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Many years ago, I went to SPU, a liberal arts college in Seattle that’s affiliated with the Free Methodist church, which was socially conservative enough to forbid dancing.

Dances (large groups of people gyrating in a dark room with lots of loud music playing) were not allowed.

Strangely, “functions” (large groups of people gyrating in a dark room with lots of loud music playing) were.

Sort of.

As long as they were off campus.

And the school didn’t “officially” know about them.

But the school let people form bands (as long as no one danced to the music) and, at one point, it held a contest. At the time, the mission of the school was to turn us into “Christian Scholar Servants.” So, a few of us, who happened to like a particular style of music that involved sand, sea, and surfboards, came up with a musical group called the “Christian Scholar Surfers.”

There were several people in the group: Larry and Dave were at the core, and there were others who came and went as they were available. Dave was the lead and used his dorm room curtain rod as a microphone, Larry played keyboards, which were two electric typewriters on ironing boards, and I played bass – which was either a hockey or a lacrosse stick.

Oh – wait – I said it was a musical group.

The music, you see, came from huge speakers that were way, way louder than we could ever be, and they were fed by a cassette player playing, in this case, a song called “Motor Mania” by a group called Roman Holiday. Larry, all six feet eight of him, did that deep, deep bass at the beginning, then Dave and I came in. We practiced and practiced, and frankly, we got so good at it that it was hard to believe that Larry’s voice and keyboards weren’t making the music, or that my hockey stick, Dave’s curtain rod, and our voices weren’t making the actual notes. Timing was pretty critical at some points, and – well, here, have a listen while you’re reading the rest of the story.

One day, when we were out of school, Dave called Larry and told him there was a lip sync contest at a place called Chevy’s in Beaverton, Oregon. Did we want to come down for it?

We’d never heard of Chevy’s, but Dave explained that it was a ‘50s style diner where the food was free a couple of hours a night, but you had to pay for drinks.

Wait.

Free food?

We were so there.

Larry and I didn’t need much convincing. We packed up our stuff, drove down to Dave’s place, rehearsed a bit, piled into Larry’s car, and then went to Chevy’s.

We got everything ready, and they told us we’d be on the schedule around 8:00 or so.

It turned out that they made their money on alcohol, which none of us drank (even though Larry’s folks owned a bar), so we had water or soda, listened to ‘50s music, and just hung out.

It was a fun place to go, and for us, my gosh, it was cheap. We went to the free buffet, got some pretty decent food, ordered cokes, and listened to fun music.

I’d been in a car accident some weeks earlier, injured my back pretty bad, and had to wear a TENS unit to numb the pain to a bearable level, so even though there was a dance floor there, and people were on it, we all knew I wouldn’t be dancing.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the evening was a group of what appeared to be aerobics instructors from a local gym. They were celebrating something with what later amounted to at least 11 bottles of champagne – to the point where, even as far away from them as we were sitting, we could actually smell it. They were laughing, joking, drinking, and in general, really having a good time.

I had never seen more than one bottle of champagne consumed, but they had the table loaded like they were ordering them by the case.

Now, remember the bit about how these folks made money?

Right.

Alcohol.

And as long as they were serving it, and people were buying, they had no reason to hurry the schedule along – so 8:00 (or so) came and went.

In fact, so did 9:00 (or so).

By about 9:45, they were well into cleaning up the free buffet, and things changed a bit, because while the quantity of food was diminishing, the quantity of alcohol being served to the table over by the wall just kept increasing. It was by far the noisiest table, and by this time, you could actually feel the heat they were putting off warming up the whole place.  In fact, my glasses were slipping off my nose, and as I was reaching up to straighten them and clean a smudge off a bit, someone grabbed my arm.

My glasses cartoonishly hung in the air for a split second before clattering to the table.

I was spun out of the chair only to find my hand attached, rather firmly, to the hand of one of the aerobics instructors.

About the time I caught my balance, we were on the dance floor, and they had some very danceable ‘50s music playing just about as loud as it really needed to be played.

I looked around for help, saw blurry outlines of Larry and Dave holding up my glasses and frantically looking for me everywhere but the dance floor. Because, with my back still hurting as bad as it was, the last place I’d be would have been…

…where I was.

With limited options, I did the only thing that made sense. I cranked the TENS unit up as high as it would go until my back literally quivered, and I danced.

Three dances.

With an attractive, yet totally drunken aerobics instructor.

It was fun.

After three songs, the music stopped, and we headed back to our tables.

I collapsed into my chair, picked up my glasses, and put them on to see Larry and Dave’s faces swim into focus, their eyes as big as the little plates the buffet food was on, their jaws struggling to get off the table and at least meet their faces halfway.

All Dave could get out was, “She… you…how?” While Larry sounded like an idling outboard, “But… but… but.”

