Posts Tagged ‘memories’

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.

T.O.M.

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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.

“HEY!”

“Fathead!”

(Expletive deleted)

(Ditto)

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.

T.O.M.

 

The subject is: bullying

October 9, 2010

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

Article:

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.

T.O.M.

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.

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.

Fun with simple household items

July 31, 2010

Back in the Fifties – long before the invention of Nintendo and the like, kids had to make do with things at hand in order to have fun.  How much fun depended on what you had at hand – and how crafty you were.  Now, I don’t mean ‘crafty’ in the sense of being able to build a shopping area from a set of Lincoln Logs, but ‘crafty’ in the sense of sneaky.  I liked my sneakiness to actually be called creativity.

Rubber cement was a really neat invention.  It allowed you to stick papers together and pull them apart at a later time.  It had a heady aroma that would make you momentarily dizzy when inhaled.  This was long before glue sniffing became the rage and was closely aligned to receiving a test or classwork that had just been mimeographed.  They used ether in that process and sometimes it was so strong that just sitting in the class would get you high.

Anyway, my primary use of a small can of rubber cement started about a week earlier.  I began to complain of a pain on either side of my nose.  My mom would press here and there and ask me where it hurt.  I managed to fake a few groans and winced convincingly enough so that she pronounced that I had a sinus infection.

This went on for several days until I was getting ready to come down for breakfast one morning.  I loaded up my cupped hand with most of a can of rubber cement and allowed it to thicken slightly.  On the way down the stairs, I rubbed it under my nose until my eyes watered.  When I turned the corner into the dining room, I fake a huge sneeze that made everyone jump and turn to look at me.

I triumphantly allowed my hands to fall from my face and let the dripping rubber cement string out all down the front of my shirt.  As I held out my hands, happily making cat’s cradles of the gooey mess, I said “Hey!  Maybe this is what was blocking my nose up!”

Way back before matches were made so safe that you can hardly even get one going now, there used to be what were known as ‘kitchen matches’.  They also went by the name of ‘strike-anywhere matches’.  They were about as long as a toothpick and had a nice red head topped with a white phosphorus tip.

If one was careful, you could slit the empty end with a razor blade and slide a small square piece of paper into it to act as a stabilizer.  Before doing the surgery though, you first needed a tiny square of aluminum foil.  Applying the foil to the business end of the match you rolled the head into a tube and twisted the tip into a point.  This helped the aerodynamics of the match and, along with the tail “feathers” it would shoot across the room when you held another match under the foil and waited for the wrapped tip to catch fire.

We kids called these Zappers.  I don’t know why, we just did.  Shooting them off the edge of the table was fun – for about five minutes – and then you started looking for other targets of opportunity.  Sisters sitting quietly in the living room reading were one good target.  Brothers not paying attention to the direction a Zapper was aimed was another.

Zapper escalation occurred when one ill-aimed Zapper managed to hit said brother on his bare chest one summer afternoon.  It was a perfectly aimed shot that landed a direct hit on his navel.  Now, the significant thing one has to remember about this whole Zapper thing is that when the foil-tipped match ignites it gets HOT.  This Zapper hit him, as I said, in the navel and stuck there, rapidly burning a hole in him.

After beating at it, and running inside to grab an ice cube to apply on the burn, the rocket attack escalated almost immediately.  Soon the two of us were lobbing flaming matches at each other with vigor.  To this very day I still have a small, white scar on my shoulder where one of his Zappers landed.

We were always on the lookout for things we could do and when the pirate movies began to show up we kids began to emulate them.  Most notably were the sword fights.  Now, none of us had a sword, but that really didn’t matter.  It was the jumping around on various pieces of furniture (until mom’s declared “OUTSIDE!”) and stomping our feet in preparation for a charge.

My brother and I were out in the garage one day and located our camp kit.  Sticking out of the basket were four wooden handles that were attached to weenie roast sticks.  This was the type of stick that had a central spike and contained a push/pull lever that you could use to push the hot weenie off the end and onto your plate.  They would also make excellent swords.

We each grabbed one and began slashing and hacking at each other.  He landed a blow across my nose that brought tears to my eyes so I replied in turn – WHACK – right across his shoulder.  With much clanging and stomping we re-engaged and fought across the garage floor and out the door.  He stepped through the door and disappeared.  Aha!  I thought to my self.  He’s on the other side in ambush.

