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I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
It’s been a few years since I had my introduction to sailplanes, and after much prodding by my friend Greg, and me saving up to fly again, I was finally able to take advantage of some time a few weeks ago and go out to the airfield again.
It’s a quiet, grass field out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dead end road about an hour and a half out of Seattle. The last bit of the drive was through a forest that, in the light I was seeing it, looked like it easily could have been home to Hobbits or Dwarves or a possible dragon lurking back in the underbrush.
I smiled a little to myself and kept my eyes wide open, looking deep into the woods, imagining I might see one. The road turned left and I emerged into a clearing, a fence to my left, and some cars parked neatly on my right. The Fairies that I’d imagined would have been at home with the Dwarves and Hobbits in the forest had taken the elegant shape of sailplanes taking off and landing on the other side of the fence.
Greg came up to greet me, his traditional peanut butter sandwich in his hand. He’d been sitting in one of several plastic chairs lined up in the shade on the south side of the field. He got one out of the shed for me, and invited me to sit down and chat while he spliced the end of a tow rope.
Part of me really wanted to get in the air, but another part of me was just happy to enjoy the peace and quiet of the fall colors, the fresh air, and the occasional gentle breeze.
There was another flier that visited every now and then. It was a dragonfly (or maybe it was a baby fairy) and its wings almost imperceptibly thrummed as it inspected us. It was never in one spot long enough for a good picture, but it emphasized the almost palpable quiet there. I mean, there can’t be much background noise if you can hear a dragonfly…
It was nice.
I heard the towplane fly overhead , looked up, and saw that someone was enjoying a ride in the same sailplane I’d gone up in a few years ago.
I smiled again.
His peanut butter sandwich finished, Greg now had both hands free and we chatted some more while he continued working on his towropes, with the dragonfly checking in every now and then.
The tow plane – a hard-working Piper Super Cub flown by a an equally hard working gentleman named Patrice, pulled many planes up into the sky, including the PW-6U we’d be in.
The afternoon went on, and I saw it go up and down a few times…
I could sense my eagerness, verging on impatience, wanting to get in – but there were people ahead of me in line, and they had to go up first, and the tow plane needed gas, and a student needed scheduled practice, all valid things, but all making me feel like a fidgety kid peeking around everyone else standing in line for a ride on the roller coaster at the fair. The only thing missing was the smell of cotton candy and popcorn wafting in the breeze.
So I waited, and chatted with Greg, and John, the fellow I’d gone up with the last time, and a few others, and the afternoon wore on – no – it didn’t wear on, it was better than that. It passed, pleasantly, softly, gently.
The shadows grew longer, and longer, and finally, as the sun was casting its last warmth over the horizon…
…we got in. With Greg in the back, me in the front, and Patrice in the tow plane, we all took off and headed for our release altitude. As low as the sun was by that time, Greg said it would be a “sled ride” (all downhill) as we needed to be down before the sun actually set.
We kept climbing, turning gracefully behind Patrice.
At one point, I looked out the right side and was speechless at the absolute majesty of Mount Rainier, almost close enough to touch…
…and then, looking closer at the picture, realized it’d be a good idea to not wear a striped shirt next time I flew. (How cool, I’m already thinking of a ‘next time’)
Greg had me pull the release for the tow rope. It sprung and coiled for a bit before straightening out as Patrice flew back down to the field off to our left. We found our way along the big ridge behind the airfield, turned again, and given the sled ride nature of the flight, Greg flew, and I was just in awe of the beauty around me.
He asked how I handled steep turns, as he was going to burn off a lot of altitude very quickly to get down in time. I grinned as he banked hard and did an amazing corkscrew into the pattern, extended the spoilers,
and put the setting sun behind and the moon in front of us as we approached the field. We squeezed right between the trees, and the gentle hiss of the sailplane was replaced by the shuddering rumble of the landing gear on the grass, quieting down to silence as we rolled to a stop right where the plane needed to be put away…
We got out, I turned around and saw the sun setting behind the trees as Greg got my Nikon out of the front cockpit.
I heard something ticking off to my left, and as I turned, I realized it was the engine of the Super Cub that had taken us up, still cooling off and resting from its day of labor.
It was already tied down, the moon reflecting off its wings…
Greg helped put the PW-6U we’d flown back in the trailer and after he’d made sure the cover was down and latched, we headed over to the edge of the fields where the cars were.
I thanked Patrice for his tow, and Greg for the flight and conversation, and then headed back through the woods I’d come through earlier.
Only this time, I knew the Fairies were real.
It’s been a bit since I wrote, a lot of life has happened, a lot of changes, a lot of storms, if you will, and it reminded me of a story that happened a number of years ago that involved a USAF C-130 and yours truly.
If you’ve ever seen a military airplane, chances are you’ve seen a C-130 Hercules. It is the short/medium haul workhorse of militaries all over the world that’s been in service for over 50 years. The Navy’s Blue Angels have one from the Marines they call “Fat Albert” that carries the maintenance and support crew to keep all the F-18’s flying.
I’ve been in a couple of them, flown over some amazing countryside (Mount Rainier – I’d have pictures of that but I dropped the camera while I was in the cockpit a few thousand feet over Elbe and broke it – the camera I mean) and been in one that was dogfighting with another one (story to come later), but the one that I remember most is the one that never left the ground.
See, back when I was in Civil Air Patrol, one of the senior members of the squadron, Steve, was also in the Air Force, and he worked just across the parking lot from where we met every week.
What was cool about that place across the parking lot was that it housed two multimillion dollar full motion simulators, one of which was the one for the venerable C-130.
What was cool about Steve is that he did the same thing in the Air Force that my dad did years earlier – he worked flight simulator maintenance. Understand, folks who work in maintenance aren’t the people who get the glory. They’re not the ones with high ranks or fancy titles. The people who work maintenance, however, are like the janitor of the school you went to. They have to be able to fix anything.
And to do that, they need to be able to get anywhere.
And to do that, they have to have keys to EVERYTHING.
And Steve, so to speak, had the keys to the C-130 simulator.
Now since he worked maintenance, he had to be there all the time, just in case.
There were quiet times during his day when the simulator wasn’t scheduled – and of course, over time, I learned what those times were, and just ‘happened’ to show up pretty consistently about then.
Over the course of one summer, Steve let me fly the thing – I did the math some time back, and I think I had something like 40 hours in it over those three months.
I learned how to start the engines, how to taxi out to an imaginary runway (Steve would play the part of the air traffic controller and give me directions over the headsets from outside), and then Steve taught me how to take off. Now understand – all this is in a full size, full motion simulator that’s an exact replica of the cockpit. You hear the engines. You feel the vibration of the engines. You literally feel the bumps in the pavement you’re taxiing across. It would even have the nose dip as you hit the brakes to stop at the end of the runway before starting your takeoff roll, where you’d feel the bumps in the pavement going by faster and faster, until when you pulled the nose up, you could actually *feel* the nose gear lift off – it smoothed out because it wasn’t rolling over pavement anymore. Then there were the checklists to make sure everything was done right. Landing gear had to come up as soon as the plane was actually climbing. Flaps came up in stages as the plane accelerated, and so on.
The one thing it didn’t have was any type of visual display, so because of that, when I learned how to fly, I learned how to fly on instruments only.
I learned that the controls felt mushy at low speeds, and very stiff at high speeds, and at those high speeds, you wanted to keep the little g-meter in the bottom left of the instrument panel very happy. Overstressing that little thing could cause problems
I learned all that before I ever looked out of the cockpit of a real airplane, and the funny thing is – I learned how to fly the plane not because I had to, but because it was fun.
