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…did NOT walk into a bar…
No, really, that just seemed like the perfect line to open the story with, but sadly, it’s not true.
This story’s about Sister Johanna, who can best be described as a cross between a nurse and a nun with the Methodist Church in Germany, worked with my uncle (a pastor in that church) and lived with his family for many years. Yes, they had nuns, and for the most part, they were just what you’d expect a nun to be, the take-no-prisoners kind of attitude in disciplining students, kids, or you when you did something wrong, while at the same time loving you to pieces, and taking no prisoners when you were the victim of someone doing something wrong to you.
But Lord help you if you had any thoughts of sinning in the presence of a nun, and with my uncle and aunt having three boys, there was more than a handful of that going on as they were growing up.
One summer, Mom, my two sisters and I were visiting them in southern Germany where they lived, and Sister Johanna was there helping out like she always did. That day we were all going to go visit the castle (Hohenzollern, about 20 km away which you should go visit if you can – it’s pretty cool) so it meant jamming Sister Johanna, Uncle Walter, Tante Gisela, my mom, my sisters, three cousins and me into various cars to get there.
Everyone except my cousin Hanns-Martin and me made it into one of the cars and headed out before Sister Johanna was ready. That meant the two of us ended up in the back of her early 1960’s Renault Dauphine. If you haven’t seen one, it’s a little French car that was a contemporary of the VW Bug, with a little 4 cylinder, 34 hp liquid cooled engine in the back. I’d been working on cars at that time with my dad for several years to the point where I knew what the parts were, where they were, and what needed to be done to fix them.
…and unfix them.
– but I’m getting ahead of myself.
She sent us out to the car, both to get us out from under her feet and to have us ready to go, but as we got there my mechanical curiosity was piqued. The car was so small yet the air scoops on the side were like another uncle’s much bigger Mustang, and the radiator vents out the back seemed completely out of place. I’d never seen a car like this before and I wanted to peek under the hood to see what made it go, but we obediently climbed in and waited.
Just as we were wondering what was taking her so long, she came bustling out, and it was clear that staying out of her way was the safest thing to do. By this time everyone else was well ahead of us, and she was already running late.
But that wasn’t all.
Unlike everyone else, she had to stop at the convent first to get something.
She fired up the engine, jammed the transmission into first, popped the clutch and floored it, heading toward the convent like – well, not quite like a bat out of hell, more like a winged marmoset out of purgatory. She knew the little curving cobblestone streets in the town so well that she could take them faster than mere mortals.
And she did.
We had no idea how Nuns were supposed to drive, but Hanns-Martin and I had to claw at anything to keep from sliding around the back seat because there were no seatbelts.
We got up to the convent and she got out, running only as a nun can run, where she disappeared in the door.
Hanns-Martin and I looked at each other and we both realized if we wanted to see that engine now might be the one – and only – chance we had. We jumped out, popped the hood, and saw this wonderful little four cylinder engine with a carburetor, a distributor – and Hey! A coil wire going from the coil to the distributor! I’d seen those before.
I had a flash of inspiration and said, “I can make it not start when she gets back! It won’t hurt it at all!”
See, remove the coil wire and the car won’t start because that’s the single spot all the electricity for the spark plugs goes through. No coil wire, no running engine. We both laughed as I disconnected it and put it in my pocket, shut the hood, and hopped back into the car, just in the nick of time.
She’d already been late starting from my uncle’s house, and she was even later now … plus she had two boys in the back who were clearly trying to keep from giggling about something. She put the key in, hit the clutch, turned the key, the starter whirred, and those 34 horsepower from the engine were sound asleep.
She glared into the mirror as only a nun can. “What did you two do?” (in our dialect: “Was hen ihr zwoi g’macht?”).
We tried – oh gosh how we tried to keep straight faces and lie to her, “Nothing… We did nothing…”
We were lying.
To a nun.
Who worked for my cousin’s dad (my uncle), who was a preacher.
That would have been a really good time for lightning to strike, but it didn’t, or my cousin and I would have been little crispy pieces of boy ash while Sister Johanna shook the cloud off and went on her way.
But there was no lightning, only Sister Johanna.
I’m not sure which was worse.
We jumped out, popped the hood, put the coil wire back, shut the hood, climbed in the back seat and I was telling her it was fixed right about the time she started it and kicked the 34 horses in the heinie…
They all woke up.
The car was already in first gear and I hadn’t gotten the door all the way shut yet when she took off like – well, the door slammed as she hit the gas, and I swore I could see a bewildered marmoset stumbling around outside the window.
Remember, Sister Johanna was not used to being late.
She did not like being late.
And she drove those 5 inch wide bias ply tires as hard as they would go, screeching at every corner, Hanns-Martin and I again hanging on anything to keep from ending up in each other’s laps.
We commented on the screeching tires and her response, as she shifted into second and drifted through a hard left turn, was “It’s not my driving, it’s the hot pavement making them squeal.”
With the G-forces of that left turn smashing me up against Hanns-Martin, I wasn’t quite in a position to argue, but I could hardly agree with her.
We ended up getting to the castle safely and it is truly a wonderful place. If you’re ever in southern Germany, I highly recommend it.
Oh – one more thing – there’s actually a moral to this story, and it’s very simple:
Don’t lie to Nuns.
It can be habit forming…
P.S. Really, if you ever have any desire for fun travel, take a look at Southern Germany, in the state of Württemberg.
In fact, take a look at Yvonne’s site here – she’s been to the castles Hohenzollern and Lichtenstein, (where her photo looks like it was taken from the same spot I did a drawing from when I was there last) and other castles and has fun stories to tell about all of them.
I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story. It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…
I was 16. My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out. We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.
“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed. We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.
Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.
To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.
With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then. (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.
That was a good thing…
Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.
See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.
The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.
What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.
So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.
My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.
The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.
Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.
So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through roads between farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.
We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle. It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.
I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared. In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.
And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe.
When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.
And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.
We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.
And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…
Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.
So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.
It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)
I’d practiced this.
And it worked. It really worked.
See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.
I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.
If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel. It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…
The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.
As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where I’d followed Martin’s taillight in the dark, and where we’d have to turn right.
We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.
It was glorious.
A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.
Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>. We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…
And turning right was the thing to do. That was the paved road. Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.
So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.
There was only one problem with those remaining options.
Well, actually, several.
One: the turn was essentially blind…
Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.
So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found, Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).
But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…
Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)
Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.
Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.
Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.
With a bicycle.
Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.
This changed everything.
I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.
I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.
This, um, wasn’t good…
To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…
…which was good.
Except I was running out of space fast.
I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.
Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…
…which was bad.
Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.
I could feel the vibration of the little box chewing through the tire all the way up to the brake handle.
So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.
I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?
But using it would have required having a stable bike.
(Which I didn’t have).
And enough time to grab it.
(Which I was running out of.)
And having enough distance for it to open.
(Which I already had run out of.)
I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.
Then things got interesting.
After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve. Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.
Made of steel pipe.
Embedded in concrete.
That I hit with my front wheel.
