Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Bleary-eyed, I staggered into Java Cat, the coffee shop at the very top of Monona Avenue, at seven-thirty this morning. I had stumbled in my duties as the maker of the coffee and allowed our home supply of beans to run out so, for my penance this morning, I rolled out of bed into a pair of trousers and hit the road almost before I had started thinking, certainly before I could see anything. I had to navigate my way up the road completely by feel until my eyes stopped tearing up and I could see more than a blur.

I could have made a quick, fifteen-minute trip to the corner grocery store to get the beans, but I’d much rather spend my money at a local merchant’s place than at a corporate chain store. I guess that sounds snotty but I don’t care. The people who own and operate Java Cat live right here in Madison. Chain stores can blah blah blah all they want about giving back to the community, but when the owner of the store is part of the community it means a little more to me, whether or not that makes sense. Thank you, I’ll get down off my soap box now.

There were only two people on the counter but one of them was working the drive-up window, leaving the other to serve walk-ins. There were just two people ahead of me, and the one at the front of the line was paying as I walked in, so I felt pretty good about my chances for getting out of there in less than five minutes. I remind the reader that, because of the very early hour, my brain cell had not even begun to fire at a frequency that would support rational thought. Had I been capable of putting two and two together, I would have recalled how long it takes to prepare a pair of double-shot ultra creamy venti caramel lattes and I would have more accurately calculated my time at something like ten minutes. Such is my life.

The young lady at the counter, a woman wearing many many piercings and only tight-fitting clothes so black that light itself could not escape from them, got busy loading ground beans into the latte machine before she commenced to pulling levers and boiling milk, while the woman at the window, who wore a tattoo like a cap on her bald head that would probably take a whole book written by Ray Bradbury to explain, gave all her attention to the long line of cars in the parking lot. This went on long enough for me to fall asleep standing up at least twice, but I was already half-asleep when I walked in, so my ability to stand in line was handicapped from the start.

My somnambulism was the prime reason I was taken completely by surprise by the woman with the tattooed head when she turned away from the window and announced she could help the next person in line, namely yours truly. If I had to name another reason, it might have been her smile, which was warm enough to melt all the frozen moons of Saturn. I don’t know why, but I harbor an assumption, unfair I suppose, that tattooed people are generally gruff and grumbly. She was neither. When I slid the bag of coffee beans I wanted across the counter, she very thoughtfully asked if I wanted them ground, and when I said no, thanks, she added that I was entitled to a free cup of coffee with the purchase of a bag of beans. That woke me up.

“I … I get free coffee? Right now?

Her smile rays brightened by an order of magnitude as she answered, “Yes. Would you like the house blend, Wake The Dead, or Arriva?”

I sank to one bended knee and answered, “I want to marry you!” Or I would have, if I weren’t already married to the perfect woman, but I am, and I am so monogamous you couldn’t turn me with a pipe wrench, so instead I got a grip on myself, asked her for a cup of Wake The Dead, my favorite roast from the Just Coffee Cooperative (another local merchant – ahem!) and glowingly took it from her, a gift the likes I have not received from a stranger in many moons. How does one even begin to put a value on the gift of free coffee? I can’t fathom it, not even after my brain cell fires fast enough to cast an incandescent light on the idea.

And that’s my morning so far. How’s yours?

wakey-wakey | 9:51 am CST
Category: coffee, daily drivel, food & drink, play, story time
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Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

During a long drive to my mother’s house to pick up some furniture, Tim asked me something about how easy or hard it was to learn to fly an airplane. It’s not hard at all, I told him, speaking from only a little bit of experience. I used to fly, way back when I was a pup.

Airplanes are really very easy to fly, at least the little ones you start off learning in. I imagine that great big hulking jet airliners are much more difficult, and very fast jets are probably total chaos all the time. Obviously a pilot has to develop his skills, but flying a little training plane is a cinch. Honest.

For a start, a plane will take off when it’s going fast enough. That’s really all there is to it. All the pilot has to do is keep it pointed straight ahead and make sure the nose doesn’t point up too high. Things go very bad very fast when the nose points too high. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Once the plane is in the air it wants to keep on flying, assuming no outside forces like thunderstorms or ice forming on the wings try to bring it down. The trickiest part, really, about flying an airplane is coaxing it back to the ground. The pilot has to throttle back the engine so the plane is moving as slowly as possible, which lets him get the wheels very close to the runway, but even then the plane doesn’t want to stop flying. When it’s very close to the ground, the plane will float like a balloon on top of a phenomenon called “ground effect,” so the pilot has to point the nose higher and higher into the sky until the angle of the wings is so steep they can’t generate lift any more, and the plane literally falls out of the sky.

If you’re having a good day, you can get the plane to within a few feet of the ground before you drop out of the sky. If you’re having a bad day, you hit the ground with enough force that the plane bounces high enough to grab some lift, arc over the ground effect, nose over, and hit the ground hard enough to bounce way too high again, and again, and again. This is called porpoising and is guaranteed to happen to you the first time your family drives hours to see you fly a plane all by yourself like the big boys, no matter how many landings you greased right down the middle of the runway before that.

The teeny tiny little plane I learned to fly was a Cessna 150. It was so small that only two people could sit in it. It had a back seat, but nobody on earth is small enough to fit in the back seat of a Cessna 150. When two grown men sit in the front seats, they have to be okay with sitting so close to one another that they are practically sharing underwear.

My instructor pilot was a guy named Bill Heling. His last name was pronounced HAY ling, and when he pronounced it, he turned the volume up to eleven. All his life he’d flown tiny little airplanes like the Cessna 150, which are so small that the engine is practically in your lap. Also, it has no muffler at all. In order to have a conversation in one of these planes with the person sitting right next to you, you have to turn so your mouth is right next to his ear and YELL. Bill was so used to talking like this that he did it all the time. Seated hip-to-hip in a Cessna 150 he didn’t speak, really, he roared. After an hour of instruction in the cockpit with him my ears rang the rest of the day.

Bill started off every lesson in the hangar. It was one part book learning, one part toy story, one part campfire freakout. He would start by dropping some dry aeronautical fact on me, like how a climbing turn affected the lift of the wings. Then he’d get out the toys, usually a little model airplane on a stick that he used to demonstrate what we were talking about. Every one of these lessons started with a demonstration of how the maneuver was supposed to be executed, but ended with a demonstration of how it could go oh so terribly wrong. “If your not watching your torque and P-factor,” he would warn me, rolling the little toy airplane over on its back, “you could climb, roll over, crash and burn.” And then he would tap the nose of the plane on the desk top. Climb, roll over, crash and burn is a phrase that still surfaces from the depths of my memory at the oddest times.

Then we would step out of his office to preflight the airplane: Make sure that everything that was supposed to move could move, and everything that wasn’t supposed to move was bolted on tight. Clean all the bugs off the instrument ports and blow hard through the hole in the wing that went WHEEEEEE when the wings were angled too high to lift the plane. Squirt a little gasoline into a cup to look for boogers. Boogers in the gas meant there was water in the tanks. Very bad.

When the preflight inspection was done we climbed into the cockpit, adjusted the seats until we were almost positive we could sit that close to one another for a whole hour, and cranked up the engine. It’s not at all like starting the engine in your car, unless your muffler’s shot. You can’t imagine that kind of noise unless maybe you’ve accidentally hit the panic button on your key fob when you were standing right in front of your car and the horn started honking, and it kept honking because you couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Now imagine that the horn kept honking no matter what you did. It’s not really like that, because you almost become used to it after five or ten minutes, but at the same time you never get really used to it. For instance:

You roll out to the end of the runway and stop to check the magnetos, which are the two dynamos that make electricity for the spark plugs. You want to make sure they’re both working so that if one quits, the engine will keep on running, maybe even until you land. You run the engine up to 1,500 revs, an ear-splitting racket, then switch off one magneto. The revs drop to about 1,000 revs. When you switch it back on and switch off the other magneto, you should still have 1,000 revs, and when you do it’s a good thing, but your ears are already ringing.

Or: You’re at the end of the runway, ready to take off, so you push the throttle all the way in. Man, what a racket! The engine has only four cylinders, but it’s like they’re sitting right in your lap, banging away against every pot and pan in your kitchen. Really it’s the propeller making all the noise, but it sounds like the engine of a hot rod going whapity-whapity-whap-whap-whap. Have you ever heard bedsheets snapping in a strong wind? Have you ever heard an unbalanced wash machine walk across a concrete basement floor? How about a whole string of fire crackers going off? It’s a bit like all of that, at the same time.

But, weirdly, you don’t seem to notice the noise as much once you’re in the air. It’s pretty unnerving as you’re charging down the runway, gaining speed, struggling to hold the nose wheel down, but as soon as you can see you’re going about a hundred miles an hour and not in any real danger of the dreaded “climb, roll over, crash and burn” scenario, you can lift the nose into the air – hell, you can just let it rise all by itself into the air, and suddenly you’re airborne, flying, and the noise doesn’t seem to register on your brain any longer. You still have to shout to be heard by the guy who’s sitting so close that you’d be a lot more comfortable if you just threw your arm over his shoulder and gave him a great big smooch on the lips, but somehow it doesn’t make as overpowering an impression on your brain once you’re flying. There’s probably a very obvious explanation for that. Maybe I’ll google it later.

high | 7:46 pm CST
Category: story time
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Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

My great-grandmother Josephine, whom we called Feenie, is almost unknown to me except as the sweet silver-haired woman who welcomed us into her house with a great big smile whenever we stopped by on our frequent trips to Algoma to see my grandma Lil and grandpa Leo, who were on my father’s side of the family. Feenie was my mother’s grandma but for many of my young years this fact somehow escaped me. I thought she was just a nice little old lady my parents happened to know who liked to sit me on her lap and read to me.

Not too long ago I came into possession of a big stack of old photo albums, several of which are more than a hundred years old and chock full of photos of people who are presumably related to me but I have no idea how. I was flipping through one the other night, wondering who all those people could be, when it slowly dawned on me that this one in particular must have been Feenie’s. This one was the clincher:

image of Josephine

Josephine is the dark-eyed beauty on the far right. She’s written “Me” on her shoulder and somebody else has added: “Jo,” so this album must have fallen into the hands of someone else who was presumably trying to figure out who all these distant relatives were, too.

Maud, the woman standing beside Feenie, and Luella, whom everyone called Lulu, sitting in front of her, were sisters. They had another sister named Cora, who is very probably the woman on the far left, and a brother, Rolland Chester Bach, my great-grandfather. He married Josephine in 1904.

Taped into the front cover of the album, I found this photo:

image of

The album is packed full of photos of the family on fishing trips. The guys really got into it, but the women appear to have gone along to dress up and wear enormous hats. There are no photos of the women holding up one end of the stringer in triumph. Josephine doesn’t appear to be even a little interested in the catch. Rolland was usually called Rollie, but here he’s just “Roll.” Josephine stands beside him, and in the middle, Frank Seyk, Maud’s husband. I don’t know who the guy on the right is. The little boy sitting on the ground between Josephine and Frank is my grandfather, Frederic Bach.

sepia | 6:39 am CST
Category: story time
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Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I may have just driven to Waupaca County for the last time. Mom sold the ancestral manse and bought a condo in Arkansas where she hopes to live the rest of her days all cozy and snug and never again hear the words “snow-covered and slippery” used to describe roads during the winter. While she was getting ready to move out of her house, boxing up the things she wanted to keep and giving away the things she didn’t, she offered me a few pieces of furniture that I happily took off her hands, and so this morning I made the drive north one last time.

