A General Store with Everything -in the Middle of Nowhere

  The mottled hills and green fields around Picabo seem an unlikely place for a commercial enterprise. The nearest town of any size is Carey (population 300), six miles to the east. The more populous towns of Hailey and Ketchum are half an hour away on a narrow country road.

  Picabo itself has a population of about 50. You could throw a rock from the center of town to the Holsteins grazing in nearby pastures.

  There is a commercial enterprise in Picabo, though. You see it long before you get to town. It’s an uncertain color, somewhere between red and lavender, and on a clear day it’s visible for miles in every direction. Two words painted in white on one of its walls can be read from half a mile away: 

  General Store.

  I’ve been in stores from one-room Mom and Pops to stores covering more square yards than a football field, but have never seen anything quite like the general store at Picabo.

  If it’s legal, you can get it there.

  Hunters will find firearms and ammunition, and with famous Silver Creek nearby the fishing section is formidable. You can get anything from a gray hackle to a pair of chest waders. If you need a hat, sunglasses or sunscreen they have those, too. 

  Walk half a dozen steps and you’re in the grocery section. The store is a fraction of the size of a typical supermarket, but it sells just about everything that’s sold in supermarkets. It has dry goods, canned foods, produce, pet food, utensils, greeting cards, medicines, detergent, beer, wine, paper products, pastries, you name it. You can buy anything from a fresh pineapple to a can of minced clams to a fly swatter.

  Groceries are more or less in the middle of the store. The products in the front of the store are more like what you’d find in a department store – blenders, electric can openers, toaster ovens, deep fryers, electric ice cream makers … In this part of the store, it’s possible to purchase anything from a pair of socks to a carpet shampooer. You can pick up towels for the bathroom, sheets for the bedroom, pottery and glassware for the kitchen, a clock for the living room, knickknacks for the dining room. When you’re finished, you can buy a camera to take a picture of it all. 

  The back of the store is reserved for harder stuff. You can get a Number 14 bucket there. You can get an edger for your sidewalk or a set of shoes for your horse. Plumbers and electricians will find enough wire, pipe and gadgets to fill a workshop.

  Carpenters can buy necessities from hammers and nails to power tools. Gardeners will find tools from pruning shears to lawnmowers. You can pick up a new set of tires for your car, purchase a replacement for your water heater.

  The Picabo General Store is the only place I know where you can buy African Violet food, alfalfa seed, panty hose, a chain saw, water chestnuts, a horse bridle, paperback books, a hundred pounds of wheat, a bottle of perfume, a dozen eggs and a load of lumber all in one stop.

  While you wait for your lumber to be loaded, you can sit down in one of the two booths at the front of the store and be served a hot sandwich and a soft drink. 

  On your way out, you can mail a letter (one corner of the store is a post office) and, in parting, fill your gas tank at one of the pumps out front. A person could spend a lifetime within driving distance of the store and, barring medical emergencies, never have to go anywhere else.

  The store’s manager and part owner is Gordon Eccles, a fast-talking, no-nonsense businessman with a cluttered desk and a phone that never seems to stop ringing.

  Eccles, who answered my questions between long-distance calls and inquires from employees, said Picabo began in the 1880s as a railroad stop and farm center. The name, he said, comes from an Indian word meaning shining waters, most likely a reference to Silver Creek. The store was built in 1952. It serves travelers, but relies mainly on the farm trade.

  “There are a lot of stores in out-of-the-way places in this state, but none as diversified as this,” Eccles said. “This is a true general store. We deliver fuel, feed and seed all over the county, and we have regular customers who come from 20 miles or more away.”

  I don’t know which would be more unexpected – to find this clearing house for just about everything in the middle of nowhere or to meet a high-powered businessman like Eccles there. Maybe it was just an unusually busy day, but he seemed as if he’d have been more at home on Wall Street.

  I didn’t want to take too much of his time, but on the way out the door I thought of one last question and asked if there was anything the store didn’t sell.

  He put his calls on hold, thought for about ten seconds and replied affirmatively.

  “Yes, come to think of it it there is. We don’t sell cars.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com

Don’t Make Kids Wait Another Summer to Use City Pools

  The summer that officially ends this holiday weekend is the first in almost seven decades to pass without a couple of beloved Boise institutions. For the first time since 1953, a summer has ended without cannon balls, belly flops and squeals of delight at Lowell and South pools.

  Both are showing their age. The city closed them because they need millions of dollars worth of repairs. Issues included dilapidated interiors, cracked asphalt and outdated supplies. Lowell also was found to have violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  For their patrons, it was a frustrating summer. The pools are popular as ever with the youthful denizens who flock to them. Kids who live in their neighborhoods count the days until they open for the summer. 

  I know because I once was one of them. Though lacking personal experience with South Pool, Lowell Pool was a short bike ride from my childhood home. For the kids in our neighborhood, it was the place to be on hot summer afternoons. We all but lived there. 

  Memorial Day weekend in those days meant two things. One was a trip to an aunt’s farm near Star to put flowers on the graves of ancestors buried in the cemetery there. A sumptuous picnic feast followed at Aunt Amy’s house.

  The picnic was a prelude to the true beginning of summer. Long before dessert was served, my thoughts had turned to my friends who would be lined up at the entrance to Lowell Pool. We couldn’t get home from Star fast enough for me to join them.

  Every kid in the neighborhood learned to swim in that pool. We were good swimmers, but for reasons that were never clear to us, the neighborhood mothers united in insisting that we all take swimming lessons at the YMCA. We protested, but they were adamant. 

  When the instructor at the Y promoted us from tadpoles to flying fish on the first day of class, our mothers relented and said we wouldn’t have to go any more. Armed with our newfound flying-fish status, we were back at  Lowell every day from the pool’s opening at 1 p.m. until it closed at 5 p.m. for dinner.

  It was a big deal to graduate from the low dive to the high dive. A big deal, and badge of honor. Kids who conquered the high dive walked a little taller. I don’t remember how many times I waited in the line, making it as far as the ladder before chickening out.  And who could forget the first time actually making it to the diving board, high enough to see for blocks, summoning the courage to take the plunge. That I succeeded likely was due less to bravado than to jumping being the quickest way down.

  Cannonballs required no such derring-do. All you had to do was run a few steps and leap, locking your hands around your knees to form the “cannonball” before hitting the water. This did not go over well with the lifeguards who got splashed while working on their tans.

  Flirting with the lifeguards was another pastime. Even after all these years, I remember their names – Kip, Ruth and Carolyn. The flirting was to no avail, of course. The lifeguards were older and considered us obnoxious pests.

  Just across the street from the pool was a drive-in restaurant. Hamburger Korner was the perfect place to go for a flavored Coke, a milkshake or a burger after working up an appetite in the pool. The specialty of the house was the Belly Buster, a double burger with special sauce and a slice of ham. Alas, the savory Belly Buster and Hamburger Korner itself are  memories now.

  The pool was such a kid magnet that a friend and I tried to sneak in before its official opening one year. From a vantage point on a limb of a nearby tree, it was possible to see that the pool had been filled. Climbing the wall to get to it was virtually impossible, however, which was probably a good thing. The water was so cold that that early in the year that we’d become ice sculptures.

  For readers unfamiliar with them, the design of Lowell and South Pools is unusual. They’re above-ground pools with walls made of cinder blocks. You enter through a front door, pass through ground-level changing rooms and climb stairs to the pools themselves. That, according to Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway, “affects the accessibility of the pools and contributes to the ADA violations.”

  Replacing them with ground-level pools would improve access, but South and Lowell have “a storied history” and “a unique attachment for anyone who grew up swimming in them,” Holloway said. 

  Besides having a place in the hearts of those who used them, the pools are rarities – and becoming rarer all the time. Only about 100 were built, by the Wesley Blintz Co., between 1919 and the 1960s. Fewer than 20 still survive. Some, according to the Wesley Blintz website, have been renovated while others are “nearly unrecognizable ruins.” 

  The city is asking for opinions from the public on what should be done with the pools. With Lowell and South comprising a significant percentage of those still standing anywhere in the country, it would make sense to renovate them for their historical value. And as someone who knew Lowell Pool as a beloved neighborhood hangout, I’d love to see it repaired and brought up to code.

   If that’s too expensive, ground-level pools would be an alternative. Either way, it would be a shame for the pools to stay closed for a second summer. Kids don’t care why they aren’t open. They just want to swim. And when you’re a kid, two summers without a pool is forever.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Bring back the Pioneer Route

   If this summer’s unprecedented drought, scorching temperatures and wildfire smoke aren’t reasons to get serious about climate change, nothing is.

 The extreme weather we’re seeing this summer, scientists say,  wouldn’t be possible without climate change. 

  What can we do about it? We can walk and cycle more and drive less, turn up the AC, switch from gas-powered engines to electric motors … For more, Google Goodside ebooks. 

  If we could, we could ride trains more and fly less. Passenger trains  produce significantly fewer emissions than airplanes do, but sadly we haven’t been able to ride Amtrak trains in southern Idaho for almost a quarter century. That’s not likely to change any time soon, but revived efforts in behalf of Amtrak’s Pioneer Route that once served this part of the country are encouraging.

   President Joe Biden has proposed $66 billion for Amtrak repairs and developing new routes. The U.S. Senate has asked Amtrak to look into restoring four abandoned Amtrak routes, including the Pioneer, and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo has been working for years to restore it. Boise’s city council unanimously passed a resolution in June urging return of the route.

   The Pioneer, which ran between Seattle and Denver from 1977 to 1997, brought passenger service to Nampa, Boise, Mountain Home  and Pocatello. Like Crapo, late Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, U.S. Sen. Frank Church and U.S. Sen. James McClure worked hard to bring the route to Idaho and keep it running for two decades. 

  It would be nice to see Gov. Brad Little and Sen. Jim Risch start making some noise about getting our train back.

  One who is making noise is Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg. Clegg is a member of the transportation infrastructure committee of the National League of Cities and has personally contacted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about resurrecting the Pioneer.

  Clegg, according to a recent story in The Idaho Statesman, rode the Pioneer as a child.

  “It was so much fun,” she was quoted as saying.

  No argument.

  One of the best assignments I ever had as a reporter began on the Pioneer. Amtrak was advertising two-week passes to anywhere it went. My editor bought me one and told me to see how far I could get, writing a story a day.

  I made it as far east as Putney, Vermont, as far south as Birmingham, Alabama. The most memorable stop was in Piggott, Arkansas, where the editor of the weekly newspaper was killing time on a slow day when I stopped to ask for some help. 

