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It’s funny what happens when the phone rings in our house. There are the usual calls from family and friends, the usual telemarketers that get ignored, and the usual wrong numbers. But every now and then we get a call that just has to be remembered.
The other day I got a call from a friend of my dad’s, who had worked with him in the Air Force over half a century ago. He told me a story from his youth that had stuck with him all these years, and – well…
…fade back with me
… to a long time ago, in a country far, far away, where a shepherd had members of his village both enthralled and in disbelief at how he had fought off two fire breathing beasts who had been attacking his flock of sheep. The beasts were bigger that he was, stronger than he was, and much, much faster than he was.
The beasts were metal, he said, and attacked over and over, terrifying the sheep, scattering them all across the meadow on the mountainside they were on.
And yet he fought them off.
And they never, ever bothered his sheep again.
Some people doubted him, but he stuck with his story, resolute in his claim that he was telling the truth.
But there is more to this tale.
See the job of being a shepherd is one of those jobs that is necessary, requires wisdom, bravery, and an understanding of a particularly unpredictable type of animal. But given those parameters, it hasn’t changed much in millennia. In fact, there are stories in the Bible about sheep, and shepherds, dating back thousands of years. The Christmas Story very clearly involves shepherds, get this, “Keeping watch over their flocks, by night”. It means the only thing predictable about the sheep was that they would get into trouble. The only thing unpredictable was what kind of trouble that might be. Given that, even at night the sheep couldn’t even be left alone without being protected or watched. The Bible doesn’t say whether the shepherds were protecting the sheep from poachers (likely) or predators (also likely) or their own stupidity (no, really). It should be simple, right? You keep the sheep happy, you keep the sheep where they can have food and water, you keep them out of danger, and keep the predators away from them.
And that should be it, right?
“Things just happen to sheep. I don’t know why it is, but if you have 15 horses, 20 cows and one sheep standing on a hill and a thunderstorm comes, lightning will hit the sheep. Every time.”
And in this case, the lightning came in the form of…
…well, again, let’s step back a bit, no, not just a bit, let’s travel, you and I, to a place completely foreign to the world of the mountain meadow.
There is no grass in this world.
There are no trees in this world.
There aren’t even parts of any sheep in this world, other than the wool that had been used to make the uniforms being worn in what was known as the ready room of a military airbase.
Those uniforms, when cared for, made young men look sharp, and two of the best of the bunch were very, very proud to wear them.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Clothes make the man” – and at some level, they do. The right clothes can make a young man look far more mature than one might expect, and in this case, when the two young men in question were barely out of their teens at 24, if you took the uniforms away, you’d have two young men who looked very much like they could be seen playing volleyball on a beach, or out for an evening with a lovely lady on each arm, without a care in the world.
This time, in a young man’s life, is a strange combination of development, with the body in almost peak condition, but not all of the brain has caught up with that peak condition of the body… See, the frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys growing into young men, that’s just not all there yet.
And yes, it is safe to make the assumption that this plays into the story.
See, this is the time when a young man often somehow manages to put a lot of money either making or buying a car or motorcycle far more powerful than he has any right to be driving, but these young men weren’t recklessly riding motorcycles with 50 horsepower or driving cars with 200. No, these young men had been trained by the military to fly the F-100 Super Sabre, which had two fully afterburning turbojet engines powerful enough to push the plane past the speed of sound.
That meant if the plane were flying at you, you’d have no warning that it was coming, because it was flying faster than the sound it was making. When it flew past, all the noise it had been making would show up in an instant in a sonic boom, and then you might hear it roar off, and that would be that.
So, the military could teach them how to fly, but only time (and experience) would teach them how to fly wisely.
Let’s go back to the ready room, where we join those on active duty, and those working maintenance, but who couldn’t do anything till the planes came back, all chatting, playing board games or cards, or studying maintenance manuals to help them understand the complex machines they would be repairing. In one corner, an old refrigerator grumbled as it kept drinks cool. The sound of the games and laughter going on inside was accompanied by a bass line of activity outside. Turboprops rumbled and turbojets whined as planes taxied to the end of the runway, and roared as they accelerated planes to takeoff speed and onto their missions. And, as was the custom, one man in the ready room had a hand held radio tuned to the tower frequency, just in case a pilot radioed something like this:
“EMERGENCY! We need to get in, losing hydraulic fluid!”
Chairs, cards, and manuals scattered across the floor as everyone rushed outside to see what they could do. Of course, there were procedures for this… They’d been practicing them for months, but this time it was clearly for real. The tide of humanity rushed back in through the one door. Manuals were pulled off shelves, checklists were consulted, and all aircraft not declaring the emergency were cleared from the area. All had to land at other airports, some barely had enough fuel to get there, but an emergency was an emergency, and at the risk of creating another possible emergency, the pattern had to be clear for the one they were sure about.
Eventually, those in the tower with binoculars looked downwind and saw two planes, one rock steady, and another one clearly struggling to keep the pointy end forward and wings level.
By this time, all other airborne aircraft had been redirected and the runways and approach patterns were clear. The fire engines were already growling their way out to their appointed positions near the runway in case they were needed. There were still 75 fighters parked in rows outside that there wasn’t time to move out of the way, but both planes managed to make a safe landing, and they taxied to the flight line, shutting down without incident.
The pilots climbed out, and both of them gathered around the crippled plane. One kneeled down and saw a huge dent, then a gaping hole in the bottom of the fuselage, leading to the main hydraulic pump where the lines and pump itself were mangled. They knew what had happened, the question now was explaining it. As they were trying to figure that out, standing there looking at the growing puddle of the last of the hydraulic fluid, the squadron commander, a, dignified man, his maturity showing in his bearing, his spotless uniform, and the graying of closely cropped hair at his temples, came out to find out what the nature of the emergency was.
Understand, that to get to his position in that country, and in the military in general, he had to have some experience in letting people know what kind of behavior was acceptable and what was not. He also had to have some experience getting his thoughts across succinctly, with very little room for interpretation. He took one look at the plane, which, despite the fact that they were not at war with anyone, looked like it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. As commander of the squadron, this plane was his responsibility. Any damage to it would be expensive, both financially and in the terms of someone’s career. The consequences of those thoughts came out succinctly, and with little room for interpretation.
“What? Am I going mad? What happened to the plane?”
The two young pilots looked at each other, and clearly had to explain something. The only question was how. The looks on their faces were the looks of young boys with their hands caught in the world’s biggest cookie jar. One of them cautiously tried to explain:
“We… we were intercepted.”
The look the commander gave them could have easily blistered paint.
“You were what? Intercepted? By whom? The Enemy? Where were you? Who intercepted you?”
The other pilot, before he could think of something that sounded more sane, blurted out, “The shepherd.”
“The what? You were intercepted by a shepherd?”
There followed a long diatribe about the logic of a supersonic jet fighter being intercepted by an old shepherd who was supposed to be watching a flock of clearly subsonic sheep.
Slowly but surely the story came out.
It seems that inside the uniforms of those two first lieutenants were indeed two 24 year old kids, who might otherwise be driving fast cars and chasing pretty girls.
Instead, they were flying fast planes and chasing thousands of sheep.
They’d seen them on the way back from a mission, and decided to have a little fun, so they dove down on the sheep, pulling up at the last second, low enough to singe the wool on the sheep that hadn’t scattered, and then they lit their afterburners to accelerate and climb, leaving their own thunder to fade as the sound and smell of scattered, panicked, and smoldering sheep spread all over the hillside. Time after time they climbed to altitude, then dove on the sheep, laughing behind their oxygen masks,
Eventually, the shepherd, neither he nor his sheepdogs able to defend against this kind of attack, in an act of desperation and pure defiance, waited until the plane came again, and heaved the biggest rock he could find up at it.
