Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Indiana towns with unusual names

I’ve always maintained that my beloved state of Indiana has some of the most unusual town names of any state in the USA. Sure, every state has a town or two with a weird name, but I defy anyone to show me any other state with a town named after Jolly ol’ Saint Nick or after a European oral activity. So you can see what I’m talking about, here are a few of my favorite Indiana town names, in alphabetical order:

- Carbon. Home of carbon-based life forms.

- Collegeville. Listed here because, weirdly enough, there aren’t any colleges in Collegeville. However, it is within close driving distance of many Indiana colleges.

- Dick Johnson. I guess the town wasn’t big enough to just name a street after him, so they went ahead and named the whole town after him.

- Economy. I sincerely hope it’s an inexpensive place to live and the town budget is balanced.

- Eureka. Shouted by everyone who manages to find the place.

- Fairplay. No cheating allowed.

- Farmers. Farmers? This just strikes me as absurd because darn near every small town in Indiana should be named Farmers. It’s definitely one of those “well DUH” names. Welcome to the Midwest, folks.

- Farmland. As if Farmers wasn’t bad enough. While I’m at it, though, I should also mention Farmersburg, Indiana, and Farmers Retreat, Indiana. Duh, duh, and DUH.

- Floyds Knobs. That’s more about Floyd than I ever wanted to know.

- Fredonia. Also the name of the fictional country that Groucho Marx rules in the movie Duck Soup: “Hail, hail, Fredonia ...!”

- French Lick. Here’s that European oral activity I mentioned earlier. Candidate for best small-town name EVER.

- Friendship. Just the name evokes warm and fuzzy feelings.

- Gas City. The name says it all.

- Gnaw Bone. This gets my vote for best potential small-town name in a cheap horror movie.

- Hillsdale. Mentioned because we also have Hills and Dales, Indiana. As you might guess from this and the earlier Farmers, Indiana example, many Indiana towns have similar names. It almost seems like Hoosiers have a hard time making up alternate town names when the ones they want are already being used. There’s no excuse for that. Based on most of the other town names on this list, being original definitely isn’t a problem in Indiana!

- Hogtown. Yes, there probably are hogs in Hogtown. Many people in Indiana raise hogs, so this is appropriate.

- Hope. Remember, no matter what happens, there’s always Hope.

- Leisure. Sounds like a very relaxing place to live.

- Licking. It’s bad enough that we also have French Lick, Indiana. It must be another favorite Hoosier sport, along with basketball and auto racing.

- Little. Little Indiana. As opposed to Big Indiana?

- Loogootee. I just like saying the name: “Loooo-goooooo-teeeeeeee ...”

- Michigan City. Named for Michigan, of course. Here’s where the unusual part comes in: Why is this town located closer to the Illinois (in fact, CHICAGO) side than to the Michigan side of Indiana?

- Mineral. No towns named Animal or Vegetable, though.

- Mongo. Mongo like candy. See the movie Blazing Saddles if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

- Montezuma. Don’t drink the water.

- Munster. I’m guessing the Addams Family was run out of town.

- Needmore. Needmore money! Needmore paved roads! Needmore ice cream parlors!

- Oil. Probably named by a homesick relocated Texan.

- Oolitic. Again, I just like saying it: “Ooooooooo-litic.”

- Pigeon. Car wash businesses make a fortune in this town.

- Popcorn. Well, why not? Popcorn mogul Orville Redenbacher was a Hoosier, after all.

- Possum Trot. Personally, I've never seen a possum trot. Possums (opossums) don't really move very fast. They just sort of amble along. It's probably why they often end up becoming street pizza in Indiana.

- Pretty Lake. Oh, how I wish – I WISH – we also had Ugly Lake, Indiana.

- Progress. The town just gets better and better every day.

- Pumpkin Center. The center for cantelope must be in Ohio.

- Rising Sun. Well, at least it really is on the eastern border of the state. The mayor lives in "the house of the Rising Sun," baby!

- Roachdale. Bring an exterminator with you.

- Russiaville. Yes, in a notoriously conservative state, we have a town called Russiaville, and we had it all through the Cold War. I guess it’s no coincidence that the locals pronounce it “ROOSH-a-vul.” We also have a Moscow, Indiana. It’s pronounced “Muss-go.”

- Santa Claus. Happiest place on earth.

- Saline Center. Contact lens solution capital of the world?

