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A number of years ago I was shooting in Muskegon, Michigan, for the Muskegon Chronicle, and over time discovered that one of the favorite things for local folks to do was to just go down to the lake (Lake Michigan) and watch the sun set.  It was a tradition, it was peaceful, it was pretty.

The clouds in Michigan, or at least that part of Michigan always amazed me, and I realize now that subconsciously, when I had the chance, I shot images that emphasized them…

This one day I went down there, and – oh, you need to know that I was driving a 1979 Ford Fairmont I’d bought in Ohio – with a paint job courtesy of Earl Scheib and Acid Rain, Incorporated.  This thing was as smooth as sandpaper.  My mom tried to wax and polish a little corner of the trunk once after I’d brought it back to Washington and it was like trying to wax a gravel driveway…

She said, “Oh, look, I can see my shadow!” (as opposed to reflection).

I gently cuffed her one…

The reason the car comes into the picture is that it had Ohio plates on it.

I was in Michigan.

The plates had expired.

Put that on the back burner for just a little bit.

I got down to the lake – and – oh, another important thing.  I’d found that shooting with ‘normal’ lenses just didn’t work for me – and found myself shooting with an 18 mm super wide angle lens on one camera body, and a 300 mm telephoto on the other.  You don’t get much more of a spread than that.  I figured that if I was close enough to shoot something up close, I wanted to be right in its face, hence the 18… if I couldn’t be in its face, I needed to reach out and touch it – with the 300.

In this case, I saw a bunch of guys fishing at the edge of the lake – and figured I sure didn’t need the 300 – so the 18 it was.  I was thinking the shot through as I walked closer, and to get him in the shot, along with the sky and the sunset and everything, I’d end up kneeling on the ground and shooting up at him – so I went over and chatted for a bit, then got into position to shoot.

And a police car pulled up.

And Tom, with expired, out of state plates, suddenly got really, REALLY nervous.

I didn’t know what he could/would do – but if there were some problems, they’d have been bigger ones than I was capable of dealing with right then.  So I did the only thing I could think of, and ignored him, figuring he might not think that the car was mine – or something like that.  (note: this would be an example of the application of the Infinite Wisdom of Youth®).

I shot away, and chatted with the fellow, making some nice images with the sky, the clouds, the sunset, the water, his fishing pole, and the silhouette of him…

…and the cop kind of faded from my consciousness.

Until I felt a huge, hairy, gorilla’s hand land on my shoulder from about ten feet up, and a firm voice saying, “Hah! I’ve got you now…”

If I hadn’t already been kneeling, I would have been very quickly.

I was petrified, was it worse than I thought? Had he run the plate to find out that it was registered to me?  What were the ramifications of driving out of state with expired tags?  The fine? The penalty?  A confused, scared storm of thoughts tore through my mind as I tried to figure out how to get out of this one that I wasn’t even sure I was in…

I slowly turned around, to see, much to my horror, that the image my terrified mind had conjured up was right.  The hand on my shoulder wasn’t attached to a gorilla, it was worse.

It was attached to an arm in a policeman’s uniform.

I don’t know what my face looked like but as my eyes worked their way up that sleeve, I saw that the face on the policeman attached to it was smiling.

Was this an evil smile? An “I have you now” smile? I wasn’t anywhere near calmed down by that smile – and I saw he was raising his other hand.  That didn’t make sense, the gun would be in his right hand, and he was raising his left one…

(I cringed)

…which had a little disposable camera in it.

The cop’s smile got even bigger.

“I got you!  I got a picture of you getting a picture of him!”

If I hadn’t been kneeling already (you know…)

The relief that was pouring through my body was like cold water on a dry lakebed.  Cooling, sizzling as it hit the hot surface, it soaked in to cool it to the core.

(Luckily, that’s the only fluid we’ll need to talk about in this story.)

I laughed with the policeman, joked with him a bit about how his lens very likely outclassed mine, and so on.  He promised to have a copy of the print at the paper as soon as it was developed, and true to his word, he did.

As soon as I find that shot – it’s in a box ‘somewhere’, I’ll put it in here.  However, failing that, here’s the “Fishing by the lake” shot…

Oh – one more thing… he never mentioned the license plate….

Fishing at Lake Michigan – and… you never know when you’re being watched.


No – not the kind of transmissions you’re thinking about.

These transmissions are  4 speed, on the column… That kind of transmission.

I had some car trouble one day back when I was going to school at Fort Steilacoom Community College (now called Pierce College).  It was payday, (I’d gotten my work study check of $124.96 – gad, WHY do I remember this stuff and still can’t remember where I left my cell phone?) – I got home, planning on cashing it – when my dad, who’d had a 1966 Saab 96 Sport and loved it until it turned into a Flintstone Mobile (the floor rusted out and you could see the road going by through the hole), called me over and read me this ad in the paper.

Saab 96. Runs. 100.00

and a phone number.

Now even back then (about 25 years ago) this was a touch on the cheap side.  But also even back then, Saabs were a lot like Lays potato chips – you couldn’t eat just one… – (you needed another one for parts to keep the first one running) so I called the guy….

“Hey, I’m calling about the Saab you have in the paper…”

“Oh, yeah… Strong engine… STRONG engine…”

Um…. Okaaay….

“Can you tell me a little bit about it?”

“Well – the engine’s got a lot of power.”

Right… got that.

Understand at the time, I’d been used to driving a 3 cylinder, 2 stroke Saab that, as I mentioned in another story, was clearly the result of an illicit liaison between a Sherman tank and a chainsaw, so more power was always better – but there was something about how he was describing this power that piqued my interest enough to realize a couple of things.

  1. He was telling me things he didn’t realize he was telling me.
  2. I was going to have him tell me the rest without him realizing he was doing it.

“Which engine’s it got in it?”

“The V4… Strong engine… STRONG engine….”

I was beginning to see a pattern here…

I asked about the body (I mean, if it’s full of dents, that doesn’t change how it drives, but it sure changes how it looks, bodywork is expensive, and it told me a lot about how well they’d taken care of the car… or not)

And I asked about the glass – in large part because I wanted to know if they’d rolled the car.  The way he was talking – this was a distinct possibility – and so I wanted to check. The thing is, I happen to know that if you roll the car, you’ll likely scrape one side, maybe scrape the roof, but if you hit the roof, there’s well north of a 90% chance that you’ll end up with a diagonal crack in the windshield.  The car’s got a built in roll cage, so it’s not like it would have been toast – but it was information I wanted to know if I were to buy the car.

It was a simple equation… one roll equals one crack, so… innocent sounding question, but the answer would have told me a lot.

You can see what happens when you roll a Saab 96 by watching this little video:

The Saab is – well, you’ll figure it out… trust me.

So depending on how you do it – you can just muff up the body a little bit – but bottom line, that windshield is going to get cracked, so I asked about it.

“Oh, the glass is good, no cracks.”

Okay…

Then he went on about that strong engine again…

Eventually I determined that the body of the car appeared to be good, but the right door might have some issues.  Okay, whatever.

And then, out of the blue – he says, “Oh, by the way, first, second and reverse are gone.”

“Gone?”

“Gone.”

Rrrright…

“STRONG engine… Stroonng engine…”

Gotcha

So… a 1968 Saab with what is very clearly a strong engine, a horked out transmission, good glass…  Well heck –

“Oh, and there’s this banging noise…”

“Banging noise?”

“Yeah, there’s this banging noise when you drive it.”

And he’s still driving it? Heck, it’s only got two gears left…

…and a “banging” to me is the sound of sheet metal.

A “banging noise” is in the higher frequency of sounds.

It is a cheap sound.

A “thunking noise” is not sheet metal.  It is the sound of something internal, like bearings, or worse yet, gears.  It is in the lower frequency of sounds.

You do not want to hear thunking.

It is an expensive sound.

“Banging?” – I press him a little bit on that… eventually it becomes clear that I need to go see this thing.  I mean – for a hundred bucks, the engine’s worth more than that…

So I do a little more asking – kind of a last confirmation of the condition of the body, and he finally pops out with something he’d clearly forgotten.

“Oh, there’s a hole in the driver’s door.”

Right… I can immediately see how easy this would be to forget…

So I’m thinking – given where I grew up (near Fort Lewis or other military installations my dad was stationed at), the hole would be about 3/8 of an inch in diameter, and at the center of a little dent….

I’m thinking it’s the standard military issue bullet hole, I mean: “Hole, comma, bullet…. one each…”  Simple to create, simple to fix.