 “You’re looking for something to write about?” he asked.

  “Yes, and I don’t have a lot of time.”

  “Good. You can write about me. I’m a pretty good story.”

  With that he took me on a tour of the town. My desperation must have been obvious when, an hour later, he was proudly showing me Piggott’s water tower and I still didn’t have a story.

 “Let’s head out to the old Pfeiffer place,” he said. 

  The Pfeiffer place was a stately, two-story house on the outskirts of town. It was a beautiful home, but instead of showing it off he led me down a hill to a structure that could be described as a cross between a barn and a shack.   

  “See the burn marks on that wall there?” he said. 

 “Yes?”

  “I was out hunting one day when this building caught fire. A man was trying to get the shutters open to throw some papers out of the upstairs window. He shouted at me to come and help, so I did.”

  And that was how Laud Payne helped Ernest Hemingway save the manuscript to “A Farewell to Arms.” Hemingway was then married to Pauline Pfeiffer, whose family owned the house on the hill. 

  I had my story for that day.

  When I was a kid, my grandmother used to ride the train from Colorado to visit every few years. It was about the only time my father ever saw his mother. It was a Union Pacific train rather than an Amtrak train then, but for a kid the difference was immaterial. I enjoyed every minute of her arrivals, waiting to hear the train’s whistle as it approached, putting my ear to the rails to listen for the vibration, putting pennies on the track for the locomotive’s wheels to flatten.

  When our kids were little, we rode the Pioneer to Olympia, Wash., to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer vacations with relatives there. To borrow Clegg’s words, it was “so much fun.”

  We played cards and board games on the tables in the diner car. The crystal and white linen of earlier days were gone, but the meals and the service in the diner cars were pretty good. The kids enjoyed looking out the big windows at the scenery, as did their parents. Scenery is one of the reasons for riding a train. You see towns and cities, rivers, lakes, fall colors, things you don’t see from  an airplane.

  If not for Amtrak, we’d have had to miss Christmas with the family  one year. Fog had closed the airports; a snowstorm had closed the freeway over the Blue Mountains. The train was literally the only way to get there.

  We played games, read books, “oohed” and “aahed” at picture-perfect snowscapes while the train negotiated the mountain pass –  silent, closed off from the bustling world, deep in fresh snow. It was one of our best trips ever.

  It’s been too long since southern Idahoans were able to enjoy those kinds of experiences. If you’d like to see the Pioneer return, consider contacting those who could help make it happen.

  Their email addresses are: Gov. Brad Little, gov.idaho.gov; Sen. Jim Risch, risch.senate.gov; Sen. Mike Crapo, crapo.sen.gov.

  The return of the Pioneer would help Idaho’s economy, introduce many Idahoans to a type of public transportation they’ve never known and be a small but welcome step toward fighting climate change. It would be great to see all of Idaho’s political leaders working together to make it happen. In less divisive times, that’s what political leaders did. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

The Late, Great Mr. Morrison

  No one celebrated when Harry Morrison left.

  When word came this week that William Agee was retiring as chief executive officer of the Morrison Knudsen Corp., employees honked horns in the company parking lot. They partied at a Broadway avenue bar, all but did cartwheels in the hallways.

  This was not damning with faint praise. It was damning with resounding joy, which is infinitely worse. 

  I didn’t know Bill Agee, whom employees blamed for undermining the company. But I did know Harry Morrison, the its co-founder, and the difference between what their employees thought of them couldn’t have been greater.

  In Agee’s defense, it can be said that few executives wouldn’t suffer by comparison. They don’t make leaders like Mr. Morrison any more.

  My use of the word “mister” is intentional. Even people who worked with him for years addressed him as Mr. Morrison. He commanded that kind of respect. 

  Lyman Wilbur, MK’s chief engineer for many years, said people were willing to work for the Boise-based engineering and construction  company for less than they could make elsewhere because they considered it a privilege to work with Mr. Morrison. His professional stature and public influence were enormous, but he didn’t make employees feel small. He trusted their judgment, helped them with personal problems, loaned them money when times were hard.

  This was a man honored on the cover of Time magazine as having “done more than anyone else to change the face of the Earth.” The company’s projects included Hoover Dam (and more than 100 other dams), the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Penn Station, air fields, highways, railroad lines … 

 In Idaho, MK projects included Bogus Basin, the New York Canal, Cascade Reservoir, Ann Morrison Park (named for his first wife) and others. Without Harry Morrison, Boise wouldn’t have one of its signature entertainment venues, the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts. 

  I knew him slightly through the son of his second wife, Velma Morrison. Her oldest son and I were in a band together in high school, and we practiced at the Morrisons’ home on Harrison Boulevard. It was a nice house, but not at all pretentious. Its owner didn’t need to show off. His accomplishments were more than enough.

  I’ll never forget the night I met the famous Mr. Morrison. I was lugging a guitar amplifier through his darkened living room, where he was watching cars pass by on Harrison Boulevard, probably thinking big thoughts. White hair, craggy face, impossibly distinguished looking. If Hollywood needed someone to play God in a movie, he’d have been perfect for it.

  I was 16 and more than a little intimidated, but he couldn’t have been nicer.

  “Here to practice?” he asked me.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Play well,” he said. “Do your best.”

  He was getting on by then, nearly 80, and in failing health. Why he put up with us is a mystery. He couldn’t have liked our whanging away on rock and roll songs week after week, but he remained cordial, even encouraging.

  Even though he was ill, not going anywhere or expecting anyone, he always looked imposing – impeccably dressed, often in a dark suit with a tie, his bearing erect, his presence majestic. I remember thinking he would have made a good president.

  There was something rock-solid about leaders like Harry Morrison. They had survived wars, weathered the Great Depression, gone from humble beginnings to changing the face of the Earth.

  When they said things would be all right, you believed them.

  You celebrated their achievements, not their departures.

  When ultimately they did depart, you mourned,

  That was the difference. 

 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Pinto Bennett, Icon -1948-2021

  There was nothing simple about Pinto Bennett.

  Bennett, who died June 29th of a heart attack at 73, was a paradox. A country singer who cited Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as influences. A onetime party animal who got religion and talked to God while living a solitary life in a sheep wagon. A charismatic performer who once drew crowds of thousands but spent his last years living in a trailer park, playing for $50 a night or tips. 

  He wrote songs like no one else, with some of his lyrics bordering on genius. The late Rosalie Sorrels, a gifted songwriter  herself, said he “should have been a superstar.”

  His career began when he was a teenager playing at a drive-in restaurant in Mountain Home and spanned the better part of six decades. He was famous in Europe, a commercial failure in Nashville, a country music icon in Idaho.

  And loved wherever he went. 

  The day after he died, three of his former bandmates met me over coffee to share their memories of him.

  Jake Hoffman played steel guitar with Bennett in Tarwater, regionally known for playing “hard country music” for most of the 1970s. Previously Whitewater, the group renamed itself after a colorful Mountain Home character, Bud Tarwater. Hoffman was living in Salt Lake City when he got a call to play a 1973 New Year’s Eve gig with the group in Pocatello.

  “I didn’t know Pinto or anybody else in the band, but he stole my heart and my head,” he recalled. “He was just this larger-than-life guy. He’d written some songs, and he knew every song in the world. He sang from his heart, and he was just so charming. People couldn’t help but love him.”

  Rob Matson was one of two guitar players in Bennett’s second notable band, the Famous Motel Cowboys. His first night with them was in the fall of 1980.

  “They were calling themselves Pinto Bennett and the Republicans then,” he said. “I didn’t know who it was, but when I got there, I realized it was the Tarwater band. I remember it being a total revelation – fast, loud music, like country playing rock and roll. That was the integrity of what the band did, the high energy. It was what attracted so many good musicians through the years, that driving energy.”

  Matson was with the Famous Motel Cowboys during their glory days in England, where they had a hit record and two well received albums, opened for Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle and played for crowds of up to 20,000 people.

  “Pinto had this amazing charm that disarmed people and kept him out of trouble,” Matson said. “We were on a plane to go from London to Switzerland when this old English lady got on the plane. She sees this big guy with a cowboy hat and long red hair and a beard. You could see her nervously looking at him.

  “She went over to the flight attendant, and we could see her pointing at him and saying she didn’t want to sit next to him. The flight attendant probably told her that he was a nice man because she sat down next to him and the whole trip they were talking and laughing. He completely disarmed her.”

  Brad Dewey played mandolin in Trio Pinto, begun in 2005 and continuing for the remainder of Bennett’s life.

  “In 2005 we went to England, where he still had a reputation,” Dewey said. “They sent a limo to pick us up – champagne glasses and everything. But we were a little trio, and they were expecting a bigger band like the Famous Motel Cowboys. It was tighten your belt time.”

  Bennett never again experienced the arena-sized crowds that the Famous Motel Cowboys played for in England and Europe. When the group returned to the U.S., they were fired from their first gig for not playing any songs by Southern rock group Alabama. 

  The most famous Motel Cowboy of them all spent five years in Nashville, where he befriended Chet Atkins, Don Everly and other icons, but never got a record deal. Returning to Boise, he played in honky tonk bars, performed for free at myriad benefit shows – and never stopped writing songs. He wrote more than 200 of them, often staying up all night writing lyrics on scraps of paper.  

  “There’s so much to his lyrics,” Matson said. “You hear a song, and six months later you hear it again and realize you didn’t get it the first time.”

  “There’s no ‘Oh, baby’ in any of his songs,” Hoffman added. “How many songwriters write lines like, ‘being disconcerted and lookin’ at my shoes’?”

  Or, “Somewhere in time I was a river. Somewhere in time you  were, too. Somewhere in time I was a taker and a giver. Somewhere in time so were you.” 

  Or “I hold the bottle, you hold the wheel.”

  The bottle haunted the man who wrote those lyrics. He was, in Hoffman’s words, “on and off the wagon most of his life.”

  When I first met him, more than 30 years ago, he told me was “gettin’ a handle on my drinkin,” Words I’d hear again and again.

  Some of his words, and deeds, haunted him. By his own admission, he said and did things that offended people. He’d show up drunk for a recording session or make off-color remarks that angered people at performances. His improprieties and his intentions, however, were at odds.  

  “Sometimes he’d hurt people, but he never meant to,” Hoffman said. “He had his demons. One of them was ‘I never meant to do that.’”

  He went out of his way to visit with homeless people on the street. He spent hundreds of hours volunteering at the Idaho Veterans Home and VA hospital. He was known for telling friends and co-workers he loved them, and punctuating the sentiment with a slobbery kiss. 

