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.

The “Sarah Story” EXPOSED!

So I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go with today’s post. One of my friends commented today that I have lost my wild side, that the Brent from “my Sarah days” (names changed to protect the innocent of course) was gone.

What are you trying to say, that I’m getting old?

Well, what he was referring to was a rather severe crush I had on this girl in high school.

Now. When I say “crush” that’s what it was, but it was the kind of crush the whole town more or less knew about, and a crush a lot of the town still remembers.

So I was a teenage stalker. NOT REALLY!!!  But to hear some of the townsfolk tell it, that’s what you would think. And I realized with my friend’s comment today (and he has only heard about it all second hand) that I had never really told my side to anyone but my closer friends regarding the “Sarah days.”

Instant wherethebleepiswyoming blog fodder.

So, here’s what really happened:

Fall 1985. I had just started out with this whole “cruising Main” thing – I was at that time cruising in my parents’ Chevy Chevette. If Pee Wee Herman ever had an idea for a new car design, the Chevette has to be close to what he would come up with. I mean, this was a TERRIBLE car. And it had a cool factor of -2.  (A 1968 Camaro, for example, would have a cool factor of at least 10.) I did at least get my dad to put a stereo in the thing. That helped.

No, this post is not going to be a reiteration of ‘Rock and Roll High School,” I assure you.

But it is going to be about the time I fell really bad for a cheerleader. Oh, I mean, at first it was the typical thing – nerdy guy from band class has puppy eyes for one of the cheerleaders, and hilarity ensues. And that was definitely how it started, smiles, waves, a friendly hello (during which I’m sure I blushed), and the like.

Then one colder evening I got the bright idea to follow her around a little. I don’t really know why. She had this big extended cab Ford long bed, and here she is being tailed by a Chevette. It must have been like, “Really??” when she looked in the rear view mirror. Not like there were a lot of gold Chevettes cruising Main. She knew exactly who it was. I bottomed out in a speed dip by a park (this was at around 10 p.m on an October night) as her front end bottomed out on the truck on the same dip. I decided it was getting a little ridiculous, so I broke off the chase.

Don’t ask me what made me decide to chase her that night. She had three friends with her – I would never have done this if she was alone – and she knew full well who it was. So, I just chalked it off to boredom and left it at that. Well of course, the next weekend she decides to give me some of my own medicine and starts following me. Then next time I followed her. We were playing automotive tag. I spun out a few times, even ended up faced the wrong direction once. But it was all in the name of fun, right?

Then the car hopping started. One of her friends jumped out of the truck at a red light and hopped into the Chevette. She proceeded to tell me how Sarah was in love with me. (Look, I might have had a crush on Sarah, but I wasn’t stupid.) Yeah, right.  Then at the next light she hops back in to the truck. Next time Sarah gets out, her boyfriend takes the wheel as she hops into the Chevette. Now Sarah is telling me all about how one of her friends is “majorly” in love with me. Then gets out again. Cute. And I almost really did say, “But Sarah, I have a crush on you!” But I did stop myself.

So, things escalated that way – sometimes when we chased each other through town, it was with her boyfriend driving, sometimes his truck, sometimes hers, but never in a way that seemed quite as playful as when Sarah was driving. Not by quite a bit, as a matter of fact.

And this was hardly surprising. Because her boyfriend was already seeing what neither Sarah nor myself were admitting as a real possibility – that we were starting to have some real feelings for each other.

But it would never work. Sarah was from an old school family with roots in the town going back decades – inner circle, as it were. And of course she was one of the most popular girls in school. I was a nerdy guy who played the trumpet, read science textbooks for fun, and was generally and pointedly unpopular. And so it goes. If we ever actually “went out” (which we didn’t, by the way) it would be hopelessly one sided. She’d be the homecoming queen, and I would still be the nerdy hard luck case from band class.

So I guess that should have been the end of it. One of the things that I think began my infatuation – yes, I’ll call it that – with her was how kind she was to me when my leg was badly messed up back in my freshman year – she was one of the few who didn’t berate me for having a “funny walk” which I couldn’t help, and I always remembered that.

And I mean, I do hate to reinforce a stereotype, but kids, if you’re a nerdy guy who develops a crush on a cheerleader because she just didn’t have it in her to be a creep to you for no reason – guess what? It doesn’t mean you’re in love, it just means you’re still a nerd. But I was 16, what did I know.

