Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On a quiet night at LaGuardia airport....

     This story goes back about 7-8 years ago when I was working for Mrs. Smith's Bakeries selling pies and desserts to foodservice places in the Northeast U.S. and Ontario Canada.

     It was likely a Thursday or Friday evening and I was at LaGuardia headed home from a 3 day trip.  I book a lot of these, as I find them more efficient than plane hopping to different locations in the same week.  My normal pattern is to fly or drive into an area, get settled, and then to hit as many accounts and distributors as I can for the next few days.  It works well for me, but you have to be a good planner and be disciplined to keep yourself motivated and active.  I had done my time in NYC that week, and was now headed for hearth and home, but unfortunately, delayed.  This night, I think it was due to weather as a lot of folks were in the same boat as me, with hours to kill at the airport.  The more I travel, the more patient I become as it relates to these types of things.  There's no reason to stress on it, I tend to just hunker down and make the best use of the time.  I had a membership to the US Airways club at that time, which is where I was headed, when I first saw her.

     She was sitting on the floor, in a corridor of the airport, next to an electrical outlet, with her phone plugged in, and in her hand, and she was openly weeping.  She was in her 20's and had strawberry blond hair that was cut short and she was one of those healthy looking corn-fed girls from the Midwest. 

The inside of the US Airways club at LaGuardia
 Although some may argue this point, I do have a heart, and was immediately drawn to this girl to see if I could be of any assistance.  I approached her and asked her if I could help in any way, and she told me she was waiting for her phone to charge, so she could use it again, but didn't share the details of what was upsetting her, hardly a surprise, as I was a complete stranger to her.  I invited her to be my guest inside the club, around the corner from where she was sitting, but she declined.  She lowered her head again, so I proceeded to the club and checked in.  The story could have ended there easily, but as I settled in, I thought again of the girl crying on the floor, and thought that I should at least try and make her more comfortable.  I gathered up some cheese and cracker packs from the complimentary table, poured an iced water into a glass and headed back out to try and comfort the crying girl. The next ten minutes was akin to trying to coax a bird into a building using bird seed, she would hesitate, ponder, vacillate, but finally took me up on my offer to at least come into the comfortable area of the club.   I guess it is a common thing now, to be wary of strangers, but isn't it sad that we went from "A stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet" to "Every stranger you meet is a potential danger" in one generation?  We personally never taught our kids "Stranger Danger" we tried to teach them common sense, and that you can still be firm but polite to all people, but I digress....

     So we settled into the chairs and when she was relaxed, I asked her if there was anything that she wanted to talk about.  There was.  She was trying to get to her home town as she had gotten word that her mother was taken ill suddenly and was headed to the hospital.  By the time she reached the airport, her mother had been admitted, and it wasn't looking good. Her siblings were able to be there with her, but the flights back home were delayed, so she was sitting at LaGuardia, as her mother lay dying in a hospital bed, some 1100 miles away.  She had worn out the battery on her phone talking to her brother, and it needed to charge before he called with the next update.  We talked of our families, and in this case, unlike in most of my other conversations, she talked more about hers and what it was like growing up in Iowa or Kansas (that detail was lost to the ages).  While she wanted her phone to ring, you could tell she was apprehensive about the next call coming in too.  As an aside, I think, personally, it is absolutely possible to become emotionally intimate with someone that you have just met.  My wife thinks it's funny when people I barely know become my Facebook friends and I then get involved in their trials and tribulations.  I, on the other hand, never see an issue with it, as it helps to keep me caring about my fellow travelers on this planet, and maybe a little more empathetic too.  My wife just thinks I am weird.  Back on point, I was caught up in this girl's world, yet we had just met.  Then her phone rang.

     The conversation was short, but the reaction was not.  Her mother had passed, as she sat at an airport 1100 miles away.  The trip home to be with her mom, had suddenly changed to a trip home to bury her mom.  Her hands were shaking as she slowly folded her phone closed and she looked up at me, as if I could give her answers.  I wished, more than anything at that moment, that I could have, but you have to have answers to give them, and I had none.  I offered a hug, and she accepted it.  This was uncharacteristic of me, I'm not a hugger in general, but some deep seeded instinct took over and I was able to offer comfort as she sobbed for a minute as we just stood there.  My shoulder got damp with her tears, and when she was started to pull away, I released her and we sat back down, this girl who had been a perfect stranger just an hour or so before.  My eyes weren't dry either.  I got some tea for us both, and in a while she started talking again. 

     I remember reading some time ago about the stages of death, or serious illness, and in the next 45 minutes or so, I saw a lot of them firsthand.  The sadness was evident.  She then started to talk about making plans for the funeral, where her mother had wanted to be buried, but with no emotion.  I'm not sure that wasn't the denial stage, with her mind trying to keep itself occupied, while it slowly processed the information that was too painful to take in immediately.  Anger showed up, and she was angry at herself for taking a teaching job so far from her family, and then angry at God for taking her mom from her.  With so little information that her brother had been able to provide, she couldn't justify the anger she felt towards the doctors and hospital, except to say that she didn't understand how they couldn't have kept her alive for just a few more hours.  I, again, had no answers.  I did have a heart that was aching for her and her family, and a set of ears that could listen, so I continued to do just that until the announcement came that the flights were starting back up again.  I saw glimmers of acceptance before we hugged one more time, as I went off to my flight, and I arranged for her to stay in the club until hers boarded.  We did not exchange numbers, as we were destined to become strangers to one another again.  At the gate a few people gave my watery eyes a second look, but no one ventured to ask what it was that was had touched me in that way.