After some time, Steve let me just play a little bit, and I actually got pretty good at running through the checklists to start the engines, the pre-taxi checklist, the pre-takeoff checklist, after takeoff checklist – really, there were a lot of them.
One day Steve had most of an afternoon with no one scheduled in the simulator, and I happened to be there, so he decided to have some fun. He taught me GCA’s – or Ground Controlled Approaches – which you do when you can’t see the runway, and the airport has equipment you don’t have. Basically you’ve got two radio beams that intersect like a cross, coming from a couple of transmitters at the end of the runway. One shows you on the right glide slope (both approaching and descending at just the right speed), while the other shows you on the right glide path (coming down on the centerline of the runway). Your job is to keep the plane at the center of those two radio beams– you’ve got someone on the ground tracking you, and their instructions to keep you in the center are short and to the point: “Flight 279, GCA, 3 miles out, on glide slope, on glide path” (what you want to hear) versus something like “Flight 279, GCA, 2 miles out, 500 feet left of glide path, 200 feet below glide slope”. You’ve got a lot of correcting to do in the two miles you’ve got left, flying at about 130 mph, you’ll cover that in less than 30 seconds, while trying to find the end of the runway, which is at the other end of those radar beams. Remember, if you’re doing a GCA, you’re only doing it because you can’t see the runway. This is rather important because usually the runway is the only flat space big enough to land on.
It was clear that Steve had a little bit of fun being the GCA Controller, so one day he decided to take it up a notch… He stepped into the back of the simulator where the instructors usually sat – where they had all sorts of evil controls to mess with the crew being trained, and played GCA from right there instead of from his usual console outside the simulator.
I had the headphones on as usual, and he decided he’d give me what started out to be a normal approach. I’d had the flaps down to 50% as I needed to have them for that speed, and then he started dialing in some turbulence to make it a little more challenging.
Ever flown through turbulence in an airliner?
This was just like that – all the sounds, the full motion in the simulator, it was just like you’d expect to feel it in a real plane, just as bumpy, just as uncomfortable, and it suddenly dawned on me that the barf bags in the cockpit weren’t there for decoration.
He gave me gentle instructions: first just fly the plane with the turbulence randomly and dramatically trying to flip it right, left, up, or down. My goal was to keep the wings level, and keep it aimed to 340 degrees North-northwest, the same heading as the runway.
Then, when he felt I had that mastered, he decided to transition in a GCA controlled approach, meaning I had to not only keep the wings level and keep flying the plane in the storm, but manage all the procedures that were part of landing the plane.
He added wind gusts that varied from headwinds (which suddenly gave me much greater lift) to tailwinds (which suddenly meant the plane wasn’t flying through the air fast enough to generate enough lift to keep it from falling out of the sky).
Somewhere in there I realized that not only did I have that voice in my headphones to guide me, I noticed that there was an instrument on the panel in front of me that, every time I heard the message, “On glide slope, on glide path” – made a little plus sign, a little cross. It turns out it was what’s known as an ILS, or Instrument Landing System – which is a miniaturized version of the GCA. Instead of a radio and someone in the tower, it’s an instrument in the airplane.
See, the GCA is something external to the plane. . It’s sending a – kind of a cross of radio beams out, and they can tell where you are in relation to that. They will tell you what you need to do to be able to land safely.
You don’t have to have anything but a radio, tuned to the tower frequency and you just have to do what the voice in the headsets tells you to do.
The ILS is a miniaturized version of the GCA. It depends on that same kind of radio beam, but is internal to the plane. Just like a compass always points North, which is a good reference point, this always keeps you pointed toward your goal, which is finishing your flight safely, on the runway. All you have to do is pay attention to it, and keep the little cross centered in front of you, and you’ll reach that goal.
But – meanwhile, back in the cockpit, knowing what the right thing to do and actually doing it were two different things. Steve was having fun and incrementally dialing up everything, making the plane climb, bank, and turn, and fall out of the sky all at the same time. It got to the point where just trying to keep wings level, much less doing something complicated like “keep the wings level and the pointy end facing front” was an astonishing challenge. The descent rate wasn’t even averaging the 500 feet per minute descent I was supposed to be trying to do on at that part of the approach.
I thought things had gotten as bad as they were going to get, and was really working up a sweat in there… It was no longer a simulation, for me it was real.
And that’s when Steve dialed up the turbulence to the point where I was in a full-fledged storm.
I wasn’t panicking, but I was working pretty hard to keep things under control, and was concentrating so hard on keeping wings level, keeping the descent rate right, keeping it on glide slope and glide path, that I was caught off guard when Steve suggested I might look at the oil pressure of the number 3 engine.
It was falling.
Imagine your check engine light coming on in your car. You just pull over and – well, check your engine.
Interestingly, that’s exactly what I was trying to do, but had to wait till I had a successful landing behind me.
So I had to slow that engine down, but I couldn’t just pull back number 3. By now the flaps were down, if I recall, at 50%, and the air each of the four propellers pushes over the top of wing, especially with the flaps down, creates a tremendous amount of lift. So if you’ve got two huge propellers blasting air over the left wing, and only one on the right, that left wing will produce way more lift – which complicates things and needs to be considered in everything you do from there on out. So I throttled back not just number 3 (inboard engine on the right wing) but also number 2 (inboard engine on the left wing) to keep the power and lift balanced, with the hope it would last long enough to get us to the ground safely. Complicating that was the fact that the inboard engines blew air over more wing and flaps, and helped create more lift than the outboard ones. There was a good bit to think about in all of that.
Steve was impressed, so he held on to the handles mounted for the instructors in the back of the simulator, and dialed the turbulence and the mechanical problems up even more. He added what I now realize were wind shear and microbursts, meaning my airspeed would vary, causing my descent rate to range from “climbing like a homesick angel” to “falling out of the sky like an anvil with wings”.
I brought the flaps all the way to 100%, which increased lift, but also increased drag, slowing the plane down, requiring extra power (which I didn’t have much of) to stay in the air. While I was working on the approach checklist, and right as I’d gotten getting the gear down, increasing the drag yet again, and requiring more power to overcome, Steve was slowly dialing the oil pressure down in number 3, and eventually I had the engine in flight idle (lowest speed I could set it to).
At this point, my options were getting even more limited, because not only did the oil pressure keep going down, but the temperature started going up.
That’s when Steve added the smoke – real smoke in the cockpit. I have to tell you, if nothing else had my attention, the smell of hot oil on top of everything else did.
Number 3 didn’t show that it was on fire, but it was showing it was overheating, and it was clear that running out of oil to keep it lubricated and cool was going to guarantee a fire, the only question was if it’d happen before I got to the ground or after. I realized there was only one thing I could do to keep that from happening, so I reached up above the windshield, between the empty copilot’s seat and mine, and flipped the switch to arm the fire extinguishing system. I feathered the prop and pulled the fire extinguisher handle, shutting that engine down, and if nothing else, preventing a fire.
That solved one problem, but created several more.
I was still trying to land in a storm, but now I was down 25% of my power, and I was right close to stall speed.
That was when Steve decided to up the wind shear a bit, and I felt the plane lurch, then saw the instruments show I’d gone from a headwind to a downdraft and I was sinking fast.
Sinking fast when you’re flying is not a good thing.
Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying is a very bad thing.
Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying, close to the ground, is a sentence that often has a fireball for a period.
I simultaneously slammed the remaining three throttles to the firewall, and turned the yoke all the way to the left and stomped on the left rudder pedal to try to balance out the asymmetrical lift and thrust I knew I’d be getting because of number 3 being out, and stopped sinking.
In spite of that, it moved me to the right of the glide path, so I banked left (which is actually hard to do since I had more power and lift from the left wing) and had to get back on the glide path, just as I heard Steve’s calm voice inform me that I was below I was 200 feet right of glide path, and definitely below glide slope.