So, believe it or not, things went on this way for another year – we became more and more friendly to one another at school, and I quietly waited for the day that she didn’t have a boyfriend (who was out of school) anymore.

Well, quietly is probably the wrong word there. There was the time I was on Main in my parents’ Chevy Suburban and here comes this guy in a VW Rabbit who thinks I owe him 20 bucks, even though I didn’t. Anyway, I thought with that big four wheel drive I could ditch him easy on the canal roads. Man, he stayed right on me. I just couldn’t shake him, as much dirt and dust as I kicked up. Then his headlights veered off to the left – I thought he’d crashed – when the Suburban’s headlights picked out a sign that read DEAD END just ahead. Mind you I was doing about 70 mph on a one lane (if that) dirt and gravel canal road at this moment. I locked up the brakes on all four wheels and downshifted the transmission heavily into 2nd. Dirt, gravel and a massive dust cloud went everywhere as I hung on to a runaway train and was helpless to stop her from plunging nose first into an irrigation ditch with a huge splash, snapping the electric fence wire there along the ditch like it didn’t exist. Oh, and right in Sarah’s front yard, too. Perfect.

(I heard about it in Math class the next Monday too – she wanted me to pay for the wire, which was easily fixed without cost, but I digress.)

Well, that day when Sarah no longer had a boyfriend came, as it turned out, and not that far from the senior prom. (You hear about these things in a small town.)  We hadn’t chased each other on Main much in the last year, but  we had gotten more personable to one another at school. Heck, I’d almost say she was starting to treat me like an equal! Almost.

In the spring of 1987 I had this afternoon journalism class; during the same period she had an Office Assistant Class (a secretary the school doesn’t have to pay, wonder who though that one up), so it turned out that we often both had to use the back copy room (not the copy room!) at the same time. So we actually got to have a few real conversations in there, and I actually started to get to know her as a human being a little, something I hadn’t bothered to do too much up until then. Of course, back then I would have said I hadn’t had the chance to, but chance is something that is often rewarded most often to the bold. And bold was not something I was at 17 years of age (still a little afraid of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

So, when Sarah turned off the copier, locked her eyes to mine, and said, “Are you going to the prom, Brent?” I literally did not know what to do. I mean, I froze. There was a very long silence, as she just stood there looking at me.

Sure, now, if a woman my age comes on to me, I like to think know how to handle it, but at 17, not so much. So anyway, back to the copy room. I’m still frozen in my tracks. And then, in one of the dumbest replies to a question in human history, especially a loaded question from a member the opposite sex, I said, “I was thinking of going to see Iron Eagle II that night.”

Well, if you know anything about the female mind at all, you know that I got the Cold Shoulder and Icy Stares constantly for the next two weeks leading up to and including the senior prom.

Which I did. And I swear to you, I honestly did not at the time understand what I had done wrong. I just thought she was mad because of some remark I’d made (which she was, but not in the way I was thinking). It never occurred to me for a single second that she would actually consider going to prom with someone like me.

Some friends from The Rock and Roll Gang and I actually did go to Iron Eagle II on prom night. After the movie, one of the guys suggested we go check out the prom. So, here are four of us in leather jackets and jeans, walking into the prom like we owned the place. One of the teachers asked us if we didn’t think we ought to move along, nothing to see here folks, but not before Sarah could give me a look so cold that I still remember it to this day. She was clearly not amused I was there.

Well, that’s the teenage life, isn’t it? I have often wondered what would have happened if I had spoken up that day in the copy room. I have even wondered if that was a moment that could have changed my life if I had responded differently.  You know what I decided?

Probably not. And even if it did, would I have stayed when it came time to move out of state? Again, probably not. But more than that, I’m glad it didn’t. I have an amazing life right now, and wouldn’t trade any of it for anything. Sometimes, things happen exactly the way they are supposed to happen, even if it means playing a shy, introverted nerd for a few years until you learn to grow up a little.

The day before I left town, I called Sarah and told her I was moving to California. We met briefly at Sanders Park – I don’t think anyone knows that – talked for a bit, shook hands, and we went our separate ways. Except for a 30 second conversation at the bar at our 20 year high school reunion (she was pointedly not interested in talking to me) several years ago, that was the last time I talked to Sarah.

By the way, she and that boyfriend (a childhood friend of one of my best friends) got back together and got married a few years after I left town, coincidence or not.

I’m glad.  I hope they are having an amazing life.

