BEATERMANIA

“I’m gonna drive it ‘til the doors fall off,” is the mournful boast of beater drivers everywhere. No one really drives their car until the doors fall off. But I did.
It was a 1985, 4-banger Mustang I bought off the showroom floor. It was red. It was love at first sight. It was a big mistake.
I’ve always driven clunkers, and, while the door falling off the Mustang was a singular phenomenon, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that their other parts follow pretty much the same order of failure.
The first to fail is the helpful alarm that buzzes when you open the driver’s door with the key in the ignition. If you’re seeking proof of satanic forces, look no further than the fact that you always realize you’ve locked your keys in the car at the precise instant the lock clicks shut.
The next to go is the gas gauge. This isn’t so bad because you usually have a pretty good idea how much gas you have – until you don’t. One night, I ran out on the Crosstown but happily realized there was a gas station at the next exit which I thought I just might be able to coast to. But as I exited, a blockhead on the access road refused to yield. If I braked, I wouldn’t make it to the station, so I yelled, “I can’t stop!” Terrified, he locked up his brakes and I crawled to the pump.
The electric windows are next. This is doable, so long as the AC works.
Then comes the coup de grace: The AC’s final, catastrophic failure. It’s always between $1200 to $1600 to fix which is always between $1200 to $1600 more than you have.
If you’re forced to drive during a Corpus Christi summer with the windows up and a broken AC, you might as well put lumps of biscuit dough on an ungreased baking sheet in your lap because you’re cruising around in a Dutch oven. So, you break down and get the windows fixed.
Some try to prove how tough they are by climbing Everest or cage fighting. But they’re nothing compared to summer driving without AC. I did it for years, and it completely changes your focus. You become as aware of wind direction as an America’s Cup skipper because the survivability of every stoplight depends on whether there’s a breeze blowing through your car. Shade is also lifegiving, so you cozy up to tall buildings, 18 wheelers, and shade trees.
I was well into the Mustang’s broken AC phase when the door fell off. It was about 12 years old and had six trillion miles on it. The Gulf Coast’s salty air had done its worst, and rust was all that held it together.
That day, I parked at an office building, and as I opened the door it broke off with a loud crack and crashed to the ground. It was a big shock to me, but not as big as it was to the woman pulling into the space next to me.
I jammed it as best I could into the back seat and drove doorless to my long-suffering mechanic, Donny. He came out of his shop, and I howled, “I’m getting rid of this beater!” He put his head in his hands and wept softly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My son’s starting college,” he sobbed.
Taking pity on Donny, I had him weld the door shut.
I drove it another few weeks, but now I had to enter through the passenger door, very carefully Fosbury Flop over the spiky K2 of the handbrake, and plummet to the driver’s seat. I was pushing 40 by then, and this was a bit much.
I’d been to the dealership several months before, but sticker shock had sent me running. This time, my wife and I headed there with our two rambunctious kids determined to make a deal.  The plan was to buy my wife a new car; I’d get the keys to her clunker, and we’d trade in the Mustang.
It took five excruciating hours because the salesman kept leaving to implore the sales manager to approve the deal’s latest iteration. It would have taken less time to interrupt Edsel Ford’s Saturday golf game and ask the great man himself.
Finally, all that remained was appraising the Mustang.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the screaming kids, or the five hellish hours of financial embarrassment, but, whatever it was, I told the salesman, “You know, I was here a couple of months ago, and it was appraised then.” He found the record on his computer and gave me $500.
I hustled the family out to our new car just as the salesman headed for the Mustang. As we drove off, I suddenly remembered I’d left my beloved Van Halen 1984 cassette in the tape player. I skidded to a stop, ran to the Mustang, jackknifed in the driver’s window, snatched the cassette, gave the approaching salesman a quick wave, and ran back to our car.
As we drove away, I watched in the rearview mirror as the puzzled salesman yanked harder and harder on the door handle.
Score one for the Beater Brigade.
Peter Merkl is a longtime resident of Corpus Christi.

PLAY BALL IN 2020!

