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I was going through some old photos awhile back from when I was in Sidney, Ohio, and my mind started wandering through the memories.
Going through this one set of negatives (yes, really, and they were black and white, too), I’d been shooting high school baseball – a tournament all the way down in Dayton, and the kids were out there playing, I had been by the field and had watched with everyone, as a storm came in. While the game was going on, I could see the officials huddled off to one side trying to decide when or if to call the game. They were paying close attention to the storm.
It turns out that thunderstorms in the Midwest are common, far more than they are here in the Pacific Northwest, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did have the sense to climb down from the aluminum bleachers I was on as even I knew that lightning struck the highest object first. And, given that I’d been standing on the top bleacher, leaning against the rail at the back – yeah… it was time to come down where it was a little safer.
I’d just gotten to the ground and was standing near the first base line when I heard a loud “Tick” and looked out past the first baseman in time to see a lightning bolt blow a tree apart just past the right field fence.
It was close enough to other things that I could actually gauge the size of the bolt, at least 8 inches across, and the thunder was absolutely instant.
Needless to say, the game was cancelled. Enough kids get killed by lightning every year that they take it pretty seriously in Ohio, so the kids were running in full tilt before the bits and pieces of the tree even hit the ground. The parents hustled them to the cars when they got close, and then the rain came pouring down so fast the only thing missing was the Ark…
I got all my camera gear into the car, tossing it onto the passenger’s seat of my ’79 Ford Fairmont, and started the trip up Interstate 75 to the newspaper in Sidney where I’d process the film and get photos ready for the next day’s edition.
The rain, by now, was pretty brutal, and the lighting was constant, to the point where I got to wondering how bright it actually was, so while the traffic was stopped on the freeway, I rummaged around in the camera bag for my light meter that I used to adjust camera settings for Studio Strobe lights, and put it up on the dash.
And then I set it to wait for the next flash.
Which happened about 4 seconds later.
Which, when the light meter was set for ISO 400 film in the camera, registered an f/8.0 aperture.
Meaning if you set the lens to that aperture, the lightning would expose the film perfectly.
Which tied in to what they used to say in Grad School: the best way to get a shot was “f/8 and be there” – Because f/8 stopped down the lens enough (think of the lens as squinting) to sharpen things up if you didn’t have the lens completely in focus, but didn’t ‘squint’ so hard that it darkened things to the point you couldn’t see them.
And the lightning gave you enough light to take the picture.
Without either of them, neither of them worked.
f/8 and be there…
Even if it’s in the middle of a storm.
I pondered some more, but my curiosity satisfied, I put the light meter back in the camera bag and concentrated on traffic, driving, and just plain seeing the taillights in front of me. It was a pretty bad storm, honestly… Eventually I got back to the paper and developed the film in the darkroom and did indeed get something for the next day’s paper.
I’d have other experiences with lightning later on, at other newspapers, but it was during one moment that’s lost to time that I got to thinking about storms, and specifically thunderstorms, and the lessons they could teach us.
See, when I was little, we lived in Illinois, where the storms were similar to the ones in Ohio.
I knew other kids who were scared of storms, and like them, we’d all head into mom and dad’s bedroom when the thunder woke us up.
But mom didn’t feed the fear at all. We went there because that bedroom had the best view of the storms, and since dad worked nights, mom would always invite us up onto the bed or over to the window and say, “Ooh, let’s look at the lightning!”
And we did – and we were fascinated with how clear and sharp everything was in that brilliant flash, and how the darker the storm got, the clearer we could see when the lightning hit.
And it got me thinking.
Last December here in Seattle, we lived up to our reputation for rain and got enough of it here in the lowlands in three weeks to overcome a summer’s worth of drought. The mountains got eight feet of snow in one week. In fact, there was enough rain out on the Olympic Peninsula to put out a forest fire that had been burning all summer.
It was… a lot of rain.
And the storms in life sometimes come softly – like that snow – you don’t realize it’s an issue until you can’t get out of your driveway, or walk down the street.
Sometimes they come faster – like those rain storms in December where there were days where we had an inch or two of rain a day, for a long time… The land couldn’t soak it up fast enough, and there were consequences, the flooding that happened right away, and landslides that happened later.
But some of those consequences could come almost instantly – with very little or no warning. Like there would be if you were standing on the top of an aluminum set of bleachers and idly noticed clouds coming in a little faster than you were expecting.
I learned that sometimes, you can be out in the worst weather – and find yourself absolutely terrified by it – but then realize that the lightning in that dark storm gives you a clarity of vision that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
The lightning may be scary, but it’s also amazing in how it clears things up…
…the lightning has struck before, and I – we – we learned from it that time.
Well, those times.
And of course, it all got me thinking some more…
See, I’m going through a storm myself as I write this – and it’s close. It’s close enough to where the lightning and thunder happen at the same time – and it’s disorienting.
I don’t have the clarity that I’d like to have right now.
