Category Archives: Notes from the Southwest Corner

Notes from the Southwest Corner – 5

This is later than Thursday, my intended schedule, because we are on our Texas sojourn. The first part of the sojourn was a return to a past home of mine. Earlier, i have posted the introduction to that return. Now Maureen and i are savoring our time with Blythe, Jason, and of course Sam. So parts of this Democrat column written over 15 years ago is timely. Of course, seeing my family is a wonderful time. Yet it is eclipsed when i look at Sam and remember — with my usual technology acumen, i cannot find the photo i meant to include here. i will add later…when i find that photo.

Closure on the San Diego Fires

SAN DIEGO, CA –Thanksgiving will be special out here. Our six-month old grandson Sam is coming. I expect him to captivate the natives here pretty much the same way he captured the folks back in Tennessee in August.

His August trip celebrated his great grandmother’s birthday as well as his first visit to his ancestral home. This will be his inaugural visit to the Southwest corner.

Out here, I normally smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition which began with Sam’s Texas great grandfather many years ago. The fire in the smoker will be the first we’ve lit of any kind since the cataclysmic fires a month ago. It has seemed disrespectful to the people who lost 1300 or so homes.

The smoker fire and the Thanksgiving celebration will be a symbolic closure to the tragedy. But the stories of the fires will burn a long time.

After a month, recollections of those fiery days return when the marine layer has brought mist and dew to our neighborhood. When I walk the dog in the early morning, I can smell the acrid aroma of the fire. That smell is something I will not forget.

Since the fires, the news has focused on praise for firefighters, heroism, survival, and neighbors supporting each other.

Now, the drama is picking up.

Early on, news reports indicated the Witch Creek and Rice Canyon fires started from high power electricity lines. These two fires were the most destructive, burning more than 200,000 acres and destroying 1131 homes.

The origin was high winds pushing power lines together, creating severe arcing and igniting the un-cleared brush underneath. Last week, lawsuits were filed against the power utility, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E).

Finger pointing has begun. County, city, and SDG&E officials are blaming each other for not clearing the brush and trees around the power lines.

Yet the ability to not only survive but to recover and flourish is still the biggest discussion around here.

Several families lost their homes in 2003 and again in the October infernos. Their resiliency is incredible. One elderly couple twice struck is considering building their third home underneath the ground, but they are adamant about staying on their property.

Many stories of heroism and support have filled our senses for a month.

One couple in Rancho Bernardo spent the night in the center of their swimming pool as the fires raged around them and destroyed their home.

Another family built their dream home in the back regions of Poway, a community ravaged by the Witch Creek fire. The father had installed cisterns and pumps for such a crisis. Several weeks before the fire, a fire chief told him one of the safest actions would be to stay inside the house. The chief explained wild fires driven by high winds would blow past the house; homes usually ignited and burned from embers and small brush fires after the inferno had blown past.

Then, the family of three and a young worker were caught by surprise. The pumps failed. Remembering the admonition, they gathered in the house. The fire passed. They described the noise as sounding like a fast freight train, similar to many descriptions of a hurricane. The heat was intense. But the inferno blew past. When they emerged, they put out several smoldering spots on the roof and doused several small shrubbery fires with a garden hose.

Across the county, charred landscape dominates the views.

The high desert chaparral will rebound quickly. Although evidence of the fires will remain for some time, winter growth will bring green to the hillsides and next spring, it will be hard to find the fire lines.

Replacing the houses will take several years. Some people who lost residences in the 2003 fire have still not completely rebuilt. Of course, some homes will never be replaced.

One good story has been generosity. Supplies provided by other residents more than met the demand from the half-million evacuated. The San Diego Red Cross has asked for donations to be given to other charities. Their coffers are full. People do care and have shown it.

So out here in the Southwest corner, we will smoke our turkey, salute the brave, and be thankful so few homes were lost. We will give thanks for a new beginning.

That makes it even more special to have a new grandson out here for the celebration.

Notes from the Southwest Corner-4

This post is a day late. This old man forgot Dirty Harry’s admonition, “A man’s gotta know his limits.” i spent the weekend lugging boxes down from the garage attic and then moving them about several more times, followed by a day of golf and and a major stretching session. Such going-ons are not recommended for folks my age. By Wednesday night, i could barely walk. But the doc did wonders. i am now almost back to old man good health.

The Demodrat column below is timely. Next Tuesday, i will lunch with Dave Carey in Georgetown, Texas before i present my book, Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings to the Texas A&M NROTC unit the following day. Dave remains an incredible friend, mentor, and inspiration. Did i mention hero? It also follows my post about Dave earlier this week.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – This past Monday, I left the cleanup from the San Diego fires and flew to Lake Tahoe, Nevada. It was not an escape. It was work. I was co-facilitating a team building workshop for a California police department with my friend, Dave Carey.