I grew up in a small town in – I almost said “rural Waupaca County,” but the whole county is rural from one end to the other. When people ask me, “What’s the nearest big city?” I shrug and tell them, “Waupaca,” and wait a couple beats for the customary blank expression before trying the only other “big city,” New London. Another blank look usually follows. Manawa is an hour from Green Bay, an hour from Appleton, an hour and a half from Stevens Point and two hours from Madison. It’s as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get without being in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Even so, Manawa wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It had everything we needed: three grocery stores, three hardware stores, a clothing store, a shoe store, two five-and-dimes, a bakery, a barber shop and several hair salons. There was even a jeweler’s. And back then, there was The Manawa Advocate, the newspaper my Dad owned and operated with the help of my Mom, two or three other full-time employees and, after a few years, me and my brother.

None of that’s left now. There’s just one grocery store in town, the only remaining hardware store is closing up shop soon, and there’s a parking lot where the Advocate building once stood. They do have a pretty nice cafe, though, that serves the most enormous omelet I’ve ever seen. Seriously. It’s at least twice the size of any omelet I’ve ever been able to finish in one sitting. Stop in at the Sun Dawg and ask for the breakfast omelet. Bring a big appetite.

The ancestral manse of the O-Folk was a twelve-hundred foot cinderblock ranch house with an attached garage. The back door was always unlocked, and stopping by for a visit always felt like coming home. T-Dawg went with me to help move the heavy stuff, and when we got there he just opened the door and walked in. Mom was waiting in the kitchen to welcome us.

She had most of her stuff boxed up by the time we got there. The only things that were still out were what she needed to eat and do her daily housekeeping, and her furniture, half of which we were going to load up and haul away. We didn’t plan on hauling nearly half of it away, that just turned out to be the case. I was supposed to take away a cedar chest, a rocking chair, a chest of drawers and a small end table, but I also ended up with four chairs and a small bench-like table that Mom tried to talk T into taking from her. When he told her he didn’t have the room for it she said she’d just leave it out by the curb with the chairs. “You’re going to give that away?” I asked her, shocked. “I’ll take it off your hands!”

When I drove away, the van was packed tightly with furniture, almost as if it was made to haul away exactly what Mom needed to get rid of. She gave us a proper Wisconsin send-off, hugging us good-bye in the kitchen, seeing us out the door, then standing in the driveway to wave as we pulled away.

so long | 6:36 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg
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Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

bach_001

I got this snapshot from one of the Great Big Photo Albums of People Related to Me but, unlike most of the other photo albums, this one was chock full of familiar faces.

In this photo, weighing all of 98 pounds and swinging a solid-steel iron like nobody’s business, Cleo Mary Melchoir, who had this very day taken the name Bach and seemed to be getting into the spirit of the whole marriage thing without any trouble.

On the right, attempting to defend himself with a cast-iron wok and realizing with a grin how futile it was, Frederic Charles Bach.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet my grandmother and grandfather, newly married on this day, August 26, 1935.

swingin’ | 10:06 pm CST
Category: Grandparents, O'Folks, story time
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Thursday, August 11th, 2011

family_1017

Like the rest of the photos in the Great Big Photo Album of People Who Might Be Related To Me But I Don’t Know How, this one isn’t dated and there are no names or notes scribbled on the back. Still, I might actually know what’s going on here.

My mother had an aunt everybody called Lulu. She was married to the coal king of Green Bay, Frank Hurlbut. Several of the photos in the album are scenes from the coal docks in Green Bay. The guys in this picture are going into a coal mine. So, I have the sneaking suspicion that at least some of these guys could be employees of the Hurlbut coal company. One of the men in those coal cars might even be Frank Hurlbut. But that’s just an idea.

mine | 7:05 am CST
Category: story time | Tags: ,
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Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, considering the inevitability of life:

If you had asked your chemistry teacher fifty years ago, once you looked at that mysterious chart of boxes that sat in front of your class, the periodic table of elements, Where did those elements come from? The chemistry teacher would not have had an answer for you. He would have said, Well, you dig them from out of the earth. That’s not where they come from. It took modern astrophysics to determine the origin of the chemical elements.

We observe stars. They explode, laying bare their contents. And what we have discovered is that the elements of the periodic table derive from the actions of stars that have manufactured the elements, exploded, and scattered their enriched guts across the galaxy, contaminating – or enriching – gas clouds that then form a next generation of stars populated by planets, and possibly life.

When you look at the ingredients of the universe, the number one ingredient is hydrogen. Next is helium, next is oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Those are the top ingredients in the universe. Then you look at earth, because we like to think of ourselves as special … We say, We’re special! Well, what are we made of? What’s the number one molecule in our bodies? Water! What’s water made of? H-two-O. Hydrogen and oxygen.

Hmmm.

If you rank the elements in the human body, with the exception of helium, which is chemically inert, useless to you for any reason other than just to inhale it so you sound like Micky Mouse … number one is hydrogen. Matches the universe. Number two: oxygen. Matches the universe. Number three? Carbon! Matches the universe. Number four, nitrogen – matches the universe!

We learned in the last fifty years that, not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us. Had we been made of some rare isotope of bismuth, you would have an argument to say, We are something special! There are people who are upset by that fact, saying, Well, does that mean we are not special? Well, I think it’s special in another kind of way. When you look up at the night sky it’s no longer, we’re here, and that’s there. It’s, We are part of that! That association, for me, is quite enlightening and ennobling and enriching. In fact, it’s almost spiritual, looking up at the night sky and finding a sense of belonging.

So, now we have ourselves – are we alone in the universe? We’re made of the most common ingredients there are! Our chemistry is based on carbon! Carbon is the most chemically active ingredient in the periodic table! If you were to find a chemistry on which to base something really complex, called life, you would base it on carbon! Carbon is, like, the fourth most abundant ingredient in the universe! We’re not rare! You can make more molecules out of carbon than you can out of all the other ingredients in the periodic table combined. If we were to ask ourselves, Are we alone in the universe? It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we are alone in the cosmos. The chemistry is too rich to declare that! The universe, too vast! There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. There are more stars in the universe than there are all sounds and words ever uttered by all the humans who have ever lived. To say we’re alone in the universe!

No, we haven’t found life outside of earth yet. We’re looking. Haven’t looked very far yet. Galaxy’s this big – we’ve looked about that far, but we’re looking. And how about life on earth? Is it hard to form? Just because we don’t know how to do it in the lab doesn’t mean nature had problems. So it may be, given that information, that, given the right ingredients, which are everywhere, life may be inevitable – an inevitable consequence of complex chemistry.

inevitable | 3:13 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, story time | Tags: ,
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Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

On my emergency trip across the Atlantic during the Thanksgiving weekend I’d had to suffer two broken ATMs to make sure I had no money in my pocket, a lack of places to eat in O’Hare airport except for a tavern serving cold sandwiches, a seat with no floor space next to a guy who liked to talk with his elbows (and it was a pretty boring conversation; all he could say was, “Back off!”); a minor malfunction of the airplane’s control systems requiring a special procedure that was in no way an emergency even though the flight controllers at Heathrow cleared all the other planes from our flight path and reserved an entire runway for us to set down on, and finally an uncomfortable moment at the customs gate as I tried to explain why I had left the country and was trying to get back in without proper leave papers.

But all that was over. At long last, I was back. There was no more welcome sight I could imagine than My Darling B’s glowing face at the baggage claim. After all the weirdness I’d been through, I didn’t even care if my bags showed up on the carousel or not. B greeted me with hugs and kisses and other happiness, then listened as I told her about the non-emergency that delayed our flight while we waited for my suitcases to be vomited up by the stainless steel baggage mangler. We scooped them up the moment they appeared and bolted for the door. The claim area was surprisingly close to the parking garage and B had even managed to snag a spot on the bottom floor. And luckily for me, she agreed to take the wheel for the first leg of the drive out from London. My brains were still woolly from jet lag and sleep deprivation. I never could manage to sleep on a plane, only jerk and snort through periodic dozing that’s a lot of fun to watch when other people do it, but agony when it’s happening to me.

Dusk was falling as we left Heathrow but the airport, urban London and the six-lane M25 motorway were all brightly lit by a tall picket line of sodium lights bathing everything on the road in sepia tones. We turned off the M25 to the M1 and followed it north until we hooked up with the A1, also a well-lit highway. It probably wasn’t until we were in the neighborhood of Alconbury, were we knew the back roads well enough to make a few short cuts along country roads, that I noticed how difficult it became to see the road when B dimmed the headlights.

“Does it look to you as if one of the headlights could be burned out?” I tentatively asked B.

She flicked the lights from bright to dim a couple times. The high beams were fine, but when she switched back and forth it became obvious that the low beam on the driver’s side was out. That whole side of the road disappeared from view each time she flicked the switch.

“How about that?” B said, not at all as amazed as I was that another mechanical gremlin was messing around with me. “It worked fine yesterday.”

And the little bugger was just getting started. As B steered the car through a roundabout, she ran over something in the road. The sharp turn around the island, together with the blind spot she had to deal with while she used the low beam through the busy intersection, made it impossible for her to see whatever the piece of discarded junk was until she was almost on top of it, way too late to avoid it. She swerved in the hopes of maybe straddling it, but a telltale bump-clunk under the car announced she hadn’t quite managed a clean miss.

Right after that, our engine exploded, or sounded like it, anyway. If you’ve never heard a car that’s lost its muffler, that’s exactly what it sounds like. My Darling B looked at me with terror in her eyes. I looked right back at her with “I can’t believe this is happening to me” in my eyes. The roar was so deafening that I leaned over to make sure B would hear me when I shouted, “We lost the muffler!”

“Should we stop?” she shouted back.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” I answered. “Keep on going!” She didn’t appear to be very happy with that answer, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. There was no chance we would find a garage anywhere along our route that would be open at such a late hour, and I would never have dreamed of attempting a roadside repair, which would have required lying on my back in the gravel while trying to fit together the hot exhaust pipes by touch as cars and trucks roared past us on the highway. The only thing to do was grin and bear it, which wasn’t too difficult for me at that point. All I wanted was to get home, pop open a beer, slouch back in a chair and flip the bird at the angry gods when this trip was finally over. No way the gods were going to let me off that easy.

On a stretch of back road that was just a half-hour’s drive from our house we came to a full stop behind a queue of three or four cars waiting at a signal light. Just beyond the light the opposite lane ended and an impressively deep trench took its place, snaking out of sight around a sharp corner. Road crews often dug up stretches of country roads this way and, when they knocked off at the end of the day, they left automatic signal lights standing sentinel over the yawning holes. The light would change in a few minutes and we’d be on our way.

B glanced into her rear-view mirror as a car slowed to a stop behind us, and again as the headlights of the next approaching car appeared in the distance. She didn’t look away from him, though, because he didn’t slow down at all until he was way too close to stop safely. I missed all of this, of course, and she had no time to warn me except to say, “Oh, shit,” as she fumbled for the gearshift.

I perked up. “What?”