     I sat in the window for the hour-long flight home and instead of reading the latest paperback thriller, as I often do, I silently prayed for this girl and her family.  I prayed that they would find comfort in each other.  I prayed that the pain would ebb and be replaced with the happy memories of their mother, and that she could keep those memories intact so she could eventually share them with her children.  So many times now, it seems we lose at least the lessons that were taught to us by our mothers and fathers and yet they still have the same value in our world today. 

I prayed that God protect them from more harm like this until they were strong enough to bear it, and lastly I prayed for my own family that they stay safe and healthy for a while longer.  It was very late when I arrived home, so I woke no one, and went to bed with one last thought of that girl and her circumstance.  The next day must have started busy, as I don't think I ever shared this story with my family.  I mentioned it to my wife this week, and she normally has a much better memory than me, and she didn't recall me ever telling her the story.  This last week I found out that a close friend's mother is ill and she is facing this type of challenge now, which is likely why I thought of this particular night, now, 7 years later.  I see God's hand in things, and I wonder if he put me in that airport terminal that night to be of comfort to that girl, and maybe to teach me how to comfort someone like this, to prepare me for weeks like the one my friend is having now.  I hope I am up for the challenge.  If I could ask you all who read this to do one favor for me, it would be to say a single prayer for my anonymous friend's mother today, to ask God to comfort the family, to cure her if possible and to give them the strength and grace they will need to get through this.  You will be praying for and comforting a complete stranger, and you will be weird, just like me. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oh what a Sap I am.....

     Truth be told, I don't consider myself to be a great father.  I miss a lot of things, and I've been known to gripe about carting my kids to sports practices a time or two (in my defense there was a Quincy marathon on), and I've phoned it in on more than one occasion.  I once even spent half of an elementary school chorus concert watching the wrong kid, until my wife pointed ours out (oops, why do they have to dress alike?).  So I like to blog about the times I do spend quality time with my kids, so the historical record will be skewed to make me appear more active and to be a better parent (you have to balance the positive blogs against diary entries, social service reports and town court transcripts).  This blog is about making syrup from sap with my son Nolan last weekend....

     Nolan came home from school all excited about the idea of tapping maple trees and making his own syrup. 
Where I should have spent last weekend.....
We are fortunate in our district to currently have an alternative program for 6th graders called ECO (Environmental Classroom Opportunity).  The curriculum is the same, but with an emphasis on the outdoors. All of my kids have been lucky enough to have attended ECO, and have benefited from it.  They made canoes, learned to play steel drums, hiked and hiked, tested ponds, visited bear's dens and a whole lot more.  My wife and I are big fans of the Thoreau-like concept that taught our kids that all learning doesn't have to take place at a desk in 45 minute sessions, but I digress... needless to say, when Nolan came home with this optional project (It wasn't even assigned, he volunteered! ), slacker Dad that I am, was not excited.  I do have my moments though, so suddenly his homework, became our shared project to make maple syrup.

    Nolan had wanted to tap the trees on our property, which would have been convenient, but I knew they weren't sugar maples, so I reached out to some friend, the Eckerts.  They've got a nice property set into the woods with quite a few sugar maples on it, and they were happy to loan out their trees to us. 
Drilling the hole for the tap
We borrowed a better battery powered drill and big bit from Uncle Frank, and set off with our borrowed taps and buckets to become maple syrupers.  Nolan picked out a nice beech tree to tap when we got there, and while I don't know much, I do know what I don't know, so I asked the owner to point out the sugar maples to us, and consequently no beeches were harmed in the making of this blog.  We tapped 4 trees and the only snag was the drill bit broke on the last one. It cost $10.99 to replace (You might want to start keeping track of the costs involved here to see why real maple syrup costs so much).  We cleaned out the holes, hammered in the taps, hung our buckets and plastic bottles and we were well on our way to becoming maple syrup entrepreneurs. You have to cover the buckets so the rain and particulates don't get in the sap.  So we set our sap traps and headed off for home to wait for the amber goodness to start flowing.

