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Spoiler Alert: There’s a potentially gross photo at the bottom of this story, but everyone ends up living happily ever after.
Many years ago – where I grew up, Garter Snakes were pretty common, and one time, as I was cleaning up the tools one day behind the garage my dad and I were building, I heard a rather strange noise rustling in the grass.
I looked around and saw a familiar, though large, garter snake, but there was something a bit different about this one, and I stepped down off the scaffolding and took a closer look.
What I saw made me look quickly at the fading light, run inside, grab the camera, and get a photo before I did what needed to be done next.
See, the snake was stuck… and in a bit of a bind.
And the newt (or salamander, or whatever it is there) was also stuck… and in a bit of a bind…
And neither of them was giving up.
The newt was, in its last act of defiance, not going to die, plain and simple.
So I put the camera down, and pulled the dazed newt out of the snake’s mouth, being careful to not injure either of them more than they were already were – well – worse for wear…
The newt for its part, spent awhile catching its breath.
The snake spent that time eyeing its former dinner and working the kinks out of its jaw.
After some time, they both took a look at each other and each slithered their own way back to their burrow, or nest, or whatever it called home.
And it got me thinking…
There are times when we’re the snake – and we’re just doing what we do, and we get stuck, and can’t figure out how to get out of the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into.
And there are times when we’re the newt – and we’re just minding our own business and find ourselves being eaten alive and have no idea how to get out of the situation, but giving up without a heck of a fight isn’t even an option.
And then there are times – when you’ve got the rare privilege of being able to be in a position to help someone – or more than some “one” – get out of the situation they’re in – and by your position, your experience, your perspective, whatever it is – you’re able to help one – or all of the characters in our little story – the newt and the snake – go on and live happy lives – and without you – without that friend with perspective, with wisdom, with understanding, and with patience – they might just not be here today.
Think about that a bit.
So – for those of you who’ve been the newt, or the snake, or the big guy with the camera he tried to keep from getting newt slime on, allow me to thank you on behalf of newt and snake.
Oh, understand – this is not fiction – this is a true story – the photo below is my proof – but it’s also an allegory – in which many of you reading this may have played one of those parts at some point in someone’s life.
Keep doing that – because somehow – somewhere, you might find yourself smiling when you hear that newt be able to say, because of you, “I got better…”
Take care out there, folks – and don’t forget to take care of each other.
Oh – and here’s the picture…
Many years ago, when I was growing up, my uncle had this arsenal of weapons that we’d occasionally go out and use to shoot at helpless creatures.
The helpless creature of choice we had at the time was – well, a herd of unruly AMF bowling pins from Michigan that occasionally needed to be kept in line, and while other people might shoot at tin cans that would fall over, we’d set up these old bowling pins on a log, shoot at them, and if you hit them ju-u-u-u-st right, they’d explode.
This was cool.
I learned a lot in those days about shooting things. I learned about gun safety – for example, when shooting a 9 mm semi-automatic, it is a really good idea to hold it with your right hand, and then cup your right hand and the gun in your left.
It makes for steadier aim.
It makes for a better target grouping.
But most importantly, it keeps your left thumb from crossing over your right thumb when shooting.
Why is that important?
Well, your left thumb isn’t supposed to be crossed over like that because when shooting a semi-automatic pistol, the recoil of a bullet firing pushes the slide back, ejecting the just fired shell casing (the thing that held the gunpowder) out the side as it goes, and loading a fresh bullet/casing as a spring inside pushes it back forward.
It is good to learn things like this before pulling the trigger.
I remember holding the gun very carefully, I thought…
I remember looking exceptionally cool, I thought…
And I remember aiming, and pulling the trigger very carefully, I thought…
And I remember the sound of the gun going off, along with a tremendous amount of pain as that slide shot back through the first knuckle of my left thumb.
I still have a scar on that knuckle where the slide cut through it.
Now, being guys, especially guys out in the country, our first aid was, well, basic, and limited. There was the typical male expression of care and concern, along the lines of “Hey Hey HEY! No bleeding on the gun, it makes them rusty.” And someone produced something vaguely resembling a wadded up paper towel, or a sleeve, or something, and we wrapped the thumb so it would stop bleeding, and so the guns wouldn’t rust.
After we’d finished firing the handguns, we got out the rifles and really started going at the bowling pins, and I have to say that a .223 projectile, when it hits a bowling pin and goes through that outer coat of white laminate and hits the inner core of hardwood, really makes it clear that you’ve hit something. A .223 is what’s fired by what most of us know as an M-16, the military version of the civilian AR-15. Phenomenal amounts of powder, itty bitty hunk-o-lead. It means that the bullet goes out so fast that the bowling pins – well, they fell over, and like I said earlier, if you hit them just right, they exploded. If you didn’t hit just right, they’d spin a bit, or wobble, but one thing was absolutely certain: if they got hit by the .223 bullets, they were going down.
Fast forward about 30 years or so… I was down visiting my mom with my son and found a large box in the garage, labeled AMF, from Muskegon Michigan – and found it was full of old bowling pins.
I was stunned.
These were obviously descendants of the bowling pins we’d been shooting at when I was a teenager.
And I looked at my son… the descendant of the one who’d been shooting at the bowling pins when he’d been a teenager…
And the more I thought about it, the more it just seemed like a neat thing to do – go out to the same old log and shoot at those bowling pins again with my son, and I thought that maybe I’d use my old .22 and my dad’s .22 rifle and pistol, and we’d go see if we could again attempt to control that burgeoning bowling pin population down there.
So we got the rifles that had been stored, unfired for a long time,
…and got the pistol, that had been stored, unfired, for a long time,
…and found some ammo that had been stored, unfired, for a long time…
In fact, as we thought back, that ammo had likely been sitting on the same shelf since the time my dad had bought it. Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that the ammunition was as old as my son firing it was. We didn’t know that fresh ammo was a good thing at the time – it had just been sitting there on that shelf, I mean, that’s where ammo was, right?
(your line: “ri-i-i-ght….”)
So we went up and set up the bowling pins in roughly the same place we’d set them up many years before, but the log we’d put them on earlier had rotted away. This time we set them up in front of a large pile of dirt and ash, made sure things were clear, and then carefully took turns shooting at them.
