Strictly Personal – My Mom

001I began this series about my Mother with some trepidation. I was concerned about the reflected glory issue: “How utterly selfish!”, I thought. And then I found myself stricken with the fact that her story would never be told without some help from this quarter, nor her story of her evolution as a modern woman, nor, perhaps most importantly, how she has impacted the lives of those around her and those lessons she gives as a result.

As a teacher, she naturally influenced hundreds or, better yet more likely thousands. I know her reputation and it was universally fairly stellar. She stuck to business, had her favorites, tried to understand whether they understood and she had the reputation as the rarest sort of “color-blind” person and teacher. She loved when people became successful – it was always one of her proudest moments, to relate some success achieved by someone she had taught. Like any great teacher, I think, for her “success” was a mutual thing, won with the help of others.

Here is the central Illinois – near Mattoon –  house she grew up in, now-sold and ‘improved’. The railroad tracks which so accompany any memories here are seen under the tree branch to the left. That’s the line that connect New Orleans with Chicago. To say it gets traffic is an understatement.

Growing up in rural Humbolt saw Mom joining the first classes at the “new school” there, I believe which included grades 1-12. She and her little friends were equal parts darlings and semi-devilish and they had the run of the town in a somewhat safe, definitely family-centered town. Yes, the Depression saw many travelers as the railroad tracks which border their house sent car loads of “hobo’s” and “hillbilly’s” north to Chicago during the early 30’s. It was the Depression and, to make matters merely 5 times worse, we suffered a climatic event of the Century at the same time – the Dust Bowl. Etta Rogers and Paul were sometimes “guilty” of feeding those who stopped in Humbolt to try and find a rare bite to eat. The times were exceedingly grim for everyone, even in Humbolt.

Her best childhood friends, Lucille and Betty lasted as “best friends” for their entire lives. Our trips always included visits to both ladies’ homes where we were as accepted as family as can be imagined – without hesitation. Amazing things happened some times. My brother Tom once had a dog bite nearly through his head off the porch of a neighbor of Lucille’s. A huge and vicious German Shepherd only restrained by a chain on the front porch, Tom figured it was yet another animal he could win over as a complete animal lover and as someone who rightfully was considered more than just a little “good with animals”. Wow – the amount of blood pouring out of his little head was incredible as he ran, screaming and so disappointed back to “home base” where we all panicked and where Dad went to “take care” of the dog for good. The rips were huge – Tom wore “clamps” instead of stitches for weeks afterwards and – for the record – the dog was put down by its owners.

Betty Edgar was a woman whose heart was beautiful to me. Like Lucille Abel, Betty and Mother were as thick as thieves as kids. She made sure we all visited her family and children who had moved over to Charleston on a regular basis and they would also scheme to hook up with us at Lucille’s big farm out in the flatlands. Betty lost her husband, Cecil, in 1953, in a car accident, and never remarried. I think that tragedy made my Mom and their friend Lucille that much more necessary and close. Of course, she had 3 strapping boys to raise, so it’s somewhat understandable. And she did a marvelous job of that – by all means.

This is actually not Betty’s original home, up the street from Mom’s place. I was reminded of this by Mom’s younger sister and my beloved Aunt Jody. But it is at least typical and it comes from my own camera lens. I would move in there in a New York minute, lol. I just love the architecture.

Here is a shot of the younger Mom – I mean, like, way, way younger, lol – I am assuming Betty is on the left, Mom on the right. Like everyone, I feel totally lucky finding childhood pics of my Mother. She can, after all, still be blackmailed. 😉

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The famous Humbolt Post Office in it’s raw glory:

A good look at the local Illinois environment?  Right here; not a lot of mountains:

The good news for us was that Betty and Lucille both had children who were generally our ages and with whom my brothers, sister and I enjoyed play and a general take on the stuff around us. Jim, who was more my age, eventually became the first downstate Governor in Illinois for some unGodly number of years and is still regarded – to this day – as a very popular and successful governor. Jim Edgar. (Wiki Link included). He and his older brother Tom were favorites of ours and they were fun guys we would see almost every visit at one point or another. Plenty of Mad Magazines, comics, toys and such were shared, along with walks in the corn and the explorations of Lucille’s big broom corn farm. We buried ourselves more than once in dried corn, lol.

A look at Arcola, Illinois’ big corn silo’s beside the tracks – nearly exactly the same as Humboldt’s:

When Jim was inaugurated as Governor, the first ladies invited were, of course, his Mom and mine. Lucille worked harder for him than she did at golf – at which she was something of a fanatic. She made the scene also because she was such a mover and shaker in politics. She would have been invited anyway, lol, and needless to say, she worked tirelessly in behalf of Jim.

Later, during my family’s diaspora to everywhere in the world, my younger brother, Tom, used to visit Lucille’s son Jeff and ride horses. It was something I missed out on but they evidently made it work like nobody’s business.  Huge barns, great big silos, cattle, odd animals of almost any stripe could be found all over. These were big farms, all broom corn and now soybeans, alfalfa and even sunflowers. We visited them, Tom and I, when I had first returned to this area, in 2009. As warm and friendly as ever, in many ways it was as if 45 years had moved quickly between visits.

Here’s Mom and I at Jody and Joe’s wedding. Jody is Mom’s sis. Jody is in the middle and Mom is to her right. I’m not altogether sure what I was doing in this shot, lol. But all I know is, my sister Diane’s dress is the greatest ever!

