Sunday, July 28, 2013

Above my paygrade


Junior-Senior Prom is a big deal, and I asked for and was approved for a prom date with the prettiest, coolest girl in school. All the boys in our Junior class would have eaten ground glass for her, and I was among them. Everyone knew, though, that I was outta my class, as Jerry D recently said, "Working above my pay grade."

All arranged, doubling with another couple, borrowed the family car, a brown 1960 Ford Starliner (which makes me wonder today why anyone would slap brown paint on a really sexy car) and we were off to Grand Island for a big fancy dinner after the prom.

Only problem--I got food poisoning that kicked in about the beginning of the dance. By the time we were off to Grand Island, I was sick in the back seat. She drove. I wandered around the parking lot of the restaurant, thinking I would get better, but no go. She drove back, too, at what was reported to me later as being very high speeds. Seemed to be upset, hmmmmm.

The trials of a teenager.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Muscle Cars

            One of my goals when I started the blog was to recount stories about people and events that I thought interesting. Well muscle cars, Chuck Long, Jon Winkel, and makin' money are right up there...and there is also a tie in with an old, old topic of interest. Keep reading.
            Sergeant Floyd was the only member of the Lewis and Clark “Voyage of Discovery” crew to die during their expedition. That trip that had lots and lots of hardships, such as bad food throughout and the intense cold when they wintered near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota; but the worst was the winter on the coast of Oregon. Near Astoria, I think, but close enough to Portland for me to attest to the miserable, long, long winter. Sergeant Floyd died from none of these hardships but from complications of appendicitis, and was buried on that bluff just south of Sioux City.
            Brings me to Chuck Long, and by association to Dirk Jon Winkel, two important players in the development of Siouxland during the 1980’s through the present, and, as you might imagine, characters. Chuck inherited the telephone company in Sergeant Bluff, and either inherited or somehow developed a personality trait that spewed out an idea a minute. Jon sat there and would occasionally “catch” one of those ideas and it would become a business. He threw away thousands before he caught the one, though.
            I was much better acquainted with Jon than I was with Chuck, and we in fact “roomed” together in a house in Augusta, Georgia one time and attended the Masters Tournament. Certainly one of the highlights of my golf-life—walking around with an eerie sense of calm, of being alone with several thousand people in this cathedral. We actually had to leave a bit early as one of us had an appointment that Sunday night, and we flew back on Jon’s plane and only found out who won after we landed. A “grounds pass” for this year’s tournament, for just Sunday, costs about $750, but I don’t remember how much it was back then. It was part of our marketing for the Dunes, just at the beginning. It was probably April, 1990 (I have the VHS tape somewhere) and the winner was Nick Faldo.
            Jon’s first name was actually Dirk, a fairly common name in the Dutch communities of Orange City, Sioux Center and Sioux County, and it is reasonable to assume that some of his relatives were given the name Von Winkel when they arrived for processing. But when his little cousins called him “Dirt” instead of “Dirk,” he decided on his middle name, Jon. Fairly good high jumper in high school and college, and in fact placed second in the National High School meet to a guy name Dick Fosbury. Fosbury revolutionized the sport of high jump with his unorthodox method of clearing the bar, now called the Fosbury Flop. The traditional straddle or Western Roll techniques used at the time, and by Winkel, were difficult for him and he experimented with various methods, one of which was described as an “airborne seizure,” only to settle on the flop.
            Jon was a small contractor when he hooked up with Long, and they partnered for many years. Their major contribution to the Siouxland community, and major annoyance causing laws to change or be established in nearly all states, was the call center. Originally, the brain child of Long and part of his deal with MCI (which we will talk about later), the call center originated the widespread use of computerized calling to sell products and services, originally and successfully, long distance service. Chuck came up with the idea, Jon made it happen, built the facilities, installed the equipment, hired and trained workers. And all of us were subjected to those awful, irritating calls during the dinner hour.
            Chuck’s tiny inherited phone company was doing well, but the concept of purchasing long distance services from AT&T grated on him and he began a journey that ended with the “Judge Green” decision that broke up the AT&T monopoly. Today’s world is significantly different in terms of communication by telephone than it was when we only called “long distance” when it was a crisis or absolutely necessary, and it was expensive. The monopoly was “regulated,” and it was only fair that the company that put the money into the long lines to carry the transmissions ought to receive a return for their money. In a free market, capitalistic society, regulation tends to be flawed and to be subject to excesses, and this was one of the worst examples.
            They decided to buy blocks of long distance time, for which AT&T had long been willing to provide discounts to large corporations. My recollection of the matter is not well-informed, but the story goes that Chuck decided to re-sell these blocks of time, AT&T objected and all of this led to challenges in the courts, the development of the MCI call centers and the dismantling of AT&T by Judge Harold Green. The call centers were sold back to MCI in the 1990’s, the business became known as Long Lines, and Chuck and Jon have developed service in several communities.
            During the high-flying days, Chuck decided that muscle cars (remember the original topic?) were going to increase in value. As it turned out, he made a lot of money on his strategy, but the reasoning as described to me by Jon was fascinating—the guys who were approaching their mid-life crises in the 1980's and 1990’s were the baby-boomers. They adored the ’57 Chevy and cars like the 4-4-2, the Cutlass, early Mustangs and Chargers. Unlike other collectors that tended to be enamored of a particular brand, Jon would collect the cars that he thought these men associated, either in reality or fantasy, with sex. Their teen years, when hormones were raging. But now, these baby boomers had money! They could actually buy that muscle car they had coveted since their teens.
            Now, sex in mobile devices goes back a long way in human history, maybe the sultans and their flying carpets, but Chuck and Jon thought of it as a way to create wealth, and they applied what they had learned from the AT&T days about monopolies along the way. Chuck had enough capital so he could “corner” the market, and that created higher prices, and he drug the other collectors along with him until, in the mid-90’s, he had thousands of muscle cars and was recognized as the pre-eminent collector in the country who dominated the market.
            I have heard that he reduced his stock greatly at the peak, but have no direct knowledge of that. I have also heard that the recessions of 2002 and, particularly, the last one really hit the prices of these vehicles. Leave it to Chuck and Jon to create a market, buy at the start and sell at the peak.
            When April rolls around, I think of that Masters weekend more than 20 years ago, and my wandering thoughts invariably consider their conclusion that sex and muscle cars could equal big money.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our back yard

