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!
“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 light in the room was blinding. Where was it coming from? I pulled the covers back over my head. Slowly, the grogginess started to clear as I remembered that the night before, the forecast had called for snow. I threw back the covers and jumped to the floor. All of our hard work was now going to pay off. Two months earlier, the leaves on the trees had just started to turn their golden hue as fall had arrived. Coming home from school, the crisp fall air caused me to zip up my jacket. It was a reminder of what was to come, every school kid’s winter dream; a snow day! I loved winter. I loved snow. Nine months earlier, the 1968 Winter Olympics had been aired. It was the first year that the Olympics had been broadcast in color; a treat for those of us that had climbed the social TV ladder to acquire a color TV. The Olympics that year featured Peggy Flemming winning the gold medal for figure skating. Jean-Claude Killy won the downhill skiing even. Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, from the Soviet Union had defended their pairs figure skating gold medal from four years earlier, from whom later, as an adult, my wife and I were able to meet and take a few figure skating lessons from. The highlight for me wasn’t watching figure skating or skiing, it was the bobsled events. I dreamed of using our neighborhood hill to create a bobsled track. I envisioned us sledding down the hill, going into a steep banked curve, the G forces pushing us deep into the slats of our sled. It would be great to experience something like that! As I walked home from school that day, I tried to think of who I could enlist for a project like this. Let’s see, there was Chris, Jim and my brother Drew. Surely they had watched the bobsled events from the previous winter Olympics. I called up my buddy Jim and told him my idea. “This will be the coolest track in the neighborhood if we all pitch in and build it before the first snow!” I told Jim. He was on board. Next came Chris and my brother. I would have to convince my brother first since Chris was my brother’s friend. “You want to build a what?” Drew said. “I want to build a bobsled track. Don’t you remember watching the winter Olympics and how fast those guys were going? We can build something like that on the hill in the woods!” Drew was used to my wild and lame brained ideas. He knew that somehow I would get him in trouble as well as make him do the dirty work. Somehow I convinced him to enlist as well as talk his buddy Chris into helping with our monumental task. School seemed to drag on that first day of construction. Didn’t my teachers know that I had more important things to do? Who needed to know how to bisect a circle with a compass anyway? All I needed was a couple of shovels, rakes and hoes, along with weeks of sweat and achy muscles. The first day of construction, we all met at the top of the hill. Now was the time to share my vision of how to turn this ordinary hill into an Olympic grade bobsled track. As we stood at the top of the hill, I explained the design. “We will have the starting point here next to this dogwood tree. After you push off from the starting blocks, you will point your sled to the right of the track. We will need a banked curve on the right to keep us from running into that big tree over there, then after the first turn we will run down the hill, gaining speed, pointed right for the center of those two sycamore trees. There is just enough room between those two trees for a sled to fit. We will build up dirt on both sides, right before you get to the trees to create a chute. It will guide you right in between both sycamores and shoot you out the back. Our only problem is that after you exit the trees, there is a ditch, so we will have to build a bridge over the ditch in order to keep going.” Chris, Jim and my brother looked at each other. “You have got to be kidding.” Jim said. “That will take forever!” “It won’t take that long if we all help. Think of how fun it will be! Everyone will want to come over and sled down our hill.” I said. “Yeah, I guess it would be fun.” Drew said. It didn’t take too much to get everyone excited as I took them through what the experience would be, that first run down the hill. We worked on that hill every chance we got, moving dirt, building banked turns, removing rocks and roots that would ruin our beloved track. I had never worked so hard and shoveled so much dirt in my life. If my dad had wanted me to hoe his garden, I would have feigned a cramp within an hour, but this was different; this was the creation of a neighborhood sensation! Building the bridge across the ditch proved to be a challenge as none of us owned a Skilsaw. We found a couple of old wooden pallets which proved the perfect width for a sled. We found a couple of 2×4’s that we used to span the ditch and fastened the two pallets to the top. Scrounging around the neighborhood, we found some more wood to fill in the gaps on the pallets. We packed the top of the pallets with dirt and smoothed the transition between each bank and our crudely built bridge. Weeks turned into months as we worked on our track. Each week that passed, the temperature dropped a