How to fight the City of St. Louis’ red-light scam

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never had a traffic ticket. I spoke too soon. Thanks to the City of St. Louis’ new red-light camera scam, I have one.

It’s too late for me to fight it. But since I want others to fight it, here’s what I wish I’d known the day I got the ticket.First, when you receive your ticket in the mail, get a lawyer. Immediately. The scam works like this: They get the picture of you allegedly making a traffic violation (in my case, not making a complete stop when turning right at a red light, which is perfectly legal in St. Louis County). Then they dillydally around as long as possible. A few weeks or a month after your alleged violation, you get the ticket in the mail.

And there’s the problem. A lawyer needs at least three weeks to fight one of these things, and you’ll probably get your ticket right about three weeks before the court date. If you wait a day or five to mull over your options, you’re not going to be able to fight.

And here’s why I say "alleged"–do YOU remember what YOU were doing at 8:27 AM on Saturday, August 25? Without a photograph of you at the wheel (which St. Louis doesn’t have), they can’t prove it was you. And by waiting a few weeks after the alleged infraction, you may very well not remember if you were driving in that area on that day, or if you loaned your car to someone, or whatever.

In my case, the infraction happened in an area I rarely go. I can’t prove it wasn’t me behind the wheel, but I also can’t prove it wasn’t Francis Slay either.

That’s the reason St. Louis treats it as a non-moving violation. If it were a moving violation with points assessed, every attorney would fight it by saying the city can’t prove who was driving. And the attorney would win every single time.

In the meantime, if you don’t want to get nailed by cities changing right-turn laws on a whim (or by the car behind you if you stop at a yellow light instead of blowing through it for fear of a ticket), there’s a company that sells a $30 high-gloss clearcoat that supposedly causes the flash on the camera to overexpose, rendering your license plate illegible. I have no idea if the product works, and frankly, $30 seems a high price to pay for the fraction of an ounce of clearcoat it would take to cover four license plates. (Although it seems reasonable next to a $100 fine for not coming to a complete stop on a right turn with no other cars present.)

If you want to try to defeat red-light cameras and you don’t mind trying something that might not work, try taking off your license plates and giving them a couple of coats of either Future Floor Polish (which is really an acrylic clearcoat, not a wax) or Krylon clear gloss. I’d probably go with Krylon Triple-Thick Crystal Clear Glaze, since it’s glossier than the standard spray. A can of Krylon will cost about $5 and give you enough to spray your license plates and all of your friends’ plates also. And if it doesn’t work, you’re only out five bucks instead of thirty.

I hope it does work though. The City of St. Louis needs to find another way to raise revenue, other than making a stupid law, enforcing it by proxy, charging an excessive fine, and then stringing it along to make it as difficult for citizens to defend their records as possible.

I’ll see you at the hardware store.

And if you just got one of these unjust tickets in the mail, contact a lawyer immediately. A lawyer will cost more than the ticket, but the city is counting on honest citizens just paying the ticket because it’s cheaper and less hassle than fighting it.

And if you’re wondering where the red-light cameras are, they’re at the intersections of Hampton and Wilson (the entrance to The Hill) and Hampton and Chippewa.

The suburb where Hornbeck and Ownby were found

St. Louis is in the national news again because of the bizarre case of missing children Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, who were found in the Kirkwood apartment of Michael J. Devlin.

Kirkwood.

Kirkwood?Kirkwood is a largely upper-middle class suburb west of St. Louis, roughly bounded by Interstates 44 and 270. The main north-south drag through St. Louis County, Lindbergh Boulevard, runs pretty much straight through Kirkwood, although its official name there is Kirkwood Road.

While Kirkwood isn’t as ritzy of a place to live as some of the suburbs to the north and west, such as Chesterfield, Ladue, or Town and Country, if you’re a professional there’s still plenty of prestige to living in Kirkwood. It says that you’re successful and have an appreciation of history.

I never lived in Kirkwood, but my first job was at a roast beef joint, long since closed, in Kirkwood, exactly 1.7 miles from the apartment where they were found. I went to 8th grade at a private school in Kirkwood, less than half a mile from the pizza joint where Devlin worked as a manager. The church where I was confirmed and took Holy Communion for the first time is also the same distance away. I bought the last Christmas gift I got for my dad before he died at a hobby shop just a block or two north of that pizza place.