On August 12, 1994 Major League Baseball went on strike, and fans everywhere learned a painful lesson: To us, the game was about love, but to the owners and players it was strictly business.
Few fans believed the billionaire owners and millionaire players would really pull the plug; surely, they’d be smart enough to figure out a way to keep the money flowing. So, most fans kept investing their hearts and souls in their teams and the pennant races.
Broke as I was that year, I somehow finagled a trip from Corpus Christi to Fenway and watched as Ken Griffey, Jr. uncorked the most beautiful swing I’ve ever seen and knocked one high over the Green Monster. As the ball disappeared into the darkness, I was overcome by the perfection of it all: the soft summer night, the warm beer in my hand, the flashing Citgo sign, and Junior slowly rounding the bases in the Vatican of ballparks. As I sat there taking it all in, my wife, who’d jumped to her feet cheering, tapped me on the shoulder and asked what was wrong.
“I’m paralyzed with happiness,” I told her and looked away so she couldn’t see my eyes.
But, pull the plug they did with the Rangers leading the AL West and the Astros a half game back in the NL Central.
We fans were furious because we finally realized that our love for the game really was unrequited. All those years of living and dying by the box scores, scrounging to go to games, and praying for a reliable closer had been wasted. We’d mistakenly believed that the players and owners loved their teams as much as we did. But, they didn’t. And if they didn’t, why the heck should we? I swore I’d never go to another game.
For the ’95 season, labor peace had been restored, but attendance was way down. My family made our annual in-law hopping trip to DFW that summer. For several years, all the aunts, uncles, kids and grandparents had gone to a Rangers game together, but that year we’d all sworn off baseball, so no such plans had been made.
But as each day went by, I got antsier and antsier. Finally, about 4 o’clock on our last full day in town, I realized that it’s just not summer without baseball and told the in-laws I was going to the Rangers game. My decision was met by hoots of derision and impassioned arguments: it’s boring, it’s too hot, don’t feed their greed, but nothing could stop me. As I headed out the door, I asked them all one last time if anyone wanted to come. My nine-year old daughter, Erin, knowing that the game wouldn’t be as much fun for me solo, reluctantly agreed to go. Ignoring the Greek chorus imploring us to reconsider, we fled to the car.
When we got to the game, I was determined to show Erin a good time. Every vendor soon learned that if they got her attention, they made a sale. I bought her a big foam #1 finger, a bigger inflatable bat, a Rangers cap and pennant, ice cream, nachos, and a huge ball of blue cotton candy.
The guy in front of me turned around and asked, “Is there really a little girl under all that stuff?” and as everyone around us laughed, Erin looked up at me with a toothy, blue smile and said,” I don’t care what anybody says about baseball, daddy, I’m having fun!”
I looked around the ballpark and realized that you can’t help what you love, and, God help me, I loved baseball. And so do most Americans. And now we need baseball to love us back.
We’re tired of knowing the exact number of toilet paper rolls, chickens, and eggs we have in the house. We’re tired of the cancellation of fun events that highlight our springs and summers. And most of all, we’re tired of the daily avalanche of tragic news.
Baseball has always marked the turning back to normalcy in our country. Who can ever forget George W., in his FDNY jacket, tossing a perfect strike to open the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium to stirring cheers of “USA! USA!”?
And now that many are warily returning to work in worrisome circumstances, it’s time for baseball to comfort us and provide a happy distraction again.
Play in empty ballparks, agree to revenue-sharing or prorated salaries, wear masks, do whatever you have to do, but for the sake of the nation’s sanity, Play Ball!

DIGITAL AHAB

It’s not surprising that those who grew up playing with computers seem to trust and even love them as adults. They’ve happily integrated computers into every aspect of their lives – from the workplace to their refrigerators – and routinely accomplish astonishing things with them. And because they’ve developed an intuitive sense for how information can be manipulated on a computer screen, this integration is almost cyborg-like in its seamlessness. So, as the physical world increasingly disappears into the screaming vortex of the digital, it’s become very clear that The Future belongs to them. The question is, what does that leave for those of us who grew up playing with Lincoln Logs and Hula Hoops?

I’ve always hated computers because, like many Lincoln Loggers, I know them for what they are— inflexible bureaucrats of the worst kind: Select the wrong item in a dropdown menu, and you’re toast. Forget to capitalize one letter in a 16-character password, you’re burnt toast.

They’re the sneering clerk at the DMV who, ignoring your cascading tears of despair, informs you in an emotionless monotone that your third attempt at filling out Form OH-478 was successful; however, it’s been replaced by the OH-478/A, which must be filled out in triplicate, notarized, and witnessed by six Cambodians.

They’re the cold-eyed teller who declined your deposit because you reversed the last two digits of your account number. And as bank guards and men with butterfly nets dragged you out, you shouted, “If dyslexics ever line up to deposit money in my account, you Einsteins better let them!”