But just to be sure, I ask, “How big is it?”

So while I’m confidently expecting to hear, “Oh, about 3/8ths of an inch.”

I actually hear, “Oh, about the size of a man’s hand…”

A man’s hand…

What on earth?

Turns out his buddy’d been commuting down to the tideflats in Tacoma with it, and ran a forklift through the driver’s door and one of the tines did indeed make a hole… about the size of a man’s hand… in the driver’s door.

So I got the address of the place, and as dad and I drove out there to find it, we noticed that this was not a neighborhood of manicured lawns and well-tended gardens.   It was more a neighborhood of dead grass, faded plastic toys, and rusting cars.

We found the car sitting in the back of a house that was clearly being rented by a bunch of guys who were associated with some kind of motorcycle club.  The names Harley and Davidson were nailed, sewn, welded, or stapled to just about any object available.  These guys were – how do you say this…

… well, my son once said that while some of his friends had made nasty comments about rednecks, he had absolutely nothing against them because they were so ingenious and so ridiculously practical.  You’ve seen the picture of the redneck whose air conditioning broke in his car, but he happened to have a generator and a house sized window air conditioner handy.  So he bolted the generator to the trunk of his car, mounted the air conditioner in the right rear window, and then, when it was hot, he’d fire up the generator, fire up the air conditioner, and grow icicles in the car.  Not “cool” – but definitely cool.

These guys were the same way.  If they could make it work – it worked.  You’ll see this in a minute.

So my dad and I drove out there, and sure enough – it was a V-4, not a 3 cylinder like my other Saab.

(whoa, cool!)

In fact, not only was it a V-4, but it was a “De Luxe” – (that meant it had a tachometer)

Woohoo! This was looking like it could be fun…

After a bit of looking around, I noticed all the body work on the car was good, just like he said on the phone.

Except for the passenger’s door, which was scraped up pretty bad.

I noticed that all the glass in the car was good, just like he said on the phone…

Except for the windshield.

Which only had one crack in it…

A nice… big… diagonal one that went from top to bottom.

The stories the car was telling me were just a touch different than the stories the owner was telling me.

But I watched, and looked, and after he started it up – I listened.

Oh… my… gosh…

It sounded WONDERFUL.

The three cylinder, two stroke engine in the other Saab sounded like a swarm of seriously irritated hornets.  Powerful? No.  If you heard it, you might look around because you were sure a tree was being cut down by that chainsaw you were hearing.

But this thing – it idled beautifully, had a low rumble, almost a dual exhaust kind of a thing – a little ‘blap blap’ from one side kind of synchronized with a blublap from the other side…  Oh, it was cool… You just didn’t hear that out of a Saab of that vintage… It sounded almost like a couple of gentle Harleys… (Come to think of it – the Harleys had what they called a V-twin engine… the Saab had a V-4 = effectively two V-twins end to end)… But what on earth had they done to this thing?  In fact, how the heck could this thing sound so wonderful?  I knew what kind of exhaust it had… two headers – joined in the front by something Saab had called a ‘resonating chamber’ – and a pipe that went back under the passenger’s side of the car – exiting just under the right…

Rear…

Taillight…

Except it wasn’t there.

If it isn’t clear from what we saw earlier, it turns out these were a bunch of Harley bikers – and after a little chatting, the stories the owner was telling me started to match the stories the car was telling me.

I remember asking, “Has it ever been rolled?” – and later thinking, “How often do you ask the owner of a car you’re about to buy “IF” it’s been rolled – wouldn’t it be obvious?

Well – with this car – it could be done.  Not often, and not without consequences, but it could definitely be done.

What started off as a “Nope, never been rolled” turned into a reluctant “Well, once, a bit…” when I told him the stories the car was telling me.

And then, since we were telling stories, he told me the story about one of their excursions determining precisely HOW strong this engine was, driving up this dry riverbed, they rolled the car and got a bunch of gravel in the engine compartment and broke the motor mounts while cracking the windshield. In doing so, they also blasted the crap out of that original exhaust system.  In fact, there was nothing remaining of it.  But fixing it would have been expensive, and one of the things about redneck ingenuity was that if you could make it work, you would make it work.  And so they’d attached a piece of flex tube down from each of the exhaust manifolds – one on either side of the engine – and they went under the car just like the normal ones had gone, but instead of that resonating chamber, they went back about two feet.

And stopped.

There were a couple of little baffles screwed on the end and that was it.

It was the shortest, smallest, simplest “dual high performance exhaust” I’d ever seen.

I asked if I could take it for a test drive, he agreed, so I got in, fired it up (oooh, that sounded nice) – hit the clutch, and put it in first, let up on the clutch – and….

Nothing.

Engine didn’t slow down.

Gears didn’t grind.

Car didn’t move.

Nothing.

I tried second.

Nothing.

Reverse…

Nothing.

Holy cow…. what the HECK had they done to this transmission?

I shifted it into third, and got it moving, very slowly, and there was this low frequency ‘thunk… thunk. thunk’ that happened with a little jerk about once per tire revolution

Hmmm…

A thunking sound, not what you want to hear – but I managed to accelerate, gently and found that if you drove it fast enough – that thunking sound indeed became a banging sound…

…the sound of a transmission beating itself to death.

So I did the only thing I could possibly do under the circumstances.

I bought the car.

And started it out slowly in third gear –  with the banging –  made it to fourth, and drove the thing home, with dad following me.  Every now and then you could smell gear oil.  This was, to use a technical term, “bad.”  Gear oil is supposed to stay inside the transmission (with the gears, hence the name).

I took the engine out, took the transmission out, and realized the ring gear (part of the ring and pinion set of gears in a gearbox) was missing more teeth than a hockey player.  I found six of them in the bottom of the transmission casing.

Of the ones that were left, forty-six were damaged, all with various cracks or chunks out of them.  Bottom line, that gearbox was in dire need of dental work – which simply wasn’t happening…

It was toast.

But that engine… oh man…  Strong engine…. STRONG engine…

In fact, on top of everything else, the “rolling the car” physics experiments the previous owners had done proving this whole “STRONG engine” concept broke the starter off the engine block.  Note: The starter is bolted on to the engine through a hunk of cast steel about an inch and a half think. This hunk of cast steel had been broken off… and with redneck ingenuity, had been welded back on.

Very… strong…. engine.

By the time I had it all apart – someone gave me another one, ironically, a 1968 Saab 96 Deluxe, with the words, “Here, you can have it if you’ll take it away.”

Um… okay…

The car, however, had one minor issue.

No engine.

In fact, no transmission…

In fact fact… nothing under the hood… at all.

So now I had two Saabs sitting in my parent’s back yard, one with nothing under the hood at all, and one with a STRONG engine, with no way to use the power.

Hmm…

Speaking of power, it was clear it was time to call on some higher power, and so I did the only thing I could at the time.

I prayed.

Now understand that this wasn’t the kind of prayer that was filled with “Oh Lord, it is I, Tom, thy humble servant, beseeching thee for a four speed synchromesh transmission that yea, verily, and forsooth, worketh in my Saab…”

No….

Not the way I prayed….

Ever have a kid whine at you? a kid who really, REALLY wanted something? The kind that was pestering the living crap out of you to the point where you just wanted the noise to go away to the point where no matter what it was, you would give it to them just to shut them up?

That was me:  “God, can I have a transmission? Can I? Can I? Can I? Puleeeeeeeze can I have a transmission?”

…oh, one more thing… “Amen.”

I have to tell you – I have never, ever heard so much nothing coming back from a prayer of any kind.  I mean, even the “God bless Mom and Dad and…” (insert requisite list of friends, relatives, pets both living and dead and so on) seemed to get more of a response than this – even if it was just an echo.

I mean, there’s quiet, there’s silence, and then there’s that stunned silence you get when you’ve heard something totally unexpected and simply can’t think of anything to say.

I think God was up there going, “Are you for real?”

And then… Oh Lordy… He had a sense of humor.  Now the thing was, I didn’t have any other options here… I’d priced out VW transmissions at the time just to get a sense of what a transmission cost, and they were running in the $375.00 range.

I didn’t have $375.00.

I also didn’t have a transmission.

And I had a pile of Swedish steel in the back yard with that fool strong engine, and my parents at the time were pondering things like “How did we get into this mess?” and “How do we get out of this mess?” and “Where do we put this?”…

Right next to a duck, maybe? (you may have to have read ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’ to get that one)

So I was praying, literally doing that, “God, can I have a transmission, can I can I pulleeeeeze?” thing, in large part because I didn’t know what else to do…

I’d looked for transmissions, and they were rarer than Sasquatches in Singapore.