- Shirley. Some guy probably named it after his daughter. Or his sister. Or something. Still, no worse than naming a town Gary. Or Jasper.

- Scotland. You take the high road and I’ll take the low road. One of the many Indiana towns named after foreign countries or cities.

- State Line City. It’s right on the state line of Indiana and Illinois. So what makes this state-line town so special that it gets to be named State Line, whereas the state-line town of Beal gets stuck with a name like, well, Beal?

- Sulphur Springs. Just the name is enough to make noses curl.

- Sunman. And his faithful sidekick, Moon Boy.

- Toad Hop. Toad-crossing signs everywhere. Honest. Well, okay – there SHOULD be toad-crossing signs.

- Wadesville. Flooding must be a problem there. Or everyone has really high trouser legs.

- Warsaw. But it’s not in Poland. Nope, it’s in Switzerland. Switzerland County, to be exact.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Indiana (the state) in the movies

Perhaps this happens to many people who spend most of their lives in one U.S. state, but I can’t help noticing that my home state of Indiana has been referenced quite a bit in movies. This isn’t reserved to just movies set in Indiana (like A Christmas Story) or those about Indiana-related topics (Hoosiers). Maybe filmmakers find Hoosiers more “quaint” than people from other states, or maybe it’s just that Indiana easily lends itself to small-town portrayals and (occasionally) stereotypes, both good and bad. Whatever the case, it seems to me that Indiana has been mentioned a disproportionate number of times in movies, compared to most other states outside of California, New York, and Texas. To see what I mean, take a look at this chronological sampling from the last seven decades of film history (excluding the films from the silent era, 'cause I personally haven't seen any of them). Remember, though -- this is merely a sampling. If you're interested in complete lists of movies filmed in or about Indiana, please visit David Smith's very excellent site, When Movies Were Movies, http://www.whenmoviesweremovies.com/.

- Midnight (1939). A romantic comedy in which Claudette Colbert is a show girl who becomes stranded in Paris, France. Initially, she’s less than impressed:
Colbert: Well, so this, as they say, is Paris, huh?
Train guard: Yes, madame.
Colbert: Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.

- Knute Rockne, All American (1940). Ronald Reagan, in arguably his best film role, portrays George “The Gipper” Gipp, legendary player for the University of Notre Dame’s football team. The university is located, naturally, in Notre Dame, Indiana, just northeast of South Bend.

- June Bride (1948). Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery play two bickering ex-lovers who travel to Indiana to cover a “typical American wedding” for a magazine. Actress Betty Lynn has a particularly memorable line: “Nobody makes love like that in Indiana!”

- The Great Dan Patch (1949). Indiana is full of horses. If you don’t believe me, drive through the small towns north or south of Indianapolis some time and gawk at all the horse farms or people out enjoying a trail ride. Perhaps the most famous horse ever to come out of Indiana was legendary harness racer Dan Patch, born in Oxford, Indiana, in 1896. The film is based on Dan Patch’s life and career, and stars Dennis O’Keefe and Gail Russell. A bit of trivia: Dan Patch is also mentioned in The Music Man. More on The Music Man later.

- On the Town (1949). This classic screen adaptation of the Leonard Bernstein musical was shot on location in New York City. However, quite often throughout the film, the characters played by Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen state that they’re from “Meadowville, Indiana.” If there really is a Meadowville, Indiana, I have yet to find it. Couldn’t they have used Merrillville or Medaryville instead? I guess “Meadowville” sounds more poetic.

- The Desperate Hours (1955). A crime drama in which Humphrey Bogart is the leader of a trio of criminals holding a family hostage in their own home. The standoff takes place in Broad Ripple, on the north side of Indianapolis. Cars with Indiana license plates can be seen all through the film.

- The Iron Petticoat (1956). A Cold War comedy starring Bob Hope and Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn plays Captain Vinka Kovelenko, who defects from Russia because she feels discriminated against as a woman. Hope plays Captain Chuck Lockwood, who shows her the finer points of capitalism. Of course, they fall in love and talk about marriage, but there’s a communication problem:
Hepburn: It's too dangerous!
Hope: Marriage?
Hepburn: Moscow! We're going to live in Indianapolis, Indiana!

