The bus just rumbled slowly past the house, and it brought back a fun memory that I thought I’d share.

A number of years ago I’d started following in my ancestor’s footsteps and was making bread – the kind out of wheat and yeast and stuff. My family all got together and decided that Christmas would have a theme, and so that year got a bread making machine, a 50 pound bag of flour, and a monstrous bag of yeast.

So I started making – well, baking bread with the machine.

You could set it in the evening with the ingredients, and then set the timer, and in the morning, my nose would rouse me from my slumber with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.

There are worse ways to wake up.

So I did that for awhile, and as with anything fun, eventually I got confident enough in what I was doing to share the bounty – so I decided to take some to work.

So one Thursday night I put all the ingredients in, set the timer, and went to bed, knowing that Friday morning I’d have freshly baked bread to take to work with me on the bus.

Oh, yeah, the bus. Taking a loaf of freshly baked bread wrapped in a towel onto a bus full of sleepy commuters wakes them right up… I could see people sniffing and trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. (the loaf was in a bag, wrapped in a towel, under my seat)

I was sitting right by the regular driver who had the window beside him open, drawing air out of the bus right past his nose, and once the bus was moving, he was surrounded by the freshly baked bread smell to the point where he would look around at every stop, trying to figure out where it was coming from.

So I told him I’d made some and was taking it to work.

We talked the rest of the trip about our moms and growing up and – well, talking about fresh bread made us feel, how coming home to that smell just made the whole day better, so before I got off, I asked him if he’d like some the next time I baked a loaf. I didn’t need to ask – the answer was obvious in his eyes.

“You like homemade jam? I have some grape jam from my mom that’s pretty good.”

He had to work hard at not drooling – it was clear that the combination would make his Monday morning something to look forward to, and he took one last deep breath as I got off the bus and headed to work.

Sunday evening came, and I set everything so it would be ready just in time to have the bread ready when the bus pulled up.

And I’d know when it pulled up, because that bus had one very squeaky brake, so I knew that when I heard that brake, I had about a minute to get out of the house and down to the bus stop before it pulled away.

But I’d miscalculated by a couple of minutes the night before, and I was just getting the bread out of the bread maker when I heard the squeak.

Oh no… I’d promised – and was counting down the time he’d normally be there waiting before he took off… I might be able to catch the next bus, but most important was catching this driver.

I got the bread and jam out of the fridge.

And heard the bus engine still idling.

I cut a slice of bread, nice and soft on the inside and crusty on the outside.

I heard the air brakes hiss.

I spread the butter on the bread, and it started to melt.

I heard the door hiss closed.

The bus kept idling – then started to take off, ever so slowly.

At that moment – I knew he’d been looking forward to that bread, so I ran to the window just in time to see the bus go by at about five miles an hour, and could see the driver looking up at the house, searching.

I waved the slab of bread at him, still without jam, and he saw it and stopped the bus.

In traffic.

Blocking everyone.

I grabbed a napkin, put the bread on it, slathered the jam on, grabbed my stuff, and ran out the door. He’d stopped just barely past the house. I ran down the driveway, and he’d opened the back door. I ran in, ran all the way to the front, and went down on one knee, presenting him the freshly baked bread and jam on a napkin like a knight might present a sword to a king.

His smile was worth it – and he took it gratefully.

I stood up, turned around, and the entire bus applauded.

I took a bow, then took a seat, and another Monday began.

With many smiles.

It was a fun enough story that I sent a note to Jean Godden, then a columnist for the Seattle Times who loved little tidbits like this – and she liked it enough to put it in one of her columns.

Eventually that driver was transferred to another route, and I didn’t see him again until one day years later I was at the Seattle Center with my son, and heard a voice, “Hey! Mr. Bread Man!” –

Turns out it was my old bus driver – who remembered that story after all this time. We talked, we laughed, and reminisced a bit.

Life had moved on for us both.  He was working for the Red Cross somewhere in Seattle, and I never got to know his name.

As for me? I was Mr. Bread Man.

And you know? I’m okay with that.

So wherever you are, Mr. Bus Driver, Mr. Bread Man hopes life has treated you well.


Our scout troop has sold Christmas trees at a church parking lot every year for about the last 75 years.

I last wrote about it here. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was getting the best looking trees available, and a few years ago I drove a big truck down to several of the tree farms to get a fresh load of them. As I recall, at the end of that day, we ended up bringing home 435 trees. Over the course of the trip home, the trees settled a bit on the rough roads, and I remember checking the side mirrors once and was surprised to see that the sides of the truck were literally bulging. I wish I’d taken a picture of it that day, but the day was long, by that time it was dark, and many, many pictures weren’t taken.

One of the pictures that I not only didn’t take, but didn’t see, was taken by the scout dad in the troop named Dan who’s a forest geneticist, which is the best kind of guy to have as a resource when you’re trying to sell small forests of Christmas trees.

Dan would go out to the tree farm in August and hand pick the 1500 or so trees we’d be selling that year, and in doing so, he saw some things that most of us don’t see. He took the picture below, that looks pretty much like a picture of a wooded foresty place (that’s the Olympic mountain range in the background), but there’s a couple of white spots in the picture that don’t really make sense until you look move closer.

If you look at the third and fourth tree in from the left, you’ll see a small white dot on each of them. As Dan got closer, he took a picture of what those white dots really were, and you can see that in the picture below:

You see, the tree was perfect in every way, it’s just that the top, the part that can make or break the sale of a tree, was crooked, and so the grower, realizing that he had some time on his hands, tied a rock to a branch to help straighten the tree out.

So for years, the tree carried this burden. Day and night, through good weather and bad, through heavy rain and parching drought, the tree carried this weight.