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This little triumvirate of lasses made differences in their worlds and they – as much as My Father, it often seems – impacted Mother’s and our own lives forever. All worked for a living and all made splashes wherever they found themselves.  I think they were all a part of an emerging modern day type of woman and they were each quite successful in incredibly diverse ways. When one considers their shadow and their impact, one is humbled by how such humble beginnings could lead to such amazing accomplishments.

Here Tom and I visit the graves of our relatives and the Edgars and Abels in Humboldt’s township cemetery. It was incredible moving for us both – my first visit to Humboldt since 1982.

Lots of folks know Jim Edgar as this guy, celebrating his election victory as Governor of Illinois:

But – Ha ha, man – this is my memory of Jim, the youngest here with his brothers Fred and Tom:

This is the grave of my Grandfather and Grandma. Such a peaceful and gorgeous setting:

Upon graduating from Eastern Illinois University, my Mom made her way to Springfield, the state capital, to experience life on her own. Her relationship with my Pop, Fred – or “Sned” as she called him, just like so many of my current friends call me – was always important and they were in love but she decided she needed to check things out, nevertheless. They put rushing into the Big Decision on hold. Dad had graduated and had gotten a gig teaching and coaching basketball at a high school in Franklin, Illinois, not too far away, so he was committed. Mother found herself asked to do a bit of modeling, did some severe secretarial work and lived ‘the life’ until Dad became essentially too hard to live without. He was a persistent man, my old man. Finally, they tied the knot.

Just in time for a War.

Our Father joined the Navy and ended up being posted to San Diego. There is some long story about how an important Colonel or General liked him, but Dad had a background as a shooter and as a teacher, so he began as a Drill Instructor on a rifle range and stayed in that position for the entire war effort. He has oodles of pictures of a few hundred guys posing at a time upon graduating, all with Dad in the middle of them. I hate saying this, but having had my own version of Drill Instructors in the Army, I regret to say I can picture him doing this.  😉  Most importantly for them, it not only kept the family together, the family expanded.

The above is Dad with Mike who is apparently practicing an early oral argument on the yard in San Diego. Note the sweeping hand gesture, something we witness on a daily basis to this very day.

Well, the War ended and the Big Build began and our father became a contractor, moving after 8 years in San Diego and the birth of 3 kids including yours truly, to various construction projects. Mother would sometimes work with him as his responsibilities began including some projects of his own as a subcontractor, and, in a version of  “The Help”, we had numerous Nannies, almost always African American ladies of the sweetest dispositions, as we careened around the South, from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi to Biloxi and thence to Paducah, Kentucky. It all culminated in a move from Toledo, Ohio to Louisville, where Dad found his own business and constructed what was then Tanglewood subdivision (now Wildwood) off Shelbyville Road – a single family housing development of upper middle class representation.

Dad’s business failed then – he got back on his feet, no sweat – and Mother’s career began. She began teaching high school. From this point on – with the notable exception of helping Dad yet again as he attempted another business, Mother taught either high school or college for the next 52 years. Having already borne 4 kids, dealt with oodles of moving and relocating, worked as Girl Friday/secretary/accountant for Dad and others, she began her career again at this tiny 1-12 grade and high school in a tiny Kentucky town outside of Bowling Green called Alvaton – where I encountered my very first 16 year old true hillbilly 4th grader. 😉  There was a poverty there which we rarely spoke of, Mom and I, on our trips out to that place. But it was most certainly there, including one of my classmate’s homes, hard by the school, that you could literally see through. And it wasn’t because of the windows.

The social exclusions and cruelties I witnessed there were very sobering to me. Economic Social Reality hit me with the force of a Sun. I found more out about the world around us than I did at any other time in my life outside of the Army, and it was as bittersweet as it ever got. I cried at times, thinking of how poor some of my acquaintances in that class were. Shoes with holes and no socks, dirty faces, weather at sub zero temperatures, small holey jackets made a tableau which formed much of my later politics without my even knowing how or why. It may well have been the most influential year of my life. Mother, meanwhile, became known as a “cool teacher” among the kids who attended there.

(Random shot of Mom and her Great Grandaughter, Quinn.)

And here is my Mother with my own little munchkin, when we lived in Reno. 😉

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Mother – seeing the handwriting on the wall – decided to get her Masters Degree  which she eventually completed at the University of Louisville for the purpose of upgrading her profession – in Math.

Still later, 3 years, we relocated to Owensboro. Mom taught high school there for 3-4 years then got the opportunity to join her good friend Joe Voyles at his new edifice – Owensboro Business College, where she taught accounting. The shorthand she had so assiduously learned (and still uses) which enabled her to take dictation, she found edging its way to the scrapheap as the new world emerged – of technology and filing and transcribing progress. Finally, in 1970 all that changed with Dad’s business going South and they moved to Louisville.

Since then, Mother taught at Sullivan, Spalding and McKendree Universities as well as providing Accounting classes for the management and workers at the huge Ford Motor Company plant, during evenings. I and she run into her former students literally all the time – at Louisville basketball games in elevators, at Doctor’s Offices and on the street. For someone as used to independence as myself, and with my own levels of popularity where I have lived for various reasons, it is sometimes sheer crazy how many people she has impacted. She’s one of them there Wholesale Impactors.

Yet another family picture with my brother Tom, his girl Meagan, Quinn and Mom. For some strange reason, the Snedeker boys issue some amazingly gorgeous females. I’d like to take credit for that.