Although there are exceptions, Kirkwood isn’t exactly a cheap place to live. Founded in 1853 and named for James P. Kirkwod, the first chief engineer of what became the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Kirkwood is a very old suburb, and it shows. Northern Kirkwood is known for its large, majestic Victorian-style houses. Although the edges of the town have taken on the look of post-1950s suburbia, Kirkwood has a very old-fashioned downtown, with storefronts that bring the first half of the 20th century to mind. There are lots of specialty shops there, and numerous restaurants that are either local chains or one-of-a-kinds. It’s a pretty good place to take your significant other for a night out. For that matter, if you wanted to take your kids out for pizza and ice cream, downtown Kirkwood offers several good choices for both.

The pizza parlor where Devlin managed is one of those choices.

To the south, there’s a large, modern commercial shopping district bounded on the north by Big Bend and on the south by Interstate 44, that has lots of big-box stores like Target, Lowe’s, Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, Office Depot, and the like. Virtually everyone who lives in the populous suburbs of south and west St. Louis County has probably had occasion in the past year to shop at least once in this district. Devlin lived in a $495-a-month apartment less than two miles away from this busy shopping district.

Also less than two miles from where Devlin lived, and less than half a mile from where he worked, is The Magic House, a very popular, nationally known children’s museum.

All of this probably has a lot to do with why this story ended up on the front cover of Newsweek magazine this week. It’s unusual to find not one, but two missing children, including one who had been missing more than four years, in the same place. But it happened in a populous suburb where so many people gladly take their children to spend an enjoyable weekend afternoon or Friday night.

Some people have questioned how Devlin could have escaped detection for as long as he did. But speaking as someone who knows Kirkwood well, Kirkwood is the last place I would have thought to look.

Kirkwood’s motto isn’t "Where America takes its families," but if Kirkwood wanted that title, it would have as much right to it as anyplace.

We never thought that included kidnappers.

Speed traps in south St. Louis

I believe it is my duty to warn people about two speed traps in south St. Louis County. They’re fairly widely known, but not as widely known as I thought.

Both are tiny little suburbs along Interstate 55.The first, and perhaps more notorious of the two is St. George, which is west of I-55 at the Reavis Barracks exit. St. George extends roughly along Reavis Barracks from I-55 to an L-shaped bend in the road where Reavis Barracks becomes Mackenzie.

Rules of the road: The speed limit is 35. I generally keep my speed at 30-32. Funny thing is, when I drive through this stretch at 30, very few people ever pass me. Needless to say, at the stoplight at Huntington and Reavis Barracks, it’s best not to run a yellow light.

Reavis Barracks forms the southern border of the town. If you venture into town at all, make sure you stop for three seconds at any stop sign. Years ago when I did some computer work for someone who lived there, she told me the police will sit there with a stop watch and watch you. St. George is no place for the rolling stops St. Louis is known for.

Also don’t drive in St. George if you have expired plates or anything else that most departments overlook. I was pulled over once for the light above my license plate being burned out. I escaped a ticket, but probably because of my clean driving record. It was only the third time I’d ever been pulled over in my life. I was 27 or 28 at the time.

As far as hiding places go, they like to sit in a parking lot at the intersection of Huntington and Reavis Barracks, or along Reavis Barracks itself.

I have a few relatives who are police officers, and I’m told that St. George got a new police chief a while back and he tells other officers that he’s backed off on the speed-trap tendencies. I still don’t take any chances through there and neither should you.

To avoid St. George, use the Weber/Bayless exit, just a couple of miles north. It takes you a couple of miles out of your way, but it may be worth your while. Weber hits Gravois very near the intersection of Gravois and Mackenzie.

And speaking of Bayless, the other speed trap is Bella Villa, another small town just east of I-55 along Bayless between I-55 and Lemay Ferry Road. I imagine the correct pronounciation of the town would be something like bay-ya viy-ya, since it looks Spanish, but I’ve never heard a St. Louisan pronounce it. I imagine the local pronounciation is closer to bell-a vill-a.

The speed limit along Bayless through Bella Villa is also 35. Go 30-32. I see a police car virtually every time I drive through Bella Villa, and almost as often as not he has someone pulled over. Very frequently when I don’t see a police car in Bella Villa, I see him along I-55 with someone pulled over.