The Super Sabre, flying over 400 mph as it buzzed the sheep, flew directly into the rock just as it was pulling up, and the rock took out enough of the hydraulic system to immediately cause a Christmas tree of warning lights to flash brightly on the instrument panel. There were clearly some serious, immediate problems, and being that close to the ground was not the place to be with problems, so they climbed up for as much altitude as they could get and headed back to base, declaring their emergency to anyone who would listen.
The pilots were reprimanded, and were given quite a bit of time in the brig on base to allow the frontal lobes of their brains to be realigned with reality so they would understand the consequences of their actions. The cost of all those planes that had been diverted, the crew and staff who ended up at bases not their own, all the fuel that had been burned getting them there, passengers who had missed connections, meetings, and flights, cargo that hadn’t been delivered, plus the cost of the repair, refit, and testing of the airplane, which was a figure far more than the two pilots made in a decade, much less a year, slowly sunk in over the weeks and months.
But the plane was repaired and flew again.
The pilots eventually learned their lessons and flew again.
The shepherd and the sheep, on the other hand, were all but forgotten.
And that bit – that little bit about the shepherd – got me thinking.
See, one of the things I’ve learned over the years takes me back to one of those first things I mentioned about shepherds. For the most part, the sheep are unaware of them, unless or until they’re needed, like when there’s danger, or when there’s trouble.
Then the sheep are very aware.
Kind of like us.
I found myself thinking back to the Christmas Story – where the shepherds were watching their flocks – who should have been sleeping – but the sheep were so valuable that the owner felt they were worth protecting, so he made sure there was someone watching them, protecting them, guarding them, 24/7. And understand, just because the shepherds were out there with what looked like a peaceful postcard image doesn’t mean they were weak.
Oh no, not at all…
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep needed to be protected from predators.
Kind of like us.
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep got themselves into trouble and had to be searched for and found.
Kind of like us.
And sometimes, like us, they had to be protected from themselves.
Kind of like us…
Day or night.
I thought some more…
If we’re not careful and either wander out of sight of the Shepherd who protects us, or get so involved in our own lives and our own pursuits that we lose sight of the Shepherd who protects us from fire breathing beasts, we do run the risk of being burned by those flames.
It makes me thankful for that Shepherd we have, the One who protects us when we don’t even know it…
For that matter, especially when we don’t know it.
It gave me a far greater understanding, and respect, for shepherds, and for our Shepherd.
And I found my thoughts drifting back to a small village in a country, far, far away, where now live the grandchildren of a shepherd who was revered by the villagers for a story he told, how he fought off two enemies much bigger, much stronger, and much, much faster than he was.
With nothing more than a rock.
And I realize that on many levels, it’s a true story.
© 2013 Tom Roush, all rights reserved
I saw an article awhile back in the Sidney Daily News about expanding the airport there, and it made me think of the last time I’d been out there.
It was – wow – I just did the math and it was half my lifetime ago… I was working as a photojournalist intern for the Sidney Daily News at the time, and got a call on the pager we had from the Sheriff’s department that there had been a plane crash at the airport. That was definitely news. At that time, I hadn’t yet been to the airport, so wasn’t sure what to expect.
The only other situation I’d seen like that was about 9 years earlier (May of 1978) of an F-106 crash where the pilot had lost the engine on takeoff, tried to steer the plane away from populated areas, which is hard to do when you’re taking off north from McChord AFB, in Tacoma, Washington. There are no unpopulated areas there, and the pilot stayed with the plane until he was sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the ground, then ejected. The plane, now pilotless, turned around and crashed into a pond in the center of an apartment complex just off the base. The pilot’s parachute opened literally just before he landed in the middle of an intersection, and astonishingly, no one was hurt. I got there soon after it happened, had a camera with me, but the pictures I got weren’t really much to see. The plane was close to vaporized, so it was hard to tell what you were even looking at. Some of the fuel in the plane burned, but the pilot, as I said, had been able to get out, and none of the three hundred people in the complex were even hurt.
I was hoping for something similar as I raced toward the airport in Sidney; that is, no one being hurt. But, being a photojournalist, I was simultaneously hoping for some dramatic images.
I got there, and there was hardly any evidence of anything. No lights, no sirens, no flaming wreckage, no plume of smoke, no Hollywood stunt doubles, nothing. I wandered into the lobby they had there for passengers and identified myself and asked about the airplane crash. Someone pointed me out to the runway, where I could now see a rudder and tail sticking up at an odd angle.
No one stopped me or even asked me what I was doing, they just let me go, so I walked out there and saw the result of not so much a crash, but a pretty hard landing.
I’ve been through a few hard landings. I’ve heard that a landing is simply a mid-air collision with a planet. I can see that, but the goal is to be a little more gentle. In fact, the desired way to land is to get the plane to stop flying just a little bit above the runway. I was once in a DC-8 that made a stop in Iceland where we were told the landing might be rough because of winds gusting up to 50 mph. And sure enough, the pilot flew the approach perfectly, then stalled the plane about 20 feet off the runway so hard we thought we’d see the landing gear come through the wings. The wings bent down so far we thought the engines would hit, then flapped up, catapulting the plane back into the air three times before it finally stayed on the ground for good. Hard as that was on our backs, we were willing to forgive him for that because of the winds, even though it was more of a controlled crash than a landing, but when he did the same thing when we landed at Frankfurt, where the wind was about 44 mph slower. Everyone but the chiropractors among the passengers were a bit annoyed. So hard landings are just that… Hard on the plane, hard on the passengers.
Well, it turned out the pilot in Sidney was a student, and had been on her final cross country flight. From what I was able to gather, this landing started out with a fine approach, but then ended up like that DC-8 landing, with the plane stalling out several feet above the runway, and then, instead of doing the desired gentle landing onto said runway, she smacked down into it, which, in the case of this plane, collapsed the nose gear, and the plane skidded on its nose and main gear off into the grass.
At one level I was very glad she was okay. At another level, I was trying to figure out what I could do with the picture. I’d walked around the crash site, gotten close enough to touch the plane, and had snapped a couple of the safe “I was there and had film in my camera” shots, just in case I could get nothing else. I learned early on that it’s important to get “the picture” that they can publish, and then get creative. That gave my editors a choice, depending on the other news of the day, which one to use, and which one might fit on the page. I wasn’t excited about the safe shot, I mean, I had it, which was good, but I decided to go a little further, and thought maybe contrasting this broken airplane with one that was functioning as expected would help bring things into a little better focus, so to speak.
So I checked with the FBO (Fixed Base Operator – the people running the airport) who had just heard over the radio that there were some investigators coming to, well, investigate the crash within about 20 minutes. Ideally, they’d be coming in that functioning airplane I was hoping for, and when I heard them on the radio on final approach, I went out to the runway to see what I could see and get into position for a shot that might be better than the other options.
I knew that by the time the plane landed and was taxiing toward me, its engine would be idling around 1,000 RPM or less, so chose 1/250th of a second for the shutter speed. That was enough to keep any camera shake that would be magnified by the long telephoto lens down, and at the same time, be open long enough to blur the propeller blades a bit, showing some motion.
Then I just found what should be the right spot and waited.
I saw them land, and saw I was in the right spot, and just waited as they came by. I knew I had the shot, and proudly developed the film, marking the negative (yes, this was before digital images) so it could be found easily in the darkroom for printing.