There are times when I am flummoxed at where God is during some of these storms. I’ve seen so many variations of answers in all of this that with the other things that have happened in my life I’m never sure whether to be upset when the answer to a prayer I have isn’t the one I’m expecting…
…or the one I want…
But the answer…
It will come.
I just need to remember the lessons I learned many years ago looking out mom’s bedroom window, and the lessons I learned standing on top of a bunch of aluminum bleachers, and lessons we’ve learned more recently, going through our own storms…
…I guess another way to look at it is you can either be terrified of the lightning or you can let the lightning bring you wisdom and clarity.
Deal with what you can.
When you can.
With the information you have.
And the resources you have.
I guess you could add to that:
Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t deal with. Just work with what you can…
Those of you who read the Bible might be familiar with this verse from Matthew 6:34 (NIV)
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
So very true.
So instead of focusing so much on the worries of tomorrow…
Be there today.
…instead of focusing on the regrets of yesterday…
Be there today.
It’s far easier to say it than it is to do it, but if you were a photographer, that’s another way of saying “f/8 and be there”
So… I guess the biggest thought in all of this is that I’m not so much waiting for the lightning as much as I’m searching for it.
And the clarity that comes from a bright flash of lightning in a dark storm.
Take care, folks…
Questions from my son tend to add a little different perspective to the stories I’ve told him.
If you’ve been reading them long, you know that there’s a certain classification of stories involving “Stupid Things that Papa Did When He Was Little”.
They’re the kinds of stories that I can safely tell in the first person…
(think about that – it’s important)
So when my son asked, “So just how many fires did you actually set in the house when you were growing up?” – and I honestly had to think my way through them and keep track on my fingers, I knew I needed to write the stories down. So, just a recap of the times I almost burned the house down (note: some of these stories have been written, some are in the backlog)…
Let’s see… there’s:
- the time the bed caught fire, (still need to write this one – it was an aluminum pilot’s bunk from the USS Ticonderoga… No, really.)
- the time I lit the fire in the wood stove, with gasoline. (I don’t recommend this),
- the time the candle holder caught fire (design issue anyone?) and set the set of Encyclopedias, the shelves they were on, on fire, and dripped flaming plastic onto the desk underneath them, setting it on fire as well, (Yup, need to write this one, too…)
- the time I came very close to doing the Olympic Torch run through the house with a highway flare as I was trying to put out another fire.
- …and of course there was the – well, let’s not give away the punchline, shall we?
I was still living at home with my folks and sisters, and it had been a Saturday of yard work and gardening and just general cleanup. I’d gotten done with my part, and asked what else there was for me to do, and mom said, “Well, you could go in and make dinner. You can make the chicken.”
So I looked all over for a chicken and the only one I could find was the one frozen solid.
In the freezer.
Understand, this was an industrial level freezer. The chicken was the same consistency as the granite used by the Canadian Olympic Curling team. I imagined sliding the chicken across the floor and frantically sweeping in front of it – but while the image made me smile, I decided against hurling – or curling – the chicken…
Chances were I’d break something with it.
Besides, dinner for a hungry family was more important.
Speaking of dinner, I had to figure out how to rapidly thaw this hunk of frozen fowl. Dad had spent $600.00 on a microwave oven back then (in the ‘70’s) and gotten a good one (a Sharp) that would eventually last over 40 years, looking brand new the whole time. I hefted the chicken, still in the closed plastic bag, onto the rotating glass plate and pushed the buttons for something like 40 minutes, then turned around to peel potatoes in the kitchen sink and get some vegetables ready for the pot.
I’d gotten maybe two potatoes peeled when I sniffed that something was not quite right.
I smelled the potato I was peeling.
It was fine.
It was fine.
They smelled like… raw potatoes.
Besides, I’d washed my hands, and the chicken was frozen last time I touched – oh, the chicken – uh…
I looked up from the sink, then looked left and right, trying to remember where I’d put the chicken, and it was only when I turned around that I definitely knew something was wrong.
The chicken that I’d put in the microwave to defrost, you see…
…was on fire.
I jumped across the kitchen, hammered down on the lever to shut the microwave off, popped the door open, and grabbed the burning plastic bag the chicken was in and heaved it in the general direction of the sink. The flame made a weird flup flup flup flup flup sound (complete with Doppler effect, mind you) just before the chicken thunk-splushed into the sink, putting the fire out and splashing water and potato peels all over the place.
I turned the water I’d been peeling the potato under off so I could see the bag, and it turned out that the plastic bag had been tied shut with what was standard for the time, which was two little pieces of tape with a wire in the middle.
And the wire had gotten red hot, set the tape on fire, which set the plastic bag on fire, which then set – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it had set the chicken’s butt on fire (which reminds me of yet another story about my friend Bill – but you can read that one later).
I trimmed the burned parts off, pulled what remained of the chicken out of the bag, and put it in a glass bowl with a lid and actually read the manual for “how to defrost a chicken in the microwave” and put it back in there for awhile longer.
I looked out the window, checked on the rest of the gang, knew I had some time, so peeled some apples and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar and put them on the chicken once it was defrosted and out of the microwave, then wrapped everything in some bacon I found while I was looking for the chicken in the first place and put that in the regular oven.
