Power Plant 2 – Red Iron

If you ask me to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chip, my Foreman, had never read Edgar Allan Poe.  It was the autumn of 1973 and I was working as a Laborer on the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Point-of-Rocks, Wyoming*. One of the main responsibilities of the Labor Union’s members on that job was to sweep dust off the framework of the building before the Painters’ Union members could spray on a new coat of rust-resistant paint.

The framework of the building was made of steel I-beams that had been painted with several thick coats of scarlet paint and was therefore known as “Red Iron,” as in, “Hey, Pelton, I’m gonna need y’all and Swede to go up on the West end of Level 4 and sweep off the red iron on the walls and ceiling. The Painters’ Foreman will meet y’all up there and show you what needs to be done.”

Chip was from Alabama and his thick, Southern accent seemed to have a difficult time making its way past the wad of Red Man tobacco in one cheek and the smoldering stub of a cigar stuck in the other. At one point, he must have decided that he knew me well enough to start calling me by my first name. That would have been fine but he, despite me gently correcting him, consistently called me “Tom.” I only had to say, “Okay, Chop,” once and he went back to calling me “Pelton.”

One day Chip assembled his crew, there were about eight of us, on the Sixth Level of Building One. He walked us over to an outside wall that showed a narrow opening where a piece of sheet metal had been removed.  There was enough dim light inside the wall for me to see that it was hollow. A thirty-inch gap between the inside and outside walls had been created by an intricate frame of eight-inch red I-beams.

Chip said, “Sparky’s just about finished setting lights.” (All Electricians on a construction site are known as “Sparky”) He paused and dropped the butt of his cigar on the floor, stepped on it, then spat tobacco juice on it to make sure it was out. As he did so, an Electrician emerged from the opening paying out a long extension cord.

“All y’all have got safety belts on, right? So you climb up inside the wall up to the fire blocking on Level Nine, then work your way back down to here, sweeping off the red iron as you go.  When you get back down here, there’ll be a vacuum to clean up. Got that?”

One by one, the crew, carrying brushes and brooms, disappeared into the opening. I was the last, and as I stepped in I turned to Chip and said, “For the love of God, Montressor.”

Chip looked at me like I was insane.

“You know – Edgar Allan Poe. The Cask of Amontillado?” I looked for some sign of recognition. “A guy seals another guy up into a wall…”

“Get your ass in there, Pelton. Jesus.”

***

The one part I hated about that job was when I had to sweep off the large horizontal I-beams that spanned empty, open spaces. If you follow this blog, you probably know that all my life I have had to deal with basophobia. This does not mean fear of fish with large mouths, but fear of falling.** When asked to sweep off one of those big girders I would have been perfectly within my rights to beg off. But then I would have been assigned to one of the shovel crews digging ditches down on the ground. It was an interesting decision – did I want the relatively easy but scary job? Or the safe grunt work?

My decision was obvious because there I was – straddling an eighteen-inch I-beam. My butt was on the top six-inch wide web; my boots were on each side of the bottom web. Trying not to look down at the forty-foot drop below me, I’d sweep the beam in front of me with one hand while I clung to the steel with the other. When I’d gotten about as far as I could reach, I slowly scooted forward a foot or two, then continued sweeping.

I felt the vibrations of footsteps and I looked up to see a Boilermaker Foreman coming toward me. He was walking along the top of the beam like it was a sidewalk. He looked up from his clipboard and saw me directly in his way. I don’t know if it was the pallor in my face or the white of my knuckles where they gripped the red iron, but he just rolled his eyes, said something like, “Aw shit,” turned around, and walked back the other way. If I thought this display of nonchalance about height was impressive I had only to wait a few weeks for the real show.

In the meantime, I heard one day that The Laborer’s General Foreman wanted to see me. With some trepidation, I sought him out and he told me that Chip had decided to drag up. In the parlance of construction workers, to “drag up” was to quit your job, pack your bags, and hit the road, usually for another construction site with greener pastures. In Chip’s case, he came out to his truck one morning and had to scrape a layer of ice off his windshield.  The next day he was on his way to a nuclear plant being built in warmer and closer-to-home Arkansas. Since Swede had also left the week before, I was the senior man on our crew and he asked if I’d take over being Foreman.