  I don’t know how many times he told me – and meant it – that he’d be famous after he was dead, that his songs would reap  rewards then that he never knew as an old man, blind in one eye, playing for tips in honky tonk bars.

  Grammy Award-winning band Reckless Kelly thought enough of his songs that it recorded an entire CD of them, calling them “powerful and timeless.”

  Nashville studio musician Sergio Webb said in 2007 that Bennett was “one of a handful of people you use as the standard. Is this as good as a Pinto song? Is this good enough to show Pinto? He’s that kind of an influence.”

  Like works of art whose value increases after the artist dies, his influence may grow now that he’s gone. His prediction just might come true. If anyone deserves to be famous after he’s dead, it’s Pinto Bennett.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

My $250-a-plate Dinner with Morley, and a “regular gal”

Tim’s new columns are alternating with previously published “Woodward Classics” during the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman in 2010, following the death of actress Lynn Redgrave.

  Occasionally, not often because there aren’t a lot of them in Idaho, readers ask me what it’s like to interview famous people. 

  The answer depends on the famous person. A few are arrogant snobs, but most are just regular people who happen to be famous.

  I like regular people. I’m comfortable with them. That’s why, on the night I had dinner with Lynn Redgrave, the famous actress, I was looking for a regular person to hang out with instead.

  The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the Morrison Center. Velma Morrison was hosting a $250-a-plate dinner at her home. The newspaper paid $250 for me to go and write about it.

  For someone whose idea of dressing up is wearing my best pair of jeans, it was unnerving. Some of the men were wearing tuxedos, and most of those who weren’t were sporting suits that cost more than my car. The women were wearing formal gowns and expensive jewelry. No jeans anywhere.

  The guest list included corporate presidents, university presidents, congressmen, society mavens, a governor or two … You could have thrown a boomerang and not hit anyone who frequented a tavern or a tattoo parlor.

  I was looking for someone I’d feel comfortable having dinner with and not finding anyone when my attention was drawn to a regular looking guy wearing a corduroy jacket and a string tie, sitting alone at a table for 12. Figuring that he felt as uncomfortable and out of place as I did, I pulled up a chair next to him.

  And that’s how I met the world famous raptor expert Morley Nelson. 

  “Anyone sitting here?” I asked him.

  “I don’t think so,” he said.

  Considering that no one but him was sitting in any of the other 11 chairs, I thought he was joking.

  Until a big shot asked if he and his wife could join us.

  “No,” Nelson replied. “That’s where Lynn and her family are sitting.”

  “Lynn” was Redgrave, who was appearing at the Morrison Center that evening in a one-woman play she’d written. Searching for regular folks, I’d stumbled into the last seat at the VIP table.

  You can imagine my surprise when Redgrave herself sat down beside me, so close our elbows were touching, and introduced herself.

  As if she needed an introduction. This was a member of one of Britain’s preeminent acting families – Sir Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson to name a few. She’d become a household word in the title role of the movie “Georgy Girl, won two Golden Globe Awards, was nominated for two Academy Awards and was critically acclaimed on both stage and screen,

  As if that weren’t enough, she was then omnipresent on television in a series of Weight Watchers commercials. I might as well have been sitting next to Oprah.

  Normally the situation would have left me tongue-tied. It probably did, in fact, until I realized something surprising. I was sitting between two of the most regular folks in the room. Nelson was one of most down-to-earth people you could meet, and Redgrave couldn’t have been nicer.

  In the unlikely event that you didn’t know who she was, you’d never have guessed that she was a star. It wasn’t just that she was utterly lacking in attitude; she had a way of effortlessly putting you at ease. It was like talking to an old friend over a beer. She was funny and genuinely interested in what you had to say. In two minutes, you felt as if you’d known her for years.

  We spent the evening talking about acting, Morley’s birds, population control and other subjects that interested them. I’ve seldom enjoyed an evening more.

  It’s hard to believe they’re both gone now – two people who made it to the top of their professions, received worldwide acclaim and had the good sense not to let it go to their heads.

  I’ve been missing Morley, who later became a friend, since his death a couple of years ago. Now I miss both of my onetime dinner companions. Landing at their table was one of the luckiest accidents I’ve had.

  The $250-a-plate lasagna wasn’t bad, either.

Tim Woodward’s column runs every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com

Boise doctor delivers smiles, transforms children’s lives

  The last time I saw Dr. Geoff Williams, in 2006, his foundation to help children with facial deformities was in its infancy. It was’t quite a one-man operation, but it wasn’t far from it.  

  Fast forward 15 years. Today, Williams’s International Children’s Surgical Foundation has medical workers from South America to Southeast Asia. He personally has performed more than 3,000 surgeries on some 2,300 children in 13 countries –  all at no expense to the kids or their parents.

  Along with Fr. Rick Frechette, who has devoted his life to helping the poor in Haiti (studying by candlelight to become a medical doctor so he could tend to their physical as well as their spiritual needs), Williams would get my vote for sainthood.

  The pandemic has restricted his travel, giving him more time to spend at home and an opportunity for us to catch up.  We met at the same place where I interviewed him 15 years ago, then his parents’ home in Boise. They’ve since passed away; the house is his now. Little seemed to have changed, with one notable exception – a playpen filled with toys in a corner of the living room.

  Williams, 65, is a bachelor who spends most of his time working in other countries. The playpen and toys seemed incongruous until he explained the reason for them.

  “They’re for Conchita’s little girl,” he said. “She’s three years old.”

    Conchita Hernandez was five years old when the house where she and her mother lived in Oaxaca, Mexico caught fire. She got out but ran back to save her mother and was badly burned. Williams did surgeries to treat her burns, helped her with her homework, sent her to nursing school. Some 20 years later, he brings her to the U.S. several times a year for more surgeries. She and her daughter stay at his house while she recuperates.

  How many doctors do you know who will cover your travel expenses, operate on you for free and let you stay at their home while you recover?

  Williams grew up in Boise. He went to medical school at the University of Utah, studied surgery there and at Vanderbilt University and studied plastic surgery at the University of Texas in Galveston. He received additional training in Taiwan and at Stanford University. He could have had a comfortable private practice. Instead, he chose a less lucrative but arguably more rewarding path. He was doing a fellowship in Taiwan when he was invited to join three Chinese doctors on a medical mission in Vietnam. It was a turning point in his life. 

   “We went into a poorly lit gym where about 200 mothers were waiting for us, all mothers of kids with cleft palates. Because I was the tallest and the only westerner, they pressed me against the wall and held their kids up to my face. It was like a melee. Sadly, we were only there for two days and only did 20 operations. I remember looking at the lights in the countryside from the plane as we were leaving and thinking of all those mothers who had been turned away. That’s when I got the idea to volunteer full time in poor countries.

  “I planned to do full-time volunteer work for two years, get it out of my system and come back to the U.S. to start a practice, but in that time I accumulated lots of complicated cases that required a long-term commitment for more surgeries. Kids would ask me when I’d come back. Partway through, I realized I could never come back and do a full-time practice. That’s when I started thinking about starting the foundation.”

  Local hospitals and doctors helped. 

  “St. Al’s started donating supplies. It could have been a nightmare without that. St. Luke’s also stepped in later, and a there’s group of doctors in the area who go with me sometimes.”

  You’ve probably received donation requests in the mail from charities who do work similar to what Williams does. We’ve all read the literature, seen pictures of the children. What we don’t often know is the kids’ stories.

   One of Williams’s patients was a teenager named Maria, in the Philippines. Her face was so deformed that even with his years of experience he was “aghast” when he first saw her. She didn’t just have a cleft palate. Hers was a “global deformity,” clefts running all the way up to her eyes. Temporarily speechless, Williams was trying to decide how to respond to her when a co-worker told him she’d just graduated from high school.

  “I could not believe what I had just heard, that a girl with such a deformity would be so brave as to go all the way through school to the point of graduation. … I immediately saw Maria in a different and new light. I felt as though I was sitting in a hallowed place in front of this 18-year-old who had, I am sure, gone through so much teasing, marginalization and outright ridicule, day in and day out, to attend and finally graduate from high school.”

  The members of his team gave up their day off for Maria’s surgery. It took eight and a half hours. The girl with the face that left him aghast now has a face with a smile. 

   Another Filipino girl, a seven-year-old named Rosemarie, had one of the saddest faces he had ever seen.

   “She had a look of a child who had been teased mercilessly and had begun to feel as though every day at school was a day of unpleasantries. She had a forlorn look, more so than the other kids we see. I wondered if anything we did for her could ever improve such a sad face.”

  After her second surgery, he asked her to return the following year for the foundation’s speech therapy session. She said she would, but didn’t. Refusing to accept a no-show, Williams and his team procured a van and set out to find her.

  All they had to go on was the name of her village, and her home wasn’t even in the village. It was deep in a jungle. They were about to give up when they saw her, walking down a road. She apologized for not attending the therapy session and promised to come the next year. And, after years of being teased at a school, the girl with the sad face told them she had decided to become a teacher.

    It was an example, he said, “of the change that can come on the inside when the outside is fixed. And how the four hours of operating for the cleft lip was worth the time and backache.”

  Williams has brought smiles to faces in India, Kenya, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Tanzania, the Philippines, China and Vietnam. He was mugged in Mexico. In Peru, he treated a young man who had had a grenade blow up in his hand.  In Mexico, he operated on a man whose chest had been branded by a cartel.

   The foundation he started in Boise now has medical workers in Bolivia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In Vietnam, he trained a young surgeon to do cleft palate surgeries. She in turn is training other doctors, so his work is having an international ripple effect.

   Though the surgeries are free for the patients and their parents, travel costs and other expenses are ongoing. The foundation relies on donations. To help, click on icsfoundation.org or send a check to ICSF, P.O. Box 4594, Boise, ID 83711-4594. 

  I asked Williams whether he had any regrets about choosing a life of endless travel and work in poor countries over a cushy private practice. 

  “I think the main regret is not having a normal social life or circle of friends. That, and I’ve always gotten by on just the basics. I still have the same car I’ve had most of my life, a 1992 Honda. I still drive it.”

  His priorities have nothing to do with living in a mansion or driving a Mercedes. The payoff for his travels (he has a million and a half frequent fliers miles with United Airlines) and long hours at operating tables is “the change in the lives of these kids, to know that we’re giving them a new life. And not just them but their mothers, their families. When a child is born with a deformity, the whole family grieves.”

  Soon he’ll leave for Bolivia on yet another medical mission. At 65, he isn’t slowing down at all. 

