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So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.
For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.
For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.
For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.
For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.
And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.
15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, which we celebrate on July 4th.
July 4th, when I was a kid, was a lot – shall we say, louder, than it is today.
For me, it has always involved:
- anything that could explode (or be made to explode)
- anything that could fly (or be made to fly),
- or anything that could make lots of sparks (or be made to make lots of sparks).
Of course, if I was able to make something that combined all three, that was a serious bonus.
So – oh – fair warning, if you think about this for just a couple of seconds (me writing about something that involves things that go boom in the night) this story falls squarely in the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” category – a series of stories I told my son as he was growing up, in hopes that he would not do those stupid things.
Note… that’s known in the trade as “foreshadowing” – you have been warned.
So part of my standard Fourth of July routine when I was a teenager was to drive around with some of my friends either from school or from Civil Air Patrol and watch some of the air shows in the area (usually the one that started at Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington) – and somehow or other, we’d find some of the fireworks that, depending on where you were, might have been a little on the slightly less than legal side of things.
One year, there were at least 4 of us in my folk’s 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon – the version with the 1.1 liter engine (with a power output roughly equivalent to 2.5 hypercaffeinated rabid squirrels) – and we bombed (yes, I used that word on purpose) around the greater Tacoma area, watching and contributing to the fireworks… My friend Bruce, sitting behind me was lighting bottle rockets and dropping them out the back window (the kind that flips out at the bottom, not the kind that rolls down), where they would occasionally add a little excitement to the festivities being, um, ‘enjoyed’ by people whose houses we drove past.
For some reason, at one point he decided to throw a firecracker out MY window, and instead of going out the window, it bounced off the door pillar and landed on my shoulder belt, right next to my left ear.
Where it exploded before it could fall any farther.
The words I used to describe my thoughts about that particular action – while I couldn’t hear them because my left ear was ringing (as it did for several hours afterwards) – made it clear to Bruce that putting lit firecrackers next to the ear of the driver of the car you’re riding in gets aaaawfully close to the top ten list of stupid things you can do on the Fourth of July.
Bruce resumed throwing smoke bombs and bottle rockets out the window.
I made sure my window was rolled all the way down, *just in case* he chose to do something else…
…and – as I ponder this, while I’m writing – I suppose that given that I’m a little older now, if I saw kids doing that, I’d be a little torn between wanting to yell at them for doing something stupid, and yet remembering what it was like to drive around with my friends, doing stuff that was fun, didn’t damage anything but my eardrums (though I’m sure it could have gotten a *bit* more dangerous), or – oh who the HECK am I kidding? – we were driving around, throwing explosives out of the car… wouldn’t that be considered more than just a little dangerous?
Oh, if my son only knew of this one… his take is that I have set the stupidity bar so high that he either
a) has no chance on the planet of reaching it, or
b) it gives him such room that I have to cut him a stunning amount of slack, given what I managed to get away with and/or survive….
Sigh… the trials of parenting.
But hey – stupidity at that level – no – surviving stupidity at that level – is making for stories years later.
Anyway – over the years, our July 4th forays would take us over from one house (Bruce’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his Grampa’s truck) to another (Bill’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his dad’s VW 411) and we would just drive around Tacoma, enjoying the sights, watching and/or adding to the fireworks, and in general, having a good time.
I wonder if Bill’s dad and Bruce’s Grampa ever noticed that their vehicles got worse gas mileage around the first week of July.
Now at some point, some of the people reading this who are now parents will have that little phrase “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” going through their heads.
I need you to stop, because you’re getting ahead of me.
(Remember that ‘foreshadowing’ bit? Right… this is more of it…)
So another year, it was our friend Doug, with Bill and me, and that year several of us were way, WAY into model rockets, and Bill, having much experience with them, decided that bottle rockets weren’t anywhere NEAR powerful enough… I mean, they ignite for maybe a 10th of a second, coast for a bit, then go bang.
No, Bill decided we needed to go to his house and get something significantly bigger, and he found either a D or an E rocket engine that we ended up using.
I remember his excitement as he taped about 10 firecrackers to the front of the rocket engine, with the fuses wadded up inside, and then taped the whole assembly to a hunk of bamboo he found lying around somewhere.
It was, we concluded, long before Saddam Hussein used a term like it, “The Mother of all Bottle Rockets”. We handled it gently, and Bill knew of a ball field near his house that appeared to be suitable for launching rockets, so we piled into the car and headed over.
We’d grabbed sodas at Bill’s house, so we all had aluminum cans and various aerial instruments of mayhem as we got out and headed out to the baseball diamond to let things loose. Bill jammed the stick end of his rocket into the ground and wiggled it so it’d be loose, so when lit – the rocket would go up.