- North by Northwest (1959). Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster in this Alfred Hitchcock classic is one of the most famous images in film history – and the scene supposedly takes place in Indiana, between Chicago and Indianapolis: “Prairie Stop, Highway 41.” But the scene wasn’t filmed in Indiana. It takes place in what is definitely a California desert. In order for any part of Indiana to look like that, it would have to (A) go without rain for about two years and then (B) have a bomb dropped on it. Oh, and about Highway 41: Yes, there is a Highway 41 in Indiana, and it does begin in the northwest corner of the state, near the Chicago area. However, it stretches along the entire West side of the state, goes through Terre Haute, and then moves on to Louisville, Kentucky – nowhere near Indianapolis.

- The Music Man (1962). Another stage musical adapted to film. Almost everyone in Indiana knows the song “Gary, Indiana” from this musical. In the movie, Robert Preston delivers the song with apparent great fondness for the town of Gary, but I can’t help wondering if the song is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Every person I’ve ever met from Gary likes to pretend they’re from Chicago instead.

- McClintock! (1963). In this John Wayne comedy western, the character Devlin Warren (played by Wayne’s son, Patrick) talks about attending Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana.

- Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). In this comedy western, character actor Jack Elam has the following exchange with James Garner:
Elam: I was raised up in Indiana!
Garner: Well, that could be either good ... or bad.

- Greaser’s Palace (1972). This surrealistic film, written and directed by Robert Downey, Sr., almost defies description. On his way to Jerusalem to be a star, a zoot-suited Jesus Christ parachutes into the Old West and becomes a song-and-dance man at Greaser's Palace. The Indiana reference comes from a ridiculously long name recited by Allan Arbus’ character, Jessy: “Bingo-Gas-Station-Motel-Cheeseburger-With-A-Side-Of-Aircraft-Noise-And-You'll-Be-Gary-Indiana.”

- Breaking Away (1980). Funny, charming, and clever movie (okay, so I’m biased) about the annual Little 500 bicycle race, held at Indiana University’s main campus in Bloomington, Indiana. In fact, the movie was actually filmed in Bloomington and surrounding areas. The characters spend a lot of their energy making a big deal out of the students versus the “Cutters” – a nickname for the Bloomington locals. I must admit that I spent four years at IU’s main campus, and I never once heard anyone refer to the locals as “Cutters.”

- The Indiana Jones films: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). About the only thing Harrison Ford’s classic adventure hero has in common with the state of Indiana is his name. Apparently, Indiana was also the name of Jones’ dog (and, rumor has it, George Lucas’ dog). Why anyone would name their dog or themselves “Indiana” is beyond me. I suppose it sounds better than “Idaho Jones” or “New Hampshire Jones.”

- A Christmas Story (1983). This classic holiday comedy was written and narrated by Jean Shepherd, who was raised in Hammond, Indiana. The movie’s setting is Hohman, Indiana, which is a fictional town based on Hammond. Griffith, Indiana, which is a real town, is also mentioned in the film.

- Hoosiers (1986). Hoosiers love basketball, oh yes we do – as long as it’s high school or college basketball. If you want an idea of why we love basketball so much, watch this classic film starring Gene Hackman. You don’t necessarily have to like basketball, or Indiana, or even Gene Hackman to enjoy it, but it is arguably one of the best sports movies ever made.

- Sleepwalkers (1992). Based on a story by Stephen King, Sleepwalkers is a horror movie about a half-human, half-cat race of shape shifters a la Cat People. Actors Brian Krause and Alice Krige portray Sleepwalkers who must survive by (cue spooky music) feeding off the life forces of female virgins in Travis, Indiana. I guess there just weren’t enough virgins in Poseyville or Fort Branch.

- Cats Don’t Dance (1997). This animated feature is about a small-town cat, Danny, who heads out to Hollywood to become a song-and-dance star. Where’s the “small town” that Danny is from? Yep, you guessed it -- Indiana. Kokomo, Indiana, to be exact:
Darla Dimple (singing): I've seen 'em come and I've seen 'em go/There's one thing that I know/You gotta give the people what they want/Or you'll wind up back in Kokomo, Nebraska.
Danny: Uh, Indiana, Ms. Dimple.
Darla Dimple: Whatever.
Trouble is, anyone who thinks Kokomo is a small town hasn’t seen New Pekin, Indiana.

