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I went for a walk with a friend the other day, and on a whim, wandered down toward Pongo’s house.
And, to explain the significance of that – I have to go back a few years for most of you…
If any of you remember high school, you know how it could be a tangled up knot of stress, from the academics, which were hard enough, to the social aspect, where everyone was trying to figure out where they fit in the overall pecking order, to the after school stuff, where you often found out where you stood by being on the receiving end of some of that pecking.
I remember when I was in high school, the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to pet my dog, and play with him, and scritch him behind his ears, and I could just feel that knotted ball of stress from school slowly unwind. It was amazing how beneficial having a dog could be right after school like that, and although we didn’t have a dog when our son was growing up years later, he found one anyway, right when and where he needed one.
And the dog he found had started out life as the runt of the litter in a cardboard box of puppies, being given away in front of a Safeway store in Bremerton, Washington. Pongo was suspected of being a mix of something Australian, a bit of shepherd, a bit of Husky, and the rest was of indeterminate origins. However, to really narrow it down, anything short of DNA testing implied something much simpler. In spite of being the runt, in his youth, Pongo was half husky, half stegosaurus. He was, as all good dogs are, the best friend of his boy, a young lad who had grown up, just like Pongo did, and unlike Pongo, eventually moved away from home.
Pongo ended up living with the boy’s dad, Jack, and the two of them grew old together over the years. It was in Jack’s front yard that you could find Pongo every day, holding down his patch of sod. And it was there that the most reliable form of therapy for any human was lovingly waiting, every day, when our son walked by coming home from school. And every day, Pongo did something no human could possibly do, which by now, thanks to Bill Watterson, had a name:
Pongo offered up Fuzz Therapy.
And he did it with love.
He didn’t chase sticks anymore, nor did he chase Frisbees ® but he could definitely give some Fuzz Therapy.
A number of years after he graduated from High School, our son and I went back to the street where Pongo lived, and sure enough, he was still there, still holding down that one patch of sod he’d been holding down for so many years, and when he saw our son, Pongo’s tired eyes lit up at the sight of a long lost friend, and he struggled to his feet, a little bit at a time, and slowly ambled over to where he knew he’d get some petting and loving. And from what I saw in the next few minutes, it was obvious that Fuzz Therapy was a two way street.
Jack said that Pongo’d been getting on in years, which was obvious, as well as being sick, which was not, so we were glad that we stopped by when we did. And our son, going through the stresses of being a young adult, trying to balance the risks and benefits of running his own business, figuring out backup plans for both the job market and the financial risks and benefits of college, was able to get some Fuzz Therapy one more time.
Some months have gone by, and we’ve gone past Jack’s place several times since the visit in these pictures, but it has become clear that the last time we saw Pongo was the last time we would ever see Pongo…
So Pongo, my dear friend, the one who brought our son such happiness, such love, and such peace, wherever you are, I wish you an eternity blessed with a whole, healthy body, the ability to run and chase to your heart’s content, and may you get as much from the Fuzz Therapy as you gave.
(Pongo - as seen by the Google Street View camera in September of 2010)
The moon is absolutely gorgeous as I write this. All I have to do is look out the living room window to see it – and it got me thinking, and remembering, to a Sunday evening back in 1998.
I’d spent the afternoon with my son, just being together and doing stuff, and as it got dark, drove down to Golden Gardens in the old Saab, and as we were going around the big S turns on the way down, he looked up and saw the crescent moon in the evening sky.
“Look Papa! The moon’s a white banana in the sky!”
And so it was.
It was wonderful to see, and wonderful to see it through his eyes.
We got down to the beach, just as most parents were packing up and leaving, and built a sand castle in the wet sand, it clumping together – bits of shell and the like as we worked… The sand castle appeared over time to the sound of an invisible boat chugging up the Sound.
At this moment, I decided to put all my sensors on full alert, as I wanted to remember this moment, and saw and heard other parents with their children, trying not to blink as they grew up.
That’s one of the hardest things about being a parent, trying not to blink…
As the sand castle took shape, the sounds of the evening changed from children running along the beach and into the water to children bargaining for more time, begging for “just one more minute”, and parents reluctantly giving in, for that one minute, knowing that they’ll be vacuuming the sand out of the car tomorrow, but knowing also that a memory was made, and it’s one small grain of sand in the beach of a happy childhood…
At first Heidi didn’t know what she was part of that evening.
She refilled our glasses, she kept the food and drink coming, and then she did what all good waitresses do.
She left us alone.
We were sitting in a nondescript restaurant, the three of us, sharing stories, memories, and laughing ourselves silly.
The last time the three of us had been together was about 32 years earlier, and I got to pondering about the journeys we’d all not only taken, but survived to get to this table in this restaurant. What had brought us together was a funeral, the death of J.C. Masura…
…who’d been our commander many years earlier when we were all in the same Civil Air Patrol Squadron on what was then McChord Air Force Base. J.C. had been a loadmaster on C-130’s and C-141’s, back in the day, and up until recently had run an aviation maintenance facility at an airfield near his home.
Of the three of us there in that restaurant after the funeral and reception, there was Aaron.
He told a story of being up on Mount Rainier during his Civil Air Patrol days, trying to put his tent together and it being a tangle of poles and cloth. He told of J.C. coming over, and being relieved that he’d have help to solve this problem. J.C. did help. He said, “Son, if you don’t get this tent up, you’re gonna die. So you’d better figure it out.”
And Aaron did.
The most vivid memory I have of Aaron was when we were trying to ram him through the bushes (<–story) on one of our searches. This evening, however, he was sitting across the table from me, in a uniform that spoke of honor, valor and courage. A uniform that spoke of someone who no longer needed to be pushed through bushes, but led people through walls.
As we sat there, reminiscing, and as Heidi kept our water glasses and plates full, Aaron told stories that had us laughing, and shaking our heads in amazement.
He told of coming back from one of many missions to a country in the Middle East, ‘the sandbox’, exhausted to the core, and climbing onto a ubiquitous, anonymous Air Force cargo plane that was to take him home, only to find himself being welcomed onto the plane by a loadmaster with the familiar name of Masura stitched to his uniform. It seems J.C’s oldest son (we knew him as Jimmy) had followed in his father’s footsteps, and was now a loadmaster himself, with enough stripes on his arm to put the fear of God into even the highest ranking officer.
Aaron, the highly decorated soldier, slept most of the flight home, watched over not by a stranger, but by a friend.
Heidi came by about then to refill our glasses, and it was obvious to her that she was seeing, and was part of, something very special. It was obvious we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Typical of such reunions, she said, was folks from college getting back together. She was amazed to hear that we hadn’t seen each other since high school, and even more amazed that we’d gotten together at all.
Then there was Bill, who I’d been able to keep in touch with a little more. I have many memories of Bill, some of which have actually been written down. One of those involved our Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a regional Drill competition (<–story) in Oregon, and the memories of the looks on people’s faces when they saw us beating them at their own game.
Bill was dressed in a suit jacket and tie for the funeral, had become a world traveler, working as a biologist and traveling to every continent on the planet, and some places that don’t come remotely close to being continents. Bill told a story about going back to Antarctica, where before they could study the penguins, and the wildlife, one of the first orders of business was getting things habitable, and during that time it was discovered that the ‘facilities’ had been buried in 7 feet of snow since they were last there. By the time they got everything dug out and opened up for use, they discovered several inches of frost on the toilet seat.
We laughed about the “when I was your age” stories that would grow into: “When I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy things called toilets, we had to dig through 7 feet of snow just to get to a seat with a hole in it. And it had FROST on it. And we had to melt that off ourselves…”
“With our Butts.”
Yeah, I can see that…
We’d get post cards from Bill every now and then, telling of his adventures in warmer climates, too. He told one story – and it wasn’t even a story, but just a vignette, of writing one of his post cards, in this case to his sister, sitting under a tree somewhere in Africa, and writing it by candle light, because it was all he had. When a scorpion crawled across the postcard as he was writing it, looking for bugs that might have been attracted by the candle, he decided it was time to call it a night.
Heidi came back and checked on us, and the stories continued.
