Anniversary with PET

August 29, 2022

Some elements of reality, of everyday life, flow together with grace. True love and picnics, for example. Others, like anniversaries and PET scans, confront each other in strange, unnerving ways. Friday was our anniversary, 44 years, Thursday was my PET scan.

PET stands for positron emission tomography. A simple explanation is that it detects energy use in tissue, which can reveal cancer and other problems. A PET scan usually follows a CT, or computed tomography scan.

The hospital waiting room was deserted when I arrived around 4 PM. I looked out the big plate-glass front window at the flowing traffic. A guy in scrubs, the PET technician, approached from the end of a long corridor.

“Mr. Walsh? I’m Kelly,” he said. He pointed down the hall. “We go this way. How long since you’ve had anything to eat?” he asked. “You’re not diabetic, are you?” I shook my head.

We exited a back door and climbed into a trailer. I took a seat in a closet-sized space. Kelly checked my blood sugar, then inserted the IV. I sat still for 45 minutes, then walked to the next room and slid onto the platform. In twenty minutes I was on my way to the parking lot.

We looked at doing something special for the anniversary and checked out the resort town of Helen, Ga., the so-called “Bavarian village” of Georgia.  Instead we got a hotel room downtown.

Last year we were determined to go somewhere for the big day. Sandy found a “camper cabin” at Lake Hartwell, about 50 miles from home, the only state park rental that didn’t require a three-night stay. It was a pretty lakeside spot, but on the austere side: a bed, an overhead light, an air conditioner. You used the community bathhouse a couple of hundred yards away. No fun in the middle of the night.

Six months later I was cruising after three good CT scans each three months apart and three cheerful followups with the oncologist. The doc, a deep-Deep Southerner, consistently pulls off a sharp plaid shirt/solid tie ensemble, while our other medics turn out in sport shirts and running shoes. His quick, lighthearted wit made the appointments almost enjoyable. After the third good scan, in February, he let me skate for six months.

On Monday, at the Cancer Institute, he was all business. We met in a tiny treatment room, the usual place. He turned the computer monitor toward me and opened my last week’s CT scan. He pointed at a couple of gray shadows, “We have to look at these,” he said. “They might be nothing. I’m ordering a PET. That will tell us whether we need to biopsy.”

I had never thought of “biopsy” as a verb. He brought up my scan of last February, so long ago, and waved at the image. “Look here.” I looked. No shadow.

Friday, the anniversary, we headed downtown. Greenville has built a nice tourist business, with chic eateries and nightspots, a concert hall, a zoo, a gorgeous children’s museum, a beautiful ballpark, Fluor Field, which hosts a Red Sox farm club.

There’s Falls Park, which intersects Main Street along the less-than-mighty Reedy River, a pretty picnic and picture-taking spot. The locally famous 20-mile-long Swamp Rabbit Trail attracts runners, cyclists, strollers, dog-walkers. The trail passes through brand-new Unity Park, a lovely stretch of greenery that celebrates the long overdue reconciliation of whites and African Americans in a city and state once known for ironclad segregation, Jim Crow, and the Klan.

Our daughter Marie took charge of the anniversary, selecting the restaurant and making the reservation. We checked in and walked Main Street, gawking at the spectacle of the city. I leaned over the Main Street bridge to look at the river churning through the park. The evening crowd was out, heading for happy hour in cheerful Southern getups, sundresses, cutoff jean shorts, and bare shoulders for the girls, Clemson and USC tees and Bermudas for the guys. They weren’t all twenty- and thirty-somethings, I spotted some of our fellow geriatrics trying to have fun.

Greenville sunset

We worked our way into the weekend, taking stock. We’re holed up in this mid-size Deep South town, near the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge, a ten-minute drive from our grandkids and a lifetime away from northern Virginia’s snarling, traffic-choked subdivision sprawl. Also ten minutes from the nearest hospital, with its arsenal of state-of-the-art CT, MRI, and PET scanning equipment. I know the doctors, the admin people, the staff nurses, the scan techs.

We went for a walk after dinner, enjoying a mild evening with just a touch of summer mugginess, pleasant after the chilly restaurant. Billowing clouds had gathered, promising a storm, but it was comfortable. We explored some corners of the neighborhood we hadn’t seen before, which is most of it. The restaurants and bars all were packed, it was Greenville’s “Restaurant Week,” when you can get a great three-course meal for less money than usual, which these days still seems like a lot to me. We don’t get out much.

