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I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
Questions from my son tend to add a little different perspective to the stories I’ve told him.
If you’ve been reading them long, you know that there’s a certain classification of stories involving “Stupid Things that Papa Did When He Was Little”.
They’re the kinds of stories that I can safely tell in the first person…
(think about that – it’s important)
So when my son asked, “So just how many fires did you actually set in the house when you were growing up?” – and I honestly had to think my way through them and keep track on my fingers, I knew I needed to write the stories down. So, just a recap of the times I almost burned the house down (note: some of these stories have been written, some are in the backlog)…
Let’s see… there’s:
- the time the bed caught fire, (still need to write this one – it was an aluminum pilot’s bunk from the USS Ticonderoga… No, really.)
- the time I lit the fire in the wood stove, with gasoline. (I don’t recommend this),
- the time the candle holder caught fire (design issue anyone?) and set the set of Encyclopedias, the shelves they were on, on fire, and dripped flaming plastic onto the desk underneath them, setting it on fire as well, (Yup, need to write this one, too…)
- the time I came very close to doing the Olympic Torch run through the house with a highway flare as I was trying to put out another fire.
- …and of course there was the – well, let’s not give away the punchline, shall we?
I was still living at home with my folks and sisters, and it had been a Saturday of yard work and gardening and just general cleanup. I’d gotten done with my part, and asked what else there was for me to do, and mom said, “Well, you could go in and make dinner. You can make the chicken.”
So I looked all over for a chicken and the only one I could find was the one frozen solid.
In the freezer.
Understand, this was an industrial level freezer. The chicken was the same consistency as the granite used by the Canadian Olympic Curling team. I imagined sliding the chicken across the floor and frantically sweeping in front of it – but while the image made me smile, I decided against hurling – or curling – the chicken…
Chances were I’d break something with it.
Besides, dinner for a hungry family was more important.
Speaking of dinner, I had to figure out how to rapidly thaw this hunk of frozen fowl. Dad had spent $600.00 on a microwave oven back then (in the ‘70’s) and gotten a good one (a Sharp) that would eventually last over 40 years, looking brand new the whole time. I hefted the chicken, still in the closed plastic bag, onto the rotating glass plate and pushed the buttons for something like 40 minutes, then turned around to peel potatoes in the kitchen sink and get some vegetables ready for the pot.
I’d gotten maybe two potatoes peeled when I sniffed that something was not quite right.
I smelled the potato I was peeling.
It was fine.
It was fine.
They smelled like… raw potatoes.
Besides, I’d washed my hands, and the chicken was frozen last time I touched – oh, the chicken – uh…
I looked up from the sink, then looked left and right, trying to remember where I’d put the chicken, and it was only when I turned around that I definitely knew something was wrong.
The chicken that I’d put in the microwave to defrost, you see…
…was on fire.
I jumped across the kitchen, hammered down on the lever to shut the microwave off, popped the door open, and grabbed the burning plastic bag the chicken was in and heaved it in the general direction of the sink. The flame made a weird flup flup flup flup flup sound (complete with Doppler effect, mind you) just before the chicken thunk-splushed into the sink, putting the fire out and splashing water and potato peels all over the place.
I turned the water I’d been peeling the potato under off so I could see the bag, and it turned out that the plastic bag had been tied shut with what was standard for the time, which was two little pieces of tape with a wire in the middle.
And the wire had gotten red hot, set the tape on fire, which set the plastic bag on fire, which then set – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it had set the chicken’s butt on fire (which reminds me of yet another story about my friend Bill – but you can read that one later).
I trimmed the burned parts off, pulled what remained of the chicken out of the bag, and put it in a glass bowl with a lid and actually read the manual for “how to defrost a chicken in the microwave” and put it back in there for awhile longer.
I looked out the window, checked on the rest of the gang, knew I had some time, so peeled some apples and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar and put them on the chicken once it was defrosted and out of the microwave, then wrapped everything in some bacon I found while I was looking for the chicken in the first place and put that in the regular oven.
While that was baking, I made some salad, boiled the potatoes, and in general, made a pretty decent dinner.
I rang the dinner bell for everyone, and pretty soon they came in.
I remember one of my sisters taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose a bit as everyone came through the door, smelling a little bit of everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.
“What’s that smell?”
And I gave the only answer I could possibly give.
“It’s, it’s the chicken.”
And… it was actually pretty good.
The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…
…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.
So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.
Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation about the photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.
See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.
Those are your options.
So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.
I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…
See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.
The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.
That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.
One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.
We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.
No fan = sharp pictures.
But, there were side effects…
See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…
Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.
We checked for her.
There was no dog.
But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.
Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.
On one of the two paper cutters.
That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.
And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit. Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…
And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?
The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.
We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.
The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.
I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.
Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.
Lots and lots and lots of them.
And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.
So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.
Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.
We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.
It… was… amazing…
(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)
So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.
It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.
It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.
We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…
…and saw snow in the parking lot.
Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…
We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.
And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…
Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…
The Styrofoam packing peanuts…
As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.
There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.
The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.
A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story. It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…
I was 16. My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out. We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.
“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed. We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.
Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.
To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.
With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then. (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.
That was a good thing…
Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.
See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.
The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.
What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.
So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.
My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.
The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.
Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.
So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through roads between farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.
We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle. It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.
I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared. In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.
And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe.
When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.
And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.
We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.
And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…
Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.
So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.
It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)
I’d practiced this.
And it worked. It really worked.
See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.
I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.
If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel. It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…
The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.
As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where I’d followed Martin’s taillight in the dark, and where we’d have to turn right.
We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.
It was glorious.
A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.
Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>. We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…
And turning right was the thing to do. That was the paved road. Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.
So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.
There was only one problem with those remaining options.
Well, actually, several.
One: the turn was essentially blind…
Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.
So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found, Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).
But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…
Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)
Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.
Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.
Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.
With a bicycle.
Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.
This changed everything.
I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.
I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.
This, um, wasn’t good…
To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…
…which was good.
Except I was running out of space fast.
I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.
Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…
…which was bad.
Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.
I could feel the vibration of the little box chewing through the tire all the way up to the brake handle.
So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.
I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?
But using it would have required having a stable bike.
(Which I didn’t have).
And enough time to grab it.
(Which I was running out of.)
And having enough distance for it to open.
(Which I already had run out of.)
I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.
Then things got interesting.
After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve. Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.
Made of steel pipe.
Embedded in concrete.
That I hit with my front wheel.
That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.
I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.
At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.
There wasn’t much to do but let him rant. I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…
The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.
We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)
Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)
We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back. We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.
Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.
It was exactly 10:30.
It got me thinking…
A lot, actually.
See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.
And maybe, maybe that’s the story.
See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
26 years earlier.
Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.
And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.
26 years earlier.
I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30? How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)
But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.
As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way. Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.
And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.
Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.
And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.
In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. 🙂
But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).
And I realized we all have people like that in our lives… People who will do their best to protect us from danger
Even if that danger is us.
I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…
How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.
And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.
But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight. Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.
The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in. The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.
I just made it late.
And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:
There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.
And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…
Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.
I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.
See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.
That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…
Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?
Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this: “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”
I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.
Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.
Take care – and thanks –
Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time. Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.
I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)
I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty. Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning. And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now. He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:
And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:
For many reasons, I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened. I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story. He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.
