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The other day the guy getting on the bus ahead of me was a quarter short because the fare had gone up.
A quarter for him made all the difference for that day.
A quarter for me was what I’d found on the sidewalk the day before.
So I put a quarter in.
And made his day.
Made mine, too.
And it got me thinking, later…
I didn’t have to do anything grand – I just had to do *something* – and often, we have the grandest intentions, the grandest hopes, the grandest dreams. We’ll go for the best vacation, the best night out, the best…
Folks, today’s all you’ve got.
I can tell you from some pretty deep personal experience that we’re not guaranteed tomorrow.
Heck, we’re not guaranteed our next breath, so do what you can for and with your family, whether they be family by blood or by choice… Doesn’t matter.
And gosh, if it means you don’t do the grandest vacation but spend an evening playing board games with your kids, do that.
If it means having macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, but having it with your family around the dinner table, then do that.
And do it today.
Not “someday” -
Because “Someday” isn’t a day you’ll find on the calendar…
Because “Someday” isn’t a day of the week…
And because “Someday” never comes.
and… a side note.
I’m writing this for some rather personal reasons. I’ve been to a few more funerals recently than I really want to go to. I’m going to one in two days where the promise of “Getting together someday” was said back in January of this year, and that’s a Someday I’ll never get back.
When you go to things like this, you realize that there was a last hug that you didn’t notice. There was a last glance you didn’t catch, and maybe, just maybe, there was a final goodbye that slipped past you.
And when you notice that that happened, it hurts, and you can’t go back to fix it.
I’m not writing this stuff because I know how to do it better. I’m often writing this stuff simply because I’ve made the mistake, whatever it is, and hope that in seeing my mistake, written the way that I’ve written it, encourages you to go out and not make that same mistake.
So go out there and don’t let the moment slip by.
Go do something for someone and make their day, even if it’s by doing something as simple slipping a quarter you found into the bus fare box for them.
Take care out there.
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,
One of the things I’ve noticed about owning an old Saab is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING has a story around it.
The Saab this story’s about is my 1968 Saab 96. It’s been in a few stories, brought me through more than a few adventures, and in general, been a pretty dependable car.
It came with a V-4 engine (half a V-8) and a one barrel carburetor that got me about 27 miles per gallon. It was enough for smooth power, but not a lot of it.
One of the things I’d wanted to do for years was put a two barrel carb on it – which would allow the engine to ‘breathe’ more easily. Allowing an engine to breathe more easily made it more efficient, (it also meant more power …and if you’re thinking of cars, and breathing, between the carburetor, which did the inhaling, and the engine, which needed the air, was a hunk of metal known as an intake manifold. This was basically a cast collection of tubes that allowed the air from the carburetor to be divvied up and sent to each of the four cylinders that needed the air and provided the power. The one thing I needed in addition to the two barrel carburetor was one of these intake manifolds so all the pieces could come together. So over a few years I managed to find a manifold – as I recall, it came from a junkyard in Germany. I then found a carb on ebay, and was going to put the two together only to find that the carb was old and in desperate need of rebuilding.
It turns out that everything that could be worn out on this carb, was worn out on this carb. And… it had been dropped, and that meant it would have a bit of a vacuum leak if I wasn’t able to fix it. (that’s known, in technical terms, as a bad, but fixable thing). But, it was worth a try, so I bought a gallon of carburetor cleaner like I’d seen in a shop years ago, and just soaked the carb in it. That way everything that the cleaner could get to, would be gotten to, and then I could start this whole rebuilding process with clean parts and a rebuild kit. I needed good weather for it because you generally don’t work on car parts on the kitchen table (don’t ask why I know this, but it involves a friend’s motorcycle and the kitchen door catching fire… but that’s another story for another time), and one day, when it was sunny outside and I had some free time, I decided I’d actually do the cleaning bit, so to get started, I read the instructions on the can…
…and the thing that gets me about reading labels like that is “Why do the contents of the can only cause cancer in laboratory rats in California? I mean, is there something magical about laboratory rats in Seattle?”
Right. Bottom line, stay upwind of the stuff, don’t get any on you, and for heaven’s sake, don’t get any in the house.
I read a bit more, and found that the cleaner was to be used between 70 and 110 degrees.
The problem was it was 20 degrees outside.
No more, no less…
But 20 degrees was clearly on the “a little too cool” side of making this stuff effective, so I tried to figure out a way to warm it up without causing problems… I mean, the stuff’s evil, nasty, flammable, whatever… I had to come up with some way of heating it carefully so that I could get it up to operating temperature. After some thought, I got a pot of water and put it on to boil, figuring that the cleaner had been sitting there in the garage for weeks, and it’d take some heat to warm it up to somewhere between the required 70 and 110 degrees to make it work. I figured I’d just put the gallon can of carb cleaner into a 5 gallon bucket, then put the hot water in the bucket and safely heat everything up.
Oh, if you’re reading this, you know dang well that there’s a story here…
I poured the first pot of water into the bucket, it covered the bottom of the bucket up to a couple of inches. Figuring that wasn’t enough, I went inside to heat up some more water.
It took a little bit to heat that second batch up, and I took it outside as soon as it was ready, but by the time I got out there with the water, the gallon of carb cleaner was boiling out over the top of the can inside the bucket, and it was well into eating the label off the can. (see picture).
It became fairly clear that the reason for the 110 degree limit was that that was the boiling temperature of carb cleaner – and if it ate the label off the freaking can, I didn’t want anything to do with it…
For whatever reason, the plastic bucket didn’t care about the carb cleaner, and the cleaner that had boiled over was sitting down at the bottom of the bucket – under the water. But gosh, you’d think they’d make the label out of something a little more durable or something…
I ended up putting the bucket in the very back of the Buick station wagon we had at the time to take it to a hazmat place here in the city. It was a little surreal to be driving there in the station wagon, with my son, who was still in a car seat at the time, just chatting away, only to get out and hand the bucket to a guy who was dressed in a full-on hazmat suit.
But we got rid of it, and that was a good thing.
I later put the carb itself on E-bay, wrapped in several layers of plastic that it didn’t dissolve, with a warning that it would smell like carburetor cleaner…
As I recall, a fellow in Utah bought it along with the rebuild kit I’d gotten for it, because, as it turned out, it would fit his Lotus. I told him everything about it, and he still wanted it. In the end, he was happy, because it made his car run. I was happy because the carburetor was miles away, and I was to the point where I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Later, I just bought a new carburetor instead of trying to rebuild the old one, and put that on the intake manifold. I worked with Rob at Scanwest Autosport to make a linkage for it, and the car could inhale, deeply.
Now I had to figure out how to get it to exhale fully.
I’d learned that having an MSS (Motorsport Services) exhaust system on a Saab V4 was worth about 10 horsepower, and since the exhaust was pretty toasted anyway, I saved up my money and ordered one. The problem was that, if you’ve ever owned a Saab with a V-4 engine, there’s kind of a metal donut between the heads of the engine and the exhaust manifolds that allows everything to fit together. But the holes didn’t quite match up right. The exhaust came out of each head of the engine through a hole that was about 1 ¼ inch in diameter. The gasket that was between the head and our donut had a 2 inch hole in it. The diameter of the exhaust headers was also 2 inches, but the hole inside the donut was only 1 ¼ inch, all that breathing-exhaling stuff we were doing was nothing but huffing and puffing until that was fixed (because the car was trying to push lots of exhaust through 1 ¼ inch holes when it had a 2 inch pipe it could go through – it’s like putting your thumb over a garden hose) so that had to be fixed… I figured that if the gasket were the right size, then everything else should be that size, including that 1 ¼ inch donut hole.
I wasn’t sure how to do this, I didn’t have a machine shop, but then I found a fellow named Dan who did this kind of work.
On big engines.
I’d taken the heads off my Saab engine to get them down there to him to get hardened valve seats put in there so the car would run on unleaded gas, and he laughed as he looked at the valves that came off them. They looked like little toys in comparison to the engines he normally worked on. Some of the valve stems were 14 inches long, and the valves themselves were, I’m going to guess about 4 inches across. (by comparison, the valve stems on the Saab engine were about 5 inches long, and the valves 1 1/2 inches across).
