Wednesday, October 29, 2008


We all make memorable friends during our lives. We connect to them on a level that involves companionship, camaraderie , humor, love and many other levels. They are those whose memory will live on with us for the rest of our lives. In a previous essay I mentioned immortality and how it can be easily achieved so I won't return to that but I'll offer a bit of fiction instead to lighten up the otherwise serious tone of some of the previous essays.

I once had a wonderful friend named John Heath. He was about the age of my father and we clicked pretty much right away. He was often out of town but when he was in town he'd drop by the house and take me with him on a visit to his farm out near Buffalo Texas. In the evenings we'd play scrabble and talk about life. He introduced me to the writings of Khalil Gibran, John Donne, Rudyard Kipling and many others and sometimes he told stories. He wanted to be a writer someday, a dream he never realized before his death. I'm not sure if he ever committed any of his stories to manuscript and if so they've surely been lost by now as this was long before the internet and compositing was done on typewriters instead of computers. Because of the effects he had upon my life and the way he opened me to new ideas I've taken the liberty of taking one of his subjects and building it into the story he never had a chance to set to paper. I offer the following story to you as a way to enjoy time spent reading and as a tribute to John Heath, my irrepressible friend.

The Marvelous Post Hole Threader or Why I Never Got Rich.

Have you ever had one of those mornings that dawned bright and clear and cool with the promise of heat later in the day still delayed and you find that before the world awakes you've got time for a quiet cup of coffee and some happy reminiscences before you've got to go out and spoil it all with working and noise and aggravation.

It was a bright summer morning just about like that recently and as I was finishing my coffee I was sitting and thinking about my misspent youth and all the opportunities for fortune and fame I let slip through my fingers for one reason and another and none of those ever brings quite the same feelings of exhilaration and loss as the summer of the Marvelous Post Hole Machine.

Like all the best stories I guess I'd better start at the beginning of this one and tell you about my buddy John. That way you won't miss all the fun later when the going gets deeper.

I don't really recall the exact circumstances of when I first met John. He was just one of those people that wandered in like a stray cat and every time you looked around he hadn't wandered off home yet, but you would've liked him just as I did. He was that sort of person, likable. It was nigh on impossible to dislike John. He was always wrapped up in some new scheme and eager to share the fun and the wealth that it was sure to bring.

As a matter of interest it was always good to sit a little back from the edge of the table when he got wound up talking about his latest discovery because he'd get to eating and talking and drinking his coffee and first thing you know he was chewing his coffee and drinking his words and putting a fine spray of sandwich across whatever poor sod was sitting opposite him. I choked on a few cups of coffee myself while trying to keep a straight face at John's antics and the dismay of his unfortunate victims, but he was just like an eager puppy at times like that and it was nearly impossible to stay mad at him, even while you raked the potato salad off the front of your shirt.

I guess that one of the things that always surprised me about John was his mechanical ability. He would do things that seemingly defied all known laws of mechanics and physics and for which was, to none of us who knew him, able to explain to any of our satisfaction. Like the time that he decided his tool box was too heavy.

It seemed innocent enough to start with. He reached over to pick up his box and go over to the milling department at the shop we were employed by and as it slid off the edge of the table it just kept on going down and down and at the sound of the crash that raised the adrenaline level of the rest of the crew we all turned as one to see John, all arms and legs akimbo, atop a large pile of scattered tools and various other implements that John had a way of collecting along with other unidentified objects that seemed to collect themselves when he was around. I suppose it would have just been a nuisance, except to Charlie who spilled his coffee in his lap, but for the silly grin on John's face. We all exchanged knowing looks and I just shook my head and picked up my tools and went on over to the milling department because we all knew that when John got that silly grin on his face something unusual was bound to happen next.

Sure enough when I got back to the shop John was bent over the workbench banging and hammering and talking to himself then soldering things into what might have been some sort of electrical circuit as well as throwing stuff over his shoulder as discards and then scampering around to find that same stuff again or maybe finding something else instead and carrying each new treasure back to the bench. We never bothered him when he got like that because mostly it didn't do any good. He never seemed to know that we were around and actually we kind of had to watch what was within reach of John at those times. I saw him take a sip of motor oil one time and then swallow it and his only comment was that the pot ought to get washed out because the last batch of coffee was a little heavy, not to mention cold. So, we mostly just watched out for the open flammables and lubricants and stayed out of the way until he was finished.

He did come up with some wonderful stuff though. There was the floor polisher he modified. It looked normal on the outside, just a big old rotary floor polisher. It was when he turned it on that it got strange. It made a sort of high whining noise that I learned later was called ultrasonic and it would sort of make your eyeballs itch and your teeth ache while it was running. But what it did! Just after he finished it he wanted to show it off so just to make sure it got a workout he took it out on the sidewalk in front of the offices and proceeded to polish the sidewalk and I do mean "Polish" with a capital "P"! When he hit the switch and it turned on, first Bill. another of the shop crew. let out a yelp of pain, clutched his jaw and lit out like a devil was chasing him (it turned out later that he had fillings in his teeth). Then a sort of glow came from the polishing pad and as John moved the polisher back and forth across the sidewalk, the rough concrete became slick like glass! As John happily polished his way down the sidewalk we gathered around to look at the surface left behind, It looked like polished marble!. A few years later some clever soul invented teflon by accident and I recognized the feel immediately, it was just like John's sidewalk!

That invention didn't work out too well because about three days later it rained and that beautiful slick sidewalk just melted away. I don't mean just the slick surface either... I mean the whole sidewalk! I seem to remember that the management wasn't all too happy about that little incident but nothing ever came of it.

It was always that way with John. At first everybody was loud and upset and then he'd get that silly grin and everybody just seemed to forget about it after a while.

Back to the story of the toolbox though. I guess John didn't really wake up to the world again until late that afternoon when he straightened up, smiled and tossed the little gadget he'd created into the bottom of his tool box and picked up the whole 150 lbs. of it in one hand and went home.

When I asked him about it later he just said it made the box lighter and bigger and really wasn't much of a gadget anyway. I never noticed the box being larger but I know I couldn't fit that many tools in my box and still lift it and, to be truthful, I probably couldn't fit that many tools in my box anyway! But John, all spindly 150 lbs. of him, would grab that box in one hand and walk off like it was a feather pillow. I also noticed that it always seemed to have a slight shimmer like maybe you had something in your eye when you looked directly at it, but we were used to John and his gadgets by then and never really asked more about it, and it wouldn't have mattered anyway. We never understood his explanations and usually we were fairly sure he didn't either.

The summer of the Marvelous Post Hole Machine came about because of work lay-offs at the plant during a seasonal slow down. We all had our own departments to service and when we had finished orders for the standing contracts we'd get some time off every summer to go on and do other stuff that had collected during the winter or just go fishing or farming or whatever. Then when business picked up again we'd all just go back in and start over. That particular summer was to be very, very different in very memorable ways though because of the contracts we finished up. It seems like some of the parts we made were for obsolete equipment of some sort that had to have parts made for the requisite 10 or 20 years because of some government regulation and when we finished that batch there wouldn't be any more so it looked like we'd be looking for jobs elsewhere this time as we all shook hands and said our goodbyes. John in particular looked just like a lost puppy as he stood there in the parking lot holding that strange toolbox of his. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him to give me a call later if he didn't get busy and we'd have a beer together. Little did I suspect then, as I headed home, how that invitation was going to be the start of one of the stranger adventures I would ever have.

It was about two weeks after that last goodbye and summer was beginning to kick in with lots of sunshine and warmth. I was sitting at home one evening with a beer in one hand and the fan sort of lazily stirring the evening around while listening to the crickets tuning up for a noisy concerto when my musing was interrupted by a extremely loud and vigorous hammering on the screen door. There stood John with that silly grin pasted all over his face looking at me through the screen and just kind of holding his hand up in that sort of knocking pose like he didn't quite know how to put his hand back down. Actually I suppose I shouldn't say he was looking through the screen because he had his nose up against it so hard that it made a dent in the wire mesh that stayed there long after the nose that made it was removed. To say that I was surprised was a somewhat of an understatement because I'd been kind of dozing and when John commenced hammering on the door I woke up a little suddenly, actually more than a little! I fell off the chair and my beer went flying along with the cat I'd had in my lap and the dog started barking and my heart was hammering like I'd just been electrocuted, so maybe I was more than a just a "little" surprised.