And so, I had to explain what had happened, all the while wishing I could do a “Spinal Tap” on the TENS unit and turn it up to 11. Eventually, they believed me (by this time, my shoulder was starting to hurt because she’d yanked my arm so hard), and then they both wondered if we’d actually be able to do our set. My part involved very little more than making that hockey stick look like a bass guitar, so I was good. Sure enough, at 11:00, after a lot of buildup, they called us to the stage, where Larry, Dave and I, three college students from Seattle and the Portland area, managed to knock the socks off a crowd of people enjoying music, including a few drunk aerobics instructors who wouldn’t remember a bit of it the next day.

We, on the other hand, can remember every minor detail of this epic adventure, since the strongest thing in our drinks were the bubbles in our Cokes.

Oh, the money in our hands? $75. $25 for each of us: We came in second.

Dave, Larry & Tom, of the Christian Scholar Surfers with our winnings

 

 

 

 

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“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

That was one of the things drilled into my dad’s head by his mom when he was younger, so one of the first things that dad did when he got older and married mom was use that mentality on a house.  Over the years, the house had additions built next to it, over it, and extended out from it, and one of those things needed for a growing family was a septic tank.

With shovels, sweat, muscles, chains and pipe, the septic tank was installed, and as the years went by, it did its job as it was supposed to do, silently, until one day, 30+ years later – the drain field the tank emptied into, simply collapsed.  Now any of you who have septic tanks know that when the drain field collapses, you instantly have a crappy problem, and ours collapsed when I was about 19.  After some discussion, a lot of troubleshooting, and just in general trying to figure stuff out, we came up with a short term and a long term plan:

Short term: keep the tank empty enough so the house didn’t smell like – well, stink…

Long term: put in a new drain field – right under the garden where my Opa (mom’s dad who was living with us) had just harvested several years’ worth of rocks (our garden’s most prolific crop).

I was given the task of handling the short term plan – and that involved borrowing my Grampa’s 1934 Ford tractor (it shows up in a few of these stories), hooking up an old Army surplus trailer with about a 1000 gallon tank and a vacuum pump to it, and emptying the tank as often as needed so mom could do laundry, people could take showers – you know, the usual stuff you use water for in a house.  You just don’t normally think about how much of it you use, and how getting rid of it manually can actually be a bit of a chore.

The way it worked was like this:

  1. Drive up to Grampa’s.
  2. Get the tractor, hook it up to the trailer.
  3. Hook up the PTO (Power Take-off) from the tractor to the vacuum pump on the trailer.
  4. Bring tractor and trailer down to mom and dad’s.
  5. Hook up one end of a 4 inch hose to the tank (looks like the stiff hoses that come out of fire engines),
  6. Drop the other end into the septic tank, being sure not to back up so close as to collapse it and make problems worse.
  7. Open the valve on the back of the tank.
  8. Gently engage the vacuum pump with the PTO until the squeaky ‘Hoo Hee Hoo Hee’ sounded more like a ‘Chuff Chuff Chuff Chuff’ and then got quiet as it sucked the air out of the tank.
  9. Wait until the liquid level in a very thick glass tube attached to the tank showed it was filling, or if that wasn’t readable, there was some kind of change in pitch that told me when the tank was full (like maybe something other than air being blasted out of the pump (note: staying upstream of the pump was a lesson I only needed to learn once)

And then once the tank was full, I’d close everything up, put the hose back on the rack on the trailer, put the lid back on the septic tank so no one would fall in, and very carefully drive the tractor up to my Grampa’s where he and dad had agreed I could dump it in the back field where his black angus cows grazed (they were smart enough not to graze where I was dumping).

The trip up was a little over half a mile, and the only brakes on the tractor were on the back wheels, the tires of which were partly filled with water for traction.  Changing directions for any reason was something that had to be planned out far in advance, because the several thousand pounds of liquid in the tank tended to slosh about a bit – and when it sloshed forward, it put a lot of weight on the tractor behind the rear wheels (this made steering interesting as there was very little weight on the front wheels as a result).  Then again, if it sloshed back too hard, it changed the weight distribution so that the little tractor/trailer combination wanted to jackknife, which, given the cargo, just wasn’t something I wanted to have to deal with.

The catch on all of this was the hill just before the gate to the cow pasture I was supposed to dump everything into.  I had to follow the driveway and make a left turn up over this hill where the barn was, I’d stop before climbing the hill and downshift into first so that I didn’t have to deal with sloshing liquid or tipped over trailers, and slowly climb up over the hill in first gear, using a wide open throttle and all 34 of the horses the little tractor had, only to use a fully closed throttle and all the compression the engine had to slow and stop it at the bottom of the hill before getting to the gate I had to open to get into the cow pasture.

Understand, the tractor had no parking brake.  It had a transmission with 12 speeds forward and 3 in reverse.  Each rear wheel was independently braked – so it had two brake pedals, one for each wheel.

Oh, I mentioned the steering: It was loose.  You could swing the steering wheel 30 degrees to either side before it really took effect, so you had that to contend with on the front wheels with that fun brake on the back wheels.

Of the brakes in the back, the left one was the stronger one, which meant that if you hit them both equally, you were turning left, whether you wanted to or not, and if you did that, then the ‘cargo’ would start sloshing both side to side and front to back, so you had to plan for this happening, as well as stopping it from happening in the first place.