The thing is, not all trees got this treatment. Some trees were pruned, all were fertilized, and some were found to be almost perfect but for this one flaw, so they were given this rock, this burden, to carry.

And over the years, the rock changed the tree. The tree got strong enough to carry the rock, but when the rock was put in the right place, the tree was both stronger and straighter. It had shown that it could indeed carry this burden, and carry it well.

And in the end, when the tree was done growing and it was time to harvest, the burden was lifted, the weight was removed, and the tree was straight and beautiful as ever.

And I saw something interesting in that. It made me wonder about the burdens we carry, and why. It made me wonder about burdens, being there just long enough for us to learn lessons, to grow straight, being lifted. And then I wondered about burdens that are there longer, that people carry, day in, day out, sometimes for years.

In fact, in the last year, I’ve learned of friends losing their jobs, and the financial hardship that comes from that.

I’ve learned of friends who were suddenly transferred to another part of the country, and the uproar that can cause in a family.

I’ve learned of friends who are losing or have lost loved ones.

And you can almost hear the branches of their trees creaking as they strain under the burden.

And I don’t understand why it seems that some folks are given burdens when others aren’t.

There are times when I don’t know if the burden they carry is one they can carry alone. In fact, there were times when the burden we as a family had to carry was more than we could handle, and I know personally that in situations like this, those struggling under those heavy burdens need support until they can stand on their own.

I thought back to that tree there in the picture.  It could handle good sized rocks, and over time get strong enough to carry them and stand straight.  Trying to hold up a 100 pound rock with that little branch would be another story. It’s not strong enough to handle that, and it would break.

I’ve seen this in other trees over in Eastern Washington, where instead of rocks, they were carrying such an amazing amount of fruit that their branches weren’t strong enough for that burden. The farmers growing that fruit helped brace the branches with large poles, sticks, or, for lack of a better term, crutches, until harvest time, at which point the weight is removed, and the tree is relieved of the weight, or what might be perceived as a hardship.

Without the care of the farmers, those trees would have had branches broken by burdens they were not strong enough to carry. Un-braced branches were damaged, or had broken off and fallen down, breaking other branches on the way and peeling the bark with them as they went.

It’s not pretty, and parts of the tree die when that happens.

I’ve also seen people break under burdens they weren’t strong enough to carry. Lives are damaged, people break down, and fall, causing damage to themselves or others as they go.

It’s not pretty, and parts of who that person is die when that happens too.

Understand, this doesn’t mean these people were weak.  It means that as strong as they were, they weren’t strong enough for that burden, or those burdens.

There is a difference.

And it got me thinking, about trees, and support, and strength.

See, some of the trees, the evergreens, have burdens over time, for a reason.

And those trees, over the years, like the ones in the photos, develop inside support. They get stronger with each passing year they are forced to carry their burden.

By the time these trees are ready for harvest, they stand straight and tall, even though what made them that way was a heavy burden.

And some of the trees, the fruit trees have burdens that come in waves, for a season (or many seasons).

Their roots will hold them up, but to keep from breaking, they need outside support to help shoulder their burden, like the fruit trees I mentioned earlier.

Those trees, over the years, develop scars and are gnarled from the burdens they’ve carried and from the crutches supporting them, but they are strong, and have produced good fruit.

And then there’s a third type of tree, and support, and it’s not just for a reason, or a season, but a lifetime.

I’ve heard that the Redwood trees in Northern California have very shallow root systems, so any strong wind could knock a single one of them over, but because they’re in groves of trees, their roots intertwine, and they support each other. They do this without crutches to hold branches up, and they do it without rocks to hold branches down.

They curl their toes together.  No, really… It’s interesting, thinking about that. Those trees, they become a community. They support each other, and when one is threatened, all the interwoven roots (the toes) are all tangled, and they hold each other up, together.

There’s a chance you, or someone like you, will spend part of your life as any one of these trees, and who knows, you might have experience with more than one type in different parts of your life.

Whether you’re an evergreen, carrying small burdens over your entire life, or fruit trees, carrying huge burdens seasonally, or whether you’re a redwood tree, reaching for the skies, but curling your toes along with those near you, help each other.

Support each other.

Be there for each other.

Forgive each other.

Take care out there, take your strength from wherever you can get it, and enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.

 


The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…

Styrofoam packing pellets

…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.

So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.

Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation and photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.

See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.

Those are your options.

So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.

I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…

See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.

The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.

That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.

One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.

We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.

No fan = sharp pictures.

But, there were side effects…

See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…

Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.

We checked for her.

There was no dog.

But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.

Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.

On one of the two paper cutters.

That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.

And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit.  Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…

And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?

The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.

We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.

The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.

I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.

Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Lots and lots and lots of them.

And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.

So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.

Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.

COOL!

We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.

It… was… amazing…

(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)

So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.

It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.

It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.

We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…

…and saw snow in the parking lot.

Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…

We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.

And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…

Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…

The Styrofoam packing peanuts…

As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.

There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.

The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.


I saw an old movie awhile back, and saw this fellow walking down the sidewalk, carefree, flipping a coin into the air and catching it, over and over, and laughing as he did it.

It looked like a lot of fun, that whole carefree attitude and all.

He made the coin look light and easy, and it got me thinking.

The ‘coin’ I was flipping at the time didn’t seem light and easy at all.

In fact, it seemed like the coin I was trying to flip had grown to the size and weight of a manhole cover.  It was hard enough to flip, much less lift.

And then one day, I got a glimpse of what someone else was going through. Someone whose life seemed so together.   They looked like they had everything they wanted in the world.  A good job, to provide for a wonderful family…

But it wasn’t like that at all.