Let me repeat--what a boon the internet is for info-junkies like us.

For instance, our back yard has a lot of dragonflies and with the internet I can discover factoids about them including their names, like Eastern Pondhawk and Blue Dasher, the most common ones. Still haven't been able to identify the reddish one. Maybe Needham's Skimmer. The names are less important than their voracious appetite such that we have virtually no problem with mosquitoes.

There are about 6,000 species of dragonflies, most of them found in tropics. While the king of the jungle, the lion, is successful on about 40% of their chases, the dragonfly is 95% efficient as a predator eating small insects, flies and, occasionally, other dragonflies. Their wing construction and flight ability is remarkable and they are among the fastest insects, clocked at as much as 36 miles per hour.

When mowing the grass/weeds to the lake the other day, I flushed a snapping turtle. About 14" in diameter, perhaps, making it in the 20-25 year old category? They can live for 50 years, have no natural enemies as adults...except humans. There is some concern about the amount of commercial harvesting of snappers to satisfy the appetite for millions of pounds to China. No wonder the mallard ducklings disappeared this spring. In our lake, the snappers are a healthy part of the system.

Seems as though the nutria have decided to go elsewhere after I live-trapped three juveniles and an adult. As I think I have mentioned before, they are imports from South America, terribly destructive to ponds, lakes and wetlands and have no natural enemies here.

I can co-exist with snapping turtles (very shy in the water, quite aggressive on land) but I sure do hate snakes. After the incident with the common water snake on the patio (Linda saved me, "broomed" it off into the lake), we have had no others. I still say that thing was the size of an Anaconda, but I guess it was only a 3-4 footer, harmless and just trying to warm itself in the early spring.

Bullfrogs serenade us at night. Bluebirds entertain us by day (the bluebird numbers have declined drastically as the starlings and sparrows, both introduced species, compete for nesting sites and destroy the eggs and young of the bluebird).