She turned around just in time to see the oncoming car swerve into the open lane, the one that was dug up, trying to avoid the line of cars we were in. When he saw the yawning hole ahead of him he swerved back again, and somehow he missed us. The car that had stopped in line behind us left just enough room for his car to slip between our bumpers and, against all odds, he did exactly that. Not only did he manage to not hit us, his car didn’t even give our car a peck on the cheek as it went by, and to make it even more jaw-droppingly amazing, he even missed the car behind us. If you had seen it in a movie, you wouldn’t have believed it.

After making sure that Barb was all right I jumped out to see if I could help. So did almost everybody else waiting in line, and we all stared open-mouthed along the side of the road as the driver climbed out through the window of his overturned car, stood beside it for a moment with his hands on his hips, and looked over the situation wearing an expression that said, “Well, dammit! Now how am I going to get home?” Then he dug his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number, and held the phone to his ear as he climbed up the side of the ditch to get to the road.

Our small crowd gathered around, repeatedly asking if he he was okay and watching him to see if he would collapse in a heap, felled by an aortic aneurysm or, at the very lease, nervous exhaustion. He seemed a little shaken but there wasn’t a cut or bruise visible anywhere on him. In between dialing numbers on his cell phone he kept assuring us he was all right, and eventually the crowd broke up and drifted away when it became apparent he wasn’t going to topple over and die.

His cell phone appeared to be giving him quite a bit of trouble, though. “The battery’s going,” he said to no one in particular, sounding a bit lost.

B had joined us in the road by this time. “Here, use mine,” she said, digging her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a long-distance call,” he apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, then turned and held the car keys out to me. She was looking a lot more shaken than he was. “Would you mind driving home from here?” she asked.

We waited by the side of the road for the driver’s friend to pick him up, making small talk as he chain-smoked. When his friend arrived he thanked us again for the use of our cell phone, then we climbed into our respective cars and drove off, his friend’s car purring quietly, ours rumbling like a dragster. We were less than a thirty-minute drive from home at that point and there was no chance I would fall asleep. I wasn’t even worried about jinxing myself by saying that aloud. At that point, so many other shoes had been dropped that the most outrageous thing I could think of that could have happened to us was, we would get home without another incident. And as crazy as it sounds, that’s just what happened.

heading home #3 | 2:15 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Saturday, May 21st, 2011

A transatlantic flight in coach class has to be one of the most miserable ways to travel even under the best of circumstances. I count myself as damn lucky when I can wangle a seat on the aisle so I can hang over the edge a little bit to get some breathing room, and the few times I’ve been given the option of a seat at the very front of the coach section where my knees weren’t pressed against the back of a seat in front of mine, I’ve been as close to happy as I could ever hope to be on a commercial airliner.

But on this particular flight I didn’t find myself in either of those circumstances. I was stuck in the tail of the plane with Mister Pushy McElbows in the aisle seat making sure I stayed plastered up against the inner wall of the fuselage, which curved far enough into the cabin that it ate up most of the floor space under my seat, forcing me to sit crosslegged like a pretzel for twelve hours. I wouldn’t claim it was the very worst of circumstances – certainly somebody out there can come up with a story of a trip that was worse – but I will go so far as to claim that, when the engines began to wind down and my ears clogged up, signaling our descent as we crossed over the coast of the United Kingdom, I heaved a sigh of relief strong enough to muss the hair of people sitting in the first row.

Then the public address system switched on with a hollow pop and the captain made his “Welcome to England” announcement, with a few added comments that made my relief so short-lived it was over before I could finish that sigh.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please, ” he said. “As we begin our descent over the Welsh countryside, I’d like to take ten minutes of your time to inform you of a few special procedures we’ll be using for today’s landing at Heathrow.”

Special procedures? Yes, do go on, please.

“But before I say any more, I want you to know that we are not using these special procedures because of a state of emergency,” he continued, very casually, no emphasis at all on any word. It was almost as if he meant to imply that what he wanted to tell us was all in the way of making time-filling conversation, the way he would if he were pointing out a landmark we happened to be passing: “And if you can look out the left side of the plane you’ll see the Tower Bridge,” or somesuch. Instead, he was talking about special procedures and how they very definitely did not have anything to do with an emergency, or were unusual in any way at all, even though the fact that he even mentioned them was really pretty unusual.

“Shortly after we departed Chicago,” he went on, slowly, casually, “we detected a leak in one of the hydraulic systems. After an exhaustive analysis of the situation we were able to determine that, because the loss of fluid didn’t affect our ability to control plane, we could safely continue our journey.”

Oh. We sprang a leak. In the hydraulic system. But it was a small leak. So tiny that the flight crew, all experienced professionals with thousands of hours of flying time between them, and keenly aware that the lives of three hundred passengers were in their hands, found after reviewing the data that the leak was so insignificant as to make turning back unnecessary. Surely that’s what the captain was saying.

“The leak occurred in the hydraulic system that raises and lowers the main landing gear,” he went on, “and even though all the hydraulic fluid has been drained from the system, we will still be able to extend our landing gear by simply opening the doors that hold them in. The wheels will drop out under their own weight, and we’ll make sure they’re locked into place by rocking the wings just a bit. I’ll try to keep it to a gentle roll.”

Wait – all the hydraulic fluid leaked out? All of it? And the work-around for a jet that pees away all its hydraulic fluid is to let the landing gear fall out of the fuselage and trust that everything will get stuck in the down position? That works? Really?

But wait! There’s more! “The affected hydraulic system is also used to extend the flaps,” the captain went on, “but each one of them has an electric motor, to be used in situations just like this. The electric motors can only extend the flaps, though. After we put them down, we’ll be committed to making a landing because we can’t fly a circle around the airport with the flaps extended. So, to make sure we can land on the very first try, the flight controllers at Heathrow have closed a runway to every approaching plane but ours, and they’ve cleared all traffic from the air corridor we’re going to use on our approach to land.”

Like getting a pass to use the HOV lane on the highway through Chicago, we would have nobody in our way until we got to Heathrow! The pilot would take us straight in and ease us down to a smooth landing. It was almost enough to convince me that, for a no-fuss landing, losing all the hydraulic fluid was the best thing that could have happened to us.

There was just one more thing:

“The loss of this hydraulic system also affected our ability to steer the nose wheel and apply the brakes. After we touch down, we’ll keep on rolling straight ahead until we lose all our momentum and come to a stop, probably somewhere near the end of the runway. It’s miles long, so we’re in no danger of running off the end. A tug will be waiting there to tow us to the terminal.”

This far down the laundry list of broken things on our jumbo jet, adding “no steering” and “no brakes” didn’t make enough of a difference to worry me much.

The wheels came down with the usual bump-clunk and, just as he promised, the pilot did a slow, lazy wing-waggle, rolling the plane first to one side, then to the other. He must have been satisfied that the wheels were locked in place because he flew rock steady and straight as an arrow for miles and miles after that. There was no turbulence that I remember. I could hardly tell we were descending until the flaps whined down into place, causing the plane to nose over a bit.

Touchdown was smooth as silk. The plane’s wheels kissed the concrete so gently and with the tiniest of squeeks that I wasn’t sure when it had happened or even that we were on the ground until the rumble of the tires along the runway confirmed it. And, even after the thrust reversers kicked in, the plane didn’t go through the usual buck and weave it would have if he’d been able to jam on the brakes because, hey, no brakes!

After a long roll-out we came to a gentle stop near the end of the runway, where we added one more glitch to our list: The tug waiting for us had the wrong kind of hitch to pull our particular model 747. We had to hang out there for half an hour or so while a replacement tug was called up and it raced out to drag us off the runway. By that time it was too late to take our plane to its assigned gate. We’d lost our turn and had to be towed to a parking spot far off in a corner of the airfield where we were transferred to buses that converged on our plane to ferry us to the terminal.

They were the kind of buses that rose up on stilts and kissed the door of the plane so we could walk aboard. Each one was standing room only; there were no seats, only those floor-to-ceiling stainless steel poles you find on subway trains. I thought it would be a fairly short trip to the terminal – I could see it out the window – and yet somehow the ride went on forever. Honestly, I can’t remember that I’ve ever been on a bus ride between two places I could always see that lasted so long. And it wasn’t like the driver was taking his time, either. As he ducked through one darkened tunnel after another, arched over bridges and jackknifed around hairpin corners, he seemed to be living a roller-coaster fantasy. When we finally made it to the terminal I noticed I wasn’t the only one in hurry to get out the doors as soon as they opened.

We stepped off the bus into a high-ceilinged waiting area roughly as big as an elementary school gym. A row of chest-high desks, each with a uniformed customs official standing behind it, made a barrier along the far wall between me and the exit. Behind me, passengers were arriving in waves as one bus after another came to the door. And somewhere in Heathrow airport my darling wife was waiting for me – and had been waiting for hours longer than she expected to be.

I could only guess that she had been watching the arrivals board the whole time, only to see my arrival time delayed again and again, but I would have laid odds she would not have known anything about the reasons for my delay. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing they would announce to the crowds waiting to get aboard their long-distance flights. So she would have been sitting there, waiting, checking, sitting some more, checking again, waiting still longer, and on and on ad nauseum. There is no way to sit in an airport doing nothing for hours without getting tired, then desperately bored and finally cranky enough to want to kill somebody. And I would likely be the first person she spoke to.

It seemed vitally important that I call her right away to tell her what happened, to let her know I was off the plane and headed her way, and to arrange for a place to meet. As soon as I stepped off the bus into the customs area I headed straight for a payphone, dialed her number, then stood there counting the people who got off each bus as they came to the door. And holy cheese, there were a lot of people getting off thoses buses! How many people were on that plane, anyway?

Thankfully, she answered my call after just a couple rings. “Where are you?” she asked as soon as I said hi.

“Customs,” I told her, and gave her the short version of the leak and the landing and the wait and the roller coaster ride. “I’ve got to get in line before another bus pulls up,” I warned her, watching the stream of passengers queueing up to have their passports inspected and stamped. After we arranged a place to meet and a hurried good-bye, I sprinted away from the payphone to begin the hour-long snake-dance through the maze of ropes in the center of the room until I finally stood at the front of the line for the next uniformed officer who waved at me.

“Welcome to the U.K.,” he greeted me brightly. “Passport, please?” I slipped it across the desk. “Thank you. You’re on active duty?” he asked, when he saw my military ID sticking out of the centerfold.

“That’s right,” I nodded.

“May I see a copy of your orders, please?” he asked, and I slipped him a copy of my permanent party orders, but when he saw that the date of my assignment was months ago he asked, “You’re on leave, then?”

“Emergency leave, yes.”

“May I see your leave papers?”

“I don’t actually have any leave papers,” I confessed, and quickly tap-danced my way through the tune of trying to arrange emergency leave right before a significant American holiday that most British had never heard of. He seemed to understand my predicament but was unsure what do do about my lack of documentation and called his supervisor over so I could do my tap dance again for him, too. Then they had a short conference in hushed tones during which I tried not to look nervous at all about the fact that they still had my passport, ID and papers and I had no excuse at all for being out of the country without leave papers, other than an airman in the orderly room whose name I couldn’t remember said it would be okay. If I’d been in their shoes, I’m not sure I would have let me in, but for whatever reason they decided I was worth the risk, stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

heading home #2 | 10:29 pm CST
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The longest journey ever made in the history of humankind was a trip I took from the small town in Wisconsin where my mother lived to the small town in England where I lived with my family. It wasn’t the longest trip if it were measured in ordinary miles or hours, as most normal trips would be, but I don’t take “normal” trips and have consequently never been able to measure trips that way. For longer than I care to remember, I’ve measured trips using a Bizzare-O-Tron, a clever device of my own invention that registers every coincidence, catastrophe and just plain weird occurrence and calculates a Weirdness Rating between one and eleven. The Bizarre-O-Tron doesn’t have a zero, because that would imply I could take a trip on which nothing untoward would occur, and that simply never happens, so I didn’t even bother with zero. And the meter doesn’t stop at ten because there will, someday, be trip that will bury the needle, and I want to be ready for it. This particular trip came so very close. It could have been weirder only if Steve Martin and John Candy were in every scene.

