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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 that summer.
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 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.
At first Heidi didn’t know what she was part of that evening.
She refilled our glasses, she kept the food and drink coming, and then she did what all good waitresses do.
She left us alone.
We were sitting in a nondescript restaurant, the three of us, sharing stories, memories, and laughing ourselves silly.
The last time the three of us had been together was about 32 years earlier, and I got to pondering about the journeys we’d all not only taken, but survived to get to this table in this restaurant. What had brought us together was a funeral, the death of J.C. Masura…
…who’d been our commander many years earlier when we were all in the same Civil Air Patrol Squadron on what was then McChord Air Force Base. J.C. had been a loadmaster on C-130’s and C-141’s, back in the day, and up until recently had run an aviation maintenance facility at an airfield near his home.
Of the three of us there in that restaurant after the funeral and reception, there was Aaron.
He told a story of being up on Mount Rainier during his Civil Air Patrol days, trying to put his tent together and it being a tangle of poles and cloth. He told of J.C. coming over, and being relieved that he’d have help to solve this problem. J.C. did help. He said, “Son, if you don’t get this tent up, you’re gonna die. So you’d better figure it out.”
And Aaron did.
The most vivid memory I have of Aaron was when we were trying to ram him through the bushes (<–story) on one of our searches. This evening, however, he was sitting across the table from me, in a uniform that spoke of honor, valor and courage. A uniform that spoke of someone who no longer needed to be pushed through bushes, but led people through walls.
As we sat there, reminiscing, and as Heidi kept our water glasses and plates full, Aaron told stories that had us laughing, and shaking our heads in amazement.
He told of coming back from one of many missions to a country in the Middle East, ‘the sandbox’, exhausted to the core, and climbing onto a ubiquitous, anonymous Air Force cargo plane that was to take him home, only to find himself being welcomed onto the plane by a loadmaster with the familiar name of Masura stitched to his uniform. It seems J.C’s oldest son (we knew him as Jimmy) had followed in his father’s footsteps, and was now a loadmaster himself, with enough stripes on his arm to put the fear of God into even the highest ranking officer.
Aaron, the highly decorated soldier, slept most of the flight home, watched over not by a stranger, but by a friend.
Heidi came by about then to refill our glasses, and it was obvious to her that she was seeing, and was part of, something very special. It was obvious we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Typical of such reunions, she said, was folks from college getting back together. She was amazed to hear that we hadn’t seen each other since high school, and even more amazed that we’d gotten together at all.
Then there was Bill, who I’d been able to keep in touch with a little more. I have many memories of Bill, some of which have actually been written down. One of those involved our Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a regional Drill competition (<–story) in Oregon, and the memories of the looks on people’s faces when they saw us beating them at their own game.
Bill was dressed in a suit jacket and tie for the funeral, had become a world traveler, working as a biologist and traveling to every continent on the planet, and some places that don’t come remotely close to being continents. Bill told a story about going back to Antarctica, where before they could study the penguins, and the wildlife, one of the first orders of business was getting things habitable, and during that time it was discovered that the ‘facilities’ had been buried in 7 feet of snow since they were last there. By the time they got everything dug out and opened up for use, they discovered several inches of frost on the toilet seat.
We laughed about the “when I was your age” stories that would grow into: “When I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy things called toilets, we had to dig through 7 feet of snow just to get to a seat with a hole in it. And it had FROST on it. And we had to melt that off ourselves…”
“With our Butts.”
Yeah, I can see that…
We’d get post cards from Bill every now and then, telling of his adventures in warmer climates, too. He told one story – and it wasn’t even a story, but just a vignette, of writing one of his post cards, in this case to his sister, sitting under a tree somewhere in Africa, and writing it by candle light, because it was all he had. When a scorpion crawled across the postcard as he was writing it, looking for bugs that might have been attracted by the candle, he decided it was time to call it a night.
Heidi came back and checked on us, and the stories continued.
I’d had some of my own adventures – some of which I’ve written about, some not, and we marveled, literally, not just about the various journeys we’d gone on to get to this table, in this restaurant, but the fact that we’d survived them all. Even though we were there for hours, each one of us had stories that there wasn’t time to share that evening, and each one of us had stories of adventure and danger, as well as growth and promise that we realized would have to wait for another day.
We pondered that, and found ourselves all taking a collective breath. As we did, we realized the restaurant had grown quiet. There was no conversation, no bustling of waiters. In fact, the only sounds we heard were those of clinking dishes as the staff cleaned up the restaurant, which had closed around us.
We were the last customers in the place, and the doors were locked.
Heidi, bless her, came by one last time, and let us out…
…and stood in the parking lot for another half hour, talking and shivering in the dark, but vowing that we would get together again without someone having to die in order for it to happen.
There were friends who were not able to make it this time, and friends who would not make it, ever.
And it got me thinking…
Why do we wait so long?
One person asked me, “Why is it we wait till we have nothing but weddings and funerals to get together?”
Why do we often just get stuck in our little ruts and miss out on some of the cool stuff of life, like sharing stories and laughing, and – why does it take something *more* special than just getting together to get us to get together? (yeah, I read that a couple of times myself too before I let it go, but it works…)
I mean – the three of us hadn’t been together in over 3 decades.
Not a week later I had occasion to go to a friend’s birthday party. I was fighting off a bug and wasn’t feeling too well yet, but for heaven’s sake, it had been years since I’d seen him, so I went. He’d hit the big 5 decade mark, and wondered the same thing… why do we get stuck in our little ruts?
I know the answer to this – and there’s a story in it, which I’ll tell later, but in a nutshell, it’s because it takes more energy to get out of a rut than it does to fall into one.
Sometimes that energy comes because you see patterns and realize if you don’t change something, the pattern is pretty predictable. Sometimes the energy comes in the adrenaline fueled by the sudden, tragic realization that nothing lasts forever, and everything, everything comes to an end, whether we want to believe it or not.
So – and I’m realizing I’ve been ending a lot of stories with this theme: Make sure you let the ones you love know that while you can.
Hug your husband/wife.
Hug your kids.
Hug your parents. Even if it’s a verbal hug, with a phone call, card, or email.
Just do it.
A friend wrote recently that he’d found out another friend had passed away, and somehow 10 years had slipped by since they’d talked. You never know when your last words with someone will indeed be your last words with someone.
Sometimes a telephone call will reopen doors to old friendships. Sometimes you’ll find those doors have closed and it’s time to move on. That might hurt, but regardless the door’s position, at least you’ll know, and you’ll be able to open or close it yourself. And you’ll actually have a chance to know what those last words with someone will be. Make sure they’re good ones.