And now that everyone carries a little computer with them everywhere they go, I feel like a wretched Captain Ahab who woke one day to find his ship crewed entirely by small white whales.

And yet people love them. They’re so convenient, they say.

Too convenient, I say.

I recently took a college class and watched in astonishment as the students around me surfed the Web on their laptops. They were on Facespace, news sites, and shopping for everything imaginable. It was so bad that occasionally the professor announced, “Okay, stop surfing. This is important.” A few managed to slowly raise their heads, but they were soon bored and drifted back to the comfy confines of the World Wide Web.

And when people are forced to wait even a few minutes for anything, they whip out their smartphones faster than Billy the Kid pulled his six-shooter. Every waiting area looks like a roomful of impatient monks bowing their heads in silent prayer to tiny, rectangular, glowing gods.

But computers finally beat me.

This year, our employee evaluation software refused to cooperate with me. Desperate to appear at least somewhat competent, I spent a frantic half hour struggling to submit my self-evaluation form, but everything I tried lured me down one digital blind alley after another. Finally, my young boss came by and asked how the form was coming.

“Oh, I just happen to be looking at that,” I replied airily, “but I’m a little stuck.”

He reached over my shoulder, clicked on something, and instantly submitted my form.

Staggered by the brute power of Darwinian forces, I gulped loudly. He smiled down at me in the same hopeless way Sister Paula did while she was laboring to teach me long division.

I’m thinking about wearing a beanie with a propeller on it for the rest of my life.

GROCERY SHOPPING AND THE DAMN CORONAVIRUS

It seemed like a dozen eggs wasn’t too much to ask. Probably it wasn’t even really the eggs; my wife and I only eat them a couple of times a week. It was more the sense of normalcy we craved. How many times in our lives had we mindlessly grabbed a carton of eggs off the shelf and placed it in our shopping cart? And now, we’d been told, they were nowhere to be found. So, last Sunday, for the first time since The Coronavirus Panic of 2020 had begun, we headed to the grocery store.

A whirl of desperation enveloped us as we walked in the door. People pushing their carts too fast and too aggressively past empty shelves. Their wide eyes betrayed their thoughts: There’s no milk, how are the kids going to eat cereal? If there’s no spaghetti sauce, what am I going to put on the two pounds of pasta I just bought? How are we going to get along without fresh fruit and vegetables?

Of course, there were no eggs. We asked an employee when they might have some, and he replied, “Tuesday.”

“Tuesday, really?”

“Yeah, Tuesday.”

We scrounged amid the rubble for a little while and bought a box of Melba Toast and a few other weird things so as not to leave empty handed: a real taste of Soviet-style shopping. We were quiet on the drive home.

On Tuesday my wife went back to the store after work, but the eggs were all gone. She said the shelves were so empty that people would walk in the door, stare for a second or two, and turn around and leave.

The next day, I decided to try another grocery store during lunch. I promised an equally egg-deprived guy at work that I’d pick up a dozen for him too and headed for the store. I made a beeline for the dairy section and spied a few remaining cartons of eggs beneath a sign limiting purchases to two per customer. As I happily grabbed two dozen, I noticed that several other shoppers were giving me the evil eye, but I was so glad that my coronavirus egg hunt had finally come to a successful end that I really didn’t pay them much attention.

When I got to the checkout aisle, I grabbed a couple of fifty cent peanut packets and put them on the conveyor belt along with my precious eggs.

The checker looked at my eggs and lifted a suspicious eye toward me, “You didn’t see the sign?” he asked pointedly. “You can only buy two.”

‘That is two,” I answered very confused.

“No,” he said, “that’s four.” Then he put one of the cartons down beside the register and broke the other into two halves and handed the half cartons to me. “That’s two,” he said.

“Alright,” I replied, reeling more than a little at the strangeness of our new reality.

Then as he scanned one of the bags of peanuts, I noticed it had been opened. “Let me get another bag,” I said.

He looked at me accusingly and asked,” Did you eat these peanuts?”

“No, I did not,” I declared.

“People have been eating from shelves all over the store,” he said.

“I just now reached over and grabbed them!” I angrily shot back.

He and the woman who was bagging my groceries then proceeded, as though I weren’t there, to talk about how tired they were of finding open, half-eaten packages of food that customers were leaving all around the store.

I didn’t so much leave the grocery store that day as escape from it.