It started with the timing: Just before the Thanksgiving Day weekend I found out my grandfather had passed away, so I calling around to see what I would have to do to take a few days’ leave to attend the funeral. I was an enlisted man in the Air Force at the time, and under normal circumstances I would report to the orderly room to see the first sergeant, who would give the thumbs-up to the commander, who would sign my leave papers and I’d be on my way. The post I was stationed at, though, was a very small unit, just ten or twelve guys maintaining some equipment out in the boonies. I had to drive an hour and a half just to visit the orderly room to get the ball rolling. This being the Thanksgiving weekend, the orderly room was virtually deserted when I got there. I found one lone airman to help process my papers, and there was no commander, or anybody with any rank at all, to sign them.

“Leave these with me,” the airman said nonchalantly, gathering up the leave forms. “I’ll get the commander to sign them as soon as he comes back, and I’ll forward a copy to you.”

That right there bumped the Bizarre-O-Tron up a notch, which was a faulty reading, now that I think about it. Coiled, robotic arms should have come shooting out both sides and an alarmed voice shouting, “Warning! Warning” was supposed to make me back away and think long and hard about the trapdoor I was about to fall through, but I wasn’t hit by the full impact of this weirdness until later. I guess I was in too much of a hurry. Instead, I only asked, “How am I supposed to travel without leave papers?”

“Just show them your ID when you get back,” he said. “As long as you’re permanent party there’ll be no problem.”

He meant that, because I was stationed in the U.K. the customs agent would let me just waltz in and out of the country by showing him my military ID card, and for some reason I bought that, even though I’d never done it that way before. It seems like such an obvious red flag now, but as I said, I was in a hurry and there was still a lot I had to do.

The trip to the States was mostly benign, probably because of the Thanksgiving weekend rush. My Darling B drove me to Heathrow where I boarded a jumbo jet for a transatlanic flight that went by in a blur. Everybody from the ground up worked feverishly to get passengers through the gate, loaded on to the plane, unloaded and back out the gate. Time passed in the usual mind-numbing way.

The details of the trip back, though – those are burned into my memory forever. For starters, by the time I got through security and into the terminal it was way past supper time and my stomach was growling. With a few hours to go before my flight started boarding, I figured I’d grab a bite in one of the many restaurants in the terminal, but first I had to find an ATM so I could reload my wallet with a few twenties. The first machine I found was broken; probably still reeling from the assault of hundreds of holiday travelers. No problem, I was in O’Hare airport, the largest, sprawlingest airport in the midwest. I should be able to find another machine in no time, right? But no. No matter how many times I walked the length of the terminal, I could find only one other ATM, and it was out of cash. Two machines in a terminal big enough to be its own country. Who thought that was a good idea?

By scrounging through every pocket in my jacket and carry-on bag, I managed to put together just enough loose change to buy a sandwich at one of the few taverns still open. That was another peg up on the Bizzarre-O-Tron. On the one holiday that’s legendary for the huge number of travelers jetting from Atlantic to Pacific and back, in an airport terminal where most of those travelers will find themselves waiting for many, many hours for a connecting flight, there were no restaurants open for dinner, just a couple taverns serving hot sandwiches and other bar food. I guess all the waiters went home for Thanksgiving, too.

My flight went non-stop from Chicago to London Heathrow, a leg that typically lasts a numbingly long twelve hours, so I usually try to snag an aisle seat or, better yet, a place by the bulkhead where I can stretch my legs. No such luck on this trip, though. I got herded so far back into the tail of the plane that the seat they shoehorned me into didn’t have a floor under it. The inner wall of the fuselage curled in under my feet. Honestly. There was just enough room for me to plant my right foot flat on a sliver of level carpeting, but my left foot had to either ride on the curve of the wall, or I could cross it over my knee. Or, I guess, I could have asked the steward to lend me a steak knife from the galley, sawed my left leg off, and stuffed it into the overhead bin. Would’ve been about as comfortable as the other two options.

But the crazy geometry of the seating arrangement became even more awkward when Mister Passive-Aggressive plunked himself in the aisle seat next to me. If you’ve ever flown coach, or ridden a Greyhound bus, you’ve sat beside this guy. Before we even pulled back from the gate he staked his claim on what he thought was his personal space by digging an issue of the Wall Street Journal out of his bag and holding it wide open in front of him, elbows out. There was no doubt in my mind that he stopped at a newsstand in the terminal just before he boarded the plane just so he could buy the biggest newspaper in the pile for this very purpose.

Supper time was more of the same: Fork in one hand, knife in the other, elbows out. When he started sawing pieces off his beef cutlet his arms flapped like a Canadian goose trying to get enough lift for takeoff. And when he wasn’t eating or reading, he had his laptop out and was pounding on the keys with the ferocity of a blacksmith forging a weapon of war. The only notice he took of me from the beginning to the end of the flight was to mutter “Excuse me” each time his elbow jabbed me in the ribs to remind me he was still there.

To this day, that one leg of the trip ranks as the longest transatlantic flight of my life.

heading home #1 | 8:37 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Friday, April 29th, 2011

Speaking of birth certificates, did I ever tell you that our youngest, T-Dawg, was very nearly born in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin? It’s true. He very nearly was.

We lived in an apartment in Zehlendorf on the southern edge of the city, right next to the Berlin wall, and when I say “right next to,” I mean we were right next to it! Keep going down the street past our apartment about a hundred yards and you were in a wooded park looking through barbed wire across a kill zone at the wall on the eastern side.

The wooded park ran all along that part of the wall, and on the inside of it there was a footpath called Koenigsweg that went from Duppel all the way out to Potsdam, I think. It was a very popular place to go walking just about any time of day, but especially in the evening.

My Darling B and I were expecting Timbers in August. As a matter of fact, when B started having strong, regular contractions on the eve of our anniversary, she was pretty sure he’d be born on the same day we were married, but sometime during the night the little bugger changed his mind. B was sorely disappointed, but she couldn’t convince him to come out that day, not for nothing.

But that afternoon she felt the contractions coming on again. After last night’s false alarm, though, she played them down. “It’s probably nothing again, I’m okay,” she kept saying, even after a contraction was strong enough to make her sit down and suck in a whole lot of air for a few minutes.

This went on for a couple hours, and the contractions didn’t seem to be going away. If anything, they seemed to be getting stronger, but B continued to downplay them. “Really, I’m all right,” she insisted, even while she sat slumped over, her head practically between her knees.

After a couple hours of that, B’s back was killing her. She wanted to try to walk it off, but I didn’t want to get too far from a phone, so I agreed to walk her up and down the street in front of the apartment. While we were out there, though, she wanted to keep walking down to the footpath through the woods. “Are you sure?” I asked her.

“Oh, yeah, I’ll be fine,” she assured me, even while she was still sucking wind. Since I wasn’t the one having contractions, and because she’d just been through a long night of them with no result, I reluctantly took her at her word, and off to the forest we went.

It was slow going. She would shuffle a dozen or so steps with one hand pressed against the small of her back, stop and make a this-is-killing-me face, then double over forward with her hands on her knees and take deep breaths for a minute or two before straightening up again and assuring me, “I’m fine, I’m okay.”

And I’d keep asking her, “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, uh-huh,” she’d say, and for some weird reason I’d believe her.

Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, this-is-killing-me, huff-huff-huff.

“I’m okay, let’s keep going.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yeah, uh-huh.”

Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, this-is-killing-me, huff-huff-huff.

We did that over and over again until we were about a half-mile down the footpath, which was strangely empty for once. There we were, in the woods, far away from any telephone, and neither one of us knew how to say, “Take me to a hospital, I’m about to have a baby,” in German. Boy, were we stupid.

Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, this-is-killing-me, huff-huff-huff.

“Uh, I think we’d better get to the hospital.”

“What!”

“Yeah. I think we’d better head back and get to the hospital.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to hurry a very pregnant woman to the hospital when the only hurrying she can do is a very slow shuffle. I know she was in a lot of pain just then, but I was primed and ready to literally explode. I have never been so juiced up with adrenaline in my life, yet there was nothing I could do. With that much nervous energy banging on every one of my muscle fibers I should’ve been able to scoop her up in my arms and jump to the hospital in a single bound, but that’s Superman’s gig and I couldn’t get in on it. Talk about frustrating. What good does it do to get such a charge built up if you can’t do anything with it?

I was sure I’d have to deliver my own baby boy myself right there in the road in the middle of the forest, but somehow B found the strength to hold him back until we shuffled all the way to our apartment, where I phoned a friend who gave us a ride to the hospital. Only a little more than an hour after we got there, Tim popped out.

Certified | 3:09 am CST
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg, work | Tags:
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Saturday, April 16th, 2011

I drove a little Datsun coupe while I was stationed in the United Kingdom. I didn’t intend to get a car but, when I got the chance to move out of the dorms after living there a year I took it, and I would have to buy a car to commute. Riding the bus wasn’t an option; the base was way out in the countryside and the bus ran by it infrequently. So I found my little Datsun at a garage just down the road and paid about $750 for it.

They say you get what you pay for, but that little Datsun was worth way more than $750. I drove it all over England, and the guy I sold it to drove it even more. It never gave me any trouble at all, except for one night on the commute either to or from work, I’m not sure. It was late at night, that I can remember for sure. I was tooling down the road at fifty or sixty miles per, and even with loud music coming out of the cassette player I heard a bang! under the hood. That, and the fact that every warning light on the dashboard lit up made me quickly take the car out of gear and coast to a stop alongside the road. I even managed to make it as far as the intersection with a side road so I could pull off the main road a bit.

When the car came to a stop, smoke came billowing out from under the hood and around the fenders, not a good sign at all. I jumped out and waited a minute or two for the car to burst into flame, but when it didn’t I walked slowly around the front and popped the hood. The smoke turned out to be steam hissing from gashes slashed into the back of the radiator when the fan blades cut into it. When I had more light in the morning I could see that a bearing in the water pump had failed spectacularly, giving the fan enough of a wobble that the ends of the blades could chomp pieces out of the radiator big enough to spray coolant all over the engine block.

I couldn’t drive it without any coolant in the engine, so I had to either call a tow truck to have it taken back to a garage, or try to fix it myself by the side of the road. It seems outrageous to me now that I decided to fix it myself. I had a simple tool kit in the car and a bare minimum of experience fixing cars. At one point, after unbolting the water pump from the engine, I resorted to whacking it with a brick I found by the side of the road when it wouldn’t come unstuck any other way. My tool kit didn’t include a hammer, for some reason. I guess I didn’t think I’d be needing a hammer to work on a car. Why would I, right? Well, here’s why.

