Day One Richmond to West Hartford: irresponsibly reckless

For the first time in sixty-nine years of living, I have a passport. And, for the first time in my life, the Commander Supreme and I are going to Europe.

This trip was hatched by my sister-in-law, Abby. The goal is to honor my mother-in-law’s upcoming birthday. Good Lord willing, in February 2023, she’ll turn 95.

It is a good trip—a cruise up the Danube River from Budapest, Hungary ending in Passau, Germany.

The planning started in June, and all of a sudden the trip is here.

Leg one for us started on October 10, 2022 with a drive from Richmond to West Hartford, Connecticut where my mother-in-law resides.

Since 1975, we have driven many times to West Hartford. Monday was the absolute worst drive we’ve ever had.

After stopping for gas on the way out of Richmond, we were on the road heading north after 8:30 a.m.

Just before Ashland, Virginia my brain started playing with me.

When I rearranged the luggage in the back of the car at the service station, my brain kept asking—“did I put all of the luggage back in the car?”

That question prompted me to take the Ashland exit. Being former educators, the Commander Supreme and I jumped out of the car and completed a quick luggage count. Luckily for me, all luggage was present.

If I had left a suitcase on the cold concrete pad at the service station, divorce filing #772 would have started.

Road trips, airplane flights, and all of the logistics creates a tension, a strain that pushes an organizer and its travel companions into an impatient orbit. There is a pursuit of perfection that every detail of the trip will go well. That’s impossible when dealing with interstates, airlines, and human beings.

It is clear to me that people who create the flight paths for airlines have no concept of geography.

For example, my wife, her mother, and I fly south from Hartford to Dulles. My wife’s brother and his spouse fly north from Richmond to Detroit. Our daughter flies north too— Raleigh to Toronto. Surprisingly, Abby and her husband, fly east toward Europe from Los Angeles without a stop. I think on that long nonstop flight, I would need to be sedated.

Airlines don’t think about geography. They think about pennies, and how many people they can uncomfortably cram into seats that are perfectly designed to hold children, but not adults.

Airlines make these ridiculous geographical connections so that no seats are empty. A packed airplane fuselage reminds me of tractor trailers barreling down the interstate with their crammed crated passengers of turkeys, hogs, and cows.

And speaking of interstates, our drive on Monday was constantly delayed by accidents and seemingly small construction projects. Those slow downs revealed how stubborn we are as Americans to try to get ahead by a car length when interstate lanes scrunch down from three to one.

This is even more infuriating because all drivers were warned several miles earlier that the lane scrunch was coming.

In this pause of traffic, I want to jump out of my car, climb on the hood, and in my best outside voice scream, “Hey, can’t you knuckleheads read?”

But in today’s America, if I did this, I’d be cursed, the insolent middle finger would be directed toward me, or quite sadly, I might be shot.

The inability to comply continues.

In the Baltimore tunnel that we took, the signage clearly reminds drivers not to change lanes inside the tunnel. As we worked our way through the tunnel, up ahead of us, we witnessed the same driver at a high rate of speed, dangerously switch lanes twice.

The good news is despite being about two hours late, we made it to West Hartford in one piece.

But that lane changing driver in the tunnel stayed with me.

I want to know why we have become so irresponsibly reckless in our walk through life?

What pushes us to totally disregard simple rules of the road that are designed in the name of safety not only for ourselves, but the people who surround us too.

Our failure to comply with reasonable requests is troubling.

If our response to reasonable requests continues to be grounded in irresponsible recklessness, what kind of future does America have?

Not even a scoop of ginger ice cream from A. C. Petersen Farms on Park Road in West Hartford can sooth the burn of that question.

Author’s note: Graphic design for the highway sign created by Elizabeth Pike.



Finger-pointing over test scores is a waste of energy

When test score results from public school students are disappointing, politicians get riled up.

They point accusatory fingers.

Their “hot aired” finger pointing is a wasteful burn of energy.

That energy needs to be channeled to do the hard work to solve the problems our communities face in our public schools.

