Saturday, November 6, 2010

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get out of the Spotlight. Part 3.

At The Place

All we had for a map, when our little convoy entered Los Angeles County, was one of those general state maps, the kind the gas stations used to sell, with the major highways shown but with very little detail about the major cities. Thus, when we drove into the city of Los Angeles, we exited the freeway at some distance west of our final destination. I found the street we were seeking, but we had some way to go to reach the address where Carol’s sister was renting a house. We were going to rent space in that house for a while until we figured out what we were going to do in Los Angles. As we drove through the city, which I was later to learn was Hollywood, the neighborhoods appeared to be somewhat less than desirable. Certainly, I thought, this is not anywhere I want to live. As we got closer to the address of the house, the neighborhoods got better and better and I was encouraged. When we found the house, it turned out to be a rather nice old place in what appeared to be a clean and safe neighborhood.

If, in the course of this tale, I’ve given you the impression that we simply sold almost everything we owned in Colorado, packed up the rest and moved to Los Angeles without any other plan, you’d be correct. What the hell, we said. We didn’t have a plan when we were living in Steamboat Springs, why would we need a plan in Los Angeles? Really, I mean it’s Los Angeles, the Big City, Land of Opportunity, Home of Hollywood. What could go wrong? Okay, sure, it’s 104 degrees, our cars barely survived the trip and we’re moving into a house already full of people, some of which are teenagers, but, hey, it’s California, right? Yep, look out Los Angeles, we have arrived!!

A brief word of advice for anyone who is planning on selling almost everything, packing the rest in a truck and heading off to some other city: Always Have a Plan. Always. Have a Plan. Always. Fly out to the place you are thinking of moving to and do a bit of exploring. While you are there, line up some possible jobs, get an idea of the cost of living, do a bit of research on the economy and the culture. When you have done all that, go home and put together a plan. Make a few phone calls to the contacts you made in what will be your new home. Set up a few job interviews. Get hired to work for someone at a salary that will make it possible for you to afford to live in your new home. Put down a deposit on a place to rent. Then, when you arrive, you can move into your new digs, report for your new job and be confident in your future. Or you can do it the way we did it, with no plan, no research, no jobs and no clue.

After we unloaded the truck and unhooked the cars from each other, we sat on the front porch of the house where we were going to be living and had a glass of half-strength lemonade, made from concentrate. It was still brutally hot and we were exhausted. Carol’s sister Terry took us out for a walk, down three or four blocks to the House of Pies. The House of Pies was great, it had an all-American menu and they served pies and ice cream, lots of different pies and lots of ice cream. From then on, it was a tradition. Anyone who came to visit us was, at some point, treated to a walk and some sugary dessert at the House of Pies. We had another landmark, another point from which to navigate the great unknown City of Los Angeles.

One of the first things that I discovered after we had settled into our new home was that neither of our cars was working. Actually, I had heard, as we drove in, an extremely loud squeaking sound from the underside of our big Jeep Wagoneer. Once we got it parked I discovered that the constant velocity joint on the driveshaft was completely worn out; so worn, in fact, that it was almost a miracle that we had made it as far as we had. When I went to start up the little VW station wagon, it too was making a very loud sound. The bolt holding the engine cooling fan had rattled loose on the trip out. Once I got it tightened up, the car seemed to run just fine, so we, at least, had a way to get around the city. We were going to need that car, and the Jeep, too. As everyone else already knew, and we were immediately to discover, Californians love their cars. That’s not to say that there are not lots and lots of buses travelling all around the streets in Los Angeles; it’s just that, most of the time, the bus doesn’t really go where you need to be at the time when you need to be there. If you are willing to arrange your schedule around the length of time it will take you to get to any given place by bus, it is quite possible to get around that way, but a good part of your day will be spent on buses. That’s fine and it works, if you have no other way to get around, but the most popular and convenient method to get around the city is by private automobile.

I understand that in some cities, it is possible to get around quite easily using the public transportation system; places like Chicago and New York, for instance. Los Angeles is not like those places. Chicago and New York have neighborhoods where everyone lives in apartment buildings, with apartments that are stacked up top of each other and side-by-side for blocks and blocks. Los Angeles is made up of little suburbs filled with single-family homes, interspersed with an apartment building or some condominiums here and there. Everything is spread out for miles and miles and miles. There is just no way that any sort of existing public transportation technology can deal with the way Los Angeles is laid out. Perhaps if we ever get those anti-gravity belts we’ve been promised, there will be a more efficient way to get around in Los Angeles, but, until we do, you need a car.

The next thing I discovered was that all of the things that Carol and I had been doing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which had been in great demand and had produced a nice, viable income for us, were already being supplied in great abundance by many other people. We were now very, very small fish in a very, very large ocean. I say “ocean” because there are no sharks, killer whales, giant squids, or krakens in a pond, not even in a big pond. Here in Los Angeles, there be monsters and they will gobble you up if you don’t keep your wits about you. We were strangers in this big city and we were going to have to figure out how to make a living in it. There was no going back. We had to learn to navigate these dangerous waters and quickly. Carol began looking for secretarial jobs and, having actual skills in that area, was soon gainfully employed in the practice of her craft.

My marketable skills were then, as they are now, difficult to describe and, thus, not really very marketable. I did manage to get some work providing data-base entry and transcription services for a public relations company, and I helped write a few articles and a program manual for a dentist. What I really wanted to do was get back into the music business. I played some open-mic nights and went to some country-western bars. I played bass in a couple of showcase bands. I got one gig playing for a hay ride for one night. That was fun, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I scoured the newspaper want-ads looking for someone who might need what I could do, but there just wasn’t much call for my style of music in the Los Angeles market. I don’t recall exactly how it came to be, but eventually I found this open-mic night in Burbank that featured country music. I started hanging around there, playing a couple of songs every week, and getting to know the other people who showed up to play. I discovered that the country-western community in Los Angeles was much the same as the one that I had left in Colorado; there were the “cool” people, the ones who were already part of the “in” crowd, and there were the people like me, the newcomers, the unproven. I was back at bottom of the ladder, but at least I had found the ladder. This time up the ladder I was bringing some experience with me and that made a big difference in how quickly I was able to get back into the business.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Spotlight. Part 2.

On the Stage in Centennial, Wyoming

I needed to do a lot of research to get the information I would need to become a successful entertainer, and one of the ways to do that was to spend time in bars watching the people who were working to see what they did. Sometimes Carol would go with me; sometimes I went out on my own. I would talk to the entertainers when they took a break, and, once in a while, they would insist that I get up on stage a play a couple of songs. That was always fun since all I had to do was play a couple of my best songs, take the applause, and turn the stage back over to the professionals. I also got to know the guy who owned the music store in town. He was a great resource for me, as he talked to most of the other musicians in town and so knew a bit about what was going on around town. He was also a guitar player, which would eventually become a member of my band.

While making the rounds of the various bar and lounges around town, I took in a show at one of the hotels east of town. The guy playing there had a unique set up which included a reel-to-reel tape deck and some very large speakers. He was a solo act, but using the tape deck he was able to sound like a whole country band. What he had done was record an album at some point. He then had the vocal and lead guitar track removed from the recording. During his performance, he would click on the tape and play and sing along with the recorded band. In addition he had an electronic drum machine with which he would accompany himself as he played and sang songs that were not on his album tape. This was very impressive to me. Here was a guy who had found a way to be a whole band all by himself. I was fascinated and spent several evenings listening to him play. During his breaks we would talk and I got to know him rather well. One of the things I found out about him was that he had rolled his vehicle on the way to Steamboat Springs and it was in the process of being repaired. Towards the end of his stay in Steamboat Springs, his vehicle repairs were completed and I gave him a ride over Rabbit Ears Pass so that he could retrieve it. I had told him that I was trying to break into the entertainment business. He gave me the number of his agent and said that he would recommend me to him.

If I was going to become a one-man band, I would need to get a drum machine. With the help of my friend at the local music store, I ordered a machine of the same make and model that my friend for the hotel had been using. When it arrived, I figured out how to get it to do what I needed it to do and practiced using it. I also needed to build my repertoire, so I bought, listen to and learned to play lots and lots of country songs, both old ones and new ones. Country music lends itself very well to solo entertainers, since it is relative simple and relies primarily on melody and lyrics communicate its message. I practiced and practiced until I had put together enough material to play a four-hour show. On the recommendation of my friend, I got myself booked into the same local hotel where he had played. I did well enough there that I felt confident that I could be successful in other places. The next thing I needed was a demo tape and some photographs of myself. I set up a tape recorder and taped one of my performances. One of my friends took a picture of me with my guitar and I had some copies made. Finally, I got in touch with the agent and sent him some tapes, pictures, a song list and some biographical information to use in getting me whatever bookings he could find. A few weeks later, he reported that he had me booked for six weeks into a hotel in Birmingham, Alabama.

Over that summer, I played in Birmingham, Alabama; Edinburg, Texas; and twice in Abilene, Texas. During that time, I blew up the engine in my old Volkswagen station wagon and replaced it myself in the parking lot of the hotel where I was performing in Edinburg. Both of my acoustic guitars where damaged from the heat inside of the car as I drove across Texas. By the time I had finished with my Big Southern Tour, I was ready to break into the entertainment scene in Steamboat Springs. Okay, well maybe “break into” isn’t quite the right choice of words, but I had a enough confidence from my tour that I started getting some work.

In the nine years that I lived in Steamboat Springs, I went from playing single-act gigs to starting my own band. I worked with an increasing number of different local musicians and performed under a variety of band names including Two for the Money, Three for the Money, The Country Flames, and The Slammers. Both Two for the Money and Three for the Money played in the bars in the ski area during the winter season. The Slammers was a brief digression into rock-and-roll and was a short-lived configuration. The Country Flames was the most successful of the bands and had a steady engagement at the new dance hall on the west end of town for nearly a year. I was also did my one-man band show on a regular schedule in Saratoga, Wyoming and Baggs, Wyoming, with casual appearances in Laramie, Wyoming; Centennial, Wyoming; and Elk Mountain, Wyoming.