The Great Colorado Road Trip

When I was a freshman in high school I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.”  The version of the novel I had bore the novel’s original title, “Goodbye Blue Monday.” I was probably reading a first edition of the novel that would bring a bunch of cash today, but what can you do. I think I loaned that book to someone and never saw it again. Doh.

From about the fifth grade on, I had always carried around a paperback novel, horror, science fiction, a bit of fantasy (elves and wizards and what have you), all 29 Alistair MacLean novels (plus his one super rare non-fiction book I managed to lay my hands on) – pretty much whatever I could find to read if it had a decent plot. Sometimes even if it didn’t.

“Breakfast of Champions,” is an interesting novel. It is set (like many of Vonnegut’s novels) in an alternate universe.  This car salesman is driving across the country to attend an arts festival, where he meets the owner of a burger franchise. The car salesman introduces the burger salesman to the writings of a surrealist author, Kilgore Trout. After the arts festival the two set off across this fictitious country in an alternate universe, and the burger guy becomes obsessed with the Kilgore Trout novels, taking them as literal truth. The burger guy goes insane and goes on a criminal rampage, leaving his travel partner to wonder where it all went wrong. The novel was about how we all have a tendency to place our own expectations upon other people.

This past summer, I drove from Sacramento back to my hometown in Northern Wyoming, then went on an 1,800 mile road trip through most of Colorado with a friend I have known since the first day of Kindergarten. Before I left, I joked how the trip was in danger of turning into a Kurt Vonnegut novel.  (Don’t you just hate it when you’re the only one who gets your own jokes?)   Anyway.

My friend and I have been through a lot together – he was there for The Great Mudball Fight of 1978, he was there at my side when I wrecked my leg and couldn’t walk right for the better part of a year, he was there in the Rock and Roll High School days, we even went to college together for a few semesters before I moved to California.

So, I mean, as road trip companions go, this should have been a no brainer, right? Well, maybe.

And don’t get me wrong – we did get along just fine, but I think we both also got a reality check or two along the way.

DAY 1:  Northern Wyoming to Denver.  Pretty uneventful. My friend, who I will call “Jeff,” was a little frugal about where to stop for gas (he paid for gas and I paid for lodging) but that was okay. We stopped in Chugwater, Wyoming and made sandwiches out of the cooler that I was reluctant to bring along. (The words “we need to be weight conscious, on this trip, Jeff” actually left my lips at one point on this trip. So I’m the C3-PO of vacations, what can I say.)

DAYS 2 & 3:  Denver to Snowmass / Aspen.  Let me tell you something about the Mitsubishi Lancer. I LOVE my car and everything about it. But, it was almost certainly not designed by anyone who lives in the mountains. Around Sacramento, it’s a dream car. But it has a small four cylinder engine, and when going up a 45 mile 7% grade up into the Rocky Mountains, you suddenly feel as if you are pulling a U Haul trailer full of bricks. I’m just sayin. And the car did fine, but we definitely lost some speed and pushed some rpms to get her up the mountain. And this was the first climb of many. So, this day was where I first heard the phrase, “You know, cars like this perform better at high rpms – you’re babying it.”  Or one of 32 other variants of this phrase I heard over the next nine days……. (The car can be driven in Automatic or downshifted manually.)

  But, we made it to Snowmass no worse for wear, and everything was just amazing (I wanted to close my eyes on the chair lift).

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And maybe I was, babying it I mean, but still, bounding up the mountain at 9,000 rpm just to see if we could didn’t seem like a good idea to me………..  I’m just sayin.

DAYS 4 & 5: Aspen to Montrose, CO.  Our next stop was something I had been wanting to see for a while – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s basically a gouge over half a mile deep in places in the Earth’s crust, carved out of solid rock over millions of years by the Gunnison River. By this I think we were both duly impressed. We both seemed to like the town of Montrose a lot (only 15 miles from Black Canyon) as well. 

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Days 6 & 7:  Montrose to Telluride, CO. Telluride is at 9,500 feet on the valley floor, so you can feel your lungs working for extra air a bit – especially when you’ve been living at near sea level for 25 years. We rented mountain bikes, took the gondola up to the top of the mountain, and rode the bikes down the mountain. The shop told us each bike they rent gets new brakes once a week. 3 to 4 runs down the mountain basically smokes the brakes. And these were high end bikes. Image

Jeff took the double black diamond runs (advanced expert level) but I would have none of that. I took the green run (beginner) which turned unceremoniously and without warning into a blue run (moderate) at which point I hit a curve wrong in the trail, the front wheel went into a rut and the rear wheel decided it wanted to be in front, and I was instantly wearing a mountain bike. (They make you wear full helmet and armour, so I was fine.)  Jeff went over the handlebars on the double black diamond run, and decided to try his bike on too.

