For some reason, videos are almost never terrifying for me. Embarrassing, yes. Boring, yes. Entertaining, yes. Educational, yes. All manner of things, but terrifying? This video is absolutely terrifying, very nearly panic inducing.

Two police officers stop at night to remove from a rural highway what appears to be a very large dead badger. It becomes unclear just what the creature is, but… it is not dead but drunk. What seems to happen next…

The title “Nighthawk” probably is intended to suggest random, malign predation from the concealing and lonely darkness of the night. In reality, nighthawks are nocturnal, insectivorous birds. They were once not unusual in Chicago, or at least in Rogers Park, but I’ve not heard one call in the night for decades. I miss them. So the title of the video is not so alarming, at least to me.

There may be two aspects about this video that disturb me.

One is that there is a large body of videos on the web that is best described as accident porn. The “fails” are various, but many are dash cam recordings of traffic accidents. Typically they begin with a few tens of seconds of quite ordinary driving and traffic then things turn really bad, frequently without any warning whatsoever. Quite frankly, it’s not clear to me just how people can willingly drive or even be a passenger after having watched more than 5 or 10 minutes of such recordings. None the less, there is obviously an audience for this stuff. Possibly the viewers figure it couldn’t happen to them, and what a pleasant opportunity to pass judgement on those who fail. Cleansing the gene pool of fools and idiots seems to be a favored attitude for much of the audience.

Even though I’ve not owned a car since 1979 and haven’t driven a car since sometime in 2008, this precariousness pretty much matches my experience. The few accidents I’ve been in have been without injury. But there were more than a few times when I returned a rental car after having witnessed a handful of accidents that day and more than a little oblivious driving. On those occasions, it seemed to me that it was almost an accident that I had not been in an accident. It could indeed happen to you.

The other aspect is Louie.

Louie and his wife were a seriously dysfunctional couple, neighbors of mine in the subdivided mansion where I grew up. Both had their problems, neither was any prize as a human, but Louie was an alcohol junkie and worse, a mean drunk. The battles between Louie and his wife were sometimes epic and on a few occasions included guns.

Louie had redeeming qualities, too. He was a stellar carpenter, good at shaping anything wooden whether it was a house, furniture, bird house or tchotchke lawn ornament. I still have a solid and precise set of shelves that he made some fifty years ago. Louie was also an excellent gardener. He more or less expropriated substantial parts of the landlord’s large yard for flower beds that I recall as always in bloom. And one way or another, the two of them always had money to pay the rent and to own a car or two.

But he was a really mean drunk.

There is research that suggests, for a small percentage of the population, alcohol has a dramatic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect; the intoxication evokes rage. When I mentioned this research to a friend, he paused for a moment, considering perhaps an alcoholic in his own life, then said in a smugly judgemental way: “No. That’s just an excuse.”

Excuse from what? I never asked my friend. I don’t know if Louie was part of that small percentage, but if he was, what practical difference would the inevitability of his rage make? It might make a difference in treatment if he sought treatment or was judicially assigned treatment. Another practical difference is that the research finding, if true, would deprive my friend of a superior moral position, of the pleasure of making a moral judgement of Louie and people like him.

Louie may very well have agreed with my friend: Why can’t I not drink? Why is it that when I drink, I so often fight? Why is it the fights make so little sense? The fault is not in my stars but in me. Now consider the years of accumulating revulsion. Consider what it would be like to live with that inner-directed revulsion and to have it affirmed by those around you.

It eventually came to pass that Louie and his wife moved out and were divorced. The gardens rapidly retreated to lawn and the Martin houses decayed into slums for sparrows. But the new neighbors were civil and pacific and harmless mostly. Louie ended up in a trailer in the next town south of us where he continued to drink. At length, he drunkenly drove his car the wrong way down Interstate 55, killing himself and a family of four. It was murder — suicide.

Louie, I suspect, would agree with this video’s “badger’s” last words. And if that doesn’t scare the bejesus from ye…


The Tail

Yet another shark sighting…

Shaggy and wild-eyed, he stopped her and her dog at the beach.

“Did ye hear of the shark that bit the dog’s tail?”


“Aye, lass, it was a horror… just now.”

He leaned close to her ear and his voice dropped to gargling whisper, a smell of whiskey, tobacco and sweat.

“The shark… Aye, the shark!” He paused: “Therein lies the tale.”