The PET report came in late that night with more detail than the CT, but really the same story. The dense medical language says something is going on in there. Most likely, if the doc wants a PET scan, something is going on. The report recommended an MRI “for further evaluation.”

The hotel had given us a 7th floor corner room, large and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a bit disorienting if you stood close and looked down. We could gaze across the city, past the apartments, hotels, and office and industrial buildings that passes for a skyline.

Beyond all that were the hazy pale-blue mountains that trail down from North Carolina and run west to the big lakes, Keowee and Jocassee, and then to rugged, forested north Georgia.

We slept well, enjoyed breakfast, and walked through the popular downtown farmer’s market, where vendors sell gourmet coffee and chocolate, pasta, granola, something called kuka juice; also some farm products. We talked about the future. Another anniversary, another year.

Arts & Crafts

August 22, 2022

When I wanted art supplies in Virginia I went to Michael’s, the big arts and crafts chain that competes head-on with Hobby Lobby. I liked the local Michael’s, it stocked the things I needed and did good work on some framing for us. The checkouts were fast and efficient.

Moving to a new community is an adventure, but it also means leaving things behind. When we arrived in South Carolina we needed a kitchen table and chairs, a microwave, a bedframe, a living-room chair. That took months. Finally, I needed some humble things, oil and acrylic paints and brush cleaner. I didn’t want to go far to get them. The nearest Michael’s is six miles away from our new place, through traffic. Hobby Lobby is two miles, an easy drive.

Hobby Lobby, based in Oklahoma City, with nearly 1,000 stores, postures as a “Christian” business. The stores are closed on Sundays. In early 2016 Hobby Lobby CEO David Green said, “under no circumstances could I vote for Donald Trump because he could do much, much damage to this country … to the extent of talking about someone’s anatomy,” referring to Trump’s comments about women that revealed him as a dirt-mouthed lecher. He said he probably would not vote.

In September he endorsed Trump, saying “Donald Trump has been steadfast in expressing his commitment to uphold the Constitution.” The anatomy comments were forgotten.

Green and his family funded construction of a so-called Museum of the Bible in Washington that opened in 2017. The museum purchased thousands of “biblical” artifacts from fly-by-night antiquities dealers. Many were found to have been smuggled out of Iraq. In 2017 a federal court forced the museum to return 5,500 items to Iraq and fined it $3 million.  In March 2020 experts revealed that all of the 16 items that the museum claimed were fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls were fake. The New York Times reported that in August 2021 Iraq reclaimed some 17,000 items held by the Greens’ museum.

Also in March 2020, when the pandemic set in and most businesses shut down, Hobby Lobby argued that it was an “essential” retailer. According to published sources, CEO Green said his wife received a message from God directing the chain to stay open. The stores closed a month later after a blast of criticism. The company furloughed employees without pay and encouraged them to apply for unemployment benefits.

As bizarre as this seems, it’s also exhausting. Some people refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby, just as others refuse to watch MSNBC or CNN. At this time of endless political nastiness, I didn’t want to find politics at the crafts store.

The Hobby Lobby near us looks like the one in our former Virginia community, advertised by giant boldface capital letters across the front of the building. I drove over through thick afternoon heat, hurried inside and met a blast of cold air.

I was in no hurry and wandered a bit. The long aisles are piled high with arts and crafts materials, artificial flowers, wicker furniture, prints of religious paintings, picture frames, plastic knockoffs of famous statues. You can get sewing gear, fabric, zippers, artificial Christmas trees. The book rack offers “best seller” inspirational works by well-known evangelists. Hobby Lobby also is the place for posters and plaques of the “God Bless Our Home” variety.

The store was running a sale, 40 percent off almost everything. I found my items quickly for slightly better prices than I paid at Michael’s, although the South Carolina sales tax (6 percent) is a tad higher than Virginia’s (5.3 percent). 

It was a mid-afternoon weekday, I thought I’d miss the store’s busier hours. I was the only male in four open checkout lines. No one was in a hurry. The cashiers smiled at each customer ahead of me, commenting on the attractiveness of each purchase, wrapping glass and other fragile items. In my line the customers, young, middle-aged, and older women, chatted with each other while the cashier finished wrapping and bagging.   

