Some Recommended Reading to Start Your New Year!

Are you seeking great nonfiction books to start out 2019? I have some interesting suggestions for you.

boys in cave

“The Boys in the Cave: Deep Inside the Impossible Rescue in Thailand,” by Matt Gutman. For two weeks in June 2016, the world watched while scores of people tried to rescue 13 soccer boys and their coach stranded in a cave filling quickly with water. Gutman, an ABC news correspondent, covered this harrowing story and was asked to write a book about the rescue. He interviewed all the major players to unfold the politics, egos, dangers, and finally the triumphs of this perilous cave-dive rescue. Even though I knew the rescue was successful, Gutman’s writing of the details kept me on the edge of my seat. I could not put this book down, and I bet you won’t either.

fbi

“Priceless,” a memoir by Robert Wittman, the only undercover FBI agent assigned to recover stolen art nationally and internationally. It was through a tragedy early in his FBI career that Wittman took up a hobby of collecting unique baseball cards and selling them at a profit when he moved into Civil War memorabilia. Wittman took an art course that not only advanced his work at the FBI but led him to his career in recovering stolen art. It’s a personal journey, a multi-layered lesson in history, art history, and the reasons behind the people stealing art, and how he honed his skills to play to the egos of the thieves allowing him to get into their circle. It’s compelling, well-written, draws you in and keeps you there.

library book

“The Library Book,” by Susan Orlean. She writes compellingly about the Los Angeles Library fire in April 1986. Most of us never heard about this as the fire happened the same day as the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant meltdown. This old and glorious building, loaded with safety violations, was in the last stage of being approved for remodeling and brought up to date and code when the fire alarm went off. Staff and patrons, used to many false alarms, figured the firemen would give the all-clear to go back inside soon. Instead, they discovered their beloved library was engulfed in a fire that would burn for over seven hours requiring nearly all of Los Angeles’ fire equipment and firemen, reached sustained temperatures of 2000 degrees, and that the tinder of millions of books and the oxygen surrounding their literary treasures was stoking the ghostly, light-blue fire. You want to savor every word she writes about the fire and the logistics of the firemen who fought it, the librarians, the books lost, the thousands of volunteers who went in after the fire to salvage the water-soaked and smoke damaged books. Orlean writes a beautifully woven story that introduces you to an array of characters—library staff, L.A. Library directors over the years, patrons and how all have impacted the library as well as being impacted by the library, that a library more than a repository for books, that it is as necessary as food and oxygen for people. This extremely well-researched book is worth the journey.

Nancy Huber, OLLI Member

 

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Footprints to Believing

red sled

The home I lived in a as a child had no fireplace and that always worried me at Christmas time. I was assured that that would be no problem for Santa; he would simply enter through the front door. This explanation seemed sensible to me and I easily accepted it. Hadn’t Santa always found me? I would just make sure the front door was unlocked on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas I was ten I longed for two things: a muff and a sled. My heart was set on a white fur muff I had seen in the store window. The fur was the softest and purest I had ever seen and there was a doll’s face with eyes that blinked open and shut on the front of the muff. The inside was white satin, and a white cord would go around my neck. For weeks I dreamed about that muff.

The second thing I wanted was a sled. I wanted to fly down the hill with those flashing red runners skimming swiftly along on the hard packed snow, the cold wind blowing in my face making my eyes water and my nose run.  I was told maybe I shouldn’t count on the sled. I didn’t ask why.

On December 24, the snow began falling early in the day. By the time family members had all gathered in the evening for the traditional Christmas Eve celebration, many inches had accumulated and the snow continued to fall.  During the gift exchange, I did get my beautiful muff, but there was no sled. I told myself the muff was plenty.

window

Every year at the end of the Christmas celebration, Uncle John would say, “I think I hear sleigh bells,” but this year there really was a noise on the front porch.  I ran to the window. Leaning against the railing was a shiny sled with red runners, and it had my name on it. Footprints in the snow led from the sidewalk to the porch and back down.

fottprints in the snow

I grabbed a coat and went outdoors.  The footprints were clearly visible in the fresh snow. I turned right at the sidewalk, and although I could see no one about, the tracks were easy to follow. I went to the corner of the street where the tracks intermingled and got lost there with other pedestrian prints. The night was quiet and still. I could see no people outdoors anywhere. I walked back home looking over my shoulder many times, trying to piece everything together.

