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So for those of you who’ve read some of my stories – especially those who have read the stories in the category of “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little.” – understand that as my son was growing up I would tell him these kinds of stories – honestly, as bedtime stories – because they made him laugh, and I did it in large part because I didn’t want him thinking that I was perfect in any way – I wanted him to understand that I was human, and could (and did) screw up.

He liked (and still likes) these stories because generally something (bad/amusing/result of a stupid decision/peer pressure) happens in them that allows him to see the benefit of others mistakes, without having to make them on his own…

In fact, when he was little, he asked me in all honesty, after I’d told him quite a few of these stories, “Papa? When I grow up, will I make mistakes too? Or have you made them all?”

How on earth do you answer a question like that? “Well, Michael, you live in a different time, I’m sure you will make creative, new, and exciting mistakes that I would never have dreamed of…”

That satisfied him.

Now that he’s older, and capable of making some of those bigger mistakes all by himself, he’s thinking of these stories in a different light…  After I told him one story, he looked at me, mouth agape, having heard as complete and utter stupidity what I was simply relaying as history, (think about that) – and said, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

Hearing that from your kid is a little mind bending…

And I thought I had a dull childhood…

He’s also told me that if he does something stupid, I can’t complain, because it’s clear that I’ve done stupider things.  In fact, he says that the following story shows just how high I set the stupidity bar – and he would have an awful lot of trouble coming close to that.

So from time to time when he was little, he would ask me to tell him some of his favorite stories, and, given that yesterday (as I write this) was the 33rd anniversary of this story, I thought I’d share.

So one day he asked, “Papa, can you tell me the story about you and your friend Paul?”

Well, there’s only ONE story about my friend Paul and me.

It involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.

Actually, in that order.

First some background…

I grew up in Roy, Washington, a small speed trap – er, town – south of Tacoma that’s surrounded on three sides by Fort Lewis, the local Army Base.  One of the benefits for a boy growing up there was that you got to see lots of military hardware all the time, because it drove, flew, or traveled in a parabolic arc right past the house. (you’ll get it, just keep reading)

This, to put it succinctly, was cool.

I’ve learned I’m the only person I know who thought a .30 caliber machine gun being fired or cannons going off are peaceful sounds.  But, that’s what I grew up with, and hearing them meant that all was right in the world.

The cannons and machine guns got to the point of being background noise, which meant unless we were listening for it, we didn’t really notice it.  You’d hear this “Thump” in the distance, (the cannon, or mortar, had been fired, north of town) and about 22 seconds later, from the firing range, west of town, you’d hear a muffled, “BOOM!” as the shell hit and exploded.  On especially quiet days you could actually hear the shell as it flew, making kind of a whistling “shewwewewewewew” sound as it flew by in that parabolic arc that cannon shells fly in…

It was pretty predictable, and the one thing we could count on was that the Army didn’t shoot on Sundays, so we had one day where things were relatively quiet, and though I didn’t mind the sounds of the Army, the silence was nice.

As one of my instructors in college said, “You will see this material again.”

They also shot at night, and to light things up, they shot up flares, which came down on parachutes.

One of the things we did for fun was to go out on the firing range (where the targets are – think about that one for a moment) and gather up the parachutes and other things we found as souvenirs.  We’d tie the parachutes to the backs of our bicycles to use as drag chutes to slow us down after careening down “school hill”…

This was far more than “slightly” illegal, as we had to pass at least two signs saying:

“KEEP OUT!  Artillery Impact Area”.

The signs are official now - used to be stencilled onto a 4 x 8

The signs are official now – used to be stenciled onto a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood

There was some, shall we say, ‘evidence’ of cannon shells hitting, like holes the size of houses, so they really didn’t want you gathering ‘souvenirs’.  You did have to be smart as to what you took.  Getting parachutes was safe, getting cannon shell duds wasn’t.  There was a fellow who found a dud out there that had been sitting there for a number of years, the explosive getting unstable for the whole time… He took it home where it apparently dried out, and took out half of his house.

His parents weren’t pleased.

But this isn’t his story…

Paul and I went out there, he doing the driving because I didn’t have a driver’s license and me wanting to show off a little by showing this friend something he hadn’t seen before.

He read the first warning sign and stopped the car cold.

“What do you mean “Artillery Impact Area?  I’m not going in there!”

Understand – I’d lived out there – driven past signs liked that that said “Small Arms Impact Area: Keep Out” (when you read that sign, do you think of bullets? Or little arms with little fingers falling out of the sky?)  We’d drive past the hand grenade range, and see all sorts of things so often we just didn’t think about them.

