Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Crunchy Halloween

In honor of post-Halloween week, the only holiday with dual A.D.A. sponsorship (American Dental Association, American Diabetes Association), I share the following Trailer Park Tale.

Halloween.  A simple costume, a large bag, a trip around the neighborhood in the dark with hordes of other kids, then back home with my sugary loot spread around me to be sorted into three piles: good stuff (Butterfingers), decent stuff (Necco Wafers), and “Anyone want this before I throw it away?” stuff (Black Licorice).  

While adults labored long over fitting lesson plans and parent-teacher conferences into a school calendar, we kids focused on the holidays.  After Columbus Day, the next important date on our childhood calendar was Halloween.  School wasn’t closed for Halloween, but it was a big day.  Everyone would be talking about their costumes and, more importantly, the expected candy haul.  The ride to school the next morning was filled with buzzing chatter about the ghoulish night, in between bites of candy that we weren’t technically supposed to be eating on the bus.

Maybe there were commercially sold costumes 45-50 years ago.  I just don’t remember seeing any.  My own, self-assembled favorites: Pirate - which consisted of a black construction paper eye patch, a bandana tied over my head ‘pirate style’, and a cutlass cut out of the side of a cardboard box.  Cowboy - hat, boots, cap gun; Soldier — helmet, ammo belt with canteen, and some kind of stick that served as my gun.  That violent boy still lurks, well, somewhere.
Simply the best candy bar ever.

Then as now, some folks did not contribute to this annual sponging of candy off of your neighbors.  They kept their lights out or just refused to answer the door.  It was proper etiquette to let other ‘trick-or-treaters’ know about the good spots and the bad spots.  As in, “Go to the trailer 3 spaces down — they give big handfuls.”  Or, “skip the next trailer, nobody is home.”

One year, my siblings and I were near the end of our trek through the rows of aluminum homes.  We decided to stop at a trailer everyone else was passing by.  Just in case, you know, we might get lucky.  The trailer was small.  There was no jack-o-lantern to welcome wandering candy collectors.  A dim light glowed through the front curtains.  We could hear the faint noise of television dialogue.  Our bags were well-stocked, so we had nothing to lose.  One of my older sisters was bold enough to knock on the door.  We waited.  My brother and I were stationed in front since we were the smallest.  Finally, the door squeezed open a bit.  A lean, older man with a shock of wild white hair looked out at us through wire-rimmed glasses.  We automatically burst out with ‘trick-or-treat!’.  He seemed surprised.  Peering at us closely in the dim light, he mumbled, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t plan for this.”

We looked at each other, then back at him, not quite sure what to say.  As we turned to go, he said, “Hold on.  Lemme see what I have around here.”

Will do in a pinch.  If there are no Butterfingers.
He disappeared inside and for a few seconds we heard the banging of cupboard doors and drawers.  Then he was back at the door with a package of Jiffy Pop popcorn, the kind in the ‘ready to pop’ disposable tin pan with the wire handle.  Long before microwave ovens were invented, creative food marketers found ways to make fresh popcorn just a little more convenient.  In its hey-day, Jiffy Pop was the quickest way to convert uncooked popcorn kernels into a mound of hot, salty crunchiness.  No messy pan to clean up.  You just pulled the package out of the cupboard, heated it up on the stove, then tossed the disposable pan in the trash afterwards.  If you liked popcorn and didn’t like the mess, it was an undeniably great innovation.  

We all said ‘Thanks’ to our benefactor, then scurried home.  Rather than go through our candy inventory, the first thing we did was show Mom our Jiffy Pop.  A rare treat.  We popped it right then.

I acquired an astounding variety of candy most years, and that year was no exception.  Neccos, Smarties, Big Hunk, Hershey’s Crunch, some hard candy, some Bazooka bubble gum.  A heaping mound of sweets.  I would be feasting for days.  Mom didn’t even bother to give us guidelines for how much to eat.  It was a once a year event.  Yet, all the candy from that year and every other year never seemed as special as that pan of Jiffy Pop popcorn. 
Salty, buttery, crunchy, hot, fast.
Fitting seasonal Jiffy Pop advertisement

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Game On

This is the 2nd half of the story that starts with the Pre-Game Show.  Since I had already started down this narrative trail and we are half-way into the NFL season, it seemed fitting to provide a conclusion now rather than, oh, the middle of March next year.  Pick up your coffee or tea and settle in for a bit.  While still a short story, what follows is not brief as blog postings go...