I was overjoyed with the sled, but the adults were truly bewildered. No one had an explanation, and no one had left the house. All whispered that it was not their doing. But none of this was a mystery to me.

At future Christmas gatherings, the talk always got around to the year I was ten and an unknown visitor came to the house. The adults held steadfastly to the claim they didn’t know the benefactor.  To me, however, it was always very simple. Santa brought me a sled that special Christmas I was ten. Since then, when someone asks if I believe in Santa Claus, my answer is the same.

“Oh, yes. Indeed I do”

For, you see, I saw his footprints in the snow.

 

Mercedes Horton, OLLI member since 1991

 

 

President George H.W. Bush: Quick with a Quip!

goergoe-h-w-bush-e1543958405228.jpg

George H.W. Bush visited Denver briefly in 1980 when he was running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. I was then a political reporter.  His staff told me he wouldn’t have time for a conventional interview, but an unconventional one was possible.

So I went to what was then Stapleton Airport to be picked up by a BMW, driven by the son of Michigan’s GOP governor. Mr. Bush was already in the back seat, where I joined him. We were driven around while I asked him a lot of questions, mostly about the many international crises that had developed around the globe. He was impressive: This former C.I.A. chief had clear-eyed, well-informed answers to all my questions. On both international and domestic issues, he was running as a pragmatic alternative to Reagan, deriding “voodoo economics” and other aspects of Reagan’s campaign. (He did not tell me that he had “the Big Mo,” his famous term for momentum.)

The next step was to attend a private reception that evening for Mr. Bush, where he was expected to speak. I drove to a very upscale neighborhood and entered a mansion, where I was led to a handsomely landscaped courtyard. A stage had been constructed, with velvet curtains on both sides. I was given a chair behind one curtain, and I noticed one of Mr. Bush’s senior advisers behind the other one.  When Mr. Bush came onto the stage, he looked over the glittering members of Denver’s high society, clinked the ice in his glass, and said, “Gee, it’s great to be back with the grass roots!”

The commemoration of Mr. Bush’s passing also reminded me of something I learned when I was working in Washington. A Democratic friend who had connections with Bill and Hillary Clinton told me that the two couples treated the White House staff very differently. The Bushes had always lived lives of privilege, and were accustomed to servants in their homes. So they quickly got to know those in the White House, treating them “like family,” one of them told my friend. But the Clintons came from much humbler roots and weren’t used to having “strangers” around them at all hours. They made no attempt to be friendly. My friend said that his White House contact conceded that they talked about the Bushes among themselves, and the Clintons may have suspected that the staff gossiped about them. This liberal hopes that the relationship changed as the years went on.

 ~Barbara Haddad Ryan

(OLLI Member and  OLLI Voices Team)

 

In Our Own Backyard – Johnson’s Restaurant, Siler City, NC

Johnsons exterior

Sometimes we think we have to drive hours to find a unique place.

My wife and I wanted to “get out of the house” today, so I said, “let’s go to Johnson’s Restaurant.”  40 miles and 50 minutes later we pulled into the parking lot at 11:48.  This was not the first time we have eaten there, so we knew to get there before noon to find a seat.

Johnsons interior

Luckily there were two seats left at the bar next to the cash register.  Cash register is correct, because they only accept cash, no plastic. We ordered what almost all do at Johnson’s, a cheese burger all the way, an order of fries and sweet tea.  What makes the place unique is who shows up to eat.  I have never eaten there without getting to know some interesting couple from someplace that were very engaging and delightful.   The couple next to us at the bar today was from Lenoir County not far from Kinston.  The husband was going to some sawmill north of Mebane to get some heart pine lumber available only at that place, to build some piece of furniture. They just saw the restaurant sign and stopped.  I always think we would get the prize for driving the farthest.  But Cary qualifies only as yet another town because people come from all parts of North Carolina to experience the 1946 dinner.  However by far, the locals make up the most clientele.

