It’s ironic when you think about it, how often a road that starts life as a “bypass” invariably becomes, over time, the road of choice, and the settlements it was designed to bypass become the places no one stops at anymore. At one time in western New York, Route 5 was the main thoroughfare going east to west. Then came Route 20 – the four lane. Then I-90, part of the interstate highway system.  Now you could walk, if you like, down the centerline of Route 5 for several minutes at a stretch without risk of being sideswiped. 

One of the many small businesses along the dusty route that dimmed when the new roads came was a diner and gas station at Portland Bay, about six miles west of Dunkirk. The owners – my great grandparents, Bert and Ellen Belding – stayed on after Route 5 succumbed to the success of the bypasses. It was also their home, after all, on the windswept southern shore of Lake Erie.

The diner was little more than Ellen’s kitchen, situated at the west end of a large dining room. A bar separated patrons – and little relations – from the kitchen itself. The rest of the small building was a bedroom for Ellen and Bert on the east end, with a tiny bedroom attached in the back. A small mudroom served as the diner’s entrance, and opened onto a gravel drive that eased back onto Route 5 to the right. Just over 30 miles down the road nestled the shore town of Erie, PA.

Out front, right on the highway, stood a teetering pop stand, little more than a box room with sides that lifted, held by  thin sticks, to expose the counters on all four sides. The remaining paint was loose and chipped, a legacy to an ambitious whitewash years earlier, probably at Bert’s hand, or my grandfather Johnny, or my dad, Jack. Dusty samples of the Nehi and other available pops graced the planked counters. Large reach-in coolers, compliments of the vendors, graced the stand in my earliest memory.  Later, slow sales undoubtedly contributed to the decision to remove them.

The bathroom – well, technically, there were two.  The women’s and the men’s. Both were located in an auto service station steps from the diner. Out Ellen’s back bedroom door was a sidewalk. To the left was her back yard, and to the right was the gravel driveway. Directly opposite the bedroom door was a bathroom, at the side of the service station. It was just as it sounds – a gas station restroom. Inside the station was where the gentlemen would go. There was no facility for showers or baths. Ellen would pay me a dime to watch the gas pumps on occasion. I understood much later that she periodically bathed in the cellar below the dining room, in a washtub, while I assisted the infrequent customer. 

The configuration seemed perfectly reasonable to me. We all thought it very cool that our great grandmother sold ice cream, and that we rented a cottage from her for two weeks every year. I remember her pumping gas when I was very young. Later, she was an industry leader in self-serve pumping, by virtue of the fact that she slowed considerably in her eighties. 

I loved watching the pumps for several reasons.  First, there was not much work involved, but there was a large piece of slate sitting on a low table next to the pumps. It was placed there, likely by Bert, so a boy would have a blackboard on which to scrawl endless insights. I used it for this purpose, and was delighted that year after year, the giant slate sat patiently awaiting my next flash of brilliance. 

I was likewise enchanted with vehicles. Specifically, their license plates. I collected the numbers, by state.  Fortunately, not the plates themselves, for that could have landed me in a bit of trouble. But I loved writing down the numbers from mysterious foreign locales such as Ohio and Indiana. Wherever I traveled as a child, I scanned the license plates of cars, looking for an as-yet undiscovered gem. Once, Nova Scotia. Once Hawaii. Or a western state, like Arizona or Utah. Never Mexico, sometimes Quebec, often Ontario and California.  Ellen’s station, while it did not have much traffic even in my youth, usually yielded a disproportionate number of exotic plates. For some reason, the Empire State was heavily represented.  

Ellen died in the bedroom of the diner when I was 17, on the first day of the year, 1970. My father and I drove the eight hours or so for the funeral.  I never knew Bert. He died at 76, about five years before my birth. Everything I described exists now only in my mind.  There is a vacant lot, no hint at the life that used to team there, and the fertile ground where lasting memories were born. It is kept up, almost as if it were common ground in a cemetery.  The only thing that remains to mark the passage of a people is an old stone table. 

Its dimensions are such that it would not seem out of place on a tourist stop of Ireland’s ancient folk – an example of the ponderous stacked stones that defy modern technological duplication. First as a boy, and then as a ripped young man, I would try to simply budge the topmost piece, the table’s surface. For years, every summer it was our picnic table. Later, as a young man, when the diner became for me too a way station rather than a destination,  on my journeys north into Canada, the table was a writing desk.  The last time I stroked the rough gray surface, I was on a walk down memory lane with my second son, then in his stroller.

I probably recounted for him the family legend of how Bert collected and assembled the stones for the table, including a bench on either side, all in an afternoon, all by himself, and perhaps aided by a little liquid spirit. No one has ever offered another accounting, and now there is almost no one who could know, first hand, how the table was constructed. In the years since, friends traveling through that part of the country will stop to take pictures, and report that it still stands, canted and abused by Lake Effect snows, and years of frosts and melts.