— Yip

Mysterious Neighbor

some things are best not known

In the city, it’s not unusual for one to have only the vaguest of acquaintance with one’s neighbors. My current next door neighbor is an excellent example. He moved in perhaps two years ago, three years ago? One loses track, and our paths cross maybe two… most certainly not more than four times a year.

His arrival had been hardly noticeable. One day the old resident’s name disappeared from the mailbox. Then, some weeks later, a new name appeared. And oddly, a smudge blossomed above his doorway, as if someone had held, for a time, a candle too close to the ceiling. Or had it always been there? When we finally met, I didn’t ask about it. It was hardly important, after all, and that it had anything to do with him was pure speculation.

Over time, he was always cordial but closed. “Working hard,” he would reply to “How are you?” “Going to work,” he would explain if we met on the landing: an older, quiet, always neatly dressed gentleman with a vague accent that somehow evokes the eastern Mediterranean.

Some months (how many?) after he moved in, the smudge became an X… or is it a cross? When did that happen? I hadn’t noticed, but the possibilities seemed amusing somehow. I entirely missed the appearance of a second ‘X’ some indeterminant months later. When a third ‘X’ appeared, I was a bit flummoxed. When did this happen, or had there always been three?

Oh, but it isn’t my imagination. A few weeks ago, there were suddenly four.

He’s keeping score.


The Answer

The turbulent wind of an open convertible at highway speed rattled the envelope in his hand. It shook and bobbed like a leaf on a tree. From the driver’s seat, Maeve looked across the car. Soft spoken, her voice was hard to hear against the wind: “It’s from your father. Aren’t you going to open it?”

Was he? Dad could have called. He could have emailed. He could have knocked on their door. And he could have done that months ago. But now, a letter? What could that mean? With Dad, the medium was often the message; did he really want to know? Instead of answering, Dan sighed. After a moment he awkwardly torn the end off the envelope and extracted a sheet. It said:


Four months have gone by since we last spoke. I am doing something that I hadn’t planned to do, and that is, to make one more try if you will do the same thing also. I shall offer you what you wanted for a starter, so here goes. I apologize. Now, I expect you to come through with your part, namely, a two way, one on one, thoughtful, equal, sensitive and not insulting start at communication with an end goal of bridging over the gap which separates us. Agreed? Otherwise, J’ai fini, this time for real.


“What did he say, Dan?” Maeve asked.

Dan held the letter between two fingers while it gyrated in the wind. After a moment he let go and it flew away.

“Nothing,” he replied.

— Yip

Farmer Stone

For all pedestrians who’ve had to negotiate lawn sprinklers.

Ah’m sorry, Ma’am. Ah gotta water the sidewalk. Ifn you don’t water the sidewalk, the concrete’ll juss turn brown and blow away! But lissen here. With proper irrigation and a judicial application of dogshit fertilizer — Why, Ma’am, come Fall, we’ll have a FINE harvest of gravel. Juss you wait ‘n see!


Farmer Stone 1
Concrete sprinkler. Photo by Roman
Farmer Stone 3
Lake Michigan sidewalk summer exuberance. Photo by Roman.
Farmer Stone 4
Playing with GIMP Image Editor. Photo by Roman
Photo by Roman


The Great American Dream Machine

And while we’re celebrating America’s birthday, let’s remember a truly remarkable early PBS television series:

The Great American Dream Machine did not assume an audience of distracted idiots. Amazing. This particular clip was a promotion for a retrospective anthology program on the 40th anniversary of the series. It played on the TV station that had produced the series.

I do believe the series (1971 to 1973) is available on DVD, but you can find clips of various episodes on YouTube and (a few) on Vimeo.

Several years prior to this, there was the “Public Broadcast Laboratory,” a sort of beta test for the Public Broadcasting System. If I remember correctly, the archive of episodes of “Public Broadcast Laboratory” ended up at a division of the Indiana University system where no one saw them. They were available for rent, however, and I did so twice. Apparently the Corporation for Public Broadcasting retained copies as well and in the 1990s donated them to the Library of Congress. No one sees these, either. There are one or two episodes posted on YouTube that I was able to find. More on this later, perhaps, because it did have a big influence on my politics.

I can’t quite remember the last time I watched TV. The last TV set that I owned died in the early 1980s. The Chicago DSA office had an analog TV set for which we never bothered to obtain a digital conversion box. On those get-up-from-the-desk breaks, I would often turn it on briefly. I learned that the programming was actually interesting provided the sound was entirely muted. The visuals were usually artful and engaging and were sometimes even decent story-telling. With sound, the experience almost always threatened brain damage. We left the TV set behind when we moved the office from 1608 N. Milwaukee. By then, there were only three stations left broadcasting in analog format.

