It’s September, and all across the country, another school year has started with all the busyness that it brings, and it brought back a smile, and a memory of a fellow I knew in high school many years ago.

Bob Sherp, an exchange student from England, almost graduated from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington, back in 1980. He was a good student, taking a well-rounded set of classes. I know, because he and I had several classes together, one of them being Radio Production (with Mrs. Williams) and one being First Aid, with “Brownie”.

Bob and I were pretty evenly matched, academically, in those two classes, and I would have to say that his attendance was extraordinary. In fact, every time I was in class, so was Bob – and – well, I think it’s time to start at the beginning…

See, this was High School.

This is the time in a young person’s life when not all the parts of the brain develop at the same rate… The frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys, that’s just not all there yet. Why do you think car insurance for boys is so much higher? For that matter, why do you think most of the infantry in the Army is young?

“Go out there into that gaping maw of death and take that minefield!”

“Sir, yes SIR!”

…it’s because of that whole frontal lobe thing. They don’t have any thought to their own safety, or potential consequences. In fact, there’s even proof. Seriously.

So while we didn’t have any military types to deal with in this story, we did manage to get Jason, Tamara, Wayne and about 4 more of us frontally-lobe-challenged teenagers together to mess with the system a bit, as it were, with no idea of the consequences that were to follow… You see, every quarter, we had to register for our classes, and at that time, we’d all troop into the gym, where things were semi computerized. That is to say the forms we were to put our class requests onto had been computer printed with our names and other information on them.

On paper.

…and later this paper would be scanned back into a computer, but all of the registration and filling out of the forms in between was totally manual.

On paper.

When we entered the gym, there were tables all around the edges, with boxes on them full of these forms, and letters indicating that forms on this table were for students with last names beginning from A-C, and the next table was D-F, and so on. Behind each table sat someone’s mom, or former student’s mom, who had volunteered to help get the 1800 students registered over the course of the day.

There was a lot to do.

There were things to correct.

…and there were lots of spare forms.

Heh…

Remember that bit about messing with the system? Here was an opportunity that was, in the words of Tom and Ray Magliocci (of Car Talk fame) “Unimpeded by the thought process.” Well that’s just a perfect definition for a teenager, especially some ‘frontally lobe challenged’ teenagers who were up for a laugh.

And the thing was, while we were up for a laugh, we didn’t want to get anyone into trouble, least of all Bob. He had to be visible enough to be known, but completely invisible from faculty and staff.

Well, staff.

The six of us got together with our favorite teachers and asked them if they’d be okay with having an extra student in their class, and would he pass if he were there…

To a teacher, the answer was, “if he does the work, he’ll get the grade…”

Cool!

Now because I was the most honest looking of the bunch, or because I was the most frontally lobe challenged, I’m not sure which, I was picked to go to the table marked S – T, get one of the spare forms with some level of excuse that I’d lost mine, and have them fill it in as needed, and surprise of all surprises, Bob Sherp was born.

Right there, in the middle of the gym, at Bethel high school in Spanaway, Washington. He was a big baby… 180 pounds. About six feet.

Oh, and about 18 years old.

Bob got to be with me in the first aid class, in large part because I got along well with Brownie, and her take of, “If he does the work, he’ll get the grade…” It did kind of bug me though, every now and then – because I was literally doing twice the work of a normal student, and strangely enough, whoever’s homework I did first (Bob’s or mine) generally got the better grade.

When I got a worse grade than Bob, I knew something was a little off – but what was really cool in all of this is that I really learned my first aid.

Another class I “had” with Bob was the Radio Production class.

Selected people from the Radio Production class did the announcements for the entire school every morning.

And Bob did the announcements, every Monday morning.

We’d decided Bob would be a foreign exchange student from England, in large part because I could do a pretty good English accent.

So I was the voice of Bob Sherp.

Every Monday, I’d leave class, get the stack of announcements at the front office, sort them by subject, and stack them on the PA system in the corner. Now because of the way it was set up, I’d have to stand, facing the corner, holding the mike key down with my left hand while holding the announcement I was reading in my right, and every Monday morning started exactly the same way, with a stunningly enthusiastic deep British voice, “Good Morning! Bob Sherp here once again, with your Monday morning announcements!” – and then I’d go off on a riff and ad lib my way through the announcements, making “British” comments and just being way, WAY too cheerful for a pre-coffee high school Monday morning… but it’s what I got to … sorry, it’s what “Bob” got to do, and “Bob” loved it.

What “Bob” didn’t realize is that while standing there, alone in that corner, back to the office, when everyone was supposed to be in their homerooms, he had a captive audience of about 1800 people, all students sitting there in their classes with nothing else to do but listen to some English guy tell bad jokes and talk about which clubs were meeting that day, when “spirit week” was, and how important it was to register for your SAT’s.

The funny thing was, NO one outside the Radio Production class ever knew who Bob was… No one had ever seen him. In fact, the folks in the radio Production class might not have been sure, just like Superman and Clark Kent, Tom Roush and Bob Sherp were never seen together… or, for that matter… heard together, I guess. It got close once… The student body president happened to see me leave the office one Monday right after I’d – er – “Bob” had done the announcements and asked if I’d done them.

“Nope,” I said, barely edging out of the English accent in time, “That was Bob Sherp!”

“Oh, – he sure sounded like you…”

I made sure no one ever heard “Tom” speaking in an English accent after that.

What’s funny about the whole thing – at least for me, is I honestly had no idea what kind of storm I was creating with Bob. Like I said, NO one ever saw him, and I found out much later, an awful lot of people were trying to figure out who this guy was.

A young sophomore named Bitsy had heard “Bob’s” voice every Monday morning, and just had to meet him, so for an entire quarter, she and a number of friends she had enlisted to help staked out the hallways between classes, ears tuned for any trace of the owner of a British accent she’d heard, and memorized, and wanted to meet. But her attempts were in vain, and she never heard “Bob’s” voice.

However, as with all good things, it came to an end. It seems that somehow, somewhere, they started poking around, and apparently Bob was called to, of all things, the office – the same one he (and I) did the Monday morning announcements in. Unfortunately, I had a P.E. class outside at the time of those calls, and I never heard the announcements. The others in the group of us who’d ‘created’ him thought I’d heard them, but didn’t tell me – so after a while, Bob, bless his heart, was expelled from school for being absent – even on days he’d been there first thing, giving those Monday morning announcements.

So Bob was kicked out and didn’t graduate, I did and went off to college, and a couple of years later, I was home for a weekend, when two friends, Wayne and Bitsy, yes, that Wayne, and yes, that Bitsy, who’d become a bit of an item, came over to visit, and as we were chatting about old times, the subject of Bob came up.

Wayne and I looked at each other, grinned a little, and felt the situation was about as ripe as it was going to get so he (who as you know had been in on the gag from the beginning) said to Bitsy (who clearly hadn’t, but SOOOO wanted to meet Bob), “Hey you wanna meet Bob Sherp?”

Bitsy’s eyes got huge.

She looked up at Wayne, almost in awe.

Really?”

Wayne knew about Bob? This was too good to be true. And then, Wayne’s and my eyes met, and unspoken, I took my cue…

“Good Morning! Bob Sherp here, once again, with your Monday morning announcements!”

Bitsy’s face went into instant, total shock followed immediately by

  • Absolute delight at finally meeting “Bob” to
  • Excitement at having the answers to her questions
  • Total shock at realizing someone she’d known (Wayne) had had the answers to all her questions all the time even if he didn’t realize the questions were there
  • and then finally realizing Bob was someone she’d known all along.

In the end, she wasn’t sure whether to hug us or clobber us, but we all had a good laugh afterwards.

Apparently this had really been a secret that those of us in on it kept very well, and people, especially Bitsy, just wanted answers, Wayne had them, and true to his word, he never, ever let on that he knew that the mysterious foreigner Bitsy had been so eager to meet was a guy who’d sat next to her in class a few years before.

Wayne and Bitsy became even more of an Item a number of years later, and when I talked to her about it while writing this story, her memory of it was just as sharp as the day she’d discovered who Bob was – er – is…

And of course, it got me thinking…

Remember that thing I mentioned about the frontal lobe and not knowing what the consequences of our actions would be?  On this one, I still don’t.  It’s been years since this happened – and only with the publishing of this story will I find out what kinds of memories will be brought up in all of it.  I just know that for me, (and Bob) it was a tremendous amount of fun to step completely outside of being the normal person that showed up for school every day and become someone else, to be able to make people laugh, smile, and wonder.

So for those of you in my class (Wayne, Tamara, Jason, and a few others) who made it all possible – thank you so much for your help!

Heh, I just realized this, we made the first Avatar… Before there were avatars online, there was Bob Sherp.

In real life.

So for those of you who’ve been wondering all these years – you now have your answer.

For Brownie and Mrs. Williams and all the other teachers – you’re gems.  Thank you for playing along with us in all of it.

Oh, and Bitsy – Bob says hi.  ;-)

(and this is published on Monday morning just for you)


I wandered into the back yard the other day, unlatching the gate, realizing the post the latch was attached to was showing its wear and would need to be replaced soon.

I shut it gently – intending to just sit out there a bit, in the shade of the apple trees, as we’d had a busy summer, and I’d spent very little time out there, so I wanted to enjoy it a little bit while I had the chance.

The one thing those three apple trees, a Red Delicious, a Rome, and a Gravenstein, have in common is that they are apples, and that’s pretty much where the similarity ends.

The Red Delicious and Rome ripen in the fall, often in November, and they last forever if the bugs don’t get to them… While they’re still on the tree, they’ll just happily hang out, ripening slowly, for a month or more, and you’ve got all sorts of time to think about what you want to do with them. You could make apple crisp out of them, you could bake them, you could make cider… All sorts of stuff… You’ve got plenty of time to decide.

But the Gravenstein is different.

It ripens first.

In August.

It has a wonderfully crisp texture if you pick them at the right time.  However, it has taken me years to understand when that “right” time actually is, that time when it’s just a little tart, with enough zing to it to really make your mouth water and your jaw ache when you bite into it.

You see – as I mentioned, they ripen in August.

Every other year, actually.

What I didn’t mention is that the wonderfully crisp texture I was referring to is available at a specific time in August.

And that time is between 10:38 and 10:42 AM…

On the second Tuesday.

Of August.

Every other year.

What’s become a little annoying in all of this is that I’m often already occupied by something else between 10:38 and 10:42 AM…

On the second Tuesday.

Of August.

Every other year.

And once you get past that – usually around 10:43 AM, the apples start falling – like large, heavy, almost mushy hail.

And then the birds, squirrels, and the odd opossum, and whatever bugs are hungry, have a feast, and pretty soon those apples that once held such promise, are down on the ground, pecked by birds and worms and – well, anything but us.

It’s sunny this afternoon as I write this, and as I shut the gate behind me earlier, I realized, without having to look at the calendar, that we were well past the second Tuesday of August.

I got out the lawn rake and started raking them into a pile where the three trees overlapped so I could toss them into the compost, and this one apple just kind of caught my eye… I was kneeling on the ground, in the shade of the Rome tree, putting them all in a big metal pan, and this one apple stood out. It was bright and red, but had obviously been visited by a bird or two, and definitely a few bugs. It would not be a part of any apple crisp, or baked apples, or cider.

Apples

I took a picture of it and some of the other apples amidst the dry grass and the already crinkly leaves while in the shade of the Rome apple tree.

…and it got me thinking.

See, sometimes in life, like with those Rome apples, we’re given opportunities that last a long time… when options are many, and choices are plentiful, and you can make apple crisp, or baked apples, or cider for a long time.

But sometimes, life gives us Gravensteins… they’re absolutely stunning, but unless you’re ready to pick them when they’re ready – whether you’re ready or not, then you lose out on the opportunity.

And that opportunity it may be rare, coming only on the second Tuesday.

Of August.

Every other year.

Between 10:38 and 10:42 AM.


I was mowing the lawn – no, wait – not the lawn…

Let’s try that again…

I was trimming the dandelions with the mower a few days ago (there, that’s better, and more honest) – and as I pulled the mower back a bit, it hit a little tree branch buried in the grass, and that vibrating feeling in the handle sparked my memory and it sent me whirling with the cut grass into the time machine again.