I’d had some of my own adventures – some of which I’ve written about, some not, and we marveled, literally, not just about the various journeys we’d gone on to get to this table, in this restaurant, but the fact that we’d survived them all. Even though we were there for hours, each one of us had stories that there wasn’t time to share that evening, and each one of us had stories of adventure and danger, as well as growth and promise that we realized would have to wait for another day.
We pondered that, and found ourselves all taking a collective breath. As we did, we realized the restaurant had grown quiet. There was no conversation, no bustling of waiters. In fact, the only sounds we heard were those of clinking dishes as the staff cleaned up the restaurant, which had closed around us.
We were the last customers in the place, and the doors were locked.
Heidi, bless her, came by one last time, and let us out…
…and stood in the parking lot for another half hour, talking and shivering in the dark, but vowing that we would get together again without someone having to die in order for it to happen.
There were friends who were not able to make it this time, and friends who would not make it, ever.
And it got me thinking…
Why do we wait so long?
One person asked me, “Why is it we wait till we have nothing but weddings and funerals to get together?”
Why do we often just get stuck in our little ruts and miss out on some of the cool stuff of life, like sharing stories and laughing, and – why does it take something *more* special than just getting together to get us to get together? (yeah, I read that a couple of times myself too before I let it go, but it works…)
I mean – the three of us hadn’t been together in over 3 decades.
Not a week later I had occasion to go to a friend’s birthday party. I was fighting off a bug and wasn’t feeling too well yet, but for heaven’s sake, it had been years since I’d seen him, so I went. He’d hit the big 5 decade mark, and wondered the same thing… why do we get stuck in our little ruts?
I know the answer to this – and there’s a story in it, which I’ll tell later, but in a nutshell, it’s because it takes more energy to get out of a rut than it does to fall into one.
Sometimes that energy comes because you see patterns and realize if you don’t change something, the pattern is pretty predictable. Sometimes the energy comes in the adrenaline fueled by the sudden, tragic realization that nothing lasts forever, and everything, everything comes to an end, whether we want to believe it or not.
So – and I’m realizing I’ve been ending a lot of stories with this theme: Make sure you let the ones you love know that while you can.
Hug your husband/wife.
Hug your kids.
Hug your parents. Even if it’s a verbal hug, with a phone call, card, or email.
Just do it.
A friend wrote recently that he’d found out another friend had passed away, and somehow 10 years had slipped by since they’d talked. You never know when your last words with someone will indeed be your last words with someone.
Sometimes a telephone call will reopen doors to old friendships. Sometimes you’ll find those doors have closed and it’s time to move on. That might hurt, but regardless the door’s position, at least you’ll know, and you’ll be able to open or close it yourself. And you’ll actually have a chance to know what those last words with someone will be. Make sure they’re good ones.
In the end, what changed is that I did just that.
I picked up the phone and checked up on some old friends and kept in touch with them more. I found some doors opened wide again, and found some doors closed – I write all this from experience, both joyful and painful.
And I tried, as best I could, when I saw that one of those doors had closed, to make my last words good ones.
So take care of yourselves. This is the one time we have through this life.
Take care of each other, too. You never know when you’ll need each other.
Oh, and if you happen to meet a waitress named Heidi, working at the Outback Steakhouse in Puyallup, Washington, who keeps your glasses full and allows you to enjoy your reunion time with your friends, give her a good tip.
She deserves it.
It’s been a year since the events in this story unfolded, and it took this long to think them through, get some perspective, apply some of the lessons I learned, and be ready to share them with you. That might make a little more sense now that you’ve read it.
Aaron is still in the Army – he invited us to help celebrate his promotion recently, and we shared more stories, more laughs. We kept the promise to get together more often, and made more promises to do it again.
Bill and I got together the day after my birthday last year along with another friend, Mark, and have kept in touch more. He’s doing a little less exploring, but still doesn’t have a “desk” job. He couldn’t make it to the promotion party because he was strapped into a small airplane, flying around the hinterlands of the country in an airplane, counting Elk.
Jimmy’s still in the Air Force, I saw him at Aaron’s celebration, and they got along like the old friends they are, not with the stuffy formality you might expect of an officer and an enlisted man. It was fun to see that.
J.C.’s wife – well – widow – hard to write that, but it’s true - is doing all the things you do when you’ve lost a loved one. That first year, I can tell you from experience, is a hard one. I’ve kept in touch with them as I could over the last 12 months, not as much as I’d like, but far more than the previous 30 years or so.
And as time, and the years, go on, I’m realizing more and more that the things that are valuable to me are less and less the things that gather dust, or rust, or whatever. They’re the relationships I treasure with friends old and new.
Now go out there, and find some treasure. (and then come back and share what you found, you might help other people get out of their ruts with your stories.)
We sang that in church a few weeks ago – (you can hear a version of it here) and I thought about that – what does it mean to “follow hard”?
It came to me in a camping trip my son Michael and I took to Shi Shi Beach (you can read about that trip in more detail here), on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State.
We should have made it to the trailhead by 1:00 that afternoon. For various reasons we left much later than expected and got there at 4:30. When we did, it was quite literally raining sideways.
We’d been told that it was a 3 hour hike, with a mile on the beach and, we’d heard, parts of the trail that were so muddy that boots got sucked off.
It was also February, and 3 hours after 4:30 would be well after dark – so we really felt like we needed to push it.
And Michael did. Between the two of us, we managed to get down to the beach, and then we walked. Hard, and fast, we walked.
The tide was out, the beach was flat, the sand was hard, and we walked in this little bubble of light from the flashlights. Occasionally, Michael would ask if I needed him to slow down the pace a bit, and I said no, because while we’d been told it’d be “just a mile or so” down the beach, we didn’t really know how far we had to go, so going full tilt as far as possible seemed to make sense.
We did get there, and the very next morning, the weather turned so bad that the scoutmaster made the wise decision to leave – and that’s what we did. There’s so much more to this – but this sets up the important part.
The tide had come in just after we got there, went out again overnight and was coming in again. We had to be out of there before high tide. There were parts of the beach that were up against a cliff, with logs that had been brought in over the years at the base, so it made decisions easy: you either walked out when the tide was out, or you waited till the tide was out. Dilly dallying around meant you got to have waves and logs in your face while you had a cliff at your back.
Not a good option.
Michael and I started walking out early because of problems with my leg; we didn’t want to hold anyone up. And so we walked.
Hard and fast, we walked.
But this time it was different. The only hard sand had waves lapping on it already, so we couldn’t walk there. The only sand we could walk on was now steep, soft, and at this moment, still dry, the kind you walk through more than you walk on, especially with heavy packs. In all this, we had to race that tide that was coming in so we wouldn’t get stuck on the beach.
And Michael, this time, did not ask if I wanted to slow down.
He didn’t ask if I needed to slow down, in fact, what he said was, “Keep it up, old man. I am not dropping the pace.”
And I followed.
I tried to stay within 10 feet of him, sometimes it stretched out to 30 or so – but I followed – because right behind us was that tide.
I had to follow.
I walked as fast as I could, with a stick for support, wind at my back, incoming waves to my left, rain and hail soon to follow.
Rest had to wait.
Pain had to wait.
Hunger had to wait.
Even thirst had to wait.
The deep sand had to be pushed through.
The creeks we’d come through on the way in had to be forded again on the way out.
The waves, dashed around.
Until we were off that beach, the only thing on my mind was following.
And then it hit me.
To follow hard is to focus on one thing and follow that.
Whatever it costs, however much it hurts, no matter how tired you are, you follow.
And when in Church we sing, “…and I will follow hard after you…” – it is Jesus who we are following.
And the tide? – I guess I see that as all the distractions of the world.
While we were aware of the waves, (you don’t turn your back on the ocean, ever, especially out there), not once did we stop to look at the waves until we were well off the beach, it would have taken time we didn’t have, and energy we didn’t have, from achieving our goal.
And we did that. We achieved our goal, and we did make it. The tide drowned the beach underneath it just as we made it off the sand.
It was not easy.
It is not easy, and it can and does cost to do this. There is no guarantee that we won’t be hit by some “rogue wave” in our lives, and honestly, a lot of us are, but as I think about it – the more we “follow hard” after Jesus, the faster we’ll get off this beach, to safety.
Michael went back onto the beach and helped some of the younger scouts make it to the sheltered area we were in, and eventually we got everyone to safety.
