Who’saGoodDog, Carmen!?!

Who’saGoodDog, Carmen!?!

My name is Carmen. I’m about 44 years old now, and in my prime. I’m in a small Pack with a total of three members and it is the only life I’ve ever known.

My early memories of the pack included another member called Miles. He left us in my first year or two. Since then, it’s just the three of us, and I have to say, we are a tight little group, and do almost everything together. It’s a bit odd because there are two Leaders of the Pack and I’m the only junior member, but it works out pretty well. The Pack Leaders, Max and Cathy, sometimes argue about who is in charge of the Pack, but not often.

Carmen, also known as The Carmenator, Carmenita and Tammy Faye….

The Pack also has some minor associates, who don’t live in the house with us. They live in the barn. This includes the two cats, Stan and Ollie, who I tolerate. For cats, they are OK. Stan rubs up against my legs sometimes and I let him. I mean, it doesn’t make me a cat or anything. Ollie, on the other hand, always seems a bit cautious around me and keeps an eye on me. For fun, I occasionally chase him. I suppose it doesn’t improve our relationship, but I think it’s a cool thing to do. And, I don’t do it all the time. Just often enough to keep him on his toes.

The other two associate members of our pack are these big things called horses. One is Stella and the other is Katie. Generally, I don’t bother them, and they don’t bother me. Pack Leader Cathy yelled at me a couple of times for chasing the horses, so I don’t usually do it. I’m glad she doesn’t really yell at me for occasionally chasing Ollie.

Sometimes there are interlopers in the barn. I hate the interlopers, and I think part of my job is to keep them away. If I ever see the fat cat Cathy calls “Mama Cat”, or the black cat with no name, I bark and jump around, and let them know if I could get close to them, I’d rip ‘em a new one. So far, they are tricky enough to only sit in the rafters or on the hay where I can’t reach them. I check every morning and every night to see if they are sneaking around the barn. One of these days…

I don’t know many other dogs around the farm. There was a dog down the road named Jake and I loved ol’ Jakey. It’s almost like he was my boyfriend. When Pack Leader Max and I would go for a walk, Jake was always in his yard and I would run up and bark “Hi”. We had plenty of fun playing together. I think he left us a few months ago, as I haven’t seen him lately. His sister Jill is still around, but she doesn’t say hi very often.

Jake

When we go for a walk, we also often stop at a house where the little boy, Jameson, lives. Jameson is only a bit taller than I am, and he owns a frisbee. When I come by, if he is in the yard, we play frisbee together. He’s a pretty good frisbee thrower, and I’m a pretty good catcher, if I do say so myself. Sometimes when we walk by, Jameson isn’t outside, but I know where he keeps the frisbee on his porch. I run up on the porch and grab it and then race around the yard to see if Jameson will come out and play.

Every once in a while, we go on vacation to this place the Leaders call “The Bayhouse”. I love the Bayhouse because I have lots of dog buddies there to play with. I see Nike every day in his yard, and usually see Angus too. When Max and I go for a walk, I also visit with Fred and Gus. It’s fun running around playing with each of them, but by the time I do that AND go for a walk, I’m dog-tired and it’s time for a nap.

Clockwise, from upper left: Nike, Angus, Gus and Fred.

The other great thing at the Bay is the people all like dogs. A man named Vinnie lives in the house next door to us. When I see Vinnie, I immediately race up to him, and he pets me and rubs my back, all the while saying “Who’saGoodDog?! Who’saGoodDog?! Who’saGoodDog Carmen!?!” I of course squiggle all over and say “Me! Me! Me!” Then he goes in his house and brings out a treat. Another man down the street, Kirk, does the same thing. I even know where the treats are in Kirk’s house and if he leaves the door open when he goes inside to get me one, I run in with him to show him where the treat jar is, just in case he forgets.

I have to confess: most times when I return to the farm from the Bayhouse, I have a bit of a Play-Hangover and it takes me a day to recover. My Leaders don’t seem to mind. In the winter, it’s particularly good. When we arrive home from the Bay, the Leaders light a fire in the wood stove, and we all just hang out and doze. Let me tell you, that’s a great life for a dog, lying by the fire, while your Leader snoozes on the couch.

Nike and Carmen after tiring each other out

At the Bay, other than barking at strange dogs walking by, I don’t have many jobs. Back home on the Farm, I have several. My main job is the Security of the farm. I’ve already mentioned about keeping the barn free of interlopers. Also, if somebody drives a car down the driveway, I immediately start barking so the leaders know they are outside. They are usually good people, but you never know when you first hear them coming.

Every afternoon, I supervise Pack Leader Cathy taking the horse manure to the back field. She drives the Gator and I ride shotgun. After she dumps the manure, she drives around the back field and I chase her. She calls it exercise for me, but I know we are really checking for Geese in the back field. They are always strutting around, honking and pooping everywhere. If I see any of those varmints, I immediately chase them like a bat-out-of-hell, until they fly off the property. Sometimes I roll in their poop, thinking it will help disguise me. It never works.

Late at night, when it’s dark and Pack Leader Max takes me out for my last potty, the first thing I do is race to the barn, barking with my big girl voice the whole time. There are lots of sneaky animals who might try and attack us, so I want all of them to know I’m on guard. When I use my big girl bark, I sound quite ferocious, and even bigger than I actually am. I’m pretty proud of my bark.

I also keep deer and geese away from the paddock nearest the house. Did I mention I particularly hate geese? They are quite a nuisance.

I have one or two other small jobs, although the Leaders don’t seem to appreciate them quite as much. First off, when we drive to town in winter, and a Pack Leader goes into a store, I always jump in their seat to keep it warm. When the Leader comes out of the store, you’d think they would reward me for this. Instead, they just tell me to go to the back of the car, as if I really hadn’t done anything special for them. My other job is in the morning. Sometimes Leader Max tries to sleep in, rather than go to the barn and feed the horses. If it starts to get too late, I whine by the bed so he knows it’s time to feed the horses. He may think it’s because I want to go out, and he grumbles at me, but it’s really to make sure he takes care of the horses on time. Also, Pack Leader Max doesn’t feed me until after he feeds the horses. The horses get fed. Then, the cats get fed. Then I get fed. You can see my predicament.