The thing I learned quickly about Dan was that he came across as gruff as all get-out on the outside, but was a marshmallow on the inside.
I found out he liked Sprite, so I made it a point to stop by the shop on the way home from work a couple of nights a week, just to see how things were going. I wasn’t in a hurry, in fact, I was more interested in learning about the magic of turning a hunk of metal into something useful than getting it done fast, and Dan was a willing teacher.
And we talked… about life, about our families, about work, and friends, and how important it was to have them. I remember telling him how much fun it was to just be there in a machine shop, where things were actually made, which was so different from being in an IT department as a database administrator, which I was at the time.
To see him use all those tools he had at his disposal and make useful things out of raw metal was a treat. I mean, he could point to something and say, “I made that.”
He could reach out and touch it.
It was real.
But he kept saying I had to be smarter than he was because I worked with computers.
I told him, “Dan, you take these hunks of metal that are just that, hunks of metal, and you MAKE something of them. I work all day pissing off electrons. You tell me who’s smarter.”
He laughed, but I was serious.
It took a while, but I think it sunk in. I mean, I worked very hard at making sure the right electrons got pissed off, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t have anything to show for it, so chatting with Dan, in his shop, surrounded by all his tools, not a computer in sight, was a real treat for me. Not only did he teach, but he let me do some of the work myself. In one case, he was looking for the right drill bit in the mass of bits and taps and dies and all sorts of things he had on massive workbenches, and the sound of him rummaging around was so close to the sound of a kid looking through a pile of Legos that I just had to smile.
Eventually he did find the right drill bit, wiped it on his overalls, and popped it into the drill for me, then stood there, patiently, as I drilled out the new brass valve guides that he’d hammered into the heads.
One day when I came in with the can of Sprite, he was almost done. He’d installed the hardened valve seats and ordered valves to fit the extra-large holes he’d let me drill, and about a week later, the heads were finished. I put them on the car, where they are to this day.
But on that last day, when I was picking them up, I asked him what I owed, and he just waved me off.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“This was fun for me. Don’t worry about it.”
And he wouldn’t take my money.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe what he was doing, but it turned out that for Dan there was more value in something as simple as conversation than there was in a collection of little oval pictures of dead presidents.
I put the engine back together, and in doing so, was able to combine the heads on my Swedish car with the intake manifold from that junkyard in Germany and that two barrel carburetor from wherever it was made, along with the MSS exhaust system from Jamestown, New York, and I drove it down to the shop to show him, so he could hear how his work that connected all the different parts came together.
He listened to the rough idle, hearing music he’d helped make, and smiled as I revved it and it smoothed out. And I thanked him and shook the hand of a true craftsman.
For some time afterwards, I’d stop by every now and then to say hi, and if he wasn’t there, I’d just leave a can of Sprite sitting on the doorknob for him to let him know I was thinking about him.
A few years passed, I changed jobs, his shop wasn’t on the way to work anymore, and life happened. I didn’t see him for a long time, but a few months ago, my son had a problem with a metal part he was working on, and I thought it was time to introduce him to someone who could make metal do anything, so we got a cold can of Sprite and headed down the road to see Dan.
But it turned out Dan wasn’t there anymore.
His son was, and told us that his dad had had to give up the shop, and that it was going to be sold to their biggest customer in the next few months.
I looked around, and while I could sense his presence in all of his tools, and in no small way, in his son, standing there in front of me, I realized the spirit of the place had changed. Not only wouldn’t I see Dan again, at least the Dan I knew, but the shop, with all its familiar machinery, would soon be gone, too.
My son didn’t quite understand the catch in my voice as I asked Dan’s son if he’d take the Sprite to his dad and tell him it was from an old friend, the one with the little blue Saab. The one that he’d made go a lot better, a little faster, and just a touch louder.
© Tom Roush, 2012
I went through a pretty challenging time awhile back, and as I was coming out of it, I had a dream. It took me months to figure out, but in the dream, I was hacking my way through a jungle with a huge machete. It was like boring a hole through a wall of green, but doing it with a large knife. Each hack would make it possible to clear out a little bit, then step forward into that cleared area.
It went like this for, in the case of this challenging time, months.
Hack… Slash… Step.
Hack… Slash… Step.
Sometimes it took a lot more hacking than stepping, but I did step.
Hack… Slash… Step.
Sometimes the ground was uneven, and treacherous.
Hack… Slash… Step.
Sometimes it was like mud, trying to suck me down, or suck my shoes off.
Hack… Splash… Step.
Sometimes the jungle had those “wait-a-minute” vines you might have heard about. The ones with the sharp thorns you don’t see until you think you’re past them, then they reach out and snag you, and you’re stuck till you can rip them off or away.
And it hurts when you have to do that.
The thing is, for long stretches, one step didn’t look any different from the next one or the one that came before. In spite of all the danger, there was almost a routine to it, and to be honest, there were times when it didn’t look like I was making any progress at all.
It felt, in this dream, like I’d been sentenced to a monotonous, yet terrifying lifetime of hacking and slashing.
I was able, at times, to stop, and it was then that I took a breather and looked back. What was interesting is that when I stopped and looked back, I could see where I’d been, I could see what I’d hacked through.
I could see progress.
But I couldn’t see progress when I was hacking. I could only see it when I took a breather and turned around.
But the day to day stuff, the hour to hour stuff, sometimes minute to minute stuff, was the same.
Hack… Slash… Step.
My world at the time consisted of nothing further away than what I could reach with the machete, and sometimes it got even smaller than that.
Hack… Slash… Step.
There were times when it felt like I couldn’t go on.
There were times when I wanted to just let go of the machete.
There were times when I just wanted to drop it, but it was the only thing I had to hold onto. If I let go, the jungle would swallow me up, and besides, I had to find out what was on the other side of the next leaf.
This went on, in the dream, for a long, long time, until one day, I hacked my way out of what had become my little green hacking box and found myself in a clearing.
By this time words were totally inadequate to describe the weariness I was feeling.
Tired beyond reason, I collapsed against a tree, struggled to stand, and fought to comprehend what I was seeing.
In the middle of this clearing was a white helicopter. It was so pure, so clean, and inside it was a silhouette of someone, beckoning me to come to it.
I pushed away from the tree and started walking, then stumbling as I ran toward this thing that made no sense.
The rotor was turning, and strong arms pulled me up and in.
The door slid closed, the engine whined to a crescendo and the rotor blades turned faster, becoming almost invisible. The grass in the clearing flattened out as the blades blasted a hurricane of air down.
As it did, it blew leaves away, and branches, and I could see, for a split second, people standing there in the jungle. Cheering me on. They’d been there, but I hadn’t seen how many of them there were because the jungle was so thick.
We didn’t seem to climb as much as the ground just seemed to fall away, and it was only then, as we got higher, as I started to see the jungle that I’d fought through for the entire dream (and in reality, for the last 10 months) that I began to comprehend the magnitude of the size of the jungle.
I’d only seen what I could hack and slash.
I hadn’t realized how big it was.
I hadn’t realized how much it had taken out of me.
On the other hand, I hadn’t realized how much I had grown as a result of facing, and overcoming that jungle.
As we flew, I was able to look down and see where certain events had happened, and see them from a totally different perspective.
I was able to understand a bit more.
What if I’d turned left there instead of right? Would I have seen the helicopter I was in?
And it got me thinking…
In having this dream, in putting these images in front of me, my mind was trying to process the whole thing I was going through.
I was trudging through a jungle in the dream, but I was plugging through the challenging realities in real life. And the weird thing about the dream was that not only was the dream vivid, and clear, but it was also broad enough to fit any challenges someone might be facing.
Right now I know of an old friend who passed away recently. The wife lost a husband, the children lost their father, the siblings lost a brother, and his parents lost a son.
And they’ve each either entered or are continuing through a jungle of their own.
Hack… Slash… Step…
I know of a number of families going through crises of a different sort, related to employment, lack thereof, and all the financial ramifications involved in that, to the point where even just making ends meet is a struggle.