I left that night, knowing I’d gotten both the safe shot, and the good shot, and hoped they’d pick my favorite, but other news got in the way, and the shape of the good shot wasn’t what they could use, so it was good that I’d taken the safe shot, which they used. The next afternoon, I saw my picture had made page one, which was good, here’s what it looked like:
But it wasn’t the shot I’d hoped they’d use. I was frustrated at the time, because I’d done something so much better, and they didn’t publish it. I didn’t know the big picture, I just knew I wasn’t seeing mine. But you know what? I learned about a lot more than photojournalism that day. I learned, that sometimes, doing your job, and doing your best, may not be the same thing. Over time, I started to understand the bigger lesson there. You may do something at work, or something in your personal life that you really feel passionate about, and you think you’ve done a good job, but someone else is making decisions that affect you and whether your work gets recognized, or even seen. Sometimes you can’t change that, and it’s best to learn from it, let the frustration go, and move on.
The thing is, I still remember the days at the Sidney Daily News with fondness, full of lessons far more valuable than any tuition could ever cover, full of people I might see once, or who I might still keep in touch with years later, and full of adventures that still make me smile.
I mean, think about it – I was driving around and taking pictures that told stories, and the pictures were seen by thousands of people every day. I got to do things most people never get to do until they’re retired, which was the ability to go where I wanted to go, hang out and chat with interesting folks, and tell the stories of their lives.
And I was getting paid to do it!
How cool is that?
Oh – the picture that didn’t get published?
I printed a copy for myself.
Just to prove to myself that I was there, and that I had film in the camera…
So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here. For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you. For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you. For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you. For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really. And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published, so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, on a hill, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber. “
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written.
15. For the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand out as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries - in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
The other night some friends had an “Oktoberfest” – where they blocked off the street in front of their house. There was bratwurst, sauerkraut, potato Salad, and of course, beer. On top of it all, was this overwhelming oompah music.
It’s funny, as I was writing this story – I realized there was a theme in it that I hadn’t even noticed -
It took me back many years – the last time I was in Munich, when our friend Martin, his brother Wolfgang, my sister and I drove down there from the Ludwigsburg area where we lived, and took in the sights. We went to the park they’d made for the 1972 Olympics, went up the tower. You could see the BMW Museum from there, so we went to visit that, where I discovered that they absolutely don’t like you touching the artifacts (since I’m an official airplane nut, I was looking at, and in this case touching, a WWII airplane engine – I’d just reached out to touch it when I heard a very loud, very German voice on the loudspeaker shatter the otherwise almost reverent silence of the museum. I looked up and froze. The camera that had been aimed at the engine was now aimed straight at me, with a red, almost laser like light on it that made it clear I’d been both spotted and caught.
Yup… Deer in the headlights, that’s me.
It was very clear that I was to keep my hands off the merchandise…
The tone in the fellow’s voice made it very easy to imagine that in a control room somewhere, a security guard must have been marking a little notch in what would translate as his gunbelt… “Yep, got another one…”
I was embarrassed, and not just a little terrified, but what could I do? So we left. By this time it was afternoon, and went to the German Museum where they had all sorts of exhibits and displays, and for whatever reason we started at the bottom, and were in the middle of this exhibit on some kind of ancient Babylonian or Mesopotamian stuff when the lights started flashing and we thought either there was a power outage or – then the siren went off.
I figured I’d touched something wrong.
Turns out it was neither.
It was the fact that the place was closing down, and of all things, at 4:00 on a freaking Tuesday. With me being the aforementioned airplane nut, instead of going straight for the airplanes, we’d wanted to see everything, and were planning on saving the best (airplanes) for last. When I heard on the loudspeaker the rough German equivalent of “Attention K-mart shoppers, the store will be closing in 5 minutes, please take your purchases to the checkout stand.” – okay, so it wasn’t K-mart shoppers, it was all of us who’d come thousands of miles to see the exhibits, only to find out at the last second that the place was closing before we could see everything. On that realization I just about went nuts and tore out of the Babylonian exhibit into the lobby area. I looked around, found the signs to the second floor and tore up saw this huge curved staircase to the second floor where the airplanes were. I was running so fast that it’s possible to truthfully say that I ran rings around a V-2 Rocket (okay, so the rocket was in the center of the curved staircase I was taking two and three steps at a time), and I arrived panting at the door of the hall the planes were displayed in just as a rather burly, and fairly stubborn, guard locked the door from the inside. (Note: you don’t get much more stubborn than German stubborn, unless you’re talking Hungarian stubborn – don’t ask me how I know this
I tried to plead my case, but my Schwäbisch accent was no match for his Bavarian accent and attitude – and he was the one with the lock in the key. I could only look through the now smudged windows at the planes I’d come to see, neither realizing, nor being able to convince the guard, that this might be my only chance to ever see them. He didn’t seem to care. I remember seeing a two seater Me-262 and the only Do-335 in the world – oddly, without the swastika on the rudder, like most planes of the time had had – but then I realized, even then, that the echoes of WWII were still there, and the law was clear: absolutely no swastikas – even if they made something historically accurate. You couldn’t even buy a model WWII airplane with the right decals…
Once the doors were closed, there wasn’t anything else to do there – I was so frustrated at the time I don’t even remember taking a picture of anything. Wolfgang, Martin, and my sister showed up about then, and, knowing that this was something we – especially I – had wanted to see, they tried to get me out of my funk… I mean, getting kicked out of – well, “encouraged” to not come back to the BMW museum until I could behave was one thing… Having the dang exhibits in the German Museum close in my face was another.
We were hoping to not make it a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of thing, but I was seriously frustrated.
It was hard to acknowledge it at the time, but aside from that, we’d had a pretty good day. We’d driven well over 100 mph on the famed Autobahn, to the point where slowing down to 60 when we got into Munich made us want to get out and push, we’d seen priceless works of art, items that were literally one of a kind on the planet – and – it was almost as if Ferris Bueller had taken a day off and gone to Munich, instead of going to Chicago. Somewhere in there we got onto a subway and got out at the Marienplatz in the square in Munich and watched the famed clock tower (or Glockenspiel) strike, I think it was 5:00 in the evening by the time we got there – and our friends, realizing it was dinnertime and still trying to help overcome the last Museum bust, wanted to take us to this place they called the “Hofbräuhaus”
We were tired, had done a LOT of walking, and were to the point of not even caring anymore, but they insisted, so we went in – and were suddenly surrounded – no – immersed – in Bavaria at its finest.
To say that the Hofbräuhaus had atmosphere would be like saying water is wet, and this atmosphere was thicker than the proverbial pea soup.
First: The music. I know there are people who think that the definition of “perfect pitch” is when the accordion you just tossed out lands on the banjo. I’m not sure how many banjos there were, and I didn’t take any pictures, but Lordy, you have never, ever heard “Ooompah” music till you’ve heard it played by a bunch of well lubricated Bavarians. (there was an accordion, a tuba, a baritone, I think a trumpet and a trombone)
Tourists like us were there, but it was the locals who were just a delight to watch. I’d heard the song most Americans know as the “Beer Barrel Polka” – but the words were a lot different, and came across sounding more like the music here: “Rosamunde”. (the video’s not from the Hofbrauhaus, but watch the crowd in the video to get a sense of what it was like).
It looked like the people in the band wouldn’t remember it the next morning. In fact, it seemed the band was on complete autopilot. Waitresses kept their steins full, and they played – well, like a well lubricated machine… it was a wonderful background to everything else. Occasionally the crowd would join in and we’d see people standing up, arm in arm, singing their lungs out.