All the while, Steve watched from the back, saw that I was close to making it, but I still wasn’t out of the weather, and just as I was about to touch down, I got another hard gust from the left. I firewalled the throttles again to try to keep from hitting too hard, but we were too close to the ground for it to help enough in time. I did hit hard, felt and heard one of the tires in the right main landing gear go, pulled all three engines to ground idle, then the standard thing to do would be to lift all the throttles straight up, allowing me to pull them back further, changing the angle of the propeller blades so they’re blowing air forward to slow the plane down once it’s on the ground, not backward to keep it flying.
Had I done that with all three remaining engines, I would have put two engines on the left wing and one on the right into full thrust reverse, adding “pirouetting down the runway” to my list of accomplishments on that flight. I decided, instinctively to let my middle finger loose and leave the number 2 engine in ground idle and reverse numbers 1 and 4, which slowed the plane down without the pirouette until I was able to use the brakes and get off the runway.
Once everything was shut down, Steve looked at me with a huge grin and said, “Well done! I’ve had trained pilots in here that didn’t handle that as well as you did!”
It made me smile, sitting there, back all sweaty against the pilot’s seat – slowly starting to shiver from the abundance of adrenaline and the air conditioning I was just now starting to feel.
He’d said, “Well done!”
It’s said that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing – and this one was one of them.
We talked for a long time after that flight, and as I’ve been writing this, years later – I’ve found that as with many of these stories, it got me thinking…
The whole thing about this adventure we call life is like that adventure in flight in that simulator.
There are times when our lives are CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited). Times when you are as free as a bird, where not only the valleys we struggle through, but the mountains and clouds that seemed so high, are now beneath us.
Those are times to cherish, because in those times, you gain perspective, understanding, and wisdom. You’re able to see the other side of the clouds, the side where the sun always shines.
Other times, life throws us into storms, and the things we hold dear, the things we depend on for support, for power, for strength are shaken to the core. I got to thinking about those engines, and the one that was causing trouble and catching fire trying to land in that storm – and I had to just let it go and shut it off, then figure out how to go on without it.
Those aren’t times where you gain perspective.
Those are times where you gain experience.
And we need both.
It’s the transitions that are often challenging.
We have to compensate for things that have been damaged, and flying through the storm becomes quite a bit harder when we lose things we depend on.
I realized that while I’d learned how to instinctively fix something while still compensating for my weakness in the simulator, (slamming those three throttles forward when I really needed four, and stomping on that left rudder while turning hard left to keep the strength I did have from pulling me off course), that that’s a constant lesson in real life.
I got to thinking some more about it all, and how hard flying through that storm was… You couldn’t see anything out the windows of the simulator – it was nothing but instruments – but if you were flying in a storm, you wouldn’t see anything anyway.
…and that, sometimes, is what life is like…
It feels like we’re flying blind, but only if we’re straining to find something in the murk outside…
If we look inside, at our instruments, if you will – there’s more clarity, and while doing that GCA, I had that voice in my headsets guiding me along that cross in the radio beams, and that dotted cross on the instrument panel, and the third one over the top of that, guiding me on the inside. When I was where I was supposed to be, the three crosses became one. I learned that if I focused on that cross, and listened to that voice, it would guide me through any storm.
It was a lesson in trust.
I couldn’t trust in my own instincts. Even when the storm headwinds caused me to go higher than I wanted to go, or the tailwinds caused me to sink lower than I wanted to be, even with that engine threatening to burn a wing off. Being so close to the ground and so slow that any mistake could be the last one, hard as it was, I had to trust.
Getting too far to one side or the other for too long, and pretty soon it’d be impossible to correct for in time even if I made a massive correction to try to get to the runway, so I needed to trust.
As easy as it is to let the storms of life blow me off course, and as hard I know it can be to struggle during those times when I don’t have perspective but I’m gaining that experience, I know that if I keep that cross centered in front of me, and keep listening to the voice in my headphones guides me when I can’t see it, I’ll be okay…
And just like I didn’t finish my time in the simulator unscathed, I haven’t made it through this journey we call Life without a few scars, none of us have. I remember Steve’s words after I landed, after I finished, “Well done!” and the smile and peace it gave me. I pray that at the end of this longer journey, I’ll be able to hear those same words again, from another Voice, “Well done…”
Take care folks – and for those of you who celebrate it, have a wonderful, blessed Easter.
It’s funny what happens when the phone rings in our house. There are the usual calls from family and friends, the usual telemarketers that get ignored, and the usual wrong numbers. But every now and then we get a call that just has to be remembered.
The other day I got a call from a friend of my dad’s, who had worked with him in the Air Force over half a century ago. He told me a story from his youth that had stuck with him all these years, and – well…
…fade back with me
… to a long time ago, in a country far, far away, where a shepherd had members of his village both enthralled and in disbelief at how he had fought off two fire breathing beasts who had been attacking his flock of sheep. The beasts were bigger that he was, stronger than he was, and much, much faster than he was.
The beasts were metal, he said, and attacked over and over, terrifying the sheep, scattering them all across the meadow on the mountainside they were on.
And yet he fought them off.
And they never, ever bothered his sheep again.
Some people doubted him, but he stuck with his story, resolute in his claim that he was telling the truth.
But there is more to this tale.
See the job of being a shepherd is one of those jobs that is necessary, requires wisdom, bravery, and an understanding of a particularly unpredictable type of animal. But given those parameters, it hasn’t changed much in millennia. In fact, there are stories in the Bible about sheep, and shepherds, dating back thousands of years. The Christmas Story very clearly involves shepherds, get this, “Keeping watch over their flocks, by night”. It means the only thing predictable about the sheep was that they would get into trouble. The only thing unpredictable was what kind of trouble that might be. Given that, even at night the sheep couldn’t even be left alone without being protected or watched. The Bible doesn’t say whether the shepherds were protecting the sheep from poachers (likely) or predators (also likely) or their own stupidity (no, really). It should be simple, right? You keep the sheep happy, you keep the sheep where they can have food and water, you keep them out of danger, and keep the predators away from them.
And that should be it, right?
“Things just happen to sheep. I don’t know why it is, but if you have 15 horses, 20 cows and one sheep standing on a hill and a thunderstorm comes, lightning will hit the sheep. Every time.”
And in this case, the lightning came in the form of…
…well, again, let’s step back a bit, no, not just a bit, let’s travel, you and I, to a place completely foreign to the world of the mountain meadow.
There is no grass in this world.
There are no trees in this world.
There aren’t even parts of any sheep in this world, other than the wool that had been used to make the uniforms being worn in what was known as the ready room of a military airbase.
Those uniforms, when cared for, made young men look sharp, and two of the best of the bunch were very, very proud to wear them.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Clothes make the man” – and at some level, they do. The right clothes can make a young man look far more mature than one might expect, and in this case, when the two young men in question were barely out of their teens at 24, if you took the uniforms away, you’d have two young men who looked very much like they could be seen playing volleyball on a beach, or out for an evening with a lovely lady on each arm, without a care in the world.
This time, in a young man’s life, is a strange combination of development, with the body in almost peak condition, but not all of the brain has caught up with that peak condition of the body… See, the frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys growing into young men, that’s just not all there yet.
And yes, it is safe to make the assumption that this plays into the story.
See, this is the time when a young man often somehow manages to put a lot of money either making or buying a car or motorcycle far more powerful than he has any right to be driving, but these young men weren’t recklessly riding motorcycles with 50 horsepower or driving cars with 200. No, these young men had been trained by the military to fly the F-100 Super Sabre, which had two fully afterburning turbojet engines powerful enough to push the plane past the speed of sound.
