Codell's Lament

This column appeared Tuesday, November 21, 2017 in the Manhattan Mercury.


Travel east on the Saline River Road off U.S. Highway 183 in far northern Ellis County, Kansas. You’re in the heart of the Saline River valley, surrounded on the north and south by canyons and bluffs, some more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

Not Rocky Mountains, by any means, but it tops the mental list of places I draw from to debunk out-of-state friends’ myths and preconceptions about Kansas flatness.

Past Horsethief Canyon and you’re soon at a wide spot in the limestone gravel road. The local vehicles look as though they've been dusted with talcum powder. This was once Turkville, Kansas. Founded by a handful of Tennessee Baptists in 1876 who perhaps just grew weary of Reconstruction, packed up and headed west. Among them was my great-great grandfather, the Reverend Allen Lewis King.

A mile further into the valley and head north. Uphill into the bluffs. The Saline is a meanderer. You will cross the river six times in the span of two miles. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the county commissioners in the courthouse complaining about all the infrastructure upkeep.

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Now, you’re on top of the bluff. Slow down. Take in the view. With apologies to Streisand, on a clear day, you can see Osborne County.

Further north downhill and before long, you find yourself in Codell, a hamlet of a few dozen hearty souls, tucked into the hills of the Saline River valley, nine miles downstream from Plainville on Paradise Creek. Along the way you have crossed over into Rooks County. You’re almost dead center between Denver and Kansas City. Codell’s trend line is headed south and will one day join Turkville in ‘limestone gravel road wide spot’ status. I give ‘em one generation.

A few years ago, I took a television crew to Codell for a documentary I wrote and directed on the impact of shifting Kansas populations. A wizened, craggy ol’ lifer who ambled out to see whuddup, offered Codell’s lament.

“We done shifted.”

A kid named Victor Ordway was born in Codell in 1910. Three years later, the Reverend King’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Bemis, was born in Turkville.

A century ago, Codell’s population was 175. Today, it may be half that, if you count stray dogs. Codell’s claim to fame is being hit by a tornado on the same date three years in a row: May 20, 1916-18. Victor loved to entertain audiences with the story of how, on May 20, 1919, at age 9, he climbed the highest tree in town and hollered to the heavens to ward off a fourth annual calamity.

“It worked,” he would later regale. “No tornado that day.”

Victor first met Elizabeth when she walked into his father’s general store in Codell with her cousin.

“She was the most beautiful of anyone I’d known. I knew within an instant, she was meant to be my own,” Victor would later write. Initially, Elizabeth was unimpressed. She turned him down for dates several times before finally relenting, and then only on the condition that her cousin and her boyfriend come along. They married in 1932 in the parsonage of a Baptist preacher in Hays. Three kids. My mom’s the middle one. Vic and Libby lived their entire lives in Ellis and Rooks Counties.

In the global scheme, I haven’t gotten much further. Wichita, Hays, back to Wichita, Topeka, Manhattan. As a kid in Rooks County and Wichita, I wanted Kansas in my rear-view mirror and began planning my escape at an early age. L.A., Chicago or New York. It didn’t matter. How you gonna keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen the bright lights of the big city?

Victor Ordway died in 1992, Elizabeth eight years later. Our family’s last human connection to western Kansas. That’s typical of my generation of Kansans.

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This land around Turkville and Codell, it’s unlike anywhere else in Kansas and I’ve been in all 105 counties. Sweetwater Canyon is a few miles further along as the Saline twists east by southeast. I went to a party there once and had one been dropped in blindfolded, one would swear the place was in Colorado or the Black Hills.

From Codell, aim for the sunset. Travel nine miles. Now, you’re roughly paralleling the Saline, on the northern slope of the valley bluffs. There’s a rambling family farmhouse on the south side of the road. That’s where Mom grew up.

Of three siblings, turns out I’m the only one who stayed in Kansas. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe, maybe not, but often, I find myself thinking about why I stayed. When I travel to or through Ellis and Rooks County, invariably I’ll get off the highway and drive past the old home place or through the Saline River Valley.

Everyone’s family starts someplace. Trace ours to the Saline River Valley of northwest-central Kansas.

Manson Delivers

It was a setup from the getgo.

The Regional Distribution Manager (his caps) sat in our living room weaving a tale of wealth and riches. The folks knew this guy from church. Our neighborhood needed a new paper boy and it seems I was a likely candidate.

Subtly wooed.

I could pull in as much as 25 bucks a week delivering newspapers. In 1971, that was some serious coin for a seventh-grader. To earn it, the Wichita Eagle needed to be on the front porches of Pleasant Valley by 6 a.m., seven days a week. The Wichita Beacon by 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And if I learned a little about responsibility along the way, all for the good.

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My first morning on the job was a Sunday. Up at 4 a.m. with my brand new front-and-back white canvas bag emblazoned with bright red lettering: WICHITA EAGLE-BEACON. MORNING-EVENING-SUNDAYS. The thing was friggin’ huge. It damn near swallowed me up and this was before I loaded it up with papers. At 13, I was not exactly a hulking specimen. The growth spurt was a couple years away.

Approaching the street corner where the papers are dropped, my eyes get bigger and my heart pounds faster. Anxiety creeps in. Panic close on its heels. Standing before me are four stacks of newspapers. Each up to my chin. Turns out the combined Sunday edition of the Eagle-Beacon is a behemoth, as dailies go.

Who knew?

Later, I got up even earlier and using my bicycle, strategically positioned the stacks along the route where I could re-supply without having to backtrack.

Effective and efficient.

Back then, paper boys were actually in charge of physically picking up the subscription fees. Door-to-door. “Collecting,” in the parlance of the trade.

Get up. Throw the Eagle. Go to school. Throw the Beacon. Eat dinner with the fam. Collect. Repeat.

One little old lady on the route with rapidly fading faculties was a predictable chronic pain.

“Collecting for the Eagle-Beacon.” My standard line, while leaning on the doorbell.

“What? Who’s there?”

“It’s Mike Matson, your trusty neighborhood paper boy, and I’m collecting for the newspaper.”

“Manson?”

Every week the same thing. “Manson?”

Every week I had to convince this lady that I was not a crazed California killer with a cult-like following bent on starting an apocalyptic race war. Just a 13-year old white boy from the ‘hood tryna earn a buck.

Helter Skelter, lady. You owe me two-fifty.

I threw papers for a couple of years and then moved on to higher-paying gigs. Passed the paper route on to my brother.

All yours, David. Tell the old lady over on Carlock you’re Manson’s kid brother.

Where the Lightning Meets the Pasture

This column appeared in the Manhattan Mercury Tuesday, November 7, 2017.


Bumping along in the passenger seat of my father’s white-over-green 1965 GMC pickup truck, we saw lightning strike one of our pastures across the limestone gravel road. Pop slammed on the brakes, wheeled around and sped toward the fire.

We turned cattle out on this grass. No grass meant skinny cows. My father was subtracting numbers in his mind as the bluestem burned. His hired man lived next to the burning pasture. They grabbed some grain shovels and attacked the flames.

At age six, I took it upon myself to extinguish the burning cow chips by stomping on them in my rubber-soled Keds. Sacrifice your sneakers for the good of the family farm.

Boy up.

My father was not born into farming. When he landed in Rooks County, Kansas in 1947 as a teenager, it was as far east as he had ever been. It was there he met my mother and her father, the man whom he would credit as having the single greatest influence on his life. Pop always envisioned a career on the land back in the west as a conservationist or forest ranger. After four years in the Navy and another four earning an agronomy degree at K-State, he entered into a partnership with his father-in-law and Kansas became home.    