In the end, what changed is that I did just that.
I picked up the phone and checked up on some old friends and kept in touch with them more. I found some doors opened wide again, and found some doors closed – I write all this from experience, both joyful and painful.
And I tried, as best I could, when I saw that one of those doors had closed, to make my last words good ones.
So take care of yourselves. This is the one time we have through this life.
Take care of each other, too. You never know when you’ll need each other.
Oh, and if you happen to meet a waitress named Heidi, working at the Outback Steakhouse in Puyallup, Washington, who keeps your glasses full and allows you to enjoy your reunion time with your friends, give her a good tip.
She deserves it.
It’s been a year since the events in this story unfolded, and it took this long to think them through, get some perspective, apply some of the lessons I learned, and be ready to share them with you. That might make a little more sense now that you’ve read it.
Aaron is still in the Army – he invited us to help celebrate his promotion recently, and we shared more stories, more laughs. We kept the promise to get together more often, and made more promises to do it again.
Bill and I got together the day after my birthday last year along with another friend, Mark, and have kept in touch more. He’s doing a little less exploring, but still doesn’t have a “desk” job. He couldn’t make it to the promotion party because he was strapped into a small airplane, flying around the hinterlands of the country in an airplane, counting Elk.
Jimmy’s still in the Air Force, I saw him at Aaron’s celebration, and they got along like the old friends they are, not with the stuffy formality you might expect of an officer and an enlisted man. It was fun to see that.
J.C.’s wife – well – widow – hard to write that, but it’s true – is doing all the things you do when you’ve lost a loved one. That first year, I can tell you from experience, is a hard one. I’ve kept in touch with them as I could over the last 12 months, not as much as I’d like, but far more than the previous 30 years or so.
And as time, and the years, go on, I’m realizing more and more that the things that are valuable to me are less and less the things that gather dust, or rust, or whatever. They’re the relationships I treasure with friends old and new.
Now go out there, and find some treasure. (and then come back and share what you found, you might help other people get out of their ruts with your stories.)
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,
It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, which we celebrate on July 4th.
July 4th, when I was a kid, was a lot – shall we say, louder, than it is today.
For me, it has always involved:
- anything that could explode (or be made to explode)
- anything that could fly (or be made to fly),
- or anything that could make lots of sparks (or be made to make lots of sparks).
Of course, if I was able to make something that combined all three, that was a serious bonus.
So – oh – fair warning, if you think about this for just a couple of seconds (me writing about something that involves things that go boom in the night) this story falls squarely in the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” category – a series of stories I told my son as he was growing up, in hopes that he would not do those stupid things.
Note… that’s known in the trade as “foreshadowing” – you have been warned.
So part of my standard Fourth of July routine when I was a teenager was to drive around with some of my friends either from school or from Civil Air Patrol and watch some of the air shows in the area (usually the one that started at Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington) – and somehow or other, we’d find some of the fireworks that, depending on where you were, might have been a little on the slightly less than legal side of things.
One year, there were at least 4 of us in my folk’s 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon – the version with the 1.1 liter engine (with a power output roughly equivalent to 2.5 hypercaffeinated rabid squirrels) – and we bombed (yes, I used that word on purpose) around the greater Tacoma area, watching and contributing to the fireworks… My friend Bruce, sitting behind me was lighting bottle rockets and dropping them out the back window (the kind that flips out at the bottom, not the kind that rolls down), where they would occasionally add a little excitement to the festivities being, um, ‘enjoyed’ by people whose houses we drove past.
For some reason, at one point he decided to throw a firecracker out MY window, and instead of going out the window, it bounced off the door pillar and landed on my shoulder belt, right next to my left ear.
Where it exploded before it could fall any farther.
The words I used to describe my thoughts about that particular action – while I couldn’t hear them because my left ear was ringing (as it did for several hours afterwards) – made it clear to Bruce that putting lit firecrackers next to the ear of the driver of the car you’re riding in gets aaaawfully close to the top ten list of stupid things you can do on the Fourth of July.
Bruce resumed throwing smoke bombs and bottle rockets out the window.
I made sure my window was rolled all the way down, *just in case* he chose to do something else…
…and – as I ponder this, while I’m writing – I suppose that given that I’m a little older now, if I saw kids doing that, I’d be a little torn between wanting to yell at them for doing something stupid, and yet remembering what it was like to drive around with my friends, doing stuff that was fun, didn’t damage anything but my eardrums (though I’m sure it could have gotten a *bit* more dangerous), or – oh who the HECK am I kidding? – we were driving around, throwing explosives out of the car… wouldn’t that be considered more than just a little dangerous?
Oh, if my son only knew of this one… his take is that I have set the stupidity bar so high that he either
a) has no chance on the planet of reaching it, or
b) it gives him such room that I have to cut him a stunning amount of slack, given what I managed to get away with and/or survive….
Sigh… the trials of parenting.
But hey – stupidity at that level – no – surviving stupidity at that level – is making for stories years later.
Anyway – over the years, our July 4th forays would take us over from one house (Bruce’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his Grampa’s truck) to another (Bill’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his dad’s VW 411) and we would just drive around Tacoma, enjoying the sights, watching and/or adding to the fireworks, and in general, having a good time.
I wonder if Bill’s dad and Bruce’s Grampa ever noticed that their vehicles got worse gas mileage around the first week of July.
Now at some point, some of the people reading this who are now parents will have that little phrase “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” going through their heads.
I need you to stop, because you’re getting ahead of me.
(Remember that ‘foreshadowing’ bit? Right… this is more of it…)
So another year, it was our friend Doug, with Bill and me, and that year several of us were way, WAY into model rockets, and Bill, having much experience with them, decided that bottle rockets weren’t anywhere NEAR powerful enough… I mean, they ignite for maybe a 10th of a second, coast for a bit, then go bang.
No, Bill decided we needed to go to his house and get something significantly bigger, and he found either a D or an E rocket engine that we ended up using.
I remember his excitement as he taped about 10 firecrackers to the front of the rocket engine, with the fuses wadded up inside, and then taped the whole assembly to a hunk of bamboo he found lying around somewhere.
It was, we concluded, long before Saddam Hussein used a term like it, “The Mother of all Bottle Rockets”. We handled it gently, and Bill knew of a ball field near his house that appeared to be suitable for launching rockets, so we piled into the car and headed over.
We’d grabbed sodas at Bill’s house, so we all had aluminum cans and various aerial instruments of mayhem as we got out and headed out to the baseball diamond to let things loose. Bill jammed the stick end of his rocket into the ground and wiggled it so it’d be loose, so when lit – the rocket would go up.
