Summer Vacation

I grew up in the rural Midwest.  We lived four miles from the nearest small town.  The tallest building in town was the Farmer’s Coop Elevator.  Every year I dreaded the first day of school.  “Wake up!” “You don’t want to be late for school.” “…especially on the first day.” Mom hollered up the stairwell.  I brushed my teeth, got dressed and walked to the bus stop.   I felt like a  condemned man walking the long hallway to face the executioner.  What was the cause of my consternation?  Summer vacation was over, but that wasn’t the issue.  It was the essay, “What I did on my summer vacation.”  Every teacher was the same, “Now class, I want you to write a one page essay about what you did on your summer vacation.” I was a shy kid and the next part was the final nail in my coffin.  “When everyone finishes, I want each of you to stand in front of the class and read your essays.” What if I just blew off school that day and played hooky?  In my small town, Dad would know of my truancy before I got home.

Farm kids didn’t take vacations?  They had too many responsibilities.  The only places I’d been that summer were the county and state fairs.  That paled in comparison to exotic places like Disneyland or the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.  This would take some extra effort, I didn’t have much to work with.  Maybe if I went into great detail I could expand my essay to one page.  I could write that I rode on the tilt-a-whirl, got sick and threw-up.  At least that would be realistic.  It could even get a few laughs.  I was no longer a little kid and not yet an adult.  The “Fun House” was no longer that much fun.  The “House of Horrors” didn’t seem to be that scary.  Some of it seemed quite cheesy–especially the red lights and fans blowing tissue paper to simulate flames.  The so-called “World’s Heaviest Man” at the “Freak Show” was sweaty and disgusting.

I was the only guest of honor at my own pity-party.  Why did this bother me the way it did?  Was it a “city kid” vs. “farm kid” thing?  Somehow, I felt non-farm kids had it better.  The family farm was sold many years ago.  It went the way of most of small  farms in this country–swallowed up by mega-farming operations–in the name of efficiency and higher profit margins.  Many people are concerned about the quality of the food they eat.  Have we sacrificed quality for quantity and profits?  I’d like to think our old-fashioned methods are similar to how organic foods are grown now.  Mom and Grandma raised chickens.  The young males were butchered first since they didn’t lay eggs.  Mom gave them milk clabber as a supplement.  The milk came from our two dairy cows.  Maybe that’s why her fried chicken tasted so good.

Here’s what I really did on my summer vacation.  I helped work on our family farm.  It was a cooperative effort.  There were plenty of amazing things going on.  My brothers, sister, and I had as many critters as Elly Mae on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  We watched life and death go full circle.  Our Hereford bull sparred every day with young males for dominance.  Sometimes deer joined our cattle when they ate.  We doctored and cared for our animals when they were sick.  I helped my Father plant, cultivate, and harvest crops.  We had a large garden to maintain.  The whole family helped prepare vegetables and fruit for canning.  I was part of something bigger than myself.  I had responsibilities, they came first.  There was still plenty of time for fun.  So to Mrs. “B,” my eighth grade English teacher, (wherever you are).  I have plenty to say.

Car Craziness

“How do I love thee? let me count the ways.” These words from Shakespeare apply to America’s love affair with the automobile.  Maybe the relationship has soured a bit over the years.  Certainly the cost of maintaining the relationship has skyrocketed.  My Dad was a car nut.  He loved his cars and derived satisfaction from them.  It was a part of his personality.  My Mother found it hard to understand.  She tolerated Dad’s other love affair.  It’s easy to spot a true car nut.  They’re  constantly polishing and fussing with their “babies.” For others, cars are merely appliances.  I’ve ridden in cars owned by non-car nuts.  They’re rolling trash cans.  Sometimes there’s barely room for your feet.  They stack things on the cars hood and trunk oblivious to what it does to the finish.  Radio volume knobs are turned up to drown out car noises.  It makes me cringe in disgust to think about it.

I caught car craziness from Dad.  From the time I was little, I liked anything with wheels and a motor.  Farm tractors, especially early John Deere two-cylinder models, scared me when I was a toddler.   There was something about the “pop” “pop” noise that they made.  Dad’s first car that I remember was a ’49 Ford two-door sedan.  I traced the Ford emblem on the hood with my fingers.  It was divided into three sections by an inverted “V.” Each section was a different color: red, white, and blue.  Each section was “guarded” by a lion.  Dad’s next car was a light blue ’52 Ford.  It had an airplane hood ornament.  That was so cool.  It looked like it could fly away at any moment.  The round grill center piece looked like the engine intake of a jet fighter.