     The first thing you should know about the sap, is that it isn't really amber.  It runs out and looks like water when you collect it.  I had no idea about this, but I was suddenly interested in the process of how the thin water like substance becomes thick and sugary.  I learned that it has to evaporate down to do this, and in fact the ratio is around 40:1.  Wait, 40:1?  Does that mean I have to collect 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of finished syrup? Yes it does, oh goody.
Nolan at tree # 2, tapped and ready
As luck would have it, we picked a great weekend to tap the trees, with freezing nights and warm days so the sap was running pretty well.  In doing some research I saw that you can get about 10-20 gallons per tree during a season and Nolan and I averaged about 6 gallons with just a few days of tapping. Even though we drove over and checked them often and poured the buckets into clean 5 gallon pails often, the owners still had to help out and dump the smaller containers more frequently than we were there (Thanks Eckerts!).  We probably burned $5 in gas going back and forth so much, so add that to the total.  Over the next few days, over multiple trips, we collected about 23 gallons of clear, slightly sugary sap.  We gave a little back to nature while moving it from the trees to the buckets, or by having the bottles misaligned with the taps, but I thought we did pretty well for first timers.  It was as the sap was piling up that we realized we weren't really well equipped to process it, so it was off to town to pick up the needed materials.
I was going to boil the sap off in my house or on the stove inside the Garaj-Mahal, and had planned to do just that, when it suddenly hit me that every other operation I had seen or heard of did it outside.  Sensing that there was a reason for this I made plans to evaporate the sap over a tripod burner, but I really didn't have a wide, shallow pan to do it in, so I bought one.  $30 bought me a nice wide stainless steel pan that used to be a drawer in a large refrigerator unit, but it worked perfectly.  If I had done it in the house or garage, I sense that the walls would have been sticky and sweet for a long time afterward, based on the amount of evaporation that had to take place.  Again, a lucky break for us newbies to sugaring.  It took the better part of 2 days to boil the sap down to a reasonable level.  We started it as a slow boil not realizing that you can really get it rocking at this point with little danger of burning anything.  I estimate that we used about $20 worth of propane to boil the 23 gallons down.  I worked from my office one day and placed the tripod outside of my window, so I could see the steam and run down and add more sap when needed.  This part of the process was time consuming, but not hard at all. We strained it each time we added sap to the boiler, to take out the twigs and bugs and stuff. 

     This helps to make a better syrup and is only one step in the purity process.  You try and collect just the sap, you strain it as you fill the evaporator, you skim off the foam occasionally as it boils and you filter it when it is finally syrup.  I tried to do as much of the processing as possible with Nolan present, but you have to process the sap within a day or two of collecting, so I had to do some myself.  The pan I bought had a metal clip that extended from the side where I could balance the strainer when I had to add sap myself, another lucky break for us first timers.
Final filtering of the sap/syrup

The sap took the better part of two days to boil down to the point that we weren't comfortable doing it on the burner anymore, so we moved indoors and used a teflon pot to help avoid burning.  We used coffee filters, suspended in a wire strainer to do the final filtering. I am guessing that there are better, more effective things to use than these, but in this instance, we used what we had.  As it was, we had 2 more purchases to make before this project was finished.  We didn't have an accurate, easily read thermometer, to tell when it reached the correct temperature and we didn't have anything to put the finished syrup in.  We paid $3.50 for the candy thermometer and $8.00 for a case of 8oz canning jars from the local hardware store.  The final finish took about 2 hours on the stove with us both checking it frequently.  I had trouble reading the thermometer even with my dollar store cheaters on. It kept steaming up inside the glass which made it difficult. Syrup has a boiling point that is 7 degrees above water, so you really need a good thermometer in order to be able to see the exact finishing point.

One person told me that the syrup will foam when it is finished, and if that is true, we may have over processed our syrup slightly and darkened the color unnecessarily.  The grading of maple syrup has everything to do with the clearness or translucency of the finished product; the lighter, the better.  Our first attempt resulted in a light to medium amber, but we wanted to make sure we actually made it to the syrup stage. We had to do some research on canning next, as we had no idea on how to do this.  My mother and father had canned things at home, but I never really paid that much attention to the process.  I do remember that they used a pressure cooker, but I found, in this instance it was unnecessary.  We sterilized the jars, we filled them to leave just a little head space, and then we screwed the button tops on tightly.

We placed them on their sides on the counter, and kept watch that our cat, Nibbler, didn't knock them off to play with them.  About an hour after Nolan went to bed that night, the kitchen was filled with the cacophony of popping buttons on the jars.  They all sealed properly.  The next day, we made some custom labels for fun, and our project was complete.  Several days of collecting sap netted us 23 gallons.  A couple of days of evaporating and finishing netted us 80 oz of finished syrup or 10-8 oz jars. For the accountants among you, we had spent $77.49 to produce 10 jars, so our syrup cost us $7.75 a jar !  It was quite the eye opener to realize the amount of time, money and effort to produce the product.  The Saturday following, we sat down and had French toast for breakfast and used our finished product.  It was delicious.  So, to finish the blog, my final thoughts are that it wasn't really that hard, it was a lot of fun to go through the process and to spend time with Nolan that way, and we were able to produce a decent product our first time trying.  All in all I'd say that I would be willing to repeat the adventure, because while I don't consider myself a great father, I do have my moments.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Music in My Life.

     It's tough to name a blog on music without making it sound like a tag line for a radio station.  The music you remember, the music of your life, the music that rocked the world, it all sounds hokey, but I still wanted to do a blog on my musical influences, which is interesting, because I have no musical training or ability and cannot, in fact, even read music.  So for me, it's about appreciating what others create from a position very close to pure ignorance.

Look at Goosey's bling.
     The first music or songs that I remember, like for most people, come from childhood nursery rhymes and games.   Ring around the Rosy, London Bridges, Goosey, Goosey Gander,  Red Rover Red Rover, Miss Suzie had a Baby, and a whole lot more.
These are those catchy little ditties that stick in your head, and are fun to sing.  You don't really want to think about what you are singing in most of these, as they have their roots in some dark places. Ring around the Rosy is about the plague, London Bridge is about urban decay, Goosey Goosey Gander is possibly about prostitutes, and if you don't think child services should have called on Miss Suzie a long time ago, you can't babysit my kids (I mean seriously, I know single parenting can be hard, but can you get to the baby before he tries to fit the bathtub in his throat?  The soap, I get.). 