In any case, there stood John with his nose in the screen and that silly grin all over his face, with his hand in the air and that sort of sparkle in his eyes that always went with the silly grin and the odd inventions. Sticking out of every pocket were the bits and scraps of paper that were the entire history of a new invention aborning in John's fertile if somewhat unorthodox brain.

As I scrambled to untangle myself from the chair, the cat, the dog, the beer and everything else that had jumped in when it saw a disaster happening, John came on in the house and proceeded to stand around in the way and help by getting me further tangled up in the pileup until I finally just lay there in a puddle of warm beer and wondered if cat scratches and noise trauma were fatal. By the end of that summer I sort of wished they had been because that was to be the summer of the Marvelous Post Hole Machine.

Later, after the cat was out, the dog was quiet, I had the mess mopped up or picked up and had fortified myself with another beer or two I was ready to hear all about John's latest scheme to make us all rich and famous and you had all best believe me when I say that it was a real humdinger!

In a flurry of spraying beer and a small tornado of flying bits of paper and waving arms John proceeded to tell me all about how there were miles and miles of dry oil wells all abandoned and just waiting to be pulled out of the ground and cut up for fence post holes and he had all the stuff to do it, designed and ready to be built and put to work.

Now did you catch all that? I mean you're sitting all comfortable and dry and happy with no distractions and did that all just make sense? No? Well then, you can sort of know how I must have felt when I heard it, sitting there hurting from the table that had attacked me during my ignominious fall from grace and the cat tracks that had appeared in bright red stripes across my chest along with the dog bite that I got when I kicked the dog as I was on the way down and stinking of warm beer that had more or less liberally coated everything in a five foot area around where I was sitting. If it doesn't make sense to you now you might well understand why I made him repeat everything about six times before I gently ushered him to the door and said I'd see him tomorrow and we'd get it all clear and then firmly but gently closed the door so as not to further damage his nose which seemed to be acquiring a permanent crosshatch from the screen. At that point I should have just quietly left town in the night but I was young and still of the opinion that people ought to be given a chance to explain themselves before you beat some good sense into them and after all, I'd already seen some of John's weird stuff work and it just might be that he knew something I didn't and that it would work again! Even if I didn't understand it!

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised the next morning when the screen slammed and John seated himself at the table and proceeded to help himself to my breakfast, all the while digging for bits of paper and waving his arms and talking a blue streak about his new machine and how it was out in the truck and I just had to go see it work right now. I just kind of settled down out of spray range and drank a cup of coffee which was all I managed to salvage of the whirlwind that had enveloped my bacon, eggs and toast and reconciled myself to a day that might prove to, at least, be interesting if it didn't kill the both of us first.

John's inventions had the tendency to fail somewhat disastrously at least as often as they worked or didn't work, sort of like the time he converted his ratty old pickup to remote start and use his newly invented super fuel. We all could attest to the efficiency of the remote start, but only the fact that we insisted in watching from behind a wall saved us from the results of the super fuel! I don't think we found more than about ten pounds of that pickup truck. But we all heard it start up and run normally for about ten seconds before it developed a strange moan which rose to a howl and ended in a tortured shriek and a sort of flash and silent boom, you know the kind you feel but don't hear? John called it an implosion. Sort of an explosion in reverse. Whatever it was, it didn't leave much of the truck behind and it kind of cleaned all the loose litter out of the parking lot for about a hundred yards in all directions as well. We were all real happy about being behind the wall and being whole and well except for Charlie. Seems as though he lost his cap to the implosion and the way he carried on about it you'd think he'd rather have lost his house, wife and dog instead. It's peculiar what things some people think are valuable.

But I digress so I'll get back to the story at hand, wherein John was eating my breakfast and a few things that happened to fall out of his pocket into the plate including bits of paper and pocket fluff.

After John had finished all the real food and mopped the plate with a bit of paper and ate that too it was time to go on and either die or be astonished at the new machine which as far as I could determine from the monologue, delivered between and during bites of whatever got in the way of John's fork, had sort of sprung up full blown during the night and jumped into the back of John's newest truck all ready for the morning's adventure.

John's trucks were at least as odd as the rest of his world and his latest was certainly no exception. Whatever it had started life as, was at least as indeterminate as what color it had once been, but whatever it had been it was huge and ugly. I suspected it might have once been an airport emergency recovery vehicle but after John got through with it nobody would ever have been able to know for sure. I do remember one past truck of his that had what looked like Russian information plates on the dash and armor plate and what I always thought looked suspiciously like gun mounts on the cab roof and in the bed.

Nobody ever found out where he got these things, of which this one was certainly no exception, and mounted on the back frame was one of the strangest machines I've ever seen.

It was sort of a combination crane/drilling rig/saw mill all buried in hydraulic lines and electrical cable and things that can only be called "stuff" and in fact I was fairly sure that I saw a 1957 Studebaker grill in there amongst the other bits and pieces.

Right then I knew it was going to be an interesting day!

We climbed into what could politely be called the cab of this beast and John started the engines. Engines, as in more than one. The racket was ear shattering until just though it was normal John reached over and flipped a switch on an odd looking gadget bolted to the dash,that was all loose wires and what looked like kitchen parts and the racket just stopped! Just like turning off the radio, which I was to find out didn't work when the gadget was running and you couldn't hear if the gadget was off.

The radio didn't do much good when it did work anyway. All it would pick up was strange music that sounded a little like Arabian and language broadcasts that could have been Swahili for all I could understand of them. Later that summer when THE TRUCK as we referred to it wasn't running I was playing with the radio and got some REAL strange stuff out of it including some kid with a Citizens Band walkie-talkie radio that was demanding the immediate surrender of every major government on earth! Those were the exact manner in which that kid phrased it too! "All the governments on EARTH!" I thought it was kind of funny because after all there weren't any governments anywhere else, were there? But John just made a note of the channel and said he'd take care of it later. I never did get the hang of that radio so I eventually brought along a little portable I'd bought at K-Mart. That one in the truck had what looked like a computer keyboard hooked to it and a funny little antenna mounted on the cab that sort of swiveled around when John used his one finger pecking method to adjust the stations. He kept a list of stations on bits and pieces of paper that flew around the cab like a whirlwind if you ever opened the windows while driving until I gathered them all up and stuck them in the dash compartment with the beer.

That dash compartment was another strange bit I never understood. I guess he'd been at it just like everything else on THE TRUCK because when you reached over and opened it this cloud of frost smoke would roll out and the temperature in the cab would go right down. Once when he wasn't around I looked under the dash to see if I could locate the cooling coil and there wasn't so much as a wire to that dash box. I sort of casually asked where the cooling coil was later and wasn't the least bit surprised when he said, "Oh it's at home.".

That was about the way these things always ended up in conversations with John. I don't think he ever patented anything because it was all on little bits of paper somewhere and none of those little bits of paper made any sense to anybody in the world except John. He gave me one to show me how the radio worked once and it looked like a page ripped out of an advanced physics text except that it was written in smudged crayon and had little dried up bits of food and grease stains on it.

After a shuttle launch once, I asked if he thought man would ever go to the outer planets and he just said, "Nahh, there ain't nothin' there anyhow, least wasn't when I was there.". I never wanted to know if he was joking. There was something in the way he said it that made me tell myself, "Don't ask!". He was that way about explaining stuff. You were better off not asking and maybe better off not knowing.

So, to resume, there we were in THE TRUCK on our way out to an oilfield with this monster machine on the back when it occurred to me that there WEREN'T any oil wells around close and the top speed on THE TRUCK was about 40 miles per hour. It was going to take forever to get anywhere near an oil well driving that monster but it didn't seem to bother John at all because he just turned into town and at the first street took a left and downshifted what I thought was THE TRUCK but must have been the world around us instead because I'd lived around that town for most of my life and I'd never seen that oilfield before.

I sat up straight and looked all around and said," Where the hell is THIS ????". After all the time I'd been around John it still surprised me when he said, "Kansas.", just like that! "Kansas." Didn't even act surprised when he said it. I wasn't sure it was Kansas but it sure wasn't anywhere around home because I knew that town and there weren't any oil wells there!

John stopped the truck and while I was out looking around at the oil rigs and smelling the tang of sulfur and rotten eggs in the air, he was backing up THE TRUCK to a capped wellhead and getting out to mess with that strange looking piece of gear on the rear deck. Pretty soon still another engine started up with that odd moan that was a trademark of John's motors and all that crane, drill rig and saw mill went to work and just hooked on to the hole and yanked it right up out of the earth.

