Category Archives: Short Stories

Short stories of my childhood and just my thoughts on life.

Return to Austria – Chapter 1

“Put that down.”
“Not another move, or I’ll shoot.”
“You’re only a boy. You don’t really belong to them.”
“Stay where you are.”
“Come away with us. Before it’s too late.”
“Not another step. I’ll kill you.”
“You give that to me, Rolf. -Did you hear me?”
“I’ll kill you.”

I moved closer to grab the gun. Bang! The Luger fired right as I was grabbing the barrel. The hot molten lead pierced my chest. It was as if someone had drained all of the energy out of me as I fell to my knees. “Georg! Maria screamed.” She came running from behind the fenced in crypt area.
“I didn’t mean to…..the gun just went off!” Rolf insisted.
Everything was getting darker and darker as I felt the blood running down my chest onto the cemetery floor. How could it end this way. We were so close to escaping the horrors that were descending upon Austria.

“Georg, I’m going into town. Do you need anything?” Maria said as she woke me from my afternoon slumber on the front porch of our Vermont home.  “No, I don’t believe so, thanks” I replied. As Maria left, I slowly came back to the present. This wasn’t the first time that I had this dream. I always woke up right after the feeling of life was leaving my body. I was getting tired of this dream and now it seemed as though I was having this dream more often. It had been so many years since we left Austria, our home, our country and our way of life that we had known for so many years. We left Austria due to the anschluss of the two countries and the Nazi occupation of Austria. We had never returned. Don’t ask me why. I had never even applied to become a citizen of our new home, the United States; my heart was still in Austria. Each year that passed, the more I longed to return to Austria, if nothing else to see what had become of my beloved homeland since the war was long over. What happened to our home? How about the convent that my wife left? Did either of them survive that awful war? So many questions and very few answers.  It’s the answers that eluded me. I had plenty of questions. Time wasn’t on my side as I found it harder and harder to get around due to the arthritis that had taken it’s toll on my body. I felt as though time was ticking away and my desire to return was becoming more of a recurring thought, just like this bad dream.

My phone rang, waking me from my daydreaming of Austria. “Hi father.” Brigitta said on the other end of the phone. “We  were wondering if you and mother would be interested in coming over to our place Saturday night.” “I imagine we could. Is there a particular reason that you wanted us to come over?” I asked. “No, not really, John and I have both been discussing something and we wanted to run it by you and mother.” “You aren’t thinking of moving to that retirement community in Florida that we visited with you last year are you?” I said thinking that was the reason for the invitation. “No, not at all. we just want your opinion on something that we were going to do and wanted to see if you and mother would be interested as well.” “Oh well, ok, I will ask your mother when she returns. Love you.” I replied with relief. They had been talking about moving to Florida since both of them had retired earlier that year. They wanted to leave the cold winters of Vermont behind now that their kids were on their own. I couldn’t believe that my children had grandchildren. Where had time gone? I felt very blessed, though we had lost our beloved Liesl 3 years prior. That was a very hard time for both Maria and me. I’m not sure that I would have recovered if it had not been the love and support of our other children. Maria and I were very fortunate to have such a close family. For many years we all toured the United States as the Trapp Family Singers until the children wanted to pursue their own futures and not live in the shadows of another life that we once enjoyed. Our family lodge in Stowe was still going, although we had left the daily running of this to Kurt who was much younger than Maria and me. He was more than glad to answer the myriad of questions about the family.

Suddenly, I heard the top of the mailbox slam as the postman delivered his daily stack of junk mail with a few interspersed pieces of fan mail from those that had stayed at our lodge. I got up from the chair on the porch and walked around to where the mailbox was. With the advent of email, I wondered why people still bothered with mailing letters. It was probably due to the same reason that I went to the mailbox each day; a thing of habit. As I leafed through the mail, I tossed the junk mail in the waste basket inside the doorway that was placed conveniently there for such things. In the middle of the stack of mail, there was an actual piece of mail that looked like a letter. The handwriting on it had a sort of strange writing on it. Some of the letters looked like the writing of friends that we still corresponded with in Austria. My heart lept as I enjoyed anything from our homeland. I quickly turned the envelope over and tore it open. I unfolded the letter and the first sentence hit me like a hot poker. I couldn’t read the next sentence or the next word. I fell over into the chair next to the doorway. It was as if my dream had suddenly just forced it’s way out of the recesses of my mind and grabbed me by the throat. How could this be? How could I have this dream only a little while ago and now my assailant was here again, but instead of a Luger, he had wielded a pen. My heart was racing instead of bleeding, but the mental pain was just as real as my dream. I opened the letter again, now that I was sitting down and began to read where my life had almost ended over 50 years ago.

“I never meant to pull the trigger. You have to believe me. I’m sorry Captain Von Trapp. If you will only let me explain why I am writing and why I never contacted you since that night you left Austria………”

NEXT-NEVER AGAIN

 

Long ago in a neighborhood far away

Long ago in a neighborhood far away, I was just a young lad with a burning desire to enter the world of commerce. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to build something that people could enjoy, but at the same time earn a few dollars. The youngest age I remember thinking this was when I was probably 10. I wanted to open up my own dog and cat hospital. I had a cat named Purry. Somehow, Purry had been shot by a BB gun and his front leg still had the BB in it and was bleeding. In the garage we had this white porcelain cabinet that looked to me like something that belonged in a doctors office. I took my cat and using my own belts I stretched him out with all 4 legs tethered to each corner of the top. The poor cat looked like he was doing the splits. I remember shaving the area of his leg that had the wound, using tweezers to remove the BB, then putting anti-bacterial ointment on the wound and bandaging it up.

That was enough to convince me to open my own veterinary practice. I put a sign on the front of the garage that said “Cat and dog hospital”. Fortunately, nobody saw the sign as not a single dog or cat was given into my care and my parents were not sued for malpractice.

My second attempt at commerce was opening a bicycle repair shop. I put out my shingle and actually had a customer the first day. The training wheels on my neighbor’s bicycle were coming off. My task was to make sure that they stayed on the bike. I promised to have the bike repaired by the end of the day. I went to my dad’s tool box and found 3 tools, a screwdriver, an old pair of pliers and a hammer. There wasn’t a single wrench in the whole box. What was I going to do? I took the pliers and tried to tighten the bolt that held the training wheels on, but all that did was to round off the corners of the bolt.

A screwdriver wasn’t going to help and a hammer was out of the question. With my head hung low, I had to return the bike with the realization that to start a bicycle repair shop, you needed actual tools. Wilbur and Orville Wright would not have been pleased as they graduated from a bicycle shop to inventing the first engine powered plane. I removed my sign and now had 2 failed businesses before reaching the age of 11.

My next business venture involved a go-kart that my dad had built from an old self propelled lawn mower and a pedal car. He chopped the pedal car in half and chopped the handle of the lawn mower. Somehow, with only a pair of pliers a screwdriver and a hammer, he was able to take some wire and fasten them together. He attached a wire to the throttle of the gas engine and you pulled it with one hand while steering it with the other. The neighborhood kids saw me riding up and down the road, onto the dirt path, circling around and heading back down the road. Of course their first question was, “Hey, can I ride it?” I said “Sure”. After a few kids were taking their turns riding my go-kart, I was starting to get annoyed so I came up with the idea to sell tickets. I charged 25 cents per ride. Kids were going home to empty their piggy banks. After a couple of hours, I guess one of the parents called and complained to my parents that I was charging the neighborhood kids to ride my go-kart.

My dad came out and told me to stop charging the neighbor’s kids and to let them ride for free. Busted again! With everyone riding my go-kart, I wasn’t getting much time riding it. The next day, before anyone woke up, I figure out where the governor was located on the go-kart and found that if I played with it, I get get about 25% more speed. This worked great for a couple of days until the poor engine, revving past what it was supposed to, blew up and refused to run.

As a kid living in the country, getting around by bike was the only way to travel. Every kid had a bicycle and since my bike repair shop was a bust, I decided to make a bike track. My yard was pretty big for our neighborhood. We had a ditch that went from the front of the yard to the back. In the middle, during the summer, it was more of a recess than a ditch. I figure out that if I created a bike track around the next door field, through our yard, then down and up the ditch it would make a great bike track, one with interesting curves and bumps in the field to give a little excitement. I spent the next couple of days with a shovel and rake, smoothing out the really rough areas, creating signs to direct people where to go. I thought about selling tickets, but this didn’t go over too well with the go-kart, so I figured I would just do this one pro bono. I told a couple of neighbor kids what I had built and within an hour or two, there were 7 kids riding their bikes along the bike track having a great time.

We were having a blast until my dad found out that we were ruining his beautiful lawn with bicycle tracks. My dad was very proud of his lawn and still is to this day. That was the end of the bike track.

It sure was getting tough to run a business, let alone an amusement park. The bike track gave me another idea. In Suffolk, we had a couple of good snow storms that covered the hill behind us with snow. To me, as a 12 year old, the hill seemed huge, but now that I think about it, I’m sure it wasn’t that big. For kids my age, it was big enough. Having watched the winter Olympics the previous winter, I marveled at the bob sledders. I so much wanted to ride a bob sled. What if I were to create a bob sled track on the hill behind our home? Since it was fall, I had plenty of time to create a bobsled track. There were two tall trees at the bottom left of the hill. There was about a 24″ gap between the two trees. It was the perfect spot to ride our sleds through, but on the other side of the trees was a ditch. Big problem. You wouldn’t want to end up in icy water, so I built a wooden bridge over the ditch. I then took dirt and built up a banked curve right before the trees so that it would lead you between the trees and over the bridge to end the run. I made sure that all of the sticks and underbrush were cleared on the hill. I imagined the start gate with a digital timing system and someone to record the time at the end of the track. All I had to do was to wait for the first snow.

That year, snow did not seem to want to appear. What was I going to do. I had publicized my bobsled track to my friends and now I didn’t have any snow. Since I was into model rockets, I had hear that scientists were experimenting with silver iodide crystals to make it rain. I figured I would give it a shot. I somehow convinced my mom into convincing the local pharmacist to sell her a bottle of silver iodide. She brought it home and said, “I don’t think this is going to work, but go ahead and give it a shot.” I thanked her and ran to the garage to fill up the nose cone of my rocket with the precious silver iodide crystals. I waited for just the right afternoon to launch my rocket. When the clouds looked promising, yet holding back their moisture, I took my rocket outside and set it up for the historic launch. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 lift off! It sailed into the winter sky. Just at the right moment, at apogee, it released it’s snow making crystals. Slowly the rocket floated to the ground with it’s parachute waving success, at least in my mind. I went to bed that night, hoping that I would awake to a beautiful blanket of snow. As dawn approached, I ran to the window, yet found that the clouds had not released their white crystals of snow. I was disappointed, but 3 days later, snow appeared. In my heart, I believed that I was responsible for the snow.

