranks – but very fun! We arrived safely in WV, and as expected were faced with snow-laden and icy roads. Those folks are used to seeing that – particularly in the mountainous areas – so they were good at preparing the roads. It wasn’t too dangerous, but your vehicle definitely took on a lot of dirty snow/ice. Of course, the reasons to drive up there in the winter were to visit our aunt, uncle and cousins, and to boot – we’d also get to go snow skiing. Hadn’t ever done that in South GA. With graciously loaned snowsuits and gear, we headed to the mountain. I remember crashing a few times and inexplicably excelling a few times… what I most remember, though, is a crash. No, no – it wasn’t mine. It was my younger brother’s crash. Bless his heart, he had decided to brave one of those double diamonds. That decision landed him face-first, legs split into a tree… He made it down the mountain. I’ll still never forget him throwing his skis, gloves, jacket down a hallway muttering about his crash. My boyfriend and I picked up his discards in his wake, but wisely left my brother alone. Our first big adventure into snow was good overall, but I was yet to encounter real snow, real deep – blizzards, even…

This may seem completely unrelated…I was planning a beach trip. Hold on – I’ll get there: it was nearing spring break at Berry College. Some of my friends and I were going to visit my family in South GA and then spend 5 days or so at the beach in the panhandle of FL. Lo and behold, one week before the break we had a blizzard hit north GA. At the college’s main campus it wasn’t terrible – a few feet, but we definitely had some fun in the drifts that got as deep as 6-7 feet (mostly due to depressions or soccer practice fields lower than “street height” or depressions due to sinkholes…sorry, a different story entirely.) We did, however, lose power and were simultaneously unable to evacuate. The college was wonderful in providing whatever food they had available at no charge to anyone, and we figured it was a good idea to stuff all our mini-refrigerator items into the snow to keep ‘em safe. It worked quite well until we ran out of milk and cereal – I mean, that’s usually all we had in our minis. OK… other fun things I recall from that blizzard: making snow angels; playing cards at the boys’ basketball team’s apartment (I was a college athletic trainer at the time, so I knew all of them well and went with a group of female athletes.); hiking through the snow to get food from other dorm rooms; one of the basketball guys turning a vending machine upside down to get food from it; jumping into the snow drifts that were chest or head height just for the fun of it; being grateful for a week off class – and that we knew we’d be in FL days from then. Well, the power outage ran a bit longer than expected – as did the evacuation. At some point we hiked out through the snow to a friend’s parents’ house. We’d never been so grateful for a local student! (That’s entirely not true…this particular student was and is one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had – and that will be immediately backed up by all of the others whose lives she has touched.) After our li’l trek, we were well fed, warm and grateful.

Eventually, the weather complied, and we were able to drive around town again… long enough to pack our swimsuits for FL! We were in college – the thawing of the snow and returning our ability to drive independently were all we were concerned with in the moment. So, off we drove to where Big Mary laid out a marvelous meal in South GA, and we traveled further to have beautiful beach weather on the gulf for a few days.

Back to the snow…there were certainly snow times (mostly it was barely snow that turned into ice – which is actually worse) that I encountered again while I lived in Atlanta. Oh, and before that: I did a li’l job in northern New Mexico. It was on a ranch larger than 100,000 acres. Apparently, in the desert the nights are cold – even in the summer. It actually snowed on us twice in June! I’ll have some future stories to tell about those months with old-fashioned outhouses, horses and sleeping in open lofts, barns and lean-to’s.

The next big unexpected snow throwing a Southern girl for a loop was when I was in Baltimore. (I’m not even going to get into any kind of argument of whether Baltimore is north or South…just gonna tell the story.) Apparently, this was the worst snowstorm in over 100 years for Baltimore. I’ve read some reports that say in over 120 years. Also, the newspapers and weather channels recorded anywhere from 28-37 inches in 3-4 days (depends on which one you’re talking to – and if you factor in those that argue snow should be measured before it’s packed down with its own weight, those estimates would be even higher.) Also, there were certainly drifts deeper than the “official measurements.”

