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

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

1984

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

The good part of this?

I got to play 4 parts in the play.

The bad part?

I had to play 4 parts in the play.

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

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

I could, and did.

The problem was logistics.

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

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

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

Except I got there late.

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

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

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

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

Big Brother was indeed watching me.

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

I grinned…

And then I mooned Big Brother.

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

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

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

Sometimes he needs it.


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

Taken risks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Beach.

In Washington.

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

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

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

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

What could possibly go wrong?

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

Hmm…

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

Not good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that order.

Into the gas tank.

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

Right.

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

I had to do some quick math…

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

No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…

Ugh…

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

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

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

It looked like we might actually be able make this…

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

Hmm…

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

At 35 mph…

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

And she had to hit her brakes.

To slow down.

From 35 mph…

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

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

I was beside myself.

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

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

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

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

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

They’re…

…Right…

“WHAT?”

“No, really, they’re right there!”

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

Pulling up IN FRONT of them.

Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone must.  Tom’s in Portland.”

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

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

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

No one passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only I couldn’t go straight home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it makes me think about life…

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

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

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

Think about that, then keep reading.

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

Do I give up? Or do I carry on?

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

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

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

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

Help them get to their Montesano…

Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.

And if you can, do it anonymously.

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

Run with it.

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

Keep going.  Really.

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

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

Isn’t that the way it should be?

That’s life, right?

A journey…

I mean think about it…

Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).

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

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

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

So… Hug your loved ones.

Remind them you love them.

Support those around you who are struggling.

Bring smiles into their lives as you can.

And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.

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

Much love,

Tom


I stepped into the time machine again the other day.

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

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

…all in the shape of an old swing set.

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

And you know what? The kids loved it.

 KidsonSwings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  The Jungle

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

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

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

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

And there was a web.

And it got me thinking…

We have our children for a very short time.

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

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

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

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

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

They’re growing up…

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

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

I stood there a little longer…

Thinking…

Pondering…

Remembering…

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

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

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

Sunrise... Swingset...


Thirty years ago yesterday I got a little glimpse of eternity.  It was both horrifying and reassuring beyond measure.

Let me explain.

A few years before that, my Oma – my mom’s mom, passed away in Germany, and since mom was there – she asked her dad, my Opa, if he would want to come live with us, and so he did.  I still remember seeing him at the international arrivals terminal at Sea-Tac, wearing his wool coat, his old leather shoes, and his felt hat.  He looked like a time traveler amidst all the hustle and bustle of the other travelers, and in some way, he was.

The goal was to have him stay for the winter, and then see how he was handling the change and go from there.  When my mom’s brother (my uncle) came to visit, Opa was thrilled to see him, but, facing an empty house back in Germany, and having spent some time with us, surrounded by two generations of family all in the same house, he wondered aloud to mom, “Do I have to go back?”

Mom was overjoyed and told him he didn’t have to, so he stayed where he knew he was loved, where he knew he had a little garden he could work in, and we absolutely loved him, and he us.

I’ve written at least one story about him, and I’ll write more stories about him but yesterday was a day for thinking, and reflecting.  I sent flowers to mom, and wrote my uncle a letter in German because he wasn’t here, and his English is what he learned in school and a British POW camp in WWII.

“I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and today I couldn’t put it off any longer.  30 years ago this morning, Opa went to Heaven, and I was there when it happened…”

…mom’s cousins had flown in the night before, and Opa had stayed up late to say hi to them when we got home from the airport.  They talked for about half an hour, and then all went to bed.

Saturday was a gorgeous day, and we got up a little later than usual.  I’d been downstairs, and people were awake, so I went to my room to write a letter to a friend on my old Remington Noiseless typewriter.  It wasn’t really noiseless, it just made thunking sounds instead of the whapping sounds a normal typewriter made.  So I was just hammering that letter on it, the sun was shining, and I heard the floor in the hallway creak as Opa walked by.  He pushed open the door just a bit and waved at me, peeking in like a little elf.  I stopped typing and waved back. He headed further down the hall to go downstairs, and as I went back to my typing, I heard this unending, unimaginable crash like I’d never heard before.  Even all these years later, I’m at a loss to find words to describe it, and in the moment after the crashing sound stopped and before I got up, I heard my dad’s voice yelling, “Tom! You know First Aid! Come down here!” – I ran down the stairs I’d helped him up so many times, and saw Opa lying in the middle of a bunch of broken pottery, a huge gash on the top of his head.

