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The moon is absolutely gorgeous as I write this.  All I have to do is look out the living room window to see it – and it got me thinking, and remembering, to a Sunday evening back in 1998.

I’d spent the afternoon with my son, just being together and doing stuff, and as it got dark, drove down to Golden Gardens in the old Saab, and as we were going around the big S turns on the way down, he looked up and saw the crescent moon in the evening sky.

“Look Papa!  The moon’s a white banana in the sky!”

And so it was.

It was wonderful to see, and wonderful to see it through his eyes.

We got down to the beach, just as most parents were packing up and leaving, and built a sand castle in the wet sand, it clumping together – bits of shell and the like as we worked… The sand castle appeared over time to the sound of an invisible boat chugging up the Sound.

At this moment, I decided to put all my sensors on full alert, as I wanted to remember this moment, and saw and heard other parents with their children, trying not to blink as they grew up.

That’s one of the hardest things about being a parent, trying not to blink…

As the sand castle took shape, the sounds of the evening changed from children running along the beach and into the water to children bargaining for more time, begging for “just one more minute”, and parents reluctantly giving in, for that one minute, knowing that they’ll be vacuuming the sand out of the car tomorrow, but knowing also that a memory was made, and it’s one small grain of sand in the beach of a happy childhood…

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We sang that in church a few weeks ago – (you can hear a version of it here) and I thought about that – what does it mean to “follow hard”?

It came to me in a camping trip my son Michael and I took to Shi Shi Beach (you can read about that trip in more detail here), on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State.

We should have made it to the trailhead by 1:00 that afternoon.  For various reasons we left much later than expected and got there at 4:30.  When we did, it was quite literally raining sideways.

We’d been told that it was a 3 hour hike, with a mile on the beach and, we’d heard, parts of the trail that were so muddy that boots got sucked off.

It was also February, and 3 hours after 4:30 would be well after dark – so we really felt like we needed to push it.

And Michael did.  Between the two of us, we managed to get down to the beach, and then we walked.  Hard, and fast, we walked.

The tide was out, the beach was flat, the sand was hard, and we walked in this little bubble of light from the flashlights.  Occasionally, Michael would ask if I needed him to slow down the pace a bit, and I said no, because while we’d been told it’d be “just a mile or so” down the beach, we didn’t really know how far we had to go, so going full tilt as far as possible seemed to make sense.

We did get there, and the very next morning, the weather turned so bad that the scoutmaster made the wise decision to leave – and that’s what we did.  There’s so much more to this – but this sets up the important part.

We left.

The tide had come in just after we got there, went out again overnight and was coming in again.  We had to be out of there before high tide.  There were parts of the beach that were up against a cliff, with logs that had been brought in over the years at the base, so it made decisions easy: you either walked out when the tide was out, or you waited till the tide was out.  Dilly dallying around meant you got to have waves and logs in your face while you had a cliff at your back.

Not a good option.

Michael and I started walking out early because of problems with my leg; we didn’t want to hold anyone up.  And so we walked.

Hard and fast, we walked.

But this time it was different.  The only hard sand had waves lapping on it already, so we couldn’t walk there.  The only sand we could walk on was now steep, soft, and at this moment, still dry, the kind you walk through more than you walk on, especially with heavy packs.  In all this, we had to race that tide that was coming in so we wouldn’t get stuck on the beach.

And Michael, this time, did not ask if I wanted to slow down.

He didn’t ask if I needed to slow down, in fact, what he said was, “Keep it up, old man. I am not dropping the pace.”

And I followed.

Hard.

I tried to stay within 10 feet of him, sometimes it stretched out to 30 or so – but I followed – because right behind us was that tide.

I had to follow.

Hard.

I walked as fast as I could, with a stick for support, wind at my back, incoming waves to my left, rain and hail soon to follow.

Rest had to wait.

Pain had to wait.

Hunger had to wait.

Even thirst had to wait.

The deep sand had to be pushed through.

The creeks we’d come through on the way in had to be forded again on the way out.

The waves, dashed around.

Until we were off that beach, the only thing on my mind was following.

Hard.

And then it hit me.

To follow hard is to focus on one thing and follow that.

Whatever it costs, however much it hurts, no matter how tired you are, you follow.

And when in Church we sing, “…and I will follow hard after you…” – it is Jesus who we are following.

And the tide? – I guess I see that as all the distractions of the world.

While we were aware of the waves, (you don’t turn your back on the ocean, ever, especially out there), not once did we stop to look at the waves until we were well off the beach, it would have taken time we didn’t have, and energy we didn’t have, from achieving our goal.

And we did that.  We achieved our goal, and we did make it.  The tide drowned the beach underneath it just as we made it off the sand.

It was not easy.

It is not easy, and it can and does cost to do this.  There is no guarantee that we won’t be hit by some “rogue wave” in our lives, and honestly, a lot of us are, but as I think about it – the more we “follow hard” after Jesus, the faster we’ll get off this beach, to safety.

Michael went back onto the beach and helped some of the younger scouts make it to the sheltered area we were in, and eventually we got everyone to safety.

Some months after I wrote the above, I realized I was pondering it a lot, and as often is the case, it got me thinking.  I realize that while I wrote the story because I had the image of that walk going through my head as we were singing in church, specifically, following Christ, accepting Him and His forgiveness, because hey, we’ve all screwed up, we’ve all sinned. It’s part of life.  Recognizing that, and recognizing that the forgiveness is there if we ask for it, is all part of what it’s like to “follow hard”.

I thought back to Michael going back out onto the beach, with the tide coming in, a hailstorm starting (this was in February, yes, camping in February) – knowing that we’d achieved our goal of getting off it – and how he went to help others do the same thing.

I realized that in anything we do – we will have the opportunity, many times over, to do that – to help people who come after us achieve their goal of “getting off the beach” whatever that beach is in their lives – and in doing so, sometimes we have to go out onto the beach again.  When we do that – with the waves crashing, and the hail coming, we then have to focus on that goal, to the point of being aware of, but not letting the storm and waves distract us from achieving it.

I thought some more, and learned that the song had more to teach me.

My mom, who reads these stories, has mentioned that this blog is my pulpit, so if you felt like you’ve just read a sermon, that’s cool.  But I realize that not everyone reading this is a Christian, I know some of you out there personally – most, I don’t.  And for you, this may not be a sermon, but just a story.  I’m okay with that.  I do hope and pray that the wisdom that He gives me in these stories is shared well, and that it blesses you in ways you can’t imagine right now.  I also realize that this concept of “Following Hard” could be applied to any goal worth pursuing.  And that thought alone has made me smile, realizing that in every challenge that I faced from that moment on, any challenging goal that I had to follow hard after, I would have both that trip to Shi Shi beach in my memory, and that song in my heart.


I’m always amazed at how intertwined things can be so as to become a braid of events that become larger than the sum of their parts. One of them came together just recently that left me pondering many, many things, but I have to leave some details to my special guest author.  You’ll understand why in a moment.  But first, the strands themselves:

  • A couple of weekends ago, we said goodbye to our beloved grandma for the last time.  It caused me to look back a bit, at the 94 years of her life, and the lives of those around her.
  • This last weekend, I went through a stack of 4 x 5 transparencies, some 50 years old, some older.  Some had color as bright as the day they were taken, some were black and white.  And while I was searching, a picture came up that hadn’t seen the light of day more than a couple of times in the last few decades. And it caused me to look back, both figuratively and literally, a bit more.
  • Then last Sunday there was an article in the paper about the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair, in Seattle, Washington, but most importantly, there was a story about Belgian Waffles.
  • And that reminded me of a story my mom told, and wrote, about those very Belgian Waffles, which were an absolute hit at the fair, and which made a lasting impression on her.