This was our brief break in snow downfall during those 3-4 days. More was to come.

At the time, I lived on sort of a downward sloping neighborhood that stretches from the more city-center-proper to Fell’s Point on the bay. So, in those spots that dipped lower than others, some of the snow was over 4 feet – even when it was packed down.
We obviously figured a way to dig ourselves out a bit – if only for the dawg. :~)

My neighbors’ dogs and our dog couldn’t see above the snow except on higher ground or after they’d run around and stomped on a good enough sized area of it. Now here is where it got even funnier. If I recall correctly when it first started I made it home from work and was then allowed a snow day the next day (this storm lasted 4 days.) The next day, however, I was scheduled to take trauma call in one of the city’s hospitals. I received a phone call that the National Guard would be by to pick me up. After double checking that it was still 4+ feet deep outside the stoop of our walk-up townhouse, I put on my scrubs and topped them off with my entire snowboarding suit – shoes, gloves, goggles and all. I mentioned I’m from GA, right – not Minnesota or Montana. I don’t do snow for long periods of time and resent it when I’m forced into it rather than choosing to go for recreational purposes. So…all dressed up, I hear one of those megaphones calling for Dr. Dixon to please step out. I opened the door and there was a humvee in the middle of the road – maybe 5 or 6 feet away from me. Standing on my stoop I yelled back – how am I supposed to get to you when the snow is over my head? Their practical reply was to jump into the snow near enough to them and raise my hands over my head. Once completed, they would pull me up into the hummer. It actually worked. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, and somebody should’ve filmed the whole thing, but it worked nonetheless. From there it was off to a police station where the roads had been cleared down to just a few inches – a place for me to await my next escort to the hospital – a very nice policeman. Once at the hospital he did remind me that I’d be stuck at the hospital until normal transportation – walking, buses, a friend picking me up by car once the roads cleared – could be arranged. In other words: now, instead of being snowed in at home, you are snowed into this hospital. Great. Fortunately it wasn’t too busy – and obviously, there were other of us residents snowed in there. We mostly did rounds and scut work then moped about the workroom complaining about being stuck and bored. We didn’t have many exciting traumas or surgeries during that time, so we were able to get sleep and catch up on dictations and such. Finally, after 48 hours or so, several fresh residents made it in, and I was able to get a lift home.

After Baltimore, it was off to Portland, OR. For the first few years I lived there the winters were ok. We had one snowfall my first Christmas there that kept the roads pretty sketchy for a week or so (takes longer to melt out there.) I think it was only a few inches then. A few other winters we got some light snow, maybe sleet, but it wasn’t so bad. Most of my snow experience was driving up to Mount Hood to snowboard. The great thing about that is Mt Hood is only 45 minutes away. That means, I can drive in and drive out in the same day. Obviously, they usually had very deep amounts of snow the higher you drive, however, they also were accustomed to this and did a good job keeping the roads fairly cleared. I should mention: the whole state had mandatory times/places where you must have either snow tires or chains on your regular tires. That really prevented many mishaps. I enjoyed being able to go see it when I wanted to and keep out of it when I didn’t want to be in it.

The first really annoying snowstorm I think of when considering Portland is one that happened – I guess winter 2005/2006. It nearly shut the whole city down. Of course, I was needed at the hospital. Well, this particular hospital is on one of the highest hills in Portland – and its roads were definitely inaccessible to regular vehicles. Fortunately, the city had managed to keep most of the trains and trolleys running. Even more fortunate was the fact that the hospital had just completed this giant tram that like a closed in ski lift transported patients and staff from the bottom of the hill to the top – opening inside the hospital itself.

(It was originally put in to help with parking congestion up on the hill, but turned out to be a lifesaver during this storm.) So…I would get up, walk to the nearest train; switch over to a trolley; and take the tram up to work each day (unless of course I had spent the night in the hospital on call.) Lots of fun those commutes…but we survived.