Now since Bill had learned all about rockets and had built this one, we deferred to him to do the actual launch.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever launched a model rocket at night before – but they launch rather dramatically.
They launch loud, and it seems that they run forever, compared to the bottle rockets we’d been launching.
I mean, in comparison, we’d have a bottle rocket:
A good one might go up 100 feet or so.
But as Bill lit the fuse and told us to stand back – in case it tipped over, he said – we asked him how far that one would go. He did some quick calculating in his head as the fuse burned, realizing that the motor wasn’t lifting anything more than itself and 10 firecrackers taped to a stick, and said something like, “More than 1,000 feet, for sure”.
About then the fuse actually lit – it roared and shot up so fast we could barely swing our heads fast enough to keep up with it.
And the engine kept burning, and burning, and burning, for what seemed like eternity.
I remember thinking it looked like a star up there, and then, the star went out, as if someone hadn’t paid their light bill. Bill said, “Keep watching” – and then we saw a bunch of little sparkles – which threw me, until a few seconds later, we heard, “bang!…… Bubububang! Bang!” as the sound from the 10 firecrackers actually got to us about 1,000 feet below…
We were pretty stoked, and were going to shoot some more stuff when Bill reminded us of one of those little pesky laws of physics – namely that what goes up, must come down…
So we looked up…
We looked up some more…
Tapping our toes and looking at our watches, we waited some more…
Then, faintly, we heard this sound coming from roughly where we’d last seen the rocket:
shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw
It was the stick of bamboo, with a dead rocket engine still taped to it, twirling down.
It landed – and stuck in the ground – about 50 feet from where we were. Bill was glad it hadn’t landed on the roofs of any of the houses in the area. So, of course, were we – but we didn’t know, until that point, that we needed to be.
We weren’t done yet.
We still had quite a few bottle rockets left over – and so we started lighting them off. But they just weren’t anywhere close to what we’d experienced with the big one – so, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves shooting a little more horizontally.
Now remember, we were out on a baseball diamond… (I think this is it here – though there was a baseball diamond there that was, as I recall, closer to the tennis courts at the time.) I was standing on second base – Bill was standing on first, and our friend Doug was kind of where shortstop would be. Bill, at that point, thought he’d fire a rocket between Doug and me. (note – in case it’s not obvious, this is about 1:00 in the morning – July 5th now – and the only light on the field was from streetlights at the edges.
It was about as dark as it could get in Tacoma.)
I heard his rocket go off, then felt what could charitably be described as a pretty significant sensation as it hit me right in the lower lip from Bill’s direction, flew a few more feet and exploded.
I looked at Bill.
No, that’s not nearly descriptive enough. I glared at Bill.
My eyes were focused on burning holes into his.
“You shot me!
You freaking shot me!”
“I didn’t mean to – I was trying to shoot between you and Doug!”
At that point, I was in just a bit of pain, and tasted blood, in more ways than one.
I found there was a second use for the mug root beer can I had, which was, if you held it just right after you put a lit bottle rocket into it – just like holding the handle of a pistol – so I lit it and aimed at Bill – he’d come over to see if I was okay – but once he saw the bottle rocket aimed his way, he started to run. I remember just tracking him as the rocket lit off – the top of the can acting as a blast shield. The rocket lit, sparks flew, and it tracked straight at him, but I wasn’t leading enough, so it flew over his left shoulder and blew up about 10 feet past him…
…and about then we realized that it was clearly time to call it a night. We were no longer thinking straight, and besides, the root beer now tasted vaguely of gunpowder.
Everyone gathered to see how badly I’d been injured (a piece of my lower lip had gone with the bottle rocket as it hit – but what I really got out of it was a pretty fat lip. This thing swelled up almost instantly.
Doug reassured me that these things swell up pretty fast, and not to worry. I think there may have been an element of CYA there as we all decided that we were lucky and blessed not to have gotten caught, or worse yet, injured at the level of stupidity (also known as “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®”) we were operating under.
By then, the pain was starting to sink in, and the thing I wanted to do was just get home and go to bed. I’d often worked the closing shift at a restaurant in high school, so my folks were used to me coming in late. However, this was somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning, and despite my trying to be quiet, I managed to wake my mom up as I was trying to wedge my toothbrush around that bottle rocket-provided, formerly lip shaped obstacle in front of my teeth.
She was more than a little concerned that I was coming home with a fat, bloody lip at 2:30 in the morning, and wanted to know what had happened. She was, as moms all over the world are, worried that I was hurt – and of course, I wasn’t telling her the whole story right then.
She kept asking questions, and I kept trying to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see the fat lip (it was pretty hard to hide, and was about as useful to me as the last time I’d spent several hours in the dentist’s chair, with half of my face numb and just hanging there. It was just a touch hard to talk without it being obvious that there was something wrong) – but she was persistent, and wanted to see if I was okay. Eventually I showed her, she was satisfied that I’d be okay – and suggested I get to bed.
And of course, it’s only later, as I think about what *could* have gone wrong, that I realize how much overtime my guardian angels were putting in.
Oh – it should be noted, by the way, that alcohol was not involved in any of these adventures.
Everything we did was done stone cold sober.
Which meant we remembered it all…
© 2012 Tom Roush
Many years ago, I was in Civil Air Patrol, the Official Auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Among the missions of the Civil Air Patrol is Search, and Rescue.
I’ve mentioned it before, there were other things we did, but one of the very important things we learned was all about Search and Rescue, or SAR.
One the hallmarks of a good search was when the person was found.
One of the things that made that possible was the organization that was part of every search. There was communication (we had an old M-715 military surplus communications truck (mentioned in this story) with radios of all varying frequencies, so we could be a relay to the myriad of agencies that could be part of a large search), there were all the volunteers who showed up, and then there were the people who did the searching. Sometimes the searching was done from the air, but that was to get a general sense of where things might be. The end of a search was often done from the ground. In both circumstances, we would work what was called a grid pattern, so we would always know what had been searched, and what had yet to be searched.
What was drilled into us at the time was that you searched a part of the grid, and if you didn’t find what you were looking for, you crossed that square off, and then moved to your next assigned section. It was almost sacred, how important that was. The commanders had to know with 100% certainty which grids had been searched and which ones still needed to be. Therefore, you did not, under any circumstances, deviate from the grid pattern.
So to practice these searches, and these techniques, we had training. Each squad (two to four cadets) had a map of the area being searched. We each had a compass, and we had our assigned grid sections. And we did everything we could do to be prepared for any emergency, at any time.
And then one day, every member of the squadron got a phone call.
The phone call.
Someone was actually lost.