     The next musical influences in my life come from the three places I spent the most time, in school, in front of a TV, and in church.  I loved chorus in school, although I cannot sing well.  I squeaked along with my class and hoped that my caterwauling would go unnoticed by my peers.
Sister Benedicta taught me the likes of Don Gato the cat, and Old Paint who was leaving Cheyenne, and there was a song we sang about ships that I liked, but can no longer remember.  I remember that I liked it because it had a part in it, that I would lower my voice and sing like my Dad, and it made me feel so grown up to do it.  Feel free to comment on it, if you remember it, because now it's driving me nuts that I can't remember it.  Church had some songs like that too.  Be forewarned, I still sing Amazing Grace that way, if you sit near me.  I liked to end mass with "Go tell it on the Mountain" or "Go Forth" (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, heard good news so they passed it on...)  I still kind of get excited when I see the numbers for those songs on the end of the songboard. I'm easily excited though, just ask my wife.  I could fill a few paragraphs with the songs or openings to TV shows from back then, that I remember, but I bet most of you could too.  They were designed for us to remember, and hey, they worked!  Who doesn't remember the tune to Bonanza?  You are doing it now aren't you? I can do the entire theme to Gilligan's Island
still, and amazingly can remember the chorus to Flipper.  I can't hear the words Sanford and Son without it's funky theme popping into my head.  It's usually followed by the theme from the Jeffersons (Well, we're moving on upppp!), which probably means I'm a closet racist, but I'll bet some of you are already humming the theme from Good Times, so you are too (I would have accepted Fat Albert and Shaft as well).  If you thought of the theme from the Mod Squad, you are probably only a 33% closet racist.  I was sure I was going to name a kid "Link" when I was 10, and dead certain that Clarence Williams the I and II, must have been pretty cool too, to produce Clarence Williams III, but I digress.  My favorite TV Theme song from that era is probably the theme to "Welcome Back Kotter" and from later shows, MASH and Cheers.  A lot of folks don't think of these as music or art, but if they stick with you and evoke emotion, so many years later, how can they not be?  A quick test would be to think of an actor and see how many theme songs you can remember of the shows they were in and if the theme songs make you feel different emotions.  If I think of Bill Bixby, I immediately hear the song from the Courtship of Eddie's Father or maybe the closing music from every Incredible Hulk episode (If you thought of My Favorite Martian, you are probably old and obsolete, sorry).  Try a couple of others, how about Michael Landon, or Mary Tyler Moore?  Fun, isn't it?  I think that I made my point.

     My next musical influence took me far outside of the mainstream.  I blame my parents.  You see, they sent me to bed way too early on Sunday nights, so how could I not curl up with a transistor radio and listen?  It was there that I discovered Dr. Demento and his 2 hour radio show dedicated to offbeat and zany songs from a huge library of music. I, in fact, first heard the song that I use as the blog's theme song, "I Love Onions" on his show.   If you want to hear it, go to my complete profile, and play the audio clip that is attached there.  My
Sunday nights were  replete with zany music like Fish Heads, Dead Puppies, My Bologna, Pencil-necked Geek, The Battle of New Orleans, Shaving Cream, The Lumberjack Song, Making Love in a Subaru, and countless others.  For those that never heard the show on the Westwood One radio network, I'll bet you've still heard some of the songs or artists that were played or inspired by Dr. Demento. He is credited with launching the career of Weird Al Yankovic, and he is still relevant today.  My Scouts like to sing his Amish Paradise on the way to outings, but they weren't born yet, when Weird Al was playing his first parodies like Another One Rides the Bus, I Love Rocky Road, or even Yoda (I heard this song on Dr. Demento in 1980, but it wasn't released on an album until 5 years later due to restricted permission from George Lucas).  Dr Demento taught me an appreciation for music that came from all era's and formats, and that it didn't have to be mainstream to be enjoyed.  All through my life, after this, I liked a wide variety of music.

    I happened to grow up in one of the most influential rock decades of all time, the 70's, and although I wasn't exclusive to this type of music, I couldn't help but be a fan.  How can you debate the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Don McLean, Led Zeppelin,and of course Queen.
NYC show circa 2004
I was told several times that I had a likeness to Freddie Mercury, so I actually did one Halloween-themed trade show, years ago, in NYC, dressed as Freddie.  I had a white silky shirt with an open chest, red leather pants, a chain belt and flattop red sneakers.  I didn't even get a look navigating my way in Manhattan to the show, and wasn't entirely sure I could pull it off, until I got to the show.  Before I reached my booth that was adorned with Freddie posters and playing Queen music, another sales rep pulled me aside and stated, "Yarger, no offense, but you look just like that f*g, Freddie Mercury".   Success!  See the picture and tell me what you think.

     Back to the story, the 70's quickly gave way to the 80's and now that I was in High School, I started listening to the more popular groups like Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Journey, Rush, Def Leppard and of course Michael Jackson.  He owned that decade and his 14 minute Thriller video is forever ingrained in my mind. We seemed to listen to a lot of local bands too, I remember using fake ID's to get into a Duke Jupiter concert at the Pier 9. The rumor, that summer, was that they were going to shoot their "This is Japan" in the Japanese garden at Sonnenberg Gardens, but I don't think they ever did.  I remember a great performance of the Good Rats at the Penny Arcade (Cuz, your face could stop a clock, I'll call you Coo Coo Coo...) I worked at Papa Frank's back then, and would spend a fair amount of my money on the jukebox each night.  I was shopping yesterday and I heard Eddie Rabbitt's "I love a rainy night" and it brought me instantly back to that machine.  Olivia Newton John's "Please Mr. Please." will do the same thing.  I saw her in concert about 10 years ago, and she looked fantastic (insert Australian expression for "I wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crackers" here). A high school teacher of mine, Frank Meyer introduced me to some unique artists at that time too, like John Prine.  I still get out to hear Frank and his partner play often.  As a matter of fact, I plan on spending St. Paddy's day with them this year at Buffalo Bill's in Shortsville. It promises to be a good time.