I made it across the open area of pointy rocks on a dramatic downslope without crashing, I was proud of that. Then I saw a 2 foot fall on the other side of a tree root just in time and hit full brakes. I ended up doing a forward wheelie at the bottom of that drop, teetering on the edge of disaster, finally bringing the bike back down, and landing on the cross bar instead of the seat. Ow. So, with a slightly unamused groin, I elected to dismount and walk the contraption up the next short but steep hill. Halfway up the hill I slipped on some loose shale and did a spread-eagled face plant in the rock and dirt, the bike coming to rest on top of me to add insult to injury. I was going to have to remember to make an appointment with my masseuse when I got back to Sacramento.

Days 8 & 9:  Telluride to Mesa Verde National Park. This we both loved. For Jeff, the guided tours included ladder climbs and scaling vertical rock faces with only a chain to hold on to and shallow steps cut into the rock. Oh, I got to do that too, it’s just that I think Jeff enjoyed that part more than I did.

Did I mention that I’m not the biggest fan of heights? Did I further mention that every single stop on this trip involved staggering heights? Did I still further mention that I was solely responsible for the planning of this trip and so really had no one but myself to blame? Sigh. Regardless, Mesa Verde National Park was pretty danged cool. The pueblo ruins there are amongst the oldest in North America.

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Day 10: Time to head back to Northern Wyoming, where I would spend another week playing video games, reliving my adolescence and childhood a bit, visiting the house I grew up in and the Blockplant, talking to people in town, and just basically wandering around in what to me was a bit of the Twilight Zone. Heck, I even rolled down the windows of my poor abused Mitsubishi, cranked Night Ranger, and took a few Mains for old times’ sake.

It was a fantastic trip. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any misgivings about the trip beforehand once it was all planned. But we went, and the “Chevron vs. Loaf & Jug” economy gas discussions and the “How many rpms are you doing right now” discussions not withstanding, we got along great for the most part, got on each other’s nerves a little (as is to be expected on a trip like this, I think) but above all else we kept it real, and let our lifelong respect for one another guide us most of the way. 

I realize now that Jeff is a very different person from who he was in 1988, and guess what? So am I. And that’s the way it should be – I think we had both forgotten that a little, which is easy to do on a 90 minute phone call, but not on a 10 day road trip.

If I had any regrets about the trip, it would only be that I didn’t let Jeff drive, as I had intended to, and I know he enjoys mountain driving. I’m afraid that after the 32nd rpm comment, I became a bit overprotective of my little Mitsubishi. Ah well, such is life I guess.

The important thing is that not only are Jeff and I still friends, but our friendship got a big boost by the trip after all was said and done – we’re probably right now as good of friends as we ever have been.

No one was driven to any crime sprees, nor did we read any surrealist novels or attend any art fairs. Sorry to disappoint, Mr. Vonnegut (RIP).  

But of course we didn’t – the mutual respect and understanding that you can’t change or program people, but don’t you just know that life will make a fine job of that by itself, were missing between the two characters in the car in “Breakfast of Champions,” and that, I like to think, was Mr. Vonnegut’s original point in the first place.

 

The Wizard’s Den

I went back to my hometown this summer for a few weeks.  Most of that time was spent doing a 10 day Colorado road trip, and I will be talking about that road trip for my next post. But I also spent some time just sort of wandering around the old hometown.

The friend I was visiting there had to work some of the time while I was in town, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. So much so that I played one of his video games on Play Station 3, start to finish. Nice use of vacation time there, Brent. Anyway, I digress.

I drove around the town and took pictures of the places where a lot of my childhood happened, the elementary school, junior high, the high school, the bus barn (see my previous post “7th Period Bus Driver), city parks, the library, what have you.

I also drove out to the old house I grew up in, talked to the current owners, even farted around the Blockplant a little (another previous post). Course I was technically trespassing at the Blockplant, I knew that, but all I was doing was taking pictures, and well, I guess I felt like my childhood ties to the place gave me admit one, if only for a few minutes. That would have been my lame story if I had gotten caught, anyway. Heh.