Then there was smoke from any kind of tobacco, there was the astounding smell of beer. Not stale beer from a place that’s been serving beer for the last few years and hasn’t been cleaned up, but fresh beer that’s been poured in the place since 1589.
Like for more than 400 years.
There was a sign up at the front where the bartenders were filling the 1 liter steins as fast as they could, something to the effect of “Wet Floor” – and they weren’t kidding… there was beer all over the place, and you did want to be careful to not slip on it.
Why was there beer all over the place?
Well, part of the answer lay in the regulars. It seems that the place has special tables for them. A lot of them are pensioners who live in apartments nearby and come for the camaraderie, the social aspect, the food, and of course, the beer. What’s surprising about them is the vast quantities of beer some of them can put away. I was talking to a fellow who’d been there a few times, and had seen this little old man, couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, put away several liters, every evening, every time he showed up. These are guys who by any other definition would be considered alcoholics – but there, they show up (and have been showing up) daily for years, and they have their usual table, the waitresses know them, know their orders, and keep them happy by keeping their beer mugs full.
Now those waitresses, to keep from having to make too many trips to serve a table, take as much as they can carry with every trip. This means that invariably, some glasses spilled, some fell, some broke, (hence the warning signs about the wet floor) but for the most part, the beer gets to where it needs to be.
So it was this expectation that helped set up our next encounter. We were led to our table, and as the waitress came over, we realized we’d spent most of our money on museums, trips up the tower, and souvenirs. We pooled all our money together and realized that if we subtracted the money for the souvenirs we wanted to buy there, subway money to get back to the car, gas money to get the car back to Ludwigsburg, that left us with enough for – um – one beer.
Split four ways.
So one of the things that’s important to know is that a good percentage of the tourist photos show gorgeous young Bavarian women serving beer in places like this.
The real ones aren’t hired for their looks. They’re hired because they can carry, over the course of a shift, hundreds of liters of beer to their customers. They keep the customers from getting too thirsty, they keep them from getting too hungry, and they keep bringing whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied and happy, as they’ve been doing for several centuries.
Our waitress looked like she’d been there since the place opened.
She looked tired.
And it looked, from everything we could see about her, that she’d had a day we, as tourists, couldn’t possibly imagine. She looked like we were her last table and she was looking forward to going home, soaking, then putting the feet she’d been on all day up and getting a chance to rest a bit before starting it all over again.
She just had this one last table to deal with, and at that table were four teenagers and a pile of change.
She straightened her apron out a bit as she got to our table and was all business:
“Also, was möchten sie?”
(Her words said, “So, what would you like?” but her tone said the Bavarian equivalent, “So, what’ll it be?”)
We looked at each other, swallowed, and then together, said, “Ein Bier.” (one beer)
“Also gut… Vier Bier.“
(“Right… Four beers”)
„Nein… EIN Bier.“
(“No, actually, ONE beer.“)
„EIN BIER? Da sind ja doch vier von Euch!“
(“ONE BEER? But there’s FOUR of you!?“)
She looked at us with a combination of disgust and disdain that can only be done by German and French waiters. Add to that a look of confusion, like a mathematician who’d just discovered that dividing by zero didn’t work. In her world, one customer = many beers, not the other way around.
We kind of stared at each other, and it was then that we realized the first rule of the Hofbrauhaus:
It is not, repeat, NOT a good idea to – um – ‘irritate’ a Bavarian waitress… I don’t care how many weights you’ve lifted, they’ve lifted more, they’re stronger than you are, and they do it for eight hours at a stretch.
As we were coming to that conclusion, the day finally got to her and she absolutely went off on us. I don’t remember her exact words, but they translated roughly to:
“How can you possibly expect me to make any money if my customers only order one beer? I mean, you’re sitting there taking up four spots, and only ordering ONE beer? There’s no way you’re ordering one beer, that’s not just unheard of, that’s an insult.”
Uh… right… insults were off the table.
Then again, now that she had set her expectations: “Also, was möchten sie?”
(Again, her words said, “So, what would you like?” but the tone said, “Alright, really, let’s get this show on the road… what else are you going to order that is going to make it worth my time to even see your faces again?”)
We dug deeper into pockets, wallets, whatever might have a little extra money, and ordered some kind of pork roast, some sauerkraut, and I think there might have been some mashed potatoes.
And one beer.
And oh, my, it was good.
The beer was strong enough to pack a bit of a punch, but between the four of us, none of us had enough to worry about. The pork was amazing, and the sauerkraut was something you’d just have to go there to experience. It was amazing. We pooled enough money for a tip, left what we could there, then headed out into what was now night..
We got to the subway, then to the car, but didn’t drive 100 on the autobahn this time. This time we slowed down to about 80 mph.
Because it was dark.
And because it was raining off and on.
Martin wanted to be safe and drive even slower, but there’s something about German drivers and the autobahn, and by golly, they’ll drive as fast as they can. We were constantly having to move over so that other cars could pass us. The law’s pretty clear over there. If someone wants to pass you, you let them. Martin had been moving back and forth and was getting tired of it, so decided to stay in the fast lane. One driver made his thoughts very clearly known to us by getting so close that I, in the back seat, couldn’t see his headlights past the trunk lid. Martin finally moved over, and the last thing I remember of that day was that the silhouette of a Porsche 911 with a glowing exhaust pipe as it passed us.
Oh – and we did get home. I’d managed to save enough for one souvenir that actually survived the trip back, and that I still have after all these years.
This is a story about cars.
Well, more than just cars…
One complete car.
Parts of two others.
And me, who used the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® I was so blessed with at the time.
Wait – a better way to describe “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®” is “Stupidity beyond comprehension” – and before I get any notes from angry teenagers, read on, and see if you don’t see yourself in this – (note: don’t try this at home – or, for that matter, anywhere else. )
So aside from me, the cars involved in today’s story were:
A 1965 Saab 95 – with a three cylinder, two stroke engine of a whopping 46 cubic inches. (for comparison: a standard Harley Davidson has almost twice that, about 80 cubic inches, across two cylinders).
A 1956 VW Bug (but mainly the engine – an original 1956, 36 horsepower, 4 cylinder, air cooled, ORIGINAL Bug engine)
And a 1972 Ford Ranchero, with a 390 Cubic inch V8 under the hood, with a 4 barrel carburetor, dual 2 ½ inch exhausts that made a barely passing attempt to muffle the roar of the engine.
It was said it could pass anything but a gas station, and I learned much later, how true this was. Of course, this was back when I was irritated at gas costing a whole 66 cents a gallon, and refusing to buy it at that price…
The Ranchero belonged to my uncle, and I’d had some trouble with the Saab, the kind that had the engine sitting on the shop floor while we figured out how to drill a rather important broken bolt out of it.
This took a bit longer than expected, and I had to do something that evening, before we were able to get the engine back in the Saab.
You see, I was the cadet commander for the McChord Composite Squadron of Civil Air Patrol, and one of the things I did was teach the younger cadets about anything having to do with aviation, leadership, and in general being a good cadet.
One part of aviation is airplane engines, and so I figured, given that I was trying to restore a 1956 Bug, which happened to have an air-cooled engine of the same configuration as many airplane engines, I’d planned on using it to demonstrate to the younger cadets what an airplane engine might look like.
I’d been gathering parts for the Bug for some time, and had found, for $100.00, an absolutely bone stock, original, 36 horsepower engine actually out of another 1956 bug that had been in a front end collision. With the gas tank in the front, the car burned, and was a total loss. The only thing worth saving was the engine, so the owner had taken it out of the car and put it in a garage and there it sat for a couple of decades. It still had the original distributor cap on the distributor, still turned, and interestingly, still had oil in it.
