Friday, December 22, 2006

Mile 1 - Everything that comes before...

My son, Hunter Sky Niro Magee, taken in early 2004 at age 6

Today is the 39th anniversary of my accident and third anniversary of the start of my long letter to Hunter, which evolved into my book. The letter, with a few minor editorial changes, is now the first chapter of my book. Here it is, exactly as written, three years ago today. Enjoy!

December 22, 2003

Dear Hunter,

Today, in recognition of the 36th anniversary of my accident, I decided to drive north along the Connecticut River to the spot where it happened. I haven’t been back many times over the years, perhaps seven or eight, but each visit has been special. In a sense, it is a pilgrimage that I afford myself every now and then. It provides an opportunity for quiet reflection and a vortex for emotional healing.

It is a pretty drive from my cottage in East Hampton. Connecticut, in my opinion, is one of the prettiest states in the country with its myriad of colors and hills and bodies of water scattered on the landscape, even in December when there are no flowers and the leaves and birds are gone for the winter. Today the sun was glistening off the ripples of the river. The world around me seemed tranquil and soothing, just the way I wanted it to be.

Every place is an easy drive from every place else in the state, except for rush hour when everybody who has an automobile seems to be on the same road at the same time. As I pulled off the highway upon reaching my destination, it occurred to me that there’s at least a small bit of irony in the distance up the river from my new home to Windsor Locks: 26.2 miles, the exact distance of a marathon.

The Spot is located on Spring Street, in sight of the front gate of Bradley International Airport. The atmosphere remains punctuated by the roar of airliners taking off and landing every four minutes or so, just as it was back then. Once I spotted the old Mobil Gas sign, memories started filling my mind. Not just memories of the paramedics scraping me off the pavement but also of the good times before and the periodic visits since. And there were feelings of curiosity and wonderment about what might have been.

Less than a week before the accident in 1967, Tom Derderian and I had breezed through that same spot on a training run. Our hometown newspaper, the Milford Daily News, frequently referred to us as the ‘Running Twins’ because we ran so many races together and because we were seen so often running on the local streets. Neither of us imagined that this particular occasion would be the last time that we would run together for nearly twenty years.

Tom and I were high school cross country and track competitors. We went to different schools in the same town. He was a year behind me in school but we were evenly matched. We were arch-rivals and wonderful friends at the same time. My recollection of one of our earliest conversations was his explanation for joining the cross country team. “I was on the chess team and one day I lost the first game of our elimination match. So I had to watch the other kids play for the rest of the day. I went outside and saw some boys running. Everyone got to keep running whether they were in first place or last. That seemed more enjoyable and satisfying to me. I decided at that moment to give up chess and get involved with running.” I recall thinking that I may want to avoid the game of chess. Sometimes I wish I had remembered sooner.

Tom Derderian graduated from Milford High School in 1967 and attended college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I visited him at his freshman high-rise dormitory in November while I was temporarily working at a shoe store a few miles down the road in Palmer. A month later he was making a courtesy return visit to Windsor Locks where I was managing a shoe store in Dexter Plaza, presumably my last stop before returning to school in January. It was a 72-hour per week position. It felt like I was working all of the time, except for an hour each morning and afternoon when I would go out for my run.

Tom and I were both training for the North Medford Club Championship, a six mile event in Newburyport MA to be held at the end of December. We ran side-by-side during most of the 1966 event. He out-sprinted me at the finish to take third place behind Ron ‘Vito’ Gaff and Rick Bayko. I returned the favor a few weeks later by finishing ahead of him to win the New Year’s Day race in Amesbury. Private bragging rights were now on the line.

We anticipated that the 1967 club championship would be close again and that our main competition would likely be Rick Bayko. Ron Gaff was nursing an injury and unlikely to compete. The best runners in the club, Jim Daley and Larry Olsen, didn’t participate in the club events very often. They raced seldom in order to maximize their success and preferred open competition whenever possible. Rick had beaten us many times during the past year. The 1967 race would be in his hometown giving him a distinct advantage. We were training to outrun Rick Bayko as much as we were training to defeat each other. Like all great rivalries, it motivated us to work hard and perform our best.

I had competed only once since the Canadian National Marathon in September. I was stale from too many races and it took longer than usual to recover from the Holyoke massacre in June. I decided to focus on training during the fall of 1967 rather than racing. It was a conscious effort to build a foundation of conditioning for the upcoming 1968 season. During this period I ran twelve consecutive 70-mile weeks, five of them over 100. It was the most intense training period of my life and it seemed to be working. My regimen consisted of speed training on the track, a few race walking competitions for cross training purpose, intervals on hills, and what is known as Fartlek (long, slow distance runs with intermittent changes in speed). I ended each day with a timed six mile run on the same six mile loop out by the airport and back, trying each day to improve by a couple of seconds from the day before.

I wanted to show Tom how fit I had become so I took our training run that day very seriously. He had just come off his college cross country season and was fit as well. I knew he was capable of stringing together five-minute miles. I wanted to see the look on his face when he discovered that I could do that too. Without saying a word to each other about our intentions, we took off on our run like it was an important race. Side-by-side we charged down Spring Street, past the front gate of the airport, by the front door of the Bradley Bowl, and over the rolling hills back into town. We experienced one of those rare but wonderful sensations that runners feel when it seemed that our feet were not touching the ground and our brains were immersed in endorphins. We felt no pain and yet we felt we were moving as fast as we possibly could. We crossed the finish line together in 31 minutes and 20 seconds. It was my best time for six miles. We were ready for the NMC championship. Teeming with confidence we sent Rick a challenge: “Get ready for third place,” we told him.

Reflecting back on it now, I am in awe at the fact that a few years later Tom ran the entire Boston Marathon at approximately the same pace. So did Rick. Four times the distance of that day plus an extra 2.2 miles for good measure. Truly awesome!

After we finished the six-mile course, we continued running across the canal to the bridge over the Connecticut River into Warehouse Point. We ran eight miles of Fartlek through the tobacco fields of Broad Brook, talking as we ran, occasionally hurdling fences, circling puddles, dodging sinkholes and chasing rabbits. I picked up a stray golf ball and dribbled it across the I-91 bridge back over the river. It was a silly place to be running but we were runners and thought we owned the roads. A few days later I would learn the hard way that cars own the roads. Runners do their thing on the roads at their own peril.

It is difficult to put into words the feelings I used to get while running. We often hear the vague reference: runner’s high. John Parker called it “real” and something that “made him free”. That’s true, but it’s more than that. To me, running reflects a spirit of excitement, adventure, freedom and joy, all at the same time. I wish I could package those feelings and give them to you as a gift. But I can’t. You will have to discover them one day for yourself. But just as your brother Richard was able to do, I am confident that you will discover the rewards of running on your own.

In 1994, your brother used his high school valedictorian speech to share the significance of running with his classmates. At the moment I heard his words, I realized that my son was explaining to his friends what I always felt but could not formulate into words. Somehow the message got across. He was feeling the same feelings as I felt at the same age. Even the description of the camaraderie was fitting of the enjoyment I felt when training with running partners like Tom Derderian and Rick Bayko. Running for him, as with me almost thirty years earlier, had become one of the most important and satisfying activities in his life. In fact, running WAS my life. In an instant it was taken away.