Another annoying snowstorm occurred in 2008/2009’s winter in Oregon. I was commuting about 30-60 minutes each way for work at a hospital further south. This was the area’s worst storm since 1968 – dropping 24 inches of snow in a day or so December 2008. As you can see,some drifts were significantly higher:

One of the idiosyncrasies of this state is for environmental purposes they do not believe in salting the roads for de-icing. Of course, they aren’t going to use any other potentially harmful chemicals, either. The alternative: rocks. That’s right, they dump clumps of sand, dirt and, yes, rocks all over the roads – especially the interstate. Whether it’s during the storm or after, you can almost guarantee that one of those rocks is gonna hit your windshield. So… besides having a nightmare commute at 5am on poorly cleared roads, I also contended with rocks hitting my windshield. I can’t count how many times I’ve had my windshield “patched up” with that li’l glue stuff they use (I currently have two fill-ins in this windshield), but I can tell you that I went through 5 total windshield replacements in 4 years. The windshield repair guys just set up in parking lots and in front of gas stations – they’ll even drive to where you are. Their business is booming in that state.

Now, after moving from Portland, I spent time in Florida and Georgia, so I had a reprieve from the snow. Then…I moved to Charlotte, NC. It is truly a gorgeous city – green and lush from spring to fall. This winter, however, has proven to be a bear. I was a bit disappointed when it was so cold my hair gel froze each time I walked from the building to my vehicle, but a week later when it started to snow… oh my… The governor declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard. The last moment I dared brave driving, there were wrecks all around, and I fishtailed at every stoplight and turn – and that was with 4-wheel drive. I swore I wasn’t going back out there. And then work called. :~( Fortunately, a very kind man agreed to drop me off. That was wonderful. I need to make a note here that I am currently working at a restaurant. The restaurant was out-of-control that night. There were only 5 of us. Normally, there’d be 5-6 in the kitchen; 1-2 expo’ing; 5-6 waitstaff; 1-3 bartenders; 1-2 hostesses; 2-4 bussers; 1-2 dishwashers and a manager or two. That’s conservatively in the 17-20+ range. There were 5 of us. We knocked it out – but it was crazy. There were 2 chefs, 1 manager, 1 busser and me expo’ing. Well, as you can imagine, that’s not how we ran it. There were 5 people who did everything from cooking to washing dishes to cleaning to bussing to serving to bartending to answering the phones to delivering room service (there's a hotel next door)to answering the phones to taking out the garbage…you get the idea. I think each of us did just about every job in that restaurant at one point or another. We kinda fell into areas that we mostly stuck to, but we were frequently pulled around to all those others if only for a few minutes at a time. We succeeded, though. The final part to this story is that I could not find a ride home, so I walked. The snow on the ground was only 2 or so inches…but it was sleeting rain. I actually got wind burn on my face during that 1 ½ - 2 mile walk back, and I was, of course, completely soaked through all my many layers of clothing. I was grateful to have a safe, dry, warm place to go...

I reckon in conclusion, I’ll simply say this. I am a Southerner. I will always be a Southerner – no matter where I am – because it’s who I am. 
And I don’t like snow.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

A CT Scanner and a Chest Tube


This story does not occur in the South, but one of the three pivotal characters is a bona fide Southern lady (that’s me). Furthermore, this is by far one of the most hilarious surgery stories in my repertoire – and it all revolves around a CT scanner and a chest tube. How is that even possible, you ask…. It all starts with a very unique attending trauma surgeon who I’ll call Dr. Eisenhower. Dr. Eisenhower was known for his often surly attitude with the residents and only slightly less surly attitude with the nurses and other hospital staff, but get him in front of a patient’s family, and he threw on the charm. He actually is a big softy at heart – you just have to get him in a one-on-one situation so that he can preserve his “bad boy” reputation. This attending was also well known for his control issues.