I yelled for a flashlight, and for the first time in my life, shined a light in someone’s eyes, like I’d been taught in my First Aid class, only to have no one looking back at me.  I yelled for dad to call the hospital for a helicopter (I’d had a bit of experience with them) and went back to Opa.  He had a pulse, but it was irregular, so I didn’t start CPR, but kept checking his eyes.  One responded, the other didn’t, and was pretty much dilated.  I knew then, if I hadn’t known earlier, that things were very, very bad.  Mom’s cousins were standing behind me as I was working on him. Dad had the phone cord stretched as far as it would go to tell me that the hospital couldn’t just send a chopper – that a medic needed to call it.

He handed me the phone, and the person on the other end of the line indeed said I couldn’t order one… Only a medic could do that.  I asked him, politely, but in no uncertain terms, to call the medics then.  He said he would.

About that time Opa had a pretty big convulsion, and one of mom’s cousins blurted out, “Der Stirbt!” (He’s dying!) – I wasn’t ready to accept that – and told her in no uncertain terms to shut up.  I was 21 and wasn’t quite of the age where I could tell her that (she was mom’s age), but I did.

In less than a minute the siren went off for the Volunteer Fire Department in our town.  The fellow on the other end of the line had made the call. Help was on the way.

The sirens and the throbbing sound of the old aid car stopped in front of the house.  Someone opened the door and the paramedics crowded into the hallway, checking Opa and getting a pair of inflatable pants on him to keep his blood up where it needed to be.

I stood up and made room for Roy, the police officer and paramedic who’d been involved the time I’d needed a helicopter to get to a hospital, and he started doing CPR.  By this time there were so many people in the hallway it was hard to move.  Mom and I stood in the door to the living room just off the hallway, and we both (we talked about this later, not right then) were keenly aware of a presence above and between us.  It was clear to both of us that it was Opa’s spirit, leaving at that time, and we both remembered “hearing” – honestly, “sensing” is more accurate – the words, “Lass mi doch ganga” – translated from our dialect,

“Just let me go…”

But things were moving, and once paramedics arrive, they start working and won’t stop until things are dealt with, one way or the other.

It was quickly decided that he’d go to the hospital in the ambulance, and mom and I followed in my old Saab, and we drove as fast as we could to catch up, watching Roy doing CPR on Opa the whole way.  He must have been absolutely drained by the time we got to the hospital.  I remember trying to pass it so we could get there and be parked by the time it got there, but the car, it turned out, had a clogged fuel filter and wouldn’t let me pass, so I tucked in behind it again, watching Roy trying to pump life into Opa’s chest through the ambulance’s back window.

We got there, and they rushed him in straight through the E.R, Roy still doing the CPR as he ran alongside the gurney.  Mom and I were told to wait in a stuffy waiting room, but there were so many people there, we told them we’d be outside as we tried to comprehend all that had happened.  They promised they’d send someone for us if there was anything we could do.

At 12:00 straight up, the sliding doors opened and someone came out and told us he was gone.  They led us into the room he was in, partitioned off by curtains, and there was our Opa, lying on a bed, covered with sheets, looking as peaceful as anything.  Mom took some scissors and cut a little of his beard off to remember him by, we signed some papers, and then headed home, both, admittedly in a bit of shock.

Our day had changed pretty drastically.

By the time we got home, there was no evidence of any pottery on the floor.  The cousins were doing their best to be or look busy, and their thoughts of having a fun visit turned into thoughts of helping mom plan a funeral.

We stood there, mom and I, where we’d stood earlier, and realized we’d both heard Opa tell us, reassuringly, “Just let me go.” –

And we had to.

He was 10 days short of his 89th birthday.

This was August 6th, 1983, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, and every year I make sure my mom has flowers on that day, to remind her that someone remembers her Papa, my Opa.

===

Epilogue:

It was only yesterday, as I was talking to Mom on the phone, that I finally realized, that Opa’s time on this earth was over that day, stairs or not.  We found out much later that the doctors said he’d had a heart attack, which was likely when he’d lost his balance and tried to catch himself on that vase, but it went down the stairs and so did he.

And even though I’m now considered grown up and a man, there’s still a much younger ‘me’ inside who misses his Opa…

Take care folks… love the ones you have – you never know how much time you’ll have with them.


I can’t believe it’s been five years already, but it has.

A few years ago I had occasion to meet someone on a regular basis, daily, for several weeks.

We were both going through some hard times, each fighting off some pretty harsh demons, as it were, and as we sat there, over time, each going through our own battles, we became friends.  Her name was Cecily, and as the days turned into weeks, our conversations deepened, and we talked about our families, and challenges, and the struggles we were facing and overcoming.