Oh, before I left, I had to see if the Wizard’s Den was still there.

Summer, 1983. My brother and I were really into these role playing board games – I think they called them book shelf games because the box the game came in was no bigger than a large paperback book. The graphics were powered by the human imagination, and the suspense and storyline all took place in the land of make believe.  The games themselves were little more than a folded paper map, some small square pieces of cardboard that were the game pieces, and an eight sided die (singular for dice). And a little booklet instructing how to turn the box’s meager little contents into a five star theatrical experience in HD and surround sound and an award winning plot, if you just had a little imagination.

The titles of these things read like Dungeons and Dragons wannabes, and maybe that’s what they were. A game might last a few minutes to an hour, sort of short mini-Dungeons and Dragons type games.  Melee was just that – your cardboard pieces beat each other up using math. Heh. Wizard was just like Melee, only with magic instead of swords. Ogre was a futuristic tank battle game. Ramspeed was Viking and Norse ships going at it on the high seas. And of course we can’t forget my personal favorite – The Awful Green Things From Outer Space.  2nd lieutenant Sparks finds a pretty rock on an away mission (no shameless Star Trek ripoff here, I assure you) that turns out to actually be an egg. It hatches, and pandemonium ensues. (Hmmmm, this plot does sound vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?  Hmmmm……just…..can’t……. place it………)  Anyway.  (If you don’t realize what movie the game was a parody of, you need to stop reading because you are just not nerdy enough to be reading this blog.  Oh, just kidding.)

Anyway, well, believe it or not, we got sick of playing these things downstairs in our room, because the stupid house was haunted (see previous posts), and noises and slamming doors kept interrupting our games. So one summer day we decide to go play our board games outside. But where? The yard? Nah, we were supposed to be watering it. The travel trailer we had?  Yeah, that worked for a while, but it was hot and muggy in there. The Blockplant? Neat idea, but we’d get caught in the middle of a game or something. So, ridiculously enough, we put our book shelf games in our day packs with some snacks and water, and set off on our bikes to find a Secret Gaming Place.  We headed down to The Old Barn (another future post) thinking somewhere down there might be a cool place to play our games. We ended up going just past there, to where the railroad crossed over a creek.

We had found it. The stream widened to a pleasant shaded pool with grassy banks under the bridge, and there was a little knoll there with a young oak tree just starting, some logs that made perfect stools, and a large sandstone boulder about the size of a small table. We managed to roll the boulder over on one side so that the “top” of the boulder now presented a reasonably flat surface. We cleaned the boulder up a bit, and carved runes (sort of like made up hieroglyphs) into the sandstone that read, in a cryptic language that was never actually spoken by anyone outside of a game, “Here begins the Wizard’s Den.”

Our secret little knoll was perfect. It was in the shade of the railroad bridge, which also sheltered it from most of the wind. We had found and made ourselves a little slice of gaming Nirvana under a railroad bridge in Northern Wyoming, of all places.

And we played every single one of those games (a game was never the same twice) dozens of times in the Wizard’s Den, playing out grand epic battles and adventures that would have made Warner Brothers a bit jealous, except that it all played out in our imaginations, battles between good and evil and alternate history in the making, all on unfolded paper maps with little cardboard squares. These games probably cost 50 cents to produce, I think they charged three bucks for them at the used bookstore in town that carried the things. I think I even managed to redeem old Sparks a time or two in The Wizard’s Den. (The Awful Green Things almost always spelled doom for the player playing the crew – seems like the proliferating Awful Green Things won almost every time……)

The trains weren’t really a problem, they didn’t come very often, and when they did, it was just time for a Better Cheddars cracker break and a pop (they call sodas “pop” in that part of the country).

Well, I got to the Wizard’s Den for the first time in 30 years, those memories flooding back, and was saddened but hardly surprised to see that the oak tree  had been cut down (it would eventually have posed a hazard for the trains) the sandstone boulder was gone, and where a meandering babbling brook had once been was a concrete irrigation ditch, its grassy banks replaced by mud. The Wizard’s Den, like those simpler times of paper and cardboard bookshelf games, was now nothing but a memory.

I went back to my friend’s house and finished playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare. The graphics and sound, complete with dramatic musical score, were really awesome, and the gameplay was intense and suspenseful.