Some months after I wrote the above, I realized I was pondering it a lot, and as often is the case, it got me thinking. I realize that while I wrote the story because I had the image of that walk going through my head as we were singing in church, specifically, following Christ, accepting Him and His forgiveness, because hey, we’ve all screwed up, we’ve all sinned. It’s part of life. Recognizing that, and recognizing that the forgiveness is there if we ask for it, is all part of what it’s like to “follow hard”.
I thought back to Michael going back out onto the beach, with the tide coming in, a hailstorm starting (this was in February, yes, camping in February) – knowing that we’d achieved our goal of getting off it – and how he went to help others do the same thing.
I realized that in anything we do – we will have the opportunity, many times over, to do that – to help people who come after us achieve their goal of “getting off the beach” whatever that beach is in their lives – and in doing so, sometimes we have to go out onto the beach again. When we do that – with the waves crashing, and the hail coming, we then have to focus on that goal, to the point of being aware of, but not letting the storm and waves distract us from achieving it.
I thought some more, and learned that the song had more to teach me.
My mom, who reads these stories, has mentioned that this blog is my pulpit, so if you felt like you’ve just read a sermon, that’s cool. But I realize that not everyone reading this is a Christian, I know some of you out there personally – most, I don’t. And for you, this may not be a sermon, but just a story. I’m okay with that. I do hope and pray that the wisdom that He gives me in these stories is shared well, and that it blesses you in ways you can’t imagine right now. I also realize that this concept of “Following Hard” could be applied to any goal worth pursuing. And that thought alone has made me smile, realizing that in every challenge that I faced from that moment on, any challenging goal that I had to follow hard after, I would have both that trip to Shi Shi beach in my memory, and that song in my heart.
It’s funny what happens when the phone rings in our house. There are the usual calls from family and friends, the usual telemarketers that get ignored, and the usual wrong numbers. But every now and then we get a call that just has to be remembered.
The other day I got a call from a friend of my dad’s, who had worked with him in the Air Force over half a century ago. He told me a story from his youth that had stuck with him all these years, and – well…
…fade back with me
… to a long time ago, in a country far, far away, where a shepherd had members of his village both enthralled and in disbelief at how he had fought off two fire breathing beasts who had been attacking his flock of sheep. The beasts were bigger that he was, stronger than he was, and much, much faster than he was.
The beasts were metal, he said, and attacked over and over, terrifying the sheep, scattering them all across the meadow on the mountainside they were on.
And yet he fought them off.
And they never, ever bothered his sheep again.
Some people doubted him, but he stuck with his story, resolute in his claim that he was telling the truth.
But there is more to this tale.
See the job of being a shepherd is one of those jobs that is necessary, requires wisdom, bravery, and an understanding of a particularly unpredictable type of animal. But given those parameters, it hasn’t changed much in millennia. In fact, there are stories in the Bible about sheep, and shepherds, dating back thousands of years. The Christmas Story very clearly involves shepherds, get this, “Keeping watch over their flocks, by night”. It means the only thing predictable about the sheep was that they would get into trouble. The only thing unpredictable was what kind of trouble that might be. Given that, even at night the sheep couldn’t even be left alone without being protected or watched. The Bible doesn’t say whether the shepherds were protecting the sheep from poachers (likely) or predators (also likely) or their own stupidity (no, really). It should be simple, right? You keep the sheep happy, you keep the sheep where they can have food and water, you keep them out of danger, and keep the predators away from them.
And that should be it, right?
“Things just happen to sheep. I don’t know why it is, but if you have 15 horses, 20 cows and one sheep standing on a hill and a thunderstorm comes, lightning will hit the sheep. Every time.”
And in this case, the lightning came in the form of…
…well, again, let’s step back a bit, no, not just a bit, let’s travel, you and I, to a place completely foreign to the world of the mountain meadow.
There is no grass in this world.
There are no trees in this world.
There aren’t even parts of any sheep in this world, other than the wool that had been used to make the uniforms being worn in what was known as the ready room of a military airbase.
Those uniforms, when cared for, made young men look sharp, and two of the best of the bunch were very, very proud to wear them.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Clothes make the man” – and at some level, they do. The right clothes can make a young man look far more mature than one might expect, and in this case, when the two young men in question were barely out of their teens at 24, if you took the uniforms away, you’d have two young men who looked very much like they could be seen playing volleyball on a beach, or out for an evening with a lovely lady on each arm, without a care in the world.
This time, in a young man’s life, is a strange combination of development, with the body in almost peak condition, but not all of the brain has caught up with that peak condition of the body… See, the frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys growing into young men, that’s just not all there yet.
And yes, it is safe to make the assumption that this plays into the story.
See, this is the time when a young man often somehow manages to put a lot of money either making or buying a car or motorcycle far more powerful than he has any right to be driving, but these young men weren’t recklessly riding motorcycles with 50 horsepower or driving cars with 200. No, these young men had been trained by the military to fly the F-100 Super Sabre, which had two fully afterburning turbojet engines powerful enough to push the plane past the speed of sound.
That meant if the plane were flying at you, you’d have no warning that it was coming, because it was flying faster than the sound it was making. When it flew past, all the noise it had been making would show up in an instant in a sonic boom, and then you might hear it roar off, and that would be that.
So, the military could teach them how to fly, but only time (and experience) would teach them how to fly wisely.
Let’s go back to the ready room, where we join those on active duty, and those working maintenance, but who couldn’t do anything till the planes came back, all chatting, playing board games or cards, or studying maintenance manuals to help them understand the complex machines they would be repairing. In one corner, an old refrigerator grumbled as it kept drinks cool. The sound of the games and laughter going on inside was accompanied by a bass line of activity outside. Turboprops rumbled and turbojets whined as planes taxied to the end of the runway, and roared as they accelerated planes to takeoff speed and onto their missions. And, as was the custom, one man in the ready room had a hand held radio tuned to the tower frequency, just in case a pilot radioed something like this:
“EMERGENCY! We need to get in, losing hydraulic fluid!”
Chairs, cards, and manuals scattered across the floor as everyone rushed outside to see what they could do. Of course, there were procedures for this… They’d been practicing them for months, but this time it was clearly for real. The tide of humanity rushed back in through the one door. Manuals were pulled off shelves, checklists were consulted, and all aircraft not declaring the emergency were cleared from the area. All had to land at other airports, some barely had enough fuel to get there, but an emergency was an emergency, and at the risk of creating another possible emergency, the pattern had to be clear for the one they were sure about.
Eventually, those in the tower with binoculars looked downwind and saw two planes, one rock steady, and another one clearly struggling to keep the pointy end forward and wings level.
By this time, all other airborne aircraft had been redirected and the runways and approach patterns were clear. The fire engines were already growling their way out to their appointed positions near the runway in case they were needed. There were still 75 fighters parked in rows outside that there wasn’t time to move out of the way, but both planes managed to make a safe landing, and they taxied to the flight line, shutting down without incident.
The pilots climbed out, and both of them gathered around the crippled plane. One kneeled down and saw a huge dent, then a gaping hole in the bottom of the fuselage, leading to the main hydraulic pump where the lines and pump itself were mangled. They knew what had happened, the question now was explaining it. As they were trying to figure that out, standing there looking at the growing puddle of the last of the hydraulic fluid, the squadron commander, a, dignified man, his maturity showing in his bearing, his spotless uniform, and the graying of closely cropped hair at his temples, came out to find out what the nature of the emergency was.
Understand, that to get to his position in that country, and in the military in general, he had to have some experience in letting people know what kind of behavior was acceptable and what was not. He also had to have some experience getting his thoughts across succinctly, with very little room for interpretation. He took one look at the plane, which, despite the fact that they were not at war with anyone, looked like it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. As commander of the squadron, this plane was his responsibility. Any damage to it would be expensive, both financially and in the terms of someone’s career. The consequences of those thoughts came out succinctly, and with little room for interpretation.
“What? Am I going mad? What happened to the plane?”
The two young pilots looked at each other, and clearly had to explain something. The only question was how. The looks on their faces were the looks of young boys with their hands caught in the world’s biggest cookie jar. One of them cautiously tried to explain:
“We… we were intercepted.”
The look the commander gave them could have easily blistered paint.
“You were what? Intercepted? By whom? The Enemy? Where were you? Who intercepted you?”