Their life was falling apart.  They were going through a breakup and their marriage, their home, their family as they knew it, was finished.

The coin I saw them flipping was clearly heavier than it looked.

I had a friend who lost a good paying IT job. For years no one would hire him.  Not because he didn’t have skills, he did, and he does.  He ran the entire IT department at his company, and they decided that since everything was going so well, they didn’t need him anymore.  So they let him go.

He’s looked for a long time, and now has a job, but it’s changing oil for people at 1/4 the salary he was making before, has gone through his retirement account and all his savings, and is wondering where next month’s mortgage is coming from.

His coin is heavy.

Another friend, similar situation.  Lost his job, tried to make it on his own.  Economic downturn, real estate bubble, and they lost their house and had to move out of the home they’d had for decades.

Their coin is heavy.

A work colleague just lost his mom.

Another lost his mother-in-law.

A good friend lost his dad and had to fly out of the country while dealing with other family issues, then came back to unexpected health issues of his own.

A friend is worried about his children, their faith, their ability to find work.  One has a good college degree, another has no degree and has health issues.

Neither has work.

One friend sees the path his kids are on – let’s just say there were some bad choices made that the parents warned about, and now the consequences are rearing their ugly heads.

Another friend is dealing with a chronic health issue that simply won’t go away.

Those coins are heavy.

It makes the coins I’m flipping feel so small.

So what to do?

I thought about it a little more, and realized there was a depth to the situation that wasn’t obvious on the surface.

The coin flipping ones were also making decisions, and each flip was a choice…

Do I fight this battle? (whatever the battle is, health, faith, family, job)

Do I give up?

Heads… I keep fighting.

Tails… I give up.

Do I go out swinging?

Heads… I swing.

Tails… I get knocked out.

Do I try to smile through it all?

Heads… I try to see the bright side.

The Coin and the Manhole Cover

and tails…

…if there is no bright side, then as my son once said, I have lots of practice polishing up the dull side.

I was privileged to have friends share some of their hard and dark moments with me, and the above things I mentioned are all true – and have happened within the last few months, and it really kept me thinking.  I finally came not to a conclusion, but to a realization.

Everyone has decisions to make every day that you will never see.

Sometimes their coin comes up heads, sometimes tails.

Sometimes folks have the energy to claw up the manhole cover that fell down tails and use the last bit of their strength to make it heads, and the expression on their face as they do it is no longer a smile, but a grimace.

The decisions and tasks some folks have to consciously go through are things so many are blessed to take for granted, and it takes me to these simple sentences:

Respect that others around you have their own journey even if you don’t see it.

Respect that those around you have their own struggles along that journey of theirs, and you cannot tell from the surface how difficult their journey is.

There will be some around you who have been carrying their burden so long that they’re no longer even capable of putting it down, or would know what to do if they could put it down.

Be kind to them.  Be gentle with them.

And if you can, if they can, maybe put your manhole cover down next to theirs, and you can lean them together and roll them along your journey, each of you helping the other, and recovering a little as you go.

Take care out there, folks.


A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story.  It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in  another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…

I was 16.  My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out.  We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.

“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed.  We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.

Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.

To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.

With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then.  (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.

That was a good thing…

Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.

See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.

The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.

What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.

So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.

My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.

The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.

Every.

Time.

The wheel.

Came around.

Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.

So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.

We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle.  It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.

I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared.  In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.

And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe.  When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.

And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.

We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.

And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…

Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.

So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.

It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)

I’d practiced this.

And it worked.  It really worked.

See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.

I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.

If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel.  It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…

(don’t ask)

Soooo…

The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.

As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where we’d have to turn right.

We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.

It was glorious.

A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.

Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>.  We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…

And turning right was the thing to do.  That was the paved road.  Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.

So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.

There was only one problem with those remaining options.

Well, actually, several.

One: the turn was essentially blind…

Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.

So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found,  Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).

But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…

Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)

Hmmm…

Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.

Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.

Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.

With a bicycle.

Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.

This changed everything.

I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.

No luck.

I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.

This, um, wasn’t good…

To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…

…which was good.

Except I was running out of space fast.

I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.

Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…

…which was bad.

Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.

So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.

I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?

But using it would have required having a stable bike.

(Which I didn’t have).

And enough time to grab it.

(Which I was running out of.)

And having enough distance for it to open.

(Which I already had run out of.)

Oh good.

I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.

Then things got interesting.

After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve.  Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.

Made of steel pipe.

Embedded in concrete.

That I hit with my front wheel.

That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.

I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.

At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.

There wasn’t much to do but let him rant.  I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…

The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.

We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)

Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)

We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back.  We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.

Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.

It was exactly 10:30.

 ===

And…

It got me thinking…

A lot, actually.

See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.

And maybe, maybe that’s the story.

See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…

…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…

26 years earlier.

Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.

And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.

26 years earlier.

I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30?  How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)

But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.

As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way.  Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.

And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.

Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.

And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.

In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. :-)

But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).

And I realized we all have people like that in our lives…  People who will do their best to protect us from danger

Even if that danger is us.

I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…

How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.

And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.

But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight.  Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.

The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in.  The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.

I just made it late.

And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:

There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.

And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…

Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.

I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.

See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.

That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…

Hmmm…

Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?

Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this:  “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”

I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.

Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.

Take care – and thanks –

Tom

===

Afterword:

Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time.  Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.

I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)

You can see the path I had to take, the gentleman was right at the corner, and the window to the right in the white building is where the table I got patched up at still is.

You can see the path I had to take, the gentleman was right at the corner, and the window to the right in the white building at top is where they patched me up.

