Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Michigan Tech University and Houghton, Mich. scoff at our measly snowfall

Michigan Tech's coed dorm in July.

It seems like it’s been snowing non-stop for the last week, which makes for a lot of grumbling, especially since the snow blower will  be in the repair shop for a week.

I did some research after shoveling yesterday and the accumulated snow is two Mets gnomes high! A Mets gnome is just over 10 inches tall, so we’re talking some serious snow action.

That brings us to this week’s bad postcard, which comes from Michigan Tech University, way up in Houghton, Mich.

The back reads” COED RESIDENCE HALL, MICHIGAN TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY, Houghton, Michigan, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

So much to work with here,

First. Houghton is far away. It’s in the furthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula. Residents can practically see the North Pole. Santa quite possibly buys his groceries at the Houghton IGA and reindeer feed at the Houghton Farm and Fleet.  

How far is it? Let’s say a bunch of drivers were leaving Detroit, with one car was headed to Washington, D.C., one to Minneapolis, one to New York and the other to Houghton.

The drivers headed to New York, Minneapolis and Washington would arrive at their destinations before the people headed to Houghton, and that’s not counting built in time for that carload of folks to stop and climb Castle Rock, which they obviously would do.

And snow. Let’s just say the proud people of Houghton would scoff at my lamenting two feet of snow. The average winter snowfall there is 218 inches. That’s 18.1 feet of snow. Or, using our new unit of measurement, 21.2 Mets gnomes!
Snow depth is now measured in Mets gnomes. Houghton averages 20 gnomes worth of snow.
So, back to our rather bland postcard.

This card is firmly planted in the ghost town genre of bad postcards, since there we get a building and no signs of people. I do see two cars, which raises the possibility that there might be at least two people inside. But we can’t see them, so that’s just a guess.

We can see that this photo was taken somewhere between July 4 and July 21, the period known as “rough sledding.”

I see one big problem: rampant hooliganism. Clearly someone has driven on the grass right before the photog arrived.

But here’s the mystery. “Coed” is the outdated term for a female college student. There are girls at Michigan Tech?

This postcard was sent to Louise and Alice in Dearborn Heights in 1969. According to the sometimes accurate Wikipedia, the male to female student ratio was 22 to 1 in 1960. So that means our cars belong to both residents and there was a lot of open rooms.

These days, the ratio isabout 3 to 1, with about 1,800 of the 7,000 students being women.

Some interesting Michigan Tech facts:

It is a world-class engineering school.

It was founded as Michigan Mining School in 1885.

The school’s teams are named the Huskies, and the mascot is Blizzard T. Huskie.

The hockey team has won three national championships, and counts famed goaltender Tony Esposito as an alumni

Winter Carnival is a big deal, and the highlight is a snow statue competition.

Michigan Tech students hold world records: the largest snowball, boasting a 21-foot circumference, and the largest snowball fight, involving 3,745 people. Both were set in 2006.

The school for a time held the record for most people simultaneously making snow angels, with 3,784.Apparently about 40 people wanted no part of the snowball fight, but didn’t mind making snow angels.

The snow angel record was swiped from the people of Bismarck, N.D., who apparently were not too pleased. Bismarck is one of those places where, if you mess with them, they will unleash their collective fury.

Bismarck took back the record the next year, with nearly 9,000 people flailing about in the snow. There are only about 60,000 people in Bismarck.

Do not mess with Bismarck.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Life and death of Grindstone City, a one-industry town

Somewhere, off in the distance, there is a camera-shy kid.

Here’s a little-known fact about Michigan: The very tip of the Thumb was once a thriving center for grindstone production.

Not that this week’s bad postcard gives us much information.

The back reads: “MICHIGAN THUMB SCENERY: Grindstone City – Marker – in memoriam – 1938 passing of the once thriving industry.”

I see lots of random dashing and capitalization in there, and not a lot of information.

The front is full of mysteries.

Why, for example is the photographer so far away? Seriously, Casey Kasem accepted long-distance dedications from people who were closer than our shutterbug and his subjects.