Dad would work the cattle on horseback. No cowboy, him. He rarely wore blue jeans and I don’t remember ever seeing him in a cowboy hat or pointed toe boots. Khaki work pants, a greasy ol’ khaki ballcap and lace-up work boots.

My father started a hog operation from scratch. Built a hog house on the western boundary of our farm (downwind, thankfully) and was among the first in western Kansas to artificially inseminate swine. A little something he picked up from the land grant school.

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I remember tagging along when he was “fixin’ fence.” A freebie promotional canvas nail apron from the lumber yard with pockets full of horseshoe-shaped staple nails and a brown rubber-handled hammer that he used the rest of his life in his suburban Wichita garage workshop.

Wheat in the summer, milo in the fall, pasture grass, cow-calf, hogs. We had two horses, Ginger and Comanche, and a pony named Bucky. Me and Bucky went ‘round and ‘round. A combine. Two tractors. Implements. A three-quarter ton grain truck, a state-of-the-art navy blue Harvestore granary. Land and capital-intensive. Debt inducing. Operating loans from the bank secured on a handshake.

Pop died a couple of years ago. He knew the end was coming and used his last three years to re-connect with me. Purposeful conversations and reminiscences that led me to write a book about his troubled childhood with alcoholic parents. Talking about the farm, my father shared with me that despite the pride he took in his innovation, he struggled to get his head and heart around all the debt.

“One day, I was sitting on the tractor and I heard the voice tell me it’s time to do something else.”

I once told that story to a farmer friend who was my father’s age. “A lot of us hear that voice. Few of us listen.”

Pop’s instincts were pulling him toward more predictable economics. He and Mom had the courageous conversation, sold the farm, paid off the debts, and earned a post-graduate degree in education at Fort Hays State. In the summer of 1966, he accepted a job teaching 7th and 8th grade science at Brooks Junior High in Wichita.

At one point or another, we all hear the voice. It’s how we respond that shapes our lives. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

That’s where the lightning meets the grass pasture.

He was in his early 30’s with a wife and three small children. There may have been order to this life, but there was not peace of mind. There’s an enormous difference.

From the tractor seat of the red Massey Ferguson, the voice was telling him that selling the farm was a way to fulfill his responsibility as the breadwinner.

To step closer to peace of mind.

Theorosa's Bridge

This column ran Tuesday, October 24, in the Manhattan Mercury.


Over the next several nights, on a bridge spanning Jester Creek north by northeast of where it spills out from the Little Arkansas River north of Wichita, teenagers will be doing what comes naturally.

It’s Halloween week at Theorosa’s Bridge. Anyone coming of age in the northern environs of Wichita knows some version of Theorosa’s story. My favorite went like this:

Theorosa was a married Mennonite farm wife. She got knocked up after a roll in the hay with the hired man. When the baby arrived, she simply could not live with the shame of illegitimacy so she chucked the kid in the drink. Shortly thereafter, incapacitated by her guilt, Theorosa jumped in and drowned her own bad self.

As ghost stories go, this one’s grounded in a pretty compelling narrative.

Theorosa’s ghost roamed the creek near the bridge site when I was a teenager and there she will linger long after dark this coming week. Her malevolent spirit shows up when wide-eyed, freshly scrubbed youth from Pleasant Valley or nearby Valley Center, Park City or Sedgwick stand on the bridge and summon her.

“Theorosa... I HAVE YOUR BABY!”

I never saw Theorosa’s ghost. But on her bridge, the breathing was heavy.

When planning a visit to Theorosa’s bridge, one tended to worry not so much about the machinations of conjuring up her ghost, but about how one might be able to use these specific means toward another specific end. There were certain characteristics one would seek, when scaring up a date for an adventure to Theorosa’s bridge. Preferably, the uninitiated. I mean, my God, the circumstances alone can foster fear. I almost peed my pants my first time.

It’s Halloween. It’s dark. Then throw in the ghost story.

It washed over me this week. After a meeting in Newton, I was Wichita-bound off the beaten path on old U.S. 81. I said to myself, “Self, Theorosa’s bridge is around here somewhere.” A hard right on 109th Street and within moments, I found myself standing on Theorosa’s bridge and it’s yesterday once more.

Jester Creek never gives up her dead.

Jester Creek never gives up her dead.

Very specific sensory memories.

The sharp crack of the pull tab. Hip hugger bell-bottomed jeans. A jingle from twin speakers installed in the back dash, “The Rock of Wichita K-E-YYY-N.” Sweaty palms. The fuzziness of the swig. A whiff of Charlie perfume. The drum riff from Heart’s Crazy On You.

Working and practicing our night moves. The swagger and misplaced confidence in retelling the narrative to friends yet to experience an after dark visit to Theorosa’s bridge. REO was right. The tales grow taller on down the line.

Theorosa’s bridge is the essence of the coming of age narrative.

Its first iteration was a wood and iron structure allowing passage across Jester Creek. The bridge burned down a couple of times in the ‘70s and the most recent iteration went up in 1991. A brass plaque imbedded in the concrete parapet carries the names of the County Commissioners who, no doubt, carefully studied its feasibility and fulfilled their capital improvement strategy. I went to high school with one of their daughters. Today, I think she teaches law at KU.

Small, these circles in which we run, as middle age draws nigh.

Theorosa’s bridge was more than wood and iron back then and today, judging from the graffiti, I suspect it’s more than just concrete and rebar. Infrastructure comes and goes. Ghosts and the stories emanating therefrom, endure.

Some believe Theorosa lived, offed her baby and herself and her spirit came back to haunt any who dare tread nearby in the dark. Others, be they freshly scrubbed, or adorned with that first patina of life experience, dismiss the ghost story but take advantage of the narrative to promulgate another agenda. Or maybe just fulfill their societal expectation.

There is magic in the narrative... and in the memories.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

 

Point and Shoot

I feel a little guilty.

Lately, I’ve been taking pictures and sharing them via social media. Laudatory comments posted in their wake have me scratching my incrementally enlarging forehead. A friend mentioned it in person yesterday and I tried to self-deprecate my way out if it.

“Dude, all I do is point and shoot.”     

My first camera was a Brownie, but I was so clueless that I’d take the film spool in and out, then scratch my 10-year old forehead, wondering why my pictures never turned out. The Kodak Pocket Instamatic with idiot-proof self-contained film cartridges saved me from myself.

My father had an expensive camera and took photos of our family vacations all over the western United States. As a teacher of physics and geology, friends and family did their best to remain attentive during his seemingly endless slide carousel presentations, projected on the off-white living room wall.  

“… and here’s ANOTHER upfolded anticline basalt ridge!”

Yawn.  

In high school, I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades on the yearbook staff. Writing, taking pictures, laying out pages. Back then, fingertip photo cropping involved contact sheets, grease pencils, rubber cement and Exact-o knives.

Wichita Heights yearbook. In the bathroom, using up some remaining frames in that roll of film. 

Wichita Heights yearbook. In the bathroom, using up some remaining frames in that roll of film. 

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to be associated with photojournalists with real talent and skill. Print and video. As a political reporter at WIBW-TV, most of my subject matter was committee rooms full of people. From Don Brown, I learned not to shoot the backs of people’s heads and to search for the visually appealing component of every setting. Steve Entz, whom I hired to shoot television documentaries after we had both long since departed Menninger Hill in Topeka, taught me the moments shortly after sunrise and before sunset are “golden,” when the light is softer.    

From experience, I have gleaned these basics: Keep the light source between you and your subject. When shooting video, don’t move the camera around. Lock it down and allow the motion to move through the frame. A big part of it is right place, right time.