See, many years ago, I mowed the lawn (and it was a lawn) and did the gardening at a place in Lakewood, Washington, called Thornewood Castle just south of Tacoma. It was a fascinating place to be, because it was quite literally a castle. My uncles worked it before I did, and while I’m sure you can get a lot more information about it now, when I was working there, the story was that it had been a castle in England, then disassembled and brought over from there, brick by brick, as ballast in ships.

It’s still a castle, but now also an inn, and given what I used to see when I worked there, it would be an absolutely stunning place to stay. The folks who own it now have done an amazing job of restoring it, and it would be a true experience to go back and visit. At the time, however, it was owned by and the home of a lady named Connie and run by her daughter Angel. My grandparents had known the family who owned it for years, my uncles had mowed the lawn there long before, and so as I was getting to that teenage lawn mowing age and needed a job, I was naturally next in line, and was taken over there and introduced. I got the job, and found, as a place like that might have, a slew of rakes and all sorts of tools you could use for mowing and yard work. In the car port, among the cars and golf carts and assorted toys, was a riding mower for the bigger areas, and then there was the push mower for the areas you couldn’t drive the riding mower on, like right around the flower beds or steep parts by the lake.

That push mower was, quite frankly, weird… it was the biggest push mower I’d ever seen, such that the gas engine on the top of it, in comparison, looked like one of those little Cox airplane engines screwed to a red 4 x 4 sheet of plywood. It had a manual throttle on it, so you could actually decide what speed to run it at, no safety handles or anything, this was before they even existed…

Once you started it, you had to shut it off by pulling the throttle back and cutting the ignition, kind of like an airplane. This was very much unlike the mowers of today with blade brakes and safety handles and those things they drag behind to keep them from throwing stuff at your feet and to keep your feet from going under them. I don’t know how it did it with that little looking motor, but it swung a huge blade, and aside from being weird, it worked fine. But it was that hugeness that caused some problems for me one day.

The lawn from the castle to the lake was interrupted by a road that went to some other houses, and there was that one steep part that went down from that road about 4 feet that the riding mower just couldn’t handle. Alongside that steep part was  some kind of transformer in a big metal case that I had to work around. (You can see it, a little greenish square in the grassy field in this satellite picture just to the west of the road.) Now anyone who’s ever mowed a lawn with a push mower, on a hill, should know that when you’re mowing a hill, the last thing you want to do is mow up and down… Here – take a look at this link… See item number 4 there? I had that thought in my head as I was figuring out how to solve this mowing problem, and because of that transformer, had to mow right along the side of the road, with the mower blowing grass out onto the pavement, toward the castle. That was all fine until I worked my way to where the crown of the little hill went down that 4 foot or so embankment.

That’s when that long blade became a problem. See, as wide and low as the mower was, the wheels were far enough apart that the crown of the hill came up to blade level, and that blade had both the leverage and momentum to start picking up dirt and rocks and throwing them toward the castle. I could hear it with my ears and feel the vibration of the blade hitting things all the way up the handle.

I knew one thing very quickly:

This was bad.

How bad?

Well, if the windows in the castle were broken, it wasn’t your typical “let’s call the glass shop to have them send a guy out to fix them.” No, this was leaded glass…

A bit of the leaded glass in Thornewood Castle. Photo (c) Joe Mabel, used with permission.

…some of which was not just leaded, but stained, and given that the collection of stained glass in those windows had started out life several hundred years earlier in Europe, is the only one of its kind, and had been brought over to the US in the early 20th century by Chester Thorne himself, and even though the windows were a good distance off, (the ones on the right from a little to the right of this view below), the chance of that big mower flinging a rock through one of them was both pretty high, and – well, as I said earlier, bad.

So I had to improvise a bit.

Photo Copyright Joe Mabel

The windows I was concerned with are – well, heck, all of them. The mower wasn’t very accurate in throwing rocks. This image was shot just a bit to the left of where the story takes place, with a wide angle lens that makes it look much farther away than it felt at the time. Photo (c) Joe Mabel, used with permission.

Remember, I couldn’t mow in the direction so the mower would blow grass out toward the lake because of that transformer thing. That would have been ideal, but it couldn’t work. So even though I knew you weren’t supposed to mow up and down from the bottom (the mower could roll back onto you), or down and up from the top (you could slip and cut more than just grass), I thought I’d just be careful and try pushing the mower up the little hill from the bottom anyway, staying on the level ground, and then getting out of the way real quick as it came back down the hill…

Hmmm…

That didn’t seem to work well, (lots of pushing) as I was working against gravity, so I thought for a bit, and then figured, with that Infinite Wisdom of Youth®  of  “it can’t happen to me”  that I could handle the whole mowing up and down thing.  I mean, in the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson, “How hard can it be?” (that’s foreshadowing, folks). I mean, it’s a hill… and there’s gravity… You just shove the mower over the edge and away it goes…  Really, How… Hard… Can it be?

So armed with more brilliance than experience, I went around to the top of the hill the long way, revved the mower up, and pushed.

Brrrrrroooooww!

It was AMAZING! The mower went down, mowed the grass, rolled 10 or 15 feet toward the lake, and finally came to a stop, engine racing…

How cool was that? I ran down, grabbed it, pulled it back up the little hill on the wet grass, and did it again.

Brrrrrroooooww!

That was just so cool… I’d be done with this in no time.

I kind of skated down the little hill the next time, grabbed the mower with my left hand, and started pulling it back up, and made it about 5 steps up the hill with the mower when my left foot slipped, and it sounded and felt like I’d hit a stick or something. I’d heard it with my ears, and felt it not only in the handle, but surprisingly, in my left foot…

Hmmm…

Weird.

I let go of the mower so I could get back up. (it went down the hill and re-mowed the path I’d just mowed), and looked down at what remained of my left shoe, which, along with my sock, had been modified to be quite topless.

And I promise you, my very first thought was, “Oh, it happened…”

Sure enough, the “it” that they’d mentioned in the articles, magazines, and manuals I’d read on “how to mow a lawn”, the very thing that they were telling you not to do – and why not to do it – yes, that it, I’d just done… and the resulting it had just happened… And, come to think of it, I’d just discovered that the mower could also be used as a 3 ½ horsepower toenail clipper. Extremely effective, but I’ve got to tell you, it lacked a lot in the precision department…

I said a short little prayer of thanks that it wasn’t worse than it was while I was trying to figure out what to do next, and decided that maybe, just maybe I should stop mowing for the day and go get my toe looked at. So I put the tools and mower away into their spot in the carport, went in to talk to Angel, who was in her office doing paperwork, and told her I had to quit a little early that day.

“Why, is something wrong?”

“Well”, I said as her kids came into the room, “Sort of… I kinda mowed my foot, and thought I’d go over to Madigan (the Army hospital) and get it looked at.”

Angel was aghast. “Oh, can I help? Do you need a tourniquet or anything?”

Her kids heard her and came running into the room and tried to peek at my foot under the desk to see what a mowed one actually looked like.

I stole a glance down, making sure all was hidden from the prying little eyes.

“No,” I said as the kids kept trying to peek from different angles, “It’s okay. I think I’ll just head over to the emergency department and have them take a look.”

I’d already put all the tools away, so the rest was just getting out of the castle and across I-5 over to the ER on Fort Lewis. I put the four way flashers on and didn’t slow down to the normal stop as I drove through the Madigan  (Now Joint Base Lewis McChord, where the new version of Madigan Army Medical Center is located) gate. You couldn’t do that today, but back then I had dad’s Air Force pass on the car, and although they waved at me to slow down a bit, the guards did wave me through.

As I accelerated away from the gate and shifted gears, I noticed a couple of things: First, my toe was starting to throb a bit, and second, things felt a little more squishy inside my left shoe as I hit the clutch to shift.

Hmmm…

I pulled into the parking lot, turned off the four ways, parked the car and hobbled across the street into the strangely empty emergency room.

I heard laughter up ahead on the left, and walked up to a counter (things were getting really squishy and throbbing a lot by then) and figured I’d politely wait until the staff noticed me.

They didn’t, so I banged on the counter a couple of times to get their attention, and loudly asked, “Excuse me, but does mowing one’s foot constitute an emergency around here?”

They stopped laughing, looked at me, each other, then one of them walked over, and, noticing that I’d walked in by myself, figured I must be talking about someone else waiting outside, so he said, “Well, it depends… how bad is it?”

How bad is it, he says…

I’m thinking, “It’s throbbing, it’s squishy, and…” and then, with the idea that a picture was worth a thousand words, I decided to paint him one.

So I put my foot up on the counter for him.

His eyes got pretty big. I’m sure he’d seen worse, but not that close, and not that suddenly.

By this time the source of the squishiness was pretty evident, my white sock was definitely no longer white, having kind of a Christmassy feel to it, with green grass stains and red evidence of that inaccurate toenail clipper.

“Uh… Let me get someone.”

They wanted to put me in a wheelchair and send me to an exam room, but I’d driven over and walked in, I figured I could walk a little further, so I did.

Step…

Squish…

Step…

Squish…

Ew…

A medic came in to the exam room they’d put me in. My foot was elevated a bit by that time, and he took my shoe off, cut off what remained of my sock, and tried to figure out what to do. He tried to poke it with a needle to numb it, but that actually stung a good bit more than it had initially and I reflexively jerked away (breaking my one rule of moving while someone in the medical profession has a sharp pointy object stuck inside my body), so he held the needle a couple of inches away and squirted more of the Novocain on my toe.

“Will that help?” I asked, never having seen that method before.

“Sure won’t.” he said as he idly continued to squirt the rest of the syringe out, covering the whole toe.

I grimaced, he looked at me, and we chuckled a bit.

He trimmed what he could, put a couple of stitches in to hold things together, and had just bandaged it all up when my folks walked in. Someone had called them and let them know they might need to come get me and the car, so they did, and we all made it home safely.

Interestingly – I was in high school at the time, and had a PE class that included running, which of course I couldn’t do, (I remember I got a C in it for “lack of participation” – yeah, right…) but because of the bandage on my toe, the only shoe I had that I could fit my foot into was the one I’d been wearing when it happened. Of course I had to wear it every day, and it was a constant reminder that things can go very wrong, very quickly.

The doc didn’t want me mowing for a bit, so the grass grew while my toe healed. Eventually the throbbing faded, I stopped limping, and I finally went back to Thornewood after the stitches had been taken out to finish the rest of the lawn. The scalped section had grown back, and Connie, Angel, and the kids were happy to see me walking and not squishing. I was just happy to be walking without a limp…

And – as I stood in my own back yard, the memory playing out like the end of a movie, a mower bag full of shredded dandelions in my left hand, it got me thinking…

See, Angel wanted to help – but couldn’t really.  Emotionally, she wasn’t ready.

The kids were curious, but also couldn’t help.  They didn’t have the skills or experience.

The guards at the gate did a wonderful job of just letting me get to where I needed to be.  They could have stopped me, but they didn’t.  They encouraged me to go to where I could get help.

The folks at the counter there in the ER, the ones laughing, they should have helped a bit faster, but I needed to get their attention to get them to do it instead of just standing there.

The medic helped. He was equipped to do it. He could fix things, putting the two stitches in, but really, he couldn’t make it stop hurting, and actually made it hurt worse before it got better.

That would only come with healing, and with time.

I emptied the mower bag into the compost bin and kept thinking.

There will be times in your life when you’re hurt. That could be something as simple as using an inaccurate toenail cutter (though I don’t recommend it), or it could be more serious. It could be a situation where the hurt is physical, emotional, spiritual, financial or professional, or, in my case as I’m writing this, the loss of a loved one.

You will need people around to help, and there will be some who will want to help but simply can’t (they’re not equipped or trained).

There will be others (like the guards at the gate) who can’t help directly, but they can guide you toward the help you need.

There will be those who are fully equipped to help, but won’t until you get their attention (like the laughing staff behind the counter in the ER). Sometimes you even have to bang on the counter of your life and ask your version of “Excuse me, but does mowing one’s foot constitute an emergency around here?” before people will realize you’re in trouble and actually need help.

And at some point, there will be a medic who shows up in your life.

Some of the hurt they’ll be able to help with right away.

Some things they’ll have to work on to try to fix.

