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Many years ago, I was in Civil Air Patrol, the Official Auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Among the missions of the Civil Air Patrol is Search, and Rescue.
I’ve mentioned it before, there were other things we did, but one of the very important things we learned was all about Search and Rescue, or SAR.
One the hallmarks of a good search was when the person was found.
One of the things that made that possible was the organization that was part of every search. There was communication (we had an old M-715 military surplus communications truck (mentioned in this story) with radios of all varying frequencies, so we could be a relay to the myriad of agencies that could be part of a large search), there were all the volunteers who showed up, and then there were the people who did the searching. Sometimes the searching was done from the air, but that was to get a general sense of where things might be. The end of a search was often done from the ground. In both circumstances, we would work what was called a grid pattern, so we would always know what had been searched, and what had yet to be searched.
What was drilled into us at the time was that you searched a part of the grid, and if you didn’t find what you were looking for, you crossed that square off, and then moved to your next assigned section. It was almost sacred, how important that was. The commanders had to know with 100% certainty which grids had been searched and which ones still needed to be. Therefore, you did not, under any circumstances, deviate from the grid pattern.
So to practice these searches, and these techniques, we had training. Each squad (two to four cadets) had a map of the area being searched. We each had a compass, and we had our assigned grid sections. And we did everything we could do to be prepared for any emergency, at any time.
And then one day, every member of the squadron got a phone call.
The phone call.
Someone was actually lost.
Someone needed to be both searched for and rescued.
This time it was for real.
This time someone’s life was really on the line.
This time someone needed help, and so with adrenaline flowing like never before, we all did what we’d been training to do for what seemed like ‘ever’. We gathered our pre-packed gear, put on our uniforms, and assembled the squadron to go to find this person who’d completely disappeared. The family was in shock, and for everyone’s benefit, the person in question needed to be found.
We created a command post near where the person was last seen.
We assembled our vehicles.
We spread our maps on the most convenient flat thing around (that would be the warm hoods of cars), got our compasses out, and planned our search. To be honest, it looked very much like an old war movie. The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee. Actually, come to think of it, the maps were held down on the hoods of those cars with what was probably cups of, by then, lukewarm 7-11 coffee.
After the planning, we were each assigned a section, and the leaders would gather their squads together and give instructions. We’d go out initially in groups of two or four cadets, each squad having one copy of the map of the area divided up into the now familiar and very sacred grid pattern, and we started searching.
In my group, there was Aaron, Bruce, Dave, and me. Aaron had this back problem, so he had this huge brace that he’d wear from his hips to his neck, and we’d always want to be careful that he didn’t hurt himself. The thing we weren’t used to was that Aaron’s view of the brace wasn’t that it was a hindrance, but that it was just part of life, and being careful about it really wasn’t something he was concerned with. So we went and searched the grid area to the northeast of the house, and since this was a real live search, we were going to leave no stone unturned. If this person was out there, we were going to find them. It was a matter of safety for them, and a matter of pride for us, so we put all our training to use, and we searched.
Now one of the things they didn’t tell us about this grid pattern was that if there was something truly in your way, you could walk around it.
In fact, they’d never said we could walk around anything.
I suppose because when they drilled it into us that we were to maintain those straight grid lines, that we hadn’t thought to ask, but when we got to our designated section of the grid, there was this huge, house sized thicket of bushes in front of us. A lesser (or a smarter) group of people would think thoughts like, “If you can’t even part the shrubbery, how could you possibly get there to actually be lost?” – Seriously –the bushes were so thick we couldn’t even get into them, much less get through them.
But remember, this was during a time of youth. This was when we were full of energy, testosterone, and Infinite Teenage Wisdom®.
And Aaron, bless him, said, “Grab my brace and push me through!”
We thought he was nuts. This was like taking someone’s cast off their broken leg and beating off an attacker with it – it just didn’t seem right. But Aaron insisted, and so he got in front, I remember grabbing his brace through his shirt, Bruce had his hands in the middle of my back, and – well, I couldn’t see what happened past Bruce, but on the count of three, we all shoved Aaron into the thicket.
We had to do it over and over, and each time, pushing Aaron a little further into the thicket.
Luckily, this wasn’t a briar patch, or images of Brer Rabbit would have been quite appropriate. No, this was just a thicket of bushes, along the side of this country road that was on our grid.