Some moms towed pre-school-age children who fidgeted and wandered, some of them grabbing packs of Skittles and candy and sneaking them into their mothers’ carts. Nearly all the moms retrieved and returned the stuff to the candy rack, some with a gentle lecture. One or two gave in and the kids tore off the wrappers and chomped on their treats.

The line inched forward. The drone of chitchat was in normal, occasionally animated voices, no whispering or hushed tones. The customers discussed prices and quality, whether Hobby Lobby had the best deals for this or that. The line stood still while an older lady politely disputed a price of an artificial floral arrangement. I held my items under my arm. I was alone on this errand, some of the women clearly had come in pairs or threes. No one spoke to me.

At checkout I handed the cashier my card. She gave me a businesslike nod and handled my purchase quickly with a “have a nice day.” Then I was out of there.

I wondered. Why did this errand seem strange? I’ve waited in lots of checkout lines. After decades living in the South I know something about Southerners, the reflexive, sunny openness and friendliness, but also, sometimes, an unsettling, dark remoteness. My native Yankee prejudices may have led me to read in the customers, in their manner, some hard-to-define social or political content. Maybe that’s unfair.

While waiting, my mind drifted to Hobby Lobby and politics. South Carolina, like David Green, went for Trump in a big way. The state, like the company, has its pervasive “evangelical” Christian tilt. Yet like everywhere in Trumpdom, the comments about women were excused, ignored, or forgotten. Same with the election denialism, the admiration for dictators, the moneygrubbing, the covid indifference, the racial and ethnic slurs.

At any rate, the ladies feel comfortable at Hobby Lobby, probably as comfortable as they feel at church. The shopping is a chore, but also an outing, a social thing, like coffee after Sunday services. Then too, maybe my Hobby Lobby checkout friends all voted for Biden. I think I’ll go back to Michael’s.  


August 15, 2022

The menu for the Broadway Pub and Grill in Jim Thorpe, Penn., was posted on the door. I looked it over and saw the hamburger priced at $20. Sandy and I kept walking. We found a shop a block further on and each got a sandwich for $15. Then we climbed in the van and drove away.

Jim Thorpe is tucked in a valley in east-central Pennsylvania, once anthracite coal-mining country. There’s one way in and out, U.S. 209, which intersects with I-476 about ten miles north. The downtown business district is built around an old railroad station. The narrow streets are dotted with cute shops and eateries. On a sunny summer day the streets were crowded with people, few of whom, I guessed, live in the town. In that way it’s like lots of other small American towns.

Trying not to be grumpy, I wonder about these places. The formula seems to be: a central business district with a couple of streets of well-preserved or restored buildings, maybe banks or hotel buildings with antique-looking 19th or early 20th century facades, and an old church or two with tall spires or bell towers. Then a depressed or stagnant local economy and a sense of hard times. Next, an energetic mayor or board of county supervisors or other local officials. They try to figure out how to revitalize things. The answer: tourists.

I’m reaching here, but just a little. It appears that decisionmakers in many places have made this calculation. They commission a study that finds that tourists are attracted to shopping, eating, and drinking in places that convey some historical ambiance.

Old Town Alexandria, Va., may be a baseline. It’s filled with rowhouses, churches, and other buildings dating to the 18th century. Many sidewalks are cobblestone or old brick, lined with beautiful gardens. Then there’s the restaurants. In the 33 years we lived in Virginia we ate dozens of meals in Old Town cafes and bistros. Our daughter had her wedding rehearsal dinner there. So do lots of other couples. People actually live in Old Town, although visitors probably wonder who can afford to buy there.

The economic engine is tourism. Old Town usually is crowded with people shopping, eating, and drinking, some local for sure, but mostly from other cities and states, and other countries. It’s a model for downtown prosperity.

You can find a mix of places, large and small, that use the Old Town model: Portsmouth, N.H., West Chester, Penn., East Hampton, N.Y., Cape May, N.J., Bozeman, Mont. Next to our old hometown is Occoquan, Va. Within our driving range is Hendersonville, N.C., where Main Street is a highway of cuteness, with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, art galleries, boutiques. So is Brevard, a bit farther north, although there’s also a college. Christmas shopping is very big. Leavenworth, Wash., remade itself as a Bavarian village on the advice of economists at the state university.