And over time, hearing those stories, and seeing the pictures, made me realize that history, and we can call it that, wasn’t dull and dreary, faded black and white images.  It made me realize that life way back then was just as full and vibrant as it is today, with real people, living life as best they could, sharing responsibilities and joys just like we would…

…and then I saw a connection between all of those disparate thoughts, those strands of the bigger braid being woven together up there that I hadn’t seen before.

See, in 1962, the grandma we said goodbye to a few weekends ago was younger than I am now.  She babysat my sister and me so a young couple could have some time off and spend a whole day away from the responsibilities of raising two young children.  That young couple was my mom and my dad, and while my grandma watched us, mom and dad headed north, to the Big City of Seattle, to see the World’s Fair – and – well, actually, let me introduce my guest writer for today, telling the story of the beginning of that braid, the very story of the Belgian Waffles mentioned in that newspaper article, not as a historical event looking back 50 years, but through the eyes of a young woman, only in America for a few years, still learning about the country, the climate, and the culture.

Oh… And the waffles.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my mom.

A memory of the 1962 World Fair

By I. Roush

It had been only two years since I had come to the States when the Space Needle was built in Seattle for the 1962 World Fair.

The pictures I saw in the papers reminded me so much of the equally famous Fernseh Turm (TV tower) in Stuttgart, in the area of my home town in Germany. The two looked like twins, and that alone made me want to go to see it at the Fair.

The big stretch of cement, I-5, did not exist then, so we had about 2 hours of anticipation and conversation as we drove up what was then known as ‘Old 99’.

I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to expect at the Fair.

Was I ever surprised!

My dear mother-in-law volunteered to take care of our two little ones, our 3 month old baby and a toddler, which gave my husband and me a chance to make a full day of it, a very welcome treat from full-time parenting.

Because it was billed as a “World Fair”, I decided to wear my Dirndl, a traditional dress from my part of the World, Southern Germany, which included Bavaria and the Black Forest.

At the Fair we walked from exhibit to exhibit and marveled over new inventions from all over the world. It was not only inventions but also people from all over the world. This could be clearly seen in their faces and many times also in their clothes.

It was fascinating, and a tremendous amount to take in.  New gadgets for the household were demonstrated in one building, in another was an enormous rotating oven that was almost hypnotic to watch as it churned out hundreds of the well-known scones at a time. But even so it seemed they could not be produced fast enough to satisfy hungry Fair-visitors.

In another building was the art gallery. I remember one painting of a seascape which was so realistic that I felt the need to stay back for fear I might otherwise get wet. (I decided right there and then, that’s the way I wanted to learn how to paint water.)

Then we saw something special.

It was the Belgian Waffles. I never had heard of those.

By this time my tired feet reminded me that it was time to take a break and my stomach was in total agreement with them.

There was quite a large crowd standing in line already in front of the raised platform from which those waffles were handed down. They looked so inviting with that generous helping of luscious ripe strawberries and an even larger portion of whipping cream on top.

My husband and I looked at each other, and then realized this wasn’t such a hard decision to make, so we joined the waiting throng to be served.  We hadn’t been there very long when the lady, who was handing down those yummy looking waffles, stopped and looked right at me. I’d never seen her before, and couldn’t imagine she had anything to say to me, so I looked left and then right, but there was nobody else who seemed to feel singled out by her. But then she pointed her finger right at me and with a loud voice announced:

”You probably have to go back to your booth, so I better serve you first”.

My Dirndl had given me away.

I realized that she had seen the Dirndl and thought I was one of the people who was actually part of the fair, but of course I wasn’t. There was no booth or exhibit I had to hurry back to.

Then again, I couldn’t argue with a person who was in the process of doing her ‘good deed’ for the day.

As I stood there trying to figure out what to do, the crowd helped make the decision, parted, and graciously made a path for me to receive the waffle the lady was offering me.

My dear husband didn’t wear any ‘Lederhosen’, so he could not pass as my Bavarian escort but she was gracious enough and served him also.

Happily carrying our plates, we looked for the nearest bench where we could sit down, I could rest my tired feet and enjoy those wonderful Belgian Waffles to the fullest.

That memory of the 1962 World Fair still brings a happy smile to my face and a warm feeling to my heart.

Thank you Belgian waffle Lady!

===

So – the strands of the braid come together with a thank you to the Belgian Waffle lady, a belated thank you to my grandma for babysitting my sister and me those many years ago, making this trip, and this story, possible – and a very special thanks to my mom, who wrote the story you just read. (You can see her below wearing the Dirndl in a photo taken around that time, also in a photo taken a number of years later, when she discovered that making dolls wearing Dirndls was fun, too, and one of her and dad, taken a few years before the story happened)

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I saw an article awhile back in the Sidney Daily News about expanding the airport there, and it made me think of the last time I’d been out there.

It was – wow – I just did the math and it was half my lifetime ago… I was working as a photojournalist intern for the Sidney Daily News at the time, and got a call on the pager we had from the Sheriff’s department that there had been a plane crash at the airport.  That was definitely news. At that time, I hadn’t yet been to the airport, so wasn’t sure what to expect.

The only other situation I’d seen like that was about 9 years earlier (May of 1978) of an F-106 crash where the pilot had lost an engine on takeoff, (note: the F-106 only has one engine, so this was immediately an issue), tried to steer the plane away from populated areas, which is hard to do when you’re taking off north from McChord AFB, in Tacoma, Washington.  There are no unpopulated areas there, and the pilot stayed with the plane until he was sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the ground, then ejected.  The plane, now pilotless, turned around and crashed into a pond in the center of an apartment complex just off the base.  The pilot’s parachute opened literally just before he landed in the middle of an intersection, and astonishingly, no one was hurt.  I got there soon after it happened, had a camera with me, but the pictures I got weren’t really much to see. The plane was close to vaporized, so it was hard to tell what you were even looking at. Some of the fuel in the plane burned, but the pilot, as I said, had been able to get out, and none of the three hundred people in the complex were even hurt.

I was hoping for something similar as I raced toward the airport in Sidney; that is, no one being hurt.  But, being a photojournalist, I was simultaneously hoping for some dramatic images.

I got there, and there was hardly any evidence of anything.  No lights, no sirens, no flaming wreckage, no plume of smoke, no Hollywood stunt doubles, nothing.  I wandered into the lobby they had there for passengers and identified myself and asked about the airplane crash.  Someone pointed me out to the runway, where I could now see a rudder and tail sticking up at an odd angle.

No one stopped me or even asked me what I was doing, they just let me go, so I walked out there and saw the result of not so much a crash, but a pretty hard landing.

I’ve been through a few hard landings.  I’ve heard that a landing is simply a mid-air collision with a planet.  I can see that, but the goal is to be a little more gentle.  In fact, the desired way to land is to get the plane to stop flying just a little bit above the runway.  I was once in a DC-8 that made a stop in Iceland where we were told the landing might be rough because of winds gusting up to 50 mph.  And sure enough, the pilot flew the approach perfectly, then stalled the plane about 20 feet off the runway so hard we thought we’d see the landing gear come through the wings.  The wings bent down so far we thought the engines would hit, then flapped up, catapulting the plane back into the air three times before it finally stayed on the ground for good.  Hard as that was on our backs, we were willing to forgive him for that because of the winds, even though it was more of a controlled crash than a landing, but when he did the same thing when we landed at Frankfurt, where the wind was about 44 mph slower, everyone but the chiropractors among the passengers were a bit annoyed.   So hard landings are just that… Hard on the plane, hard on the passengers.

