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A few years ago, I worked at Microsoft in a department that was producing a huge product, one that took a couple of years to build. There was this time, during a release cycle, that we called ‘crunch mode’ – kind of an ‘all hands on deck’ type of a thing, where dinner was brought in so we didn’t feel we had to go home to eat with our families, and could work a few more hours. Several of us would joke, wryly, that we only worked half days at Microsoft… You know… 12 hours on… 12 hours off… Fridays were greeted with “Thank God it’s Friday, only two more workdays till Monday!”
There are some who would have said the schedule was brutal.
There is every likelihood that they would have been right.
Crunch mode lasted for months. It was, to put it mildly, very wearing on folks, and their families
Now Microsoft, to its credit, realized that this constant ‘crunch mode’ was hard on morale, and as a result, whenever there was any kind of milestone achievement, they’d have a party. When we shipped a product, oh Lordy, you haven’t seen a party till you’ve seen Microsoft put on a party.
So after about a year of crunch mode, we shipped a version of Site Server, and had what they called a “ship” party at a park at the south end of Lake Sammamish.
If you wanted to, you could take the afternoon off, go play games, go water skiing, or ride a jet ski, or just hang out by the grill where they were barbequeing herds of formerly wild animals, grilling fields of corn on the cob, and mixing up just-shy-of-Olympic-sized swimming pools of cole slaw.
It was, in a word, impressive.
When I got there, some of my coworkers were slicing through the water behind the ski boat, and all three of the jet skis were out there cutting swaths into the lake.
My boss’s boss (Mike) was eating with a friend at one of the picnic tables, saw me wandering in, and suggested I go play, as I’d been working pretty hard.
I looked out at the jet skis, and realized, with a start, that…
– while I’d never ridden one,
– kind of thought they were a rich person’s toy,
– and couldn’t possibly imagine buying one…
…deep, deep inside, I REALLY wanted to ride one.
And there was absolutely nothing keeping me from riding this one.
So I went out there to see what it would take to make this happen, and it turned out all I had to do was fill out some paperwork, wade out into the water, and get on.
Well, I was wearing a pair of boots, so that wouldn’t do, so I took them and my socks off, then scrunched my pants up so they wouldn’t get wet, signed the paperwork, and waded out to climb on.
Once on, I was given an astoundingly brief set of instructions,
“Squeeze this to go, let up to stop.”
“Go easy on it till you get into the deep water, we don’t want to be sucking rocks into the impeller”
“Don’t do donuts”, and
“It won’t steer unless you’re hitting the gas”.
“You’ve got 10 minutes. Go.”
Kind of dazed, I chugged out into the deep water, conscious that the three cylinder, two stroke engine sounded an awful lot like my old Saab, and decided to make the most of my 10 minutes.
The waves were lapping gently at the hull, the ski boat was doing a circuit, and I was trying to get used to the idea that this thing underneath me that was moving in such an unsteady way, was actually safe.
“Okay – here goes nothing…”
I hit the gas.
The acceleration was unbelievable. I was at 50 mph before I knew what had happened.
I reached back and grabbed my eyeballs before they got lost in the lake.
The handlebars, which until moments earlier, had moved freely in my hands, now felt like they’d been dropped into quick drying concrete.
The air, which until moments earlier, had only been something I was breathing, was now trying to rip my glasses off my head.
The water, which until moments earlier, had been something you could dive into, was now the consistency of granite as the jet ski skittered and bounced across it.
And the jet ski itself, which until moments earlier, had been this unsteady, gangly kid at his first time on a bike, was now this fierce monster, ready to conquer anything in front of it.
The speed slowly crept to 60, and I saw I’d be crossing the wake of the ski boat, so I slowed down and tried to turn a little bit.
This was when I remembered the instructions “it won’t steer unless you’re hitting the gas.”
Coasting straight at something while you’ve got the steering turned hard to one side is a little disconcerting.
I hit the gas, and the strange thing was it steered from the rear, like a turbocharged forklift – a little unusual if you’re used to things steering from the front, but the fellow was right, it did not steer unless you hit the gas.
I suddenly understood the allure of these things… I could now say I had ridden one, and, given the price tag, still thought they were a more of a rich person’s toy, and still couldn’t imagine buying one. But wow… I definitely understood why people bought them.
I know I used up more than my allotted 10 minutes, but finally headed back in. They waved me to slow down early, and I idled in, the adrenaline still pumping, my hair firmly blown back, and a grin superglued to my face.
A line was thrown out for me to catch, and I was pulled the rest of the way to the dock.
