Monday, June 20, 2011


Today was the last day of my “vacation,” which, you will observe, I put in quotes because I’m not sure you can call it a vacation if you don’t actually have a job to take time off from.
But it sounds better than “This was the last day of my time out of town.”
It has not exactly been a trip to paradise. The weather the first couple of days in the Saint Louis area was actually hotter and muggier than back in South Florida. And then it turned kind of cool, which, combined with strange pollen, resulted in a battle against a head cold and cough for the last 10 days or so.
Ugh. Not exactly the best way to greet the summer solstice.
I originally thought I would be safely back in South Florida by this time, but I forgot to factor in the inability of my wife and daughter to communicate such mundane information such as the date of her return.
We were not exactly the free spirits we usually are because we were her to babysit while my daughter went off the Caribbean to get married (parental presence was not required for this second ceremony).
Date of departure my wife and daughter got down. What they did not get was the date of my daughter’s return. I thought it was going to be a stay of not much longer than a week. At one point, I was wondering if I was going to be in town for when the Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium for their series with the Kansas City Royals.
It wasn’t until later that I learned I actually could have been here for their series against the Phillies.
But I simply couldn’t stay that long. So my wife finishes up the babysitting duty while I return to Miami to get to the monthly SAMA luncheon plus finish up planning for the automotive media group’s first convertible carnival, which we have quaintly dubbed Topless in Miami. (Technically, more toplessness occurs in Miami Beach than Miami, but that is quibbling over semantics.)
Most people spend the last day of their “vacation” sitting back and reflecting on the good times or getting in one last day at the beach, one last round of golf, or similar event.
I spent it riding on a train and buses.
You see, because I will not be in town to go the airport to pick up my daughter and her new husband, I had to take out his car and park it in a long-term lot so it would be there when they got back. I didn’t want to put my wife through following me the 40-minute trek to Lambert Field. If she got lost, I would never hear the last of it, and deservedly so.
It would be easy enough to take the Metrolink train from the airport through Saint Louis and to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River to link up with the region’s bus service. It would entail having to transfer once, but no big deal.
It wasn’t bad, not nearly as bad as my last actual flying trip (see earlier blog below), and it did provide for some unexpected experiences.
I must have the kind of face that people like to confide in.
For the first few stops from the airport, I sat by myself, but then a nice woman on her way home from work (though she did get off just before we reached downtown), sat down beside me.
She didn’t exactly chat me up, but after a few minutes, she and another woman in front of her were wondering why the ticket taker in the car didn’t call the police because one of the male riders didn’t have a ticket or ID.
Any way, my seat mate noted my obvious cough and observed that she, too, had been fighting a summer cold.
“Nothing worse,” she said.
Then she proceeded to tell me of an incident on one of her recent rides when another woman had put down a purse in the seat beside her and a young man had come by and picked it right up on his way off the train.
She also had been on the train when someone else stole one of the new computer gadgets (iPod? Kindle? She wasn’t sure.).
Both the victims, she assured me, were very upset. One was really crying.
She got off at the next stop before giving any more crime reports.
“Have a nice day,” she said.
Across the river, I got off at the second stop to catch the first of my two bus rides.
I found the right boarding spot and sat down on the bench next to a lone guy.
For whatever reason, he immediately told me a couple of racial jokes, which I don’t really appreciate and didn’t really see the wisdom in considering we were in East Saint Louis at the time.
But he also told me where I had to make my next stop and that I should ask the driver for a transfer, which I did when I boarded.
He also told me that he had once had to travel over to the airport by bus alone, and it was a long trip before there was train service. (An aside here: I wasn’t aware until I saw the train at the airport a few years ago that Saint Louis even had a rail system.)
This was back when he had been in an accident and had lost his marbles and couldn’t drive, he said. He had most of his marbles back now, he said, though he thought some were still broken.
He was only going to Collinsville, where he once live. He told me of a good bar he had once ridden his bike to from his home several nights a week and when he got too drunk, he would hitch a ride back home and lock the bike up at a big pole at the bar, which, by the way, closed recently.