These are trying, strange times. The kind of times we’ll always remember and that will define us. I regret my behavior in the store, but it all happened really fast, too fast for me to process. Maybe if we could just focus on one simple thing: doing unto others as we’d have them do unto us, we’ll get through this better, stronger, and more united for it.

FRANKLIN IS GOD

The Fourth of July is the best day to show off what is, for many Texans, our secret super-power: barbecuing. On the outside, we look like ordinary citizens. But, give us a hot grill and some hamburger patties and, buddy, prepare to be dazzled. And people love us for it. What else can you do for family and friends that makes them as happy as cooking up a mess of BBQ?
But for the more devoted of us, that’s not enough. We seek to ascend to a higher realm. So, we graduate to smokers. And smokers inevitably, tragically lead to that most thorny of all barbecue riddles: brisket.
Now, we find ourselves waking before dawn to light the fire and lovingly massage our brisket with the latest sure-fire dry rub from HEB. All day long, like a punctilious steelworker, we stoke the fire in the blazing Texas sun struggling to keep it at the exact temperature recommended by the latest internet guru, and, in the process – as our spouses love to remind us – wind up smoking ourselves as much as the brisket.
And then, after way too many hours of toil and trouble, the great moment finally arrives when we cut into our beloved, only to find that it’s edible, but just too dry, too tough, too fatty, too smoky, too whatever. But rather than do the sensible thing and quit, we grimly accept the faint praise of our guests as they glumly saw and gnaw away, and silently resolve that next time we’ll lower the smoker temperature two degrees and try that new rub with the pineapple tenderizer.
Some of the more devout among us have made the barbecue stations of the cross by journeying to Central Texas to sample Smitty’s, Kreuz’s, City Market, et. al. hoping to discover their smoke-ringed secrets. You can easily spot us; we’re the ones poking at the moist brisket slices with our knives and studying them from different angles, like a desperate doctor in search of an elusive diagnosis. We’ll occasionally even hold one up to the light as we wonder how they managed to achieve such excellence.
And so things remained in the barbecue world for many years, until one day – like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky – Aaron Franklin, The Chosen One, appeared.
Several years ago, rumors began spreading out of Austin about a new barbecue joint that was serving the brisket of the gods. The story was that because Franklin’s closed as soon as the food ran out, scores of acolytes lined up every day before sunrise to wait for the place to open at 11:00.
I scoffed and dismissed the reports as mere hipster hysteria. That is, until I watched a cooking show about Mr. Franklin. During the interview, he tossed one of his smoked briskets onto a cutting board, and – I swear this is true – it jiggled like a water balloon. “No way!” I shouted as I replayed it, “That’s not possible!” If you did that to one of mine, it would jiggle nearly as much as a slab of granite. I immediately resolved to make a pilgrimage to Austin.
I got to Franklin Barbecue at 6:15 AM, and there were already twenty people ahead of me. At first, the waiting isn’t so bad. The whole thing has the cool, analog vibe of lining up to buy Zeppelin tickets in 1977, and it’s kind of fun to commiserate with your fellow postulants: The young, foodie couple behind me had flown from Kentucky just to try the brisket.
But, by the time the doors finally opened, I was completely over it; no barbecue could ever be worth this much time and trouble.
As the line slowly progressed through the ordinary looking dining room, I carefully examined the plates of the customers who’d already been served. After five hours of waiting, I half expected the brisket slices to be levitating and have halos around them, but they pretty much looked just like mine.
I finally made it to the counter, got my slices, and beelined for one of the communal tables. Filled with skepticism and feeling duped, I finally tasted The Chosen One’s brisket.
I’ve only eaten at one three-star Michelin restaurant; I splurged on lunch at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in NYC. What I remember most about that remarkable meal is the moment I realized that if a supremely talented person devotes their life to it and brings a manic attention to detail, cooking can approach the level of an art form. I was struck by that same realization at Franklin Barbecue.
My advice: Get on The Pilgrim’s Trail.

GREETINGS FROM MERKEL, TEXAS

They say our beloved Lone Star State is so big that somewhere in Texas there’s a town with your name on it. I had my doubts, until one sunny vacation day I was headed down some lonesome highway west of Abilene when I came upon it: a large, green exit sign for Merkel.