Clearly, the pandemic disrupted the instructional delivery for students in Virginia.

But the truth of the matter is our public schools, have been quietly eroding for a long, long time.

That erosion is grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to our human infrastructure.

We can no longer ignore the instability of families.

Vicious generational cycles connected to poverty, employment, housing, safety, mental health, and equity need to be disrupted.
How do we disrupt these cycles?

Perhaps, a starting point would be for our politicians to spend a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school. I wonder what an elected official might learn from being in the trenches with an actual teacher?

Additionally, in Virginia, we have nearly twenty five years of SOL data.

Does that data tell us anything about how to work more effectively with students who come to school everyday from unstable families?

We need political cooperation, not political finger pointing to solve the challenges found in our public schools.

Maybe this quote from “Hidden Figures” author, Margot Lee Shetterly, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

If we want to improve our public schools in Virginia, we must be able to see it all for our families, our students, and our teachers.

Bill Pike

Author’s note: I am honored anytime a newspaper accepts one of my submissions. This letter appeared in the OPINIONS section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday, October 28, 2022. As a retired public schools educator, I worry about the morale of our teachers. If you know a teacher in your community, please take the time to thank them for their work.

Back To School

Photo by Bill Pike

When I was a kid, summer seemed endless. In August 1975, I entered the teaching profession. For the next thirty one years, I learned that summer doesn’t last forever.

In Virginia, it is good that school systems are starting classes before Labor Day. Who knows maybe our push away from an agrarian calendar will nudge school system leaders to develop year round schools.

One of the best things about schools opening before Labor Day is back to school sale ads end. Those ads can be annoying like political ads.

On Thursday, August 18, the Virginia Department of Education released the annual results from the Standards of Learning tests that students take each year. Release of the scores always generates media headlines and comments from appointed and elected officials.

It should be no surprise that for the second consecutive year, student performance was down when compared to results before school systems were slammed by COVID-19. This was despite efforts from school systems to maintain learning by switching from in person instruction to virtual instruction.

I believe it will take students, their families, and teachers years to recover from this significant disruption. Unfortunately, the family and technology infrastructure needed to make virtual instruction successful was not always in place.

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, stated on Thursday: “We were addressing an achievement gap before the pandemic and now we have even more ground [to make up] today.”

Why are we always trying to recover ground related to achievement gaps in Virginia?

In 1998, Virginia’s students started taking SOL tests. What have we learned from twenty four years of testing data? Are we better equipped to understand students, their families, our communities, schools, and teachers?

For example, during the pandemic in single parent homes does the data capture the impact of older siblings missing multiple middle and high school classes to assist younger siblings?

Does the data uncover the effect disruptive students have on their learning, and the learning of classmates?

Does the data reveal the consequences of prolonged achievement gaps?

Are these gaps grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity?

Does the data capture the morale of teachers who everyday attempt to deliver quality instruction in challenging environments?

If we hope to recover instructional ground and close achievement gaps, we must commit to the hard work of answering those questions and more.

Continuing to place blame for unsatisfactory SOL test results on the shoulders of teachers and school system leaders by appointed and elected officials is misguided. Maybe a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school could change some minds.

Since we are quick to blame disappointing SOL scores on teachers, I wonder if Governor Youngkin’s “tip line” saw an uptick in calls when the results were released. Additionally, I wonder if the “tip line” contributed to the current teacher shortage school systems face?

Truthfully, school systems always scramble to fill teaching positions before school opens. In 1975, I was a last minute hire.

We have witnessed many changes since 1975. Sometimes in immeasurable ways, students are affected by disruptive changes in their families and communities. Despite these changes, teachers are continually asked to handle our societal challenges while still delivering instruction.

Politicians babble about improving pay and benefits for teachers.

Yet, teachers consider respect and support just as critical as the pay and benefits. Interestingly, respect and support are essential for struggling students and their families too.

If we truly want to improve SOL test scores and close achievement gaps, we need to move beyond predictable political finger pointing.

