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The summer I graduated from college, I had been taking a lot of photos and was trying to make it professionally by getting on with the Associated Press (AP) and/or United Press International (UPI). One day, the photo editor for Sports Northwest Magazine called (I’d been shooting for them that summer as well), and said that UPI had called. He said I should give them a call back, because they had an assignment for me. I’d been so used to hunting for photo assignments that I couldn’t believe that someone was actually calling me out of the blue.  I wondered if we were heading into ‘lucky break’ territory.

Well, it turned out it wasn’t UPI, though. It was some little newspaper out of Boston called the Christian Science Monitor, which I soon learned wasn’t so little after all, and getting a call from them wasn’t a bad feather in the cap of a 24-year-old.

Turns out they were doing a story about Puget Sound, and all the wonderful things that the Sound (a rather large body of saltwater) was good for. They wanted to illustrate three aspects: industrial, military, and recreational.

Okay, I thought. That shouldn’t be too hard.

To start with, I went to Gasworks Park on Lake Union (freshwater, but connected to Puget Sound via canals and locks), and got photos of people with sea kayaks. Then, I called a sailboat place out at Shilshole Bay Marina and talked them into letting me borrow a couple of sailboats, (yes, a couple of sailboats) complete with crews.

We went out, sailed the two, and got some nice images under full sail and wispy clouds. It was nice. I was absolutely ecstatic until I found out later that there was a problem. A water drop had dried on the negative in the middle of that wonderful wispy sky, resulting in a dark outline that covered about a quarter of the sky in the image. Retouching the negative was out of the question, and though I tried to retouch the print, it was no good. The only way to use the shot would be so small that it would rival a postage stamp, and the folks I’d borrowed the boats from wouldn’t be available again until after the deadline was past. So, I had to move on to plan B.

My ultimate goal became to try to tell the story (industrial, military, and recreational) of Puget Sound in one photo, and I kept my eyes peeled for that kind of situation. I just needed two ships and a boat.

Thing is, as much fun as I had with that sailboat shot, and really wanted to roll with it, I couldn’t because of that water drop on the negative. That bad thing is what ended up making the entire shoot special. Plan B entailed getting industrial, military, and recreational vessels together, and involved finding out who would be in charge of those three types of ships. After some research, I ended up calling the Port of Seattle, talked to the harbormaster, and explained that I was doing a photo shoot for the Christian Science Monitor, and would it be okay if…

…actually, that’s just about how I started every introduction. It’s unbelievable how many doors that sentence or one like it opened up over the following years. I asked the harbormaster if I could get onto one of the ships, or the cranes, or something that would enable me to get some photos to tell that story.

He said, sure, not a problem, all I had to do was tell anyone on the ship that the harbormaster said it was okay, and I should be set.

It felt like I was talking to a man with the authority of God himself.  He had no questions about what I’d be doing, and no questions about whether anyone on any ship in his harbor would obey him.  “If anyone asks questions, tell them the harbormaster said it was okay, and they should let you go anywhere you need to go.”

“Anywhere?”

“Anywhere.”

Wow – this was the greenest of green lights I’d ever seen.

His word, clearly, was law.

He expected no questions.

From anyone.

I was cool with that.

So, I made it out to the first dock in the harbor, found a rather large container ship called the Manu Lani, and climbed on board, and like a kid in a candy store, started exploring. It was in the process of being unloaded, so I carefully wandered around the containers, trying to get into a position that would produce a decent shot. The image I had in my head was one that would have me at almost eye level to the top of the containers the cranes were unloading, looking over the top of them, with the Seattle skyline in the background, but that meant climbing up somewhere to get to that height. Eventually, just in front of the superstructure at the back of the ship, the one with the smokestack, I found a huge mast that I could climb, so I slung the camera bag as far over my shoulder as I could, flung the cameras over that, and started climbing.

This was a little easier said than done, because the mast was welded to multiple levels of deck, which were vibrating ever-so-slightly. You know how you can swing a baseball bat, and the tip of the bat moves way farther and way faster than the part in your hand? Same idea with this mast, only it started about 30 feet from the deck, and I was climbing about 20 feet higher than that.

As long as I kept moving, I was fine. I was facing the back of the ship, so all I saw in front of me was the smoke stack, and as I got to the top of it, I could suddenly hear the “foof, foof, foof” of the exhaust coming out of the stack and filling my ears. I took a quick look around to get my bearings, and realized things were going to get a little interesting. Though I’d stopped moving, it was obvious that the mast hadn’t. In fact, the mast, at that height, was actually moving more. The “foof, foof, foof” was being produced by an engine many feet below decks. Tons of spinning steel caused a surprising amount of ultra-low-frequency vibration, transmitting and amplifying all the way up the mast that I was hanging onto for dear life.

The camera bag and the cameras were swinging uncomfortably around at a frequency that was a bit off from that of the mast, which made them a little hard to hang on.

I’m glad I didn’t have to open and dig through the camera bag for a camera and lens – that would have made things a little more exciting than I’d planned on. I used the lens that I’d put on the Nikon F-3 (the 24/2.8) and the lens I had on the FM-2 (the 180/2.8) and got a couple of photos of the cranes and their operators from almost their level. It was an interesting view, but didn’t really tell much of the story I was trying to tell, so I did the best I could, trying to get shots of the cranes that very few people would have the opportunity to get and, if nothing else, at least proved I’d been there.

By this time, my movements and the shaking of the mast had swung the camera bag back and forth enough to tangle it up on the rungs a bit, so I decided to get down to deck level before things got a little more complicated. I untangled the camera from the rung and got down the mast to the superstructure as carefully and quickly as I could.

I stood there, leaning on the rail for a little bit, realizing and appreciating how much less it was moving, and realized that getting a little lower might actually help steady me bit more. So, I went down to the deck where the containers were. Now, being below the ones I’d been above before, it looked more like a canyon than anything else, and if you’ve ever been in a canyon, you’d imagine it to be fairly quiet. But it wasn’t. It seems a huge number of the containers were loaded with pineapples and needed refrigeration, so each had a small diesel-powered refrigeration unit mounted in one end.

Not only was it loud in those canyons, it was quite warm that morning, even in the shade.

I got a few photos, but again, none that helped me tell the story I was trying to tell. So, I headed forward through the maze, timing my dashes between the swinging containers above, which the crane operators deftly lifted off and settled onto waiting trucks below. With each dash, I worked my way a little closer to the front of the ship.

Eventually, I came to the back of another superstructure and turned right, getting into sunlight and air that smelled more like the tide and less like diesel exhaust. I was still looking for something that would tell the story I was being asked to illustrate, so I kept my eyes out for anything, and as I turned the various corners and walked around the superstructure, I found what was apparently the first mate’s cabin, tucked away behind some heavy sheet metal, out of the wind. There was a surprisingly big window into it, and as I walked by, my eyes were drawn away from the industrial white painted exterior of the ship and into the warm embrace of the first mate’s little cabin.

