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Our scout troop has sold Christmas trees at a church parking lot every year for about the last 75 years.
I last wrote about it here. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was getting the best looking trees available, and a few years ago I drove a big truck down to several of the tree farms to get a fresh load of them. As I recall, at the end of that day, we ended up bringing home 435 trees. Over the course of the trip home, the trees settled a bit on the rough roads, and I remember checking the side mirrors once and was surprised to see that the sides of the truck were literally bulging. I wish I’d taken a picture of it that day, but the day was long, by that time it was dark, and many, many pictures weren’t taken.
One of the pictures that I not only didn’t take, but didn’t see, was taken by the scout dad in the troop named Dan who’s a forest geneticist, which is the best kind of guy to have as a resource when you’re trying to sell small forests of Christmas trees.
Dan would go out to the tree farm in August and hand pick the 1500 or so trees we’d be selling that year, and in doing so, he saw some things that most of us don’t see. He took the picture below, that looks pretty much like a picture of a wooded foresty place (that’s the Olympic mountain range in the background), but there’s a couple of white spots in the picture that don’t really make sense until you look move closer.
If you look at the third and fourth tree in from the left, you’ll see a small white dot on each of them. As Dan got closer, he took a picture of what those white dots really were, and you can see that in the picture below:
You see, the tree was perfect in every way, it’s just that the top, the part that can make or break the sale of a tree, was crooked, and so the grower, realizing that he had some time on his hands, tied a rock to a branch to help straighten the tree out.
So for years, the tree carried this burden. Day and night, through good weather and bad, through heavy rain and parching drought, the tree carried this weight.
The thing is, not all trees got this treatment. Some trees were pruned, all were fertilized, and some were found to be almost perfect but for this one flaw, so they were given this rock, this burden, to carry.
And over the years, the rock changed the tree. The tree got strong enough to carry the rock, but when the rock was put in the right place, the tree was both stronger and straighter. It had shown that it could indeed carry this burden, and carry it well.
And in the end, when the tree was done growing and it was time to harvest, the burden was lifted, the weight was removed, and the tree was straight and beautiful as ever.
And I saw something interesting in that. It made me wonder about the burdens we carry, and why. It made me wonder about burdens, being there just long enough for us to learn lessons, to grow straight, being lifted. And then I wondered about burdens that are there longer, that people carry, day in, day out, sometimes for years.
In fact, in the last year, I’ve learned of friends losing their jobs, and the financial hardship that comes from that.
I’ve learned of friends who were suddenly transferred to another part of the country, and the uproar that can cause in a family.
I’ve learned of friends who are losing or have lost loved ones.
And you can almost hear the branches of their trees creaking as they strain under the burden.
And I don’t understand why it seems that some folks are given burdens when others aren’t.
There are times when I don’t know if the burden they carry is one they can carry alone. In fact, there were times when the burden we as a family had to carry was more than we could handle, and I know personally that in situations like this, those struggling under those heavy burdens need support until they can stand on their own.
I thought back to that tree there in the picture. It could handle good sized rocks, and over time get strong enough to carry them and stand straight. Trying to hold up a 100 pound rock with that little branch would be another story. It’s not strong enough to handle that, and it would break.
I’ve seen this in other trees over in Eastern Washington, where instead of rocks, they were carrying such an amazing amount of fruit that their branches weren’t strong enough for that burden. The farmers growing that fruit helped brace the branches with large poles, sticks, or, for lack of a better term, crutches, until harvest time, at which point the weight is removed, and the tree is relieved of the weight, or what might be perceived as a hardship.
Without the constant care of the farmers, those trees would have had branches broken by burdens they were not strong enough to carry. Un-braced branches were damaged, or had broken off and fallen down, breaking other branches on the way and peeling the bark with them as they went.
It’s not pretty, and parts of the tree die when that happens.
I’ve also seen people break under burdens they weren’t strong enough to carry. Lives are damaged, people can break down and fall, causing damage to themselves or others as they go.
It’s not pretty, and parts of who that person is die when that happens too.
Understand, this doesn’t mean these people were weak. It means that as strong as they were, they weren’t strong enough for that burden, or those burdens.
There is a difference.
And it got me thinking, about trees, and support, and strength.
See, some of the trees, the evergreens, have burdens over time, for a reason.
And those trees, over the years, like the ones in the photos, develop inside support. They develop a stronger core with each passing year they are forced to carry their burden.
By the time these trees are ready for harvest, they stand straight and tall, even though what made them that way was a heavy burden.
And some of the trees, the fruit trees have burdens that come in waves, for a season (or many seasons).
Their roots will hold them up, but to keep from breaking, they need outside support to help shoulder their burden, like the fruit trees I mentioned earlier.
Those trees, over the years, develop scars and are gnarled from the burdens they’ve carried and from the crutches supporting them, but they are strong, and have produced good fruit.
And then there’s a third type of tree, and support, and it’s not just for a reason, or a season, but a lifetime.
I’ve heard that the Redwood trees in Northern California have very shallow root systems, so any strong wind could knock a single one of them over, but because they’re in groves of trees, their roots intertwine, and they support each other. They do this without crutches to hold branches up, and they do it without rocks to hold branches down.
They curl their toes together. No, really… It’s interesting, thinking about that. Those trees, they become a community. They support each other, and when one is threatened, all the interwoven roots (the toes) are all tangled, and they hold each other up, together.
There’s a chance you, or someone like you, will spend part of your life as any one of these trees, and who knows, you might have experience with more than one type in different parts of your life.
Whether you’re an evergreen, carrying small burdens over your entire life, or fruit trees, carrying huge burdens seasonally, or whether you’re a redwood tree, reaching for the skies, but curling your toes along with those near you, help each other.
Support each other.
Be there for each other.
Forgive each other.
Take care out there, take your strength from wherever you can get it, and enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.
It’s Memorial day as I write this, and I’m in a pensive mood…
I was at Chris’s memorial service yesterday, and I’ve been to a few of these lately – and among the food on a table was what appeared to be a rather out-of-place crumpled up McDonald’s bag.
I didn’t think much of it until I heard the story behind it. See Pat, the fellow who brought it, had been best friends with Chris, and they’d spend hours driving around, sometimes in Chris’s tow truck, sometimes not, and as often as not, they would end up stopping at a very particular McDonalds, where the two of them would order 11 cheeseburgers.
The question was asked, “Why 11? And who got to eat six of them?” and Pat said he wasn’t sure exactly where it came from, likely Chris going through the drive through with his truck to get some dinner, a hankering for cheeseburgers, and the clerk asking the simple question of “How many?”
Chris and Pat shared the unspoken question with a look, shrugged their shoulders, and next thing they knew, they had 11 cheeseburgers to share and accompany the conversations ranging from the nature of gravity to the physics of electricity and radio waves as they waited on the next call.
And over time, it became a tradition.
Every time they went to McDonald’s, they ordered 11 cheeseburgers.
In a bag.
It became almost sacred, the way Pat told it.
And it got me thinking…
I’m in that stage of life when it’s becoming obvious that there’s a changing of the guard going on, where you realize, sometimes slowly, sometimes with a stunning realization, that you’re now the very close to being the oldest generation living in your family, where you used to be able to have conversations with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, who simply aren’t there anymore for you to have conversations with.
And with Chris, I realized that it’s not limited to people older than you.
It made me wonder, what kinds of little things will be precious to you when someone close to you leaves this life to live on in your memories?
I really started wondering…
There are friends who know, for example, that I will only call them a butthead if they’ve earned that privilege. (Of course, I have to explain to them that it is a privilege, a badge of honor, to be called that, only then do they get it)
I think of my dad, who I used to simultaneously love and get frustrated with, who loved me as best as he knew how, and I realize I miss hearing his greeting, “Hello sonshine.” Or yelling at us to shut the living room door as we ran out it.
I think of Glenda’s peaceful presence, and her laugh, as she took life, and death, in stride and made it work.
Betty – how we were able to take off the day to day masks we wear to protect ourselves, and just talk about the stuff that really mattered.
I think of people who are still part of my life, and realize there are things that are inexplicably special, things that have become the “11 cheeseburgers” of our lives…
The Grand Coulee Dam.