School was cancelled due to the heavy snow and it was time for me to get outside to inspect the bobsled course. The snow had covered my bridge and the banked curve that led between the two trees. I remember that the newscaster during the Olympics talking about how icy the bobsled track was, so I made sure to pack the snow super tight and to pour water on the curve and between the trees so that it would be fast. Around 10 AM, my friends started to show up at the top of the hill. They were excited to see what I had made. I was the first to try it. I took my sled to the top of the hill and held my breath. I took a running start and threw my body down on top of my sled, cruising down the incline. Before I knew it, the curve was coming quickly into view. I leaned to the left and rode the banked curve. I couldn’t believe how fast I was going. The ice packed snow had made this section very fast. Before I knew it, I was sailing between the trees, over the snow packed bridge and into our yard. I finally came to a stop, raising my fist in the air, whooping it up and not believing that it was such a fast ride. Before I knew it, my friends were speeding down the hill one at a time, zipping through the curve, between the trees and over the bridge. Everyone raved about how fast and fun this new track was. By nightfall, I was pretty numb from the cold and exhausted as well. It was a fantastic day for the new bobsled track. I felt proud that I had built something that my friends and I had enjoyed all day long and went to sleep that night dreaming of how I could create something else that brought so much fun and satisfaction to not just me, but others as well. Maybe I could build a rocket ship that carried people or an underground city where we could live or……..

How not to build a hot rod

As a 16 year old boy, I made sure to buy the most recent Hot Rod magazine once it came off the press. This was to me an auto version of Playboy; those hot cars that I would dream about yet never come to own. Blown engines, dual quad carbs, hood scoops and Hoosier racing slicks. I lived in the country, far from the downtown area where the cool cars cruised up and down the boulevard on Saturday night. No, I lived in the area of Ramblers and Studebakers. I had to somehow get a car, any car. I had my drivers license, but no car. My parents had a station wagon and a VW. How would I get a project car that I could work on? I didn’t even have any experience working with cars. How could I learn? I know, I could go find a job at a gas station and learn there. Back in the day, they were called “service stations” because they actually serviced cars, not just sold gas that they didn’t pump. I set out to find a job at a service station. I walked all over the neighboring town and applied until I found a job at a Union 76 service station. It had 2 bays and 2 gas pumps. The owner was more than glad to find an eager young guy to pump gas and push a broom. I set out to make the inside of the service station office as clean as a whistle. The owner didn’t know what to say after I spent all day cleaning his front customer area office. “I have never seen this place so clean!” he exclaimed. His long time employee didn’t look on me so kindly as I was showing him up. After a few weeks of pumping gas and selling oil, I made it known that I wanted to buy a project car, one that I could take to the local 1/4 mile drag strip. Johnny, the long time employee that I had shown up heard that I was looking for a car and he figured that he could unload his 1964 Chevy BelAire wagon on me. “So, you are looking for a project car, huh?” he asked. “Yep, I want to hop it up to race at Suffolk dragstrip.” I said with more excitement than Johnny had seen in awhile. “Well, I have this great Chevy that would make a great project car, it’s right over here.” he said. We walked over to his faded green Chevy BelAire station wagon with a big dent in the rear side panel.

“Here it is. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it could look really nice.” he said with a wry grin. “I don’t know, it looks awful big.” I complained. “I tell you what, I will sell it to you for $350 and you can make payments to me. $50 down and it is yours!” he grinned. I thought for a few moments and started to dream of what I could make it look like, jacked up in the back, big racing slicks with painted flames down the side. I could even chop it and make it look really cool. “Ok, you’ve got a deal.” I said as Johnny shook my hand and smirked under his breath. All I could do was to dream of what this car was going to look like. I called my mom and said, “I don’t need a ride home, I bought a car!” “You did what???” she asked. “Yeah, Johnny here at the service station sold me his 1964 Chevy. I got a really good deal.” I explained. “Well, I hope so. Are you sure you can drive it home.” she asked. “Sure, it’s in really good shape.” I said, not having a clue about the engine. After work, Johnny handed me the keys and the title mumbling something about keeping a check on the oil. I took the keys to my new chariot and opened the door, after tugging on it to get it to open. I slammed the door, put the key in the ignition and cranked it over. After a couple of tries it came to life. It didn’t sound too powerful. I pulled out of the service station parking lot and onto the main drag heading home. Heading onto the highway, I thought that I would see what she could do. I floored it and the car sluggishly bucked, like an old horse not used to getting spurs in its flank, but finally it accelerated. It didn’t exactly throw me in the back of my seat, as a matter of fact, the transmission slipped into 3rd gear rather slowly and the old Chevy settled down to a quiet hum. I backed off when I hit 70, not wanting to buy a ticket as well as a car that day. At 6PM I pulled in front of my parents house. I parked the car and turned off the key, but the engine didn’t want to stop, it just kind of kept going, knocking and then stopping, then starting, knocking and stopping. Eventually it stopped this whole nonsense and cut off. I scratched my head as I went in to the house. “Come out and see my new car!” I said to my dad with extreme pride and joy. “Ok, what did you buy?” he asked. “Look, isn’t it a beaut!” I said as I posed with the car as if it were a brand new car off the showroom floor. “What the heck did you buy Gill?” my dad asked. “It’s a 1964 Chevy BelAire wagon.” I said with pride. “Did you check it out before you bought it?” he asked. “Sure I did.” I said as I realized that I hadn’t done any such thing. “Well, let’s look under the hood.” my dad said. I went into the car, pulled the engine hood release, went back to the front of the car and lifted the hood for the very first time. What I saw made my heart sink. I had a stinkin’ straight line 6 cylinder engine with a lousy 2 barrel carburetor. “Well, not much of an engine in there, but that’s good. You shouldn’t get hurt with those few ponies pulling this heavy hunk of metal.” he said with a grin. He shook his head and headed back into the house. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t bothered to even look under the hood. How was I going to hop up a 6 cylinder engine? Also, how was I going to race with an automatic 3 speed tranny? Now that I was home, I looked the car over really well. A huge dent in the rear side panel, carpet that was so thin that you could see the floorboard, a radio that was only AM and a drivers side door that made a loud creak and barely opened. What a piece of crap. I crawled under the car and noticed that the tires were almost bald and that the inspection sticker would expire at the end of the month. What was I going to do? I slammed the door and went into the house to pout.

The next day, I drove my wagon back to the service station that I worked at. I found Johnny under the hood of a car that needed a new alternator. “Hey, that car you sold me only has a 6 cylinder in it.” I complained. “Yeah, I know. What’s your problem?” he retorted. “I thought that it had an 8 cylinder engine in it, not a stupid 6 cylinder.” I said. “Well, you didn’t ask. It’s yours now!” he smiled and returned to his work. I walked away with my hands in my pockets, dejected, realizing that I had been taken and it was my own fault for not asking more questions BEFORE I bought the wagon.

This wasn’t going to get me down. I tried to figure ways to make this clunky station wagon a hot rod. I went to my boss and asked if he would sponsor my car so that I could take it to the 1/4 mile racetrack. He laughed and said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Sponsor that piece of crap? No way! You need a two door light weight car with a nice V8 in it.” he said. I knew that he was right. Nobody would sponsor a station wagon and especially a station wagon with a 6 cylinder in it. I hung my head low and started sweeping the garage bays. Boy, was I stupid or what. Not to mention that I also had an automatic transmission. Nobody raced with an automatic transmission.

I drove it to school the next day, but no heads turned in my direction to check out my new ride. I think they purposely didn’t look to save me the embarrassment. I went to my classes and tried to forgot what was waiting for me in the parking lot. Over the next few weeks I started thinking, I wonder if my boss would think about sponsoring me if I had a manual transmission in my car? Maybe it would have more get up and go rather than sliding through the gears as it did now. I went and talked to the junk man next door. He said that he had an old Chevy pickup in the back with a 3 speed manual tranny. He said that it should bolt up to the engine. He said, if you can get it out, you can have it. Armed with wrenches and rags, I crawled under the truck and with plenty of knuckles busted finally wrenched free the transmission, flywheel, disc and pressure plate from the old truck. “Well, it’s yours!” he said rather surprised that I had freed it from the truck way back in the junk yard. Wow, a 3 speed tranny. All I had to do was to swap the automatic transmission for the manual. I mean, how hard could it be?

I convinced my buddy Craig who didn’t know a wrench from a wench to meet me at the gas station after work to pull out the automatic tranny. My boss, before leaving for the night said, “Make sure you have this bay free so that we can work on paying customer’s cars.” I told him no problem as he drove away from the station. “Well, let’s get to work!” I told Craig as I scratched my head trying to figure out where to start. We drove the wagon onto the lift and raised it so that we could get underneath of it to see what was holding in the transmission. Back in those days, all we had were trusty Chilton manuals. I broke out the manual for my car and went step by step trying to figure out all of the bolts and linkage that connected the tranny to the engine. Time was NOT on our side. It was now 3 AM and we still did not have the transmission out. My boss was going to kill me if I didn’t have his bay free. At 4AM Craig and I both crashed in the office on a couple of old plastic chairs. We were exhausted and caught a little sleep. By 5AM I woke up with a start realizing we didn’t have much time to finish. What in the world was holding that transmission to the engine? Finally, I realized that there were bolts that held the torque converter to the flywheel and that these bolts were keeping the tranny from working loose. I had a small hole to insert a socket into and slowly turn the engine over to remove each bolt. At 7AM, we had all of the bolts loose and the transmission fell with a clunk onto the jackstand. My boss was pulling up to the station and his face turned beet red as it did when he wasn’t happy. “I told you to have this bay free!” he yelled. “Get that damn car off of my lift.” I looked at him rather helpless and he finally figured out that we really didn’t know how to get the transmission off of the jack as it was hoisted high in the air and it wasn’t the kind of jack that would lower enough to clear the bottom of the chassis. “Here, let me help you get this thing out of here.” he said. With a few of us holding the transmission, he removed the jack stand and then we were able to carry it off to the side. “Now lower that car and push it out of my garage!” he yelled as we pushed the car to the side of the parking lot. Transmission fluid and grease were all over the floor. What a mess we made. I got busy cleaning it up and asked my mom to pick me up so that I could go home and sleep. I took a quick shower when I got home and fell on the bed into a deep sleep.

Now the hard part began; how to install the new 3 speed manual transmission into the car. I talked to the mechanic next door to get some pointers. You need to install a different flywheel, buy a clutch disc and pressure plate along with a throw-out bearing. It sounded like Greek to me, but with a little time spent in the Chilton’s Manual, I had a plan.  I called my buddy Craig again, but this time he refused to answer my calls. I was on my own.

The next week, somehow I promised my boss that if he would let me use his bay again, I would have it free by 7AM. I guess he saw that puppy dog look in my eyes and relented. Fortunately a manual transmission is much lighter than an automatic tranny. I had purchased the necessary parts a week earlier. Changing out the flywheel, installing the pressure plate and clutch disc was actually pretty easy. Sliding the manual transmission up into the chassis and bolting it to the engine was much easier as well. By 5AM I had everything in place. The only issue was that I didn’t have a gear shift. By 7AM the next day, I had moved the car out of the bay and muscled it to the side of the parking lot. “Thank God that piece of junk is out of my bay!” my boss exclaimed as he drove up. I was relieved that I had been able to do the job by myself. I had to go to work, so no sleep for me today. I barely made it through the day and had to get a ride home once more.

A few days later, figuring that I had redeemed myself, I asked my boss “Can I use the garage again? I want to install a gear shift.” “Hell no!” he yelled. “Twice is enough. You figure out where you can work on that thing.” he pointed to my car in disgust. Where was I going to work on it? I had to have a lift. After searching around, I found that there was a new place that used to be a gas station. They were leasing out bays by the hour, as well as loaner tools. I reserved an evening and had the wrecker driver tow my car to the bay down the street. It was going to be another long night. I had purchased a Hurst Master Shifter with a spring loaded 2nd gear that threw the lever into 3rd with just a touch of a finger. It was chrome and beautiful, but there was much work to do to install it.

