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. 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.
One hour til high school graduation, I had plenty of time; 30 minutes to drive and pick up my girlfriend, 20 minutes to get to my high school and 10 minutes to spare. What could possibly go wrong? “Don’t be late. We will see you after the graduation.” said my mom and dad. “Of course I won’t be late.” I replied. I grabbed my cap and gown, ran down the stairs and jumped into my VW bug. It was a hot humid afternoon in Nansemond County. My Beetle didn’t have air conditioning, so 255 was my AC; 2 windows open driving 55mph. As I was driving, I got to thinking, maybe graduation started at 4:30, not 5PM. Hmmm, it wouldn’t be cool arriving to graduation during the middle of the valedictorian giving their speech. I know, I would take a short cut down Hill Rd. That would shave at least 10 minutes off of my drive. I turned on to Hill Rd. feeling great about my impending graduation ceremony, the wind blowing my long hair as I hung my elbow out the window. Life was good. Suddenly I slammed on the brakes. I stopped immediately in front of a big mound of gravel and dirt. Obviously, unknown to me, the county had started road work and cut a trench right across Hill Rd. A back hoe had dumped two hills of gravel and dirt on either side of the trench. My path was blocked. There was absolutely no time for me to back track and go the long way to Debbie’s house. What was I going to do! As I perused the hill in front of me, I had a brainstorm. I could back up and then jump the trench, using the hill as a ramp. That was it. What a great idea. I put the Bug into reverse and backed up about 100 feet. As I sat there gunning the engine, I imagined hitting the hill, sailing over the trench and then landing on the other side with gravel spewing behind my wheels. Ok, get ready, set, go! I floored the gas pedal, popped the clutch and the Beetle lurched forward. As the tach hit 5,000 rpm’s I slammed it into second gear, gaining speed, the mound of dirt and gravel coming quickly into view. Just as I shifted into third gear, I climbed the hill, ready to soar. “Oh crap”, I thought at the last minute, “what if I didn’t have enough speed, what if the gap was too wide.” I slammed on the brakes at the last minute. Instead of soaring into the air over the trench, I was stuck dead on top of the hill before the trench. Oh please don’t tell me this could have happened? The top of the tiny hill was directly under the middle of the car. I was teetering back and forth, balanced perfectly on my gravel perch. I opened the door carefully, making sure not to tip the Bug into the trench. I climbed down the hill, around the back of the car and grabbed the steel bumper. I tugged with all of my might trying to pull my stranded car back onto the road. The Bug would not budge. I pulled and pulled until the sweat started to bead up on my forehead and drip down my clean shirt. It was firmly stuck on top of old Smoky. What was I going to do? I had to have some help to get out of this. I was in the middle of farm country. Where was I going to find help? I looked around and down the dirt road next to my car was a pickup truck and some guys working on a tractor. That’s it. I ran down the dirt road, soy beans on either side of the road yelling as I ran, “Hey, can you help?” I reached the pickup truck after what seemed like an eternity running. “What’s up son?” they said as i reached the pickup. “My car is stuck on top of a gravel mound on Hill Rd. Can you help me get it down?” I pleaded. “Well, I guess we can lend a hand, but first we have to go to the barn and get some parts for our tractor here. Jump in.” they said. I jumped into the bed of the pickup with another man that looked like he had seen many days in the heat of the sun, riding on a tractor for 10 hours a day. The ride down the dirt road wasn’t exactly smooth, pot holes and dust were coating my already sweaty skin. When were we going to get to this elusive barn? Just then, the barn came into view. I looked at my watch. it was 4:20. This was not good. “Ok, Jessie get the carb cleaner and a new air filter. Oh yeah, get a rope too, we will probably need it to help this fella.” the driver of the pickup said. Yes, finally I was going to get some help. We drove back down the dirt road toward Hill Rd. Jessie who was riding in the bed of the truck with me, started laughing hysterically. When he finally stopped laughing, he said “What the sam hill is that little car doing on top of that pile of gravel?” Now I had to retell my story of how I intended to jump the hill and sail over the trench, but chickened out at the last moment. They scratched their heads and just walked around my trophy on top of Old Smoky. “Well, that there little car is probably so light we can probably just pull it down off of this here…….uh mountain.” the driver of the truck said as he started to laugh. “Ok, guys, let’s pull it back. One, two, three!” he said as they pulled the teetering Bug off of the hill and back onto the road from where I had begun. “There you go pardner!” Jessie said as he