That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.
I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.
At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.
There wasn’t much to do but let him rant. I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…
The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.
We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)
Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)
We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back. We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.
Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.
It was exactly 10:30.
It got me thinking…
A lot, actually.
See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.
And maybe, maybe that’s the story.
See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
26 years earlier.
Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.
And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.
26 years earlier.
I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30? How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)
But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.
As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way. Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.
And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.
Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.
And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.
In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. 🙂
But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).
And I realized we all have people like that in our lives… People who will do their best to protect us from danger
Even if that danger is us.
I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…
How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.
And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.
But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight. Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.
The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in. The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.
I just made it late.
And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:
There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.
And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…
Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.
I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.
See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.
That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…
Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?
Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this: “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”
I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.
Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.
Take care – and thanks –
Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time. Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.
I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)
I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty. Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning. And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now. He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:
And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:
For many reasons, I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened. I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story. He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.
“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”
I was talking to my mom about a story I was writing awhile back, about a little bicycling adventure in Germany about 37 years ago, and she chuckled a bit, and then started to tell me a story that had happened 26 years before that.
And it made me smile.
You know how you talk to your parents and forget that they were young, once, too? That’s how it was with mom in this conversation. As she told the story, the mom I was seeing in front of me transformed into a much younger woman, full of youth, life, laughter, and stories.
She talked of adventures that I’d never heard, but then she got to telling the story of the trip over the Susten Pass.
On a bike.
And I saw the time machine show up, with the door wide open, beckoning us inside.
We stepped in and I started to listen to a fun story that I’d heard before, but the more I listened the more I realized I’d not only heard the story before, but there was a connection to that story I was writing. We’ll get to that one in Part 2. But for now, I leaned forward and listened, and I recorded it. And then realized she’d written it down years ago. She sent me a copy – we found some pictures, and I’ve done a little bit of editing below, but the story’s hers, so sit back, and imagine hearing the story below in mom’s German accent about the trip she, her brother Walter, and his friend Wolfgang took, from Germany, to Switzerland, and back.
That said, here’s mom:
“While Walter was still in Seminary in Frankfurt, he, Wolfgang and I had planned to tour Switzerland by bicycle during their summer vacation. In those years the roads were not nearly as crowded with cars as is now the case.
It was beautiful!
I had traveled to Switzerland by bus, by car and by train but I never enjoyed the scenery more than when I toured it on a bicycle. Instead of driving past mountains in minutes, it might take a whole day of riding to finally get close to the mountains we were able to admire for so long. We had plenty of time to let the beauty really sink in.
That year, Walter had a summer job in Winterthur (Switzerland) with a surveyor. His friend Wolfgang and I traveled through the Black Forest to the Swiss border and further inland to meet and team up with him for our tour. The nights we spent in youth hostels which were all over the country.
Near Steffisburg we stopped and asked a farmer if we could pitch our tents on his property. Herr Wittwer (the farmer) agreed, but then took a look south toward the Niesen, the nearest mountain, and shook his head.
“I better get some straw down for you in the barn. See those dark clouds pushing through between the mountains? That’s a nasty thunder storm and it will be here in a few hours. That way, no matter what the weather does, at least you’ll have a roof over your heads and stay dry.”
I gladly accepted his offer but Walter and Wolfgang pitched their tent outside. I took my sleeping bag into the barn, bolted the big barn door shut and nestled down in the big pile of straw. I was less afraid of the mice in the barn than the lightning and thunder outside and a soaking wet sleeping bag. You see, our camping equipment in those days was very primitive. Our tent did not have a floor. So while the tent might have protected us from water coming from above, there was nothing to keep water from seeping in under the edges.
And, just like Herr Wittwer had said, the storm didn’t wait long to reach us. As it got closer, not only was the thunder much louder but the echoes bouncing back from the nearby mountains were like a continuous amplified drumroll.
I was so tired from the many hours of pedaling the bike in the hilly country I fell asleep in spite of the noise. In my dreams I wondered why the whole barn was being torn down and why human voices were mingled in between the booms of the thunder, and why did I keep hearing my name in between all of this?
During the eerie stillness of a moment between thunder claps the human voices finally reached my consciousness and I recognized my brother’s voice: “Irmgard, open the door, please open the door.” The rain was coming down in torrents and Walter and Wolfgang had soon seen the wisdom in my decision about sleeping in the barn. There was plenty of straw on the barn floor for all three of us and like contented cows Walter and Wolfgang bedded down on the dry straw for a much needed night’s sleep.
THE TRIP OVER SUSTEN PASS.
The next morning, Walter and Wolfgang had to wring out their tent and clothes from the storm. Not only was our camping gear primitive but our bikes were at the beginning of multiple-gear-development. Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes each had three gears. That was the most that was available at the time and really, who would want or need more than three gears anyhow? Right?
I would soon see the benefit of those three gears, as my bike had only one.
Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes also had special (caliper) brakes, the ones which grab the sides of the rims of both wheels.
Mine did not.
My bike had a different system. Under the handle bar on the right side was another, thinner bar reaching to the center of the handlebars. There it was connected to a bar going straight down to the rubber front tire. There was a u-shaped metal frame attached (about 1 x 1 1/2″) and a hard rubber pad was slipped into that frame. By pulling the brake handle up, the rubber pad was pushed down against the tire, which slowed down the bike somewhat. The other braking possibility was the coaster brake in the hub of the back wheel. By pushing the pedals backwards, the back wheel would apply the brake.
This system was sufficient for normal country.
But his was not normal country.
This was Switzerland.
Our rather ambitious plan for that one day was to get over the Susten Pass.
We had to get an early start so we would get as many kilometers behind us during the coolness of the day, and to do that, had to leave before the tent and everything could dry. At the base of the mountains we made relatively good progress, but when the road started climbing, things changed. Often Walter and Wolfgang could have gone a while longer with their extra gears, but no matter how hard I tried to pedal, my bike came almost to a standstill when the incline got too steep.
So we had to walk.
Hour after hour we followed the serpentines up and up. Looking over the edge we saw the road wind up like a snake in tight curves.
After seven hours of walking, pushing our bicycles step by tired step, we finally saw the sign:
“Susten Pass 2224 meter”.
We’d finally made it, the three of us were hot and thirsty, and Walter’s cold, wet tent was slowly drying.
We took a short but well deserved break at the top and strengthened ourselves with “Landjäger“, bread, some good Swiss chocolate and water. And we even allowed ourselves a few minutes to lean back and appreciate, admire and enjoy God’s handiwork in that beautiful setting. But since the ascent had taken so much longer than anticipated, we couldn’t allow ourselves too much time to enjoy the scenery at the top, so after a few minutes of cooling off to the point of being a little chilled, we saddled our bikes and looked forward to a fast, fun run down the switchbacks to the lowlands again.
But the other side of the pass was in full sunshine, and the further down we got, the warmer it got, so we let the bikes fly down the mountain road and loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, cooling us off after the long climb up the other side.
A long-held sigh of relief escaped from each one of us.
