Archive for November, 2009

A vacant Westdale hard to see

November 30, 2009

For about three years, back in the 1980s, I worked at store called Cutlery World at Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids. It used to sit in the elbow of the massive Osco Drug store on the JC Penney end of the mall.

These were the days when Westdale was at its zenith. Every store was full and the entire structure was packed with shoppers from open until close every day. From 1985 through 1987, I opened the store on the day after both Thanksgiving and Christmas and usually came home at the end of the day feeling like I’d just run a marathon. It seemingly was the center of the universe in Cedar Rapids.

But today, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as my wife and I drove by the mall, it was a bizarre sight. Other than near the entrance to Penney’s, the vast parking lot was deserted. It was the middle of a big empty. In the era I worked, every spot in the lot would be full.

And it all happened rather suddenly. Easter weekend of 2004, Angie and I had come up from Kansas so she could interview for a job at the Gazette. I dropped her off at the Gazette building on that Saturday afternoon, and with a couple of hours to kill, I thought I run out to Westdale and look around. There were few cars in the parking lot. I went up the escalator by Penney’s and was stunned to see that Eby’s Sporting Goods was closed. Walden Books was gone, Musicland, Diamond Dave’s and Spencer Gifts were too. Montgomery Wards was gone. And what was even worse was that most of the businesses that had left had left empty buildings behind. At least half of the storefronts were sealed up. It was a struck set; a ghost town.

In it’s heyday, Westdale was like a small town of its own. The workers in the different stores all got to know each other. In our little corner near Penney’s, we had a burger shop across from us (name escapes me now), and the bank was nearby. Team Electronics was opposite us, and that was so handy. They would have a bank of TVs up in the front of the store, and I used to sneak over from time to time to watch the baseball playoffs or the odd Iowa football game.

In fact, during the classic 1985 Iowa/Michigan game a huge crowd had gathered outside of Team as the Hawks drove into field position. I was stuck in the store because the girl that was supposed to be working with me went home sick. When Rob Houghtlin kicked the winning field goal, I was listening on the radio. As Ron Gonder called it good, the crowd watching outside of Team exploded; it was like being at Kinnick Stadium.

But today, a day which used to be standing room only, the mall sat relatively empty. The vast parking lot, once a sea of cars and almost nightmarish traffic, was deserted.

What happened? Lindale Mall still lives. Is it all Walmart and Target? That can’t be it. I can’t believe that shopping needs have changed so much a place like Westdale can’t still be important. But here it was, less than a month before Christmas and the once-glorious Westdale Mall sat abandoned like a lost puppy. The memories are still there though, even if the stores and shoppers aren’t.

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Hawkeyes bowling for dollars…

November 22, 2009

How bizarre is life sometimes? Twelve weeks ago everyone in the state of Iowa was shaking their collective heads at the Iowa Hawkeyes after they came within a fingernail of losing to Northern Iowa at home. There was wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and even predictions of them losing to Iowa State.

But now, 12 weeks later, the Hawks are 10-2. In fact, they are a sprained ankle and a couple of dropped passes away from being 12-0 and completely mucking-up the BCS/SEC sweepstakes. But, Ricky Stanzi got hurt, Iowa lost to Ohio State in overtime and now they’re playing the waiting game of seeing where they will go for a bowl game.

Let’s establish a couple of things right off the bat: First, WHATEVER happens, the Hawks are going to be playing in bowl game on New Year’s Day or after. Second they will be playing in one of three bowls and two of the three are BCS bowls.

It is a given that Iowa will play in either the Fiesta, Orange or Capital One bowls. It is probably likely that they will be in one of the first two. Bowl reps love Iowa. Send the Hawks to any bowl and at least 20,000 crazies in black and gold striped bib overalls will show up. Send them to a BCS bowl and 50,000 will go. Heck, I have a friend who planned on breaking out her Tiger Hawk bikini if they made to the Rose Bowl! That fact alone says a great deal.

During the Nebraska/ Kansas State game last night, a BCS analyst from ESPN (that’s actually a job title) was explaining the thing very simply. All the BCS is supposed to do pick the top two teams to play for the national championship. The other bowls are part of the BCS rotation and they pay out the most money and they are the most sought-after by all of the schools. And the rational about picking who plays in them is simple: MONEY!!!

There are guidelines, such as no more than two teams from one conference in any of those bowls, and you have to be in the top 14 of the BCS standings to qualify. But after that, it’s all about money.

The Rose Bowl went back to taking the champions of the Pac-10 and Big 10, while the Fiesta Bowl has an agreement with the Big 12, the Sugar Bowl has the SEC and the Oranage Bowl has the ACC. But, if any of these “automatic” berths are opened up by the teams in the BCS Championship game, anyone who qualifies for them can go.

If we are to say it is a given that Texas will win the Big 12 championship game, that opens up two slots at the Fiesta Bowl. Then there is a slot in the Sugar Bowl (because the loser of the SEC championship game will get one of them), and one in the Orange. Plus, whoever wins the Big East gets an at-large berth. This means that as of now, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, the Oregon/Oregon State winner, the Pittsburgh/Cincinnati winner and Georgia Tech/Clemson winner all have guarnateed spots.