Well, it turned out the pilot in Sidney was a student, and had been on her final cross country flight.  From what I was able to gather, this landing started out with a fine approach, but then ended up like that DC-8 landing, with the plane stalling out several feet above the runway, and then, instead of doing the desired gentle landing onto said runway, she smacked down into it, which, in the case of this plane, collapsed the nose gear, and the plane skidded on its nose and main gear off into the grass.

At one level I was very glad she was okay.  At another level, I was trying to figure out what I could do with the picture.  I’d walked around the crash site, gotten close enough to touch the plane, and had snapped a couple of the safe “I was there and had film in my camera” shots, just in case I could get nothing else.  I learned early on that it’s important to get “the picture” that they can publish, and then get creative.  That gave my editors a choice, depending on the other news of the day, which one to use, and which one might fit on the page.  I wasn’t excited about the safe shot, I mean, I had it, which was good, but I decided to go a little further, and thought maybe contrasting this broken airplane with one that was functioning as expected would help bring things into a little better focus, so to speak.

So I checked with the FBO (Fixed Base Operator – the people running the airport) who had just heard over the radio that there were some investigators coming to, well, investigate the crash within about 20 minutes.  Ideally, they’d be coming in that functioning airplane I was hoping for, and when I heard them on the radio on final approach, I went out to the runway to see what I could see and get into position for a shot that might be better than the other options.

I knew that by the time the plane landed and was taxiing toward me, its engine would be idling around 1,000 RPM or less, so chose 1/250th of a second for the shutter speed.  That was enough to keep any camera shake that would be magnified by the long telephoto lens down, and at the same time, be open long enough to blur the propeller blades a bit, showing some motion.

Then I just found what should be the right spot and waited.

I saw them land, and saw I was in the right spot, and just waited as they came by.  I knew I had the shot, and proudly developed the film, marking the negative by using a paper hole punch and putting a notch in the edge of the film you could feel it and find it easily in the darkroom later for printing.

I left that night, knowing I’d gotten both the safe shot, and the good shot, and hoped they’d pick my favorite, but other news got in the way, and the shape of the good shot wasn’t what they could use, so it was good that I’d taken the safe shot, which they used.  The next afternoon, I saw my picture had made page one, which was good, here’s what it looked like:

The Cessna, as published in the Sidney Daily News

But it wasn’t the shot I’d hoped they’d use.  I was frustrated at the time, because I’d done something so much better, and they didn’t publish it.  I didn’t know the big picture, I just knew I wasn’t seeing mine.

And it got me thinking…

I learned about a lot more than photojournalism that day. I learned, that sometimes, doing your job, and doing your best, may not be the same thing.  Over time, I started to understand the bigger lesson there.  You may do something at work, or something in your personal life that you really feel passionate about, and you think you’ve done a good job, but someone else is making decisions that affect you and whether your work gets recognized, or even seen.  Sometimes you can’t change that­­, and it’s best to learn from it, let the frustration go, and move on.

The thing is, I still remember the days at the Sidney Daily News with fondness, full of lessons far more valuable than any tuition could ever cover, full of people I might see once, or who I might still keep in touch with years later, and full of adventures that still make me smile.

I mean, think about it – I was driving around and taking pictures that told stories, and the pictures were seen by thousands of people every day.  I got to do things most people never get to do until they’re retired, which was the ability to go where I wanted to go,  hang out and chat with interesting folks, and tell the stories of their lives.

And I was getting paid to do it!

How cool is that?

Oh – the picture that didn’t get published?

I printed a copy for myself.

Just to prove to myself that I was there, and that I had film in the camera…

The investigators taxiing past the Cessna. (c) Tom Roush/Sidney Daily News

So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…

I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.

For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.

For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.

For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.

For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.

And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that.  You know who you are.

As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.

All of the stories are true.  Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was.  I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.

I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all.  They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them.  So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.

1.       From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt

“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”

This was when my son went to Paris.  In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.

2.     I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.

3. Then there was the storyHave you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it? when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “

4. There’s the story I calledPoint and Click – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay.  I hope you don’t have to.

“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”

5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.

It had to be harder than this…”

The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.

6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…

“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”

7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t.  And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which.  It’s just something that happened On the Bus…

8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.

9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.

10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…

11.   And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”

 12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.

 13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it.  if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it.  It was the first of many Saab Stories…

 14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence.  This one is called, simply, Stalingrad – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it.  I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.

 15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word.  You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.

16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could…   I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later.  You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened.  Really.

17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.

 18. Some stories were just silly.  I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?

 19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?

Yup… I did that.

20. But it’s not just my generation.  I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes.  Not fear, mind you. Dislike.  And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself.  First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it.  And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…

21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named CleoI never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.

22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.

 23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me.  I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her.  I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then.  How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end?  (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)

 24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it.  Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…

25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things.  I was astonished to find out how many people read the story Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it.  Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.

26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things.  I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.

27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.

Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…

So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.

Actually, in that order.

28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it.  I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.

 29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike.  There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle….  I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish.  You’ll understand when you get there.  I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.

30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).

The thing about these stories is they just come.  In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…

31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together.  It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places.  At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does.  He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen.  I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together.  I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard.  Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect.  If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…”  I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing.  (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)

 33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly.  I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were.  It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me.  I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.

34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…”  I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing.  I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.

35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)

36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…

37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.

38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story.  Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.

39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was.  it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience.  I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.

40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.

41.   and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffeewhich, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.

42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.

43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it.  As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.

44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry.  Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears.  And I wrote…

45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”

46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time.  From the story:  “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”

47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.

48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means.  (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)

49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had.  And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.

50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life.  I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.

From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”

51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty…  and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write.  It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it.  I still miss her.

From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”

52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year.  The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day.  And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.

The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly.  Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write.  Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…

53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement.  It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.

54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before.  I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was.  That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…

55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.

56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it.  It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories.  I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it.  I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened.  The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time.  He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties

57.   Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend,  I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…

58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life.  But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story.  And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.

59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime…  I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile.  (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)

60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out.  Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile.  I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true.  I found myself happy with the result.

61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready.  It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them.  It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual.  I hope that feeling comes through.  Let me know how it affects you.

62. I changed pace completely with the next story.  Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus.  It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd.  And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd.  Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.

63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women.  I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay.  Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it.  I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.

64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.

65. There was so much going on, a little fun  – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it.  I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,

 66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.

 67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong.  In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi

68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.

69.   And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome.  Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get…  It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.

70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write.  He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen.  I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written.  I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,

71.   Puff balls and Pastries  – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.

72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t.  I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”.  I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.

73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.

74.   And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry

I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.

75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in

Thump.  Thump… ThumpThumpThumpThump!

76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)

77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch…   It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist.  They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them.  And my uncle’s back has completely healed.

78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.”  I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search.   It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes

79.   Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series.  I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.

80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus.  …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…

81. Taking risks…

“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on.  Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want.  You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it.  And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…

82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop.  And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about.  I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich

83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.