While that was baking, I made some salad, boiled the potatoes, and in general, made a pretty decent dinner.
I rang the dinner bell for everyone, and pretty soon they came in.
I remember one of my sisters taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose a bit as everyone came through the door, smelling a little bit of everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.
“What’s that smell?”
And I gave the only answer I could possibly give.
“It’s, it’s the chicken.”
And… it was actually pretty good.
Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.
In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.
This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…
“So, um, where did this happen?”
“The 7-11 down by SPU.”
“Any idea when?”
“Oh, years ago.”
I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”
They didn’t get it at first.
See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…
Which I did in my kitchen.
In the sink.
With no gloves.
(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)
So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:
- close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
- hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
- hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
- clip the plywood shades into the two windows
- attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
- turn off the white light
- turn on the safelight and the fan
- take the cover off the enlarger
- pour the chemicals
…and I was ready to go.
The building was red, not gray, when I lived there – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.
So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.
The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.
But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.
And hey – it’s still there.
At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.
Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.
What could possibly go wrong?
So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of. The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.
It was a lot of work.
The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.
But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.
And I discovered three things simultaneously.
1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.
2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.
3. The fan was running.
The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.
But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.
And I was hungry.
And my burrito was cold.
I slammed the door shut and reopened it.
The light came on again.
So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.
Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”
A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”
That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.
But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…
My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.
It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.
I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people. Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked. It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.
Also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.
Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost more than $1.38.
The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place that would do what they called “Thermographs.” Basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated at the time in Delaware, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.
So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.
A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.
In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.
And I was okay with that…
Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.
Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?
Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…
Trust me on this. 😉
Okay, not physical running – but mental running & walking – keep reading, you’ll get it.
A couple of months ago, after having spent the better part of a week physically and mentally fighting off a cold, the weather was sunny enough to get out, so I went to Golden Gardens to get some Vitamin D and fresh air. I sat there in the car for a bit, not quite ready to go outside yet because it was cold and I’d been listening to a program on the radio, which was actually a fascinating story about language.
And in it, a fellow said a number of things, but the two that stood out had to do with how the brain develops mentally along with the development and understanding of language. He said something about the inability to think without having language, and I differed with him greatly in my conclusion on that – not because I had reams of academic knowledge of it, but because I had personal experience in it.
And, this may come as no surprise, but I have a story about it.
The story was here, about 20 minutes in for several weeks – I wasn’t able to get to it just now, but that’s where it was.
I abandoned my idea of walking out in the sunshine and sat there, transfixed as this fellow talked about language, about communication, and then he hit a nerve in me (here’s the program about 20 minutes in – it’s when he talks about a controversial statement) – and I found myself rocketing back in the time machine – in a way that was different than all the others.
In my writings here, I’ve written nothing but true stories.
They’ve ranged in time from WWI, WWII, the Cold War, they’ve ranged from happy ones to sad ones, wise ones and silly ones, serious and and funny ones. I’ve written about my mom’s childhood, my own childhood, my children’s childhood, all the way up to the present.
I’ve joked with people that I write non-fiction because I’m not smart enough to write fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
Some of the stories were written with years of research corroborating a half-remembered story from childhood, and some were just a snippet of life that happened as I was paying attention, and I wrote it down.
And then there’s this one.
This story is the very first I could write in the first person because it… because everything that happened before this story is pretty much lost.
Because before this story happened – I didn’t have the one thing I’m using right now, and that is language.
So I’m going to use some of the language I’ve learned since this story happened to tell you a little story about a time when I didn’t have any language to tell stories with..
My first memory is from when I was in an oxygen tent overnight in the hospital for bronchitis.
The one moment I have burned in my memory is mom and dad coming to visit me or get me and the joy I had knowing they’d come for me. I don’t have words associated with it, just joy, and just for that moment.
I remember the color of mom’s dress, the color of dad’s uniform as they stood in the doorway in the far left corner, the color of the tiles on the walls in the room, the faint smell of the rubbing alcohol and ether that was always present. And I remember the light coming in from high on the right. I remember a large counter kind of a thing, strangely in the middle of the room, and the doctor standing kind of in silhouette off to the right in front of the windows.
I kept asking my parents about it until we finally figured out where it was, but far more importantly to me, when it was.
And it turns out the only thing that fit was that hospital visit.
When I was six months old.
That’s me, and my sister.
A little older than that memory, but a little younger than the next one.
And it’s hard for me to understand, looking at that photo, that kids – babies – of that age can actually comprehend stuff and have thoughts and feelings and ponderings and not just react to instincts and impulses…
But I was one of them once, and I still have the memories..
I have a few other memories of that time – all of them raising more questions in me than they answer. The next one I have very clearly is of our first trip to Germany. Dad had orders to go to one place, and for the first part of the trip, we were on the same plane. I was on mom’s lap and remember looking across the aisle at him, and how proud I was of him in his uniform, with the sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve..