No Saab transmissions anywhere.

Also, No Answer.

I kept at this for six months.

No answer.

Then one day, the weirdest thing happened.

I was praying – oh let’s get real – this wasn’t praying, this was pestering….

It seemed like God finally got tired of me whining about this fool transmission, and out of the silence I’d experienced for months came this message, so loud, so clear, that I looked around trying to figure out who’d said it.

“One’s on the way.”

“Huh? What? One’s WHAT’s on the way?”

“One’s on the way.”

Uh…

Wait – Fedex?  UPS? I mean, if you’re sending me one, can I have a tracking number or something?

Apparently God didn’t find that one amusing…

“One’s on the way.”

I’m not sure who I could have talked to at the time, but I felt this urgent need to request permission from someone to get weirded out just a touch…

On the other hand, I was praying, for Heaven’s sake (pardon the pun) – what should I have expected?

And then there was that silence again…

I mean, I heard nothing…

Not even a cricket…

I wasn’t sure what to do for a while there.

And then one day, one of dad’s Saab buddies, a fellow by the name of Clark Duncan, came out, totally unannounced, and said, to me, “Hey, wanna go Saab Hunting?”

“Huh?”

“I heard there were some out near Wilkeson and Carbonado, wanna go?”

Wilkeson and Carbonado are two towns close to Mt. Rainier that were – well, not quite in the middle of nowhere, but you could see it from there.

“Um… sure….”

So we went.

There were no Saabs out there at all. So we headed further out – and – well- you’ve heard of the boondocks?  Depending on what part of the country you’re from, past the boondocks is what’s known as the pucker brush, past that is the toolies.  We were on the border of toolies and whatever’s past that.  No one knows for sure.  They’ve never come back to tell us.

And out there, (apologies to Douglas Adams), there’s this wrecking yard… A Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe…

It was called “Double I Wrecking.”

I mean, this was like any standard issue junkyard, and it came with the standard stuff…

Big Fence…

Check.

Gravel…

Check.

Lots of old metal crap…

Czech. (just seeing if you’re paying attention)

Oil on the ground to the point where it’s either congealed or in rainbows in the puddles.

Check and check…

Oh, and mud.  Have to have the mud.

And puddles…

And cars.

Check… Check… Check…

What are we missing?

Oh – Animals… That standard assortment of vicious animals that keeps people out of the junkyard…

Except whoever ordered this junk yard didn’t check that box.

There was clearly another box labeled “other”

…and the grizzled old fart who was ordering the junkyard chuckled and  wrote in “Geese”

Now if you were to think of something that guarded a wrecking yard – or a junk yard, what type of potentially living organism would your mind conjure up?

I mean, you could come up with something mean, like a pit bull, or a Doberman, or a Rottweiler… Heck, any junkyard dog could work.  You could go one better and get Leroy Brown.

But the person who was filling out the checkbox on the “Standard Junkyard Order Form” had found the box marked “other” and filled in the blank.

When Clark and I got out of the car, we didn’t see a pack of dogs, we didn’t hear an ominous growl, heck, we didn’t even see Leroy.  We were attacked by a herd of wild freaking geese.

Have you EVER been attacked by a herd… herd?… flock? …a bunch of geese?

I mean, they don’t growl, they hiss. They’ve got these long necks that you could grab, but – there were so many of them! Which neck do you grab? It was like trying to wrestle with a plate of spaghetti.

While we were standing there flailing our arms at these necks, looking just exactly like the sissies we were, someone came out of the made to order shack and called them off.

That was the weirdest thing.  I’ve heard people say “Call off your dog!” – but “Call off your geese?”

For that matter, the question of, “Geese can be trained?” popped into my mind, I mean, the only term I’d heard about what you do with a goose was cook it.

And the gooses – er – geese – obeyed… they waddled back through the gate into the junkyard.

Waddled.

And it was a threatening waddle, too, I might add.

Clark and I just stared at each other for a minute.

“Were we just attacked by a herd of marauding watch-geese?”

We couldn’t believe it…

We followed the geese in – daintily stepping around little landmines they’d left behind, and found real humans to talk to.

Now by this time in my search for a Saab transmission, I’d learned that you didn’t just walk in and ask for them, because often the folks working there had no clue what they actually had in their junkyards.  If you went in and asked, “Hey, you got a transmission for a 1968 Saab 96 with a V-4 engine in it?”

They’d just say no.

So over time, I had learned how to ask for things, and how not to ask for things, and in the Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe, I heard myself say,

“Hey, you got any old Saabs around here?”

If he said no, we’d thread our way through the geese and their landmines again and leave.

If he said anything else, we were in.

“Whatchaneed?”

Ding!

We’re in.

“Well, I’m looking for a transmission for a ‘68 96.”

“Hmmm… the one I’ve got doesn’t have a transmission in it – just has the engine.”

(note – that’s not possible – to just get the transmission out you either take the engine out – or you cut the car in half, but I wasn’t going to be so rude as to tell him he didn’t know what he was doing in his own junkyard, so the transmission had to be there.)

“You mind if I go out and take a look?”

“Sure, help yourself”

…and he gestured in a direction that used up roughly a quarter of a standard compass.

I averaged that out and headed in that direction.  It turned out this had been a station wagon (a Saab 95) – that someone had made into a pickup truck with a welding torch, so everything behind the driver’s door was pretty messed up (read: gone),

I popped the hood, and sure enough, everything under the hood was still there, and I mean *everything*.

And behind the engine in there was a transmission….

I was elated, I was thrilled, I was –

oh…

Confused…

I had no idea what to do now that I’d found it.

I was so used to there NOT being transmissions that I don’t know what to do if there was one…

Um….

I pondered the significance of this situation as I walked back to the “office” with its fake grass for the carpeting…

I mean, I was thinking, and clearly God was up there, kind of chuckling, wondering what I’d do now that He’d dropped a transmission in my lap…

“Well,” thought I, figuring that if a chat with God could result in a transmission, maybe another chat with God could help me actually get the dang thing.

“I know the VW ones go for about $375.00… Maybe I’ll offer him $75.00.”

“Nooooooooo!”

I ducked.

“Uh… don’t offer him 75?”

“Don’t say anything”

Okay, this was now officially weird… First off, I wasn’t quite used to ‘hearing’ God like that – so my weirdometer was getting pretty close to pegged on this.  But regardless, somewhere in the standard negotiation tactics I figured there had to be something about talking… I mean, how do you do negotiations without talking?

So I went in and just tried to tell the guy behind the counter what I’d found, trying to figure out how to tell him that he’d had no idea what he was talking about – but doing it politely, said, “Well, it’s out there, and it does indeed have the transmission in it.”

“Oh, really?!”

“Yup, it’s there… checked it myself…”

All the while I’m thinking – it’d be easier to take the engine and the transmission out – it’s three bolts – disconnect the shifter, the exhaust, and various hoses, and just yank. Used to take me 32 minutes to yank a 3 cylinder engine – I knew how this worked.  It would come out…

So I asked, “How much you want for it? Engine and transmission?”

“Engine AND transmission?”

“Yup”

“Can’t take it out today”

“Don’t care, I’ll take it out.”

This confused him.

“Can’t guarantee the engine’ll run.”

I didn’t care, the engine was just in the way of what I wanted, the transmission.

“Don’t care, I’ll fix it.”

This confused him more.

Most people visiting the Wrecking Yard at the End of the Universe wanted the parts they purchased to work…

This person didn’t care…

This was very strange.

And then he said something that I only much later realized was something Alex Trebek would be familiar with, as it was phrased as a question

“Sixty dollars?”

“Sixty dollars…”

“Engine and transmission?”

“Engine and transmission.”

“Done deal.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”

I was stunned.

I rode home kind of in a daze – and sure enough, went out there the next day and yanked the engine and transmission out, paid the gentleman $60.00 and brought it home.

I took the two apart, bolted the STRONG engine to the $30.00 transmission, put them in the free car that I’d been given if I’d take it away, hooked the rest of the stuff up, and started it up.

I drove that car for 17 years.

Until…

One day…

As I was leaving work – the transmission made this pop, and then a low frequency ‘thunk… thunk. thunk’ that happened with a little jerk about once per tire revolution

I’d heard this before.  Many years before, and I knew what it meant.

It was not good.

I thought I might be able to make it home – but work was 17 miles from home, through some pretty awful traffic, and some steep hills.