  “I get asked all the time if I’m going to retire” he said. “The answer is no. As long as my hands can hold the instruments, as long as my eyes can see to do the operations and my neck can hold my head up, I want to keep doing this. I realize age will eventually catch up, but for me to say I’m going to retire? I can’t see myself ever doing that. That would be the saddest day of my life.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Glimpses of My Mother’s Life

Dear Blog Readers: Sorry this is a few days late. I’ve been out of town and returned to a computer glitch. (Thanks to Zack Sheppard for getting me back online!)

My mother has been gone nearly nine years and a day seldom passes that I don’t think of her in one context or another.

  Her colorful expressions: 

  “She made me feel like two cents waiting for change.”

  “I read it in The Daily Blab (her moniker for newspapers.)”

  “You need to have sticktoitiveness, Tim.”

  Her sense of humor. Little things that tickled her, made her laugh and even now make me laugh remembering them.

  Her meticulous housekeeping and her penchant for getting rid of anything that wasn’t being used – including my baseball card collection. (I’m over it now.)

  Some things, however, she saved for life. One was a box of old photos, a gift from one of my nephews after my sister died. They gathered dust on a closet shelf for a long time before I got around to looking at them, and was treated to unexpected glimpses of my mother’s life.

  The photos spanned more than a century. Many were of the sort you’d expect – snapshots taken on family outings, vacation pictures, group photos … Others were intriguing, funny, mysterious:

  A photo of my mother, her brother and his wife, for example. It could have been taken on another planet. They were surrounded by eerie, steaming rock formations. Yellowstone Park came to mind, but I’ve been to Yellowstone in virtually every season and not seen anything remotely like the scene in the photo. 

  A photo of the same uncle at Yosemite Falls, on a road now gridlocked throughout the tourist season. His was one of two cars.

   A winsomely smiling woman and a boy in a scout uniform. A dour-looking woman and two girls on a porch. An elegantly dressed woman seated on the deck of an ocean liner. All of their identities lost in time. People in the pre-digital era should have written names and dates on the backs of photos, for those of us who would come after them and wonder. 

  A postcard to my mother, postmarked a month before Pearl Harbor, featured an idyllic winter scene at “Sun Valley Village.” In those days, and for a long time afterwards, a village was exactly what it was. No condos, no mansions, no traffic. It was isolated, self-contained, magical.

  On the back of the card, my father had written “Wesson you could be here with me.”

  No, he wasn’t a terrible speller. But he was, for a time, a traveling salesman for the Wesson Oil Co.

  My parents married for life after brief first marriages. One of the funnier pictures, to me at least, was of Mom’s first husband holding hands with a mystery woman. Mysterious because someone (my mother?) had cut all but her arm and hand out of the picture. I could picture my Irish-American mother – her maiden name was O’Leary – doing something like that. 

  Some of my favorite photos were of long-gone relatives. My Aunt Helen and Uncle Wayne, who seemed exotic to me because they had lived in Peru and he’d been the foreman of a mine there. I could listen forever to his tales of working deep in the Andes.

  My Great Aunt Amy, who chased chickens around her barnyard as the first step in making what is still the best fried chicken I’ve ever had

  My Great Grandmother Susie, cherished by all who knew her. She came across the plains in a covered wagon, outlived three husbands and three of her children, survived three house fires and somehow remained the jolliest  of all the relatives. Mom counted the days till her grandmother’s visits. She’d come and stay with us for a week or two at Christmastime, filling the house with the aroma of baking and the joy of the season.

  There were, of course, pictures our mother had saved of my sister and me when we were growing up. Mom used to complain that I ruined every picture she took by making goofy faces. Now I know what she meant.

  In addition to the loose photos in the box was a scrapbook, meticulously assembled by my mother when she was in her early 20s. Her beautifully penned captions raised more questions than they answered.

  Several of the photos are of couples posing on the road to Idaho City – on Easter Sunday, 1929. They looked so young, so happy – blissfully unaware of the economic catastrophe that waited just a few months down the road.

   I’ll say this for my mother and her crowd: they got around. The scrapbook documented trips to Coeur d’Alene, San Francisco, Catalina Island, Dillon, Mont., Hollywood … She spoke wistfully of the California trip for the rest of her life, often saying that she didn’t want to come home.

  This was the first time I’d seen pictures of her and her friends from that odyssey, and they were stunning – the men robust and handsome, the women svelte and beautiful. Some of the names and faces were familiar, but many were complete mysteries: Archie, Ed, Jack, Bud, Charles, Jida, Gertie, Skeet, Roberta. Their images appear again and again – never with last names.

  Who were those people? My mother never mentioned any of them, and by now everyone who knew them is long dead. If you’re truly gone when the last person dies who knew who you were, my sister in this case, then those once striking people are truly gone.

  I should have asked Mom about them.

  I should have done a lot of things. I should have spent more time with her in her last years. I should have thanked her for all the times she made me laugh, for the long talks that helped get me through troubled times, for being the one person who was always there for me – from the first moment of my life till the last of her own – no matter what.  

 Most of all, I should have told her how much she meant to me. How much she still means. I couldn’t have asked for a better Mom.

  Even if she did throw away my baseball cards.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Don’t Make a Stupid Mistake; Get the Covid Vaccination

  Working in the yard at this time of year never fails to lift my spirits. Spring, after all, is a time for new hope, new beginnings. Regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the world, preparing for summer in our little corners of the world makes us feel better about life.

  The purchase of my first electric lawnmower was a hopeful new beginning. No more gas or oil, no exhaust fumes, better for the environment.

  Getting the yard art out of winter storage is always a welcome task. Out came the wind chimes, the spinners, the hanging doo-dads. It was cheering to see them again. Shopping for new plants and flowers also put a spring in my step. 

  This year, however, is different. Along with the normal rebirth, there is a sense that after a long winter and one of the longest years any of us can remember, we may have reached the beginning of the end of the pandemic. And the odds of returning to something approaching normalcy will only increase as more people are vaccinated. 

  And there’s the rub. After a promising start, the pace of vaccinations has  slowed. Some say they don’t believe the vaccines are safe. Others  are saying they don’t have time to get vaccinated or don’t think it’s important. Incredibly, a few are still saying the pandemic isn’t a big deal or a hoax. 

  It could be argued that we are suffering from a simultaneous epidemic of stupidity. Stupidity Exhibit A is our mostly maskless state legislature, which had to adjourn for two weeks because it didn’t think Covid was a big deal – until legislators started coming down with it. When they returned, many of them still weren’t wearing masks. And, belying their supposed support for the autonomy of local government, legislators who did their best to grab power from everyone from the governor to the dog catcher tried to make it illegal for local jurisdictions to order mask mandates.

  How anyone can say the pandemic isn’t a big deal when more than half a million Americans have died from it is mind boggling. It really hits home when someone you know dies of Covid. A former band member and friend of mine died of Covid. A friend of one of my daughters almost died from it. He was in intensive care for two weeks.

  Nothing reverses pandemic denial like actually catching Covid. Rock musician and anti-vaxxer Ted Nugent, who previously  dismissed the pandemic as a scam, said after testing positive that he thought he was dying and “could hardly crawl out of bed.” He’s singing a different tune now. 

 The best thing we can do to stay well, protect those we love and return to life as we once knew it is to stop denying the seriousness of the virus, take the experts’ advice and get vaccinated. 

  Getting the shot is not a big deal. Being apprehensive about it is understandable, especially if you have a fear of needles. But it only takes a second, and you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to have a severe reaction to the Covid vaccine.

  The chances of having a severe reaction, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, are a little over one in a million vaccinations. (The odds of being struck by lighting during your lifetime are one in 15,300.)

  My wife and I got our shots in February. The injections themselves barely hurt, and only for a second. We both had sore arms the next day, but the pain was minimal and gone the next day. I had some achey muscles after the second shot, but no worse than sore muscles from exercising, and again they were gone in a day.

  One of our daughters had a low-grade fever for a few hours after one of her shots, but no other reaction. Our other daughter and our son had virtually no reaction. Friends who have had the vaccine say their only reaction was a slightly sore arm for a day or less.

  Compare that with being in intensive care on a respirator and possibly losing your life if you don’t get vaccinated.

  It isn’t just that getting vaccinated lessens the chances of you and those around you getting Covid. It also gives us the welcome and long overdue freedom to do things the authorities have been telling us for months that we shouldn’t do. 

  Health officials now say that fully vaccinated people can go without masks outdoors when walking, jogging or biking. We can enjoy meals and drinks with vaccinated friends at outdoor restaurants.

  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the house to go on a walk and had to come back because I forgot my mask. Since the new guidelines were announced, I’ve come back to put my mask away because I don’t need it any more. The feeling of freedom that resulted from that small return to normal activity made the minor discomfort of getting vaccinated seem insignificant.

  Thanks to vaccinations, the band I play in can rehearse again after  months of not playing. Another welcome return to normal life. 

  A couple of Sundays ago, I fired up the grill and enjoyed a meal with vaccinated family members in the back yard. No one minded much that it was a chilly, windy day. We were just happy to be together doing something we hadn’t felt comfortable doing in far too long.

  It took a while for me to remember the last time I’d been on an airplane. It was more than a year ago, just as the pandemic was beginning. Now that it’s relatively safe to fly in the U.S., my wife and I and some friends are planning to fly to Florida in September for the opening game of Boise State University’s football season. All of us have been vaccinated. We’ll still be required to wear masks on the plane, but that’s fine. It’s a requirement that makes sense.

  It’s liberating to know that we can travel again and do other things we haven’t been able to do safely for almost 15 months.

  I can’t tell you how great that feels. You have to experience it yourself. If haven’t because you haven’t been vaccinated yet, I hope you’ll reconsider getting the shot. It’s easier to get one now than it’s ever been.

  You might be one of the smartest people around. Your IQ may be off the charts. But if you don’t get vaccinated and end up in the hospital, you’re going to feel pretty stupid.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com

No Matter Where Disaster Strikes, an Idahoan is Sure to be There

My new columns will alternate with previously published columns for the duration of the pandemic. This one originally was published in The Idaho Statesman following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl has highlighted a startling fact about Idahoans.

  The startling fact is that Idahoans have a remarkable sixth sense for impending disasters.

  Whenever disaster strikes, regardless of the circumstances or the remoteness of the location, an Idahoan is almost certain to be there. 

  It happens virtually every time. No matter how unpredictable the tragedy, no matter how distant the location, at least one Idahoan will be in just the right place at just the right time to represent the state and relay a breathless, first-person report to a waiting world. 