Dave is not your ordinary business associate. On August 31, 1967, Dave Carey’s A-4 was shot out from under him over North Vietnam. He spent five and a half years as a Prisoner of War (POW), most of the time in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

Dave and I met in 1985 at the Naval Amphibious School in Coronado. We worked together for just shy of a year as I transitioned into Dave’s position as the head of leadership training for the West Coast and Pacific Rim. Together, we help create a two-day workshop on leadership excellence for senior Navy officers.

Dave retired. Four years later in 1989, I followed suit. After my initial dive into my new job as Mister Mom, I soon started to look for ways to generate income in the quiet hours.

After some discussion, Dave and I agreed I would write a book about his POW experience, or more accurately, about his motivational speeches concerning his experience. After completing the draft, we decided it really should be written in first person. The original draft is on my office bookshelf.

Eight years later, Dave holed up for three weeks and completed The Ways We Choose: Lessons For Life From a POW’s Experience.

Part of my approach to writing was generated from conversations with Dave. He and I were driving to another workshop about fifteen years ago when I asked him about what outcome did he expect the audience to have when he gave a speech.

Dave said he had expectations initially, but discovered his listeners made their own connections. Early on, Dave had completed a luncheon speech when a huge Texan came up to him, put his big arm around Dave’s shoulder and drawled, “Can I talk with you? Dave? I understood every word you said today. The fact of the matter is, in this life, we are all going to get shot down, and some of us more than once.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve managed to get shot down several times. Dave’s book and his ideas have been significant guides to me as I have wandered through living. The book not only applies to San Diego, Lake Tahoe, and Middle Tennessee; it worked in the Hanoi over 40 years ago.

Dave’s book revolves around a question he is most frequently asked, which is, “How did you do that? How did you and the other POW’s get through that?” He maintains they did that in a similar way to how we get through our daily process of life and work.

Dave’s assessment of how he and his fellow POW’s made it through boils down to five factors:

  • We did what we had to do
  • We did our best
  • We chose to grow
  • We kept our sense of humor
  • We kept the faith
    • In ourselves
    • In each other
    • In our country
    • In God.

His anecdotes relating to those factors are humorous, inspiring, and thought provoking. I have had the wonderful opportunity to discuss these things in depth with Dave.

So I check myself against his factors almost daily. They have even become part of the value statements for my consulting group.

I will not ruin the book by parroting it here. However, I am particularly fond of Dave’s pointing out how the POW’s trusted each one of them would do the best they could, would resist the severe interrogations to their limit; recognizing each of them had their own limit levels.

I now try to consider folks I work with are doing the best they can do. This puts a whole different shape to the way I work with these people. Fewer rocks are thrown; fewer lines are drawn in the sand; fewer chips are put on shoulders.

I would encourage everyone to read’s Dave’s book. Your connections should be yours, not mine, not Dave’s. I know folks in Middle Tennessee also get shot down every once in a while.

Note: Dave’s book can be obtained on-line through the, Borders, and Barnes and Noble; web sites, and Dave’s website, You may also be able to order it from a Borders or Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Notes from the Southwest Corner, 3: Remembering Fred Russell, courtesy of JB Leftwich

This was column #3 for The Lebanon Democrat. It is a repeat from when i posted it here a bunch of years ago.

SAN DIEGO – To be honest, it is difficult to write this column.

My inclination is to write yet another tribute to JB Leftwich, whose funeral services were last Saturday. But there have been many tributes, including several of my own, and JB would frown on excessive editorializing.

I will honor what I believe to be his wishes and move on with my recollections of my early days in journalism at The Nashville Banner, which happened primarily from JB being in the background.

JB often wrote for The Tennessean and occasionally covered some local sports for The Banner.  In the late summer of 1964, after I mucked up my pursuit of a college degree, JB, in conspiracy with my mother and father, used his influence to land me the position of cub sports reporter and office boy for Fred Russell at The Banner.

I worked at The Banner for ten months, ten of the most wonderful months of my life.  When I resumed pursuing my college degree at Middle Tennessee, I continued to be a sports and Wilson County news correspondent until I graduated.

I hobnobbed with George Leonard and Dudley “Waxo” Green, the two senior sportswriters. I arrived at the Banner offices, co-located with The Tennessean, long before daybreak, with Bill Roberts, the sports managing editor.

Roberts was a bantam rooster, chain smoking, no nonsense, hot type prototype of a managing editor, old style. I don’t recall ever seeing him without his necktie loosened and his sleeves rolled up. He would direct me in collecting the wire stories, writing headlines, editing under pressure, and even taking me out to the press room and assisting in making up the pages in the pre-computer days: galleys of lead into metal frames, which would eventually become the printed word. If an actor ever played Bill Roberts in a movie, it should have been Peter Falk.