Yep, I said "the hole". I still don't believe it and I stood there and watched it happen! First the crane dropped into place and positioned a big
gadget with electrical cables and hydraulic hoses and what I described as "Stuff" all over it next then it made sort of a hissing noise and a whine like a dental drill and then it just retracted and brought the hole with it as it came up with the saw kicking in every so often to cut it into sections. Like bringing up a cylinder of clear glass. John was on the back pushing levers and buttons and making all this stuff work just like it was all a very common occurrence and there was absolutely nothing at all peculiar about pulling up a hole. Didn't even leave a dent in the ground where it had been.

I walked over and touched one of the sections and it was hard like glass but solid all the way through. It was exactly like a solid cylinder of air except that it had little bits of dirt and stuff stuck to it here and there. I had to sit down for a while. I mean it's not like I was getting old or anything but all of a sudden I just wanted to sit down there in the sand of that oil field and stare at that impossible pile of holes laying there on the soil of Kansas or wherever we were until the world made sense again. I was pretty sure right then that the world might not *ever* make sense again and I was absolutely sure that nobody was going to believe me when I told them what I had just seen.

I guess I must have just sat there staring at those solidified holes for quite a while because I don't remember hearing the machinery shut down or what happened for a while after that until John came over wearing that silly grin and wiping the grease off his hands with a piece of paper out of his hip pocket. I don't really remember much about loading the holes on the truck, except that they were astonishingly light, or the ride home until we turned a corner and were back in town again and John was up shifting the truck and heading back to my place. He dropped me off at my place and drove off in that eerie silence that always surrounded THE TRUCK and I went straight in and got real drunk!

I didn't even want to think about that machine for a while after that but about two days later there was John banging on the door and getting in the kitchen and tossing around pots and pans and making smells that were perfectly normal for breakfast but really revolting for a man with a serious hangover and generally creating havoc with my poor, throbbing head. After making sure I was certain I was dying and sincerely wished it would hurry up and happen he sat down at the table with this enormous plate of food and proceeded to eat and talk and slosh and spray coffee all over the place just to further torment me. After what, I was certain, was a little under a hundred years in Hell he finished mopping his plate, pulled what looked like a flashlight out of his pocket, shined it in my eyes causing a startling explosion of pain in my head and said, "Well are you ready to go to work?". I whimpered something about letting me die in peace and just kept my eyes shut but after he waved a cup of coffee under my nose and I realized how good it smelled I opened my eyes and realized my hangover was gone. The hangover was not only gone but I was ravenous and felt better than I remembered I could feel. I grabbed the cup of coffee and the nearest candy bar and through a mouthful of chocolate and coffee I managed to ask about the flashlight and John just grinned that silly grin and said, "Come on, you can drink your coffee on the way" and with just enough time to grab another candy bar we were off to what we thought would be the greatest adventure of our lives.

In the silence of the truck cab as we traveled out to the oilfield John explained all about his ideas of how we would pull up these unused holes, cut them up into short sections, thread them and then sell them to farmers or people who needed fences and all about a special installation tool he'd invented so that everywhere they needed a hole they would just screw one of the pre-threaded holes into the ground and depolarize it and there the hole would be ready to use.

I didn't understand even half of that discussion but I was willing to take a look and see how it worked and then take it from there. After all, I hadn't believed that he could yank a hole out of the ground either until I saw him do it.

The trip out to the oilfield didn't take long and we were on our way back before the day was half over with a truck full of those strange cylinders. Once back at John's shop, which was a sort of tumble down old barn that leaned a little out of plumb, we pulled the tarps off of another machine that looked like a double motorized band saw with an over sized pipe threader on one end and got ready for the first of the sections of hole to be sawn into lengthwise quarters and threaded. By then I was a lot less skeptical and a lot more interested in what would happen next. Curiosity had a stranglehold on my interest and nothing had blown up and killed us so far so I figured that we had nothing to lose if he was wrong and we might even make some money if he was right.

We set the first section on the guides of the machine,John turned it on and I pushed it through. Now, when I said that this machine was like a double band saw what I meant was that it had two blades set at right angles to each other that neatly quartered the section before spinning them in front of a tool that turned them round like a lathe might do and then fed them into the threader, neatly cutting threads on them like a pipe. We were jumping around like kids and whooping and hollering and banging each other on the back and pouring beer on each other's heads just generally making a hell of a racket celebrating until we just fell down and laughed until we couldn't move or breathe because we were so excited.

IT WORKED! I mean the damn thing not only worked but it worked real well and we were going to be rich !!!!!! Rich beyond our dreams of wealth. This machine could turn out threaded holes ready for installation by the thousands just as fast as we could shove the sections through it.

About then I thought to ask about the installation tool that went with the sections and there we hit the first hitch.

There was only one installation tool.

John only had enough parts to build one and he hadn't been able to make anything else work. We were excited by then though and I decided it didn't make any difference really. After I got a good look at the tractor mounted rig that he'd built and discovered that it could install a hole about every 10 seconds or so, I figured that what with moving the tractor and clearing the fence line we could still do about a half mile of holes a day. Well maybe not a half mile but even so we could make a bunch of money. People would buy the holes, pay for the installation and we could be in and out and off to the next job without even breaking a good sweat. Or at least that's what we thought. There were a few bits that still needed to be worked out but we'd already gotten this far hadn't we ?

Well....some of the problems weren't as easy to deal with as we'd hoped. Like the torsion problem.

Torsion is what happens when you twist something in opposite directions at both ends at the same time. It's also the force that drives threaded objects into another object unless you happen to be like old Charlie back at the shop. I've seen Charlie set more than one screw with a hammer. But that's impact and not torsion and it's not supposed to be done that way.

What happened with the torsion problem was that as we screwed the holes into the ground they'd wind up like a spring and then after you'd depolarized them and dropped in a post all that torsion would pop that post right back out again. John reset the installation tool to drive harder and the poles just flew a little higher when they popped back out of the hole. At that point we'd both had a few to many beers and it was getting dark so I went on home and John went on in to see if he could doodle out an answer and in fact when I got back over there the problems were solved and everything was working perfectly.

Later we found out we had a chip problem. When we were turning the quarter sections round we got chips from the lathe part of the machine that would pile up and get in the way while we were working. After we'd cleaned up a big pile of these chips once we got to thinking that if these chips were all parts of a hole and a hole is a place where nothing is then we ought to be able to just depolarize these chips and not have a clean up problem. Sounds good doesn't it ?

Didn't work out so well though. John aimed the depolarizer at the chip pile and damn near sucked up the whole shop in an implosion created when everything nearby took a running leap at the spot where nothing suddenly appeared and left an empty place where it had been. After that we sanded the holes round instead and the smaller bits just sort of evaporated after a little while. It was harder on our clothes though. We'd think we were clean and had all the dust off us and the next day we'd be wearing rags where all the hole dust had gotten worked into the creases and then evaporated. When there wasn't enough left of our clothes to wear them we'd just use them for rags until they disappeared. We started using a vacuum cleaner after a while and that worked out pretty well. We never had to empty the bag at all. I guess that's why it was called a vacuum cleaner. There's nothing like the right tool for the right job!

After we had everything working just right I put on a good set of clothes and went out selling holes. I learned real quick not to try to explain all about the hole puller, the threader, the saws and such we used. I tried that a couple of times and ended up looking what you might call a little foolish or like what one not too prospective client called, "a gol-danged lunatic!" all the while waving a large bore shotgun and running after my pickup as I drove away in a hurry. But all in all I did all right after I got the pitch right and especially after we finished a couple of jobs real quick and the word got around.

One of the advantages of our system was that because we didn't actually remove any soil when we set a hole, after we dropped in a post and depolarized the hole all the displaced earth shoved back in real tight and the poles were as solid as if they were set in concrete. It may seem like nonsense but it worked real well. It was fast and easy too unless we got into one of those bad jobs where we had to clear a lot of brush and trash before we could get the tractor in.

While I was out doing either sales or installation John was back at the shop turning out post holes and building up a stock for the next job. Having to leave him alone while I wasn't at the shop was to prove to be our undoing.

John liked to tinker with things and he got bored easily as well.