The other pilot, before he could think of something that sounded more sane, blurted out, “The shepherd.”
“The what? You were intercepted by a shepherd?”
There followed a long diatribe about the logic of a supersonic jet fighter being intercepted by an old shepherd who was supposed to be watching a flock of clearly subsonic sheep.
Slowly but surely the story came out.
It seems that inside the uniforms of those two first lieutenants were indeed two 24 year old kids, who might otherwise be driving fast cars and chasing pretty girls.
Instead, they were flying fast planes and chasing thousands of sheep.
They’d seen them on the way back from a mission, and decided to have a little fun, so they dove down on the sheep, pulling up at the last second, low enough to singe the wool on the sheep that hadn’t scattered, and then they lit their afterburners to accelerate and climb, leaving their own thunder to fade as the sound and smell of scattered, panicked, and smoldering sheep spread all over the hillside. Time after time they climbed to altitude, then dove on the sheep, laughing behind their oxygen masks,
Eventually, the shepherd, neither he nor his sheepdogs able to defend against this kind of attack, in an act of desperation and pure defiance, waited until the plane came again, and heaved the biggest rock he could find up at it.
The Super Sabre, flying over 400 mph as it buzzed the sheep, flew directly into the rock just as it was pulling up, and the rock took out enough of the hydraulic system to immediately cause a Christmas tree of warning lights to flash brightly on the instrument panel. There were clearly some serious, immediate problems, and being that close to the ground was not the place to be with problems, so they climbed up for as much altitude as they could get and headed back to base, declaring their emergency to anyone who would listen.
The pilots were reprimanded, and were given quite a bit of time in the brig on base to allow the frontal lobes of their brains to be realigned with reality so they would understand the consequences of their actions. The cost of all those planes that had been diverted, the crew and staff who ended up at bases not their own, all the fuel that had been burned getting them there, passengers who had missed connections, meetings, and flights, cargo that hadn’t been delivered, plus the cost of the repair, refit, and testing of the airplane, which was a figure far more than the two pilots made in a decade, much less a year, slowly sunk in over the weeks and months.
But the plane was repaired and flew again.
The pilots eventually learned their lessons and flew again.
The shepherd and the sheep, on the other hand, were all but forgotten.
And that bit – that little bit about the shepherd – got me thinking.
See, one of the things I’ve learned over the years takes me back to one of those first things I mentioned about shepherds. For the most part, the sheep are unaware of them, unless or until they’re needed, like when there’s danger, or when there’s trouble.
Then the sheep are very aware.
Kind of like us.
I found myself thinking back to the Christmas Story – where the shepherds were watching their flocks – who should have been sleeping – but the sheep were so valuable that the owner felt they were worth protecting, so he made sure there was someone watching them, protecting them, guarding them, 24/7. And understand, just because the shepherds were out there with what looked like a peaceful postcard image doesn’t mean they were weak.
Oh no, not at all…
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep needed to be protected from predators.
Kind of like us.
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep got themselves into trouble and had to be searched for and found.
Kind of like us.
And sometimes, like us, they had to be protected from themselves.
Kind of like us…
Day or night.
I thought some more…
If we’re not careful and either wander out of sight of the Shepherd who protects us, or get so involved in our own lives and our own pursuits that we lose sight of the Shepherd who protects us from fire breathing beasts, we do run the risk of being burned by those flames.
It makes me thankful for that Shepherd we have, the One who protects us when we don’t even know it…
For that matter, especially when we don’t know it.
It gave me a far greater understanding, and respect, for shepherds, and for our Shepherd.
And I found my thoughts drifting back to a small village in a country, far, far away, where now live the grandchildren of a shepherd who was revered by the villagers for a story he told, how he fought off two enemies much bigger, much stronger, and much, much faster than he was.
With nothing more than a rock.
And I realize that on many levels, it’s a true story.
© 2013 Tom Roush, all rights reserved
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.
We were in Eastern Washington a few weeks ago, and brought home a couple of boxes of the world famous Washington State Apples. It got me thinking about all the wonderful things you can do with apples. You know, apple sauce, apple pie, my favorite apple crisp, or just simply baked apples.
You don’t need anything special to bake apples, You can bake them in a dutch oven over a fire, or in a regular oven, or like my sister did a while back, in a microwave. She cored them, put raisins and brown sugar in the hole, then nuked them in the microwave for a few minutes. The smell was absolutely divine, the kind of smell you want to come home to – and the smell would make even the rattiest shack feel like home, no matter where it was. I found myself pondering, and realized my mind had drifted off to a story my dad told about another box of apples and a baked apple recipe that had some rather special requirements.
You see – well, let me take you back to the late 1950′s or so…
Dad was in the Air Force, and worked in Crypto, that is, codes for the first few years there. The Air Force had trained him, and then sent him to where codes would be used, a lot. Now given that this was during the Cold War, the hot place to be code-wise was actually a very cold place to be geographically, and that was as near as possible to the transmitters where the codes were being transmitted from. That place was from what was then the Soviet Union.
The closest thing the US had to those transmitters were some of what were the most inhospitable hunks of real estate on the planet, that being a part of Alaska known as the Aleutian Island chain. The hunk of real estate dad was stationed on was an island almost at the west end of the Aleutians.
The messages that dad intercepted were often encoded and then sent by machine. Dad would sit there, with a headset plugged into a receiver, and transcribe these messages that were sent out in Morse Code on an old manual typewriter. Understand, he might be able to decode what the coded messages said, but not what they meant, and it was often someone else’s job to decode that level of it, so dad would sit there with his eyes closed, and type out into letters the short and long beeps he heard in his headsets. It got to the point where he’d learned the code so deeply that that part of his brain was essentially on autopilot (this would come into play over 40 years later – in a story yet to be written). His fingers were typing out the letters, while his brain was thinking about something else, anything else, for that matter, anywhere else, as the Aleutian Islands were about as far as you could get from the “Lower 48” of the United States and still be in the country. For those of you who don’t know anything about them, a short history lesson:
The Aleutian Islands came as a package deal with Alaska when the US Secretary of State William H. Seward bought it from the Russian Government in 1867 for a little more than $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. There were some who thought that was a touch expensive for the land once they saw it. In fact, there were some who thought the land was so remote that it would be too expensive even if it were a straight-out gift.
However, Alaska proved its value in the gold rush of 1896, and the Aleutians were also considered valuable strategically – even as far from anything as they were. I mean seriously, the Aleutian chain goes out west so far that you can see tomorrow from the end. In all reality, today should be tomorrow in the middle of them, but the International Date Line zigzags around them so they can all at least be on the same calendar day as the rest of the United States. Not only that, some of the islands of Alaska are so far west, and thus so close to Russia that you can see it from there.
They were fought over by the US and the Japanese during WWII, and there have been persistent rumors that some of the islands had a few visitors from Russia during the Cold War.
It’s hard to grasp how far away Shemya is from – oh – anywhere, but one fellow stationed there put it into perspective. See, using the common denominator of a McDonalds as a sign of how close or far you are from what we consider “civilization”, in the lower 48 states (that is, the continental United States) it is physically impossible to be farther than 115 miles from a McDonalds restaurant. But there’s a sign on the east end of Shemya that makes it very clear that a Big Mac is not in your immediate future. At that point, you’re 1500 miles from the nearest McDonalds.
If that doesn’t put it into perspective, let’s try this: If you were in Seattle, would you drive to Des Moines, Iowa, for a Big Mac? That’s the distance…
That’s how far out there Shemya is.
So because of this remoteness, and because supplies had to be shipped thousands of miles across the North Pacific, they had to be ordered months in advance of their planned use, and given the quantities needed and the difficulties in delivering them (due to both distance and the often inhospitable weather), they were brought in infrequently by barges in loads that included up to a six month supply of everything from food and fuel to paint and paperclips.
One barge bringing in fuel was grounded in bad weather and was simply left there. The fuel was pumped out, and over the years, what remained of the barge was cut up; the usable pieces were cut away to be used for repairs that required hunks of steel. The old adage of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was very much a part of life on the Aleutians at that time, and soldiers, sailors, and airmen learned to make do with what they had, even if it showed up as steel in the form of a grounded barge.