To actually, run, it would need to be rebuilt, (the spark plug wires were a little crumbly from the heat of that fire) but you didn’t find engines like this very often, and I was absolutely thrilled to have it.
However, I’d planned on taking it to the Civil Air Patrol meeting in the back of the Saab, and the engine of that car was sitting on the floor of my uncle’s shop.
My uncle, bless him, offered to loan me his Ranchero.
Now understand, I was used to an engine with three cylinders the size of coke cans pulling me along.
The Ranchero’s engine had 8 cylinders the size of small Central American countries, and had about 7 times the power of the Saab.
In fact, let’s just say that the gas pedal on the Ranchero worked really, REALLY well. In fact, it worked far, FAR better than the gas pedal of any car driven by a teenager should work.
And then there were the brakes.
Oh my gosh, it had disk brakes, 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
The ones I had in the Saab were little itty bitty drum brakes that I thought sucked – and it turned out I was right… only two of the four brake shoes on the front of that Saab actually worked at the time.
The difference was incredible.
I was used to a certain level of acceleration from the Saab (a speed rivaled by melting glaciers, I might add), and it became very obvious, very fast, that I would have to recalibrate my right foot for the increased acceleration available in the Ranchero.
What was not obvious was that I would have to do the same for the increased deceleration – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took the Ranchero home, backed it up to where the VW engine was and then just kind of stood there, trying to figure out how to get the engine up into the back of the thing. Eventually I got some planks, and slid the engine up onto the bed on them, getting it into the back by myself, and with the engine loaded in the back, I shut the tailgate on the bottom and the canopy gate on the top.
By this time, what with the original problem with the Saab, plus the loading of the engine and such, by the time I put my Civil Air Patrol uniform on and got in the car, I was quite a bit later than I thought I would be, and so I did the rather typical teenage thing.
I tried to turn my uncle’s Ranchero into a time machine.
There was an 8 mile stretch of two lane road that I’d driven many, many times in the Saab, and with the acceleration that it had (imagine that under the hood are three hibernating squirrels (because of the glacier mentioned earlier) who had NO intention of accelerating the car enough to pass someone that’s going too slow for an impatient teenage driver) I’d learned that if I were driving that Saab, there were only two or three spots on this 8 mile stretch that were actually safe to pass another car in. So my standard process, regardless of impatience, was to fade back from the car I was about to pass and wait until I had plenty of clear space in front of me and lots of clear space in the oncoming lane before I started to pass someone.
When the time was right, I’d floor it to get a running start, staying directly behind the person I was about to pass, because I needed the draft that their car pushing through the air provided to keep my speed up. I’d then, at the last second, pull out and pass them, assuming everything was clear. If it wasn’t, or if I didn’t get enough speed up, or my timing was off and there was still oncoming traffic by the time I (the passer) got up to the person I was passing (the passee) I’d have to try to abort the pass, and with the brilliantly functional brakes (sarcasm intended) on the Saab, trying to abort a pass at that late stage could be a touch challenging.
I mean, by the time I got to the point of making the decision to pass, I’d be gaining on them at about 10-20 mph. And at the last moment, I faced one of two choices
- If there was still no oncoming traffic, I’d pull out and pass them.
- If there was oncoming traffic, I’d have to abort the pass, which would give me the following decisions: I could
- Rear end them (generally undesirable at that speed)
- Whip out into oncoming traffic and risk a head on collision… (significantly less desirable at that speed) or
- Slam on the brakes and hope and pray that I had enough brake shoes making contact with brake drums to actually slow me down to keep from rear ending them.
So there I was, late… impatient as all getout… not in the underpowered Saab I was used to, but in this car that was not my own…
…that had more power under my right foot than I’d ever had in my life.
…that had more braking power than I’d ever had under my right foot in my life.
…and that had more rubber on the road in two of its four tires than I had on all four Saab tires.
Now just between you and me, I’m thinking this is a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, let’s find out…
I made it about 3 ½ miles from home, and on this road, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to matter what time of day you’re driving it, there will be someone who isn’t in nearly as much of a hurry as you are… In this case, I was stuck behind someone who insisted on going 50 mph (which was below speed limit). I was late and impatient, and in my teenage mind, I just couldn’t take any of that, so I waited for a clear spot I’d used in the Saab, hit my blinkers, the gas pedal (oh… my…) and pulled out to pass.
Now one of the things to know about this road is that a lot of it is in shadow most of the day, with occasional little spots where there is sunshine.
I was in that sunshine, passing the car that was driving so slowly, and I was passing him like I’d never, ever passed a car before.
This time, I had room to pass.
This time, I was going way, way faster than the person I was passing.
This time, everything was going to end up just peachy.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, this is when a bright flaming red 1974 VW Bug popped out of the shadows about a quarter of a mile ahead of me.
There’s no radiator on the front of this thing, it’s all bright freaking red.
Like a stoplight.
And it didn’t look like it was a quarter of a mile away, it looked like it was a hundred yards away, and coming at me with a closing speed of about 130 miles an hour (figuring my 75 plus his 55). I knew, in that moment that I had to do something, and do it quickly.
So I, using my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® did what would have made sense if I were driving the Saab, which would have been to stop badgering the hibernating squirrels under the hood and stand on the brake pedal, trying to avoid a head on collision.
But remember, I wasn’t driving the Saab.
I was driving the Ranchero.
And as I said, I was doing about 75 miles an hour – which is fast for that road, (impossible for that Saab) but is also a good passing speed for a short distance, and, well, let’s put it this way:
My body was driving the Ranchero.
My brain was still in Saab mode.
And with that big bright red Bug in front of me, I did the only thing I could possibly think of doing.
I hit those brakes.
…those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
With, remember, more rubber on just the front wheels than the Saab had on all four.
The Ranchero went from 75 to about 45 like it had hit a brick wall.
The driver I was passing had to be confused beyond words, I mean, here’s this blur of a car roaring past him, not like he’s standing still, but like he’s going backwards. He’s expecting to see tail lights any second, but what he saw were brake lights out the side window, the back of the Ranchero kicked up, the nose went down, and then it simply disappeared.
He looked around, and the next thing he knew, it was behind him again, weaving around a little bit, but definitely back there.
What the driver of that car didn’t know was that while the Ranchero had those huge brakes, the classic 36 horsepower 1956 VW Bug engine, the one with the original everything including the crumbly spark plug wires all the way down to the spark plugs, didn’t.
In fact, it decided to maintain its speed for about 8 feet, at which point it hit the front of the bed of the Ranchero. It did this by rolling, yes, rolling to the front of the bed, where it sat, wounded and bleeding 25 year old dinosaur juice all over the bottom of the bed while I tried to swerve back into my lane so I didn’t end up squished between not one, but two VW engines (one from the red VW in front of me coming at me, and one from the wounded and bleeding engine behind me).
On top of it all, I was stunned, shocked, embarrassed, and furious at myself for not only not having thought this through, but for doing something so stupid in the first place, but there was nothing I could do but seethe as the person in front of me tootled along for the next 4 ½ miles, definitely below the speed limit.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but remember, I was operating under Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, and I knew that when we got to the next intersection, I’d be able to turn left, onto a multi-lane road, and I’d be able to pass him.
Which is exactly what I set out to do when we got there.
The light turned green, the slow driver ahead of me turned left and went into the outside lane. The rumble of the 390 in the Ranchero turned into a roar as I turned left, cut inside him, and floored it.
