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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.

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

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

1984

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

The good part of this?

I got to play 4 parts in the play.

The bad part?

I had to play 4 parts in the play.

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

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

I could, and did.

The problem was logistics.

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

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

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

Except I got there late.

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

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

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

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

Big Brother was indeed watching me.

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

I grinned…

And then I mooned Big Brother.

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

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

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

Sometimes he needs it.


So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…

I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.

For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.

For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.

For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.

For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.

And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that.  You know who you are.

As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.

All of the stories are true.  Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was.  I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.

I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all.  They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them.  So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.

1.       From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt

“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”

This was when my son went to Paris.  In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.

2.     I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.

3. Then there was the storyHave you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it? when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “

4. There’s the story I calledPoint and Click – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay.  I hope you don’t have to.

“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”

5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.

It had to be harder than this…”

The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.

6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…

“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”

7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t.  And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which.  It’s just something that happened On the Bus…

8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.

9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.

10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…

11.   And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”

 12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.

 13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it.  if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it.  It was the first of many Saab Stories…

 14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence.  This one is called, simply, Stalingrad – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it.  I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.

 15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word.  You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.

16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could…   I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later.  You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened.  Really.

17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.

 18. Some stories were just silly.  I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?

 19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?

Yup… I did that.

20. But it’s not just my generation.  I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes.  Not fear, mind you. Dislike.  And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself.  First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it.  And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…

21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named CleoI never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.

22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.

 23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me.  I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her.  I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then.  How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end?  (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)

 24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it.  Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…

25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things.  I was astonished to find out how many people read the story Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it.  Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.

26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things.  I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.

27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.

Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…

So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.

Actually, in that order.

28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it.  I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.

 29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike.  There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle….  I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish.  You’ll understand when you get there.  I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.

30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).

The thing about these stories is they just come.  In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…

31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together.  It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places.  At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does.  He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen.  I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together.  I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard.  Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect.  If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…”  I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing.  (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)

 33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly.  I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were.  It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me.  I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.

34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…”  I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing.  I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.

35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)

36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…

37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.

38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story.  Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.

39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was.  it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience.  I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.

40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.

41.   and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffeewhich, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.

42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.

43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it.  As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.

44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry.  Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears.  And I wrote…

45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”

46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time.  From the story:  “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”

47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.

48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means.  (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)

49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had.  And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.

50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life.  I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.

From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”

51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty…  and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write.  It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it.  I still miss her.

From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”

52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year.  The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day.  And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.

The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly.  Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write.  Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…

53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement.  It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.

54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before.  I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was.  That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…

55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.

56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it.  It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories.  I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it.  I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened.  The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time.  He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties

57.   Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend,  I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…

58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life.  But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story.  And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.

59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime…  I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile.  (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)

60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out.  Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile.  I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true.  I found myself happy with the result.

61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready.  It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them.  It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual.  I hope that feeling comes through.  Let me know how it affects you.

62. I changed pace completely with the next story.  Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus.  It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd.  And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd.  Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.

63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women.  I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay.  Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it.  I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.

64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.

65. There was so much going on, a little fun  – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it.  I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,

 66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.

 67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong.  In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi

68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.

69.   And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome.  Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get…  It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.

70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write.  He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen.  I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written.  I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,

71.   Puff balls and Pastries  – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.

72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t.  I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”.  I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.

73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.

74.   And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry

I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.

75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in

Thump.  Thump… ThumpThumpThumpThump!

76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)

77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch…   It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist.  They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them.  And my uncle’s back has completely healed.

78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.”  I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search.   It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes

79.   Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series.  I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.

80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus.  …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…

81. Taking risks…

“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on.  Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want.  You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it.  And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…

82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop.  And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about.  I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich

83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.

84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.

85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,

“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us.  Well, actually… I take that back.  He did.”

And it’s true.  But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own.  All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.

86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words.  It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…

87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out.  There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.

88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states.  We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.

89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic,  I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story.  It did.  It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…

90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something.  Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him  in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.

91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story.  It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.

92. And this next story was literally a dream.  If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it.  I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge.  The story fits.  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both.  It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening.  It still brings a smile.

94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there.  I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.

95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them.  I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more.  Something much, much more.  You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.

I will miss Dan.  He’s one of the best.

It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.

96.   The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me.  I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention?  I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while.  When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it.  I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all.  But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile.  It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.

97.   Sometimes therapy comes in different packages.  I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy.  I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep.  Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too.  While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”

A story.  It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it.  A story.  I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me.  I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it.  Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence.  Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.

And that’s how I started…  Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys…  Let me know what you think when you can.

98. I put this next one out on Father’s day.  It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him.  It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down.  It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96

And – it’s still July as I write this…  I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…

Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.

Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.

And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.

There’s a little of every one of them in there.  There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that.  The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories.  I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…

Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.

Take care & God bless,

Tom


It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, which we celebrate on July 4th.

July 4th, when I was a kid, was a lot – shall we say, louder, than it is today.

For me, it has always involved:

  • anything that could explode (or be made to explode)
  • anything that could fly (or be made to fly),
  • or anything that could make lots of sparks (or be made to make lots of sparks). 

Of course, if I was able to make something that combined all three, that was a serious bonus.

So – oh – fair warning, if you think about this for just a couple of seconds (me writing about something that involves things that go boom in the night) this story falls squarely in the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” category – a series of stories I told my son as he was growing up, in hopes that he would not do those stupid things.

Note… that’s known in the trade as “foreshadowing” – you have been warned.

So part of my standard Fourth of July routine when I was a teenager was to drive around with some of my friends either from school or from Civil Air Patrol and watch some of the air shows in the area (usually the one that started at Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington) – and somehow or other, we’d find some of the fireworks that, depending on where you were, might have been a little on the slightly less than legal side of things.

One year, there were at least 4 of us in my folk’s 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon – the version with the 1.1 liter engine (with a power output roughly equivalent to 2.5 hypercaffeinated rabid squirrels) – and we bombed (yes, I used that word on purpose) around the greater Tacoma area, watching and contributing to the fireworks… My friend Bruce, sitting behind me was lighting bottle rockets and dropping them out the back window (the kind that flips out at the bottom, not the kind that rolls down), where they would occasionally add a little excitement to the festivities being, um, ‘enjoyed’ by people whose houses we drove past. For some reason, at one point he decided to throw a firecracker out MY window, and instead of going out the window, it bounced off the door pillar and landed on my shoulder belt, right next to my left ear.

Where it exploded before it could fall any farther.

The words I used to describe my thoughts about that particular action – while I couldn’t hear them because my left ear was ringing (as it did for several hours afterwards) – made it clear to Bruce that putting lit firecrackers next to the ear of the driver of the car you’re riding in gets aaaawfully close to the top ten list of stupid things you can do on the Fourth of July.

(Note, this closely resembled something I read about years later in Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird” column, but with a larger ‘firecracker’)

Bruce resumed throwing smoke bombs and bottle rockets out the window. I made sure my window was rolled all the way down, *just in case* he chose to do something else…

…and – as I ponder this, while I’m writing – I suppose that given that I’m a little older now, if I saw kids doing that, I’d be a little torn between wanting to yell at them for doing something stupid, and yet remembering what it was like to drive around with my friends, doing stuff that was fun, didn’t damage anything but my eardrums (though I’m sure it could have gotten a *bit* more dangerous), or – oh who the HECK am I kidding? – we were driving around, throwing explosives out of the car… wouldn’t that be considered more than just a little dangerous?

Oh, if my son only knew of this one… his take is that I have set the stupidity bar so high that he either

a) has no chance on the planet of reaching it, or

b) it gives him such room that I have to cut him a stunning amount of slack, given what I managed to get away with and/or survive….