grinned, chewing tobacco tucked into his cheek. “Thanks!” I said as I climbed into the Beetle. “No problem, I’d suggest you turn around and go the other way.” the driver of the truck retorted as I waved, turned the Bug around and sped back down Hill Rd, going the long way. I was drenched in sweat, dust coating my arms, neck and face. My long hair was soaked in sweat, my nice whit shirt was no longer white. After 15 minutes, I finally reached Debbie’s house. “Where have you been?” she asked. “It’s a long story, get in the car, I am LATE.” I shot back as I opened the door to let her in the Bug. I tore out of her driveway, heading to my high school. I retold her the events of the last 40 minutes as she giggled. “I can’t believe I was that dumb!” as I took hold of the horn handle on the steering wheel and shook it hard. It broke off in my hand. “Great!” I said as I tossed the metal horn handle out of the Bug through the open sun roof. “Calm down, we are almost there.” Debbie said as we reached the High School. John Yeates High School, my soon to be alma mater, parking lot was packed on this hot humid evening. I finally found a spot at the back of the parking lot. “I have to run, I’m super late.” I told my girlfriend. “You’ll have to find a seat and I’ll see you afterwards.” As I ran towards the football field, the procession of graduates was already streaming onto the field in alphabetical order. Thank God my last name was Trotman. I found my spot near the back and settled into the stream of my fellow classmates. I was breathing like a freight train, putting on my gown while trying to keep in single file. Finally while we entered the stadium, I tried to make out my parents and brother in the stands. Sweat was running down my forehead into my eyes, blurring my eyes. I couldn’t make out my family. I was just glad to have not missed my own graduation. As we filed into the row where I was to sit, I sat down in the heat of the evening. My maroon graduation gown was slowly turning to black with sweat. Slowly the principal called out our names and as my name was called I walked across the stage, my gown stuck to me like fly paper. I was sure that everyone could tell that I had just jumped into a pool. Gill Trotman, the principal said as he handed me my diploma. I grinned, shook his hand and thought, “I wonder if I can jump that trench on the way home if I get a better running start!”
I moved to Estes Park CO this past August, but this isn’t the first time that I have been acquainted with the word Estes. Back in the late 60’s, man was reaching toward the stars and every kid had the dream within themselves to do the same. It was the perfect time for the model rocket company Estes to flourish. Estes model rockets were originally produced in Denver CO before moving to Penrose CO in 1961. Our local hobby shop sold Estes model rockets. These weren’t just rockets that you built out of plastic and displayed on a shelf; these were balsa wood, plastic and cardboard core rockets that you loaded with a real gunpowder rocket engine and launched from a remote launch system. The exhilaration of taking the time to build a beautiful bird then take it to the nearest open field and start the countdown to launch. Upon ignition, the engine ignited rushing your rocket to 1,000’s of feet into the air, reaching apogee then releasing the parachute to glide to a soft landing. This was the era of Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom and the other 4 of the Mercury 7 team. Living in Nansemond County left a boy a lot of time to daydream. We didn’t have malls and theaters to keep us distracted. As I could save up my allowance, I built several of the Estes rockets, but I was getting bored with the single engine design of the rockets I was building. It was time to build something unique. It was time to build a much bigger rocket with a cluster engine. The largest engine that Estes made back in my day was the new D engine. I wanted to build a 42″ tall rocket with a cluster of 3 D engines. It was going to take that many of the new powerful D engines to get my rocket off of the ground. First, I had to find a cardboard tube large enough to form the main body of my rocket. I rummaged around in my dad’s garage. After searching for a while, I found an old cardboard tube that used to hold a special film that my mom used in her art work. It was the perfect size. Now I had to fashion fins and a nose cone. That was not going to be an easy task. I had to use lightweight balsa wood, but it had to be shaped to the perfect size. Shaping a cone is not easy, especially when you don’t have many tools. Somehow I was able to whittle the pieces down to the correct size and then sanding it with many sheets of sandpaper. I had to then build some sort of engine casing that would hold all 3 of the D engines. Scrounging again around the house finally led me to the freezer. A frozen orange juice concentrate can fit perfectly inside the body of my rocket. I then took the 3 engines, glued them into the orange juice can and slid them into the base of the rocket body affixed against the engine bulkhead. Now I needed a shock