Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Road Trip 2010

My family recently went on a road trip that took us 2,000 miles across 8 United States (AL, AR, GA, IL, MO, MS, KY, TN). We spent roughly 31 hours on the road in a mini-van together (several more if you count the time spent sitting in traffic and getting lost trying to find the sights). We ate a variety of food: seafood, burgers, BBQ, pasta, pizza, wraps, chicken fingers, pancakes and other snacks. We stopped at a variety of gas stations Shell, Exxon, Chevron, Circle K; I tried to avoid the BP stations. We rode on more interstate numbers than I remember: 65, 55, 44, 24, 75, 85, 70, and 64 to name a few. The one thing that remained constant on each interstate, highway and in each state was rain.

The American family road trip may be back on the rise. I base this revelation on the two friends that have also recently taken up the idea of driving across the country. These friends took their trips a bit farther as they traveled to Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore. You would think spending that much time with your immediate family somebody would not make the return trip. The reports on how the trips went have been the same; “We loved it”. The time away from the TV, the video games and the internet, exploring our beloved country had actually brought them closer together. They now have memories to share for a lifetime.

Our trip was not quite as far as South Dakota, but being in a vehicle for hours a day does require some imagination. There are only so many times you can sing “If you are happy and you know it”. And I must offer one caution about pointing out the animals (horses and cows) behind the fences as you pass during the spring. The children may get a “bird and bees” lesson before you are ready to explain. Plain paper for drawing, snacks, a few DVD players, and frequent bathroom stops seemed to fill the imagination just fine.

When you are the one driving the car, unable to draw your favorite dinosaur or watch an Elmo movie, you have to turn to what you see out in front of you. To be honest, I get a sense of pride for my country when I get out on the road and see it up close and personal. Seeing the rolling hills, the pastures, the old barns, the old gas stations, the high rises, the interstate system, the rivers, the tug boats, the horses, the cows, the road kill, the old trees, the old cars for sale, the deer, the hay fields, the corn fields, the rice fields, tractors, 18 wheelers, state troopers, silos, dirt roads, road signs, billboards, wooden fences, barbed wire fences, prisons, firework stores, road construction, I could on and on. Driving the roads of America make me imagine I am riding in a time machine. One mile you are passing a small field surrounded by oak trees with a barn that is about to fall over, reminding me of how families a hundred years ago used to work the land by horse and plow. To a mile later seeing a combine tractor in a field that disappears over the horizon, realizing how commercial farming has become. Then a few more miles down the road there is a state of the art building stretching for over a mile for a South Korean car company suddenly makes you realize how global we have become. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness right off the side of the road.

One of our road trip destinations was to share a wedding reception for my brother in law. He and his new bride had been married on a destination wedding in Jamaica. For those that could not make it to Jamaica to celebrate, a wedding party was held in Roswell. We arrived at the party and were being introduced to the daughter of the host family. She kneels down to say hello to my youngest. “I have heard so much about you. How are you?” My youngest responds, “I threw up in the bathtub…” :-O My youngest had been sick about three days before we arrived. Why she tells a stranger she threw in the bathtub three days ago is beyond me. “…but momma was not mad.” Thankfully our new friend has three children and totally understood what my four year old was saying. “That’s right sweetie, cleaning up the bathtub is easier on momma than cleaning the carpet or the bed.” Others within earshot of my daughter’s announcement were very amused…my wife and I not so much.

We left Roswell early the next morning and headed for St Louis. We went to visit my sister-in-law and her husband. One night they took us to their favorite pizza restaurant. As we enter Dewey’s we pass some large glass windows giving view to the kitchen. The cooks are tossing flour, flipping dough, and generally entertaining the kids. As my kids and wife are watching the pizza’s being made, the rest of us are taken to our table. My brother-in-law, Prince Russ, (named so by my four year old) says “The Green Lantern is the best pizza you will ever put in your mouth.”

The server approaches and asks if we have been to Dewey’s before. I let her know I have not. She tells me about the red sauce and the white sauce and how they can do either sauce, they can do half and half, etc., etc. As a parent, I was quickly becoming a fan of Dewey’s. She is one of the first pizza servers to not look at me like I was placing my order from an illegible incomprehensible health care bill. “I need mushrooms and black olives over the entire pizza and pepperoni only on half.” She said “No problem – got it. Mushrooms and black olives whole, pepp on half.” I may have held eye contact with her a bit longer than she wanted, but I was just so impressed.