But far away photos are a classic bad postcard genre, so we like that.

Why are the people climbing the grindstone facing away from our photog? Are they camera shy? Why did they climb the stone in the first place? Is this some sort of Thumb thrill-seeking? What if that thing toppled over? Splat! Maybe the photographer was getting ready for what he expected to be a newsy photo of grindstone disasters.

What about the kid in the red pants? Did she help the others up? Did she decline the climb, fearing the imminent disaster?

We just don’t know.

I did discover a blog that explained some of the town’s history.

In a nutshell, a captain pulled his boat into the natural harbor during a storm and his crew found a bunch of flat stones along the water front. The captain took samples to Detroit where there was paving planned, and the powers-that-be decided the rocks were superior to stones from Ohio. Of course.

The crew also determined the stones were great for grinding, and an industry was born.

And, as soon as people discovered a cheaper alternative – carborundum – an industry died.

Activity in Grindstone City grind to a halt in 1929, and the city suffered from putting all of its economic eggs in a one-industry basket.

Did other Michigan cities learn from Grindstone City’s one-industry mistake? Well, I worked in Flint for 10 years.

People living in the Thumb are certainly proud of their scenery even when it’s not especially scenic.

My “Michigan Thumb Scenery” collection includes this beauty of the Blue Water Bridge. Well, a close-up view of the bridge’s guard rail.

Such wonderful scenery!
Let’s face it, when you have a guard rail that cool, you must show it off.

My other “Thumb Scenery” makes it painfully clear that thelumber industry is based in the Upper Peninsula and not the Thumb.

Someone was very proud of his pruning abilities.

Here's a link to the other Thumb postcards and others from the MLive days.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

As Metrodome dome deflates for farewell, a magical memory remains

Kind of a sad day in Minneapolis, as the roof on the famed dome on the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome was deflated for the final time as the last remaining tenant is moving on to a new stadium.

The Metrodome was, of course, the home of the Minnesota Twins for a long time, and provided the setting for one of my favorite baseball adventures -- filled with mischief and risk.

Let's head to the archives for today's story

"Are you here for the tour?" the Metrodome employee asked me.

Sometimes baseball adventures happen with no advance notice, and a fan must think on his feet.

I was in the Twin Cities for an education writers’ conference in 1996, and such trips sometimes allow for some limited sightseeing.

With a break one day, I walked down to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which is located on the fringe of downtown Minneapolis. There was a fun and ancient memorabilia store across the street. The stores surrounding Wrigley, Fenway and even Tiger Stadium had more of the fun, old things that I liked.

And the Metrodome itself will never be confused with those ballparks. It’s pretty dull looking, virtually the same from any angle. There were some stylized cutouts of athletes and musicians in an area outside, a tribute to the multi-use nature of the facility.

I walked around snapping photos and noticed some people in the lobby, so I pushed through the revolving glass door, thinking maybe a gift store was open.

An employee approached as soon as I stepped inside.

“Are you here for the tour?”

There is, of course, only one answer.

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Oh, good, your group just started. Go down this hallway and you can catch up with them.”

I could scarcely believe my good fortune. I also proceed with caution. If this was some senior citizens club or some folks who did not appreciate a late-arriving imposter, I’d be outed – and ousted – immediately.

Turning the corner, I found what appeared to be a group of Cub Scouts with dad chaperones.

I stood at the end of the group. A couple people of looked over. I waved and smiled – one of those awkward “Sorry I’m late” waves, at them as well as the group of kids.

I suspect they figured I was the father of one of the kids in the group, one of those dads who does not get too involved and chaperones only cool sporting activities.

The tour guide continued talking as if nothing was amiss and everyone’s attention quickly turned back to her.


It was a pretty good tour, starting in one of the inner tunnels of the stadium, which looked more like the inside of something like the Nassau Coliseum than a baseball stadium.

We went up into the press box, and looked down at the field for the first time. A college football team was practicing down one end of the field, but the infamous “Hefty Bag” outfield wall was there for all to see.