Cars of the fifties were chrome-encrusted works of art.  Their design changed  annually to make them look different.  They were probably the same underneath.  Everyone aspired to have the most current model.  It was part of planned obsolescence.  New car introductions were a big production–like the opening act of a play.  My brothers and I could identify all the cars.  Buicks had vertical bars in their grills that looked like teeth and portholes in the sides of the front fenders.  Hudson and Nash cars had rounded sloping roof lines.  Some Pontiac models had a lighted Indian Chief hood ornament.  Different makes of cars had their own distinct engine sounds.  Ford flathead V8’s had a sort of lumpy idle.  Pontiac and Buick straight eights had a smooth sound when they accelerated.

One of my favorite things to do was pretend to drive.  I’d slide across the front seat and take my place behind the wheel.  I couldn’t see over the dashboard, but that didn’t seem to matter.  There was sibling rivalry with my older brother as we vied for turns behind the wheel.  This rivalry culminated in an event that occurred at a local grocery store.  Mom parked the car in front of “Barney’s Market” left the keys in the ignition.  She’d done this before without incident.  I was four years old, my brother was five.  We stayed in the car.  At some point my brother and I got into an argument.  “I know what makes the car go.” I said.  “It’s this.” I pulled the hand choke in and out.  “No, it isn’t.” My brother said indignantly.  “I turned the huge steering wheel to the left and right.” “No it isn’t.” My brother raised his voice in disgust.  “You don’t know anything, because you’re too little.”

I reached over and gave my big brother a shove.  He shoved back.  The shoving match continued.  I made a face and stuck out my tongue to strengthen my argument.  Suddenly my brother slid behind the steering wheel.  “See, here’s what makes it go.” He turned the ignition key.  The stick shift car was in first gear and started to move forward.  We were both scared to death.  Thank God the store owner was alert to what was happening.  He ran out, chased down the car, opened the door, and turned off the key.  We’d travelled about half a block.  There was no harm done.  Mom wasn’t quite as trusting with us mischievous boys after that.  It would be several years before we could drive legally.

Dad had hundreds of vehicles over his lifetime.  There were several before I was born–including the ’37 Ford in the picture.  This picture was taken on a trip to Pike’s Peak with his high school buddy.  My favorite family car was our white ’67 Ford Custom 500.  It was our first car with a V8 engine.  Dad taught me the proper way to wash and wax a car.  He also taught the essential parts of maintenance.  He changed the oil in all our vehicles.  I first learned to drive on our old red ’50 Ford half-ton pickup.  I was around twelve years old.  Dad needed help during planting season.  I was only too happy to oblige.

I competed with two brothers for use of the family car.  It seemed to me, when I was a teenager, that average looking guys with cool cars got the good-looking girls.  When my Grandfather could no longer drive, I used his ’55 Ford to drive to my summer job.  It had a three speed stick shift on the column.  Occasionally the linkage hung up in second gear.  I became adept at freeing the linkage.  My first car was a black ’64 Ford Custom 500 four-door sedan.  It was a big boat of a car.  It had a small V8, a three-speed stick shift with overdrive.  Wonder of wonders, it had air-conditioning and power steering.  The previous owner must have never changed the oil.  The rocker arms and valve gear were full of sludge.

“The object of my affection can change my complexion…” Relationships, if not maintained, lead to heartbreak.  The worst that could happen is being stranded in the middle of nowhere.  Something as simple as someone borrowing your car and not refilling the gas tank.  There are so many things that can go wrong.  I once had a throttle cable break when I was passing someone on a two-lane highway.  I safely pulled off on the shoulder and did a temporary repair with baling wire and a rope.  I know it looked ridiculous, but it got me home as I pulled on the rope to speed up the engine.  This same car broke my  heart when I washed it and discovered rust through spots behind the rear wheels.   It was time to move on to a new relationship.

My first new car was a ’77 Ford Granada sport coupe–silver with a dark red interior.  It had a 5.0 litre V8 with a manual floor shift transmission.  The dark red half vinyl roof really set it off.  I couldn’t help but admire it every time I walked by.  “It’s only a car.” My wife would say.  No, cars are so much more.  They represent freedom to go where you want, when you want.  With a luxury car you can go from point A to point B in style.  I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to drive one of those super fast sports cars like a Ferrari or a Porsche.  This car nut will leave that to his imagination.  Non car lovers–you so-called “normal” people.  Please excuse me while I polish the chrome trim on my “baby.”  I think normality is overrated.