Digital photography makes me appear more talented than I am. My new Google Pixel phone has a sweet camera built into it, but don’t ask me specs. On a technology knowledge (say that real fast three times) scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolutely clueless and 10 being brain implanted cognitive artificial intelligence, I suspect I’m about a 2.5.

Maybe I do know just a little bit more than the average bear about taking pics. I still lay no claim to any special photography talent. I guess do lay claim to having journalistic instincts, honed since childhood, now that I think about it.      

We’re not quite a generation into the evolution of social media. It’s proven to be the most powerful communications vehicle to come along since the dawn of man. My father’s basalt ridge slides were limited to living room gatherings. If they want to, anyone on the planet can see a pic of my wife in her purple go-go boots.

Just like the Internet (btw, why’s Internet capitalized like the Bible?) and technology has makes everyone a journalist, it also makes everyone a moviemaker and/or photographer. It’s a better, faster, more efficient method of delivering or sharing ideas than, say, a high school yearbook.

When it’s all said and done (and we’re rapidly nearing that point with this blog entry), it’s all communication. Better tools make a better craftsperson.

OK never mind. If you wanna keep raving over my pics, knock yourself out. I’ll do my best to keep it all in context.

 

Sketchy Dudes, Ratty Cars

I probably should have called the cops.

A sketchy looking dude was slumped in a ratty car parked directly across the street. I wish I could say this occurrence is an anomaly in my neck of the Manhattan woods. Sketchy looking dudes slumped in ratty vehicles have appeared off and on directly across the street for years, causing me no direct harm.

Live and let live.     

Our ‘hood is a baby boomer, most of the houses built in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was annexed into the city shortly before we moved in, nearly 20 years ago, allowing for city services. Before that it was septic tanks and water wells all up in here. It’s not a cul-de-sac, but it is one big loop, limiting the reasons for anyone who doesn’t live here, to be here.  

Easy to see why the developers picked this area. We’re built into a Flint Hill (actually, more of a Flint Gradual Incline). There are some massive cottonwoods interspersed that predate the houses. One of them is ours. We love it, even though the behemoth drops literally three dozen full-size lawn and leaf bags worth this time of year. Yeah, I counted.

It’s a quiet neighborhood. Smattering of professional couples, some young families with kids, a few Fort Riley families, handful of retirees. A hipster couple recently moved in down the street and painted their house mustard yellow, trimmed in burgundy. A bright, welcome change of pace from our white, beige, grey and forest green system norm. Couple of rentals, inhabited by college kids. You can tell by the out-of-county plates and occasional Sunday morning collection of red Solo cups in the driveway. (Every Cat a Wild Man).

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On neighborhood garage sale days, we empty our closets and garages of the junk that until that weekend we thought we could not live without and proceed to live without it. Occasionally, a neighborhood potluck. The retirees bring casseroles and sliced bananas congealed in lime Jell-O, the professional couples bring three-bean salad from Dillon’s and the hipsters bring hummus. 

A few years ago, a then-college student niece called while house/dog sitting, worried about some sketchy looking dude slumped in a ratty car parked across the street. Don’t sweat it, I told her. They’re harmless. I never gave much thought to why they might be there. So long as they’re not interfering with my life, it’s none of my business, really.     

About a year ago, headed home one afternoon, I pull into the loop behind the Riley County Police Department’s crime scene truck. As I near my house, I see a couple of parked squad cars, blue and red lights flashing, three or four cops in Kevlar, and some people whom I don’t recognize, handcuffed.

Directly across the street.

Yikes.

The next day’s arrest report revealed my neighbors were snagged in a dragnet stemming from a months-long investigation spanning two counties. Distribution of methamphetamine.

Ever since the bust, I’ve kept my distance, not that we were ever best buds anyway. We would exchange the occasional wave while mowing our respective Flint Gradual Incline lawns. How would I engage in small talk now? “Say neighbor, how goes the crank business?”      

Just a couple of months ago, I came home to find more squad cars with lights flashing, this time at the loop entrance, officers on foot, obviously searching for someone. A few weeks later, more cops a couple doors down, called to quell what I took to be a domestic dispute. As far as I know, these incidents are unrelated.   

Has ours become a neighborhood in transition? Lately, I find myself thinking about property values. I’m no real estate expert, but I can’t imagine felony crime directly across the street as a selling point.     

Recently we’ve thought about getting a gun. Thoughts breed discussions which lead to decisions. Still in the thinking phase, but would the thought have entered my mind, absent the series of sketchy looking dudes slumped in ratty cars parked directly across the street and the subsequent arrests?

What if I had called the cops? Looking sketchy, bad posture and driving a ratty car may be gauche, but it’s not illegal.

Since the arrests, the sketchy looking dudes slumped in ratty cars have been fewer and further between, but they’ve not vanished completely. What are they doing there? Logic, common sense and recent history lead me to some educated guesses. Where’s the sweet spot between minding my own business and squealing on potential neighborhood tweakers?

Bittersweet Symphony

We’re at the ballpark in Kansas City. The season is over and still, we linger. The Diamondbacks are bound for the playoffs and the Royals are bound for change. By now, the song rings familiar. Five key players are free agents. We can’t afford all of them. Maybe one.   

My son and I have this theory about young men who throw 100 mph fastballs in the big leagues. The human anatomy is not built for it, so these guys have a shelf life. It’s five or six years, with a year off in the middle for surgery and rehab. Then they’re done. See: Kelvin Herrera.  

It’s not a new or novel theory. It also applies to NFL running backs and forest fires. Burn hot for a finite period then fade.    

Eric John Hosmer is a big market commodity in a small market. We have watched him evolve into a big leaguer, as a ballplayer and leader of men. One minute he’s laying into Yordano Ventura for immaturity, the next he’s speaking on behalf of the entire organization paying tribute to Yordano’s life. 

Hosmer and Moustakas. Moustakas and Hosmer. Hoz and Moose. It’s hard to imagine coming to the K and not seeing these two anchoring the infield. Mike Moustakas and his legitimate, uncontrived rah-rah. Wiping sweat from his brow with the lapel of his uni. The latter-day Balboni.

Moooooose.

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Lorenzo Cain is injury-prone and will be 32 next spring. Shelf life waning. Learned our lesson, right? See: Alex Gordon. Locaine’s smile lights up the Louisiana Purchase. I will miss his talking-without-saying-anything postgame interviews.

“Def’nitely… guys are def’nitely doin’ their thang to get on base…”

Alcides Escobar is a slick-fielding shortstop who hits .250. Dime a dozen, right? Mondesi can do that, right? Slick fielding shortstops who hit .250 and an inside the park home run on the first pitch to the home team in Game 1 of the World Series? Never happen again.

We were there. Barely. I’d picked up Jackie from KCI after a day of flight hassles. Ignoring her checked bag, she sprinted from the gate and we rocketed the Ford Escape down I-29 at 3-digit speeds, reaching our seats in the nick of time.

Our own personal Royals forest fire. Heat and combustion at its apex.

These guys kept the line moving together. Tipped their caps to one another together. Celebrated in goggles together, suffered and grieved together.

Jackie and I were not going to come to this game. The Royals were mathematically eliminated last week and my heart wasn’t in it. Then she said, “This is my team and I want to see them one last time.”

Gulp, he said, lump rising in his throat. The shelf life of my remaining reluctance expired and I realized once again why she’s the yin to my yang.

We watch the Diamondbacks in their awful uniforms declare victory and depart the field. For their fans’ sake, I hope their wild card game Wednesday, like ours which ended three years ago today, begins a postseason phoenix ascendancy.