I’ll detour from the story to temporarily explain a few things about becoming and being a physician – particularly a surgeon. After undergraduate studies, the journey usually begins with medical school – if no diversions are taken to try to backpack through Europe (read: escape in hopes of never returning to the guaranteed pain that comes with medical training). Some do prefer to start slowly with pharmacy school or some PhD degree remotely related to medicine. These are all delay tactics, and I gladly partook of my own one-year delay. Medical school is designed to give you the background, the science, the foundation to move further into both the science AND art of medicine. Clinical rotations (those in the hospital or physicians’ private practices) are sometimes tough and sometimes easy – depending on the specialty and the attending(s) you get assigned. Mostly during those years, though, the attendings are still in a mode of wanting to either impress you or intimidate you…or both. They’ll regale you with their toughest surgeries, most hilarious screw-ups that their residents were guilty of, and show off their knowledge/skills. They still remember to treat you like gum on the bottom of a shoe – a nuisance following them around that they can’t quite get rid of. I have many stories of those days down in Savannah – and many pleasant and funny stories from there, but I’ll save them for another time.

Next you move on to internship. If a medical student is treated as gum stuck on a shoe, the interns are treated more like dog poop on the bottom of the shoe – not only does it follow you around and is difficult to get rid of, but it also stinks with every step taken leaving a wake of waste in its path. Interns are generally given simple tasks known as scut work. These tasks include things like collecting laboratory values on all the patients and committing them to memory before rounds; changing all the dressings on the patients at appointed times; collecting blood from patients (back in the old days – and currently is done when the nurse(s) have been unsuccessful); transporting patients to studies and tests if need be; answering all pages from the nursing staff; walking patients that haven’t been out of bed enough; studying each patients’ medical problem and surgical/medical options; etc. Interns do most of the least desired work and are in the speak-only-when-spoken-to category. They generally get no notice from the attending unless the intern has made an error or the attending is in a particular mood to quiz someone to death.

As you move from internship to residency, you are starting to get more responsibility but not much more in the way of respect. You certainly increase the amount of “dressing down” that occurs in the more rigorous specialties. It’s a right of passage in a way to routinely have your superiors – senior residents, fellows and attendings, alike – all point out your failings and make you feel foolish in front of anybody and everybody within earshot of their very loud voices. Now, you are getting to do some supervising of the students and interns, and you get to actually participate in more and more surgeries rather than just watching them and holding retractors during long procedures. Each year that you move up in residency, you slowly build more respect, hone your skills and learn more complex surgeries. Autonomy in patient management increases, and some attendings may become friendlier with you – while others insist on reminding you that you are still a minion. Fellowship is sort of the highest level of this but with much more conviviality with the attendings.

So, after that digression, back to Dr. Eisenhower… He definitely fell into the category of one of those attendings who wanted to make sure you and everybody else knew that he – and he alone – was “the decider.” All the residents, nurses and other ancillary care staff would often quote his most famous and incessantly repeated line, “I’m in charge here.” – a statement he made every time he entered the trauma bay, operating room or any critical situation. We could be elbow deep in blood from some horrific trauma and still acknowledge that – yes, sir, you are in charge…we were just holding things together until you arrived.

One late night, a critical trauma came flying into the trauma bay after a motorcycle crash – pale, gasping and shaking with obvious multiple extremity fractures. Besides that, we actually KNEW this guy! He’d actually been in less than a year earlier due to a different motorcycle crash. However, this time he had more than just bruised lungs and broken bones. We followed our standard Advanced Trauma Life Support protocol as we do for all our patients. After placing chest tubes on both sides to relieve his breathing problems, splinting his fractures and stabilizing him with pain medications, we set off for the all-but-mandatory CT scan. When brought in as a critical trauma patient (especially with blunt trauma), it’s nearly impossible to avoid a CT scan of something – or sometimes everything. Now, Dr. Eisenhower was not a calm man, and everything was to be done now – go – hurry – what’s going on – go! Despite being accustomed to his intensity, we did occasionally get rattled by his sense of urgency and hurry a li’l too fast from one task and/or place to the other. His sense of urgency was typical that night. On cue, we rushed this motorcycle patient (we couldn’t remember his name yet) to the CT scanner which involved moving him from the trauma bay gurney to the CT table without dislodging chest tubes, foley catheters, IV lines, etc. The trauma team – including our fearless, if even slightly frantic leader – retreated behind the lead wall to watch the scan as it came up on the computer monitors. Instantly, we could see the patient had a Grade 3-4 splenic injury and was bleeding internally – A LOT. In other words, he needed to go to the Operating Room (OR) immediately for a splenectomy (removal of his spleen) and to search for any other sources of bleeding and/or injury. Thus, the boss wanted us to move the patient posthaste to the OR.