Buggy Whips, Betamax Etc.

The 1991 film “Other People’s Money” starred Gregory Peck and Danny DeVito. It was  about “corporate raiders” and the hostile takeover of the fictitious New England Wire & Cable Corporation.

Most of the people in the small New England town worked for this company.  Trouble ensued in the corporate ranks in advance of the shareholder meeting.  Gregory Peck, (Andrew Jorgy Jorgenson), as the CEO of the company made an impassioned plea about the proud traditions of American manufacturing versus the perils of the new capitalism.

Danny DeVito, (Lawrence Garfield, aka, Larry the Liquidator),  targeted New England Wire & Cable as his latest acquisition.  His presentation to the stockholders compared New England Wire & Cable to the last “Buggy Whip” manufacturer.  Their product was obsolete.  Stockholders should sell out and get value while they still could.  There was no longer a market for buggy whips.  Even if you’re the best buggy whip manufacturer it’s a moot point.  Move ahead with the times.

“Sir, would you like a Betamax to go with your “Buggy whip?” “…A payphone?” “They’re free.” “Sorry, I’m just not interested.” Where have all the payphones gone?  There’s no market for them.  They’ve gone the way of the buggy whip.  Every corner used to have one.  Cell phones and personal communication devices led to their demise.  I’m retired from working for one of the original Bell System Companies.

The entire industry has been in a state of upheaval since the government ordered breakup of 1983.  I made a good living and enjoyed my work.  Most of my career I worked on installation and repair of landlines.  I had the opportunity to specialize in the installation and repair of payphones.  I jumped at the chance.  Several of my associates doubted the wisdom of my decision.  Landlines were always going to be around they said.

Change is the only thing we can count on.  I could see the handwriting on the wall for payphones.  I wasn’t naive enough to think the same thing wouldn’t happen to home phone service.  Cellular telephones kept getting better–smaller and smaller.  Now many people exclusively use cell phones and don’t even have landlines.  Landlines will continue to have their place.  They will be used for special applications that require high security.

What’s next in personal communications?  Satellite phones? Implanted communication devices?  Mild mannered reporter for “The Daily Planet,” Clark Kent, always changed clothes and transformed into comic book hero “Superman” in a phone booth.  Today, he would have to find another changing room.  Maybe the “U-Serve Self Storage” down the street?  Maybe I was one of the last “buggy whip” repairmen?  I tried to be the best one I knew how to be.

Dotted Blue Lines

It seems strange to think about, but gas station roadmaps are a thing of the past.  Personal GPS devices have done them in.  Maps will take their places on dusty museum shelves alongside incandescent light bulbs.  Somehow, it seems to me, that a little piece of self-sufficiency has slipped away.  Skillfully folding a paper roadmap was an art.  In the early years of our marriage roadmaps took us on many adventures.  We selected our vacation destinations.  Itineraries were discussed and carefully planned.  All of our trips were made by car.  The majority, when our children were younger, involved camping.  We started out camping in tents and graduated to camping trailers.

Map interpretation was an important skill.  The symbols in the small box, usually on the left side, were the keys to understanding.  Misinterpretation of these symbols by my navigator  took us on some interesting adventures.  On a day trip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my spouse and two daughters, we set out to explore the “Pictured Rocks National Seashore.” We pulled out of the state park campground on to the state highway.  My bride sat beside me perusing the map.  “Look for a place to turn off the highway that will take us to our destination.” I said.  “All right” she replied as she adjusted the map for a better view.  “It would be better if you told me before I have to turn off.”  “Don’t get crabby with me, Honey, I’m doing the best I can.” “Three miles ahead there’s a road that will take us directly there.”  “It should be a right turn.”

Just as described a county road appeared going off to the right.  I steered the white Datsun King Cab pickup off the main highway.  This was great, a two-lane asphalt road, things were looking good.  “Do you know how far it is?” I asked.  “It’s about that far on the map.” She said holding her thumb and forefinger two inches apart to measure the distance.  “How many miles is that?” “Maybe forty to fifty miles.”  She answered.  That didn’t seem too bad.  Even if we got behind slow-moving vehicles maybe an hour to our destination.   We drove past some small farms and houses for the first fifteen miles.  It was a nice area.  There were patches of forest interspersed with pasture.  The pavement suddenly ended and changed to a gravel road.