It was Friday evening. I had my bay reserved and I got to work. First, I had to drill a hole through the floor of the car where the gear shift would go. This was harder than I thought as I didn’t exactly have sheet metal tools. I had to drill almost 100 holes to make a square hold for the gear shift, but after an hour, I finally had a hole larger enough. Reading the instructions, I figured out how to install and adjust the linkage to the transmission. I had to test it out so that the throw of the shifter would engage the levers on the transmission in just the exact spot so that the gears would work. By 4AM, I had my Hurst Master Shifter totally installed, ready for action. I was so proud of getting to this point. I thought I had it all figured out, but then quickly realized, where was the clutch pedal. I had a 3 speed tranny, a shiny new gear shift and no clutch pedal. “Time over!” the manager said as I realized that I was going to have a hard time getting it out of the bay. I put it in reverse and hit the ignition just enough to move the car in gear, but not start it. I bumped it over and over until it was out of the bay. I wonder if……hmmmm. If I could start it in 1st gear, I could actually drive it home. I put it in first gear and made sure that nobody was around. I turned the ignition and the old 6 cylinder came to life after sitting for more than 2 weeks. It lurched forward, unstoppable and I hit the gas, just enough to keep it moving. I drove it for about a mile in first gear and then had the nerve or stupidity to pull it out of first and grind the gears into second without a clutch. What a God awful noise it made, but I was heading home. After about 15 minutes, I pulled into our driveway killing the engine and slamming on the brakes to keep from running into the garage door and taking out the laundry room. I was home. What a relief, but how was I going to install a clutch pedal??

I figured that if I could swap out the transmission and the shifter, then I could figure out how to install a clutch pedal. I went to the mechanic at the junk yard next door and asked him how to install a clutch pedal.  He explained, “Well, first you have to get a clutch pedal from one of my wrecks in the back lot and install it on your car. It’s not that hard, because you just take the whole assembly out and install one with a clutch pedal in it.

The hard thing is going to be installing the bracket on the frame in the engine compartment. Yours didn’t come with the bracket that is welded to the frame to allow for a clutch pedal.” He pulled off his hat and scratched his head thinking of how I was going to pull that one off. Well, I would just have to think of that one when I got there. I agreed to buy the necessary clutch linkage and pedals from a junker in his back lot. Taking all of the parts to my car that night, I removed the brake pedal and installed the clutch pedal and brake combo unit along with the linkage. Surprisingly, it bolted right up. I next installed the clutch spring that put resistance on the clutch pedal; because the other end wasn’t pushing against the fork in the pressure plate that disengages the clutch disc, the pedal just stayed to the floor, despite the big return spring that was supposed to pull it back. I crawled under the clutch area and took a look to see what was holding it down. I pulled lightly on the clutch pedal and suddenly it shot back up with amazing force hitting me squarely in the jaw with as much force as a heavyweight boxer. I started to see stars and realized that the clutch spring had done it’s job by bringing the clutch pedal back to where it should be, except my face had been in the way. I stumbled out of the car and rubbed my aching jaw. That was going to leave a mark! All I had to do now was to somehow find a bracket and have it welded on the frame of the car.

Searching around the junk yard, the same car that I had pulled the transmission, clutch pedal and linkage had the clutch pedal bracket on it’s frame.

I begged the mechanic that had been giving me tips the whole time to cut it off of the frame and weld it on mine. He finally relented and by 7PM, had welded it to my frame. I now was able to install the linkage and I had a working clutch pedal. I could finally shift gears without grinding them.  After work, I was able to drive my 3 speed station wagon home happily shifting gears with my Hurst Master Shifter.

Before I even had a chance to drive it to school I immediately thought of one last project to do on my beloved BelAire wagon. My next project was to change out the differential with a 4:11 racing rear end. It would allow me to run a 1/4 mile quicker.  For this, there were no junked cars with these special gears. I had to save up money to order one from the local Chevy dealership.  Finally, after several weeks I had enough money saved to order it. After a week, I received a call that it had arrived at the dealers parts department.

This was going to be another project that I had no idea what to do. I jacked up my car, crawled underneath and just started taking things apart. I dropped the drive shaft and unbolted the hogs head after spilling 90W gear lube all over my face. I yanked the hogs head out and dragged it from under the car. There were two gears, a pinion gear and a ring gear. It looked easy enough to me. By now, I had started to work at a gas station where the owners had a drag racing car that ran a quick 1/4 mile in a class called “E Gas”. It was a modified 67 Corvette. When they warmed it up before race day on Sunday, you could hear it from a mile away. I had hoped to gain more motor experience by starting to work with them. After school, I told them what I had bought and that I was going to change out the rear end gears. They told me, “You better make sure that you blue lead the gears and make sure to use the necessary shims to set it up properly or you will wear it out.” Blue lead? Shims? What the heck were they talking about. Didn’t you just swap out the gears? Well, I just swapped out the gears, couldn’t find blue lead or shims. I turned it over by hand and it looked and sounded good to me, so I just slapped it back in the car, reinstalled the drive shaft and hoped for the best! I was finally done. I was stoked!  All of this hard work was going to pay off. I called all of my buddies to tell them that I finally had a working car again and that I was going to pick them all up. What a great feeling I was going to have, carrying all of my buddies to school in my modified wagon. Sleep would come hard tonight. I was so excited about tomorrow.

I woke up promptly at 7AM and dressed quickly, wanting to give myself enough time to pick up my friends before heading to school. After breakfast, I jumped in my wagon, pushed in the clutch pedal, shifted the gearshift into neutral and cranked her up. Popping it into reverse, I slowly let out the clutch pedal. The disc plate engaged with the flywheel and the car began to move as all parts worked perfectly. I turned around in the cul de sac and headed towards my first friend, Billy. After picking up Billy, I headed for Craig’s house to pick him up. Craig jumped in the car and both Billy and Craig were happy for me that I had finally finished my project car. Craig had helped me pull out the automatic transmission from the car and knew how much work I had put into the conversion. Billy was just glad that he had a ride to school. I didn’t try and show off. I just wanted to make sure that everything was working and it was. After a few miles, I was almost passing the new gas station that I had started to work at when I heard this pinging noise. At first it wasn’t very loud, but slowly it got louder and louder. After a few minutes it sounded like a school bell ringing. I started to lose power. I had just enough momentum to pull into the gas station that I had just started working at. When I parked it, I heard a loud clunk. My boss came out and said, “What’s all that noise coming from your car?” I looked at him in disbelief and told him, “I have no clue. I just finished a 2 month project to get my car back on the road.” He was fully aware of all of the work I had done. He got down on his knees and looked under the car. “Oh, that’s not good.” he said. I crawled underneath and there was oil all over the pavement under the engine. “I’m sorry to say, but you have thrown a rod. Your engine is toast. See that big piece of metal sticking out of the oil pan? That’s a rod.” he said as if giving bad news to a patient.  All of my hard work had ended in this. I hadn’t even made it to school. I had only picked up my 2 buddies and was heading past my house, nowhere near school and now I would have to call my parents to take all of us to school. My head was hanging so low, I could almost lick my shoes. Why had the engine waited until I had finished all of this work before it gave up the ghost? What was I going to do? This was terrible.

My dad picked us up and took us to school. This was going to be a long day for sure. I couldn’t believe I was having to bum a ride to school.  During lunch I sat at a table with a motorhead called “Frog”. He had thick glasses and was short and stocky. I guess this is why people called him Frog. I told him of my dilemma, how I had spent all of this time converting my wagon from an automatic transmission to a 3 speed manual. He just shook his head feeling sorry for me. After awhile, his eyes brightened, “Hey,  I happen to have a ’59 Chevy 283 cu. in. engine in an old wagon that I was going to toss. I’ll let you have it for $50.” he said. Wow, a V8 engine.  I was excited! I could afford $50 and I would finally have a V8, not a stinking 6 cylinder with a thrown rod.  Maybe my boss would sponsor me if I had a V8! I told him that I would get the $50 and buy his motor. My head was spinning. Wow, a real V8 engine.

A couple of weeks later, I finally scraped together the money and went to pick up my motor. Frog helped me load it in the back of my wagon. “Oh, there’s just one thing, the engine mounts for a ’59 motor are in a different location than a ’64 motor. On a ’59, the motor mounts are on the front corners of the motor and yours are on the side. Guess you’ll have to fabricate something to make it fit.”  Frog said as he was slipping my hard earned $50 into his back jeans pocket. “Uh, ok.” I said, not knowing what I was going to do. I drove home with the heavy engine in the back of my mom’s wagon, trying not to let it slide around or slam through the tailgate onto the highway.

“Well, I bought an 8 cylinder.” I said as I walked into the house. “You did what?” my mom asked. “A friend of mine at school had an 8 cylinder engine that he sold me so that I could put it into my wagon.” I grinned. “So I bought it! It was only $50.” Such a deal I couldn’t pass up. I couldn’t wait to install this beast of an engine in my wagon. I could just hear it roar.

In shop class, my teacher and I fabricated 1/2″ plate steel plates to allow us to install the ’59 engine into my later year car. These plates were going to convert the side mounted motor mounts on my frame to the front motor mounts of the ’59 engine. I got them all ready to install, but I had never swapped out an engine. I didn’t have a motor lift nor did I have any more money to put into my project car. The engine sat in my parents garage on the floor and my car sat in front of our house for months and months and months. Finally my parents said, “You need to either fix your car or get it towed to the junkyard.” Towed to the junkyard? I couldn’t believe what they were saying. All of this work and money and they wanted me to just push it to the curb. What was I going to do? I had run out of steam, know how and money. After a few more months, they gave me the ultimatum, either I call the junk yard or they were going to call them. A week later, I made the dreadful call. “I have a 1964 Chevy wagon that I need to junk. Can you pick it up?” I said sadly to the junk yard owner. “Sure kid, no charge, just have the title in the car.” he said.

When I arrived from school that next day, my wagon was gone. It had gone to that great scrapyard in the sky. All of my work was history. It was a sad day. My parents must have felt bad, because a few weeks later, they gave me my dad’s old VW as a graduation present. I really appreciated it and had another car to figure out how to create a dune buggy out of. “If I chopped the fenders and installed some larger tires on it, I could create a really cool car.” I thought. I wonder if I could install a larger engine in it. I fell asleep that night, forgetting about my old wagon and beginning to dream of my new project. The wagon had been replaced by a new car. How quickly we forget.

Rocketboy

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This sentence is one that I, like most Americans remember. Most people my age remember where they were when those words were transmitted from the moon. My mom was in an art show in Va Beach, VA, and my family was in a hotel room watching with the rest of America as Neil Armstrong said these words.

