The Glimpsing of America – 9,506 Miles Across America – And Back

By August 22nd, 2016

Blog No. 66

August 23, 2016

A GLIMPSING OF AMERICA

– – –

Observations from the Road

By Mack W. Borgen
Santa Barbara, California

Copyright (c) Mack W. Borgen. All rights reserved.

University of California at Berkeley (Honors, Economics); Harvard Law School;
Author, The Relevance of Reason – Business Politics (Vol 1) and —  Society and Cultue (Vol 2)
As Advertised in The New York Review of Books and Recipient of Four National Book Awards
Next Forthcoming Books
 Dead Serious and Light-Hearted
– The Memorable Words of Modern America (Vols I and II) –
Direct Order Today: c/o Brody & Schmitt Publishers at mwborgen@live.com

A GLIMPSING OF AMERICA

– – –

Observations from the Road

Preface

9,506 miles. 57 days.

Most of my writings are more serious in nature. Although I try to infuse a touch of humor and a degree of levity into my writings, they usually focus upon the serious challenges and somber realities of our country. This article is different.

This article is intended to be light-hearted and fun. It is based upon – or at least inspired by — my family’s travels across America this summer. Across the Southwest to San Antonio and New Orleans. Up to Nashville, the Great Smokies, and Washington, DC. Through Pennsylvania and New York to Niagara Falls. Over to Chicago and Madison. Across the Great Plains to the Black Hills. To my family’s beloved Montana, and finally home to Santa Barbara.

Every family’s journey will vary. As it should. Based upon differing interests, varying levels of patience, the stubborn demands of work and clients, and the constraints of health and budgets, every family will tailor its own trip. Every family will drive its own roads, go to different destinations, and see different things. But regardless of which path we take across this country, certain things about America come into view. This article won’t address the price of gas, preferred roads, family foibles, or the usual travel trivia. But certain observations about America may be useful for understanding our country. And certain surprises and curiosities may be worthy of note – or at least may be too interesting to ignore.

Some observations are light-heart and humorous. Some are more somber and serious. But they are not based upon academic study. They are merely that which was observed through the windshield of a car; through the travels of one traveler, this author.

Many of you know this country well. Many of you may have travelled more extensively and with better skills of observation and memory than those of this author. As I hope will be obvious from this writing, I honor you. Indeed, with your permission, I envy you.

Introduction

For most people “glimpsing” is a rarely used word. But it should not be. It is too accurate a word to be ignored. It is how many Americans conduct their lives. Amidst the time pressures of living, we only have time to glimpse the news; to glimpse the Internet; to glimpse what is going on. At times, our kids glimpse their homework – just like we did when we were their age.

Most of us have neither the chance nor the privilege to study and stare, to dig and delve, to ponder and reflect. Instead, we see what we can see — usually at high speeds and only for brief periods of time.

Thus, my selection of the word “glimpsing.” It is simultaneously imperfect and precise. It correctly implies both observation and brevity.

The obvious problem of glimpsing America is that our country is so big – 3,120,000 square miles in the continental U.S. alone – but who’s counting in the middle of Nevada, in the expanse of West Texas, or in the vastness the Great Plains.

Interestingly, at least one form of glimpsing America has already been tried. In Rick Smolan’s 1993 book, A Day in the Life of America, “200 of the world’s leading photograph journalists” in hundreds of different settings throughout the country sought to “capture the life” of our nation through pictures. They were all taken on a single day – May 2, 1986.[1]  Trying to capture the life and condition of America with words is in some ways more challenging. But allow me to try.

I.

Resetting the Narrative about America

 There are several, more specific purposes for this article. The first purpose is to suggest a modest resetting of our narrative about America – if even for a few moments, in order to help us see our country in a different way and from a wider perspective.

The problem is that the beauties of America are too easily lost in the headlines. They remain buried under the headlines. America gets itself lost amidst the news about crimes and tragedies, about the state of our economy, and the comings and going of celebrities. Especially in this election year, the beauties of America have also become lost amidst the anger and discord of our political theatrics. Many of these things are important, but not today. Today — or at least this article — is about that which is good and beautiful in the country.