So if you wanted to stop in a straight line, you’d hit both brakes, favoring the weak (right) one, and simultaneously slewing the wheel at least, but likely more than 30 degrees to the right, to counter the dragging left brake shoe.  You’d stop, in roughly a straight line, you’d just be going kind of sideways as you did it.

So – you getting this so far? Driving this thing wasn’t quite like hopping in a car and just taking off, you had to pay attention to it.

All of it.

Oh – the paying attention…

The tractor didn’t have a gas pedal.   It had a throttle lever, so you put it in gear at idle, gently let up on the clutch with your left foot until it caught, then slowly worked through the gears at a little higher than idle until you got to 4th (or 12th, if you were counting that way), and then opened the throttle with your right hand so it’d get up to whatever speed you were planning on travelling at (usually not much more than 15 mph).

But this, if nothing else, is where it got interesting.

See, the tires on the trailer weren’t particularly balanced for speed, so they’d create their own harmonic as they turned, causing the trailer to bounce a bit, which then created a secondary harmonic of the liquid inside the trailer, which sloshed to the beat of its own drummer.  The liquid in the tractor tires didn’t really play into it – but the combination of the tires on the trailer, the liquid in the trailer, and how it was connected to the tractor all dramatically limited any speed I could safely drive the tractor.  So for this load, on this road, somewhere between 10 and 12 mph was pretty much my limit, and all of these things had to be taken into consideration every time I emptied the septic tank.

And we learned that that needed to happen every day.

Because of that, I got to the point where I got pretty good at driving the tractor and trailer empty – could back it (and the trailer) up at an absolutely amazing speed to the point where I’d put it in 3rd Reverse, open the throttle, and let out the clutch, making lightning quick steering corrections as I backed the whole thing up at about 10 mph across our lawn.  I even got to the point where I could anticipate the left rear wheel locking up, so countered for that in the steering before I stopped everything.

Really – I got good at this – as I had to do it, like I said, every day until the new drain field could be put in – and that took as long as we had to wait for the drain field installer guy to get us on his schedule.

So it became a daily routine for me.  I’d drive my 1965 Saab 95 with the 3 cylinder, two stroke engine up to Grampa’s, hook up the tractor and trailer, bring it down to mom and dad’s, back it in, suck the septic tank dry (at the time, it really needed it daily), go back up to Grampa’s, empty it out in the back field, clean it off, put it back in the shed, hop in the car (assuming I hadn’t created a reason to wash myself off and keep the car from smelling), and then drive the car home and it’d all be done.  Usually this’d take an hour or so in the afternoon and life was good.  This was the summer after high school, and while it was fun driving a tractor and doing ‘manly’ stuff, frankly you wanted to get this job done quickly as – well – staying upwind of the load was quite preferable.

Now my grandma, we called her ‘Danny’ – an abbreviation of her maiden name, had grown up in the upper Midwest, and every now and then, her brother would come from back east during the summer to visit for a week or two.  I don’t recall them ever doing anything extravagant, just spending honest, quality time with each other, sitting on the patio in the afternoon breeze, catching up on old times, watching as the sunset lit up Mount Rainier with the lovely pink color that it did at that time of year.  I didn’t know these relatives very well, as they were a couple of generations and many states removed from me, but they were awfully nice folks, and one day after I’d put the tractor away and hadn’t left yet, Grampa called me over to the patio where they were relaxing.

He and Danny were sitting there with her brother Don and his wife Sharlyn, enjoying the afternoon, chatting, with the usual pitcher of iced tea on a little table, and he mentioned how wonderful the temperature was, 74 degrees.  Just warm enough in the shade so that if you had a breeze, it’d be perfect.

Which was when I noticed that the gentle breeze we did have, had changed.

Right then.­­

And because of that breeze changing, we were suddenly downwind of everything I’d so wanted to stay upwind of.

Grampa had had a message he wanted to give me, one that I’d just unwittingly gotten, and he hadn’t said a word.

And, as usual, it got me thinking.

In fact, it got me thinking a lot more than any load of crap should.

See, it turned out that both my dad and his dad had agreed on what I’d do with the daily load.  I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I also hadn’t been told that they’d have company that day or I’d have dumped it someplace else, that would have been easy enough to do.  I couldn’t see how any of this was my fault, even though it seemed like Grampa wanted me to think about it that way – but what I did get out of it was that you could be assigned a task – and someone could do exactly what they had been told to do, but there would be unforeseen circumstances that no one had ever thought of that could come into play, and the guy driving the tractor would be the one with fingers pointed at him in spite of the fact he was doing what he’d been told.  I didn’t like that particular lesson – but I paid attention to the wisdom in it, because lessons like it would come into play years later in ways I couldn’t imagine right then.

There were other lessons to be learned in all of this – not the least of which was how easy it was to let something like a trailer you couldn’t let go of, full of four tons of… liquid… get out of control.