I have no firsthand experience with the Bella Villa police department, but someone I know who got a speeding ticket there didn’t get her license returned when the officer was done with it. It came back in the mail after she paid her speeding ticket.

If you need to avoid Bella Villa, chances are you’re on I-55 and trying to get to Lemay Ferry or vice-versa. There’s the Carondelet/Germania duo to the north, and either Union or Reavis Barracks to the south. You can only exit on Union if you’re southbound. Go east on Reavis Barracks and you’ll hit Lemay Ferry. Both Carondelet and Germania, which run on opposite sides of the mighty River Des Peres, run east-west between I-55 and Lemay Ferry. Lemay Ferry becomes Alabama at the Germania intersection, and Carondelet is called Weber where it hits Lemay Ferry.

How to get a provisional ballot

Since requests for an absentee ballot had to be in by October 27 and my family emergency happened on October 30, I had to use another method.

I voted using a provisional ballot.There isn’t much information on provisional ballots on the Missouri Secretary of State’s web site. So I’ll relay my experience.

First of all, let me say I like provisional ballots. I hope I’m in the minority on this, but in my young life, I’ve needed them twice. Sure, many times when you’re gone on election day, you know in advance and can get a request for an absentee ballot in. That doesn’t always happen. I didn’t get to vote in 1994 because of a sudden death in the family two days before election day. The same thing happened this year.

In 1994, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. In 2004, there was.

To vote provisionally, you simply go to the local polling place where you happen to be, and ask an election judge for a provisional ballot. Be prepared for the judge to not know how to handle the situation and to collect all sorts of information about you. He wanted my name, address, last four digits of my social security number, driver’s license number, and date of birth. I showed him my driver’s license as identification. My girlfriend didn’t have hers, but I happened to have some of her mail in my car, including a utility bill. She used that as ID, and the judge accepted that as well, as the secretary of state’s office said he would. He also wanted to know why I wanted to vote using a provisional ballot. He then called the county courthouse, and came back a few minutes later with two provisional ballots.

He said we got there just in time because they only had two left. So get there early.

The second thing to know about provisional ballots is they will only be counted in the case of close elections. Chances are our ballots were never counted.

The third thing to know is that the provisional ballot doesn’t have a lot on it. I was able to vote for president, governor, lt. governor, state senator, the local U.S. representative, and a statewide initiative. I was not able to vote for my representative (as it turned out, he was the candidate who probably needed my vote the most) or anyone in the Missouri senate or house. I probably could have voted for that district’s U.S. representative, but I left that blank. I didn’t feel like I should be voting in another district’s race. I don’t know if the vote would have counted or not.

With the ballot, you have to fill out an envelope that asks for more information, such as when you registered to vote and where, as well as other information that hopefully is known by nobody else other than you. You sign under penalty of perjury. Not knowing the exact date I registered, or whether it was at the Cliff Cave or Tesson Ferry branch of the St. Louis County Library, I wrote down what I could remember.

I definitely see holes in this system but I see holes in the rest of the system as well and don’t see that provisional ballots make them much easier to exploit, provided someone actually checks out the information written on that envelope. In St. Louis County, it’s harder to get a library card than it is to register to vote.

Provisional ballots or no, if someone can go to the library with convincing evidence that I have moved, he can register as me and steal my vote. Likewise, if someone shows up at my polling place and manages to convince an election judge that he is me, he can steal my vote. To me, those are bigger holes in the system than the provisional ballot.

Yet another genealogy tip

One more tip for those of you looking to get started in genealogy: Don’t forget the library. You know, that place with tons of books in it that you don’t want to set foot in since you discovered the Internet. The Internet’s less reliable and the information on it definitely leans towards some subjects more than others, but Google’s always open and it’s faster to turn on the computer than it is to hop in the car and drive.
The St. Louis County Library, for example, offers access to U.S. Census data and historical biographies through HeritageQuest.com and access to numerous newspaper archives. It’s arguably as good as the $80/yearly packages offered by a lot of online services, and I’m already paying for it. Some of the newspaper archives are only available inside the library from its own computers, but there’s plenty of data available from home using your library card.

It’s worth a look to see what your local library offers.