I bought a new water pump in town because I had to, but I found a garage that would patch up the radiator on the cheap, a stroke of luck except when I went back to pick it up it no longer had a radiator cap. Jumping off the bus at the edge of town, I walked through the front door of the auto parts store with a radiator under one arm. When the guy behind the counter looked up at me and asked, “How can I help you?” I couldn’t stop myself from holding up the radiator and asking, “Have you got a Datsun that would fit this radiator?” He didn’t think that was funny at all. I think I had to apologize to him before asking help to find a cap.

Back out on the B-road now with a patched radiator and a new water pump, I set to work with only the fuzziest idea how to fix this thing. The mechanic at the garage helped me out a bit: He made sure I had a clean gasket for the pump and a tube of sealant for the gasket, and gave me a big plastic jug full of water to pour into the radiator in the somewhat unlikely event that I should be able to patch the thing together and get it going again.

But you know what? I did it. the water pump was bolted to the engine in just three places. I was very careful to clean off all the gunk, slather lots of sealant on the gasket and turn the bolts tight but not too tight. The radiator was easy to mount and even easier to connect to the hoses. The fan blades were nicked up but still in good shape. After it was all put back together and the radiator was filled up, I took a deep breath and started the engine, ready to shut it town the minute it didn’t sound right or I saw smoke or steam or anything go wrong.

Nothing went wrong. It purred like a kitten and kept on purring. I drove back, stopping off at the garage to drop off the water jug and have the mechanic look over my handiwork, but he found nothing to fault me on, and that little Datsun and I traveled all over England in the year ahead without another hitch. Well, except for one, but that was pretty minor, an oil cap that popped off in the middle of a long trip to York and let the engine burp oil up all over itself. Makes lots of smoke, does no real damage. Not to the car, anyway. Sure frazzled my nerves, though.

Wait, two. Yeah. Just two. But that’s another story.

My Little Datsun | 5:33 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile, travel, work | Tags:
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Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

And now it’s time for another installment of: Ask A Stupid Question!

Long-time readers of this blog – and they are legion, I assure you – know I have a great big thang for steam locomotives. The way I gush over them makes people feel as though they shouldn’t be watching, really. I’ve learned over the years not to be quite so sharing when it comes to my feelings about choo-choos, as well as moon rockets. BECAUSE HOOGAH HOOGAH I SURE DO LOVES ME SOME MOON ROCKETS! HOMINAHOMINAHOMINA.

Sorry. I’ve got myself under control now, promise.

Well, today I happened to glance up into the sky as I was taking a walk around the park on my lunch hour, happened to catch sight of the moon and wondered: Would you be able to operate a steam locomotive on the moon? Hmmmm.

Short answer: No. A steam locomotive is as low-tech as machinery gets. First of all, they’re made of tons and tons of solid steel, filled with tons of coal and even more tons of water. A road-ready steam locomotive weighs more than God, so you wouldn’t be able to even get one to the moon. There isn’t a rocket big enough to lift one an inch off the ground, much less all the way to lunar orbit, and if there was you wouldn’t be able to land one on the moon without smashing it to pieces.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you could get one to the moon, and it was somehow full of water and the tender was loaded with coal – how would you light a fire in the firebox? Because that’s how you get one going down here on Mother Earth. You build up a little pile of tinder, just like when you’re at camp, throw a match on it, build it up with some heavier wood, pile up some coal around it, and keep on doing that for, oh, about twenty-four hours until you’ve got a fire roaring hot enough to bring the thousand bozillion gallons of water in the boiler to a roiling head. Couldn’t on the moon, though, unless you rigged it up with its own oxygen bottles, but that’s not how a steam loco works, and my stupid question was about a steam locomotive. You could probably make one work if you substituted an atomic reactor for the fire but then it wouldn’t be the same thing, would it? No. No, it wouldn’t.

Now that I think about it (still in the context of a stupid question), the temperature on the surface of the moon during the day is something like two-hundred fifty degrees, so maybe you wouldn’t have any trouble boiling the water, even without a fire. Just set it out in the sunlight and stand back. I’ll bet you the complete lack of atmospheric pressure would make the water want to boil even while it was still pretty cold. After the sun went down you’d be in a world of hurt, though. The temperature on the moon drops to around a hundred fifty degrees below zero, so all the water in the boiler would solidify and stay that way for fourteen days. For two weeks, a rockin’ and rollin’ locomotive, and then for two weeks a pretty huge door stop.

Or can it rock and roll? I honestly don’t know. If it can make steam, I’d think maybe it would go. Probably not far. The water would likely all boil off in a big hurry and there’s really no way to fill it up again, not the way it’s supposed to get done. But I think it could work. It. Could. Work.

Celestial Steam Locomotive | 7:02 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, play, space geekery, story time
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Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Another flashback: This was ten years ago while we were on a road trip to France from England. The scene is the south coast, not too far from Dover.

The B&B at Herne Bay was very quiet and cozy – B&B’s are best described as “cozy,” I think; there just isn’t a better adjective for them – but because we were there something odd just naturally had to happen. The power went out at about the time of night when I usually get up to use the bathroom.

Stumbling in, I yanked the cord to turn on the light because the windowless bathroom was blacker than the inside of a cow. Nothing. Stayed black. Yanked again, like that was going to do any good. Still nothing. I remembered there was a small light over the sink, so I felt for that until I found the cord, and pulled it. Still nothing.

I had to go to the toilet real bad, but this was back before my brain cell figured out how to pee in the dark, so I shuffled out and across the room to the closet where I went through all my coat pockets, looking for a flashlight. While I was doing that, Barb got out of bed and took the bathroom. She came out to find me dancing around outside the door with my legs crossed.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, then added, just for my information, “the lights don’t work.”

“I know that!” I hissed. And then I was just dumb enough to ask, “How did you use the toilet in the dark, anyway?”

Then the answer hit me right between the eyes. Or maybe a more apt simile is, kicked me right in the kidneys. I shoved past her and squatted to the sound of a celestial choir singing hallelujah. It was literally heaven.

Don’t Know Squat | 7:48 pm CST
Category: My Darling B, O'Folks, story time | Tags:
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Every so often I like to reach for a volume of the printed-out version of this drivel that I keep on a bookshelf over my desk and flip back to see what I was doing on today’s date five, ten, fifteen years ago. Sometimes it’s worth a laugh, sometimes I gain a little perspective, sometimes it’s just drivel and I don’t get anything out of it at all.

Come along with me, why don’t you, on today’s journey into my past:

Five years ago I was babbling about the virtues of my Volkswagen bug, so that hasn’t changed:

“I would definitely call my battleship the Crushasaurus,” T informed me the other day. He wants a battleship of his very own, at least as much as he wants a car and probably more so, and he’s monumentally bummed nobody makes them any more. It’s sort of the same way I feel about the Volkswagen Beetle, except that his desires work on a much grander scale; money’s no object.

Those new ones are cute, but they’re not the same as the trusty old cans that Volkswagen used to be most well-known for. I was the owner of three different vans, myself, but I bought a bug to drive to work when we returned to the States from Germany, married just three years and so poor we only had one ‘o’ to spell it with. The front fenders were rusting off and the engine hatch was stove-in from when the car had been rear-ended, so the owner let me have it for four hundred bucks.

The gate guard at Buckley air base shook his head when he saw it and told me, “I thought I had the junkiest vee-double-you in the state, but yours beats mine, hands-down!”

It may have been a rolling junk heap, but that bug made it through the worst snow storms Colorado could throw at me. One morning after work, after the snow plows had done their darndest to block all the side roads, I gunned the engine and the beetle nosed up and over every single drift; it was so short from front to back that it never hung up on a snowbank, just tipped right over and kept on going, easily sailing over the deep snow on the unplowed back streets like a skiff over the surface of a calm lake. It was almost magical.

Tim still remembers it as “the blue bug.” He was all of two or three years old and used to ride in a second-hand child seat in the back, but he can easily describe all the goofy rubber monster heads a previous owner had installed over the knobs on the dashboard, and the fossil I found tucked behind an armrest, so he must have been at least as taken with it as I was. Kids love go-karts, and a bug is like the best go-cart ever made. Too bad our roads are just too fast and our cars too big for them any more.

Ten years ago I didn’t have a blog. Instead, I sent an e-mail to a list of about two-dozen people. On this day in 2001 I used it to inform everyone I knew that we would be leaving Digby, England to transfer to Misawa, Japan:

To all relatives and ships at sea:

I’ve been assigned to the 301st Intel Squadron at Misawa, Japan, to report no later than October. Just thought you’d want to know. This finally unties the knot that got all tangled up last October when I tried to start the assignment process by volunteering for a slot at a station in Yorkshire. That got yanked from me almost immediately and I’ve been traveling down one blind alley after another ever since. I was about to start this week a poke and a jab at another sleeping giant, asking for help, when my commander called me to tell me that my rip had just come in. It’s not chisled in stone, but it’s closer than I’ve been in a while. Now we get to start the fun of sorting through all our stuff to find out what we keep, what we sell, and what we just plain trash, working toward the day that it all goes into great big boxes so the movers can bash it into little pieces. Moving is so much fun.

And fifteen years ago I was so wound up about some car trouble that I went on and on forever about it. The car was a Dodge Colt. I remember that, when we took it for a test drive, B didn’t like it. I did and bought it anyway. This was before I knew she was usually right and I should always listen to her:

I’m in a mood, so let’s cut to the chase: car problems suck. They don’t get better, they get worse. You can throw piles & piles of money at your car, but if the car sucks, it only continues to suck, and if your car’s pretty good, it still sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as a car that sucks a lot. Sucking sucky suck-suck cars. Christ, I hate car problems.

So I already ran down what sucked about the last problem: it wouldn’t run because of a busted wire and a bad sensor in the fuel injection system, but of course it waited until I was two friggin blocks from the shop to stop working altogether, so not only did the shop charge me a pound of flesh, but I had to tow it two friggin sucky blocks and friggin pay the sucking tow friggin truck. Then, to add insult to injury to another injury, or something like that, the mech who got the car running again found a leak in the transmission casing – the “nosecone,” he called it. My transmission has a “nosecone.” It was the mech’s opinion that, when the guys at the other garage installed the rebuilt engine, they shoved the transmission’s nosecone about an inch forward so that it rubbed against the chassis hard enough and long enough to drill a hole or crack it or do something that leaked transmission fluid all over the garage floor. Now my car needs a new nosecone.

In other news, I took my tech test this morning, so that’s over with. I can’t reveal the actual test questions to you, because it’s punishable by having your toes cut off, but a question that could’ve been on the test might’ve sounded like this: “How many total steps are there on the north side of the headquarters building on Randolph AFB, Texas?” The questions were about that trivial. I’m so glad my career hangs on questions like that.

Well, there you go. A reminiscence, a major life change, and a lot of bitching about car trouble. It’s a pretty mixed bag and I’m not sure it showed me anything except tempus fugit with a vengeance.

Time Flies Like An Arrow | 5:30 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg, The O-Mobile, work | Tags: ,
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Monday, March 21st, 2011

Driving home from work tonight I glanced left, then right to check traffic after the light turned green at the intersection to Washington Avenue and happened to notice a blind man feeling his way along the pedestrian crossing with a white cane. That’s an awfully wide, scary intersection for anybody to cross. I do it myself three or four times a week and even when the light gives me enough time, which it never does, and even when the cars turning across the intersection don’t crawl menacingly toward me as I hurry across, which they always do, this is not a user-friendly place to walk. I avoid it when I can.

