Learning to Ride

This post will sort of build a little bit on my last post, “So You Want to Be a Stuntman.” What I mean by that is that I think my reckless adventures on my BMX bike eventually led me to have an interest in something that could really do some damage – motorcycles. By the beginning of high school, a lot of my friends were learning to ride motorcycles, some of them had already been riding dirt bikes (off-road motocross motorcycles) for a couple of years.

In 8th grade, in fact, I approached my parents about letting me purchase a Honda XL80S dual purpose motorcycle if I could come up with the money from summer jobs. It had an 80 cc single cylinder “thumper” engine and was the right size for me then (it would now be ridiculously small and under-powered for me, but more on this later). I respect my Mom for not just laughing in my face. The answer was not just No, but Hell No. Dad was indifferent on the matter, as he was on many of my perceived adolescent tribulations. The typical useless fight between a 13 year old boy and his parents ensued. I threatened to buy it anyway and keep it at the Blockplant (the broken down and abandoned cement factory behind our house). I stormed out of the house and went downstairs to my room to look at the brochure again.

 

The Motorcycle Model In Question

My poor parents.

That summer, after 8th grade, and just after the Horse Trek took place (see previous post of the same name) I got a job doing odd jobs for that same Honda Motorcycle dealership in town. This had to have been illegal, but Hey, it was rural Wyoming in the summer of 1983. I was cheap labor, I was eager to learn everything there was to learn about motorcycles, and I earned some money to save up for my own bike, my mother be damned. My mother, incidentally, was vehemently against this course of employment, but for one reason or another she chose not to stop it. That did not mean that I didn’t have to ride my bicycle the 6 miles into town every day and back in order to hold down the job for the summer. And yes, as a matter of fact it was uphill both ways. Thanks for asking.

Man, it was a dream job at the time, and that summer I fell in love with motorcycles. They had me organize spare greasy parts into boxes and put them up on shelves, sweep the shop floor, clean the bathroom, pretty much what you would expect a 13 year old employee to be doing in a motorcycle shop. During my lunch breaks and when things were slow around the shop (which was more or less always) a lot of times the other employees and the owner of the shop would let me sit on the new motorcycles and tell me what each one was for, how much it cost, how fast it went and how much power it had. My favorite was the 1983 Honda Goldwing Touring Motorcycle; its cockpit was big enough for me to lay down on the seat and I knew it was waaaaayyyyy too much bike for me.

Looking back now, I realize that I was an employee of that shop that summer only in the loosest of terms, which was probably why they let me screw around a lot. I wasn’t actually on the books as an employee of the store; what they had was a kid willing to work for a $5.00 bill a day tax free who would work hard and cared about the shop, a kid who was falling in love with motorcycles. Mark, the owner of the shop, saw this in me, and decided to encourage it.

Future customer, I guess. Or maybe it was something more. Maybe he saw that I was going to eventually ride one way or the other, and decided knowing all about motorcycles would be a lot better than the alternative. He took me under his wing, and one day, he offered to let me ride the XL80S I was interested in. I was floored, and ultimately I politely declined the offer (against the advice of my inner child, believe me), telling him I was too afraid I would crash it. He nodded, and said that an insecure rider indeed has no business on a motorcycle. We settled on letting me wheel it out to the front of the shop and kick start it. It fired up on the first try.

I wanted that thing in the worst way. Mark showed me how to properly put a helmet on, and taught me all about proper riding gear. I knew that in no time I would be learning to ride, and if there was a way on Earth for Mark to sell me that XL80S, I think he would have.

But that summer, like all summers of our youth, eventually came to its inevitable close. A week before I started high school, I had to quit my job at the Honda dealership in lieu of my high school studies, my continuing obligations in Boy Scouts, and home chores. It was my favorite summer job of my adolescence, and this is the first I’ve written or spoken of it in 37 years.

In December of that same year, I crashed my BMX bicycle on what is known as black ice (so named because it is invisible and often forms on blacktop pavement) and dislocated a spinal disk, although I didn’t know this at the time.

There I was lying in the snow and ice down at the Blockplant, my BMX crashed in a heap ten feet from me and me unable to move in the frigid temperatures. “I could die out here,” I thought to myself. But then feeling slowly returned to my stunned body, and I was able to get up and literally limp my bike home.

What followed was a year of slowly losing the use of my right leg:  Missing school, doctor’s appointments, CAT scans, MRI’s, spinal taps, ultimately surgery, a month in St. Mary’s Hospital in Billings, Montana learning to walk again, physical therapy, then a slow, painful recovery and home tutors so that I wouldn’t get held back in school.

I eventually recovered fully and returned to school no longer limping as I had for a year, and it was quietly understood by everyone that motorcycles were no longer up for discussion.

Ever. 

Which was fine with me. I could barely even look at my bicycle anymore (as if this was all somehow its fault).

After that I really didn’t ride my bike as much anymore. Hell, I was glad I could walk again, and I planned to do a lot of it. Motorcycles, I realized, were not for me.

And then, one evening three years later, our telephone at home rang, and the caller asked for me. It was, in many ways, probably one of the more important phone calls of my entire life.

September, 1986.

So it’s important to note a couple of things here, not the least of which is that in high school I wasn’t very popular. I didn’t play sports, the football coach disliked me, and I was a nerd. I was tall, lanky, terrible at athletics, I read ahead in our science textbooks, I got depressed when I couldn’t understand nuclear equations in Physics class, and I openly argued in class with the Literature teacher about what Ray Bradbury was actually trying to say in “Zero Hour.” (I still think I was right, by the way, and he gave me an A for original thinking.) But I digress. The point is that I was a Nerd. A Dweeb.  A Geek with a capital G. (If you have read my previous post “Rock and Roll High School” you already know this about me.) And we all know that nerds don’t belong on motorcycles.

Or do they?

The other thing to remember here is that in a small town like that in the 80s, everybody pretty much knew everybody.

The phone call was from a guy I will call Brian Smith. His dad ran the only radio station in town (an a.m. station that played a lot of Paul Harvey and farm reports). Brian was just out of high school a couple of years ahead of me, and even though his father was  the local media, Brian was also a bit of a nerd, and was known as a loner. Some people were even slightly afraid of him. He was always one of those weird kids. He and I had shared a few school lunches together in years past and we had even talked after school a few times. But that was pretty much it. I was driving now (currently I was driving my parents’ Chevy Chevette) and had seen him on Main a few times. I knew who he was. Didn’t really consider him a friend or anything. It was generally known that Brian didn’t really have a lot of friends. Or any.  

So I guess that’s why the phone call surprised me a little bit.

“So I have a question for you, Brent. You’re like a science geek, right?”

“I guess so. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe.”  (I was still incredibly shy and introverted at this age, but much less so than I had been before, thanks to Boy Scouts and my summer working at the Honda shop.)

“What do you know about Morse Code?” 

“We learned about it in Scouts. I know a little.”

“Can you interpret it? Do you have like a key?”

“I actually think there is a Morse Code key in our encyclopedia set, yeah.”

“Can you grab that key and get over here to the radio station?” (He was working the night shift for his Dad.)

“Why?”

“I’m getting what I think is Morse Code over one of the unused frequencies here at the station. I think it’s like a secret message or something. I need someone like you to help me with it.”

You have to remember that this was the height of the Cold War and the Arms Race. The distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union was at all times palpable anywhere in the country. A secret message in Morse Code? Holy Shit! You already know from my post “The Spy Novel That Changed My Life” that I immediately said Yes.

Now, while yes, teenagers really were and probably still are actually this stupid, it did at least occur to me that suddenly announcing at 7 pm on a Monday night that I had to go to town with a volume of our Encyclopedia Britannica in my hands was very likely going to garner more questions than I wanted to answer. So I looked up Morse Code in our Encyclopedia: See Telegraph.” Dammit. Thwarted at every turn.  Under Telegraph, like a secret message waiting just for me, was the Morse Code cipher. Holy crap. Just what I need. So I quietly tore the page out of the Encyclopedia, folded it up and put it in my pocket. I knew my parents would kill me for such complete and utter disregard for our property; this is why we can’t have nice things. But of course how could they possibly know that the fate of the Free World could be at stake here? It wasn’t their fault. And besides, failure was not an option here.

I now own that very same 1963 Encyclopedia Britannica set complete with the original bookcase, and friends, I am here to tell you that page 885 – 886 of Volume 21 under “Telegraph” is missing.  

As calmly and nonchalantly as I could, I announced to my parents that I had left my science textbook at Dave’s house and I needed to go get it because we had a quiz the next day.

“Okay Honey, but you come straight home, and no Helling Around Town – it’s a school night.”

“No of course, Mom. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay Honey, drive careful.”

And with that, like the children in Zero Hour trying to stop The Invasion, I was off to save the world.

I arrived at the radio station on the other side of town about 15 minutes later, and was ushered inside by a nervous-looking Brian. He took me over to the machine that was making the offending beeps.   

“I’ll bet you it’s in some sort of code.”

“It is – Morse Code. That’s what you said on the phone.”