So, out of 10 possible spots (the BCS championship game and four other BCS bowls), seven of them are already spoken for. That leaves three. And, there are probably five teams who can make a legitimate argument for one those slots. The Hawkeyes and Penn State are both 10-2 and both could make strong cases. Assumming they beat Oklahoma Friday, Oklahoma State can make a case. And, there ar the Cinderellas, TCU and Boise State. Their conferences (the WAC and Mountain West) are not guaranteed BCS spots, but if they are in the top 14, ONE of them is guaranteed a spot. Right now, TCU is ranked highest so they will get one slot. Boise State probably SHOULD have one, but they don’t have to get one.

So, in essence, there are four teams for two spots — probably one in the Fiesta (because TCU will get on of those) and one in the Orange (Cincinnati will probably go to the Sugar). From a poltically correct standpoint a 12-0 Boise State should get one of the spots.

If anyone is odd-man out of this discussion first, it’s the Nittany Lions. Their fan following isn’t any better than Iowa’s and the Hawks did beat them. And while TV ratings are important, a full loud stadium is more so.

So that takes it to three teams. The Fiesta Bowl could honor their Big 12 commitment, but they don’t have to. Boise State is out of this discussion because if the Broncos were chosen it wouldn’t be for a match-up with TCU. So unless the Horned Frogs ended up in the Orange Bowl, it’s between Iowa and OSU.

In the case of the Orange, the reps there LOVE Iowa. In 2003, Iowa had 40,000 fans in the seats and another 8,000 just there to hang out. And with an ACC team (probably Georgia Tech) in the mix, that almost guarantees a sellout. Penn State might be able to do that as well, but with Iowa is a guarantee. Boise State? Maybe, but that would be long haul.

Personally, I would love to see the Hawks in the Fiesta Bowl. Half the population of the Phoenix area is Iowa transplants, TCU would be an interesting match-up and Iowa has never been to that bowl.

But if it does end up being a BCS bowl, I’m betting on the Orange. The Miami crowd loves the Hawks, and Iowans have proven that they’ll travel well there — as trips to the Outback and Capital One bowls have proven. Then there’s that whole image of the Tiger Hawk bikini….

About the only variable left would be if Oklahoma was able to beat OSU. Then, the Hawks will probably end up in the Fiesta and Boise State in the Orange.

But that’s just my guess. Whatever happens the Hawks will go bowling, it will be in January and it will be fun!

Moving forward…

November 22, 2009

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I realized the other day that it had actually been over six months since I had updated this little outlet for my writing, and decided it was long past time I did so.

So, what’s new?

Well, swimming (both girls and boys) at Vinton-Shellsburg High School lives on. I’m working for free this year for the boys’ program and we’re trying to become more financially viable. It’s been a struggle, but as I’ve pointed out in the past, struggles make us stronger. I hope we survive the latest round of budget cuts; the administration and the V-S school board are wrestling with the latest budget cuts. I’m hopeful — along with all of our supporters — that we can go on from here.

A few weeks ago, my father went into the TLC Unit (Alzheimer’s) Lutheran Home in Vinton. It had finally reached a point in which — try as she might — Mom could no longer care for him. He’s getting more comfortable there, but constantly asks where he is, when he gets to go home and where his car is. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease; Dad is still healthy and happy, but so much of him — the real him — is gone now. He still knows Mom, Angie, Sage and me. He still recognizes his brother, Glenn, too. But the teacher, the scientist, the Hall-of-Fame wrestling referee is gone now. And as time goes on, it only gets worse. We have learned to cherish every day, because we know that it’s probably the best one we have left.

Sage is having a good year at school. While he still stuggles with some things, he spends the bulk of his school day in a mainstream classroom. He turned 7 last week and got his first big-boy bike. It still has training wheels, but so long as the weather holds, he’s out there riding up and down the driveway on it and acts like he conquered the world.

Oh, and we FINALLY moved!!! We lucked out and through the fine efforts of our realtor, Scott Schlarbaum, our banker, Tom Lindauer, and a buyer that really wanted the place, we were able to get out of the one-year transitional house that turned into a five-year albatross. We moved across town to a beautiful, spacious house, just a block from Mom with everything (space, basement, garage, fireplace, space and space) we were missing. It’s like heaven with a patio.

After months of wondering whether she would survive all of the cuts her company faced, Angie has become an Eastern Iowa celebrity as the food writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Now, instead of working weekend late nights as an editor, she interviews interesting people about food, cooking and the like and gets to travel all over Eastern Iowa talking to them. Her favorite comment is “I get paid for this?”

As for me, I’m coaching, I’m substitute teaching, I’m trying to plug along on my way to my graduate degree and I’m trying to be a good husband and father. Like all of us, I haven’t gotten to where I want to be just yet in my life, but no matter what happens, I feel like I’m moving forward.

The day before our girls’ Regional swimming meet, I spoke at a pep assembly at the high school. I actually like speaking at those, love to brag about the atheltes that I love to work with. But on this day, I spoke about something else.

I talked about our family’s ongoing move to our new house. I talked about the packing and lifting and loading and lifting and unpacking and doing it all over again. And I compared it to what the swimmers had been doing as they improved all season. And what I said was (and I honestly made this up at that moment), was this: “Moving is tough, but throughout our lives we are always moving. But so long as you’re always moving forward, it’s worth it. When you move forward, you’re moving toward something better.”

So anyway, Watching Wheels is back. I’ll be updating regularly on whatever strikes my fancy and hope you will enjoy it. It’s good to be back!