Sunday, September 21, 2014

You ought to be ashamed

This is worth getting out of bed for.

The aroma of bacon in the morning takes me back to childhood school days.  Mom would

come into the bedroom I shared with my brother and wake us.  
“Time to get up, boys.”
At that moment, groaning and going back to sleep was what I wanted.  Then, the smell of bacon wafted in the door.  It was enticing in a way that no maternal pleading could match.  We didn’t have bacon all that often.  It was a treat, really.  But it sure made getting out of bed a whole lot easier.

I remember one morning in particular when I was in about 5th grade.  I had gotten dressed and headed out to the front of our trailer, following the scent of bacon.  Our compact eight foot square kitchen-dining room had just enough space opposite the stove and sink for a small circular table that we used for most meals.  The bacon was crisp and on my plate, bread was in the toaster, an egg was sizzling pleasantly in the skillet where the bacon had been fried.  A single mom had little time to spare on weekday mornings with four kids to send off to their various destinations before she left for work.  So she often started breakfast cooking, then we would have to finish the job.  If you want to eat, there is a strong incentive to keep an eye on the stove and the toaster.  The toast popped up and I slathered some butter on it while the egg neared over-medium perfection.  Mom disappeared to finish getting ready for work.

[As an aside, I suspect I am not the only person who finds a delightful irony in the 21st century ‘discovery’ that eggs and meat and butter and other fats are not nearly the evil they were thought to be in the cholesterol-crazed 80’s and 90’s.  Fascinating how science has come nearly full circle and found that the classic breakfast my mom fed me was actually quite beneficial, particularly for a growing boy who needed proteins and fats and carbohydrates in large quantities.]

Soon my egg was done.  I turned off the gas burner and scooped it up with the spatula to transfer it to my plate.  Unfortunately, the same bacon grease that made it easy to get the egg out of the skillet was just as effective in reducing the friction co-efficient between the egg and my plate.  The egg kept right on going when it hit the plate, sliding off and plummeting down to the floor at my feet.  A yellow explosion of yolk with bits of grease-coated egg-white splattered my shoes and the linoleum floor.  In a frozen moment of time, several realities hit me:  I had a mess to clean up;  I had wasted food; there wasn’t time to cook another egg; I had barely enough time to eat breakfast before I had to leave for the bus stop; my morning routine was shattered.  
Did that just come out of MY mouth?

And I swore like a sailor.  

Well, maybe not precisely as a sailor would have sworn if a sailor had been in my egg-besotted sneakers, because I hadn’t been around sailors enough to know how one swore.  What I did swear like was a school-aged boy who not only learned formal English in school, but during recess also acquired a repertoire of colorful words not found in the grammar book.  In fact, the group of boys I hung out with had developed a skill of seeing how many different swear words they could string together without taking a breath.  So, what goes in must come out.  Or, as the Man from Galilee said, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 15:18).  My anger and frustration had burst out in colorful language matching the colorful mess on the floor.  

As I turned to put my plate on the table, I noticed Mom had reappeared in the front of the trailer.  I looked at her and she looked at me.  Instinctively, instantly, I knew I done something far worse than dumping my egg on the floor.  I had disappointed Mom.  A deep sorrow welled up in my gut.  I was ashamed.  Ashamed that Mom had heard those words; words that no-one should ever hear, but especially not Mom.  Ashamed that the boy that could recite his Sunday School memory verse without fail was exposed as a sham.  Tears began to roll down my face, I crumpled into a chair head in hands and the only words I could get out of my mouth were “I’m sorry.”  Over and over.

Mom’s just know things.  It is why they are mothers.  She put a hand on my shoulder and quietly said, 
“It’s only an egg.”  
We both knew it was more than just an egg, but that short phrase let me know that she still loved her boy, even in his fallen state.  Then, she told me to eat the rest of my breakfast while she cleaned up my mess.  The act of biting and chewing calmed my aching heart.  Mom wiped up the egg with an efficiency I marveled at while I sniffled over my hasty meal.

Not much more was said about that outburst of mine.  I had a school bus to catch, Mom had to get to work.  But I never forgot.