It turns out that our opportunities to meet each other daily ended about the same time, and we kept in touch for a long time afterwards.  On rare occasions, we’d meet at a Jamba Juice on checkup days for all their healthy things and just catch up on life.  It was neat doing that, meeting near a place that had both caused and absorbed so much of our pain, and not having to actually go there.  We talked, and we laughed.  I remember for awhile she talked about her sisters and how they were helping her get a bunch of firewood for the winter.

It was a good time, just chatting.

Sometimes, when we couldn’t actually get together, we’d call or email, and just chat and check up on each other, again, asking about the families and getting back to work, and just life…

And that was fun, too.

But one day I realized an email I’d sent hadn’t been answered in awhile…

And phone calls were going to voice mail.

I left message after message, and got no answer on her office phone.

And then that stopped, too.

Over the course of several months, I tried and tried, and finally decided to simply call her main office number and get the main switchboard there, to see if I could find out why she wasn’t answering her phone.  I talked to a very nice receptionist who clearly had very little history with the company, and I asked for Cecily.

She checked, and I heard my heart beating louder in my ears as she said, “I’m sorry, there’s no one here by that name…”

But I wasn’t going to give up, so I tried her cell phone…

And kept trying.

And trying…

And trying…

Then they stopped going to voice mail even on the cell phone, and went to the dreaded recording of “The number you have called has been disconnected or is no longer in service…”

I did the thing I didn’t want to do, facing what was becoming a reality, and found out why she wasn’t answering her phone or email anymore in the last section of the paper I wanted to find her in.

Cecily, my friend, my pal, my radiation buddy, as she called me, was gone.

I found her mom’s number – it took a bit – and I talked to her for a long time.  We talked about her daughter, and we talked about my friend, and it turns out that Cecily’s mom knew all about me.  Cecily had talked to her mom about her friends, and I was, and am, very honored to have been one of them.

So Cecily – It’s been five years, but I still think of you, that smile, that laugh, that indomitable spirit.  I’m glad to have gotten a chance to know you, and I raised a glass at Jamba Juice in your memory.

My friend Cecily and me

My friend Cecily and me, with one of my trademarked blinks…

God bless…


Hey folks – after a long, cold, wet winter, we’ve finally gotten a late spring here in the Pacific Northwet, (yes, I spelled it that way on purpose) and the sun, has finally come out, and it made me think of something that happened about 15 years ago.

It reminded me of what it was like to be both little boy, and a dad, and I just had to write it down, and the following story was born.  Of all of the stories I’ve written, I think this is my favorite.  I’ve changed the name of the little girl (who by now is a young woman), but otherwise, the story is as it was written back in 1998.

Springtime has hit my son (who’s 7) like a ton of the proverbial bricks.

The object of his affections is a very nice little girl in his class named Sarah.

Recently we got a student directory for his school, and he’d started reading it, looking for where kids in his class lived. He was spellbound every time he had his mom read it to him, as if it were the best children’s book you could ever hope to hear.

It took us a little while to figure out what he was up to, but we did notice there was method to his madness when we read off Sarah’s address.

“That’s only two blocks from here!”

“Yup.”

So he would sit there curled up on the couch and look at the directory, a big, dopey grin on his face, and thoughts of Sarah dancing through his head.

Last Saturday, he felt this irrepressible urge to “go for a walk”

I agreed, but things got in the way, the afternoon started to slip by as they so often do, and he got more and more insistent on taking this walk. Finally I asked him if there was any place in particular he wanted to go, and he gave me that look that all parents know. You know, your child wanting to tell you something so much that they’re ready to pop, but not really wanting to let go of the secret they’re holding onto so tightly. It’s a lot like a balloon, which can only handle so much pressure until it bursts. In this case it did burst and the secret of where he wanted to go came blurting out:

“Sarah’s.”

“Sarah’s?”

“Sarah’s! Can we go right now?”

“Um, sure, but what if she’s not home?”

“Oh.”

“Should I call her mom to see if she’s there?”

“Yeah, yeah, do that.  Call her mom.”

I had no idea what I would ask her mom, but figured if I did ask something I might want to ask it without little ears hanging on my every word.

“Do you want to be here when I talk to her?”

“Uh, (gulp) — I see what you mean…”

– and so he went off as if to go to his room, but hid just around the corner and waited, – and if you can imagine a 7 year old turning into a giant ear, that’s what happened … He was listening with every pore of his being.

I dialed and heard a male voice, “Hello?”

“Hello, is this the Johnson residence?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Are you Sarah’s dad?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, Hi, I’m Tom Roush, I’m Michael’s dad, and Sarah is in my son’s class, and it seems that spring has hit him pretty hard…”

[long pause]

“…ooooOOOhhh….”

“…and he found out where Sarah lived, and it’s just two blocks away, and he’s been pestering me to go for a walk all afternoon, with the idea of…”

“…walking past Sarah’s house?”

“Yup.”

“Well, she’s not here right now, but should be back in about half an hour…”

There was a pause as we both were taken back a bit to our childhoods and we remembered the butterflies caused by little girls when we were that young…

“Does Michael like dogs?”

“He does, why?”

“Well we’ve got this (whatever breed) who really likes people, I could go outside and play with the dog for awhile and just kind of be out there when you come by on your walk…”

“That sounds great, we’ll see you in a little bit…”

Normally it takes Michael a good long while to find his shoes and socks, no matter where he’s put them.

This time was different.

Normally when we go out for walks, I walk, and he runs up and shows me stuff, then comes back, then runs up again, and back, and so on.

This time was different.

He held my hand and stayed pretty close, and we looked at house numbers, the tension building as they got closer and closer to 1006, her house number.

We saw the dog first, and we saw her dad, Phillip. And as we started chatting, some friends brought over some hamsters for them to hamster-sit, Michael played with the dog and watched some ants that were mining for dirt under the sidewalk. We meandered into the back yard, just chatting away with Michael being ever so patient, just being a very good little boy, wanting to play on the playset they had back there, but being too polite to interrupt and ask.

Until…

…the Heavens opened…

…Trumpets sounded…

…Angels sang…

…And Gabriel Himself announced the arrival of…

…Sarah, who popped out the back door.

“Hi!”

And popped right back into the house.

The door to the Heavens got stuck half open …

Trumpeters picked up sheet music …

Angels straightened out their robes …

And Gabriel Himself stood there, checking his list to see if he was at the right house.

Michael looked up at me, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders.

Next thing we knew, she’d popped back out again.

Angels in overalls got the door to the Heavens unstuck.

The trumpets picked up where they’d left off.

The Angels counted time waiting for their part.

And Gabriel found that He was indeed, at the right house.

“Sarah, you know Michael, right? – would you like to show him some of the animals in the house?”

Turns out that a menagerie would be an understatement.

So Michael and Sarah went up to the living room where she showed him her hamsters, and her gerbils, and there’s a bird in there somewhere, while Phil and I went downstairs to the basement to talk about “guy stuff”, you know, the “I’m thinking of knocking this wall out here and putting in a bathroom here, and…” – stuff that little boys who came to visit little girls aren’t interested in in the least.

…and soon it was time to go.

Michael thanked them for letting us come over and calmly walked down the stairs, as did I.

It was only after we got out of sight of the house that he started floating.

– actually, floating is too gentle a word for it.

It was a full bore run with an exclamation point of a jump at the end, “YES!” – both arms up in the air, both feet completely off the ground, and head definitely in the clouds.


I went for a walk with a friend the other day, and on a whim, wandered down toward Pongo’s house.

And, to explain the significance of that – I have to go back a few years for most of you…

If any of you remember high school, you know how it could be a tangled up knot of stress, from the academics, which were hard enough, to the social aspect, where everyone was trying to figure out where they fit in the overall pecking order, to the after school stuff, where you often found out where you stood by being on the receiving end of some of that pecking.

I remember when I was in high school, the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to pet my dog, and play with him, and scritch him behind his ears, and I could just feel that knotted ball of stress from school slowly unwind.  It was amazing how beneficial having a dog could be right after school like that, and although we didn’t have a dog when our son was growing up years later, he found one anyway, right when and where he needed one.

And the dog he found had started out life as the runt of the litter in a cardboard box of puppies, being given away in front of a Safeway store in Bremerton, Washington.  Pongo was suspected of being a mix of something Australian, a bit of shepherd, a bit of Husky, and the rest was of indeterminate origins.  However, to really narrow it down, anything short of DNA testing implied something much simpler.  In spite of being the runt, in his youth, Pongo was half husky, half stegosaurus.  He was, as all good dogs are, the best friend of his boy, a young lad who had grown up, just like Pongo did, and unlike Pongo, eventually moved away from home.

Pongo ended up living with the boy’s dad, Jack, and  the two of them grew old together over the years.  It was in Jack’s front yard that you could find Pongo every day, holding down his patch of sod. And it was there that the most reliable form of therapy for any human was lovingly waiting, every day, when our son walked by coming home from school. And every day, Pongo did something no human could possibly do, which by now, thanks to Bill Watterson, had a name:

Pongo offered up Fuzz Therapy.

Once Pongo was let off his leash, he laid down in full expectation of some good-ole behind the ears scritching

Once Pongo was let off his leash, he laid down in full expectation of some good-ole behind the ears scritching

And he did it with love.

He didn’t chase sticks anymore, nor did he chase Frisbees ®  but he could definitely give some Fuzz Therapy.

A number of years after he graduated from High School, our son and I went back to the street where Pongo lived, and sure enough, he was still there, still holding down that one patch of sod he’d been holding down for so many years, and when he saw our son, Pongo’s tired eyes lit up at the sight of a long lost friend, and he struggled to his feet, a little bit at a time, and slowly ambled over to where he knew he’d get some petting and loving.  And from what I saw in the next few minutes, it was obvious that Fuzz Therapy was a two way street.

Pongo both getting - and giving - Fuzz Therapy

Pongo both getting – and giving – Fuzz Therapy

Jack said that Pongo’d been getting on in years, which was obvious, as well as being sick, which was not, so we were glad that we stopped by when we did. And our son, going through the stresses of being a young adult, trying to balance the risks and benefits of running his own business, figuring out backup plans for both the job market and the financial risks and benefits of college, was able to get some Fuzz Therapy one more time.

Jack taking Pongo for a short walk

Jack taking Pongo for a short walk

Some months have gone by, and we’ve gone past Jack’s place several times since the visit in these pictures, but it has become clear that the last time we saw Pongo was the last time we would ever see Pongo…

So Pongo, my dear friend, the one who brought our son such happiness, such love, and such peace, wherever you are, I wish you an eternity blessed with a whole, healthy body, the ability to run and chase to your heart’s content, and may you get as much from the Fuzz Therapy as you gave.

===

(Pongo - as seen by the Google Street View camera in September of 2010)


The moon is absolutely gorgeous as I write this.  All I have to do is look out the living room window to see it – and it got me thinking, and remembering, to a Sunday evening back in 1998.

I’d spent the afternoon with my son, just being together and doing stuff, and as it got dark, drove down to Golden Gardens in the old Saab, and as we were going around the big S turns on the way down, he looked up and saw the crescent moon in the evening sky.

“Look Papa!  The moon’s a white banana in the sky!”

And so it was.

It was wonderful to see, and wonderful to see it through his eyes.

We got down to the beach, just as most parents were packing up and leaving, and built a sand castle in the wet sand, it clumping together – bits of shell and the like as we worked… The sand castle appeared over time to the sound of an invisible boat chugging up the Sound.

At this moment, I decided to put all my sensors on full alert, as I wanted to remember this moment, and saw and heard other parents with their children, trying not to blink as they grew up.

That’s one of the hardest things about being a parent, trying not to blink…

As the sand castle took shape, the sounds of the evening changed from children running along the beach and into the water to children bargaining for more time, begging for “just one more minute”, and parents reluctantly giving in, for that one minute, knowing that they’ll be vacuuming the sand out of the car tomorrow, but knowing also that a memory was made, and it’s one small grain of sand in the beach of a happy childhood…


At first Heidi didn’t know what she was part of that evening.

She refilled our glasses, she kept the food and drink coming, and then she did what all good waitresses do.

She left us alone.

We were sitting in a nondescript restaurant, the three of us, sharing stories, memories, and laughing ourselves silly.

The last time the three of us had been together was about 32 years earlier, and I got to pondering about the journeys we’d all not only taken, but survived to get to this table in this restaurant.  What had brought us together was a funeral, the death of J.C. Masura…

J.C. as we knew him, looking out the back of a C-130 high over somewhere.

J.C. as we knew him, looking out the back of a C-130 high over somewhere.   Photo copyright by and used with permission of the Masura Family.

…who’d been our commander many years earlier when we were all in the same Civil Air Patrol Squadron on what was then McChord Air Force Base.  J.C. had been a loadmaster on C-130’s and C-141’s, back in the day, and up until recently had run an aviation maintenance facility at an airfield near his home.

Of the three of us there in that restaurant after the funeral and reception, there was Aaron.

He told a story of being up on Mount Rainier during his Civil Air Patrol days, trying to put his tent together and it being a tangle of poles and cloth.  He told of J.C. coming over, and being relieved that he’d have help to solve this problem.  J.C. did help.  He said, “Son, if you don’t get this tent up, you’re gonna die. So you’d better figure it out.”

And Aaron did.

The most vivid memory I have of Aaron was when we were trying to ram him through the bushes (<–story) on one of our searches.  This evening, however, he was sitting across the table from me, in a uniform that spoke of honor, valor and courage.  A uniform that spoke of someone who no longer needed to be pushed through bushes, but led people through walls.

As we sat there, reminiscing, and as Heidi kept our water glasses and plates full, Aaron told stories that had us laughing, and shaking our heads in amazement.

He told of coming back from one of many missions to a country in the Middle East, ‘the sandbox’, exhausted to the core, and climbing onto a ubiquitous, anonymous Air Force cargo plane that was to take him home, only to find himself being welcomed onto the plane by a loadmaster with the familiar name of Masura stitched to his uniform.  It seems J.C’s oldest son (we knew him as Jimmy) had followed in his father’s footsteps, and was now a loadmaster himself, with enough stripes on his arm to put the fear of God into even the highest ranking officer.

Aaron, the highly decorated soldier, slept most of the flight home, watched over not by a stranger, but by a friend.

Heidi came by about then to refill our glasses, and it was obvious to her that she was seeing, and was part of, something very special.  It was obvious we hadn’t seen each other in a long time.  Typical of such reunions, she said, was folks from college getting back together.  She was amazed to hear that we hadn’t seen each other since high school, and even more amazed that we’d gotten together at all.

Then there was Bill, who I’d been able to keep in touch with a little more.  I have many memories of Bill, some of which have actually been written down.  One of those involved our Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a regional Drill competition (<–story) in Oregon, and the memories of the looks on people’s faces when they saw us beating them at their own game.

Bill was dressed in a suit jacket and tie for the funeral, had become a world traveler, working as a biologist and traveling to every continent on the planet, and some places that don’t come remotely close to being continents.  Bill told a story about going back to Antarctica, where before they could study the penguins, and the wildlife, one of the first orders of business was getting things habitable, and during that time it was discovered that the ‘facilities’ had been buried in 7 feet of snow since they were last there. By the time they got everything dug out and opened up for use, they discovered several inches of frost on the toilet seat.

No. Really.

All you have to do if your kids complain about a cold toilet seat is show them this one.  "When I was your age..."

It was chilly. (photo copyright and courtesy of William Meyer)

We laughed about the “when I was your age” stories that would grow into: “When I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy things called toilets, we had to dig through 7 feet of snow just to get to a seat with a hole in it.  And it had FROST on it.  And we had to melt that off ourselves…”

“With our Butts.”

Yeah, I can see that…

We’d get post cards from Bill every now and then, telling of his adventures in warmer climates, too.  He told one story – and it wasn’t even a story, but just a vignette, of writing one of his post cards, in this case to his sister, sitting under a tree somewhere in Africa, and writing it by candle light, because it was all he had.  When a scorpion crawled across the postcard as he was writing it, looking for bugs that might have been attracted by the candle, he decided it was time to call it a night.

Heidi came back and checked on us, and the stories continued.

I’d had some of my own adventures – some of which I’ve written about, some not, and we marveled, literally, not just about the various journeys we’d gone on to get to this table, in this restaurant, but the fact that we’d survived them all.  Even though we were there for hours, each one of us had stories that there wasn’t time to share that evening, and each one of us had stories of adventure and danger, as well as growth and promise that we realized would have to wait for another day.

We pondered that, and found ourselves all taking a collective breath. As we did, we realized the restaurant had grown quiet. There was no conversation, no bustling of waiters.  In fact, the only sounds we heard were those of clinking dishes as the staff cleaned up the restaurant, which had closed around us.

We were the last customers in the place, and the doors were locked.

Heidi, bless her, came by one last time, and let us out…

…and stood in the parking lot for another half hour, talking and shivering in the dark, but vowing that we would get together again without someone having to die in order for it to happen.

There were friends who were not able to make it this time, and friends who would not make it, ever.

And it got me thinking…

Why do we wait so long?

One person asked me, “Why is it we wait till we have nothing but weddings and funerals to get together?”

Why do we often just get stuck in our little ruts and miss out on some of the cool stuff of life, like sharing stories and laughing, and – why does it take something *more* special than just getting together to get us to get together? (yeah, I read that a couple of times myself too before I let it go, but it works…)

I mean – the three of us hadn’t been together in over 3 decades.

Me surrounded by two world travelers, Bill on the left, and Aaron on the right.

