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.

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.

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 Tyroleans

So, last time I told you about the Oktoberfest in the town I grew up in, and a little bit of the town’s cultural history. That background landed me in the middle of something that I can’t say I ever thought I would become a part of – a German folk dancing youth group called The Tyroleans.

You see, in third grade I took up playing trumpet in band class. And that was something I learned to enjoy a lot as I grew up, really enjoying being in a concert band when I got to  junior high. (I could write a whole post on junior high band – the instructor who really cared about his students and my first serious crush on a girl, but I digress.)

So, by the time I got to high school, I was still playing the trumpet. Loved it. Joined the high school marching band. I missed the elegance and class of being in a concert band, something which I frankly preferred, but sometimes you just gotta go where they tell you to go.

Well, as you know, most of my freshman year was spent in pain and learning to walk again, so when my sophomore year rolled around and I was right as rain again (see the previous post, “What’s In a Nickname?”) I picked up where I left off and rejoined the high school marching band.

Except something was wrong.

The high school band instructor was less than welcoming, shall we say. I didn’t mind being Third Chair Trumpet (you play harmony if you’re lucky) even though I had once been a First Chair Trumpet (you get to do trumpet solos) since I had been gone for a year. But when he started making numerous cracks to the whole band like, “Oh come ON, Ken, (a kid who played the saxophone) even BRENT could play this!”  Well, band started to not be so fun anymore. To this day, I hold that band teacher as one of the worst teachers I ever had in my life. I mean, that was just unprovoked.

So, I had this problem. I wanted to keep playing the trumpet. But the high school band teacher had decided to make my life miserable because I’d had a bum leg for a year – to the point that I decided I didn’t want to be in band anymore. Nice job, teach.

Well, one of the seniors in school approached me one cold winter morning as I went into the band room to stow my trumpet for the day. He broke the ice (no pun intended) by sharing a Weird Al song with me on his Sony Walkman. I was pretty sure I was being set up here. (Okay, so by then I was a bit on the defensive!) Anyway, it turned out that this senior kid Matt was totally on the level, he was in this youth group called The Tyroleans, and they were short a trumpet, would I like to come and meet everyone and try out a few tunes?

So I did. It was a German oom-pah band, plain and simple – they played German folk music at the Oktoberfest each year, and got to travel all around the state playing to empty hotel conference rooms and drunken Oktoberfests. All I needed to join was 40 bucks for my Lederhosen (remember what Lederhosen are?), a desire to play the trumpet, and a fondness for travel.

Sign me up.

And so, as my enthusiasm and respect for the marching band dwindled to nothing, I started meeting this German folk dance group on Thursday nights for two hours of German folk music. I was ecstatic when I finally got to go on my first trip – to the Casper Hilton. I went everywhere in the state in The Tyroleans, and had a blast kicking out those traditional German folk dances and and belting out traditional German brass numbers and even a few ballads.  And “Oh, Tannenbaum” at Christmas time, can’t forget that. I mean, it was like being in a road band. Wait. I was in a road band.

There was the time that we went and played at a retirement home’s Christmas party in Thermopolis, coming back in Matt’s Chevy Citation (one of the most poorly conceived automobiles in history – if the car had anything at all to offer its driver it would be a nervous breakdown from the rear wheel drive, no weight on the rear axle, and brakes that lock up when you look at them.) Visibility was maybe 10 feet in what is known as a ground blizzard – snow blows and drifts horizontally across the highway, all but obscuring the pavement. Matt just put in a tape of German music, told us to listen for the harmonies, and drove us back home going 25 mph.

Matt was a pretty great guy.

I was in Tyroleans for a little over year, and it brought my spirits, my trumpet playing, and my faith in basic human kindness back from the brink.

A few days before the end of my sophomore year, I was called in to the principal’s office.

It was about this application that I had submitted on a bit of a whim – an application to learn to drive a school bus, and work for the county as a driver before and after school if it all worked out.

Turned out I had gotten some sterling recommendations, and they wanted to give me a try.

It clashed with band class, so I was going to have to make a choice.

One of my few regrets in life is that I politely explained to the high school band teacher the dilemma, and that I thought I was going to hang up the trumpet for now and take the keys to a bus in its place.  What I really wanted to say is something that I would rather not repeat here, but I was raised to have a bit more class than that, so I bit my tongue.

As it turned out, all of the seniors that made up the bulk of The Tyroleans were moving on – to college, to start their lives. With the guy who ran the Oktoberfest in town being in ill health at the time, there wasn’t much new blood in The Tyroleans, and it became apparent that it was probably time to know when I’d had a good run and go ahead and turn in my Lederhosen.

You pretty much know the rest of the story. I became a school bus driver for 2 1/2 years, during which time I fell in love with Rock and Roll, a cheerleader, cruising Main, and a 1967  3/4 ton pickup, not necessarily in that order.

Believe it or not, I still have my trumpet – the same one for which my folks shelled out money we needed when I was in the third grade, so I could have a decent education and an appreciation of music. The trumpet is busted and dented, and has definitely seen better days. But with a few spot welds and some valve oil, I think it could still play.

Maybe I’ll get it fixed up and see if it does.