“No I mean – c’mon, do have the cipher or not?”

I produced the secret encyclopedia page and started translating.

“Let’s see.  6….X…..Q.…W….1….3. Stop.  9….C.…L…P….2….”

We looked at each other. Secret Code. Holy Shit.

Good science always teaches you to eliminate the simple explanations first, so perhaps that is why, before we went any further down this particular rabbit hole and stopped The Invasion, I peeked around behind the offending piece of equipment, noticed a slightly loose cord, plugged it firmly back into its jack, immediately silencing the beeping.

We looked at each other stupidly, which I suppose was all either of us could really do at the moment. We looked at the radio equipment again, and burst out laughing. There would be no Invasion tonight.

Brian took a few more minutes to finish up his shift and sign off, and asked me if I would like a quick tour of the radio station before I went home.

Who wouldn’t, right? So he showed me around – I was taking journalism in high school in preparation for that major in college, so I had a natural curiosity about such things. He then showed me his drum set and showed me how to do the drum solo from Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” and a friendship was born.

What in the name of everything Good and Just does this part of the story have to do with motorcycles?

Well you see, like a lot of folks in town, Brian just happened to be a motorcycle enthusiast, and he owned a brand new 1986 Honda XL250R. A larger and more powerful version of the XL80S I had wanted three years before. And of course I had grown some since then.

I guess I thought having a buddy who worked at a radio station was kind of neat, so that year, before I got involved with the Rock and Roll Gang (see the post “Rock and Roll High School) I started hanging out with Brian a lot. He taught me how to play the drums a little, we went on ill-advised driving adventures in the badlands in his maroon two wheel drive GMC pickup (the one that he had put nitrous through the year before and now ran pretty rough but still seemed dependable enough) and we even got drunk at a friend’s private sound studio that I had no idea existed out in Kirby Wyoming, and yeah, we became pretty good friends.

One Sunday afternoon he called me and asked me if I wanted to go riding in the badlands on his motorcycle. So we went out there and I watched him ride around before he asked me if I’d like to try it.

I told him I didn’t really know how, and he said it was time that I learn, then. We started with learning to let out the clutch slowly and smoothly without stalling it, only give it a little gas, and remember the gearbox, like most motorcycles, is one down and the rest up when accelerating, all down when gearing down. Up for neutral.

Simple.

And before the day was over he insisted that I take the bike down a gravel road, get it up to 55 mph, and gear back down to a stop in front of him, a test they incidentally make you do at the DMV to get a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license.

All of this brilliantly without a helmet or any protective gear.

The next weekend I learned how to lean, how to brake evenly with the front and rear brakes, and the next weekend after that I learned how to recover from a rear skid, and by the following weekend I was doing small jumps and dirt courses in the badlands.

“Okay, semester test,” he told me one Sunday about five weeks later. We were at an unofficial homemade course out in the badlands. “You’re going to use everything I’ve taught you. Sharp curves, spinning the rear wheel around a turn, correct leaning, braking, tracking, and at the end I want you to make the 20 foot jump off the top of the hill at the end of the course. Take as many practice runs as you want, and then I’ll time you for the real deal. You have to beat my time, which is 1:51.”

I took three practice runs, and then nodded. I don’t think I was ever more scared than when I got to the top of that last hill. I remembered the lessons Brian had taught me about jumps:  “Jumps are all or nothing. You go for it or not. But whether or not you give it full throttle depends on the jump and it depends on the bike. Right as you hit the jump, lean back and pull up hard on the handle bars, but not too hard.”

I vaguely wondered how I get talked into these things as I torqued the throttle, pulled up, and rode a motorcycle off the crest of a hill and into the sky.

The rear suspension nearly bottomed out as the rear wheel landed cleanly 20 feet below the jump. The front wheel came down and I hit the rear brake a little too hard. The bike started going down on its left side and sliding into the dirt. The side plate caught my lower leg and ripped the leg of my jeans open, tearing a laceration into my calf. I came to rest in a cloud of dust. I had cactus needles in my right elbow. Other than that, I was unhurt. To be honest, my biggest fear was that Brian was going to be furious with me for crashing his bike.

He came running over to me with a big smile on his face. “That was perfect, that was perfect!” he said excitedly. “You’re a natural!  You hit a loose patch there at the bottom, that can happen to anybody, but that was great – you did it!”

The second time I took that jump, I stayed off the rear brake and landed perfectly. I had to admit the adrenaline rush was really something. Whether or not I beat his time, Brian never said. I told my Mom the truth about how I had hurt my leg even though it was just a bad scratch. She looked hurt, in a way, and just turned and walked away, saying nothing.

From there I rode Brian’s bike all over the badlands. He often let me borrow it and take off on my own with it. One time we got his truck stuck in the mud in the badlands and had to drive 20 miles into town in the November cold on the bike to get help from someone with a 4×4 truck who could pull us out of the mud. The guy who ended up helping us was Mark, from the Honda shop. I never told Brian I knew him.

I had learned to ride. I had learned so well that I knew how to practically make the bike an extension of myself, and had learned all manner of difficult emergency maneuvers.

One time during the Glory Days of the Rock and Roll Gang, Dave and Lisa took off on his dad’s Honda 750 (street bike) throwing me the keys to his Honda 250 as they took off, as if to say “Keep Up,” and I did.

As I became more involved in the Rock and Roll Gang, my friendship with Brian seemed to dwindle as quickly as it had begun. Then there was a dumb argument we had over who owed who $20 for one thing or another. A lot of the people in the gang didn’t like Brian because he was “weird,” forgetting that being social outcasts was how and why the Rock and Roll Gang came into being in the first place.

We are often cruel in our youth without meaning to be, and being a social outcast can, in many ways, be a relative term. In the summer of 1988 I moved to California with my father, and I said goodbye to everyone I knew except for Brian. I don’t really know why.

*   *   *

In 2005 I bought a motorcycle because a friend of mine had one and had no one to ride with, and it made me realize that I had gotten into my thirties without ever owning a motorcycle the way I had once dreamed of. It was used – $1300 for a 1979 Honda CX500. But it ran great. I bought it after not having been on a motorcycle for over 16 years and drove it 70 miles home on the freeway.

I owned that bike for four years, putting 5,000 trouble free miles on it. I once drove it to Lake Tahoe and back with friends. Several times during that four years California drivers made freeway maneuvers that could have easily ended my life, but I was able to avoid them with a precision and skill few riders really seem to possess these days, if I do say so myself. In fact, the only time in my life I have ever laid a motorcycle down was that day of the first jump on Brian’s 250.

I sold that bike in 2009 after I blew the stator out of it going 117 miles per hour on it on the freeway. It got me home fine but wouldn’t start the next morning. Two of my friends later got seriously hurt on motorcycles, though they mended fine, and somewhere along the line, after selling the CX500 for parts, I realized that luck often only goes so far and decided that I was done with motorcycles. I still like them, and there’s a small piece of envy in me every time I am passed on the freeway by a Harley Davidson Electra Glide, but I feel that I had my fun on them and that I finally got my turn to ride, a turn I had been waiting for since 1983. I doubt very much that I will ever ride again, and that’s okay.    

When I test drove that CX500 that day in 2005, my father, who took me to look at the motorcycle, looked at me with the strangest expression, (maybe I showed off just a tiny bit on the test drive) and he asked me,

 “Just one question, son.”

“What’s that, Dad?”

“Just where in the Hell did you ever learn to ride a motorcycle like that?”

I just smiled.

Thanks for saving my life, Brian – I owe you one, Brother.

As always, thanks so much for reading!

So You Want to Be a Stuntman……

Well, I got away from this, didn’t I? Sorry about that. Life has been crazy lately, but in a good way. Let me see if I can get back into the habit.

I think I was seriously starting to think that maybe, Hey, I already told you all of my really good Wyoming stories. Not true. I just had to think about it a bit more I guess, as memories are brought to the surface by some seemingly random thought or instance.

Take for instance one of my favorite television shows, MTV’s “Ridiculousness.” It’s kind of like a cross between “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and the Darwin Awards. That is to say, it’s a show that exhibits viral videos from the Internet of people hurting themselves doing ridiculously stupid things, hence the show’s name. My girlfriend and I were watching an episode the other day and she goes, “What are these people thinking? Who would be this stupid? I’m glad you never did anything like that!”

Ummmmmm………

Late March, 1979

Ten years old. The previous Christmas I had received my third bicycle (the other two both got ran over by freight trains – don’t ask). I must have been a good boy that year too (Santa obviously didn’t know about the Great Mudball Fight of 1978, but I digress, and anyway I no longer believed in Santa Claus by then) because it was a really nice bike. It was a Montgomery Ward Open Road BMX Bicycle with 20” wheels – yes, Montgomery Ward, I really am that old. Sigh. This thing was rad though. Red and black paint. Mag Wheels. Pads everywhere. It just looked so cool. This was at the beginning of the BMX bicycle craze that would last well into the 1980s. Wyoming winters don’t typically break until around early March, when everything becomes a river of mud from the snowmelt and the mornings can still drop below freezing.

And it’s about as soon as you can really get out there on a BMX bicycle and mix it up. Man, I am telling you – I rode that darned thing everywhere. It was the only bicycle I ever owned that I wore the tread off the tires. We lived six miles from town out in the country. I rode that thing to town and back home countless times on U.S. Highway 20. No helmet. And I’m somehow still alive…….

I explored all of the farm roads I could find all over town. I rode it into the badlands a few times. To friends’ houses. I mean, to some extent, I grew up on this thing, before I finally conceded that I was too big for it and at the age of 15 received a mountain bike with 26” wheels for my birthday.

It was on my BMX bike that I finally realized what I wanted to be when I grew up – a stuntman! Like any budding stuntman, I started small. 180 degree skids (which are no big trick on gravel, but I thought it was cool.) Wheelies were next. Side saddle. Sitting backward on the handlebars while going down the dirt road to our house. Jumping clear of a moving bicycle and then running and hopping back on it before it crashed. Hey, I was getting good!

Okay. Enough small stuff. Time for some jumps. I learned how to build a ramp from a book on stunts and stuntmen I got from the Weekly Reader at school. And look, I am the biggest anti-censorship person out there, but is it really necessary to supply a 5th Grader with detailed instructions on building a ramp designed for intentionally risking life and limb for no reason other than to look cool? I’m just sayin’. Anyway.

I started with small inclines that were little more than a bump to the beefed up BMX bike. So the inclines got steeper, the ramps got longer, and the speed got higher. And what with a dilapidated barn and woodpile that were literally going to pieces behind the house, crap that occasionally fell off of passing freight trains, and the cornucopia of junk to be found at The Blockplant, building materials for the ramps just wasn’t an issue. You can imagine a 5th Grader riding a BMX bicycle down to the Blockplant – my brother and I built our own little shortcut bridge across the creek from the woodpile out back – and riding surreptitiously back to the house with arms full of wooden planks. We had an old Radio Flyer wagon from years before, and this we used for hauling bricks from the Blockplant back across our bridge and back to the house.

Before long we had some fairly serious ramps going on – 3 foot high ramps facing each other, a few feet apart, for ramp to ramp jumps. I learned very early on that you have to pull up hard on the handlebars just as the front wheel leaves the ramp. Pull up too soon and you end up doing a wheelie off of the ramp and crashing in between the ramps ass-first. Pull up too late and it’s time for a ramp sandwich. And a helmet? What’s that? Boys don’t need a helmet to ride a bicycle on country lanes. Don’t be ridiculous.

The injuries sustained in our career as stuntmen so far were almost miraculously minor – scrapes, lacerations, bruises, the occasional black eye or sprained ankle, that was about it. To combat the problem of sometimes not making the jump, we decided what was needed was more incentive – failure simply didn’t hurt enough. So we started putting stuff between the ramps. We started with stuff we cared about, like our most prized toys and plastic models. Hmmm. Still not enough incentive. At least we freed up a lot of shelf space in our room where our favorite toys had been. No, what was missing here was genuine fear – we had to be really afraid to miss the jumps. So we started putting shovels-full of fire ants and cacti (there was no shortage of these in our field) between the ramps. Finally we just started building campfires between the ramps. This worked – no more crashes, and heightened fear! The formula works!

God, what I would have given for a video camera back then.

One of my favorite stunts was to ride my bike as fast as I could into a brick wall and jump off the back at the last second. Let me tell you something – you really don’t want to time that one wrong. Ow. Needless to say, I became something of an expert at fixing the bike up too – the bike was designed to withstand some abuse, but my stunt career resulted in bent handle bars, broken seat posts, torn hand grips, torn seats, broken chains, mangled chain guards, and the like on a fairly regular basis. I have always wondered whether it was coincidence that around the time I started down my career path as a two-wheeled stuntman, Coast to Coast Hardware in town also expanded its selection of replacement bicycle parts. Hard to say.

Eventually it came time to Go Big or Go Home. Wait. I already was home. Well, you get the idea. I fashioned a cape out of some old drapes, got some duct tape and magic markers, and I was practically Evil Knievel. My brother (who at some point decided to retire from all of this), along with my sister, became the grandstand, a handheld transistor radio provided the music, and…………..

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!! YOU HAVE COME HERE TONIGHT TO SEE THE IMPOSSIBLE!!! TONIGHT BRENT, “THE WYOMING KID” WILL DEFY DEATH TO JUMP THE IRRIGATION DITCH ON HIS TRUSTED BMX STEED AND LAND IN BLACKENED CHARRED EARTH FILLED WITH STUMPS!!!!!” Applause!!! Applause!!!

Okay, so they weren’t actually stumps, they were the remnants of a controlled weed burn my Dad had done – weeds there left unchecked can grow taller than fences – I have seen weeds get four to five feet high in places. After a burn like that, leaving the ground black, there are all of these burnt, hardened little stumps sticking out of the ground, each stump perhaps just an inch around. It was in these that I proposed to land for dramatic effect, trusting my off road tires to take the punishment. The irrigation ditch itself was about two feet across with raised embankments on either side. I would build the ramp next to our dirt road, at an angle to the ditch, allowing me to use the dirt road to get up sufficient speed.

It was the perfect plan. The perfect stunt. I had it all thought out. This would be awesome.

You know, the embankments of creeks and unimproved irrigation ditches are often quite soft due to their proximity to water. I did not consider this fact in my plans.

Donning my brother’s old ski goggles, I rode that bike as fast as I think I ever had. My grandstand crowd of two was cheering me on. My cape ruffled in the wind like I was Superman. I left the road and aimed the bike at that ramp with a no going back attitude, reaching the Point of No Return just a few feet before the ramp.

SUUUUUUUUU – MACKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As I hit the ramp full force, the bottom of the ramp sank deeply into the ground and flipped the ramp vertically right into my handlebars and face like a booby trap in a Mad Max movie. The entire ramp assembly disintegrated into the creek with my bike, and I ended up in an over the handlebars freefall, spread-eagle, face down, into the soot and weed stumps. The goggles probably prevented a serious eye injury. It was actually a pretty spectacular crash. I guess.

I got up with my face and arms black from the soot, and a bloody nose. My crotch hurt a little. My brother fell out of his lawn chair doubled over laughing. Even my sister couldn’t keep a straight face.

For a few weeks after that, my front side was covered in little red dots from my impact with the weed stumps.

I also once on a sudden whim tried to jump the creek behind my house, but at the last second I realized the fall was much steeper than I had realized – about twenty feet in an arc. I jumped off the back of the bike as I had practiced as the bike landed in the creek below. That one probably would have meant broken bones.

I think that last jump was the jump that finally ended my stunt career, as I realized this stuff was just too dangerous. My poor BMX had seen much better days by this point – over five years after I had gotten it – and I felt like I was ready to turn in my cape.

Except for a couple of isolated motorized instances much later – once when I was accidentally thrown from a snowmobile and once when I crashed a friend’s dirt bike (more on motorcycles in my next post) doing some dangerous beginner stunts in the badlands, I never really got back into bike stunts after that.

You’d think that later on, mostly grown up by then, I would have known better with that friend’s dirt bike, too.

Because one winter day after I had given up the stunts but was still riding the BMX, I got bored and rode the bike in the snow and ice down to the Blockplant. I tried to go slow, and to be careful on the slick snow and ice-covered concrete. A bird flew out of the Butler Building suddenly, and caused me to lose my balance and traction on the icy concrete. My bike went skittering across the concrete and I landed on my tailbone hard enough to paralyze me for 15 minutes before feeling began to return to my back. When I could move, I had to walk the bike back to the house through the snow.

A year and a half later, undoubtedly from that incident, I had gone through countless doctor’s appointments and tests, physical therapy, a spinal tap, spinal surgery, and a month in a Billings, Montana hospital learning to walk again. I missed almost a whole year of school.

I had tempted fate time and again because I was young and I thought I could. Irony and Fate, as they very often do, caught up with me.

Incidentally, the amazing neurosurgeon in Billings fixed me up great. I have never had a recurrence of any major back trouble (other than the occasional strained muscle) and thanks to that Billings doctor I forever have a titanium disk in my spinal cord.

Ridiculousness? Me? Don’t be silly. Of course I would never try a stunt like that.

The Spy Novel That Changed My Life

Anyone who knew me in junior high or high school (or college, for that matter) could tell you that you would hardly ever see me without a novel in hand. Horror, mystery, and especially spy yarns – I was and still am a sucker for a good spy story.

I suppose I’d have to blame my mother for the horror part – she was and is a big time Stephen King fan and well, as a kid, when you see your mom’s 20 – book collection of Stephen King novels, and she is always reading one, you start to think, “Let me see what the big deal is with this Stephen King guy.”

So I read “Cujo” and loved it. And that set me on to a long string of horror novels. I remember my English teacher in junior high once talked to my mom during a parent-teacher conference about my habit of reading “those filthy horror novels.” Talk about barking up the wrong tree. My mom’s response was, “How many of your students read a 500 page novel every few weeks?” That seemed to end the discussion.

Maybe my love of books, specifically novels, would have been a phase that I just sort of grew out of at least to some extent (but probably not), had it not been for something that happened on a whim after school one day when I was in the 6th grade. Sure, we all enjoy a good novel now and again, but we’re talking about a kid who read science textbooks for fun, and was disappointed in himself if he only read one novel a month, on top of his schoolwork.

May, 1981. I often spent a couple of hours after school in the Washakie County Library, rather than taking the bus home. I read a lot of Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury short stories in that library. Same thing in the summer – sometimes if I could get one of my siblings to cover my chores, I’d ride my bicycle the six miles to town and spend the day in the library, just reading.

School had just gotten out for the summer, and it was a warm late spring day in Northern Wyoming.  I should have been out playing I suppose, but there I was, camping out in the county library with my nose in a book.

I finished the short book was reading, I remember it was a teenage yarn about a kid who gets in trouble with the law for stealing a car. Yawn. What to read next? Hmmmm. I had read every Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock book in the place. What was needed here was something new. Something different.

And then I saw it. Over by the newspapers the library had set up a little stand of paperbacks they were getting rid of – a three tiered rack of paperback books, about 7 feet long, 10 cents apiece. Nerd heaven.

And then I got a quirky idea into my head. I decided I was going to walk up to that book rack and grab a book randomly without looking, buy it, and read it. Even if it turned out to be a Harlequin, I’d read it. Expanding ones horizons and all of that.

So I did, and I did a good job of truly selecting a book at random, literally looking at the ceiling while I let my fingers glide across the gently used volumes, until they found one that seemed substantial, but not epically long. I pulled the book out of the case, my blind summer reading selection made by nothing but the hand of fate.

The book I selected would permanently alter my personality and would have a huge impact on the rest of my life, indeed becoming part of me in more ways than I can count. It was the one book, more than any other, that changed my life.

Any guesses? The Joy of Cooking? Perhaps a self-help novel?  The Bible or a book about it? How about a history book?

No on all counts. The book I pulled out of the case that morning was a paperback novel. It was Alistair MacLean’s “Athabasca.” 284 pages. The front cover showed a guy walking across a snow field with a pair of headlights and an oil rig behind him. Great. Good job, Brent. On a self dare, you have managed to select a novel about the fictional life of an oil rig worker. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Or did I? First of all, the quality of the writing hit me right away. I mean, this guy could write. His prose was flowing, complex and super-descriptive, and his writing made his characters just spring instantly to life. Same reason Mom was so infatuated with the works of Stephen King – it wasn’t the horror – it was the writing, and the pleasure of being audience to a master storyteller.

You are very likely familiar with the works of British author Alistair MacLean (born in Scotland), even if you think you aren’t. If you have ever seen any of the following movies, you have fallen under Mr. MacLean’s spell, possibly without knowing it: “The Guns of Navarone,” “Force 10 From Navarone,” “Ice Station Zebra,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “Bear Island,” Just to name a few.  In all, 18 of his 30 novels were made into major motion pictures by Hollywood, starring actors such as Richard Burton, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Harrison Ford, just to name a few.

Of course I knew none of this at the time. I became engrossed in the story, though, and read a quarter of the novel that same day. “Athabasca” is about oil field workers in Northern Alaska being picked off one by one in an almost Agatha Christie style, accompanied by a string of sabotages to oil drilling equipment and the Alaska Pipeline. As the mystery unfolds, we find that it’s an international plot to cripple America’s oil reserves.

I was hooked.  Next up I read “The Golden Gate.” Terrorists hijack the Golden Gate Bridge with a city bus. I read one after another, quickly becoming a huge fan.

By the time I was in high school and ripping in to “Where Eagles Dare,” I was re-enacting scenes from Alistair Maclean novels in the woods behind my house with some friends, my brother, some rope and leftover  4th of July fireworks, some cap guns, and our imaginations. I cried in the scene in H.M.S. Ulysses where the young First Gunner’s mate aboard a U.S. frigate in World War II refuses to fire on the German battleship, because his father is commanding the enemy vessel. In college, I re-enacted the scene where Captain Mallory dies in H.M.S. Ulysses for a dramatic interpretation piece in an all-state speech competition, and got first place.

Alistair MacLean novels got me through my back surgery and learning to walk again – after they performed a spinal tap on me in the Billings hospital, I remember thinking, “If Mike Reynolds in ‘The Secret Ways’ can endure a night of torture by the Hungarian Secret Police, then I can endure this.” Which was completely stupid, I was comparing my real world pain to a character in a silly spy story, but I am here to tell you that it made me hold my chin up and grit my way through it, because that’s what Mike Reynolds would have done.

In high school, I went around talking with a British accent for a while as a sort of inside joke to myself.

Even in college, when I needed to escape the pressures of university life, I escaped into a world of war and espionage created by the Master of Suspense – Alistair Maclean. I cried again when the heroine, engaged to the hero, sacrifices herself to save America in “The Black Shrike.”

In 1989 my parents bought me a paperback copy of every Alistair MacLean novel ever written, including a first edition paperback of “H.M.S. Ulysses,” as a birthday present. It was one of the best birthday gifts I ever received. I still have the collection, and I consider it to be a prized possession. If there were ever a fire, I would save my novel, and the Alistair MacLean collection. Everything else would be secondary. (Hey man, do you know how hard some of these are to find now? They are all out print.)

I even saved the Time Magazine article in 1987 when Alistair MacLean died. I would very much like to have met him.

More than all of these things though, the stories of Alistair Maclean inspired me to write, and perhaps for that I owe him the greatest debt of all. For I enjoy writing, and I like to think I am reasonably good at it. If you have read as many Alistair Maclean novels as I have (by which I mean all of them), and have had the time to read my brain ponderings on this blog, you may notice some similarities in the writing styles. Particularly in the use of long run-on sentences that somehow make sense, even though they tie several ideas together at once, not to mention being contrasted with much shorter sentences for dramatic effect.

I learned that from him.

I don’t think it is at all an exaggeration to say that Alistair MacLean changed and enriched my life, all because I picked up a random book on a whim one late spring day in the 6th grade.

I like to think it somehow wasn’t an accident – indeed, that it wasn’t, in the end, random at all.

As always, thanks for reading!

  

   

In Memoriam: William P. George 1933 – 2014

On July 28th, 2014, my father passed away. He was 81 years old, and went peacefully in his sleep. As you may have garnered from reading this blog, he led a full life, and he did some good in this world while he was here. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that he probably left the world a slightly better place than when he first came to it.

I do not mean to say that he was perfect, because he wasn’t. But then, none of us are, of course. In fact, growing up in Northern Wyoming, as a young boy, then later as a teenager and then as a grown man, with all of these crazy experiences I have been sharing with you on this blog, why, all of that time, my father and I saw eye to eye on almost nothing, just nothing at all.

I realize today that that is probably because we are so much alike.

Growing up, I frequently had your typical teenage angst – girl trouble, a blown engine in my truck, the responsibilities of a 7th Period Bus Driver (see previous posts), and the one thing that I didn’t want was my parents’ advice on any of it. I was a typical American teenager.

But that wasn’t good enough for Dad – he always wanted to help, whatever the problem was, he wanted to help. Part of me sometimes thinks that in some strange way, he needed to help. Problem was, in my view at the time, his idea of “helping” was to simply minimize the problem. Not very helpful to a hormone-ridden teenager with zits on his nose.

Now, of course, I get it. He was trying to get me to see that, “Hey, kid, don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff” (to quote the great Robert Fulghum).

Often, I would tell Dad about whatever perceived teenage drama I was going through at the time, and I would always get the same answer from him – “Well, it’s just a minor adjustment.”

Used to drive me crazy. “Just a minor adjustment.” Great. Thanks, that helps a lot. Only he was right, of course. All of those worries eventually went away like a tumbleweed rolling across the prairie, and usually my worries were just about as inconsequential as a tumbleweed, too, and that’s what he kept hoping I would see.

It’s just a minor adjustment.

I remember one winter morning Dad had forgotten to plug in the block heater on our 1978 Chevy Suburban – a block heater is a small heater mounted to the engine block that is plugged in to an electrical outlet while the car is parked overnight – it keeps the engine oil from freezing. Everyone in Northern Wyoming has one installed on their car, and a “power pole” or outlet to plug it in to in front of their house or in their garage.

It was 40 below zero Fahrenheit (without the wind chill factor) that morning, and the Suburban’s engine oil was frozen solid. Dad cussed up a good old country storm, and I told him not to worry, it was okay, I’d take the bus to school, no biggie. Just a minor adjustment. He didn’t think that was very funny at the time.

When I go back to Wyoming to visit every few years, I always notice the big log-framed sign with the “bucking bronco” logo on it as I cross the state line into Wyoming: “Welcome to Big Wonderful Wyoming – Forever West.”

I like that. The last time I saw that sign, in the rear view mirror of my car as I pointed my Mitsubishi back towards California in August of 2013, it kind of reminded me of my dad. At that time he was still living at home with my mom a lot of the time, and in assisted living the rest of the time. His health was starting to fail, and we all knew it.

But that’s not what I thought of the last time I saw those words in the rear view mirror, “Forever West.” I thought instead of how he used to be – tall, proud, in his cowboy shirts, cowboy boots, and a big 5x beaver skin cowboy hat – he used to be so proud of his cowboy hats. Put him in that 1978 Chevy Suburban with Wyoming plates, and you had a rolling advertisement for Wyoming tourism.

Dad identified with the American Cowboy long before that – he was wearing a cowboy hat and carrying his old Gibson guitar (and a King James Bible, but that’s a whole other story) down the sidewalk long before I was born, when he was on furlough from the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. His favorite singer was country western performer Hank Thompson – you can imagine being picked up from school in the Suburban with the lyrics “I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels” blaring on the stereo speakers.

But, that was dad – truly Forever West.

Who knows for sure what lies on the other side of that dark veil, which we must all pass through at the end of our time on this Earth, sooner or later. I’d like to be able to tell him now that, “Hey, don’t worry, Dad, it’s just a minor adjustment.”

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I guess we will all find out though. But what I do know is that for those of us left behind in my father’s shadow, life will go on, as it must, but for us left behind that will be the most major adjustment of all.

To my father, then, who usually meant well even if I didn’t always see that, and who was many things to many people, but always working for the greater good, I can only say, Happy Trails, Dad, and Forever West.

Nowhere to Run

In a previous post I quoted my father as once saying that, the difference between the Rocky Mountains and other mountains in the United States is that when you go to other mountain ranges ill-prepared, you could get inconvenienced. When you go to the Rockies ill-prepared, you could get dead.

I can personally vouch for the truth of that statement. It literally comes with the territory – there are parts of the Rocky Mountains that are so remote that very few humans have ever even been there. A largely undisturbed wilderness like that, too many have found out the hard way, is inherently dangerous, even upon the beaten path.

South Pass, Wyoming

January 1978

We had spent the Christmas vacation with relatives in Los Angeles, driving there and back in that same old ’73 puke green Chevy Impala. I remember I got this huge dinosaur playset that took up way too much room in the trunk, but at least back then cars had huge trunks, so we managed.

To my father’s credit, he took his own advice and was very careful to only drive over mountain areas when the weather forecast was clear and the roads had been recently plowed and salted. Even still, we carried chains, an emergency kit, blankets, a stove, and food. Not doing so in a two door sedan with a family of five on board over Rocky Mountain passes in January (the ones that weren’t just closed for the winter) would be beyond foolhardy.

And yet, there is an old saying in Wyoming – anyone who tries to predict the weather in Wyoming is either a newcomer or a fool.

South Pass is the all-essential mountain pass that connects Interstate 80 with Northwestern Wyoming. If you wish to get from Rock Springs on I-80 to the Yellowstone / Grand Teton area, you almost have to go over South Pass. The pass is really just the lowest point in a high plateau between the Wind River Mountains and the Great Divide Basin. Its elevation is only 7,400 feet, but it remains at that elevation for over 100 miles of high mountain prairie between Rock Springs and Lander. There is little vegetation, and the plateau is completely exposed and susceptible to sudden freak and epic storms at any time of year.

If you find yourself caught in such a storm in the middle of South Pass, there is nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. You are simply at the mercy of the elements. Coming back to my hometown from Colorado in 2013, my friend and I clipped the edge of just such a storm – a summer thunderstorm. With torrential rain that pounded the car and flash flood waters that sheeted across the highway so that it looked like we were driving down a river, and marble sized hail, we felt lucky to have just caught the edge of it. We were forced onto a side road that took us into Riverton (which was where we wanted to go anyway). Continuing into the heart of the storm out of Jeffrey City (population 10) would have been veritable suicide – I heard later that storm produced golf-ball sized hail at its center.

And that was in the height of summer.

* * *

So on that cold January day in 1978, we started up South Pass out of Rock Springs in the late afternoon (when freak storms most often form on South Pass) with clear skies in every direction and a weather forecast of partly cloudy on the pass.

As we reached mile 45 on the pass, dark angry clouds had gathered over the pass seemingly out of nowhere, and it began to snow. And snow. And snow.

By nightfall the pavement had disappeared under a blanket of snow – the only way to know where the highway was was to stay in between the highway’s snow poles lining the highway on each side for just such occasions. The defroster and wipers couldn’t keep up with the ice accumulation on the windshield – dad slowly plodded the Impala through the quickly accumulating snow at 20 mph with one hand while reaching outside the car through the open driver’s side window and scraping the ice off the windshield with the other hand. At the rate the snow was falling, it became apparent that soon the Impala would lose the battle and be unable to continue through the deepening snow.

We were in very serious trouble, the kind of trouble that was really not very far away at all from becoming a life and death situation.

And then, truly like an angel out of the snow and zero visibility, came the lights of a semi-trailer, slowly, cautiously, trying to pick and force its desperate way off the mountain. It was now snowing so hard – and I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes – that the ruts in the now deep snow made by the semi were filled in with fresh snow in mere moments. My father planted the front end of the Impala just a few feet from the back of the trailer, his left hand still scraping the ice off the windshield, with the realization that staying right behind the semi before the ruts could fill in with snow was the Impala’s one and only chance to get off the mountain safely. I still remember the whining of the engine and the slipping of the wheels as the Impala rode the truck’s ruts like a train track. Inside the Impala, no one spoke a word.

We left Rock Springs at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon; we pulled in to Lander, safely off of South Pass, at 9:00 p.m. – a distance of 117 miles.

That night, a record six feet of snow fell on South Pass.

* * *

We still sometimes talk about that night, and how any one of dozens of things could have happened that would have prevented us from getting off the mountain. My father used to be fond of saying that if that semi had driven off a cliff that night, we would have too, and it’s true.

When the truck finally pulled off the road into a motel parking lot with a bar next door, my dad pulled over too. The burley trucker seemed to quiver a bit as he climbed out of the cab. He and my dad shook hands, and the trucker said he really needed a drink. We continued on our way home, getting back much later than we had planned, with a sobering reminder of who is really in charge in places like South Pass.

* * *

Coincidence or not, later that same year my father traded the Impala in on a 4×4 Chevy Suburban with a full off road package that included a winch. That would be the family car until I went to college. I bought it off my dad a couple of years after we moved to California – it had 177,000 miles on it when I got it. It was the best car we ever owned.

* * *

To this day, I don’t much care for South Pass. Like I said, I have driven it, but when I visit I prefer to take the Snake River Valley through Idaho and then over the steep but comparatively short 9,600 foot Togwadhee Pass outside of Teton National Park. You go up, you come down, there are trees and places to pull over, and you are off the mountain and in Dubois before you know it.

I just don’t like that feeling of being trapped – at any time of year – on that high prairie for over 100 miles on South Pass, at the whim of elements that can change without notice, leaving me with nowhere to run.

The Odyssey of the Lost Super Connie

So in my last post I mentioned that I have a strange relationship with aviation – that even at the tender age of seven years old I knew a lot more about airplanes – specifically airliners – than I really ought to have at that age.

And of course going hand in hand with that was the fact that I loved airplanes growing up – my favorite toys were my toy and model airliners. Even weirder was the fact that I liked to draw flight deck panels as a kid that were surprisingly accurate, considering I had only seen them on TV.

Well, all of that of course became the foundation for a lifelong love of aviation, and in particular a fascination for airliners. I have taken flight lessons and completed ground school, though unfortunately to date I have never had the cash to complete my flight training for a Private Pilot’s License. It’s been so long now anyway I’d really just need to start over if I ever got back into it.

Which is really too bad in a way. Because when I took flight lessons, the instructor got a little upset with me at one point, when he explained that we were going to slip the airplane into a practice holding pattern over a farm field, and I then brought the airplane into formation over the edge of the field with perfect coordination of the yoke and the rudder pedals, before he’d even finished speaking. A lot of my lessons went like that – including landing at Stockton Metro with a United Airlines prop flight behind me! No pressure here……

“Look, this course and introductory price are not really intended for experienced pilots – you told me you had never flown an airplane, but you very obviously have.”

I swore that I hadn’t, other than under his instruction.

Well regardless, I now have contented myself with thousands of hours of home computer flight simulation in Microsoft Flight Simulator X (awesome graphics!) and perhaps calming the occasional nervous passenger whenever I have occasion to take a commercial flight somewhere, saying, “Nothing to worry about sir – the Boeing 737 has the highest safety record of any commercial jet. You are on a very safe airplane.” I really should at least get an extra bag of in-flight cookies for that, I think.

Maybe I really was an airline pilot in another life, who knows?

Or maybe there is a slightly more mundane, but nonetheless unlikely explanation.

The other day I caught an old episode of the original Twilight Zone, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” A Boeing 707 Captain finds himself in a jet that is speeding up beyond what is possible, going through a sound barrier of some sort, and jumping around in time over Manhattan Island. Sorry for the spoiler there, but come on – the episode originally aired in 1961, if you haven’t seen it by now, it’s not my fault. Anyway, so the captain keeps bringing the jet down to altitudes that for a Boeing 707 should be reserved only for short final (landing) – presumably to see where – and when – the plane is. First they are in prehistoric times with a dinosaur just below the plane, then they are over the 1939 World’s Fair. (We will leave the glaring scientific holes in this episode’s plot alone for now, since that’s not really the point I am making here. Heh.)

A real airliner would never be flying that low for no reason – we are talking 100 feet or so above the ground. Just wouldn’t happen. Crop dusters, sure – that happened all the time – I remember one time when the wheel of a crop duster (our house was in the middle of 200 acres of farm fields) clipped our TV antenna on top of the house, and we didn’t have TV for a week.

At the end of the episode, the narrator says, “So if some moment, any moment, you hear the sound of jet engines flying atop the overcast, engines that sound searching and lost, engines that sound desperate, shoot up a flare, or do something – that would be Global 33 trying to get home – from the Twilight Zone.”

May, 1977. School was almost out for the year. I was 8 years old, going on 9. It was a warm, muggy, day, with low clouds and a slight haze in the air from the farmers burning weeds in the fields.

The school bus would pick us up each morning and drop us off each afternoon on the highway in front of our house, rather than going down the dirt road to our house. This was because the dirt road was owned by Burlington Northern – the railroad tracks ran parallel to the highway between the highway and the dirt road – and they didn’t want the liability of a loaded school bus on their property. Dumb. So each day, twice a day, we made our way through the borrow pit and over the railroad tracks to the dirt road and finally to our house (or vice versa) – about a distance of 200 feet. (This got even more interesting in the winter.)

That May afternoon, as my brother (he would have been 11) and I traversed this no man’s land between the “bus stop” and the house, we first heard the low rumble of an airplane engine. Actually, multiple engines, it sounded like, and the note was way too low to be a crop duster. It sounded big. It sounded a lot like what I imagined a World War II bomber might sound like. The engines were quite loud now, but we saw nothing.

And then it broke out of the clouds at an impossibly low elevation – a huge airliner no more than 100 feet over our property. It was a prop, – four screaming prop engines and three tail fins (technically called vertical stabilizers). Red stripes along the center of the fuselage, and the unmistakable words above the stripes – Trans World Airlines. Nose down, then level, then climbing – the captain went for gusto at full throttle as he pulled her out of the dive. As she passed overhead and began climbing up over the Blockplant (see previous posts for more about the Blockplant) she was at her lowest perhaps only 50 feet off the ground. I actually thought the thing was going to crash right into our house. The plane climbed back up into the clouds, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.

No, I don’t think it was Global Flight 33 or any other lost flight out of time, but it is almost enough to make you wonder……..

In point of fact, I know exactly what happened. I now know (as an aviation and airline enthusiast) that what I saw was a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation, and it has become one of my favorite airplanes of all time. Long since retired from airline service (even then), this was one of the airplanes used as a tanker to combat forest fires, out of the US Forest Service firefighters air base in Greybull, Wyoming, about 40 miles from my hometown. They were probably returning from a mission in the Bighorns, which would take them over my town, saw the smoke from the farmers doing controlled burns of their fields (which got out of hand ALL the time) and like Global 33, decided to dip down close to the ground and investigate. I do think he got a bit lower than he meant to, as evidenced by the way he pulled up sharply and then pushed the screaming engines to the max less than 100 feet off the ground, dangerous in any aircraft, let alone an early airliner.

The Lockheed Super Constellation is in my opinion a beautiful airplane. But don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself – this one looks exactly like the plane I saw that afternoon decades ago:

 

Image

The Super Constellation, or “Super Connie” as it was often referred to, was an important airplane in airline history because it opened up transcontinental travel for paying passengers, something that was problematic until then, as the Douglas DC-3 and DC-4s didn’t have the range for long transcontinental flights. The Super Connie did, and it opened up air travel to Europe, South America, even Australia for the members of the public who could afford it. At one point in the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower used three different Super Constellations, including one as Air Force One.

Not very many people can say that a Super Constellation has buzzed their house, but on one late spring afternoon of my childhood, one did, and it was an experience that I never forgot, and an experience, most likely the formative experience, that made me fall in love with aviation, and airliners, for the rest of my life.

Uncle Johnny’s

 

Summer is finally here, and that means summer vacations, right? Actually, I’m taking a pass this year, and aside from a couple of long weekends, I won’t be doing too much traveling this year. I will probably hit the road again in 2015. I usually only take a really long trip every other year.

I had the privilege growing up of having folks that could afford to take us on a family vacation every other year, much the same way I do now. The off summers were spent doing chores, doing odd jobs around town to score some extra cash, reading, maybe if we’d been good a weekend camping trip or two. Family vacation years tended to be pretty good – I have to give my folks credit there. They took us on some pretty darned neat summer vacations for a family trying to make ends meet in Northern Wyoming in the 70s and 80s. I do realize that not all of the kids in town got to do such things – Disneyland, Alberta Canada, Denver, Mount Rushmore, Custer’s Battlefield, as well as Los Angeles several times to visit family there, yeah, my folks took us on some pretty darned cool summer vacations growing up.

Even southern Missouri for two weeks.

Wait, what? What was that last one? Southern Missouri, you heard me. Little town (and by little I mean population 10 – the town’s main building was a combination General Store / Mechanics Shop) of Couch, Missouri, just about halfway between Kentucky and Oklahoma, and just 11 miles from the Arkansas border. Cool. I had never been to the South. Turned out we had a long lost-great uncle there who had invited us out. Turned out further that he’d been given notice by his doctor that he was on the escalator to the next world, and there wasn’t any going back. Doc said he had between six months and a year left. So, in a strange sort of backwoods family reunion, with a somber overtone that us kids didn’t quite realize was there, we made plans to set out for the deep South.

July, 1976. I was 7. So off we went in our 1973 two door Chevy Impala. Puke green. Hey, we went First Class, man. This was two years before we purchased our new Chevy Suburban, and it was what we had. To make things even more special the thing broke down twice on the trip, first time was the power steering in Kansas City, and was luckily just a matter of a pump and a belt (cars back then were stupid easy to fix yourself) so we were back on the road in no time. Second time was the air conditioning, and that was probably going to have to stay broken until we got home. Great.

Well, along the way, my dad forgot (innocent mistake, really – my dad would not do this on purpose) to pay for a tank of gas at a Stuckey’s, a fairly popular chain at the time in the heartland, I’m given to understand, and we got to see up close and personal the great states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. The old joke is that you’d never want to live any place where the prominent geographical feature is the horizon, and let me tell you something – it’s not that funny. It’s darned near the truth in those states.

But, as always, we got where we were going, or at least within a few miles of it. Following the directions “Uncle Johnny” had given us over the telephone, we wound up in a field on a dirt farm road, in a dirty ’73 Impala with three overheated kids in the back and a bad oil leak. My dad pulled up to a man in overalls who appeared to be sticking a pitchfork in loose piles of hay, and against his principles, my dad asked for directions to Uncle Johnny’s place.

“You’s kin?” came the reply.

No – we’re the tax collectors, what does it look like, bubba? Of course no one said that, but they really should have.

After the formalities were out of the way, we were given the directions. Follow this farm road, turn right, then go to this next field and turn left at the swamp, and there you are. Or words to that effect, anyway.

Uncle Johnny actually had a pretty nice spread. A large barn served as his garage, he had two houses on the property, or rather the main two-story Walton-esque house and a shed with a tin roof and a loft made up real nice for Johnny’s daughters, our second cousins. We had two other male second cousins that lived “just up the road” that visited a lot as well, and visited the two female cousins in the loft all night most of the time we were visiting. I’m not saying anything more than that. I’m sure it was all, um, perfectly innocent. Anyway.

Uncle Johnny seemed to like me a lot. He could be a real grump too, but he was mostly a man with a heart of gold, I learned. And he looked almost exactly like Colonel Sanders without the tie. The only time he got grumpy with me was when I landed my die-cast Boeing 727 on his countertop, complete with the bark of the wheels hitting the runway, and the thrust reversers.

(I have always had a very strange relationship with aviation my entire life – as a child I knew about thrust reversers and flaps, and would even yell “rotate!” on takeoff. Perhaps I got those things from television, perhaps not. Mom is to this day convinced I was a pilot in a previous life, but I digress……)

Anyway, one night I was awakened by the sound of the whippoorwills. Their sound is actually very soothing, it’s just that I wasn’t used to night birds, except maybe for the occasional owl in Wyoming. Whippoorwills are small, brown and gray nocturnal birds that emit this strange, rolling, soothing sound for which they are named. It kind of sounds like they are saying softly, “whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill….” The whippoorwills were easily my favorite thing about Missouri.

So I get up, and find Uncle Johnny sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cocktail. Hardly surprising – he was dying due to a failing liver at the age of 63 – Uncle Johnny had long been an alcoholic. He held his liquor though, and was calm, clear, and personable. He opened a cold bottle of Coke for me from the refrigerator and invited me to sit at the table with him. I drank four more Cokes as we talked for three hours into the early dawn. I have always been a night owl myself, so this wasn’t the first time I had stayed up practically all night like this. I actually don’t remember all of the exact contents of our conversation, but I do remember that he asked me if I liked my life, my siblings, my parents, and he told me he was dying, and that he was scared. Pretty heavy stuff for a seven year old. I told him I thought it would be okay, that maybe it would be like taking a jet plane somewhere, only you didn’t know where you were going to land. Not bad for a 7 year old, if I do say so myself. Uncle Johnny smiled, and told me I was a good kid.

* * *

The next day I was a bit sluggish for some reason, so I just ate breakfast and took a mid-morning nap as the southern Missouri summer sun began its humid assault on the swamp-ridden landscape.

That afternoon our cousins all invited us kids to go with them (one of them was 15, old enough to drive Johnny’s tan 1974 Ford F150 on the dirt back roads) to the local swimming hole. These folks had a somewhat different idea of what a swimming hole was than I did – I picture a clear, cold mountain pool in a wide spot in a stream – but this was a tree and thicket-lined swamp with water the color of chocolate milk. Not exactly my idea of the perfect swimming hole, but, when in Rome, right? So we jumped in and I had only been in the water a few minutes when I felt something large and scaly deliberately wrap itself around my right calf. I said as much, and Tony, the eldest cousin, told me to freeze – “Don’t move a muscle and don’t tense up – just stand there like a statue. Don’t move even one little bit.” Just as quickly as it had started, the thing on my leg loosened and slithered away. I was told to slowly make my way back towards shore and the truck. When it seemed I was clear and close enough to the truck, Tony yelled at the top of his lungs, “Everyone out NOW!!! COTTONMOUTH!!!!!”

Cottonmouths, more commonly known as Water Moccasins, are large, long black venomous snakes of the viper family. They are exceedingly poisonous; bites are fatal, especially in children, without immediate hospitalization. The closest town to Couch is Alton, 20 miles away. It would have been dicey at best. Luckily, I wasn’t bitten, and that was my last venture to the local “swimming hole.” I forgot to mention too the leeches, but they peel off easily and leave bloody little sucker marks on your body, inconsequential compared to my brush with the Cottonmouth.

The last couple of days at Uncle Johnny’s were spent uneventfully, except for avoiding the wasp and locust swarms, a Copperhead in the back yard (another lethal viper that is everywhere in Missouri) and chasing fireflies with a jar at night with the whippoorwills cooing softly in the background. I found that though I was enchanted by the fireflies and whippoorwills, on the whole I just didn’t care that much for Missouri – I was, and always will be at heart, a mountain country boy.

The day before we left, Uncle Johnny pulled our Impala into the barn and checked the repair that had been done in Kansas City on our power steering pump, then he and Tony fixed the oil leak with a new gasket and fixed the air conditioner, replacing the blown compressor with a used one that worked fine and a new belt, and the next day we were back on the road, headed home. Dad tried to pay Johnny, but Johnny just held up his hand in protest, explaining simply that, “No sir, that’s just what kin do.”

Turned out we had to ask directions out of there too, but by that time, practically everyone in the county, which was really just a handful of people, knew exactly who we were, a few of them waving to us as our Impala slowly sought out pavement and civilization, as it were, once again.

* * *

One winter evening later that year, our telephone rang. Uncle Johnny had passed away quietly in his sleep.

I got out my die-cast Boeing 727, started the takeoff roll, and wished him a safe trip.

Stone Soup

Well, another six months have gone by without a post! Shame on me.  Sorry about that, but I’ve been involved with a paranormal investigation group, (sort of a natural fit for me) which has been taking up most of my time on weekends (I post most often on weekends). So unfortunately the blog has taken a back seat lately. The group broke apart, in the end, so now that that’s over, I can get back to blogging, right?

One of my nieces was recently in a professional stage production (college level – and she’s 9!) of Peter Pan. Pretty decent production values. Fog, smoke, gunpowder, a flying girl playing a flying boy (they used harness wires, so they looked like they were really flying) – it was all there. I really enjoyed the show.

It made me think of my own short foray into theater. Oh, I did drama in Forensics in high school (see previous post titled “Forensics”) and even took a theater class in college – by a professor who taught Tom Hanks, no less.

But alas, Broadway was never meant for me, it would seem, except for as a paying customer, of course. I love theater, and always will. No, my theater days were unfortunately limited to school plays in elementary school. I am SO proud of my niece for her accomplishments, and I’m thankful that she never had any theatrical setback so mortifying as to end an acting career before it began. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing.

November, 1978. My fourth grade class put on this play called “Stone Soup.” The basic idea here was that you had these two bums drifting through town on a cold autumn evening, and they stop to boil some soup. Except all they have is an empty pot and a large rock. Not a great start as far as original recipes go. Don’t call Progresso just yet. I’m just sayin.

Well, our two transient heroes manage to find some water and a grocer gives them some salt. Someone else comes by and gives them some pepper. A farmer comes by and gives them some vegetables. And so on. Before you know it, they have a large cauldron full of hearty broth, and the entire community is standing around the fire singing in friendship. Cute. Progresso is on hold on Line 2, and there is plenty of Stone Soup for everyone. There were some messages here – about working together as a community, about charity, and brotherhood.

And about local city and county ordinances.

I got to play the cop – I come along and ask – “Hey, there isn’t a real rock in there, is there?”

“Wouldn’t be Stone Soup if there weren’t, right?” comes the oh too-friendly answer. So I whip out my ticket book, but after one taste, I am won over by the warmth of the community, the friendship and brotherhood, and of course, by Stone Soup. We all end up singing around the fire, arm in arm. And no one even said anything about my Cub Scout uniform not looking anything like a police officer’s uniform. Heh.

Well, after the play, my teacher announces that the school cafeteria is open for a special treat for everyone – Stone Soup! As everyone lined up for a bowl of hot stew, the solid unmistakable ‘thunk’ of rock against metal could be heard each time my teacher stirred the giant pot of soup.

I never mentioned that my father worked in town for the State Health Department, did I?

So my dad and mom get to the front of the line, and my dad asks my teacher, almost as if he felt foolish asking such a seemingly ridiculous question, “Hey, there isn’t a real rock in there, is there?” He tried to rob the question of any offense with a halfway grin.

My teacher responded, “Why, sir – it wouldn’t be Stone Soup if there wasn’t, would it?”

“No, seriously……..” And then my teacher used a pair of oversized spoons to retrieve a 10 pound round boulder from the bottom of the soup pot.

So, to my mother’s complete mortification, and my irrecoverable embarrassment, my dad made everyone dump their soup out, closed down the kitchen, and sent everyone home without dinner.

I know he was trying to do the right thing, I know he thought he was preventing some pandemic, but I am SURE the rock was washed in hot soap and water before being placed in the pot. I mean, I kind of doubt anything would have happened. Still, I guess it’s like the cop that lets the drunk driver go because he’s only two blocks from home – the worst can still happen in that two blocks. Duty first, and all of that. I mean, I do get it. And I really don’t think he was trying to be mean or was trying to embarrass me. Oh, but embarrassed I was – I just wanted to crawl under the table and hide.

Of course, everyone went home on a sour note, and the evening was more or less ruined. To add insult to injury, my dad hit a skunk on the way home in our brand new 1978 Chevrolet Suburban – he hit it so dead-on that the thing stuck to the inside of the front right wheel well and smelled like Hell itself (I still had my sense of smell at this point in my life, unfortunately….) That put my dad and everyone else in a further foul mood.

Well, we got past it, there were eventually no hard feelings, at least on my part (and it took a while for me to get there, I have to say) and life moved on.

Progresso never called, and I was never asked to participate in another school play after elementary school, although in 5th grade I did get to write and produce my own short play with my friend Chuck – “The Money Tree.” But perhaps that is another story.

 

Why I Can’t Smell, or Blowing Up the Science Lab

It often comes up in conversation that I cannot smell a thing. Not even strong chemical smells or gas. I only have four senses – my sense of smell is completely gone, and will be forever.

Nope – wasn’t born that way. Heck, I remember growing up, all the way from downstairs I could tell you if we were having cheese dogs or regular hot dogs for dinner. I was a sophomore in high school (10th grade) when I lost my sense of smell in a science lab experiment gone horrifically wrong. This was to be the first of two incidents directly involving me, and the high school science lab.

The first incident was the one in which I lost my sense of smell. The second one was just a very hands-on lesson in the surprising properties of certain molecular compounds.

Fall, 1986. By this time I was driving my parents’ Chevette to school every day, as I had to be at the Bus Barn by 5:30 each morning to run the airport school bus route.

My 6th period class that semester (right before I would return to the Bus Barn each day for the afternoon run) was Physics. We were boiling water and several mostly inert (non-reactive) ingredients in beakers, then we were supposed to identify the resulting compound by smell.  The winning answer was sulfur, but everyone kept guessing it was ammonia. Finally, in a subdued fit of bad judgment, our teacher retrieved a 5 gallon glass jug of commercial grade ammonia from a cabinet in the classroom, opened it, and carefully poured out a capful of it to pass around. In this way, he reasoned, we could smell what ammonia smells like, and differentiate that smell from the sulfur we were obtusely cooking up in our beakers.

Commercial grade ammonia is undiluted. The ammonia you buy in the store is 10% ammonia, 90% water. Commercial grade ammonia is 100% pure ammonia. Ten times stronger. Nothing could go wrong with this plan, just nothing at all.

So we are all passing around this capful of commercial grade ammonia, and as it gets to me and I lower my nose for a good whiff, Dan comes hurdling up behind me in a rubber band fight with another student, and crashes into the back of me.

The capful of ammonia went into may face, most of it up my nose. Very luckily, nothing but the fumes (which were horrible) got into my eyes. So I’ standing there yelling in pain, blood literally squirting out of my nose and onto the floor. The teacher got my face washed in the emergency washing station immediately, and gave me a towel to hold to my bleeding nose.

Well, the recovery from that was long and uncomfortable, but eventually the membranes inside my nose rejuvenated themselves, and I was okay, except that the nerve endings in my sinuses that lead to the olfactory center in my brain were burned off, not unlike taking a Bic lighter to the ends of a pair of shoestrings. From that day on, I have never been able to smell a thing. That luckily, was the only permanent damage.

My second accident in the science lab, later that semester, did not result in any injury or property damage. It did, however, come uncomfortably close to blowing the east wing of the school off.

For this experiment, we were back to boiling stuff in beakers, over Bunsen burners. This time it was just salt water though. The exercise was to boil salt water until there was nothing but salt left, then measure the purity of the salt.

Depending on how much water you put in your beaker, this could be rather time consuming. So we all got bored waiting for our beakers of salt water to boil – the boiling time was affected not only by the amount of water in the beaker, but also by the salinity of the water. So, high school students being what they are, we started amusing ourselves by sticking things in the flame of the Bunsen burners to watch them burn, melt, or glow, depending on the material.

And it caught on. Soon almost everyone was sticking something in their Bunsen Burner – a pencil, the end of a ruler, a Bic pen, a paper clip glowing red hot – hey, this last one gave me an idea. I was always fascinated by the way metal behaves in a hot flame – the way it glows and becomes more bendable always intrigued me for some reason. So here’s this little strip of metal I found on top of the counter – about 3 inches long and a quarter of an inch wide. This will be sorta cool.

What I didn’t know (nor would it have mattered if I did) was that I had found myself an improperly discarded little strip of pure magnesium just lying around.

Magnesium is an interesting metal. It has a very low flash point and a very high sustained burn temperature. For those of us who thought in high school that Physics was something that happened in the gym, that means that even though it’s metal, magnesium bursts into flame quite easily, and burns at white – hot temperatures of around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

You learn something every day.

So here I am – directly underneath the gas pipes leading to the Bunsen burners – holding this strip of metal in the flame of the burner, when a huge white star of fire erupts on the countertop, engulfing the burner and my beaker. It sounded like lighting 100 sparklers all at once. (Magnesium is actually used to make sparklers and other fireworks – the strip of metal I had contained enough magnesium to make 20 – 30 sparklers, easily.)  Of course, I instinctively dropped it, so that the white hot flame was now heating the gas pipes leading from the gas main to the burner heads. Our teacher calmly turned off the main gas valve to the burners, got a chemical fire extinguisher, and put the fire out.

My salt water experiment was toast. But the teacher didn’t mind, he just dealt with the problem, made sure I was okay, and told me he was glad that my hand and the east wing of the school were still both there. I had to stay a bit late, help clean up the mess, and answer a few questions about how I thought the saltwater experiment would have turned out if I hadn’t attempted to ignite a small sun under my experiment. I answered the questions correctly, still got an A, and was sent off just a few minutes behind schedule for my afternoon bus run.  

After that class I took a healthy interest instead in Biology (even throughout college) – there were a lot fewer explosions in that field of study. Though fascinated by Physics, I always struggled with the equations (high math has always been a bit of an Achilles’ Heel for me) and was obviously far too much of a klutz to be trusted with volatile compounds.  

That was pretty much the end of my short career as a student scientist, and a blackened beaker and permanently closed off olfactory nerves were all I had to show for it.

Batman and the Willow Tree

In the winter of 1976, Northern Wyoming experienced one of the worst cold snaps on record. I remember it well – on the day after Christmas 1976, we awoke to a beautiful blue sky, and three feet of freshly fallen snow.

The outside temperature that morning was – 65 (that’s 65 degrees below zero) Fahrenheit. And that is without the wind chill factor. That’s cold enough to freeze engine oil solid, and cold enough to cause instant frostbite to the membranes and tissues in your throat and mouth. You have to cover your face and breathe only through your nose in those temperatures. Without a heavy goose down parka, heavy mittens, wool socks, moon boots, and extreme cold weather head gear, hypothermia would take hold in less than 15 minutes.

Another thing we noticed was that the huge old willow tree in our front yard was beautiful – its branches a crystalline frost white.

It was also dead – killed by temperatures willow trees just aren’t supposed to be exposed to. In the spring, we were forced to cut the old tree down. Its stump remained for a few years to come – we finally had it removed in 1980 as part of some improvements we were making to the yard at the time.

Willow trees are most commonly found in America in the southern portions of the Midwest and in the southern states. They are susceptible to cold temperatures, as we found out. What a large willow tree was doing in the front yard of a country home in Northern Wyoming is anyone’s guess. I suppose the man who built the house and the Blockplant planted the willow tree for one reason or another.

We had always sort of adored that willow tree. It seemed like a kind of sentinel, something that somehow defined the uniqueness (and major strangeness) of the property. It was really sad, for all of us, I think, to see it go.

Like I said, the stump of the old tree remained for a few years. For one reason or another, that stump became one of my brother’s and mine favorite little play areas. We would play ‘King of the Hill,” trying to knock each other off the stump. We also used it as a podium where we gave speeches mocking our most mock-able teachers. Heh.

We also used the stump for our GI Joe adventures and other action – figure related activities.

My mom always referred to this as “you boys playing with your dolls,” but we were NOT playing with dolls. We were playing with our action figures, thank you very much.

 And it wasn’t just GI Joes, either (we had the old school GI Joes, too – the ones that are worth bank today). Some of our favorite action figures were Captain Kirk, Spock, Shazam (if you remember Shazam you probably have a few gray hairs, just like me), Aquaman (majorly collectable today), Bullet Man, the Six Million Dollar Man, his robot nemesis I now forget the name of – another rare collectable – well, you get the idea. And we had the Enterprise Bridge for Kirk and Spock too, and the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle – that was one ridiculously cool toy (that one was my brother’s, dammit).

We used to load up the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle with every single GI Joe accoutrement we could think of and take the whole thing, along with our GI Joes, out to the stump and play there for hours, the stump of course being the objective of our mission – the stump could be a castle, a mountain, whatever.

And for some reason Captain Kirk wound up with Shazam in my Tonka Winnebago Motorhome (I still have that one) packed to the nines with GI Joe gear.   Hmmm – must have been an away mission or something. Hope they got permission from GI Joe. (You might remember the ‘70s Saturday morning live action “Shazam!” show, in which Shazam and some old dude traipsed around the country in a Dodge Winnebago motorhome and got into generally impossible scenarios, which often involved Isis, from another TV show called, appropriately enough, “Isis.” So that was probably where we go this particular idea.) 

And of course, we can’t forget our Batman and Robin dol……  er, I mean, action figures. Batman and Robin were the only action figures we ever had who failed one of the missions we invented for them with our imaginations. I really don’t know why. Maybe we were just sick of them – I mean, we had to put up with these two on Superfriends (Superfriends and Scooby Doo, Where Are You? were pretty much our favorite after school cartoons) just about every day after school. Or maybe Batman and Robin just looked too stupid behind the wheel of either my Winnebago or the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle.

Whatever the reason, Batman and Robin went out to willow stump in the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle and never came back. They got their butts handed to them by the mummy from the GI Joe Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb play set (also lost to history – too bad too, that set goes for $300 on E Bay now!) . That was the prevailing story our imaginations kicked up, anyway. So, in a cruel twist of irony and sadistic glee (well, for the mummy, anyway) Batman and Robin were buried alive at the base of the willow stump.

I actually think we meant to go out there and retrieve our ill-fated dynamic duo, but we sort of forgot about them by the time dad had the stump removed, and so the action figures went along with it.

Hardly a fitting end for the Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder. Oh, well.

I visited the old house, by invitation of the current occupants, this summer when I went back and visited my hometown. I got a surprise – a new adult willow tree now stood six feet to the north of where the old one had been. The occupants had no idea how it had sprung up, it just broke ground one day by itself, and they decided to give it a chance. And it thrived.

Although I somewhat euphemistically like to think that the house – or more precisely its lingering, ghostly occupants of old – wanted the willow tree back, I have to recognize that logically, it must have just been a matter of time with a portion of the root structure left underground. Even then, it’s taken 37 years to grow back. I guess it’s like they say – the more things change, the more they really do, sometimes, at least, stay the same.