“How are things in Gloccamurra?”
A shoe shine kit.
A jar of homemade Quince jelly.
An Egg carton.
A yellow superball.
A phone call from a long-lost friend.
A tennis ball cannon made of a bunch of pop cans and masking tape..
An old Saab.
Two rocks, now shiny, that I’ve carried around in my pocket – one since 1997 (my son’s first day of kindergarten) one since 2010 (his first day of college)
A pair of red Converse High Tops.
And so many others.
It’s not what they are, it’s what they symbolize.
Things that in and of themselves, mean nothing to someone who doesn’t share a history with you, I mean, it’s a bag of cheeseburgers… it’s a greeting… it’s an old car.
But for Chris and Pat, it was more than a bag of cheeseburgers – it was friendship, (and it was theoretical physics) and it signified that all was right with the world.
And maybe – just maybe, you’ve got your own version of a bag of 11 cheeseburgers and a bunch of memories.
What are they?
Write as much or as little as you’d like, but I know we all have them, I’d just never seen it done the way Pat did it yesterday.
And as little as I knew Chris directly, the hole he leaves in people’s lives is very real.
My wife and I were grocery shopping the other day, and on kind of a whim, I bought about a half a gallon of fresh squeezed cider. Not the frozen concentrate, not the stuff that’s so clear it looks like it’s already gone through you once. This was the real stuff, and I wanted it because – oh – here, hold the bottle and just come with me into my time machine… Let’s go back about 40 years or so to when I was a kid…
My dad was off at college to get a degree for his second career while we were trying to live off his military pension. Mom was using ductape and paperclips trying to make ends meet, and doing her best to keep us from being worried, or even aware of how little money there really was.
So we had our own little special things that didn’t cost much.
Among the many things we couldn’t afford was soda – or pop – whatever you call it in the part of the country you’re from.
So we did something else.
We made it ourselves.
We had apple trees, and we had my grampa’s cider press, and we put the two together and made apple cider, just as the last of the apples were falling.
There was a special time, several weeks after the cider had been made, when it started to ferment a bit, and get fizzy. Understand, we kept it outside. It was just cold enough to keep it from fermenting too fast, but not so cold as to preserve it perfectly. If you haven’t had this treat, you’re clearly missing something – it’s something they try to sell in stores – you can buy “hard cider” just about anywhere now, but what made this special was that time in the fermentation process where the sugars were just starting to turn to alcohol. There was a mixture of the still-present, but fading sweetness, that was a being replaced by the zing of the bubbles and alcohol that you simply can’t get from a store. It’s a transitional state… Not too sweet, not too… Hard, I guess. And that was the perfect time to have it. Usually about the second half of November through the first half of December was when it was best…
That’s when I especially looked forward to Friday night… Pizza night.
Pizza wasn’t delivered out where we lived, so we made our own. Made the dough from the USDA donated flour we got because we were too poor to afford any. You could smell the yeasty warmth of the dough rising throughout the afternoon. We grated the cheese from the USDA commodities donated cheese we got. We put the homemade pizza dough in a flat rectangular baking pan. I never understood people not eating pizza crust, for us, the corner pieces were fought over.
So that time at the end of fall and beginning of winter, that was when, if the cider wasn’t frozen from being outside, it would be cold as I brought the bottle in, then fizz as I opened it, sometimes fizzing and leaving little chunks of ice all at the same time, and we pretended we were like the rich people who could afford soda.
What I didn’t know then was that it beat anything you can get in a bottle or a can today. We’d squeezed it ourselves, from apples we’d grown, and it had aged either on the back porch or out in the pump house, which was always pretty cool anyway.
It was a family meal, at the dinner table, and it was special.
When the last of the hot pizza was gone, washed down by the last of that bottle of ice cold cider, I leaned back, trying to decide which felt better… the savory pizza still warm in my belly, or the last bits of sweet coolness from the cider fading in my mouth.
And it got me thinking – standing there in the grocery store, with a rather expensive bottle of apple cider in my left hand, something just clicked. Growing up, we often forgot how poor we were financially, because we were so rich everywhere else.
Happy Thanksgiving, folks…
A chortling water buffalo pulled up beside us as we waited for the stop light at 15th and Market.
I looked left.
Hmmm… No water buffalo.
Especially in Ballard. However, there was a Harley, making all the gorgeous sounds idling Harleys make.
“The driver’s too skinny,” said Michael from the passenger’s seat after giving him a once-over.
“And a bit young…” I said as my eyes moved up from the bike to the rider.
Sure enough… a too skinny kid in his 20’s… straddling a burbling Harley.
We watched, and listened, as we waited for the light to turn green, and as it did, the Harley roared off, blasting open the doors of the time machine and leaving me ricocheting off long forgotten memories for the rest of the trip home.
Those memories spanned well over a quarter of a century, and I bounced between lessons from Grad school, a famous photograph, my first internship, and lessons learned many, many years later.
And as the sound faded away, it got me thinking about Harley Davidson.
The real one.
But to tell you that story – I’ll need to tell you a couple of other stories to fill in some gaps.
I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University, and one of the things Terry Eiler drilled into us there was to go out and take risks. Go out and try new things. Do the thing no one else is doing. Do the assignment you were sent to do to be safe, but then go do a little bit more.
I learned from that. I’ve been inside the boiler of a steam locomotive (it was pretty dark). I’ve talked my way onto airplanes (it was loud), and I’ve gotten images of normal things from abnormal locations just because I asked if I could. (it was amazing).
What Terry didn’t tell us at the time is what kinds of stories we’d get on the way to taking these pictures… There’s the “running over the skunk” story, and the oh-so-memorable “the car broke down” story, things that seemed to “just happen” – and yet, took on a life of their own. Lessons to be learned, stories to be lived.
But all that was in the future still. While in class, he told us about a guy named Rob Goebel, who’d worked at this small town paper, and one hot day had gone out to see if he could find some images that could tell a story, and eventually, he found himself in a bar…
With a biker.
He knew the shot he wanted, and after as much chatting as you could do, set up the lights, got the shot he’d had in mind, and then left.
Fast forward 15 years. I’d gotten my first internship out of Grad School, for the same newspaper Rob had been working for at the time. Mike Grone was the chief photographer, and one day as we were going over assignments, he got this twinkle in his eye that I didn’t recognize until later, smiled, and said, “Hey, you ought to go see Bones.”
“Yeah, Bones and Harley – Rob Goebel took a picture of him a few years back… Won the POY (Pictures of the Year) award for it after he left.”
“Oh really?” I said as he dug through a file cabinet for a faded tearsheet of the original.
He found it, and gave me the address, and I tossed my camera bag into the back seat of my old Ford and headed on over to the little house on Wilkinson, hoping to maybe reproduce a photo of him and Harley 15 years later, kind of an “after” shot to Rob’s ”before” photo. I found the house, parked the car, and as I shut it off, looked up to see Bones himself sitting in an overstuffed recliner on what would soon be a dilapidated old front porch, idly sharpening a knife. He’d aged since the photo, but even so, there was still a presence about him that could be sensed, was almost palpable.
As I walked up and got my bearings, I realized that the thing about Bones was he wasn’t just skin and…
It was not hard imagining him riding a large motorcycle. He filled up the generously sized chair he was in, his overalls, and that presence extended out well past the porch. I took the initiative and introduced myself, not really sure of what kind of a reaction I’d get.
He sized me up, understanding pretty clearly that I wanted to take some pictures (a camera bag and two Nikons likely gave that away). He tucked his sharpening stone between his belly and his left leg, and we talked for a bit…
I don’t remember much of the conversation until he asked if I had a knife. Of course I had a knife. I’d had a Swiss Army Knife of one kind or another for years. It was as much a part of me as a watch might have been, or today, a cellphone.
“Let me see it.” he said. It wasn’t a request, more a statement of a fact that just hadn’t happened yet.
I handed it over. He grunted a combination of acknowledgement and disgust as he pulled the bits of packing tape off the blade that were still stuck there from the last time I’d opened a cardboard box with it. He shifted in his chair and pulled the well-rounded sharpening stone I’d seen earlier out from under his paunch and talked me through the finer points of knife sharpening.