“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”
I was talking to my mom about a story I was writing awhile back, about a little bicycling adventure in Germany about 37 years ago, and she chuckled a bit, and then started to tell me a story that had happened 26 years before that.
And it made me smile.
You know how you talk to your parents and forget that they were young, once, too? That’s how it was with mom in this conversation. As she told the story, the mom I was seeing in front of me transformed into a much younger woman, full of youth, life, laughter, and stories.
She talked of adventures that I’d never heard, but then she got to telling the story of the trip over the Susten Pass.
On a bike.
And I saw the time machine show up, with the door wide open, beckoning us inside.
We stepped in and I started to listen to a fun story that I’d heard before, but the more I listened the more I realized I’d not only heard the story before, but there was a connection to that story I was writing. We’ll get to that one in Part 2. But for now, I leaned forward and listened, and I recorded it. And then realized she’d written it down years ago. She sent me a copy – we found some pictures, and I’ve done a little bit of editing below, but the story’s hers, so sit back, and imagine hearing the story below in mom’s German accent about the trip she, her brother Walter, and his friend Wolfgang took, from Germany, to Switzerland, and back.
That said, here’s mom:
“While Walter was still in Seminary in Frankfurt, he, Wolfgang and I had planned to tour Switzerland by bicycle during their summer vacation. In those years the roads were not nearly as crowded with cars as is now the case.
It was beautiful!
I had traveled to Switzerland by bus, by car and by train but I never enjoyed the scenery more than when I toured it on a bicycle. Instead of driving past mountains in minutes, it might take a whole day of riding to finally get close to the mountains we were able to admire for so long. We had plenty of time to let the beauty really sink in.
That year, Walter had a summer job in Winterthur (Switzerland) with a surveyor. His friend Wolfgang and I traveled through the Black Forest to the Swiss border and further inland to meet and team up with him for our tour. The nights we spent in youth hostels which were all over the country.
Near Steffisburg we stopped and asked a farmer if we could pitch our tents on his property. Herr Wittwer (the farmer) agreed, but then took a look south toward the Niesen, the nearest mountain, and shook his head.
“I better get some straw down for you in the barn. See those dark clouds pushing through between the mountains? That’s a nasty thunder storm and it will be here in a few hours. That way, no matter what the weather does, at least you’ll have a roof over your heads and stay dry.”
I gladly accepted his offer but Walter and Wolfgang pitched their tent outside. I took my sleeping bag into the barn, bolted the big barn door shut and nestled down in the big pile of straw. I was less afraid of the mice in the barn than the lightning and thunder outside and a soaking wet sleeping bag. You see, our camping equipment in those days was very primitive. Our tent did not have a floor. So while the tent might have protected us from water coming from above, there was nothing to keep water from seeping in under the edges.
And, just like Herr Wittwer had said, the storm didn’t wait long to reach us. As it got closer, not only was the thunder much louder but the echoes bouncing back from the nearby mountains were like a continuous amplified drumroll.
I was so tired from the many hours of pedaling the bike in the hilly country I fell asleep in spite of the noise. In my dreams I wondered why the whole barn was being torn down and why human voices were mingled in between the booms of the thunder, and why did I keep hearing my name in between all of this?
During the eerie stillness of a moment between thunder claps the human voices finally reached my consciousness and I recognized my brother’s voice: “Irmgard, open the door, please open the door.” The rain was coming down in torrents and Walter and Wolfgang had soon seen the wisdom in my decision about sleeping in the barn. There was plenty of straw on the barn floor for all three of us and like contented cows Walter and Wolfgang bedded down on the dry straw for a much needed night’s sleep.
THE TRIP OVER SUSTEN PASS.
The next morning, Walter and Wolfgang had to wring out their tent and clothes from the storm. Not only was our camping gear primitive but our bikes were at the beginning of multiple-gear-development. Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes each had three gears. That was the most that was available at the time and really, who would want or need more than three gears anyhow? Right?
I would soon see the benefit of those three gears, as my bike had only one.
Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes also had special (caliper) brakes, the ones which grab the sides of the rims of both wheels.
Mine did not.
My bike had a different system. Under the handle bar on the right side was another, thinner bar reaching to the center of the handlebars. There it was connected to a bar going straight down to the rubber front tire. There was a u-shaped metal frame attached (about 1 x 1 1/2″) and a hard rubber pad was slipped into that frame. By pulling the brake handle up, the rubber pad was pushed down against the tire, which slowed down the bike somewhat. The other braking possibility was the coaster brake in the hub of the back wheel. By pushing the pedals backwards, the back wheel would apply the brake.
This system was sufficient for normal country.
But his was not normal country.
This was Switzerland.
Our rather ambitious plan for that one day was to get over the Susten Pass.
We had to get an early start so we would get as many kilometers behind us during the coolness of the day, and to do that, had to leave before the tent and everything could dry. At the base of the mountains we made relatively good progress, but when the road started climbing, things changed. Often Walter and Wolfgang could have gone a while longer with their extra gears, but no matter how hard I tried to pedal, my bike came almost to a standstill when the incline got too steep.
So we had to walk.
Hour after hour we followed the serpentines up and up. Looking over the edge we saw the road wind up like a snake in tight curves.
After seven hours of walking, pushing our bicycles step by tired step, we finally saw the sign:
“Susten Pass 2224 meter”.
We’d finally made it, the three of us were hot and thirsty, and Walter’s cold, wet tent was slowly drying.
We took a short but well deserved break at the top and strengthened ourselves with “Landjäger“, bread, some good Swiss chocolate and water. And we even allowed ourselves a few minutes to lean back and appreciate, admire and enjoy God’s handiwork in that beautiful setting. But since the ascent had taken so much longer than anticipated, we couldn’t allow ourselves too much time to enjoy the scenery at the top, so after a few minutes of cooling off to the point of being a little chilled, we saddled our bikes and looked forward to a fast, fun run down the switchbacks to the lowlands again.
But the other side of the pass was in full sunshine, and the further down we got, the warmer it got, so we let the bikes fly down the mountain road and loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, cooling us off after the long climb up the other side.
A long-held sigh of relief escaped from each one of us.
Going down should be a breeze, right? We couldn’t help but wonder how much shorter the down-hill time would be. We’d make up all the time we lost, it would be great. Walter rode in front, Wolfgang in the back, with me in between, and even though it was easy (and fun) to let the bicycles go fast and hang on, it wasn’t safe to go too fast or we’d lose control on the many hairpin turns. It was good that Walter and Wolfgang had those new brakes, because it was all downhill, and we had to brake constantly so we wouldn’t overshoot the hairpin curves.
But remember, I didn’t have those brakes.
I had two other brakes.
I had that pad of rubber that was pushed down on the front tire by a lever I squeezed with my right hand, and I had the coaster brake for the back wheel that worked when I pedaled backwards far enough to make it work.
And remember, while this system was sufficient for normal country. also remember that this was NOT normal country.
This was Switzerland.
And we went down the mountain.
And we went fast.
Our leg muscles, finally rested a bit from the 7 hours of walking and pushing our bicycles up the one side of the pass, welcomed this change of pace on the other side very much, and for a few moments, the scenery enveloped us at a level you just could not get in a car or a bus. It was exhilarating.