Sigh… the trials of parenting.

But hey – stupidity at that level – no – surviving stupidity at that level – is making for stories years later.

Anyway – over the years, our July 4th forays would take us over from one house (Bruce’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his Grampa’s truck) to another (Bill’s – who knew how to siphon gas out of his dad’s VW 411) and we would just drive around Tacoma, enjoying the sights, watching and/or adding to the fireworks, and in general, having a good time.

Rather cheaply.

I wonder if Bill’s dad and Bruce’s Grampa ever noticed that their vehicles got worse gas mileage around the first week of July.

Now at some point, some of the people reading this who are now parents will have that little phrase “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” going through their heads.

I need you to stop, because you’re getting ahead of me.

(Remember that ‘foreshadowing’ bit?  Right… this is more of it…)

So another year, it was our friend Doug, with Bill and me, and that year several of us were way, WAY into model rockets, and Bill, having much experience with them, decided that bottle rockets weren’t anywhere NEAR powerful enough… I mean, they ignite for maybe a 10th of a second, coast for a bit, then go bang.

Yay.

No, Bill decided we needed to go to his house and get something significantly bigger, and he found either a D or an E rocket engine that we ended up using. I remember his excitement as he taped about 10 firecrackers to the front of the rocket engine, with the fuses wadded up inside, and then taped the whole assembly to a hunk of bamboo he found lying around somewhere.

It was, we concluded, long before Saddam Hussein used a term like it, “The Mother of all Bottle Rockets”.  We handled it gently, and Bill knew of a ball field near his house that appeared to be suitable for launching rockets, so we piled into the car and headed over. We’d grabbed sodas at Bill’s house, so we all had aluminum cans and various aerial instruments of mayhem as we got out and headed out to the baseball diamond to let things loose. Bill jammed the stick end of his rocket into the ground and wiggled it so it’d be loose, so when lit – the rocket would go up.

Now since Bill had learned all about rockets and had built this one, we deferred to him to do the actual launch.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever launched a model rocket at night before – but they launch rather dramatically. They launch loud, and it seems that they run forever, compared to the bottle rockets we’d been launching.

I mean, in comparison, we’d have a bottle rocket:

Fffffffffffftttt!………………..bang!

Whee.

A good one might go up 100 feet or so.

But as Bill lit the fuse and told us to stand back – in case it tipped over, he said – we asked him how far that one would go.  He did some quick calculating in his head as the fuse burned, realizing that the motor wasn’t lifting anything more than itself and 10 firecrackers taped to a stick, and said something like, “More than 1,000 feet, for sure”.

About then the fuse actually lit – it roared and shot up so fast we could barely swing our heads fast enough to keep up with it.

And the engine kept burning, and burning, and burning, for what seemed like eternity.  I remember thinking it looked like a star up there, and then, the star went out, as if someone hadn’t paid their light bill. Bill said, “Keep watching” – and then we saw a bunch of little sparkles – which threw me, until a few seconds later, we heard, “bang!…… Bubububang! Bang!” as the sound from the 10 firecrackers actually got to us about 1,000 feet below…

We were pretty stoked, and were going to shoot some more stuff when Bill reminded us of one of those little pesky laws of physics – namely that what goes up, must come down…

So we looked up…

Nothing.

We looked up some more…

Still nothing…

Tapping our toes and looking at our watches, we waited some more…

Still nothing…

Then, faintly, we heard this sound coming from roughly where we’d last seen the rocket:

shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw shw

It was the stick of bamboo, with a dead rocket engine still taped to it, twirling down. It landed – and stuck in the ground – about 50 feet from where we were. Bill was glad it hadn’t landed on the roofs of any of the houses in the area. So, of course, were we – but we didn’t know, until that point, that we needed to be.

We weren’t done yet.

We still had quite a few bottle rockets left over – and so we started lighting them off. But they just weren’t anywhere close to what we’d experienced with the big one – so, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves shooting a little more horizontally.

Now remember, we were out on a baseball diamond… (I think this is it here – though there was a baseball diamond there that was, as I recall, closer to the tennis courts at the time.) I was standing on second base – Bill was standing on first, and our friend Doug was kind of where shortstop would be.  Bill, at that point, thought he’d fire a rocket between Doug and me.  (note – in case it’s not obvious, this is about 1:00 in the morning – July 5th now – and the only light on the field was from streetlights at the edges. It was about as dark as it could get in Tacoma.)

I heard his rocket go off, then felt what could charitably be described as a pretty significant sensation as it hit me right in the lower lip from Bill’s direction, flew a few more feet and exploded.

I looked at Bill.

No, that’s not nearly descriptive enough.  I glared at Bill. My eyes were focused on burning holes into his.

“You shot me! You freaking shot me!”

“I didn’t mean to – I was trying to shoot between you and Doug!”

At that point, I was in just a bit of pain, and tasted blood, in more ways than one. I found there was a second use for the mug root beer can I had, which was, if you held it just right after you put a lit bottle rocket into it – just like holding the handle of a pistol – so I lit it and aimed at Bill – he’d come over to see if I was okay – but once he saw the bottle rocket aimed his way, he started to run.  I remember just tracking him as the rocket lit off – the top of the can acting as a blast shield.  The rocket lit, sparks flew, and it tracked straight at him, but I wasn’t leading enough, so it flew over his left shoulder and blew up about 10 feet past him…

…and about then we realized that it was clearly time to call it a night.  We were no longer thinking straight, and besides, the root beer now tasted vaguely of gunpowder.

Everyone gathered to see how badly I’d been injured (a piece of my lower lip had gone with the bottle rocket as it hit – but what I really got out of it was a pretty fat lip.  This thing swelled up almost instantly.

Doug reassured me that these things swell up pretty fast, and not to worry.  I think there may have been an element of CYA there as we all decided that we were lucky and blessed not to have gotten caught, or worse yet, injured at the level of stupidity (also known as “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®”) we were operating under.

By then, the pain was starting to sink in, and the thing I wanted to do was just get home and go to bed.  I’d often worked the closing shift at a restaurant in high school, so my folks were used to me coming in late.  However, this was somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning, and despite my trying to be quiet, I managed to wake my mom up as I was trying to wedge my toothbrush around that bottle rocket-provided, formerly lip shaped obstacle in front of my teeth.

She was more than a little concerned that I was coming home with a fat, bloody lip at 2:30 in the morning, and wanted to know what had happened.  She was, as moms all over the world are, worried that I was hurt – and of course, I wasn’t telling her the whole story right then.

She kept asking questions, and I kept trying to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see the fat lip (it was pretty hard to hide, and was about as useful to me as the last time I’d spent several hours in the dentist’s chair, with half of my face numb and just hanging there.  It was just a touch hard to talk without it being obvious that there was something wrong) – but she was persistent, and wanted to see if I was okay.  Eventually I showed her, she was satisfied that I’d be okay – and suggested I get to bed.

And of course, it’s only later, as I think about what *could* have gone wrong, that I realize how much overtime my guardian angels were putting in.

Oh – it should be noted, by the way, that alcohol was not involved in any of these adventures.

Everything we did was done stone cold sober.

Which meant we remembered it all…

© 2012 Tom Roush


It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and my son and I are visiting my mom as I write this.  Coming down here is like walking into a time machine, with all the memories and so on.  Last night, as we were heading off to the store, we passed a certain spot in the road.  “Hey, Michael, this bridge here is where the story in the Ranchero happened.”  (Yes, I was passing a car… on a bridge… I’d forgotten to mention that in that story…)

I found I was telling him stories, not just stories from some mystical past, but stories right where they happened.  And it made the stories a little more real, to be standing exactly on the spot where they happened.