We watch our guys shaking hands and man hugging, shed a tear, but know in our aching hearts there is no shelf life to bleeding powder blue. This passion did not come cheap.

The song has become a bittersweet symphony.

Our team won the World Series in 1985 and 2015. That puts us right on track to do it again in 2045. I’ll be 80-something. My son will be about my age now. Off his own precipice. Into middle age. He promises to take me. 

Big Biological Misunderstanding

I am not allergic to anything.

Strawberries and peanuts? Bring ‘em on. I have so much tolerance for lactose that I oughta do a testimonial for the dairy farmers. If there was a way to insist on extra gluten in the bread on my Chicken Bacon Ranch Melt at Subway, you would find me at the head of that queue. Shellfish? Can’t get enough of those exoskeleton-bearing aquatic invertebrates. If only I lived closer to bodies of aqua. Ragweed, sagebrush, pollen? Gimme a coupla lungful’s. It’s like breathing fresh air.  

The women in my life, however, are not so fortunate.  

My wife, mother and sister have suffered much of their lives. As a little kid, when I went looking for my mom, I soon came to learn if I just hewed close to the trail of used Kleenexes, more often than not, I would find her at the other end, sniffling.

“Huddo, sud.” Ah, ah, ah… CHOO!

Less than exhaustive research (the first website I land on is “Allergy Facts,” published by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, a trade group of M.D.-types) tells me hay fever affects between 10 and 30 percent of all adults in the U.S. and as many as 40 percent of children. These docs estimate that more than 60 million people in this country suffer and the number is trending upward. Some estimates are than one in five Americans suffer from some sort of allergic condition.

"Huddo, sud."

"Huddo, sud."

My God, we’re surrounded by snot.

During the last couple of springs and falls, I have found myself with congested sinuses and fending off the occasional sneeze. It is, however, merely a coincidence that my symptoms emerge during the times of year the women in my life suffer the most from their allergies.

Because I am not allergic to anything.

This I believe from the bottom of my sinuses.  

My wife seeks to challenge these deeply-held convictions. Human beings evolve over the span of their lives, she says. Anatomies change, she says. Allergies develop when your immune system mistakenly identifies something like pollen or mold as harmful, she says.

My counter argument: You’re telling me that after 50-something years traversing the planet free of allergies, I just wake up one morning and have them? So, up until this point, when I ingested pollen, my body thought it was legit and my sinuses remained refreshingly unclogged?

So, it’s all a big biological misunderstanding?

My sister’s allergies were so severe, she needed weekly injections of the bugs to which she was allergic, under the guise that if you have more of it in you, maybe you’ll just get used to it. That seems counterintuitive. (Some additional less than exhaustive research: “Adjective. 1. Contrary to intuition or to common sense expectation but often nevertheless true.”)

Most of my adult life has revolved around common sense expectations. One of my fallback go-to’s in justifying points I seek to make is, “logic and common sense would dictate…”   

To combat her seasonal allergies, my wife goes through pseudoephedrine like candy. Since I get errand-running duty in our household, I’m showing my drivers’ license at Walgreen’s so often they probably have me pegged as one of Jesse Pinkman’s smurfs.

My stubborn insistence on my own lack of allergies, despite recent evidence to the contrary, troubles her. Perhaps it’s because misery loves company. Maybe it’s because she just thinks I’m full of… snot. The upshot is when she encounters me with near constant sneezing and eye watering during allergy season, her concern is tempered by a never too far from the surface I told you so.

Take these, she advises lovingly, and hands me two of her Claritin-D’s. Two days later, I’m cured.

Because I am not allergic to anything.

 Ah, ah, ah… CHOO!

Except maybe logic and common sense.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

 

A Career as a Cultural Norm

I remember that night vividly.

Just after 7 p.m., Tuesday, November 8, 1994. Kansas Secretary of State Bill Graves of Salina was sneaking in a few bites of dinner, a slice of pepperoni pizza, as he prepared to settle in for an evening of fulfilling his statutory responsibility, the orderly management of Kansas elections.

The polls had been closed for only a few minutes when into his tiny second-floor Statehouse office ambled Lew Ferguson, short-sleeved button down, loosened necktie, horn-rimmed glasses. A veteran wire service reporter, Lew bore an Oklahoma twang and a piece of wire copy declaring Graves the victor in the race for Kansas Governor.

At that exact same moment, I was a few blocks south on Topeka Boulevard, in a noisy Kansas Expocentre ballroom, elbow deep in a media horde, cameras and microphones thrust in my general direction. On a brick-sized cell phone with one of Lew’s colleagues back at the Statehouse, I was attempting to fulfill my employment responsibility as the Graves campaign media flak, to confirm what the candidate, now Governor-elect, had just learned.

“At that moment, if Lew Ferguson said I was the next Governor, I knew it was true,” Graves recalled recently. “He wouldn’t have printed it, if it wasn’t fact.”  

Lew Ferguson died late last month at 83, in his home state of Oklahoma.

As the Statehouse Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, a wire service to which nearly every newspaper, radio and television station in Kansas subscribed, Lew was the most important reporter in my world, which would come to revolve around the care and feeding of his brethren statewide, seeking stories, scoops and the inside dope.

After the pepperoni interruption, Ferguson signed his story for the Governor-elect. It remains among Graves' most cherished keepsakes.

After the pepperoni interruption, Ferguson signed his story for the Governor-elect. It remains among Graves' most cherished keepsakes.

My m.o. as press secretary emanated from the top. Graves had an innate understanding of how to successfully communicate, and had built a relationship with Lew long before the election night pepperoni interruption. My job was simple. Don’t screw it up.

Other reporters would have to settle for a Matson quote or wait until the Governor’s Friday news conference, but not Lew.          

“Be at the bottom of the stairs at 5:30. Walk with him to the Crown Vic.”

Before I became the Governor’s spokesperson, I had been one of the media horde, covering government and politics for a Topeka television station and statewide radio network. In those halcyon days before the Internet blurred the line between print and electronic media, those of us with cameras and cassette tape recorders were often viewed with disdain by our elders with reporters’ notebooks and pencils. Dismissed as pretty boys and girls, generally not taken seriously.

Not Lew. He tended to judge you, not by the medium in which you communicated, but by your candlepower.

Four years later, Graves sought re-election and with Fred Phelps the only declared Democratic opponent, then-Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita selflessly sacrificed his leadership position and legislative seat to be his party’s standard bearer and take on the popular sitting incumbent. A friend returned to Topeka from Washington to manage Sawyer’s campaign. She recalled giving the exclusive to Lew the evening before they announced.

“He called us both nuts, but said before he left that we were doing the right thing,” she recalled. “That meant a lot coming from Lew.”  

Ferguson retired in 1999 and then the Governor (when you serve at that level, they’ll always be, “the Governor”) did something extraordinary. He appointed him to the Kansas Board of Regents, where Graves recalled, Lew’s journalistic instincts and institutional knowledge would prove invaluable in one of the most prized gubernatorial appointments.

He was the kind of journalist who would have looked perfectly comfortable wearing a fedora with a press card stuck in the hatband, hunched over a typewriter, hammering out the latest truth. To describe him as a throwback, though, does a disservice to those currently toiling in the profession. Lew cared deeply about what all journalists care deeply about. The story. Truth and fairness.

His life and professional career can be held up as an example of an American cultural norm. One that occasionally needs defending out loud. We take the First Amendment for granted at our own peril. It’s unfortunate that Lew Ferguson’s integrity and humanity stands in such sharp contrast to those today who would diminish the journalist’s role in American society. The concept of “fake news” starts and ends somewhere deep within the psyches of the closed-minded.

