My wife and I were grocery shopping the other day, and on kind of a whim, I bought about a half a gallon of fresh squeezed cider. Not the frozen concentrate, not the stuff that’s so clear it looks like it’s already gone through you once. This was the real stuff, and I wanted it because – oh – here, hold the bottle and just come with me into my time machine… Let’s go back about 40 years or so to when I was a kid…

My dad was off at college to get a degree for his second career while we were trying to live off his military pension. Mom was using ductape and paperclips trying to make ends meet, and doing her best to keep us from being worried, or even aware of how little money there really was.

So we had our own little special things that didn’t cost much.

Among the many things we couldn’t afford was soda – or pop – whatever you call it in the part of the country you’re from.

So we did something else.

We made it ourselves.

We had apple trees, and we had my grampa’s cider press, and we put the two together and made apple cider, just as the last of the apples were falling.

There was a special time, several weeks after the cider had been made, when it started to ferment a bit, and get fizzy. Understand, we kept it outside. It was just cold enough to keep it from fermenting too fast, but not so cold as to preserve it perfectly. If you haven’t had this treat, you’re clearly missing something – it’s something they try to sell in stores – you can buy “hard cider” just about anywhere now, but what made this special was that time in the fermentation process where the sugars were just starting to turn to alcohol. There was a mixture of the still-present, but fading sweetness, that was a being replaced by the zing of the bubbles and alcohol that you simply can’t get from a store. It’s a transitional state… Not too sweet, not too… Hard, I guess. And that was the perfect time to have it. Usually about the second half of November through the first half of December was when it was best…

That’s when I especially looked forward to Friday night… Pizza night.

Pizza wasn’t delivered out where we lived, so we made our own. Made the dough from the USDA donated flour we got because we were too poor to afford any. You could smell the yeasty warmth of the dough rising throughout the afternoon. We grated the cheese from the USDA commodities donated cheese we got. We put the homemade pizza dough in a flat rectangular baking pan. I never understood people not eating pizza crust, for us, the corner pieces were fought over.

So that time at the end of fall and beginning of winter, that was when, if the cider wasn’t frozen from being outside, it would be cold as I brought the bottle in, then fizz as I opened it, sometimes fizzing and leaving little chunks of ice all at the same time, and we pretended we were like the rich people who could afford soda.

What I didn’t know then was that it beat anything you can get in a bottle or a can today. We’d squeezed it ourselves, from apples we’d grown, and it had aged either on the back porch or out in the pump house, which was always pretty cool anyway.

It was a family meal, at the dinner table, and it was special.

When the last of the hot pizza was gone, washed down by the last of that bottle of ice cold cider, I leaned back, trying to decide which felt better… the savory pizza still warm in my belly, or the last bits of sweet coolness from the cider fading in my mouth.

And it got me thinking – standing there in the grocery store, with a rather expensive bottle of apple cider in my left hand, something just clicked. Growing up, we often forgot how poor we were financially, because we were so rich everywhere else.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks…


It’s been a few years since I had my introduction to sailplanes, and after much prodding by my friend Greg, and me saving up to fly again, I was finally able to take advantage of some time a few weeks ago and go out to the airfield again.

It’s a quiet, grass field out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dead end road about an hour and a half out of Seattle. The last bit of the drive was through a forest that, in the light I was seeing it, looked like it easily could have been home to Hobbits or Dwarves or a possible dragon lurking back in the underbrush.

I smiled a little to myself and kept my eyes wide open, looking deep into the woods, imagining I might see one.  The road turned left and I emerged into a clearing, a fence to my left, and some cars parked neatly on my right. The Fairies that I’d imagined would have been at home with the Dwarves and Hobbits in the forest had taken the elegant shape of sailplanes taking off and landing on the other side of the fence.

Greg came up to greet me, his traditional peanut butter sandwich in his hand. He’d been sitting in one of several plastic chairs lined up in the shade on the south side of the field. He got one out of the shed for me, and invited me to sit down and chat while he spliced the end of a tow rope.

Part of me really wanted to get in the air, but another part of me was just happy to enjoy the peace and quiet of the fall colors, the fresh air, and the occasional gentle breeze.

There was another flier that visited every now and then. It was a dragonfly (or maybe it was a baby fairy) and its wings almost imperceptibly thrummed as it inspected us.  It was never in one spot long enough for a good picture, but it emphasized the almost palpable quiet there. I mean, there can’t be much background noise if you can hear a dragonfly…

It was nice.

I heard the towplane fly overhead , looked up, and saw that someone was enjoying a ride in the same sailplane I’d gone up in a few years ago.

I smiled again.

SuperCub_Schweitzer233.jpg

The Super Cub pulling the Schweizer 2-33

His peanut butter sandwich finished, Greg now had both hands free and we chatted some more while he continued working on his towropes, with the dragonfly checking in every now and then.

PW-6U_Takeoff.jpg

Someone runs alongside to steady the wing until the ailerons take effect

The tow plane – a hard-working Piper Super Cub flown by a an equally hard working gentleman named Patrice, pulled many planes up into the sky, including the PW-6U we’d be in.

SuperCub_PW6.jpg

The Super Cub pulling the PW-6U into a gorgeous blue sky

The afternoon went on, and I saw it go up and down a few times…

I could sense my eagerness, verging on impatience, wanting to get in – but there were people ahead of me in line, and they had to go up first, and the tow plane needed gas, and a student needed scheduled practice, all valid things, but all making me feel like a fidgety kid peeking around everyone else standing in line for a ride on the roller coaster at the fair.  The only thing missing was the smell of cotton candy and popcorn wafting in the breeze.