84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.

85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,

“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us.  Well, actually… I take that back.  He did.”

And it’s true.  But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own.  All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.

86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words.  It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…

87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out.  There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.

88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states.  We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.

89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic,  I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story.  It did.  It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…

90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something.  Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him  in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.

91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story.  It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.

92. And this next story was literally a dream.  If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it.  I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge.  The story fits.  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both.  It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening.  It still brings a smile.

94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there.  I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.

95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them.  I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more.  Something much, much more.  You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.

I will miss Dan.  He’s one of the best.

It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.

96.   The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me.  I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention?  I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while.  When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it.  I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all.  But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile.  It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.

97.   Sometimes therapy comes in different packages.  I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy.  I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep.  Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too.  While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”

A story.  It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it.  A story.  I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me.  I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it.  Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence.  Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.

And that’s how I started…  Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys…  Let me know what you think when you can.

98. I put this next one out on Father’s day.  It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him.  It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down.  It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96

And – it’s still July as I write this…  I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…

Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.

Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.

And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.

There’s a little of every one of them in there.  There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that.  The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories.  I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…

Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.

Take care & God bless,

Tom


It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, which we celebrate on July 4th.

July 4th, when I was a kid, was a lot – shall we say, louder, than it is today.

For me, it has always involved:

  • anything that could explode (or be made to explode)
  • anything that could fly (or be made to fly),
  • or anything that could make lots of sparks (or be made to make lots of sparks). 

Of course, if I was able to make something that combined all three, that was a serious bonus.

So – oh – fair warning, if you think about this for just a couple of seconds (me writing about something that involves things that go boom in the night) this story falls squarely in the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” category – a series of stories I told my son as he was growing up, in hopes that he would not do those stupid things.

Note… that’s known in the trade as “foreshadowing” – you have been warned.

So part of my standard Fourth of July routine when I was a teenager was to drive around with some of my friends either from school or from Civil Air Patrol and watch some of the air shows in the area (usually the one that started at Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington) – and somehow or other, we’d find some of the fireworks that, depending on where you were, might have been a little on the slightly less than legal side of things.

One year, there were at least 4 of us in my folk’s 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon – the version with the 1.1 liter engine (with a power output roughly equivalent to 2.5 hypercaffeinated rabid squirrels) – and we bombed (yes, I used that word on purpose) around the greater Tacoma area, watching and contributing to the fireworks… My friend Bruce, sitting behind me was lighting bottle rockets and dropping them out the back window (the kind that flips out at the bottom, not the kind that rolls down), where they would occasionally add a little excitement to the festivities being, um, ‘enjoyed’ by people whose houses we drove past. For some reason, at one point he decided to throw a firecracker out MY window, and instead of going out the window, it bounced off the door pillar and landed on my shoulder belt, right next to my left ear.

Where it exploded before it could fall any farther.

The words I used to describe my thoughts about that particular action – while I couldn’t hear them because my left ear was ringing (as it did for several hours afterwards) – made it clear to Bruce that putting lit firecrackers next to the ear of the driver of the car you’re riding in gets aaaawfully close to the top ten list of stupid things you can do on the Fourth of July.

(Note, this closely resembled something I read about years later in Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird” column, but with a larger ‘firecracker’)

Bruce resumed throwing smoke bombs and bottle rockets out the window. I made sure my window was rolled all the way down, *just in case* he chose to do something else…

…and – as I ponder this, while I’m writing – I suppose that given that I’m a little older now, if I saw kids doing that, I’d be a little torn between wanting to yell at them for doing something stupid, and yet remembering what it was like to drive around with my friends, doing stuff that was fun, didn’t damage anything but my eardrums (though I’m sure it could have gotten a *bit* more dangerous), or – oh who the HECK am I kidding? – we were driving around, throwing explosives out of the car… wouldn’t that be considered more than just a little dangerous?

Oh, if my son only knew of this one… his take is that I have set the stupidity bar so high that he either

a) has no chance on the planet of reaching it, or

b) it gives him such room that I have to cut him a stunning amount of slack, given what I managed to get away with and/or survive….

Sigh… the trials of parenting.

But hey – stupidity at that level – no – surviving stupidity at that level – is making for stories years later.

Anyway – over the years, our July 4th forays would take us over from one house (Bruce’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his Grampa’s truck) to another (Bill’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his dad’s VW 411) and we would just drive around Tacoma, enjoying the sights, watching and/or adding to the fireworks, and in general, having a good time.

Rather cheaply.

I wonder if Bill’s dad and Bruce’s Grampa ever noticed that their vehicles got worse gas mileage around the first week of July.

Now at some point, some of the people reading this who are now parents will have that little phrase “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” going through their heads.

I need you to stop, because you’re getting ahead of me.

(Remember that ‘foreshadowing’ bit?  Right… this is more of it…)

So another year, it was our friend Doug, with Bill and me, and that year several of us were way, WAY into model rockets, and Bill, having much experience with them, decided that bottle rockets weren’t anywhere NEAR powerful enough… I mean, they ignite for maybe a 10th of a second, coast for a bit, then go bang.

Yay.

No, Bill decided we needed to go to his house and get something significantly bigger, and he found either a D or an E rocket engine that we ended up using. I remember his excitement as he taped about 10 firecrackers to the front of the rocket engine, with the fuses wadded up inside, and then taped the whole assembly to a hunk of bamboo he found lying around somewhere.

It was, we concluded, long before Saddam Hussein used a term like it, “The Mother of all Bottle Rockets”.  We handled it gently, and Bill knew of a ball field near his house that appeared to be suitable for launching rockets, so we piled into the car and headed over. We’d grabbed sodas at Bill’s house, so we all had aluminum cans and various aerial instruments of mayhem as we got out and headed out to the baseball diamond to let things loose. Bill jammed the stick end of his rocket into the ground and wiggled it so it’d be loose, so when lit – the rocket would go up.

Now since Bill had learned all about rockets and had built this one, we deferred to him to do the actual launch.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever launched a model rocket at night before – but they launch rather dramatically. They launch loud, and it seems that they run forever, compared to the bottle rockets we’d been launching.

I mean, in comparison, we’d have a bottle rocket:

Fffffffffffftttt!………………..bang!

Whee.

A good one might go up 100 feet or so.

But as Bill lit the fuse and told us to stand back – in case it tipped over, he said – we asked him how far that one would go.  He did some quick calculating in his head as the fuse burned, realizing that the motor wasn’t lifting anything more than itself and 10 firecrackers taped to a stick, and said something like, “More than 1,000 feet, for sure”.

About then the fuse actually lit – it roared and shot up so fast we could barely swing our heads fast enough to keep up with it.

And the engine kept burning, and burning, and burning, for what seemed like eternity.  I remember thinking it looked like a star up there, and then, the star went out, as if someone hadn’t paid their light bill. Bill said, “Keep watching” – and then we saw a bunch of little sparkles – which threw me, until a few seconds later, we heard, “bang!…… Bubububang! Bang!” as the sound from the 10 firecrackers actually got to us about 1,000 feet below…

We were pretty stoked, and were going to shoot some more stuff when Bill reminded us of one of those little pesky laws of physics – namely that what goes up, must come down…

So we looked up…

Nothing.