Over forty years later, when movies and songs and books and magazines and electronic text are heavily weighted with the profane, my childhood incident seems so trivial.  Shame is an outdated notion in this era of self-actualization where being true to yourself is more important than who you might offend in the process; where people flaunt their indiscretions on talk shows and Facebook.  But it seems to me that in ridding ourselves of shame, we have lost some fundamental dignity, both in how we view ourselves and how we treat others.

Those unprintable words I learned in childhood are etched deeply into my neural network.  I still have moments of muttering #&@!% in moments of anger or frustration.  The sad truth is, there are things I have done since that day that are far more shameful.  The best inside of me is still tainted.  Yet, I am grateful that those experiences have not cauterized my conscience, but instead have been lessons in forgiveness like that early one Mom taught me.  And forgiveness is nothing to be ashamed of.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Safe With Me

A bruised and battered woman, a celebrity male.  Emotion, passion, codependency, a baby, money, fame.  All on awkward public display.  The sad story of NFL player Ray Rice and his wife Janay.  It has played out many times in many ways as long as men and women have been uniting in love or lust or both.  In the middle of all the conjecture about why his anger leads to violence and why she is so ready to defend him, something stands out to me.

Regardless of whether you see marriage as ‘fair’ or not, the majority of women end up hitching their lives to a man in a vast leap of faith.  Granted, the man is taking some risk, too.  But, culturally and biologically and practically, it is the woman whose identity becomes subsumed in the relationship.  She becomes wife and mother.  He remains identified by what he does.  

One feminist response has been: Women must be independent of men if they are to thrive.  Men cannot be trusted.  Who am I to blame them?  When we live in a culture where the first thought upon seeing a woman with a bruise is “Who hit her?”, something is dreadfully off track.  But in spite of that, men and women keep trying.  We still need each other in ways profound and mysterious and fundamental.

In the ‘Why I stayed’ narrative, we hear horrific tales of other women trapped in dangerous relationships.  We hear about why women are afraid to leave and what may be the root cause for men’s anger.  But I wonder, where are the men saying: we need to be worthy of the trust women place in us?   

In the “Liturgy of Solemnization of Matrimony" from the Anglican Book of Common prayer, mostly unchanged since 1559, are these familiar words: 
I _________ take thee ________ to be my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.*
That section is followed by one that has become less popular over time: 
WITH this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Those lines “with my Body I thee worship” call to mind even older words: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.
In the middle of calls for prosecutions and resignations and “something needs to be done”, the most compelling alternative is the man who can answer with one, and only one example: his treatment of the woman who has risked her personhood by committing her life to his.  The testimony that this woman has always been and will always be safe with him.

For those men I know who are walking that path, thank you for the example you are setting in your home, your extended family, your community.  Thank you for teaching by example that women are to be honored, protected and cherished.  Thank you for laying down your life for the sake of another.  That is manhood.  And that is why she will stay.


*Here is an excellent explanation of “I plight thee my troth”.  But to spare you the lengthy, delightful linguistic detail, a more modern rendering and just as meaningful is “I promise you I will be true”.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Few Tickets, A Few Years Ago

There we were, the four of us packed into a booth at the local ice cream parlor, two on either side of the worn formica-topped table.  Mom, my older sister, my wife, my cousin.  Each of us were relishing a cold ice cream on a warm summer night and swapping stories.  About traffic violations.   

Some stories are compellingly rare, such as winning the lottery or taking an exotic trip to Nepal, or taking an exotic trip to Nepal funded by lottery winnings.  Traffic ticket stories are commonplace.  Most Americans of driving age have at least one.  Still, since these events constitute the extent to which most of us experience the ‘wrong’ side of the law, we remember them.  

Other stories are made worthy by the teller - the selection of words, the timing of the delivery, the inflection of the voice, facial expression.  Add in an appreciative audience with a shared history and the thread of humor fairly hums with mirthful joy.  I heard one such story while sitting in that ice cream parlor in Wyoming.  Though it will lose something in the translation from oral to written form, here it is as best as I remember it, with a bit of literary embellishing to fill in what I don't remember.

Once upon a time, in 1978 or 1979, when the United States was in the middle of a gas crisis and Jimmy Carter was President, there lived a young man, barely eighteen.  His home was in central Wyoming.  He may have looked something like the picture shown here.  Like many men of his age, he was trying to make his way in life as best as he could.  He had no grand ambitions, except perhaps to earn a little money, have a little fun, avoid hurting anyone, and learn something along the way.