Owner

The owner, Claxton Johnson, has been running Johnson’s Restaurant since 1946 and is still the driving force for its success. Located on US 64 it’s one of many food places, along that stretch of road, but apparently it’s never hurting for customers.   Claxton, said, “We started out as a curbside place back in ’46.  I was only about 5 when I started.  It’s been in the family ever since.”

To prove his statement two of his grandsons, Tristan and Caemon Johnson, cook burgers, run the cash register and seem to fill in where necessary to make sure customers are well taken care of.

chef

I was able to get a picture of our waitress only when she slowed long enough to take the order of our new friends from Lenoir County.  My other pictures of her were too blurry to print.  She hardly ever stopped.  The same goes for the other waitress.

waitress

“How many burgers have you cooked?” I asked Braxton.  His reply, “I have no idea.”  “A million, two million?” I queried.  “No idea,” he once again replied.  I didn’t ask him how much hamburger he ground before opening, since I knew the answer from my last visit, “I have no idea.”

I also knew when the restaurant closed for the day because, I had asked him that question before, “it’s when the hamburger meat gives out,” was his pat answer.  Somehow I was supposed to know that.

So, if you just want to “get out of the house” and take a short trip, give Johnson’s Restaurant in Siler City North Carolina, a try.  You will be blessed with a good meal and make some new friends.

Larry Kingsley

Writer’s Group, OLLI member, Author

Ageless

NJ

She was sitting on a bench looking at the water. In fact, she was in my favorite spot at the Center Street Beach in Beach Haven, New Jersey where we had a beach house when our children were young.

It was early morning, around 7:15, and my ritual during the week while my husband was back home in Middletown was to ride my bike to the beach and sip an orange juice while gazing at the water, taking in the light and color changes on the waves. Between the wonderful light and the calm horizon I found the name of the beach to be completely suited to my mood. I centered myself at Center Street Beach.

This day, however, my solo excursion was interrupted by another person. I nodded in her direction and placed myself at the remaining edge of the only bench. In my brief glance at her face, I was surprised to see a woman older than I supposed from her posture. My first guess would have placed her in her forties; now I found it hard to assess her age.

woman on bench

I was distracted by her presence, though she sat motionless and took up only her own space. My eyes wandered away from the horizon and focused on her hands. Yes, she was definitely older. They were lined and leathery and strong; older hands. As I watched, her fingers seemed to move, keeping time to some inner tune; a slow, drumming tempo that started to have an affect on me. Without realizing it my breathing and heartbeat fell into the rhythm of her beating fingers.

While I watched her fingers, she slowly moved her top hand away and turned her bottom hand palm upwards. Inside her hand I saw a shell. It seemed extraordinary and different from New Jersey shells, which I had memorized from living by the beach for many years.

When had she extended the shell to me? And when had I taken it into my own palm? I couldn’t say, but there it was inside my hand.

shell in hand

In a mellifluous voice of a born story-teller, she recounted the life of that shell. She told of the formation of the sea creatures, then the first deposit of the hard white calcium that would organically develop, over ages, into that family of shell. She described the light and dark periods; ice and floods, animals and plants, and finally man and woman. She said the shell was living history to the creation of her and myself; both sitting on this bench.

I tried to hand the shell back to her, but she gently pushed my hand away. “It’s yours,” she said.

I walked my bike back home; feeling too weak to ride it. I held that shell tightly in my hand. At home I considered adding it to the pile of sea treasures I had gathered from beaches all over the world from years of travel. But this shell was different. It spoke in a different tongue. And it was a gift.

I placed the shell on the kitchen windowsill where the last rays of the setting sun would touch and caress it with the final glow of the day. Each time I glanced at it with grateful eyes, knowing that it was ageless in the continuum of time.