I heard all those cylinders firing, I heard the transmission whine, I heard those two exhausts roar, and I heard my 1956 VW Bug engine , its ability to travel completely lubricated now by all that ancient oil between it and the bed of the Ranchero, sliding, trying to make a hasty exit out the back.
I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see it hit the closed tailgate and knock it open.
All I could imagine in that blink of an eye was the guy I’d just passed wondering why it hadn’t been enough for me to pass him like that, why he was now being passed by an old VW engine sliding down the road – without even a car attached to it.
I couldn’t let that happen, so with the image of the engine popping open both the top and bottom tailgates frozen in my mind, I remembered just enough of my physics, and did the only thing I could possibly do at the time.
I hit the brakes.
(Yes, those brakes)
Those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
Attached to a veritable plantation of rubber…
…and the engine (the VW one) came rolling back to the front of the bed, where it lay, like a prize fighter down for the count.
I pulled over.
I just couldn’t drive any further right then, with the back open and the engine sitting there all cattywompus, so I got out and checked the tailgate. It was fine. I shut it to see if it would, actually, shut, (it did) but one look at the engine, and it was a mess. The distributor cap was broken, the rotor inside the cap was broken, various important fan shroud pieces were now dented and mangled.
I opened the tailgate again and got up in the back, trying to keep myself from slipping or getting too oily in my clean uniform. I managed to manhandle the engine upright, (which is a challenge when you’re trying to keep your shoes and knees out of the oil on the ‘floor’ there – and an even harder challenge when you realize how very little room you have trying to stand up in the back of a Ranchero with a canopy on it). I pushed it all the way to the front of the bed, knowing that hitting the brakes would put it there anyway. That oil coating the bottom of the bed now really changed things a bit, so I had to be extra careful, and I still had to get to the Civil Air Patrol meeting, where I’d be teaching the cadets about all the exciting things they could learn about aviation.
Remember, I was the commander, and I was supposed to look sharp, and be calm, cool, and collected.. Having a greasy uniform wasn’t an option, so after getting the engine all upright and everything, I wiped my hands on the only thing available (the ground) and drove, very, VERY carefully out to McChord, to train my cadets.
They learned a little, and I managed to get myself, the Ranchero, and the VW engine home safely.
But I think, as I look back, I learned more.
I learned that impatience can be expensive, and dangerous.
I learned that otherwise intelligent people can do stupid things.
And the cadets, who looked up to me both figuratively and literally, had absolutely no idea, as leaderly as I looked, how fully capable I was of doing stupid things that would boggle their minds, and in my impatient attempt to get there on time, how close I came to not getting there at all.
Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks. Some of these things are legal, some are not. Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry. There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.
And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.
And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out. It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.
One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.
It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.
Was it entertaining?
Did it fly well?
It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.
It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…
I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…
What could possibly go wrong? Right?
In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.
We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing. We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.
So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.
Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.
The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.
I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell. I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.
By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.
I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car. It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again. That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers. The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.
Jimi was just beside himself.
I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was. The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.
I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.
It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.
We just laughed and laughed and laughed.
And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.
I miss him.
For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.
Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”
Yeah, we supervised alright.
It was a good day.
Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.
Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.
I had to have a meeting with the head of security at work last week.
In his office…
We decided to get some fresh air while we were doing it.
And some scenery…
He let me lead the meeting for a bit while he was researching some stuff – (full frame shot there)
And I didn’t have to use the barf bag at all – (though I was sure thinking about it – seems the resonant frequency of my tummy means 120 mph isn’t a good thing… 90 mph works fine.
Finally it was time to call the meeting to a close…
And I sat in the airport lobby for awhile – just letting my tummy settle down – it was good to let that happen.
It was fun – too much other stuff going on – I simply had to take the day off to try to decompress.
Take care folks -
So based on Greg’s comment on last week’s story about me ‘embellishing’ things – I just had to put this story up. It happened in August of 2010, and like a lot of my stories – it started out as an email to a friend, in this case, one who’d told me to go out and do something fun that weekend.
It involved Greg.
And he gave me permission (well, actually, told me I had to) write this story.
So without too terribly much editing, here’s the story/note I wrote to my friend who wanted me to go do something fun, and come back with pictures to prove it…
I chatted with my buddy Greg for a few hours in the parking lot of the Museum until the coffee we’d drunk earlier at Randy’s needed a place to go…
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Greg and I had been sitting in my ’68 Saab, sharing stories, and watching the planes at Boeing Field. One of the stories involved something that had actually happened about 50 feet from where we were sitting right then, it was a story of me talking my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world, but before that, successfully badgering a newspaper photo editor I didn’t know,
…for a paper I’d never seen,
…into holding space on the front page
…for a picture I hadn’t taken yet,
…from a plane I had never been on,
…and was quite literally trying to talk my way onto.
We laughed, and Greg kept talking about my golden tongue and how I could talk my way into anything – using that B-29 as an example. I needed the laughter. I’d been feeling a little down about a lot of things, wondering about life and stuff, and recovering from some recent surgery, and Greg’s a very good friend, and did a lot of listening, and a lot of encouraging, for which I’m grateful.
Eventually, the coffee we’d had earlier needed to be dealt with, and since it was still raining, we just drove down toward a row of Porta Potties at the far end of the parking lot. As we did, we looked around and noticed we were one of only two cars in the formerly crowded lot. We saw that the other car was parked beside the Porta Potties we were heading for, right next to this canopy kind of a thing with a sign on it that said something like “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.
That got us talking about SR-71’s, (there’s one in the Museum of Flight) – and I told Greg about this one mission – the only one I could remember reading about right then, in which one of the pilots had flown from England to Libya, and on the way back out, the plane just flew faster and faster – and they had to hang a left to meet their tanker out by Gibraltar. They did (when you’re flying Mach 3+, that takes a bit of geography) – and the pilot pulled the throttles back over Sicily – and still ended up overshooting the refueling tanker over Gibraltar… (note: if my math is right, that’s about 1,100 miles of coasting – you can read the story here.
We stopped, Greg got out to take care of his stuff, and I took a second look at that sign, “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.
It was still raining, and under that canopy was a fellow, sitting in the only dry chair in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of empty, wet tables, all of whatever he was selling was gone – he was just sitting there with his feet up, talking on a cell phone.
In the parking lot.
In the rain.
Well heck, I figured that there couldn’t have been too many of those, I wondered if he knew the guy who’d done that Libya flight Greg and I’d just been talking about. So while Greg headed off to take care of his business, I approached him – and he motioned he’d be off the phone in a minute, so I waited, and while I was waiting I saw the name on his banner – “Brian Shul.”
Hmm… I had no idea who Brian Shul was, but it seemed like he must be that SR-71 pilot – or maybe know him.
He ended his call.
“Are you Brian?”
“I sure hope so, been signing his name all day.”
“Say, I was just telling my buddy here about an SR-71 pilot who did a mission out of Libya and ended up overshooting his tanker out by Gibraltar… “
“… and I was wondering if you happened to know who that pilot might be…”
“In fact – the whole story’s in my book, would you be interested in a copy?”
My mind was already several sentences past that last one before it came to a screeching halt and processed what I’d just heard.
“He… you… that pilot – waitaminute…”
I had no idea that I’d actually stumbled into one of my own stories – and turned around to see Greg, who’d heard that interaction as he was coming back, and saw his jaw do what mine must have done just seconds before, which was to simply obey the law of the acceleration of falling objects and hit the pavement of the parking lot in just under a second.