What they had back then were either the bare basics, and sometimes even those were hard to come by, or an astonishing amount of stuff worn out from use or weather left over from World War II that was cheaper to leave there than it was to take back to the lower 48.
Early on, heat was a challenge (namely because there wasn’t any). And solving the heat problem created new, different problems. The preservation of food, which had been easy in the lower temperatures, became difficult when the heat (in the form of oil burning stoves) was on. The food couldn’t just be left outside. While that would have kept it cool, the wildlife would have considered it a buffet, and given the barge schedule, feeding the animals wasn’t something anyone could afford. Another solution was needed, so, with nothing but time on their hands when they weren’t working, the guys who wanted cold sodas or beers went back to the way some of their parents had solved problems like this without electricity–they nailed the crates some of their supplies had come in to the sides of buildings with the open ends facing into the windows, built supports under them so they’d stay, and went inside. They opened the windows inside the heated building, and–voila!–their own little crate refrigerators. (Modern versions of these persisted even into the ‘70’s)
The heat that was welcomed by humans created another problem. It was also welcomed by some of the local wildlife:
They got into everything, chewing through walls and getting into supplies. Some, searching for warmth, even got in bed with some of the soldiers stationed there.
They had to be dealt with.
And when you get a bunch of bored young men out in the middle of nowhere together with a problem to solve, they can often get pretty creative in solving those problems. Remember how infrequently supplies were delivered? That went for any kind of entertainment at the time as well, which explains how early on, before things got too civilized, one intrepid group of soldiers developed their own way of dealing with the rats. They decided that, instead of killing them outright, they’d have some fun with them, so when the rats chewed holes into the buildings and popped their heads up, looking for either heat or food, they got sprayed with varying colors of spray paint that had come up with the supplies. Each guy got a different color, and then the group took bets on whose rat would show up next. The image of a group of bored soldiers on one side of an oil stove, facing off with a rainbow of rats on the other, is hard to get out of my mind…
Over time, as more and more equipment was brought out, the various outposts in the Aleutians became more ‘civilized’ – but there was no letup on the fact that you were far from home.
By the time my Dad got up there, buildings were made of brick and cement and were definitely built to handle the weather and climate. He spent a little bit of time on an island called Adak (where the rainbow of rats were), but spent most of his time further west, on an island called Shemya. And out there, the weather was routinely so bad that the standard issue wind sock had worn out and had been replaced with a far more durable one.
The reason dad was out there was because out there was some of the most advanced and powerful electronic equipment of its time. Not only were there electronic listening posts (receivers), but there were electronic transmitters, and on Shemya, there was a radar unit.
This radar unit was huge.
There were several there over the years, but one in particular held some fascination for my dad and his compatriots. It was the radar known as the AN/FPS-17 – at the time it was among the most powerful radars in the world.
Now because of all the tremendously expensive electronics that were out there, the buildings and control rooms they were in had to be dry. In fact, the various buildings were heated by a combination of all the electronics that were in them, the huge oil burning heaters that were running constantly, or both. So as cool and damp as the air was on the outside of the buildings, it was warm and dry, although a bit stuffy, on the inside, since they recirculated the air they’d warmed up.
So if it’s not clear yet, because of the remoteness of the location, the complexity of resupply, and the incredibly unpredictable weather, they were very conservative with their supplies, trying hard not to waste anything, and given that weather, the radar unit took several years to build, so remember that they only had what had been brought up on the latest barge.
If, for example, one of them got a hankering for a hamburger, and there wasn’t any beef on the island, there wouldn’t be any burgers in the buns.
If, on a cold day, one of them wanted a mug of hot chocolate, and it was stuck on the barge that was waiting for the weather to clear, well, he went without the hot chocolate.
And if there were times when the desire for something as simple as hot chocolate was almost palpable, and you just wanted something warm…
…like when the fog was so thick you’d need a chainsaw to get through it.
…or when the mist was so heavy you needed to lift it with jacks just to walk under it.
…or when the cold was so bone chilling that the fact that you were out in the middle of nowhere was overpowering, and as much as you might have just wanted something simple from home back then, if it wasn’t on the island, you weren’t getting it unless months before, someone had thought to put whatever that was onto a barge to be shipped up to Shemya for the once or twice yearly resupply missions.
So… whether you liked it or not, the options were pretty limited, and you made do.
But the longing for something familiar, the homesickness – even though they’d never call it that, would just get to be so overpowering as to be debilitating. Everyone from the commander all the way down to dad and his fellow airmen realized that keeping morale up was important, that bad morale could be dangerous that far from anywhere, so jumping on any bout of homesickness right away was pretty important all the way around.
The routine there was as simple as it was monotonous: Day after day, dad would do his shift, typing the codes that came into his headphones while his mind was elsewhere. The headphones dad wore shielded some of the constant hum of the electronics, and the only break from the routine was to go outside, where he’d brave the weather or the fog monster, and he’d go just for a change of scenery. Later, there was more entertainment and recreation, but while he was up there, he, like all the others before him, had to make do with what he had…
And going outside helped sometimes.
The air was so much fresher than the dry, overheated, electric air inside the control building around the radar and communication processing equipment. For the most part, you could walk anyplace that wasn’t fenced in. You could go down to the beaches, or on the north side, to the cliffs. There were caves to find, of all things, gemstones in. One of the fellows stationed there found some Jade in one that he made into earrings for his wife. Another found a walrus tusk on the beach that he gave to his wife. Both still have them to this day. So you had a lot of freedom to ‘get away from it all’, as much as you can have on an island, but even outside, if you got close to the radar antenna, you could actually feel the electricity. In fact, along that note, the instructions had been pretty clear: you stayed out of the radar beam, and as they were testing it, after the thing had been on for a while, it became clear to even the least technical of them that there was one place on the island you didn’t want to be, and that was in front of that radar antenna.
Well, it was simple things, like the grass on the hillside in front of the radar dying after it was turned on.
And when there was snow everywhere else, there wasn’t snow in front of the radar antenna.
Someone also noticed that seagulls tended to drop dead if they hung around too long in front of the radar antenna.
And with the weather occasionally socking the place in with, sometimes you were stuck inside and couldn’t go out at all, even if all you wanted to do was watch the seagulls. About that time, the combination of the boredom and the isolation got to one of the fellows. The almost constant fog, the cold, (it rarely got above 50 degrees, even in August), the wind, even though it brought some of the cleanest air on the planet (that is, when no one was testing Atom bombs in the vicinity) started getting to him. It was just so isolated, and after a number of months of mind numbing work, boredom, and loneliness, the fellow was simply homesick, and mentioned that he had a craving for the one thing that reminded him of home, and that was the smell of baked apples.
The other fellows, my dad included, realizing the beginnings of that homesickness, thought, “Baked apples our friend wants, baked apples we can provide.” So one fellow took the four wheel drive pickup they had down to the mess hall and got a crate of apples. The others pondered which of the hot pieces of electronic equipment they could use to warm the apples up on.
And then, as they talked, they looked around and realized what they were standing next to, started putting two and two together, and realized that thousands of miles away, Dr. Percy Spencer, the inventor of the magnetron tube that was used in the huge radars on the island, had melted a candy bar in his pocket just a few years earlier just by standing next to one of the very first ones made. Curious about the candy bar, he tried it again with popcorn. This time with it not in his pocket, he blew popcorn all over the lab he was working in, and later literally got egg on the face of one of his coworkers as he exploded the very first egg with microwaves.
Well, no one’s sure anymore who came up with the idea, but given the rudimentary supplies they had available to them (remember, what was up there came on a barge, and not very often, at that…) they started thinking of Dr. Spencer’s invention and realized that he was dealing with an itty bitty magnetron tube that was melting candy bars, popping corn, and blowing up eggs from several inches away. Dad and his buddies were seeing dead grass, cooked seagulls, and melted snow a half mile away, and without even taking the apple crate out of the truck, they devised a cunning plan to perform some ‘emergency maintenance’ on the radar unit with the dead grass and seagulls in front of it, and it was shut off.
The constant humming that had become background noise completely disappeared. The crackle in the air was gone, and that feeling you get of just being around so much electricity was simply not there. The huge Fairbanks-Morse diesel generators that had been straining to create the electricity to run this radar were suddenly just loafing. You could hear the wind whispering through the antennas. You could hear the seagulls calling. Over the hill, if the breeze was right, you could just barely hear the ocean, and the walruses and sea lions arguing about whose turn it was to be on that particular hunk of rock.