At Collinsville, I made the switch to the bus to Edwardsville.
My idea was to ride to the end of the line at city hall. But a closer look at the map I had picked up earlier showed the route actually split once it hit Edwardsville. The bus I was on was heading to the SIU-Edwardsville campus, not city hall were my wife expected me to be.
Thank goodness for cell phones.
I called my wife and told her to pick up me up at the Walmart, which is a stop along the way.
Oh, yeah. There were only a couple of other people on the small bus, but before he got off at a rather early stop, one of them made a cell phone call to his boss. After the call, he looked over to my general area and gave the news that some generals were coming to his place of work the next day, and he had to be there at 5 a.m. because there were going to be bomb-sniffing dogs.
“Imagine,” he said. “Bomb-sniffing dogs.”
I was the only passenger on my side of the bus, and the only other rider had an iPod on, so I figured he was talking to me.
As the bus neared the Walmart stop, I checked the time. It was 4:23 in the afternoon. I had left the airport about two hours earlier, so the usual 40- minute or so ride back home had just about tripled in duration.
But I had spent only $1.85 as a “senior” rider.
Well, that’s not right either.
You see, when I was standing in front of the ticket dispenser for Metrolink back at the airport looking lost, a guy had stopped to help me figure out exactly what I needed.
Before I could get away, he told me a story about having some sort of operation because he had diabetes, and he pointed to a nasty looking wound on his chin. (I didn’t look closely.)
He rejected my offer of train fare, but said he needed to get to Houston, which he may have said was home (I didn’t catch all the details) but, of course, he didn’t have anywhere near the money that was going to cost.
Bus fare to Texas was much cheaper.
I felt I should help him out. I looked for a fiver in my wallet, but I had used it to buy my train ticket.
There was a tenner, however. What else could I do at that point?
So the train/bus trip technically cost me $11.85.
“Vacation” has ended just in time.

Friday, June 17, 2011


The Ohio State football program is a mess, its coach and star quarterback both gone in the aftermath of the coverup of violations.
Corruptness has permeated the Fiesta Bowl, leading to the resignation of the man who put among the postseason elite.
The book has yet to be closed on the Cam Newton situation at
Auburn, Oregon is rumored to be on the edge of exposure for some problems, and who knows what is going to befall the football program at North Carolina.
So what is the NCAA coming down on?
It has its britches in a wad because Kentucky last basketball season gave special recognition to coach John Calipari for his 500th coaching victory.
Hold on, the NCAA said. He had to vacate some of those wins.
Kentucky fought the decision for a while but recently acquiesced, issuing a statement that said it was in error in insisting on giving Calipari 500 wins, even though the vacated wins were not during his time at Kentucky but at his previous stints and Massachusetts and Memphis.
I guess the NCAA can rest easy now. What a great victory for integrity!
Dripping sarcasm here.
The NCAA is the same bunch that succumbed to pressure from the bowl and allowed Ohio State to play ineligible players in the Sugar Bowl last season and wasted who knows how much time and money on a campaign to eliminate American Indian names and logos from school athletic teams.
And you wonder why college athletics is in such trouble.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Here are the pictures from the Route 66 Festival that I mentioned in an earlier post. They were taken in Edwardsville, Illinois, a small town just outside of Saint Louis.
Actually, the festival is more of an Edwardsville history festival than it is a event highlighting the history of the Mother Road (or the Main Street of America/Will Rogers Highway, as it also is known).
I guess the festival promoters figure they have a better chance of drawing crowds to a Route 66 Festival than an event billed as Edwardsville History Festival. I think they figure right.
Probably no other road in the U.S. has quite the mystique about it as Route 66. In its heyday, it stretched from Chicago over 2,448 miles to Los Angeles (and later stretched to Santa Monica).
It has been sung about (get your kicks, on Route 66) and the subject of a popular television show in the 1960s. (A former high school teacher of mine once said he never experienced any of the adventures that Martin Milner and George Maharis did in the show when he was traveling. Yeah, but you weren’t driving a Corvette either.(I said that to myself.)
