Thursday, October 19, 2006

Signs of Intelligent Life

The other day I was driving into the city of Great Bend. There was a sign at the side of the road which read: “Jack Kilby Nobel Prize Winner 2000 Physics”. Now, I assume the sign was there because Great Bend was claiming one of its own. The brainy Mr. Kilby must have been born in town or at least spent some of his formative years there. There was no explanation whatsoever, so this is all conjecture on my part. As it stands it could simply be a wonderful little tidbit of information kindly placed on a sign as a public service to individuals who are traveling the highways and byways of the great state of Kansas.
This may be something the Commissioner of Education should discuss with the Highway Commissioner. (They both work in Topeka. It shouldn’t be that hard to find each other. I’m sure the education guy has the alphabetizing skills to look up the highway guy in the directory and the highway guy ought to have the map skills necessary to navigate to the education guy’s office.) The government could place signs all over the state which would offer a vehicular curriculum.
Many people think driving through Kansas ranks on the exciting meter somewhere between watching paint dry and watching paint dry on the Regis and That-Girl-Who-Isn’t-Kathie-Lee television show. Placing thought provoking and intellectually stimulating material every few yards would fight that stereotype, as well as some other preconceived notions about the intelligence level of your run of the mill Kansan. Face it; Kansas hasn’t exactly gotten the best press over the past few…decades. I was watching a television show the other day and one character made reference to something which he considered obscure news. The response by the hip young executive woman was, “People in Kansas know about it.” This is verbal shorthand for even people who are horribly backward and out of touch know about it. Ouch! I do not subscribe to this school of thought. If I did I would have to contemplate going into the nearest biker bar and calling the largest and hairiest person available a showtune loving nancy boy. (At least it is a creative suicide.)
Pardon the digression please; I will get back to the idea of a “Road to Enlightenment.” Every other state in the country will continue to use the same old numbering system for their highways. You know, “Take 40 for about fifty miles then jump on 25 going south.” Boring! Kansas will have all these great educational signs on our roads and we can name them after the subjects they teach. So if a person wants to go to Salina from Dodge City the directions would sound more like this: “Head east on highway Introduction to Psychology, then you can turn left onto state highway English Literature…” Doesn’t that sound interesting as well as educational?
The highways that go the length of the state could have an entire course of study. The American History highway starting at the Colorado border would begin with the Asian migration to Northern America via the Bering Straits land bridge. At about Colby Leif Erickson and his Viking buddies are discussed on those green and white reflective textbooks. At Hays we start colonization and by the time we get to Missouri we have completed the Civil War. If people want to get up to present day they need to make a u-turn and go back to Colorado. This helps with economic development as well. People who need that sense of completion, or the college credit, have to keep eating at our restaurants and staying in our hotels.
Experts often say the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it by going to another country. The idea is there is greater motivation to speak the unfamiliar tongue. If Kansas makes the highway system surrounding Wichita all in French learning it would become a priority. If the only way to get out of the construction zones on Kellog was to translate the following phrase: “L'allée gauche est le seul moyen pour échapper ce purgatoire de baril orange” people would parler le français.
Some subjects could be tailored to fit in specific locations in the state. Existential archetypes found in the collected works of the Harlequin Romance series would just about fit between Hutchinson and South Hutchinson. Hugoton to Elkhart is a stretch of road people might actually be willing to do algebra as they traveled it. This idea just might work.

P.S. I love the fact the internet can be used to quickly find the French words for: The left lane is the only way to escape this orange barrel purgatory. Cool huh?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The loss of one Buck has made us poor

I know this is supposed to be a humor column, but I am going to ask everyone to bear with me for a while.

Buck O’Neil died Friday October 6, 2006. He was a ninety-four year old man so the fact he passed away cannot be a big shock. Ninety-four year old men die on a daily basis. It is what Buck O’Neil did on a daily basis during his life that makes it necessary to mark his passing. Everyday of his life he spread joy, knowledge and compassion. Everyday of his life he embraced not only his own life, but every life he came in contact with, and he made it a point to come in contact with as many lives as he could. Buck O’Neil was something which is not talked about nearly enough in today’s news media and even our culture. He was a good man.

If you do not know who Buck was I suggest you spend some time finding out. Let me give a brief historical look.

John “Buck” O’Neil was born in 1911 in Florida. This of course meant his life was restricted. He was a black man long before Martin Luther King Jr. and people of his sort caused great change in our country. Martin Luther King Jr. actually followed the trail blazed by Buck and others of his courage.

Buck loved baseball. He hung out around the spring training parks in Florida and saw the greats of that generation. He played baseball in the Negro Leagues. He managed baseball in the Negro Leagues. He saw all the greats of that generation, black and white. He was the first black man hired by a major league team as a coach. He scouted for teams for decades. He saw all the greats of a few more generations. He loved what he did.

In 1994, Ken Burns made a long form documentary about the history of baseball. Buck O’Neil became a star. His easy-going story-telling made him a joy to watch. Even when he told of the horrible treatment of black players in his athletic heyday he did so without malice and with an air of humanity which showed his strength of character.

Now for a funny story:

Buck was friends with Satchel Paige. Paige is considered by many people to be the greatest pitcher ever. Satchel was a character and lived a full life. Satchel called Buck by the name of Nancy. Here is my attempt to tell the story of how Buck O’Neil was christened Nancy.

Satchel Paige was a bit of a ladies man, actually more than a bit. On one road trip Satchel struck up an acquaintance with a lovely young lady named Nancy. Unfortunately Satchel’s fiancée showed up in town. So Satchel has his fiancée in his hotel room and his new friend is in another hotel room quite nearby. Buck is also staying on the same floor. Once Satchel believes his fiancée is asleep he sneaks out of his room to find Nancy. Since he is being sneaky he is quietly knocking on her door and whispering “Nancy, Nancy.” That is when Buck hears Satchel’s fiancée get up and come to her door. Being the quick-thinking good friend that he is Buck rushed out his door and says to Satchel, “Here I am, Satchel.” Satchel, being no dummy himself simply responds, “Oh, Nancy, there you are. I’ve been looking for you.” Satchel and Buck stuck to their story for years. Satchel Paige called Buck “Nancy” for the rest of his life.

I did have the pleasure of being in the same room with him once years ago. They were having a big fundraiser party for his pet project the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. For some completely unknown reason I got an invitation. I couldn’t afford to go, but I did it anyway. There were hundreds of people there, many of them very famous individuals. I was able to step up to the man at his table and hand him a baseball. He signed the ball and handed it back to me. I said to him something he had heard thousands of times before, “It is an honor to meet you, sir.” He simply gave me a big grin and said, “Thank you.” There were a couple dozen people standing behind me to get his autograph so I moved on. The smile was genuine. The thank you was genuine. The man was genuine.

Buck O’Neil lived life with a smile. He didn't complained, and heaven knows he had valid reasons to. He sang whenever he had the chance. He had a policy of never walking by a woman who was wearing a red dress without stopping to talk to her. Just think about the improvement to our lives if what this “Buck” exemplified was the actually currency of the land.