That’s when it happened – when things went so hilariously awry. Here is why the story is now something of a legend at that Trauma Center. In his hurry to get us to move the patient back to the gurney and rush to the OR, Dr. Eisenhower jumped in to help with the moving which is uncommon for most attending physicians. During the move, he accidentally stepped on one of the patient’s chest tubes and it’s connection to its water seal chamber snapped off. The important part about all that is, of course, the patient needs to have proper chest tube suction and drainage, but also that this tubing that pulled out is made of material akin to a large, thick rubber band. Thus, when it snapped back, it popped the attending surgeon EXACTLY in his “male region” causing him to fall directly to the floor, curled up in a fetal position. As the rest of us realize what has happened, we were struggling with carrying on our mission to get the patient rushed to the OR; restraining ourselves from also falling on the floor (with laughter); and feeling a tiny bit of concern that maybe we should help Dr. Eisenhower. We quickly regrouped as – from the floor, holding himself and rocking back and forth – we heard, “GO! JUST GO! Get to the OR NOW!”

And off the patient, myself and the rest of the trauma team went to the OR. The chest tube was promptly fixed, and since the patient was rapidly losing blood – despite aggressive resuscitation by the trauma nurses and anesthesiologist – and needed immediate surgery, I started right away. As the Chief Resident for the Trauma Service, I couldn’t just let the patient bleed to death while the attending was incapacitated on the radiology room floor. By the time I had cut open his abdomen, clamped the bleeding arteries and veins of the spleen and was just about to remove the destroyed li’l spleen from the patient’s body, Dr. Eisenhower came hobbling into the OR. With his hands still cupping his man parts, he peered over my shoulder and into the patient’s open abdominal cavity. He started barking instructions for resuscitation and surgical maneuvers that had long since been performed. We all just nodded and kept doing our work. By the time he was able to gather himself and scrub in, it was double check for bleeding, wash out the abdomen and close it up time. Indeed, the attending diligently checked my work: the suturing, the knots, the evaluation of the abdominal organs and intestines, and, of course, the examination of all four quadrants of the abdomen plus inspection for abnormalities in the retroperitoneum. Satisfied, he looked up and said, “I’m glad we got to him in time. You can finish up here, right?” Then Dr. Eisenhower hobbled right back out of the Operating Room.

Later... when the patient was safely out of the OR where he was doing well in the Intensive Care Unit, and his family had been updated, we were finally able to laugh. Much later, though, once the patient was recovering and discharging from the hospital entirely, we told and retold that story to everyone and laughed so hard our sides hurt each time we recounted that hilarious scene. We laughed for weeks – no YEARS. If you just mention the CT scanner and chest tube incident to anyone at that Trauma Center, it will immediately incite laughter and various versions each eyewitness adds as time wears on. It’s LEGENDARY – just ask the x-ray tech on roller skates. Oh, that’s an entirely different story for a different time…