But Paul had never seen that sign, and wasn’t moving the car an inch.

“But Paul, they don’t shoot on Sundays, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine!”

After awhile, he took his foot off the brake, and we drove past it.

Sometime later there was the second one, and Paul skidded to a stop again, his eyes darting back and forth between the sign and me, trying to decide which was crazier.  Images of hundreds of pounds of high explosives hurtling toward him at 500 miles an hour were going through his head and I was telling him to keep driving…

“Really, they DON’T shoot on Sundays.”

We went further, and found five of these things the Army calls “Ducks” – which are huge crosses between trucks and boats.  I’ve never seen this kind before or since.  They’re not the kind you see used for tourism, and the closest I’ve come is this.  But they were basically huge bare aluminum boats about 40 feet long, with what seemed like 4 – 6 foot tires on them, so they could be driven on land or in the water.  And they’d been driven there quite recently, since the grass was still flat from their tire tracks.  Somehow they’d been knocked over onto their sides, the hulls near the back had been cut through with a blowtorch, the pans and crankshafts had been taken out of the engines so no one could drive them away…

Hmmm…

We went to the other side, and found a very large black number 3 painted on it.  From where we were, we could see the other four, each with a number painted on it.

We were on the edge of a rather large plain, with a tree line visible about a mile away or so, so we felt pretty safe, feeling we’d see someone before they saw us.

We climbed up into the cab of the thing and saw all these cool instruments on the dashboard.  We were members of an otherwise reputable search and rescue organization and decided we could get instruments for a communications truck our unit was making, so we set on removing them with the large variety of specialized disassembly instruments we had available to us.

We learned that it’s quite difficult to do precision disassembly on an armored instrument panel when your precision disassembly tools are of the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary varieties.

We moved on.

One of the engine parts they’d left was the cover of the air filter, which was a large, round, bright red fiberglass thing that looked like an oversized Frisbee (I suppose I should put an ® here for their lawyers)

Since we’d had less than sterling success with the instruments, we spent some time tossing the air filter cover around.  I mean, it was a nice, warm August afternoon, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, and –

“Thump”

– and there was a thump in the distance.

No problem, I heard this sound every day.

But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognized that sound was what is technically known as “a bad thing”.

I mean, let’s see if we can figure this out:

We’re out there on the artillery impact range.

On this duck that’s got a HUGE number painted on it.

This would indicate that we are standing on a target.

Not near a target.

On a target.

That has just been fired on.

By a cannon.

It took just about 20 seconds to come to this conclusion.

The Screaming/Howling/OncomingFreightTrain sound of a real cannon shell as it comes in on the position you’re standing on is simply not describable.  I’ve seen “Private Ryan”, and “Band of Brothers” and a few other films – and the sounds you hear in war movies, while they try, don’t come close to reproducing the sound accurately.  The sounds you hear in movie theatres also aren’t accompanied by a tree getting vaporized about 75 feet away.

I turned to tell Paul to look at that tree, but he was gone.

In fact, he was halfway to the car by then.

Joining him seemed like an exceptionally good idea at the time.

We’d parked at this little ‘y’ intersection on a dirt road, about 100 yards south of the Ducks, and I got there just after he’d done one of those U-turns you only see on “Dukes of Hazzard” – which is hard to do in a Pinto, but Paul seemed to have enough adrenaline going through his system to overcome this limitation in the car.

This adrenaline seemed to have Paul functioning at hyperspeed, and the car, Pinto or not was rapidly approaching its version of the same thing.

To do this in a Pinto station wagon on a weaving, hilly dirt road isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but since our actions were initially unencumbered by the thought process, now didn’t seem to be a particularly important time to change that.

We came to this hill, went up, and, had we been traveling at a sane speed, would have gone down and around the curve to the left on the other side.

However, sanity absolutely not being part of the picture, the car didn’t quite get airborne, but it came awfully close, to the point where the wheels were about as useful to the car as opposable thumbs are to fish…

As the road (and world) turned, and while Paul hit the brakes and turned the steering wheel hard left, the car, pondering the ramifications of fish and opposable thumbs, went straight ahead into a dirt embankment, which stopped it in ways that the brakes couldn’t have.

Ever.

Now some things to note about driving a station wagon at high speed on a dirt road.