     I started dating my wife about this time, and we started investing in albums together.  We both had extensive collections of 45's of our own, but now would pool our money and buy the album.  Our first shared purchase was Simon and Garfunkel's concert in Central Park.  I'm a fan still.  Mentally flipping through them
now, I see Loverboy, Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Men at Work, the Beatles more than once, Styx, Bread, Lionel Richie, and the list goes on.  The 80's wasn't a bad decade either.  We discovered 3 Dog Night during this time, and went to see them at a few places.  On the subject of concerts, I was never a huge fan of the large ones, but I love an intimate experience.  One time in Lake Tahoe, Char and I went to Ringo Starr and his All Star band in a 750 person venue, and actually did a sing along to Yellow Submarine. That was memorable.  I took my boom box with me from Papa Franks to the factory I worked in, in Canandaigua, and I filled the 12 hour shifts cranking up the tunes next to my injection molding machine.  I loved the Saturday night oldies show, and when I got my job selling food to restaurants, that was the format that I preferred.  To this day, I am tough to beat in a trivia game on 50's and 60's artists.  Driving home yesterday I heard the song "96 Tears" by a one hit wonder and named the group in 3 notes. Can you?  (No Googling) Some credit this song with starting the Punk Rock movement. 

     I have my family to keep me up on newer artists, as my wife is a Top 40's listener, and my kids have very eclectic music tastes.  Unlike my wife and I, they all have taken music lessons and each of them has a good singing voice, believe it or not.  I know I didn't at first, I had to be convinced.  It must be one of those two negatives makes a positive things.  Two out of three have sung on stage so far, and in a month I'll be able to say 3/3.  My daughter added the first country songs to my Ipod, but they brought back memories of the Country music my Dad used to listen to, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash (brings back memories of singing Mean Eyed Cat with my sisters) and Hank Williams.  Think that's eclectic?  I still use the Lawrence Welk theme song to help me sleep if I struggle (sleep patterns are learned early and my bedtime was right after Lawrence Welk).  Speaking of eclectic, if you ever have a chance to go to a party that my brother Ace and I cater, you can hear some of our picks, as we always play music when we work. So I hope you have enjoyed the trek through my eclectic musical influences.   I'll close this blog, with Mama Cass singing California Dreaming, because as we all know, it's not really over until the fat lady sings.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's Derby Time !

     You would think, knowing my penchant for parties and for games of chance, that this blog would be about the upcoming Kentucky Derby, but you would be wrong.  This blog, inspired by a visit to my sister's this weekend (her youngest has his first Derby next week), is all about the 10 Pinewood Derbies that my boys and I have been in.  I'm a fan of Scouting, as you know, and an even bigger fan of the Pinewood Derby for Cub Scouts.  

Pinewood Derby track
I never was in a Derby when I was a Cub Scout, so it was a new experience for me when my son, Dan, became old enough to compete in one.  The box with the wood block and wheels came home with him from a Pack meeting and I learned that the project was to build a car with your Scout.  Truth be told, I have no construction abilities, and really struggle around power tools, but we gave it a try each year, and the enjoyment I got out of it, more than equaled the hours spent building the 10 cars.  With a travel job, inevitably the kit would sit on the fridge for months, untouched each weekend in lieu of other projects and activities, until finally my wife would remind me with, "You know it's next weekend, right?".  I, of course, knew this, but always worked better under pressure.  It's not done correctly, if your car is completely dry heading to the event, right?  So Dan and I jumped in with both feet and built his first car, the Batmobile.
The picture below doesn't really do it justice as the bad ass  fenders broke off after a lot of use, but for a first car, it wasn't half bad.  It also wasn't a winner.  This started our tradition of valiantly attempting to build winning cars but valiantly losing each year.  Mine and Dan's overall Derby record places us squarely in the middle of the pack.
Dan's Derby Year # 1 The Batmobile
The process was the same with Dan as eventually with Nolan. They would think up the design and either sketch it, or print it, and then we would use our combined woodworking skills, or lack of them, to try and create what was drawn.  The points on the cars were never in the same place as the pictures, sometimes we would improvise if the Dremel bit a little too deeply, (you wanted a cockpit, right?), or add other features if the situations that would arise, warranted it. Two things were always true, that we did the work ourselves and together as intended, and each of the cars that we built ran down the track.  In some years they ran down with 3 wheels touching, but they all ran.  We were proud of that. 
Dan's next three cars.
The next 3 attempts were more rudimentary in design, with us trying hard to get the weight just right and in the right position.  Some years we hollowed out the bottom of the cars, and screwed the weights in (FYI if you try this, make sure the screws don't scrape the track on the way down, OOPS.) other years, we'd place them on the side or attach them to the top.  Our best efforts netted us a solid 6th place one year, our year of glory!  Surprisingly each year we would place in the Best of Show category as our designs grew more and more original each year.  The red car shown had a bubble attached to it originally (it was the top of the graphite package, but it looked really cool glued onto the car).  We hadn't built the Garaj-Mahal for all these cars, so we worked in an unheated space or in the wet basement to do these cars, no workbench or vises to hold the cars, just a will to do our best, and we did.  The last year that Dan was able to be in a Derby he approached me early and asked if we could just build a car for show, not for speed.  I said "Sure" and instantly fell in love with his design.  It was guaranteed not to win, in fact it was barely able to not tumble down the track but it was original, a really cool car, and remains my favorite to this day, it was the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo.
We started by cutting the block in half and gluing it on top of the other.  We then dremeled the windows and windshield in, place wire on the top for the roof racks, and shellacked images from the internet on the sides and back.  The colors were dead on, and we did win Best of Show that year, as if there was any doubt when you show up with the Mystery Machine.  This ended Dan's time with the Derby and he finished on top, well sort of.  I think it was safe to say, that he liked attending and competing, even if he wasn't a front runner.  We approached each year like we would win though, and I liked how the next year, we would take what we learned from the previous year and apply it to our designs.  It's a lot like life, you learn as you go, you apply what you've learned, but most importantly you remember to enjoy the journey, not the finishing position.  I know I wouldn't trade those hours spent together for anything, and I hope Dan feels the same way. I suspect he is
Dan's ribbons and Derby trophies
proud of what we did together, as he has kept all of his cars and awards (I borrowed them to take pictures for this blog, shhh don't tell him).  Dan is now finishing his Scouting career, he made his Eagle last year, and is slowly separating from the Troop, but I suspect the lessons he learned in Scouts will stay with him for his life.  I think this is true no matter how long you are able to be involved in Scouting too.  I see my former Scouts around all the time, and they all are doing well in their own right.  If you have children, I can't speak more highly of involvement in both Girl and Boy Scouting.  My family has benefited from them, and yours could too!  