…and while mom remembers the flight as me having a tremendous earache and crying, I remember one moment of it being very quiet, and in that moment, as I turned to look forward, I had this thought:
“I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life?”
Understand there is significance of this, because dad spoke English and mom spoke German, and as kids, we were learning English and German at the same time.
And I remember having this thought.
The question asked has been partially answered by roughly half a century of – well – life, but the answer is not as revealing as the question that still baffles me.
How would I, being 18 months or so old at that time, know that I had life ahead of me?
If I knew life was ahead of me, that meant I had a sense of time, and my place in it.
If I knew that there was something, some things before me, what are the faded memories of those that were behind me?
How would, how could I know that things would happen?
There was a sense of understanding that the future existed long before you’d think a kid would be even capable of having thoughts like this.
Come to think of it – what about being proud of my dad? It wasn’t any other emotion… I was proud of my dad. But how could I explain that one? How could I, at 18 months, explain the sense of happiness in someone else’s accomplishments or achievements? Just trying to explain that would also mean that I could be aware of the opposite, someone else’s failings. Pride in their accomplishments would be happiness that those accomplishments, and not the failings, happened.
The more I thought about it – the more baffling it became.
And the questions kept coming: Who was I directing this question to? Or was it just me thinking to myself?
How did I know that there were options as far as what might actually happen that hadn’t happened yet?
Why did this thought come to me, fully formed, in English and not German?
I couldn’t talk verbally at the time, but I could clearly think.
I remember when we got to Germany – and when our uncle picked us up from the airport in his blue Volvo (I remember because of the bar speedometer I saw years later in my sister’s Volvo) . But it’s that little boy up there in that photo who remembers these things, not just the adult. It makes me wonder about memory, about the things we do remember, and what it takes to actually remember them.
And I realized that one could have thought, or thoughts, without language, but maybe what the person in the radio program was trying to say was that one couldn’t express those thoughts very well without words. Along that line, I remember once, years later – having a fascinating idea that literally came to me in a flash: again, fully formed, poof, there it was. It took hours to explain it. And it makes me wonder how language can allow us to express thoughts and communicate them. But at the same time, it feels tremendously slow and inadequate sometimes. There are times when words – well, when words are not adequate, and, going back much earlier, when words simply didn’t exist.
I remember very clearly, at about the time of that photo up there – actually it was likely earlier, being able to communicate with other kids my age.
Before we were able to use language.
I remember just… knowing not just what I was thinking and feeling, but what they were thinking and feeling, and we were able to let each other know that.
Please understand, I have no idea how this worked. And I can’t tell you what, if any, language we were using. I just know that it did work. I also know that as I learned to use both English and German, my ability to communicate with other kids like that faded, and I remember the ability to do it like one remembers a long lost, half-forgotten treasure, and much as I wanted to, still not quite being sure how it worked.
All this is from within about a year of that photo up there.
And that question about, “I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life” – that one still pops up now and then… the philosophical areas one could explore with that, the nature of ‘self’ and the whole ‘nature/nurture’ discussion – where we’re a product of both our nature – (genetics and the like) and the way we were brought up (nurture)… I wonder about that because there was far more nature than nurture at that time, but these thoughts, these ponderings, seem to me to be right at the border of nature and nurture.
And I still ponder…
And I still have questions…
The bus just rumbled slowly past the house, and it brought back a fun memory that I thought I’d share.
A number of years ago I’d started following in my ancestor’s footsteps and was making bread – the kind out of wheat and yeast and stuff. My family all got together and decided that Christmas would have a theme, and so that year got a bread making machine, a 50 pound bag of flour, and a monstrous bag of yeast.
So I started making – well, baking bread with the machine.
You could set it in the evening with the ingredients, and then set the timer, and in the morning, my nose would rouse me from my slumber with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.
There are worse ways to wake up.
So I did that for awhile, and as with anything fun, eventually I got confident enough in what I was doing to share the bounty – so I decided to take some to work.
So one Thursday night I put all the ingredients in, set the timer, and went to bed, knowing that Friday morning I’d have freshly baked bread to take to work with me on the bus.
Oh, yeah, the bus. Taking a loaf of freshly baked bread wrapped in a towel onto a bus full of sleepy commuters wakes them right up… I could see people sniffing and trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. (the loaf was in a bag, wrapped in a towel, under my seat)
I was sitting right by the regular driver who had the window beside him open, drawing air out of the bus right past his nose, and once the bus was moving, he was surrounded by the freshly baked bread smell to the point where he would look around at every stop, trying to figure out where it was coming from.
So I told him I’d made some and was taking it to work.
We talked the rest of the trip about our moms and growing up and – well, talking about fresh bread made us feel, how coming home to that smell just made the whole day better, so before I got off, I asked him if he’d like some the next time I baked a loaf. I didn’t need to ask – the answer was obvious in his eyes.
“You like homemade jam? I have some grape jam from my mom that’s pretty good.”
He had to work hard at not drooling – it was clear that the combination would make his Monday morning something to look forward to, and he took one last deep breath as I got off the bus and headed to work.