I’d just gotten to feeling comfortable on the bicycle, riding fast enough to be fun, but braking enough to be safe. I think it was maybe 5 kilometers, when I heard Wolfgang behind me yell “I am smelling burned rubber’. We all stopped at the first spot we could get off the road to check for the cause of that smell. Sure enough, With all my braking, that rubber pad that was my front brake had gotten so hot from the friction that it started smoking, wore out and disappeared, never to be seen again. After we stopped and inspected it, we decided that it was safe to go on, but slower, and more carefully, because since there was no bicycle repair place at that elevation, we had absolutely no choice to slow me down but to use the other brake in the hub of the rear wheel.
I tried my best not to use it excessively and just let it roll on the straight stretches but pushed the backpedal-brake system to it’s limit to make it safely around the first hairpin curve and the second, and the third and so on.
We may have gotten about 10 (don’t know how many of course) kilometers behind us , when I heard Wolfgang’s voice again loud and clear: “Your hub is smoking”.
He was such a nice friend and biking buddy but I sure didn’t want to hear his voice again, especially not with more bad news about my bicycle.
And even more especially, about smoke.
But, what choice did I, did we all have?
We all stopped.
The brake was so hot that it didn’t work very well anymore, and that wasn’t safe.
So we had to walk.
What choice did we really have?
And we walked, and walked, down the other side of Susten Pass, holding our loaded bicycles back, and we let it cool down.
It gave us more time to enjoy the Alps that so many people want to see.
How can you get tired of so much beauty?
We weren’t tired of the beauty, but we were getting tired of walking. We checked the brake on my bicycle, and it had finally cooled off, so we started to coast downhill again.
We’d spread out a little bit by then, and the breeze cooled me off, and I realized that the brake, not being used right then, could cool off too the next time it got hot. So that gave me an idea, and I let the bicycle go down the hill as fast as it would go… The wind was rushing in my ears, and I could barely hear Walter yelling at me that I’d get myself killed if I rode that fast. I braked hard at the next curve, heating up the brake until I could feel it weaken, leaned deep into the turn, made it around, and let the bicycle fly again. The brake cooled off while my brother’s frustrated shouts faded behind me.
But remember, this was Switzerland.
And soon the brake overheated again, so we had to alternate walking and riding for the rest of the afternoon until we finally made it down into the lowlands at dusk, where we found a place to stay for the night.
Over the next few days we got out of the Alps and stopped near the town where Walter had worked, and I wanted to write a postcard to our mom so that she would know we were okay. After all, it had been many days since we’d been home. Walter said we’d get home before the post card did, so I didn’t get one.
We kept heading north on flatter ground, eventually making it to Germany, and much later, finally made it to our hometown, where things looked like – well, home. Wolfgang headed back to Frankfurt, and we made our way home, walking our bicycles into the driveway beside the house. Our mom heard us go by through the kitchen window, and on hearing us, came out onto the veranda to make sure we were okay. Once that was established, the first thing she said to us as my brother and I climbed up the back steps was, “You’re back! What were you thinking? We were worried you’d fallen down a mountain, What kept you from even sending a postcard?”
We stepped out of the time machine, mom and I, and laughed at some of the adventures she’d had, and then I told her a similar story, also of a brother and sister, coming back from a bicycle trip, climbing up those same steps, and explaining to the same mom (her mom, my Oma) why we were late.
But that’s for part 2, coming in a few months.
Take care out there, folks.
The time machine surprised me this time.
I was making a sandwich for lunch the other day and saw it sitting there, looking just like the bottle of Thousand Island dressing in the fridge.
It reminded me of a young boy and his uncle, who was making him a sandwich.
“Ham or bologna?”
“Thousand or mustard?”
Uncle’s hand in the plastic bag of bread, “Two slices or three?”
Eyeballs of young nephew got real big…
“You can have three slices?”
“Okay,” (feeling like a king) “Three slices then…”
A certain uncle made two of the biggest sandwiches that nephew had ever seen, with relish, and lettuce and all that is good in sandwiches. And he made one for himself, and one for the nephew.
And they both sat on the porch had a most wonderful lunch, I still remember, to this day.
It’s been a few years since I had my introduction to sailplanes, and after much prodding by my friend Greg, and me saving up to fly again, I was finally able to take advantage of some time a few weeks ago and go out to the airfield again.
It’s a quiet, grass field out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dead end road about an hour and a half out of Seattle. The last bit of the drive was through a forest that, in the light I was seeing it, looked like it easily could have been home to Hobbits or Dwarves or a possible dragon lurking back in the underbrush.
I smiled a little to myself and kept my eyes wide open, looking deep into the woods, imagining I might see one. The road turned left and I emerged into a clearing, a fence to my left, and some cars parked neatly on my right. The Fairies that I’d imagined would have been at home with the Dwarves and Hobbits in the forest had taken the elegant shape of sailplanes taking off and landing on the other side of the fence.
Greg came up to greet me, his traditional peanut butter sandwich in his hand. He’d been sitting in one of several plastic chairs lined up in the shade on the south side of the field. He got one out of the shed for me, and invited me to sit down and chat while he spliced the end of a tow rope.
Part of me really wanted to get in the air, but another part of me was just happy to enjoy the peace and quiet of the fall colors, the fresh air, and the occasional gentle breeze.
There was another flier that visited every now and then. It was a dragonfly (or maybe it was a baby fairy) and its wings almost imperceptibly thrummed as it inspected us. It was never in one spot long enough for a good picture, but it emphasized the almost palpable quiet there. I mean, there can’t be much background noise if you can hear a dragonfly…
It was nice.
I heard the towplane fly overhead , looked up, and saw that someone was enjoying a ride in the same sailplane I’d gone up in a few years ago.
I smiled again.
His peanut butter sandwich finished, Greg now had both hands free and we chatted some more while he continued working on his towropes, with the dragonfly checking in every now and then.
The tow plane – a hard-working Piper Super Cub flown by a an equally hard working gentleman named Patrice, pulled many planes up into the sky, including the PW-6U we’d be in.
The afternoon went on, and I saw it go up and down a few times…
I could sense my eagerness, verging on impatience, wanting to get in – but there were people ahead of me in line, and they had to go up first, and the tow plane needed gas, and a student needed scheduled practice, all valid things, but all making me feel like a fidgety kid peeking around everyone else standing in line for a ride on the roller coaster at the fair. The only thing missing was the smell of cotton candy and popcorn wafting in the breeze.
So I waited, and chatted with Greg, and John, the fellow I’d gone up with the last time, and a few others, and the afternoon wore on – no – it didn’t wear on, it was better than that. It passed, pleasantly, softly, gently.
The shadows grew longer, and longer, and finally, as the sun was casting its last warmth over the horizon…
…we got in. With Greg in the back, me in the front, and Patrice in the tow plane, we all took off and headed for our release altitude. As low as the sun was by that time, Greg said it would be a “sled ride” (all downhill) as we needed to be down before the sun actually set.
We kept climbing, turning gracefully behind Patrice.