The young man was employed by a meat packing plant, where livestock are turned into marketable chunks of dense animal protein for human consumption.  It was physically demanding work, but not the most mentally stimulating.  Early one afternoon when the work was a bit slow, the owner of the plant came through looking for volunteers.  He needed a couple of workers to drive a load of ‘inedibles’ down to a rendering plant in Denver.  Inedibles would be the stuff that, well, is what you have left when all the edible stuff has been packaged.  Guts, fat, floor scrapings, bones.  Nasty.

The hero of our story did a quick mental comparison.
    “Should I stay here cleaning freezer floors and meat hooks or drive to Denver?”  
He quickly concluded that the road trip would be a more interesting way to spend the afternoon and raised his arm to signal his willingness to volunteer.  A second employee, another young man perhaps two or three years older, also signed up. 

After hearing some brief instructions about their destination and obtaining the keys to the vehicle, out to the truck they went.  It turned out to be a bit bigger than either of them had expected.

The older of the two got in behind the driver’s seat, while my cousin took shotgun.  They sat bewildered for a moment at the sight of not just one, but three levers sticking up from the floor.  Finally, the driver said to his companion, “Ya ever driven one of these before?”
    “Nope.  Have you?”
    “Well, no, but it can’t be that different from a regular truck, can it?”
    “Probably not.”

After fiddling with the levers for a bit, they discovered that one was indeed the gear shift.  The second one seemed to have something to do with shifting as well.  Sort of an in between or half-gear shifter that required an extraordinary amount of eye, hand, and foot coordination to operate in tandem with the primary gear shift.  The third lever engaged an additional drive axle.  After grinding their way through the levers a few times, they settled on keeping the extra axle out of operation and using only the primary shifter.  This last decision meant winding the engine up pretty tight to make sure that dropping into the next full gear wouldn’t stall the truck.  Shortly, with a little revving and grinding, they were on the road.

Now, you may be wondering what employer in his right mind would send two inexperienced drivers with a commercial truck out on the highway for a round trip in excess of 300 miles.  In the wild west of Wyoming and likely most places in the U.S., the cost differential between a licensed commercial driver and a couple of unskilled laborers in a meat-packing plant was and is significant.  So, rather than pay to have a driver around that wouldn’t be kept busy most of the time, or hire one temporarily, it was quite a potential savings over the course of a year to use the ‘volunteer’ method.  Legal?  No.  Cheap?  Yes.

As the adventurous duo cruised within a few miles of their destination, they began to notice an odd smell.  The closer they came, the worse it got until it was overpowering.  It had something to do with the rotting contents of the rendering vats where all the ‘leavings’ are chopped, sliced, diced, cooked and separated into various chemical compounds used in an astonishing variety of ways. 

Needless to say, our two stalwarts were highly motivated to leave their load and be on their way.  After emptying the truck, they switched places and were back on the road north.  As they approached the border between Colorado and Wyoming, they came upon the port of entry with a sign saying that all commercial vehicles needed to stop.  The younger driver looked at his partner.
    “Are we a commercial truck?”
    “I dunno.  Don’t think so.”
    “Well, should we stop?”
    “I didn’t stop on the way down.”
So, they kept on going.  Not long after passing the port of entry, however, they saw the dreaded flashing lights of a patrol car in the rear view mirrors.  After they stopped, the Wyoming state trooper pulled up behind them and walked up to the truck.

    “Do you know you were going 63 in a 55 mile-per-hour zone?” he inquired. 
(At the time, with gas prices having soared over a dollar per gallon, the government had deemed it necessary to throttle back freeway speeds as a means to conserve petroleum.)
    “Well, um, no.  I didn’t think it would go that fast.”
The trooper, who had heard his share of creative excuses by speeding drivers, glared incredulously into the cab.
    “You didn’t think?  What do you mean, you didn’t think it would go that fast?”
     “I couldn’t really tell how fast I was goin’.  The speedometer’s busted.”

That revelation dramatically changed the tone of the encounter.  In spite of the ignorance of the two drivers, they were indeed driving a commercial vehicle.  Regulations covering commercial vehicles specify that all components be in proper working order.  Having a broken speedometer set off alarms in the troopers mind. On the spot he initiated a complete vehicle inspection.  In addition to the broken speedometer, there were six other violations, for a total of eight tickets, when including the speeding citation.

The zealous trooper, in his eagerness to do a thorough vehicle inspection, neglected to ask for the log which drivers of commercial trucks are required to maintain.  Since, to our knowledge, Wyoming has no published criminal statute of limitations on traffic violations, we are not saying that the log wasn't filled out, just that the officer failed to verify the log.  Whether he confirmed that the driver had a commercial rating on his license is also lost in the murky historical record.

That collection of citations cost the owners of the truck a cool grand in fines, as well as the cost of repairs.  However, it is unlikely the experience changed their business practice.  In the years since, my cousin has done more commercial driving, but without any more 8-ticket experiences.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The New Wild West

The following is a reflection on one aspect of our recent visit to my Mom's home town of Douglas, Wyoming.


They seemed to be everywhere that morning.  After a weekend spent at homes many miles and many hours removed from this prairie town, a horde of laborers, from the marginally capable to the highly skilled, returned to their grueling routine.

These were weathered men in rough, dusty jeans and boots.  In the hotel dining room they were devouring selections from the breakfast buffet and washing it down with coffee.  The rectangular outline of a box of cigarettes or the circular imprint of a can of chewing tobacco marked many hip pockets.  Caffeine and nicotine, staples of the working man.

Intense eyes peer out of faces creased and burnt by days in the sun and unceasing wind of the Wyoming plains.  Their bodies are shaped by strenuous physical toil, producing a certain taut lean-ness reminiscent of an earlier generation of transient workers who rode these plains a century ago called cowhands.  Not the careful, narcissistic sculpting of regular trips to the local gym, theirs was the hardness of hours and days and weeks of constant labor.

In the hallways and the elevator I was passed by men carrying backpacks or tool bags out to their pickup trucks.  A few were standard half-ton trucks, but often there were heavier 3/4-ton or 1-ton rigs laden with tool boxes and equipment.  Where I was used to seeing mini-vans and SUV’s and economical sedans, the parking lot and nearby gas station was full of bulked-up trucks destined for a long drive out to the fields of work: the trusted steeds of the modern western man.  After topping off the gas tank, they ‘saddle up’ for a drive over narrow winding roads, treacherously crowded by the influx of traffic.

Where their predecessors would have herded recalcitrant cattle to the railroad, these men guide fossil fuels to railcars, either oil fracked from miles under the earth or coal scraped from nearer the surface.  The cargo ultimately powers homes and automobiles of people with little understanding of where the petroleum or electricity came from, much like the city dwellers of an earlier era who dined on beef-steak that arrived on their plate long after the cattle drivers had done their work.

As I watched these men, I wondered how long I would last in a day on their job.  I thought about my esoteric work with data and information systems.  Where results are measured by invisible changes to software.  Where I sit in an air-conditioned cubicle farm surrounded by other knowledge workers in office casual attire worried about whether our workstation is ergonomically correct, not whether someone will be injured or killed on the job or just making it to the job site.

Oh, yes, we do our part to bring products to market, to contribute to the necessary stream of capital flowing in the economy.  I am thankful for a mind that allows me to perform complex analytical tasks.  But those coal and oil workers, following the new boom in Wyoming energy brought on by the irresistible economic forces of scarcity and demand, are at the top of the food chain.  If they were not ripping that hard, black coal from the ground or sucking that reluctant dark oil from deep fields of shale, I would be sitting at home, in the dark, with nothing to do.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Why I Pray

When my hands have done all that they can do,
and there is still much more to be done...
I have given much thought to prayer lately.  Mostly about why.  Why pray?  Why do I sporadically, instinctively persist in an activity that is so intangible in practice and results?  What I read or hear from others on prayer is often how: the practice of prayer.  But always how is inextricably linked with results.  I may not be the most observant person, but I cannot point to
examples of a given outcome explicitly following a specific prayer of mine.  So, I have discarded the results-orientation of prayer.  When I meet a friend for conversation, the only outcome I hope for is a deepening friendship, that we will know each other better for the time spent together, that we will have been encouraged.