I’m going to try to post again later today, and maybe tomorrow before I hit the road and head west.

I took the plunge. I bought a Civic.

It’s silver. It’s a year old. It’s fully loaded. It rolled 10,000 miles while I was test-driving it. It’s an EX, not the miserly HX. I like miserly. But it’ll hold value better than an HX, and it cost me about $500 less. The difference between 40 MPG on the highway and 38 MPG on the highway just wasn’t worth it to me.
It’s a bit showy for me–it’s got a sunroof, I mean moonroof, whatever the difference is, for Pete’s sake–but hey, I’m still fairly young and it’ll be fun. And it’s costing me less than my Neon, so I can afford it.

And when I no longer have use for it–it’ll be a number of years–I can sell it to a wannabe homey and still get four figures for it. Apparently the Civic is a favorite model to put ground effects and move-to-the-music groovin’ shocks and other, umm, things. I won’t be finding out firsthand. But I did notice the trunk is certainly big enough for a bass tube. So I could turn my latest–and it’d better be my last for a long time–major purchase into a groovemobile and introduce south St. Louis County to David Crowder.

Hey, it’s mission work.

I’m kidding. I hope you know that.

Anyway, like I said, I’m hoping this is my last major purchase for a long time.

Upgrade diary: Gateway G6-400

I recently had the displeasure of working on a Gateway G6-400. I’ll relate some of the experiences here, in case you ever have the same misfortune.
The G6-400 looks good on paper. This particular configuration had a P2-400 in it on an Intel mobo (BX chipset), a 16-meg 3dfx video card (hot for the time), and a DVD drive. The owner complained it was slow and unstable. The usual cure for that is to remove the extra crap Gateway installs on all their PCs.

Unfortunately, this one wouldn’t boot to let me do that. Not even in safe mode. Nice, eh?

Memory problem? I tried several known-good DIMMs. Same results.

Power supply? I tried a known-good, brand-name power supply. Same results.

At some point, the hard drive made an ominous noise. I replaced the hard drive and attempted a clean install of Win98SE. It bombed out at random points during installation. Just in case it was the DVD drive, I tried several different CD-ROM drives. (Hey, I was desperate.) Same result.

Out of curiosity, I put the suspect hard drive in another computer and tried to boot it in safe mode (I didn’t want Windows to mess up the configuration). It worked fine. Rats.

So by now I’d replaced everything in the box–everything important, at least–except the mobo and the processor. I spied an FIC P2 mobo with a BX chipset at Software and Stuff for 30 bucks. I bought it. I was playing the odds. Mobos go bad more often than CPUs do, especially when you’re not overclocking. And if I was wrong, I have other Slot 1 processors. The only other Slot 1 mobo I have is one of the really old LX-based boards that only has a 66 MHz bus.

Why pay $30 for an obsolete mobo when you can get a modern board for $50 or $60 and put a nice Duron or Athlon CPU on it? I doubted the power supply would handle it well. Spend $30 more on a mobo, and $30 more on a new CPU, then you have to replace the power supply as well. Suddenly $30 more has become $100.

The FIC is a much nicer board, even though the specs are very similar. It has one more DIMM slot than the Intel board had. It has no onboard sound, but it has one more available PCI slot. Expandability comes out a draw (you’ll use the extra PCI slot to hold a sound card), but you get your choice. You can put in something equivalent to the midrange Yamaha sound built into the Intel board. Or you can put in a high-end card. The board itself has a lot more configuration options, and even with the default options it boots a lot faster.

This G6-400 has a microATX power supply in it. At least it looks like a microATX power supply, and a lot of people who sell eMachines-compatible microATX boxes claim they’ll also fit a G6. Why Gateway put a small-form factor, low-power power supply in what was at the time of manufacture the second-fastest PC on the market, I have no idea. Unless the idea was to make lots of money selling replacement power supplies. The plus side is, at least it really is ATX, unlike Dell, who uses something that looks like ATX but isn’t. (You’ll blow up the mobo if you plug an ATX power supply into a Dell mobo or a Dell power supply into a standard ATX mobo.)

Fortunately, this case has screw holes in the standard ATX places as well. Unfortunately, the opening in the back isn’t big enough to accomodate any standard ATX power supply I’ve ever seen (the opening blocks the power plug). Someone willing to resort to violence with a hacksaw, Dremel (or similar tool), or tin snips could hack an opening big enough to accomodate a replacement box. More on that in a bit.