And we got to talking about one particular story that happened long before the house had any reliance on fossil fuels.  When I was a kid, back before Al Gore had even thought of inventing the internet, we didn’t have cable TV, or video games, but there was always, always something to do.  There were chores constantly, and one of mine was simple: When I came home from school, I’d have to bring wood in for the rather cranky woodstove (it was simple: no wood, no heat), or – sometimes when I came home and there was no one else home, the house was cold.

Well, if the house was cold, and I was the only one in it, and if I was the one who wanted heat, then I had to build a fire in the stove.  That got interesting sometimes, as there were times when I couldn’t get a fire going for anything.

Keep in mind here – I was a teenager.

With matches.

And I couldn’t get a fire started…

In the house…

Sigh…

The idea of having a thermostat to turn up was a dream – but it was just that.  (It was only 11 years ago that we had a gas fireplace installed there for my mom.  But back when I was a kid (oh gad that makes me sound old), one day, I was both cold and impatient, and to light the stove in the living room, I got a bunch of newspaper, was too impatient to split any kindling, so I just put some wood scraps from the lumber mill in town on the newspaper there in the stove.  Sometimes I’d be lucky and actually get it to light – but this time it just wouldn’t stay lit for anything – and I was cold, and I just wanted a fire.

RIGHT NOW. 

So, operating with the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® that is so common at that age, I got some gas from the lawn mower, and poured a little onto the wood and paper in the stove.  I then reached up to the place where the matches were…

…and realized I’d used the last of them trying so unsuccessfully to start the fire.

Oh good.

I took the gas can back outside (first – actually, only – smart thing I did) and hunted all over until I found some matches.  When I got back to the stove, I instinctively knew what had happened – the gas had vaporized to its most lethal form, and I knew that lighting it would be a bit of a challenge now – far different than the “I can’t start this fire” challenge.

Given that, and knowing that exploding gas would be a challenge to try to contain, I decided to stand to the side of the stove, with the door open instead of trying to toss the match in and slam the door shut., That way it would relieve the pressure I knew was coming, and toss the match in while I was standing on the side, away from what I thought would be a bit of a flame coming out.

So I stood to the side, with some fresh newspaper and more wood in the firebox of the stove, and I tossed the match in.

Now I don’t think I’d ever seen a rectangular flame before, and definitely haven’t since, but a flame – exactly the size and shape of the stove opening, shot about three feet out of the stove, spewing bits of wood and burning newspaper paper all over the living room.  What must have been just seconds seemed like hours as I frantically cleaned all those pieces up before they caught the rest of the living room on fire.  That would have been, um, bad…

And I would have had to explain to my mom yet again why there was smoke in the same room I coincidentally happened to be occupying. (I did have some experience with that)

By the time my mom got home that day, the fire was burning nicely.

Inside the stove.

I have no idea how I hid my guilty expression when she came home.  Maybe I was too frustrated by the whole event to feel guilty. In fact, she only heard about this years later. (actually, Thanksgiving a couple of years ago)

And of course, she was shocked.

Come to think of it, a number of the stories that are mentioned here are stories she finds out about as I’ve been writing them.  It makes for fun conversations now – but as I look back on it – the adult in me got to asking myself, the Teen With the Infinite Wisdom ®, “What were you thinking?” Or more specifically, I narrowed it down to, “Did you not see the line between dumb and stupid as you blasted past it?”

I realized that this, like most of the actions controlled by my Infinite Teenage Wisdom® were the result of simply not thinking of the consequences to my actions early enough to have them change what I was doing.

Yes, I knew that gasoline was flammable, in fact, I even counted on it.  What I didn’t count on, or expect, was that the, um, “influence” that the gasoline had, could expand to other things as quickly as it did.  No, even that’s not true… I knew it would be dramatic, otherwise I wouldn’t have stepped to the side.  I guess I was expecting flames, but not the aftermath of all the fiery bits and pieces that flew out after the flames, and I didn’t expect to have to try to put all that back in the stove.

I did some more thinking about it, and realized that the adage my son has told me many times, “To be Old and Wise, you must first be Young and Stupid.” –

In fact, there’s an old saying, with a corollary right along with it:

“With age comes Wisdom”

“…but sometimes, Age comes alone.”

So how do I learn from this as an adult now?  Well, I’m still human, still capable of making mistakes with the best of them, but at least I’m working on learning from the old ones and using those lessons to learn how to make different new mistakes, (instead of repeating the same old ones over and over.

And I guess that’s it, huh? Learn from your mistakes, because if you don’t, you may as well just soak the mistakes in gas and throw in the match, because in the end – well, – cleaning bits and pieces of what you were trying to do will be very much like trying to put a burning fire back into a fire place, and that, my friends, is hard.


This is a story about cars.

Well, more than just cars…

One complete car.

Parts of two others.

And me, who used the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® I was so blessed with at the time.

Wait – a better way to describe “Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®” is “Stupidity beyond comprehension” – and before I get any notes from angry teenagers, read on, and see if you don’t see yourself in this –  (note: don’t try this at home – or, for that matter, anywhere else. )

So aside from me, the cars involved in today’s story were:

A 1965 Saab 95 – with a three cylinder, two stroke engine of a whopping 46 cubic inches. (for comparison: a standard Harley Davidson has almost twice that, about 80 cubic inches, across two cylinders).

A 1956 VW Bug (but mainly the engine – an original 1956, 36 horsepower, 4 cylinder, air cooled, ORIGINAL Bug engine)

And a 1972 Ford Ranchero, with a 390 Cubic inch V8 under the hood, with a 4 barrel carburetor, dual 2 ½ inch exhausts that made a barely passing attempt to muffle the roar of the engine.

It was said it could pass anything but a gas station, and I learned much later, how true this was.  Of course, this was back when I was irritated at gas costing a whole 66 cents a gallon, and refusing to buy it at that price…

The Ranchero belonged to my uncle, and I’d had some trouble with the Saab, the kind that had the engine sitting on the shop floor while we figured out how to drill a rather important broken bolt out of it.

This took a bit longer than expected, and I had to do something that evening, before we were able to get the engine back in the Saab.

You see, I was the cadet commander for the McChord Composite Squadron of Civil Air Patrol, and one of the things I did was teach the younger cadets about anything having to do with aviation, leadership, and in general being a good cadet.

One part of aviation is airplane engines, and so I figured, given that I was trying to restore a 1956 Bug, which happened to have an air-cooled engine of the same configuration as many airplane engines, I’d planned on using it to demonstrate to the younger cadets what an airplane engine might look like.

I’d been gathering parts for the Bug for some time, and had found, for $100.00, an absolutely bone stock, original, 36 horsepower engine actually out of another 1956 bug that had been in a front end collision.  With the gas tank in the front, the car burned, and was a total loss.  The only thing worth saving was the engine, so the owner had taken it out of the car and put it in a garage and there it sat for a couple of decades.  It still had the original distributor cap on the distributor, still turned over, and interestingly, still had oil in it.

To actually, run, it would need to be rebuilt, (the spark plug wires were a little crumbly from the heat of that fire) but you didn’t find engines like this very often, and I was absolutely thrilled to have it.

However, I’d planned on taking it to the Civil Air Patrol meeting in the back of the Saab, and the engine of that car was sitting on the floor of my uncle’s shop.

My uncle, bless him, offered to loan me his Ranchero.

Now understand, I was used to an engine with three cylinders the size of coke cans pulling me along.

The Ranchero’s engine had 8 cylinders the size of small Central American countries, and had about 7 times the power of the Saab.

In fact, let’s just say that the gas pedal on the Ranchero worked really, REALLY well.  In fact, it worked far, FAR better than the gas pedal of any car driven by a teenager should work.

And then there were the brakes.

Oh my gosh, it had disk brakes, 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.

