Across the Street From Kirby’s Beer Store

While we were watching “Jeopardy!” and drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon at Kirby’s Beer Store on Thursday there was some big news going on across the street at Wichita State University. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was back in his hometown for a photo-op at WSU’s high-tech aviation training program and a friend’s wedding, and he brought along First Daughter and White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump, as well as a lot of questions about state and international politics.
Pompeo is up to his neck in the administration’s controversial Syrian policy and that hubbub about American-Ukrainian relations that seems to be leading to President Donald Trump’s impeachment, and here in Kansas and around the nation there’s been much speculation that he’ll get out of the administration while the getting’s good and come home to run for an open Senate seat that is pretty much his for the asking. This was the fourth time the Secretary of State has taken time out from his busy schedule of globe-trotting to vista Kansas in the past few months, and all the latest national and international news makes a nice safe sinecure in the Senate look all the more tempting, so questions were inevitable.
The local television stations were understandably grateful for the more star-studded than usual photo-op, and obligingly aired footage of the Barbie-esque Ivanka Trump doing her best impersonation of Rosie the Riveter, but one of the last standing reporters from the now emaciated local newspaper where we toiled for 25 years got a lengthy interview, and we’re proud to say he gave Pompeo a good grilling. The national media were largely shut out of the visit, so the local paper’s reporting was widely quoted and linked to by  some of the nation’s biggest media, which we hope helps with its clicks.
The reporter asked Pompeo if a photo-op in Wichita was the best use of a Secretary of State’s time at the moment, if the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria undercut rest of the world’s faith in America’s alliances, some pesky questions about the Ukraine matter, and of course some peskier question about his possible future in Kansas politics, which at this point is also of national interest. For the most part Pompeo handled the interrogation well, deftly blaming President Barack Obama for some of the mess and dodging some questions that weren’t related to aviation workforce development and challenging the “predicate” of others, and our experienced local news watching eyes noticed he was more genteel than the usual Trump administration in bashing the media when being interviewed by his hometown paper. The hometown paper’s reporter also works for its corporate sister at what’s left of Kansas City’s hometown paper, even though the papers used to vie for statewide scoops back our in day, so any shrewd politician seeking statewide office would be well advised to at least be polite.
Pompeo is a first-in-his-class West Point grad and Harvard Law Review editor who made a fortune in the high-tech aviation business in Wichita, easily won four terms as the Fourth District’s congressman before becoming director of the Central Intelligence and then Secretary of State, and he remains a big deal here and all around this Republican state. The old-fashioned establishment wing of the Republican party is panicked by the possibility that the nomination will go to former state Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is so much an anti-immigration zealot and Trump impersonator that he lost the last gubernatorial election to a center-left Democrat — and a woman, at that — even in such an anti-immigration-with-certain-exceptions and reluctantly pro-Trump state as this, and for now Pompeo is the establishment choice while his close association with Trump only bolsters his chances in an already certain Senate race.
Close associations with Trump have often run awry, though, and by now Pompeo is surely shrewd enough to have noticed. In the interview with the local paper that was linked to an international audience he continued to insist he was solely focused on doing his job as Secretary of State, which is what one does in such a situation, but he seemed to leave open other possibilities of public service. Things are now going swimmingly with America’s foreign policy, Pompeo argued, but that might be all the more reason to get out while the getting’s good. Assuming the getting’s still good.
The Republican party’s representatives in Congress have have already largely repudiated the Trump Syrian policy that Pompeo has gone along with, and if Trump is impeached over that Ukrainian thing Pompeo likely will be as well, as he’s up to his neck in it, which would make for a damned interesting Senate race here in Kansas. We’ve watched enough Kansas Senate races in our many years to figure that any old Republican would continue the party’s eight decades-long winning streak, no matter what happens back in Washington, but we’d hate to see the state go through it. Although we proudly voted for Pompeo to represent our beloved Forth District four times, in the next Republican Senate primary we’ll cast our ballot for some center-right establishment woman you’ve never heard of, who we’re sure would just as easily beat any nominee that the Democrats might come up with.
That’s the view from the notorious dive bar just across the street where this story of national interest was unfolding, at any rate, and for now we stand by it. One of the Kirby’s regulars is an old friend who used to be a Democratic legislator and now holds a patronage workman’s comp judgeship, and he’s convinced his party has gone almost as crazy ours, and for what it’s worth he shares our bleak assessment of the situation.