I think it is not an entirely bad thing that Bert’s effort of an afternoon becomes a legacy, standing amid so much that has vanished into gentle green grass. I know I will be very sad when the table finally collapses, sadder still if I collapse first. Unless of course I build my own stone table. I think great grandpa would be pleased to know the table is still remembered, and still stands. Thanks, Bert.

 IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH THE REVIEW FEATURES OF MS WORD, YOU’VE PROBABLY USED NEW COMMENT AS WELL AS TRACK CHANGES. BOTH ARE DESIGNED TO ALLOW A REVIEWER TO EDI\ OR PROOF ANOTHER’S DOCUMENT, SIMILAR TO TAKING A RED PEN TO A HARD COPY. WHEN YOU REVIEW ANOTHER’S WORK, DO YOU FLIP A COIN – NEW COMMENTS OR TRACK CHANGES? DOES IT MATTER?           Recently I conducted a two-day Proofreading class for some federal agency employees. This subject came up, and we had a spirited discussion on why it doesmatter. While the mechanics are very similar, the question is, Are you taking over control of the document, or are you a collaborator on the document, or are you simply assisting someone else with their document? If the answer to the question is that you are assuming control or are collaborating, then use Track Changes. If you are simply assisting a friend or colleague by proofing or editing, then use New Comment

         The distinction is that in one case, you are the new author, or co-author, so you are free to change the text itself. If you like timely more than opportune, or preferperspicacious over wise, then change away. It’s your document. But if it’s not your document, then suggest a word if you like, or simply comment that you think the author has made an odd or awkward word choice. Since it’s not your document, you don’t have to provide alternate language.  Simply respond as the gentle reader to the clarity you experience with the text.

           One might argue that where there is a clear violation of a grammar rule – maryland is spelled with a small-case m, or a plural subject is linked with a singular verb – useTrack Changes to fix the error. While this mechanically signals the need for a repair, it also involves a level of taking over that is best avoided.  Simply comment to the problem. 

         Two quick examples of when the mechanical means can run afoul of the philosophical end: 

1)           As government contractors, we often deliver documents to our clients, which they approve, disapprove, or approve with comments. The delivered document is not approved for payment until the client and the contractor agree that it meets the requirements. What happens when a contractor gets back from the client a document loaded with changes created using Track Changes, pending contractor approval? At that point, whose document is it anyway?

2)         In our writing critique group, we proof each other’s work electronically. In this case, the author is never contemplating the transfer of ownership of copyrighted work. So we use New Comment exclusively. Otherwise, by actually changing someone’s text, pending the author’s approval, haven’t I become at least a limited co-author?

         When asking yourself which to use, remember the question is about the writing situation.  Am I assuming ownership of a piece someone else started? Track Changes. Am I on a collaborative document project? Track Changes. Does someone else own this document before, during, and after I do my thing? New Comment.

Happy writing!

My Aunt Mary called this summer, excited about the vacation she’d just spent at our ancestral compound in Portland Bay, New York – the poor person’s version of the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port. Her description of Lake Erie in rare perfect conditions stirred memories long dormant, of bonfires reflected in the water’s dark surface, and endless days swimming and collecting treasures.  Of strolls along dusty lanes in shimmering heat, licking sweet confections from my great grandmother’s diner. Of glorious anticipation driving one of a dozen routes through western Pennsylvania and of the ineffable sadness when it came time to journey back to Greenbelt.

          Though I only spent two weeks every year there, the Lake is the gateway to my most vivid childhood memories. How is it that the rest of my childhood can be recalled only dimly, but the adventures at the Lake have traveled down the course of my years like a coffee table book, always within easy reach?

                Mary feels the same. Several years ago, in a very practical family decision, we unanimously agreed to allow the last parcel of our ancestor’s compound to be sold to outsiders. The Lake, after all, is an eight-hour drive. After grandma passed away, the energy to spend precious vacation time to drive two days there and back dissipated to nothing.  We could, after all, rent a cottage on the grounds if we chose. Why be saddled with the dubious legacy of a lot on the cliff overlooking Lake Erie?

         Yet after her trip up, Mary found herself second-guessing the decision. She found a sympathetic ear in me.  E.B. White, in his essay, Once More to the Lake, says,

“It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the      grooves which lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”  

                When I was young, it seemed most of my friends, like us, journeyed to be with distant family on vacation.  Nowadays, that is seldom the case. (Although this summer our family undertook an epic ten-day trip to Colorado to join my brother Mike, our parents, and most of the siblings in a joyful wedding celebration.)  Our vacations are now to strangers’ oversized homes in the dunes of the Outer Banks, or to timeshares and campgrounds in Orlando, or elsewhere. 