I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty.  Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning.  And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now.  He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:

Looking up the hill I came rocketing down. The turn looks gentle from here, but swing left (for the photo below), and take it at speed, and it gets interesting.

Looking up the hill I came rocketing down. The turn looks gentle from here, but swing left (for the photo below), and take it at speed, and it gets interesting.  (Photo by and courtesy of Markus Weimer)

And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:

The car in the lower right is about where the old gentleman was. the trees have sure grown up in the years since I was there, but the fencepost I bounced off would have been where the one just about dead center in the photo is. The ditch is just behind the fence to the right of center in the background. The building in the background was a field.

The car in the lower right is about where the old gentleman was. the trees have sure grown up in the years since I was there, but the fence post I bounced off would have been where the one just about dead center in the photo is. The ditch is just behind the fence to the right of center in the background. The building in the background was a field.

For many reasons, I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened.  I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story.  He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.

“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”


I rolled over in bed and my hand landed on a cold pillow.

That’s not right at any time and it woke me up.  I looked around to find that the living room light was on.

At 4:00 a.m.

That was definitely not right, and I stumbled out of the bedroom without my glasses to see what was going on.  My wife was sitting there in the chair by the window, curtains halfway open. Eyes red. Phone hanging listlessly in her hand.

“Are you okay?”

“My dad went to heaven a little while ago.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry…”

It was a Monday, and the beginning of what one might call a rough week.

I made some coffee, took the day off work, and shortly thereafter, we were using every phone in the house. My wife checked in with family back east, getting details and helping organize things while I made airline reservations and other travel arrangements to get us all there in the next few days.  We’d learn much more later, but it turned out he’d passed away in his sleep. It was how he’d said he wanted to go, so amidst the shock, we were glad he’d gotten what he wanted.

We flew back east to help with some of the arrangements, and had a gathering of family and friends who came to celebrate the life of a man loved and cherished by so many.  We learned a lot about family, and about how there are times when you pitch in and help even when you don’t know what do do, or how to do it.  Friends and long lost family came out of the woodwork, and amidst all the grief and sadness, there was a feeling of simply being blessed by the presence of the people who were there both in body and in spirit.

There were those who listened, those who made sure there was food for all the people who showed up, and those who shared stories that made us both laugh and cry.  I don’t remember all their names, but I will remember how they made us feel, and surrounded by family in the middle of chaos, we felt loved.

Soon it was time to pack up and leave where we had all gathered. We started to put things away only to realize, to our surprise, that much of the work had already been done. Done by willing hands who offered their help when it was needed, expecting nothing in return. We found that things and people had been taken back to the house. Unbidden, they just did it, and the stories, the laughter, and the tears, continued.

My wife would end up staying for several weeks to help out with the myriad of things that needed to be done, but a day or so later,  it was time for me to head west again.  To do that, we first had to head east about three hours through a massive rainstorm (<–news video of the storm and flooding) to get to the airport in Detroit.

Once again, the wipers were barely enough to keep the windshield clear, and the storm seemed to match physically what we were all going through emotionally.  I had to block the emotion out, I’d have time on the plane to think about things.  Right then, I just had to deal with driving and paying attention to what I could see of the road.

We got to the airport, I got out, managed to hug my sister-in-law, kiss Cindy goodbye and get under cover without getting too wet where I got through the beloved security lines and then to the gate, where it looked like this:

The storm looked and felt like something we’d been through not much more than a month before, so I looked it up on the radar and found this:

The storm in Detroit

See the deep red dot at the left edge of that orange blob in the middle?

That’s where the worst of the storm was.

It’s also where the airport is.

And where I was.

It seemed fitting.

What’s strange is that right about then I realized that the reality of the storm we were in couldn’t be changed.  We could only change our reaction to it.  I mean, we could run to stay out of the rain, but we’d still get wet.

That realization helped me see the bigger picture of the storm I’d seen through the windshield, out the window at the airport, and on the weather radar coalesce with the storm we were all going through emotionally.

That, also, seemed fitting.

Because of the storm,  my wife’s 3 1/2 hour trip back with her sister turned into something closer to 5 1/2 hours.  It was raining so hard they had to wait by the side of the road in places because they couldn’t see.  I waited with all the others in the airplane at the airport until the worst was over, and finally, we were able to take our place in line and head out.

Getting our place in line to take off

It took some time, but we finally took off, climbed out of the storm and saw the blue sky again.

Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we'd been through

Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we’d been through, how we’d gone deep into it, been bounced around a good bit, and then, finally, a sense of, if not clarity, then acceptance…

After a long stop in Chicago, we chased the longest sunset I’d ever seen, all the way to Seattle.

I watched it for hours, most of the flight, actually.

…and it got me thinking…

A lot.

See, what I was leaving behind, was rain, a good bit of chaos, and tears…

But I also left behind memories of a quiet, gentle man who taught not only his kids to play baseball, and who made an ice rink in the side yard for hockey because winters were cold enough to freeze it. Come to think of it, that wasn’t just for his kids, but all the kids in the neighborhood.

I left behind memories, stories of when he’d hunted rabbit to keep food on the table, and the stories of the look of satisfaction he had when he’d got a deer in the fall.  The family would eat well that winter.

I had my own memories – of when I sat chatting with him on the front porch, looking out over his lawn, the bird feeder, and the maple tree he’d planted as a stick, years ago, the same porch we’d sat on side by side when I asked him if I could marry his daughter.

That had been over 25 years ago.

I looked out the window, lost in those thoughts, and then smiled at one more, remembering when he taught me how to pour coffee, and how important it was to pour it *just right*.

Back in the plane, I looked back a bit, and could see the darkness gaining on us.