If I'd paid a little more attention we might have gotten rich. In the interest of keeping him healthy I'd gotten a soda machine and put it right next to the machines so he wouldn't be drinking the lubricants and a refrigerator so he wouldn't be tempted to nibble on a hole chip. He did that once and afterwards ate 6 burgers, 10 orders of fries, 5 orders of onion rings, 3 milk shakes each of two flavors and was just getting started good when I ran out of money and had to take him home, open the refrigerator and stand back. Fortunately he finished up before the mold in the back corner of the bottom shelf started to look good. Fortunately, because that was all that was left in there. I guess you could say that he had a hole in his stomach.

Back on the subject of paying attention, If I had been we might have gotten rich. I'll admit that we couldn't have gone on calling ourselves the W.B.T.Y.M. post hole company because sooner or later somebody might have tripped to the notion that it stood for WHAM! BAM! THANK YOU MAM! but that was just a minor problem because we were so fast. The real problem was in John's constant desire to tinker with things. I should have paid attention the first time I noticed the that refrigerator was unplugged. I didn't think much of it until I opened the door and the little light came on. After that I closed the door and stepped back to see if there was another cord I hadn't seen. There wasn't. I still didn't think much about it because I had a lot of contracts and such on my mind and I'd gotten used to things like that around John. But I should have because it was a sign that John was bored and was messing with stuff that already worked just fine. But I missed the signs that were as plain as they could have been and just went on loading THE TRUCK for the next and what turned out to be last job we were to do.

The job went fine and every bit as fast as I'd hoped as I'd gotten adept at going for the jobs that had a lot of straight runs on clear level ground. No Fuss, No Muss, and NO forest to clear to get to the fence line. The trouble was when I got back and found John up on the shop roof singing happily, working on some new machine and extremely drunk! I was real surprised because he never drank when he was alone and even then not much but there he was, drunker than anyone I'd ever known could get, and very happily working on the roof. And when I yelled up at him he gave me a great big silly grin, yelled right back that he'd be right down and stepped off the edge of the barn roof as pretty as you please! I flinched real hard and held my breath and waited for him to hit the ground and waited and waited and finally had to take a breath as he floated gently to earth with that silly grin of his all over his face. I had a premonition that this wasn't to be the last surprise of the day and I was right too.

He'd gotten bored with post holes and been modifying things and inventing new things and messing with things that already worked just fine. Starting with the soda machine. It still wasn't plugged in.

It was working however. It had that sort of hum that said that John had been playing with it. I thought about that while I was getting a soft drink out of it. I thought about it a lot more as I took a sip of the first 150 proof Coca Cola I'd ever had straight out of an unopened can. After thinking about it later I figured out that whatever he'd done to the coke machine changed the soft drinks along with it. The Cokes were 150 proof but the real jewels of the collection were the creme sodas. As smooth and rich as fine liqueur and as potent as snake venom and that information solved the question of how John got so drunk. That much at least was an accident. One of the unpredictable side effects of John's tinkering. Like the torsion effect of the holes had been. The saddest side effect of all though was what he had done to the Marvelous Post Hole Machine. He'd gotten bored with always making right-handed threads on the holes so he'd thrown the threader into reverse and threaded everything we had in stock LEFT-handed. After he was a little more sober I explained gently that I couldn't use left-handed holes because I didn't have a reverse on the installation tool. He smiled his trademark silly grin and said, " Oh that's all right. I can fix that!" and I went on home thinking that everything would be fine in the morning except that it wasn't.

I should have locked the soda machine before I left.

John was still sleeping like a baby when I got out to the shop the next morning and there were coke cans sort of scattered around the Marvelous Post Hole Machine. I felt a cold chill run up my spine and a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach and I knew the dream was over.

Sure enough, instead of installing a reverse on the installation machine, he'd re-threaded all the holes right handed over the top of the left hand threads. I just sat there looking at the wreckage because there was nothing else I could do. Running the threader backwards over the previous threads had totally ruined the threading dies. They looked like they'd been bored smooth with a large diameter drill and as they were John's creation along with the rest of the machine I knew in my heart that I'd never find another set that would work on the polarized hole material. If that had been all I would only have sat and cried, but that wasn't all. With the typical thoroughness that John always had he'd tested the re-threaded holes on the installation machine.

As best as I was able to reconstruct from the stuff laying around and the condition it was in I put it back together like this, drawing on my experience to help. When he set the installer to drive and started the hole into the ground several things happened all at once. The torsion created by the left threads fighting the right threads as the installer began to drive downward caused the hole to wind up in both directions at once, combined with the compression of the downward drive the results were inevitable. Forced into the ground by the installer and wound up like an extremely powerful spring, something had to give and that something was the gearbox on the installer.

Over wound and over compressed, that hole had come out of the ground like a Minuteman Missile from an underground silo, stripping every gear in the gearbox and bending the drive bar like a paperclip. The machinery was completely wrecked and like the dies on the threader totally irreplaceable.

We were out of business.

The soda machine was empty as well. I just sat there in silence and finally when it started to get dusk I went on home after making sure that John was still breathing, comfortable and asleep and before I left I covered him up with a soft old blanket that I knew was his favorite. He looked so happy asleep. He was sucking his thumb like a child and sort of smiling around it. I just didn't have the heart to be mad at him. I don't guess anyone ever did.

When I went on out to his place about two days later there wasn't anybody home. Just a note pinned to the door saying he was sorry that he broke the machine and he hoped I wasn't mad. He had a job offer from some shop in Texas that did space research and so he was going down there for a while. As there wasn't much left behind but machinery that wouldn't ever be repairable and bits and pieces of "stuff" that wasn't identifiable as anything I just sat on the porch for a while and watched the birds and listened to the silence. After walking around for a while looking the place over and remembering the summer I went on home, taking with me the last case of creme soda that John had left as a going away "I'm sorry" gift.

I never did see him again but I hope he's happy wherever he is and if you ever accidentally run across anybody that knows him, tell them to tell him I'm not mad at him, never was. It was my fault, I should have been paying more attention.

Anyway, my friends, that's why I never got rich and what happened during the summer of the Marvelous Post Hole Machine. It was fun while it lasted.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How we define and identify ourselves...

How do we define ourselves?

I've been thinking about identity a lot recently. Who we are and how we define ourselves. It's complex and I'm sure that I don't have answers to my own questions but I'll ramble for a while and perhaps quantify my thoughts.

I ride a motorcycle. To be specific: I drive a motorcycle/sidecar combination. Because of this I tend to think of myself as a "Rider" whereas others in the motorcycling community say i'm a "Driver" or "Pilot". This little conundrum sort of points the direction of this essay.

When we are first conceived we are not alone. We are a part of another living entity (mother) and are intimately connected to another consciousness. Emotions are conveyed by chemical changes in the body. Consequently, whatever the mother feels, the baby also feels through those same chemical changes. Once we are born we begin the search for our own identity, bereft of those chemical clues. Nothing we will ever experience thereafter will affect us in the same intimate, direct manner although we will continue to have those clues within ourselves.

The search for belonging is an imperative that most sentient beings feel in some manner, whether it's a mating instinct, a herd instinct or a need for companionship. This is so prevalent in humans that those who do not feel this need are often considered by others as dysfunctional in some manner. Loner, hermit, outsider and other terms are used to describe those who do not have or suppress the pairing or herd instinct.

As a result we tend to create identity "overlays" by casting our identity with others who share similar pastimes, hobbies, characteristics or outward appearances. Sometimes we even further categorize ourselves by choosing a sub-set of an identity group by sub-consciously or consciously re-defining a general group to better place ourselves within a smaller, more well defined group. While this might help internally with our search for identity it often spreads further confusion externally.

Although I consider myself as a "rider", to others I'm a "Biker" and to yet others I might also be a "motorcyclist" or even "Scum". It depends upon the viewpoint of the observer. Even among those who ride there's often a lively discussion concerning identity terms. Some say "Rider" applies to those who ride behind the driver of a motorcycle. Some say it applies to the person driving and the second person is a passenger or they use the slang term "bitch" to denote the difference between rider and passenger. The term "Biker" is often said to apply only to those who favor the outlaw image and live a lifestyle that is intimately interconnected to their motorcycles and club members. This image is often thought to be totally separated from "Riders" who do not ride specific brands or types of motorcycles, are not totally dedicated to a "outlaw" club or organization and do not show allegiance to same by wearing distinctive patches or clothing.