It was 10 o’clock on game day.  Four junior-high boys gathered in the center of the field, a narrow street lined on either side by mobile homes.  The sky was overcast, but the air was warm.  Ideal for street football.  My friend Dave and I were one team.  Our opponents were the next door Neighbor Kid (NK) and his cousin (Cousin).  Getting their names wasn’t important.  We had known NK was a several inches taller than either of us when we accepted his challenge the week before. Unfortunately, his cousin made them a nearly matched set.  My whole life I had been smaller than everyone else my age.  Why should this time be any different?  To make matters worse, Dave, a year younger than me, was a bit shorter and only slightly less scrawny.  So, I guess we were a matched set, too.  Still, we were eager to get started.  There weren’t that many chances to play a real game in our neighborhood, especially for kids our size.  But first, we had to set ground rules.  

Certain rules of football are universal: a catch is a catch, a fumble is a fumble, a touchdown is a touchdown.  But in street football, there are local considerations.  Such as, where exactly are the end zones and sidelines?  In our case, the narrow trailer park street stretched about 100 feet between two cross-streets.  Those were our end zones.  Sidelines were the irregular boundary where the pavement met grass yards or fences.  Had to be careful of the fences with their waist-high pickets.  Other rules included: 
1) Two complete passes for a gain in a four-down series resulted in a first down.  Short completions could be strung together for an almost limitless number of first downs. 
2) One running play per series allowed.  It didn’t count as a completion.
3) The defense had to count to 5 before rushing the passer.  This was using the ancient tradition of counting out loud “one-one thousand, two-one thousand…” and so on until five.  The rush count was a practical demonstration of Einstein’s theory of relativity.  When playing defense, it took at least two minutes to count to five.  When on offense, the defenders finished in less than 2 seconds.  Or so it seemed.  
4) The car that was parked on one side of the street was declared out of bounds to keep someone from sneaking through the narrow space between the car and the fenced yard.  Plus, we didn’t want unhappy neighbors ending our game.
5) This was ‘two hand’ touch football.  When the player with the ball was touched by both hands of an opposing player, below the waist, he was ‘down’.  Tagging in certain sensitive locations resulted in an automatic first down for the offensive team.  
6) Touchdowns were 7 points as the ‘extra’ point was automatic.  

A coin toss determined who would get the ball first.  As home team, we called the toss and chose heads.  It came up tails.  We would be kicking off.  Since the road sloped slightly from one end to the other, we picked the uphill end to kick off from.  With aluminum trailers closely overlooking the narrow stretch of asphalt, actually kicking the football was hazardous.  So, we threw the “kickoff”.  With a stronger arm than Dave, I was responsible for the toss.  We discovered something on that opening runback: If you can’t get the ball through the end-zone for a touchback, then give it some hang-time so you can get down the field.  My throw was deep, not very high.  One of them caught it and they were running upfield long before we got to their end.  Absolute speed isn’t critical on a small field.  But, it makes a difference on a runback and both of them were fast.  Their momentum carried them half-way up the street, where we finally forced the runner out-of-bounds.  

Cousin set up a few feet behind NK as quarterback.  We agreed that Dave would match up with Cousin, so Dave started the rush count at the snap.  Meanwhile, I was learning a hard lesson about playing tight coverage on a taller, faster player.  NK blew by me, catching me flat-footed.  Cousin launched a wobbly pass downfield.  NK had to slow down some, but pulled the ball in and kept going.  My pursuit proved futile.  We were down 0-7 after one play.  I glanced at Dave and just shook my head.  I had blown it.
“It’s O.K.  We’ll get it back,” Dave said as we trotted down to the other end of the field.  Losers walk.  Another ground rule.  