Eventually we had a glorious sunset in front of us, darkness behind us, but the darkness was faster…

And so it goes with all of us, right?  Each one of us has a flight to take, one on which there will be rough weather. And beautiful weather.

And at some point – there will be a sunset that we all must face.

I pondered a bit more as the plane was slowly enveloped in the darkness, and that glorious sunset slipped away, replaced with a gray, unearthly twilight.

Looking back again, I could see the moon casting shadows on the clouds. The darkness had its own beauty. It was easy to look down, but I felt a strong urge to look up, to see what the sky looked like at night from this high up, so I slouched down in my seat as much as I could,  turned my own light off above my seat, and as hard as it was in that position, I looked up.

And as our plane descended through the turbulence back to earth, the sunset faded, and I looked up into the dark, dark sky. I realized that the beauty of the fading sunset…

IMG_4514-001

…had been replaced by stars.

 

 


It’s been a year now since this story happened, and it’s simmered enough to finally write.

We had an interesting summer last year.

We did a road trip. But, as with anything with us, it wasn’t ordinary.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of ordinary stuff in there – but – well, here, I’ll explain a bit as we go, k? You hop in the back seat, right next to the ice chest, kick the sandy shoes and the McDonald’s bag out of the way so you have some leg room, say hi to Michael, he’s back there, too, and come along for the ride – oh, sorry – no cup holders in the back seat.

There are so many stories to tell here – some of them are behind us – in fact, here – fold the map up and crack the window a bit while I get you caught up. We’re heading west, with no turns for 2000 miles… We won’t need the map for a few days.

So we were headed back to my wife’s home state of Michigan to celebrate – lots of things…

An anniversary…

A wedding…

A graduation…

…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?

Life had been a bit challenging leading up to the trip – lots of things…

A ton of overtime at work…

Lots of organizing things for the trip…

Lots of – well…

…it’s also the stuff life is made out of, right?

And so while we were looking forward to some fun times, life, as you well know, occasionally has other ideas. And in this case, there was a trip to an emergency room, a hospital stay, a resulting unexpected trip to a laundromat, where some prayers were answered, where we bought the cop car we’re driving west in, and – yeah, a lot of things… things that you just don’t expect when you’re going to visit family for an anniversary, a wedding, and a graduation.

But they were there…

It’s…

…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?

But things were a bit stressful, wondering if it was okay to leave, but we were told things would be okay, and so the time came to leave, we said our goodbyes, and tried not to cry – because as you know, there’s always a chance that the last time you see someone will indeed be the last time you see someone, and the last words you say to someone will indeed be the last words…

And you realize, as you leave, that you want to hold on to them for just a little longer…

You want to soak up their presence, their essence, and you want to just be with them for a little bit longer.

You don’t *know* that something bad is going to happen, but the visits are rare, and you have to save up for them, so that thought isn’t just in the back of your mind, it’s actually in front of that.

And so you hug them, put on a brave face, and try to remember everything you learned from them.

So you not only hug them, but you hold on to them as long as you can, and –

– hang on a bit – it looks like a rainstorm ahead…

And yes indeed – it is a rainstorm.

In fact – it’s raining so hard I can barely see – wow this came on suddenly – unexpectedly… Should I have seen this coming? This is not a road I’m familiar traveling, but stopping isn’t an option.

I look in the rear view mirror and see a Semi truck barreling down on me. I’ve slowed down to 35 mph and still it doesn’t seem slow enough… the wipers are flipping rain as hard as they can.  The car suddenly shudders violently in the turbulence as the truck blasts by. The wipers won’t go any faster, and the only car I can see, and that just barely, is the one in front of me…

I can’t follow too closely, because there won’t be time to react if that driver has to stop suddenly. There was a gentle curve to the left starting just as we hit the rainstorm, so I need to stay with that driver – to be close enough to see his taillights to help guide me, but far enough away to be safe. I know I’ll have to let go, so to speak, of that driver, sooner or later, but for now, I have to hang on.

About this time, trying to imagine explaining this later, I ask Michael to take a picture, and he does.


The wipers are on full, and if you look closely, you can barely see the one taillight of that car just about dead center in the picture. The one I have to stay close enough to to see, but not so close that I crash into them.

I can’t believe how hard it’s raining, or that it’s even possible for it to rain harder.

But it does. It rains harder, I can barely see past the hood, much less the sides of the road.

We have to slow down even more.

I want to say “I can’t believe it” – but believing it – or not, is irrelevant… it’s staring me in the face. The deluge on the other side of the windshield just is, and has to be dealt with.

Now.

Whether I believe it or not.

Whether I’m capable of believing it or not.

Other drivers have seen a cable guardrail on the side of the road and have decided that slowing down isn’t enough. They had actually stopped on the shoulder, knowing they couldn’t drive any farther, simply because they couldn’t see.

I think about it – but a quick look in the rear view mirror shows the dark silhouette of another truck coming up behind me in the fast lane. He’s doing maybe twice my speed and I realize that I’d never be able to get out of the way fast enough if he were in my lane, much less drifting off to the shoulder full of parked cars.

I glance up and see that his cab is just above the spray from all the cars. That’s why he can drive faster – he can see, but all of us down here are in the middle of the spray, and we can’t see very well, so we drive slowly… and safely. We crawl past the line of cars and see an exit, which we take.

The exit as seen from Google Earth, taken on a much dryer day

The exit to Jamestown, ND, as seen from Google Earth, taken on a much dryer day

It loops around 180 degrees to the right, we make a left turn off it, and find a truck stop that says, in large letters, “CAFÉ”. There’s a parking space right in front of the door, so I pull in and just sit there for a bit.

