Archive for September, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night…

September 22, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night…

All really bad literature starts out that way.  There is even a yearly contest that celebrates this genre of writing.  The basic rule of the contest is that the first (and, usually the only) paragraph start with those seven words.  Then, the aim is to tack on as many words and phrases as you can while remaining semantically and syntactically correct.  There is a Wikipedia entry here describing this contest:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulwer%E2%80%93Lytton_Fiction_Contest

Here is my entry:

It was a dark and stormy night and, while my brother and I eagerly awaited the coming dawn hoping for an announcement on the radio about our specific schools closing, we dreaded that we would hear no word of our school; unless the snow got so heavy that power lines snapped or were brought down by heavily laden tree branches giving way under the pressing weight of snow – not to mention the numbing cold which would cause objects outside to freeze into brittle shapes that would shatter at the first touch of a strong wind – to fall heavily over frost-tightened transmission lines running through the neighborhood.

There!  Pant, pant.  My contribution for posterity.  But, seriously, folks, here’s what happened in January of the year 1954 to the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C.  The storm dropped an official eleven point three inches, but my little community got almost seventeen inches.  We did, in fact, get four snow days off from school.  Two of them were endured with no road traffic on any of the streets in our area.  This, of course, was celebrated joyously by every kid in the neighborhood – bar none.

When we had gone to sleep, there were vague warnings on television that a bit of snow would come our way.  My dad, being a meteorologist on base, and savvy to the ways of weather, said, and I quote, “bull”.  There was an added syllable to that statement, but I shan’t repeat it here.  He added that “it’s going to snow like hell and they’re not admitting it”.

As my brother and I bedded down we could hear the wind rising and the beginnings of snow pellets smacking against the window panes.  In the darkness, I smiled to myself.

We awoke the next morning to a murky dawn.  Light from the sun was very dim owing to the huge flakes of snow falling down in whirling eddies to land on the eight inches already on the ground.  When I heard my dad’s voice, I knew we (and he) were right:  it was a blizzard and we were free!  If he couldn’t get to work, I knew for certain the bus’s couldn’t get through.

Amid cries of joy, my brother and I practically burst into song as we washed up, dressed, and bounced out into the dining room for breakfast.  It was probably a record-breaking performance in terms of getting ready to meet the day.  After all, why would we want to waste a single minute of not having to go to school?

After breakfast, the two of us dashed down into the basement and began dragging various snow-traversing implements out of the pile at the back wall.  First, and foremost, our mukluks.  These had survived, and still fit us, from our stay in Alaska and were probably the warmest foot coverings on the planet in that day and age.  They consisted of actual seal skin and bear hide.  The seal skin was turned inside out so that the slick outer layer (when it was on the seal) was turned against our woolen socks.  Then you laced up the bearskin (fur outside) with thongs made of Caribou.  The ones that I and my brother wore were gifts presented to us by the old trapper who lived next to us in Fairbanks – bless him.  Believe it or not, Wikipedia even has an entry on this type of footwear.)

Next, we located our two sleds.  Mine was brand new the year before and was called a Flexible Flyer.  It was too, flexible, that is.  It could be steered by means of a “T” bar across the nose.  When you twisted it, the runners curved and you went the way you steered.  Of course, many factors had a bearing on whether or not you actually turned; ice, being one, and other kids being another.

I laid my sled upside down on the workbench and proceeded to touch up the runners with a little file.  Dings, burrs, and other faults which would slow progress downhill were filed off and what resulted was a knife-edge of perfection.  Hah!  I thought.  If this one ran over a foot I should expect to see severed toes at least.

A huge box of snow clothing almost fell on us as we yanked various items from the pile.  I found my pair of snowshoes and set them aside in the hope that it would snow long enough for me to use them.  Little did I know.

Soon, we had everything we needed and struggled to haul them upstairs and into the back porch for staging our assault on the yard.  We looked out into the slowly brightening scene to find that the snow was now over the lower bar on the fence.  That meant it was nine inches deep – and it was still snowing.  Insisting on forcing us to have something hot inside, my mom pulled us back into the kitchen for hot cocoa; not that much forcing was needed.  She made the best cocoa in the neighborhood and kids came from miles around to get a steaming cup of it.  Drop in a few marshmallows and instant brown, furry, upper lip.

Back on the porch now.  Mukluks are easy to put on – if you have three arms.  You definitely need two to hold the top while you push your foot into it.  The third is necessary to keep the inner skin from compacting under your foot.  Since my brother and I were old hands at donning mukluks, we just helped each other.  Once fitted, we wrapped the thongs tightly in a cris-cross pattern from the base to the top and tied them off.  Adding a thick coat with muffler wrapped around the collar and gloves we were ready for some fun.