Their kickoff was short and high.  Dave caught it and made a few strides upfield before being downed at the equivalent of the 40-yard line, which on our field was the 40-foot-line.  I pulled my comb out my pocket to mark the line of scrimmage.  Dave and I huddled up.  It was early.  We were behind, but now we had the ball and good position.  Our first play would be a classic down and out, something we had done hundreds of times on that street.  Dave was receiver, I was quarterback.  I took the snap and Dave sprinted straight downfield.  Cousin took the bait, turning to stay ahead of Dave just as Dave pivoted to the right sideline where I hit him with a tight spiral.  He picked up a few more yards before Cousin recovered and tagged him, right at midfield.  I picked up my comb and moved it to the new scrimmage line.  The next play was exactly like the first, except Dave made just one quick step to the right before pivoting left.  Again, his route was quick enough for me to pass before the rush count ended.  Another stretch of street covered and the second completion gave us a first down.  

Two plays, two solid gains.  We were feeling good.  Especially me, since Dave was doing all the running.  Time to try a longer pass pattern.  I took the snap and Dave started a familiar route: a few steps upfield then a turn towards the side.  But as he pivoted once more up the sideline, Cousin caught up with him.  I heard NK said ‘One-thousand-five’.  Next thing I knew I was scrambling for my life.  I dumped the ball in Dave’s general direction to avoid a sack. 
Back in the huddle.  
“O.K., time for a running play,” I said.
“You run a slant left towards the corner of the end zone.  That’ll be long enough for the rush to come.  I’ll pump fake, duck under and head for the opposite corner.”
“Sure.  I’ll try to set a block.”
It worked like a charm.  NK came in after hitting the 5-count.  I kept my eyes down-field, and pump-faked the pass.  NK jumped to block my throw and I took off.  Dave set a block on Cousin and I was near the end zone before I was tagged.  We were maybe ten yards from evening up the score.  Third down.  
“Do we go for the end zone, or short?” I asked Dave.
“End zone.  We’ll have one more shot.”
We decided to repeat our opening play that had worked so well.  It unfolded exactly as before: the upfield sprint, the tight turn, and Dave was open at the goal line.   As soon as I released, I knew where the ball was going and I wanted it back.  I had thrown behind Dave and the ball hit Cousin right in the hands.  He already had steps and momentum on Dave, I was blocked out by NK.  Disaster.  0-14.
“Nice pass,” NK said as he passed by me with a smirk on his face.

Dave trudged slowly back to our end of the field.  He had never stopped chasing.  That showed me a couple of two things.  Dave wouldn’t quit and he was as fast as anybody on the field.  But, he was winded.
“You QB this series,” I told him.
“Why?  You’ve got the arm and you’re taller.”
“Not that much taller.  You need a break.  I’ll take the runback.”

There was no run-back.  Since neither NK or Cousin could throw particularly well, they decided to actually kick-off this time, resulting in a low bouncing, erratic roll that we just watched until they downed it in the middle of our side of the field.

Our opponents were surprised by our change-up, but left their coverage the same: NK rushing, Cousin the defensive back.  We put together a drive by mixing short routes that, as long as we executed, were almost impossible to defend.  All I needed was a step and Dave delivered on time almost without fail.  Every two completions meant a new series, so we focused on completions, no matter how short the gain was.  A bunch of four and five and six yard gains strung together had us near the goal-line again.  We had not run a single time.  Now seemed right to Dave.
“I can run it in.”
“O.K.  Whatever side NK lines up on, just go the opposite way.  I can block him. Cousin won’t have time to react.”
After the snap, I ran right at NK.  Dave did one pump-fake that froze Cousin and darted across the goal line.  We were on the scoreboard 7-14.  We were back in the game.

I threw the kickoff really high and not as deep as the first time.  Dave was in NK’s face when he caught the ball.  No runback.  They had seen a lot of what we could do.  We had only seen them run one play and still weren’t sure what we were up against.  It turned out that they liked going long.  With no playing time together like Dave and I had, they opted to have the receiver just keep running.  Even if that didn’t work, with their height advantage, they were always a little open.  NK was quarterback the first series.  Though clearly the best athlete in the game, he was not an accurate passer.  Dave was able to keep close enough to Cousin to bat away one pass, the other was out of reach of both of them.  They were facing third down with no completions.  We decided to blitz.  Another ground rule: defense was allowed one blitz per series, rushing the passer as soon as the ball was snapped.  Third-and-long.  Ideal time to blitz, we thought.  NK took the snap, but was running immediately.  I could only get one hand on NK as he went by.  Dave was down-field guarding Cousin.  By the time we recovered, NK was well into our side of the field.  4th down.  They were going for it.  They had used their run, we had used our blitz.  We all knew what was coming.  NK took the snap.  I finished the five count just as he launched the pass.  With Cousin’s height advantage, close was good enough.  Touchdown.  7-21.  Both Dave and I were frustrated.  We could do everything right and still not stop them.