  • It pulls a large cloud of dust behind it, so the cloud is, for the first little bit, traveling at roughly the same speed as the car. Since it was a hot August afternoon, we had the windows wide open, the front ones rolled down, the back ones, hinged at the front, were flipped open at the back.
  • Now this cloud that was following the car didn’t have the benefit of dirt embankments to stop it, so when we stopped, the windows acted like large scoops as the cloud continued rapidly ahead and enveloped the car, coming in through the windows and covering us from head to toe.

We were fine, the car however, needed some help, We had to wait until we could see, at which point I jumped out and pulled the fender to unhook it from where it was jammed up against the right front tire. I hopped in, Paul started the dust cloud and the Pinto up again, and only stopped after we were past the second sign, what had been the first one on the way in.

We got out of the car, hearts still thumping at what I remember as being one of the machine gun ranges (which wasn’t being used… Really!) , and as we got out and tried to calm down a little bit on that warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, we heard nothing but Elvis Presley’s music on the radio.  Turned out, the previous Wednesday, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley had gone to the great Tabloid in the sky…

After awhile, we slowly drove back home, and Paul, to my knowledge, never mentioned it to anyone.

There are two corollaries to this story:

20 years later, a group of us (which included Paul and me) from this “otherwise reputable Search and rescue organization” managed to get together from the four corners of the globe and met together at a restaurant to catch up on things.

I got there late, and as I stood there in the doorway trying to find the group, Paul saw me, the first words out of his mouth after 20 years, which I heard all the way at the door, were, “Well Hello there MISTER ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’!”

Seems he hadn’t forgotten, and I – well, I think this one will take some time to live down.

Number two:  I told this story to a friend who’d retired as a colonel in the army, and he started laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a stroke.  I was actually quite worried about him.

It turns out that he (having had experience as a soldier) was thinking of the other end of this little exchange.

See, just because they didn’t shoot on Sundays doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.

Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see me (this is why the Army has whole schools developed to teach the art of camouflage).

So imagine a couple of bored soldiers, could have been ROTC cadets, could have been National Guard on their one weekend a month, I don’t know – but imagine those few bored soldiers on a warm summer Sunday afternoon whose job it was to watch these five fresh targets they’d seen delivered and had to wait until Monday before they could blow them to smithereens.

And while they were looking through their rangefinders, they saw a small car dragging a cloud of dust along where it shouldn’t be – not quite into their sights, but awfully close…

I can just see it as one of them nudges the other one, “Hey, Jim!  Look at this!”

I mean, two obvious civilians (us) throwing this bright red thing (the air filter cover) back and forth and up into the air wasn’t really the best way to keep people from seeing us…

And by then, not only were we in their sites, we were practically dancing on their targets…  Well, climbing all over them and beating on things with rocks – heh – we were rocking out…  (sorry)

I have to wonder how many trigger fingers got real itchy all of a sudden…

They needed to let us know we’d been seen, and it had to be done very soon so it was absolutely, positively, unmistakably clear who, actually was boss out there.

I would love to have heard the conversation that went back and forth between them and their commanding officer, and finally, someone decided to get our attention by “firing a shot across the bow”.

We didn’t actually hear it (we were thrashing the Pinto on that dirt road) but I can imagine them laughing their heads off as we saw the shell hit and the panic that followed.

It would be fun to find these soldiers sometime to hear their side of the story.

///

Michael really likes it when I tell this story, and when I get done telling it, he (after he’s done laughing) looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “Papa, you made a bad decision in going past that sign…”

–and I wonder, does this mean he’s going to do what the signs in his life say and try to stay safe?

Or is he going to go past them in hopes of coming up with weird stories to tell his little boy when he has one?

Hmmm…

==

Note: I originally wrote this story as a note to my mom and dad when he was 7.  He’s now 19, and when I told him yesterday, “Hey, 33 years ago yesterday…” – he finished the sentence for me, “…was a day of extremely high caliber stupidity…”  He didn’t realize the bad pun until I started groaning.

So…

If I ever catch him doing something stupid, I know I’ll hear back, “You’re out there on a LIVE artillery range, DANCING ON THE FREAKING TARGETS, and you’re worried that I’M going to do something stupid?”

Well… yeah… I am…

I do hope I’ve set the bar too high for him to ever reach the levels of dancing on targets on an artillery firing range… but Lordy, I know stupidity of that magnitude is definitely possible.

Sigh…


We had a cool cookie jar a number of years ago, and, as sometimes happens when you have small children (or clumsy adults – I’m not sure which, anymore), it lost a battle with the floor, and ended up in many pieces.