Now since Bill had learned all about rockets and had built this one, we deferred to him to do the actual launch.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever launched a model rocket at night before – but they launch rather dramatically.
They launch loud, and it seems that they run forever, compared to the bottle rockets we’d been launching.
I mean, in comparison, we’d have a bottle rocket:
A good one might go up 100 feet or so.
But as Bill lit the fuse and told us to stand back – in case it tipped over, he said – we asked him how far that one would go. He did some quick calculating in his head as the fuse burned, realizing that the motor wasn’t lifting anything more than itself and 10 firecrackers taped to a stick, and said something like, “More than 1,000 feet, for sure”.
About then the fuse actually lit – it roared and shot up so fast we could barely swing our heads fast enough to keep up with it.
And the engine kept burning, and burning, and burning, for what seemed like eternity.
I remember thinking it looked like a star up there, and then, the star went out, as if someone hadn’t paid their light bill. Bill said, “Keep watching” – and then we saw a bunch of little sparkles – which threw me, until a few seconds later, we heard, “bang!…… Bubububang! Bang!” as the sound from the 10 firecrackers actually got to us about 1,000 feet below…
We were pretty stoked, and were going to shoot some more stuff when Bill reminded us of one of those little pesky laws of physics – namely that what goes up, must come down…
So we looked up…
We looked up some more…
Tapping our toes and looking at our watches, we waited some more…
Then, faintly, we heard this sound coming from roughly where we’d last seen the rocket:
shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw
It was the stick of bamboo, with a dead rocket engine still taped to it, twirling down.
It landed – and stuck in the ground – about 50 feet from where we were. Bill was glad it hadn’t landed on the roofs of any of the houses in the area. So, of course, were we – but we didn’t know, until that point, that we needed to be.
We weren’t done yet.
We still had quite a few bottle rockets left over – and so we started lighting them off. But they just weren’t anywhere close to what we’d experienced with the big one – so, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves shooting a little more horizontally.
Now remember, we were out on a baseball diamond… (I think this is it here – though there was a baseball diamond there that was, as I recall, closer to the tennis courts at the time.) I was standing on second base – Bill was standing on first, and our friend Doug was kind of where shortstop would be. Bill, at that point, thought he’d fire a rocket between Doug and me. (note – in case it’s not obvious, this is about 1:00 in the morning – July 5th now – and the only light on the field was from streetlights at the edges.
It was about as dark as it could get in Tacoma.)
I heard his rocket go off, then felt what could charitably be described as a pretty significant sensation as it hit me right in the lower lip from Bill’s direction, flew a few more feet and exploded.
I looked at Bill.
No, that’s not nearly descriptive enough. I glared at Bill.
My eyes were focused on burning holes into his.
“You shot me!
You freaking shot me!”
“I didn’t mean to – I was trying to shoot between you and Doug!”
At that point, I was in just a bit of pain, and tasted blood, in more ways than one.
I found there was a second use for the mug root beer can I had, which was, if you held it just right after you put a lit bottle rocket into it – just like holding the handle of a pistol – so I lit it and aimed at Bill – he’d come over to see if I was okay – but once he saw the bottle rocket aimed his way, he started to run. I remember just tracking him as the rocket lit off – the top of the can acting as a blast shield. The rocket lit, sparks flew, and it tracked straight at him, but I wasn’t leading enough, so it flew over his left shoulder and blew up about 10 feet past him…
…and about then we realized that it was clearly time to call it a night. We were no longer thinking straight, and besides, the root beer now tasted vaguely of gunpowder.
Everyone gathered to see how badly I’d been injured (a piece of my lower lip had gone with the bottle rocket as it hit – but what I really got out of it was a pretty fat lip. This thing swelled up almost instantly.
Doug reassured me that these things swell up pretty fast, and not to worry. I think there may have been an element of CYA there as we all decided that we were lucky and blessed not to have gotten caught, or worse yet, injured at the level of stupidity (also known as “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®”) we were operating under.
By then, the pain was starting to sink in, and the thing I wanted to do was just get home and go to bed. I’d often worked the closing shift at a restaurant in high school, so my folks were used to me coming in late. However, this was somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning, and despite my trying to be quiet, I managed to wake my mom up as I was trying to wedge my toothbrush around that bottle rocket-provided, formerly lip shaped obstacle in front of my teeth.
She was more than a little concerned that I was coming home with a fat, bloody lip at 2:30 in the morning, and wanted to know what had happened. She was, as moms all over the world are, worried that I was hurt – and of course, I wasn’t telling her the whole story right then.