That became the pattern for the game.  When we had the ball, our plays kept them guessing.  We methodically moved down the field and scored most of the time.  The few times we tried longer patterns rarely worked.  Meanwhile, our opponents would go long over and over until they connected.  Or, they would scramble for a big gain just often enough to get close to or into the end zone.  They were never more than two TD’s ahead, but we could never completely fill the hole we had dug ourselves into.  

When a score put us within a touchdown again, 21-28, everyone agreed to a short ‘half-time’.  After playing for over an hour, we were thirsty and hungry.  Dave and I went into my house where we gulped down some water.  Then, I scrounged a snack out of peanut butter on saltine crackers.  Ten minutes later, we tromped back down the wooden steps of my trailer just as NK emerged from his yard with Cousin.  The morning battle resumed.  An hour and several scores later, Dave and I finished another long drive to pull within a touchdown again, 35-42.  

The end of the game was looming.  We had been at it for at for over two hours.  So far, no parents had appeared to call anyone home, as parents do at the worst possible times.  That would have ended the game and whoever was ahead would be declared winner.  In the absence of parental intervention, we had agreed at half-time that 49 would be the winning score.  We were near that.  NK and Cousin needed just one more TD.  We had never figured out how to counter their height advantage.  I had a bleeding raspberry on one knee from one too many attempts to dodge the rush.  Dave had a fiery scrape on one arm he picked up while scooping a low pass literally off the ground.  We had played on the street long enough to leave pieces of our bodies on the pavement.  All of us were sweaty and winded.  It had been the kind of game Dave and I had hoped for, except the score was leaning in the wrong direction.

As we prepped for the kickoff, I tried to think of something we could do to stop them.  Nothing came to mind.  
“Dave, what can we do different?  I don’t think an on-side kick is a good idea.”
“You just have to launch this one further than anything you’ve thrown all day.”   He paused.  “You can do it.”
I knew he was right.  We had to keep them deep in their end.  The more field they had to cover, the better our slim chances.  I had been QB most of the game.  My arm felt sore and heavy.  But, after all the running Dave had been doing, I had to give it a shot.  I had one more deep one left, my best ‘kick’ of the day.  It was a tight spiral that went both high and long.  With the adrenaline of desperation, Dave and I flew down the street and nailed the runner deep in their end of the field.  They were going to have to work for that last score.

NK lined up at quarterback, so I was on the line and Dave set up few steps behind me as defensive back.  
“I’m going to blitz,” I whispered as a walked by him.
Dave looked up and grinned.  He liked it.
Up to this point, blitzing had given us mixed results.  We had nailed them for a couple of loses, we had also been burned for long gains a time or two, including a touchdown.  Since they almost always threw long, a loss on the previous down didn’t make that much difference.  This time, though, they were deep in their own territory and a loss could put a touchdown out of reach.

They were so far back that NK was already standing at the goal line when he took the snap.  He saw me coming and reflexively took a step back.  He knew I had him, so he launched the ball generally in the direction of Cousin just as I applied the tag.  He had to do that or take a safety, which would give us 2 points, plus the ball back.  Both NK and Cousin had thrown a lot of bad passes in the game, so I didn’t expect much as I watched.  But this time, the ball was under thrown and Dave had position.  He intercepted the ball at mid-field with Cousin hanging on his back.  We had finally gotten a break.  We were less than half the length of the field from tying the score.

We stuck with our short patterns.  Three quick completions later we were 2nd and goal.  This play, I would take the snap and roll left.  Dave would slant left toward the goal line, then cut right back into all the wide open space on the right.  For the play to work, Cousin would have to bite on the misdirection and I would have to throw accurately against my own momentum.  I took the snap from Dave and started left.  NK had to follow me along the line of scrimmage to guard against the run.  I feinted toward the line and Cousin froze just as Dave made his cut to the right.  Dave was so open that I had time to plant my heel and lob a soft floater that he pulled in for the touchdown.  42-42.  At long last, we were even.