I gently accelerated, and the thunking noise turned into a banging noise, and that $30.00 transmission – after 17 years of work – gently let me know that it didn’t have anything left to give.

Interestingly enough, I was now in the very same position I’d been in many years earlier – lots of power from that “STRONG Engine” and no way to get it to the ground.

I called around and found out that it would cost 1700.00 to rebuild it.

A friend heard of my plight – and said, “Hey, I know of another one that’s for sale up north… I think it’s the same year – same color even…”

I went up there to look at the car.  It was indeed the same year, and the same color.  It had been this lady’s first car – she’d bought it when she was in college, and when she left home – she left the car in her dad’s barn. He retired, and needed something to do, so he had the engine rebuilt.  And he had the transmission rebuilt, and then one day, after he’d gotten so much fixed and done, he called her over from where she lived, 12 miles away, to give her her old car back.  With a father’s pride – he handed her the keys to her car – and what had been his project for the last few years.

But she’d grown past it – and so she drove it from Snohomish to Everett and put a for sale sign on it.

And for $1900.00 I got a car with an engine with 12 miles on a full rebuild… and I’ve driven that car for the last 11 years… When I got it home – I looked at the vin number – and something looked very familiar…

All but the last digit on the VIN number were identical.

I popped the hood of the original one – xxxxxO.

And went back to look at the new one… xxxxx6.

So in the end, two cars that must have been made on or about the same day, but six cars apart, by the same people, had been acquired about 20 years apart, were once again sitting next to each other, in my driveway.

Now not all of my prayers have been me pestering God like this, nor have they all been answered like this – (wait, maybe there’s a lesson there, huh?) but this one was kind of special… and now, with apologies to Paul Harvey, you know the rest of the story…


I suppose I have to rate this one PG or something – just so you’ve got some warning…

When our son was little we taught him the typical songs you’d teach your kid here in America – you know, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” …  “You are my Sunshine”, and of course, the ever popular children’s song, “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m okay”…. (okay, I didn’t teach him all of that one)

But I also taught him some of the songs he would have learned had he grown up where I grew up, in Germany.  Specifically Southern Germany.  More specifically, the “Swabian” part of Germany.

The sense of humor over there is so matter of fact… And it’s old.  Some of the folk songs have their basis in events that may have happened hundreds of years earlier, and that sense of humor is often dry to the point of being dusty.

Also, some of these songs come from the same culture that brought you Grimm’s Fairy Tales…

The original ones, not the Disneyfied ones.

So one of the songs I taught my son was about a fellow getting a ride on a train.

With his wife.

And a goat.

Now before I describe the song to you – you really have to hear it. (click on the word ‘song’ back there). If you don’t understand German – don’t worry – the people singing are singing just like we all did, with joy and gusto.  You might be wondering why by the time we’re done, but… Well, that’s one of the things that might be lost in the translation – which I’ll be doing my best to do, as it were, below – you just need to hear what the song sounds like first.

The one you just heard, if you listened, starts off pretty fast.  The way we used to sing it, we’d start out slow and speed up – like a steam locomotive of the time would – then get faster – and then there’s this refrain, “Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala”, – and then the last two lines of the previous verse are repeated.  It’s also sung in the dialect of southern Germany – which, where I grew up, is kind of like a gentle southern drawl.  (and the one you just heard is definitely authentic) I mean – speaking “Hochdeutsch” (high German – the formal stuff) – you could try to say “I love you” and end up sounding like a cat, hacking up a hairball – so the southern dialect, the Schwäbisch – or “Swabian” dialect – is gentle, laid back, and saying the same thing sounds like a hug.

Needless to say, there’s a difference between hugs and hairballs, so I’ll do my best to translate here.  Note: the dialect is phonetic – so what you see below might not be translatable in, say, Google or other online translation services.

The first verse just tells the story of the first train that went all the way from southern to northern Germany.  This section of track, the “Schwäbische Eisebahn” was a tremendous source of pride in that part of the country when it was built, and the song, as I understand it, almost became a sort of regional “national anthem”.

Auf d’r schwäbsche Eisebahne gibt’s gar viele Haltstatione,

On the Swabian railroad track, there are lots of train stations
Schtuegart, Ulm und Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach!

Stuttgart, Ulm and Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach (several of the major stops on the line)

Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,

Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,

Schtuegart, Ulm und Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach!

Stuttgart, Ulm and Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach

It was a tremendously fun song to sing – I’d sung it growing up – so it was a given that I’d be teaching it to my son as he was growing up.

And then my wife asked the most innocent, and simultaneously impossible question she could ask:

“So what’s it mean?”

Auf d’r Schwäbsche Eisebahne wollt amol a Bäurle fahre,

On the swabian railroad, a farmer once wanted to take a trip
Goht am Schalter, lüpft d’r Hut. “Oi Bilettle, seid so guat!”

He went to the ticket agent, tips his hat, and asks, “One ticket, if you please”
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,

Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
geht am Schalter, lüpft d’r Hut. “Oi Bilettle, seid so gut !”

…went to the ticket agent/machine, tips his hat, and asks, “One ticket, if you please”

“Well, it’s about this farmer… “

“Okay…”

“…and his wife…”

“okaaay…”

“…aaaaand this goat…”

(Long, LONG pause as I try to figure out how to translate this part that up until that moment had been funny, but now that I tried to translate it into something someone born and raised here in America would understand, I realized that it would absolutely, positively, without a doubt, lose something in the translation…  Just how much was to be determined…)

Einen Bock hat er gekaufet und daß er ihm nit entlaufet,

He bought himself this billy goat, and so it wouldn’t walk off
Bindet ihn d’r guete Ma, an den hintere Wage na.

The good man tied him to the back of the last car in the train.

(unsaid, implied, or left for you to guess is that he was doing

this while loading the rest of his stuff onto the train)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
bindet ihn d’r guete Ma an den hintere Wage na.

“Well, the farmer ties the goat to the back of the train to keep it from wandering off.”

“Okay…. And?”

This is where it got hard…

“Well… what isn’t actually stated is that he forgets the goat.”

“What – the goat runs off?”

“Well, not exactly…”

“What do you mean, not exactly?”

“Well, the goat’s tied to the back of the train.”

“And the train LEAVES?”

Wie des Zügle wieder staut, der Bauer nach sei´m Böckle schaut

When the train started up again, the farmer went to check on the goat.

(the version I used to sing had a couple of verses before this one where the farmer sits down next to his wife, lights up his pipe, and has a smoke, and it’s at the next stop that he makes the discovery below)
Find’t er bloss Kopf und Soil an dem hintre Wagetoil.

And finds nothing but the rope and the goat’s head still tied to the last car in the train.
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Find’t er bloss Kopf und Soil an dem hintre Wagetoil.

“Ummm…  Yeah…”

The reputation of an entire culture was on my shoulders as I tried to explain that tying a goat to the back of a train that was about to head down the tracks a tad faster than said goat could run could be seen as rather amusing when looked at the right angle, you know, like the farmer went to town every week on the train, and every week he did the same thing – only this week he did something different, out of the ordinary, not routine… He bought a goat.  He thought about it long enough to tie it to the back of the train so it wouldn’t run off as he was loading his other purchases into the train – and, as we often do, he then went on autopilot once he was on the train and the whistle blew. (how many coffee cups, diaper bags, wallets, or dare I say it, loaded child seats, have you seen on the roof of a moving car?)

Of course, trying to find out exactly what angle in all this would be amusing was the challenge…

‘s packt d’r Baure a Baurezore, er nimmt d’r Geißbock bei die Ohre,

The farmer (in frustration) grabs the goat by the ears
Schmeißt er, was er schmeiße ka, dem Konduktör an ‘n Ranza na.

And throws what he can throw (namely what’s left of the goat) as hard as he can throw it at the conductor

(essentially blaming him for not keeping track of the goat, so to speak)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Schmeißt er, was er schmeiße ka, dem Konduktör an ‘n Ranza na.

And while I’m happily singing “Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala” with my son, clapping with him and smiling, the dawning realization in my wife’s mind changed the look of shock on her face into a look of absolute horror.

She was thinking of the song from the goat’s point of view, which, in Germany, especially in agricultural Germany, you really didn’t do much… I mean yes, some of the farm animals kind of became pets, but for the most part, goats were livestock, and farmers managed them.  Livestock lived long enough to either produce or become food. It was pretty simple, pretty straight forward, and pretty practical.

But here in America – especially here in America in an area where you don’t see livestock in much more than a petting zoo – you tend to think of those warm fuzzy little goat like things a little differently, and you might tend to see the whole story from their point of view.