Mom taught until she was 84. She would come home and rip back out to take walks – often covering 3 miles. Her health caught up with her in that year and she has had what I suppose is a somewhat predictable round of health issues since that time. Her heart problems caused her to not renew her contract – in spite of being pled with by the University faculty and staff to take some time off then return. When I say they missed her, I honestly mean that.

We decided not to take the Pimpmobile on this particular day. 😉

Since that time, Mom has lived the life of a retiree. She has been a regular at the Louisville Symphony and at University of Louisville basketball games. We attended both events together at times and her knowledge of the game of basketball is superb. We have developed a nasty superstition for my social life. She is pretty certain the Cardinals have a better chance of losing when I don’t watch with her in her room. Unfortunately, it appears she may have something there. Bye bye, microbrews!

And she never – ever – and this is not an exaggeration – misses a game when the St. Louis Cardinals are playing. She had to have watched 50 games last season. Her great disappointment in life may be that I became a Giants and A;s fan while living out West. In this family, that is nearly unforgivable, lol.

She attended darn near every sporting event I ever played. Her devotion was exceptional, as was my Father’s. Make no mistake, we are talking an average of some 200 events a year. Our baseball team played a high school schedule of generally 50-60 games, then the American Legion season commenced. That was usually around the same. And they did the same for all the boys’ sports. They had tickets to every town’s college games, no matter where we lived – Bowling Green and Western Kentucky University’s Red Barn, Owensboro and now Louisville. Naturally, Dad was the mover concerning all this – he played football at Eastern Illinois and did well until a knee injury in his incarnation as  “Freddy The Flash” – 😉 – he was truly a talented player and he had that nickname laid on him in local newspapers of the era – a nickname my friends were merciless in using around him after I busted him.

These were not stay-at-home parents!

In summation, Mother spends these days at a mellow clip. She has great good friends she sees now monthly for a luncheon group which has been around in one form or another for 30 years – ex-teachers and girlfriends who she used to go to games with or with whom she attended the orchestra, but that option has dwindled at 97. She reads voraciously and her acumen seems as solid concerning the world around her as it ever has. Her distant kids, Mike and Diane call weekly and she looks very forward to each call. Her sister Jody is equally devoted and she calls and sends pictures of her clan – our cousins Sam and Rachel and their children – in Galesburg, Illinois. Now Meagan or Hannah will call increasingly often. I can see in Mother’s expression the rare and severe delight she relishes at these moments. The advent of free long distance has been a boon to my family of positively tectonic proportions. It sure makes her days. She absolutely relishes being up to date.

Random shot of Tom’s daughter Hannah with she and Jimmy’s young kiddo’s:

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And Jenny – his other daughter we don’t see enough of – with the gorgeous smile at around 16:

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We speak of spiritual matters at times and of private confidences as well. She is very liberal politically, probably as a result of dealing with so many disadvantaged kids, from every walk of life. Her grandfather and his father were preachers in Decatur, so she has had the underpinnings of a Christian education, to say the least. But she is a modern woman who also believes the best stuff in the world happens in front of our faces. She has a life.

From my end, it is bizarre living with her again. It seems so strange, after all these years of living 2,500 miles away – 40 of those years, actually – to reunite like this in such an every day manner. There are those days I wake up and feel incredibly lucky to have her around. My role in providing her later years with some extra oomph gets its reward in climbing the stairs and seeing the size of her smile every single morning. One can only wonder at the reservoir of happiness which motivates such a gorgeous take on the day and in the simple pleasure of seeing #2 Son walking by. Having a child of my own does, however, give me insight into the world of Unconditional and Total Love – and she gets to multiply that by 4. So, what the heck. It makes sense after all. What I am saying though, is that she makes it a 2 way street. She gives rewards – simple and cleansing ones, still.

My life will still be the same stupid set of mistakes, loves and losses, interspersed with a few major successes, I hope. But the one thing I most certainly do NOT regret is in returning to this family.

Love ya, Mom.

Jack Hicks – A Humble Legend

Jack passed away this morning, September 29th. I’ll recirculate this for another round in case someone out there has not yet read it. I have grown so close to him.

How many of us have met a Legend? I mean in the flesh – shook his or her hand, spoken with for a substantial period? Among a few modest others – some of whom I can name to their surprise – I have indeed met one of these Beings.

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His name is Jack Hicks and he is a former high school teacher, now retired, of Government/Political Science, something he has always taken very seriously and the results of which even hijinks-obsessed young men such as myself learned from about the workings of our governments. He also ran a vital organism in his town, the entertainment venue which seated 5,000 people comfortably for such events as the traveling Duke Ellington Band and those bizarre Dick Clark Rock and Roll Caravans. Jack ran the Parks and Recreation Department for Owensboro, Kentucky where I found my first, very nepotistic job.

Jack Hicks was also the coach of Owensboro High School’s baseball team.

Was he ever. In 22 years of coaching Owensboro High, Jack’s teams won 606 ballgames, The overall record of 606-196 includes the fact that Jack attempted not only to schedule games to play every single day of the season – with doubleheaders on weekends – but that he would play the best teams who would dare to schedule him. Games in Illinois and Indiana were not the slightest bit unusual, particularly inasmuch as Owensboro is on the Ohio River. It was a festival for those lucky enough to find themselves playing for Jack.

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This is “us”, at the end of the Regional Final game. (I am the very middle guy, 😉  ).  There is another picture lying around somewhere of us after the State Final game. Believe me when I say the expressions are far less serious!