Jerry DeFrance complained one time about the ease of growing just about anything in Portland compared to the difficulty they encounter in Jackson Hole. "You just throw damned near anything over your shoulder and it will grow." Should be the same here, but my efforts at landscaping have resulted in several dead (I say, D-E-D) specimens. Can't figure out the drainage issues with the very high water table and clay, and some plants don't like wet feet.

So it is nearly the end of July, made one trip away from here to the Outer Banks just a couple of hours away. Hope to soon take a weekend swing up the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. A fraternity brother lives in Delaware (the states here are about the size of counties in Nebraska, most of them smaller than Cherry county), close to Ocean City, Maryland. On the Atlantic shore. Hope to see him on that trip.

Matt and Jenny made plans to visit Labor Day. We have open invitations to others, and hope to see lots of folks in Virginia. Give us an excuse to see some of the rich history and other attractions. Y'all come. Maybe I'll even find something to grow in the landscape plots by then.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Cane, No. 2

I need the cane back. Hurt my "good" knee. My guess is that it isn't going to get better and it keeps me awake during the night (yeah, during the day, too, but that's different).

Must be contagious.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Know anybody who...??

I wrote this some time ago, have hesitated to put it out there, but since I can name everyone who reads this and they aren't very numerous, decided no harm to tell a story about people who may still be alive.

Most of this is based on hearsay and not on significant research. Just a warning. If anyone reads it and can supplement with additional information, I would be grateful.

Shortly before he died, my brother called me with a bit of glee in his voice I had not heard for a long time. He asked me, “Know anybody been murdered?” “Yes,” I said.

“OK, then, know anybody been stabbed?” Well, he had me there, as, no, I had never known anyone who had been stabbed, but I was willing to bet I was going to discover somebody in the next several minutes.

He was in the Genoa Hospital at the time and he said about 2 in the morning, “All hell broke loose,” and people were bustling all over, a medivac helicopter dropped in and it seems there had been a violent confrontation. This was closer to home than he could have expected as the victim was his former son-in-law and farming partner, Mike. Since Mike survived with no ill effects, we can treat the topic with some levity at this point.

Seems that Mike has a problem with alcohol…and girlfriends, and that is sort of like saying the Titanic had a problem with ice bergs…and lifeboats. There has been DUI’s, jail time, lost jobs for sure, but this time he almost lost his life. His girlfriend apparently has more problems than just alcohol, and she decided (after some term of alienation) to drop by in the middle of the night to get some money and beer. Mike declined her invitation which, to someone on several mind-altering substances at once was not well-received, and she became enraged.

Tore out the phones in the house, threw away the cell phone and left. Only to come back later, grab a kitchen knife and stab him twice in the chest. Once on the left side of the aorta, next on the right side of the aorta, according to hearsay reports which is all I have.

Somehow, someone finally got him to the hospital resulting in the chaos noted by Dick.

Few days later, he was back at work. Don’t know if that cured anything, but I might be a bit pickier about girlfriends? The girlfriend was evidently given some jail time. Mike ended up with jail time later, too, but unrelated.

He then asked who I knew who had been murdered. There are lots of flashes and pictures in my mind and memories associated with this, and I will do my best to not clutter it up too badly, but it is going to be longer than you will like. Plod on through with me.

I grew up on a dairy farm in the middle of Nebraska, I thought Columbus was the big city and rarely visited some place like Omaha. After graduating (in a class of 17, but there was one National Merit Scholar, a smart girl and some pretty smart, successful people, so don’t sneer too much) in the spring of 1963, I made a good decision to attend the University of Nebraska. The reason it was a "good decision" was because good personal decisions have been rare for me and there was an alternative, a football scholarship to tiny Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, and for some reason I put my ego aside and acknowledged that I wasn’t good enough. Besides, the Honors Program at the University was a pretty good deal.

So I was naïve and had no idea what college would really entail when I was approached by an older Genoa native, Mark Raemakers, who was a member of Sigma Nu fraternity. He introduced me to Bill Mowbray who came through driving a new, bright yellow Cutlass convertible. His family owned the Buick dealership on Miracle Mile in Lincoln. Years later, I saw the identical vehicle parked and for sale in Fargo, North Dakota and all that flooded back.