cord for my nose cone and parachute assembly. More searching led me to my mom’s sewing drawer where I found a piece of elastic for waistbands. Finally, I had all of the parts assembled for my first home-made bird. I took a can of silver spray paint to finally give my rocket the “official” look. A few carefully placed decals displayed “USA”, just in case it went into orbit and whoever found it wanted to know which continent it was launched from. Launch day arrived one beautiful June morning. That day our maid, Claudia was there. Claudia was more like a part of the family than domestic help. I brought the rocket out of the garage and she said, “What you gonna’ do with that thing?” as she started her trademark laugh. “I’m going to launch my rocket today. Will you come watch?” I asked. Just then my mom came in the room asking if today was going to be the day that I tried to launch it. “Yep, can you give me a ride down to the Eberwine field? I don’t know how much space I will need and they have a big field.” I grinned. “Ok, get your brother and let’s go.” she agreed. The drive to the field seemed to take forever, but we finally arrived. Launching a rocket wasn’t like launching a bottle rocket, you didn’t light a fuse, you used a remote launching system. I had constructed my launch pad out of an old 6×6, bored a hole in it for the exhaust and then used an old pole as a guide rod. As we got out of the station wagon, I carried my rocket and launch pad to a level spot in the field. I carefully attached the igniters to the engines, then ran the wire back to the car. Back in the 60’s we typically would use the car battery to provide the power for the igniters. “Ok, stand back!” I shouted as I counted down. 10, 9, 8 all the way to 1, then I pressed the ignition button. There was a great whoosh of smoke and fire. The rocket slowly lifted off of the launch tower only to reach about 100′, then the parachutes deployed and it was over. “What the heck!” I said as I ran to go get my rocket. I turned over the end of the rocket only to find that two of the engines had not ignited. What I had seen was the result of one rocket engine. Claudia just shook her head and my mom gave up a whoop thinking that this is all it was supposed to accomplish. “No, no, it didn’t work!” I complained. “It was supposed to go a lot higher.” My brother just shook his head as he walked back to the car.
The next week, my grandfather from Alaska arrived to visit. This was his first visit to VA and I was so proud to have my Alaska grandpa in town for the next planned launch. I removed my orange juice can rocket cluster and replaced the spent rocket engine with a new one. This time, I made sure to carefully install the igniters while the rocket was in the garage instead of in the field. “Hey grandpa, would you like to see me launch my rocket?” I asked. “What’s that? A rocket? Are you going into outer space?” he kidded. “No, I built this rocket and I want to see if it will work this time.” I explained. “Sure, let’s give it a try.” he said. Again, my mom, brother and now my grandpa climbed into the Ford station wagon and headed again to the Eberwine field. After setting up everything like before, I told everyone to stand back and started the countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 IGNITION! I felt a lump in my throat, waiting for something to happen, then WHOOSH! All three engines ignited simultaneously forcing smoke and fire out the hole of the launch base. Then the engines thrust the rocket up immediately past the launch tower, streaking up towards the clouds. Higher, higher it sped as it reached apogee. It glided for a few seconds, then the ejection charge popped the nosecone of the rocket out allowing the parachute to unfurl. The rocket, only a small speck slowly glided back down towards the ground. I ran in the direction of the descending silver tube almost able to catch it as it landed in the field across the street. Cheers erupted from my grandpa, mom and even my brother Drew as they couldn’t believe that this assembly of household finds had defied the powers of gravity, even if only for a few moments. I came home that day feeling like Robert Goddard, the American rocket inventor. Now I had the bug. My next rocket project was going to be bigger and better than ever. I quickly found two old carpet tubes, one larger in diameter than the other, one being the booster and the other the second stage. This rocket stood taller than our two-story house. I decided to work on the payload section by leaning out the window of our second story bathroom window. My rocket was doomed to never see the launch pad. You see, I had reached the limit of what was commercially available in rocket engines. Combining three D engines was not recommended and I had pulled this off with my silver bird, but I would need an engine that would produce at least 1,500 lbs of thrust and that was something that was not just sold over the counter at your local hobby shop. I tried formulating my own gunpowder, but without the proper combustion chamber and nozzle, there was no way to make an engine. I tried using sheets of copper and forming a nozzle, soldering the nozzle to a pipe, but when it came to test fire the engine, the solder simply liquified under the heat of the gunpowder and my nozzle fell to the ground resulting in a smoking, stinky flame of goo. I was probably fortunate that the nozzle had fallen to the ground. I probably would have ended up with a pipe bomb and then not able to type this story. My rocket days were over, at least for 20 years. I did pick it up again later as an adult, but the realization that this wasn’t a cheap hobby nor one for the garage was becoming very clear. Neil and Buzz would have to go to the moon without me. NASA didn’t call to ask for my help either, but my mom was calling me to take out the trash. Yep, I was back to earth.
