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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 I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process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,
A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in college, I’d often find myself driving through McChord Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in large part because
a) I could, and
b) there were SO many cool airplanes there.
One weekend they had an actual air show, with the Thunderbirds, and aerial demonstrations of guys jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, explosions, the whole works. It was great. I got to walk around the flight line and look at planes up close I’d only been able to look at from a distance, and in some cases, I was able to go out and either touch them or actually, the most fun, sitting in the cockpit of a military airplane, and pretending to fly it, you know, just like you do when you’re a kid.
So later that week, after the airshow was over in reality, but I was still reliving it in my mind, I happened to go over to McChord, and look out at that very same flight line, and of all things, found an F-4 Phantom in the very last spot on the left. This is a plane that sucks down more gas in a minute than your car does all year. Speaking of cars, I parked mine in a legal zone (no, really) and was just drawn to the Phantom.
I walked over toward it, with my hands behind my back – I wanted to be sure that if anyone did see me and had this feeling like I shouldn’t be there, that my hands were in a very obvious spot of not being able to do anything…
The plane was facing away from me, and I walked around it clockwise, starting on the left side and working my way around. I looked at, but didn’t touch those elevators that were angled down so sharply.
I walked further, hands still behind my back, and ducked under the wingtip, which is angled up ever so slightly.
I looked into the engine intakes, imagining how much air they must have sucked in as those big J-79 engines spooled up.
I couldn’t see into the cockpit, but walked around the front of the plane – still careful not to touch anything, and made it back around the other side, and finally came to the gaping maw that was the back end of those engines. The F-4’s engines have what are called ‘afterburners’ – which means simply that if you have the jet engine running at full throttle, and the engine simply can’t put out more thrust, you start pumping buckets of fuel into the hot exhaust – where it – well, it doesn’t ‘explode’ – but all those pictures you see of military planes with 20-30 foot flames out the back? That’s what happens when you hit the afterburners. It can easily double the thrust of an engine.
Now the J-79 engine was weird, in a way… It was the one engine the military had that, surgeon general’s warning or not, they simply couldn’t get to stop smoking. If it was idling, it was fine. If it was in full afterburner, it was fine. If it was anywhere in between, it smoked.
It was like leaving a big arrow penciled into the sky saying, “Hi! Here I am!” All you had to do was look up and follow the pencil mark in the sky. At the end, sure as anything, there’d be an F-4.
It made camouflage and stealth kind of a moot point.
But those engines, oh gosh – I’d seen what they could do in real life. I was in a KC-135 tanker, shooting pictures of one being refueled somewhere over Missouri. The plane, call sign “Misty 42”, was in the pre-connect position 50 feet behind us. Gus, the boom operator (the boom being the big pipe that did the refueling) called out on the radio “Misty 42, forward 50” – as in “come forward 50 feet” – and this 60,000 pound plane that was parked back there behind us, just shot forward those 50 feet and then stopped like he was anchored there – right where Gus could top it off. And when Misty 42 was finished, I saw something I’d only seen in movies – the pilot banked hard right, pulled hard on the stick, peeled off, and was gone.
So when those engines were running, they would just leave this layer of soot in the sky, and, coming back down from the sky and to that flight line, where I was standing with both hands behind my back, I was mesmerized by the business end of these huge jet engines, some of that soot I was talking about had been left inside the engines, creating a blackness so total it would make charcoal look white. It gave a totally new definition to the term “black hole” and I was wondering how much of a problem it would be to swipe a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.
It was this wondering that caused curiosity to prevail over common sense.
…but not by much…
I unclasped my hands, and slowly, with my right pinkie, swiped it against the inside of that engine, to see if any of that blackness would actually come off. It didn’t seem to, I was looking at my pinkie, trying to figure it out, when
“Can I help you, sir?”
One of the United States Air Force’s finest SP’s (Security Police) was standing there, in uniform, which was as complete as a military cop’s uniform could be…
“Uh, no, actually, I was just looking at the F-4 here”
“Did you know, sir, that you’re not allowed to be here?”
My gosh he was polite…
On the other hand, he could afford to be. He had Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson snug in a leather holster at his side to help him out, should he need it.