As I put those little vertical orange stripes on each side of my hard hat, I found I had two things to be pleased about. I would be making an extra thirty-five cents an hour, which would make it that much sooner that I myself could drag up and head for Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training. The other thing is that a Foreman is not expected to do any actual work, which would mean I could tell other people to scoot out there on those big girders and clean them off while I remained on solid footing. With handrails.

From then on, once I had the crew all lined up with that day’s jobs and the various paperwork done, I could take a little time and go stroll around the project for some sightseeing. There were four units in total planned. Each Unit contained a huge coal-fired boiler that created enough steam to power a massive turbine generator. At the time I was there, the first unit was well along in construction and would come online in about a year. The second unit was about half-built, and they were still fitting the skeleton of the third building together with tall cranes moving enormous steel beams around like pieces in a jumbo erector set.

The buildings that house the boilers are over 250 feet tall. I was very curious as to how they joined the ends of those beams together. I couldn’t really make out the process from the ground and there were no windows in the steel sides of Unit 2. Then I noticed that there was an exterior fire escape on the side of the Unit with doors at every level. Each door had a good-sized reinforced glass pane installed in it.  If I could make my way to the particular door that was the same height as the upper reaches of the frame across the way, I would have a ringside seat.

I first checked with my crew to make sure they were okay, and then went up to take a look. I was expecting to see a good-sized team working on an elaborate system of temporary platforms, scaffolding, and jacks. Each beam represented tons of steel swinging through the air and I felt it would take some engineering brilliance to corral it, position it perfectly, and then attach it. What I saw was one ironworker wearing a tool belt with deep pockets sitting at an L-shaped joint in the frame.  A crane was lifting what I guessed was the next horizontal beam toward him.

I found out later that this guy was a member of a particular subset of the Ironworkers Union. They are called “Connectors”.

The Connector, using only hand signals to the crane operator, guided the end of the beam into close proximity. When it was within inches, he locked his legs around the steel he was sitting on and wrestled the new beam into position. He pulled a spud wrench out of his tool bag and shoved the pointy end through the bolt holes, lining them up. Then he put in about three of the necessary twelve bolts, capped them with nuts, and then took out two more long-handled wrenches and tightened the bolts down. Then he stood up and walked along the twenty-foot length of the new beam to the unconnected joint at the other end. Even from my window, I could see that the metal he was standing on was slowly swaying in the wind. In between him and the dirt below was nothing but 180 feet of thin air. He calmly sat down on the end of the swaying beam, twiddled his fingers to get the crane operator to drop it a couple of inches, then wrestled the two pieces together and repeated the bolting process.

When the Ironworker relaxed and lit a cigarette while he waited for the next piece, I realized I’d been holding my breath and let it out with a whoosh. I was cold with sweat and my heart was hammering. I have been to circuses and I’ve seen high-wire acts with spotlights and drum rolls and all the slathered-on faux-drama the management can muster, but I’ve never been as terrified-from-a-distance as I was by that one Connector just doing his job.

Running with Cleo

In my fifty-odd years of sailing about the country, I’ve dropped anchor in Southern California several times. I was there for a summer in the early ’70s, again in the early ’80s*, and once more in the mid-’90s – that time to stay for 20 years. The fads and fashions of Los Angeles and environs are subject to constant change, but to one who just drops by periodically certain things seem to remain the same. One of those never-changing qualities is the continuing Quest to be Cool. Most of the population of Los Angeles is engaged in this pursuit.

 As soon as some pastime or interest has been pronounced to be “Cool”, within days seas of humanity up and down the Southern California coast are involved. And then, within a few months or a couple of years, the fad is suddenly gone, leaving its most dedicated practitioners flopping like fish in the mud of a recently drained lake. Imagine a fellow in the late ’70s who spends hours and hours practicing with his quad roller skates. He gets to be good at it enough to head to the beach and dance on skates to disco music coming from a cassette-powered boombox. He is Cool. But then quickly he is not cool. The cool dancers are breakdancing, the cool music is punk, and the cool devices are portable CDs.