When I got off, I had to step into the water again and wade back to shore and then up to the picnic table where I’d left my boots and socks and everything. When I put my boots on, I noticed that my pants had skootched down a little bit while I was out on the lake, and the bottom two inches or so had gotten wet as I waded back to shore.
– Now have you ever had a snappy comeback to a question, just perfect, witty, urbane, amusing – but thought of it an hour, or a day, or a week too late?
– I am the master of coming up with a snappy comeback at least an hour too late. In fact, sometimes my brain chews on something for months, honing it until it comes up with an amazing, but completely useless comment because it’s too stinking late.
– For once in my life, I did not have that problem.
Mike was still sitting there with his buddy when I walked by, with my two inches of wet jeans.
“Whatcha been doin?”
Mike’s buddy’s jaw dropped.
Then Mike, bless him, ‘explained’ with an absolutely straight face, “He’s very good.”
And as I walked away, I couldn’t help but smile.
Have you heard the story of the prodigal son?
It’s in Luke 15:11-32.
Read it – then read verse 20 again.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
Why did he do that?
Let me tell you a story that might help you understand.
One day I got home before my son did, and for the first time in a long time, I would be able to make him an after school snack, and just sit with him while he ate and talked about his day.
I stood at the window, waiting, watching, remembering.
This was my son, the one I’d fed from a bottle.
The one I’d changed thousands of diapers on.
The one I’d burped and who’d burped on me.
The one whose first steps I saw.
The one I’d played with and loved and taught to ride a bike.
The one whose skinned knees I cleaned and bandaged.
He was the one I’d seen grow as a cub scout, as a young soccer player, soon to be a football player, and later on, an Eagle Scout.
And while looking out the window, waiting for him, I slowly began to understand what verse 20 means.
I stood there – yearning for a chance to share some time with him, and suddenly I understood why the father of the prodigal son “saw him while he was a long way off”.
He couldn’t see him from “a long way off” unless he was actively watching for him.
And as I was standing there, it was as if thousands of years vanished in a kinship as two fathers stood, waiting for their sons. The sons they loved – we loved, and cherished, and wanted the best for. I could feel him, and almost see him standing there, next to me, the prodigal son’s father.
And I wondered…
How long had he been doing that?
How many days had he stood there, watching, waiting, hoping?
The father didn’t know all the son had done while he was gone – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had returned. That – that was worth celebrating!
He couldn’t slaughter the fatted calf unless he had one! That meant, in all that watching and waiting, he was expecting the best! He was expecting his son to come home.
He slaughtered the fatted calf to celebrate his son’s return.
I fixed an after school snack for my hungry boy.
And I understood, as I sat there, with my son, chatting about his day, why the prodigal son’s father stood there and watched for his.
He loved him. He cherished him. He wanted what was best for him. He wanted – he wanted to spend time with him.
And I realized that there are times when we go off on our merry way – wandering through the fields of pigs in our lives (verse 16) – that our Father is standing on His front porch, watching, waiting, pacing…
Waiting for us to come home so He can slaughter the fatted calf for a celebration….
…or sit at the kitchen table after school and share a baloney sandwich with us.
When I was a kid – growing up in Roy, Washington, the things we did for fun were limited not by batteries, but by our imagination. Electronics like video games and the like were simply not a part of the definition of fun.
Gasoline, heavy metal, and explosives were – but I’m getting ahead of myself…
It’s one of those things you talk about to your kids when you’re a grown up, you know, the “Back when I was a kid…” kinds of things –
One of the things I’d do often was ride the bike I used on my paper route out onto Fort Lewis, over by Chambers Lake, and just explore. One of my customers was also a friend. He had this late ‘60’s blue iron monster of a car. No idea what the make was, and it had no distinguishing characteristics other than the following:
- It was blue.
- It had 4 doors.
- It had a V-8 engine.
- It had a suspension that rivaled the stiffness of the Sta-Puf Marshmallow® man.
Now there were two types of roads on Fort Lewis:
- The kind that had been surveyed, graded, paved, and marked by professionals, and had speed limit signs to keep you on the straight and narrow, so to speak….
- The kind that were unsurveyed, ungraded, unpaved, and were made by a teenager driving an M-60 tank. They most definitely didn’t have speed limit signs, because the roads were so rough that a sane person didn’t need them.
Now, sanity aside, guess which ones were the most fun to drive on?
…and guess whose car was just a touch inadequate to use on said roads?
