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We’ve been fighting the creeping crud for a couple of weeks and seemed to finally be turning the corner on it. It had not been a fun experience, and I would not wish it on anyone, but the other day, it reminded me of a time about 12 years ago, when I had a very sick little boy, and as I was sitting there on the edge of his bed, wishing I could make him feel better, he said 5 words that at that moment, with my mind foggy with taking care of him, stumped me.
He said, “Papa, tell me a story.”
I wracked my brain, trying to come up with something, then heard the first four words below come out of my mouth, and then just hung on for the ride…
“Fred was a dragon.”
Uh… Right… where do I go from here?
(My son was really into dragons at the time, had a Folkmanis dragon puppet he loved – he called him Drako, after the movie – I gave him the voice of Sean Connery – which, after a little practice, I did quite well) I held Drako, who eagerly listened to the story of Fred as I went on.
I was still baffled at where I was going to go with the story, but I plowed ahead valiantly…
“A nice dragon, but a dragon nonetheless.”
One night Fred had some trouble falling asleep, as he had somehow come across some knights that had on a new type of armor, and eating them was giving him some serious indigestion.
So Fred tossed and turned that night (which is bad, since when a 35 foot dragon tosses and turns, it tends to break anything in its path).
Another problem came with that indigestion.
Not just your gentle “Oh, pardon me” type of a burp, but a rip snorting full blown gonzo whopper of a burp.
If this had been you or me burping, or even one of those knights, it would have been different.
But Fred was a Dragon.
And rip snorting full blown gonzo dragon burps are things to be seen.
From a distance.
From a Long distance. Like maybe the next mountain top over.
Another thing about dragon burps is that — well you have to know a little science for this one…
About this time, the light, so to speak, went on in my head, and I had an idea where the story was going to go.
I asked Michael, “You know how a rocket blows fire out one end and goes in the other direction?”
“The same thing happens with dragon burps. And by the time Fred had burped a couple of times he was blasted so far back into the cave from them that he could barely breathe.
I’d say, “You can’t make this stuff up,” – but that’s exactly what I was doing. I had no idea where the story was coming from.
I plunged onward…
“He decided he needed to get out, maybe fly around a bit, and get some fresh air.”
So he got up and started heading for the cave opening.
Now getting up and walking caused several things to happen, one of which was that all that rumbling and growling in his tummy, that had been causing burps, moved a little further down past his tummy, and those things that had been burps were about to become something else, coming out of Fred’s — uh, ‘other end’.
Where they’re no longer called ‘burps’.
“After woozily making it up to the mouth of the cave, Fred stood there for some time, resting and breathing deeply the fresh air at the top of the mountain until he felt he could walk, or maybe even fly.”
“That’s it,” thought Fred. “A night flight would be an excellent idea!”
And so Fred started his takeoff run.
At first it wasn’t a run, it was barely a walk. (he was still a little woozy, you know) and then it became a sort of a lumbering trundle (this would be faster than a walk, but not quite a run yet).
While this was happening on the outside, on Fred’s inside other things were happening. All of those things that Fred had eaten that were giving him the indigestion (all the knights and that new armor and so on) were rumbling together faster and faster, and it was building up to one pretty good sized burp, or something else, depending on where it was inside Fred at the time.
That lumbering trundle became a bit of a run, and Fred started flapping his wings, as all dragons must do to take off.
Except Fred was so woozy that he wasn’t flapping fast enough.
And he was coming close to the edge of the mountaintop.
As all pilots know, this was a dangerous place to be, hurtling along at a run directly toward the edge without enough speed or flapping to actually fly. He flapped harder, and tried to run faster, but for a long, scary moment, it looked like he wasn’t going to make it.
And then several things happened so fast that it was hard to tell which happened first.
Fred, by now getting scared more than any dragon really had a right to be be, took a deep breath and held it as he put all his energy into running as fast as he could.
At that same moment, all of the knights and armor and stuff had rumbled together so fast that a burp was coming.
Not an ordinary burp, but a rip snorting full blown gonzo whopper of a burp.
And right then, Fred got to the edge of the mountaintop and tried to give it one last push to get into the air.
And he stumbled.
The claw on the big toe of his right rear foot hit a rock. A small rock, really, but a special rock. This was the kind of rock that sparked when you hit it with things like dragon claws.
And at that same moment, the burp finally came out.
Except Fred had just held his breath to run.