It’s hard for me to describe the accident in any great detail. All I remember was the car swerving off the road out of a line of cars right into me. I braced myself against the front of the car, went onto the hood and to the ground, where the car ran over both of my legs. I woke up once in the ambulance, which was stuck in Christmas-shopping traffic, to hear someone say, “Try to get around these guys. He’s losing a lot of blood.” My next recollection was waking up in the Hartford Hospital intensive care unit several days later. More than two years passed before I was able to return home. I didn’t run again for more than 18 years. When I came home, finally, I was not the same person as before. When I came home, I was no longer a child.

Here’s what Tom Derderian wrote regarding my accident nearly twenty years later. The details as he described them are graphic but accurate. The article, entitled I Beat Frank!, appeared in Boston Running News, September 1987:

“Frank Niro and I ran against each other in a road race on New Year’s Day, 1987. It was the first time since New Year’s Day, 1967. Everything and nothing had changed since then. First he tried to psyche me out by reminding me that twenty years ago on that very day he had beaten me. He used to try to psyche me out when we were in high school together. But this was a new year and a new race. I’d probably beat him in it because he had been injured for the past twenty years and I had not. But it is important to have your priorities in order: a race is a race. I intended to beat him and I knew I would because it hadn’t been an ordinary running injury for Frank.

It was a near fatal traffic accident that put him in a hospital for two years and kept him away from running for nearly twenty years. Then again, maybe it was all part of the psyche-out. You never know with runners, they are notorious liars.

On December 22, 1967, a 48-year-old factory worker filled with several quarts of Christmas party beer drove home on a busy Connecticut valley road. Frank ran to where the sidewalk ended, approaching the intersection where the Mobil station and a big house stood. Frank faced the traffic. The two of us had trained together on that loop only a few days before. At sixty mph, the factory worker’s car swerved out of the line of traffic and into the place where the sidewalk ended. The grill hit and shattered Frank’s right kneecap, drove the femur into his pelvis, breaking the pelvis in three places, as well as the femur itself. Frank’s palms jammed against the hood of the car pivoting him onto the hood. He grabbed the radio antenna instinctively while his legs slipped under the wheels. They crushed both tibias and fibulas pushing the bones through the skin. The antenna broke off in his hand releasing Frank to roll into the ditch. The last he remembers seeing was his legs twisted beneath him like pretzels, the marrow points poking through the skin. He hadn’t started to bleed. The car never slowed. Later the driver told his wife he thought he hit a dog. She however had heard a description on the radio of a police report of a car involved in a hit and run accident. She convinced him to turn himself in. By that time he was sober.

Before the accident nearly cost Frank his life, he had been a runner who showed considerable talent and promise. As a freshman in 1966 at Bentley College, he often finished as second man on a very strong cross country team. He once ran the six mile home course in 31:25. As a seventeen year old, Frank ran his first Boston Marathon in 3:42. One year later as an 18-year-old, Frank ran 2:57:19. At times, Frank’s mileage reached 100 miles per week. I convinced him to add variety to his workouts by adding some Fartlek, speed work, rest, and race walking. In early 1967, Frank won the New England Junior Racewalking Championship 10K in 49:09. He finished in the top 25 in the National 25K walk in Berwick PA.

Luck saved Frank from bleeding to death in the ditch. The operator of the Mobil station saw the accident and ran to the big house. The doctor who lived in the house had arrived home moments earlier. He called the ambulance, rushed to Frank’s side, took his own dress shirt off to make tourniquets that he applied to stop the bleeding, and then rode in the ambulance to the hospital where Frank lived for the next two years.

After a month in intensive care, doctors placed Frank in traction for 22 weeks. After the traction, Frank was placed in a full body cast, neck to toes with two essential holes. More operations were performed for alignment and skin grafting. In the body cast his legs were attached together, to get skin from his right leg to cover the wound on his left.

The wound in Frank’s left leg became infected. It took 30 days to kill the infection, but part of the shinbone and a lot of tissue had died. Amputation was considered, but the doctors instead grafted some hipbone into the shin. After ten weeks in a body cast, Frank was fitted with casts on both legs. The first time he tried to stand, his right femur snapped like a wishbone and nineteen more weeks of traction followed.

Frank’s visit to the hospital lasted for 760 consecutive days. When he returned to his hometown of Milford MA, he was wheelchair bound. Lock kneed long-legged braces, special shoes and crutches soon replaced the wheelchair.

Frank wouldn’t give up his dream to become a top runner. After his release from the hospital, another traffic accident (he was a passenger in a friend’s car this time) broke his leg again. He couldn’t run. He had no strength in the muscles in his legs and little motion. He married a nurse, Christine, he’d met in the hospital. With Christine’s help, he completed college and earned a graduate degree in hospital administration. Things looked good for Frank. Christine was pregnant with twins. They were premature and each weighed less than two pounds. One of the twins died at birth and the other lived only 12 days. He plunged himself into his work. His marriage dissolved. Still he would not give up his dream to run again; he expected to run again. But the years passed and he didn’t run at all. Frank walked with a limp, gained weight and limped more.

Then Frank gave up. He realized he would never run again. “Until then I couldn’t reconcile myself to the losses: my legs, my twins, my marriage, I just denied to myself that those bad things had happened. It was only when I said to myself that I would never run again that I could start walking, lose weight and build myself up again.” Then he rejoined the North Medford Club and began to walk and run in races. At first it was more of a hobble than a run. Frank is now President of the North Medford Club. In races he fights it out with friends like octogenarian Ruth Rothfarb for last place.

Frank’s final alignment operation (his 19th) was in 1979, nearly twelve years after the original accident. Over the years he suffered ‘foot drop’ (in both feet), osteoporosis, loss of feeling below the left knee as a result of nerve damage, loss of mobility in both ankles and knees, one ankle completely fused and no bend of more than 45 degrees in either knee.

In a road race last fall Frank had secured his customary last place, an accomplishment that has earned him the nickname ‘Caboose’ among the other runners. He wore a t-shirt that declared the 1986 Boston Red Sox to be the American League champions. The police motorcycles clustered around him as he hobbled along in last place. With only a half mile to go, the police turned on their sirens and formed a semi-circle with him as the focus. Frank finished with the ‘official’ escort in dead last smiling, and like most of us egomaniac runners, pleased with the attention. He thanked the officers for the escort thinking maybe they had heard his story. But to be humble, he asked if the royal service was rendered because he wore the Red Sox shirt. One officer replied, “Hell no, not at all. You took so long in the race that with a half mile to go we all went on overtime pay. We were celebrating.” You’ve gotta have your priorities in order.

Oh, in the 1987 New Year’s race Frank finished last. I beat Frank. His story’s true.

