Random Reminisces

I feel certain I’ve blogged about this before but I can’t find it so I’ll just re-tell the tale again from memory.

My Dad once made a cannon – from scratch. When you’re a kid of about 12 years old, that’s the coolest thing that’s ever going to happen to you.

It all started when he got his Atlas metal lathe. He taught himself how to turn down all sort of metal things and was generally looking around for a project to test his skills. As it happens, I had just been looking at a book that had pictures of old British warships from the late 1700’s and thought it would be cool to make a cannon. I showed him a diagram of an old deck gun and he was off. He already had a pretty impressive workshop in the back yard and his job was such that he got home about 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoons so he had lots of time in the evenings to work on things.

I was not around for all of this but I helped whenever I could. He began by looking around for material that he could machine into the proper size and shape. We decided on a desktop sized one with a barrel of about six inches in length and about 1.25” in diameter at the base. This was all totally arbitrary but it looked good on paper. He didn’t have any metal that he could machine that was of that size so he decided to melt some and cast a blank into the right size. He could only melt low temperature stuff so it was either aluminum or brass; he chose brass. He had recently also gotten a small propane-powered forge and so he made up a mold, gathered up a handful of old plumbing parts and other brass detritus and cast himself a blank.

We also had a lot of walnut lumber laying around. He delivered the mail out in the country and noticed a walnut tree that had died or gotten knocked down in a storm. He got the permission of the owner to take it out with help from his buddies; they hauled it to a sawmill, had it cut into lumber, and divided it up amongst themselves. He built things from that stockpile for years. For this project he build the gun carriage out of some of this walnut.

He slowly turned down the blank and drilled it out to make the barrel. In the end, it was a very nice looking model. I was extremely proud of it and him. It was definitely the coolest thing around in my estimation. Nobody else’s Dad ever did anything other than go fishing occasionally or, in rare instances, kill a deer. This was way outside anybody else’s league. Then I asked:

“Do you think it would really shoot?”

At that point, he was off again. In retrospect, this is probably the last thing anybody should ever do. But we did it.

Another thing we did together was skeet shooting. To save a bit of money, we reloaded our shells and so we had a small tin of shotgun shell gunpowder. He used some of this to experiment with shooting our cannon.

As I recall (and this is obscured by about 40 years of time so my memories may not be completely accurate), he first put in a small charge (roughly half a standard shotgun shell load) and stuffed a piece of rag into the muzzle on top of it. He then pulled the bullet out of a .22 shell and poured that smaller-grained powder into the touchhole. He then put a long fireplace match on a stick and lit it from a distance. I seem to recall that he put the cannon just outside his shop door and we got inside behind the wall while he lit it and he then ducked back inside until we heard something happen.

The first couple of shots just fizzled – the powder went off but just kind of tossed the wadding a foot or so. He slowly ramped the situation up by tamping it harder and harder until it went off with a POP and tossed the wadding 10 feet or so. Finally, he rolled a ball bearing down the muzzle on top of the wadding. We had moved it out into the yard by that time and aimed the cannon at an oak tree just in case. He lit the touch hole and sprinted for the shop door where I was hiding behind the wall. It took about three seconds for the touchhole powder to burn down to the main charge.

It went off with a huge BOOM much like a shotgun would. We looked out and saw nothing. The cannon had disappeared. At first, he was worried that the entire thing had exploded like a pipe bomb but we went outside and saw it about 15 feet back. The carriage was on little wooden wheels and the recoil had rolled it back and up the hill a bit. Everything was intact.

I was thrilled. I jumped up and down with the enormous coolness of it all.

He walked downrange and inspected the tree. There was a hole there and with his pocketknife, he plumbed the depths and discovered that the ball had imbedded itself about an inch into the old oak tree.

Again, I will write this down and be official: we should never have done this. It was a potential pipe bomb. But that’s all behind us now and we achieved a shining success. Well, HE did. I was basically a spectator but the reader can imagine how awesome it was to be a part of this at your father’s elbow like that.

In the subsequent couple of years, we fired it maybe three more times – just to show it to my older brothers when they came home for a visit. The cannon was retired as only marginally safe to the bookshelf. Before Dad passed away I asked him for it and he gave it to me. It sits in my house now as one of my most treasured possessions.

Life is not a competition – or if it is, then the competition is only with yourself. But I still don’t feel that I’ve done anything in my life that measures up to this even though I have a Ph.D. in physics and have done my own share of building things and doing projects with my kids. If Dad were here, he’d probably tell a different story and would claim that this little project was no more impressive than any of my own accomplishments. I guess it’s all about the impressions you make or the experiences you share or something like that.