Not a week later I had occasion to go to a friend’s birthday party.  I was fighting off a bug and wasn’t feeling too well yet, but for heaven’s sake, it had been years since I’d seen him, so I went.  He’d hit the big 5 decade mark, and wondered the same thing… why do we get stuck in our little ruts?

I know the answer to this – and there’s a story in it, which I’ll tell later, but in a nutshell, it’s because it takes more energy to get out of a rut than it does to fall into one.

Sometimes that energy comes because you see patterns and realize if you don’t change something, the pattern is pretty predictable.  Sometimes the energy comes in the adrenaline fueled by the sudden, tragic realization that nothing lasts forever, and everything, everything comes to an end, whether we want to believe it or not.

So – and I’m realizing I’ve been ending a lot of stories with this theme: Make sure you let the ones you love know that while you can.

Hug your husband/wife.

Hug your kids.

Hug your parents.  Even if it’s a verbal hug, with a phone call, card, or email.

Just do it.

A friend wrote recently that he’d found out another friend had passed away, and somehow 10 years had slipped by since they’d talked.  You never know when your last words with someone will indeed be your last words with someone.

Sometimes a telephone call will reopen doors to old friendships.  Sometimes you’ll find those doors have closed and it’s time to move on.  That might hurt, but regardless the door’s position, at least you’ll know, and you’ll be able to open or close it yourself.  And you’ll actually have a chance to know what those last words with someone will be. Make sure they’re good ones.

In the end, what changed is that I did just that.

I picked up the phone and checked up on some old friends and kept in touch with them more.  I found some doors opened wide again, and found some doors closed – I write all this from experience, both joyful and painful.

And I tried, as best I could, when I saw that one of those doors had closed, to make my last words good ones.

So take care of yourselves.  This is the one time we have through this life.

Take care of each other, too.  You never know when you’ll need each other.

Oh, and if you happen to meet a waitress named Heidi, working at the Outback Steakhouse in Puyallup, Washington, who keeps your glasses full and allows you to enjoy your reunion time with your friends, give her a good tip.

She deserves it.

===

Footnotes:

It’s been a year since the events in this story unfolded, and it took this long to think them through, get some perspective, apply some of the lessons I learned,  and be ready to share them with you.  That might make a little more sense now that you’ve read it.

Aaron is still in the Army – he invited us to help celebrate his promotion recently, and we shared more stories, more laughs.  We kept the promise to get together more often, and made more promises to do it again.

Bill and I got together the day after my birthday last year along with another friend, Mark, and have kept in touch more.  He’s doing a little less exploring, but still doesn’t have a “desk” job.  He couldn’t make it to the promotion party because he was strapped into a small airplane, flying around the hinterlands of the country in an airplane, counting Elk.

Jimmy’s still in the Air Force, I saw him at Aaron’s celebration, and they got along like the old friends they are, not with the stuffy formality you might expect of an officer and an enlisted man.  It was fun to see that.

J.C.’s wife – well – widow – hard to write that, but it’s true -  is doing all the things you do when you’ve lost a loved one.  That first year, I can tell you from experience, is a hard one.  I’ve kept in touch with them as I could over the last 12 months, not as much as I’d like, but far more than the previous 30 years or so.

And as time, and the years, go on, I’m realizing more and more that the things that are valuable to me are less and less the things that gather dust, or rust, or whatever.  They’re the relationships I treasure with friends old and new.

Now go out there, and find some treasure. (and then come back and share what you found, you might help other people get out of their ruts with your stories.)

Take care,

Tom


We sang that in church a few weeks ago – (you can hear a version of it here) and I thought about that – what does it mean to “follow hard”?

It came to me in a camping trip my son Michael and I took to Shi Shi Beach (you can read about that trip in more detail here), on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State.

We should have made it to the trailhead by 1:00 that afternoon.  For various reasons we left much later than expected and got there at 4:30.  When we did, it was quite literally raining sideways.

We’d been told that it was a 3 hour hike, with a mile on the beach and, we’d heard, parts of the trail that were so muddy that boots got sucked off.

It was also February, and 3 hours after 4:30 would be well after dark – so we really felt like we needed to push it.

And Michael did.  Between the two of us, we managed to get down to the beach, and then we walked.  Hard, and fast, we walked.

The tide was out, the beach was flat, the sand was hard, and we walked in this little bubble of light from the flashlights.  Occasionally, Michael would ask if I needed him to slow down the pace a bit, and I said no, because while we’d been told it’d be “just a mile or so” down the beach, we didn’t really know how far we had to go, so going full tilt as far as possible seemed to make sense.