This is where the issue gets cloudy, so to speak. "Bikers" wear leather but so do riders and the oft reviled "Poseurs". Poseurs are those who ride similar bikes, wear leather, decorate their clothing with patches that do not denote belonging to a club and only tend to ride in nice weather or on weekends. Those types are thought to cluster at bars slightly more upscale than do "Bikers", often wear similar leathers sans dirt and scuffs or other visible use and have no affiliations other than proximity to other groups. "Poseurs" or "Posers" are those who mimic the appurtenances and apparel without the more deeply seated commitment to motorcycling that others have. Consequently, posers slip into and out of their assumed identity as easily as changing clothes.

It's all part of our search for identity. That feeling of belonging that was taken from us when we were first pushed from our mother's womb.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote, in his Meditations XVII;

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

These poignant words serve as a reminder that we are surrounded by a global identity, one which surpasses the mundane or petty. It says to us that we are a part of all other human identities and inextricable therefrom. This excerpt has survived through the intervening hundreds of years as one man's reminder and plea that we not forget this single global identity. Today, in the midst of war and global uncertainty. these words address, as they did hundreds of years ago, man's search for belonging.

It's a hope against futility in a time when once again mankind has turned to slaughtering each other as an attempt to homogenize our existence by seeing to it that all the survivors are from a single identity group. It's a rather major stumbling point because, apparently, not everyone agrees which select group this single entity might be.

So, might that be the answer to our search? That we are "everyman" rather than being separate from the "jerk" that lives next door, attends different religious services, wears different clothing, has tattoos and a nose ring or some other disqualifying characteristic? It's certainly one answer but I don't think that most will accept it as "their" answer.

There's a type of mental condition called Anhedonia which is the inability to experience joy from activities or emotions. There is a condition with no medical name but which is called Acedia by Robertson Davies and which is much more pervasive. Both are considered to be core elements of depression and possibly schizophrenia. I mention this because I fit the description of both. A side effect is that behavior changes wherein, although this fits the description of the deadly sin, Sloth, it is not actually sloth. The difference is that Acedia is pervasive and seemingly can't be changed or cured through psycho-therapy or medication. It's permanent. Here's what Richard O'Conner, Phd, has to say about both:


"Anhedonia is the technical term for the inability to experience joy. When people are in the depths of depression, nothing touches them, not the most intensely pleasurable activities, not the most familiar comforts. They are emotionally frozen. In this state, people either have to get professional help or simply wait for weeks or months until the depression lifts by itself; nothing is going to make them feel better.

Less dramatic than anhedonia but a much more pervasive problem is a condition that doesn't even have a clinical name; it's the gradual withdrawal into isolation and indifference that can mark the beginning of depression. Robertson Davies called this condition acedia; it's akin to the deadly sin of sloth. But it's not merely laziness, it's a gradual closing down of the world. As depression makes us lose interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, our range of activities constricts. We stop taking chances, we avoid stimulation, we play it safe, and we begin to cut ourselves off from anything that might shake us up — including loved ones. It's the gradual poison that sinks into marriages and makes people vulnerable to affairs. It's the hardening of the attitudes on the job that makes for petty, passive-aggressive bureaucracies. It's the withdrawal from our own children that leaves them questioning why we bother to live.

I worry that the symptomatic relief of depression provided by medication or brief therapy only helps a person regain a previous level of functioning that was depressed to begin with. Acedia, the absence of feeling, makes for empty lives, and it seems to be on the increase. Putting anger, guilt, and shame in their place is not enough for recovery from depression; we also must take responsibility for learning to feel good. We might prefer to play it safe, to avoid or control all emotions, but we simply can't; it doesn't work; our selves and our relationships deteriorate into brittle, bitter, vulnerable shells. While learning to feel may be temporarily upsetting, in the long haul it adds richness and meaning to our lives."


Although this sounds rather unpleasant it isn't and although those who suffer from these conditions may be aware of them, as am I, it's often become a way of life for those who have them. Often we just don't notice or care. There are no spikes in our lives to point up the highs and lows of daily living. As mentioned in the above quote, we are emotionally frozen. There are minor differences between sufferers, if indeed that's even an applicable word. I'm not bitter or "brittle" and although I have some regrets, as do we all, they do not turn to hatred or dissolve into anger.

Such things just do not rise to importance in my life. From another viewpoint, I tend to be unaffected emotionally by most things and turn to logic and reason rather than emotions for resolving questions and situations. This gives me time to consider identity, among other philosophical issues.

I do not identify myself as a "Rider" or "Biker" or "Poseur". I am me. I wear appropriate gear for riding safety rather than mimicking others for image. I'm a member of several associations which do not require club membership meetings and I'm actually a member of the local chapter of STAR, Star Riding and Touring, but I seldom join their rides unless they intrigue me or boredom threatens to become depression. I'm immune, for a specific definition of that word. I laugh and smile and am friendly but after the immediate response is no longer needed I turn it off just as I turn it on, like a light switch. For those with "normal" lives and responses this is almost unfathomable. How can it be? I no longer worry about it. It just is.

For me, the search for identity has resolved itself, after its own fashion, and allowed me the indulgence of curiosity regarding it. I tend to see more and realize more about others than do most. Highs and lows of emotions like anger, love and anxiety are all the same. They closely parallel a flat line. Curiosity remains active however.

I seek to understand others' need for identity past being the unique self that they have created and the desire to pair or align that self with an outside entity. My lack of attitude is often interpolated as being aloof. I am not. I am accessible but not predictably so even through long association.

I ride a motorcycle but it's something I do rather than something I am. I have no identity as a "Rider, "Biker" or "Poseur". I'm always me. I'll never be "everyman" because my condition mostly precludes that. I'm accustomed to that. By default I know no of other way to be.

There are many things I've done over the past half century and longer and many activities I've participated in that involved group participation but I remained myself when it came time to profess identity. This remains workable for me although I'm sure that the prospect of such an existence would horrify others.

How about you? How do you define yourself?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Memories and habits...

Memories are a kind of personal history. As we grow older, we watch the flow of events in our lives and events outside of our personal experience and form impressions based on what we see, hear of and experience.

Sometimes, after a a particular memory has been held long enough, it becomes a habit just as do physical actions that we've become accustomed to. We tell the same stories repeatedly, smoke another cigarette, have another drink or sometimes, drive familiar routes without being able to recount any specific detail of the trip. We form habits.

I, personally, have a habit that I can’t seem to break. That statement isn't really quite true. If I were to say that I have a habit that I don’t wish to break it would be more correct.

I talk to random people I meet. Sometimes when this happens, I come away with a smile and other times I find that the person I spoke to has far more to say than I really wanted to hear and at those times I'll often listen patiently while they tell me a story of their life.

There have been times when the person I'm speaking with will do odd things to illustrate their story as did the older lady I met recently who spent quite some time, there in the grocery store, telling me about the advantages of natural remedies and how the doctors had made her sick. She apparently told the doctors to take a hike and cured herself with herbal teas.

To illustrate the efficacy of the herbals, she related that she’d had a lot of trouble with her knees (not uncommon among those of us who’ve worn out our knees quite before we’ve worn out our welcome in life) and then put down her purse and demonstrated to me (a total stranger) how she could now stand on one leg like a flamingo (her description). In fact, she did this demonstration several times while I stood there watching and listening to her recent medical history.

This conversation took almost an hour there in the store next to the meat displays but it was amusing and friendly and I patiently listened to her as she went on to tell me about her family and her children and their children and the doctors that had made her sick. It was actually a rather remarkable experience. Considering that I’d gone in the grocery store to buy 3 cans of mixed veggies and 2 packages of hot dogs for dinner I managed to get out of the store in just under an hour and a half, but I enjoyed it.

She was amusing to listen to and her adventures with the doctors were right along the lines of many people’s stories in that she’d gone to the doctor to get cured and claimed that she’d have been better off staying at home and saving the money. I also learned that it might be a good idea to read up on herbal teas because if what she said is true then the right herbal tea can cure everything from bad knees to fleas.

I make astounding discoveries talking to people sometimes. I had made just such a discovery earlier that same week when I was leaving the dentist’s office and stopped to look out the glass wall onto the scene outside. The dentist’s office is in an office tower in Dallas, Texas and is on the fifth floor so the glass wall in the hallway outside the office commands a view of quite an area including the drive, the street and the surrounding environs.

It is also just about even with the top of the flagpole just outside the front of the building. What caught my eye as I walked past was the flag flying at half staff and that got my curiosity working as to why this was so. Rosa Parks (noted civil rights icon) was lying in state in the capitol rotunda in Washington but I was unaware of that at that moment.