But he built a cannon. From raw materials: a tree and some scrap metal. That is just astronomically awesome. And he was fun to be around.

When we were living in California, Melissa worked for a company that gave all the employees a gift at Christmas (as opposed to giving them a cash bonus).  At some level, that kind of sucked but at least they tried and they usually gave some pretty nice things.  For example, one year we were given a gift certificate for one night in the Fairmont Hotel which was pretty fun.  But one year, we got a gumball machine. Most of the people at her office had the same reaction: “Uh… a gumball machine?”

But I was thrilled; gumball machines are pretty cool and it was fun to have. I must admit that when the other employees tell you how last year they got a sweet bonus check, it tends to disappoint.  Still… gumball machine!

Very quickly I decided that a gumball machine is OK but if I made it into a lamp, it would be both cool and useful.  I had Evan’s room in mind and I set to work immediately.  I’m not sure where that bit of inspiration came from but I’m sure it wasn’t original – I have created many things but they were always inspired by the project of someone else.  It was quickly transformed into a nice lamp and I was suitably proud. 

I poured in the gumballs that came with it (which came in a paper milk carton type thing) and they barely covered the mechanism at the bottom.  It takes a huge amount of gumballs to fill such a machine and after buying all they had at Target, I had it about half full which seemed like enough so I called it done.  These days I would probably call a vending machine business and arrange to buy a barrel full but we had small children in those days and we both worked so many such things went undone.

When you own your own gumball machine, you can set them to not require any coins to get the gum out.  This seems like a good idea if you’re an adult and have even a little self control but Evan was a toddler and self control was not yet developed so I arranged for it to require coins.  In fact, I don’t really remember ever telling or showing him that they were gum at all.  He never knew that they were edible and so never even thought of getting one out.  This worked out perfectly from a parenting point of view.

Until the neighbor kid moved in.

It was a blessing to have some little boys just down the street for Evan to play with but as soon as your children start playing with other kids, they start learning things that you didn’t teach them and you can never control what they learn.  Parents know what I’m talking about:  some of those “colorful metaphors” (as Mr. Spock said in one of the Star Trek movies). But they also taught Evan that the lamp in his room was also a gumball machine and those colorful things inside were very tasty.  The fact that I had never told Evan about this (We may not have even taught him about chewing gum at all at that time) made him look like an idiot to the other kids but I didn’t care since it saved me many hours of getting gum out of the carpets.

They came down the hall one afternoon whereupon Evan said the toddler-speak equivalent of: “Did you know that my lamp is full of gum and all we have to do it turn the knob and get all we want?   All we need is some money.”

This is where I did what parents frequently do – channel The Grinch and I thought up a lie and thought it up quick.  I told him that it was broken – yes it was full of gum but we couldn’t get it out.

Apparently the older kid from down the street had heard that sort of reasoning before.  That or perhaps he was a budding little scientist but apparently, he decided it was worthwhile to put it to the test.  They apparently scavenged Evan’s room and discovered a cache of pennies.  I don’t remember if Evan had a piggy bank or not but they came up with the loot somewhere.  All I do remember is them both coming down the hallway towards me with their cheeks bulging and multicolored drool dripping down their chins.  Evan was really excited; he couldn’t wait to tell me that the machine wasn’t really broken.

Well, it isn’t any mystery that obfuscation is not parenting at all and will eventually fall to an assault by logic.  I don’t know if the kid down the street was especially smart or just didn’t believe anything an adult said but I then had to actually do some real parenting and make some rules about if and when gum could be chewed and as such I still have an animosity towards that kid even though it’s really my fault for not seeing that coming.   I can’t remember his name.  I only remember that his mother had a British accent. 

I guess I had spent all my brain cells on converting the gumball machine into a lamp.

I used to work with a guy who had an interesting outlook.  I was never able to tell if he was just joking or if he really took seriously the two notions I’m about to write about.

We were talking about collecting things once.  Somebody mentioned that he had a coin collection.  This guy I’m referring to said that he collected money too.  In fact he collected not only coins but also paper bills.  He had an extensive collection.  He kept it all at the Bank of Oklahoma.  He did not care what year the coins were minted nor did he care where they were minted – only that they were legal tender.  In other words: he had a bank account.


Then another day we were discussing nuts, bolts, and screws.  I mentioned that I had picked up a little chest with tiny drawers from my Dad’s shop when he passed away.  It had all sorts of screws and nails – the sort of things you might need fairly often.  It’s kind of nice to have but not useful all that often. Plus it takes up storage space.

The guy piped up and said he had a huge collection of hardware.  You name it, he had it.  Nuts, bolts, screws, nails, hinges.  Mention just about any form of hardware and he had it in all sizes.  It was all neatly arranged in bins and carefully labeled.  He kept it all at a warehouse called “Home Depot” and not only did they organize it for him, they restocked whenever he came in and took something.  He paid them to do this for him; he paid them every time he went in and got something.