It’s a funny sounding name which easily lends itself to derision: “Merk the Jerk” and “Jerkl” tormented me through grammar school. Poor Fred Merkle’s infamous baseball boner and Steve Urkel’s urkelness both harmed the cause. My Aunt Angie, over in Germany, elevated the name somewhat, until recently. But overall, it’s been something of a minor affliction which brides in my family are usually happy to get rid of.

But there it was in big white letters taking its rightful place alongside Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. So, I skidded the car to a stop and asked my wife to take photos of me standing proudly by the sign as passing drivers honked their horns, pointed, and laughed.

Back behind the wheel, a previously unknown feeling of ancestral pride swept over me, and I realized I had to take the off-ramp.

I pulled into a gas station, and, while fueling up, asked my wife to go inside the convenience store and see if they had any Merkel souvenir T-shirts for sale. She still hadn’t come out after I’d finished pumping, so I joined her inside.

The store was packed, and my wife had just managed to get to the front of the line. They didn’t have any shirts, but she was asking the cashier if he knew where we could buy some.

“Why would you want Merkel T-shirts?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and I built this town!” I jokingly proclaimed.

Suddenly, a customer pouring herself some coffee shouted, “You built this town? I hate Merkel! It’s given me nothing but misery! I keep leaving and it keeps hauling me back!” Then she scowled and advanced toward me brandishing a cup of steaming coffee.

“He didn’t really build Merkel,” my wife added helpfully while dragging me toward the door.

“The T-shirts?” I implored the cashier over my shoulder.

“There’s a dollar store in town that has them.”

As we rushed out the door, the woman hooted, “What kind of name is Merkel anyway?”

If I had any sense, I’d have beelined for the freeway, but I was determined to wear that shirt and finally show the world my surname was legit.

While driving around looking for the store, I noticed that the tiny town could’ve used a coat of paint, but that only endeared it to me because, frankly, so could I.

The dollar store was crowded as my wife and I scoured the aisles looking for our prize. We soon found a stack of purple shirts with “Merkel Badgers”, the high school team name, proudly emblazoned in gold lettering across the chest. I grabbed six of them and headed to the lone cashier where I proudly placed the shirts on the counter in front of her.

“Why are you buying so many Badgers shirts?” she asked.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and…”

“No,” my wife hissed in my ear, “do not say it.”

“… I built this town!”

The cashier laughed and asked if my name was really Merkel. I showed her my driver’s license and said, “I think we lost the second “e” at Ellis Island, but my name is Merkel.” We talked briefly, and she told us she’d lived in Corpus Christi for several years, but she loved her hometown and had recently returned.

I noticed there was a long line of shoppers behind us by then, so I whipped out my credit card and swiped it through the reader with a flourish. “I’m sorry Mr. Merkl,” the cashier said, “but it was rejected. Try again.” I swiped it again, with the same result.

“Let me try another card”, I croaked, as I swiped a second one, which was also promptly rejected. Palms sweating, I asked the next person in line to go ahead of us, but she smiled sweetly and said, “Oh no, Mr. Merkel, you built this town. You take your time. I can wait.” All the customers behind her nodded in hearty agreement.

I fumbled in my wallet for my third and last credit card, but it was also rejected. At that moment my wife remembered she had a stash of vacation cash in the car, which she ran out to retrieve. We quickly paid for the shirts and hustled out of the store as everyone cheerily wished the Merkels safe travels.

Back in the car, I picked up my beeping phone from the console and found that all three credit card companies were texting me that a suspicious charge was being made and asking me to verify that I was making the purchase.

I can’t say I had a great time in Merkel, but I’m definitely going back someday. I want a Badgers baseball cap.

FIRST RATE FIRST MAN

Every late ‘70s college kid had a story about the night of July 20, 1969. Most were like mine: Our parents woke us up, told us something momentous was happening, and carried us in front of the TV. We watched the miracle of men in bulky suits climbing down the nine steps from the lunar module and hopping along the surface of the moon until we fell back asleep.

One friend had a different story. She told me that after years of scrimping, her parents had finally saved enough to buy their first home. It was in a new Texas subdivision, and to save money her father decided they’d put in the lawn themselves. That night, after being allowed to marvel for a few minutes at the giant leap for mankind, her father took her outside, gave her a small gardening trowel, and told her that since she was up, she could help him plant St. Augustine grass plugs in the front yard. She begged to keep watching the miracle on the moon, but her father insisted.

She told me that as she knelt in the mud digging with her little shovel, she’d gaze up at the crescent moon and cry.

