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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.

https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/551046

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.

The memory stayed with me, and over the years 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.

Yup…

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?”

In English.

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.

In English.

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 writing it down. 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. And yet, 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 the thoughts we have without language 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.

Without words.

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…

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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.

In traffic.

Blocking everyone.

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…

Styrofoam packing pellets

…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 about the 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?

Um… Yeah…

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.

COOL!

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.


It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 years, but it has.

I’ve learned that for those of you reading the stories I write here, a number of things happen.

Sometimes you come here on purpose.

Sometimes you come here by habit.

Sometimes you come here by accident (you wouldn’t believe some of the searches that get people to this blog).

But what you always get when you come here is a story.

Sometimes you get a lesson mixed in with that story.

Sometimes the story makes you laugh as you see me learn that lesson from my own mistakes.

Sometimes the lesson makes you wince as you see the pain in the story.

And sometimes, in some of the hardest stories, I’ve heard from some of you, that you see yourself in either the story or the lesson.

I’ve learned, to my surprise (and I’m being quite honest here) that people thought I was good enough at writing stories that several have honored me in ways I cannot comprehend, by asking me to tell a very specific story.

Their story.

Out loud.

To everyone they cherish and hold dear; their family, their loved ones, their friends.

It is a story that they have lived, that they have asked me to tell,  but they won’t ever hear.

And this brings us back to me being amazed that those eight years have gone by already.

Back then, my friend Glenda asked me to tell her story.

And it came easily in some ways.

It was very hard in others.

I stood in front of a crowd of her family and friends 8 years ago, and told this story of my friend Glenda.

June 1, 2007

Glenda first caught my eye when she sat down beside me in Dr. Bob Chamberlain’s “History of Western Rhetoric” class over in Peterson Hall at Seattle Pacific University. She was different because unlike all the other college aged young women in the class, Glenda had her daughter, Daisy, sleeping on the floor beside her. Class time and nap time happened to coincide, so Glenda did what worked, and Daisy got a head start on a lot of freshmen by sleeping through a very early college education.

I learned a lot about Daisy, and her brothers and sister in the next few years. I also learned a lot about Glenda.

This was a mom who clearly loved her four kids, and these were four kids who clearly loved their mom. One time, a few months after we graduated, Glenda asked if I would watch them while she went into the hospital for a few days.

This meant a couple of things.

  1. Glenda, though in the hospital, didn’t have to deal with or get four kids up and ready for school or daycare every day
  2. Tom, not in the hospital, got to learn what it was like for Glenda to get four kids up, fed, dressed…

No, wait, almost dressed – first have to find their socks…

“Where did you say you put your shoes?”

“What do you mean you can’t find your homework?”

“There isn’t a dog to have eaten it!”

“I’m supposed to sign what?”

…pray that at least the socks matched, and get them out to the bus stop in time for school.

That haggard looks of the other moms waiting with their kids at the bus stops made so much more sense after that.

I understood so much more what it was to be a mom in those few days.

And I learned a lot about Glenda.

When it was time to visit her in the hospital, it was – well, I am still amazed at how she was able to get four kids packed up and ready to go – anywhere – on time. It was just amazing. She loved to tell this story – and always with that wonderful laugh of hers.

When Tom the Mobile set of Monkey Bars got to the hospital room, four kids either on me or around me, I saw in Glenda’s face the exhaustion that comes from being in the hospital, from all the poking, the prodding, the middle of the night waking you up to give you your sleeping medicine, and so on. But in her eyes, I saw something different. I saw a sparkle, a relaxation, a rest, that is only seen in a woman’s eyes – no, a mom’s eyes when, for whatever reason,  she’s had a chance to recover a little from being a mom by being away from the kids, and then when she gets to be with them again.

She tells the same story from another viewpoint, seeing her kids scamper into the room, at least one of them (Daisy) still hanging from a very bedraggled me, when our eyes met, she remembers me saying, “Two! Only Two!” – I couldn’t imagine how she could be a mom of four, but she was, and she made it look easy.

She did that a lot in life…

We lost touch for a number of years, then ran into each other at a cancer survivor’s support group. We hugged, as old friends do.

…and then the reason for our meeting there, in that place, sunk in to both of us.

And you know what?

She made cancer look easy.

She made raising four kids look easy.

She planned enough to where there weren’t many surprises for her – except this one, and even then, then she handled it the same way she always did.

Glenda made dying look easy.

She loved those kids, she loved her husband Mike.

A few weeks ago we talked, and it was clear to her that time was short. We chatted about all sorts of things for a while, and toward the end of the conversation she said, “Tom, can you do me a favor?”

Understand this is the lady who trusted me with her most prized possessions, her kids. And she did it regularly. There was a trust built up there over the years, and I figured that this “favor” wasn’t going to be, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” or “Can you feed the cat while I’m gone?”

But I didn’t know what to expect.

“Sure Glenda, anything.”

“Can you speak at my funeral?”

What do you say?

You don’t.

You just do it.

Because that’s what friends do.

She told me it was going to be a “fun” eral – and to remember something “fun” about her.

She wanted me to tell the story of the kids when we visited her in the hospital, because it made her laugh that wonderful laugh of hers so often, so I did…

And I can tell you that I did indeed, only have two.


I was talking to my mom about a story I was writing awhile back, about a little bicycling adventure in Germany about 37 years ago, and she chuckled a bit, and then started to tell me a story that had happened 26 years before that.

And it made me smile.

You know how you talk to your parents and forget that they were young, once, too? That’s how it was with mom in this conversation. As she told the story, the mom I was seeing in front of me transformed into a much younger woman, full of youth, life, laughter, and stories.

She talked of adventures that I’d never heard, but then she got to telling the story of the trip over the Susten Pass.

The Alps.

In Switzerland.

On a bike.

And I saw the time machine show up, with the door wide open, beckoning us inside.

We stepped in and I started to listen to a fun story that I’d heard before, but the more I listened the more I realized I’d not only heard the story before, but there was a connection to that story I was writing.  We’ll get to that one in Part 2.  But for now, I leaned forward and listened, and I recorded it.  And then realized she’d written it down years ago.  She sent me a copy – we found some pictures, and I’ve done a little bit of editing below, but the story’s hers, so sit back, and imagine hearing the story below in mom’s German accent about the trip she, her brother Walter, and his friend Wolfgang took, from Germany, to Switzerland, and back.

That said, here’s mom:

“While Walter was still in Seminary in Frankfurt, he, Wolfgang and I had planned to tour Switzerland by bicycle during their summer vacation. In those years the roads were not nearly as crowded with cars as is now the case.

Mom’s view of the road to Susten Pass… then…

It was beautiful!

I had traveled to Switzerland by bus, by car and by train but I never enjoyed the scenery more than when I toured it on a bicycle. Instead of driving past mountains in minutes, it might take a whole day of riding to finally get close to the mountains we were able to admire for so long. We had plenty of time to let the beauty really sink in.

That year, Walter had a summer job in Winterthur (Switzerland) with a surveyor. His friend Wolfgang and I traveled through the Black Forest to the Swiss border and further inland to meet and team up with him for our tour. The nights we spent in youth hostels which were all over the country.

Near Steffisburg we stopped and asked a farmer if we could pitch our tents on his property. Herr Wittwer (the farmer) agreed, but then took a look south toward the Niesen, the nearest mountain, and shook his head.

“I better get some straw down for you in the barn. See those dark clouds pushing through between the mountains? That’s a nasty thunder storm and it will be here in a few hours. That way, no matter what the weather does, at least you’ll have a roof over your heads and stay dry.”

I gladly accepted his offer but Walter and Wolfgang pitched their tent outside. I took my sleeping bag into the barn, bolted the big barn door shut and nestled down in the big pile of straw. I was less afraid of the mice in the barn than the lightning and thunder outside and a soaking wet sleeping bag. You see, our camping equipment in those days was very primitive. Our tent did not have a floor. So while the tent might have protected us from water coming from above, there was nothing to keep water from seeping in under the edges.

And, just like Herr Wittwer had said, the storm didn’t wait long to reach us. As it got closer, not only was the thunder much louder but the echoes bouncing back from the nearby mountains were like a continuous amplified drumroll.