That mostly sums up my life. I’m about 44 years old now, and in my prime. I think I have it pretty good and am happy to be a member of this Pack. Way back in the year 1609, some guy named Shakespeare said every “dog will have his day.” I think every day is my day, and I try to live them all to the fullest.

Addendum:

• Both Miles and Jake have crossed the Rainbow bridge.

• The actual quote from Shakespeare is near the end of Act 5 in “Hamlet”. It is: “Hear you, sir; What is the reason that you use me thus? I lov’d you ever: but it is no matter; Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”

• Special thanks to Janet Ferri, Veronica Lindemon, Susan Crawford, Christine Brennan and Trish Hanzsche for pictures of their wonderful dogs!

Opening Day

Opening Day

Opening Day didn’t happen. Not in Washington DC. Not for the Nats. I should be freezing my bum off right now, while Mad Max is getting ready to throw out the first pitch. We would have just seen them raise the 2019 World Series Banner, and then settled in for live baseball. The last live Game I saw? Seventeen months ago – it was Game 3 of the World Series.

And now? Three Nats have tested positive for Covid, and the same may be true for a fourth. Opening Day, today, was cancelled. “Out of an abundance of caution”, we also already know that the game will not be played tomorrow, on a day that is traditionally kept open for Opening Day weather mishaps.

Will it be Saturday? Sunday? We don’t know. And, since tickets for those games are already sold to others, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to go. With only 5,000 tickets per game right now, things are tight.

Postponing the game was the right thing to do. Covid is still with us and we all need to practice caution. It’s important to keep a long view.

I am interested in finding out who on the Nats first tested positive for Covid this go round. Was it just something unlucky happening to him, or did he do something risky or stupid?

Baseball has opened elsewhere. They are playing across the country. Hell, the Cubs have already lost their opening game to the Pirates 5-3. Miguel Cabrera has already hit a Home Run and it was in a snowstorm in Detroit! Baseball in front of live fans is back.

The Nats season will happen, as will games with fans in the stands. I’ll be at the Park soon, one way or another and that’s good. I also know that in the big scheme of things, this is small potatoes. Having said that, for tonight, I admit I’m a bit disappointed.

Spring, Covid, The Nats and Renewal

Spring, Covid, The Nats and Renewal

I’m not going to lie. This Spring, I feel how a bear must feel coming out of hibernation – A bit groggy, and damned hungry. Yes, I’m hungry, hungry for life. While spring is always a time of hope and renewal, this year I’m optimistic about life for a couple of other reasons as well: covid vaccines are happening, and the Nats are going to play baseball in front of live fans again.

Cathy and I have our vaccines now. As of today, two weeks have passed since her second Pfizer shot, so we are both good to go. Although 47+ million Americans are now fully vaccinated, that is actually only about 15% of the US population. Biden declared a goal of 200 million vaccinations by the end of his first 100 days and I think we will make it. You can see the momentum building in the vaccination programs and soon everyone who wants a shot will be able to get one. America is opening up again, slowly, but surely.

I feel doubly lucky right now – My buddy Bill has been a Nats season ticket holder since they returned to DC in 2005, and as a result, he was able to buy 4 of the Covid-limited 5,000 tickets available for opening day (in a 41,500 seat ballpark). Have I mentioned Bill is one of my favorite people in the whole world? I’ll be one of the 5,000 fans attending Opening Day. I should also mention that our group of four are all vaccinated.

Opening Day is on April 1st against the Mets! It’s on my Calendar.

Seeing baseball in the park, with a beer and a brat in my hands, yea, I’m ready for that. After losing live baseball for the entire 2020 season due to Covid, I’m almost giddy about going to Opening Day. Hopefully the Nats win, but for right now, I’m just happy to see a baseball game in person. I can’t wait for the roar of the crowd, as the announcer calls “Play Ball!

It’s the simple things. The other evening, we went out to dinner with our neighbors. Mike drove the four of us. In his convertible. With the top down. We dined at Field and Main in a cabana with the doors open, letting the evening breeze gently blow in. It was a wonderful night with good friends. It was the kind of night we all took for granted a couple of years ago. Now? It’s silly, but I know I’m going to remember that dinner for a long time.

While I can’t speak for other people, or other locations, here in Virginia, the feeling of renewal is visceral. It’s grown warm, flowers are in bloom, trees are budding out and it’s staying light longer. The Daffodils are everywhere. These things happen every year in the spring, but this year, I’m noticing them more. From comments I’m hearing, others are as well.

The Daffy’s are Everywhere this Spring and seem Especially Bright.

Maybe one of the good things that will come out of this past “Year of Covid” is a renewed appreciation for the little things in life. The things we all took for granted for so long. Whether seeing blooming flowers, attending a baseball game, or having a nice dinner out with friends on a spring evening, I hope I can keep this feeling of renewal alive for awhile. If no where else, I’ll at least keep it in my heart.

Addendum:

Writing this addendum update on the afternoon of April 1st, Opening Day. Silly me. I forgot this was still the year of Covid and today is April Fool’s Day. A Nats player was Covid Positive. Four other players were in proximity and are also in quarantine. The Nats Opening Day has been postponed… for at least two days. It won’t be today, and it won’t be tomorrow (“Out of an abundance of caution”). —sigh— Cathy is laughing at me and saying I’m acting pretty pitiful right now…. ;-).

This too shall pass and is but a small bump on the journey. The arrival of spring, and our overall renewal is inevitable.

Moules, Pernod and the Brussels Seafood Market

Moules, Pernod and the Brussels Seafood Market

The other evening, Cathy and I made some Mussels Pastis (Mussels with Pernod) at home. It was delicious. It was a new recipe with plenty of Pernod in it, which made it quite good and strongly flavored. The strong flavor caused me to reminisce about Brussels, Belgium and an early morning trip to the seafood market there.