“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.
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!
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.
We purchased, or should I say, I purchased a 1976 GMC Mini RV. I don’t want to place this on Laurie. I can’t pass up a good deal. $2,300 for a running RV. I mean come on. Being the proud owner, I drove it home in the rain. My first warning that I hadn’t gotten such a good deal was that the wiper blades were dry rotted. Our drive up the canyon resulted in the motor cutting off driving up the canyon. The carb had a vapor lock and it wouldn’t start again until it cooled off. Time to take it to a mechanic. Well, back and forth to the mechanic we went. After some more work, here and there, we decided to take a trip to Glacier National Park, quite a long trip. First, we took it for a dry run to our local Jellystone campground and tested all of the appliances, hooked everything up, cooked dinner and slept the night. Everything seemed to work so, off we went, heading to Montana 2 days later. We weren’t even an hour from home when we heard a loud flopping sound from the rear of the RV. I told Laurie to pull over. What we found was that we had lost an entire tire tread. We were close to an exit, so we drove it off the Interstate and found out that there was a tire center very close by. The salesman from the tire store said, “Whoa, 16.5″ tires. They stopped making those rims in the 80’s. Wow, based upon the date code on your tires, these tires were made in 1997! I wouldn’t drive 10′ with these tires, they are dry rotted.” He didn’t have these rare tires, so he called around and finally found some tires in Denver. “Well, I can have them here in a couple of days.” What were we going to do now, we had an RV full of food and we were only an hour from home. We told him our dilemma. He had one of his employees drive all the way to Denver and pick them up. 4 hours later, we were back on our way. God had saved our hides, both with only a rear tire blowing out and by the generosity of the tire center manager having one of his employees go to Denver for us. Within the hour, we had crossed the Wyoming state line. Two hours later, we hit our first RV site. We weren’t far from home, but we we had at least crossed the state line. The next morning, we headed on to Montana and we found out that our little RV didn’t like hills. We decided to come up with a name. I thought of Thomas the train and his “I think I can” attitude. This is how we felt every time we approached another hill. Another RV park, another 8 hours of driving. We finally made it to Glacier National Park and had a great time visiting. We took a helicopter ride over the Glaciers and saw parts of the park that we wouldn’t have been able to see by just hiking or driving through the park. Next, we headed to Yellowstone National Park. We stopped at a rest stop and another driver who had been following us told us that we had no brake lights or turn signals! I said, “You have got to be kidding!” I knew that we didn’t have rear running lights, but knew that we had brake lights and turn signals. What were we going to do, we still had plenty of miles to drive. I went to a NAPA store and purchased wiring and parts to try and repair the lights. The NAPA guy told us of a mobile RV mechanic. We went to his location and he had a cancellation for the next morning. Within an hour and a half, he had the running lights, brake lights, turn signals and reverse lights up and running. Thank God again. Before we left Yellowstone, I purchased some roof sealant tape because we had lost a big section of roof sealant tape on the drive. I figured that I would apply it at a later date. Driving out of the park, I noticed that even though there was only 10% chance of rain, the skies looked ominous. We pulled over and I applied the sealant tape to the roof. We started heading down the road and within the hour we were in a full downpour. Thank God we were able to purchase the sealant tape and stop to apply it before it was too late. Day 8 we finally returned to Estes Park Thomas, the toy RV had made it almost 2,000 miles; probably more consecutive miles that it had ever done. Up and down hills. Sometimes only hitting 40 miles per hour up hills. God went before us the whole way. It was a journey in faith for me, learning to trust that He will take care of us.