I began to take everything he said with a grain of salt and when he told me he had over 50,000 golf balls I did not take him seriously.  I assumed he meant that he kept them at the pro shop at the local golf course and he paid them whenever he went inside to get some.  But then I went to his house one time and sure enough, in his garage were many plastic totes filled to the rim with golf balls that he had picked up over the years as he went running after work.  His route took him around LaFortune golf course and he never passed a ball without picking it up. 

So you never know when somebody’s being serious and when they’re just being a smartass.

Evan occasionally refers to any scruffy looking man beside the road as a hobo. Little did he know (until I told him) that his own Papaw had hopped freight trains back in the Great Depression back when such people were really called hobos.

As usual, I myself heard the story while we were watching History Channel and Dad made an off-handed comment about the show we were watching. The show involved hopping freight trains and I mistakenly thought the phrase meant that you actually hopped on board while it passed by. He said:

“No, you just got on before the train started. It wasn’t hard.”

I was incredulous. I said:

“You mean you’ve done it?”

As If he’d been a criminal or something.

He told me all about it.

“Lot’s of men hopped freights back then. We were all out of work and had nothing else to do. We’d hear gossip about how there might be jobs in some other town and we’d hop a freight there.”

Apparently if they got where they were going and there weren’t jobs (which was most of the time), they’d just hop a freight back. Evidently it was easy to find out what the train schedules were and freight trains apparently kept to a regular schedule.

You’d just find a good spot and get on before the train started and stay hidden as best you could. He said it wasn’t too hard unless they had Pinkerton guards which they called “bulls”.

The best spots were underneath some boxcars where there were pieces of metal hanging down. If you could find some boards to lay across these, you’d have a fairly comfortable place to lay down for quite awhile but the ‘professional’ hobos usually got those spots.

If you were lucky, a boxcar would be open or unlocked and you could hide in there. The worst spots were the spaces between the cars standing on a coupler or hanging on the ladder. That was also dangerous.

His most memorable trip was from Camden to Memphis where he couldn’t find a good spot and ended up behind the tender between it and the first boxcar.

The fireman quickly noticed him after they were underway and motioned him forward into the cab. He was then given a choice: he could jump off right then and there or he could shovel coal for the fireman. He chose the shoveling.

So from about Hampton to Memphis, he shoveled coal into the firebox and eventually emptied the entire tender, stopping for a break only when the train stopped for water. He said that he had never in his life been more tired or more dirty. He was covered head to toe in coal dust and was not fit to apply for any jobs had there been any to apply for.

That did not stop him or anybody else though. His only other story involved being forced off a train as it pulled out of town. Apparently a railroad bull with a .38 caliber revolver is incentive enough to jump from a moving train even at the expense of a sprained ankle.

These stories always make me wonder what other stories there were that I never got the chance to hear.

To mutilate a phrase from Jane Austen:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a railing with vertical bars must be in want of a child’s head to get stuck in it.”

I’ve seen it happen twice.

When we were living in Fort Worth, Texas, Mel’s sister and her son came to visit one summer along with her Mom.  The boy was about five at the time and we all went to the mall to hang out for awhile.  We were seated at a table along the edge of the upper level overlooking the central fountain.  While eating our lunch we suddenly became conscious of the fact that he was yelling.  Screaming would be a better description of it.  We looked over and he had managed to get his head stuck between two of the bars of the railing.  There was a slightly wider space at the top of each pair of bars and he had stuck his head in up there and slid it down and had then tried to pull his head straight back and then panicked.  We didn’t notice at first because he was facing out and downward.  We only noticed after he got to his loudest volume.   By this time the patrons on the bottom level were looking up and pointing. 

While Mel and her sister were trying to get him to stop freaking out and lift his head up to the top where it would come out, I walked some distance away to laugh.  This is not a very honorable way to behave but that’s the way it was.  To my surprise, Mel’s mom came after me laughing just about as hard.  This all played itself out pretty quickly but it was definitely memorable. 

But that’s not the only time this has happened.

Way back in 1969, we moved into my grandmother’s house next door.  It was a large square two-story house that was in need of quite a bit of updating.  Dad undertook the huge task of ripping down the shaky second floor balcony and replacing it.  He did some very cool stuff like building his own railings and staircase.  The staircase was the coolest thing: he had gone to the demolition of the old fire station and somehow come home with the old fire pole.  This he welded stair treads to and thus created a spiral staircase from the first floor porch to the second story balcony.  It was the coolest thing ever.