Sometimes they’ll just spray Novocain on the wound and laugh with you to help take your mind off the pain.

Some stuff they do will hurt you more before it gets better.

But getting better, that will only come with healing, and with time.

Just be glad they’re there.

Take care out there, folks.

===

Many thanks to Joe Mabel for the use of the images.


A chortling water buffalo pulled up beside us as we waited for the stop light at 15th and Market.

I looked left.

Hmmm… No water buffalo.

Especially in Ballard. However, there was a Harley, making all the gorgeous sounds idling Harleys make.

“The driver’s too skinny,” said Michael from the passenger’s seat after giving him a once-over.

“And a bit young…” I said as my eyes moved up from the bike to the rider.

Sure enough… a too skinny kid in his 20’s… straddling a burbling Harley.

We watched, and listened, as we waited for the light to turn green, and as it did, the Harley roared off, blasting open the doors of the time machine and leaving me ricocheting off long forgotten memories for the rest of the trip home.

Those memories spanned well over a quarter of a century, and I bounced between lessons from Grad school, a famous photograph, my first internship, and lessons learned many, many years later.

And as the sound faded away, it got me thinking about Harley Davidson.

The real one.

But to tell you that story – I’ll need to tell you a couple of other stories to fill in some gaps.

I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University, and one of the things Terry Eiler drilled into us there was to go out and take risks. Go out and try new things. Do the thing no one else is doing. Do the assignment you were sent to do to be safe, but then go do a little bit more.

I learned from that. I’ve been inside the boiler of a steam locomotive (it was pretty dark). I’ve talked my way onto airplanes (it was loud), and I’ve gotten images of normal things from abnormal locations just because I asked if I could. (it was amazing).

What Terry didn’t tell us at the time is what kinds of stories we’d get on the way to taking these pictures… There’s the “running over the skunk” story, and the oh-so-memorable “the car broke down” story, things that seemed to “just happen” – and yet, took on a life of their own. Lessons to be learned, stories to be lived.

But all that was in the future still. While in class, he told us about a guy named Rob Goebel, who’d worked at this small town paper, and one hot day had gone out to see if he could find some images that could tell a story, and eventually, he found himself in a bar…

With a biker.

Named Bones.

He knew the shot he wanted, and after as much chatting as you could do, set up the lights, got the shot he’d had in mind, and then left.

Fast forward 15 years. I’d gotten my first internship out of Grad School, for the same newspaper Rob had been working for at the time. Mike Grone was the chief photographer, and one day as we were going over assignments, he got this twinkle in his eye that I didn’t recognize until later, smiled, and said, “Hey, you ought to go see Bones.”

“Bones?”

“Yeah, Bones and Harley – Rob Goebel took a picture of him a few years back… Won the POY (Pictures of the Year) award for it after he left.”

“Oh really?” I said as he dug through a file cabinet for a faded tearsheet of the original.

He found it, and gave me the address, and I tossed my camera bag into the back seat of my old Ford and headed on over to the little house on Wilkinson, hoping to maybe reproduce a photo of him and Harley 15 years later, kind of an “after” shot to Rob’s ”before” photo. I found the house, parked the car, and as I shut it off, looked up to see Bones himself sitting in an overstuffed recliner on what would soon be a dilapidated old front porch, idly sharpening a knife. He’d aged since the photo, but even so, there was still a presence about him that could be sensed, was almost palpable.

As I walked up and got my bearings, I realized that the thing about Bones was he wasn’t just skin and…

It was not hard imagining him riding a large motorcycle. He filled up the generously sized chair he was in, his overalls, and that presence extended out well past the porch. I took the initiative and introduced myself, not really sure of what kind of a reaction I’d get.

He sized me up, understanding pretty clearly that I wanted to take some pictures (a camera bag and two Nikons likely gave that away).  He tucked his sharpening stone between his belly and his right leg, and we talked for a bit…

I don’t remember much of the conversation until he asked if I had a knife.  Of course I had a knife. I’d had a Swiss Army Knife of one kind or another for years. It was as much a part of me as a watch might have been, or today, a cellphone.

“Let me see it.” he said. It wasn’t a request, more a statement of a fact that just hadn’t happened yet.

I handed it over. He grunted a combination of acknowledgement and disgust as he pulled the bits of packing tape off the blade that were still stuck there from the last time I’d cut through the packing tape on a box. He shifted in his chair and pulled the well-rounded sharpening stone I’d seen earlier out from under his paunch and talked me through the finer points of knife sharpening.

Harley came out about then, and I tried to make something of a picture of the two of them on the porch, but things, weren’t clicking, so to speak. Bones wanted to finish the knife, and I couldn’t make any of it really work photographically, so we just chatted a little more.

That’s when I heard another screen door tentatively creak open, and I looked over to see a young lady, who I learned later was Harley’s sister, come out. I watched as she came out, and remember thinking that she looked a lot like – well, like she just didn’t seem to belong in that place… Kind of a rose among thorns, if you will. I was still trying to reconcile that when I looked back to Bones and noticed something had changed, as if a wall had suddenly fallen between us. Totally unspoken, there was a sense that I had unwittingly crossed a pretty significant line, and I could feel the temperature drop as he handed me back my knife, folded closed. I opened it, and realized that in the couple of minutes he’d had it, he’d taken it from a bits-of-tape encrusted piece of metal to a finely honed instrument that would do far more than cut through the tape of cardboard boxes. He’d left his mark on that knife, and was not so subtly letting me know what he was capable of, and even though he was showing his age at the time, still not a man to be trifled with.

So, I didn’t trifle, and realized that the picture I had gone there to recreate might not be possible, but I’d tried.  I remember going back a time or two more, but that wall was still there, and over time, Bones and his family faded off the back burner of my mind.

Many years later, I got back in touch with Mike as I was writing this story about a fellow named Harry Frilling who’d lived there in Sidney. We started talking about how it had been almost a lifetime since we’d talked, and he told me about how things had changed there… We talked about Harry, and me climbing on top of the courthouse, and running over the skunk. We talked, and laughed, about me blowing through the annual film budget during my few months there.

And somehow, the subject of Bones came up.

I found that the knowledge I gained about not trifling with him was not limited to just me. In fact, Mike mentioned that had actually been a concern when President Reagan had visited Sidney on his Whistlestop Tour. He found in his files a quote from the Sidney Daily News that day:

“The neighborhood has never looked better. Citizens living near the North Street Chessie crossing have been out cleaning up in preparation for President Reagan’s visit. Much work remains to be done, but most of it is in the area of security. Just where will Bones Kah sit?“

Bones, whose political views weren’t quite in the same ballpark as President Reagan’s, was nowhere to be found.   It turned out he had been taken into what they called “Protective Custody”.

Mike didn’t find it necessary to mention who was being protected from whom, or why.

The thing is, Bones, being the leader of a motorcycle gang (or club), (The Vikings) – had developed, and cultivated a reputation. There are some motorcycle clubs that cultivate a reputation of working for charity, and others that work hard at cultivating another image. I understand that there is a culture of respect, and there are rules, which, now that I think of it, are not to be trifled with.

But the reputation that goes along with being the leader of a Motorcycle Club is a bit different than the reputation one develops in being a dad who might work in an office somewhere. No matter what, it’s hard to keep work and home life separate. It’s like – well, you’ve heard of dads being late to their son’s ball game because of a meeting at work. Bones’ situation was a little different, in that the qualities that made him effective when leading a motorcycle club didn’t translate very well to having kids and being a dad.

A single example: There’s a story told by Rob (the photojournalist mentioned above) that when Bones visited the newborn Harley and mom shortly before he  took the picture, Bones visited the hospital with a dead rat tied to his leg.

There was no mention of how old the rat was or how long it had been there, but the story attained almost urban legend status, and Bones wasn’t about to dissuade anyone from believing it.

The stories Rob told were told of a very few moments with Bones, and the thing is, as a photojournalist, you come into a situation, you do your best to capture or create a lasting image that tells the best story you can, and then, most often, you leave and never see the people or hear from them again.

Rob did a stunning job of capturing that image. He took a situation, a dark bar with the smell of years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, the smell of countless Saturday night closings where many people had had too many drinks and ended the evening bowed down before or curled up around the porcelain throne in the restrooms, and invited us in with him, to share Bones’ “office.”

In doing that – that simple thing, he showed Bones in all his – well, ‘glory’ isn’t the word I’d use – but the persona of Bones that I saw on his front porch the day I was there was the same one I see in Rob’s picture.

Bones and Harley - in a bar someplace in Sidney, Ohio.

Bones and Harley – in a bar someplace in Sidney, Ohio. Photo (c) Rob Goebel.  Used with Permission

That’s what Harley grew up with.

That’s who Harley grew up with.

Extrapolate on that.

Just a little.

Imagine what it’s like, growing up like that. I can’t. It turns out Harley left Sidney shortly after I did. I talked with him recently, and he said, and I quote, “After I left Ohio in 1987 we never looked back.”

While he has spared me the details, just that comment, and what I’d experienced myself and heard from Mike, gave me a hint of the life that had gone on long before, and well after that memorable image was taken.

Harley grew up.

Mike left the paper to pursue new things, and in one of his last assignments for the paper he was to get some photos of Bones and his two houses. In Mike’s words, “His spare house was condemned. Both houses, by all accounts, were of hoarder status.  My assignment was photographing the exteriors of the side-by-side structures. Bones took great exception and offered to place the camera where there wasn’t enough ambient light to make an image.  Since I finished the assignment before his offer, I bid him a fond adieu.”

And in 2008, Bones died.

I don’t have the few pictures I took of him when I was there, but given what I saw, I would understand why Harley had wanted to leave.  He continued in that conversation we were having, “…but I was man enough to go see my father on his death bed and look him right in the eyes and forgive him for the abuse that he put us through. Things happen for a reason I believe and I am stronger for it.”

And, as you can imagine, it got me thinking.

Over time I realized that we learn how to be a parent from three separate but distinctly different things:

  • Because of who you grew up with…

Seriously – how many times has someone said, “You’re just like your dad…”?

How many times have you heard your parents words coming out of your mouth, the very words you promised yourself you’d never say.

And yet you did.

And sometimes, those words came borne out of hard experience, and you realized, as hard as they were to hear when you were a kid, they were the right ones when you found yourself on the other side of the parental fence.

Then again, sometimes, as parents, we’ve find ourselves victims of our own past, and the world has changed faster than we’ve been able to adapt.  Things that used to be acceptable aren’t anymore, and things that were totally unacceptable now have gone through a sea change of – well – change, and now they are.  It brings challenges to parenting that take the most important job in the world, being a consistent role model for the next generation, and makes it even harder.

  • In spite of who you grew up with…

You realized that your father was, for all intents and purposes, simply broken in ways you couldn’t fix. Over time, you realized it went back generations, and there was nothing you could do to fix that.  Everyone grew up and did what they did because, well, that’s how it was done, right or wrong.

Eventually you also realized – consciously or unconsciously, that no matter what your dad did, you wouldn’t repeat it.  You would find the courage he didn’t have, or the strength he didn’t have, the wisdom he didn’t have, and you would do the honorable and right thing for your family and children.

Eventually, you would come to that same decision point Harley hit while standing next to his father’s deathbed, and you forgive him for – in the case of Harley and many others, abuse. “For they knew not what they were doing.”  Because that’s the way they were brought up and didn’t know any better – or in some cases, they did know what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway.  And you realize, that while that kind of behavior is inexcusable, it does – no, it did –  happen.  And eventually, sometimes on a deathbed, you forgive them. Not because what they did was forgivable, but because you can’t change it… It happened.  You can let it eat you alive, or you can forgive them, let it go, and allow yourself to leave the prison of those thoughts and learn from them, which takes us to the third item on the list:

  • Growing up – and being totally different…

Think about this for a second: How many times do you remember seeing a situation happening in front of your eyes, and realizing you’d lived that before – only this time you had the chance to actually do something different, and break the cycle – so instead of doing things the same broken ways you’d seen them happen in your family over the years, you decided enough was enough.

And so you did something different.

And you did indeed break the cycle.