“Sir, see, there’s this red line here on the pavement…”
He was right… there was indeed a red line on the pavement…
“Sir, you’re not supposed to cross that line.”
“Did you see the signs painted on the ground, sir?”
“No – I mean, I was just here the other day…”
“Sir, that was for the air show. See here?”
…and he walked me over to where one of the signs was indeed painted in a big white rectangle on the ground.
“They’re painted on the ground every 100 feet.”
And I’d parked my car beside the hangar, and walked right out there, between two of them, totally oblivious to the signs, and totally focused on the F-4…
“Sir, can you read the line in red there, near the bottom?”
I started reading the stenciled letters on the pavement.
“Sir, do you understand what that means?”
And things suddenly became very clear. That line there meant that Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson didn’t necessarily have to stay in their little leather holster, they could have come out to back up the Security Police officer and no one would have batted an eye.
“Yes sir, I do.”
He escorted me back to my car, realizing that I was just a young kid not much younger than he was, likely just as much of an airplane nut as he was, but I was driving a little red Saab (1967 model 96, 3 cylinder, two stroke, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious) at the time, all by myself, and he was driving a blue Air Force police cruiser, with his pals Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson quietly squeezed into the front seat with him.
I was a little more careful from there on out, but I still considered McChord my home away from home.
Fast forward 21 years. I’d gotten married, had the wonderful privilege of becoming a father, and lo and behold, there was another air show at McChord AFB. I took my son to see the show, and this time I got to the McChord AFB air show in a little blue Saab (1968 model 96, Deluxe, with a V-4 engine, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious), and this time, I wasn’t alone.
We watched, and heard the Thunderbirds tear the sky apart again – watched the aerial drops, the explosions, all the cool stuff, it was great – and then as we were walking through the displays – I realized I’d been there before. Not just on McChord AFB, but as I looked around, wondering why the hangars looked familiar, and why the tower looked so familiar, not just individually, but collectively, I felt this incredible feeling of déjà vu, suddenly I realized I was standing on the spot – THE VERY SPOT where that F-4, the SP, and Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson had been those many years earlier.
I’d told my son the story you just read more than once, to the point where he could do the little swipe with his pinkie just exactly like I did it, and I knew, I just knew, I had to show him that spot, and take a picture of the sign on the ground, with the red letters, and the red line on it.
And I did…
Sure enough… it was still there.
I got the shot of him with the sign in the story I’d told him so many times.
Fast forward again – to the year 2010, I’d done a presentation in Tucson, and found that after the presentation, we had a few hours to do some touristy things, and given the fact that I am an airplane nut, and that the last time we’d been in Tucson I’d only been able to drive past it, the Pima Air Museum was definitely on our list. It has hundreds of airplanes, and in the few hours we had, we tried to see as many as we could. We walked past some, paused for a moment at others.
And then I saw an F-4 and stopped cold.
“Michael! This is it! This is the kind of plane I was talking about!” –
…and I did the little pinkie swipe with my right hand.
He knew exactly what I meant, and before I could do anything or even stop him, he’d gone to the back of the plane, and I suddenly knew what the SP had seen those many years ago.
Without me saying another word, Michael had not only gone to the back of that Phantom – but gone to the right engine, and with his left hand still held firmly in the small of his back, like I’d done when I was the very same age, he took his pinkie, and swiped a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.
And no one stopped him.
© Tom Roush, 2010
The picture at the end of this story was shot in Grad School – Ohio University, sometime around 1988 or so.
I had a friend and classmate, Johnny Crawford, a wonderful shooter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was truly a lot of fun to be with – but he had this one habit that just got to me after awhile… it was his pension for saying, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve…” – and then fill in the blank with something that he’d done and he knew I hadn’t.
Understand, he wasn’t gloating, he wasn’t being mean, he was just telling me how cool it was to have been able to do something he had done, and, in his eyes, I hadn’t lived till I’d done one of those things.
Well one day he says, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve shot F-15’s bein’ refueled.” – now of course I knew that he wasn’t talking about F-15’s being refueled on the ground, he was talking about that complicated aerial ballet that means you’ve got two airplanes flying around 250 – 300 mph within about 40 feet of each other, pumping highly refined kerosene from one to another at a rate of about 6,500 pounds a minute. This is enough fuel in one minute to run your average family car for a year.