The ones I had in the Saab were little itty bitty drum brakes that I thought sucked – and it turned out I was right… only two of the four brake shoes on the front of that Saab actually worked at the time.

The difference was incredible.

I was used to a certain level of acceleration from the Saab (a speed rivaled by melting glaciers, I might add), and it became very obvious, very fast, that I would have to recalibrate my right foot for the increased acceleration available in the Ranchero.

What was not obvious was that I would have to do the same for the increased deceleration – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took the Ranchero home, backed it up to where the VW engine was and then just kind of stood there, trying to figure out how to get the engine up into the back of the thing.  Eventually I got some planks, and slid the engine up onto the bed on them, getting it into the back by myself, and with the engine loaded in the back, I shut the tailgate on the bottom and the canopy gate on the top.

By this time, what with the original problem with the Saab, plus the loading of the engine and such, by the time I put my Civil Air Patrol uniform on and got in the car, I was quite a bit later than I thought I would be, and so I did the rather typical teenage thing.

I tried to turn my uncle’s Ranchero into a time machine.

There was an 8 mile stretch of two lane road that I’d driven many, many times in the Saab, and with the acceleration that it had (imagine that under the hood are three hibernating squirrels (because of the glacier mentioned earlier)  who had NO intention of accelerating the car enough to pass someone that’s going too slow for an impatient teenage driver) I’d learned that if I were driving that Saab, there were only two or three spots on this 8 mile stretch that were actually safe to pass another car in. So my standard process, regardless of impatience, was to fade back from the car I was about to pass and wait until I had plenty of clear space in front of me and lots of clear space in the oncoming lane before I started to pass someone.

When the time was right, I’d floor it to get a running start, staying directly behind the person I was about to pass, because I needed the draft that their car pushing through the air provided to keep my speed up.   I’d then, at the last second, pull out and pass them, assuming everything was clear. If it wasn’t, or if I didn’t get enough speed up, or my timing was off and there was still oncoming traffic by the time I (the passer) got up to the person I was passing (the passee) I’d have to try to abort the pass, and with the brilliantly functional brakes (sarcasm intended) on the Saab, trying to abort a pass at that late stage could be a touch challenging.

I mean, by the time I got to the point of making the decision to pass, I’d be gaining on them at about 10-20 mph, and at the last moment, I faced one of two choices

  1. If there was still no oncoming traffic, I’d pull out and pass them.
  2. If there was oncoming traffic, I’d have to abort the pass, which would give me the following decisions: I could
    1. Rear end them (generally undesirable at that speed)
    2. Whip out into oncoming traffic and risk a head on collision…  (significantly less desirable at that speed) or
    3. Slam on the brakes and hope and pray that I had enough brake shoes making contact with brake drums to actually slow me down to keep from rear ending them.

So there I was, late… impatient as all getout… not in the underpowered Saab I was used to, but in this car that was not my own…

…that had more power under my right foot than I’d ever had in my life.

…that had more braking power than I’d ever had under my right foot in my life.

…and that had more rubber on the road in two of its four tires than I had on all four Saab tires.

Now just between you and me, I’m thinking this is a recipe for disaster, right?

Well, let’s find out…

I made it about 3 ½ miles from home, and on this road it didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to matter what time of day you’re driving it, there will be someone who isn’t in nearly as much of a hurry as you are… In this case, I was stuck behind someone who insisted on going 50 mph (which was below speed limit).  I was late and impatient, and in my teenage mind, I just couldn’t take any of that, so I waited for a clear spot I’d used in the Saab, hit my blinkers, the gas pedal (oh… my…) and pulled out to pass.

Now one of the things to know about this road is that a lot of it is in shadow most of the day, with occasional little spots where there is sunshine.

I was in that sunshine, passing the car that was driving so slowly, and I was passing him like I’d never, ever passed a car before.

This time, I had room to pass.

This time, I was going way, way faster than the person I was passing.

This time, everything was going to end up just peachy.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

…which is when a bright flaming red 1974 VW Bug popped out of the shadows about a quarter of a mile ahead of me.

Understand…

Red…

Sunshine…

Bug…

There’s no radiator on the front of this thing, it’s all bright freaking red.

Like a stoplight.

And it didn’t look like it was a quarter of a mile away, it looked like it was a hundred yards away, and coming at me with a closing speed of about 130 miles an hour (figuring my 75 plus his 55).  I knew, in that moment that I had to do something, and do it quickly.

So I, using my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, did what would have made sense if I were driving the Saab, which would have been to stop badgering the hibernating squirrels under the hood and stand on the brake pedal, trying to avoid a head on collision.

But remember, I wasn’t driving the Saab.

I was driving the Ranchero.

And as I said, I was doing about 75 miles an hour – which is fast for that road, (impossible for that Saab) but is also a good passing speed for a short distance, and, well, let’s put it this way:

My body was driving the Ranchero.

My brain was still in Saab mode.

And with that big bright red Bug in front of me, I did the only thing I could possibly think of doing.

I hit those brakes.

…those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.

With, remember, more rubber on just the front wheels than the Saab had on all four.

The Ranchero went from 75 to about 45 like it had hit a brick wall.

The driver I was passing had to be confused beyond words, I mean, here’s this blur of a car roaring past him, not like he’s standing still, but like he’s going backwards.  He’s expecting to see tail lights any second, but what he saw were brake lights out the side window, the back of the Ranchero kicked up, the nose went down, and then it simply disappeared.

He looked around, and the next thing he knew, it was behind him again, weaving around a little bit, but definitely back there.

What the driver of that car didn’t know was that while the Ranchero had those huge brakes, the classic 36 horsepower 1956 VW Bug engine, the one with the original everything including the crumbly spark plug wires all the way down to the spark plugs, did not.

In fact, it decided to maintain its speed for about 8 feet, at which point it hit the front of the bed of the Ranchero.  It did this by rolling, yes, rolling to the front of the bed, where it sat, wounded and bleeding 25 year old dinosaur juice all over the bottom of the bed while I tried to swerve back into my lane so I didn’t end up squished between not one, but two VW engines (one from the red VW in front of me coming at me, and one from the wounded and bleeding engine behind me).

On top of it all, I was stunned, shocked, embarrassed, and furious at myself for not only not having thought this through, but for doing something so stupid in the first place, but there was nothing I could do but seethe as the person in front of me tootled along for the next 4 ½ miles, definitely below the speed limit.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but remember, I  was operating under Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, and I knew that when we got to the next intersection, I’d be able to turn left, onto a multi-lane road, and I’d be able to pass him.

Which is exactly what I set out to do when we got there.

The light turned green, the slow driver ahead of me turned left and went into the outside lane.  The rumble of the 390 in the Ranchero turned into a roar as I turned left, cut inside him, and floored it.

I heard all those cylinders firing, I heard the transmission whine, I heard those two exhausts roar, and I heard my 1956 VW Bug engine , its ability to travel completely lubricated now by all that ancient oil between it and the bed of the Ranchero, sliding, trying to make a hasty exit out the back.

Really.

I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see it hit the closed tailgate and knock it open.

All I could imagine in that blink of an eye was the guy I’d just passed wondering why it hadn’t been enough for me to pass him like that, why he was now being passed by an old VW engine sliding down the road – without even a car attached to it.

I couldn’t let that happen, so with the image of the engine popping open both the top and bottom tailgates frozen in my mind, I remembered just enough of my physics, and did the only thing I could possibly do at the time.

I hit the brakes.

(Yes, those brakes)

Those 11 inch, Internally Ventilated, Power Assisted, Disk Brakes.

Attached to a veritable plantation of rubber…

…and the engine (the VW one) came rolling back to the front of the bed, where it lay, like a prize fighter down for the count.

I pulled over.

I just couldn’t drive any further right then, with the back open and the engine sitting there all cattywompus, so I got out and checked the tailgate.  It was fine.  I shut it to see if it would, actually, shut, (it did) but one look at the engine, and it was a mess.  The distributor cap was broken, the rotor inside the cap was broken, various important fan shroud pieces were now dented and mangled.

I opened the tailgate again and got up in the back, trying to keep myself from slipping or getting too oily in my clean uniform. I managed to manhandle the engine upright, (which is a challenge when you’re trying to keep your shoes and knees out of the oil on the ‘floor’ there – and an even harder challenge when you realize how very little room you have trying to stand up in the back of a Ranchero with a canopy on it). I pushed it all the way to the front of the bed, knowing that hitting the brakes would put it there anyway.  That oil coating the bottom of the bed now really changed things a bit, so I had to be extra careful, and I still had to get to the Civil Air Patrol meeting, where I’d be teaching the cadets about all the exciting things they could learn about aviation, and how important lubrication was in allowing metal parts to move past each other… freely.

Remember, I was the commander, and I was supposed to look sharp, and be calm, cool, and collected..  Having a greasy uniform wasn’t an option, so after getting the engine all upright and everything, I wiped my hands on the only thing available (the ground) and drove, very, VERY carefully out to McChord, to train my cadets.

They learned a little, and I managed to get myself, the Ranchero, and the VW engine home safely.

But I think, as I look back, I learned more.

I learned that impatience can be expensive, and dangerous.

I learned that otherwise intelligent people can do stupid things.

And the cadets, who looked up to me both figuratively and literally, had absolutely no idea, as leaderly as I looked, how fully capable I was of doing stupid things that would boggle their minds, and in my impatient attempt to get there on time, how close I came to not getting there at all.


July 4th

Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks.  Some of these things are legal, some are not.  Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry.  There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.

And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.

And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out.  It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.

One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.

It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.

Was it entertaining?

Heck yes.

Did it fly well?

Uh…. No.

It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.

It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…

I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…

What could possibly go wrong?

<ahem>

In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.

We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing.  We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.

So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.

Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.

The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.

I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell.  I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.

By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.

I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car.  It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again.  That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers.  The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.

Jimi was just beside himself.

I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was.  The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.

I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.

It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.

We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.

I miss him.

For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.

Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”

Yeah, we supervised alright.

It was a good day.

Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.

Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.


I was on the phone with my mom the other day, and she said a couple of words that I’d never, ever heard from her.

We were all going through a rough time, so she wished us well, she said, “individually and collectively”.

The last time I’d heard those words said like that was in 1978, at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and I realized I had another story to write.

Back then I was in Civil Air Patrol, and our squadron, based at McChord Air Force Base, had one of the best military style drill teams around.  We had a group of young men and a few young ladies who could march beside each other, between each other, we could literally march rings around each other. You name it, we could do it, and we looked sharp.  Each state was organized as a “Wing” – and several of these “Wings” made up a Region (several states)

We had Wing drill competitions, (Youtube link as an example) and our reputation was such that the folks at Wing wanted us (McChord Composite Squadron, CAP) to compete simply because they wanted to see what we’d do at the Regional competition.

In fact, now that I think of it, for these Wing competitions, we had to get our uniforms looking absolutely perfect, including the shoes, and we learned how to spit shine them so you could see your teeth in them. At one Wing competition, I’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes that didn’t have any creases in them yet.  I shined them to within an inch of their lives, and then walked carefully out to where we’d go through a very thorough inspection.  The fellow doing the inspecting noticed those shoes with the mirror finish and no creases, and looked me square in the eye,

“Wha’d you use on those shoes, Cadet?”

He said the word “Cadet” with all the affection a cat might have for a hairball it’s trying to cough up. Clearly he’d noticed, but also clearly he thought I’d used a spray shine, which was way faster, way easier, and was definitely considered cheating. Not knowing what else to say, I answered truthfully:

Kiwi and spit, Sir!”

He wasn’t sure about that response

“Are you mocking me, Cadet?”

I was just being honest…

He’d asked a question.

I answered it…

Truthfully.

He just wasn’t used to seeing shoes without creases – so not only could he see his teeth in them, but he could see his eyes, his nose, heck, if he wanted to, he could even see his nose hairs – really, they were good (the shoes, not the nose hairs).  They’d be that good only once, but once was all I needed, and so to answer his question of whether I was mocking him, I said,

“Sir, No Sir!”

I mean, he couldn’t get me on anything, I wasn’t being disrespectful, I was answering his questions truthfully, so he harrumphed a bit, then turned off to inspect and harangue the next cadet.

Well, we won that competition, and were officially the best drill team in the state.  We were going to Regionals – which was a tremendous honor, and it was held at an airbase in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a place none of us had ever been.

The Regional competitions at the time seemed to be a little more involved than the Wing ones.  They involved the drill competitions as expected, competitions in individual physical fitness, meaning a mile run, and team physical fitness, which was a volleyball game, I believe there was some level of written test or tests, and of course, you were expected to be on your best behavior at all times, because anything, and I mean ANYTHING you did could sway the Judges’ thoughts or ideas about your ability – or eligibility – to compete.

What this meant is that You Did Not Want To Screw Up.

The ride from McChord to Klamath Falls could take well over 7 hours, but with an old Air Force van, and the requisite stops complete with fluid exchanges (for both the vehicles and the passengers) it took a bit longer.

By the time we got there, we had just enough time to get out of our traveling clothes and into our uniforms for a meeting in a classroom, where the schedule would be given, the expectations would be set, and the law, we learned, would be laid down…

We’d just gotten in and were thinking we were pretty cool for making it when we heard the sound of marching.

In the hallway.

Marching?

INSIDE?

That just didn’t make sense.  But as we turned toward the door see where the sound was coming from, the squadron that had won the Nevada Wing competition marched in.

This was clearly not their first competition.

They all had matching flight jackets.

We didn’t.

They all marched to their seats, and stood there…

We hadn’t.

…in those glorious flight jackets…

Which we didn’t have.

…and they were at attention.

Which we weren’t.

We were stunned into silence..

Their commander called out, “Ready, Coats!” and every one of them took off their flight jacket, held it over their left arm, and at the command “Seats!” they all sat down…

As a unit.

Our eyes must have been big as saucers – this was clearly psychological intimidation, and to be honest, right then, it was working just a bit on us, in spite of the fact that we thought they were really pushing this thing over the edge just a bit.  Later, we were all wondering if they did everything in unison, and imagined that same march, only not through a classroom door, but through the men’s room door, followed by the command, “Ready, Zip!”

Nahhhh… not possible…

We knew good, but what we were seeing was more than good, it was just plain arrogant, and we weren’t having any of that.

We’d learned that at some of these competitions, a squadron might send out spies to watch another team practice, and actually steal their moves.  If the team with the spy went first in the competition, the team who’d invented the moves would look like they were the ones stealing them.

With all the talk of honor and stuff that we’d had drilled into our heads, this was just not right – but, as has been said many times over the years, all’s fair in love and war.

And in the inimitable words of Bugs Bunny, “Of course you realize, this means WAR!”

So that evening, we did a quick run through of our routine as far away as we could get from the barracks. It was very, very clear that we were ready, we were functioning as a machine, and we were simply ON.  So on the way back we figured if they wanted to see something, we’d give them something to see.

Now the way it works when you’re marching in a situation like that, is you’ve got one person, the commander, giving the commands, and the rest follow.