Hack… Slash… Step…
I know of several families where an elderly parent is ill, in the hospital, or in a nursing home, and the children are making endless trips to try to help, to try to take care of those who took care of them, or simply to hold their mom or dad’s hand for all the times they did the same for them.
Hack… Slash… Step…
The challenges could be emotional, could be related to health or relationships or your parents, kids, or siblings, or all of the above… but bottom line, you get through it one step at a time. Sometimes you get through it with the help of friends. Sometimes you get through it with the help of strangers.
But you will get through it.
Hack… Slash… Step.
I didn’t know all that as I sat in the helicopter, lost in my thoughts, lost in seeing things so differently, finally, it seemed, able to see “the big picture” .
I allowed myself to relax, and in my dream, drifted off to sleep, not hearing the change in the pitch of the rotors that signaled we’d started to descend and would be landing soon, to start another journey, through another jungle…
But this time, I had the experience of the last journey to help me through.
© 2012 Tom Roush
In church Sunday mornings – we have a time of prayer – where we say, and pray for and about, what’s on our hearts, whether that’s things we’re thankful for, things we’re worried about, all sorts of things – and just after everyone quieted down one Sunday a while ago and every eye was closed – we all heard the sound of two little feet walking, then running up the aisle.
About 400 eyes opened at once, and saw a child, being held tightly by her father, a child who’d let nothing get in her way, who ran up and didn’t care who saw her, the one thing important in her life was being with her daddy.
…and it got me thinking.
Isn’t that what prayer’s all about?
Abba… (no, not the group, Abba is Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, for father, or daddy.)
We’re supposed to be as little children (Matthew 18:3), just like this child, but so often we let all the worries and “wisdom” that comes with being adults get in our way.
I mean seriously, how many times have you tried to pray, and it’s all just gone south – nothing’s working – the words aren’t coming, you feel like your prayers aren’t making it past the ceiling, like there’s this vast chasm between you and God - and then there are other times when you’re in such a state where you hit your knees in the hallway and skid into the bedroom yelling, “G-o-o-o-o-o-d!” because you’re so messed up you don’t even know what to say or how to pray.
Need the T-shirt.
(note to self: don’t hit knees in the hallway… it’s carpeted)
But this kid…
If God’s unchanging – that must mean that the only difference there is us.
Of course, THAT thought got me thinking some more.
Years ago I heard a pastor tell a story about an old couple. They’d been married for decades, and one day, as they’re on a drive, he behind the wheel, and she leaning up against the window. Suddenly, the wife says to the husband, a little wistfully, “Why don’t we snuggle anymore in the car like we used to?”
And the husband, with his hands still on the wheel, gently gave the only answer to that question that he could. “I haven’t moved…”
He was in the same spot he always was. He was just as available for snuggling, but over time, things got between them, whether it was a drive-in meal, or later a kid, there was a lot of time in the car when the couple wasn’t nearly as close as they had been at the beginning of their relationship.
The husband hadn’t moved, but there was still stuff between them, and they weren’t close enough to snuggle.
And that kid running up the aisle brought it all back – how she’d simply eliminated everything, at a full run, between her and her daddy, so she could be close to him, and snuggle.
My eyes are closed as I write this, remembering…
“Let’s bow our heads in prayer…”
She ran, yes, ran, up to see her Daddy.
And when she got to him, he didn’t scold her for disturbing the prayer. And just like the prodigal son’s father, he did something much, much better. He scooped his little girl up and hugged her – while hankies dabbed at some of the 400 eyes who realized what a miracle they’d just been privileged to see.
Have you ever come up with a snappy answer to a question that you just couldn’t get out of your mouth in time?
Except for once, when I was in grad school in, as it was known by the director of the program, “Athens-by-God-Ohio.”
One of the things that we tried to do, as grad students in photojournalism, was to get internships at newspapers.
It built up our portfolios, got us to understand the daily pressures of working in a real paper, and so on. It was also a cheap way for the newspapers to get some help, and my first internship was in a small town in West Central Ohio. I’d applied for the internship by sending out the portfolio, the cover letter, the self-addressed, stamped manila envelope, and the whole nine yards, and was completely blown away when I actually got a call telling me that I’d gotten it. I was ecstatic, and I had to call someone to tell them the good news. The first person on the list was my sister (who, as an aside, was instrumental in getting me to start writing these stories down). I’d been telling her about the challenges in getting an internship (they involved moving to where the internship was, for example) so I called her.
She worked at Seattle Pacific University, and a college student who was her assistant at the time answered the phone. When I asked for my sister, the student innocently said, “…she’s not here right now, can I take a message?”
And at that moment, God saw the setup for a perfect punch line, chuckled a bit, and actually gave me the snappy answer without making me have to wait two weeks for it.
See, I realized that the name of the town I was in, the name of the town I was going to be in, and what I was doing could make for a wonderfully misleading combination. So I took a deep breath, and said in my most authoritative and confident voice,
“This is her brother Tom, I’m in Athens, and I got the internship in Sidney.”
There was an almost reverent silence on the other end of the line for a moment, and then, “Uh, wow. Congratulations – I’ll, uh, I’ll make sure to tell her.”
And so, on Easter Sunday, I got into the car and drove from Athens to Sidney, Ohio, (which was about 150 miles, vs. flying from Athens (the original) to Sydney (the one with the Opera House), which is just under 10,000 miles) and I spent some time as a photographer for the Sidney Daily News, in the little town of Sidney, in West Central Ohio.
Now one of the first things I learned in West Central Ohio is that people were just plain friendly.
I don’t know if it was just an Ohio thing or more, but folks in the parts of Ohio I’d visited would just wave at you to say hi, just because you were there – not like where I’d lived in Seattle just before then, where they’d just look at you, maybe. I learned later on a lot of this just had to do with the proximity of so many people. If there were only a few of you (in the country), you tend to notice each other. If there are massive herds of people (say, in the city), you kind of ignore each other just out of self-preservation – one of the many differences in Country vs. City living.
Now I mentioned that I’d driven to Sidney.
I’d purchased a 1979 Ford Fairmont from a guy I could barely understand (if you think America has no regional accents, go to Southeast Ohio sometime and try to talk to some of the folks who live back in the “Hollers” and haven’t come out for generations
The car was all straight and everything – in fact, it’s mentioned in another story — it’s the car I drove across the country in. Come to think about it, it’s also the one I was driving in Michigan when I met the strong arm of the law…
Anyway, back in Athens, as I recall, the very first thing I did after getting the car was to lock my keys in the trunk.
Seems the fellow hadn’t told me about the spring to hold the trunk open being broken, and I hadn’t felt the need to check for dead bodies or anything in it, so I bought the car, not having opened the trunk. After he drove off, I unlocked it, opened it, accidentally dropped the keys in the trunk, then dropped the trunk lid on my head as I discovered the broken spring while reaching for the keys I’d dropped.
Yeah… good times…
So one lump on the noggin and $50.00 to a mobile locksmith later I was good, had the keys back, and was literally on the road.
For as old as it was, it got great gas mileage, and I used it to explore Shelby County, where Sidney was, and it was there that I learned there was an etiquette to driving in that part of the country.
See, if you’re on a country road out there, you wave at people as you go by.
If you see oncoming traffic, the very least you do is raise a finger (no, not that finger) in simple acknowledgement of the other person’s presence. It’s a neighborly thing to do, so you do it.
If there’s a farmer (and there are a lot of hard working farmers out there) working in his field, you could be a quarter mile away, driving at 60 mph with your right hand on the steering wheel, the left elbow out the window, holding on to the roof of the car, and literally raise a finger, one finger (the index finger, on your left hand, the one on the roof, just in case you’re curious) and the guy would wave back.
I was just amazed at this, how easy it was to just chat with people you’d never met, how simply nice people were.
So one day I was driving out to get some of what we called “Feature” photos out at a place called Lake Loramie, I’d just driven past one of those farmers, had just waved at him with the index finger of my left hand, just like I mentioned earlier, when the car died.
Stone cold dead.
I checked the gas gauge as I coasted to a stop
. ¼ tank.
