Gravel roads and flyover country

I once sat with a well-known law professor and three other federal trial judges in a fancy New York restaurant discussing important stuff after we had put on a panel discussion at a well-regarded New York law school.  I was the only judge from “flyover” country, and it was clear that the law school audience and my fellow judges viewed me as a curiosity. Later, at the dinner, one of the judges asked me how many miles I had to travel on gravel roads to get to work. It was apparent that the judge was not enamored with a jab I had thrown his way during the panel discussion–the punch drew laughs from the audience. Explaining that all roads are gravel in Nebraska, I let the remark pass.


Why do I tell this story? Our country, despite the absence of a monarchy, is status conscious. Oddly, we sometimes derive status (and infer ability), or the lack of it, from where people live. The federal judiciary suffers from this malady big-time. I can’t stress that point too much. By now, I really don’t care. Indeed, I find it amusing, and do my best to play the hick when it suits me. It can be a lot of fun.

But once in a while it is worth pointing out how stupid it is to derive conclusions about ability from a map. An example: There is now a third Ebola patient in America. His name is Rick Sacra, 51. He is medical doctor who has treated the ravaged people of Africa. He is not being treated at Emory. The federal government selected somewhere else. He is not being treated in LA, or Boston (his hometown) or Chicago or New York. He is being cared for in Omaha at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. See here.

Dr. Sacra arrived by plane at the sprawling Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. He did not flyover. He was transported to UNMC on a paved road rather than a gravel one. His life depends upon the skill of the UNMC docs, and that is especially true since the miracle drug that Emory used is all gone. I bet this good man doesn’t care that he is being treated in a state with less than two million people but over six million cattle.

Update and Admission:  I have a bias for UNMC.  I should have disclosed it earlier.

My first father-in-law, the beloved Bill Blank, a highly regarded surgeon in Ohio who grew up south central Nebraska, was trained at UNMC.  Jim Armitage, my former neighbor in Omaha, who grew up in Kearney, Nebraska (out where there are miles and miles of gravel roads), advised me on my cancer treatment. Jim is probably the world’s leading expert on lymphomas, and you will find no kinder doctor anywhere. Mark Mailliard, my hysterically funny and brilliant brother-in-law, leads the Gastroenterology department at UNMC where he specializes in the treatment of Hepatitis C. Mary, Mark’s wife and Joan’s sister, is an oncology nurse at UNMC supervising clinical trials for breast cancer patients. She is probably the best human being I have ever encountered. Nurses are like that. Jim Eske is one of my fantastic career law clerks. His wife, Deb Thomas, is Associate Vice Chancellor at UNMC.  I have known Deb for over 30 years, and our relationship started back when she was a political wunderkind and I served as counsel for the Nebraska legislature regarding the impeachment of Nebraska’s Attorney General. Bar none, she is the smartest person I have ever known, and one of the toughest but nicest too.

So, take what I say about UNMC with a grain of salt, and then believe every damn word.



On regional jets and wheelchairs

I live in “flyover” country. That means two things when I book a flight out of Lincoln. First, I will be flying on a “regional jet” which is airline-speak for small, cramped, and run by a company that is nearly bankrupt but holds on by supplying the big carriers with passengers from “flyover” country” while pretending to be part of the big carrier. Second, you will always find that the “regional jet” parks at an arrival gate that is far, far away from the center of the airport. And such was our experience this time as Joan and I flew to Denver and then on to ABQ (Albuquerque) and back.

One of the good things about flying a regional jet is that the air crews are often composed of decent people rather than the devils in human form featured in the old Saturday Night Live bit, “Total Bastard Airlines.” This time the pilots were funny and informative–and you could even hear them over the audio system.

For example, despite our late departure out of Denver returning to Lincoln the captain demanded that we refrain from calling his airplane a “toy.” He bragged that he could fly as fast and as high as a Boeing 737 and his plane was more stylish. Despite our late departure, he promised that we would be on time (we were supposed to arrive at midnight). As the pilot predicted, a “screaming tail wind” pushed our little space capsule to 600 miles per hour over the ground and allowed us to get to Lincoln exactly as scheduled. (Will someone take it real slow and explain to me once again the difference between “air speed” and “ground speed” and why I should care?) This triumph occurred despite the fact that, as our captain warned, the landing might be a abrupt “’cause we will be using the short runway–the one that’s not all torn up.” He also instructed us to blame the first officer for any herky-jerky landing complaints.