Eventually I got a little tired of never having lived – so I needed to figure out where I could find a refueling base, because that’s where I’d need to go to get onto a KC-135 refueling plane to take that shot that was going to ensure that I lived. I went to the library, and checked out a book about the military, and it gave me the location of all the bases in the United States. And funny thing, but there was a base with a KC-135 wing 68 miles away, the 121st Air Refueling Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard.
Now anyone who knows me knows I am just plain dangerous with a telephone. My wife says I can talk to anyone, and sometime I just end up sweet talking my way into things that even I end up baffled at once everything’s all said and done. She once complained that I could get into a 20 minute conversation with a telephone operator. (She was wrong… it was 45 minutes, and I did, actually, the telephone operator used to be an air traffic controller when Reagan was presi – well, that’s not important right now). So about 3 telephone calls later, I’m on the phone with the PAO (public affairs officer) of Rickenbacker Air National Guard base, in Columbus, Ohio. I explain to him that I’m a grad student in photojournalism at Ohio University and that I’m working on a story on the Air National Guard (partially true, well, I was starting it – and a picture was worth a thousand words, right?) and was wondering if there was any chance of getting up on a refueling mission to take some pictures. So – after talking about that and security and stuff for a bit, he suddenly said, “How’s next Tuesday?”
It had to be harder than this…
It just had to be.
Nope. Tuesday it was…
Plane took off at 10:00. We’d be refueling some Missouri Air National Guard F-4 fighters who were on a training mission. I had to be there 2 hours earlier, which meant I had to leave an hour before that, and so on. I borrowed a car from a friend and found the airbase, talked my way into see the right people, made the right introductions, signed the right paperwork, and out the door I went, still completely baffled… It just had to be harder than this…
One of the things to understand about military planes is that they are generally not built for comfort, so the plane was loud. This being an Air National Guard plane – the same folks had flown this same plane for years, so to them it wasn’t much different than you or I driving down to the store to get a quart of milk. However, they’re going a little faster, they have 4 engines pushing them along, and the store’s a lot further away. At one point, I was up in the cockpit and the navigator did some calculating, and noticed that if we continued at the rate we were going, we would be late to meet the planes we were to refuel, and since we were the only gas station around, us being late could easily mean those flying jet fighters would fly about as well as crowbars, and that’s not good. So he saw we were going 300 mph, and told the pilot to bump it up to 330. The pilot reached up and wrapped his hands around the 4 throttles and – well, ‘bumped’ them up a bit. I had no idea a plane that big, could accelerate that fast at that speed. I was watching the airspeed indicator, and we went from 300 to 330 in a blink. I was very glad I’d been holding onto something when he did it or I would have ended up in the back of the plane.
We got to the refueling zone – and I was told that the way the refueling is done, is that the pilots of the tanker, and the pilots of the planes needing the fuel fly directly at each other, the tanker flying 1000 feet higher. When they get close, they both head in the same direction – so, say the tanker I’m in is flying east. The planes needing the fuel are flying west, toward each other, and at a given point, everyone heads north, so that the F-4’s are below and behind the tanker. Our call sign was Pearl 07. Theirs were Misty 41 and 42.
The weird thing, for lack of a better word, about all this is that it was happening in three dimensions. I mean, if you’re here on the ground, and you point to something, your arm is generally parallel to the ground or close to it, because whatever you’re pointing at is usually on that same ground, or close to it. When I saw these planes – I was in the back of thfe tanker, looking out the back – and they were swooping in from the right, and they were off to the right, and down. Not just ‘over’ but ‘down’. One of the planes was leaving what looked like a white smoke trail, and I heard over the radio, “Pearl 07, Misty 41, I’ve got a fuel leak, returning to base…”
I don’t know about you, but a fuel leak you can see at 300 miles an hour must be a pretty significant fuel leak… He left.