At one point, I looked out the right side and was speechless at the absolute majesty of Mount Rainier, almost close enough to touch…
…and then, looking closer at the picture, realized it’d be a good idea to not wear a striped shirt next time I flew. (How cool, I’m already thinking of a ‘next time’)
Greg had me pull the release for the tow rope. It sprung and coiled for a bit before straightening out as Patrice flew back down to the field off to our left. We found our way along the big ridge behind the airfield, turned again, and given the sled ride nature of the flight, Greg flew, and I was just in awe of the beauty around me.
He asked how I handled steep turns, as he was going to burn off a lot of altitude very quickly to get down in time. I grinned as he banked hard and did an amazing corkscrew into the pattern, extended the spoilers,
and put the setting sun behind and the moon in front of us as we approached the field. We squeezed right between the trees, and the gentle hiss of the sailplane was replaced by the shuddering rumble of the landing gear on the grass, quieting down to silence as we rolled to a stop right where the plane needed to be put away…
We got out, I turned around and saw the sun setting behind the trees as Greg got my Nikon out of the front cockpit.
I heard something ticking off to my left, and as I turned, I realized it was the engine of the Super Cub that had taken us up, still cooling off and resting from its day of labor.
It was already tied down, the moon reflecting off its wings…
Greg helped put the PW-6U we’d flown back in the trailer and after he’d made sure the cover was down and latched, we headed over to the edge of the fields where the cars were.
I thanked Patrice for his tow, and Greg for the flight and conversation, and then headed back through the woods I’d come through earlier.
Only this time, I knew the Fairies were real.
There was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this story.
I mean that in the most final way that could be possible.
The original was written almost exactly 9 years ago, about something that happened a year before that, and it’s been a learning experience all the way around, so with that, step with me into the time machine, back to a day where I sat in our basement, with my keyboard in my lap, both feet on the desk, and I wrote a little note about those things we’d learned on that first anniversary.
“We’ve learned a lot through this last year dealing with cancer, treatment for it, recovery from it, and the like – and it’s phenomenal the kinds of things you do learn when you find you’ve been to the edge and back.
One of the things I learned, honestly, that life is truly not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
The destination for all our bodies, is likely a pine box or an urn on a mantel somewhere. That doesn’t have to mean that has to be our soul’s destination. Sometimes, when we just spend our time existing, drifting, our soul just shrivels up, and dries up and is blown away like dust. Believe me, I understand that, I’ve been there. But that’s not what life is about. Life is about living – and the life that comes from LIVING (all capitals on purpose) as opposed to just existing – is the difference between black and white.
We’ve found that life now (after cancer) tends to be higher contrast (speaking of black and white) – the highs higher, the lows, lower – and while those lows are definitely lower – the highs more than make up for it, and the stuff in the middle isn’t gray… it’s a… a fine mixture of that black and white. (those are all links to stories I wrote up there)
I found that life, as most people my age tend to think, is not infinite, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that weekends, while occasionally made for Michelob, might be better spent if you realized there weren’t an infinite supply of them… So walks in the park (or wherever) have replaced being half comatose in front of the boob tube. Trips to visit friends have replaced sitting idly at home whiling away another weekend – and – that brings up something that happened just a few weekends ago.
We went down to Portland (Oregon) to do a couple of things:
1) Celebrate the end of treatment/major phase of recovery and the beginning of going back to work,
2) Visit our daughter, and
3) Visit with some of our bestest friends.
While Cindy drove the car down so we’d have a way to get back on time, our son Michael and I took the train, and I’d learned that if you pay a little extra, you sit in what they call “business class” – so instead of 4 seats across, there were only three, and the seats were wider, two seats, then an aisle, then one seat, and you got discount coupons on the food in the dining car. So we went for the business class. I was expecting we’d get the seats on the right side of the train – where you can see Puget Sound as you go by – and the rows are only one seat wide, and the seats there face each other, which made conversation and stretching your legs out easy. However, when I asked, those seats were full and we got put into “Row 6”.
On the other side of the train.
So we sat there for a bit – and with all the benefits advertised of being on a train, it wasn’t much different than sitting in an airplane – Michael reading his book, me sitting there, kind of cramped – and right about then, there was an announcement that the “Bistro car” (apparently what’s replaced the “Dining Car”) was open. I figured that since it was dinner time, and we had those coupons for the food, we should get up there before the line got too long, and so we did, standing there, swaying back and forth as the train trundled down the tracks.
After a bit of that, we got our food… Michael a hot dog, me a chili (which I spilled later, but that’s another story), and sat down at this little table, and talked, and ate, and read, and laughed, and watched the scenery, and played a game, and in general were having a good time all by ourselves.
…which was when the girls showed up.
A 12 year old and a 14 year old – they’d just met on the train themselves, were bored, and ended up sitting across the aisle from us, and started to try to make up a game. Michael and I were playing our own game by that point, and after I stomped Michael once, and he stomped me once, even worse, he felt he’d had enough, so I said, “Hey, why don’t you go over there and teach them how to play”
“Oh, I can’t do that…”
“Sure you can, what have you got to lose?”
“If you don’t go over there, it’s as good as them having said no, and you’ll have learned nothing.”
“If you do go over there and embarrass yourself, chances are you’ll never see them again, so you’re not risking much.”
“However, if you do go over there, and it works, then you’ll have the next hour and a half to spend time laughing, having fun, and making memories.”
“So really, what do you have to lose?”
After a few minutes of pondering, he went over there. Big, hulking Michael, went over and in his suave, sophisticated way asked, “Hey, wanna learn how to play a game?”
The girls loved it.
Oh, gosh, did they love it.
And, come to think of it, I think Michael did, too.
One of them got a deck of cards, and while the 14 year old was playing, learning and laughing with Michael, the 12 year old taught me a card game called “Spit” – involving faster reflexes than adults can possibly have (and that children playing games against said adults should be allowed to have). She blew me away. Then she decided to go easy on me and asked if I knew how to play “War” (each of you gets half the deck, and you each put a card down, whoever’s card is highest wins both cards. The winner is the one with all the cards). I thought I’d shuffled the deck well. Turns out I couldn’t have shuffled it much better (for her), because by the end of the first hand, she had all but two of my cards. The sound of her laughter was like the joyful ringing of a bell, and told me that even though I was losing the card game (Losing doesn’t come close – annihilated is more in the neighborhood), I was winning something much larger. I realized that if I had to ‘lose’ a game in order to bring that much laughter and joy into a child’s life, then I’d happily lose the game.
It was at that moment that I realized that the high pitched laugh of hers had a bass line – and I looked across the aisle to find that Michael had his opponent on the ropes, so to speak, and was laughing uproariously at his position in the game.
I thought about this at the time – about how before all these realizations, before cancer, I might have just stayed there in my assigned seat because it had cost me $12.00 extra a seat to get those extra wide/comfortable ones – and by God, I was going to sit there and get my $12.00 worth of enjoyment out of them if it killed me.
I realized that for us to enjoy the journey the way we had, we had to get up out of our comfortable seats where they were showing a now long forgotten movie, and go up to that Bistro car, where there were no reservations for us, and no assigned seats. It was a risk, a small one, but the rewards were so well worth it. Getting up, and daring to get out of our comfort zones and living life, instead of life living us, was obviously the thing to do, for Michael, and for me.
Suddenly, before we were really ready, the call came out “Next stop, Vancouver”. One of the girls got off, and then 10 minutes later, we got to Portland – and the other little girl just disappeared into the river of people pouring out of the train. We joined the same river and spilled out onto the platform.