It looked like there were giant curtains in the upper deck in the outfield covering some of the seats, and massive banners of players hung in front of the curtains.

Still, it looked like a pretty sterile place.

We peeked into a luxury box, and then back down to the lower level.

Moving around with the group, I engaged in careful small talk with the dads. “Pretty neat, huh?” “The kids sure are having a good time.” “We should do this again sometime.”

No one asked which kid was mine. I worried about this.

We paused in front of a door that led to the Twins clubhouse, but were not allowed inside. Then we took the tunnel out to the field and on to the artificial turf.

The guide pointed out the luxury boxes again from the field, noting one in particular. She said that Rick Aguilera was ticked off at something that season and threw a ball so hard that it broke one of the windows. Manager Tom Kelly, she said, was not pleased and made Aguilera pay to replace the glass.

Aggie seemed pretty mild-mannered as a Met, so I figured something about Minneapolis must have got to him. Probably Prince.

Then the guide told us we’d have some time to ourselves to run around the field as long as we didn’t go too close to the football players or go on the mound and dirt sliding places around the bases.


I headed straight to the Hefty Bag because A) I didn’t want to linger near the other dads in case one started to get chatty and ask questions, and B) It’s the Hefty Bag in the Metrodome!

I remember a Dodge ad stretched from the right field foul pole all the way into far right-centerfield. Simply massive.

And I was surprised there was little effort to conceal all the seats in the outfield sections that were sideways because they were folded up. It seemed kind of like the kind of thing you’d see in a high school gymnasium.

Before long, some of the kids joined me and we were all making pretend Kirby-like catches up against the wall. Kids don’t ask questions.

I also paused to look up at the inflatable gray ceiling and imagine what it’s like to follow the flight of a fly ball, a notoriously difficult act in the Dome.

After a while, the guide waved us back in and the tour was done. I stuck with the group through the lobby then drifted away outside, quickly making it back to the hotel and the conference.

The Twins this year also bid farewell to the Metrodome, with the Division Series defeat against the vile Yankees likely to be the final baseball game there.

The field opened on April 3, 1982, baseball’s third domed stadium -- behind the Astrodome and Kingdome -- and first with an inflatable roof. It cost $68 million, and, as the guide proudly told us, was $2 million under budget.

It remains the only venue to host an MLB All-Star Game, a World Series – twice – an NCAA Final Four and a Super Bowl.

And, apparently, it allows tours for Cub Scout groups – and their friends.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Windowless, riot-proof buildings at University of Michigan and Mizzou

University of Michigan's Space Research Building seems to have more trees that visible students.

I remember walking around the University of Missouri campus during my orientation tour, and we passed a rather ugly building with very small windows.

The tour guide told us that the building was constructed during the turbulent 1960s, and that the building was designed with small windows to withstand campus riots.

I thought this was odd.

There are, of course, many buildings on the University of Missouri campus, and the rest of them had big, or at least, numerous windows.

I envisioned some kind of system where administrators, the best football players, and other campus VIPs would be abruptly pulled from their offices or Harpo’s and whisked to the windowless building at the first hint of trouble.

Imagine the poor guy working the door, debating who should  be allowed inside and who was deemed expendable or least able to survive hordes of enraged students.

I came to suspect that while our orientation guide was skilled at walking backward while talking, she was spinning lies.

Mizzou students struggled to organize a simple task of holding hands across campus for the great Hands Across America crusade.

A riot? Students would require three weeks advance notice to order t-shirts and party favor boxers. Plus, they’d have to work around the schedule of the party pics photographer.

I thought of those experiences – and my party pics – when I came across this week’s bad postcard.

The back reads: “Space Physics Building, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. This building was provided through a NASA grant to expand University facilities for aerospace research. On June 15, 1965, two University of Michigan graduates, astronauts Lt. Col. James A. McDivitt and Lt. Col. Edward H. White, helped dedicate this building.”

The message is kind of funny. Terry writes to Ricky in Thousand Oaks, Calif., saying, “This is part of my school. It’s so big I’ll have to ride a bus between some classes. (My school is bigger than yours.)”