— Bud Norman

Another Welcome Hour of Sunlight

The biggest news on Sunday was that the clocks sprang forward by an hour, and as far as we’re concerned it was good news. We arrived at church and took our turn giving the communion message with an hour’s less sleep than usual, and then arrived at Kirby’s Beer Store to commune with our more friends after an extra hour of nap time, but other than that it was all good.
For one thing, the clock in our car that we never got around to adjusting last fall is once again telling us the correct time, although we’ll probably spend another week or two getting used to not having to mentally spring it forward it another hour. More importantly, for the next several months there will be an hour’s less darkness in the day. There’s not actually an extra hour of daylight, as God created both the heavens and earth and set our planet rotating around the sun and revolving and tilting on its axis according to His plan, and despite mankind’s advanced science and government and arrogance there’s nothing much we can do about it except to subtract an hour of daylight from the morning and add it to the evening, but we make it a practice to sleep until well past daylight and stay up long past dark at all times of the year, so it’s an extra hour of daylight to us.
One of our secular friends at Kirby’s Beer Store was complaining that he’ll be getting up in the dark for the next several weeks to get to his job on time at the Wichita State University across the street, and we’re sure there are some wheat farmers around here with the same complaint, and we sympathize with their plight, but on Sunday we mostly figured that’s their problem. Next fall the clocks will fall back an hour, and those unfortunate early risers will have their extra hour of sleep before church, and Kirby’s Beer Store will get an extra hour of business, so God’s perfectly synchronous plan for the universe and humankind’s arrogant scientific and governmental meddling with the clocks seems to work out out pretty equably for everyone in the end.
Even more importantly, the clocks springing forward is yet another harbinger of spring. Like the announcement that pitchers and catchers are reporting to major league baseball’s spring training, or the different sorts of birds we notice along the Little Arkansas River, or the incremental minutes of daylight that follow the damned winter solstice, it’s another indication that some combination of God’s perfect plan for the universe and the best of humankind’s intentions will alway deliver another rebirth of life from the dead of winter, and that something of good will follow. We’ll happily trade that for an hour of sleep we’ll eventually recoup one way or another.