I sat down and was watching the flag wave gently in the breeze and wondering why it was at half staff when someone came down the hall and I let my habit get the better of me. I turned to the gentleman and innocently asked if the man might know why the flag was at half staff and what important personage might have died and thereby, I embarked on a new adventure in learning about history.

I'm caucasian and the man I addressed was black. He had an engaging smile and an easy manner and stopped to look out the window with me for a bit. As we spoke about the flag he suggested that it might be for Rosa Parks, who had recently passed away, and I agreed that if it wasn’t then it was certainly appropriate, if so, as she was one of the major icons of our times and had created a turning point in history that day in the heat of an Atlanta, Georgia summer on a city bus.

That led us to a discussion of the civil rights movement and the changes in our lives and I commented that he might be the same age that I was and so was all too familiar with the changes. He turned to me and with a smile said, “I’m going to surprise you.”

I was quite willing to be surprised by then and he looked at me and said, “I’m 75. I was born on November fifth of 1930.” He looked as though life had been a great deal kinder to him than it has been to me though and I was delighted to be in the presence of a man who’d seen a lot of the major events of history and still had his smile and his graceful personality.

This man had seen or participated in WW2, had seen the Korean War, the Viet Nam conflict, the UN actions in Bosnia, the Persian Gulf War, the overturn of the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, and many other actions of the US overseas. He’d lived through the “Cold” war, raised children under the laws of segregation and like myself, remembered all too well the “separate but equal” policies of the states that were anything but equal although the "separate" was pretty heavily evidenced.

He’d been around to see the dropping of the atomic bomb, men land on the moon and remembered the advent of the polio vaccine. More importantly to me at that moment, he’d been active in the civil rights movement, but he was active long before the 70’s. He’d started his involvement in the early 50’s.

Whereas many people watched history he’d been making it happen years before I was entered elementary school.

We spoke for some time there by the window, talking about Rosa Parks and desegregation and the civil rights movement. It seemed all too short of a time for me. I was hungry to hear history as seen through the eyes of a man who’d been there and would have willingly sat there by the window for hours listening to his soft voice explain how things had been and how things had changed even though I had, in my time, also contributed to those changes.

Martin Luther King had a dream, but contrary to many people’s understanding, his dream included all men and women. M. L. King's dream for "all" people was for mankind to walk hand in hand through history, helping and loving each other in equality. To Martin Luther King, all people should be one people.

The stories about him are legion and includes one wherein he was scheduled to speak to a church gathering at a small church in Alabama.

The people he was to address had gathered to hear him and the small church where he was to speak was open. It was a beautiful but hot day. The time came and went for Reverend King to speak but he wasn’t there. Time passed and people became anxious lest something might have happened to him, for the times were perilous and Alabama wasn’t known for its open hands attitude towards people of color.

Phone calls were made to his hotel and people there said that he’d left and should have arrived already. People became worried. Finally someone was dispatched to look for him in case his car had broken down on the way to his speaking engagement. Somebody else was sent to gather up the children who were playing behind the church under the shade of the trees back there.

The Reverend Martin Luther King was behind the church playing with the children on the small amount of playground equipment there, pushing the children on the swings and riding the merry go round with the kids. The man who made history made time to play with the children. He loved children and although his fiery rhetoric inspired people to take action to change their own world into something that they had no experience with, his courage to face an unknown future and take people with him to see it happen became legend. Notwithstanding his activity and speaking schedule, he still found time in his life to play and enjoy the children for to him they were the future and deserved the love he had for all men.

The man I was speaking with was a preacher himself and had known Martin Luther King personally. They shared a dream together. As we spoke he told me of his belief in God and without any preaching, anger or attitude in his voice he quietly deplored that so many now believed that Reverend King had not intended that equality meant that one race should be privileged or favored over another. Reverend King hadn’t meant that the blacks were to become “more” equal because there is no “more” in equal.

Equal is what it sounds like just as in mathematics. The same rights for all embodied the dream that King cherished and worked for. Rosa Parks became a symbol either by accident or design as many stories are told of the incident aboard a bus that hot afternoon in Atlanta and perhaps the truth is a mixture of all of those stories rather than one or another. Whatever is true, she deserved her place in the history books and the US capitol rotunda.

The gentleman’s words just before we parted were a passage from the scriptures wherein man is reminded that “As ye sow so shall ye reap.” This was his only remark on how King's Dream was being misinterpreted since his death.

Perhaps my "habit" is not always welcomed but often I manage a smile or two with my usual opener of “Are we having fun yet?” In this case, I met a man who took a few minutes of his day to talk to a stranger and filled me with joy at having had the experience. I felt lifted that perhaps mankind had some good left to share with itself after all. After he left I also went on my way but the rest of my day was pleasant because my habit had entitled me to have this wonderful interlude.

I smoke tobacco and that’s a habit that maybe I should break. I used to drink when I was younger and that never quite became a habit but could have. I was an angry man for much of my life and anger can become a habit too although I didn’t let it. Talking to people is a habit I think I’ll keep. It’s worth it in the history of my life to add the experiences of others to my own and that’s a good habit too.

Smile at strangers and if you get a chance, talk to some of them and learn some history of your own at first hand. History learned this way is so much richer than history learned from books and we all need a little enrichment.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

One perfect Christmas...

Everybody has a "Perfect Christmas" somewhere in their memories. That would be the Christmas that they woke up and peeked in at the Christmas tree and were delighted and amazed at the abundance left by Santa and his elves or whomever. The Christmas tree lights would be sparkling and everything that they hoped for would have come true just like magic.

Or maybe it would be the Christmas that had all their favorite family and friends show up sometime during the day and the food and fun lasted for what seemed like forever and by the miracle of later memory was.

That's the Christmas that all other Christmas's would be measured by for the rest of their life. That is the image that's irrevocably burned into their mind as what Christmas should be. Unfortunately, Christmas isn't always the perfect Christmas. Time, money, travel, the deaths of loved ones and other reasons all conspire to make every Christmas thereafter slightly less than perfect.

Even the process of aging and the changing of positions between childhood and parenting or adulthood change the Christmas experience so that the "Perfect Christmas" only comes once in a lifetime. Still, that one experience is now our benchmark for the rest of our lives.

We all have lots of benchmarks in our lives that seem significant on the face of them. The perfect evening, the perfect date, the perfect meal and lots of other things. All of those things that only happened once. Some of the benchmarks are less significant but still important enough to be locked into memory.

An example of one of these memories might be the answer to a question I ask others from time to time, that question being: . "What does your mailbox look like?" It's not the mailbox you use today. It's not the mailbox on the front of your house. It's the mailbox that you remember above all others for some reason or another. It might be the one in front of your grandparents home or the one that brought you the job offer or college acceptance that you'd wanted so badly that you chewed your nails down to the quick and agonized over until it finally came.

In my case, that mailbox just happens to be the one that was placed at the corner of the "T" intersection and the end of our street when I was a child. It was a drop box like the ones in use now except that it didn't have the snoot to allow car drops. It was red, a faded dusty red color overall. Next to it stood a similar box except that it had no drop slot. Instead it had a locked door and it was painted Olive Drab. That was for the postal delivery. Mail to be delivered was placed there for the route postman to pick up and deliver to the individual houses.

These boxes stand forever, side by side, in my memory, in a dried, yellow patch of dead and dying weeds at that corner of two asphalt roads, forever baking in the heat of a Texas summer. I was maybe 6 years old then. Why I should remember that I have no idea. It's just another benchmark in my life.

Events form benchmarks for us all. Marriages, deaths, jobs, dates, and special holidays all make their mark on us.

I remember in vivid detail the day I met Emmett Kelley, Hobo Clown: Extraordinaire. I was maybe 8 years old and my parents scraped together the money to buy or were given some tickets to see the Cole-Barnes Circus under the big top. It was another hot , bright, dry and dusty summer day in Texas and my parents had dressed my older brother and I in matching suits and used a product on our hair that glued it into rock solid helmets. We had tickets that put us next to the ring and right on the rail.

On the way in, my parents had bought a bag of peanuts for us to share inside the tent after we were seated and during the show. Sharing was a difficult concept for my older brother. He was a selfish brat about carrying the bag and had no intention of sharing the peanuts with his younger brother. The elephants took care of the peanut problem for me. The first, best ally I was ever to have was to be an elephant. The big, gray kind with floppy ears. The way into the tent went right past the elephants because during that era the circus was to delight the crowds and the kids and their parents were allowed to pet the elephants and see the lions and tigers on the way into the tent as a tease to the main performance.