I put my four-way flashers on and carefully pulled over just a little with the last of my momentum (they have some pretty deep ditches in some of those places so I wanted to be careful) and then did the very male thing of propping the hood open and then, I just stood there, with a perplexed look on my face as I tried to figure this out. I mean, I wasn’t out in the middle of nowhere, but I thought I could see it from where I was, and the car I’d had for about a month was dead. No symptoms, no rattles, no wheezing, no coughing, no last gasp of any kind.
It was just dead.
I’d been driving and maintaining cars for a while by that time, and was pretty sure I knew what an engine needed to run…
It needed gas (I had ¼ tank) and
It needed air (I was still breathing, so that part was taken care of)
It needed spark. (I’d had that).
I was still standing there trying to figure out what could possibly be wrong when I heard the chugging of a tractor coming out of the field.
It was the farmer I’d just waved to.
He asked what was wrong, and since I’d never had a car quit on me quite like this before, I said, “I think it’s out of gas.”
“Well, let’s take you up to Harry Frilling’s, Harry’s got some gas…”
He untangled a cable off the back of his tractor, wrapped it around the front bumper of the Ford and headed off.
I sat in the car, hypnotically watching the tread on those big tractor tires just a few feet in front of me as we chugged along at a whopping 8 mph, until we pulled into Harry’s farm yard, where the anonymous farmer unhooked the cable and headed off. Harry came out and asked what was wrong, and I told him what I thought the problem was, (that it might be out of gas) but that knew I still had ¼ tank, which made it all a little confusing. We both stood there for a bit, leaning on the fenders, and looked under the hood, in that thoughtful way men look at engines when they don’t have a clue as to what’s wrong…
“Wha’dja say your name was?”
“My name’s Tom Roush, I’m a photographer for the Sidney Daily News.”
“Ooooh…. and, uh, where’d ya say you were goin’?”
“I was just going up to Lake Loramie to get some pictures for the paper.”
He pondered that for a moment, as if trying to decide on something…
“How long d’you think you’ll be gone?”
I thought – figuring time to travel up and back, find an image,
when I had to get back to the paper, plus deadlines and the like… and that left me with…
“About an hour or so…”
More pondering by Harry.
“Why don’t you take my car? Key’s in it.”
Why don’t I take his car…
Why don’t I what???
I looked him in the eye to be sure – but he clearly wasn’t kidding.
So, I accepted his offer, and took his car, which was much nicer than mine, carefully putting my camera bag on the passenger’s seat beside me instead of just tossing it in like I did with the Ford.
I drove it to the lake, not much was happening, so I stalked some ducks and got a picture of a duck and ducklings, brought the car back, and got some gas from Harry’s tank that he had for his farm vehicles to put in the Ford. I paid Mrs. Frilling, who was inside, and went off, still kind of amazed at the difference in people from one part of the country to another.
I made the picture, it got into the paper, and life went on.
Weeks went by.
One day I had on my shooting schedule for that evening some kind of award at an event at a hotel in town. I went, and found it was, ironically, a “Ducks Unlimited” dinner – an organization which I knew nothing about, but figured it was about some kind of conservation of ducks. Okay, whatever. I figured I’d just show up and shoot the event and get back in time to process the film, mark the shot I thought was best, and then leave it for Mike (the chief photographer) to print the next morning.
So I was standing there at the back of the room, and realized that this award was happening sooner rather than later, and I’d missed the name of the recipient. I wouldn’t have time to get up to the front of the room and would have to quickly shoot from where I was, so I put a telephoto lens (my 180 f/2.8 for those of you who are curious) on the camera (my Nikon F3), along with my powerful SB-16 flash (the same one used in this story) and was just focusing on things when the award and a prize were handed to whoever the recipient was.
And the prize was…
Wait a minute…
This is Ducks Unlimited… They’re not trying to conserve ducks to keep them alive, they’re trying to conserve them so they can make them dead!
The things I learned when doing my own shooting…
I was just floored, but I’d gotten my shot, and I had to finish the job, so I noted the suit jacket the fellow with the new shotgun was wearing, and made my way to the front of the room where he was talking with someone.
I waited for a bit, standing behind him, and with my cameras and camera bag hanging off my right shoulder, and my reporter’s notebook in my left hand, I tapped him on the shoulder with my pen.
“Excuse me, sir, my name’s Tom Roush. I’m shooting for the Sidney Daily News and need to get your name for the paper.”
The fellow in the suit jacket turned around, and I saw nothing but a huge smile on his face as a big, meaty hand came down in a controlled crash on my left shoulder, “Why Tom, you know me! I’m Harry Frilling! I loaned you my car!”
And so he had.
I hadn’t recognized him in that suit, but sure enough, it was Harry.
The next morning, I told Mike the story and he, having lived in the town far longer than I had, made an astute observation. “You know, Tom, as big a deal as it was to you to get the picture, it was probably a bigger deal to Harry to have been able to loan you his car. I’ll bet he told his friends about that for some time.”
I wasn’t sure about that, but like I said, Mike had been in the town far longer than I, and had a good sense of what was important to folks.
Eventually I left Sidney, but I kept that Ford for many years after that. It turned out the problem had been a faulty electronic ignition module and replacing it fixed the problem (I’d never had a car with an electronic anything in it before, which is why it was so baffling to me), and after a trip west across the country, I kept it long enough to bring my son home from the hospital in it.
A number of years later, I looked Harry up, and on a whim, picked up the phone and called him, and introduced myself as the photographer he’d loaned his car to, and asked if he remembered me.
And he did.
We talked and laughed for a while, about how a young photographer and an old farmer met because of a broken down car and a shotgun, about how life had changed for us both over the years, and how good, and important, it was to just get in touch again, and how much that small act of kindness on his part had meant to me.
A few weeks ago, I got back in touch with Mike – and we got to talking, and laughing, telling stories, and just catching up. We talked about how it’s been over 20 years since I was a photographer at the Sidney Daily News, singlehandedly blowing through their annual film budget in the short time I was there, and then I remembered something, and asked Mike, “Do you remember the story about Harry Frilling?” – and without any other clues, Mike remembered, too, and we both just laughed and laughed…
There’s a Footnote, or Post Script to this story:
Last week, because this was a story about a real, live person, I did what I always do and tried to find Harry again to ask his permission to write and publish the story. I didn’t find him, but found and ended up talking to his son. As it turns out, Harry had passed away a few years ago, and I found out that Mike was right. It seems that that little story, the one that meant so much to me, that told me about how some folks are inherently just plain good folks, was indeed one that meant something to Harry as well, in fact, it was one of his favorite stories, that he told often, and I was astonished to hear from his son that my – that our – little story was told as part of his Eulogy as people told stories about who Harry was and what he meant to them.
It’s people like Harry who teach us that lifting a finger – figuratively, or literally one finger of one hand – whether that’s lifting it from your steering wheel as you drive by to wave at a farmer and acknowledge each other as fellow humans on the planet, or lifting it to dial the phone to call an old friend to get back in touch with them and see how they’re doing, or dropping what you’re doing and helping a friend do some things he or she couldn’t do otherwise, that ‘lifting a finger’ can make all the difference in the world in someone’s life.
He also taught me that that one finger, when crashing down onto my left shoulder with the rest of his hand and that smile of his, made me feel like I was the most important person in the world right then.
It’s been, as I said, years, but this formerly young photographer still treasures that smile, that laugh, and is humbled to have known an old farmer like Harry Frilling.
As I thought about this story, and about what became this post script, I realized that after anyone passes away, the material things they’ve accumulated in their lives have to be taken care of or taken over by others. But when people like Harry pass away, the love and the memories left behind, those are treasures, and they live on.
Special thanks to his son and daughter, who graciously gave me permission to publish this story.
I’m posting this on Maundy Thursday – the Thursday between Palm Sunday, when Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem, and Good Friday, when He was killed there. This is the day when that Last Supper you’ve seen in pictures happened, and later that evening, when Peter, one of Jesus’ strongest supporters and disciples, denied even knowing him – . Tomorrow, those who celebrate Easter will remember Good Friday, and the crucifixion. Thursday and Friday are the lowest points of the Christian calendar – but it is Sunday – Easter – when we are shown that Grace can abound, that there is hope. It is through the remembrance of that Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples, what we now call Holy Communion, that through confession and repentance, we find forgiveness, even for those who feel there is no hope, or forgiveness.