We looked up some more…

Still nothing…

Tapping our toes and looking at our watches, we waited some more…

Still nothing…

Then, faintly, we heard this sound coming from roughly where we’d last seen the rocket:

shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw

It was the stick of bamboo, with a dead rocket engine still taped to it, twirling down. It landed – and stuck in the ground – about 50 feet from where we were. Bill was glad it hadn’t landed on the roofs of any of the houses in the area. So, of course, were we – but we didn’t know, until that point, that we needed to be.

We weren’t done yet.

We still had quite a few bottle rockets left over – and so we started lighting them off. But they just weren’t anywhere close to what we’d experienced with the big one – so, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves shooting a little more horizontally.

Now remember, we were out on a baseball diamond… (I think this is it here – though there was a baseball diamond there that was, as I recall, closer to the tennis courts at the time.) I was standing on second base – Bill was standing on first, and our friend Doug was kind of where shortstop would be.  Bill, at that point, thought he’d fire a rocket between Doug and me.  (note – in case it’s not obvious, this is about 1:00 in the morning – July 5th now – and the only light on the field was from streetlights at the edges. It was about as dark as it could get in Tacoma.)

I heard his rocket go off, then felt what could charitably be described as a pretty significant sensation as it hit me right in the lower lip from Bill’s direction, flew a few more feet and exploded.

I looked at Bill.

No, that’s not nearly descriptive enough.  I glared at Bill. My eyes were focused on burning holes into his.

“You shot me! You freaking shot me!”

“I didn’t mean to – I was trying to shoot between you and Doug!”

At that point, I was in just a bit of pain, and tasted blood, in more ways than one. I found there was a second use for the mug root beer can I had, which was, if you held it just right after you put a lit bottle rocket into it – just like holding the handle of a pistol – so I lit it and aimed at Bill – he’d come over to see if I was okay – but once he saw the bottle rocket aimed his way, he started to run.  I remember just tracking him as the rocket lit off – the top of the can acting as a blast shield.  The rocket lit, sparks flew, and it tracked straight at him, but I wasn’t leading enough, so it flew over his left shoulder and blew up about 10 feet past him…

…and about then we realized that it was clearly time to call it a night.  We were no longer thinking straight, and besides, the root beer now tasted vaguely of gunpowder.

Everyone gathered to see how badly I’d been injured (a piece of my lower lip had gone with the bottle rocket as it hit – but what I really got out of it was a pretty fat lip.  This thing swelled up almost instantly.

Doug reassured me that these things swell up pretty fast, and not to worry.  I think there may have been an element of CYA there as we all decided that we were lucky and blessed not to have gotten caught, or worse yet, injured at the level of stupidity (also known as “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®”) we were operating under.

By then, the pain was starting to sink in, and the thing I wanted to do was just get home and go to bed.  I’d often worked the closing shift at a restaurant in high school, so my folks were used to me coming in late.  However, this was somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning, and despite my trying to be quiet, I managed to wake my mom up as I was trying to wedge my toothbrush around that bottle rocket-provided, formerly lip shaped obstacle in front of my teeth.

She was more than a little concerned that I was coming home with a fat, bloody lip at 2:30 in the morning, and wanted to know what had happened.  She was, as moms all over the world are, worried that I was hurt – and of course, I wasn’t telling her the whole story right then.

She kept asking questions, and I kept trying to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see the fat lip (it was pretty hard to hide, and was about as useful to me as the last time I’d spent several hours in the dentist’s chair, with half of my face numb and just hanging there.  It was just a touch hard to talk without it being obvious that there was something wrong) – but she was persistent, and wanted to see if I was okay.  Eventually I showed her, she was satisfied that I’d be okay – and suggested I get to bed.

And of course, it’s only later, as I think about what *could* have gone wrong, that I realize how much overtime my guardian angels were putting in.

Oh – it should be noted, by the way, that alcohol was not involved in any of these adventures.

Everything we did was done stone cold sober.

Which meant we remembered it all…

© 2012 Tom Roush


I initially wrote this story in my blog on SQL databases (you can find that here) and realized the story could easily fit here, too, that lessons can sometimes come from the most unexpected places.  There’s a line in this story below that has become kind of a running joke between my son and me, in large part because of the wisdom in it, and how old he was when he came upon that wisdom.   That little line became the title of the story, and as I finished writing it, I realized that the story was both about that line, and about success, and how the two fit together.  So with that as an introduction, please allow me to share a story that happened many years ago, but still has wisdom and relevance even today.

When my son was little – about 2, we went out to the Pacific coast of Washington State and stayed in a vacation house for a few days.

He got to run on the beach…

Michael & Alyssa at Pacific Beach

Michael & Alyssa at Pacific Beach

Play with things he’d never played with…

Michael and his Friend

Michael and his Friend

play with airplanes…

Michael and his Aiirplane

Michael and his Airplane

…and just really, really had a good time.

It was wonderful to watch.  For those of you who have children, you’ll recognize this.

He was also at this stage in life where he just wanted to do everything by himself – and, for those of you who have children, you’ll recognize some of this, too.

He was a “big boy” now, and he wanted to take care of things in a “big boy” way, so when he had to go take care of some, shall we say, personal business, he wanted to do it, as he said, “all by myself”.

And so, like many parents, I waited for him to call me and tell me he was done, so I could help him finish up the paperwork, so to speak.  And he didn’t call, and didn’t call, and didn’t call.

Finally I called in and asked if he was okay.  I heard a strained, “I’m fine!” – and then silence.  Then I heard a thump, followed by another thump.

Hmmm…

Silence followed by thumps is never good.  It seemed like it was time to go check on him, so I rushed in to see what was the matter – and in half a second I could see what had happened.

He’d been sitting on the toilet – the “grownup” toilet that everyone else used, not the little one he would normally use, and he’d been struggling to hold himself up with his hands to keep from falling in.

When he was done, and being a little tired from holding himself up, he wanted to be a “grownup”, he skootched himself forward until he could get off, but in doing so, left quite a bit of “evidence” on the toilet seat, the front of the toilet, and all the way up his back that he’d done so.  It was clear he’d lost his balance a bit as he was trying to stand and had bumped into the wall, leaning there to hold himself up.

The, um,  “evidence” was there, too.

He was standing there in the middle of the bathroom, ‘pullups’ down around his feet, surveying the scene with an almost analytical detachment when I rushed in and saw the whole thing.  I could clearly see what had happened based on what I just described, but instinctively wanting to confirm it, I blurted out, “Michael!  What happened?!”

His answer was priceless…

“Well, Papa.  Sometimes… things go wrong.”

There it was, plain and simple. “Sometimes, things go wrong.”

Despite the best of intentions, despite the best will in the world, as he said, “Sometimes, things go wrong.”

People make mistakes, or don’t live up to our expectations.

Things go wrong.

Things break, or don’t work like we expect.

Things go wrong.

No matter what we do in life…

Sometimes…

Things go wrong.

So how do you handle it when they do?

And, when you have a simple acknowledgement of the fact up front, how on earth can you be angry?

How do you – at work or at home – handle it when things go wrong?

What, if you were faced with that situation I mentioned, would be the most important thing?

Seems like they’d be like this, in order:

  1. Clean up Michael (as in: clean up the source of the – we’ll call it “evidence”)
  2. Clean up the toilet seat (as in: make sure things are functional again)
  3. Clean up the wall (as in: take care of any – we’ll call it ‘collateral damage’ here)
  4. This one’s incredibly important:  Remember:  Sometimes, THINGS GO WRONG – equipment breaks or wears out, code for our computers has bugs in it, and humans, both personally and professionally, are not perfect.