Sunday evening came, and I set everything so it would be ready just in time to have the bread ready when the bus pulled up.
And I’d know when it pulled up, because that bus had one very squeaky brake, so I knew that when I heard that brake, I had about a minute to get out of the house and down to the bus stop before it pulled away.
But I’d miscalculated by a couple of minutes the night before, and I was just getting the bread out of the bread maker when I heard the squeak.
Oh no… I’d promised – and was counting down the time he’d normally be there waiting before he took off… I might be able to catch the next bus, but most important was catching this driver.
I got the bread and jam out of the fridge.
And heard the bus engine still idling.
I cut a slice of bread, nice and soft on the inside and crusty on the outside.
I heard the air brakes hiss.
I spread the butter on the bread, and it started to melt.
I heard the door hiss closed.
The bus kept idling – then started to take off, ever so slowly.
At that moment – I knew he’d been looking forward to that bread, so I ran to the window just in time to see the bus go by at about five miles an hour, and could see the driver looking up at the house, searching.
I waved the slab of bread at him, still without jam, and he saw it and stopped the bus.
I grabbed a napkin, put the bread on it, slathered the jam on, grabbed my stuff, and ran out the door. He’d stopped just barely past the house. I ran down the driveway, and he’d opened the back door. I ran in, ran all the way to the front, and went down on one knee, presenting him the freshly baked bread and jam on a napkin like a knight might present a sword to a king.
His smile was worth it – and he took it gratefully.
I stood up, turned around, and the entire bus applauded.
I took a bow, then took a seat, and another Monday began.
With many smiles.
It was a fun enough story that I sent a note to Jean Godden, then a columnist for the Seattle Times who loved little tidbits like this – and she liked it enough to put it in one of her columns.
Eventually that driver was transferred to another route, and I didn’t see him again until one day years later I was at the Seattle Center with my son, and heard a voice, “Hey! Mr. Bread Man!” –
Turns out it was my old bus driver – who remembered that story after all this time. We talked, we laughed, and reminisced a bit.
Life had moved on for us both. He was working for the Red Cross somewhere in Seattle, and I never got to know his name.
As for me? I was Mr. Bread Man.
And you know? I’m okay with that.
So wherever you are, Mr. Bus Driver, Mr. Bread Man hopes life has treated you well.
Our scout troop has sold Christmas trees at a church parking lot every year for about the last 75 years.
I last wrote about it here. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was getting the best looking trees available, and a few years ago I drove a big truck down to several of the tree farms to get a fresh load of them. As I recall, at the end of that day, we ended up bringing home 435 trees. Over the course of the trip home, the trees settled a bit on the rough roads, and I remember checking the side mirrors once and was surprised to see that the sides of the truck were literally bulging. I wish I’d taken a picture of it that day, but the day was long, by that time it was dark, and many, many pictures weren’t taken.
One of the pictures that I not only didn’t take, but didn’t see, was taken by the scout dad in the troop named Dan who’s a forest geneticist, which is the best kind of guy to have as a resource when you’re trying to sell small forests of Christmas trees.
Dan would go out to the tree farm in August and hand pick the 1500 or so trees we’d be selling that year, and in doing so, he saw some things that most of us don’t see. He took the picture below, that looks pretty much like a picture of a wooded foresty place (that’s the Olympic mountain range in the background), but there’s a couple of white spots in the picture that don’t really make sense until you look move closer.
If you look at the third and fourth tree in from the left, you’ll see a small white dot on each of them. As Dan got closer, he took a picture of what those white dots really were, and you can see that in the picture below:
You see, the tree was perfect in every way, it’s just that the top, the part that can make or break the sale of a tree, was crooked, and so the grower, realizing that he had some time on his hands, tied a rock to a branch to help straighten the tree out.
So for years, the tree carried this burden. Day and night, through good weather and bad, through heavy rain and parching drought, the tree carried this weight.
The thing is, not all trees got this treatment. Some trees were pruned, all were fertilized, and some were found to be almost perfect but for this one flaw, so they were given this rock, this burden, to carry.
And over the years, the rock changed the tree. The tree got strong enough to carry the rock, but when the rock was put in the right place, the tree was both stronger and straighter. It had shown that it could indeed carry this burden, and carry it well.
And in the end, when the tree was done growing and it was time to harvest, the burden was lifted, the weight was removed, and the tree was straight and beautiful as ever.
And I saw something interesting in that. It made me wonder about the burdens we carry, and why. It made me wonder about burdens, being there just long enough for us to learn lessons, to grow straight, being lifted. And then I wondered about burdens that are there longer, that people carry, day in, day out, sometimes for years.
In fact, in the last year, I’ve learned of friends losing their jobs, and the financial hardship that comes from that.
I’ve learned of friends who were suddenly transferred to another part of the country, and the uproar that can cause in a family.
I’ve learned of friends who are losing or have lost loved ones.
And you can almost hear the branches of their trees creaking as they strain under the burden.
And I don’t understand why it seems that some folks are given burdens when others aren’t.