Jack won four state championships in 1964, 1969, 1976 and 1977. My younger brother played on the 1969 team. Under his direction, the Red Devils won 20 district titles and 15 regional tournaments. I was fortunate enough to play shortstop on Jack’s 1964 team, his first Championship, for a team he now sometimes refers to as one of his “favorites”. Here’s the real news – the team the year before us was 43-2 on the year and lost in the Finals to Louisville Manual High School – the reigning power team at the time. When we won our regional tournament in ’64, Jack was quoted before our run that “this is not one of my better teams”, lol. He may or may not have realized it, but he probably served to make us pay just a bit more attention. Sure enough, we brought home the trophy, as unlikely as that seemed at the origins. The truth is, what he prepared meant that any team he put on the field was now able to win it all – at any point in time.

Anyway – and this is every bit as relevant, if not more so –  he also coached the local American Legion team – the totally wonderfully-named Owensboro ‘Velvet Bombers’ – to a total of 10 State Championships. Jack was the instigator of a revival of a titanic baseball love in a town which had embraced teams in the Pre World War 2 years and which had always had a small love affair with the game. Jack simply made it grow.
Here is a look at the 1937 high school team. They look ready!
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Beginning with Little League’s start in the 50’s, Jack worked with the organization known as Owensboro Youth Baseball to keep the topic and sport very much at the forefront of young men’s minds. The later legacy of all this was the establishment of a virtual powerhouse of female sports as well, also stemming from Jack’s work in this this absurdly sports-centered town which Sports Illustrated called the Number One Sporting Town in Kentucky in its 50th Anniversary edition. (click this link here)

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So what are the chances a kid with an atrophied leg, ravaged by polio at the age of 2, would become one of the greatest names in a sport? Jack will wince at this description – as he undoubtedly has throughout his life – and it does not remotely even bear on his achievements – not for someone who was far too active-minded and ambitious to dwell on any personal impediment. It is the superficial package which hides him and which acts as that immediate persona which we all also wear, just in different clothing.

It bears because he had an obvious handicap, nothing more than that. Whereas we all have “handicaps” as well, he had what may have been the good fortune to encounter his own personal impediments a few decades earlier than the rest of us. The rest of us are also hampered by maybe our poor self-esteem or maybe its opposite – unencumbered entitlement – or our handicaps of prejudice in all its guises. No matter, because in the end the bittersweet lessons of life will pound us all into motes of dust, where all we leave behind is our various legacies.

Jack, in this regard, was and is an absolute Giant.

Jack’s essential character not only produced fabulously talented ball players, but he also shepherded young men through their high school years focusing on the discipline required to play as a team and to maximize potentials. He was a disciplinarian of unquestioned power who led by example, ironically, a tactic which succeeded beyond any measure. His players and coaches became such luminaries as esteemed doctors, lawyers, business persons and one – Tom Meredith – Chancellor at both The University of Alabama and of U of Georgia as well. David Watkins – who saw time at the AAA level and who hit tape measure home runs as a high schooler – is now President of Jewish Hospital in Louisville and widely-regarded as one of the foremost doctors in the United States. Jim Howes, now an attorney practicing in Louisville, not only pitched our team to the afore-mentioned State Championship, but also won the State Championship in the discus and shot put, then went to Tulane on a basketball scholarship. Jim also became the world’s largest Green Beret in one of their very first classes, during the Viet Nam conflict. All of Jack’s players did well in later life – well, almost all. His legacy is often even overlooked by his protege’s, his touch was so deft. Jack’s talent was people. That he loved baseball may have been incidental to where they all ended up.

And having said that made me throw up a little in my throat, because it’s probably both less and more than that. The “inside baseball” tricks, knowledge, and sporting IQ of Jack Hicks’ players was always outside the known envelope. We traveled in some rare air, in my opinion, verified by results.

Strictly Personal – Recollections

Readers of this blog might be surprised to know my goal as a child never varied for 15 years: to play baseball for the rest of my life. I was pretty good, too. I was one of those kids who stood out as an 11 and 12 year old Little League ballplayer, bashing homers, pitching and fielding my way onto All Star teams and excelling there as well. This continued into high school where I encountered Jack at Owensboro Senior High School. Playing for Jack was equal parts incredibly good luck and an absolute learning adventure.

Somehow, in that Spring of 1964, as a wide-eyed inexperienced 10th grader, I made the team and was able to travel to Paducah, Kentucky for our first games of the season over Spring Break – we had scheduled a doubleheader with a local high school there. In what still seems a blur, our starting shortstop broke his finger in infield practice for that first game and I received my first starting assignment – a position I maintained for the next 3 years. I’ll absolutely never forget my nerves prior to the first ball being hit to me. The guys around me were all these big borderline “heroes-from-a-distance” and suddenly I found myself not only in the midst, but playing shortstop.

I thought my hair had caught fire!

We did fine. In fact, we did fine all that year. We won Jack’s first of 4 Kentucky High School  State Championships, we did so fine. That also made my hair catch fire. 😉

His too. 😉

The baseball incidents encountered under Jack’s tutelage could scroll on for literal miles. Back then, before rules limited the number of games teams could play, Jack scheduled us to play games every single day, with doubleheaders on weekends. We had 2 seasons I can recall with records of 36-11 and 25-9 (a year of too many rain-outs).  The above-mentioned Velvet Bombers also played – every single day or night, all Summer long, after the high school season ended. These games included Sundays as well, yet another opening for playing ball. Oh, the stories.