    By the time my son Nolan was able to participate in a Pinewood Derby, the Garaj-Mahal had been built.  It made the work a lot easier and right off the bat, we got better at sculpting the wood into recognizable shapes.  His first idea was for a big rig.  I liked this one as it required a lot less woodworking, but true to form the day of the race, we were at the Post Office weighing the truck to see if it qualified.
As nice as it looked, we were firmly placed in the rear view mirrors of the eventual winners.  I distinctly remember getting the wheels perfectly aligned the night before the race and when tested it ran straight as an arrow.  On the way over to the Post office I kept hearing a weird noise from the back seat, and upon arriving I realized that Nolan had turned the truck over and was using his hand to spin all the wheels, to entertain himself on the drive over. So much for perfect wheel alignment.  We learned from that mistake and didn't repeat it the next year.  Nolan's next 3 cars were good looking cars too, but none of them did anything to endanger our Derby records.  He seemed to have a penchant for the color red, and used it on all 3 cars.  He had some good records for Best in show as well, and the year he did the red, white and blue car, with the Scout Fleur de Lis on it, he won first or most colorful.  
Nolan's next 3.
In one of his cars, he placed a driver in the cockpit, and this car had a windshield glued onto in.  We got better at polishing and drying the cars more quickly too, utilizing the registers for our forced air furnace.  Our house always smelled like spray paint the week of the Pinewood Derby. Our graphite stained fingers would carry the cars, year in, year out, to the Derby and we would come away with our dreams of victory dashed each time.  The first year, Nolan was so convinced that he was going to win, that he actually cried when he didn't do well.  By the last year, however, the tears were a thing of the past, and he just enjoyed competing. I don't handle tears from my kids well, which is very odd since I was an emotional kid myself (cough, Crybaby).  It took me many years even into adulthood before I could control my emotions and not cry in stressful situations.  When it came time to parent, I found myself using my Dad's standards lines like "For God's sake, your not crying about it are you?" or "Dry up" but rarely used the patented "I'll give you something to cry about" one.  What?  I told you I was no good at parenting crying kids.  Back to the Derby...

     Nolan, like Dan, wanted his last car to be his best but unlike Dan went for show and for speed.  We did all the normal tricks with getting the axles and weight right, aligning the wheels and everything else, but we did them on a Spongebob car !
I loved this design as there was virtually no sculpting of the block other than to rough it up a little on the edges.  The painting was a little harder, but we gave ourselves a couple of days to do it that year, and even had time to put a sealing clear coat over it (warm garage, remember?).  The car actually did pretty well too, it wasn't in the top ten, but in his class it qualified to go to the District race, where we were soundly defeated, but no tears were shed.  I chalk that up to my excellent parenting, or maybe it was just growth. As a Scout Leader, I always pushed my Scouts to be a little more independent than the other kids their age.  I think it is one of the characteristics of a good Scout.  When given the choice, the last year in Cub Scouting, to stay in Cub Camp or to go up to Boy Scout camp, my boys have always chosen to move up and forward.  I rarely lost a kid from that first camp to home sickness, but one year, I had to talk 4 into staying, but they did stay and were better Scouters for it. 
Nolan's trophies from the Derbies are pictured to the right here.  It looks like he was more successful, but in actuality the ribbons were replaced with participation trophies the year he started.  I suspect he has learned a lot in his Cub Scouting career and he is progressing nicely in his Boy Scouting one too.  He got elected to lead the Troop this year, and he is the youngest Scout in it. I've learned a thing or two at the Derbies myself.  One year the Cubmaster called out one of my new Scouts for an irregularity in his car.  He did it in front of the entire audience and it turned out that he had no right or reason to do it.  My assistant leader and I insisted that he give the Scout a pubic apology for his actions, and he gave the gift we had provided to the Scout, but never admitted his guilt.  I learned, that day, how not to lead a group of impressionable boys.  When I make mistakes in Scouting, I own up to them, try to learn from them and don't repeat them.  I hope you have enjoyed this blog on my Pinewood Derbies with my sons.  Feel free to share your experiences by commenting below.  The last picture is my den of Cub Scouts in one of their last Derbies.  It's a good ending, don't you think?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Yarger Memorial Golf Scramble

