Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Moving from the old year to the New Year

December 31, 2011

I have been neglecting this blog for quite some time now.  It isn’t that I’ve been busy – quite the opposite.  I guess I haven’t been busy enough.  I’ve written several blog entries, but owing to one reason or another just never posted them.  Here is one of them:

When I was lying flat on my back while recovering from a fall a while back, I honed my hearing enough to find out many things about my house that I didn’t know.  For instance, the water softener makes a gurgling sound that normally takes place around three in the morning.  With my odd hours of waking and sleep, I kept hearing it and wondering what it was

Pretty much every night, there appears to be some sort of small animal that roams around our back yard.  As soon as the dog behind us starts to bark, our cat springs into action.  She goes completely bonkers (an animal medical term meaning ‘taken leave of its senses’) and runs around the house with a tail the size of a large zucchini.  Everything (and I mean everything) in that cat’s path gets shredded; including anyone (me) lying on a bed in the living room.  It’s not that she jumps up on me but more that she allows herself to slowly move down the wall as she’s making the rounds of the living room.  Much the same as those old motorcycle daredevils that roared around “The Wall of Death”.  The hearing part of this rambling is her making noises like a chipmunk of steroids.  Sort of an Ekk-Ekk sound, but only when she’s got her nose within two inches of my ear AND I’m asleep

The toilet in the master bathroom needs a new valve seal as it will occasionally run for ten seconds and then shut back down

The clock above the television ticks very loudly when the TV isn’t on

The rest of the sounds in and around the house have been catalogued at least enough to keep me from wondering that they are

= =

All this is leading up to the substance of this post: What were the sounds you liked best about each season when you were in your childhood – say from eight to fourteen.  In my case, that would have been from 1950 to 1956.  I’ll start with summer

Summertime, especially in Washington, D.C., can, to be charitable, be rather hot.  From dawn, or shortly before it, the first things I heard were the chirring of the locusts in the trees surrounding the house.  That noise would continue throughout the day, providing background to everything you did outside.  Next would come the cawing of crows as they soared over those same trees trying to wake their brethren for another day.  Since school was out, kids would begin their shouting and running about.  In the late afternoon, there would be the tinkling of the ice cream truck as it made it’s rounds.  Finally, as it grew dark, more kid sounds as they played their games until the call for a late dinner

Towards fall, other sounds would begin to appear.  In the woods not too far away, chain saws would begin to snort and bellow their way through fallen trees.  The wind, which usually stayed away during the summer, would begin to blow and sigh through treetops and rattle shutters.  Soon, that sound would be augmented by the rustling of leaves as they try to infiltrate the back porch, only to slide down the screening.  The end of summer was always signaled over at my neighbor’s house by the running of a water pump as it drained their pool for yet another year.  A sad sound which usually ran for nearly a complete day because the pump was small and he didn’t want to create a swamp in his back yard.  Once school started, busses would blat and fart around corners to halt and pick up glum-looking kids dressed in sweaters and, later, parkas.

The crystal-clear cold of winter was almost a non-sound.  Only when it is a very early morning with no wind can you hear the scurry of snow as it rattles across the surface of older snow which has crusted overnight.  Leaves, those that stubbornly remained on trees, begin falling and rattling dryly against windows.  On weekends, the shouts, taunts, and general noise created by what seems to be hundreds of kids on a nearby sledding hill would invade the white countryside.  An occasional car can be heard passing by, slipping and sliding, on the unplowed tar road in front of the house.  Dusk falls early during this season and, soon after doing so, I could hear the measured crunch of my father’s footsteps as he walked from car to house.

Perhaps my favorite audio time of the year is spring.  This is when the cold, snippy winds of winter give way to an equal, but opposite, wind of promise.  If a person is outside, he will hear the sounds of birds in the trees after their long absence.  First comes the hardy birds, no songbirds, but steady, workaholic birds who are scouting places to raise their families.  As leaves begin to sprout, more colorful birds appear.  These you can hear simply by lying on the ground in your front yard and closing your eyes.  They make small skittering sounds as they hop to and fro, testing each fork on the limb for nest suitability.  Once found, they call to mates “come look, come look – I’ve found the perfect place!”  They say it in chirps and tweedles, but you understand them anyway.  On the last day of school, the expectant chatter of my friends as they jump off the bus for the last time this year makes me take heart that there really is a life after Suitland Elementary School.

Now, as a new year creeps up on me in less than five hours, I wish everyone good tidings in the upcoming year.



Fort Possum, Part 2

November 4, 2010

We met again the next afternoon.  Fired up once more with the spirit of adventure we rushed around like demented squirrels gathering up bits of board, pipe, nails, string, cardboard, and other items to make our fort a home.  My brother’s wagon was piled high with goodies so we had to be doubly careful not to dump the stuff on the ground.  Oops, too late.

Once again we piled items on my brother’s wagon and set forth – again – into the woods.  We would do the picking up thing several more times on the way there.  Each time we pondered the necessity of this or that item.  We were leaving a trail of discarded things a blind person could follow into our secret location.

Finally, we arrived and unloaded.  Well, actually, it was unloaded for us because when we stopped the wagon lost a wheel and the whole load dumped yet again.  “Just leave that crap on the ground.  We’ll get it if we need it.”  Sage advice from an anonymous voice in the group.

We spent the next few hours hammering, sawing, grumbling, and making an occasional profane shout when a finger get between the hammer and the nail.  The whole fort was taking shape now and really looking good.  We had three side up as tall as the tallest one of us and as soon as we finished the roof poles we’d begin putting pieces of plywood and thick cardboard on top.  We had some of the younger guys out in the surrounding woods gathering pine boughs to help hide the fort from casual view.

It was inevitable that we were finally finished.  In our view it was a finely crafted, very good looking fort.  In reality, it was probably very leaky, and a Big Bad Wolf could huff and/or puff it right down.  But what the heck, we were proud of it.  This time, before we left, we all gathered inside and took our solemn oath never to divulge the location of this secret place.  Never mind that probably every kid in the neighborhood knew where it was.

Wearily, we trudged back to my place, tools only in the little red wagon this time.  We had exhausted all the building supplies we brought.  Also included were numerous pine branches which would no doubt turn brown and un-hide our fort.  I had to admit, as I looked back from down the trail a ways, it did seem to blend right into the side of the cliff.

All week long we took about an hour each afternoon after school and drug items of comfort down to the fort.  An old camp chair appeared.  A very threadbare (and stinky, from Tad’s dog) rug was tried, convicted and sentenced to stand guard ten feet away from the front door.  A small two-shelf bookcase was assembled into which we put all our rations, comic books, tin cans with assorted goodies in them, and other things that interested pre-teen boys.  Nobody claimed to know where the smutty magazine came from, but we all agreed that it was probably okay to keep it around for a while.  At least until we needed glasses.

Due to the inconsistencies of parents, only five of us guys got to sleep out in the fort the first weekend it was ready.  My brother and I were two of them.  A nice fellow named Bert, a rather mouthy kid named Benny, and a very quiet kid named Xavier made up the fearless five who would initiate the fort.  We packed up for the trip (all 1 mile of it) like we were attempting to scale Everest.  My mother spotted my brother and I sneaking all sorts of stuff out of the house.  She reclaimed three packages of hot dogs, one of the tins of cocoa, a huge bag of marshmallows, and a box of firecrackers that had somehow gotten mixed in with them.  “Gosh, mom, I haven’t a clue where those came from.  No, I won’t set the woods on fire.  Well, okay, I’ll put them aside.”  Poop!  Nothing is more exciting than blowing up hot dogs and marshmallows with ladyfingers.