Photo credit: Raihan Ahmed pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. We flew back to Lincoln on a fifty seat Embrarer ERJ  145 with 12 passengers braving the experience. The photo shows an Embraer ERJ 145 preparing to take off from its hub Shahjalal International Airport in Bangladesh.  The fact that the Brazilian built Embraer is used by airlines in Bagladesh is certainly a comfort.

Photo credit: Raihan Ahmed pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. We flew back to Lincoln on a fifty seat Embrarer ERJ 145 with 12 brave souls aboard. The photo shows an Embraer ERJ 145 preparing to take off from its hub Shahjalal International Airport in Bangladesh. The fact that the Brazilian-built Embrarer is used by airlines in Bangladesh is comforting.

As for the flight attendant, and despite the fact she was obviously exhausted,  she was pleasant and talkative. She told us she was from Georgia and asked us to forgive her heavy accent. She was clearly tickled by the pilot’s banter. Before we got to Lincoln, she asked over the intercom if anyone knew where the nearest “Jimmy John’s” to her hotel might be found. It turns out that there was one near the Holiday Inn where the crew stayed, and she beamed with delight. It was then that I knew the flight crew had their priorities in the right place. “Freaky fast.”

I turn next to the second part of this post. Although to be honest, both parts are related. I just don’t how.

The Denver airport is huge. It is populated with young and old people in perfect health. That is true even for old folks. It is not unusual to see a perfectly tanned very old man in spandex, running shoes, a huge backpack with water bottles hanging off it, fast-walking through the airport and eschewing the “people walkers.” I hate those guys. Especially the ones with the “arm candy.” (If she is reading this, that’s not to say that you, Joan, aren’t “arm candy.” It’s just . . . .)

Before returning to Denver, I decided that I needed a wheel chair when we got to the mile high city. I’m still short of breath and unsteady on my feet from the chemo and the stint in the hospital. Our regional jet was scheduled to use a gate that was at the very far end of the airport, and our Lincoln gate had not yet been assigned. What was worse, we were going to have to exit on the tarmac, walk off the tarmac to a long corridor underneath the main concourse and climb a set of stairs to the main level. There we would find out our next gate. I didn’t think I could handle that trek.

As I exited the plane, and limped down the stairway (festooned with a tarpaulin topped with fringe), I noticed the other passengers staring at me. I could read their minds. Surely, I must be faking it. Even Joan seemed to melt away, distancing herself from me much like you would distance yourself from a traveling companion who displayed a neon sign that flashed “Kiss me, I’m a leper.”

Averting the eyes of my fellow travelers, I climbed aboard the wheelchair and the very nice man assigned to the task pushed on. In truth, I am glad I called for the wheelchair. Nonetheless, it was a humiliating experience. “Bogus” requests for wheelchair assistance have become such a problem that the Wall Street Journal ran a feature article on the subject. See Long Lines Lead to Rise of Wheelchair ‘Miracles’, Wall Street Journal (updated April 5, 2013) (“At Los Angeles International Airport, airlines and companies that provide wheelchair service estimate 15% of all requests are phony, said Lawrence Rolon, coordinator for disabled services for Los Angeles World Airports. Airport officials estimate nearly 300 wheelchair requests a day are bogus. ‘It’s just a big mess,’ Mr. Rolon said. ‘Abusers are really impacting the operation.””) As I glided away on my wheeled magic carpet, the word “schmuck” rang continuously in my ear.


So, that’s my riff on regional jets and wheelchairs.  Like the Indians used to say (before we killed most ’em off or consigned them to reservations that are the perfect example of hell), “walk [or in my case wheel] a mile in my shoes” if you desire to know me. On second thought, don’t bother.










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