JB was my teacher in the basics of good journalism. Bill was my tutor in the gut process of getting a sports section into a newspaper.

George Leonard was a quiet gentleman with a desk in the back corner of the sports department. He covered Tennessee Volunteer football among other assignments. His writing was perceptive, precise, and on target. George and I shared a lasting love of Orange jerseys (no obeisance to white at home and color jerseys away back then), high tops, single wing offense, General Neyland, Bowden Wyatt, Johnny Majors, the Canale brothers, and the quick kick.

Waxo Green never drove a car. He played golf and had many wonderful stories of the golfing world. Waxo reported on all Vanderbilt sports with enthusiasm.  He was bald, told jokes with a raspy voice, laughed loudly all of the time, and like the others, took me under his wing. He loved Vanderbilt basketball. I am sure there was a bar frequented by reporters near the Banner-Tennessean building. I wish I had gone there with Waxo.

Mike Fleming was a solid reporter who covered a variety of college and high school sports. He was younger than the rest of the staff, and he and I became close. 

Then there was Russell. Fred was erudite and Southern classy in his dress. He knew all of the sports figures nationally, and all of the Nashville people of influence. He brought me into his practical jokes, and occasionally let me drive his old Mercedes sedan.

(photo below is of Fred Russell and Grantland Rice, 1951; i cannot get it to align with the text or the caption: i remain technologically challenged)

He was kind and perceptive. In the winter of 1965, he introduced me to Bear Bryant, visiting the office before the Banner’s football awards banquet. Bear put his big hand on my shoulder, walked me to a corner and talked to me for almost an hour.

Fred wrote me a letter when he was 95, a year before he passed away (2003). In a shaky scrawl, he spoke of the closing of The Banner with sadness.

I too am sad at the demise of afternoon dailies. I also miss my two journalism heroes. As with many things, I recognize necessary changes brought about by technological advances and changing lifestyles but wish we would retain the good parts of the past while advancing. That does not occur often enough. 

And i wish people like JB Leftwich and Fred Russell would provide the same kind of guidance for the current and future journalists.

They were the best.

SW Corner, column 2: Finalities

This column, my second weekly for The Lebanon Democrat, published October 22, 2007, was not what was planned. Perhaps my thoughts, not from the events surrounding the column, i.e. the wildfires, are as appropriate today.

SAN DIEGO, CA – This second weekly column has been tough to write.

In a rare exception from my usual pell-mell, last minute throw-it-together mode of operation, I followed the tenets of making any worthy task a success. I determined the desired outcome as I started; I outlined the important steps and created a timeline for completing those steps; I gathered notes and resources and researched needed missing pieces.

Then came the fires.

I tried to stick to my plan and to my regimen. The fire had a different plan, however. It preoccupied my every sense for three days, even though I only briefly felt true concern for my family or my home. Even if I could have eliminated the overbearing presence from heat, smell, smoke, ash, news reports, incoming phone calls checking on us, or outgoing ones checking on others, the fires pervaded every sensible thought I tried to have on other topics.

This is my sixth start on this column. I wanted to write about connections and memories and good stuff. I am compelled to write about the fires.

The devastation and the impact here is mind boggling. Fortunately, the only thing to keep this past week in Southern California from being worse than Katrina is the number of deaths. Only seven deaths have been reported so far.

The fires desolated over 750 square miles. More than half a million people were evacuated. In San Diego alone, over 1400 homes were destroyed. On a local news program, it was revealed we were literally seconds away from cutting power to large numbers of residents during the middle of the crisis.

Returning from our evacuation, we must sort what we packed willy-nilly and place them back from whence they came. We must clean ash on and in the home without the benefit of water, blowers, or vacuums (from a call to conserve water and energy). The fires have put us behind in our usual tasks and added significantly to the list.

As I started on those five other columns, I attempted to escape the fires. Early this morning, I realized I needed some closure.

Of all of the horrible statistics of devastation and costs and of all of the reports of bravery, kindness, futility, anger, meanness, selfishness, and the other aspects of human nature, I have been most intrigued with a whole bunch of people, including me, dealing with finality.

Many people dealt with the prospect of finality in many different ways.

There’s an old adage about living every day as if it were going to be your last. Yet most of the three million people in San Diego County refused to believe it was their last day.

Many ignored the evacuation orders and stayed behind. Some decided they did not trust the government to do its job. Some thought their presence would protect their homes. Some refused to leave their pets and livestock. Some valued their possessions more than life itself.