Misty 42 came closer – into what they call the pre-connect area in the back of the plane, and just stayed there for a bit – I was amazed at how big the thing was, and had the widest lens I had on my camera (a Nikkor 24mm ) – I was framing the shot when Gus (the boom operator) said, “Misty 42, forward 50” – meaning he needed to come forward 50 feet to get into the area where the boom could connect. Now I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting much acceleration out of that plane – I mean the plane can go twice the speed of sound, for crying out loud – but when he came forward that 50 feet, it was like he’d been shot out of a cannon, and then he stopped, parked right where he needed to be. Somewhere in there, just before he hooked up I reflexively squeezed off a shot, and that was the only shot I got that was worth anything – after that he was just too close.
He took 3,000 pounds of fuel, I don’t know why I remember that. He wasn’t there very long, and then, since Misty 41 had already left, Misty 42 peeled off in ways I’ve only seen in movies – and there just isn’t a comparison to seeing it in real life, as opposed to seeing it on a screen, where, no matter how much they try to show the three dimensions of what’s happening up there, it’s still a two dimensional screen. It just doesn’t cut it. It was so, incredibly, cool.
We turned back east and headed back over Illinois, Indiana, bits and pieces of Kentucky, and finally made it down out of the wonderful sunlight, down through the clouds, and into a rainy Ohio afternoon.
We debriefed, I headed back toward Athens in my borrowed car with an exhaust leak, and stopped at a Burger King on the way to get a late lunch while I had the color film developed next door. What I didn’t know is that this particular film developing process didn’t use fresh chemicals for each batch of film. They used them until the film didn’t come out good anymore, and then changed the chemicals.
Guess whose film was the last one through that batch of chemistry? The prints just didn’t look quite right. It turned out that the film, though developed, was simply not printable in color, the three colors (cyan, magenta and yellow) didn’t develop at the same rate – and there just wasn’t a way to color balance all of the colors at the same time. After a lot of thought and frustration (considering what I’d gone through to get this picture) I ended up out of pure frustration printing it in black and white.
This, surprisingly, was a dang good idea…
Of course, by now it had been a long day, lots of driving, lots of flying, and because of the car, lots of carbon monoxide, and now I had to go to the darkroom on campus to print the pictures. Of course, it was always a social event because there were 50 enlargers in the darkroom, and everyone was working on their own images, and every now and then, you’d go out into a finishing area and look at them in white light instead of the orange safelights, to see what the thing really looked like, wash it off, spot correct dust, etc…
…and, if you had a particularly good one, you might find yourself examining it a little longer out there where other people could see it, if you know what I mean…
One of the things in that original image was that there was this huge black area in the bottom right of the picture, part of the inside of the plane that that wide lens caught. I was trying to figure out how to make the picture work without cropping too much, and yet that black area just sucked your eye right down there when one of my classmates walked up and saw the picture.
“Wow! Cool picture! Who take that?” (he was from China, and this is how he talked)
“No, Tom, you not take that picture, don’t joke… Who take that picture?”
“Seriously, I did.”
He could see I wasn’t joking – honestly, by that time, I was too tired to joke.
“Okay, fine… Where you take that picture?”
… but I wasn’t too tired to string him along a little and mess with him…
“Missouri.” (understand, Missouri is three states west of Ohio, easily a day’s drive)
“Missouri? No, Tom… You joking again. Where you take the picture?”
“Okay, I’ll be more specific… 26,000 feet above Fredericktown, Missouri.”
There was a look of consternation on his face, and finally resignation as he realized I wasn’t kidding.
“Okay Tom, you not joking this time… When you take the picture?”
– This one was like feeding a straight line to a comedian, and the only thing I could do was the last thing he’d expect.
I looked at my watch.
His eyes got real big, then he just threw up his hands and gave up. The thing is, at the time he asked the question, I’d taken the picture about 6 hours ago – so the most logical thing to do was to look at my watch and find out how to answer his question.
I was so hoping Johnny would come by so I could tell him I’d lived. He did, later – but the reaction from my classmate was the best.
That said, below is the shot of Misty 42.
…and just recently I found a video that someone else had taken that’s pretty accurate for what it was like.
The above shot would have been taken just before the video starts.
PS – years later – I got back in touch with him and sent him this story.
His response: “Tom, you have Lived!”