Going down should be a breeze, right? We couldn’t help but wonder how much shorter the down-hill time would be. We’d make up all the time we lost, it would be great. Walter rode in front, Wolfgang in the back, with me in between, and even though it was easy (and fun) to let the bicycles go fast and hang on, it wasn’t safe to go too fast or we’d lose control on the many hairpin turns. It was good that Walter and Wolfgang had those new brakes, because it was all downhill, and we had to brake constantly so we wouldn’t overshoot the hairpin curves.
But remember, I didn’t have those brakes.
I had two other brakes.
I had that pad of rubber that was pushed down on the front tire by a lever I squeezed with my right hand, and I had the coaster brake for the back wheel that worked when I pedaled backwards far enough to make it work.
And remember, while this system was sufficient for normal country. also remember that this was NOT normal country.
This was Switzerland.
And we went down the mountain.
And we went fast.
Our leg muscles, finally rested a bit from the 7 hours of walking and pushing our bicycles up the one side of the pass, welcomed this change of pace on the other side very much, and for a few moments, the scenery enveloped us at a level you just could not get in a car or a bus. It was exhilarating.
I’d just gotten to feeling comfortable on the bicycle, riding fast enough to be fun, but braking enough to be safe. I think it was maybe 5 kilometers, when I heard Wolfgang behind me yell “I am smelling burned rubber’. We all stopped at the first spot we could get off the road to check for the cause of that smell. Sure enough, With all my braking, that rubber pad that was my front brake had gotten so hot from the friction that it started smoking, wore out and disappeared, never to be seen again. After we stopped and inspected it, we decided that it was safe to go on, but slower, and more carefully, because since there was no bicycle repair place at that elevation, we had absolutely no choice to slow me down but to use the other brake in the hub of the rear wheel.
I tried my best not to use it excessively and just let it roll on the straight stretches but pushed the backpedal-brake system to it’s limit to make it safely around the first hairpin curve and the second, and the third and so on.
We may have gotten about 10 (don’t know how many of course) kilometers behind us , when I heard Wolfgang’s voice again loud and clear: “Your hub is smoking”.
He was such a nice friend and biking buddy but I sure didn’t want to hear his voice again, especially not with more bad news about my bicycle.
And even more especially, about smoke.
But, what choice did I, did we all have?
We all stopped.
The brake was so hot that it didn’t work very well anymore, and that wasn’t safe.
So we had to walk.
What choice did we really have?
And we walked, and walked, down the other side of Susten Pass, holding our loaded bicycles back, and we let it cool down.
It gave us more time to enjoy the Alps that so many people want to see.
How can you get tired of so much beauty?
We weren’t tired of the beauty, but we were getting tired of walking. We checked the brake on my bicycle, and it had finally cooled off, so we started to coast downhill again.
We’d spread out a little bit by then, and the breeze cooled me off, and I realized that the brake, not being used right then, could cool off too the next time it got hot. So that gave me an idea, and I let the bicycle go down the hill as fast as it would go… The wind was rushing in my ears, and I could barely hear Walter yelling at me that I’d get myself killed if I rode that fast. I braked hard at the next curve, heating up the brake until I could feel it weaken, leaned deep into the turn, made it around, and let the bicycle fly again. The brake cooled off while my brother’s frustrated shouts faded behind me.
But remember, this was Switzerland.
And soon the brake overheated again, so we had to alternate walking and riding for the rest of the afternoon until we finally made it down into the lowlands at dusk, where we found a place to stay for the night.
Over the next few days we got out of the Alps and stopped near the town where Walter had worked, and I wanted to write a postcard to our mom so that she would know we were okay. After all, it had been many days since we’d been home. Walter said we’d get home before the post card did, so I didn’t get one.
We kept heading north on flatter ground, eventually making it to Germany, and much later, finally made it to our hometown, where things looked like – well, home. Wolfgang headed back to Frankfurt, and we made our way home, walking our bicycles into the driveway beside the house. Our mom heard us go by through the kitchen window, and on hearing us, came out onto the veranda to make sure we were okay. Once that was established, the first thing she said to us as my brother and I climbed up the back steps was, “You’re back! What were you thinking? We were worried you’d fallen down a mountain, What kept you from even sending a postcard?”
We stepped out of the time machine, mom and I, and laughed at some of the adventures she’d had, and then I told her a similar story, also of a brother and sister, coming back from a bicycle trip, climbing up those same steps, and explaining to the same mom (her mom, my Oma) why we were late.
But that’s for part 2, coming in a few months.
Take care out there, folks.
Thirty years ago yesterday I got a little glimpse of eternity. It was both horrifying and reassuring beyond measure.
Let me explain.
A few years before that, my Oma – my mom’s mom, passed away in Germany, and since mom was there – she asked her dad, my Opa, if he would want to come live with us, and so he did. I still remember seeing him at the international arrivals terminal at Sea-Tac, wearing his wool coat, his old leather shoes, and his felt hat. He looked like a time traveler amidst all the hustle and bustle of the other travelers, and in some way, he was.
The goal was to have him stay for the winter, and then see how he was handling the change and go from there. When my mom’s brother (my uncle) came to visit, Opa was thrilled to see him, but, facing an empty house back in Germany, and having spent some time with us, surrounded by two generations of family all in the same house, he wondered aloud to mom, “Do I have to go back?”
Mom was overjoyed and told him he didn’t have to, so he stayed where he knew he was loved, where he knew he had a little garden he could work in, and we absolutely loved him, and he us.
I’ve written at least one story about him, and I’ll write more stories about him but yesterday was a day for thinking, and reflecting. I sent flowers to mom, and wrote my uncle a letter in German because he wasn’t here, and his English is what he learned in school and a British POW camp in WWII.
“I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and today I couldn’t put it off any longer. 30 years ago this morning, Opa went to Heaven, and I was there when it happened…”
…mom’s cousins had flown in the night before, and Opa had stayed up late to say hi to them when we got home from the airport. They talked for about half an hour, and then all went to bed.
Saturday was a gorgeous day, and we got up a little later than usual. I’d been downstairs, and people were awake, so I went to my room to write a letter to a friend on my old Remington Noiseless typewriter. It wasn’t really noiseless, it just made thunking sounds instead of the whapping sounds a normal typewriter made. So I was just hammering that letter on it, the sun was shining, and I heard the floor in the hallway creak as Opa walked by. He pushed open the door just a bit and waved at me, peeking in like a little elf. I stopped typing and waved back. He headed further down the hall to go downstairs, and as I went back to my typing, I heard this unending, unimaginable crash like I’d never heard before. Even all these years later, I’m at a loss to find words to describe it, and in the moment after the crashing sound stopped and before I got up, I heard my dad’s voice yelling, “Tom! You know First Aid! Come down here!” – I ran down the stairs I’d helped him up so many times, and saw Opa lying in the middle of a bunch of broken pottery, a huge gash on the top of his head.