Thus, the first and over-arching purpose of article is to try – if even for just a moment — to rebut the news and to reset the narrative about America so that we can see our country and its peoples in a slightly different way. A slightly better way.

II.

Traveling the Roads of America

The second purpose is to humbly encourage each of us at some point in our lives to discard air travel for awhile and instead travel the roads of America.

Certainly travel is tough. As mentioned above, travel is always subject to the constraints of one’s time, money, jobs, health, and schedule. Like you, this author has suffered all of these constraints at different times in my life. However, I am also reminded of my mother’s repeated adage when I was young — that we will all run out of time long before we run out of money. In my case, it’s too early to know if this is true. But I am getting older, and I fear it may be.

This article is intended to share, but not to preach, and sharing one’s observations about this country is at best a risky and humbling task. Partly this is because seeing America is almost impossible. The very act of traveling serves up its own limits, and this author knows that we did not do it perfectly – not remotely so. We did not see everything.

Our feet got tired. Our energies waned. Our stomachs got empty. And we made mistakes. For example, to go to Virginia and not see Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is a sin. And we sinned. To travel near Philadelphia and not stop is a sin. And we sinned.  But we tried.

We saw more than we can understand; more than we will be able to remember. And there was always more that we wanted to see. Other than being barred by money, logic, and my wife, I relentlessly wanted to buy a cabin in nearly every state we saw (o.k. — Central Nevada and West Texas not so much). But I suggest that one must travel America — by its roads. It remains the only way to see America.

The days of horseback and wagon train are long over – now just the things of old movies and dated lore. Regrettably, only a very few parts of America can be seen by rail. And America cannot be seen by air.

Many people – especially my compatriot traveling professionals – have criss-crossed our country many times by plane. They come to know Manhattan and DC; Dallas and Atlanta; Chicago and Los Angeles; Hilton Head and Jackson Hole; Carmel and the Hamptons. But they don’t know America — because it cannot be seen from 35,000 feet in the air. America cannot be absorbed at 550 miles per hour. America needs more than an impatient glance out of the cramped window of a plane.

Thus, the only hope of seeing America is by road. One mile at a time. That is kind of a law. That is kind of a fact, and such facts are stubborn, implacable, and, yes, inconvenient. But such travel will be worth it – for all the reasons suggested in the next section of this article.

III.

Verbing America

Excepting for some of Ken Burns’ films or Stephen Ambrose’s writings, no one really has the interest or patience to read someone else’s travel log. Words never do such a story justice, and life is far too short.

But, humbly and quickly, allow me to offer up the following verbs to describe the country that is ours; the county that is (still) there. As implied by use of the verbs below, if a country can be “glimpsed,” it seems that it can also be “verbed.”

With that in mind — and again remembering that your trip would always be different than ours – it may at least possible for anyone traveling the roads of America …

To feel

The pushy winds off Lake Michigan and the gentle winds of the Great Plains;

The quiet beauty of the Finger Lakes;

The isolation of Little Big Horn; and

The dry heat of the desert and the thick humidity of the South.

To wonder:           

At the beauty of Niagara Falls and the size of the Great Lakes;

At the say-what uniqueness of the Corn Palace and the relentless advertising of Wall Drug;

The carved faces of Rushmore; and

The sheer audacity of Crazy Horse.

To see:

The natural beauty of the Red Rocks of Sedona and the thick forests of the Smokies;

The rivers and streams and lakes and falls — from the Appalachian to the Rockies —

From the Rio Grande to the Mississippi;

From the Potomac to the Susquehanna;

From the Ohio to the Yellowstone;

The winding beauty of the Natchez Trace and the Blue Ridge Parkway;

The rust and trouble along the cities along Lake Erie;

The imposing beauty of Vanderbilt and Georgetown and Notre Dame;

The dated majesty of Southern plantations and the elegance of the Biltmore in Asheville; and

The tidy brownstones of Georgetown and the big-lawned houses of the East.

To endure:

The sheer width of Texas;

The roadside absurdity of America’s box stores;

The occasional crowds and the lines of admission; and

Even the tour buses that clutter some of our major cities.

To appreciate:

The magnificence of the Smithsonian in DC and the Field Museum in Chicago;

The simple beauty of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial;

The cleverness of the Spy Museum and the creativeness of the Newseum in DC;

The brilliance of the thousands of exhibits and displays; and

Possibly most of all, the courtesies of both locals and fellow travelers. Everywhere.