With urgency, we must commit to a deeper dive into the troublesome data. In troubling data is a struggling student. We can no longer ignore the multiple needs of these students.

Understanding how the academic potential for these students is impacted by family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity is pivotal. If we fail to make this discovery for every struggling student, then we will see no improvement in SOL scores, nor will we close gaps in achievement.

Maybe this quote from Hidden Figures author, Margot Lee Shetterly, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

In Virginia, if we are going to make progress with SOL scores and achievement gaps, we must work together “to see it all” for every student.

Author’s note: If you know a school teacher or someone connected to public education no matter the location, please consider sharing this piece with them.

No right to whine about the cost of beer

On March 3, 2022, at our neighborhood Publix grocery store in Richmond, Virginia, I noted that the Brooklyn Brewery from New York already had their Brooklyn Summer Lager on display.

Photo by Bill Pike

According to my calendar checks, the first day of Spring was 17 days away on March 20, and the first day of Summer June 21 was 113 days away.

Talk about rushing the season. On March 3, I’m hoping that I might find a spring bock beer. But, not many breweries brew a spring bock anymore.

On July 27, I was in COSTCO. I always check out the beer selection. On this date, I found an India Pale Ale(IPA) brewed by Zero Gravity in Burlington, Vermont— a four pack in sixteen ounce cans is priced at $9.49.

On the shelf directly below the Vermont beer was another IPA brewed by the Bingo Beer Company in Richmond, Virginia. The packaging was the same for the Bingo IPA, but the cost was $12.99.

Photo by Bill Pike

My longstanding question returns.

I want to support the local brewery, but their IPA cost $3.50 more than the IPA brewed in Vermont. The brewery in Vermont is at least 620 miles from Richmond. Considering that distance and the cost of fuel, how can the Vermont brewery sell their beer at $9.49?

With Oktoberfest upon us, I traveled to my local Total Wine and More to check out their selection of Oktoberfest beers. Being the cheapskate that I am, I made two selections.

From Wisconsin’s Leinenkugel Brewery, I purchased a six pack of their Oktoberfest beer, and a 16.9 ounce bottle of Oktoberfest beer from the Ayinger Brewery in Germany.

Photo by Bill Pike

The Leinenkugel cost $9.99 for a six pack, and the Ayinger beer was $3.99.

A few days later, I saw the same six pack of Leinenkugel at a Food Lion selling for $11.49. That’s a $2.50 difference in cost, why?

Additionally, how can a beer brewed in Germany, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean only cost $3.99? Similar sized American beers can cost much more.

Back on September 17, we were returning from a visit with our oldest daughter and her family in North Carolina. We stopped at a Lowes Food.

Here, I wasn’t a cheapskate. I paid $14.99 for a six pack of Oktoberfest beer brewed by Red Oak, a long standing craft brewer in Greensboro.

When I was making my selection, I looked further down the line of beers on the shelving. I saw an Oktoberfest six pack from the famous Shiner Brewery in Spoetzl, Texas. The Shiner Oktoberfest was selling for $8.99. Again, the question is—why does the local beer cost $6.00 more than the beer from Texas?

I’m sure state regulations, cost of beer ingredients, brewery equipment, personnel, and marketing all factor into how a beer is priced. My limited research indicates that retail markups are in the 30-40% range. I’m sure that varies with each retailer depending upon the size of the store, foot traffic, and how deep the pockets of the customer might be.

I’ve been whining about this disparity in pricing for years. I really don’t think that state ABC boards, beer distributors, and craft brewers give a rip about a grumpy old geezer who questions how beer is priced.

At the end of the day, the brewers, distributors, and retailers are more focused on the pennies and carving out a profit.

I acknowledge the need to earn a profit. However, I also believe consumers should be provided a more transparent understanding of how the retail price of beer is determined.

Despite my grumpiness and whining, I think that is a reasonable request, not only for beer, but other consumable food items as well.

But in truth, I have no right to be whining about the price of beer.

Here’s my reason.