We stopped, the crowd thinned, we looked around, and at each other, and realized we were at our destination.
Having truly enjoyed the journey.
As I said, it’s been 9 years since I wrote that, and 10 years since the phone call that started it all.
We had no idea what the future would bring then. We had no idea how hard some of it would be, or how unbelievably cool other parts of it would be. Most surprising was how we would feel a peace about things through all the terror that made no sense, given what we were going through, but we also felt that that peace we were feeling was directly related to the shield of prayers our family, friends, and even some strangers (who became our friends) kept over us.
But back on that day, I remember that the doctor had said he would do his best. He’d remove what he could remove, and try to save what he could. And that little bit got me thinking the ‘what if’ thoughts that you try in vain to push out of your mind, but that wasn’t an option, so I went out that morning, while the sun was still low, and while the grass and dandelions were still wet, and I walked barefoot in the grass – trying to imprint that feeling, that memory into my mind, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to repeat that when I came back.
To say I was a little nervous about the whole thing might be understating it a touch.
I came back in, changed, and we left the house. I drove, and after getting all prepped, we were able to convince them to let me take a CD player and some headphones in so I could have something to listen to after the surgery. My favorite composer is Johann Strauss, and so that’s what I wanted to hear, that would be my subconscious signal to myself that I’d made it through that part of it.
I remember being wheeled into the operating room. They stopped, I saw all the equipment they had, as I groggily looked over at the table I’d be laying on…
Strauss? YES! It was Strauss!
I’d made it.
I wiggled my toes, on both feet, and as I drifted back to sleep, I knew that as hard as the road ahead may be, it was going to be okay.
There are many, many people to thank here. If I thanked you all, it’d sound like an Oscar speech. But this is not the kind of thing you go through alone. It changes you. It changes those around you. So for those of you prayer warriors who helped hold up that shield up over my family and me, and to God who provided it, I thank you. We thank you. For those of you who brought meals when we needed them, or fixed plumbing, or mowed the lawn, or sat on the front porch in the shade, in the breeze, with a cold bottle of Sprite and just chatted and listened and distracted me for a moment… Thank you. For the medical staff (doctors, nurses, and vampires and staff – you know who you are) who’ve been with me through thick and thin, we thank you profusely.
The reminder that life is short, and the journey has no guarantees, is ever present. Hug your loved ones when you can.
And speaking of loved ones, there’s my family, who’s been along for the ride, hard as it’s been at times…
There are no words strong enough. Thank you barely scratches the surface. <Hugs>
I went out in the front yard this morning as the sun came up…
…and felt the dewy grass on my feet…
With all the spying stuff that’s been in the news the last few months, the comparison to Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984 has been on my mind a bit, and it got me to thinking about my own little experience with Mr. Orwell.
See, back in high school, we did the play adaptation of the book,
…and I managed to talk my way not only into playing Mr. Charrington on stage when that actor quit, but because of my voice and ability to do accents, I had also been chosen to play the voice of Big Brother, (deep, ominous, with slight Russian accent), the voice of his arch nemesis Goldstein, (high, kind of a German accent with a little Yiddish thrown in) and on a closed circuit screen, the “Telescreen” News Announcer.
The good part of this?
I got to play 4 parts in the play.
The bad part?
I had to play 4 parts in the play.
The biggest challenge to doing them all was getting from the tiny little studio we had set up to the right of the light booth, in the back of the auditorium, where all the equipment for all the closed circuit “Telescreen” shots was, and getting into costume, makeup, into character and up onto the stage. Once there I had to get into a Cockney accent and look and act much older than the Telescreen announcer I’d been a couple of minutes before.
The reason this was “the bad part” wasn’t that I couldn’t do the parts.
I could, and did.
The problem was logistics.
I spent the first part of the play in the windowless camera booth at the back of the auditorium, then had to get up, cross the light booth, out to the hallway, run down that hallway till I could get backstage and get into makeup, all without making so much noise as to distract the audience.
This didn’t really come up until the last few rehearsals, which were full dress, right after school. That was when we discovered that there just wasn’t enough time to get the costumes changed in the time I had.
So on the second dress rehearsal, I planned on getting changed up there in the windowless camera booth, before meeting everybody on stage for the pre-rehearsal meeting where they were all gathered around the telescreen that was in the middle of the stage.
Except I got there late.
And I had to hurriedly change in the only space available in the little studio beside the light booth, that being between the News Announcer’s desk and the camera.
The one with the little red light on it when it was running.
I’d almost finished changing when I heard everyone on stage laughing. I looked around, wondering what was going on, only to hear several people yell, “Tom’s changing in front of the camera and he doesn’t know it’s running!”
It was then that I noticed the red light was on.
Big Brother was indeed watching me.
So I did the only thing that made sense at the time, given my condition (half dressed) and position (in front of the camera).
And then I mooned Big Brother.
And then I turned and took a long, exaggerated bow.
But it got me thinking… It reminded me that even in the smallest things, people are watching; your kids, your colleagues, your friends, and how you handle yourself when you don’t think people are watching is just as important, if not more important as when they are.
Take care folks – be good examples out there, but don’t be afraid to moon Big Brother…
Sometimes he needs it.
Have you ever done something a little on the audacious side?
In fact, have you ever done something that ran an astonishingly high risk of failure, but you decided you’d try it anyway?
Now, on top of that, have you ever met someone that just seemed to have it all?
And have you ever wanted to pull a prank on them, just – well… Because?
Have you ever had a convergence of all of those things look like they might come together in ways that you could imagine in your dreams, but couldn’t possibly imagine in reality?
Well, it might be hard to imagine for those of you who read these stories, but yes indeedy, I had all of those things happen, many years ago. See, when I was a teenager, I knew someone like that, his name was Marc. Marc was handsome, smart, had a sense of humor and a smile that would win over just about anybody.
At that time, Marc was always, and I mean always in the company of some attractive young lady. We went to different schools, but went to the same church, and were in the same youth group, and most importantly, went to the same church camp in southern Washington, where once a year, we met other kids from other churches in the district (which encompassed Washington and Oregon). One of those kids was a young lady by the name of Jeanne, a bright, fun, attractive girl from Oregon who was friends with just about everyone.
It was clear that a number of the boys at camp were completely smitten by her, but given that she lived a few hours from where we lived, and given that this was, shockingly, before the days of the internet as we know it, any communication had to be done by letters that were written, with a pen, on paper, or telephone calls which usually cost more for the first minute of calling than the stamp to send the letter cost. (I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit for some of you, and for those of you a little older to nod and remember that time, too)
So we all looked forward to church camp, where we were able to spend time with each other and not only learn lessons from the Bible, but get together and have fun, singing songs, playing games like Capture the Flag, and What Can We do With The Counselor’s Car?” (my sister’s car was somehow put in the Gym, mine one year ended up down a path down by the river), or, in quieter moments, just hanging out by the campfire. Bottom line: those of us in the youth group just loved camp, because it just made the youth group that much bigger.
One year, completely outside of camp, the youth group decided to go camping for a weekend out around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.