Someone needed to be both searched for and rescued.
This time it was for real.
This time someone’s life was really on the line.
This time someone needed help, and so with adrenaline flowing like never before, we all did what we’d been training to do for what seemed like ‘ever’. We gathered our pre-packed gear, put on our uniforms, and assembled the squadron to go to find this person who’d completely disappeared. The family was in shock, and for everyone’s benefit, the person in question needed to be found.
We created a command post near where the person was last seen.
We assembled our vehicles.
We spread our maps on the most convenient flat thing around (that would be the warm hoods of cars), got our compasses out, and planned our search. To be honest, it looked very much like an old war movie. The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee. Actually, come to think of it, the maps were held down on the hoods of those cars with what was probably cups of, by then, lukewarm 7-11 coffee.
After the planning, we were each assigned a section, and the leaders would gather their squads together and give instructions. We’d go out initially in groups of two or four cadets, each squad having one copy of the map of the area divided up into the now familiar and very sacred grid pattern, and we started searching.
In my group, there was Aaron, Bruce, Dave, and me. Aaron had this back problem, so he had this huge brace that he’d wear from his hips to his neck, and we’d always want to be careful that he didn’t hurt himself. The thing we weren’t used to was that Aaron’s view of the brace wasn’t that it was a hindrance, but that it was just part of life, and being careful about it really wasn’t something he was concerned with. So we went and searched the grid area to the northeast of the house, and since this was a real live search, we were going to leave no stone unturned. If this person was out there, we were going to find them. It was a matter of safety for them, and a matter of pride for us, so we put all our training to use, and we searched.
Now one of the things they didn’t tell us about this grid pattern was that if there was something truly in your way, you could walk around it.
In fact, they’d never said we could walk around anything.
I suppose because when they drilled it into us that we were to maintain those straight grid lines, that we hadn’t thought to ask, but when we got to our designated section of the grid, there was this huge, house sized thicket of bushes in front of us. A lesser (or a smarter) group of people would think thoughts like, “If you can’t even part the shrubbery, how could you possibly get there to actually be lost?” – Seriously –the bushes were so thick we couldn’t even get into them, much less get through them.
But remember, this was during a time of youth. This was when we were full of energy, testosterone, and Infinite Teenage Wisdom®.
And Aaron, bless him, said, “Grab my brace and push me through!”
We thought he was nuts. This was like taking someone’s cast off their broken leg and beating off an attacker with it – it just didn’t seem right. But Aaron insisted, and so he got in front, I remember grabbing his brace through his shirt, Bruce had his hands in the middle of my back, and – well, I couldn’t see what happened past Bruce, but on the count of three, we all shoved Aaron into the thicket.
We had to do it over and over, and each time, pushing Aaron a little further into the thicket.
Luckily, this wasn’t a briar patch, or images of Brer Rabbit would have been quite appropriate. No, this was just a thicket of bushes, along the side of this country road that was on our grid.
Eventually we made it through the other side of that thicket (which was really deeper into the woods), and this may not come as a surprise, but we didn’t find that our lost person was in there. We radioed that our grid was clear. We were ordered to split up and I was given another grid with another cadet. This time we were to be walking on public roads, so we were issued bright orange vests to go over our fatigues. That way it would be safer, and our presence would be obvious from some distance.
We walked some distance on that road, making some turns and such, following the instructions on the map we’d been given, but again, didn’t find what we were looking for, so we were able to successfully mark that grid clear. We were invited to come back to the command post for a break, and so we headed in that direction, but while the map seemed to show us that we were heading back, the countryside looked quite unfamiliar. In fact, we had walked quite some distance, and because we were to cover all the ground in our grid, had taken some turns we weren’t expecting, turns we didn’t see until we got there to take them, and eventually, unintentionally, had walked off the edge of the map, so to speak. We had to backtrack a good bit, and were coming back in from a direction we hadn’t planned on coming back from.
Eventually we started seeing familiar territory, and I decided to call the command post on the radio and let them know we were on the way in, and I heard a voice on the radio say something that I still remember to this day.
“Understood. I’ve got you in sight”
Have us in sight?
How could they have us in sight? For that matter, how long had they had us in sight?
We couldn’t see them, how could they see us?
It turns out they had binoculars – and because we’d gone off the grid, we were late coming back, and they were looking for us. In fact, they’d had some hot food and something to drink ready and waiting for us, and had been keeping track of all of us for some time as we were walking back… Those orange vests we’d thought were so funny earlier were actually turning out to be pretty useful, and even then, it got me thinking. How many times do we wander off on our own merry way in our lives, going places we really don’t have any business going, that don’t make any sense at all?
It made me wonder how many times we actually work hard at doing the stupid things we do in our lives, either allowing ourselves to be pushed, or even enlisting the help of our friends to push us into places we really shouldn’t be.
And sometimes we end up completely off the grid, in places we didn’t expect to be at all.
How many times, when we should be paying attention to being where God really wants us to be, do we end up getting ourselves lost, even when we have a map we could use to guide us, or better yet, have a radio we could use to simply push the button and check in?
And how many times, when the light finally comes on, so to speak, and we do check in, do we hear, “Come on in, I’ve got you in sight?”
I’ve pondered that over the years, wondering how often God simply watches us through His binoculars, to see how long it actually takes us to come to our senses, and start heading home, back to the command post, where He’s got hot dogs and cokes waiting for us.
We learned later, after we told the story about the bushes, that we actually didn’t have to walk through things on the grid that were in our way. We had permission to walk around things that we couldn’t walk through as long as we got back onto the grid again. Sometimes that kind of stuff happens. Things get in the way. You step around them, get back on the grid, and move on. It turns out that takes a lot less energy than trying to fight your way through something that’s bigger and stronger than you are.
Ironically, had I used the radio I had clipped to my belt to ask about that at the time, I would have gotten a very quick answer right then that would have saved us (and Aaron) a lot of trouble, but we were so busy ramming Aaron through the bushes that we didn’t think of calling in and asking for advice.
Of course, given that we were operating with that ever popular “Infinite Teenage Wisdom®,” that would have made far too much sense.
Over the years, I’ve found myself wondering if there’s an adult version of “Infinite Teenage Wisdom®”. (I’m sure there is)
I wonder how often we do things like that when we grow up, how often we stray from the map, and get off the grid in ways we really don’t mean to, only to get pushed around by things that are bigger and stronger than we are.
I wonder how often we do that and don’t realize that we could just walk around them instead of spending all our energy trying to fight them.