Yup – My buddy Mike’s car with its Marshmallow Suspension just didn’t do too well out there … In fact – there was this one place where – well, the road wasn’t even a road… See, the water going out of Chambers Lake goes into what’s called Muck Creek… And just as it does – it goes under one of the paved roads. The thing about this road and the bridge is neither of them were stressed for 60 ton M-60 tanks to drive across – so the Army had put this ford in beside the bridge for the tanks to cross the creek on. Understand, this isn’t a ford as in Ford car – but ford as in “shallow spot in the stream” – they’d put huge blocks of concrete down so you could drive across/through the creek to get to the other side without sinking in.
That is, if you were driving a tank.
Now somehow, Mike and I had decided, in that synergistic stupidity that only happens when young males make decisions together, in which the decisions made by a group of young males are far, far superior in both the quality and quantity of their stupidity than any one young male could possibly achieve on his own, that his car would be an absolutely optimal piece of equipment to get stuc – er – to drive through said creek, across the ford and up the other side. The fact that a perfectly good bridge was right there was completely irrelevant. Oh – I didn’t mention the fact that the banks of the creek at that point were actually rather steep, the rocks in that area were all round – like ball bearings, and scraping the bottom of the car on those rocks as you went down was to be expected.
That is, if you weren’t driving a tank.
So, Mike driving, we slowly coaxed the car down until water was washing over the tires – and then started up the other side – at which point things started scraping again and those old tires really didn’t work too well. Now, being guys, the mentality there was simple: If a little power wasn’t getting us up the other side of the creek, well, more power would be better.
Mike’s old, smooth tires on the smooth, wet rocks of the creek bank simply didn’t offer any traction, and try as he might, all that hitting the gas did was dry off the rocks as the tires started steaming the creek water off them.
While we were trying to figure our way out of this conundrum, lo and behold a couple of guys showed up… in a tricked out 1954 GMC suburban… (by ‘tricked out’ I mean it actually still had functional paint and had mag wheels. Think about what kind of surface mag wheels are good for – if “round wet rocks” isn’t at the top of your list, you’re on the right track…)
So these guys figured they were going to be our heroes and save the day…
They backed their suburban down the bank in front of the Marshmallow Mobile®, tied a rope to it, hit the gas, and promptly got stuck up to their axles.
So – big picture here – the Marshmallow Mobile® is in the middle of the creek. A rope’s tying it to the Suburban on the bank. Both of them hitting the gas only gets them up as far as – well, both of them getting stuck a little further up the bank.
Wait – it gets better…
Lots of testosterone fueled pondering ensued – which was interrupted by a third vehicle driving by, seeing the commotion, and the driver realizing that he, being far more manly than these poor, wretched peasants stuck in the creek, would be far better able to get us out than we were…
Little did he know…
To be honest, I don’t remember the kind of car that that one was – all I remember is standing on the bridge, looking down at three vehicles, all tied together, with their 3 V-8 engines putting out several hundred horsepower, and the only achievement was that the gas was being turned into smoke and steam from the tires on the wet rocks.
After a few minutes of this I realized that clearly the thing that was missing wasn’t power, it was traction. So I walked over to my Grampa’s farm (my options being rather limited since all available vehicles were busy either farting exhaust bubbles into the creek or redistributing the gravel on the bank) to see if I could borrow one of his tractors to help pull the folks (and my buddy Mike and his Marshmallow-Mobile®) out.
Grampa wasn’t there – in fact, nobody was, so in my (ahem) Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, I figured forgiveness would be far easier to obtain than permission, so I ‘borrowed’ one. This was an old Ford Tractor that had a transmission with 12 speeds forward and 3 in reverse. First, as you might imagine, was pretty low.
When I got back to the bridge – all the cars were tied together right where I’d left them, just like the children’s story, the “Little Engine that Could” – only with three stuck locomotives and no caboose. I looped a chain from the back of the tractor to frame of the car in the front, put the tractor in first, and, with 3 V-8 engines roaring plus a little 34 horsepower tractor chugging – everyone doing the delicate gas pedal dance of hitting the gas hard enough to try to move, but not enough to run into the person in front of them (it was a bit of a challenge), our little choo-choo-train of cars made it out of the creek.
We untied the ropes, unhooked the chains, and went our separate ways. I took the tractor back to Grampa’s and put it back in EXACTLY the same spot it had been in (still nobody home).
And… I never volunteered to ride in the Marshmallow Mobile® again.
Come to think of it, I don’t think I was ever asked to.
Moral to the story?
Heck, when I started writing, I was just writing for fun, and I didn’t think there would be one – but I guess there is one, and that’s this:
Raw power will not always get you out of the trouble that gravity can get you into. Sometimes it’s the steady application of a very small amount of power in exactly the right place that will do the trick, rather than hundreds of snorting, whinnying, or roaring horses applied in the wrong place or the wrong way.