During the day, I worked with Carol at the secretarial service she had purchased. She bought the business with the idea that she would be able to sit at the reception desk in the building, answer the phones when they rang and sit and read a book when the phones were quiet. It didn’t work out that way. She wound up taking care of somewhere around twenty-seven phone lines and performing a wide variety of secretarial services for the tenants of the building. It got so busy that I would pitch in and help. I worked as the Computer Department, creating resumes, proposals, term papers and doing the bookkeeping on an Apple //e computer. I thought the little Apple computer was great and I talked Carol into letting me buy one with the promise that I would make it pay for itself. It did, indeed, pay for itself and quickly, at that. I would come in a do computer projects for Carol during the day and then go out a play in the bars with the band at night. It was a great life and we were big fish in a little pond there in Steamboat Springs.

Of course, I still wasn’t hanging around with the “cool” people. The people I was hanging around with were local business owners with families. They were certainly not the “in” crowd. The “in” crowd seemed to do a lot of drinking and attended a lot of parties to which I was never invited. The people in my band and who I worked with were mostly hard-working, fun-loving, decent citizens of that little town; one owned the auto parts store west of town, another owned a restaurant, another owned the music store. Carol’s friends were attorneys and real estate brokers and their wives. In other words, we were staunchly and solidly living life in the middle lane where I always seem to find myself. As good as things were for us there in that lovely little mountain town, we felt the need to move west. Carol’s brother and sister where living in Los Angeles, California and they furnished us with a variety of compelling reasons to make a move to the big city. We were at the top of our game and we felt that in order to reach our goals we needed a bigger pond to swim in, so we started planning the move. We put our little trailer house on the market and we offered the business for sale.

Both the house and the business sold rather quickly and for more than we expected them to bring. We found homes for our cats and our dog, and we packed everything we owned into a twenty-two foot rented truck. Carol’s kids had elected to stay in Steamboat Springs with their father, which was difficult and is a very long story all of its own. (Perhaps, I’ll write that story, too, someday.) We hooked the VW station wagon to the back of our Jeep Wagoneer, and set off on our journey to California with Carol driving the Jeep and me behind the wheel of the truck. We had CB radios so we could keep in touch on the road. We had maps and some food for the trip. As we pulled out of the driveway, our life in Steamboat Springs dwindled in our rearview mirrors. Ahead of us was a new adventure. We had no real plan, not too much money and no concept of what life in Los Angeles was like. We were soon to find out.

Friday, October 29, 2010

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Spotlight. Part 1.


For a guy who was afraid to call a stranger on the phone, playing guitar and singing to an audience might seem an unlikely choice of a hobby, but I was drawn to it. I couldn’t have made a speech in front of even a moderate sized group of people, but I could play my guitar and sing to them. At first I would close my eyes so that I didn’t have to make eye contact with anyone in the audience, but eventually I was able to sing and play and look at the crowd all at the same time. After some years of practice, I acquired enough skill as a vocalist to become the lead singer in a band of my own. Don’t get the idea that I was any less of a social pariah as a musician, though, and I was still completely hopeless as any sort of public speaker, or at any other sort of extemporaneous banter in front of anyone except for my friends. It’s called “stage fright” and I had it. I was afraid of looking foolish and being ridiculed by the audience. With good reason, I suppose, for in the beginning I was not very good at either singing or playing.

I took up the guitar when I was fifteen years old. It had been my dad’s guitar, but he wasn’t playing it so I decided to give it a try. I bought some song books that featured chord charts above the music and began learning chords. I practiced for hours alone in my room. Sometimes I would play one of the songs I was learning for my girlfriend while we were on the phone together. Once I got the chording and strumming more or less under control, I added singing. There was no stopping me now. Every place where it was even remotely acceptable for me to play and sing, there I would be. When I would play in public either people were too polite to tell me I was awful, or perhaps I was not as bad as I thought I was. With a bit of encouragement, I took the few chords I knew and started writing songs with them. I knew the songs weren’t very good, but I sang them anyway. I wrote love songs for my girlfriend and I wrote Christian songs for my Young Life friends.

I don’t remember how I got involved with Young Life. It was a group of Christian high school students who met once a week and sang songs about God and Jesus and got a sort of sermon from one of the adult leaders. We were encouraged to pray a lot and share our experiences and realizations about our faith. For me, it was a great venue for my playing and singing, so I wrote some songs just for that group. I was the only one doing anything like that, so I was asked to perform on a regular basis. I was happy to do so, since I had a captive audience comprised of people mostly too polite to tell me to stop.

Some of my high school band acquaintances were working on putting together a rock-and-roll band and I was invited to sing with them. I was thrilled. If anything would make me popular with my peers, singing in a rock-and-roll band should certainly be that thing. It wasn’t, or course, but it was fun in a scary sort of fashion. I was still terrified of getting up in front of a crowd and making a fool of myself. To prevent that, I spent most of my time in classes writing out, over and over again, the lyrics to the songs I was to sing. The band played a couple of high school dances and a private party, but it was not to last. The rest of the guys in the group were a couple of notches above me in the social strata and I was just not what they were looking for in a lead singer. They told me that I was singing flat and that I was out of the band. The real problem was that I couldn’t afford the kind of equipment that I needed to keep up with the rest of the more affluent group members. My singing was fine; my financial and social status was not. I’d had a taste of the rock-and-roll life, though, and I wasn’t about to give up my playing and singing. I would just have to find a way to do it on my own.

That’s been the one constant theme in my life: Find a way to do it myself. Since I was a complete social reject, I had no choice but to find ways to do things using only my own resources. If there is a way to do it myself, I will find it. It’s become a philosophy for me. I’ve applied it to home repairs, computers, automobiles, photography, education, music and anywhere else I can. You can immediately see the basic flaw in this philosophy; it tends to leave one doing everything alone. Everything. This philosophy automatically excludes any sort of team effort, and it completely bypasses the “many hands make for light work” maxim. On the other hand, it does make one independent of mechanics, repairmen, teachers and schools. A couple of things you do need, though, are authors and tools. If you can read and follow instructions, then you can fix almost anything. And if you have and know how to use tools, fixing things can be rather easy. With the right tools, you can do a great many things by yourself. With the right tools, I would eventually become a one-man band.

At the end of my-first-and-only-year of college, I had no more reason to play the trombone. The guitar is just as portable and much more versatile an instrument for someone seeking a stage from which to communicate. I dragged that guitar with me wherever I went; on family vacations, to a job at a YMCA summer camp, to parties. It was my constant companion until I moved to Denver. Once I had a few dollars of my own to spend, one of the first things I bought was a new guitar. It was a beautiful thing, an Epiphone with an oversized body, steel strings and a nice narrow neck. My dad didn’t approve of the steel strings. I guess he liked the sound of the nylon-stringed classical guitar better. Now that I had a guitar of my own, he asked for his to be returned. He kept it with him as he moved about the mountains of Colorado and would ask me to play it whenever I would visit him. I’m not sure where that guitar is now; I think my sister had it for a while. I have another classical guitar now, one that I fished out of a trash can where my niece had placed it. For some reason, she had decided to get rid of it, though all that was wrong was that it had a broken string. I retrieved it from the trash, fixed the broken string and discovered that it had a wonderfully rich tone. That little rescued guitar sits on a stand within arm’s reach of the desk where I am now sitting. Whenever I need a little music boost, some soothing energy to warm the soul, I strum that beautiful instrument.

I got my first paying job as a musician through my dad. He was selling real estate at a development in the mountains near Granby, Colorado. When the real estate company brought people up to tour the property on weekends, they would treat the potential buyers to a steak-fry at the end of the day. I was hired to provide a bit of entertainment to the guests while they enjoyed their dinner. With my old sound system from high school days, a microphone and a pick-up I had installed in my guitar, I began my career as a one-man band. It was great fun and the people I was playing for seemed to enjoy it. I bought a 12-string guitar to go with my new six-string and learned some new songs. Whenever there was a big tour, I would get a call to drive up from Denver and perform. When my dad moved on to a different real estate project, that gig ended, but I’d been paid to perform and now considered myself a professional. I began looking for other venues where I could get myself in front of an audience, but only found some showcase and open-mic type shows around Denver which were free. I didn’t find another paying gig until I moved to Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Springs was a town with a split personality. On one hand, it was a nice, friendly little mountain town surrounded by cattle and sheep ranches, with a couple of mines just a few miles up the highway. In the summer, the off-season, it was just a quiet little town where folks would come to shop, visit the post office, eat at one of the restaurants, or have a drink at one of the bars. The people who lived there worked on the ranches, or in the mines, or for the forest service, or for the county, or owned or worked for one of the businesses in town. It was a small community where going to the post office, or the grocery store, was a social event, in that you always ran into someone you knew wherever you went. When the skiing season arrived, the little town underwent a complete personality change. The population jumped from 6,000 to 20,000 or more. The stores, shops and bars were packed with tourists and skiers; the parking lots were full; and most of the locals were busy working at some task that served to separate the tourists from some of their money. It was amazing to watch the transformation of Steamboat Springs from small mountain town to major destination resort each year. One of the things that the tourists demanded was entertainment. Some of that entertainment was provided by people from out of town, but quite a lot of it was provided by local musicians. I knew I would have to become one of those local entertainers and I set about learning the skills I would need to do that.

I acquired some better sound equipment and built a little stage out of two by fours and plywood. I set up the stage in the living room of the trailer where Carol and I lived with her two sons. On Friday nights, we would have some of our friends over and we encouraged anyone who wanted to, to get up on the little stage and play for the group. We all got some experience playing and singing with the sound equipment in front of an audience without the added pressure of performing for strangers. It was a very good performer’s classroom where we all learned from and supported each other, but, best of all, it was great fun.