My son Michael loved this cookie jar because he thought the handles on the side of it looked like ears – and besides, there was always something good inside it.

I was thinking about it the other day – how it had held so many cookies over the years, and how, when it broke, we did what you’re supposed to be able to do with super glue, and did what we could to put the three dimensional puzzle back together.

Well – mostly.  There were many pieces, some which were “glueable”, and some that had been turned into powder and would never be glued back together.

We ended up with something that was pretty much shaped like the old cookie jar, I mean, you could definitely tell what it was supposed to be, but it had cracks in it that couldn’t be filled, pieces missing that we never did find, and while the ears were still there, the knobby part of the lid you used to actually pick up the lid was broken and gone.

It wasn’t the same.

The weird thing is – it ended up being a cookie jar for a long time after that.  It still held wonderful things inside, but we had to be careful with the outside.

It was fragile, it had shown it could be broken, and it was.  And the consequences were quite visible.

And I thought about us – as humans…

How we try to be perfect, and we’re not.  No one is.  We try to be good, and as hard as people have been trying to be good for thousands of years, we just can’t do it.

  • We do stuff we’re not supposed to do.
  • We don’t do stuff we are supposed to do.
  • Decisions that should come easy are weighed down by the emotional anchors we have that keep us from making them.

And the fact of the matter is just simple:

We’ve all muffed stuff up in our lives, haven’t we? We’re all broken cookie jars.

As I write this, I know there are some folks out there that you might not consider to be a cookie jar, or consider for a container much different than a cookie jar – and that’s okay – we’ll leave them out of the picture for a moment… Let’s just stay with cookie jars.

Think about it.  How many people do you know who haven’t muffed something up in their lives?

The fact is – once you muff something up – or, sadly, sometimes people don’t even get the chance to muff things up themselves, someone else does it for them (don’t ask me how I feel about that, it’s not particularly printable) – but however things get muffed up is irrelevant, whatever it is, however it is, we, just like the cookie jars, are broken.  We’ve got sharp edges that can end up hurting others – whether we want to hurt them or not.

And until they’re glued back together, until they’re healed, they can’t really hold any cookies.

So where does that leave us?  Are we a bunch of pieces of ceramic lying on the floor? I mean, if we’re broken, well, then that’s what we are – but where’s the superglue? – What takes the place of that?

I was wondering about that, too, and found myself thinking that one of the main things that makes broken people whole again is forgiveness.  I mean, with all my faults and screw-ups, I may be really, really good at seeing other’s faults and screw-ups, but not see my own.  It’s like, when you’re looking at someone from inside your own cookie jar, it’s kind of hard to see the breaks, isn’t it?  They’re just too close and out of focus.  But seeing the breaks in other cookie jars is pretty clear, and as I’ve watched, over the years, I’ve seen us as humans do a couple of things pretty often.  (Note: I’m so-o-o-o-o not excluding myself from this here)

  • We go along and point out the cracks in other’s cookie jars without even acknowledging our own, as if, somehow, our cracks were in some way better than others…

You know – the kind where – oh, let’s say this particular crack is driving… Ever notice how people driving faster than you are maniacs, while people driving slower than you are idiots? – (keep an eye open for a story I’ll call something like “idiots and maniacs” – it’s on my backlog of stories to write)

  • And then, have you ever noticed how easy it is to point out to someone how much is wrong with their lives without having a clue how to fix your own?

Ever notice how we often by doing that, elevate ourselves to be the judge of people when we have no idea what caused all the cracks they’re dealing with?

Didja think that we’re really just a bunch of cookie jars – and every one of us is busted up in one way or another?  It can be things that happened to you when you were growing up, things that happened to you when you were grown up, things that happened to you when you were working – or at school, or in the most intimate relationships that should be completely safe – but sometimes aren’t.

Often we’re flexible, but over time things like that can break us.

And the sad thing is, we can’t unbreak ourselves – once broken, there will be a crack, or a scar, and like it or not, there are consequences to our actions.  We need a fairly constant supply of that superglue to keep us together.  Put in plain language, this means we need to constantly forgive both ourselves and each other, because we are bound to screw stuff up – break our cookie jars – because like it or not, it’s what we do…

But what we often do – instead of helping each other put the pieces of our individual cookie jar back together, we point out each other’s cracks, we pick at them like scabs, and it does absolutely no good.