My foot’s still on the brake, and I’m surprised to find I have to slowly peel my fingers off the steering wheel. One at a time. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding on so tight – but I had been. I had to so I could stay in control, in case – I can’t allow myself to think of the alternative.

Our ears re-adjust to the sounds in the car now that it’s stopped. The engine’s off, there’s no sound of tires on wet pavement or frantic wipers on wet glass. The only sound now is the rain, roaring down on the roof so loud we have to talk loud to be heard over it.

We wait in the car for a bit, wipers finally off, wondering if the rain will let up…

And it’s not letting up, so if we’re going to get inside, we’re going get wet, plain and simple, so taking a deep breath, we jump out, lock the car and run for the door.

We stomp our shoes dry in the foyer and find others have had the same idea, that stopping and waiting for the weather to clear is just smart. There’s a crowd of people congregated around the bathrooms to the right and I hear two women talking, one surprised to see the other’s there. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting to be here, but there’s an accident blocking the westbound lanes at the next exit a mile or so further up, so I came this way.”

Those westbound lanes were the lanes we’d been traveling on.

With the storm, I wouldn’t have been able to see an accident if we’d come up on it.

Waiting my turn, and still trying to come to grips with what had happened, I pull out my phone and look up the local weather radar – I’d never seen anything like this, and from that radar image, it’s clear why it felt so sudden, because quite frankly, it was. It had been cloudy, but no rain, or even a sign of rain, until we came up over a rise just outside of Jamestown. We could see rain up ahead, but there wasn’t any hint of what was to come. Since we could barely see past the hood of the car, trying to figure out how big this storm is would take something else, so I check the scale on the radar map and find the towns of Steele (on the left) and Casselton (on the right) are about 130 miles apart. That means the storm we’re in is about that big north to south, and the part we were driving through east to west was maybe 15 miles of total blindness. It would have been driving by braille, feeling our way along.

Yeah, it was worth stopping.


We go back to the café part of the place and sit down in a booth where the vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee sounds about as good as anything could sound on a day where the water in the air is so thick you can’t see through it.

…and it got me thinking…

The whole trip had been full of so many things.

Some were wonderful. (Put going to Mackinac Island on your bucket list, really)

Some were calmly pleasant. (Sitting on the front porch, quietly chatting with my father in law, the one who taught me how to pour coffee).

And some – like all goodbyes, were hard.

I remembered holding on through our goodbyes as we left, and how much that was like holding on to that car up ahead in the rainstorm, the one I’d seen so clearly until the rains fell. I tried to hold onto it – to stay close to it, so that I wouldn’t lose it.

But I couldn’t get too close.

Right?

Too close and I’d run the risk of running into him. Too far, too early, and I could lose my way entirely and crash myself.

I had to stay with them as long as I could, until I could see well enough to get along on my own, and only then let him go.

And I thought more about that, sitting there in that café, with my family, as we ate our soup and sandwiches…

We have to let go of the generation in front of us, right?

At some point in everyone’s life, there will come a storm.

It will be hard to see.

It may come on suddenly, like a tornado.

It may come slowly, like a hurricane.

You will find yourself trying desperately to hold on to the generation that’s always been in front of you.

Leading the way.

Lighting the way.

And you’ll realize that there will be people around you – for whom this storm matters not.

Like the first truck that drenched us with spray.

There will be things that shake you.

Like that second truck that so shook the car.

And you will find that there will be situations where people simply can’t see as well as you can.

And for a moment, they’ll stop.

They know their limits, and they’ve pulled over.

They’ll move again when the road is clearer, when the storm has passed enough for them to see clearly enough to move on.

At some point, that storm will pass enough for you try to make it on home, too.

You’ll have taken a break to think of these things and to strengthen yourself with family, and maybe with the emotional equivalent of vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee, but when you get back on the road to move on, the car in front of you, the one you depended on and simultaneously took for granted, will not be there.

 


All that you have of that car, the guidance, the wisdom, the acceptance is what you learned from it before and during the storm…

While the person who was ahead of you in the car, and in life, will be gone, those memories you were able to bring from their life into yours will live on.

All of what you were able to bring into your life, you’ll be able to keep with you.

That which you didn’t is gone forever.

Be safe out there, folks.

Hug the friends and family you have while you have them. You never know when the storm will come.

And you don’t know when it will be your turn to be the driver up front.


We were visiting a good friend in Albuquerque awhile back and were doing some touristy things when I saw an image I wanted to make. Given that I didn’t have my Nikon with me, I had to use my phone – which, frankly, has a pretty decent camera, but I was trying to go for a wider shot than I could get with it.

It was a church in Old Albuquerque, “The Church of San Felipe de Neri“. It was Monday, the area was quiet – and I saw the white crosses on the church, and saw the wall and gate surrounding it, and thought I could try to make an image that had the archway the gate was in framing the church and the sky. To do that, I’d have to get down on my hands and knees and get the camera as low as I could get it, so I’d be looking up and be able to contrast the crosses on the church with the deeply blue Albuquerque sky.

I thought about it – and then got down on the sidewalk with my phone, slowly skootching forward like a Marine, on elbows and hips, constantly looking all over the place, to make sure I wasn’t going to crawl into anything, but also keeping my eyes on the crosses, because of that archway I was trying to frame them in.

I came close, but wasn’t quite ready to take the photo when a gentleman walked up and saw I was on the ground. He immediately wanted to help me up, as he thought I had fallen. I tried to explain that I was fine, but he insisted on helping me up. My trying to convince him that I was on the ground on purpose simply didn’t compute for him, so I took his hand, and tried to get up, slowly and carefully.