You see, one of the things we’d been talking about was how Greg thought I might have embellished some of my stories – and about how easy it can be to do.
But the funny thing is – if I tell a story – well, I tell a story… I don’t think I embellish it, I just tell it. (often they simply didn’t need embellishing, they just needed to be told well).
We talked with Brian for a bit.
I shook his hand.
I bought his book.
He autographed it for me.
Greg took a picture of him and me – beside my very definite “sub-sonic” Saab, because I needed proof to show a friend that I’d done something fun that weekend.
And the funny thing is, Greg and I both learned something that afternoon.
We learned that you never know when you’ll stumble onto – or into a story, and it had become very clear that I didn’t need to embellish a dang thing on this one, because no matter what anyone asked, it was absolutely true that at the very moment I was telling Greg the story of the SR-71, the very pilot of that plane in that story, was sitting not 100 feet away, under a canopy, in the rain, on the south end of the parking lot at the Museum of Flight, right next to the Porta-Potties.
What heaven must be like.
I’m an airplane nut who’s seen airplanes from the ground once too often.
I’m a cancer survivor who realizes that “someday” is not a day of the week, that life is not a dress rehearsal, and that I have been given a second, and actually a third chance.
I’m a guy who’s spent far too much time working and not enough time playing.
It’s been my dream to fly since I was a little boy, when my dad was in the Air Force, and when times were simpler, and the magic of the skies was still new and still fresh…
And I’d seen sailplanes, here in the states, and in Germany where I spent part of my growing up years, and there was a magic to them, an allure that no other airplane had. They would fly circles for what seemed like such a long time – and just magically stay in the sky.
I mean, to fly is simple…
There, you flew for a second.
Wanna fly longer?
Get a trampoline.
Wanna fly MUCH longer?
Well, now you’re talking wings of some kind – and that’s where things get interesting.
If you want to fly even longer than that – well, now you’re talking engines and propellers. And when you talk engines, then you need fuel, oil, electricity, a cooling system, and gauges to tell you what they’re all doing – and things get simultaneously a little simpler (to go up, push the throttle(s) forward, to go down, pull back on them), and a lot more complex (in addition to flying, you also have to manage all the systems that have anything to do with the power you have available with that throttle).
Another side effect of having an engine is that it also makes things noisy to the point of often having to wear earmuffs to filter out the noise…
They say that the main reason for the propeller is – well, it’s a fan to keep the pilot cool, because if it stops running when he’s in the air, he starts to sweat, but really – it’s to make the flying thing simple… Push forward on the throttle, go up.
Pull back on the throttle, go down.
So if that engine, whether that’s a piston engine, a jet, or rocket engine quits, you are now officially flying a glider. A Cessna 152, for example, will go forward about 9 feet for every one foot it goes down. It might do that at 60 mph. That’s called the glide ratio, in this case, it’s 9:1. The space shuttle – which is also a glider when it’s coming in, goes forward about 3 feet for every one foot it goes down, so a 3:1 glide ratio, it’s just that it does it a WHOLE lot faster, from a WHOLE lot higher up.
Now aside from those types of planes, there are planes that are designed from the get-go to fly without engines. They’re called Sailplanes, and the best of them can have a glide ratio where they’ll go forward 60 feet for every one foot they go down. They are truly, truly amazing works of engineering, craftsmanship, and art.
This means that the space shuttle, for all its engineering brilliance, has a glide ratio a lot closer to that of a crowbar or a brick than that of an actual airplane.
So I made myself a promise awhile back – I guess you could call it one of the things on my “bucket list” – that I would fly. There were so many things that kept me from doing it – but the other Sunday, I realized once again, that life is not a dress rehearsal, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that there is no contract anywhere that says anyone is obligated to give me tomorrow.
Realizations like that tend to be fairly deep.
The events that cause realizations like that are often quite a bit deeper.
But on the day I had this realization, the weather was perfect, and the next two weekends were the last of the season. I knew I’d be gone on one of them, and had no guarantee of the weather on the second one.
This made the decision relatively easy to make.
I asked my son if he wanted to get out of the house for the afternoon, and with such a perfect fall day, he agreed. I told my wife and daughter we were heading out for a bit – and I have to say that even though I wasn’t sure that I’d go flying – it seems I was subconsciously setting things up so that my options were never limited.
We drove for about an hour to get to this little airfield (Bergseth Field) out in the middle of nowhere – and on this gorgeous Fall day, they were as happy to see us as we were to be there…
We watched – and the difference between this airport and any other airport I’d been at in a long time was like the difference between a calm pool and a roiling river.
If you wanted to take off, they’d look up in the sky to see if there were any other planes coming in – and then you’d hear them yell ‘Pattern Clear” – and off they went, quite literally taking off from the edge of a cliff.
It seemed that for the exchange of a few little oval pictures of dead presidents, one could buy a ride in one of those sailplanes. Michael was more interested in me going than in going himself, so the exchange was made, and along with the pilot, I got into the two-seater sailplane, a Schweitzer 2-33. After I was buckled in, and Michael had handed me the camera, I looked right…
…and saw him smile, which told me I was doing the right thing, and that he was simply happy because I was living a dream.
We took off heading west for a bit, swung north, then did a 270 degree turn to the left, climbing the whole way…
Notice I said, “We took off…”
Something to realize is that flying a sailplane is the only type of aviation I’m aware of that has the aerial equivalent of calling a triple-A tow truck as a standard, expected part of the deal. You don’t take off like a normal airplane, because you have no engine. So you essentially ‘borrow’ one from somewhere. Some places have huge winches that launch you into the sky, some will use a car or other vehicle, some even use huge, huge rubber bands, and some will use another airplane – and that’s the one that’s the aerial equivalent of a tow truck. Very strong, very stable, very reliable.
And that’s the one we used.
As we climbed, near Enumclaw, Washington, the pilot of the tow plane turned toward nearby Mt. Rainier.
I was awestruck.
After we got up to altitude and the tow pilot had let us go, the pilot sitting behind me asked a simple and profound question…
“Would you like to fly?”
The little boy in me, the one who had wanted to fly for over 40 years, was jumping up and down so hard that the seat belts were strained and the canopy was in danger of cracking. The 40+ year old man that the little boy was in, sitting in the front seat of an old, but still graceful sailplane, tried to hold down his excitement and said, “Sure, I’d like to give it a shot”.
And for a moment, both the little boy and the man, held the stick for the first time.
And a breeze blew, and Heaven’s curtain parted for a moment to allow me to peek inside.
The pilot brought me back into the cockpit by asking if I could keep the wings level, and the nose just below the horizon. I’d done it often enough in my dreams that it was easy.
He had me turn the plane south, and I learned that when you bank a sailplane to the right, for example, the plane wants to go straight for two reasons, one, it just likes the whole equilibrium thing, and two, the drag and the leverage from the aileron on the “upwing” side pulls that wing back a bit, turning the nose left, not right. I gently pressed the right rudder pedal with my right toe, got the nose going the right way – and I learned what was meant by ‘seat of the pants flying’ – you really do feel it in the seat of your pants.
We turned again, and the pilot complimented me on the turns and asked if I’d flown before.
In dreams and in my mind?
The adult in me was soaring – I was above the cares of the world, and nothing else mattered.
But the altimeter unwound just like a timer, when there was no more altitude, our time would be up. He landed it, and I saw my son smiling as he walked toward us.
His smile matched my own, but for different reasons. He was simply happy for me to have finally lived that dream.
So was I… So was I…
We talked a bit as we drove home, about life, and the usual things, but my mind kept drifting back up to that blue, blue sky, and I found it hard to keep both feet on the ground when I’d held the sky in my hands.