Marc was still smitten by Jeanne, but because of simple geography, was also good friends with a young lady named Sandy. Fact is, we were teenagers, and being smitten was part of the territory, so that was really a standard condition for all of us.
As a result, the situation was just totally asking for more than a little practical joking, and to be honest, I was one of those guys who was just a little smitten, but Jeanne and I were also, as we used to say, “just friends” (emphasis on the quotes there) so when I found out about the youth group camping trip to Kalaloch, and that Marc was going, it just seemed ripe for a little fun.
So I called Jeanne up and asked her if she wanted to go camping.
At the Beach.
Now understand, this was quite a bit easier said than done. I was south of Tacoma, Washington, she lived somewhere near Portland, Oregon, and we were headed to Kalaloch, in Washington. Yeah, I looked it up on the map. The trip looked like this. Just that piece of it was over 300 miles. She checked with her parents, got the okay, and the resulting plan was that I’d come down Friday afternoon, spend the night there, then somehow, without a whole lot of planning, synchronization, or anything, meet up with the youth group on their way to the beach, and pull off a ‘mess with Marc’s mind’ prank the likes of which he would never expect.
Also understand, the whole youth group, Marc included, coming from one direction, us coming from another direction, and actually meeting at an undisclosed, not to mention unknown, location in the middle required the kind of precision timing you might find in carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operations.
However, this was not a carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operation.
This was just me, pre-cell phone/gps days, driving down to Portland and hoping to bring a girl up to go camping with the youth group, and just happening to run into said youth group on the way to the beach – but not telling anyone in the youth group that I was doing it.
What could possibly go wrong?
I’d already told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the camping trip, that I was going to Portland for the weekend, and that I hoped they had a good time.
So I piled all my stuff together into my 1967 Saab 96 with the three cylinder, two stroke, 850 cc engine and headed off to Portland.
Everything was going great, I got there safely, we had dinner, and I met her mom. I don’t remember her dad being in the picture that evening, and her sister was out of town, so I ended up sleeping in her sister’s bed, in the frilliest, girliest bedroom I’ve ever slept in.
Given how well the trip down had gone, I thought the trip up would be a breeze.
I was wrong.
It rained overnight, the first time in a long time, and the next morning, we were all ready to go, we got the car packed, and I fired up the Saab, it was idling quietly, warming up a bit, with the ‘ringgggdadingdingding….’ sound that it made when it was idling, the two stroke smoke from the cold engine wafting like fog all over the neighborhood. I was about to put it into gear to back out of their driveway when the clutch pedal went to the floor, and neither reverse – nor for that matter, any gear, was available without some seriously nasty grinding of Swedish steel gears.
I popped the hood, screwed the lid off the clutch master cylinder, and found it not only low, but bone dry.
There was obviously a leak in the rather simple hydraulics of the clutch system, as all the brake fluid in it had leaked out. I was many, many miles from home, so in spite of the ‘freewheeling clutch‘ designed into the car, I really wasn’t going for a several hundred mile trip without it working. So bright and early that Saturday, we had to find a car parts store to see if we could get the right brake fluid for the car’s hydraulic clutch system (the wrong kind would eat through the seals, and who knows, maybe that’s what had already happened, I don’t know for sure, so we borrowed her parent’s land yacht of a ‘70’s sedan. All I remember was that it had a cold-blooded 430 cubic inch V-8 engine , a light rear end, and a sticky throttle.
Note: that 430 cubic inch engine had more power in just one of its eight cylinders than I had in my entire car. There WAS a difference.
In fact, there was far more cast iron in that engine than in my entire car, and it ran a little rough until all that iron warmed up. This was something we discovered as the car coughed just as we were making a left turn out onto a very large, empty five lane street as we were going out in search of the necessary brake fluid. Jeanne pumped the gas a few times to try to get it to run again, and just as she had her foot on the floor, the engine woke up as if it had been hit with a quadruple shot of espresso, and it roared, spinning the back wheels on the wet, slick pavement. We fishtailed all over the road for a few hundred feet until Jeanne got the throttle un-stuck and the car under control. Neither one of us needed anything resembling coffee after that, the adrenaline was enough to keep us both very, very alert for the rest of the morning.
We found a gas station, got the only kind of brake fluid they had (the wrong kind, as it turned out – but I knew I’d have to replace the seals when I got home anyway), got the land yacht safely docked back in her parent’s driveway, where I did a quick refilling and Jeanne helped me bleed the air out of the clutch hydraulics and tested it all out. That done, we piled into the now non-clutchless Saab, and headed north.
We’d already lost quite a bit of time with the whole clutch thing, which frustrated me, as I knew about the time the youth group was planning to leave, and knew where I wanted to intercept them, but I was now late, and the whole plan was looking like it was going to fall apart. I mean seriously, I didn’t even know which campground near Kalaloch they’d be staying at… I had to find them or the whole weekend would be a wash.
Then near Vancouver, Washington, the little light on the gas gauge started to flicker on every now and then, so I pulled into a Shell station there. Oh, remember, I was driving a two stroke car, which meant I had to mix the oil with the gas in a precise ratio: One quart of 30 wt oil, 8 gallons of premium…
In that order.
Into the gas tank.
And that station was the only one around that insisted on selling gas by the liter.
They sold oil by the quart, gas by the liter, and my math was in gallons.
I had to do some quick math…
Let’s see… 3.78 gallons of gas per liter –
No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…
I calculated it out with the stub of a pencil on the roof of the car, scribbling on the back of a receipt I’d found in the door pocket, to be about 30 liters of gas after I got the one quart of oil in there. It had to be right. If it was too rich (too much oil) I’d foul the plugs and it wouldn’t run well. If it was too lean, (not enough oil) I’d burn the piston rings and toast the engine. (We’ll get into this in another story that has yet to be written, interestingly about this very thing, on this very car.) So, that being said, the relatively simple but time consuming part of getting the oil to gas ratio wasn’t optional, it had to be done right, or the trip might not happen at all. So, it was just one more thing on this trip that absolutely had to be right. I figured it all out, got the gas, paid, hopped back into the car, and blasted out of there heading north.
Once we got moving, it felt like we were actually making pretty good time, and it looked like we might make it… I just had to drive well past the speed limit, not get caught, and – oh gosh, I think Jeanne was 16 or 17 at the time… I was maybe 20, 21. Getting stopped with a young lady who was underage across state lines wouldn’t be good, so yes I was driving as fast as the little Saab and traffic would allow, but gosh I had my eyes peeled for anything resembling a car with red and blue lights on it. The thing is, I didn’t really feel I had much of a choice but to drive like I was driving, because we were so late already. I’m sure at some point in there I had thoughts of “What am I doing???” – but right then the whole idea of, “Gosh, Tom, why don’t you drive something like 750 miles in a weekend just to pull a prank on a friend?” just seemed like the right thing to do…
About an hour or so later, we were coming to a possible crossroads where, depending on where the rest of the youth group was, I would either have to turn left and get off the freeway, or go straight and try to intercept them up ahead. A look at the clock in the car made me realize I’d better see if I could call the church to see who all ended up going, I mean, if Marc hadn’t gone, the whole thing would be off, so it was crucial for him to be there. I pulled off the freeway and into a gas station with a phone booth (yes, this was BC – Before Cellphones). I ran over to the phone booth, crumpled map rustling in my wake, and called the church, where I very quickly learned several things: 1. Marc was coming. 2. He was driving his parent’s silver Chevy Citation, our friend Bert would be driving his parent’s red Buick, and Marc’s parents would follow up in this monster station wagon they had, with all the bigger stuff, like the tent, the food, and the stove. I also learned that they’d left later than I expected them to, which meant that if I read the map right, we – oh, crap – I said a hurried goodbye, slammed down the receiver and tore out of there as fast as the three cylinders of the Saab would take me, leaving a cartoonish cloud of white two stroke exhaust in my wake…
It looked like we might actually be able make this…
I’d have to turn off my planned path of heading north and west via I-5 and highway 101 (which turned into highway 8) which I was familiar with and I knew they’d have to travel, vs. highway 12, which I’d never been on, but from the looks of the map, was a lot shorter, and from what I could tell, intersected highway 8 over near the town of Montesano, so I decided to risk it and turned off I-5 and onto Highway 12, where I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I couldn’t drive nearly as fast. I got through the town of Grand Mound, and then it was pretty much a two lane road, top speed, 55 mph, with occasional little towns where the speed limit was lower.