There are more vehicles delivering more journalism today than in Lew’s era, which makes it even more important for those of us who consume news, to do what we’ve always done. Find and stick with journalists we trust.  

As a fellow journalist and later as a gatekeeper, I trusted Lew Ferguson. He earned that trust the way we all earn another’s trust – through words and deeds. There’s no mystery surrounding what made Lew such a good journalist. It started and ended with the fact that he was a good human being.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

Evolution of an Important Conversation

This column ran Tuesday, August 29, in the Manhattan Mercury.


Let’s start with a blinding flash of the obvious. I’m a 50-something white guy. Most people in my community and state look like me.   

I was a toddler when Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed out loud about a nation where freedom and justice would be color blind. As a white kid who came of age in the ‘70s in the middle of the country, that was enough for me. My parents believed in Dr. King’s dream, taught me to do the same and I was done thinking about it.     

Judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Done. Check.

Last fall, under the umbrella of a leadership development concern, I managed a statewide conversation in Wichita between communities of color and law enforcement. As a 50-something white guy, I’ll admit to a little trepidation about that work, but I owned my trepidation and did a lot of listening.

What I heard was those with skin color different than mine also believed in King’s dream, but they were facing uncertainty, fear and violence from cops. The Wichita gathering came on the heels of a spate of police-related shootings all over the U.S. in 2016. In listening, I heard that King’s character content judging argument had not yet fully taken hold and that those who look like me who rest on their laurels, shouldn’t, really.

Then came my involvement in the Manhattan High School Indians mascot issue. It happened inauspiciously, lunch with a friend who serves on the school board. Over Bring Down the House Salads at So Long in Aggieville, I complimented her on the board’s political tactic of kicking the can down the road by appointing a task force to provide them recommendations.

Her response, paraphrased: Oh yeah, wise guy? You’re on the task force. I coulda bailed, (Sorry, too busy… lots of important things to do…) but lately, my inclination has been to serve.

Our work produced four specific recommendations to the school board. Are they enough to put this issue to rest, once and for all? When I look back, and then forward, I tend to doubt it. A generation from now, there will be more people in our country, state and community, who don’t look like me, and because of that fact alone, will be more enlightened. Maybe by then, today’s guardrails will have expanded a few lanes.     

Oh yeah, wise guy? You're on the task force.

Oh yeah, wise guy? You're on the task force.

At its essence, the MHS mascot issue boils down to a group of human beings who find the status quo harmful and another group who feel an affinity toward it. I don’t know how you can split that baby. But my experience has taught me that meaningful public policy change only comes about after meaningful conversation. Draw your own conclusions as to whether that is happening in Manhattan.

As a 50-something white dude in the middle of the country with my recent life experience, I have come to more fully appreciate the concept of privilege. Going in, my knee-jerk was, who, me? I live King’s dream, I love everybody. I think maybe I missed the point. It’s less overt, more subtle, not as easy to even recognize when most of the people with whom I am surrounded look like me.

Charlottesville reaffirmed my belief that we have lofty expectations of our government in this conversation, whether it’s the President of the United States, or the local school board.   

People, communities, cultures and civilizations evolve. Ways of thinking about all that surrounds us become more informed. My experience growing up in this country and in Kansas has taught me, that despite stumbles and difficulties, all things eventually point toward truth and justice.

Once we know better, shouldn’t we do better?        

Until recently, the content of their character has been an effective yardstick for me, when it comes to sizing people up. For the rest of my life, there’ll be more to it. I hope I can transcend my parents’ dreams and that my imagination will be sufficiently open to understand the differences I have with others.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

One Eclipse at a Time

This column ran Tuesday, August 15, 2017, in the Manhattan Mercury.


My gut and experience tell me one’s reaction to Monday’s total solar eclipse will depend, in large measure, on where one lives and probably more importantly, how high up it registers on one’s own personal ‘give a hoot’ meter.

I heard somewhere that next week’s eclipse is one of those “once in a lifetime” celestial events. Well, kinda. I’m no scientist, but I think I get the basic gist. One moon rotating around one planet, rotating around one sun, all the time. Logic and common sense would dictate that every now and then, they’ll line up, single file, and offer us a show.  

I vaguely recall casting my hazels on some type of an eclipse through some manner of makeshift retina-saving contrivance a couple of times in my life. Once, surrounded by like-minded, curious fellow 4th graders on the front lawn of South Pleasant Valley Elementary in Wichita. The second time, a dozen years later, surrounded by like-minded, curious young adult chums gazing skyward, likely through the bottom of a bottle of Coors Light.

Save the retinas. Don't worry about the brain cells.

Save the retinas. Don't worry about the brain cells.

Clearly, my own reservoir of personal experience with orbiting body alignment is shallow. To get deeper, I went to the one place on our planet in the 21st century where one can attain peace of mind, secure that the knowledge and insight derived therefrom can hurtle one into another dimension of human enlightenment.

If it’s on the Internet, it must be true.

The last total solar eclipse visible in North America was in February 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to adoring revolutionary crowds in the streets of Tehran and Rod Stewart was topping the charts, crooning the timeless question, ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ My answer then and now: Not particularly. I learned early in my professional career, if you seek to influence hearts and minds with a song, poem, commercial, political message – any form of communication, really, never lead with a question that can be easily answered and dismissed with, "uh… no."
      
Turns out that total solar eclipses (eclipsi?) occur every year-and-a-half and are visible from somewhere on the surface of the planet. According to my arithmetic, that’s two total eclipses every three years. If one had the means and the inclination, one could chase eclipses all over the globe. Because I suspect most people have neither, this one’s turning out to be a thing.

Try getting a hotel room in Casper, Wyoming or St. Joseph, Missouri this weekend. Lives are being re-arranged. K-State is looking the other way on absences during the first day of the fall semester, a meeting of a Manhattan Chamber committee on which I serve has been postponed, the college-age daughter of some friends is trekking a couple hours north to Lincoln to experience three minutes of solar obscurity with her BFF.

It’s a once-in-their-lifetime event around which genuine human connections can be shared. I don’t know why I didn’t think about that back in 1979. Wait a minute, yes, I do.

Never mind.

When I think of enlightenment, as a species, we’ve come a long way since a total solar eclipse spooked the Mayan rulers into thinking the sun gods were frowning on their human sacrifice and saved the life of Mel Gibson’s protagonist hero in his 2006 movie, “Apocalypto.” Last time I checked, the Mayan civilization didn’t survive.

Time and enlightenment don’t appear to have done away with narcissistic leaders of governments on our planet who seemingly try to eclipse each other with rhetoric. Maybe the jury’s still out on our civilization.  

Science allows us to predict with extreme precision when eclipses will occur and where on Earth they’ll be most visible. During the minutes of totality on Monday, when a swath of our continent will be plunged into middle-of-the-day darkness, my wife and I will be negotiating the moving sidewalks at O’Hare, to catch the 1:30 back to MHK after a weekend in Boston. When I eyeball the trajectory maps, it appears we’ll be pretty far north of the pièce de résistance.

But if I cast my hazels to the south, I may just remember that as long as a moon and a planet continue to rotate around a star, cosmic alignment is gonna happen and I can determine, one eclipse at a time, how much of a hoot to give to each.  

Then I’ll board the aircraft, don my noise-cancelling headphones, crank up Steely Dan, and come home.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Manhattan Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

Amplified Resonance

This column ran Tuesday, August 1, in the Manhattan Mercury.