Harley came out about then, and I tried to make something of a picture of the two of them on the porch, but things, weren’t clicking, so to speak. Bones wanted to finish the knife, and I couldn’t make any of it really work photographically, so we just chatted a little more.
That’s when I heard another screen door tentatively creak open, and I looked over to see a young lady, who I learned later was Harley’s sister, come out. I watched as she came out, and remember thinking that she looked a lot like – well, like she just didn’t seem to belong in that place… Kind of a rose among thorns, if you will. I was still trying to reconcile that when I looked back to Bones and noticed something had changed, as if a wall had suddenly fallen between us. Totally unspoken, there was a sense that I had unwittingly crossed a pretty significant line, and I could feel the temperature drop as he handed me back my knife, folded closed. I opened it, and realized that in the couple of minutes he’d had it, he’d taken it from a bits-of-tape encrusted piece of metal to a finely honed instrument that would do far more than cut through the tape of cardboard boxes. He’d left his mark on that knife, and was not so subtly letting me know what he was capable of, and even though he was showing his age at the time, still not a man to be trifled with.
So, I didn’t trifle, and realized that the picture I had gone there to recreate might not be possible, but I’d tried. I remember going back a time or two more, but that wall was still there, and over time, Bones and his family faded off the back burner of my mind.
Many years later, I got back in touch with Mike as I was writing this story about a fellow named Harry Frilling who’d lived there in Sidney. We started talking about how it had been almost a lifetime since we’d talked, and he told me about how things had changed there… We talked about Harry, and me climbing on top of the courthouse, and running over the skunk. We talked, and laughed, about me blowing through the annual film budget during my few months there.
And somehow, the subject of Bones came up.
I found that the knowledge I gained about not trifling with him was not limited to just me. In fact, Mike mentioned that had actually been a concern when President Reagan had visited Sidney on his Whistlestop Tour. He found in his files a quote from the Sidney Daily News that day:
“The neighborhood has never looked better. Citizens living near the North Street Chessie crossing have been out cleaning up in preparation for President Reagan’s visit. Much work remains to be done, but most of it is in the area of security. Just where will Bones Kah sit?“
Bones, whose political views weren’t quite in the same ballpark as President Reagan’s, was nowhere to be found. It turned out he had been taken into what they called “Protective Custody”.
Mike didn’t find it necessary to mention who was being protected from whom, or why.
The thing is, Bones, being the leader of a motorcycle gang (or club), (The Vikings) – had developed, and cultivated a reputation. There are some motorcycle clubs that cultivate a reputation of working for charity, and others that work hard at cultivating another image. I understand that there is a culture of respect, and there are rules, which, now that I think of it, are not to be trifled with.
But the reputation that goes along with being the leader of a Motorcycle Club is a bit different than the reputation one develops in being a dad who might work in an office somewhere. No matter what, it’s hard to keep work and home life separate. It’s like – well, you’ve heard of dads being late to their son’s ball game because of a meeting at work. Bones’ situation was a little different, in that the qualities that made him effective when leading a motorcycle club didn’t translate very well to having kids and being a dad.
A single example: There’s a story told by Rob (the photojournalist mentioned above) that when Bones visited the newborn Harley and mom shortly before he took the picture, Bones visited the hospital with a dead rat tied to his leg.
There was no mention of how old the rat was or how long it had been there, but the story attained almost urban legend status, and Bones wasn’t about to dissuade anyone from believing it.
The stories Rob told were told of a very few moments with Bones, and the thing is, as a photojournalist, you come into a situation, you do your best to capture or create a lasting image that tells the best story you can, and then, most often, you leave and never see the people or hear from them again.
Rob did a stunning job of capturing that image. He took a situation, a dark bar with the smell of years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, the smell of countless Saturday night closings where many people had had too many drinks and ended the evening bowed down before or curled up around the porcelain throne in the restrooms, and invited us in with him, to share Bones’ “office.”
In doing that – that simple thing, he showed Bones in all his – well, ‘glory’ isn’t the word I’d use – but the persona of Bones that I saw on his front porch the day I was there was the same one I see in Rob’s picture.
That’s what Harley grew up with.
That’s who Harley grew up with.
Extrapolate on that.
Just a little.
Imagine what it’s like, growing up like that. I can’t. It turns out Harley left Sidney shortly after I did. I talked with him recently, and he said, and I quote, “After I left Ohio in 1987 we never looked back.”
While he has spared me the details, just that comment, and what I’d experienced myself and heard from Mike, gave me a hint of the life that had gone on long before, and well after that memorable image was taken.
Harley grew up.
Mike left the paper to pursue new things, and in one of his last assignments for the paper he was to get some photos of Bones and his two houses. In Mike’s words, “His spare house was condemned. Both houses, by all accounts, were of hoarder status. My assignment was photographing the exteriors of the side-by-side structures. Bones took great exception and offered to place the camera where there wasn’t enough ambient light to make an image. Since I finished the assignment before his offer, I bid him a fond adieu.”
And in 2008, Bones died.
I don’t have the few pictures I took of him when I was there, but given what I saw, I would understand why Harley had wanted to leave. He continued in that conversation we were having, “…but I was man enough to go see my father on his death bed and look him right in the eyes and forgive him for the abuse that he put us through. Things happen for a reason I believe and I am stronger for it.”
And, as you can imagine, it got me thinking.
Over time I realized that we learn how to be a parent from three separate but distinctly different things:
- Because of who you grew up with…
Seriously – how many times has someone said, “You’re just like your dad…”?
How many times have you heard your parents words coming out of your mouth, the very words you promised yourself you’d never say.
And yet you did.
And sometimes, those words came borne out of hard experience, and you realized, as hard as they were to hear when you were a kid, they were the right ones when you found yourself on the other side of the parental fence.
Then again, sometimes, as parents, we’ve find ourselves victims of our own past, and the world has changed faster than we’ve been able to adapt. Things that used to be acceptable aren’t anymore, and things that were totally unacceptable now have gone through a sea change of – well – change, and now they are. It brings challenges to parenting that take the most important job in the world, being a consistent role model for the next generation, and makes it even harder.
- In spite of who you grew up with…
You realized that your father was, for all intents and purposes, simply broken in ways you couldn’t fix. Over time, you realized it went back generations, and there was nothing you could do to fix that. Everyone grew up and did what they did because, well, that’s how it was done, right or wrong.
Eventually you also realized – consciously or unconsciously, that no matter what your dad did, you wouldn’t repeat it. You would find the courage he didn’t have, or the strength he didn’t have, the wisdom he didn’t have, and you would do the honorable and right thing for your family and children.
Eventually, you would come to that same decision point Harley hit while standing next to his father’s deathbed, and you forgive him for – in the case of Harley and many others, abuse. “For they knew not what they were doing.” Because that’s the way they were brought up and didn’t know any better – or in some cases, they did know what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway. And you realize, that while that kind of behavior is inexcusable, it does – no, it did – happen. And eventually, sometimes on a deathbed, you forgive them. Not because what they did was forgivable, but because you can’t change it… It happened. You can let it eat you alive, or you can forgive them, let it go, and allow yourself to leave the prison of those thoughts and learn from them, which takes us to the third item on the list:
- Growing up – and being totally different…
Think about this for a second: How many times do you remember seeing a situation happening in front of your eyes, and realizing you’d lived that before – only this time you had the chance to actually do something different, and break the cycle – so instead of doing things the same broken ways you’d seen them happen in your family over the years, you decided enough was enough.
And so you did something different.
And you did indeed break the cycle.
Ideally, you pick and choose the best in what your dad taught you – either by example of something they did right, or by the anti-example of what they did wrong. I remember when I was a kid, my dad was away at college, and one very rare time, he was at home when I had a band concert. I expected him to come, but he didn’t. The reason doesn’t matter… He wasn’t there. I vowed to never let that happen with my kids, and did my best to be there for them every time I could. I did something different.
…and I kept thinking…
I thought about how inadequate I felt when I held my kids for the first time… I’d forgotten entirely that humans came in such small, fragile, helpless packages. Remember – that’s not just fragile physically, they’re also fragile emotionally and spiritually. They need to be tended, carefully. Disciplined in time, yes… Broken, no. Broken children become broken adults, and the cycle of brokenness continues, doing its damage for generations to come.
I remember praying for and with them when they were little, folding their little hands in my bigger ones as I did, imagining that my hands were folded inside the even bigger Hands of my Father at the same time. It made the prayers feel more complete.
…the thoughts continued…
I remember growing as a father just as much as my kids grew at being kids. I got really, really good at making breakfast in about 90 seconds, a “Papa McMuffin” I called it.
And I made mistakes while my kids were growing up. All fathers I know have. There were times I was too drawn into work, too focused on outside things, too lenient with them in some areas, too strict in others. Times I wish I could go back and fix, but I can’t, so I do my best now, in the only moment I can change.
I went back in my mind to the concert dad missed, and how all the times he’d been away affected me, and while the child in me still wept for those lost times, the adult in me realized that Harley was right, and I came to the same conclusion: Forgiving my father – our fathers, for the mistakes they made was the only option that made sense. That doesn’t mean it has to happen immediately, and it doesn’t mean it was or is easy.
But given the options, learning from him, his successes, his failures, and picking and choosing the right ones, and working with those as my base gave me something greater than zero to start from, but there was one thing more.
I’d repeated a lot of those mistakes that have been made through the years, through the generations. It took some time to realize they were there, and I’m still working on correcting them. Some will take a long time, and in my observations with other dads, it seems that one of the first people we need to be able to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s hard.
But it’s the first step.
So… call your dad – if you can. Wish him Happy Father’s day, if you can, if you’re reading this on Father’s day (as I’m writing it), and then, if you can, take a deep breath and forgive him.
Learn from the mistakes of the past, but don’t repeat them.
The story above, as all stories on this blog are, is true.
I have several people to thank for their help in it. Chronologically, they’d be:
Terry Eiler, former director of VisCom, Ohio University – who encouraged me to go out and shoot – and take risks.
Mike Grone – former Chief photographer of the Sidney Daily News, who actually had me take those risks.
Rob Goebel, now of the Indy Star newspaper, who graciously allowed me the use of the photo, and
Harley himself, who in his simple words, taught me so much, and who allowed and encouraged me to write the story about his famous, award winning baby picture that had been taken in a bar, with a biker (Bones), by a guy (Rob) whose photos I’d admired and skills I was trying to emulate, all because my instructor (Terry) in grad school told a story and sent me out there so that my boss (Mike) could grin and send me off on a lesson I’d suddenly find myself remembering when sitting at a traffic light in Seattle, with my son, next to the Harley that sent me ricocheting back through my time machine to tell you this story…
Take care out there, folks.
Know that out there – every image you see -whether it’s an award winning photo, or a glimpse into someone’s life, has a story behind it.
This was one of them.
It’s funny what happens when the phone rings in our house. There are the usual calls from family and friends, the usual telemarketers that get ignored, and the usual wrong numbers. But every now and then we get a call that just has to be remembered.
The other day I got a call from a friend of my dad’s, who had worked with him in the Air Force over half a century ago. He told me a story from his youth that had stuck with him all these years, and – well…
…fade back with me
… to a long time ago, in a country far, far away, where a shepherd had members of his village both enthralled and in disbelief at how he had fought off two fire breathing beasts who had been attacking his flock of sheep. The beasts were bigger that he was, stronger than he was, and much, much faster than he was.
The beasts were metal, he said, and attacked over and over, terrifying the sheep, scattering them all across the meadow on the mountainside they were on.
And yet he fought them off.
And they never, ever bothered his sheep again.
Some people doubted him, but he stuck with his story, resolute in his claim that he was telling the truth.
But there is more to this tale.
See the job of being a shepherd is one of those jobs that is necessary, requires wisdom, bravery, and an understanding of a particularly unpredictable type of animal. But given those parameters, it hasn’t changed much in millennia. In fact, there are stories in the Bible about sheep, and shepherds, dating back thousands of years. The Christmas Story very clearly involves shepherds, get this, “Keeping watch over their flocks, by night”. It means the only thing predictable about the sheep was that they would get into trouble. The only thing unpredictable was what kind of trouble that might be. Given that, even at night the sheep couldn’t even be left alone without being protected or watched. The Bible doesn’t say whether the shepherds were protecting the sheep from poachers (likely) or predators (also likely) or their own stupidity (no, really). It should be simple, right? You keep the sheep happy, you keep the sheep where they can have food and water, you keep them out of danger, and keep the predators away from them.
And that should be it, right?
“Things just happen to sheep. I don’t know why it is, but if you have 15 horses, 20 cows and one sheep standing on a hill and a thunderstorm comes, lightning will hit the sheep. Every time.”
And in this case, the lightning came in the form of…
…well, again, let’s step back a bit, no, not just a bit, let’s travel, you and I, to a place completely foreign to the world of the mountain meadow.
There is no grass in this world.
There are no trees in this world.
There aren’t even parts of any sheep in this world, other than the wool that had been used to make the uniforms being worn in what was known as the ready room of a military airbase.
Those uniforms, when cared for, made young men look sharp, and two of the best of the bunch were very, very proud to wear them.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Clothes make the man” – and at some level, they do. The right clothes can make a young man look far more mature than one might expect, and in this case, when the two young men in question were barely out of their teens at 24, if you took the uniforms away, you’d have two young men who looked very much like they could be seen playing volleyball on a beach, or out for an evening with a lovely lady on each arm, without a care in the world.
This time, in a young man’s life, is a strange combination of development, with the body in almost peak condition, but not all of the brain has caught up with that peak condition of the body… See, the frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys growing into young men, that’s just not all there yet.
And yes, it is safe to make the assumption that this plays into the story.
See, this is the time when a young man often somehow manages to put a lot of money either making or buying a car or motorcycle far more powerful than he has any right to be driving, but these young men weren’t recklessly riding motorcycles with 50 horsepower or driving cars with 200. No, these young men had been trained by the military to fly the F-100 Super Sabre, which had two fully afterburning turbojet engines powerful enough to push the plane past the speed of sound.
That meant if the plane were flying at you, you’d have no warning that it was coming, because it was flying faster than the sound it was making. When it flew past, all the noise it had been making would show up in an instant in a sonic boom, and then you might hear it roar off, and that would be that.
So, the military could teach them how to fly, but only time (and experience) would teach them how to fly wisely.
Let’s go back to the ready room, where we join those on active duty, and those working maintenance, but who couldn’t do anything till the planes came back, all chatting, playing board games or cards, or studying maintenance manuals to help them understand the complex machines they would be repairing. In one corner, an old refrigerator grumbled as it kept drinks cool. The sound of the games and laughter going on inside was accompanied by a bass line of activity outside. Turboprops rumbled and turbojets whined as planes taxied to the end of the runway, and roared as they accelerated planes to takeoff speed and onto their missions. And, as was the custom, one man in the ready room had a hand held radio tuned to the tower frequency, just in case a pilot radioed something like this:
“EMERGENCY! We need to get in, losing hydraulic fluid!”
Chairs, cards, and manuals scattered across the floor as everyone rushed outside to see what they could do. Of course, there were procedures for this… They’d been practicing them for months, but this time it was clearly for real. The tide of humanity rushed back in through the one door. Manuals were pulled off shelves, checklists were consulted, and all aircraft not declaring the emergency were cleared from the area. All had to land at other airports, some barely had enough fuel to get there, but an emergency was an emergency, and at the risk of creating another possible emergency, the pattern had to be clear for the one they were sure about.
Eventually, those in the tower with binoculars looked downwind and saw two planes, one rock steady, and another one clearly struggling to keep the pointy end forward and wings level.
By this time, all other airborne aircraft had been redirected and the runways and approach patterns were clear. The fire engines were already growling their way out to their appointed positions near the runway in case they were needed. There were still 75 fighters parked in rows outside that there wasn’t time to move out of the way, but both planes managed to make a safe landing, and they taxied to the flight line, shutting down without incident.
The pilots climbed out, and both of them gathered around the crippled plane. One kneeled down and saw a huge dent, then a gaping hole in the bottom of the fuselage, leading to the main hydraulic pump where the lines and pump itself were mangled. They knew what had happened, the question now was explaining it. As they were trying to figure that out, standing there looking at the growing puddle of the last of the hydraulic fluid, the squadron commander, a, dignified man, his maturity showing in his bearing, his spotless uniform, and the graying of closely cropped hair at his temples, came out to find out what the nature of the emergency was.
Understand, that to get to his position in that country, and in the military in general, he had to have some experience in letting people know what kind of behavior was acceptable and what was not. He also had to have some experience getting his thoughts across succinctly, with very little room for interpretation. He took one look at the plane, which, despite the fact that they were not at war with anyone, looked like it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. As commander of the squadron, this plane was his responsibility. Any damage to it would be expensive, both financially and in the terms of someone’s career. The consequences of those thoughts came out succinctly, and with little room for interpretation.
“What? Am I going mad? What happened to the plane?”
The two young pilots looked at each other, and clearly had to explain something. The only question was how. The looks on their faces were the looks of young boys with their hands caught in the world’s biggest cookie jar. One of them cautiously tried to explain:
“We… we were intercepted.”
The look the commander gave them could have easily blistered paint.
“You were what? Intercepted? By whom? The Enemy? Where were you? Who intercepted you?”
The other pilot, before he could think of something that sounded more sane, blurted out, “The shepherd.”
“The what? You were intercepted by a shepherd?”
There followed a long diatribe about the logic of a supersonic jet fighter being intercepted by an old shepherd who was supposed to be watching a flock of clearly subsonic sheep.
Slowly but surely the story came out.
It seems that inside the uniforms of those two first lieutenants were indeed two 24 year old kids, who might otherwise be driving fast cars and chasing pretty girls.
Instead, they were flying fast planes and chasing thousands of sheep.
They’d seen them on the way back from a mission, and decided to have a little fun, so they dove down on the sheep, pulling up at the last second, low enough to singe the wool on the sheep that hadn’t scattered, and then they lit their afterburners to accelerate and climb, leaving their own thunder to fade as the sound and smell of scattered, panicked, and smoldering sheep spread all over the hillside. Time after time they climbed to altitude, then dove on the sheep, laughing behind their oxygen masks,
Eventually, the shepherd, neither he nor his sheepdogs able to defend against this kind of attack, in an act of desperation and pure defiance, waited until the plane came again, and heaved the biggest rock he could find up at it.
The Super Sabre, flying over 400 mph as it buzzed the sheep, flew directly into the rock just as it was pulling up, and the rock took out enough of the hydraulic system to immediately cause a Christmas tree of warning lights to flash brightly on the instrument panel. There were clearly some serious, immediate problems, and being that close to the ground was not the place to be with problems, so they climbed up for as much altitude as they could get and headed back to base, declaring their emergency to anyone who would listen.
The pilots were reprimanded, and were given quite a bit of time in the brig on base to allow the frontal lobes of their brains to be realigned with reality so they would understand the consequences of their actions. The cost of all those planes that had been diverted, the crew and staff who ended up at bases not their own, all the fuel that had been burned getting them there, passengers who had missed connections, meetings, and flights, cargo that hadn’t been delivered, plus the cost of the repair, refit, and testing of the airplane, which was a figure far more than the two pilots made in a decade, much less a year, slowly sunk in over the weeks and months.
But the plane was repaired and flew again.
The pilots eventually learned their lessons and flew again.
The shepherd and the sheep, on the other hand, were all but forgotten.
And that bit – that little bit about the shepherd – got me thinking.
See, one of the things I’ve learned over the years takes me back to one of those first things I mentioned about shepherds. For the most part, the sheep are unaware of them, unless or until they’re needed, like when there’s danger, or when there’s trouble.
Then the sheep are very aware.
Kind of like us.
I found myself thinking back to the Christmas Story – where the shepherds were watching their flocks – who should have been sleeping – but the sheep were so valuable that the owner felt they were worth protecting, so he made sure there was someone watching them, protecting them, guarding them, 24/7. And understand, just because the shepherds were out there with what looked like a peaceful postcard image doesn’t mean they were weak.
Oh no, not at all…
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep needed to be protected from predators.
Kind of like us.
The shepherds were there to protect the sheep, because sometimes, the sheep got themselves into trouble and had to be searched for and found.
Kind of like us.
And sometimes, like us, they had to be protected from themselves.
Kind of like us…
Day or night.
I thought some more…
If we’re not careful and either wander out of sight of the Shepherd, or get so involved in our own lives and our own pursuits that we lose sight of the Shepherd who protects us from fire breathing beasts, we do run the risk of being burned by those flames.
It makes me thankful for that Shepherd we have, the One who protects us when we don’t even know it…
For that matter, especially when we don’t know it.
It gave me a far greater understanding, and respect, for shepherds, and for our Shepherd.
And I found my thoughts drifting back to a small village in a country, far, far away, where now live the grandchildren of a shepherd who was revered by the villagers for a story he told, how he fought off two enemies much bigger, much stronger, and much, much faster than he was.
With nothing more than a rock.
And I realize that on many levels, it’s a true story.
© 2013 Tom Roush, all rights reserved
So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.
For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.
For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.
For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.
For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.
And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.
15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, which we celebrate on July 4th.
July 4th, when I was a kid, was a lot – shall we say, louder, than it is today.
For me, it has always involved:
- anything that could explode (or be made to explode)
- anything that could fly (or be made to fly),
- or anything that could make lots of sparks (or be made to make lots of sparks).
Of course, if I was able to make something that combined all three, that was a serious bonus.
So – oh – fair warning, if you think about this for just a couple of seconds (me writing about something that involves things that go boom in the night) this story falls squarely in the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” category – a series of stories I told my son as he was growing up, in hopes that he would not do those stupid things.
Note… that’s known in the trade as “foreshadowing” – you have been warned.
So part of my standard Fourth of July routine when I was a teenager was to drive around with some of my friends either from school or from Civil Air Patrol and watch some of the air shows in the area (usually the one that started at Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington) – and somehow or other, we’d find some of the fireworks that, depending on where you were, might have been a little on the slightly less than legal side of things.
One year, there were at least 4 of us in my folk’s 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon – the version with the 1.1 liter engine (with a power output roughly equivalent to 2.5 hypercaffeinated rabid squirrels) – and we bombed (yes, I used that word on purpose) around the greater Tacoma area, watching and contributing to the fireworks… My friend Bruce, sitting behind me was lighting bottle rockets and dropping them out the back window (the kind that flips out at the bottom, not the kind that rolls down), where they would occasionally add a little excitement to the festivities being, um, ‘enjoyed’ by people whose houses we drove past.
For some reason, at one point he decided to throw a firecracker out MY window, and instead of going out the window, it bounced off the door pillar and landed on my shoulder belt, right next to my left ear.
Where it exploded before it could fall any farther.
The words I used to describe my thoughts about that particular action – while I couldn’t hear them because my left ear was ringing (as it did for several hours afterwards) – made it clear to Bruce that putting lit firecrackers next to the ear of the driver of the car you’re riding in gets aaaawfully close to the top ten list of stupid things you can do on the Fourth of July.
Bruce resumed throwing smoke bombs and bottle rockets out the window.
I made sure my window was rolled all the way down, *just in case* he chose to do something else…
…and – as I ponder this, while I’m writing – I suppose that given that I’m a little older now, if I saw kids doing that, I’d be a little torn between wanting to yell at them for doing something stupid, and yet remembering what it was like to drive around with my friends, doing stuff that was fun, didn’t damage anything but my eardrums (though I’m sure it could have gotten a *bit* more dangerous), or – oh who the HECK am I kidding? – we were driving around, throwing explosives out of the car… wouldn’t that be considered more than just a little dangerous?
Oh, if my son only knew of this one… his take is that I have set the stupidity bar so high that he either
a) has no chance on the planet of reaching it, or
b) it gives him such room that I have to cut him a stunning amount of slack, given what I managed to get away with and/or survive….
Sigh… the trials of parenting.
But hey – stupidity at that level – no – surviving stupidity at that level – is making for stories years later.
Anyway – over the years, our July 4th forays would take us over from one house (Bruce’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his Grampa’s truck) to another (Bill’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his dad’s VW 411) and we would just drive around Tacoma, enjoying the sights, watching and/or adding to the fireworks, and in general, having a good time.
I wonder if Bill’s dad and Bruce’s Grampa ever noticed that their vehicles got worse gas mileage around the first week of July.
Now at some point, some of the people reading this who are now parents will have that little phrase “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” going through their heads.
I need you to stop, because you’re getting ahead of me.
(Remember that ‘foreshadowing’ bit? Right… this is more of it…)
So another year, it was our friend Doug, with Bill and me, and that year several of us were way, WAY into model rockets, and Bill, having much experience with them, decided that bottle rockets weren’t anywhere NEAR powerful enough… I mean, they ignite for maybe a 10th of a second, coast for a bit, then go bang.
No, Bill decided we needed to go to his house and get something significantly bigger, and he found either a D or an E rocket engine that we ended up using.
I remember his excitement as he taped about 10 firecrackers to the front of the rocket engine, with the fuses wadded up inside, and then taped the whole assembly to a hunk of bamboo he found lying around somewhere.
It was, we concluded, long before Saddam Hussein used a term like it, “The Mother of all Bottle Rockets”. We handled it gently, and Bill knew of a ball field near his house that appeared to be suitable for launching rockets, so we piled into the car and headed over.
We’d grabbed sodas at Bill’s house, so we all had aluminum cans and various aerial instruments of mayhem as we got out and headed out to the baseball diamond to let things loose. Bill jammed the stick end of his rocket into the ground and wiggled it so it’d be loose, so when lit – the rocket would go up.
Now since Bill had learned all about rockets and had built this one, we deferred to him to do the actual launch.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever launched a model rocket at night before – but they launch rather dramatically.
They launch loud, and it seems that they run forever, compared to the bottle rockets we’d been launching.
I mean, in comparison, we’d have a bottle rocket:
A good one might go up 100 feet or so.
But as Bill lit the fuse and told us to stand back – in case it tipped over, he said – we asked him how far that one would go. He did some quick calculating in his head as the fuse burned, realizing that the motor wasn’t lifting anything more than itself and 10 firecrackers taped to a stick, and said something like, “More than 1,000 feet, for sure”.
About then the fuse actually lit – it roared and shot up so fast we could barely swing our heads fast enough to keep up with it.
And the engine kept burning, and burning, and burning, for what seemed like eternity.
I remember thinking it looked like a star up there, and then, the star went out, as if someone hadn’t paid their light bill. Bill said, “Keep watching” – and then we saw a bunch of little sparkles – which threw me, until a few seconds later, we heard, “bang!…… Bubububang! Bang!” as the sound from the 10 firecrackers actually got to us about 1,000 feet below…
We were pretty stoked, and were going to shoot some more stuff when Bill reminded us of one of those little pesky laws of physics – namely that what goes up, must come down…
So we looked up…
We looked up some more…
Tapping our toes and looking at our watches, we waited some more…
Then, faintly, we heard this sound coming from roughly where we’d last seen the rocket:
shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw
It was the stick of bamboo, with a dead rocket engine still taped to it, twirling down.
It landed – and stuck in the ground – about 50 feet from where we were. Bill was glad it hadn’t landed on the roofs of any of the houses in the area. So, of course, were we – but we didn’t know, until that point, that we needed to be.
We weren’t done yet.
We still had quite a few bottle rockets left over – and so we started lighting them off. But they just weren’t anywhere close to what we’d experienced with the big one – so, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves shooting a little more horizontally.
Now remember, we were out on a baseball diamond… (I think this is it here – though there was a baseball diamond there that was, as I recall, closer to the tennis courts at the time.) I was standing on second base – Bill was standing on first, and our friend Doug was kind of where shortstop would be. Bill, at that point, thought he’d fire a rocket between Doug and me. (note – in case it’s not obvious, this is about 1:00 in the morning – July 5th now – and the only light on the field was from streetlights at the edges.
It was about as dark as it could get in Tacoma.)
I heard his rocket go off, then felt what could charitably be described as a pretty significant sensation as it hit me right in the lower lip from Bill’s direction, flew a few more feet and exploded.
I looked at Bill.
No, that’s not nearly descriptive enough. I glared at Bill.
My eyes were focused on burning holes into his.
“You shot me!
You freaking shot me!”
“I didn’t mean to – I was trying to shoot between you and Doug!”
At that point, I was in just a bit of pain, and tasted blood, in more ways than one.
I found there was a second use for the mug root beer can I had, which was, if you held it just right after you put a lit bottle rocket into it – just like holding the handle of a pistol – so I lit it and aimed at Bill – he’d come over to see if I was okay – but once he saw the bottle rocket aimed his way, he started to run. I remember just tracking him as the rocket lit off – the top of the can acting as a blast shield. The rocket lit, sparks flew, and it tracked straight at him, but I wasn’t leading enough, so it flew over his left shoulder and blew up about 10 feet past him…
…and about then we realized that it was clearly time to call it a night. We were no longer thinking straight, and besides, the root beer now tasted vaguely of gunpowder.
Everyone gathered to see how badly I’d been injured (a piece of my lower lip had gone with the bottle rocket as it hit – but what I really got out of it was a pretty fat lip. This thing swelled up almost instantly.
Doug reassured me that these things swell up pretty fast, and not to worry. I think there may have been an element of CYA there as we all decided that we were lucky and blessed not to have gotten caught, or worse yet, injured at the level of stupidity (also known as “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®”) we were operating under.
By then, the pain was starting to sink in, and the thing I wanted to do was just get home and go to bed. I’d often worked the closing shift at a restaurant in high school, so my folks were used to me coming in late. However, this was somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning, and despite my trying to be quiet, I managed to wake my mom up as I was trying to wedge my toothbrush around that bottle rocket-provided, formerly lip shaped obstacle in front of my teeth.
She was more than a little concerned that I was coming home with a fat, bloody lip at 2:30 in the morning, and wanted to know what had happened. She was, as moms all over the world are, worried that I was hurt – and of course, I wasn’t telling her the whole story right then.
She kept asking questions, and I kept trying to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see the fat lip (it was pretty hard to hide, and was about as useful to me as the last time I’d spent several hours in the dentist’s chair, with half of my face numb and just hanging there. It was just a touch hard to talk without it being obvious that there was something wrong) – but she was persistent, and wanted to see if I was okay. Eventually I showed her, she was satisfied that I’d be okay – and suggested I get to bed.
And of course, it’s only later, as I think about what *could* have gone wrong, that I realize how much overtime my guardian angels were putting in.
Oh – it should be noted, by the way, that alcohol was not involved in any of these adventures.
Everything we did was done stone cold sober.
Which meant we remembered it all…
© 2012 Tom Roush
Some time ago, my family and I went through a journey I hope none of you have to go through, but statistics being what they are, some of you will. As I’m looking forward to this new year, I got to thinking, and I found this piece I’d written a few years ago about that situation and thought I’d share. Understand, this was written about something specific to me, but the lessons can be applied almost anywhere.
During this – and it’s fairly safe to call it a crisis – there were many times when I wanted to know from people who would, and should have the answers, “What should I expect?” – and without fail, I was told, “Everyone’s different…”.
Bottom line, “I can’t tell you what it will be like because I don’t know…”
Bottom line: “The mind being what it is, I don’t want to tell you what it will be like because these things can easily become self fulfilling prophecies, so if I give you bad news, it could make things worse for you.”
Bottom line: “I don’t know if you can handle knowing what you’re up against now. If I tell you it’s going to be bad, just telling you might affect the outcome. If I tell you it’s going to be good, and it isn’t, then – well, then you would rightfully be upset with me, so the answer is…”
In all of this – I had a dream…
A father and young son are going down a steep, rocky path. The father has a flashlight and is guiding the son. The father sees things in the dark, at the edges of the light, that he knows would scare the child, and so, doesn’t shine the light on them. The child sees enough to keep moving forward, but not enough to know that the path they’re walking on is on the edge of a cliff.
The child has to trust that the father knows what he’s doing, and where he’s going. And as long as the child holds his Father’s hand, no matter how long the journey, or how difficult, the Father will be with him, beside him to help him when he stumbles, to support him when he is weak, to encourage him when he is tired, to cheer when he is sad.
This does not mean the journey will be easy, nor will the way be smooth, but the Father will be alongside.
May God bless you this new year.
…and in this New Year, may you not be alone, may you have a hand to hold, and may you be able to trust the Light that guides you.
I’ve been struggling to write a story for Christmas this year, and it hasn’t worked at all…
The story I’ve been working on just hasn’t come together, and I’m getting the feeling, that just like some stories have to be published at a certain time (hard to explain, but it’s true – some stories have this urgency as I’m writing them that just can’t be ignored, and later, in either comments, feedback, or just people talking to me, I often find out how important it was to get a story out at a certain time.
The story I was working on, however, is giving me the other impression. It isn’t ready, and needs to wait until it is ready, and I don’t know when that will be. On the other hand, another story showed up just this last weekend, and I think that one might have peeked out of the shadows just in time. As I write this now, I don’t know how it will end, so join me in that discovery.
I’m thinking, over the years, as I see what has happened around not just “the holidays” – but Christmas, that people (myself included) often have such high hopes and expectations of Christmas that it can’t possibly live up to those expectations, and that we end up being sad, or depressed because of that…
I was thinking about it, and realized that we often try to replicate the good parts of the Christmases we had in our childhoods, and sometimes, in those memories, forget the bad stuff that happened that made the good stuff stand out. Often we find ourselves wanting “something” – but not being sure what exactly it is.
We often do what Madison Avenue wants us to do – which is to “Stimulate the Economy” – but that just causes problems in other ways.
Where am I going with this? – Well, stay with me for a bit, we’ll find out together.
I found myself thinking of Christmas trees… I’ll tell you about three of them that I remember having. Two as a kid, one as an adult.
When I was a kid, we were poor. There’s no other way to say it. My dad was off at college trying to get a degree so he could help make life better for us. He could only come home on the weekends if he came home at all. There were several years when the money was so tight that we couldn’t even afford a tree at Christmas, much less presents to put under it. In fact, one year, we got the tree the church had used and set it up on Christmas Eve. I don’t know if many people have had a used Christmas tree, but we did.
Ironically, we didn’t think it was weird at the time, we thought it was kind of neat that at the last second, everything fell into place, and we got a tree, for free.
It was during those years that I had a paper route, earning me about $40.00 a month.
One year, we were praying for both Christmas presents and a tree, and while mom made Christmas presents, God answered the prayer. One Saturday morning as I was on my bicycle finishing my paper route, I saw a Christmas tree laying in the ditch beside the road.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was. I delivered the last few papers, and came pedaling back as fast as I could, where I picked the tree up and put it on my left shoulder with the butt facing forward so I could steer and shift the bike with my right hand. I could see through the branches, but if someone were driving by (and several people did) they’d see a rather large Christmas tree riding a bicycle, rather unsteadily, I might add, down the street.
No one crashed, including me, which was good – and we were again blessed with a Christmas tree that year.
One that we couldn’t have afforded otherwise.
The thing I realize now is that we didn’t even have a Christmas tree stand. Over the years, Dad, being home from University over Christmas, would make a tree stand with me out of 4 boards that we’d nail or screw together, then to the tree, with notches at the bottom so there’d be enough room for a pie tin of water underneath.
If we’d had a tree stand like everyone else, I wouldn’t have this memory.
The next year, finances were still pretty rough, and we were still just scraping by. At the time, we had a large garden, and were very familiar with what passed for food banks back then. We didn’t drink soda, couldn’t afford it, but we did drink apple cider we made from all the apple trees we had on the property.
Hmmm… if we’d been able to drink soda like everyone else, I wouldn’t have that memory.
I’ll write about that someday, but that December, even with all the things we’d done to save money, a tree was still not in the budget.
I think that might have been my last year with the paper route, and I was looking for a tree beside the road like we’d had that one year, but there were none.
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.
A tree did fall out of the sky, but it was in kit form.
And actually, it wasn’t a ‘tree” per se…
It was a branch.
It was a huge branch from a tree on Fort Lewis – on one of those side roads that’s made by an 18 year old kid driving a 60 ton tank at 35 miles per hour and leaving a trail of wanton destruction in his wake. (Yes, there were kids that age out there doing that. They were, however, in the Army when they did it.)
I don’t remember exactly how I got it home, but I did. The huge branch was far too long to get into a tree stand without gouging holes in the ceiling or chopping holes into the floor, so I got out one of my dad’s old saws and whacked off a good chunk of it so that it would fit. (That cut-off part unwittingly became our Yule Log) I then started cutting branches off and drilling holes into the trunk where I wanted to put them. I whittled them so they’d fit into the holes I’d drilled and ended up moving almost every branch that way.
Then I made the stand for it like I did every year.
And we did have a Christmas tree that year. It was beautiful, really. Complete with decorations, and even some presents.
If I’d been able to buy a tree like everyone else, I wouldn’t have this memory. I’d have forgotten about an anonymous little tree in one of many Christmases a long time ago.
That got me thinking.
Those weren’t easy times that I’m writing about. Seriously. But it feels like it was those parts that made me grow in ways I couldn’t have grown if life had been as easy as I wanted it to be.
Many years later, I’d grown up, become an adult, and was now in the position of trying to support my family, and for a number of years, life was pretty rough, and I got to thinking about where every penny was going, and spending any more money than I had to on a Christmas tree was just impossible to comprehend, and for years we bought our trees at a now defunct store called “Chubby and Tubby’s”.
If you’ve lived in Seattle for any length of time, you’ll remember that Chubby and Tubby trees could be had for $4.61 ($5.00 with tax). Oh you could get nicer trees, for more money, but we bought the trees we could afford, (here’s one of them, picked out by our then two year old Michael, his mittens dangling from his sleeves).
And for a number of years, I made a Christmas tree stand like I did when I was a kid, and I drilled holes in the trunk and moved branches around so they’d look nice, just like I did when I was a kid.
Only this time I was doing it with my son, not with my dad.
I did some more thinking – because we’ve been able to have some pretty neat Christmases over the years in spite of things. There was the year we were able to make it to church Christmas Eve. That might seem “normal”, but I’d just gone through my 4th and last round of chemo, and we had to leave right afterwards – but we made it.
That was cool.
And over the years we’ve found that Christmas comes every year, whether you’re ready for it or not.
And it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?
Sometimes life happens to be good and you can have a “good” Christmas. That’s a blessing to cherish.
But sometimes – and you can probably figure that I could tell you stories about this: Life is just life, and it isn’t as kind and gentle as we’d hope, or as we might remember. Without going into great detail, a number of people I know are at this moment going through some of the worst challenges a human can go through, the loss of a parent, a sibling, a child, the loss of a marriage, or relationship, and they’re still trying to celebrate Christmas, and trying to figure out how and why they even can, through all the struggles. They’re looking in vain for that blessing.
And after awhile, being pulled in all sorts of directions, it’s easy to lose sight of what Christmas is all about.
I don’t have answers to why this kind of stuff seems to happen more at Christmas, but amidst the turmoil we’re all experiencing, whether it’s spiritual, or health, or relationships, or economy, I’ve come to the conclusion that we crave the opposite of that turmoil, especially at this time of year. It’s one thing: Peace.
A friend who’s experienced his share of turmoil (he’s a medic) noted, “Perhaps that’s why people wish others “Peace” during this season. That doesn’t just mean “absence of war” but inner peace. I wish you both senses of the word.”
His comment about both kinds of Peace got me to thinking of the original words about Peace in this Season, and while you can read the words here, we heard one of the great philosophers of our time do a pretty good job explaining it to his depressed friend, who was also pretty confused about what Christmas was really all about.
In a crystal clear voice he said to him, and to all who would listen,
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid … And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord.”
“And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” – Linus Van Pelt
And so it is.
So whether you have a beautiful tree and all that goes with it, or whether you are struggling to make a tree out of a branch that fell out of the sky, above all else, I wish you God’s blessings, and Peace this Christmas season.
So I’d been thinking about a Thanksgiving story this year, had seen a number of them, and realized I hadn’t written anything ahead of time. I had so much to be thankful for that it would take far more than you’d want to read to explain it all, so for the sake of this story, I’ll make that part short. I am thankful beyond words for my family – who when the chips are down, band together like no one’s business. (I’m sure I’ll write about that someday). I’m thankful for my friends, who do such an amazing job of flipping me crap when I need it (and sometimes when I don’t). And I’m thankful for the blessings of health. The talk around the Thanksgiving table was full of surprises, and I’m truly grateful that God’s seen fit to let me be around another year. It was on the way down to my mom’s for this Thanksgiving that today’s story, much to my surprise, unfolded.
I headed there on Wednesday afternoon to get an early start helping out with getting things ready. I was driving down a road that I used to drive a couple of times daily, but hadn’t driven down in some time, when my mind suddenly shifted gears faster than a dual clutch automatic transmission in a time machine.
Suddenly I was a 20 again.
Not driving my wife’s Honda wagon with a 17 pound turkey in the back.
Not coming back home to visit as an adult.
Not planning on being part of creating a Thanksgiving feast for 8.
The time machine had deposited me inside memories that washed over me like a dump truck full of water balloons, each one bringing another thought, story, or reminder that flashed into my consciousness as it popped, until I was completely soaked in the spring of 1982.
I was almost finished with my second year going to a local community college, and I had a friend named Jill. She was my absolute best friend at the time, and we hung out as friends do. She was still in high school, I was a couple of years older, and we all went to the same church, same youth group, and so on. One day I had some car troubles (the car in question was a 1965 Saab 95, 3 cylinder, 2 stroke, 46 cubic inches of raw, unbridled power – of COURSE I had car trouble), and without me even asking, she offered to loan me her car one day if I could pick her up from tennis practice after school.
This was a no brainer, and I immediately took her up on her offer.
Now something to know about her car, it was about a ‘74 Ford Torino, originally came from the factory with a 302 cubic inch V-8 engine that had been customized over time to be a V-5. The rest of the car was great, but this thing was the personification of the phrase, “Not firing on all cylinders.” Three of the cylinders were just along for the ride, and what a ride it was. (It was actually hard to comprehend the concept of having three cylinders not firing. If the Saab had had three cylinders not firing, that car would be parked.)
I drove it to school, and I realized that since I’d been spending a huge amount of time under the hood of cars in general, it wouldn’t take much to just do a tuneup on her car as a thank you for letting me borrow it, so I bought 8 plugs, points, condenser, and a rotor and cap, typical tuneup stuff for a car of that vintage, and it cost less than 20.00 for the parts.
I drove it into the middle stall of the three car garage that my dad and I had built. Even though it was the only car in there, the garage felt a little crowded. It had never seen a car that big, and I popped the hood to start working on it. What was really a challenge at the time was just figuring out where everything was. I mean, it wasn’t hard to work, on, it’s just that that 302 V-5 (soon to be V-8 again) was so huge compared to the 3 cylinder engine I could pull out of the Saab and carry by myself to where it needed to be.
So I yanked all the plugs out – sure enough, three were pretty bad, and gapped the 8 new ones so they were set right, then popped them in, put new points in, gapped them, replaced the cap and rotor, making sure that all 8 plug wires were connected in the right order, then replaced the condenser and then, finally, got my timing light out and made sure all the plugs were firing when they were supposed to. It wasn’t hard, but it did take just a touch more than the hour I’d budgeted for it, and I was getting worried that I might not make it in time to pick her up from tennis practice like I’d promised.
I fired it up, and it started beautifully. It ran on all 8 cylinders, and was so smooth you could hardly tell it was running.
I allowed myself a smile, then suddenly realized as I looked at my watch that I was cutting it a little close. I ran into the house to clean up, then tried like you wouldn’t believe to keep from driving like a madman to pick her up in time.
A couple of green traffic lights helped me get there with a few seconds to spare. She saw me as she came bouncing off the tennis court as I eased her car gently onto the unpaved parking lot. You couldn’t even hear the engine anymore. All you could hear was the tires, slowly crunching on the gravel.
She got to the car, and was just starting to get in on the passenger’s side when she realized it was her car she was about to be a passenger in, so she playfully informed me that she was driving. She ran around to the driver’s door. I played along and skootched over to the passenger’s side, and she got in the driver’s seat.
The engine was still running, just purring, no longer doing the “thoof thoof thoof” that the custom V-5 had been doing under the hood for so long. She automatically put her seatbelt on while I was still fumbling with mine. I looked over at her and saw she was giving me “the look” that made it crystal clear that the car wasn’t moving till I had my seatbelt on and my tray table in the full upright and locked position… (okay, ignore the tray table thing) So I hurried up and got mine on as well.
Understand, she had no clue about what I’d done.
So she put it in drive, like she always did.
And then she gave it 5 cylinders worth of gas, like she always did.
And she expected to have 5 cylinders pull the car out of the parking lot, like they always did.
But Jill did not know, at that moment, that she had 8 cylinders reporting for duty under the hood.
With the gas pedal close to floored, those 8 cylinders did exactly what they were designed to do, and the engine roared. The tires spun, and Jill sprayed gravel all OVER that parking lot before she stomped on the brakes, looked at me in total shock (and just a little delight) and said,
“WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?”
“I, um… I fixed a few things…”
She couldn’t believe it – and insisted on paying me.
I didn’t want any money for it – it really didn’t cost much to do it, and it was so much fun to see that amazed look. I think, in the end, she managed to give me $10.00 – which was close enough to the price, but what was worth more than all the money she could have ever given me was the look on her face when she hit the gas that first time.
She drove the car for the rest of that summer and into the next winter, and as there are people who are in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, Jill was in my life for a season. That summer, she and I still saw each other, but she had a special friend named Mike, and Mike and Jill were inseparable. On the one hand, I was, as anyone would be, heartbroken that she’d chosen someone else, but she and Mike were such a couple, and it seemed that there was something so much bigger going on than just Mike and Jill, that anything other than bowing out gracefully simply wasn’t an option, and so I did the best I could.
That summer was hard, but like I said, Jill was in my life – in our lives – for a season.
I got the Saab working again…
School started again…
Life was, for the most part, going okay. We made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year, were barely a couple of weeks into the New Year when one Thursday morning the phone rang.
I still remember being home that cold morning – when the phone rang.
I still remember the pastor’s wife’s voice on the phone, crying.
I still remember sitting down, collapsing, really, as I heard her say there’d been an accident.
I heard everything, almost as if I were an uninvolved third party, but this was happening, and happening right then.
I heard disjointed words.
I heard something about a patch of ice, and about a pickup truck in the oncoming lane.
And I heard that both Mike and Jill, who’d been on their way to school that cold, clear morning, took an unexpected detour and left this life.
The next week was a blur.
The funeral for them was huge. I think there were 1500 people there. I’m not sure. There were many, many tears, but I remember walking past the casket, and looking inside, and while Jill’s body was there – Jill’s spirit was gone, flying as freely as the angel she was.
As you can tell, I still think about my friend Jill, and I miss her.
But I’m thankful for the time I had, and for the friendship that we had those many years ago.
I’ve learned that time machines can be wonderful ways to reach back into the past, bringing back memories that you’d forgotten were there. But I also learned you have to be a little careful, as along with the memories come emotions that you might have forgotten were there, too.
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand as I stepped out of the time machine, and came back to Thanksgiving, 2011, where the smell of the turkey was just starting to waft through the house. I asked mom if she knew where “the picture” of Jill was.
There was only one that I knew of. She never wanted to be in any pictures, and was pretty adamant about that, but one day, that spring that I fixed the car for her, we were doing homework in the camping trailer my parents had. I was fiddling with my mom’s Yashica rangefinder 35mm camera. It took a bit to learn how to focus a rangefinder camera, which was achieved by getting two images to line up one over the other, and once you figured it out, it took some practice to get any image in focus. So I told Jill all I was doing was checking the focus, but inside, I really wanted at least one picture of my friend – and I was able to capture the only picture I have of her, doing her algebra homework after school one day.
And I got to thinking.
The Jill-shaped hole she left in our hearts will never be filled, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jill hadn’t left.
She’d just gone home.