So we tootled along for a bit – talking about all sorts of stuff, but never doing anything more than speed limit, until the stereotypical little old lady – I kid you not, squinting at the road between the top of the steering wheel and the dashboard, pulled out in front of us in a blue smoke belching Buick type of a thing that I could barely see around.
At 35 mph…
That was a bit too high for 2nd gear in the Saab, just a hair low for 3rd. Definitely too low for 4th . so I was stuck, right at a speed the car rarely saw unless it was accelerating through it…I remember having to constantly shift back and forth, hunting for a gear I could use. I was incensed. The road was just curvy enough, with just enough traffic, to where there was no possible way I could pass her with the acceleration the car had, Mile after mile after mile, stuck behind this old greenish Buick. I was just thinking that it couldn’t get worse, when a very heavily loaded logging truck pulled out from some foresty road right in front of the little old lady…
And she had to hit her brakes.
To slow down.
From 35 mph…
I don’t remember where exactly this happened, but it was clear that the truck driver either wasn’t planning on or wasn’t capable of driving any faster than 35 for the bit he was on, and any acceleration he got on the level he lost on the little hills, so 35 it was.
I could see my dreams of messing with Marc’s mind disappearing in a cloud of diesel exhaust glowing from the little old lady’s brake lights.
I was beside myself.
There was no possible way I could pass, no possible way I could overcome this obstacle, and so as frustrated as I was, I had to just let it go…
After all that, it looked like I’d failed. I was just imagining how hard it would be trying to catch up with the rest of the youth group after being stuck behind the truck and the little old lady when the truck turned right, and I saw something I couldn’t see around him: A bridge. That couldn’t be the bridge I was looking for. It was about 10 miles early… But… it had to be highway 8. I didn’t understand, and asked Jeanne for the map, where I saw that highway 12 didn’t come out at Montesano, it came out at Elma, and those last 10 miles to Montesano were actually on highway 8, which, from what I could tell, doubled as highway 12, at least for that little bit.
And that meant we were about 10 miles ahead of where we thought we were – which meant… Oh my gosh – that meant that we might actually have caught up with them. There wasn’t a second to lose, but now I didn’t know if we were ahead of them or behind them.
Just in case it all worked, I’d gotten some Groucho Marx glasses for us both – with the nose, the mustache, and the eyebrows, and so I asked Jeanne if she could get them out while I accelerated up the onramp. She was rummaging around the back seat for the masks when I hit third gear, and I remember telling her what I’d heard on the phone a bit earlier. “Look for a silver Citation, a red Buick, and a wood sided station wagon.”
“Yup, I see them,” she said as if she’d been expecting this all along. “They’re right there.”
“No, really, they’re right there!”
I leaned forward as far as the seat belt would let me, looked in my left rear view mirror as I was merging and realized she was right. With all the things that appeared to have gone wrong, they had all conspired to get us to exactly the right spot at the absolute most perfect time we could have gotten there…
Pulling up IN FRONT of them.
Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.
Seriously, Special Forces missions are timed with this level of precision.
I hit the gas, and the white smoke from the two stroke engine trailed behind me and into the Citation, the Buick, and the Station Wagon, making it very clear to all that we’d arrived.
I heard later that there was a conversation in the car Marc was driving (the Silver Citation), his little brother Craig and little sister Marce was there, saw me pull up in front of them, and yelled, “That’s Tom!”
“That can’t be Tom. Tom’s in Portland visiting Jeanne.”
“But no one else has a red Saab like that!”
“Someone must. Tom’s in Portland.”
Meanwhile, in the Saab, I still couldn’t believe my luck, and tried to figure out what to do, given that while I had hoped for something like this, and given all the obstacles that morning, only in my wildest dreams did I actually expect it to happen, and it seemed like it was coming true. Jeanne and I tried on the fake Groucho Marx glasses with the nose, mustache, and eyebrows, you know, high-brow (but low budget) stuff, so that when they finally saw us, they wouldn’t quite recognize us right at the first second.
And then I tried to get them to pass us, so I slowed down to about 50…
Marc, Bert, and Marc’s parents slowed down, too…
No one passed.
I sped up, and in a few minutes, tried it again. I had to get them to pass me because I had no idea where they were going – so after several times where I slowed down, and irritated Marc with that, then floored it to get back up to speed (irritating him with the smoke from the car) – he finally pulled out and passed, and Jeanne and I straightened out the glasses.
And to this day, I can still remember the look on his face as he realized what was going on as he passed us. Sandy was sitting next to him, Jeanne and I both looked over in our Groucho Marx glasses, and he just stared… (and I, of course, smiled just a touch). He couldn’t believe it. (and, to be honest, I couldn’t either, but for a much different reason.)
I stayed in the slow lane until the whole caravan passed us, getting smiles from people as they looked over and realized what was going on, and then I fell in behind the last car. We all got to the beach safely, which was wonderful, and I think there were close to 15 people there when everyone was added up. By the time I’d pulled into a parking space, Marc had already jumped out of the car and was waiting on Jeanne’s side of the car. He opened the door hugged the stuffings out of her, and I think there might have been a punch in the shoulder for me, followed by a hug when I got out. I remember the shocked look was gone from his face, and that smile of his that I always remember him having was back. Having Jeanne there was definitely a surprise, totally unexpected, but she was such a part of the ‘extended’ youth group we were in, that she fit in perfectly, and then, over the next little bit the tent and stove were set up, the sleeping bags were piled into the tent, and in typical Washington summer fashion, the wind that was blowing was cold.
We all ran down to the beach, where my friend Bert (driving the red Buick) and Marc had convinced another member of the youth group, Rachel, that this kelp they’d found was a huge sea snake. They chased her down the beach with it. How it later ended up, cold, wet, and slightly slimy, in Bert’s sleeping bag we, um, don’t know, but it was all part of the fun of camping at the beach (well, fun for everyone but Bert). We went wave hopping (wading out into the Pacific until you’re about thigh deep, and then trying to time your jumps to keep your, um, “bits” dry as the waves come in. And let me tell you, off the Washington Coast, the Pacific Ocean is COLD. Eventually the “bits” you’re trying to keep dry and warm get wet, and cold, and who knows, depending on how long you’re in there, they might even turn blue. When things like that happened, it was obviously time to get out, so we did. Of course, that’s right about the time the sun came out, go figure.
