Just a Wee Blether…

About Christmas lights American style

Well, I hope everybody had a wonderful Christmas and that Santa was good to you. In Arizona, we had to endure an unusual weather phenomenon, a Christmas Eve storm which consisted of strong winds and heavy rain, and which knocked out the power in our neighbourhood. So really, a routine winter’s day in Scotland.

By Christmas morning, everything had reverted to normal. The sun shone from a blue, cloudless sky, and Santa had manfully struggled through the wind and rain to leave a barbeque grill – complete with a red bow – in my garden. And it had my name on it. What a good guy he is.

We can barbeque all year round in Arizona, as opposed to three or four times a year in Scotland. I’ve only ever had little charcoal barbeque grills before. This is a gas-powered model – so bring on the sausages and chicken.

Christmas over here is no different from Christmas everywhere. People enjoy large family gatherings, a lot of food, a lot of gifts, wear ugly sweaters, and have a generally fun-filled time.

There is, however, one noticeable difference, where Americans go further and, to an outsider, take things to extremes – lights.

Houses and front gardens are illuminated in spectacular fashion from early December through the New Year. In some cases, whole neighbourhoods are closed off to traffic so families can stroll round and look at the displays.

There are lawn displays of cartoon characters, nativity scenes, and inflatable Santas. In many cases, householders provide mugs of hot chocolate for the adults, and candy canes for children.

We toured a few places this year and the amount of work people put in is incredible. Not to mention the money involved. Some families must spend thousands of dollars on their Christmas lighting displays, and many have charity collection boxes at their front gate.

The city I live in, Chandler, has a downtown area which is nicely lit up and boasts a curious 60-year old tradition. The Christmas tree centerpiece is made up entirely of tumbleweed bushes bound together. Volunteers collect the tumbleweed – of which there is plenty in the Arizona desert – and build up the tree.

The other hugely impressive display is at the Mormon Temple in the next-door city of Mesa. Every year, tens of thousands of families make a special trip to visit the illumination display there.

It is all a welcome change from Scotland where I remember only a handful of houses being ‘lit up’ – often for charity – during the festive season. That was followed by newspaper headlines that thieves had stolen the charity money, or that neighbours were unhappy that they couldn’t hear Coronation Street for the noise outside. Bah humbug, right enough.

So here are a few shots of Arizona lit up for what they call over here ‘The Holidays’. Perhaps, in true American style, I’ll go and pour myself an eggnog.

Just a Wee Blether…

About hiding from the fugitive outside

Every so often a little incident happens that reminds me I’m not in Scotland any more, and that America can be a slightly scarier place. And it’s amazing how the imagination can play tricks.

The towns and cities that make up greater Phoenix typically consist of what they call neighbourhoods. The one I live in is typical. It has three entrances, two off main streets and another which is more of a back entrance, and there are in the region of 100 town houses with a couple of communal outdoor swimming pools.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove in one of the main entrances and a police car was parked there. The officers didn’t stop me, but I noticed another couple of police vehicles further down the road, as well as two police helicopters circling overhead.

That didn’t bother me too much. Police here tend to respond quickly, and in numbers, to any incident. However, by the time I’d reached my house, about two minutes later, I became aware of a larger police presence than I anticipated. I passed at least three other vehicles, and there were two or three officers standing guard.

My immediate guess, and it didn’t take a genius to work it out, was that they were hunting for someone who was on the run.

So, when I got to the house, I parked the car, and looked around. There is a large area of waste ground nearby and I wandered over in that direction. There were five more police – two on bicycles would you believe.

And these guys were not to be messed with. When I say they were armed, they had some of the biggest guns I have ever seen. I know little about guns but these were very large and I took them to be automatic or semi-automatic.

I was getting the feeling that this might be more serious than first appeared. I called my wife, who was heading home, and told her what to expect. It turned out that, when she got to the neighbourhood entrance, police wouldn’t let her in.

Eventually the police called everyone in the neighbourhood. The message was simple. There is an ongoing police incident, stay inside and lock your doors and windows. The area is “in lockdown”.