Ideally, you pick and choose the best in what your dad taught you – either by example of something they did right, or by the anti-example of what they did wrong.  I remember when I was a kid, my dad was away at college, and one very rare time, he was at home when I had a band concert.  I expected him to come, but he didn’t.  The reason doesn’t matter… He wasn’t there.  I vowed to never let that happen with my kids, and did my best to  be there for them every time I could.  I did something different.

…and I kept thinking…

I thought about how inadequate I felt when I held my kids for the first time…  I’d forgotten entirely that humans came in such small, fragile, helpless packages.  Remember – that’s not just fragile physically, they’re also fragile emotionally and spiritually.  They need to be tended, carefully. Disciplined in time, yes… Broken, no.  Broken children become broken adults, and the cycle of brokenness continues, doing its damage for generations to come.

I remember praying for and with them when they were little, folding their little hands in my bigger ones as I did, imagining that my hands were folded inside the even bigger Hands of my Father at the same time. It made the prayers feel more complete.

…the thoughts continued…

I remember growing as a father just as much as my kids grew at being kids.  I got really, really good at making breakfast in about 90 seconds, a “Papa McMuffin” I called it.

And I made mistakes while my kids were growing up.  All fathers I know have.  There were times I was too drawn into work, too focused on outside things, too lenient with them in some areas, too strict in others.  Times I wish I could go back and fix, but I can’t, so I do my best now, in the only moment I can change.

I went back in my mind to the concert dad missed, and how all the times he’d been away affected me, and while the child in me still wept for those lost times, the adult in me realized that Harley was right, and I came to the same conclusion:  Forgiving my father – our fathers, for the mistakes they made was the only option that made sense.  That doesn’t mean it has to happen immediately, and it doesn’t mean it was or is easy.

But given the options, learning from him, his successes, his failures, and picking and choosing the right ones, and working with those as my base gave me something greater than zero to start from, but there was one thing more.

I’d repeated a lot of those mistakes that have been made through the years, through the generations.  It took some time to realize they were there, and I’m still working on correcting them.  Some will take a long time, and in my observations with other dads, it seems that  one of the first people we need to be able to forgive is ourselves.

And that’s hard.

But it’s the first step.

So… call your dad – if you can.  Wish him Happy Father’s day, if you can, if you’re reading this on Father’s day (as I’m writing it), and then, if you can, take a deep breath and forgive him.

Learn from the mistakes of the past, but don’t repeat them.

===

The story above, as all stories on this blog are, is true.

I have several people to thank for their help in it.  Chronologically, they’d be:

Terry Eiler, former director of VisCom, Ohio University – who encouraged me to go out and shoot – and take risks.

Mike Grone – former Chief photographer of the Sidney Daily News, who actually had me take those risks.

Rob Goebel, now of the Indy Star newspaper, who graciously allowed me the use of the photo, and

Harley himself, who in his simple words, taught me so much, and who allowed and encouraged me to write the story about his famous, award winning baby picture that had been taken in a bar,  with a biker (Bones), by a guy (Rob) whose photos I’d admired and skills I was trying to emulate, all because my instructor (Terry)  in grad school told a story and sent me out there so that my boss (Mike) could grin and send me off on a lesson I’d suddenly find myself remembering when sitting at a traffic light in Seattle, with my son, next to the Harley that sent me ricocheting back through my time machine to tell you this story…

Take care out there, folks.

Know that out there – every image you see -whether it’s an award winning photo, or a glimpse into someone’s life, has a story behind it.

This was one of them.

 


The ground rumbled just a little as it always did when the bus’s brakes squeaked it to a halt. I got on, and found a seat next to an older gentleman reading a book.

We nodded, and swayed back and forth with the motion in the traffic, and over time, I saw a pattern. He’d be there when I got on, and would be there about once a month. While everyone else insulated themselves from the rest of the passengers with their headphones and their smart phones, the older gentleman had his in a book that he was perfectly willing to put down. I made it a point to sit next to him, just to chat.

It took awhile, but I got to know him a little better. He always wore a baseball cap with USMC embroidered on the front, was always friendly, and seemed genuinely happy to see me.   I got the impression he was going for his monthly checkup at the VA hospital.

At one point, he was holding the book in his right hand, and I saw that he was missing most of the index finger there. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, everything else I could see seemed to be in perfect order, and he was clearly used to it. Eventually I got up enough courage to ask how that happened, expecting to hear some story involving power tools or some action that had been preceded by the phrase, “Here, hold my beer.”

“Japanese sniper,” he said, turning his hand and looking at it, as if for the first time noticing that finger was gone.

“A… a what?”

And the older gentleman on the bus faded into the background as the story of a strapping 18 year old in the jungles of the South Pacific came out. He’d been in the Marine Corps, in the Pacific, during WWII, and they’d been dropped off at the south end of an island, and were to take the airfield on the north end. That was the book he’d been reading, a history of his unit. They had to get there at a very specific time, as a great part of the upcoming battle depended on that airfield being usable, and they had to take it. He showed me the map, and the huge swamp they’d had no choice but to go through, not around.

He talked so matter-of-factly about how they had to hike in triple digit temperatures through jungle, especially through that swamp. He held both arms up high as he showed me how he kept his rifle out of the water and mud to keep it dry.

They got to their destination, where he unknowingly had his appointment with the Japanese sniper, who’d been trained to shoot off soldier’s trigger fingers, and that’s precisely what he’d done.

As we were both looking at that stump of a finger, he lost in his memories while I was trying to imagine what those memories were like, the bus stopped, and we both looked up. I realized I was at my own destination. I thanked him for sharing that part of himself with me, and for his time and his service, and got off the bus, reluctantly coming back from that hot, humid airfield I’d been at in my mind to a street full of honking cars and rumbling buses, grateful for the privilege of the history lesson I’d just gotten first hand.

From someone who had been there.

===

So, on this Sunday morning, Memorial day, I find myself thinking of and remembering those of you who have served your countries, on the front lines or just as importantly, holding down the fort at home, whether that’s my Opa, or my dad, or my mom and Oma during WWII, Grampa, Grandma, or my uncles on both sides, my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew, or Chris, Buck, Jon, Kevin, Brian, Ralph, Beth, Al, Jae, Denny, as well as so many others who never made it home, or brought back reminders of that time they gave more than we could possibly imagine.

Thank you.


There was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this story.

I mean that in the most final way that could be possible.

The original was written almost exactly 9 years ago, about something that happened a year before that, and it’s been a learning experience all the way around, so with that, step with me into the time machine, back to a day where I sat in our basement, with my keyboard in my lap, both feet on the desk, and I wrote a little note about those things we’d learned on that first anniversary.

“We’ve learned a lot through this last year dealing with cancer, treatment for it, recovery from it, and the like – and it’s phenomenal the kinds of things you do learn when you find you’ve been to the edge and back.

One of the things I learned, honestly, that life is truly not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

The destination for all our bodies, is likely a pine box or an urn on a mantel somewhere. That doesn’t have to mean that has to be our soul’s destination. Sometimes, when we just spend our time existing, drifting, our soul just shrivels up, and dries up and is blown away like dust. Believe me, I understand that, I’ve been there. But that’s not what life is about. Life is about living – and the life that comes from LIVING (all capitals on purpose) as opposed to just existing – is the difference between black and white.

We’ve found that life now (after cancer) tends to be higher contrast (speaking of black and white) – the highs higher, the lows, lower – and while those lows are definitely lower – the highs more than make up for it, and the stuff in the middle isn’t gray… it’s a… a fine mixture of that black and white. (those are all links to stories I wrote up there)

I found that life, as most people my age tend to think, is not infinite, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that weekends, while occasionally made for Michelob, might be better spent if you realized there weren’t an infinite supply of them… So walks in the park (or wherever) have replaced being half comatose in front of the boob tube. Trips to visit friends have replaced sitting idly at home whiling away another weekend – and – that brings up something that happened just a few weekends ago.

We went down to Portland (Oregon) to do a couple of things:

1) Celebrate the end of treatment/major phase of recovery and the beginning of going back to work,

2) Visit our daughter, and

3) Visit with some of our bestest friends.

While Cindy drove the car down so we’d have a way to get back on time, our son Michael and I took the train, and I’d learned that if you pay a little extra, you sit in what they call “business class” – so instead of 4 seats across, there were only three, and the seats were wider, two seats, then an aisle, then one seat, and you got discount coupons on the food in the dining car. So we went for the business class. I was expecting we’d get the seats on the right side of the train – where you can see Puget Sound as you go by – and the rows are only one seat wide, and the seats there face each other, which made conversation and stretching your legs out easy. However, when I asked, those seats were full and we got put into “Row 6″.

On the other side of the train.

So we sat there for a bit – and with all the benefits advertised of being on a train, it wasn’t much different than sitting in an airplane – Michael reading his book, me sitting there, kind of cramped – and right about then, there was an announcement that the “Bistro car” (apparently what’s replaced the “Dining Car”) was open. I figured that since it was dinner time, and we had those coupons for the food, we should get up there before the line got too long, and so we did, standing there, swaying back and forth as the train trundled down the tracks.

After a bit of that, we got our food… Michael a hot dog, me a chili (which I spilled later, but that’s another story), and sat down at this little table, and talked, and ate, and read, and laughed, and watched the scenery, and played a game, and in general were having a good time all by ourselves.

…which was when the girls showed up.

A 12 year old and a 14 year old – they’d just met on the train themselves, were bored, and ended up sitting across the aisle from us, and started to try to make up a game. Michael and I were playing our own game by that point, and after I stomped Michael once, and he stomped me once, even worse, he felt he’d had enough, so I said, “Hey, why don’t you go over there and teach them how to play”

“Oh, I can’t do that…”

“Sure you can, what have you got to lose?”

“If you don’t go over there, it’s as good as them having said no, and you’ll have learned nothing.”

“If you do go over there and embarrass yourself, chances are you’ll never see them again, so you’re not risking much.”

“However, if you do go over there, and it works, then you’ll have the next hour and a half to spend time laughing, having fun, and making memories.”

“So really, what do you have to lose?”

After a few minutes of pondering, he went over there. Big, hulking Michael, went over and in his suave, sophisticated way asked, “Hey, wanna learn how to play a game?”

The girls loved it.

Oh, gosh, did they love it.

And, come to think of it, I think Michael did, too.

One of them got a deck of cards, and while the 14 year old was playing, learning and laughing with Michael, the 12 year old taught me a card game called “Spit” – involving faster reflexes than adults can possibly have (and that children playing games against said adults should be allowed to have). She blew me away. Then she decided to go easy on me and asked if I knew how to play “War” (each of you gets half the deck, and you each put a card down, whoever’s card is highest wins both cards. The winner is the one with all the cards). I thought I’d shuffled the deck well. Turns out I couldn’t have shuffled it much better (for her), because by the end of the first hand, she had all but two of my cards. The sound of her laughter was like the joyful ringing of a bell, and told me that even though I was losing the card game (Losing doesn’t come close – annihilated is more in the neighborhood), I was winning something much larger. I realized that if I had to ‘lose’ a game in order to bring that much laughter and joy into a child’s life, then I’d happily lose the game.

Every time.

It was at that moment that I realized that the high pitched laugh of hers had a bass line – and I looked across the aisle to find that Michael had his opponent on the ropes, so to speak, and was laughing uproariously at his position in the game.

I thought about this at the time – about how before all these realizations, before cancer, I might have just stayed there in my assigned seat because it had cost me $12.00 extra a seat to get those extra wide/comfortable ones – and by God, I was going to sit there and get my $12.00 worth of enjoyment out of them if it killed me.

But…

I didn’t.

I realized that for us to enjoy the journey the way we had, we had to get up out of our comfortable seats where they were showing a now long forgotten movie, and go up to that Bistro car, where there were no reservations for us, and no assigned seats. It was a risk, a small one, but the rewards were so well worth it. Getting up, and daring to get out of our comfort zones and living life, instead of life living us, was obviously the thing to do, for Michael, and for me.

Suddenly, before we were really ready, the call came out “Next stop, Vancouver”. One of the girls got off, and then 10 minutes later, we got to Portland – and the other little girl just disappeared into the river of people pouring out of the train. We joined the same river and spilled out onto the platform.

We stopped, the crowd thinned, we looked around, and at each other, and realized we were at our destination.

Having truly enjoyed the journey.