So Fred couldn’t burp. And it had to go *somewhere*
This burp came out, only most folks don’t call it a burp when it comes out *that* end of a dragon.
I then asked Michael, “Remember when I told you about the rocket? And how when the fire comes out in one direction the rocket moves in the other?”
He nodded, paying attention..
“And do you remember how when Fred sneezed it blew him back into the cave?”
He nodded again – and I continued.
“Well, this didn’t blow him back into the cave. “
It blasted him straight up into the air. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING on the top of that mountain, was singed by the blast.
Trees no longer had leaves on them.
Bushes no longer had branches on them.
Even Small furry animals no longer had fur on them.
But Fred wasn’t aware of any of that.
In fact, Fred, who moments before had been worried about even being able to take off, was hurtling through the atmosphere faster than any dragon had ever flown.
His eyes were watering, his lips were almost blubbering from the wind and he was just beginning to get control of his wings when he saw the bird.
The bird, on the other hand, lost control of everything when it saw Fred.
Here it was, flying peacefully along on a cool evening, enjoying the stars, the wind, the scenery, when up through this cloud came this –
– and the sound of the startled dragon scream could be heard throughout the valley below.
In fact, the smell of roasted bird and burnt feathers could be smelled for some time, too.
Fred was climbing so fast that nothing in front of him could hear him, and eventually, as he started gliding down and wiped the bird doo-doo out of his eyes, he realized he was above the clouds, and had no idea where he was or how to get home.
He kept gliding, in circles, until he saw a glow in the clouds, and headed toward that, thinking it might help him find his mountaintop.
And he was right… it did make it easier to spot.
His mountaintop was the only one on fire.
Fred didn’t realize it that evening, but he’d just done the first rocket assisted takeoff in dragon history.
People from miles around still talk about it.
They say the top of the mountain caught fire, and well it did.
Only now you know (with credit to Paul Harvey) the rest of the story.
And my little boy was asleep.
© 2012 Tom Roush
It was a Friday, well after lunchtime, after a week of trying to patch servers, some of them fast, some of them unbelievably slow. In fact, this one box was so slow – I swear, if the electrons had been lemmings, they’d have been asking for directions at the top of the dang cliff. Sigh…
(Side note: If you don’t get that reference, it comes from the notion that lemmings do these mass suicide things by jumping off cliffs, having to ask for directions to do something that should come as naturally as falling off a log – or in this case, cliff. If you’re curious, you can find out where this started by looking here, and here. We now return you to your regularly scheduled story, already in progress.)
Among other things, it was a week of hurry up and wait, with the adrenaline and pressure of the tasks at hand helping to keep me awake, but the constant waiting was making it more than just a little challenge to add the word “alert” to that.
And that Friday morning, one that seemed to be a couple of days long all by itself, I just had to get away from those lemmings – or electrons – whatever they were. I was going to get some coffee, but realized that no amount of caffeine, even in Seattle, was going to help, and going down to the lunchroom to nuke my “gourmet” can of soup just wasn’t going to cut it.
Besides, nuking meant I’d be dealing with those fool electron/lemming things again.
And who knew, if the microwave saw me coming, at the going rate, it’d probably take 2 hours to nuke a can of soup.
I had to get away from the electrons, really.
I needed to get outside…
I needed to breathe real air that hadn’t been breathed (brothe?) all up already.
And so I went.
Down the elevator to the lobby.
Down the stairs to the door.
Through the alley to the little grassy shortcut to the sandwich shop I’d been to once before.
Also in the shortcut was a young lady walking her dog – a little black blob with legs – at the end of her leash, doing what little dogs do in the rare grassy areas in the city – and I have to say, this was one of the friendliest dogs I’d seen in years. Without knowing me, he came over, said hi, asked me how my day was going… How’s the wife and kids? Job treating you okay? How ‘bout those M’s? – I mean the whole nine yards. He was the warmest, cuddliest, most lovable little ball of fuzz I’d ever seen, and he simply did the thing that pets are so good at.
He just loved me to pieces.
He was also the ugliest little dog I’d ever seen in my life.
My Grampa used to try to convince me that dogs like that had squished noses because they had run into walls when they were puppies before their noses had hardened.
And if that were true, this dog had definitely hit the wall.
