I would have put a bullet through my foot if I had a gun.

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Just the first of many

Impulse is a dangerous thing and especially so when you are trying to impress one of your children. Doubly so when it’s one of your girl children. To put it mildly, my daughter Allison hurt my feelings and my capitulation was an attempt to regain what was left of my dignity.  What she said was, “I didn’t ask you to go because I really didn’t think you’d be able to do it,” but what I heard was, “You’re too weak and feeble to do anything like float down a river with me, old man. I’ll just ask someone who is stronger and more capable.” She had ground salt into the open wound that was my rapidly deflating ego.

“No, I really want to go,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Even as the words parted my lips, my mind was looking for a compromise, a way out. The audible click I heard was the sword of Damocles breaking free from its secured position. Had I really just verbally committed to floating 50 miles of the most remote river in the lower 48 – the Owyhee – with my daughter? Yes, I had. I was terrified even before I learned that someone had died on the river that spring and well before I would see the flotsam and jetsam of a shattered drift boat being held by the pressure of what amounts to two full grown cows pressing it against an imposing rock wall.

All I knew at that moment was what Allison had told me in the past, that there are no roads in or out and that you must leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but all of your bodily secretions out with you. I was worried (and a little grossed out by it), but it was still months away and a lot could happen between then and now.

Nothing did.

A long drive and an uncomfortable first night and I suddenly found myself sitting on a bright red, inflatable kayak, with a bright yellow helmet, a bright red life vest and clutching a bright yellow paddle. The fact that everything was brightly colored should have been my first clue that things don’t always go as planned.  If they did, everyone would be dressed in drab outdoorsy fabric like the kind you see the urban Eddie Bauer types wearing and the kayaks would sport more natural colors to blend in with the environment.  What I should have realized is that in a rapid it’s really hard to differentiate between a rock and a dead body unless the body is tightly wrapped in some form of unnatural, neon pigmentation. Had I only known.

I kept up a cheerful countenance as I floated a little ways from the group, getting the feel of the kayak under me.

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Emma teaching the group proper paddle technique.

The teen girls (it was a father/daughter trip) all listened intently as Emma and my daughter (a third year guide) talked about boat safety and how to paddle.  Boat safety, shmoat safety.  I grew up around the water and paddling would come naturally to me.  A duck didn’t need to learn to swim did it?  Besides, I own a drift boat. How hard could it be?  Yeah, it’s not the same.

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A glimpse of my group paddling off as I spun in circles.

I watched as the kids paddled off downstream and turned to catch up with them. I put a paddle in the water and pulled.  My kayak spun wildly. I plied the other end of the paddle to slow down the spin.  It didn’t help.  I firmly plunged my paddle into the water on the port side and it slowed to a stop. I slowly centered myself and pointed the bow downstream.  I dipped a blade into the water and slowly pulled.  The kayak began turning to the right.  I quickly jammed the opposite blade into the water and pulled and it spun wildly again. This was not going as planned. I smiled, with an ease I wasn’t feeling.  Inside I was like, “Uh oh, this is going to end badly.” It was all coming true.

I knew I was going to die on the river. I also knew it was going to be hard on Allison to have to pull her dad’s brightly festooned, but lifeless body out of a rapid, but I didn’t care. She had asked me to go and it would serve her right for goading me into coming on this trip.

Dream Crusher asked a number of times if I was doing okay as we drove to Horseshoe Bend where the trip would begin.

“Yes, I’m fine, why do you keep asking?” I stared straight ahead.

“Look at me.”  I turned my eyes towards her, but not my head.  “Okay, I’m looking.  I’m fine, really.” I bared my teeth in a feeble smile.

“Then why are there beads of sweat on your upper lip?”

I yawned and dragged my arm as carefree as I could muster across my lip. “By the way,” I said, “did I tell you that I want my ashes sprinkled on the Clearwater?”

“Just stop,” she replied.  “I knew it.  I knew that’s what you were thinking about.  Just stop it right now.”

“What? I’m just making conversation. Oh, and the passwords to the online accounts are in the cupboard and makesuretogiveChristianmybaseballglove.” I raced to finish this last line as she reached for the knob on the radio to turn up the volume.

“I have to do something to drown you out,” she said as she spun the knob. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase and she turned to look out the window without another word. I felt my lip. It was wet again.

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My paddle was actually upside down and backwards.  You shouldn’t be able to see the writing on the paddle in the lower right corner.

As my kayak spun in the water and I got further and further from the group, Allison paddled up to me and said, “Umm, Dad, one of the other guides told me to tell you that your paddle is backwards.”

“Oh, yeah?” I responded. “That’s how we do it in Alaska.  Makes it more streamline.”

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and paddled off. When I was sure she wasn’t looking I flipped my paddle over and paddled after her, still looking for all the world like an inebriated walrus, but more of an I’ve had one too many drinks kind of walrus and not a college student on a Friday night kind of walrus.

For the first few hours we did nothing but paddle in flat, barely passable water which caused our kayaks to come to a skidding halt often enough that my abs quickly cramped in their attempt to free my kayak from the resting part of Newton’s law of motion.  Apparently one must “oochie – scooch,” which involves thrusting yourself backwards and forwards in an effort to get the rock to loosen its grip on your kayak.  The ever helpful river guides would shout this and other helpful hints at you as they “encouraged” you to “soldier” on.  “You can rest when you’re dead.” “Only 48 more miles to go.”

Dying in a river is apparently a real thing and wearing a tightly wrapped and zipped Coast Guard approved flotation device does nothing to ensure that you won’t get your foot wedged between rocks and drown.   For the first few hours it was drilled into our heads what do do if (should have said, when) we were to fall out in a rapid.  The most important thing you can do is get into River Position!  This involves getting your feet pointed down river and and up off the river bottom, flailing your arms and keeping your eyes down river to see what’s ahead.  And one must never, ever stand up.  I was told that dads always try to stand up and that a lot of dads die.  Yeah, not this dad.  I was not going to give the river the satisfaction.

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Emma, our guide, using a teachable moment to model proper River Position while our omni-competent and ever-cheerful trip leader, Aaron, looks on.

A short while later we entered into our first rapid and I immediately flipped, but came up in the most acute river position in the history of man, with my knees up and feet pointing downstream. My posterior bounced off every rock on the way down.  There was no way I was going to be foot entrapped.  Butt entrapped, maybe, but not foot. All the guides were yelling at me at once to the point where all I heard was a cacophony of “Let go of the kayak! Get your feet up!  River position! Keep your head up! Breathe! Swim! Don’t swim! Feet up! Let go of the paddle! Hang onto the paddle! River position!”  I did it all at once.  Allison told me later that I had scared her because I came up wide eyed and gasping. Well, if you know OBryans, we have nothing BUT wide eyes, and the gasping part was because I was drowning and was moments away from death. Yeah, fear like that happens when someone is scared out of their freaking mind that they are going to get their foot trapped and be sucked under only to rise again either on the last day or when their bloated body gets so buoyant that the river gives them up like some grotesque party balloon escaped from the pudgy hand of a toddler. I was terrified. I was also shaking and embarrassed.

I dog paddled to river right (that’s river guide speak for the side of the river I’m always not next to) and dragged the upper half of my body onto a mossy rock, my useless legs dangling behind me in the diminishing current. My eyes focused as my cheek rested against the slime and I watched every single teenage girl float through the class 10 rapid

as if they were sitting on a cloud, riding a spring zephyr wind. One of their kayaks scraped over my semi-lifeless body. “Oops, sorry. Hehe.” I turned my head away.

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This is a threatening smile.

“Are you okay?” Allison asked as she rushed over to me in her kayak as if it obeyed her every wish. She was looking a little wide eyed herself. “Go on without me. Leave me here to die,” I managed to say.  She patted my back and told me in low tones that if I didn’t get back into the kayak in less than a minute she really was going to leave me right where I was.  I dragged myself onto my kayak and let Allison pull me along. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I could feel my legs beginning to redden and burn. It was yet another indignity on the first day of the last week of my life and I hadn’t even made it to the first camp and I still hadn’t used the facilities in the woods. It was going to be a long week.

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Sand as far as the eye can see.

One thing I realized on day one is that a river produces an exorbitant amount of sand.  It’s  everywhere and in everything and finds its way into every crack and crevice. If you’re lucky you can keep it out of your food and, thankfully, I was able to keep it off my camera equipment. AND it was hot – 118 at one camp.

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Even though it was only 117.7 degrees, it totally felt like 118.