We arrived, arranged our sleeping gear on the ground and built a very small fire on the ground in the middle of the fort.  Upon reflection, after the place filled with smoke almost immediately, we decided that we should probably have put in a stove pipe.  Motion carried.  We hacked a hole in one wall and another in the opposite wall.  After twenty minutes or so we could go back in.  The smell of smoke permeated everything.  We didn’t notice it much.  The size of the fire was carefully regulated after that.  Put a stovepipe on the list.

I had brought a tiny little solid pellet fueled stove with me and a metal canteen cup so I decided to make cocoa.  Now, the cocoa that my mom confiscated was the one that had the sugar in it so when I slurped down a huge mouthful of the awful brew I barely made it to the door blowing it out with compressed air.  “Wahg!  Ick!  Where’s the sugar,” I asked; rhetorically, it seemed.  Nobody had brought any.  Add sugar to the list.

Candles were lit when it got so dark we couldn’t discern the colors of Superman’s cape.  Errant puffs of wind through our supposedly tight walls kept putting them out, or making the flame burn off-center enough to have a half-candle standing tall with the other half melted down to the base.  Matches were dwindling pretty fast.  Add them to the list.

By nightfall proper, we had exhausted all our jokes and were down the bodily noises in the dark.  Benny entertained us with an amazingly loud medley of burps and belches.  This act was followed by Xavier who managed to bring tears to our eyes – with his exhaust fumes.  “Sorry, guys.  Hot dogs just make me fart.”  Take hot dogs off the list.

Somewhere around midnight, I guess, Bert got up and wandered around outside stubbing his toes at least six times trying to find a place to pee.  He didn’t want to turn on his flashlight because then we ‘could see him pee’ and that just wasn’t acceptable.  He had taken a candle, but it blew out and he hadn’t taken any matches with him.  He finally found a spot.  The sound of falling water affected the rest of us predictably so we all files out and created a small tsunami which flooded out at least one anthill.

Back inside, after whispering ghost stories to each other for a while we began to drop off one by one.  I think that Benny was still talking when I drifted off to sleep.

I came awake suddenly for some reason.  I couldn’t put a motivation to it, but my eyes just popped open.  I lay silent, breathing very slowly listening for whatever it was that woke me.  Bert, who was lying next to me, started pushing against my leg with his leg.  I pushed back, but he kept bumping and pushing at me.  With no warning, he began rolling over onto my stomach.  “Hey!  Dammit Bert.  Move back over, whydontcha?”  I said, and pushed back again.

“It’s not me, Tom.  I’m over here.”  His voice answered from across the fort.  “Benny!  Get your hairy arm off my face!”

“Whatd’ya mean me?  I’m still in my sack.  Kick Xavier instead.”

“It’s not me guys.”  Said Xavier.  “So who the hell is it?”

The only flashlight in the place flicked on and highlighted a huge apparition of an animal as it stood on it’s hind legs, transfixed and still, in the middle of five guys who were in the process of levitating.   “AHHHHGH!  What the fuckzat?”  Screamed someone – who sounded remarkably like me.

All six of us tried to get out the door at the same time, which solved the problem of enough ventilation since the entire wall fell with a crash.  The poor Opossum that had started all this carefully looked at us, snorted, and ambled down the path.  We gathered all our bedding, which had been sucked out the door in the vacuum behind us as we left, and peeked into the fort to see if any more  possums were forthcoming.  None were found, but the hole we had noticed before and plugged with a rock was now rock-less.  We figured he had to have come out of that hole and found we’d built a fort over him.

We decided that henceforth the fort would be known as Fort Possum.


Fort Possum, Part 1

October 21, 2010

One of the cool things that pretty much every kid, the males as least, got to do was build forts.  Big forts, small forts, one-man forts, snow forts, tree forts, and the most grand fort of all: the dugout fort.  Fort building was an art form practiced by pretty much all us guys that lived within our housing area in Maryland.

The very first thing you have to do is carefully select your crew.  You have to have the right mix, or any fort building activity will be negated by squabbling among the members.  I had to start with my brother.  This was mainly because I’d enlisted him to help me spirit away a few boards, nails, a small hammer, and (for some reason) a three-legged stool from our basement.  I didn’t really want him with me, but he was a certified squealer and this was going to be a secret fort.

Several of my normal cronies volunteered to help.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  The one person we needed was Ralph.  His dad owned the local hardware store.  Nothing got built in our neighborhood (by grown-ups or kids) without materials from him.  Ralph was a whiner though.  Nothing grated on your nerves worse than a kid who constantly whined about this or that – usually in a high-pitched, nasal voice.  We’d just have to figure out how to exclude Ralph when it came time to select officers in the club.

Our survey team started out one sunny Saturday morning.  We loaded up our trusty bicycle baskets with lunch goodies and bottled soda.  Pedaling though the neighborhood, we gathered up our crew.  Eventually there were seven of us rolling down the hill towards the stream that ran between the last houses and the woods.  This particular set of woods was called the Big Woods.  It went back roughly two or three miles over pretty hilly ground and ended up against the security fence of Andrews Air Force Base.  At it’s widest point, it was perhaps four or five miles long.

There were several trails worn down from the travel of kids in search of fun.  We followed the main one for a bit and then veered off onto a lesser trail.  Soon, we were pushing our bikes through shrubbery that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go.  As I was more-or-less the leader, I had to, er, lead.  This meant I got to pick the wrong little trail and end up right at the edge of the cliff overlooking the gravel pit.

“Whoops,” I declared as I shuddered to a stop.  “Wrong turn.”

“Hey!  Dipshit.  This here’s the quarry.”  A chorus of agreement followed his carefully worded remark.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s go back this way.”

The outspoken second-in-command (by virtue of his keen insight as to my leadership abilities) backed up, turned around, and forked off in another direction.  Eventually we located a very nice place at the base of a small cliff.  There were tiny caves in the cliffside but none big enough to be of much use to us.  We did some extensive surveying work (walked back and forth and estimated how big the area was), made some notes on a paper bag (we had forgotten paper) with a pen that skipped (provided by my brother).

Some discussion followed as to the actual suitability of this spot as opposed to a different spot but it was quickly tamped down by a comment from one of the bystanders: “What the hey?  So build already!”  This from Mr. Moshwitcz.

“Let’s eat.”  This from our most rotund buddy.  He grabbed at the food bag and ripped it open.  He had to be slightly restrained from pulling everything out and stuffing it in his mouth.  I say ‘slightly’ only if you consider wrestling him to the ground and sitting on him ‘slight’.  Benny made the mistake of opening a bottle of Coke by putting the lip of the cap on the bolt in the center of his handle bars and slamming his hand down.  Classic bottle opening technique.  What he’d forgotten was that the Coke had been out in the sun, not to mention been bounced along in a bike basket for hundreds of miles, and it literally exploded out of the neck and all over us.



(Expletive deleted)


After cleaning hot, sticky Coke from most of us we unloaded some of the preliminary building materials and pushed them back into one of the holes.  A suitable sized rock was located which we pushed into the hole as a plug.  On our way back to the housing area, we made sure to take our bearings although there probably wasn’t a single kid for miles around that couldn’t have navigated anywhere inside those woods with a blindfold on.  What we did do was make the approach path deceptively vague.  We added obfusticating notes like ‘go 792 paces from the big dead tree towards the hill with the big rock on it and then crawl on all fours down the game trail through the blackberry bushes’; stuff like that.  We figured that if any kid could count up to 792 they were welcome to join our merry band.

Back at the house, we drew up a list of contents we might need.  Some things were written down and others were laughed out of existence.  For instance, who needed a bathtub?  In just over 1000 paces, we could walk over the cliff and fall into the water-filled gravel pit.  Sheesh!  Candles.  Candles were good.  We’d need a lot of them.  One of the guys said he could get some so we told him to do so.  We’d need lots of boards, but getting them down to the fort was going to be a problem.

We ended up gathering all the stuff and stashing it under my back porch.  The cave under our back porch usually ended up being the staging grounds for loads of my nefarious and clandestine projects.  That is until the time that we’d found that small canister of sulfur in the trash behind the high school it was very secure.  But, as they say, that’s another story.

It was an impressive pile of goodies we’d gathered.  Some almost new two by fours, three rather large hunks of plywood, a big jar of nails, two rusted hammers, a pot of glue (glue?), and a short-handled shovel.  Looking like a line of castaways moving camp, we trudged towards the site of our new fort.  At about the halfway mark, we had our first mutiny.  “I’m not carrying this damn board one more inch!”  Peewee declared, throwing it to the ground.  In all fairness, he was the smallest of the group and he had picked the longest board to carry.  That didn’t say much towards his intelligence and, when this was pointed out, his answer was a simply “Up yours, asshole!”

We redistributed the load somewhat and continued.  I don’t know how long it actually took us but by the time we finally dropped the stuff at the site we were tuckered out.  Lunch immediately followed.  Leo was not allowed near the Coke.  Soon the clatter of hammer and the ragged sound of a saw torturing wood filled the little glade.  Big rocks were put to play driving stakes into the ground so that we would actually have something to nail the boards to.  About halfway through the lower level a sane voice spoke up.  “Hey, wait.  Where’s the door going to be?”

We had run boards all the way around the three sides (the fourth being the side of the cliff) and left no opening for any kind of door.  “Well, poop.”  A voice sounded from the rear of our group.  A half hour was wasted while we argued just where the door was going to be.

“Over here, so we can look downhill.”

“Over here, so we can look uphill.”

“Over here so we don’t have to run through blackberry bushes every time we have to pee.”  Spoke the voice of reason.  We all voted for that answer and modified our stake pounding to include a doorway facing the ‘pee area’.

We ran out of lumber and stamina at about the same time and decided to quit for the day.  Wearily, we stashed most of our leftover goods up against the hillside and departed for home.  Most of us were headed to church the next day (except Abe) so we agreed to meet at around noon at my house.



The subject is: bullying

October 9, 2010

When I read this article in the San Francisco newspaper I was appalled.


Then I remembered that this is really nothing new.  Bullying has been around for a lot longer than just recently.  My own experiences in the mid-fifties with bullying were just as bad as these four souls, but I took some good advice from – of all people – my parents.  I sought out my dad and, surprisingly, he came through with some pretty sage advice.

His thoughts were along the lines of  ‘don’t react to the taunting’ and ‘just walk away’.  And, he added, ‘if that doesn’t work, take a first, and aggressive, step.  hit first and keep hitting’.

Well, that is all well and good if you are faced with only one bully.  In my case, this particular bully had ancillary bullies that liked to hang around with this lug and add to the general taunting and other activities.  One of them would initially corner me and, like magic, the rest would appear in a circle around me.  This was performed in places where being seen by anyone in authority was just not going to happen.  Bus stops, either in the morning or the evening, were a favorite.

Due to school rules, we had to board and exit the bus at designated stops.  This was enforced by the driver who made sure that we only got on or off at our stops.  Unfortunately, most of the bullies got off at the stop before me and would hit the street running.  They would run through back yards and emerge on my street ready for me as I got off the bus.  The familiar circle would form and things would begin.

First, it was great fun to grab all my books and fling them across the street.  Then, as I tried to pick them up and gather papers that began to blow away, the group of them would trip me, push me, and generally keep me from getting to the papers.  This would go on for a while until the main bully would take a swing at me and, usually, connect.  This was never done where I could see it coming, but, instead, the blow would usually be in my back or on the back of my head.  Many is the time I finally made it home with blood running down into my shirt collar.

My mom would get severely pissed off and go raging around the house yelling and making threats of her own against ‘those bastards’.  I suspect that most of her rage was directed mainly at me as she tried to get the blood out of the material. ‘Why can’t you just fight back?’  she would ask.  She didn’t really have a clue about the social significances of ‘fighting back’ when faced with more than one person.  I’d get killed.

My dad finally came through one evening.  He told me he’d signed me up for boxing lessons at the base gym twice a week.  In his college days, he’d been a football player and was still pretty beefy for an old guy (mid-30’s).  He said he’d get in some gym time while I was taking the lessons.  We both decided that I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing this.  Mostly this was for self-preservation because if the bullies heard they’d only escalate before I was ready.

I suffered through weeks of hell.  I was taunted, kicked, pushed, hit, and body-slammed into many walls for the next few weeks.  Finally, about two months later, I felt that I was ready to at least try and make a stand.

I would look in the mirror and see a skinny, slightly freckled face, adolescent staring back at me.  My arms were pencil thin and I had to admit to myself I hardly presented a fierce demeanor.  I would strike a pose, fists up, and then almost break into laughter at how silly I looked.  I hardly looked menacing.

The big day arrived.  I was as ready as I ever would get.  Today had been an especially bad day because one of the hangers-on managed to trip me into a wall and I’d split my lip.  I was already in a bit of pain so I figured ‘what the hell’ and sat down on the homeward bus.  Moving around on the bus was strictly forbidden and, as I said, the driver enforced rules harshly.  This meant that the ‘Wild Bunch’, as I called them, would leave me alone until the dropped off the bus and began their run to meet me.

Sure enough, we rounded the corner to my street and arrayed nearby, but not enough to cause concern to the driver, was the circle of bullies.  I stepped off the bus and, hidden by the side of the bus where the driver couldn’t see him, I got smacked in the back of my head with a hardback book.  I stumbled, unprepared, and dropped to one knee.  He moved in closer as the bus went on down the road.  With one hand down on the ground to help me get back up, I curled my other hand into a fist and rose up.  In one swift move I clocked him right behind the ear.  He got this shocked look on his face and I added another tap right on his cheek then fell back into a defensive posture.

He was so shocked that he just stood there until the main bully got into the act.  I heard him coming across the gravel at the side of the road and pivoted to meet him.  Without thinking, my right fist shot out and banged him right on the nose.  He halted in his tracks and just stood there.  His buddies took a step back, knowing he would probably begin to wipe me out, as usual.

Before he even moved again, I hit him with a one, two:  a fast punch to the ribs and another one to the side of his face.  Then I backed up and scanned from face to face looking for any movement on their part.  They didn’t move an inch.  They were all looking at their hero, who now had blood dripping from his nose, trying to clear his head and breathe.

“Enough?”  I shouted.  “Have you had enough?”

He answered by stepping towards me and flailing away with hands curled into fists.  The fight was on.  He tried several face shots which I blocked very well.  He got in one hit on my shoulder that caused my arm to tingle, but it was still functional.  Two more attempts to hit me in the stomach were blocked also.  Then he decided to kick me.  That was a big mistake.

As his foot rose I reached down and caught his heel.  With a grunt I flipped him over and he fell to the ground on his back.  All the air whooshed out of his lungs and I decided he was out of action.  I was wrong.  He managed to get back on his feet but as soon as he did, I hit him on the jaw – twice – very hard.  The first one split the skin on his cheekbone and the second one widened it even more.

He was getting groggy now and tried to rally his buddies by egging them on and into the fight.  They, thank goodness, decided that seeing what he was getting was not something they wanted any part of.  Two of them drifted away and the others just stood there.  The head bully, however, had regained some composure and moved in closer to me.  I stepped back smartly and popped him a good one in the middle of his chest.  That took all the fight out of him and he just dropped his arms and tried his best to gather in enough air to sustain life.  He was done.

I said something like “now that I have your attention: leave me the hell alone.  You got that?”

He nodded and turned away snuffling blood and spitting onto the ground.  I watched him walk away, weaving a bit, until he was down the block.  I massaged my knuckles, worked my jaw back and forth a couple of times, gathered my books and papers, and walked home.  I felt a whole lot better even though I had just beaten up a guy.  I had a feeling I’d seen the last of him.

I was right.  The next two years of school passed with no hassle at all from anyone – especially the main bully.  I don’t recommend this for everyone but sometimes the only good defense is a great offense.  Strike first, and strike hard is sometimes the only option.


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:

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.


Across the USA (Pt. 7)

April 28, 2010

We spent eight long, boring, centuries in Santa Ana.  In the early decades of most centuries, my brother and I would sit up in the small apartment over the garage and shoot rubber bands at each other for amusement.  My grandmother used to work as an accountant and she had a giant box of them on a shelf in the closet.  Then we would shift to play the ‘guess which relative we’re going to see today’ game.

At about the fifty-year mark we would have lunch.  It was almost always peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a glass of milk.  Occasionally, my grandmother would throw in a slice of pie.  After a quick clean up of the kitchen, we’d pile into our bus and head for AuntUncle Whomever’s house.  I really don’t know why all we kids had to go because we didn’t have a clue as to who they were.  After all, if we didn’t get a Christmas present from them, they didn’t count.  We would arrive back home after dark and either have a quick snack (if we hadn’t had one elsewhere) or just flop down into bed and try to sleep in the heat.  Central air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet.

In the initial years of the fourth century, we got up early and, as promised, went over to Disneyland.  We drove around the parking lot for what seemed like hours while my dad tried to find a spot ‘just a little closer’.  Hey man!  Just park it already!  I’m not going to even try and describe our visit to the park.  Suffice it to say that we all had fun; expensive fun, but fun nevertheless.  The ticketing structure was an interesting facet of the park.

In June of 1959 the ticketing structure changed.  Each of us had to have what they called a “passport”.  This passport contained a general admission ticket, a lot of coupons for pennies off their overpriced food, and several pages of tear-out stamps marked from “A” to “E”.  The “E” ticket had just been added.  We were warned in very strong terms that we were NOT to tear out the tickets but, instead, let the ride operator tear it out.  Printed plainly on the ticket was the caveat ‘Void if Detached’.

The “A” and “B” tickets were mostly for stuff like Main Street rides and kiddy rides.  “C” tickets escalated into more challenging rides like ferryboat rides and the Rainbow Caverns Mine train ride.  Tomorrowland and Fantasyland was where you spent most all of your “D” tickets on things like Autopia and the Astro Jet rides.

We all prized the “E” ticket rides, but you only got two “E” tickets in your passport.  I spent mine on the TWA Rocket to the Moon and the SP & D Railroad train (naturally).  I went back and used my own money to buy another set of tickets so I could ride the Matterhorn bobsled ride.  It was this ticket that gave us the catch phrase “a real E-ticket ride” for any fast moving, or really scary ride in any moving object.

To this day I do not remember what my dad shelled out for these ticket books but he moaned about the cost for a month afterwards.  It was this reason we did not go to Knotts Berry Farm this trip.  I would have been happy to go there instead of Mr. Disney’s theme park.  We did spend the entire day from when the park opened to watching the fireworks while standing in the middle of Main Street on our way out to the car.  We spent an hour just getting to the road from our parking spot.

Somewhere in my house I still have all the 8mm film from my dad’s movie camera that he shot of us kids having fun.  I’ve seen it and plan on transferring it to a DVD soon.  ‘Soon’ being a relative term that actually means ‘just before or during the next millennia’.  (Oops, it’s 2010 now and I still haven’t done it.)

I did finally find someone to hang around with in the fifth century.  Her name was Harriet.  She lived two doors down from my grandmother and was lucky enough to have two bicycles.  I felt just a little silly riding a girl’s bike, but it did get me out of the house and away from the family for mornings or afternoons.  She had finished the school year about a week before we got there so both of us were kinds bored.  She was only fifteen, but since I was only seventeen it didn’t matter.

She was kind of plain looking but did a lot of smiling with perfectly white teeth.  She knew all sorts of places within range of a bicycle that we could visit like the local library, the swimming pool, a small amusement park and the farmer’s market.  I tried to get my dad to let me take the bus, but he said he was worried that I only had an International Drivers License.  For some reason, it was not valid here in the United States.  He’d let me do a little driving on the trip, but here in Southern California it was different.  Actually, being able to buzz around on a bicycle was pretty cool.  We could take shortcuts not available to cars.

The day before we were scheduled to leave, Harriet and I pedaled down to the municipal pool and splashed around for a while.  She introduced me to about six or eight friends, most of them girls, and only two of them were brave enough to wear the new bikinis.  The rest of them wore one-piece suits.  All the kids around me were very tanned and healthy-looking.  Must be all those oranges for breakfast every day.

We packed up the night before our departure and went to bed early.  Our target time of leaving was five in the morning.  This was done mostly to try and beat the traffic of the morning rush.  We hit the road only fifteen minutes late and swept up north on highway 99.  By the time the sun rose, we were well down into the valley past Bakersfield and headed to Fresno.

The rest of our trip was pretty uneventful.  When we got almost to Stockton we cut west and drove over the hills to Richmond.  We crossed the bridge, got on highway 101 and went north to our temporary home at Hamilton Air Force Base.  We had reservations in the guest housing so we could look around for a place to live.

Three days later, my parents settled on a little house up in Petaluma.  When our household goods arrived in a month we met the flatbed truck carrying the shipping containers at the new house and watched as they unpacked everything and carried it into the house.  Neighbors came over to say hello and brought food for our hungry tribe.

Once the dust settled, the next phase of my life began – fitting into the sun-worshipping, surfing, car-crazy kids of California.


Across the USA (Pt. 4)

April 8, 2010

The drive to Dodge City was very hot.  We panted while sitting on the hot cloth seats.  We could barely sit back because the vinyl inserts got hot enough to raise welts.  As a consequence, we kids got a little out of hand.

It started with a classic ‘stop touching me’ and went bad from there.  Soon, we were surreptitiously pinching, hitting, poking, and needling each other.  The swamp cooler ran out of water and we couldn’t find any to refill it with so that air stayed hot and dry.  Our supply of drinking water, not the best anyway since it had been filled with pale yellow water from the faucet, ran out.

We finally pulled over at a gas station that had an attached store.  The owner should have worn a woolen overcoat with brass buttons, an eye patch, a bandanna over his head and carried a cutlass.  He was a pirate.  Sodas, which normally sold for around thirty cents had a price tag of seventy-five cents on the ice tub.  We bought only two.

While he kept a wary eye on everyone in the store, my brother and I went to the side of the store outside and discovered a water tap.  He went back to the bus and found all our canteens and, trying not to clink them together, brought them to me.  I eased the tap open and filled every one of them.  The water tasted cool and clean to me.

When Bluebeard mentioned that the next gas was almost seventy miles away my dad just scoffed.  The pirate’s last shot was ‘see you in a couple of hours’.  My dad just smiled.  We had almost a half-tank of gas.  That would get us all the way to Dodge City and then some.

Dodge City turned out to be a real bust for us kids.  We’d been watching western serials on television over in Germany and thought that with a name and history like Dodge City had they would still be packing six-shooters in the streets.  Not so.  People seemed normal, if a little irritable in the heat, and didn’t even say ‘shucks’ to us once.

There was an old portion of town, set aside for the tourists, that was supposed to be authentic.  It looked the part, but I got the impression if you went behind the false fronts you’d see nothing but timber shoring them up.  It wasn’t quite that bad, but it did seem that every building had some sort of entrance fee.  Just drop a dime into the bin and come see ‘authentic this’ and ‘old-timey that’.  For a half-dollar they’d lock you up in the ‘hoosegow’ for ten minutes.  Whee, what fun.

A couple of guys stepped into the street from two different saloons and drew on each other.  Amid some fairly good gun work, they shot each other on alternate hours and twice on Sunday.  It was a good show.  The stage rattled in twice a day with appropriate dust cloud and properly dressed schoolmarms and dudes stepped down looking like their shoes hurt.

We came away mostly unimpressed with Dodge City.

We took US 50 out of Dodge City and dropped southward to meet US 160.  Our eventual goal now was Durango, Colorado.  Night began to fall as we passed through sleepy, dusty towns until we found an arrow pointing to a lake.  We turned off and wandered over a bumpy road until we came to the lake.  It wasn’t much of a lake, but the tall cottonwood trees gave some shade.  It wasn’t deep either.  I could wade across it and not get my tummy wet.

The evening breeze picked up and kept the mosquitoes at bay.  And, if that wasn’t enough, the smoky fire we started would.  Dinner was good and, once the dishes were washed, we were allowed to go run around for a while.  My brother discovered the blackberry patch and didn’t tell anyone.  I asked him why his fingers were blue and he finally told me.  I grabbed a big pot and went back around the lake to fill it.

The berries were very ripe and were probably the largest blackberries I’d ever seen.  There appeared to be a whole hillside of brambles and I filled the pot and myself before coming back to the bus.  My mom saw them and wanted more so she sent me and my sister back with two more pots.  We filled those also.  She had plans for them in the morning.

Around midnight, a pickup truck with its lights off idled past us and went around the lake.  I could hear doors slamming and an occasional snatch of conversation.  Most people have no idea how well sound carries across water so when I began to hear girlish giggles and manly chuckles I had a pretty good idea what was talking place.  I was either asleep or they were really quiet when the left.

We entered Colorado the next morning.  The air seemed to get cooler as we gained altitude.  Around noon we got to Trinidad and pulled into Trinidad Lake State Park to eat.  It was so nice there we stayed several hours.  My brother and I found that canoe rentals were reasonable enough so we rented one for an hour and messed about the lake.  We’d flit from one part of the bank to another, ground the bow, and take off exploring.

I was amazed at the amount of just plain crap thrown aside into the weeds.  Tons of fishing gear wrappers, empty bait tubs, beer cans, and other items littered the small trails that ran everywhere.  In Germany, you would have a hard time finding anything lying around like that.  Not only are there laws, but there are a sort of park ranger there to back it up.  If nobody official kept you from littering, there was always pressure from just plain folks to keep your act clean.

Once, as we drifted slowly across the lake, my brother looked down and pointed with a shout that there was a huge fish following us.  I looked and sure enough there was a very large catfish just swimming and nudging the frayed end of a rope dragging behind us.  He’d come up, grab the rope in his mouth and then try to dive.  I thought it was my brother doing something behind me until I saw the fish.  I could have just barely covered the catfish’s head with a paper plate.

Towards the end of the hour, we paddled back and turned the canoe in.  By the time the two of us walked back to our picnic table, everyone was almost packed and ready to go.  We jumped into our assigned seats and left to begin the long climb up towards Wolf Creek Pass.

First we had to go north until we got to Walsenburg then west past colorfully named places like Muleshoe and Seven Mile Plaza.  By the time we got to South Fork we had started up the eastern grade to Wolf Creek Pass.  My dad found a pullout next to the road and we let the engine cool down a little before beginning the climb.  Being air-cooled, the Volkswagen runs efficiently and cools down very fast.

Refreshed with a drink from the very cold stream we got aboard the bus and started out.  Most of the time we remained in third gear until the grade got really steep.  Down to second gear at times, our top speed was just over twenty-five miles per hour.  Luckily, there were quite a few pullouts where a slow moving vehicle could let others pass while not having to stop.  We did a lot of pulling over.

The final grade had us in first gear.  Whining up the slope at a stately ten miles per hour we had all the time we needed to look out at all the patches of snow under the trees and the huge piles of it where the snowplows had dumped it at the side of the road.  In one small stretch we couldn’t see anything but a ten foot tall wall of dirty snow.

We ground into the parking area at the summit – right at ten thousand eight hundred and fifty seven feet.  It was the highest I’d been in over four years except for the one time we went skiing down near München.  We all stood in front of the rustic sign naming the pass and showing its altitude and had our picture taken by a guy from a passing family.

My dad asked me if I wanted to drive back down the west side.  I said I’d be happy to.  We loaded back up and down the hill we went.  He cautioned me to never get above third gear until we got down into the flats.  He explained that I could get too fast and the brakes would heat up enough to lock so use the engine as a brake.  Good advice.

I wound around sweeping curves, taking quite a bit of time between light brake applications.  Cars would whiz past us whenever they could pass us.  The downside didn’t have tow lanes so they had to wait until they could pass us in the single lane road.  One guy in particular was very obnoxious when he passed me but signaled that he though I was number one in his book.

I smiled greatly when we came up on him at the side of the road – two huge black streaks leading to the smoking rear end of his car.  He’d hit his brakes too many times or too hard and they locked on him.  Happily, it was his two back brakes and not a steering brake.  I tapped the horn as we passed and waved.  He signaled to me again with both hands.

We reached our interim stop, Bayfield, in the early evening.  This was to be a short stop to visit some sort of relative on my dad’s side; an uncle, I believe.  He was a big, rough hewn kind of guy that rarely smiled.  He lived on a farm with lots of outbuildings we could explore while the grown-ups chatted.  My brother and I peeked into a big barn first.

There were two horses in stalls at one end, and a huge pile of left-over horse at the other.  Both smelled a lot so we slipped out the back and ended up in a chicken yard.  Now, I’ve never been afraid of a chicken, but when this one little black dude with half his feathers missing charged us cackling and squawking, we beat a hasty retreat.

Two smaller buildings proved to be just storehouses for ‘stuff’, mostly canned food.  Then, one shed way out in a field showed some promise.  Through the open door we could see a couple of old cars.  I’ve always been a fan of old cars and, as we got closer, I could see one of them was a 1937 Chevy Coupe.  It appeared to be in pretty good shape, but it was up on blocks and had no wheels or tires on it.

Right next to it was an old Willy’s Jeep.  It was the convertible model called a Jeepster and I thought it was from 1949 or 1950.  I opened the door and sat down in the driver seat.  It was set pretty low because of my uncle’s height so I couldn’t see very well over the dash.  It was originally an old maroon color, but it had two blue fenders on the left and a gray rear quarter panel.  Obviously, he’d been fixing it up.

We threw a few rocks into his pond trying to hit the ducks floating around but didn’t come close.  They just quacked at us and swam out of range.  A faint voice called to us from the house so we had to cut our explorations short and get back for some dinner.

Dinner was good.  Heavy farm food like corn on the cob, thick slices of roast beef, mashed potatoes and stiff brown gravy and the like was on the table.  For dessert, we had a huge slice of cherry pie.

Rather then try driving the miles to Durango, my dad elected to just camp out in one of their pastures for the night and drive in the next day to my grandparent’s farm in Breen.  We unloaded just the bare minimum for comfort and cover and slept under the stars.

Next morning, we kids were assigned duties.  I drew egg gathering and asked if there was some secret method of dodging that nasty little rooster.  My aunt told me that when I opened the first gate he’d charge me and to dodge to the side and trap him by swinging the gate through the opening and he’d be caught in that little triangular area behind the gate.  Sounded like a plan to me.

I was prepared for his charge, but it didn’t come.  I eased past the gate carefully looking in all directions and still no feathered missle.  I crept towards the henhouse and cracked the door.  It squeaked just a tiny bit.  That did it – he woke with fire in his eye and began pecking at my feet and ankles.

I swatted at him but he deftly dodged every swing of my basket.  His gabbling woke every hen in the house and they began to add to the din.  It was insanely noisy with all the cackling so I tried to make the best of it and reached for the first nest of eggs.  The owner took exception to me grabbing them and pecked at me the whole time.

I finally got those three eggs in the basket and moved onward through the rest of the nests.  I had at least four pockmarks on my arms from attacking hens and two of them were bleeding.  Those damn chickens have a really sharp beak.  I counted around eighteen or so eggs and decided to beat a hasty retreat.

This time the head rooster followed me beating at my heels with his wings.  I smiled when I managed to hit him with the gate as I opened it.  A small victory, but I felt better.

Breakfast was also farm fare.  At least three frying pans on the wood-fired stove were cooking things like omelets, bacon and leftover mashed potatoes.  The bacon was not the paper-thin stuff you see in supermarkets but nice thick slices manually taken from a huge side of smoked pig.  All of it was delicious.

After packing up and saying our goodbyes we headed out for the few miles to my dad’s father’s farm.  We were held up in Durango while the Silverton Steam train rattled across the road.  All of us asked if we could take the train while we were here.  Dad said ‘maybe’, which is a pretty sure thing sometimes.

We arrived at the farm in early morning and settled down into visit mode.


A trip to the beach

December 15, 2009

One summer, while we lived in Washington D.C., my dad had to go to some sort of Meteorologists conference out on the west coast which left the rest of us at loose ends on what to do.  My mom came up with the idea of loading all of us into the old station wagon and heading for the beaches down in Delaware; Bethany Beach to be specific.  We had been there several times before and liked it so much that my mom made reservations for us at one of the motels.  Our usual one was full up, so we had to take what turned out to be our fifth choice.

We went around the house and stuffed small bags with clothes and stuff we would need at the beach.  Actually, there isn’t a lot you really need for the beach so the bags were pretty small.  This would have been around 1954 or thereabouts so I would have been 12, my brother 8, and my sister 5.  The station wagon, a 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, had two large seats and a huge ‘back end’ that we loaded up with soft things to lie on.

With a flurry, we were off – well, not quite.  We got 10 miles down the road and found that we had forgotten a couple of bags.  Back we went.  I don’t want to hint that this set the tone of the trip but it did.  We were arranged in the car thusly:  I was in the front seat with my brother hanging over the seat back whining that he wasn’t in the front seat.  My sister was happily lying back on the bags in the back until she said that she smelled something.

Quickly ducking to the side of the road, my mom discovered that a perfume bottle had leaked inside her bag.  This prompted her to crack the back window a little as we took off again.  Bad idea, as the back end of a station wagon causes a huge vortex of air to be pulled from under the car and directly into the open window.  This, of course, caused yet another complaint from my sister – that of being gassed.  Carbon monoxide is not a viable replacement for cooling breezes on a hot day.  Closed went the window.

Now, my brother decides it is time to get into the act and begins kicking the back of my seat.  I endure it for as long as I can (around 12 seconds) and then rise up to smite him.  The moment I do, my mom whips to the side of the road again and threatens to decapitate all of us and leave our heads at the side of the road as a warning to other kids.  She thrusts the map at me and tells me to direct her through Baltimore.

Baltimore?  I hear you asking – Baltimore?  Well, of course.  The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel hasn’t been invented yet so you have to go all the way up to the north end of Chesapeake Bay and then down the DelMarVa peninsula (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) to get to Bethany Beach.  We may have been able to shorten our trip at Annapolis, but the bridge there wasn’t in service due to repairs (we found out after driving into Annapolis).  So, with a heavy sigh, my mom heads back north towards Baltimore.

At this point in development of the Interstates there were none to speak of.  Some very small portions of them were under construction around DC, but nothing in the wilds of Maryland.  We ended up on several US highways passing through many tiny municipalities that appeared to consist of nothing but used car lots, fast food joints, bars, hock shops, bowling alleys and the like.  Every fast food place we passed my brother whined about being hungry.  My mom, after planning carefully ahead, decided that making a lunch we could eat in the car would be much faster than trying to herd us through some beanery along the way.

When instructed to look on the floor of the middle seat for the basket, my brother again whined that he couldn’t find it.  This prompted another crash dive to the side of the road and an exasperated search by my mom – no basket; we must have left it home also.  My mom told us that she’d stop at the next ‘greasy spoon’ she found.

We pulled into a roadside café and, true to his calling as a wise-ass, my brother then asked the greeter if this was a greasy spoon.  She smiled frostily and directed us to seats near the restrooms and behind a large column holding the ceiling up.  Eventually a waiter came to take our order.  The funny thing was, the spoons were actually greasy to the touch.  Was this truth in advertising?

Even my brother ate only about half of his food.  Usually he snarfs it up and starts looking around for more.  It was truly bad food.  My mom’s hamburger looked as if it had once been a nice fat one, but cooking it for twelve hours at four-thousand degrees had turned it into a lump of coal.  On the other hand, my sister’s hamburger was almost raw; mine, well let’s just say it was passable.

Barely suppressing a gag reflex, we all walked back to the car to take up our forward charge towards the beach.  Once loaded, off we went and two hours later found us cruising south along a narrow stretch of tar-topped gravel deep into the wilds of Delaware.  The first sign of Bethany Beach was, of course, a sign that read ‘Welcome to Bethany beach’.  For all the size of the town it should have said the same thing on both sides.  We didn’t count actually, but I bet there couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or thirty buildings in the entire town; and half of them were either bars or tourist traps.  All the motels were cleverly placed so that you had to run down the center of town to get to them.  We finally located ours and, it could be said charitably, that the place was a real ‘fixer-upper’.

There was some confusion at the registration desk but none of us kids knew what it was because all we could hear was muted muttering by our mom when she got back into the car.  Something about having to pay – in advance – for the entire weekend, or we wouldn’t get the room.

After being warned that “there might be some sand in the room” we unlocked the door and waded through the stuff to each take our turn at the bathroom.  The sink was stained with rust and the bathtub held a nice set of rings around it etched in yellowing stages from top to bottom.  One bed, when we sat on it, sank nearly to the floor while the other could have been a cement slab with a sheet over it.  The radio howled like a banshee but gave up some static-filled twangy music when whacked on the side.  Virtually every tube in it was microphonic.

The good part was that we were right on the beach.  By that I mean we could walk out our back door and be just above what appeared to be the high tide line.  This was easy to tell because we first had to go out the front door and clear away the driftwood from the back door.  Apparently, there had been a storm a while back and nobody bothered to clear it out.

Dinner that evening turned out to be pretty good.  Every one of us dug into the huge pile of crabs plopped in the middle of the table and started whacking them with the wooden hammers provided.  This was really great!  We could eat with our fingers!

Smeared in butter from mouth to fingertips we walked back to the cabin (yes, each unit of the motel was a separate cabin) and started our cleanup.  While waiting for the water to get hot, my mom read War and Peace to us.  Finally, we eased carefully into the tub (one at a time), washed the grease off, and hopped into bed.

I’ve never liked sleeping with my brother.  He’s one of those kids that, when he rolls over, he actually catapults upward, flips in midair, and crashes back to bed.  This has the effect of an artillery shell near-miss and never fails to wake me.  Since we had the soft bed, his movements would be transmitted to me and I would echo what he just did. Only a half-second later.

The next morning dawned rather bright with the sun hitting our eyes through the torn window shade.  Taking turns, we all washed up, dressed, and went to breakfast.  On the way, we noticed that there was a fairly stiff wind coming up and had to hold up our hands to keep stinging sand from blowing in our eyes.  Our waitress told us that sometimes this happened and would last for days.  I could tell my mom was not happy with this news.

Finally, we donned bathing suits and headed for our little stretch of beach.  We walked towards it until we could feel wet sand but never opened our eyes.  On the beach itself, there was nothing to break up the wind from its charge across the Atlantic to dash against Bethany Beach.  If anything, it had grown stronger while we were at breakfast.

We struggled about two hours trying to find or build some shelter from the stinging sand.  A fort was made using driftwood but all that did was allow the wind to drop whatever sand it held directly on top of us as it passed over.  Finally my mom hopped up and yelled for us to go back to the cabin – we were leaving.

Even I was kind of happy we were going because having my skin sandblasted really wasn’t one of my favorite activities.  It really stung and grit got into some of the most interesting places – and created raw spots that really hurt.  We packed rapidly and put all the bags in the car while my mom went over to the registration cabin.

When she came back lightning was flashing around her head, steam was coming out of her ears, and a huge cloud of angry black clouds hovered over her.  She said not a word. But marched directly into the cabin and began stripping beds of covers and sheets and piling them on the floor.  Once they were bare she balled the linen up, took it to the car, and pushed it into the back seat.

A woman came running out of the registration cabin yelling things like ‘you can’t do that’ and ‘give those back to me’.  My mom only replied that “if you don’t give refunds, then these are certainly worth what you owe us” and hopped into the driver’s seat.  With a slam of a door, off we went, throwing sand into the woman’s eyes as we left (against the wind, actually).

We were all strangely quiet on the trip home.  Probably fearful of lightning striking in the same place.  Our mom was awesome when she got mad.


My secret love

December 3, 2009

When I was around twelve or thirteen I fell madly in love with a girl in one of my classes at school.  Since this was grade school we stayed in the same room all day long with just occasional visits to other rooms, like gym and science.  This put me ever so close to her pretty much all day because her last name began with the same letter as mine.  The teacher loved to have us sit in order because she always passed out test results and marked up homework from an alphabetically organized pile.

My seat was one person behind and to the right of hers.  This meant I got a right-quarter view that drove me to distraction most of the time.  She was always in my field of view and, when she got up, sat down, moved, or twitched my eyes would flick to her instead of where they should have been.  I missed many a homework assignment because of this.

I was shameless in my efforts to attract her attention.  I would try to help her with her coat for recess only to be told she didn’t have one; or push other guys out of the way in order to get paired with her for ballroom dancing in the gym.  This particular activity would cause my feet to grow about seven extra toes and become as big around as a tennis racquet.  Thus, I was armed (or footed actually) to cause real pain when I stepped on her feet.

She would allow me to barely touch her waist while keeping her arm straight out from her side.  I don’t remember ever being allowed to move much closer than two or three feet.  We weren’t going to win any tango championships.

I would daydream through class coming up with elaborate scenarios where I would heroically rush in and snatch her from the jaws of an alligator, or carry her from a burning building.  The inherent problems with my fantasies were that there actually had to BE an alligator about to chomp her or how to arrange a burning building.  Each bizarre thought would smolder, burst into flame, and then be extinguished immediately by a dose of cold water.  What’s that Ma’am?  The country to the south of France?  Denmark, maybe?

As the school year dragged on decade by decade, her defenses began to crumble.  Occasionally she would glance in my direction and almost smile.  At Christmastime I helped rig the name drawing with a little deception (and a big hand from my friend who was picked to draw the names).  I ‘drew’ her name.  Now, if only I had a clue as to what to give her.

I agonized over the present for days; rapidly thinking of objects and just as rapidly rejecting them as not suitable.  What could I possibly get her that she might appreciate?  My little bank jar had exactly seven dollars and assorted coins.  I had no idea how much diamonds cost, probably a lot, so that was out.  Besides, her parents wouldn’t let he wear them anyway.  Clothes?  No, not hardly.  I tried to remember if I had ever seen her with a hair ribbon.  No, that’s not right either – too simple.

I began to ask her friends if she had given them any hints.  One of them told me she needed a new bicycle.  I could barely afford the new inner tube I bought for mine much less buying a whole bike; that was out.  Our ‘mall’ was actually a collection of five and dime, hardware, and grocery stores at the edge of our development but I spent a huge amount of time over the weekend there prowling the stores for an idea.  Finally, I found it.  It was the perfect gift – practical, yet with a certain whimsy she was sure to like.  She would surely throw her arms around me and we would share a kiss.

Finally, the big day arrived.  We put away our books, circled the desks, and loaded down a table in the middle with our gifts to each other.  Slowly, piece by piece, each gift was handed out to the proper person and everyone watched as it was opened.  I could hardly contain myself as the presents on the table were handed out.  At last, the ‘elf’ lifted my gift and called out her name.

She stepped up and accepted it from him, then sat back down to open it.  All eyes turned to her as she ripped the paper off … an ant farm.  A stunned silence fell over the classroom as the kids stared at her.  Oh, how could I have been so stupid!  What the hell was I doing buying her an ant farm?  As I prepared to slink into the coat room, she snickered and began to chuckle.  Through a rising tide of laughter my face began turning a deep shade of red.  She looked around and, once she met my eyes, she gave a big smile and mouthed the words “Thank you”.

Later, when all the gifts had been given, cake cut and eaten, and ice cream slurped she came over to me and asked:  “How did you know that I have wanted an ant farm for so long?”

“I dunno, Deanna, just lucky I guess” I mumbled.

Then she did lean over and brushed her lips along my cheek.  I was invincible and ready to fight off any alligators that tried to chomp her.


Why parents get prematurely grey

September 27, 2009

Over the years, my siblings and I pulled some pretty good stunts on our parents.  These were almost always, but no by all means totally, at my instigation.  Don’t get me wrong; I got along reasonably well with my parents, but there were times when the little ‘gotcha’ bug burrowed deeply into my body and planted an idea.

There was the time that my brother and I took great care dabbing little mercurochrome dots all over my young sister’s body.  She was about 2 if I remember correctly and didn’t have any real say in the matter.  She did, however, hold still for us while we worked – occasionally trying to rub off a spot or two.

My mom was downstairs doing the washing at the time and came back upstairs with an armload of clean folded clothing for us kids to put away.  My brother’s stuff and mine were laid neatly on our beds and we were given the admonishment to ‘not mess around and put it away’.  Then she turned and went in our sister’s room.

“Yikes!” I think she said (I could be wrong; it might have been something entirely different).

“What?” I asked.

She didn’t answer right away and I soon heard her rushing around the bedroom grabbing baby clothes from drawers and putting them on my sister in preparation to rushing her to the base hospital.  She did begin to smell a rat I think when my brother and I erupted in poorly suppressed mirth at her consternation.

“All right, who did it,” she intoned, casting an eye over the two of us.

“I cannot tell a lie” I answered with wide innocent eyes aimed at my brother.  “He did.”

Once I was able to master the one-tube receiver and began to absorb a deeper understanding of radio theory I came across an advertisement for a simple one-tube broadcast band transmitter in one of my electronic magazines:

“Have fun in your own home fooling your friends.  Using this simple circuit and a short antenna you, too, can broadcast your voice through any available radio.  All you need is to speak into the microphone and you are instantly ‘on the air’”.

This sounded almost too good to be true I thought.  I could immediately see the possibilities of this fantastic device.  For the next three weeks I saved what little allowance I got ($2 a week) and carefully cut out the coupon, liberated an envelope from my mom’s desk, and mailed off my $5 (plus postage).

I haunted the mailbox for several weeks following the mailing hoping that the transmitter would arrive soon.  Finally, the mail carrier walked down the street, turned into our house and reached into his bag to pull out a square box (and some other stuff).  Since I happened to be in the vicinity, I volunteered to take the mail to my mom and he handed all of it to me.

I hot-footed into the living room, tossed the rest of the mail on the coffee table, and rushed immediately upstairs to my room – holding the box carefully like a delicate flower – and put the box on my desk.  Carefully, I cut the top and folded back the lid.  Inside were several paper bags, another small (but heavy) box, and an RCA tube box.  The instruction book consisted of several printed pages and a detailed schematic of the device.

It took me most of the week to assemble the device, mainly because I had a couple of false starts and had to reverse my steps.  After I dumped the contents of all the different paper envelopes on the desk I then read in the instructions to wait until each pack was called out before opening it.  Hey, I was twelve – who reads instructions?

Finally!  It was assembled and ready to test.  After making sure my mom was out of the house for the afternoon, I went downstairs, tuned the radio to a dead spot on the dial and rushed back upstairs. I hooked up the “A” battery (1.5 volts) to the filament of the tube and snapped the contact plate to the larger “B” battery (45 volts) and slowly turned the dial.  At one point there was a horrible screech from the radio downstairs as my transmitter matched the radio’s frequency.

I thumped my finger on the microphone and was rewarded by a matching thump downstairs.

“Hello?  Hello?  Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” was repeated much amplified from downstairs.

“What the hell are you doing now” my brother asked from the doorway (he was forbidden to enter my room on pain of death).  “Dad’s gonna have a fit if he thinks you’ve messed with his radio.”

“I haven’t done a thing to it.  It’s this” I said, indicating the breadboarded device on my desk.  “This is transmitting to the radio.”

“Cool!” He responded.  “What are you gonna do with it?”

He can be a real dim bulb sometimes, but he had hit on exactly the dilemma I was trying to work out – what to do with it.

“I don’t know” I responded.  “Any ideas?”

We talked about several things we could do until he mentioned that our father liked to listen to the news in the evening.  He and I thought it might be nice to maybe do some campaigning for our Christmas desires a bit early (it was October, I think) so we wrote a script outlining what we wanted from “Santa”.

My brother – ever practical – said the he would probably recognize my voice the first time he heard it.  Shoot, he’s right I thought.  How was I going to mask my voice?  We tried many different ways to sound different from the ridiculous (put marbles in my mouth) to the sublime (see if I could talk another adult into helping me).  While trying one method, I took a drink of water while talking.  As the glass neared my lips, the timbre of my voice changed into a positively Boris Karloff-like intonation.  This caused me to finally end up with a wash bucket over my head and, after my brother’s hysterics had passed, he went downstairs and listened to how it sounded.

He came back up and said that it really sounded good to him so we tuned the radio to my dad’s favorite station and I re-tuned the transmitter to that frequency.  When the batteries were connected, the normal station was completely eliminated and my voice began filling the living room.  I disconnected the batteries again and we were ready.

He came home at the usual time and, after dinner, dropped into his easy chair after turning on the radio.  After letting him listen to a couple of news stories I connected the batteries and began to read.

“Good evening” I intoned.  “This broadcast is being brought to you by Baedeker’s Toy Store.  The only toy store that has what all kids really want for Christmas.”

I didn’t get much farther than that before a bellow from below came echoing from downstairs.

“All right.  If I find out you’ve screwed up my radio you’re in big trouble kiddo.”

I could hear the sounds of the radio being pulled away from the wall as he checked for wires as I kept up my listing of toys the two of us would like to have.

Things would have been just fine except that I managed to reach up with my hand, touch the metal bucket, and (since I was holding the microphone in my other hand) complete the circuit between the antenna, my elbow, and the 45-volt battery.

Now, 45 volts won’t kill you, but it WILL definitely force a wild, banshee-like sound from deep inside you to be emitted.  This, coupled with the echo from inside the bucket, caused the radio downstairs to greatly amplify my anguish.  This also caused the bucket to be launched across the room and my own pain-filled voice to announce:

“WAH!  SHIT!  That hurts!”

Retribution swiftly followed; I was sentenced to ten swats with The Paddle.

We were foraging behind one of the stores in our huge four-store strip mall near home and found a perfectly good left arm.  Not a real one (that would have been cool too) but one from a store dummy.  It was smooth, flesh-toned, and had all its fingers.  We thought that the reason it had been discarded was the clip on the ‘shoulder’ had broken so that it wouldn’t stick to a torso any more.  This, I decided, had possibilities; and the wheels began turning.

We kept our garbage can on our back porch which was attached to the rear of the kitchen.  Since the back yard was lower than the level of the porch there was a set of steps down to ground level.  One of my jobs every week to earn my allowance ($2) was to horse the garbage can down those steps and out to the street.  It was a hazardous job most of the time, but after a huge meal ending up with watermelon, it made the can very heavy.  In this, the plan was hatched.

I stashed the fake arm under the back steps wrapped in an old t-shirt of mine, ready for instant action.  On Tuesday evening (our garbage was picked up on Wednesday) I carried out my plan.  As I went out the back door I noticed that my dad had piled some empty paint cans near the door.  Heck, I thought, those would help make noise too.

With deliberation I wrestled the garbage can to the bottom of the steps and carefully tipped it on its side. Next I set the paint cans on the top step and added several other items that would certainly make more noise.  The scene was set.

I gave out with a blood-curdling yell, pushed the paint cans down the steps and stomped down the stairs after them.  Reaching the bottom, I quickly lay down, pulled the fake arm out from beneath the step, folded my real arm under me, extended the fake arm – but disconnected by about six inches – from my shoulder, and waited.

My sister was the first on the scene and, when she took in my apparently disjointed arm, started screaming for my parents.  Next up was my brother, who scanned the accident and began laughing.  My mother followed closely by my dad was next.  She began to hyperventilate until my dad looked at all the apparent carnage and told my brother to go get a hammer and some nails to stick my arm back on.

I could suddenly hear the crickets under the porch chirping and the sigh of wind through the porch screens as it became very quiet.  My mom broke the silence by asking:

“It’s not real?”

“Nah” said my dad.  “Look at the hand, the nails are clean and it’s not dirty.  So it can’t be his.”

Dads are so practical.