The year was 1969. The Apollo program was in full swing and I felt as though I was a part of it. I was 14 and I envied the astronauts. I wanted to go up in space, but first I needed training. How can a 14 year old get training to be an astronaut? How would I stand the confines of a space capsule for 4-5 days? I had an idea! My dad had built us a tree house around a tree. It had 8 sides and a pointed roof. It almost looked like a space capsule. I could use this for my “training mission”. A friend of mine, who was crazy enough to sign up for this adventure, agreed to submit himself to this training mission. He and I came up with the idea to use the capsule/tree house as a training environment. First, we had to make the inside look as if it were a capsule. I found a roll of aluminum foil in my mom’s kitchen. Armed with a staple gun and aluminum foil, I methodically lined the inside of the tree house walls and ceiling with the aluminum foil; of course one roll wasn’t enough. After 5 more rolls of aluminum foil, the inside of the capsule was almost complete. All we needed now would be loads of switches, buttons and lights. Using a soldering iron, wires and 12 volt batteries, I built a control panel that didn’t do anything but it sure did light up. Ok, the interior was complete, but how to get food to us? We didn’t have any of that cool space food in toothpaste tubes. All we had was Tang, the official drink of astronauts. it was time for another invention. I rigged up a pulley and rope system between our house and the window, I mean space observation area, of the capsule. My little brother Drew agreed to put food into the box of the pulley conveyor and send it to us daily. The big day had arrived. We wanted to look the part so we took our mom’s hair dryers, which in those days was a box that had a hose connected to it and then a bag that you put on your head. This looked almost exactly like what the astronauts carried into the space capsule. My buddy Bill and I donned jump suits and modified hair dryers, to supply needed oxygen and climbed up through the bottom of our tree….I mean space capsule ready for lift off. We were ready to begin our training mission. As we got settled in to our modified lawn chairs, we switched on our control panel to begin launch sequence when it occurred to us that we had not thought of a way to get rid of our food, rather our waste. Another great idea. I told my little brother that we would do our business in baggies and drop them out of the bottom of the space capsule escape hatch door for him to do as he pleased. He said, “You have got to be crazy!!. I didn’t mind making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sending them to you on the pulley transport but I REFUSE to get rid of your refuse! I quit.” For some reason, my mom and dad didn’t fancy the idea either. My buddy Bill and I looked at each other. Our mission had been scrubbed.