I don’t remember the first night of the trip other than we ate and slept and that sand bugs tried to invade every one of my facial orifices (orifi?) Even though it was smoldering, I chose to keep a buff over my face so they wouldn’t have the joy of a good night’s sleep in one of my facial crevices. I really only remember having one thought and that was that I have six days left and I am not going to make it.

The only way I can describe the feeling is remembering being a kid and thinking that there were six long days until Christmas and wondering if it would ever get here and how on earth could anyone ever wait that long? And then it was here and you got to open presents.  It was like that, only some freakishly hellish version where you’re always waiting and there are never any presents, only a never ending feeling of despair and misery until the river either takes you or vomits you out on “Christmas” day after it beats you and chokes you and teaches you a lesson you’ll never forget. This was day one.

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Panic

The first rapid of the second day was called Read it and Weep and I approached it with caution, which I learned later is not how you approach a rapid designed to make you cry. It sensed my trepidation and I heard it giggle just before it lured me into a false sense of security and sucked me into a sink hole the size of ten commercial washing machines and I nearly drowned again. I wept silently, secure in the fact that no one could differentiate between my tears of sorrow and the river’s tears of mirth.  On the second rapid I flipped again. And on the third rapid… I flipped. It is generally understood that if someone goes down for the third time they are not coming back up. Thankfully, I had my bright yellow life jacket to keep my flailing body from giving up the ghost.

I am an athletic guy. I played NCAA baseball. I am a good golfer. I can juggle. I win at Pickleball (when I am playing Dream Crusher) most of the time. I have a few slight of hand tricks. My hand eye coordination is excellent for a man my age, but for the love of God and all that is holy, I could not make my kayak do what it was born and bred to do. It was engineered to be a kayak, but it was more like an unruly toddler that, no matter how hard I tried to reason with it, would do the exact opposite of what it was told. I was sure I had gotten a defective one (or a possessed one) and I was equally sure that it was actively trying to kill me. I would see a rock some way down the rapid that I knew was a bad idea, yet no matter how hard I tried to avoid it with back strokes and front strokes and side strokes and high siding and panicking, the kayak was attracted to it like it was a positive magnet and the kayak a negative. A rock meant one of two things: getting stuck or flipping, and neither were a good option.

Thankfully, there is flat calm at the end of every rapid.  It’s a time to either catch your breath and thank the Lord that what about happened to you didn’t happen or to shout with joy at your besting of the accursed white water. At the end of every flat calm there is a rapid. As I floated quietly along and heard the tell-tale whisper of an approaching rapid I would turn my face to the sky and whisper, “Please, God. NO!” I was miserable and tired and scared. Then we reached the Weeping Wall and a miracle happened.

I dragged my dry bag and my poop tube (yes, everyone had one), aptly called “Bad Disneyland,” up to the place Allison had designated as our place of rest for the night and collapsed onto the ground in a stupor. After a while my wits returned and I realized that gnats were rapidly accumulating on the many cuts my legs had incurred.  I felt like a water buffalo that was too far gone to care about the insects sucking the life out of him and I just let them feast.  Something may as well benefit from my misery.

I looked at my foot and wondered where a good spot would be for a bullet to go through without causing too much damage. I didn’t bother searching for my revolver because I didn’t have it with me. I didn’t even bring a knife (what kind of idiot doesn’t bring a knife or a revolver on a survival trip?) and I didn’t think a sharp stick would cause enough damage to get me airlifted out. Besides, I didn’t have a knife to sharpen a stick and it probably wouldn’t have done enough damage anyway. It would get mildly infected, but not infected enough to get me a helicopter ride out and it would just add to the pain I was already feeling. Besides, Allison would make me row out with an infection. I wondered what injury WOULD get me airlifted out? There was a large rock sitting next to me and my eyes gleamed at the thought of bringing it down on top of my metatarsals, cracking them into little pieces. That would surely do it. I reached for it, fell over and collapsed into a heap, too exhausted to lift it.

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Discussing the highs and lows of the day at Camp Montgomery.

This was a father/daughter trip and every evening our enthusiastic, cheerful, and omni- competent trip leader, Aaron, would gather us around so we could talk about the highs and lows of the day. I dragged myself to the circle of humans and tried to think of the highs from the day and all I could think of was, “Well, I didn’t die…. yet.” That was my inner thought. My outer words were, “Hey, I got to spend quality time with my daughter.” Inner thought, “It’s her fault that I’m out here.” Outer words, “Golly, this is a beautiful place.” Inner thought, “God forsaken, more like it.” I went on like this for a few more minutes, babbling, then lapsed into silence. My inner mind was pacing like a caged ferret looking for a way out, but I was mute. I don’t remember what anyone else said. I just kept smiling and nodding vigorously when people’s lips stopped moving. I was sure I was going to die, so what did it matter what any of these people said? I would just be a bad memory to them as they recounted the tale of the uncoordinated old guy with the bad facial hair who couldn’t get his kayak to work and the river ate him. Good thing we couldn’t find his body because that would have been so gross to have to see his bloated whiteness the entire rest of the trip.

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I texted this photo to Dream Crusher at the end of the trip. Her response: “You Look Hideous!”  I guarantee I would look worse dead…. though not by much.

On the third day I awoke sore and defeated. However, unbeknownst to me, three things were happening in the universe. Thing one, my good friend, Matt, was praying for me on the exact morning of my crisis. I know this because I got a voice message after I got off the river that said: “I don’t know why I’m praying for you, but you’ve been on my mind all morning.” The date and time was the morning of the Weeping Wall. Thing two, Dream Crusher was also praying for me. She knew this was going to be tough on me (she had no idea at the time how tough) and so she prayed for me without ceasing. It is hard to pray for someone when you are getting no feedback on their well-being, but she did. Thing three: God was listening.

The Weeping Wall is a sheer, vertical rock face, 200 feet high that is as dry as a bone until it reaches about 40 feet from the base of the cliff. It’s at this point the water runs out the side of the cliff like so many shower nozzles and it is thick with greenery. It’s an oasis, cold and refreshing, and it’s here that we filled our water bags called ticks (yes, they look

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The Ticks

like bloated ticks) and bathed our hot (as in hot from the sun, not as in “Your bod is so hot!”) and stinking bodies. The water was amazingly clean and revitalizing. Even though it was morning, the air was already turning warm and the water felt good. I leaned into the mossy wall and let the water run over my head and tried to get the day to come out of my mind. A glimmer of hope lit. Live in the moment. The kayak doesn’t exist. The river doesn’t exist. Only now exists. I had been praying seemingly without ceasing the entire morning and I tried to physically relax and not think about anything but this moment.  It could last forever if I wanted it to. It didn’t work. I opened my eyes. The river and the kayak were still there. I sighed, pushed myself out of the water and slipped my way back down to where my plastic coffin was tied.

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Plastic Clouds or Plastic Coffins.  It’s all about perspective.

I strapped my gear onto the kayak and climbed into it. It squeaked with my weight and I felt the familiar sore spots as they settled and rested on the hot plastic. I pushed off and glided in an uncontrolled arc into the calm water.

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Burned, swollen and zinced.

The sprites were gliding and giggling over the water on their plastic clouds. I knew that at the end of this calm water was not calm water and I bowed my head in weakness and fear.

“Perfect Love casts out fear.” “My power is made perfect in weakness.” “When I am weak then I am strong.”

As I sat there with my head bowed asking for help, the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair came to mind. The World’s Fair? Really? After all my fervent prayer, that’s all I get? Who, but a select number of Canadians, even remembers the Vancouver World’s Fair? Well, probably no one outside of Canada, except me. It was then I realized why God had prompted this memory. I had experienced a significant moment of fear and weakness there that I had always regretted and it wasn’t until I had kids that I had gotten over it completely. It is a very odd statement to say that thoughts of the 1986 World’s Fair comforted me, but they did.

Even though I was 23, the very age where you’re supposed to love jumping off cliffs wearing nothing more than a squirrel suit, I didn’t. I still looked both ways before crossing the street and I always wore my seat belt (even before it was cool) and I certainly wasn’t going to ride my new mountain bike downhill on a gravel road. Think of the road rash. But here I was heading to a Young Life club in Canada to be their summer photographer. Not an extreme sport, but we would be out of radio contact and that was scary enough. Not everyone was a photographer back then and the profession was still cool enough to give me some panache and the fellow staffers I had met up with were pretty cool.

They all wanted to go see the World’s Fair. “Why not?” I thought. I love to wander through the fair looking at the exhibits and the canned fruits and vegetables. It turned out that none of them were interested in the exhibits and as soon as we pushed through the turnstiles they made a bee line for the roller coaster.