I still wonder how long they had been watching us, and I wonder about that radio I had on my belt, the one that when I used it to let someone know we were on our way back, broadcast the words, “I’ve got you in sight…”
And I wonder how often, in life, even if we stray off the map, we might actually hear God saying words like that if we were really paying attention.
It turns out – both on that search, and in life, we weren’t completely lost.
He’d known where we were all along.
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.
I was on the phone with my mom the other day, and she said a couple of words that I’d never, ever heard from her.
We were all going through a rough time, so she wished us well, she said, “individually and collectively”.
The last time I’d heard those words said like that was in 1978, at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and I realized I had another story to write.
Back then I was in Civil Air Patrol, and our squadron, based at McChord Air Force Base, had one of the best military style drill teams around. We had a group of young men and a few young ladies who could march beside each other, between each other, we could literally march rings around each other. You name it, we could do it, and we looked sharp. Each state was organized as a “Wing” – and several of these “Wings” made up a Region (several states)
We had Wing drill competitions, (Youtube link as an example) and our reputation was such that the folks at Wing wanted us (McChord Composite Squadron, CAP) to compete simply because they wanted to see what we’d do at the Regional competition.
In fact, now that I think of it, for these Wing competitions, we had to get our uniforms looking absolutely perfect, including the shoes, and we learned how to spit shine them so you could see your teeth in them. At one Wing competition, I’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes that didn’t have any creases in them yet. I shined them to within an inch of their lives, and then walked carefully out to where we’d go through a very thorough inspection. The fellow doing the inspecting noticed those shoes with the mirror finish and no creases, and looked me square in the eye,
“Wha’d you use on those shoes, Cadet?”
He said the word “Cadet” with all the affection a cat might have for a hairball it’s trying to cough up. Clearly he’d noticed, but also clearly he thought I’d used a spray shine, which was way faster, way easier, and was definitely considered cheating. Not knowing what else to say, I answered truthfully:
He wasn’t sure about that response
“Are you mocking me, Cadet?”
I was just being honest…
He’d asked a question.
I answered it…
He just wasn’t used to seeing shoes without creases – so not only could he see his teeth in them, but he could see his eyes, his nose, heck, if he wanted to, he could even see his nose hairs – really, they were good (the shoes, not the nose hairs). They’d be that good only once, but once was all I needed, and so to answer his question of whether I was mocking him, I said,
“Sir, No Sir!”
I mean, he couldn’t get me on anything, I wasn’t being disrespectful, I was answering his questions truthfully, so he harrumphed a bit, then turned off to inspect and harangue the next cadet.
Well, we won that competition, and were officially the best drill team in the state. We were going to Regionals – which was a tremendous honor, and it was held at an airbase in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a place none of us had ever been.
The Regional competitions at the time seemed to be a little more involved than the Wing ones. They involved the drill competitions as expected, competitions in individual physical fitness, meaning a mile run, and team physical fitness, which was a volleyball game, I believe there was some level of written test or tests, and of course, you were expected to be on your best behavior at all times, because anything, and I mean ANYTHING you did could sway the Judges’ thoughts or ideas about your ability – or eligibility – to compete.
What this meant is that You Did Not Want To Screw Up.
The ride from McChord to Klamath Falls could take well over 7 hours, but with an old Air Force van, and the requisite stops complete with fluid exchanges (for both the vehicles and the passengers) it took a bit longer.
By the time we got there, we had just enough time to get out of our traveling clothes and into our uniforms for a meeting in a classroom, where the schedule would be given, the expectations would be set, and the law, we learned, would be laid down…
We’d just gotten in and were thinking we were pretty cool for making it when we heard the sound of marching.
In the hallway.
That just didn’t make sense. But as we turned toward the door see where the sound was coming from, the squadron that had won the Nevada Wing competition marched in.
This was clearly not their first competition.
They all had matching flight jackets.
They all marched to their seats, and stood there…
…in those glorious flight jackets…
Which we didn’t have.
…and they were at attention.
Which we weren’t.
We were stunned into silence..
Their commander called out, “Ready, Coats!” and every one of them took off their flight jacket, held it over their left arm, and at the command “Seats!” they all sat down…
As a unit.
Our eyes must have been big as saucers – this was clearly psychological intimidation, and to be honest, right then, it was working just a bit on us, in spite of the fact that we thought they were really pushing this thing over the edge just a bit. Later, we were all wondering if they did everything in unison, and imagined that same march, only not through a classroom door, but through the men’s room door, followed by the command, “Ready, Zip!”
Nahhhh… not possible…
We knew good, but what we were seeing was more than good, it was just plain arrogant, and we weren’t having any of that.
We’d learned that at some of these competitions, a squadron might send out spies to watch another team practice, and actually steal their moves. If the team with the spy went first in the competition, the team who’d invented the moves would look like they were the ones stealing them.
With all the talk of honor and stuff that we’d had drilled into our heads, this was just not right – but, as has been said many times over the years, all’s fair in love and war.
And in the inimitable words of Bugs Bunny, “Of course you realize, this means WAR!”
So that evening, we did a quick run through of our routine as far away as we could get from the barracks. It was very, very clear that we were ready, we were functioning as a machine, and we were simply ON. So on the way back we figured if they wanted to see something, we’d give them something to see.
Now the way it works when you’re marching in a situation like that, is you’ve got one person, the commander, giving the commands, and the rest follow.
And the way the commands work is this: there’s the Preparatory command, which tells you what to do, and then there’s the command of execution, which tells you to do it. So you’ve all heard “Forward, March!” in movies and the like, well…
“Forward” – that’s the preparatory command…
“March” – that’s the command of execution…
And instead of “March”, we’d learned to say “Harch” – because when you’re trying to say it really loud without yelling, you can just get more volume into it. Also, if you ever did something that was different than the standard “Forward, Harch” – (like Doubletime, Harch) – you could always undo that command with “Forward, Harch” again.
You always start out on the right foot, and even if the command was “To the Rear, Harch” – you take one step forward, pivot 180 degrees, and then go on your way, as a unit.
So now that you know all that, remember, we’re marching back toward the barracks we were staying in, (think dormitories, if you’ve never heard that term ‘barracks’) and we just knew that some of the Nevada team would be on the lookout, and we wanted to make sure they saw something, and that what they saw would mess with them just as much psychologically as they’d done with us – just from a different direction.
We had this fellow in the squadron named Ken Meloche. He was Canadian, and reveled in the whole “for Queen and country” bit – and when he marched, he liked to march like the English did, with their arms and legs swung high. So just as we came in sight of some of the windows in the barracks, and to mess with the Nevada boys a bit, our commander gave the command,
“Meloche Walk, Harch!”
– and every one of us, without skipping a beat, started walking just like Ken did.