To listen to:

The pounding of the “L” trains in Chicago;

The heavy silence of the swamps;

The Dixieland in New Orleans and the Country in Nashville; and

The sounds of the distant train whistles meandering their way through the west.

To taste:

The jambalaya in Louisiana;

The deep dish in Chicago;

The cheese-everything of Wisconsin; and

The Flathead Lake cherries of Montana.

To calorie your way through:

The cafes and diners and the Dairy Queens and Subways;

The Blue Dog in Lafayette and Ted Bulletin’s in DC;

The Echo Lake Café in Bigfork; and

And, from time to time, the hundreds of fine foods and fine restaurants along the way.

To wander

Through the shops and stores and markets and malls;

Through the hiking trails of the Great Smokies;

Along the Potomac River; and

Through the (wonderful) state parks.

To Watch:

The prairie dogs and the buffalo herds in the Blacks Hills;

The size of elk, the grace of antelope, and the surly scorns of coyotes;

And different kind of people animals –

The everywhere joggers in DC;

The hustlers and bustlers in Chicago’s Loop;

And the friendly smiles at the street fairs in Madison.

And on a personal note — if you have time and energy left over, you can always step over desert snakes in Borrego Springs; turn over road kill armadillos in West Texas, catch rainbow trout in the Black Hills and trap river turtles in Montana.

It’s a big country. It’s an open country. It’s inviting.

IV.

Road Surprises, Observations and Discoveries

The road has surprises. Sometimes they are disquieting; even disturbing. Sometimes old memories are re-kindled and old beliefs are confirmed. But sometimes new observations and discoveries are made. As noted at the beginning of this article, “glimpsing” is just that — but, as in life, first impressions have a unique form of resilience. First impressions, though sometimes wrong, can linger and matter.

The following is a list of seven such road surprises, observations and discoveries. They are not listed with any order of priority. They are not offered with adamancy. Instead, they are tendered in good spirit for your consideration. Possibly they are accurate. Partly they merely evidence why PhDs. are not passed out for anyone’s “glimpsing” – no matter how well-intentioned or sincere.

No. 1.

Diversity

The diversity of our national community is huge. Such a statement is certainly not profound, but it is worth remembering as a conversational mantra. Such diversity includes far more that mere differences in our races, ethnicities, national ancestries, religions and religiosity, speech patterns or accents, cuisine, employment, or wealth. Complicating matters and excepting only Louisiana, such diversity cannot be drawn along any state lines or regional association.

The diversity is deep and significant. It underscores everything. It is one of the boundaries of our national conversation. It mandates caution, deserves acceptance, and requires certain patience as we talk with one another.

It is gently suggest that the most significant diversity of our people rests upon the nature and location of their community — large or small; urban or rural; isolated or centralized; mountainous, farmland, or desert.

No. 2.

Size

The country is huge. Again, there is little news in this statement. However, like our country’s diversity, it cannot be stated often enough. The reiteration of this statement can also serve as a constant reminder that our country cannot be seen from the air. America is not a 5-hour flight.

Most people measure distances in the context of their own lives — minutes to town; minutes to the store; the length of one’s work commute, and so forth. This is understandable, but it is problematic in that focusing upon the size of our country is rarely a component of our thinking.

The politicians and the press constantly speak of one America. Performers have road trips and sports teams have national game schedules. BYU plays Notre Dame; Michigan plays Stanford; the New England Patriots play the Wherever-They-Are-Today Raiders.

Even more important, neither our television nor our Internets are affected by distance. One can click on New York as fast as they can click on Seattle. There is no burden of miles.

Similarly, local papers are on a death graph. It is hardly surprising that USA Today now has the highest national circulation with its 2,278,000 daily readers – no longer a local paper such as The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune or The Atlanta Journal or the Los Angeles Times. .

It is just too easy to forget the impact of America’s size. It is just too easy to believe that America is America – albeit with touches of regionalism. No one, including this author, counts tangible miles anymore. We count flight connections. We compare travel times. But it is the tangible miles that matter because at the end of those many miles, people see different Americas. People feel different Americas.