     It's hard to argue that this blog, on a regular basis, is not self-promoting, because after all, it is all about me, my life experiences and travels, and my family, but this is the first time I'll admit it right off the bat. This blog is a shameless self promotion about my family's charity golf tournament, but tell you what, at least I'll give you a little history and story with it to make it more entertaining....

     Not all my family's ideas start by conversing around a beer keg, but some of the best ones do. This was the case 15 years ago at the end of our family reunion at Ontario County Park. I had made my rounds talking with the relatives that I don't interact with regularly and had circled back to hang with some of the fun ones that I do.  For some reason, in my recollection of it, I put a keg in there, though we don't normally have a keg at the reunions, but you can be sure of one thing, that there was beer involved.
The Kays at an early tournament.
  I was having a conversation with my cousin George Kay (Grumpy), and he mentioned that he had just started golfing.  (George's dad was my uncle and a step-brother to my father.  That family never separated themselves with the word step, they just were brothers and sisters.  Since my grandfather took them in, they all considered themselves to be Yargers.  My cousin George felt the same way, and when we launched the first tournament he insisted that it simply be named the Yarger Memorial, not the Kay-Yarger Memorial, and this tradition has been carried on since.  I think it is fitting since the tournament honors that generation that considered themselves one family.  To this day, the Kay side of our family continues to have an impressive turnout at the Yarger Family reunion, as was the case the year the tournament was founded) I had just started golfing as well, and George and I suggested we should golf the next year before the reunion.  As the beer flowed, we expanded the idea to include more people, then to have a tournament, and then to have a charity tournament.  George had just been through the Cardiac Rehab Department at Thompson Health and he thought a donation there could do a lot of good.  I readily agreed as I had lost many Aunts and Uncles to cardiac disease, and my father had passed at 58 due to it too.  Thus the Yarger Memorial Scramble benefiting the Cardiac Rehab Center at Thompson Health in Cdga, was born.

     The following spring we formed a family committee and approached the hospital with our idea.  They were excited to have a tournament benefit them and pledged all of their support.  The original tournament was held at Parkview Fairways and the date was the second Saturday in August, the day before our family reunion. 

Year 1, dinner under the pavilion
We had 50 golfers participate the first year, and although it didn't run entirely smoothly, we all had fun and we were able to make $5,000 for the C.R.D.  We ate big steaks and roasted corn that we had cooked, and the raffles ran so late that we need flashlights to read the numbers at the end.  It's amazing that we get so many of those original golfers back each year, and yet we do.  That evening, some of us had to go from the tournament, to Ontario County Park to cook the pig for the following day's reunion.  We were exhausted by the end of the 2nd day, so we decided to move the date away from the reunion after that. A smart idea.

     This blog could run too long if I don't start talking about the specifics of the tournament, so let me break it down, starting with the sponsors and golfers. Our major underwriter to the tournament has been Pactiv in Cdga since year 3.  They approached us, looking for a way to support the hospital, and an event that their employees could participate in. Each year we have 6-10 teams made up of current and former Pactiv employees. They had been a great partner, and we hope, even with the changes there this year, that they will be able to continue as our major sponsor. 
Pactiv Group, early on
Our tournament has been a blue collar or hacker's tournament since it's inception.  Some of our players get out just a few times a year to golf, and we are happy that they choose our tournament to do it. That being said we do attract a few good golfers and more professional folk. I suspect that they come for the fun.  The majority of the rest of our sponsors are all small businesses in the surrounding area, that pay $100 to post a sign on the course that day.  About 30-40 % of our sponsors have teams that play in the tournament each year.  The remaining sponsors are special sponsors that pay for the banquet and music.  Just a few years ago, we added a Meyer and McGuire concert at the banquet as part of the tournament, and that was one of the best decisions that we have ever made.  For the last several years, Crosman Corporation and HEP Sales/North Main Lumber have sponsored these and their investment is appreciated by the golfers, and the family. 