The formula isn’t exact, for example, neither West Chester nor East Hampton are depressed. Some have natural tourism draws; East Hampton and Cape May have beaches. The history angle is more prominent in some places, but every place can claim historical nuggets. Portsmouth played an active role in the American Revolution. West Chester was incorporated in 1799. Bozeman became a base for settling the West. Occoquan was a key Civil War Potomac River port. And so on.

Plenty of places are named after people. Very few other towns are named with a personal name and surname, among them Albert Lea, Minn., Carol Stream, Ill., George West, Texas.

Back to Jim Thorpe. There’s history there, too. Jim Thorpe, born in 1887, was Native American, raised on the Sac and Fox reservation in Oklahoma. He won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games. A year later the International Olympic Committee revoked his medals when he admitted he had played professional baseball so had lost his amateur status. The medals were restored in 1983, 30 years after his death.

Thorpe starred in pro football and baseball. In 1950 a poll of sportswriters voted him the “greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century.” In 1999 an Associated Press poll named him third on a list of greatest athletes of the century.

Yet Thorpe led a troubled life, became a serious alcoholic, and ended up broke. When he died in 1953 his body lay in state in his hometown of Shawnee, Okla. His third wife, Patricia, without telling the rest of his family, shipped his body to the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, which promised to erect a memorial, and allegedly paid her for the remains.

The two towns placed Thorpe in a marble tomb and erected two statues of him. The towns merged and took the name Jim Thorpe. Later his family sued to have him returned to Oklahoma. After years of legal back-and-forth, in 2014 an appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs—the family—could not use a federal statute to win return of the body. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case. So Thorpe remains in Jim Thorpe, a place he never visited.  

Downtown, along Lehigh Avenue, visitors can ride on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railroad. They can dine and drink at Molly Maguire’s Irish Pub. A block away, on Race Street, you find the Jim Thorpe Massage and Wellness Studio and Muggie’s Mug, a coffee bar. There’s a hibachi-sushi gastropub, a bed & breakfast, and The Inn at Jim Thorpe. There’s a Fall Foliage Festival and Jim Thorpe’s Olde Time Christmas, an Anthracite Triathlon, and an art foundation. 

Uptown, along North Street across the Lehigh River, we passed blocks of frame houses, many needing a coat of paint, some with broken porch railings, others with scruffy lawns and cracked walkways. The streets were largely deserted. Next to the tourist scene, North Street might have been in another state. I got a sense that hard times still linger. I guessed people from the neighborhood work in the downtown shops and restaurants. The town needs the jobs.

The Carbon County Chamber of Commerce is in Lehighton, a few miles away. They’ve done well reinventing the old coal town. Jim’s tomb, on the outskirts, is impressive. No one else was around when we stopped by, but I guess it brings the visitors. Or the pubs and shops do. Hard to tell.   

North to PA

August 8, 2022

The Civil War followed us as we headed up I-81 to Pennsylvania. In Winchester, Va., we stumbled on commemorations of the Third Battle of Winchester. There, in September 1864 Union General Philip Sheridan broke the rebels’ hold on the Shenandoah Valley and helped Lincoln’s reelection, which then helped end the war seven months later.

Locals felt differently about the outcome. At the battle site a monument erected in 2017 honors a North Carolina Confederate unit that fought there. Downtown, in the center of the tourist boulevard, a tall statue of a rebel infantryman stands, the base emblazoned “In Lasting Honor of Every Confederate Soldier.”

Battle of Winchester monument

We were heading for our son’s and daughter-in-law’s place near Philadelphia. We stayed on the interstate across the industrial northeastern corner of West Virginia and into Maryland, aiming for Harrisburg. Instead we took U.S. 30 out of Chambersburg towards Gettysburg. Mid-state Pennsylvania still is Trump groupie country, decorated with campaign signs for Trump acolyte and election denier Doug Mastriano, who’s running for governor. Tattered “Trump-Pence 2020” signs hang here and there.  