It was 1973 and the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended. N-63 was the designation for the Nike Site in then Nansemond County, VA. The abandoned missile site had long been forgotten. A barbed wire fence enclosed the entire complex. It was still federal property, but the abandoned Army complex was a ghost town. I remember when my parents would drive down the road by the site, seeing the missiles raised from their underground hideaways, poised to strike as the army personnel performed their weekly preparedness exercises. I had always been intrigued by the site and as a senior in high school, Billy and I had this great idea. How about checking out the site late one night? What was inside of these missile silos that had been long abandoned? The idea started to gel in our minds until we just couldn’t stop thinking about it. We decided to take the plunge and commit to explore it. Telling our parents about our plan was out of the question. We would have to do this in subterfuge mode. It would have to be late at night when everyone was asleep. Billy lived farther away from the site than I did, so the plan was that he would come by my house and wake me up. My bedroom was on the second floor. How was he going to let me know that he was outside, ready for me to join him in our adventure? We had to think of a quiet plan. Early that day, we used a roll of heavy duty twine. We threaded it out my second floor bedroom window, down the side of the house and behind the shrubs to await Billy’s tug to action. The plan was to tie the end of the twine to my big toe. When Billy arrived, he was to wake me by “gently” tugging on the twine to wake me. I was all set. The twine was tied to my big toe, hanging out of the covers. Suddenly I heard one of my parents come upstairs, calling my name. I removed the twine from my toe and temporarily tied it to the foot board of my bed. I went to see what my folks wanted, stopped by the bathroom and finally jumped into bed. I was so excited about our impending adventure, slowly falling into a deep sleep. There was only one snag, I had forgotten to retie the twin to my big toe. It was still attached to the bed. Around 1 AM Billy came to my house, outside of my window two stories down and scrounged around until he found the end of the twine. He “gently” tugged on the twine …..nothing. He sort of “gently” tugged again on the twine……nothing. Next, he not so gently yanked on the twine and heard a clunk. He didn’t think anything of it so he hauled off and yanked and yanked on the heavy duty twine. He was lifting the bed off of the floor, banging it against the wall. Lights went on and my dad burst into the room asking, “What the hell is going on!” I acted dumb at first, then realized that I would have to think fast. I told him that I had gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom and had fallen over my desk chair. Fortunately, he went for it, probably wanting to go back to bed himself. NOW, I was awake! I waited for my dad to go back to bed before I crawled out the window, onto the porch roof an scrambled to the ground. Billy was waiting for me and said, “What the heck was all of that noise?” I said, “You were lifting the bed off of the floor! Enough chit chat, let’s get going.” We were off. It was about a mile to the Nike Site. Billy had brought two flash lights for us and we needed them as it was a pretty dark walk to the abandoned site. Once we arrived to the site, we looked around to make sure the coast was clear. The only thing that separated us from the missile silo was an eight foot chain-link fence and a few strands of barbed wire. The coast was clear so we made a run for the fence from our hiding places at the edge of the field. Scaling the fence was a pretty easy task, but maneuvering around the barbed wire was a little tricky. After a few carefully placed holds, we were on the other side of the fence. The site was almost all covered in solid concrete. We didn’t see much in the way of buildings, but what we saw next was pretty wild. We shined our flash lights toward a square box protruding out of the cement. It was about 18″ x 18″ with a steel handle on the top. We determined that this was a door of some type. We ran over to the door and lifted it up. The hinges were rusty as it opened up with a bit of squeaking. Billy shined his flashlight down the hatch. There were ladder rungs protruding from the sides of the walls of the hatch. I went first, down into absolute darkness. When I reached the bottom, I was standing in two feet of cold water. What the heck was this? I shined my light on the walls. This was a solid concrete underground bunker of some sort. Billy whispered, “What do you see?”. I replied, “This is really cool, come on down!”