— Bud Norman

The Beat Goes On in the Heartland

Wichita is a surprising city, and even after more than half a century here we have recently been surprised to discover that the local music scene is better than ever and suddenly as good as you’ll find in far bigger cities.
Kirby’s Beer Store held its annual “Meat Fest” on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you should have been there. The notorious little ghetto dive bar has been holding the event in the dead of winter for the past couple of decades are so, and it always features plenty of free meat grilled on the patio, a non-stop lineup of local bands, and a massive crowd of young and old hipsters, but this year’s edition was the best we can recall. The hot dogs and sausages and burgers and pulled barbecue barbecue were delicious, and the music even more so. We didn’t get to hang around long enough to hear all of the 38 — count ’em, 38 — local acts, but we heard enough to confirm that Wichita at the moment is one of America’s most musical cities.
Aside from the quality and quantity of the output, we were also struck by its diversity. On Thursday we heard an intriguing jazz-rock-hip-hop quarter called the Lewelheads, the next night was a hard-rocking but straight-up country-and-western outfit called Sunshine Trucking, and Saturday’s highlight was a rough-edged punk band with a slightly country woman singing called Herd of the Huntress. Sunday brought an assortment of small group and solo acts, including a sleepy-eyed six-foot-six or so fellow of approximately 280 pounds who bills himself Tired Giant and had some heartbreaking songs about his alcoholic dad, a dreadlocked young white woman named Juliet Celedor, and a hard-to-define trio of bass and cello and guitar called Sombre Sangre. Local hard rock legends Black Flag also performed, as did the popular blues chanteuse Jenny Wood and the venerable jazz guitarist Sterling Gray, and the always excellent guitarist and singer Tom Page did a set, and we’re told we missed a whole lot of other good stuff.
Somehow some of the city’s best missed the lineup, too. The top-notch folk-country-jazz-blues Haymakers couldn’t be there, Folk rocker and standards singer Nikki Moddelmog and her crack brand were unavailable, and although the lovely rock chanteuse Lalanea Chastain was in the audience she never took the stage, and there’s a very hot young trumpet-playing jazzbo named Nathan williams who didn’t appear with either of his two very good outfits. Not to mention all the great show tune singers and gospel shouters in town who didn’t get an invitation.
Not bad for a mid-sized city in the middle of the country, but Wichita does have its advantages. Folks have been playing music all along around here, and the city has produced such notable performers as rockabilly legend Marvin Rainwater and hippie heroes The Serfs and the all-time great punk band The Embarrassment, as well the punk-bluegrass Split Lip Rayfield with its small but fervent internal cult following, and a surprising number of globally acclaimed opera singers. Here in the middle of the country Wichita was a regular stop for all the great jazz bands of Kansas City’s heyday, as well as northern stop for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and all the great western swing outfits, the southern bluesman also played here on a regular basis, and Wichita always welcomed all the hard-rocking bands from the industrial midwest during the ’60s and ’70s. The music departments at Wichita State University and Friends University supply the city with well-trained classical and jazz players, too, and the city’s churches provide plenty more thoroughly educated musicians, not to mention all the autodidacts that Wichita seems to spawn.
Wichita’s big enough to have talented people from each of America’s many rich musical traditions, but it’s small enough that they all wind up meeting one another and playing together and creating some intriguing combinations of styles you won’t find elsewhere. The city is racially diverse, as well, and lately several of its best bands feature talented white and black and Latino and Native American and Asian players, and the teenagers and the twenty-somethings and even the players we fondly remember from our long-ago youth on the Wichita music scene also get together.There’s a variety of venues of various sizes that offer them a place to play, and the city government has even started a free bus service along the stretch of Douglas where you’ll find most of them. Lacey Cruse, another talented singer, was recently elected to the Sedgwick County Commission, and music retains a powerful influence in Wichita.
Throughout America’s rich musical history such cities as New Orleans and Chicago and Memphis and Nashville and New York and Los Angeles have always played an outsized role, and at times such locals as Akron, Ohio, and Athens, Georgia, and Minneapolis and Oklahoma City have their eras of prominence, but American music lovers shouldn’t overlook Wichita, especially now.
If you’re out of town and can’t make here for a night at Kirby’s or Barleycorns or the Shamrock or the Artichoke or the Cotillion or that new Wave place over in rocking Old Town, we suggest you venture out in your own hometown to see what’s cooking in the local dives. What’s on the radio and television these days is mostly awful, and the best American music has always popped in the most unusual places, so there’s a good chance you’ll find something better.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Here in Wichita

There’s a much-watched gubernatorial election with national significance in Virginia today, but for the moment we’re happily preoccupied with the City Council and School Board elections being held in our part of Kansas. Local politics is a pleasant distraction here in the big city of Wichita, where things generally seem to be going well enough.
These off-year elections always produce a civic government and school board that’s reliably more liberal than this staunchly conservative city at large, as the turnout is low and therefore city and school district employees have an inordinate share of the vote, so the last time we were  invited to address the local Pachyderm Club at the swank Petroleum Club several stories above down we recommended the elections be re-scheduled to the general election season when more Republicans are voting. The city government has gone crazy with bike lanes lately and seemingly scheduled a decade’s worth of road work all at once, with orange cones tying up traffic everywhere, and the local schools seem to be graduating a steady stream of very ignorant young people, so things could clearly be better around here.
Things could be a lot worse around here, though, and whenever we look at the state and national and international news our city seems in pretty good shape. Wichita is a beautiful city except in the coming winter months, with parks and libraries and an efficient way of getting around, the crime rate is lower than most of the 49 or so bigger cities, its schools continue to produce graduates with boast-worthy accomplishments, and we’ve noted recent improvements in our beloved core of the city even as its outer boundaries expand. We’re sanguine enough about things around here that we only recently bothered to research the now-scant media for how we should vote for the city council and school board, and found ourselves well satisfied with the choices.
In the last presidential election we voted for an obscure write-in candidate because “none of the above” wasn’t on the ballot, but our neighborhood’s city council ballot offers two choices we wouldn’t mind at all. One is a woman named Cindy Clayborn, a 60-year-old political neophyte who is assistant to the president for strategic planning and a professor of marketing at Wichita State University, which has a hell of basketball team coming up, and who has an extensive resume of community involvement in all sorts of do-good causes. The other is 59-year-old Sybil Strum, who lists her past occupations as nurses’ aid, medical assistant, waitress, homemaker, teacher, and latchkey worker, and previous community involvement as safety patrol. Clayborn is clearly winning the yard sign race in our neighborhood, with her professional-looking popping up on the lawns of liberal and conservative and Democratic and Republicans friends of ours along our daily routes, and based on what we’ve gleaned from the local media she’s got our vote as well, but we won’t be frightened by a very long-shot upset.
Much of what’s gone wrong and much of what’s gone right around here lately is the result of private and public partnerships in local developments, and it’s a matter of much public squabbling. The far right elements object to the public involvement, the far left objects to the private interests that clearly benefit, and the center-right and center-left seem satisfied that  the results have been generally favorable, and we’re sympathetic to them all. So far as we can tell from the brief interviews that the local media provide Clayborn is more knowledgeable about what’s going on than Strum, so she’ll get our vote, but we won’t much mind if a skeptical homemaker winds up winning.
The school board race makes for a tougher choice. We’re proud graduates of the Wichita Public School District, the goodest schools in America, but we’ve always tried choose the least objectionable candidates for its board. This time around they all at least have credible credentials. One holds a high school diploma from Wichita East and a bachelor’s degree from Kansas University and a doctorate from Michigan State and previous experience on a California school board, another is a retired Boeing executive with extensive experience in local government, and the third is a long time teacher with a master’s degree in education. The brief interviews by what’s left of the local media suggest they’re all too moderate for our anti establishmentarian tastes, but none plan to disappoint all those off-year election-voting school who pine for a long-delayed pay raise, and none of them strike us as utterly unqualified for the job as  the past two presidential nominees. We’re tentatively inclined to go with that Walt Chappell fellow, but no matter the outcome we won’t worry the local schools with at long go totally crazy.
At some point today we’ll wander over to the lovely Gloria Dei Lutheran church here in the picturesque and fashionable and liberal-leaning neighborhood of Wichita to cast our votes, but we’ll then anxiously turn our attention to that gubernatorial race in Virginia. Things seem safe enough around here for now no matter the local election results, but the rest of the country and the rest of the world seems a very scary place.