That meant if the plane were flying at you, you’d have no warning that it was coming, because it was flying faster than the sound it was making. When it flew past, all the noise it had been making would show up in an instant in a sonic boom, and then you might hear it roar off, and that would be that.
So, the military could teach them how to fly, but only time (and experience) would teach them how to fly wisely.
Let’s go back to the ready room, where we join those on active duty, and those working maintenance, but who couldn’t do anything till the planes came back, all chatting, playing board games or cards, or studying maintenance manuals to help them understand the complex machines they would be repairing. In one corner, an old refrigerator grumbled as it kept drinks cool. The sound of the games and laughter going on inside was accompanied by a bass line of activity outside. Turboprops rumbled and turbojets whined as planes taxied to the end of the runway, and roared as they accelerated planes to takeoff speed and onto their missions. And, as was the custom, one man in the ready room had a hand held radio tuned to the tower frequency, just in case a pilot radioed something like this:
“EMERGENCY! We need to get in, losing hydraulic fluid!”
Chairs, cards, and manuals scattered across the floor as everyone rushed outside to see what they could do. Of course, there were procedures for this… They’d been practicing them for months, but this time it was clearly for real. The tide of humanity rushed back in through the one door. Manuals were pulled off shelves, checklists were consulted, and all aircraft not declaring the emergency were cleared from the area. All had to land at other airports, some barely had enough fuel to get there, but an emergency was an emergency, and at the risk of creating another possible emergency, the pattern had to be clear for the one they were sure about.
Eventually, those in the tower with binoculars looked downwind and saw two planes, one rock steady, and another one clearly struggling to keep the pointy end forward and wings level.
By this time, all other airborne aircraft had been redirected and the runways and approach patterns were clear. The fire engines were already growling their way out to their appointed positions near the runway in case they were needed. There were still 75 fighters parked in rows outside that there wasn’t time to move out of the way, but both planes managed to make a safe landing, and they taxied to the flight line, shutting down without incident.
The pilots climbed out, and both of them gathered around the crippled plane. One kneeled down and saw a huge dent, then a gaping hole in the bottom of the fuselage, leading to the main hydraulic pump where the lines and pump itself were mangled. They knew what had happened, the question now was explaining it. As they were trying to figure that out, standing there looking at the growing puddle of the last of the hydraulic fluid, the squadron commander, a, dignified man, his maturity showing in his bearing, his spotless uniform, and the graying of closely cropped hair at his temples, came out to find out what the nature of the emergency was.
Understand, that to get to his position in that country, and in the military in general, he had to have some experience in letting people know what kind of behavior was acceptable and what was not. He also had to have some experience getting his thoughts across succinctly, with very little room for interpretation. He took one look at the plane, which, despite the fact that they were not at war with anyone, looked like it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. As commander of the squadron, this plane was his responsibility. Any damage to it would be expensive, both financially and in the terms of someone’s career. The consequences of those thoughts came out succinctly, and with little room for interpretation.
“What? Am I going mad? What happened to the plane?”
The two young pilots looked at each other, and clearly had to explain something. The only question was how. The looks on their faces were the looks of young boys with their hands caught in the world’s biggest cookie jar. One of them cautiously tried to explain:
“We… we were intercepted.”
The look the commander gave them could have easily blistered paint.
“You were what? Intercepted? By whom? The Enemy? Where were you? Who intercepted you?”
The other pilot, before he could think of something that sounded more sane, blurted out, “The shepherd.”
“The what? You were intercepted by a shepherd?”
There followed a long diatribe about the logic of a supersonic jet fighter being intercepted by an old shepherd who was supposed to be watching a flock of clearly subsonic sheep.
Slowly but surely the story came out.
It seems that inside the uniforms of those two first lieutenants were indeed two 24 year old kids, who might otherwise be driving fast cars and chasing pretty girls.
Instead, they were flying fast planes and chasing thousands of sheep.
They’d seen them on the way back from a mission, and decided to have a little fun, so they dove down on the sheep, pulling up at the last second, low enough to singe the wool on the sheep that hadn’t scattered, and then they lit their afterburners to accelerate and climb, leaving their own thunder to fade as the sound and smell of scattered, panicked, and smoldering sheep spread all over the hillside. Time after time they climbed to altitude, then dove on the sheep, laughing behind their oxygen masks,
Eventually, the shepherd, neither he nor his sheepdogs able to defend against this kind of attack, in an act of desperation and pure defiance, waited until the plane came again, and heaved the biggest rock he could find up at it.
The Super Sabre, flying over 400 mph as it buzzed the sheep, flew directly into the rock just as it was pulling up, and the rock took out enough of the hydraulic system to immediately cause a Christmas tree of warning lights to flash brightly on the instrument panel. There were clearly some serious, immediate problems, and being that close to the ground was not the place to be with problems, so they climbed up for as much altitude as they could get and headed back to base, declaring their emergency to anyone who would listen.
The pilots were reprimanded, and were given quite a bit of time in the brig on base to allow the frontal lobes of their brains to be realigned with reality so they would understand the consequences of their actions. The cost of all those planes that had been diverted, the crew and staff who ended up at bases not their own, all the fuel that had been burned getting them there, passengers who had missed connections, meetings, and flights, cargo that hadn’t been delivered, plus the cost of the repair, refit, and testing of the airplane, which was a figure far more than the two pilots made in a decade, much less a year, slowly sunk in over the weeks and months.
But the plane was repaired and flew again.
The pilots eventually learned their lessons and flew again.
The shepherd and the sheep, on the other hand, were all but forgotten.
And that bit – that little bit about the shepherd – got me thinking.
See, one of the things I’ve learned over the years takes me back to one of those first things I mentioned about shepherds. For the most part, the sheep are unaware of them, unless or until they’re needed, like when there’s danger, or when there’s trouble.
Then the sheep are very aware.
Kind of like us.
I found myself thinking back to the Christmas Story – where the shepherds were watching their flocks – who should have been sleeping – but the sheep were so valuable that the owner felt they were worth protecting, so he made sure there was someone watching them, protecting them, guarding them, 24/7. And understand, just because the shepherds were out there with what looked like a peaceful postcard image doesn’t mean they were weak.
Oh no, not at all…
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep needed to be protected from predators.
Kind of like us.
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep got themselves into trouble and had to be searched for and found.
Kind of like us.
And sometimes, like us, they had to be protected from themselves.
Kind of like us…
Day or night.
I thought some more…
If we’re not careful and either wander out of sight of the Shepherd, or get so involved in our own lives and our own pursuits that we lose sight of the Shepherd who protects us from fire breathing beasts, we do run the risk of being burned by those flames.
It makes me thankful for that Shepherd we have, the One who protects us when we don’t even know it…
For that matter, especially when we don’t know it.
It gave me a far greater understanding, and respect, for shepherds, and for our Shepherd.
And I found my thoughts drifting back to a small village in a country, far, far away, where now live the grandchildren of a shepherd who was revered by the villagers for a story he told, how he fought off two enemies much bigger, much stronger, and much, much faster than he was.
With nothing more than a rock.
And I realize that on many levels, it’s a true story.
© 2013 Tom Roush, all rights reserved
I saw an article awhile back in the Sidney Daily News about expanding the airport there, and it made me think of the last time I’d been out there.
It was – wow – I just did the math and it was half my lifetime ago… I was working as a photojournalist intern for the Sidney Daily News at the time, and got a call on the pager we had from the Sheriff’s department that there had been a plane crash at the airport. That was definitely news. At that time, I hadn’t yet been to the airport, so wasn’t sure what to expect.