. He started down the rungs and found the same cold surprise that I had. “Dang! What am I standing in?” Billy said. “It looks like they have flooded this place with water for some reason; probably to keep people out.” I quickly replied as I tried to figure out where to go next. The room was only about 10 x 10. There were painted outlines on the walls where wrenches and tools would have been kept. On the far side of the room was a solid concrete door, at least 12″ thick. Fortunately, it was partly open, because if these hinges were rusty, there was no way that we would have been able to budge that door. We waded through the water, down a concrete hallway. This entire place had been made of reinforced, poured concrete. I felt something in the water. I shined my flashlight down into the water to see a piece of wet fried chicken bobbing up and down. We were either not the first to be down here since this place had been flooded or we finally found the location where Colonel Sanders came up with his secret recipe. The water was pretty clear, it was just cold. Billy said, “Where does this tunnel go?” I replied, “There is only one way to find out.” We both continued down the hall approaching another solid concrete door. It was open enough to squeeze by, but we tried to open it further. It would not budge. We tried a little more only able to get it open a few more inches. As we squeezed past the last concrete door it seemed as though we were in a much bigger room. Both of us shined our flashlights up and around the room. We both slowly said, “Whoa!” We had hit the mother lode. This room was huge. It was about two times the size of our high school gymnasium. The ceiling seemed to be about 20′ high and there were strange tracks and ladder rungs in the side of the walls that ascended to the top at the far side of the room. In the middle of the ceiling were two huge plates of steel, 30′ long by about 20′ wide that met in the middle. We figured that these were the two retractable doors that lifted out of the way to allow the missile to be raised into launch position. We wanted a better look, so we walked closer, almost under the doors when for some unknown reason we just happened to shine our flashlights into the water ahead of us. “Stop!” I yelled to Billy. Under the water, in front of us was a chasm that was so deep that our flashlights could not make out the bottom. “That was close!” Billy said as we both backed away from the missile pit. One more step and Billy would have had an underwater look at were the missiles used to sleep. As we wandered around the cavernous concrete room we had this awesome idea. This cool place is just going to waste. It’s been forgotten by the military and is a waste. This would be a really cool place to have a club where our friends could bring their guitars, drums and amps to have a rocking band practice area! All we would have to do would be to get a gas powered pump and pump out all of this water, then when it dried out, we could use gas powered generators to supply the electricity for our amps and guitars. Wild ideas ran through our minds as we decided it was probably time to head back. We waded through the water, past the two concrete doors, tunnel and back to the tool room. We shined the flashlights one more time around the tool room and past the fried chicken drumstick bobbing in the water. Billy climbed up towards the hatch as stars reappeared in the night air. As I climbed up, I was trying to imagine what this place was like when it was an active Nike Site; better yet, what it would have been like not to have to wade around in two feet of cold water, and who would throw away a perfectly good piece of KFC. We approached the chainlink fence once again. Scaling it was just as easy as the first time except my wet pants leg got caught on the barbed wire at the top, making a ripping sound as I tried to throw myself back over the fence. We were both finally back in the land of the free, or should I say the “legal side”. Our flashlights were beginning to wane and the walk back home seemed to take twice as long as our shoes made a lovely squishing sound as we took each step. As we reached my house, I told Billy not to mention a word to anyone about our find. I crawled up the porch railing, reached the porch roof, slowly slid open the window to my room. I stowed my wet clothes under my bed and slipped into bed dreaming of how cool we were going to be, having the only underground abandoned Nike missile silo band rehearsal place. Forty years have passed since that exciting night with Billy. For some reason, neither Billy nor I really talked about our adventure again. I don’t know why. Maybe we both realized that it was unrealistic. I don’t know, I just know that as a 16 year old in Nansemond County, that cold April night was one of the best adventures of my life!
“No problem mom and dad, have a good time.” I said as I wondered where my parents had left the car keys. I was 15, my parents had left for the afternoon and I was left home to practice the piano. My parents had taken my mom’s car and left my dad’s VW Beetle in the driveway. I knew the keys were somewhere in the house, I just had to find them. After a few minutes of scrounging around the house, I found the keys to the bug. I asked my brother Drew, “Hey, let’s take the Beetle out to the fields for a spin?” Drew said, “Sure, why not!” My dad’s bug was a rather sick green/blue color, not a great color but one of VW’s more popular colors of the day. Before we fired up the bug, I told my brother, “You know, this car would look a lot cooler if it had wide tires.” I figured out that if you took the wheels of the VW and then flipped them over, they would still bolt to the axle, but then they would stick out from the body looking like you had big fat tires. Methodically, we took each rim off of the bug, flipped it over and re-bolted it back to each axle. Man, did it look cool. We both jumped in the