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.

The Mayor is Going Where? To Sell What?

(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman. Many are humor columns, slightly modified, from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)

  No one can ever accuse Boise Mayor Dirk Kempthorne of a lack of salesmanship.

  The mayor is planning a trade mission to Taiwan, where he said he will be “looking forward to opening doors for local businesses to expand into new markets. … We must become more aggressive in promoting the sale of local products other than agricultural goods.”

  Kempthorne is one of nine mayors chosen by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to visit Taiwan, courtesy of a Chinese industrial association. To make sure their honors stick strictly to business and don’t engage in a lot of male-oriented frivolity on the junket, the association also is springing for their wives to accompany them.

  A news release about the trip didn’t address what struck me as a pretty obvious question. 

  What kind of Boise products will the mayor be plugging in Taiwan?

  To find out, I called his office. My call was referred to the city’s economic development director, who said it was “a matter of analyzing what they need that we produce.”

  Specifically?

  “I’m sure one of the things he’ll discuss will be wheat.”

   Wheat?

  Of course! Never mind that the mayor said we need to promote products “other than agricultural goods.” Boise wheat is legendary, so well known that he couldn’t not promote it in Taiwan. 

  It’s always mystified me that Boise is known as the City of Trees when by all rights it should be the City of Wheat. Everyone knows that Boise wheat is known and coveted throughout the civilized world.

  Once Kempthorne corners the lucrative Taiwanese market, Boise wheat will be even more famous and sought after. Look for fields of billowing wheat to spring up all over town. Vacant lots and backyard gardens will explode with amber waves of Boise grain.

  So much economic development could come from the mission that it could be the beginning of a bold new era for the state’s mayors.

  Consider the potential. If the mayor of Boise can go all the way to Taiwan to sell wheat, anything is possible.

  The mayor of Meridian, for instance, could fly to Hawaii to sell water towers.

  One of the Hawaiian islands has the wettest spot on the planet. The Hawaiians need places to put all that water, and Meridian is at least as well known for water towers as Boise is for wheat, so it’s a natural. Meridian’s mayor would be so busy selling water towers that he wouldn’t have a single minute to waste on luaus, surfing or other amusements. Taxpayers could rest assured that it would be all business. 

  The possibilities are endless:

  The mayor of Lewiston could go to Australia or the British Isles to sell seaports.

  The mayor of Hagerman, known for its fish hatcheries, could sell trout to Norway.

  The mayor of Sun Valley could sell ski lifts in the Bahamas.

  The mayor of Pocatello could pitch potatoes in Ireland.

  The mayor of Jerome could spend months in the Virgin Islands, tapping the lucrative Caribbean Tupperware market.

  Or, the mayors could stay home and run their cities.

  But how much fun would that be?

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 Paint Can from Hell

 (My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)

  Someday in a better world, people will have alternatives to the things that frustrate us today.

  They’ll have conquered gravity, achieved world peace and outlawed robocalls.

  If they’re really lucky, they’ll have found an alternative to paint.

  This occurred to me after cleaning up a paint spill the other day.

  And I hadn’t even been painting.

  The paint was left over from a room painted months earlier.  Normally I take old paint to a hazardous-waste truck at a fire station, but this particular can was all but empty when I put it in the trash. It couldn’t have contained more than a thimbleful of paint, which appeared to have dried up.

  Appearances, of course, can be deceiving.  

  During the night, one of the neighborhood dogs had knocked over our trash can. The “thimbleful of dried-up paint” had come out, leaving a mess of shocking proportions on the sidewalk. 

  Have you ever noticed that when you’re painting something and have a small amount of paint left, it’s never enough to finish the job? Just try spilling it, though. What won’t cover a square foot on a wall will make a stain the size of a wading pool on your new hardwood floor. 

  Wondering how such a small amount of paint could cover such a large amount of sidewalk, I began the cleanup. After half an hour of repeated blotting with paper towels, vigorous scrubbing with a wire brush and high-pressure spray from a hose, the sidewalk almost looked normal. 

 Late for work by then, I took the can back to the garage to dispose of later. That’s when I noticed that the can had a crack in it and had leaked paint on both the driveway and the garage floor. A trail of paint that would take even more time to clean up.

  This was the moment when one of my daughters arrived on the scene, perhaps drawn by the sound of spirited cursing.

  “What’s wrong? she asked

  “This # )%! paint can! It was almost empty and now it’s spewing paint like Old Faithful. If it was food instead of paint it could end world hunger.”

  Offering to help, she picked up the can and watched in dismay as it dribbled paint all over her new pants and jacket. 

  Where was it all coming from? True, the paint obviously wasn’t dried up, but the can really had looked empty. 

  “Stay here,” I told her. “I’ll go inside and get more paper towels.”

  That meant walking down the sidewalk and across the front porch, through the entryway, and into the kitchen. 