I pulled the Intel mobo and dropped in the FIC replacement. Unfortunately, the case used one big block for all the case switches. Since nobody’s ever standardized the header block for the and reset switches and lights, that’s a problem unless you’re replacing boards with a board from the same manufacturer (assuming manufacturers never change their header block pinouts, which isn’t exactly a safe assumption). But that wasn’t the only problem I ran into with this motherboard swap.

Remember that power supply I told you about? Turns out the power lead on it is just long enough to reach the power connector on the Intel mobo the machine came with, in front of the memory slots. FIC put its power connector on the other side of the CPU, and the cable is about half an inch too short to reach. Good luck finding an ATX power extender cable. Directron.com has one for $5, but the minimum order is $10 and that’s before shipping. A search on Pricewatch.com only listed a couple of places having them. Pricing was under $10, but then there’s shipping. I found one computer store in south St. Louis County that had ONE in stock. “They’re not cheap,” the salesperson warned me. I asked how much. $16.95. “You’re not kidding,” I said. That’s half the price of a new 300W power supply. Of course, by the time you pay $5 online and $10 to ship it, $16.95 looks a lot more reasonable, doesn’t it? And if your case won’t accomodate a standard ATX power supply, either buying one of these or buying a similarly overpriced microATX power supply may be your only choice.

To get things up and going, I just jerry-rigged it. I ran the power cables and found a place to rest the power supply where it wouldn’t short out anything. Then I shorted the power leads on the mobo with a screwdriver, and booted Windows 98 in safe mode. It booted up just fine, after insisting on running Scandisk. I booted into regular mode, which insisted on running Scandisk again. It worked beautifully. I did some very minor optimizations (Network server in filesystem settings, turning off Active Desktop, etc.) and rebooted a few times. No problems. No weirdness. Everything was smooth and fluid.

The chances of me ever buying a Gateway (new at least) already approached zero before this adventure. The few Gateways I dealt with in my years doing desktop support always had goofy problems that I usually had to reinstall the OS to resolve. Meanwhile, the Micron or Dell in the next cubicle over kept on chugging away, never needing anything more than basic maintenance.

This motherboard swap is easily the most painful swap I’ve ever done. It worked in the end, but the power supply was an annoyance and an unplanned expense. The header block was an annoyance.

So if you’re thinking about a motherboard swap in a Gateway, particularly a G6 series, don’t plan on it being a walk in the park.

My spiritual journey

I guess this is as good of a time as any to write my spiritual autobiography. It’s not as long of a story as some–years of apathy have ways of shortening stories.
I guess I could sum up my current state in a couple of lines: Reach the world. Work within the system and change it from within.

Here’s how I got there. Read more

Man on a mission.

I’m going on a mission trip. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve gone on a mission trip, and I found out a few Sundays ago that the absolute deadline to register was, well, the Tuesday after. I’ve been a little bit torn of late on mission trips; people spend lots of money to go spend a week far from home and yet, there’s a mission field right around them. I know what my mission field is: It’s 20somethings and 30somethings in South St. Louis County. And trust me: There are lots of them.
Sometimes they come to church, and no one talks to them. How do they feel? You can’t really generalize. I try to talk to some of them, but I’m an extreme introvert and there are usually more of them than there are of me. And they have ways of sitting so far apart in the sanctuary that basically you have to pick one single or couple, go talk to him/her/them, and that’s all you’ll get to talk to that Sunday. Sometimes you see the people you didn’t get a chance to talk to the next Sunday. And sometimes you don’t.

St. John’s Lutheran in Ellisville has a sign in the parking lot as you exit. It reads: You are now entering the mission field. Very true. But what I want are signs inside the church that read: You are still in the mission field.

So I laid it out really plain and simple to God. The door was closing on my opportunity to go. If He didn’t want me to go, there were plenty of opportunities for Him to close that door. I had a project going on the week of the meeting. I wasn’t sure if I could get off work. Those were big obstacles. They both fell far more easily than I thought they would. I nearly finished the project, which was supposed to take me all week, on Monday night. And I went into work, checked the vacation calendar, and no one else in my department had booked a single vacation that month. So I had the week clear more than a week in advance. I didn’t need any more confirmation than that.