The other thing about this dog was that his eyes were all catty-wompus (doggy-wompus?) to the point where if he’d been standing in Kansas and facing north, his left eye would be looking toward Seattle, his right one toward Boston. (wait… that explains the running into walls thing – he couldn’t see a dang thing straight out front…)
But he just loved the stuffing out of me, to the point where I could just feel the fuzz therapy gently allowing the weariness drift away as he climbed all over me.
The fuzzball’s owner patiently explained that he loved everyone, and this was how he said hi… No territoriality with him, no ego, no, “I’m better than you.”
Just pure, unadulterated love.
I’d been calling him ‘puppy’ during the whole encounter, and was taken aback at her answer when I’d asked his name.
I couldn’t figure out why someone would name this little fuzzbucket Rasputin.
For those of you who don’t know – Rasputin was a fellow in Russia many years ago who, it seemed, had gotten some very powerful people very upset, to the point where they saw him as a problem that needed to be solved once, in a particularly final way.
He apparently didn’t get that memo, and – well – refused to go along with it.
What’s rather intriguing about this whole thing is that most often when someone “writes a memo” of that nature and directs it at you, it’s generally not something you can refuse to go along with – but it turns out, he did…
They tried to poison him with enough poison for 5 men.
It didn’t faze him – to the point where while they were waiting for him to die, he was sitting there, kind of bored, playing a guitar. And they were worried. I mean – enough poison for 5 people and he wasn’t showing ANY effects?
This was a little spooky.
So they shot at him, they – wait, they didn’t shoot *at* him, they *shot* him, He fell down, and they figured their problems were solved and it was time to celebrate, so they got drunk… Sometime later, out of morbid curiosity, I suppose, one of them went back to check on him… To – get this – see if he was still dead, – and – well, to use one of Billy Crystal’s lines in “The Princess Bride” he was “mostly” dead.
…but not quite dead enough to keep from getting up and trying to choke the guy who was checking on him.
Okay, we’re past ‘a little spooky’ now…
In fact, I don’t know about you, but that would just freak me right out…
Do not pass go…
Do not collect $200.00…
Go directly to freaked…
So given that they were now running on pure adrenaline and blind freakiness, they shot and – well, just know they did all sorts of bad things to him and he kept getting up and refusing to die. They finally tied him up, wrapped him in a blanket, and threw him in the Malaya Nevka River in hopes that he would just simply drown, because it was obvious that bullets, poison and the other more complicated things just weren’t going to do the job.
Just a note about this concept of drowning.
This was in St. Petersburg.
The river was frozen.
It seemed like they’d have to wait till the spring thaw to drown him, but apparently they were lucky and found a hole in the ice and dumped him in, wrapped in that blanket, and they finally, it seemed, “solved” the problem they had with him.
So… by now I’m sure you’re wondering, “What on earth does this dead guy from Russia have to do with the little fuzzbucket who was loving me to pieces?”
Well, not much, other than having the name in common, he also has an irrepressible urge to live.
And as I got up – and the little black fuzzball on the end of a leash went his way and I went mine, I found myself hoping that the ugly little dog that I met on the way to lunch that day would far outlive his namesake, and would be able to spread his brand of love for the rest of his life.
One of the things I’ve noticed about owning an old Saab is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING has a story around it.
The Saab this story’s about is my 1968 Saab 96. It’s been in a few stories, brought me through more than a few adventures, and in general, been a pretty dependable car.
It came with a V-4 engine (half a V-8) and a one barrel carburetor that got me about 27 miles per gallon. It was enough for smooth power, but not a lot of it.
One of the things I’d wanted to do for years was put a two barrel carb on it – which would allow the engine to ‘breathe’ more easily. Allowing an engine to breathe more easily made it more efficient, (it also meant more power 🙂 …and if you’re thinking of cars, and breathing, between the carburetor, which did the inhaling, and the engine, which needed the air, was a hunk of metal known as an intake manifold. This was basically a cast collection of tubes that allowed the air from the carburetor to be divvied up and sent to each of the four cylinders that needed the air and provided the power. The one thing I needed in addition to the two barrel carburetor was one of these intake manifolds so all the pieces could come together. So over a few years I managed to find a manifold – as I recall, it came from a junkyard in Germany. I then found a carb on ebay, and was going to put the two together only to find that the carb was old and in desperate need of rebuilding.
It turns out that everything that could be worn out on this carb, was worn out on this carb. And… it had been dropped, and that meant it would have a bit of a vacuum leak if I wasn’t able to fix it. (that’s known, in technical terms, as a bad, but fixable thing). But, it was worth a try, so I bought a gallon of carburetor cleaner like I’d seen in a shop years ago, and just soaked the carb in it. That way everything that the cleaner could get to, would be gotten to, and then I could start this whole rebuilding process with clean parts and a rebuild kit. I needed good weather for it because you generally don’t work on car parts on the kitchen table (don’t ask why I know this, but it involves a friend’s motorcycle and the kitchen door catching fire… but that’s another story for another time), and one day, when it was sunny outside and I had some free time, I decided I’d actually do the cleaning bit, so to get started, I read the instructions on the can…
…and the thing that gets me about reading labels like that is “Why do the contents of the can only cause cancer in laboratory rats in California? I mean, is there something magical about laboratory rats in Seattle?”
Right. Bottom line, stay upwind of the stuff, don’t get any on you, and for heaven’s sake, don’t get any in the house.
I read a bit more, and found that the cleaner was to be used between 70 and 110 degrees.
The problem was it was 20 degrees outside.
No more, no less…
But 20 degrees was clearly on the “a little too cool” side of making this stuff effective, so I tried to figure out a way to warm it up without causing problems… I mean, the stuff’s evil, nasty, flammable, whatever… I had to come up with some way of heating it carefully so that I could get it up to operating temperature. After some thought, I got a pot of water and put it on to boil, figuring that the cleaner had been sitting there in the garage for weeks, and it’d take some heat to warm it up to somewhere between the required 70 and 110 degrees to make it work. I figured I’d just put the gallon can of carb cleaner into a 5 gallon bucket, then put the hot water in the bucket and safely heat everything up.
Oh, if you’re reading this, you know dang well that there’s a story here…
I poured the first pot of water into the bucket, it covered the bottom of the bucket up to a couple of inches. Figuring that wasn’t enough, I went inside to heat up some more water.
It took a little bit to heat that second batch up, and I took it outside as soon as it was ready, but by the time I got out there with the water, the gallon of carb cleaner was boiling out over the top of the can inside the bucket, and it was well into eating the label off the can. (see picture).
It became fairly clear that the reason for the 110 degree limit was that that was the boiling temperature of carb cleaner – and if it ate the label off the freaking can, I didn’t want anything to do with it…
For whatever reason, the plastic bucket didn’t care about the carb cleaner, and the cleaner that had boiled over was sitting down at the bottom of the bucket – under the water. But gosh, you’d think they’d make the label out of something a little more durable or something…
I ended up putting the bucket in the very back of the Buick station wagon we had at the time to take it to a hazmat place here in the city. It was a little surreal to be driving there in the station wagon, with my son, who was still in a car seat at the time, just chatting away, only to get out and hand the bucket to a guy who was dressed in a full-on hazmat suit.
But we got rid of it, and that was a good thing.
I later put the carb itself on E-bay, wrapped in several layers of plastic that it didn’t dissolve, with a warning that it would smell like carburetor cleaner…
As I recall, a fellow in Utah bought it along with the rebuild kit I’d gotten for it, because, as it turned out, it would fit his Lotus. I told him everything about it, and he still wanted it. In the end, he was happy, because it made his car run. I was happy because the carburetor was miles away, and I was to the point where I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Later, I just bought a new carburetor instead of trying to rebuild the old one, and put that on the intake manifold. I worked with Rob at Scanwest Autosport to make a linkage for it, and the car could inhale, deeply.
Now I had to figure out how to get it to exhale fully.
I’d learned that having an MSS (Motorsport Services) exhaust system on a Saab V4 was worth about 10 horsepower, and since the exhaust was pretty toasted anyway, I saved up my money and ordered one. The problem was that, if you’ve ever owned a Saab with a V-4 engine, there’s kind of a metal donut between the heads of the engine and the exhaust manifolds that allows everything to fit together. But the holes didn’t quite match up right. The exhaust came out of each head of the engine through a hole that was about 1 ¼ inch in diameter. The gasket that was between the head and our donut had a 2 inch hole in it. The diameter of the exhaust headers was also 2 inches, but the hole inside the donut was only 1 ¼ inch, all that breathing-exhaling stuff we were doing was nothing but huffing and puffing until that was fixed (because the car was trying to push lots of exhaust through 1 ¼ inch holes when it had a 2 inch pipe it could go through – it’s like putting your thumb over a garden hose) so that had to be fixed… I figured that if the gasket were the right size, then everything else should be that size, including that 1 ¼ inch donut hole.
I wasn’t sure how to do this, I didn’t have a machine shop, but then I found a fellow named Dan who did this kind of work.
On big engines.
I’d taken the heads off my Saab engine to get them down there to him to get hardened valve seats put in there so the car would run on unleaded gas, and he laughed as he looked at the valves that came off them. They looked like little toys in comparison to the engines he normally worked on. Some of the valve stems on the engines he normally worked on were 14 inches long, and the valves themselves were, I’m going to guess about 4 inches across. (by comparison, the valve stems on the Saab engine were about 5 inches long, and the valves 1 1/2 inches across).
The thing I learned quickly about Dan was that he came across as gruff as all get-out on the outside, but was a marshmallow on the inside.
I found out he liked Sprite, so I made it a point to stop by the shop on the way home from work a couple of nights a week, just to see how things were going. I wasn’t in a hurry, in fact, I was more interested in learning about the magic of turning a hunk of metal into something useful than getting it done fast, and Dan was a willing teacher.
And we talked… about life, about our families, about work, and friends, and how important it was to have them. I remember telling him how much fun it was to just be there in a machine shop, where things were actually made, which was so different from being in an IT department as a database administrator, which I was at the time.
To see him use all those tools he had at his disposal and make useful things out of raw metal was a treat. I mean, he could point to something and say, “I made that.”
He could reach out and touch it.
It was real.
But he kept saying I had to be smarter than he was because I worked with computers.
I told him, “Dan, you take these hunks of metal that are just that, hunks of metal, and you MAKE something of them. I work all day pissing off electrons. You tell me who’s smarter.”
He laughed, but I was serious.
It took a while, but I think it sunk in. I mean, I worked very hard at making sure the right electrons got pissed off, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t have anything to show for it, so chatting with Dan, in his shop, surrounded by all his tools, not a computer in sight, was a real treat for me. Not only did he teach, but he let me do some of the work myself. In one case, he was looking for the right drill bit in the mass of bits and taps and dies and all sorts of things he had on massive workbenches, and the sound of him rummaging around was so close to the sound of a kid looking through a pile of Legos that I just had to smile.
Eventually he did find the right drill bit, wiped it on his overalls, and popped it into the drill for me, then stood there, patiently, as I drilled out the new brass valve guides that he’d hammered into the heads.
One day when I came in with the can of Sprite, he was almost done. He’d installed the hardened valve seats and ordered valves to fit the extra-large holes he’d let me drill, and about a week later, the heads were finished. I put them on the car, where they are to this day.
But on that last day, when I was picking them up, I asked him what I owed, and he just waved me off.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“This was fun for me. Don’t worry about it.”
And he wouldn’t take my money.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe what he was doing, but it turned out that for Dan there was more value in something as simple as conversation than there was in a collection of little oval pictures of dead presidents.
I put the engine back together, and in doing so, was able to combine the heads on my Swedish car with the intake manifold from that junkyard in Germany and that two barrel carburetor from wherever it was made, along with the MSS exhaust system from Jamestown, New York, and I drove it down to the shop to show him, so he could hear how his work that connected all the different parts came together.
He listened to the rough idle, hearing music he’d helped make, and smiled as I revved it and it smoothed out. And I thanked him and shook the hand of a true craftsman.
For some time afterwards, I’d stop by every now and then to say hi, and if he wasn’t there, I’d just leave a can of Sprite sitting on the doorknob for him to let him know I was thinking about him.
A few years passed, I changed jobs, his shop wasn’t on the way to work anymore, and life happened. I didn’t see him for a long time, but a few months ago, my son had a problem with a metal part he was working on, and I thought it was time to introduce him to someone who could make metal do anything, so we got a cold can of Sprite and headed down the road to see Dan.
But it turned out Dan wasn’t there anymore.
His son was, and told us that his dad had had to give up the shop, and that it was going to be sold to their biggest customer in the next few months.
I looked around, and while I could sense his presence in all of his tools, and in no small way, in his son, standing there in front of me, I realized the spirit of the place had changed. Not only wouldn’t I see Dan again, at least the Dan I knew, but the shop, with all its familiar machinery, would soon be gone, too.
My son didn’t quite understand the catch in my voice as I asked Dan’s son if he’d take the Sprite to his dad and tell him it was from an old friend, the one with the little blue Saab. The one that he’d made go a lot better, a little faster, and just a touch louder.
© Tom Roush, 2012