There are times when I don’t know if the burden they carry is one they can carry alone. In fact, there were times when the burden we as a family had to carry was more than we could handle, and I know personally that in situations like this, those struggling under those heavy burdens need support until they can stand on their own.
I thought back to that tree there in the picture. It could handle good sized rocks, and over time get strong enough to carry them and stand straight. Trying to hold up a 100 pound rock with that little branch would be another story. It’s not strong enough to handle that, and it would break.
I’ve seen this in other trees over in Eastern Washington, where instead of rocks, they were carrying such an amazing amount of fruit that their branches weren’t strong enough for that burden. The farmers growing that fruit helped brace the branches with large poles, sticks, or, for lack of a better term, crutches, until harvest time, at which point the weight is removed, and the tree is relieved of the weight, or what might be perceived as a hardship.
Without the care of the farmers, those trees would have had branches broken by burdens they were not strong enough to carry. Un-braced branches were damaged, or had broken off and fallen down, breaking other branches on the way and peeling the bark with them as they went.
It’s not pretty, and parts of the tree die when that happens.
I’ve also seen people break under burdens they weren’t strong enough to carry. Lives are damaged, people break down, and fall, causing damage to themselves or others as they go.
It’s not pretty, and parts of who that person is die when that happens too.
Understand, this doesn’t mean these people were weak. It means that as strong as they were, they weren’t strong enough for that burden, or those burdens.
There is a difference.
And it got me thinking, about trees, and support, and strength.
See, some of the trees, the evergreens, have burdens over time, for a reason.
And those trees, over the years, like the ones in the photos, develop inside support. They get stronger with each passing year they are forced to carry their burden.
By the time these trees are ready for harvest, they stand straight and tall, even though what made them that way was a heavy burden.
And some of the trees, the fruit trees have burdens that come in waves, for a season (or many seasons).
Their roots will hold them up, but to keep from breaking, they need outside support to help shoulder their burden, like the fruit trees I mentioned earlier.
Those trees, over the years, develop scars and are gnarled from the burdens they’ve carried and from the crutches supporting them, but they are strong, and have produced good fruit.
And then there’s a third type of tree, and support, and it’s not just for a reason, or a season, but a lifetime.
I’ve heard that the Redwood trees in Northern California have very shallow root systems, so any strong wind could knock a single one of them over, but because they’re in groves of trees, their roots intertwine, and they support each other. They do this without crutches to hold branches up, and they do it without rocks to hold branches down.
They curl their toes together. No, really… It’s interesting, thinking about that. Those trees, they become a community. They support each other, and when one is threatened, all the interwoven roots (the toes) are all tangled, and they hold each other up, together.
There’s a chance you, or someone like you, will spend part of your life as any one of these trees, and who knows, you might have experience with more than one type in different parts of your life.
Whether you’re an evergreen, carrying small burdens over your entire life, or fruit trees, carrying huge burdens seasonally, or whether you’re a redwood tree, reaching for the skies, but curling your toes along with those near you, help each other.
Support each other.
Be there for each other.
Forgive each other.
Take care out there, take your strength from wherever you can get it, and enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.
The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…
…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.
So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.
Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation and photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.
See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.
Those are your options.
So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.
I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…
See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.
The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.
That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.
One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.
We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.
No fan = sharp pictures.
But, there were side effects…
See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…
Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.
We checked for her.
There was no dog.
But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.
Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.
On one of the two paper cutters.
That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.
And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit. Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…
And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?
The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.
We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.
The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.
I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.
Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.
Lots and lots and lots of them.
And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.
So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.
Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.
We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.
It… was… amazing…
(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)
So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.
It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.
It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.
We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…
…and saw snow in the parking lot.
Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…
We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.
And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…
Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…
The Styrofoam packing peanuts…
As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.
There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.
The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.
I saw an old movie awhile back, and saw this fellow walking down the sidewalk, carefree, flipping a coin into the air and catching it, over and over, and laughing as he did it.
It looked like a lot of fun, that whole carefree attitude and all.
He made the coin look light and easy, and it got me thinking.
The ‘coin’ I was flipping at the time didn’t seem light and easy at all.
In fact, it seemed like the coin I was trying to flip had grown to the size and weight of a manhole cover. It was hard enough to flip, much less lift.
And then one day, I got a glimpse of what someone else was going through. Someone whose life seemed so together. They looked like they had everything they wanted in the world. A good job, to provide for a wonderful family…
But it wasn’t like that at all.
Their life was falling apart.
They were going through a breakup and their marriage, their home, their family as they knew it, was finished.
In fact, the coin I saw them flipping was clearly heavier than it looked.
I had a friend who lost a good paying IT job. For years no one would hire him. Not because he didn’t have skills, he did, and he does. He ran the entire IT department at his company, and they decided that since everything was going so well, they didn’t need him anymore. So they let him go.
He’s looked for a long time, and now has a job, but it’s changing oil for people at 1/4 the salary he was making before, has gone through his retirement account and all his savings, and is wondering where next month’s mortgage is coming from.
His coin is heavy.