I first drove Route 66 in 1966 (kind of symmetry there -- driving 66 in ’66) on my way to California for transporting on to my first active duty station. By then, parts of the route had been taken over by Interstate 44 (it's a bore on route 44!) and later I-40.
By 1985, the road first established 60 years earlier was officially removed from the U.S. Highway system because it was no longer relevant. Not relevant? That’s the government for you. No sense of history.
Various groups have done a wonderful job of keeping the history of the road alive with various markings designating the Historic Route in several of the states along the route.
A few years ago I saw the signs designating parts of Historic Route 66 through Saint Louis and wondered exactly how Route 66 got to all the places where the markings were. Turns out, through the years the highway went through several reroutings, especially in the area where it crosses the Mississippi River into Missouri.
I’ll stop with the history lesson now. You can do a Google search and find all kinds of information about it.
As for the festival, for the most part it gives folks the excuse to gather around the library on the town square and have a good time with music, typical fair food, a couple of good beer choices, and various booths.
Kids enjoy the bounce houses and inflated slides and tunnel crawls, and adults can check out some of the town history. The band playing the night I was there -- it was called Fanfare -- had an outstanding female singer.
As for the parade of classic cars on the second night of the two-day affair, it’s a pretty informal deal. The car owners gather at a junior high school parking lot a few blocks away and make their way up the street to the festival using a street that is a part of the old Route 66.
The classic cars are mixed right in with regular traffic and must obey all traffic lights. Guess they wanted to be spared the expense of blocking off the street as well.
At the final light, the cars all turn right and go off into places unknown. I took as pictures of some that caught my eye, but didn’t get all of them.
There were a lot of Corvettes, as appropriate.
Hope you enjoy them.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


It has been a while since I posted, but if you are one of my followers (thank you very, very much) I am coming back.
Since my last post about the airlines, I have driven up to the Midwest, a trip of 1,100 miles or so, and proceeded to catch a head cold right in the middle of one of the muggiest heat spells of the early summer.
So I just haven’t felt like writing. Also, I learned upon my arrival that my daughter’s house no longer has access to wireless Internet, so I am sharing the DSL line with my grandson.
I did get out the other day to a Route 66 Festival in Edwardsville, Illinois, and managed to take a bunch of pictures of some great cars in the parade on Saturday evening.
I plan on posting them later today (Monday).
I promise.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


I used to love to fly.
In addition to looking forward to where I was going, usually an interesting destination or, in most cases, a sporting event I was covering, I enjoyed the trip itself.
It was kind of nice to know there was going to be a period of at least a couple of hours where I would be out of touch with the world and could sit back and read a book or do crossword puzzle without the nagging feeling I should be doing something more productive.
Back in the day as well, flights were not so crammed, and there was always a good chance that the middle seat would go unoccupied, leaving me with more room than first-class passengers. (But without the free drinks and real silverware.)
So, yes, flying was fun.
But not so much any more.
I just got back from a trip to Tennessee that is pretty typical of what one encounters in air travel these days.
First, my flight from Miami to Atlanta was late taking off. The flight was going to be about 20 minutes late. Oops. The travel agency had arranged a layover of only 35 minutes for my connecting flight to Chattanooga. It was going to be close.
Once in the air, however, the announcement was made that we were going to make up time and arrive pretty near our originally scheduled time. If we did, though, it didn’t matter. Once on the ground we had to wait for another aircraft to clear before we could move up to our gate.
Once in the terminal, I had something like 12 minutes to get from my arrival gate in Terminal A to the far end of Terminal D. Not impossible, but not easy either.
Fortunately for me, this was one time when Murphy’s Law of air travel -- when your originating flight is late, your connecting flight will leave on time -- didn’t hold up. The time of departure for my flight to Chattanooga had been moved from 1:40 to 1:50, according to the board, and what’s more, the agent said we wouldn’t be boarding for another 20 minutes.
Life was good. Too good, as it turned out.
We boarded pretty much at the time the agent had said, but then sat on the puddle-jumper and waited. And waited. And waited.
I like to wear a sport coat when I travel to make use of extra pockets, and I was beginning to get hot.