I noticed a couple of things right off.
- Shooting at bowling pins with a .22 instead of a .223 doesn’t make them explode, it irritates them.
- Irritated bowling pins are dangerous.
And it wasn’t quite as satisfying to hit them with the .22 – they didn’t explode – even after quite a bit of firing. They just wobbled a bit, like Weebles. We think that shooting at them like this must have just irritated them, because at one point we had just one standing, and I fired at it, and heard this wriiiinnnnnnnnnggggg sound way, way off to the right just like the ricochets you hear in old westerns…
Hmmm… Bowling pins shoot back?
In fact, that was most interesting – we hadn’t ever heard of that in real life before.
I could just imagine the headline… “Man gets into gunfight, with bowling pin.”
No, that clearly wouldn’t do.
But later, we realized that this must have been the shot that took the bowling pins from irritated to angry, and, just like the people shooting that day were related to the people who had shot 30 years earlier – it was obvious the bowling pins were related, too…
And as my son, who looked a lot like me at that age, took the next shot – we could almost hear the one bowling pin we’d been shooting at, furious now, say quietly, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” – and the bullet that had just been fired out of the rifle came ricocheting back, not hitting anything, but coming closer than anyone would ever want to admit, close enough to make us decide it was time to put the guns away for the day.
We looked closer at the bowling pin. It was apparent that it had been hit a number of glancing blows on the sides by other bowling pins, but very clearly had been hit by bullets twice, right up at the top.
The .22 bullets with their little bit of powder and little bit of lead, instead of going through the plastic laminate like the .223 bullets had done with a little more lead, and a lot more powder, simply flattened out and bounced back. The most distinct marks, not even dents, but marks, that the bowling pin had were those right there at the top, not even ½ of an inch apart, and they looked eerily just like little gray eyes, staring back at us.
We learned several valuable lessons that day.
- Never shoot at armed bowling pins
- If anything you’re shooting at starts shooting back – it’s a good idea to bug your butt out of there.
- And last but not least, regardless of whether the bowling pins look like they’re armed, if you hear them even whisper anything about Inigo Montoya, leave them alone.
…did NOT walk into a bar…
No, really, that just seemed like the perfect line to open the story with, but sadly, it’s not true.
This story’s about Sister Johanna, who can best be described as a cross between a nurse and a nun with the Methodist Church in Germany, worked with my uncle (a pastor in that church) and lived with his family for many years. Yes, they had nuns, and for the most part, they were just what you’d expect a nun to be, the take-no-prisoners kind of attitude in disciplining students, kids, or you when you did something wrong, while at the same time loving you to pieces, and taking no prisoners when you were the victim of someone doing something wrong to you.
But Lord help you if you had any thoughts of sinning in the presence of a nun, and with my uncle and aunt having three boys, there was more than a handful of that going on as they were growing up.
One summer, Mom, my two sisters and I were visiting them in southern Germany where they lived, and Sister Johanna was there helping out like she always did. That day we were all going to go visit the castle (Hohenzollern, about 20 km away which you should go visit if you can – it’s pretty cool) so it meant jamming Sister Johanna, Uncle Walter, Tante Gisela, my mom, my sisters, three cousins and me into various cars to get there.
Everyone except my cousin Hanns-Martin and me made it into one of the cars and headed out before Sister Johanna was ready. That meant the two of us ended up in the back of her early 1960’s Renault Dauphine. If you haven’t seen one, it’s a little French car that was a contemporary of the VW Bug, with a little 4 cylinder, 34 hp liquid cooled engine in the back. I’d been working on cars at that time with my dad for several years to the point where I knew what the parts were, where they were, and what needed to be done to fix them.
…and unfix them.
– but I’m getting ahead of myself.
She sent us out to the car, both to get us out from under her feet and to have us ready to go, but as we got there my mechanical curiosity was piqued. The car was so small yet the air scoops on the side were like another uncle’s much bigger Mustang, and the radiator vents out the back seemed completely out of place. I’d never seen a car like this before and I wanted to peek under the hood to see what made it go, but we obediently climbed in and waited.
Just as we were wondering what was taking her so long, she came bustling out, and it was clear that staying out of her way was the safest thing to do. By this time everyone else was well ahead of us, and she was already running late.
But that wasn’t all.
Unlike everyone else, she had to stop at the convent first to get something.
She fired up the engine, jammed the transmission into first, popped the clutch and floored it, heading toward the convent like – well, not quite like a bat out of hell, more like a winged marmoset out of purgatory. She knew the little curving cobblestone streets in the town so well that she could take them faster than mere mortals.
And she did.
We had no idea how Nuns were supposed to drive, but Hanns-Martin and I had to claw at anything to keep from sliding around the back seat because there were no seatbelts.
We got up to the convent and she got out, running only as a nun can run, where she disappeared in the door.
Hanns-Martin and I looked at each other and we both realized if we wanted to see that engine now might be the one – and only – chance we had. We jumped out, popped the hood, and saw this wonderful little four cylinder engine with a carburetor, a distributor – and Hey! A coil wire going from the coil to the distributor! I’d seen those before.
I had a flash of inspiration and said, “I can make it not start when she gets back! It won’t hurt it at all!”
See, remove the coil wire and the car won’t start because that’s the single spot all the electricity for the spark plugs goes through. No coil wire, no running engine. We both laughed as I disconnected it and put it in my pocket, shut the hood, and hopped back into the car, just in the nick of time.
She’d already been late starting from my uncle’s house, and she was even later now … plus she had two boys in the back who were clearly trying to keep from giggling about something. She put the key in, hit the clutch, turned the key, the starter whirred, and those 34 horsepower from the engine were sound asleep.
She glared into the mirror as only a nun can. “What did you two do?” (in our dialect: “Was hen ihr zwoi g’macht?”).
We tried – oh gosh how we tried to keep straight faces and lie to her, “Nothing… We did nothing…”
We were lying.
To a nun.
Who worked for my cousin’s dad (my uncle), who was a preacher.
That would have been a really good time for lightning to strike, but it didn’t, or my cousin and I would have been little crispy pieces of boy ash while Sister Johanna shook the cloud off and went on her way.