So my visit to the ‘spot’ today was worthwhile, as usual. On one previous visit with Richard Ramaskwich, a lifelong friend whom I often refer to as “Uncle Richard”, I actually met the gas station owner who went next door to get the doctor. Uncle Richard and I bowled in the Pro-Am at Bradley Bowl for several years when the Pro Bowlers’ Tour came to Windsor Locks. On a few occasions, we stopped by the ’spot’ together for a silent prayer. One time, around April1982 I think, we went inside the Mobil gas station. I asked the old timer if he was there in 1967. He said he had been there 30 years. “Do you remember the day when a young runner was hit by a drunk driver while passing your station?” I said. “I sure do,” was his response. “ I often wonder what ever happened to the kid. Do you know him?” “Yes I do. That was me. I came to thank you for saving my life.” Spontaneously we embraced. Tears filled our eyes; all three of us. After a long pause and without saying another word, Richard and I turned and left. I never met the gentleman again after that day but I am grateful for the one time. I’m sure it was important for him too. It brought an element of closure to the situation.

On another visit I arrived shortly after a devastating tornado hit the area. It was the late seventies or early eighties. Your mom was living a few miles down the road in Simsbury at the time. I was amazed at the damage to the buildings. The trees strewn on the ground looked as if someone had spilled a box of gigantic toothpicks. They were scattered all over and no trees were standing for three of four blocks. It was the first tornado that I recall hitting New England since the big one touched down in Massachusetts on June 9, 1953. The earlier one started in Petersham and passed through Worcester where it did a lot of damage. It made a big impression on me, even though I was only four years old, because it came so close to my home. I remember seeing newspaper photos of the Assumption College campus showing several wrecked buildings. South of Worcester it split in two before it reached our home in Hopkinton. One branch petered out in Uxbridge while the other lifted into the sky and dissipated in Marlboro. My father was having lunch in a diner in Marlboro. The last building the tornado hit was across the street from the diner.

The last time I visited the Spot was with your mom in 1997. Autumn and Tember were visiting with their dad for the weekend. It was convenient for Michael to drop them off at the McDonald’s in front of the airport, so that’s where the exchange took place. I remember your mom asking me, after she had seen the spot, if I had any regrets. She wanted to know if I would change anything if I had the chance to re-live my life. It was a pretty insightful question. “Of course not,” I said. “I wouldn’t be right here, right now, with you, if anything had happened differently.”

It was the only ‘correct’ answer, of course, but it is what I really believe. If we are happy with where we are in our lives today, son, then everything that went on before is part of how we arrived where we are. To change a single decision or event is to change everything. Sure we learn from our experiences and want to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. And no sane person wants to re-live life’s tragedies. The truth is that we can’t change what has gone on before even if we would like to, so there is no benefit to getting anxious or distracted or distressed by what might have happened had things worked out differently. Fundamentally, we have to remember that everything that comes before leads to who we are and where we are today. Everything, whether good or bad! We must take it all and try to make the best of every situation.

The point is that sometimes things happen that we cannot control. It is important that we make good choices and exercise sound judgment regarding the things we can control, and deal with the unexpected and uncontrollable events in the best way possible. It is all right to wonder about what might have been but it is unhealthy to fret about it. It does no good to carry anger inside for a long time. If we do that, the anger can build up and explode at a bad time with a negative effect on people who are closest to us. We risk the possibility of anger pouring out on someone we care about, someone who doesn’t deserve it. Unfortunately, it took way too many years for me to figure this out.

I remember talking to my friend and former student, Mary Ann Szufnarowski, about a difficult situation she was dealing with. I was attempting to give her encouragement by reminding her that good things happen to good people. “Sure,” she said, “but good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people too.” She was certainly right.

In the game of chess there is a term “Sockdolager” coined by Fred Reinfeld, which means a move from seemingly out of nowhere that significantly changes things. In sports like like bowling and baseball it is just plain “bad luck”. The pitch by Mike Torrez to Bucky Dent in the 1978 Playoffs and the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series are examples of bad luck. Sometimes the bad luck for you is somebody else’s good luck. Take, for example, the ‘miracle’ river card in this year’s World Series of Poker that knocked Phil Ivey out of the tournament and pushed Chris Moneymaker toward victory.

It doesn’t help the situation to become envious, jealous or embittered. Those are attributes of an unhappy person. You will find that some people (or baseball teams) seem to get more than their share of bad luck. That’s just the nature of luck. There is no guarantee that everyone will get the same amount of good and bad luck. The sooner you accept that, son, the more peaceful and emotionally healthy your life will be.

I’ll write again soon.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Leave the Driving to Us

Quote of the Day: "That’s when I discovered that Frank Niro is the Bobby Knight of poker coaches. In other words, he gave me his honest views, sometimes in a loud voice." --Eddie Koopman

In the photo above, Chef Billy Town and Easy Eddie Koopman relax on Thanksgiving Day at the Easton Mountain Retreat center in Greenwich NY.

Note: This is the second in a series of guest weblogs by Eddie Koopman (also known as Woodstied or Easy Eddie). That way, his growing number of friends in North Carolina, New York, Missouri, Nevada and elsewhere can keep track of his progress. His previous blog appeared here on November 29, 2006.

After several interesting days at a resort in upstate New York, ChessSafari departed on November 30 in hopes of finding a ride to visit his children and grandson before returning to Seattle. Yes, Frank is a grandpa.

He gave me a choice of methods to return to Seattle with the idea of meeting up again in about a week. I told him that I would prefer to take Greyhound across the country from Albany to Washington State. I could have flown or taken another train but this was the least expensive choice and they have more frequent smoke breaks. So he went online and booked my bus tickets before leaving town.

I left Easton Mountain on Monday December 4th with another ride from Kirk, the guy who had taken me to Turning Stone the previous week. He got me to the Albany Greyhound station in plenty of time.

Because of my stroke, I was able to check my baggage through special handling, which meant that Greyhound would move the bags from bus to bus. This would, theoretically, be much simpler for me. But I had the feeling from my first meeting with the baggage people that I may never see my bags again. That would not be a good thing since just about everything I own was crammed into those two bags.

My anxiety over my bags was heightened when they sent me on the first leg of my journey three hours earlier than the scheduled departure time. No problem, though. I would rather spend three hours waiting in Manhattan than in Albany. That was the last I would see of my bags on the trip.

During my stopover in New York City I was able to visit a restaurant I used to hang out at as a runaway kid in the 1960s. However, I did not like the new Times Square of 2006 as much as I did the old 42nd Street. So much has changed, and not all for the better. I walked around until my next bus left for Ohio.

At our first major stop, some police officers boarded the bus and took two passengers off in handcuffs. One was a man in his thirties and the other was a 15-year-old girl. “Kidnapping,” I heard them say. Next we stopped near the Ohio-Indiana border for a snack break. The driver said the bus would be serviced. I got off with my seatmate and several other passengers. When we looked around the bus had left the gate. We waited and waited for it to return. It didn’t. Good thing my bags weren’t on that bus!

After a time a different bus came by. The driver acknowledged that the other bus had left a few fares behind and directed us to board his bus for St. Louis. He said we would still get there in time to make our Denver connections. When we arrived in St. Louis I checked for my bags so that I could take my medications. I was told they were “on the way” but not quite there as yet. In other words, they were missing in action.