As a young boy, I idolized the likes of Robert Goddard who began to experiment with liquid fueled rockets followed by captured German scientist Wernher von Braun who eventually developed the vehicles that delivered man to the moon. These were my heroes. If it were not for them, we would have never made it to the moon, at least not in 1969. I wanted to be a rocket builder. I started with Estes model rockets. I combined 3 of their most powerful “D” engines as well as built the rocket to hold this engine cluster. At that time, you were supposed to only use one “D” engine in a rocket. I had to build my own launch pad in order to hold the rocket prior to launch, but after that successful launch, I knew that I would need to develop my own rocket fuel if I ever wanted to launch a mouse into the stratosphere. After building the most powerful model rockets, I soon became bored with these toys. The model rockets were simply not powerful enough to do much more than launch a few insects a few thousand feet into the air. I set out to build a really big rocket, but a rocket of this size was not sold in a hobby shop. I would have to build this rocket from scratch as well as the rocket motors to power it. I needed to find some cylinders that were large enough to house my rocket motors as well as form the body of the rocket. I found two cardboard carpet tubes at a carpet store, one smaller than the other so that one would be a first stage and the second smaller tube would be the second stage. I formed a nose cone and fins, then attached these to the rocket. This was going to be one tall rocket! Each tube was 6′, and when I put one on top of the other, I had to add the nose cone from the second floor window of our house due to it being now 12′ tall. I constructed a battery operated device that was going to ignite the second stage of the rocket, once the first stage was expended. All I needed was rocket fuel for my creation. Liquid fuel, the stuff that NASA used was out of the question as my dad, for tools, owned a hammer, screwdriver and a hammer, and at age 15, I couldn’t afford all of the metalworking tools needed, much less the precision instruments! I was going to have to rely upon solid rocket fuel. For this, I would need Ammonium Nitrate, the main ingredient, for the oxidizer. Upon research, I found that this is also used as a fertilizer. I had my dad order a 50# bag of it. He got strange looks when he went to order it, even back in 1969. The only issue that I had with this form of Ammonium Nitrate was that it was in pellet form and it turned to wet mush when I tried to grind it.
I would have to dry it out. I took some of it and poured it onto one of my mom’s cookie sheets, then put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Well, the smell of fertilizer cooking in the oven was more than she could stand and this was put to an end very quickly as well as ruined her cookie sheets. I was able to dry out enough to make a small batch of fuel, combining it with sulfur and charcoal. The next step was to make a test apparatus for the fuel, to be able to test it in some sort of rocket motor. I found a copper pipe. I packed the rocket fuel into the copper pipe, but for the blast to be concentrated, it would have to pass through a nozzle. The only material that I had to build a nozzle was copper sheet metal. I formed a nozzle out of this, then soldered it to the copper pipe. Everything was ready to test. I hooked up the rocket motor to a test stand I had made out of 2×4’s and pipe clamps. I then took some fuse that a chemistry friend had sold me, inserted this through the nozzle so that it touched my rocket fuel. I lit the fuse and waited. How powerful would this be? Would it explode or light the field on fire? Suddenly, the lit fuse reached the rocket fuel, and it started to shoot out flames from the nozzle, but the heat of the fire soon liquified the solder that was holding the nozzle and tube together, so that the nozzle fell out on to the ground, with the rocket fuel following in one big clump of burning residue that would not launch a mouse much less an ant. I quickly realized I did not posses the tools nor the skills necessary to build a rocket motor. My 12′ rocket, was not going to hit the stratosphere, much less get off the ground. My dad used the rest of the Ammonium Nitrate to fertilize his lawn. It’s amazing how green a lawn will get with 100% Ammonium Nitrate! As I sulked about my failure to build and launch my rocket, an idea struck me as I peered outside my bedroom window looking into the back yard. My dad built my brother and I a really cool tree house. It was built around an old oak tree in our back yard. It looked like a rocket as he had covered it in cedar shake shingles and it had a nose cone shaped roof.

There was an entrance underneath the tree house in the form of a trap door. Over the years my brother and I had all kinds of fun in this tree house.  Suddenly, I had an idea. The tree house could be a great mock up of a manned space capsule mission. If I wasn’t going to go into space, I could at least pretend. I hurried to my desk. The bulletin board over my desk, full of my childhood heroes, Walt Disney, Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard were looking on, encouraging me to dream. I quickly drew out my plans and material list of what would be needed to build the perfect mock up space capsule. The inside of the tree house would need to look like the interior of a space capsule. It would need to have that shiny metal look with lots of switches and lights that could be turned off and on. For the mission, we would stay in our space capsule for several days to experience the feeling of what the Gemini astronauts had to deal with. This was going to be a Gemini mission, so I needed a “volunteer” to be my Gemini partner. I had a friend in crime, Billy who would be my fellow space traveler. We lined the walls and ceiling of the inside of the tree house with aluminum foil. We used all of my mom’s aluminum foil plus several other rolls to complete the project. I think I asked first. Next would be adding all of the necessary switches and lights. I made a trip to Radio Shack to purchase all kinds of switches, lights and battery holders. I soldered up all of the connections into a plywood panel, which I then covered with aluminum foil, then placed it into the interior wall of the tree house. How to tell which switch did what? A quick run to the garage, in my mom’s art supplies I found a Dymo label maker. I created all sorts of labels for my space capsule, like ‘Escape Tower Ignition’, ‘Parachute Deployment’ and a bunch of other names that I felt we would need. Each switch turned on a different colored light, and we would have a manual that would instruct us as to what to do when. The next task was, how were we going to look like astronauts? We didn’t have access to space suits, but we did have silver colored winter coats, along with black rubber boots. For our helmets, we simply made these out of cardboard and more aluminum foil. We used plastic for our visor. We noticed that when the astronauts went from the trailer to the launch pad, they had portable oxygen units and hoses that fed their space suits. They carried these as they walked to the space craft. They looked a lot like hair dryer units and guess what, each of our moms had one of these hair dryer units that had a case with a handle on it. We took the loose end of the hose and connected this to our coats and the other end was connected to the hair dryer case. (oxygen supply unit)oxygen supply This is what it was supposed to look like. As you see, it looks like a hair dryer! We would need food for our simulation. How to get food to us, without it going bad was going to be a trick as we didn’t have any space food that was stored in toothpaste style containers and squeezed out for consumption like the real NASA astronauts had. We would need some sort of delivery system. On one side of the tree house that faced our home, there was a window. I attached a pulley on the outside of the window, then a pulley under my bedroom window, which faced the tree house, I mean space capsule. I then ran a thin rope with a box to carry the food between the house and the space capsule. I nominated my brother for this task. He was going to be Mission Control. He liked the idea of being Mission Control, so he signed up for the job. Everything was set. Since it was summer and warm enough to sleep in the space capsule, Billy’s parents agreed to let him sign up for this educational endeavor for the several days that it would take to complete our mission. We had our space capsule outfitted, check. We had our food supply and delivery system that would be manned by my brother at Mission Control, check. We had our space suits and oxygen supply units, check. Now we were ready to experience deep space. “How many days are we going to spend in there?” asked Billy. “I’m thinking 3 days should do it.” I replied. “Uh, well, that’s fine, but what happens when we have to go?” Billy inquired. “What do you mean, ‘when we have to to'” I asked. “You know, when we have to pee and take a poo.” he said with an incredulous look that he even had to explain this. “Oh crap!” I said as I finally grabbed hold of what he was saying. “Exactly, ….crap!” Billy shouted. Hmm, that was a real dilemma for sure, we couldn’t stay up there for 3 days without having to go to the bathroom. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. We will do our business in Baggies, use a twist tie, then drop them down the bottom entry hatch door for my brother to pick them up and flush them down the toilet. “Yeah, I guess that would work.” Billy said. We walked into the house to find my brother, Mission Control, and told him what our plan was for waste removal. “You have got to be kidding! There is no way that I am going to handle your pee or your poo for you. I quit!” Drew said and off he stomped mumbling the whole way about my sanity and other concerns for my mental well being. “Well, if we don’t have anyone to take care of our business, then I guess the mission is scrubbed.” I said to Billy. “Yeah, I guess so.” Billy said as he somehow seemed to be in a hurry to go home. As I sat in my mock up space capsule, I realized that the only mission I could have would be to pretend to be John Glenn and circle the earth 3 times in 5 hours. I went from a Gemini mission to a Mercury mission in 5 minutes as seemed to be what happened to me most of the time. Typically I had been able to enlist my friends for all sorts of projects, but when the challenges appeared, I ended up finishing them solo. Oh well, I didn’t mind. For me, it was the journey and what I learned and discovered along the way. I would find another adventure to embark upon soon as I never seemed to run out of ideas. “Gill, where is all of my aluminum foil!” my mom yelled out the back door as I quickly ducked around the corner and headed for the woods. Another adventure was soon to begin in the jungles of Bennetts Creek.