Monday, February 3, 2014

Iraq Deployment #2 - The Beginning

And the humorous process getting there

A car backfired in the Walmart parking lot. I flinched. But I didn’t hit the ground. I was getting better. More help was needed overseas, and I felt I was healed enough to go. There were two additional factors: the first was that they were gonna send me within the next year, so I might as well choose when; the second was… well, it felt more comforting to be around people who felt what I felt, knew what I knew, lived where I lived. So, I gladly moved my deployment up to the time my civilian contract would renew – I figured that’d make it easier on everybody. I would go and relieve my friends their burden, and for my part I’d be back where at least I knew where I fit in. Standing in that parking lot, I knew the only place I’d feel ok – feel “normal” – was back over there, back where we were all on alert, back where the only thing that mattered was moment-to-moment survival.
All deployments start with a stint at a US base for readiness training and clearance, so it was off to Ft Benning the first week of January to “prepare” me for the months ahead - on duty in Iraq. As I left the cold Northwest for Ft Benning, I was actually encouraged to get out of the 40-50 degree weather we’d been havin’ all December. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in GA to temperatures of 16-30. OK, surprise may be putting it nicely - that was definitely not in the list of words I used at our 5am outdoor formations and training sessions. As many of my friends will testify, I am NOT cut out for frigid weather. Apparently, though, hell froze over or the world turned upside down – or possibly somebody “up there” has a very twisted sense of humor. So…freezing weather it was.
One of the funniest parts to this cold weather in South Georgia is that …well, let’s just say it causes some difficulties. See, the way “inprocessing” and “outprocessing” work generally involve lots and lots and lots of lines waiting for your next medical check, form to fill out or equipment issue. I didn’t say it’s a cattle call, but that’d be a decent analogy. There are briefings, re-briefings, de-briefings and mystery-briefings – where no one knows why we are supposed to be there or for what – including those in charge. Basically, they’ll take that time to spin around, pick something out of thin air and just ramble on until the allotted time is done. Those are sometimes my favorite because you can at least be amused at the circus. Having said all that, since this is Georgia where it should be tolerable weather – 40% or more of these trainings and waiting in lines are conducted outside in pavilions and/or sidewalks instead of buildings with heat and shelter from the elements. Oopsy! At that first morning’s formation it was only16 degrees by 6am. There was some scrambling going on to figure out how to prevent frostbite for the subsequent mornings where formation was at 4 or 5am. Again, if this were a base in Seattle, no big deal, they would have been prepared. Columbus, Georgia, however, was not accommodated to deal with sub-freezing temperatures. Adding insult to injury, where we were training utilized porta potties. Now, imagine racing your frostbitten hands over to the hand wash station only to find the water is frozen. Did anybody think to at least put out some hand sanitizer – no. This deployment was not starting out very well. Fortunately, I had some hand sanitizer in my uniform pocket. I must admit, though, “people” were informed of this travesty – I doubt it did a bit of good – but people… were… informed. Eventually we hoped to identify these “people.” Somehow, I survived, but I was still a li’l bitter. I knew once Iraq heated up to 120° or so,  I might change my mind - no, no, I was still bitter just remembering it.
Mercifully, it migrated on up to the 40s in time for “Med Shed” day. As you may gather from our li’l nickname, the “Med Shed” wasn’t exactly a clinic or hospital – or really remotely resembling either one. It’s kinda back to the cattle call analogy. (As I informed my friend Jennifer, the DMV would be an example of efficiency by comparison.) The “Med Shed” did do an excellent job of keeping colored tape on the floor, though, to ensure you follow the proper flow they prefer. My favorite part was that they start with the 4-5 most gay looking women and immediately send them for urine pregnancy tests. Once that’s out of the way, it was off for labs, eye tests and immunizations. Whether you’d just had them or not, you were getting them again. Dental was basically a hand-me-your-paperwork-stamp-stamp-thank you-move along. One of my favorite parts of inprocessing was the audiogram – bless that man’s heart – we have all been deployed enough times to have impaired hearing. However, it was his job to say we were “good enough” to still deploy – kinda like the shrink that has to say we weren’t “too depressed” to still deploy. So, after the blessing from the Physician Assistant and adding PPD and typhoid to my H1N1 and Anthrax immunizations for good measure, I had survived the “Med Shed.”