I spotted him first. Dude, ‘bout my age. Walking down the aisle at Dodger Stadium. Lower level. First base side. Wearing a purple K-State baseball cap.

Got his attention, smiled broadly, intoned “Every Man a Wildcat.” He looked at me as though I was six kinds of idiot and proceeded, undaunted, though likely a bit perplexed, toward his seats. In pointing him out to my wife, the end game was a foregone conclusion. At some point in the evening, we’d eventually chat him up.

This is a woman who once gave a speech entitled, “Purple is more than just a color.” She holds the unique distinction of having her name affixed to a bronze plaque on the wall of Hale Library, but also carved into the wall of Aggie Lou. Both, when she was a student here when nature took its course and the seeds of her emotional ownership were planted.  

I’m not a K-Stater, but was born here when my father was earning an agronomy degree in the Bob Boozer era. Pop taught me Every Man a Wildcat and its natural derivative, Every Cat a Wild Man. My wife’s family’s purple pedigree is pure. At 91, my mother-in-law still makes it to every home football game, from her home in Crawford County.

Ours was a west coast vacation built around rock and roll. Six classic rock groups over two nights. The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and the Eagles on Saturday. Earth, Wind & Fire, Journey and Fleetwood Mac on Sunday. The music of my coming of age, six of our favorites and a chance, likely one last chance, to see them in person. To revel, float back in time and allow the memories to wash over us.   

Hey nineteen.  

Christie McVie just celebrated her 74th birthday. Journey’s Jonathan Cain is 67. We’ve already lost two front men: Glenn Frey of the Eagles and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. As much as I may want them to, rock stars don’t live forever. We went to L.A. to appreciate them while they’re still with us.

John McVie, Stevie Nicks, and 50,000 of our closest friends.

John McVie, Stevie Nicks, and 50,000 of our closest friends.

In the time between the Steely Dan encore (Kid Charlemagne) and the Eagles taking the stage, we get the guy in the K-State ballcap’s story. Seems his son will start here in the fall, studying park management. This is a family with roots in southern California, zero connection to Kansas. They didn’t know us from Slippery Rock when they were college shopping, but when they gave K-State the in-person, on-campus sniff test, they were sold.

We may take for granted the underlying reasons the man stated for their choice: Genuinely friendly and caring people. A personal connection with those on campus with whom they dealt. A feeling of family.

We’re at the age where our friends’ children are now enrolling at K-State. Invariably, sometime during the move-in or early in their freshman fall semester, I’ll give the kid my card with the admonishment, “Here’s the number to call when you can’t call Mom and Dad.”

Every Cat a Wild Man.

It’s one thing I can do for my friends, and maybe amplify some resonance to the family vibe.     

Our society is so global and mobile that an L.A. kid coming to college at K-State is not a big deal and hasn’t been since Jon Wefald was giving his Truman-Goldwater-Marshall-Rhodes scholarship winner’s pitch.

Generally, there’s some tangible connection that brings students here. The park management major got us on their radar screen, but this family’s coming here was an ice-cold call. When the freshman son goes home to L.A. for the holidays, he’ll have a conversation with his old man, and share the sentiment behind Every Man a Wildcat.
   
The whole experience filled us with warm fuzzies about K-State and this community we call home. An opportunity to appreciate the fact that what we have here is special, not to take it for granted, and to value it the way we hope our new friends from L.A. do.

It gave us a sense of some personal ownership in the concept of ‘family.’ My feelings about Manhattan, Kansas are stronger than ever. It’s becoming more and more apparent that I can check out any time I like, but I can never leave.    

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

 

Bright New Day for Card-Carrying Carnivores

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a card-carrying carnivore.

Red meat. White meat. The other white meat. Dark meat. Pink meat. Brown meat. Any and all manner of flesh of the farm animal. Or, as the sous-chefs de cuisine like to call it these days – protein.

No bones about it, apart from the occasional T-bone, I consider myself a picky eater. This inclination comes from experience. Growing up, my mother would never have described herself as one who derived personal enjoyment from cooking and the result was bland, uninspiring fare. Though, to this day, owing to my experience with Mom’s fav standby (canned Del Monte Cut Green Beans), I prefer mushy veggies over crunchy ones.

Etched into the picky eater’s consciousness: Crunchy = not done.     

A picky-eating refrigerator magnet-carrying carnivore.

A picky-eating refrigerator magnet-carrying carnivore.

I’d wrestle with Mom’s gristle-infused, pan-fried lower end steak cuts and wonder, is this all there is? It was only after leaving home and experiencing better cuts of meat that my pickiness gained purchase and stuck. Today at Harry’s, I don’t even need a menu. Filet Mignon Royale. Medium. Hot pink center. Iceberg wedge with tomato bacon ranch dressing.

We picky eaters tend to find a winner and stick with it.    

So, the fact that we now have a shop in Manhattan that sells nothing but high-end meat is cause for celebration.

The fact that the new meat market is owned by some personal friends is just gravy on the mushy taters. Three or four years ago, coming home from a Royals game with dear friends, the conversation turned to, if you could do anything for a living, what would it be? Our friend said he’d always dreamed of owning a butcher shop.

We all have dreams. Few of us act on them.

Our friend shared his idea with a targeted group, each bringing a different skill set to the butcher block. One guy deciphers spreadsheets and is fluent in finance, another knows his way around steers, hogs and lambs. One is creative and fulfilling his dream, another has successfully maneuvered the land mines of small business startups and the fifth is a natural-born salesperson.

It’s the perfect storm of protein proficiency.
 
I don’t think they did a formal market analysis, other than anecdotal, word-of-mouth and the all-important gut feeling. But it’s a gut feeling grounded in the clear-eyed truth about our community: Despite a demographic, generational and cultural evolution happening all around us, Manhattan will always be a community dominated by a land grant institution.

It’s getting further away chronologically, but most of us trace our meat loving upstream to men and women who raised livestock, or crops that fed livestock.

Speaking of evolving societal norms, when I first met my wife, I was the griller in our family, for one simple, if sexist, reason. I’m the guy.

Societal expectations notwithstanding, after suffering through my burnt-to-a-delicate-crisp on the outside, raw on the inside filets, she offered to take a crack at the tongs and spatula. I mean, the woman judged meat in 4H and FFA and was content to allow the results to speak for themselves. Turns out there’s more to grilling than red meat meets fire. Who knew? I’ll never go near a grill again. She’s that good.   

The shop is in the old Willie’s Sports Bar space (where I used to go for killer white meat chicken strips, btw) and is called Manhattan Meat Market. What they lacked in creativity they made up for in alliteration – and simplicity. I wasn’t in the room when they named their shop, but can imagine the convo.

Where will it be? Uh… Manhattan? What do we intend to sell? Let’s go with meat. What kind of a place is it? Pretty sure it’s a market.

Ergo. Ipso facto.
    
My wife’s already made one visit. Had some beef cuts ground into custom hamburgers and brought home some filets, lobster tails, pork chops and a refrigerator magnet. Pretty sure those lobster tails are not indigenous to Kansas, but this is the part where I let go, trust the system, my friends’ gut feelings and clear-eyed truth.

It's a bright new day for card-carrying carnivores in Manhattan. Truth be told, I really don’t need to carry another card. Between my Dillons Plus, HyVee Fuel Saver, now outdated Carmike Cinemas rewards and Enterprise car rental VIP cards, my wallet runneth over.
 
I’m perfectly content to be a picky-eating refrigerator magnet-carrying carnivore.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Manhattan Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

The Greater Good

The Manhattan to Fort Riley commute is fueled by testosterone.