The following story, for anyone watching as it happened, took about as long as it takes to sing the verses below – but inside me – I was transported through thousands of miles, and hundreds of years – to places where time, and distance, were absolutely irrelevant.
With that, please, as you may ponder the significance of Easter, I submit:
It was Sunday, in a large, old church, in a big city. The pastor had called for Holy Communion, and as he got out the bread and the – in this case – wine, the notes gently flowed while the organist cleared the pipes to play. But these weren’t just notes that had come from the organ to our ears, nor were they words that were just now coming from our lips. They had come a great distance, through many years, having been written by a man named John Newton, who was exactly what he said he was in the second line of the song, a wretch.
But the story in the song is one of redemption, of John Newton coming to an understanding that this concept of Grace – in which we are given something we do not deserve. And the words, written by him in 1779 in England, composed with notes by William Walker in South Carolina in 1835, came together in this church, on this morning.
The organ sang the first notes out, and old bones and pews creaked equally as people stood, each heading to the aisle to walk to the front to receive Holy Communion, their chance to remember in the symbol of the Bread and the Cup the forgiveness that was theirs because of what Christ had done for them. Worn shoes shuffled forward on an equally worn carpet as they sang, not with gusto, but with the tired reverence that comes with age.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
I was one of those shuffling, and heard the voices singing – some gray with years, some with the color of youth, many of them older, first generation Americans, for whom English had clearly been a a second language.
And suddenly, even though I was still shuffling – I felt I wasn’t in this church in this big city anymore.
I was transported to a land of tile roofs and cobblestone streets
A cool mist touches my face as I find myself stepping carefully on a foggy sidewalk.
As I walk, I’m overcome by the wonderful smell of simmering corned beef wafting out of a kitchen window. I follow the sound of singing around a corner to a church, where the voices and harmonies show a faith and fellowship that has lasted through the ages.
An odd tinkling sound reveals itself to be from a young man, sitting on the sidewalk with a tin cup, begging. All questions are answered by the scar across his face. The tinkling comes from the people walking by toward the church, as they put some of their Sunday offering directly where it’s needed.
He smiles and blesses them as they go on.
We shuffled forward a bit:
T’was grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
I’m confused, for a moment – as I find myself suddenly transported to what is clearly a prison, to a cold, damp cell, with only one small, high window. A church bell rings in the distance, and the prisoner in the cell has experienced something not all prisoners do. He’s finally not only understood the significance of the mistake that brought him here, but has experienced a remorse that can only be answered by forgiveness. This does not mean that there are no consequences to his mistake, but there is forgiveness. His quiet prayer is as sincere as that from any pulpit, and the light and warmth coming into that dark cell at that moment isn’t just from the sun.
We shuffled on, and started to sing the next verse…
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
A steam whistle blows. A locomotive hisses by, slowing for the station, and a young soldier nervously holds onto the open window as his now gray eyes search for the home he left two years ago. In those eyes are the exhaustion of a thousand battles he’d wanted nothing to do with, and both the longing, and creeping doubt of seeing his family again.
He looks at his battered watch, the strap long gone, and knows that at this time, the Sunday pork roasts will be cooking, wafting their delicious smells out into the street. It’s always been the first smell he smelled after getting out of the train station. It’s a symbol of home, and this time, the war over, he should be home for good.
The train clatters and bumps to a stop. He gets up, and like all travelers, reaches for his bags and automatically walks toward the nearest exit, his uniform helping to part the respectful crowd of people so he can get through easier. As he steps to the platform, he stops in the middle of the river of people pouring out behind and around him, and stands on his toes, looking around to get his bearings – so much had been destroyed in the war – and to see if anyone is there to meet him. He is tackled from one side by his younger brother and sister, with the excitement only younger siblings can have for an older one. The little brother, as little brothers do, wants to hear all about the battles. The little sister stands quietly until he kneels to her level. She hands him a small, soft object in a cloth napkin. It’s a slice of pork roast. THE pork roast. “Mama sagt, dass Du Heim kommen sollst, dass wir alle zusammen mit dir Mittags essen können.” He shares the slice with both of them, and as his little brother picks up the bags, he picks up his little sister, and they all run across the street to the still standing house, to the kitchen, to his family.
There is no shortage of hugs, no shortage of tears.
He is home.
The melody continued, and we shuffled another step…
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Again, I am transported – to a sidewalk near a church. As I stand there, looking left and right, a stooped old woman walks closer, uncomfortably using a new cane to support her. She passes me by, sobbing softly. The gold ring on her gnarled left hand tells the story. It is her first Sunday coming to church alone in nearly half a century, her husband who had sat beside her every Sunday for that many years, who stood at that altar in the radiance of youth and repeated the vows with her – ending with “…until death do us part…” had loved her – for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health – and he had fulfilled those vows to the very last one. He would never accompany her to church again, but church is where she needed to be on Sunday mornings, and church was where she would go. Someone who is obviously her daughter runs up to her and supports her, saying gently, “Oh maman, je suis sincèrement désolée. Je suis venue dès que j’ai su.”
The rest of the words are lost, as I hear the sound of voices singing, and feel myself being pulled away again.
We shuffled forward again…
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
Again, I find myself near a church, with the bell ringing quietly, but closely. Only this time I’m in what’s known in some countries as the ‘churchyard’ – and the group of people, all dressed in heavy coats of dark colors to ward off the cold, have come to pay their last respects to one of their own. It is clear – even without understanding the language, that she was held in high regard by everyone there. It seemed, given the expressions of some, that they were now both relieved at the end of the suffering she had endured, and confused as to who would take her place, but one thing was certain, she had enriched their lives by her simple existence. She had enriched their lives by supporting them when they thought they were supporting her. And those looks on their faces told me her transition from this life to the next had been one of peace, of joy, and eventually of rest.
We shuffled forward one last step.
I was getting close to the front of the line now – and as we sang….
When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
I found myself in a large, old church, in a big city.
It was my turn for communion, and as I took the bread, and drank from the cup, that first verse came back to me…
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Folks, it’s been two years since I was asked to speak at my friend Betty’s memorial service. I got to thinking about her just recently, and as I read through this again, thought it might be something worth sharing. So that said, here’s my eulogy, for my friend Betty…
Hi – My name’s Tom Roush – I had the pleasure of knowing Betty – well, Don and Betty back – gosh, how long’s it been? – close to three years now, meeting both of them at the cancer survivor’s support group that was held in a nondescript conference room at the Ballard hospital.
There were a number of us there – old folks, young folks, and everything in between… I was one of the in betweeners, I guess… Each of these meetings was “moderated” by a social worker of some sort – and they each had their own way of going about things. They were all wonderful in their way – the goal being to bring us to a safe spot where we could actually talk about our feelings toward this – this *thing* that had brought us together.
There was the one who really insisted that things be done by the book.
(None of us had read the book)
There was the one who was like everyone’s Jewish Grandmother – she brought laughter, love, encouragement and hope to each of us.
And then there was the one who came in one day when we were all talking about something other than cancer.
You know… Life…
…and she got so mad…
We were there, in a cancer survivor’s support group, and she was upset because we weren’t talking about cancer.
And you know what?
We’d LIVED it – to be honest, it pissed us off…
We all knew – in that support group, that if you said “Chemo” – you wouldn’t have to explain that chemo was the thing that made you barf, or made your hair fall out – that chemo often – for lack of a better, more socially acceptable term – spayed women and gave men involuntary vasectomies. We didn’t have to explain to the folks there in the room that chemo – oh, let’s see if we can find a nice word for it….
No nice words…
For some of us, radiation sucked – and we didn’t have to explain that or talk much about it – it was something that most of us in the room knew.
You know what we wanted to talk about? We wanted to talk about surviving. Remember what kind of support group it was?
Here, I’ll tell you what it wasn’t.
It wasn’t a cancer survivor’s support group.
It was a cancer survivor’s support group.
We wanted to talk about surviving.