I yelled for a flashlight, and for the first time in my life, shined a light in someone’s eyes, like I’d been taught in my First Aid class, only to have no one looking back at me. I yelled for dad to call the hospital for a helicopter (I’d had a bit of experience with them) and went back to Opa. He had a pulse, but it was irregular, so I didn’t start CPR, but kept checking his eyes. One responded, the other didn’t, and was pretty much dilated. I knew then, if I hadn’t known earlier, that things were very, very bad. Mom’s cousins were standing behind me as I was working on him. Dad had the phone cord stretched as far as it would go to tell me that the hospital couldn’t just send a chopper – that a medic needed to call it.
He handed me the phone, and the person on the other end of the line indeed said I couldn’t order one… Only a medic could do that. I asked him, politely, but in no uncertain terms, to call the medics then. He said he would.
About that time Opa had a pretty big convulsion, and one of mom’s cousins blurted out, “Der Stirbt!” (He’s dying!) – I wasn’t ready to accept that – and told her, also in no uncertain terms to shut up. I was 21 and wasn’t quite of the age where I could tell her that (she was mom’s age), but I did.
In less than a minute the siren went off for the Volunteer Fire Department in our town. The fellow on the other end of the line had made the call. Help was on the way.
The sirens and the throbbing sound of the old aid car stopped in front of the house. Someone opened the door and the paramedics crowded into the hallway, checking Opa and getting a pair of inflatable pants on him to keep his blood up where it needed to be.
I stood up and made room for Roy, the police officer and paramedic who’d been involved the time I’d needed a helicopter to get to a hospital, and he started doing CPR. By this time there were so many people in the hallway it was hard to move. Mom and I stood in the door to the living room just off the hallway, and we both (we talked about this later, not right then) were keenly aware of a presence above and between us. It was clear to both of us that it was Opa’s spirit, leaving at that time, and we both remembered “hearing” – honestly, “sensing” is more accurate – the words, “Lass mi doch ganga” – translated from our dialect,
“Just let me go…”
But things were moving, and once paramedics arrive, they start working and won’t stop until things are dealt with, one way or the other.
It was quickly decided that he’d go to the hospital in the ambulance, and mom and I followed in my old Saab, and we drove as fast as we could to catch up, watching Roy doing CPR on Opa the whole way. He must have been absolutely drained by the time we got to the hospital. I remember trying to pass the ambulance so we could get there and be parked by the time it got there, but the car, it turned out, had a clogged fuel filter and wouldn’t let me pass, so I tucked in behind it again, watching Roy trying to pump life into Opa’s chest through the ambulance’s back window.
We got there, and they rushed him in straight through the E.R, Roy still doing the CPR as he ran alongside the gurney. Mom and I were told to wait in a stuffy waiting room, but there were so many people there, we told them we’d be outside as we tried to comprehend all that had happened. They promised they’d send someone for us if there was anything we could do.
At 12:00 straight up, the sliding doors opened and someone came out and told us he was gone. They led us into the room he was in, partitioned off by curtains, and there was our Opa, lying on a bed, covered with sheets, looking as peaceful as anything. Mom took some scissors and cut a little of his beard off to remember him by, we signed some papers, and then headed home, both, admittedly in a bit of shock.
Our day had changed pretty drastically.
By the time we got home, there was no evidence of any pottery on the floor. The cousins were doing their best to be or look busy, and their thoughts of having a fun visit turned into thoughts of helping mom plan a funeral.
We stood there, mom and I, where we’d stood earlier, and realized we’d both heard Opa tell us, reassuringly, “Just let me go.” –
And we had to.
He was 10 days short of his 89th birthday.
This was August 6th, 1983, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, and every year I make sure my mom has flowers on that day, to remind her that someone remembers her Papa, my Opa.
It was only yesterday, as I was talking to Mom on the phone, that I finally realized, that Opa’s time on this earth was over that day, stairs or not. We found out much later that the doctors said he’d had a heart attack, which was likely when he’d lost his balance and tried to catch himself on that vase, but it went down the stairs and so did he.
And even though I’m now considered grown up and a man, there’s still a much younger ‘me’ inside who misses his Opa…
Take care folks… love the ones you have – you never know how much time you’ll have with them.
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
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.
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.
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)
So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.
For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.
For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.
For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.
For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.
And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.
15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
The other night some friends had an “Oktoberfest” – where they blocked off the street in front of their house. There was bratwurst, sauerkraut, potato Salad, and of course, beer. On top of it all, was this overwhelming oompah music.
It’s funny, as I was writing this story – I realized there was a theme in it that I hadn’t even noticed –
It took me back many years – the last time I was in Munich, when our friend Martin, his brother Wolfgang, my sister and I drove down there from the Ludwigsburg area where we lived, and took in the sights. We went to the park they’d made for the 1972 Olympics, went up the tower. You could see the BMW Museum from there, so we went to visit that, where I discovered that they absolutely don’t like you touching the artifacts (since I’m an official airplane nut, I was looking at, and in this case touching, a WWII airplane engine – I’d just reached out to touch it when I heard a very loud, very German voice on the loudspeaker shatter the otherwise almost reverent silence of the museum. I looked up and froze. The camera that had been aimed at the engine was now aimed straight at me, with a red, almost laser like light on it that made it clear I’d been both spotted and caught.
Yup… Deer in the headlights, that’s me.
It was very clear that I was to keep my hands off the merchandise…
The tone in the fellow’s voice made it very easy to imagine that in a control room somewhere, a security guard must have been marking a little notch in what would translate as his gunbelt… “Yep, got another one…”
I was embarrassed, and not just a little terrified, but what could I do? So we left. By this time it was afternoon, and went to the German Museum where they had all sorts of exhibits and displays, and for whatever reason we started at the bottom, and were in the middle of this exhibit on some kind of ancient Babylonian or Mesopotamian stuff when the lights started flashing and we thought either there was a power outage or – then the siren went off.
I figured I’d touched something wrong.
Turns out it was neither.
It was the fact that the place was closing down, and of all things, at 4:00 on a freaking Tuesday. With me being the aforementioned airplane nut, instead of going straight for the airplanes, we’d wanted to see everything, and were planning on saving the best (airplanes) for last. When I heard on the loudspeaker the rough German equivalent of “Attention K-mart shoppers, the store will be closing in 5 minutes, please take your purchases to the checkout stand.” – okay, so it wasn’t K-mart shoppers, it was all of us who’d come thousands of miles to see the exhibits, only to find out at the last second that the place was closing before we could see everything. On that realization I just about went nuts and tore out of the Babylonian exhibit into the lobby area. I looked around, found the signs to the second floor and tore up this huge curved staircase to the second floor where the airplanes were. I was running so fast that it’s possible to truthfully say that I ran rings around a V-2 Rocket (okay, so the rocket was in the center of the curved staircase I was taking two and three steps at a time), and I arrived panting at the door of the hall the planes were displayed in just as a rather burly, and fairly stubborn guard locked the door from the inside. (Note: you don’t get much more stubborn than German stubborn, unless you’re talking Hungarian stubborn – don’t ask me how I know this 🙂
I tried to plead my case, but my Schwäbisch accent was no match for his Bavarian accent and attitude – and he was the one with the key in the lock. I could only look through the now smudged windows at the planes I’d come to see, neither realizing, nor being able to convince the guard, that this might be my only chance to ever see them. He didn’t seem to care. I remember seeing a two seater Me-262 and the only Do-335 in the world – oddly, without the swastika on the rudder, like most planes of the time had had – but then I realized, even then, that the echoes of WWII were still there, and the law was clear: absolutely no swastikas – even if they made something historically accurate. You couldn’t even buy a model WWII airplane with the right decals…
Once the doors were closed, there wasn’t anything else to do there – I was so frustrated at the time I don’t even remember taking a picture of anything. Wolfgang, Martin, and my sister showed up about then, and, knowing that this was something we – especially I – had wanted to see, they tried to get me out of my funk… I mean, getting kicked out of – well, “encouraged” to not come back to the BMW museum until I could behave was one thing… Having the dang exhibits in the German Museum close in my face was another.