Eventually we made it through the other side of that thicket (which was really deeper into the woods), and this may not come as a surprise, but we didn’t find that our lost person was in there. We radioed that our grid was clear. We were ordered to split up and I was given another grid with another cadet. This time we were to be walking on public roads, so we were issued bright orange vests to go over our fatigues. That way it would be safer, and our presence would be obvious from some distance.
We walked some distance on that road, making some turns and such, following the instructions on the map we’d been given, but again, didn’t find what we were looking for, so we were able to successfully mark that grid clear. We were invited to come back to the command post for a break, and so we headed in that direction, but while the map seemed to show us that we were heading back, the countryside looked quite unfamiliar. In fact, we had walked quite some distance, and because we were to cover all the ground in our grid, had taken some turns we weren’t expecting, turns we didn’t see until we got there to take them, and eventually, unintentionally, had walked off the edge of the map, so to speak. We had to backtrack a good bit, and were coming back in from a direction we hadn’t planned on coming back from.
Eventually we started seeing familiar territory, and I decided to call the command post on the radio and let them know we were on the way in, and I heard a voice on the radio say something that I still remember to this day.
“Understood. I’ve got you in sight”
Have us in sight?
How could they have us in sight? For that matter, how long had they had us in sight?
We couldn’t see them, how could they see us?
It turns out they had binoculars – and because we’d gone off the grid, we were late coming back, and they were looking for us. In fact, they’d had some hot food and something to drink ready and waiting for us, and had been keeping track of all of us for some time as we were walking back… Those orange vests we’d thought were so funny earlier were actually turning out to be pretty useful, and even then, it got me thinking. How many times do we wander off on our own merry way in our lives, going places we really don’t have any business going, that don’t make any sense at all?
It made me wonder how many times we actually work hard at doing the stupid things we do in our lives, either allowing ourselves to be pushed, or even enlisting the help of our friends to push us into places we really shouldn’t be.
And sometimes we end up completely off the grid, in places we didn’t expect to be at all.
How many times, when we should be paying attention to being where God really wants us to be, do we end up getting ourselves lost, even when we have a map we could use to guide us, or better yet, have a radio we could use to simply push the button and check in?
And how many times, when the light finally comes on, so to speak, and we do check in, do we hear, “Come on in, I’ve got you in sight?”
I’ve pondered that over the years, wondering how often God simply watches us through His binoculars, to see how long it actually takes us to come to our senses, and start heading home, back to the command post, where He’s got hot dogs and cokes waiting for us.
We learned later, after we told the story about the bushes, that we actually didn’t have to walk through things on the grid that were in our way. We had permission to walk around things that we couldn’t walk through as long as we got back onto the grid again. Sometimes that kind of stuff happens. Things get in the way. You step around them, get back on the grid, and move on. It turns out that takes a lot less energy than trying to fight your way through something that’s bigger and stronger than you are.
Ironically, had I used the radio I had clipped to my belt to ask about that at the time, I would have gotten a very quick answer right then that would have saved us (and Aaron) a lot of trouble, but we were so busy ramming Aaron through the bushes that we didn’t think of calling in and asking for advice.
Of course, given that we were operating with that ever popular “Infinite Teenage Wisdom®,” that would have made far too much sense.
Over the years, I’ve found myself wondering if there’s an adult version of “Infinite Teenage Wisdom®”. (I’m sure there is)
I wonder how often we do things like that when we grow up, how often we stray from the map, and get off the grid in ways we really don’t mean to, only to get pushed around by things that are bigger and stronger than we are.
I wonder how often we do that and don’t realize that we could just walk around them instead of spending all our energy trying to fight them.
I still wonder how long they had been watching us, and I wonder about that radio I had on my belt, the one that when I used it to let someone know we were on our way back, broadcast the words, “I’ve got you in sight…”
And I wonder how often, in life, even if we stray off the map, we might actually hear God saying words like that if we were really paying attention.
It turns out – both on that search, and in life, we weren’t completely lost.
He’d known where we were all along.
I was mowing the lawn the other day.
Well, the term “mowing” would be an understatement…
And… come to think of it, so would the term “lawn.”
I’d been recovering from a broken leg (long story, for another time) and for all the time my leg was healing, the grass back there was growing.
By the time it even got *onto* our priority list, it was so tall that small children could have gotten lost in it. We’d been able to tame the front yard, but the back one – well, it was a jungle out there, and it was more than we could handle, so in response to our cries for help, we got a fellow from church who came over and mowed until we had all available yard waste bins full, and then it rained, so for two weeks the grass just grew again. Our neighbor right next door who, for a six pack of his favorite “beverage”, volunteered to help, had brought his mower over and attacked the jungle with a passion. It now looked like a new military recruit after the barber had had one – or maybe 10 too many drinks the night before.