So, I have tried to put prayer into that framework - a desire for a deeper knowing, to be encouraged as I catch glimpses of a Good that is weaving itself into my life and the lives of others in ways that are not always clear to my limited view.  As I have done this, I have come to a conclusion about prayer: I need to pray because I need a way to express hope.  Hope for things to get better when I or people I care about are struggling with life.  

Sometimes the circumstances of life are cruel and people suffer through no fault of their own.  Other times they, you, and I make foolish choices and endure the consequences.  In either case, what is done is done, it is what it is.  Think back to your high school or college commencement addresses.  How many individuals who sat around you listening to the grand speeches about the great things all of you would do have had any influence outside their small circle of friends and family?  Even the people we deem most powerful on earth are limited.  It is at that point of reaching our limit that we need hope.

When I face the ‘what is’ of my actions and it is a stinking mess, I need hope.  

When realize that those I love have only the faintest understanding of my heart’s cry for them because of my flawed and twisted behavior, I need hope.  

When insurmountable obstacles of disease or death or disaster loom, I need hope.

I need some way to lay hold of hope, to hope that things will get better, for me, for others.  Or, perhaps, if not better, then that the struggle will be purposeful.

And prayer is the best way I know of to express hope in an unknowable future.  Use the word Destiny or Fortune or Fate or, as I often do, Providence.  Whatever you want to call it, prayer is my recognition that there are mistakes I have made that I can’t fix, there are people I love whom I have hurt, there are places I will never go and things I will never do that I probably should have.  I cannot relive those moments and correct those failings.  When I pray, I am simply expressing the hope that the gap between all I wish to be and what I really am will be bridged.  That there IS a Grand Scheme, and in that Grand Scheme, all my limitations have a perfect fit whether it makes sense now or not.

“…we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us…”  Romans 5:2-5 (HCSB)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Monopoly, Munchies and Mayhem

Ah, summer.  When I was 9 or 10, summer was a time of simple pleasures which didn't get complicated until a few years later.  School was out, daylight hours seemed unending, and I could spend the night at a friend’s house.  During the school year, sleepovers weren’t possible.  There was homework and chores and ‘school the next day’ and Saturday baths for Sunday church.  Adult reasoning never resonated with me.  It just translated into ‘NO’.  Homework more important than a sleepover?  Really?  

So, while we contented ourselves with scattered Saturday or Sunday afternoon visits during the school year, as June approached, my friends and I would start scheming.  Most of my sleepover time was spent at best buddy Darwin’s house.  There were two events we spent weeks planning:  The annual church trip to Disneyland in February and sleepovers at his house in the summer.  He spent the night at my house a few times, too.  But I remember best a Friday night at his house.

The key ingredients to our sleepover festivities were food and games.  The 1960’s were a golden era of board games and snacks, before television swallowed up family game time and health cultists labeled ‘junk food’ as the great evil of the 20th century.  Darwin and I had solemnly committed to not only convincing our parents that a rare reprieve from eating what was good for us would do no lasting harm, but getting them to fund our feast as well.

Mom dropped me off early that Friday evening.  Sometime after dinner we headed out to our enclave.  Darwin’s dad had set up their massive family tent in the front yard for us to camp out in, probably to keep the noise out of the house.  For us, it meant more floor space than Darwin’s laundry closet bedroom and independence.  After we pooled our resources, the menu looked something like this:
Taco Flavor Doritos
Cinnamon Pop Tarts
Hires Root Beer
Pringles potato chips.
Chips Ahoy cookies
Nesbitt’s Orange Soda

We had two simple objectives for an enjoyable evening: to consume all of our treats before morning and to play games until sunup.  Some of our choices for games were Aggravation, Sorry, Life and Monopoly.  We may have played some of the other games, but Monopoly was our perennial favorite and a sleepover meant enough time to enjoy it fully.

With only two people playing Monopoly, it can take many hours to play out to the bitter end where one person finally runs out of money.  There are a number of strategies for prolonging the agony: mortgaging property to pay debt; selling properties to pay debt; swapping properties to pay debt; staying in jail to avoid landing on another high-rent property.  

Sort of like the real world.