So I waited, and chatted with Greg, and John, the fellow I’d gone up with the last time, and a few others, and the afternoon wore on – no – it didn’t wear on, it was better than that. It passed, pleasantly, softly, gently.

The shadows grew longer, and longer, and finally, as the sun was casting its last warmth over the horizon…

Bandits1200.jpg

Bandits! 12:00! – Now it was our turn behind the Super Cub

…we got in.  With Greg in the back, me in the front, and Patrice in the tow plane, we all took off and headed for our release altitude. As low as the sun was by that time, Greg said it would be a “sled ride” (all downhill) as we needed to be down before the sun actually set.

We kept climbing, turning gracefully behind Patrice.

At one point, I looked out the right side and was speechless at the absolute majesty of Mount Rainier, almost close enough to touch…

Mt.Rainier_Sunset_PW5.jpg

I smile every time I see this picture, and remember this moment.

 

…and then, looking closer at the picture, realized it’d be a good idea to not wear a striped shirt next time I flew. (How cool, I’m already thinking of a ‘next time’)

Greg had me pull the release for the tow rope.  It sprung and coiled for a bit before straightening out as Patrice flew back down to the field off to our left. We found our way along the big ridge behind the airfield, turned again, and given the sled ride nature of the flight, Greg flew, and I was just in awe of the beauty around me.

Can it get more beautiful?

Can it get more beautiful?

He asked how I handled steep turns, as he was going to burn off a lot of altitude very quickly to get down in time. I grinned as he banked hard and did an amazing corkscrew into the pattern,  extended the spoilers,

Moon_Landing_PW6.jpg

We had our own moon landing that day

and put the setting sun behind and the moon in front of us as we approached the field. We squeezed right between the trees, and the gentle hiss of the sailplane was replaced by the shuddering rumble of the landing gear on the grass, quieting down to silence as we rolled to a stop right where the plane needed to be put away…

We got out, I turned around and saw the sun setting behind the trees as Greg got my Nikon out of the front cockpit.

PW6_Sunset_Landing.jpg

The PW-6U on the field after the sun had set

I heard something ticking off to my left, and as I turned, I realized it was the engine of the Super Cub that had taken us up, still cooling off and resting from its day of labor.

It was already tied down, the moon reflecting off its wings…

SuperCub_Moon.jpg

The Super Cub, resting in the moonlight

Greg helped put the PW-6U we’d flown back in the trailer and after he’d made sure the cover was down and latched, we headed over to the edge of the fields where the cars were.

I thanked Patrice for his tow, and Greg for the flight and conversation, and then headed back through the woods I’d come through earlier.

Only this time, I knew the Fairies were real.

 


We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons over the last couple of years. Life has been busy, and I needed a place to be alone with my thoughts. A lot of people, family and friends, had left our lives in that time, to live on in our memories, and fall brings memories, and “firsts” that are bittersweet and often painful.

The weather was nice the other day, so I went out to Golden Gardens where I often go to watch the sunset.

Sunset, Golden Gardens

I walked toward the water, past the sand and onto the rocky part, just watching and listening. A train had gone by a little earlier, and its fading rumble mixed with a ship’s horn…

RocksOnTheBeach

…and the swish of waves rolling over the rocks on the beach.

Rock

I wandered for awhile, and one of the rocks caught my eye, and I picked it up…

Ipickeditup

…and saw the impression it had left behind in the sand in the beach, shaped just like itself.

And I realized that each person in my life, in your life, occupies a space only they can fill. Some people exist in your life in a very specific time and place, with very clear borders, a lot like a rock on the beach.

They leave your life in whatever way they leave…

HoleIsFilledUp

…but the hole they leave is quietly filled up over time, like the sand on the beach.

waves

I pondered this as I watched the waves a little more.

And realized that only after some people leave your life – that you realize they weren’t a rock on the beach.

They were the rock that held the beach up.

 

And nothing is ever the same.


My friend Bill called me out of the blue today, and after the usual greetings of “Hey Billy!” and “Hey Tommy!” there was a pause and we both said, at almost the same time, “It’s good to hear your voice.”

We talked a bit – about life, our kids, and so on, but I pondered those words we’d said, and it got me thinking…

Those words have become part of my vocabulary of late – in part because – well, because I’ve learned a little bit about life, and I did that because I’ve had a little experience at the edges of it.

So – if you talk to me sometime, and I say that – it’s because I realize that life is short – often much shorter than we think, whether that’s for us, or for someone we love.

We can read letters from people who have made the transition out of our lives to live on in our memories.

We can look at pictures of them and recall the times we had making them.

We can listen to recordings of them talk, or tell stories of their youth.

But we can’t converse with them anymore.

And so, if you ever hear me say that, “It’s good to hear your voice.” – it’s because it is good.

It means you haven’t made that transition from this life to the next.

It means we can still talk.

And listen.

And share.

And laugh…

…or maybe cry.

We can have a chat over cup of bad coffee (usually if I’m the one making it, although much to my surprise I accidentally figured out how to make good coffee a couple of months ago)

Heck, we could do something strange, and have a chat over good coffee…

And catch up on old times.

Relive old memories.

Make new ones.

But we can only do that if we can hear each others voices.

And we could.

And did.


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.

Tom Roush

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