Yelling at my son about making a mess he already told me he didn’t mean to make wasn’t going to solve anything.

Managers yelling at employees when things go wrong generally don’t have much of a good result either, nor, often, does yelling in personal situations.

The important thing there was to help clean up the mess, then reassure him and let him know that everything was okay.  Just like you need to reassure and encourage the people involved so they’re not afraid to, shall we say, ‘get back in the saddle’.

And this takes us to…

5.     If you want to keep this kind of thing from happening again:

Personally: I can’t stress the importance of communication – not just speaking, but being willing to listen.  I can’t tell you how crucial that is, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect in this and have definitely made my share of mistakes, so please don’t take this as some perfect being sitting on the top of a mountain dispensing wisdom.  Nope, I’m down in the trenches, muffing things up along with everyone else, trying to learn the lessons God has for me, and trying to share the experiences along the way.

Also, (this one is challenging) realize yours might not be the only right view there.  (Yes, hard as it is to understand this in the moment,  it’s possible for two people to be right about something – and still disagree with each other). Often, one will be thinking short term, one long term.  Or, one may be thinking, we’ll call it ‘rationally’ while the other is thinking ’emotionally’.

Note: One is just as valid as the next.

Professionally: Communication here is just as critical.  You might have one person thinking long term, but unable to articulate it, while another is focused on the immediate problem, and is more vocal.

Both are valid.

Be sure to listen to the quiet people in your organization.  Make sure your people are equipped with the proper tools to do the job they’re expected to do.  Going back to my son’s analogy, it’s good to make sure the saddle’s the right size in the first place.  Instead of your people using all their strength to keep from falling into a place they’d rather not be because the hole – or the responsibility – is too big, make sure they have the skills (read: training)  to be big enough to keep from falling in in the first place.

Does that make sense?

There are many ways to handle situations like this, but for those of you doing management of some kind, understand that the minds of your employees are the most vital things you have.  Most often, it’s in there that the solutions to the problems lie.  Making them quake in fear of you isn’t a productive use of your time, isn’t a productive use of their skills, and doesn’t make them feel comfortable getting, as I said, ‘back in the saddle’.

So, whether it’s in your work life, or your personal life, when dealing with folks:

Respect them for their skills, whatever they may be.

Forgive them for their mistakes, whatever they were.

Put the past where it belongs, behind you, and in doing so, you’ll help them learn, and you’ll teach them something far, far more valuable than you realize.

You’ll teach them they can trust you to have their back when they need you.

You’ll teach them they can take risks and fail, and not worry about their jobs.

But in setting them up like that – they’ll also feel comfortable right at the edge of their skill envelope, and, as one leader (the former CIO of the company I work for – yes, this means you, Dale) once said, “it’s when you’re at the edge of your envelope that you make mistakes, but that’s also where you learn the most.  Yes, sometimes you fail, but sometimes you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.”

He was right, and I appreciated that sentiment more than I ever really found words for.

It also boggled my mind that someone, with all the education he had, with all the experience he had, at the peak of his career in a company could come to the same conclusion that my then two year old son came up with on his own.

It shouldn’t be that hard for those of us somewhere between the two to come to similar conclusions, should it?

In fact, it seems like a huge part of success comes from understanding, and accepting, that…

Sometimes…

Things go wrong.

(C) 2011 Tom Roush – all rights reserved


The other night some friends had an “Oktoberfest” – where they blocked off the street in front of their house.  There was bratwurst, sauerkraut, potato Salad, and of course, beer.  On top of it all, was this overwhelming oompah music.

It’s funny, as I was writing this story – I realized there was a theme in it that I hadn’t even noticed –

It took me back many years – the last time I was in Munich, when our friend Martin, his brother Wolfgang, my sister and I drove down there from the Ludwigsburg area where we lived, and took in the sights.  We went to the park they’d made for the 1972 Olympics, went up the tower.  You could see the BMW Museum from there, so we went to visit that, where I discovered that they absolutely don’t like you touching the artifacts (since I’m an official airplane nut, I was looking at, and in this case touching, a WWII airplane engine – I’d just reached out to touch it when I heard a very loud, very German voice on the loudspeaker shatter the otherwise almost reverent silence of the museum.  I looked up and froze.  The camera that had been aimed at the engine was now aimed straight at me, with a red, almost laser like light on it that made it clear I’d been both spotted and caught.

Yup… Deer in the headlights, that’s me.

It was very clear that I was to keep my hands off the merchandise…

The tone in the fellow’s voice made it very easy to imagine that in a control room somewhere, a security guard must have been marking a little notch in what would translate as his gunbelt… “Yep, got another one…”

I was embarrassed, and not just a little terrified, but what could I do?  So we left.  By this time it was afternoon, and went to the German Museum where they had all sorts of exhibits and displays, and for whatever reason we started at the bottom, and were in the middle of this exhibit on some kind of ancient Babylonian or Mesopotamian stuff when the lights started flashing and we thought either there was a power outage or – then the siren went off.

I figured I’d touched something wrong.

Again…

Turns out it was neither.

It was the fact that the place was closing down, and of all things, at 4:00 on a freaking Tuesday.  With me being the aforementioned airplane nut, instead of going straight for the airplanes, we’d wanted to see everything, and were planning on saving the best (airplanes) for last.  When I heard on the loudspeaker the rough German equivalent of “Attention K-mart shoppers, the store will be closing in 5 minutes, please take your purchases to the checkout stand.” – okay, so it wasn’t K-mart shoppers, it was all of us who’d come thousands of miles to see the exhibits, only to find out at the last second that the place was closing before we could see everything.  On that realization I just about went nuts and tore out of the Babylonian exhibit into the lobby area.  I looked around, found the signs to the second floor and tore up this huge curved staircase to the second floor where the airplanes were.  I was running so fast that it’s possible to truthfully say that I ran rings around a V-2 Rocket (okay, so the rocket was in the center of the curved staircase I was taking two and three steps at a time), and I arrived panting at the door of the hall the planes were displayed in just as a rather burly, and fairly stubborn guard locked the door from the inside.  (Note: you don’t get much more stubborn than German stubborn, unless you’re talking Hungarian stubborn – don’t ask me how I know this 🙂

I tried to plead my case, but my Schwäbisch accent was no match for his Bavarian accent and attitude – and he was the one with the key in the lock.  I could only look through the now smudged windows at the planes I’d come to see, neither realizing, nor being able to convince the guard, that this might be my only chance to ever see them.  He didn’t seem to care.  I remember seeing a two seater Me-262 and the only Do-335 in the world – oddly, without the swastika on the rudder, like most planes of the time had had – but then I realized, even then, that the echoes of WWII were still there, and the law was clear: absolutely no swastikas – even if they made something historically accurate.  You couldn’t even buy a model WWII airplane with the right decals…

Once the doors were closed, there wasn’t anything else to do there – I was so frustrated at the time I don’t even remember taking a picture of anything.  Wolfgang, Martin, and my sister showed up about then, and, knowing that this was something we – especially I – had wanted to see, they tried to get me out of my funk… I mean, getting kicked out of – well, “encouraged” to not come back to the BMW museum until I could behave was one thing… Having the dang exhibits in the German Museum close in my face was another.

We were hoping to not make it a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of thing, but I was seriously frustrated.