(C) 2011 Tom Roush
A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in college, I’d often find myself driving through McChord Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in large part because
a) I could, and
b) there were SO many cool airplanes there.
One weekend they had an actual air show, with the Thunderbirds, and aerial demonstrations of guys jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, explosions, the whole works. It was great. I got to walk around the flight line and look at planes up close I’d only been able to look at from a distance, and in some cases, I was able to go out and either touch them or actually, the most fun, sitting in the cockpit of a military airplane, and pretending to fly it, you know, just like you do when you’re a kid.
So later that week, after the airshow was over in reality, but I was still reliving it in my mind, I happened to go over to McChord, and look out at that very same flight line, and of all things, found an F-4 Phantom in the very last spot on the left. This is a plane that sucks down more gas in a minute than your car does all year. Speaking of cars, I parked mine in a legal zone (no, really) and was just drawn to the Phantom.
I walked over toward it, with my hands behind my back – I wanted to be sure that if anyone did see me and had this feeling like I shouldn’t be there, that my hands were in a very obvious spot of not being able to do anything…
The plane was facing away from me, and I walked around it clockwise, starting on the left side and working my way around. I looked at, but didn’t touch those elevators that were angled down so sharply.
I walked further, hands still behind my back, and ducked under the wingtip, which is angled up ever so slightly.
I looked into the engine intakes, imagining how much air they must have sucked in as those big J-79 engines spooled up.
I couldn’t see into the cockpit, but walked around the front of the plane – still careful not to touch anything, and made it back around the other side, and finally came to the gaping maw that was the back end of those engines. The F-4’s engines have what are called ‘afterburners’ – which means simply that if you have the jet engine running at full throttle, and the engine simply can’t put out more thrust, you start pumping buckets of fuel into the hot exhaust – where it – well, it doesn’t ‘explode’ – but all those pictures you see of military planes with 20-30 foot flames out the back? That’s what happens when you hit the afterburners. It can easily double the thrust of an engine.
Now the J-79 engine was weird, in a way… It was the one engine the military had that, surgeon general’s warning or not, they simply couldn’t get to stop smoking. If it was idling, it was fine. If it was in full afterburner, it was fine. If it was anywhere in between, it smoked.
It was like leaving a big arrow penciled into the sky saying, “Hi! Here I am!” All you had to do was look up and follow the pencil mark in the sky. At the end, sure as anything, there’d be an F-4.
It made camouflage and stealth kind of a moot point.
But those engines, oh gosh – I’d seen what they could do in real life. I was in a KC-135 tanker, shooting pictures of one being refueled somewhere over Missouri. The plane, call sign “Misty 42”, was in the pre-connect position 50 feet behind us. Gus, the boom operator (the boom being the big pipe that did the refueling) called out on the radio “Misty 42, forward 50” – as in “come forward 50 feet” – and this 60,000 pound plane that was parked back there behind us, just shot forward those 50 feet and then stopped like he was anchored there – right where Gus could top it off. And when Misty 42 was finished, I saw something I’d only seen in movies – the pilot banked hard right, pulled hard on the stick, peeled off, and was gone.
So when those engines were running, they would just leave this layer of soot in the sky, and, coming back down from the sky and to that flight line, where I was standing with both hands behind my back, I was mesmerized by the business end of these huge jet engines, some of that soot I was talking about had been left inside the engines, creating a blackness so total it would make charcoal look white. It gave a totally new definition to the term “black hole” and I was wondering how much of a problem it would be to swipe a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.
It was this wondering that caused curiosity to prevail over common sense.
…but not by much…
I unclasped my hands, and slowly, with my right pinkie, swiped it against the inside of that engine, to see if any of that blackness would actually come off. It didn’t seem to, I was looking at my pinkie, trying to figure it out, when
“Can I help you, sir?”
One of the United States Air Force’s finest SP’s (Security Police) was standing there, in uniform, which was as complete as a military cop’s uniform could be…
“Uh, no, actually, I was just looking at the F-4 here”
“Did you know, sir, that you’re not allowed to be here?”
My gosh he was polite…
On the other hand, he could afford to be. He had Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson snug in a leather holster at his side to help him out, should he need it.
“Sir, see, there’s this red line here on the pavement…”
He was right… there was indeed a red line on the pavement…
“Sir, you’re not supposed to cross that line.”
“Did you see the signs painted on the ground, sir?”
“No – I mean, I was just here the other day…”
“Sir, that was for the air show. See here?”
…and he walked me over to where one of the signs was indeed painted in a big white rectangle on the ground.
“They’re painted on the ground every 100 feet.”
And I’d parked my car beside the hangar, and walked right out there, between two of the signs, totally oblivious to the signs, and totally focused on the F-4…
“Sir, can you read the line in red there, near the bottom?”
I started reading the stenciled letters on the pavement.
“Sir, do you understand what that means?”
And things suddenly became very clear. That line there meant that Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson didn’t necessarily have to stay in their little leather holster, they could have come out to back up the Security Police officer and no one would have batted an eye.
“Yes sir, I do.”
He escorted me back to my car, realizing that I was just a young kid not much younger than he was, likely just as much of an airplane nut as he was, but I was driving a little red Saab (1967 model 96, 3 cylinder, two stroke, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious) at the time, all by myself, and he was driving a blue Air Force police cruiser, with his pals Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson quietly squeezed into the front seat with him.
I was a little more careful from there on out, but I still considered McChord my home away from home.
Fast forward 21 years. I’d gotten married, had the wonderful privilege of becoming a father, and lo and behold, there was another air show at McChord AFB. I took my son to see the show, and this time I got to the McChord AFB air show in a little blue Saab (1968 model 96, Deluxe, with a V-4 engine, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious), and this time, I wasn’t alone.
We watched, and heard the Thunderbirds tear the sky apart again – watched the aerial drops, the explosions, all the cool stuff, it was great – and then as we were walking through the displays – I realized I’d been there before. Not just on McChord AFB, but as I looked around, wondering why the hangars looked familiar, and why the tower looked so familiar, not just individually, but collectively, I felt this incredible feeling of déjà vu, suddenly I realized I was standing on the spot – THE VERY SPOT where that F-4, the SP, and Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson had been those many years earlier.
I’d told my son the story you just read more than once, to the point where he could do the little swipe with his pinkie just exactly like I did it, and I knew, I just knew, I had to show him that spot, and take a picture of the sign on the ground, with the red letters, and the red line on it.
And I did…
Sure enough… it was still there.
I got the shot of him with the sign in the story I’d told him so many times.
Fast forward again – to the year 2010, I’d done a presentation in Tucson, and found that after the presentation, we had a few hours to do some touristy things, and given the fact that I am an airplane nut, and that the last time we’d been in Tucson I’d only been able to drive past it, the Pima Air Museum was definitely on our list. It has hundreds of airplanes, and in the few hours we had, we tried to see as many as we could. We walked past some, paused for a moment at others.
And then I saw an F-4 and stopped cold.
“Michael! This is it! This is the kind of plane I was talking about!” –
…and I did the little pinkie swipe with my right hand.
He knew exactly what I meant, and before I could do anything or even stop him, he’d gone to the back of the plane, and I suddenly knew what the SP had seen those many years ago.
Without me saying another word, Michael had not only gone to the back of that Phantom – but gone to the right engine, and with his left hand still held firmly in the small of his back, like I’d done when I was the very same age, he took his pinkie, and swiped a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.
And no one stopped him.
© Tom Roush, 2010