As the night wore on, the combination of sugar, starch, artificial colors and sleep deprivation began to have their effect.  Everything became funny.  Who won or lost the game didn’t matter as much as making it last as long as possible.  We could have easily passed for intoxicated.  Which we were, on life.  We were doing what we wanted for as long as we wanted and no-one was telling us to stop or be quiet or trying to take our hoard of treats away.  Every hour we would switch to a new entrĂ©e - a bag of chips, another package of Pop Tarts, some cookies.  

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, before dawn but well after midnight, the last dollar was drained out of one of our Monopoly accounts.  There was no way to pay the rent — no loans, no property, nothing.  All was gone.  Impulsively, one of us threw some Monopoly money in the air.  Then, the two of us just went berserk.  The player tokens, chance cards, houses and hotels, the rest of the money went flying into the air and all over the tent.  We laughed hysterically as we continued to fling stuff everywhere.  For a few minutes, the inside of the tent resembled a well-shaken snow globe.  Eventually, our hilarity subsided enough so we could begin the recovery effort.

We spent a good half hour scrounging around the tent on our Monopoly search and rescue.  To our sleep-deprived brains, even cleaning up our own mess was fun.  We crawled over un-used sleeping bags, scrounged through empty snack food containers to re-assemble the game.  Finally, we went outside the tent as the sky grew lighter in the east.  We felt triumphant.  We had conquered sleep.  There was nothing left to do but roll up sleeping bags and pack the remains of our stuff back into the house.  We managed to find a few more Monopoly pieces as we emptied the tent.

We crept through the solemn quiet of the house.  Darwin’s stuff went back into his room, mine into a tidy stack in the living room.  To our delight, we were perched happily on the living room couch when Darwin’s mom came out to fix breakfast.  
“Are you boys hungry?”
I looked at Darwin and he at me.  We both groaned and shook our heads.  The exotic binge of the past several hours churned heavily in our guts.  So, we sat on the couch while the rest of the family ate breakfast.  Saturday morning cartoons played hypnotically on the flickering black and white screen of the television.  

And that is where they found us after breakfast: half leaning against each other, heads flung back, mouths hanging open, eyes sealed shut, snoring deeply, the contented victims of our marathon junk food Monopoly fest.

MONOPOLY: Source of my first and best lessons in economics and finance.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Very Long Day

I was reminded of an episode from my childhood recently while reading aloud “Mary Emma and Company”, the ongoing saga of Ralph Moody that took place about 100 years ago.  The Moody family had just moved from Colorado to Boston, Massachusetts.  On their first day in town, thirteen-year-old Ralph is at a local grocer trying to get a job.  When Ralph tells his prospective employer how many hours a day he would be willing to work, the grocer informs him that the truant officer would not think too highly of that.  Ralph isn’t quite sure what a truant officer is, but he assumes that means he will have to go to school.  When they were living in Colorado and struggling to make ends meet after Ralph’s father died, his mother would let him stay out of school if he had a job earning more than 50 cents a day!  No truant officers came calling.

While recognizing that much good has come from child labor laws and public education, reading Ralph Moody’s story, I am struck by how much he gained from his early exposure to work.  Ralph’s mother wisely struck a balance between making sure Ralph had an education while allowing him to be a resourceful entrepreneur.  Though his formal education in his elementary years was spotty, what Ralph learned in the ‘school of hard knocks’ more than compensated.  I am hard-pressed to think of a book about childhood, fictional or not, historical or contemporary,  where a school boy actually enjoyed being in school.  Rather, it is almost universally portrayed as something to be escaped from.  This makes me wonder why it is that when children are miserable in school, the grown-ups who run the system assume there is something wrong with the child.  As an elementary aged school boy, I experienced that desire to escape on a regular basis.  It wasn’t until about age 11 that I made my first attempt.

When I was in 6th grade, my closest neighborhood friend was Edward Moss.  He was a few months younger than me, which put him in 5th grade.  His older brother Tracy was actually in my class.  There was also a third Moss brother, who by then was in Junior High and had even less appreciation for school.  

It was a time in the school year when the weather was balmy and the memory of summer freedom still fresh.  The Moss boys and I were grousing about school one afternoon when the oldest brother suggested a novel solution: why not just stay home?  To my innocent mind, this was an astounding notion.  How could we NOT go to school?  As it turned out, quite easily.  Although we were not much more than a mile from school, a classic yellow Bluebird school bus wheezed its way to our trailer park every school day, no doubt to ensure that smaller children would make it safely to the hallowed halls of learning.  Still, walking was an option we often used as preferable to the noisy confines of the bus.  