Playing for your friends in the living room is one thing, but taking that experience, or lack thereof, out into the marketplace and trying to get a paying gig is an entirely other thing. There was already an overabundance of local musicians who had been playing in the bars and restaurants for years, and there was very little interest from the owners and managers of those establishments in trying out unknown and unproven talent. They already had good, crowd-drawing entertainment, they figured, so why take a chance on a unknown? From a business standpoint, they were right. I needed to prove myself somehow. I needed to show that I could bring people into wherever I was playing and make money for the bar. That would prove to be more difficult than I thought it might.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thanks, Dad.

October 16, 1976

There are three quite notable events in my life for which I owe a debt of gratitude to my father. The first one is that, with his help and guidance, I made it up the Boy Scout ranks to Eagle. It was my first big achievement and I never would have gotten there without his help. He did the same favor for my brother.

I liked being a Boy Scout. I got to go camping, hiking, canoeing, and shooting. I learned to tie knots, build bridges, made campfires, handle a knife and axe, cook over an open fire, pitch a tent, lead a group of my peers, and safely handle and accurately shoot a rifle. I also learned about local, state and federal government, first aide, lifesaving and water safety, citizenship, woodcraft and all sorts of outdoorsman type activities. I took to it immediately and easily advanced up through the lower ranks, acquiring and demonstrating the skills necessary to achieve each level. I had no trouble with most of the badges needed for the upper ranks until it came time to call up a merit badge counselor who I had never met. I discovered then that I had a completely irrational and nearly unconquerable fear of calling strangers on the telephone. Up until that time, I’d been working with people that I knew, my dad and other adult leaders of our troop, plus some counselors at summer camp. There were some required badges for which I needed to meet with a complete stranger in order to earn that particular award. Of course, these people I was supposed to call were simply volunteers who had knowledge in the area that the badge requirements addressed. All I needed to do was pick up the phone, introduce myself and set up an appointment to meet with the man. I couldn’t do it. Pull out my fingernails with pliers, set me on fire, do anything but make me place a phone call to a stranger. It was the hardest thing I had to do. I don’t know why I was afraid of make that call. I never have discovered the reason. I still have that fear, but I’ve learned to conquer it. I can actually make a phone call now and I can do it almost without that little adrenaline spike, almost. It’s strange, but the fear is still there to a very slight degree.

My dad helped me make those phone calls. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we got it done. My dad helped me sell cookies, too. During the East Peoria years, there was this summer camp that I was supposed to go to one year. For some reason, I was required to sell cookies to earn part of my camping fees or something. I never did get an explanation as to the necessity of the cookie selling, I just got the job of selling cookies door-to-door. My mom or dad would load me up in the car, drive me to a nearby neighborhood and send me up to total stranger’s houses with this box of cookies and an order form in my hand. I was supposed to tell the person who answered the door that I was selling these cookies to earn my way to camp and they were supposed to give me money. Knocking on stranger’s doors was even more frightening to me than making phone calls. I hated it. I was scared. Again, I don’t know why, but I was. My parents made me do it anyway. My dad is the quintessential salesman so he had no idea what I was afraid of, and my mom thought it was stupid to be afraid of knocking on doors. Of course, she wasn’t the one who had to do it. No, I had to do it. I whimpered and cowered and quivered and shuffled my way up to door after door, hesitantly repeating the same spiel to each new stranger and, more often than not, having my sales pitch answered with a “No, Thank You,” or just a simple “Not Interested.” Eventually we ran out of nearby strangers and my cookie sales career came to an end. It ruined me for sales, though. My fear of “cold calls” (talking to strangers) in sales and my fear of telephone calls (talking to strangers), no doubt, stems from a fear of rejection. As every good salesman knows, sales is a numbers game; you have to get through a lot of rejections to make that sale. The secret is to not take the rejection personally. I haven’t ever been able to do that very well. I almost always take it as a rejection of myself and not of whatever I might be selling.

When we moved to Colorado, after my first-and-only-year of college, my dad got me a job working in the factory where he was national sales manager. That was one of the reasons we moved to Colorado, so that my dad could take that job. I don’t feel like I owe my dad for getting me that job at the factory, but I suppose I do. It was my first real job. Back in Peoria I spent one summer getting paid to wash dishes at the same Boy Scout camp I had gone to when I was younger. The two summers after that, while I was still in school, I worked as a life guard at the local country club. Washing dishes was a job. Sitting in the sun watching girls and keeping the little kids from downing was not what I consider job. It was more being paid to do what I would have done for free if someone had asked. The factory job was a real job.

I spent six years working in factories in Denver. I never got to like it very much. The job that my dad got me was in the factory that made the fluorescent lighting fixtures for which he managed the national sales. I started work on the paint line with a crew whose job was hanging the bare, stamped metal parts of the fixtures on a continuously running overhead chain. The chain took the metal parts on a journey through the washer, the dryer, the paint booth and the paint dryer. When they came out of the paint dryer, another crew took them off the line and stacked them up on pallets so that the parts could be taken to the assembly line. If that sounds tedious and boring to you, you would be correct. It was painfully boring and intolerably tedious, and I was miserable most of the time. It wasn’t so much the tedium that made me miserable as it was that my mind didn’t need to be engaged to any great degree upon the task at hand, which left me free to think about how much I missed the girl I had left behind in Peoria. I got myself off of the paint line and wound up driving a forklift. That was slightly more interesting and not nearly as boring, but still not very engaging. I was not very well motivated to make it to work on time each morning, and after about three years was fired so as to set an example for all the other chronically tardy employees of the consequences of that sort of behavior.

Since I didn’t feel qualified to do very much else at that point, I got another factory job. I went to work for a paper box company. I clawed my way up through the ranks of paper box making employees and got back to forklift driving and order fulfillment in the warehouse. It wasn’t a bad job, as factory jobs go, but I failed to find any motivation at this factory, either, and was tardy and chronically absent to as great a degree as was possible to be while not getting fired again.

Meanwhile, my dad had been let go from the lighting fixture company and had taken up selling used cars in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He and my mom had gotten a divorce as during that time as well. I wasn’t at home when the breakup happened, so I don’t really know the whole story. I do know that it’s not my story to tell, so I’ll just leave it alone. I do know that my dad was not pining for my mother and wasn’t having any trouble finding other women willing to spend time with him.

I was still living in Denver, working my uninteresting, unexciting factory job and dating women who were very bad for me. Not that they were bad people, it’s just that they weren’t quite what I needed at the time. My dad had me come up to Steamboat Springs for the weekend and showed me around town. He offered to get me a job at the auto dealership where he was working. I thought it was a great idea. It would get me out of the factory, but, more importantly, it would let me kindly and gently end the bad relationship I was trapped in. Moving out of Denver and starting over again in Steamboat Springs was the best thing I could have done at that time. I gave my notice to my landlords, and a couple of weeks later, packed up my stuff, said goodbye to the girlfriend and moved up into the mountains. Thanks to my dad looking out for my best interests, I was free to start a new life. I called my former employers on the Monday after I moved out of Denver and let them know that I wasn’t coming back. This was the second thing my dad had done for me, but it wasn’t the best thing. The best thing was yet to come, and the only person that it didn’t surprise was my dad. He knew me, better than I knew myself at the time, and he saw it coming.

I started work at the Chevy dealership in the parts department. There I learned to read a parts book, learned how to place orders with the GM parts depot, and learned how to deal with customers and mechanics. I knew something about cars and their inner workings from having to repair my own vehicles when they broke down. For a variety of reasons, lack of funds being the primary one, I’ve never been one to take my car to a mechanic when it breaks down. Instead, I go out and buy a repair manual and figure out how to do the work myself. Most of the time I have been successful in getting the whatever-it-is I’m driving at the time back on the road. I mostly liked selling Chevy parts and I got to know some of the local ranchers and mechanics who were repeat customers at my counter. I liked living in the mountains, too. The air was clean, the people were friendly and I was feeling rather good about myself.

My dad, salesman that he is, already knew lots ofpeople around Steamboat Springs and he would introduce me to one or another of them from time to time. One of the people he introduced me to was a woman that he’d dated a time or two, or more, her name was Carol. It was at the home of a mutual friend where I first met Carol. As we were leaving, we stopped on their lawn and talked for a while. Carol told me about her recent divorce and explained to me at length that she considered all men to be beneath contempt and untrustworthy. She stated emphatically that she was not interested in any long-term relationship with anyone. I listened and made what I hoped were sympathetic responses at what I also hoped were the appropriate moments. I must have done it right since when we said goodnight that evening, she agreed that it might be interesting to get together again and continue the conversation.

At that time, Carol had a job driving a nine-passenger Mercedes bus with which she shuttled tourists and locals back and forth to the ski area east of town and destinations in between. One day she called a meeting between me, herself and my father. She came to pick us up at the Chevy dealership in the bus and drove us to her house in town. When we got there she served us a nice lunch which she had bought at KFC for the occasion. As we sat on her porch and ate our lunch, we discussed the situation and what the future held for each of us. After lunch, she drove us back to the dealership and dropped us off. After that, Carol had decided that I had somehow won the bid for her affection and my father was no longer in contention for that prize, though he was still to be considered a friend. So, really, when you think about it, I stole Carol away from my father. Thanks, Dad.

