Monday, May 30, 2011

TAKING UP A NEW INSTRUMENT

When I was in the fifth grade at Symington Elementary School I was given the opportunity to join either the school band or the school orchestra.  It was an opportunity that the school gave fifth graders every year.  They didn't give the parent's warning that the day was coming when their child may come home asking them to put out an rental fee for an instrument or buy an instrument that they may not be able to afford.

They asked us whether we were interested in playing in the orchestra or not.  They took the kids that were interested in playing in the orchestra to another room where I assume they had all of the instruments laid out like in a candy store and pick out what you wanted to play.  I was not interested in orchestra but the band did kind of get my curiosity up a bit.  I decided to go and see what they had to offer for the kids that were interested in band.

We walked into the room and there they were, all these bright brass instruments laid out shiny enough to be Christmas ornaments.  The clarinets and flutes did not catch my eye at all but the bright shiny instruments did.  I stood back to see what developed as has always been my habit of doing when heading into something I wasn't sure about.

One thing became clear.  I was not going to be playing the coronet.  The line at the coronet station held about a third of the students.  Too long of a line and too much going along with the crowd.  Saxophones had a fairly long line but not too bad.  Too many drummers in line for me.  I would skip the drum thing.  There were only two or three boys standing in the trombone line and that instrument kind of interested me.  A couple of kids at the tuba made that a tempting choice as well.

Then I saw the instrument that was all by itself.  The unwanted instrument.  There was no one in line waiting to see what it was about.  My cheering for the underdog feeling kicked into gear and went and stood next to the instrument all by myself.  I didn't touch it but looked at it and how it was built.  It really was a pretty instrument.  It was a horn with a fairly large bell on it.  The brass was formed into two or three circles and the three valves that cam out of the coils were all different giving it a kind of personality of it's own.  This was a pretty horn and no one else wanted to give it a try.  I figured, why not?

The band leader was spending a lot of time getting information from and to the kids in the coronet, clarinet, and flute lines.  I took the time to study the strange looking horn.  As I studied it I figured out what it reminded me of.  In some of the old paintings of fox hunting the riders may have a circular horn similar to this one.  All that thinking did was to make it that much more interesting to me.

As the band director was heading over to talk to the trombone hopefuls he saw me standing by myself next to the lonesome horn and came over to talk to me.  He asked me why I was interested in what he called the "French Horn" and I didn't have an answer.  I couldn't tell him that the horn seemed lonely and so I decided it and myself were meant for each other.  He tried to talk me into joining the trombone line but I had my mind pretty well set on this thing.  He showed me how it was played and asked me to try it.  I did try it and did not succeed very well.  According to him my lips were much better suited for the trombone or tuba.  Nope, I think I would stay with frenchy here and he shrugged his shoulders in defeat.  He would have to be teaching one kid how to play the french horn this coming year.

I took the information home to mom and she wasn't sure about it.  She wanted to be sure I was sure before we allocated any money towards it.  I was sure.  This was sounding more and more like an adventure I would enjoy the more that adults tried to talk me out of it.  Mom talked to dad that night and they decided that maybe it might be good for me to learn something new.  And so the search for a french horn began.

They found a used french horn form a recent graduate from high school who went to our church and had played the french horn.  They made a deal with Steve's parents and bought the old french horn from them.  When I got it home and opened the case it was obvious that it had been used.  It had been used a lot.  There were a couple of dings in it but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.  I was not disappointed.

As I learned how to play this instrument it became quite clear that it was a special instrument.  It had a nice tone when played correctly.  It was capable of making beautiful sound.  The best part of playing it though was that I didn't have to worry about anyone challenging me for first chair.  I was the first and only chair in the French horn section.  That gave a lot of security in being a member of the band.  Anyway you looked at it, I was the best french horn player they had.

I played the French horn through the fifth and sixth grades without any competition and I was liking it.  I think I was also getting fairly good at playing the horn.  This horn did have a small draw back though.  It didn't have a spit valve.  The coronets and trombones and tubas all had a little place where I assume most of the spit collected while playing would come to rest.  Therefore they put a little valve at that place and when you needed to clean the spit out of your horn, you just opened up the little valve and blew.  All of the spit would come pouring out and you could continue playing.  The french horn on the other hand had so many coils curled up around it the spit could land anywhere in the horn.  To get the spit out of the french horn you had to take out the mouth piece and rotate the horn several times to roll the spit through all the coils and finally out of the horn.  This was very tiresome and time consuming.  Other than that it was almost the perfect instrument other than the piano as far as I was concerned.

When I arrived in the band room my seventh grade year, the first year of Junior high, I received a little shock.  There was another french horn player in the new band.  We got to know each other fairly well and when we compared how each of us played, we were pretty equal.  Susie was a nice sweet girl from another elementary school and she had also been a lone wolf in the brass section.  After quite a bit of talk we decided that neither of us were really rabid about being in first chair in the french horn section.  I could handle second chair and she couldn't care less which chair she was in.  We would have to challenge at least once at the first of the school year and so we made a friendly pact that whoever won that first challenge of the year would be first chair for all of the year.  I think we both made this agreement because each of us thought we were better than the other.  Each of us thought it was a good bet.

The day of the challenges came and about halfway through the hour the battle of the french horns took place. Sue would play first and then I would try to beat her performance.  When she started playing it became clear that she was a good at the french horn.  She played along and then all of a sudden she slid on one tiny note.  One little mistake that could doom her to second chair for the whole of the school year.  All I had to do was to take my time and concentrate and play steady and under control.  It was the most nervous moment I had ever had in band.

I began wonderfully on the correct note.  As I continued through the specified piece of music I could feel my nerves starting to gather themselves.  I was coming up on the part where Sue had made her mistake.  I could feel her eyes on me as I played on though.  When I came to where she had slipped, I glided though without a hitch.  I knew however that she had played with a better French horn tone than I had.  It was going to be a tough call for the band leader to make.  After standing there and looking at us he finally put me into first chair.  I had it made now.  No more challenges I would spend the year in first chair and that meant a decent grade out of band class.

About half way through the school year, Sue decided that she was tired of being second chair.  One day when the band leader asked if anyone wanted to challenge for a chair Sue raised her hand.  I was totally stunned.  What about our agreement?  There was no way I was prepared to accept a challenge.  I had not practiced it and had no intention of practicing it.  Sue played the challenge and beat me soundly.  We switched seats and she smiled.  I tried to smile back but then I thought to myself that the war was on now.

Sue and I spent the next two and a half years battling it out for one seat in the band.  Most of the times we would switch and the next challenge the other would win.  Personally looking back on it, I think the band leader was switching us intentionally just to keep us practicing and improving ourselves.

We were joined by a third french horn player who had switched from trombone at the beginning of our ninth grade year.  I started out in first chair and as the newcomer stayed in third chair for the whole first half of the year, Sue and continued to swap first and second chair consistently.  Then came the day that the trombone transfer challenged for second chair I gave it my best.  Apparently this kid had been honing his horn skills all year long without Sue or myself noticing it.   He beat me soundly and fairly.  I was now third chair with this stranger between Sue and I.  It wasn't right.  I found myself beginning to lose interest in the band.  I had other venues I wanted to pursue, in particular drafting and shop.   I knew I wasn't going to be using any french horn skills in my future and so I dropped band after my ninth grade year to take courses that would benefit me better.

The horn sat in my closet at home all through my high school years, never being dragged out.  About a year or so later mom and dad found someone who wanted to purchase a french horn for their child who was just starting out.  Mom and dad came to me to be sure it was okay to sell the old horn.  I didn't put up a fight.  I knew I would never really play it again and so the horn left my life as quickly as it had entered it.

I had fun playing the horn.  I still think it is the most wonderful sounding brass instrument there is.  My son almost made me change my though.  He had taken up coronet in school and one night at a concert I heard him play a beautiful rendition of Georgia On My Mind solo while the rest of the band accompanied him.  It was indeed a wonderful performance and I was extremely proud of him that night.   Then I stop and think, how much better would that had sounded if it had been played on a french horn???  A lot better I wager.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

MOM

I have been meaning to write an entry about my mother for quite awhile now.  She isn't an easy person to write about.  To me she is a multi-faceted person and very complex, and I say those things in a good way.

Her parents were two of the best people and most influential people I have ever known.  I have written about my grandfather quite a bit and intend to write more about my grandmother in the future.  While growing up she was the second of five children and the only girl in the group.  Her brothers were onerous boys so she grew up knowing how to take care of herself and also grew up with a pretty good sense of humor.  Like all of her brothers she is very intelligent and did well in school.  She never went to college like her brothers did however there have been many times when I have caught myself wondering what difference a college education may have made in her life.

She learned a lot from my grandmother on how to keep house and how to cook and she learned these lessons very well.  At the same time she was raised more strictly than her brothers were mainly from a religious point of view.  She had to wear dresses all the time and stuff like that.  As near as I can tell she never was the athletic type although she did love to watch sports, and still does to this day.  She watches the Chiefs and the Royals with regularity.  I am not sure but I think her favorite team of all time were the Cincinnati Reds "big red machine" that featured Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose.  It just seems to me like she really got into that World Series more than any of the others, excepting 1980 and 1985 when the Royals were in the Series.