But the contents of that shiny DVD disk, spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute inside of a machine with more computing power than the Apollo space capsules had, could never hold a candle to those games we played on those long hot summer afternoons in The Wizard’s Den, in the very best theater of all time, the theater of the mind.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m getting old.

Forensics

I’m back. Sorry, but I was off the grid incognito in the coastal mountains of California there for a few days. Gotta love getting back to nature!

So, what’s up with the title to today’s post, you ask? Forensics? What, have I been watching too many CSI Miami episodes lately?

Nope. Forensics has another meaning besides that of forensic science – forensics can mean public speaking, specifically public debate and presentation. For lack of a better term, speech club. The word forensics actually comes from the Latin phrase “for ensis” which means “public forum.” A little trivia for you there.

Fall, 1986. Junior Year of high school. I took the class figuring it would basically be speech class, and I knew myself well enough to know that I needed to get out of my shell a little bit and stop being so danged shy at school (at least socially). I thought speech class might be a good way to do that, even if it meant getting out of my comfort zone a little, which was kind of the point, wasn’t it? So I get into this class and find out right away we will be expected to go on speech meets all over the state. Great. I just got out of Tyroleans and now this. Sigh. Can’t a kid ever just cruise Main?

But the truth of the matter was that I always loved to travel, so……..  “On the Road Again…….”  (sung in my best Willie Nelson impersonation, of course).

The first meet was in a few weeks. We got to use the Warrior Bus (our high school mascot, like an Indian Warrior) when the football or basketball teams didn’t need it. A school bus when they did. Sigh, brains taking a back seat to brawn yet again……..

The meet was in Cody. Just us and the Cody high school. I had chosen drama over debate (for those of you who know me, this will hardly come as a shocker). I also did current events. So we pull into this motel, I don’t remember the name of it, but I do know that it had the words “Motor Inn” in its name. We pulled in in the early afternoon, and didn’t have to compete until the next morning, so we had basically half a day to amuse ourselves. I think upon reflection, the school must have realized that this was a mistake.

I shared a room with this guy Mark. He runs into the room and sends himself flying through the air ass-first onto one of the beds.

CAAAAAA – RAACCCCCKKKK!!!!!!!

The bed, it turned out, was a bit on the firm side. Like Army boot camp firm. He sat there in the fetal position rocking back and forth holding his butt, as I lost it and started cracking up. I think his bed ended up being softer than mine, though, because at least his flying leap busted a couple of the support boards under the bed.

So we all head to McDonalds for dinner. (Look, we were a modestly funded school, okay?) This senior in Forensics, Todd, confronts me over our Big Macs.

Uh oh. Matt from Tyroleans not withstanding, when a senior wants to talk to you, expect trouble.

“So Brent, we’re all pitching in to get a case of California Coolers tonight, you want in? It’s 5 bucks a piece.”  Good ol’ mom – she always made sure I had plenty of cash on my school trips.

California Coolers no longer exist, as far as I know. One certainly would think you could find them in California if they did. (This also ended up being the favorite illicit beverage of the Rock and Roll Gang later that same year.) They were wine coolers that basically tasted like sweetened grapefruit juice and white wine. I really don’t know what we saw in them. I estimate that we must have paid collectively about $40 for that case of coolers. Which was about right. “Buyer” prices when you’re 16 – you get some adult just out of school to break the law and get you booze – tend to be quite high. I remember paying $20 for a twelve pack of Coors Light on Main once. Sigh.

Anyway, so we go back to the motel, it gets dark, and a woman in her late twenties knocks on our door and brings us these coolers.

**** 4 hours later ****

There is a late night movie playing on the television that appears to be for mature audiences. I am so drunk I can’t make it to the bathroom without walking right into the wall, which I did several times. Rob is in the parking lot in his underwear yelling one of the girls’ names as loudly as possible. John is jumping up and down on the bed singing “New York, New York.” Chad tells him to shut up. John gets off the bed, picks up an unopened SunGlo juice box from the dresser and hurls it violently at Chad, who ducks. The SunGlo explodes against the far wall in an orange spray.

And we all had speeches to give in the morning. If you could have seen inside the school bus the next morning, you would have found some 16, 17, and 18 year olds in true misery, and in no shape for public oration. I think my speech was on saving the whales. I really don’t remember it that well.

Leaving the motel for home at the end of that trip, we heard a sickening, scraping crunch as the bus backed up. We all looked out of the bus in the direction of the noise, and saw that the motel’s rain gutter was now wrapped around the back of the bus. Whooops.