  By now you may have guessed that in addition to being nearly everywhere else, there was paint on the bottoms of my shoes. 

  And the the porch, the entryway floor, the kitchen floor …

  All from a supposedly empty can of dried up paint.

  That night, I made a deal with God. If I ever put another paint can in the trash instead of taking it to a fire station, He can strike me dead.

  Outlawing robocalls and conquering gravity would be great. Achieving world peace would be even better.

  But in a really perfect world, there won’t be paint.

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 Montana Merchant Marine

(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)

  Credit Robert Kelleher with the bizarre idea of the month

  Kelleher is a candidate for governor of Montana. His idea is the kind of story newspaper columnists pray for.

  He wants to start a Montana Merchant Marine

  The man is serious. He actually wants landlocked Montana to invest in merchant- marine freighters.

  Imagine the headlines.

  “S.S. Bozeman sinks off Nebraska coast.”

  The only thing that separates Kelleher from true genius is that he’s running for governor of Montana and not Kansas.

  You have to admire a person with that kind of courage. Selling people on the idea of sea-going freighters in Montana must be about as easy as selling lighthouses in Oklahoma. 

  Montanans do not have a consuming interest in freighters, barges, tankers or other marine vessels. The closest thing they have to a seaport is Lewiston, which as everyone knows is in Idaho.

  As I understand it, Kelleher’s strategy is to use a newly formed Montana Merchant Marine and a rehabilitated railroad to ship grain to Asia. This supposedly would cut by a third the cost of shipping Montana grain to the Far East. 

  The plan, obviously, poses a potential threat to Lewiston’s port and Idaho’s grain shipping.

  With this in mind, I’m hereby proposing a counter offensive. If Idaho is to prevail against Kelleher and likeminded Montanans with nautical ambitions, it has but one course of action.

  We should start a navy and take them on.   

  Think about it. Idaho has been taking it on the chin from Montana for years.

  The best example is Yellowstone Park. When the park was divvied up, Montana and Wyoming got all the geysers, all the entrances and all the souvenir shops. All Idaho got was a miserable little corner, without a single mud pot, geyser or tourist restaurant.

  The most humiliating thing about the relationship between the states, from an Idahoan’s standpoint, is the way Montana and Idaho are perceived by much of the rest of the world.

   In books, movies and television programs, Montana is portrayed as Big Sky Country, a land of towering peaks and alpine splendor, a state where sophisticated eastern tourists sip whiskey in mountain lodges after catching trophy trout.

  Idaho, also blessed with towering peaks and alpine splendor, is thought by everyone east of the Mississippi to be a flat, unvarying expanse of potato fields. A Midwesterner once told me, with a perfectly straight face, that Idaho is nothing but potato fields, that it shares a border with Iowa and therefore has to be flat, and that anyone who knows anything knows that Sun Valley is in California.

  It isn’t fair. Montana gets all the glory while Idaho is the butt of potato jokes.

  With a navy, that could change overnight.

  For starters, we’d print up some catchy recruiting posters:

  “Join the Navy and see Idaho.”

  “Damn the spuds. Full speed ahead!”

  Artists would jump at the chance to sketch aircraft carriers crossing the Camas Prairie.

  Once our destroyers were operational, we’d steam over and claim our fair share of Yellowstone Park. If Wyoming gave us any trouble, we declare war on Rock Springs.

  Imagine the looks on Montanans’ faces when our fleet docked outside the stadium for the next Idaho-Montana football game.

  If anyone protested, we’d mine the harbor at Billings.

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@hotmail.com.

Idaho-Iowa II

(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic so we decided to run some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. This one is a followup to one the ran two weeks ago, on the confusion between Idaho and Iowa.)

The scene: a service station in South Carolina.

 Georgia traveler – We’ll be home soon. Where is your home?

  Idaho traveler – Boise, Idaho.

  Georgia traveler – Well now! I don’t rightly know if we come through there or not. We come through St. Louis.

  Idaho traveler – You probably didn’t come through Boise then. It’s about 1,600 miles from St. Louis.

  Georgia traveler – It is?!

  Idaho traveler. Yes. It’s less than a day’s drive from the Pacific Ocean. Idaho isn’t anywhere near St. Louis. It’s part of the Wild West.

  Georgia traveler (backing up, checking for six-shooters) – Start the car, Billy Ray! And don’t make any sudden moves.

  The story, with modest embellishments, is true. It happened to Idahoan Betty Burke. The Georgians, of course, were wondering whether they had come through Boise, Iowa. An astonishing number of Americans are convinced that there is a Boise, Iowa.

  And a Des Moines, Idaho, a Coeur d’Alene, Iowa, a Sioux Falls, Idaho …

  No offense to Georgia, but the state of geography appears to be in serious trouble there. Lynn Adams of Red Oak, Iowa was traveling through the Peach State when one of its residents asked the inevitable question:

  “So, where do you call home?”