Another one of the stories I told Michael about his heritage, this one about his Grampa, his step-great-Grampa, if there is such a thing, and a B-52.
My dad was stationed at Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California in 1967, where the 93rd Bombardment Group was based. The 93rd at the time flew B-52’s, and they trained pilots and crews both in the planes and with simulators. They did this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they weren’t flying the airplanes, these pilots and crews were in the simulators, practicing.
And my dad fixed those simulators.
A few hours north of Merced is Santa Rosa, where dad’s mom and stepdad lived. Dad’s stepdad, we’ll call him “Grampa Bill” fancied himself to be an artist and photographer. This is a point that could be argued pretty heavily. And, it turns out, when dad and mom were a young couple and dad was stationed elsewhere, Grampa Bill wanted to take some photographs of mom that could at the very least be described as ‘inappropriate’. I won’t go into any more detail other than to say that when dad found out, he stormed in to see his commander and asked if he could have some leave so that he could go pour a goodly amount of chlorine into the gene pool. His commander declined the request, but sent someone to check on mom. She was fine, but that incident cemented the relationship between dad and Grampa Bill into something very, very simple: Dad hated Grampa Bill, with a passion. And honestly, as I see it, he was right.
Now it’s not that he could have done anything about it overtly, but as the years went by — well, you’ve likely found out at some point in your life, there is this thing that’s known by several names…
Some call it “The Golden Rule”,
Some call it “What goes around, comes around.”
And some call it “Karma.”
And when you find yourself watching, almost from the outside,
…how “The Golden Rule” is turning things toward you,
…and you find that things that have gone around are coming around,
…or, put another way, watching Karma setting up a situation for you – whatever you call it, it’s almost impossible not to smile.
Such was the case with dad and Grampa Bill.
Dad worked with or near airplanes.
Grampa Bill wanted to take pictures of airplanes.
More specifically, he wanted to take a picture of a B-52, taking off.
…and dad could make that happen.
Now the thing was, Grampa Bill didn’t want to get a picture with a little camera he’d be holding in his hand. He wanted to shoot the picture with a camera that looked like a small accordion and came in a small suitcase. It was a film camera, the kind that uses film not in rolls, but in sheets, 4 inches by 5 inches in size. You had to look through the actual camera, not a viewfinder, and to be able to see the picture you were about to take, you had to have your head under a dark cloth to focus and frame the shot on the ground glass (think frosted glass) in the back of the camera. This image you saw on the ground glass would be upside down and backwards. When you were satisfied that it was framed right, you shoved a film holder into the back of the camera by the ground glass and from there on out you couldn’t see through it. You closed the open shutter and pulled out the slide protecting the film from stray light. Then and only then was everything set. If you opened the shutter at that point, the film would be exposed, and you’d have your picture.
It was, as you can imagine, not a fast process, and you can probably figure out that it’s not a camera you would use to take images of, say, moving objects.
But that’s precisely what Grampa Bill wanted to do.
At Castle Air Force Base.
Where dad worked.
Where they flew B-52’s.
…and an absolutely evil plot started festering in dad’s brain.
See, dad knew several things that Grampa Bill didn’t know:
He knew how much of the runway the plane would use up to do a normal takeoff.
He knew that aerodynamically, while most planes take off with their noses pointed to the sky, when a B-52 takes off, the pilot actually has to aim the plane 2 degrees nose down to climb for the first little bit.
More importantly, Dad knew the pilots flying these planes.
Now, if you happen to be standing at the end of a runway – and on the other end there’s a half million pounds of raw power accelerating directly toward you out of a black wall of smoke created by not 1, not 2, but 8 of some of the most powerful jet engines of the time, there’s a good chance you’re going to leave something in your pants as it goes overhead – liquid or solid, doesn’t matter.
If the person you asked to get you to this position knew the pilot, and also had a years long score to settle with you, those chances would likely lean toward the solid, and it would best be time to start digging yourself a hole.
Dad worked on the B-52 flight simulators – so he knew, and was acquainted with, all the pilots who trained in them.
And he knew this one.
Dad had explained to the pilot that he’d be out there one Sunday with his step dad, who wanted to take a photo of this takeoff, and as a last request, said to him, “Do you think you could keep it on the ground a little longer this time?”
There was a look between them, and as is often the case, words were not exchanged, in that guy to guy way we men often communicate. But the pilot clearly understood what was meant, and he did indeed agree to keep it down on the ground…
…a little longer.