On another trip, I was in the shower of yet another motor inn and when I got out, my clothes and all of the towels in the bathroom were gone. I peeked out the door, and the room contained around 20 students, several of them with cameras. The shower was the sliding door type, so there was no shower curtain to save me. Funny stuff, guys.

And friends, somewhere out there is a picture of me with the red polka dot curtains from the tiny bathroom window barely covering my privates as I stood on one leg to try to gain maximum coverage with the curtains, while shielding my face with one arm from the camera lenses.

One speech I do remember, because I got so good at it that the teach had me give it at several competitions, and it always did well. I even got first place with it once. It was the final scene from “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” a scene that is not in the Humphrey Bogart movie, but is in the original screenplay. In the story, Greenwald shows up at a victory party sloppy drunk and tells off everyone he just won the case for. (Sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t read or seen it.) Kind of appropriate, huh? I still remember large parts of that speech.

On one trip we even got steak dinners at the 7 Knights Steakhouse in Casper. I still remember that as one of my more memorable meals in my life – it felt earned.

I stayed in Forensics during my senior year, during which time Shannon came to our school and joined Forensics. She and I became fast friends almost immediately. We were both nerds, and neither of us was overly popular, so we had a lot in common at the school. Picture Shelly Long from the early days of “Cheers,” only as a teenager, and you’ll have the right mental image of Shannon. Pretty close to the same type of personality too (the character Diane from Cheers, I mean).  We used to have these long conversations about almost anything. One time we sneaked away from the speech meet and found our way onto the roof of the auditorium at Casper College and talked while watching the sun set over the mountains.To this day, I don’t remember what we talked about.

Shannon and I might have become an item, except that she moved away again a few months later, breezing out of our small town the way she had breezed into it. Later that year at a speech meet I met Melanie, and FINALLY, at the age of 17, fell in love for real for the first time in my life. When I went to college the next year in Laramie, where she lived, we picked up where we had left off and dated for the three semesters I was there, before I moved to California. She had to stay, of course, and so things ended between us as quickly as they had begun……

I joined Forensics to force myself to come out of my shell a little, without really knowing what I was getting myself into. The experience of being in Forensics accomplished that for me and much more, and remains one of the most rewarding parts of my high school days.

One Day After School I Learned About War

This post will be the last post on the topic of my hometown’s traditional German cultural history and roots. To be perfectly honest, I have never really quite known how to feel about this story, and I haven’t told it to very many people. I’ve never really been able to decide if it was, in the end, a good or a bad thing, but I tend to think that it was for the greater good, I think that is fair enough to say.

Spring, 1980. I was finishing up the 5th Grade.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, I need to tell you about Holly. She was in her early fifties, I’d say, and was one of the cafeteria cooks at my elementary school, one of three elementary schools in town (there was only one junior high and one high school).

Holly was a first generation German immigrant. She spoke perfect English but with a very heavy German accent. She adored children. She used to let us in the back door to the school kitchen on the really cold mornings growing up and make us all cinnamon toast and hot chocolate. And I remember how she would open those 64 ounce cans of pears or peaches and pour the “juice” into glasses for us. And sometimes she would tell us stories about when she was our age and how the Rocky Mountains in some ways reminded her of the Bavarian Alps of her youth. Holly was one of the kindest women I have ever known.

So back to that warm spring day in the 5th grade in 1980. I was doing good in school, had a great teacher, loved playing in the elementary school band, and had a childhood crush on Susanna Preston (all names changed to protect the innocent, of course, heh.)

Life was good.

On this particular spring afternoon, I had gotten roped into selling raffle tickets for the band for an end of the year shindig in Sanders Park in town (the school always took us to Sanders Park on the last day of school and gave us sandwiches, chips, popsicles and Pepsis).

Anyway, I’m selling these raffle tickets door to door, yes, by myself. Now I know that seems pretty horrifying to a lot of us – I live in a major city now and can’t imagine a 5th grader going to door to door selling raffle tickets after school by himself – but you have to understand. This was small town Bible Belt America in 1980 – it felt completely safe. People never locked their houses when they left or at night, and never locked their cars when they went into the store. Things change, of course, but to some degree the town is still largely like that. So this really wasn’t a big deal to me, or to any grown up – this was normal, this was how things were supposed to be.