She kept asking questions, and I kept trying to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see the fat lip (it was pretty hard to hide, and was about as useful to me as the last time I’d spent several hours in the dentist’s chair, with half of my face numb and just hanging there. It was just a touch hard to talk without it being obvious that there was something wrong) – but she was persistent, and wanted to see if I was okay. Eventually I showed her, she was satisfied that I’d be okay – and suggested I get to bed.
And of course, it’s only later, as I think about what *could* have gone wrong, that I realize how much overtime my guardian angels were putting in.
Oh – it should be noted, by the way, that alcohol was not involved in any of these adventures.
Everything we did was done stone cold sober.
Which meant we remembered it all…
© 2012 Tom Roush
So for those of you who’ve read some of my stories – especially those who have read the stories in the category of “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little.” – understand that as my son was growing up I would tell him these kinds of stories – honestly, as bedtime stories – because they made him laugh, and I did it in large part because I didn’t want him thinking that I was perfect in any way – I wanted him to understand that I was human, and could (and did) screw up.
He liked (and still likes) these stories because generally something (bad/amusing/result of a stupid decision/peer pressure) happens in them that allows him to see the benefit of others mistakes, without having to make them on his own…
In fact, when he was little, he asked me in all honesty, after I’d told him quite a few of these stories, “Papa? When I grow up, will I make mistakes too? Or have you made them all?”
How on earth do you answer a question like that? “Well, Michael, you live in a different time, I’m sure you will make creative, new, and exciting mistakes that I would never have dreamed of…”
That satisfied him.
Now that he’s older, and capable of making some of those bigger mistakes all by himself, he’s thinking of these stories in a different light… After I told him one story, he looked at me, mouth agape, having heard as complete and utter stupidity what I was simply relaying as history, (think about that) – and said, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from your kid is a little mind bending…
And I thought I had a dull childhood…
He’s also told me that if he does something stupid, I can’t complain, because it’s clear that I’ve done stupider things. In fact, he says that the following story shows just how high I set the stupidity bar – and he would have an awful lot of trouble coming close to that.
So from time to time when he was little, he would ask me to tell him some of his favorite stories, and, given that yesterday (as I write this) was the 33rd anniversary of this story, I thought I’d share.
So one day he asked, “Papa, can you tell me the story about you and your friend Paul?”
Well, there’s only ONE story about my friend Paul and me.
It involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
First some background…
I grew up in Roy, Washington, a small speed trap – er, town – south of Tacoma that’s surrounded on three sides by Fort Lewis, the local Army Base. One of the benefits for a boy growing up there was that you got to see lots of military hardware all the time, because it drove, flew, or traveled in a parabolic arc right past the house. (you’ll get it, just keep reading)
This, to put it succinctly, was cool.
I’ve learned I’m the only person I know who thought a .30 caliber machine gun being fired or cannons going off are peaceful sounds. But, that’s what I grew up with, and hearing them meant that all was right in the world.
The cannons and machine guns got to the point of being background noise, which meant unless we were listening for it, we didn’t really notice it. You’d hear this “Thump” in the distance, (the cannon, or mortar, had been fired, north of town) and about 22 seconds later, from the firing range, west of town, you’d hear a muffled, “BOOM!” as the shell hit and exploded. On especially quiet days you could actually hear the shell as it flew, making kind of a whistling “shewwewewewewew” sound as it flew by in that parabolic arc that cannon shells fly in…
It was pretty predictable, and the one thing we could count on was that the Army didn’t shoot on Sundays, so we had one day where things were relatively quiet, and though I didn’t mind the sounds of the Army, the silence was nice.
As one of my instructors in college said, “You will see this material again.”
They also shot at night, and to light things up, they shot up flares, which came down on parachutes.
One of the things we did for fun was to go out on the firing range (where the targets are – think about that one for a moment) and gather up the parachutes and other things we found as souvenirs. We’d tie the parachutes to the backs of our bicycles to use as drag chutes to slow us down after careening down “school hill”…
This was far more than “slightly” illegal, as we had to pass at least two signs saying:
“KEEP OUT! Artillery Impact Area”.
There was some, shall we say, ‘evidence’ of cannon shells hitting, like holes the size of houses, so they really didn’t want you gathering ‘souvenirs’. You did have to be smart as to what you took. Getting parachutes was safe, getting cannon shell duds wasn’t. There was a fellow who found a dud out there that had been sitting there for a number of years, the explosive getting unstable for the whole time… He took it home where it apparently dried out, and took out half of his house.
His parents weren’t pleased.
But this isn’t his story…
Paul and I went out there, he doing the driving because I didn’t have a driver’s license and me wanting to show off a little by showing this friend something he hadn’t seen before.
He read the first warning sign and stopped the car cold.
“What do you mean “Artillery Impact Area? I’m not going in there!”
Understand – I’d lived out there – driven past signs liked that that said “Small Arms Impact Area: Keep Out” (when you read that sign, do you think of bullets? Or little arms with little fingers falling out of the sky?) We’d drive past the hand grenade range, and see all sorts of things so often we just didn’t think about them.
But Paul had never seen that sign, and wasn’t moving the car an inch.
“But Paul, they don’t shoot on Sundays, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine!”
After awhile, he took his foot off the brake, and we drove past it.
Sometime later there was the second one, and Paul skidded to a stop again, his eyes darting back and forth between the sign and me, trying to decide which was crazier. Images of hundreds of pounds of high explosives hurtling toward him at 500 miles an hour were going through his head and I was telling him to keep driving…
“Really, they DON’T shoot on Sundays.”
We went further, and found five of these things the Army calls “Ducks” – which are huge crosses between trucks and boats. I’ve never seen this kind before or since. They’re not the kind you see used for tourism, and the closest I’ve come is this. But they were basically huge bare aluminum boats about 40 feet long, with what seemed like 4 – 6 foot tires on them, so they could be driven on land or in the water. And they’d been driven there quite recently, since the grass was still flat from their tire tracks. Somehow they’d been knocked over onto their sides, the hulls near the back had been cut through with a blowtorch, the pans and crankshafts had been taken out of the engines so no one could drive them away…
We went to the other side, and found a very large black number 3 painted on it. From where we were, we could see the other four, each with a number painted on it.
We were on the edge of a rather large plain, with a tree line visible about a mile away or so, so we felt pretty safe, feeling we’d see someone before they saw us.
We climbed up into the cab of the thing and saw all these cool instruments on the dashboard. We were members of an otherwise reputable search and rescue organization and decided we could get instruments for a communications truck our unit was making, so we set on removing them with the large variety of specialized disassembly instruments we had available to us.
We learned that it’s quite difficult to do precision disassembly on an armored instrument panel when your precision disassembly tools are of the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary varieties.
We moved on.
One of the engine parts they’d left was the cover of the air filter, which was a large, round, bright red fiberglass thing that looked like an oversized Frisbee (I suppose I should put an ® here for their lawyers)
Since we’d had less than sterling success with the instruments, we spent some time tossing the air filter cover around. I mean, it was a nice, warm August afternoon, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, and –
– and there was a thump in the distance.
No problem, I heard this sound every day.
But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognized that sound was what is technically known as “a bad thing”.
I mean, let’s see if we can figure this out:
We’re out there on the artillery impact range.
On this duck that’s got a HUGE number painted on it.
This would indicate that we are standing on a target.
Not near a target.
On a target.
That has just been fired on.
By a cannon.
It took just about 20 seconds to come to this conclusion.
The Screaming/Howling/OncomingFreightTrain sound of a real cannon shell as it comes in on the position you’re standing on is simply not describable. I’ve seen “Private Ryan”, and “Band of Brothers” and a few other films – and the sounds you hear in war movies, while they try, don’t come close to reproducing the sound accurately. The sounds you hear in movie theatres also aren’t accompanied by a tree getting vaporized about 75 feet away.
I turned to tell Paul to look at that tree, but he was gone.
In fact, he was halfway to the car by then.
Joining him seemed like an exceptionally good idea at the time.
We’d parked at this little ‘y’ intersection on a dirt road, about 100 yards south of the Ducks, and I got there just after he’d done one of those U-turns you only see on “Dukes of Hazzard” – which is hard to do in a Pinto, but Paul seemed to have enough adrenaline going through his system to overcome this limitation in the car.
This adrenaline seemed to have Paul functioning at hyperspeed, and the car, Pinto or not was rapidly approaching its version of the same thing.
To do this in a Pinto station wagon on a weaving, hilly dirt road isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but since our actions were initially unencumbered by the thought process, now didn’t seem to be a particularly important time to change that.
We came to this hill, went up, and, had we been traveling at a sane speed, would have gone down and around the curve to the left on the other side.
However, sanity absolutely not being part of the picture, the car didn’t quite get airborne, but it came awfully close, to the point where the wheels were about as useful to the car as opposable thumbs are to fish…
As the road (and world) turned, and while Paul hit the brakes and turned the steering wheel hard left, the car, pondering the ramifications of fish and opposable thumbs, went straight ahead into a dirt embankment, which stopped it in ways that the brakes couldn’t have.
Now some things to note about driving a station wagon at high speed on a dirt road.
- It pulls a large cloud of dust behind it, so the cloud is, for the first little bit, traveling at roughly the same speed as the car. Since it was a hot August afternoon, we had the windows wide open, the front ones rolled down, the back ones, hinged at the front, were flipped open at the back.
- Now this cloud that was following the car didn’t have the benefit of dirt embankments to stop it, so when we stopped, the windows acted like large scoops as the cloud continued rapidly ahead and enveloped the car, coming in through the windows and covering us from head to toe.
We were fine, the car however, needed some help, We had to wait until we could see, at which point I jumped out and pulled the fender to unhook it from where it was jammed up against the right front tire. I hopped in, Paul started the dust cloud and the Pinto up again, and only stopped after we were past the second sign, what had been the first one on the way in.
We got out of the car, hearts still thumping at what I remember as being one of the machine gun ranges (which wasn’t being used… Really!) , and as we got out and tried to calm down a little bit on that warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, we heard nothing but Elvis Presley’s music on the radio. Turned out, the previous Wednesday, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley had gone to the great Tabloid in the sky…
After awhile, we slowly drove back home, and Paul, to my knowledge, never mentioned it to anyone.
There are two corollaries to this story:
20 years later, a group of us (which included Paul and me) from this “otherwise reputable Search and rescue organization” managed to get together from the four corners of the globe and met together at a restaurant to catch up on things.
I got there late, and as I stood there in the doorway trying to find the group, Paul saw me, the first words out of his mouth after 20 years, which I heard all the way at the door, were, “Well Hello there MISTER ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’!”
Seems he hadn’t forgotten, and I – well, I think this one will take some time to live down.
Number two: I told this story to a friend who’d retired as a colonel in the army, and he started laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a stroke. I was actually quite worried about him.
It turns out that he (having had experience as a soldier) was thinking of the other end of this little exchange.
See, just because they didn’t shoot on Sundays doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.
Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see me (this is why the Army has whole schools developed to teach the art of camouflage).
So imagine a couple of bored soldiers, could have been ROTC cadets, could have been National Guard on their one weekend a month, I don’t know – but imagine those few bored soldiers on a warm summer Sunday afternoon whose job it was to watch these five fresh targets they’d seen delivered and had to wait until Monday before they could blow them to smithereens.
And while they were looking through their rangefinders, they saw a small car dragging a cloud of dust along where it shouldn’t be – not quite into their sights, but awfully close…
I can just see it as one of them nudges the other one, “Hey, Jim! Look at this!”
I mean, two obvious civilians (us) throwing this bright red thing (the air filter cover) back and forth and up into the air wasn’t really the best way to keep people from seeing us…
And by then, not only were we in their sites, we were practically dancing on their targets… Well, climbing all over them and beating on things with rocks – heh – we were rocking out… (sorry)
I have to wonder how many trigger fingers got real itchy all of a sudden…
They needed to let us know we’d been seen, and it had to be done very soon so it was absolutely, positively, unmistakably clear who, actually was boss out there.
I would love to have heard the conversation that went back and forth between them and their commanding officer, and finally, someone decided to get our attention by “firing a shot across the bow”.
We didn’t actually hear it (we were thrashing the Pinto on that dirt road) but I can imagine them laughing their heads off as we saw the shell hit and the panic that followed.
It would be fun to find these soldiers sometime to hear their side of the story.
Michael really likes it when I tell this story, and when I get done telling it, he (after he’s done laughing) looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “Papa, you made a bad decision in going past that sign…”
–and I wonder, does this mean he’s going to do what the signs in his life say and try to stay safe?
Or is he going to go past them in hopes of coming up with weird stories to tell his little boy when he has one?
Note: I originally wrote this story as a note to my mom and dad when he was 7. He’s now 19, and when I told him yesterday, “Hey, 33 years ago yesterday…” – he finished the sentence for me, “…was a day of extremely high caliber stupidity…” He didn’t realize the bad pun until I started groaning.
If I ever catch him doing something stupid, I know I’ll hear back, “You’re out there on a LIVE artillery range, DANCING ON THE FREAKING TARGETS, and you’re worried that I’M going to do something stupid?”
Well… yeah… I am…
I do hope I’ve set the bar too high for him to ever reach the levels of dancing on targets on an artillery firing range… but Lordy, I know stupidity of that magnitude is definitely possible.
One of the things I’ve done for years is tell my son stories about – well, I call them “Stupid things that Papa did when he was little” stories. The goal of these was in some ways to make sure he realized I was human and could make mistakes, but also that if you looked at something just right – no matter what it was, you’d find some humor in it. And… hopefully… a lesson.
I’d always figured I’d had a relatively quiet childhood, but the other night, I was telling him one of these stories, and his jaw dropped,
“How did you survive to be old enough to breed?”
Of course, me telling him the story as history, and then him repeating it back to me as stupidity, make for some incredible laughs, as well as lessons on what not to do, and precisely how not to do it…
So with that… A Saab story.
Over the years, I’ve owned a small herd of Saabs, and I’ve learned that you cannot have a Saab without having a story to go with it.
In my case, I’ve come to the conclusion that the stories far, far outnumber the cars, but that’s okay. As long as the Saabs last, the stories last longer.
When I was growing up – I had a 1967 Saab 96 with a 3 cylinder, 2 stroke, 850 cc monster of an engine. Monster? Monstrette? Monstlette? – Beats the heck out of me what you’d call it – this was in the days when the high school car to be seen in was a Chevy Camaro with a 350 cubic inch V-8 engine. Anything less and you weren’t part of the “in” crowd…
My car had a 3 cylinder, 46 cubic inch engine.
A two stroke.
You mixed the oil with the gas.
Like an outboard.
Oh, I wasn’t part of the “in” crowd. I was so far from the “in” crowd I couldn’t even see it.
The car was built with an integral roll cage so strong that one of the ads they used to have on TV showed them rolling the car down a hill – sideways, and then having a guy drive off in it.
It was like driving the result of an illicit liaison between a Sherman tank and a chainsaw.
So I had some friends who also drove some cars that weren’t Camaros (heck, given what I was driving, NONE of my friends had Camaros) – one was a buddy who drove a 1965 Dodge Dart, and since his dad ran the local propane dealership – that car ran on – you guessed it – propane.
So my buddy Bert and I would, as teenagers the world over do, spend weekend evenings driving aimlessly, burning oil and gas (in my car) or propane (in his) – and one day, he mentioned to me this railroad crossing, that if hit at the right speed, would get you airborne.
Now on this particular crossing, that was advisable. The rail bed was several feet higher than the road bed, so the pavement climbed steeply up to the rails, crossed them, then went down the other side.
Sherpas guarded this crossing.
Now given that trains weigh more than cars, the rail bed had actually sunk quite a bit – so crossing over meant climbing up to greet the Sherpas, then going down into the rough no-man’s land that was the rails, climbing back up from the rails to the top of other side, then finally back down. It was kind of like crawling over the crater of a volcano.
It could tear the suspension out from under your car if you did it slow.
If you did it a little faster, you’d sail right over the crater that was the tracks, land on the other side, and it would be this wonderfully gentle jump.
We didn’t do it just a “little” faster.
Oh, one additional piece of information here is that this road ended up at a T intersection, and you have to imagine that the arms of the T are sagging a bit, as the top part of the T was in the middle of a curve. Big picture what this means is that it was a blind intersection.
You will see this material again.
So my buddy Bert tells me about this railroad crossing – and how, if you cross it “juuuust right” you catch air. Not just the “oh, we’re flying over the volcano” air, but “Wave bye bye to the Sherpas” air.
Then he suggested that he and I take the Saab out there that evening and jump it. (and, given the adventures he and I had already had in the Saab, this suggestion was not out of the ordinary)
So we headed out there.
Something to remember about country roads is that in the summer they’re often paved with ‘poor man’s asphalt’ which consists of a mixture of oil poured on the road followed by lots of gravel Eventually, enough cars drive over it , and enough of the oil evaporates that the oil and gravel slowly transform into pavement. Until that happens, it’s just a bunch of very loose, light colored rocks, each one looking for its own personal windshield to hit.
We headed out 507 heading south, hung a left on 336th, and I accelerated to get to the crossing.
It wasn’t very exciting – in large part because I couldn’t see much of it (it was getting dark), and I wasn’t going fast enough, Bert assured me that hitting the ramp from the other side was much, much better.
About that “going fast enough” bit – from the intersection to the crossing is 528 feet. The acceleration of a two stroke Saab, while it sounded like the engine was absolutely screaming, was not what one would call head snapping.
So we headed further up the road, up a hill to a spot where I could turn around.
Now Bert had said that to land properly after jumping the tracks, you had to hit the gas just as you hit the ramp up the crossing, to lift the front end off the ground. That might have worked with his rear wheel drive Dart, but the front end of my front wheel drive Saab wasn’t going to go up when I hit the gas, it was just going to go faster. Not by much, but still, faster.
He wanted me to hit the tracks at 60 mph. (Please note: the fact that the speed limit’s 35 is completely irrelevant here.)
So I came roaring (such as one does with a 3 cylinder engine) down the hill toward the , – well, the engine wasn’t roaring, it was screaming, it was the pavement that was roaring with the noise of the tires on that gravel. I made it up to 60, and instead of seeing a road in front of me at the place of the crossing – that white crushed gravel in my headlights –looked like I was driving straight toward a white wall… I’d slowed to 50, and Bert wanted me to hit the gas to go faster.
I left it at 50, and we did, indeed, hit it.
The car, and the seats, rocketed up and hit us like airplane ejector seats.
The roar of the pavement was gone, many feet below us.
And the sudden silence, as we found ourselves floating up against the seatbelts, was deafening.
We waved at the Sherpas as we went by.
We looked across at birds that had been flying overhead.
We looked down at our houses – both of them – four miles in either direction from where we were.
We could see airplanes in the pattern at McChord AFB.
We looked at each other, not fully comprehending that we had both become passengers in a physics experiment.
Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling.
“Have we hit yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
And then we did hit, and all the roaring came back, along with the sound later identified as my freshly rebuilt exhaust system plowing a furrow into the road.
And we bounced.
Zero G Silence.
And hit again.
Three times, and by the time the wheels stayed on the pavement long enough for the brakes to start being useful, that T intersection was getting awfully close.
I stood on the brake pedal.
Now the Saabs of that era had a rudimentary antilock brake system. They were designed so that if you did what I was doing (standing on the brake pedal) – after so much pressure had been applied – a check-valve under the back seat wouldn’t let the back brakes take any more, and all the rest of the braking would go to the front wheels. The logic of this was that if the back wheels locked up, the car could spin (anyone ever having done a handbrake turn knows how this works). In this case, I stood on the brakes till the FRONT wheels locked up, let go, stood on them again, they locked up again, stood on them a third time, but by now the stop sign at the intersection was getting awfully close – and I had to turn right or left.
Straight forward was not an option. There was (and actually still is) a large tree on the other side of the intersection.
The stop sign whipped past, I spun the wheel to the right. Bert says we went up on two wheels. I don’t know, I was hanging on to the wheel for dear life, and all I knew was that while for the last few seconds had been all about deceleration to either stop before crashing, or slow down enough to make the turn, now it was literally a race for our lives in acceleration, because we had no idea what was coming up over the little hill from the left side of the T intersection. Whatever it was, could have been a motorcycle, could have been a logging truck, or anything in between, it would have been doing at least 55 mph – the speed limit on 507 there at the time.
Since we were so blatantly running a stop sign without even the remotest chance of actually stopping , any other traffic would have had no warning of the little red jellybean of a Saab suddenly appearing in a cloud of blue smoke in front of them. As hard as I’d been standing on the brake pedal before the stop sign, I now tried to shove the gas pedal through the floor, to get every one those 850 cc’s and 46 horses to keep us from becoming a hood ornament on a Kenworth. I didn’t take my foot off the gas or look back till I’d redlined it in third, and then I could breathe.
Bert and I stole a glance at each other in stunned silence, the only background noise being the unbelievable roar of the two-stroke through a pavement-modified exhaust system.
Nope, our parents were not going to hear about this one, not for a long time.
But while I was writing this in an almost entirely Right Brained (creative) kind of way, the old Left Brain started getting curious – and started pestering me until I really got to thinking about the whole thing, the bouncing three times, the hitting the brakes three times, the “have we hit yet? …. I don’t think so…” and started to do some math.
The distance from the Sherpa guarded railroad crossing to the intersection to is a little over 1/10th of a mile.
According to Google Earth, it’s 628 feet.
I was going at least 50 mph when I hit it.
That’s 73 feet per second.
That meant that from the moment we launched past the Sherpas, I had just under nine seconds before I was going to arrive at that stop sign. (628/73~=8.6)
The crossing was so steep that it bottomed out the suspension and squashed the tires, which then helped launch the car even higher than the road angle itself would have.
I’ve calculated about how long it took to say that “Have we hit yet?” bit – and it seems to average about 3 ½ seconds. At 73 feet per second, that would have put us about 256 feet past the Sherpas when we hit. Timewise, that seems about right. However, we need to factor in the ballistic trajectory into the whole thing, which cut almost 100 feet off that range and translated it into a number I could hardly comprehend.
According to the formula for a ballistic arc, which this was, if I had a 73 foot/second velocity at an angle of 45 degrees, we’d end up with a range of 167 feet.
I’m using the formulas here to do the calculations – and the only variables I know for sure are the launch speed (50 mph = 73 feet/second = 22.35 meters/second) and the time it took to say ‘have we hit yet? … I don’t think so…” (about 3 ½ seconds) – that leaves us with a launch angle of about 45 degrees, which seems hellaciously steep, but combining the slingshot effect of the suspension and tires, plus the absolute craziness of the actual railroad crossing (which has since been repaved to be far, far gentler) – is the only thing that comes close to fitting.
We’ll also end up with a height of 12.74 meters – which, if I can believe it (and I’m perfectly willing to have someone correct me) translates into about 41 feet.
Holy flopping cow…
That meant we had 461 feet, or just under 5 seconds of barely controlled chaos left from the moment we hit the ground before we’d get to the stop sign.
But we bounced three times. The noise of that first hit was so great we thought we’d broken all the windows.
Call it a second and a half in the air for the first bounce, a half second for the second one, and a quarter second for the third one, that’s 2 ¼ seconds in the air again – haven’t touched the brakes yet, but no gas, either. We’ll say I was averaging 45 here, – that’s 66 feet per second – that’s another 115 feet. Add to that the two times I was on the ground – we’ll call that about 2-3 car lengths each – that’ll end up with another 45 feet.
Add those together and you’ve got about another 193 feet gone before I could even think of hitting the brakes.
Unless something miraculous happened, I now had 167 feet, and just over 4 seconds, before I was going to slide through the intersection.
I hit the brakes – hard. The front wheels grabbed for a split second, then locked up on the gravel and started sliding.
I let up and hit again. They started sliding again, but I’d scrubbed off a little bit of speed. I let up and hit a third time, felt the wheels lock up and at that point I was at the stop sign, still doing at least 25 mph, but locked up front wheels don’t steer worth a dang, so I let up on the brake, spun the wheel, jammed it into second, and simultaneously realized, as the engine started screaming, and the broken exhaust roared to life, that second was too low a gear to be in. I got up to 32 mph (the top of the range in second) and went to third, floored it for a bit, and only then checked the rear view mirror to confirm that we were safe.
It is only now, more than 30 years after the fact, that I understood why we never found the marks on the road left by the exhaust system. We were looking about 100 feet short of where we actually landed.
So I started this by mentioning that I’d had these “Stupid things that Papa did when he was little” stories I told my son. There’s more, lots more. I’ll be writing them down as I can.
Take care – and no, just in case anyone thinks about doing this – I don’t recommend it.
If any one of a number of things had gone wrong, (losing a tire on landing, a car in the intersection, brakes not braking enough) I wouldn’t be here to write this.
I find myself wondering what would have happened if I’d just said no. (Note: multiple teenage males, “no” is not an option…sigh…)
But 41 feet?
Oh… my… gosh…
Telephone poles aren’t that high!
Be safe out there…
Sometimes, trouble is harder to get out of than it is to get into, and sometimes, getting out of it can be a little more painful than staying out of it would have been.
Of course, I have a story about this.
It started, as these things often do, with an innocuous question from my son, who’d just come back from a class trip to France.
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
That kind of question had me listening with all ears, and brain set fully on “record”.
“Um… Yeah, why?”
“Well, when we were in Paris, – well – did you know that they sell beer in vending machines in France?”
“No, I didn’t…”
Unspoken was the fact that not only had he noticed that they sell beer in vending machines, but also noted the sounds that coins make going in, and the sounds that cans make coming out, and how cold they feel once they get into your hand..
Sometimes it’s better to just let the story tell itself, so I waited. He’d gotten a tattoo before he’d gone, a fairly sizable one. He figured he was 18 and could do that with or without my permission, so he did. He’d told the fellow who did the tattoo that he’d bring some French Cigarettes back for him, so he found some Gitaines, or Gauloises, I forget which. These are cigarettes that would make the Marlboro man look like an absolute wuss, just before he started hacking up rugged pieces of lung.
Part of the trip to France involved a stop in Paris, and the free time they had involved them walking… Everywhere. Late one evening, after one of these long days of walking, he and his roommate were standing on a balcony of their hotel room, relaxing, leaning on the railing, looking out over Paris.
I’ll pause here, while the image gets burned into your mind…
Understand, it’s the wrong image, but still…
So they’re standing there on the balcony, when that image tried to assert herself. I mean, there they are, overlooking one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and the image that kept calling to them had a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and was so-o-o-o cool.
The pieces were all there, all they had to do was answer the call of that oh-so-cool image.
That’s when one of them decided he wanted to try the French beer.
Just a note: two words that have never, ever gone together in the same sentence: French and Beer.
French and Wine: Totally different story.
German and Beer: Definitely a different story.
French and beer? Not a chance.
But, they were in Paris, and chances like this don’t come up very often, so they tried the French beer.
“Have you ever had French beer? It tastes like cat piss!”
This was not a comparison I felt qualified to make, nor am I sure he was, but we’ll let that one go.
After gagging and spewing a bit on the cat – er beer, they decided to try the cigarettes.
“Pop, what do they put INTO those things? I mean, it was like sucking on asphalt.
It was GROSS! “How do people smoke those things?”
Sometimes a single whiff of asphalt is more effective than the most strident parent’s words. I smiled.
“And we had to – just HAD to get that taste out of our mouths and the only thing we had was that French beer….”
A balcony… a drink, a friend, and smoke, drifting lazily from the end of a cigarette…
That’s the memory.
The reality is a little different.
© Tom Roush 2009