It was… Peaceful.
For a moment.
And then all that gentle background noise was shattered by the sounds of a rusted out muffler on a four wheel drive Dodge Powerwagon firing up and three guys blasting out along the edge of a cliff in it, out to where the dead grass and seagulls were, where they dropped off the crate of apples, and then hightailed it back to the building that had all the controls and the radiation shielding in it.
Once they were all safely away from the radar beam, the switches were thrown, and the generators lugged as they once again struggled to generate the 1.2 megawatts of electricity needed to power up the radar again, and the electrons surged through massive copper wires, tubes, capacitors, and finally the antennas as that crackling hum came back.
About twenty minutes later, they decided that the apples ought to be done, so there was another reason for ‘maintenance’, and once again the four wheel drive truck raced out to pick up the crate of apples.
They were surprised to find the metal parts of the crate were hot.
They were surprised, and delighted that some of the apples had popped and oozed syrupy apple juice all over the ones below.
And they were overjoyed when the apples that done were smelled exactly like baked apples should smell. They got some gloves off the dashboard where they’d been warming up and loaded the crate into the truck and took it back to the control building, where the homesick friend was trying, with marginal success, to keep his head in his work. Dad grabbed one end of the crate, another fellow grabbed the other end, and a third one held the door open as they all came piling in. That smell, that wonderful, sweet, syrupy smell of baked apples came wafting in with them, and at first, their homesick friend thought he was imagining things, but then he looked up, and saw the crate, and smelled the apples, and he smiled, and then he laughed.
They did indeed smell like baked apples should smell.
Not only that, but they tasted just like baked apples should taste.
And dad said he never had any as good as those baked on a windswept hillside on a remote island in the North Pacific, by a radar half a mile away.
In researching this story, and it took a couple of years of it, off and on, it became clear to me that not only did my dad use a radar that required enough power to run about 300 homes to bake apples a half mile away, but while most of the radar we think about is designed to find airplanes several miles away, the one that my dad and his buddies were using to cook apples was designed to find missiles…
(And now, seriously, unlike most of my stories, where I do all the research, all the writing, all the editing, so many people helped with the research on this one that I simply have to roll the credits. While my dad told me the original story many years ago, it was missing enough context, likely by design, to keep me from knowing exactly when and where it all was, since the location he’d been in was a pretty secure military installation, and most of what he was doing there was stuff he simply couldn’t talk about. I could not have written it down and made it make sense without the help of all the people below who willingly shared their memories with me, gave me their time, their own stories, and graciously allowed me to use their photographs to help tell this story from over 50 years ago. I have tried hard to bring this story to life as much as I could while I still had the access to these people and I trust those who were up on Shemya and the Aleutians who shared with me first hand thoughts about what it was like to be there. If there are any inaccuracies in the story, they are mine.)
Don B., whose widow Brenda took time out of her day to listen to questions coming out of the blue about her husband, and then told me the story about the rainbow colored rats on Adak.
Michael: You were the first to point me in the direction of Shemya. I’d heard stories of Adak, and had been focusing all my attention there – thank you so much for taking a fading memory and pointing me down a path that actually let me see the hillside my dad had talked about. Until that point, I didn’t even know what island out in the Aleutians to look for.
Tom – Your pictures, your detail, your encouragement all helped get me pointed in the right direction. Your stories (including your Saab stories) helped bring life to the story I was trying to write, especially when the stories he was telling included references to cooking seagulls that had strayed too long into the beam of the radar.
Don E. – Many, many thanks for digging through your memories, sharing your stories, your patient explanation of everything, and the use of the photo in this story.
Lucas – This picture of McDonalds Point did such a good job of putting into context how remote Shemya is. I’m hoping the combination of it for those who were right brained, and the data I was able to get from Von (for the left brained types) helped to make the picture complete. For those of you curious to see some amazing images from up north, take a look at Lucas’s site – there are some wonderful images up there.
Von – Thank you for the willingness to help out with the information showing how far Shemya is from something so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. I’m hoping our information along with Lucas’s picture above help drive the point home just a bit…
Buck – Thank you for your feedback, your friendship, the photos, and relating your experiences, they made it come alive, and made a very big world feel like a very, very small place.
Barbara – thank you for your input, your thoughts, and all the items and stories on your website. They helped me see a place I could only see in my imagination.
Of course, my dad, who remembered the story well enough to tell me so I could share it with you.
And last but certainly not least, my family, whose patience as I researched and wrote it over the years can’t be overstated.
Thank you. I couldn’t have done this one without you.
I’m always amazed at the forms my time machine takes, often when I least expect it.
This time some film negatives I’d found and scanned into the computer several years ago just to see what they were, combined with a note I found on an archived CD made for a trip down memory lane to take me back to a simpler time. So, with very little editing, here’s a story from 1996…
I spent the weekend with the kids down at my folks’ place, and made apple cider with the apples from our trees in the back yard…
…on a cider press that’s probably 100 years old. It used to have a hand crank, but my Grandpa at one point put an old electric washing machine motor on it and ever since I knew of it, it ground the apples into pulp at the flick of a switch. You still had to squeeze the juice out by hand though.
After making the cider and cleaning up, and while Alyssa and Oma (German for Grandma – my mom) did only the kinds of things that granddaughters can do with their Omas, Michael and I went to what had always been my grandparent’s farm and went for a walk among the trees (douglas fir, cedar, oak), basically where I grew up. I went for many walks out there with our dogs and BB gun when I was a kid, and often went just to think and clear my mind.
My Grandpa had passed away some years earlier, and at the time, it seemed like my grandma was planning on selling the farm, so I felt I needed to take Michael out there and show him what I used to see and where I used to go exploring before that all changed. It was very strange, and I found myself quite disoriented sometimes. There were trees in places in the back of the farm that had been completely free of trees before. Areas that had been ponds no longer existed at all. What was reality simply didn’t match up with what I had in my memory.
We came to the front of the farm and saw that my grandma was boarding some horses on the land and they came up to us and just wanted some attention (and some Apples).
So we petted them, and Michael later stood up on a stump and scratched one of them while the other one nuzzled him… It was really neat. It’s one of those experiences I hope will stay with him for a long time…
Michael and I explored the swamp in the back, and watched several frogs try to jump away from him, one rather large one managed to escape just as his boot stepped down. He was as surprised as the frog was (but probably not as terrified). We kept wandering and exploring, and saw an area where the water was too deep to be a swamp, and became a large pond. We heard rushing water and went through a fence to find a beaver dam. Michael had on his black and yellow “fighter fighter” boots because he “might” want to go into some water, so when he did, naturally he went in just a little too deep, and the water flooded over the top into the boots…
At that moment I decided that I had a chance to either have some fun and make a memory with my little boy and get my feet wet, or gripe about the fact that his boots and pants were wet and — it was a no brainer…
I waded into the creek in my shoes — the water was COLD (it came from, as I recall, Sprofsky Springs), and went through the swamp and then hit the beaver dam. We later waded down the creek from right below the dam, just to explore, and got completely soaked. He loved it. Lost his balance, I caught him just as his bottom hit the water…
We came back, me squishing in my wet shoes, him sloshing in his wet boots, and saw this HUGE anthill and were both watching it intently when this fairly sizable spider walked into the picture.
Even though the ants were much, much smaller than the spider, they took it down. It was like watching “Nature” on PBS. Michael, who’d decided he was scared of spiders, suddenly found himself seriously rooting for this one, and was first interested, then incensed that the ants could do that to a spider. It was truly amazing. Michael first wanted to throw things at the ants, then thought better of it, and decided he wanted to know what ants REALLY liked to eat, and maybe he could get their attention away from the spider with that. I thought that was nice. He wanted to save the spider, but didn’t want to kill the ants.
Afterwards, he had a rock in his hand, and was wondering how the ants would react to it. I thought back about 20 years, and how I’d thrown rocks at the ancestors of those same anthills, and how typical that was of a young boy. He asked what would happen if he threw the rock, and then asked if they would attack him. (Given what he’d just seen, that was a pretty valid question). I didn’t say yes, but kind of let him make up his mind on his own. He ended up dropping the rock on the ground next to the anthill, feeling some vindication because he may have killed some of the ants that had killed his new found spider friend, but also feeling good that he hadn’t killed all of them…
We sloshed and squished back to Oma’s, and ended up having some of the cider we’d made that afternoon with dinner that evening.