Mussels Pastis – the Wonderful Dish that Brought Back the Memory

It was early in 1988. Although stationed in Germany, I was spending chunks of time in Mons, Belgium. We were upgrading the communications systems at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE), also known as the Headquarters for NATO. My boss, Rich, was there almost full time, while I was dividing time between Germany, Mons, and another HQ in High Wycomb, England.

When in Mons, if there over the weekend, we often made a day trip to Brussels, which was only about an hour away. The city has a great history to it, and it was fun to see the sites, including the Grand Canal, and the famous Manneken Pis, which is only about two feet high. There was also of course the famous (infamous?) Red Light District of Brussels, with women on display in storefronts. I suppose it gave a whole different meaning to the term window shopping.

What we really enjoyed was wandering the Rue des Bouchers in the Quays District in the early evening. Here, there were numerous restaurants with outdoor seating, and they also set up temporary wooden “bars” where you could buy a drink, or something lite to eat. We’d walk from place to place having a Belgian beer or French wine, along with some oysters, mussels or shrimp croquettes. Several of the places also served frites (french fries) to die for. Usually, we never sat down at a table for dinner – we’d fill ourselves at the little bars as we ambled along.

Rue des Bouchers

The mussels (Moules) were particularly awesome, and I think Brussels is where I really developed a taste for them. There were soooo many ways they served them: Moules Frites (mussels with those famous Belgian fries), Moules Marinière (mussels in a white wine sauce), Moules à la crème (mussels in a cream sauce) and Moules Pastis (mussels with a Pastis, such as Pernod the anise flavored spirit) were probably the main ones we ate.

There was one place we went to a couple of times and came to know the guy working the “bar”. We were talking with him about seafood one night, and how good and fresh it was in Brussels. We asked where was a good place to buy fresh seafood, if we wanted to take some back to Germany with us. He told us our best chance was at the wholesale seafood market that ran every day from 5AM to about 10AM, but you needed to arrive early, as the vendors ran out of their prime seafood early. The other catch was, it was a wholesale market, so you had to find fishmongers willing to sell in smaller amounts to individuals. Rich, our coworker Steve, and I talked about it and decided we’d try and take a haul of seafood back to Germany when we could.

The next time I went to Mons, I took our cooler and stopped by Rich’s house to pick up his. About a week later, we were finishing up the current portion of the project and all of us were returning home. We made the plan to pick up the seafood early on a Thursday morning, and have a big seafood dinner/party on Friday night, at Rich’s home.

Allowing ourselves plenty of time, we woke about 2:30AM and were on the road by 3:15. We arrived in Brussels an hour later, but the seafood market wouldn’t open until 5. We locates an open bistro and went in, where we joined some late night partiers, ending their evening; a few men having breakfast before going to work; and several “Ladies of the Night” who were apparently finished for the night and having coffees and brandy. We sat at an open table and ordered some coffee and fresh croissants.

Just after 5AM, we left the pub and walked over to the market. It was huge, and already quite crowded. We wandered among the stalls and trucks for a while looking to see what was available. To be honest, there were so many choices, it was a bit overwhelming. We started talking to a couple of vendors, however when they found out the small amounts (by wholesale standards) we wanted to buy, they quickly ignored us. Eventually, we found a guy willing to deal with us, and we bought everything from him – a couple kinds of fish, some lobster, and of course, plenty of oysters and mussels. Someone went back to our car for the coolers and we loaded them up. The guy was nice enough to put plenty of ice in the coolers as well.

At the Market

We arrived back at our hotel in Mons around 7:30AM and caught a couple hours of sleep, before driving back to Germany later that day. You have to remember this was pre-Internet and pre-cell phone, so it wasn’t until we returned, when we started calling people for the seafood dinner planned for the next night.

Friday night came and we all met at Rich’s house. In addition to Rich and his girlfriend Lynn, there were Cath and I, Steve and his wife Sabine, a few coworkers and Rich’s boss, Ray Sauer and his wife. It was quite the event, with grilled fish and lobster, Moules Pastis, oysters on the half shell, and fried oysters. We washed it all down with plenty of good German Pils, and some of our local dry white wines. A bottle of Sambuca, along with multiple cups of espresso may have made appearances later in the evening as well.

I hadn’t thought about that market trip, or the subsequent party for years. The Mussels with Pernod meal Cathy and I cooked, brought the memory flooding back. For me, good food has never been just about the taste of the food itself. It has always been defined as much by the place and time, and those who we are sharing the meal with. Our taste buds learn to recognize sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Our minds and memories complete and complement our sense of taste. If you are lucky, years later out of nowhere, the taste of a new meal suddenly blesses you with a remembrance from your past.

For me, Good Food is Never Just About Taste

Addendum:

• Cathy and I had another memory from late ‘88 or early ‘89. I was back in Brussels to present a paper at a conference, and Cathy came with me. We were staying at a nice hotel downtown. We went out for a dinner at a nearby bistro and had Moules Frites. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small bar for a nightcap. While having our drink, several “Working Girls” came in and sat at another table. They ordered wine and champagne, seemed to be enjoying themselves and were in a good mood. As it was earlier in the evening, we speculated they might be on break, or getting ready to go work.

• Pastis is an anise-flavored spirit and apéritif traditionally from France. Two of the best known are Pernod and Ricard. If you are looking for a substitute, Ouzo, Sambuca, Herbsaint and Absinthe are other anise flavored liquors, all with different flavor profiles.

• We’ve made Moules with Pernod at home before, but I never had the same flashback. The previous recipe only had a bit of Pernod in it. This one used a full half of a cup. I think it was the stronger flavor that triggered the memory. The recipe is from a wonderful little cookbook we have called “Cuisine of the Sun”, by François de Mélogue. I like the recipe just the way it is, but if not familiar with Pernod, you may want to cut it just a bit. Here’s a copy of the recipe:

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Mrs Ahrens – Den 1 and Pack 50

Mrs Ahrens – Den 1 and Pack 50

Another part of my childhood is gone forever. Mrs Lois Ahrens, my Cub Scout Den Mother from 1963-65, passed away on March 14th at the age of 92. On hearing the news, I was transported back in time to the joy of Tuesday afternoons, and Den meetings in her home. I also thought about the lessons we learned.