But, as I said, he also made his own railings.  These were ordinary looking with vertical bars like every other porch railing ever made.  One day my younger cousin came over and we went out on the balcony to swing on the porch swing.  She was about five just like the kid in the first story.

I don’t remember how it happened; I was talking or looking away when she started screaming.  She had somehow gotten her head through the vertical bars and had then not been able to pull her head back out.  Dad and her father were down on the ground and of course they looked up at the sudden racket.  It was, in all respects, just like the previous story – same scenario, different year.

The two men immediately grabbed some tools – whatever came to hand.  When they came up the stairs, they had a short piece of a 2X4, a pipe, and a hand saw.  I’m not sure what they intended to do with the saw; the bars were metal.  Perhaps they intended to shorten the 2X4 and use it as a pry bar.  She twisted around to see her Dad coming with a saw and totally freaked out.  Apparently, she thought he was going to cut her head off or something but that was motivation enough for her to start thrashing around and, by some chance, pull her own head out.  I don’t remember laughing about this one – it seemed pretty serious at the time especially since both our mothers had heard the commotion and come upstairs and out onto the balcony with us by that time and were interrogating me as to why her head happened to be stuck between the bars of the railing.  I had been guilty of not paying attention certainly but not guilty of putting her up to it.  I was unjustly accused.  But once it was all over, things calmed down. 

Dad gave vent to some residual profanity at the circumstances.  Something like:

“God damn it!  I tried to carefully plan out how far apart to put those bars so a kid would NOT get his head through and now look what happened!”

If her parents were pissed off at me for my sin of omission, I don’t remember it but I have always been remarkably clueless about such things.  All I know is they aren’t mad any more.

Later on though, I thought it was really funny and I still do.  In fact, it’s a favorite story of Erin’s too.  Every time she sees an old photo in an album, she asks:  “Is that the kid that got her head stuck?”  That cousin is a facebook friend now; I should ask her if she remembers.

Erin’s boyfriend has lately informed her that his parents bought a parrot.  Erin’s response was “Uh… random!”  It does seem a bit odd.  I asked her if they realized that those birds lived to be about 100 years old and required interaction. 

“You mean they’re ‘needy’?”  was her response.  She was aghast.

I then told her some parrot stories.  It’s remarkable that I have any at all but I actually have several. 

When I was a kid, there was a pet store in Camden whose name escapes me at the moment.  I may have never known its name because if you’re the only one in town then everybody just calls it “the pet shop.”  The owner had a talking bird which was technically not a parrot but it would talk so it will fit into this story.  It was in fact a Mynah bird.  He was not for sale but simply there as the owner’s pet and for atmosphere.  He would talk quite a bit but it was funny to me that his most common phrase was “Can you talk?” with an Arkansas accent.  That’s obviously what most people asked him and so that’s what he said.  He would also chuckle exactly like the store owner did.  My friend Travis picked up on this and used to stand next to the bird and whisper “You’re full of sh^t” in the hopes that the bird would repeat it and shock little old ladies but he never had any luck with that plan.  I liked that bird and always enjoyed it when I went in there to buy tropical fish.

That bird reminded me of a scene from one of David Attenborough’s films about the bird of paradise which attracts a mate in part by showing off how many other birds it can imitate.  With the encroachment of man, the bird ends up also imitating the sounds of cameras clicking (complete with motor drive) and chainsaws.

Much later, while in graduate school, one of my fellow grad students (Russ) ended up babysitting a friend’s Macaw.  This was a large bright blue bird and was interesting in its way but it would squawk at such a volume as to make your ears ring.  These birds are also quite gregarious and so Russ was told by the owner that the bird must be interacted with; otherwise it would systematically yank out its own feathers from boredom.  Russ was not thrilled with this high-maintenance bird but friends are friends and he took the job.  Apparently Russ fell down on the job of talking to it though; he just could not think of anything to say that he would want repeated back to him ad infinitum so he simply left the TV on.  This was enough noise for the bird to keep from getting bored but he never repeated any phrases from it.  He did however start imitating the sound of the clothes dryer.  So Russ would enter the apartment and be greeted by a huge bird swaying back and forth making the sound of clothes drying.

His friend also said he wanted the bird to be taken for rides in the car for the visual stimulation.  I think Russ was pretty good about this until the bird got into the habit of wolf-whistling at people in traffic.  Russ’s car did not have good air conditioning so he would drive with the windows down and the bird would perch on the seat back next to Russ.  After one particularly awkward moment at a traffic light, there were no more car rides.  Russ told us about how a young woman was in the car next to his and the bird let out his typical loud wolf-whistle whereupon he then hopped down into the seat.  The girl whipped her head around in his direction with a look of shock and irritation and saw only Russ.  Russ tried to gesture at the bird and say “It wasn’t me, it was this parrot!”  Not unexpectedly, the woman flipped Russ the bird which is strangely appropriate in a way.