Those crazy Wolverines. Always boasting. And Ricky must not go to The Ohio State University.

Back to the building. We have another building with very small – practically non-existent – windows.

Let’s dismiss the whole riot thing. I've been to Ann Arbor. If students didn't riot when Crazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger was shut down last year, they’re not going to riot for anything.

So let’s consider the function of windows.

Perhaps the architects didn't want passersby to see what kind of secret science stuff was going on inside.  

Perhaps they didn't want people to see U of M students?  That can’t be, because I know some and they are very nice.

Perhaps they wanted to cut down on operating expenses. Window-washing is expensive.

Perhaps they’re using the casino model and thought that if students couldn't see the outside world they’d lose track of time and keep working.

We just don’t know.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

New Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and the 'magical, misty night at Tiger Stadium'

Tim Raines and Frank Thomas at Tiger Stadium
We've told this story before, but it's worth repeating as we celebrate the election of our non-Met hero Frank Thomas and Met Tom Glavine to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Will and I were huge Frank Thomas fans even before I came into possession of the glorious sphere now known as "The Frank Ball."

The slugger came onto the scene just around the time both of us had moved to Flint. And we believed the tall first-baseman with the mega-watt smile would be the person to finally lead the moribund White Sox to better things.

We both had the life-sized poster of Frank — his last name was unnecessary by now — gracing our homes and collected his cards.

But actual contact with our hero was elusive.

We were on the field before the final game at Comiskey Park, rubbing elbows with Sox catcher Ron Karkovice and reliever Scott Radinsky, but Frank was nowhere to be found.

A year later we waited on a long cattle-chute autograph line at the White Sox Winterfest, snaking back and forth while Frank signed, smiled and posed with other fans — only to have the slugger heart-breakingly replaced with other signers as we inched closer. Minnie Minoso and then-manager Gene LaMont are nice guys, but we wanted Frank.

And at one Tigers-Sox game, an early afternoon shower washed out batting practice, leaving players lots of time to sign autographs. Two-thirds of the Sox signed a ball for me — but Frank remained in the clubhouse.

So when the White Sox were in Detroit for a series with the Tigers in early 1992, we weren’t discouraged by the showers that fell throughout the day.

In fact, we liked going to Tiger Stadium in such conditions. The vast majority of the lower deck is covered, and the rain kept a lot of people home, especially early in the season. We’d buy the cheapest tickets and sit pretty much wherever we wanted.

My favorite spot was section 224, right behind the visitors’ dugout on the first-base side and with easy access to a concession stand. That night Will and I were joined by friends John and Emily — my wife wanted no part of damp, cold nights at the ballpark.

There was a miserable drizzle that fell through most of the night, light enough to keep playing and wet enough to either send people home early or keep under cover. We sat toward the back of the section, bundled up and well under the overhang.

I wore a 1980s-era Sox cap — with a purpose, of course.

The new, black cap with the Old English lettering was all the rage, even with people who didn’t follow baseball. I wanted to show I was an actual Sox fan — such things are important.

I’ve followed the team as a secondary favorite since Tom Seaver played for them from 1984 to 1986, and had to stand out from the bandwagon-jumping cap-buyers. The tri-color 1980s cap, with the futuristic S-O-X, is so brutally ugly that only a real fan would be caught with such a thing. Keep in mind, this was long before the retro craze that made all things ugly popular again.

By later in the game, the drizzle diminished into more of a mist and there was probably less than a thousand people in the stands. Emily and I decided to move down to the row of seats directly behind the Sox dugout during the eighth inning. The orange-capped Tiger Stadium ushers had long-since lost interest in chasing seat-hoppers.

Frank was playing first base, so we were able to get a close look. After the inning ended Frank walked back toward the dugout and glanced up. We weren’t hard to see since all the other seats were empty. That, and we were screaming his name.

I think Frank heard us.

I think people in the left field stands probably heard us.

He looked up, flashed the mega-watt grin.

We had made eye-contact with Frank. Yes!

We were not leaving those seats.

The Tigers went meekly in the bottom of the ninth. Out No. 3 was a routine grounder to short with an easy throw to our man Frank at first. Game over.

Walking back to the dugout, Frank looked up, making eye contact a second time. Yes!

Then the unthinkable happened.

As he got closer, Frank took the gameball from his glove. "HEY!" he said in my direction, then tossed the ball — a soft arc through the mist to my outstretched left hand.

It took a nano-second for the gloriousness of the moment to sink in. Frank Thomas, the elusive Frank Thomas, had just given me a ball that ended a Major League game.

I remember yelling "Thanks, Frank!" and some guy saying "Hey, can I have that?" As if.

I’d once snagged a foul ball at a New Britain Red Sox game, and had a batting practice ball from the Rochester Red Wings from when I was on the field for an interview. Valued treasures, to be sure. But this one was special.

Frank’s career with the Sox had ups and downs, but he had an impressive career, with two Most Valuable Player awards and more than 500 homers. Congrats to the baseball writers for getting it right and enshrining Frank on his first try. (And a loud boooo for continuing to deny Mike Piazza.) The game ball is enshrined in plastic with a card from that year, an permanent exhibit in the baseball room of what has come to be known as the "magical, misty night at Tiger Stadium."

Monday, January 06, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Life, death, skiing and broken snow blowers.

We've been dealing with a lot of snow this Christmas break. 

So much snow that I’ve been busy shoveling instead of posting bad postcard stories.

Note that I say “shoveling” instead of saying “powering up the snow blower.”

Remember at the very end of last winter, when it seemed like something got caught in the snow blower and there was that nasty burning smell, but it was OK because we had all spring, summer and fall to fix it?

You don’t remember? Neither did I – until I got the thing gassed up and fired up and made a swoop up and down the driveway and wondered why no snow was joyfully getting sucked up and flying out.

Reality set in that snow blower blades do not fix themselves.

Luckily, I have very, very understanding and kind neighbors who do have functioning snow blowers and have taken pity on me until I can find a small engine repair shop.

And I need to get it fixed, because after Snowpocalpyse 2014 this week, I suspect the reasonably priced model I saw at Lowe’s after Christmas is long gone.

I do have a nice shovel, and we have been reacquainted.

The abundant snowfall  also has cancelled school for at least the first two days this week, which means Christmas break has been extended by a couple days. That means that I can keep playing Christmas music for at least one more day.

It also means I can use a Christmas postcard for this week’s entry.

We did several things in the snow this weekend. Mostly shovel, and drag the former Christmas tree through the woods to its new home.

One thing we did not do was roll around like Hans and Dieter here.

We’re not sure what happened. The back reveals only that it was printed in Germany.

We see Dieter laying there covered in snow with his poles nowhere to be found. We see Hans standing over him, with his gear on his shoulders.

A couple potential scenarios.

First, maybe Dieter was on the receiving end of a pre-Wide World of Sports “agony of defeat” moment. Hans is a member of the junior ski patrol sent to either apply first aid or retrieve the body. Dieter apparently survived, though Hans doesn't seem all that thrilled.

Or, maybe Dieter is trying to make snow angels, and Hans disgustedly reminds him that you first need to take off the skis. Dieter’s snow angels just don’t look good.

Or, this is what passed for apr├Ęs-ski fun in the days before fancy ski lodges with big stone fireplaces and sweater-clad ski bunnies sipping hot cocoa while eagerly listening to epic – if not slightly exaggerated -- tales of conquering the double black diamond run. Or, in my case, the epic – and completely true – tale of wiping out trying to climb off the ski lift, laying sprawled at the base as the operator tries not to roll his eyes as he brings the whole thing to a halt and helps me recover my jettisoned skis and far-flung poles.

Or, that thing above Dieter and to the right of Hans in the background that looks kinda like a polar bear is indeed a hungry snow bruin who realizes that lunch is soon to be served as Dieter is lying down and Hans can’t run too quickly in the snow.

We just don’t know.