At this point I was pretty exhausted and ready for a restful journey from St. Louis to Denver. But the ride was total misery. A young mother with her 19-month-old screaming infant was in the rear of the bus. The mother had no money for a bottle for the baby. And even though several of the passengers, including me, would’ve chipped in for some milk for the baby, the gift shops at the terminals we visited were useless.

I would like to suggest to the Greyhound management that the stations should sell baby items for its passengers if they are going to allow infants to ride. These items would be much more useful than bus shaped piggy banks or Greyhound logo baseball caps. I never saw a company so out of touch with the needs of its customers. At one point, I glanced toward the back of the bus and saw the baby take off his diaper and try to eat it. He was so hungry.

By the time we arrived in Denver my scheduled layover time was less than one hour. I thought I was heading next to Salt Lake City, Boise ID, and Portland OR on the way to Tacoma. At least that’s what my printed itinerary said. When they called my connection bus I lined up at the gate with my ticket in hand. When I got to the door I was told that I couldn’t board the bus because it was full. I would have to wait for the next bus…in twelve hours. Huh?

The new ticket that they issued at the counter re-routed me through Montana. I looked at a newspaper and saw that the temperature was near zero every place along the new route. I wanted to call ChessSafari to tell him that, rather than arriving Thursday evening at 6:30 PM, I would probably not get to Tacoma until at least 8 AM on Friday, December 8th. My cell phone was dead and my charger was in my lost luggage. I checked as each new bus arrived in Denver during my 12-hour wait; still no luggage.

I finally found a wireless phone store where I picked up a new charger for $32. Thankfully, Chess had anticipated that I might need some extra cash and gave Kirk an extra $140 to hand to me as I boarded the bus in Albany. That was certainly coming in handy now. On the way to get the charger I passed a sign that declared, “The New Greyhound. On-Time Certified!” Like I said: Huh?

It was so cold in the bus terminal that I decided to go to the nearest movie theatre to kill some time. The movie was “Stranger than Fiction” starring Dustin Hoffman. It was not one of his best efforts. Save your ticket money on this one unless you like boring movies.

After the movie I made one last trip to the baggage area. I asked about my luggage and also about the items I had left on the seat of the coach that abandoned us in Ohio. I wanted to know if there was a lost and found area. It seemed like a reasonable question to me.

I was told to ask security and that they would take me to it in the garage. I did so and the security officer suggested that I get out of the station immediately or I would be subject to arrest for disorderly conduct. I attempted to explain that the baggage handlers had sent me to him. His response was to take out his cuffs and threaten me. I had already seen that drill once on this trip, so I left the terminal. After four more hours in the freezing cold my connecting bus was finally ready for boarding at about 10 PM, minutes before frostbite was ready to set in.

As the driver went through the list of stops ahead I was just happy to get some warm air to my toes. Then he said, almost in a mock tone of voice, “and thanks for choosing Greyhound.” I wasn’t the only one who spoke up and said, “never again”.

Once we started moving, however, the bus got chilly. I asked for heat. He said, “OK”, but no heat came on. Passengers were wrapped in heavy coats and blankets; at least those that had them. One passenger handed out extra sweatshirts that he brought with him until he ran out. At a break in Wyoming, a passenger asked the driver for heat. His reply, and I quote: “Talk to me after my break. Until then I don’t want to be bothered.”

Not to over emphasize the point, but there should be regulations governing the transport of babies on long bus trips, especially if there is going to be inadequate climate control. When we got to St. Regis, Montana, all passengers were told to depart the bus. The driver explained that we had to wait approximately thirty minutes while he went to pick up a relief driver. All passengers, including mothers with infants, were left standing in the cold on an ice-covered parking lot waiting for his return. An hour and a half later, so it seemed, the bus came back with a fresh driver.

Twelve hours later we hit Seattle. Frank had arranged for my departure point to be Tacoma, an hour south of Seattle, because my original itinerary had me going through Portland. In other words, getting off in Tacoma was supposed to save an hour on the bus. But the way they ticketed me after Denver brought me through Seattle first. So it turned out to be an extra hour on the bus. On top of that, the Seattle to Tacoma connection was delayed adding a final dose of insult to the injury caused by those “On Time Certified” signs that now seemed to be everywhere.

Actually, there was one more insult. When they unloaded the luggage from the Seattle bus to the Tacoma bus, I spotted my two bags. That meant that they arrived with me in Tacoma. It also meant that they had been in Denver with me when I was frantically searching for my medications and cell phone charger.

I will be sending a copy of this trip report to the Greyhound corporate offices in Dallas TX. If anyone who reads this has any contacts at Greyhound, please let them know of my trip from hell, by way of Montana. Perhaps they will at least refund my fare. More importantly, perhaps they will make an effort to improve their customer service. Another copy is going to my lawyer.

The one thing that went as planned was that ChessSafari was at the Tacoma Greyhound station waiting for me when I arrived 14 hours late. I gave him a big hug. Then I went to my motel to take a hot bath and a long nap. I’m ready for some poker.

ChessSafari and his friends have treated me extremely well since the minute I arrived in the Seattle area. My motel is directly across from a bowling alley that conveniently has a card room. There are no paid dealers. Local players who all seem to know each other pass the deal from one player to the next around the table. I sat down in what I thought was an Omaha-8 game, where I can usually hold my own. Two hands later the game changed to FARGO. Then the next player changed it to CRAZY PINEAPPLE.

To me pineapple is something you garnish a ham with and Fargo is a city in North Dakota. After three hours of change-the-name-poker (called dealer’s choice flop games by the house), I was ahead by twenty bucks. To me, that was dinner so I cashed out. I learned later that I could’ve changed the game to limit hold’em on my own deal. Maybe next time.

Frank likes to play every Saturday morning at a no limit hold’em tourney on the Suquamish Indian reservation in Kitsap County, Washington. As he did the previous time we went there, he offered me incentives to play my best poker: a $50 last longer bonus and $100 to knock him out. 32 players entered the $35 buy-in event and we both made it to the final table. I outlasted him to 5th place and took home the bonus as well as the bubble cash prize equal to the entry fee.

It was the first time that I ever participated in a discussion of a final table deal. I found it quite interesting. The final table players agreed unanimously to modify the posted prize structure wherein players four and five would get their buy-in back and a ten percent tip would automatically go to the dealers from the first place money. Then we played on.

ChessSafari busted in 10th place when he called a player’s all-in raise while holding A-K. It was a good call; the all-in player had A-Q. Unfortunately, a queen came on the river. My day ended when my last 3,000 chips went into the big blind and I had to try to survive against two opponents with 7-3 offsuit. No such luck.

In general, I was happy about the way I played. Frank acknowledged that I made good decisions early from what he was able to observe. At one point he moved to my table where I was the big stack. That’s when I discovered that Frank Niro is the Bobby Knight of poker coaches. In other words, he gave me his honest views, sometimes in a loud voice.