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This is me NOT on the Expo 86 roller coaster.

Little beads of sweat trickled down my side. Roller coasters were one thing that I had determined would never be on my bucket list (even if I had known what a bucket list was). They begged me to go and I made a very, very feeble excuse not to. My fear was evident. It was like when someone asked me to do something bad when I was little and all I could think of saying was that my mom didn’t want me to do that. Then I would get punched in the face and left while they went off to steal matches and start fires. My credibility went to zero and my summer, while fun, wasn’t what it could have been. This was a scene that I had relived countless times and it was a regret that haunted me for years. It wasn’t until my kids were old enough to ride roller coasters that it went away.

My kids had a funny way of taking care of many of my fears… they added many others, but at least for me there were many things, like the fear of stinging insects, that went away as I tried to model proper respect for things without fear. I never wanted my kids to be like me, fearing things they shouldn’t. That’s how I found myself sitting in a roller coaster with my two sons waiting for it to kill me. I was strapped in and there was no place to go but up and over. As the coaster lurched and grumbled to the launching point, I quickly made a conscious decision. I made the determination at that moment to enjoy the feeling of abject fear. When the coaster dropped over the edge, I was going to scream like a little girl and enjoy the terror. And I did both. Now, I can’t get enough of roller coasters and will go on any, at any time.

My kayak bobbed unsteadily on the water, threatening any moment to tip me out, but I was no longer paralyzed. My head came up, I thanked God aloud. I smiled and I was ready. I knew there would still be fear, maybe even terror, but I was going to enjoy it. I was going to lean into the fear and enjoy the feeling.

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“None Shall Pass!”  Todd, the Gatekeeper, watches as the guides devise a route the Sprites would find challenging.

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Not a bad place to die.

I thanked God as I pushed by Todd, the gate keeper, and into the rapid. I was excited because I had made a conscious decision to enjoy myself. I attacked the rapid with a furor yet unknown to me and the first thing that happened when I hit the primary drop was that I immediately FLIPPED! I’m serious. Right over. I came up, but not wide eyed (except for the normal, O’Bryan type) and I wasn’t afraid. I was exhilarated and not a little mad that I had been dumped out of my toddler. “You just stopped paddling!” screamed Aaron and cheerfully gave me a thumbs up. I stored that bit of information away, got my kayak, kicked it a few times to teach it a lesson, grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of the sprites and their dads as they made their way unscathed through the rapid.

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Leroy was in his 70s and had a bad back.  He can be classified as one of the Sprites… just sayin’.

Over the next four days I went down countless rapids and flipped a total of NONE times. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the most graceful kayaker after the Weeping Wall revelation, but I was a kayaker.  I could actively avoid most rocks, but when I didn’t, I learned to use the rock to aid me on my way down the rapid. I was still a walrus, but this one was a teetotaler. Now, maybe I was just becoming better acquainted with the spoiled child that was my kayak or maybe my athletic ability and natural good looks just kicked in or maybe I just got lucky? OR, maybe, just maybe, I needed to learn a lesson. My mind and body have always been good at doing things like this and had I been able to pick up on this from the first stroke of the paddle, I might have had to learn a different lesson, but not as one as impactful as this one was.

What had started out as a complete beat down turned out to be a glorious river trip and every evening from Weeping Wall on, I had nothing but personal highs to talk about. I watched the sun rise from a chalk dome called Chalk Basin, caught an inordinate amount

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Chalk Basin

of smallmouth bass, sat in a hot spring, saw soaring cliffs and deep pools, and throughout the rest of the days had the best time with my daughter. What started out as a bad dream ended up being an amazing trip, one I would do again in a heartbeat.
Some may say, “Well, that’s dumb, why didn’t you just trust God?” I’m really not sure how to answer that, other than to say that I just couldn’t find it within myself to do it. No matter how hard I tried, my strength just wasn’t sufficient. Whether it was fear or unbelief or just not remembering how God has provided for me in the past, I don’t really know, but I do know one thing – that my God is a God of comfort and He will use whatever means He needs to bring us to that place of peace. For some it’s a kind word from a friend, for another it is direct revelation. For me, it was the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair. Go figure.

The following are some of the players in this drama:

 

 

 

 

 

I Do Not Have the Best of Friends.

keith chuck meMy hands had sweaters for weeks.

A friend is someone who knows you so well that they can tell what you’re thinking without being told, knows how you’re feeling and how you respond to certain things, and knows all your likes and dislikes.  Really, really close friends learn these things so that they can use the information against you in unspeakable and evil ways.

I worked in the college bookstore industry for over 22 years until some lumpy guy with an MBA and no chin from the corporate office downsized me.  I got my two month “golden parachute,” a “thanks for 22 years of hard work,” a hardy handshake and the prospect of standing on the street corner for the rest of my life with a “Hungry, please help me” sign clutched between my gaunt, white hands.  It all worked out for the best, but at the time, faced with losing my job and not getting to work with the two guys I had come to look at as brothers, life seemed pretty low.

Twenty two years is a long time to do any one thing and it’s amazing the amount of useless information that I had gathered in my head over that period of time.  Equally daunting to me was the realization of exactly how useless that information was outside of the college bookstore industry.  I guess it’s the same with any industry, but it was a bit of a shock trying to figure out how I was going to feed the family knowing that the only real information I had to offer prospective employers was things like knowing the first six digits of the skus for all the vendors I ordered from or that the Pentel P207 is the finest mechanical pencil every made and that the only stapler worth owning was the Swingline 747 (it comes in red, too).

There were things I wasn’t going to miss about the bookstore, like stacking boxes of books or dealing with helicopter moms, but there were things I would miss terribly, things that I still miss to this day like working with some of my closest friends and the energy generated by kids attending college for the first time and the feeling of knowing that I could probably answer any question they could ask.  AND, there was also nothing quite like attending the annual college bookstore trade show.

Not many people get to experience all expense paid trips to big cities, staying in nice hotels and eating food you can’t afford in real life.  And the only real cost you had to pay was the pound of flesh you lost by having to weave your way through row after row of seedy-looking vendors who were doing everything they legally could do to get you to buy their junk. I relished it.  I placed a lot of orders, but I also did my best to cram as much free vendor swag as possible into my bags.    Free stuff meant that I wouldn’t have to think about what to get my kids for Christmas again that year.

Okay, I wasn’t as bad as that, but I did keep their drawers filled for years with everything from floaty fish and Rubik’s Cubes to hacky sacks and pen lights.  I have four kids, but vendors were more than happy to let me have four packages of whatever I wanted.  If I took them it meant that they didn’t have to pack it up and bring it back home with them.  I was so excited to give this stuff to my kids that I would ship my clothes home in a box and stuff my luggage with the trinkets.

I loved going to the trade show and kind of forgot about it as I started my new job.  After four years it was completely out of my mind, that is, until I received a trade show gift package in the mail from my bookstore friends Keith and Chuck.  I was never so excited to open a package in my life.  I carried it around the office, hugging it to my body, showing others, and even opened it in the presence of a few people to let them revel in the gifts that were all mine.  I even might have actually laughed out loud and danced a little, held it to my face and called it “My Precious.”

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I pulled out trade show T-shirts, fake teeth, mustache tattoos, dollar store flash lights, paper pads and cheap pens.  It was a bunch of junk – except for the golf balls – but I loved it.  I was just really touched that they cared enough to remember me in their fun.

I immediately texted them to thank them for thinking of me and I told them how much I appreciated their “gift.”

“Thought you would like it,” was the reply I got.

“Thought you would like this, too:” was the second text I received a few minutes later.

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Yep.  It turned my gift into a box of Ebola.  Boy, I love my friends.

We’re Born Again, There’s New Grass on the Field!

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Not a blade of grass to be seen.

I’ve played a bit of baseball in my time.  I think I may have told you in a previous post that when I was in Little League old men would ask me to autograph baseballs on the off chance that I would actually amount to something other than a manager at a hospital.  I guess the joke’s on them.   I imagine those signed balls being passed down from generation to generation without the giver having any idea why.  Then again, maybe not.

I played baseball from the time I could walk until just after my 21st birthday.  I was the classic product of the big, farm-raised fish in the small stock pond of life and once I got into the actual Pacific ocean of wild fish, it turns out that I was just pretty darned average.  My natural good looks and athletic ability (I had plenty of the latter and very little of the former) only fed my ever expanding ego, but never met with the requirement to actually work hard in order to succeed.  I had the desire, but not the work ethic to advance to the next level.