So the other day I was out trying to mow it one step further to even it out. By that time some of the ‘bad haircut’ grass had dried out a bit, and while my son and I were out there raking it up a little bit at a time, I caught a whiff of that drying grass that just rocketed me back to a time when I was just over half his age…
Back then, my grampa had a herd of cows – Black Anguses (Angii?) and they needed to be fed both summer and winter. In the summer, he’d have them grazing his acreage, but he needed hay for them in the winter, when the grass wasn’t growing. So he’d contract with people all around the area to mow their fields of grass and bale it for cattle feed. This was back in the days when feeding cows grass was considered normal, not a ‘green’ thing.
Summer meant a lot of things, but the big thing at the end of summer for me was that it was haying season, and it was time to fill up the barn with bales of hay for the cows. This meant that someone would make many trips to those fields in the area grampa had contracted to get the hay from, cut it, and turn it every now and then so it would dry, and eventually be put into bales.
When it was time to bale it, a veritable army of vehicles went out to bring it all back. If everything worked right, someone had been out there a day or so earlier, with the little Ford tractor from this story and it was pulling the hay baler that was powered by a little hand cranked, air cooled V-4 Wisconsin engine – the same kind mentioned in this story. A lot of gas was burned to get all that year’s worth of hay back to the barn – but I think it was the combination of smells that I seem to remember so vividly. The exhaust from those old engines smelled so much different from the cars nowadays. If you were behind the baler, you’d get the smell of the freshly baled hay, mixed in with the hot, dry smell of the little Wisconsin engine that powered it. Little pieces of hay would get sucked into the cooling fins of the engine, so you’d get a little whiff of of that, too. You’d also get a whiff of the Ford tractor pulling it, which smelled just like – well, like something that could pull 3 cars out of a creek, single handedly – oh, wait – it actually did that… and – gosh, as I write this, I’m realizing how hard it is to describe smells that simply don’t exist anymore – I mean, the engines on the tractor, the baler, and all the trucks burned leaded gasoline, and there just isn’t any of that anymore. A lot of those engines had air filters with oil in them, so you’d smell a little oil mixed in with the exhaust. The big dump truck just smelled and sounded like raw power. Nothing fancy, nothing extra. Just a deep, throaty, “I’ll win a tug of war with, oh, say, Corsica” kind of power.
All of these engines had carburetors to mix the air and gas so the gas would burn, sometimes they didn’t burn it as well as they do now, and you could smell that. In fact, most engines nowadays have fuel injection, so they burn the gasoline far more efficiently. Most engines now have pollution control equipment and catalytic converters to make the already clean (from the fuel injection) exhaust cleaner, and that’s all well and good, but those smells that symbolize an era of simplicity, of just success from hard, simple work, are long gone.
About those trucks: There were two main trucks we used:
There was the red 1966 ¾ ton Dodge truck with the 318 cubic inch V-8, and an automatic transmission. It was simple in the extreme. It just looked like a pickup truck, but really, it could handle anything you could throw at it, and it would do so without complaining at all. It was much easier to drive than the dump truck, which was a 1955 Ford F750 flatbed dump with a 5 speed manual transmission and a two speed rear end for a total of 10 speeds forward and two in reverse. As old as it was, even then, you could move the shifter all over the map even if it was in gear. The shift pattern, if there had ever been one, had worn off the shifter knob decades earlier, so knowing where to look for a specific gear was something only accomplished by experience. In fact, finding a gear was like finding buried treasure. You’d feel the looseness of the knob as it vibrated in your right hand. Then, when it was time to shift, and you did find a gear, you smiled in satisfaction as you felt the synchros in that old transmission reluctantly acknowledge you as master of the truck. I would not know this feeling for several years.
It only had two pedals.
The gas pedal had worn off (yes, you read that right) and had never been replaced. There was just a steel rod that you pushed your foot on, and two identical round pedals that The Men driving the truck would just work magic with. How they worked three pedals with two feet was beyond my young comprehension, but it was part of driving the truck during haying season, and it happened every summer, as this small convoy of vehicles would go out to the surrounding countryside to pick up bales of hay to feed the cows in the coming winter. Every year, The Men of the family, that is, my grampa, my dad, my uncles, and eventually me, went out to do battle with the bales.