Geraldine Velasquez , OLLI Member, Writers Group, OLLI Instructor

 

Vermont Teddy Bear Factory

The store

 

Christmas, and Valentines, are the big times of the year for what has become a tradition of a heartfelt gift that has a message of I Love You implied just by sending a Vermont Teddy bear. The company was founded in 1981 by John Sortino when he started sewing cloth bears on his wife’s sewing machine for his newborn son.  His first creation was named after Groucho Marx because of the thick black eyebrows.

He soon moved to Vermont from Plattsburg New York after obtaining a degree from Plattsburg College in mathematics.   He sold 50 bears in 1981 and in 1982 his sales went to 200 and he gave up his full time jobs with The Boy Scouts and UPS.  Nearing bankruptcy in 1989 he began promoting the teddy bears in the New York City market through popular radio programs and experienced a sudden and spectacular growth.  By 1993 sales had reached $17 million and he was well on his way to becoming the biggest manufacturer of teddy bears in the US.

Assembly Line

Today the factory is a one of the hottest tourist destinations in Vermont.  The tour shows busy artisans cutting out outfits for the bears, stuffing the bears, and preparing them for shipment all over the world.  The tour ends at their store where you can actually make your own teddy bear. The $4.00 admission is well worth the two hour visit.  The factory is located in Shelburne Vermont in the beautiful Champlain Lake Valley and not far from Burlington Vt.

Outside View

I didn’t make or buy a teddy bear, but at least I bought a frisbee for my grandchild’s birthday.

Larry Kingsley

OLLI Member and OLLI Writers Group

Minor Amends

Corolla wild horsesOur guide’s name was Winston. I remember him as craggy, angular, with weathered skin and wearing a floppy straw hat over pony-tailed hair. His lanky body slipped easily behind the wheel of the open-sided red Jeep and off we went in search of wild horses, Winston and four women enjoying a week-long vacation on the Outer Banks.

We got more than anticipated in both time and attention. Winston drove slowly. He answered our questions without seeming bored by them. He found several wild horses for us to photograph grazing near the few houses scattered at the north end of the island. He told us about the people who lived in this far-flung place with no access roads other than the beach, how they and horses sought isolation but were being encroached upon by civilization. How one wild horse had ventured inside a Harris Teeter in the newest shopping strip. We wondered if we should feel guilty for being here, but Winston wouldn’t go that far. After all, without the likes of us, he’d have no job.

FulgariteBesides wild horses, Winston took time to find lightning-struck sand called fulgurites to show us. He picked up the clump of fused sand and we passed it around, turning it over in our hands, then let Winston put it back where he’d found it. I was humbled anew by Mother Nature’s power and my limited awareness of the world around me.

When we finally returned to the excursion company’s parking lot, we expressed gratitude to Winston and said farewell. Only as we pulled purses from our car’s trunk did it occur to us that a tip might be in order. Before we could get our heads together about how much and who had the right amount, Winston had disappeared. We drove back to the rental house sensing a small cloud darkening our enjoyment of the day.

A year passed. We returned to Duck and the same rental house. We recalled our dune exploration and remembered Winston and his kind quirkiness. We remembered not tipping him and felt guilty all over again. We called the excursion company and learned that Winston still worked there, that he was out but should be back in an hour or so. Did we want to leave a message? No, we did not.

Tip

Four of us drove north and hung out on the office porch and watched for Winston’s Jeep. When he arrived, we waited near-by while he said goodbye to the current group. Then we pounced, all four of us a-jabber about being there a year ago, not tipping him, feeling guilty, and now coming back with our belated offering. Winston looked bewildered, but eventually grasped what we were saying. He gave no indication that he remembered us, pushed his straw hat back, and accepted the money with a smile.

We drove away in a happy fog of atonement knowing that life doesn’t always give us an opportunity to right a wrong. This time we were lucky.

Lynne Sparrow

OLLI Member

Views and comments from the members of OLLI at NC State