Every Friday from 9-2 at Trinity Methodist Church, we ask our members to drop off food to support food pantries at these Methodist churches: Belmont, Sherbourne, and Welborne.

Some Fridays, we are really good at filling up the designated tables for each pantry. Other Fridays, we’re not as strong.

Regardless of our response, the directors at each food pantry report they see no decline in the need for food in their communities. In fact, they report increases in the number of families they serve from week to week.

Rebounding from the pandemic and recent increases in food prices are driving these weekly surges.

In 69 years of living, I’ve never gone hungry.

Take a look in your community, and find how you might make a difference for a family by donating food to a local pantry.

I guarantee that food donation is better for your soul than my whining about the cost of beer.

There is no pursuit of happiness in cancer

On the afternoon of Friday, August 26, our family friend from California, Larry Marino, called to tell me goodbye. Thirty one days later on Monday, September 26, I received a text message that Larry had passed. Thanks cancer.

That Monday afternoon, I had been at the top of a ladder prepping one of our second story windows for a repainting. I thought to myself before coming down, I’m going to give Larry a call.

Since August 26, I had not pestered him, I tried to give him space. I sent a couple of text messages, but he did not respond. I know the cancer was wearing him down.

Larry had been married to my wife’s oldest sister, Susan. This was Susan’s third marriage, and Larry’s second.

My wife, Betsy, and I first met Larry in the Philadelphia Airport. Betsy and her siblings and spouses were heading to Bermuda to celebrate their parents fiftieth wedding anniversary.

We learned quickly that Larry had a sense of humor.

When we were introduced to Larry, he had an eye patch over one eye, and tattoos all over his forearms. Not sure if he was trying to convince us that he was a pirate or a biker. Within a few minutes, the eye patch was removed, and he went to the restroom to wash the water based tattoos off his forearms.

While in Bermuda, he kept us laughing.

We had several good visits in California and Utah with Larry and Susan. He owned a beautiful getaway home in Strawberry Point, Utah, and once the same Bermuda crew met in Las Vegas. In those trips, Susan and Larry were delightful hosts.

A couple of times, Larry and Susan came to Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for Thanksgiving. And they also traveled east for the college graduations of our son, Andrew, and youngest daughter, Elizabeth. Susan attended the graduate school ceremony when Lauren, our oldest daughter, finished her masters at DePaul in Chicago.

When Lauren, and her husband, Doug, honeymooned in Italy, Larry had a friend pick them up at the airport and whisk them to their hotel.

A handful of times during a year, we would check in with each other by telephone. He always asked about all of the nieces and nephews in the family. Larry wanted to know what they were up to and how they were doing.

I countered his questions by asking about his 100 year old mother, who lives in Las Vegas, his son, Chris, and Larry’s two grandsons. I also learned a bit about Larry’s success in the swimming pool business. His company did residential and commercial work. They maintained pools all over southern California and did new construction as well.

None of us ever saw this coming, but on May 3, 2011, Susan made the decision to take her own life.

After this tragic loss, it took quite a bit of time, but somehow, Larry found a way to regroup. Larry once shared with me that he did not want to spend the last years of his life alone, nor did he want to die alone.

I don’t recall the timing, but Larry did remarry to a very nice and successful business woman, Lisa. We met Lisa one summer in California at Abby and Art’s home. She was very gracious, and it was clear that Larry and Lisa were a good match. Her Italian heritage had something to do with them being very compatible.

Sadly, that happiness was short-lived. Larry called me on December 22, 2016 to let me know that Lisa had passed away. Thanks cancer. From earlier telephone calls, I knew Lisa was battling cancer, but I don’t think anyone anticipated her life ending so quick.

Lisa’s passing was a tough punch for Larry. He continued to manage and be very hands on with his business. I know he traveled some, and he always had activities planned for his grandsons when they came to visit their father during the summers.

And Larry wasn’t immune from his own health skirmishes. His heart created some intense life threatening intrusions. Somehow, the nurses and doctors continued to pull more life from his damaged heart. It took lots of recuperative time, but Larry recovered from the heart attacks and surgery procedures that kept his heart beating.