Mrs Ahrens, our Den Mother for Den 1

On Tuesday afternoons, the teachers at McKinley School in Ottawa, Illinois had conferences and as a result, we kids were released early. At eight years old, for me and many of my buddies, that meant heading to a Cub Scout Den meeting. I was a member of Pack 50 and belonged to Den 1, under Mrs Ahrens.

Those meetings are mostly a blur now, but I do have a few distinct memories. Many of the meetings were in her basement, where we engaged in some sort of craft project – maybe making a birdhouse out of popsicle sticks, or something similar. I also remember “field trips” to places of interest around town. At various times we were led on tours of the local newspaper, “The Daily Republican Times”, and a local bread bakery. I think there was also a trip to the grave of WD Boyce, the founder of the Boy Scouts. He is buried in Ottawa.

Den 1 of Pack 50 in 1964. Top row: Kenny Ahrens, Terry Johnson, Max Hall, and Dave Engel. Bottom row: Brian Eastman, Dion Sartorio, Pat Hale and Joey McGinnis.

We also had early teachings about honesty, doing our best and being prepared. I don’t suppose we thought of them as lessons at the time, but they helped lay a foundation for my life. We didn’t know what mentors were then, but looking back, that’s what Mrs Ahrens was, and a very good one at that.

Eventually, I moved on from Cub Scouts to Webelos, and then Boy Scouts. Mrs Ahrens and her family moved away from Ottawa a few years later, but I never forgot her, or the lessons she imparted to us. After fifty-some years, I still remember her, and the fun times we had in Den 1. The flood of good memories have somewhat offset the sadness I felt, upon learning of her death.

Those days were long ago, and now with her passing, the Scout Leaders of my youth are all gone. Not only Mrs Ahrens, but Harry Mayberry, our Pack 50 leader, Harry Nangle the local Police Chief and our Webelos leader, and Don Willy and Farrell Brooks, my Boy Scout Leaders. Collectively, they formed a part of who Max Hall became as an adult – an important part. I remember all of their names and the impact they had on me as a child and young man. I’m lucky to have known them, and had them in my life.

Mrs Ahren’s obituary stated in part:

  • “ Lois Rita Ahrens, affectionately known by all as ‘Honey’, born January 13. 1929, was called home to our Heavenly Father … on March 14, 2021… Honey, who was a wonderful and caring mother, grandmother and great grandmother and as sweet and kind as her nick-name suggests, leaves behind many family members and friends who will long remember her heartwarming smile, contagious good will, and joyful laughter … In lieu of sending flowers, the family invites you to honor Honey’s life by sharing a laugh and smile with a friend, hugging those you love, and remembering all the lives so tragically effected by the pandemic.”

I do remember her smile, good will, and laughter. You may not have known Mrs Ahrens, but I’m sure many of you knew someone like her, whether in Cub Scouts, Brownies, or another youth group. I ask you to join me in honoring their memories “by sharing a laugh and smile with a friend, and hugging those you love…” I think she, and they, deserve that much.

Addendum:

• Mr Ken Ahrens, Lois’s husband, was my Little League coach a couple of years later. Our team, The Yanks, won the City Championship under him in the summer of 1966 or ‘67. His son, Kenny, seen in the group picture above, was one of our pitchers and had a helluva pitching arm…

• Thanks as always to Tim Stouffer, Howard Johnson and Mark Dunavan for their thoughts and inputs to this blog. Tim and Howard were both four months younger than I, and as a result, they didn’t join Cub Scouts until four months later. They were both in Den 2, under Mrs Stouffer, but remember Mrs Ahrens as well. Mark went to a different grade school, but had memories of trying to hit pitches by Kenny Ahrens in Little League Baseball…. 😉

• The Boy Scouts played a big part in my youth. Here’s a Blog I did about Farrell Brooks and Don Willy, our Scoutmasters at the time. They were both important men in my life: https://mnhallblog.wordpress.com/2019/07/11/farrell-and-don/

Soups, Stews and The Winter Of Our Discontent

Soups, Stews and The Winter Of Our Discontent

This winter sucked. We didn’t have much snow, but the three ice storms we did have, made travel treacherous, even if just walking to the barn. Of course, I’m not only talking about the weather.

A Long Cold Lonely Winter …

Covid and Covid isolation continued to hold sway over most of us. Then, as the vaccine became available, we were all scrambling to find some way, any way, to receive a shot. They even had a name for us: We were Vaccine Hunters. The slow pace of the rollout was maddening.

We also had that failed, inept insurrection thing back on January 6th. THAT didn’t cheer anybody up. In fact, it made many of us despair for our country.

To top it all off, we have several good friends dealing with serious health challenges. Some, with life and death health issues.

All of these matters combined to cast a pall over this winter. There was a hint of melancholy, at least at our house. The Winter of our Discontent, indeed.

Whether the opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III, or the title of the 1961 John Steinbeck book, the words “The Winter of our Discontent” aren’t promising. Neither the play, nor the book are particularly cheery. Richard III is of course filled with political and familial intrigue, death and murder, while Steinbeck’s book “The Winter of our Discontent”, examined moral decline in America. Both have more than a little in common with this past winter.

So, how do you fight against a winter of discontent? It could have been all too easy to just try and survive – stay cooped up, become cheerless, and drink too much.

One of the ways we fought it was with Comfort Food. And more specifically, comfort food in the form of soups and stews.

We made and ate more stews and soups than usual this past winter. Actually, I think we had them a couple times a week all season long. Several were old favorites. Others, we made for the first time, and some of those quickly became new favorites. We warmed ourselves with our meals, as much as with the wood stove in the family room. Here’s a list of the assortment we had:

Those soups and stews provided comfort in many ways. Certainly there was the warmth they gave in the bowl and the simplicity of eating a one pot meal. There was also the ritual and pleasure of making them. For me, that brought a bit of relaxation. A few hours in the kitchen, surrounded by the wonderful smells from the simmering pot, along with the warmth of the stove itself, is not a bad way to spend a cold day. I also think their bursts of flavor and color countered the grayness of the season. They furnished a bit of light in the darkness of midwinter, if you will.