  “Iowa,” she replied

  “Iowa, let me see now. Wait, I’ve got it! That’s the one up there by Washington and Oregon, isn’t it?”

  In 1989, the Idaho Falcons soccer team toured the now defunct Soviet Union, competing in its republics of Russia, Moldavia and Ukraine. It was the first time a U.S. amateur soccer team had been invited to play in the Soviet Union, and the Idahoans were justly proud to be representing their country.

  Until they arrived at the stadium in Moscow for their final game. Among the spectators there was a Russian high school student with a large, hand-painted banner: “Go, Iowa!”

  No one could persuade him that the names of the two states weren’t interchangeable.

 Idahoan Lyman Larson decided to have some fun with the confusion. His contribution: an “Idawa” postcard.

  “Why do Idaho and Iowa have such an identity crisis?” he asked. “What is it that makes a person confuse them? Is it their geographic proximity, renowned rivers or perhaps their famed agricultural products? In honor of confused fellow countrymen everywhere, I designed the appropriate postcard. It is my hope that it will simplify that confusion. Or just simply confuse.”

  The postcard pays homage to “Idawa, the Gemeye State.” (Iowa is the Hawkeye state.) Larson’s Idawa map looks like Iowa’s with Idaho’s panhandle jutting from its northern border. Its capital is Des Boise. Idawa is the home of “Famous Corntatoes,” and “a Pacific Midwest paradise bordered by the mighty Snake and Mississippi rivers.”

  Indianan Patricia Roderick married an Idahoan in Idaho and took him home to Indiana to introduce him to her fellow Hoosiers at an open house.

  “In northwest Indiana, an open house is a popular way to celebrate events,” she said. “I circulated continually as a good guest of honor should and spoke with at least five people who asked, ‘So, how do you like Iowa?’

  “Being ignorant of the Idaho-Iowa connection at the time, I kept wondering why people would ask me how I liked a state I had only passed through. This experience was my first inkling that the two states might be interchangeable in people’s minds.”

 When she returned to Idaho from Indiana, she “hadn’t been back at work two minutes when one of my co-workers asked, ‘So, how was Iowa?’”

  Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin discovered the pitfalls of name identification during his 1992 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Harkin was one of the few primary candidates who actually campaigned in Idaho. On a campaign stop in Boise, he told his audience that the problem was bigger than any candidate.

  “I go all over the country,” he said, “and I’m invariably introduced as Sen. Tom Harkin of Idaho.” 

  Late Idaho Sen. Frank Church claimed to have the same problem in reverse. People outside Idaho thought he was from Iowa. 

  There has never been a president from Idaho. Iowa has produced one, Herbert Hoover.

  The father of the Depression.

  Idaho probably took the rap.

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.

Idaho is Not Iowa – or Ohio, Indiana …

(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)

  Idaho and Iowa are states so different from each other it would seem impossible to confuse them. 

  Idaho is mountains, irrigated farmland and desert. The definition of an Idaho rainstorm – a lot of wind, a lot of dust, a few drops and it’s over – is pretty accurate. Idaho has the nation’s largest wilderness outside of Alaska and more than 150 peaks higher than 10,000 feet.

  Iowa is flat, a Midwest prairie with abundant rainfall and cornfields that seem to stretch forever. Its highest point is Merrill Sterler’s hog lot, elevation1,670 feet.

  The states are separated by a distance greater than that separating New York and Georgia. One is so flat that people in Sioux City contact those in Dubuque, 300 miles away, by standing in the road and waving. The other is so mountainous that if pounded flat, according to some authorities, it would be the largest state in the nation. One is famous for corn, the other for potatoes. Products not noted for striking similarities.

  There is no compelling reason for people to confuse Idaho and Iowa, but it happens all the time. Most of the mixups are funny;  some border on the unbelievable.

  At least one person – a professional pilot, no less – actually moved to Idaho thinking it was Iowa. He discovered his 1,500-mile error too late and has been an Idahoan ever since.

  In Hawaii, a prospective thief was foiled by a geographic blunder printed on his checks, drawn on the First National Bank of Iowa, in “Boise Iowa.”

  He was in good company. In a golden moment from his reporting days, former network news anchorman Tom Brokaw ended a newscast with a panoramic sweep of the mountains of the Boise Front and the words, “This is Tom Brokaw reporting from Boise, Iowa.”

  Not to be outdone, fellow NBC anchor Deborah Norville transplanted Boise to Iowa on the Today Show.

  The Boise, Iowa syndrome has been the undoing of countless mail order customers, including a couple who reported that “it took months to get our order. The company kept sending it to you-know-where. When we told them we were from Boise, Idaho, they asked how far that was from Council Bluffs.”

  About 1,400 miles, give or take a spud cellar or two.