– and we all marched normally again, like a drill team should march.
Heh – this was fun.
We marched for a bit, and could see more of the windows in the barracks – and out of nowhere came a command we’d never, ever heard before in our lives:
“Double to the Rear with Three Hops in the Middle, Harch!”
– and again, without skipping a beat, we did a ‘To the rear, Harch’ – which is just a reversal in direction, but we all took one step, and literally as a unit, did three hops. I think there were twelve of us there, and I remember hearing the sound of three distinct impacts, we were that in sync. We took one step forward, then did the next ‘To the rear, Harch’ and tried like heck to keep from grinning from ear to ear… (we tried that double to the rear with three hops in the middle again later – and could never repeat it).
This was just NOT what drill competition was supposed to be like. It was supposed to be more serious than this.
When the final windows of our own barracks came into view, we heard the command,
“Walk like slobs, Harch!”
And I suppose the best thing that you could liken what we did to that exists in current culture is that we walked, in formation, like a bunch of zombies, knuckles dragging, feet dragging, drooling, the whole bit.
For about 10 steps.
And we were back to looking sharp as tacks.
It was great…
If the Nevada boys wanted to mess with our minds, we’d mess right back.
So after we’d had dinner, and gotten into our bunks and everything – there were four of us in each room, and we were all full of spit and vinegar, the night before the competition. One fellow in the room decided that since the body can produce, – let’s just call it a ‘greenhouse gas’ – one that is flammable, he wanted to show us that it could be done. And in a split second, I found myself taken back to a story my dad told me from when he was a kid. Well, not so much when he was a kid, but when he was in that ‘no man’s land’ between childhood and adulthood, where bodies grow faster than brains, you know… And in it he’d told me it could indeed be done. So as background, let me tell you that story from his “young adulthood”, as it affected things a little further down the road in my “young adulthood”.…
So I knew from my dad that “it” could be done. He’d told me the story of when he was
a) Young, and
…of how a group of his friends got together to prove that this, um, ‘greenhouse gas’ could be produced by a human, and could be lit.
(Note: male… teenager… fire… cue the ominous music)
One of that group of his friends produced some matches, and two separate things happened that changed the outcome of that story forever.
Note: there was no one suggesting that this might, in fact, be dangerous, or that there was a possibility of injury… No, these were young men, with at that age, possibly a single functioning brain cell between them. That they had to share. And the fellow with the match was rather modest, so his plan was to demonstrate this flammability factor without exposing any skin – the implication being that this gas could escape through cloth and everything would still work.
That it would work was true, but the cloth also kept a bit of it between the skin and said cloth before it escaped. This would have been well and good, and had the experiment been successful, there might have been the possibility of some hair follicles being ignited. Other than that, no problem.
This was under the assumption that the cloth was cotton, or wool, or some natural fiber.
But it wasn’t.
This was back when the artificial fibers that we’re now used to wearing – be they Nylon or Rayon or whatever combination of things we have that make cloth last longer now – were just being experimented with.
And if you didn’t know, Nylon is flammable.
And those pants were made of Nylon.
So when this greenhouse gas came into contact with an ignition source, that which had made it past the Nylon ignited very well.
But remember about the cloth? – and that some would gather inside before making it through?
Which meant that on both sides of this flammable Nylon was flammable methane.
That was on fire.
The Nylon pants didn’t stand a chance.
They caught fire, and melted, and… let’s just say the area around the source of the methane was tender and blistered for weeks to come. It’s likely that the ‘modest’ young man had a story to tell his grandchildren years later – and a peculiar scar in a place only his doctor would see once a year.
It was with this story in mind that I suggested to – we’ll call him ‘Bill’ – that maybe getting the layer of cloth away from the – um – source of the methane would be a good idea, and given that I’d told the above story fairly well, including using the words “second degree burns”, “blisters”, and the phrase “his pants were melted to his butt” – ‘Bill’ agreed, and lied down on his bunk on his back, his knees up by his shoulders, trying to arrange things in such a way that the gas would be lit, but other, shall we say, delicate objects in the vicinity would be safe.
It took quite a number of tries with a little Bic lighter that someone had with them, and eventually, the timing, and location of everything was right. There was “fuel”, there was “ignition” and it really worked. It was indeed evident that methane was flammable, though not with the full blown cataclysmic flame-throwing display that we’d all been hoping for. Slightly disappointed, Bill put everything back where it belonged, but there was some evidence of our attempts with the Bic wafting about, and one of the rules that had been laid down early on was that there would be no smoking, no matches, no fires.
An adult who was supposed to be responsible for safety on that floor of the barracks we were in came storming into the room and absolutely wanted to know what was going on.
We thought we were dead.
This was the night before the Regional drill competition. We were the best Washington had to offer, and we realized might have just blown it, in more ways than one – so to speak…
The tone in his voice made it clear he was taking no prisoners, and taking no excuses. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.
“Have you been smoking?”
Not knowing what else to say, we answered truthfully.
“Have you been playing with matches?”
Matches? We didn’t have any matches, we had a lighter.
He kept at this for a bit, asking us as a group, then one by one, the same questions.
We told him the truth, every time.
The problem was, he kept asking us all the wrong questions.
He then called his superior into the room, explained the situation, and asked the same questions all over again. Eventually he said, as if justifying to his superior why he’d even been called into the room:
“I’ve asked them individually and collectively whether they were smoking, or lighting matches, and they all said no…”
They decided that they needed to go talk this over, and about the time they left, we looked at Bill and suddenly realized that this could disqualify us before the competition even started. The dawning realization of how deep the doodoo was that we might have gotten into – and what we would have to tell the people back home if we were disqualified, was agonizing, but we knew what the right thing to do was.
We told Bill he had to go down to tell the guy everything and straighten it out, and he did. Well, we don’t know what exactly he told him, but we told him to tell the guy the truth.
And I’m sure, as Bill was trying to explain this whole thing to this stern adult, that deep in that stern adult’s mind was a young man who’d likely done exactly the same thing a few decades earlier.
We were let off with a warning – as long as we <snicker> didn’t do it again….
And somehow, we got away with it…
The problem was, not ONCE had he ever asked us if any one of us was using a Bic lighter to try to light farts with.
We were allowed to compete.
We came in second – I mean, we did really well in the drill competition, and did okay in the volleyball game, and I remember my time for the mile run being okay – a little over six minutes – but my pulse was 228 and my gums were bleeding as I crossed the finish line – so I knew I’d given it pretty much all I had. The reason we were a little short in the physical fitness part of it was because we were used to the elevation of McChord Air Force Base –a whopping 283 feet. The 4,000+ foot elevation of Klamath Falls just did a number on us.