— Bud Norman

March Madness on the Prairie, Minus the Politics

An unaccountably warm February got all the trees and flowers budding around here, but March has thus far been back to its usual cold and windy way on the Kansas plains. The Kansas State University Wildcats played themselves into the round of 64 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament on Tuesday, though, and thus pretty much all Kansans are once again warmed by the fever of March madness.
Every state has its own distinct sports culture, but especially here in the hinterlands where there’s not much else to do. Down south in Oklahoma they’re mainly concerned with football, although they can boast about Oklahoma A&M’s basketball championships back in the ’40s with original big man Bob Kurland and many other big-time players since, and our kin in Oklahoma City do love that Thunder team in the National Basketball Association, and they can also boast about that injun Jim Thorpe as an all around-athlete and such stalwart baseball white boys as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The sparsely populated eastern part of Colorado that looks just like the sparsely western Kansas plays eight-man and six-man football and mostly concerns itself with five-man basketball just like western Kansas, but in the western half of the state they seem to ski and root for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Up north in Nebraska they only care about football, and although the baseball’s not bad they don’t seem at all embarrassed that except for Omaha’s Catholic Creighton University their basketball is abysmal. Back east in Missouri baseball’s the big thing, especially the Kansas City Royals and more especially the St. Louis Cardinals, and although they used to wreak occasional havoc in the old Big Eight’s basketball competitions they’re seemingly content as an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
Here in Kansas we take football and baseball seriously enough to have produced our per-capita share of top-notch players, and we’ve got high schools girls winning Olympic gold in skeet shooting and can boast of some legends in track and field and the skateboarders aren’t bad, but the big game by far around here is hoops. There’s no professional franchise in a state where the biggest city has only a half-million or so in its metro area, but we’ve got three state universities competing in the collegiate championship, several more playing in their lower divisions’ tournaments, the state’s highly competitive community college teams are always contenders, and even at the small school tourneys the state high school championships always feature enough talent to draw the recruiters for the next level.
Even the kids who didn’t make the high school teams are playing in the driveways and playgrounds all over Kansas, and we’d put them up against the kids playing in the driveways and playgrounds anywhere else. Folks have been playing the game around here ever since it was invented by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christians Associations that were here from the start, and ever since they’ve been pretty good at it. Naismith coached at the University of Kansas, where he’s the only coach with a losing record, and its program has won multiple national championships and is one of the most blue-programs in the country, with another number one seed in this year’s tournaments and a decent shot at winning it all. The land grant cow college Kansas State University has some big time wins to brag about, including several notable ones over the the snooty KU, many provided by those tough-nosed kids from the hard-luck small towns that those small school championships always seem to turn up.
As good as those small town Kansas kids are, we’re from the big bad city of Wichita and take a particular pride in our local brand of ball. The City League has sent several players to the pro ranks, including a couple of nice guys we went to school with, and many more to Division I collegiate glory, and we recommend that you get in shape for a pickup game around here. Although we spent a couple of all-too-carefree years at K-State and only a couple of hours at Wichita State University we root for the WSU Wheatshockers, because Wichita is our city and the ‘Shocks are its team. Back in the ’30s and ’40s they used to play their homes games at the old Forum building downtown rather on the campus, and tended to draw more from the local factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados rather than students, and although a local haberdasher built a roundhouse on campus in the ’50s and a local oil-refining billionaire rebuilt to state of the art more recently the Shocks still belong more to the factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados than the students. Over the years, Wichita State fans have had some lulls but also some things to cheer about.
Back in the ’60s WSU had some championship years in the then-feared Missouri Valley Conference, went to a Final Four in ’64, had another run in the ’80s that would have resulted in a Final Four if not for some recruiting violations and probations, made a few tournaments and won a few games in the ’90s, and for the past decade have been on another tear. Coach Greg Marshall inherited the team at a very down point, immediately started bringing it up, and has since notched a National Invitational Tournament victory and a Final Four and a 35-0 streak and a run of tournament appearances with at least one victory that bests some of the blue-blood programs, and we hopeful that will continue. As always the ‘Shockers are under-ranked as a 10 seed, but most of the sportswriters regard them as a favorite in their first-round matchup against Dayton University, and the Vegas line has the ‘Shockers as a 6.5 point favorite, and with all due respect to the hard-working factory of Dayton we like our chances. In the second round they’d most likely meet the University of Kentucky, which is about as blue-blooded a program as there is and the same ones who ended that 35-and-0 run in a down-to-the-final-second thriller, but who knows? The Washington Post’s supposed expert ranks the ‘Shocks as the sixth most likely winner overall, just behind KU and just ahead of Kentucky, and a Facebook friend altered us to some site that predicts WSU beating not only Kentucky but also the blue-blooded University of California-Los Angeles and University of North Carolina to get to another Final Four. Those scribes rightly note that “Wichita thrives on beating up snobs from the rich side of town and will relish giving UK a bloody nose,” and predicts “Wichita is going to the rich side of town with a pack of matches and a five gallon tank of gasoline and try to burn everything to the ground.
As nice as it sounds that’s a bit optimistic for our dour prairie souls to believe, but one can always hope. Next year the ‘Shocks are bringing everybody back from an already 30-win team, and they’ll all be one year better if Marshall’s methods once again prove true, and they’re also bringing in a juco player of the year and this 7’2″ Danish guy that looks pretty good from the YouTube videos, and the thought of how good that team will be should get us though one more change of the damnable seasons we experience around here.
In the meantime Kansas has three teams still playing, and even the hoops-crazed and more densely populated states of North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and New York and California can’t match that, and we’re even rooting for that snooty KU and hoping for a rematch next year, which would allow the ‘Shocks to go 3-and-0 against the rich kids in tournament competitions, and we’ll still put our Kansas kids in the driveways and playgrounds up against anyone. Back in the day we had a pretty mean hook shot ourselves, even if we never came close to playing on the high school team with those future pros, and on these cold and windy days that’s a warm memory of a cold wintertime’s most beautiful game.

— Bud Norman