Every Air Force base has what they call a ‘perimeter road’ – a road that goes around the perimeter of the airfield. You are not supposed to get any closer to the runway than that road, and even while you’re on it, you’re not supposed to stop once you cross under the flight path.
Dad and Grampa Bill got into one of the Air Force trucks and headed out toward the runway.
Grampa Bill was having trouble believing his good fortune.
Dad turned the truck off the perimeter road and up toward the runway, where there was a sign that started off with, “Authorized Personnel Only” and got significantly more threatening with every word, ending in something along the lines of “Deadly Force Authorized”.
They drove past the sign.
Dad drove Grampa Bill out to the end of the runway to pick out a good vantage point to take the picture from.
Grampa Bill’s excitement grew. This was better than he’d hoped. He’d be allowed to get far, far closer than he’d dare dreamed.
In taking him past the signs, dad also took him in past the approach lights at the end of the runway, so they wouldn’t clutter up the picture.
When they stopped, he was almost beside himself. Grampa Bill proudly set up his camera, meticulously judging exposure, focus, depth of field, while 2 miles away, the B-52’s pilot got the his bird into takeoff position.
He’d finished the pre-takeoff checklist with his copilot and pushed the 8 throttles to takeoff power. The plane shook as the jet exhaust made a black wall of smoke behind it.
It took a few seconds for the thrust to build and the sound to reach the far end of the runway, but once it got there, the deep rumble of raw power stayed, getting louder with each passing second.
The pilot held the plane back with its huge brakes and waited till they and all systems were cleared for takeoff.
He’d told his copilot what was happening, and while they didn’t deviate from the checklists or official cockpit language, they did share a grin under their oxygen masks.
They were given clearance, and the plane started to roll.
Grampa Bill sensed the movement and tried to hold his excitement down. The ability to stand right at the end of a runway while an airplane, not just an airplane, but the mighty B-52 took off directly overhead was an astoundingly rare treat.
Nearby, Dad stood by, calmly leaning against the front fender of the truck, also conscious of the opportunity of an astoundingly rare treat.
Now depending on its load, a B-52 has a takeoff speed of about 163 mph, and its wings sag when it’s on the ground, to the point where the engineers at Boeing designed extra landing gear out there just to support the wingtips. As the plane accelerates, those wings start to fly themselves first, before they create enough lift to take the plane up with them. They have a range of about 22 feet of ‘flap’ at the tips – so as the plane got closer, and faster, and bigger, and louder, those wings started flying,
But the nose was still pointed directly at Grampa Bill.
And his camera…
On the Tripod…
At the end of the runway…
The pilot, a major, kept the plane on the centerline, and felt the yoke slowly come alive in his hands as the 8 engines overcame inertia and brought them ever closer to takeoff speed.
Grampa Bill saw the tremendous contrast between the black wall of smoke, the white and silver plane, and the incredibly bright landing lights and wondered, for a split second, how that would affect the exposure setting on the camera.
The pilot felt the rumbling cease and the plane smooth out as the wheels left the pavement – and then aimed the nose down the 2 degrees, at a small tripod with a black box on it just off the end of the runway, to start the climb.
At that moment, Grampa Bill’s thoughts of exposure, focus, and timing were suddenly replaced with a rather urgent need to decide between liquid and solid.
Beside the tripod, Grampa Bill tried to be manly and stand his ground, but from his angle, the plane just couldn’t climb fast enough, it wasn’t even aimed up – in fact, it looked like it was actually aimed down, right at him. Those 8 engines, inhaling more air in a second than he breathed in a year, looked like they were going to inhale him, vaporize him, and blast the remaining bits into that huge wall of smoke behind the plane.
In the cockpit, the pilot thought he saw movement near the tripod just before it disappeared below his windscreen.
Below, the plane’s shadow passed with the fury of a tornado, the violence of an earthquake, and the heat of a blast furnace. The jet blast tore the canvas top off the truck they’d driven out to the runway in, knocked the camera and tripod over, and sent them all diving for whatever cover they could find. (This being an airbase, the only cover available was the truck they’d come out in).
And in the decision between liquid and solid, a compromise was made.
The last time I saw them, all the pictures Grampa Bill had taken were being stored in boxes in a chest of drawers in the attic. They’re 4 x 5 negatives – or sometimes 4 x 5 positives. I’ve looked through them all.
And there’s no picture of a B-52.
I still find myself smiling at that…
And somehow, I think those many years ago, under that truck, his ears still ringing, my dad smiled, too…
(C) 2010 – Tom Roush