I don’t remember what maneuvers we did for the drill competition, really, it was the silly stuff we did that we remembered. The stuff we got away with.
So… when I heard my mom say “individually and collectively” the other day – the floodgates in my memory opened up, and I realized, “Oh, no… there’s another story there…” – and I told it to her pretty much as you read it above, and she laughed…
© 2011 Tom Roush
So for those of you who’ve read some of my stories – especially those who have read the stories in the category of “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little.” – understand that as my son was growing up I would tell him these kinds of stories – honestly, as bedtime stories – because they made him laugh, and I did it in large part because I didn’t want him thinking that I was perfect in any way – I wanted him to understand that I was human, and could (and did) screw up.
He liked (and still likes) these stories because generally something (bad/amusing/result of a stupid decision/peer pressure) happens in them that allows him to see the benefit of others mistakes, without having to make them on his own…
In fact, when he was little, he asked me in all honesty, after I’d told him quite a few of these stories, “Papa? When I grow up, will I make mistakes too? Or have you made them all?”
How on earth do you answer a question like that? “Well, Michael, you live in a different time, I’m sure you will make creative, new, and exciting mistakes that I would never have dreamed of…”
That satisfied him.
Now that he’s older, and capable of making some of those bigger mistakes all by himself, he’s thinking of these stories in a different light… After I told him one story, he looked at me, mouth agape, having heard as complete and utter stupidity what I was simply relaying as history, (think about that) – and said, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from your kid is a little mind bending…
And I thought I had a dull childhood…
He’s also told me that if he does something stupid, I can’t complain, because it’s clear that I’ve done stupider things. In fact, he says that the following story shows just how high I set the stupidity bar – and he would have an awful lot of trouble coming close to that.
So from time to time when he was little, he would ask me to tell him some of his favorite stories, and, given that yesterday (as I write this) was the 33rd anniversary of this story, I thought I’d share.
So one day he asked, “Papa, can you tell me the story about you and your friend Paul?”
Well, there’s only ONE story about my friend Paul and me.
It involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
First some background…
I grew up in Roy, Washington, a small speed trap – er, town – south of Tacoma that’s surrounded on three sides by Fort Lewis, the local Army Base. One of the benefits for a boy growing up there was that you got to see lots of military hardware all the time, because it drove, flew, or traveled in a parabolic arc right past the house. (you’ll get it, just keep reading)
This, to put it succinctly, was cool.
I’ve learned I’m the only person I know who thought a .30 caliber machine gun being fired or cannons going off are peaceful sounds. But, that’s what I grew up with, and hearing them meant that all was right in the world.
The cannons and machine guns got to the point of being background noise, which meant unless we were listening for it, we didn’t really notice it. You’d hear this “Thump” in the distance, (the cannon, or mortar, had been fired, north of town) and about 22 seconds later, from the firing range, west of town, you’d hear a muffled, “BOOM!” as the shell hit and exploded. On especially quiet days you could actually hear the shell as it flew, making kind of a whistling “shewwewewewewew” sound as it flew by in that parabolic arc that cannon shells fly in…
It was pretty predictable, and the one thing we could count on was that the Army didn’t shoot on Sundays, so we had one day where things were relatively quiet, and though I didn’t mind the sounds of the Army, the silence was nice.
As one of my instructors in college said, “You will see this material again.”
They also shot at night, and to light things up, they shot up flares, which came down on parachutes.
One of the things we did for fun was to go out on the firing range (where the targets are – think about that one for a moment) and gather up the parachutes and other things we found as souvenirs. We’d tie the parachutes to the backs of our bicycles to use as drag chutes to slow us down after careening down “school hill”…
This was far more than “slightly” illegal, as we had to pass at least two signs saying:
“KEEP OUT! Artillery Impact Area”.
There was some, shall we say, ‘evidence’ of cannon shells hitting, like holes the size of houses, so they really didn’t want you gathering ‘souvenirs’. You did have to be smart as to what you took. Getting parachutes was safe, getting cannon shell duds wasn’t. There was a fellow who found a dud out there that had been sitting there for a number of years, the explosive getting unstable for the whole time… He took it home where it apparently dried out, and took out half of his house.
His parents weren’t pleased.
But this isn’t his story…
Paul and I went out there, he doing the driving because I didn’t have a driver’s license and me wanting to show off a little by showing this friend something he hadn’t seen before.
He read the first warning sign and stopped the car cold.
“What do you mean “Artillery Impact Area? I’m not going in there!”
Understand – I’d lived out there – driven past signs liked that that said “Small Arms Impact Area: Keep Out” (when you read that sign, do you think of bullets? Or little arms with little fingers falling out of the sky?) We’d drive past the hand grenade range, and see all sorts of things so often we just didn’t think about them.
But Paul had never seen that sign, and wasn’t moving the car an inch.
“But Paul, they don’t shoot on Sundays, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine!”
After awhile, he took his foot off the brake, and we drove past it.
Sometime later there was the second one, and Paul skidded to a stop again, his eyes darting back and forth between the sign and me, trying to decide which was crazier. Images of hundreds of pounds of high explosives hurtling toward him at 500 miles an hour were going through his head and I was telling him to keep driving…
“Really, they DON’T shoot on Sundays.”
We went further, and found five of these things the Army calls “Ducks” – which are huge crosses between trucks and boats. I’ve never seen this kind before or since. They’re not the kind you see used for tourism, and the closest I’ve come is this. But they were basically huge bare aluminum boats about 40 feet long, with what seemed like 4 – 6 foot tires on them, so they could be driven on land or in the water. And they’d been driven there quite recently, since the grass was still flat from their tire tracks. Somehow they’d been knocked over onto their sides, the hulls near the back had been cut through with a blowtorch, the pans and crankshafts had been taken out of the engines so no one could drive them away…
We went to the other side, and found a very large black number 3 painted on it. From where we were, we could see the other four, each with a number painted on it.
We were on the edge of a rather large plain, with a tree line visible about a mile away or so, so we felt pretty safe, feeling we’d see someone before they saw us.
We climbed up into the cab of the thing and saw all these cool instruments on the dashboard. We were members of an otherwise reputable search and rescue organization and decided we could get instruments for a communications truck our unit was making, so we set on removing them with the large variety of specialized disassembly instruments we had available to us.
We learned that it’s quite difficult to do precision disassembly on an armored instrument panel when your precision disassembly tools are of the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary varieties.
We moved on.