Finally, word came that we had to get off because the plane had mechanical issues, and we were to take our onboard carryons with us.
Not a good sign.
It happened that a couple of other writers were on the same flight, and we talked over renting a car and driving up to Chattanooga. Shoot. It would only be about a couple of hours.
But we kicked that aside and decided to wait it out.
And wait. And wait. And wait.
Finally we got the announcement that a new plane was coming in and would soon be on the ground.
It was a bit longer wait for it to arrive than we had been given reason to expect, but soon the plane arrived. They told us that as soon as the crew was ready and the plane was cleaned -- they clean these things? -- we could board.
Still, we waited. And waited. And waited.
Then the agent announced that as soon a lavatory light was replaced, we could board.
Why couldn’t everybody just go to the bathroom now? We’ve had plenty of time.
Eventually, we did get to board, and then we had to wait on the ground again for probably 45 minutes, what for, I don’t know.
Instead of arriving by 2:30, it was around 6 p.m. when we finally landed.
I wish I could say this was unusual for flying these days, but it’s not. In fact, at the end of Terminal D where I was last Thursday afternoon, pretty much every flight was leaving late, many of them delayed for more than an hour. And it was beautiful, clear day pretty much across the country.
My miseries didn’t end once on the ground in Chattanooga.
The next day, after driving a 2012 VW Passat up to Nashville, when I tried to check into my return flight, I couldn’t get a boarding pass. The message I got on the website was that I had to have an electronic ticket to check in via the web.
Of course, I thought I had one. I had my itinerary right in front of me with all the flight details.
When I called the airline, the nice voice at the other end of the phone said my flight had been confirmed but not ticketed. This did not make sense, but I was dealing with an airline here, one that claims it knows why we fly. (Because we are masochists?)
So I called the emergency number for the travel agency. The nice voice at the end of that line told me she would call the airlines and give them the ticket number. She also gave it to me. But I was to wait a few minutes for that information to be processed.
After waiting a respectable time, I went to check in again on the website. Same message.
I called the airline again, and a different voice tried to work with me. During that call I noticed that my name had an error. The voice told me that the travel agency would have to clear that up.
So I called the agency again. After explaining everything, I was put on hold, and I waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, realizing that I had to go change for dinner or miss my transportation there, I asked a friend to take whatever message the agency had for me.
When I saw him later, he said that they had cleared up the issue about my name and should -- operative word here being “should” -- be all set.
According to what I gathered, this all stems from the TSA’s new requirement that airline tickets be issued with passenger’s full names, not just first and last or first, middle initial, and last.
My frequent flyer enrollments, made years ago, had just my first and last name. Well, my Delta also has my middle initial, which is A, and sometimes that gets run up against my first name, so I become PAULA, not PAUL (space) A.
Later that evening I got to a computer and signed on to the airline’s website. I was able to check in, and got my boarding pass!
Things went fine on my return, finally.
But before I boarded, I happened to run into one of the guys who had gone through the Thursday troubles.
We were going to different destinations, but leaving from the same gate an hour apart. I asked him to watch my carryon for a minute while I went to look for a magazine.
While waiting to pay for it, he came up to me with my bag and said he had been called to board. I thanked him, and we said goodbye.
But a couple of minutes later, when I returned to the gate, he was still sitting there. He had boarded his plane, he said, but then was asked to get back off because it had a mechanical problem.
I am leaving for a family trip tomorrow of more than a thousand miles.
I am driving.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The news coming out of Chrysler these days mostly has been good -- very good, in some instances.
Loans the company got from the government have been repaid, silencing at least for the moment critics of the 2008 bailout.
The deal with Fiat looks to put the company on a sound financial footing for the future.
And overall sales numbers have been promising. April figures for the company (including Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, and Ram brands) showed a jump of 22 percent for the same month a year earlier.
Not bad for a company whose survival was very much in question three years ago.
The cloud in the silver lining, however, is that a good part of the success could be attributed to the company’s truck lineup with Jeep jumping 41 percent and Ram sales going up 36 percent over the previous year to date figures.