  Think about it. How many major disasters, calamities, catastrophes or crises in recent years have failed to be detailed in eyewitness accounts by Idahoans?

  There haven’t been any. Or, if there have been, they were second rate and not worthy of an Idahoan’s attention.

  The latest to uphold the tradition is Hank Birnbaum, of Sagle, Idaho. Birnbaum was one of six American college students who were in Kiev, Ukraine a short distance from the site of the reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

  Most Americans had never heard of Chernobyl prior to the accident, let alone been there, but Birnbaum had strategically positioned himself within a few miles of it. When the meltdown occurred, he was ready and waiting to observe and be interviewed,

  “Kiev is calm,” the canny Idahoan told an anxious world watching on television. “When we left, everything seemed to be going on normally.”

  Except for the glowing hair, of course.

  Birnbaum’s account was reminiscent off the 1979 Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania nuclear emergency, which Boisean Teryll Lynn Schasse described in a dramatic telephone interview:

  “You don’t know what’s going on here,” she said. “They said the worst thing that could happen is a rainstorm and a thick cloud cover that might cover us with fallout. I’m looking out of the window right now. It looks like rain to me.”

  Two days later, Schasse was back in Boise, answering questions from reporters and providing Idahoans with an up close and personal perspective on the nation’s worst nuclear accident.

  The most surprising thing about Idaho’s role as supplier of commentators on the world’s disasters is that the odds against it happening are almost overwhelming. That a state with a population smaller than that of the Seattle area would have a personal emissary to most of the great upheavals of our time defies logic, yet it happens regularly. It makes no difference where the crisis occurs, how few people are involved or how minuscule the chances are of an Idahoan’s being there. One invariably is.

  The Iran hostage crisis, for example. When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by militants, Idahoan Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attache, was just down the street. Schatz avoided being captured by the militants, but was forced to spend three months hiding from anti-American mobs. He also was one of six Americans who provided a bright spot in the hostage crisis by escaping from Iran on forged Canadian passports.

  After being questioned by the media and meeting with the president in the oval office, Schatz returned to Idaho, where he modestly told reporters that he was “just in the right place at the right time. Or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.”

  The other hostage crisis involving Americans in the Mideast was last summer’s hijacking of a Trans World Airlines flight in Lebanon. Sure enough, an Idahoan not only was there but was in the cockpit!

  For 17 days, the world watched as the plane’s crew and passengers were held hostage by Shiite Muslims. A key figure in the drama was flight engineer Christian Zimmermann of Cascade, who was quoted at length about his role in the ordeal and went on to write a book about it.

   Though seemingly partial to manmade crises, Idahoans are no less adept at witnessing natural disasters. When an earthquake destroyed parts of Mexico City last fall, Saul Zamora of Gooding was in the thick of it, ready to observe and answer questions from journalists.

  It’s an established fact, of course, that whenever a dam collapses or a volcano erupts, an Idahoan will be on hand to collect big bucks from the news magazines by photographing the event with a cheap Kodak camera. It happened at the Teton Dam disaster, the Mount St. Helens eruption, you name it.

  So why are Idahoans always on hand for calamities?

  The answer is obvious. We need the exposure. It’s one of the few ways we have to avoid being confused with Iowa.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Rethinking That Summer Tan

  With the days getting longer and warmer, it’s time to put away the winter clothes, get out the beachwear and start working on a  summer tan, right?

  Or … maybe it’s time to rethink that. 

  The winter just ended gave me a different perspective on the desirability of getting a “healthy” looking suntan. Or for that matter, spending more than a few minutes in the sun without protection from it.

  I’ve never been one to spend hours lying in the sun in hopes of becoming the next George Hamilton. But like many people, I liked the idea of having a summer tan and was pretty casual about wearing hats or using sunscreen.

  Not any more.

  In addition to a love of music, a good story and an occasional tipple, my Irish ancestors passed on a predisposition for skin cancer. I’ve had carcinomas on my face frozen more times than I can count, and more serious ones surgically removed from my chest, one of my legs  and one of my ears. Even with all that, I remained pretty lackadaisical about following doctor’s orders.

  “Given your history,” a doctor once told me, “I don’t want you going from your house to your car without sunscreen.” 

  Right, doc.

  Obviously, he was exaggerating. I blithely ignored his advice, for the most part, using sunscreen when I thought about it but more often not thinking about it. Or, worse, thinking about it and not doing it.

  That changed after an appointment with a specialist my dermatologist referred me to for a spot on my forehead. She did a biopsy; the lab work confirmed that it was cancer. 

  The reason she referred me to the specialist is that the procedure he uses results in minimal scarring. Layers of skin are removed one at at time and examined under a microscope. Successive layers are removed until all of the cancer is gone. The patient waits while this is happening. My appointment took about four hours.

  It didn’t hurt a bit. I had no idea of the extent of the procedure until I got in my car, looked in the rearview mirror and saw the bandage. It covered almost half of my forehead. Part of it was nearly an inch thick.

  All that afternoon, I waited for the anesthetic to wear off and the pain to start. It didn’t.

  “A piece of cake!” I said to my wife. “Doesn’t hurt a bit.”

  The anesthetic took about eight hours to wear off, then made up for lost time. It had been a long time since anything hurt that much. The three ibuprofen tablets I took might as well have been M&Ms.

  The next morning, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor and asked for something stronger. My wife drove me to the pharmacy with the prescription, graciously refraining from making sarcastic remarks about my more or less constant whining. 

  The pharmacist wasn’t much help.

  “We’re out of the painkiller the doctor prescribed for you,” he said. “We’ll have to order it.”

  That day and the next were two of the most painful I can remember. I couldn’t think about anything but how much my forehead hurt. It hurt so much it made me nauseous. I’ve had three fairly major surgeries in my life, and none of them came close to hurting as much as that one little spot on my forehead.

  Actually, it wasn’t so little. When I took the bandage off, the guy looking back from the mirror might as well have been Frankenstein. It looked like an angry caterpillar was crawling down my forehead.

  Fast forward two months to the “wound-check appointment.” The wound had completely healed and left virtually no scar. Clearly my dermatologist made the right call in referring me to the specialist. There are still flashes of pain, but they only last a few seconds, are  down to a few a week, and the specialist said they’d go away completely after three to five months.

  Never would I have believed that such a tiny spot on a forehead could cause so much pain and angst. It put me in mind of Tom Menzel.

  Menzel was a former neighbor and co-worker of mine who had a skin cancer removed from his scalp. Everything seemed to be fine, until it metastasized and killed him.

  His last wish to his family and friends:  Wear a hat and use sunscreen.

  The type of skin cancer I had isn’t usually life threatening, and thanks to two excellent doctors serious complications were avoided. In rare cases, however, it can be fatal. It results from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, as in sun or tanning beds.

  So I won’t be sporting a tan this summer.

  Tans are overrated anyway. Don’t learn the hard way to heed Tom Menzel’s last wish. Wear a hat. Use sunscreen. It could save your life. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Double Life: The Camas Prairie Captain

Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with Woodward Classics for the duration of the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman and in his first book, “Shirttail Journalist.”

  The Corral Store floats on a sea of land. For as far as you can see, there is only the Camas Prairie and the surrounding hills. 

  That high plain is so big and silent, so softly enveloping, that it seems a world of its own. You can stand on the Camas Prairie, its gentle wind blowing in your face, and think that the land stretched forever.

  A sign outside the little red Corral Store advertises that “It’s Coffee Time,” and somehow it always is. The man behind the counter welcomes you with a tired smile. He sells groceries, pumps gas and provides direction to nearby towns as if he had done these things all his life. You’d never figure him for anything but a prairie shopkeeper.

  You’d be mistaken. Every other Sunday, usually around one in the afternoon, Bob Ertter takes care of last-minute details at the store, kisses his wife, Mamie, goodbye and drives his Chevrolet El Camino to Boise, 90 miles away. He parks at a service station near the airport, buys a newspaper at a vending machine in the airport terminal building and boards a jetliner.

  An hour and five minutes later, he gets off at the San Francisco airport, catches a limousine to his usual stop and walks two blocks to a cheap but decent motel. His other car, an old Pontiac, is parked outside. He spends the night, gets up early and drives to the docks. Bob Ertter is a man with a double life:  prairie shopkeeper and San Francisco Bay barge captain.

  Traces of the sailor emerge as the shopkeeper tells me his story. His eyes are blue and have that restless, faraway look common to men of the sea. His sleeves are rolled up, exposing a tattoo on each arm. Like most sailors, he is intolerant of landlubber terminology. If I said “ship,” he’d jump in with a correction. A barge isn’t a ship. A barge is a barge.

  The barge he operates is owned by the Crowley Maritime Corp.,  Ertter’s employer for most of his working life. It’s a hundred feet wide, nearly as long as two football fields, and is operated by a crew of  two tankermen, or captains. Ertter and his counterpart work seven days at a stretch, 12 hours on, 12 off – unloading the giant tankers and carrying their cargo to the Bay Area refineries where it becomes the stuff you and I pump into our cars’ gas tanks. 

  Barges are used to unload the oil because tankers are too large and draw too much water to reach the refineries. A single tanker can carry almost half a million barrels of oil. Ertter’s barge is small by comparison, holding 178,000 barrels. In one week, though, that one barge on the San Francisco bay can unload five tankers with a combined cargo of four million barrels, enough to keep the entire country running for six hours.

  Ertter and his fellow captain share quarters about the size of an average living room, with two desks, two cots and just enough room for a few personal belongings. One man works while the other sleeps or reads.

  You’re probably wondering how an Idahoan who lives in a place like Corral came to such a life. It began 40 years ago, just after Ertter graduated from Boise High School. 

  “I was a wanderer,” he said “I’m not any more, but in those days, boy did I have a case of wanderlust!”

  He joined the merchant marine as a seaman and spent 12 years seeing the world. I asked him if there was anyplace he hadn’t been.

  “Yes, there is,” he said after thinking about it. “We never made Russia.”

  After a dozen years at sea, the wanderlust was gone. Ertter went to work as a tankerman on the San Francisco Bay and has been there ever since – 28 years on the same job. He has the commute down to a science. He’s made it from the store on the prairie to the dock on the bay in three hours.

  “It’s nice to have a week off,” he says of his unusual schedule,”but I don’t usually make it down there in three hours. You use up about a day coming and going, and by the time I get home I’m tired. I spend the first couple of days here sleeping. That only leaves about four real days off.”

  He doesn’t mean it as a complaint, just a statement of fact. His complaint, and biggest worry, involves hanging on to his double life. Skyrocketing air fares threaten to end the lifestyle he and Mamie looked so hard to find. 