But there was no lightning, only Sister Johanna.
I’m not sure which was worse.
We jumped out, popped the hood, put the coil wire back, shut the hood, climbed in the back seat and I was telling her it was fixed right about the time she started it and kicked the 34 horses in the heinie…
They all woke up.
The car was already in first gear and I hadn’t gotten the door all the way shut yet when she took off like – well, the door slammed as she hit the gas, and I swore I could see a bewildered marmoset stumbling around outside the window.
Remember, Sister Johanna was not used to being late.
She did not like being late.
And she drove those 5 inch wide bias ply tires as hard as they would go, screeching at every corner, Hanns-Martin and I again hanging on anything to keep from ending up in each other’s laps.
We commented on the screeching tires and her response, as she shifted into second and drifted through a hard left turn, was “It’s not my driving, it’s the hot pavement making them squeal.”
With the G-forces of that left turn smashing me up against Hanns-Martin, I wasn’t quite in a position to argue, but I could hardly agree with her.
We ended up getting to the castle safely and it is truly a wonderful place. If you’re ever in southern Germany, I highly recommend it.
Oh – one more thing – there’s actually a moral to this story, and it’s very simple:
Don’t lie to Nuns.
It can be habit forming…
P.S. Really, if you ever have any desire for fun travel, take a look at Southern Germany, in the state of Württemberg.
In fact, take a look at Yvonne’s site here – she’s been to the castles Hohenzollern and Lichtenstein, (where her photo looks like it was taken from the same spot I did a drawing from when I was there last) and other castles and has fun stories to tell about all of them.
I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
I was going through some old photos awhile back from when I was in Sidney, Ohio, and my mind started wandering through the memories.
Going through this one set of negatives (yes, really, and they were black and white, too), I’d been shooting high school baseball – a tournament all the way down in Dayton, and the kids were out there playing, I had been by the field and had watched with everyone, as a storm came in. While the game was going on, I could see the officials huddled off to one side trying to decide when or if to call the game. They were paying close attention to the storm.
It turns out that thunderstorms in the Midwest are common, far more than they are here in the Pacific Northwest, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did have the sense to climb down from the aluminum bleachers I was on as even I knew that lightning struck the highest object first. And, given that I’d been standing on the top bleacher, leaning against the rail at the back – yeah… it was time to come down where it was a little safer.
I’d just gotten to the ground and was standing near the first base line when I heard a loud “Tick” and looked out past the first baseman in time to see a lightning bolt blow a tree apart just past the right field fence.
It was close enough to other things that I could actually gauge the size of the bolt, at least 8 inches across, and the thunder was absolutely instant.
Needless to say, the game was cancelled. Enough kids get killed by lightning every year that they take it pretty seriously in Ohio, so the kids were running in full tilt before the bits and pieces of the tree even hit the ground. The parents hustled them to the cars when they got close, and then the rain came pouring down so fast the only thing missing was the Ark…
I got all my camera gear into the car, tossing it onto the passenger’s seat of my ’79 Ford Fairmont, and started the trip up Interstate 75 to the newspaper in Sidney where I’d process the film and get photos ready for the next day’s edition.
The rain, by now, was pretty brutal, and the lighting was constant, to the point where I got to wondering how bright it actually was, so while the traffic was stopped on the freeway, I rummaged around in the camera bag for my light meter that I used to adjust camera settings for Studio Strobe lights, and put it up on the dash.
And then I set it to wait for the next flash.
Which happened about 4 seconds later.
Which, when the light meter was set for ISO 400 film in the camera, registered an f/8.0 aperture.
Meaning if you set the lens to that aperture, the lightning would expose the film perfectly.
Which tied in to what they used to say in Grad School: the best way to get a shot was “f/8 and be there” – Because f/8 stopped down the lens enough (think of the lens as squinting) to sharpen things up if you didn’t have the lens completely in focus, but didn’t ‘squint’ so hard that it darkened things to the point you couldn’t see them at all.
And the lightning gave you enough light to take the picture.
Without either of them, neither of them worked.
f/8 and be there…
Even if it’s in the middle of a storm.
I pondered some more, but my curiosity satisfied, I put the light meter back in the camera bag and concentrated on traffic, driving, and just plain seeing the taillights in front of me. It was a pretty bad storm, honestly… Eventually I got back to the paper and developed the film in the darkroom and did indeed get something for the next day’s paper.
I’d have other experiences with lightning later on, at other newspapers, but it was during one moment that’s lost to time that I got to thinking about storms, and specifically thunderstorms, and the lessons they could teach us.
See, when I was little, we lived in Illinois, where the storms were similar to the ones in Ohio.
I knew other kids who were scared of storms, and like them, we’d all head into mom and dad’s bedroom when the thunder woke us up.
But mom didn’t feed the fear at all. We went there because that bedroom had the best view of the storms, and since dad worked nights, mom would always invite us up onto the bed or over to the window and say, “Ooh, let’s look at the lightning!”
And we did – and we were fascinated with how clear and sharp everything was in that brilliant flash, and how the darker the storm got, the clearer we could see when the lightning hit.
And it got me thinking.
Last December here in Seattle, we lived up to our reputation for rain and got enough of it here in the lowlands in three weeks to overcome a summer’s worth of drought. The mountains got eight feet of snow in one week. In fact, there was enough rain out on the Olympic Peninsula to put out a forest fire that had been burning all summer.
It was… a lot of rain.
And the storms in life sometimes come softly – like that snow – you don’t realize it’s an issue until you can’t get out of your driveway, or walk down the street.
Sometimes they come faster – like those rain storms in December where there were days where we had an inch or two of rain a day, for a long time… The land couldn’t soak it up fast enough, and there were consequences, the flooding that happened right away, and landslides that happened later.
But some of those consequences could come almost instantly – with very little or no warning. Like there would be if you were standing on the top of an aluminum set of bleachers and idly noticed clouds coming in a little faster than you were expecting.
I learned that sometimes, you can be out in the worst weather – and find yourself absolutely terrified by it – but then realize that the lightning in that dark storm gives you a clarity of vision that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
The lightning may be scary, but it’s also amazing in how it clears things up…
…the lightning has struck before, and I – we – we learned from it that time.
Well, those times.
And of course, it all got me thinking some more…
See, I’m going through a storm myself as I write this – and it’s close. It’s close enough to where the lightning and thunder happen at the same time – and it’s disorienting.
I don’t have the clarity that I’d like to have right now.
There are times when I am flummoxed at where God is during some of these storms. I’ve seen so many variations of answers in all of this that with the other things that have happened in my life I’m never sure whether to be upset when the answer to a prayer I have isn’t the one I’m expecting…
…or the one I want…
But the answer…
It will come.
I just need to remember the lessons I learned many years ago looking out mom’s bedroom window, and the lessons I learned standing on top of a bunch of aluminum bleachers, and lessons we’ve learned more recently, going through our own storms…
…I guess another way to look at it is you can either be terrified of the lightning or you can let the lightning bring you wisdom and clarity.
Deal with what you can.
When you can.
With the information you have.
And the resources you have.
I guess you could add to that:
Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t deal with. Just work with what you can…
Those of you who read the Bible might be familiar with this verse from Matthew 6:34 (NIV)
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
So very true.
So instead of focusing so much on the worries of tomorrow…
Be there today.
…instead of focusing on the regrets of yesterday…
Be there today.
It’s far easier to say it than it is to do it, but if you were a photographer, that’s another way of saying “f/8 and be there”
So… I guess the biggest thought in all of this is that I’m not so much waiting for the lightning as much as I’m searching for it.
And the clarity that comes from a bright flash of lightning in a dark storm.
Take care, folks…
Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.
In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.
This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…
“So, um, where did this happen?”
“The 7-11 down by SPU.”
“Any idea when?”
“Oh, years ago.”
I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”
They didn’t get it at first.
See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…
Which I did in my kitchen.
In the sink.
With no gloves.
(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)
So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:
- close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
- hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
- hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
- clip the plywood shades into the two windows
- attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
- turn off the white light
- turn on the safelight and the fan
- take the cover off the enlarger
- pour the chemicals
…and I was ready to go.
The building I called home was red when I lived there, not gray as it is in that photo link at left – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.
So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.
The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.
But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.
And hey – it’s still there.
At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.
Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.
What could possibly go wrong?
So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of. The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.
It was a lot of work.
The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.
But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.
And I discovered three things simultaneously.
1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.
2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.
3. The fan was running.
The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.
But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.
And I was hungry.
And my burrito was cold.
I slammed the door shut and reopened it.
The light came on again.
So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.
Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”
A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”
That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.
But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…
My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.
It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.
I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people. Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked. It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.
It also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.
Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera (a Nikon F-3 with an SB-16 speedlight on it) a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost a good bit more than $1.38.
The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place in Ohio where I later went to Grad School that would do what they called “Thermographs.” They were basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated in Delaware at the time, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.
So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.
A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.
In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.
And I was okay with that…
Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.
Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?
Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…
Trust me on this. 😉
A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story. It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…
I was 16. My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out. We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.
“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed. We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.
Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.
To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.
With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then. (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.
That was a good thing…
Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.
See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.
The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.
What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.
So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.
My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.
The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.
Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.
So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through roads between farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.
We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle. It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.
I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared. In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.
And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe.
When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.
And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.
We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.
And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…
Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.
So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.
It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)
I’d practiced this.
And it worked. It really worked.
See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.
I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.
If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel. It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…
The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.
As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where I’d followed Martin’s taillight in the dark, and where we’d have to turn right.
We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.
It was glorious.
A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.
Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>. We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…
And turning right was the thing to do. That was the paved road. Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.
So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.
There was only one problem with those remaining options.
Well, actually, several.
One: the turn was essentially blind…
Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.
So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found, Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).
But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…
Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)
Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.
Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.
Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.
With a bicycle.
Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.
This changed everything.
I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.
I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.
This, um, wasn’t good…
To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…
…which was good.
Except I was running out of space fast.
I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.
Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…
…which was bad.
Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.
I could feel the vibration of the little box chewing through the tire all the way up to the brake handle.
So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.
I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?
But using it would have required having a stable bike.
(Which I didn’t have).
And enough time to grab it.
(Which I was running out of.)
And having enough distance for it to open.
(Which I already had run out of.)
I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.
Then things got interesting.
After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve. Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.
Made of steel pipe.
Embedded in concrete.
That I hit with my front wheel.
That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.
I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.
At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.
There wasn’t much to do but let him rant. I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…
The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.
We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)
Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)
We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back. We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.
Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.
It was exactly 10:30.
It got me thinking…
A lot, actually.
See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.
And maybe, maybe that’s the story.
See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
26 years earlier.
Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.
And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.
26 years earlier.
I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30? How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)
But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.
As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way. Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.
And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.
Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.
And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.
In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. 🙂
But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).
And I realized we all have people like that in our lives… People who will do their best to protect us from danger
Even if that danger is us.
I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…
How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.
And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.
But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight. Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.
The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in. The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.
I just made it late.
And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:
There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.
And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…
Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.
I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.
See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.
That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…
Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?
Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this: “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”
I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.
Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.
Take care – and thanks –
Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time. Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.
I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)
I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty. Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning. And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now. He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:
And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:
For many reasons, I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened. I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story. He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.
“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”
I was talking to my mom about a story I was writing awhile back, about a little bicycling adventure in Germany about 37 years ago, and she chuckled a bit, and then started to tell me a story that had happened 26 years before that.
And it made me smile.
You know how you talk to your parents and forget that they were young, once, too? That’s how it was with mom in this conversation. As she told the story, the mom I was seeing in front of me transformed into a much younger woman, full of youth, life, laughter, and stories.
She talked of adventures that I’d never heard, but then she got to telling the story of the trip over the Susten Pass.
On a bike.
And I saw the time machine show up, with the door wide open, beckoning us inside.
We stepped in and I started to listen to a fun story that I’d heard before, but the more I listened the more I realized I’d not only heard the story before, but there was a connection to that story I was writing. We’ll get to that one in Part 2. But for now, I leaned forward and listened, and I recorded it. And then realized she’d written it down years ago. She sent me a copy – we found some pictures, and I’ve done a little bit of editing below, but the story’s hers, so sit back, and imagine hearing the story below in mom’s German accent about the trip she, her brother Walter, and his friend Wolfgang took, from Germany, to Switzerland, and back.
That said, here’s mom:
“While Walter was still in Seminary in Frankfurt, he, Wolfgang and I had planned to tour Switzerland by bicycle during their summer vacation. In those years the roads were not nearly as crowded with cars as is now the case.
It was beautiful!
I had traveled to Switzerland by bus, by car and by train but I never enjoyed the scenery more than when I toured it on a bicycle. Instead of driving past mountains in minutes, it might take a whole day of riding to finally get close to the mountains we were able to admire for so long. We had plenty of time to let the beauty really sink in.
That year, Walter had a summer job in Winterthur (Switzerland) with a surveyor. His friend Wolfgang and I traveled through the Black Forest to the Swiss border and further inland to meet and team up with him for our tour. The nights we spent in youth hostels which were all over the country.
Near Steffisburg we stopped and asked a farmer if we could pitch our tents on his property. Herr Wittwer (the farmer) agreed, but then took a look south toward the Niesen, the nearest mountain, and shook his head.
“I better get some straw down for you in the barn. See those dark clouds pushing through between the mountains? That’s a nasty thunder storm and it will be here in a few hours. That way, no matter what the weather does, at least you’ll have a roof over your heads and stay dry.”
I gladly accepted his offer but Walter and Wolfgang pitched their tent outside. I took my sleeping bag into the barn, bolted the big barn door shut and nestled down in the big pile of straw. I was less afraid of the mice in the barn than the lightning and thunder outside and a soaking wet sleeping bag. You see, our camping equipment in those days was very primitive. Our tent did not have a floor. So while the tent might have protected us from water coming from above, there was nothing to keep water from seeping in under the edges.
And, just like Herr Wittwer had said, the storm didn’t wait long to reach us. As it got closer, not only was the thunder much louder but the echoes bouncing back from the nearby mountains were like a continuous amplified drumroll.
I was so tired from the many hours of pedaling the bike in the hilly country I fell asleep in spite of the noise. In my dreams I wondered why the whole barn was being torn down and why human voices were mingled in between the booms of the thunder, and why did I keep hearing my name in between all of this?
During the eerie stillness of a moment between thunder claps the human voices finally reached my consciousness and I recognized my brother’s voice: “Irmgard, open the door, please open the door.” The rain was coming down in torrents and Walter and Wolfgang had soon seen the wisdom in my decision about sleeping in the barn. There was plenty of straw on the barn floor for all three of us and like contented cows Walter and Wolfgang bedded down on the dry straw for a much needed night’s sleep.
THE TRIP OVER SUSTEN PASS.
The next morning, Walter and Wolfgang had to wring out their tent and clothes from the storm. Not only was our camping gear primitive but our bikes were at the beginning of multiple-gear-development. Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes each had three gears. That was the most that was available at the time and really, who would want or need more than three gears anyhow? Right?
I would soon see the benefit of those three gears, as my bike had only one.
Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes also had special (caliper) brakes, the ones which grab the sides of the rims of both wheels.
Mine did not.
My bike had a different system. Under the handle bar on the right side was another, thinner bar reaching to the center of the handlebars. There it was connected to a bar going straight down to the rubber front tire. There was a u-shaped metal frame attached (about 1 x 1 1/2″) and a hard rubber pad was slipped into that frame. By pulling the brake handle up, the rubber pad was pushed down against the tire, which slowed down the bike somewhat. The other braking possibility was the coaster brake in the hub of the back wheel. By pushing the pedals backwards, the back wheel would apply the brake.
This system was sufficient for normal country.
But his was not normal country.
This was Switzerland.
Our rather ambitious plan for that one day was to get over the Susten Pass.
We had to get an early start so we would get as many kilometers behind us during the coolness of the day, and to do that, had to leave before the tent and everything could dry. At the base of the mountains we made relatively good progress, but when the road started climbing, things changed. Often Walter and Wolfgang could have gone a while longer with their extra gears, but no matter how hard I tried to pedal, my bike came almost to a standstill when the incline got too steep.
So we had to walk.
Hour after hour we followed the serpentines up and up. Looking over the edge we saw the road wind up like a snake in tight curves.
After seven hours of walking, pushing our bicycles step by tired step, we finally saw the sign:
“Susten Pass 2224 meter”.
We’d finally made it, the three of us were hot and thirsty, and Walter’s cold, wet tent was slowly drying.
We took a short but well deserved break at the top and strengthened ourselves with “Landjäger“, bread, some good Swiss chocolate and water. And we even allowed ourselves a few minutes to lean back and appreciate, admire and enjoy God’s handiwork in that beautiful setting. But since the ascent had taken so much longer than anticipated, we couldn’t allow ourselves too much time to enjoy the scenery at the top, so after a few minutes of cooling off to the point of being a little chilled, we saddled our bikes and looked forward to a fast, fun run down the switchbacks to the lowlands again.
But the other side of the pass was in full sunshine, and the further down we got, the warmer it got, so we let the bikes fly down the mountain road and loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, cooling us off after the long climb up the other side.
A long-held sigh of relief escaped from each one of us.
Going down should be a breeze, right? We couldn’t help but wonder how much shorter the down-hill time would be. We’d make up all the time we lost, it would be great. Walter rode in front, Wolfgang in the back, with me in between, and even though it was easy (and fun) to let the bicycles go fast and hang on, it wasn’t safe to go too fast or we’d lose control on the many hairpin turns. It was good that Walter and Wolfgang had those new brakes, because it was all downhill, and we had to brake constantly so we wouldn’t overshoot the hairpin curves.
But remember, I didn’t have those brakes.
I had two other brakes.
I had that pad of rubber that was pushed down on the front tire by a lever I squeezed with my right hand, and I had the coaster brake for the back wheel that worked when I pedaled backwards far enough to make it work.
And remember, while this system was sufficient for normal country. also remember that this was NOT normal country.
This was Switzerland.
And we went down the mountain.
And we went fast.
Our leg muscles, finally rested a bit from the 7 hours of walking and pushing our bicycles up the one side of the pass, welcomed this change of pace on the other side very much, and for a few moments, the scenery enveloped us at a level you just could not get in a car or a bus. It was exhilarating.
I’d just gotten to feeling comfortable on the bicycle, riding fast enough to be fun, but braking enough to be safe. I think it was maybe 5 kilometers, when I heard Wolfgang behind me yell “I am smelling burned rubber’. We all stopped at the first spot we could get off the road to check for the cause of that smell. Sure enough, With all my braking, that rubber pad that was my front brake had gotten so hot from the friction that it started smoking, wore out and disappeared, never to be seen again. After we stopped and inspected it, we decided that it was safe to go on, but slower, and more carefully, because since there was no bicycle repair place at that elevation, we had absolutely no choice to slow me down but to use the other brake in the hub of the rear wheel.
I tried my best not to use it excessively and just let it roll on the straight stretches but pushed the backpedal-brake system to it’s limit to make it safely around the first hairpin curve and the second, and the third and so on.
We may have gotten about 10 (don’t know how many of course) kilometers behind us , when I heard Wolfgang’s voice again loud and clear: “Your hub is smoking”.
He was such a nice friend and biking buddy but I sure didn’t want to hear his voice again, especially not with more bad news about my bicycle.
And even more especially, about smoke.
But, what choice did I, did we all have?
We all stopped.
The brake was so hot that it didn’t work very well anymore, and that wasn’t safe.
So we had to walk.
What choice did we really have?
And we walked, and walked, down the other side of Susten Pass, holding our loaded bicycles back, and we let it cool down.
It gave us more time to enjoy the Alps that so many people want to see.
How can you get tired of so much beauty?
We weren’t tired of the beauty, but we were getting tired of walking. We checked the brake on my bicycle, and it had finally cooled off, so we started to coast downhill again.
We’d spread out a little bit by then, and the breeze cooled me off, and I realized that the brake, not being used right then, could cool off too the next time it got hot. So that gave me an idea, and I let the bicycle go down the hill as fast as it would go… The wind was rushing in my ears, and I could barely hear Walter yelling at me that I’d get myself killed if I rode that fast. I braked hard at the next curve, heating up the brake until I could feel it weaken, leaned deep into the turn, made it around, and let the bicycle fly again. The brake cooled off while my brother’s frustrated shouts faded behind me.
But remember, this was Switzerland.
And soon the brake overheated again, so we had to alternate walking and riding for the rest of the afternoon until we finally made it down into the lowlands at dusk, where we found a place to stay for the night.
Over the next few days we got out of the Alps and stopped near the town where Walter had worked, and I wanted to write a postcard to our mom so that she would know we were okay. After all, it had been many days since we’d been home. Walter said we’d get home before the post card did, so I didn’t get one.
We kept heading north on flatter ground, eventually making it to Germany, and much later, finally made it to our hometown, where things looked like – well, home. Wolfgang headed back to Frankfurt, and we made our way home, walking our bicycles into the driveway beside the house. Our mom heard us go by through the kitchen window, and on hearing us, came out onto the veranda to make sure we were okay. Once that was established, the first thing she said to us as my brother and I climbed up the back steps was, “You’re back! What were you thinking? We were worried you’d fallen down a mountain, What kept you from even sending a postcard?”
We stepped out of the time machine, mom and I, and laughed at some of the adventures she’d had, and then I told her a similar story, also of a brother and sister, coming back from a bicycle trip, climbing up those same steps, and explaining to the same mom (her mom, my Oma) why we were late.
But that’s for part 2, coming in a few months.
Take care out there, folks.
I was walking in to work the other day, a normal day, just another guy on his cellphone, walking down the sidewalk, in my case, talking to my mom on the phone… Most days when I walk this sidewalk, I walk it lost in thought, shifting gears from personal life to work life, thoughts drifting… the background noise of traffic, the cars, the buses, the jackhammers and the like, was just that, background noise, when a fellow rushed past, and did something I had never seen before.
Well, I had, but not there.
See, I usually walk down this one street past a church – you can see it here.
Like most people, I walk down this sidewalk without looking, without seeing…
Not only are the sounds background noise, but the sights are, too, if that makes sense. They are so often ignored, rarely acknowledged.
But this fellow appeared from around the corner. He was wearing faded, torn jeans, worn running shoes, and an old dark blue jacket that barely covered what it needed to cover.
I wasn’t sure whether to dodge out of his way or brace for impact, but I did dodge, and kept walking. Curiosity turned me around and I looked back to see he’d stopped running.
He’d stopped alright, but he wasn’t standing.
He was kneeling.
He was doing more than that. He was praying in a way I’d definitely done, but very rarely seen.
He appeared so deeply, profoundly distraught that I was speechless, and I stood, rooted to the spot. I added my prayer to his, but couldn’t decide what to actually *do*.
I couldn’t tell what he needed physically – I mean, he’d run around the corner so fast, so he was physically okay. He was praying, and praying hard, and to interrupt seemed… I don’t know, out of place?
My mind went all over the place…Why was he there? Was his family in danger? Hurt? Had he done something wrong and was there literally at the feet of Jesus, asking for forgiveness?
I didn’t know.
And I didn’t ask.
I felt very much like one of the characters in the story of The Good Samaritan – only I wasn’t the Samaritan who helped the fellow.
I was one of the other guys.
Who for whatever reason, didn’t help.
And it got me thinking.
Like the other guys, I had my reasons, all of which have the strength of wet toilet paper when I look back on them.
How many times do we not help someone out when we could?
How many times have we let someone down when we could have helped them up?
How many times…
Then I got to thinking just a little more about the figure this fellow was kneeling at the feet of…
The fellow whose birth an awful lot of the world is celebrating in one form or another this month.
The first bit of the story – the one of The Good Samaritan – quoted from the book of Luke,
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Now at this point, it says clearly in that last verse, that he wanted to “justify himself” – He was an expert in the law, Jesus knew that. This guy was looking for a way out, a loophole. He was trying to do something that should be familiar to all of us: find a way to obey the law and be comfortable doing it, so he asked that second question:
“Who is my neighbor?”
Unspoken there is the question, “Who isn’t my neighbor?” “Who do I even have to acknowledge?” More simply put is this: “Who can I ignore?”
And then Jesus told this story:
30-32 “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
36 “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
(from the book of Luke, chapter 10, The Message Translation)
So a little history here:
A priest walked by…
He. Walked. By.
The priest… the holy man who should have been able to do all sorts of things to help the injured traveler, not only walked by, but actively avoided him by walking on the other side of the road. Understand, this was not, shall we say, a good neighborhood. (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known to have bandits and the like, but you’d think someone seeing an injured person would try to help that person, rather than walking off to the side and avoiding him.)
But he didn’t.
It wasn’t convenient.
A Levite walked by…
Levites were special people according to the Bible. They were from the tribe of Levi, They were supposed to watch over and take care of the priestly duties in the Sanctuary. They couldn’t inherit land like all the other tribes, and they had extra responsibilities, but they got the best of everything in return. That didn’t mean they were perfect, but they were definitely considered special. Some translations imply that the Levite actually went over to look at the fellow, but then went on his way, not touching him, as that could have made him unclean. (there were many rules about touching dead bodies, which would prevent people from doing the things they were supposed to do), so that was his excuse…
And he kept walking.
It wasn’t socially acceptable.
It’s just that both he and the priest were walking *from* Jerusalem, meaning their tasks, ritual and otherwise, were done. They were going home. Their duties were done. The excuse of being unclean would have been pretty much a wash.
And then a Samaritan walked by.
Understand, at the time, the country of Israel was split into the northern and southern halves, and while those halves could trace their lineage back to common ancestors, they had definitely diverged in culture, beliefs, and – well, prejudices.
It got to the point where people would not only walk to the other side of the road to avoid each other, but would actively go out and try to wipe each other off the map (see here). We see this kind of stuff on the news even today.
The Samaritan was treated as not only an enemy, but a much less than second class citizen, one to be avoided, one to not speak to or associate with.
So when Jesus talked about Samaritans, he wasn’t being gentle about it, he was being pretty hard core, and telling the Jews there to love their neighbors.
Not just when it was comfortable.
Not just when it was convenient.
Not just when it was socially acceptable.
And he used what they thought was the lowest form of life on the planet to get that point across, with all the gentleness and finesse of a sledgehammer.
“Here, see this guy? The injured one? The Hurting one? The one down on his luck? He needs help, and he needs it now. And you guys are too ‘Holy’ to do it. So who does? The guy you hate (the Samaritan) helps the guy you say is one of your own more than your holiest of people. Take that and think about it for a bit, THEN tell me who the neighbor that you’re supposed to love actually is.”
So much harm has been done to people in the name of religion. Be it physical harm, psychological harm or whatever, to the point where Christians are parodied, and become caricatures of what God meant us to be. And the people causing harm in the name of religion (on purpose or by accident) are missing the point altogether. The folks who need our help are often ignored, rarely acknowledged, or are simply relegated to the same background as the normal sights and sounds of the city.
What did Jesus Himself say we should do? He put it in pretty simple terms. You’ve heard of the 10 Commandments. The religious types of his day, trying to trap him, asked, “What’s the most important commandment?” and in that story above, Jesus narrowed it down to two.
There’s quite a bit said in the Bible about the “Body of Christ” – and for a long time I had a hard time getting my head around that concept…
Then I realized that we – those who are supposed to be following Christ, imperfect as we are, are His body here on earth.
We are His hands.
We are His feet.
We are the ones who are supposed to help…
And I realized that that traveler from Samaria, reviled by so many in his day, still had lessons to teach 2,000 years later…
It’s September, and all across the country, another school year has started with all the busyness that it brings, and it brought back a smile, and a memory of a fellow I knew in high school many years ago.
Bob Sherp, an exchange student from England, almost graduated from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington, back in 1980. He was a good student, taking a well-rounded set of classes. I know, because he and I had several classes together, one of them being Radio Production (with Mrs. Williams) and one being First Aid, with “Brownie”.
Bob and I were pretty evenly matched, academically, in those two classes, and I would have to say that his attendance was extraordinary. In fact, every time I was in class, so was Bob – and – well, I think it’s time to start at the beginning…
See, this was High School.
This is the time in a young person’s life when not all the parts of the brain develop at the same rate… The frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys, that’s just not all there yet. Why do you think car insurance for boys is so much higher? For that matter, why do you think most of the infantry in the Army is young?
“Go out there into that gaping maw of death and take that minefield!”
“Sir, yes SIR!”
…it’s because of that whole frontal lobe thing. They don’t have any thought to their own safety, or potential consequences. In fact, there’s even proof. Seriously.
So while we didn’t have any military types to deal with in this story, we did manage to get Jason, Tamara, Wayne and about 4 more of us frontally-lobe-challenged teenagers together to mess with the system a bit, as it were, with no idea of the consequences that were to follow… You see, every quarter, we had to register for our classes, and at that time, we’d all troop into the gym, where things were semi computerized. That is to say the forms we were to put our class requests onto had been computer printed with our names and other information on them.
…and later this paper would be scanned back into a computer, but all of the registration and filling out of the forms in between was totally manual.
When we entered the gym, there were tables all around the edges, with boxes on them full of these forms, and letters indicating that forms on this table were for students with last names beginning from A-C, and the next table was D-F, and so on. Behind each table sat someone’s mom, or former student’s mom, who had volunteered to help get the 1800 students registered over the course of the day.
There was a lot to do.
There were things to correct.
…and there were lots of spare forms.
Remember that bit about messing with the system? Here was an opportunity that was, in the words of Tom and Ray Magliocci (of Car Talk fame) “Unimpeded by the thought process.” Well that’s just a perfect definition for a teenager, especially some ‘frontally lobe challenged’ teenagers who were up for a laugh.
And the thing was, while we were up for a laugh, we didn’t want to get anyone into trouble, least of all Bob. He had to be visible enough to be known, but completely invisible from faculty and staff.
The six of us got together with our favorite teachers and asked them if they’d be okay with having an extra student in their class, and would he pass if he were there…
To a teacher, the answer was, “if he does the work, he’ll get the grade…”
Now because I was the most honest looking of the bunch, or because I was the most frontally lobe challenged, I’m not sure which, I was picked to go to the table marked S – T, get one of the spare forms with some level of excuse that I’d lost mine, and have them fill it in as needed, and surprise of all surprises, Bob Sherp was born.
Right there, in the middle of the gym, at Bethel high school in Spanaway, Washington. He was a big baby… 180 pounds. About six feet.
Oh, and about 18 years old.
Bob got to be with me in the first aid class, in large part because I got along well with Brownie, and her take of, “If he does the work, he’ll get the grade…” It did kind of bug me though, every now and then – because I was literally doing twice the work of a normal student, and strangely enough, whoever’s homework I did first (Bob’s or mine) generally got the better grade.
When I got a worse grade than Bob, I knew something was a little off – but what was really cool in all of this is that I really learned my first aid.
Another class I “had” with Bob was the Radio Production class.
Selected people from the Radio Production class did the announcements for the entire school every morning.
And Bob did the announcements, every Monday morning.
We’d decided Bob would be a foreign exchange student from England, in large part because I could do a pretty good English accent.
So I was the voice of Bob Sherp.
Every Monday, I’d leave class, get the stack of announcements at the front office, sort them by subject, and stack them on the PA system in the corner. Now because of the way it was set up, I’d have to stand, facing the corner, holding the mike key down with my left hand while holding the announcement I was reading in my right, and every Monday morning started exactly the same way, with a stunningly enthusiastic deep British voice, “Good Morning! Bob Sherp here once again, with your Monday morning announcements!” – and then I’d go off on a riff and ad lib my way through the announcements, making “British” comments and just being way, WAY too cheerful for a pre-coffee high school Monday morning… but it’s what I got to … sorry, it’s what “Bob” got to do, and “Bob” loved it.
What “Bob” didn’t realize is that while standing there, alone in that corner, back to the office, when everyone was supposed to be in their homerooms, he had a captive audience of about 1800 people, all students sitting there in their classes with nothing else to do but listen to some English guy tell bad jokes and talk about which clubs were meeting that day, when “spirit week” was, and how important it was to register for your SAT’s.
The funny thing was, NO one outside the Radio Production class ever knew who Bob was… No one had ever seen him. In fact, the folks in the radio Production class might not have been sure, just like Superman and Clark Kent, Tom Roush and Bob Sherp were never seen together… or, for that matter… heard together, I guess. It got close once… The student body president happened to see me leave the office one Monday right after I’d – er – “Bob” had done the announcements and asked if I’d done them.
“Nope,” I said, barely edging out of the English accent in time, “That was Bob Sherp!”
“Oh, – he sure sounded like you…”
I made sure no one ever heard “Tom” speaking in an English accent after that.
What’s funny about the whole thing – at least for me, is I honestly had no idea what kind of storm I was creating with Bob. Like I said, NO one ever saw him, and I found out much later, an awful lot of people were trying to figure out who this guy was.
A young sophomore named Bitsy had heard “Bob’s” voice every Monday morning, and just had to meet him, so for an entire quarter, she and a number of friends she had enlisted to help staked out the hallways between classes, ears tuned for any trace of the owner of a British accent she’d heard, and memorized, and wanted to meet. But her attempts were in vain, and she never heard “Bob’s” voice.
However, as with all good things, it came to an end. It seems that somehow, somewhere, they started poking around, and apparently Bob was called to, of all things, the office – the same one he (and I) did the Monday morning announcements in. Unfortunately, I had a P.E. class outside at the time of those calls, and I never heard the announcements. The others in the group of us who’d ‘created’ him thought I’d heard them, but didn’t tell me – so after a while, Bob, bless his heart, was expelled from school for being absent – even on days he’d been there first thing, giving those Monday morning announcements.
So Bob was kicked out and didn’t graduate, I did and went off to college, and a couple of years later, I was home for a weekend, when two friends, Wayne and Bitsy, yes, that Wayne, and yes, that Bitsy, who’d become a bit of an item, came over to visit, and as we were chatting about old times, the subject of Bob came up.
Wayne and I looked at each other, grinned a little, and felt the situation was about as ripe as it was going to get so he (who as you know had been in on the gag from the beginning) said to Bitsy (who clearly hadn’t, but SOOOO wanted to meet Bob), “Hey you wanna meet Bob Sherp?”
Bitsy’s eyes got huge.
She looked up at Wayne, almost in awe.
Wayne knew about Bob? This was too good to be true. And then, Wayne’s and my eyes met, and unspoken, I took my cue…
“Good Morning! Bob Sherp here, once again, with your Monday morning announcements!”
Bitsy’s face went into instant, total shock followed immediately by
- Absolute delight at finally meeting “Bob” to
- Excitement at having the answers to her questions
- Total shock at realizing someone she’d known (Wayne) had had the answers to all her questions all the time even if he didn’t realize the questions were there
- and then finally realizing Bob was someone she’d known all along.
In the end, she wasn’t sure whether to hug us or clobber us, but we all had a good laugh afterwards.
Apparently this had really been a secret that those of us in on it kept very well, and people, especially Bitsy, just wanted answers, Wayne had them, and true to his word, he never, ever let on that he knew that the mysterious foreigner Bitsy had been so eager to meet was a guy who’d sat next to her in class a few years before.
Wayne and Bitsy became even more of an Item a number of years later, and when I talked to her about it while writing this story, her memory of it was just as sharp as the day she’d discovered who Bob was – er – is…
And of course, it got me thinking…
Remember that thing I mentioned about the frontal lobe and not knowing what the consequences of our actions would be? On this one, I still don’t. It’s been years since this happened – and only with the publishing of this story will I find out what kinds of memories will be brought up in all of it. I just know that for me, (and Bob) it was a tremendous amount of fun to step completely outside of being the normal person that showed up for school every day and become someone else, to be able to make people laugh, smile, and wonder.
So for those of you in my class (Wayne, Tamara, Jason, and a few others) who made it all possible – thank you so much for your help!
Heh, I just realized this, we made the first Avatar… Before there were avatars online, there was Bob Sherp.
In real life.
So for those of you who’ve been wondering all these years – you now have your answer.
For Brownie and Mrs. Williams and all the other teachers – you’re gems. Thank you for playing along with us in all of it.
Oh, and Bitsy – Bob says hi. 😉
(and this is published on Monday morning just for you)