One more kickoff, not as deep as our last, but high enough that Dave and I were able to prevent a long runback.  Still, our rivals had decent position and a chance to win the game.  Cousin lined up as QB.  That meant Dave was on the line and I was defensive back.  I was giving NK some room as we had been burned long so many times already.  NK snapped the ball.  Then a weird thing happened.  After taking just two steps up the field, he turned and Cousin lobbed an easy pass which he caught for a completion.  I quickly tagged him, but the play bothered me.  
“What are they up to?” I asked Dave as we huddled near the ball, “That’s the shortest pass they have thrown the whole game.”
“Maybe the interception scared them.”
“I doubt it.”
Dave looked thoughtful.  “We’ve outscored them 42-28 since their two lucky TD’s.  Short stuff works.”
“Yeah.  But, I can’t play too close.”
Dave gave me his trademark grin.  “At least neither of them can throw a decent pass.”

We fidgeted restlessly by the ball while they continued to scheme in their huddle.  Finally, they came up to the ball.
It was second down, a bit short of mid-field.  With one completion, they had lots of options.  Cousin took the snap.  Instead of setting up to pass, he darted up behind NK who had turned to screen Dave.  The two of them kept going downfield in tandem, reaching me in another couple of strides.  Their forward momentum combined with NK’s bulky leading block, made it hard for Dave or I to get both hands on the runner.  We ended up forcing them out of bounds, which, in this case, meant crashing into a neighbor’s picket fence.  Thankfully, not hard enough to damage either the fence or the runner.  But they were well past midfield, within striking distance of our end zone.  And only third down.
Another long huddle by the offense.
While they whispered, Dave and I conferred by the ball.
“They’ve already used their run.”
“So?” I replied.
“I’ll fake the rush and drop back on pass defense.”
“Dave, you’re a genius!”
He smiled.
Double coverage on the receiver was a gamble, because the QB could run at the end of the 5-count no matter what.  If the receiver ran a long pattern, the QB would have lots of room to run.  But if they were planning a short pass, we hoped they would not be able to adjust on the fly.  

I set up deeper to guard against the long pass.  Dave lined up as if he was going to defend the line of scrimmage as usual.  NK looked back at Cousin, pleased with the way things were shaping up.  Cousin took the snap.  Dave let NK go by, but as soon as Cousin’s arm went back, Dave started back-peddling.  NK did another button-hook, just a step or two deeper this time.  They wanted a first down.  I came up as Cousin threw the pass, but was out of position.  Dave, though, had dropped back far enough to get a couple of fingers on the ball and tipped it out of reach.  The gamble had gone our way.  4th down.

NK picked up the errant ball and slammed a frustrated fist into it a couple of times before setting it back down at the line of scrimmage.

“Great play,” I told Dave.  Another smile.  He had an unlimited supply.  
“Just one more and we get the ball back.”

They had a short huddle.  Cousin set up to take the snap.  Our plan was to have Dave drop back a few steps again in case they tried another short pattern.  That wasn’t their plan.  NK ran straight down the field.  Dave stayed with him for a few steps, then had had to move back towards the line to keep Cousin from running when the 5-count expired.  By the time that happened, the ball was in the air.  As I saw the arc of the ball, I could almost hear what NK had told his cousin in the huddle:
“Just throw it high in the middle of the end zone and I’ll jump for it.”

In that Cold War era, the ball reminded me of an incoming ICBM as it reached its apogee and began to descend.  I had a vague sense of inevitable, impending doom.  This moment was all about height and timing.  The angle of the incoming ball would make it a difficult catch, but if NK timed his jump right, his hands would reach a good foot above mine.  And there was nothing I could do about it.

We jockeyed for position as the ball wobbled down.  As we jumped together, I was right under the ball, so he had to reach over me.  For a brief moment, I could feel the pebbly skin of the top-grain leather on my fingertips, then NK’s bigger hands snatched the ball away as we came down.  I fell awkwardly when one of my feet landed NK’s.  We were literally on the short end of another play and now on the short end of the final score as well, 42-49.  That day, there was to be no dramatic underdog victory.  