The company needs a similar boost in its sedan lineup, and Chrysler model sales were down 9 percent over the first four months of the year.
The good news is that Chrysler looks to have the product that can reverse that trend. In March, the company brought its 2011 models to Miami Beach for a SAMA luncheon, and there they easily passed the “look test.”
Included in the group was the new 200. I can now say it passes the drive test as well.
Technically, the 200, which comes in sedan and convertible form, is a refreshed Sebring, a model introduced in 1995 that wasn’t aging all that well. But so great are the upgrades the 200 should be considered an all-new entry in the Chrysler lineup.
As I drove first the sedan and then a couple of weeks later the 200 convertible, one thing continued to impress with both, and that was the refined interior.
I always had the impression with past Chrysler models that the company was trying to get by as cheaply as it could in its cabins. If cheap plastic and cloth could serve, that was what the company went for.
Not so with the 200. There has been some thought given to its interior, and you no longer have the feeling that any knob you touch with force is going to break. The top of the dash and the door panels are soft to the touch, not harsh and cold as in previous models. Seats are supportive and comfortable, and I found armrests to be in the right places and levels.  
I loved the simplicity of the operation for climate control. The  A/C works with three knobs at the bottom of the center stack console. The radio works off steering wheel buttons or the touch screen, which I am not a big fan of. The screen tends to get smudged up.
Speaking of the navigation system, I really think if you’re going to have it you should have a bigger screen for display than that what you find in the 200. But the operation of the system itself is fairly intuitive -- a big plus there.
With new lighting, the overall ambiance is a major, major step up from the Sebring interiors of the past.
One thing that took me a bit to get accustomed to was the instrument display. The speedometer is flanked by the temperature and fuel gauges on the left and the tachometer on the right.
I’m just more used to the tach on the left.
I would also rearrange a couple of things. Gear selection and the odometer reading appear in a small window at the bottom of the tach gauge. I would put them in the center at the bottom of the speedometer and move the “idiot” lights to the bottom of the tach window. But maybe there’s not enough room.
The 200 comes with a choice of two engines. I never drove the 2.4-liter four-cylinder so I can’t really comment on its performance, but my guess would be that 173 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque aren’t going to deliver much of anything in the way of oomph, rollin and especially standing.
I found the 3.4-liter V6 not exactly neck-snapping in getting off the line, but its hp and torque ratings are a healthy 283 and 260, respectively, and at a cost of very little in fuel economy. The four-banger, which comes with a four speed automatic in LX trim and six-speed in other models, delivers 20 mpg city/32 highway. The V6, equipped with the six-speed tranny, is rated at 19/29, hardly a deal breaker to me.
The 200 also has had several modifications to the suspension that has improved ride quality and handling.
One good aspect to the 200 is that you get can into an LX sedan with its 2.4-liter power plant for under $20,000. The Limited trim version I drove checks in at just under $24,000, though the options, which included the navigation system, ran the total price up to $28,005. The top-of-the-line S model starts at just over $26,000.
You can get into the 200 convertible for under $26,500 in the four-cylinder Touring model, or go up to just under $32,000 for the S trim.
Oh, a few words about the convertible.
As with many drop tops the backseat is cramped. In this instance, extremely cramped. The front seats must be pulled forward to provide much more than a couple of inches of legroom in the back.
The trunk, too, pretty much becomes unusable when the retractable hardtop is lowered, and that operation, though a one-button deal, takes quite a few more seconds than some other models I have driven. You don’t have to be completely stopped to raise and lower the top, but I got a warning and it stopped when I simply backed out of the driveway a bit to see if it worked when moving.
Top down or top up, the 200’s rear end is a bit bulky to accommodate the retracted top.
With the top up, the 200 becomes pretty much a coupe, and the hard top provides for a quieter ride than you get in soft-top versions of the 200. I’m guessing here that is a big plus in colder climes as well.
All in all, it’s easy to see why the 200 provided the company with such a huge jump in sales, more than double in fact, over the previous year’s total for the Sebring. It’s an up trend I see continuing and impact the company’s numbers in a very positive way.