My mother had a friend who lived about two blocks away who had a parakeet.  I did not know parakeets could be taught to repeat sounds and it appears that it is rare but upon occasion they will pick up a word or two.  This woman had tried for a long time to get the bird to repeat the phrase “Hello” with no luck.  Then one day the bird jumped down to the bottom of the cage to get at the gravel paper that birds use for their digestion.  Mom’s friend apparently thought it was eating its own poop and said “Don’t eat that doo doo!” whereupon the bird immediately said “Hello Doo Doo!”  From them on, that’s all the bird would say.  Much to the chagrin of the old lady I imagine.

The lesson I took away from all this is: don’t ever own a talking bird.  They’re interesting enough if you can go visit a friend’s bird but it’s a bit too much responsibility to have one yourself.

I’ve always enjoyed dining out but I’ve not often gone to the finest establishments.  Perhaps if I’d go to a five star restaurant once in awhile, I’d develop an appreciation for what’s to be experienced there but I’ve always been a bit intimidated by too much luxury.  There’s too much homework up front to learn the vocabulary.  Still, I probably should work on it a bit more because I’ve visited quite a few establishments at the opposite end of the dining spectrum.

South Arkansas is always a good place to look for literal hole-in-the-wall places.  Once, when visiting my sister in El Dorado, I said I wanted some fried catfish.  That was something that didn’t exist where I was living at the time so she took us to Bo’s Hut somewhere near Smackover.  Bo’s Hut was not one but several huts.  The main one was where you ordered and picked up your paper tray of fried catfish, hushpuppies (also fried), and coleslaw (not fried).  Then you went to one of the other huts to eat. 

Apparently Bo (for I assume that there was somebody named Bo involved somewhere) had either found a discount on small storage buildings or perhaps had once had such a business and needed something to do with his inventory for these were literally the sort of storage barns that most people put in their back yards to store lawnmowers in.  There were three or four arranged quite randomly on the lot and connected by rickety wooden sidewalks elevated above the grass (which got swampy after a rain – like most lawns in Smackover).  The point to dining in the huts was to avoid the flies and to enjoy the air conditioning.  The place employed many ziplock bags of water hanging from all the awnings that were alleged to keep the flies away but it was this singular visit to Bo’s Hut that taught me that those bags of water do not keep the flies away.  If they had any effect at all, I shudder to think how many flies would have been there in an otherwise unbagged facility.

The catfish was good though.  At least as good as the food at the RoadRunner.

The Roadrunner was closer to her house on the Magnolia highway.  This may or may not have been the name (I’ve long since forgotten) but it was one of those gas station convenience stores that had had a small restaurant grafted onto one side.  They had a few naugahyde booths for dining in and sold fried chicken, catfish, and barbecue.  It was good too – and cheap.  This was our primary reason for going there.

My uncle Wayne had a similar little grill in one of his stores.  Uncle Wayne had built up a small empire of small independent convenience stores in the Camden area over the years.  He usually only operated one of them at a time by himself and sold the older ones.  One of them at one point had a grill inside and he had located an ancient black woman who was an expert at fried chicken and such.  It was not so much his restaurant as it was hers and her reputation brought in a good bit of traffic.  Melissa and I went there several times to visit and eat.  We usually timed the two to coincide since in her elder years, my mother was less and less inclined to cook.  Wayne even ventured to say to me “Go ahead and eat – you know you won’t get anything to eat at your mama’s”, a comment that offended my mother tremendously even though it was totally true.  In response, she gave us some money and sent to dine at the Hush Puppy one night – a place that again sold fried catfish although this place had atmosphere and tables with tablecloths. 

There was yet another place called “Wood’s Place” that had this same menu.  It was quite plush in its dining room since it occupied an old Tastee Freez drive-in but was less pretentious than the hushpuppy.

When living in Fort Worth, I ended up working at General Dynamics which was subsequently sold to Lockheed Martin.  It was a giant factory facility that had been built during World War II to build B-24 bombers and had been busy since that time building one sort of airplane or another.  It was built adjacent to the former Carswell Air Force Base on the shores of Lake Worth.  It was this sort of environment with lots of men with short lunch breaks that gave rise to Jobe’s El Campo.  (Pronounced Joebee’s.) Jobe’s was a classic greasy spoon that sold hamburgers and a few other random items.

It was just off the property right on the lake and had obviously started out as one size and had grown several times with amateurishly built additions.  As far as I could tell, it was just outside the city limits and thus building codes were either non-existent or unenforced.  The floors were not level as you went from one part to another.  Part of it was on stilts out over the water.  If you were lucky, you’d get one of the waitresses that had all her teeth.