This would have been okay, had I not injured my knee several years ago, and in the process of letting him help me get up, it dislocated (which was a touch on the painful side), stretched a tendon in the back, and then popped back into place (which was also a touch on the painful side).

I thanked him to be polite, chatted with him a bit, and walked back and forth just a little, gently testing my knee to make sure everything was okay. It was, relatively speaking, and we parted, kindly, as he and his grandson went their way and I went mine – and he had no idea what lesson he’d just taught me.

See, I was on my own journey to that cross, and I was going at the speed that was right for me, and it was working.

The fellow, I don’t remember his name, insisted on ‘helping’ me, and it got me thinking…

See, I wasn’t ready for his help.

In fact, because of his help, I re-injured my knee as I was getting up.

But the journey to the cross was my own to make. Not his.

And the journey to the cross had obstacles for me that he couldn’t see.

And he had no way of knowing that by “helping” me, he actually hurt me, a pain that has since healed, but took several weeks to do so.

And it makes me think of the times we see someone we think needs help.

Do we provide them that? The help?

Do we listen to them to make sure that the help they need is the help we’re giving them?

Or do we try to help folks in ways that only make sense to us?

I thought about that a lot, and as I was going through my images, and realized the image that I’d wanted to take was not there. I never did take it the way I wanted to.

In fact, here’s the first attempt at it – one I took standing up, a panorama – and you can see that the tops of the steeples are cut off (which is why I was down on the ground in the first place)

And it got me thinking again.

Because the fellow helped me, on his time, not on mine, things didn’t work out the way I wanted, the way I’d planned.

I walked around a little more, gently shaking and testing my leg while taking a few more photos, finally ending up on the right side of the above shot with this one:

And it’s there that I saw the beginnings of the image I really liked.

And I walked up, and framed it, and then made an image that I’m quite happy with, this one below:

And…

I like it.

I really do.

It reminds me of how beautiful things can be if you let them happen in their own time.

So even though I didn’t get the image I wanted, I did get one I liked, and I wouldn’t have done that had I not wandered off to the right to do it.

Which I wouldn’t have done had I not needed to shake off the pain in my knee.

Which wouldn’t have happened if…

…it makes me ponder things even more.

What would have happened if the gentleman hadn’t insisted on helping me up?

Would I have gotten a shot I’m as happy with as I am with this one?

Or would I have been satisfied with some variation of that first shot up there?

I honestly don’t know.

Sometimes bad, painful stuff happens that turns out well in the end.

I know God works all sorts of strange things into my life – into our lives – and I’m never sure when the story is actually finished.

Doesn’t make the painful parts hurt any less, not by a long shot, but as I look at the picture above, I don’t wince at the pain in my knee…

I smile at the image I was able to capture because of it.

 


It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 years, but it has.

I’ve learned that for those of you reading the stories I write here, a number of things happen.

Sometimes you come here on purpose.

Sometimes you come here by habit.

Sometimes you come here by accident (you wouldn’t believe some of the searches that get people to this blog).

But what you always get when you come here is a story.

Sometimes you get a lesson mixed in with that story.

Sometimes the story makes you laugh as you see me learn that lesson from my own mistakes.

Sometimes the lesson makes you wince as you see the pain in the story.

And sometimes, in some of the hardest stories, I’ve heard from some of you, that you see yourself in either the story or the lesson.

I’ve learned, to my surprise (and I’m being quite honest here) that people thought I was good enough at writing stories that several have honored me in ways I cannot comprehend, by asking me to tell a very specific story.

Their story.

Out loud.

To everyone they cherish and hold dear; their family, their loved ones, their friends.

It is a story that they have lived, that they have asked me to tell,  but they won’t ever hear.

And this brings us back to me being amazed that those eight years have gone by already.

Back then, my friend Glenda asked me to tell her story.

And it came easily in some ways.

It was very hard in others.

I stood in front of a crowd of her family and friends 8 years ago, and told this story of my friend Glenda.

June 1, 2007

Glenda first caught my eye when she sat down beside me in Dr. Bob Chamberlain’s “History of Western Rhetoric” class over in Peterson Hall at Seattle Pacific University. She was different because unlike all the other college aged young women in the class, Glenda had her daughter, Daisy, sleeping on the floor beside her. Class time and nap time happened to coincide, so Glenda did what worked, and Daisy got a head start on a lot of freshmen by sleeping through a very early college education.

I learned a lot about Daisy, and her brothers and sister in the next few years. I also learned a lot about Glenda.

This was a mom who clearly loved her four kids, and these were four kids who clearly loved their mom. One time, a few months after we graduated, Glenda asked if I would watch them while she went into the hospital for a few days.

This meant a couple of things.

  1. Glenda, though in the hospital, didn’t have to deal with or get four kids up and ready for school or daycare every day
  2. Tom, not in the hospital, got to learn what it was like for Glenda to get four kids up, fed, dressed…

No, wait, almost dressed – first have to find their socks…

“Where did you say you put your shoes?”

“What do you mean you can’t find your homework?”

“There isn’t a dog to have eaten it!”

“I’m supposed to sign what?”

…pray that at least the socks matched, and get them out to the bus stop in time for school.

That haggard looks of the other moms waiting with their kids at the bus stops made so much more sense after that.

I understood so much more what it was to be a mom in those few days.

And I learned a lot about Glenda.

When it was time to visit her in the hospital, it was – well, I am still amazed at how she was able to get four kids packed up and ready to go – anywhere – on time. It was just amazing. She loved to tell this story – and always with that wonderful laugh of hers.