I have written before about the difficulty in absorbing the meanings of large numbers. See, e.g. Mack W. Borgen Blog No. 59 (June 16, 2015) at www.mackwborgen.com. But the meaning and the extent of America’s size presents unique challenges.

To give a sense of order of magnitude, one must think far beyond the 50 states and four times zones.[2] There are 3,007 counties, 64 parishes, and another gaggle of boroughs, census areas, or other county equivalents in America. Our country has 123,439 lakes and more than 250,000 rivers with 3,500,000 miles of shoreline. Depending upon definitions, there are from 8-14 major mountain ranges in the U.S. There are 58 national parks with another 6,624 state parks. And although our measly who’s-counting 9,506 miles seemed like a lot of driving at the time, our trip covered only about 1/3rd of 1% of our country’s 2,678,000 miles of paved roads.

But the most staggering number is the number of square miles — 3,119,885 square miles in the continental U.S. — roughly equivalent to 2,400,000 Central Parks, 6,203 Los Angeles’, or 2,574 Rhode Islands.  These numbers lead to my third observation.

No. 3.

More Openness and Less Urbanized Than One Expects

America thinks of itself as urbanized. By many measures, it is. In fact, as of 2010, 82% of the U.S. population now lives in an urban area “as compared with approximately (50%) worldwide and 78% of the inhabitants in the more developed regions.” Borgen, M., The Relevance of Reason – Society and Culture, pp 180-181 citing The Worldwide Factbook at cia.gov. But this 82% U.S. urbanization percentage can be misleading.

Such urbanization incorrectly may suggest that America is now paved; that our cities now abut one another with relatively little remaining open land. One does not need to drive across the expanse of West Texas to know that is false. Much of the Great Plain remains. There are thousands of open acres in Wisconsin, in central and upstate Pennsylvania and New York, up and down the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Wyoming and Montana remain beautiful states – but few people are there. The population of the State Montana is still less than the population of the City of San Diego. This author does not suggest that this is a good fact or a bad fact. But it remains a fact.

There are many reason why people remain tied to their large cities – family, employment, health care –, but it is not because there are no options. It is not because there is no land left. To the contrary, there are hundreds and hundreds of small and medium-sized communities in which to live throughout this country.

No. 4.

Beauty

Everyone has their own definition of beauty. Everyone has their own definition of that which is exciting and that which is not. This author is a Westerner, but I went to law school in Cambridge. As a young man, I remember arguing with a classmate about the West. I have long forgotten his name, but I remember our conversation – maybe not like yesterday, but certainly like last week.

He was born and raised in New York City. He loved New York City. But he saw no reason to see the West. New York had a few buffalo in its zoo. A deer is a deer. A wolf is a wolf. Mountains are bumps in the way, and everything could be seen on television or in National Geographic. End of story. He saw no reason to ever head west – although as a friend and in gentle concession he promised me that sometime in his life he would head west … or at least as far “west” as Buffalo, New York. I don’t know if he ever did.

But a special reference to the beauty of America has to be included in any listing of observations. The nature of the beauty was diverse – from the roadside flowers to the skyline of Chicago; from the red rock formations of Sedona to the thick forests of the Smokies; from the Lincoln Monument to the hundred miles of extraordinary scenery (so little recognized – why?) along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River.

In here closing, a special mention is made of the small towns and picturesque communities. They remain. They are not far from the urban sprawls of the large cities. But, again, they remain. They are not waiting for us. Maybe we should all be there. Someday.

No. 5.

Dramatic Variances in Tidiness, Courtesy and Manners

Tidiness, courtesy, and manners – these are important things, and the West loses. Badly.

It gives me no pleasure to report that in the context of tidiness, courtesy, and manners, the West is far behind the rest of the country. I believe that any objective observer would note conspicuous distinctions between the West and the rest of the country. It is beyond the scope of this article and the knowledge of this author to know why, but the West is by far less tidy. Westerners are far deficient in their courtesies and manners.

Generalities are inherently dangerous, but they can carry a seed of truth. New England has always had a reputation for its tidiness – mowed yards and tended gardens. And while not ignoring the dark dimensions of its history and culture, the South has always had a deserved reputation for its slower ways and “Southern charm.”  But it is more than that. Far more than that.