Winter Warmth, Clockwise from upper left – Cuban Black Bean Soup, Butternut Squash Soup, Cauliflower Soup with Rosemary Croutons, Split Pea Soup with Ham, Beef Stew with Cognac and Mustard, and NightCrawler’s Chili

This winter, like all winters, will end. Saturday, March 20th, is the first official day of spring. Although I know we still have some cold, and possibly snowy, days ahead of us, the weather is already turning. Additionally, Cathy and I have both received our Covid shots, and it appears the distribution floodgates are finally opening for all who want the vaccine. Soon, we will all get there.

Among our friends with health issues, some have improved, and others are holding their own. They too are getting Covid vaccines and we hope to see them soon. Unfortunately, two classmates, one from West Point, and one from high school did pass away. We are “at that age” now, where death happens more frequently, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

I’m sure we will have a few more warming winter soups and stews over the next several weeks. And while I’m happy for the sustenance they provided over the past four or five months, my mind is already turning to lighter dishes and meals. The days are growing longer and are not so dark. This winter of our discontent is ending. Spring, and the promise of renewal beckon and I am ready to embrace them. In the immortal words of George Harrison:

Addendum:

– Cathy and I had the good fortune to see the play several years ago at the Shakespeare Theatre here in DC. As with many Shakespeare tragedies, there was plenty of death, murder, political mayhem and family intrigue. If you get a chance to see it, I hope you do so.

The Winter of Our Discontent was John Steinbeck’s last novel, and published in 1961. He borrowed the title from Shakespeare. It too tells the story of a family, with themes concerning the effects of social pressure, deceit, lying, corruption and death. Steinbeck stated that he wrote the novel to “address the moral degeneration of American Culture during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Friendliest Strangers

The Friendliest Strangers

The friendliest strangers Cathy and I ever met were at a pub in the town of Blarney. It was during a long night on a short trip to Ireland in January of 1981. We had spent the day driving around County Cork, finishing up in Blarney, where we dutifully toured the castle and kissed the Blarney Stone.

Cathy kissing the Blarney Stone. Yes, that’s how you do it. Upside down, and backwards.

Afterwards, we found a B&B to stay in and then adjourned to a local pub for a drink or two before dinner. It was probably about 4PM when we entered and we were the only ones there. We sat at a small table and I went to the bar to order myself a Murphy’s Stout and Cathy an Irish coffee. It was a raw day, and after the chill of the castle, it was good to be inside and warming up.

Often times, I think the nondescript pubs and bars are the best ones.

A bit of time passed and as we were finishing up our drinks, a man came in, nodded in our direction and went to the bar where he ordered a stout. As he was sipping his pint, he turned towards us and said,

Would you be American?”

I answered “yes”.

Ah then, could I buy you a drink?”

Not wanting to turn down his hospitality we said yes, and joined him at the bar where he introduced himself as Conor. When Cathy ordered an Irish Coffee, he informed her he’d buy her a real drink, but not a made up one. We all laughed and she ordered a pint as well. We toasted and then talked about this and that.

A bit later, another man came in and joined us at the bar. Cath and I introduced ourselves to him. He then said,“Would you be American? Could I buy you a drink?” Of course we accepted. A bit later, a couple more guys came in, joined our group and the same thing happened. Our money was literally no good. As we drank another round, the pub started filling up.

By now it was about 7:30 at night and we still hadn’t eaten. We asked the bartender about dinner, but it turned out they didn’t serve food. At that point Conor recommended the pub across the street for dinner. We thanked him and told the group we’d be back in a bit. They laughed, said it was good to meet us, and it was plain they thought we probably wouldn’t return.

We crossed the street and entered the other pub. There was a wedding reception going on in the main room, so we slipped into the smaller adjacent bar and sat at a table. The bartender took our order for food and we both ordered some water. As we were waiting, an older man came in from the main room to talk with the bartender and then saw us and came over to say hello. We started talking and it turned out he was the father of the bride. He suddenly said “Ahhh, you’d be American. Would you like to join us at the reception? There’ll be dancing later”. We thanked him, and although he was insistent, we declined several times and said we needed to rejoin our friends back at the other bar. He bought a round of drinks for the three of us, and we proceeded to toast the bride and groom. As our food arrived, he said goodbye, and went back to the reception.

After finishing dinner, we paid and said good night to the bartender. Now, the smart thing to do at this point, would have been to return to our B&B, maybe have a whiskey with our hosts, and turn in. Instead, we proceeded back across the street, for just “one final beer” with our new old friends.

It had grown crowded in our absence. As we looked around, Conor called out and waved to us. We worked our way through the crowd and rejoined “our group” on the far side of the bar. Someone we hadn’t met before immediately bought us another beer. And so it continued for a couple more hours … “Ahhh, you’d be American. Can I buy you a drink?” Finally, around 10PM, I bought a round for about half the pub I think. There were cheers all around. I looked at the clock a bit later and it was 10:40. I thought to myself “OK, just make it to 11PM. The pub will close, and we can make our way home to the B&B.” (at the time, pubs closed at 11PM in Ireland. Nowadays, it’s 1130PM on weekdays, although Covid has currently shortened the hours.)

11PM came… and … they closed the shutters on the windows, locked the door… and … everyone kept on partying! Oh lord …

A little after midnight, the pub started emptying and we knew it was time to go. We said goodbye to Conor and our other new friends, with many handshakes, backslaps and hugs all around. Finally, we departed and made our way to the B&B.

At the B&B, we found the owner had put two rubber hot water bottles under our blankets at the foot of the bed. It was a toasty night’s sleep in more ways than one.