And we did…
Oh Lordy, we talked about surviving…
It was wild – if you can imagine a bunch of scarred up people who’ve done battle with “the big ‘C’” wild – we were so into talking about life –about this thing called survival – and not just surviving, but having fun doing it – that that moderator got mad and walked out…
Dang we were a rebellious bunch…
She wanted us to talk about cancer – because in her eyes, it was cancer that defined who we were, and she saw the common theme between all of us being that we’d had cancer…
The thing was – we had had cancer, but it hadn’t had us.
We didn’t have to take the time or words to explain to the people in the room that this whole thing called cancer sucked.
We didn’t have to spend the time talking about how lonely it was, to go through this battle that no matter how many people are helping you, supporting you, loving you, the battle, and the fight, is yours alone to fight.
But this was the place we could talk about it.
As so often happens when going through a battle like this, we do our crying in private, and then put on a brave face – a mask, if you will, and go out and face the world. Sometimes, in that room where we met, we cried, and sometimes the conversations we had were astoundingly hard, and sometimes – some of the best conversations we had had no words at all.
Sometimes, we didn’t say anything.
We didn’t have to.
The conversations were – you know what?
I’ll tell you what the conversations weren’t.
They weren’t shallow.
We rarely talked about what TV show was on, or what movies were on. Much as some might consider this heresy, we definitely didn’t talk about which sports teams were playing – or winning.
We talked about life.
We talked about easy stuff that made us laugh, and hard stuff that made us cry.
We, who had stared death in the face, and had death blink, had absolutely nothing to hide from each other.
When we went into that room, the masks came off.
You know what masks I’m talking about… They’re the ones we wear every day. The mask that you put on
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you’re having trouble at home, and you say, “Fine”
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and your finances are down the toilet, and you say, “Fine”
When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you just found out that you’ve lost your job, and you say, “Fine”
Oh, the masks we hold onto – so tightly
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you found a lump the night before, and are waiting for an appointment to go talk to the doctor about it – but you still have to go to work to keep the health insurance, and you say, “Fine”
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you’re waiting on test results, and you say, “Fine”
Or when someone asks how you’re doing – and your spouse – or someone you love – found a lump – and you feel helpless beyond words, because no matter what you do – the battle is theirs to fight, and you choke out a “Fine”
And – after all those – when someone sees a certain look in your eyes that could mean any or all of these – a look you didn’t even know was there, and asks, really asks, “How ya doin’?” and you either bravely or stupidly, or, because honestly, you can’t quite face that question yourself, you put on that lie of a mask and you say, “Fine.”
Those masks were left in a pile outside the door to that room.
Oh, we did talk about cancer.
We talked about fear, about how much to tell people because society still wigs out a bit when they hear that word…
We talked about how much to say to the people you spend most of your life with – at work.
We talked about knowing you were going to be out of commission for a year or so as the medical establishment tried to cut or fry or poison the cancer out of you, hoping to kill it (the cancer) before either it (the cancer) or it (the poison) kills you, making you feel worse than the cancer ever did in the process.
We talked about how to get your job back after your body’d healed, knowing you’d be dealing with the effects and mental/emotional scars of this long after your hair grew back, long after those physical scars had healed.
We talked about our fears for our families, for our loved ones, for how this was affecting them, and how, in so many ways, they were fighting the same battle – and yet a totally different one.
We did talk about cancer.
But we didn’t talk about cancer nearly as much as you’d think – when we needed to, we did, but you know what we did most often?
We told stories.
We encouraged each other.
We talked about ferocious penguins in Antarctica, we talked about adventures across the country, we talked about our children – how proud we were of them, or what trouble they were getting into, and about journeys we’d taken, and journeys we wanted to take.
Closer to home, we talked about walking around Green Lake, about going up to Costco, and getting that pound cake they have up there, – and especially those Costco hot dogs. And we talked about Don’s wonderful little carvings when he brought them in for us to see.
We talked about this, this thing called life.
And every time I showed up late – let me re-punctuate that – and every time – I showed up late – it was hard for me to get out of work that early – I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door, and in that room, there was at least one moderator (pick one, we outlasted them all) and a variety of people, but the one constant there was Don and Betty.
And when I saw Betty –there was always this look that said, “I’m so glad you made it!”
A look that told me – without the mask, how she was doing. Sometimes she was doing well, sometimes not… We didn’t hide it in there.
And actually, that says something… without masks, there were no secrets… Betty didn’t have any secrets from anyone… You called their house, and by golly you were on speakerphone. You talked to Don, and you were talking to Betty.
I have to tell you – that my memories of Betty are pretty much limited to that room.
I’ve spent the last week or so trying to put to words my memories of her, and as so often happens in times like these, your mind, in its shock, tries so hard to lock the memories away for safekeeping that you can’t unlock the door to get them out, even when you want to, and no matter how hard you try.
But one thing leaked out through that door.
It’s how Betty made me feel.
There were times when I came into that room – all frazzled from a crappy day, whether it was at home, at work, or somewhere in between, it didn’t matter, and there was this sense of peace there.
It didn’t make sense – given the battles we all were facing, and fighting, but the peace was there. There was always a hug from Betty – always a smile, a handshake, or a hug from Don. Betty made me feel welcome. No matter how hard it was to get there –
Betty’s eyes told me I’d done the right thing in coming.
Betty’s hand, when I held it, told me that everything was going to be alright.
Betty’s body – when she hugged me in that warm, gentle, soft way, told me things I can’t even put into words.
See? I told you some of the best conversations had no words.
Now you’ll see I’m not dressed all fancy here, that’s no disrespect to anyone here, especially Betty… In fact, – I was thinking about it, honestly –every time Betty saw me, she saw me, as I said, all frazzled, with my backpack from work slung over my shoulder, having either ridden a bike or a bus to get there. That’s the way I’m dressed now, because if she saw me all dressed up, she’d wonder who the heck that stud muffin was in the suit – and to be honest, I’d rather she recognized me.
The thing is – the last time I hugged Betty – I didn’t know it would be the last time I hugged Betty.
The last words I spoke with Betty – I didn’t realize they would be the last words I spoke with her…
And I don’t remember them.
But do remember how she made me feel, and so I’d like to leave you with this…
You young folks out there:
Look around – you’ve got parents, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends here.
You middle aged folks – Oh, Lordy – I have to classify myself as one of those now.
Look around – you’ve got brothers, sisters, children, nieces, nephews, and friends here.
And you older folks – the ones who have earned that silver in your hair…
Look around – take your time – nobody’s leaving – look at those kids, those grown up kids of yours – those grandkids.
All of you – When’s the last time you hugged them?
What were the last words you spoke to them?
How did they make you feel?
More importantly – how did you make them feel?
I suggest to you, that
…if there have been cross words, go and forgive – or ask for forgiveness.
…if there is distance, reach out to each other.
…if there is pain, reach out to heal.
You don’t know which of your words will be the last ones, folks.
Please, take the time to think about them, make them good ones.
I’ve tried to put into words who my friend Betty was – but I can’t talk about her in the past tense – because my friend Betty is still very much alive, right here. (my heart)
And so, on this anniversary, I remember my friend Betty – and I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from her with you as well.
You could see the man had had a hard life as he guided his electric wheelchair to our Scout Troop’s Christmas Tree lot, where my wife was working her shift.
He stopped, and for a moment, didn’t do anything, just breathed and smiled.
Both hands were wrapped around his paper cup of coffee, just like we all hold it when it’s cold out, partly just to hold it, partly as a hand warmer.
There was no question why he needed the wheelchair, he was missing one leg, and the other one had a different look to it.
Cindy asked if she could help him.
“Is it okay if I just sit here for a bit and enjoy the smell? I can’t afford a tree this year.”
He didn’t ask for a giveaway, just asked if it was okay if he sat there for a bit.
“You can sit here all day if you’d like”
He looked up at Cindy, who for that shift wasn’t wearing her reindeer antlers, and wasn’t wearing her little “Cindy Lou Who” jingle bells, she was wearing a Santa hat – but instead of being made out of red material and white fuzz, it was made out of camouflaged material, and white fuzz.
“Why are you wearing hunter’s camo?” he asked.
“It’s not hunters’ camo, it’s in support of our troops. My nephew is in the Army, and so I wear it to remember him.”