The initial courtship took place in the early spring of that year. Carol and I had fun together, hiking in the surrounding mountains and getting to know each other. I got to know her two children, too, one of whom was five and the other seven years old. I even got to meet Carol’s ex-husband who turned out to be a nice guy. We all got along fairly well, so well, in fact, that in July when Carol set off to clear hiking trails for two weeks with the Volunteer Conservation Corps (VCC), she asked me if I wanted to move into her place. I immediately accepted and while she was gone I moved my stuff into her house. Okay, well, it wasn’t really a house, it was a double-wide trailer, but it was set up on a city lot in town just a few blocks from downtown Steamboat Springs. It had three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, a kitchen and a deck that wrapped around one end of the trailer. There was a creek running through the front yard, a strawberry patch on the east side of the lot and a nearly vertical hillside on the south side. It was a beautiful location and I spent the two weeks trying to find places to stash all my stuff. One day, during those two weeks I drove up into the mountains to where the VCC had their base camp. I took with me a few supplies and my Coleman stove and cooked breakfast for Carol on the tailgate of my pickup truck. I opened a can of corned beef hash and dumped in into a frying pan. I then made little hollows in the hash and broke some eggs into them and cooked the whole breakfast in one pan. It was delicious and Carol thought I was pretty clever to even think of doing it that way.

Things between Carol and I just got better and better, and soon we decided that for the kids’ and our parents’ sake we ought to get married. We bought some nice handmade stationery from a local shop, made a guest list, and hand-wrote our own invitations. We bought our rings from a local silversmith. In October of that year, we were married in the front yard of the trailer with Carol’s sister presiding, my father as best man, and one of Carol’s friends as maid of honor. In attendance were my mother and her new boyfriend, Carol’s parents, Carol’s ex-husband’s parents, a bunch of our friends and, of course, Carol’s two boys. We had a pot luck reception and everyone had a great time eating and drinking. It was the beginning of a new life for me, one that has gotten better every year, and it was all thanks to my Dad. Yep, I’d say I owe him for that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Help, I'm Drowning. Throw Me a Trombone!!

High School Bandsman

For a social pariah, music was just the lifeline I needed to rescue me from the depths of the lonely, pitiful abyss into which I would, no doubt, have fallen. Playing trombone in the band resulted in me belonging to a group to which I was able to make a useful contribution. It was almost as good as having friends. I had my own part of the music to play and, if I did my part well, my contribution helped create a product that was pleasing and enjoyable to the listeners, two of whom where my parents. Between playing the trombone and working my way through the ranks of the Boy Scouts, I was building a solid foundation on which my future could stand.
I played that trombone all the way through my first-and-only-year of college. I played in concerts in elementary school, junior high school and high school. I marched with the bands in high school and college. I played at the pep rallies and the home football games all through high school. Once a week I took a private lesson from Hap Hallor (I’m not sure of the spelling of his name). Hap was a great trombone player. He had a special trombone with a lever near the mouthpiece which allowed him to play without having to extend the slide past the middle of its range. He needed that valve since, due to a birth defect, he had very short and deformed arms with no real fingers at the end. There were just a couple of little appendages on the end of each arm that allowed him to pick up small objects, for anything else he had to use both arms. He sure could play that trombone, though, and he was a good and patient teacher. I was a terrible student, though, and didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity I was given to learn from this wonderful man. I learned enough to be able to play in both the high school marching and concert bands, and that was good enough for me. I didn’t really want to become a trombone virtuoso; I just wanted to be part of the band. I enjoyed being part of the band and the trombone parts of the music were interesting and challenging. The one drawback of playing trombone is that it is definitely not an instrument that attracts the attention of women, and, in high school, attracting the attention of the women in my peer group became more and more important.
Once I took up the trombone, my dad felt the need to satisfy his own artistic side and took up playing the trumpet for a short while. When that didn’t prove to be the answer to his need, he handed the trumpet down to my brother and took up guitar. He bought himself a nice little nylon-stringed, classical guitar and began to learn to play it. He worked his way through the beginner’s instruction book, but the guitar wasn’t the emotional or artistic outlet he was looking for either. As soon as his interest in the guitar had waned, I asked him if I could borrow it and try to learn to play. He was willing to let me try and handed over the guitar and the instruction books. He even showed me how to hold the guitar pick and got me started on a chord or two. I tried to learn it from the books he gave me, but they just didn’t have any songs in them that I was interested in playing. I found a music store that sold contemporary song books, bought a couple and brought them home to see what I could do with them. They had these little pictures above the music that showed where to put your fingers to make the chord called for in that part of the song. I spent hours and hours making my fingers bend into the required positions so that I could make the chords. Once I was able to play the chords quickly enough, I could then use the guitar to accompany myself as I sang the song. Now we were getting somewhere. Playing the guitar and singing were most certainly two skills that would attract the attention of the girls.
Of course, by this time, I had already attached myself to a lovely lady from the neighborhood and I would play to her over the phone in the evenings after school. I learned to play “The House of the Rising Sun,” first. It was great. I had a song I could sing and play that was also currently playing on the radio as performed by Eric Burdan and the Animals. I was almost “cool” for a moment, at least in my mind. My girlfriend sometimes thought so, too. My dad was pleased that the guitar was being played, though he would rather I had learned to play it properly and not just as an accompaniment to my singing. My mother, for some reason, disliked my guitar playing altogether. She never did say why, but she made it clear to me that she disapproved of the whole concept of my singing and playing. She wasn’t the girl I was trying to impress, though, so I kept on practicing and learning new songs and even writing a few of my own.
I was still playing the trombone, too, but only because I enjoyed being in the band. I maintained my trombone skills enough so that I could keep up with the other players in the band, but no more than that. As long as I stayed out of trouble with the band director, band was a guaranteed “B” grade every semester. That was about the only “B” that I got during high school. I was basically a “C” student as long as I was in classes that built on skills that I had acquired from previous years. For some reason, though, I wound up being enrolled in “AP” science classes. The “AP” stood for advance program and I was flattered that I was considered an advanced student, but I soon discovered that I was in no way qualified to be in these classes.
Sometime before I started high school, I was put into an experimental mathematics program called SMSG (Student Mathematics Study Group). In the SMSG program I was taught something that vaguely resembled math and algebra, but what I was taught was not what I needed in the “AP” science classes, so when it came time to do the required mathematics in those classes, I was adrift in a sea of ignorance and incomprehensibility. I was being asked to apply mathematical concepts which I had never even heard of before that time. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, or the remotest notion of how to do it. I didn’t even have enough knowledge to ask the right questions so that I might receive some small clue as to how to proceed. I thought it was just some failing on my part to understand what I had been taught. I didn’t realize until years later that the problem was that I had never been taught the required math concepts in the first place. I got “Ds” in those classes. I should have gotten “Fs.” When my parents asked me what was wrong, I told them that I didn’t know. That turned out to be the absolute truth. I actually did not know. I didn’t know the math. I had never even heard of the math I was supposed to be using. I figured that it must be my fault for not getting it. Why would they put me in these advance classes if I didn’t have the math skills to handle the material? I was obviously a poor student. It was a great relief to me, many years later, when I finally figured out what had happened, but at the time it was a nightmare. No one could understand why I was doing so poorly in school and I was constantly asked what was wrong with me. Scholastically, high school was a complete disaster for me, but socially and artistically I made great advancements, and that was what saved me.
Music saved me, and literature helped, too. I learned to love reading in high school. Of course, I read very little of the required material, that stuff was awful and the teacher would pick it apart and analyze it until even the most interesting of material was sucked dry and rendered lifeless. We read an abridged version of “Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens and I rather enjoyed the writing style so I began reading Dickens. I would walk around with a nine-hundred page paperback of one of Dickens’s novels and my peers would remark that I must have lost my mind to be reading something as long and obscure as that. In fact, I found my mind through my readings. I learned more from my extracurricular studies than I ever did from my teachers or my textbooks. I learned to love books and good writing and that has saved me on more than one occasion throughout my life. I still read constantly. We have a whole house full of books. I like being surrounded by books; they are filled with old friends who never change and I look forward to visiting them from time to time. I like knowing that they are always there waiting for me to come visit with them, walk with them, learn from them, or just sit quietly with them whenever I have the notion and the time. More than TV or radio, or parties and dances, or even family, it was the books and the music that saved me. And the Girl. Always the Girl.
The music and the books kept me sane, but the Girl made me happy. She lived just a few blocks away in the neighborhood. She had braces on her teeth and she was two years younger than I, but once we started dating, those things didn’t seem to matter much. In fact, I found the braces rather appealing, though she never believed it when I told her. She was beautiful and we spent as much time together as we could. If we weren’t physically together somewhere, we were on the phone breathing and sighing at each other. I would sing to her or play bits of the new song I was learning on the guitar while she listened on the other end of the line. My parents would eventually yell down to tell me to get off the phone, and I would reluctantly hang up. She and I had the usual childish upsets and occasional break-ups, but we always got back together. She was my constant companion and trusted friend. I loved her, I still do in a way. The high school years passed, though, and I graduated and went off to college. There were a great many distractions in college, but I would still hitchhike home on as many weekends as I could to see her. It wasn’t the same. She was still in high school and had her own set of distractions and her own life to live. We tried to keep up the pretense that we were still a couple, but it was never going to be the same again.
My family and I moved to Colorado after my first-and-only-year of college. I got a job in a factory. I missed the Girl terribly; she was all that I could think of most of the time. I would call her on the weekends from a pay phone. I would buy rolls of quarters and talk to her until I had used them all up. It just wasn’t the same. We drifted apart and my heart broke. It was the books and the music that saved me again. I would stack up some LPs on the turntable, put on my headphones, pick up my book and read while the rock-and-roll music played. I worked in the factory all day and read, with the music playing in the headphones, all evening and I survived. The music and the words in the books helped keep the pain under control, and, after some time had passed, I learned to live with the heartache and the loss. I’ve never forgotten, though, and I’ve never been completely free of that lost love. I have another love now who is just as good a friend and just as constant a companion. We have been together now for over thirty-three years and I am blessed to have such a loving, understanding, demanding and intelligent partner. We’ll be together until our hearts stop beating and perhaps even beyond that. I’m happy to have known and loved both of them, my first love and my last love. My life’s adventure is far from over and having a loving companion with whom to share it is the best part of the story. No matter what the end of this tale may bring, love can never leave us with other than a happy ending. I have it all now, the books, the music and, of course, the love. The music is on CDs now, or on my MP3 player. I still pick up my guitar now and then, though not as much as I used to. The books are all around me, my love is nearby and the adventure continues.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Life in the Middle Lane, New Beginnings