One year, when I was 12 or so, I went, sitting in my usual spot in the passenger’s side of the Dodge, and I felt so grown up, going with “The Men” to do this manly thing – and then, as we got to the field, we all got out and talked about who was going to do what. My uncle Bill came over to me and had me climb up the mile or so into the cab of the Ford. It suddenly became very clear that I wasn’t going to be a passenger anymore.
I was going to be one of “The Men”.
I was thrilled.
I was terrified.
This was the truck that growled.
This was the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight.
This was the truck that could pull Mount Rainier into Idaho if you got a chain long enough.
But he wasn’t having me pull over Mount Rainier. He was just having me drive the truck while two or three guys stood on the back, standing on, throwing, and stacking 80 pound bales of hay as tightly as they could be stacked.
Once they got to loading, there was nothing for them to hold on to, so whoever drove the truck had to drive it smoothly. No sudden starts, no sudden stops. It could be dangerous, I was told. I’d seen how high the hay was piled, and knew that if someone were to fall off, it could be a bad thing.
I was ushered into the cab, behind a steering wheel the size of a manhole cover and my instructions, in their entirety, were as follows:
“Ever driven a stick?”
“No sweat, piece of cake. See that pedal on the left? “
“Push down on it.”
Pushing it to the floor required holding onto the steering wheel with both hands and standing on the clutch pedal, which lifted my butt right off the seat.
My uncle reached across from where he was standing on the running board, grabbed that big shifter and shoved it with some authority into first.
“…let up on it to go, push down to stop.”
(said with far more confidence than I felt)
“We’ll bang once on the top of the cab for you to stop, twice to start up again. You think you can do that?”
And he swung off the running board, climbed onto the bed, and we were off.
Now you’d think that with instructions that simple, it’d be easy, but the muscles in my 12 year old legs were barely a match for the huge springs in that truck’s clutch. Pushing down was hard enough. Letting up on it wasn’t any easier, because I learned very quickly that if I let it up, that truck was going to move, and anything not tied down (say, the guys stacking hay bales in the bed of the thing, for instance) better hold on tight if they didn’t want to fall over or fall off.
I thought I was a big kid, but I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I only had two feet, why were there three pedals? – well, two pedals and that metal rod thingie.
All I knew was to go, I had to let up on the big round pedal on the left.
And to stop, I pushed down on it – and held it.
Let up on it to go.
Push down to stop.
I did this for about 45 minutes, and it worked fine on the field, but I could tell my left leg was getting a little tired. You know how it happens when you’re standing on a ladder or something – on your toes, and all of a sudden your leg starts bouncing like the foot of a sewing machine, all on its own? I could feel that starting to happen in mine, so I figured I’d give it a rest, and used my right foot to push down on the clutch.
This worked, too, only the first couple of times I let up on it WAY too fast. Understand, the truck didn’t care how fast I let the clutch up.
It had a monstrous truck engine.
It had a monstrous truck transmission.
And it had one of the lightest loads you could put on it – a couple of guys and a bunch of hay, so when I let up on the clutch, no matter how fast, that truck was going to move.
And when my right leg let that clutch up, oh, man, I heard about it from the guys up on the back. They were scrambling to hang on to anything they could to keep from falling off, and then they used words that my young ears hadn’t heard before.
I went back to using my left leg.
One time, we must have been in the middle of a bunch of bales, because they had me stop for the longest time, and by now both legs were pretty tired from the constant pushing down on the clutch pedal.
What was worse is that both legs were starting to do the sewing machine thing after just a short stop, so I was getting a little nervous, the field was only half empty, but the truck was getting piled up there pretty high.
We had one more length of the field to go, and then we’d be through. I was looking forward to that. No, that’s not true. As thrilled and terrified as I was to be one of “The Men” – by now my legs were doing that sewing machine thing so bad they could have stitched their own set of pants. I was really looking forward to being through.
So I aimed the truck toward the end of the field, and each time I stopped, it took a little longer, because so many hay bales had already been loaded, that these last ones had to be piled up on top of the ones already there, and therefore lifted up, much higher.
By now, we were in the middle of the field, which wasn’t completely flat, but a little higher that at the edges. That made things different. Before, when I wanted to stop, I just hit the clutch (with either foot) and the truck stopped. Now, heading toward the edges from this middle meant I had to deal with a bit of a downhill slope, and I realized that the truck would keep rolling, ever so slowly, even if I hit the clutch.