- Forget Paris (1995). Some people might argue that the heyday of the National Basketball Association (NBA) was during the mid-1990s, when the sport was dominated by not only Michael Jordan but a huge “cast” of basketball stars who brought many teams to heights of greatness and popularity. In this comedy, Billy Crystal plays an NBA referee who flies to Paris to bury his father, but becomes detained when his father's casket is missing upon arrival. The movie is filled with scenes of classic NBA stars playing themselves. Included is a scene showing Indiana Pacers then-point guard Reggie Miller during a game highlight. In fact, part of the film was shot in Market Square Arena, in downtown Indianapolis. Sadly, Market Square Arena no longer exists.

- In & Out (1997). In this comedy, Kevin Kline’s character, Howard Beckett, is from Greenleaf, Indiana. Well, we have plenty of green leaves in Indiana, but there’s no Greenleaf. What, Greencastle, Greenville, and Greenwood weren’t good enough? Incidentally, actor Kevin Kline really does have an Indiana connection. He graduated from Indiana University in 1970.

- Friends and Family (2001). Greg Lauren and Christopher Garten play a hip Manhattan gay couple trying to hide the fact that they’re mafia hitmen. Things get complicated when the parents of one of them drop in for a visit from Indiana (“We’re not in Indiana anymore”) -- and the dad also happens to be an FBI agent.

- Kinsey (2004). Why does it always seem to surprise people that Alfred Kinsey, the controversial American sexologist, did his work at Indiana University, in Bloomington? That’s where the Kinsey Institute is located, after all. Since the movie is all about Kinsey, it’s set (of course) in Bloomington, Indiana. However, I don’t think any footage was actually shot in Bloomington. Certainly none of the exteriors look like any part of Bloomington.

- Mean Girls (2004). Lindsay Lohan plays a high school girl who works hard to be accepted by a clique known as The Plastics. Things get ugly, though, when she falls for the ex-boyfriend of one of the clique members. The Indiana reference comes during a rant by Rachel McAdams’ character, Regina: “So then in eighth grade, I started going out with my first boyfriend, Kyle, who was totally gorgeous, but then he moved to Indiana, and Janis was, like, weirdly jealous of him.”

- Ray (2004). It’s not one of Indiana’s prouder film moments, but the movie Ray portrays an incident in which Ray Charles is arrested for drug possession following a performance in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis police in the scene lie their way into Ray’s hotel room (“Western Union”) and then make racist comments about “jungle music.” At least the Indianapolis audience is shown really appreciating Ray’s concert.

- Somewhere in Indiana (2004). This low-budget film is a clever account of a fictional actor based on legendary Indiana actor James Dean. The movie tells the story of two men traveling to Fairview [Fairmount], Indiana, home of actor Eddie Ray [James Dean], who died in 1957 in a motorcycle [car] accident. (In his brief career, Eddie Ray apparently starred in three movies: The Very Tall Texan [Giant], Southwest of Paradise [East of Eden], and Rebel Without a Reason [Rebel Without a Cause].) On the way to Fairview, our two heroes encounter a suspiciously familiar stranger ...

- Madison (2005). Yes, Hoosiers love basketball and auto racing, but many Hoosiers also love boat racing. Boat racing? In a notoriously landlocked state, there’s boat racing? Yes, there certainly is, especially in the southern Indiana towns bordering the Ohio River. It’s a fantastic sport that has to been seen to be believed, and this movie about the annual Madison Regatta (set in Madison, Indiana) is a good way to do so. Go see a live race, too, if you ever get a chance. It’s worth it just to hear the locals yell, “Oooooooh, ROOSTER TAIL!”

Random thoughts about comic books, June 21, 2007

I know, I know ... I’m far from the only comic book reader to ever think these types of things, but sometimes it pays to exorcise them from the ol’ system:

- I can’t look at Batman or Superman anymore without thinking, “No capes!” Darn Brad Bird and The Incredibles.

- Speaking of The Incredibles, it would be funny to discover that Pixar and DC/Warners have been embroiled in a lawsuit over the name “Elasti-Girl/Elastigirl.” Kinda like “Captain Marvel/Captain Mar-Vell.”

- I used to love ElfQuest. I miss ElfQuest. Did Wendy and Richard Pini “jump the shark” when they started letting other artists and writers mess with the elves and trolls?

- Jeff Smith’s Bone is always fun to go back and re-read. I’m so glad he had a chance to work his magic on Captain Marvel (Shazam!).

- My patience is a fickle beastie when it comes to comics. I absolutely adore Fables and Y:The Last Man, and yet I’m content to wait for the trade paperback collections to come out, instead of snatching up the individual comics when they roll off the presses. And yet, when a new issue of Green Lantern comes out, I don’t care whether or not it’s going to show up in a book in a mere six months: I want it NOW. I can’t explain it.