  For 16 of his 28 years as a barge captain, they lived in the Bay Area and “couldn’t take it any more,” he said. “I’d grown up in Boise, but we couldn’t take that, either. It was growing and spreading out so much. We looked three years to find this place and buy the store. My wife likes it here, and I’d hate to go, too. After twelve years here, we’re friends with practically everybody that comes down the road.”

  His round-trip airfare to San Francisco more than doubled in three months.

  “If it gets to the point that it’s eating up my paycheck, that’ll be it.”

  In the 12 years the Ertters have owned the store, it’s turned a profit once. Ertter is 57, still eight years from retirement.

  You hear it said that the sea is a sailor’s first love, but it isn’t always so. As we sat drinking coffee in the little store, its seafaring proprietor gazed wistfully out the window at the prairie he has come to love. His face was drawn, his eyes tired. You could see how badly he didn’t want to move back to the Bay Area to avoid the high cost of commuting. 

  “I suppose if we have to, we have to,” he said. “It’s the only thing I know.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

‘The Kindest Man I’ve Ever Known’

Suggested headline:  ‘The kindest man I’ve ever known’

  The first time I saw Terry Shibata, he was smiling happily while flagrantly violating a no-parking zone at the ferry dock in Seattle.

  He was impossible to miss, wildly waving his hands at us while my wife, one of our daughters and I disembarked. It was worth it to him to risk a pricey parking ticket to make sure we spotted him.

  There are people you don’t have to know long or well for them to affect you deeply. Terry was one of them. When word came that he died last month at 86, we felt as if we’d lost an inspiration, a model for how life should be lived.

  He and I and a friend in St. Louis were the contemporary equivalent of pen pals. Terry and Bob Hagar, my St. Louis friend, met on a group tour and began exchanging emails. That led to the three of us exchanging emails, and a long-distance friendship was formed.

  The reason he was waiting at the dock in Seattle that day was that he knew we’d be in the area and had offered to take us to a Seattle Mariners game. We tried to pay him back for the tickets he’d purchased, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

  At the game, featuring the woeful Mariners against the even more woeful Baltimore Orioles, he surprised us by pulling Costco hot dogs out  of his jacket pockets and offering one to each of us. Then he announced his intention to go the concession stand to buy us insanely expensive cups of beer.

  “Let me get them,” I said. “I’ll come with you.” 

  “No, no, no. You stay here and enjoy your hot dogs. I’ll be right back with the beer.”

  After the game, he took us to one of his favorite restaurants. Despite repeated offers, he wouldn’t let us pay for dinner. Only when it became clear that allowing us to pick up the tab would have ruined his evening did we acquiesce. He reluctantly let us pay the tip.

  A resident of Everett, Wash., and an avid fan of the Mariners, the Seattle Seahawks and the University of Washington Huskies, he loved buying their team gear for people, whether or not they were fans. 

  “He was most generous,” Hagar said. “He sent us Washington Huskies caps, Seahawk blankets, University  of Washington sweatshirts …” 

  A Huskies cap is lurking in my closet as well. He sent it to me as a good-natured joke a few days before Washington played Boise State in the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl. 

  And never said an unkind word about the Huskies embarrassing the Broncos.

  Two years ago, we all met at the Hagars’ home near St. Louis. Terry insisted on sleeping on a couch so my wife and I could have the guest room. We went to places that required a lot of walking, which was  difficult for him because of a back injury. He painfully shuffled to museums, the top of the St. Louis Arch and a Cardinals game, never once complaining. 

   “He’d been taking steroid shots for his back for more than 20 years,” Toni Mullins, one of his daughters, told me. “The doctor told him he needed an operation, but he kept getting the shots instead. He didn’t want to let an operation interfere with his travels.”

  Asked how many countries he’d visited, he said it would be easier to count the ones he hadn’t visited. He traveled with his wife until her death in 2009, then on his own. He went to Antarctica – alone – in his early 80s.

  In his 86 years, he worked on a fishing boat, in a cannery, pounded rivets into Boeing airplanes and worked his way up at a succession of supermarkets, eventually opening his own – Terry’s Thriftway, in Everett.  

  He took his dog to church with him on Sundays. The dog happily attended the service along with the rest of the congregation. Later he got a cat named Oreo and took her to church. Oreo had to wait in the car.

  She “shredded his upholstery,” Mullins said. “He never got mad at her, though. … Oreo was definitely spoiled. He fed her raw tuna. He had a freezer full of it for her.”

  Her father was among the few remaining survivors of the Minidoka Internment Camp, northeast of Twin Falls. It was one of ten camps created after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entering World War II. Fearing that people of Japanese ancestry would side with Japan in the war, the government ordered those living on the West Coast to leave their homes and report to the camps. More than 9,000 were sent to Minidoka.

  It was a shameful chapter in our history. Virtually all of those sent to the camps, including the Shibata family, were loyal U.S. citizens. While they were interned at Minidoka, their business, a Seattle bakery, was  taken from them. A child at the time, Terry Shibata was too young to understand fully all that happened. He told me once that what he remembered most about Minidoka was playing baseball with the other children.

  “He was nine years old,” Mulllins said. “He could tell that something about it wasn’t right, but he made it fun for himself.”

  She remembers her father as “always happy and joking.”

  His nickname:  Hap. Shortened from Happy.

  I knew him for only a few years. The total time we spent together can be measured in days rather than months or weeks. I didn’t even know his nickname until Mullins told me about it.

  He didn’t need a lot of time, though, to make an indelible impression. His passing affected me as much as if he’d been part of my life much  longer. He may have been the kindest man I’ve ever known.

  My daughter who went to the Mariners game with us and spent no  more than six or seven hours with him in her life had the same reaction. 

  “Of all the people I’ve ever known,” she said, “Terry is the one I’d most like to be like.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Ballroom Ghosts in the old Fiesta

Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with previously published “Woodward Classics” for the duration of the pandemic. This one, slightly revised here, originally was published in The Idaho Statesman in 2017.

  How many times had I passed the building, once so dear, without stopping?

  The old brick building has graced the corner of Sixth and Idaho streets in downtown Boise for over a century. I’d walked or driven past it countless times, invariably with memories drifting back, but always in too much of a hurry to stop and venture inside to see how it had changed. 

  Until now. It was a slow day, no need to hurry anywhere, and the building seemed to beckon. Why not?

  It was built in 1912 as the Fraternal Order of Eagles building. It had a beautiful hardwood dance floor on the second floor, which eventually led to its becoming an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. For much of the 1960s, it was known as the Fiesta Ballroom.

  For its patrons, the Fiesta was a teenage dance hall. For me and my friends who played in a band there on Saturday nights, it was a clubhouse, a second home.

  It had been closed for a couple of years when we got the idea to reopen it. We were desperate to find a regular place to play, but the man who previously ran it had had his fill of the dance business. No amount of reasoning or pleading would convince him to get back into it.

  My father, who was more susceptible to pleading, agreed to sign the lease with the understanding that we, the band members, would run the place. It would be our responsibility to pay the rent and other bills, hire security and maintenance people and not lose our shirts. He made it clear that we were on our own. If we failed, there’d be no bailing us out.

  We didn’t fail. We advertised on the radio. We hired police officers to patrol our dances, one of the toughest kids in town to work as a bouncer and friends to run the soft-drink bar and do the janitorial work. For two of the best years of our lives, the old ballroom was packed with teenagers every weekend. 

  We made more money than we’d dreamed possible and had an idyllic hangout. It was perfect for everything from rehearsals to parties to telling ghost stories late at night with the vacant third floor creaking and groaning above us. There were times when we swore we heard footsteps up there. One night when I went to the ballroom to get a guitar, a heavy amplifier began to tilt back and forth – all by itself – and tip over on the stage. No one else was in the building, and no one in the history of feet has run faster.  

  Fast forward to today. The building has been renovated and is now mostly offices. The stairs we used to lug our gear to the second-floor ballroom have been replaced by an elevator leading to the three upper floors. I rode it to where the ballroom used to be and stepped into a hallway finished in muted greens and earth tones. Locked offices lined either side. Where hit songs once played and hundreds of people danced, it was eerily silent. 

  A window provided a view of the building across the alley. Now an office building, it used to be Boise’s jail and police station. On hot summer nights when the fire-escape door was open, prisoners shouted song requests at us from the jail windows. Through some mystery of atmospherics, our amplifiers picked up police radio transmissions – a source of amusement to most and of occasional strategic value to those planning illicit activities.

  A window in a deserted conference room offered a view of a concrete ledge and the roof of an adjoining building, which also used to be a dance hall. It was where our primary competitors played. 

  When some of our gear mysteriously vanished, we blamed them and decided to get even by breaking into their clubhouse and swiping some of their gear. The obvious choice to squeeze through an alley window and let us in was a band member named Vance. Vance was small enough to fit and had experience in such matters. It might have worked, too, except that he got stuck halfway through the window. It was at this inopportune moment that a police car entered the alley.

  The officer driving it was Vern Bisterfeldt, later a city councilman and county commissioner but then a cop who, among other things, patrolled our dances. Asked what we were doing in the alley, we told him we were waiting for someone to let us in so we could rehearse.

  “Oh,” he said, seemingly satisfied, as he started to drive away.

  Then, stopping after a few feet:  “Why is Vance stuck in the window?”

  He’d recognized him by his stubby legs, which were flailing madly. We made up a cover story, which he pretended to accept and drove away. We avoided jail (conveniently just a few yards away), and our one and only fling with attempted burglary was mercifully terminated.

  The aforementioned ledge was our “emergency entrance” to the Fiesta when we’d forgotten the key. From the top of the fire-escape stairway, it was possible to leap to the ledge and pry up a window to get inside. The leap was patently dangerous. A fall to the alley below would have been fatal. Between that and some of the other stupid things we did, I sometimes wonder how we survived our teenage years.

  Another elevator ride led to the fourth floor and more offices. It was late on a Friday afternoon; all of the office workers seemed to have left for the day. The fourth floor, like the others, was almost spectrally quiet.

  Then, an unexpected sound.

  Piano music. Played haltingly, like someone practicing. 

  In the old days, this floor was the spooky part of the building, the part that creaked and groaned and inspired ghost stories. The music was coming from an office down the hall, but the view through its door window revealed … absolutely no one.

  The song being practiced: Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man.” 

  Vance had been our piano player.

  The only member of the original group to have passed away, he also was something of a practical joker. 