I learned pretty quickly that the middle pedal was the brake, and hit that.
And heard some of those same words I’d heard earlier coming from the back of the truck.
It seemed that being gentle with the truck kept the guys on the back from using some of those words, so I did what I could to be gentle, but my left leg was so tired, and was clearly doing the sewing machine thing that I decided the next time around, I’d give it a rest and use my right leg to hit the clutch. (the left pedal).
Now, remember that downhill slope? I was on it, and there was an old fence at the end of the field about 50 feet ahead of me, and there was a swamp on the other side of that.
I heard the thump on the roof, and it really seemed like an excellent time to stop the truck, but with my right foot firmly on the clutch, the truck didn’t stop that time. I couldn’t let off the clutch, but had to stop the truck, so I used the only leg I had left (uh, that would be the left one) to hit the brake (the right pedal).
By the time I got all this done, the 50 feet had shrunk considerably, and I was standing there hanging onto the steering wheel with both hands, holding down the clutch with all my might with my right leg, and my left leg braided over it on the brake.
And of course, that area being near the swamp, there were a lot of hay bales in that area. It felt like all the guys on the back of the truck were taking their own sweet time while my arms were getting tired from hanging onto that huge steering wheel while standing on those pedals with crossed legs, trying to keep the truck from either rolling forward because my foot was off the clutch, or coasting forward because it was off the brake. Either way, I was close enough to the fence to where going through it and tipping the truck over or getting stuck in the swamp was a real possibility.
Of course, this is when my right leg (the one on the clutch) started doing the sewing machine thing again.
I couldn’t jerk the truck this time.
It wasn’t level.
The hay was piled too high…
…and even if I didn’t drive it through the fence and into the swamp, if I wasn’t careful and jerked the truck while turning to avoid the fence, I could lose part of the load (of either the hay or the guys on the back of the truck).
And that would be bad.
On top of that, by that time, seeing the green murky water in front of me, and thinking of nothing but how to avoid it, I had this sudden and immediate need to go to the bathroom.
But I couldn’t go.
I had to keep the truck where it was, and to do that I had to hold the steering wheel, and couldn’t hold onto anything else, nor could I find anything else in the truck to help solve that rather pressing problem. I was within seconds of calling for help when I heard a voice from on high call out, “Go ahead!”
Ahh, the sound of relief.
But it wasn’t an angelic voice, it was my uncle, telling me to move the truck ahead. He didn’t mean I should “Go ahead” and take care of that pressing issue that had become the center of a battle in the cab of the truck that he actually knew nothing about.
I put all my weight into pulling on the left side of the wheel, and just barely brushed the fence, but didn’t’ lose either the hay or the guys on it. My knees were like jelly, and I could barely stand, much less hang onto the wheel, but I got us to a safe spot, and called out to my uncle, who hopped down off the bed and then jumped up onto the running board.
This time I put my left foot on the clutch, and we were on level ground, so I didn’t need the brake, and when I told him how bad I needed to go, and what had happened, he laughed so hard I thought I was going to – well, you know…
He reached across me and pulled the truck out of gear and had me pull on the parking brake.
Turns out no one had ever told me that you could take the fool thing out of gear, and me, being a whopping 12 years old at the time, didn’t know to ask.
With the truck safely stopped, he let me jump out and take care of some important business, and then someone else got in and drove the rest of the way that day, but they loved, absolutely loved to tease me about jerking the truck around, and how they were hanging on for their lives while I was stomping on the gas, slamming on the brakes, and slaloming across the field. Understand, I couldn’t reach the gas pedal to stomp on it – no, wait, the pedal was gone… I couldn’t reach that steel rod where the gas pedal had been. Well, I could, but I wasn’t big enough to do that and see out the windshield at the same time, so all the stuff I did was with the engine just idling.
There was no slaloming going on…
But reputations are made, and stories are told and retold, and the stops and starts, along with the slaloming got worse and worse every time the story was told.
One year, I was driving the Dodge, the truck with the automatic transmission, and it was a dream to drive compared to the Ford. The standard thing was still to thump once on the top of the cab to stop, and twice to go, and the ribbing about not jerking the truck around continued, but the Dodge was easy enough to drive to where I didn’t have to work at driving it smoothly, so I was ignoring the ribbing and just driving, smoothly, carefully, relishing the whole automatic transmission thing, when I heard a thump to stop. I stopped – and I remember very distinctly how gently I was stopping.