Black Like Me

I have had my share of dirty jobs over the years. Working on a farm, you get dirty and stinky, but at least you can wash it off at the end of the day. When I had just gone through a tough time in my life at around 22 years of age, recently divorced and out of work, I decided to try something different. I spotted an ad in the newspaper for a fossil fuel analyst. It looked like a rather lofty position and it didn’t really require any experience which I thought was odd. I called the phone number and scheduled an interview. The location was a small white building in Norfolk VA, off of Monticello Ave. I entered the building and was met by a gentleman in a dark blue lab coat. His name was Pat, a mild mannered guy that asked me a series of questions about how detailed I was and the generic type of questions. I really didn’t get a chance to look at the lab. He thanked me and I left not thinking that I would hear from him. In a few days, the phone rang and it was Pat. “We interviewed several people and decided that we would like to hire you.” he said. “Great, when would you like for me to start?” I asked. “Next Monday at 8AM” he replied. It was that simple. I reported to work the following Monday and was assigned a navy blue lab coat. This is pretty cool I thought, no experience and now working in a lab. Pat showed me around the lab and introduced me to his assistant Kevin. The lab equipment was rather industrial I thought. There were several triple beam balances under glass covers and other strange pieces of equipment under a sort of large range hood. The whole lab had this whole smell like an old freight train yard. “What do you test here.” I inquired. “We test coal.” Pat said. “Coal? Why do you need to test coal?” I asked rather naive. “Well, coal comes in all kinds of different grades; steam coal, coal for making steel and a host of other uses. Coal has a certain amount of sulfur in it. If it has too much, then it isn’t good for certain customers who may need coal with a low sulfur content. Customers overseas buy coal by the rail car and each car has to be tested to be sure that it is of the type that they agreed to pay for. It’s sort of like making sure that the diamond you buy is of the highest quality and not one with occlusions and discolorations. One train car load of coal can cost easily $100,000, so the buyers are willing to pay us to test each car load that they buy.” Pat explained. “Boy, I never thought of coal like a diamond. I thought all coal was the same, just black chunks.” I admitted rather shyly. After the nickel tour, I was taken into the back room where there were small glass containers of coal grains, about the size of ground coffee. All of the containers had labels with numbers on them. I was taken to a coffee mill and told that I would be hand grinding the coal into an even smaller powder. Pat had handed me over to Kevin to show me how to do my first task. “You take this bottle that has a sample of coal and pour it into this old coffee grinder.” It was a square wooden coffee grinder that I had seen in antique stores. “You grind this by hand until you have ground the entire bottle, you then pour it back into the bottle and place it over here for the lab.” Kevin instructed. I began my work, grinding and grinding and grinding until my arm was about to fall off. Boy was this antiquated or what! This was my job for the first few days. After Kevin and Pat felt as though I had payed my first dues, I was taken into the lab. The odor I had smelled when I first arrived was explained to me. It was coal being heated up and turning into coke. “This is the Geisler Plastometer. This device slowly heats up the coal in a small metal crucible which is inserted into a container of molten lead. A stir rod which turns, as the coke starts to form, stops the stir rod and the point at which this happens is recorded hear on this graph that is attached to the plastometer.” Kevin explained. Your job is to clean the old coal that has turned into coke from these small metal crucibles.” Kevin said. Image The container that had the coked coal in it was hard to remove. They gave me a knife and then I was to polish it with a round wire brush. Well, this was my second chance to pay my dues. Now I was beginning to see why this job did not require any experience. After a few weeks of grinding coal and cleaning out metal coked crucibles, I finally met the manager, Mr. Shepard. Mr. Shepard was an old school kind of guy who felt that unless you paid your dues and did so with a great attitude, you were not worth talking to. I didn’t see much of Mr. Shepard. I wanted to pass all of these duties so that I could do some of the other tests and not just grind and clean. I actually enjoyed working in the lab, even if it was as a lowly lab rat. One day after arriving at work, Kevin told me not to put on my lab jacket. “They are short a man to pulverize coal in the collection building and they are looking for a “volunteer”. A “volunteer” I thought. That’s a strange way of assigning you to another building. “You see, Mr. Shepard believes that you should jump at the chance to volunteer to cover in the pulverizing room. It’s rather strange, but he doesn’t assign people, he offers the “opportunity”.” Kevin explained. “What does the job entail?” I asked rather curious about why “volunteering” was such a big deal. “Well, you are in this small room, you wear a respirator, three layers of clothes and coat your hands and face with Vaseline.” Kevin said, looking at me for a reaction. “Vaseline? What the heck? Three layers of clothes. What kind of job is this that someone would want to “volunteer”?” I asked with a shocked and rather incredulous look on my face. “Well, it’s Mr. Shepard’s way. Do you want to “volunteer”?” he asked. I looked at him, still shocked, but didn’t reply. He waited for my answer long enough to where I was starting to feel uncomfortable. “Sure, why not.” I finally said. “Well, go in the locker room and make sure to put on three layers of clothing and grab a respirator. I’ll meet you outside.” Kevin said with a grin. After putting on three layers of clothing and grabbing the respirator, I met Kevin outside. It was June and already 90 degrees with about 80% humidity. Three layers of clothing wasn’t feeling good right now. “Let’s go to the collection building and I’ll show you what to do.” Kevin said as we walked down the street headed for a big metal building. In the building were a bunch of guys standing around these larger containers of coal. I think that Rufus was black, but I wasn’t sure because of all of the coal dust all over his face and hands. “Rufus, this is Gill, he will be your backup to pulverize.” Kevin said. I waved a hello to Rufus as Kevin escorted me into this tiny dark room. The room was about 8′ x 8′ and was lit by this small fluorescent fixture on the ceiling. There was coal dust all over the walls, ceiling and the floor. The ceiling was only about 7′ tall and there was NO air conditioning. On a small workbench was a machine that looked like a sausage grinder to me. “Well, it’s time to grease you up like a pig at a county fair.” Kevin said with a smile. “Take a big handful of this Vaseline and smear it over all of your hands and face. If you don’t put it on thick enough, the coal dust will actually soak into your pores and it will be next to impossible to get it out until it finally decides to come out with your perspiration.” he continued. “Now, take this cotton face mask and cover your face as well as put on these rubber gloves. Next, put on the respirator.” he concluded. I could barely breathe. I felt like my face and hands were coated like a baby’s bottom and with three layers of clothing, in a metal shed with the sun baking the roof, the sweat started pouring off of me, soaking my clothes one layer at a time and I hadn’t even started to work. “The first thing that you do is to take one of the sample bottles here and place it next to the pulverizer. Then, take this air hose and blow out all of the remaining coal dust from the previous sample that is in the pulverizer.” Kevin instructed me as he took the air hose and blew out the pulverizer with high powered air. The blast of air blew the coal dust all throughout the small metal shed. Where just a few seconds before, I was able to see everything in the room, the blast of coal dust created a thick black fog that made it so dark that I could not even see my hand in front of my face. The fluorescent light was no help whatsoever. It took a good 30 seconds for the air to clear before I could make out the glow of the fluorescent light. “Now that you have the pulverizer clean, pour the new sample into the grinder and flip this switch. It will grind the coal into the size of granules that we need in order to test it. After you grind it, pour the newly ground coal back into the sample bottle and place it in the completed bin here. That’s about it. Shampoo, rinse and repeat. Have fun!” Kevin said as he walked out the door and closed it securely. What had I gotten myself into? Look at all of those sample bottles. Oh well, I better get started. I can’t imagine what that fine coal dust would have done to my lungs if I had not worn the respirator. The sweat was running down my back as I pulverized the next sample. It must have been over 100 degrees in that small room. After 3 hours, I was finally finished with all of the samples. I opened the door and the first thing that I did was to rip off the respirator and the cotton face mask. Next, I pulled the latex gloves off of my hands. The perspiration that my hands had produced filled the fingertips of the latex gloves. “Hey brother, looks like you have joined the hood!” Rufus yelled across the building. I had no idea what he was talking about. The walk back to the lab seemed like a long one. I was drenched in sweat and still wearing my 3 layers of clothing. I walked in the back door to the changing room and slowly took off the first two layers. When I went into the bathroom to wash my hands, I looked in the mirror. I looked like a raccoon. Except where the respirator was on my mouth and nose, my entire face was black as coal, no pun intended. No wonder Rufus said what he did. I took the hand soap and tried to clean my face and hands. I looked in the mirror, not a bit had been removed. What the heck I thought! How will I ever get this stuff off. I walked into the lab and Kevin looked up from what he was doing and just smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Welcome to the club!” he exclaimed. “How in the heck do I get this stuff off?” I asked. “Well, the only thing we have found that works is to go home and scrub yourself with Lava soap.” Kevin shared. Kevin told me that I was done for the day and to go home to clean up. Now, I knew why the guys from the collection department looked the way that they did when they would come into the lab. Did these guys get all of this stuff off of them each day I wondered. After I got home, the first thing I did was to take off my coal colored clothing and shoes. I was surprised to see that the coal dust had actually gone through my socks into my feet. I turned on the water to the tub and took the rough bar of Lava soap and started to scrub with a wash cloth. After about 30 minutes, I figured that I had gotten most of it off, but when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I had only touched the surface. I scrubbed and scrubbed with that rough soap until my skin was red. It took almost 3 days for all of the coal to work it’s way out of my pores. Kevin explained that I should have put the Vaseline around my eyelids as well, the more the better. Eventually, I was able to actually perform some real experiments in the lab. I actually created several automatic procedures and tools to eliminate the archaic way that they cleaned crucibles and ground the coal. I configured a motor on a stand that connected to the coffee grinder so that this process was not performed by hand any longer. If there was a way to automate or simplify processes, I would invent something that would help. Mr. Shepard liked to do things the old fashioned way, but Pat and Kevin love my inventions. From time to time, they still needed “volunteers” to pulverize coal and found out that if I did not “volunteer” first, then I would be seen as a loafer and would be sent back to cleaning equipment. It was a hard and dirty job, but I did enjoy working in the lab and coming up with ways to improve our daily tasks. I also realized that a job title, fossil fuel analyst, means more to people than what they actually do. Eventually I had to leave because they barely paid more than minimum wage at the time and I got tired of going home to eat potted meat sandwiches, which was all that I could afford at the time. Titles are nothing I realized, it’s what you do that matters and if what you are doing makes a difference in others lives.