It has also given me a clearer sense of the military mindset and forced me to think deeper about systems and culture. The result is my appreciation and admiration for American soldiers has elevated significantly since living here.

I’m often up and on the road at oh dark thirty. When westbound, the fastest, most direct route for me is Kimball west to Scenic Drive, to K-18 to Interstate 70.

The Scenic Drive roundabout shoots me into a four-lane superhighway of speed and controlled chaos. Immediately, I find myself jockeying for position and self-preservation. Floor it, or get run over. I glance in the rear-view mirror fully expecting to see Kyle Busch in the #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry preparing to bump draft and send me careening into the infield.   

After this column ran in the Manhattan Mercury June 27, 2017, the commanding General at Fort Riley was kind enough to send along a nice note and this way cool First Infantry Division shoulder patch.

After this column ran in the Manhattan Mercury June 27, 2017, the commanding General at Fort Riley was kind enough to send along a nice note and this way cool First Infantry Division shoulder patch.

Wedged in by pickups with oversized tires, muscle cars, tricked-out sedans and the occasional SUV or minivan. Out-of-state plates, official Fort Riley window sticker. Often, rear window decals displaying some sort of military weaponry or sub-system of the Big Red One. Sometimes Calvin (sans Hobbes) standing on a Chevy logo, relieving himself on a Ford logo. Or vice versa.

Driven by American soldiers in their late teens and early 20s who make up a culture that fosters, encourages and trains for violence. It’s the First Infantry Division. Look up ‘infantry.’ Literally fighting on foot. Col. Nathan Jessup was a Marine, but his sentiment was spot on. Deep down in the places I don’t talk about at parties, I want them on that wall. I need them on that wall.

Because I’m a guy, I often find myself devolving to my 19 and 20-year old self. Oh yeah? You’re not gonna get ahead of me. They glance down or over at me and think no way am I gonna let a middle-aged dude with an increasingly receding hairline, driving a four-door Ford Escape pass me.

Vrooom.

My next-door neighbor is an Army officer and has been overseas for months. Due back this fall, he’s one of those guys who could tell me where he’s deployed, but then he’d hafta kill me. His dogs have done some minor damage to my fence that separates our yard from his.

His wife says they’ll take care of the fence damage when he returns. We tell her not to sweat it. I mean what’s a couple of scratches on a painted fence, when the man’s half a planet away defending my right to even put up a fence?

At restaurants, my wife and I have been known to surreptitiously pick up the check of a military family or buy their tickets in a movie queue. When I see a man or woman in uniform at the airport, at the dry cleaners, wherever, if it’s not awkward for them, I will offer my hand and a few encouraging words. I try to do it quietly. It’s not about me, it’s about them. Theirs is a thankless job, so I want to be purposeful and vocal about thanking them.

Lately, I’ve begun to do the same with cops.

When my dog wedges herself between the toilet and the bathtub to escape the frightening sounds of artillery, demolitions or other training exercise noise emanating from the western horizon, I remind myself that’s the tradeoff for living in Manhattan, Kansas. I want them to be the best trained soldiers in the world. As a citizen, it’s what I expect. The greater good far outweighs the minor inconvenience. Hang in there, pup. This, too, shall pass.

I ease off K-18 into the westbound Interstate 70 traffic. Through the cedars and cottonwoods, I catch glimpses of the Chinook helicopters parked on the tarmac at Marshall Army Field. Then I see the men and women who pilot the choppers, who carry a gun, who stand on the wall. Hundreds of American soldiers picking them up and putting them down. Black shorts, grey t-shirts emblazoned with “ARMY,” neon green reflective belts.

At some point in their lives, each one of them made an individual choice to dedicate an enormously important period of time in their Earthly chronologies to something greater than themselves.   

I wish I could buy them breakfast. Every single one of them.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s called Manhattan home since 1998. His column will appear in The Manhattan Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

 

A Father's Best

“Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam. And admit that the waters around you have grown.”    

                    --Bob Dylan


It was not until the last three years of his life that my father and I really connected. And then only a little bit. At 80, he was ready to die, unearth some family truth and I was his guy.

At 32, he was all quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. I usually didn’t and he usually did.

If you’ve read Spifflicated, you get why this is important. After age nine, Pop had no father and was raised by an alcoholic mother. Pop evolved into a textbook Adult Child of Alcoholics and his relationship with me was always arms’ length.

As I wrote in the foreword, ‘I swore to myself when I become a father, I’m gonna be exactly the opposite of this guy, the prick.’ (When you quote yourself, is it single quotation marks, or double?)

At 32, I was trying desperately and failing equally desperately to emerge from half a life of denying that I had a drinking problem. In spite of my dysfunction then, my son, Scott, was a priority.   

I don’t know what kind of a father I am. Only one human being on Earth and God get to make that judgment.  

My son’s an Obama millennial who saw progress and assumed it would continue. He looks to me, his wizened, former political operative father, for answers. Scott understands that politics and governing is just a small sliver of a life’s pie. He knows he lives in a bottom-up country and I tell him about swinging pendulums. Not sure it eases his pain.   

At 32, my son and his wife just bought a house in Denver. Their first foray together into home ownership.


At 32, my son and his wife just bought a house in Denver. Their first foray together into home ownership.

He’s a doctor and will become a leader of his generation in the conversation about how our society deals with the end of life. He lives a purposefully efficient lifestyle. He bikes to work for cardio and transportation. I have reached that equilibrium in life where I’m learning as much from him, more even, than vice versa.

Scott listens to a band called The War on Drugs. I thought it seemed like a goofy name for a rock group, until it hit me that one of my fav groups is called The Who. I told him The War on Drugs’ lead singer sounds a little like Dylan.

How does it feel? How does it feel?

It feels like the bandwidth of each succeeding generation of our family is expanding.

Every time I talk to my son I tell him I love him. When I see him in person, it’s a big bear hug, firm handshake, direct eye contact. Even though he never told me, I’ve no doubt my father loved me. He did the best he could with what he had. I want to emulate my father in that way.

At the end of his life, my father’s best included this sneaking suspicion that, because of my experience, strength and hope, his son would be able to connect the dots. My father was learning from me. I believe his instincts were correct. Read the book and draw your own conclusions.

When it came to emulating fathers, the bar was set low for my old man. My father’s best was far better than his father’s, for despite the ACOA dysfunction, at least Pop stayed. Because of my life experience, expanded sense of awareness and acceptance, I have come to believe that my best is better than my father’s best.

Maybe not better, deeper.

I’ve no doubt that Scott’s best will be deeper than mine.

And I’m pretty sure that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Unrequited Pining

It was a like maneuvering an aircraft carrier. Especially when compared to what preceded it.

The 1973 Pontiac LeMans entered my life immediately on the heels of a two-seater ’71 MGB ragtop. Parting with the MG was sweet sorrow. I loved that car but it was falling apart and when I effected (affected?) my own repairs, the result was a dropped driveshaft doing 70 on the Canal Route. For the uninitiated, that’s what we Doodah townies called the I-135 north/south freeway back in the late 70s. Named for a drainage canal that it straddles, I went from 75 to zero in nothing flat.  

Sudden thought. I wonder if anyone ever took the Canal Route en route to a root canal?

I sold the MG for parts, marched into the bank with my tale of woe and marched out with a new loan. My sole criteria in shopping for a new ride was dependability. I needed to get from point A to point B without dropping driveshafts. It was 1977, I was 19, had been driving for three years and was on my third car.

I sought Pontiac peace of mind. Canal Route namaste.

The only photo that survives of me and the LeMans. Halloween 1977 at Mr. D’s IGA.