“He left the goat tied to the back of the train, the goat tried to keep up with the train, and – and…”

I had to fill the silence with something…

“Well, yeah…”

“And they wrote a SONG about it?”

“And it’s a HAPPY song?”

“Well, um.  Not for the goat…”

Sigh…

Trulla, trulla, trullala…

🙂


Have you ever taught your kid how to ride a bike? I was
thinking about that the other day, and realized that it never ends…
The thing about learning how to ride a bike – or teaching your kids
how to – is you first start them off in a stroller – you’ve got
full control, they’re just along for the ride, they don’t even know
that you’re pushing, they just know they get plopped into the
stroller and show up someplace else. Next thing you know, you’re
pulling them in a wagon, or a sled – and they become aware of what
you’re doing, and what it takes to move you around. Eventually, as
with all children, they want to do it themselves, so you buy or
borrow a tricycle for them, and they can move around on their
own. It’s at this point that the story changes, because
you’re no longer in control. Soon they’ll see bigger kids riding
two wheelers, and they’ll want to do the same thing, so you get
them a two wheeler – of course, with training wheels. And the
transition continues. Remember how they’d ride with the wheels all
the way down? – and then after awhile you’d sit there rounding off
the nuts with the wrong sized wrench, adjusting them so they’d be a
little higher – so they’d still have the safety of the training
wheels, but would be able to balance a little on their own?
Each kid learns at a speed all their own, and each kid learns at a
speed that’s best for them.

20140105-233109.jpg

A dad I saw out on a walk who clearly got it.

But what happens on your end is that you help them as long as you can.

You teach them to ride a bike, and then you hold on to the saddle, steadying them, helping to keep them from falling until you can feel in your hand that
they’re not wobbling.

You hold onto the saddle until you feel their pedaling is smoother and steadier. You hold onto the saddle until they’re pedaling faster than you can run.

And you know that if you continue to hold onto the saddle at this point, they can’t ride their bike.

You will, quite literally, be holding them back.

And you realize in a split second, that you have to let go.

You have to let them go.

And to do that, you have to loosen your grip.

Your world changes in that next split second, as you let go of the
saddle.

In that one moment, everything changes.

By letting go, you’ve said to them “I trust you”

By letting go, you’ve said, “You’re in charge now”

By letting go, you’ve said, “I love you, and will be here to help, but you’re the one riding now. Your success is up to you.”

Learning to Ride

Michael, working on success.

If you hang on – your child will only be able to ride as fast as you can run – and that simply isn’t fast enough.

I’ve talked to several dads who taught their kids to ride bikes – and as I did, they all instinctively held their right hand down as if they were holding onto a saddle as they told their stories.

They knew.

They knew the ride would be wobbly at first. That there would be falls, and Band-aids, and trips to the emergency room. There always are as your child starts to understand this new-found independence.

But in that first moment, that moment you loosened your grip, in the split second that you actually let go of the saddle, you relinquished control over them – you gave that control to them. And the control is everything…

You’re letting them choose to succeed or fail. You’re giving
them the freedom to win or lose. You, as you come to a stop
after running alongside them, panting, see the distance between you
grow as they ride forward with the excitement of youth. And
suddenly – their whole life flashes before your eyes as you realize
that you’ve done this before – but you didn’t know you were doing
it. You’ve celebrated their “firsts” – whether it was the
first time, as a baby, they rolled over…

I remember that day with my son very
well, used to be he’d simply stay where I put him. Then one
day, I’d put him in the middle of the bed, and he rolled over, and
off the bed onto the floor. He let me know about the impact
at the top of his lungs…

– Or that first owie…

I remember when we had the little “child proof” (hah!) gate across
the front door – from the living room to the front steps, and he
was having so much fun bouncing and pulling on it that I didn’t get
a chance to stop him before he fell out, and down the steps.
His head hit one of the steps and within seconds he looked almost
exactly like Worf from Star Trek. He cried so hard, and it hurt his head so bad, almost as much as it hurt my heart as I was holding him.

– Do you remember their first step?

– Or their first word?

– Or their first bite of “real” food?

You realize, as the thoughts drift through your mind, that inside every one of those “firsts” trumpeting in through the front door, there was a quiet
“last” packing up its bags, and shutting the back door quietly
behind it as it left.

You find yourself startled – “Would I have done something different if I’d known this was the last…” whatever it was… If you’d known it was the last bottle you’d ever give them, the last baby food you’d ever do the airplane thing into the hangar with that we all do as parents, or the last diaper you changed on them.

Would you change anything?

Would you do anything different if you knew when their last night at home would be? The last time you saw them? Maybe it’s best we don’t know – because if we did, we’d be paying attention to that back door, when the front
one’s important, too… The thing is, this cycle repeats itself all
through their lives.

Do you remember their first day of kindergarten?

The elementary school our son went to kindergarten at had a “tea and cookies” get together for parents of kindergartners – it was accompanied by large amounts of Kleenex – as it was an entire herd of parents
standing there realizing they’d let go of that particular saddle –
and they didn’t know what to do with their hands anymore. The
Kleenex solved that problem

What about their first time spending the night someplace else, when you
weren’t the one to tuck them in?

I remember saying prayers with my
daughter every night, and for many years, the last voice my son
heard at night and the first one he heard in the morning was
mine.

As a parent of youngsters, you often find yourself
actively wanting this – you just want some peace and quiet
sometimes – and what often happens is this:

It is quiet… Too quiet…

There’s no one skateboarding down the stairs.

There’s no one screaming about who’s hitting who.

There’s no one stomping through the living room like the bass section of a marching band of elephants.

You realize, about then, that you’re definitely not a single person anymore, you realize you’re not just a married couple – but you’re married – with kids – and you’ve become a family. And without that part of the family – something just
feels out of balance, and it only comes back into balance when the
kids come crashing through the door again. The exhaustion
comes right in with them, but so does the joy of having them back.
Do you remember them getting their driver’s license? Heck, do
you remember what it felt like to get in the passenger’s seat on
their first drive?

With our daughter – driving wasn’t so hard, but parking was. I
remember how hard she was trying to learn how to parallel park.
She’d tried and tried and tried – and it just didn’t work…
Out of frustration, she said, “This is impossible!”

And I, being the Ever Helpful Dad, said, “Here, let me show you.” She got out, I got in the driver’s seat, pulled up beside the car she was trying to park behind in her little $800.00 Mazda, put it in reverse, hit the gas,
flipped the wheel hard right, then hard left, then hit the brake,
and put it in park.

“See? It’s easy!”

She wasn’t convinced… At all.

And for years she would figure out ways to park without doing the parallel
parking thing – until she got it, in her own time.

One day, a few cars later, and – actually it was father’s day a year or so ago, she came up and said, “I would have brought you a card – but I have something better.” And then she told me that she’d paid off the car she’d
bought – all by herself. “I just wanted to thank you –
because without what you taught me about money – I wouldn’t have
been able to pay this off.”

Wow.

No card could have been better than that.

In spite of the fact that she’d been living away from home for several years at that time, I felt I could let go of that particular saddle with a little more grace right then… With all of the challenges a young adult has in these times, she’s doing well.

The first time I let our son drive, we took my old Saab out onto an old country road. It’s a 4 speed on the column. I pulled over, said, “Okay, your turn” and got out – we did a Chinese fire drill, and the next thing I
knew, after his stunned look of “You’re kidding, really?!”, he’d gotten us started – no bucking or stalling the car with its clutch that needs replacing. I was stunned. We were up in third at about 35 mph and I was still in shock, “Michael, that was incredible!” and Michael, ever the understated one, said, “Well, what did you expect? I’ve been watching you drive this thing for 16 years…”

That sentence alone is worth another story, and my mind was scrambled there for a while as I tried to handle the overload of that simple statement…

I taught him and I didn’t even realize it?

What does that mean – what else have I taught him without realizing it?

I taught him stuff I wanted him to know without realizing it – what have I taught him that I’d rather he not know?

Do I need to go back and try to undo things?

What would I undo?

How would I find out?

… all while helping him learn the
intricacies of driving a 40 year old car with a tricky clutch and a
freewheeling transmission.

What about their first date? –

Not the one where you drove them, but the one where they drove
themselves, do you remember waving goodbye as they left? Do
you remember wondering what kind of stuff they were up to? (only
because of the “stuff” you got into when you were their age) – and
speaking of “stuff – didn’t it scare the – uh – “stuff” out of you?
One of the hardest things/times that a lot of parents have gone
through in the last week or so, is that first day of school after
high school – when you all pile into the car and take your young
one “off to college.” Your kid is just looking forward to
being on his or her own, where you look at dorm rooms that seem
way, way smaller than what you remember, and there’s so much more
stuff in them now.

My first dorm room had a desk, a bed that folded into a couch thing, and a
closet for my roommate and me. I brought in a 30 pound Remington
Noiseless
typewriter (yes, this was back in the days before word processors, but not by much, and yes, it was old then…)
I remember that all the parents looked like foreigners. The day I
moved in, I saw they all had puffy eyes that they wouldn’t
acknowledge, the dads were sweating from carrying so much stuff up
the stairs to the right floor, and the moms were flitting about all
trying to do that one last thing to make things perfect before
they’d have to admit that it was time to let someone pry
their fingers from that saddle.

That ride back home from college – from dropping your first or last or
any kid off can be very, very quiet. It might be the first time the back seat of the car’s been empty in years. It is hard to get used to.

And it takes time.

I remember one child who moved out with just a few
hours warning to a city several hours away. The mom was not
expecting it, nor was she ready for it. I remember taking a
photo of that moment, when they hugged goodbye and both tried to
smile for the camera – the daughter’s eyes bright, looking forward
to a new and exciting future, while the mom was desperately trying
to hold back tears, standing there, essentially looking at her
hand, the one that up until moments before had been holding on to a
saddle – one that had just been pulled out of her hand, when she
herself wasn’t ready to let it go.

It is hard to get used to.

What about their first “real” relationship?  The one where
you can just feel the wobbling of that particular bicycle, you can
feel the unsteadiness – you just KNOW, deep in your heart, that
this just isn’t the right person for your child, and yet, you have to let go of that saddle…

Sometimes you have to let them fall, or they won’t know how to keep from
falling.

Knowing when to do that is one of the hardest things to do as a parent.

How would they react to having you interfere? How would you have reacted had your parents told you “she’s not the right one for you” – or “he’s not the right one for you”? – so you walk that razor’s edge of knowing what to say, but
not when to say it – or knowing the right time to say
something, but having no idea what to say…

What about the breakup of that first relationship? The one you find out about long after the fact – when you get what starts out to be an innocuous sounding
telephone call, but over time, the truth comes out, and you know
that they’re hurting in ways they don’t even have words for, in
ways you’ve hurt before, and your heart just aches for them.  You understand a bit of it – but you can’t actually say that, now’s not the time.

You want to grab the saddle again, you want to rip it from the bike and use it to whack the crap out of the person who did this to your kid.

But you don’t.

You get the “Band-aids” – sometimes – this takes the form of a “care package from home” – Sometimes it’s sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, or
coffee, or a beer. Sometimes it’s going for a walk or a drive.

It’s astonishing the kinds of things that you hear when you just take your kid out for a drive. But most often, the thing that’s most important is just taking the time to listen to your kid think their way through a problem to a solution, and what’s crucial is they need to know you’re listening to them, and you’re available to do it. No cell phones, no blackberries, no iPhones…

Your kid needs to feel your hand on the saddle right then until they’re steadier, and when they’re ready, they’ll start pedaling again, and it will be time for you to let go.

Again.

This, as you may have guessed, will repeat itself through your life, throughout their lives.

You will find, over the years, that they “ride their bike” in circles around you.

The bike will change, whether it’s their first date, or their first job, or their first day after being let go from that job, or whatever. They will ride by and in one way or another, say what they said when they were little, “Look at
me! Look what I can do!”

And your job is to do exactly what you did when they were little.

You cheer them on.

You encourage them.

You show them you love them.

And they’ll ride away, with the sound of those cheers ringing in
their ears, knowing you’ll be there, in spirit if not in body. —

This has been a pretty hard note for me to write, because as you might have guessed, some of what you just read came from personal experience, and as I was writing it, I realized, that as I’m working on letting go of the various saddles my kids are on – that things are coming around full circle, and that my mom is doing the same thing with me. It’s part of life, but it’s hard. As I was writing this – I found my thoughts going back to 10 years ago, when my dad had a massive stroke, he was in ICU for a very long time, and in a nursing home for a while afterwards. It became very clear that as much as we wanted him to be with us, that the time we were able to share with him was coming to a close. I wrote him a note – and in that nursing home room in Tacoma, on a warm late August afternoon in 2000, I read it to him. What was neat, if you can say that, in a situation like this, is that we could tell he was still in there – he just couldn’t communicate out very well. We adjusted the ventilator that was breathing for him so he could talk a little, and I remember his last words to me, “Tom, I love you, and I’m proud of you.” He died two months later. Mom was with him at the end, they’d both fallen asleep, and dad died in his sleep beside her. As I was writing the eulogy, my sister had this image…

…the image she came away with was
this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been
sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on
the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed,
suddenly could see her.

The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.

His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.

His heart didn’t struggle.

His feet weren’t cold.

We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.

But as I thought of it later, I realized that in that moment in August, he’d done what all parents eventually do…

He’d let go of the saddle, one last time.

I miss you, dad…

So. (deep breath)

Run with your kids while you have them.

Love your kids while you can.

Hug them as often as you can.

Teach them how to ride a bike – but know that someday, you’ll
have to let go of that saddle, and when you do, remember what your
job is:

You let them go.

You love them.

And then you cheer them on.

Because while they’re riding away as fast as they can, and while
you’re standing there, the bittersweet realization of what just
happened slowly dawning on you, they need to know you’re still
there.

Take care, folks…

Letting go of the saddle…

Have you ever taught your kid how to ride a
bike?

I was thinking about
that the other day, and realized that it never ends…

The thing about learning how to ride a
bike – or teaching your kids how to – is you first start them off
in a stroller – you’ve got full control, they’re just along for the
ride, they don’t even know that you’re pushing, they just know they
get plopped into the stroller and show up someplace else.

Next thing you know, you’re pulling them
in a wagon, or a sled – and they become aware of what you’re doing,
and what it takes to move you around.

Eventually, as with all children, they want to
do it themselves, so you buy or borrow a tricycle for them, and
they can move around on their own. It’s at this point that
the story changes, because you’re no longer in control.

Soon they’ll see bigger kids riding two
wheelers, and they’ll want to do the same thing, so you get them a
two wheeler – of course, with training wheels.

And the transition continues.

Remember how they’d ride with the wheels all
the way down? – and then you’d sit there with a wrench, adjusting
them so they’d be a little higher – so they’d still have the safety
of the training wheels, but would be able to balance a little on
their own? Each kid learns at a speed all their own, and each
kid learns at a speed that’s best for them.

But what happens on your end is that you help
them as long as you can. – you teach them to ride a bike, and then
you hold on to the saddle, steadying them, helping to keep them
from falling until you can feel in your hand that they’re not
wobbling.

You hold onto the
saddle until you feel their pedaling is smoother and
steadier.

You hold onto the
saddle until they’re pedaling faster than you can run.

And you know that if you continue to
hold onto the saddle at this point, they can’t ride their
bike. You will, quite literally, be holding them
back.

And you realize in a
split second, that you have to let go.

And you loosen your grip.

Your world changes in that next split second,
and you let go of the saddle.

In that moment, everything changes.

By letting go, you’ve said to them “I
trust you”

By letting go,
you’ve said, “You’re in charge now”

By letting go, you’ve said, “I love you, and
will be here to help, but you’re the one riding now. Your
success is up to you.”

If you
hang on – your child will only be able to ride as fast as you can
run – and that simply isn’t fast enough.

I’ve talked to several dads who taught their
kids to ride bikes – and they all instinctively held their right
hand down as if they were holding onto a saddle.

They knew.

They knew the ride would be wobbly at
first. That there would be falls, and Bandaids, and trips to
the emergency room. There always are as your child starts to
understand this newfound independence.

But in that first moment, that moment you
loosened your grip, in the split second that you actually let go of
the saddle, you relinquished control over them – you gave that
control to them. And the control is everything… You’re
letting them choose to succeed or fail. You’re giving them
the freedom to win or lose. You, as you come to a stop after
running alongside them, panting, see the distance between you grow
as they ride forward with the excitement of youth.

And suddenly – their whole life flashes before
your eyes, and you realize that you’ve done this before – but you
didn’t know you were doing it. You’ve watched them do a
“first” – whether it was the first time, as a baby, they rolled
over…

I remember that day with my son very
well, used to be he’d simply stay where I put him. Then one
day, I’d put him in the middle of the bed, and he rolled over, and
off the bed onto the floor. He let me know about the impact
at the top of his lungs…

Or that first
owie…

I remember when we had the little
“child proof” (hah!) gate across the front door – from the living
room to the front steps, and he was having so much fun bouncing and
pulling on it that I didn’t get a chance to stop him before he fell
out, and down the steps. His head hit one of the steps and
within seconds he looked almost exactly like Worf from
Star Trek. He cried so hard, and it hurt so bad.

Or their first step, or a
first word, or their first bite of “real” food.

You realize, as
the thoughts drift through your mind, that inside every one of
those “firsts” trumpeting in through the front door, there was a
quiet “last” packing up its bags, and shutting the back door
quietly behind it as it left.

You find yourself startled – “Would
I have done something different if I’d known this was the
last…”whatever it was… If you’d known it was the last bottle you’d
ever give them, the last baby food you’d ever do the airplane thing
into the hangar with that we all do as parents, or the last diaper
you changed on them.

Would you change anything?

Would you do
anything different if you knew when their last night at home would
be? The last time you saw them?

Maybe it’s best we
don’t know – because if we did, we’d be paying attention to that
back door, when the front one’s important, too…

The thing is, that
repeats itself all through their lives.

Do you remember their first day of
kindergarten?

The elementary school our son went to
kindergarten at had a “tea and cookies” get together for parents of
kindergartners – it was accompanied by large amounts of Kleenex –
as it was an entire herd of parents standing there realizing they’d
let go of that particular saddle – and they didn’t know what to do
with their hands anymore.

What
about their first time spending the night someplace else, when
you weren’t the one to tuck them in?

I remember
saying prayers with my daughter every night, and for a long time,
the last voice my son heard at night and the first one he heard in
the morning was mine.

As a
parent of youngsters, you often find yourself actively wanting this
– you just want some peace and quiet sometimes – and what often
happens is this:

It is
quiet…

Too quiet…

There’s no
one skateboarding down the stairs.

There’s no one
screaming about who’s hitting who.

There’s no one
stomping through the living room like the bass section of a
marching band of elephants.

You realize, about then, that you’re
definitely not a single person anymore, you realize you’re not just
a married couple – but you’re married – with kids – and you’ve
become a family. And without that part of the family –
something just feels out of balance, and it only comes back into
balance when the kids come crashing through the door again.
The exhaustion comes right in with them, but so does the joy of
having them back.

Do you
remember them getting their driver’s license? Heck, do you
remember what it felt like to get in the passenger’s seat on their
first drive?

With our daughter – driving wasn’t so
hard, but parking was. I remember how hard she was trying to
learn how to parallel park. She’d tried and tried and tried – and
it just didn’t work… Out of frustration, she said, “This is
impossible!”

And I, being the Ever Helpful Dad,
said, “Here, let me show you.” She got out, I got in the
driver’s seat, pulled up beside the car she was trying to park
behind in her little $800.00 Mazda, put it in reverse, hit the gas,
flipped the wheel hard right, then hard left, then hit the brake,
and put it in park.

“See? It’s easy!”

She wasn’t
convinced… At all.

And for years she would figure out
ways to park without doing the parallel parking thing – until she
got it, in her own time.

One day, a few cars later, and –
actually it was father’s day a year or so ago, she came up and
said, “I would have brought you a card – but I have something
better.” And then she told me that she’d paid off the car she’d
bought – all by herself. “I just wanted to thank you –
because without what you taught me about money – I wouldn’t have
been able to pay this off.”

Wow.

No card could
have been better than that.

In spite of the fact that she’d been
living away from home for several years at that time, I felt I
could let go of that particular saddle with a little more grace
right then… With all of the challenges a young adult has in
these times, she’s doing well.

The first time I let our son drive, we
took my old Saab out onto an old country road. It’s a 4 speed
on the column. I pulled over, said, “Okay, your turn” and got
out – we did a Chinese fire drill, and the next thing I knew, after
his stunned look of “You’re kidding, really?!”, he’d gotten us
started – no bucking or stalling the car with its clutch that needs
replacing. I was stunned. We were up in third at about
35 mph and I was still in shock, “Michael, that was incredible!”
and Michael, ever the understated one, said, “Well, what did you
expect? I’ve been watching you drive this thing for 16
years…”

That sentence alone is worth another
story, and my mind was scrambled there for a while as I tried to
handle the overload of that simple statement…

I taught him and I
didn’t even realize it?

What does that mean –
what else have I taught him without realizing it?

I taught him stuff
I wanted him to know without realizing it – what have I taught him
that I’d rather he not know?

Do I need to go back and try to undo
things?

What would I undo?

How would I find
out?

… while also helping him learn the
intricacies of driving a 40 year old car with a tricky clutch and a
freewheeling transmission.

What about their first date? – not the one
where you drove them, but the one where they drove themselves, do
you remember waving goodbye as they left? Do you remember
wondering what kind of stuff they were up to? (only because of the
“stuff” you got into when you were their age) – and speaking of
“stuff – didn’t it scare the – uh – “stuff” out of you?

One of the hardest things/times that a
lot of parents have gone through in the last week or so, is that
first day of school after high school – when you all pile into the
car and go “off to college.” Your kid is just looking forward to
being on his or her own, where you look at dorm rooms that seem
way, way smaller than what you remember, and there’s so much more
stuff in them now.

My first dorm room had a desk, a bed
that folded into a couch thing, and a closet for my roommate and
me. I brought in a 30 pound Remington
Noiseless
typewriter (yes, this was back in the days
before word processors, but not by much, and yes, it was old then…)
I remember that all the parents looked like foreigners. The day I
moved in, I saw they all had puffy eyes that they wouldn’t
acknowledge, the dads were sweating from carrying so much stuff up
the stairs to the right floor, and the moms were flitting about –
all trying to do that one last thing to make things perfect before
they’d have to admit that it was time to let someone pry their
fingers from that saddle.

That
ride back home from college – from dropping your first or last or
any kid off can be very, very quiet. It might be the first
time the back seat of the car’s been empty in years.

It is hard to get used to.

And it takes time. I remember one
child who moved out with just a few hours warning to a city several
hours away. The mom was not expecting it, nor was she ready
for it. I remember taking a photo of that moment, when they
hugged goodbye and both tried to smile for the camera – the
daughter’s eyes bright, looking forward to a new and exciting
future, while the mom was desperately trying to hold back tears,
standing there, essentially looking at her hand, the one that up
until moments before had been holding on to a saddle – one that had
just been pulled out of her hand, when she herself wasn’t ready to
let it go.

It is hard to get
used to.

What about their
first “real” relationship? The one where you can just feel the
wobbling of that particular bicycle, you can feel the unsteadiness
– you just KNOW, deep in your heart, that this isn’t the right
person for your child, and yet, you have to let go of that
saddle… How would they react to having you interfere? How
would you have reacted had your parents told you “she’s not the
right one for you” – or “he’s not the right one for you”? – so you
walk that razor’s edge of knowing what to say, but not when to say
it – or knowing the right time to say something, but having
no idea what to say…

What
about the breakup of that first relationship? The one you find out
about long after the fact – when you get what starts out to be an
innocuous sounding telephone call, but over time, the truth comes
out, and you know that they’re hurting in ways they don’t even have
words for, in ways you’ve hurt before, and your heart just aches
for them. You understand a bit of it – but you can’t actually
say that, now’s not the time. You want to grab the saddle
again, you want to rip it from the bike and use it to whack the
crap out of the person who did this to your kid.

But you don’t.

You get the “Bandaids” – sometimes – this
takes the form of a “care package from home” – sometimes it’s
sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, or coffee, or a
beer. Sometimes it’s going for a walk or a drive. It’s
astonishing the kinds of things that you hear when you just take
your kid out for a drive. But most often, the thing that’s
most important is just taking the time to listen to your kid think
their way through a problem, and what’s crucial is they need to
know you’re listening to them, and you’re available to do
it.

No cell phones, no
blackberries, no iphones… Your kid needs to feel your hand on
the saddle right then until they’re steadier, and when they’re
ready, they’ll start pedaling again, and it will be time for you to
let go.

Again.

This, as you may have guessed, will repeat
itself through your life, throughout their lives. You will
find, over the years, that they “ride their bike” in circles around
you. The bike will change, whether it’s their first date, or
their first job, or their first day after being let go from that
job, or whatever. They will ride by and in one way or
another, say what they said when they were little, “Look at
me! Look what I can do!”