Another friend, similar situation. Lost his job, tried to make it on his own. Economic downturn, real estate bubble, and they lost their house and had to move out of the home they’d had for decades.
Their coins are heavy.
A work colleague just lost his mom.
Another lost his mother-in-law.
A good friend lost his dad and had to fly out of the country while dealing with other family issues, then came back to unexpected health issues of his own.
A friend is worried about his children, their faith, their ability to find work. One has a good college degree, another has no degree and has health issues.
Neither has work.
One friend sees the path his kids are on – let’s just say there were some bad choices made that the parents warned about, and now the consequences are rearing their ugly heads.
Another friend is dealing with a chronic health issue that simply won’t go away.
Those coins are heavy.
It makes the coins I’m flipping feel so small.
So what to do?
I thought about it a little more, and realized there was a depth to the situation that wasn’t obvious on the surface.
The coin flipping ones were also making decisions, and each flip was a choice…
Do I fight this battle? (whatever the battle is, health, faith, family, job)
Do I give up?
Heads… I keep fighting.
Tails… I give up.
Do I go out swinging?
Heads… I swing.
Tails… I get knocked out.
Do I try to smile through it all?
Heads… I try to see the bright side.
…if there is no bright side, then as my son once said, I have lots of practice polishing up the dull side.
I was privileged to have friends share some of their hard and dark moments with me, and the above things I mentioned are all true – and have happened within the last few months, and it really kept me thinking. I finally came not to a conclusion, but to a realization.
Everyone has decisions to make every day that you will never see.
Sometimes their coin comes up heads, sometimes tails.
Sometimes folks have the energy to claw up the manhole cover that fell down tails and use the last bit of their strength to make it heads, and the expression on their face as they do it is no longer a smile, but a grimace.
The decisions and tasks some folks have to consciously go through are things so many are blessed to take for granted, and it takes me to these simple sentences:
Respect that others around you have their own journey even if you don’t see it.
Respect that those around you have their own struggles along that journey of theirs, and you cannot tell from the surface how difficult their journey is.
There will be some around you who have been carrying their burden so long that they’re no longer even capable of putting it down, or would know what to do if they could put it down.
Be kind to them. Be gentle with them.
And if you can, if they can, maybe put your manhole cover down next to theirs, and you can lean them together and roll them along your journey, each of you helping the other, and recovering a little as you go.
Take care out there, folks.
A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story. It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…
I was 16. My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out. We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.
“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed. We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.
Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.
To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.
With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then. (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.
That was a good thing…
Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.
See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.
The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.
What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.
So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.
My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.
The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.
Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.
So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.
We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle. It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.
I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared. In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.
And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe. When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.
And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.
We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.
And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…
Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.
So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.
It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)
I’d practiced this.
And it worked. It really worked.
See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.
I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.
If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel. It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…
The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.
As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where we’d have to turn right.
We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.
It was glorious.
A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.
Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>. We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…
And turning right was the thing to do. That was the paved road. Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.
So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.
There was only one problem with those remaining options.
Well, actually, several.
One: the turn was essentially blind…
Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.
So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found, Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).
But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…
Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)
Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.
Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.
Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.
With a bicycle.
Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.
This changed everything.
I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.
I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.
This, um, wasn’t good…
To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…
…which was good.
Except I was running out of space fast.
I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.
Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…
…which was bad.
Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.
So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.
I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?
But using it would have required having a stable bike.
(Which I didn’t have).
And enough time to grab it.
(Which I was running out of.)
And having enough distance for it to open.
(Which I already had run out of.)
I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.
Then things got interesting.
After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve. Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.
Made of steel pipe.
Embedded in concrete.
That I hit with my front wheel.
That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.
I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.
At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.
There wasn’t much to do but let him rant. I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…
The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.
We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)
Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)
We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back. We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.
Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.
It was exactly 10:30.
It got me thinking…
A lot, actually.
See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.
And maybe, maybe that’s the story.
See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
26 years earlier.
Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.
And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.
26 years earlier.
I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30? How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)
But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.
As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way. Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.
And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.
Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.
And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.
In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. 🙂
But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).
And I realized we all have people like that in our lives… People who will do their best to protect us from danger
Even if that danger is us.
I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…
How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.
And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.
But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight. Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.
The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in. The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.
I just made it late.
And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:
There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.
And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…
Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.
I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.
See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.
That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…
Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?
Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this: “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”
I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.
Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.
Take care – and thanks –
Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time. Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.
I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)
I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty. Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning. And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now. He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:
And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:
For many reasons, I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened. I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story. He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.
“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”
I rolled over in bed and my hand landed on a cold pillow.
That’s not right at any time and it woke me up. I looked around to find that the living room light was on.
At 4:00 a.m.
That was definitely not right, and I stumbled out of the bedroom without my glasses to see what was going on. My wife was sitting there in the chair by the window, curtains halfway open. Eyes red. Phone hanging listlessly in her hand.
“Are you okay?”
“My dad went to heaven a little while ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry…”
It was a Monday, and the beginning of what one might call a rough week.