This, of course, is broadcast TV. Friends of mine had cable. The expense was far outside what I was willing to pay, sometimes far outside what I could afford if I wanted to eat as well, plus there were all those commercials, frequently more than on broadcast TV. Does anyone remember the early days of cable when they promised a commercial free experience because, after all, you’re paying a subscription? It seems that, beyond the obvious selling point, it was mainly because next to no one was interested in advertising on cable then. Gotcha! Bait and switch.

I can turn into a couch potato with just the internet, thank you, no need for TV.

And I have.

Bureau Junction

Bureau Junction
Chicago bound Peoria Rocket pulls into Bureau Junction station. Photo by ?.

This is a postcard that I ran across while reorganizing the hall closet. I’m not sure of the photo date, though my guess is sometime in the 1940s though maybe it could be as early as 1937 or as late as the very early 1950s. The Rock Island Railroad was fairly aggressive about changing from steam locomotives to diesel-electric, especially on passenger trains as early as 1937. The process was interrupted by World War II, but the Rock Island’s steam locomotives were all retired by 1954. There is a coaling tower and water tower in the background (behind the baggage carts).

The photo is of Bureau Junction, Illinois, where the old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad threw off a branch line to Peoria, Illinois. The photo looks southward down the Peoria branch, and the arriving train (note the blur) is probably the Peoria Rocket. (The Peoria Rocket made it’s first run in September of 1937, diesel-electric powered.) You’ll note a fellow standing beside the locomotive. He’s handing up train orders on a long pole to a crew member in the locomotive cab. On the near right, you’ll note a fellow standing next to a small shack. The shack was for a crossing guard, something that was common before automatic crossing gates and lights. I don’t know if the fellow alongside the shack is the guard but if you look closely, he’s wearing quite the hat. The Rock Island’s double track mainline is on the other side of the station, and it curves away west. For a while, there was also an interurban trolley line that entered Bureau Junction paralleling the Rock Island mainline. Even mainline passenger trains would stop at Bureau Junction as it was a transfer point for passengers for the Peoria branch and for the interurban. After the trolley line was abandoned, buses would arrive before train arrivals and depart after.

Bureau Junction was also the departure point for the Illinois — Mississippi Canal (aka Hennepin Canal) that provided a short cut between the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. Most folks no longer remember that the canal ever existed, but it was completed in December of 1907 and remained in operation until 1951. It still exists, mostly, as a small waterway and as an Illinois state park.

Incidentally, the photo makes Bureau Junction look Illinois flat, but the town is in the Illinois River valley. The Rock Island mainline wiggled more than a little both west and most especially east of Bureau Junction as a result. It is flatter, though, than I remembered it.

Even though it was multimodal transportation hub, Bureau Junction at its peak was always a small and mostly sleepy town: maximum census no more than 700 in the 1920s but less than half that now. The Rock Island went belly up in 1980 and its assets were sold to cover its debts. The lines through Bureau Junction were acquired by a new railroad, Iowa Interstate. Much of the Rock Island’s network is still operated by one railroad or another. Some of them, including Iowa Interstate, still play off the old Rock Island brand.

This is how the same location looked in 1993. The view is almost opposite from the postcard, looking north along the Peoria branch to where it joins the mainline. Most of the tracks have been removed. The red Ford Escort is approximately where the crossing guard’s shack stood. The station remains though there is no passenger service. From rail fan videos, I can tell you that in 2018 the derelict signal bridge has been long since removed and the tracks are in much better condition.

Bureau Junction 1993
Bureau Junction in 1993. Photo by Roman

My mother’s parents retired to Bureau Junction. Grandpa had worked for the Rock Island as, I’m told, a coal-chute operator though I’m unclear what he did after the Rock Island retired their steam locomotives. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was just across the street from the Rock Island mainline. The time I spent there is basically why I became a trainspotter. It’s also probably how I came to possess the old postcard. When I was last in Bureau Junction for a nostalgic visit in 1993, their old house was still standing. It was probably one of the better houses in that town. Bureau Junction, alas, is a small village version of Detroit. (I’m sure the natives would object to the comparison, but it is.)

Bureau Junction 1993
Grandparents’ home in 1993, decades after they had passed away. Grandpa built the garage (lower left) when he was 70. There had been another house next door. I have no clue when that came down. Photo by Roman