I never forgot that story, because it shows, in a small way, how our perceptions of earthly affairs are transformed when viewed through the prism of another world. That bright, new perspective was very powerful, and many of us remember it vividly. Many are also confused by what has happened since.

There was a lot of talk in the ‘60s about our destiny being among the stars, and that the moon missions were only the first of many great adventures soon to come. But in the years since, our manned space program has languished, never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit.

Incredibly, America can’t even transport its own astronauts to the International Space Station, relying instead, ironically enough, on confiscatory taxiing by our space archrival, the Russians. Which is a bit like a fleeing Bugs Bunny suddenly skidding to a stop and turning to ask a befuddled Elmer Fudd if Bugs could help him reload his shotgun.

What was it that gave us the guts in the protocomputer ‘60s to rocket to the moon with mechanical, manual winding watches strapped to our wrists? Finally, we have First Man, a great new movie that provides answers to that question.

 The reason it’s the first Apollo 11 movie in 49 years is the same reason they’ve never needed a fundraiser for wayward astronauts: Perfect self-control at all times was in the astronaut job description, which doesn’t normally make for the most compelling movie characters. But, Ryan Gosling unforgettably portrays Neil Armstrong – the prototypical steely-eyed missile man – as a man in full, struggling to maintain his stability as he copes with the passing of his beloved two-year-old daughter, the fiery deaths in preflight testing of his friends on the Apollo 1 crew, and his doomed marriage, all while being stretched into impossible shapes by his otherworldly responsibilities at NASA.

And for us space nerds, it’s fantastic that Hollywood is finally using its latest special effects wizardry to create something that dazzles people over the age of twelve. The Gemini and Apollo mission scenes perfectly capture the rickety, almost Jules Verne-like, we’re-never-gonna-know-if it-flies-unless-we-light-the-candle-on-this-darn-thing nature of those spacecraft. The portrayal is so realistic that you can easily imagine yourself strapped in alongside our intrepid astronauts as they’re violently thrown around inside those tiny, creaking capsules.

But, the movie really rounds into its own when Neil Armstrong opens the hatch of the lunar module and stares down on the powdery brilliance of the moon’s surface.  At that moment, he knows, along with every sentient being in the audience, that our future really is among the stars. It’s great to have that spirit of 1969 back again.

Once in a great while, and probably by mistake, Hollywood makes a terrific movie for intelligent adults. Please see First Man.

 

T-BALL COACH AGONISTES

Why are the MLB playoffs one of the few remaining American civic rituals not ruined by our current, culture-swallowing obsession with partisan politics? Maybe it’s because we realize that, like Lincoln’s “Mystic Chords of Memory,” the game’s legacy still helps bind our fractious nation. Lou Gehrig’s courage, Hank Aaron’s power, Willie Mays’ grace, Jackie Robinson’s heroism, Cal Ripken’s grit, Roberto Clemente’s magnanimity comprise much of what’s left of our unquestioned American pantheon.

I’ve never played a down of organized baseball, but I’ve always loved the game for its heroes and also because so many of my own indelible memories are wrapped around it: My father and I in a cheap Dallas hotel slapping each other on the back as Reggie hit homers on three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers in the ‘77 Series: Standing at Shea Stadium in reverent silence as an aged, pigeon-toed Say Hey Kid slowly trotted out to center field: Our beloved Astros defying their carved-in-stone choker heritage and pulling off an incredible win in the seventh game of the ’17 World Series.

While I never played organized ball, I did have a brush with it almost 25 years ago when I volunteered to announce my five-year old son’s T-Ball games over the field PA system.

Matt was on the Braves, so I’d always welcome the fans to the friendly confines of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Because the games were only five innings long, I instituted a second inning stretch, and my eight-year old daughter, Erin, would lead the fans in a merry rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. I also gave each player fearsome nicknames as I announced their at-bats: “And now, striding up to the plate, Matt “The King of Ding” Merkl!” There were also “The Princess of Power”, “The Baron of Bonk”, “The Czar of Far”, and my personal favorite, “The Ayatollah of Bye-Bye Ballah”.

The next year, the league called asking if I’d volunteer to coach T-Ball. I told them I didn’t know the first thing about playing baseball, but they were desperate, so I reluctantly agreed to coach Matt’s Dodgers. Panicked, I made a beeline for the library where I spent hours researching how to properly swing a bat, field grounders, slide, run the bases, and, well… play baseball. Wisely, I also asked Jim, a world-weary friend who’d actually played Little League, to be my assistant coach.