We'd stopped to see the elephants and give them a peanut or two, which was allowed and encouraged back then. Handlers were in attendance and the animals were well behaved so there was considered to be no danger.

I asked for a peanut to give to the elephant and my brother (after refusing my request and under command from the parental units) gave me 1 (one) peanut very grudgingly for met to present to the huge gray beast before me. I held out my solitary peanut and the elephant reached out a long, hairy, muscular nose and took it gently from my hand, leaving a coating of elephant snot in its place (which mom dutifully wiped up using her handkerchief). At the urging or perhaps command of my parents, my brother was encouraged to also feed the elephant and after due process involving denial and defiance he extracted 1 (one) peanut from the bag and (not to be outdone by his hated brother) held it defiantly towards the elephant.

Again, the elephant extended its trunk but instead of taking the peanut it made a slight redirect and like a huge hairy snake snatched the entire bag out from under his arm with one quick motion! Accompanied by howls of fright and indignation from my brother, the elephant stuffed the entire bag in its mouth! My brother was terrified and I was amused. This effectively solved the problem of the peanuts. I've liked elephants ever since that day.

Proceeding into the tent sans peanuts, we found our seats and waited for the show to start. I really don't remember much about the first part of the show but I do remember the intermission extremely well. There were times in the old circus that the lights went entirely down to black while the scenery was changed and during one of those intervals the lights went to black and the darkness was interrupted by a single voice yelling "Hey!" from somewhere out in the darkness near the center ring.

A single spotlight came on and highlighted a raggedy looking character near the center ring. Some conversation ensued between the "Voice of God", as the announcer on the public address system is often referred to in theater, and the raggedy person wherein the raggedy looking person agreed to start sweeping up the arena along with the shadowy figures busily moving props and cleaning up after the elephants and liberty horses. From time to time he'd move to ringside and talk to the people and be admonished by the "Voice of God" to keep working.

He worked his way slowly around the ring until the next acts were ready to start at which point he swept up the single spot of light from the spotlight into a smaller and smaller circle and taking a dustpan from his voluminous pocket he diligently swept the last little circle of light into the dustman and dumped the remaining glow in his coat pocket. With this action the lights went to black and after a second or two came back up full to reveal all the glitter, noise and spangles of the Circus!

I watched the raggedy man as he circulated around the ring during the performances and wondered who he was really. He didn't look like a clown. He looked like a tramp that just wandered in or at least he looked like the archetypal tramp that my young, inexperienced mind conjured up. At long last he wandered around to our seats on the front row and stopped and turned to look at us.

Producing an enormous comb from his inside coat pocket he proceeded to try to comb my rock hard hair. After a second or two he commented "Hmmmm... I guess that your hair isn't going to comb is it?" To which, in fascination, I replied "um... no." Then he tried to comb my brother's hair! My brother screamed, cried and tried to crawl under the seats! The raggedy man was sooooooo apologetic. He explained to my parents that he'd never meant to scare the child and was very upset that his little prank had gone so horribly wrong. My parents assured him that it was okay and after one more sorry and a small wave, which I returned, the marvelous Emmett Kelly, "King of the hobo clowns", wandered off to resume his act with the circus.

It was many years before I realized who he was and I cherish the memory of the day I met him. I also take evil delight that, to this day, my brother hates circuses and thinks clowns are scary! Emmett is long gone now and when I went to the circus recently it wasn't the perfect event I remembered but it was fun because I wanted it to be even though there was no Emmett Kelly to comb my hair.

It's odd and sometimes funny how we make our benchmarks in life. Some will always live within us and be as vivid as they were when they were made and other memories that we thought we'd always have are gone, but we all have benchmarks.

What does your mailbox look like?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Up on three wheels...

I've been interested in motorcycles, riding and the vagaries of the social dynamic surrounding them for many years but I won't add the usual sobriquet of "so it's only natural that I own one". Almost everything about motorcycles is nominally unnatural!

For the price of a motorcycle you could purchase a car instead. Most people do. In many cases the automobile is actually cheaper and offers far more amenities than does a bike. Automobiles may have things like air conditioning, heating, power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmissions as options and almost all of them offer better protection from the elements of nature and other traffic.

No special protective gear is required for operation of an auto although in some cases we often tend towards the opinion that a strait jacket for some drivers might be a service to humanity.

A point that has always astounded me, personally, is that the automobile is quite probably the single most complicated machine that most people will ever operate yet with no introduction to the operating controls, many people will seat themselves in a totally unfamiliar auto and after locating the ignition lock, insert the ignition key, start the vehicle and drive off! They may not be able to access the correct gear shift pattern, turn on the windscreen wipers, the AC and heater or the turn indicators but after starting the car many try to learn the operation of the radio first or foremost.

I have always been of the opinion that operating a vehicle while in motion was a skill that should be attended to before any of the minor functions were to be concerned with but if the word "normal" is defined as being the majority opinion then I'm definitely not normal. I searched for a word to describe my opinion and after rejecting anachronistic, minority, aberrant and odd I settled on "skewed".

A quick glance around at any intersection signal will reveal people doing virtually any human behavior that you can imagine save those which require special aids and equipment or more space than is generally available in a passenger auto although I've seen some pretty creative exceptions to the second alternative.

Without resorting to imagination or second hand vignettes I can truthfully say that amongst the things which I, personally, have witnessed on the highway was a fashion model on her way to the Dallas,Texas Apparel Mart for a fashion show, driving with a magazine open on her steering wheel, applying her make up using the sun visor vanity mirror and drinking a beverage while driving with her knees (both hands were otherwise visibly occupied). All this being done simultaneously while traveling 55 miles per hour on the Dallas Toll Road in a complex piece of machinery weighing in the neighborhood of 1.75 tons!

This display probably deserves an award for vehicular activity multi-tasking.

Lest this essay turn into a quasi-rant on automobile drivers I'll turn back to motorcycles. As previously mentioned and in the face of evidence cited the motorcycle is almost unique in its lack of driver amenities, it has almost none to speak of unless the rider has added a softer seat. About the only thing that comes to mind concerning lack of driver amenities that might be comparable is a horse. The horse is ahead on points. When was the last time you heard of a person killed in a collision between horses?

The ventilation on a motorcycle is best described as "Evil thoughts blown clean away". Air conditioning is provided by Mother Nature whom also provides small inconveniences like torrential rain and snow or ice in season. Heating is ambient outdoor temperature. The result is that the air conditioning works best in winter and the heating works best in summer. There are no windscreen wipers simply by virtue of there often being no windscreen.

There are an interesting array of instruments and controls which require the use of both hands and both feet to operate while the rider's attention is occupied with road surface, throttle control, his or her "line" and constant awareness of other traffic as opposed to the standard method of automobile operation which often requires only one hand and one foot with attention to the road bearing some degree of optional activity.

As a standard, the controls are usually placed as follows:
The right hand controls the front brake and throttle, starter button if electric start is featured, and the "kill" switch.

The left hand has the turn indicator switch, horn (yes, motorcycles have them but when needed the rider is often more concerned with evasive maneuvering), choke, clutch (bikes are almost always standard transmission), high and low beam headlight switch and other accessories that may have been installed as in my case, the electric camber compensator for the sidecar and the driving lights.

There is no headlight off switch on modern motorcycles used in the United States, however this is of little concern as motorcycles are invisible to many drivers and having the headlight on constantly does not necessarily affect their visual acuity.

The right foot controls the rear brake or brakes (in my case).

The left foot controls the gear shift with, most often, five speeds and sometimes six. There is no reverse except on some specially fitted bikes with sidecars and trikes.

Along with this array are the dash instruments which the rider most often ignores, speedometer and frequently tachometer with a few blinky lights for color.

Unlike an auto, all of the above listed things require the attention of the rider who, additionally, is occupied with traffic conditions, weather, road surface conditions and prayer (which is often scanted in favor of the more terse but equally meaningful "Oh Shit!"). The rider shifts gears by listening to his bike's engine rather than using the tachometer and speed is most often determined by whether or not the rider feels lucky.

Common questions directed to riders are usually some variation of "Why do you ride?" followed closely by "Isn't it dangerous?". The most often used answers are "I like it" and "Yes" sometimes followed by various degrees of self justification from the responder. Like many other groups riders often have only a few things in common, primarily; they ride motorcycles. There are motorcycling sports, including racing, that include riders from ages as young as 5 to seniors over 70. Asking why they ride is rather like asking "Breathing, is it good?".