So I was absolutely gobsmacked when I checked my rear-view for tailgaters after clearing the intersection and saw the blind man again, but this time in the middle of the intersection! He was walking in a wide arc right through the middle of it, headed for the northbound lane, ninety degrees off course! I wanted to hop out of the car and run into traffic but there were cars behind me and cars turning out of parking lots on either side. Every time I checked my mirror I expected to see him getting flattened by a truck but it didn’t happen. When I finally got the chance to tap the brakes and head for the curb I took one last look back and saw him taking his last few steps toward the corner. It was like magic. All I can figure is, once he got close enough to the other side he must’ve heard the talking walk sign, hooked a right and high-tailed it back on over to the curb.

Crossing | 8:37 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, story time
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Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

My favorite language school story:

As you may or may not know, I learned to speak, read and write Russian at the hands of some pretty ruthless teachers hired by the military to make me learn it or die trying. Or maybe it’s not entirely fair to call them “ruthless.” My teachers were pretty wonderful. I still remember Mister and Missus Makarovski with a fondness so warm that it would melt the ice sheet covering Greenland. But they had just fifty-four weeks to teach us a language most of us had never seen before except maybe in comic strips, so they had to improvise some pretty drastic weeding techniques. After twenty weeks or so the size of our class was cut almost in half, but that was about par for every class. And all that is way too much explanation as to why I used the word “ruthless,” but I felt I had to. Okay, that’s done.

By the time we were settled in and learning how to actually read and write so that we understood it, we had a routine, and part of that routine was the weekly quiz. Thursday or Friday was quiz day, I can’t remember which. Probably Thursday, so we could get the results before the weekend left us hanging. So let’s say that every Monday we started a new chapter with forty or fifty new words to add to our vocabulary, Tuesday and Wednesday were the days that we practiced using the new words and grammar rules, Thursday was quiz day and Friday was our day to depressurize. Maybe I’ll tell some stories about depressurizing later, but I doubt it.

On the particular quiz day that my favorite language school story takes place, one of the questions was obviously supposed to make use of the words that translated as “member of government,” which in Russian would be – if memory serves – “chlen gosudarstva.” These quizzes were all fill-in-the-blanks, and on this particular quiz the first blank was very long and the second blank was very short, instead of a very short blank followed by a very long blank, if the answer was what I thought it ought to be. Odd.

We had practiced the phrase many times in class, so I knew it should be “chlen gosudarstva,” but it wasn’t unusual for them to do something unusual in a quiz to zing us, and I was feeling especially inventive that day, so instead I rendered the phrase as “gosudarstvenny chlen,” which I thought would be a perfectly acceptable way of saying, “governmental member.”

Which it most certainly was not. When Missus M returned the quizzes to us later that afternoon everybody got lots of kudos and good-on-yas – except me! She made a special point of stopping when she got to me, then glaring icily as she slapped my quiz on my desk. “Dayfit!” she snapped my name out in the Slavic manner I normally adored, “why do you write this on your quiz?”

I glanced down at the paper and saw that she had circled “gosudarstvenny chlen” several times in red pen.

I looked helplessly back up at her. “It’s not right?”

“Of course it’s not right! Why do you talk like this?” And then she stalked back to her desk huffily, not waiting for my answer. Nobody else knew exactly what was wrong, but they knew I was in truh-bull!

Later that day, Mister M came in for the hour or two when he taught a lesson we normally really liked because we usually learned a dirty word or joke or something like that. He wanted to go over the results of the test almost right away, and in particular the results of my test: “Mister O,” he began, “why do you write on your test the words ‘government prick?’”

I raised my eyebrows and shot back, “I beg your pardon?”

“‘Gosudarstvenny chlen’ means ‘government prick.’ You didn’t know?”

*sound of nickel dropping* Ah!

Dickishness | 7:50 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, work
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I remember only the very last part of the dream I had right before the alarm clock began to bleat: I was at a dirt-strip airfield waiting for a hop on a plane out of some little banana republic, and when it finally came and I climbed aboard I took one last look out the window as the plane turned to taxi to the end of the strip and saw a guy carrying my bags away to a dumpster. And I thought, Man, isn’t that every flying experience you’ve ever had, rolled up into one bitter little pill?

My plane landed at Farnsworth airport. I don’t know where that is, and I only knew it was called “Farnsworth” because, when I got off the plane, a really big, bearded guy who got off the plane ahead of me started walking around in circles on the tarmac shouting, “You suck, Farnsworth! You suck!” at the tops of his lungs. I punched him out, but only after he tried to hit me with his handbag, not to shut him up.

Farnsworth | 6:51 am CST
Category: story time | Tags:
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Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Do you like tunnels? I love tunnels. It’s one of those irrational things, like fear of snakes, although if you ask me a fear of snakes is very rational. I admit that’s an unfair characterization of snakes and maybe even people who like them, but I just don’t care.

But anyway, tunnels. I love ’em. I’ve love them since I was young enough to remember things. I love going through tunnels on the highway, I love biking through old railway tunnels, I even love walking through storm drains that are filled with dank ankle-deep water and probably slugs and other slippery nasty things. I don’t care. Tunnels are way cool.

There is this one tunnel that I don’t love, though, and never have. One in particular. In fact, I absolutely despise it.

When I worked as a supervisor at an unnamed overseas location, I was responsible not only for all the work the people on my crew did, but I was also supposed to look after the building and grounds where they worked. Whenever we had an earthquake, I was supposed to run around afterwards and make sure the building wasn’t going to fall down on our heads. When a passing snowstorm took a great big dump on us, I had to rally the troops to dig out the parking lot so the commanding officer could park his car in the morning. And when it rained a lot, I had to make sure the tunnel wasn’t flooded.

There was a half-mile-long tunnel full of very important stuff I could tell you about if I wanted to make sure you and I both went to jail for a long, long time. Just kidding. It was full of electrical stuff. That’s why we didn’t want it to flood. Lots of typhoons blew through that part of the world, and all that rain did flood the tunnel from time to time, but it never happened on my watch. I still had to check, though.

The trouble with this tunnel was that it was very well lit. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem in a tunnel, but it was in this tunnel. A string of electric lights ran right down the middle of the ceiling, which was only about seven feet from the floor, and because the ceiling was so close to the floor, each light was surrounded by a metal cage. I don’t know what kind of metal it was. Drop-forged steel would be my guess, or something absolutely immovable. I know that it was absolutely immovable because I banged my head against several of them and they didn’t budge the slightest fraction of an inch. My head absorbed every iota of energy from the impact every time.

The only way I can describe it was like whacking my head against a granite wall, although I’ve never actually whacked my head against a granite wall. I just couldn’t come up with a better way of trying to get you to imagine how much godawful pain it caused. You may think you can imagine what that was like, but unless you’ve done it or something just like it, you don’t know jack. The first time I did it, I was blind for several seconds. The world around me was a big red blur of pain. I staggered back from the light fixture, bouncing off the walls a little bit while the guy who was down there with me laughed at what looked to him like a very humorous predicament. Because nothing’s funnier than watching someone bashing his brains out against steel light fixtures.

The second time I did it, I scrunched down on the floor in a ball with my head between my knees and my eyes clenched shut thinking, I can’t believe I did that AGAIN!

But the third time, ah, the third time … that was truly something remarkable, because the third time I was walking very slowly through the tunnel, reminding myself at half-second intervals to look for the light ahead of me and the light behind me. I must’ve looked like I was batshit crazy, swiveling my head back and forth constantly as we walked along. And then somebody asked me a question and I turned to answer and lost track of where I was, until I turned around to look for the next light and PRANG! I found it with my forehead. Man, that sucked.

After the third time I never went down into the tunnel. It was pretty cool to walk all the way from one end to the other for a while, but I just wouldn’t do it after that third time. Instead, when it rained and I had to find out if the tunnel was flooded, I got a bunch of my minions together and sent them down into the tunnel with instructions to report back to me if it was flooded. And when they got back I usually asked if any of them ran into the lights. They never did. It only happened to me. Dammit.

Prang Your Head | 11:07 pm CST
Category: story time
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Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

A story about patience and civility:

While I was living in Bedford, England, about a million years ago, I used to take the train to London just about every chance I got and wander around because, you know, cool! Why wouldn’t I, right? I mean, when was I ever going to get the chance to go to London again? So that’s what I did. And it was dead simple because a major train line ran through Bedford, and the train station was about a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment.

But one day I took the train from Hitchin instead. I don’t remember why. Maybe I missed the last train of the morning commuter rush and I didn’t want to wait for the next one. In any case, I hopped into my little Datsun coupe and drove down to Hitchin, parked in the lot, rode the train down and spent all day wandering in and out of record stores, second-hand clothing shops, probably watched a movie, I don’t know what all. I didn’t come back until very late in the evening, well after dark.

One of the tricks my Datsun coupe could do that made me very proud was get into parking spots so tight that watching me do it would make your eyes cross. The parking lot at the Hitchin train station was full of cars but I’d managed to find one little sliver of space left in a corner and very smugly wedged my Datsun into it. As I was walking back to my car late that evening I noticed what appeared to be a young lady in a business suit sitting on the hood of my car, and I was going to be very cross with her until I got close enough to realize that she was sitting on the hood to her car, which was parked into the corner by my car.

She didn’t tear into me, didn’t scream about how long she’d been waiting, didn’t say a single word until I unlocked the door of my car, whereupon she slid down off the hood of her car and, before turning away, asked me ever so politely, “In future, would you mind not parking so close?”

“Sure,” I answered her, “sorry about that.”

“’S all right,” she said, got into her car, and waited for me to back out of her way. I waited until she was well down the road before I put my car in drive.

In Future | 7:09 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile, work | Tags:
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Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

I was waiting in the parking lot of the hotel for a lift into town from the air base where I was staying. I’d been hiking through the countryside of southwest England all week, but was taking some time off to hang around town, browse the book stores and pick up a few knick-knacks for souvenirs.

The cop who was going to drive the little ten-passenger bus that would take us into town motioned me aside and said, “I’ve got something for you,” so I followed him down the hill to a small shed by the side of a pool. On a table outside the shed were a pair of well-worn combat boots. Almost all the polish had been stripped off and the soles were missing. “My boots!” I shouted. “Where did you find them?” The Cotswolds, he told me, but I already knew that. They were sucked off my feet while I was trying to cross a bog.

I thanked the cop, a young fellow who never smiled but liked to hike and liked to talk about it. We exchanged one or two stories on the walk back to the parking lot. Then I got on the bus, which had turned into a huge red Radio Flyer wagon, he grabbed the handle and he pulled me into town. Slowly.

Personal to Sean: Dream.

Boots | 6:07 am CST
Category: story time | Tags:
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Friday, December 24th, 2010

I don’t know why they puts goats in petting zoos, do you? Goats are pretty creepy-looking animals. They’re kind of skeletal with all those bony bumps, they’ve got demon eyes, and they’re always jerking around as if their own personal invisible devil is jabbing them up the behind with a sharpened, flaming stick. Yeh, let’s throw our children into a cage with hyperactive, scary-looking animals. Good idea.

But when we were a young couple, and we had a young boy who loved barnyard animals, we took a day trip to the Berlin zoo and stopped at the petting zoo filled with all kinds of cute little fluffy animal babies. Most of them were in small pens, but there was a large, open area in the middle filled with chickens and ducks and goats and other seemingly harmless livestock. Sean wanted to pet each and every one of them.