bug and I fired her up. We headed out of the driveway, down the road on the way to a local farm. This wasn’t my first time driving the bug. I had negotiated the whole clutch, gear thing earlier. This time, I didn’t grind every last tooth off of my dad’s 4 speed transmission. We were heading to a local farm that had huge produce fields with sandy roads in between each row of freshly grown kale. I headed for the fields, flying through the roads, sand spinning up from our reversed wheels, laughing and hooting and hollering like Luke and Bo from Dukes of Hazzard. There was a curve in the road in the middle of the kale patch, and because the roads were pretty much pure sand, the curve had a steep bank around the outside edge. I told my brother Drew, “You know, instead of going AROUND the curve, I can use the curve as a ramp and jump it.” Drew said, “That would be cool, but then you would land in the middle of all that kale.” I replied, “Yeah and we would create a huge kale salad!” I turned the Beetle around and headed back about 100 yards. When I felt that I had enough room to accelerate, I floored the bug. The back tires spun sand high into the air as I shifted into second gear, then third gear. Just as I was shifting into third gear, the curve was dead ahead. We hit the curve, went straight up and over the banked corner, flying up into the air, high over what would soon be on many people’s plate for dinner. BAM, we hit the kale patch hard, the reversed wheels grinding into the fenders as we slid what seemed to be at least 40 feet. The front hood of the bug flew up blocking our view and the front eyeball headlights popped out, somewhere in the field. The tire iron and all of the tire changing equipment lay all around the crash site. We had plowed up a 3′ wide swath of kale at least 40′ long. We jumped out of the car, laughing and catching our breath. “Boy, was that fun or what!” I said. Drew was laughing so hard he couldn’t answer, but suddenly his laughter stopped as he pointed across the kale field. “Look!” he said. About 100 yards away, a brown Ford Bronco was heading like a bat out of hell in our direction. “Oh crap!” I said, “That must be the guy that owns this field!” Suddenly we jumped into action, throwing the tire equipment into the front hatch of the bug. We threw the headlights in the back seat, slammed the hood and tried to start our squashed Bug. The Bug almost acted as if it knew that it had just been used and abused and refused to start. Finally, the engine returned to life. I shoved it into first gear and floored it. Instead of it spinning sand like before, it slowly limped forward, but the more I pressed on the gas, the slower it seemed to go. We were doomed. The brown Bronco slid to a sand flying stop in front of us, blocking our way. Out jumped a very angry man, screaming at the top of his lungs. “What the hell are you doing! I’ve been watching you the whole time. I am going to throw you jerks into jail. As a matter of fact, I’m going to make sure you are buried under the jail! Look what you have done to my kale!” Oh boy, what was I going to do. I had taken my parents car without their permission, was driving without a license, under age and now I had torn up this farmers field. I knew I would end up in the slammer. My poor brother had just come along for the ride. How was I going to explain to my mom and dad that Drew was in jail too. I had to think fast. I had gotten us into this jam and I had to get us out of it. “My brakes went out!” I declared. “Bull-crap!” the farmer said. What was I going to do? I suddenly remembered that in the very front, under the hood of the Beetle there was a brake reservoir and that the last time I had checked, the top cap of the brake fluid reservoir had a crack in it. “Look, I’ll show you.” I said to the farmer. I popped open the hood of the Bug and pointed to the cracked top of the brake fluid reservoir. Sure enough the hard landing had caused brake fluid to shoot up through the cracked top and spill over the area. “Hmmmm” he said. “I guess maybe that could have caused the brakes to fail.” I agreed quickly, “Yes sir, we could have been killed!” He took off his weather beaten ball cap and scratched his head as if he was trying to figure out whether to believe us or haul us off to the pokey. “Ah hell, get in your car and get the hell off of my property!” he shouted. “Yes sir, no problem. Thank you sir.” I said as I jumped in the car, almost wanting to hug this big grumpy farmer. My brother’s eyes were about as big as saucers as I looked in the rear view mirror where he was sitting. We started the Beetle and headed home. It was a very quiet ride home. We arrived home and I figured we better quickly turn our dune buggy back into the family car. Drew said, “You got me into this, you change your own tires!” as he headed into the house. Slowly I turned the Love Bug back into the Slug Bug. I looked under the rear hood of the car where the engine was and discovered that all of that sand that had been flying up from our spinning tires had gotten into the carburetor. It took quite awhile to clean out the carb, but finally I had my dad’s car running fine before he got home. Eventually, my parents arrived home and asked the usual, “How was your afternoon.” Drew and I both replied, “Oh, you know, just another boring day in Nansemond County.”