“I was in the Army, too,” he said. “They didn’t do this though,” he said, gesturing toward where his feet used to be. “Diabetes.” And he explained how he’d lost both legs to the diabetes and had gotten a prosthesis for that one. He waved Michael, our son to come over, and pulled his pant leg up just a bit – and the leg underneath wasn’t skin colored, but the same camo as Cindy’s hat.
“I’m gonna get the other leg in January, but for now have to go with this.”
It became clear that not only would he not have a tree, but this lonely man didn’t have anything or anyone to help him celebrate Christmas – so he had come to the Tree Lot to find a little Christmas spirit to help nourish his soul.
But letting him go back to an apartment devoid of Christmas just didn’t seem right.
My wife found some of the branches we’d trimmed off other trees and used a little bit of wire that had been holding some wreaths together. She wired them together, so they became a little Christmas tree all by themselves, and gave it to the gentleman.
“Here, no one should be without a Christmas tree at Christmas time.”
He put his cup down and reached for the branches with both hands, looked up at Cindy for a moment, and took the ‘tree’ from her with a reverence not normally reserved for a bunch of branches held together with a little wire.
He held the branches to his face, hiding it completely, and inhaled the aroma deeply.
He held it for a long time, and when he spoke, there was a catch in his voice, and it was a little rougher as he wiped his eyes and told Cindy, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a long time.”
“Now you come back next year and get a tree when you can stand on your own two feet and put it up yourself. We’ll be here.”
“I will, believe me, I will!”
Merry Christmas, all – and happy birthday Cindy.
In this blog, I’ve been trying to write stories that have been “baked” – where I’ve spent the time over the years getting to that “aha” moment, where the laughter, the lessons, the tears have been learned, and I can share them with you.
This post is a little different.
I’ve been asked by a number of people to give “hankie warnings” on some of these stories, and in honor of that request, please consider yourself warned.
This post is a little more personal than the others, and it’s a number of stories, kind of intertwined.
As I write this – November 8th, it will have been 10 years since I spoke the words below, in front of a well-dressed, somber group of people who listened, who laughed and who cried.
I had been in that last category for ten months, and on November 8th, 2000, these people joined me there.
It was the day we buried my dad.
He’d been in the Air Force. He’d done his time in many countries. It was his time in the Air Force that had him meet my mom, that gave him stories of far-away places to tell, and that shaped my childhood. Some of those stories I’ve recalled in past posts, some are still, as it were, baking, and will be written when they’re ready.
I was at work on January 10th, 2000, when I got “the call”. Those of you who’ve been through this will understand what that means. It’s actually hard to describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been there, but when I got “the call” – my heart froze, and given where I was, I did the only thing I could do…
…and then I wrote.
I didn’t know whether I’d ever get a chance to tell dad all the things I’d wanted to say over the years – and it seemed that if I was ever going to take the chance, that right then would be that chance, instead of saying all the things I wanted to say to him in a eulogy where he couldn’t hear me, and the words would be empty.
So I wrote a note to him that January afternoon. It’s included in what’s below – which, ironically, is the eulogy I gave for my dad, 10 years ago today.
= = =
That’s what it says there in your program that this is going to be.
But how do you put into a few words the life of a man who was a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father in law, a grandfather, a teacher — and all those countless other things that a man is in his life?
I’m not going to go into the history of dad too much, you all can read that on the backs of your bulletins. We tried to get as much in there as we could. We’ll also have some pictures going in the fellowship hall so you can see a little more about who dad was.
But right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about who dad is.
By now most of you know a bit about how this all came about, and for a number of you, the last time you saw him was in this very church on January 8th of this year at Tom McLennan’s Memorial Service.
Dad went into the hospital that night, stayed in ICU at Madigan until May, during which time he had a stroke and some other complications, and later was taken to Bel Air Nursing home in Tacoma, where he died last Friday.
I wrote him a note on January 10th, when things looked pretty bad, his heart had stopped the night before, and we didn’t know what was going on, since he’d walked into the hospital the night before that, and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I’d like to read part of that note to you, because in a lot of ways, it tells a bit about the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the legacy that he left behind.
1:45 PM 1/10/00
It’s Monday, you’re in the hospital right now, and I’m praying for you.
I have to tell you a few things, just so you know them.
I love you.
– this is so hard to write…
I don’t want this to be the time to say goodbye, but I need to say a few things so that when the time comes, I can say goodbye knowing I’ve told you what I need to tell you.
You know as well as I do that there were a lot of things in our lives that haven’t panned out the way we’d planned.
Because of the time you spent away from the family in the Air Force and at school, I didn’t get a chance to have you around when I really needed a dad.
This doesn’t mean it was easy for you, in fact it was hard. I know now it was very hard for you as well.
But I want you to know that good has come out of that.
I try to spend time with my little boy now as a result, and I’m glad I was able to get my schooling out of the way before I became a papa.
Because you went away to school to improve yourself, I learned that sacrifice is sometimes necessary for future growth.
And good has come out of that.
I learned how much a son needs his father, and I try to be here for my son. So even though you felt very much like you were a failure, you weren’t. You taught me a valuable lesson, one that I will treasure always.
Because of the time you spent fixing things (and the time I spent holding the flashlight for you*)
*He’d ask me to hold the flashlight for him while he was working on something, and being a kid, my attention span was about as long as a gnat’s eyebrow, and so I’d be looking all over, shining the flashlight to what I wanted to see.
I learned how to fix things I never thought I could.
I also expanded my vocabulary during these times.
Because of the way you showed us responsibility, I was able to get a paper route and learn responsibility early, on my own.
Because you helped us deliver those papers on weekends sometimes, I learned that sometimes helping your kids to do the things they’re responsible for doing is a good thing.
Because of the way you told me to take things one step at a time, I was able to build pretty big things at Microsoft when I was there,, one step at a time.
And because you made things for me (like a train table)
and read to me (from Tom Sawyer)
and told me stories (like Paul Bunyan)
and sang to me (The Lord’s Prayer)
and took me to work (where I spun the F-4 Simulator)*
* — in the Air Force Dad was a flight simulator technician — he fixed flight simulators, and one time he took me to work, I think I must have been 5 or 6, and there was this whole line of these simulators — all just cockpits of airplanes, and he, as fathers are known to do, picked me up and popped me in the driver’s seat. I sat there, my eyes huge, as I saw all these dials and gauges in front of me, and it was just so cool and so complicated. — And there was this big stick thing in the way, so I pushed it off to one side so I could get a better look at the dials. I didn’t know that the simulator thought it was flying, and by pushing that stick over I made it think it was corkscrewing into the ground, and all the dials and gauges started spinning and I got so scared, I thought I’d broken it, and I looked out at him — he was standing right there, talking to someone else, and with fear and trepidation said, “Daddy?” — he turned around, took one look at what was happening, reached in and fixed it. Just like that. He fixed it. I hadn’t broken it. But he just reached in, and with one touch, he fixed it.
and showed me things, (like Wolf Spiders)*
When we lived in Illinois, we discovered that the spiders there are significantly bigger than spiders here in Washington.
So one time Dad was in the basement, doing something, and he called me down. He wanted me to see what he’d found under this can. So, being a kid and being curious, I squatted right beside it, and then picked up the can — to find the biggest, hairiest god-awful ugliest wolf spider I’d seen in my entire life. I jumped up and screamed, and dad was over there laughing so hard. I didn’t think it was funny then, but for years all we’d have to say was “wolf spider” it would bring the whole thing back, and we’d have a good laugh over it.
and surprised me with presents (like at Christmas in 1971 when you told me to clean up a pile of newspapers, and you’d put a bunch of toy trains underneath them)*
*He kept asking me to clean up the papers, but there was always another present to unwrap, another toy to play with, another cookie to eat — and finally, when the Christmas eve was finally winding down and we were cleaning up, I remembered the newspapers and started to clean them up — and underneath was a train set he’d gotten from somewhere, on a set of tracks, just waiting for a little boy to play with them.
and provided for me (helping me get my first Saab)*
*Many of you in this church may remember praying for that very car…
and went out of your way to help me (when that first Saab broke down)
– and the second Saab, — the third one (the fourth one’s out there, it runs fine)
and drove all the way up to Seattle to SPU when I was a student one Christmas to bring me a present — a radio controlled Porsche 928) when you knew it was the only thing I would get.
and visited me at work when I was able to show you where I worked and what I’d become professionally
And supported me in your thoughts and prayers as I became a father in my own right.