- Does Jonah Hex always have to tilt his head to one side in order to drink anything? He’s probably better off with a straw – though drinking whisky that way does look a bit silly.

- Super-hero deaths have become downright yawn-worthy. When Captain America died recently, I pretty much greeted the whole thing with a disinterested shrug. The guys at the local comic store were upset with me for not caring ("Where's the love, sweetheart?!"). Problem is, so many superheroes have died and come back to life now that I'm admittedly jaded about the whole thing. The shock value is long gone, baby.

- Whether or not a super-hero comes back to life seems to depend on a sort of “Tinker Bell” factor. For example, when a super-hero like Captain America dies, whether or not he comes back is seemingly determined by how much the fans clap their hands and yell, "I DO believe in Captain America, I DO believe in Captain America, I do, I do, I DO!"

- Is there a new law in the DC Universe that states there can only be two Flashes (Jay Garrick and whoever else) living on Earth at the same time?

- How does Jay Garrick keep his hat on? I’m sure it’s been explained, but I have yet to hear a plausible explanation.

- I recently picked up the Marvel Essentials collection of the Silver Surfer, and I couldn’t believe how whiney the character was. Surfer was one of my favorite Marvel characters when I was a kid, but I didn’t remember him being so whiney in those old stories. Maybe the Surfer is better suited to low doses rather than a huge 528-page tome.

- It’s been said many times that Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern, has by far the gaudiest costume in super-hero history -- but DAMN does he ever wear it well. It also takes a brave man to go out in public dressed like that. And to think Green Lantern Hal Jordan was supposedly the man “born without fear.”

- Do Daredevil/Matt Murdock and Green Lantern/Hal Jordan ever get together and argue about who’s more fearless?

- One of my favorite comics these days is Darwyn Cooke’s version of The Spirit. Yes, yes, I know – Cooke isn’t Will Eisner. But darned if Cooke’s interpretation isn’t one of the most entertaining comics out there right now.

- Spider-Girl is almost ALWAYS sold out at the local comic store. Locally, at least, she’s selling better than Spider-Man!

- Ivan Reis is my absolute favorite Green Lantern artist since Neal Adams. I like Ethan Van Sciver, too, but sometimes he’s a little too “horror movie” for me. Reis’s stuff is always gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

- The X-men used to be my favorite super-hero team. I picked up a recent X-men comic, and to my dismay I found it boring. The characters just seem so lackluster now, compared to how they were in the Cockrum/Byrne/Claremont days. Oh, well. I’ll keep trying.

- The Legion of Super-Heroes seem to be all over the DC Universe these days. I know there’s a popular cartoon based on them now, but – sheesh! When I was a kid, I didn’t think the Legionnaires were all that interesting. I still don’t find them interesting, sad to say. I think part of the problem is that there’s too darned many of them. That, and they always come across as insufferably snobbish toward other heroes – even toward Superman. I can’t stand that, or them. Sorry, DC.

- Okay, there’s one exception to my dislike of the Legion of Super-Heroes. I LOVE – absolutely LOVE – Starboy/Thom Kallor reinvented as Starman for the Justice Society of America. My god, what an incredibly funny and touching character. Kudos to Geoff Johns for writing Thom the way he does.

- Would someone please do another Human Target mini-series? Please? Pretty please?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hard-Traveling Heroes

For anyone not familiar with them, the artwork shown here depicts what are fondly known to many comic book readers as the Hard-Traveling Heroes: Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow (left); Dinah Lance, the Black Canary (center), and Hal Jordan, Green Lantern (right). This drawing is by Mike Grell, who illustrated the Green Lantern-Green Arrow comic book series in the mid-1970s, when I first became acquainted with these characters. The framed original is hanging in my house, in a place where I see it every day, a reminder of childhood heroes.

I call them my “childhood heroes,” but that’s a lie, really. They’re my lifelong heroes. They remain my heroes despite the fact that I am now in my 40s, and despite the fact that society generally frowns upon grown women (let alone professional book editors) reading super-hero comic books. I still adore this trio of heroes and read about them whenever I can. In fact, I still read a lot of comic books in general. I guess old habits die hard, but there’s really more to it than that.

Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary weren’t my introduction to super-heroes. That honor belongs to Batman – or rather, Batman and Robin. The 1960s camp classic Batman program, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, was in full swing on TV when I was a very young child, and I became completely hooked on it (and, to a lesser extent, on Green Hornet, starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee). I was much too young at the time to recognize the camp elements of the Batman TV show. In fact, I took it dead seriously, thinking nothing was as thrilling as watching Batman and Robin trying to defeat the bad guys every week.

That super-heroes originated in comic book form wasn't known to me until later. Mind you, I’d always had access to comic books. Every time the family went on a road trip (which was VERY often), Dad bought me a stack of comic books to read while we were all stuck in the car. Most of these comic books were of the “funny animal” variety: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Casper the Friendly Ghost, etc. (Road Runner was a particular favorite, though I was always confused by the fact that the comic book Road Runner talked and had a family, whereas the animated cartoon version never said anything more than "Beep" or "Meep" and appeared happily single.) Dad never bought me comic books aimed primarily at girls, like the Archie comics or Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane. Nope, Dad was (and still is) a big kid, so he bought me comics that he also wanted to read on the road. No girly stuff allowed! Perhaps that was a bit selfish on his part, but I don’t regret it for an instant, as I’ll explain.

During one road trip, one comic that emerged from Dad’s traditional stack was a copy of Russ Manning’s Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. This was no funny animal comic. I’d never seen anything like it – realistic-looking human beings doing fantastic things in fantastic science-fiction settings. Sure, I’d seen plenty of science fiction TV shows and movies, but having that type of story available to me in drawings was an entirely different experience. The drawings didn’t show any of the limitations imposed on the live actors of TV shows and movies. Not only that, the drawings felt more personal somehow. Though artists and writers had given the characters forms and words, they still managed to move and speak how I wanted them to, in my imagination.

From then on, funny animal comics lost their appeal. I had discovered Magnus Robot Fighter. On another road trip, Dad then showed me, much to my delight, that Batman lived in comic books, in stories and settings much richer, more frightening, and more fascinating than anything I’d seen on TV. This comic book Batman seemed much more real to me, and much more heroic, than his TV counterpart. My excitement encouraged me to explore comic books a little more, to see what other super-heroes were out there. Dad happily indulged my curiosity, and thanks to him my comic book collection grew. I still have many of the comics he bought and read with me on the road.

Batman was my first love, but Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary became my favorites -- especially Green Lantern. While growing up, I read many super-hero comics from both main publishers (DC and Marvel), and for a time I was a huge fan of the X-men. Somehow, though, I always came back to the Hard-Traveling Heroes. I’m not really sure why.

Is it a coincidence that, like Batman, the Hard-Traveling Heroes were really just regular human beings? Sure, Green Lantern had a ring that allowed him to do just about anything he could imagine, but without it he was just a man – though an incredibly brave and resourceful man. Green Arrow had no powers to speak of, but like Batman, he was a hero because he worked hard to be one. Black Canary had a super-power that seemed to come and go over time –- a sonic scream. Really, though, for the most part, she was like Green Arrow and Batman: she was who she was because she worked hard to be that way. The details aside, though, all of these heroes represented potentials that regular people could strive for.

I think growing up with these particular heroes inspired me to adopt certain attitudes that otherwise might have escaped me. I learned, for example, that when I can help someone, I should. I learned that some risks are worth taking. I learned that many things in life are bigger than me and more important than me, but I can still work hard to make life better for everyone. I learned that mistakes, rejection, and “bad things” happen to everyone, and that it’s best to learn from them and forge ahead without complaining. I learned that the unknown should be approached with excitement rather than fear. I learned that fear shouldn’t stop me from doing what’s right. And I learned that friends can remain friends by agreeing to disagree.

Of course, though they were depicted more realistically than most comic book characters, I knew the Hard-Traveling Heroes weren’t real. Real heroes were the people who worked hard every day to keep us safe and to teach and enlighten us and our children. Super-heroes, for the most part, were guilty pleasures in the face of real heroics. However, super-heroes -- just like any great fictional characters -- also represented possibilities and ideals that people could strive for. I don’t mean the ideals represented by super powers, but by what was done with those powers.