  Idaho is home to numerous ski resorts, including Sun Valley, the nation’s first. Iowa’s terrain is more conducive to lawn tennis. The difference in terrain, however, wasn’t enough to stop The Wall Street Journal from moving Sun Valley to the Hawkeye State or the journal of the American Association of Retired Persons from plugging Iowa ski packages,

  No one is immune. Harper’s, Time, The New York Times, even the president of the United States have succumbed to Idaho-Iowa confusion. An alarming number of Americans, apparently including some in the White House, believe that all four “I” states are in a neat line in the Midwest. Thus we have a hundredth-birthday card from President George Bush to a resident of Emmett, Idaho, mailed to the resident’s correct street address in “Emmett, Indiana.”

   Indiana is the state second most frequently confused with Idaho, closely followed by Ohio, which doesn’t start with an “I” but has a similar sounding name. This was the inspiration for the old joke about the Idaho woman who was visiting the East and was told, “My dear, I’m sure you won’t take offense if I tell you something you ought to know. We pronounce it Ohio.” 

  The University of Iowa does a brisk business in T-shirts sporting the words, “University of Iowa, Idaho City, Ohio.”

  Some people not only have no idea where Idaho is, they don’t even know it’s a state. When I told a Chicago cab driver that I was from Idaho, he looked at me as if I was from another planet.

  “It’s out west,” I told him, “but a lot of people confuse it with Iowa.”

  He laughed heartily.

  “Iowa?” he exclaimed, practically splitting. “How could anybody confuse Idaho and Iowa?”

  “I don’t know, but it happens a lot. Sometimes they confuse it with Indiana or Ohio, too.”

  He laughed so hard the cab shook.

  “I don’t believe it!” he said. “How could people think Idaho was Indiana or  Ohio?”

  “Beats me.”

 A pregnant pause. Then …

  “It’s part of California, isn’t it?”

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.

Who is Called What

Suggested headline: Who is called what where 

(My regular column is suspended during the COVID 19 pandemic, but we decided to run some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many will be humor columns. In times like these, we need humor.)

  One of the surest ways to annoy Boiseans is to call them Boizeans.

  People tend to be touchy, according to a recent Smithsonian article, “about what other people call them. Call someone from Indiana an Indianan and you will be reminded in no uncertain terms about the word Hoosier. North Carolinian is often acceptable, but not to diehard Tarheels. In Utah, folks prefer Utahn over Utahan.”

  Formal rules exist for deciding who is called what where, but they are far from foolproof. If the name of a place ends in y, for example, the rule says to change the y to an i and add an. This works well enough for, say,  Kansas City (Kansas Citians), but transforms people from Albany, N.Y. into Albanians. 

  Exceptions to the rules vary from place to place.

  Do people who live in Hamburg, Germany go by the rules and call themselves Hamburgers?”

  Yes.

  But are residents of Tobago, in the West Indies, Tobaggans?

  No.

  The rules, in other words, tend to be ignored more or less at will. Local preferences are commonly used for countries and states. Everyone knows that someone from Scotland is a Scot rather than a Scotlander, and someone from Indiana is a Hoosier.

  But what about lesser known places such as small towns in Idaho? Idaho has towns that even some Idahoans haven’t heard of, so it isn’t surprising that not everyone knows what to call the people who live there.

  Dalton Gardens, for instance. Is a resident of Dalton Gardens, in North Idaho, a Dalton Gardener?

  And what about Marion, south of Burley? Are people who live there Marionettes?

  To carry it to fanciful extremes, what about Dingle, in southeastern Idaho? Are people from Dingle Dinglelings?

  The rules are silent about that one. 

  Residents of Paris, France are Parisians, but what about residents of Paris, Idaho? A strict interpretation would make them Parisites.

  Inhabitants of Stites, in north-central Idaho, would go by the ungainly appellation of Stitesites.

  The applicable rule (adding either ites or er to names ending in consonants) would produce Kelloggers, Rexburgers, Rathdrummers and Heyburners.

  The results can sound pretty silly. Consider, for example, Sweet, Idaho. Sweeters or Sweetites would sound ridiculous, especially when there is an appealing alternative:

  Sweeties.

  By stretching the rules only slightly, citizens of Eagle would become Eaglets. People from Grangeville could ominously become Grangevillains. Declo would be the home of the Declones.

  Basketball would be the logical sport of choice for the Lakers, namely residents of Bear, Hayden, Spirit and Mud Lakes.

 The rules, or lack of them, raise some intriguing questions.

  Are people who live in Bliss Blissters?

  Are the males of Hagerman Hagermen?

  Are there Marsingers who can’t sing?

  Idaho has so many places with so many possible variations of what to call the folks who live in them that the state might want consider consider hiring a consultant. An expert who could help decide the best names to use.

  Someone from Council, perhaps. A Councilor.

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