The only other situation I’d seen like that was about 9 years earlier (May of 1978) of an F-106 crash where the pilot had lost an engine on takeoff, (note: the F-106 only has one engine, so this was immediately an issue), tried to steer the plane away from populated areas, which is hard to do when you’re taking off north from McChord AFB, in Tacoma, Washington. There are no unpopulated areas there, and the pilot stayed with the plane until he was sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the ground, then ejected. The plane, now pilotless, turned around and crashed into a pond in the center of an apartment complex just off the base. The pilot’s parachute opened literally just before he landed in the middle of an intersection, and astonishingly, no one was hurt. I got there soon after it happened, had a camera with me, but the pictures I got weren’t really much to see. The plane was close to vaporized, so it was hard to tell what you were even looking at. Some of the fuel in the plane burned, but the pilot, as I said, had been able to get out, and none of the three hundred people in the complex were even hurt.
I was hoping for something similar as I raced toward the airport in Sidney; that is, no one being hurt. But, being a photojournalist, I was simultaneously hoping for some dramatic images.
I got there, and there was hardly any evidence of anything. No lights, no sirens, no flaming wreckage, no plume of smoke, no Hollywood stunt doubles, nothing. I wandered into the lobby they had there for passengers and identified myself and asked about the airplane crash. Someone pointed me out to the runway, where I could now see a rudder and tail sticking up at an odd angle.
No one stopped me or even asked me what I was doing, they just let me go, so I walked out there and saw the result of not so much a crash, but a pretty hard landing.
I’ve been through a few hard landings. I’ve heard that a landing is simply a mid-air collision with a planet. I can see that, but the goal is to be a little more gentle. In fact, the desired way to land is to get the plane to stop flying just a little bit above the runway. I was once in a DC-8 that made a stop in Iceland where we were told the landing might be rough because of winds gusting up to 50 mph. And sure enough, the pilot flew the approach perfectly, then stalled the plane about 20 feet off the runway so hard we thought we’d see the landing gear come through the wings. The wings bent down so far we thought the engines would hit, then flapped up, catapulting the plane back into the air three times before it finally stayed on the ground for good. Hard as that was on our backs, we were willing to forgive him for that because of the winds, even though it was more of a controlled crash than a landing, but when he did the same thing when we landed at Frankfurt, where the wind was about 44 mph slower, everyone but the chiropractors among the passengers were a bit annoyed. So hard landings are just that… Hard on the plane, hard on the passengers.
Well, it turned out the pilot in Sidney was a student, and had been on her final cross country flight. From what I was able to gather, this landing started out with a fine approach, but then ended up like that DC-8 landing, with the plane stalling out several feet above the runway, and then, instead of doing the desired gentle landing onto said runway, she smacked down into it, which, in the case of this plane, collapsed the nose gear, and the plane skidded on its nose and main gear off into the grass.
At one level I was very glad she was okay. At another level, I was trying to figure out what I could do with the picture. I’d walked around the crash site, gotten close enough to touch the plane, and had snapped a couple of the safe “I was there and had film in my camera” shots, just in case I could get nothing else. I learned early on that it’s important to get “the picture” that they can publish, and then get creative. That gave my editors a choice, depending on the other news of the day, which one to use, and which one might fit on the page. I wasn’t excited about the safe shot, I mean, I had it, which was good, but I decided to go a little further, and thought maybe contrasting this broken airplane with one that was functioning as expected would help bring things into a little better focus, so to speak.
So I checked with the FBO (Fixed Base Operator – the people running the airport) who had just heard over the radio that there were some investigators coming to, well, investigate the crash within about 20 minutes. Ideally, they’d be coming in that functioning airplane I was hoping for, and when I heard them on the radio on final approach, I went out to the runway to see what I could see and get into position for a shot that might be better than the other options.
I knew that by the time the plane landed and was taxiing toward me, its engine would be idling around 1,000 RPM or less, so chose 1/250th of a second for the shutter speed. That was enough to keep any camera shake that would be magnified by the long telephoto lens down, and at the same time, be open long enough to blur the propeller blades a bit, showing some motion.
Then I just found what should be the right spot and waited.
I saw them land, and saw I was in the right spot, and just waited as they came by. I knew I had the shot, and proudly developed the film, marking the negative by using a paper hole punch and putting a notch in the edge of the film you could feel it and find it easily in the darkroom later for printing.
I left that night, knowing I’d gotten both the safe shot, and the good shot, and hoped they’d pick my favorite, but other news got in the way, and the shape of the good shot wasn’t what they could use, so it was good that I’d taken the safe shot, which they used. The next afternoon, I saw my picture had made page one, which was good, here’s what it looked like:
But it wasn’t the shot I’d hoped they’d use. I was frustrated at the time, because I’d done something so much better, and they didn’t publish it. I didn’t know the big picture, I just knew I wasn’t seeing mine.
And it got me thinking…
I learned about a lot more than photojournalism that day. I learned, that sometimes, doing your job, and doing your best, may not be the same thing. Over time, I started to understand the bigger lesson there. You may do something at work, or something in your personal life that you really feel passionate about, and you think you’ve done a good job, but someone else is making decisions that affect you and whether your work gets recognized, or even seen. Sometimes you can’t change that, and it’s best to learn from it, let the frustration go, and move on.
The thing is, I still remember the days at the Sidney Daily News with fondness, full of lessons far more valuable than any tuition could ever cover, full of people I might see once, or who I might still keep in touch with years later, and full of adventures that still make me smile.
I mean, think about it – I was driving around and taking pictures that told stories, and the pictures were seen by thousands of people every day. I got to do things most people never get to do until they’re retired, which was the ability to go where I wanted to go, hang out and chat with interesting folks, and tell the stories of their lives.
And I was getting paid to do it!
How cool is that?
Oh – the picture that didn’t get published?
I printed a copy for myself.
Just to prove to myself that I was there, and that I had film in the camera…
So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.
For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.
For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.
For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.
For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.
And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.
15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
The other night some friends had an “Oktoberfest” – where they blocked off the street in front of their house. There was bratwurst, sauerkraut, potato Salad, and of course, beer. On top of it all, was this overwhelming oompah music.
It’s funny, as I was writing this story – I realized there was a theme in it that I hadn’t even noticed –
It took me back many years – the last time I was in Munich, when our friend Martin, his brother Wolfgang, my sister and I drove down there from the Ludwigsburg area where we lived, and took in the sights. We went to the park they’d made for the 1972 Olympics, went up the tower. You could see the BMW Museum from there, so we went to visit that, where I discovered that they absolutely don’t like you touching the artifacts (since I’m an official airplane nut, I was looking at, and in this case touching, a WWII airplane engine – I’d just reached out to touch it when I heard a very loud, very German voice on the loudspeaker shatter the otherwise almost reverent silence of the museum. I looked up and froze. The camera that had been aimed at the engine was now aimed straight at me, with a red, almost laser like light on it that made it clear I’d been both spotted and caught.
Yup… Deer in the headlights, that’s me.
It was very clear that I was to keep my hands off the merchandise…
The tone in the fellow’s voice made it very easy to imagine that in a control room somewhere, a security guard must have been marking a little notch in what would translate as his gunbelt… “Yep, got another one…”
I was embarrassed, and not just a little terrified, but what could I do? So we left. By this time it was afternoon, and went to the German Museum where they had all sorts of exhibits and displays, and for whatever reason we started at the bottom, and were in the middle of this exhibit on some kind of ancient Babylonian or Mesopotamian stuff when the lights started flashing and we thought either there was a power outage or – then the siren went off.
I figured I’d touched something wrong.
Turns out it was neither.