The trailer could push you forward, pull you sideways, or roll you over.  I mean it took so much concentration to steer that loose collection of 40 year old metal parts into a cohesive unit, that any slip, any miscalculation, could have effectively had the tail wagging the dog – and I would have been buried – or drowned – under 1000 gallons of… of crap.

And that got me thinking even more…

And I think that’s where it all started boiling down for me.

We’re all living life, dragging our own little trailers full of crap around. And we’re all doing our best to stay in control, but often, that little trailer you yourself are pulling back there tries to take over. Sometimes it tries to take over because of decisions you made yourself, sometimes it’s because of decisions others made for you, whether you wanted those decisions made or not, but all of what happens to you is the result of your reaction to those decisions – and that’s a toughie.

It taught me right there that driving along, whether in life or pulling 1,000 gallons of… stuff, you may have to spend your life making constant course corrections because of something someone did through no fault of your own (like a brake that’s pulling you to one side), or you may spend your life making constant course corrections because of some mistake you yourself made (like not tightening up the steering).  And so you have to compensate.  Hard stuff to admit sometimes.  You end up spending that time making many small but fast course corrections early enough to keep from having to make huge course corrections later.  It will take practice.  It will take determination, it will take planning ahead, and it will take what eventually becomes skill, and when you get to the point of needing it, you’ll be able to roar your tractor backwards, simultaneously hit the clutch, both brakes, brace yourself for the hard pull to the left, steer hard to the right to compensate, slap the transmission out of gear, run the throttle down to idle as it stops – and essentially do the life equivalent of power sliding a tractor backwards over a septic tank instead of falling into one.

And you’ll be fine.

Take care out there, folks.

 


Many years ago, when I was growing up, my uncle had this arsenal of weapons that we’d occasionally go out and use to shoot at helpless creatures.

The helpless creature of choice we had at the time was – well, a herd of unruly AMF bowling pins from Michigan that occasionally needed to be kept in line, and while other people might shoot at tin cans that would fall over, we’d set up these old bowling pins on a log, shoot at them, and if you hit them ju-u-u-u-st right, they’d explode.

This was cool.

I learned a lot in those days about shooting things.  I learned about gun safety – for example, when shooting a 9 mm semi-automatic, it is a really good idea to hold it with your right hand, and then cup your right hand and the gun in your left.

It makes for steadier aim.

It makes for a better target grouping.

But most importantly, it keeps your left thumb from crossing over your right thumb when shooting.

Why is that important?

Well, your left thumb isn’t supposed to be crossed over like that because when shooting a semi-automatic pistol, the recoil of a bullet firing pushes the slide back, ejecting the just fired shell casing (the thing that held the gunpowder) out the side as it goes, and loading a fresh bullet/casing as a spring inside pushes it back forward.

It is good to learn things like this before pulling the trigger.

Why?

Well…

I remember holding the gun very carefully, I thought…

I remember looking exceptionally cool, I thought…

And I remember aiming, and pulling the trigger very carefully, I thought…

And I remember the sound of the gun going off, along with a tremendous amount of pain as that slide shot back through the first knuckle of my left thumb.

I still have a scar on that knuckle where the slide cut through it.

Now, being guys, especially guys out in the country, our first aid was, well, basic, and limited.  There was the typical male expression of care and concern, along the lines of “Hey Hey HEY! No bleeding on the gun, it makes them rusty.”  And someone produced something vaguely resembling a wadded up paper towel, or a sleeve, or something, and we wrapped the thumb so it would stop bleeding, and so the guns wouldn’t rust.

After we’d finished firing the handguns, we got out the rifles and really started going at the bowling pins, and I have to say that a .223 projectile, when it hits a bowling pin and goes through that outer coat of white laminate and hits the inner core of hardwood, really makes it clear that you’ve hit something.  A .223 is what’s fired by what most of us know as an M-16, the military version of the civilian AR-15.  Phenomenal amounts of powder, itty bitty hunk-o-lead.  It means that the bullet goes out so fast that the bowling pins – well, they fell over, and like I said earlier, if you hit them just right, they exploded.  If you didn’t hit just right, they’d spin a bit, or wobble, but one thing was absolutely certain: if they got hit by the .223 bullets, they were going down.

==

Fast forward about 30 years or so… I was down visiting my mom with my son and found a large box in the garage, labeled AMF, from Muskegon Michigan – and found it was full of old bowling pins.

I was stunned.

These were obviously descendants of the bowling pins we’d been shooting at when I was a teenager.

And I looked at my son… the descendant of the one who’d been shooting at the bowling pins when he’d been a teenager…

And the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed like a neat thing to do – go out to the same old log and shoot at those bowling pins again with my son, and I thought that maybe I’d use my old .22 and my dad’s .22 rifle and pistol, and we’d go see if we could again attempt to control that burgeoning bowling pin population down there.

So we got the rifles that had been stored, unfired for a long time,

…and got the pistol, that had been stored, unfired, for a long time,

…and found some ammo that had been stored, unfired, for a long time…

In fact, as we thought back, that ammo had likely been sitting on the same shelf since the time my dad had bought it.  Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that the ammunition was as old as my son firing it was.  We didn’t know that fresh ammo was a good thing at the time – it had just been sitting there on that shelf, I mean, that’s where ammo was, right?

(your line: “ri-i-i-ght….”)

So we went up and set up the bowling pins in roughly the same place we’d set them up many years before, but the log we’d put them on earlier had rotted away.  This time we set them up in front of a large pile of dirt and ash, made sure things were clear, and then carefully took turns shooting at them.

I noticed a couple of things right off.

  1. Shooting at bowling pins with a .22 instead of a .223 doesn’t make them explode, it irritates them.
  2. Irritated bowling pins are dangerous.

And it wasn’t quite as satisfying to hit them with the .22 – they didn’t explode – even after quite a bit of firing.  They just wobbled a bit, like Weebles.  We think that shooting at them like this must have just irritated them, because at one point we had just one standing, and I fired at it, and heard this wriiiinnnnnnnnnggggg sound way, way off to the right just like the ricochets you hear in old westerns…

Hmmm… Bowling pins shoot back?

In fact, that was most interesting – we hadn’t ever heard of that in real life before.

I could just imagine the headline… “Man gets into gunfight, with bowling pin.”

“…and loses…”

No, that clearly wouldn’t do.

But later, we realized that this must have been the shot that took the bowling pins from irritated to angry, and, just like the people shooting that day were related to the people who had shot 30 years earlier – it was obvious the bowling pins were related, too…

And as my son, who looked a lot like me at that age, took the next shot – we could almost hear the one bowling pin we’d been shooting at, furious now, say quietly, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” – and the bullet that had just been fired out of the rifle came ricocheting back, not hitting anything, but coming closer than anyone would ever want to admit, close enough to make us decide it was time to put the guns away for the day.

We looked closer at the bowling pin.  It was apparent that it had been hit a number of glancing blows on the sides by other bowling pins, but very clearly had been hit by bullets twice, right up at the top.

The .22 bullets with their little bit of powder and little bit of lead, instead of going through the plastic laminate like the .223 bullets had done with a little more lead, and a lot more powder, simply flattened out and bounced back.  The most distinct marks, not even dents, but marks, that the bowling pin had were those right there at the top, not even ½ of an inch apart, and they looked eerily just like little gray eyes, staring back at us.

We learned several valuable lessons that day.

  1. Never shoot at armed bowling pins
  2. If anything you’re shooting at starts shooting back – it’s a good idea to bug your butt out of there.
  3. And last but not least, regardless of whether the bowling pins look like they’re armed, if you hear them even whisper anything about Inigo Montoya, leave them alone.

…did NOT walk into a bar…

No, really, that just seemed like the perfect line to open the story with, but sadly, it’s not true.

This story’s about Sister Johanna, who can best be described as a cross between a nurse and a nun with the Methodist Church in Germany, worked with my uncle (a pastor in that church) and lived with his family for many years. Yes, they had nuns, and for the most part, they were just what you’d expect a nun to be, the take-no-prisoners kind of attitude in disciplining students, kids, or you when you did something wrong, while at the same time loving you to pieces, and taking no prisoners when you were the victim of someone doing something wrong to you.

But Lord help you if you had any thoughts of sinning in the presence of a nun, and with my uncle and aunt having three boys, there was more than a handful of that going on as they were growing up.

One summer, Mom, my two sisters and I were visiting them in southern Germany where they lived, and Sister Johanna was there helping out like she always did.  That day we were all going to go visit the castle (Hohenzollern, about 20 km away which you should go visit if you can – it’s pretty cool) so it meant jamming Sister Johanna, Uncle Walter, Tante Gisela, my mom, my sisters,  three cousins and me into various cars to get there.

Everyone except my cousin Hanns-Martin and me made it into one of the cars and headed out before Sister Johanna was ready. That meant the two of us ended up in the back of her early 1960’s Renault Dauphine.  If you haven’t seen one, it’s a little French car that was a contemporary of the VW Bug, with a little 4 cylinder, 34 hp liquid cooled engine in the back.  I’d been working on cars at that time with my dad for several years to the point where I knew what the parts were, where they were, and what needed to be done to fix them.

…and unfix them.

– but I’m getting ahead of myself.

She sent us out to the car, both to get us out from under her feet and to have us ready to go, but as we got there my mechanical curiosity was piqued. The car was so small yet the air scoops on the side were like another uncle’s much bigger Mustang, and the radiator vents out the back seemed completely out of place. I’d never seen a car like this before and I wanted to peek under the hood to see what made it go, but we obediently climbed in and waited.

Just as we were wondering what was taking her so long, she came bustling out, and it was clear that staying out of her way was the safest thing to do.  By this time everyone else was well ahead of us, and she was already running late.

But that wasn’t all.

Unlike everyone else, she had to stop at the convent first to get something.

She fired up the engine, jammed the transmission into first, popped the clutch and floored it, heading toward the convent like – well, not quite like a bat out of hell, more like a winged marmoset out of purgatory.  She knew the little curving cobblestone streets in the town so well that she could take them faster than mere mortals.