The only questions were:  “hamburger or cheeseburger?” and “Tea, pop, or beer to drink?”  They came with fries – no questions asked.  The only reason we went there is that it was so much trouble to go anywhere else and the food was at least as good as the food in the on-site cafeteria.  One guy brought his wife once day and she asked if they had salads – the waitress looked at her as if she was from Mars.  “We got taco salad” was the response.  The fact that it had more lettuce than meat meant it was a salad.  Everything about the place – both General Dynamics and Jobe’s looked like it was from WW-II because it was.  Jobe’s still had a glass-topped counter where you paid for lunch with gum and mints for sale underneath and crappy cigars for sale on a wire rack by the register.  They also sold Rolaids which was ironic but also necessary.  It had been written up in the local paper once and that article was displayed proudly on the wall in a frame behind the register even though the write-up had described it as a “dirty, squalid little restaurant.”  We wondered if the owners had ever read it all the way through.

I also used to take Evan to a place in Choteau once a year on our way home from the Dad and Lad campout outside Tahlequah when he was in cub scouts.  I have no idea of its name – it just had a sign outside that you could see from the turnpike:  “EAT.”  On the Sunday mornings when the campout finished up there was always a crowd and long lines at breakfast so we followed another Dad and his son to this place which was really popular with truck drivers.  They had all the classic breakfast things like eggs cooked any way you wanted, sausage, biscuits and gravy, strong coffee, etc.  It was the sort of place where nobody took their hat off when they came in.  Even the cinnamon rolls were greasy but they were homemade and really good.  Evan always had a bit of a touchy stomach where grease was concerned and so these never agreed with him but we could usually make it back home before he had to run into the bathroom before he exploded. 

It’s difficult to think of south Arkansas restaurants without remembering the Taco Bell in Camden.  This is a standout in my mind because in all the times we ever ate there (and there weren’t really all that many), they never once got the order right.  It became a bit of a game when we went to visit Mom and Dad to see just what they would get wrong.  I stopped checking the bag when we picked it up at the window – I preferred to just take it home and open it like a Christmas present to see what the surprise was.  We didn’t eat there much but we went there over a space of several years and the situation never changed.  We kept returning because, as bad as this service was, it was better than the service at the Burger King across the street.  That’s the place that once told me that “We ain’t got no meat. We got chicken though.” This is why I prefer the Mon-n-Pop greasy spoons.

I never had any problems with any of this greasy stuff.  But now that I read back through this, I’m realizing that I need to change where I eat.  Some of those places seem kinda creepy.

The recent spate of Christmas parties made me hark back to the parties we used to have as a kid.  One of them was always the party at my grandma’s.  She lived with her son (my uncle) in an old Victorian style house which I always remember as being cold for these parties.  The one or two rooms we used for the parties would be warmed up – the rest of the house was cold.  We knew this because such a house is fun to play around in and explore so we were frequently out of the party rooms. 

One such excursion found us in my uncle’s bedroom.  He was an antique dealer aside from his day job and the home was his shop.  As such, the whole place was like a museum and was a very cool place to wander around in.  As the years went on and I got older, I discovered that he was a closet cigarette smoker.  Grandma never went upstairs and the cigarettes never made it downstairs so he could indulge his habit at will as long as he was upstairs.  I’m not sure why a man in his 50’s would feel like he had to hide his smoking habit from everyone but there it was.  That was back in the day when most men smoked anyway so the mystery is even greater.   In any event, we snuck upstairs one night while the adults were finishing dessert and into his bedroom. 

I believe it was me and one or two boy cousins.  One of them was the son of my uncle who owned a convenience store outside the city limits and who could sell fireworks during the holidays.  One small thing he sold was an almost unnoticed item called “cigarette loads”.  It was a small tin about the size of a Carmex lip balm tin and containing a number of small spike-like things that you could shove into the end of an unlit cigarette.  When the smoker lit up, the end of his cigarette would explode in a shower of tobacco.  My cousin happened to have some of these with him. 

We snuck into the bedroom and looked around.  I saw the cigarettes on the dresser and a wave of devilry washed over me.  I was not usually like that but this seemed like such a golden opportunity.  I hurriedly begged my cousin for his cigarette loads.  He and the other cousin looked delighted as they figured out my plan.  I quickly loaded one and even found a paperclip to push it further down the cigarette – perhaps halfway.  Then we left with a storm of giggling.  I promptly forgot about it – that’s not the sort of thing you ever expect to work or be present for.  We went downstairs for the opening of presents.