I made it one step further to discover, in the blink of an eye that, oh my.

He had company.

Who was wearing a necklace.

And a hairbrush.

She’d clearly just gotten out of the shower and saw me in the mirror. Her eyes got so wide that I figured right then might be a good time to head toward the back of the ship. I blinked and was gone, but not fast enough to avoid the first mate striding righteously out in his full white uniform.

“Can I help you, sir?”

(Now, where had I heard those words before?)

“Hi,” I said, sticking my hand out, figuring that acting more confident than I felt would be a good idea. “My name’s Tom Roush, I’m on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor, illustrating a story on shipping in Puget Sound. I was getting some photos of your ship, here, and was told that if anyone had any questions to have them talk to the harbormaster. He said I could be here.”

“Hmmm. Okay, well, okay then, as long as you’re not with the insurance company.  If you have any questions, let me know,” he said as he wiped a stray bit of shaving cream off his cheek.

I said I would, but I had no idea how I’d find him if I did have questions – and was completely willing to let that go.

I headed toward the back of the ship as casually as I could and wandered into a partially enclosed walkway in the back superstructure, looking out over the water toward the city and the Kingdome. I was down to my last roll of film, wondering if I had a story to tell yet, and then, the sound of an outboard motor drew my attention. I saw the picture I was looking for develop before my eyes. I already had the pleasure craft the Monitor was looking for, but there, with Seattle in the background, were the two ships I was missing: an industrial one, a Navy cruiser, and that little boat with the outboard, all coming together into one perfect image. I brought the F-3 with the 24/2.8 up and squeezed off five shots as it went through the scene, and of the five shots, the third is below.

I sent the Christian Science Monitor the copies they wanted. They made me smile. In fact, they made them smile.

The photos told them the story they wanted told.

They just didn’t tell them the whole story.

And – strangely – it got me thinking.  Since then, many times in life I’ve had situations where whatever Plan A was suddenly came crashing down – and a Plan B had to be pulled out of thin air and made to work.  Understand, that doesn’t make it easy, or simple or anything like that – in fact, I still get frustrated like anyone else does. But then I remember this photo shoot, and the other adventures that have happened over the years and get really curious to see what’s in store.

A Japan Lines freighter on the left, the USS Bunker Hill on the right if my research is correct, and a small pleasure craft, taken from the Matson container ship, the Manu Lani, at the Port of Seattle with the Kingdome in the background

I’d occasionally see the Manu Lani in port as she ran the Seattle-Honolulu-Pacific route for a number of years after that – eventually, as I was able to research, she ran into engine trouble and a fire a bit over 400 miles southeast of Tokyo.

She was later sent to China where she was scrapped, and another ship was built to take her place, but with her name.

You can click here for more details and a larger view of the ship. There, you’ll see on the left, the superstructure that contained the first mate and his guest, and on the right, the mast I was on, just left of the smoke stack.

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Many years ago, I went to SPU, a liberal arts college in Seattle that’s affiliated with the Free Methodist church, which was socially conservative enough to forbid dancing.

Dances (large groups of people gyrating in a dark room with lots of loud music playing) were not allowed.

Strangely, “functions” (large groups of people gyrating in a dark room with lots of loud music playing) were.

Sort of.

As long as they were off campus.

And the school didn’t “officially” know about them.

But the school let people form bands (as long as no one danced to the music) and, at one point, it held a contest. At the time, the mission of the school was to turn us into “Christian Scholar Servants.” So, a few of us, who happened to like a particular style of music that involved sand, sea, and surfboards, came up with a musical group called the “Christian Scholar Surfers.”

There were several people in the group: Larry and Dave were at the core, and there were others who came and went as they were available. Dave was the lead and used his dorm room curtain rod as a microphone, Larry played keyboards, which were two electric typewriters on ironing boards, and I played bass – which was either a hockey or a lacrosse stick.

Oh – wait – I said it was a musical group.

The music, you see, came from huge speakers that were way, way louder than we could ever be, and they were fed by a cassette player playing, in this case, a song called “Motor Mania” by a group called Roman Holiday. Larry, all six feet eight of him, did that deep, deep bass at the beginning, then Dave and I came in. We practiced and practiced, and frankly, we got so good at it that it was hard to believe that Larry’s voice and keyboards weren’t making the music, or that my hockey stick, Dave’s curtain rod, and our voices weren’t making the actual notes. Timing was pretty critical at some points, and – well, here, have a listen while you’re reading the rest of the story.

One day, when we were out of school, Dave called Larry and told him there was a lip sync contest at a place called Chevy’s in Beaverton, Oregon. Did we want to come down for it?

We’d never heard of Chevy’s, but Dave explained that it was a ‘50s style diner where the food was free a couple of hours a night, but you had to pay for drinks.

Wait.

Free food?

We were so there.

Larry and I didn’t need much convincing. We packed up our stuff, drove down to Dave’s place, rehearsed a bit, piled into Larry’s car, and then went to Chevy’s.

We got everything ready, and they told us we’d be on the schedule around 8:00 or so.

It turned out that they made their money on alcohol, which none of us drank (even though Larry’s folks owned a bar), so we had water or soda, listened to ‘50s music, and just hung out.

It was a fun place to go, and for us, my gosh, it was cheap. We went to the free buffet, got some pretty decent food, ordered cokes, and listened to fun music.

I’d been in a car accident some weeks earlier, injured my back pretty bad, and had to wear a TENS unit to numb the pain to a bearable level, so even though there was a dance floor there, and people were on it, we all knew I wouldn’t be dancing.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the evening was a group of what appeared to be aerobics instructors from a local gym. They were celebrating something with what later amounted to at least 11 bottles of champagne – to the point where, even as far away from them as we were sitting, we could actually smell it. They were laughing, joking, drinking, and in general, really having a good time.

I had never seen more than one bottle of champagne consumed, but they had the table loaded like they were ordering them by the case.

Now, remember the bit about how these folks made money?

Right.

Alcohol.

And as long as they were serving it, and people were buying, they had no reason to hurry the schedule along – so 8:00 (or so) came and went.

In fact, so did 9:00 (or so).

By about 9:45, they were well into cleaning up the free buffet, and things changed a bit, because while the quantity of food was diminishing, the quantity of alcohol being served to the table over by the wall just kept increasing. It was by far the noisiest table, and by this time, you could actually feel the heat they were putting off warming up the whole place.  In fact, my glasses were slipping off my nose, and as I was reaching up to straighten them and clean a smudge off a bit, someone grabbed my arm.

My glasses cartoonishly hung in the air for a split second before clattering to the table.

I was spun out of the chair only to find my hand attached, rather firmly, to the hand of one of the aerobics instructors.

About the time I caught my balance, we were on the dance floor, and they had some very danceable ‘50s music playing just about as loud as it really needed to be played.

I looked around for help, saw blurry outlines of Larry and Dave holding up my glasses and frantically looking for me everywhere but the dance floor. Because, with my back still hurting as bad as it was, the last place I’d be would have been…

…where I was.

With limited options, I did the only thing that made sense. I cranked the TENS unit up as high as it would go until my back literally quivered, and I danced.

Three dances.

With an attractive, yet totally drunken aerobics instructor.

It was fun.

After three songs, the music stopped, and we headed back to our tables.

I collapsed into my chair, picked up my glasses, and put them on to see Larry and Dave’s faces swim into focus, their eyes as big as the little plates the buffet food was on, their jaws struggling to get off the table and at least meet their faces halfway.

All Dave could get out was, “She… you…how?” While Larry sounded like an idling outboard, “But… but… but.”

And so, I had to explain what had happened, all the while wishing I could do a “Spinal Tap” on the TENS unit and turn it up to 11. Eventually, they believed me (by this time, my shoulder was starting to hurt because she’d yanked my arm so hard), and then they both wondered if we’d actually be able to do our set. My part involved very little more than making that hockey stick look like a bass guitar, so I was good. Sure enough, at 11:00, after a lot of buildup, they called us to the stage, where Larry, Dave and I, three college students from Seattle and the Portland area, managed to knock the socks off a crowd of people enjoying music, including a few drunk aerobics instructors who wouldn’t remember a bit of it the next day.

We, on the other hand, can remember every minor detail of this epic adventure, since the strongest thing in our drinks were the bubbles in our Cokes.

Oh, the money in our hands? $75. $25 for each of us: We came in second.

Dave, Larry & Tom, of the Christian Scholar Surfers with our winnings

 

 

 

 


“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

That was one of the things drilled into my dad’s head by his mom when he was younger, so one of the first things that dad did when he got older and married mom was use that mentality on a house.  Over the years, the house had additions built next to it, over it, and extended out from it, and one of those things needed for a growing family was a septic tank.

With shovels, sweat, muscles, chains and pipe, the septic tank was installed, and as the years went by, it did its job as it was supposed to do, silently, until one day, 30+ years later – the drain field the tank emptied into, simply collapsed.  Now any of you who have septic tanks know that when the drain field collapses, you instantly have a crappy problem, and ours collapsed when I was about 19.  After some discussion, a lot of troubleshooting, and just in general trying to figure stuff out, we came up with a short term and a long term plan:

Short term: keep the tank empty enough so the house didn’t smell like – well, stink…

Long term: put in a new drain field – right under the garden where my Opa (mom’s dad who was living with us) had just harvested several years’ worth of rocks (our garden’s most prolific crop).

I was given the task of handling the short term plan – and that involved borrowing my Grampa’s 1934 Ford tractor (it shows up in a few of these stories), hooking up an old Army surplus trailer with about a 1000 gallon tank and a vacuum pump to it, and emptying the tank as often as needed so mom could do laundry, people could take showers – you know, the usual stuff you use water for in a house.  You just don’t normally think about how much of it you use, and how getting rid of it manually can actually be a bit of a chore.

The way it worked was like this:

  1. Drive up to Grampa’s.
  2. Get the tractor, hook it up to the trailer.
  3. Hook up the PTO (Power Take-off) from the tractor to the vacuum pump on the trailer.
  4. Bring tractor and trailer down to mom and dad’s.
  5. Hook up one end of a 4 inch hose to the tank (looks like the stiff hoses that come out of fire engines),
  6. Drop the other end into the septic tank, being sure not to back up so close as to collapse it and make problems worse.
  7. Open the valve on the back of the tank.
  8. Gently engage the vacuum pump with the PTO until the squeaky ‘Hoo Hee Hoo Hee’ sounded more like a ‘Chuff Chuff Chuff Chuff’ and then got quiet as it sucked the air out of the tank.
  9. Wait until the liquid level in a very thick glass tube attached to the tank showed it was filling, or if that wasn’t readable, there was some kind of change in pitch that told me when the tank was full (like maybe something other than air being blasted out of the pump (note: staying upstream of the pump was a lesson I only needed to learn once)

And then once the tank was full, I’d close everything up, put the hose back on the rack on the trailer, put the lid back on the septic tank so no one would fall in, and very carefully drive the tractor up to my Grampa’s where he and dad had agreed I could dump it in the back field where his black angus cows grazed (they were smart enough not to graze where I was dumping).

The trip up was a little over half a mile, and the only brakes on the tractor were on the back wheels, the tires of which were partly filled with water for traction.  Changing directions for any reason was something that had to be planned out far in advance, because the several thousand pounds of liquid in the tank tended to slosh about a bit – and when it sloshed forward, it put a lot of weight on the tractor behind the rear wheels (this made steering interesting as there was very little weight on the front wheels as a result).  Then again, if it sloshed back too hard, it changed the weight distribution so that the little tractor/trailer combination wanted to jackknife, which, given the cargo, just wasn’t something I wanted to have to deal with.

The catch on all of this was the hill just before the gate to the cow pasture I was supposed to dump everything into.  I had to follow the driveway and make a left turn up over this hill where the barn was, I’d stop before climbing the hill and downshift into first so that I didn’t have to deal with sloshing liquid or tipped over trailers, and slowly climb up over the hill in first gear, using a wide open throttle and all 34 of the horses the little tractor had, only to use a fully closed throttle and all the compression the engine had to slow and stop it at the bottom of the hill before getting to the gate I had to open to get into the cow pasture.

Understand, the tractor had no parking brake.  It had a transmission with 12 speeds forward and 3 in reverse.  Each rear wheel was independently braked – so it had two brake pedals, one for each wheel.

Oh, I mentioned the steering: It was loose.  You could swing the steering wheel 30 degrees to either side before it really took effect, so you had that to contend with on the front wheels with that fun brake on the back wheels.

Of the brakes in the back, the left one was the stronger one, which meant that if you hit them both equally, you were turning left, whether you wanted to or not, and if you did that, then the ‘cargo’ would start sloshing both side to side and front to back, so you had to plan for this happening, as well as stopping it from happening in the first place.

So if you wanted to stop in a straight line, you’d hit both brakes, favoring the weak (right) one, and simultaneously slewing the wheel at least, but likely more than 30 degrees to the right, to counter the dragging left brake shoe.  You’d stop, in roughly a straight line, you’d just be going kind of sideways as you did it.

So – you getting this so far? Driving this thing wasn’t quite like hopping in a car and just taking off, you had to pay attention to it.

All of it.

Oh – the paying attention…

The tractor didn’t have a gas pedal.   It had a throttle lever, so you put it in gear at idle, gently let up on the clutch with your left foot until it caught, then slowly worked through the gears at a little higher than idle until you got to 4th (or 12th, if you were counting that way), and then opened the throttle with your right hand so it’d get up to whatever speed you were planning on travelling at (usually not much more than 15 mph).

But this, if nothing else, is where it got interesting.

See, the tires on the trailer weren’t particularly balanced for speed, so they’d create their own harmonic as they turned, causing the trailer to bounce a bit, which then created a secondary harmonic of the liquid inside the trailer, which sloshed to the beat of its own drummer.  The liquid in the tractor tires didn’t really play into it – but the combination of the tires on the trailer, the liquid in the trailer, and how it was connected to the tractor all dramatically limited any speed I could safely drive the tractor.  So for this load, on this road, somewhere between 10 and 12 mph was pretty much my limit, and all of these things had to be taken into consideration every time I emptied the septic tank.

And we learned that that needed to happen every day.

Because of that, I got to the point where I got pretty good at driving the tractor and trailer empty – could back it (and the trailer) up at an absolutely amazing speed to the point where I’d put it in 3rd Reverse, open the throttle, and let out the clutch, making lightning quick steering corrections as I backed the whole thing up at about 10 mph across our lawn.  I even got to the point where I could anticipate the left rear wheel locking up, so countered for that in the steering before I stopped everything.

Really – I got good at this – as I had to do it, like I said, every day until the new drain field could be put in – and that took as long as we had to wait for the drain field installer guy to get us on his schedule.

So it became a daily routine for me.  I’d drive my 1965 Saab 95 with the 3 cylinder, two stroke engine up to Grampa’s, hook up the tractor and trailer, bring it down to mom and dad’s, back it in, suck the septic tank dry (at the time, it really needed it daily), go back up to Grampa’s, empty it out in the back field, clean it off, put it back in the shed, hop in the car (assuming I hadn’t created a reason to wash myself off and keep the car from smelling), and then drive the car home and it’d all be done.  Usually this’d take an hour or so in the afternoon and life was good.  This was the summer after high school, and while it was fun driving a tractor and doing ‘manly’ stuff, frankly you wanted to get this job done quickly as – well – staying upwind of the load was quite preferable.

Now my grandma, we called her ‘Danny’ – an abbreviation of her maiden name, had grown up in the upper Midwest, and every now and then, her brother would come from back east during the summer to visit for a week or two.  I don’t recall them ever doing anything extravagant, just spending honest, quality time with each other, sitting on the patio in the afternoon breeze, catching up on old times, watching as the sunset lit up Mount Rainier with the lovely pink color that it did at that time of year.  I didn’t know these relatives very well, as they were a couple of generations and many states removed from me, but they were awfully nice folks, and one day after I’d put the tractor away and hadn’t left yet, Grampa called me over to the patio where they were relaxing.

He and Danny were sitting there with her brother Don and his wife Sharlyn, enjoying the afternoon, chatting, with the usual pitcher of iced tea on a little table, and he mentioned how wonderful the temperature was, 74 degrees.  Just warm enough in the shade so that if you had a breeze, it’d be perfect.

Which was when I noticed that the gentle breeze we did have, had changed.

Right then.­­

And because of that breeze changing, we were suddenly downwind of everything I’d so wanted to stay upwind of.

Grampa had had a message he wanted to give me, one that I’d just unwittingly gotten, and he hadn’t said a word.

And, as usual, it got me thinking.

In fact, it got me thinking a lot more than any load of crap should.

See, it turned out that both my dad and his dad had agreed on what I’d do with the daily load.  I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I also hadn’t been told that they’d have company that day or I’d have dumped it someplace else, that would have been easy enough to do.  I couldn’t see how any of this was my fault, even though it seemed like Grampa wanted me to think about it that way – but what I did get out of it was that you could be assigned a task – and someone could do exactly what they had been told to do, but there would be unforeseen circumstances that no one had ever thought of that could come into play, and the guy driving the tractor would be the one with fingers pointed at him in spite of the fact he was doing what he’d been told.  I didn’t like that particular lesson – but I paid attention to the wisdom in it, because lessons like it would come into play years later in ways I couldn’t imagine right then.

There were other lessons to be learned in all of this – not the least of which was how easy it was to let something like a trailer you couldn’t let go of, full of four tons of… liquid… get out of control.

The trailer could push you forward, pull you sideways, or roll you over.  I mean it took so much concentration to steer that loose collection of 40 year old metal parts into a cohesive unit, that any slip, any miscalculation, could have effectively had the tail wagging the dog – and I would have been buried – or drowned – under 1000 gallons of… of crap.

And that got me thinking even more…

And I think that’s where it all started boiling down for me.

We’re all living life, dragging our own little trailers full of crap around. And we’re all doing our best to stay in control, but often, that little trailer you yourself are pulling back there tries to take over. Sometimes it tries to take over because of decisions you made yourself, sometimes it’s because of decisions others made for you, whether you wanted those decisions made or not, but all of what happens to you is the result of your reaction to those decisions – and that’s a toughie.

It taught me right there that driving along, whether in life or pulling 1,000 gallons of… stuff, you may have to spend your life making constant course corrections because of something someone did through no fault of your own (like a brake that’s pulling you to one side), or you may spend your life making constant course corrections because of some mistake you yourself made (like not tightening up the steering).  And so you have to compensate.  Hard stuff to admit sometimes.  You end up spending that time making many small but fast course corrections early enough to keep from having to make huge course corrections later.  It will take practice.  It will take determination, it will take planning ahead, and it will take what eventually becomes skill, and when you get to the point of needing it, you’ll be able to roar your tractor backwards, simultaneously hit the clutch, both brakes, brace yourself for the hard pull to the left, steer hard to the right to compensate, slap the transmission out of gear, run the throttle down to idle as it stops – and essentially do the life equivalent of power sliding a tractor backwards over a septic tank instead of falling into one.

And you’ll be fine.

Take care out there, folks.

 


Many years ago, when I was growing up, my uncle had this arsenal of weapons that we’d occasionally go out and use to shoot at helpless creatures.

The helpless creature of choice we had at the time was – well, a herd of unruly AMF bowling pins from Michigan that occasionally needed to be kept in line, and while other people might shoot at tin cans that would fall over, we’d set up these old bowling pins on a log, shoot at them, and if you hit them ju-u-u-u-st right, they’d explode.

This was cool.

I learned a lot in those days about shooting things.  I learned about gun safety – for example, when shooting a 9 mm semi-automatic, it is a really good idea to hold it with your right hand, and then cup your right hand and the gun in your left.

It makes for steadier aim.

It makes for a better target grouping.

But most importantly, it keeps your left thumb from crossing over your right thumb when shooting.

Why is that important?

Well, your left thumb isn’t supposed to be crossed over like that because when shooting a semi-automatic pistol, the recoil of a bullet firing pushes the slide back, ejecting the just fired shell casing (the thing that held the gunpowder) out the side as it goes, and loading a fresh bullet/casing as a spring inside pushes it back forward.

It is good to learn things like this before pulling the trigger.

Why?

Well…

I remember holding the gun very carefully, I thought…

I remember looking exceptionally cool, I thought…

And I remember aiming, and pulling the trigger very carefully, I thought…

And I remember the sound of the gun going off, along with a tremendous amount of pain as that slide shot back through the first knuckle of my left thumb.

I still have a scar on that knuckle where the slide cut through it.

Now, being guys, especially guys out in the country, our first aid was, well, basic, and limited.  There was the typical male expression of care and concern, along the lines of “Hey Hey HEY! No bleeding on the gun, it makes them rusty.”  And someone produced something vaguely resembling a wadded up paper towel, or a sleeve, or something, and we wrapped the thumb so it would stop bleeding, and so the guns wouldn’t rust.

After we’d finished firing the handguns, we got out the rifles and really started going at the bowling pins, and I have to say that a .223 projectile, when it hits a bowling pin and goes through that outer coat of white laminate and hits the inner core of hardwood, really makes it clear that you’ve hit something.  A .223 is what’s fired by what most of us know as an M-16, the military version of the civilian AR-15.  Phenomenal amounts of powder, itty bitty hunk-o-lead.  It means that the bullet goes out so fast that the bowling pins – well, they fell over, and like I said earlier, if you hit them just right, they exploded.  If you didn’t hit just right, they’d spin a bit, or wobble, but one thing was absolutely certain: if they got hit by the .223 bullets, they were going down.

==

Fast forward about 30 years or so… I was down visiting my mom with my son and found a large box in the garage, labeled AMF, from Muskegon Michigan – and found it was full of old bowling pins.

I was stunned.

These were obviously descendants of the bowling pins we’d been shooting at when I was a teenager.

And I looked at my son… the descendant of the one who’d been shooting at the bowling pins when he’d been a teenager…

And the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed like a neat thing to do – go out to the same old log and shoot at those bowling pins again with my son, and I thought that maybe I’d use my old .22 and my dad’s .22 rifle and pistol, and we’d go see if we could again attempt to control that burgeoning bowling pin population down there.

So we got the rifles that had been stored, unfired for a long time,

…and got the pistol, that had been stored, unfired, for a long time,

…and found some ammo that had been stored, unfired, for a long time…

In fact, as we thought back, that ammo had likely been sitting on the same shelf since the time my dad had bought it.  Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that the ammunition was as old as my son firing it was.  We didn’t know that fresh ammo was a good thing at the time – it had just been sitting there on that shelf, I mean, that’s where ammo was, right?

(your line: “ri-i-i-ght….”)

So we went up and set up the bowling pins in roughly the same place we’d set them up many years before, but the log we’d put them on earlier had rotted away.  This time we set them up in front of a large pile of dirt and ash, made sure things were clear, and then carefully took turns shooting at them.

I noticed a couple of things right off.

  1. Shooting at bowling pins with a .22 instead of a .223 doesn’t make them explode, it irritates them.
  2. Irritated bowling pins are dangerous.

And it wasn’t quite as satisfying to hit them with the .22 – they didn’t explode – even after quite a bit of firing.  They just wobbled a bit, like Weebles.  We think that shooting at them like this must have just irritated them, because at one point we had just one standing, and I fired at it, and heard this wriiiinnnnnnnnnggggg sound way, way off to the right just like the ricochets you hear in old westerns…

Hmmm… Bowling pins shoot back?

In fact, that was most interesting – we hadn’t ever heard of that in real life before.

I could just imagine the headline… “Man gets into gunfight, with bowling pin.”

“…and loses…”

No, that clearly wouldn’t do.

But later, we realized that this must have been the shot that took the bowling pins from irritated to angry, and, just like the people shooting that day were related to the people who had shot 30 years earlier – it was obvious the bowling pins were related, too…

And as my son, who looked a lot like me at that age, took the next shot – we could almost hear the one bowling pin we’d been shooting at, furious now, say quietly, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” – and the bullet that had just been fired out of the rifle came ricocheting back, not hitting anything, but coming closer than anyone would ever want to admit, close enough to make us decide it was time to put the guns away for the day.

We looked closer at the bowling pin.  It was apparent that it had been hit a number of glancing blows on the sides by other bowling pins, but very clearly had been hit by bullets twice, right up at the top.

The .22 bullets with their little bit of powder and little bit of lead, instead of going through the plastic laminate like the .223 bullets had done with a little more lead, and a lot more powder, simply flattened out and bounced back.  The most distinct marks, not even dents, but marks, that the bowling pin had were those right there at the top, not even ½ of an inch apart, and they looked eerily just like little gray eyes, staring back at us.

We learned several valuable lessons that day.

  1. Never shoot at armed bowling pins
  2. If anything you’re shooting at starts shooting back – it’s a good idea to bug your butt out of there.
  3. And last but not least, regardless of whether the bowling pins look like they’re armed, if you hear them even whisper anything about Inigo Montoya, leave them alone.

…did NOT walk into a bar…

No, really, that just seemed like the perfect line to open the story with, but sadly, it’s not true.

This story’s about Sister Johanna, who can best be described as a cross between a nurse and a nun with the Methodist Church in Germany, worked with my uncle (a pastor in that church) and lived with his family for many years. Yes, they had nuns, and for the most part, they were just what you’d expect a nun to be, the take-no-prisoners kind of attitude in disciplining students, kids, or you when you did something wrong, while at the same time loving you to pieces, and taking no prisoners when you were the victim of someone doing something wrong to you.

But Lord help you if you had any thoughts of sinning in the presence of a nun, and with my uncle and aunt having three boys, there was more than a handful of that going on as they were growing up.

One summer, Mom, my two sisters and I were visiting them in southern Germany where they lived, and Sister Johanna was there helping out like she always did.  That day we were all going to go visit the castle (Hohenzollern, about 20 km away which you should go visit if you can – it’s pretty cool) so it meant jamming Sister Johanna, Uncle Walter, Tante Gisela, my mom, my sisters,  three cousins and me into various cars to get there.

Everyone except my cousin Hanns-Martin and me made it into one of the cars and headed out before Sister Johanna was ready. That meant the two of us ended up in the back of her early 1960’s Renault Dauphine.  If you haven’t seen one, it’s a little French car that was a contemporary of the VW Bug, with a little 4 cylinder, 34 hp liquid cooled engine in the back.  I’d been working on cars at that time with my dad for several years to the point where I knew what the parts were, where they were, and what needed to be done to fix them.

…and unfix them.

– but I’m getting ahead of myself.

She sent us out to the car, both to get us out from under her feet and to have us ready to go, but as we got there my mechanical curiosity was piqued. The car was so small yet the air scoops on the side were like another uncle’s much bigger Mustang, and the radiator vents out the back seemed completely out of place. I’d never seen a car like this before and I wanted to peek under the hood to see what made it go, but we obediently climbed in and waited.

Just as we were wondering what was taking her so long, she came bustling out, and it was clear that staying out of her way was the safest thing to do.  By this time everyone else was well ahead of us, and she was already running late.

But that wasn’t all.

Unlike everyone else, she had to stop at the convent first to get something.

She fired up the engine, jammed the transmission into first, popped the clutch and floored it, heading toward the convent like – well, not quite like a bat out of hell, more like a winged marmoset out of purgatory.  She knew the little curving cobblestone streets in the town so well that she could take them faster than mere mortals.

And she did.

We had no idea how Nuns were supposed to drive, but Hanns-Martin and I had to claw at anything to keep from sliding around the back seat because there were no seatbelts.

We got up to the convent and she got out, running only as a nun can run, where she disappeared in the door.

Hanns-Martin and I looked at each other and we both realized if we wanted to see that engine now might be the one – and only – chance we had.  We jumped out, popped the hood, and saw this wonderful little four cylinder engine with a carburetor, a distributor – and Hey! A coil wire going from the coil to the distributor! I’d seen those before.

I had a flash of inspiration and said, “I can make it not start when she gets back! It won’t hurt it at all!”

See, remove the coil wire and the car won’t start because that’s the single spot all the electricity for the spark plugs goes through.  No coil wire, no running engine.  We both laughed as I disconnected it and put it in my pocket, shut the hood, and hopped back into the car, just in the nick of time.

She’d already been late starting from my uncle’s house, and she was even later now … plus she had two boys in the back who were clearly trying to keep from giggling about something.  She put the key in, hit the clutch, turned the key, the starter whirred, and those 34 horsepower from the engine were sound asleep.

She glared into the mirror as only a nun can.  “What did you two do?” (in our dialect: “Was hen ihr zwoi g’macht?”).

We tried – oh gosh how we tried to keep straight faces and lie to her, “Nothing… We did nothing…”

We were lying.

To a nun.

Who worked for my cousin’s dad (my uncle), who was a preacher.

That would have been a really good time for lightning to strike, but it didn’t, or my cousin and I would have been little crispy pieces of boy ash while Sister Johanna shook the cloud off and went on her way.

But there was no lightning, only Sister Johanna.

I’m not sure which was worse.

We jumped out, popped the hood, put the coil wire back, shut the hood, climbed in the back seat and I was telling her it was fixed right about the time she started it and kicked the 34 horses in the heinie…

They all woke up.

Right then.

The car was already in first gear and I hadn’t gotten the door all the way shut yet when she took off like – well, the door slammed as she hit the gas, and I swore I could see a bewildered marmoset stumbling around outside the window.

Remember, Sister Johanna was not used to being late.

She did not like being late.

At all.

And she drove those 5 inch wide bias ply tires as hard as they would go, screeching at every corner, Hanns-Martin and I again hanging on anything to keep from ending up in each other’s laps.

We commented on the screeching tires and her response, as she shifted into second and drifted through a hard left turn, was “It’s not my driving, it’s the hot pavement making them squeal.”

With the G-forces of that left turn smashing me up against Hanns-Martin, I wasn’t quite in a position to argue, but I could hardly agree with her.

We ended up getting to the castle safely and it is truly a wonderful place.  If you’re ever in southern Germany, I highly recommend it.

Oh – one more thing – there’s actually a moral to this story, and it’s very simple:

Don’t lie to Nuns.

It can be habit forming…

😉

==========================

P.S.  Really, if you ever have any desire for fun travel, take a look at Southern Germany, in the state of Württemberg.

In fact, take a look at Yvonne’s site here – she’s been to the castles Hohenzollern and Lichtenstein, (where her photo looks like it was taken from the same spot I did a drawing from when I was there last) and other castles and has fun stories to tell about all of them.

Oh, and Württemberg is the home of everything from the Blue Danube, Fairytale Castles, Mercedes Benz & Porsche to – to many things you use every day (no really)

 


I’ve learned a few things in life, and every now and then I get upset with folks – go figure… I’m human.

And if I get upset, I’ve learned that the way to get my way is to stick to the facts, to be polite, but also be firm, and if I’m clearly right, I don’t take no for an answer.

But I’ve also learned that something that can be more fun than getting my way, is to write a nice note to someone – or their boss, and just let them know the story behind what they did for someone, and how that affected people.  In this case, we had a bit of an adventure with our car – and I sent the below note to the folks at Chevron, the brand sold at the one gas station up on top of Snoqualmie Pass.  I’ve edited it just a bit for readability and added some links so you can see where it all happened if you’re curious, but otherwise I’ve left it alone.  I also removed the actual email address I sent it to because I don’t want them getting spammed from here.

That said, join us in the retelling of an adventure we had back in 1997…

From:                                    Tom Roush

Sent:                                     Tuesday, July 15, 1997 1:17 PM

To:                                        <removed>

Subject:                                Re: Dale, at the Chevron on I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass, in Washington

Something pretty impressive happened a couple of weeks ago, and one of your employees was involved, so I thought I’d tell you a little story…

We were taking our daughter and a friend from our home in Seattle to a church camp near Yakima in our venerable 1982 Buick LeSabre Station Wagon (the Land Yacht edition).  It was the parent’s dream trip – kids way the heck in the back jabbering away, but quietly enough so as not to cause any problems, 6 year old munchkin belted securely in the front with us, quietly playing with some toys, luggage in the middle seat.  It was great.  Kind of like you’d expect to see in one of those old ads with the mother and the father and all the kids happily singing in the car while they’re driving down the road (on Chevron gas (little plug there)…

It was looking rosy.

Side note here:  Our car, as big as it is and as many systems as it has, does not have any gauges to tell you the condition of any of those systems.  Thus, instead of having a gauge warning you of potential problems, you have lights telling you of suddenly existing problems after the fact.

But then (dramatic music here) 5 miles from the summit, Michael (who had a beautiful view of the dashboard and the idiot lights thereon) saw this large red light come on with the word “TEMP” on it from his booster seat between his mom and me.  Being the brilliant little boy that he is, he recognized the situation and said, “It’s overheating!”

The message from the light was confirmed by steam blowing up from under the hood.

I pulled over.

We still had about 120 miles to go, much less get back home.

So, with somewhat limited options, we sat there, with a little waterfall on the right and traffic on the left, while the car cooled down…

I did the typical male thing of poking around under the hood.  I got some water from the waterfall to see how hot the engine really was and sprinkled it onto the coolest part (the intake manifold) where it instantly boiled off. Hmm… there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot I could do until the thing cooled down…

So my wife read the funnies in the car, the girls chatted, Michael read a Richard Scarry book.

It could have been better, but it could also have been much worse…

After some time, I started the car, the overheat light flickered out (and there was much rejoicing).

We got going, cranked up the heater to draw heat away from the engine, with the plans of just getting to the top of the pass where we could pull into the gas station to sit and let the car cool off someplace away from the traffic long enough to add some more water and/or antifreeze.

As the “West Summit, 1/2 mile” sign came into view, the overheat light came on again.

It was far more dangerous to pull over there than by the waterfall because the road curved right and the shoulder was almost nonexistent, so I kept going, very slowly, with the idea of just making it to the summit and pulling over at the Chevron station there.

We made it to the exit ramp just as the “check engine” light came on in addition to the overheat one. (Gad I hate those idiot lights!) …  The tension in the car – at least the front seat, was getting a little higher than normal, and Michael noticed it.  The following could not have been scripted any better for timing…

We’re pulling into the station…

Michael: “Well, one of two things can happen…. One, the engine could blow up -“

Cindy:    “Michael, the engine is NOT going to blow u-“

Car:      “BOOOM!!! “

Michael:  “WOW!… Cool!”

Steam shot up on all sides of the hood, between it and the fenders, it and the windshield, out through the radiator…

One does not make an entrance like that – anywhere – without attracting a bit of attention.

I got out, popped the hood, and after clearing the steam out so I could see, realized that most of our upper radiator hose was, well, gone.  Not even ductape could fix this one… (I also noticed that the top of the engine had been steam cleaned to the point where you could eat off it) I wiggled what remained of the hose around and realized my options were simple: “I need to get a radiator hose.” I’d figured I’d go into the store by the gas station, buy a hose, put it on the car, and walk out – well, drive out.

I figured wrong.

Our Buick has an upper radiator hose that was designed by – well, GM… One size on one end, another size on the other end, multiple curves in the middle that have to be…

Just.

So.

And nothing in the store fit.

At all.

I asked one of the ladies behind the counter if there was a car parts store nearby, to which she replied, “Which direction are you going?”

My initial reaction was, “Uh, I’m not right now…”

She understood, and told me there was a parts store in Cle-Elum to the east about 30 miles, and North Bend, to the west about 20 miles.

Hmmmm….

Then she realized that one of their employees lived in North Bend and was starting his shift soon, and, “Would you like us to call him? Maybe he can get the part for you…”

With visions of stranded travelers being taken advantage of by these folks, I agreed that they should call.  They handed me the phone once they got him, and he sounded very businesslike, asking specific enough questions for me to realize he knew precisely what he was talking about, and then hung up, telling me he’d be on his way in about 20 minutes, and to expect him up there in about 45.

It was with this “stranded traveler” feeling that I called the parts store myself to see what the part would cost, and was told it had a suggested price of around 18.00.

Knowing this, I had some idea of what to expect, and with nothing else to do, I spent my time playing with our son while my wife, our daughter, and her friend read their books and chatted in the car.

A little later, Dale came up with a large plastic bag with the exact hose in it that I needed.  I followed him into the store to pay for it, and he handed the receipt over to the folks behind the counter, they charged me the 18.00 plus tax.

I was stunned.

To top it off, they let me pay with a check (we don’t have credit cards) – and I was able to put the hose on the car, fill the radiator with water & antifreeze and go on my way.  We drove carefully, and had a slow, but safe and uneventful trip from there on out.

As it was, our six hour trip turned into a 12 hour trip, but as we drove, we saw other stranded motorists on the freeway, many with tow trucks already there, and realized that without Dale’s help, and without the willing cooperative attitude of the staff and management of the station, our trip would have been much longer, and much more “eventful”.

Whoever’s in charge of those folks, please recognize they are performing a valuable service, and are to be highly commended for what they do, for their honesty, their integrity, and their sheer humanity.

Sincerely,

Tom Roush

As a side note, as I walked out, there was another family stranded up there, their fan motor had burned out, and Dale, in the Chevron station, said he could get another motor for 150.00.  This was thought to be rather expensive, until the other stranded motorist found they go for more than 200.00.

Another small deed for him, another family whose life wasn’t turned upside down.

Sincerely,

Tom Roush

And I sent it off.   I never did hear back from them, but I’d hope someone from on high gave Dale and the team up there a pat on the back or something equally nice.  Come to think of it, I don’t know if Dale is still working up there, I mean, it’s been almost 20 years, but just in case he gets it – there’s a fellow in Seattle – and his family – who are still thankful for that deed of kindness he did those many years ago.

Take care, folks.  Be nice to each other.


I heard the antelopes ricocheting off the elephants as they came stampeding down the hallway to my room.

Eight, maybe ten people skidded to a stop at my doorway, all trying to get at the same time, almost like a Keystone Kops or Three Stooges kind of a thing.

Somewhere a two way radio chirped, “Patient is showing over 300”.

I looked up at all of them, looked around, and asked, “Which patient?”

“Patient is fine, asymptomatic”

“But he’s showing over 300!”

“And he’s sitting here, talking to us.”

Thus began my first bit out of ICU, where I’d been for a few days as a result of some complications of surgery.

Leigh, the charge nurse, took over and said to whoever was on the radio, “He’s okay, I know him.”

And the main reason we’d gotten into this mess was because they’d wanted me out of ICU, and I had to go to the bathroom.

I’d looked around for the nurse call button (because in ICU they don’t want you going to the bathroom without someone there in case you fall), saw that the call button was in a very poorly designed spot, and swung my legs over the side of the bed so I could turn to the left far enough to reach it. They’d just put some kind of a new monitoring system on me about the size of an iPhone, and sure enough, it had transmitted a message to whatever was monitoring me that it was rather annoyed with something.  That message was picked up by someone manning a monitor in another building, who’d called for a “Rapid Response Team” to come tearing down the hall to see why my pulse was reading 300.

They were all baffled – the numbers indicated that I should be anything other than sitting there on the edge of the bed chatting coherently with them, and I had to tell them exactly what happened… “I needed to go to the bathroom, and wanted to push the nurse’s button, but the bed’s so weird you can’t reach it without breaking your arm, so I sat up, swung my legs over, and then heard a herd of elephants racing down the hall.”

“Well, there were some gazelles in there, too” said one of the svelte, non-elephantine members of the medical staff.

I agreed, there were.

They tried to figure out what to do, given that my pulse was clearly showing higher than it had any right to be, and I was still sitting there, chatting with them, coherently…

A few more radio calls were made, the person on the other end was finally, laboriously convinced that I was really, truly, sitting up and alive (I said hi to them on the radio, finally), but someone decided that because of all this I wasn’t actually ready to be out of ICU yet, so they called down, found they were just finishing up cleaning up and sanitizing my room from when I’d been there about a half hour before, and decided to take me back.

So we piled all the personal items back on the bed, just left me on it – they decided to hook up an oxygen tank just in case, and then we all paraded down to the sixth floor where I headed back to room 657, and we sat there – oxygen tank, personal stuff, and me all on the bed, waiting in the hallway till the room aired out from the sanitizing chemicals. It’d look bad, ya know, to have me have lung issues in ICU because of the chemicals they used there…

We worked together to move me out of the non-ICU bed into the ICU one, got me all hooked up to the various monitors, got everything situated, and just as the nurse was leaving the room, I realized that the one thing that had gotten me back there hadn’t happened yet.

I still had to go to the bathroom.

 


Tom, Dad & Michael

Two fathers and two sons… A photo from Father’s Day, 1997

I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…

See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…

Father’s day’s tomorrow.

I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.

See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.

In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.

I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.

I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…

And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.

Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.

So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉  I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years.  See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago.  He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard.  Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing.  I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.

So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.

That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:

…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time…  In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious).  It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).

I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult.  Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind.  I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun.  It actually is the very first story on the blog.

I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.

I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.

This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them.  It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens.  It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously.  A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride.  I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.

There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son.  I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.

Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.

I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written.  This one was a little different.  It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write.  It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.

One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it.  And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.

There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for.  A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still.  I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then.  I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.

And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids.  In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…

And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out.  In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)

Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.

Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad.  Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…

Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure.  So we did.  We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…

I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..

And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.

And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.

Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites.  Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it.  Still makes me smile.

Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI.  He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.

Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story.  In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly.  Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.

It’s about a boy…

And a dragon…

Named Fred.

On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them.  On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.

Oh… My favorite… Springtime.  ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.

And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo.  Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school.  We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.

A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.

I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me.  We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late.  Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step.  “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you!  Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?”  I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.

Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.

And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy.  You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.

Sometimes you spend time on a swingset with your kids, sometimes you spend time in the car with them… Sometimes you agree with them, sometimes not…

But that’s part of life, right?

Oh, and one thing that’s constant…

You always love them.

Always.

 

 

 


Questions from my son tend to add a little different perspective to the stories I’ve told him.

If you’ve been reading them long, you know that there’s a certain classification of stories involving “Stupid Things that Papa Did When He Was Little”.

They’re the kinds of stories that I can safely tell in the first person…

Past tense.

(think about that – it’s important)

So when my son asked, “So just how many fires did you actually set in the house when you were growing up?” – and I honestly had to think my way through them and keep track on my fingers, I knew I needed to write the stories down. So, just a recap of the times I almost burned the house down (note: some of these stories have been written, some are in the backlog)…

Let’s see… there’s:

  • the time the bed caught fire, (still need to write this one – it was an aluminum pilot’s bunk from the USS Ticonderoga… No, really.)
  • the time I lit the fire in the wood stove, with gasoline. (I don’t recommend this),
  • the time the candle holder caught fire (design issue anyone?) and set the set of Encyclopedias, the shelves they were on, on fire, and dripped flaming plastic onto the desk underneath them, setting it on fire as well, (Yup, need to write this one, too…)
  • the time I came very close to doing the Olympic Torch run through the house with a highway flare as I was trying to put out another fire.
  • …and of course there was the – well, let’s not give away the punchline, shall we?

I was still living at home with my folks and sisters, and it had been a Saturday of yard work and gardening and just general cleanup. I’d gotten done with my part, and asked what else there was for me to do, and mom said, “Well, you could go in and make dinner. You can make the chicken.”

Dinner.

Chicken.

Gotcha.

So I looked all over for a chicken and the only one I could find was the one frozen solid.

In the freezer.

Understand, this was an industrial level freezer. The chicken was the same consistency as the granite used by the Canadian Olympic Curling team. I imagined sliding the chicken across the floor and frantically sweeping in front of it – but while the image made me smile, I decided against hurling – or curling – the chicken…

Chances were I’d break something with it.

Besides, dinner for a hungry family was more important.

Speaking of dinner, I had to figure out how to rapidly thaw this hunk of frozen fowl. Dad had spent $600.00 on a microwave oven back then (in the ‘70’s) and gotten a good one (a Sharp) that would eventually last over 40 years, looking brand new the whole time. I hefted the chicken, still in the closed plastic bag, onto the rotating glass plate and pushed the buttons for something like 40 minutes, then turned around to peel potatoes in the kitchen sink and get some vegetables ready for the pot.

I’d gotten maybe two potatoes peeled when I sniffed that something was not quite right.

I smelled the potato I was peeling.

It was fine.

The peeler?

It was fine.

My hands?

They smelled like… raw potatoes.

Besides, I’d washed my hands, and the chicken was frozen last time I touched – oh, the chicken – uh…

I looked up from the sink, then looked left and right, trying to remember where I’d put the chicken, and it was only when I turned around that I definitely knew something was wrong.

The chicken that I’d put in the microwave to defrost, you see…

…was on fire.

Wait.

What?

I jumped across the kitchen, hammered down on the lever to shut the microwave off, popped the door open, and grabbed the burning plastic bag the chicken was in and heaved it in the general direction of the sink. The flame made a weird flup flup flup flup flup sound (complete with Doppler effect, mind you) just before the chicken thunk-splushed into the sink, putting the fire out and splashing water and potato peels all over the place.

I turned the water I’d been peeling the potato under off so I could see the bag, and it turned out that the plastic bag had been tied shut with what was standard for the time, which was two little pieces of tape with a wire in the middle.

And the wire had gotten red hot, set the tape on fire, which set the plastic bag on fire, which then set – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it had set the chicken’s butt on fire (which reminds me of yet another story about my friend Bill – but you can read that one later).

I trimmed the burned parts off, pulled what remained of the chicken out of the bag, and put it in a glass bowl with a lid and actually read the manual for “how to defrost a chicken in the microwave” and put it back in there for awhile longer.

I looked out the window, checked on the rest of the gang, knew I had some time, so peeled some apples and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar and put them on the chicken once it was defrosted and out of the microwave, then wrapped everything in some bacon I found while I was looking for the chicken in the first place and put that in the regular oven.

While that was baking, I made some salad, boiled the potatoes, and in general, made a pretty decent dinner.

I rang the dinner bell for everyone, and pretty soon they came in.

I remember one of my sisters taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose a bit as everyone came through the door, smelling a little bit of everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.

“What’s that smell?”

And I gave the only answer I could possibly give.

“It’s, it’s the chicken.”

And… it was actually pretty good.


Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.

In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.

This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…

“So, um, where did this happen?”

“The 7-11 down by SPU.”

“Really?”

“Any idea when?”

“Oh, years ago.”

I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”

They didn’t get it at first.

And then I got an idea and went all Paul Harvey on them, in large part because I knew “The Rest of the Story,” because the guy they were talking about who’d gotten his hand nuked in the microwave…

…was me.

See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…

Which I did in my kitchen.

In the sink.

With no gloves.

(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)

So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:

  • close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
  • hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
  • hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
  • clip the plywood shades into the two windows
  • attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
  • turn off the white light
  • turn on the safelight and the fan
  • take the cover off the enlarger
  • pour the chemicals

…and I was ready to go.

The building I called home was red when I lived there, not gray as it is in that photo link at left – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.

So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.

The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.

But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.

And hey – it’s still there.

At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.

Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

<crickets>

Ummmyeah.

So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of.  The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.

It was a lot of work.

The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.

But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.

And I discovered three things simultaneously.

1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.

2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.

3. The fan was running.

Hmmm…

The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.

But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.

And I was hungry.

And my burrito was cold.

I slammed the door shut and reopened it.

The light came on again.

So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.

Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”

A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”

That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.

But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…

My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.

It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.

I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people.  Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked.  It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.

It also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.

Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera (a Nikon F-3 with an SB-16 speedlight on it) a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost a good bit more than $1.38.

The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place in Ohio where I later went to Grad School that would do what they called “Thermographs.” They were basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated in Delaware at the time, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.

So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.

A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.

In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.

And I was okay with that…

Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.

Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?

Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…

Trust me on this.  😉

Tom Roush

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