One of the engine parts they’d left was the cover of the air filter, which was a large, round, bright red fiberglass thing that looked like an oversized Frisbee (I suppose I should put an ® here for their lawyers)
Since we’d had less than sterling success with the instruments, we spent some time tossing the air filter cover around. I mean, it was a nice, warm August afternoon, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, and –
– and there was a thump in the distance.
No problem, I heard this sound every day.
But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognized that sound was what is technically known as “a bad thing”.
I mean, let’s see if we can figure this out:
We’re out there on the artillery impact range.
On this duck that’s got a HUGE number painted on it.
This would indicate that we are standing on a target.
Not near a target.
On a target.
That has just been fired on.
By a cannon.
It took just about 20 seconds to come to this conclusion.
The Screaming/Howling/OncomingFreightTrain sound of a real cannon shell as it comes in on the position you’re standing on is simply not describable. I’ve seen “Private Ryan”, and “Band of Brothers” and a few other films – and the sounds you hear in war movies, while they try, don’t come close to reproducing the sound accurately. The sounds you hear in movie theatres also aren’t accompanied by a tree getting vaporized about 75 feet away.
I turned to tell Paul to look at that tree, but he was gone.
In fact, he was halfway to the car by then.
Joining him seemed like an exceptionally good idea at the time.
We’d parked at this little ‘y’ intersection on a dirt road, about 100 yards south of the Ducks, and I got there just after he’d done one of those U-turns you only see on “Dukes of Hazzard” – which is hard to do in a Pinto, but Paul seemed to have enough adrenaline going through his system to overcome this limitation in the car.
This adrenaline seemed to have Paul functioning at hyperspeed, and the car, Pinto or not was rapidly approaching its version of the same thing.
To do this in a Pinto station wagon on a weaving, hilly dirt road isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but since our actions were initially unencumbered by the thought process, now didn’t seem to be a particularly important time to change that.
We came to this hill, went up, and, had we been traveling at a sane speed, would have gone down and around the curve to the left on the other side.
However, sanity absolutely not being part of the picture, the car didn’t quite get airborne, but it came awfully close, to the point where the wheels were about as useful to the car as opposable thumbs are to fish…
As the road (and world) turned, and while Paul hit the brakes and turned the steering wheel hard left, the car, pondering the ramifications of fish and opposable thumbs, went straight ahead into a dirt embankment, which stopped it in ways that the brakes couldn’t have.
Now some things to note about driving a station wagon at high speed on a dirt road.
- It pulls a large cloud of dust behind it, so the cloud is, for the first little bit, traveling at roughly the same speed as the car. Since it was a hot August afternoon, we had the windows wide open, the front ones rolled down, the back ones, hinged at the front, were flipped open at the back.
- Now this cloud that was following the car didn’t have the benefit of dirt embankments to stop it, so when we stopped, the windows acted like large scoops as the cloud continued rapidly ahead and enveloped the car, coming in through the windows and covering us from head to toe.
We were fine, the car however, needed some help, We had to wait until we could see, at which point I jumped out and pulled the fender to unhook it from where it was jammed up against the right front tire. I hopped in, Paul started the dust cloud and the Pinto up again, and only stopped after we were past the second sign, what had been the first one on the way in.
We got out of the car, hearts still thumping at what I remember as being one of the machine gun ranges (which wasn’t being used… Really!) , and as we got out and tried to calm down a little bit on that warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, we heard nothing but Elvis Presley’s music on the radio. Turned out, the previous Wednesday, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley had gone to the great Tabloid in the sky…
After awhile, we slowly drove back home, and Paul, to my knowledge, never mentioned it to anyone.
There are two corollaries to this story:
20 years later, a group of us (which included Paul and me) from this “otherwise reputable Search and rescue organization” managed to get together from the four corners of the globe and met together at a restaurant to catch up on things.
I got there late, and as I stood there in the doorway trying to find the group, Paul saw me, the first words out of his mouth after 20 years, which I heard all the way at the door, were, “Well Hello there MISTER ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’!”
Seems he hadn’t forgotten, and I – well, I think this one will take some time to live down.
Number two: I told this story to a friend who’d retired as a colonel in the army, and he started laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a stroke. I was actually quite worried about him.
It turns out that he (having had experience as a soldier) was thinking of the other end of this little exchange.
See, just because they didn’t shoot on Sundays doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.
Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see me (this is why the Army has whole schools developed to teach the art of camouflage).
So imagine a couple of bored soldiers, could have been ROTC cadets, could have been National Guard on their one weekend a month, I don’t know – but imagine those few bored soldiers on a warm summer Sunday afternoon whose job it was to watch these five fresh targets they’d seen delivered and had to wait until Monday before they could blow them to smithereens.
And while they were looking through their rangefinders, they saw a small car dragging a cloud of dust along where it shouldn’t be – not quite into their sights, but awfully close…
I can just see it as one of them nudges the other one, “Hey, Jim! Look at this!”
I mean, two obvious civilians (us) throwing this bright red thing (the air filter cover) back and forth and up into the air wasn’t really the best way to keep people from seeing us…
And by then, not only were we in their sites, we were practically dancing on their targets… Well, climbing all over them and beating on things with rocks – heh – we were rocking out… (sorry)
I have to wonder how many trigger fingers got real itchy all of a sudden…
They needed to let us know we’d been seen, and it had to be done very soon so it was absolutely, positively, unmistakably clear who, actually was boss out there.
I would love to have heard the conversation that went back and forth between them and their commanding officer, and finally, someone decided to get our attention by “firing a shot across the bow”.
We didn’t actually hear it (we were thrashing the Pinto on that dirt road) but I can imagine them laughing their heads off as we saw the shell hit and the panic that followed.
It would be fun to find these soldiers sometime to hear their side of the story.
Michael really likes it when I tell this story, and when I get done telling it, he (after he’s done laughing) looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “Papa, you made a bad decision in going past that sign…”
–and I wonder, does this mean he’s going to do what the signs in his life say and try to stay safe?
Or is he going to go past them in hopes of coming up with weird stories to tell his little boy when he has one?
Note: I originally wrote this story as a note to my mom and dad when he was 7. He’s now 19, and when I told him yesterday, “Hey, 33 years ago yesterday…” – he finished the sentence for me, “…was a day of extremely high caliber stupidity…” He didn’t realize the bad pun until I started groaning.
If I ever catch him doing something stupid, I know I’ll hear back, “You’re out there on a LIVE artillery range, DANCING ON THE FREAKING TARGETS, and you’re worried that I’M going to do something stupid?”
Well… yeah… I am…
I do hope I’ve set the bar too high for him to ever reach the levels of dancing on targets on an artillery firing range… but Lordy, I know stupidity of that magnitude is definitely possible.