  Breaking the creepy silence that preceded it, the piano music with no visible source gave me goosebumps. 

  It’s possible, of course, that there was an unseen piano somewhere on the fourth floor. Or maybe a practice tape was playing behind one of the locked doors.

   Or maybe …

   I’m glad the developers saved our old clubhouse. Instead of being torn down, it was tastefully restored and is home to new tenants.

   And maybe a ghost or two. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

How the ‘Windy City Fixer’ Rescued Me from Blog Hell

Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with previously published “Woodward Classics” for the duration of the pandemic.

  The benefits of information technology are incalculable, allowing us to do in seconds what once took hours or days.

  I’m thankful for it every time I need to look up the meaning of a word or find a synonym. Instead of running downstairs to grab a dictionary or thesaurus and spend time flipping pages, I click on their online versions and have the answer instantly. The same is true for looking up phone numbers, addresses, places to dine, shop, etc. 

  In my early days as a reporter, we wrote our stories on typewriters and glued the stories’ pages together.  They were edited with pencils and carried to the composing room to be painstakingly laid out on pages and carried to the press room. Depending on the length and complexity of the story, the process took part or all of a shift.

  Now it’s all done with a few clicks.

  But has technology really made our lives better? Made us happier?

  Forever in my memory banks is the image of a reporter who lost a story she was writing due to a technological glitch. Not just any story; it was a major project that she’d been working on for weeks. She’d interviewed dozens of sources, taken scores of pages of notes, agonized over every word. Her story would have been the lead story on that Sunday’s front page. 

  She and her editor were reviewing the finishing touches when she pressed a key and – poof – her story was gone.

  The IT folks were called, to no avail. There was nothing anyone could do. The story into which she had poured so much of her time and hard work was gone for good. I’ll never forget seeing her slumped over her desk, tears streaming down her face, inconsolable.

  Though they may not be that traumatic, we’ve all had our share of technology related meltdowns. A couple of years ago, I got so mad at my SmartPhone that I threw it across a street. Luckily, it landed in some tall grass and wasn’t damaged.

  That said, there have been times that I’ve wished it had been. I’d have replaced it with a simpler phone and probably been happier for it.

  All of which is a long way of getting to my latest cyber casualty and  an explanation of how it happened, specifically for readers of my blog.

  Especially those who have been leaving me angry messages.

  I started woodwardblog.com about five years ago for readers who had moved to other parts of the country but wanted to keep up with my columns. I posted them a day after they were published in the newspaper, and, through a process that remains a mystery to me, the blog automatically emailed them to subscribers. Subscribing was free, and even if you didn’t subscribe you could access years’ worth of columns.

  Until a couple of weeks ago.

  That’s when I discovered that the company that hosted the blog also hosted the website for my classic-rock band, the Mystics. Like many musical groups around the state and the nation, the band hasn’t been playing much during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the company’s fees for hosting the site increased significantly. 

  Deciding it wasn’t worth it to keep paying them, I called to cancel the website. Only then did I learn that the company also hosted the blog.

  “I always thought they were two separate companies,” I told the person who answered. “If it’s the same company, why do they have different names?” 

  I didn’t understand his explanation, which wasn’t surprising. I understand very little of what comes out of the mouths of computer geeks. I am absolutely certain, however, that at no point did I say I wanted to cancel the blog.

  So you can imagine my surprise, to put it mildly, when it vanished. Instead of the usual posts and familiar options that normally appeared when I entered my password, a baffling array of unfamiliar and confusing information appeared. Thinking it was a glitch that could easily be fixed, I called the company again.

 “There’s a problem with my blog,” I told the woman who answered. “It doesn’t come up when I enter the password.”

  “That’s because your blog has been canceled,” she replied.

 This was followed by a long silence while my wife administered smelling salts.

  Not really. I made that up. But it wasn’t far from the truth. My heart may have actually skipped a couple of beats.

  “My blog is canceled? Why?”

  “Your blog and your band’s website were on the same contract. When you called to cancel the band website, the entire contract was canceled.”

  It would have been nice if someone had explained that at the time.

  “I don’t want the blog canceled! It had hundreds of subscribers! It had my newspaper columns going back years! There’s no way to get it back?”

  “Sorry.”

  I briefly considered making a voodoo doll with the company’s name on it, then thought of someone who might actually be able to help.  

  Of course! Zack! 

  Zack is the computer expert who helped me start the blog in the first place. He lives in Chicago now, but one of my daughters had his number so I called and told him what happened.

  The man is patently a miracle worker. It took a while, but Zack got the blog back. He got back all the posts, all the subscribers, even the band website. And he moved it all to a different company that will charge a fraction of what the old one did. Subscribers will be happy to know know that they can access the blog the same way they did before.

  So they can stop making voodoo dolls with my name on them.

  This column will be posted on the blog tomorrow. If you subscribe, I’d like to hear from you, especially if you run into any glitches.

  If so, no worries.

  I have a fixer in the Windy City. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted – hopefully! – on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Subscribers: Here’s why you haven’t been able to log in

A couple of weeks ago, I decided it wasn’t worth what I was paying for the Mystics Band website with the band not playing during the pandemic so I called the hosting company to cancel it. Until then, I had no idea that the same company also hosted woodwardblog.com. (That part of the company went by a completely different name.) When it canceled the band’s website, the company – without telling me – also canceled my blog. That’s why you haven’t been able to access it.

The good news is that, thanks to my “fixer” in Chicago, everything is back – both the blog and the band’s website at themysticsband.home.blog. You should be able to access them again now, the same way you always have. Apologies to those of you who were inconvenienced.

The full story will be told in my next Idaho Press column, this Sunday, and will be posted on the blog the following day.

The cyber gods willing. — Tim

Whatever Happened to Normal Clothes?

(My current columns and older ones will alternate from now on during the pandemic. This one originally was published in The Idaho Statesman in 2007.)

  Expect to see me any day now in shorts with legs roomy enough to accommodate a small family.

  On my feet will be shoes Bozo the Clown would have envied.

  Beneath the shorts with legs the size of pup tents will be the ultimate indignity – a thong.

  That’s what we’ve come to in men’s fashions.

  Fashion has always been dictated by young people, of course, mainly teens and twenty-somethings. And that’s fine. They’re the ones who look best in clothes anyway.

  But why should the rest of us have to wear what they do?

  It hasn’t quite reached the point that there is nothing but young people’s clothes on the market. Department stores still carry men’s dress suits, for example. You’ll find just what you need if you’re scheduled for a bar exam or trying out for a seat on the stock exchange. 

  Other normal clothes for men, however, have become harder to find than a Democrat in the Idaho Legislature. I’m not exaggerating in saying that the situation is almost as bad as it was in the 1970s.

  In the ’70s, it was virtually impossible to find any item of clothing other than socks and underwear that didn’t look as if it had been pilfered from the set of “Disco Fever.” My wife has a picture of me tottering around in platform shoes, checkered bell bottom pants and a shirt with puffy sleeves and a collar big enough to use as a dinner napkin.

  It wasn’t as if we wanted to go around looking like roadies for the BeeGees; there wasn’t a choice. Regular clothes were all but non-existent. And it’s hard not to think we’re headed down that road again.

  Men’s summer shorts, for instance. The legs reach below the knees and are baggy enough to hide a watermelon. Elephants don’t have legs that big. They’re okay for teenagers, I suppose, but for the rest of us they look ridiculous. Show me a sorrier fashion statement than a gray-haired geezer dressed like he’s trying out for the Black Eyed Peas.

 Normal jeans are losing the fashion battle to what I’ve come to call junk jeans. I’ve always gotten rid of my jeans when they ripped. Now they come pre-ripped, pre-ripped-and-stitched-back-together, pre-faded, even pre-stained. You have to look for jeans that don’t look like they’ve been soaked in crankcase oil. They look like a mechanic used them to mop a garage floor.

  To my undying gratitude, a store where I went shopping recently had two pairs of “retro jeans” in my size – no rips, tears, fades, spots, patches or stains. I bought both of them, in the way that you snap up rare and valuable items fortuitously discovered at a yard sale.

  No such luck with shoes. Men’s shoe departments these days look like storage closets for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. What law says that walking shoes have to have stripes, spots and geometric patterns in gaudy, fluorescent colors?

  Department shelves once stocked with sensible underwear now feature displays of … thongs!

  Really now, the percentage of men who actually look good in thongs has to be miniscule. Brad Pitt in a thong is one thing. Your Uncle Howard is another. For the life of me, I can’t imagine buying one, let alone wearing one.

  Shirts? No problem if you like checks or stripes. The racks have been cleared of virtually everything else.

  It’s true that fashions come back. Most of the casual shirts in stores today look exactly like the striped and checkered shirts that boys of the Baby Boomer Generation wore to grade school. They may be the height of fashion, but to me they look old fashioned.

  Fashion will always be for the young, but can’t the fashion gods throw at least a few crumbs to the rest of us? All I really want are some plain shirts in a nice fabric, some pants that don’t look like they came off a rack at Jiffy Lube and some sensible, comfortable walking shoes. Is that too much to ask?

  Maybe it isn’t. I was actually able to find a few things like that the other day at a store in an outlet mall. They were on clearance, marked down to half price.

  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the place was crawling with guys dressed just like I was.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Guitarist Russ Martin – 1953-2020

(My current columns and older ones will alternate from now on during the pandemic.)

  One of the most unforgettable musicians I’ve ever known has played his final note. 

  A friend for many years, Russ Martin died at 67 of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

  He was one of the most vital, most alive people you could hope to meet. His enthusiasm for life, his passion for music, his twinkling blue eyes and the smile that lit his face like a light on a dark stage … no one who knew him well will ever forget those things about him.

  We met more than 30 years ago. I was getting into playing in a band again after a long layoff and contemplating some lessons to knock the rust off when a flyer in a window caught my eye.

  “Lessons with Russ Martin,” it said. “Play guitar. It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on.”

  He was teaching then at the old Musicians Pro Shop in North Boise. The shop’s owner introduced me to the man behind the flyer that had made me laugh. He was slender and slightly built, with a full beard and sandy hair that fell to the middle of his back. He looked like a combination of Robert Plant and John the Baptist.

  “You’re interested in some lessons?” he asked.

  “Right. It’s been years since I played much. I have a lot of catching up to do.”

  “No problem,” he replied. “We’ll have you gnarly in no time.”

  So began a friendship that would last the rest of his life.

  My band began to disintegrate not long after that. One by one, its original members wearied of rehearsing and quit. The group Russ was playing with also was nearing its end.

  “You wouldn’t by any chance be interested in joining our band?” I asked him.