The only photo that survives of me and the LeMans. Halloween 1977 at Mr. D’s IGA.

Two-door, fastback, louvered rear windows. General Motors called it Porcelain Blue. I called it The Car With An Intact Driveshaft. I pined for a muscle car, but my supermarket sacker salary could not, would not, requite my pining. Adulting was coming hard. The four-year old LeMans was as close as I was gonna get to a GTO.

It was literally twice as big as the MG. It felt like I was taking up two entire pews on the mean streets of Wichita.
 
Along in here I made the life decision to pursue a technical school education in the Twin Cities. At least that’s the story I told the old man. Truth was, I was gaga over the supermarket owner’s granddaughter, who was in Wichita for the summer and returning home. I filled the LeMans to the louvered rear windows with all my worldly possessions and headed north to the land of what turned out to be more unrequited love... and 10,000 lakes.

My new best friends in Minney-Soda asked if I had a dipstick heater. Yeah, right. Like the time we sent the new kid at the supermarket back for a sack stretcher.

You betcha. Real good, then.

Turned out the LeMans was a LeMon. Caveat emptor. Went through a stage when the damn thing would not start unless I primed the carburetor. For the uninitiated, that involves removing the air filter housing, forcing the choke plate open with whatever’s handy (a beer bottle cap worked well), pouring a few drops of gasoline directly on the carburetor, getting back in the car, firing it up, back out to replace the air filter housing, then back in and on about my appointed rounds.

I carried the gasoline around in a peanut butter jar. Small wonder I didn’t go up in flames. Or get arrested for inciting anarchy with my half-ass Skippy Molotov cocktail.

Passengers who slid in to The Car With An Intact Driveshaft, be they chums or girlfriends, shared a common reaction.

Sniff.  

Yo Matson, why’s your car smell like gasoline..?

Well, it’s like this...

Ergo, Jackie

“I found out a long time ago… what a woman can do to your soul.”
            --Peaceful Easy Feeling. The Eagles. 1973.


She entered the world in the Nixon administration, ten days after Kent State. Jack and Jean McClaskey already had a houseful of teenagers and pre-teens. Given the age separation from her and the first five, there’s an argument to be made that she was not planned.    

But she was loved. She was supposed to be Jack E. McClaskey, Jr., but ended up as the fifth consecutive daughter.

Ergo, Jackie.

Turns out we were in the same room once, long before we met. She was student body president at K-State and led the charge for what was to become Hale Library. I was a TV news reporter, covering the bill-signing ceremony in the Statehouse. Later, she said had I been looking then, she’d have been easy to spot. Just look for the 1992-era big hair.

Mostly, it's the purple aviators.

Mostly, it's the purple aviators.

Her work ethic borders on obsession and her passion for agriculture and young adult leaders comes naturally. She kept her father’s name to honor him. Her mother’s 90 and still comes to home K-State football games. The last few years, she’s made it a point to call her mom to debrief every Royals victory. Damn few calls in April, but Hosmer put the team on his back a couple of weeks ago.  

Neither of them second-guess the on-the-field calls or decisions. I wanna be more like her. And her mother.     

She called the other day, sick and going home, which never happens. “I can do some laundry,” feeling guilty about being home during a work day. I took her off the hook and she knew I would. Husband and wife stuff. Absolution. Forgiveness.

My God, the woman gave me time and space during the three-and-a-half years it took me to write a book, while still holding down a full-time job. In the book acknowledgments, I credited her for artistic inspiration. That’s completely legit.

She inspires me to be a better human being. I doubt I’d have had the stones to be as rigorously honest in that book, absent my wife’s moral compass and innate sense of fair play.       

She has incredibly lofty expectations of those with whom she surrounds herself, husbands included. Sometimes I fall short. She forgives me anyway. It’s forced me to up my game. I suffer from what I call ‘low idiot tolerance,’ a trait inherited from my old man. I’ve learned tolerance and patience from her. She hates repeating herself. I learn through repetition. We struggle with that one.

When we met, I was a divorced Protestant, only two years sober, with joint custody of an 8-year old. She’s a multi-generation Catholic. I converted for one reason: She wanted me to. Along the way, when the essences of Catholicism and my recovery aligned, my faith grew stronger.

She said the other day that I leapfrogged her as a Catholic. I don’t buy that. We approach our faith from different perspectives. I have lost more, which puts me able to gain more. There was no human power that could have relieved my alcoholism. Her faith was embedded early, watching her parents. Ways of being, attitudes and deeds.

I haven’t leapfrogged her. I wouldn’t even be where I am, if not for her. The longer I live, the more convinced I become that life is so much more than a random series of happy accidents.

The first time, I did not get marriage right. God gave me a second chance. It’s on me not to screw it up.

Today’s her birthday. She likes jewelry, all things canine (except ginormous poodles) and pretty much anything purple.

Show up. Keep Trying.

My son and daughter-in-law, Scott Matson and Amanda McIntosh, both young M.D.’s, spent the last 10 days in Jordan, under the auspices of the Syrian American Medical Society, treating and healing Syrian refugees. Here are some excerpts from their experience:


Amanda: Overall, it was a great first day of work. Despite the news from Syria, outside of the camps and clinics where there are visible reminders of the emotional and physical trauma from the war, you would not know there was a crisis only a few hundred miles away.

Scott: The days in clinic are humbling. We don't have the medicines or labs and equipment that we are accustomed to and the challenges faced by these patients would be too great even if we did. Medicine has a way of doing that, humbling us all, because the limits of the art are real and insurmountable, the human experience is, in the best circumstances, painful and heartbreaking.

Amanda: Both of us saw our fair share of common maladies (colds, abdominal pain, etc.), along with the more sick (Scott sent a woman to the hospital very ill with a kidney infection), while I saw a few cases very rare in the US but common in refugees (vitamin D deficiency causing rickets and a large open soft spot in the head in a toddler and leschmaniasis, a skin infection caused by the bite of a sand fly ).

Scott: We've seen about 100 patients each over the three days since we arrived in clinics and refugee camps all over Jordan. The thing that has struck me most in that time is: we are all the same, knee pain afflicts us all.

Photo courtesy Dr. Jihad Shoshara, LaGrange, Illinois.

Photo courtesy Dr. Jihad Shoshara, LaGrange, Illinois.

Amanda: My translator was a medical student who attends university in Jordan but is originally from Syria. He has plans to go the US this summer (would like to do residency here and then come back to the Middle East to practice) but it is unlikely he will be approved for a visa with the current restrictions in place, so his plans are in flux currently.

Scott: Amanda is on her way back from zataari where I worked the first day. I haven't spoken to her yet but I've seen pictures and I know two things about her day: 1. She charmed the children there and 2. She continues to have the most beautiful smile.

Amanda: Nearly every child had some degree of malnutrition and terrible dental problems (cavities in nearly every visible tooth), neither of which we had much control over with the exception of handing out tooth brushes.
 
Scott: We've commented so many times on the headlines that have ripped through the consciousness back home and the placidity and calm understanding that the people most affected by the horror have when confronted again with the truth of this world.

Amanda: The refugees have been kind and very thankful (and the children enjoy stickers as much as any child in the US). The other volunteers are doctors and nurses from the US and multiple other parts of the world, and Syrian refugees. All are impressive people, and I look forward to getting to know them better.

Scott: But, maybe the important thing is that we all keep showing up and keep trying, to let them know we hear them when they cry.

Amanda: It's hard to put into words what this trip meant to me. A constant feeling of inadequacy, interrupted with moments of true connection. But the stories of humanity persisting in the face of egregious tragedy will remain…