You showed me love.
And because you told me, I know you love me.
I love you too.
I read this note to him several times, never being quite sure whether it got across to him. In August, at the nursing home, I read it to him again, and he looked at me very intently while I read it, and as I finished, there was this look on his face, of peace, of contentment, of, “My job is done.” and for a split second, the stroke seemed to be gone.
He then took the note from my hand and read it himself.
And I know that he knew when he left that he was loved, he was cared for, he was appreciated, and that he would be missed.
We rejoice for him, we’re happy, for him, that this ordeal is over, but we’re sad for us, for the big, dad/Gary/grampa shaped hole he leaves in each of our lives.
– I was thinking the other day about the things I’d miss about him, and I’m sure there will be many to come, but the things that come to mind right now are the little things — and it’s always the little things, isn’t it?
The fact that he’d say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” so often that we didn’t realize how important it was for him to be able to say that, and now, how important it was for us — the whole family to have him as a cheerleader in the background. There were times he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do for us, and in his mind, he always wanted to do more — and the fact that he’s no longer in the background, just being there cheering us on — I’ll miss that. We’ll miss that.
I miss his meow — for those of you who don’t know, he had this way of meowing like a cat so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It drove us nuts — and we miss it.
I miss him greeting Michael and me with, “Hello Sonshine”
I miss seeing him snuggle my little girl Alyssa, in his lap, reading any of a number of books to her, and the look on her face that told me of the security she felt in those arms.
I miss him standing with mom, waving good bye to us as we left after a visit. — and no matter where we were, when we got together, he’d always thank us for taking the time to do that, to get together as a family, and to include him and he would always remind us, “You are loved.”
We miss him telling us “Remember, a fat old man loves you.”
I miss him yelling at us to shut the living room door. That’s the sound we grew up with. We’d run out, be halfway up the stairs, and hear, “SHUT THE DOOR” — of course, he hadn’t done that for years since he put a spring on it so it’d shut itself. But I miss knowing I won’t hear it again.
I miss him calling me up at night to tell me there was something interesting on Channel 9 that he wanted to share with me, even though we couldn’t be together, we could see it at the same time.
When I was growing up, and I’d be upstairs brushing my teeth late at night, I’d hear dad snoring downstairs, — a gentle snore (at least from upstairs) and I knew that that meant all was right with the world.
I’ll miss that, too.
And even though there are many things we’ll miss about him, I know he’s better off now than he was for the last 10 months.
Some time ago I had a dream — a dream of him essentially dying, and it didn’t look as bad as we all generally think of dying.
In my dream, he was laying there, his body all there, but kind of gray, and damaged. It looked like dad, but suddenly he broke free of that body, and he just kind of came up, there was this whole, healthy copy of him, in living color that kind of came out of him like a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, and he was free, he was whole, and he flew away, leaving the gray, damaged body behind him.
After Dad died, Petra was doing some thinking about what his death was like for him, and the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.
The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.
His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.
His heart didn’t struggle.
His feet weren’t cold.
We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.
During dad’s life, we all knew that no matter where we went or what we did, dad loved us, and I am convinced that up there in heaven, he loves us still.
When the service was done, we headed to what would be dad’s final resting place, and on that cold, clear day, the wind blowing the oak leaves around the cemetery, our family gathered around dad one last time as he was given a military funeral, with an Air Force Honor Guard from McChord Air Force Base, a flag, and a rifle salute.
We shivered as we took our places in the chairs under the portable gazebo they’d set up for us, with mom sitting in the front row. I walked away for a bit to clear my head as the ceremony started.
I’d seen the airman with his trumpet, trying to keep his mouthpiece warm on that cold day, and I knew he was going to play Taps – which I’d learned to play when I played the trumpet in junior high school, but I’d never had to play when it counted.
Taps, originally used to signal “lights out” in the military, eventually became the bugle call played at funerals, where it signaled – or symbolized – a final “lights out” for an individual.
I’d heard it played when my friend Bruce Geller died in 1978.
I’d heard it played when I, as a photojournalist, was covering the funeral of Lee Stephens, a sailor from the USS Stark that was hit by a missile on May 17th, 1987, and each time I’ve heard it, it has been like a knife in the heart for me.
It is a symbol of the end of a life, and of a loved one, where they make that transition from living in your life to living in your memories.
I remember, as I shot the funeral of Lee Stephens, how I wanted to honor the grief and sorrow his family was experiencing, but at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that this young sailor, from a small town in Ohio, who’d graduated just a few years before, had people left behind who still loved him.
I remember seeing, through the viewfinder of my Nikon, through a long, long telephoto lens, the look on this sailor’s mom’s face as the sergeant of the honor guard handed her the flag. It was a photo that, while it was “the” photo from a photojournalism point of view, I did not take. The moment was too intimate, the grief was too raw.
I remember her eyes, simultaneously exhausted, numb, disbelieving, and utterly spent as she accepted a flag from an honor guard member, “…on behalf of a grateful nation…”
In walking away a bit, I had unconsciously recreated the view I’d seen through that camera, the photo I didn’t take in 1987 at that cold cemetery 13 years later, and I was not prepared to see that look on my mom’s face and in her eyes
But I’d seen that look before, and knew what it meant.
We’d had 10 months to prepare for this moment, but the fact is, we all know we’re going to die. Being faced with it as “sometime” in the vague future is one thing. Seeing it in front of you in unblinking reality is something else entirely.
I saw the honor guard fold the flag as precisely as they could fold it
But this time, I wasn’t hiding behind my camera, trying to insulate myself from the pain of a mother who had lost her son.
This time, while I wasn’t a mother who’d lost her son, I was the son of a mother who’d lost her husband.
This time, I was a son who’d lost his father.
I understood things a little more clearly now.
I understood a little more about how much it means to sit in that chair, and have someone hand you a flag, in exchange for someone you love.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was then that they did the rifle salute. For those of you who have not experienced it, it is very much like a 21 gun salute. Retired military members who have served honorably receive a 9 gun salute, a volley where 3 soldiers fire off three rounds apiece. It is done as a sign of respect, of honor. For those not prepared for it, it can be shocking.
The call was made,
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Three fingers squeezed three triggers.
Three firing pins hit three cartridges.
Three cartridges fired and were ejected.
The honor guard was called to attention, and the command “Present Arms” was given so precisely – they all moved as one. Those without rifles saluted – those with rifles held them in the “present arms” position.
As the three shots echoed away, the only sound left was of those leaves, the movement of cloth, and the click of rifles being presented.
There was a moment where this was all we heard. Leaves rustling, coats flapping, and the stunned silence of those still not ready to let go.
It was then that the bugler, who’d clearly kept his mouthpiece warm, played Taps. He played it solemnly, clearly, and with the respect and honor due.
– and through the wind, I heard the sergeant’s words I’d heard years before, “on behalf…of a grateful nation…” drift across on the wind as he solemnly handed the folded flag to my mom.
And at the end of the day, as I watched them drive off, I found myself, in spite of the fact that I had my own family, a job, a mortgage, all the trappings of being an adult, I found myself crying, because underneath it all, I was a little boy who’d just lost his daddy.
I cried for the fact that much as I’d wanted to, there were things left unfinished.
I cried for the relationship that had at times been rough, but had started to mend.
I cried for the relationship that, like it or not, mended or not, was ended.
It is Veteran’s Day as this is published…
For those of you out there who are wearing the uniform, or for those of you who have worn it, with honor, you have my greatest respect.
For those of you who’ve lost your sons – like Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, who lost their son Lee, and so many others, and for those of you out there who’ve lost your daddies, my heart goes out to you.
For those of you who are still daddies, remember your kids only have one of you, and they only have one childhood.
It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing.
Take the time to be there for them while you can.
Love them. Hug them.
Veteran’s Day, 2010