I’m going to Belle Glade, Florida, in June, accompanied by about 40 of my cohorts from Faith Lutheran Church in south suburban St. Louis. We’ll be partnering up with a local missionary group down there, and, in conjunction with one or two local churches, putting on a Vacation Bible School. That’s our main focus. But auxilliary ministries always have ways of popping up where there are VBSs. So we have no idea what else we’ll be doing, other than we’ll be doing other things. It will probably run the gamut from construction to one-on-one individual ministry. The group we’re working with has been in Belle Glade for several years and has made a big difference in the community. We just want to be a part of that.

Those of you who pray, we would greatly appreciate if you would keep us and the two communities in Belle Glade that we’ll be serving in your prayers. (And Mom, I promise we’ll stay away from the alligators, if there even are any alligators in Belle Glade.)

This trip isn’t going to be cheap. I’m going to pay my own way, because I can afford to. That’s not the case for most of the people who are going. The youngest of them are in their early teens, and some of them probably have never seen $700. I wouldn’t have been able to earn $700 on my own when I was 13.

This is the first time I’ve ever made a solicitation from my Web site, and I don’t intend to make this a regular thing. I’m participating in the fund raising. I’m not looking for huge donations. A donation as small as $5 is enough to make a difference. I don’t want these donations to interfere with your regular giving to your own church, so if you’re thinking of deducting the amount you give from your next offering check, don’t do it.

If you’re interested in participating financially in this ministry, please contact me privately and I’ll send you my church’s address. We’ll gladly provide a tax letter for you if you wish.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow, in my typical unpredictable fashion.

A nice Sunday surprise

I had a big surprise Sunday night. A couple of months ago, I was up at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in north St. Louis, and they asked me if I’d come to their Christmas banquet this year. I said I’d love to come to their Christmas banquet. They said they’d send me tickets. “Some” ended up meaning five. They’re generous people. I ended up using one–I didn’t feel like looking too hard for a date, and I felt weird asking a bunch of my friends who’ve never been up there to go with me on a rainy Sunday night.
My relationship with Bethlehem goes back several years. I moved to St. Louis in Nov. 1998, and immediately started going to a church in Oakville, a semi-ritzy, very white-middle class suburb in south St. Louis County. I was driving 30 minutes to go to church every Sunday because I had connections there, and I’d never seen a church that was so on fire. I liked it there. It was a church that made me better, and, as I would quickly learn, it was more than willing to let me make it better too. Mark my words: When you find a church like that, keep it. They’re harder to find than you might think.

In Faith Lutheran in Oakville and Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Louis, I’ve found two. And I’m much the better for it.

The north St. Louis neighborhood around Bethlehem is about as opposite of Oakville as you can get. It’s not ghetto, but the buildings are well past their prime. A number of them are condemned. Many others are boarded up. It’s lower-middle class at best. But there are people there who are trying to make a difference.

I’d been going to Faith Lutheran in Oakville for a couple of weeks when I started receiving its newsletter. And in that first newsletter was a blurb from The Rev. John Schmidtke, the pastor at Bethlehem. Faith is one of five suburban churches that has partnered with Bethlehem to reach out to its community. Pastor Schmidtke’s letter was a wish list of sorts, but he wasn’t wanting money or objects. He wanted people. “Who can help us build a computer lab so we can teach elementary computer skills to the people of our community?” he asked. “Who can help us give our children a safe, welcome place where they can sit down at a computer and do their homework?” At the end of the letter, he gave his phone number.

The next day, I called him.

He said he already had some beat-up PCs that had been donated to him. I asked when I could come look at them. I don’t really remember many specifics anymore, other than driving into north St. Louis in a snowstorm one night to come look at a pair of beat-up Compaq Proliant servers. They were DX2-66s, decked out with external SCSI CD-ROM towers. One of them had three SCSI drives. The other had five. They were pretty snazzy servers… in 1993.

It was a humble beginning. Pastor solicited some obsolete computers from other businesses, and since this was the midst of the Y2K crunch, he was able to find plenty of people willing to give up some 386s and 486s they’d just retired. The best catch was a pair of non-compliant Pentium-75s. One of them even had a hard drive–a 40-megger. No, not a 40-gig drive. A 40-meg drive, like most of us had in our first AT clone.