Snow on the East Coast, especially near large bodies of water, can come in several graduations of ‘wetness’.  If the wind is blowing pretty hard (like, enough to blow your cap off) the snow turns into hard little pellets that sting when they hit.  All morning, the wind had been dropping so that by the time we ventured out snow was falling in much larger flakes.  These tended to be a little wetter and when you tried to slog through drifts it felt like walking in molasses.  This time we were lucky.  The snow was pretty dry and the sled pulled nicely behind us.

We were headed for the hill on the road behind our house one block over.  It was called Boxwood and it went down very steeply to a cross street.  This would have been a perfect sledding hill but for one flaw:  there was no street on the other side of the bottom junction, just someone’s house.  In an effort to stop or at least slow kids from zipping across their yard to crash into their front porch, the owners had installed a line of small pine trees with a trunk about three inches in diameter.

Any kid can tell you that pine trees may be nice, but they will not stop a good sledder at speed.  When you hit the tree – and you WILL hit the tree – the front of your sled rides up the trunk, bends it over, and thumps rhythmically on the underside of your sled as you pass over it.  It will, however, slow you down to below the sound barrier.  Not the official sound barrier of around 768 miles per hour but the kid sound barrier of AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!  I’M OUTTA CONTROL!!!!!!!!!

I have no idea how many times the owners had to add shingles to the lower portion of their house after sleds have come to a stop against them.

Anyway, as my brother and I slogged around the block, pulling our sleds behind us, we were joined by other hardy adventurers with their sleds.  By the time we all got to the top of the hill there was a crowd of maybe twenty kids of all sizes and downhill capabilities.  First things first.  A chain of kids was formed (chosen mostly by boot size) to walk in a line across the hill and move downwards.  This packed the snow down so that we had a good base.

Packing a good base is important because if you don’t, the very first time you take a flying leap and plop down on your sled, you’re going to eat yards of snow coming over the front bar.  When it is packed, what you have then is a glistening, slightly icy, surface suitable for supersonic power-sledding

Finally, the packing is complete and the hill is ready for trial runs.  Testers are democratically chosen by their size (“I’m bigger than you so I go first”).  They will make the first couple of runs in a sitting position so they can slam their boots down in an effort to stop if anything gets in their way.  This method is mostly psychological because nothing can stop on this hill.  The best that you can hope for is managing a slight turn.  To top it off, turning too much will guarantee that your runners will dig into the snow/ice and you’ll end up doing barrel rolls all the way down.

The hill is declared ready for business and by now there are hordes (maybe fifty) of kids ready to zip down the slope.  The hill itself starts very step and levels out about halfway down and then steepens for the final drop to the cross street.  There is a small drainage gully at the bottom which, if you aren’t prepared for, will launch you into the air.  How far depends on many things.  For instance, your weight, your speed, your intestinal fortitude, and the like.  Most of us like to hit this jump by hanging on to the sides of the sled (if seated) and hanging on the sides of the sled (if prone).  The main difference is that if you are seated you stand a good chance of retaining your seat on the sled, otherwise you’re gonna take a fall.

It is now time for my first run.  I stand a ways back from the crest, adjust everything I can adjust so that my legs are unencumbered by excess cloth (or loose mukluk strings), and I take off running.  In three steps or sometimes four I end up crouch-running lower and lower to the ground.  I hold the sled out in front of me slightly, making sure that the runners are in line with my direction of travel, and prepare for the controlled crash when I finally hit the snow and flop on the sled.

A note here on sled alignment.  If you don’t get the runners exactly aligned it is possible to either miss your sled partially (or completely) and end up on your stomach whizzing down the hill and feeling bits of cloth, buttons, zippers, and gloves ripping off to trail after you; or, the sled will stop dead and you will trip over it and complete the very same trip also sans sled.  The good news about the second scenario is that your sled will be waiting for you when the medics bring you back up to the top of the hill.

It is still snowing hard so the bottom of the hill is shrouded in swirling mistiness.  There are unofficial “hill criers” that will shot that the coast is clear so when you hear that call it is presumed safe to take off.  I do.

A perfect launch.  Feet propelling me swiftly from behind the crest to the very top of the hill, a neat drop of the sled to the snow, and a belly-flop that whooshes air out of my lungs.  I make sure I don’t drag my toes behind me, which is considered ‘chicken’ by the hard core sledders.  It also screws up the take off zone by making grooves.

In no time, I am halfway down the hill and slowing slightly as the grade flattens out.  The bottom clears a lot here at the halfway point and I see that my intended target zone is clear of anything fauna.  Flora are another matter.  I see, too late, that the trees that I was able to slip between last year have now grown branches that stretch from on to another.  This tends to hide anything behind them.  I vow to make a small turn.  Just enough to pass around in a great arc from one side of the hill and end up running perpendicular to the hill on the cross street.

Things don’t work out quite as I planned and my turn is cut short at about the halfway point by a small patch of snow which hasn’t been stamped flat yet.  I hit it dead center and am blinded by the snow I scooped up over the front bar.  Since I wear glasses, this is not a good thing and I spend precious moments frantically trying to clear them.  I can see again, but only to get a really close view of a garbage can before I smack into it with my shoulder.

Like a bowling ball against pins, I topple the cans (there were two of them) and scatter trash around.  My speed has been cut down to practically nothing but when a discarded magazine slips under my runner, it and the sled attached, comes to a dead halt.  Unfortunately, I don’t, and I end up flying forward off the sled and into a scooped up ridge of snow from the guy’s driveway.

“Yahoooo!”  I shout as I turn and contemplate climbing back up the slope for another run.  My brother and I spend most of the day on this hill.  By the time noon rolls around there must have been a hundred kids whooshing down the hill.  It is barely controlled mayhem on the slope.  Established corridors for travel back up to the top are demarked, and for the most part obeyed, but occasionally a downhill sledder picks up a passenger.

When lunchtime arrives, my brother and I troop back to our house, gobble down sandwiches, and head back to the hill.  It continues to snow the rest of the afternoon until we have a base coat that is around six to seven inches deep.  Very prime sledding conditions for sure.  Finally, tired, sore, and ready for a rest, we go back to our house for the last time.  It continues to snow all night long until the next morning arrives with the aforementioned seventeen inches.  School is forgotten and for those four days we live it up.

T.O.M.

What goes down must surely come up?

September 14, 2010

In my last post, I waxed nostalgic about a picture of me and my buddies standing in front of our newly constructed submarine.  The fact that the nearest water of any size was the swimming hole in the creek about a quarter mile away didn’t deter us one whit.  What mattered was that we’d created it.  My mom agreed to take the picture because, I am sure, she didn’t think it would ever be launched.  Little did she know.

The idea of building – something – was conceived one very hot summer Saturday morning in my back yard.  It was one of those days that dawns brassy and stays that way all day until you feel your eyeballs begin to boil.  Washington, D.C. can do that to you; and does every summer.  A bunch of us guys (no girls) were hanging around the little gazebo in the back yard that my dad had finally finished.  There were all sorts of boards, nails, glue pots, little metal thingies, and empty (or nearly so) paint cans.

We’d become really exhausted from jumping over boards placed on paint cans with our bikes and were now relaxing around an upturned washtub with cold water and a few ice cubes in it.  Warm bottles of Coke were trying their best to cool themselves in the tepid water.  I’m not sure which of us got the original idea, but suddenly we were all talking about how the paint cans would hold water.  We carried that even further to the end that they would also hold air and support a board placed in water.

This got us thinking along the lines of a raft or something like that.  We listlessly kicked around all sorts of wild schemes until one guys says “what about a submarine?”  There was the usual jeering but then died out as we thought harder about it.  We discusses all sorts of ways to make something like that work, but couldn’t come up with anything that satisfied the actual working premise of a submarine: it sinks, and then it comes back up.

The actual sinking was no problem at all.  Pull the plug and down you’d go.  It was the coming back up that had us stumped.  We must have sat around that galvanized tub for most of the afternoon before my brother, of all people, suggested that we use a hose and blow air back into whatever we use for flotation.  That idea had merit.

Over the rest of the afternoon we sketched plans on a pad of paper I brought out.  Some of them were pretty far out there, but a couple of them just might work.  Basically, we settled on a design with a frame of wood resting over tubs with paint cans for extra buoyancy.  We all trooped up into our bathroom to weigh ourselves so we’d know how much weight it was expected to carry.  My mom was concerned that some sort of mass hysteria had gripped us and we all had to pee at the same time, but we reassured her that all was well.  Mystified, she went along on her way doing mom stuff.

With absolutely no thought about how we were going to get this thing all the way down to the creek, we began construction.  One of us had found a really nice oval copper horse trough in a field.  It looked abandoned, so we appropriated it.  That became our central tank.  A couple more were liberated from their normal spots and pressed into service also until we had the big one in the middle and two further towards the pointy end and one somewhat larger one at the other end.

Disaster struck almost at once.  One guy, who shall remain nameless (not me, of course), began nailing boards across the 2×4 and used nails a bit too long.  Two of them pierced the tub.  After a little discussion (and a knuckle sandwich) it was determined that pine sap, melted and dripped into the little holes, would seal them.  We scattered into the little woods next to my house and brought home sappy sticks to melt.  Darned if it didn’t work.

Once the basic flooring was placed, we formed two oarlocks, one on each side, with huge spikes driven in at an angle to enclose the oars we’d filched from one of the guy’s dad’s rowboat (“aw, he never goes fishing any more anyway”).  Another guy’s dad was a plumber.  This was what we needed from him: some copper pipe, a shut-off valve, and some way to solder the pipes up.  He’d been watching his dad for years so he volunteered to do the soldering.  We watched in awe as he pumped up his dad’s blowtorch and drew a flame about three feet long when he first fired it up.  “Heh, heh, it’s a bit tricky at first.  Heh, heh” was all he said.

With only minor burns, and acid holes in our jeans, we finished the delicate piping that we would rely on for our submergence (and, hopefully, reemergence) gear.  It was also mentioned, and jeered at, that we may need some sort of air pump to get air back under the tubs (which were inverted).  This suggestion was pooh-poohed and he quietly slunk away.

Instead of a conning tower, we just stuck five 2×4’s vertically upward from the frame to hold on to.  During our planning stage, we went down to the creek and measured the depth of the hole itself.  At the most, it was twelve feet deep; and this hole extended approximately 40 feet in one direction and 60 feet in another.  A fine briny deep.  Since I was the tallest, we calculated that even if we grounded on the bottom, as least I would be able to hold my head up out of the water.  The others could chin themselves on the crossbars we put on the conning boards.

By now, my mom was pretty sure the two of us had gotten involved in yet another reason why she was finding grey hairs in her head every day.  We could see her watching us in the back yard while doing dishes or just tidying up the kitchen.  I think one of the reasons I am like I am today is that neither one of my parents really forbade us kids to do anything; at least things that weren’t really dangerous.  I’m sure that today, parents would have worried at the first hammer falling on a nail and rushed outside to ‘give us pointers’ on construction.  Maybe we were just lucky she was out shopping when Greg shot that flame across the yard.

Finally, we had completed the submarine.  It didn’t look like much, but, then, It really didn’t have to go anywhere either.  The creek current would provide the muscle to move us and we’d just guide it.  We have now arrived at the point at which my mom clicked the shutter.  When she walked back into the house there was a soft voice saying “hey, how are we going to get this down to the creek?”

“Ummm, that’s a really good question since I also see that the yard is enclosed by a picket fence and our sub is too wide to go through the gate.”  Opined another.

We kicked this around a while until I remembered that one section of the fence was removable.  My dad had done that so the tree guy could back his truck into the yard to plant a tree.  My brother and I went down into the basement and grabbed some tools.  Soon, a wide gap appeared in the fence.  Now, all we had to do was move the stupid thing.

This was accomplished by several guys running home and getting their wagons.  We managed to lift each edge of the sub and get a wagon under it.  Finally, we began pushing the whole contraption towards the creek.  Wagons, since they have steering wheels, tend to go whichever way they want to.  Amid cries of “wait a minute”, “hold up”, and “ARRRRRGHHH!” the beast was manhandled (actually, kidhandled) out of my yard, down the side of the little street, across a big field of grass, and deposited on the bank of the creek.  It only took us two hours to go about three of four hundred yards.

On our way down, we attracted the attention of other kids so, by the time we’d finally reached the hole, a crowd had formed.  We had a little help lifting it off the wagons and pushing it down the slope to the water.  Amazingly, it actually floated.  Dressed in our trunks/shorts/jeans we waded out with our last bottle of Coke.  When swung against the front 2×4, it exploded in a brown spray which cover all of us.  I’m not sure who got christened – us or it.

It was now time to try things out.  We pushed the sub out into deeper water until we were paddling along with it.  The slight current was taking us downstream, but not at an overly fast pace.  We hopped aboard and took our stations for diving.

Bernie popped the plug out of his aft tub and we could hear the air whooshing out.  We started going down by the stern.  My brother had a bit of trouble with his in the central tub but managed to finally free it.  We began to sink much more rapidly now.  When Peter pulled his two plugs on the bow we really dropped.  Soon, the entire sub was awash with the exception of the five 2×4’s sticking out from the deck.  We hung on to those as the deck sank below the surface of the pool.

Cheering rose up from the peanut gallery that had formed on the bank.  We all took a bow and then prepared to surface.  None of us had ever taken into account the physical fact that pressure increases when you go underwater so when we uncapped the tubes meant for us to blow air into the tubs we were immediately hit in the face with a blast of air as they released the last vestiges of trapped air below.

We huffed, puffed, and turned blue trying to get any air down those hoses and into the inverted tubs.  Nothing worked.  Finally, heads spinning, and gasping for air, we decided to give up.  The submerged craft rose slightly as each of us hopped off and into the water.  As it did, it also was pushed further downstream by the current until it lodged hard aground against the shore.  It was still underwater, but at least it wasn’t moving.

The crowd had thinned out to just a few kids with nothing better to do than watch a bunch of wet guys standing around holding a post mortem examination of what went wrong.  We managed to drag it higher on the bank and left it there while we went back to my house.  We never did come up with a way to force air down those hoses though.  About a week later, one of those huge thunderstorms that usually hit Washington in the high summer struck with a vengeance.  The creek began to rise and took our sub with it.  It floated down until it hit rocks which broke it up into small pieces.  All we found later was the four tubs and they were pretty bent up.

The owner of the horse trough was pretty bent up too and made us pay for it.

T.O.M.

So far, so good

September 8, 2010

Well, things are looking up.  My diagnosis, along with some serious hedging by the Doc, is that I have an inflamed prostate.  I maintain that if the various Docs hadn’t poked and prodded it that it wouldn’t be so inflamed.  I’m sure that flinging electrons and magnetic lines of force at it couldn’t have done it much good either.

I can at least sit for longer periods of time without feeling like I’ve sat on a pine cone – the size of a football.  The little blow-up circular ring thingy my wife came up with looks suspiciously like the neck brace you use so you can sleep in a moving vehicle, but what the hell it appears to work.

I’ve been rummaging through my extensive collection of yellowing, fading, black and white prints in search of the next post.  Nothing is coming to me.  There is one picture of me and my cohorts standing in front of what looks like a pile of debris left over from an explosion in a laundry, but, in reality, was our first attempt at a submarine.  It even worked – at 50% capacity (down, but not up).

Oh Emm Gee!  I just found a picture of me in my finest, going to my first big junior high dance, getup.  My mom insisted that I wear my prophylactic black-frame government-issue glasses.  I say this because they were guaranteed to keep me “in” and girls “out”.  I wore my hair in a high, pompadour, which fairly glistened with bear grease.  The sides were shaved up to approximately the height of my eyebrows.  Thank goodness the picture is in black and white because, as I recall, the suit was one of those that shimmered a deep purple in the right light (i.e. light above 12 lumens).

And here I am astride my mighty Monark with the huge balloon tires and the fat side panels in indestructible iron that always managed to hit a knee when you least expected it.  I suspect that the name came from a spelling-challenged marketing type who listened to the word ‘monarch’ and spelled it phonetically.  My dad bought it for me in place of the Schwinn Black Phantom (another spelling challenged name) I really wanted.  His explanation for this was that the Monark was much nicer (his euphemism for ‘cheap’).  I figure the net weight of the bike was around 150 pounds.  And, all I had was one gear forward.

Moving onwards to the Europe category I see the Germany slot is filled to capacity with bunches of pictures of countryside, cities, and suburban areas.  Here’s one of me and three of my buddies getting beer delivered to our table at one of the locales Bier Halle.  The server is a very buxom young lass and, yes, my eyes are diverted down the front of her dirndl.  In all fairness, I should add that the other three guys are similarly engaged.  I can’t for the life of me remember who took the picture.  Not Virginia, I hope.

A self-portrait of me.  I took it while focusing on the mirror in front of me.  Why?  Nobody knows; least of all, me.

What’s this?  A crash scene?  No, wait, that’s one of my tent on a backpacking trip down the Rhine River.  We had been rained on, very heavily, and once the sun came back out we flopped out sleeping bags over the spine of the tent.  At first, it looked like a couple of people were getting artificial respiration by being rolled over a barrel.

Many pictures of Virginia.  Some are flattering and other not so flattering; like this one here of her just getting up while we were all on our bicycle trek.  She is brushing her teeth and trying to make be go away at the same time.  She looks rabid so it’s best to stay away from that one.

Here’s one of the many I took at Oktoberfest.  When I got ready to print this one I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t look right until I realized that I took it when inverted in a ride called, here in the States, a Hammerhead.  I haven’t a clue what they called it in Germany.  It’s the ride that swings back and forth like a pendulum and then, for some insane reason, begins to rotate the pod you are sitting in.  As I recall, the camera weight went from over 200 pounds to somewhere around minus 50 pounds.  Mmmmm, what fun.

Hey!  I made a blog entry.

T.O.M.