few degrees at a time. We exchanged our fall jackets for winter coats as the promise of snow kept us on task. As January rolled around, we would listen to the weather forecast, hoping for snow. Back in the 60’s, the weathermen were about as accurate as they are now, only 50% of the time were their forecasts spot on. The chance of snow seemed to only bring rain. Our hill was waiting. Our track was ready. Our sleds were waxed and poised for action. When was it going to snow? This morning was different. That light that was pouring into my room was from the glistening snow crystals that had fallen the night before. As my feet hit the floor, I peered through the window to see a thick blanket of fresh fallen snow. Our wait was over. I threw on my clothes and headed down the stairs. “Looks like you have a snow day.” my mom said. “You bet, I’m going sledding on our bobsled track!” I said. “Your what?” she replied. Ignoring her question, I put on my rubber boots, gloves and my hooded coat. Out on the porch lay my sled, poised for action. I knew that my brother would head to the hill as soon as he realized what was waiting for him as he awoke from his slumber, as well as Jim and Chris. The snow was deep. Since it was the first snow of the season, it was a little wet which would make packing down the snow on the track much easier. Trudging through the snow, I dragged my sled and saw that Jim was coming down the road with his sled in tow. I have to admit that there were butterflies in my stomach as I climbed the hill with my sled. All of our hard work was now going to be paying off. As Jim arrived I told him, “We will need to pack down the snow so that the track will be fast. Let’s use these pieces of plywood. One of us can sit on the plywood and slide down the hill, packing the snow as we go.” Performing this task was an arduous one, as none of us wanted to take the time to do this. We wanted to take a run on our track, but knew that if we didn’t do this first, the runners of the sled would dig too deep into the snow and our track would not last but a few runs. After about an hour or so, we had finished packing down the snow, adding extra snow to the turns and putting a thick layer of snow on our bridge. It was time. The first run of the day was about to begin. Who would go first? We had all worked so hard to prepare the hill for this day. We decided to flip a coin. I took off my gloves and searched my pockets for left over lunch money. I found a nickle. “Hey, how are we going to flip a coin for all four of us?” Chris asked. “Good question.” Drew said. Before I could think of an answer, Jim was on his sled, already heading down the hill. “Hey!” we all yelled. Before we could protest, Jim was already down the hill, headed for the first banked curve on the right of the course. He barely kept his sled from going over the edge as he came out of the curve heading for the straightaway. He was going at a pretty fast clip, too fast it looked, as he dug his toes into the snow to slow himself down before heading between the Sycamore trees. His right hip hit one of the trees to which you could hear him yell with pain, but there was no time to rub it as he was speeding out of the chute, headed for the bridge. His left runner of the sled veered off of the bridge and before he knew what was happening, he lost control and the sled went over the edge of the bridge, into the icy water below. Splash! “Crap!” he yelled as he lay sideways in the ditch, the cold water finding it’s way into his pants. “I’m going home!” he complained as he dragged his sled behind him like a fallen warrior drags his sword on the ground after losing a battle. “Serves him right.” I thought as I watched him waddle home, only imagining how cold his legs must be. We stood at the top of the hill watching Jim head home. “This was your idea, so I think that you should go first.” said Chris, pointing to me. “OK!” I exclaimed. This was the moment I had dreamed of. I lined up my sled in the starting position at the top of the hill, slid the sled back and forwards, imitating what I had seen the Olympic bobsled team do and tried to settle my nerves, having seen what Jim’s first run had resulted in. One, two, three, go! My chest hit the wooden slats of the sled as I cleared the ridge of the hill. Aiming my sled at the first curve, I made sure to not repeat Jim’s handling of this banked turn. I kept the sled in the middle of the curve, feeling the G forces try and pull me off of the sled. I hung on tight as I shot out of the turn and headed down the straight-a-way picking up more speed than I dared. I wasn’t about to slow down now. The two Sycamore trees were coming up fast; at this speed I had to be in the dead center of the track or I would have hit one of the trees with too much force not to be injured seriously. The packed dirt that we had used to guide the sled into the chute was now covered in snow. The sled was being guided into the chute. The wet snow had now started to turn into ice in this area and the sled zipped through the trees and shot out the back of the chute before I could even realize it. Before I knew it, the bridge was right in front of me. I had to keep the runners on the bridge if I didn’t want to end up the same way that Jim did. I tightened my grip and leaned