The Suburban Family Home in Peoria

Sixth grade in Peoria was so much better that fifth grade in East Peoria that life began to seem almost pleasant for me. I had a great teacher and the classes were easy since I’d been exposed to most of the material in my split fifth/sixth grade class the year before. I had friends I could talk to at recess, I was playing in the school band, and I was learning lots of useful skills as a Boy Scout. Of course it was too good to last.
On a hike with the Boy Scouts, I lost my eye in an accident involving a stick. As a result, I was in and out of the hospital for several weeks of the school year. Fortunately, spending all that time in the hospital, plus all the other doctor visits didn’t actually seem to be too much of a set-back in my education at that point. At least, I haven’t noticed any ill effects to date. Walking around school wearing a bandage over my eye prevented me from fading into the background socially, as I likely would have done otherwise. Instead, I was “the kid who got his eye poked out.” Getting attention for something other than my complete lack of social skills was a welcome change from my previous condition, so, for me, it was a positive experience for the most part. I was cautioned by my father to never use my injury as an excuse for anything, or as any sort of self-pity kind of crutch to prop myself up with. It was good advice, but then it wouldn’t have occurred to me in for first place. People were interested in me for something that had happened to me and not interested in torturing me for being such a misfit. In my world, this was a giant step up towards the top edge of the elementary school snake-pit in which I’d been living for the last couple of years.
Not that life was all roses and lollipops, no, not at all, but there were moments, sometimes hours where I found myself doing something I enjoyed with people who, sometimes, almost seemed to enjoy my company. There were still the occasional encounters with people who objected to my existence, or, at least, my presence at some particular location we had, momentarily, in common. I was still not prone to hold my ground during such encounters and suffered a number of self-esteem set-backs as a result, but there was microscopic, incremental progress in a positive direction. There was enough progress that I was able to find reasons to continue to strive to fit in with my peers, rather than wallow in self-pity. It seemed like a worthy goal at the time. It was only much later that I discovered that it was not only unachievable, but undesirable as well. At the time, though, I was hoping to finally persuade a few people to like me and want to do things with me. Eventually, I found a couple of them in my neighborhood.
School, for me, was a job. Every weekday, you got up in the morning, got dressed, ate breakfast, grabbed your books and undone homework, got on the bus and went to school. You spent the day trying to finish the homework you hadn’t done the night before, you tried to look interested in whatever material you were supposed to be studying, you talked to your friends at recess, and you watched the clock. At the end of the day, you grabbed your books and homework assignments, which you really did intend to complete, you got back on the bus and you went home. Once at home, you had a snack and went out to play with your friends until dinnertime. After dinner, you were supposed to do homework, and I did try, but there were so many other more interesting things to do. There were TV shows to watch, Lightning Bugs to catch, and all sorts of adventures to be had on the dark suburban streets. School was just something I had to endure so that I could do the things I really enjoyed, like exploring the neighborhood and the surrounding forest and the railroad tracks across the highway. Almost anything was more interesting to me than schoolwork, and though I did enjoy reading the occasional assigned work of fiction, I much preferred spending my time outdoors exploring.
Weekends were filled with Boy Scout hikes and family outings. We were a camping family, so between trips with the family and trips with the Boy Scout troop I was getting to do lots of things I enjoyed. I also had a few household chores for which I was responsible. I did a few dishes, mowed the lawn, pulled weeds, picked the bugs off the pine trees, and a variety of other necessary tasks which I reluctantly performed. I was also charged with babysitting my little sister when my parents went out for the evening. Like a lot of very young children, she wasn’t happy when her mother wasn’t immediately available to take care of her and so, as soon as my mom and dad would leave, she would start crying. The crying usually went on for quite some time while I tried to find ways to distract and amuse her to make her stop. Babysitting by sister included changing her diapers, another one of those necessary but unpleasant tasks. I did it, though, since that was part of the job, but I was always glad to turn responsibility for that job back over to my mother when she got home.
With help and indulgence from my teacher and my parents, I graduated from the sixth grade, even though I hadn’t been able to spend the required amount of time in the classroom. Like I’ve said, though, I don’t think I missed very much while I was absent and I was confident that my life would continue to improve. I had no reason to think any differently at that point. I would start junior high school in the fall and we had been told that it would be quite different from the elementary school experience. We’d even had a day of orientation at the end of the sixth grade year to give us an idea of what to expect. Worrying about that could wait, though, as summer vacation was beginning. The new school year with its unknown challenges was weeks and weeks away, while the summer’s adventures were right there waiting for me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning to Shoot


I got my first BB gun in when I was 10 years old. Before that, I had a couple of toy Fanner 50’s in a hand-carved leather double holster rig. A Fanner 50 is a toy old-west style six-shooter. My dad made the holsters from a Tandy Leather Company kit. Once, I surprised him working on the leather carving and guessed that it was for me. After that I got to watch him cut and stamp out the all the stylized flowers and scrollwork as he worked on the project. It was very, very cool. I still have one of the holsters. I don’t know what happened to the belt and the other holster.
I’ve always liked guns, even toy guns. The Christmas when I got the double holster rig with the Fanner 50’s, I was instructed by my dad to never point a gun, even a toy gun, at anyone, ever. About the only safety instruction I got from my dad was gun safety. That’s okay, though, because as a result, I’ve never had an accident with a gun in all the years since I got that first BB gun. It wasn’t a Red Ryder BB gun, like the one made popular in the move A Christmas Story, instead it was a Daisy target-shooting gun. Paper targets are what I was taught to shoot at, rather than those more tempting birds and small mammals . My dad showed me the proper way to hold the gun so that the sights would stay on target as I squeezed the trigger. He taught me to always shoot into a backstop so as the keep the BBs from going somewhere I didn’t intend. I got pretty good with that BB gun, and I loved shooting it. I didn’t always shoot targets though, sometimes I shot a few cans, too. Cans were more fun because they would fall over when you hit them, targets just showed you how accurate you were aiming. Cans give an indication of the potential power of a BB when propelled at high speed; it is enough to do serious damage at close range.
When I joined the Boy Scouts, I learned about .22 caliber rifles. At summer camp, one of the high points of the week was the time spent on the rifle range learning to shoot bolt-action .22 rifles. We were given careful instruction on all aspects of safe gun handling before we were allowed to get anywhere near these potentially lethal weapons. Only after we had thoroughly learned gun safety were we issued the little wooden blocks which held five, live rounds of .22 caliber long rifle ammunition in little holes drilled into the block. You were only supposed to shoot five rounds into each target. The goal was to get as many of the rounds into the center of the target as possible. As a beginner, the object is to first get all five rounds onto the target. Once you’ve done that, you then strive to get all the rounds as close together as possible. When you’ve managed to get all five rounds reasonably close together, say within the diameter of a quarter, then you’ve got what is a called a “group” of shots. If you can group your shots, then you can adjust your point of aim to get them all in the center of the target. While you’re trying to do that, you also need to remember to always keep the muzzle of the weapon (the end from which the bullets exit) pointed in a safe direction, to treat every gun as if it were loaded, to listen to the range officer (the guy who gives you directions on a shooting range), to squeeze the trigger, to control your breathing, and to be aware of where the bullet goes after it exits the target. That’s not a lot to remember, really, and I absorbed it easily.
I got good enough at it that my dad gave me a rifle of my own, a bolt-action .22 caliber Mossberg. It is a wonderfully accurate rifle and I had a great time using it whenever we would go out target shooting. My dad’s rifle was a semi-automatic .22 with a scope and, sometimes, I got to shoot that rifle, too, but I really liked my simple Mossberg and the way I could knock out the center of a target with it. I still have that Mossberg. I don’t get a chance to shoot it much anymore, but when I do, I get just as much enjoyment from it as I ever did as a teenager. There’s something very satisfying about being able to control a rifle, to be able to place a round wherever I want it to go. It’s not something everyone can do. It’s not something everyone wants to do. I know people who are afraid of guns. In most cases, it stems from fear of the unknown. If all you know about guns is what you see on TV, in movies or in most media sources, it is no wonder that you are afraid of them. In my case, after target shooting nearly all my life, I still find it thoroughly enjoyable to spend a couple of hours knocking the center out of a few targets.
Shooting was a good thing to learn in my teen and pre-teen years. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, but it also gave me a sense of responsibility. Being entrusted with something which has the power to kill a human being or an animal was not something I took lightly, and it gave me a bit of a self-esteem boost at a time when I didn’t really have much. It’s good to have at your disposal skills that you can call upon and use confidently and competently. The Boy Scout program gave me a great many survival skills upon which I can depend when needed, tying knots, first aid, camping, cooking, leadership and such, but shooting is the most fun.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lost on a Canoe Trip