Sent to the back of the bus

I’m no Rosa Parks, but my mom really made me feel like a second class citizen when I was 14. She would not let me sit in the front seat of her car, nor the back seat. I was banished to the very back cargo area of her station wagon, with the rear window wide open, almost hanging out of the window holding on for dear life as we rode down the highway back to our house. It all started at age 14. My wants came with dollar signs, for my never ending science and go-kart projects. My projects needed funding and I saw my parents as the banker and sponsor of my projects. I had come up with what I thought was a great idea, to be their groundskeeper. I would create these great spaces in our yard and they could supply the necessary plants and wages for me. I thought that it was a grand idea, but they felt otherwise. After a few more ideas on how they could hire me to be their employee, they decided that it was time for me to find some work. At age 14, a boy could only find work in more unconventional jobs, and one of these was farm labor. We had several farms around our town and one of the local farms had a farm market where we would pick up necessary items like milk and eggs. Matthews Farm was the name and my mom knew Mr and Mrs Matthews. I went to school with their two daughters and son. My mom came home one day and said, “If you want money, you will need to earn it. I’ve talked to Mr. Matthews and he has agreed to talk to you about working on his farm.” I was actually excited about the idea, seeing that my ideas to have my parents hire me was falling on deaf ears. The next day, my mom took me to Matthews Farm Market. Mr. Matthews was in the store as we found him near the checkout counter. “How are you doing there son? he said. “Fine sir.” I replied. “So, I hear that you would like to earn some money, is that true?” he asked. “Yes sir, I sure would!” I answered excited. “Ok, I do need some help tending our chickens. I’ll pay you $1 per hour. How does that sound?” he asked. “That would be great!” I said. My mind was already a-whirl thinking of all of the projects that I would be able to fund with the money. It was summer and I knew that $40 per week was enough to get my projects funded. It was 1969 and $40 would buy a 14 year old a lot of materials back then; of course even in 1969, $1 per hour wasn’t a whole lot of money, but it seemed like a fortune to me. School had ended several weeks earlier and I’m sure that my mom was ready to get me out of the house and now that I was pestering her for money every other day. I had projects that I needed to get started and she was looking for ways to solve both problems; to stop the constant pestering and to simply keep me busy. At the dinner table that night, I told my dad about my new job and all of the money that I was going to make. “That’s uh great, glad to hear it.” he said as he chuckled under his breath. He had been raised in the country and knew all about farm labor. Again, all I could think of was all of that green that I was going to earn. “Well, Mr. Matthews said you need to be there at 7AM, so make sure to set your alarm.” my mom reminded me. “I’ll be ready.” I said ready to start my first job in my new employed status. The only thing more green was how naive I was. Tomorrow would be the introduction to the work world, a world where I would never have a break in employment for the next 50 years. “Gill, you better get a move on or you will be late for your first day of work.” my mom shouted from down in the kitchen. I threw on my jeans, an old shirt and my tennis shoes. I headed down the stairs, grabbed a pop-tart and headed to the car. I sat in the front seat as my mom backed the car up and headed down our street. Mr. Matthews’ farm was only about 10 minutes away. Instead of turning into the farm market we headed down the lane between the two huge fields towards Mr. Matthews’ house. I had never been to his home, even though I went to school with his kids. We pulled up to the house and Mr. Matthews met us on the front lawn. “Good morning Gill, are you ready to work?” Mr. Matthews asked. “You betcha!” I replied excitedly. “Ok, well I think that you would work really well with our chickens.” Chickens. I imagined cute little chicks that I would throw feed on the ground as they peeped and pecked at the ground. What a great way to earn money. “Mrs. Trotman, Gill will be finished at 4. You can pick him up then.” Mr. Matthews reminded her. “Bye mom, see you then!” I said as I was eager to start earning all of that green. Mr. Matthews told me to follow him. There were all of these long building in this area of the farm. They looked to be a hundred yards long and were about 40 feet wide. I had no idea of why we were headed there, but figured all of the cute little chicks were inside waiting for me to give them their morning breakfast. As we got closer to the chicken houses, I began to get a whiff of this strange smell. It wasn’t the smell of nice dry sawdust that I imagined the chicks frolicking in, it was more like the ammonia that my mom used to clean the house with. Maybe it was a cleaner that they used to keep everything nice and clean. Mr. Matthews opened the door to the chicken house and my eyes grew wide as my mouth dropped open. There were rows of cages as far as I could see that ran all the way to the back of the chicken house. Each cage was attached to the other cage in a long row like a freight train with box cars attached as far as the eye could see. In between each row was a 4″ burlap belt that was moving toward the front of the chicken house where we stood. As soon as I realized what I was looking at, I covered my nose and my mouth. The smell of ammonia was not used for cleaning, it was the tons and tons of chicken poop that fell into a 12″ trough between each row of cages. I covered my mouth and nose. The smell made me gag and it was so strong that my eyes started to tear up as the ammonia smell overpowered my tear ducts. These were not cute little chicks. These were full grown hens, laying eggs in a egg laying factory. The combined sound of all of their clucking was so loud that Mr. Matthews had to yell to be heard over them. “Gill, what I want you to do is to clean up after these hens. Rufus will start the grader blade in a moment and scrape all of the chicken manure from the front to the very back into a hopper that is pulled behind the tractor. We take that manure and spread it over our fields as fertilizer. I shook my head to affirm, but had no idea how to clean up after 10,000 chickens. I could see Rufus in the back of the building flip a switch. As he flipped the switch, a grader like blade 8′ wide and 12” tall was tethered in the middle to a metal cable in the front of the blade and the back of the blade. The blade was perfectly made to fit into the rectangular pit where the chicken poop had fallen. The blade scraped the chicken clean as it made it’s way down the long row. I noticed that about 1/3 of the way down, there was so much chicken poop that it started to ooze over the side onto the cement walkway which was about 2′ wide between each long row of cages. I had never seen chicken poop before. Chicken poop wasn’t nice and dry, it was soft and wet. These chickens sort of just squirted their poop into the deep trough and 10,000 chickens I quickly saw could generate a hell of a lot of poop. “Now Gill, Rufus will be the one to operate the grader blade, your job is to come in here every day and use this scraper here, and to scrape the chicken poop that oozes on the walkway back into the trough. There are 3 walkways in each hen house and we have 4 hen houses. This should keep you busy each day. Welcome to the farm!” he smiled as he handed me the scraper and left. As soon as he left I said “Shit!” and quickly realized that I wasn’t swearing, just realizing what I would be handling 8 hours per day. The scraper was your standard 5″ metal scraper on the end of a wooden handle. I slowly proceeded down my first aisle scraping the wet chicken poop back into the trough. After about 50′, I couldn’t make out the sidewalk as the chicken poop totally covered the sidewalk. I scraped and scraped. I hadn’t brought gloves and after dropping the scraper a few times, quickly realized that I was going to have to get some gloves before tomorrow. My nice clean Converse tennis shoes were now sort of a gray color, covered with chicken  crap which made it very slippery. How could these chickens have pooped all of this in one day. By this time, I was on my first row, halfway down the middle of the long chicken house. I could barely breath, the smell was making me gag. The only green I was seeing was the color in my face as I started to feel rather light headed. I was going to have to do this all day. The smell was nauseating and the noise was deafening. I finally made it to the back of one of the rows and noticed some movement towards the front of the hen house. I made my way back to the front of the hen house to start on the next row and noticed an older black lady sitting on a stool in front of one of the rows of chicken cages. There was a square tray between two of the rows where she sat and the 4″ burlap belts ended at opposite corners near the front of this tray. She sat on her stool, with all of these plastic trays and metal racks behind her. Reaching under the tray, I saw that she flipped a switch that started the burlap belts rolling forward. On these burlap belts were all of the eggs that the hens had laid the night before. The cages were slanted forward so that when a hen laid an egg, it would roll onto the belt, waiting for the operator to turn on the belt to begin the collection process. As the eggs started to move onto the tray, she quickly took the eggs and placed them into the 30 egg tray. She quickly filled up the tray, placed it in the metal rack and grabbed another 30 egg tray. Her hands moved swiftly and precisely so as to not have to turn off the power to the belt and stop the flow of eggs to the tray. She was a swift machine with the dexterity of a dealer at a Vegas blackjack table. After a few minutes she looked up at me with a grin, then returned back to her task as to remind me that daylight was burning and I wasn’t moving. I took my scraper and started on the next row. After a couple of hours, I was done with house #1, 3 more to go. After the second chicken house, Mr. Matthews came to get me and told me to take lunch. “How’s it going?” he said with a smile, knowing that I had come not expecting to do what I had just spent all morning doing. “Well, it really stinks in there, but I think I’m doing pretty good.” I said with a shrug. “Good, now go eat your lunch. Make sure to get back to work in 30 minutes.” he said as he walked back to his pickup. “Yes sir.” I said as I went to sit under a tree and eat my sack lunch. As I sat down, I realized that I hadn’t asked where the bathroom was. How the heck was I going to wash my hands. At home I didn’t always bother to wash my hands before lunch, but I hadn’t been shoveling chicken poop all morning either. I wiped my hands on the cool green grass, trying to wipe my hands as clean as possible. I made sure to hold my sandwich with the wax paper wrapper and not my hands. How could I have been so naive as to think that I was going to play with cute little chicks in nice dry sawdust open areas? Lunch seemed like it only lasted 10 minutes before everyone started heading back to their different jobs. I stood up, stretched my back and picked up my disgusting metal scraper and headed to hen house #3. At 4PM, I had just finished scraping the wet gooey chicken crap back into the last trough in hen house #4 when I opened the door to see my mom’s Ford station wagon rumbling down the dusty farm lane towards the place where she dropped me off. As she pulled to a stop, I opened the door to get in the front seat where I had sat that morning. “What is that smell?” she yelled. “Oh my Lord, you smell like you fell into a sewer and you look like you fell into a sewer. What is all over your clothes and look at your shoes. It looks like you are wearing shoes made out of crap!” she said in disgust. “It’s chicken poop.” I said rather dejected.  “Well, you are NOT going to sit in my car looking and smelling like that!” she shouted. “Where am I going to sit?” I asked. “You can open the rear tailgate and sit in the cargo area with the window totally down. Make sure you hang your feet out the window.” she commanded. I opened the tailgate, climbed in and gingerly shut the tailgate and swung my feet out the back of the car. I couldn’t even stand my own smell. My mom turned the car around and headed down the dusty road. The dust came in the back of the car and stuck to my new gray chicken poop shoes. “Oh my Lord, I have never smelled anything so bad!” my mom yelled to the back as she covered her nose and mouth with her free hand. When we returned home, I was not allowed in the house. I had to go through the garage and shed my clothes. I had to run to my room in my BVD’s and put on some clean clothes. My mom made me take my clothes and shoes outside to the garden hose and rinse everything off. I then took a shower and tried to rid myself of the strong odor as well as the poop that had worked it’s way into my un-gloved hands. That night at dinner, my dad said with a grin, “Well, how did your first day of work go?” “It’s a pretty “crappy” job dad.” I said as I was almost laying down on the table exhausted and disgusted. “Well, it will be good for you.” he said as he started to laugh. He knew what I was going to face the night before and felt sort of a kinship to another farm laborer. As the summer wore on, I slowly moved my way from chicken poop scraper to egg collector. After many weeks, I slowly acquired the skill necessary to collect eggs off of the burlap belt without having to stop it. When needed, I still had to scrape chicken poop, but I had passed the necessary initiation and didn’t quit. It was a long hot summer, but I gained a lot of respect for farmers. Now, I am a dad and have seen my kids take on their first summer jobs. They had all heard this story, but it gave me an appreciation that no matter what I do for a living, I won’t have to take shit from anyone!    

Plan B

We thought we had it all figured out. VA summers are hot. We love the outdoors, not like backpacking and tent camping love the outdoors, but like sit outside with a glass of wine love the outdoors. Colorado is a dry heat. We had a manager for our VA based business that said “you need to open a CO division. ” That’s all we needed to hear. Colorado was the promised land. It’s where life was cooler and  visions of sugar plums danced in our heads. We could surely put our business that we had worked so hard at in the hands of a passive aggressive employee/manager. Anyway, we were going to duplicate our operation in Colorado. Sure, that would be easy. Off we went, sold the house loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Swimming pools? Movie stars? The first two years were great. Getting used to the snow and the winds of Estes Park was 180 degrees from what I had experienced, but surely we could do this. We bought a small office space and put out ads to attract employees to the beauty of Estes Park. We waited a week, then two. Nothing. Hmmm, why weren’t people replying to our help wanted ad? We found a few retired people, but after a couple of weeks, they decided they really loved being retired more than re-entering the work force. We finally found a web developer that lived about 45 minutes away. He whined the entire time about the drive to work, so when we had the bright idea to open a retail store down in the valley, our one employee jumped at the chance and moved to our retail store location. My son followed suit and moved to the local retail store as well. Well, it’s just you and me kid. Back to Laurie, me and the dog. Certainly people would want to drive an hour to work in the beauty of Estes Park, then drive an hour back home. We lived in Estes, so it was only a 12 minute drive for us and housing, at least year round rentals were hard to find in Estes Park. Whoops, guess we should have researched that. Meanwhile, back a the ranch, there was a storm a brewin’ , but it took us a couple of years to catch on. We were sure that we had made the right decision in our hiring as well as our decisions as of late. Our “trusted manager” was enjoying his new found lack of accountability. He decided that he shouldn’t have to work 8 hours per day, so he just worked 6, then 5, then 4. When I would call the office, his standard line was “everything is going fine.” I believed it for two years. I wanted to believe it. You see, if I had of listened to my gut, my gut would have said, “you better keep an eye on this guy”. You’ve heard, “While the cats away, the mice will play.” He took that to an entirely new level of which I will not elaborate, but when we were approached by our staff as to what was going on, well, let’s just say, he is no longer with us. This was the beginning of the end. The end of my living in la-la land mentally. All of a sudden, the past 2 years of what had been brewing back in VA started to come to light. How could I have been so blind? Well, we will just hire another manager. In our attempt to want to right the ship again, we threw in a manager, trained her for a couple of weeks, then went off again to Colorado. Guess what, she didn’t work out. Surprise, surprise. It’s been almost 2 years since the firing of that first manager. We didn’t re-hire another manager. We managed it remotely from Colorado, but it slowly became evident that this was not working either. The hard decision to sell our home in Colorado and move back to Virginia was not easy, but that is where we are. We can’t just let the business implode so that we can stay in Colorado. I really don’t want to stand on the street corners of Boulder holding a cardboard sign. We must do what we must do. I am sure that I will learn a lot more in the coming months. There are lessons to be learned. I can’t afford to do this all over again. I must do more research, pray and not let my decisions be run by my emotions. We all have Plan B’s in our lives. This just happens to be like Plan K for me!