The next day, I felt way better than I had a right to. I suppose the hearty Irish breakfast helped. As we ate breakfast and drank our coffee, Cathy and I talked and laughed about the night before and what a great time we had. It’s amazing how quickly you can sometimes make friends when traveling. You start the night as strangers, and by the end, you are friends of sorts. Not life long buddies, but friends nonetheless. Over time, it’s certainly happened for us in other locales, and with other people, but that night in Blarney? I dunno. Maybe we gained the gift of gab from kissing the Stone, and maybe not. I do know it’s a night I’ve never forgotten.

Addendum:

That 1981 vacation was about ten days long. We spent the first five or six days in England, including New Year’s Eve at Trafalgar Square (London’s equivalent of Time Square for NY Eve at the time). We then spent five days in Ireland, including Dublin, and driving along the south coast past Waterford, eventually arriving in County Cork. Here’s a picture of Cathy along the Coast – I’m not sure why, but I really like this candid photo of her. She was 25 years old at the time.

⁃ In researching a couple of items for this blog, I found out pub lock-ins evidently happen more than you might think. Here’s an article about them: https://www.afar.com/magazine/the-late-night-secret-irelands-pubs-dont-want-you-to-know-about

– Happy Saint Paddy’s Day next week. Everyone is Irish on the 17th…

Nightcrawler’s Chili

Nightcrawler’s Chili

The making of chili isn’t to be entered into lightly. Yea, anyone can open up a can of Hormel, or throw a a couple of beans and meats together, or add a bunch of hot and spicy sh!t in with some burger. Burning the roof of your mouth off is for amateurs. The real way to make a chili? It’s a combination of ingredients, time, love, and a sense of taste. Not taste itself, but a “sense of taste”. With that in mind, here is, in my opinion, a recipe for the world’s best chili.

Cathy recently wrote her recipe down as a contribution for a Chili Cook-Off our running group, MVH3*, has every year. The Cook-Off is in memory of a a member, Fernando (aka PoopDeck), who passed away from cancer nine years ago. He started the MVH3 Chili Cook-off fifteen years ago, and it continues to this day. Due to Covid, this year’s Cook-off was held virtually and included an online published cookbook. Here’s Cathy’s, (aka Nightcrawler’s) recipe….

Nightcrawler at Work

Nightcrawler’s Tasty Chili

1. Grab an onion and dice it, put it in a frying pan with a little olive oil and sauté it.

2. Add a pound of hamburger and a pound of ground sausage. Buy your ‘burger from the local grocery story, but drive to Roy’s Market in Sperryville, VA for their homemade spicy breakfast sausage. While in Sperryville, stop at Pen Druid Brewery for a couple of beers. If time permits, also stop for a pint at Hopkins Ordinary Bed and Breakfast Aleworks. If you have had too much beer, inquire at Hopkins Ordinary if they have any rooms available for the night.

3. Add diced Jalapeños, bell peppers and Serranos to taste. Hopefully you have saved peppers that you grew in your garden last summer in the freezer. Since you probably didn’t mark the freezer bags with what is in each, grab the ones that, by looking at the unmarked bags, you know are the hottest.

4. If you have been frying all this stuff in a skillet because you weren’t thinking ahead, pull out your big pot and put it on the stove next to the skillet. Empty the skillet of onion, burger, sausage and peppers into your big pot.

5. Add to the pot, three 15 oz cans drained black beans. If you forgot to buy black beans, use whatever color you have and tell your husband this is a new and improved version of your already great chili.

6. Add one can of cream of mushroom soup (without adding water), one 10 oz can Rotel diced tomatoes and chilis, and one 28 oz can Cento whole peeled tomatoes undrained.

7. Add one small can spicy V-8. While doing so, remember it’s been a while since you’ve had a Bloody Mary. Go find vodka, celery salt, Worcestershire Sauce, hot sauce, pickle juice, a dash of beer, horseradish, a squeeze of lemon juice, and another can of spicy V-8 and mix over ice. Add a pickled okra. Sip, and add a bit more hot sauce to the Bloody.

8. While drinking your Bloody Mary, continue to cook.

9. If the chili seems too thick, add a bit of beef broth, or some of the leftover beer you used in your Bloody Mary.

10. Add to taste paprika, cumin, salt, pepper.

11. Add some Piri-Piri Chilli Seasoning you bought in South Africa, when traveling there with friends Magoo, Garfield and Mellow. Since you finished your Bloody Mary, open another beer and remember what a great time you had with the boys in Africa, and wonder how your liver ever survived.

12. Break out of your reverie and add your favorite hot sauce to the chili to your taste. Then add a couple more shakes, because you know your friends alway awards extra points for some heat.

13. Taste test many times while simmering for two hours. Drink another beer to enhance the cooking experience.

14. Serve yourself a small bowl of chili to “make sure it tastes OK”. Add a sprinkle of parsley or cilantro, sour cream or yogurt, or diced raw onions and some shredded cheddar cheese. ENJOY along with the beverage of your choice.

15. When your partner comes home later, and tells you how wonderful the house smells, look at him/her and laugh. Then say “Sorry this is for dinner tomorrow night. You can’t have any today”.

As with many soups and stews, if you can, resist the urge and wait a day before eating the chili you just made. It’s guaranteed to be better.

For you purists out there insisting chili has only meat and spices, with no beans or tomatoes, get over it. This is America, by God. I’ve had great chilis with only chuck or ground meat, with meat and beans, white chilis with chicken, green chilis with pork and even a vegetarian chili that was pretty tasty. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a “Tito’s Vodka Martini” drinking Texan, who insists Chili can only be made with meat, and no beans or tomatoes.

Addendum:

• * MVH3 stands for the Mount Vernon Hash House Harriers. Cath and I have been members since 1990. Our official motto (along with other Hashes around the world) is “Beer drinkers with a running problem”. Our particular Hash group has aged a bit, and probably half of us are now walking the trails, rather than running them. As to the names PoopDeck and Nightcrawler, after you’ve done several trails with the group, you earn a nickname the group thinks is suitable for you.

• Special thanks to Cathy, my wife of 42 years, for sharing her recipe. This is pretty accurate, except for all the beer drinking. I should also say Nightcrawler rarely shares her recipes, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she left some secret ingredient out of this one. As with many great cooks and their dishes, this recipe was never written down. The other thing I’ll say is she is not rigid, and her recipes always evolve. It would be interesting to taste this chili and compare it to the ones she made 40+ years ago when we were first married.