The goats had absolutely no interest in us. We tried to pet them and they just walked away, not like they were afraid of us, but like they had something better to do. But Sean really wanted to pet them, so when one of us spotted the coin-operated feed dispenser we figured maybe we could catch the attention of at least a few goats if we had some yummy green pellets to feed them. We led Sean over to the machine, showed him how to cup his hands under the chute, dropped ten pfennig into the slot, and turned the handle.

And that’s when the goats attacked.

Cranking the handle on that machine was like ringing a dinner bell. There were no goats anywhere near us when we stepped up to the dispenser, and then when we turned around, every darn goat in the petting zoo was rushing us like stoned teenagers trying to trample each other to the first through the gates at a rock concert. I tried to keep Sean calm by casually encouraging him to offer the goats his handful of food pellets.

Big mistake, bigger even than the idea of buying the pellets in the first place. Every one of those goats wanted to eat all the food in Sean’s outstretched hand, but the goat in the front stopped them all cold by sucking Sean’s entire hand into his mouth. Sean freaked and tried to pull his hand out of there, but of course the goat wasn’t letting go until he sucked down every last food pellet. Meanwhile, the other goats were climbing over one another trying to get at the goat who was hogging the little boy all to himself.

Barb and I both did what we could to get the goat to let go, but my brain was short-circuiting and I’m afraid I wasn’t much help. Great, I was thinking, It’ll take years of therapy and a keg of Zoloft to put this behind him, and even then he’ll be haunted by those weird eyes. Eventually the goat finished off the last of the food, at which point he became profoundly uninterested in Sean and let his hand go, and when the other goats realized there wasn’t any more food to be had, they instantly lost interest in him, too, and they all ran off to mob somebody else.

Goats Ate My Kid! | 11:17 am CST
Category: entertainment, O'Folks, play, Seanster, story time, travel
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Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Dad was mowing the grass in the back yard. My brother Pete and I were working on something in the garage with the back door open. Dad was about as far away across the back yard as he could get when suddenly the growl of the lawnmower engine died and was replaced just moments after by Dad’s voice yelling across the yard, asking one of us to bring the Vaseline.

Pete and I turned and gave each other the puzzled dog look. “Did he say ‘Vaseline’?” Pete asked me, and I answered, “That’s what I heard, too.”

So I shouted back: “You want the Vaseline?”

“Yes! The Vaseline!” And then he added, as if it would help to clarify the request: “For the lawnmower!”

It was your standard lawnmower with a three-horsepower, two-stroke gasoline engine, and we had a yard so big it took most of an afternoon to mow it, so the gas tank ran dry at least once. It would make sense if he asked for the gasoline, but he hadn’t, or at least we were pretty sure he hadn’t. We were pretty sure he asked for the Vaseline. Pretty sure.

But there was a can of gasoline in the garage, in plain view, and there was also a big jar of Vaseline on the work bench that we used to grease up stick bolts and axles and whatnot, also in plain view. He hadn’t checked the gas tank on the lawn mower after he shut it off, so it’s just possible that he really did want the Vaseline instead of the gasoline, but why he would want the Vaseline was a mystery. But that’s what we both heard him ask for.

The problem here was that our Dad had a ferocious temper that neither one of us wanted to risk triggering if we could help it. If Dad had indeed asked for the Vaseline and we brought him gasoline, our misinterpretation would unleash a force-five tornadic tongue-lashing just a sure as if he’d asked for gasoline and we brought him Vaseline.

We asked again, yelling across the back yard, “Did you say ‘Vaseline?'”

“Yes!” he answered, a trifle miffed this time. Our hesitation was starting to annoy him. “Vaseline!” he barked again, in a tone of voice that clearly implied: What in hell do you think I’m asking for? Gasoline?

We tried once more, this time experimentally changing the question to “Gasoline?” Well, we had to try.

He finally cut loose with a magnificently full-throated roar that flushed his face and rattled windows for a quarter mile in every direction: “VASELINE!” If we didn’t act within moments, he would explode with the force of a supernova. We couldn’t let that happen. I can’t recall for sure now which of us finally went out there, but as I’m telling the story I’m going to say I took one for the team by scooping the jar of Vaseline off the work bench and starting across the yard. With each step I grew more confident. He could easily see I didn’t have the gas can, yet he didn’t raise a word in protest. We must have heard him correctly.

No, of course we hadn’t. He watched me march all that way across the lawn in silence because he was in shock, not because I’d brought him what he’d asked for. As I extended my hand, proudly presenting the jar of Vaseline to him, I mewled, “You asked for, uh, Vaseline?”

He stared. He blinked. “Vaseline?” he finally yelped, still puzzled, and then his sun went supernova and the shock wave hit: “I asked for GASOLINE!” he shouted, all but hopping up and down. “What in hell would I want with Vaseline?”

It’s still a mystery why I didn’t just take him both the Vaseline and the gasoline.

The Vaseline Story | 6:04 am CST
Category: Dad, daily drivel, O'Folks, story time
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Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

image of Volkswagen microbus

There’s a Volkswagen microbus parked along the curb on Midvale Avenue, the street we drive every morning when I take My Darling B to work. It’s got a fresh coat of toothpaste-green paint and For Sale a sign in the back window and each time I passed by I became even more powerfully convinced that it was a ‘69 model. Then, day before yesterday, the bus wasn’t there, and it was missing again yesterday morning. I figured the owner had finally found a buyer, but when I drove B to work this morning it was back.

I stopped to have a look after dropping her off, peeking in all the windows. The owner had done some work inside, putting new liners in the doors and overhead, and cutting some foam to fit across the rear platform, presumably so he could stretch out back there in a sleeping bag. Squatting next to the passenger-side tire, I found the plate fixed to the side of the bus by Westfalia: it was stamped with the date 1969.

My very first car was a ‘69 Volkswagen microbus. Nicknamed “Warbaby” by my friends because it was in pretty sad shape, I bought it for five hundred bucks from a guy who threw in a vintage copy of John Muir’s book, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.” When it came to auto mechanics, I was definately a “compleat” idiot; I added lots of grease to the pages of that book.

Here’s my favorite Volkswagen fix-it story: I stopped for gas near Kingman, Arizona, on a cross-country trip to California in my second Volkswagen, a lemon-yellow 69 bus named Maria. It’s been my experience that all old Volkswagens have names. The previous owner will usually tell you what it is when they’re sure you’re the one who will take good care of their baby.

I have no idea what Kingman, Arizona, is like. It may be a lovely place, but the gas station I stopped at was out on the interstate, surrounded by desert. I’d been driving across the desert for more than twenty-four hours without a break and still had a long haul across the Mojave Desert to look forward to, so after gassing up you can imagine how far my heart sank when I climbed into the bus, turned the ignition key and all I could get from the engine in response was a click.

I stared in disbelief at the dashboard dials, as if that would tell me anything, then did what everybody does after they turn the key to their car and the engine doesn’t turn over: I turned the key again. Why do we even do that? It’s like we’re thinking, Maybe it just wasn’t paying attention the first time. Now that it knows I’m back it’ll turn right over. But I got the same response the second time that I got the first time: Click.

I was too tired to panic, and I had lots of time on my hands, so I dug out my “Compleat Idiot” book out from under the back seat, I opened it to Chapter VII, Engine Stops or Won’t Start and began to flip through the pages, considering each possibility. The dashboard warning lights came on when I turned the key, so the battery was connected and the electrical system seemed to be short-free and in good working order. “Step 5. Check the Solenoid, Starter and Switch” seemed to hold some promise, so I read it a bit more carefully:

Slide under the right side of the car so your head is forward of the axle. Coming out of the engine will be a round thing that looks like an electric motor and the smaller round thing attached to it is the solenoid. At the end of the solenoid there’s a contact that connects the battery to the starter. Check all three connections on the solenoid and tighten them if they’re loose. Take a screwdriver and hold it across the two big connections. The motor should whirr into action but not turn over the engine. If it doesn’t, then your starter is shot.

I spent a lot of time on my back underneath this particular car, flashlight in one hand, screwdriver in the other. So much time that I kept a heavy denim coverall rolled up in a ball next to my tool chest under the back seat. I pulled on the coveralls and skootched under the back of the car with a screwdriver. No need for a flashlight, there was plenty of daylight left.

I easily found the starter. The Volkswagen is not a complicated machine. I’m pretty sure I could keep one running even now that so many of my brain cells have died that I have trouble remembering my age. After experimentally touching the bare metal shaft of a screwdriver across the contacts of the starter, it did indeed whirr into action. Breathing a great big sigh of relief, I scooted out from under the car to see what the book recommended I do to fix the problem:

If the starter whirrs satisfactorily, without untoward noises, then you can assume the starter motor is OK, so check the solenoid. Make sure the car’s out of gear and the key’s off. Connect your screwdriver across from the battery terminal to the small terminal and see what happens. If the engine gaily starts to turn over, then you have either a dirty solenoid or trouble with the ignition switch in the car. Take a small hammer and tap the solenoid with it wherever you can reach, except where the wire connections are.

Seriously? “Hit it with a hammer?” That’s how to fix this?

I had my doubts, but I was, as I said, going nowhere fast with plenty of time on my hands, so I wormed my way underneath the car once again to try it out. Touching the screwdriver to the connections did make the engine turn over. And, I have to add, causing a Volkswagen engine just inches from my face to jump to life while I was lying on my back underneath it is an experience that damned near made me shit my pants, even though I was expecting it.

Since the solenoid seemed to be the problem, I tapped it three or four times, front and back, with the round end of the ball peen hammer I kept in my tool box, just as the book suggested. Then I crawled out from under the car, climbed into the driver’s seat, took a deep breath, let it out again, and turned the key. Fired right up.

Huh. “Hit it with a hammer” works. How about that?

John Muir explains:

You have a dirty, rusty solenoid that doesn’t want to operate all the time. I had one in the old Bus and it’s a drag but when it didn’t want to work, I just rolled under the Bus with the screwdriver and hammer, made it work a few times and bounded it around a little. It’ll work for a long time before you need to do it again.

As it turned out, I had to crawl under the bus to hit the solenoid with a hammer again after pulling over to nap at a rest stop in Paso Robles, California. By the time I got to Pacific Grove, though, I learned that I could skip the step where I hit it and go straight to the part where I danced the screwdriver across the contacts. From there I figured out that, if all I had to do was give the solenoid an electrical jolt, I could connected a length of wire from the positive contact, run it to the engine compartment where I could easily get at it, and when the problem recurred I could just touch the end of the wire to an exposed bolt. Worked like a charm. I eventually replaced the solenoid, but in the meantime I didn’t have to crawl under the bus.

Every time I see a bus I want one again, in spite of all the work, and they do require a lot of tinkering and patience. The one for sale on Midvale gave me the itch to own one again, but I just don’t see it happening, given the way things are now. Also, we don’t have any place to park it. But it was nice to peek in the windows and remember again.

Veedub tale | 6:12 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile | Tags: ,
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Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Dear Democratic National Committee: You’re pissing off the independent voters with your telemarketing script. Two of them, anyway.

Mister McChuckletrousers called Our Humble O’Bode on behalf of the Democratic National Committee this afternoon and My Darling B picked up the phone on the second ring instead of screening the call as we normally do. We get calls from telemarketers all the time, even though we’re theoretically on the don’t-call list and we tell every single one we speak to that we’re not interested in their products. We don’t try to be rude, we just tell them no, thank you. You’d think they’d take the hint after a few of those, but they keep calling back, so we screen ninety-nine percent of all the calls we get.