It was hard to acknowledge it at the time, but aside from that, we’d had a pretty good day.  We’d driven well over 100 mph on the famed Autobahn, to the point where slowing down to 60 when we got into Munich made us want to get out and push, we’d seen priceless works of art, items that were literally one of a kind on the planet – and – it was almost as if Ferris Bueller had taken a day off and gone to Munich, instead of going to Chicago.  Somewhere in there we got onto a subway and got out at the Marienplatz in the square in Munich and watched the famed clock tower (or Glockenspiel) strike, I think it was 5:00 in the evening by the time we got there – and our friends, realizing it was dinnertime and still trying to help overcome the last Museum bust, wanted to take us to this place they called the “Hofbräuhaus

We were tired, had done a LOT of walking, and were to the point of not even caring anymore, but they insisted, so we went in – and were suddenly surrounded – no – immersed – in Bavaria at its finest.

To say that the Hofbräuhaus had atmosphere would be like saying water is wet, and this atmosphere was thicker than the proverbial pea soup.

First: The music.  I know there are people who think that the definition of “perfect pitch” is when the accordion you just tossed out lands on the banjo. I’m not sure how many banjos there were, and I didn’t take any pictures, but Lordy, you have never, ever heard “Ooompah” music till you’ve heard it played by a bunch of well lubricated Bavarians. (there was an accordion, a tuba, a baritone, I think a trumpet and a trombone)

Tourists like us were there, but it was the locals who were just a delight to watch.  I’d heard the song most Americans know as the “Beer Barrel Polka” – but the words were a lot different, and came across sounding more like the music here: “Rosamunde”.  (the video’s not from the Hofbrauhaus, but watch the crowd in the video to get a sense of what it was like).

It looked like the people in the band wouldn’t remember it the next morning.  In fact, it seemed the band was on complete autopilot.  Waitresses kept their steins full, and they played – well, like a well lubricated machine… it was a wonderful background to everything else.  Occasionally the crowd would join in and we’d see people standing up, arm in arm, singing their lungs out.

There was smoke from any kind of tobacco, but above it all was the astounding smell of beer.  Not stale beer from a place that’s been serving beer for the last few years and hasn’t been cleaned up, but fresh beer that’s been poured in the place since 1589.

Like for more than 400 years.

There was a sign up at the front where the bartenders were filling the 1 liter steins as fast as they could, something to the effect of “Wet Floor” – and they weren’t kidding… there was beer all over the place, and you did want to be careful to not slip on it.

Why was there beer all over the place?

Well, part of the answer lay in the regulars.  It seems that the place has special tables for them. A lot of them are pensioners who live in apartments nearby and come for the camaraderie, the social aspect, the food, and of course, the beer.  What’s surprising about them is the vast quantities of beer some of them can put away.  I was talking to a fellow who’d been there a few times, and had seen this little old man, couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, put away several liters, every evening, every time he showed up.  These are guys who by any other definition would be considered alcoholics – but there, they show up (and have been showing up) daily for years, and they have their usual table, the waitresses know them, know their orders, and keep them happy by keeping their beer mugs full.

Now those waitresses, to keep from having to make too many trips to serve a table, take as much as they can carry with every trip.  This means that invariably, some glasses spilled, some fell, some broke, (hence the  warning signs about the wet floor) but for the most part, the beer gets to where it needs to be.

So it was this expectation that helped set up our next encounter.  We were led to our table, and as the waitress came over, we realized we’d spent most of our money on museums, trips up the tower, and souvenirs.  We pooled all our money together and realized that if we subtracted the money for the souvenirs we wanted to buy there, subway money to get back to the car, gas money to get the car back to Ludwigsburg, that left us with enough for – um – one beer.

Split four ways.

Oh oh.

So one of the things that’s important to know is that a good percentage of the tourist photos show gorgeous young Bavarian women serving beer in places like this.

They’re models.

The real ones aren’t hired for their looks.  They’re hired because they can carry, over the course of a shift, hundreds of liters of beer to their customers.  They keep the customers from getting too thirsty, they keep them from getting too hungry, and they keep bringing whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied and happy, as they’ve been doing for several centuries.

Our waitress looked like she’d been there since the place opened.

She looked tired.

And it looked, from everything we could see about her, that she’d had a day we, as tourists, couldn’t possibly imagine. She looked like we were her last table and she was looking forward to going home, soaking, then putting the feet she’d been on all day up and getting a chance to rest a bit before starting it all over again.

She just had this one last table to deal with, and at that table were four teenagers and a pile of change.

She straightened her apron out a bit as she got to our table and was all business:

“Also, was möchten sie?”

(Her words said, “So, what would you like?” but her tone said the Bavarian equivalent, “So, what’ll it be?”)

We looked at each other, swallowed, and then together, said, “Ein Bier.” (one beer)

“Also gut… Vier Bier.“

(“Right… Four beers”)

„Nein… EIN Bier.“

(“No, actually, ONE beer.“)

„EIN BIER? Da sind ja doch vier von Euch!“

(“ONE BEER? But there’s FOUR of you!?“)

She looked at us with a combination of disgust and disdain that can only be done by German and French waiters.  Add to that a look of confusion, like a mathematician who’d just discovered that dividing by zero didn’t work.  In her world, one customer = many beers, not the other way around.

We kind of stared at each other, and it was then that we realized the first rule of the Hofbrauhaus:

It is not, repeat, NOT a good idea to – um – ‘irritate’ a Bavarian waitress… I don’t care how many weights you’ve lifted, they’ve lifted more, they’re stronger than you are, and they do it for eight hours at a stretch.

As we were coming to that conclusion, the day finally got to her and she absolutely went off on us.  I don’t remember her exact words, but they translated roughly to:

“How can you possibly expect me to make any money if my customers only order one beer?  I mean, you’re sitting there taking up four spots, and only ordering ONE beer? There’s no way you’re ordering one beer, that’s not just unheard of, that’s an insult.”

Uh… right… insults were off the table.

Then again, now that she had set her expectations: “Also, was möchten sie?”

(Again, her words said, “So, what would you like?” but the tone said, “Alright, really, let’s get this show on the road… what else are you going to order that is going to make it worth my time to even see your faces again?”)

We dug deeper into pockets, wallets, whatever might have a little extra money, and ordered some kind of pork roast, some sauerkraut, and I think there might have been some mashed potatoes.

And one beer.

And oh, my, it was good.

The beer was strong enough to pack a bit of a punch, but between the four of us, none of us had enough to worry about. The pork was amazing, and the sauerkraut was something you’d just have to go there to experience.  It was amazing.  We pooled enough money for a tip, left what we could there, then headed out into what was now night..

We got to the subway, then to the car, but didn’t drive 100 on the autobahn this time.  This time we slowed down to about 80 mph.

Because it was dark.

And because it was raining off and on.

Martin wanted to be safe and drive even slower, but there’s something about German drivers and the autobahn, and by golly, they’ll drive as fast as they can.  We were constantly having to move over so that other cars could pass us.  The law’s pretty clear over there.  If someone wants to pass you, you let them.  Martin had been moving back and forth and was getting tired of it, so decided to stay in the fast lane.  One driver made his thoughts very clearly known to us by getting so close that I, in the back seat, couldn’t see his headlights past the trunk lid. Martin finally moved over, and the last thing I remember of that day was that the silhouette of a Porsche 911 with a glowing exhaust pipe as it passed us.

Oh – and we did get home.  I’d managed to save enough for one souvenir that actually survived the trip back, and that I still have after all these years.