Ft. Benning actually did a pretty good job considering they’re tryin’ to run 470+ soldiers, DOD, and contractors through all the checklists, training sessions and equipment collection in less than 7 days. Again, while it was technically known as the CONUS Replacement Center, the CRC… it’s more commonly referred to as The Church. That’s partly because of its acronym and partly because it is physically located where Harmony Church used to be. Most of us were at The Church from 3-7 days before shipping over.
 Anyway, we went through a lot of reminders about the conditions with both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. They reiterated the IED threat, particularly with the increase in suicide bombers. There were lectures on bombs and kinds of bombs and pictures of bombings and sounds of bombings and even randomly blowing up stuff (without warning) inside the lecture room just for effect… we got it: we’re gonna get bombed. Enough already.
After processing through medical, dental, legal, finance, personnel, etc., we got duffels and armor and weapons and chemical warfare suits. This lovely exercise was known as Rapid Field Issue. I assure you there was nothing rapid about it. At one point there was a 45-minute lunch break, so they just shut down and let us stand there with half full duffels (and, no, we did not get lunch).
Next we did the usual marches. We marched to training; we marched through lanes rigged with booby traps; we marched to chow; and we marched to the range. I swore I was gonna leave there with frostbite. On the plus side, they instituted a new policy that was a lot of fun – all health care providers got issued red dog tags. That translated: we got out of doing a lot of training – the others spent 5 hours in CPR training (that we obviously already had in our civilian jobs) while we got to do laundry, call home and pick up extra Benadryl for the 15-17 hours of flying we were in for to get to Iraq. Then we qualified with our weapons – I got sharpshooter :~ . I’m pretty sure the lady next to me had a drill sergeant shooting her targets for her behind her back. We had to get everybody deployed somehow. They gave us a brief on security, the Geneva Convention (which no one honors in guerrilla warfare) and the flight we were about to board… and then it was time for final preparations.
First, there was the packing. Let me just say, some of those duffel bags had to be wrestled into submission – no seriously. You have to work ‘em step by step: get one corner closed; lecture it a bit; then you left it. When you felt it had been long enough, you returned to see if it had learned its lesson. If you could get the crossways closed, you succeeded. If not, you enlisted your weight, your will, your roommates, your fellow deployees and even total strangers. Everyone pitched in to sit on, shake, pound on, stretch, pull and push until by the power of the Great Lord above, we got that damned duffel tamed into submission: locked and loaded. Whatever wasn’t in there by then, wasn’t goin’ – and the search team better not even dream of opening that thing!
This began the “giving phase” – shirts, boots, uniforms – you name it were graciously donated to whomever needed/wanted ‘em. The next morning began the “cleansing phase” which sounds like: “I think this shirt is a li’l worn thin, dirty beyond cleansing…” garbage; “I don’t really need all these socks…” accidentally left in the barrack drying machine; “I bet I can round up notebooks and envelopes somewhere along the way…” casually left under a cot in the bunker; and “I’ve already read this book twice while waiting in the never ending lines….” dropped off in common room.
 After that we went on lockdown, got moved to Lawson Airfield, were searched by dawgs (can’t get the UGA out of me), and were fed our last American meal (for awhile). Then the Chaplain prayed over us, and we boarded that big ol’ DC10. The touching but eerie part came next: all the airmen on the ground stopped what they were doin’ and saluted us as we taxied and took off for Kuwait. It’s an honorable tradition, but sends chills up your spine – not the good kind. It was more real and inevitable than ever at that point.
We had to stop in Bangor, Maine to refuel which allowed us to stretch our legs and wander around a special section of their airport. Let me tell you – those people love their military. Men and women – some Veterans, some civilians – shook our hands one-by-one as we exited the plane and cheered us off as we left. There were also the Freeport Flag Ladies. They offered coins, prayers, food, coffee – love and appreciation, really. They even let me play with legos to distract me :~). It was a bright spot in the midst of a bleary journey.
Finally, we made it to Kuwait and went through the long line of checking in and finding our bunks. However, my stay in Kuwait (usually 3-5 days) was shortened considerably. As soon as we landed, our LNO informed two of us that we’d be leaving for Iraq almost immediately. My comrade and I no sooner landed and transferred bags in Kuwait before we were reloaded, sent back to Ali Al Salem and flown into Camp falling in on the 915th FST (Forward Surgical Team).
And thus began my second tour in Iraq.