Not bad, cruisin’ in a convertible, drinking a beer and talking about being a college man. I was astounded that the convertible would have air conditioning…who would have thunk it?

Pledging Sigma Nu was concluded long before Rush Week, at least on my part. And as my family and so many of my fraternity friends know, the associations I made there have had lasting impact. Lifelong friends, and the best friends.

That was the 1960’s. Fast forward to 1992. A lot had happened, I was single, working for a $3 billion NYSE company, Midwest Energy (now owned privately by Warren Buffett) and just about to utter my words that I actually said, but usually elicit a laugh, “If I have to work for an idiot, I might as well work for myself.” Well, I hadn’t cut the cord yet, and it was time for our annual company dinner, a tradition that went way back but that didn’t have a lot of emotional weight for me. Other than a couple of folks who I continue to hear from, I didn’t have anyone to sit with, so I asked our pilots if I could join them. I have a private license, I always enjoyed them, and it seemed that I kept them busy with a lot of trips, so I appreciated the invitation.

I sat next to a woman who was from Lincoln, worked at an FBO there, and was dating one of our pilots. We chatted a bit during the meal and program, and one thing led to another when we discovered that she was the first wife of Bill Mowbray. “Oh, how is Bill?” Quite a look. “Perhaps you didn’t know.” And there was a pause, “Bill was murdered.”

That was BIG news to me, and of course the rest of the story about his death, the second wife, Susie, being found guilty of murder, the $1.8 million insurance policy, and her prison sentence where she served nine years. I am not sure when I found out about the second trial, but it must have been later.

So, I decided to do some reading. Bill moved to Brownsville, Texas and set up a Cadillac dealership which was, at the time of his death, experiencing some financial problems. He had quite a large life insurance policy which was not paid to the wife who was the beneficiary, as you can’t profit from criminal acts. She later sued for the money, see below.

As I remember it, the Susie's son from a former marriage went to law school, studied the OJ Simpson trial, and came back with a “put the police on trial” defense that not only succeeded in getting a new trial but got an acquittal.

There was other information, of course. For example, he was facing criminal charges from the IRS, he had told a banker that he would commit suicide if he didn’t get a loan, and he had exhibited poor financial judgment before, like buying a $12,500 shotgun the day before he died.

The newspaper accounts were incredulous that the second trial could overlook one important set of facts—if it were to be a suicide, how could that happen when he was shot in the right temple with a pistol at close range, there was blood all over everything, but his right hand and arm were under the covers and had no blood spatters? There was a hole in his left hand where the bullet hit upon exit from his head. Again, in that dizziness after the OJ Trial, anything can happen. She was acquitted, released, and I have no current information on her situation.

Susie eventually sued the Mowbray family and the public officials who conducted the trial trying to get the money which was paid to Bill’s family. Her suit was dismissed. Again, the similarity with OJ in that the murdered woman’s family sued OJ and basically obtained all his money in a civil suit. The Mowbray family has publicly acknowledged that they believed at the time, and continue to believe that she killed him. It really looks like they are right.

The evening concluded with my discovery that a guy who helped make some formative decisions in my life was not only dead, but the subject of some interesting stories. Now I knew someone who had been murdered. Later, I would know someone who had been stabbed. Haven’t heard the end of that story yet, but I’ll bet it’s going to be a doozie.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Football fan

I know my friends in Nebraska will not admit that football fans can take things too far, but this is good fun:

Now here’s a true football fan. Scott Entsminger died at the age of 55 last Thursday, but he couldn’t resist the chance to get one final dig at his favorite team. Entsminger was a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Browns. Every year, he sent a song to the team along with advice for what they should do in the coming year. The team likely never actually took his advice, but given that they have had three winning seasons in the last 20 years, maybe they should have. Entsminger’s obituary requests actual Browns team members to be his pallbearers "so the Browns can let him down one last time." He must have been one of the coolest guys to ever live. — By Nick Mangione [Source]

Upon reflection, being a Royals fan isn't THAT bad.