It was the fact that the place was closing down, and of all things, at 4:00 on a freaking Tuesday. With me being the aforementioned airplane nut, instead of going straight for the airplanes, we’d wanted to see everything, and were planning on saving the best (airplanes) for last. When I heard on the loudspeaker the rough German equivalent of “Attention K-mart shoppers, the store will be closing in 5 minutes, please take your purchases to the checkout stand.” – okay, so it wasn’t K-mart shoppers, it was all of us who’d come thousands of miles to see the exhibits, only to find out at the last second that the place was closing before we could see everything. On that realization I just about went nuts and tore out of the Babylonian exhibit into the lobby area. I looked around, found the signs to the second floor and tore up this huge curved staircase to the second floor where the airplanes were. I was running so fast that it’s possible to truthfully say that I ran rings around a V-2 Rocket (okay, so the rocket was in the center of the curved staircase I was taking two and three steps at a time), and I arrived panting at the door of the hall the planes were displayed in just as a rather burly, and fairly stubborn guard locked the door from the inside. (Note: you don’t get much more stubborn than German stubborn, unless you’re talking Hungarian stubborn – don’t ask me how I know this 🙂
I tried to plead my case, but my Schwäbisch accent was no match for his Bavarian accent and attitude – and he was the one with the key in the lock. I could only look through the now smudged windows at the planes I’d come to see, neither realizing, nor being able to convince the guard, that this might be my only chance to ever see them. He didn’t seem to care. I remember seeing a two seater Me-262 and the only Do-335 in the world – oddly, without the swastika on the rudder, like most planes of the time had had – but then I realized, even then, that the echoes of WWII were still there, and the law was clear: absolutely no swastikas – even if they made something historically accurate. You couldn’t even buy a model WWII airplane with the right decals…
Once the doors were closed, there wasn’t anything else to do there – I was so frustrated at the time I don’t even remember taking a picture of anything. Wolfgang, Martin, and my sister showed up about then, and, knowing that this was something we – especially I – had wanted to see, they tried to get me out of my funk… I mean, getting kicked out of – well, “encouraged” to not come back to the BMW museum until I could behave was one thing… Having the dang exhibits in the German Museum close in my face was another.
We were hoping to not make it a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of thing, but I was seriously frustrated.
It was hard to acknowledge it at the time, but aside from that, we’d had a pretty good day. We’d driven well over 100 mph on the famed Autobahn, to the point where slowing down to 60 when we got into Munich made us want to get out and push, we’d seen priceless works of art, items that were literally one of a kind on the planet – and – it was almost as if Ferris Bueller had taken a day off and gone to Munich, instead of going to Chicago. Somewhere in there we got onto a subway and got out at the Marienplatz in the square in Munich and watched the famed clock tower (or Glockenspiel) strike, I think it was 5:00 in the evening by the time we got there – and our friends, realizing it was dinnertime and still trying to help overcome the last Museum bust, wanted to take us to this place they called the “Hofbräuhaus”
We were tired, had done a LOT of walking, and were to the point of not even caring anymore, but they insisted, so we went in – and were suddenly surrounded – no – immersed – in Bavaria at its finest.
To say that the Hofbräuhaus had atmosphere would be like saying water is wet, and this atmosphere was thicker than the proverbial pea soup.
First: The music. I know there are people who think that the definition of “perfect pitch” is when the accordion you just tossed out lands on the banjo. I’m not sure how many banjos there were, and I didn’t take any pictures, but Lordy, you have never, ever heard “Ooompah” music till you’ve heard it played by a bunch of well lubricated Bavarians. (there was an accordion, a tuba, a baritone, I think a trumpet and a trombone)
Tourists like us were there, but it was the locals who were just a delight to watch. I’d heard the song most Americans know as the “Beer Barrel Polka” – but the words were a lot different, and came across sounding more like the music here: “Rosamunde”. (the video’s not from the Hofbrauhaus, but watch the crowd in the video to get a sense of what it was like).
It looked like the people in the band wouldn’t remember it the next morning. In fact, it seemed the band was on complete autopilot. Waitresses kept their steins full, and they played – well, like a well lubricated machine… it was a wonderful background to everything else. Occasionally the crowd would join in and we’d see people standing up, arm in arm, singing their lungs out.
There was smoke from any kind of tobacco, but above it all was the astounding smell of beer. Not stale beer from a place that’s been serving beer for the last few years and hasn’t been cleaned up, but fresh beer that’s been poured in the place since 1589.
Like for more than 400 years.
There was a sign up at the front where the bartenders were filling the 1 liter steins as fast as they could, something to the effect of “Wet Floor” – and they weren’t kidding… there was beer all over the place, and you did want to be careful to not slip on it.
Why was there beer all over the place?
Well, part of the answer lay in the regulars. It seems that the place has special tables for them. A lot of them are pensioners who live in apartments nearby and come for the camaraderie, the social aspect, the food, and of course, the beer. What’s surprising about them is the vast quantities of beer some of them can put away. I was talking to a fellow who’d been there a few times, and had seen this little old man, couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, put away several liters, every evening, every time he showed up. These are guys who by any other definition would be considered alcoholics – but there, they show up (and have been showing up) daily for years, and they have their usual table, the waitresses know them, know their orders, and keep them happy by keeping their beer mugs full.
Now those waitresses, to keep from having to make too many trips to serve a table, take as much as they can carry with every trip. This means that invariably, some glasses spilled, some fell, some broke, (hence the warning signs about the wet floor) but for the most part, the beer gets to where it needs to be.
So it was this expectation that helped set up our next encounter. We were led to our table, and as the waitress came over, we realized we’d spent most of our money on museums, trips up the tower, and souvenirs. We pooled all our money together and realized that if we subtracted the money for the souvenirs we wanted to buy there, subway money to get back to the car, gas money to get the car back to Ludwigsburg, that left us with enough for – um – one beer.
Split four ways.
So one of the things that’s important to know is that a good percentage of the tourist photos show gorgeous young Bavarian women serving beer in places like this.
The real ones aren’t hired for their looks. They’re hired because they can carry, over the course of a shift, hundreds of liters of beer to their customers. They keep the customers from getting too thirsty, they keep them from getting too hungry, and they keep bringing whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied and happy, as they’ve been doing for several centuries.
Our waitress looked like she’d been there since the place opened.
She looked tired.
And it looked, from everything we could see about her, that she’d had a day we, as tourists, couldn’t possibly imagine. She looked like we were her last table and she was looking forward to going home, soaking, then putting the feet she’d been on all day up and getting a chance to rest a bit before starting it all over again.
She just had this one last table to deal with, and at that table were four teenagers and a pile of change.
She straightened her apron out a bit as she got to our table and was all business:
“Also, was möchten sie?”
(Her words said, “So, what would you like?” but her tone said the Bavarian equivalent, “So, what’ll it be?”)
We looked at each other, swallowed, and then together, said, “Ein Bier.” (one beer)
“Also gut… Vier Bier.“
(“Right… Four beers”)
„Nein… EIN Bier.“
(“No, actually, ONE beer.“)
„EIN BIER? Da sind ja doch vier von Euch!“
(“ONE BEER? But there’s FOUR of you!?“)
She looked at us with a combination of disgust and disdain that can only be done by German and French waiters. Add to that a look of confusion, like a mathematician who’d just discovered that dividing by zero didn’t work. In her world, one customer = many beers, not the other way around.
We kind of stared at each other, and it was then that we realized the first rule of the Hofbrauhaus:
It is not, repeat, NOT a good idea to – um – ‘irritate’ a Bavarian waitress… I don’t care how many weights you’ve lifted, they’ve lifted more, they’re stronger than you are, and they do it for eight hours at a stretch.