On On! …. Roto (max)

Feo Fuerte y Formal – Ugly, Strong, and Dignified

Feo Fuerte y Formal – Ugly, Strong, and Dignified

I sometimes envy those who see the world in black and white. For me, I often see shades of gray. Next week, March 2nd is the 82d anniversary of the release of the movie Stagecoach in 1939. The iconic western teamed John Wayne and director John Ford for the first time, and made Wayne a star. This milestone made me think about The Duke, and how my views of him have moderated over time.

The Duke was without a doubt one of my boyhood heroes. Watching his movies on TV, you always knew who to root for, and the “good guys” were sure to win. When we were old enough to make it to the theater itself, my buddy Howard and I never missed a Duke movie – whether The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, Big Jake, The Cowboys, or one of the other dozen or so movies he made during our youth, we always went (between 1963 and 1973, Wayne starred in 19 movies). We often memorized favorite lines from some of the movies. To this day, my friends Howard, Mark, Tim and I can recite word-for-word a memorable quote from Duke in Big Jake (“Now you understand. Anything goes wrong, anything at all – your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault – it won’t matter – I’m gonna blow your head off...”). Hell, Howard and I even wrote him letters and received autographed pictures. We didn’t do much to separate the man, from his legend and the characters he played.

John Wayne’s Response to the Letter I Sent him

It wasn’t all blind worship. In 1971, Wayne did an interview with Playboy. I can truthfully say I bought the magazine for the articles that month. Sure, the “Twelve Pages of New York Bunnies” might have been interesting, but what I was really excited about was the “Candid Interview with John Wayne”. While the interview was pretty good overall, there were also some disturbing quotes, and they have not aged well. To a 16 year old fan, they were an eye opener. I don’t think my buddy Howard and I could quite match the words with the man who purportedly said them. His comments on Blacks and Indians were offensive then, and now they come off as shocking. Candid indeed.

Yes, I did Buy this Copy of Playboy for the Interview with John Wayne, not due to the Potential Allure of “Twelve Pages of New York Bunnies

If you read any of the other magazine articles about him at the time (Look, Life, The Saturday Evening Post – I bought them all if they had an article about Duke), there wasn’t a whiff of racism. In fact they were quite the contrary and positioned him as a man of honesty and integrity. Was the Playboy interview somehow out of context? Or were the other magazines covering for him? They still presented him as complex, but without the sharpness of the Playboy interview.

John Wayne – Memoirs of a G-rated Cowboy (maybe)

Over time, as I grew into adulthood, I learned more about Duke and not all of it was flattering.

He probably starred in more “patriotic” films than anyone; however, when WWII started and the likes of Clark Gable, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart were serving overseas, The Duke stayed home (two deferments) and made more movies.

He took part in creating the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (the MPA) and was elected president in 1949. He became a strong anti-communist and a vocal supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that eventually led to the rise and influence of Senator Joe McCarthy. Wayne was an advocate for Blacklisting writers and actors who had any connection to the Communist Party, even if during their youth.

And yet…. he may have tried to enlist during WWII, but was threatened with lawsuits by Republic Pictures if he left. Over the course of his life, he raised awareness of the plight of Native Americans. His three wives were all Latina. While he made the pro-Viet Nam war movie The Green Beret, he also felt America should either be in the war to win it, or get out and cut our losses. He grew disgusted with Nixon and his “enemies list”. Although a Republican, he strongly supported Jimmy Carter in returning the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1979 by a Democratic Congress, and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Carter in 1980.

Duke was fearlessly honest in his opinions and that is certainly worth admiring. There was no hypocrisy or trying to shade things both ways. You knew where he stood. As a result, he was a polarizing figure for a long time, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong ones.

Wayne, as with much of American history itself, was complicated. Part of me wants to say you should pick your heroes from real life, not from Hollywood Heroes. But among real life people, who isn’t also flawed? Whether Thomas Jefferson and slavery, Abraham Lincoln and his comments about Blacks, or Martin Luther King JR and his multiple infidelities, we are all, after all, only human and a product of our times. We all know some flaws are greater than others, but I’m not sure I’m the one qualified to sit in judgement of anyone. I think Jesus was right in John 8:7 – “Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to cast a stone…

While I continue to enjoy the old Duke movies today, I also remember they are fiction. My buddies, Tim, Mark, Howard, and I still have discussions about them. We occasionally rate our favorite Westerns and where Duke’s work falls in those lists. They are wide and rambling conversations/arguments, including everything from Stagecoach to Blazing Saddles, and more recently, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Wayne’s The Searchers and Eastwood’s The Unforgiven are always near the top of the heap. My top two? John Wayne in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and High Noon with Gary Cooper. Both are moral tales, although for different reasons. Interestingly, The Duke couldn’t stand High Noon. He figured no real Marshall would ever act the way Gary Cooper’s character, Marshall Will Kane, did. He might also have disliked the movie because the Screenwriter was Carl Forman. Foreman had been a onetime member of the Communist Party and declined to identify fellow members to HUAC. As a result, he was labeled an “uncooperative witness” by the committee, and later Blacklisted in Hollywood. I should also mention Carl Forman did serve in the Army during WWII.

On June 11th, 1979, John Wayne died. At the time, I was stationed overseas with the Army in Germany. We were on day three of a week long exercise, and deployed near the Czech border. Word came in over an FM link from Battalion Headquarters that Wayne had died. My Platoon Sergeant, Paul Teague, and I briefly talked about the Duke, and then went back to work. We needed to redeploy our platoon to a site a few Klicks away – a Soviet attack (in the exercise) was considered imminent. There was no hero, real or fictional, who was going to give us advice or tell us what to do. As is often true in the real world, we had to solve the problem ourselves.