Through the Trees

It was supposed to be an easy float down a wide creek with a stop for the night at a little camp ground right along the creek. Some of the two-man canoe teams carried the tents, other had food. Everyone carried his own personal gear in the boat as well. The canoe I was in had a tent and our personal gear including sleeping bags, clothes, scout knives, compasses, that sort of thing. I had some experience with canoes and knew how to paddle and steer using the “J-stroke” which allows you to give the boat forward energy and still control the side-to-side swing of the bow that comes with just straight paddling. The boy at the bow of my canoe was younger and less experienced. There were about a dozen boats in our group and each inexperienced boy was supposed to be paired with someone who knew what he was doing.
As soon as we had unloaded the canoes from the trailer, put our assigned gear into them and launched them into the stream, it became apparent that one of the boats was manned by two very inexperienced boaters. Neither boy knew how to steer the boat and, as a result, he and his partner went down the stream running aground on first one bank and then the other. The people at the front of the group hadn’t noticed the one canoe that was lagging behind. I decided that, rather than abandoning the two tyros to their fate, I would attempt to teach them how to guide their boat. I tried my best, but they never really did get the hang of it, and my boat and theirs had soon fallen a long way behind the rest of the group.
I took my Scout Oath quite seriously and, thus, felt a moral obligation to stay with the boys in the other boat. It was a good thing I did because, not only were we destined to be lost on this trip, but the rest of the group wound up in the same condition. Somewhere downstream there was supposed to be a sign that indicated the location of our camping spot for the night. What no one knew was that the sign had been posted on a fence that was being used to contain a herd of cattle. One of the things that cows do is scratch their backs on fences. In doing so, one of the cows had knocked down the sign that we were all looking for. The group in the lead missed the camping spot and ended up camping in a little park within a small town along the creek. The two boats in my group ran out of daylight well before we reached the spot and couldn’t have seen the sign even if the cow hadn’t knocked it down.
As we floated along in the dark, scanning the stream bank for some sign of the rest of the group, we heard the roar or some faster-moving water ahead. We only had a couple of flashlights among our personal gear and they weren’t very powerful, so we couldn’t see very far ahead, nor could we see very much along the sides of the stream. There was a landing of sorts at the head of the shallow, fast moving water. I hesitate to call it a “rapids,” but in the dark, the rocky shallow water was intimidating enough to cause us to stop and consider a strategy for navigating it. I didn’t dare let the two inexperienced boys try to get through it on their own, so I decided to tie the two canoes together side-by-side to give the boats more stability. It was too dark, and there were too many rocks, to attempt to just float down the fast water, so I and the other kid in my boat elected to wade down the stream holding the canoes and guiding them through the rocks. The water wasn’t too deep, nor was it very cold, and the night was warm, so getting into the water was no problem. We walked the boats down to the bottom of the fast water. It was quite smooth at that point, so we got back aboard and, leaving the two boats tied together, continued down the stream looking for the camp. We paddled along, still trying to locate the rest of the group, but found no sign of them. We thought that perhaps we might have missed the spot somewhere along the way and, after a while we decided to head back upstream to recheck the area.
It was more difficult moving upstream, and everyone was getting tired and we were certainly hungry. I was doing nearly all the paddling, the other boys were just too exhausted to be of much help. When we reached the fast water on our way upstream, we again got out of the boats and walked them up through the rocks. We paddled upstream further above the fast water, searching the banks for the campsite. We didn’t find it. We went back downstream, walked the boats down through the rocks again and searched. Finally, when we hadn’t found anything, we went back upstream and up through the rocks to the landing above the fast water. We pulled the boats up onto the bank and found a little clearing, right next to a cornfield where someone had recently been camping. There was a fire pit and enough space to set up camp, so we carried our gear up from the canoes, pitched our tents, unrolled our sleeping bags and, hungry, wet and tired, went to sleep.
We woke up early the next morning, hungry, but somewhat rested after a short night. It had been quite late by the time we had set up camp. Since we had already search the stream rather thoroughly the night before, we decided we’d start walking and try to find a road. There was a one-lane dirt trail that ran along the cornfield, so we set out on that path walking away from the stream. The corn planted in the field was just ripening field corn. Once it got ripe, it would turn hard and impossible for our human teeth to chew, but at that time it was soft, juicy and tender, or so the two boys who ate some of it told me. They had plucked a couple of ears from the stalks as we walked. Soon, we reach an established road and as we walked to its edge to have a look up and down it, a car raced by. It has just passed us when the driver locked up the brakes and slid to a stop. It was my father’s car. He had been driving up and down the roads paralleling the stream trying to find us. He was very happy that he had, and we were very happy to be found.
He explained to us that a cow had knocked down the campground sign and everybody had missed it. He told us that the rest of the group was just a couple of miles downstream from us and that we should get back in the boats and paddle down to where they were. He got back in the car to drive back to where the group was loading up their canoes and packing up their gear. We walked back to our little camp, packed up our stuff, loaded up the boats and got back into the stream. One last time, we walked the boats down the rocky, fast water and then got back aboard. It was a beautiful morning and we knew the end of our adventure was near. As we floated down the stream, we passed through deep stretch of water overhung with large trees. The fish in the stream were jumping up to catch the insects that were flying just above the water. As we floated along, one of the fish misjudged his jump and, instead of going over the boat, landed in the boat, right in front of me. I took off the pith helmet that I was wearing and slapped it down over the fish so he couldn’t jump out. Soon, he stopped struggling. I didn’t throw him back into the water because, first of all, who would believe he’s actually jumped into the boat, and second, I hadn’t had breakfast yet and thought he might be just the thing I needed for that meal.
Shortly after the fish jumping incident, we came upon a bridge that had fallen into the stream. This was where the rest of the group had left the water. They were waiting for us in the park just a few yards from the stream and helped us get the boats out of the water and our gear off-loaded. We cleaned the fish, loaded our gear into the car and we all drove back to camp. I had that fish for lunch while I told the rest of the boys the story of our adventure. We survived it without any problem because of our training. We were supposed to be able to do things like this and, when put to the test, had been quite able to use our training and knowledge to help us make the best of what could have been a very dangerous situation. As it was, we learned that we were capable of taking care of ourselves by using what we had been taught. I consider that a valuable lesson. I learned a great many others while I was a Boy Scout and they have been, and continue to be, of inestimable value in my life.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Playing with Sticks, Part 2

Deadeye's dead eye

In between all the hiking and hospitalization, I was going to school. I was in Mrs. Gottschalk's 6th Grade class. Mrs. Gottschalk was a sweet lady who decided that even though I missed several weeks of classes that year, I was still okay to move on to 7th Grade with the rest of my classmates. Part of that, I think, was due to my split 5th/6th grade class the year before and my paying more attention to the 6th grade material than to the fifth grade stuff I was supposed to be learning. By the time I got to the 6th grade, I had already been exposed to most of the curriculum and absorbed most of what I would need to get through the grade. And, really, how much of what you learn in the 6th Grade is going to make or break the rest of your education anyway? For me, the best part of that year was not having to attend school for as many weeks as I was supposed to and I seem to have managed to survive to this point without some of that essential 6th Grade knowledge.

I liked the 6th Grade. For one thing, I was across a river and in a different city from my former associates in East Peoria. For another, even though I still had no social skills whatsoever, there were now a couple of people with whom I could spend recess that weren't continually torturing me. I was playing in the elementary school band, so that, in addition to the Boy Scouts, there was at least one other group that I felt I belonged to. My biggest obstacle was my desperation for approval of my eleven-year-old peers. Girls I still considered an entirely different species, one to be feared and avoided where possible. I still occasionally attracted a bully or two, but none of these Peoria-bred types had anywhere near the persistence or the intimidation skills of their East Peoria counterparts. Life was better in Peoria, at least for me it was.

The morning I woke up with pain in my left eye whenever the pupil size changed was the beginning of a whole series of doctor visits. When I reported the symptom to my parents, they called the eye surgeon who had done the repair and made an appointment for me so that we could find out what it meant. The doctor had a look at the eye and then measured its internal pressure. This was done by having me lie on my back with my eyes open while some sort of measuring device was placed upon the surface of the eye. I was told not to blink while this was going on. That was difficult, since my natural reaction to having something placed on my eye was, of course, to blink. If I blinked, it screwed up the test and he had to start all over again. After several attempts, I finally managed to hold off blinking long enough for him to get the information he needed. The diagnosis was that there was a problem with the left eye that if left alone would ultimately affect the right eye causing a loss of vision in both of the eyes. The remedy for this was the removal of the left eye. I was not happy about this, nor were my parents. They decided that a second opinion would be desirable.

The doctor they found that could give that second opinion had his office in Chicago, so off we went. The testing procedure in Chicago was much the same as that which I experienced in Peoria, including the pressure measuring, no-blinking ordeal which I again had to endure. The second opinion was the same as the first. The eye would have to be removed. It would be replaced with a prosthesis, a "glass eye" as it was called at that time. I was still unhappy with this diagnosis, but I was starting to get used to the idea, and given the alternative of going blind, I didn't see where I had much choice in the matter, not that anyone actually asked me what I wanted to do. I was just swept along with the stream of events, almost a spectator to my own life. It was all very interesting, but it was also rather surreal.

There is another surreal moment in my life that I only know from the stories I heard told by my parents, my father primarily, and confirmed by various other relatives, aunts and uncles mostly. As the story goes, when I was eighteen months old, I had crawled out onto the fire escape on our second-floor apartment in Chicago and then on out into thin air. Since I couldn't fly, I fell into the yard below, fracturing my skull. I guess I must have survived, since I'm here to tell you about it, but I sure don't remember anything like that ever happening to me. Maybe they had me confused with some other Brett, I don't know, the whole thing is quite unreal to me. I have some hospital bills from that time and they appear to confirm that I was injured, hospitalized and released, so I suppose it must be true. When I think about it, many things that happened in my life are implausible, and this was just another implausibility in a whole series of implausible events.

After everyone was finished examining, diagnosing and consulting about my eyes, I was scheduled for surgery. My parents drove me to the hospital and I was checked into the children's ward. There was some time to kill before I was to be wheeled off into the operating room, so I had brought along a plastic model airplane that I had been building and I proceeded to continue gluing the little parts together while I waited. Most of the other children in the ward were there to have their tonsils removed or they had already had them removed and were recovering. Recovering from having your tonsils removed consisted of whining and puking. The anesthetic of choice at that time for a tonsillectomy was ether. One of the after-effects of ether is nausea and vomiting. Almost everyone in that children's ward was either sick and miserable or about to be. I, on the other hand, was going to go under a general anesthetic. Lucky me, I was going to avoid all that whining and puking, so I was quite cheerful. One of the other kids’ mom's asked me what I was in the hospital for. When I told her I was about to have my eye removed, she was horrified. By this time, I was quite used to the idea of what was about to happen, so I was rather nonchalant about the whole thing. I suppose the parents of the tonsillectomy patients thought I was a brave little boy. I don't think there was any bravery involved on my part. I was just floating down the implausibility stream of my life, waiting to see what would happen next.