Today, I think super-heroes help many of us believe that everyone has the potential to go out and become a real hero, that we all have the ability to be heroic when situations call for it. They inspire us to be brave and to look out for other people. I’m personally very grateful to the people who worked hard (and continue to work hard) to create super-hero literature. I’m also grateful to my dad for introducing me to this marvelous fictional world during our many road trips together -- his way, perhaps, of teaching me things that he could never explain on his own. Thanks, Dad. You're my own hard-traveling hero.

What would you do for a tank of gasoline?

Recently, my brother George (who is in his late 30s and single) and one of his co-workers, a girl named Georgette, were putting in some overtime in the print shop, and Georgette was listening to a local radio program -- dunno which one. Well, apparently, the topic of the radio program was something along the lines of, "What would you be willing to trade for what?"

George, jokingly, said, "At this point, I'd trade myself for a tank of gas."

Georgette thought George's comment was hilarious, and she called the radio station -- and got through, and got on the air. She told the DJs, "Hey, I'll trade my friend for a tank of gas!"

The DJs said, "Isn't that illegal?"

Georgette said, "He said he's willing!"

DJs: "Really? Put him on the phone!"

So, George got on the phone, and over the air, the DJs got him to confess that, yes, he would be willing to trade himself for a tank of gas. They also talked him into broadcasting his cell phone number, so anyone interested in taking him up on the offer could call. The DJs did warn George that he'd probably get phone calls from a buncha weirdoes. However, George's cell number is unlisted, he uses a generic answering message, and he always screens his calls, anyway, so he didn't care.

Later in the day, George received two phone messages: one completely incoherent, and one from a very nice-sounding woman who said, "I'm really sorry about calling you, but my friend said if I didn't do it, she would call for me. So, I'm bothering you to keep her out of the equation and to spare myself more embarrassment." The woman in question was 32 years old, single, and owned her own real-estate company.

George was impressed that she was brave enough to call him, so he called her back, and they exchanged cell phone photos. Apparently, the woman was divorced and confessed that she had four kids, ages 3 to 12. George said he could tell from her voice that she expected him to hang up right then and there once she told him she had four kids. Instead, George suggested that they meet somewhere for dinner, his treat – the whole family. The dinner went well, and all had a good time, though George and the woman agreed to remain just friends.

According to George, the woman had red hair and all four kids were also redheads, just like the Weasley family from the Harry Potter stories. He said, jokingly, "I found my very own Weasley family."

Oh, and Georgette never did get her tank of gas.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Adventures of Bird Woman

If I was a super-hero, I would be called Bird Woman - at least based on what happened Saturday.

First, I awoke to loud and frantic bird noises coming from my chimney. I thought initially that the noises were coming from the fireplace flue itself. I sincerely hoped the chirping was from a chimney swift nest so I could leave the birds alone and not worry about them, since that is a chimney swift's "natural habitat," such as it is. However, close scrutiny through the open damper showed nothing -- no nest, no bird, just a sooty chimney. Plus, oddly enough, the bird chirps were louder in the utility room, the location of the furnace. It almost sounded like there was a bird in the furnace. Either that, or my furnace had developed a sudden talent for emitting bird calls.

My fireplace and chimney are quite large, and the chimney actually has three flue segments, the middle segment being that to the fireplace. The top of the fireplace segment is screened off, so I didn't see how a critter could possibly get in there, chimney swift or otherwise. So, I climbed up on the roof to see what was going on. Not any easy task for a person who's afraid of heights, lemme tell ya. Thank goodness my house has only one story.

Oddly enough, before climbing up, I saw two adult robins hanging around the rooftop and hopping around the chimney. I then had a sinking feeling that the robins had something to do with the sounds in the chimney. Sure enough, down the terra-cotta chimney segment that allows the gas furnace and water heater to vent, there was a young robin. It didn't look hurt -- it just sat there and looked up at me (actually, it glared up at me), and stopped chirping. Poor thing was obviously just old enough to be learning how to fly. It had probably fallen down the gas flue during a trial flight. Talk about a lousy way to end a flying lesson.

The flue was too long to send anything down to fish out the bird. It looked like the only way to get the poor thing out of the flue was to disconnect the furnace from the chimney. NOT something I'm qualified to do.

I called various animal rescue services, with no luck. It's June, and all of the services are booked solid by people complaining about raccoons shacking up in house attics, or opossums taking over garages, or coyotes hassling neighborhood cats. No one had time to rescue a baby bird trapped in a gas flue.

I knew enough about birds to know that Peep (I took to calling the baby robin Peep) could survive quite a while without food and water. However, I also knew that being exposed to gas fumes (though the furnace wasn't on and I was being careful not to run hot water) couldn't be good for poor Peep.