On one hand I flopped the nut straight on a rainbow board and over-bet my hand. Then I showed my cards after my opponents all folded. He was not happy that I chased everyone out of the pot and especially not happy that I gave free information about my play by showing the nuts in that situation. I understand now that I could’ve added to my stack by playing less aggressively there.

Later, an opponent raised pre-flop from the small blind with pocket kings. I had limped with Ts9s and called his raise. The flop came AsKs2c. He checked and I made a pot size semi-bluff bet with my flush draw. He called (for reasons that are obvious now). On the turn he checked again after a rag fell. Sensing weakness when I should’ve smelled a trap, I bluffed off half my remaining stack. He called.

The river brought the deuce of spades, completing my flush and pairing the board. I had him covered so I moved him all-in. He called with his nut full house. The hand cost me three fourths of my stack and I went from big stack in the tourney to an average stack. Frank seemed to be holding his breath during the hand and practically turned purple by the river. You’d think it was his money I was betting with! Come to think of it…

In retrospect it was a dumb mistake on my part. But hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. It amazes me that good players like ChessSafari are able to determine that the guy was holding pocket kings, or at least narrow down the range of probable holdings, so as to avoid this kind of trouble. I set myself up by pushing a bluff against resistance from a good player with a ten high flush draw, even with the ace and king already on the board. I can see that now. I was trying to be aggressive with a big stack. This is how we learn, I guess.

Frank felt that I should have won this tournament, or at least made it to the final heads up match. It was expensive tuition but I did have a good learning experience. I’m pleased with a fifth place finish out of 32 in only my fourth live tourney. Like any good coach, Frank was very complimentary after the tournament, although still a bit edgy about the two hands mentioned above. He went out of his way to make me feel good about myself. He made it clear that he was criticizing the decisions at the table, not the person who made them. I appreciate that.

By the way, while at the resort I participated in an energy healing session with Sunfire. It was very helpful. The strange thing is that my blood pressure went to 120 over 80 (normal) immediately afterwards. I have not been at that level for over two years. This has been a trip that I will never forget. Even though he laughs it off, I believe that Frank has saved my life…the life of a person he never met before, by deciding to help someone make needed changes.

When we were in New York on Thanksgiving Day, ChessSafari gave me a bookmark that read: “Pray for a tough instructor to hear, act and stay with you.” I see that bookmark each time I open my copy of Killer Poker Online by John Vorhaus.

For sure I have met a tough instructor in Frank Niro. He tells me he will help me make my poker (and other) dreams real but he will not tolerate me not helping myself. For the first time in a while, I believe my dreams are achievable…if I can be willing to do the required work. Poker is just one example, and there is a lot of work my coach is asking me to do.

I don’t have words to say how I feel deep down inside as I think, and wipe tears of joy from my eyes. Not many people know that not very long ago I seriously considered walking in front of a rolling semi back in North Carolina. I thank God that I trusted that I would get a second chance at life itself.

I still have a long way to go to get a job, an apartment, and all that goes with it. But now I feel the strength to get it done. I have said goodbye to North Carolina and am looking forward to a long life in the Seattle area and many wonderful new friendships.

Anyway, that’s it for my trip so far and thanks for going Greyhound!


Look for these upcoming Safaris…a partial preview:
Friday, December 15, Blog Log
Monday, December 18, Sereda, Serfreda!
Friday, December 22, Mile 1 – Everything that Comes Before…
Monday, January 1, Reflections

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Minnie's Soda

Quote of the Day: “Not everyone can write the truth of his experience. Hell, not everyone can even face the truth of his experience.” – John Vorhaus
My friend of old Tom Derderian and I regularly attended weekly track meets at the Fargo Navy Building in South Boston. We took an hour bus trip to the Greyhound terminal in Boston. From there it was a half hour or more by way of subway, including a transfer at South Station. After the race we retraced our steps. In retrospect, it seems unreasonable to invest more than four hours (plus money) to get to an 11-minute race on what was essentially an oval railroad bed without the tracks. We could have done that at home, and given each other a medal for first and second place with the bus fare. Ah, but we were young.

We occupied our time en route by inventing a word game we referred to as the “back-of-the-bus” game. We made the word bus rhyme with “puss” or “wuss”. The object of the game was to make sentences and paragraphs out of names of places. It was based loosely on an old song (remember: What did Della wear, boys? And where did Mary land? Where has Aura gone? Get the idea?). Eventually we were able to carry on an entire dialog using only cities and states. “That’s a real Tall-a-hassee, cowboy. Yes, but he needs a new Seattle.” Etc. etc. Sounds juvenile, I know. Ah, but we were young.

Later, we enhanced the challenge by limiting the words to cities and places in Massachusetts. Try making sentences with words like Worcester, Gloucester, Billerica, Newburyport, Woburn and
Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg!
Hint: it rhymes with something about having fun with your dog. The name officially means: "the fishing place at the boundaries and neutral meeting grounds", according to the Nipmuck Indian tribe. Over time it morphed in local folklore to mean: “You fish on your side; I’ll fish on my side; and nobody fishes in the middle.”

By the way, here’s something I found on the site linked above (with my annotations):
How to properly pronounce some local communities: Worcester = Woostah (we pronounced it WISS-tah in Wisstah county – FN), Gloucester = Glawstah, Woburn = Wooban (actually, it’s WOO-bin…I lived there – FN), Revere = Re-vayuh (try Ree-VEE-yah – FN), Quincy = Quinzee, Medford = Meffa, Danvers = Davvus, Swampscott = Swarmskit, Billerica = Bill Rikka, Leominster = Lemon Stah.

In any case, it was an enjoyable game and good mental exercise to complement our physical training. I highly recommend it as a way to pass time and reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I ask you to trust me on that one.

For many years, whenever I heard reference to the Twin Cities, a mental image of Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend holding a can of pop came to mind. If the baseball team was involved, I thought of Mr. Minoso
coming up to pinch hit against the Twins with a beverage in his hand. Those images went away in 2000 when I attended the U.S. Open Chess Tournament in St. Paul. It was my first visit to Minnesota, and it literally changed my life. St. Paul 2000 was a major junction on my Safari into the Black and White Jungle. I’ll save the details for the book.

I was all set to make my return to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in October 2005 when I agreed to participate in Mike’s (Idoru99 on PSO) home poker tournament held annually in connection with the Canterbury Fall Poker Classic. But I only made it as far as Cleveland. An 18-wheeler kicked up a wayward stone that passed through the windshield of my car, forcing me to turnaround and head home.

I was determined to make it to Mike’s event in 2006. So I did two things differently: (1) I headed from west to east avoiding Cleveland, and (2) I took the train. The train ride itself was uneventful. However, my body received a shock upon arrival. Snowflakes as big as quarters (no exaggeration) were falling as I departed the station in St. Paul. I didn’t bring a jacket. I didn’t think of it actually, as it was 72 degrees when I left Seattle.

I had a little bit of trouble getting to sleep the first night in town thanks to the roving PSO welcome wagon (a/k/a NewJane and JoyBell) who came knocking on my hotel room door sometime after midnight. After battling the Minnesota snow and 15-degree wind chill, their smiling faces and personal warmth were appreciated…no matter the hour.