===

As I said, it’s been 9 years since I wrote that, and 10 years since the phone call that started it all.

We had no idea what the future would bring then. We had no idea how hard some of it would be, or how unbelievably cool other parts of it would be. Most surprising was how we would feel a peace about things through all the terror that made no sense, given what we were going through, but we also felt that that peace we were feeling was directly related to the shield of prayers our family, friends, and even some strangers (who became our friends) kept over us.

But back on that day, I remember that the doctor had said he would do his best. He’d remove what he could remove, and try to save what he could. And that little bit got me thinking the ‘what if’ thoughts that you try in vain to push out of your mind, but that wasn’t an option, so I went out that morning, while the sun was still low, and while the grass and dandelions were still wet, and I walked barefoot in the grass – trying to imprint that feeling, that memory into my mind, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to repeat that when I came back.

To say I was a little nervous about the whole thing might be understating it a touch.

I came back in, changed, and we left the house. I drove, and after getting all prepped, we were able to convince them to let me take a CD player and some headphones in so I could have something to listen to after the surgery. My favorite composer is Johann Strauss, and so that’s what I wanted to hear, that would be my subconscious signal to myself that I’d made it through that part of it.

I remember being wheeled into the operating room. They stopped, I saw all the equipment they had, as I groggily looked over at the table I’d be laying on…

…and heard… Strauss? YES! It was Strauss!

I’d made it.

I wiggled my toes, on both feet, and as I drifted back to sleep, I knew that as hard as the road ahead may be, it was going to be okay.

===

There are many, many people to thank here. If I thanked you all, it’d sound like an Oscar speech. But this is not the kind of thing you go through alone. It changes you. It changes those around you. So for those of you prayer warriors who helped hold up that shield up over my family and me, and to God who provided it, I thank you. We thank you. For those of you who brought meals when we needed them, or fixed plumbing, or mowed the lawn, or sat on the front porch in the shade, in the breeze, with a cold bottle of Sprite and just chatted and listened and distracted me for a moment… Thank you. For the medical staff (doctors, nurses, and vampires and staff – you know who you are) who’ve been with me through thick and thin, we thank you profusely.

The reminder that life is short, and the journey has no guarantees, is ever present.  Hug your loved ones when you can.

And speaking of loved ones, there’s my family, who’s been along for the ride, hard as it’s been at times…

There are no words strong enough. Thank you barely scratches the surface. <Hugs>

PS…

I went out in the front yard this morning as the sun came up…

Toes_In_Wet_Grass

…and felt the dewy grass on my feet…

And smiled.


Hey all,

It’s been a bit since I wrote, a lot of life has happened, a lot of changes, a lot of storms, if you will, and it reminded me of a story that happened a number of years ago that involved a USAF C-130 and yours truly.

If you’ve ever seen a military airplane, chances are you’ve seen a C-130 Hercules. It is the short/medium haul workhorse of militaries all over the world that’s been in service for over 50 years. The Navy’s Blue Angels have one from the Marines they call “Fat Albert” that carries the maintenance and support crew to keep all the F-18’s flying.

A C-130 landing just a little better than I did.

A C-130 landing just a little better than I did.

I’ve been in a couple of them, flown over some amazing countryside (Mount Rainier – I’d have pictures of that but I dropped the camera while I was in the cockpit a few thousand feet over Elbe and broke it – the camera I mean) and been in one that was dogfighting with another one (story to come later), but the one that I remember most is the one that never left the ground.

See, back when I was in Civil Air Patrol, one of the senior members of the squadron, Steve, was also in the Air Force, and he worked just across the parking lot from where we met every week.

What was cool about that place across the parking lot was that it housed two multimillion dollar full motion simulators, one of which was the one for the venerable C-130.

What was cool about Steve is that he did the same thing in the Air Force that my dad did years earlier – he worked flight simulator maintenance. Understand, folks who work in maintenance aren’t the people who get the glory. They’re not the ones with high ranks or fancy titles. The people who work maintenance, however, are like the janitor of the school you went to. They have to be able to fix anything.

And to do that, they need to be able to get anywhere.

And to do that, they have to have keys to EVERYTHING.

And Steve, so to speak, had the keys to the C-130 simulator.

Now since he worked maintenance, he had to be there all the time, just in case.

There were quiet times during his day when the simulator wasn’t scheduled – and of course, over time, I learned what those times were, and just ‘happened’ to show up pretty consistently about then.

Over the course of one summer, Steve let me fly the thing – I did the math some time back, and I think I had something like 40 hours in the thing.

I learned how to start the engines, how to taxi out to an imaginary runway (Steve would play the part of the air traffic controller and give me directions over the headsets from outside), and then Steve taught me how to take off. Now understand – all this is in a full size, full motion simulator that’s an exact replica of the cockpit. You hear the engines. You feel the vibration of the engines. You literally feel the bumps in the pavement you’re taxiing across. It would even have the nose dip as you hit the brakes to stop at the end of the runway before starting your takeoff roll, where you’d feel the bumps in the pavement going by faster and faster, until when you pulled the nose up, you could actually *feel* the nose gear lift off – it smoothed out because it wasn’t rolling over pavement anymore. Then there were the checklists to make sure everything was done right. Landing gear had to come up as soon as the plane was actually climbing. Flaps came up in stages as the plane accelerated, and so on.

The one thing it didn’t have was any type of visual display, so because of that, when I learned how to fly, I learned how to fly on instruments only.

I learned that the controls felt mushy at low speeds, and very stiff at high speeds, and at those high speeds, you wanted to keep the little g-meter in the bottom left of the instrument panel very happy. Overstressing that little thing could cause problems

I learned all that before I ever looked out of the cockpit of a real airplane, and the funny thing is – I learned how to fly the plane not because I had to, but because it was fun.

After some time, Steve let me just play a little bit, and I actually got pretty good at running through the checklists to start the engines, the pre-taxi checklist, the pre-takeoff checklist, after takeoff checklist – really, there were a lot of them.

One day Steve had most of an afternoon with no one scheduled in the simulator, and I happened to be there, so he decided to have some fun. He taught me GCA’s – or Ground Controlled Approaches – which you do when you can’t see the runway, and the airport has equipment you don’t have. Basically you’ve got two radio beams that intersect like a cross, coming from a couple of transmitters at the end of the runway. One shows you on the right glide slope (both approaching and descending at just the right speed), while the other shows you on the right glide path (coming down on the centerline of the runway). Your job is to keep the plane at the center of those two radio beams– you’ve got someone on the ground tracking you, and their instructions to keep you in the center are short and to the point: “Flight 279, GCA, 3 miles out, on glide slope, on glide path” (what you want to hear) versus something like “Flight 279, GCA, 2 miles out, 500 feet left of glide path, 200 feet below glide slope”. You’ve got a lot of correcting to do in the two miles you’ve got left, flying at about 130 mph, you’ll cover that in less than 30 seconds, while trying to find the end of the runway, which is at the other end of those radar beams. Remember, if you’re doing a GCA, you’re only doing it because you can’t see the runway. This is rather important because usually the runway is the only flat space big enough to land on.

It was clear that Steve had a little bit of fun being the GCA Controller, so one day he decided to take it up a notch… He stepped into the back of the simulator where the instructors usually sat – where they had all sorts of evil controls to mess with the crew being trained, and played GCA from right there instead of from his usual console outside the simulator.

I had the headphones on as usual, and he decided he’d give me what started out to be a normal approach. I’d had the flaps down to 50% as I needed to have them for that speed, and then he started dialing in some turbulence to make it a little more challenging.

Ever flown through turbulence in an airliner? This was just like that – all the sounds, the full motion in the simulator, it was just like you’d expect to feel it in a real plane, just as bumpy, just as uncomfortable, and it suddenly dawned on me that the barf bags in the cockpit weren’t there for decoration.

He gave me gentle instructions: first just fly the plane with the turbulence randomly and dramatically trying to flip the plane right, left, up, or down. My goal was to keep the wings level, and keep it aimed to 340 degrees North-northwest, the same heading as the runway.

Then, when he felt I had that mastered, he decided to transition in a GCA controlled approach, meaning I had to not only keep the wings level and keep flying the plane in the storm, but manage all the procedures that were part of landing the plane.

He added wind gusts that varied from headwinds (which suddenly gave me much greater lift) to tailwinds (which suddenly meant the plane wasn’t flying through the air fast enough to generate enough lift to keep it from falling out of the sky).

Somewhere in there I realized that not only did I have that voice in my headphones to guide me, I noticed that there was an instrument on the panel in front of me that, every time I heard the message, “On glide slope, on glide path” – made a little plus sign, a little cross. It turns out it was what’s known as an ILS, or Instrument Landing System – which is a miniaturized version of the GCA. Instead of a radio and someone in the tower, it’s an instrument in the airplane.

See, the GCA is something external to the plane. . It’s sending a – kind of a cross of radio beams out, and they can tell where you are in relation to that. They will tell you what you need to do to be able to land safely.

You don’t have to have anything but a radio, tuned to the tower frequency and you just have to do what the voice in the headsets tells you to do.

The ILS is a miniaturized version of the GCA. It depends on that same kind of radio beam, but is internal to the plane. Just like a compass always points North, which is a good reference point, this always keeps you pointed toward your goal, which is finishing your flight safely, on the runway. All you have to do is pay attention to it, and keep the little cross centered in front of you, and you’ll reach that goal.

But – meanwhile, back in the cockpit, knowing what the right thing to do and actually doing it were two different things. Steve was having fun and incrementally dialing up everything, making the plane climb, bank, and turn, and fall out of the sky all at the same time. It got to the point where just trying to keep wings level, much less doing something complicated like “keep the wings level and the pointy end facing front” was an astonishing challenge. The descent rate wasn’t even averaging the 500 feet per minute descent I was supposed to be trying to do on at that part of the approach.

I thought things had gotten as bad as they were going to get, and was really working up a sweat in there… It was no longer a simulation, for me it was real.

And that’s when Steve dialed up the turbulence to the point where I was in a full-fledged storm.

I wasn’t panicking, but I was working pretty hard to keep things under control, and was concentrating so hard on keeping wings level, keeping the descent rate right, keeping it on glide slope and glide path, that I was caught off guard when Steve suggested I might look at the oil pressure of the number 3 engine.

It was falling.

Imagine your check engine light coming on in your car. You just pull over and – well, check your engine.

Interestingly, that’s exactly what I was trying to do, but had to wait till I had a successful landing behind me.

So I had to slow that engine down, but I couldn’t just pull back number 3. By now the flaps were down, if I recall, at 50%, and the air each of the four propellers pushes over the top of wing, especially with the flaps down, creates a tremendous amount of lift. So if you’ve got two huge propellers blasting air over the left wing, and only one on the right, that left wing will produce way more lift – which complicates things and needs to be considered in everything you do from there on out. So I throttled back not just number 3 (inboard engine on the right wing) but also number 2 (inboard engine on the left wing) to keep the power and lift balanced, with the hope it would last long enough to get us to the ground safely

Steve was impressed, so he held on to the handles mounted for the instructors in the back of the simulator, and dialed the turbulence and the mechanical problems up even more. He added what I now realize were wind shear and microbursts, meaning my airspeed would vary, causing my descent rate to range from “climbing like a homesick angel” to “falling out of the sky like an anvil with wings”.

I brought the flaps all the way to 100%, which increased lift, but also increased drag, slowing the plane down, requiring extra power (which I didn’t have much of) to stay in the air. While I was working on the approach checklist, and right as I’d gotten getting the gear down, increasing the drag yet again, and requiring more power to overcome, Steve was slowly dialing the oil pressure down in number 3, and eventually I had the engine in flight idle (lowest speed I could set it to).

At this point, my options were getting even more limited, because not only did the oil pressure keep going down, but the temperature started going up.

That’s when Steve added the smoke – real smoke in the cockpit. I have to tell you, if nothing else had my attention, the smell of hot oil on top of everything else did.

Number 3 didn’t show that it was on fire, but it was showing it was overheating, and it was clear that running out of oil to keep it lubricated and cool was going to guarantee a fire. I realized there was only one thing I could do to keep that from happening, so I reached up above the windshield, between the empty copilot’s seat and mine, and flipped the switch to arm the fire extinguishing system. I feathered the prop and pulled the fire extinguisher handle, shutting that engine down, and if nothing else, preventing a fire.