On Opening Day, the Dodgers all showed up looking very professional in their brand-new uniforms and stiff gloves. I noticed, however, that for some reason their baseball shoes all seemed to be levitating just above the ground, like Luke’s Landspeeder. Apparently, none of them weighed enough for their cleats to penetrate the sunbaked Corpus Christi ball field. I pointed this out to Jim, who mumbled, “If we lose today, it’s not going to be for want of traction.”

As the game settled in, I began to imagine myself as Billy Martin managing the mighty Yankees. I casually slung my arm over the dugout rail and worked a chaw of Dubble Bubble while plotting intricate game strategies. But, my reverie was shattered when I noticed that all my outfielders were running around together in crazy circles, then piling on top of each other, only to get back up and repeat the process, like a flock of deranged birds.

I turned to Jim, who was sitting on the bench with his head in his hands, and asked, “What the heck is going on out there?”

                Through his hands, Jim muttered, “Butterfly.”

“Oh.” I stopped chewing and removed my arm from the dugout rail.

                The game turned out to be a tight one. With 2 outs in the bottom of the fifth and nobody on base, the score was tied.

Our next batter somehow drilled a line drive into right field and jetted around the bases sliding just under the tag at third for an amazing triple. The crowd exploded, and the other team’s coach rushed out from their dugout to argue the call with the ump. Meanwhile, their third baseman and my runner – completely oblivious to the tumult surrounding them – were happily showing each other cool Hot Wheels that they had both somehow managed to sneak onto the field.

                I knew that Billy Martin would have charged toward third and maniacally joined in, arms flailing and feet kicking dirt on the ump. As I shot off the bench, Jim, staring straight ahead, hissed,” If you take one step out of this dugout, you’ll never see me again.” I sheepishly sat back down.

                Somehow, we managed to finish second that year, a fact that was completely lost on the Dodgers who were only interested in goofing around with each other in the dugout and free ice pops after the games.

                It may not seem like much to people who actually played baseball, but it’s a rare week that I don’t smile remembering my time coaching the mighty Dodgers.

ROTTEN ROTTEN TOMATOES

There’s a problem with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There’s also a problem with Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s the same problem: They overthink movies.
Last week, the Academy announced a new award for outstanding achievement in popular film, the so-called “Popcorn Oscar.” They had to create this condescending category because a top 10 box office movie hasn’t won a best-picture Oscar since 2004. For most people, this makes tuning in to the Oscars about as much fun as watching American Idol without actually getting to see the contestants perform.
Before 2004, popular movies used to win best-picture Oscars regularly. Academy members now seem to view popular success as an absolute disqualifier. Which is clearly loony because most great American movies were also box office gold.
The unwatchable, irrelevant Oscars can go the way of the dodo for all I care. What really worries me is Rotten Tomatoes, a new cultural force that seems intent on forcing Hollywood to make only the kind of dreary movies that would have a real chance of winning a best-picture Oscar.
Rotten Tomatoes is a website that gathers movie reviews from hundreds of critics; determines, using their own in-house process, whether each review is positive or negative; and then assigns them a Tomatometer score. Any movie at or above 60% positive reviews gets a “Fresh” score, below 60% gets a “Rotten.”  Simple enough.
But the Tomatometer scores have become so crazy powerful that most movies adjudged rotten usually don’t make much money. Which means movies similar to those they deem rotten are less likely to be made in the future. That’s way too much cultural clout for a dinky website with 36 employees.
 The problem is that most movie critics are of the tendentious, virtue signaling variety. They like movies that most people would only watch if they were strapped to a chair with their eyelids pried open, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The forgotten best-picture winners for the last four years, all of which received over 90% Tomatometer scores, pretty much give you the flavor.
By and large, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like comedies that are unironically funny. And they hate action movies if Americans are unambiguously the good guys and the bad guys are truly evil. You know, the kind of movies people actually like, reminisce about with their friends, and watch on TV over and over again.
I bring all this up because I saw Mile 22 last week which received a whopping 21% Tomatometer score. And, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, I liked it.
It’s a Mark Wahlberg, American hero, shoot ‘em up also starring the very dangerous Ronda Rousey; Ika Uwais, the baddest martial artist in movies; and John Malkovich, who coolly delivers the only cool line of the summer. In other words – and this is very high praise for a movie – it has absolutely no shot at winning a best-picture Oscar.
If you could use a little break from your seemingly unsolvable problems, and if, like most South Texans, you’re sick and tired of it being as hot as the devil’s instep outside, then Mile 22 just may be the movie for you.
Best of all, if you see it, you get to poke at the exquisitely delicate sensibilities of our cultural overlords at Rotten Tomatoes.