I could still safely maintain a safe forty-five mile per hour pace.  This continued for another twenty miles.  Soon we entered a state forest area and left civilization.  The gravel road started to narrow and wind around.  It was nothing like the switch back turns of mountain roads.  Another hour passed and I began to wonder.  Did this road have an end?  Adding to the suspense, trees were so close to the road that the ends of branches scraped against the truck mirrors.   Now we were only travelling thirty miles per hour.  Forty minutes later we were greeted with sunshine and pavement.  Hooray! Apparently we’d traversed seventy-two miles on a road, part of which, had been an old logging road.   Pictured Rocks National Seashore was beautiful with some of the clearest deep blue waters I’d ever seen.  We also visited some nearby waterfalls.

On a different vacation trip, this time to Southeastern Kentucky, we had a similar experience.  We’d routed ourselves on a twisty road that took us through a strip mine.  Some of our passengers experienced carsickness.  My Datsun pickup was dwarfed by huge strip mine trucks and earth movers.  The most important thing was that we reached our destination safely.  We got to visit the Cumberland Gap historical site.  Our, off the beaten path, adventures are still talked about.  With navigation aids of today mistakes like this are less likely to happen.   These devices will never take the place of common sense, however.  Just because everybody else followed their GPS devices and drove off a bridge, would you do it too?

Is Anybody Really Listening?

I’ve worked in customer service jobs for most of my life.  It seems to me that everyone practices selective listening.  Sorry ladies, it’s not just men.  Our minds retain only certain parts of every communication.  This was a valuable asset when I worked in sales.    Customers remembered product benefits, didn’t remember the dreary list of caveats.  This product had a lifetime warranty.  What was actually meant was “this product was warranted for as long as it lasted.” Newspaper and magazine ads have tiny print on the bottom of the page.  Radio advertising copy is read by slick talking announcers.  The disclaimers are covered by speed-talkers.  We retain information that is appealing to us and discard the rest.  We want to be entertained.  Television commercials are more entertaining than regular programming anyway.  There are annual awards for the best commercials.

Sometimes companies create a demand for a product before it comes on the market.  A television commercial shows a young couple frolicking through a meadow in an idyllic setting.  “Wouldn’t you like to feel care-free again?”  goes the appeal.  Well, who in their right mind wouldn’t find this appealing? “Buy our product and you can.” What was the product? What did it do?  It turned out to be a pharmaceutical product to fight the effects of depression.  It was not what I was looking for, but it was hard to tell.  Each year during the Super Bowl there’s a contest for the best commercial.  Everyone remembers the plots of the best thirty second productions.  When asked to identify the company that sponsored the product–most people didn’t do so well.  We’re being sold the sizzle and not the steak.

Why Does It Hurt So Bad? (The death of a pet)

It’s the day after we had our beloved pet euthanized and life goes on.  People are still going to work, birds are still singing.  Why did it still hurt so badly?  He was just a mutt–rescued from the county dog pound.  Yet, somehow he’d captured our hearts.  My wife wasn’t sure as I was, but let me talk her into adopting the German Shepherd mixed breed dog that now stood before us with his front paws on the bars of his cage.  We took several candidate dogs for walks on a leash.  Dillon was not the best walker.  The difference was, that when it was over and I sat down, Dillon sat down beside me and licked me on the ear.  In other words, he picked me.  He was a gangly youngster with the coloration and coarse hair of a German Shepherd.  We drove away from the facility and were halfway across the Bay Bridge en route to Mobile when it struck us both at the same time.  Let’s go back and get Dillon.

No one knew his exact age,  somewhere between six months and a year old.  He weighed forty-five pounds.  I would sometimes cradle him upside down in my arms and tell him he was “Daddy’s goo-g00 baby.”  His mischievous puppy-like ways were endearing.  Dillon would sneak up and untie my shoelaces pretending to want affection.  Occasionally he’d  scratch on the door as if he wanted in.  If I approached the door and he’d walk away.  What he wanted, was for me to go outside and spend time with him.  He loved to play fetch.  Throw him a stick or a Frisbee, it didn’t matter.  When he caught the Frisbee, he’d chew it to pieces.  He slept in a portable kennel at first.  I’d place a treat inside the door and tell him it was time for bed.  To our amazement he was already house trained.  There was only one unfortunate incident with some butter beans, but it wasn’t his fault.