Mr. Green Jeans and the lost tent

“It will be a great party, just imagine, camping by the river, a campfire, food, beer and lots of laughs!” These are the words I remember as I drove my beat up Chevy station wagon to Mr Green’s farmhouse. Right, a great time, where were you now? What was I going to say. I had to think of a plan, a story that sounded believable. My brother wanted his tent back and it was up to me to retrieve it, along with our sleeping bags and other things we had hauled down to the river bank weeks before. How was it that I was in this predicament anyway? Where were my party buddies? With the threat of by brother telling my parents, I had to retrieve his tent and the family camping equipment. I tried to remember the last time my brother even went camping. Why did he need his stupid tent anyway. I always loved the location of Mr. Green’s farm. It was on the Nansemond River. He had 100’s of acres surrounded by trees, right on the edge of the river. There was a line of trees at the river’s edge. From that spot, there was a drop off of about 50′ down to the sandy beach. It was a really quiet spot. Many times I would drive down to the edge of Mr. Green’s farm, but as soon as I crossed the road onto his dirt road, out of nowhere he would appear in his pickup truck. You couldn’t even see his house from the road. How did he know when anyone crossed from the county road onto his property? It wasn’t more than 30 seconds when you would see his truck come barreling down the drive to stop the unknowing visitor. It always went something like this, “You do know that you are on private property, don’t you? What do you want?” he would say. Well, that’s about as far as you got. You never made it any further. He was a grumpy old man and didn’t want anyone on his land. “You are better at talking to people than the rest of us. You go talk to old man Green and ask him if we can camp on his beach.” Bill said. “Right, I’m sure that he is going to let a bunch of teenagers party on his beach. He won’t even let me down his stupid dirt road.” I said. “Come on, it will be a blast. We will set up the tent in the afternoon, bring all of the sleeping bags and get things ready. At night, we will bring the beer and food. You will think of something to tell him. All of the other guys are looking forward to it.” Billy pleaded. “Ok, I’ll think of something.” I said. “Sweet!” Bill said. “I’ll go and tell the guys to get everything ready.” Now the fun part. What in the heck was I going to tell old man Green. It had to be a doozie. Think, think, what would convince you to let a bunch of teenagers camp on your beach? I racked my brain. I just couldn’t imaging what would work. For most of the day, nothing came to mind. At the last-minute, when it was getting late in the day, I finally came up with my “story”. Somehow I knew he would fall for it, but I had to make it believable. I wasn’t on bad terms with Mr. Green, I was just a guy who liked to come visit his farm, if it was only from a distance. I had my story and was ready to see if I could sell it to him. I drove down the state road rehearsing my lines. It was important that I sound sincere. Rounding the last turn, his dirt road came into view. I rambled onto his property and sure enough, within 30 seconds, Mr. Green came hauling ass around the corner, a dust cloud being churned up behind his Ford pickup. He skidded to a stop in front of my Chevy wagon, blocking my path. He swung the door open, jumped to the ground and approached my car. I knew that I had to get out of my car and approach him as if I was expecting his inquisition. “You do know that this is private property, don’t you son!” he said. “Yes sir, I do. I actually wanted to talk with you.” I said, building up my nerve. “Yeah, well what do you want?” old man Green asked. “Well, you see sir, I’m the president of my church youth group at St. Andrews Lutheran Church. Our youth group wanted to ask if you would be kind enough to allow us to use your beach down by the river for a youth campout. We have admired your beach and thought that it would be a wonderful location for us to simply get together, have a little campfire, roast marshmallows and sing Kumbaya. The kids are a great group of girls and boys that would simply love to use it to pray and sing.” I said. Mr. Green’s whole demeanor changed in an instant. “Why that sounds like a wonderful time. I’d be pleased to have you young people use my beach as a place to do such wonderful things. Just make sure that you clean up after yourselves and NO funny business. I don’t want a bunch of drinking and smoking going on!” he warned. “No sir, these are a fine bunch of kids. I’ll personally watch over them and make sure that they leave your beach as clean as when they arrived” I promised. “Ok, when will you be needing to use my beach?” he said. “Well, we were thinking about tomorrow night.” I replied. “That’s no problem at all. Enjoy yourselves.” he said. With that, I took my leave. I climbed back into my old car, backed down the drive and headed home. I did it! He fell for it. The guys were gonna’ be impressed! “Party, party!” Bill yelled after I told him the news. “I can’t believe that he fell for it, man you are good. What the heck did you tell him?” he asked. “I just told him that us church boys wanted to sing Kumbaya on his beach.” I said. “Well, whatever you told him, it worked. I’ll tell the rest of the guys to come over tomorrow afternoon to pack up all of the gear so that we can haul it down to the beach.” Bill said. The next day was going to be tricky. My brother had asked for a tent for Christmas and Santa had brought him this big green canvas tent that would sleep 4 people. It was his pride and joy and sneaking it out of the garage wasn’t going to be easy. I would have to wait until he was busy, then sneak it into my car, along with sleeping bags and the rest of the gear. I went into the kitchen and rummaged through the cupboard looking for chips, snacks and anything else that might go with beer. I wasn’t a big beer drinker, but Bill was. Beer was Bill’s department. His dad had quite a stash of booze in his house, so it wouldn’t be hard to sneak out 2 or 3 six packs of beer and Bacardi’s along with the usual Coke chaser. The plan was to meet up at the end of the neighborhood and take the tent and sleeping bags down to the beach. We all arrived at 4PM, piled into my station wagon and headed down to the beach. As we headed onto Mr. Green’s property, there was no sign of Mr. Green. Whatever method he used to tell who was on his property told him that I was the same guy that had met him the day before. Surprised, I continued down the lane until I reached the row of trees that lined the edge of the property. The beach was below this line of trees. We all jumped out, opened the back of the station wagon and hauled my brothers tent along with our sleeping bags down the hill to the beach. “Wow, this is a really cool place!” Jim said. “Yeah, I never knew that this place even existed.” Mark said. “Yeah, it’s one of my favorite places, even though I never make it more than 50 yeards down the dirt road before getting stopped by old man Green. Let’s get the tent set up so everything will be ready.” I said. We spent the next hour driving the stakes into the ground, setting up the poles, stretching the new canvas over the frame of the tent. We laid out the sleeping bags on the bottom of the tent. Next, we built a pit for the campfire and lined it with rocks. Man, this was a great place. I had actually been to the water before. One of my friends was friends with the McCarters who had horses. The McCarters knew old man Green. We used to ride the horses bareback to the beach and wade into the water while riding the horses. Since Mr. Green loved horses, he never even bothered to ask who we were. I guess the McCarters had done this plenty of times before and just figured we were part of the family. I never understood how they let Jimmy simply go to their barn any time he wanted, put a bridle and bit on the horses and take the horse out to wherever he wanted to go. We had finished setting up. We were ready for the coolest party to begin. “Let’s meet up at your house at 7PM tonight.” I said. “Great, I will bring the party supplies!” Bill said. I knew that party supplies meant booze. Everyone piled into my car and we all went home. At dinner, I told my parents that I was going to go spend the night at Bill’s house. “Fine, just behave yourself.” my mom said. “Of course, I always do!” I grinned. After dinner I packed a sweater and a coat, just in case it got cold. I headed over to Bill’s house. Mark and Jim were already there. Bill had the beer, Bacardi and Coke in several grocery bags by the garage door. We simply put them in the back of the station wagon, everyone got in and headed down the road, out of the neighborhood and into the cool autumn air. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This was a perfect camping night. We finally go to the end of the state road where Mr. Green’s property was. Slowly, as if we were trying to sneak onto the property, we turned off the lights of the car, the road only illuminated by the light of the moon, I let the car simply idle down the sandy road in the direction of the beach. Without much sound, we slowly parked the car and all piled out of the car, carrying the goods down to the beach. Why were we so quiet? We had permission. We all knew why we were quiet. We had hootch! We were not choir boys and we were going to sing Led Zepplin, not Kumbaya! “Let’s get the fire started.” I said. I knew that if we didn’t get the fire started, the batteries in our flashlights would die soon enough. It was pitch dark out here. There wasn’t a light to be seen anywhere. The stars in the sky were brilliant. The river lapped quietly at the shore. It was so peaceful, so serene. It seemed a shame to disturb the quiet. “Hurry up!” Mark said. “I’m hungry and need a beer.” We found some kindling wood and lit the fire without too much effort as the fall weather had been dry and the wood caught fire without hesitation. It wasn’t long before we had quiet a nice fire going. “Crack open the good stuff.” Bill said, and with that he went straight for the hard stuff, the Bacardi Rum, chasing it with his usually bottle of Coke. We each opened a can of his dad’s Schlitz beer. I thought to myself, this stuff is pretty nasty, but at least it is wet. I needed something to go with the salty pretzels that we had managed to abscond from my mom’s kitchen. After a few beers and half a bottle of Bacardi, we told stories and lies of things that never happened but wished they had. After a few hours, I think we did sing a chorus of Kumbaya, but not sure that the angels would have approved of our version. The evening was beautiful, the stories were flowing and the booze was gone. I climbed into the tent ready for a good nights sleep, but nobody else followed. “Hey, aren’t you guys gonna’ crash? I brought all of these sleeping bags.” I inquired. “Naw, I’m not really big into camping and I’m not feeling too good.” Bill said. “Yeah, I told my folks I would be home before midnight.” Jim admitted. “Well I’m not going to spend the night out here all by myself with nobody to talk to.” I said. “We need a ride home.” they all said. “Great, so much for our great camping trip. We dumped water on the fire to put it out and realized that nobody knew where their flashlight was. We cursed at the roots and brush that barred our way as we lumbered up the hill towards the car, the stars being our only light. After a little while of crawling on all fours, we made it to the car. Everyone piled in and I cranked up the old Chevy, keeping the lights out. We headed down the dirt lane, trying to be as quiet as possible. The crickets seemed louder than my car. We hit the state road, turned on the lights and headed home. I dropped everyone off, grunted an annoyed goodbye and drove home. I parked the car in the driveway. My parents weren’t at home. They usually headed to town on Saturday nights with my brother in tow. With no one home, I simply climbed the stairs, got into my PJ’s and climbed in bed. I was exhausted and disappointed that my buddy’s had bailed on me. Slowly, I drifted off to sleep, the smell of campfire surrounding my nose. “Oh crap!” I jumped from my bed. It was morning. I had totally forgotten about the tent, the beer cans, the empty Bacardi bottle and trash on the beach. I had promised Mr. Green that I would clean up our mess, that the youth group would pack up their s’mores, hot cocoa and equipment and leave his beach as pristine as we had found it. I skipped breakfast, headed to my car and sped down the road to Mr. Green’s beach. I didn’t dare turn on to his driveway. I stopped the car down the road and snuck to the beach by the edge of the property. Like a snake, I slid down the hill to the beach. “Oh no!” I said to myself, everything was gone. My brother’s tent, all of the trash, the beer cans, Bacardi bottle and snack wrappers, all gone. We had been found out. Slowly, I drove home, thinking of what I was going to tell my brother when he looked for his tent. What was I going to tell our church youth leader when he got the call from an angry Mr. Green asking what kind of youth group our church was sponsoring. Think, think. I had to think of what I was going to say. I pulled my beat up Chevy in the driveway and turned off the motor. I shook my head, really shaking my head at myself and the mess I had gotten myself into. “Where did you head off to in such a hurry?” my mom asked. “Oh, I wanted to run down to the beach and make sure that we had cleaned everything up at the campsite.” I told my mom. I had told her that Mr. Green had agreed to let us camp on his beach anytime we wanted. Another lie. I was getting deeper and deeper into this mess with no way out. The next day after church, my brother was busy with his friends and had no need for his tent, so I was good for now. At church, nobody mentioned a word about receiving a call from Mr. Green. That afternoon I expected that my parents would receive a phone call, but they never did. The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months. Summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter. I had totally forgotten about the whole incident. Life was back to normal. I was in the clear. I was working on my old Chevy when my brother came up behind me, “Where is my tent!?” he asked. “Uh, I don’t know. Why would I know where your tent is.” I lied. “It’s not in the garage where I put it and you would have been the only one that used it. I’m going to tell mom and dad that you lost my tent.” he threatened. “Ok, ok, I borrowed your tent.” I said. “When did you borrow it?” he asked. “Well, last summer. My friends and I wanted to camp out on Mr. Green’s beach.” I admitted. “Last summer! Where is my tent now? I want my tent! I’m telling dad.” he yelled. “Wait, wait, I’ll get back your tent. Give me a couple of days.” I pleaded. “I need it this weekend for the church youth group outing.” he said. “Ok, I’ll have it before then.” I promised. “You better!” he threatened. What was I going to do? My brother Drew was actually going to a youth group outing and needed his tent. I really felt guilty now. I had taken his tent without asking, lost it to farmer Green and now I had to produce his tent. I didn’t have the money to buy him a new one and I didn’t want for my mom and dad to find out about our wild party and the lies I had told Mr. Green. I had to come up with a plan. What was I going to tell Mr. Green? Think, think. I had to get out of this mess. Well, a lie got me into this mess, so I was either going to have to come clean or come up with an even better story. “Aha!” I said to myself. I had a plan. It was Friday. I had to get my brother’s tent back! I made the long drive to Mr. Green’s farm in my parent’s car. I stopped the car. I opened the glove box, took out my necessary tools. Slowly, I applied Vitalis to my hair. I slicked it back, with a nice part on the right side; next I took the fake mustache out of the package which I had purchased earlier that day from a novelty store. I carefully applied it to my upper lip. “Yep, that looks about right.” I told myself. The shirt that I wore was a button shirt. I buttoned all of the buttons, all the way to the top. I looked like a complete nerd. “This should do it.” I convinced myself. I put the car in drive and drove down Mr. Green’s lane. This time, for some reason, Mr. Green didn’t meet me as soon as I crossed his property line. I made it all the way to his house, which I had never seen before. I got out of my parent’s station wagon, slammed the door and waited for someone to come out of the farmhouse. Sure enough, Mr. Green came out of the back door, through the screened porch and made his way to me. “Can I help you?” he asked. “Yes sir. You see, my name is Jeffrey Willis from St. Andrews Lutheran Church in Churchland. I’m the new youth group leader.” I told him as convincingly as I could. Before I could continue, Mr. Green jumped in, “That no good youth group president that you sent down here trashed my beach; told me some lies about having a youth group meeting and singin’ some songs around the campfire. I went down the next morning to find my beach a total mess, beer bottles and trash everywhere. What kind of youth group are you running anyway!?” What was I going to say? He was still hot under the collar about being lied to. How was I going to convince him to give back my brother’s tent? “Mr. Green, you should be upset, being lied to and all of that. I would feel the same way. We don’t condone that kind of behavior at our church, believe me! The youth group president that caused all of this is no longer with us.” I fibbed. “Good, I hope you kicked him out of your church!” Mr. Green retorted. “Actually, Mr. Green, he died in a car accident a few weeks ago.” I said as my story started to form in my head. Mr. Green’s face looked astonished and his whole composure changed. “I’m really sorry to hear that, even if that boy did cause me quite a mess.” he said as he rubbed the back of his neck pondering what to say next. Before he could continue, I said, “The reason that I am here is to find out if you know what happened to the tent, you see, the tent belongs to the church and they need it for a real camping outing that I will be leading.” Mr. Green walked over to one of his outbuildings and said, “Well, that morning, after I picked up all of the trash, I took down the tent and folded it up and brought it here to my barn. I wasn’t going to ever give it back, considering how they lied to me and everything.” He opened the door to his small barn, went in to the back of the barn and sure enough, up on the shelf near a bunch of boxes and old mason jars there sat my brother’s tent. “There it is, all of the part are there.” he said. I grabbed the tent, the stakes and all of the tent poles, glad to finally have them in my possession. “You know, it was a terrible thing, the accident and all. The family is really dealing with all of this pretty bad. I’m really sorry for what happened, but promise that it won’t ever happen again.” I said. “Well, that’s quite a shame.” Mr. Green agreed. “What type of farming do you do anyway? I love the smell of the soil and a hard day’s work.” I said, as if I had grown up on a farm myself. “Well, you know, I pretty much grow soybeans for part of the year, then change to corn every now and then. Hey, would you like to see my tractor?” Mr. Green grinned. “Sure, is it a Deere or a Massey?” I asked, not really knowing what either of them would look like, other than all John Deere tractors are green. “Come on over to my implement barn and let me show you!” as he put his arm on my shoulder guiding the way. I didn’t care what he wanted to show me, now that I had my brother’s beloved tent back. “I’d love to see it!” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster as he led me on a personal tour of his farm. “Now this here is where I keep my tractors……………” Life was good once again.

