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July 4th

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

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

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

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

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

Was it entertaining?

Heck yes.

Did it fly well?

Uh…. No.

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

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

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

What could possibly go wrong?

<ahem>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimi was just beside himself.

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

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

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

We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

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

I miss him.

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

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

Yeah, we supervised alright.

It was a good day.

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

Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.


In honor of this upcoming weekend, I thought I’d write a little story about one of the traditions we used to have for Mother’s day, and something I, as a guy, learned about both women and chocolate.

As a guy, learning about either of these two things, and the interaction between them, can be both a stunning and humbling, if not totally baffling experience.

See, it seems like chocolate affects men a whole lot differently than it does women.  Me? I can take it or leave it.  Now I’ve talked to friends who happen to be female about this whole thing – and the word chocolate is uttered with a reverence a guy might have for – oh, say, the remote… or beer… or both… I don’t  know – all I know is that chocolate holds a place near and dear to every woman’s heart that I know, and none of the men I know really grasp the concept of how important, how heavenly, how earth shatteringly WONDERFUL chocolate can be to the women I’ve talked to.

As is often the case, it’s so much easier to illustrate than to explain, and of course, that takes us into tonight’s story, about Mother’s day, Chocolate, and a gender gap the size of the grand canyon.

We used to go down to Cannon Beach, in Oregon, and stay there for Mother’s Day weekend at a house right on the beach.  It was a neat place, and there were at least 4 bedrooms upstairs, and I think 23 couches and a ping pong table downstairs in a room just a touch smaller than the footprint of the house.

One of the things do aside from walking the beach and going out to Haystack Rock was try to have some fun stuff to eat while down there – and since there was a kitchen in the place, we’d bring food or get some locally to make while we were there.

One year my sister decided that something called Raclette, kind of like fondue – but she had it in her mind that instead of cheese, we’d do it with chocolate instead.  So a bunch of chocolate was melted, and plates of all kinds of things, especially fruit were brought out – and we – well, the guys of us, that’d be my dad, my son, and my brother-in-law and me  – didn’t quite get the whole concept of dipping perfectly good fruit into hot, gooey chocolate, but that seemed to be the thing to do.

So we did.

And I learned something about chocolate that evening.

It turns out that it affects men and women differently.

Those of us with a Y chromosome didn’t quite understand what the fuss was all about with the chocolate, and kind of half-heartedly put our little dishes up onto the grill to melt the chocolate, and then dipped our fruit into it after it was melted.

And I’d have to say, it was okay, but it just didn’t seem like “two great tastes that go great together” – and if we ate much of it at all, we’d eat the fruit, then maybe the chocolate, and pretty much forego the melting part altogether.

But it’s what the chocolate did to us (and I’m speaking of us as in guys) that was so different.  See, by the time we’d gotten to the point where we realized that waiting for the chocolate to melt for the second go around, all the sugar had overloaded our systems, and to a man (and boy) we were slowing down.

In the meantime, as if through a tunnel, we were hearing the women (that’d be, in chronological order, my mom, my wife, my sister, and daughter) laughing and chatting and just having a really good time…

Pretty soon it was clear that staying at the table was going to be a challenge – this was more sugar and/or chocolate than any of us guys had had in a long time.

We were fading, and fading fast.

Meanwhile, on the double X chromosome side of the table, the partying was going on with wild abandon.  Jokes were being told, laughter was clearly the order of the day, and chocolate flowed like – well – um….. Melted chocolate.

The XY members of the group drifted to the living room area, because – well, it was quieter, and tiredness was descending on us like a down comforter.

Meanwhile, at Party Central, those left at the table were now being regaled with stories that brought howls of laughter the likes of which I’d never heard.

For “the guys” – it turned out the living room, which we’d gone to to escape the noise, was still too loud. The call of the down comforter was too strong, and trying to keep our eyes open was a battle that simply could not be won.

The guys, The “Team of XY” all faded off to bed, with a mumbled “Thanks for the nice dinner” as we each shuffled to the bedrooms, resigned to lose not just the battle, but the war.

I put my son to bed, and heard the laughter still ringing in my ears, the sound of three generations of laughter and merriment in the distant background.

And suddenly – it stopped – as they noticed we were all gone.

I couldn’t help it. I could barely keep my eyes open.  In those few moments, my son was already deeply asleep.  I’d just managed to crawl into bed myself before falling there, but the last words I heard before succumbing to the arms of Morpheus, and I don’t remember who said them, were, “Now isn’t it just like those men, leaving us to do the dishes!”

Yup.

Just like those men.

But I blame the chocolate.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there, no matter which chromosomes you’ve got.


You could see the man had had a hard life as he guided his electric wheelchair to our Scout Troop’s Christmas Tree lot, where my wife was working her shift.

He stopped, and for a moment, didn’t do anything, just breathed and smiled.

Both hands were wrapped around his paper cup of coffee, just like we all hold it when it’s cold out, partly just to hold it, partly as a hand warmer.

There was no question why he needed the wheelchair, he was missing one leg, and the other one had a different look to it.

Cindy asked if she could help him.

“Is it okay if I just sit here for a bit and enjoy the smell?  I can’t afford a tree this year.”

He didn’t ask for a giveaway, just asked if it was okay if he sat there for a bit.

“You can sit here all day if you’d like”

He looked up at Cindy, who for that shift wasn’t wearing her reindeer antlers, and wasn’t wearing her little “Cindy Lou Who” jingle bells, she was wearing a Santa hat – but instead of being made out of red material and white fuzz, it was made out of camouflaged material, and white fuzz.

“Why are you wearing hunter’s camo?” he asked.

“It’s not hunters’ camo, it’s in support of our troops.  My nephew is in the Army, and so I wear it to remember him.”

“I was in the Army, too,” he said. “They didn’t do this though,” he said, gesturing toward where his feet used to be.  “Diabetes.”  And he explained how he’d lost both legs to the diabetes and had gotten a prosthesis for that one.  He waved Michael, our son to come over, and pulled his pant leg up just a bit – and the leg underneath wasn’t skin colored, but the same camo as Cindy’s hat.

“I’m gonna get the other leg in January, but for now have to go with this.”

It became clear that not only would he not have a tree, but this lonely man didn’t have anything or anyone to help him celebrate Christmas – so he had come to the Tree Lot to find a little Christmas spirit to help nourish his soul.

But letting him go back to an apartment devoid of Christmas just didn’t seem right.

My wife found some of the branches we’d trimmed off other trees and used a little bit of wire that had been holding some wreaths together.  She wired them together, so they became a little Christmas tree all by themselves, and gave it to the gentleman.

“Here, no one should be without a Christmas tree at Christmas time.”

He put his cup down and reached for the branches with both hands, looked up at Cindy for a moment, and took the ‘tree’ from her with a reverence not normally reserved for a bunch of branches held together with a little wire.

He held the branches to his face, hiding it completely, and inhaled the aroma deeply.

He held it for a long time, and when he spoke, there was a catch in his voice, and it was a little rougher as he wiped his eyes and told Cindy, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a long time.”

“Now you come back next year and get a tree when you can stand on your own two feet and put it up yourself.  We’ll be here.”

“I will, believe me, I will!”

Merry Christmas, all – and happy birthday Cindy.


The other night I was driving home and was pretty much blinded by some headlights.  The weird thing is – these headlights weren’t in front of me, they were behind me.

As those of you who’ve read my stories before know that I drive a 1968 Saab 96.  The ones that came from the factory that year had a mirror on each door and one just above the windshield.  The ones built earlier had the mirror actually mounted on the top of the dash.  The fellow who rebuilt the car before I bought it put the dash of a ’67 in there, complete with mirror, so now I have a car with a total of 4 rear view mirrors, and I was driving home, at night, in the rain.

It was not hard to see what was behind me in this car.

On this evening, in heavy traffic, a rather wide car had managed to find, and stay in, “the sweet spot” behind me where his left headlight was reflected through my drivers’ door mirror, and his right one was reflected off my passenger’s door mirror, and he was far enough back to where he was hitting at least one of the inside mirrors with both headlights.

Anyone looking at me at the time would have seen two round spots of light (one on each eye) connected with a rectangular one on my face.

It was, if you can imagine, bright, and with all that light in my face, I had to concentrate pretty hard to keep from having what was behind me blind me from what was in front of me.  Squinting didn’t work – if I squinted enough to make the lights tolerable, I could barely make out what was in the wet darkness in front of me.

Not good.

The next day, I was driving someplace else, and was able to just drive – it wasn’t raining, it was daylight, and I, while being aware of the mirrors, wasn’t blinded by them…

Hmmm…

Something made me look at the size of the windshield, and compare it with the size of the mirrors.  Now even though those mirrors were much smaller than the windshield – the night before they’d gotten most of my attention, in large part because those headlights from the car behind me were positioned just right, and it really was hard to see out the front.

I started thinking about this whole thing with mirrors and windshields and why they were useful and when…

And I was kind of surprised and fascinated by the whole ‘aha’ moment that I came up against…

See, the thing is – most of our lives, okay, all of our lives, we’re traveling through this dimension called  time, if you will, forward.  My personal vehicle for this travel happens to be an old, simple one that works… it’s not fancy, it’s not fast.  It’s loud and occasionally obnoxious, but it – well, it works (we could be talking about the Saab or me – up to you to pick that one out 🙂 –  and the thing is – let’s say I’m driving someplace… I’m going to spend most of my time looking out the front of the car – to places I haven’t been to yet, to places I’ll get to in the future.  I can’t do anything about what’s happening in front of me, but I can prepare myself for what happens once I get there.  This could mean I speed up, or slow down, change lanes, or even get off the freeway for a little bit.  Bottom line is, what’s on the other side of the windshield is important, and like it or not, can affect my life in both good and bad ways.

I did some more thinking…

There are times ahead when there will be signs of accidents that happened before you got there.  I’ve seen it before – where I see a long skid mark heading off the road to make a huge dent in the guard rail.  That person was lucky, the guardrail kept him or her from going through it.

There will be times ahead when there will be accidents, there will be flashing lights, highway flares, sometimes there will be tow trucks, ambulances, and police officers.  As hard as it is not to gawk, I’ve learned to be careful as I drive by so I don’t become a statistic.

There will be times, I’ve learned, when I won’t get any warning and end up having to swerve, or slam on the brakes, or squeeze through someplace just in time to avoid some major calamity…

You get past it, and while you’re still focused on what’s on the other side of the windshield, you do sneak a few peeks back in the mirror, to see if there’s something you can learn from what you’ve just been through.

Sometimes that’s easy to see, like with those skid marks and a crashed car.

Sometimes it’s easy and important to stop and help.

Sometimes you get there and it’s clear that there’s nothing you can do – either because others are already doing it, or because – well – because you’re too late.

At some point, some of you are going to realize I’m talking far less about cars than I am about life – and that’s where I had my ‘aha’ moment, when those mirrors really had more to do with learning from the mistakes, or lessons, of my past than they did about driving down a rainy highway at night.

I learned that if I paid attention to events like this, it gave me a chance to learn from the mistakes of others without having to make them myself.  That doesn’t mean I actually did learn immediately, but it was a start, and that was a good thing.

Sometimes, things behind me – like the car that was behind me at the beginning of this story, seem so bright and so important, that I have a very hard time focusing on what’s ahead of me – be that when I’m driving or in life.  I find myself focused on what’s behind me because it just seems so important at the time…

“Why didn’t I do this?”

“Why is this happening?”

“What can I do to get away from this?”

Driving faster to get away from those headlights wouldn’t have done much good, it wouldn’t have been safe to go much faster – I was going about as fast as I really dared to go under those conditions.

And the fact is, I had to keep driving…

But just like in driving, when you need to take a rest, so in life you should do the same thing.  Take that time to look back a bit, in your “mirrors.” –

If you made mistakes, learn from them.

If you hurt someone, make it right and ask for their forgiveness.

If you’re the one who was wronged, learn how to forgive.

And sometimes, the person you need to forgive most…

…is you.

So how’s all this fit with that whole size of the windshield compared to the size of the mirrors thing I mentioned earlier? Well, I think the windshield’s bigger because you’re heading forward, car, life, whichever.

The mirrors are there to help you learn from what you went through.

Both are necessary, but spending too much time looking forward means you don’t learn from the lessons of your past.  Spending too much time looking back (like at the lights of that car behind me) means you can’t move forward with any confidence or accuracy.

So – this Thanksgiving – take the time to pull over, to stop and look back, using the “rear view mirrors” at the past year, be thankful for, the things you’ve been blessed to get through, but also – remember it’s behind you.  There’s nothing you can do about whatever smooth road or total wreckage there is back there.

The only thing you can do is hold onto the steering wheel as best you can, whether that’s of your car or of your life, and drive carefully.

Take care, folks, happy Thanksgiving…

Tom Roush

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