In fact, I remember I was actually proud of how gently I was stopping when I heard this HUGE crash, the truck shook as if it had been hit by something, the roof of the cab caved in, and to my horror, I saw my uncle roll off the cab, down the windshield, bounce onto the hood, and then disappear over the edge.
Believe me, I stopped.
I saw him get up, holding his clearly sore back, but with a smile on his face. He looked up at the guys on the top of the load, and I could tell that they’d decided to take the ribbing one step further and see what I’d do if someone actually did fall off. He ended up being okay. I didn’t run over him, but he never did that again.
Haying continued over the years as I grew up – and eventually I grew big enough and strong enough to take a turn hucking those 80 pound bales up onto the truck like my Grampa, and my Dad, and my Uncle and all the rest of The Men had done all those years before.
Every year we all looked forward to the trip back to the farm, where my grandma would be waiting with huge pitchers of iced tea or lemonade, and then we’d load the bales onto the conveyor, which took it into the barn, where we’d stack them all the way to the roof for the cows to eat that winter.
As I think of this, the one thing I remember so clearly – as if all of this seems like it’s in a bit of a haze – is that grassy, cowy, milky smell you can only smell in a real barn, with real cows, eating real grass. And on top of it all was the fresh smell of that hay – which is where we started, isn’t it?
That brought me back to the present, in my own back yard, where I was standing with my son, who was still raking up the dry grass, and who wasn’t aware I’d just gone for a long trip through half-forgotten memories.
I looked around, realizing that the tractors were gone, literally not in the back yard, but also having been sold years ago. I realized my son wouldn’t have stories to tell of adventures with cows and driving slow motion slaloms in ancient trucks through even more ancient fields, so it was important for me to tell the stories to him, so even if he couldn’t say he had had those adventures – he could say he knew someone who had.
And I told him the story, and idly wondered, as I looked about, if we could get my grampa’s old baler into the back yard, whether we could have made a few bales.
We were just missing a barn.
Post script: both trucks were sold to a neighbor, who still has them, and they both still run. And the Dodge still has a dent in the roof of the cab.
Well, school started for a lot of kids this week – and it got me thinking about my first day of school many years ago.
Mind you, it was grad school, but “The First Day of School” seems to have the same connotations no matter where you go or how old you are. I got in touch again with a friend the other day, and she was telling me how nervous and antsy she was about the first day of school.
Then I found out she was a teacher.
I guess those “First Day of School” jitters never really go away, huh?
So the first day of school I was thinking about was when I went to Grad school in Athens, Ohio, and I got there in September, a number of years ago.
You know that song, “Try to remember, the kind of September… when life was sweet, and oh so mellow…”
Honestly, I don’t remember this particular September as being quite the gentle one mentioned in the song. This one involved moving across the country, to a place I’d never been, and doing something that everyone but me thought I was really good at, and learning to be better at it.
I was graciously given a ride down from the Cleveland Airport from my friend Renee’s parents, who were a nice transition from leaving a place where I knew everything to arriving at a place where it seemed I knew absolutely nothing. We got there in the evening, with enough light to take my suitcase and pack up to the third floor walk-up apartment (a semi-finished attic that was being rented out). I turned the radio on I’d had shipped ahead on to hear something familiar, only to hear stations from Chicago to West Virginia.
Wow – They were a far cry from what I was used to. Everything was so new, and I suddenly felt so very far from home. In fact, not only was everything new, but there was just so much of it to absorb. On top of that, aside from Renee’s parents, the closest person I knew was a minimum of 2,000 miles away. The adventure of it all seemed to pale in comparison to the enormity of the distance from all things familiar.
The closest phone was a phone booth at the grocery store a couple of blocks away, so I walked over there and called home to let my folks know I’d arrived and was getting settled, (and, honestly, to hear a familiar voice).
The next day I decided to explore my surroundings, since I was expecting to be there for at least a year, possibly two, so I went for a walk. I’d been writing a letter, so I took the clipboard I had the paper on, slung one of my cameras over my shoulder and headed out. I was more than a little astonished at people’s reactions to that. I’d be walking along, taking pictures of the campus, writing in the letter that I had on the clipboard about what I’d seen, and people would see me and give me a really wide berth, like they didn’t want anything to do with me. Later I realized that I must have looked very official, and people just wigged out a little, not realizing that at the time, that all I was doing was taking pictures for a letter I was writing to my folks.
One thing I learned on that walk was that the humidity in southeast Ohio was a little different than it was in Seattle. I won’t say it was humid, but I will say that if you had a potato chip that was too large, you could fold it in half before you gnawed it to death. It was so humid you really didn’t get much wetter if you jumped into a pool, a shower, or a bathtub. The apartment I was in had an air conditioner, but all that did was change the climate in that attic apartment from hot and sticky to cold and clammy. In a nutshell, it went from plain uncomfortable to just plain gross.
I also began to understand the concept of big porches, which we don’t really have much of in the northwest. You might spend time inside, and you might spend time outside, but that halfway point between the two, the front porch, really doesn’t exist where I come from, so it’s a whole different culture, just by that very little architectural thing, and one of the things you do on a porch is just sit there and watch the world go by.
Now, given that my place had no porch, and because there were very few places in it where you could actually stand up all the way, I found myself staying there mainly to sleep, and the first quarter there I did surprisingly little of that. The girls on the second floor downstairs smoked, so there was this constant stale smoke smell that permeated everything. Well, not everything. If you got close enough to the air conditioner to be cold and clammy, the stale smoke smell lost out to the slimy, mildewy, air conditioner smell.
Ummmyeah… an olfactory experience not to be missed, I tell you…
On the walls was this old (actually kind of pretty) pine paneling. But the one thing I really liked about the apartment was the location. It was literally across the parking lot from the school of art, where I had most of my classes. I could be in class in 2 minutes flat, assuming I was in the apartment. Usually I was in one of the studios, the darkroom, or the computer lab. Like I said, I used the place for sleeping and that was about it.
And so, like many other people in the area did in the evening, I went for a walk, just to get out of the house. And that early evening, while walking up the street, no cars moving anywhere, I saw a guy, sitting on his porch, at his house, across the street.
He was rocked back on a chair, gently fanning himself with a ratty old hat, watching the world go by, which at that moment, consisted of just me.
I looked around.
He clearly couldn’t be talking to me.
I mean, he was all the way across the street from me.
In Seattle, where I’d been, there was always traffic. You wouldn’t dare talk to someone across the street without looking both ways to see if you’d be interrupted or hit by a car or truck or bus coming by.
I looked left and right.
Still no cars.
In fact, no trucks.
Not even a stray cat to make life interesting.
(oh… “How are you doing?”)
I looked back at him – he was looking right at me and obviously talking only to me.
“Naaas weather, ain’it?”
I started thinking of that potato chip I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t – oh, he’s making conversation – I get it. I’d lived alone for the last year. I was completely out of practice of simply making conversation, but I gave it a try.
“Um… a little humid.”
He smiled and waved the ratty hat at me.
“Have a naaas dayie”
I waved back, pondered the whole exchange for a bit and kept going… There was something about the way he waved that would repeat itself a couple of years later in a totally different setting, but that wave, and the willingness to just say hi to a stranger, was something worth more than I realized at the time.
I’d rented the apartment sight unseen from a lady I only knew through several other people. In fact, I rented it from a payphone at the Safeway on top of Queen Anne hill in Seattle. I’d never done anything like that before, but it worked out well. She’d mailed me a key to the place, so I was able to get into the apartment, and when I was all settled in there in Athens, I called her, and she came by to show me around. I didn’t realize that “around” would include a guided tour of the whole town, but it did.
She took me for a ride in her old metal flake green convertible that, honestly, reminded me of a cross between split pea soup, and the worst cold I ever had. For some reason known only to her and God himself, she had eye shadow to match the car.
She was an absolute sweetheart, but being driven around in a huge convertible snot green 1972 Cadillac with white leather seats by a little old lady, (and I mean little, my gosh, if she was 5 feet tall I’d have been surprised. She had the seat all the way forward, an old pillow tucked behind her, and was driving this behemoth with her toes) just wasn’t what I was expecting as a young college student ready to take on the world.
I clearly had a lot to learn.
She took me for that tour of town, showing me where everything was. Most places have a “downtown”. Athens has an “uptown”.
We stopped at a traffic light, in the left lane, the big V-8 engine in front of us almost silent, and were talking a bit about town when another convertible pulled up beside us. Actually, “pulled up” is far too gentle a word. This was a bright, fire engine red, convertible VW Rabbit, and I, who had been living alone for over a year, was suddenly faced with four – um “college women” who just, for lack of a better phrase, simply materialized beside us with a little ‘scritch’ of their tires. The girls were, let’s just say they weren’t the “California Girls” in the Beach Boys song, but Lordy, they would sure have found a place in it… I think somewhere between the “Southern Girls” and the “Midwest farmer’s daughters” – they would have fit just fine… They were dressed for the weather, full of life and fun, laughing and giggling. I was just getting my mind, and, admittedly, eyes around what I was seeing, the girls laughed, said, “Hi!” The light turned green, and they were gone.
I looked left, and a thought crossed my mind. The little old lady peering under the steering wheel hadn’t always been old. It made me wonder if, at some point, this little old lady with the green eye shadow, driving the green Cadillac with her toes had been a young college student once, and what stories she might have to tell about times when she was young.
I didn’t know, at the time, that my life would forever be changed by the things that happened there in Athens.
I didn’t know that I’d work so hard that even eating 4 meals a day I’d still lose 30 pounds in 10 weeks.
I didn’t know then that I’d do things, make friends, and have adventures in the next few years that I still smile about today.
I didn’t know then whether the dreams I had of being a globe-trotting photojournalist would pan out, but I was sure going to try.
There was so much, that fall, that I didn’t know, and as I think now about sitting there in that green Cadillac, I realize that the little old lady must have been able to look back at the kind of September that I – well, not that I was about to experience, but the kind of September I’d remember, too. She, by driving me around, was sharing her own memories, her hangouts, her little secrets, and in a way, allowing me to be a part of her reliving her own youth. It was, I realized years later, an honor, and a privilege, to be allowed to be part of that moment in her life.
(music © by Harvey Schmidt, words © by Tom Jones)
Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember.
And so, as I hum the words above, I think back with fondness on the memory of a very little old lady in a very big car, who allowed a young student’s September to be a part of the December in her life.
In church Sunday mornings – we have a time of prayer – where we say, and pray for and about, what’s on our hearts, whether that’s things we’re thankful for, things we’re worried about, all sorts of things – and just after everyone quieted down one Sunday a while ago and every eye was closed – we all heard the sound of two little feet walking, then running up the aisle.
About 400 eyes opened at once, and saw a child, being held tightly by her father, a child who’d let nothing get in her way, who ran up and didn’t care who saw her, the one thing important in her life was being with her daddy.
…and it got me thinking.
Isn’t that what prayer’s all about?
Abba… (no, not the group, Abba is Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, for father, or daddy.)
We’re supposed to be as little children (Matthew 18:3), just like this child, but so often we let all the worries and “wisdom” that comes with being adults get in our way.
I mean seriously, how many times have you tried to pray, and it’s all just gone south – nothing’s working – the words aren’t coming, you feel like your prayers aren’t making it past the ceiling, like there’s this vast chasm between you and God – and then there are other times when you’re in such a state where you hit your knees in the hallway and skid into the bedroom yelling, “G-o-o-o-o-o-d!” because you’re so messed up you don’t even know what to say or how to pray.
Need the T-shirt.
(note to self: don’t hit knees in the hallway… it’s carpeted)
But this kid…
If God’s unchanging – that must mean that the only difference there is us.
Of course, THAT thought got me thinking some more.
Years ago I heard a pastor tell a story about an old couple. They’d been married for decades, and one day, as they’re on a drive, he behind the wheel, and she leaning up against the window. Suddenly, the wife says to the husband, a little wistfully, “Why don’t we snuggle anymore in the car like we used to?”
And the husband, with his hands still on the wheel, gently gave the only answer to that question that he could. “I haven’t moved…”
He was in the same spot he always was. He was just as available for snuggling, but over time, things got between them, whether it was a drive-in meal, or later a kid, there was a lot of time in the car when the couple wasn’t nearly as close as they had been at the beginning of their relationship.
The husband hadn’t moved, but there was still stuff between them, and they weren’t close enough to snuggle.
And that kid running up the aisle brought it all back – how she’d simply eliminated everything, at a full run, between her and her daddy, so she could be close to him, and snuggle.
My eyes are closed as I write this, remembering…
“Let’s bow our heads in prayer…”
She ran, yes, ran, up to see her Daddy.
And when she got to him, he didn’t scold her for disturbing the prayer. And just like the prodigal son’s father, he did something much, much better. He scooped his little girl up and hugged her – while hankies dabbed at some of the 400 eyes who realized what a miracle they’d just been privileged to see.