I was so tired from the many hours of pedaling the bike in the hilly country I fell asleep in spite of the noise. In my dreams I wondered why the whole barn was being torn down and why human voices were mingled in between the booms of the thunder, and why did I keep hearing my name in between all of this?

During the eerie stillness of a moment between thunder claps the human voices finally reached my consciousness and I recognized my brother’s voice: “Irmgard, open the door, please open the door.” The rain was coming down in torrents and Walter and Wolfgang had soon seen the wisdom in my decision about sleeping in the barn. There was plenty of straw on the barn floor for all three of us and like contented cows Walter and Wolfgang bedded down on the dry straw for a much needed night’s sleep.

THE TRIP OVER SUSTEN PASS.

The next morning, Walter and Wolfgang had to wring out their tent and clothes from the storm.  Not only was our camping gear primitive but our bikes were at the beginning of multiple-gear-development. Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes each had three gears. That was the most that was available at the time and really, who would want or need more than three gears anyhow? Right?

I would soon see the benefit of those three gears, as my bike had only one.

In the lowlands, the one speed bicycle Mom pushed over Susten Pass

Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes also had special (caliper) brakes, the ones which grab the sides of the rims of both wheels.

Mine did not.

My bike had a different system. Under the handle bar on the right side was another, thinner bar reaching to the center of the handlebars. There it was connected to a bar going straight down to the rubber front tire. There was a u-shaped metal frame attached (about 1 x 1 1/2″) and a hard rubber pad was slipped into that frame. By pulling the brake handle up, the rubber pad was pushed down against the tire, which slowed down the bike somewhat. The other braking possibility was the coaster brake in the hub of the back wheel. By pushing the pedals backwards, the back wheel would apply the brake.

This system was sufficient for normal country.

But his was not normal country.

This was Switzerland.

Our rather ambitious plan for that one day was to get over the Susten Pass.

SustenPass_Looking_East

Susten Pass, looking East

We had to get an early start so we would get as many kilometers behind us during the coolness of the day, and to do that, had to leave before the tent and everything could dry. At the base of the mountains we made relatively good progress, but when the road started climbing, things changed. Often Walter and Wolfgang could have gone a while longer with their extra gears, but no matter how hard I tried to pedal, my bike came almost to a standstill when the incline got too steep.

Steffisburg-SustenPass

It got a bit steep once we started climbing…

So we had to walk.

Hour after hour we followed the serpentines up and up. Looking over the edge we saw the road wind up like a snake in tight curves.

Panoramio’s view of the same road to Susten Pass, now. Courtesy of AGW (click on photo for original)

 

After seven hours of walking, pushing our bicycles step by tired step, we finally saw the sign:

“Susten Pass 2224 meter”.

We’d finally made it, the three of us were hot and thirsty, and Walter’s cold, wet tent was slowly drying.

We took a short but well deserved break at the top and strengthened ourselves with “Landjäger“, bread, some good Swiss chocolate and water.  And we even allowed ourselves a few minutes to lean back and appreciate, admire and enjoy God’s handiwork in that beautiful setting. But since the ascent had taken so much longer than anticipated, we couldn’t allow ourselves too much time to enjoy the scenery at the top, so after a few minutes of cooling off to the point of being a little chilled, we saddled our bikes and looked forward to a fast, fun run down the switchbacks to the lowlands again.

SustenPass_Looking_West

Susten Pass, looking west

But the other side of the pass was in full sunshine, and the further down we got, the warmer it got, so we let the bikes fly down the mountain road and loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, cooling us off after the long climb up the other side.

A long-held sigh of relief escaped from each one of us.

Going down should be a breeze, right?  We couldn’t help but wonder how much shorter the down-hill time would be.  We’d make up all the time we lost, it would be great.  Walter rode in front, Wolfgang in the back, with me in between, and even though it was easy (and fun) to let the bicycles go fast and hang on, it wasn’t safe to go too fast or we’d lose control on the many hairpin turns. It was good that Walter and Wolfgang had those new brakes, because it was all downhill, and we had to brake constantly so we wouldn’t overshoot the hairpin curves.

But remember, I didn’t have those brakes.

I had two other brakes.

I had that pad of rubber that was pushed down on the front tire by a lever I squeezed with my right hand, and I had the coaster brake for the back wheel that worked when I pedaled backwards far enough to make it work.

And remember, while this system was sufficient for normal country. also remember that this was NOT normal country.

This was Switzerland.

And we went down the mountain.

Elevation from Susten Pass to Wassen

Elevation change from Susten Pass to Wassen. Downhill all the way.

And we went fast.

Our leg muscles, finally rested a bit from the 7 hours of walking and pushing our bicycles up the one side of the pass, welcomed this change of pace on the other side very much, and for a few moments, the scenery enveloped us at a level you just could not get in a car or a bus.  It was exhilarating.

I’d just gotten to feeling comfortable on the bicycle, riding fast enough to be fun, but braking enough to be safe. I think it was maybe 5 kilometers, when I heard Wolfgang behind me yell “I am smelling burned rubber’. We all stopped at the first spot we could get off the road to check for the cause of that smell.  Sure enough, With all my braking, that rubber pad that was my front brake had gotten so hot from the friction that it started smoking, wore out and disappeared, never to be seen again. After we stopped and inspected it, we decided that it was safe to go on, but slower, and more carefully, because since there was no bicycle repair place at that elevation, we had absolutely no choice to slow me down but to use the other brake in the hub of the rear wheel.

I tried my best not to use it excessively and just let it roll on the straight stretches but pushed the backpedal-brake system to it’s limit to make it safely around the first hairpin curve and the second, and the third and so on.

We may have gotten about 10 (don’t know how many of course) kilometers behind us , when I heard Wolfgang’s voice again loud and clear: “Your hub is smoking”.

He was such a nice friend and biking buddy but I sure didn’t want to hear his voice again, especially not with more bad news about my bicycle.

And even more especially, about smoke.

But, what choice did I, did we all have?

We all stopped.

The brake was so hot that it didn’t work very well anymore, and that wasn’t safe.

So we had to walk.

What choice did we really have?

And we walked, and walked, down the other side of Susten Pass, holding our loaded bicycles back, and we let it cool down.

It gave us more time to enjoy the Alps that so many people want to see.

How can you get tired of so much beauty?

We weren’t tired of the beauty, but we were getting tired of walking.  We checked the brake on my bicycle, and it had finally cooled off, so we started to coast downhill again.

We’d spread out a little bit by then, and the breeze cooled me off, and I realized that the brake, not being used right then, could cool off too the next time it got hot.  So that gave me an idea, and I let the bicycle go down the hill as fast as it would go… The wind was rushing in my ears, and I could barely hear Walter yelling at me that I’d get myself killed if I rode that fast. I braked hard at the next curve, heating up the brake until I could feel it weaken, leaned deep into the turn, made it around, and let the bicycle fly again. The brake cooled off while my brother’s frustrated shouts faded behind me.

But remember, this was Switzerland.

And soon the brake overheated again, so we had to alternate walking and riding for the rest of the afternoon until we finally made it down into the lowlands at dusk, where we found a place to stay for the night.

Over the next few days we got out of the Alps and stopped near the town where Walter had worked, and I wanted to write a postcard to our mom so that she would know we were okay. After all, it had been many days since we’d been home. Walter said we’d get home before the post card did, so I didn’t get one.

We kept heading north on flatter ground, eventually making it to Germany, and much later,  finally made it to our hometown, where things looked like – well, home.  Wolfgang headed back to Frankfurt, and we made our way home, walking our bicycles into the driveway beside the house.  Our mom heard us go by  through the kitchen window, and on hearing us, came out onto the veranda to make sure we were okay.  Once that was established, the first thing she said to us as my brother and I climbed up the back steps was, “You’re back! What were you thinking? We were worried you’d fallen down a mountain, What kept you from even sending a postcard?”

We stepped out of the time machine, mom and I, and laughed at some of the adventures she’d had, and then I told her a similar story, also of a brother and sister, coming back from a bicycle trip, climbing up those same steps, and explaining to the same mom (her mom, my Oma) why we were late.

But that’s for part 2, coming in a few months.

Take care out there, folks.


The time machine surprised me this time.

I was making a sandwich for lunch the other day and saw it sitting there, looking just like the bottle of Thousand Island dressing in the fridge.

It reminded me of a young boy and his uncle, who was making him a sandwich.

“Ham or bologna?”

“Uh… Ham?”

“Cheese?”

“Okay…”

“Thousand or mustard?”

“Uh… Thousand?”

Uncle’s hand in the plastic bag of bread, “Two slices or three?”

Eyeballs of young nephew got real big…

“You can have three slices?”

“Suuuure!”

“Okay,” (feeling like a king) “Three slices then…”

A certain uncle made two of the biggest sandwiches that nephew had ever seen, with relish, and lettuce and all that is good in sandwiches.  And he made one for himself, and one for the nephew.

And they both sat on the porch had a most wonderful lunch, I still remember, to this day.


It’s September, and all across the country, another school year has started with all the busyness that it brings, and it brought back a smile, and a memory of a fellow I knew in high school many years ago.

Bob Sherp, an exchange student from England, almost graduated from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington, back in 1980. He was a good student, taking a well-rounded set of classes. I know, because he and I had several classes together, one of them being Radio Production (with Mrs. Williams) and one being First Aid, with “Brownie”.

Bob and I were pretty evenly matched, academically, in those two classes, and I would have to say that his attendance was extraordinary. In fact, every time I was in class, so was Bob – and – well, I think it’s time to start at the beginning…

See, this was High School.

This is the time in a young person’s life when not all the parts of the brain develop at the same rate… The frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys, that’s just not all there yet. Why do you think car insurance for boys is so much higher? For that matter, why do you think most of the infantry in the Army is young?

“Go out there into that gaping maw of death and take that minefield!”

“Sir, yes SIR!”

…it’s because of that whole frontal lobe thing. They don’t have any thought to their own safety, or potential consequences. In fact, there’s even proof. Seriously.

So while we didn’t have any military types to deal with in this story, we did manage to get Jason, Tamara, Wayne and about 4 more of us frontally-lobe-challenged teenagers together to mess with the system a bit, as it were, with no idea of the consequences that were to follow… You see, every quarter, we had to register for our classes, and at that time, we’d all troop into the gym, where things were semi computerized. That is to say the forms we were to put our class requests onto had been computer printed with our names and other information on them.

On paper.

…and later this paper would be scanned back into a computer, but all of the registration and filling out of the forms in between was totally manual.

On paper.

When we entered the gym, there were tables all around the edges, with boxes on them full of these forms, and letters indicating that forms on this table were for students with last names beginning from A-C, and the next table was D-F, and so on. Behind each table sat someone’s mom, or former student’s mom, who had volunteered to help get the 1800 students registered over the course of the day.

There was a lot to do.

There were things to correct.

…and there were lots of spare forms.

Heh…

Remember that bit about messing with the system? Here was an opportunity that was, in the words of Tom and Ray Magliocci (of Car Talk fame) “Unimpeded by the thought process.” Well that’s just a perfect definition for a teenager, especially some ‘frontally lobe challenged’ teenagers who were up for a laugh.

And the thing was, while we were up for a laugh, we didn’t want to get anyone into trouble, least of all Bob. He had to be visible enough to be known, but completely invisible from faculty and staff.

Well, staff.

The six of us got together with our favorite teachers and asked them if they’d be okay with having an extra student in their class, and would he pass if he were there…

To a teacher, the answer was, “if he does the work, he’ll get the grade…”

Cool!

Now because I was the most honest looking of the bunch, or because I was the most frontally lobe challenged, I’m not sure which, I was picked to go to the table marked S – T, get one of the spare forms with some level of excuse that I’d lost mine, and have them fill it in as needed, and surprise of all surprises, Bob Sherp was born.

Right there, in the middle of the gym, at Bethel high school in Spanaway, Washington. He was a big baby… 180 pounds. About six feet.

Oh, and about 18 years old.

Bob got to be with me in the first aid class, in large part because I got along well with Brownie, and her take of, “If he does the work, he’ll get the grade…” It did kind of bug me though, every now and then – because I was literally doing twice the work of a normal student, and strangely enough, whoever’s homework I did first (Bob’s or mine) generally got the better grade.

When I got a worse grade than Bob, I knew something was a little off – but what was really cool in all of this is that I really learned my first aid.

Another class I “had” with Bob was the Radio Production class.

Selected people from the Radio Production class did the announcements for the entire school every morning.

And Bob did the announcements, every Monday morning.

We’d decided Bob would be a foreign exchange student from England, in large part because I could do a pretty good English accent.

So I was the voice of Bob Sherp.

Every Monday, I’d leave class, get the stack of announcements at the front office, sort them by subject, and stack them on the PA system in the corner. Now because of the way it was set up, I’d have to stand, facing the corner, holding the mike key down with my left hand while holding the announcement I was reading in my right, and every Monday morning started exactly the same way, with a stunningly enthusiastic deep British voice, “Good Morning! Bob Sherp here once again, with your Monday morning announcements!” – and then I’d go off on a riff and ad lib my way through the announcements, making “British” comments and just being way, WAY too cheerful for a pre-coffee high school Monday morning… but it’s what I got to … sorry, it’s what “Bob” got to do, and “Bob” loved it.

What “Bob” didn’t realize is that while standing there, alone in that corner, back to the office, when everyone was supposed to be in their homerooms, he had a captive audience of about 1800 people, all students sitting there in their classes with nothing else to do but listen to some English guy tell bad jokes and talk about which clubs were meeting that day, when “spirit week” was, and how important it was to register for your SAT’s.

The funny thing was, NO one outside the Radio Production class ever knew who Bob was… No one had ever seen him. In fact, the folks in the radio Production class might not have been sure, just like Superman and Clark Kent, Tom Roush and Bob Sherp were never seen together… or, for that matter… heard together, I guess. It got close once… The student body president happened to see me leave the office one Monday right after I’d – er – “Bob” had done the announcements and asked if I’d done them.

“Nope,” I said, barely edging out of the English accent in time, “That was Bob Sherp!”

“Oh, – he sure sounded like you…”

I made sure no one ever heard “Tom” speaking in an English accent after that.

What’s funny about the whole thing – at least for me, is I honestly had no idea what kind of storm I was creating with Bob. Like I said, NO one ever saw him, and I found out much later, an awful lot of people were trying to figure out who this guy was.

A young sophomore named Bitsy had heard “Bob’s” voice every Monday morning, and just had to meet him, so for an entire quarter, she and a number of friends she had enlisted to help staked out the hallways between classes, ears tuned for any trace of the owner of a British accent she’d heard, and memorized, and wanted to meet. But her attempts were in vain, and she never heard “Bob’s” voice.

However, as with all good things, it came to an end. It seems that somehow, somewhere, they started poking around, and apparently Bob was called to, of all things, the office – the same one he (and I) did the Monday morning announcements in. Unfortunately, I had a P.E. class outside at the time of those calls, and I never heard the announcements. The others in the group of us who’d ‘created’ him thought I’d heard them, but didn’t tell me – so after a while, Bob, bless his heart, was expelled from school for being absent – even on days he’d been there first thing, giving those Monday morning announcements.

So Bob was kicked out and didn’t graduate, I did and went off to college, and a couple of years later, I was home for a weekend, when two friends, Wayne and Bitsy, yes, that Wayne, and yes, that Bitsy, who’d become a bit of an item, came over to visit, and as we were chatting about old times, the subject of Bob came up.

Wayne and I looked at each other, grinned a little, and felt the situation was about as ripe as it was going to get so he (who as you know had been in on the gag from the beginning) said to Bitsy (who clearly hadn’t, but SOOOO wanted to meet Bob), “Hey you wanna meet Bob Sherp?”

Bitsy’s eyes got huge.

She looked up at Wayne, almost in awe.

Really?”

Wayne knew about Bob? This was too good to be true. And then, Wayne’s and my eyes met, and unspoken, I took my cue…

“Good Morning! Bob Sherp here, once again, with your Monday morning announcements!”

Bitsy’s face went into instant, total shock followed immediately by

  • Absolute delight at finally meeting “Bob” to
  • Excitement at having the answers to her questions
  • Total shock at realizing someone she’d known (Wayne) had had the answers to all her questions all the time even if he didn’t realize the questions were there
  • and then finally realizing Bob was someone she’d known all along.

In the end, she wasn’t sure whether to hug us or clobber us, but we all had a good laugh afterwards.

Apparently this had really been a secret that those of us in on it kept very well, and people, especially Bitsy, just wanted answers, Wayne had them, and true to his word, he never, ever let on that he knew that the mysterious foreigner Bitsy had been so eager to meet was a guy who’d sat next to her in class a few years before.

Wayne and Bitsy became even more of an Item a number of years later, and when I talked to her about it while writing this story, her memory of it was just as sharp as the day she’d discovered who Bob was – er – is…

And of course, it got me thinking…

Remember that thing I mentioned about the frontal lobe and not knowing what the consequences of our actions would be?  On this one, I still don’t.  It’s been years since this happened – and only with the publishing of this story will I find out what kinds of memories will be brought up in all of it.  I just know that for me, (and Bob) it was a tremendous amount of fun to step completely outside of being the normal person that showed up for school every day and become someone else, to be able to make people laugh, smile, and wonder.

So for those of you in my class (Wayne, Tamara, Jason, and a few others) who made it all possible – thank you so much for your help!

Heh, I just realized this, we made the first Avatar… Before there were avatars online, there was Bob Sherp.

In real life.

So for those of you who’ve been wondering all these years – you now have your answer.

For Brownie and Mrs. Williams and all the other teachers – you’re gems.  Thank you for playing along with us in all of it.

Oh, and Bitsy – Bob says hi.  😉

(and this is published on Monday morning just for you)


I was mowing the lawn – no, wait – not the lawn…

Let’s try that again…

I was trimming the dandelions with the mower a few days ago (there, that’s better, and more honest) – and as I pulled the mower back a bit, it hit a little tree branch buried in the grass, and that vibrating feeling in the handle sparked my memory and it sent me whirling with the cut grass into the time machine again.

See, many years ago, I mowed the lawn (and it was a lawn) and did the gardening at a place in Lakewood, Washington, called Thornewood Castle just south of Tacoma. It was a fascinating place to be, because it was quite literally a castle. My uncles worked it before I did, and while I’m sure you can get a lot more information about it now, when I was working there, the story was that it had been a castle in England, then disassembled and brought over from there, brick by brick, as ballast in ships.

It’s still a castle, but now also an inn, and given what I used to see when I worked there, it would be an absolutely stunning place to stay. The folks who own it now have done an amazing job of restoring it, and it would be a true experience to go back and visit. At the time, however, it was owned by and the home of a lady named Connie and run by her daughter Angel. My grandparents had known the family who owned it for years, my uncles had mowed the lawn there long before, and so as I was getting to that teenage lawn mowing age and needed a job, I was naturally next in line, and was taken over there and introduced. I got the job, and found, as a place like that might have, a slew of rakes and all sorts of tools you could use for mowing and yard work. In the car port, among the cars and golf carts and assorted toys, was a riding mower for the bigger areas, and then there was the push mower for the areas you couldn’t drive the riding mower on, like right around the flower beds or steep parts by the lake.

That push mower was, quite frankly, weird… it was the biggest push mower I’d ever seen, such that the gas engine on the top of it, in comparison, looked like one of those little Cox airplane engines screwed to a red 4 x 4 sheet of plywood. It had a manual throttle on it, so you could actually decide what speed to run it at, no safety handles or anything, this was before they even existed…

Once you started it, you had to shut it off by pulling the throttle back and cutting the ignition, kind of like an airplane. This was very much unlike the mowers of today with blade brakes and safety handles and those things they drag behind to keep them from throwing stuff at your feet and to keep your feet from going under them. I don’t know how it did it with that little looking motor, but it swung a huge blade, and aside from being weird, it worked fine. But it was that hugeness that caused some problems for me one day.

The lawn from the castle to the lake was interrupted by a road that went to some other houses, and there was that one steep part that went down from that road about 4 feet that the riding mower just couldn’t handle. Alongside that steep part was  some kind of transformer in a big metal case that I had to work around. (You can see it, a little greenish square in the grassy field in this satellite picture just to the west of the road.) Now anyone who’s ever mowed a lawn with a push mower, on a hill, should know that when you’re mowing a hill, the last thing you want to do is mow up and down… Here – take a look at this link… See item number 4 there? I had that thought in my head as I was figuring out how to solve this mowing problem, and because of that transformer, had to mow right along the side of the road, with the mower blowing grass out onto the pavement, toward the castle. That was all fine until I worked my way to where the crown of the little hill went down that 4 foot or so embankment.

That’s when that long blade became a problem. See, as wide and low as the mower was, the wheels were far enough apart that the crown of the hill came up to blade level, and that blade had both the leverage and momentum to start picking up dirt and rocks and throwing them toward the castle. I could hear it with my ears and feel the vibration of the blade hitting things all the way up the handle.

I knew one thing very quickly:

This was bad.

How bad?

Well, if the windows in the castle were broken, it wasn’t your typical “let’s call the glass shop to have them send a guy out to fix them.” No, this was leaded glass…

A bit of the leaded glass in Thornewood Castle. Photo (c) Joe Mabel, used with permission.

…some of which was not just leaded, but stained, and given that the collection of stained glass in those windows had started out life several hundred years earlier in Europe, is the only one of its kind, and had been brought over to the US in the early 20th century by Chester Thorne himself, and even though the windows were a good distance off, (the ones on the right from a little to the right of this view below), the chance of that big mower flinging a rock through one of them was both pretty high, and – well, as I said earlier, bad.

So I had to improvise a bit.

Photo Copyright Joe Mabel

The windows I was concerned with are – well, heck, all of them. The mower wasn’t very accurate in throwing rocks. This image was shot just a bit to the left of where the story takes place, with a wide angle lens that makes it look much farther away than it felt at the time. Photo (c) Joe Mabel, used with permission.

Remember, I couldn’t mow in the direction so the mower would blow grass out toward the lake because of that transformer thing. That would have been ideal, but it couldn’t work. So even though I knew you weren’t supposed to mow up and down from the bottom (the mower could roll back onto you), or down and up from the top (you could slip and cut more than just grass), I thought I’d just be careful and try pushing the mower up the little hill from the bottom anyway, staying on the level ground, and then getting out of the way real quick as it came back down the hill…

Hmmm…

That didn’t seem to work well, (lots of pushing) as I was working against gravity, so I thought for a bit, and then figured, with that Infinite Wisdom of Youth®  of  “it can’t happen to me”  that I could handle the whole mowing up and down thing.  I mean, in the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson, “How hard can it be?” (that’s foreshadowing, folks). I mean, it’s a hill… and there’s gravity… You just shove the mower over the edge and away it goes…  Really, How… Hard… Can it be?

So armed with more brilliance than experience, I went around to the top of the hill the long way, revved the mower up, and pushed.

Brrrrrroooooww!

It was AMAZING! The mower went down, mowed the grass, rolled 10 or 15 feet toward the lake, and finally came to a stop, engine racing…

How cool was that? I ran down, grabbed it, pulled it back up the little hill on the wet grass, and did it again.

Brrrrrroooooww!

That was just so cool… I’d be done with this in no time.

I kind of skated down the little hill the next time, grabbed the mower with my left hand, and started pulling it back up, and made it about 5 steps up the hill with the mower when my left foot slipped on the freshly cut, wet grass, and it sounded and felt like I’d hit a stick or something. I’d heard it with my ears, and felt it not only in the handle, but surprisingly, in my left foot…

Hmmm…

Weird.

I let go of the mower so I could get back up. (it went down the hill and re-mowed the path I’d just mowed), and looked down at what remained of my left shoe, which, along with my sock, had been modified to be quite topless.

And I promise you, my very first thought was, “Oh, it happened…”

Sure enough, the “it” that they’d mentioned in the articles, magazines, and manuals I’d read on “how to mow a lawn”, the very thing that they were telling you not to do – and why not to do it – yes, that it, I’d just done… and the resulting it had just happened… And, come to think of it, I’d just discovered that the mower could also be used as a 3 ½ horsepower toenail clipper. Extremely effective, but I’ve got to tell you, it lacked a lot in the precision department…

I said a short little prayer of thanks that it wasn’t worse than it was while I was trying to figure out what to do next, and decided that maybe, just maybe I should stop mowing for the day and go get my toe looked at. So I put the tools and mower away into their spot in the carport, went in to talk to Angel, who was in her office doing paperwork, and told her I had to quit a little early that day.

“Why, is something wrong?”

“Well”, I said as her kids came traipsing into the room, “Sort of… I kinda mowed my foot, and thought I’d go over to Madigan (the Army hospital) and get it looked at.”

Angel was aghast. “Oh, can I help? Do you need a tourniquet or anything?”

Her kids heard her and came running into the room and tried to peek at my foot under the desk to see what a mowed one actually looked like.

I stole a glance down, making sure all was hidden from the prying little eyes.

“No,” I said as the kids kept trying to peek from different angles, “It’s okay. I think I’ll just head over to the emergency department and have them take a look.”

I’d already put all the tools away, so the rest was just getting out of the castle and across I-5 over to the ER on Fort Lewis. I put the four way flashers on and didn’t slow down to the normal stop as I drove through the Madigan  (Now Joint Base Lewis McChord, where the new version of Madigan Army Medical Center is located) gate. You couldn’t do that today, but back then I had dad’s Air Force pass on the car, and although they waved at me to slow down a bit, the guards did wave me through.

As I accelerated away from the gate and shifted gears, I noticed a couple of things: First, my toe was starting to throb a bit, and second, things felt a little more squishy inside my left shoe as I hit the clutch to shift.

Hmmm…

I pulled into the parking lot, turned off the four ways, parked the car and hobbled across the street into the strangely empty emergency room.

I heard laughter up ahead on the left, and walked up to a counter (things were getting really squishy and throbbing a lot by then) and figured I’d politely wait until the staff noticed me.

They didn’t, so I banged on the counter a couple of times to get their attention, and loudly asked, “Excuse me, but does mowing one’s foot constitute an emergency around here?”

They stopped laughing, looked at me, each other, then one of them ambled over, glanced out the door, and, noticing that I’d walked in by myself, figured I must be talking about someone else waiting outside, so he said, “Well, it depends… how bad is it?”

How bad is it, he says…

I’m thinking, “It’s throbbing, it’s squishy, and…” and then, with the idea that a picture was worth a thousand words, I decided to paint him one.

So I put my foot up on the counter for him.

His eyes got pretty big. I’m sure he’d seen worse, but not that close, and not that suddenly.

By this time the source of the squishiness was pretty evident, my white sock was definitely no longer white, having kind of a Christmassy feel to it, with green grass stains and red evidence of that inaccurate toenail clipper.

“Uh… Let me get someone.”

They wanted to put me in a wheelchair and send me to an exam room, but I’d driven over and walked in, I figured I could walk a little further, so I did.

Step…

Squish…

Step…

Squish…

Ew…

A medic came in to the exam room they’d put me in. My foot was elevated a bit by that time, and he took my shoe off, cut off what remained of my sock, and tried to figure out what to do. He tried to poke it with a needle to numb it, but that actually stung a good bit more than it had initially and I reflexively jerked away (breaking my one rule of moving while someone in the medical profession has a sharp pointy object stuck inside my body), so he held the needle a couple of inches away and squirted more of the Novocain on my toe.

“Will that help?” I asked, never having seen that method before.

“Sure won’t.” he said as he idly continued to squirt the rest of the syringe out, covering the whole toe.

I grimaced, he looked at me, and we chuckled a bit.

He trimmed what he could, put a couple of stitches in to hold things together, and had just bandaged it all up when my folks walked in. Someone had called them and let them know they might need to come get me and the car, so they did, and we all made it home safely.

Interestingly – I was in high school at the time, and had a PE class that included running, which of course I couldn’t do, (I remember I got a C in it for “lack of participation” – yeah, right…) but because of the bandage on my toe, the only shoe I had that I could fit my foot into was the one I’d been wearing when it happened. Of course I had to wear it every day, and it was a constant reminder that things can go very wrong, very quickly.

The doc didn’t want me mowing for a bit, so the grass grew while my toe healed. Eventually the throbbing faded, I stopped limping, and I finally went back to Thornewood after the stitches had been taken out to finish the rest of the lawn. The scalped section had grown back, and Connie, Angel, and the kids were happy to see me walking and not squishing. I was just happy to be walking without a limp…

And – as I stood in my own back yard, the memory playing out like the end of a movie, a mower bag full of shredded dandelions in my left hand, it got me thinking…

See, Angel wanted to help – but couldn’t really.  Emotionally, she wasn’t ready.

The kids were curious, but also couldn’t help.  They didn’t have the skills or experience.

The guards at the gate did a wonderful job of just letting me get to where I needed to be.  They could have stopped me, but they didn’t.  They encouraged me to go to where I could get help.

The folks at the counter there in the ER, the ones laughing, they should have helped a bit faster, but I needed to get their attention to get them to do it instead of just standing there.

The medic helped. He was equipped to do it. He could fix things, putting the two stitches in, but really, he couldn’t make it stop hurting, and actually made it hurt worse before it got better.

That would only come with healing, and with time.

I emptied the mower bag into the compost bin and kept thinking.

There will be times in your life when you’re hurt. That could be something as simple as using an inaccurate toenail cutter (though I don’t recommend it), or it could be more serious. It could be a situation where the hurt is physical, emotional, spiritual, financial or professional, or, in my case as I’m writing this, the loss of a loved one.

You will need people around to help, and there will be some who will want to help but simply can’t (they’re not equipped or trained).

There will be others (like the guards at the gate) who can’t help directly, but they can guide you toward the help you need.

There will be those who are fully equipped to help, but won’t until you get their attention (like the laughing staff behind the counter in the ER). Sometimes you even have to bang on the counter of your life and ask your version of “Excuse me, but does mowing one’s foot constitute an emergency around here?” before people will realize you’re in trouble and actually need help.

And at some point, there will be a medic who shows up in your life.

Some of the hurt they’ll be able to help with right away.

Some things they’ll have to work on to try to fix.

Sometimes they’ll just spray Novocain on the wound and laugh with you to help take your mind off the pain.

Some stuff they do will hurt you more before it gets better.

But getting better, that will only come with healing, and with time.

Just be glad they’re there.

Take care out there, folks.

===

Many thanks to Joe Mabel for the use of the images.


With all the spying stuff that’s been in the news the last few months, the comparison to Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984 has been on my mind a bit, and it got me to thinking about my own little experience with Mr. Orwell.

See, back in high school, we did the play adaptation of the book,

1984

…and I managed to talk my way not only into playing Mr. Charrington on stage when that actor quit, but because of my voice and ability to do accents, I had also been chosen to play the voice of Big Brother, (deep, ominous, with slight Russian accent), the voice of his arch nemesis Goldstein, (high, kind of a German accent with a little Yiddish thrown in) and on a closed circuit screen, the “Telescreen” News Announcer.

The good part of this?

I got to play 4 parts in the play.

The bad part?

I had to play 4 parts in the play.

The biggest challenge to doing them all was getting from the tiny little studio we had set up to the right of the light booth, in the back of the auditorium, where all the equipment for all the closed circuit “Telescreen” shots was, and getting into costume, makeup, into character and up onto the stage.  Once there I had to get into a Cockney accent and look and act much older than the Telescreen announcer I’d been a couple of minutes before.

The reason this was “the bad part” wasn’t that I couldn’t do the parts.

I could, and did.

The problem was logistics.

I spent the first part of the play in the windowless camera booth at the back of the auditorium, then had to get up, cross the light booth, out to the hallway, run down that hallway till I could get backstage and get into makeup, all without making so much noise as to distract the audience.

This didn’t really come up until the last few rehearsals, which were full dress, right after school.  That was when we discovered that there just wasn’t enough time to get the costumes changed in the time I had.

So on the second dress rehearsal, I planned on getting changed up there in the windowless camera booth, before meeting everybody on stage for the pre-rehearsal meeting where they were all gathered around the telescreen that was in the middle of the stage.

Except I got there late.

And I had to hurriedly change in the only space available in the little studio beside the light booth, that being between the News Announcer’s desk and the camera.

The one with the little red light on it when it was running.

I’d almost finished changing when I heard everyone on stage laughing.  I looked around, wondering what was going on, only to hear several people yell, “Tom’s changing in front of the camera and he doesn’t know it’s running!”

It was then that I noticed the red light was on.

Big Brother was indeed watching me.

So I did the only thing that made sense at the time, given my condition (half dressed) and position (in front of the camera).

I grinned…

And then I mooned Big Brother.

And then I turned and took a long, exaggerated bow.

But it got me thinking… It reminded me that even in the smallest things, people are watching; your kids, your colleagues, your friends, and how you handle yourself when you don’t think people are watching is just as important, if not more important as when they are.

Take care folks – be good examples out there, but don’t be afraid to moon Big Brother…

Sometimes he needs it.


Have you ever done something a little on the audacious side?

Taken risks?

In fact, have you ever done something that ran an astonishingly high risk of failure, but you decided you’d try it anyway?

Now, on top of that, have you ever met someone that just seemed to have it all?

And have you ever wanted to pull a prank on them, just – well… Because?

Have you ever had a convergence of all of those things look like they might come together in ways that you could imagine in your dreams, but couldn’t possibly imagine in reality?

Well, it might be hard to imagine for those of you who read these stories, but yes indeedy, I had all of those things happen, many years ago.  See, when I was a teenager, I knew someone like that, his name was Marc.  Marc was handsome, smart, had a sense of humor and a smile that would win over just about anybody.

At that time, Marc was always, and I mean always in the company of some attractive young lady.  We went to different schools, but went to the same church, and were in the same youth group, and most importantly, went to the same church camp in southern Washington, where once a year, we met other kids from other churches in the district (which encompassed Washington and Oregon).  One of those kids was a young lady by the name of Jeanne, a bright, fun, attractive girl from Oregon who was friends with just about everyone.

It was clear that a number of the boys at camp were completely smitten by her, but given that she lived a few hours from where we lived, and given that this was, shockingly, before the days of the internet as we know it, any communication had to be done by letters that were written, with a pen, on paper, or telephone calls which usually cost more for the first minute of calling than the stamp to send the letter cost.  (I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit for some of you, and for those of you a little older to nod and remember that time, too)

So we all looked forward to church camp, where we were able to spend time with each other and not only learn lessons from the Bible, but get together and have fun, singing songs, playing games like Capture the Flag, and What Can We do With The Counselor’s Car?” (my sister’s car was somehow put in the Gym, mine one year ended up down a path down by the river), or, in quieter moments, just hanging out by the campfire.  Bottom line: those of us in the youth group just loved camp, because it just made the youth group that much bigger.

One year, completely outside of camp, the youth group decided to go camping for a weekend out around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.

Marc was still smitten by Jeanne, but because of simple geography, was also good friends with a young lady named Sandy.  Fact is, we were teenagers, and being smitten was part of the territory, so that was really a standard condition for all of us.

As a result, the situation was just totally asking for more than a little practical joking, and to be honest, I was one of those guys who was just a little smitten, but Jeanne and I were also, as we used to say, “just friends” (emphasis on the quotes there) so when I found out about the youth group camping trip to Kalaloch, and that Marc was going, it just seemed ripe for a little fun.

So I called Jeanne up and asked her if she wanted to go camping.

At the Beach.

In Washington.

Now understand, this was quite a bit easier said than done.  I was south of Tacoma, Washington, she lived somewhere near Portland, Oregon, and we were headed to Kalaloch, in Washington.  Yeah, I looked it up on the map.  The trip looked like this.  Just that piece of it was over 300 miles.  She checked with her parents, got the okay, and the resulting plan was that I’d come down Friday afternoon, spend the night there, then somehow, without a whole lot of planning, synchronization, or anything, meet up with the youth group on their way to the beach, and pull off a ‘mess with Marc’s mind’ prank the likes of which he would never expect.

Also understand, the whole youth group, Marc included, coming from one direction, us coming from another direction, and actually meeting at an undisclosed, not to mention unknown, location in the middle required the kind of precision timing you might find in carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operations.

However, this was not a carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operation.

This was just me, pre-cell phone/gps days, driving down to Portland and hoping to bring a girl up to go camping with the youth group, and just happening to run into said youth group on the way to the beach – but not telling anyone in the youth group that I was doing it.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’d already told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the camping trip, that I was going to Portland for the weekend, and that I hoped they had a good time.

So I piled all my stuff together into my 1967 Saab 96 with the three cylinder, two stroke, 850 cc engine and headed off to Portland.

Everything was going great, I got there safely, we had dinner, and I met her mom. I don’t remember her dad being in the picture that evening, and her sister was out of town, so I ended up sleeping in her sister’s bed, in the frilliest, girliest bedroom I’ve ever slept in.

Given how well the trip down had gone, I thought the trip up would be a breeze.

I was wrong.

It rained overnight, the first time in a long time, and the next morning, we were all ready to go, we got the car packed, and I fired up the Saab, it was idling quietly, warming up a bit, with the ‘ringgggdadingdingding….’ sound that it made when it was idling, the two stroke smoke from the cold engine wafting like fog all over the neighborhood.  I was about to put it into gear to back out of their driveway when the clutch pedal went to the floor, and neither reverse – nor for that matter, any gear, was available without some seriously nasty grinding of Swedish steel gears.

Hmm…

I popped the hood, screwed the lid off the clutch master cylinder, and found it not only low, but bone dry.

Not good.

There was obviously a leak in the rather simple hydraulics of the clutch system, as all the brake fluid in it had leaked out. I was many, many miles from home, so in spite of the ‘freewheeling clutch‘ designed into the car, I really wasn’t going for a several hundred mile trip without it working.  So bright and early that Saturday, we had to find a car parts store to see if we could get the right brake fluid for the car’s hydraulic clutch system (the wrong kind would eat through the seals, and who knows, maybe that’s what had already happened, I don’t know for sure, so we borrowed her parent’s land yacht of a ‘70’s sedan. All I remember was that it had a cold-blooded 430 cubic inch V-8 engine , a light rear end, and a sticky throttle.

Note: that 430 cubic inch engine had more power in just one of its eight cylinders than I had in my entire car.  There WAS a difference.

In fact, there was far more cast iron in that engine than in my entire car, and it  ran a little rough until all that iron warmed up. This was something we discovered as the car coughed just as we were making a left turn out onto a very large, empty five lane street as we were going out in search of the necessary brake fluid.  Jeanne pumped the gas a few times to try to get it to run again, and just as she had her foot on the floor, the engine woke up as if it had been hit with a quadruple shot of espresso, and it roared, spinning the back wheels on the wet, slick pavement.  We fishtailed all over the road for a few hundred feet until Jeanne got the throttle un-stuck and the car under control.  Neither one of us needed anything resembling coffee after that, the adrenaline was enough to keep us both very, very alert for the rest of the morning.

We found a gas station, got the only kind of brake fluid they had (the wrong kind, as it turned out – but I knew I’d have to replace the seals when I got home anyway), got the land yacht safely docked back in her parent’s driveway, where I did a quick refilling and Jeanne helped me bleed the air out of the clutch hydraulics and tested it all out.  That done, we piled into the now non-clutchless Saab, and headed north.

We’d already lost quite a bit of time with the whole clutch thing, which frustrated me, as I knew about the time the youth group was planning to leave, and knew where I wanted to intercept them, but I was now late, and the whole plan was looking like it was going to fall apart.  I mean seriously, I didn’t even know which campground near Kalaloch they’d be staying at… I had to find them or the whole weekend would be a wash.

Then near Vancouver, Washington, the little light on the gas gauge started to flicker on every now and then, so I pulled into a Shell station there.  Oh, remember, I was driving a two stroke car, which meant I had to mix the oil with the gas in a precise ratio: One quart of 30 wt oil, 8 gallons of premium…

In that order.

Into the gas tank.

And that station was the only one around that insisted on selling gas by the liter.

Right.

They sold oil by the quart, gas by the liter, and my math was in gallons.

I had to do some quick math…

Let’s see… 3.78 gallons of gas per liter –

No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…

Ugh…

I calculated it out with the stub of a pencil on the roof of the car, scribbling on the back of a receipt I’d found in the door pocket, to be about 30 liters of gas after I got the one quart of oil in there.  It had to be right.  If it was too rich (too much oil) I’d foul the plugs and it wouldn’t run well.  If it was too lean, (not enough oil) I’d burn the piston rings and toast the engine.  (We’ll get into this in another story that has yet to be written, interestingly about this very thing, on this very car.)  So, that being said, the relatively simple but time consuming part of getting the oil to gas ratio wasn’t optional, it had to be done right, or the trip might not happen at all.  So, it was just one more thing on this trip that absolutely had to be right.   I figured it all out, got the gas, paid, hopped back into the car, and blasted out of there heading north.

Once we got moving, it felt like we were actually making pretty good time, and it looked like we might make it… I just had to drive well past the speed limit, not get caught, and – oh gosh, I think Jeanne was 16 or 17 at the time… I was maybe 20, 21.  Getting stopped with a young lady who was underage across state lines wouldn’t be good, so yes I was driving as fast as the little Saab and traffic would allow, but gosh I had my eyes peeled for anything resembling a car with red and blue lights on it.  The thing is, I didn’t really feel I had much of a choice but to drive like I was driving, because we were so late already.  I’m sure at some point in there I had thoughts of “What am I doing???” – but right then the whole idea of, “Gosh, Tom, why don’t you drive something like 750 miles in a weekend just to pull a prank on a friend?” just seemed like the right thing to do…

About an hour or so later, we were coming to a possible crossroads where, depending on where the rest of the youth group was, I would either have to turn left and get off the freeway, or go straight and try to intercept them up ahead.  A look at the clock in the car made me realize I’d better see if I could call the church to see who all ended up going, I mean, if Marc hadn’t gone, the whole thing would be off, so it was crucial for him to be there.  I pulled off the freeway and into a gas station with a phone booth (yes, this was BC – Before Cellphones). I ran over to the phone booth, crumpled map rustling in my wake, and called the church, where I very quickly learned several things: 1. Marc was coming.  2. He was driving his parent’s silver Chevy Citation, our friend Bert would be driving his parent’s red Buick, and Marc’s parents would follow up in this monster station wagon they had, with all the bigger stuff, like the tent, the food, and the stove. I also learned that they’d left later than I expected them to, which meant that if I read the map right, we – oh, crap – I said a hurried goodbye, slammed down the receiver and tore out of there as fast as the three cylinders of the Saab would take me, leaving a cartoonish cloud of white two stroke exhaust in my wake…

It looked like we might actually be able make this…

I’d have to turn off my planned path of heading north and west via I-5 and highway 101 (which turned into highway 8) which I was familiar with and I knew they’d have to travel, vs. highway 12, which I’d never been on, but from the looks of the map, was a lot shorter, and from what I could tell, intersected highway 8 over near the town of Montesano, so I decided to risk it and turned off I-5 and onto Highway 12, where I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I couldn’t drive nearly as fast.  I got through the town of Grand Mound, and then it was pretty much a two lane road, top speed, 55 mph, with occasional little towns where the speed limit was lower.

Hmm…

So we tootled along for a bit – talking about all sorts of stuff, but never doing anything more than speed limit, until the stereotypical little old lady – I kid you not, squinting at the road between the top of the steering wheel and the dashboard, pulled out in front of us in a blue smoke belching Buick type of a thing that I could barely see around.

At 35 mph…

That was a bit too high for 2nd gear in the Saab, just a hair low for 3rd. Definitely too low for 4th .  so I was stuck, right at a speed the car rarely saw unless it was accelerating through it…I remember having to constantly shift back and forth, hunting for a gear I could use.  I was incensed.  The road was just curvy enough, with just enough traffic, to where there was no possible way I could pass her with the acceleration the car had, Mile after mile after mile, stuck behind this old greenish Buick.  I was just thinking that it couldn’t get worse, when a very heavily loaded logging truck pulled out from some foresty road right in front of the little old lady…

And she had to hit her brakes.

To slow down.

From 35 mph…

I don’t remember where exactly this happened, but it was clear that the truck driver either wasn’t planning on or wasn’t capable of driving any faster than 35 for the bit he was on, and any acceleration he got on the level he lost on the little hills, so 35 it was.

I could see my dreams of messing with Marc’s mind disappearing in a cloud of diesel exhaust glowing from the little old lady’s brake lights.

I was beside myself.

There was no possible way I could pass, no possible way I could overcome this obstacle, and so as frustrated as I was, I had to just let it go…

After all that, it looked like I’d failed. I was just imagining how hard it would be trying to catch up with the rest of the youth group after being stuck behind the truck and the little old lady when the truck turned right, and I saw something I couldn’t see around him: A bridge. That couldn’t be the bridge I was looking for. It was about 10 miles early… But… it had to be highway 8. I didn’t understand, and asked Jeanne for the map, where I saw that highway 12 didn’t come out at Montesano, it came out at Elma, and those last 10 miles to Montesano were actually on highway 8, which, from what I could tell, doubled as highway 12, at least for that little bit.

And that meant we were about 10 miles ahead of where we thought we were – which meant… Oh my gosh – that meant that we might actually have caught up with them.  There wasn’t a second to lose, but now I didn’t know if we were ahead of them or behind them.

Just in case it all worked, I’d gotten some Groucho Marx glasses for us both – with the nose, the mustache, and the eyebrows, and so I asked Jeanne if she could get them out while I accelerated up the onramp.  She was rummaging around the back seat for the masks when I hit third gear, and I remember telling her what I’d heard on the phone a bit earlier.  “Look for a silver Citation, a red Buick, and a wood sided station wagon.”

“Yup, I see them,” she said as if she’d been expecting this all along.  “They’re right there.”

They’re…

…Right…

“WHAT?”

“No, really, they’re right there!”

I leaned forward as far as the seat belt would let me, looked in my left rear view mirror as I was merging and realized she was right.  With all the things that appeared to have gone wrong, they had all conspired to get us to exactly the right spot at the absolute most perfect time we could have gotten there…

Pulling up IN FRONT of them.

Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.

Seriously, Special Forces missions are timed with this level of precision.

I hit the gas, and the white smoke from the two stroke engine trailed behind me and into the Citation, the Buick, and the Station Wagon, making it very clear to all that we’d arrived.

I heard later that there was a conversation in the car Marc was driving (the Silver Citation), his little brother Craig and little sister Marce was there, saw me pull up in front of them, and yelled, “That’s Tom!”

“That can’t be Tom. Tom’s in Portland visiting Jeanne.”

“But no one else has a red Saab like that!”

“Someone must.  Tom’s in Portland.”

Meanwhile, in the Saab, I still couldn’t believe my luck, and tried to figure out what to do, given that while I had hoped for something like this, and given all the obstacles that morning, only in my wildest dreams did I actually expect it to happen, and it seemed like it was coming true.  Jeanne and I tried on the fake Groucho Marx glasses with the nose, mustache, and eyebrows, you know, high-brow (but low budget) stuff, so that when they finally saw us, they wouldn’t quite recognize us right at the first second.

And then I tried to get them to pass us, so I slowed down to about 50…

Marc, Bert, and Marc’s parents slowed down, too…

No one passed.

I sped up, and in a few minutes, tried it again.  I had to get them to pass me because I had no idea where they were going – so after several times where I slowed down, and irritated Marc with that, then floored it to get back up to speed (irritating him with the smoke from the car) – he finally pulled out and passed, and Jeanne and I straightened out the glasses.

And to this day, I can still remember the look on his face as he realized what was going on as he passed us.  Sandy was sitting next to him, Jeanne and I both looked over in our Groucho Marx glasses, and he just stared… (and I, of course, smiled just a touch).  He couldn’t believe it.  (and, to be honest, I couldn’t either, but for a much different reason.)

I stayed in the slow lane until the whole caravan passed us, getting smiles from people as they looked over and realized what was going on, and then I fell in behind the last car.  We all got to the beach safely, which was wonderful, and I think there were close to 15 people there when everyone was added up.  By the time I’d pulled into a parking space, Marc had already jumped out of the car and was waiting on Jeanne’s side of the car.  He opened the door hugged the stuffings out of her, and I think there might have been a punch in the shoulder for me, followed by a hug when I got out.  I remember the shocked look was gone from his face, and that smile of his that I always remember him having was back.  Having Jeanne there was definitely a surprise, totally unexpected, but she was such a part of the ‘extended’ youth group we were in, that she fit in perfectly, and then, over the next little bit the tent and stove were set up, the sleeping bags were piled into the tent, and in typical Washington summer fashion, the wind that was blowing was cold.

We all ran down to the beach, where my friend Bert (driving the red Buick) and Marc had convinced another member of the youth group, Rachel, that this kelp they’d found was a huge sea snake.  They chased her down the beach with it.  How it later ended up, cold, wet, and slightly slimy, in Bert’s sleeping bag we, um, don’t know, but it was all part of the fun of camping at the beach (well, fun for everyone but Bert).  We went wave hopping (wading out into the Pacific until you’re about thigh deep, and then trying to time your jumps to keep your, um, “bits” dry as the waves come in.  And let me tell you, off the Washington Coast, the Pacific Ocean is COLD.  Eventually the “bits” you’re trying to keep dry and warm get wet, and cold, and who knows, depending on how long you’re in there, they might even turn blue.  When things like that happened, it was obviously time to get out, so we did.  Of course, that’s right about the time the sun came out, go figure.

We went back up to the camp, where Marc’s parents had started a fire, and his mom had made hot chocolate, which we held in our hands in those speckled blue and white metal camping cups until it was lukewarm, trying to get every possible degree of heat out of before drinking it to get the rest.

We soaked up the warmth of the campfire, we sang songs, we played games, we did skits, we made s’mores, and made more hot chocolate.

When it was bedtime, almost all of us managed to fit in the tent.  It was so weird, we were all full of the energy, spunk, and yes, hormones of youth, and getting to sleep was a challenge, we were all giggling and laughing and telling stories.  People had trouble believing not only that I’d told everyone I wasn’t coming on the trip, (we were a tightly knit bunch, and for me to not go on the campout bordered on treason) but that I’d actually pulled it off.  And on top of it all, for me to go to visit the girl Marc liked didn’t make sense, but in the end, that night we were all together like a group of friends should be, piled together in the tent with all the formality of a litter of puppies.

Once we did fall asleep, we slept like the logs on the beach.

I remember getting up the next morning, bleary eyed. Everything in the tent damp with the puppy breath of about 15 puppies (us), and while it was warmer in the tent, I was glad to get out into “not-pre-breathed-through-several-sets-of-lungs, seaside fresh, but oooh-so-cold air.

Marc’s parents were already up, his dad had made coffee and a fire was going.  I remember several more people stumbling out of the tent and being inexorably drawn to the fire like marbles to a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline.

After breakfast and cleanup, there was a little more playing on the beach until it got too cold, then we thawed out a bit after we came back out of the wind through the trees and into the campground, where there was more hot chocolate to get feeling back into our hands with those warm camping cups.  Eventually it was time to pack all our sandy stuff into the cars and start the long drive back home…

Only I couldn’t go straight home.

Since I’d brought Jeanne up from Oregon to go camping, I had to take Jeanne back home to Oregon to go home, and I still had several hundred miles of the clutch issue to deal with, so we all headed out, and eventually, with much waving of hands and honking of horns, we went our separate ways, Jeanne and I heading south so I could take her to Portland, and the rest of the group heading straight home to where they had come from.

I honestly don’t remember much of the trip back, either to Jeanne’s or home from there. I just know it was a lot slower and gentler than the trip up.  I don’t remember any of the fallout or aftermath of the story.  I just know that I wanted to do something crazy and did it.

And as I was writing this – I went through the trip in my mind, and it got me thinking. (and if you’ve read some of my stories, you knew this was coming)

Each one of the things that happened in the story happened for a reason…

And most of the things that happened in the story drove me nuts when they happened.  I mean really,

  • Did the clutch cylinder HAVE to blow the night before the trip?
  • Did Jeanne’s parents car HAVE to spin out and freak us out?
  • What about trying to drive all over before gas stations and stores opened up to find brake fluid?
  • Or having to stand there converting liters to gallons, or the other way around?
  • What about the stop to make the phone call?
  • What about the blue haired (and smoked) little old lady driving the mondo Buick that I couldn’t pass?
  • Why on EARTH would she be put in front of me?
  • What about the logging truck dragging half a forest’s worth of old growth behind him? Why did he have to pull out in front of me?

I mean seriously, all of that stuff made me SO much later than I wanted to be… By the time I got to the bridge in what I thought was Montesano I was about ready to explode.  I was trying to be optimistic, because it all might still have worked, but until that truck got out of the way and I realized where we were (at the bridge that I thought was in Montesano, but actually 10 miles earlier than I was expecting it), I had no idea that all this planning and stuff might actually work out.

I mean, think about it… the timing was such that if everything that needed to go “right” in my mind had actually gone right, then the whole trip would have been blown, I would have ended up waaaay ahead of the rest of the youth group, and there would have been no chance of me figuring out where they were going (All I knew was “Kalaloch”)

And it makes me think about life…

How sometimes it really, truly feels like life is not only handing us lemons, but rotten ones at that… How life repeatedly keeps flipping us a level of crap delivered by the truckload… that just seems to be overpoweringly wrong.

And yet, somehow, things work out for the good.

Each bad thing we live through, if we stop there and never get out of it, is a bad thing.  But it’s one frame in a movie, and the next frame will be different.

Think about that, then keep reading.

I know people who are going through incredibly hard times right now.  I know people who have gone through hard times and will go through harder times still…  And I’ve come to conclude that life is a learning process… We all will make mistakes through our decisions or indecisions.  We all have bad stuff happen to us through no fault of our own, and then we’re faced with a fairly simple decision:

Do I give up? Or do I carry on?

And I’ve talked to people who feel very strongly that giving up simply isn’t an option.  They may not look like very strong people on the outside, but I’ve seen them, they are Olympians of endurance on the inside.

I’ve also known people for whom the struggle was so great that carrying on wasn’t an option, and to be honest, we didn’t know how bad the situation was until after the fact, and by that time it was too late.  And even though the struggle may not seem big to those of us on the outside, it has taken me years to learn that we have no idea what kinds of struggles other people are going through, even if we think they’re telling us everything.  Some time ago, over the course of a single week, I learned that two people I knew, who I thought had it all together, far better than I did, were losing it.  You just don’t know.

And I’ve learned that we’re not here to judge each other based on what we can see of each other when there’s so much going on under the surface we know nothing about, (I don’t remember being appointed judge of anyone) – but to support each other through the trials that this life is.

So maybe, just maybe, that’s what you’re being called to do in the journey that is your life right now.  Support someone.

Help them get to their Montesano…

Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.

And if you can, do it anonymously.

I don’t know who this person is in your life, and it will change over time, but somehow, some way, someone will be brought into your life, and you’ll have that opportunity.

Run with it.

And if you’re someone who’s going through a rough journey, and you keep finding yourself facing messed up clutches, weird gas stations, and all sorts of things in your way…

Keep going.  Really.

If not for the destination, for the journey, and to see the smiles and love of those around you.

I just told you a story about a drive, a journey I took with a friend to meet other friends… We spent time together, we ate together, we played and talked and froze our butts off together, and then we all piled into that tent like those fuzzy puppies I mentioned earlier.

Isn’t that the way it should be?

That’s life, right?

A journey…

I mean think about it…

Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).

Unexpected stuff happens (gas stations sell gas in liters instead of the expected gallons).  People pull out in front of you, or cut you off (everyone from little old ladies to truck drivers) – and it all seems to be conspiring against you…

But… (and this is a big but, believe me, I get this…)

I learned that the end can come sooner than we think, just like that bridge I thought was in Montesano and ended up showing up 10 miles sooner…  And at that point, the frustration, or at least that part of the frustration will be over.  You’ll have lessons to ponder and learn, you’ll have stories to tell, but you’ll have a chance to be with your friends or family, and eventually, you’ll be through that challenge and on to the next one, and you’ll be doing your quiet version of driving home from Portland.

So… Hug your loved ones.

Remind them you love them.

Support those around you who are struggling.

Bring smiles into their lives as you can.

And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.

PS to Marc’s family, Jeanne, Rachel, and Bert who helped me remember some of the little details of this story – Thanks for letting me be a part of it.

Much love,

Tom

Tom Roush

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