As we were coming to that conclusion, the day finally got to her and she absolutely went off on us. I don’t remember her exact words, but they translated roughly to:
“How can you possibly expect me to make any money if my customers only order one beer? I mean, you’re sitting there taking up four spots, and only ordering ONE beer? There’s no way you’re ordering one beer, that’s not just unheard of, that’s an insult.”
Uh… right… insults were off the table.
Then again, now that she had set her expectations: “Also, was möchten sie?”
(Again, her words said, “So, what would you like?” but the tone said, “Alright, really, let’s get this show on the road… what else are you going to order that is going to make it worth my time to even see your faces again?”)
We dug deeper into pockets, wallets, whatever might have a little extra money, and ordered some kind of pork roast, some sauerkraut, and I think there might have been some mashed potatoes.
And one beer.
And oh, my, it was good.
The beer was strong enough to pack a bit of a punch, but between the four of us, none of us had enough to worry about. The pork was amazing, and the sauerkraut was something you’d just have to go there to experience. It was amazing. We pooled enough money for a tip, left what we could there, then headed out into what was now night..
We got to the subway, then to the car, but didn’t drive 100 on the autobahn this time. This time we slowed down to about 80 mph.
Because it was dark.
And because it was raining off and on.
Martin wanted to be safe and drive even slower, but there’s something about German drivers and the autobahn, and by golly, they’ll drive as fast as they can. We were constantly having to move over so that other cars could pass us. The law’s pretty clear over there. If someone wants to pass you, you let them. Martin had been moving back and forth and was getting tired of it, so decided to stay in the fast lane. One driver made his thoughts very clearly known to us by getting so close that I, in the back seat, couldn’t see his headlights past the trunk lid. Martin finally moved over, and the last thing I remember of that day was that the silhouette of a Porsche 911 with a glowing exhaust pipe as it passed us.
Oh – and we did get home. I’d managed to save enough for one souvenir that actually survived the trip back, and that I still have after all these years.
This is a story about cars.
Well, more than just cars…
One complete car.
Parts of two others.
And me, who used the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® I was so blessed with at the time.
Wait – a better way to describe “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®” is “Stupidity beyond comprehension” – and before I get any notes from angry teenagers, read on, and see if you don’t see yourself in this – (note: don’t try this at home – or, for that matter, anywhere else. )
So aside from me, the cars involved in today’s story were:
A 1965 Saab 95 – with a three cylinder, two stroke engine of a whopping 46 cubic inches. (for comparison: a standard Harley Davidson has almost twice that, about 80 cubic inches, across two cylinders).
A 1956 VW Bug (but mainly the engine – an original 1956, 36 horsepower, 4 cylinder, air cooled, ORIGINAL Bug engine)
And a 1972 Ford Ranchero, with a 390 Cubic inch V8 under the hood, with a 4 barrel carburetor, dual 2 ½ inch exhausts that made a barely passing attempt to muffle the roar of the engine.
It was said it could pass anything but a gas station, and I learned much later, how true this was. Of course, this was back when I was irritated at gas costing a whole 66 cents a gallon, and refusing to buy it at that price…
The Ranchero belonged to my uncle, and I’d had some trouble with the Saab, the kind that had the engine sitting on the shop floor while we figured out how to drill a rather important broken bolt out of it.
This took a bit longer than expected, and I had to do something that evening, before we were able to get the engine back in the Saab.
You see, I was the cadet commander for the McChord Composite Squadron of Civil Air Patrol, and one of the things I did was teach the younger cadets about anything having to do with aviation, leadership, and in general being a good cadet.
One part of aviation is airplane engines, and so I figured, given that I was trying to restore a 1956 Bug, which happened to have an air-cooled engine of the same configuration as many airplane engines, I’d planned on using it to demonstrate to the younger cadets what an airplane engine might look like.
I’d been gathering parts for the Bug for some time, and had found, for $100.00, an absolutely bone stock, original, 36 horsepower engine actually out of another 1956 bug that had been in a front end collision. With the gas tank in the front, the car burned, and was a total loss. The only thing worth saving was the engine, so the owner had taken it out of the car and put it in a garage and there it sat for a couple of decades. It still had the original distributor cap on the distributor, still turned over, and interestingly, still had oil in it.
To actually, run, it would need to be rebuilt, (the spark plug wires were a little crumbly from the heat of that fire) but you didn’t find engines like this very often, and I was absolutely thrilled to have it.
However, I’d planned on taking it to the Civil Air Patrol meeting in the back of the Saab, and the engine of that car was sitting on the floor of my uncle’s shop.
My uncle, bless him, offered to loan me his Ranchero.
Now understand, I was used to an engine with three cylinders the size of coke cans pulling me along.
The Ranchero’s engine had 8 cylinders the size of small Central American countries, and had about 7 times the power of the Saab.
In fact, let’s just say that the gas pedal on the Ranchero worked really, REALLY well. In fact, it worked far, FAR better than the gas pedal of any car driven by a teenager should work.
And then there were the brakes.
Oh my gosh, it had disk brakes, 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
The ones I had in the Saab were little itty bitty drum brakes that I thought sucked – and it turned out I was right… only two of the four brake shoes on the front of that Saab actually worked at the time.
The difference was incredible.
I was used to a certain level of acceleration from the Saab (a speed rivaled by melting glaciers, I might add), and it became very obvious, very fast, that I would have to recalibrate my right foot for the increased acceleration available in the Ranchero.
What was not obvious was that I would have to do the same for the increased deceleration – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took the Ranchero home, backed it up to where the VW engine was and then just kind of stood there, trying to figure out how to get the engine up into the back of the thing. Eventually I got some planks, and slid the engine up onto the bed on them, getting it into the back by myself, and with the engine loaded in the back, I shut the tailgate on the bottom and the canopy gate on the top.
By this time, what with the original problem with the Saab, plus the loading of the engine and such, by the time I put my Civil Air Patrol uniform on and got in the car, I was quite a bit later than I thought I would be, and so I did the rather typical teenage thing.
I tried to turn my uncle’s Ranchero into a time machine.
There was an 8 mile stretch of two lane road that I’d driven many, many times in the Saab, and with the acceleration that it had (imagine that under the hood are three hibernating squirrels (because of the glacier mentioned earlier) who had NO intention of accelerating the car enough to pass someone that’s going too slow for an impatient teenage driver) I’d learned that if I were driving that Saab, there were only two or three spots on this 8 mile stretch that were actually safe to pass another car in. So my standard process, regardless of impatience, was to fade back from the car I was about to pass and wait until I had plenty of clear space in front of me and lots of clear space in the oncoming lane before I started to pass someone.
When the time was right, I’d floor it to get a running start, staying directly behind the person I was about to pass, because I needed the draft that their car pushing through the air provided to keep my speed up. I’d then, at the last second, pull out and pass them, assuming everything was clear. If it wasn’t, or if I didn’t get enough speed up, or my timing was off and there was still oncoming traffic by the time I (the passer) got up to the person I was passing (the passee) I’d have to try to abort the pass, and with the brilliantly functional brakes (sarcasm intended) on the Saab, trying to abort a pass at that late stage could be a touch challenging.
I mean, by the time I got to the point of making the decision to pass, I’d be gaining on them at about 10-20 mph, and at the last moment, I faced one of two choices
- If there was still no oncoming traffic, I’d pull out and pass them.
- If there was oncoming traffic, I’d have to abort the pass, which would give me the following decisions: I could
- Rear end them (generally undesirable at that speed)
- Whip out into oncoming traffic and risk a head on collision… (significantly less desirable at that speed) or
- Slam on the brakes and hope and pray that I had enough brake shoes making contact with brake drums to actually slow me down to keep from rear ending them.