I have two poker mentors: Aaron Hendricks in Minneapolis and Dave Roemer in Chicago. I visited with Dave (Hitman on PSO)on a trip to Chicago earlier in the year and found his one-on-one advice to be extremely helpful. So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend time with Aaron (a/k/a as thehazyone on PSO).

We worked out a deal where I would sponsor Aaron in a Canterbury Park no limt hold’em tournament in exchange for him "shadowing" me during a multi-table tournament on Bugsy’s. There must’ve been a Hawthorne effect, because I won the $200 real money first prize without help from him other than general advice about observing the other players, aggressiveness and table image (and his previous online mentor program lessons, of course).

In addition, we played a multi-table PSO tournament (from separate locations) later in the evening in which I finished second and Aaron finished fourth. I wasn't totally satisfied, however, as I entered the heads-up match with a four to one chip advantage and failed to take the top prize. Nevertheless, I gained confidence that I was playing my "A-game" heading into the weekend.

My ride to Mike’s place was courtesy of Jane (NewJane), who got news of a new grandchild on the way to the tournament, and Gioia (Joybell). We went by way of Mall of America, the largest fully enclosed retail and entertainment complex in the United States, where I got my exercise for the week. That place is massive!

We arrived just in time for the 30-player tournament. I was greeted by "long-time" friends who, with few exceptions, I had previously met only online. Among them were Leon (Sailor Moe) and his lovely bride Pat (Pattyroo), shown in the photo below:

Pattyroo had a great tournament, finishing second to Bounder, who is known as one of the strongest players in PSO. I was seated at a tough table, with Bill (expatcr) on my left, Michael (themills) next to him, Larry (bhat) a few spots behond him, and host Mike (Idoru99) across from me. To say I was intimidated is an understatement. These are all players whom I have come to respect very much. My early exit was therefore not unexpected.

By the way, for those on PSO (like me) who miss themills, I spoke with Michael for several minutes. He said he didn't renew his PSO membership because he was too busy playing cash games but will be back soon, especially with the new legislation mucking up the cash-in-and-out works.

The following three photos are but a few that were provided by Indoru99. The complete set can be viewed by clicking this link. Wait a few seconds for the album to load. Thank you Mike!

That's my back in the red stiped shirt on the right (above) on Table 3, with Bill (expatcr) to my immediate left and Michael (themills) next to him. Larry (bhat) is tucked in the corner with the cowboy hat and sunglasses. A lot of players traveled great distances for this event, including themills from Michigan, expatcr from Florida, ChessSafari from Washington, Joybell from California, NewJane from North Dakota, Sailor Moe & Pattyroo from Illinois and bhat from Wyoming.

After we were eliminated in the 30-player event, a sit-'n-go sprung up with Sailor Moe, Joybell, Oceanpup, themills, ChessSafari and a few non-PSOers. I sure enjoyed that...seeing the smiling faces instead of the drab PSO avatar/ovals. And when it got to the heads-up between themills and me, I didn't want it to end. NewJane was dealing and said "Why don't you guys just chop. You're even in chips, and neither of you is doing anything!" Oh ya, good idea. Then we all sat around and kept talking anyway. PSO group therapy at its finest!!

As mentioned, bhat and the Costa Rican Bandit (expatcr) were at the tournament, which has come to be known as the “2006 Fall Classic Warm-up”. My real disappointment of the night was not hearing Larry sing "Rawhide" (well that, and the fact that the battery died on my camera after only three photos). "Who me? I can't sing," he said. "I just like the words, so I type them in the chat box sometimes to keep me occupied." “Yeah, that, and to haunt your opponents," I thought to myself.

I remember circa. 2003 sitting at a table with bhat and rudie (Arlene Sims, now a dealer at the Hollywood casino in Tunica MS). Larry started off with Rawhide and Arlene responded by typing words to different songs. I couldn't resist so I chimed in, "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily..."

In the photo below is Bounder, winner of the 2006 Fall Classic Warm-up No Limit Hold'Em tournament

Note that two other photos from this event were posted in my November 28 blog.

PSO ambassador NewJane, also a new grandma, shows off her book. She willingly autographed copies for any of the participants who wanted a copy. Tournament host Mike (Idoru99) is in the background with the baseball cap.

Gioia (Joybell) started the Canterbury Fall Classic off right for the PSO contingent by finishing in the money in Event #1. In Event #2, the Canterbury Fall Classic $300 buy-in Limit Hold'em event, held Saturday, October 14, I was confronted with what must be every poker player's worst nightmare. I accumulated 19,000 chips early and had about three times the average stack at the 200/400 blind level. The biggest stack in the tournament (21,000) was seated at the same table. No problem; it wasn't no-limit, so my stack was safe, right?

I was dealt QQ on the button and raised. The big blind (the aforementioned big stack) called. Everyone else folded. The flop was a dream come true: Q-5-5, with two hearts. I had the nut full house!

He bet, I raised, he re-raised and I called. "Hmmm, there's a big pot brewing here," I thought. The turn was a 9 of hearts completing his flush, I assumed. He bet, I raised, he re-rasised, I re-raised and he called. Wow! The river was a harmless 3 of clubs. "Now I've got him", I convinced myself.

He bet, I raised, he re-raised, I re-raised and we continued until all my chips were in the middle and he had 2,000 left. Nearly 40,000 chips were in the pot. With an average stack in the tournament of 6,000 and half the field already eliminated, I was licking my chops.

By now you've figured out that he had pocket fives. I was behind the whole way, and drawing dead after the turn. If it had been an online tournament I would probably have blamed the random number generator. But these hands happen in live play too. The really good players can see this scenerio coming. I did not.

Fortunately, I had better luck on Sunday. Many PSO players, including thehazyone, were in Event #3: $200 NLHE, 2000 starting chips, 728 players paying only 36 spots. When I asked Jimmy S (the TD) about it, he said the organizers had not planned for such a large crowd and the highest payout structure was "400 players and above". So a lot of people, including Sailor Moe, played for 7 hours, beat 650 players and got nothing. Leon finished 48th, just short of the money. He said the reason he didn't cash was his finger was giving him fits...his puppy bit him the other day and he had to go to the ER for treatment. Ouch.

I spotted WIFarmboy in the field, who I hadn't noticed earlier, walking around with a homemade PSO nametag proudly on his shirt. I was the last man standing for PSO and went out 29th for $706. I could have coasted with 26,000 chips -- after the blinds had just passed -- to climb the ladder to 27th, worth $359 more. My strategy was to do my best and play for the win (which, by the way, was worth playing for: $46,000+).

My last hand was interesting and instructive, so I'll post it here for the poker junkies reading this.

Blinds 2,000/4,000, Antes 1,000, 9 players at my table = 15,000 per orbit. My stack = 26,000 so I have <2M and am in the "red zone" which means all-in or fold according to Harrington and others.