The battlefield at Gettysburg surrounds the city. It was 90F, but we got a bus from the visitor’s center out to the Eisenhower farm, where the president and Mamie retreated, when they could, from the White House. Eisenhower conducted government business, hosted foreign leaders, and raised Angus cattle at the farm. We walked through the lovely brick-and-stone home, presented exactly as Mamie left it when she passed in 1979. Ike died in 1969.

We saw those immortal places, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, and finally Cemetery Ridge, where 6,500 Yanks rained fire down on Pickett’s 12,000-man rebel line as they advanced into that death trap on the third day of the battle. Years later veterans of Union and Confederate units who fought at Gettysburg erected dignified markers and monuments to their fallen members across the vast breadth of the battlefield.

Sunroom, Eisenhower home

Looking west, the battlefield and surrounding farmland are gorgeous in rich summer green. The terrain shows a slight slope out to the horizon, which I guess worked to the advantage of the Union troops and against the exhausted rebels. The Allegheny range rises far westward, Pittsburgh and the industrial western counties are maybe 150 miles farther on. East of the city, cornfields, wide and thick, stretch from the highway as it passes through New Oxford, Abbottstown, Thomasville, still west of the highway maze at York.

We slogged through the York rush hour and passed the I-83 interchange, the route to Baltimore or Harrisburg. We pushed east with the idea of seeing the tranquil Amish farm country around Lancaster. Instead the highway took us north of the city. It continues all the way to Philadelphia.

We have some history in PA. Years ago we came up often when three of our kids lived there, Laura in Pittsburgh, Michael and Caroline near Philadelphia, Marie and Mike in Lewisburg. Like other Yankee states, it shows a mix of farming, corn, wheat, soybeans, and heavy industry, that is, the heaviest: coal mines, steel and coke mills, plastics, chemicals, that once generated choking, killing fumes.

Blood was shed in labor wars around the mines and mills as unions organized. The unions, when they were born, won men better pay and working conditions. In past decades the heavy industries declined, some disappeared, the smog and chemical pollutants with them. Pittsburgh now is a technology and medical research center, with University of Pittsburgh, the U-Pitt Medical Research Laboratory, and Carnegie Mellon, but also niche operations like Gecko Robotics, Seegrid, Petuum, others.

All that disappears farther east on the PA turnpike into the “Alabama” mid-section of the state, from the embarrassing joke about the three Pennsylvanias, with Pittsburgh and Philly the other two. The Flight 93 memorial is set in wide space near Shanksville in Somerset County, where on 9-11-01 the hijackers crashed the aircraft when the passengers tried to overcome them. It’s a solemn place.

Further along the turnpike is the retail shlock of Breezewood, at the intersection with I-70, which will take you to Frederick, Md., the gateway to the south to D.C., or east to Baltimore. Years ago we visited McConnellsburg, a tiny spot of 1,100 souls just south of Breezewood. We wondered about the empty streets and storefronts, but that’s the way it is in many of these places. Businesses shut down, farms were sold, people left.

Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University, is very cold in winter, like the rest of the state. It’s lively if you grew up there, faintly picturesque if you didn’t.  The Susquehanna River flows by, muddy and wide, bordered by small one-street factory towns, then Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster on its way to Chesapeake Bay.

We pushed on into the traffic-choked maw of Philadelphia, which extends well beyond the affluent Main Line, probably 60 miles west, and south to Wilmington. It’s more intense inside I-476, the commuter beltway, which becomes a straight shot north to the pretty farm country around Coopersburg, where Michael and Caroline got married. The 476 northern extension then flows into Allentown, one of America’s first big Iron Towns, famous for pig iron, shoemaking, and flour mills. Next door is Bethlehem, famous for what? Bethlehem Steel.

Twice in recent years we went to Titusville, at the state’s far northwestern end, where oil first was found in the U.S. in 1859. The little town, just south of Erie, exploded with growth and wealth. The oil then ran out, the drilling companies moved to Texas and Oklahoma. Titusville and the nearby counties, far from almost anything, suffered. The usual story: small businesses disappeared, people moved away. Lately things have improved. I met people who relocated to Titusville and love it. The place, like the rest of the state, shows spark.

You drive around these places, you never see them all. How much time do you need to get through Pennsylvania, how much do you have? We look at maps, but need to keep doctor’s appointments. What about a trip to Ireland, which they say is beautiful? Everyone we know has been there. Maybe someday. A big maybe.