Well, I knock on the door of a neatly maintained bungalow style home, and Holly answers the door. I tell her about the raffle tickets, of course she’ll buy some, come on in. (Again – no need for alarm here – this was okay – really!)  So before you know it, she’s sitting me down in her living room and  bringing me lemonade and chocolate chip cookies (and this lady knew how to make lemonade and chocolate chip cookies, I gotta tell you).

So at this point I’m in an old Twilight Zone episode and I don’t even know it, from my sheltered little life up to that point. Which is actually a pretty apt comparison, considering what happened next.

The mood of the room at that moment, when her husband Henry (about the same age as Holly, maybe a little older) came in from the back room, was one of pleasant simplicity.

Holly had me explain about the raffle tickets, what they were for, yada yada yada. Right there and then, Henry pulled out his wallet, and handed me a 20 dollar bill, which was wayyyyy too much money. In a soft, kind voice, he told me to keep the change.

As he handed me the 20 dollar bill, I noticed a series of small blue numbers tattooed on his forearm.

Naturally, I asked what they were for. As you might imagine, it suddenly got very quiet in that house about then. They looked at each other, and I’m sitting there with this stupid look on my face, knowing that I had obviously said something wrong, but for the life of me not understanding why.

What I didn’t understand at the time was, of course, that I had done nothing wrong; they were simply, and with the silent communication that comes naturally between two people who have grown to be very close together, trying to decide what to tell me.

It was Holly who spoke first.

“You know about za great second world war, ja, you have learned this in school?”

I nodded that we had, but that I didn’t understand all of it.

“Well, I doubt zat zey told you about dis, and maybe zat’s good. If you want to know, ve will tell you.”

I nodded slowly, and Holly’s husband told me. He told me about being in Auschwitz during the war, as a German Jewish citizen. At that time he was around 16 years old, and was kept alive because he was strong and could work. It was his good fortune, in a horrific way, that the American Army pushed down the gates of Auschwitz before the Nazis ran out of work to force upon him. 

Most of you know the gruesome details of Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps in World War II. There’s no real need to go over the horrible details of what he saw, what was done to his loved ones, and the kind of work he was made to do. I think we are all pretty familiar with what he must have experienced.

And yet we can never really know – none of us can, unless you lived it.

I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday, and I remember everything that was explained to me. Some of it I understood, some of it I couldn’t understand. Mostly, living in that town, I couldn’t understand how things could go so badly wrong that human beings could ever treat each other like that. That was the part I just didn’t get.

I didn’t sell anymore raffle tickets that afternoon. I just went home on my bicycle in silence. I didn’t sleep much that night. That afternoon haunted me for a very long time.

Did Holly do anything wrong? Did her husband? Was the situation handled inappropriately? I have thought often about those questions. If I had been younger, then yes, perhaps. But I was in 5th Grade, 11 years old going on 12. I think it was appropriate, and in the end, I think they did me a great favor.

From that day on, I understood that life is not always lemonade and cookies, an innocent view of the world I had in some ways been allowed to believe up until that day. Though I was never able to find out if Holly experienced the same horrors or was spared them (I never asked), I understood that people can be cruel and filled with hate just because of what church you do or don’t go to or what the color of your skin is. People can really suck, in other words. Life isn’t fair, and very bad things happen to very good people.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?  These were two of the sweetest people I had ever met in my life. And Holly brought joy to children waiting in the cold every winter morning because that was her way of bringing some small amount of happiness into her small corner of the world. I have to admit that it took me a while, but I finally realized that was the real lesson that I was meant to take away from that warm spring afternoon – yes, injustice and evil have always happened, and probably always will – but look at the people who endure it. So many people come out of true horrors with the realization that it is their job for the rest of their lives to spread as much happiness as possible in whatever way possible, not to atone for any sin of their own, but to somehow try to erase the wrongs in the world they were unfortunate enough to experience, wrongs done to them by others. Not everyone reaches that realization, of course. But enough people do, enough rise above evil that in the end, they are probably the reason you and I are living the lives that we are today.  Maybe that’s grace.

All I know for sure is that the Hollys and Henrys of this world are what give all of us our humanity back, and it’s a debt that we can never repay.

 

Postscript:  Sorry for being so depressing today, but this is a story I have always felt I needed to share, and with all that’s going on in the world today, maybe this is as good a time as any. Back to the somewhat amusing anecdotes next time, I promise………