A couple of the hospital staff, nurses I guess, came in and gave me a shot and transferred me to a gurney. As we rolled along the hallways, I began to get a little groggy, which I guess was the effect the shot was supposed to have. I was transferred to the operating table and a needle was inserted in the vein in my arm. Someone had me count backwards from one-hundred. I didn't get very far and I was out. I woke up in what I was told was the recovery room. I must have recovered enough to be rolled back into my room and put to bed. I was only allowed to sleep on my back or on my right side, which made the urge to sleep on my left side almost irresistible. When I needed to eliminate any bodily wastes I was supposed to call a nurse and they would bring me a bed pan. I tried that once. It was horrible and embarrassing and nearly impossible. After that, I figured out how to get out of bed on my own when there were no nurses watching me and get myself to the bathroom to take care of those necessities. It wasn't that I was unable to walk, or see where I was going. The problem was that when the socket for the prosthesis, the artificial eye, had been installed, the muscles that were formerly used to move my eye were now sewn into the plastic socket. Every time I moved my eyes, the pain was excruciating, and when you get up and move around, moving your eyes is almost automatic. I taught myself to move my head without moving my eyes so that I could see where I was going without putting any strain on those sutured muscles. Once I had the technique down, it was easy to climb out of bed and get to the bathroom. Of course, the nurses found out what I was doing, but no one stopped me for which I was grateful. No more bedpans for me.

Every day the doctor would come in, remove the bandages (along with some of my hair) and look through the clear plastic conformer that was installed in the eye socket. The new socket had four little half "pea" shaped bumps on it and the half-spherical conformer had corresponding indentations its backside. The purpose of all this was so that my new "eye" would move along with my good right eye. The implanted plastic socket is called an Iowa Implant and it was brand new technology at that time. I kept that conformer for years until I finally found an interesting use for it one evening while I was attending college. I’ll tell you about that some other time.

Eventually, the pain eased as the socket healed and I got bored with being in the hospital. I was allowed to go home, but I still had to wear a bandage over the eye for quite a long time. Under the bandage was a convex, oval metal protector with its edges covered in adhesive tape that kept the still healing socket from getting accidentally bumped. At first, coming back to school with my eye all bandaged up was kind of interesting in that it got me lots of attention and quite a lot of sympathy, but after a while that got a bit old for me and everyone else. I tried to keep the bandaging to a minimum and we went from adhesive tape to just cellophane tape. The nice part about using the cellophane tape was that it was a lot less painful to remove. It didn't seem to pull out quite as much hair as the adhesive tape.

After several weeks of healing, the socket was pronounced healed and it was time for me to be fitted with an artificial eye. The people who make artificial eyes are called ocularists. The way an artificial eye was made in the early 1960s was that you first made a mold of the conformer. Then you made a white acrylic copy of that conformer. With the subject in front of you, you have to install the blank acrylic "eye" in to the eye socket and figure out where the cornea and pupil need to be. To do that you take a cornea that you have sliced off of some other plastic eye and you attached it to the blank in what you think is the right location. To attach it you use wax. Then you put the wax covered blank in the subject's eye socket, see if you’ve got the cornea in the right spot, remove the blank, adjust as needed and repeat. If that sounds uncomfortable, it is. Once you figure out where the cornea needs to be, you have to paint a new one to match the subject, me in this case. How that is done is the ocularist gets out his acrylic paints, his tiny brushes and a blank cornea shape and paints one. Once all the parts are assembled and encased in a clear acrylic shell, you have an artificial eye that is nearly impossible to distinguish from the real one next to it.

In the end, if everyone has done their job perfectly, you have a comfortable, moving, plastic eye that looks just like your real one. Mine is so comfortable that I rarely have to remove it for any reason. It’s a workable solution to losing an eye, but I’d still rather have two. Having only one eye closed a number of doors of opportunity and changed the course of my life in a variety of ways, but that’s was all in the future at this point in my life. With my new “eye” in place, I was able to resume my life as a socially inept sixth-grader. After all the attention I’d gotten from the accident and the subsequent recovery, I now had to return to dealing with life among the huddled masses. Other than becoming monocular, nothing had really changed much.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Playing with Sticks, Part 1

The Cub Scout

When I turned eleven, I was eligible to become a Boy Scout. That was also the year we moved to the suburbs of Peoria. Our new house was on Parkwood Drive in a subdivision named Idyllbrook. It was a nice house on three levels with a two-car garage. When we first moved in, my brother and I shared a room where we slept on bunk beds. I remember laying in the bottom bunk of that bed closing first one eye and then the other to experience the little jump in the position of the objects in the room as the view changed from one eye to the other. That memory stands out, I suppose, because later in the year I was to lose that ability.

My father had helped with the Cub Scout troop while we lived in East Peoria and helped me get up through all the achievement levels of that organization. I enjoyed being a member of the Cub Scouts. Bullying was not permitted there and I found that there were things that I could do, goals that I could reach and skills that I could learn as a member of that group. The Cub Scout regimen is more or less a kind of boot camp for the Boy Scouts in that many of the skills learned at the upper levels of the Cub Scout program are intended to make the transition into the Boy Scouts a natural progression. When we got to Peoria, my dad and I joined the local Boy Scout troop, number 233. I was in my element in the Boy Scouts, so was my dad. I learned about knot tying, carving, swimming, camping and, most important, safety. Finally, I was learning not only how to do things I enjoyed doing, but I was learning how to do them safely. Up until the Scouts came along, I hadn't really gotten the point about why safety was important. When you are learning to handle knives, axes, guns, fire and small boats, it is good to also learn to handle them in such a way that you don't kill yourself or others. What I really learned was that there are consequences to one's actions and how to become aware of what those consequence might be. This is primarily a matter of awareness of your surroundings. Skill at observation and planning are essential to creating a safe environment for handling dangerous tools. In learning how to safely carve small figures from a stick of wood, chop and split a log for a fire, build and keep a fire under control, and put a bullet into the bull's-eye of a target, I was also learning how to observe and think logically. Observation and logical thinking are skills that have served me very well throughout my life, but, like any sort of skill, it is necessary to practice them constantly to maintain an acceptable level of ability in applying them.

Boy Scout Troop 233 was an active, outdoor kind of troop. There were other troops that stressed more urban skills, but in Troop 233 we camped and hiked and went on canoe trips and built towers and bridges. We went to summer camp and learned to shoot rifles, indentify trees and plants, practice our camping skills, and help other, younger Scouts learn their basics. Every other weekend or so, the troop would load up into the cars of those parents who had volunteered to drive and head off to tackle some hiking trail around Central Illinois. One in particular, the Amaquonsippi Trail, was an endurance trail that featured a rope bridge and some other obstacles along the route. "Amaquonsippe" is an American Indian word. I don't know what it means, though, perhaps, "eighteen miles of hills, forests, creeks and poison ivy" might be a possible definition. It was that kind of trail, and we needed to hike it all in one day.

We had loaded up the cars early, before dawn, but the sun was already up when we climbed out of the cars and got ready to hit the trail. Some of us whose parents knew a bit about hiking and outdoor activities had come equipped with day packs, proper hiking boots and canteens, but there always seemed to be a couple of kids who just didn't get it. They would show up wearing regular leather shoes and carrying their lunch in a brown paper bag. Before long these ill-equipped Scouts would be having a miserable time on the trail with their feet sore and their hands tired from carrying that sack lunch. They always made it to the end of the hike and, though they may not have enjoyed the experience, eventually, they learned the right way to do it. Eighteen miles is a long way to hike in one day, even with the proper equipment and I always had very sore leg muscles the next day. I didn't envy those guys hiking the same trail without the benefit of the right gear.

Hiking was easy for me, though, as I said, I always paid for it in very sore muscles the next day, but some of the kids just didn't have hiker's bodies. Seems like there was always one kid with flat feet. He usually suffered the most on one of these hikes, but I had to admire the fact that, in spite of his physical liabilities, he kept plodding along to the end. The flat-footed kids were also usually the ones carrying their sack lunch in their hands. I always tried to be at the front of the group setting the pace for the hike. At lunch time we waited for the slower guys to catch up so as to keep the group more or less together and the adult leaders always kept track of the slower kids to make sure that no one got lost or left behind.

After lunch, with the Troop all together, we set off on the last half of the hike. We were out of the forest for the moment hiking through a open meadow where some very tall weeds had grown up earlier in the year. By now, in the fall, the leaves had dried up and fallen off leaving only tall brittle stalks along both sides of the trail. As we walked along we would break off one of the four to five foot tall stalks and hurl what was now basically a spear out into the field. I had broken off a stalk and was using the flexible, feathery top end to tickle the back of the neck of the hiker in front of me. This annoyed him greatly and he told me so with great vehemence. Of course, that was exactly the reaction I was hoping to elicit, and so, instead of quitting when I had achieved this not-so-lofty goal, I continued to torment the poor Scout seeking ever more unendurable heights of annoyance in my victim. Obviously, the lessons about safety that I had previously been taught and supposedly had learned hadn't sunk in. Humans are just a dangerous when treated carelessly as any knife, axe or gun, and this one was no exception. When his level of annoyance exceeded his tolerance level and elevated into a state of rage, he turned and chucked the spear-stalk that he was holding in my direction. I don't suppose he was aiming it at any particular spot on my body, just at me in general, but the broken-off end of the stalk penetrated the front of my left eye and bounced off the retina on its way out.

