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.