We were hoping to not make it a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of thing, but I was seriously frustrated.
It was hard to acknowledge it at the time, but aside from that, we’d had a pretty good day. We’d driven well over 100 mph on the famed Autobahn, to the point where slowing down to 60 when we got into Munich made us want to get out and push, we’d seen priceless works of art, items that were literally one of a kind on the planet – and – it was almost as if Ferris Bueller had taken a day off and gone to Munich, instead of going to Chicago. Somewhere in there we got onto a subway and got out at the Marienplatz in the square in Munich and watched the famed clock tower (or Glockenspiel) strike, I think it was 5:00 in the evening by the time we got there – and our friends, realizing it was dinnertime and still trying to help overcome the last Museum bust, wanted to take us to this place they called the “Hofbräuhaus”
We were tired, had done a LOT of walking, and were to the point of not even caring anymore, but they insisted, so we went in – and were suddenly surrounded – no – immersed – in Bavaria at its finest.
To say that the Hofbräuhaus had atmosphere would be like saying water is wet, and this atmosphere was thicker than the proverbial pea soup.
First: The music. I know there are people who think that the definition of “perfect pitch” is when the accordion you just tossed out lands on the banjo. I’m not sure how many banjos there were, and I didn’t take any pictures, but Lordy, you have never, ever heard “Ooompah” music till you’ve heard it played by a bunch of well lubricated Bavarians. (there was an accordion, a tuba, a baritone, I think a trumpet and a trombone)
Tourists like us were there, but it was the locals who were just a delight to watch. I’d heard the song most Americans know as the “Beer Barrel Polka” – but the words were a lot different, and came across sounding more like the music here: “Rosamunde”. (the video’s not from the Hofbrauhaus, but watch the crowd in the video to get a sense of what it was like).
It looked like the people in the band wouldn’t remember it the next morning. In fact, it seemed the band was on complete autopilot. Waitresses kept their steins full, and they played – well, like a well lubricated machine… it was a wonderful background to everything else. Occasionally the crowd would join in and we’d see people standing up, arm in arm, singing their lungs out.
There was smoke from any kind of tobacco, but above it all was the astounding smell of beer. Not stale beer from a place that’s been serving beer for the last few years and hasn’t been cleaned up, but fresh beer that’s been poured in the place since 1589.
Like for more than 400 years.
There was a sign up at the front where the bartenders were filling the 1 liter steins as fast as they could, something to the effect of “Wet Floor” – and they weren’t kidding… there was beer all over the place, and you did want to be careful to not slip on it.
Why was there beer all over the place?
Well, part of the answer lay in the regulars. It seems that the place has special tables for them. A lot of them are pensioners who live in apartments nearby and come for the camaraderie, the social aspect, the food, and of course, the beer. What’s surprising about them is the vast quantities of beer some of them can put away. I was talking to a fellow who’d been there a few times, and had seen this little old man, couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, put away several liters, every evening, every time he showed up. These are guys who by any other definition would be considered alcoholics – but there, they show up (and have been showing up) daily for years, and they have their usual table, the waitresses know them, know their orders, and keep them happy by keeping their beer mugs full.
Now those waitresses, to keep from having to make too many trips to serve a table, take as much as they can carry with every trip. This means that invariably, some glasses spilled, some fell, some broke, (hence the warning signs about the wet floor) but for the most part, the beer gets to where it needs to be.
So it was this expectation that helped set up our next encounter. We were led to our table, and as the waitress came over, we realized we’d spent most of our money on museums, trips up the tower, and souvenirs. We pooled all our money together and realized that if we subtracted the money for the souvenirs we wanted to buy there, subway money to get back to the car, gas money to get the car back to Ludwigsburg, that left us with enough for – um – one beer.
Split four ways.
So one of the things that’s important to know is that a good percentage of the tourist photos show gorgeous young Bavarian women serving beer in places like this.
The real ones aren’t hired for their looks. They’re hired because they can carry, over the course of a shift, hundreds of liters of beer to their customers. They keep the customers from getting too thirsty, they keep them from getting too hungry, and they keep bringing whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied and happy, as they’ve been doing for several centuries.
Our waitress looked like she’d been there since the place opened.
She looked tired.
And it looked, from everything we could see about her, that she’d had a day we, as tourists, couldn’t possibly imagine. She looked like we were her last table and she was looking forward to going home, soaking, then putting the feet she’d been on all day up and getting a chance to rest a bit before starting it all over again.
She just had this one last table to deal with, and at that table were four teenagers and a pile of change.
She straightened her apron out a bit as she got to our table and was all business:
“Also, was möchten sie?”
(Her words said, “So, what would you like?” but her tone said the Bavarian equivalent, “So, what’ll it be?”)
We looked at each other, swallowed, and then together, said, “Ein Bier.” (one beer)
“Also gut… Vier Bier.“
(“Right… Four beers”)
„Nein… EIN Bier.“
(“No, actually, ONE beer.“)
„EIN BIER? Da sind ja doch vier von Euch!“
(“ONE BEER? But there’s FOUR of you!?“)
She looked at us with a combination of disgust and disdain that can only be done by German and French waiters. Add to that a look of confusion, like a mathematician who’d just discovered that dividing by zero didn’t work. In her world, one customer = many beers, not the other way around.
We kind of stared at each other, and it was then that we realized the first rule of the Hofbrauhaus:
It is not, repeat, NOT a good idea to – um – ‘irritate’ a Bavarian waitress… I don’t care how many weights you’ve lifted, they’ve lifted more, they’re stronger than you are, and they do it for eight hours at a stretch.
As we were coming to that conclusion, the day finally got to her and she absolutely went off on us. I don’t remember her exact words, but they translated roughly to:
“How can you possibly expect me to make any money if my customers only order one beer? I mean, you’re sitting there taking up four spots, and only ordering ONE beer? There’s no way you’re ordering one beer, that’s not just unheard of, that’s an insult.”
Uh… right… insults were off the table.
Then again, now that she had set her expectations: “Also, was möchten sie?”
(Again, her words said, “So, what would you like?” but the tone said, “Alright, really, let’s get this show on the road… what else are you going to order that is going to make it worth my time to even see your faces again?”)
We dug deeper into pockets, wallets, whatever might have a little extra money, and ordered some kind of pork roast, some sauerkraut, and I think there might have been some mashed potatoes.
And one beer.
And oh, my, it was good.
The beer was strong enough to pack a bit of a punch, but between the four of us, none of us had enough to worry about. The pork was amazing, and the sauerkraut was something you’d just have to go there to experience. It was amazing. We pooled enough money for a tip, left what we could there, then headed out into what was now night..
We got to the subway, then to the car, but didn’t drive 100 on the autobahn this time. This time we slowed down to about 80 mph.
Because it was dark.
And because it was raining off and on.
Martin wanted to be safe and drive even slower, but there’s something about German drivers and the autobahn, and by golly, they’ll drive as fast as they can. We were constantly having to move over so that other cars could pass us. The law’s pretty clear over there. If someone wants to pass you, you let them. Martin had been moving back and forth and was getting tired of it, so decided to stay in the fast lane. One driver made his thoughts very clearly known to us by getting so close that I, in the back seat, couldn’t see his headlights past the trunk lid. Martin finally moved over, and the last thing I remember of that day was that the silhouette of a Porsche 911 with a glowing exhaust pipe as it passed us.
Oh – and we did get home. I’d managed to save enough for one souvenir that actually survived the trip back, and that I still have after all these years.
I suppose I have to rate this one PG or something – just so you’ve got some warning…
When our son was little we taught him the typical songs you’d teach your kid here in America – you know, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” … “You are my Sunshine”, and of course, the ever popular children’s song, “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m okay”…. (okay, I didn’t teach him all of that one)
But I also taught him some of the songs he would have learned had he grown up where I grew up, in Germany. Specifically Southern Germany. More specifically, the “Swabian” part of Germany.
The sense of humor over there is so matter of fact… And it’s old. Some of the folk songs have their basis in events that may have happened hundreds of years earlier, and that sense of humor is often dry to the point of being dusty.
Also, some of these songs come from the same culture that brought you Grimm’s Fairy Tales…
The original ones, not the Disneyfied ones.
So one of the songs I taught my son was about a fellow getting a ride on a train.
With his wife.
And a goat.
Now before I describe the song to you – you really have to hear it. (click on the word ‘song’ back there). If you don’t understand German – don’t worry – the people singing are singing just like we all did, with joy and gusto. You might be wondering why by the time we’re done, but… Well, that’s one of the things that might be lost in the translation – which I’ll be doing my best to do, as it were, below – you just need to hear what the song sounds like first.
The one you just heard, if you listened, starts off pretty fast. The way we used to sing it, we’d start out slow and speed up – like a steam locomotive of the time would – then get faster – and then there’s this refrain, “Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala”, – and then the last two lines of the previous verse are repeated. It’s also sung in the dialect of southern Germany – which, where I grew up, is kind of like a gentle southern drawl. (and the one you just heard is definitely authentic) I mean – speaking “Hochdeutsch” (high German – the formal stuff) – you could try to say “I love you” and end up sounding like a cat, hacking up a hairball – so the southern dialect, the Schwäbisch – or “Swabian” dialect – is gentle, laid back, and saying the same thing sounds like a hug.
Needless to say, there’s a difference between hugs and hairballs, so I’ll do my best to translate here. Note: the dialect is phonetic – so what you see below might not be translatable in, say, Google or other online translation services.
The first verse just tells the story of the first train that went all the way from southern to northern Germany. This section of track, the “Schwäbische Eisebahn” was a tremendous source of pride in that part of the country when it was built, and the song, as I understand it, almost became a sort of regional “national anthem”.
Auf d’r schwäbsche Eisebahne gibt’s gar viele Haltstatione,
On the Swabian railroad track, there are lots of train stations
Schtuegart, Ulm und Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach!
Stuttgart, Ulm and Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach (several of the major stops on the line)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Schtuegart, Ulm und Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach!
Stuttgart, Ulm and Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach
It was a tremendously fun song to sing – I’d sung it growing up – so it was a given that I’d be teaching it to my son as he was growing up.
And then my wife asked the most innocent, and simultaneously impossible question she could ask:
“So what’s it mean?”
Auf d’r Schwäbsche Eisebahne wollt amol a Bäurle fahre,
On the swabian railroad, a farmer once wanted to take a trip
Goht am Schalter, lüpft d’r Hut. “Oi Bilettle, seid so guat!”
He went to the ticket agent, tips his hat, and asks, “One ticket, if you please”
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
geht am Schalter, lüpft d’r Hut. “Oi Bilettle, seid so gut !”
…went to the ticket agent/machine, tips his hat, and asks, “One ticket, if you please”
“Well, it’s about this farmer… “
“…and his wife…”
“…aaaaand this goat…”
(Long, LONG pause as I try to figure out how to translate this part that up until that moment had been funny, but now that I tried to translate it into something someone born and raised here in America would understand, I realized that it would absolutely, positively, without a doubt, lose something in the translation… Just how much was to be determined…)
Einen Bock hat er gekaufet und daß er ihm nit entlaufet,
He bought himself this billy goat, and so it wouldn’t walk off
Bindet ihn d’r guete Ma, an den hintere Wage na.
The good man tied him to the back of the last car in the train.
(unsaid, implied, or left for you to guess is that he was doing
this while loading the rest of his stuff onto the train)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
bindet ihn d’r guete Ma an den hintere Wage na.
“Well, the farmer ties the goat to the back of the train to keep it from wandering off.”
This is where it got hard…
“Well… what isn’t actually stated is that he forgets the goat.”
“What – the goat runs off?”
“Well, not exactly…”
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“Well, the goat’s tied to the back of the train.”
“And the train LEAVES?”
Wie des Zügle wieder staut, der Bauer nach sei´m Böckle schaut
When the train started up again, the farmer went to check on the goat.
(the version I used to sing had a couple of verses before this one where the farmer sits down next to his wife, lights up his pipe, and has a smoke, and it’s at the next stop that he makes the discovery below)
Find’t er bloss Kopf und Soil an dem hintre Wagetoil.
And finds nothing but the rope and the goat’s head still tied to the last car in the train.
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Find’t er bloss Kopf und Soil an dem hintre Wagetoil.
The reputation of an entire culture was on my shoulders as I tried to explain that tying a goat to the back of a train that was about to head down the tracks a tad faster than said goat could run could be seen as rather amusing when looked at the right angle, you know, like the farmer went to town every week on the train, and every week he did the same thing – only this week he did something different, out of the ordinary, not routine… He bought a goat. He thought about it long enough to tie it to the back of the train so it wouldn’t run off as he was loading his other purchases into the train – and, as we often do, he then went on autopilot once he was on the train and the whistle blew. (how many coffee cups, diaper bags, wallets, or dare I say it, loaded child seats, have you seen on the roof of a moving car?)
Of course, trying to find out exactly what angle in all this would be amusing was the challenge…
‘s packt d’r Baure a Baurezore, er nimmt d’r Geißbock bei die Ohre,
The farmer (in frustration) grabs the goat by the ears
Schmeißt er, was er schmeiße ka, dem Konduktör an ‘n Ranza na.
And throws what he can throw (namely what’s left of the goat) as hard as he can throw it at the conductor
(essentially blaming him for not keeping track of the goat, so to speak)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Schmeißt er, was er schmeiße ka, dem Konduktör an ‘n Ranza na.
And while I’m happily singing “Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala” with my son, clapping with him and smiling, the dawning realization in my wife’s mind changed the look of shock on her face into a look of absolute horror.
She was thinking of the song from the goat’s point of view, which, in Germany, especially in agricultural Germany, you really didn’t do much… I mean yes, some of the farm animals kind of became pets, but for the most part, goats were livestock, and farmers managed them. Livestock lived long enough to either produce or become food. It was pretty simple, pretty straight forward, and pretty practical.
But here in America – especially here in America in an area where you don’t see livestock in much more than a petting zoo – you tend to think of those warm fuzzy little goat like things a little differently, and you might tend to see the whole story from their point of view.
“He left the goat tied to the back of the train, the goat tried to keep up with the train, and – and…”
I had to fill the silence with something…
“And they wrote a SONG about it?”
“And it’s a HAPPY song?”
“Well, um. Not for the goat…”
Trulla, trulla, trullala…
I was talking to my mom the other day about an email we’d both received – about an American soldier in WWII and how he had done brave things on the battlefield. For example, killing the enemy, saving his compatriots, just doing what soldiers do.
And she, having grown up in Germany during World War II, sent me this note:
You know Tom-Son, looking at war and the so-called ‘victories’ from both sides, something became clear to me during that war. I was between 10 and 14. In school we talked about how many air planes had been shot down, how many ‘Panzer’ (tanks) or ‘Gefangene’ (captured, how many ‘enemy soldiers’ were killed, until…
Pastor Gotthilf Hoelzer one day somberly made the remark
“THEY WERE ALL THE SON OF A MOTHER”
That brought those ‘victories’ into perspective.
During the war, there was no TV. Everyone who had one huddled around a radio in the evenings to hear the “special bulletins”, the “Sondermeldungen”, to hear how the war was going.
Mom was born in 1929, in Germany, at the height of the Depression. This is the Depression that Hitler got Germany out of. The Depression where he convinced many people that he was the right person to be their “leader” – their “Führer” – before things went completely crazy. The unemployment situation was absolutely dire, and mom’s parents – my grandparents – had found employment by working at the milk “Sammelstelle” – a collection station where the farmers would bring their milk to be processed and sent to the larger dairies.
Mom told me just a short paragraph of a story – a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes:
“I remember one family on our ‘milk run’ in Hanseatenstrasse. Their soldier was there when Stalingrad was surrnounded and was expected to be taken by the Russians. The German troops were trapped. The adults of that family were huddled around their radio to listen to the ‘Sondermeldungen,’ knowing that they would not see their man come back. They were all crying. Their little girl did not understand and she said : “Lasset me doch au mit-heula’. (essentially: “Tell me what’s going on so I can cry with you”) She sensed that all those hearts around her were breaking and she wanted to know why…
It was most likely that the adults were crying about her Dad.”
And a flood of images came to my mind.
…the chores still needed to be done, but they were rushed so that everyone could gather around the radio to hear the news of the day. The husband, the father, the brother, the son of someone in that room, was in Stalingrad. Hitler himself had ordered that there would be no surrender. The 6th Army of the Wehrmacht, which had stormed into the city that summer was either decimated or being left there to die.
In that moment, the adults realized that their son would not come home. His father, who up until that moment had been looking forward to sitting down with him and hearing his stories, and in hearing them, would relive some of his own battles in WWI. But he realized as he listened to this news, that he would not hear them, or his son’s voice, ever again. He remembered back, remembered seeing his wide open, trusting eyes as he, like all fathers, tossed his little boy into the air and caught him again and again, his laughter ringing like a joyous bell. He remembered his birthdays, his baptism and confirmation in the church, and his marriage at the little town church flooded his mind as the tears flooded his eyes. He remembered how he was able to sit down, after a hard day’s work, and celebrate that German tradition of ‘Feierabend’ which, while hard to translate into English, can best be summarized by the meaning behind the phrase “It’s Miller Time” .The work is done, it’s time to rest. He’d been looking forward to the end of the war, to be able to have a huge Feierabend with his son, because the work – the war, would be over.
But there would not be any more Feierabends with his son.
And he wept.
Unashamedly, he wept.
For the companionship he would no longer have with his son, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of sons from their fathers.
The enormity of what he was hearing on the radio was too much to bear. He tried to read his wife’s expression, and saw the sorrow of a mother who’s being told she’s lost her only son. She was inconsolable. The words she heard from the radio, those of victories for the fatherland, of bravery and sacrifice, were overcome by her own memories. As she sat there, the words turning into a dull buzz in the background, she remembered the moment when she knew she was going to have a son, the first spark of life inside her. She remembered waiting to be sure, and then remembered the simultaneous look of shock, doubt, surprise, and joy in her husband’s eyes as he realized he was going to be a father. She remembered sharing that special communion a mother has with her child as she nursed him. She remembered his first day of school and his last. She remembered the gleam in his eye when he told her about that very special girl, the one he wanted to become his wife. She remembered their wedding day, and how this girl became part of their family.
She remembered his laugh, that belly laugh that can only come from the absolute, unrestrained joy of a little boy, and how it had gotten so much lower in tone over the years, but still, the joy was there. She loved to watch, and listen, as he and that special girl laughed together.
And she realized that she would never hear that laugh again, not from her son, and not from that special girl.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her son, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of sons from their mothers.
She held that special girl in her arms, trying to support her, as she was lost in her own thoughts of him.
He’d been in her class, in school. They’d grown up together. They’d laughed and had a history together that started long before the day they walked down the aisle. And as her vision blurred with tears, she saw images she knew she’d never see again.
She remembered the bashful look in her husband’s eyes the first time he talked to her, the nervous look on the day he proposed to her, and the confident, anything but bashful, look on the day they were married. A part of her smiled at that memory.
She remembered the moment when she realized she was going to have his child. She remembered waiting to be sure, and then remembered the simultaneous look of shock, doubt, surprise, and joy in her husband’s eyes as he realized he was going to be a father.
She remembered seeing her daughter’s wide open, trusting eyes as he, like all fathers, tossed his little girl into the air and caught her again and again, her laughter ringing like a joyous bell. She remembered the tough times, and how hard he worked to keep food on the table, and a roof over their heads and how he, despite the Depression, had kept them fed. She remembered quiet evenings sitting by lamp light, quietly sewing, or reading, no words, just companionship, and how much that meant to her.
She remembered when everyone had chipped in and bought the radio, and how it had filled the room with music and laughter; how they had invited friends over and they were able to dance as if they had their own orchestra.
She remembered the light in his eyes as he saw his daughter take her first steps, and how once that happened, there was no stopping her.
And she remembered trying to decide whether to be proud or horrified, or both, when the draft notice came in the mail. She remembered her guarded tears as a train took him to parts unknown for basic training, and the anguished tears she shared with his mother after the train was gone, and they knew he wouldn’t see them.
She remembered that first visit home – how he’d changed, and how proud he looked in that uniform. There was still a sense of pride in her, but there was also an uneasiness that that took quite a bit of strength to keep from turning into outright terror at the things that can happen to a soldier, both to him and by him.
She remembered looking at his hands, the ones that had recently held a new life, wondering if they would be asked – or ordered – to take a life.
She remembered the next trip – the last one – in spring, when he wasn’t allowed to tell her where he was going. She remembered holding him fiercely, and how, as she looked into his eyes, she saw the love, the caring, the gentleness of the man she knew, and she remembered, how the sound of the train whistle changed that completely. She saw the eyes of her husband turn from the look of one who gives and nurtures life, into the look of a soldier, one who takes it.
She remembered recoiling at the shock of this transformation, and how he had pulled away from her. Both of them had brave faces, both had heavy hearts. He turned, walked toward the train, and only once turned to look back. In that moment, she saw, for a split second, the eyes of her husband saying goodbye. Neither of them knew it would be their last .
At first, the radio reports and the newspaper accounts were all full of victories and successes. Then, as the months wore on, September came and went. Hitler had said that Stalingrad would have fallen by then, but it hadn’t. October came, November came, the Russian winter came, and the news then was that the 6th army had been cut off and surrounded. The news reports confidently said that a relief force was fighting its way down to help them, but the Russians fought them off. Then Goering said he’d resupply what remained of the army with 750 tons of supplies a day, by air. But there weren’t enough airplanes left to even get one third of that, and like so many other things in this war that they’d been led to believe were necessary and would succeed, this had failed as well.
They’d been listening warily to every news report, wondering how much of what they were hearing was the truth and how much was lies. They would get bits and pieces of information about what was happening, and it would, all culminate in an overwhelming sense of dread as the news reports came in. Every night, they sat by the radio – the thing that had brought so much joy, laughter, and music, but now it brought nothing but strident propaganda and death.
And then the news reports stopped altogether.
She wasn’t sure exactly of the moment it happened, but somewhere in those weeks of silence from the eastern front that cold winter, she knew. She knew she would never see her husband again. She knew she would never hear his laughter again, or see the look of love in his eyes as she felt his love inside her. She knew she would raise their daughter without him. She knew that she would never again be able to drowsily reach over to his side of their bed and feel his warmth, or hear his soft breathing. She knew now that she would miss even his irritating habits, like cutting his fingernails with his pocket knife. She would never have to ask him to clean up the cut off fingernails again, or clean his dishes off the kitchen table after dinner. She knew she’d never hear him say grace in that wonderful way he said it, thanking God for the simplest of meals, as if it were a feast, fit for a king. He made her so proud when he did that. He was grateful, even for the little things. She remembered that. Oh, what she’d do for those little things – to hear him say grace again, to hear his breathing, to hear him tell her what a good breakfast she’d made, to feel him lift her off the floor in that all enveloping hug he’d always used to say good bye. And she realized, with a start, that when he’d said goodbye that last time, at the train station, that he hadn’t lifted her up like he always did as he said goodbye…
Somehow she knew that from that moment, nothing would ever be the same.
The news reports 3 weeks later confirmed it.
She would not hear his voice again.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her husband, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of husbands from their wives.
She remembered her first married Christmas without him, just a few weeks earlier. They were supposed to be done with Stalingrad by September, and here it was more than 3 months later. They did what they could to make it a joyous Christmas, with Mama, and Oma, and Opa, but it seemed hollow. Through it all, the church service on Christmas Eve, and the “Heiliger Abend” later at home, her – their – daughter kept looking at the door, and kept asking, “Wo ist Papa?” (Where’s Papa?)
Christmas and New Year’s came and went, and still no news.
Finally, in late January, there was news.
No, not just news.
The regular radio programming was interrupted by music, and then, The News.
The relief force had failed.
Goering’s Luftwaffe had failed.
Stalingrad had fallen.
It was so hard to look her daughter in the eye as she tried to give her the news that so many mothers had had to give their children over the last few years, that their father had joined the thousands, the millions, who had “fallen” in the war. They used that word, in their dialect, “Er isch g’falla” – “Er ist gefallen” – “He fell”.
It didn’t mean that he’d fallen.
It meant, quite simply, that he’d been killed.
Stalingrad had fallen.
A son, a husband, a father, had fallen.
And she wept – for him, how cold and brutal it must have been – she couldn’t imagine and didn’t want to.
She wept, for her daughter, who would never again feel the gentle touch of her father’s rough, work worn hand, hear his laugh, hear his deep voice call her name.
She wept for his parents, now across the room together, but each suffering their own world of pain, realizing their legacy was at an end.
And she wept for herself, that she would not be able to grow old together with him.
And as her daughter said, “Lasset me doch au mit-heula” – “Lass mich doch auch mit heulen” – “Tell me what’s going on, so I can cry with you” – she held her, hugged her, lifted her up off the floor like her father used to, like her husband used to, and as the radio droned on in the background, mother and daughter melted into each other, and the little girl finally understood.
She would not hear his voice again.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her Papa, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of Papas from their little girls.
Her mother realized she would not be the only child who lived through that war who lost a father. But even still – for months afterwards, the little girl would stand at the window every day, waiting for her Papa. She wanted her Papa to know that he wasn’t alone, that she was there, waiting for him, that his little girl hadn’t forgotten him.
The finality of it all, the stupidity of it all, the arrogance of it all, was just too much. Every day there’d been reports of so and so many thousands of the enemies killed – and she realized, that for every one of them, every one of them, this act was being played out, too… Every day, in Germany, in Russia, in countries far and wide in this war, in living rooms and kitchens, in barns and shops, in factories and train stations, someone was getting news that a beloved part of their life had been savagely torn from their heart.
Of the million soldiers in the Wehrmacht, The German 6th Army, 750,000 had been killed or wounded. Many more simply froze or starved to death. After the siege, the 91,000 left in the city had surrendered. Of those, only 6,000 would ever see what they knew as the fatherland again.
Mom went on:
On the one side of the Strenger Haus (where she grew up) was Karl Beisswenger (with 3 children) and on the other, my cousin Karl Klotz (2 children, Kurt u. Elsbeth), who never came back from that war. And upstairs, it was Paule Rosenberger’s father.
That’s the face of war.
No, only part of the face of war.
That’s not mentioning the dead from the ‘Bomben-angriffe’. (Bombing attacks)
I better not get into that.
War is Hell.
On both sides.
The images came unbidden – in the blink of an eye, if you will. A story that could be told in six words – but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes.