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Have you ever done something a little on the audacious side?
In fact, have you ever done something that ran an astonishingly high risk of failure, but you decided you’d try it anyway?
Now, on top of that, have you ever met someone that just seemed to have it all?
And have you ever wanted to pull a prank on them, just – well… Because?
Have you ever had a convergence of all of those things look like they might come together in ways that you could imagine in your dreams, but couldn’t possibly imagine in reality?
Well, it might be hard to imagine for those of you who read these stories, but yes indeedy, I had all of those things happen, many years ago. See, when I was a teenager, I knew someone like that, his name was Marc. Marc was handsome, smart, had a sense of humor and a smile that would win over just about anybody.
At that time, Marc was always, and I mean always in the company of some attractive young lady. We went to different schools, but went to the same church, and were in the same youth group, and most importantly, went to the same church camp in southern Washington, where once a year, we met other kids from other churches in the district (which encompassed Washington and Oregon). One of those kids was a young lady by the name of Jeanne, a bright, fun, attractive girl from Oregon who was friends with just about everyone.
It was clear that a number of the boys at camp were completely smitten by her, but given that she lived a few hours from where we lived, and given that this was, shockingly, before the days of the internet as we know it, any communication had to be done by letters that were written, with a pen, on paper, or telephone calls which usually cost more for the first minute of calling than the stamp to send the letter cost. (I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit for some of you, and for those of you a little older to nod and remember that time, too)
So we all looked forward to church camp, where we were able to spend time with each other and not only learn lessons from the Bible, but get together and have fun, singing songs, playing games like Capture the Flag, and What Can We do With The Counselor’s Car?” (my sister’s car was somehow put in the Gym, mine one year ended up down a path down by the river), or, in quieter moments, just hanging out by the campfire. Bottom line: those of us in the youth group just loved camp, because it just made the youth group that much bigger.
One year, completely outside of camp, the youth group decided to go camping for a weekend out around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.
Marc was still smitten by Jeanne, but because of simple geography, was also good friends with a young lady named Sandy. Fact is, we were teenagers, and being smitten was part of the territory, so that was really a standard condition for all of us.
As a result, the situation was just totally asking for more than a little practical joking, and to be honest, I was one of those guys who was just a little smitten, but Jeanne and I were also, as we used to say, “just friends” (emphasis on the quotes there) so when I found out about the youth group camping trip to Kalaloch, and that Marc was going, it just seemed ripe for a little fun.
So I called Jeanne up and asked her if she wanted to go camping.
At the Beach.
Now understand, this was quite a bit easier said than done. I was south of Tacoma, Washington, she lived somewhere near Portland, Oregon, and we were headed to Kalaloch, in Washington. Yeah, I looked it up on the map. The trip looked like this. Just that piece of it was over 300 miles. She checked with her parents, got the okay, and the resulting plan was that I’d come down Friday afternoon, spend the night there, then somehow, without a whole lot of planning, synchronization, or anything, meet up with the youth group on their way to the beach, and pull off a ‘mess with Marc’s mind’ prank the likes of which he would never expect.
Also understand, the whole youth group, Marc included, coming from one direction, us coming from another direction, and actually meeting at an undisclosed, not to mention unknown, location in the middle required the kind of precision timing you might find in carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operations.
However, this was not a carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operation.
This was just me, pre-cell phone/gps days, driving down to Portland and hoping to bring a girl up to go camping with the youth group, and just happening to run into said youth group on the way to the beach – but not telling anyone in the youth group that I was doing it.
What could possibly go wrong?
I’d already told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the camping trip, that I was going to Portland for the weekend, and that I hoped they had a good time.
So I piled all my stuff together into my 1967 Saab 96 with the three cylinder, two stroke, 850 cc engine and headed off to Portland.
Everything was going great, I got there safely, we had dinner, and I met her mom. I don’t remember her dad being in the picture that evening, and her sister was out of town, so I ended up sleeping in her sister’s bed, in the frilliest, girliest bedroom I’ve ever slept in.
Given how well the trip down had gone, I thought the trip up would be a breeze.
I was wrong.
It rained overnight, the first time in a long time, and the next morning, we were all ready to go, we got the car packed, and I fired up the Saab, it was idling quietly, warming up a bit, with the ‘ringgggdadingdingding….’ sound that it made when it was idling, the two stroke smoke from the cold engine wafting like fog all over the neighborhood. I was about to put it into gear to back out of their driveway when the clutch pedal went to the floor, and neither reverse – nor for that matter, any gear, was available without some seriously nasty grinding of Swedish steel gears.
I popped the hood, screwed the lid off the clutch master cylinder, and found it not only low, but bone dry.
There was obviously a leak in the rather simple hydraulics of the clutch system, as all the brake fluid in it had leaked out. I was many, many miles from home, so in spite of the ‘freewheeling clutch‘ designed into the car, I really wasn’t going for a several hundred mile trip without it working. So bright and early that Saturday, we had to find a car parts store to see if we could get the right brake fluid for the car’s hydraulic clutch system (the wrong kind would eat through the seals, and who knows, maybe that’s what had already happened, I don’t know for sure, so we borrowed her parent’s land yacht of a ‘70’s sedan. All I remember was that it had a cold-blooded 430 cubic inch V-8 engine , a light rear end, and a sticky throttle.
Note: that 430 cubic inch engine had more power in just one of its eight cylinders than I had in my entire car. There WAS a difference.
In fact, there was far more cast iron in that engine than in my entire car, and it ran a little rough until all that iron warmed up. This was something we discovered as the car coughed just as we were making a left turn out onto a very large, empty five lane street as we were going out in search of the necessary brake fluid. Jeanne pumped the gas a few times to try to get it to run again, and just as she had her foot on the floor, the engine woke up as if it had been hit with a quadruple shot of espresso, and it roared, spinning the back wheels on the wet, slick pavement. We fishtailed all over the road for a few hundred feet until Jeanne got the throttle un-stuck and the car under control. Neither one of us needed anything resembling coffee after that, the adrenaline was enough to keep us both very, very alert for the rest of the morning.
We found a gas station, got the only kind of brake fluid they had (the wrong kind, as it turned out – but I knew I’d have to replace the seals when I got home anyway), got the land yacht safely docked back in her parent’s driveway, where I did a quick refilling and Jeanne helped me bleed the air out of the clutch hydraulics and tested it all out. That done, we piled into the now non-clutchless Saab, and headed north.
We’d already lost quite a bit of time with the whole clutch thing, which frustrated me, as I knew about the time the youth group was planning to leave, and knew where I wanted to intercept them, but I was now late, and the whole plan was looking like it was going to fall apart. I mean seriously, I didn’t even know which campground near Kalaloch they’d be staying at… I had to find them or the whole weekend would be a wash.
Then near Vancouver, Washington, the little light on the gas gauge started to flicker on every now and then, so I pulled into a Shell station there. Oh, remember, I was driving a two stroke car, which meant I had to mix the oil with the gas in a precise ratio: One quart of 30 wt oil, 8 gallons of premium…
In that order.
Into the gas tank.
And that station was the only one around that insisted on selling gas by the liter.
They sold oil by the quart, gas by the liter, and my math was in gallons.
I had to do some quick math…
Let’s see… 3.78 gallons of gas per liter –
No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…
I calculated it out with the stub of a pencil on the roof of the car, scribbling on the back of a receipt I’d found in the door pocket, to be about 30 liters of gas after I got the one quart of oil in there. It had to be right. If it was too rich (too much oil) I’d foul the plugs and it wouldn’t run well. If it was too lean, (not enough oil) I’d burn the piston rings and toast the engine. (We’ll get into this in another story that has yet to be written, interestingly about this very thing, on this very car.) So, that being said, the relatively simple but time consuming part of getting the oil to gas ratio wasn’t optional, it had to be done right, or the trip might not happen at all. So, it was just one more thing on this trip that absolutely had to be right. I figured it all out, got the gas, paid, hopped back into the car, and blasted out of there heading north.
Once we got moving, it felt like we were actually making pretty good time, and it looked like we might make it… I just had to drive well past the speed limit, not get caught, and – oh gosh, I think Jeanne was 16 or 17 at the time… I was maybe 20, 21. Getting stopped with a young lady who was underage across state lines wouldn’t be good, so yes I was driving as fast as the little Saab and traffic would allow, but gosh I had my eyes peeled for anything resembling a car with red and blue lights on it. The thing is, I didn’t really feel I had much of a choice but to drive like I was driving, because we were so late already. I’m sure at some point in there I had thoughts of “What am I doing???” – but right then the whole idea of, “Gosh, Tom, why don’t you drive something like 750 miles in a weekend just to pull a prank on a friend?” just seemed like the right thing to do…
About an hour or so later, we were coming to a possible crossroads where, depending on where the rest of the youth group was, I would either have to turn left and get off the freeway, or go straight and try to intercept them up ahead. A look at the clock in the car made me realize I’d better see if I could call the church to see who all ended up going, I mean, if Marc hadn’t gone, the whole thing would be off, so it was crucial for him to be there. I pulled off the freeway and into a gas station with a phone booth (yes, this was BC – Before Cellphones). I ran over to the phone booth, crumpled map rustling in my wake, and called the church, where I very quickly learned several things: 1. Marc was coming. 2. He was driving his parent’s silver Chevy Citation, our friend Bert would be driving his parent’s red Buick, and Marc’s parents would follow up in this monster station wagon they had, with all the bigger stuff, like the tent, the food, and the stove. I also learned that they’d left later than I expected them to, which meant that if I read the map right, we – oh, crap – I said a hurried goodbye, slammed down the receiver and tore out of there as fast as the three cylinders of the Saab would take me, leaving a cartoonish cloud of white two stroke exhaust in my wake…
It looked like we might actually be able make this…
I’d have to turn off my planned path of heading north and west via I-5 and highway 101 (which turned into highway 8) which I was familiar with and I knew they’d have to travel, vs. highway 12, which I’d never been on, but from the looks of the map, was a lot shorter, and from what I could tell, intersected highway 8 over near the town of Montesano, so I decided to risk it and turned off I-5 and onto Highway 12, where I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I couldn’t drive nearly as fast. I got through the town of Grand Mound, and then it was pretty much a two lane road, top speed, 55 mph, with occasional little towns where the speed limit was lower.
So we tootled along for a bit – talking about all sorts of stuff, but never doing anything more than speed limit, until the stereotypical little old lady – I kid you not, squinting at the road between the top of the steering wheel and the dashboard, pulled out in front of us in a blue smoke belching Buick type of a thing that I could barely see around.
At 35 mph…
That was a bit too high for 2nd gear in the Saab, just a hair low for 3rd. Definitely too low for 4th . so I was stuck, right at a speed the car rarely saw unless it was accelerating through it…I remember having to constantly shift back and forth, hunting for a gear I could use. I was incensed. The road was just curvy enough, with just enough traffic, to where there was no possible way I could pass her with the acceleration the car had, Mile after mile after mile, stuck behind this old greenish Buick. I was just thinking that it couldn’t get worse, when a very heavily loaded logging truck pulled out from some foresty road right in front of the little old lady…
And she had to hit her brakes.
To slow down.
From 35 mph…
I don’t remember where exactly this happened, but it was clear that the truck driver either wasn’t planning on or wasn’t capable of driving any faster than 35 for the bit he was on, and any acceleration he got on the level he lost on the little hills, so 35 it was.
I could see my dreams of messing with Marc’s mind disappearing in a cloud of diesel exhaust glowing from the little old lady’s brake lights.
I was beside myself.
There was no possible way I could pass, no possible way I could overcome this obstacle, and so as frustrated as I was, I had to just let it go…
After all that, it looked like I’d failed. I was just imagining how hard it would be trying to catch up with the rest of the youth group after being stuck behind the truck and the little old lady when the truck turned right, and I saw something I couldn’t see around him: A bridge. That couldn’t be the bridge I was looking for. It was about 10 miles early… But… it had to be highway 8. I didn’t understand, and asked Jeanne for the map, where I saw that highway 12 didn’t come out at Montesano, it came out at Elma, and those last 10 miles to Montesano were actually on highway 8, which, from what I could tell, doubled as highway 12, at least for that little bit.
And that meant we were about 10 miles ahead of where we thought we were – which meant… Oh my gosh – that meant that we might actually have caught up with them. There wasn’t a second to lose, but now I didn’t know if we were ahead of them or behind them.
Just in case it all worked, I’d gotten some Groucho Marx glasses for us both – with the nose, the mustache, and the eyebrows, and so I asked Jeanne if she could get them out while I accelerated up the onramp. She was rummaging around the back seat for the masks when I hit third gear, and I remember telling her what I’d heard on the phone a bit earlier. “Look for a silver Citation, a red Buick, and a wood sided station wagon.”
“Yup, I see them,” she said as if she’d been expecting this all along. “They’re right there.”
“No, really, they’re right there!”
I leaned forward as far as the seat belt would let me, looked in my left rear view mirror as I was mergingl and realized she was right. With all the things that appeared to have gone wrong, they had all conspired to get us to exactly the right spot at the absolute most perfect time we could have gotten there…
Pulling up IN FRONT of them.
Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.
Seriously, Special Forces missions are timed with this level of precision.
I hit the gas, and the white smoke from the two stroke engine trailed behind me and into the Citation, the Buick, and the Station Wagon, making it very clear to all that we’d arrived.
I heard later that there was a conversation in the car Marc was driving (the Silver Citation), his little brother Craig and little sister Marce was there, saw me pull up in front of them, and yelled, “That’s Tom!”
“That can’t be Tom. Tom’s in Portland visiting Jeanne.”
“But no one else has a red Saab like that!”
“Someone must. Tom’s in Portland.”
Meanwhile, in the Saab, I still couldn’t believe my luck, and tried to figure out what to do, given that while I had hoped for something like this, and given all the obstacles that morning, only in my wildest dreams did I actually expect it to happen, and it seemed like it was coming true. Jeanne and I tried on the fake Groucho Marx glasses with the nose, mustache, and eyebrows, you know, high-brow (but low budget) stuff, so that when they finally saw us, they wouldn’t quite recognize us right at the first second.
And then I tried to get them to pass us, so I slowed down to about 50…
Marc, Bert, and Marc’s parents slowed down, too…
No one passed.
I sped up, and in a few minutes, tried it again. I had to get them to pass me because I had no idea where they were going – so after several times where I slowed down, and irritated Marc with that, then floored it to get back up to speed (irritating him with the smoke from the car) – he finally pulled out and passed, and Jeanne and I straightened out the glasses.
And to this day, I can still remember the look on his face as he realized what was going on as he passed us. Sandy was sitting next to him, Jeanne and I both looked over in our Groucho Marx glasses, and he just stared… (and I, of course, smiled just a touch). He couldn’t believe it. (and, to be honest, I couldn’t either, but for a much different reason.)
I stayed in the slow lane until the whole caravan passed us, getting smiles from people as they looked over and realized what was going on, and then I fell in behind the last car. We all got to the beach safely, which was wonderful, and I think there were close to 15 people there when everyone was added up. By the time I’d pulled into a parking space, Marc had already jumped out of the car and was waiting on Jeanne’s side of the car. He opened the door hugged the stuffings out of her, and I think there might have been a punch in the shoulder for me, followed by a hug when I got out. I remember the shocked look was gone from his face, and that smile of his that I always remember him having was back. Having Jeanne there was definitely a surprise, totally unexpected, but she was such a part of the ‘extended’ youth group we were in, that she fit in perfectly, and then, over the next little bit the tent and stove were set up, the sleeping bags were piled into the tent, and in typical Washington summer fashion, the wind that was blowing was cold.
We all ran down to the beach, where my friend Bert (driving the red Buick) and Marc had convinced another member of the youth group, Rachel, that this kelp they’d found was a huge sea snake. They chased her down the beach with it. How it later ended up, cold, wet, and slightly slimy, in Bert’s sleeping bag we, um, don’t know, but it was all part of the fun of camping at the beach (well, fun for everyone but Bert). We went wave hopping (wading out into the Pacific until you’re about thigh deep, and then trying to time your jumps to keep your, um, “bits” dry as the waves come in. And let me tell you, off the Washington Coast, the Pacific Ocean is COLD. Eventually the “bits” you’re trying to keep dry and warm get wet, and cold, and who knows, depending on how long you’re in there, they might even turn blue. When things like that happened, it was obviously time to get out, so we did. Of course, that’s right about the time the sun came out, go figure.
We went back up to the camp, where Marc’s parents had started a fire, and his mom had made hot chocolate, which we held in our hands in those speckled blue and white metal camping cups until it was lukewarm, trying to get every possible degree of heat out of before drinking it to get the rest.
We soaked up the warmth of the campfire, we sang songs, we played games, we did skits, we made s’mores, and made more hot chocolate.
When it was bedtime, almost all of us managed to fit in the tent. It was so weird, we were all full of the energy, spunk, and yes, hormones of youth, and getting to sleep was a challenge, we were all giggling and laughing and telling stories. People had trouble believing not only that I’d told everyone I wasn’t coming on the trip, (we were a tightly knit bunch, and for me to not go on the campout bordered on treason) but that I’d actually pulled it off. And on top of it all, for me to go to visit the girl Marc liked didn’t make sense, but in the end, that night we were all together like a group of friends should be, piled together in the tent with all the formality of a litter of puppies.
Once we did fall asleep, we slept like the logs on the beach.
I remember getting up the next morning, bleary eyed. Everything in the tent damp with the puppy breath of about 15 puppies (us), and while it was warmer in the tent, I was glad to get out into “not-pre-breathed-through-several-sets-of-lungs, seaside fresh, but oooh-so-cold air.
Marc’s parents were already up, his dad had made coffee and a fire was going. I remember several more people stumbling out of the tent and being inexorably drawn to the fire like marbles to a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline.
After breakfast and cleanup, there was a little more playing on the beach until it got too cold, then we thawed out a bit after we came back out of the wind through the trees and into the campground, where there was more hot chocolate to get feeling back into our hands with those warm camping cups. Eventually it was time to pack all our sandy stuff into the cars and start the long drive back home…
Only I couldn’t go straight home.
Since I’d brought Jeanne up from Oregon to go camping, I had to take Jeanne back home to Oregon to go home, and I still had several hundred miles of the clutch issue to deal with, so we all headed out, and eventually, with much waving of hands and honking of horns, we went our separate ways, Jeanne and I heading south so I could take her to Portland, and the rest of the group heading straight home to where they had come from.
I honestly don’t remember much of the trip back, either to Jeanne’s or home from there. I just know it was a lot slower and gentler than the trip up. I don’t remember any of the fallout or aftermath of the story. I just know that I wanted to do something crazy and did it.
And as I was writing this – I went through the trip in my mind, and it got me thinking. (and if you’ve read some of my stories, you knew this was coming)
Each one of the things that happened in the story happened for a reason…
And most of the things that happened in the story drove me nuts when they happened. I mean really,
- Did the clutch cylinder HAVE to blow the night before the trip?
- Did Jeanne’s parents car HAVE to spin out and freak us out?
- What about trying to drive all over before gas stations and stores opened up to find brake fluid?
- Or having to stand there converting liters to gallons, or the other way around?
- What about the stop to make the phone call?
- What about the blue haired (and smoked) little old lady driving the mondo Buick that I couldn’t pass?
- Why on EARTH would she be put in front of me?
- What about the logging truck dragging half a forest’s worth of old growth behind him? Why did he have to pull out in front of me?
I mean seriously, all of that stuff made me SO much later than I wanted to be… By the time I got to the bridge in what I thought was Montesano I was about ready to explode. I was trying to be optimistic, because it all might still have worked, but until that truck got out of the way and I realized where we were (at the bridge that I thought was in Montesano, but actually 10 miles earlier than I was expecting it), I had no idea that all this planning and stuff might actually work out.
I mean, think about it… the timing was such that if everything that needed to go “right” in my mind had actually gone right, then the whole trip would have been blown, I would have ended up waaaay ahead of the rest of the youth group, and there would have been no chance of me figuring out where they were going (All I knew was “Kalaloch”)
And it makes me think about life…
How sometimes it really, truly feels like life is not only handing us lemons, but rotten ones at that… How life repeatedly keeps flipping us a level of crap delivered by the truckload… that just seems to be overpoweringly wrong.
And yet, somehow, things work out for the good.
Each bad thing we live through, if we stop there and never get out of it, is a bad thing. But it’s one frame in a movie, and the next frame will be different.
Think about that, then keep reading.
I know people who are going through incredibly hard times right now. I know people who have gone through hard times and will go through harder times still… And I’ve come to conclude that life is a learning process… We all will make mistakes through our decisions or indecisions. We all have bad stuff happen to us through no fault of our own, and then we’re faced with a fairly simple decision:
Do I give up? Or do I carry on?
And I’ve talked to people who feel very strongly that giving up simply isn’t an option. They may not look like very strong people on the outside, but I’ve seen them, they are Olympians of endurance on the inside.
I’ve also known people for whom the struggle was so great that carrying on wasn’t an option, and to be honest, we didn’t know how bad the situation was until after the fact, and by that time it was too late. And even though the struggle may not seem big to those of us on the outside, it has taken me years to learn that we have no idea what kinds of struggles other people are going through, even if we think they’re telling us everything. Some time ago, over the course of a single week, I learned that two people I knew, who I thought had it all together, far better than I did, were losing it. You just don’t know.
And I’ve learned that we’re not here to judge each other based on what we can see of each other when there’s so much going on under the surface we know nothing about, (I don’t remember being appointed judge of anyone) – but to support each other through the trials that this life is.
So maybe, just maybe, that’s what you’re being called to do in the journey that is your life right now. Support someone.
Help them get to their Montesano…
Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.
And if you can, do it anonymously.
I don’t know who this person is in your life, and it will change over time, but somehow, some way, someone will be brought into your life, and you’ll have that opportunity.
Run with it.
And if you’re someone who’s going through a rough journey, and you keep finding yourself facing messed up clutches, weird gas stations, and all sorts of things in your way…
Keep going. Really.
If not for the destination, for the journey, and to see the smiles and love of those around you.
I just told you a story about a drive, a journey I took with a friend to meet other friends… We spent time together, we ate together, we played and talked and froze our butts off together, and then we all piled into that tent like those fuzzy puppies I mentioned earlier.
Isn’t that the way it should be?
That’s life, right?
I mean think about it…
Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).
Unexpected stuff happens (gas stations sell gas in liters instead of the expected gallons). People pull out in front of you, or cut you off (everyone from little old ladies to truck drivers) – and it all seems to be conspiring against you…
But… (and this is a big but, believe me, I get this…)
I learned that the end can come sooner than we think, just like that bridge I thought was in Montesano and ended up showing up 10 miles sooner… And at that point, the frustration, or at least that part of the frustration will be over. You’ll have lessons to ponder and learn, you’ll have stories to tell, but you’ll have a chance to be with your friends or family, and eventually, you’ll be through that challenge and on to the next one, and you’ll be doing your quiet version of driving home from Portland.
So… Hug your loved ones.
Remind them you love them.
Support those around you who are struggling.
Bring smiles into their lives as you can.
And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.
PS to Marc’s family, Jeanne, Rachel, and Bert who helped me remember some of the little details of this story – Thanks for letting me be a part of it.
The moon is absolutely gorgeous as I write this. All I have to do is look out the living room window to see it – and it got me thinking, and remembering, to a Sunday evening back in 1998.
I’d spent the afternoon with my son, just being together and doing stuff, and as it got dark, drove down to Golden Gardens in the old Saab, and as we were going around the big S turns on the way down, he looked up and saw the crescent moon in the evening sky.
“Look Papa! The moon’s a white banana in the sky!”
And so it was.
It was wonderful to see, and wonderful to see it through his eyes.
We got down to the beach, just as most parents were packing up and leaving, and built a sand castle in the wet sand, it clumping together – bits of shell and the like as we worked… The sand castle appeared over time to the sound of an invisible boat chugging up the Sound.
At this moment, I decided to put all my sensors on full alert, as I wanted to remember this moment, and saw and heard other parents with their children, trying not to blink as they grew up.
That’s one of the hardest things about being a parent, trying not to blink…
As the sand castle took shape, the sounds of the evening changed from children running along the beach and into the water to children bargaining for more time, begging for “just one more minute”, and parents reluctantly giving in, for that one minute, knowing that they’ll be vacuuming the sand out of the car tomorrow, but knowing also that a memory was made, and it’s one small grain of sand in the beach of a happy childhood…
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,
So a combined Father’s Day and Fourth of July Story all in one this time.
It’s also another Saab Story…
I drive a 1968 Saab 96 Deluxe. It’s a car I’ve had for at least a decade now, and has been pretty good to me. It’s not a show car, it’s my daily driver. I take care of it mechanically, so it keeps me on the road, but it gets washed when it gets washed, and it gets cleaned out – well, at least annually. Sometimes more often, so it’s got the standard grunk that manages to accumulate in a car over time, and – well, it’s just used.
This day my son and I strapped the bike rack to the trunk of the car, strapped our two bikes on that, and headed down to my mom’s for the fourth of July. She lives in a small town where if you want to see the fireworks, you go to the center of town and just watch, and when you do, you don’t have to sit so far away that you look out to see them. You lay on the ground and look straight up at them.
It’s very, very cool.
And while there’s what one could call a “show” – you can also bring your own fireworks, so my son and I stopped in Puyallup on the way down to make sure we could be armed appropriately, so to speak.
We stopped at one of the Indian Reservation fireworks stands they have in the area and, given that it was the Fourth of July already, they were having what one might call a ‘fire sale’ – they wanted to get rid of stuff fast, so we ended up with about twice as much as we were expecting. We were happy.
We kept driving, on a road we didn’t drive often, right through Puyallup, and there’s a railroad crossing right in the middle of town that was quite a bit rougher than I was prepared for, so I went over it a little faster than I should have, and with the bikes cantilevered out and attached pretty firmly to the rack, the movement of the bike rack bounced them up and down pretty hard, and popped the bottom two straps off, so instead of having the bike rack attached to the car, it was now just hanging there.
We knew what we had to do, so we pulled over and stopped at the very first place we could, both jumping out to make sure the rack was strapped down tight.
Now traffic that day had been pretty busy up to that point, we were driving south, in July, and while happy with our purchases, were looking forward to getting to mom’s so we could get out of the car and cool down. Anyone having driven one of these things knows they don’t like being stuck in traffic, and we’d occasionally have to turn the heater on to help cool the engine down, so mentally we were happy, physically, we were not.
In fact, physically we were just hot, wanted to get the bikes back on the car, and then just get the car back on the road.
We were absolutely not prepared for what came next. You see, this is my Saab… I’ve had it, as I said, for about a decade… the one before that, I had for almost two decades. The one before that, I had for a couple of years, and the one before that was a ’67 96 2 stroke, and the one before that, I still have (it’s a ’65 95 stroker, there’s some stories coming about that one later) – and my dad had a ’66 96 when we were kids.
Needless to say, I’m familiar with the vehicle. It’s… my car….
So while we were pulled over, just across the street from what appeared to be a restaurant, strapping things down, there was a lull in the traffic, and we heard this astonished female voice (attached to an astonishingly attractive female) rushing out to us, “Oh, your car, it’s so CUUUUUUTE!!!! Can I LOOK at it?”
Michael and I glanced at each other. She sounded just like Rudolph…. But we were on a public street, what were we going to do, say no?
“No… the car’s too cute for you… you’re not allowed to look at it… go back to your restaurant and finish your meal.”
That wasn’t going to work…
We kind of shrugged our shoulders and finished strapping things down, checking tension, making sure nothing was messed up, while she just gushed all over the car about how cute and adorable it was.
We were still a little warm, and just wanted to get off to Mom’s, where we could ride our bikes or blow stuff up – whichever worked, so we politely said our goodbyes and left her standing there in the road as we drove off.
Michael was quiet for several blocks, and then, looking at the car in a whole new light, said in a quote worthy of Will Smith, “Man, I have GOT to get me one o’ these things!”
In time, son…
One of the things I’ve noticed about owning an old Saab is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING has a story around it.
The Saab this story’s about is my 1968 Saab 96. It’s been in a few stories, brought me through more than a few adventures, and in general, been a pretty dependable car.
It came with a V-4 engine (half a V-8) and a one barrel carburetor that got me about 27 miles per gallon. It was enough for smooth power, but not a lot of it.
One of the things I’d wanted to do for years was put a two barrel carb on it – which would allow the engine to ‘breathe’ more easily. Allowing an engine to breathe more easily made it more efficient, (it also meant more power 🙂 …and if you’re thinking of cars, and breathing, between the carburetor, which did the inhaling, and the engine, which needed the air, was a hunk of metal known as an intake manifold. This was basically a cast collection of tubes that allowed the air from the carburetor to be divvied up and sent to each of the four cylinders that needed the air and provided the power. The one thing I needed in addition to the two barrel carburetor was one of these intake manifolds so all the pieces could come together. So over a few years I managed to find a manifold – as I recall, it came from a junkyard in Germany. I then found a carb on ebay, and was going to put the two together only to find that the carb was old and in desperate need of rebuilding.
It turns out that everything that could be worn out on this carb, was worn out on this carb. And… it had been dropped, and that meant it would have a bit of a vacuum leak if I wasn’t able to fix it. (that’s known, in technical terms, as a bad, but fixable thing). But, it was worth a try, so I bought a gallon of carburetor cleaner like I’d seen in a shop years ago, and just soaked the carb in it. That way everything that the cleaner could get to, would be gotten to, and then I could start this whole rebuilding process with clean parts and a rebuild kit. I needed good weather for it because you generally don’t work on car parts on the kitchen table (don’t ask why I know this, but it involves a friend’s motorcycle and the kitchen door catching fire… but that’s another story for another time), and one day, when it was sunny outside and I had some free time, I decided I’d actually do the cleaning bit, so to get started, I read the instructions on the can…
…and the thing that gets me about reading labels like that is “Why do the contents of the can only cause cancer in laboratory rats in California? I mean, is there something magical about laboratory rats in Seattle?”
Right. Bottom line, stay upwind of the stuff, don’t get any on you, and for heaven’s sake, don’t get any in the house.
I read a bit more, and found that the cleaner was to be used between 70 and 110 degrees.
The problem was it was 20 degrees outside.
No more, no less…
But 20 degrees was clearly on the “a little too cool” side of making this stuff effective, so I tried to figure out a way to warm it up without causing problems… I mean, the stuff’s evil, nasty, flammable, whatever… I had to come up with some way of heating it carefully so that I could get it up to operating temperature. After some thought, I got a pot of water and put it on to boil, figuring that the cleaner had been sitting there in the garage for weeks, and it’d take some heat to warm it up to somewhere between the required 70 and 110 degrees to make it work. I figured I’d just put the gallon can of carb cleaner into a 5 gallon bucket, then put the hot water in the bucket and safely heat everything up.
Oh, if you’re reading this, you know dang well that there’s a story here…
I poured the first pot of water into the bucket, it covered the bottom of the bucket up to a couple of inches. Figuring that wasn’t enough, I went inside to heat up some more water.
It took a little bit to heat that second batch up, and I took it outside as soon as it was ready, but by the time I got out there with the water, the gallon of carb cleaner was boiling out over the top of the can inside the bucket, and it was well into eating the label off the can. (see picture).
It became fairly clear that the reason for the 110 degree limit was that that was the boiling temperature of carb cleaner – and if it ate the label off the freaking can, I didn’t want anything to do with it…
For whatever reason, the plastic bucket didn’t care about the carb cleaner, and the cleaner that had boiled over was sitting down at the bottom of the bucket – under the water. But gosh, you’d think they’d make the label out of something a little more durable or something…
I ended up putting the bucket in the very back of the Buick station wagon we had at the time to take it to a hazmat place here in the city. It was a little surreal to be driving there in the station wagon, with my son, who was still in a car seat at the time, just chatting away, only to get out and hand the bucket to a guy who was dressed in a full-on hazmat suit.
But we got rid of it, and that was a good thing.
I later put the carb itself on E-bay, wrapped in several layers of plastic that it didn’t dissolve, with a warning that it would smell like carburetor cleaner…
As I recall, a fellow in Utah bought it along with the rebuild kit I’d gotten for it, because, as it turned out, it would fit his Lotus. I told him everything about it, and he still wanted it. In the end, he was happy, because it made his car run. I was happy because the carburetor was miles away, and I was to the point where I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Later, I just bought a new carburetor instead of trying to rebuild the old one, and put that on the intake manifold. I worked with Rob at Scanwest Autosport to make a linkage for it, and the car could inhale, deeply.
Now I had to figure out how to get it to exhale fully.
I’d learned that having an MSS (Motorsport Services) exhaust system on a Saab V4 was worth about 10 horsepower, and since the exhaust was pretty toasted anyway, I saved up my money and ordered one. The problem was that, if you’ve ever owned a Saab with a V-4 engine, there’s kind of a metal donut between the heads of the engine and the exhaust manifolds that allows everything to fit together. But the holes didn’t quite match up right. The exhaust came out of each head of the engine through a hole that was about 1 ¼ inch in diameter. The gasket that was between the head and our donut had a 2 inch hole in it. The diameter of the exhaust headers was also 2 inches, but the hole inside the donut was only 1 ¼ inch, all that breathing-exhaling stuff we were doing was nothing but huffing and puffing until that was fixed (because the car was trying to push lots of exhaust through 1 ¼ inch holes when it had a 2 inch pipe it could go through – it’s like putting your thumb over a garden hose) so that had to be fixed… I figured that if the gasket were the right size, then everything else should be that size, including that 1 ¼ inch donut hole.
I wasn’t sure how to do this, I didn’t have a machine shop, but then I found a fellow named Dan who did this kind of work.
On big engines.
I’d taken the heads off my Saab engine to get them down there to him to get hardened valve seats put in there so the car would run on unleaded gas, and he laughed as he looked at the valves that came off them. They looked like little toys in comparison to the engines he normally worked on. Some of the valve stems on the engines he normally worked on were 14 inches long, and the valves themselves were, I’m going to guess about 4 inches across. (by comparison, the valve stems on the Saab engine were about 5 inches long, and the valves 1 1/2 inches across).
The thing I learned quickly about Dan was that he came across as gruff as all get-out on the outside, but was a marshmallow on the inside.
I found out he liked Sprite, so I made it a point to stop by the shop on the way home from work a couple of nights a week, just to see how things were going. I wasn’t in a hurry, in fact, I was more interested in learning about the magic of turning a hunk of metal into something useful than getting it done fast, and Dan was a willing teacher.
And we talked… about life, about our families, about work, and friends, and how important it was to have them. I remember telling him how much fun it was to just be there in a machine shop, where things were actually made, which was so different from being in an IT department as a database administrator, which I was at the time.
To see him use all those tools he had at his disposal and make useful things out of raw metal was a treat. I mean, he could point to something and say, “I made that.”
He could reach out and touch it.
It was real.
But he kept saying I had to be smarter than he was because I worked with computers.
I told him, “Dan, you take these hunks of metal that are just that, hunks of metal, and you MAKE something of them. I work all day pissing off electrons. You tell me who’s smarter.”
He laughed, but I was serious.
It took a while, but I think it sunk in. I mean, I worked very hard at making sure the right electrons got pissed off, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t have anything to show for it, so chatting with Dan, in his shop, surrounded by all his tools, not a computer in sight, was a real treat for me. Not only did he teach, but he let me do some of the work myself. In one case, he was looking for the right drill bit in the mass of bits and taps and dies and all sorts of things he had on massive workbenches, and the sound of him rummaging around was so close to the sound of a kid looking through a pile of Legos that I just had to smile.
Eventually he did find the right drill bit, wiped it on his overalls, and popped it into the drill for me, then stood there, patiently, as I drilled out the new brass valve guides that he’d hammered into the heads.
One day when I came in with the can of Sprite, he was almost done. He’d installed the hardened valve seats and ordered valves to fit the extra-large holes he’d let me drill, and about a week later, the heads were finished. I put them on the car, where they are to this day.
But on that last day, when I was picking them up, I asked him what I owed, and he just waved me off.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“This was fun for me. Don’t worry about it.”
And he wouldn’t take my money.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe what he was doing, but it turned out that for Dan there was more value in something as simple as conversation than there was in a collection of little oval pictures of dead presidents.
I put the engine back together, and in doing so, was able to combine the heads on my Swedish car with the intake manifold from that junkyard in Germany and that two barrel carburetor from wherever it was made, along with the MSS exhaust system from Jamestown, New York, and I drove it down to the shop to show him, so he could hear how his work that connected all the different parts came together.
He listened to the rough idle, hearing music he’d helped make, and smiled as I revved it and it smoothed out. And I thanked him and shook the hand of a true craftsman.
For some time afterwards, I’d stop by every now and then to say hi, and if he wasn’t there, I’d just leave a can of Sprite sitting on the doorknob for him to let him know I was thinking about him.
A few years passed, I changed jobs, his shop wasn’t on the way to work anymore, and life happened. I didn’t see him for a long time, but a few months ago, my son had a problem with a metal part he was working on, and I thought it was time to introduce him to someone who could make metal do anything, so we got a cold can of Sprite and headed down the road to see Dan.
But it turned out Dan wasn’t there anymore.
His son was, and told us that his dad had had to give up the shop, and that it was going to be sold to their biggest customer in the next few months.
I looked around, and while I could sense his presence in all of his tools, and in no small way, in his son, standing there in front of me, I realized the spirit of the place had changed. Not only wouldn’t I see Dan again, at least the Dan I knew, but the shop, with all its familiar machinery, would soon be gone, too.
My son didn’t quite understand the catch in my voice as I asked Dan’s son if he’d take the Sprite to his dad and tell him it was from an old friend, the one with the little blue Saab. The one that he’d made go a lot better, a little faster, and just a touch louder.
© Tom Roush, 2012
Six years ago last weekend, my son Michael and I had a new word enter our vocabulary.
Just one word…
It’s a word that brings back memories that are still filled with wonder, laughter, awe, and not an insubstantial amount of reverence. It was the first hike for me after a long time of recovery, and was kind of a celebration of sorts, to prove that we could go out and do something more than just ‘recover’. By way of introduction, Michael was a Boy Scout at the time, and, it turned out, this was a traditional camping trip that our Scoutmaster, Paul, did on President’s day weekend.
You might be thinking, “But President’s Day weekend is in February!”
The Norwegian Memorial was a 5 hour drive to get to from Seattle.
It was out west of Forks, Washington, long before any TV show brought attention to it, and after you got there, there was a hike in. I had to work Friday and couldn’t get away, and it was a hike not recommended to do in the dark.
Note: What happens in this story (note: all of it is true) is what caused us to go out the next year – the adventures of which you can read in the Shi Shi beach story. It’s in that story we learned about hiking in the dark – and if you read that, you might get a better picture of why this doesn’t happen often.
So Michael and I headed west, in the Saab (1968 Saab 96 Deluxe, with the V-4 Engine). He navigated, I drove. At one point we were bombing down a gravel logging road, and having watched bits and pieces of the Paris-Dakar Rally on TV some time earlier, he’d commented that that would be fun to do, and it didn’t take me long to realize that we were doing just that.
We were doing about – oh, 30 or so, which on a road that had simply been bulldozed through the forest actually felt pretty quick. I yelled at him over the roar of the engine, the tires sliding sideways every now and then just enough to throw gravel up against the bottom of the car, “Hey Michael! you know what we’re doing?”
And the thing was, we kind of were…
I took a picture (hey, it’s me, what would you expect?)
We had a rough set of instructions that would get us into the right neck of the woods, so to speak, but we didn’t have any more detail than that… There were areas we had to travel slowly and carefully on, but there were some parts, the straight and gently curved stretches of the gravel road that we traveled down just fast enough to make it fun and exciting, without being so fast that we’d damage the car or ourselves if we got ourselves stuck. And there was the fact that this was the kind of road I’d learned to drive on (and it was a Saab I’d learned in.) So I knew the limitations of the car from a few decades of driving experience.
It was, to put it mildly, fun. (in fact, I’m still smiling about it as I write this)
Not on the map was our primary goal, which was, “Find Paul’s truck”, because if we found that, we’d find the trailhead, so that’s what we did. By the time we got there, it was 3:00, so we didn’t have too much daylight left. We’d been told it was a mile to get in, but Paul had developed this reputation that meant we had to convert “Paul Miles” into “Standard Miles” so we figured it might be a bit longer than a standard mile, and so we scarfed some snacks and started hiking in. The trail was barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest, but we figured if we kept heading west, eventually we’d hit this big patch of water called the Pacific, and we’d be able to find things from there. After some time, we took a break and sat down on a log to rest for a little bit. By this time, we’d learned two things about the trail:
- If it was muddy and you got stuck in it, chances are you were on the trail.
- If it was impassable, chances are, you were off the trail, and had to get back to the mud.
It was nice to have things clear and simple like that.
We got up and hiked for another half hour or so with Michael leading the way, and somewhere in there I realized the brand new tent I’d been focusing on, the one that was tied to his backpack, wasn’t there anymore.
Sun going down in the west, nothing but trees and the beginning traces of darkness, and maybe a tent to the east.
Thing is, we still had light, we just didn’t know how far (and thus how long) we had to walk, so we didn’t know how much time we had to go look for a lost tent.
We decided he’d go back for no more than 10 minute to look for it, and it’s good we had radios with us to communicate, otherwise the trees absorbed ALL sound. It was truly eerie how loud he could yell from just a few feet away and it just didn’t penetrate the trees.
Later I took a picture at that place, because it was suddenly so easy to understand how someone might get totally lost and never come out…
We were glad we’d each brought a tent of our own. It gave us a spare.
We kept walking, and eventually the trail started going sideways downhill toward the beach and we could hear the surf in the distance. We found where a tree had fallen and blocked the trail. It was too big to climb over, too low to the ground to crawl under as we were, and since we were on a hillside, we couldn’t really go around. So we took our packs off and crawled under, then kind of lobbed the packs over the top of the trunk laying there and put them on when we’d gotten to the other side. It was nice that we succeeded in that, it meant not having to climb into the tree to get our backpacks back down. After that, the trail was pretty clear. In fact, when we got to the bottom of the trail, it was next to impossible to miss…
This part of the trail could actually be hiked in pitch black darkness. Here – take a look…
I also took this one looking back on the way out but this is roughly what we saw on the way in.
Some of the scouts saw us and were both surprised and delighted that we’d made it. One took my pack off my shoulders for the last few feet, and of course when that happens, you just feel like you’re floating, so I floated over to the campsite (just left of center in the picture above, and it was right…
It was amazing.
When we finally got there, there was a small fire on the beach (okay, small, relative to the size of the beach) –
There was only rule about the fire, and that was that if it could burn, and you could lug it to the fire, it got burned. As you can see, they were stoking the fire with a couple of small sticks as we walked up.
The fire was worth its weight in gold for all the time spent just staring into it, focusing on everything, and nothing…
There was time to walk on the beach, and just be alone with your thoughts, whatever they were,
and even though the weather was so cold, there was a chance to sleep in a warm sleeping bag, in the same old tent that we’d slept in at Fort Ebey years ago when Michael was a Webelos Scout. We did see evidence of some strange wildlife out there, causing us to wonder where genetic engineering had gone drastically wrong.
It was a wonderful place…
There was time for pondering, and reflection…
There was time to etch your autograph anyplace you could find to put it.
There was always a pot of water on…
… for hot chocolate or coffee…
We had some guests for dinner, and found all sorts of things on the beach…
We never had any problem with food spoiling that weekend. Of course, the fact that it didn’t get much above 27 degrees in the daytime might have helped that particular issue out just a bit. It wasn’t windy, wasn’t rainy, just clear and bracingly cold.
There was an abandoned silver mine south of Norwegian by a couple of miles. We hiked down there with the rest of the scouts who’d gone and stopped to see some of the decaying machinery, where what had once been a boiler of steel able to harness the power of steam had been scoured by the salt air for so long that the steel could be peeled away with your fingernails.
Since we’d gotten there late, Michael and I took a hike up north, to the actual Norwegian Memorial, hidden away off the beach, a memorial to the sailors who died in a shipwreck many years ago.
On our way to see the memorial, we saw many downed trees, and this one…
…was truly a Goliath among them, making all of the others look positively tiny in comparison.
We kept walking, not really knowing where exactly what we were looking for, but eventually we found it, nestled deep in the trees, away from the beach, in a place you could easily miss.
Our Scoutmaster, Paul, had been keeping it tidy once a year…
…for the last thirty years or so as part of being with the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association in Ballard, where we live.
The mussels we had for dinner one night simply covered a huge rock. It was impossible to walk anywhere without stepping on them. And it didn’t take long at all to gather enough for dinner.
Once we got back to the campfire, we had what was again, amazing food. We learned that you can make something called Cioppino in a dutch oven, and since I’d spent a few years playing with cameras, we decided we’d take a picture of it. Of course, trying to take a picture of a dutch oven over a fire likely wouldn’t win any awards, and since we didn’t have any studio lighting, we just used the campfire for light and I think a couple of flashlights. We waved them around until we thought we might have something, and who knew that you could come up with a picture like this with just a couple of flashlights and a campfire?
Come to think of it, who knew mussels made pearls?
And, Pop Quiz:
When you’re eating them, how do you know the difference between the sand in them and those pearls?
If it’s sand, your teeth crunch it…
If it’s pearls, it’s the other way around…
(That particular lesson only takes one time to actually sink in…)
The temperature was cold, but no wind and so that evening a huge cargo net served as a wonderful hammock for two to relax and watch the sun set,
and watch the fire burn to embers.
But the most incredible part of it all was something not in any photographs.
As I said, it was 27 degrees in the daytime. After dark, it got colder still. One night, we went out onto the wide, wide beach for a walk. The beach was mostly flat, so we walked and walked, and as we got further away from the light of the campfire, and our eyes got adjusted to the dark (there was no moon that night) we found that we could see, literally, in the dark. It’s because the stars were brighter than we’d ever seen, and even Orion, huge in Seattle, was small in comparison to all the other stars now visible.
We kept walking, our eyes in the heavens, as wide as children seeing those stars for the very first time.
It was only when the sand we were walking on became a little slippery, and a little soft, like crème brulée, crunchy on the top, soft underneath, that we slowed and stopped. It took about three steps or so, and we all looked down…
…and found ourselves in a world that words cannot adequately describe.
The salt water had frozen as the tide went out, and the beach we’d been on had been transformed into ice that extended as far as we could see in front of us, and far enough left and right to feel like it went to the horizon.
As I looked back up, I noticed that I could see Orion again, not once, but twice. Once upside down below the horizon, once right side up above.
Wait a minute…
I looked left and right, up and down, and still saw stars.
I kind of skootched my feet around a little to be sure I wouldn’t fall and realized we were not standing under the stars, we were standing among the stars. We were standing on a mirror, stars visible above us, below us, and all around us.
As our eyes registered it all, and our brains struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what we were seeing, the sound of the waves to our right faded away with the tide. We were quite literally in awe.
We stood there for a few minutes, in silent reverence for the creation before us and around us.
We weren’t standing on ice, on a beach, we’d been transported into the heavens.
We were standing in the stars.
It was Amazing.
It was Magical.
I did not need caffeine the other morning.
I got enough excitement just trying to drive my Saab, and in this day and age, driving isn’t enough.
I was multitasking.
I managed to:
- completely obviate the need for anything resembling caffeine that morning.
- simultaneously clean the left side of my engine,
- cool down a pesky hot exhaust manifold, with nice, cool gasoline
- and stop traffic in a spot where stopping traffic is the last thing you want to do.
See, I was driving my 1968 Saab up the hill on Boren Avenue in Seattle, which is two lanes up, two down, and the occasional intersection where people often decide they need to turn left with very little warning.
The hill’s steep enough to where you there’s very little wiggle room if something goes wrong. In fact, I generally blast up it in high second gear, the car won’t pull it as well in third, and when you’re blasting up the hill like that, you have a little better control if, for example, someone stops to make one of those left turns at one of the intersections in the middle of the hill.
It’s also beneficial to have a little extra speed so you don’t have to try to stop in the middle of the hill, because stopping means you have to start again – and if you happen to have a clutch that needs replacing (but you haven’t quite gotten to it yet), and, you discover, in a rather, um, ‘puckering’ moment that on this hill, while the brakes applied with the brake pedal will stop you fine, just the back brakes are out of adjustment just enough to mean that the parking brake will almost (but not quite) hold you. Especially on this hill. This one’s so steep that should you actually have to stop, you really need to have the brake hold the car while you do the two foot/three pedal dance as you shift your right foot from the brake to the gas while you let up on the clutch (which needs to be replaced, remember?) when you try to get moving again, because of course you don’t want to roll into the car behind you, nor do you want to stall your own car heading up a steep hill like this, because – well, trust me, that’s another story altogether. (yes, it’s written, no, it hasn’t been published, you’ll just have to wait for that one…).
So, you do what you can to avoid even getting into this situation, and you just try to get up the hill as fast as you can. That way, if you find yourself in the left lane, passing people, and someone actually does stop in the middle of the hill to turn left (or wait for someone else to), you can just whip around them into the right lane and accelerate even faster to keep the person who’s already blasting up the hill in the right lane from rear ending you.
Right, so second gear, floored, it is.
Now this car’s had some custom valve work done on it. It’s been ported a bit, has a two barrel carb instead of the standard one barrel, and has an MSS exhaust, so when I go up that hill, I go up, as I said, fast, and in control, and if I need to make any corrections of any kind, my goal is to make them with plenty of authority. That hill is simply not a place you want to stop – on purpose or by accident. There’s just so much traffic, and simply not enough room to get away if you do get stuck, or stopped, or both somehow.
Except for the other morning.
I was in the left lane that time, it was clear, no one was stopped at any of the intersections at the bottom of the hill, and I had a bit of a running start, so I was well into 2nd, around 4500 RPM, and because of the momentum and no one in front of me, was thinking of shifting to third when I simultaneously felt a tremendous loss of power, and an olfactory assault of gasoline like I’d never smelled in that or any other car.
Well, come to think of it, there was that time years ago when my boss thought it would be just fine to carry a 5 gallon plastic bucket – yes, bucket, with no lid, mind you – of gasoline in the company van to go rescue the other van that had run out. I did manage to keep him from lighting up one of his ever present cigarettes until we were done – but, that’s a different story altogether.
At any rate, back to the rapidly decelerating Saab going up Boren: in case it’s not obvious, this was not the most ideal time for this to transpire. I lost speed far faster than I’d expected to, and suddenly found myself in exactly the position I didn’t want to be in:
Precisely halfway up the hill with an engine that had quit and wouldn’t start. Time seemed to stand still as I put the four-ways on and frantically looked around to see if some other driver wouldn’t be able to avoid hitting me.
A couple of cars went by, and then I had a clear spot. (This is when I discovered that the parking brake wouldn’t hold.) I rolled back, hoping to get enough speed going backwards down the hill to try to do a J-turn backwards so I’d be heading back down and could find a place to put the car so I could get out and figure out what the problem was and fix it.
I came SO close to making that turn – but didn’t get up enough speed and ran out of room, finding myself backed straight up against the curb on the right side of the street, blocking off both uphill lanes of traffic pretty as you please. A guy in a van stopped and was watching me try to figure out what to do. With all the smell of gas, I thought it was flooded somehow, but acting like it was starved for fuel. Very weird, so I pulled the choke (shouldn’t have needed it, the engine was already warmed up – none of this was making sense yet, I was just operating on instinct – well, instinct and a few decades of experience).
Eventually I got it into first, turned the key, and moved forward far enough in gear on the starter to then steer left (downhill) and let gravity take over. It felt like it took forever, but as I think back on it, it must have taken only seconds, really.
The car started accelerating down the hill, but wouldn’t start at all, and as I coasted further down the hill, I put it in second and popped the clutch so I could try to at least get this coasting to turn the engine over – but that didn’t do anything. In fact, the only thing it did was make the smell of gas a LOT stronger.
And then I got stuck in traffic…
Truly, completely stuck. It seemed everyone ahead of me was trying to get onto I-5, off to my right, and I literally couldn’t move. I couldn’t move right (I was in the right lane, no shoulder, and a very high curb), I couldn’t move left (it was clogged), and I was on a bridge, but at least I was facing downhill, and if I could get in the left lane and make the light up ahead, I could coast into a parking lot just past the light and figure all this out.
By this time, with the car not moving and the breeze coming from the back a bit, the gas smell was fading, but I still didn’t understand what had happened, and wasn’t in a place where I could investigate it at all. Then, while I was pondering that and waiting for traffic to at least move, the left lane started crawling and one of the drivers pulled up beside me and said, “You’ve got a gas leak”
Well, that explained that…
“…and I can see it pouring out onto the street…”
I noticed he didn’t say “leaking” – he said “pouring”
About then the light up ahead turned green, but the lane I was in was still blocked by people trying to turn right, so, I, still on the bridge/hill, with a dead engine, coasted into the passing lane and passed a bunch of them, and yes, that was a weird feeling, silently accelerating a 1968 Saab past all those newer cars, making about as much noise as a Prius.‑‑
I popped the hood, got out, and looked at my watch, I had an appointment in a few minutes, I mean, that’s what I was doing in the first place, I don’t generally drive up that hill just for fun, and it was then that I finally felt more than just a bit of adrenaline as I could see what had happened. Something, as I looked into the engine compartment, just felt a little off – see if you can see it here:
It seems that at the 4500 RPM I was going as I was blasting up the hill, the brass fitting the fuel line coming out of the fuel pump let go. You can see the fuel filter in the top left of the frame. The hose going down to the right drapes over the fuel pump.
The hole you see at the bottom of the fuel pump is where the outgoing pipe on the fuel pump should be, and it’s not. That little hole is where all the gas the engine burns gets pumped through, and that black hose in the picture should be hooked up to. That meant that this was where the gas was spraying out from, which explained that gas smell. It was this fuel pump that was spraying 4500 RPM worth of raw gas onto the side of the engine compartment (cleaning it nicely, I might add) and at that speed, an awful lot of it went directly onto the hot exhaust manifold, (the rusty thing to the right). This, of course, cooled the manifold off very nicely, as if that might be a concern of mine (It wasn’t. At All). In fact, at the moment it let go, the engine had just a few seconds of gas left before it sucked the fuel filter dry and was sucking air, so that, in spite of the gas spraying around under the hood, made the whole thing a whole lot less dangerous.
(Less dangerous, like, it could only catch fire for a little bit… right
I still didn’t like the idea of gas outside the engine, but I took a look at the fitting that was supposed to be in the fuel pump. It was still attached to the hose pretty tightly, and since it didn’t look damaged in any way, I just jammed it back in to the pump, then tried to pull it out. It wouldn’t come out, so I figured I might be good if I was careful. (which reminds me of my grandmother’s saying to me, under totally different circumstances once, “Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful.” – Ahh, but I digress. Bottom line, I felt the need to be both at that point).
The hood had been up for all the time it took me to figure all this out, and that aired everything out a bit, and by the time the picture above was taken, the heat had dried most everything off, so I just started the car, (you can see the starter under the exhaust manifold, I’m sure it got soaked too. I might be understating things a bit to say that I’m quite pleased that none of the sparks from the starter got close enough to the gasoline to – well, get acquainted – if you know what I mean.
This makes me wonder sometimes… I think, when it comes to Saabs, I must have a veritable Army of very tired, and some quite veteran, Guardian Angels in coveralls assigned to me.
I checked for leaks (there were none) and then very slowly, very carefully, drove to my appointment – totally bypassing that evil hill.
It was only when I saw the looks on the faces of the folks at my appointment as I explained and apologized for smelling like gas, and later at work that I realized that this was not a normal occurrence for folks.
Then again, I suppose having a car that’s within a few years of getting its own AARP membership isn’t all that normal either.
From the appointment, I gently drove it partway back down the evil hill, until I got into the remnants of the same traffic jam I’d just coasted through. I decided to drive around it. I left work early so I could go home and not risk rush hour traffic. Once home, I gave the car some time (okay, two days) to cool down before I set on fixing it.
So – that takes us to:
Part II – How did I fix this?
Well, to fix it, I knew I needed to fix it good, so after I got back from the appointment to the office, I called my wife and asked her to pick up some of my old Friend JB Weld, and only briefly explained to her what happened, and went to work. I knew that the fitting would stay in the pump at low RPM’s, because it had stayed during the gentle drive home, but it was the higher RPM’s that I was worried about.
Fast forward those few days to when I actually had a chance to work on the car with a cold engine. Now given that this is the first time in 33 years of driving Saabs that this has ever happened to me, I decided I was going to make sure that it would be at least another 33 years before it happened again.
So last Sunday morning, before church, I pulled the fuel line out, including the little brass fitting, and then pulled the fitting from the fuel line. Since I had a formerly full tank (I’d just filled up before this happened). I jammed a screwdriver bit into the end of the fuel line and tightened the hose clamp to keep it from spilling too much more while I worked on it.
I dried the fuel pump with a paper towel (some gas had spilled before I could get the little screwdriver bit in there, then grabbed a toothpick, the JB Weld, and mixed a little onto the card it came with, and then coated the brass fitting rather liberally with the mixed JB Weld.
I pushed it back into the fuel pump, and then gave it a few thwacks with the set of Vice Grips I’d used to get it out,and then let it set for the appropriate amount of time…
It ended up looking like this…
And then I put the hose and everything back together – right as the sun came out – (so we have shadows in the next shot)
I started it up this afternoon, no leaks, so that’s good.
I’ll see about driving it to work to see how well the seal holds, but if you notice smoke coming from the Seattle area, that’s probably me.
Oh, I was able to clean up and smell just a *little* less like gasoline in church. I mean, smelling like gas during a rare fire and brimstone sermon could have some unintended consequences, and I had no desire to become an object lesson.
What’s weird is my mind had been chewing on the “what if’s” of what “could have happened” and wouldn’t let go, and honestly, it took awhile to get past that. Really, just the whole idea of smelling gas (like rear-ending a tanker full of it), then hearing this “WHOOMP!” as it all caught followed by a blast of smoke and flame shooting out the front, and the paint bubbling on the hood (which didn’t happen, but this image, and the rest of them played out every night in my dreams for the next few weeks.)
It would have been enough for any adrenaline junkie.
Come to think of it, maybe I’ll stick to coffee after all…
This is a story about cars.
Well, more than just cars…
One complete car.
Parts of two others.
And me, who used the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® I was so blessed with at the time.
Wait – a better way to describe “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®” is “Stupidity beyond comprehension” – and before I get any notes from angry teenagers, read on, and see if you don’t see yourself in this – (note: don’t try this at home – or, for that matter, anywhere else. )
So aside from me, the cars involved in today’s story were:
A 1965 Saab 95 – with a three cylinder, two stroke engine of a whopping 46 cubic inches. (for comparison: a standard Harley Davidson has almost twice that, about 80 cubic inches, across two cylinders).
A 1956 VW Bug (but mainly the engine – an original 1956, 36 horsepower, 4 cylinder, air cooled, ORIGINAL Bug engine)
And a 1972 Ford Ranchero, with a 390 Cubic inch V8 under the hood, with a 4 barrel carburetor, dual 2 ½ inch exhausts that made a barely passing attempt to muffle the roar of the engine.
It was said it could pass anything but a gas station, and I learned much later, how true this was. Of course, this was back when I was irritated at gas costing a whole 66 cents a gallon, and refusing to buy it at that price…
The Ranchero belonged to my uncle, and I’d had some trouble with the Saab, the kind that had the engine sitting on the shop floor while we figured out how to drill a rather important broken bolt out of it.
This took a bit longer than expected, and I had to do something that evening, before we were able to get the engine back in the Saab.
You see, I was the cadet commander for the McChord Composite Squadron of Civil Air Patrol, and one of the things I did was teach the younger cadets about anything having to do with aviation, leadership, and in general being a good cadet.
One part of aviation is airplane engines, and so I figured, given that I was trying to restore a 1956 Bug, which happened to have an air-cooled engine of the same configuration as many airplane engines, I’d planned on using it to demonstrate to the younger cadets what an airplane engine might look like.
I’d been gathering parts for the Bug for some time, and had found, for $100.00, an absolutely bone stock, original, 36 horsepower engine actually out of another 1956 bug that had been in a front end collision. With the gas tank in the front, the car burned, and was a total loss. The only thing worth saving was the engine, so the owner had taken it out of the car and put it in a garage and there it sat for a couple of decades. It still had the original distributor cap on the distributor, still turned over, and interestingly, still had oil in it.
To actually, run, it would need to be rebuilt, (the spark plug wires were a little crumbly from the heat of that fire) but you didn’t find engines like this very often, and I was absolutely thrilled to have it.
However, I’d planned on taking it to the Civil Air Patrol meeting in the back of the Saab, and the engine of that car was sitting on the floor of my uncle’s shop.
My uncle, bless him, offered to loan me his Ranchero.
Now understand, I was used to an engine with three cylinders the size of coke cans pulling me along.
The Ranchero’s engine had 8 cylinders the size of small Central American countries, and had about 7 times the power of the Saab.
In fact, let’s just say that the gas pedal on the Ranchero worked really, REALLY well. In fact, it worked far, FAR better than the gas pedal of any car driven by a teenager should work.
And then there were the brakes.
Oh my gosh, it had disk brakes, 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
The ones I had in the Saab were little itty bitty drum brakes that I thought sucked – and it turned out I was right… only two of the four brake shoes on the front of that Saab actually worked at the time.
The difference was incredible.
I was used to a certain level of acceleration from the Saab (a speed rivaled by melting glaciers, I might add), and it became very obvious, very fast, that I would have to recalibrate my right foot for the increased acceleration available in the Ranchero.
What was not obvious was that I would have to do the same for the increased deceleration – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took the Ranchero home, backed it up to where the VW engine was and then just kind of stood there, trying to figure out how to get the engine up into the back of the thing. Eventually I got some planks, and slid the engine up onto the bed on them, getting it into the back by myself, and with the engine loaded in the back, I shut the tailgate on the bottom and the canopy gate on the top.
By this time, what with the original problem with the Saab, plus the loading of the engine and such, by the time I put my Civil Air Patrol uniform on and got in the car, I was quite a bit later than I thought I would be, and so I did the rather typical teenage thing.
I tried to turn my uncle’s Ranchero into a time machine.
There was an 8 mile stretch of two lane road that I’d driven many, many times in the Saab, and with the acceleration that it had (imagine that under the hood are three hibernating squirrels (because of the glacier mentioned earlier) who had NO intention of accelerating the car enough to pass someone that’s going too slow for an impatient teenage driver) I’d learned that if I were driving that Saab, there were only two or three spots on this 8 mile stretch that were actually safe to pass another car in. So my standard process, regardless of impatience, was to fade back from the car I was about to pass and wait until I had plenty of clear space in front of me and lots of clear space in the oncoming lane before I started to pass someone.
When the time was right, I’d floor it to get a running start, staying directly behind the person I was about to pass, because I needed the draft that their car pushing through the air provided to keep my speed up. I’d then, at the last second, pull out and pass them, assuming everything was clear. If it wasn’t, or if I didn’t get enough speed up, or my timing was off and there was still oncoming traffic by the time I (the passer) got up to the person I was passing (the passee) I’d have to try to abort the pass, and with the brilliantly functional brakes (sarcasm intended) on the Saab, trying to abort a pass at that late stage could be a touch challenging.
I mean, by the time I got to the point of making the decision to pass, I’d be gaining on them at about 10-20 mph, and at the last moment, I faced one of two choices
- If there was still no oncoming traffic, I’d pull out and pass them.
- If there was oncoming traffic, I’d have to abort the pass, which would give me the following decisions: I could
- Rear end them (generally undesirable at that speed)
- Whip out into oncoming traffic and risk a head on collision… (significantly less desirable at that speed) or
- Slam on the brakes and hope and pray that I had enough brake shoes making contact with brake drums to actually slow me down to keep from rear ending them.
So there I was, late… impatient as all getout… not in the underpowered Saab I was used to, but in this car that was not my own…
…that had more power under my right foot than I’d ever had in my life.
…that had more braking power than I’d ever had under my right foot in my life.
…and that had more rubber on the road in two of its four tires than I had on all four Saab tires.
Now just between you and me, I’m thinking this is a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, let’s find out…
I made it about 3 ½ miles from home, and on this road it didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to matter what time of day you’re driving it, there will be someone who isn’t in nearly as much of a hurry as you are… In this case, I was stuck behind someone who insisted on going 50 mph (which was below speed limit). I was late and impatient, and in my teenage mind, I just couldn’t take any of that, so I waited for a clear spot I’d used in the Saab, hit my blinkers, the gas pedal (oh… my…) and pulled out to pass.
Now one of the things to know about this road is that a lot of it is in shadow most of the day, with occasional little spots where there is sunshine.
I was in that sunshine, passing the car that was driving so slowly, and I was passing him like I’d never, ever passed a car before.
This time, I had room to pass.
This time, I was going way, way faster than the person I was passing.
This time, everything was going to end up just peachy.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
…which is when a bright flaming red 1974 VW Bug popped out of the shadows about a quarter of a mile ahead of me.
There’s no radiator on the front of this thing, it’s all bright freaking red.
Like a stoplight.
And it didn’t look like it was a quarter of a mile away, it looked like it was a hundred yards away, and coming at me with a closing speed of about 130 miles an hour (figuring my 75 plus his 55). I knew, in that moment that I had to do something, and do it quickly.
So I, using my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, did what would have made sense if I were driving the Saab, which would have been to stop badgering the hibernating squirrels under the hood and stand on the brake pedal, trying to avoid a head on collision.
But remember, I wasn’t driving the Saab.
I was driving the Ranchero.
And as I said, I was doing about 75 miles an hour – which is fast for that road, (impossible for that Saab) but is also a good passing speed for a short distance, and, well, let’s put it this way:
My body was driving the Ranchero.
My brain was still in Saab mode.
And with that big bright red Bug in front of me, I did the only thing I could possibly think of doing.
I hit those brakes.
…those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
With, remember, more rubber on just the front wheels than the Saab had on all four.
The Ranchero went from 75 to about 45 like it had hit a brick wall.
The driver I was passing had to be confused beyond words, I mean, here’s this blur of a car roaring past him, not like he’s standing still, but like he’s going backwards. He’s expecting to see tail lights any second, but what he saw were brake lights out the side window, the back of the Ranchero kicked up, the nose went down, and then it simply disappeared.
He looked around, and the next thing he knew, it was behind him again, weaving around a little bit, but definitely back there.
What the driver of that car didn’t know was that while the Ranchero had those huge brakes, the classic 36 horsepower 1956 VW Bug engine, the one with the original everything including the crumbly spark plug wires all the way down to the spark plugs, did not.
In fact, it decided to maintain its speed for about 8 feet, at which point it hit the front of the bed of the Ranchero. It did this by rolling, yes, rolling to the front of the bed, where it sat, wounded and bleeding 25 year old dinosaur juice all over the bottom of the bed while I tried to swerve back into my lane so I didn’t end up squished between not one, but two VW engines (one from the red VW in front of me coming at me, and one from the wounded and bleeding engine behind me).
On top of it all, I was stunned, shocked, embarrassed, and furious at myself for not only not having thought this through, but for doing something so stupid in the first place, but there was nothing I could do but seethe as the person in front of me tootled along for the next 4 ½ miles, definitely below the speed limit.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but remember, I was operating under Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, and I knew that when we got to the next intersection, I’d be able to turn left, onto a multi-lane road, and I’d be able to pass him.
Which is exactly what I set out to do when we got there.
The light turned green, the slow driver ahead of me turned left and went into the outside lane. The rumble of the 390 in the Ranchero turned into a roar as I turned left, cut inside him, and floored it.
I heard all those cylinders firing, I heard the transmission whine, I heard those two exhausts roar, and I heard my 1956 VW Bug engine , its ability to travel completely lubricated now by all that ancient oil between it and the bed of the Ranchero, sliding, trying to make a hasty exit out the back.
I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see it hit the closed tailgate and knock it open.
All I could imagine in that blink of an eye was the guy I’d just passed wondering why it hadn’t been enough for me to pass him like that, why he was now being passed by an old VW engine sliding down the road – without even a car attached to it.
I couldn’t let that happen, so with the image of the engine popping open both the top and bottom tailgates frozen in my mind, I remembered just enough of my physics, and did the only thing I could possibly do at the time.
I hit the brakes.
(Yes, those brakes)
Those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.
Attached to a veritable plantation of rubber…
…and the engine (the VW one) came rolling back to the front of the bed, where it lay, like a prize fighter down for the count.
I pulled over.
I just couldn’t drive any further right then, with the back open and the engine sitting there all cattywompus, so I got out and checked the tailgate. It was fine. I shut it to see if it would, actually, shut, (it did) but one look at the engine, and it was a mess. The distributor cap was broken, the rotor inside the cap was broken, various important fan shroud pieces were now dented and mangled.
I opened the tailgate again and got up in the back, trying to keep myself from slipping or getting too oily in my clean uniform. I managed to manhandle the engine upright, (which is a challenge when you’re trying to keep your shoes and knees out of the oil on the ‘floor’ there – and an even harder challenge when you realize how very little room you have trying to stand up in the back of a Ranchero with a canopy on it). I pushed it all the way to the front of the bed, knowing that hitting the brakes would put it there anyway. That oil coating the bottom of the bed now really changed things a bit, so I had to be extra careful, and I still had to get to the Civil Air Patrol meeting, where I’d be teaching the cadets about all the exciting things they could learn about aviation, and how important lubrication was in allowing metal parts to move past each other… freely.
Remember, I was the commander, and I was supposed to look sharp, and be calm, cool, and collected.. Having a greasy uniform wasn’t an option, so after getting the engine all upright and everything, I wiped my hands on the only thing available (the ground) and drove, very, VERY carefully out to McChord, to train my cadets.
They learned a little, and I managed to get myself, the Ranchero, and the VW engine home safely.
But I think, as I look back, I learned more.
I learned that impatience can be expensive, and dangerous.
I learned that otherwise intelligent people can do stupid things.
And the cadets, who looked up to me both figuratively and literally, had absolutely no idea, as leaderly as I looked, how fully capable I was of doing stupid things that would boggle their minds, and in my impatient attempt to get there on time, how close I came to not getting there at all.
If you’ve been reading for awhile, you know that a whole LOT of my stories have something to do with my cars in some way, and this one does – albeit peripherally. It has to do with friendships, Saabs, and cookie jars – and it’s a very honest story. When I started writing it, I didn’t know where it would go – and then I realized it had a second part – so I wrote that – and the two parts together gave it almost a synergy… So having given you that as an intro – allow me to introduce “Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends”
My first car was a 1965 Saab 95. 3 cylinders, two stroke, just like an outboard. At the time, I was learning so much – and there was so much to learn about it (translation: I knew so little about cars at the time) that for every hour I drove it, it’d take about that much maintenance, or more. Eventually I got it to be relatively stable – but even so, it was a challenge to own this beastie.
One Saturday, as part of the routine at the time, I’d yanked the engine out of it (yes, “yanked” – you could do that with this car – take all the bolts loose, then grab the exhaust manifold in the right hand, the fuel pump in the left, do the hokey pokey, and yank the sucker out – really). I’d then fixed something on it it, and put it back in, and then driven the car to school on the following Monday.
At the school I went to at the time, a community college – we had a huge cafeteria with round tables for about 10 people, and a pretty regular group of us sat at this one table between classes to study, hang out, have lunch, chat – whatever.
I remember that Monday. I reached across the table for a pencil or something and someone saw that I still had grease under my fingernails that I just hadn’t been able to get completely out from the Saturday before – and this gal just absolutely freaked, then almost threw a pair of nail clippers at me and then went off on telling me that I needed to get new clothes and look better. This went on for a bit, and it was clear that trying to get a word in edgewise wasn’t going to work at all, so I let her rant for a while.
A really good friend took me aside and tried to help. He’d known me longer than they had, and tried to kind of help or smooth things out a bit by offering to take me to a fairly upscale clothing store – and I remember thinking,
“…and just WHO is going to pay for all this stuff to make me look acceptable in their eyes?”
I remember thinking they were incapable of seeing through the grease far enough to see why it was there. Not that I wanted to go to school dirty, but if you’ve ever worked on a car, getting grease under the fingernails is part of the process, and getting it out takes a little longer. I know now that there are things that can help with that, but I didn’t then. I also knew at that time that none of them would be able to do what I did – I’d gotten to the point where I could have the engine out in half an hour (well, 32 minutes) – from the time I shut it off to the time it was in the bed of my dad’s pickup truck – and I thought to myself that if I had a skill that would cause a little dirt under my fingernails to remain, I’d take that skill over “looking good for someone for whom that was the defining characteristic of whether I could be their friend” every time.
I left that table that day and never went back.
I studied in the library, not in the cafeteria…
But based on that experience, I decided to try something.
I dressed like crap for a quarter.
I wore old clothes.
I wore overalls I’d painted my Grampa’s barn in (trust me, the barn wasn’t the only thing that got paint on it)
I wore the boots I’d been wearing when I painted the barn (they’d started out black, they now looked like a negative of a leopard… that was an oops…)
I mean, I worked at looking crappy.
If it was nice, unstained, and untorn, I didn’t wear it.
Did I have nice clothes?
But that wasn’t the point, at all. I was going for the seriously crappy look, and I did absolutely everything on purpose. I wanted to prove something.
And honestly, it was pretty lonely for a bit. I remember that it was hard to do what I was doing, but I was stubborn enough to do it – and I kept at it.
A few weeks went by, and I found some new friends at the library who were pretty cool people, and who didn’t really seem to give a rip about what I wore, they were just cool folks, so I hung out with them. I remember one gal, Bonnie, was just gorgeous, and I was just stunned that she’d even be seen with me, but she didn’t seem to care, and it was really, really cool to see that these people didn’t care what I wore, or whether I had grease under my fingernails or not, they just liked me for who I was.
At the end of that quarter, I felt my point had been made, so at the beginning of the next quarter – I dressed a bit nicer – just because by that time, it was getting old, even for me.
And they noticed.
I remember Bonnie asking me what was up, and I told her – and the rest of my new friends. They were kind of surprised that they’d been unwitting participants in an impromptu social experiment, but I was honest with them. And they now had a friend who they knew, and who they liked, and who also now dressed a little more respectably, and I had friends I knew didn’t care about my fingernails – and – here’s what got me about that…
In that first group, nobody seemed to care what it took to get my fingernails like that – not that I wanted them filthy – but there is zero chance that anyone sitting at that table could have done what I did with a car – any car, much less a 1965 3 cylinder, two stroke Saab…
And that’s what made me mad.
It’s like they were looking at me like a cracked cookie jar. And they only saw the cracks, not the cookies inside.
Years later, I tried another experiment at another college, and it was almost the same experiment – from the other side.
Some of you guys reading this out there might get this. Just like in any college, you end up with a lot of friends – male, female, whatever. The university I went to had – well, far more than its share of nice looking young ladies. I remember being very shy about talking to them – and at the same time remember feeling quite bad about the – oh – how do we put this politely? – I was feeling rather bad about the feelings this “red blooded American boy” was having about these “red blooded American girls.” – Those feelings tended toward the whole objectifying the young ladies end of the spectrum, and I just didn’t like that in myself. So I thought about it for a bit, and realized that there was actually an inverse relationship between how well I knew the gals and how “red blooded” I felt about them. It was almost linear: The better I knew them, the more I thought of them as a human being and friend, and the less I thought of them as – well, objects.
So I tried to figure out how to solve this problem. I mean, each of these gals was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, etc… And while I was just as full of hormones as the next guy, but I just didn’t like objectifying them that way. At all.
And I wondered…
How could I stop thinking about all these nice looking young ladies in these inappropriate ways?
…and then I remembered…
I didn’t think of the girls that were my buddies that way…
And so – I remember picking one gal rather specifically (the gal I was most terrified of because she was the most gorgeous of the bunch, and therefore, I figured, totally unapproachable) – I’d chat with her in the foyer of the building before class (and was late to class more than once – heh – in fact, I remember one time, I’d just told her I had to get up to get to class and saw the whole class trooping down the stairs – I’d missed the class entirely…Well, I was majoring in communication at the time, and by golly, I was communicating… : )
…not that the prof saw it that way, mind you, but still…
One thing led to another, and Yolande and I became friends, nothing more than that, that had never been my goal, we simply became friends. And while the fact that we were now friends didn’t change the fact that she was drop dead gorgeous one whit – it did change something in me. I saw her as Yolande, my friend, instead of seeing her – and thinking of her – in ways that would make her feel uncomfortable, and me feel ashamed. I haven’t seen her in years – but I still remember how well that little experiment worked, and how much fun that friendship was, a friendship that wouldn’t have started had I not wanted to be, as we used to say back then, “just friends.”
And what’s interesting is these two stories go together…
In the first – people were distracted by what they saw – because they didn’t like it, and didn’t bother to look past it to see what was inside.
In the second – I was distracted (oh, Lordy was I distracted – but… I digress) by what I saw – not because I liked it, but because I liked it in ways that I really shouldn’t have in that context – and just like the first one, I didn’t bother to look past the outside to see the person inside.
It’s kind of funny – this story also answers the question one of my college buddies once asked about “Why does Tom constantly have all these gorgeous women around him?”
Some were buddies to start with just because I just liked them…
And some ended up being buddies because I wanted to just like them.
It ended up being a serious win-win… : )
But it taught me a huge amount about people.
What they looked like, whether it was good or bad, gorgeous or plain, didn’t necessarily translate into what kind of a friend they’d make.
And it taught me to take gentle chances – because often, I found, the people I was scared of talking to wanted a friend just as much as I did.
So based on Greg’s comment on last week’s story about me ‘embellishing’ things – I just had to put this story up. It happened in August of 2010, and like a lot of my stories – it started out as an email to a friend, in this case, one who’d told me to go out and do something fun that weekend.
It involved Greg.
And he gave me permission (well, actually, told me I had to) write this story.
So without too terribly much editing, here’s the story/note I wrote to my friend who wanted me to go do something fun, and come back with pictures to prove it…
I chatted with my buddy Greg for a few hours in the parking lot of the Museum until the coffee we’d drunk earlier at Randy’s needed a place to go…
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Greg and I had been sitting in my ’68 Saab, sharing stories, and watching the planes at Boeing Field. One of the stories involved something that had actually happened about 50 feet from where we were sitting right then, it was a story of me talking my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world, but before that, successfully badgering a newspaper photo editor I didn’t know,
…for a paper I’d never seen,
…into holding space on the front page
…for a picture I hadn’t taken yet,
…from a plane I had never been on,
…and was quite literally trying to talk my way onto.
We laughed, and Greg kept talking about my golden tongue and how I could talk my way into anything – using that B-29 as an example. I needed the laughter. I’d been feeling a little down about a lot of things, wondering about life and stuff, and recovering from some recent surgery, and Greg’s a very good friend, and did a lot of listening, and a lot of encouraging, for which I’m grateful.
Eventually, the coffee we’d had earlier needed to be dealt with, and since it was still raining, we just drove down toward a row of Porta Potties at the far end of the parking lot. As we did, we looked around and noticed we were one of only two cars in the formerly crowded lot. We saw that the other car was parked beside the Porta Potties we were heading for, right next to this canopy kind of a thing with a sign on it that said something like “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.
That got us talking about SR-71’s, (there’s one in the Museum of Flight) – and I told Greg about this one mission – the only one I could remember reading about right then, in which one of the pilots had flown from England to Libya, and on the way back out, the plane just flew faster and faster – and they had to hang a left to meet their tanker out by Gibraltar. They did (when you’re flying Mach 3+, that takes a bit of geography) – and the pilot pulled the throttles back over Sicily – and still ended up overshooting the refueling tanker over Gibraltar… (note: if my math is right, that’s about 1,100 miles of coasting – you can read the story here.
We stopped, Greg got out to take care of his stuff, and I took a second look at that sign, “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.
It was still raining, and under that canopy was a fellow, sitting in the only dry chair in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of empty, wet tables, all of whatever he was selling was gone – he was just sitting there with his feet up, talking on a cell phone.
In the parking lot.
In the rain.
Well heck, I figured that there couldn’t have been too many of those, I wondered if he knew the guy who’d done that Libya flight Greg and I’d just been talking about. So while Greg headed off to take care of his business, I approached him – and he motioned he’d be off the phone in a minute, so I waited, and while I was waiting I saw the name on his banner – “Brian Shul.”
Hmm… I had no idea who Brian Shul was, but it seemed like he must be that SR-71 pilot – or maybe know him.
He ended his call.
“Are you Brian?”
“I sure hope so, been signing his name all day.”
“Say, I was just telling my buddy here about an SR-71 pilot who did a mission out of Libya and ended up overshooting his tanker out by Gibraltar… “
“… and I was wondering if you happened to know who that pilot might be…”
“In fact – the whole story’s in my book, would you be interested in a copy?”
My mind was already several sentences past that last one before it came to a screeching halt and processed what I’d just heard.
“He… you… that pilot – waitaminute…”
I had no idea that I’d actually stumbled into one of my own stories – and turned around to see Greg, who’d heard that interaction as he was coming back, and saw his jaw do what mine must have done just seconds before, which was to simply obey the law of the acceleration of falling objects and hit the pavement of the parking lot in just under a second.
You see, one of the things we’d been talking about was how Greg thought I might have embellished some of my stories – and about how easy it can be to do.
But the funny thing is – if I tell a story – well, I tell a story… I don’t think I embellish it, I just tell it. (often they simply didn’t need embellishing, they just needed to be told well).
We talked with Brian for a bit.
I shook his hand.
I bought his book.
He autographed it for me.
Greg took a picture of him and me – beside my very definite “sub-sonic” Saab, because I needed proof to show a friend that I’d done something fun that weekend.
And the funny thing is, Greg and I both learned something that afternoon.
We learned that you never know when you’ll stumble onto – or into a story, and it had become very clear that I didn’t need to embellish a dang thing on this one, because no matter what anyone asked, it was absolutely true that at the very moment I was telling Greg the story of the SR-71, the very pilot of that plane in that story, was sitting not 100 feet away, under a canopy, in the rain, on the south end of the parking lot at the Museum of Flight, right next to the Porta-Potties.