As I say, I forgot about it.  Imagine my shock when a few days later my mom pulled me aside and asked me if I knew anything about somebody sneaking up to my uncle’s bedroom and doing anything.  Like any boy (and probably any little kid at all), I lied and said “no” but asked for more information.  She said that he had called her (and presumably the other family members) and reported that after the party one of his cigarettes had exploded.  The thought of him up there by himself sneaking a smoke and having the thing explode in his face and very likely scaring the wits out of him seemed the funniest thing in the world to me.  Actually, it still does; he was not a likable man in general.   

I was the picture of innocence as I feigned surprise.  I claimed to know nothing about it and the matter was dropped.  But I’ve been laughing ever since.  He passed away a number of years ago so I guess I’m in the clear by now.  I worked for him a couple of years after that as a clerk in a store that he managed and he was an evil person to work for – I never felt a smidgen of guilt for loading his cigarette.

This is the time of year where one is obliged to watch out for sunburn.  Evan never leaves the house without covering himself with sunscreen but as the summer goes on, he ends up with quite a tan since he’s out in it for about six hours a day.  He’s never really had severe sunburn.

Melissa and I, on the other hand, have indeed had severe sunburn.  That’s one reason we’ve always been so strict with the kids and the sunscreen.  If it’s bad enough, you can remember it forever as I do.

I was in graduate school.  We were always on the lookout for something cheap to do and since there were lots of other students around, somebody always had an idea.  The department secretary (who was only a year or two older than me and was putting her husband through school) hit upon the idea of going to a local lake that had a beach area that charged by the carload.  Off we went on the 4th of July.

The beach had been trucked in and consisted of blinding white sand.  Between the bunch of us, we had coolers, picnics, floating things, blankets, and sand chairs.  It was a great day.  We were in and out of the water all day and did not hold back on beverage consumption although I was then and still am a very moderate drinker.  Most of my intake was of the carbonated soda variety.  There was even a live band there that day.

At no point that morning did it occur to me to worry about the sun.  Sunscreen was a fairly rare thing back then and was not usually found in huge displays right by the door of every store in summer.  Indeed it was kind of hard to find.  Around noon, somebody began to apply some and passed the bottle around.  I applied mine somewhat unevenly.  We had such fun that day that we didn’t want it to end.  Mel and I hit upon the idea of inviting everybody to our apartment where I would grill burgers and we’d then go see the city fireworks display.

As the crowd began to show up for burgers, I began to turn a bright red color from the day’s sun.  Everybody talked about it and most began to express concern.  I brushed it off like all people will who are in their early 20’s.  I was pretty tired and starting to feel bad when we left.  We all met up at the fireworks and had more of a grand old time until the end at which point I was feeling very bad.  I thought I was just tired and Mel had to drive home.  That was not the last time that I would do something to myself that required Melissa to drive me home.  By the time we got home we were both bright red all over except for the swimsuit marks and some odd swirly marks that indicated where I had applied sunscreen poorly.  We were both burning up and while Melissa tried soaking in a tubful of cool water, I laid out on the tile floor of the kitchen.  We swallowed some Tylenol and went to sleep.

The next morning when we woke up, we were both so tender to the touch that we could barely move.  With first degree burns covering 90% of our bodies we were in such pain that Mel called in sick.  I went to the university to see how everybody else was.  They were a bit pink in places but nothing like me.  After a few minutes, I began to feel sick and nauseous and went home.  The week before, Melissa and I had bought our first piece of living room furniture as newlyweds:  a sleeper sofa and it was delivered that morning.  (This was the very one that we kept for about 20 years until it was so nasty that the Salvation Army would not take it.  We had to pay the city $10 to come get it.)  We unfolded it, laid down on it and did not move for a long time.  At some point, we took out temperature and were surprised to find we were feverish.  We headed for the doctor.

This was before we had ever given any thought to health insurance and we had to find one of those storefront minor emergency clinics.  We went in and paid our money for Melissa; thinking that whatever applied to her also applied to me.  Two for one (sort of).  The doctor had us both back to his exam room and gave us a severe dressing down for letting this happen to ourselves.  His jaw dropped when he saw us and again when we told him how long we had been out.  He strongly implied that we were a little bit stupid.  He told us to go home and rest and get ready for some severe discomfort for the next week.  He prescribed some Tylenol 3.  That was on a Thursday so we had Friday and the weekend to try and get back into some resemblance of normal shape.  Mel tried working on Friday but had to come home.

Somebody at her office who was into natural remedies clued us into the Aloe Vera plant.  At almost the same time, I was told about the same plant by a glassblower that the chemistry department employed to create their weird distillation gear.  We staggered out to a health-food type store which was the only place we could find Aloe Vera gel back then.  We grimaced every time the sun touched us as we left our apartment or got out of the car.  We bought the biggest bottle they had and went home to oil ourselves up. 