I've always been of the opinion that I do it because I like it. Riding isn't really a lifestyle for most save the 1% group as in "1% of the bikers make the other 99% look bad". Most are friendly, reasonably courteous, often helpful and concerned with ordinary things like family, jobs and daily life. Their lifestyle is normal other than they share a passion for motorcycles. `Riders share a concern for other riders same as other people share concerns with friends, family and groups.

This passion can last a lifetime or it can be quickly disabused. The average length of ownership of a first bike is somewhere around 6 months. In the first six months the rider will have fallen one or more times, given up riding because of family or relationships, wrecked the bike (as opposed to falling)
or otherwise terrified themselves.

Is it safe? No. Is it addictive? Less than cigarette smoking. Can it kill you or maim you for life? Oh, absolutely! Why do we do it? We want to.

I've never resorted to the "If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand" type of answer. I have my own fears to conquer as does everyone. Amongst them, the ground should not move, there should be breathable air around me and there should be explanations that can be supported by fact. As a result I don't scuba drive, live in California or seek out paranormal experiences. Riding is by comparison, quite tame although not without its moments of excitement.

My version of good sense does not encourage me to climb mountains, jump out of perfectly good, still flying airplanes or swim the length of the Amazon river. I'm a wuss. But I do ride which is probably quite as dangerous in a different fashion.

My first bike was a new experience for me. I sold my conservative VW Kombi Camper bus and used the cash to buy a Kawasaki S2 350cc "rice rocket" that weighed 350 pounds, had 45 horsepower and was capable of approximately 100 mph. I'd never been on a motorcycle, had little idea of what to expect and had no training past the usual "this is the throttle, this is the front brake, this is the turn signal switch" and a very brief lesson in how to start it with the kick start. I stalled it 5 times in the first 6 blocks. After the 5th time I decided I'd learn to ride or admit that I'd been terribly stupid. I was in my early 20's and nobody in their "fresh out into the big world" years is going to admit to being stupid.

I treated the throttle more aggressively, got the bike up onto the outer loop around Denver, Colorado and rode it home at over 80 miles an hour. A distance of about 40 miles. This February and 40 years later, I plunked down $9500 on a Yamaha V-Star 1100 custom with Hannigan Motorsports "Classic" sidecar and with all of 25 miles of first ride around Murray, Kentucky I rode it home to Texas, 652.5 miles in 14 hours. I hadn't been on a bike in 18 years and never on a sidecar rig. Some things don't change much in the way we approach events in our lives. If it worked once It might work the next time. It's all a matter of degree.

My excuse to myself for buying a sidecar rig was that I have really bad knees and didn't want to have to hold up the bike but the real reason was simply that I wanted it and could finally afford to buy it. Stupid? Maybe. satisfying? Definitely!

We all should have something in our lives that we've waited and wished for and finally was able to acquire; whether we bought it, built it, found it or acquired it in some other (hopefully legal) fashion. We form archetypes in our minds of what it is that we desire and throughout our lives we look for that certain something, tangible or intangible. Some very lucky and self motivated people actively seek out their desires, some focus on other desires eventually and some, sad to say, just give up and take whatever happens to them or do without. Everyone should have a real dream of some sort to search for even if they never achieve it.

For Edmund Hillary it was Everest, for Scott it was the south pole and for Joe Normal it might be the meticulously restored 1957 Chevrolet that he profiles in on Sunday afternoons. What it is doesn't matter really. What matters is that the dream exists. Mine was a sidecar rig, yours might be a good relationship, a perfect Christmas or a new home but quantity isn't what dreaming is all about. Most importantly it gives us goals and hope.

Quoting Joseph Campbell:
When you follow your bliss... doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anyone else.

It's a good philosophy to accept. Follow your bliss and by doing so take control of your life and your dream. It's seldom impossible to realize your wish. It's really all about the rider as much as the ride, even on 3 wheels.

Who really remembers?

Lately I've been thinking about my mom. Jane Stevens Eckstein is currently spending her days in a nursing home surrounded by people who've been warehoused for various reasons. The residents are elderly (for the most part), ofttimes senile, require constant medical supervision, and frequently have no family left to visit or care for them.

When she was able (before the stroke that placed her in the nursing home) Mom was more active than many people half her age. She did volunteer work in the community, pursued photography, traveled the US and Canada with my dad in their travel trailer and wrote for the local neighborhood newspaper and sale sheet.

All throughout her life she was awarded certificates of appreciation and awards for her service. I've found in her home Items dating back to World War 2 that were awarded or mentioned her as a valuable asset to the organization for which she was working at the time. She did a news letter for the Civil Air Patrol based at the now defunct Garland, Texas Airport and won awards for her writing. She spent many years of her life working for Arthur, Anderson and Co. LLP doing their printing and designing their accounting reports and annual reports and is mentioned in several of their annual reports with high praise.

She spent many more years actively involved in Scouting and designed project books and Leadership training materials (as a volunteer) and led many leadership training seminars. She was honored with an award especially created for her service and was the influence that caused the local Circle 10 council of the BSA to finally present their highest award to women as well as men. This was an award called the Silver Buffalo that previously had been presented to male scouters only. The award created for her was called the Silver Fawn and only four were ever made. After that the Fawn was replaced with the Silver Buffalo for both men and women. Mom was the only one who did not exchange her Silver Fawn for a Silver Buffalo when it was offered.

She was the first female recipient of The Judge Dee Brown Walker Award for outstanding work with scouting in the Dallas area. This award was created by Judge Dee Brown Walker and very few were awarded yearly so it was a startling departure from tradition for her to receive it.

She was active in the Kiwanis International and has several engraved plaques of special recognition for her service. In addition to this she served in the Southeast Dallas Chamber of Commerce and has more special recognition awards from them for her service.

There are several three ring binders here at the house full of certificates for her service.

In 1999 she was nominated for and received the Eckard's (later absorbed by the CVS chain) One of One Hundred award for outstanding volunteer service in her community. This national award was presented annually to one hundred women from all over America for their work in the community. From over 2000 women nationwide she was selected One of One Hundred and flown to Atlanta for three days and nights of being treated as the very special person she is. She was in her late seventies at the time.

She spent countless hours working with the American Red Cross teaching first aid classes and working with the Emergency Services at fires, tornadoes and other disasters.

The preceding list of honors is incomplete but gives an oversight to a extremely active and involved woman who did much for her community.

When my father died many years ago, he'd also received several honors of his own including the Silver Buffalo and the Dee Brown Walker award (presented "after" my mother had already been honored). There were maybe 25 people at his funeral of the hundreds in whose lives he'd made a difference by working in Scouting or the American Red Cross. He was all but forgotten. I had the displeasure of fending off greedy relatives who all wanted a cut of his possessions after the funeral.

Mom tirelessly continued her work after his death.

She's now over ninety and in a nursing home, away from her life, activities and her possessions. She's in a wheelchair and spends her days being bored by the television, enduring the indifferent attentions of the nursing home staff and wishing to be elsewhere.

My recurrent thought is "Who really remembers?"

When people grow older and are no longer active why do their life's accomplishments mean so little anymore? Living history in many of these people is uselessly thrown away or forgotten the moment they step from the public eye.

It's true that my mother didn't change the course of history in any major way but she made a difference in many lives. She touched thousands in many different ways whether as a Emergency Worker for the American Red Cross or the Boy Scouts of America or as someone in the community that just cared. A small craft book that she published for Scouting (and copyrighted) has been translated into 8 languages and seen thousands of copies made all over the world. Her copyright was shamelessly ignored in other countries and she never saw a penny of royalties but she shrugged it off as a gift to the children of the world. Sadly enough her name was removed from foreign copies even though the book traveled with Scouters around the world.

There are thousands of little people like my mother who dedicate their lives to good works and die forgotten although their work may turn up in bits and pieces around the world.

In this journal I'll tell some of my stories and some of my thoughts and maybe the electronic media that is the Internet will carry the memory of these people around the world and in this manner my mother, my friends, and I might live on forever. But today the Internet is under attack from sources ranging from commercial interests to governmental agancies so this journal may survive or it may not. Immortality is transient and ephemeral it seems.

If along the way, you find something that you like whether it's a story for children or just a random musing of mine that you like then borrow it. Just say "TomCat told this."

But then too, Who really remembers?