As the evening progressed Prince Russ needed a to-go-box for his Green Lantern pizza. On the way back to the royal castle he asked “I can’t believe you didn’t get the Green Lantern.” I answered him with this story. “Do you remember the Hardee’s Thickburger commercial where the petite pregnant girl is sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room gorging herself with a Thickburger? The voice over guy is saying something to the affect of ‘Enjoy the Hardee’s Thickburger while you can honey, you will be eating happy meals for the next twelve years.’ A parent wrote that commercial. Heck it may have been Dewey.” Prince Russ’ silent response left me to wonder if he empathized, did not understand, or he was seeing the future.

The next night we ate at their place. The night after that, we tried the best BBQ restaurant in town called Pappy’s. The story for Pappy’s is; it’s simple. There is no hostess, no table cloth, no fancy napkins, no silverware, no servers, no fuss, just BBQ. When they run out of food they close.

The rules of engagement are as follows. You review the plastic menu you pick up from a wooden box holder on the entrance wall. You stand in line through the middle of the restaurant and the picnic style tables. You wait in the line that stretches the length of the restaurant and veers to the left toward the unseen cash register. After you order, you self serve your soft drink then find a table to sit down to wait for the cook staff to bring you your order. Then you eat with fingers or plastic ware and wipe your face and hands with paper towels.

As for the ambiance, the music is almost loud. The patrons are laughing and chatting with sauce around their mouths. The hickory smoke smell makes your mouth water. The walls are covered with t-shirts from other famous American BBQ restaurants (including their own Hog Whisperer t-shirt) and autographed placemats from celebrity patrons. There is a shelf near the ceiling with bottles and bottles of any BBQ sauce ever made.

We were in line behind roughly 50 people surrounded by another 60 or more patron already enjoying the BBQ. KC and the Sunshine’s ‘Shake Your Booty’ was kickin’ the Hi Fi (I mean surround sound). As my wife and I are shouting back and forth over the music, the chatter, and my oldest daughter laughing, we were trying to figure out what to order. Without warning “Chicken” was posted on the “We are now out of:” sign. It was barely 6:00 p.m. “Well that is what I was going to get the kids.” “Brisket” was posted before we could look at the menu again. Tension was rising. What are we going to feed our children, they love chicken.

My oldest daughter’s laughter had finally reached a level of annoyance as if somebody was rapidly poking their finger on my forehead. Simultaneously my wife and l look at her to shush her and were stunned when we saw why she was laughing. My wife’s youngest daughter was knees bend, elbows flying, back bent, rump shaking to KC and the Sunshine Band. :-O Even though you think it’s cute, it is cuter when it is somebody else’s child. “Stop that right now!” My wife scolded her. My wife’s youngest daughter delightful reply as she shouted over the music, “MOM I LIKE PANTIES!” “Pappy’s honey! We are at Pap-py’s!” If you ever visit Pappy’s, look for the placemat on the wall signed by some broken letters in crayon that spells out “Love you Pappy, Rump Shaker - 2010”.

If you get a chance, take a road trip soon. If you are lucky you just might make some memories for a lifetime. See if you too get a sense of patriotic pride, become a BBQ restaurant icon for a few minutes or at the very least you will get to take a ride in a time machine.

How did we like our road trip? We loved it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Masters 2010

I recently entered a writing contest for a golf magazine.  I wrote an article on this year's Master's golf tournament.  After writing my story I tried to cut it down to the required 800 words.  The chopped up submitted entry was just not the same, to me, nor apparently the contest judges.  You may not like this article either...

Master's 2010

For me it started a few weeks prior when I got a call from a friend that said, "Hey you know anybody that would be interested in two Tuesday practice round tickets to the Master's?" With tickets in hand for Tuesday's practice round, my father-in-law who had never been to Augusta National and I walked in the back gate at Amen Corner.