The table captain in middle position made it 10,000 to go first to act. He had been in every other hand for the previous half hour with the same pre-flop raise. In one case he showed down 76o and in another KTs. So I knew his raise didn't represent a premium hand.

All folded to me on the button with pocket eights. I had the three usual choices: fold, call or re-raise. If my goal had been to climb the ladder, I would've folded. The average stack at that point was 50,000 chips. At 15,000 per orbit, half the field was short stacked. And I didn't have to play a blind for seven more hands. But that was NOT my goal.

I could call 10,000 into a 25,000 pot getting 2.5 to 1 for my money and still be left with 16,000 chips if I didn't hit my set. I also considered (briefly) the stop-and-go move (call pre-flop and move all-in after any flop) because I presumed if I re-raised all-in now, his 16,000 call into a pot of 51,000 would be a no-brainer. As loose as he was, there is no hand that he would have raised to 10,000 pre-flop that wasn't worth 3.2 to 1 heads up. What the stop-and-go would have done is allowed me to bet the remaining 16,000 after the flop and, if he missed, perhaps he would fold. In other words, there's a chance I could gain some folding equity if we took a flop.

There were two problems with the stop-and-go I thought. First, he would be first to act and would probably make a continuation bet with anything because of my stack size. And, more importantly, if I just called, the small blind (4 to 1) and big blind (6 to 1) would have odds to play. With three other players in the pot I might have to hit my set to win. My preference was clearly to be heads up against the initial raiser.

So I re-raised all-in and he called with Qc Js against my 8s 8d. The flop came As 5s 3s. The turn was the 2d and the river brought the 7s. He had 13 outs to win at the river and three cards that would've resulted in a chop, so I don't consider this a bad beat. It was a coin flip pre-flop and improved to ~2 to 1 at the river. The pot was 67,000, which would have given me a stack to fight with (1.3Q). With all the short stacks getting eaten up rapidly by the blinds and antes, maybe -- well you know...

Afterwards, Sailor Moe drove me back to my motel and I went over to expatcr's motel room a nightcap. Thanks to everyone on PokerSchoolOnline for your kind words and support, and especially to thehazyone and Hitman for helping me become capable of 29/728 in a live real money NLHE tournament.

I was especially pleased with Hitman's comments in the PSO forum:

"I like your play on the last hand. Normally I'd like to have folding equity when I push, but with an M this low you have to gamble, and I'd willingly take a coin flip here to double up. And this is clearly not a coin flip... since you know this guy is capable of flipping up hands as weak as 76o, you're much better than a coin flip vs. his range of hands. Push to isolate is right on. You can't execute a stop and go if you're not first to act... flat call and he'll just bet into you on the flop. And calling just invites the blinds in too. I 100% like the push with 88 in this spot.


Thank you to BOTH my mentors for their positive feedback on this trip.

Oh, one more thing. On the notion that there are no secrets anymore with the world wide web in action, I entered Saturday's tournament early and saw a long line in the upper lobby. People were registering for something or other. Being curious by nature, I asked.

There were 96 players in a National Thoroughbread Handicapping tournament. It was a qualifying event for the finals (as in BIG MONEY) in Las Vegas. So, what the heck, I entered. The entry fee was $100. In addition, each player had to put up a $200 bankroll for bets, the net of which each handicapper would keep at the end of the night, in addition to any prize money. Prizes were paid to the top ten finishers, including all expense paid trips to Las Vegas for the National Finals to the top three finishers.

The rules required the $200 bankroll to be spread accross ten races at various tracks around the country, at the discretion of each player, to be run and simulcast that afternoon. There was a mandatory wager of $20 each race ($10 to win and $10 to place on the same horse). I had 20 minutes to pick all the races because the poker tournament was ready to start. I heard one of the people in line say that the big crowd was "because of all the dead money from the poker players who have been entering satellites with entry into the handicapping tournament as prizes." It was amusing to hear non-poker players referring to "us" as dead money!

Anyway, press this link for the details of how I finished: Ahead $463, net of the entry fee. I had no idea this information was public until I started my research for today's blog. It's all right dear friends from the I.R.S., I donated all the profits from the week to charity.

Well, I gave it all to charity except for the following: I treated myself to a limo back to Delilah's farm on the final leg of my trip. I had the driver stop by the China West restaurant so I could impress my local poker buddies. "Buy a round for the bar and keep the change," I said to Jennifer, my favorite China West server. Ah, I know I'm not young anymore, but sometimes it's fun to pretend.

Strangely, the same limo with the same driver drove down the farm driveway the next evening. Instead of little old me, Wynnona Judd stepped out. But this blog is already WAY too long and that's a story for another time.

Finally, I need to give credit where credit is due. Coincidently, I found this article in this morning’s newspaper:

Minnesota deemed healthiest state, Louisiana worst
Washington (Reuters)

"Minnesota was deemed the healthiest U.S. state for the fourth year in a row, while Louisiana slumped into last place as the least healthy in annual state-by-state rankings released on Tuesday. Vermont placed second as it did in 2005 with New Hampshire, Hawaii and Connecticut rounding the five healthiest states in the report by the United Health Foundation, a nonprofit group formed by the health care company United Health Group."

I can’t help but surmise, with all the negative publicity lately about the health risks associated with soft drinks, that Minnesota residents must drink proportionatey less of various kinds of tonic and soda pop. So, does that qualify it as a “mini-soda” state? Ugh.

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin', Keep those Dogies rollin'. Dammit Larry, I can't get the song out of my head now. Sheesh. Where's my coffee? Er, I mean soda...

Look for these upcoming Safaris…a partial preview:
Saturday, December 9, Web Site Update (for Morgana)
Tuesday, December 12, Leave the Driving to Us (Guest weblog)
Friday, December 15, Blog Log
Monday, December 18, Sereda, Serfreda!
Friday, December 22, Mile 1 – Everything that Comes Before…

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Safe Return

Delilah returned safely at 4 AM Pacific Time from her overseas visit with the U.S. troops in Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. She brought some photos and gave permission to share these with my blog readers.

OK, I admit it. When I first started drafting today's blog I was thinking selfishly. With Delilah gone for 16 days it was evident around the farm that there's not much fun in the hive when the Queen Bee is away. What do the worker bees do when the queen is not around? Do they fly around aimlessly? Do they make repairs on the hive? Do they inventory the stores of honey? Do some of them look for a new queen? The answers don't really matter. It's just a metaphor for life on Delilah's farm without Ms. Delilah, and a selfish one at that.

I felt my eyes open and my jaw drop as Delilah began recounting stories of her trip to entertain the troops. 57 hours on a military plane. Escorts on either side EVERY place she went (except the shower...but they were right outside, with their rifles).
Men and woman with their legs shot off. A soldier being brought in with a sniper's bullet through his neck, exiting behind his shoulder, missing his spine by a quarter inch. Real people, like my neighbors and yours, missing their spouses and parents and children on Thanksgiving Day thousands of miles from home. Remotely controlled exploding devices being set off under U.S. humvees, killing American boys and girls, most of them under the age of 25. The pain. The anguish. The futility. And, at the same time, the mutual love.