That solved one problem, but created several more.

I was still trying to land in a storm, but now I was down 25% of my power, and I was right close to stall speed.

That was when Steve decided to up the wind shear a bit, and I felt the plane lurch, then saw the instruments show I’d gone from a headwind to a downdraft and I was sinking fast.

Sinking fast when you’re flying is not a good thing.

Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying is a very bad thing.

Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying, close to the ground, is a sentence that often has a fireball for a period.

I simultaneously slammed the remaining three throttles to the firewall, and turned the yoke all the way to the left and stomped on the left rudder pedal to try to balance out the asymmetrical lift and thrust I knew I’d be getting because of number 3 being out, and stopped sinking.

In spite of that, it moved me to the right of the glide path, so I banked left (which is actually hard to do since I had more power and lift from the left wing) and had to get back on the glide path, just as I heard Steve’s calm voice inform me that I was below I was 200 feet right of glide path, and definitely below glide slope.

All the while, Steve watched from the back, saw that I was close to making it, but I still wasn’t out of the weather, and just as I was about to touch down, I got another hard gust from the left. I firewalled the throttles again to try to keep from hitting too hard, but we were too close to the ground for it to help enough in time. I did hit hard, felt and heard one of the tires in the right main landing gear go, pulled all three engines to ground idle, then the standard thing to do would be to lift all the throttles straight up, allowing me to pull them back further, changing the angle of the propeller blades so they’re blowing air forward to slow the plane down once it’s on the ground, not backward to keep it flying.

Had I done that with all three remaining engines, I would have put two engines on the left wing and one on the right into full thrust reverse, adding “pirouetting down the runway” to my list of accomplishments on that flight. I decided, instinctively to let my middle finger loose and leave the number 2 engine in ground idle and reverse numbers 1 and 4, which slowed the plane down without the pirouette until I was able to use the brakes and get off the runway.

Once everything was shut down, Steve looked at me with a huge grin and said, “Well done! I’ve had trained pilots in here that didn’t handle that as well as you did!”

It made me smile, sitting there, back all sweaty against the pilot’s seat – slowly starting to shiver from the abundance of adrenaline and the air conditioning I was just now starting to feel.

He said, “Well done!”

It’s said that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing – and this one was one of them.

We talked for a long time after that flight, and as I’ve been writing this, years later – I’ve found that as with many of these stories, it got me thinking…

The whole thing about this adventure we call life is like that adventure in flight in that simulator.

There are times when our lives are CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited). Times when you are as free as a bird, where not only the valleys we struggle through, but the mountains and clouds that seemed so high, are now beneath us.

Those are times to cherish, because in those times, you gain perspective, understanding, and wisdom.  You’re able to see the other side of the clouds, the side where the sun always shines.

Other times, life throws us into storms, and the things we hold dear, the things we depend on for support, for power, for strength are shaken to the core.  I got to thinking about those engines, and the one that was causing trouble and catching fire trying to land in that storm – and I had to just let it go and shut it off, then figure out how to go on without it.

Those aren’t times where you gain perspective.

Those are times where you gain experience.

And we need both.

It’s the transitions that are often challenging.

We have to compensate for things that have been damaged, and flying through the storm becomes quite a bit harder when we lose things we depend on.

I realized that while I’d learned how to instinctively fix something while still compensating for my weakness in the simulator, (slamming those three throttles forward when I really needed four, and stomping on that left rudder while turning hard left to keep the strength I did have from pulling me off course), that that’s a constant lesson in real life.

I got to thinking some more about it all, and how hard flying through that storm was… You couldn’t see anything out the windows of the simulator – it was nothing but instruments – but if you were flying in a storm, you wouldn’t see anything anyway.

…and that, sometimes, is what life is like…

It feels like we’re flying blind, but only if we’re straining to find something in the murk outside…

If we look inside, at our instruments, if you will – there’s more clarity, and while doing that GCA, I had that voice in my headsets guiding me along that cross in the radio beams, and that dotted cross on the instrument panel, and the third one over the top of that, guiding me on the inside. When I was where I was supposed to be, the three crosses became one. I learned that if I focused on that cross, and listened to that voice, it would guide me through any storm.

It was a lesson in trust.

I couldn’t trust in my own instincts. Even when the storm headwinds caused me to go higher than I wanted to go, or the tailwinds caused me to sink lower than I wanted to be, even with that engine threatening to burn a wing off.   Being so close to the ground and so slow that any mistake could be the last one, hard as it was, I had to trust.

Getting too far to one side or the other for too long, and pretty soon it’d be impossible to correct for in time even if I made a massive correction to try to get to the runway, so I needed to trust.

As easy as it is to let the storms of life blow me off course, and as hard I know it can be to struggle during those times when I don’t have perspective but I’m gaining that experience, I know that if I keep that cross centered in front of me, and keep listening to the voice in my headphones guides me when I can’t see it, I’ll be okay…

And just like I didn’t finish my time in the simulator unscathed, I haven’t made it through this journey we call Life without a few scars, none of us have. I remember Steve’s words after I landed, after I finished, “Well done!” and the smile and peace it gave me. I pray that at the end of this longer journey, I’ll be able to hear those same words again, from another Voice, “Well done…

Take care folks – and for those of you who celebrate it, have a wonderful, blessed Easter.

 


With all the spying stuff that’s been in the news the last few months, the comparison to Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984 has been on my mind a bit, and it got me to thinking about my own little experience with Mr. Orwell.

See, back in high school, we did the play adaptation of the book,

1984

…and I managed to talk my way not only into playing Mr. Charrington on stage when that actor quit, but because of my voice and ability to do accents, I had also been chosen to play the voice of Big Brother, (deep, ominous, with slight Russian accent), the voice of his arch nemesis Goldstein, (high, kind of a German accent with a little Yiddish thrown in) and on a closed circuit screen, the “Telescreen” News Announcer.

The good part of this?

I got to play 4 parts in the play.

The bad part?

I had to play 4 parts in the play.

The biggest challenge to doing them all was getting from the tiny little studio we had set up to the right of the light booth, in the back of the auditorium, where all the equipment for all the closed circuit “Telescreen” shots was, and getting into costume, makeup, into character and up onto the stage.  Once there I had to get into a Cockney accent and look and act much older than the Telescreen announcer I’d been a couple of minutes before.

The reason this was “the bad part” wasn’t that I couldn’t do the parts.

I could, and did.

The problem was logistics.

I spent the first part of the play in the windowless camera booth at the back of the auditorium, then had to get up, cross the light booth, out to the hallway, run down that hallway till I could get backstage and get into makeup, all without making so much noise as to distract the audience.

This didn’t really come up until the last few rehearsals, which were full dress, right after school.  That was when we discovered that there just wasn’t enough time to get the costumes changed in the time I had.

So on the second dress rehearsal, I planned on getting changed up there in the windowless camera booth, before meeting everybody on stage for the pre-rehearsal meeting where they were all gathered around the telescreen that was in the middle of the stage.

Except I got there late.

And I had to hurriedly change in the only space available in the little studio beside the light booth, that being between the News Announcer’s desk and the camera.

The one with the little red light on it when it was running.

I’d almost finished changing when I heard everyone on stage laughing.  I looked around, wondering what was going on, only to hear several people yell, “Tom’s changing in front of the camera and he doesn’t know it’s running!”

It was then that I noticed the red light was on.

Big Brother was indeed watching me.

So I did the only thing that made sense at the time, given my condition (half dressed) and position (in front of the camera).

I grinned…

And then I mooned Big Brother.

And then I turned and took a long, exaggerated bow.

But it got me thinking… It reminded me that even in the smallest things, people are watching; your kids, your colleagues, your friends, and how you handle yourself when you don’t think people are watching is just as important, if not more important as when they are.

Take care folks – be good examples out there, but don’t be afraid to moon Big Brother…

Sometimes he needs it.


Have you ever done something a little on the audacious side?

Taken risks?

In fact, have you ever done something that ran an astonishingly high risk of failure, but you decided you’d try it anyway?

Now, on top of that, have you ever met someone that just seemed to have it all?

And have you ever wanted to pull a prank on them, just – well… Because?

Have you ever had a convergence of all of those things look like they might come together in ways that you could imagine in your dreams, but couldn’t possibly imagine in reality?

Well, it might be hard to imagine for those of you who read these stories, but yes indeedy, I had all of those things happen, many years ago.  See, when I was a teenager, I knew someone like that, his name was Marc.  Marc was handsome, smart, had a sense of humor and a smile that would win over just about anybody.

At that time, Marc was always, and I mean always in the company of some attractive young lady.  We went to different schools, but went to the same church, and were in the same youth group, and most importantly, went to the same church camp in southern Washington, where once a year, we met other kids from other churches in the district (which encompassed Washington and Oregon).  One of those kids was a young lady by the name of Jeanne, a bright, fun, attractive girl from Oregon who was friends with just about everyone.

It was clear that a number of the boys at camp were completely smitten by her, but given that she lived a few hours from where we lived, and given that this was, shockingly, before the days of the internet as we know it, any communication had to be done by letters that were written, with a pen, on paper, or telephone calls which usually cost more for the first minute of calling than the stamp to send the letter cost.  (I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit for some of you, and for those of you a little older to nod and remember that time, too)

So we all looked forward to church camp, where we were able to spend time with each other and not only learn lessons from the Bible, but get together and have fun, singing songs, playing games like Capture the Flag, and What Can We do With The Counselor’s Car?” (my sister’s car was somehow put in the Gym, mine one year ended up down a path down by the river), or, in quieter moments, just hanging out by the campfire.  Bottom line: those of us in the youth group just loved camp, because it just made the youth group that much bigger.

One year, completely outside of camp, the youth group decided to go camping for a weekend out around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.

Marc was still smitten by Jeanne, but because of simple geography, was also good friends with a young lady named Sandy.  Fact is, we were teenagers, and being smitten was part of the territory, so that was really a standard condition for all of us.

As a result, the situation was just totally asking for more than a little practical joking, and to be honest, I was one of those guys who was just a little smitten, but Jeanne and I were also, as we used to say, “just friends” (emphasis on the quotes there) so when I found out about the youth group camping trip to Kalaloch, and that Marc was going, it just seemed ripe for a little fun.

So I called Jeanne up and asked her if she wanted to go camping.

At the Beach.

In Washington.

Now understand, this was quite a bit easier said than done.  I was south of Tacoma, Washington, she lived somewhere near Portland, Oregon, and we were headed to Kalaloch, in Washington.  Yeah, I looked it up on the map.  The trip looked like this.  Just that piece of it was over 300 miles.  She checked with her parents, got the okay, and the resulting plan was that I’d come down Friday afternoon, spend the night there, then somehow, without a whole lot of planning, synchronization, or anything, meet up with the youth group on their way to the beach, and pull off a ‘mess with Marc’s mind’ prank the likes of which he would never expect.

Also understand, the whole youth group, Marc included, coming from one direction, us coming from another direction, and actually meeting at an undisclosed, not to mention unknown, location in the middle required the kind of precision timing you might find in carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operations.

However, this was not a carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operation.

This was just me, pre-cell phone/gps days, driving down to Portland and hoping to bring a girl up to go camping with the youth group, and just happening to run into said youth group on the way to the beach – but not telling anyone in the youth group that I was doing it.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’d already told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the camping trip, that I was going to Portland for the weekend, and that I hoped they had a good time.

So I piled all my stuff together into my 1967 Saab 96 with the three cylinder, two stroke, 850 cc engine and headed off to Portland.

Everything was going great, I got there safely, we had dinner, and I met her mom. I don’t remember her dad being in the picture that evening, and her sister was out of town, so I ended up sleeping in her sister’s bed, in the frilliest, girliest bedroom I’ve ever slept in.

Given how well the trip down had gone, I thought the trip up would be a breeze.

I was wrong.

It rained overnight, the first time in a long time, and the next morning, we were all ready to go, we got the car packed, and I fired up the Saab, it was idling quietly, warming up a bit, with the ‘ringgggdadingdingding….’ sound that it made when it was idling, the two stroke smoke from the cold engine wafting like fog all over the neighborhood.  I was about to put it into gear to back out of their driveway when the clutch pedal went to the floor, and neither reverse – nor for that matter, any gear, was available without some seriously nasty grinding of Swedish steel gears.