Addendum:

⁃ For years, John Wayne’s grave was unmarked. He wanted the phrase “Feo Fuerte y Formal”, which translates to “Ugly, Strong, and Dignified” on his tombstone. His family was afraid of people stealing things, as often happens at Hollywood gravesites and didn’t have anything marking the grave for 20 years. Eventually they did put up a marker. Here’s the quote on the gravestone: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” Wayne used the same quote in the Playboy interview in 1971 with this line added – “As a country, our yesterdays tell us that we have to win not only at war but at peace. So far, we haven’t done that.”

⁃ Thanks to my friends Tim Stouffer, Mark Dunavan and Howard Johnson for their inputs to this blog. As with almost all of our discussions, I gained new insights, thoughts, and ideas.

⁃ Also thanks to my niece, Tami Harmon, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film Studies from The Ohio State University. She provided some additional thoughts and comments about differentiating movie stars from the characters they play.

⁃ It’s worth noting that in several of his movies, John Wayne played complex characters with issues of their own. Watch The Searchers, or The Man who Shot Liberty Valance for two anti-hero heroes. If you don’t come away from those movies conflicted, you just aren’t watching. Liberty Valance has a memorable line towards the end of the movie, which also seems to apply to views of our sometime “Heroes” – “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

From Blue Blazers, to Bourbon on the Rocks

From Blue Blazers, to Bourbon on the Rocks

Since my younger days, I never cared much for Bourbon. When I started drinking at around 17, it was mostly beer, or maybe a bottle of Boones Farm Wine if we could score it. When it came to whiskey, there were always a couple of guys pushing it, but we generally stayed away from it – too drunk too quick…

And then someone introduced us to a drink called a Blue Blazer. A Blue Blazer (for us) was a shot of Southern Comfort you lit with a match, and then drank in one swallow. Howard and I had those a couple of times and thought they were great. We also introduced our friend Dale to them, and decided to have a bit of fun. Instead of one shot, we poured him two and lit it. As he tried to swallow the drink, he couldn’t get it all down and coughed up some blue globules of flame, which we all thought was pretty funny. At some point, we outgrew Blue Blazers and the hilarity of watching a friend spit flaming liquid out his mouth.

The Three Innocents, Max, Howard and Dale, along with a not so innocent Blue Blazer

I also remember trying Bourbon and Coke, or Jack and Coke (it sounded cooler) several times in high school and then later at West Point. In my memory, the bourbon we used was generally Jim Beam, although I could be wrong about that. In any case, I didn’t like it. Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, it didn’t matter. It just never tasted good and as a result, I stayed away from whiskey. I also tried a Bourbon and Ginger (Ginger ale) at some point, and it was even worse.

Years passed. I learned to enjoy brandy when we lived in Europe, but still stayed away from whiskey. If I drank whiskey at all, it was in an Irish Coffee.

In 2005, Cathy started a job at Great Meadow. For those of you living here in Virginia, you know it as the site of the Gold Cup, one of the premier Steeplechase Horse Races in the country. The Great Meadow Foundation itself is involved in many charity events, particularly related to preserving open space, and holding equestrian events. As a result, they hold several activities to attract donors or raise money through silent auctions and other means. Cathy typically worked these happenings, and occasionally asked me if I wanted to attend. I usually couldn’t go because of my job, but finally on one occasion, the fates collided and my schedule opened.

On the appointed evening, I showed up at the Great Meadow Summer House. I saw Cathy and gave her a kiss hello, and then said Hi to her boss, Leslie. After a couple minutes of chit chat, they went back to work, and I headed to the bar to order a Gin and Tonic.

As I stood in line, I noticed three older ladies in line ahead of me. I was 50 at the time, and my guess is they were all in their 70s. I recognized one of the them, Pat, and said hello. She introduced me to her two friends and the four of us started talking with each other, while waiting in line.

Finally, it was our turn to order.

Pat looked at the bartender and said “Bourbon, neat please”.

Friend One said “Manhattan up, please.”

Friend Two looked at the bottles behind the bar and said “Makers Mark on the rocks please.”

All eyes turned to me. I have to admit, I panicked a bit. In front of these three septuagenarians, there was no way I was going to say in a wimpy voice “Yes, I’ll have a Gin and Tonic please.” Glancing about, I succumbed to self induced peer pressure, deepened my voice a bit and said “Yea, um, I’ll have a Makers Mark on the rocks, please.

The bartender brought the drinks and I paid for all of us. We took our drinks and drifted over to a nearby open space to continue our conversation. When we arrived, Pat raised her glass, and said “Cheers!” We clinked, and as I raised the glass to my lips, I remember thinking, “God, Hall, what the hell were you thinking? I hope this isn’t as terrible as I remember.” And then something happened.

I took a sip, and…… what? I took a second sip. This was pretty tasty! I could learn to appreciate these! As our conversation ended a few minutes later, I wandered over by myself to contemplate why I suddenly enjoyed bourbon. As I was thinking, I ordered a second Makers Mark on the rocks. Much like the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “I puzzled and puzzled ’till my puzzler grew sore…

Suddenly, it hit me. I had probably never disliked bourbon! What I disliked was Coke. The Coke brought tooooo much sweetness to the drink. Bourbon has an inherent sweetness to it. The additional sweetness of Coke (or Ginger ale) sends it over the top, or at least it does for me.

And that’s how I began to drink bourbon. Over the years since then, I’ve tried many types of bourbon. Usually with a bit of ice, although occasionally neat. Through my friend Wayne, I’ve had the opportunity to try, and gain an appreciation for, many different bourbons, whiskeys, and whiskies, to include the Holy Grail, Pappy Van Winkle. I’ve also migrated back to bourbon mixed drinks, although I stick with the classics – an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan, occasionally a Boulevardier, or if someone else is making them, a Mint Julep.

I just don’t let a Coke bottle anywhere near my drink.

Addendum:

• In 2005, the current Bourbon Craze hadn’t really started yet. Here in Virginia, there were always bourbon drinkers, particularly among people in the horse industry.

• As a side note, I’ve noticed my last three blogs have all been drinking related. Maybe it’s Covid, maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe it’s just that I enjoy a drink (or two). In any case, I’m going to try and take it one blog at a time and get off this kick.