And she did.

We had no idea how Nuns were supposed to drive, but Hanns-Martin and I had to claw at anything to keep from sliding around the back seat because there were no seatbelts.

We got up to the convent and she got out, running only as a nun can run, where she disappeared in the door.

Hanns-Martin and I looked at each other and we both realized if we wanted to see that engine now might be the one – and only – chance we had.  We jumped out, popped the hood, and saw this wonderful little four cylinder engine with a carburetor, a distributor – and Hey! A coil wire going from the coil to the distributor! I’d seen those before.

I had a flash of inspiration and said, “I can make it not start when she gets back! It won’t hurt it at all!”

See, remove the coil wire and the car won’t start because that’s the single spot all the electricity for the spark plugs goes through.  No coil wire, no running engine.  We both laughed as I disconnected it and put it in my pocket, shut the hood, and hopped back into the car, just in the nick of time.

She’d already been late starting from my uncle’s house, and she was even later now … plus she had two boys in the back who were clearly trying to keep from giggling about something.  She put the key in, hit the clutch, turned the key, the starter whirred, and those 34 horsepower from the engine were sound asleep.

She glared into the mirror as only a nun can.  “What did you two do?” (in our dialect: “Was hen ihr zwoi g’macht?”).

We tried – oh gosh how we tried to keep straight faces and lie to her, “Nothing… We did nothing…”

We were lying.

To a nun.

Who worked for my cousin’s dad (my uncle), who was a preacher.

That would have been a really good time for lightning to strike, but it didn’t, or my cousin and I would have been little crispy pieces of boy ash while Sister Johanna shook the cloud off and went on her way.

But there was no lightning, only Sister Johanna.

I’m not sure which was worse.

We jumped out, popped the hood, put the coil wire back, shut the hood, climbed in the back seat and I was telling her it was fixed right about the time she started it and kicked the 34 horses in the heinie…

They all woke up.

Right then.

The car was already in first gear and I hadn’t gotten the door all the way shut yet when she took off like – well, the door slammed as she hit the gas, and I swore I could see a bewildered marmoset stumbling around outside the window.

Remember, Sister Johanna was not used to being late.

She did not like being late.

At all.

And she drove those 5 inch wide bias ply tires as hard as they would go, screeching at every corner, Hanns-Martin and I again hanging on anything to keep from ending up in each other’s laps.

We commented on the screeching tires and her response, as she shifted into second and drifted through a hard left turn, was “It’s not my driving, it’s the hot pavement making them squeal.”

With the G-forces of that left turn smashing me up against Hanns-Martin, I wasn’t quite in a position to argue, but I could hardly agree with her.

We ended up getting to the castle safely and it is truly a wonderful place.  If you’re ever in southern Germany, I highly recommend it.

Oh – one more thing – there’s actually a moral to this story, and it’s very simple:

Don’t lie to Nuns.

It can be habit forming…

😉

==========================

P.S.  Really, if you ever have any desire for fun travel, take a look at Southern Germany, in the state of Württemberg.

In fact, take a look at Yvonne’s site here – she’s been to the castles Hohenzollern and Lichtenstein, (where her photo looks like it was taken from the same spot I did a drawing from when I was there last) and other castles and has fun stories to tell about all of them.

Oh, and Württemberg is the home of everything from the Blue Danube, Fairytale Castles, Mercedes Benz & Porsche to – to many things you use every day (no really)

 


Questions from my son tend to add a little different perspective to the stories I’ve told him.

If you’ve been reading them long, you know that there’s a certain classification of stories involving “Stupid Things that Papa Did When He Was Little”.

They’re the kinds of stories that I can safely tell in the first person…

Past tense.

(think about that – it’s important)

So when my son asked, “So just how many fires did you actually set in the house when you were growing up?” – and I honestly had to think my way through them and keep track on my fingers, I knew I needed to write the stories down. So, just a recap of the times I almost burned the house down (note: some of these stories have been written, some are in the backlog)…

Let’s see… there’s:

  • the time the bed caught fire, (still need to write this one – it was an aluminum pilot’s bunk from the USS Ticonderoga… No, really.)
  • the time I lit the fire in the wood stove, with gasoline. (I don’t recommend this),
  • the time the candle holder caught fire (design issue anyone?) and set the set of Encyclopedias, the shelves they were on, on fire, and dripped flaming plastic onto the desk underneath them, setting it on fire as well, (Yup, need to write this one, too…)
  • the time I came very close to doing the Olympic Torch run through the house with a highway flare as I was trying to put out another fire.
  • …and of course there was the – well, let’s not give away the punchline, shall we?

I was still living at home with my folks and sisters, and it had been a Saturday of yard work and gardening and just general cleanup. I’d gotten done with my part, and asked what else there was for me to do, and mom said, “Well, you could go in and make dinner. You can make the chicken.”

Dinner.

Chicken.

Gotcha.

So I looked all over for a chicken and the only one I could find was the one frozen solid.

In the freezer.

Understand, this was an industrial level freezer. The chicken was the same consistency as the granite used by the Canadian Olympic Curling team. I imagined sliding the chicken across the floor and frantically sweeping in front of it – but while the image made me smile, I decided against hurling – or curling – the chicken…

Chances were I’d break something with it.

Besides, dinner for a hungry family was more important.

Speaking of dinner, I had to figure out how to rapidly thaw this hunk of frozen fowl. Dad had spent $600.00 on a microwave oven back then (in the ‘70’s) and gotten a good one (a Sharp) that would eventually last over 40 years, looking brand new the whole time. I hefted the chicken, still in the closed plastic bag, onto the rotating glass plate and pushed the buttons for something like 40 minutes, then turned around to peel potatoes in the kitchen sink and get some vegetables ready for the pot.

I’d gotten maybe two potatoes peeled when I sniffed that something was not quite right.

I smelled the potato I was peeling.

It was fine.

The peeler?

It was fine.

My hands?

They smelled like… raw potatoes.

Besides, I’d washed my hands, and the chicken was frozen last time I touched – oh, the chicken – uh…

I looked up from the sink, then looked left and right, trying to remember where I’d put the chicken, and it was only when I turned around that I definitely knew something was wrong.

The chicken that I’d put in the microwave to defrost, you see…

…was on fire.

Wait.

What?

I jumped across the kitchen, hammered down on the lever to shut the microwave off, popped the door open, and grabbed the burning plastic bag the chicken was in and heaved it in the general direction of the sink. The flame made a weird flup flup flup flup flup sound (complete with Doppler effect, mind you) just before the chicken thunk-splushed into the sink, putting the fire out and splashing water and potato peels all over the place.

I turned the water I’d been peeling the potato under off so I could see the bag, and it turned out that the plastic bag had been tied shut with what was standard for the time, which was two little pieces of tape with a wire in the middle.

And the wire had gotten red hot, set the tape on fire, which set the plastic bag on fire, which then set – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it had set the chicken’s butt on fire (which reminds me of yet another story about my friend Bill – but you can read that one later).

I trimmed the burned parts off, pulled what remained of the chicken out of the bag, and put it in a glass bowl with a lid and actually read the manual for “how to defrost a chicken in the microwave” and put it back in there for awhile longer.

I looked out the window, checked on the rest of the gang, knew I had some time, so peeled some apples and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar and put them on the chicken once it was defrosted and out of the microwave, then wrapped everything in some bacon I found while I was looking for the chicken in the first place and put that in the regular oven.

While that was baking, I made some salad, boiled the potatoes, and in general, made a pretty decent dinner.

I rang the dinner bell for everyone, and pretty soon they came in.

I remember one of my sisters taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose a bit as everyone came through the door, smelling a little bit of everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.

“What’s that smell?”

And I gave the only answer I could possibly give.

“It’s, it’s the chicken.”

And… it was actually pretty good.


Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.

In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.

This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…

“So, um, where did this happen?”

“The 7-11 down by SPU.”

“Really?”

“Any idea when?”

“Oh, years ago.”

I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”

They didn’t get it at first.

And then I got an idea and went all Paul Harvey on them, in large part because I knew “The Rest of the Story,” because the guy they were talking about who’d gotten his hand nuked in the microwave…

…was me.

See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…

Which I did in my kitchen.

In the sink.

With no gloves.

(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)

So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:

  • close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
  • hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
  • hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
  • clip the plywood shades into the two windows
  • attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
  • turn off the white light
  • turn on the safelight and the fan
  • take the cover off the enlarger
  • pour the chemicals

…and I was ready to go.

The building I called home was red when I lived there, not gray as it is in that photo link at left – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.

So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.

The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.

But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.

And hey – it’s still there.

At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.

Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

<crickets>

Ummmyeah.

So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of.  The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.

It was a lot of work.

The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.

But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.

And I discovered three things simultaneously.

1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.

2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.

3. The fan was running.

Hmmm…

The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.

But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.

And I was hungry.

And my burrito was cold.

I slammed the door shut and reopened it.

The light came on again.

So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.

Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”

A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”

That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.

But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…

My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.

It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.

I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people.  Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked.  It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.

It also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.

Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera (a Nikon F-3 with an SB-16 speedlight on it) a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost a good bit more than $1.38.

The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place in Ohio where I later went to Grad School that would do what they called “Thermographs.” They were basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated in Delaware at the time, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.

So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.

A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.

In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.

And I was okay with that…

Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.

Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?

Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…

Trust me on this.  😉


The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…

Styrofoam packing pellets

…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.

So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.

Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation about the photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.

See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.

Those are your options.

So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.

I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…

See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.

The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.

That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.

One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.

We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.

No fan = sharp pictures.

But, there were side effects…

See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…

Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.

We checked for her.

There was no dog.

But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.

Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.

On one of the two paper cutters.

That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.

And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit.  Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…

And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?

Um… Yeah…

The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.

We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.

The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.

I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.

Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Lots and lots and lots of them.

And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.

So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.

Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.

COOL!

We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.

It… was… amazing…

(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)

So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.

It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.

It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.

We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…

…and saw snow in the parking lot.

Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…

We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.

And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…

Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…

The Styrofoam packing peanuts…

As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.

There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.

The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.


A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story.  It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in  another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…

I was 16.  My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out.  We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.

“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed.  We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.

Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.

To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.

With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then.  (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.

That was a good thing…

Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.

See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.

The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.

What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.

So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.

My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.

The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.

Every.

Time.

The wheel.

Came around.

Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.

So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through roads between farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.

We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle.  It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.

I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared.  In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.

And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe.

When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.

And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.

We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.

And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…

Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.

So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.

It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)

I’d practiced this.

And it worked.  It really worked.

See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.

I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.

If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel.  It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…

(don’t ask)

Soooo…

The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.

As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where I’d followed Martin’s taillight in the dark, and where we’d have to turn right.

We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.

It was glorious.

A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.

Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>.  We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…

And turning right was the thing to do.  That was the paved road.  Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.

So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.

There was only one problem with those remaining options.

Well, actually, several.

One: the turn was essentially blind…

Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.

So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found,  Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).

But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…

Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)

Hmmm…

Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.

Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.

Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.

With a bicycle.

Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.

This changed everything.

I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.

No luck.

I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.

This, um, wasn’t good…

To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…

…which was good.

Except I was running out of space fast.

I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.

Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…

…which was bad.

Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.

I could feel the vibration of the little box chewing through the tire all the way up to the brake handle.

So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.

I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?

But using it would have required having a stable bike.

(Which I didn’t have).

And enough time to grab it.

(Which I was running out of.)

And having enough distance for it to open.

(Which I already had run out of.)

Oh good.

I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.

Then things got interesting.

After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve.  Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.

Made of steel pipe.

Embedded in concrete.

That I hit with my front wheel.

That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.

I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.

At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.

There wasn’t much to do but let him rant.  I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…

The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.

We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)

Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)

We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back.  We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.

Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.

It was exactly 10:30.

 ===

And…

It got me thinking…

A lot, actually.

See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.

And maybe, maybe that’s the story.

See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…

…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…

26 years earlier.

Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.

And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.

26 years earlier.

I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30?  How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)

But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.

As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way.  Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.

And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.

Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.

And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.

In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. 🙂

But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).

And I realized we all have people like that in our lives…  People who will do their best to protect us from danger

Even if that danger is us.

I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…

How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.

And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.

But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight.  Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.

The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in.  The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.

I just made it late.

And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:

There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.

And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…

Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.

I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.

See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.

That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…

Hmmm…

Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?

Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this:  “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”

I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.

Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.

Take care – and thanks –

Tom

===

Afterword:

Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time.  Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.

I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)

You can see the path I had to take, the gentleman was right at the corner, and the window to the right in the white building is where the table I got patched up at still is.

You can see the path I had to take, the gentleman was right at the corner, and the window to the right in the white building at top is where they patched me up.

I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty.  Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning.  And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now.  He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:

Looking up the hill I came rocketing down. The turn looks gentle from here, but swing left (for the photo below), and take it at speed, and it gets interesting.

Looking up the hill I came rocketing down. The turn looks gentle from here, but swing left (for the photo below), and take it at speed, and it gets interesting.  (Photo by and courtesy of Markus Weimer)

And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:

The car in the lower right is about where the old gentleman was. the trees have sure grown up in the years since I was there, but the fencepost I bounced off would have been where the one just about dead center in the photo is. The ditch is just behind the fence to the right of center in the background. The building in the background was a field.

The car in the lower right is about where the old gentleman was. the trees have sure grown up in the years since I was there, but the fence post I bounced off would have been where the one just about dead center in the photo is. The ditch is just behind the fence to the right of center in the background. The building in the background was a field.

For many reasons, I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened.  I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story.  He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.

“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”


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

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

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

See, this was High School.

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

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

“Sir, yes SIR!”

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

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

On paper.

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

On paper.

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

There was a lot to do.

There were things to correct.

…and there were lots of spare forms.

Heh…

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

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

Well, staff.

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

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

Cool!

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

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

Oh, and about 18 years old.

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

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

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

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

And Bob did the announcements, every Monday morning.

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

So I was the voice of Bob Sherp.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, – he sure sounded like you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitsy’s eyes got huge.

She looked up at Wayne, almost in awe.

Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course, it got me thinking…

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

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

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

In real life.

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

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

Oh, and Bitsy – Bob says hi.  😉

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


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

Let’s try that again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew one thing very quickly:

This was bad.

How bad?

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

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

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

So I had to improvise a bit.

Photo Copyright Joe Mabel

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

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

Hmmm…

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

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

Brrrrrroooooww!

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

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

Brrrrrroooooww!

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

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

Hmmm…

Weird.

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

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

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

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

“Why, is something wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…

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

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

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

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

How bad is it, he says…

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

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

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

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

“Uh… Let me get someone.”

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

Step…

Squish…

Step…

Squish…

Ew…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would only come with healing, and with time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just be glad they’re there.

Take care out there, folks.

===

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

Tom Roush

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