That made me feel just a little uncomfortable. I’ve seen all these movies. So, I did lock the doors. I even closed the window blinds, and made sure the computer and TV were turned off – just in case.

I decided to check the local news on the phone. The helicopters were still buzzing overhead. The story was that a driver had been pulled over by the cops. Instead of stopping, he had rammed the police vehicle, sped off, driven into the neighbourhood, and fled. The police were obviously in hot pursuit so he hadn’t got far. By my reckoning, he was possibly outside the house.

I wasn’t panicking by any manner of means. But my mind was beginning to work overtime. What if…this guy was in my back yard, about to knock on the door…what if he was drugged up or drunk…and, this being America, what if he had a gun?

At one point, I took myself upstairs, just to be on the safe side. My wife kept in touch to say the entrances were still blocked off. The cops had ‘huge guns’, she told me.

It was a weird feeling. I’m not saying I ever felt in danger or under any threat. There were plenty police around. But I felt jittery. If there had been a knock on the door or window, my heart would have missed several beats.

All of a sudden, I became aware that the noise of the helicopters had stopped. The local news confirmed that the incident was over and that a man was in police custody. I could breathe easily again.

Perhaps I’ve been watching too many TV shows. And maybe I wouldn’t have been so apprehensive in Scotland. But being part of a lockdown situation in America was an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat.

Just a Wee Blether…

About who’s your grand-daddy?

Stories involving American presidents are often hard to believe, especially in recent times. But a few years ago, I stumbled across a little-known fact about a little-known president that truly defies belief.

Many Americans are unaware of the existence of a president called John Tyler. He was the nation’s 10th holder of the office and the first vice-president to make it to the White House because of the death of the sitting president, in this case the equally obscure William Henry Harrison.

Tyler was born in 1790 and that date is crucial to the story. He became president in April 1841, after Harrison succumbed to pneumonia 32 days into the job, making him the USA’s shortest-serving president. Politicians and the public alike never took to Tyler and referred to him ‘His Accidency’ or ‘The Accidental President’.

He is widely regarded as one of the worst presidents ever to hold office, with little or no legacy to speak of. He was a southern gentleman, a plantation owner, slave owner, and a man who joined the Confederates during the Civil War.

But a few years ago, while on a trip to Virginia, Tyler’s home state, I discovered that he had most definitely left a legacy that no other president could match. A legacy that is alive and well after all those years.

Tyler, who was born more than 226 years ago, still has two grandsons alive today. Think about that for a moment. My two grandfathers were born in 1889 and 1890, a full century after Tyler. In fact, the father of the two men still alive was born in 1853, before either of my grandfathers.

I remember being told about this in Virginia and refusing to believe it. Arithmetic isn’t my strong point but even after adding up the years I still couldn’t get my head around it.

But I soon discovered that, in the case of John Tyler and his offspring, anything was possible. He fathered more children – 15 – than any other President in American history. And that isn’t counting those he is alleged to have fathered by his slaves.

If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, then John Tyler was the Great Procreator.

The people of Virginia are only too happy to boast about the 10th president’s incredible prowess. One of the grandsons, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, is apparently a ‘spry’ 87-year-old who still plays tennis. The other, Lyon Gardiner Tyler jr, is 91 and living in Tennessee.

So how did this happen? President Tyler had two wives. He had eight children with his first wife, Letitia, who died of a stroke while the couple were in the White House. Then he had a further seven with his second wife Julia. He fathered his last child in 1860, when he was aged 70.

One of his sons, Lyon, who was born in 1853, also married twice but managed a mere six children, making him not even half the man his father was. Lyon was the father of the two men still alive. Incredibly he fathered Lyon jr in 1924 when he was 71, and Harrison in 1928 when he was 75, so at least he ‘beat’ his father in that regard.

In the area near Williamsburg, Virginia, the people are very happy to talk about the Tyler grandsons. It’s a source of local pride. It’s also a story that won’t last forever so I thought I’d share it sooner rather than later.

And if you had never heard of President John Tyler – or thought he was bit of a useless nonentity – well now you know better. Even more incredibly, Tyler managed this feat despite having not a drop of Scottish blood in his body. Whisper it – his family originated from Shropshire in England.