Hmm…

I popped the hood, screwed the lid off the clutch master cylinder, and found it not only low, but bone dry.

Not good.

There was obviously a leak in the rather simple hydraulics of the clutch system, as all the brake fluid in it had leaked out. I was many, many miles from home, so in spite of the ‘freewheeling clutch‘ designed into the car, I really wasn’t going for a several hundred mile trip without it working.  So bright and early that Saturday, we had to find a car parts store to see if we could get the right brake fluid for the car’s hydraulic clutch system (the wrong kind would eat through the seals, and who knows, maybe that’s what had already happened, I don’t know for sure, so we borrowed her parent’s land yacht of a ‘70’s sedan. All I remember was that it had a cold-blooded 430 cubic inch V-8 engine , a light rear end, and a sticky throttle.

Note: that 430 cubic inch engine had more power in just one of its eight cylinders than I had in my entire car.  There WAS a difference.

In fact, there was far more cast iron in that engine than in my entire car, and it  ran a little rough until all that iron warmed up. This was something we discovered as the car coughed just as we were making a left turn out onto a very large, empty five lane street as we were going out in search of the necessary brake fluid.  Jeanne pumped the gas a few times to try to get it to run again, and just as she had her foot on the floor, the engine woke up as if it had been hit with a quadruple shot of espresso, and it roared, spinning the back wheels on the wet, slick pavement.  We fishtailed all over the road for a few hundred feet until Jeanne got the throttle un-stuck and the car under control.  Neither one of us needed anything resembling coffee after that, the adrenaline was enough to keep us both very, very alert for the rest of the morning.

We found a gas station, got the only kind of brake fluid they had (the wrong kind, as it turned out – but I knew I’d have to replace the seals when I got home anyway), got the land yacht safely docked back in her parent’s driveway, where I did a quick refilling and Jeanne helped me bleed the air out of the clutch hydraulics and tested it all out.  That done, we piled into the now non-clutchless Saab, and headed north.

We’d already lost quite a bit of time with the whole clutch thing, which frustrated me, as I knew about the time the youth group was planning to leave, and knew where I wanted to intercept them, but I was now late, and the whole plan was looking like it was going to fall apart.  I mean seriously, I didn’t even know which campground near Kalaloch they’d be staying at… I had to find them or the whole weekend would be a wash.

Then near Vancouver, Washington, the little light on the gas gauge started to flicker on every now and then, so I pulled into a Shell station there.  Oh, remember, I was driving a two stroke car, which meant I had to mix the oil with the gas in a precise ratio: One quart of 30 wt oil, 8 gallons of premium…

In that order.

Into the gas tank.

And that station was the only one around that insisted on selling gas by the liter.

Right.

They sold oil by the quart, gas by the liter, and my math was in gallons.

I had to do some quick math…

Let’s see… 3.78 gallons of gas per liter –

No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…

Ugh…

I calculated it out with the stub of a pencil on the roof of the car, scribbling on the back of a receipt I’d found in the door pocket, to be about 30 liters of gas after I got the one quart of oil in there.  It had to be right.  If it was too rich (too much oil) I’d foul the plugs and it wouldn’t run well.  If it was too lean, (not enough oil) I’d burn the piston rings and toast the engine.  (We’ll get into this in another story that has yet to be written, interestingly about this very thing, on this very car.)  So, that being said, the relatively simple but time consuming part of getting the oil to gas ratio wasn’t optional, it had to be done right, or the trip might not happen at all.  So, it was just one more thing on this trip that absolutely had to be right.   I figured it all out, got the gas, paid, hopped back into the car, and blasted out of there heading north.

Once we got moving, it felt like we were actually making pretty good time, and it looked like we might make it… I just had to drive well past the speed limit, not get caught, and – oh gosh, I think Jeanne was 16 or 17 at the time… I was maybe 20, 21.  Getting stopped with a young lady who was underage across state lines wouldn’t be good, so yes I was driving as fast as the little Saab and traffic would allow, but gosh I had my eyes peeled for anything resembling a car with red and blue lights on it.  The thing is, I didn’t really feel I had much of a choice but to drive like I was driving, because we were so late already.  I’m sure at some point in there I had thoughts of “What am I doing???” – but right then the whole idea of, “Gosh, Tom, why don’t you drive something like 750 miles in a weekend just to pull a prank on a friend?” just seemed like the right thing to do…

About an hour or so later, we were coming to a possible crossroads where, depending on where the rest of the youth group was, I would either have to turn left and get off the freeway, or go straight and try to intercept them up ahead.  A look at the clock in the car made me realize I’d better see if I could call the church to see who all ended up going, I mean, if Marc hadn’t gone, the whole thing would be off, so it was crucial for him to be there.  I pulled off the freeway and into a gas station with a phone booth (yes, this was BC – Before Cellphones). I ran over to the phone booth, crumpled map rustling in my wake, and called the church, where I very quickly learned several things: 1. Marc was coming.  2. He was driving his parent’s silver Chevy Citation, our friend Bert would be driving his parent’s red Buick, and Marc’s parents would follow up in this monster station wagon they had, with all the bigger stuff, like the tent, the food, and the stove. I also learned that they’d left later than I expected them to, which meant that if I read the map right, we – oh, crap – I said a hurried goodbye, slammed down the receiver and tore out of there as fast as the three cylinders of the Saab would take me, leaving a cartoonish cloud of white two stroke exhaust in my wake…

It looked like we might actually be able make this…

I’d have to turn off my planned path of heading north and west via I-5 and highway 101 (which turned into highway 8) which I was familiar with and I knew they’d have to travel, vs. highway 12, which I’d never been on, but from the looks of the map, was a lot shorter, and from what I could tell, intersected highway 8 over near the town of Montesano, so I decided to risk it and turned off I-5 and onto Highway 12, where I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I couldn’t drive nearly as fast.  I got through the town of Grand Mound, and then it was pretty much a two lane road, top speed, 55 mph, with occasional little towns where the speed limit was lower.

Hmm…

So we tootled along for a bit – talking about all sorts of stuff, but never doing anything more than speed limit, until the stereotypical little old lady – I kid you not, squinting at the road between the top of the steering wheel and the dashboard, pulled out in front of us in a blue smoke belching Buick type of a thing that I could barely see around.

At 35 mph…

That was a bit too high for 2nd gear in the Saab, just a hair low for 3rd. Definitely too low for 4th .  so I was stuck, right at a speed the car rarely saw unless it was accelerating through it…I remember having to constantly shift back and forth, hunting for a gear I could use.  I was incensed.  The road was just curvy enough, with just enough traffic, to where there was no possible way I could pass her with the acceleration the car had, Mile after mile after mile, stuck behind this old greenish Buick.  I was just thinking that it couldn’t get worse, when a very heavily loaded logging truck pulled out from some foresty road right in front of the little old lady…

And she had to hit her brakes.

To slow down.

From 35 mph…

I don’t remember where exactly this happened, but it was clear that the truck driver either wasn’t planning on or wasn’t capable of driving any faster than 35 for the bit he was on, and any acceleration he got on the level he lost on the little hills, so 35 it was.

I could see my dreams of messing with Marc’s mind disappearing in a cloud of diesel exhaust glowing from the little old lady’s brake lights.

I was beside myself.

There was no possible way I could pass, no possible way I could overcome this obstacle, and so as frustrated as I was, I had to just let it go…

After all that, it looked like I’d failed. I was just imagining how hard it would be trying to catch up with the rest of the youth group after being stuck behind the truck and the little old lady when the truck turned right, and I saw something I couldn’t see around him: A bridge. That couldn’t be the bridge I was looking for. It was about 10 miles early… But… it had to be highway 8. I didn’t understand, and asked Jeanne for the map, where I saw that highway 12 didn’t come out at Montesano, it came out at Elma, and those last 10 miles to Montesano were actually on highway 8, which, from what I could tell, doubled as highway 12, at least for that little bit.

And that meant we were about 10 miles ahead of where we thought we were – which meant… Oh my gosh – that meant that we might actually have caught up with them.  There wasn’t a second to lose, but now I didn’t know if we were ahead of them or behind them.

Just in case it all worked, I’d gotten some Groucho Marx glasses for us both – with the nose, the mustache, and the eyebrows, and so I asked Jeanne if she could get them out while I accelerated up the onramp.  She was rummaging around the back seat for the masks when I hit third gear, and I remember telling her what I’d heard on the phone a bit earlier.  “Look for a silver Citation, a red Buick, and a wood sided station wagon.”

“Yup, I see them,” she said as if she’d been expecting this all along.  “They’re right there.”

They’re…

…Right…

“WHAT?”

“No, really, they’re right there!”

I leaned forward as far as the seat belt would let me, looked in my left rear view mirror as I was mergingl and realized she was right.  With all the things that appeared to have gone wrong, they had all conspired to get us to exactly the right spot at the absolute most perfect time we could have gotten there…

Pulling up IN FRONT of them.

Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.

Seriously, Special Forces missions are timed with this level of precision.

I hit the gas, and the white smoke from the two stroke engine trailed behind me and into the Citation, the Buick, and the Station Wagon, making it very clear to all that we’d arrived.

I heard later that there was a conversation in the car Marc was driving (the Silver Citation), his little brother was there, saw me pull up in front of them, and yelled, “That’s Tom!”

“That can’t be Tom. Tom’s in Portland visiting Jeanne.”

“But no one else has a red Saab like that!”

“Someone must.  Tom’s in Portland.”

Meanwhile, in the Saab, I still couldn’t believe my luck, and tried to figure out what to do, given that while I had hoped for something like this, and given all the obstacles that morning, only in my wildest dreams did I actually expect it to happen, and it seemed like it was coming true.  Jeanne and I tried on the fake Groucho Marx glasses with the nose, mustache, and eyebrows, you know, high-brow (but low budget) stuff, so that when they finally saw us, they wouldn’t quite recognize us right at the first second.

And then I tried to get them to pass us, so I slowed down to about 50…

Marc, Bert, and Marc’s parents slowed down, too…

No one passed.

I sped up, and in a few minutes, tried it again.  I had to get them to pass me because I had no idea where they were going – so after several times where I slowed down, and irritated Marc with that, then floored it to get back up to speed (irritating him with the smoke from the car) – he finally pulled out and passed, and Jeanne and I straightened out the glasses.

And to this day, I can still remember the look on his face as he realized what was going on as he passed us.  Sandy was sitting next to him, Jeanne and I both looked over in our Groucho Marx glasses, and he just stared… (and I, of course, smiled just a touch).  He couldn’t believe it.  (and, to be honest, I couldn’t either, but for a much different reason.)

I stayed in the slow lane until the whole caravan passed us, getting smiles from people as they looked over and realized what was going on, and then I fell in behind the last car.  We all got to the beach safely, which was wonderful, and I think there were close to 15 people there when everyone was added up.  By the time I’d pulled into a parking space, Marc had already jumped out of the car and was waiting on Jeanne’s side of the car.  He opened the door hugged the stuffings out of her, and I think there might have been a punch in the shoulder for me, followed by a hug when I got out.  I remember the shocked look was gone from his face, and that smile of his that I always remember him having was back.  Having Jeanne there was definitely a surprise, totally unexpected, but she was such a part of the ‘extended’ youth group we were in, that she fit in perfectly, and then, over the next little bit the tent and stove were set up, the sleeping bags were piled into the tent, and in typical Washington summer fashion, the wind that was blowing was cold.

We all ran down to the beach, where my friend Bert (driving the red Buick) and Marc had convinced another member of the youth group, Rachel, that this kelp they’d found was a huge sea snake.  They chased her down the beach with it.  How it later ended up, cold, wet, and slightly slimy, in Bert’s sleeping bag we, um, don’t know, but it was all part of the fun of camping at the beach (well, fun for everyone but Bert).  We went wave hopping (wading out into the Pacific until you’re about thigh deep, and then trying to time your jumps to keep your, um, “bits” dry as the waves come in.  And let me tell you, off the Washington Coast, the Pacific Ocean is COLD.  Eventually the “bits” you’re trying to keep dry and warm get wet, and cold, and who knows, depending on how long you’re in there, they might even turn blue.  When things like that happened, it was obviously time to get out, so we did.  Of course, that’s right about the time the sun came out, go figure.