For a baseball kid like me, imagine those drives through Springtime’s lime green young leaves of those dense, sweet-smelling Kentucky forests en route to play baseball, of all things. I’d find myself in one of the big old 1960’s convertibles driven by some other hilarious kid equally giddy over our great good fortune, allowed out of school for the last period for purposes of travel, crammed in with 5 other guys with mayhem and baseball in mind, as serious as apprentice monks except when the comic or anarchistic urge hit – and it did – laughing our way to another game of baseball.

I’ve been to Heaven is what I often tell people. And Jack Hicks was an affable, smart, but thoroughly uncompromising “God”. He also hated losing, which, fortunately, didn’t happen all that often. He made good players and he made much of the system that produced them.

A couple years ago, during a quite improbable run of yet another Owensboro team to the State Final Game, Jack attended and was announced to the thousands in attendance. This was not his first acknowledgment to these crowds – he had been elected to the Kentucky High School Hall Of Fame much earlier. The ovation – according to those in attendance – was pretty off the charts. They honored who in my humble opinion – and that of countless others – was the greatest high school baseball coach in the history of the State of Kentucky.

I am so honored to write my little unasked-for piece on this shy and great person that it causes me to well up at the memories – all so equal parts triumphant, humiliating (hey, that’s sports!), fascinating and so full of the cooperative sweat equity earned by honest effort and shared by team mates with whom I still speak. I love it all.

Thanks, Jack. For everything – and that’s a lot of stuff!

Bill Hermant – One Of My 5 Most Interesting People

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The over-sized racer on the inside/right, above, is my good friend and former business partner, Bill Hermant. The camera is not deceiving anyone – yes, he’s is that much bigger! This particular shot, as I recall, comes from a race in Denver, Colorado where he continued a pretty good year in 2007 with a 7th place finish in the World. And just ignore the couple hundred cleats on those tires, too. Bill was an interesting entrant in those races for a number of reasons – one, he was over 50, racing in a sport with a slew of 20 something’s and, two, because he is 6′ 3″ and around 210 pounds, hardly the predictable size either in a sport where the average size and weight is usually around 5′ 9″, 155.

That’s my Reno friend and ex-business partner, Bill Hermant, who is among the 5 Most Interesting people I have ever met in my life. This rough-and-ready guy meets every criterion as a “Man’s Man”, yet to watch him with his lovely grandchildren, you see a heart as big as the sky itself. He has the love of his very devoted wife, LaDonna, of his children, Kim and Bill, Junior, and of his employees. He also scores lots more love when he sponsors or else runs the softball teams I had played on for over a decade.

Most importantly, when the time comes, if necessary, this guy goes to war for you. We’re talking always. Bill is a man of intense loyalties. He has been ‘let down’ by his friends more than once, but in the Dictionary, when you look up the term “Loyalty”, then Bill Hermant’s mug shot should be right there.

Here is a shrunken ‘screengrab’ shot of what Bill actually owns:

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(click on the image and it will take you to the website itself for ‘Reno Cycles & Gear’)

Bill began selling motorcycle parts for a living while living in Hayward, California. Bill grew up across the bay, in San Fransisco. Living in South San Fransisco, where the streets can be just a bit “mean”, Bill used to be a regular at Giants games in Candlestick Park. In fact, maybe one of the funniest things he ever told me was that he thought every kid went to hundreds of major league baseball games as a kid.  😉  He was literally shocked when he heard that wasn’t always the case. But his upbringing grounded him and made him a very focused business person later in life – a focus he has always maintained to this very moment in time.

Anyway, he moved to Reno in about ’95 or so, setting up his ‘Reno Cycles & Gear’ brand and store. Here’s where he moved and also why he decided to ask about maybe partnering up in landscaping. He needed help, lol.

(click all images to enlarge)

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Bill had developed a huge love for the game of baseball, then “mutatis mutandi”, softball. It was here – adult, slow pitch softball – where we met and subsequently stayed on teams together, playing literally hundreds of games over long years, fellow junkies for sports mutually committed to our passion, 100%. We honestly appreciated each other for a mutual competitive fire. As I got to know him better, I began to realize what a great and doting Grandad he was. Little Serena – who is not so little any more – would agree.

Then, incidentally,  when I found myself out of work one Autumn……..we’re talking at the worst possible time for a landscaper to be out of work in Northern Nevada,……. Bill saw my need – (and he showed me his personal residential need, lol) – and we developed a game plan to make a run at business together. Bill sprung for the purchase of a Bobcat – and a killer, heavy duty one at that which we bought through our third baseman, Brent Adams, (another oft-overlooked benefit of actually playing sports) which was in excellent, though very “broken in” condition. We bought a cheap little truck and we were off to the landscaping races. With the Bobcat, we went a little crazy and then accomplished a few wonders around his home.

We made a small creek and waterfall way out back at his home which Donna was so crazy about she kept her window open at night – in Winter – to be able to hear it. It started humbly enough – man it was dusty back there.

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It evolved. Bill’s first comments as we were installing the first plantings were something along the lines of: “You mean I paid $350 for those sticks??”  😉  Hell, it turned out Bill was normal! He didn’t know Jack Squat about landscaping!

The “sticks” worked out just fine, OK, just as our softball team did. He smiled later. We went from this………

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To this:

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And this:

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And this………………. and then it was just the other parts of the bizz and sports we spoke of. At home, life was good.

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Bill became – or always was – crazy about participating in sports in general. This is a key element here. He didn’t spend his time watching – this is a guy who wants to be in things, deeply. He was never the most gifted athlete, but Bill found ways to make himself valuable  in softball. He used strength, great reflexes and plain competitive spirit to lead every team he played on to just a little higher plane. We could lose games and he would often get morose, lol, while the rest of us were on our way to grab beer and yuk it up. Naturally, we pulled him hard enough in a bunch of cases to make sure he joined. No one wanted Bill frowning. But also, no one missed his reaction, either. His is the sort of influence you can’t buy.

Racing

Bill loves to race. He has become every bit the motor head but his competitive spirit is far more in tune with racing things. Bill loves speed, mechanical crap and loves to race. He raced often in Auburn, California in car races, on their dirt track. He still does. More importantly, however, what Bill ended up happening onto was the bizarre, crazy and hyper-competitive Ice Racing field, which he jumped into in the mid-90’s and which this 50-something meat eater even still enjoys.

He is quite highly-regarded in Europe, where this sport was actually invented to give the amazingly huge number of motorcycle racing fans something to watch during Winters in the off season. What happened instead was the bloom of yet another wildly popular racing niche which became an organization and category all its own. He once showed me an interview he made with an English magazine, where he spoke about how invigorating it was to race in front of relatively huge crowds of Europeans who, he said “Already know who I am.”  Hell, he had fans, 6,000 miles from home!

The “Downside” 😉

Naturally, among other things aside from international Notoriety, what became of all this was an incredibly long and varied litany of injuries. He is also one of the the hardest-headed humans in history too. Just ask Donna!

Once, he and Donna flew to Washington, DC because the airport in North Carolina had been ‘snowed out’. It was during a real mega storm, dropping 3 feet of snow on the Eastern Seaboard. He had a certain number of hours to make Greensboro in time to race so they rented a car and drove, he and LaDonna. It sounded very thrilling as they did indeed make it on time – but just. By the time he got out of the car, it was almost race time.

On his first lap, someone takes him out and he crashes face first into the hockey boards (all indoor ice racing events are in hockey rinks). He breaks his nose and really hurt his shoulder, as I recall. (I believe the legs were another year  😉   )

Anyway, what he remembers is looking up, dazed, and some woman pointing at him and screaming “Oh my God! Look at his face!!” Knowing Bill, he had blood spattered all over himself. Another ghoulish portrait in Red!  😉

The world can be cruel. Well, he made all the other races that day, broken stuff and all and then flew home for his patch-up. After all, there was softball within a couple weeks. No one could picture that scenario – LaDonna, his wife was apoplectic about his even thinking about practicing in his various casts (a yearly lament, lol) –  but he proved up to the task! And we probably won our softball championship as per usual. There were quite a few.

I go on about all the personal stuff because he is just easy to talk about. But there’s more to him.

Bill has historically given oodles of time and energy to Reno Special Olympics. He has a depth of concern over infant retardation which might just be his finest quality. And let me include his lovely wife here as well. He can always be counted on to donate time and green energy to this cause, as well as many others.

His social standing in the community of Reno is large and respected. His premises host the yearly Christmas Ride Rally For Tots, an event where bikers gather presents for disadvantaged youth. His shop also hosts a very cool Reno-specific festival called Street Vibrations, which is a motorcycle equivalent of their famous Hot August Nights. With the local Harley Davidson dealership, Bill and his Reno Cycles & Gear provides a place for partying and collecting.

Here, Bill is seen with Arlen Ness, famous motorcycle constructor and developer, at Street Vibrations in Reno:

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(Bill’s the big guy – 🙂   )

And here is probably what Arlen arrived in Reno riding (The Victory Vision):

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Bill sells more Polaris off road vehicles than any dealer west of the Mississippi. His shop is probably the best shop in Reno. He speaks with clients personally and in depth, not just to sell things, but to ascertain and assess their needs. He advocates spending wisely.

Landscaping Partners

Bill and I oversaw a 5 year run of varied successes. In the end, the economy reduced our chances at success to pretty much zero with the advent of the Economic Crisis and I have to admit to my own personal exhaustion causing the end of our run together. He would never have given up, the truth is. I admit this freely.

Our successes were pretty cool, however. We did tons of great work in all sorts of different ways – using the newest machinery and products and constructing the bulk of projects we see in this blog. Yes, almost everything in here which is Reno-based was done during our partnership. He loved visiting projects, knowing the working guys intimately, signing paychecks, rubbing elbows with clients and simply developing the business. He had far more business acumen than I could ever dream of possessing. And far, far more patience.

It was also very cool talking in the third inning of a game where our opposition was spitting nails in frustration as we paraded to the plate scoring huge runs, when Bill would lean over and ask: “How’s Juan’s back?”

Bil Hermant – extremely good businessman, high achiever, a loyal and fantastic partner and a hell of an interesting man.

What Is Landscaping Like? Is It Like Work?

This is a recirculation of a post I made a couple years ago. Posts explaining what we do as landscapers are partially intended to inform any potential client of what to expect when a crew arrives at their home and begin tearing it all up. This is highly unsettling to anyone with a heart, and especially if they are super invested in years being used to their home…. 😉

My sis in law, Lisa – a lawyer herself – once visited a site we were working at, in such beginnings and immediately opined: “Good God, I could never do that!” The place in question was a perfectly nice landscape the client wanted to upgrade with more interesting stuff. We were at what was probably the ugliest part – it was pure destruction. There are no delicate touches at that stage, lol. We are uniquely qualified to tear stuff up. Hey – we’re guys, mostly. It borders on fun!

Anyway, another aspect I write to cover is what young people might expect who are considering the field itself from any angle. Every field has an entry point and even designers gain immensely from spending a year or two “in the trenches” so to speak.

So below is a peek at what we do.

I was asked recently by a high school kid whose Dad I played softball with how I chose to do landscaping. He is a senior this year and he is facing those major questions regarding his own future. I had him work for me a while back – nearly 3 years ago – and he was a willing and hard worker. There was a lot of banter between some of the older guys and he – the old “age smack” trash talk thing – which was hilarious. He even “won” a few. He was not afraid to speak his mind for which he was highly regarded among much older guys. His Dad was proud when I mentioned he was missed and that my crew asked about him often.

Left click any image to enlarge.

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It made me think. I could see that this was a question which wanted as close as I could get to 360 degrees of an answer. It would not do to present half a picture. Truth be told, my route is not necessarily the one I would advocate for anybody – not whatsoever. The fact is, I stumbled upon it. However, one thing I have found is that landscaping does indeed suit a particular personality. This personality would be willing to wake up at 6 AM every morning for an 8 hour day of lifting, raking, carrying, wheel-barrowing and – in the end – of making things. In the end, this is what we do – we make things.

The Reward – Of all the rewards inherent in doing good landscaping – aside, that is, from the daily dose of endorphins and great sensations at the end of a day – the one primary reward can often exist in revisiting the project later and telling the company you are with – “I made that!”. Seeing a tangible result is a reward pretty much only for those who do make things – typically people in construction but also in art, in fabrication and manufacturing, and particularly in such pastimes as knitting, sewing, forming things from something else – and the tangible product tend to be their own rewards.

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The Chores – So we wake up early and drive to work. Typically, on my projects, I tried to get the hardest work done in the morning. It is a truism, proven by studies of productivity, that nearly 75% of the day’s accomplishments all happen before lunch. I have found this to be nearly completely true on average. In fact, I planned around it when it was possible. What this means is that one stretches a little bit, early on, then goes for it. The quiet mornings are full of the odd grunt and fewer complaints than those you hear later. In my experience, mornings in landscaping are the fastest moving times ever. Next thing you know, it’s lunch time.

Landscaping consists of some very redundant and basic tasks, in many cases:

Dirt Work:

Moving dirt around is the landscaper’s lament. Move this dirt over here. Dig a hole and replace the hole with better dirt and lose that stuff over there. Then rake it out. Rakes and shovels are the trade’s primary tools, along with the ubiquitous wheelbarrow. Learning to load, carry and empty wheelbarrows, believe it or not, are “musts”. In fact, learning to shovel is one as well. There are ways to involve the back somewhat organically, to help with the work by bending knees in coordination, just as there are ways to insure shoveling will be your worst nightmare.

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Shaping the terrain is what we do. It is nearly always first, sometimes following what amounts to a clean up of impediments or the trashing of a landscape which we are changing. Bottom line – We move dirt to where it will be a permanent medium for everything else that follows. Everything happens on top of that. Having said all this, we are helped, as often as possible, by the use of machinery.

Bobcats, mini excavators, larger stuff all reduces the body impact of doing the work by hand, just as teams of mules and horses once did for those land-shapers in England and all the many spots in the world who landscaped large swaths of land. The varieties of tools and equipment for landscaping goes back 1,000’s of years, actually.

The really “trick stuff” involved in wall-building can be shocking when others take a design skill or theme and expand on it………….but certainly no less pleasing:

263319_153105891435930_1592884_nNow, since I have lived in dry climates, irrigation is installed typically at the original dirt-moving time. Trenches are dug, cleaned out, pipes installed, heads inserted and all the rigmarole involving irrigation is dealt with very early on. It won’t do to try and irrigate retroactively, at least not when grass or sod is involved. Drip irrigation is different but even drip needs a supply line established under the ground.

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Anyway, so we shape the land to conform to the original design. Next, there are any number of directions to go. The original shaping could have left room for paving materials for patios, walkways or patios. We could have carpentry projects where the carpenters are busy forming up their gazebo, fence, trellises or whatever. Hopefully, they work with us in what almost always tends to be a crowded space. Otherwise, we often resort to beating them up. It’s tough out there, I tell ya. 😉

If indeed we are paving, obviously there is a need for different materials to provide the sub-base materials for compacting. Dirt just won’t do. So guys bring in the base material, rake it out and compact it – either by machine if access is good or else by the handy old method of wheelbarrow. Since a wheelbarrow of base material weighs about 200 pounds, and the site of even the smallest patios or walkways require tons of material, this is a chore not to be sneezed at. It represents lots – and I do mean lots – of trips, back and forth.

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We then arrive at the point at which we install those paving items.  This involves and immense amount of carrying. The pavers need to go near the spot they were designed to go and they often require selective delivery, owing to the many different sizes and shapes and patterns they require. The onus is then upon the carrier to get it right. There is always a dude or two on the ground to put them in place and a crew ahead preparing the strata for laying.

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Once the patio is near completion, we work on what we call “finishing”. The soil is in place – perhaps needing amendment – and the “hardscape” is complete, so we can consider things like planting and installing grass and maybe edging materials, if required. So we order up our plants and we plant them, usually – in fact always – (except in the case of monster trees which we often dig by excavator) use shovels for this. Planting can be tough, too, depending on the native soils. Often times we need the help of picks and mattocks to get the hole to a decent enough size to handle the plants and trees. After planting, those familiar with drip irrigation know this is the time we run our feed lines to all the plantings. Oftimes, we will cover them up a few inches deep as well, particularly when no mulches are called for.

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Having completed the planting, we move to laying the grass. Since each roll weighs about 20-40 pounds, depending on the weather and the amount of clay they were grown in, this is another extremely tedious chore. There is that satisfaction, however, in laying grass, of such an immediate impact, aesthetically. Everyone picks up on it, invariably. There is something extremely satisfying in laying grass. The change is so quick and so total. But it, too, is tiring.

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After all this, we move to the “real” finishing which involves laying in mulches where the planting beds are and depositing art works or thrills into the landscape accordingly. Once we clean the place spotlessly, we are basically done. It’s pretty much beer-thirty.

The picture below is a shot at the business end of the plants we plant. This 22 foot Sequoia will thrive in Reno, an almost ideal climate save for the need for outside irrigation. Given water, however, few plants do better in Reno than the Giant Sequoia. You just need one heck of a lot of clearance to appropriately plant something which will get 25 feet wide and 100 feet tall.

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So a review of all this activity reveals a couple of things: One, that the work is hard work. It requires a body that is either strong already or one which can get that way. This is not the toughest thing in the world, by the way. Every year, once Winter ended and the work> started really getting underway, it took me a week or two to get into what I call “landscaping shape”.  It is no different for anyone. By the way, I have seen many women coming into the field and it is a good thing for all. While strength is not presumed to be ladylike, the interesting fact is, it is pretty attractive, actually. The female influence on a crew can also be a wonderful addition, the truth is. It tends to keep things decent in terms of language and even in terms of behavior in general. And they seem to enjoy it as well. Here is the one cardinal overlooked fact of a hard day at work:

The endorphin count is out the roof. The satisfaction of a full day’s labor – while hard – can have its biggest reward in how good the body feels at the end of a day. This is not small, either. There is something to be said about getting legitimately “high” at work and this is exactly what happens. The other benefit is in the benefit offered to anyone who works hard – I personally believe you live longer and that those efforts which maintain a pretty awesome physical tone impact a person fantastically well. I used to play ball games after work. I lived for it.

Advancing In The Field – But this should not keep one from advancing further in the field, either. This is the second phase of a trip through any successful landscaper’s journey and one which I will resume next post.

Doug and Ed 021

6 Comments »

  1. Hey Steve
    I loved this post. “A day in the life” of a landscaper. The photos all show a little progress each day and this is what we landscapers can appreciate. Sometimes our clients don’t “see” the everyday progress if the day has been spent doing “underground” work– drainage, sprinklers, sleeving, but we do!Excellent landscaping resource. Have you moved yet?
    shirleyComment by Shirley Bovshow “EdenMaker” — October 14, 2009 @ 11:25 am
  2. Yes, Shirley, I am now almost two full weeks into life in Louisville. It’s been an easy transition and an especially rewarding one so far, being with family again on a daily basis. I have also been approached for landscaping, lol.I knew this one would be one you might enjoy. Next, I’ll take a trip through the ranks. But I will also include a safety section.Comment by Steve — October 14, 2009 @ 4:03 pm
  3. Steve, that’s a great meditation on how you got to where you ended up, at least for a while. There are lots of great ways to be creative, and working with your hands seems to be one of the most rewarding. I’ve been doing a several weeks’ worth of pretty hard physical labor around the house after the day job is done, and I sometimes wondered if I’d have had a more satisfying life if I’d done some of the outdoor things that really satisfied me instead of doing all the desk job things that people kept telling me I should be doing. The day job has its satisfactions and pays the bills, to be sure. But how many of us don’t think every now and then about paths not taken? That said, you’ve definitely been clear about what isn’tso fuzzy and wonderful about the field, and to that I suppose you could add dealing with all sorts of people, many of whom will be terrific and a few of whom will never be satisfied. None of these big life decisions are easy…Comment by lostlandscape(James) — October 15, 2009 @ 12:25 am
  4. James, maybe I’m just lucky or maybe I have selective memory about events and relationships, but my relations with people in landscaping– and let’s speak 360 degrees, here – from the guys who I have worked for, and from those working for me and the abundant suppliers and clients, both residential and commercial, made it all just that much more rewarding in the end. The knuckleheads can hurt you – bad – and, to be honest, every now and then you make mistakes and must pay for them – (you being the knucklehead) – but they are outnumbered by a long way by the pleasantest relationships (outside of romance and family) that are possible for a human to have. In many ways, I regret nothing. Even the pain was worth it.Comment by Steve — October 15, 2009 @ 6:28 am
  5. Steve- it is so strange for me to see your workin the “wide open” plains surrounded by mountains. I am from New Jersey where it is totally different….. Super interesting to me…Comment by New Jersey Landscape Architect NJ & Landscape Designer — October 17, 2009 @ 9:43 am
  6. It’s why they call it Big Sky Country, lol. And, Lord knows, it’s the truth. When thunderstorms course through, once or twice a Summer, you can see the storm’s lightning lighting up clouds 100 miles away.Reno – where much of my work took place – is incredibly gifted, believe it or not. Having the Sierra Nevada Range basically mere miles away – including Tahoe – offers something you don’t see many other places. You still get the Big Skies but you also get a mountain show and all that ice cream snow-capped stuff. If you’re really lucky, you can get caught in one of those storms up there!They got 10 feet in one night once up there, 19 feet in two days. Reno got 4′.Comment by Steve — October 17, 2009 @ 10:23 am