That was the first time I had ever put anything on sunburn that felt good.  We repeated the treatment multiple times over the next week and made a trip or two back to the store for more.  We were in agony for at least a week at which point we started to peel.  We each had several places on our bodies somewhere that turned a dark red/purple color which took over a month to go away.  Several places on my body peeled twice. 

Ever since that day, I have worried about skin cancer and have made darned sure that my kids were always slathered with sunscreen whenever they went out.  I have always preached the sermon that tans are bad and if you’re pale that’s just too bad – blame our British ancestry.  Evan does eventually get tanned but you can see the real color by looking at his feet where his Chaco sandals leave their pasty white stripes of untanned skin.  Since then my 4th of July efforts have always been centered on shooting off fireworks rather than water sports.  I’ve sworn off suntans forever.

Even though we only lived in California for four years, it seems we crammed a lot of activity into them.  We saw just about everything there was to see in the Bay Area, had our second child, they both then had chicken pox and of course I had the flu.  It was then that I had one of my most embarrassing experiences and got my first and only ride in an ambulance. Plus, I learned to never, ever miss an opportunity for a flu shot.

At the time, I thought that flu shots were only for the elderly but that turned out to be old news.  So it was that I ended up feeling poorly one morning.  I felt really, really poorly actually but I was working in the defense industry and at the time, Lockheed was laying people off whenever they could.  It had become institutionalized.  I had an appointment to meet with our new manager (who wanted to meet everyone who reported to him) and I wanted to make sure he knew who I was.  He certainly did remember me ever after that day.

I drove to work with some difficulty; I had a bout of dizziness about halfway along the Lawrence Expressway and I was running the air conditioner even though it was the middle of winter.  After I got to my desk, I realized very soon that I was not going to make it.  The dizzy spells were hitting me every so often and I could feel the fever spiking up.  In fact, I decided that I should not drive home and called Mel at her office to ask her to come get me.  She agreed and I hung up the phone.  I then had a pretty severe dizzy spell and thought to myself that it would feel really good to lay down on the floor and go downstairs to await Mel in a few minutes.  And so I laid down under my desk.  At least that’s how I remember it.  My office mate remembers it differently.

To hear her tell it, I hung up the phone and collapsed onto the floor.  She called 911 and came over to help me out to whatever extent she could which was not much.  I don’t remember much besides some fragments of conversation:  “I called and told them we have a man down”, “ambulance is rolling…”,   “they’re here…”  The next thing I recall is an EMT asking me my name.  My tie was gone.  I had an oxygen thing around my head and sort of in my nose.  I told him my name.  He then wanted to know why I was on the floor.  I told him that it was voluntary but my cubicle mates told him otherwise.  The other EMT was checking my blood pressure and making unintelligible comments into his radio. 

The EMT asked me if I had felt nauseous.  I said “No” but then had to change my mind – perhaps due to the power of suggestion.  I rolled over, retched a bit, and went back to my spread-eagle pose.  That apparently was a decision factor to the EMTs and they began to get me onto that rolling EMT bed thing.  I didn’t want to go; everybody in the office was there staring at me.  I tried to make them understand that I was feeling a lot better and could probably walk out under my own power but they told me that was an effect of the oxygen and that no way was I going to walk or drive.

Finally we rolled to the freight elevator and went downstairs.  On the way I asked my friend Rick to call Melissa and update her, I gave him the number, and then we were gone.  There was more unintelligible garble from the radio as we rolled into the ambulance and went over to the medical facility at Lockheed which apparently is not uncommon at large facilities where they build big things.  I briefly saw a doctor there who told me conclusively that I had the flu and I was to go home immediately.  I waited there for awhile until Mel drove up. 

That was on a Monday and I did not wake up voluntarily for the next five days.  At one point, Mel discovered an infestation of ants in the kitchen and that, coupled with having to single-mom it with Evan, pushed her over the line.  She got me up to clear the cabinets and spray while she was at work.  I vaguely remember staggering around the kitchen in a dizzy haze dealing with ants and then falling back into the bed.

I have never missed a flu shot since then and it’s not really because I felt so bad – it is to a large extend due to the superficial reason that I do not want to risk any more really embarrassing episodes at the office.  I guess any reason to maintain good health is a good one, no matter how superficial.

I almost couldn’t show up back at work but of course, by that time, everybody had forgotten about it unless reminded.  The janitor who showed up to clean up the aftermath even said “Ah, that was nothing.  I’ve seen a lot worse.”  But I still haven’t ever missed a flu shot since then.

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