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Batting practice at Spring Training

So I always have mixed emotions when I watch a live, professional baseball game.  On the one hand, I still feel like I could have made it had I tried harder, but on the other hand I thank God that I didn’t and especially so after watching many of the fans at Spring Training last week in Scottsdale.

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Mom and Dad staying out of the heat

My dad brought my sister, my mom and me to Scottsdale in 1974 to watch the Chicago Cubs Spring Training.   I have some very vivid memories about the trip, but most of the other details are lost to time.  I saw Hank Aaron play (he popped up in his only at bat), got Don Dreysdale’s autograph (I still have no idea who he is) and had my picture taken with a ballplayer whom I don’t now recognize.  I also remember my dad interviewing a carpet layer in our hotel room.  Dad always said that you could tell the measure of a man by how calloused his hands were and I was dying to know if the man had rough hands.  Dad said he did.  Weird what my mind recalls.

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I have no idea who the guy on the left is, but I think he smelled like Aqua Velva.

We stayed at the Camelback Inn and I ate t-bone steak and dipped my crusty french bread in the stewed juices of dead snails.  Never had the body fluids of a  mollusc tasted so sweet.  I swam in the pool, got sunburned for the first time  and took batting practice in the same place the pros did.  I was a young Alaskan in sunny Arizona and I had baseball in my blood and it felt like something else let me tell you.  Well, at least what I remember of it.

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Vanna White would be proud.

We watched game after game and I got so many autographs that I couldn’t keep track of which players I had and which ones I didn’t.  It got so bad that the players would see me coming and say, “You already got me.”  I’m sure I was like a bad dream that wouldn’t go away, but to me it was like an Easter egg hunt and their big, fat signatures were the eggs.  There were few fans, the players were accessible and willing to sign (except for Mike Marshall, the stupid jerk) and it seemed like one big tailgate party.  My dad loved it.  Mom not so much.  My sister not at all (she got blood poisoning from her sunburn and slept a lot).  It was here that I wanted to be when I grew up.

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This is my sister Betty recovering from her blood poisoning. Sun and Alaskans don’t mix.

Let’s just say, things have changed a bit in 40 years.  Lots of things.

Spring Training last week was a really good time.  The weather was amazing, the ball parks were fun and we got to spend an amazing week with my sister, but the overwhelming thing I felt for the players was pity.  I truly did.  I know they make millions playing a game, but because of that, a small minority of the fans think they are owed something from them.  The players are badgered and cajoled, sworn at, talked down to, and fawned over – all for a signature.  A sharpie mark

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Running the gauntlet of autograph seekers

on a baseball.   A scribble on a piece of cowhide to prove that the owner actually had a brush with fame, or, as is more often the case, to be sold on Ebay so others, for a price, can hold a piece of that player’s soul for eternity.  And, for all I know, many players may look at it like the tribesman from New Guinea who won’t let you take his picture because he’s sure you’re stealing a part of his soul.   Some will sign, others might, and still others never do.

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Brandon Belt signing Allison’s jersey.

I do understand why we want it.  It’s a memento, a moment in time.  A freeze frame of your life that you can pull out and show to friends, who will then know that you met someone famous.  It’s your six degrees of Kevin Bacon moment.  And we love it.  It’s a bit like buying that Star Wars action figure and never taking it out of the packaging.  We hope it will go up in value and that we can pass it down to our children and someday it will be worth millions.   On my deathbed I will hand my signed Whitie Herzog baseball to one of my lucky kids and they will hold it high and flaunt it over my other children and still not know who the heck Whitey Herzog was, but because he was famous they are somehow famous.

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Bruce making friends

And in that autograph frenzy, where little kids are crushed by old men, something has been lost.  You can see it in their eyes.  Many of the players are not having fun.  As they walk by the bleachers with fans yelling at them and begging them for a morsel of their attention, they look as if they are walking to the guillotine and Madame Defarge is knitting at the edge of the dugout.   These men never have a moment in public where someone isn’t demanding something of them.  They have got to feel like performing monkeys in a circus – and it’s not too far from a circus either.

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Circus practice

And the players are partly to blame.  Every player is a brand and that brand has to be advertised.  And advertise they do.  There is an endless supply of personal information spewing forth from the culvert pipes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and it’s all a perfectly orchestrated wonderland where everyone is handsome and happy and all the kids dress well.  We know everything about their lives, what they wear, what they eat, and how they play with their kids.  Their wives even respond to social media posts which means that the players saw it, too, which means that I’m one step closer to him than I was before.

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Some have more fun than others.

And we all feel like best friends.  How can we not?  I know as much about my favorite player (and I do have one) as I know about my best friend – maybe more – and so why wouldn’t I expect him to be my friend?  We would be great buddies.  I could hang with him like I do my other friends.  I see him hanging with his friends and their families just like I do.  We could be BEST FRIENDS! If only he would meet me and get to know me and I could tell him how cool I am and how cool he is and wouldn’t it be cool if…  What a jerk he turned out to be.  He didn’t even look at me when I yelled at him.

I do feel sorry for the players.  I’m sure the game used to be fun.  Now, I’m not so sure it is.

But, there are bright spots.  Hector Sanchez is one.  He’s the backup catcher for the SF Giants and I really like him.  When you get to the field early you get to see the players with the dead eyes, but also the players that are completely energized by it all.  They know what it’s about.  They know that this is a sport with a dwindling fan base and they do what they can to create loyal followers.  Hector is one of those guys.

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Hector Selfie

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AND… the result

He should be the face of baseball.  He’s handsome and funny and kind (yes, it may all be orchestrated), but he spent an hour making sure everyone got an autograph and a picture with him.  He even took the selfies, well, himself.  I saw him walk across the field to give a baseball to a toddler and then do the same thing minutes later to give another ball to the toddler’s older brother – thus eliminating any fighting the parents would have to deal with on the way home.  He made people feel like they were his best friend.  That’s what I’m talking about.  That was Spring Training 1974 style.  I’m firmly in the Hector Sanchez fan club.

I’m sure there are more like Hector and I hope so because a little player attention goes a long way towards making someone’s day.  My girls got some amazing  autographs (they promised me that they did not swear at any of the players) from some really nice ball players and became “best friends” with many of them (winkie face). We were all thrilled with it.  Spring Training is a special time.  It’s a more intimate brand of baseball, something more akin to it’s Little League roots. Many of the old guard, the jaded ones, are just going through the motions, but there are many kids trying to make the 24 man roster who are completely sold out and though there is intense pressure they are reveling in the moment and can’t believe how fortunate they are to be standing on a field with people they idolize.  You can see it in their faces because you are close enough to see it in their faces.  There are no bad seats in Spring Training.

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No bad seats.

The Spring Training venues are amazing and intimate and a far cry from the days of dirt fields and bleachers (though bring your own food because it ain’t cheap at the park) and the fans are enthusiastic.  The A-list players may only play an inning or two, but the young talent is really fun to watch.  It’s a bit like a melodrama where you root for the good guys even though you know they stand little chance of surviving.  It breaks my heart to see a pitcher trying to make the squad get shelled or a rookie outfielder going O for four.  But then, that’s life and when they wash out they can always get a job as a manager at a hospital.

Baseball has changed and I’m not sure I like it, but as they say, it is what it is.

Above my desk is a picture of the American League vs. National League All Star Game held in Potlatch Idaho, October 26, 1914.  The stands are packed with loggers and dignitaries all dressed in their best – all trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite players.  The coach is standing in the box near first with his hands clasped behind his back and the pitcher is taking a signal.  This game has been around a long time.  It’s a game with a ball, a stick, and people running around trying not to get out and a group of other men trying to get them out.  In essence it’s really just an elaborate game of tag.  It is a game at its core, and a fun one at that.   I’m still not sure how it got so serious.

I Fish! Dr. Marvin, I Fish! I’m a Fisherman!

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The boy in the boat

A little bead of wetness clung to the end of my dad’s nose like a drip of golden honey – only it wasn’t honey.   Light refracted through it giving it the look of a droopy diamond as we sat under the canopy of our Glasply in the bitter cold sunlight and watched the end of our poles drag herring through the black water out by the old Ketchikan pulp mill.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  The tension was killing me.  It felt like the time I watched my great aunt Hazel smoke a cigarette down to the filter without flicking the ash.  No matter how many times she brought the gasper to her lips, completely covering the filter with old woman lipstick, the ash valiantly held forth.  When she finally flicked the ash into the tray and blew the last remnants from her lungs, I breathed a second-hand-smoke sigh of relief.