Basically, we had a whole lot of nothing, and I did a whole lot of nothing with it. Sure, I was able to impress a few people by taking hard drives out of 486s and putting them in those Pentiums and booting up DOS, but as far as doing anything useful, we didn’t have much. So the project pretty much sat there, a pile of beat-up PCs in the corner of a storage room.

Then one day in the summer of 2000, I got a voice mail message. It was Pastor Schmidtke. He sounded excited, but there was a certain plea in his voice. He had a grant for several thousand dollars, and it was pretty much there for the asking, assuming he knew what to ask for. He didn’t know what to ask for. So he asked me if he could have five minutes of my time to tell him the wisest way to spend a few thousand dollars to build a computer lab.

I hopped on the ‘Net and checked it out, then faxed him a shopping list. For the budget he gave me, I figured I’d be able to get several name-brand PCs and a laser printer. The grant needed three competitive bids, so I priced systems from IBM, Compaq, and Dell to give him ballpark figures, plus phone numbers to call to get hard quotes if that was what he needed.

A few months later he had the money. A couple more months after that, we’d turned that money into eight new Compaq Deskpro PCs. I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry at that point–what good is a room full of computers when no one there knew how to make them go? A couple more months after that, some volunteers had turned that storage room into a nicely laid-out computer room. So then I set about taking those PCs, installing network cards, cabling and hubs, configuring them identically, and connecting a printer. We had a usable network. An Internet connection was the tough part. I took one of those Pentium-75s, installed a 56K modem and an Intel 10/100 NIC, and configured Freesco. We were live. While 56K dialup split among 9 PCs isn’t fabulous, it’s better than it sounds–while people are reading pages, after all, their computers aren’t loading stuff. I tried setting up a Squid server to help ease congestion a little, but Squid seemed to hurt as much as it helped, so I scrapped that idea.

So now, three years after we initially met, they have a working, useful computer lab. Neighborhood kids come in and research and type. Pastor’s family comes in, and with that many computers at their disposal, the kids can play around all they want for hours and his wife can get work done. It’s not the best, but it’s worlds beyond a pair of Pentium-75s. And in a neighborhood where a Pentium-200 is considered a luxury item, it’s doing a lot of good.

So I got to the banquet Sunday night and sat down at a table. There was a program sitting there at every place. I looked at it. “That’s nice,” I was thinking. “Star of Bethlehem Awards.” There were two people listed. Then I saw people were picking up the program and flipping pages. So I picked up mine, turned to the inside, and saw there were more than two people listed. Two more on page two, and then I turned to page 3 and saw my name. With a really kind write-up to go with it.

They read the write-up, along with everyone else’s writeup, after dinner. They gave each of us plaques and asked us to say a few words. I don’t remember exactly what I said–I’m not very comfortable giving impromptu speeches. It was Pastor Schmidtke who had the vision and who got the money. And it was Cathy, a member of the congregation, who made all the phone calls and made all the runs to Office Depot to get things like power strips and network cables when I ran out of power outlets or didn’t have quite enough reach. Maybe I could have done it all without them. But chances are I wouldn’t have. No one would have. One person can’t take on a project of that magnitude alone. It’ll kill you.

The speaker who read the write-up on me was interrupted by applause a couple of times. I got a round of applause as I walked up and another one as I sat down. Helping people like them is easy, because they appreciate it so much.

I hung the plaque up right after I got home. I guess that says something about priorities–I have an expensive Jesse Barnes print I bought more than a week ago that isn’t hung yet. But the sentiment behind that plaque is worth more than a room full of Jesse Barnes prints. It’s a nice plaque. It reads:

New Birth at Bethlehem

We Thank God For You

David Farquhar

For your ongoing support, encouragement, and Christian love to the ministry of Jesus Christ through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. You are God’s Star for the ministry of Bethlehem.
…Daniel 12:3

December 16, 2001
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO

Daniel 12:3 reads as follows:

“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

There’s just one more thing I wish I’d said Sunday night. They’re a group of people trying to make a difference in north St. Louis. A lot of them are there by choice. They didn’t have to give me an opportunity, but they did. I’m glad they did.

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