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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.
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 it 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.
- Shooting at bowling pins with a .22 instead of a .223 doesn’t make them explode, it irritates them.
- 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.”
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.
- Never shoot at armed bowling pins
- If anything you’re shooting at starts shooting back – it’s a good idea to bug your butt out of there.
- 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.
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.
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
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 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…
And nothing in the store fit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
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…
(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.”
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.
It was fine.
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.
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.”
“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.
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 was red, not gray, when I lived there – 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?
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.
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.
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 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 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 that would do what they called “Thermographs.” 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 at the time in Delaware, 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. 😉
Okay, not physical running – but mental running & walking – keep reading, you’ll get it.
A couple of months ago, after having spent the better part of a week physically and mentally fighting off a cold, the weather was sunny enough to get out, so I went to Golden Gardens to get some Vitamin D and fresh air. I sat there in the car for a bit, not quite ready to go outside yet because it was cold and I’d been listening to a program on the radio, which was actually a fascinating story about language.
And in it, a fellow said a number of things, but the two that stood out had to do with how the brain develops mentally along with the development and understanding of language. He said something about the inability to think without having language, and I differed with him greatly in my conclusion on that – not because I had reams of academic knowledge of it, but because I had personal experience in it.
And, this may come as no surprise, but I have a story about it.
The story was here, about 20 minutes in for several weeks – I wasn’t able to get to it just now, but that’s where it was.
I abandoned my idea of walking out in the sunshine and sat there, transfixed as this fellow talked about language, about communication, and then he hit a nerve in me (here’s the program about 20 minutes in – it’s when he talks about a controversial statement) – and I found myself rocketing back in the time machine – in a way that was different than all the others.
In my writings here, I’ve written nothing but true stories.
They’ve ranged in time from WWI, WWII, the Cold War, they’ve ranged from happy ones to sad ones, wise ones and silly ones, serious and and funny ones. I’ve written about my mom’s childhood, my own childhood, my children’s childhood, all the way up to the present.
I’ve joked with people that I write non-fiction because I’m not smart enough to write fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
Some of the stories were written with years of research corroborating a half-remembered story from childhood, and some were just a snippet of life that happened as I was paying attention, and I wrote it down.
And then there’s this one.
This story is the very first I could write in the first person because it… because everything that happened before this story is pretty much lost.
Because before this story happened – I didn’t have the one thing I’m using right now, and that is language.
So I’m going to use some of the language I’ve learned since this story happened to tell you a little story about a time when I didn’t have any language to tell stories with..
My first memory is from when I was in an oxygen tent overnight in the hospital for bronchitis.
The one moment I have burned in my memory is mom and dad coming to visit me or get me and the joy I had knowing they’d come for me. I don’t have words associated with it, just joy, and just for that moment.
I remember the color of mom’s dress, the color of dad’s uniform as they stood in the doorway in the far left corner, the color of the tiles on the walls in the room, the faint smell of the rubbing alcohol and ether that was always present. And I remember the light coming in from high on the right. I remember a large counter kind of a thing, strangely in the middle of the room, and the doctor standing kind of in silhouette off to the right in front of the windows.
I kept asking my parents about it until we finally figured out where it was, but far more importantly to me, when it was.
And it turns out the only thing that fit was that hospital visit.
When I was six months old.
That’s me, and my sister.
A little older than that memory, but a little younger than the next one.
And it’s hard for me to understand, looking at that photo, that kids – babies – of that age can actually comprehend stuff and have thoughts and feelings and ponderings and not just react to instincts and impulses…
But I was one of them once, and I still have the memories..
I have a few other memories of that time – all of them raising more questions in me than they answer. The next one I have very clearly is of our first trip to Germany. Dad had orders to go to one place, and for the first part of the trip, we were on the same plane. I was on mom’s lap and remember looking across the aisle at him, and how proud I was of him in his uniform, with the sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve..
…and while mom remembers the flight as me having a tremendous earache and crying, I remember one moment of it being very quiet, and in that moment, as I turned to look forward, I had this thought:
“I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life?”
Understand there is significance of this, because dad spoke English and mom spoke German, and as kids, we were learning English and German at the same time.
And I remember having this thought.
The question asked has been partially answered by roughly half a century of – well – life, but the answer is not as revealing as the question that still baffles me.
How would I, being 18 months or so old at that time, know that I had life ahead of me?
If I knew life was ahead of me, that meant I had a sense of time, and my place in it.
If I knew that there was something, some things before me, what are the faded memories of those that were behind me?
How would, how could I know that things would happen?
There was a sense of understanding that the future existed long before you’d think a kid would be even capable of having thoughts like this.
Come to think of it – what about being proud of my dad? It wasn’t any other emotion… I was proud of my dad. But how could I explain that one? How could I, at 18 months, explain the sense of happiness in someone else’s accomplishments or achievements? Just trying to explain that would also mean that I could be aware of the opposite, someone else’s failings. Pride in their accomplishments would be happiness that those accomplishments, and not the failings, happened.
The more I thought about it – the more baffling it became.
And the questions kept coming: Who was I directing this question to? Or was it just me thinking to myself?
How did I know that there were options as far as what might actually happen that hadn’t happened yet?
Why did this thought come to me, fully formed, in English and not German?
I couldn’t talk verbally at the time, but I could clearly think.
I remember when we got to Germany – and when our uncle picked us up from the airport in his blue Volvo (I remember because of the bar speedometer I saw years later in my sister’s Volvo) . But it’s that little boy up there in that photo who remembers these things, not just the adult. It makes me wonder about memory, about the things we do remember, and what it takes to actually remember them.
And I realized that one could have thought, or thoughts, without language, but maybe what the person in the radio program was trying to say was that one couldn’t express those thoughts very well without words. Along that line, I remember once, years later – having a fascinating idea that literally came to me in a flash: again, fully formed, poof, there it was. It took hours to explain it. And it makes me wonder how language can allow us to express thoughts and communicate them. But at the same time, it feels tremendously slow and inadequate sometimes. There are times when words – well, when words are not adequate, and, going back much earlier, when words simply didn’t exist.
I remember very clearly, at about the time of that photo up there – actually it was likely earlier, being able to communicate with other kids my age.
Before we were able to use language.
I remember just… knowing not just what I was thinking and feeling, but what they were thinking and feeling, and we were able to let each other know that.
Please understand, I have no idea how this worked. And I can’t tell you what, if any, language we were using. I just know that it did work. I also know that as I learned to use both English and German, my ability to communicate with other kids like that faded, and I remember the ability to do it like one remembers a long lost, half-forgotten treasure, and much as I wanted to, still not quite being sure how it worked.
All this is from within about a year of that photo up there.
And that question about, “I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life” – that one still pops up now and then… the philosophical areas one could explore with that, the nature of ‘self’ and the whole ‘nature/nurture’ discussion – where we’re a product of both our nature – (genetics and the like) and the way we were brought up (nurture)… I wonder about that because there was far more nature than nurture at that time, but these thoughts, these ponderings, seem to me to be right at the border of nature and nurture.
And I still ponder…
And I still have questions…
The bus just rumbled slowly past the house, and it brought back a fun memory that I thought I’d share.
A number of years ago I’d started following in my ancestor’s footsteps and was making bread – the kind out of wheat and yeast and stuff. My family all got together and decided that Christmas would have a theme, and so that year got a bread making machine, a 50 pound bag of flour, and a monstrous bag of yeast.
So I started making – well, baking bread with the machine.
You could set it in the evening with the ingredients, and then set the timer, and in the morning, my nose would rouse me from my slumber with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.
There are worse ways to wake up.
So I did that for awhile, and as with anything fun, eventually I got confident enough in what I was doing to share the bounty – so I decided to take some to work.
So one Thursday night I put all the ingredients in, set the timer, and went to bed, knowing that Friday morning I’d have freshly baked bread to take to work with me on the bus.
Oh, yeah, the bus. Taking a loaf of freshly baked bread wrapped in a towel onto a bus full of sleepy commuters wakes them right up… I could see people sniffing and trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. (the loaf was in a bag, wrapped in a towel, under my seat)
I was sitting right by the regular driver who had the window beside him open, drawing air out of the bus right past his nose, and once the bus was moving, he was surrounded by the freshly baked bread smell to the point where he would look around at every stop, trying to figure out where it was coming from.
So I told him I’d made some and was taking it to work.
We talked the rest of the trip about our moms and growing up and – well, talking about fresh bread made us feel, how coming home to that smell just made the whole day better, so before I got off, I asked him if he’d like some the next time I baked a loaf. I didn’t need to ask – the answer was obvious in his eyes.
“You like homemade jam? I have some grape jam from my mom that’s pretty good.”
He had to work hard at not drooling – it was clear that the combination would make his Monday morning something to look forward to, and he took one last deep breath as I got off the bus and headed to work.
Sunday evening came, and I set everything so it would be ready just in time to have the bread ready when the bus pulled up.
And I’d know when it pulled up, because that bus had one very squeaky brake, so I knew that when I heard that brake, I had about a minute to get out of the house and down to the bus stop before it pulled away.
But I’d miscalculated by a couple of minutes the night before, and I was just getting the bread out of the bread maker when I heard the squeak.
Oh no… I’d promised – and was counting down the time he’d normally be there waiting before he took off… I might be able to catch the next bus, but most important was catching this driver.
I got the bread and jam out of the fridge.
And heard the bus engine still idling.
I cut a slice of bread, nice and soft on the inside and crusty on the outside.
I heard the air brakes hiss.
I spread the butter on the bread, and it started to melt.
I heard the door hiss closed.
The bus kept idling – then started to take off, ever so slowly.
At that moment – I knew he’d been looking forward to that bread, so I ran to the window just in time to see the bus go by at about five miles an hour, and could see the driver looking up at the house, searching.
I waved the slab of bread at him, still without jam, and he saw it and stopped the bus.
I grabbed a napkin, put the bread on it, slathered the jam on, grabbed my stuff, and ran out the door. He’d stopped just barely past the house. I ran down the driveway, and he’d opened the back door. I ran in, ran all the way to the front, and went down on one knee, presenting him the freshly baked bread and jam on a napkin like a knight might present a sword to a king.
His smile was worth it – and he took it gratefully.
I stood up, turned around, and the entire bus applauded.
I took a bow, then took a seat, and another Monday began.
With many smiles.
It was a fun enough story that I sent a note to Jean Godden, then a columnist for the Seattle Times who loved little tidbits like this – and she liked it enough to put it in one of her columns.
Eventually that driver was transferred to another route, and I didn’t see him again until one day years later I was at the Seattle Center with my son, and heard a voice, “Hey! Mr. Bread Man!” –
Turns out it was my old bus driver – who remembered that story after all this time. We talked, we laughed, and reminisced a bit.
Life had moved on for us both. He was working for the Red Cross somewhere in Seattle, and I never got to know his name.
As for me? I was Mr. Bread Man.
And you know? I’m okay with that.
So wherever you are, Mr. Bus Driver, Mr. Bread Man hopes life has treated you well.
The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…
…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.
So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.
Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation and photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.
See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.
Those are your options.
So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.
I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…
See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.
The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.
That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.
One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.
We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.
No fan = sharp pictures.
But, there were side effects…
See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…
Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.
We checked for her.
There was no dog.
But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.
Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.
On one of the two paper cutters.
That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.
And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit. Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…
And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?
The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.
We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.
The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.
I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.
Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.
Lots and lots and lots of them.
And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.
So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.
Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.
We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.
It… was… amazing…
(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)
So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.
It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.
It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.
We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…
…and saw snow in the parking lot.
Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…
We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.
And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…
Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…
The Styrofoam packing peanuts…
As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.
There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.
The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.