I made some coffee, took the day off work, and shortly thereafter, we were using every phone in the house. My wife checked in with family back east, getting details and helping organize things while I made airline reservations and other travel arrangements to get us all there in the next few days. We’d learn much more later, but it turned out he’d passed away in his sleep. It was how he’d said he wanted to go, so amidst the shock, we were glad he’d gotten what he wanted.
We flew back east to help with some of the arrangements, and had a gathering of family and friends who came to celebrate the life of a man loved and cherished by so many. We learned a lot about family, and about how there are times when you pitch in and help even when you don’t know what do do, or how to do it. Friends and long lost family came out of the woodwork, and amidst all the grief and sadness, there was a feeling of simply being blessed by the presence of the people who were there both in body and in spirit.
There were those who listened, those who made sure there was food for all the people who showed up, and those who shared stories that made us both laugh and cry. I don’t remember all their names, but I will remember how they made us feel, and surrounded by family in the middle of chaos, we felt loved.
Soon it was time to pack up and leave where we had all gathered. We started to put things away only to realize, to our surprise, that much of the work had already been done. Done by willing hands who offered their help when it was needed, expecting nothing in return. We found that things and people had been taken back to the house. Unbidden, they just did it, and the stories, the laughter, and the tears, continued.
My wife would end up staying for several weeks to help out with the myriad of things that needed to be done, but a day or so later, it was time for me to head west again. To do that, we first had to head east about three hours through a massive rainstorm (<–news video of the storm and flooding) to get to the airport in Detroit.
Once again, the wipers were barely enough to keep the windshield clear, and the storm seemed to match physically what we were all going through emotionally. I had to block the emotion out, I’d have time on the plane to think about things. Right then, I just had to deal with driving and paying attention to what I could see of the road.
We got to the airport, I got out, managed to hug my sister-in-law, kiss Cindy goodbye and get under cover without getting too wet where I got through the beloved security lines and then to the gate, where it looked like this:
The storm looked and felt like something we’d been through not much more than a month before, so I looked it up on the radar and found this:
See the deep red dot at the left edge of that orange blob in the middle?
That’s where the worst of the storm was.
It’s also where the airport is.
And where I was.
It seemed fitting.
What’s strange is that right about then I realized something profound in its simplicity:
The reality of the storm we were in couldn’t be changed.
We could only change our reaction to it.
I mean, we could run to stay out of the rain, but we’d still get wet while we were in it.
That realization helped me see the bigger picture of the storm I’d seen through the windshield, out the window at the airport, and on the weather radar coalesce with the storm we were all going through emotionally.
That, also, seemed fitting.
Because of the storm, my wife’s 3 1/2 hour trip back with her sister turned into something closer to 5 1/2 hours. It was raining so hard they had to wait by the side of the road in places because they couldn’t see, much like the people waiting in the last story. I waited with all the others in the airplane at the airport until the worst was over, and finally, we were able to take our place in line and head out.
It took some time, but we finally took off, climbed out of the storm and saw the blue sky again.
Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we’d been through, how we’d gone deep into it, been bounced around a good bit, and then, finally, a sense of, if not clarity, then acceptance…
After a long stop in Chicago, we chased the longest sunset I’d ever seen, all the way to Seattle.
I watched it for hours, most of the flight, actually.
…and it got me thinking…
See, what I was leaving behind, was rain, a good bit of chaos, and tears…
But I also left behind memories of a quiet, gentle man who taught not only his kids to play baseball, and who made an ice rink in the side yard for hockey because winters were cold enough to freeze it. Come to think of it, that wasn’t just for his kids, but all the kids in the neighborhood.
I left behind memories, stories of when he’d hunted rabbit to keep food on the table, and the stories of the look of satisfaction he had when he’d gotten a deer in the fall. He knew that meant the family would eat well that winter.
I had my own memories – of when I sat chatting with him on the front porch, looking out over his lawn, the bird feeder, and the maple tree he’d planted as a stick, years ago, the same porch we’d sat on side by side when I asked him if I could marry his daughter.
That had been over 25 years ago.
I looked out the window, lost in those thoughts, and then smiled at one more, remembering when he taught me how to pour coffee, and how important it was to pour it *just right*.
Back in the plane, I looked back a bit, and could see the darkness gaining on us.
Eventually we had a glorious sunset in front of us, darkness behind us, but the darkness was faster…
And so it goes with all of us, right? Each one of us has a flight to take, one on which there will be rough weather. And beautiful weather.
And at some point – there will be a sunset that we all must face.
I pondered a bit more as the plane was slowly enveloped in the darkness, and that glorious sunset slipped away, replaced with a gray, unearthly twilight.
Looking back again, I could see the moon casting shadows on the clouds. The darkness had its own beauty. It was easy to look down, but I felt a strong urge to look up, to see what the sky looked like at night from this high up, so I slouched down in my seat as much as I could, turned my own light off above my seat, and as hard as it was in that position, I looked up.
And as our plane descended through the turbulence back to earth, the sunset faded, and I looked up into the dark, dark sky. I realized that the beauty of the fading sunset…
…had been replaced by stars.