Images of him trotting across the backyard with his tail proudly held high are now just too painful to recall.  He was such a happy dog.  I really didn’t mind being his doggy doorman.  He quickly learned how to communicate his needs.  If he needed to go out at night, he came to my side of the bed and pushed on the mattress.  He scratched on the door to be let in.  If he wanted out, he sought me out, let me pet him and walked to the door and looked back at me.  If he wanted affection, he sat down in front of my recliner.  This  eventually led to belly rubs, which he loved.  I grew to know the difference in his barks.  One was for strangers and one for acquaintances.  When my wife tried to walk him on a leash, he’d pull her up and down the block.  Dillon and I had a pact, we took regular walks through the neighborhood.   If our friend Linn from across the street called on the phone and said she was coming over, Dillon waited by the front door before my wife hung up the phone.  Apparently he recognized her voice over the telephone.

Chasing cats was something I discouraged, but one in his backyard was hard to resist.  He seemed to like the cats we regularly encountered on our walks.  He whined and wanted to  visit them.  Donna, our neighbor down the street, had a male cat named “Tat.” Dillon learned to like him.  I enjoyed our walks.  They were as much for my well-being as his  Dillon was a much better “Schmoozer” than I am.  It was very rare for him not to trust someone.  When this happened he gave out a low growl as a warning.  I trusted his instincts.  He grew into adulthood and accompanied my wife and me wherever we went.  His favorite perch was on an overstuffed chair by the front window–the only piece of furniture on which he was allowed.  From there he viewed activities of the neighborhood.  No one was allowed to sleep in on Dillon’s watch.  If the bedroom door was open, he entered and pushed on the mattress.  Last Christmas season we stayed with our friends John and Rosemary.  Rosemary intended to sleep in one morning.  Dillon pushed open the door and attempted to wake her.  When she didn’t awaken, he stared at her until she opened her eyes.  Dillon was my wife’s protector when she drove on long trips.  He growled and barked when strangers got too close to the car.

We’d been warned by our Vet that Dillon had hip dysplasia–a genetic defect in some large breed dogs.  He was our “baby” and seemed normal to us.  In hindsight, maybe we were guilty of giving him too many treats.  His weight doubled to ninety plus pounds.  The signs were there.  I guess we were too blind to see them.  He’d started limping after his naps.  On long car rides he seemed uncomfortable–which we attributed to nervousness.  He never complained or whined.  Dillon’s downhill slide began two weeks ago Wednesday evening.  On his last trip outside before bedtime he saw a rabbit.  He chased that rabbit up and down the yard like a young pup.  The rabbit got away–Dillon was limping on his back legs.  A trip to the Vet and some medicine seemed to help.  In two days he seemed back to his normal self.  Last Thursday evening Dillon took off like a shot after another rabbit.  I’d never seen him run so fast.  This time he didn’t come back.  I found him in the backyard seemingly in pain.   He got up and walked to the house on three legs.  I suspected that something bad was wrong.  We kept him on medications over the weekend.  This time there was no miraculous recovery.

The prognosis was devastating.  He’d blown out the ligaments in his left back leg.  All of this related to his hip dysplasia.  The worst part was that the ligaments in his right leg were also about to go.  There were remarkable advances in surgical procedures that would rebuild his knees and hips.  He would have to go on a crash diet for four to six weeks which would reduce him to skin and bones.  After the diet, surgery and recovery one leg  at a time.  If this was tolerated it all came down to the same thing.  Our Dillon would have to always be caged up and only taken out on a leash.  His fragile hips meant his days of chasing cats and rabbits were gone.   I found myself bargaining–what if we ignored the doctor’s orders and just took him home?  Everything lead to the same conclusion.  Dillon would not have tolerated this well.  The cure would have killed him.  It seemed entirely too cruel.  We made the gut-wrenching decision to have him euthanized.  He was still sedated from the X-Rays.  It would be like he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.  It wasn’t that easy.  We will alway miss our loyal furry friend, but only have good memories.  If there’s a Dog Heaven, and I’d like to think there is, Dillon has lots of friends.  You see, all of our three children have recently lost pets.

It’s Not That Bad

It’s a beautiful day–skies are blue

I’m thinking positive thoughts–aren’t you?

Ignoring all the negative waves

Like the mighty oak, tall and brave

It’s not that bad, try something new

Like holding your breath, till you turn blue

It’s not that bad, try something new

Chase a butterfly, play the kazoo

It’s not that bad, try something new

Skip to work, it’ll be a blast

Today put your underwear on last

It’s not that bad, try something new

Make daisy chains, smell some flowers

Do yoga, stand on one foot for hours

The funny feeling that will creep

Will be because your foot’s asleep

So have a wonderful fulfilling day

In your world everything is OK!