Fishing for King Salmon has been described as hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror, but I think this is a gross overstatement.  It wasn’t as if we were harpooning whales from a kayak.   We put little fish onto a little hook to catch bigger fish.  I guess if our big fish got eaten by a bigger fish, like, say a Killer Whale, that would be terrifying, but sitting in a boat, eating Snack Pack pudding and Zots and reeling in a fish now and then wasn’t terrifying – it was actually, a little slice of heaven.

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Dick and Peggy and bait

My sister, Betty, hated fishing almost as as much as I loved it.    The problem with fishing was that it required her to spend hour after hour with my dad in a small boat.  It’s also a lot more fun if you actually catch fish, and, no matter how much she tried, my sister couldn’t catch fish.  I  would reel in three fish from the starboard side of the boat and dad would make us switch sides.  Then I would catch two from the port side and we would switch back.  Then we would switch poles and switch lures, but none of it helped.   If Ketchikan had had a county fair, I would have come home with ten goldfish and she would have had a bag of wax lips.   As I got older I realized there were other reasons Betty dutifully sat on her side of the boat catching nothing: chocolate bars.  The little bar of Hershey goodness was enough to keep her coming –  that is, until she realized she could stay home, with a good book, and eat the bars in complete comfort.

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Mom and Dad and BIL Pat

My mom, on the other hand, liked to go fishing, but I never once saw her reel in a fish.  She hooked hundreds, but as soon as dad realized that she had a fish on he would take the rod from her.  Exasperated, once again, she would say, “Earl!” and then go back and make sure Betty had enough chocolate bars.   It seemed her only jobs aboard the boat was to hold the pole until dad took it away from her, dole out chocolate and hold my belt loop when I needed to pee over the edge of the boat.

“Dad,”  I said after watching the drip roll back and forth with the rise and fall of the boat for what seemed like hours.  “You’ve got a drip of snot on your nose.”  I reached my finger up to my nose to show him where.   In an instant his tongue came out and the drip vanished like a chameleon catching a fly.  In that moment I felt my personal space bubble expand to exclude hugs from my dad and I also felt the urgent need to wash my mouth out with soap.

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Dad and his best friend Clarence

The Clearwater River is about as far away from Ketchikan as it is from New York City, but as I sat in the cold metal drift boat hooking plugs to snap swivels and arranging my gear for the day, I had a strange feeling like I had done it my entire life.  I blew on my fingers to get my 50 year old circulation going, but I felt 12 again.

I moved to Idaho when I was in my third year of college and never had the desire to fish.   I went once with my roommate and that evening he went on and on about the 13 inch trout he had caught that day.  After about ten minutes of his diatribe, I told him that in Alaska we used fish like the one he caught for bait.  I’m sure it was a nice fish, as far as trout fishing goes, but I could not see the enjoyment in reeling in a fish the size of a woman’s slipper.

Little did I know that only an hour away flowed a river of milk and honey, bursting to the banks with fish – real fish.  Fish that a man could be proud of.  Fish that broke the water when you hooked them and danced and flailed in the air trying to spit your hook.  Fish that battled you and fought you and tired you and tested you and needed to be knocked out with a stick when you got them in the boat so they wouldn’t damage anything.  Fish that bled on you and that you had to strain to hold as someone took your picture.  These were fish you hung on the wall.

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Freaking wild Steelhead!

It only took 30 years for me to discover it, but less than an hour to fall in love.  The Clearwater isn’t a misnomer.  It’s big and wide and clear as air.  It’s old and thinning in places where you need to lift your feet and hold your breath as you float over it so you don’t scrape the bottom, but deep and dark in other places with channels and holes that hide big fish that strike out of anger instead of hunger.  Angry fish, who knew?

“Keep your tip up!  Don’t loose it!  Let it run!  Check your drag!  Don’t give it slack!”   Every new fisherman gets on the job training.  I knew these words by heart and smiled warmly when I heard them.  When your body reacts independently of your mind and heart you have become, if not an expert, at least very comfortable and in tune with what you’re doing.  I hadn’t caught and landed a really big fish in 30 years, but holding the pole as the fish tried to rip it from my fingers felt natural and homey like wearing an old baseball glove or a favorite hat.  I felt relaxed and in charge.  The fish didn’t stand a chance.

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Dave’s lunker.

Catch and release is like dating in highschool.  You chase, you catch, you have a short relationship, then you release.    The hook fell out as the Steelhead flailed in the net.  I reached carefully in and grasped the fish by the tail and throat and lifted it up for its photographic debut.  He smiled and I smiled.   He was beautiful and bright, a wide band of color running down both flanks.  I knelt by the stern and carefully lowered him into the water to let the oxygen flow through his gills and bring him out of his stupor.  After a few moments of lolling from side to side his wits came to him and he fought out of my grasp, powering back into the depths.

The yuppie with the Spey Rod and the Orvis fly vest looked on with disdain as Dave and I thrashed around in the drift boat like a couple of school kids, hollering and high fiving like we had just won the lottery, which in a way, I felt  like I had.  I knew in that moment that I would be buying walnuts for Dream Crusher at Costco (you’ll have to ask her about this) and getting a boat.

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Man, I was unattractive, but boy could I catch fish. Dream Crusher and me before we were married. She only agreed to marry me AFTER I caught these beauties.

When the poles were once again dancing above the water,  Dave touched his nose and nodded in a way that confirmed, without actually saying anything, that I had a bit of snot dew clinging to the end of my nose.  Without thinking, my tongue shot out and firmly lodged into the corner of my mouth as I searched my pockets for a Kleenex.  I blew my nose and as I put the tissue away I thought to myself that maybe I was not my father’s son after all.

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The Clearwater and Dave.

 

Four Days Shy of 67 Mother’s Days

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January 31, 1926 – May 7, 2014

Her children rise and call her blessed.

My mom passed away just four days shy of her 67th Mother’s Day.  She was 88 and she was a saint.  If you have read any of my stories about my dad, you will know that no truer words were ever spoken.

It might seem odd, but I like to read obituaries.  They are sobering and give one perspective on how tenuous life really is.  Rarely are they ever completely truthful or give the entire story about what kind of person the deceased really was.  In every obituary the deceased family member was loved by everyone, loved life, always had a ready smile and never got angry.  Invariably, the person will be missed by every single person who knew him or her.   It’s just what you do when you remember someone.  You accentuate the best and forget the rest.  It’s a delicate balance and absolutely to be expected.   However, there is no delicate balance with my mom.  This is the honest truth – she was a saint.

She lived the last years of her life in a community of retired people (the last eight years in a nursing home) and outlived most of them.  Few of her friends are left to remember her.  But, her kids remember.

I would like you to meet my mom.

Gertrude Lorraine Bentley was born in 1926.  I don’t know much about her life because she never really talked about it, and I never asked, but what I’ve pieced together is that she was born into a migrant farm family that moved west during the Depression.  They were a family of dusty, fruit-pickers out of The Grapes of Wrath.  Her home life wasn’t ideal: her father drank and her mother slept at a friend’s house because of it.

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Mom and Dad and my brother Dick

Mom was a teenager when she and Dad met.   They were polar opposites and  I can only assume that he swept her off her feet with his enormous personality.  He must have seemed like the brass ring in an otherwise mundane merry-go-round. By the time I heard the stories of my dad getting into knife fights and brawls at bars with his then pregnant wife (my mother) in the fray, I couldn’t imagine it.  This woman with graying hair, who loved nothing more than to sit and read James Herriot novels and drink coffee or play endless games of cribbage with her son, didn’t seem capable of wanting to smoke cigarettes, while sitting in a bar watching her husband fight.  All I can imagine is that he must have seemed like an amusement ride compared to the life she previously led.  She must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to my dad.

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Mom and me.

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Mom, with her mom, and my sibling before I was born

I met her when she was 38.  I had just been born and from everything I pieced together later in life, I was a huge accident.  But in her mind, I was not a mistake.  She told me one time that even though Dad was really, really mad about her being pregnant (why he would be mad when he had a part in the process is beyond me) her arms ached to hold me.  It truly is all any child can ask of a mother – to be loved so much that her arms ached if you weren’t in them.