For the average golfer, walking the fairways at Augusta National is the ultimate golfing experience even without a club in your hand. Seeing the perfectly manicured fairways, greens, bunkers, pinestraw, and elevation changes is incredible. Seeing the number one player in the world within ten yards of you, is icing on the cake. We ooed and awed at Tiger's tee shot on three. Then we looked back at the 2nd fairway and see a lumbering stride that is known by anyone that watches the PGA; Phil Mickelson. "Wow, this is cool!" As the day progressed we saw past Master's, British and US Open Champions. We were star struck.

On Thursday, we were back to watching the tournament from home. Let me try to put that in perspective for you. While you are at Augusta, on the grounds, walking around and seeing the sights, it is like letting a kid play the newest PlayStation for 8 hours with any game he wishes. SUPER COOL. Watching it on TV is like taking away the PlayStation from the boy and giving it to his sister. NOT COOL. Not getting to go to the tournament but once every few years or so is like making the boy watch his sister play the PlayStation for the next few years but telling him he will get to again soon…maybe…if you like win the lottery. REALLY NOT COOL.

I have been to Augusta three times now. My first Master's experience was on Saturday's rain delayed round in 1992. Fred Couples of course won the next day. Seeing his name on the leaderboard at this year’s tournament 18 years later was surreal. My second Master's experience was a practice round in 2006 when my father and I visited. I finally got a chance to repay Dad a ticket for letting me take his place in 1992. This year’s Tuesdays practice round would be my third visit.

Freddy’s lead on Thursday this year did not last long. On Friday the young guns showed up to the party. Westwood and Mickelson played well and climbed the leaderboard. On Saturday, typically referred to as "moving day", was spectacular. Augusta National was treated to shot making it had not seen in recent memory. Phil was within six inches or less from making Master's history with three eagles in a row (hole 13, 14, and 15). But even with this stellar play Westwood was atop the leaderboard.

During the final round on Sunday it is said many times, “the Master's does not start until the back nine on Sunday”. Sunday arrived and for once we saw more great golf on Sunday’s front nine than ever before. On the second hole during Phil's backstroke a pine tree pollen capsule fell directly in the line of his birdie putt attempt. His ball bounced off the obstruction fell off line and he missed the putt. He tapped in for a par. It appeared Phil had been snakebit once again (2006 US Open). Tiger's game was not sharp. He was missing putts, greens, fairways; until he reached number 7. Tiger put his second shot on the par 4 number 7 on the back of the green but spun it back into the hole for a brilliant eagle. The shot brought a smile to his face and the crowd to their feet.

Then, as scripted, the Master's started. Anthony Kim was mid way through the back nine, setting it on fire. Kim closed with a scorching 65. Mickelson had gained a one shot advantage at the turn. But he and Westwood seemed to be getting nervous as their tee shots were going awry. When Phil drained the birdie putt at 12, his fist pump sent a message that he was in control. The memory of his costly double bogey at 12 from last year vanished. Westwood could not match the birdie. Had Mickelson holed his eagle putt on 13 we would be watching the highlight for the next millennium. The dagger finally found its target on 15 when Phil birdied and Westwood was unable to match.

The 17th held a little drama as Westwood birdied and Phil made par. With a two stroke lead on 18 tee, visions of the 2006 US Open flashed across my mind. Back in 2006 at Wingedfoot, Mickelson stood on the last hole with a lead and was in position to win the tournament.  Mickelson had struggled with his driver all week.  He had no business hitting a driver off the tee.  I have said many times if I was Bones (Mickelson's caddy) I would have snapped his driver in half and made him a 3 metal.

Well I got vindication from that nightmare.  At this year’s Master’s on the last hole with a two shot lead Bones had obviously learned his lesson and got my letter (joking).  Phil hit 3 metal instead of driver. Phil found the fairway.  Phil dropped his approach to about seven feet. Westwood needing eagle, landed right of the hole about twenty feet. Phil walked up 18 with a smile. His birdie putt rolled in center cup like a true champion.

As Phil walked off 18 I swear I heard him say "O wow!" Not because he had won, but because his cancer weakened wife and three kids were waiting to give him a victory hug. It was a moment that left Ken Venturri and I speechless.

Couples won after my trip in 1992. Mickelson has won each of my last two visits ('06, '10). Phil, just so you know, I would love to visit Augusta National again soon.