  It seemed like a long shot. All but one of the members of his group were professional musicians. The members of mine were all amateurs. I expected a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, but he surprised me by suggesting that the groups combine.

  “You and I could be the guitar players,” he said. “We’d have your bass player and my drummer and singer. And we’d definitely use your group’s name. I’ve been looking my whole life for a band with the right name for me, and the Mystics is perfect.”

  There was, in fact, something almost mystical about him. All that was missing were a turban and a crystal ball. 

  The new band’s original lineup didn’t last long. Within a few months, I was the only amateur left. Musicians came and went, but Russ remained a constant for 15 years.

  Guitar players often hate each other. It’s a competitive thing, an ego thing. It was never that way with Russ and me. He was so much better than I was that there was never a question of competing. Instead, we bonded over a mutual love of the instrument, perusing guitars and amplifiers, buying increasingly better and more expensive ones. We loved guitars in the way some people love hot rods or golf or fly fishing.

  It’s fair to say that he was a bit of a loose cannon when it came to details. We’d boarded a plane to Seattle for a concert one weekend when he surprised me with a rueful admission.

  “You know the Robben Ford concert we’re going to – the one tomorrow night, May 16?”

  “What about it?”

  “I got mixed up. It was actually on April 16.”

  When we wanted to order T-shirts with the band logo, he told me to check out a shop called Seven Seas T-shirts. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find it. Its actual name was Two Oceans T-shirts.

  “There’s a new restaurant coming to town,” he told me one day. “It’s called Pepper’s.”

  The correct name:  Chili’s.

  His sense of direction, or lack of it, was notorious. On road trips, we’d sandwich his car between those of other band members so he couldn’t get lost. He did anyway.

  On a trip to North Idaho, he escaped the sandwich, made a wrong turn at New Meadows and drove most of the way back to Boise,  arriving at our destination six hours after everyone else. Another wrong turn took him over icy Galena Summit in the wee hours of New Year’s Eve. We were about to call the State Police when he turned up the following afternoon, having been rescued by a sheriff’s deputy.

  His playing compensated for these lapses, and his innate charm made it difficult to get angry at him over them. He could charm anyone, and virtually everyone who knew him loved him. 

  We didn’t see much of each other after he left the band to play with an old friend from his formative years. He’d played with us longer than any other group, but he seemed to want to make a clean break.

  Still, my old friend kept a place in my heart. When word came of how sick he was, I went to see him. He couldn’t walk or speak. He  communicated by pointing to letters on a board. He was on heavy duty pain meds and a feeding tube and had lost more than a third of his body weight. A shell of the vibrant person he once had been.

  My last visit to him was with one of my daughters, who had grown up with him. He looked at her and slowly, agonizingly, spelled “U R beautiful” on his board. He died not long after that.

  I like to think he’s at peace now, smiling that thousand-watt Russ smile, his eyes twinkling, playing like an angel on the guitar of his dreams.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com

Surprise! You’re in Airport Hell

(My current columns and older ones will alternate from now on during the pandemic. The “Woodward Classics” originally were published in The Idaho Statesman. Many are humor columns. In times like these, we need humor.)

  I’m writing this in the Spokane airport. I don’t ever want to see the Spokane airport again. Or any other airport.

  It’s 5:30 a.m. I’ve been traveling for 39 hours and counting. I’ve had seven hours of sleep in the last 48, and if anyone says “fogged in” again I’m going to set my ticket on fire and hitchhike home.

  The trip began in Florida, where a friend and I went for a wedding. We skipped dinner after the wedding to drive to the airport for an early flight home the next morning. This proved to be a serious error. Except for a tuna fish sandwich in Florida and a taco in Houston, we’ve been living on airline peanuts for two days.

  It looked like such an easy trip. The itinerary said we’d go from Fort Lauderdale to Houston to Los Angeles to Boise. My friend, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, would spend the night in Boise and fly to Spokane the next morning.

  The itinerary, however, was deceiving. It was all but erupting with surprises. The first was Orlando, which wasn’t on the itinerary or even mentioned until we boarded the plane.

  The second surprise happened in Houston. That’s where we learned that our plane was continuing on to L.A. without us. We could have stayed on the plane and taken off within minutes, but for some unknown reason we’d been booked for an LA. connection almost four hours later. It was at this point that we began to suspect our travel agent was the same person who synchronizes Boise’s traffic lights.

  The third surprise was yet another unannounced stop. After watching the wind blow in Houston for hours and flying to L.A. to catch an alleged direct flight to Boise, we instead were bound for … Reno.

  It wasn’t on the itinerary, either.

  It was also fogged in.

  Skimming over the mountains above Reno in turbulence on a foggy night may be some people’s idea of adventure, but it wasn’t mine and it definitely wasn’t my friend’s. He was so nervous he looked like he could spontaneously combust,.

  We circled and circled and circled some more, waiting for an announcement that we could skip Reno and continue on to Boise. The announcement, however, brought surprise number four.

  Oakland.

  The Reno passengers deplaned in Oakland, leaving seven of us with our personal 737 to Boise. It was kind of nice, actually.

  Until surprise number five was announced. 

  Boise was fogged in. We were going to Spokane.

  My friend was delighted. That’s where he wanted to go all along. He’d been booked to go there from Boise the next day. Instead, he could pick up his car at the Spokane airport and drive  home to Coeur d’Alene a day early.

  I, on the other hand, would spend four hours tossing and turning on a bed in an airport hotel and get up at a shudderingly  early hour to catch a 6:45 a.m flight to Boise.

  Except that Boise was still fogged in. The 6:45 flight was canceled, the 10:15 flight was canceled and the next flight wouldn’t be until evening. By then the fog could be even thicker. I could be in Spokane until spring.

  I’ve been “flying” for two days and counting. My itinerary, the actual one rather than the airline’s cunningly condensed version, reads like a travel brochure – Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Houston, L.A., Reno, Oakland and Spokane – where I may perish. The airport restaurants were closed when we landed last night and were closed again this morning.  I’m hungry, my back aches, my eyes burn. If I ever get home, I’m going to write the airline a letter telling it what I think of its sneaky way of throwing in cities that aren’t on the itinerary. 

  And on future trips, I’ll be driving. It might not be as safe as flying, but it’s faster.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

What Will Our New Normal Be?

  If in March someone had said it would be October before I wrote another column, I’d have guessed that I’d been in an accident or suffered one of the worst cases of writer’s block in history.

  A pandemic never would have occurred to me.

  It’s good to be writing for you again. It was fun reprising some old columns while new ones were suspended, and it was great to hear from readers who said they enjoyed them, but now it’s time to get back to work. The suspension isn’t entirely over – new and old columns will alternate for a while – but it’s a start. 

   What a different world it is from the relatively innocent one that existed when the pandemic began. My wife and I were in Mexico when news broke of what was yet to be declared a pandemic. Fearing that travel between countries would be prohibited, we thought our biggest worry would be getting back home.

  Once that happened, we thought everything would be okay. We’d be safely home in a country with the resources needed to deal with whatever was coming. And what was coming didn’t seem to be all that serious. The president assured us it would all be over by April.

  The reality, of course, was that life as we’d known it ceased to exist. Businesses we thought would always be here closed for good. The homeless shelter where my wife and I volunteered told us to stop. No more volunteering, no columns to write. One gig after another for the band I play in was canceled or postponed. A previously busy life became a challenge to fill the hours. 

  I re-screened a door, built a planter box, did some painting. My wife cleaned drawers, closets and cupboards, made cookies for the mail carrier and trash haulers. We set personal records for numbers of books read.

  My home office is now an online learning center for my grandson. The desk where I previously worked is strewn with school books, tablets, pencils and markers.

  The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people.

  Some donated their stimulus checks to workers who had lost their jobs.

  People made and donated face masks, prepared and delivered meals to those who otherwise would have gone hungry.

 Moving demonstrations of support for medical workers warmed hearts at hospitals throughout the country.

  Entertainers did free, online performances to lift our spirits. Good-hearted citizens in every state and virtually every county have been responsible for myriad acts of random kindness. 

  Simultaneous with these acts of selflessness were acts of despicable behavior:

  People hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

  People not only refusing to social distance or wear masks but assaulting those who urged them to do so. A man wiping his nose on the sleeve of a store employee who asked him to wear a mask. Another man breaking the arm of a store employee who asked him to leave the store for not wearing one.

  Protestors burning masks, demonstrating against precautions meant to protect us all.

  Is this who we are? Is this the country we loved and thought we knew?

  We’ve always thought of ourselves as a civilized society. Are we only one epidemic, one stroke of fate, away from being less civilized than we thought? Who’d have thought six months ago that we’d see people stealing toilet paper from other people’s grocery carts and spitting on people who ask them to wear masks?

  Medical professionals tasked with caring for the victims have to wear masks and face shields continuously through long, grueling shifts. And wearing a mask to pick up a few things at the grocery store is too much to ask of the rest of us?

    In seven months, we’ve lost almost three times as many Americans as were killed in the Vietnam War. 

   Who’d have thought seven months ago that we’d be worrying about the security of our elections and even the possibility of a civil war?

 Here’s hoping we’re better than that. I for one think and hope we are. And every so often, something happens that sustains that hope. 

  I was in a checkout line at a grocery store a few weeks ago when a small, seemingly insignificant incident served as a reminder of the way things were before we became so divided that we have trouble even speaking to one another.

   Everyone in the store that day was wearing a mask except for a family in the checkout line behind me, a couple and their small daughter. We didn’t glare at each other or exchange angry words. Quite the opposite, in fact. The man was wearing a T-shirt that made me laugh.

  “You can’t scare me,” it said. “I have two daughters.”

  I told the man I liked his shirt.

  “Thanks,” he said. “It makes people laugh. Especially people with daughters.”

  “I have two daughters myself. They turned out great. Yours probably will, too.”

  For all I knew, he could have been one of the protestors who burned masks at city hall. But for that fleeting, welcome moment of connection, we were on the same page, enjoying a laugh together about something we had in common. It might not seem like it during this turbulent time, but there are far more things that unite us as Americans than divide us.

  America has long been known as a beacon to the world for its democratic ideals. A force for good and a counterweight to the evils of authoritarianism. We are living history now, and it isn’t clear what kind of country this will be once the history is recorded. What will the new normal be? Will we follow the path of divisiveness and hatred or that of civility and respect for one another and the principles made this country great?

  Will our democracy survive? 

  What path will we choose in November?

  Here’s hoping it’s our better angels, not our worst, that get us through this.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.