I'm ashamed. My problems are so miniscule by comparison. I'm humbled. And I'm sad.

It hurt to see the tears stream down Delilah's face this morning. Most of the time we trade fun stories. And most of the time we concur that no problem is too big to overcome, with the help of friends, and God's mercy and grace. This is one of those times that there's nothing that can be said to make it better. Warfare is plain English.

No, we haven't stopped laughing. The soldiers laughed among themselves even as mortar shells hurdled (or is it hurtled? either way, you get what I mean) the ten-foot barricade falling onto a patch of desert sand on the base. The base used to be one of Saddam Hussein's 52 palaces. "Those insurgent's are such lousy shots." LOL. "Good thing." LOL. "I got to pee in Saddam's toilet," remarked Delilah. LOL. Stop it please Miss D. It's hard to laugh with tears in my eyes...

The photo below shows Delilah at Saddam's palace. Read her comments about the chandelier in her notes below.

The show must go on. Delilah (center, in the red dress) and the other performers formally entertained the troops in four different locations in the Middle East (and informally in one other place) during the past two weeks.

Here are some thoughts that Delilah sent back to her staff, friends, listeners and extended family members while overseas:

"We are in Turkey again, having arrived last night at 3am from Baghdad. We didn't get to leave the base to go into the community at all, which is a good thing given they had the worst day of violence there. However, it was very dull, ugly and dusty on the base. We met hundreds, thousands of troops and spent a great deal of time enertaining and signing autographs with them. We were in Balad the day before, and took a late night flight to Baghdad from there. Most of our group stayed in tents, but the "primaries", as we are called, got spoiled and spent a night in one of Saddam's palaces.

Jamie O'Neal is such a talented singer. She did a rendition of "Stars and Stripes" that brought tears to the eyes of most of the soldiers. John Popper from Blues Travelers is a wild man, full of energy and passion and he rocks the house on his juice harp!

It was strange touring the palace, seeing millions of dollars of Italian marble and gold fixtures, but shoddy construction that looks like it won't stand another 5 years. The best illustration of the strange attitude of Saddam was in the palace entry way: a massive chandelier (see photo above) hung from the ceiling. It had thousands of lights, and yet it was made of plastic...not crystal.

Many of those we have met the last few days are younger than my son Isaiah, and it is weird to see 18 year old kids carrying a machine gun. At Balad, we were given a tour of a MASH style hospital that is in tents on the base. We got to talk to the patients who are Americans, but saw the most tragedy in the Iraqi section. We were not allowed to talk to them, but there was one person who had burns over 80% of his body; so very tragic! The hospital has a great survival rate. They try to stabalize the patients before flying them to Germany. The doctors and nurses were kind, nice and professional, but you could tell they all were weary and exhausted.

After our concert last night, we flew out on a C-17. We had to turn out all the lights and the pilots wore night-vision goggles to take off. They allowed me up in the cockpit once we were out of the war zone. I even got to wear the night vision goggles after they were no longer necessary. I had no idea there were so many stars in the sky! The pilots were extremely nice men, as are all of those who have helped us on this tour.

I told Colonol Mungavin, who is in charge of this operation, that I have a totally different perspective of the armed forces today. I knew there was camaraderie. I knew there was love and devotion. But I have rarely seen so much commitment to friends and comrads as I have witnessed on this trip. That is the most amazing aspect of this experience for me, meeting people who have bonded so closely they do not think twice about laying down their life for their buddies. The laughter is something I did not expect. Everyone I have met has had a positive attitude and a lot of gratitude, despite the fact that in Iraq there is so much dust and dirt that it is hard to breathe.


Last night's show was wonderful. Jamie O'Neal, the country artist that is on this tour with us knocked everyone's socks off with her set of songs. She has a strong, clear powerful voice. For whatever reason it seemed to be doubly powerful last night, and she rocked the house. John Popper from the Blues Travelers has had everyone out of their chairs on on their feet at every venue. He is such a great singer and harmonica player.

The best part of being with these talented artists, as well as with the New England Patriots Cheerleaders and the rest of the crew, has been getting to know them personally. John Popper comes across as a loud, obnoxious rock guy when he is performing, but the truth is he is a big teddy bear. He spends a lot of time with the cheerleaders, and most would assume that's for the obvious reasons, but he's like a big brother to the girls and fiercly protective of them. Jamie has a little girl at home, and this is her first trip away from her and we all know her heart is breaking, but each night she gets on stage and gives 110% for the troops, and never lets on that she is aching inside for her baby.

Most everyone we have met on this trip is aching inside for their babies, their children or partners or parents. Young men that are not as old as my own children haven't seen their girlfriends or wives for months. So many mothers have had to leave their children in order to come and serve. I am doing my best to encourage them and bring them love from back home. But I see the lonliness on their faces after the show is over.

It's great being a civilian with a microphone! I get to tease the commanders and poke fun at silly things that the officers and enlisted folks might think but never be able to say. I've had a blast meeting the generals and making them blush! They are all very nice and kind men who are grateful for the love and greetings that our listeners have sent to their troops here.

Yesterday the military police allowed me to drive one of their Hummers. Because I was raised on the dunes where we went four-wheeling for sport, I had a blast turning donuts in the desert and racing over the piles of rocks. My assistant Matty was sitting in the back, and didn't feel too good for a bit after the ride, but it was more fun than a roller coaster in a theme park.

The undisclosed location we are in is hot, dry and very boring. It's not an unsafe place, for the most part, but the people here work very hard day and night supporting their comrads in other locations. Mostly it's flat and arid, without a single tree for miles, not even a blade of grass. Good thing they don't allow dogs on this base. There are no bushes for them to visit! I'm not sure how the population of native people lived before the advent of planes and ships for food transportation. There is simply no vegitation that I have seen. The troops complain because in addition to no vegitation, there's no Starbucks (or Dunkin' Donuts - FN)!

They DO have a GREAT mess hall with delicious food, anything you could imagine: a taco bar, salad bar, hot home-cooked meals, pizza and more. They also have a great work-out club, a walking track and a spa where you can get a massage. I spoiled myself and got a massage after I worked out earlier. I thought about my friends and family back at home, imagining I am in harm's way, when really I am laying on a table getting a great back rub!

Now we are off to another location to put on another show. Jamie O'Neal sprained her ankle last night walking in the gravel, reaggravating an old injury, so she will be hobbling a bit on stage...I will be in my military style dress and my army-inspired boots from Nordstroms!"

While Delilah was away, we all prayed for her safe return. Inspired by Jane Olivor's latest CD called Safe Return, with a beautiful song by the same title, I wanted to ask producer Janie B to play that song on one of the shows while Delilah was away. But, alas, the show was in Christmas format, and the song wouldn't fit. So I didn't even ask.
Besides that, it seems (incredibly) that Janie O's songs don't make the appropriate demograhic marks in the focus groups and, therefore, they are not on the approved play list. But that's another issue for another time. Today, all of the bees in the hive, as well as her eight million listeners, are grateful for Delilah's safe return. I know it's selfish to say, but that includes me. OK, I admit it.