     When the golfers check in, they run a gauntlet of sorts, to make it through registration.  We first give them their tee gift and assign them carts.  Each year we logo an item and each golfer receives one.  We have done shirts, hats, umbrellas, coolers, camp stools, blankets, water bottles, and even pullover jackets.
Registration year 2 or 3?
If you want to see what we have given out for the last 13 years, you need only to attend, to see the players, wearing the shirts and jackets, tucking umbrellas in their bags (unused, we have never been rained out in the history of the tournament), donning the hats on their heads, and placing the coolers on their carts. 
     The next stop is where we sell Mulligans.  Each golfer can purchase 2 for $5 each and take a do-over when needed.  Even with the hackers we attract, and in a tournament that doesn't have a Skins competition, most golfers buy 2.  This contributes about $1,000 to the total each year.
     The last stop is the merchandise raffle.  We aim to collect $20 from each golfer for this station.  It may seem like a lot, but in actuality it is a bargain for the golfers. My family spends many months approaching local businesses and collecting merchandise donations.  We are so grateful for the hundreds of donors that choose to contribute to this raffle each year. 
Our first wenches
We raffle over $5,000 worth of merchandise each time, so on average, a $20 donation nets you a $35 prize. That's not to say everyone is a winner though, I have a friend who golfs each year and swears he had never won, and I have a nephew who golfed and brought home big ticket gifts in consecutive years.  The merchandise raffle nets around $2,500 each year, the second biggest fundraiser of the tournament.

      Now for the math majors out there, you've noticed that we are short about $1,500 for our $10,000 goal.  The last part of the tournament is a Cash Raffle. The tickets are distributed amongst family members months before the tournament and pre-sold to friends and acquaintances for $5 each.  We finish the selling on the day of the tournament to the golfers and draw the winners at the end of the tournament.  This generally makes up the last $1,500 of our $10,000 goal each year.  In it's 13 year history the tournament has been able to donate over $120,000 to the CRD at Thompson Health, no small feat, but all due to the amazing loyalty of our golfers, donors, sponsors and workers.

     I have to brag up on our workers a little. Since early on, the tournament has run pretty self sufficient from the hospital.  They help with the initial mailings and some PR, but the tournament itself is staffed fully by family and friends.  I'm proud that all of my family contributes in some way to the tournament, so I've taken care not to single out any individuals, in this blog.  My siblings staff the registration tables, write the program, sell cash raffle tickets, golf, serve on the committee, collect merchandise, attract sponsors, babysit the day of the event for family members, take pictures of the teams each year, and even served as Beer Wenches. Non family members contribute too, we have a family friend who custom designs and carves the trophies each year, and that is one more unique thing about the tournament.

Wenches, maybe year 7 or 8?
 I'm proud that each and every one of them chooses to contribute each year.  My nieces, nephews and cousins have continued to step up as well, selling tickets, golfing or attending the dinner.  Our tournament gets a lot of praise for it's organization and for how much fun it is.  These are both attributable to the volunteers that give so much of their time.  On the subject of beer wenches, (one of my favorite subjects), I think they add a dimension to the tournament that is unlike any other.  We have 8 volunteers, in teams of 2, run each side of the course back to front, and then front to back.  Their job is not only to help deliver the beverages, but to hand out free cigars and to interact playfully with the golf teams (If you don't take the golf too seriously, you can do this.) Each team makes this job their own, and it all the years we have run, I don't recall a bad team.  There are 2 stories, that I love to tell about our beer wenches, the first is one of our girls met her future husband the night of the tournament, and the second is, we had a girl accidentally break her hand one year at the tournament, and even though it cost her weeks of actual work, she was the first to volunteer again the next year.  I told you we have the best volunteers.  We actually don't have enough spots for the volunteers we get each year. It sounds like a good position to be in, but I have trouble saying no to people that want to be a part of the tournament so badly.

     A blog about the tournament wouldn't be complete without a mention of our new permanent location, Victor Hills Golf course.  While the first course had it's charm, the folks are Victor Hills have been great partners for this fundraiser since year 2.
Crowd at Victor Hills
 The date has changed a few times in the past, but now is always the 2nd Saturday in June.  Victor Hills makes sure the course is in shape, the food is hot and plentiful, and that everything they are responsible for runs smoothly, and they fire on all cylinders each year.  We get a lot of compliments on the hard work they do, and I'd like to acknowledge Jay Dianetti, his family, and his staff for all of their efforts.  The tournament wouldn't be nearly as successful without them. 

Grumpy and I with the staff at the CRD.
      As I close out this blog, it is only fitting that I finish by talking about our charity, the Cardiac Rehab Department at Thompson Health.  From the very first year, they have been good stewards of the funds we provide to them.
 They have expanded their space 2 times, purchased exercise and monitoring equipment for the center, given training to their staff and most importantly, given scholarships to use the facility to those who could not have afforded to attend their programs otherwise.  The work they do is incredible and if you live or work in Canandaigua NY, you likely have contact with someone that they have helped.  I know, I certainly have.  Well after we started the tournament I found out that my Uncle Charlie was the longest surviving patient that they had of the original people to go through the program, "The Magnificent Seven".  I cannot think of a more deserving charity for our family's tournament.

     So if you see this blog and have an interest in participating in any of the aspects of the Yarger Memorial, please feel free to contact us.  We can be reached at PO Box 23 Hall NY 14463 or e-mailed at wyarger@rochester.rr.com  We are continually looking for sponsors, donors, raffle ticket buyers, and golfers.  I personally keep my eyes open for good beer wenches in my travels, although I am not longer allowed to interview them.  When we started the tournament we had 3 goals.  They were, to have fun, to make some money for the CRD, and to honor the memory of our relatives that had passed due to heart disease.  I think in the 14 year run, we have kept our promise on  all 3. Fore.

Uncle George "Buddy" Kay

My Dad, Paul Cooper Yarger

Aunt Eleanor Kay Marvin
Uncle Charlie Yarger