She married my dad and followed him to El Paso, Texas where he was stationed with the Army.  When dad went over seas, I think she came back to Kansas City.  She bore four children starting a year after the marriage in 1950.  Carol, Elaine, Myself and Bob were basically three years apart in our ages.  Then came the ultimate test for any woman.  Actually it was a test most women probably would have failed at doing. 

One night dad suffered an aneurysm in his brain.  The doctors told mom that there was very little chance of survival and even if he did survive, things would be rough.  Dad survived and things were rough.  She faced the daunting task of taking care of dad plus all four of us kids. 

I know that the money was tight for a long time after dad came out of a coma and began to work his way back to normalcy, but it would be a long road for both of them.  She would have to give dad shots to relieve the pain in his head and later on would drive him to the clinic to get the shots.  Dad went and got a job at Rycom and did his best as a father to support his family.  He did a marvelous job.  Mom had the other side of raising the family to take care of.  She believed that a mother should stay home and raise her kids.  She began to take in baby sitting to make extra money for the family while taking care of her own four kids during the day and then dealing with dad in the evening and at night.  It was not an easy thing to do and I think she deserves a lot of respect for all that she did for the family.

She did a lot for the family.   I can remember several times when dad was unable to drive that she towed us kids around to different activities.  She and dad made sure, with the help of Mr. Allard, that we all got the chance to play sports.  Personally I can't remember her missing any of my baseball games during the summer.  Games were usually played on Saturdays so she wasn't having to tend to her babysitting duties.  She made sure all of us had the chance to learn music and to play piano.  I think she likes music as long as it is the right kind.  She went with us when dad dragged us out to Lake Jacomo to fish every summer which brings up one story that happened on one of those fishing trips.  She never fished choosing instead to sit in a lawn chair and read a book.  She had positioned her self behind me and with my wild casting, I manage to hook mom.  Among the things we caught on those fishing trips other than fish were boots, tires, and mom.

I remember having a seventh grade band concert at school and dad was not feeling well enough to go.  Mom took me to the concert and listened to it, which was sacrifice enough just listening to that band.  She was terribly embarrassed when one time they stopped the baseball game because I was out in center-field dancing around with a full bladder, unable to concentrate on the game.

She took care of all of the finances and made sure the money was spread appropriately to get the family through from month to month.  She more or less ran the family and I think she did a pretty good job of it.

How far would she go to make our lives as normal as possible with dad's illness was shown to me one dark February night.  The school was having a dance and I had a date.  Cindy was the first girl I had taken to a dance and probably one of my very first dates.  She lived in a semi-rural area between Grandview and Martin City.  It was a fair distance to her house and on the evening of the dance it began to snow.  She decided she would give it a chance though and drove through all that snow to Cindy's house and back again after the dance.  It was not an easy drive and I was really nervous as she drove through the storm.  I was always nervous when she drove but that night in the snow was especially nerve wracking.

She supported her kids in all that we did but she also expected that if we were to have outside activities, then good grades must be kept up.  I wasn't too good at keeping my grades up, especially after I started high school.  She was patient with me though and I managed to finish High School and graduate early, mostly because of her pushing me to get better grades.

Once all of us kids were grown to the age of being able to take care of ourselves, she went to work outside the home as a tax consultant and book keeper.  As intelligent as she was it did not take long for her to move up the ladder in the little office and before long she was towards the top in the small company where she worked.

She continued to work up until retirement age and now sits home with dad, both retired, enjoying life together.

Over the years I have distanced myself from a lot of my family.  I am not sure why but I have.  I have this wall around me that kind of keeps getting in the way.  I am not as close to her and dad as my siblings are.  There have been issues arise between me and my folks and I am not going to point the finger at them or me not do I think it would be of any use to bring up any issues here.  That is not what this post is about..  Probably in reality isn't anybody's fault just the way emotions come out at times, especially my emotions.

I can say this however and I can say it proudly.  She was and is a good mother.  She spent a lot of her life going beyond the call of duty that the usual woman with four kids would face.  She has faced these challenges most of her life with grace and dignity.  It never stopped her from helping others out when help was needed.  She got that from her parents.  She has stood by my dad for over sixty years now, never wavering in her commitment to him.

There weren't many women with her skills, intelligence and strength back in the early sixties and certainly there aren't many women like that around today.  She was given a challenge and took it and made the very best of it that she could and did a fine job of it when most women would have walked away from it.

So thanks mom for all that you did despite the road blocks thrown up in your way.  You did a good job.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

OLD FEAR OF TORNADO REVIVED

Up until eleven o'clock this morning I was going to title this entry "Last words on Tornadoes" and get back to writing stories.  It was then that I thought I heard the sirens wailing outside.  Then our executive secretary came on the PA system and ordered all employees to go to their designated areas for a tornado.  We were not expecting any severe weather today at all. Yet here they were, the tornadoes coming towards me.

After watching days of coverage from Tuscaloosa followed by footage of the Joplin devastation, your mind really shifts gears when you hear that siren and find your legs taking you down the hall with everyone else as we headed for cover.

There are three designated tornado areas in our office building.  The men and women's restrooms and the vault.  Both of the restrooms were built with concrete cinder blocks to make them safe rooms.  The vault speaks for itself.  I made my way to the men's restroom and where we stood shoulder to shoulder wondering what was going on.

I do not do well in crowded or noisy spaces.  My anxiety kicks in when I get in a situation like that.  If we are at a restaurant and it is noisy,  I tend to get really jumpy.  I start to have a hard time breathing and the only thing I want to do is get away from the noise or the crowd.  Stepping into that restroom kicked my anxiety into high and so I began the ordeal in not too good of a place. 

It wasn't long before one of us had the national weather service Doppler radar up on the cell phone.  It was terrifying what was heading towards Kansas City on that little screen.  It was a massive splotch of red, dark read, and yellow and it was heading right towards the area where we were.  It was then that my mind started going into worry mode.

Another person was reading the warnings off of his cell phone to us.  Funnel cloud reported and confirmed at 75th and State Line Road.  My wife is at 72nd and Wornall Road.which is about six blocks from the funnel sighting.  My mind started going into major panic mode.  I mentioned to someone that the location of that funnel was where Barb was and he immediately offered me his phone to check on her.  As I was starting to dial her number his phone rang.  I looked at the ID and it was his wife calling to check on him.  I handed the phone back and waited until he got finished reassuring his wife.

It ended up being only about a minute or so wait but it seemed like forever.  Finally I was handed the phone and called Barb.  She answered and said the sirens were going off but she was okay.  She was watching a television and watching the storms move through when they started looking at another spot of significance.  They said there could be a funnel at 85th and Holmes.  She relayed this to me and then said that was where Brett's apartment was.  The panic kicked in again.  (As I write this, my wife just called and said she had made contact with him and he is okay.  We had not had contact with him for the last two and a half hours since the sirens went off.  He works for a landscaping business and they were out working when the storms came through.  His co-worker was using his phone so he did not know we were trying to get a hold of him, it is going to take awhile for my anxiety to settle down).

We continued to watch the bright colors on the radar map as it moved closer and closer to us.  It wasn't long before we could hear the storm dropping buckets of rain on top of the building.  Everyone got quiet in the restroom, some looking up at the ceiling while others looked at the floor.  The noise from the rain was loud enough to drown out any hint of the sirens still blowing in the distance.

Downtown Kansas City 5-25-11, 1:00 P.M (Gary Lezak - Kansas City Meteorologist).

I think all of us were a little tense right at that time.  It rained hard for about thirty minutes before the sound began to let up and we could hear the sirens still wailing outside the building.  We still stood there waiting for the all clear, which happens when the sirens stop.  They people who were standing next to the door of the restroom had been looking down the hall where there is an exit door with a window in it.  Pretty soon what had been pitch black outside began to slowly lighten up.  We had been in the rest room for an hour by this time and my anxiety was letting me know that I wouldn't be able to stay much longer.

As it got lighter outside we began to move one by one out of the restroom.  It was fairly light outside again and so even though the sirens were still going a few people wandered outside to see what the skies looked like.

It did not take me long to follow the others outside.  I needed the air badly to lessen my anxiety.  I walked out into the parking lot and looked to the south, where my house is.  The skies were clearing.  Then I turned and looked to the north and saw the darkest most menacing clouds I can remember ever seeing.  It was the storm that had just passed over us.  The movement in the clouds told the story as to how unstable a system it was.

The only thing that concerned me now was to check on family.  I called my mom from my desk.  Everyone was fine.  My nephew had gotten their medicine gathered together and had opened the door to the crawl space under the house if they needed to take cover.  He did a good job taking care of his grandparents.  It had not come to the point of having to take cover though and everything out south was okay.