One, genuine beer stein from the Hofbrauhaus


Well, it’s that time of year when the kids visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking of the year they did that and I had to do some rat sitting.

See, at the time, the only pets we could have that – well, that you could pet, that no one in the house had any weird allergic reaction to, were of all things, rats.

I know, I know… there’s big, ugly rats, and then there’s – well, small, icky rats… but somewhere in there there are pet rats – and they’re usually white with some spots on them, and we got one for our son, who absolutely adored her.

He called her Sonic, and after a while, she kind of grew on us.  We’d let her out of her cage for some time every day, closely supervised, of course, and she’d run around and we’d train her or play with her, and have fun with her.

One of the things she liked to do was sit on the arm of the couch and either watch me as I read a book, or watch as I worked on the laptop.  I’d have my right arm up on the arm of the couch, and she’d be there, just watching, and then invariably, she would decide that she needed to run across to the other side of the couch, where my wife or son was sitting.

But it’s what she did, EVERY time that eventually just got to me.  She’d run down my right arm, across my hands, and then off to wherever she was going that time. But the constant was that she would piddle on me on the way across the back of my hands, and it became a tremendous source of amusement for the rest of the family, while I was just kind of stewing… After even a little longer, I realized that I was upset, in large part because – well, she only “blessed” me with her piddling, and no one else.  You’d think it would be predictable, you’d think I’d be able to prevent it, but as regularly as it happened, she always figured out a way to make it *JUST* a little different, and I could never catch her without inadvertently propelling her straight up toward the ceiling.

Every time…

She wasn’t too hot on getting frequent flier miles, so I had to be extra careful.

At one point, I realized that the reason I was – well – “pissed off”, is because I was constantly getting pissed on. The evening I came to that conclusion pretty much brought the house down.

Sonic was a dear – if you can think of a rat as a ‘dear’ – to my son.  She gave him hours of amusement, companionship, and friendship, of the kind you can’t get anywhere else.  We learned from her, what exactly a “pack rat” was, because she would literally find things she was interested in, and put them in places only she knew about.

If she could, she’d run off with car keys because they jingled, but most often it would be a receipt, or a scrap of paper, or in the case of my son, she gave him new ways to come up with excuses for his teacher…

“Um… my rat ate my homework…”

And by golly, I saw her do it once, too – he was working on something, laying on the living room floor, with her and some papers, and she found this piece of full sized notebook paper, snagged it in her mouth, and jumped across the living room like she was Pepe Le Pew, and before we could catch her, she’d scampered under the couch, where at some point, she’d managed to chew a little hole so she could get at the INSIDE of the couch, where it was far more comfortable for her.

Right.

So one year, the family went back east to visit grandparents, and I had to stay home and work.  My job was to go to work, come home, let the rat out, play with her, feed her, clean the cage, etc…

No problem… she’s just a rat. I figured, in the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson, “How hard can it be?

And… just as they find out on the show, Top Gear, where the quote comes from, I found out, precisely, how hard it could be.

So the night they were to leave, I took the family to the airport, where they flew on a redeye east, into what became the great power outage that gripped the East Coast that year (that’s another story, for another time) – and then I went home…

After I got home, it was late, she was fine, and everything was cool for a couple of days or so, but after one long day, I let her out, played with her a little, and then she, like oh so many females, decided to be coy.  She’d run out to see me, as if to say, “Come get me!” and then when I did, she’d run away… She wanted to be chased, she just didn’t want to be caught. (It’s funny, both Bill Cosby (in his Adam and Eve sketch, if you can find it) and Sir David Attenborough comment on this coyness, even though they’re referring to different species…)

Anyway, back to Sonic the rat, who decided, at that moment, to hide.

Not under the couch, IN the couch.

This was not good.

I tried getting her out.

I tried encouraging her to come out.

I got treats.

I got toys.

It didn’t matter.

She didn’t care.

What got me was that she just disappeared.  She had this penchant for chewing on things, (the couch being evidence of that) and I was well into what would become an 80 hour week at work at the time, so I didn’t have a whole lot of bandwidth to be thinking rationally about a rat that had gotten loose in the house.  I know, some people would have just trapped her, but she wasn’t taking any bait of any kind and since she was our pet, trapping was out of the question.

But making the inside of the couch uncomfortable wasn’t.

I took the cushions off and tossed them aside and started beating on what was left, yelling, making noise, and in general making the inside of the couch a pretty miserable place to be.  I wanted her to think that coming out of the inside of the couch would be a most excellent idea.

She had no ideas of the kind.

In fact, she was quite happy where she was, deep inside the couch.

This had to change.

So I started rolling the couch across the living room.

Understand, the couch had no wheels, which made rolling it – well – a bit different, but I did, truly, roll the couch, (thump, thump thump, across the living room.  It didn’t faze her at all.  In fact, I had to take a breather myself with the couch upside down and her ‘treasures’ from inside scattered all over the floor to listen to where she was.  While I was standing there looking at the it all, off to my right I saw her stagger out from under the couch…

… over to under the love seat, which apparently was her vacation home.

Well, given that rolling the couch had gotten her out of it, I figured that trying it again with the love seat would be just as effective, and so I took a couple of deep breaths and started rolling it across the living room, too.  To be honest, I was mad, I was tired, I had so much I had to do, and just didn’t have time for this, so that kind of narrowed my whole ability to creatively deal with the problem of her getting loose. However, she wasn’t interested in coming out, no matter what I was doing, and I was getting awfully tired, and while I wanted to make her uncomfortable enough to get her out of the couch, dang it, I liked her, and had no desire to hurt her.

After a few rolls across the living room, I figured we’d both had enough, and since I had a long day ahead of me the next day, I had to give up, so I put all the furniture back to where it had been, and went to bed, not sure what evilment she’d get herself into overnight.

I got up the next morning, and was sitting on the couch, already starting my day, when she warily poked  her head out from under the couch I was sitting on, wondering if Armageddon was over.  I reached out, picked her up, petted her (just a bit) and put her in her cage, where she stayed until the family got back.  She was fed and watered, the cage was cleaned, but for her safety and my sanity, it was better that way.

And it’s funny, looking back on it, – well, you’ve seen police shows or heard of reports where the police are called, and they determine that there was “evidence of a struggle.”  Had they stood on the front porch and listened, they would have thought, with the sound of the couch bashing its way across the living room­­, followed by the love seat doing the same, that there were two big guys really going at it in there, and that it was a life and death struggle.

Um… No… it was just me… and Sonic the Rat.

When the family got home, we (Sonic and I) were both glad to see them, but I think Sonic was really glad to see Michael.

We had her for about two years, loved her to pieces, and then she, bless her, went to Rat Heaven (I’m sure there is one.)

And even though I don’t miss getting piddled on, I do miss the little fuzzball that did it.


July 4th

Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks.  Some of these things are legal, some are not.  Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry.  There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.

And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.

And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out.  It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.

One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.

It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.

Was it entertaining?

Heck yes.

Did it fly well?

Uh…. No.

It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.

It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…

I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…

What could possibly go wrong?

<ahem>

In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.

We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing.  We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.

So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.

Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.

The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.

I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell.  I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.

By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.

I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car.  It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again.  That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers.  The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.

Jimi was just beside himself.

I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was.  The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.

I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.

It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.

We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.

I miss him.

For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.

Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”

Yeah, we supervised alright.

It was a good day.

Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.

Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.

Tom Roush

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