just enough in order to keep the sled in the middle of our make-shift bridge. The bridge shook as the sled skimmed over the water below. I had made it. The bridge was behind me. I glided onto the flat area and into softer snow as the sled slowed down enough for me to dig my toes into the snow to act as a brake. It was over, the waiting, the work and now the prize. I let out a holler that echoed through the woods. “That was AWESOME!” I don’t remember who was next. I just remember that if I hadn’t of moved, I would have been hit by either my brother or Chris who had just finished their first run. News of our bobsled track had gone through the neighborhood and anyone that had a sled or anything closely resembling one was taking a run down our bobsled track. It was a great feeling knowing that I had been part of creating something that so many were now enjoying. As the days elapsed, the snow slowly melted and our bobsled track went the way of most Olympic venues. Our bobsled track turned into a BMX bike racing course. The bridge we had created slowly rotted and had to be removed. Eventually, the lot where the hill was located was sold to a builder who built a house and we were no longer allowed to use the hill for sledding. It’s been many decades since that first snowy morning, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Even now, I get excited at the very first snowflake of winter.
Reality tv is NOT reality. Do you really want to be a Kardashian? Get a “real” life. If you don’t want to be one of the masses with an ordinary life, going to an ordinary job living in an ordinary city, then you have to do something to be different. Your friends predictable habits will get you predictable results. YOU have to do something different to change your current life every day. YOU have to work later, work harder, think outside of the dull square box if you want a meaningful life. Sure, going to the pub, the club, the typical places your friends go is fun, but if you go there too much, you will have the typical life. Life doesn’t just happen to you. YOU have to fight against the current, or end up with results that people who go with the flow end up with. It’s up to you. Don’t look for your “big break”, you will be waiting forever. YOU need to chart a course for that new land, that one that is waiting to be discovered.
A dream has to be bigger than yourself in order for it to be worth achieving. If you have a dream, but already know the hows and whens of what is necessary to achieve your dream, then the dream isn’t big enough. There needs to be a bit of “how am I going to get from here to there” in your dream. The unknown is what drives us. Sure, we can play it safe, and look back on our life that we played it safe, and wish that we had of taken a few calculated risks. When the US decided to go to the moon, do you think that we knew everything about space travel, or what the surface of the moon was exactly composed of? Sure, we had a good idea, but we didn’t know everything. Now, the US has decided that putting a man on Mars isn’t a good investment, but the return on our money can’t be measured in dollars and cents. There were so many fringe benefits that the moon shot accomplished for America. There was a generation of kids that were taught to believe that any one of them could become an astronaut. Before the space program, every boy wanted to be a fireman; now every boy wanted to ride a rocket! The Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of today were the same kids that watched Neil Armstrong walk on the lunar surface. It was the American dream to push further than we had ever gone that stimulated the imaginations of young boys and girls that later launched so many of our tech industries today. We were taught to dream. Today, it seems as if we all want to play it safe. We want security, in a world of uncertainty. We want guarantees in a time of unknown resolutions. If you take the road that is traveled by the masses, don’t expect to receive the results of those that dare to dream. Walt Disney used to have a phrase that he used, “Plus it”. It was rather simple, but what he meant was, “Don’t just settle for what you did, what CAN you do to make it perfect?” There was a guy that had quite an imagination. His brother Roy had to find ways to make Walt’s dreams become a reality. Walt was the idea guy and Roy was the money guy. Whatever your dream is, it involves money to be sure. You can’t let money get in your way. You can begin small, most everyone did. Do you think that Bill Gates started with 100 programmers and a 10,000 square foot building? No, he pretty much started in his bedroom, like most of us dreamers do. The difference between them and others; they started. They didn’t just think of an idea and do nothing. They started, they began, they said, “What if”. Make a promise to yourself today to never be afraid to dream, nor ever to think that there are too many obstacles in the way to realize your dream. We all want to see what you can do!
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.
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.
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!”
“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.”
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!