But B was expecting a call so she picked up … and was treated to a hard-sell pitch from Mr. McChuckletrousers. When she could get a word in edgewise (we wait until they take a breath to jump in, rather than rudely interrupt) she told him thanks for calling but we wouldn’t be able to make a donation today.

I’ll say this about most telemarketers and solicitors: Nine out of ten times, that works. You tell them you can’t make a donation and they thank you and move on to the next call in their queue. They’ve got a quota to meet, after all. This dorkwad from the DNC, though, wasn’t going to be put off so easily. “We’re not asking everyone to make large donations,” he said, “a small donation would help us out, too.”

Not that it was any of his business, but B explained that money was a little too tight in our household right now to make a donation of any size to his cause.

“Whatever you could afford would be just fine,” he said. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want the Republicans to get control of Congress again, would you?”

Whoops. Wrong thing to say.

“Look, buddy,” B told him, “I’m an independent. I vote for whomever looks like the best candidate, so don’t assume who I would and wouldn’t want in office.” And it’s not exactly like the Dems have done a bang-up job changing anything after pumping us full of hope, either, she wanted to add, but didn’t. “My husband just lost his job and we’ve got to pay the mortgage on what I make, so we won’t be making a donation, okay?”

You’d think that would have pushed him back a bit, but you’d be wrong. “Well, there are other ways you can contribute,” he said, changing to a new tack and taking a big breath to launch into who-knows-what.

“Thanks,” B jumped in, “I’m expecting a call, so I’m going to hang up now.” And she did.

I don’t know if this would make anyone in the DNC re-think their hard-sell, but here are my two cents:

I can see why the DNC might think we’d be a soft touch for a donation or two. We’re both rather progressive when it comes to our politics. I think the federal government should provide basic health care for everyone, for instance. I don’t know how, but I sincerely believe it could be done at no great increase in spending, and without too much bureaucracy. I also think we should get our military the hell out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Lend them whatever diplomatic help they need, but pull out our soldiers and refuse to sell them arms.

I said I think these things could be done. I even had some hope we would be seeing changes like these after the last federal election. I know it’s hard, bordering on impossible, to make big changes considering the political climate in Washington and across the nation, but so far I’m not overly impressed by the changes the Dems have made. And my opinion of the Dems sinks even lower when they call Our Humble O’Bode on Sunday afternoon and try to shake down my darling bride for money after she politely tells you we haven’t got any to spare.

If you must call, please don’t call on the weekends. We like to relax on the weekends, and the clanging of telephone bells all afternoon makes us cranky. Cranky people don’t give any money to anybody.

And, when someone tells you, politely, that they won’t be able to make a donation, don’t suggest making a smaller donation. That makes us cranky, too. See above for the result of making people cranky.

Dear Donkey | 8:00 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, messing w/telemarketers, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, story time, yet another rant | Tags:
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Sunday, June 20th, 2010

On Father’s Day I get to do whatever the hell I want to do, and what I’ve wanted to do all morning is sit in front of my computer monitor in my underwear reading goofy shit off the interwebs. Here’s the first thing that made me laugh out loud:

It’s a Star Wars joke, which, in the eyes of many people, makes me a Star Wars nerd, although I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. If you told me no one had ever waved a hand at you as if to cloud your mind and uttered the words, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” I wouldn’t believe you. Everybody on the planet has had someone do that to them by now. You could travel to the Gobi Desert, the jungles of Cambodia, the interior of the Amazon, and find someone who knew that line, in English.

I suspect that’s because it’s so much fun to use. Every time you’re caught with your hand in the cookie jar, all you have to do is casually wave your hand and say the line. Unless the guy who caught you has a heart like a block of ice, he’s almost guaranteed to chuckle and tell you, “Move along! Move along!”

I am a Star Wars nerd, by the way. To give you an idea just how big a nerd I am for Star Wars, I’ll point out that the clip I linked to above is from a re-release of the first movie that had been “improved” by adding computer-generated special effects. There are various creatures and robots that appear to wander between the camera and the land speeder at the beginning of the scene, blocking the shot. A flying robot appears in one shot just long enough to be a nuisance, and what looks like a dinosaur made out of brown Play-Doh by a kindergartener lumbers through the background of the final shot. I would guess they were added to make the scene look more like it took place in a crowded city street but, if you ask me, all this added clutter does is distract the viewer from what’s going on between the stormtroopers and the main characters.

I can’t tell you how frustrated I felt not being able to find a clip that didn’t have all the extra crap in it, by the way. Star Wars was a fun movie before they hauled it out and glued a bunch of extra bling on it. Is this turning into a rant now? It is, isn’t it? Where the hell was I? Damn distractions, they’re all over the interwebs.

Before I even got around to doinking around on the internet, I spent the first couple hours of the morning in the customary way: leafing through the Sunday newspaper while downing cup after cup of coffee.

My Darling B spent the morning baking a delicious Father’s Day treat for me. She didn’t mean to. She meant to go out to her garden and stay there, plucking weeds, sowing seeds and whatever else she does until the skies stopped threatening to pour down rain and actually started to do it. It never did rain. She was out there all afternoon.

On her first trip to the garden, though, she looked up and saw how many of the berries on the mulberry tree were ripe and thought how nice it would be to bake a berry buckle, a sort of coffee cake, and leave it for me as a prezzie on my special day. Nobody does holidays like B does.

Thing is, a berry buckle isn’t something anybody, not even My Darling B, can throw together in a few minutes. It takes quite a long time to do it right, and when it comes to doing things in the kitchen, B is all about doing things absolutely right. No short cuts for her.

I’m happy to report that’s how it turned out: Absolutely right. A wonderful father’s day gift. I heart be, woojy-woojy.

tart | 9:24 am CST
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, movies, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, story time, yet another rant
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Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

We took positions at our flip charts and prepared for the first round of participatory exercises at this morning’s leadership seminar.
“To let you know when it’s time to change positions, I will make a loud noise,” our instructor, Mary Kate, advised us.
Chuckles all around the room.
She grinned at us. “It will be a polite noise,” she added.
Laughter this time.

At the seminar I’m attending this week I ended up at a table of mostly women who were playing what I assume is a fairly common game among women called, “The last time I wore a dress was…” Although I could have won the game hands down by jumping in at any time and volunteering, “Summer of 1983,” I managed to restrain myself.

I was working for a summer in Wisconsin Dells to earn some money for college. One very sleepy weekday evening as I wandered along the main street looking for something to do, I ended up in one of those souvenir photo shops where you dress up in old-timey clothes and have your picture taken brandishing a six-gun and a bottle of Jack Daniels, or posed woodenly in front of a Model T. Two college-age girls were watching over the place, so naturally enough I poked my head in to ask them how things were going. It turned out they were bored out of their skulls. Apparently nobody had stopped in the shop until I came along.

In the course of chatting them up I said that I’d never posed for one of these photos before. They said they’d shoot my photo for free, just for something to do. I took them up on the offer because, well, they were two college girls who wanted to talk to me. The longer I could keep that going, the better.

When I couldn’t decide on a costume to wear, I asked them for suggestions. Well, they said, most guys like dressing up as gunslingers, or sheriffs, or hillbillies with a bottle of moonshine in one hand. Then one of them said, Hey, how about if we dress him up as a woman?

Excuse me? I asked. As as what?

But they were already getting out several long, full dresses and discussing the possibilities, and after they settled on a beautiful pastel blue dress they picked out a wide-brimmed hat and a parasol to go with it. A ruffled blouse finished off the ensemble.

I have to admit I can’t recall another time that I’ve had so much fun having two girls put clothes on me. They posed me in front of a backdrop that looked like a wooded park and snapped a photo that they presented to me with their compliments.

Yes, I do have a scanner. No, I won’t be posting a copy of the photo on this blog any time soon.

a tall tale | 5:59 pm CST
Category: story time | Tags: ,
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Monday, February 1st, 2010

image of ashtrayIt is an ashtray, but I haven’t taken up smoking.

It’s an ashtray exactly like one my parents had for years and years. For all I know, Mom might still have it. Or, this might be that very ashtray.

I was wandering the aisles of Saint Vincent de Paul’s thrift store on Willy Street when my eye happened to fall on this. Not literally. That would be pretty yucky. I’d have to find a way to wash it off and stick it back in, and I’m pretty sure I would be too panicked to do any of that.

My hand reached out to pick it up without my having to tell it to. It had made up my mind for me. I was going to buy this ash tray.

There are some little baubles that take you back, aren’t there? Even when it makes no sense at all. I mean, an ash tray. Really. I’m guessing my parents would grimace at the notion that an ash tray would remind me so powerfully of my childhood, but maybe not. That was back when everybody smoked and there were ashtrays everywhere. And this one was in our house. Or one just like this one.

Footnote: I wonder if I’m the only American over forty who’s never smoked? I asked The Google, but it doesn’t know.

bauble | 2:25 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, random idiocy, story time
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Saturday, August 26th, 2006

Happy birthday to Tim!

Happy birthday to Tim!

Let’s have supper with Nazis!

Wait … supper with Nazis?

Nazis. Jackboot-wearing Nazis. Skinheaded, swastikas tattooed on their necks, wearing t-shirts made to look like rock concert souvenirs with the dates of “Hitler’s European Tour” on the back.

It was the first time we’d been to a Denny’s in nine, maybe ten years. We thought it would be a goofy treat for Tim on his birthday. He ordered a big stack of pancakes to stuff down his neck and we were enjoying the nostalgia of the moment when Barb’s eyes got all serious and she said, “Oh, no.”

She was facing the parking lot. I had to turn around but all I needed was a glance to know they were Nazis. Don’t rush to judge me. If they’d been wearing brown shirts, arm bands, goose-stepping across the parking lot singing “Deutchland über alles” it would have been just as obvious. It’s not like they blend in.

We were in the non-smoking section. “Maybe they’re all smoking Nazis,” I said hopefully, but of course they weren’t. They crowded in, re-arranged several tables and sat down right behind us.

I realized I would have to look at them all through my meal. I wanted to ask the waiter if he could seat us in the smoking section, but I didn’t. I wimped out. I got all self-important and thought, I’m a big boy, I don’t have to get all bent out of shape about this. I may be all grown up, but it turns out I’ve got some pretty visceral feelings about Nazis I can’t set aside. The waiter set that plate of scrumptious French toast in front of me and I suddenly had no appetite at all. It would have been more appetizing if he’d dumped it on the floor of the men’s room.

When our waiter cashed us out, he apologized for not coming by to freshen our coffee and do all the rest of that waiting stuff. He was busy helping the waitress take orders from the Nazis and bring them their Cokes, almost as if they were normal customers. Why do they even serve Nazis, anyway? The government has to let them speak in public places, but Denny’s doesn’t have to serve them. It’s a private restaurant. Turning Nazis away at the door is not the same as, for instance, refusing to serve gays. Homosexuals don’t proclaim they’re the master race and slander ethnics. I guess Nazis have to eat, just like the rest of us, but why can’t the manager give them directions to the grocery store and suggest a nice picnic table along the side of the road where they can make some sandwiches?

Oh, listen to me talk. I couldn’t even get up and move out of the section.

Freaking Nazis.

One thing’s for sure: It’s a birthday meal Tim won’t soon forget.

dinner with Nazis | 7:08 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg
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