We came up with a deceptively simple plan.  I would meet the Moss brothers at the entrance to the trailer park where the bus stopped.  Of course, there would be other kids gathered there.  We would tell them we were walking to school.  Then, on the way, we would detour into one of our favorite hang-outs — the old cemetery that was just a block or so down the street from the trailer park entrance.

That is just what we did.  It was astoundingly easy.  Once out of eye-shot of the bus stop, we dashed into the cemetery.  Then, we ducked behind a large mausoleum in the middle of the grounds and watched as the bus came and went.

At first, our freedom was glorious.  We wandered around, reading epitaphs, engaged in nonsensical conversation.  While all those other losers were cramped in a hard chair behind a desk, we were breathing deep the fresh air wafting through the old pepper trees and musty marble of the cemetery.  That is, until the oldest Moss boy pulled out a handful of cigarettes from his pocket.  He had snagged them from his Dad’s supply.  Today was to be a day for breaking rules.  So, we all in turn lit up.  I had seen enough public service announcements to know smoking was BAD.  In spite of that, peer pressure was highly effective.  I tried a puff or two.  Even though these were a filtered menthol brand, I can still recall the mint green label, the experience was decidedly un-mint-like.  For a boy prone to asthma and allergies, breathing smoke was a poor fit.  I never tried smoking again.

No, it never was...
That diversion got us to what we assumed must be about lunch time.  None of us had a watch, but the sun was high overhead.  Since our master plan had not gone beyond our initial escape, we had not anticipated such basic needs as food and water.  I had brought a brown bag lunch.  On that particular day, I was the only one so equipped.  Whether we had money or not didn’t matter.  In our present circumstance we couldn’t go anywhere in the public eye.  By the time my meagre lunch was divided among our truant band, it didn’t make much of a meal.  I wasn’t particularly hungry, in any case.  The combination of lurking anxiety about being caught and the after-taste from smoking had effectively dampened my appetite.

Boredom crept in with the oppressive warmth of the afternoon sun, the only possible explanation for what we did next.  We headed out to the street by the trailer park entrance, looking for relief from our monotony.  By the entrance was a rectangular pit in the ground built of cinder blocks and covered by heavy gauge steel plating.  Cut into the steel was a hinged trap door which was conveniently unlocked, but steel plating is heavy.  We managed to pry it up enough to get a grip and, with all of us lifting, got the door open.

Tracy — always good for a reckless endeavor — volunteered to climb down into the pit for a look.  He had just dropped down onto the concrete floor several feet below when someone hissed:  “There’s a car coming out of the park!”
We dropped the door with a thunderous clang, leaving Tracy inside.  The three of us made a mad dash across the street and flung ourselves onto the ground behind scanty cover of brush and rock.  The car creeped up the drive and turned toward town.  Once it passed out of sight, we clambered to our feet, only to see another car coming up the street in our direction.  Again, we waited.  The ground was warm and the smell of dust and sage and sweat began to mingle as we lay there with the sun beating down.  Car number two finally disappeared into the park.

Cautiously, we raised our heads and scanned the street closely before dashing across to see about Tracy.  Again, we pried the door up, taking a bit longer since we were missing Tracy’s help, who could barely reach the door from below.  Tracy’s face glowered up at us, dripping with perspiration.  
“What took you so long?  I’m roasting down here!” 
Those were his kinder thoughts. The rest of what he said is unprintable: “#$%&@“ and variants thereof.

We hoisted the apoplectic Tracy out of the hole.  Peering in, I saw a large pipe crossing the length of the pit with a complicated steel contraption bolted in the middle, part of the system providing domestic water and fire protection for the park.  Hardly worth the trip across the street.

The interminable afternoon drug on for another couple of hours.  We wandered around a nearby orange grove for awhile, tossing oranges at each other and eating a few to ease our hunger.  Finally, we heard the bus making its return trip.  We could safely end the extended game of hide-and-seek where apparently nobody was interested in finding us.  My long day was over.  It would be a much longer time before I attempted to skip school again.  

Certainly, I was NO ordinary boy.  But, just what planet I came from is still open to debate.