We did get there, and the very next morning, the weather turned so bad that the scoutmaster made the wise decision to leave – and that’s what we did.  There’s so much more to this – but this sets up the important part.

We left.

The tide had come in just after we got there, went out again overnight and was coming in again.  We had to be out of there before high tide.  There were parts of the beach that were up against a cliff, with logs that had been brought in over the years at the base, so it made decisions easy: you either walked out when the tide was out, or you waited till the tide was out.  Dilly dallying around meant you got to have waves and logs in your face while you had a cliff at your back.

Not a good option.

Michael and I started walking out early because of problems with my leg; we didn’t want to hold anyone up.  And so we walked.

Hard and fast, we walked.

But this time it was different.  The only hard sand had waves lapping on it already, so we couldn’t walk there.  The only sand we could walk on was now steep, soft, and at this moment, still dry, the kind you walk through more than you walk on, especially with heavy packs.  In all this, we had to race that tide that was coming in so we wouldn’t get stuck on the beach.

And Michael, this time, did not ask if I wanted to slow down.

He didn’t ask if I needed to slow down, in fact, what he said was, “Keep it up, old man. I am not dropping the pace.”

And I followed.

Hard.

I tried to stay within 10 feet of him, sometimes it stretched out to 30 or so – but I followed – because right behind us was that tide.

I had to follow.

Hard.

I walked as fast as I could, with a stick for support, wind at my back, incoming waves to my left, rain and hail soon to follow.

Rest had to wait.

Pain had to wait.

Hunger had to wait.

Even thirst had to wait.

The deep sand had to be pushed through.

The creeks we’d come through on the way in had to be forded again on the way out.

The waves, dashed around.

Until we were off that beach, the only thing on my mind was following.

Hard.

And then it hit me.

To follow hard is to focus on one thing and follow that.

Whatever it costs, however much it hurts, no matter how tired you are, you follow.

And when in Church we sing, “…and I will follow hard after you…” – it is Jesus who we are following.

And the tide? – I guess I see that as all the distractions of the world.

While we were aware of the waves, (you don’t turn your back on the ocean, ever, especially out there), not once did we stop to look at the waves until we were well off the beach, it would have taken time we didn’t have, and energy we didn’t have, from achieving our goal.

And we did that.  We achieved our goal, and we did make it.  The tide drowned the beach underneath it just as we made it off the sand.

It was not easy.

It is not easy, and it can and does cost to do this.  There is no guarantee that we won’t be hit by some “rogue wave” in our lives, and honestly, a lot of us are, but as I think about it – the more we “follow hard” after Jesus, the faster we’ll get off this beach, to safety.

Michael went back onto the beach and helped some of the younger scouts make it to the sheltered area we were in, and eventually we got everyone to safety.

Some months after I wrote the above, I realized I was pondering it a lot, and as often is the case, it got me thinking.  I realize that while I wrote the story because I had the image of that walk going through my head as we were singing in church, specifically, following Christ, accepting Him and His forgiveness, because hey, we’ve all screwed up, we’ve all sinned. It’s part of life.  Recognizing that, and recognizing that the forgiveness is there if we ask for it, is all part of what it’s like to “follow hard”.

I thought back to Michael going back out onto the beach, with the tide coming in, a hailstorm starting (this was in February, yes, camping in February) – knowing that we’d achieved our goal of getting off it – and how he went to help others do the same thing.

I realized that in anything we do – we will have the opportunity, many times over, to do that – to help people who come after us achieve their goal of “getting off the beach” whatever that beach is in their lives – and in doing so, sometimes we have to go out onto the beach again.  When we do that – with the waves crashing, and the hail coming, we then have to focus on that goal, to the point of being aware of, but not letting the storm and waves distract us from achieving it.

I thought some more, and learned that the song had more to teach me.

My mom, who reads these stories, has mentioned that this blog is my pulpit, so if you felt like you’ve just read a sermon, that’s cool.  But I realize that not everyone reading this is a Christian, I know some of you out there personally – most, I don’t.  And for you, this may not be a sermon, but just a story.  I’m okay with that.  I do hope and pray that the wisdom that He gives me in these stories is shared well, and that it blesses you in ways you can’t imagine right now.  I also realize that this concept of “Following Hard” could be applied to any goal worth pursuing.  And that thought alone has made me smile, realizing that in every challenge that I faced from that moment on, any challenging goal that I had to follow hard after, I would have both that trip to Shi Shi beach in my memory, and that song in my heart.

Tom Roush

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