Finally, I called my regular furnace guy, who promised to come out and disconnect the furnace from the wall so I could reach my hand up the exhaust pipe and grab Peep. I know some people are scared of birds (which I don't understand, for the life of me), but really, to me, grabbing and holding a small bird is not a big deal. You just gotta grab em' around the body in such a way that (A) they're facing away from you, and (B) their legs and wings remain free, so they can flap, kick, scratch, and peck all they want without hurting themselves or you. I had enough pet birds growing up that, now, grabbing a bird this way is really second nature to me.

Anyhoo, the weirdest thing then happened. After calling Furnace Man, I went back into the utility room and said, "Hang on, Peep! Furnace Man will be here soon to rescue you."

Well, maybe Peep got a brilliant idea from hearing the location of my voice, or maybe Peep just wasn't keen on meeting Furnace Man. Whatever the case, I suddenly heard loud scrambling, scratching, and thumping coming from the furnace. Then, from out of an entry panel came a baby robin, tumbling and fluttering. It landed very unceremoniously on the floor, picked itself up, looked up at me, and said, "CHEEP!"

I was ecstatic. I yelled, "Peep! You figured a way out! You smart little birdy, you!"

I reached out and grabbed Peep (upon which Peep uttered a noise that sounded suspiciously like, "HELP-I'm-being-attacked-by-a-crazy-woman!"), and carried the little birdy outside. I swear, the adult robins that I'd seen hanging around the chimney must have known what was going on, because the minute I put Peep on the ground (Peep appeared to be perfectly fine, by the way), the adults immediately swooped down and started feeding Peep -- in that gross way that adult birds feed baby birds. Peep then fluttered off, none the worse for the adventure. I called Furnace Guy back to let him know all was well and he didn't have to come out after all. Furnace Guy seemed to think the whole thing was pretty funny.

So, that was my morning. Then came the afternoon.

George, a good friend of mine and my husband's, came over that afternoon to use the garage to change some spark plug wires. Why he needed our garage to accomplish this task, I'll never know, but afterward we decided to take the car for a test drive.

While driving down a four-lane road, we spotted a family of mallard ducks in trouble. The mother, in true Make Way for Ducklings style, had obviously marched her brood of eight ducklings across the road for greener pastures (and, remarkably, without getting run over). However, the poor ducklings were still so small that they couldn't get up and over the curb. They were effectively trapped in the street, frantically hopping and climbing over one another, trying to reach Mom Duck standing on the curb above them and looking completely at a loss. Cars were zooming by, and it looked like the poor little ducklings were doomed to be stuck there and eventually run over.

I like all birds, but ducks are my favorite, and I couldn't stand seeing the poor little things in danger. So, once we were past the ducks, I had George pull the car over. I had never done anything like this in my life, but I knew I could help the ducklings. I walked down the road back to where the ducks were. I came up behind them so if they were scared, they'd try to run toward the curb rather than toward traffic. Then, without thinking, I started grabbing ducklings and putting them up on the curb.

The ducklings felt entirely different from Peep. Peep had been a nice, solid baby bird, but the little duckies seemed to consist only of fuzz. Very wiggly fuzz. It was almost like grabbing nothing.

I managed to grab all eight ducklings, one in each hand, in only four tries. All eight of them were soon over the curb and shooed over to Mom Duck. Mom Duck just stood there the whole time without protest, as if she knew I was helping. Actually, from her demeanor, she almost seemed to be thinking, "Why didn't you get here sooner? Stupid human."

Meanwhile, the cars on the road behind me had ALL stopped, and everyone was watching what I was doing. There was no honking, though, and no yells -- no noises at all, in fact. The people just seemed content to sit there and watch a crazy woman help duckies. Better than TV, I suppose. I sincerely hope no one was taking video.

When I was done, Mom Duck herded the babies together, and the whole family went on its merry way without looking back. The cars on the road started driving again, and I headed back to where George's car was parked.

"That is by far the most nurturing thing I've ever seen you do," George said. "I can't tell you how disturbing that is." Gosh, thanks, George.

All I know is I don't wanna see any more birds for a long time. Rescuing nine baby birds in one day is quite enough for me, thanks.

Funny thing is, I'd always wanted to hold a baby duck. I just wish the circumstances had been more pleasant!