 

AIR CONDITIONING IS LIFE

If you flit from one air-conditioned space to another, you can forget that, from April through September, South Texas is uninhabitable. I’d managed to forget, until a recent Thursday night when my wife intruded on my Astros stupor and asked, “Is it hot in here to you?”
I reached up to a vent; it was blowing hot. And suddenly, all hope was swept from the universe, because I knew from bitter experience that this could cost me as much as $8,000.
After a long, sleepless night marinating under a languid fan, I located an AC repair company that could send a tech at 10 a.m.
A smiling Bernie (not his real name) arrived right on time and disappeared into the attic. I paced the floor beneath him like an expectant father as I awaited the verdict, pausing only to stare intently at the ceiling each time he moved around or dropped a tool.
After 20 minutes, he reappeared and said everything checked out fine, but he needed to see the condenser unit. We went outside, were immediately attacked by a thousand ravenous mosquitoes, and hastily retreated into the house where Bernie doused himself with repellent. As he bravely stepped back outside, I felt like Katharine Hepburn watching Bogie slide back into the leech infested Zambezi.
Fifteen minutes later, he came back inside and told me he’d tweaked a few things, but the condenser checked out OK. I reached up to a vent; it was blowing cold.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” he answered.
That weekend, the conditional condition of my air conditioner loomed over me like a sword of Damocles.
The AC worked until Monday at 8 p.m., when a telltale heartbeat sound began emanating from the attic. Because no air was flowing from the vents, I turned the AC off and the sound stopped.
I called the repair company and a still smiling Bernie showed up a half hour later. I told him about the heartbeat, and he climbed into the attic. After ten minutes, he shouted, “Turn it on!” I did, and it worked fine. As he descended the ladder, I asked what he’d done?
“Nothing, really,” he answered. “Tell me about the sound.”
I told him it went THWUMP every second, just like a heartbeat. He raised an eyebrow and said he’d never heard an AC THWUMP. I called my wife over to testify that she’d heard it, too. He gazed at us for a moment, said it was working fine now, and left. A half hour later: THWUMP, THWUMP.
I hustled up to the attic, made a video of the THWUMP, and texted it to the repair company.
We spent another long, sleepless night sautéing under a sheet.
When I called early the next morning, the office manager happily told me that all the techs had watched my video, were convinced it was the motor, and Bernie would be there at 3 to change it out.
I rushed home by 3, and, just for grins, turned on the AC. Naturally, it ran fine. When Bernie showed up at 3:45, he explained that because my motor was under warranty, he could only replace it if the AC wasn’t working. He waited a while in my rapidly cooling house, but eventually went out to his truck and returned with the bill. Just as I was about to sign it: THWUMP, THWUMP.
He hurried for the attic but stopped when he remembered his tools were in the truck. I told him I’d get his tools and ran to fetch them. After 5 minutes, he climbed down the ladder and announced it was definitely the motor. He changed it out, and I thanked him profusely for his hard work and perseverance.
That night my wife and I were luxuriating in the wonder of conditioned air when at 8:10 p.m.: THWUMP THWUMP.
Despairing, I called the repair company. The office manager practically wept when I told her the heartbeat was back. Forlornly, she said she’d call Larry (not his real name) and hung up. Who’s Larry, I wondered?
An hour passed and no one called. My wife and I agreed that if Bernie had abandoned us, we needed to buy a new system.
Then someone knocked at the door.
“I hate your house,” Bernie said as he stepped inside.
“So do I,” I admitted. “You came back!”
“I couldn’t leave you like this,” he said.
He climbed into the attic and came down a few minutes later holding a tiny electronic box.
“I changed this part out,” he said. “I’m going home”
“You’re not leaving!” I protested. “When you leave, it breaks! We’ll make up a bed for you!”
“No, this time it’s fixed.”
“Alright, but if you see someone running down Rodd Field Road chasing after your truck screaming, ‘It’s THWUMPing again!’ pull over.”
Here’s to my AC that’s been running for two weeks (knock on wood). But most of all, here’s to heroic Bernie and his fellow AC techs who make South Texas somewhat habitable.