Eventually I packed up some of that cider, a lot of memories, and headed back home as the kids drifted off to sleep in the back of the car.
It was truly a wonderful weekend, and I went back to work on Monday morning to a job I enjoyed, a job that allowed me to support my family, but away from the trees and forests where I grew up…
God has been good.
Take care, folks.
Every now and then I get this urge – no, not just an urge, almost a command, to write a story – a post, if you will, about something specific… What’s strange sometimes is that this one you’re reading now kind of popped up last night – and while I’m not sure why it’s important to post it now – it feels like I should. It’s not as polished as some of the other stories in the pipeline, but I’ve seen things happen lately that tell me that this is the right time to publish this one. So come with me as I take another trip into my time machine – the one that looks like an old yellow Kodak photo paper box, and learn a lesson or two in a photo I took once, a long time ago.
First the photo:
I was in college, and was trying to photograph one of the parts of the Homecoming celebration for Seattle Pacific University, which included the men’s heavyweight eight man alumni crew racing each other down the Lake Washington Ship Canal right near the campus. I’d developed a friendship with the coach for the crew team, and because of that, I was the only photographer allowed to get on the boat he was coaching from. This gave me the chance to get into a position to get a much better shot than any other photographer out there as they were finishing the race. We talked (well, shouted to each other over the motor on the coach’s boat), and I was able to get him to position his boat to show how close the race was by crossing the finish line at the same time the lead boat was crossing it, the goal being to show the difference between first place, the winner, and second, the, well, the loser. However, it wasn’t the closest race in the world – the other boat is cropped just out of the frame at the bottom right, but something magical happened as I was setting up for that shot, something I wasn’t expecting at all.
As I was looking right to gauge where the second place boat was to try to figure out what to do next, I saw this duck, barreling down the canal as fast as it could. I checked the settings on the the camera – (a Nikon FM2 with a 100 mm Nikkor lens on it that I’d borrowed from a friend) I saw I was on frame 36 (yes, film, and yes, the last frame) that I was shooting at f/8 and 1/250th of a second – the film was Tri-X black and white film, pushed two stops to be shot at ASA 1600 because everything I was shooting that day was going to be either moving fast or in low light, or both. I realized I had precisely one chance to make this right, and focused on the far boat, wanting to get the expressions of the guys in the crew shell in focus more than the duck, I’d just let the depth of field cover that. As I was looking, I realized that with as much planning as had gone into getting the shot I wanted (the two boats finishing the race) – that wasn’t the shot I needed. In fact, the shot I needed was far better than the one I wanted, and I had to make a decision, instantly: Either take the shot of the boats and tell the story of the race, or take the shot of the duck, and tell the story of another race, that no one had planned for, that had been a surprise, a chance that would be there and gone in the blink of an eye. I chose the duck, and decided that as soon as I saw it appear in the right side of the viewfinder, I’d push the button, with the knowledge from experience that it would take about 1/10th of a second for all the mechanical things in the camera to actually do their thing to expose the film. In the meantime, the duck would be moving across the frame at about 30 mph. If I waited until the duck was where I wanted it to be before I took the picture, it would be gone by the time the camera had actually exposed the film, so I had to think on my feet, on a moving boat, and make decisions fast.
All the other sports I’d shot, there would often be a second chance, another basket, another goal, another… whatever.
This time, I had one duck, one boat, one shot.
I’d brought the camera to my eye, focused on the sharp point of the boat, and as I saw the duck enter the frame from the right, hit the shutter release, felt and heard the camera take the shot, then heard the motor drive whine and jam, telling me it was at the end of the roll. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the shot or not, but I’d done everything I could to get it. I automatically rewound the film, popping it out and putting it in a separate pocket from all the other exposed film, and loaded another roll, but the duck was gone.
I could hardly wait to get back to the darkroom to see what had happened and sure enough, when I got the film developed, I found the image, and it was indeed, the 36th and last shot of the roll.
And so what’s the big deal about the image?
Well – it’s a duck.
And a boat.
And the guys?
They look like they’re racing the duck which makes it fun, but they’re really looking for the finish line, which painted on both sides of the canal, is just out of the frame on the left on their side, and just to my left behind me.
But I only had the one chance, and I’m glad I took it.
And it got me thinking, this photo, and I learned that as much as we want to believe in second chances, there are times in life where you get one chance to do something, and that’s it. Life will go on, but it will be different, and you will never know “what if” something else had happened.
Think about it: Often, life is a lot like the GPS system you might have in your car or your phone, where if you make a wrong turn, you get this message that says ‘recalculating’ as it tries to get you to go back on course, and because it’s doing that, you’re being given a second chance to do something that somehow you muffed up. The muff up could have been simple human error, it could have been not being prepared for what you were facing, it could have been something completely out of your control, but the fact is, what you planned to happen, didn’t, and now you have to sit there while something literally tries to get you back on the track you’re supposed to be on.
Then there are the other times. Some of you know I spent a number of years as a photojournalist, and saw many, many things through my viewfinder as I was shooting. The thing about shooting with an SLR is that you never actually see the picture you take. You can see what happens immediately before the image, and what happened after, but it’s only your training, your eye, or your instinct that tell you when to take the shot. You have to trust that everything worked in that blink of an eye when everything, the event in front of your camera, the experience behind it, came together.
I kept thinking, and like many of you, found myself wondering what it all means. And I guess it’s this:
There will be times in your life when you have one chance, and one chance only, to make a difference in some way. It may be a life changing experience for you, or for someone else. It may be something that comes completely out of the blue, and goes against everything you ever planned for that moment, but (and I’m speaking to myself just as much as I’m speaking to you) I encourage you to take the chance. It’s possible, just slightly, that something magical will happen. It might be in your job, it might be in your family, it might be taking a chance on repairing a strained relationship, or giving someone a second (or third) chance because you know what it’s like to not have that option. It might be simply holding someone you know at the funeral of someone you barely know. It might be taking a chance at applying for a job you don’t think you’re completely qualified for, but that will fit you like a glove, or that you can grow into. It may be finishing that last, painful cancer treatment that takes so much courage to go to when you know what it will take out of you.
I don’t know. All of the things mentioned above have happened to friends of mine or me in the last few weeks.
Take the chance.
You might make a difference in someone’s life.
And it might be your own.
Or – you might get a cool picture of a duck that reminds you of every one of these things many years later.
So take care out there, folks.
Love each other while you can.
Be prepared for what you can be prepared for – and at the same time, be ready for when plans change, because they can, and will, with barely a moment’s notice.
Oh. One last thing. Here’s the photo I’ve been talking about.
My Opa (grampa in German) was in the Army in World War 1.
Yes, the First World War.
The war that happened before just about everything we take for granted in today’s world existed.
Before cell phones.
Heck, before most people had seen or heard wired phones.
Better yet, before most homes had electricity.
In fact, before most homes had indoor plumbing.
At the time, military inventions came at such a furious rate that they allowed soldiers to kill one another with enough ruthless efficiency that it became known as “The War to end all Wars”. Of course, this “War to end all Wars” ended almost 100 years ago, and since that time, there have been countless other ones, and literally millions of people have died as a result.
But this story, while about war, isn’t about the death that always accompanies it. It’s a story about life, day to day life, and it involves simple things.
It involves shovels, potatoes, and cannons.
…and very, very close calls.
Let me set the stage for you.
World War 1.
Europe, if you don’t remember your history, was a powder keg. There were a whole bunch of countries in Europe at the time, from itty bitty, to absolutely massive, and they’d decided to make alliances between themselves. This was the governmental equivalent of you telling your buddies, “Hey, if they mess with you, they mess with me…”
This would have been okay if it were just one or two people.
But it wasn’t.
It would have been okay if it had been one or two countries.
But it wasn’t.
In fact, it was two rather large groups of countries, with alliances so tangled up that they looked like a plate of spaghetti. On the one side were what were known as the Allies, with a whopping 18 countries with over 42 million soldiers, from comparatively tiny (and distant) countries like Nepal and Montenegro, to behemoths like Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.