So there I was, late… impatient as all getout… not in the underpowered Saab I was used to, but in this car that was not my own…
…that had more power under my right foot than I’d ever had in my life.
…that had more braking power than I’d ever had under my right foot in my life.
…and that had more rubber on the road in two of its four tires than I had on all four Saab tires.
Now just between you and me, I’m thinking this is a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, let’s find out…
I made it about 3 ½ miles from home, and on this road it didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to matter what time of day you’re driving it, there will be someone who isn’t in nearly as much of a hurry as you are… In this case, I was stuck behind someone who insisted on going 50 mph (which was below speed limit). I was late and impatient, and in my teenage mind, I just couldn’t take any of that, so I waited for a clear spot I’d used in the Saab, hit my blinkers, the gas pedal (oh… my…) and pulled out to pass.
Now one of the things to know about this road is that a lot of it is in shadow most of the day, with occasional little spots where there is sunshine.
I was in that sunshine, passing the car that was driving so slowly, and I was passing him like I’d never, ever passed a car before.
This time, I had room to pass.
This time, I was going way, way faster than the person I was passing.
This time, everything was going to end up just peachy.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
…which is when a bright flaming red 1974 VW Bug popped out of the shadows about a quarter of a mile ahead of me.
There’s no radiator on the front of this thing, it’s all bright freaking red.
Like a stoplight.
And it didn’t look like it was a quarter of a mile away, it looked like it was a hundred yards away, and coming at me with a closing speed of about 130 miles an hour (figuring my 75 plus his 55). I knew, in that moment that I had to do something, and do it quickly.
So I, using my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, did what would have made sense if I were driving the Saab, which would have been to stop badgering the hibernating squirrels under the hood and stand on the brake pedal, trying to avoid a head on collision.
But remember, I wasn’t driving the Saab.
I was driving the Ranchero.
And as I said, I was doing about 75 miles an hour – which is fast for that road, (impossible for that Saab) but is also a good passing speed for a short distance, and, well, let’s put it this way:
My body was driving the Ranchero.
My brain was still in Saab mode.
And with that big bright red Bug in front of me, I did the only thing I could possibly think of doing.
I hit those brakes.
…those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
With, remember, more rubber on just the front wheels than the Saab had on all four.
The Ranchero went from 75 to about 45 like it had hit a brick wall.
The driver I was passing had to be confused beyond words, I mean, here’s this blur of a car roaring past him, not like he’s standing still, but like he’s going backwards. He’s expecting to see tail lights any second, but what he saw were brake lights out the side window, the back of the Ranchero kicked up, the nose went down, and then it simply disappeared.
He looked around, and the next thing he knew, it was behind him again, weaving around a little bit, but definitely back there.
What the driver of that car didn’t know was that while the Ranchero had those huge brakes, the classic 36 horsepower 1956 VW Bug engine, the one with the original everything including the crumbly spark plug wires all the way down to the spark plugs, did not.
In fact, it decided to maintain its speed for about 8 feet, at which point it hit the front of the bed of the Ranchero. It did this by rolling, yes, rolling to the front of the bed, where it sat, wounded and bleeding 25 year old dinosaur juice all over the bottom of the bed while I tried to swerve back into my lane so I didn’t end up squished between not one, but two VW engines (one from the red VW in front of me coming at me, and one from the wounded and bleeding engine behind me).
On top of it all, I was stunned, shocked, embarrassed, and furious at myself for not only not having thought this through, but for doing something so stupid in the first place, but there was nothing I could do but seethe as the person in front of me tootled along for the next 4 ½ miles, definitely below the speed limit.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but remember, I was operating under Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, and I knew that when we got to the next intersection, I’d be able to turn left, onto a multi-lane road, and I’d be able to pass him.
Which is exactly what I set out to do when we got there.
The light turned green, the slow driver ahead of me turned left and went into the outside lane. The rumble of the 390 in the Ranchero turned into a roar as I turned left, cut inside him, and floored it.
I heard all those cylinders firing, I heard the transmission whine, I heard those two exhausts roar, and I heard my 1956 VW Bug engine , its ability to travel completely lubricated now by all that ancient oil between it and the bed of the Ranchero, sliding, trying to make a hasty exit out the back.
I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see it hit the closed tailgate and knock it open.
All I could imagine in that blink of an eye was the guy I’d just passed wondering why it hadn’t been enough for me to pass him like that, why he was now being passed by an old VW engine sliding down the road – without even a car attached to it.
I couldn’t let that happen, so with the image of the engine popping open both the top and bottom tailgates frozen in my mind, I remembered just enough of my physics, and did the only thing I could possibly do at the time.
I hit the brakes.
(Yes, those brakes)
Those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
Attached to a veritable plantation of rubber…
…and the engine (the VW one) came rolling back to the front of the bed, where it lay, like a prize fighter down for the count.
I pulled over.
I just couldn’t drive any further right then, with the back open and the engine sitting there all cattywompus, so I got out and checked the tailgate. It was fine. I shut it to see if it would, actually, shut, (it did) but one look at the engine, and it was a mess. The distributor cap was broken, the rotor inside the cap was broken, various important fan shroud pieces were now dented and mangled.
I opened the tailgate again and got up in the back, trying to keep myself from slipping or getting too oily in my clean uniform. I managed to manhandle the engine upright, (which is a challenge when you’re trying to keep your shoes and knees out of the oil on the ‘floor’ there – and an even harder challenge when you realize how very little room you have trying to stand up in the back of a Ranchero with a canopy on it). I pushed it all the way to the front of the bed, knowing that hitting the brakes would put it there anyway. That oil coating the bottom of the bed now really changed things a bit, so I had to be extra careful, and I still had to get to the Civil Air Patrol meeting, where I’d be teaching the cadets about all the exciting things they could learn about aviation, and how important lubrication was in allowing metal parts to move past each other… freely.
Remember, I was the commander, and I was supposed to look sharp, and be calm, cool, and collected.. Having a greasy uniform wasn’t an option, so after getting the engine all upright and everything, I wiped my hands on the only thing available (the ground) and drove, very, VERY carefully out to McChord, to train my cadets.
They learned a little, and I managed to get myself, the Ranchero, and the VW engine home safely.
But I think, as I look back, I learned more.
I learned that impatience can be expensive, and dangerous.
I learned that otherwise intelligent people can do stupid things.
And the cadets, who looked up to me both figuratively and literally, had absolutely no idea, as leaderly as I looked, how fully capable I was of doing stupid things that would boggle their minds, and in my impatient attempt to get there on time, how close I came to not getting there at all.
Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks. Some of these things are legal, some are not. Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry. There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.
And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.
And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out. It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.
One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.
It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.
Was it entertaining?
Did it fly well?
It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.
It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…
I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…
What could possibly go wrong?
In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.
We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing. We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.
So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.
Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.
The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.
I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell. I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.
By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.
I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car. It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again. That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers. The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.
Jimi was just beside himself.
I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was. The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.
I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.
It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.
We just laughed and laughed and laughed.
And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.
I miss him.
For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.
Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”
Yeah, we supervised alright.
It was a good day.
Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.
Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.
I had to have a meeting with the head of security at work last week.
In his office…
We decided to get some fresh air while we were doing it.
And some scenery…
He let me lead the meeting for a bit while he was researching some stuff – (full frame shot there)
And I didn’t have to use the barf bag at all – (though I was sure thinking about it – seems the resonant frequency of my tummy means 120 mph isn’t a good thing… 90 mph works fine.
Finally it was time to call the meeting to a close…
And I sat in the airport lobby for awhile – just letting my tummy settle down – it was good to let that happen.
It was fun – too much other stuff going on – I simply had to take the day off to try to decompress.
Take care folks –