Can you just imagine that?  A cupboard full of broken cookie jars, each one pointing out just the cracks in the other jars…

…completely ignoring the fact that there’s cookies inside…

I wonder…

How hard would it be to help each other with a little superglue?

It’s so easy to see the flawed exterior – forgetting – or ignoring – all the cookies and goodness on the inside.

And in doing so, we miss so much.

==

PS: I have a total weakness for oatmeal raisin cookies and the chocolate chip cookies my grandma used to send me when I was in grad school packed in real popcorn (you could eat everything in the box that way) – and chocolate chip cookies have never tasted right without popcorn since then.

Take care – and keep that superglue handy – I might need to borrow some…


Yesterday…

Our yard was a veritable haven for dandelions… Several weeks of broken mower and no time to get it fixed left me with two things:

1. Grass that was dead brown

2. Dandelions that were a foot high.

Yesterday evening, after the sea of yellow flowers had shut themselves down for the night, I finally had time to mow, so I did. This morning I came out and noticed several things.

1. Where I’d missed.  Clearly.

The dandelions that were left all had little yellow warning signs saying, “Look where Tom didn’t mow! Nyah Nyah Nyah…”

2. Dandelions…

Things I don’t want in the yard, thrived if I ignored them.

3. The grass itself, something I do want in the yard, died if I ignored it.

My lawn was a perfect example of that.

• Leave it alone, and bad things will take root. Sometimes deeper than the good things.

• Leave it alone, and the good things may easily be overshadowed by the bad.

• Try to fix it when you can’t see clearly, and you truly won’t get it all. You won’t see it all to get.  The weeds will come back, and they’ll be very clear.

How do you fix that?

How do you keep the dandelions out of your life?

Well, in a lot of ways, you don’t.

No matter what, they’ll come.

Little poofy things floating over the fence so easily, with no hint as to how hard it will be to get rid of them if you let them stay.

Sometimes they come when you least expect it – they just float into your yard at night and take root, and unless you’re actively taking care of your yard, you won’t see them until those little yellow warning flags come out – and by then the roots are deep.

So…

Keep the lawns of your life mowed.

Feed them.

Weed them.

Water them.

There are many things in life more exciting than weeding and watering – but if you don’t actively stop the dandelions when they’re small, they will take root, they will multiply to the point where they’ll advertise to the world what you’re not taking care of, and they will take far more time to get out, than it would have taken to keep them out…


I worked for the Muskegon Chronicle, in Muskegon, Michigan for a time, and the weather there is very different from here in Washington State where I live now.  You’ve likely heard of the reputation western Washington has for rain, and it is in large part true.  The weather in Michigan, however, is that “middle of the continent” kind of stuff where you have thunderstorms, tornadoes, poofy clouds that you just don’t have here closer to the coast.  One of the things that happened a lot was those thunderstorms, and they would always come in off Lake Michigan (all the weather came in from the west, thunderstorms were no exception).  Every now and then we’d see one coming, and as I was always on the lookout for new and exciting pictures, I headed down to the lake to see if I could set up and get a shot for the paper.

I drove around for awhile, looking for a good vantage point so I could have something visible in the foreground to get a sense of how big the lightning bolt was, and settled on an unmanned lighthouse, and put it in the bottom right of my frame.

I could see the lightning hitting, and had a lens on the camera that could see a good field of view (not good to have a telephoto lens focused on the wrong patch of sky) – and so, considering that this was a) night, and b) lightning – I figured that the chance of me actually getting something was dramatically improved by having the camera on a tripod and taking long exposures, so I did, and I started shooting…

I’d open the shutter – leave  it open for about 20 seconds – just long enough, I figured, for the light in the lighthouse to burn a hole in the film (not really, but it would make it hard to print) – and if there wasn’t any lightning – then I’d close the shutter and go to the next frame.  I did this for about 28 frames or so, and just as I was closing the shutter on that 28th frame, a big, hurking bolt of lightning came down, and I wondered if I’d gotten it.

More importantly, my brain started functioning about then.

See, I was standing on a beach.

Which meant I was the highest object around.

And I was holding a metal cable release attached directly to my camera, on a metal tripod.

And that tripod was, as you might imagine, was well grounded.

Which meant…

– I’m not sure if the hair standing up on the back of my neck was from the realization of what could be happening, or from what was clearly about to happen – regardless, I’ve never packed up my gear so fast.

I got back to the paper and developed the film – and all but the last frame were blank (except for the lighthouse) – that last frame had a big bolt of lightning just on the left side.

And it also had a story behind it…

Tom Roush

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