We went back up to the camp, where Marc’s parents had started a fire, and his mom had made hot chocolate, which we held in our hands in those speckled blue and white metal camping cups until it was lukewarm, trying to get every possible degree of heat out of before drinking it to get the rest.

We soaked up the warmth of the campfire, we sang songs, we played games, we did skits, we made s’mores, and made more hot chocolate.

When it was bedtime, almost all of us managed to fit in the tent.  It was so weird, we were all full of the energy, spunk, and yes, hormones of youth, and getting to sleep was a challenge, we were all giggling and laughing and telling stories.  People had trouble believing not only that I’d told everyone I wasn’t coming on the trip, (we were a tightly knit bunch, and for me to not go on the campout bordered on treason) but that I’d actually pulled it off.  And on top of it all, for me to go to visit the girl Marc liked didn’t make sense, but in the end, that night we were all together like a group of friends should be, piled together in the tent with all the formality of a litter of puppies.

Once we did fall asleep, we slept like the logs on the beach.

I remember getting up the next morning, bleary eyed. Everything in the tent damp with the puppy breath of about 15 puppies (us), and while it was warmer in the tent, I was glad to get out into “not-pre-breathed-through-several-sets-of-lungs, seaside fresh, but oooh-so-cold air.

Marc’s parents were already up, his dad had made coffee and a fire was going.  I remember several more people stumbling out of the tent and being inexorably drawn to the fire like marbles to a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline.

After breakfast and cleanup, there was a little more playing on the beach until it got too cold, then we thawed out a bit after we came back out of the wind through the trees and into the campground, where there was more hot chocolate to get feeling back into our hands with those warm camping cups.  Eventually it was time to pack all our sandy stuff into the cars and start the long drive back home…

Only I couldn’t go straight home.

Since I’d brought Jeanne up from Oregon to go camping, I had to take Jeanne back home to Oregon to go home, and I still had several hundred miles of the clutch issue to deal with, so we all headed out, and eventually, with much waving of hands and honking of horns, we went our separate ways, Jeanne and I heading south so I could take her to Portland, and the rest of the group heading straight home to where they had come from.

I honestly don’t remember much of the trip back, either to Jeanne’s or home from there. I just know it was a lot slower and gentler than the trip up.  I don’t remember any of the fallout or aftermath of the story.  I just know that I wanted to do something crazy and did it.

And as I was writing this – I went through the trip in my mind, and it got me thinking. (and if you’ve read some of my stories, you knew this was coming)

Each one of the things that happened in the story happened for a reason…

And most of the things that happened in the story drove me nuts when they happened.  I mean really,

  • Did the clutch cylinder HAVE to blow the night before the trip?
  • Did Jeanne’s parents car HAVE to spin out and freak us out?
  • What about trying to drive all over before gas stations and stores opened up to find brake fluid?
  • Or having to stand there converting liters to gallons, or the other way around?
  • What about the stop to make the phone call?
  • What about the blue haired (and smoked) little old lady driving the mondo Buick that I couldn’t pass?
  • Why on EARTH would she be put in front of me?
  • What about the logging truck dragging half a forest’s worth of old growth behind him? Why did he have to pull out in front of me?

I mean seriously, all of that stuff made me SO much later than I wanted to be… By the time I got to the bridge in what I thought was Montesano I was about ready to explode.  I was trying to be optimistic, because it all might still have worked, but until that truck got out of the way and I realized where we were (at the bridge that I thought was in Montesano, but actually 10 miles earlier than I was expecting it), I had no idea that all this planning and stuff might actually work out.

I mean, think about it… the timing was such that if everything that needed to go “right” in my mind had actually gone right, then the whole trip would have been blown, I would have ended up waaaay ahead of the rest of the youth group, and there would have been no chance of me figuring out where they were going (All I knew was “Kalaloch”)

And it makes me think about life…

How sometimes it really, truly feels like life is not only handing us lemons, but rotten ones at that… How life repeatedly keeps flipping us a level of crap delivered by the truckload… that just seems to be overpoweringly wrong.

And yet, somehow, things work out for the good.

Each bad thing we live through, if we stop there and never get out of it, is a bad thing.  But it’s one frame in a movie, and the next frame will be different.

Think about that, then keep reading.

I know people who are going through incredibly hard times right now.  I know people who have gone through hard times and will go through harder times still…  And I’ve come to conclude that life is a learning process… We all will make mistakes through our decisions or indecisions.  We all have bad stuff happen to us through no fault of our own, and then we’re faced with a fairly simple decision:

Do I give up? Or do I carry on?

And I’ve talked to people who feel very strongly that giving up simply isn’t an option.  They may not look like very strong people on the outside, but I’ve seen them, they are Olympians of endurance on the inside.

I’ve also known people for whom the struggle was so great that carrying on wasn’t an option, and to be honest, we didn’t know how bad the situation was until after the fact, and by that time it was too late.  And even though the struggle may not seem big to those of us on the outside, it has taken me years to learn that we have no idea what kinds of struggles other people are going through, even if we think they’re telling us everything.  Some time ago, over the course of a single week, I learned that two people I knew, who I thought had it all together, far better than I did, were losing it.  You just don’t know.

And I’ve learned that we’re not here to judge each other based on what we can see of each other when there’s so much going on under the surface we know nothing about, (I don’t remember being appointed judge of anyone) – but to support each other through the trials that this life is.

So maybe, just maybe, that’s what you’re being called to do in the journey that is your life right now.  Support someone.

Help them get to their Montesano…

Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.

And if you can, do it anonymously.

I don’t know who this person is in your life, and it will change over time, but somehow, some way, someone will be brought into your life, and you’ll have that opportunity.

Run with it.

And if you’re someone who’s going through a rough journey, and you keep finding yourself facing messed up clutches, weird gas stations, and all sorts of things in your way…

Keep going.  Really.

If not for the destination, for the journey, and to see the smiles and love of those around you.

I just told you a story about a drive, a journey I took with a friend to meet other friends… We spent time together, we ate together, we played and talked and froze our butts off together, and then we all piled into that tent like those fuzzy puppies I mentioned earlier.

Isn’t that the way it should be?

That’s life, right?

A journey…

I mean think about it…

Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).

Unexpected stuff happens (gas stations sell gas in liters instead of the expected gallons).  People pull out in front of you, or cut you off (everyone from little old ladies to truck drivers) – and it all seems to be conspiring against you…

But… (and this is a big but, believe me, I get this…)

I learned that the end can come sooner than we think, just like that bridge I thought was in Montesano and ended up showing up 10 miles sooner…  And at that point, the frustration, or at least that part of the frustration will be over.  You’ll have lessons to ponder and learn, you’ll have stories to tell, but you’ll have a chance to be with your friends or family, and eventually, you’ll be through that challenge and on to the next one, and you’ll be doing your quiet version of driving home from Portland.

So… Hug your loved ones.

Remind them you love them.

Support those around you who are struggling.

Bring smiles into their lives as you can.

And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.

PS to Marc’s family, Jeanne, Rachel, and Bert who helped me remember some of the little details of this story – Thanks for letting me be a part of it.

Much love,

Tom


I stepped into the time machine again the other day.

It’s taken many shapes over the years… Sometimes a cardboard box of photos, sometimes a garage full of old stuff that’s in that strange stage between being treasure and being junk, sometimes an old car full of memories.

In this case, it was a train… and a plane… and a mountain…

…all in the shape of an old swing set.

It was old when we got it almost 20 years ago from a family that was moving out of state and couldn’t take it with them.  I remember seeing it and thinking it was just the kind of swing set I’d drooled over years ago in the old Sears catalog  when I was a kid.  My dad was in the Air Force at the time, and we moved around too much to be able to have our own swing set, and this time, even though it was used, the little boy inside me was just thrilled for my own kids, that they’d be able to have the kind I’d always wanted – down to the paint and everything.

And you know what? The kids loved it.

 KidsonSwings

I learned to pull the kids by their feet on the swing, not push them – that way I could see their faces, tickle their feet, and laugh with them as they swung toward me.  I never understood the idea of pushing them from the back, pulling them from the front was just so much more fun.

We moved, and took the swing set with us to what we called “the brick house” – where the back yard was barely big enough to take it, and you ended up with your butt in the hedge when swinging all the way back, the only thing visible being your arms and maybe your feet.

And we moved again, this time to a house with a back yard big enough to hold the entire swing set and have plenty of room to swing, and slide, and play.

I spent some time on that ‘glider’ swing with my son – where one adult and one kid (or four kids) could sit and pretend they’re on a train, in a hot air balloon, or on an adventure of some kind.  For us it was mostly the train, and we swung back and forth as we traveled through magical kingdoms and faraway lands, with bridges crossing beautiful valleys, and tunnels darkly going through tall mountains.

There were times that the train also ended up traveling through tall jungles…

(that had to do with where I was working, and the length of the commute),

…because I had to hack and slash a path back to the swing set in late spring when I had the time to spend an entire weekend taming the jungle that had been a lawn at one time.

  The Jungle

We’d tied a rope from the swing set to the tree house we’d made in the apple tree, and put a pulley with a handle onto it.  That pulley became the quickest way to escape from the apple tree (just in case there were monsters attacking that needed escaping from).

And as time went on, the swing set was played on by many children, mowed around every couple of weeks in the summer, and it was a place where the imagination, and children, could soar.

One morning awhile back, I went out there again, and things looked different.  The grass was still worn underneath, but it was something else that caught my eye.

It was obvious that the swing set had current visitors, but the laughter of small children on it was still.  The chains had rusted, and instead of children going on magical journeys, there were spiders.

And there was a web.

And it got me thinking…

We have our children for a very short time.

I’ve learned the hours and minutes can feel like they’re dragging on (remember the last time you were in an emergency room with your kid?) – but the months and years fly by like the smoke from a blown out birthday candle.

I remembered when I was a kid, desperately wanting to grow up because adults always had all the answers, and adults knew everything, especially mom and dad.  As I grew older, I realized that I didn’t have all the answers and in all honesty, neither did they.

In fact, I found myself repeating that one especially as I learned (from my own kids) that there were questions I’d never thought of, and it’s impossible to have all the answers for your kids, especially when you’re still looking for them for yourself.

I stood there, in the morning sunshine, watching the spider weaving her web, and came to the realization that I was in the middle of a transition.  My mind stumbled across it all. Among the myriad of things that had happened this year, our daughter had gotten married, and both she and her new husband were doing amazing work at their respective companies.  Our son, heading off to college this fall, had started a small shop selling chainmail jewelry, which he would often make while singing along with John Rawnsley’s wonderful version of The Barber of Seville (he’d graduated from the Bugs Bunny version that I found myself humming…)

And then, while the last of the strains of Figaro (the barber) were still echoing in my mind, I thought of the lessons I’d taught them, both consciously and unconsciously.  For good or for bad, I’ve learned some of the most powerful lessons that stick are the ones we don’t realize we’re teaching them, and we often only realize years later.  I thought of the conversations I’d had with both of them over their lives, and I pondered a moment at how much both the kids and the conversations had changed.  Both of them were in various stages of putting away their childish things (we know, because most of them are still in the basement :) ) and are well on their way to thinking and acting like the adults they are becoming instead of the children they had been.

They’re growing up…

I gave the swing just enough of a push to make the spider a little woozy and watched as it swung back and forth a few times.

It brought a smile, a tear, more than just a little gratitude at the blessings I had experienced with them, because of them.

I stood there a little longer…

Thinking…

Pondering…

Remembering…

A lifetime of memories floated by as the swing swung a little slower each time, creaking a little less with every one…

The years, unlike the swing, seem to go by more quickly each time, creaking a little more with every one.

I pondered a little more… reflecting, and then suddenly became conscious not only of the years, but of the minutes, and realized that time never stood still.  It was still passing. I stole a look at my watch and realized it was time to leave for work, so I turned, took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and like the kids, left the swing set and the memories behind to start a new day.

Sunrise... Swingset...

Tom Roush

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 471 other followers

September 2014
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
2930  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 471 other followers

%d bloggers like this: