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I was out in the back yard some time ago and I noticed the Burley bicycle trailer (something like this) cowering from the weather underneath the little tree house I’d made for Michael years ago. He and I used to go all over the place with that thing… We found that we could pop the wheels off, fold it up and put it in the trunk, then pop the bike on the back of the car, then go someplace fun and go for a long bike ride without having to actually ride *there* to do the ride… It made for a lot more fun (and energy) during the ride itself.
One time, we went to the zoo, just riding from the house – it wasn’t far, but it was up a pretty steep hill – and it seemed a lot harder to get there that time. He was fine, but I found out that I’d accidentally left our daughter’s french horn in the ‘trunk’ of the trailer behind Michael. Turns out dragging random brass musical instruments around behind you slows you down when you’re going uphill. We begged the person at the gate to store it for us while we were at the zoo that day with the animals, and I made sure not to go too fast down the hills on the way home.
Other than the zoo, we went so many places with that bike and trailer…. to the Ballard Locks for picnics, to playgrounds for him to meet people and play, to Discovery Park to ride the trails and pick blackberries.
We always had a tall flag on the trailer with a little spinning wind sock on it, and it would flutter in the breeze as we went down the road or the trails. Because that made us stand out a bit, one time a lady saw us in the morning on our way to the playground, and in the afternoon out at Discovery Park (a few miles apart) – and stopped me, wondering, “Do you take him EVERYWHERE in that thing?”
I had to answer both yes and no, and explained how I did ride the bike everywhere, but sometimes used the car to get to ‘everywhere’. She seemed to appreciate that.
The time that stands out the most is one time when Cindy and Alyssa were out of town… I’m not exactly sure where, but I had no car to get to church in, and so Michael and I decided we’d go to church – well, me to church and him to Sunday School, and we did it on the bike.
From our house, it’s about a mile and a half down hill – which is fun and fast, and then it’s the Burke Gilman trail, which is flat, then we cross the Fremont Bridge (lowest drawbridge in the US, and therefore the busiest). Then it was up a gentle hill (Florentia Street) for a bit, and then left up a very steep hill (First Avenue) to go on a bicycle, much less a bicycle pulling a trailer with a little boy in it (wisely, we left the French horn at home this time)
What was interesting is that it was so steep that I was in first gear, and each time I pedaled, the front wheel would pop off the ground just a little, so clearly I couldn’t steer with the wheel off the ground, but when the wheel wasn’t on the ground was the only time I had power. I got going slower and slower until I was making S-turns up the road – going from side to side to build up a little speed, then u-turning up the hill and doing it over again, until I got to an entrance to a parking lot where First Avenue was level.
At that point I was huffing and puffing, and just rode in circles on that level bit of ground for a bit to catch my breath, only to hear a small voice behind me say, “Papa! You Made it!”
I’d completely missed the fact that he was sitting back there watching me.
I’d completely missed the fact that I was being an example to him, just by doing what I was doing.
As hard as I was working, as much as I was struggling to keep us moving – I was unaware that little eyes were on me.
I completely lost whatever lesson there was at church and realized the lesson was right there…
And of course, it got me thinking.
How many times does that happen to us?
How many times are people watching us, silently cheering us on?
And how many times would we keep going just that one extra step if we knew that?
So I’m going to put this out there for you, because there have been times where I’ve been the one cheering people on privately, but there have been other times when I’ve been the one quietly, no, silently cheering someone on…
Without actually telling them.
I’d be quietly watching, hoping for them to succeed in whatever battle they’re fighting.
And I’d want them to win.
I want them to climb that mountain.
I want them to find the balance between powering when they need to move forward, and steering when they need to change direction.
I. Want. Them. To. Win.
So… for me – for you… respond to this. It can be at the end of this blog, but it doesn’t have to be. But respond to that someone you’re quietly cheering on, and put in it a note about someone you’re cheering on and why… Doesn’t have to include their name – in fact, it’d be better if you didn’t here… That’d protect their privacy, which would be good, because so many of these battles, climbs, challenges are so private – and then share this with them to actually let them know what you mean.
But be bold and let them know.
You have no idea how much a little bit of encouragement can mean to them in their battle.
Take care, God bless, and thanks.
Many years ago, when I was growing up, my uncle had this arsenal of weapons that we’d occasionally go out and use to shoot at helpless creatures.
The helpless creature of choice we had at the time was – well, a herd of unruly AMF bowling pins from Michigan that occasionally needed to be kept in line, and while other people might shoot at tin cans that would fall over, we’d set up these old bowling pins on a log, shoot at them, and if you hit them ju-u-u-u-st right, they’d explode.
This was cool.
I learned a lot in those days about shooting things. I learned about gun safety – for example, when shooting a 9 mm semi-automatic, it is a really good idea to hold it with your right hand, and then cup your right hand and the gun in your left.
It makes for steadier aim.
It makes for a better target grouping.
But most importantly, it keeps your left thumb from crossing over your right thumb when shooting.
Why is that important?
Well, your left thumb isn’t supposed to be crossed over like that because when shooting a semi-automatic pistol, the recoil of a bullet firing pushes the slide back, ejecting the just fired shell casing (the thing that held the gunpowder) out the side as it goes, and loading a fresh bullet/casing as a spring inside pushes it back forward.
It is good to learn things like this before pulling the trigger.
I remember holding the gun very carefully, I thought…
I remember looking exceptionally cool, I thought…
And I remember aiming, and pulling the trigger very carefully, I thought…
And I remember the sound of the gun going off, along with a tremendous amount of pain as that slide shot back through the first knuckle of my left thumb.
I still have a scar on that knuckle where the slide cut through it.
Now, being guys, especially guys out in the country, our first aid was, well, basic, and limited. There was the typical male expression of care and concern, along the lines of “Hey Hey HEY! No bleeding on the gun, it makes them rusty.” And someone produced something vaguely resembling a wadded up paper towel, or a sleeve, or something, and we wrapped the thumb so it would stop bleeding, and so the guns wouldn’t rust.
After we’d finished firing the handguns, we got out the rifles and really started going at the bowling pins, and I have to say that a .223 projectile, when it hits a bowling pin and goes through that outer coat of white laminate and hits the inner core of hardwood, really makes it clear that you’ve hit something. A .223 is what’s fired by what most of us know as an M-16, the military version of the civilian AR-15. Phenomenal amounts of powder, itty bitty hunk-o-lead. It means that the bullet goes out so fast that the bowling pins – well, they fell over, and like I said earlier, if you hit them just right, they exploded. If you didn’t hit just right, they’d spin a bit, or wobble, but one thing was absolutely certain: if they got hit by the .223 bullets, they were going down.
Fast forward about 30 years or so… I was down visiting my mom with my son and found a large box in the garage, labeled AMF, from Muskegon Michigan – and found it was full of old bowling pins.
I was stunned.
These were obviously descendants of the bowling pins we’d been shooting at when I was a teenager.
And I looked at my son… the descendant of the one who’d been shooting at the bowling pins when he’d been a teenager…
And the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed like a neat thing to do – go out to the same old log and shoot at those bowling pins again with my son, and I thought that maybe I’d use my old .22 and my dad’s .22 rifle and pistol, and we’d go see if we could again attempt to control that burgeoning bowling pin population down there.
So we got the rifles that had been stored, unfired for a long time,
…and got the pistol, that had been stored, unfired, for a long time,
…and found some ammo that had been stored, unfired, for a long time…
In fact, as we thought back, that ammo had likely been sitting on the same shelf since the time my dad had bought it. Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that the ammunition was as old as my son firing it was. We didn’t know that fresh ammo was a good thing at the time – it had just been sitting there on that shelf, I mean, that’s where ammo was, right?
(your line: “ri-i-i-ght….”)
So we went up and set up the bowling pins in roughly the same place we’d set them up many years before, but the log we’d put them on earlier had rotted away. This time we set them up in front of a large pile of dirt and ash, made sure things were clear, and then carefully took turns shooting at them.
I noticed a couple of things right off.
- Shooting at bowling pins with a .22 instead of a .223 doesn’t make them explode, it irritates them.
- Irritated bowling pins are dangerous.
And it wasn’t quite as satisfying to hit them with the .22 – they didn’t explode – even after quite a bit of firing. They just wobbled a bit, like Weebles. We think that shooting at them like this must have just irritated them, because at one point we had just one standing, and I fired at it, and heard this wriiiinnnnnnnnnggggg sound way, way off to the right just like the ricochets you hear in old westerns…
Hmmm… Bowling pins shoot back?
In fact, that was most interesting – we hadn’t ever heard of that in real life before.
I could just imagine the headline… “Man gets into gunfight, with bowling pin.”
No, that clearly wouldn’t do.
But later, we realized that this must have been the shot that took the bowling pins from irritated to angry, and, just like the people shooting that day were related to the people who had shot 30 years earlier – it was obvious the bowling pins were related, too…
And as my son, who looked a lot like me at that age, took the next shot – we could almost hear the one bowling pin we’d been shooting at, furious now, say quietly, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” – and the bullet that had just been fired out of the rifle came ricocheting back, not hitting anything, but coming closer than anyone would ever want to admit, close enough to make us decide it was time to put the guns away for the day.
We looked closer at the bowling pin. It was apparent that it had been hit a number of glancing blows on the sides by other bowling pins, but very clearly had been hit by bullets twice, right up at the top.
The .22 bullets with their little bit of powder and little bit of lead, instead of going through the plastic laminate like the .223 bullets had done with a little more lead, and a lot more powder, simply flattened out and bounced back. The most distinct marks, not even dents, but marks, that the bowling pin had were those right there at the top, not even ½ of an inch apart, and they looked eerily just like little gray eyes, staring back at us.
We learned several valuable lessons that day.
- Never shoot at armed bowling pins
- If anything you’re shooting at starts shooting back – it’s a good idea to bug your butt out of there.
- And last but not least, regardless of whether the bowling pins look like they’re armed, if you hear them even whisper anything about Inigo Montoya, leave them alone.
This visit to the time machine was hard.
A number of years ago, just after our son was born, my parents came to visit and see the new member of the family. My dad wanted to see what we’d made. My wife handed our son to me, and as I put my dad’s grandson into his arms, I could feel how he’d held me when I was that age. I could sense the love, the care, the overwhelming urge to protect this little bundle of life with every fiber of his being – and see he knew that he would not be able to do that, all while he struggled, in that moment, to understand the balance of holding on and letting go.
And then – as if to put that to rest, just as that thought crossed dad’s mind, my son reached up and held onto dad’s finger, the one that still had the scar from the table saw incident a few years earlier.
And dad loved it, and let his grandson hold his finger at the beginning of his life, long before he taught him what pulling it did (and the giggles that followed)
And my memories flashed on another image tacked up on the scuffed walls of the time machine.
It was a similar situation, 9 years later – as I stood at my dad’s hospital bed, and saw my son again holding my father’s hand…
Well, actually – they were holding each others hands. In this case, my dad held onto his grandson’s hand one last time.
And I’m glad he had those 9 years – though that last year was so hard.
Tomorrow it’ll have been 16 years that he’s been gone, living on in our memories, in our laughter, in our tears.
And… and I still miss him…
Take care, folks – oh – just a reminder – love the folks you’ve got while you’ve got them.
I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
Many years ago, there was a little girl who loved red converse high tops.
Then one day, she met a young man and decided that she and her mom would take him out for Pizza, because Mom and Tom rhymed.
And because he had high tops.
They spent a lot of time together, to the point where mom and Tom did more than rhyme, they got married, and the young man slowly started to understand how much the little girl loved the converse high tops.
He taught her how to ride a bicycle, with his high tops on.
And he did it wearing his shirt from Sam and Morris’s Market in Seattle. This young man, who married her mom (because, among other things, Mom and Tom rhyme), became her papa a few days before her mom took this photo.
One year he did something he’d never done. He bought two pair of red Converse High Tops, one that was his size, and one that was smaller than any shoes he’d ever remembered buying, so that he and his little girl could both wear their red Converse High Tops and be buddies.
And they did…
Every few years, Papa wore his out…
And every year or so, his little girl would grow out of hers…
But they were loved.
And one day, the papa blinked.
And the little girl grew up.
And she became a young woman.
Years had gone by in the blink of an eye.
And she met a fine young man, who would become her husband.
And he remembered something she had said years earlier.
She had said she wanted to get married in Converse High Tops.
Red Converse High Tops.
And so, on her wedding day, there were fine clothes.
There were suits.
And very, very nice dresses.
And there was definitely a wedding dress…
But in the wedding party, there was no leather on anyone’s feet.
You see, Papa had slowly understood how important this was, and had gotten three new pairs of high tops: a new pair for himself, and a new pair for the young man, and especially a new pair for the one who would always be his little girl.
And, as things like this go, that night, she got married to the love of her life.
Photos were taken.
And just as she had dreamed, she got married in a pair of Red Converse High Tops.
And one day, some years later, while doing some cleaning, the papa found something he hadn’t seen in a long, long time…
A time machine…
And in it were two much smaller, and well-loved Converse.
And the circle was complete.
Questions from my son tend to add a little different perspective to the stories I’ve told him.
If you’ve been reading them long, you know that there’s a certain classification of stories involving “Stupid Things that Papa Did When He Was Little”.
They’re the kinds of stories that I can safely tell in the first person…
(think about that – it’s important)
So when my son asked, “So just how many fires did you actually set in the house when you were growing up?” – and I honestly had to think my way through them and keep track on my fingers, I knew I needed to write the stories down. So, just a recap of the times I almost burned the house down (note: some of these stories have been written, some are in the backlog)…
Let’s see… there’s:
- the time the bed caught fire, (still need to write this one – it was an aluminum pilot’s bunk from the USS Ticonderoga… No, really.)
- the time I lit the fire in the wood stove, with gasoline. (I don’t recommend this),
- the time the candle holder caught fire (design issue anyone?) and set the set of Encyclopedias, the shelves they were on, on fire, and dripped flaming plastic onto the desk underneath them, setting it on fire as well, (Yup, need to write this one, too…)
- the time I came very close to doing the Olympic Torch run through the house with a highway flare as I was trying to put out another fire.
- …and of course there was the – well, let’s not give away the punchline, shall we?
I was still living at home with my folks and sisters, and it had been a Saturday of yard work and gardening and just general cleanup. I’d gotten done with my part, and asked what else there was for me to do, and mom said, “Well, you could go in and make dinner. You can make the chicken.”
So I looked all over for a chicken and the only one I could find was the one frozen solid.
In the freezer.
Understand, this was an industrial level freezer. The chicken was the same consistency as the granite used by the Canadian Olympic Curling team. I imagined sliding the chicken across the floor and frantically sweeping in front of it – but while the image made me smile, I decided against hurling – or curling – the chicken…
Chances were I’d break something with it.
Besides, dinner for a hungry family was more important.
Speaking of dinner, I had to figure out how to rapidly thaw this hunk of frozen fowl. Dad had spent $600.00 on a microwave oven back then (in the ‘70’s) and gotten a good one (a Sharp) that would eventually last over 40 years, looking brand new the whole time. I hefted the chicken, still in the closed plastic bag, onto the rotating glass plate and pushed the buttons for something like 40 minutes, then turned around to peel potatoes in the kitchen sink and get some vegetables ready for the pot.
I’d gotten maybe two potatoes peeled when I sniffed that something was not quite right.
I smelled the potato I was peeling.
It was fine.
It was fine.
They smelled like… raw potatoes.
Besides, I’d washed my hands, and the chicken was frozen last time I touched – oh, the chicken – uh…
I looked up from the sink, then looked left and right, trying to remember where I’d put the chicken, and it was only when I turned around that I definitely knew something was wrong.
The chicken that I’d put in the microwave to defrost, you see…
…was on fire.
I jumped across the kitchen, hammered down on the lever to shut the microwave off, popped the door open, and grabbed the burning plastic bag the chicken was in and heaved it in the general direction of the sink. The flame made a weird flup flup flup flup flup sound (complete with Doppler effect, mind you) just before the chicken thunk-splushed into the sink, putting the fire out and splashing water and potato peels all over the place.
I turned the water I’d been peeling the potato under off so I could see the bag, and it turned out that the plastic bag had been tied shut with what was standard for the time, which was two little pieces of tape with a wire in the middle.
And the wire had gotten red hot, set the tape on fire, which set the plastic bag on fire, which then set – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it had set the chicken’s butt on fire (which reminds me of yet another story about my friend Bill – but you can read that one later).
I trimmed the burned parts off, pulled what remained of the chicken out of the bag, and put it in a glass bowl with a lid and actually read the manual for “how to defrost a chicken in the microwave” and put it back in there for awhile longer.
I looked out the window, checked on the rest of the gang, knew I had some time, so peeled some apples and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar and put them on the chicken once it was defrosted and out of the microwave, then wrapped everything in some bacon I found while I was looking for the chicken in the first place and put that in the regular oven.
While that was baking, I made some salad, boiled the potatoes, and in general, made a pretty decent dinner.
I rang the dinner bell for everyone, and pretty soon they came in.
I remember one of my sisters taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose a bit as everyone came through the door, smelling a little bit of everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.
“What’s that smell?”
And I gave the only answer I could possibly give.
“It’s, it’s the chicken.”
And… it was actually pretty good.
Okay, not physical running – but mental running & walking – keep reading, you’ll get it.
A couple of months ago, after having spent the better part of a week physically and mentally fighting off a cold, the weather was sunny enough to get out, so I went to Golden Gardens to get some Vitamin D and fresh air. I sat there in the car for a bit, not quite ready to go outside yet because it was cold and I’d been listening to a program on the radio, which was actually a fascinating story about language.
And in it, a fellow said a number of things, but the two that stood out had to do with how the brain develops mentally along with the development and understanding of language. He said something about the inability to think without having language, and I differed with him greatly in my conclusion on that – not because I had reams of academic knowledge of it, but because I had personal experience in it.
And, this may come as no surprise, but I have a story about it.
The story was here, about 20 minutes in for several weeks – I wasn’t able to get to it just now, but that’s where it was.
I abandoned my idea of walking out in the sunshine and sat there, transfixed as this fellow talked about language, about communication, and then he hit a nerve in me (here’s the program about 20 minutes in – it’s when he talks about a controversial statement) – and I found myself rocketing back in the time machine – in a way that was different than all the others.
In my writings here, I’ve written nothing but true stories.
They’ve ranged in time from WWI, WWII, the Cold War, they’ve ranged from happy ones to sad ones, wise ones and silly ones, serious and and funny ones. I’ve written about my mom’s childhood, my own childhood, my children’s childhood, all the way up to the present.
I’ve joked with people that I write non-fiction because I’m not smart enough to write fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
Some of the stories were written with years of research corroborating a half-remembered story from childhood, and some were just a snippet of life that happened as I was paying attention, and I wrote it down.
And then there’s this one.
This story is the very first I could write in the first person because it… because everything that happened before this story is pretty much lost.
Because before this story happened – I didn’t have the one thing I’m using right now, and that is language.
So I’m going to use some of the language I’ve learned since this story happened to tell you a little story about a time when I didn’t have any language to tell stories with..
My first memory is from when I was in an oxygen tent overnight in the hospital for bronchitis.
The one moment I have burned in my memory is mom and dad coming to visit me or get me and the joy I had knowing they’d come for me. I don’t have words associated with it, just joy, and just for that moment.
I remember the color of mom’s dress, the color of dad’s uniform as they stood in the doorway in the far left corner, the color of the tiles on the walls in the room, the faint smell of the rubbing alcohol and ether that was always present. And I remember the light coming in from high on the right. I remember a large counter kind of a thing, strangely in the middle of the room, and the doctor standing kind of in silhouette off to the right in front of the windows.
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.
That’s me, and my sister.
A little older than that memory, but a little younger than the next one.
And it’s hard for me to understand, looking at that photo, that kids – babies – of that age can actually comprehend stuff and have thoughts and feelings and ponderings and not just react to instincts and impulses…
But I was one of them once, and I still have the memories..
I have a few other memories of that time – all of them raising more questions in me than they answer. The next one I have very clearly is of our first trip to Germany. Dad had orders to go to one place, and for the first part of the trip, we were on the same plane. I was on mom’s lap and remember looking across the aisle at him, and how proud I was of him in his uniform, with the sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve..
…and while mom remembers the flight as me having a tremendous earache and crying, I remember one moment of it being very quiet, and in that moment, as I turned to look forward, I had this thought:
“I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life?”
Understand there is significance of this, because dad spoke English and mom spoke German, and as kids, we were learning English and German at the same time.
And I remember having this thought.
The question asked has been partially answered by roughly half a century of – well – life, but the answer is not as revealing as the question that still baffles me.
How would I, being 18 months or so old at that time, know that I had life ahead of me?
If I knew life was ahead of me, that meant I had a sense of time, and my place in it.
If I knew that there was something, some things before me, what are the faded memories of those that were behind me?
How would, how could I know that things would happen?
There was a sense of understanding that the future existed long before you’d think a kid would be even capable of having thoughts like this.
Come to think of it – what about being proud of my dad? It wasn’t any other emotion… I was proud of my dad. But how could I explain that one? How could I, at 18 months, explain the sense of happiness in someone else’s accomplishments or achievements? Just trying to explain that would also mean that I could be aware of the opposite, someone else’s failings. Pride in their accomplishments would be happiness that those accomplishments, and not the failings, happened.
The more I thought about it – the more baffling it became.
And the questions kept coming: Who was I directing this question to? Or was it just me thinking to myself?
How did I know that there were options as far as what might actually happen that hadn’t happened yet?
Why did this thought come to me, fully formed, in English and not German?
I couldn’t talk verbally at the time, but I could clearly think.
I remember when we got to Germany – and when our uncle picked us up from the airport in his blue Volvo (I remember because of the bar speedometer I saw years later in my sister’s Volvo) . But it’s that little boy up there in that photo who remembers these things, not just the adult 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.
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…
It’s been a year now since this story happened, and it’s simmered enough to finally write.
We had an interesting summer last year.
We did a road trip. But, as with anything with us, it wasn’t ordinary.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of ordinary stuff in there – but – well, here, I’ll explain a bit as we go, k? You hop in the back seat, right next to the ice chest, kick the sandy shoes and the McDonald’s bag out of the way so you have some leg room, say hi to Michael, he’s back there, too, and come along for the ride – oh, sorry – no cup holders in the back seat.
There are so many stories to tell here – some of them are behind us – in fact, here – fold the map up and crack the window a bit while I get you caught up. We’re heading west, with no turns for 2000 miles… We won’t need the map for a few days.
So we were headed back to my wife’s home state of Michigan to celebrate – lots of things…
…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?
Life had been a bit challenging leading up to the trip – lots of things…
A ton of overtime at work…
Lots of organizing things for the trip…
Lots of – well…
…it’s also the stuff life is made out of, right?
And so while we were looking forward to some fun times, life, as you well know, occasionally has other ideas. And in this case, there was a trip to an emergency room, a hospital stay, a resulting unexpected trip to a laundromat, where some prayers were answered, where we bought the cop car we’re driving west in, and – yeah, a lot of things… things that you just don’t expect when you’re going to visit family for an anniversary, a wedding, and a graduation.
But they were there…
…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?
But things were a bit stressful, wondering if it was okay to leave, but we were told things would be okay, and so the time came to leave, we said our goodbyes, and tried not to cry – because as you know, there’s always a chance that the last time you see someone will indeed be the last time you see someone, and the last words you say to someone will indeed be the last words…
And you realize, as you leave, that you want to hold on to them for just a little longer…
You want to soak up their presence, their essence, and you want to just be with them for a little bit longer.
You don’t *know* that something bad is going to happen, but the visits are rare, and you have to save up for them, so that thought isn’t just in the back of your mind, it’s actually in front of that.
And so you hug them, put on a brave face, and try to remember everything you learned from them.
So you not only hug them, but you hold on to them as long as you can, and –
– hang on a bit – it looks like a rainstorm ahead…
And yes indeed – it is a rainstorm.
In fact – it’s raining so hard I can barely see – wow this came on suddenly – unexpectedly… Should I have seen this coming? This is not a road I’m familiar traveling, but stopping isn’t an option.
I look in the rear view mirror and see a Semi truck barreling down on me. I’ve slowed down to 35 mph and still it doesn’t seem slow enough… the wipers are flipping rain as hard as they can. The car suddenly shudders violently in the turbulence as the truck blasts by. The wipers won’t go any faster, and the only car I can see, and that just barely, is the one in front of me…
I can’t follow too closely, because there won’t be time to react if that driver has to stop suddenly. There was a gentle curve to the left starting just as we hit the rainstorm, so I need to stay with that driver – to be close enough to see his taillights to help guide me, but far enough away to be safe. I know I’ll have to let go, so to speak, of that driver, sooner or later, but for now, I have to hang on.
About this time, trying to imagine explaining this later, I ask Michael to take a picture, and he does.
The wipers are on full, and if you look closely, you can barely see the one taillight of that car just about dead center in the picture. The one I have to stay close enough to to see, but not so close that I crash into them.
I can’t believe how hard it’s raining, or that it’s even possible for it to rain harder.
But it does. It rains harder, I can barely see past the hood, much less the sides of the road.
We have to slow down even more.
I want to say “I can’t believe it” – but believing it – or not, is irrelevant… it’s staring me in the face. The deluge on the other side of the windshield just is, and has to be dealt with.
Whether I believe it or not.
Whether I’m capable of believing it or not.
Other drivers have seen a cable guardrail on the side of the road and have decided that slowing down isn’t enough. They had actually stopped on the shoulder, knowing they couldn’t drive any farther, simply because they couldn’t see.
I think about it – but a quick look in the rear view mirror shows the dark silhouette of another truck coming up behind me in the fast lane. He’s doing maybe twice my speed and I realize that I’d never be able to get out of the way fast enough if he were in my lane, much less drifting off to the shoulder full of parked cars.
I glance up and see that his cab is just above the spray from all the cars. That’s why he can drive faster – he can see, but all of us down here are in the middle of the spray, and we can’t see very well, so we drive slowly… and safely. We crawl past the line of cars and see an exit, which we take.
It loops around 180 degrees to the right, we make a left turn off it, and find a truck stop that says, in large letters, “CAFÉ”. There’s a parking space right in front of the door, so I pull in and just sit there for a bit.
My foot’s still on the brake, and I’m surprised to find I have to slowly peel my fingers off the steering wheel. One at a time. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding on so tight – but I had been. I had to so I could stay in control, in case – I can’t allow myself to think of the alternative.
Our ears re-adjust to the sounds in the car now that it’s stopped. The engine’s off, there’s no sound of tires on wet pavement or frantic wipers on wet glass. The only sound now is the rain, roaring down on the roof so loud we have to talk loud to be heard over it.
We wait in the car for a bit, wipers finally off, wondering if the rain will let up…
And it’s not letting up, so if we’re going to get inside, we’re going get wet, plain and simple, so taking a deep breath, we jump out, lock the car and run for the door.
We stomp our shoes dry in the foyer and find others have had the same idea, that stopping and waiting for the weather to clear is just smart. There’s a crowd of people congregated around the bathrooms to the right and I hear two women talking, one surprised to see the other’s there. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting to be here, but there’s an accident blocking the westbound lanes at the next exit a mile or so further up, so I came this way.”
Those westbound lanes were the lanes we’d been traveling on.
With the storm, I wouldn’t have been able to see an accident if we’d come up on it.
Waiting my turn, and still trying to come to grips with what had happened, I pull out my phone and look up the local weather radar – I’d never seen anything like this, and from that radar image, it’s clear why it felt so sudden, because quite frankly, it was. It had been cloudy, but no rain, or even a sign of rain, until we came up over a rise just outside of Jamestown. We could see rain up ahead, but there wasn’t any hint of what was to come. Since we could barely see past the hood of the car, trying to figure out how big this storm is would take something else, so I check the scale on the radar map and find the towns of Steele (on the left) and Casselton (on the right) are about 130 miles apart. That means the storm we’re in is about that big north to south, and the part we were driving through east to west was maybe 15 miles of total blindness. It would have been driving by braille, feeling our way along.
Yeah, it was worth stopping.
We go back to the café part of the place and sit down in a booth where the vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee sounds about as good as anything could sound on a day where the water in the air is so thick you can’t see through it.
…and it got me thinking…
The whole trip had been full of so many things.
Some were wonderful. (Put going to Mackinac Island on your bucket list, really)
Some were calmly pleasant. (Sitting on the front porch, quietly chatting with my father in law, the one who taught me how to pour coffee).
And some – like all goodbyes, were hard.
I remembered holding on through our goodbyes as we left, and how much that was like holding on to that car up ahead in the rainstorm, the one I’d seen so clearly until the rains fell. I tried to hold onto it – to stay close to it, so that I wouldn’t lose it.
But I couldn’t get too close.
Too close and I’d run the risk of running into him. Too far, too early, and I could lose my way entirely and crash myself.
I had to stay with them as long as I could, until I could see well enough to get along on my own, and only then let him go.
And I thought more about that, sitting there in that café, with my family, as we ate our soup and sandwiches…
We have to let go of the generation in front of us, right?
At some point in everyone’s life, there will come a storm.
It will be hard to see.
It may come on suddenly, like a tornado.
It may come slowly, like a hurricane.
You will find yourself trying desperately to hold on to the generation that’s always been in front of you.
Leading the way.
Lighting the way.
And you’ll realize that there will be people around you – for whom this storm matters not.
Like the first truck that drenched us with spray.
There will be things that shake you.
Like that second truck that so shook the car.
And you will find that there will be situations where people simply can’t see as well as you can.
And for a moment, they’ll stop.
They know their limits, and they’ve pulled over.
They’ll move again when the road is clearer, when the storm has passed enough for them to see clearly enough to move on.
At some point, that storm will pass enough for you try to make it on home, too.
You’ll have taken a break to think of these things and to strengthen yourself with family, and maybe with the emotional equivalent of vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee, but when you get back on the road to move on, the car in front of you, the one you depended on and simultaneously took for granted, will not be there.
All that you have of that car, the guidance, the wisdom, the acceptance is what you learned from it before and during the storm…
While the person who was ahead of you in the car, and in life, will be gone, those memories you were able to bring from their life into yours will live on.
All of what you were able to bring into your life, you’ll be able to keep with you.
That which you didn’t is gone forever.
Be safe out there, folks.
Hug the friends and family you have while you have them. You never know when the storm will come.
And you don’t know when it will be your turn to be the driver up front.
A chortling water buffalo pulled up beside us as we waited for the stop light at 15th and Market.
I looked left.
Hmmm… No water buffalo.
Especially in Ballard. However, there was a Harley, making all the gorgeous sounds idling Harleys make.
“The driver’s too skinny,” said Michael from the passenger’s seat after giving him a once-over.
“And a bit young…” I said as my eyes moved up from the bike to the rider.
Sure enough… a too skinny kid in his 20’s… straddling a burbling Harley.
We watched, and listened, as we waited for the light to turn green, and as it did, the Harley roared off, blasting open the doors of the time machine and leaving me ricocheting off long forgotten memories for the rest of the trip home.
Those memories spanned well over a quarter of a century, and I bounced between lessons from Grad school, a famous photograph, my first internship, and lessons learned many, many years later.
And as the sound faded away, it got me thinking about Harley Davidson.
The real one.
But to tell you that story – I’ll need to tell you a couple of other stories to fill in some gaps.
I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University, and one of the things Terry Eiler drilled into us there was to go out and take risks. Go out and try new things. Do the thing no one else is doing. Do the assignment you were sent to do to be safe, but then go do a little bit more.
I learned from that. I’ve been inside the boiler of a steam locomotive (it was pretty dark). I’ve talked my way onto airplanes (it was loud), and I’ve gotten images of normal things from abnormal locations just because I asked if I could. (it was amazing).
What Terry didn’t tell us at the time is what kinds of stories we’d get on the way to taking these pictures… There’s the “running over the skunk” story, and the oh-so-memorable “the car broke down” story, things that seemed to “just happen” – and yet, took on a life of their own. Lessons to be learned, stories to be lived.
But all that was in the future still. While in class, he told us about a guy named Rob Goebel, who’d worked at this small town paper, and one hot day had gone out to see if he could find some images that could tell a story, and eventually, he found himself in a bar…
With a biker.
He knew the shot he wanted, and after as much chatting as you could do, set up the lights, got the shot he’d had in mind, and then left.
Fast forward 15 years. I’d gotten my first internship out of Grad School, for the same newspaper Rob had been working for at the time. Mike Grone was the chief photographer, and one day as we were going over assignments, he got this twinkle in his eye that I didn’t recognize until later, smiled, and said, “Hey, you ought to go see Bones.”
“Yeah, Bones and Harley – Rob Goebel took a picture of him a few years back… Won the POY (Pictures of the Year) award for it after he left.”
“Oh really?” I said as he dug through a file cabinet for a faded tearsheet of the original.
He found it, and gave me the address, and I tossed my camera bag into the back seat of my old Ford and headed on over to the little house on Wilkinson, hoping to maybe reproduce a photo of him and Harley 15 years later, kind of an “after” shot to Rob’s ”before” photo. I found the house, parked the car, and as I shut it off, looked up to see Bones himself sitting in an overstuffed recliner on what would soon be a dilapidated old front porch, idly sharpening a knife. He’d aged since the photo, but even so, there was still a presence about him that could be sensed, was almost palpable.
As I walked up and got my bearings, I realized that the thing about Bones was he wasn’t just skin and…
It was not hard imagining him riding a large motorcycle. He filled up the generously sized chair he was in, his overalls, and that presence extended out well past the porch. I took the initiative and introduced myself, not really sure of what kind of a reaction I’d get.
He sized me up, understanding pretty clearly that I wanted to take some pictures (a camera bag and two Nikons likely gave that away). He tucked his sharpening stone between his belly and his left leg, and we talked for a bit…
I don’t remember much of the conversation until he asked if I had a knife. Of course I had a knife. I’d had a Swiss Army Knife of one kind or another for years. It was as much a part of me as a watch might have been, or today, a cellphone.
“Let me see it.” he said. It wasn’t a request, more a statement of a fact that just hadn’t happened yet.
I handed it over. He grunted a combination of acknowledgement and disgust as he pulled the bits of packing tape off the blade that were still stuck there from the last time I’d opened a cardboard box with it. He shifted in his chair and pulled the well-rounded sharpening stone I’d seen earlier out from under his paunch and talked me through the finer points of knife sharpening.
Harley came out about then, and I tried to make something of a picture of the two of them on the porch, but things, weren’t clicking, so to speak. Bones wanted to finish the knife, and I couldn’t make any of it really work photographically, so we just chatted a little more.
That’s when I heard another screen door tentatively creak open, and I looked over to see a young lady, who I learned later was Harley’s sister, come out. I watched as she came out, and remember thinking that she looked a lot like – well, like she just didn’t seem to belong in that place… Kind of a rose among thorns, if you will. I was still trying to reconcile that when I looked back to Bones and noticed something had changed, as if a wall had suddenly fallen between us. Totally unspoken, there was a sense that I had unwittingly crossed a pretty significant line, and I could feel the temperature drop as he handed me back my knife, folded closed. I opened it, and realized that in the couple of minutes he’d had it, he’d taken it from a bits-of-tape encrusted piece of metal to a finely honed instrument that would do far more than cut through the tape of cardboard boxes. He’d left his mark on that knife, and was not so subtly letting me know what he was capable of, and even though he was showing his age at the time, still not a man to be trifled with.
So, I didn’t trifle, and realized that the picture I had gone there to recreate might not be possible, but I’d tried. I remember going back a time or two more, but that wall was still there, and over time, Bones and his family faded off the back burner of my mind.
Many years later, I got back in touch with Mike as I was writing this story about a fellow named Harry Frilling who’d lived there in Sidney. We started talking about how it had been almost a lifetime since we’d talked, and he told me about how things had changed there… We talked about Harry, and me climbing on top of the courthouse, and running over the skunk. We talked, and laughed, about me blowing through the annual film budget during my few months there.
And somehow, the subject of Bones came up.
I found that the knowledge I gained about not trifling with him was not limited to just me. In fact, Mike mentioned that had actually been a concern when President Reagan had visited Sidney on his Whistlestop Tour. He found in his files a quote from the Sidney Daily News that day:
“The neighborhood has never looked better. Citizens living near the North Street Chessie crossing have been out cleaning up in preparation for President Reagan’s visit. Much work remains to be done, but most of it is in the area of security. Just where will Bones Kah sit?“
Bones, whose political views weren’t quite in the same ballpark as President Reagan’s, was nowhere to be found. It turned out he had been taken into what they called “Protective Custody”.
Mike didn’t find it necessary to mention who was being protected from whom, or why.
The thing is, Bones, being the leader of a motorcycle gang (or club), (The Vikings) – had developed, and cultivated a reputation. There are some motorcycle clubs that cultivate a reputation of working for charity, and others that work hard at cultivating another image. I understand that there is a culture of respect, and there are rules, which, now that I think of it, are not to be trifled with.
But the reputation that goes along with being the leader of a Motorcycle Club is a bit different than the reputation one develops in being a dad who might work in an office somewhere. No matter what, it’s hard to keep work and home life separate. It’s like – well, you’ve heard of dads being late to their son’s ball game because of a meeting at work. Bones’ situation was a little different, in that the qualities that made him effective when leading a motorcycle club didn’t translate very well to having kids and being a dad.
A single example: There’s a story told by Rob (the photojournalist mentioned above) that when Bones visited the newborn Harley and mom shortly before he took the picture, Bones visited the hospital with a dead rat tied to his leg.
There was no mention of how old the rat was or how long it had been there, but the story attained almost urban legend status, and Bones wasn’t about to dissuade anyone from believing it.
The stories Rob told were told of a very few moments with Bones, and the thing is, as a photojournalist, you come into a situation, you do your best to capture or create a lasting image that tells the best story you can, and then, most often, you leave and never see the people or hear from them again.
Rob did a stunning job of capturing that image. He took a situation, a dark bar with the smell of years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, the smell of countless Saturday night closings where many people had had too many drinks and ended the evening bowed down before or curled up around the porcelain throne in the restrooms, and invited us in with him, to share Bones’ “office.”
In doing that – that simple thing, he showed Bones in all his – well, ‘glory’ isn’t the word I’d use – but the persona of Bones that I saw on his front porch the day I was there was the same one I see in Rob’s picture.
That’s what Harley grew up with.
That’s who Harley grew up with.
Extrapolate on that.
Just a little.
Imagine what it’s like, growing up like that. I can’t. It turns out Harley left Sidney shortly after I did. I talked with him recently, and he said, and I quote, “After I left Ohio in 1987 we never looked back.”
While he has spared me the details, just that comment, and what I’d experienced myself and heard from Mike, gave me a hint of the life that had gone on long before, and well after that memorable image was taken.
Harley grew up.
Mike left the paper to pursue new things, and in one of his last assignments for the paper he was to get some photos of Bones and his two houses. In Mike’s words, “His spare house was condemned. Both houses, by all accounts, were of hoarder status. My assignment was photographing the exteriors of the side-by-side structures. Bones took great exception and offered to place the camera where there wasn’t enough ambient light to make an image. Since I finished the assignment before his offer, I bid him a fond adieu.”
And in 2008, Bones died.
I don’t have the few pictures I took of him when I was there, but given what I saw, I would understand why Harley had wanted to leave. He continued in that conversation we were having, “…but I was man enough to go see my father on his death bed and look him right in the eyes and forgive him for the abuse that he put us through. Things happen for a reason I believe and I am stronger for it.”
And, as you can imagine, it got me thinking.
Over time I realized that we learn how to be a parent from three separate but distinctly different things:
- Because of who you grew up with…
Seriously – how many times has someone said, “You’re just like your dad…”?
How many times have you heard your parents words coming out of your mouth, the very words you promised yourself you’d never say.
And yet you did.
And sometimes, those words came borne out of hard experience, and you realized, as hard as they were to hear when you were a kid, they were the right ones when you found yourself on the other side of the parental fence.
Then again, sometimes, as parents, we’ve find ourselves victims of our own past, and the world has changed faster than we’ve been able to adapt. Things that used to be acceptable aren’t anymore, and things that were totally unacceptable now have gone through a sea change of – well – change, and now they are. It brings challenges to parenting that take the most important job in the world, being a consistent role model for the next generation, and makes it even harder.
- In spite of who you grew up with…
You realized that your father was, for all intents and purposes, simply broken in ways you couldn’t fix. Over time, you realized it went back generations, and there was nothing you could do to fix that. Everyone grew up and did what they did because, well, that’s how it was done, right or wrong.
Eventually you also realized – consciously or unconsciously, that no matter what your dad did, you wouldn’t repeat it. You would find the courage he didn’t have, or the strength he didn’t have, the wisdom he didn’t have, and you would do the honorable and right thing for your family and children.
Eventually, you would come to that same decision point Harley hit while standing next to his father’s deathbed, and you forgive him for – in the case of Harley and many others, abuse. “For they knew not what they were doing.” Because that’s the way they were brought up and didn’t know any better – or in some cases, they did know what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway. And you realize, that while that kind of behavior is inexcusable, it does – no, it did – happen. And eventually, sometimes on a deathbed, you forgive them. Not because what they did was forgivable, but because you can’t change it… It happened. You can let it eat you alive, or you can forgive them, let it go, and allow yourself to leave the prison of those thoughts and learn from them, which takes us to the third item on the list:
- Growing up – and being totally different…
Think about this for a second: How many times do you remember seeing a situation happening in front of your eyes, and realizing you’d lived that before – only this time you had the chance to actually do something different, and break the cycle – so instead of doing things the same broken ways you’d seen them happen in your family over the years, you decided enough was enough.
And so you did something different.
And you did indeed break the cycle.
Ideally, you pick and choose the best in what your dad taught you – either by example of something they did right, or by the anti-example of what they did wrong. I remember when I was a kid, my dad was away at college, and one very rare time, he was at home when I had a band concert. I expected him to come, but he didn’t. The reason doesn’t matter… He wasn’t there. I vowed to never let that happen with my kids, and did my best to be there for them every time I could. I did something different.
…and I kept thinking…
I thought about how inadequate I felt when I held my kids for the first time… I’d forgotten entirely that humans came in such small, fragile, helpless packages. Remember – that’s not just fragile physically, they’re also fragile emotionally and spiritually. They need to be tended, carefully. Disciplined in time, yes… Broken, no. Broken children become broken adults, and the cycle of brokenness continues, doing its damage for generations to come.
I remember praying for and with them when they were little, folding their little hands in my bigger ones as I did, imagining that my hands were folded inside the even bigger Hands of my Father at the same time. It made the prayers feel more complete.
…the thoughts continued…
I remember growing as a father just as much as my kids grew at being kids. I got really, really good at making breakfast in about 90 seconds, a “Papa McMuffin” I called it.
And I made mistakes while my kids were growing up. All fathers I know have. There were times I was too drawn into work, too focused on outside things, too lenient with them in some areas, too strict in others. Times I wish I could go back and fix, but I can’t, so I do my best now, in the only moment I can change.
I went back in my mind to the concert dad missed, and how all the times he’d been away affected me, and while the child in me still wept for those lost times, the adult in me realized that Harley was right, and I came to the same conclusion: Forgiving my father – our fathers, for the mistakes they made was the only option that made sense. That doesn’t mean it has to happen immediately, and it doesn’t mean it was or is easy.
But given the options, learning from him, his successes, his failures, and picking and choosing the right ones, and working with those as my base gave me something greater than zero to start from, but there was one thing more.
I’d repeated a lot of those mistakes that have been made through the years, through the generations. It took some time to realize they were there, and I’m still working on correcting them. Some will take a long time, and in my observations with other dads, it seems that one of the first people we need to be able to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s hard.
But it’s the first step.
So… call your dad – if you can. Wish him Happy Father’s day, if you can, if you’re reading this on Father’s day (as I’m writing it), and then, if you can, take a deep breath and forgive him.
Learn from the mistakes of the past, but don’t repeat them.
The story above, as all stories on this blog are, is true.
I have several people to thank for their help in it. Chronologically, they’d be:
Terry Eiler, former director of VisCom, Ohio University – who encouraged me to go out and shoot – and take risks.
Mike Grone – former Chief photographer of the Sidney Daily News, who actually had me take those risks.
Rob Goebel, now of the Indy Star newspaper, who graciously allowed me the use of the photo, and
Harley himself, who in his simple words, taught me so much, and who allowed and encouraged me to write the story about his famous, award winning baby picture that had been taken in a bar, with a biker (Bones), by a guy (Rob) whose photos I’d admired and skills I was trying to emulate, all because my instructor (Terry) in grad school told a story and sent me out there so that my boss (Mike) could grin and send me off on a lesson I’d suddenly find myself remembering when sitting at a traffic light in Seattle, with my son, next to the Harley that sent me ricocheting back through my time machine to tell you this story…
Take care out there, folks.
Know that out there – every image you see -whether it’s an award winning photo, or a glimpse into someone’s life, has a story behind it.
This was one of them.
I stepped into the time machine again the other day.
It’s taken many shapes over the years… Sometimes a cardboard box of photos, sometimes a garage full of old stuff that’s in that strange stage between being treasure and being junk, sometimes an old car full of memories.
In this case, it was a train… and a plane… and a mountain…
…all in the shape of an old swing set.
It was old when we got it almost 20 years ago from a family that was moving out of state and couldn’t take it with them. I remember seeing it and thinking it was just the kind of swing set I’d drooled over years ago in the old Sears catalog when I was a kid. My dad was in the Air Force at the time, and we moved around too much to be able to have our own swing set, and this time, even though it was used, the little boy inside me was just thrilled for my own kids, that they’d be able to have the kind I’d always wanted – down to the paint and everything.
And you know what? The kids loved it.
I learned to pull the kids by their feet on the swing from the front, not push them from the back – that way I could see their faces, tickle their feet, and laugh with them as they swung toward me. I never understood the idea of pushing them from the back, pulling them from the front was just so much more fun.
We moved, and took the swing set with us to what we called “the brick house” – where the back yard was barely big enough to take it, and you ended up with your butt in the hedge when swinging all the way back, the only thing visible being your arms and maybe your feet.
And we moved again, this time to a house with a back yard big enough to hold the entire swing set and have plenty of room to swing, and slide, and play.
I spent some time on that ‘glider’ swing with my son – where one adult and one kid (or four kids) could sit and pretend they’re on a train, in a hot air balloon, or on an adventure of some kind. For us it was mostly the train, and we swung back and forth as we traveled through magical kingdoms and faraway lands, with bridges crossing beautiful valleys, and tunnels darkly going through tall mountains.
There were times that the train also ended up traveling through tall jungles…
(that had to do with where I was working, and the length of the commute),
…because I had to hack and slash a path back to the swing set in late spring when I had the time to spend an entire weekend taming the jungle that had been a lawn at one time.
We’d tied a rope from the swing set to the tree house we’d made in the apple tree, and put a pulley with a handle onto it. That pulley became the quickest way to escape from the apple tree (just in case there were monsters attacking that needed escaping from).
And as time went on, the swing set was played on by many children, mowed around every couple of weeks in the summer, and it was a place where the imagination, and children, could soar.
One morning awhile back, I went out there again, and things looked different. The grass was still worn underneath, but it was something else that caught my eye.
It was obvious that the swing set had current visitors, but the laughter of small children on it was still. The chains had rusted, and instead of children going on magical journeys, there were spiders.
And there was a web.
And it got me thinking…
We have our children for a very short time.
I’ve learned the hours and minutes can feel like they’re dragging on (remember the last time you were in an emergency room with your kid?) – but the months and years fly by like the smoke from a blown out birthday candle.
I remembered when I was a kid, desperately wanting to grow up because adults always had all the answers, and adults knew everything, especially mom and dad. As I grew older, I realized that I didn’t have all the answers and in all honesty, neither did they.
In fact, I found myself repeating that one especially as I learned (from my own kids) that there were questions I’d never thought of, and it’s impossible to have all the answers for your kids, especially when you’re still looking for them for yourself.
I stood there, in the morning sunshine, watching the spider weaving her web, and came to the realization that I was in the middle of a transition. My mind stumbled across it all. Among the myriad of things that had happened this year, our daughter had gotten married, and both she and her new husband were doing amazing work at their respective companies. Our son, heading off to college this fall, had started a small shop selling chainmail jewelry, which he would often make while singing along with John Rawnsley’s wonderful version of The Barber of Seville (he’d graduated from the Bugs Bunny version that I found myself humming…)
And then, while the last of the strains of Figaro (the barber) were still echoing in my mind, I thought of the lessons I’d taught them, both consciously and unconsciously. For good or for bad, I’ve learned some of the most powerful lessons that stick are the ones we don’t realize we’re teaching them, and we often only realize years later. I thought of the conversations I’d had with both of them over their lives, and I pondered a moment at how much both the kids and the conversations had changed. Both of them were in various stages of putting away their childish things (we know, because most of them are still in the basement 🙂 ) and are well on their way to thinking and acting like the adults they are becoming instead of the children they had been.
They’re growing up…
I gave the swing just enough of a push to make the spider a little woozy and watched as it swung back and forth a few times.
It brought a smile, a tear, more than just a little gratitude at the blessings I had experienced with them, because of them.
I stood there a little longer…
A lifetime of memories floated by as the swing swung a little slower each time, creaking a little less with every one…
The years, unlike the swing, seem to go by more quickly each time, creaking a little more with every one.
I pondered a little more… reflecting, and then suddenly became conscious not only of the years, but of the minutes, and realized that time never stood still. It was still passing. I stole a look at my watch and realized it was time to leave for work, so I turned, took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and like the kids, left the swing set and the memories behind to start a new day.