I called Barb to verify that she was okay and she was.  She was concerned that we hadn't heard from Brett and we spent the next half hour or so trying to contact him.  We finally did make contact as I described earlier in this writing.

Things have settled down at the office now and people are getting back into the task of getting our jobs done.  We had all survived.  There were a couple of tornadoes verified by the weather service and several funnel clouds over the area.  For now we are all safe.

As I look to the south though I can see another wall of very dark clouds off in the distance moving north.  It isn't over yet.  We have one or two more systems that will be moving through Kansas City tonight and they could be severe.  As with any storm though you never know how severe they are going to be until they get to you.

I looked at the pictures from Joplin again.  It is scary.  They say the tornado that hit Joplin just formed, dropped, destroyed than went back up in the clouds.  The people of Joplin, Missouri had no idea what was about to hit them.  It is scary to think that it could be that way anywhere.

This year is particularly scary.  It is to me anyway.  Maybe because a lot of it is hitting so close to my home, my heart.  Tuscaloosa, Alabama where so much of my family is and then just a few hundred miles to the south in Joplin, a city I drive through a lot and a part of my home state.  My fellow Missourians going through that disaster down there where last night while they are still trying to clean up they got hit by a storm with sixty mile per hour winds and rain..  And now this latest scare this morning and afternoon in Kansas City.

Still it isn't over as I look to the darkened south watching the next one roll in and there may be another one after it.  Here in Missouri our state motto is "Show Me".  I think we have been shown enough this year.

PAUL SPLITTORFF - ANOTHER HERO IS GONE

I know that it is rather silly to hold up a baseball player as a hero.  As an adult that is no doubt true, but to a kid following a baseball team year round for years and years, it is understandable.  A lot of who I call "heroes" are sports figures.  Last week Harmon Killebrew died.  Today Paul Splitorff has passed.



The true Royal fans referred to him as "Splitt".  He was part of one of the all time great pitching rotations in Kansas City history as well as baseball history.  Splitt played during a time when the Royals went from expansion team to an appearance in the World Series.

I never hid the fact that he was my favorite pitcher in the rotation as long as he was with the Royals.  I loved to watch him pitch.  I have no idea how many times I saw him pitch.  He was not an over powering pitcher but a classy one.  He loved the Kansas City area and spent his whole career with the Royals.

Splitt would become the first pitcher in Royals history to win twenty games.  He won more games (166) than any other pitcher in Royals history.  He played all fifteen years of his career in Kansas City and the city loved him.  That was back in the day when players did spend a career with a team.  There were Twins, and Orioles, and Red Sox and so on.  The Royals were Frank White, George Brett, Dennis Leonard,  Freddy Patek, Amos Otis and Splitt.  They were Royals for a career.

I remember when the Royals finally got past the Yankee wall and made it to the Series in 1980.  Jim Frey pulled Splitt from the starting rotation against Philadelphia and used him as a middle reliever in that disastrous confrontation.  I was irritated.  Apparently Splitt was irritated as well from a quote in the Kansas City Star this morning.

When he retired in 1984, he did it with class as was his way.  The Royals were sporting some pretty good young pitchers like Saberhagen and Cone when Splitt realized that it was time to "hang up the spikes" as they say in baseball.

He went on to a broadcasting career that included calling Royals games as well as Big 12 football, basketball and baseball.  He was as classy of a broadcaster as he was a pitcher.  He was completely neutral in all the games he called except for maybe the Royals games.

He was 64 when he died this morning.

I know that with all the tragedy that the country is going through this spring with the Tuscaloosa and Joplin Tornadoes and the Mississippi floods, that it may seem trite to spend a post on a baseball player.  It probably is.  I think Splitt deserves a mention though.

Like all young boys a lot of my heroes were sports figures.  In baseball alone I could easily name many who I loved to watch play.  There was Yaz, Brett, and Mantle.  There was Maris, The Baltimore Robinsons, Frank and Brooks.  Johnny Bench and Ozzie Smith were in there. Also Ryan, Messersmith, and Boog.

There were pitchers who were much better than Splitt.  But Splitt always held a special place for me.  He had a pitching style that was beautiful with a high leg kick and long step off of the rubber.

Yes it may sound silly to write about a boyhood baseball hero at this moment But he will be missed, especially in Kansas City.

Monday, May 23, 2011

TORNADO-PHOBIA RENEWED

I have written two posts on tornadoes this spring.  The first was called "TORNADO-PHOBIA" and the second was after the disaster across the south a few weeks ago called "TO ALABAMA".

Last night Joplin, Missouri got destroyed in a tornado much like the one that demolished Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  At the time of the writing ninety people were killed last night in Joplin.  Joplin is close to home.  Joplin is about two hours drive due south from Kansas City.

There were numerous tornadoes in Missouri last night.  One of the television stations had a helicopter up in the air following the system as it crossed the state.  About a hundred miles from Kansas City it caught the formation of a tornado, followed it dropping to the ground and hitting trees down below it.  It started in a rural area but quickly started to zero in on the town of Waverly.  Just when it looked like Waverly would be spared, the tornado took a sharp turn to the south and clipped the edges of the small town.  Not a lot of damage was incurred, but then again it was a small tornado.

Sitting there watching this tornado take shape and drop and how fast it moved across the country side and then watching it randomly go in any direction cause you to stop and think.  My tornado-phobia was heightened a little yesterday.  This morning when I awoke to see the devastation in Joplin, it definitely reinserted itself in my psyche.  Within two weeks my adopted state of Alabama and my beloved home state of Missouri had suffered huge numbers of deaths from these storms that come out of nowhere.  As of this morning ninety people had died in Joplin.  Many more than that died in the Tuscaloosa tornado.

Technology keeps getting better and better.  The technology of 1957 when my neighborhood was destroyed by a tornado was practically nothing compared to the technology of today.  Yet these monsters of nature still seem to be able to outwit human understanding and knowledge and strike without warning, or very little warning at the least.  There is nothing that can stop them.

I keep seeing that footage yesterday from that helicopter and marvel at the power and speed of what is considered a small tornado.  The tornadoes that hit Tuscaloosa, Joplin and Ruskin tore a path over a mile wide in each of them.  I think of what the death toll would have been in Tuscaloosa and Joplin had we not had the technology we do today that helps us at least suspect where a tornado may form.

A lady I work with said her niece had been trying all night to try to contact her step father and had been unsuccessful so far.  Another lady told the tale of her sister out looking for her daughter in law that had been away from her house last night and had not found any evidence of her yet.

My heart goes out to my fellow Missourians to the south of me.  They need help.  Help is looking to be stretched pretty thin right now though.  Over the weekend the local news had reported a couple of stories on kids from both Missouri and Kansas who had gone to Alabama to help with the clean up down there.  The Mississippi river is flooding running people out of their house and destroying farmland.  More people are heading to the flood ravaged areas to help out the flood victims. That is what we do in the United States.  We help each other.  Who is going to help Joplin now?  I imagine that not only people from Kansas and Missouri will migrate down there, but also people from Oklahoma and Arkansas will filter into the Joplin area.  It is a testament to the heart that Americans have with in themselves.

I realize that had that system been centered just a little more to the north, I might have been one of the unlucky victims who these storms hit with out prejudice.

I think I am more aware of the tornado season this year then I have been in the past because of the closeness it has come to me.  I have family that live in the Tuscaloosa area and I am so thankful to God that all of them made it through that storm safely.

I have cousins who live close to the Joplin area that could have been caught up in the storm but were not.  Again thank you God for that.

I think I came to realize today that my tornado-phobia goes way beyond any personal danger.  I am sure that a tornado could clip the south side of Kansas City at any time and I may be homeless or dead.  The phobia transcends that though.  It goes to family members and friends that may be caught up in these storms whenever the conditions mix up a deadly recipe for one of these storms to drop out of the sky.

I have family all over the tornado hot spots in the United States.  I have cousins and Aunts who live in western Kansas.  I have Uncles and aunts and cousins that live on the eastern side of Missouri.  I have all kinds of family in Alabama and of course some of my closest family members here in western Missouri.  Family also resides in Tennessee and Georgia.  My wife has the better part of her family living in Iowa.  That is a lot of family living in tornado active areas.  That isn't counting all the friends I have living where these monsters are most likely to hit.

I have been extremely lucky so far.  But so many Americans living in these areas have not been.  People have been killed.  Families have been destroyed.  Lifetimes of work and savings are gone.  Yes, I have been extremely lucky.  I am not sure if my phobia has been re-enforced because of the severeness of the storms or because how closely they have come to effecting me.

I think it is a little of both.  I do know that after seeing that live footage of a tornado forming and heading towards Waverly, Missouri so fast and out of the blue, it may not be a phobia at all.  Being aware of tornadoes and the damage they can do and taking them seriously may just be tornado common sense as opposed to tornado-phobia.

God bless the Mississippi Valley, Alabama, southern Missouri and southern Kansas as they begin to and continue to rebuild from this horrendous spring thus far.

I sincerely hope the rest of the spring is of a gentler persuasion from mother nature.

P.S.  I just got home from the office and my neighbor stopped me to talk.  Yesterday afternoon his son had stopped by to visit him for about twenty minutes before heading down US-71 to pick up his son in Arkansas.  He was ten miles this side of Joplin when the tornado hit.  Bob said it was a "head stopper" to think how close he came to losing his son.

Friday, May 20, 2011

TWO DESERT STORIES

The day Elaine and I left San Fransisco and headed towards Salt Lake City started out cool and clear skied.  That morning I had driven her down Lombard Avenue also know as the crookedest street in the world before we headed to the Bay Bridge.

It was early and we drove through the financial district of San Fransisco during rush hour which allowed Elaine to continue her habit of complaining about my driving.  As we crossed the Bay on the lower deck of the bay bridge the traffic lanes seemed to close in together making it a very nervous ride across the bay until we finally reached Oakland and the rest of the East Bay.

Once out of the east bay we headed across the mountains to arrive in the desert on the other side of them.  It was my first time to drive through the desert and I wasn't sure as to what to expect.  The desert turned out to be just like it looks in the pictures.  It is barren with very little plant life and vast spaces between areas of human habitation.

One of the first stops we made in the desert was to stop and fill the car with gas and get some coffee.  There was a typical little area in the desert that looked like a little oasis in the middle of nowhere.  There was a small gas station on one side of the highway and a McDonald's on the other side of the road.  We had set up rules for gas stops that consisted of me driving and when we stopped for gas Elaine would fill up the car while I got away from the car for a quick smoke or simply to stretch on my legs.

On this stop it happened to be the first of the morning and we both needed coffee and so I hiked over to the McDonald's to get two coffees while Elaine filled the car with gas.  When I walked into the McDonald's I was stunned.  The place was packed with people.  Where had they all come from?  There was barely room to stand and lines were indistinguishable from those who had already ordered.  There were people who looked like they were locals, a few passers through like myself and a few county sheriffs.

I picked a place that looked like it was part of a line and stood waiting.  I continued to wait and to wait.  Finally the lady behind the counter asked if she could help me.  I ordered two large coffees and she punched it into the register.  I paid for the coffee and she wrote a number on my receipt and told me that my number would be called shortly.  I stepped back and stood next to a couple of the sheriffs and waited for my number to be called.

I started comparing numbers to the number on my paper and could tell when I was getting fairly close to being called.  I started to get anxious as I watched people walk by with great smelling breakfast sandwiches and pancakes among other mouth watering items.  Finally my number was called and so I held my ticket up in the air and made my way to the counter.

The lady looked at my ticket and then casually reached under the counter and handed me two cups.  She then pointed around the corner and said the coffee was over there.  Now I am thinking that I have stood in here for fifteen minutes waiting to get two empty cups to fill with coffee by myself.  As I made my way around the corner to where the coffee was my mind was running over what had just happened.  When I had paid my tab, the same lady could have just reach under the counter and give me the cups then and I could have been gone long ago.  I walked outside with the two coffees and hiked across the highway to where Elaine had been patiently waiting.  I explained what had taken so long and she understandably laughed before questioning me on whether I was telling the truth or not.  She has problems believing me sometimes for some reason.  I eventually convinced her that it indeed was a true story before we got back into the car to head for more adventures in the desert that day.

As we headed back into the desert we would have a few adventures that I will write about later because they deserve a spot of their own.  As we drove through the desert I noticed things of nature that were fascinating.  Tumble weeds would blow across the highway.  Little dust storms would blow across the landscape and there were even little dust twisters that you could watch travel along the desert floor.  They looked like little tornadoes and there often were several traveling together across the desert.

Then came the second part of this short story.  The only signs on the highway were speed limit signs and once in a while you would see a junction with another highway but those were few and far between.  As I said the desert was flat and barren and it was hot out there

Suddenly off in the distance I saw a large set of buildings that were white.  It must have been more than a few miles away still but I started wondering what it could be.  We continued to drive and get closer to the facility.  Suddenly there was a sign that wasn't a speed limit sign or a littering fine sign.  It was a warning sign.  It said simply something to the effect of warning: prison area do NOT pick up hitch hikers.  So that is what the complex was that we were coming up on.  It was a state prison.

As we neared the prison it became obvious that it was a pretty secure prison..  You could see the razor wire shining in the sun.  There must have been three to five rows of razor wire on top of a fourteen foot tall chain link fence.  Then there were about three rows of chain link fence each with it's own load of razor wire stacked up on top of them.

As we got to the prison there was another sign indicating that it was the Nevada State penitentiary.  I slowed the car a little and took a good look at the prison.  You could see some of the prisoners out walking here and there but I didn't see anyone challenging the razor wire.

The sign indicating that the prison was a prison was the last sign we saw regarding the prison.  I drove on for a while with something in the back of my mind bothering me but I couldn't figure out what it was.  I tried to dig out of my brain what it could be then it hit me.

There had only been one sign warning us not to pick up hitchhikers because there was a prison in the area.  That sign was at least five miles before we came upon the prison and the sign was telling us basically not to pick up hitchhikers that were heading the direction we were going, which was directly towards the prison.  I don't think there would be too many prisoners hitchhiking from five miles away from the prison towards the prison.

It made me wonder if people going the other direction would pick up hitch hikers heading away from the prison since there wasn't a warning sign on that side of the prison.  I suppose it works though.  I haven't heard of too many prison breaks in Nevada much less anyone picking up a prisoner hitchhiking and being taken hostage.  So I guess it is a prime example of if it ain't broke don't fix it, even if it doesn't make any sense.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dance Band On The Titanic - Harry Chapin

Dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me

Mama stood cryin' at the dockside
Sayin' "Please son, don't take this trip"
I said "Mama, sweet Mama, don't you worry none"
"Even God couldn't sink this ship"

Well, the whistle blew and they turned the screws
It turned the water into foam
Destination sweet salvation
Goodbye home sweet home

I'm in the dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me

There was a trombone and a saxophone
The bass and drums were cookin' up the bandstand
And I was strummin' in the middle with this dude on the fiddle
And we were three days out from land

And now the foghorn's jammed and moanin'
Hear it groanin' through the misty night
I heard the lookout shout down "There's icebergs around"
"But still everything's all right"

Oh, the dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me

They were burnin' all the flares for candles
In the banquet they were throwin' in first class
And we were blowin' waltzes in the barroom
When the universe went CRASH!

"There's no way that this could happen"
I could hear the old captain curse
He ordered lifeboats away, that's when I heard the chaplain say
"Women and children and chaplains first"

Well, they soon used up all of the lifeboats
But there were a lot of us left on board
I heard the drummer sayin' "Boys, just keep playin'"
"Now we're doin' this gig for the Lord"

I heard the dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me

There's a wild-eyed boy in the radio shack
He's the last remaining guest
He was tappin' in a Morse code frenzy
Tappin' "Please God, S.O.S."

Jesus Christ can walk on the water
But a music man will drown
They say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned up
Well, I was strummin' as the ship go down

I'm in the dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me

Dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me

Dance band on the Titanic
Sing "Nearer, my God, to Thee"
The iceberg's on the starboard bow
Won't you dance with me


Loadout/Stay - Jackson Browne

From the album "Running On Empty"

Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They're the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They'll set it up in another town
Tonight the people were so fine
They waited there in line
And when they got up on their feet they made the show
And that was sweet--
But I can hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that's a sound they'll never know

Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and get'em up them ramps
'Cause when it comes to moving me
You guys are the champs
But when that last guitar's been packed away
You know that I still want to play
So just make sure you got it all set to go
Before you come for my piano

But the band's on the bus
And they're waiting to go
We've got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don't know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander 'round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came

Now we got country and western on the bus
R and B, we got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo
We've got rural scenes & magazines
We've got truckers on the CB
We've got Richard Pryor on the video
We got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play

People you've got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through
Come along, sing the song
You know you can't go wrong
'Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You're going to wake up in your town
But we'll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here
People stay just a little bit longer
We want to play -- just a little bit longer
Now the promoter don't mind
And the union don't mind
If we take a little time
And we leave it all behind and sing
One more song--
 
 

EVENING WITH RONNIE

It must have been one of the last times I would be able to spend with my friend Ronnie before he headed off to the army.  It was a cool night with clear skies above.  We had been out to grab some fast food and then came back to his parent's duplex to spend some time.

Looking back on that night it was very special.  We had just gotten some new albums that turned out to be a few of my favorite albums as I grew older.  We had purchased Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty".  This album has always fascinated me.  It is recorded totally live.  Sometimes the performance is recorded during a concert while other songs are recorded on Browne's bus or in hotel rooms before or after a concert.  I always considered this one of the most original concept albums ever recorded and it is good.  Every song on it is a keeper.  The subject matter of some of the songs may be questionable but the songs themselves are masterpieces.  I thought Jackson Browne was pretty good before Ronnie played this album for me but I fell in love with Jackson Browne after hearing this album.

Ronnie also played me a new Harry Chapin album entitled "Dance Band On The Titanic".  The title song was about a boy who joined the band for the maiden trip of the titanic and tells the story of the ship sinking while the band stayed on board and played as it went down.  Incredible song like all of Chapin's songs.

I think that the reason that these two albums had such an impact on me was that in my memory it would be the last time Ronnie and myself were able to spend any alone time together to relax like we use to when we were in high school.

We sat and talked about life and about the past.  Memories were recalled of things we had done in the past.  Some of the things were just downright stupid and some of them were pretty impressive.  We were able to smile and laugh a bit at some of the things that had happened and it was a good feeling.  I think I was realizing how much the two of us had in common and how much we had been through together in such a short period of time.

I remember it was very quiet in that house.  I am not sure if anyone else was there or not.  We had the door closed as we were talking and listening to music.  It was a time for the two of us.  Ronnie was and is very intelligent and he always seemed to have a plan.  I never had a plan.  My life was day to day , whatever happened would happen, but Ronnie was different.  He had goals.  Some of them were pretty lofty goals be he had them.  My goal was to get out of high school, marry Barb and start a career in engineering.  Looking back on it, both of us made a pretty good run at our goals for life and pretty much accomplished them.

We talked about the songs on the albums.  The words to the songs on the albums.  Ronnie believed as I did that words mean things and there was so much more to a song than just the music.  Lyrics is a form of icing on the cake of a song.  It tells a story.  The story in Dance band was a tragic story but a heroic story as well.  Would Ronnie and I go down with the ship?  Yes, I think we would and Ronnie agreed.  One verse has the chaplain of the Titanic giving orders to fill the life boats and he says "Women, children and chaplains first..."  We laughed at that part of the song then discussed that it probably wasn't too far from the truth.

We were laying on the floor as we listened to the music and talked.  The records were spread out over the floor as we decided which albums to listen to.  Music has always been a huge part of my life and it was the same with Ronnie.  Ronnie had introduced me to a lot of bands that I probably would take years to discover on my own.  Electric Light Orchestra was one of those bands and we listened to the Eldorado album that night.  The words in some of those songs are rather conflicting but we worked on the words anyway.

When we were younger we would play the music very loud during the summer months when we had to stay at the house to baby sit his little brother.  On this night though, we played the music at a volume that allowed us to talk in normal voices and still hear each other.  The talk turned to girlfriends present and past.  Ronnie had no plans to get married at this time in his life but my plans were beginning to be pretty well laid out as I had married Barb and had begun spending my life with her.  Ronnie liked Barb.  He liked her a lot and that made me glad.

Peter Frampton had released his incredible live album the year before and now we sat and listened to his follow up studio album.  We both agreed that this album was a huge disappointment..  Of course after you have released one of the all time top selling live albums in history, you can expect it to be rather difficult to follow up on that.  The songs were not bad but not that great.  Still they were able to bring about talking points between the two of us.  Music can do that.  It can bring people together and bring good friends even closer together.

We talked about our parents swearing that each set of parents did not like the other set of parents kid.  Over the years I think both of us learned a little on that.  Ronnie's mom and dad like me a lot.  I am not sure why but they do.  My mom and dad like Ronnie as well.  Maybe it is because they were able to see how much each of us leaned on each other during those difficult teen years.

As the evening continued we kept finding ourselves listening to the new Jackson Browne album.  That album had such an effect on that night.  It gave us so much to talk about.  It brought up the past and the future and the present.  If it isn't Jackson Browne's best album then I don't know what is.

We talked about Ronnie being in the Army.  He was enjoying for it.  He wanted it as it was part of his plan.  He would do good in the Service in the years coming up and would meet a wonderful young lady named Janet and become her husband.  Janet was not in Ronnie plans the night we sat and talked quietly, but someone like Janet was in those plans.  We didn't know who she was yet or what her name was, but there was someone in the future that Ronnie was waiting for.  That someone turned out to be Janet and Ronnie loves her.

As the evening wore down, I think both of us knew that this would be one of the last times that we would have an opportunity to be serious and have fun and just talk and listen to music.  I did not want to leave I don't think but it was getting fairly late and I had to be at work in the morning.  We listened to "Running on Empty" one more time together and then I walked out to my car and drove home.

Both Ronnie and myself have been fairly successful in life.  He has been a little more successful than I have but both of us have kept jobs and still have the woman we love.  We also still have that close friendship that is somewhat rare in a lifetime.  A person is really lucky if he can come across three friends during a lifetime as close as Ronnie and myself were.  I still have a copy of "Running on Empty" and without a doubt every time I listen to part of that album, I get a picture of  Ronnie and me, laying on the floor of his bedroom with our heads in our hands and smiling and talking.

It was a wonderfully quiet evening that meant so much over the course of a life time.  It was an evening I will never forget.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NATURE'S HANGING OF THE GREEN

Each year, Christians observe the beginning of the Advent season with a ceremony called "The Hanging Of The Green" in sanctuaries all over the world.  Advent is a  four week period of time to prepare for Christmas Day, the designated day on which we celebrate the birth of Christ.  It is a time to prepare yourself mentally and spiritually and to look back over the past year at the blessings we have received.

It has become a very important time and sets the proper mood for celebrating Christmas.  To begin the four weeks, the place of Worship is adorned with evergreen decorations, poinsettias. and ribbons.  Evergreen wreaths are placed in windows or upon walls.  The sanctuary transforms itself from a cold room in the dead of winter, with walls that are barren and cold looking to an appearance that something is happening.  There is something special coming very soon and we are preparing ourselves to give it the celebration that it deserves.

Candles are lit each week, each candle representing a different part of our lives and our faith.  By the time that the reflecting and looking back as well as forward is done, a celebration worthy of the arrival of a King is carried out.  That celebration is Christmas.

Let's change seasons and take a look at nature for a minute or two.  Nature comes out of a harsh winter with trees that are bare and cold looking.  Some of the trees did not even survive the winter and are dead, but you can't tell them apart from the trees that are lying dormant.  The ground is hard and slow to warm up.  The ground has been covered with frozen snow for months.  Then nature prepares itself for it's own type of advent season called springtime.

Spring arrives slowly.  It often gives a little tease of itself her and there until winter comes back and throws another round of cold and ice on it.  The advent of spring arrives so slowly you hardly notice what is happening.  The grass begins to get little green patches that slowly spread out.  The dormant trees grow little buds at the end of their branches as they awake from the long winter's sleep.These little buds become little dots of green as the landscape begins to change little by little.

You can still see far into the woods but it is becoming more difficult.  The cardinals and blue jays start showing up more often as they look for materials to build a new summer home for their soon to be growing families.  Rains start to fall instead of ice and snow and it smells different than the winter moisture.  It smells clean and refreshing.  With each rain the world turns a little greener here and there.

Soon you feel yourself looking forward to summer and looking back at the last winter.  Summer is definitely on its way and nature is telling us it is time to prepare for its arrival.  Flowers start to break through the soil.  The first one you see are little tiny things called crocus.  They are followed by the majestic short lived tulips that spring up everywhere it seems.    Other green plants begin to make an appearance from the long winter and things start looking ever greener from day to day.

The trees grow enough green on them that you can now tell which ones did not survive the winter.  There are two dead trees across the rail road tracks that did not make it.  Yet at the base of even those trees, there is green coming to life in the form of vines.

During the quiet times outside you can hear the animal life in the woods making their way around getting ready for the summer themselves.  The squirrels become lively again as they rebuild or repair any damage to their nests that may have happened over the winter.  Flocks of geese are seen flying in a northerly direction, coming back to their summer homes.

Then today happens.  I walk outside in the early morning hours.  The sun is behind my back throwing all of it's light upon the woods across the tracks.  The green is a brights green seeming to almost be lit up like Christmas tree lights.  The leaves are so thick with greenery that you can barely see ten feet into the woods.  The two dead trees are completely green now with the leaves of vines making them blend in with the trees that are still alive.  The grass is lush and think and a dark green and has been recently mowed giving it a manicured look that only grass can achieve.

The birds are spending all morning calling out to each other in order to make old acquaintances new again.  The squirrels seem to be everywhere.  They are in the trees, on the tracks and scampering along telephone lines that are useful as a shortcut to the tree where they live.  Pigeons are home to roost and are seen flying up and down the valley that the railroad tracks make through the soft rolling hills.

You find yourself standing in the early morning sun in your shirtsleeves, the sun warming your arms as a light breeze blows in from the south.  The sky is crystal clear blue without a scar upon it and it looks as clean as the air smells. 

Spring is a new beginning.  A time to reflect upon the past winter and all the hazards it brought with it.  It is a time to prepare for the summer and all that can and will be accomplished during that time.  It is nature's Advent.  The whole world is decorated in lovely bright fresh green and looks like a painting by one of the old greats.

Spring is a few weeks to contemplate life and its meaning.  It is a time to figure out who you are and what part do you play in the nature of the earth for all of us have a part to play whether we realize it or not.

We are just another species of animal coming out from the winter with the other animals.  For us though, there is a difference.  Spring in it's own way, reminds us of the beauty of God and all that he can do.  Each season has it's own beauty and it's own reason.  Spring seems special though.  Spring is the renewal of all things.  Of all the plant life, the animal life and the spiritual life.

Everything is clean and everything is given a chance to start anew.  Now the question is do we take this opportunity to start anew with the rest of God's creations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

SWIMMING LESSONS

I do not like to go swimming.  It is one of the sports that I feel is a complete waste of time.  I will admit that it is good excersize but that doesn't make it fun.  Personally I find almost any sport that takes you close to or in a body of water is wasting time.  Swimming in a pool or lake, fishing, ice skating or skiing seems like it would not be much fun to me. I have to confess I have never been water or snow skiing but just watching it doesn't seem to have much of a thrill to me.

I do however feel that as a survival skill it is important to know how to swim.  There are so many situations that you can find yourself caught in that swimming could save your life.  Being caught in a flood is one example.  A flash flood hits where you happen to be and the only way to save yourself is to be able to swim  to solid ground.  If you happen to be taking a walk around a lake and should happen to slip and find yourself in the lake, it would be nice to know that you can make it back to shore.

My uncle Buster did not know how to swim and not knowing how to swim actually came in handy for a good practical joke one time.  We were out on the Lake of the Ozarks in a boat when the boat became lodged upon a sand bar approximately thirty feet from shore.  My grandmother Hill was sitting in a chair on the shore watching us boat around when we hit the sand bar.  Grandma sat there watching and suddenly Buster, realizing that we were on a sandbar, began to step out of the boat in the middle of the lake.  I am told that Grandma was shocked to see Buster step out of the boat when he didn't know how to swim.  She may have even come close to fainting at that one.

My grandmother and mother thought it would be a good thing for my Aunt Sue and myself to learn to how to swim.  They gave cheap lessons at the public pool in Swope Park in Kansas City and so we were signed up.to take swimming lesson one summer when we were old enough to be tall enough to stand in the water without our heads going under.

The swimming instructors were volunteer high school kids and the beginner swim lessons were fairly simple.  We had to learn how to hold our breath.  Immediately this sounded like a thing that would add to my thinking that swimming was not so much fun.  We held onto the side of the pool and put our faces in the water to see who could stay the longest with their face int he water.  The second step was to learn how to float in the water.  Floating on your stomach is a piece of cake bu floating on your back is terrifying.  You have to keep your back arched and your head held back in the water.  I could see no reason at all for putting me through all of this.

Next we learned how to use our arms to swim with.  We stood with our feet on the bottom of the pool and just pretended to swim with our arms.  By the end of the two weeks we had to swim about ten feet from the middle of the pool to the side.  As a result of this whole weeks work we were given a read pin to where on our swim suits that said BEGINNER on it.  I was officially a swimmer as long as I didn't have to swim more than ten feet or so.

The next year I was taken to advance my swimming skills by signing up for the intermediate classes.  These classes were held in deeper water and taught us the proper way to breather while swimming, how to use the floating skills as a tool to rest with during a long swim and then finally how to tread water,  which means you swim with out moving as far as I can tell.  I learned fairly quickly in this class and began to think that although I did not like to swim, I could see where it could come in handy once in a while in an emergency situation.

After a week of intermediate classes it was test time.  The test for the intermediate class was to swim across the twelve foot deep pool back and forth and to tread water for five minutes.  We did the tread test first with everyone in the class jumping into the twelve foot pool and starting to tread water for five minutes.  After five minutes of treading water my arms were tired and felt weak.  I did it though and so now there was just one more step to take.  Swim across the pool and back.  It would be a total of approximately fifty feet.  Shouldn't have been a problem.  It turned out to be a problem.

The only thing I can figure out is that my arms were too tired from treading water to swim across the pool and back.  I found myself halfway across the pool when suddenly I seem to forget how to swim.  My feet sank down and I started flailing my hands and splashing about.  I remember yelling help but the only response I got from my instructor was telling me to swim.  He yelled this several times as I went under the water mutiple times.  Finally I must have convinced him that I was not going to start swimming and so he dived into the pool and dragged me out. 

As I sat on the concrete and watched my fellow classmates pass the test I felt ashamed of myself.  There is no reason why I shouldn't have been able to do that.  I was good at almost everything I tried so why had I failed at this one thing?  After the whole class had passed the test the instructor came over to where I was sitting by myself with my towel around my shoulders.  He told me that he knew I could do it.  He had been watching me swim for a week and he didn't understand what happened.  Well, neither did I so at least we were on the same page.  He then gave me a second chance.  I could try the test again if I wanted to and he would forget about the first attempt which had turned into an embarrassing debacle.  I decided to take him up on it and went over to the side of the pool.  I jumped in and began swimming.  I swam with all my heart and with everything I could give it.  Before I knew it I was at the other side of the pool being told to turn around and swim back.  I did exactly that and somehow I had over come the fear of twelve foot deep water and passed my intermediate test.  For this I was given a green pin that said "INTERMEDIATE" on it to be placed on my trunks next to my red pin.  It was more of a victory for me than anyone would realize.

The next year I had a choice.  I could take advanced swimming or take diving lessons.  I chose the diving lessons because it seemed more fun that just learning how to swim better.  I ended up being correct.  Diving lessons were fun.  All the lessons were taught on the low diving board.  We learned front flips and back flips as well as a sort of swan dive and jack knife dives.  Everyday was something new in diving class.  I had the confidence in my swimming now that I could dive and swim to the edge of the pool with no problem.  We learned a new dive each day and spent the whole class time working on that one dive with the instructor giving us criticisms with each dive.  The week went by much too fast.  For the first time I was enjoying swimming in a way although it wasn't really swimming.  It was diving.

When the week ended it was time to take the diving test.  We had to choose two of the four dives we had learned and perform them to the satisfaction of our instructor.  One of the dives had to be a flip and the other a straight dive.  I chose the front flip and the jack knife dives and performed them flawlessly.  I was pretty proud of myself until I found out what the conclusion of the test was.  To complete the diving test we had to climb up on the high dive and jump into the pool.  Suddenly I was terrified.

I have a fear of heights that is pretty serious.  I was debating with myself on whether to just walk away without my blue diving pin or to try to face it and somehow survive the fall.  I stood at the back of the line as everyone else in my class walked those concrete steps up to the gallows and fling themselves off into the great blue void of the sky and splash hard into the water. My turn came too soon.  I was the last one and class time was almost over.  It was now or never.  I remembered the embarrassment of the previous year during the intermediate test and decided not to have a repeat of that again.  As my knees shook and my hands held a death grip on the handles I began climbing those stairs.  I tried not looking down but I did.  I froze for a second or two and debated on climbing back down and walking away, but I got my strength back up and took a few more steps.  All too soon was I at the top of the ladder and standing on the diving board.

I looked around.  It seemed so high.  I could see the parking lot on the far end of the pool from up here.  I am not sure how long I stood there gazing around not wanting to move out away from the ladder but it must have been for some time because the instructor began to yell at me to walk to the end of the board.

I imagined a blindfold around my eyes and a knife in my back as I shuffled my feet slowly out towards the end of the board.  Suddenly I was there.  One more step would send me falling helplessly until I hit the water.  I was getting all sorts of encouragement from my classmates and my instructor.  I finally took a deep breath and jumped out away from the board.  It seemed almost instantaneous that I hit the water.  I was ot flying in there air for very long at all.  I hit the water and went under then got my wits about me and swam to the edge of the pool.  I had passed and had received a Blue pin with DIVING printed on it.

It was the last pin I would receive from swimming lessons.  I declined my mothers offer for lessons the next year.  I knew how to swim well enough to keep me safe.  I never would really enjoy swimming although I would go swimming once in a while with cousins or my aunt.  For the most part though, jumping off that high dive had proven to me everything I needed to have proved.  I would and could survive in water.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

MIND BREAKING

This is the toughest entry I have tried to write in this blog so far.  So please be patient with me.

I am guessing it was twelve years ago although I can not be sure.  Things are too hazy to make any kind of a time line in those early days, especially the day.  I do not even remember what the date was or what day of the week it was on.  All I remember is that in ten short minutes my life changed forever.

I was at the office reading the news off of the internet as I always did.  Again I can't tell you what the news was that day.  It is as if most of the details are totally blacked out.  What I do remember is that suddenly I was unable to breathe.   I was gasping for air and none came into my lungs.  I felt my body starting to shake a little all over.  My hands were shaking, my legs were shaking and my head seemed to be drifting off away from the rest of me.

I became aware of my heart beating terribly fast.  I felt like it was going to bust out of my chest in a huge explosion of blood and tissue.  I was getting scared.  I sat for awhile and I tried to catch my breath.  I tried to start to breathe slowly in and out hoping it would calm things down but it wasn't working.  I placed my hands firmly on the desk and my feet I planted onto the floor.  I was going to force them to stop shaking but that wasn't working either.

I tried to bring my head back to my body by thinking and by trying to convince myself that this was nothing to worry about but again, it didn't work.  After ten minutes of my heart pounding in my chest and Not being able to breathe or to think I decided that this possibly could be a heart attack.  I made my way on shaky legs to my boss' office to tell him I felt like I needed to go to the doctor.  When he asked me what was wrong the only answer I had was that I didn't know.  He apparently saw the worry in my face and told me to go ahead after asking if I was okay to drive.

I drove over to the local clinic by my house and asked to see Dr.Munger.  Dr. Munger had been our family doctor since he had fixed a cut on Brett's head about ten years earlier when Brett was three or four by tying his hair in a knot to keep the wound closed.  We liked him and we trusted him.  Dr. Munger was not in the office that day and so I told the receptionist that I thought I was having a heart attack.  They took me to a room immediately and began running tests on me.  They took my blood pressure, which was high.  They checked my heart rate, whaich was also high.  Then they started asking me questions.  By this time I was falling into a fog.  I was having to search my brain for the answers.

What was I doing when I started feeling this way?  I don't know, wait maybe I do know, I think I was on the internet.  Have I ever felt this way before?  Not that I can remember, not at all.  They kept an eye on me and Dr. Buie cam in to administer a test with wires hooked up to my chest.  Even though I knew Dr. Buie fairly well, I was insistent on having Dr. Munger there with me.  Dr. Buie eventually calmed me down and did the test.  He promised me that Dr. Munger would receive all the information.  Actually I believe I made him promise several times that Dr. Munger would receive the results of any tests.

I am guessing it was about forty five minutes to an hour when I felt myself starting to get back to normal.  My heart rate started to slow, my breathing began to come back and my thinking started to process where I was and why I was there.  It took a little bit to realize why I was at the clinic but it eventually came back to me.

I was sitting in a room all by myself for what seemed the longest time.  It wasn't an ordinary contamination room but looked more like an extra room or small lounge that they had there.  I sat and tried to figure out what had happened to me that morning.  I ws trying to remember everything but there were a lot of holes in my recollection.  I did not remember driving to the clinic for example, yet I was there by myself so I must have.  My chest was a little sore and my throat was terribly dry as I sat there waiting and wondering if anyone even knew I was in that little room.

Finally the door opened and a tall lady stepped in and asked me how I was doing.  I explained the best I could how I was doing at the particular moment.  She opened a folder and asked me about Dr. Munger.  How long had he been my doctor and other questions along those lines.  I tiold her that I wanted to be sure Dr. Munger got whatever was going on with me and would receive the results of any tests that were taken.  She promised me that Dr. Munger would be completely filled in on what was going on.

She introduced herself as a Nurse Practitioner and then she looked at a chart from what I am guessing was an EKG test.  She said from the looks of my heart was fine and I had not suffered a heart attack.  She sat down in a chair in front of me with her hands clasped together on her knees.  She began talking about panic attacks and if I had ever heard of one.  I hadn't and she went on to do her best to explain what a panic attack is.  This was a difficult job for her because it is extremely difficult to explain a panic attack.  She then went on to say that stress was a factor in many panic attacks and wondered if I was under stress?  Of course I was under stress.  I was under stress constantly from my job.  I took that stress home a lot of times I think although I did not realize it at the time.

She then asked me if I had been depressed lately.  My definition of depressed was what most people think of when they say they are depressed.  Sure I guess so.  I feel down once in awhile but I get through it.  Then she started to explain clinical depression to me and how it tied into panic attacks a lot of the time.  Most times people with clinical depression do not realize it until something triggers it.  She wanted to know how I was feeling right now and I had to admit I was scared, lonely and feeling totally abandoned by everyone and everything.  She said that Dr. Munger would have to do more test but it was very likely that I could have a serious condition of depression that the panic attack triggered and brought out into the open.

It was at this point that I realized I was crying.  I never cry.  But I was crying and I did not know why..  I was trying to take all this information in and I don't think my brain was processing all of it.  We talked some more and I eneded up being at the clinic about four hours that day.  They set me up with an appointment with Dr. Munger and sent me home with orders to get rest and not to go back to work until after I had seen Dr. Munger.  It was a long two days before my appointment with Dr. Munger came.

He gave me a stress test and said things looked okay.  Then he sat me down and went over in detail what I could remember of the past few days, particularly the day of the panic attack.  He said we would work on getting this under control but it may take some time.  He gave me some pills with instructions and I took them home.

After a couple of weeks on the pills my head began to feel detached and I was foggy all the time.  It was not a good feeling but he said it was a side effect of the pills.  I didn't like it.  So we tried different pills that were supposed to keep anxiety and panic under control as well as pills for depression.  Each time I came away feeling none the better but like I was detached from the world.

Eventually we got a combination of pills that although still left my mind not quite quite sharp, I was able to deal with it and get work done.  The depression and anxiety stayed though.  Dr. Munger admitted to me that he may need help in taking care of this.  He suggested I see a therapist and that possibly we may get some new ideas on how to deal with this.  Possibly it would take therapy as well as medications to get this under control.

So I called my insurance company and they set me up an appointment with a therapist named Julie.  I was not comfortable with her at all at first but then I don't think I would have been comfortable with any therapist at the time.  I stuck with Julie and eventually she got me to talk about things and to start digging into the innermost thoughts of my mind.

And so the second part of my journey began in an effort to get better and to learn to deal with clinical depression and anxiety and panic and to be able to function in life.  More later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

BRIEF AFFAIR WITH A MOTORCYCLE

I had a great father-in-law.  Harry was the kind of man who loved to enjoy life.  He was not dealt the best hand of cards for life, but he made what he had work for him.  He was a man who believed that you work hard for a living and for fun.

When I started dating his daughter he wasn't too sure about me.  I was quiet.  I didn't talk a lot and I was two grades below his daughter in school.  I think this bothered him for a few years until I proved to him that I could and would take care of his daughter.  I had a career and I was a hard worker in a vocation that he respected.  He use to call me "just plain Bill" because of my lack of social skills around him.  When I asked him for his approval to marry Barb the first words out of his mouth was "You are going to finish High School aren't you?"  After I convinced him that I was, he was more than happy to get Barb out of the house.

We had a lot in common though and those things began to show up the longer we knew each other.  I began going to the race track with him every Saturday night at Riverside Raceway and between the two of us we had a great time watching the races.  Back in those days they didn't show every race on television the way they do now but when a race was to be televised I would try to go over and watch it with him.  We started giving nicknames to some of the drivers that was just between us.  I think both of our favorite nicknames that we came up with was calling Davey Allison "Baby Davey".  One Christmas I got him a phone in the guise of Baby Davy's number 28.  He loved it and kept it next to his chair for years.

Another thing he loved to do was to ride motorcycles.  He had talked his other son-in-law into getting a motorcycle and now he began to work on me.  Harry rode a big Honda that was heavy and bulky.  He had me sit on it a few times and the thought of me actually riding that thing out in traffic scared me to death.  He didn't give up though.

One evening I went over to visit with him and there was an used little Kawasaki Motorcycle.  The smaller size was much more to my liking and he had me sit on it.  He said he had found it and thought it was a good deal and just wanted a second bike to have as a change of pace.

I had been wondering about owning a motorcycle for awhile now.  Two of my friends rode motorcycles.  Both Dennis and Ronnie had bikes and they rode them all over the place.  I had rode Dennis' bike once up and down his street in Roeland Park but had never really ridden it as in going for a ride.  Still I knew that if Harry, Ronnie and Dennis all enjoyed the bikes so much there must be something to it.  I began thinking about possibly getting me a bike.

One day Harry was talking about his motorcycles when I mentioned that I had been thinking about getting one.  He grinned and stood up and walked me to the garage.  He pointed at the little blue Kawasaki and asked me if I was interested in it.  He would sell it to me for what he paid for it if I wanted it.  I hestitated a bit and then he offered to teach me how to ride in order to get all my fears set aside.

We both got on the little blue bike together and he rode us up to a local church parking lot.  Once there Harry became serious.  He started lecturing me on how a bike handles, how I should ride it and the responsibilities that come with riding a bike in traffic.  He went over every part of the bike with me from the battery to the clutch and brakes and anything else he could think of to prepare me.  Then the time came.  He handed me my helmet and told me to give it a try.

I was nervous.  I was breathing a little fast but I got on the bike and started it up.  Harry stepped back quite a few paces as I slowly let out the clutch and began the bike to rolling.  I drove easily down to the end of the parking lot and then took a wide turn and started back towards Harry.  As I was riding back I decided to speed it up a little not just for fun. but for Harry's sake as well.  He would see that I was picking up on this motorcycle thing.

Valuable lesson:  brakes on a bicycle do not work the way brakes on a motorcycle work.  On a bicycle the two levers on the handle bars control the brakes.  On a motorcycle one of the levers control the front brake while the other disengages the clutch.  The brake for the rear wheel is controlled by you foot.  As I said, this was a valuable lesson because as I came racing towards Harry my mind went automatically into bicycle mode and I squeezed both of the hand lever on the bike.  The effect was overwhelming.  The clutch disengaged so there was not any power driving the bike while the front wheel locked up bringing the bike to an immediate stop.  The rear of the bike raised up and flipped over the front wheel while I was still sitting on the seat riding along in the same motion as the bike.

Th result was a scraped back, scraped arms and torn jeans.  I looked like I had just had a fight with a pit bull.  Harry came over and picked up the bike and set it up on the kick stand and began looking it over for dents and scratches.  Then he asked me over my shoulder if I was all right.  Obviously the bike was okay or it would have taken him much longer to check on me.

Harry and I then stood side by side looking at the dented motorcycle.  He calmly explained what he thought I had done wrong and he was correct.  He then explained the lesson I had just learned and he hoped I wouldn't have to learn it again.  I did not have to relearn that lesson and we rode the back for another hour before he took me back to the house looking like he had beat learning how to ride into me.

I ended up buying the little blue bike from him and went and got a learners permit.  It would be the first of three permits I would have as I was not confident enough to take the test for a license.  I rode the bike back and forth to the college for a year and then used it to run little errands here and there.  The state wasn't going to let me continue riding with a permit forever though and so it came time to take the test.

The test consists of riding a bike very slowly around some cones and coming to a stop without putting your foot on the ground until the bike has completely stopped.  I was not use to riding the bike in this manner and in my usual way of things I did not practice for the test. 

As I was taking the test I found that it was difficult to keep the bike running at such a slow speed.  It kept dying out on me and the officer giving me the test was starting to get a little impatient.  I finally gave up and told him that something must be wrong with the bike because I couldn't keep it running.  He gave me one of those "whatever" shrugs and walked back into the building as I prepared to drive home in shame to tell Barb I had not passed.

I rode the bike for one more summer before selling it back to Harry.  He in turn sold it and my little affair with the motorcycle was over.  I wasn't going to miss it, I knew.  and I haven't.  I like four wheels instead of two.  I like the feel of steel around me instead of air. I am comfortable driving a car.

Harry wasn't done with me yet though.  He took flying lessons and got his pilots license.  Harry was always looking for something new and adventurous to do.  I am terrified of heights but he talked me into going up in his plane with him one time.  I am sure he knew I was afraid of heights which only made the flight that much more fun for him.  He got the plane up there and then would take these turns that I swore I was looking straight down into the ground hundreds of feet below.  If he was expecting me to try taking flying lessons, he burned any chance of that happening with the first of those sharp turns high in the air on that day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

BIKING THROUGH MISSOURI - PART TWO

No matter how many times you may drive up and down a highway you never fully appreciate how long and steep some of those hills are until you have ridden a bicycle up and down them.  This became a matter of fact to all four of us within an hour of entering US-50.

US-50 is a 4 lane divided highway with a wide gravel shoulder.  It runs through Sedalia, where the Sate Fair is held each year and goes through Jefferson City which is home to the State Capital.  It also runs next to Whiteman Air Force Base, one of the most important but less known bases in the country.

Whiteman is currently home to the stealth bombers.  They leave from Whiteman and travel halfway around the world, refueling in flight, dropping their payload and then flying back to Whiteman.  It is a long mission that these planes run but they are kept safe in the heart of the country.  Before the stealth bombers were housed here, Whiteman served as one of the most important bases in the cold war.  Whiteman made the whole of western Missouri, including Kansas City a prime target during the Cold War.  As you go from Kansas City to Whiteman on US-50 you can see the silos that hold nuclear missiles and standard missiles.   When you ride a bike down US-50 you get a feel for how many silos there are protecting Whiteman and western Missouri.  Trust me, there are lots of them.

The morning we left was a nice cool morning that would turn into a hot humid afternoon that would slow our pace down somewhat.  Scott kept racing out in front of us while Ronnie, Larry and myself kept a more moderate pace and Mr. Shepard brought up the rear as though he was sight seeing and had all day.  One of Mr. Shepard's rules was that we were not to crest any hills that would put us out of his sight, so Ronnie, Larry and myself would catch up to a waiting Scott at the top of a hill and wait for Mr. Shepard.  It seemed like this was the case for every hill we came across.

While we waited we would sit on the grass and talk and look around at the scenery.  It was on this trip when I realized how beautiful Missouri really is.  Rolling hills, green with more trees then you could imagine.  The fields of the farms plowed and planted in nice neat rows that looked exactly like something you might see in a Benton painting.  During these two days I never tired of looking at the landscape of my home.

Around noon we cam upon a little sign indicating a town on the side of the road.  The sign just had one word.  It said "Pittsville" and that was it.  No population numbers or anything.  There weren't any houses or indication of life anywhere near the sign.  There was a sign of death however.  Right behind the sign up a little hill was an old cemetery that held bodies for close to a hundred years if not more.  Scott was quick to point out that if this WAS Pittsville then it was aptly named.  We settled down to eat lunch among the headstones of the little cemetery.  We decided that we would stop here the next day for a short visit to our newly met dead friends for lunch again.

Not a lot exciting happened for the rest of that day.  The cars pulled over a lane to gives us plenty of room and we kept pumping away on the bikes looking at Missouri in a way none of us had seen it before and stopping at the top of each hill to wait for Mr. Shepard.. .We continued to ride as the sun slowly started to drop behind our backs and the heat started to cool off a bit.  It had become a relaxing ride at much more of a relaxing pace.

As the sun was setting and dusk was approaching we came to the gate of the State Park outside of Whiteman.  The first day was over and all of us felt pretty good for spending over eight hours riding a bike.  We set up camp and had some dinner.  There was the urge to sit around a campfire and talk into the night but one by one, each of us slowly crawled off to the tent and passed out.  This must be how a baby feels after a family reunion when every one is taking turns holding it all day long or the way a pup feels after a long walk on a trail.  Every muscle in your body just relaxes to a point where there is no strength to have any tension in your body and you sleep deeply and soundly until Mr. Shepard wakes you up at six the next morning.

The first movement of the next day is shocking.  You butt hurts like crazy.  Your legs do not want to stand and your knees do not want to bend.  Your shoulders ache as you try to stretch all of the soreness out.  We sat and ate a light breakfast in pain wondering how we were ever going to make it back to Kansas City.  Mr. Shepard said the only way we are going to get back to Kansas City was to get on those bikes and start pedaling, and so we did.

After an hour or so your muscles do loosen up a bit and you start to feel more comfortable.  Well, all except for your butt.  That pain would stay with us the entire trip back and there wasn't anything that could be done about it.

We were on the westbound side of the highway now and the scenery was still the same but different in a way.  Scott began not to get as far ahead of us on the hills as he had the day before and more and more we found ourselves not waiting hardly at all for Mr. Shepard to catch up to us on a hill.

We stopped and had lunch at a small mom and pop diner which was air conditioned and had soft booths to sit in and rest our backsides.  None of us wanted to leave that little oasis but Mr. Shepard was determined that we get back on the road.  We didn't want to be coming in after dark.

We stopped across from Pittsville on the way back and had a snack, toasting our dead friends across the highway before heading on.  We kept a steady pace and pretty soon all of us were pretty much riding at the same pace along with Mr. Shepard.  I won't say we were too tired to ride fast like the day before but there comes a time when you do feel tired and realize that it isn't worth the race just to stop at the top of a hill every quarter of a mile.

Pretty soon we started to see landmarks indicating that we were getting closer to home.  We were coming across shopping centers and diners that all of us had visited every once in a while.  The urge was to pick up the pace as more and more landmarks came into view.  The sun was falling and was directly in our eyes and it became tough to see through squinting eyes as we headed that little last part westward.

Finally we came to the exit that took us off of US-50 and we began to ride on roads that we had ridden on all our lives.  Even Mr. Shepard picked up the pace a bit when we finally got off the highway and began those last few miles to the church.  As we made the turn onto Bristol Terrace where the church was we coasted on in.  We weren't expecting anyone to be there but there they were.  All of our parents were standing just as we had left them.  We got unwanted hugs and a pretty good welcome home.  Mr. Shepard led us in a prayer of thanksgiving for keeping us safe through the two day trek.  Our parents then went to talk to Mr. Shepard to find out how bad we were on the trip and how many rules we had broken.  I think they were expecting a report of frustration from Mr. Shepard but he gave us a glowing report.  Our parents would just have to accept the fact that we had done a good job, had stayed safe, and had an enjoyable ride through the hills of Missouri past all the missile silos.

There would be time to shock them, that was for sure.  Save up the story of eating in a cemetery for later, maybe on meatloaf night.  There was plenty of time to describe in detail the road killed skunks and possums, turtles and frogs that we had come across consistently.

Those stories would wait and be used at more useful situations.  The next Sunday we would be presented before the church, each of us give a little talk about the ride and present the church with the money we had earned.  No need to worry about that right now.  We had a whole week before we would have to face that spectacle.

There was only one thing that was important right now.  Ride that bike one more mile, park it and take a shower before climbing into the old familiar bed that had cradled me so many nights, months and years before.

I was home.