I remember bits and pieces of my childhood.  I remember helping her make cookies.  I remember Swedish pancakes with powdered sugar and lemon juice squeezed out of a plastic lemon.  I remember one-eyed Egyptian eggs.  I remember sitting with her in a rocker.  I remember the squeaky sound of her cleaning our huge picture windows and walking up and down Madison Avenue with her lifting my arm up so I wouldn’t trip going over the curb.  I can only see dimly the moments of her caring for my needs, but I am left with a vivid and overwhelming sense, like a technicolor hand-crocheted afghan, of how much she liked me.

Most kids know that their parents love them.  It is an entirely different thing to know that your parents like you.  I know that my mom liked me.  This is especially telling because in my mind I wasn’t a particularly likeable kid.  What an amazing thing for me to come home from school knowing that even though I may have had a really, really bad day, there was someone at home who couldn’t wait to see me and actually liked being around me.  She was my refuge and there is no greater blessing than that for a kid.

There are life lessons to be learned from my mother if we are wise enough to listen.  She never read any books on how to raise children.  She was permissive in her parenting, she never physically disciplined me, she was a good cook, but still allowed me to eat all the things that weren’t good for me, and she was virtually incapable of helping me or my siblings get through those awkward years where you don’t know why your feet are suddenly huge or why funny bumps are breaking out all over your face.  But, the one thing she was capable of doing she did in spades – she loved us.  Her love seemed to erase all the things she wasn’t able to do otherwise and it had a profound impact on all of us.  Her children have risen up because of it and called her blessed.

I never heard a single complaint about having to take care of any of us, and, in all my years, I never heard her say a harsh thing about me or any of my siblings.  She just didn’t have it in her.  She built up her children and never tore them down. She worked tirelessly to make sure we were well fed and clothed and had what we needed.

Mom was happy being at home.  Dad wasn’t.  He always wanted to be doing something.  She wasn’t particularly fond of going places, but she went.  If we picnicked, she packed, cooked and cleaned up when we got home.  If we fished, she processed the fish.  If we clammed, she cleaned them all.  If we crabbed, she cooked them.  She held our coats when we got hot and our shopping bags if we didn’t want carry them. There were times she was so overloaded that she looked like a Sherpa going up Mount Everest.  She bandaged my cuts and washed my wounds. She watched over the treasures that I found on the beach so no one would take them.  I took great advantage of her kindness, but that was Mom.  She gave and gave, but never required anything in return.  She was a saint.

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Yes, that’s a football. Yes, I did share my sister’s room for years.

She spent her entire life putting her children first.  Her arms ached to hold me as a baby, but her arms ached to hold all her kids.  All of her children have the same sense of kindness and affection towards her that was gained when she rocked us to sleep as children or read to us when she put us to bed.  She wasn’t the smartest or the prettiest (though she was both smart and pretty), but she loved us unconditionally.  This love kept me from doing some really stupid things as I grew up.  In my world, the worst thing I could do was hurt my mom and the first thought that came into my head when I was tempted to do something stupid was, how will this make mom feel?  I feared disobeying my dad.  I felt self-loathing when I did something to hurt my mom.

She only raised her hand against me one time.  I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but to have done something bad enough to bring her to violence against one of her children, it must have been something really, really irritating.  She swatted me on my fully clothed back end as I ran by her and I cried.  It did not hurt even a single bit, but knowing that I had done something to her that made her get angry at me was enough to break me down.  In my world it was a turning point and it never happened again.

Some might say that she was living vicariously through her children and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was (living with Earl made us all want to live a different life somehow), but mostly she wanted to see her children happy.  She didn’t have much power because of my dad, but what power she did have – the power to love us – she used to great advantage in our lives.

There are turning points in a family’s history that mark a drastic change in that family.  Mom was that turning point in our family. In fact, because of her, our family tree grew an entirely new branch.   Most of my dad’s relatives were cut from a different mold and, how do I say this delicately, a bit rougher around the edges.  Had we been left alone with Dad, or Dad and the kind of woman that notoriously marry men like my dad, I know things probably would have turned out markedly different in all of our lives – think orange jumpsuits and not being able to vote.  Mom saved us in so many ways.

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Allison helping grandma

When I got married and had kids of my own I realized exactly how difficult it is to be kind and patient all the time (let me say impossible) and I always marveled at how easy my mother made it seem.  All my kids got to know their Grandma Dudie, but my boys got to know her the best.  She would sit for hours with them playing checkers or cards or listening to them tell stories or reading them books.   I could only take a few minutes of any of this, but she was content to just sit and be with them.  My girls didn’t get as many quality years with her before Alzheimer’s took her mind, but she loved them like she loved me even in her affliction.  I know her arms ached for them, too.

As we all got older, the times together as a family became less frequent, but when we were together Mom was still the buffer.  Dad would be unreasonable and demanding and she would deal with him and then come back to the game we were playing at the dining room table.  I can still see her in my mind laughing uncontrollably over some silly inside joke.  It was a constant goal to get mom going and when she did, we all laughed until we couldn’t breathe.  These were the best of times and the worst of times.

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Wesley getting some alone time with his Grandma Dudie

Even as Alzheimer’s took her mind from her, she was still sweet and she was still the buffer that kept us from the full force of Dad.  She wasn’t quite as sweet to him as she used to be and was finally able to stand up for herself (we were all secretly a bit happy about this) as the filters dropped from her mind.  But to her kids, she was still the same.  Even though she forgot things and asked the same questions over and over, her love for us still shone in her eyes and to the very end she was still one of the nicest people any of us had ever known.

Goodbye was always hard on Mom

Goodbye was always hard on Mom (and Christian always got teary)

Dad died three years ago and there was a huge sigh of relief from his kids.  I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but he was a trial and when Mom went to the nursing home eight years ago, the buffer was gone and we got the unfiltered, crack cocaine version of Dad.  Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing. It was made even more terrible for us because it took the parent that we all wanted to have around longer and sidestepped the one that made life difficult. The one who wanted nothing more than to sit and enjoy her children was taken away far too early.

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Still beautiful

It’s sad, but there it is.  Now she has passed.  As we drove to be with her during her last moments I wondered what one was supposed to do when sitting with a dying parent.  I now have a role model to emulate. My sister Betty was by her side and did the most beautiful thing.  She sat next to her, held her hand and talked about what a great mother she was and spoke the names of her kids and grandkids as she breathed her last.  What was most important to my mom in life was whispered in her ear at her death.  I am thankful that she was my mom and sad that her life is over, but at the same time I am happy and relieved for her to finally be free.  Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are her legacy.  Well done, Mom.

 

This Suite Did Not Suit

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Stewing in their own juices.

I hate falling victim to good advertising and shady marketing schemes.  The sad thing is that I usually know better.  I am a cynic at heart and carry around low expectations like an Eeyore looking for his tail and because of that I’m never surprised when I pull my McChicken out of the bag and it looks like it’s been held tightly in the armpit of an East German woman or that the new X-Ray glasses that I ordered from the back of a comic book won’t actually allow me to see through walls.  I have just come to expect such things.

The problem is, I love a great deal.  The willingness that I have to suspend my disbelief is directly affected by the ratio between the amount of money that I might save and how large the potentiality of awesomeness an item possesses.  If there is a chance that I could pay less for something that I know costs a lot more or there is the possibility that an item will make my life somehow markedly better, the belief in that thing borders on idolatry.  There is always a still, small voice of doubt echoing somewhere in my head, but I mostly ignore it.  I firmly believe that there are such things as free lunches and I am confident that before I die, I will, at some point, get something for nothing.

The Ameri Stay Inn & Suites has a very nice website, their prices are reasonable AND all of their rooms are suites.  This suited me fine.  If I had to be away from my family on business for a few days, why not get a suite?  Sleep in one room, work in the other.   And the price was cheaper than The Holiday Inn Express, non-suite room.  The ratio was just about perfect. I ignored the warning bells firing in my head and booked a room for three nights. How bad could it be?

Pulling into town the hotel address I had entered into my GPS led me to the front door of Papa’s Poker Room and Casino.  While Papa’s is a casino, it isn’t the Belagio.  There are no fountains, unless you classify the guy who was relieving himself on the side of the building as a very small fountain.  I called the hotel, thinking that I entered the address wrong, and was told by the disinterested voice that if I just drove through the casino parking lot and past the bowling alley I would see the hotel.  At that point my “Oh Crap” meter was pegged.

There was a bell on the counter at the front desk, but I didn’t even think of using it because the black eye-shadowed attendant and her boyfriend (his black hair covering one eye in a long sweep), were sitting at the desk right behind it.  They didn’t look up.  I stood at the counter for a few minutes silently waiting for them to finish their game of Bubble Pop.  When they had finished, and before they could start a new game, I tentatively clicked the silver bell button.  It gave a sickly ring.  Four bloodshot eyes rolled in sync and locked onto mine.  The girl reached up and placed her finger deliberately on the bell.  I smiled.  She heaved a sigh and pushed away from the desk.  When she asked me how many hours I needed the room for, I knew I was in deep, deep trouble.

What many of you may not know is that I have an issue with the unclean (I also used to have issues with the undead, but I lived through teenagers so I’ve gotten over that). I also have a very good imagination and since I work in a hospital I know that just because something may look clean, it doesn’t mean it is clean.  What you see as clean, I see as potential nastiness – like an invisible, steamy, rainforest of death.  I buy hand sanitizer in the 64 oz container.

Some people have gone so far as to call me germaphobic and suggest that I get help.  Before you call an intervention, I just have to say that the Bible is on my side.  Doesn’t it say that “Cleanliness is next to godliness” (okay, maybe the was Ben Franklin, but he was a founding father so it’s almost the same)?  I’m the normal one, people, and it’s all of you that are crazy.  If you all knew what I know about invisible death you would run screaming from public restrooms just like I do.  It is not my fault.  I like my own germs just fine – I just can’t seem to abide other people’s flora and fauna.

Something happens inside my head when I begin thinking about any public object that I touch because studies have shown that almost everything I, or you,  touch is covered in a mixture of fecal material, blood and nasal effluence. How do you get that thought out of your head once it’s in there?  What were the people doing in order to get that on their hands? I have really got to stop thinking about this.

Touching anything like shopping carts or handrails makes my hands feel like they are growing little green mittens.  As soon as it becomes socially acceptable to wear a mask in public (think surgeon, not luchador) I will strap one on in a heartbeat because almost every spec of dust you see floating in the air is really a fleck of someone else’s sloughed skin.  I hate the thought of a tiny piece of someone else lodging firmly in my bronchial airways. Come on people!  Use a loofah!

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I pulled my truck around back and parked it underneath one of two working lights which, I found out the next morning, happened to be right in front of the industrial dryer vent (my truck was covered in a thick mat of frozen lint by then).  At the time parking next to a light seemed prudent.  I walked past the cigarette smoking drunkenness at the back entryway, slid my card quickly into the slot and when the little light flicked from red to green, pushed my way in.  I pulled the door shut behind me before the smokers could get in.  They stood at the door and stared at me like something out of the Walking Dead.

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I was a bit puzzled to see a dark green couch parked beneath the stairwell, like a dejected, cast-off from the Brady Bunch set.  As I stepped over the couple talking in the hallway I realized the green couch had to be really bad if they had opted to sit on the floor instead of using it.  I opened my room door and closed it behind me with a satisfying click.  I bolted the lock and flicked the little safety latch over.  I turned on the light and my heart about fell out of my chest and onto the floor.  Had it actually leapt from my chest and onto the floor, I would have left it there, not wanting to put the filthy thing back into my body.

The place appeared clean enough, but I was very glad at that moment not to be in possession of a black light.  Believe me, my imagination was doing a good enough job letting me know exactly what was in the room without it.  I had booked a suite and by golly that’s what I got, but is wasn’t the kind of suite that I was expecting with a writing desk, chair and separate television (like every other suite in existence).  Smack in the middle of this suite was a large, mirror encased, hot tub.

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My head swam.  I was like that Nigerian swimmer at the Olympics a few years back who had just learned to swim the month before being sent to Beijing as his country’s lone entrant.  I was dog paddling and people were screaming in my head, only these people were hoping to see someone drown and I was going to oblige.

This was no jungle or Tahiti themed room, but it might as well have been.  This room was designed for business, but not for any kind of business I was interested in.  I staggered past the cesspool and made my way to the bed.  I had to sit.  I grabbed the comforter by the very edge, yanked it from the bed in one swift motion (comforters are sickly dirty) and piled it into the corner, realizing far too late that I had just launched every latent skin cell that was silently resting on the spread into the air.  I pulled my t-shirt over my mouth and nose and, using a tissue to lift the receiver, called the Holiday Inn to see if they still had a room open.  They didn’t.  I was stuck for the duration.  I came close to weeping.

As I sat on the bed, trying not to think any thoughts at all, a vision kept popping into my head.  It was a vision of the thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of people who had stumbled from the casino or bowling alley to use my hotel room for other reasons than rest.   I was sickened and it felt like the room was closing in on me.  At that moment it seemed like every single person who ever used the room was standing unclothed in the room with me and they were all fat and hairy and shirtless and wore tightie-whities.  It was claustrophobic.  I was sitting on a bed, an island of sorts, in the vast ocean of other people’s body fluids and the weight of that knowledge was making the bed smaller and smaller.  I hugged my knees to my chest and tried to relax.  I turned the TV on with my shoe and tried not to think about it.  I couldn’t even look at the tub.

We have whirlpools in the birthing rooms at the hospital where I work.  After baby and mother have gone home, environmental services cleans the tub by running  a strong solution of water, disinfectant, and biological cleanser through them a number of times before rinsing clean.  This is a time consuming and expensive process and not something I’m sure this hotel did.  If it isn’t done, little body pieces sit in the inner pumps and hoses and grow silently, snickering in the warm, moist environment waiting to spew forth a maelstrom of other people’s DNA when the tub is filled and put into use by the next contestants. It’s like a human crockpot.

After watching a few hours of Say Yes to The Dress (it was the channel that the TV was turned to and I couldn’t touch the remote to turn the channel) I forced myself off the bed, put my bag on the wooden table and got ready for the night.  I brushed my teeth and washed my face with water from my Nalgene without setting anything on the counter or letting any part of my body touch the Formica.  Don’t ask me how I did this, but the last thing I shed from my body were my shoes and these I set right next to the bed in case I needed to get up during the night.

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There is a scene in Die Hard where the Bruce Willis character takes off his shoes and squishes his toes into the carpet in order to release the tension of travel.  This scene always makes me cringe when I think about how many people have done the exact same thing.  The podiatrist at work told me that the single greatest cause of nail and foot fungus is the carpet in hotel rooms.  Vindication!  I will never have this problem, but I do wonder what the housekeeper thinks when a single guy uses enough bathroom linen for four people.   It really was the only way for me to get from the shower to my clothes. Have you seen nail fungus?  I’m not trying to be a foot model, but I do want to be able to wear sandals in the summer.

I slept little, but survived my first night and was looking for my free continental breakfast.  By God, I deserved it.   The attending queen-of-the-microwave didn’t look up from her People magazine as I entered the “breakfast” room.  Fresh eggs and bacon, a waffle or maybe some french toast and a big glass of cold orange juice would just about put things right.

The smorgasbord consisted of one small tin pan of “eggs” and one aluminum pan of “sausage patties” and some liquid that could have been prune or old cranberry juice.  I guess hookers and drug addicts don’t really care what they have for breakfast. 20131211_070749

I did survive for all three days, but just barely.  It is amazing what you can live through if you have enough hand sanitizer.  I was never so thankful to put a place in my rear view mirror.  There was one thing that I never did figure out though.  Why would they leave lotion, soap and a hand towel on the microwave.  I guess some things are better left a mystery.

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The Deep Things of Dog

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Sweet, stinky cheese, dog.

In our 25 years of marriage, my wife and I have brought into our home a total of three dogs, two cats, five bunnies, one bird, twelve chickens, hundreds of insects, dozens of fish, and none of them could ever be considered even remotely attached to my wife (except for the praying mantis that landed on her pregnant belly and wouldn’t let go).  She has this anti-animal thing going on that manifests itself in a mutual animosity.  She barely tolerates our pets and they avoid her like she’s a corpse.

Her aversion has a specific, genetic component, just like blonde hair and blue eyes.  She was born into it.  I know this because I have it on good authority that her mother used to “accidentally” let the new dog out of the house without telling anyone, in hopes that it would R-U-N-N-O-F-T.  D.C. has never just let an animal free to wander the barren land, but she has made it very clear when her tolerance for a specific animal has run its course.

I, on the other hand, grew up with parents that loved dogs and I knew that my own family would one day have a dog.  But, before you start thinking that my kids and I are shoe-ins for the SPCA caring members of the year award, I need to confess that only four of the animals ever stuck… and those just barely.  The countless others were either carted off to “the farm,” given away to unsuspecting friends, sold on Craigslist, let loose or left in the freezer to die (the insects, not the cats).

It turns out that the reason I loved animals growing up is because I never had to actually deal with the animals, other than show them the occasional attention.  My parents fed, housed, walked, washed, cleaned, doctored and scooped.  They did everything nasty and I got all the good parts.

Fast forward to me being a parent and the poo was on the other foot, so to speak. I had to do it all.  Since D.C. hated animals and made it perfectly clear that she would have nothing to do with any animal that I brought into the house, the nastiness was left up to me to take care of.  Anyone who knows me knows that I hate nastiness.

I blame the kids.  It always started with an oath,  a promise made in all sincerity.  “We solemnly swear to feed and clean up after the X” (insert animal type here).   All I can say is that I must have had Alzheimer’s from a very early age because my short term memory is only filled with good animal memories and kept promises and I am, somehow, always surprised at how quickly the shine wears off of a new pet.  At the end of two months I usually had to step in with my Hazmat suit and pressure washer just to free the animal from its tightly packed excrement apartment.  This usually led to the animal living out the rest of its life on the “farm.”

Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are currently 108 official reasons why X animal didn’t get proper care, but that number is added to daily.  Mostly, I stand in awe at the length to which my kids would go in order to not have to care for an animal.  It would have been easier and quicker just to feed the stupid pet.  I’m also an enabler which doesn’t help.   There are self help groups I should be attending.

Since it turned out that we weren’t really pet people, the continuous circulation of animals through the house always seemed to baffle Dream Crusher.  In fact, the origination of my wife’s nickname came about because of her innate ability to cut off at the pass any request to bring an animal into the home.  The first word out of her mouth when the kids got that look in their eyes and asked for, say, a rat or a snake, was always “no.” The first word out of my mouth was always “sure.”  The NEXT words out of my wife’s mouth can’t be printed here.

I’m not saying that she wasn’t always right.  She was spot on about why we shouldn’t have had that particular type of animal in the house, or about the kids not taking care of X animal, and that I would eventually end up doing the dirty work myself.  She was always right.  It’s those darn puppy eyes that get me every time (the kids’ I mean).  I just have a really hard time saying no.

I may have never said no, but I wasn’t the kind of husband that would add another member to his household without first discussing it with his better half.   D.C. and I always discussed her minuses and my pluses before I brought our “next trip to the farm” home.  I credit her levelheadedness with keeping a good many bad ideas out of the house – like the de-scented skunk.

“Honey, the kids really want a dog.”  I brought this up at breakfast.

“No.”  She said this without looking up from her book.

“I think it would be good for them.  It would teach some responsibility. Besides, I had a dog growing up.”

“No.”

“Honey, think how fun it would be.  Think how much they would love a dog.”

“You’re crazy.  Why would we need another pet?”  She had set her book down by this point and was staring me directly in the eyes.  “We have four kids, for goodness sake!”

“It would be great.”

“No way.  Not a chance.”

“Please.”

“We already tried a dog.”

“But, that was a stupid dog.  This would be a better dog.”

(Our first dog Abby had to go for a long visit to the farm.  In hindsight the kids were way too young for an aggressive, but really cute lab/hyena cross that left me bleeding on so many occasions that I seriously got lightheaded from blood loss. When the boys and I and D.C. drove off, leaving Abby at the friends who had agreed to take her, the kids never noticed that she was missing until a week later.  It hadn’t really occured to them that they no longer had to hold their toys and food above their heads and sprint from room to room or stand on a chair when the dog was around, but Kelly and I noticed a change right away.  It was like we had been miraculously cured of leprosy and life seemed fluffy and smooth once again.)

“No way.  No more dogs.”

“Okay. Fine.” I sulked and continued eating my Cornflakes.

The next day I brought home Annie.

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Annie, whom one of the kids wanted to name Darth Vader,  grew up to be a 90 pound Yellow Lab, but when I picked her up from the breeder she was the cutest, fluffiest, ball of yellow excitement on the planet.  She was perfect, all paws and pudge, with a ridge of hair that rain down her nose like a long cowlick.  I wanted to name her “Ridgy.”  NB: The one concession was that D.C. got to name the dog.  Annie was her choice.

When I got home, the boys, who were always up for an experiment, immediately cornered Clark, our tabby, and introduced him to Annie.  The result was spectacular in the minds of the kids and less than stellar for the animals.  The cat was incensed. The dog was wounded.  It was the beginning of a great, long lasting friendship.

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D.C. was less than happy with me and never really warmed up to Annie.  At first, when she had that new puppy smell (like freshly washed leather shoes),  I would put her in D.C.’s lap and she tolerated her just fine, but when she started to get into the teenage years (Annie, not D.C.) and lost the cuteness and started secreting that stinky, oily liquid that coats the fur of all Labs, any hint of emotional attachment flamed into resentment almost overnight.

She really was stinky.  We could have attached an oil rig to that dog and lived off  the oil she produced.  It got so bad that the spot on the linoleum near the backdoor where she slept turned from a bright white to a burnt orange and no amount of scrubbing would remove the stain.

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But it’s not like we could bathe her.  She was 90 pounds and had rancid fur that, like Gore-Tex, had been specifically engineered to repel water.  Not bathing was fine with Annie because she hated water.  It seemed ridiculous to me that an animal so well suited to the water hated getting wet.  It was a bad combination of weight, stink and aversion.  In the end we tied her up in the backyard and hosed off the big chunks and called it good.

As Annie got older it became apparent that we might have bitten off more than we were willing to swallow.  Not only did this 90 pound sweet beast of a dog emanate an awful stench that kept us from snuggling with her, her own fur didn’t want to be attached to her either.  The sheer amount of rancid hair she sloughed off on a weekly basis was overwhelming.  It got so bad that the floor in our basement looked like it had a layer of fog on it, only it wasn’t fog, it was fur.  As you walked through the “fog” it would swirl and tumble around you like weeds tumbling along the desert.

Dogs need to come with warning labels because within the first year of her life we discovered that she had magical intestines, but not magical in a good way.  Annie was a veritable poop factory.  She could eat and excrete like no dog I have ever met.  If we fed her a cup of dog food, three cups of NOT dog food would come shooting out the other end.  She averaged a three to one ratio her entire life.

No matter what she ate it came out three times as big at the other end and what she ate was the stuff of legend.  Her appetite knew no limit.  It was like the voice in her head never spoke up and said, “Okay.  Step away from the bowl.  You are at capacity.”  She red-lined her intestinal system way too often.

It was her propensity to eat that caused D.C. to reach out and touch Annie, on purpose, for the first and only time and did she ever touch her.  It was Annie’s first Thanksgiving and, wanting to participate in the festivities, she quietly pulled the turkey carcass out of the garbage and proceeded to drag it and fling it around the kitchen and dining room like it was a play toy.

There were turkey parts stuck to the ceiling, the wall, and we even found pieces years later when we moved the piano.  It was at that very moment when D.C. touched Annie.  There was so much touching going on at that point that I had to rescue the petrified animal by letting her escape out the back door.  Annie was so afraid of Turkey after that incident that we had to switch her from turkey to lamb flavored dog food to keep her from losing weight.

Her eating had nearly killed her a number of times, so I wasn’t too surprised to find her at the back door a few years later dreadfully ill.  I was sure that she had eaten poison and realized that her gluttony might have finally done her in.   I felt awful for her and when I opened the back door her head hung low and she barely made it to her bed before she flopped down, with a sigh, and lay deathly still.  Her stomach was distended and tight like she was in the throws of labor and drool was forming at her lips.  Rat poison was what I suspected.  I put a bowl of water next to her and left her for the night, fully expecting to have to bury her the next day.

I was awakened by Christian in the early hours of the morning.

“Um, Dad, Annie threw up.”

I was still groggy.   “Can you deal with it son?”

“Um, I think you should come see this.  I don’t think I can do it.”  I was fully awake now and quickly pulled on my pants and made my way downstairs expecting the worst.  What met me wasn’t a dead dog; it was the largest vomit pile I have ever encountered.  It was as big around as a garbage can lid and a full three inches thick.  It was like an enormous oatmeal raisin cookie.  I looked over at Annie.  She thumped her tail cheerfully against the wall obviously proud of the gift she had deposited onto our new carpet.

It is completely accurate to say that the pile in front of me was like an oatmeal raisin cookie because it was nothing but a huge pile of bile and horse feed.  The stupid animal had gotten into the molasses and oats that we fed the horses and had gorged herself to the edge of the abyss.  I had to use the snow shovel to scrape the epic vomit pile off the carpet.

I think this is the only picture of her wet.  I think I threw her in.

I think this is the only picture of her wet. I had to throw her in.