When Tom the Mobile set of Monkey Bars got to the hospital room, four kids either on me or around me, I saw in Glenda’s face the exhaustion that comes from being in the hospital, from all the poking, the prodding, the middle of the night waking you up to give you your sleeping medicine, and so on. But in her eyes, I saw something different. I saw a sparkle, a relaxation, a rest, that is only seen in a woman’s eyes – no, a mom’s eyes when, for whatever reason,  she’s had a chance to recover a little from being a mom by being away from the kids, and then when she gets to be with them again.

She tells the same story from another viewpoint, seeing her kids scamper into the room, at least one of them (Daisy) still hanging from a very bedraggled me, when our eyes met, she remembers me saying, “Two! Only Two!” – I couldn’t imagine how she could be a mom of four, but she was, and she made it look easy.

She did that a lot in life…

We lost touch for a number of years, then ran into each other at a cancer survivor’s support group. We hugged, as old friends do.

…and then the reason for our meeting there, in that place, sunk in to both of us.

And you know what?

She made cancer look easy.

She made raising four kids look easy.

She planned enough to where there weren’t many surprises for her – except this one, and even then, then she handled it the same way she always did.

Glenda made dying look easy.

She loved those kids, she loved her husband Mike.

A few weeks ago we talked, and it was clear to her that time was short. We chatted about all sorts of things for a while, and toward the end of the conversation she said, “Tom, can you do me a favor?”

Understand this is the lady who trusted me with her most prized possessions, her kids. And she did it regularly. There was a trust built up there over the years, and I figured that this “favor” wasn’t going to be, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” or “Can you feed the cat while I’m gone?”

But I didn’t know what to expect.

“Sure Glenda, anything.”

“Can you speak at my funeral?”

What do you say?

You don’t.

You just do it.

Because that’s what friends do.

She told me it was going to be a “fun” eral – and to remember something “fun” about her.

She wanted me to tell the story of the kids when we visited her in the hospital, because it made her laugh that wonderful laugh of hers so often, so I did…

And I can tell you that I did indeed, only have two.


It’s Memorial day as I write this, and I’m in a pensive mood…

I was at Chris’s memorial service yesterday, and I’ve been to a few of these lately – and among the food on a table was what appeared to be a rather out-of-place crumpled up McDonald’s bag.

I didn’t think much of it until I heard the story behind it. See Pat, the fellow who brought it, had been best friends with Chris, and they’d spend hours driving around, sometimes in Chris’s tow truck, sometimes not, and as often as not, they would end up stopping at a very particular McDonalds, where the two of them would order 11 cheeseburgers.

The question was asked, “Why 11? And who got to eat six of them?” and Pat said he wasn’t sure exactly where it came from, likely Chris going through the drive through with his truck to get some dinner, a hankering for cheeseburgers, and the clerk asking the simple question of “How many?”

Chris and Pat shared the unspoken question with a look, shrugged their shoulders, and next thing they knew, they had 11 cheeseburgers to share and accompany the conversations ranging from the nature of gravity to the physics of electricity and radio waves as they waited on the next call.

And over time, it became a tradition.

Every time they went to McDonald’s, they ordered 11 cheeseburgers.

In a bag.

Every.

Single.

Time.

It became almost sacred, the way Pat told it.

And it got me thinking…

I’m in that stage of life when it’s becoming obvious that there’s a changing of the guard going on, where you realize, sometimes slowly, sometimes with a stunning realization, that you’re now the very close to being the oldest generation living in your family, where you used to be able to have conversations with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, who simply aren’t there anymore for you to have conversations with.

And with Chris, I realized that it’s not limited to people older than you.

It made me wonder, what kinds of little things will be precious to you when someone close to you leaves this life to live on in your memories?

I really started wondering…

There are friends who know, for example, that I will only call them a butthead if they’ve earned that privilege. (Of course, I have to explain to them that it is a privilege, a badge of honor, to be called that, only then do they get it)

I think of my dad, who I used to simultaneously love and get frustrated with, who loved me as best as he knew how, and I realize I miss hearing his greeting, “Hello sonshine.” Or yelling at us to shut the living room door as we ran out it.

I think of Glenda’s peaceful presence, and her laugh, as she took life, and death, in stride and made it work.

Betty – how we were able to take off the day to day masks we wear to protect ourselves, and just talk about the stuff that really mattered.

I think of people who are still part of my life, and realize there are things that are inexplicably special, things that have become the “11 cheeseburgers” of our lives…

The Grand Coulee Dam.

“How are things in Gloccamurra?”

“Delays, Delays…”

Butthead…”

Yasuko’s…

A shoe shine kit.

A jar of homemade Quince jelly.

An Egg carton.

A yellow superball.

A root beer can.

Sitting quietly with a friend at an airfield, then seeing it from above.

A phone call from a long-lost friend.

A tennis ball cannon made of a bunch of pop cans and masking tape..

An old Saab.

Two rocks, now shiny, that I’ve carried around in my pocket – one since 1997 (my son’s first day of kindergarten) one since 2010 (his first day of college)

“Hey Du…”

A pair of red Converse High Tops.

And so many others.

It’s not what they are, it’s what they symbolize.

Things that in and of themselves, mean nothing to someone who doesn’t share a history with you, I mean, it’s a bag of cheeseburgers… it’s a greeting… it’s an old car.

But for Chris and Pat, it was more than a bag of cheeseburgers – it was friendship, (and it was theoretical physics) and it signified that all was right with the world.

And maybe – just maybe, you’ve got your own version of a bag of 11 cheeseburgers and a bunch of memories.

What are they?

Write as much or as little as you’d like, but I know we all have them, I’d just never seen it done the way Pat did it yesterday.

And as little as I knew Chris directly, the hole he leaves in people’s lives is very real.

Tom Roush

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