And the way the commands work is this: there’s the Preparatory command, which tells you what to do, and then there’s the command of execution, which tells you to do it.  So you’ve all heard “Forward, March!” in movies and the like, well…

“Forward” – that’s the preparatory command…

“March”    – that’s the command of execution…

And instead of “March”, we’d learned to say “Harch” – because when you’re trying to say it really loud without yelling, you can just get more volume into it.  Also, if you ever did something that was different than the standard “Forward, Harch” – (like Doubletime, Harch) – you could always undo that command with “Forward, Harch” again.

You always start out on the right foot, and even if the command was “To the Rear, Harch” – you take one step forward, pivot 180 degrees, and then go on your way, as a unit.

So now that you know all that, remember, we’re marching back toward the barracks we were staying in, (think dormitories, if you’ve never heard that term ‘barracks’) and we just knew that some of the Nevada team would be on the lookout, and we wanted to make sure they saw something, and that what they saw would mess with them just as much psychologically as they’d done with us – just from a different direction.

We had this fellow in the squadron named Ken Meloche.  He was Canadian, and reveled in the whole “for Queen and country” bit – and when he marched, he liked to march like the English did, with their arms and legs swung high.  So just as we came in sight of some of the windows in the barracks, and to mess with the Nevada boys a bit, our commander gave the command,

“Meloche Walk, Harch!”

– and every one of us, without skipping a beat, started walking just like Ken did.

Including Ken.

“Forward, Harch!”

– and we all marched normally again, like a drill team should march.

Heh – this was fun.

We marched for a bit, and could see more of the windows in the barracks – and out of nowhere came a command we’d never, ever heard before in our lives:

“Double to the Rear with Three Hops in the Middle, Harch!”

– and again, without skipping a beat, we did a ‘To the rear, Harch’ – which is just a reversal in direction, but we all took one step, and literally as a unit, did three hops.  I think there were twelve of us there, and I remember hearing the sound of three distinct impacts, we were that in sync.  We took one step forward, then did the next ‘To the rear, Harch’ and tried like heck to keep from grinning from ear to ear… (we tried that double to the rear with three hops in the middle again later – and could never repeat it).

This was just NOT what drill competition was supposed to be like.  It was supposed to be more serious than this.

When the final windows of our own barracks came into view, we heard the command,

“Walk like slobs, Harch!”

And I suppose the best thing that you could liken what we did to that exists in current culture is that we walked, in formation, like a bunch of zombies, knuckles dragging, feet dragging, drooling, the whole bit.

For about 10 steps.

“Forward, Harch!”

And we were back to looking sharp as tacks.

It was great…

If the Nevada boys wanted to mess with our minds, we’d mess right back.

So after we’d had dinner, and gotten into our bunks and everything – there were four of us in each room, and we were all full of spit and vinegar, the night before the competition. One fellow in the room decided that since the body can produce, – let’s just call it a ‘greenhouse gas’ – one that is flammable, he wanted to show us that it could be done.  And in a split second, I found myself taken back to a story my dad told me from when he was a kid.  Well, not so much when he was a kid, but when he was in that ‘no man’s land’ between childhood and adulthood, where bodies grow faster than brains, you know… And in it he’d told me it could indeed be done.  So as background, let me tell you that story from his “young adulthood”, as it affected things a little further down the road in my “young adulthood”.…

So I knew from my dad that “it” could be done.  He’d told me the story of when he was

a)       Young, and

b)      Male

…of how a group of his friends got together to prove that this, um, ‘greenhouse gas’ could be produced by a human, and could be lit.

On fire.

(Note: male… teenager… fire… cue the ominous music)

One of that group of his friends produced some matches, and two separate things happened that changed the outcome of that story forever.

Note: there was no one suggesting that this might, in fact, be dangerous, or that there was a possibility of injury… No, these were young men, with at that age, possibly a single functioning brain cell between them.  That they had to share.  And the fellow with the match was rather modest, so his plan was to demonstrate this flammability factor without exposing any skin – the implication being that this gas could escape through cloth and everything would still work.

That it would work was true, but the cloth also kept a bit of it between the skin and said cloth before it escaped.  This would have been well and good, and had the experiment been successful, there might have been the possibility of some hair follicles being ignited.  Other than that, no problem.

This was under the assumption that the cloth was cotton, or wool, or some natural fiber.

But it wasn’t.

This was back when the artificial fibers that we’re now used to wearing – be they Nylon or Rayon or whatever combination of things we have that make cloth last longer now – were just being experimented with.

And if you didn’t know, Nylon is flammable.

And those pants were made of Nylon.

So when this greenhouse gas came into contact with an ignition source, that which had made it past the Nylon ignited very well.

But remember about the cloth? – and that some would gather inside before making it through?

It did.

Which meant that on both sides of this flammable Nylon was flammable methane.

That was on fire.

The Nylon pants didn’t stand a chance.

They caught fire, and melted, and… let’s just say the area around the source of the methane was tender and blistered for weeks to come.  It’s likely that the ‘modest’ young man had a story to tell his grandchildren years later – and a peculiar scar in a place only his doctor would see once a year.

It was with this story in mind that I suggested to – we’ll call him ‘Bill’ – that maybe getting the layer of cloth away from the – um – source of the methane would be a good idea, and given that I’d told the above story fairly well, including using the words “second degree burns”, “blisters”, and the phrase “his pants were melted to his butt” – ‘Bill’ agreed, and lied down on his bunk on his back, his knees up by his shoulders, trying to arrange things in such a way that the gas would be lit, but other, shall we say, delicate objects in the vicinity would be safe.

It took quite a number of tries with a little Bic lighter that someone had with them, and eventually, the timing, and location of everything was right.  There was “fuel”, there was “ignition” and it really worked.  It was indeed evident that methane was flammable, though not with the full blown cataclysmic flame-throwing display that we’d all been hoping for.  Slightly disappointed, Bill put everything back where it belonged, but there was some evidence of our attempts with the Bic wafting about, and one of the rules that had been laid down early on was that there would be no smoking, no matches, no fires.

Period.

An adult who was supposed to be responsible for safety on that floor of the barracks we were in came storming into the room and absolutely wanted to know what was going on.

We thought we were dead.

This was the night before the Regional drill competition.  We were the best Washington had to offer, and we realized might have just blown it, in more ways than one – so to speak…

The tone in his voice made it clear he was taking no prisoners, and taking no excuses.  He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.

“Have you been smoking?”

Not knowing what else to say, we answered truthfully.

“No sir.”

“Have you been playing with matches?”

Matches? We didn’t have any matches, we had a lighter.

“No sir”

He kept at this for a bit, asking us as a group, then one by one, the same questions.

We told him the truth, every time.

The problem was, he kept asking us all the wrong questions.

He then called his superior into the room, explained the situation, and asked the same questions all over again.  Eventually he said, as if justifying to his superior why he’d even been called into the room:

“I’ve asked them individually and collectively whether they were smoking, or lighting matches, and they all said no…”

They decided that they needed to go talk this over, and about the time they left, we looked at Bill and suddenly realized that this could disqualify us before the competition even started.  The dawning realization of how deep the doodoo was that we might have gotten into – and what we would have to tell the people back home if we were disqualified, was agonizing, but we knew what the right thing to do was.

We told Bill he had to go down to tell the guy everything and straighten it out, and he did.  Well, we don’t know what exactly he told him, but we told him to tell the guy the truth.

And I’m sure, as Bill was trying to explain this whole thing to this stern adult, that deep in that stern adult’s mind was a young man who’d likely done exactly the same thing a few decades earlier.

We were let off with a warning – as long as we <snicker> didn’t do it again….

And somehow, we got away with it…

The problem was, not ONCE had he ever asked us if any one of us was using a Bic lighter to try to light farts with.

We were allowed to compete.

We came in second – I mean, we did really well in the drill competition, and did okay in the volleyball game, and I remember my time for the mile run being okay – a little over six minutes – but my pulse was 228 and my gums were bleeding as I crossed the finish line – so I knew I’d given it pretty much all I had.  The reason we were a little short in the physical fitness part of it was because we were used to the elevation of McChord Air Force Base –a whopping 283 feet.  The 4,000+ foot elevation of Klamath Falls just did a number on us.

I don’t remember what maneuvers we did for the drill competition, really, it was the silly stuff we did that we remembered.  The stuff we got away with.

So… when I heard my mom say “individually and collectively” the other day – the floodgates in my memory opened up, and I realized, “Oh, no… there’s another story there…” – and I told it to her pretty much as you read it above, and she laughed…

© 2011 Tom Roush


If you’ve been paying any sort of attention, you’ve picked up on the fact that old Saabs have been part of my life since before I could drive them.

The Saab in this story is a red 1967 Saab 96 with an 850cc, three cylinder, two stroke engine in it.  (this is the same car you might have read about here).

When driven gently, the engine, with 7 moving parts, would sound almost as smooth as a turbine.

Of course, if you drove it ‘un-gently’ it sounded like an army of chainsaws.

I was more familiar with the chainsaw sound, to be honest, and just loved the way it sounded when I drove it like that.  It was a contemporary of the original VW Beetle, and kind of like the Beetle, had what they called ‘unibody’ construction – meaning there wasn’t a steel frame to put the car body on.  The VW’s body was bolted to the floor pan, I believe, with 13 bolts, the Saab’s was welded.  The idea on these two was that the car body was built strong enough to essentially *be* the steel frame.

Now because of this, the Saab pretty much operated under ‘Vegas Rules’ – those being “whatever got in the car, stayed in the car” – which meant it required cleaning out every spring after a typical wet Washington winter to the point of taking EVERYTHING out of it and letting everything down to the steel of that unibody construction dry out so it didn’t get moldy or rust or anything like that.

One of the things I noticed one of those times was that at the front of the floor pan, about where you might put your feet, were three holes about two inches in diameter, with stamped metal plugs in them.  The right one was rusted. Both good and bad, it allowed water to drain out, if you were lucky, but also explained the fairly constant wet spot on the floor there.

I figured I’d fix it before fall, and just left everything to dry for a while.

Meanwhile – well, some years back, actually, the pastor of our church had taken us four wheeling, he called it “Stump Jumping”.  I was young and didn’t know if I could do something like that, but he reassured me it was okay to strap myself into an itty bitty Jeep with an ‘ever so slightly’ modified 307 cubic inch V-8.

I also didn’t understand that one of the basic tenets of four wheeling the way he had in mind was to drive like a freaking lunatic.

Wait a minute…

Driving like a lunatic?

I could do that.

And off we went.

Now before we go on, you must know: There were two types of roads on Fort Lewis:

1.       The kind that had been surveyed, graded, paved, and marked by professionals, and had speed limit signs to keep you on the straight and narrow, so to speak….

2.       The kind that were made by a teenager driving an M-60 tank, were ungraded, unpaved, and most definitely weren’t marked (though it’s hard to keep a tank’s passing a secret).  They didn’t have speed limit signs, because the roads were so rough that a sane person didn’t need them.

But we’re not talking about sane people now, are we?

So in doing our four wheeling, there was this one road, out on Fort Lewis, (it’s still there, but flattened out considerably, and they’ve built quite a bit up  around it in the years since this happened) that was smooth enough so you could actually get up to about 40 miles an hour.  At the end of that smoothness was this wonderful “yump” – where, if you were driving sanely, it would fling you up in the air kind of like going over a hump on a roller coaster.

If you were driving a Jeep, or driving insanely, you gunned the heck out of it, caught some serious air, and kept your hands inside the vehicle while you thanked God for seat belts and roll cages.  Anything not fastened down started doing its own little Zero G spacewalk wherever it wanted to.

It’s what you saw during your personal Zero G “Thank God for seat belts” moment that took your breath away.

We’ll get to that in a bit.

Now the roads I was mentioning came in one of two stages: dusty, or muddy.  Rarely did you get one of the roads in that perfect condition between the two, and on this particular stretch you had that little yump that would get anything airborne (heck, if you hit it right, you could get a semi-truck flying)

But there weren’t any semi-trucks on this road.  In fact, while there was evidence of them, there weren’t even any tanks. But it was that evidence that told me so much…  See, those tanks were driven by young men not much older than teenagers, and when driven “properly”, they caught air too.  All 60 tons of them.

You’ve heard the phrase, “what goes up, must come down” right?

That goes for flying 60 ton tanks as well as it goes for anything, so when all that flying armor came back down, still traveling 20-30 miles an hour, the earth moved.

In fact, there was a depression a foot deep where those tanks had landed – about 100 feet long, and about 20 feet wide.

Really, the earth moved.

Now the Saabs of the vintage that I was driving had been used in Rally racing, driven on roads not much different from the logging roads familiar to people out here in Washington, (or tank roads familiar to people growing up near Fort Lewis driving in places they maybe shouldn’t have been driving).  I’d seen pictures of them catching air, driving on two wheels, flipped over on their roofs (yes, really) and they were just more fun to drive right on the edge that way.

Well, given that, one day that summer I decided it’d be fun to take the Saab out to where we’d been four wheeling– or ‘stump jumping’ those years earlier – and do a little ‘rally practice’ and see what would happen if I took it over the same ‘yump’ that we’d gone over with the Jeep.

I figured I’d hit the yump, just like I did in the jeep, catch air, just like I did in the Jeep, and land and rumble through that 100 foot by 20 foot depression, just like I did in the Jeep.

It’s just that when we did it with the Jeep, the road was dusty, and dry, and there was a depression, and when we hit our little Zero G moment, what we saw was a dent in the road to land on from where the tanks had hit.

When I was did it with the Saab, it was after some wet weather, and there was no dust.  The road was damp, and when I hit my little Zero G moment, what I saw ahead of me stopped my heart cold.

Instead of a dent, I saw a puddle about the size of the Pacific Ocean.  Seriously – that huge dent in front of me was now filled with close to a foot of water, it was more than a puddle.  In the brief moment I had, I thought I saw a ‘no fishing’ sign at the edge.  It was just enormous.

The thoughts that blasted through my head right then were fast, frantic, and mostly useless, but they gave me one, and only one option.

I was easily 3 feet in the air at the time of those thoughts.  At that altitude, the wheels, and all they symbolized, were less than useless.

Not good, well, not bad, but it affected all the other decisions that followed.

Steering to the left or right at that moment to try get out of the puddle would have made those front tires into rudders when they hit the water, and landing with the wheels aimed anyplace other than straight ahead would have been more than a touch dramatic and likely rolled the car.

In a foot of water.

Not good.

Hitting the brakes, while useless in the air, would just mean I’d get stuck in the puddle once I landed.

Also not good.

So if left was no good, and right was no good, and slowing down was no good, what option did I have?

Yup…

My only option was to hang on and ride it out.

So I did, and I floored it, just before I hit.

But I wasn’t out of the woods, literally or figuratively, yet.

Now as I hit the surface (and Lordy, “hit” is exactly what it was, this was not a gentle landing), a number of things happened…

The engine screamed, the wheels spun, and the hydrological equivalent of Mount Vesuvius erupted inside the car.

See, that little plug that I was going to fix that spring, and didn’t, chose that moment to give way, and a two inch jet of water shot straight up from the floor, blasted the carpet and floor mats out of the way, kept going up behind the glove box and radio, and continued on inside the windshield on the passengers’ side, all the way up to the roof and the sun visors.

Of course, I was trying to keep the car under control at the time, so didn’t really have too much time to process that little event, but Vesuvius in the car…

Hmmm…

It took a long time for it to dry out after that one.

But it did.

And in the drying out phase after this little event, I found the plug, saw that it was pretty rusty, but given that I didn’t have any others, put it back in and smacked it with a hammer, figuring that would make it stay.

Insert ominous music here…

Later that year, in the fall, I went on a date with a young lady who shall remain nameless.  I just know that I did my best to be a gentleman. I knew her parents were missionaries in the Philippines, and wrote them a note asking about her favorite things.  And one Saturday, I tried to make a day of making some of those favorite things happen.  I took her to her hometown on the Olympic Peninsula, I tried to do some of the things her parents had told me she liked, and I found out that no matter what I did, she was clearly upset.

I had no idea what was wrong.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that most men simply want to make the women in their lives happy.  So in this case, I’d spent weeks talking to her parents and friends to find out what she liked, so that I could do just that, make her happy…

For whatever reason, she didn’t want to be happy, no matter what I did.

I was stumped.

By this time it was evening, and the weather outside was cold, and wet, and even though I had the heater on full blast in the car, the atmosphere inside was absolutely frigid.  As we were driving from her hometown to mine, for some reason I went a slightly different way, and ended up on a road I seldom used.

And as I came around a curve on this unfamiliar road, in the rain, there must have been a plugged up storm drain, because in front of me I saw something I’d only seen once before through this windshield.

I saw a puddle.

A big puddle.

But I saw it at the last second, and realized that…

If I tried to swerve now, my unhappy passenger would be even unhappier.

If I hit the brakes, she would be unhappier still.

…and then, in a flash, I realized that given how bad things were, it really didn’t matter what I did, so I held on and floored it.

And our hydrological equivalent of Mt. Vesuvius erupted a second time in the car, only this time there was a passenger in it.  In fact, there was a passenger’s foot just to the left of Mt. Vesuvius, and the water shot straight up and caught her between her leg and the jeans she was wearing.

She was instantly, and I mean *instantly* drenched.  I’d say ‘from head to toe’ but her pant leg funneled most of the water someplace else, and only a little of it got to her head.

Ooooh Lordy… If I thought she was mad earlier, I hadn’t even come close to seeing mad.

Given where we were, I took her to my folk’s place, where she dried off, and then took her back up to Seattle, where she lived.

It was a very quiet ride.

A library might have been quieter, except for the sound of a two stroke engine and dripping water.

Not surprisingly, it was our very last date.

© 2011 Tom Roush


I’ve had to drive across the country a few times, and I have to tell you, in my experience, there is no more desolate place to drive than across North Dakota. Understand, that doesn’t mean it *is* the most desolate place, but it’s the most desolate I’ve experienced.

This day, we’ll call it ‘a few years ago’, I was coming back home after finishing Grad School, headed west out of Fargo. I left the Motel 6, filled up the tank, got an Egg McMuffin and a big ol’ cup of coffee, and hit the onramp to I-94. I went through first, second, third and into fourth, where I stayed for most of the next 460 miles.

After leaving Fargo, the countryside was absolutely flat, the road arrow straight, and I remembered that my dad had told me about countryside like this, where, as he said, it was so desolate that it was 100 miles between fence posts.

I was seeing it with my own eyes, and he was right.

I think, though, they might have planted a few more since he’d gone through to keep the fences up during the brutal winters up there. I didn’t have to worry about the winter, though. I was driving in the late spring, and was, for whatever reason, driving what appeared to be the only car on the road. There were spots where I literally saw no one else. Not through the windshield, not in the mirrors…

No one.

At least I had the radio to keep me company…

…until that, too, faded out.

So I’m driving along, about 70 mph, it was the speed limit, and it was a comfortable speed for the car –

(which for some reason had been ordered with Ford’s venerable 2.3 liter 4 cylinder engine AND a 4 speed manual, (normally reserved for their larger six cylinder engines). By the time you got up to speed on this thing, it hardly even thought of gasoline.)

– but the road was so straight I found myself looking for something to just lock the steering wheel to.

In fact, as I was looking around, I tried to see if there was anything to catch my eye, to see if I could have something to focus on as I was driving, but there was nothing.

At all.

No cows.

No Antelope.

No Wapiti. (oh, go look it up J)

And no, no fenceposts.

On top of that, there was nothing but static on the radio.

Nothing.

I had never seen so much nothing in all my life.

I did not know that nothing was manufactured in such large quantities, or how North Dakota had become the recipient of so much of it.

I figure it must have been some congressional thing or something, but after a while, I’d exhausted all the variations of geography (flat), geology (none), wildlife (none), and politics (not even going there).

I’d been driving for roughly 4 hours, and something that rarely, if ever, happens in my life happened…

I got bored.

I think it is at this time that my Guardian Angel’s pager went off.

It is astonishing the kinds of things that happen when you’re bored. I’m sure a surprising number of teenage adventures happen by default, simply because those teenagers were bored.

I wasn’t a teenager, but I was driving.

Through North Dakota.

And I was bored.

I looked around for something to do.

(Keep in mind, for some silly reason I was thinking that keeping 3,000 pounds of car and all my worldly possessions between the lines apparently wasn’t enough “to do”)

I found, after a while, I could just hold the wheel rock steady, and it would drive for close to a minute without me having to move it at all.

I found that the need to do anything (steering right or left) was preceded by either the right front tire hitting the rumble strip on the right, or left front tire smacking the reflectorized turtles between the lines.

Heh… I could drive by braille.

<One note: don’t do this at home. In fact, don’t do this in North Dakota. They might get a little miffed. What follows next is about as far from smart as I was from civilization. I don’t recommend that you do this at all, the fact that I managed to survive through this doesn’t mean everyone will, so you have permission to laugh at youthful idiocy, but not to repeat it.>

So, being bored out of my mind, I decided to do something to pass the time, and snagged a book out of the back seat. I remember it still – the book was called ‘Enola Gay’ – and was a historical book written by, if my memory serves me correctly, the pilot of the plane, Col. Paul Tibbets. At any rate, I propped the book up against the steering wheel to see if this whole thing would work, and found that I could read and see where I was going through my peripheral vision. It did work!

The book that set off my Guardian Angel's pager.

The book that set off my Guardian Angel’s pager.

Understand, it was stupid, but it worked.

My Guardian Angel realized that this wasn’t a drill, and that he needed to get there in a hurry.

I drove a little slower than speed limit, and did a scan of everything, windshield, mirrors, gauges, every few seconds. I was still the only car on the road, so felt relatively safe. I drove for miles, reading chapter after chapter, holding the book onto the steering wheel with my thumbs, and flipping it down a bit when I noticed (key word there) another car passed me.

This worked beautifully.

Until at one point, being engrossed in the story, and driving below speed limit, I completely missed the big Cadillac coming up in my rear view mirror.

I would have flipped the book down, holding it so the other people couldn’t see it, but just didn’t see them in time.

I looked up just in time to see an elderly gentleman and woman in the car looking over at me with a look of utter horror and revulsion, her face telling me exactly what she felt, without her mouth ever having said a word.

Her face clearly said the one thing that had completely escaped me when I came up with the idea of reading a book while I was driving a car, that in the grand scheme of things where you have stupid on one side and genius on the other – what I’d done clearly wasn’t on the genius side.

It was only after they passed and I saw their tail lights getting smaller in the distance that it all seemed to sink in. I tossed the book in the back seat, and noticed that my Guardian Angel was giving me a look you don’t want to get from your Guardian Angel.

I think, given that a few years have passed since this happened, I understand that look of hers a lot more now than I did then. And now that I have a little bit of that gray hair, if I saw a young kid reading a book while they were driving, I’d probably be the one giving it…

…and I’ve tried a little harder to keep my Guardian Angel’s pager from going off.

Tom Roush

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