There are no pain receptors in the eyeball itself, so I was never in any pain, but I knew I was in trouble since there was fluid draining out of my eye and the lights had gone out for that side of my vision. I clapped my hand over that side of my face and ran towards the front of the line of hikers shouting, "My eye, my eye." The front was where the adult leaders were hiking and my dad was among them. He had me remove my hand so he could inspect the damage. There was no mirror, so I don't know what it looked like at that point, but I suspect the damage was obvious. A first-aid kit was produced and a gauze pad was placed over the eye and held in place with one of our Scout neckerchiefs. It was like something right out of the Boy Scout manual on first-aid. Since we were at a mid-point in the hike, we were not anywhere near the cars, nor were we near any source of transportation that we could use to get to the cars. Off in the distance, a mile or so away was a farmhouse. While the rest of the group continued on with the hike, my dad and I started hiking off across the fields toward the farm house. We climbed a few fences and finally made our way to the house. Fortunately, the family who lived there was at home and let us use their telephone. My dad called the hospital in Peoria, explained the situation to them and told them we were headed in their direction. We got a ride to our car back at the trailhead and my dad, exceeding the speed limit and, somehow, not getting caught, drove us to the hospital.

At the hospital, the doctors took over. After various medical personnel had looked me over and evaluated the injury, I was given a shot, put on a gurney and rolled into surgery. When I woke up, I was in a bed in the children's ward with a bandage over my left eye. I was told that the hole in my eye had been sewn up and that there was a good chance that I would regain some small amount of vision in the eye. While I was in the hospital, the kid who had thrown the weed-stalk came by for a visit. He felt really bad about what had happened, and I told him that it was no big deal and not to worry about it. I don't suppose that made him feel any better, but it really was just another case of unintended consequences for both of us. After a couple of weeks, I was released from the hospital. Before I went back to school, my mom wrote "Closed for Repairs" on a piece of paper and taped it to the bandage on my eye. I was quite the celebrity at school for awhile with an interesting story to tell, but eventually even I got bored with it. I just wanted the thing to heal up and was anxious to see if I really would regain some of the vision in that eye.

I had to put drops in the healing eye every day and when the bandage was off I would close my good eye and check if there was any vision in the left one. I started to be able to see shadows with the left eye and that was rather encouraging. The eye surgeon who had worked on my eye had warned us that if, at some point, I experienced pain in the left eye when the pupil contracted in the light we were to call him immediately. One morning, as I walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth the pain was there. That was the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life in the Middle Lane, The East Peoria Years

Me, Scott & Colett

I don't know why we moved to East Peoria. I suppose I could ask my father. I'm sure he would remember his reasoning at the time. Probably something on the order of, "Well, there was a house we could afford in a neighborhood that appeared to be nice, and there was a big yard and it was kind of rural yet still suburban . . ." It certainly must have seemed like a great idea at the time. It's a shame that it didn't work out that way.

I think my dad liked it there. He was doing a lot of traveling at that time selling lighting fixtures for a company called Daybright Lighting. He put about 50,000 miles a year on his cars driving all over Central Illinois calling on his customers. He knew people all over and made friends easily. When you have that salesman personality you can get along almost anywhere. You're not afraid of people, instead people are all potential customers or they might know someone who would be a potential customer. When you're a salesman, your life is all about talking to people and shaking hands and having lots of confidence and meeting new people and knowing everybody's name. My dad had all that stuff and I had none of it.

Moving to East Peoria didn't miraculously endow me with the ability to fit in with my new classmates. I didn't, all of a sudden, acquire any social skills. Instead, I went unarmed, awkward, ignorant and alone into the snake pit of elementary school. Elementary school is where cruelty is finally developed into an art form. You gather with your friends and you practice picking people apart until you can do so effortlessly and creatively. You work diligently to develop your ability to spot someone's weaknesses and you hone your verbal weapons to a needle-sharp point. Then, when the new kid comes to school you wait until recess and you attack. But you don't kill him off right away, no, it's more fun to play with your prey day after day after day. Of course, after awhile it gets too easy and you get bored with the torture, but you can't stop now and so it continues, not every day anymore, but often enough to keep your victim at a constant level of misery.

In the fourth grade here were two guys who followed me around nearly every day at recess. They would point at me and laugh continuously until I was cowering and crying in a corner of the playground. I was helpless to stop it. I just wanted to be liked and accepted. I didn't have any fighting spirit, nor any fighting skills. All I had was a dread of going to school each day, knowing that at recess I would end up crying in a corner. My parents were unsympathetic. I was supposed to "stand up the them." With what? Of course, I was a poor student, since I was more worried about what was in store for me at recess than what was going in the classroom. And then there was the bus ride home. I somehow had become a bully-magnet. There was a guy on the bus who threatened to beat me up every day. He would sit near me and describe in great detail what he was going to do to me when I got off the bus. He never actually got off at my stop, but the threat was more than adequate to create the effect on me that this person was after. Yep, that was my life in East Peoria, at least as far as school was concerned.

It wasn't all a horror, of course, but there was just enough horror so that I don't remember very well the non-horror parts. One of the things I do recall is being required to sell cookies to pay part of my way to some sort of summer camp. This involved me going from door to door giving my sales pitch, which went like this: "Hi, I'm trying to earn my way to camp by selling these delicious chocolate-drop cookies." What made this difficult was that I was quite afraid of people by this time, so I was almost completely petrified when someone actually came to the door. If you're going to sell stuff door-to-door, you are better off appearing to be friendly, confident and knowledgeable about your product. I was scared nearly to immobility, desperately wanted to be somewhere else and had never tasted a chocolate-drop cookie in my entire life. What the heck is a chocolate-drop cookie anyway. There was a picture of one on the order form, but I don't think I actually had any cookies for samples, you had to pay for them up front and then later I would have to deliver them when they arrived from the chocolate-drop cookie supplier.

I don't for a minute believe that I earned my way to camp by selling cookies. I'm sure my parents had to foot the bill to send me off to the wilderness for a couple of weeks. At least camp was better than school. There was no recess, for one thing. I swam in the lake and paddled around in a canoe which was fun. There were other sporting-type activities in which I participated, but I've never been very good at team sports and these were no exception. The only thing that marred my summer camp experience was when I dropped my flashlight into the lake. It was later recovered but the water had ruined it. My parents drove up at the end of the camp session, picked me up and took me back to East Peoria. Oh, joy.

Somewhere in this period, my sister was born. Since she was eight years younger than I, we didn't have too much to do with each other early on. Later I would babysit her when my parents went out, but I wasn't yet qualified to take care of babies. That was my mom's job. She took care of my brother and sister and me, plus she answered the phone and ran the home office for my dad's sales business. She also yelled at me a lot and let me know that she was disappointed in me for a variety of reasons.

We had a dog for awhile, another English Setter. My dad loved English Setters. Maybe because his mother had a plate hanging on her wall that was painted with a hunting scene featuring an English Setter with a bird in its mouth. I inherited that plate and it hangs on the wall in the hallway where I live now, but I don't have an English Setter. Instead, I have two cats. I keep them inside so they don't get run over by a car like the dog in East Peoria did. Like the previous English Setter we had, this one liked to run all day. As we found out later, he also liked to chase cars on the county road. This proved to be his undoing. I was charged with feeding him and bringing him in at night. That seems like a simple enough task except for the fact that he didn't want to come in at night. He didn't even want to come home for supper, really. I had to call and call and call to get him to come home, and when he did I had to grab him and drag him into the house for the night.

I saw a picture of myself in a Cub Scout uniform from that time, so I guess I was a Cub Scout. The only thing I remember about being a Cub Scout was that it was getting me ready to be a Boy Scout. That turned out to be a good thing, maybe the best thing that happened to me as a kid, but I didn't realize it then. It was just something else my parents thought I should be involved in. At the end of the Cub Scout experience I started to learned some fairly useful things like how to tie knots and make campfires and that sort of thing. That was good, I figured I might be able to use some of those skills someday.

We went to church in East Peoria, too. Every time we moved into a new neighborhood, my parents had to find the perfect church for the family. In East Peoria it was some sort of Community Church. Reverend Hurst was the Pastor and he had a kid my age names Steven. I liked Steven and on those occasions when my parents would have the Pastor and his wife over for dinner, Steven and I would create some sort of imaginary science-fiction universe to travel to while our parents played cards or something. That was fun and one of the few rare moments when I was rather happy there.

One fine school day, some people brought a bunch of band instruments into the classroom. We all got to try them out to see if we were interested in learning to play one. One of the guys handed me a trombone and showed me how to make it work. I was able to make a sound with it, which surprised everyone. Finally, there was something I might be able to do. I latched onto that trombone like a drowning man grabs a life-jacket. Here was something I could do, someplace I could fit in, a group I could belong to. It wasn't that I was all that interested in playing the trombone, it was a way I could pull myself up out of the abyss of isolation and belong to something. It was good. It was something I chose to do, one of the first very small steps I took to start taking control of my own life. I learned to play that trombone. I even played it in church. I learned a solo that I could play with the piano and I played it several times for the congregation. Life was getting better for me.

I was in a combined fifth and sixth grade class our last year in East Peoria. It was a good thing, too, since I spend a good part of the sixth grade in the hospital. That comes later, though, so you'll have to be patient until we come to that part of the story. I learned a lot of sixth grade stuff when I was supposed to be learning fifth grade stuff. It was pretty interesting getting two years worth of school for the effort of only one. I was a "C" student as a fifth-grader, mostly because I was distracted by all the more interesting stuff being taught on the sixth grade side of the room. I passed, though, and then we moved. We were going back to Peoria. This time we were buying a house in the suburbs. I guess selling lighting fixtures was working out for my dad. Me, I packed up my trombone and my Cub Scout awards and got ready to move on.