One can argue that the dramatic variances do not matter. Certainly there is crime in New Orleans. There are jerks in South Bend. There is ugliness in Asheville. But impressions matter. And small things matter – opening doors, saying “thank you,” taking one’s turn, and standing in line.

There is a theory in the context of criminology known as the “broken windows theory.” The theory suggests that monitoring small crimes (vandalism, public drinking, toll-jumping, and graffiti) helps to create an atmosphere and norm of lawful order which in turns helps to diminish the occurrence of more serious crimes. Possibly there is a parallel within the social culture of our communities as well.

In other words, peoples’ manners and courtesies do matter. Mowing yards and tending gardens do matter. They all contribute to the appearance, the spirit, the very pride and sense of community.

Although rarely articulated, there is a saddening acceptance in the West, however one wishes to vaguely define even that term, that one out of every ten homes in most communities will be junked up. One in ten houses will be untended and unkempt — with cluttered yards, too many cars, or pealing paint. But that is less the case in many of the Eastern, Northeastern, and Midwestern communities. There – nearly all of the yards are mowed. One after another. There – nearly all of the trash is removed. There – nearly all of the gardens are tended. In these communities, exceptions do prove the rule. Anyone driving through mile and after mile, town after town, neighborhood after neighborhood, block after block … can notice the tidiness. Not perfect; but better. It doesn’t take a lot of glimpsing to appreciate the difference.

The varying styles of behavior are the same. Once again, there are jerks everywhere, but the presentation of small manners and the extension of small courtesies are more commonplace in the East, the South, and the Midwest. It is a risky generalization … but the examples were everywhere.

No. 6.

The Somber Cautions and Sobering Embarrassment

of

Modern American Commercialism, Construction, and Architecture

 Jobs, work, employment, GDP, trade balances, economic growth, median incomes. These are all the focus of many conversations about our country. For some, these are measures of our success; the indicators of our future.

But much can be lost amidst the flood of data and the reduction of all things to cold numbers and percentages. GDP, median incomes, unemployment rates aside, we are a retail economy.

We are devoted to the buying and consumption or discarding of goods. We are burying ourselves under our own rampant commercialism. Shopping centers abound. Strip centers are everywhere. Quaintness has been lost. The box stores have won. It is sad that the symbol of post-war American architecture is the box. Adding insult to visual injury, little energy is spent on building the boxes for either beauty or longevity. They are built for raw efficiency. Their future rests in their own demolition.

Certainly we saw the shut-down factories in the Northeast. We saw the old barns which are almost a trademark of the rural countryside. We saw the abandoned homesteads in the West which reminded us of someone’s now long dead dreams. But it is the 20th Century architecture and the roadside/exit-ramp construction which dominates America’s newer skylines. They are the horizon of our urban and suburban America.

Pre-war homes were built with a hope, if not almost an expectation, that they would house generations of families. And they have. Pre-war downtowns have more than charm. They have a deserved reverence. Town after town now hosts a “historic downtown,” but there will never be a “historic shopping center.” First, the buildings and the construction materials almost assure a fixed-year obsolescence. Second, a box is a box — even if there is a parking lot next to it.

Possibly America (and its city planners and architectural review boards) should consider that people now readily pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve and renovate the beautiful brownstones in Georgetown, the beautiful middle-class homes in some of the older suburbs of Chicago, and the stately sandstone buildings in South Bend. But no one is going to hesitate to plow under a strip mall or to expend energy or resources to preserve a formula-designed mall.

We can do better. Possibly we should — even if it takes community action to do so.

No. 7.

A Few Last Surprises and Discovered Curiosities

This last category about our glimpsing of America is intended to merely list some of the good, the bad and the ugly surprises and curiosities which were seen over these last two months. As with the above listings, they too are not set forth in any order of priority.

(A)

Armadillos and Raccoons

Call us stupid, but it was not until San Antonio that we learned that one can catch leprosy from armadillos. Sound absurd? It’s true. It would be an idle fact of limited medical interest except that we spent time in West Texas trying to catch one of the little buggers. The closest we came was roadside road kill. We all remain healthy, and it is far more likely that our health was impacted by our devotion to end-of-the-day Dairy Queens.