Learning from the 2003 fires, the ordered evacuations were more successful this time. One of the reasons was most of the evacuation centers in 2003 did not allow pets. With no where to go without their pets, people refused to evacuate. This time, the evacuation centers allowed pets as much as possible and had pet care built into the evacuation plans.

Of the half million who chose to put more days between them and finality, there were also many diverse reasons for doing so, and many different ways of going about it.

Some panicked and simply left seeking shelter somewhere. Some had planned thoroughly beforehand and methodically carried their plan out. Some like our family had pieces of the plan in place and tried to stay ahead of the curve, tried to make wise choices based on the information at hand and assessing the risks and benefits.

I experienced dealing with finality as I chose what to take and not take with us on our departure. It put some different priorities on what is important when we returned home.

I suspect the thoughts of finality will fade quickly for those who escaped home loss like us. We are already re-prioritizing without consideration of this possibly being our final day.

Most of us who have gone through this twice take a little bit more learning away this time. Finality is closer to home.


Notes from the Southwest Corner: Taking a break

The fires mentioned early in this column published October 22, 2007 were covered in a separate news article i wrote for The Democrat. These fires were the worst we have experienced. We actually left in the middle of the night to stay with friends in Coronado. The escape was more to ease the concerns of my wife and my daughter. We returned home later that day.

i quit going to barbershops about a half-dozen years later when it became evident i didn’t have enough hair to warrant paying a barber to cut it. i now use and electric razor, cut all over very closely, then let whatever else is left grow until it becomes uncomfortable. i miss the barbershop banter.

SAN DIEGO, CA – I need a break.

Often when my wife recognizes I need a break, she sends me back to Middle Tennessee to visit family and friends.

Right now, all three of us need a break. Although we personally escaped from the blazes, we have friends who have lost homes and had their lives altered forever. We are considering taking in one of the newly homeless families until they get their feet on the ground. Our daughter is looking for ways to volunteer to help other evacuees.

The devastation and the impact here is mind boggling. Fortunately, the only thing to keep this past week in Southern California from being worse than Katrina is the number of deaths. The fires desolated over 750 square miles. More than half a million people were evacuated. In San Diego alone, over 1400 homes were destroyed. On a local talk and news radio station today, the chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric revealed we were literally seconds away from cutting power to large numbers of residents during the middle of the crisis.

Yet at this writing, only seven people have died from the fires.

Returning from our own voluntary evacuation, we must sort what we packed willy-nilly and then place them back from whence they came. We must clean up an incredible amount of ash on and in the home, inside and out, without the benefit of water, blowers, or vacuums (this is from a call to conserve water and energy). The fires have put us behind in our usual tasks and added significantly to the list.

My taking a trip back home for a break is not an option.

So, I am taking a break with this column.

I started writing this about a week ago. It was from old notes comparing the Modern Barber Shop and Pop’s Barber Shop of my youth to one I have frequented out here named Alberto’s Barber Shop. While writing, I expanded the idea into some good stories about barber shops.

Today, my break is to indulge in these two stories: your break and mine. I will discuss the barber shops themselves at another time.

The first is a true story which I witnessed in Alberto’s. While I was waiting for a haircut, a man who recently had retired came in. Bob, one of the barbers, stated rather than asked, “Been retired about six months, haven’t you, John.”

John affirmed and Bob followed, “How’s it going at home with you and the little lady?”

John replied, “It’s going great.”

“You and your missus don’t get in each other’s way?” Bob prodded.

John, obviously pleased with himself, turned eloquent, “Nah, she’s very precise and keeps a weekly calendar on the refrigerator.

“On Sunday, I check her calendar. When she is scheduled to be out, I stay at home and work on my projects.

“Then when she is scheduled to be at home, I go play golf.

“It’s working just fine.”

One of my favorite stories has taken on many variations as Polish jokes become Texas Aggie jokes, and so on. My version is about a barber in a small town in Middle Tennessee. A sailor was en route to his new duty station when he stopped for a haircut.

When finished, he asked the barber what he owed. The barber told the sailor it was free because of the service the sailor was giving to the country. The next morning when the barber arrived at his shop, he found a six pack of beer and a note of thanks from the sailor.

About a week later, a Navy Chief Petty Officer came by, also while en route to his new duty station. The chief also received a free haircut. The next morning, the barber found a bottle of Jack Daniels and a thank-you note.

Several weeks later, a Navy lieutenant showed up with the same result. The next morning gift was a bottle of a fine French Bordeaux.

Finally, about a month later, an admiral shows up. After giving another free haircut, the barber was excited about what he would find on his doorstep. The next morning, he hurried to the shop and there on the doorstep were a dozen admirals waiting in line.

My break is over. It is good to laugh, even when things are tough. I hope you enjoyed the break.