Again, I know his heart needed companionship, loneliness in the latter stage of life was not something he wanted. In early April 2021, Larry married Nelva.

I’ve never met Nelva, but I know he was smitten by her. However, I quickly got to know Nelva as Larry had another challenge with his heart. From the end of April into early May, I received daily updates from Nelva about his status including how the doctors were working with him in the hospital.

Despite this heart setback, somehow, Larry found the strength and will to rebound again.

During the late spring or early summer of 2022, Larry let me know that cancer was creating some challenges. I know from talking with him that the doctors were trying to pinpoint the area/areas of the cancer’s intrusion. This was to be followed with recommendations for treatment.

When Larry called me on August 26 to say goodbye, it was because the doctors had run out of options, the current treatments were not fighting the cancer. I could hear his wife, Nelva, crying in the background.

I never talked with Larry about the cause for his first marriage ending. When a man loses his second wife to suicide, and his third wife to cancer, it seems unkind to me that more misfortune should enter his life.

Surviving multiple heart challenges is one thing, but dying from cancer after all that Larry has endured is life malpractice to me.

Cancer, cancer, cancer, you are spineless and worthless.

Cancer, you are unfit to be on this planet, and yet, you continue to rob lives, and leave loved ones with empty, broken hearts.

Lots of money is raised each year for cancer research, but on September 26, $325 million was spent crashing a NASA spacecraft into the asteroid, Dimorphos. The goal was to see if this impactful crash might push the asteroid off course. Pushing an asteroid off course might save a collision with earth in the future.

My question is why can’t we use that $325 million to push cancer off course permanently?

Currently, I’m reading The Sun Does Shine, a book about the life of Alabama death row inmate, Anthony Ray Hinton.

When Mr. Hinton first arrived in his cell on death row, he sat on the edge of his bed and had the following internal conversation with himself: “There was no God for me anymore. My God had forsaken me. My God was a punishing God. My God had failed and left me to die. I had no use for God. Forgive me, Mama. I thought to myself as I threw the Bible under the bed. I had no use for it. All of it was a lie.” (Hinton, page 105)

I’m sorry God, but that is the way I feel toward you when it comes to cancer.

I feel forsaken.

Good people are punished.

You failed them, and they die.

I imagine families who lose loved ones to cancer have a similar internal conversation.

They want to know why.

If Jesus healed people with a simple touch, and raised people from the dead with his words, where are Jesus and God when it comes to cancer?

As frustrating as that may be, I also realize that something kept Larry’s faltering heart alive after hours spent in an operating room followed by days in intensive care.

Why was that?

Was it my prayers, and prayers of others that allowed him to dodge death?

I’m not sure, but I hope Nelva and Larry’s family will somehow find a bit of comfort in knowing that cancer is no longer beating him up. And maybe just like me they will hold out hope that at some point in the future, cancer will have the life beaten out of it.

In moving forward, I will cherish Larry’s love of life.

I will never forget his ability to make me laugh whether by phone or in person.

And even though, his heart caused him trouble, deep inside Larry’s heart was a kind, considerate man who touched a lot of lives along the way.

He also was good at keeping in touch by phone with my mother-in-law, Liz, in Connecticut. Football, especially the Miami Dolphins was a favorite topic.

And, I don’t think I will ever have another meal of pasta without thinking of his love of his favorite food. I believe Larry could have eaten pasta at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Yes, God, like Anthony Ray Hinton, I am frustrated.

Frustrated that cancer took a friend away too early.

But, God, I think you know that, and somehow, I will hold on to these words from John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Cancer can’t snuff out the light that Larry brought into this world.

And that’s because the Italian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, captured that light in a different way with these words: “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”

Larry, thanks for being my true friend.

Rest in peace.

My friend, Larry Marino, making me laugh at Rachel and Garth’s wedding Agua Dulce, California Photo courtesy of Lauren Reinking