The real Santa Claus

But he is not the REAL Santa I protested! I can’t believe that my mom was trying to take me to see the fake Santa at Mid City Shopping Center in Portsmouth VA.  For years, my mom would take my brother and I to Miller and Rhodes in Richmond VA to visit the real Santa Claus; of course there was always the local mall Santa, but he was just Santa’s helper. The real Santa required a trip to Richmond, about and hour and a half away where we would wait in line for what seemed hours to see the Snow Queen and Santa. Thanksgiving was over and it was time to put up the Christmas decorations. This required getting the big box out of the attic and watching my dad go through each and every light bulb, trying to get them to light. My dad refused to buy new light bulbs. He would flick the light bulbs with his middle finger until the filament would re-fuse itself and light. His finger would grow numb by the end of this exercise. Back in those days, we used what I called the mongo light bulbs for the outside of the door. Our family color was blue. We would put up the Christmas tree, but my mom, being an artist was meticulous about the decorating of it. She would take the tinsel and separate it so that she only would allow one strand to be applied in only the most appropriate locations. It seemed to take 6 hours to decorate our tree. Many of the times, we had to rob branches from the back and drill holes in the trunk to arrange them so that they filled in bare spots in the front. I remember one tree that refused to stand upright. My dad had to use fishing line to tie it to two corners of the walls to keep it from falling over. There was also the felt NOEL door hanger that was hung on the outside of the front door that I believe my mom made. Every window had to have a candle in it as well. Decorations back then were simple. Nobody tried to outdo City Hall with their personal Christmas display. One Saturday after Thanksgiving, my mom would inform us that today was the day that we were going to visit the real Santa in Richmond. My brother and I knew what was expected. My mom laid out our Sunday best to meet Santa. Unlike Sunday mornings, we didn’t argue when it came time to get dressed in all of these fancy clothes. My mom would get all dressed up as well, wearing her long dress coat with the fur collar. The drive to Richmond seemed like it took an eternity. We could tell we were getting close when the tall buildings would appear in the distance, outlining the city. Finding a parking space was always a challenge as downtown Richmond, our state capital was a flurry with holiday shoppers. I remember that this Saturday, there was a light snow falling which made the whole experience seem magical. Thalhimers was directly across from Miller and Rhodes. Both stores were anchors for this block. Thalhimers had a water fountain in the atrium that flowed out of some sort of statue. The water seemed to be scented with perfume, but even with all of it’s beautiful displays, Santa was across the street at Miller and Rhodes. We parked the car and all bundled up, my mom took us across the street into the store. We had to go upstairs to see Santa. Santa’s village was decorated to look like the North Pole. There was fake snow everywhere with gingerbread houses and elves to direct the kids and parents towards the line to see Santa. The line seemed to wind around Santa’s village for miles. I remember waiting to see Santa, preparing what I was going to say to him. This made the time go by faster. Eventually, we could make out Santa, sitting in his golden chair. Every child was dressed in their best outfit. After what seemed like and eternity, there were only a few kids waiting before me, but the line behind me still wound through the store for what seemed like forever. We were up next. First, the beautiful Snow Queen met us and talked with us for a moment, to ask how we were doing. I just stared at her in amazement. She was in this beautiful satin dress and seemed to be from some frozen part of the world where all is good and sparkly. Santa motioned to me and my brother, “Come on over boys, my how big you are. How are you Gill and Drew?” My mouth dropped open. Santa knew our names. This WAS the real Santa. Typically, Drew got to sit on Santa’s knee since he was the younger. Santa asked what we wanted and all I could do was to stare at him. Nothing came out of my mouth. I was frozen. He knew my name. Santa motioned to the Snow Queen, and before I knew it, a camera flashed, my brother was set down and we were on our way headed down the line to meet my mom. “How was it? Did you tell Santa what you wanted for Christmas?” she asked. “Uh, yeah.” was all that I could manage to say. She led us around Santa’s village and of course she had to do some shopping until we could go to Santa’s Palace where we would have lunch with Santa and the Snow Queen. I don’t remember what we ate or the ride home. I was still mesmerized that Santa knew my name. He was the REAL Santa. Years later, one of the Snow Queens wrote a book about her experience at Miller & Rhodes. There were only a few Snow Queens. Most of them were college age girls who looked forward to playing this part that they would return each Christmas to see the wonder in the eyes of all of the children. I found out later, that it was the Snow Queen that had a hidden microphone in her outfit and that her greeting to us before we sat on Santa’s knee was to inquire as to our names. Santa on the other hand had an earpiece to hear the names that the Snow Queen would find out from us. I never put two and two together. It was a magical experience for those of us that lived in VA and would make our pilgrimage to Richmond each year. I would eventually discover who Santa really was, but I think I was the only kid who was in the 5th grade that still believed in Santa. My parents did a great job keeping the magic alive as my dad would hook up fishing line all through the house to some bells outside. He would yank the string behind the couch to make the bells ring which would cause absolute fear in me and my brother. Eventually, the indoor malls took over and the downtown slowly eroded as many downtown areas do. You would never know that the area used to be a bustling activity of Christmas shoppers and young children on their mother’s coat tails going from store to store. Miller & Rhodes and Thalhimers are no longer there, just empty boarded up 6 story grand old brick facades of what used to be. I have so many great memories of our trips to Richmond to visit the real Santa. I felt very privileged to make the trek each year. I kind of felt sorry for those kids that only had the experience of the mall Santa. Back at school I would tell everyone how I visited the real Santa and my friends, who had figured out who Santa really was would simply roll their eyes and go, “Sure, you met the real Santa. Ha! I can’t believe you don’t know.” I would always walk away wondering, “Know what?” while scratching my head. Oh well, the magic of Christmas isn’t meeting the real Santa, but the one who was born, that is the reason that we celebrate this time of year. My brother gave me the best present a brother could ever give, he introduced me to someone better than Santa, Jesus Christ, and guess what he knows my name!

Hank Disney

I saw Saving Mr. Banks last night. I wasn’t sure what the movie was all about, other than telling the story of how Mary Poppins came to be. I will say that this wasn’t your typical Disney film. Can you imagine the weight of responsibility that Tom Hanks must have felt when asked to play Walt Disney. Walt is probably more well known than Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, at least worldwide, so trying to play an iconic role like Disney must have been quite a feat. Hanks said in an interview that he had a real hesitation to play the role, but he did a great job pulling it off. Emma Thompson played a marvelous role as P L Travers, the impossible to deal with creator of the book Mary Poppins. As I watched the movie, I started thinking about the massive amount of work that Walt was able to deliver, especially dying so early of lung cancer at age 65. In the movie, you hear that tell tale cough that Walt was known for, the early signs of lung cancer.  The Disney staff always knew that Walt was around the corner because his constant cough would give him away. Walt was the creative force behind all that is Disney and his brother Roy was the financial brother that got Walt’s butt out of the sling when he would over promise. Both Walt and Roy are gone, but their legacy continues as the seed that gave birth to the Disney creations has multiplied and continued to grow past the grave. Imagination and creativity is something that lives on in the hearts of all of us that dare to wish upon a star.

hank martens, hank disney, walt disney
This is an early picture of my grandpa Hank Martens.