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.
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.
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.
With one word, one of my fellow passengers perfectly described the experience of modern air travel.
I was recently waiting to board a 737 in yet another cookie-cutter terminal located somewhere in the USA. The flight had already been delayed three times, so when it was finally announced we’d be departing shortly, all 150 of us rushed expectantly toward the boarding area.
We stood there for another 20 minutes in an angry, sweltering mob with no explanation for the additional delay from the harried gate attendant. I locked eyes with the guy next to me who smiled wanly and said, “Moo.” That pretty much sums it all up.
Ten years ago, airlines sold 73% of their seats. Today, thanks to algorithms, they’re filling 84%. This increase has led to higher profits, but at the price of customer sanity. More passengers mean overcrowded boarding areas, slower boarding times, less room in overhead bins, stressed-out flight attendants, and a general, dehumanizing feeling of being herded.
My recent flight delay caused me to miss the last late-night connecting flight to Corpus Christi. As I stepped off the plane at DFW, an airline employee hurried by and handed me a boarding pass for a flight at 9 the next morning. “What am I supposed to do for the next 10 hours?” I asked as she rushed away. She shouted over her shoulder that she’d try to find me a hotel, and then promptly disappeared for a half-hour.
When she finally came back, she said the only nearby hotel with a vacancy was located in another terminal inside the airport. I told her that sounded great and asked for directions.
The hotel was hard to spot because it was just a retail storefront among many others in the terminal. As I approached the front desk, the pretty, perky clerk gave me a big smile and asked,”Are you planning to take a shower?”
After a hard day on the road, I figured I probably didn’t smell great, but still the question struck me as odd. “Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s $20 more to take a shower.”
“How would you know if I took a shower in my bathroom?”
“There’s no bathroom in your room. There’s only one shower, and it’s located down the hall.”
“What if I need to use the restroom in the middle of the night?”
“There’s a men’s room in the terminal.”
“There’s a men’s room in the terminal?“
She gave me another big smile, and said, “We’re not really a hotel. We’re more like a place to take a nap.”
Suffice it to say I spent a sleepless night in a tiny, frigid room curled up on a five-foot-long plastic upholstered couch shivering under the kind of blanket they give you for free if you subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The long night was interrupted only by my middle of the night, sleepwalking, sleep-haired trek through the terminal to get to the men’s room, which greatly amused everyone in the vicinity, except me.
The next morning, I was sitting bleary-eyed in my tiny window seat on a tiny jet to Corpus Christi watching as a very nice, very huge man was shimmying his hips like Shakira to try to fit between the armrests of the tiny seat next to me. It soon became apparent that this was impossible, so the stewardess reached over and raised the armrest between us. As he crashed into his seat, I was smashed up against the bulkhead like a swatted fly. For the next hour and sixteen minutes, our bodies were in constant, intimate, sweaty contact. As I finally deplaned, I thought the least the airline could have done was offered me a cigarette.
Believe me, I appreciate the speed of air travel and its relative affordability. And I also understand that narrow seats and full planes help keep ticket prices low. I’m just suggesting that the airline industry keep in mind that the cold, hard numbers in their algorithms represent human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.