And your job is to do exactly
what you did when they were little.

You cheer them on.

You encourage them.

You show them you love them.

And they’ll ride away, with the sound of those
cheers ringing in their ears, knowing you’ll be there, in spirit if
not in body.

This has been a pretty hard note for me
to write, because as you might have guessed, some of what you just
read came from personal experience, and as I was writing it, I
realized, that as I’m working on letting go of the various saddles
my kids are on – that things are coming around full circle, and
that my mom is doing the same thing. It’s part of life, but
it’s hard.

As I was writing
this – I found my thoughts going back to 10 years ago, when my dad
had a massive stroke, he was in ICU for a very long time, and in a
nursing home for a while afterwards. It became very clear
that as much as we wanted him to be with us, that his time here was
coming to a close.

I wrote him
a note – and in that nursing home room in Tacoma, on a warm August
afternoon in 2000, I read it to him.

What was neat, if you can say that, in a
situation like this, is that we could tell he was still in there –
he just couldn’t communicate very well. We adjusted the
ventilator that was breathing for him so he could talk a little,
and I remember his last words to me, “Tom, I love you, and I’m
proud of you.”

He died two
months later. Mom was with him at the end, they’d both fallen
asleep, and dad died in his sleep beside her, and as I was writing
the eulogy, my sister had this image…

…the image she came away with was
this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been
sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on
the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed,
suddenly could see her.

The machine wasn’t breathing for
him anymore.

His mind was clear, not muddled by
a stroke.

His heart didn’t
struggle.

His feet weren’t
cold.

We imagine he looked around, saw
the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his
beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for
better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in
health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his
wife to be with his Lord.

But as I thought of it later, I realized that
in that moment in August, he’d done what all parents eventually
do…

He’d let go of the saddle,
one last time.

I miss you,
dad.

So. (deep breath)

Run with your kids while you have
them.

Love your kids while you
can.

Hug them as often as you
can.

Teach them how to ride a
bike – but know that someday, you’ll have to let go of that saddle,
and when you do, remember what your job is: You let them go, you
love them, and then you cheer them on. Because while they’re
riding away as fast as they can, and while you’re standing there,
the bittersweet realization of what just happened slowly dawning on
you, they need to know you’re there.

Take care, folks…


Back before all this espresso craze hit the country – in the age of dinosaurs – well, back when the oil in the gulf was still dinosaurs – I remember thinking that this whole espresso thing was just so stupid. I mean, I remember going into a place and asking for a cup of coffee, and they’d run down the a simple list for me.  Black? Cream? Sugar?

It was simple… Clear… Concise…

I was used to all that.

I liked it.

And then, it changed…(cue the dramatic, ominous music…)

I’d ask for a cup of coffee and they’d throw all these Italian words at me that made absolutely no sense whatsoever…

Venti? Macchiato? Frappucino? El Dorado? – no, wait, that’s Spanish…

Anyway, it was just tons of what I thought was idiocy, I just wanted a cup of coffee, you know, the kind where you find some berries, pit them, throw the berries away, dry, then burn the pits, smash them between some rocks, and then pour hot water over what’s left until the water turns brown.

You know… Simple… Clear… Concise…

<ahem>

WHOEVER came up with that whole concept was either a genius or… well, one of Rube Goldberg’s ancestors…

All I wanted was coffee…

Wait… let me rewrite that…

All… I… Wanted… Was… COFFEE.

Until the day someone bought me this…

…this …

…this creamy, heavenly mixture of coffee, foamed milk, and chocolate.

Ooooohhhh wow….

I remember the first time I pulled into an espresso stand – it had been a Fotomat booth years before – and was out in the middle of a parking lot.  I remember the car seemed to just drive itself into that parking lot.

…and I suddenly understood what addictions could be like….

I didn’t *need* a cup of coffee, but I *WANTED* a mocha.

Oh, man…

I’d grown up – oh – how to describe this right…  We weren’t swimming in money to the point where we needed life preservers – in fact, galoshes would have been overdoing it…  Come to think of it – a damp spot in the sidewalk would have been a better description of the finances I’d grown up with.

There was a tremendous difference between a “want” and a “need”.

Wants were optional.

Needs weren’t.

And for once in my life, I *wanted* something far more than I needed it, and I was about to act on that want…

Never had I scrounged around the seats for loose change unless I needed it.

But I did this day.

Never had I gone through the glove box for change unless it was necessary.

But I did this day.

And never had I put all the “emergency” money in the car to a single use that wasn’t an emergency.

But the definition of “emergency,” like it or not, was about to be redefined, and sometime later – I learned that this whole thing was just the beginning…

I worked at Microsoft for a few years, where they had a Starbuck’s inside one of the cafeterias – and I had no idea how to order anything other than “coffee” or the heavenly “Mocha”.

But there was this guy working there who had the job title “barista”, and he helped me out.

And I realized after a while that I could customize this whole thing… I could have more or less of something in there than is required by law, so to speak…

One day he did something weird – he made it really creamy – so that it wasn’t just milk and foam, but kind of a foamy mixture all the way through.  Somehow this involved banging the milk foamer thingie (they get paid to know this stuff, I don’t) on the counter, which somehow made the foam thicker.  It was wonderful – so we decided to go with that.

I realized I didn’t like quite as much mocha – or chocolate syrup – in  there (they put three pumps worth, which was a little too much for me) – and over the next few weeks, this barista and I figured out what it was I liked. (one pump)

It takes me a long time to decide what I like, but once I’ve decided, then that’s pretty much it.  So once we’d come up with what it was I liked, I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

And when I went to get my coffee (understand, getting coffee was free at Microsoft at the time, I was choosing to pay for it, and given my growing up, that was significant) – and I’d get the same thing, every day.  In fact, it got to the point where I didn’t even order it anymore, I’d just show up and it would be there – and I’d pay for it, we’d make small talk, and then I’d leave…

…with my little paper cup of heaven…

And then…

One day…

He was gone.

A new barista who didn’t know what I wanted was there.

I was stunned.

I had no idea how to order this – this… this paper cup full of dark, foamy heaven…

I was crushed.

No more heaven in a paper cup.

Shortly after that, I left Microsoft, and had to figure out how on earth to order this thing in the real world…

And over time, I was able to get a barista to explain to me how to order what it was that I wanted.

So when I got my next job, I went to the Starbucks across the street from work, and I ordered it the way I’d been told to order it.

(ready for this?)

“I’d like a double tall one pump mocha free pour wet cappuccino”

And I said it with a straight face.

Which was followed immediately by a look of total shock on that straight face.

“Oh my gosh,” thought I…

“I’m one of….. ‘THEM’”

The cashier dutifully filled out the little boxes on the paper cup

The Barista, who was juggling cups – stopped and looked over at me, got the order, and made the drink.

It was perfect.

Clearly I had to come back.

The next day – I wandered in with my buddy Jae and we each ordered our drinks… He ordered a hot chocolate.  I ordered a double tall one pump mocha free pour wet cappuccino…

Same barista…

He stopped what he was doing and looked at me with one eyebrow raised…

You could clearly see in his eyes, “Oh oh, one of ‘those…’”

But I wasn’t “one of ‘those’” – although I sure as heck sounded like it….

I was just stunned that I could order the fool thing with a straight face, and I told them that.

They laughed…

Next day – I came in – and Stevie, same barista was there, Annie was there wearing out a Sharpie filling out all the little boxes on the cup (it fills all but one of them), LaRae was riding shotgun, and I didn’t even get a chance to say anything.

I walked up, Stevie saw me coming, and said, “I know… Yadda Yadda Yadda…”

And from there on out – it became known in the Fremont Starbuck’s store as a “Yadda Yadda Yadda”

I’d left that job, and hadn’t been in there for a long time… I wasn’t sure what the typical employee turnover had done to the institutional memory there, but for a long time after I left, you could order a Yadda Yadda Yadda, any way you wanted, you could order a decaf or a nonfat Yadda Yadda Yadda, heck, you could have them fill out all the boxes on the cup and order a half caf, half decaf Yadda Yadda Yadda – it was fun.  The Fremont Starbucks was the coffee equivalent of “Cheers” – and to Annie, LaRae, Stevie, and the other baristas at the Fremont store – thank you – for making it such a special place back then.

A while back I went in with a friend, and like I said, hadn’t been there in a long time, and one of the same baristas was still working there.

She saw me, her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh! Oh! I remember, it was a Yadda Yadda Yadda…”

It was…

And it still is…

Tom Roush

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