Raccoons – what can I say? There may be a few raccoons left in the woods, but possibly not. Based upon our rough road kill count, the poor critters have had a really tough year. We stopped counting at around 300.

(B)

The Amish

It is estimated by the U.S. Religious Census that there are about 308,000 Amish in the America. We had expected to see them in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but we saw them in nearly every state. It is an honorable religion with a fascinating history, but based upon what we saw — the number of 308,000 may be far, far too low. The Amish were everywhere. They have been busy making a lot more than furniture.

(C)

Tourism Gimmicks

Tourism is everywhere, and Americans are traveling. In most places, tourism is controlled, indeed, almost orderly – from the Red Rocks of Sedona to the Riverwalk in San Antonio. But not in some places. Bourbon Street is still crowed with all of the folks you don’t want to bring home, and a few places may have been lost. A few places – beautiful places — are so deeply buried in tourist gimmicks that they may not be able to dig themselves out.

Niagara Falls deserves a dishonorable mention in this regard, but Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee are the unequivocal winners. Frightening, disappointing, and a word I rarely use – disgusting.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are Tennessee’s gateway towns to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park   – one of the great national parks. As gateway towns, it had been expected that they would be like West Glacier or West Yellowstone. Some motels. Some restaurants. Some whitewater and tour guide offices. Maybe a few trinket shops.

Instead, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee was 11 miles of side-by-side, stand-alone tourism stores and gimmicks – putt-putt golf and wax museums, bumper cars and go-cart tracks, roller coasters and Hatfield & McCoy Shows, Dairy Queens and Pancake Houses (7 of them to be exact), fast food and Stop-N-Goes, Walmarts and Dollar Stores, gift shops and trinket stores, and on and on.

(D)

Lawyer Billboard and Class Action Solicitations

Especially down south there are Just-Call-Saul attorney billboards everywhere. We almost felt badly for passing through so many states without having a car accident; without retaining a lawyer, without suing at least someone.

And even though we made it through the day without the advice of billboard lawyers, at night we were bombarded with class action solicitations on television. Possibly because we are Netflix users, we were unprepared for the relentless solicitations to call for Free Consultations. Based upon what I heard, everyone in my family qualified for inclusion in at least a couple class actions — “have you ever had a headache?” “Have you ever felt full after a meal?” “Does your back hurt after a day of splitting wood?” “Just call 1-800-HERE-TO-HELP.”

We decided to own up to our own aches and pains; to accept our years and our aging. We just weren’t sure America needed more plaintiffs. We decided to pass.

V.

Closing

As with our trip, this write-up must come to a close. Thank you for your indulgence in allowing this author this personal narrative.

The repeated thought, again humbly offered, is that you try to go – money and time and jobs and health and schedules permitting.

Admittedly, there is never a good time. Admittedly, America will always be there.

But the sooner we see America, the sooner we may be able to take some of the headlines in better stride; the sooner we may better remember why America matters, how the distant corners of our country are different; and how we must stand together as a national community – mindful of both the beauty of our country and the differences of our people.

As for this family, we will look forward to seeing you at the Dairy Queen. Maybe we can exchange some good ideas, discuss the direction of our country, reminisce about what we have each seen, and finally get to the bottom of this road kill raccoon problem!

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] See, Smolan, R., A Day in the Life of America (1993). This collection of photographs of America was one of as series of national books done in a parallel manner. See also, “A Day in the Life of Canada (Smolan, R.)(1985), — of Japan (Smolan, R.)(1985), — of the Soviet Union (Smolan, R.)(1987), —of China (Cohen, D.)(1989), — of Italy (Enwitt, J., Rowan, R., Barry, J.)(1990), — of Ireland (Enwitt, J., Lawlor, T.)(1991), and —of Israel (Smolan, R.)( (1994)).

[2]    For purposes of this article reference is used primarily to the continental United States.

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to “The Glimpsing of America – 9,506 Miles Across America – And Back”

  1. Carole Paddelford Says:

    Very nicely written! You should submit it to the New Yorker.

  2. Mack W. Borgen Says:

    thank you, carole,

    very very appreciated … sorry for my delay in getting back to you … best wishes, mack w. borgen

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