And then we have what were known as the Central Powers on the other side. This included the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria. They weighed in with just under 23 million soldiers.
Two of the countries in these groups, on opposite sides, were kind of like a David and Goliath, where the part of David was played by the German Empire – long before it became what we now know as Germany, and the part of Goliath was played by the country of Russia. (except this time, in the end, Goliath would win)
They squared off, and the Armies of the German Empire headed east and invaded Russia.
Now if you know your history, you know that a little guy named Napoleon had tried pretty much the same thing about 100 years earlier and failed miserably, and another German army would try it again in less than 30 years. Eventually, armies would learn that trying to conduct a war while the famed Russian winter waited on the sidelines was a bad idea, but for now, they attacked.
Of course, an invading Army goes through fuel, food, and equipment faster than any civilian could imagine, which is why there was rationing of everything in all of Germany for civilians during the war. And in case the shipments of supplies were interrupted or they ran out, those in the invading force were given Plan B.
Plan B was simply this: “The supplies aren’t coming. Fend for yourselves.”
If they had no supplies, they were to “live off the land” – meaning they would take what they could from the civilians, the farmers, the peasants, the Russians who lived there, and being soldiers, could easily do it at gunpoint.
Of course, doing so meant that the Russian civilians would starve, so those who understood what was going on, headed east in a hurry. Those who didn’t, were evacuated east away from the invading army as fast as they could be, with the Russian army following close behind, burning everything behind them to keep their enemy from being able to use it. This meant not just single homes were destroyed, but entire farms and villages went up in smoke, and anything that could possibly be of use to an invading army was reduced to ashes.
It was a very effective “Scorched Earth” kind of retreat when they succeeded. There were no vehicles to “borrow”, no houses to sleep in, but at a more basic level, there were no crops to harvest and eat.
This worked very well for the crops that grew above ground, and it worked for crops that hadn’t been harvested, but if there was one thing the Russians were good at growing, it was potatoes, and when they needed to be stored, the place that worked best was actually below ground. A large hole was dug, and as I recall, lined with straw, the potatoes were put in there, more straw if it was available, and then dirt was mounded on top.
It was simple.
It was reliable.
And it worked.
The potatoes were preserved against drought, against frost, but most importantly, in this case, they were preserved against fleeing armies.
And right behind the fleeing army came the pursuing Armies.
The pursuing Armies were advancing fast and far enough at the time to outrun their own supply lines, which meant that they had to go to that Plan B for a lot of their supplies.
Plan B, mentioned earlier was simple, a bit more reliable than supplies that weren’t coming, and, as brutal as it often was, it worked.
When you have all sorts of weapons, it becomes pretty easy to fend for yourself. So if there were weapons left behind by the fleeing army, they were taken, to be used by the invading Army. If there was any useful mode of transportation available, it was taken, to be used by the invading Army. If there was food left that hadn’t been destroyed, it was taken, to be eaten by the invading Army.
And in this Army, the pursuing one, was my 24 year old Opa, and because he was in the infantry, he was assigned to help the Army do Plan B: Fend for itself by getting food from wherever they could get it. He’d been told about these lumps they might find in the fields that would be covering a hoard of potatoes, and one sunny day he and a buddy went out looking for them, and sure enough, in one field, on one fall afternoon, there was this little shed not much bigger than an outhouse. It’s where all the tools were kept for the peasants to work the fields, so they broke into it, got some shovels and started digging.
They’d made it through the first layer of dirt and were working through the straw and had just seen their first potato when they heard a cannon fire.
It was a war zone, cannons became part of the background noise, and they were always far away, so they didn’t pay too much attention to it because of how far away it was, and kept digging.
They’d gotten a little deeper when the same cannon fired a second time.
Opa had just stood up and was wiping his forehead when he saw that shell hit.
It was a little closer.
They started paying attention, and while he was standing, the third shell was fired.
It landed closer still.
By this time the two of them realized what was happening.
Even 65 years later, the disbelief was still clear in his voice as he told me, “They were ranging on us!”, and he was amazed that the Russians weren’t so much aiming at them as just elevating the cannon a little higher with each shot, hoping for a hit. They’d used up three shells already, trying to hit two guys out in a field, and were clearly not concerned with conserving ammunition. Opa and his buddy saw the spacing on where the shells had landed and realized the next one would likely hit them.
Then they heard the cannon fire again, and heard the shell come in, with that unforgettable “oncoming freight train” sound a cannon shell makes when it’s coming toward you.
They tried to hide, but they were in a field with nothing in it but a lump that the potatoes were buried under and that shed the size of an outhouse. There wasn’t much they could do, and there was even less time to do it in. On top of it all, this shell was different. It was an air-burst shell, and by the time they dove for cover behind the little shed, the shell was there – and it exploded several meters above them.
The explosion shattered the shed, missed Opa’s friend, but one piece of shrapnel shot into Opa’s leg in the back just a little north of where the thigh no longer has a decent name as he was diving for cover.
He never told me how he got back to his unit, but somehow, he did get there, where his injury was determined to be enough to send him back to a hospital to have the shrapnel removed.
He was put on a train to the “Lazaret” (hospital) in Berlin, and as he told me the story years ago, he tried unsuccessfully to imitate the accent of the doctor who’d treated him. At the time, almost 100 years ago, most people lived their whole lives within 10 miles of where they were born, so regional, even local accents were very, very distinct, to the point where if you were paying attention, you could tell what village someone came from, or what part of a bigger city they came from, just by listening to them speak a few words. So, being from a town in southern Germany, he spoke the Swabian dialect (Schwäbisch) and couldn’t resist poking a little fun at the Berlin dialect of the doctor who’d treated him. Imagine someone with a gentle Georgia drawl, and gentle Georgia personality, poking a little fun at and talking to someone from, say, New York, with the mentality and accent to match.
The medics on the front lines hadn’t treated the thing other than to stop the bleeding, and Opa likely laid on his stomach the whole train trip from wherever he was in Russia all the way to Berlin, so by the time he got to the Lazaret, things had gotten a little infected. The doctor listened as Opa told him what happened. Curious, both personally and medically, he took one look at it, saw the infection, and said, “Ach, das schiesst noch einmal!” (Oh, this is going to shoot again!) – and sure enough – a little work with a scalpel, a little pressure with a couple of fingers, and in the Lazaret in Berlin, the piece of Russian shrapnel shot again, this time coming out of Opa’s leg. He was cleaned up, stitched up, and he spent that winter in Berlin while the infection cleared up and he recovered from the injury.
In the spring, he was sent to be reunited with his unit, and when he got there, he found that of the 600 soldiers that had gone to the Russian Front the previous fall, only 60 were left when he came back.
It was then that he realized that how much in war, and in life, depends either on luck, or on the fact that there’s Someone Up There watching out for you, and that simple order to get potatoes, the same one that had put him in the sights of a Russian artillery piece, the same order that had put him in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and had gotten him shot, had likely saved his life.
He thought about that a long time, trying to find out about his friends who he’d lost, and never really knowing, as there had been so many of them.
He didn’t spend much time talking about the War. There are some things best left unsaid to those who were not there to experience it with you. But while he didn’t talk much about it, he did spend a long time thinking about it.
Life, as it’s known to do, moved on. He got married to a farm girl and they started their own family. There would be the great Depression of 1929, there would be unemployment and poverty, there would be another War that would make the first one look like child’s play, but there would also be happiness, and children, and baptisms, and first days of kindergarten, and confirmations. And there was more hardship, but as I said, time went on, and soon there were joyous weddings as they watched their children get married, followed by grandchildren who brought them great joy.
As for that piece of shrapnel, to my knowledge it was not kept, but I thought about it just like Opa had, and the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that were it not for that piece of Russian shrapnel, it’s very likely that none of that above would have happened, my mom wouldn’t have been born, I wouldn’t be here to write this story.
And you wouldn’t be reading it.
Note: About 60 years after this piece of shrapnel changed the history of Opa and every one of his descendants, one of his grandsons would experience something similar, being in the range of a cannon being fired, and he would understand the sound of a cannon shell coming in, would remember a story he had heard years earlier, and as he thought about it, would understand far better what his Opa had been trying to tell him.