                I wonder if my kids, when they are older, will remember vacations as I do. As the highlights of my existence, the most memorable times.  As Mary and I talked, we replayed the family decision to sell away our childhood, in a sense. Would we, if we were given a do-over, take it?  How do you value the non-economic portion of that decision?

         Russell Baker says that parents feel “children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.” That was brought home to me again, in a gift across time and distance. 

Thanks for the call, Mary.

While watching the Redskins beat the Cowboys in the 2010 season opener (did I mention how sweet that was?), I heard Bob Costas at halftime complaining about a late-game call made by an official in the Detroit- Bears season opener.  Calvin Johnson caught a 30-something – yard reception in the back of the end zone, then seemed to lay it down, or spike it, at the end.  Referee Gene Steratore and the league called it by the rules – Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 (8-1-3-1), to be precise – and the reception was no more. 

Costas said, in part, “When the letter of the law seems at odds with common sense…. If it looks and feels like a touchdown, it should be.”  

With all due respect for Bob, as well as common sense, and granted that it looked like a clean catch, to say that common sense should prevail in sports is a little misleading. Sports are peppered with examples of “silly rules” – rules which would seem to have no bearing on the level of skill, or demonstrable dominance of one team over another:

  • the dropped third strike in baseball that allows a batter to advance;
  • 12 men on the field in football, even when the 12th man is a lumbering tackle 30 yards from the action;
  • the technical foul in basketball on a time-out called with none remaining;
  • the signed golf card, or the requirement to walk the course, in golf.
But when you think about it, what rules in sports aren’t silly? When sports games are designed, there is no requirement to apply common sense. It’s a GAME. Games are meant to be diversions from our real lives.  They are not meant to be extensions of them.

Each rule is as valid as every other rule. That’s the definition of sport. So you can argue what the ref saw. But you can’t argue that a particular rule is unfair, or nonsense, except that it may create an inequity between positions, such as pitcher versus  batter, or quarterback versus linebacker. What can be said to be common sense about the requirement to get three outs to retire a side, rather than say, two? Or Four? What is common sense about making a kick-off in play after ten yards, so that either team can recover? Doesn’t the same arbitrary element apply to every rule in any game? 

What makes games fair in a sense most of us can agree on is that rules exist, and that they’re applied fairly.  That is much different than insisting that the rules themselves be fair. The latter has no meaning that I can see. Gotta disagree on this one,  Bob.  How about you?

Let me context this by stating I am a fair-weather Redskins fan. Ever since I came to consciousness about the subject, I’ve felt the name of the Redskins should be changed. I also decided years ago that with so few hours in a week to fulfill my dreams, Sunday afternoon football was an easy sacrifice. Why sit on my butt for hours watching other men, who’d worked and sacrificed to reach the pinnacle of their God-given talent, when I could use the time myself?

My loyalty to the Redskins didn’t wane in a long, gradual sunset.  It ended abruptly, about the time Joe Gibbs said for the first time You know what Life is what’s happening while I’m busy fixating on the burgundy and gold.  It was also aided by the retirement of Darrell Green.  More than a man I always admired on and off the field, he seemed to be, in the cut of John Elway, Randy White, and Cal Ripken, a dying breed of sportsman who kept allegiance to a single team his entire career.  That helped fan the illusion for me that it was about something other than a big paycheck.

One of the disappointments of this past Sunday’s 2010 opener against Dallas was that I had to send my eldest son to bed at halftime. Who are these games for, anyway? My son is playing football now. I played 40 years ago. Heck, dear advertiser, I can also guaranteehe has more discretionary income than I do. But I digress. 

 This past Sunday night, as the flag I never saw fluttered to the turf to mark a holding penalty with no time left, I was transported back to a Thanksgiving scene in my youth. I don’t have to google this one.  I don’t remember the final score, but I remember his name.  Clinton Longley. The setting was a friend’s living room in Waynesburg, PA, the year: 1974.  Though the Redskins would go on to achieve greatness many times in their rise to the pinnacle (and their endless ride back down), though Walt Garrison would astonishingly be denied his touchdown by Ken Houston, through all the great and good times gathered in our Greenbelt home to cheer them and tear up over them, there was the great heartbreak of 1974.

I was drawn back to the tv Sunday, perhaps like many other fair-weather fans, as well as the die-hards, by the promise of hope over reason.  Some might even refer to it as the working definition of insanity – to repeat the same act over again, expecting different results. Ali versus Frazier. The Bird versus Magic.  The Redskins versus Dallas.

Sunday night’s win doesn’t erase my Thanksgiving memory. Not entirely. But Clint, wherever you are, I hope you were watching.



    Jack Downs is a mystery writer, teacher, and the author of two novels and several short stories. Jack lives in Carroll County, Maryland with his wife and three children..


    October 2011
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    September 2010