I sat on the ground while Cousin and NK hooted and celebrated.  Dave walked over and offered a hand to pull me up.  Once I was back on my feet, Dave spoke.
“It was a good game.  We stayed with them the whole way.”
“Yep.  They were just too stinking tall.”
“We should tell them, ” he replied.
“That they were too tall?”  Dave knew I was only half-serious.
We walked over and congratulated our opponents.
“Good game, guys.”
“Thanks.  You guys played good, too.”  Gracious in victory.  “Maybe we can do it again next time my cousin is over.”
Then they headed into their trailer and left us standing there.  
“I better get home,” Dave said. 
“Okay.  See you later.”
He turned up the cross-street that led to where he lived one block over.  I took my ball and slowly mounted the steps into the trailer.  The adrenaline gone, I felt suddenly bone-tired.  Once inside, I saw that it was nearly 1 o’clock in the afternoon.  

The rematch was not to be.  In fact, I never saw the neighbor’s cousin again.  As often happened in the trailer park, our new neighbors were transient and moved on before we did.  Dave and I continued to hang out together until our family pulled up roots one more time and headed to the plains of Wyoming.  For a kid that was always a foot short and 40 pounds too light, pickup games in the street were the closest I ever came to competitive football.  And for three hours on a balmy Saturday, it was as real to the four of us as any game ever played.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pre-Game Show

A new family moved in next door.  That happened a lot in trailer parks.  Homes with wheels
never bond fully with the ground they sit on.  Our family was a prime example.  In the ten years we were part of that nomadic world, we moved three times, our trailer towed to a new location in hopes that the change in surroundings would somehow make life a little bit better.  However, each trailer park was much like all the others.  Though the lure of slightly better rental rates was hard to resist for those counting every dollar.  Given the transient nature of the trailer park population and that most of our social life revolved around church, I usually didn’t find out much about my neighbors, even those less than thirty feet away.  Which made the question that inspired the Good Samaritan story particularly relevant: “Who is my neighbor?”  Often, I really didn’t know.

In this case, I was destined to know more than the bare minimum, which was that the trailer next door was occupied.  It turned out that the new neighbors had children, one of whom was a boy about my age.  Unless I had to interact with them directly, adults were mostly relegated to faceless anonymity.  But, seeing kids my age going in and out of the trailer next door piqued my interest.  There was no formal introduction where our clan trooped over and knocked on their door with a house-warming gift.  They came and went for some time without my awareness extending beyond the additional facts that there were a total of three children, a boy younger than the one my age, and a sister who appeared to be a year or two older.

Besides, by the time this kid moved in, I already had a friend.  For me, one friend at a time always worked best.  Because I knew what it was like to be the third person.  Worse yet, I had a little brother who was often foisted on me by Mom as the third person.  So, while two guys could almost always agree on a course of adventure, a third person always complicated things.  Either they wanted to do something different, or, in the case of younger siblings, were an effective damper on your plans by virtue of their youth and inexperience.  Being the third person in those circumstances is no fun, and having a miserable third wheel along is no picnic, either.

Like every friend I had during those trailer park years, this friend was about a year younger than me.  David was affable with a ready smile under a mop of thick, straight brown hair that always seemed to be hanging in his eyes.  He was not self-conscious about the amazing overbite he had, which made me both more aware of and less embarrassed by my own protruding top teeth.  We spent a lot of time together.

Something happened to alter that neighborhood dynamic one Saturday when David came over to play.  He and I were in the street tossing my football back and forth.  Street football was a staple outdoor activity for us.  Unlike baseball or basketball, football required only the ball, not a basketball hoop or a bat and gloves and a large field.  The two of us could wile away hours working out passing routes on the uneven asphalt.  

That morning, while we were moving our imaginary team smartly down the field with well-timed down-and-outs or slants, the neighbor kid came out to observe.  I was sure he had seen us do this before in the weeks that had lapsed since they arrived, but had never seen him actually appear interested.  This time he stood watching intently for a couple of minutes.  The next time we paused near his fence, he spoke.  It was the first time I had heard his voice.
We looked up from the complex play diagram we were scratching out on the street with a small rock.
“My cousin is going to be over next Saturday.  You guys want to play a game?”
To retain any sense of self-respect, both David and I knew the answer to that.  We looked at each other then back at our challenger and said, “Sure.”
“Okay. See you next week.”
That was it.  He turned to go back into his house.  We had taken a couple of steps closer to his yard during this brief encounter.  Close enough for me to see that he was several inches taller than I was and his build contrasted with my painfully thin frame.  The way he bounded up the steps into his trailer was not reassuring, either.  David, though not skeletal like me, was even shorter than I.  He cocked his head in the direction of the recently closed door.
“If his cousin is as big as he is, we could be in serious trouble.”
I nodded my head in solemn agreement.  My neighbor had seemed cooly confident when talking to us.  And we only had a week to prepare.

While the next seven days would include compulsory church and school activities, I knew what my focus would be: that window of daylight between the time I got home from school and when it turned dark outside.  It was to be a week of feverish preparation for The Big Game.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


When it comes to tracking, supporting, or even giving a rip about the latest social media meme, I am a contrarian.  I don’t share the cute little items on Facebook that say “If you really believe this Cute Little Moralism, you will share this”.  Similarly, in a bygone internet era when real people used e-mail and not just corporations or scammers, I didn’t forward those messages that said “If you really care about this Important Fact, forward this to 10 people.”  I didn’t take the ASL challenge.  Wait, what ASL challenge?  That was last week, for Pete’s sake.  ANCIENT History.  

Don’t get me started on what passes for historical these days.  The people who think history started with the founding of Starbucks or Apple (two of my faves, BTW) are the same ones who think the collection of savages known as ISIS are a new phenomenon brought about by American foreign policy.  Silly you, that ‘meme’ has been going on for over 1000 years — 13 lifetimes for most of us.  BEFORE computers and smartphones.  Sorry.  Did I just go political?  O.K., back on track.

One recent Facebook Challenge did catch my eye: The Gratitude Challenge.  Not as video-centric as a getting doused by a bucket of ice, not as easy as simply forwarding something that has been around the internet 3 million times.  Sharing personal gratitude takes honest effort.  It means opening my eyes to all that springs from the one central gift every person has: life.

Rather than play the multi-day challenge game, I just sat and cast around in memories and present circumstances for examples of grace in my life.  Grace, Gratitude.  Being thankful for something I didn’t deserve.  

So, here are some graces that came to mind:

A co-worker telling me back in 1995 that I needed to get onto the SAP project my company was starting.  The knowledge I acquired of complex German software has made a living for me for nearly 20 years.

Our family being plopped into a trailer across the street from a quiet, middle-aged Christian couple when I was a little chap of 5 or 6.  This led to Mom’s conversion, me meeting my future wife, and my years of growing up being rooted in a church of faithful individuals who genuinely cared about a boy without a father.

Every job I have ever held was the result of someone making the risky decision to hire me.  I had no control over that, regardless of how impressive or unimpressive my resume looked at the time.

I have not had a life-threatening injury or illness, nor have my wife or children.

I have never been close to destitute and always have had money to pay the bills.

My children love me, sometimes in spite of me.

My wife loves me, usually in spite of me.

My grandchildren love me because, well, that is what they do.

I have worked with a number of smart, capable, honest people over the past 35 years.  Most of them would do that little bit extra for others without expecting anything in return.  Just part of their job.

I have read 100’s of good books and have ‘just a few more’ sitting around waiting for my attention.

I live in an era of amazing technology such as the computer that fits into my pocket.

After slogging through some painful years, my sisters and I are in many ways closer than we have ever been.

I can get out and run four miles three times a week.

Pumpkin Spice Lattes.

Fresh popcorn and family movie night.

Barnes & Noble (long may it live).

My mother still pressing on with resilient faith and good humor.

Ice cream on hot summer days.

I have never gotten up in the morning wondering whether I would have anything to eat that day.

I have friends who listen first, listen carefully, listen thoughtfully, then offer advice.

The Pacific Ocean.

The more I ponder, the more I realize I could go on, and on, and on, endlessly.  Perhaps that is the lesson of this gratitude challenge: I have limitless reasons for gratitude, because Grace is not limited.

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.