We went back up to the camp, where Marc’s parents had started a fire, and his mom had made hot chocolate, which we held in our hands in those speckled blue and white metal camping cups until it was lukewarm, trying to get every possible degree of heat out of before drinking it to get the rest.
We soaked up the warmth of the campfire, we sang songs, we played games, we did skits, we made s’mores, and made more hot chocolate.
When it was bedtime, almost all of us managed to fit in the tent. It was so weird, we were all full of the energy, spunk, and yes, hormones of youth, and getting to sleep was a challenge, we were all giggling and laughing and telling stories. People had trouble believing not only that I’d told everyone I wasn’t coming on the trip, (we were a tightly knit bunch, and for me to not go on the campout bordered on treason) but that I’d actually pulled it off. And on top of it all, for me to go to visit the girl Marc liked didn’t make sense, but in the end, that night we were all together like a group of friends should be, piled together in the tent with all the formality of a litter of puppies.
Once we did fall asleep, we slept like the logs on the beach.
I remember getting up the next morning, bleary eyed. Everything in the tent damp with the puppy breath of about 15 puppies (us), and while it was warmer in the tent, I was glad to get out into “not-pre-breathed-through-several-sets-of-lungs, seaside fresh, but oooh-so-cold air.
Marc’s parents were already up, his dad had made coffee and a fire was going. I remember several more people stumbling out of the tent and being inexorably drawn to the fire like marbles to a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline.
After breakfast and cleanup, there was a little more playing on the beach until it got too cold, then we thawed out a bit after we came back out of the wind through the trees and into the campground, where there was more hot chocolate to get feeling back into our hands with those warm camping cups. Eventually it was time to pack all our sandy stuff into the cars and start the long drive back home…
Only I couldn’t go straight home.
Since I’d brought Jeanne up from Oregon to go camping, I had to take Jeanne back home to Oregon to go home, and I still had several hundred miles of the clutch issue to deal with, so we all headed out, and eventually, with much waving of hands and honking of horns, we went our separate ways, Jeanne and I heading south so I could take her to Portland, and the rest of the group heading straight home to where they had come from.
I honestly don’t remember much of the trip back, either to Jeanne’s or home from there. I just know it was a lot slower and gentler than the trip up. I don’t remember any of the fallout or aftermath of the story. I just know that I wanted to do something crazy and did it.
And as I was writing this – I went through the trip in my mind, and it got me thinking. (and if you’ve read some of my stories, you knew this was coming)
Each one of the things that happened in the story happened for a reason…
And most of the things that happened in the story drove me nuts when they happened. I mean really,
- Did the clutch cylinder HAVE to blow the night before the trip?
- Did Jeanne’s parents car HAVE to spin out and freak us out?
- What about trying to drive all over before gas stations and stores opened up to find brake fluid?
- Or having to stand there converting liters to gallons, or the other way around?
- What about the stop to make the phone call?
- What about the blue haired (and smoked) little old lady driving the mondo Buick that I couldn’t pass?
- Why on EARTH would she be put in front of me?
- What about the logging truck dragging half a forest’s worth of old growth behind him? Why did he have to pull out in front of me?
I mean seriously, all of that stuff made me SO much later than I wanted to be… By the time I got to the bridge in what I thought was Montesano I was about ready to explode. I was trying to be optimistic, because it all might still have worked, but until that truck got out of the way and I realized where we were (at the bridge that I thought was in Montesano, but actually 10 miles earlier than I was expecting it), I had no idea that all this planning and stuff might actually work out.
I mean, think about it… the timing was such that if everything that needed to go “right” in my mind had actually gone right, then the whole trip would have been blown, I would have ended up waaaay ahead of the rest of the youth group, and there would have been no chance of me figuring out where they were going (All I knew was “Kalaloch”)
And it makes me think about life…
How sometimes it really, truly feels like life is not only handing us lemons, but rotten ones at that… How life repeatedly keeps flipping us a level of crap delivered by the truckload… that just seems to be overpoweringly wrong.
And yet, somehow, things work out for the good.
Each bad thing we live through, if we stop there and never get out of it, is a bad thing. But it’s one frame in a movie, and the next frame will be different.
Think about that, then keep reading.
I know people who are going through incredibly hard times right now. I know people who have gone through hard times and will go through harder times still… And I’ve come to conclude that life is a learning process… We all will make mistakes through our decisions or indecisions. We all have bad stuff happen to us through no fault of our own, and then we’re faced with a fairly simple decision:
Do I give up? Or do I carry on?
And I’ve talked to people who feel very strongly that giving up simply isn’t an option. They may not look like very strong people on the outside, but I’ve seen them, they are Olympians of endurance on the inside.
I’ve also known people for whom the struggle was so great that carrying on wasn’t an option, and to be honest, we didn’t know how bad the situation was until after the fact, and by that time it was too late. And even though the struggle may not seem big to those of us on the outside, it has taken me years to learn that we have no idea what kinds of struggles other people are going through, even if we think they’re telling us everything. Some time ago, over the course of a single week, I learned that two people I knew, who I thought had it all together, far better than I did, were losing it. You just don’t know.
And I’ve learned that we’re not here to judge each other based on what we can see of each other when there’s so much going on under the surface we know nothing about, (I don’t remember being appointed judge of anyone) – but to support each other through the trials that this life is.
So maybe, just maybe, that’s what you’re being called to do in the journey that is your life right now. Support someone.
Help them get to their Montesano…
Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.
And if you can, do it anonymously.
I don’t know who this person is in your life, and it will change over time, but somehow, some way, someone will be brought into your life, and you’ll have that opportunity.
Run with it.
And if you’re someone who’s going through a rough journey, and you keep finding yourself facing messed up clutches, weird gas stations, and all sorts of things in your way…
Keep going. Really.
If not for the destination, for the journey, and to see the smiles and love of those around you.
I just told you a story about a drive, a journey I took with a friend to meet other friends… We spent time together, we ate together, we played and talked and froze our butts off together, and then we all piled into that tent like those fuzzy puppies I mentioned earlier.
Isn’t that the way it should be?
That’s life, right?
I mean think about it…
Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).
Unexpected stuff happens (gas stations sell gas in liters instead of the expected gallons). People pull out in front of you, or cut you off (everyone from little old ladies to truck drivers) – and it all seems to be conspiring against you…
But… (and this is a big but, believe me, I get this…)
I learned that the end can come sooner than we think, just like that bridge I thought was in Montesano and ended up showing up 10 miles sooner… And at that point, the frustration, or at least that part of the frustration will be over. You’ll have lessons to ponder and learn, you’ll have stories to tell, but you’ll have a chance to be with your friends or family, and eventually, you’ll be through that challenge and on to the next one, and you’ll be doing your quiet version of driving home from Portland.
So… Hug your loved ones.
Remind them you love them.
Support those around you who are struggling.
Bring smiles into their lives as you can.
And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.
PS to Marc’s family, Jeanne, Rachel, and Bert who helped me remember some of the little details of this story – Thanks for letting me be a part of it.