I prepared to leap through the door and continue the fight.  He apparently tired of waiting for me to appear and began coming back through the door at En Garde.  The point of his ween…, er, sword, caught me right in the ribs.  It took three stitches to close the gash.  The edict that followed was “Thou Shalt NOT Play Swords With Sharp Objects!”

I may have mentioned this already, but it is a very funny story.  Somehow my dad came up with a small can of luminescent paint.  In the dark it glowed with an ethereal green hue.  He used it on every light switch in the house so they could be found in the dark.  A really good idea, by the way as night lights were deemed “too costly in electricity” by my dad.  He also put some in several other places so that objects could be located in the dark.  My brother and I found one more use for it.

Outside my brother’s and my bedroom and opposite my sister’s room there was a comical cat clock.  It was made up in the shape of Felix the Cat of funny paper and cartoon fame.  His tail would flick back and forth, his whiskers would tilt up and down, and lastly his eyes would move to and fro with each tick and tock.

Grabbing his tail one afternoon, my brother and I painted small dots of the paint over the pupils of Felix’s eyes.  Thus, when night fell, all you could see was the glow of two green dots moving back and forth.  It was very impressive until the glow wore off.

That night, we waited until it was just about time for my sister to be taken to the bathroom (she had a slight tendency to wet the bed).  While she was in the bathroom, I got out my trusty Boy Scout flashlight and shined it directly into the cat’s eyes for a full charge of light.  When I turned it off, they really stood out.

My sister came out of the bathroom and neither he nor my mom noticed the eyes until about ten minutes later when there sounded a growing moaning scream from my sister’s room.  It built and built until it sounded like an air raid siren in an old World War Two movie.

“Mom.  MOM!  The cat’s gonna get MEEEEEEE!”  She screamed.

I heard my mom come down the stairs and down the hall to her room.  Some muffled consoling occurred and then quiet returned.  I don’t think our “sleeping” fooled my mom very much when she poked her head into our room.  The next day, the clock was moved so that those two glowing eyeballs clicked back and forth in front of our room.

I was always a tinkerer.  I loved to find out how things worked.  Sometimes I was good at it, and other times I sucked.  I took apart a clock once and when it went back together it always ran a twice the time – two minutes for every one.  I never did find that little wheeled sprocket that fell on the floor.

I never admitted to anyone until now that the reason my dad’s grinding wheel in the basement workshop was down to half it’s size was that I used it to try and shape a piece of tungsten steel.  Nobody told me that it couldn’t be ground down.

I even fixed the television when one of the tubes blew and didn’t light up.  My dad spent at least two dollars in telephone time calling up television repair shops hunting for the cheapest price on a new tube.  He was like that.

Perhaps my biggest achievement was fixing the toaster.  For weeks my mom had been nagging my dad to fix the toaster.  I would either stay down until the toast was incinerated or it would pop up before the bread was even warm.  Finally, I told her I could fix it.  Well, that’s not strictly true; I told her afterwards.

I waited until she went to the store, unplugged the toaster, and took it downstairs to the workbench.  Unscrewing the top wasn’t so bad and I finally lifted it off and set it aside.  The innards were caked with left over toast which was probably why it didn’t function properly.  I grabbed a brush and began flicking it as all the crumbs.  By the time I finished, there was a respectable pile of them on the bench.  Note to ones self:  NEVER blow at a pile of breadcrumbs when there is a back to the workbench to launch them right back at you.

Anyway, I decided that the spring tension wasn’t quite right either so I used a pair of needle-nose pliers to carefully lift the spring from it’s connection point annnnnnd eeeeeeasy now —- SPOING!  It launched itself across the basement and I distinctly heard it hit the water in the sump with a slight ‘bloosh’.  Rats!

I must have looked through every cigar box and drawer in the basement trying to find a replacement spring.  Finally I located one that looked about right.  It was a little stronger it seemed, but once I stretched it from the lever to the little hole in the side of the toaster it appeared good to me.  I reassembled the toaster and carried it back up to the kitchen.

The next morning, I watched carefully as my mom loaded up the toaster and pushed the lever down.  It latched into place and she turned to other mom-things.  I was distracted for a little while eating my cereal (I really hate oatmeal with raisins) until there was a mighty CLICK-BAM!  Two slices of nicely burnt toast shot out and smacked against the ceiling.  They promptly shattered like a couple of clay pigeons and showered all of us with shrapnel.

“What the hell?”  My mom said as she took in the shattered remains of two valiant pieces of toast sacrificed themselves as a testament to my ingenuity.

Why was my mom looking significantly at me?

The local five and dime (remember those?) got in a supply of jokes and treats for all occasions.  I coughed up fifty cents of my hard-earned dough and bought two items:  a plastic block that looked like an ice cube and had a fly trapped in it, and a pack of gum that was really laced with pepper and was supposed to be really hot.

In the evenings, my dad would come home from the base really beat.  I guess it was fighting with all those isobars, thermographs, and upper-level charts.  He liked to have a drink after dinner and so I was able to use my first item.  He grabbed a couple of ice cubes from the icebox, splashed in his scotch, and relaxed in the living room to watch some television.  When he got up to change the channel I managed to slip the fake cube into his drink.

Throughout the entire television program I was bursting with suppressed laughter but he never seemed to notice.  He drained his drink, took the glass into the kitchen, and washed it out.  I was devastated that he didn’t even see the fly.

Two days later, I found that one of the cubes of ice in my soda had a fly in it.

My brother was the target of the hot gum.  He is naturally suspicious of everything I do and say to him so it was a wonder I got him to try it at all.  Even so, he made me take a stick before he would.  It was a good thing I doctored one stick with regular gum before offering him the hot one.

T.O.M.

How to surf – NOT!

June 28, 2010

Following my sometimes painful introduction to life back in the States, things settled down to a daily drudge.  I was out across an arterial highway (US101) so I had to ride the school bus to school.  There was many reasons why this was considered to be the ultimate in agony for a high school junior.  The primary question always being ‘why don’t you have a car’?  My standard answer, which was considered akin to “the check’s in the mail” was ‘my car is still on it’s way from Germany’.  Hoots of derision usually followed this pronouncement.

November morphed into December, dragged onward into January, February, and March and finally, after several centuries, crawled into April.  April in California signals a real change from dirty brown grass, thunderstorms that don’t pass out much rain and winds whipping the fog up from the bay.  Rain falls, but at a softer, more soaking, rate.  Flowers, grass, and leaves begin to absorb it and turn green.

Girls start planning their spring wardrobes, with bright colors, lighter materials, and other eye-catching items.  Guys begin dividing into three groups:  1) The car guys; 2) the health nuts; and, 3) the surfers.  There is a fourth group consisting of both girls and guys that simply continue onwards with their lives.

I couldn’t join the first group – no car.  The second group was appealing to me, but they spent a lot of time working up to grueling marathons by running down to San Francisco and back in a morning wearing nothing but a really thin pair of running shorts, a running jumper with the number of calories per second they were burning pinned to the back, and running shoes that cost more than my car.  That only left the third group.  They seemed an interesting bunch to me, if one discounted the fact that they had their own language.  I’d give them a try.

Last year, in the Bavarian Alps, I’d tried skiing.  I was passably good at it.  I had two boards strapped to my feet, a long downhill grade, and nothing to cushion me except some pretty unforgiving snow over a very terra firma.  So, I figured, how hard can it be to stand on a one huge board, being pushed by a wave, with nice soft water as a cushion in case of the unlikely event I would fall.

I had a couple of the surfer crowd that lived nearby so I initiated contact with one of them.  His name appeared to be ‘Fuzzy’.  That was what everyone called him.  I think his actual name was Phil, but Fuzzy is what they knew him by.  Like me, he was a junior, had his own car, and had a really large surfboard done up in lime green with yellow lightning bolts down the length.

We were chatting out in front of his house one afternoon when he mentioned that his friend, Tomcat, was coming by.  He added that Tomcat had a woodie.  Now, I’m not prudish by any means, but something like that just seemed to be an overload of information.  Before I inserted my foot and chewed it off at the dotted line, Tomcat drove by in his Ford station wagon with actual wooden panels down the side and a surfboard rack on top.  Fuzzy asked me if that wasn’t the greatest woody I’d ever seen.  Um, yup; the greatest.  Actually, it was the first one I’d seen.

They were going out so Point Reyes to see how the surf looked.  Having to head back home soon, I had to decline, but asked to go another time.  They assured me I could go next time and zoomed out of sight.  Judging by the amount of blue smoke, Tomcat’s woody actually burned wood also.

Part two of my quest to be a surfer consisted of nudging a request for either a surfboard, or money to buy one towards my dad.  This was going to be very difficult as my dad was hard to get any money out of.  I was totally surprised when he mulled it over and said he’d see what he could do.  Not wanting to push my luck, I let the matter simmer right there.

He gave me the bad news the next day.  He was under the impression that a surfboard was something you slid on across incoming surf.  That actually being a ‘boogie board’, and was not very expensive.  When he pronounced an actual surfboard as being completely out of the realm of possibility I was crestfallen.  He went on to say that if I agreed to mow our lawn, trim shrubbery, wash the car, and balance the national budget, for the rest of my life he’d buy me a surfboard.  Sign right here son, in blood please.

Well, it was a thought.  Now I’d have to figure out a way to get one myself.  Back over to Fuzzy’s house I went and explained my predicament.  He had me follow him to his garage and stand under the trap door while he rummaged in the attic.  Eventually, amid grunts, groans, and an enormous bang, the nose of a surfboard emerged from the hole in the ceiling.  Fuzzy told me to catch the board and let it go.

Fortunately his brother’s plastic pool toy was where the tip of the board hit.  It bounced once and clattered to the floor.  Fuzzy admonished me to be more careful so I wouldn’t get it dingy.  It looked pretty dusty to me already so when I asked what he meant he just repeated what he’d said before, but emphasized the last part:  ‘get A dingy’.  Ah, now I understood, not “din-gey” but “ding-ie”.  I had a lot to learn.

Covered in cobwebs, Fuzzy dropped from the ceiling and explained that this was his old board and I was welcome to use it but I had to refinish it.  Currently, the finish was a cross between apple red and moldy cheese.  Large areas of the board were devoid of any finish at all, mainly the underside.  On one edge there appeared to be a small shark bite.  When asked, Fuzzy explained that he’d hit a rock.  What a relief as I figured his toes would have been very close to that particular spot.

I spent the next month working very hard at making the surfboard presentable.  This particular model was made of balsa wood.  It was very light and had a nice shape to it.  The tail fin had the tip broken off so I made a new fin in wood shop.  I had to do that surreptitiously because any project had to be approved by the shop Gestapo and mine wasn’t.  For ease of handling, I left the fin off until last.

My knuckles were wrapped with bandages, my fingers abounded with blisters, and my dad’s garage was completely taken over by my refinishing efforts.  Two sawhorses held the board while I sanded.  I was told by both Fuzzy and Tomcat that to use an electric sander was not a good idea because it took too much of a bite; hand sanding only.

Finally, I pronounced the board ready and began the task of spreading hot, melted, epoxy resin all over it uniformly.  It was very difficult, and on two occasions, I had to wait until it was dry and re-sand it off because it was too thick.  I slaved though the rest of May before it was done.  I had a small party consisting of Fuzzy, Tomcat, and I when I attached the fin.  The surfboard was done.

The three of us were pretty fast friend now and had taken a few trips out to see how the surf was.  On every occasion, it didn’t seem very good conditions.  Waves were listless, somewhat flat, and crossed each other regularly – a sure sign of a rip tide.  Not a good thing for surfing, or a surfer.  I watched from the shore as they tried their boards.  I saw how well they managed their boards and thought I could do at least as well.  Fuzzy promised that June was always a good month.

In the process of entering the world of surfing and surfers I acquired a huge amount of new, and incomprehensible, vocabulary.  Suffice it to say that I now got the same puzzled looks I once gave when I spoke Surfer.  I also was introduced to girl surfers.  Who knew!  I kind of hung out with one in particular who went by the name of Stringbean.  Her real name was Susan.  She was spare and tall enough to look me in the eye barefooted.

The movie “Gidget” had just come out this April and all sorts of things like beach parties, nighttime fires on the beach, and necking were foremost in my mind as the real surfing season approached.  The official start of the season was to be the first weekend after school let out.  Even non-surfers were going to be at the huge beach party planned.  I invited Susan.  Oh, by the way, my new name was simply “Newguy”.

In the meantime, while I was slaving away on my surfboard, my car arrived from Germany down at the Oakland Army dock.  Tomcat drove me down to pick it up.  Aside from a dead battery, it looked just fine to me.  I checked the level of gas in the tank because I had been told they sometimes drain the gas out.  I had barely enough to get to the gas station we’d seen outside the gate.  I fired it up with the assistance of jumper cables and back north we went.

I didn’t need a rack for the surfboard because I had a convertible.  One just stuck it in back, hooked under the front seat, and drove away.  Since it would hold two boards, Susan usually had me drive her anywhere.

The afternoon of the big party arrived and we wound our way through the hills to the shore.  One whole area had been taken up with racks big enough for ten boards each.  Two ‘weenie huts’ had been set up to dispense hot dogs and hamburgers with all the fixings.  A solemn line of porta-potties were set up for our use as the actual park rest rooms were almost a half-mile down the beach.  Jessie Owens couldn’t have made it in time.

There were several dudes out sitting on their boards waiting to see how the surf ran.  Fuzzy was one of them, but his cohort Tomcat was sitting down eating a hot dog.  Susan and I joined him.  We talked and pointed out at the ocean taking note of where the kelp beds were.  Nobody wanted to be surfing along and run afoul of a kelp bed.  Your fin would hit the stringy mass and the board would stop dead – you wouldn’t – and before you could shout ‘Cowabunga!’ you were not only walking the nose, but about two feet past it.

Despite my snazzy dress (rubber sandals, long legged swim suit (called ‘jammers’), tank top, and shades, I had never actually been in the water aboard a surfboard.  I could talk the talk, but I hadn’t as yet walked the walk (or swum the swim??).  That was going to change today for sure.

Around noon, the wave action began to pick up and more surfers joined the early crowd.  I casually walked over to the rack and hefted my board, only to drop it very close to the feet of an enormous senior who had muscles on top of all his other muscles.  “Hot dog?” no thanks, I’ve already eaten.

I eased the board out in front of me and paddled out to the group.  Nervously, I awaited my first wave.  Chatter began to wane as I felt the rise and fall of a couple of decent swells.  First one, and then many more, began paddling like crazy for the beach, preparing to stand up.  I followed slowly, but with increasing speed as I began to go downhill.  I was back to skiing!  Oh no!

I was saved this time by my board.  It overbalanced when I leaned forward, and dug the nose into the water.  I was unceremoniously dumped to the side and into the water.  I captured my board as it went past.  I had missed the wave.  I swam back to the starting point and waited some more.

My next attempt was a little better.  I managed to kneel on the board as it picked up speed.  By leaning back a little I found that I could slow it down, leaning forward made it speed up.  That was fine but now there was someone directly ahead of me.  I sure wish I knew how to turn.  I faked a good one though by grabbing the rail and lifting myself completely over on one side.  This, of course, put the board riding me which is not exactly proper.  Back to the starting point.

A large wave began forming behind me and I joined the already furiously paddling throng.  Before I really knew what had happened, I was actually standing on the board.  With arms flailing the air, and knees bent, I rushed directly at the beach which seemed very close but wasn’t.  Concentrating on my major feat of not falling down, I kept my delicate balance until the wave broke over me.  This, in my case, was called a wipeout and would probably rate a minus three from any judges there may have been.  Unfortunately, the only person who saw me was Susan.  She was rolling all over the blanket, pounding her fists into the sand and laughing loudly – even after I pulled my head out of my ass.

Where is the snow when you need it?

T.O.M.

The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (1)

May 13, 2010

One fine spring day, just after school let out, a bunch of us were hanging around the Teen Club wondering what to do with ourselves.  All sorts of schemes were offered and shot down until the subject of a bike trip surfaced.  Nowadays, the mention of a bike trip gives visions of snarly Harleys and happy Hondas, but to us in the mid-1950’s it simply meant a bicycle trip.

We kicked the idea around and the more we talked about it the better it sounded.  We dragged out maps and planned a route that would take us generally east towards the Mosel River.  To get there we would have to navigate the Kyll River and a couple of other minor streams.  In Germany, most roads would approach a river at almost a right angle, sweep down one bank, cross the river, and run back up the opposite side to continue onwards in the original direction.  When you are on a bike, the trip down is a real treat, but the trip back up can be very difficult.  Virginia and I found that out previously in our little adventure which I chronicled here: (https://tom1950.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/drinking-and-%E2%80%9Cwake-up-little-susie%E2%80%9D/).

We were pretty far along in the planning when one of the girls spoke up and asked if they were invited also.  We replied that of course they were.  This sparked another debate which swirled around parental permission based on how many chaperones we’d have.  Chaperones – we don’t need no steenkin’ chaperones.  Final answer: Oh, Yes You Do Buster!

Now we really were debating about who we would ask for this honor.  A priority list was made up of persons we thought might be able to make the trip, followed by persons who had a large enough vehicle to be able to hold one or more bicycles if necessary, and finally, those that would just ‘go along for the ride’ in those vehicles.  We had thirteen names at the end.  Two of us were designated to ask everyone on the list if they would be willing to chaperone our touring group.

When the dust settled, we had four who would attempt the trip on their own bicycles, and three who were willing to drive their cars from one stopping point to the next carrying our personal gear.  A pretty fair division of labor and which also gave us seven adults in every place we stopped.  Since two of our stops were to be camping grounds we definitely needed the two station wagons and the one VW camper for cooking.

When the dust settled and we were down to actually making the reservations at the inns we were planning to stay at there were thirteen teens and three chaperones on bicycles.  The rest would drive out and meet us at our various stops.  One person, who drove a station wagon, carried a toolkit, spare inner tubes and a first aid kit that the base hospital and put together for us.  Hopefully, we wouldn’t need it, but one never knows.

Our trip was to cover a total of about a hundred twenty kilometers (roughly 75 miles) and we planned on doing it in seven days.  Granted, this is only around eleven miles a day, but we were in no hurry at all and, most importantly, there were lots of hills we would have to walk up.  The four inns we wanted to stop at were located in Binsfeld, Wittlich, Mühlheim and Niersbach.  The other three nights we would just camp out in a field beside the road.

I had two cameras; one personal and one from the PAO (Public Affairs Office) to make a visual journal of our trip.  Virginia consented to carry the extra film I would need.  Mine was black and white but the PAO camera would use color.  This way, I could develop my own pictures.  We were ready for the trip to begin.

In the week that followed our finalization of plans everyone was busily getting their bikes ready for the trip.  Questionable tires were replaced and the bikes themselves tuned, oiled, and greased.  I added a nice rear fender pannier to hold incidentals (and my cameras) so I wouldn’t have it hanging around my neck all the time.

In the last week of June we headed out from the parking lot in front of the school and made our way to the main gate.  A lot of kids on their bicycles rode along with us to the gate, but peeled off and went home as we passed through them.

For those of you who have never been in Europe – or at least back in the mid fifties – the roads in any town at that time were mostly cobblestones.  Lanes set aside for bicycles (of which there were literally hundreds on the road at any given time during the day) existed and were normally paved with asphalt.  This was in town.  Outside town you were on your own along roads that were pretty narrow.  Not so narrow that you were in constant danger of getting hit but narrow enough.   Two busses could pass each other, but that would leave little room for a bike.  Everyone riding had either a rear view mirror mounted on their handlebars, or wore a cap with a stem-mounted mirror on it.  Bike riders were so very common, especially in the summer, that drivers would take special care when on the road.

We descended the rather steep road down the hill from the base and entered the town of Bitburg.  Our immediate goal was to cruise down the hillside, run through Albach and cross the Kyll River.  Virginia and I pedaled side by side in the middle of a chain of bikers riding no more than two abreast.  There was a nice bike and walking trail running next to the road that made it much easier because we didn’t have to keep looking for vehicles coming up behind us.  This is the same route Virginia and I took to get to our friends house over in Spangdahlem.

We coasted all the way down to the bridge, stopped for a moment to tamp down objects that had shaken loose, and to take some pictures.  Ahead of us was a rather long climb but much more gentle than the hill we had just come down.  The first half of the upward climb we pedaled, but about halfway up we all dismounted and walked.  No reason to tire ourselves out struggling up a hill.

We reached the plateau on top and skirted the town of Metterich and a huge field of plowed ground.  It would have been shorter to go directly across, but we could find no path through the field.  And, being freshly plowed, the farmer would, no doubt, take a dim view of us crossing it.  Once around the field, the road leveled off and pedaling became much easier and allowed us to use higher gears.

In Dudeldorf we paused at the town fountain to renew the wet cloths around our necks and generally rest a moment.  Some German school kids stopped and we chatted for a while with them.  They tried our their textbook English and we spoke our various forms of German – some good, some not so good.  A few pictures were taken of us standing in front of the fountain and such.  Mounting our bikes, we strung out along the road towards another hill down to a small creek.  This one was much easier as we didn’t have to walk at all.

Passing over the brim of the hill on the way up, Spangdahlem Air Base lay before us.  We debated going on base for something to eat and decided we couldn’t take the time to do so.  We passed the turn off for the gate and took the road that curved around the business end of the runway.  As we were just passing the runway overrun, a flight of two F-100’s took off right overhead.  I had never realized just now noisy they were until they were only about two hundred feet above me on full afterburner.  We all took to shouting at one another for five minutes after that until our ears opened up again.

The route through Binsfeld was pretty narrow because the old buildings were sitting with their front doors almost right on the edge of the road.  We slipped into a single file until we got to the center of town.  We stopped when we reached the inn where we were to spend the first night.  It was located off the main street by quite a bit and took us two false tries down side roads to find it.

It was a wonderful old building set next to, or actually a part of, a milling operation for wheat and other grains.  There was a huge garden behind it with rose arbors, patches of colored flowers all around and walkways between them.  To one side was a Biergarten, which the chaperones told us was off limits because they, um, sold beer.  Rats!

Most of us were a little sore from our first day’s travel, but managed to totter around the village and sightsee.  Virginia and I plus two other couples went out together and sought a shop where we could buy some thin gloves.  I had worn a blister on the palm of my hand and didn’t want to make it worse and two others were ready to form one.  One of the others found what we were looking for, but I had to translate for them as they didn’t have a lot of German.  The woman behind the counter thought I was a guide for the Americans and was a bit surprised when she found I was one of ‘them’.

We all met back in the café across the street from the inn and had dinner.  Following a great meal, we trooped over to the inn and sorted ourselves into our various rooms; boys with boys and girls with girls.  We had already sworn amongst ourselves that no hanky and/or panky would be undertaken by anyone – male or female.  This was, after all, going to be a great trip and we just didn’t need any drama in our backpacks.

As I lay down that evening, I wondered just how lucky I was to be sharing a room with two guys that thought belching was a really hilarious pastime.  Amid the blerts, braaps, and impressive beeeeooooops, I finally got to sleep.

T.O.M.

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.

T.O.M.

Across the USA (Pt.6)

April 20, 2010

Our visit with grandparents was a huge success.  We learned our morning chores well and soon I could milk all five cows in just under forty minutes.  My sisters learned to spot the wooden eggs and leave them alone.  My brother finally was able to split wood small enough so that it fit into the wood-burning kitchen stove.  We all toned up our muscles, got a little tanned, and began working as a team.

We were originally to spend ten days, but my mom got a little restless to see her mom out in Los Angeles so we packed up on the eighth day and pulled out the next morning.  It was a very long, hot, tedious, hot, mind numbing, hot, ride.  Have I mentioned how hot it was?  Our window mounted swamp cooler failed to swamp and just allowed the arid air to sweep over us.  We drank gallons of water and panted.

We had gone back north towards Durango, but then peeled off west on good old US160.  This highway passed just north of Mesa Verde National Park and, as planned, we made a stop there to look at the cliff dwellings and explore ruins.  Despite the heat, it was very interesting actually.  When we left, we passed through Cortez and headed directly to the Four Corners.

Everyone, except my dad who thought it was undignified, got on all fours and did the tourist thing of being in four states at the same time.  A little further down the road we took an interesting little sandy road and found a small water hole to camp by.  This time, there were no bugs that we noticed; however, all night long we’d be awakened by huffings, puffings, growls, and grunts as the various residents of the desert came to drink.  One of them, a coyote I think, got interested enough to tip over our aluminum cooler.  The resulting crash as it hit the ground from our camp table had everyone on edge for the rest of the night.

At around four in the morning we agreed that we weren’t going to get much more sleep and took off while it was much cooler.  We passed through colorfully named towns such as Teec Nos Pos, Teq Nec Lah, Dennehotso (which we thought was hilarious), Baby Rocks, and Cow Springs (another couple of thigh-slappers).

When we reached Tuba City, my dad roamed around to all four gas stations looking for a bargain.  When he found that fifty-two cents was everywhere he really got ticked off.  He picked the station that looked to be the least prosperous and gave them his business.  Big deal.  We rarely put more than eleven or twelve gallons in anyway so what real difference did it make?  He was big on teaching us “the principles of the thing” instead of calling it “cheap”.

After fortifying the bus with gas, and our tummies with semi-decent food, we went back on the highway towards our night goal of a place near Williams, Arizona.  But first, we had to pass through Flagstaff.  The road was very poorly marked and if it hadn’t been for my ‘bump of direction’ we would have gone a long ways towards Phoenix – which was definitely the wrong way.  About the time my brain went “ding!” my dad saw the sign telling us that Phoenix was ahead and pulled over to look at the ‘damn map’ again.  We only retraced about eight or nine miles and ended up on US66 towards Williams.

Williams appeared in front of us as we rounded a bend.  We had a nice long drink of very cold water in the town square and, after stopping at another gas station, we were directed to a great campground not too far out of town.  We swung through a big western-style gate with a huge signboard overhead announcing the Bunnyville Campground and pulled up at the clubhouse.  We were assigned a spot right down on the water of a nice lake where the fishing was free.

My dad, my brother and I pitched camp in a hurry and dashed off to the lake juggling fishing gear.  All we had was spinning gear and everyone else had fly casting rigs.  It also appeared that the only ones catching anything had boats or rafts and were out in the lake.  Not a good thing for shore fishermen.  I think it was my brother that came up with the idea to put an one of those clear bubbles that you can partially fill with water.  Once that was attached, you stripped off about eight or nine feet of plain leader with a dry fly at the end.

Raring back and letting fly with the weight of the water filled bobber made for casts of heroic proportions.  We found we could easily get ranges of over a hundred feet.  Since the bobbers had just enough water to make them barely float, once they hit the water we’d just let them sit for a moment and then slowly reel it back to shore.

My dad got the first hit.  It was a huge trout that jumped completely clear of the water and splashed back down.  His drag started whining loudly as the fish took off for the center of the lake.  Laughing maniacally, he horsed that fish all the way back to shore.  It weighed two and a half pounds.

Invigorated by his success my brother and I began whipping the surface of the lake to a froth with our casts.  First I landed a nice trout and then my brother got the biggest one at just over three pounds.  We hated to quit, but all we needed for dinner was at our feet.  I got to clean them after what I think was a rigged ‘rock/paper/scissors’.

Our trout dinner was very tasty and afterwards we just sat around the fire and slipped into a food-induced stupor.  Day turned to twilight which didn’t linger very long because of the surrounding mountains and then to full dark.  In the stillness, between various noises from other campers, we could hear fish jumping.  We told my sister that it was the swamp monster coming to get her.  Yeah, I know that’s cruel, but what are brothers for?

The next day we spent all day running up one hill and down the backside of it.  Nowadays, I40 takes off at Seligman and runs pretty much due west to get to Kingman.  Back then, US66 took a path that went way northwest to Peach Springs and back down to the southwest to hit Kingman.  It was a very long trip.  When we passed trough the town of Antares, my mom remarked that it certainly did feel like the surface of a sun.

We finally reached California at Needles.  It had been a long trip and now our goal seemed a lot closer.  There was a state park west of Needles where we camped that night.  To get to it we had to travel up a huge dry wash.  The road was crushed gravel and it seemed like every mile or so we had to cross a big concrete culvert sort of thing.  My dad said it was for flood control.  Flash floods are a real danger out here.  Everyone looked to the skies for signs of rain.

This was the first night we actually felt cold.  Blankets were thrown across sleeping bags and when we got up the next morning dew had formed on everything.  We also found we had another flat tire.  This one wasn’t so bad though.  A sharp stone had cut through the tread and nicked the inner tube.  We had the wheel pulled, the tire off and tube patched in just under a half hour.

Today we should make Santa Ana if we were lucky.  One of the town we passed through caused gales of laughter.  We pronounced it like the train station announcers in a Bugs Bunny cartoon:  KooooooooooK-A-Mongaaaa.  I bet they really hate Warner Brothers for that.  At least we didn’t make “that left toin at Alber-kurk-ie”.

Down through the valley we went, passing grove after grove of orange trees.  Thousands of them.  Then, on some of the low hills, we started seeing the donkey engines of oil wells.  The smell of citrus trees gave way to petroleum products.  Cruising through Orange, we saw a sign telling us of the new complex opened up in Anaheim called Disneyland.  We had been promised a visit there as well as my favorite of Knotts Berry Farm, which was just up the road from Disneyland.  The rest of the way to grandma’s house was filled with speculations on when we would get to go there.

We arrived in Santa Ana.  It was a beautiful little town surrounded by orange groves.  (What else?)  My mom’s mother lived in a two story house that had a backyard courtyard and a small apartment over the garage.  My brother and I were assigned beds there.  This was a very cool thing because it got us out of the house and away from everyone we’d been sitting next to for the last billion miles.  We were to stay here for ten days also.

T.O.M.