In the Los Angeles Garden of Cool, most of the plants are Annuals. They sprout from seeds, grow and flower quickly, and then die just as fast. But there are some Perennials there too. An abundance of money will always get you into the Cool Club. The Entertainment Industries – movies, television, and music – don’t follow trends; they make them, and therefore will forever be Cool. Another of these Perennials is physical beauty. Being stunningly beautiful or ruggedly handsome doesn’t guarantee you a place in the School of Cool, but it certainly can get you in the door.

It’s not difficult to spot this frenetic competition for the hollow and pointless exercise it is, and many of my friends during my early ’80s run in LA refused to participate. But one young woman I knew was driven to forever try scaling those cliffs of Cool.  Her name was Cleo.

Cleo had the attractiveness part down cold. Beautiful of face, she had dark hair, dark eyes, long legs, and the slender, almost boney, look that professional models starve themselves to obtain. Clothes hung on her exactly the way the designers had pictured they should. She had an amazing eye for shape and color and made a decent living as a Graphic Designer. What she really wanted to do was be a celebrity shopping consultant.

Unfortunately, for the time I knew her, Cleo never achieved her place on the heights of Cool. I think it was because she had a warm heart, a lively intelligence, and a soft spot for goofy fun instead of an icy disdain for those who were not cool. She loved nothing better than to hang out and laugh it up. I was proud to call her my friend.

While I was in Los Angeles, a passion for physical fitness was sweeping through the city. Jane Fonda was “feeling the burn,” Olivia Newton-John in a headband and leg-warmers was challenging people to “get physical,” and a German bodybuilder with a toothy grin was Pumping Iron. Even the slightly less-than-cool such as myself were getting inspired to get in shape.

One day I ran into Cleo and told her I had read about an upcoming 10K foot race that I wanted to enter. The LA Weekly, the local lefty birdcage-liner, had not only run a story about a race to be run through Universal Studios following its tour route, but a calendar-specific plan to get your lungs and legs in shape in order to run in it. When I told her that all participants who finished the race got a free commemorative T-shirt, her eyes lit up.

“I want to do that too!” she said.

“Can you make the commitment to train?” I asked. “You can’t just show up on race day and expect to run more than six miles.”

“Six miles?” she blanched.

“Six point two to be exact,” I said. After a moment’s consideration I added, “If you really want to do this, we’ll train together. We can encourage each other. It’ll be fun!”

And so we began to train for the big race. Since I had a little apartment on Santa Monica Beach, we did most of our training running barefoot together on the damp sand just above the reach of the highest waves. At first, Cleo seemed to be a very slow runner, but that was understandable as we were just getting started. After a few days, I began to feel a bit stronger and so decided to pick up the pace. She did not. It soon became very clear that her “pace” was similar to a wad of used bubble gum on the pavement – not something she would ever want to pick up. If you’ve ever seen a jogger pausing at an intersection until the light changes, you’ve seen Cleo’s running style – bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet without much forward motion.

I had to improvise different ways to physically challenge myself, such as running backward or in circles around her as we went up and down the beach. I also found a track at a nearby Junior High that I could run solo on in the evenings. I had made a commitment that I would help Cleo through this, to help her earn that T-shirt she could sport around in, so I was disappointed after a few weeks when her enthusiasm began to wane. She began to miss running sessions or say she could only run for fifteen minutes because she was busy.

When there were still three weeks to go, Cleo called and asked me to meet her for coffee because she had something she wanted to tell me. I was a little down-hearted because I had a strong feeling that our days of running together were probably over.  I was going to miss our sessions on the beach, however slow and odd they were, and I really wanted her to get that T-shirt.

Over a new kind of coffee, called a latte, she surprised me. She had recently begun going out with a handsome, young stockbroker who loved to go running. Once he had heard that she was training for this 10K, he not only wanted to run in it too but wanted Cleo to train with him. Cleo being Cleo, she was afraid she might hurt my feelings and was relieved to hear that I was very happy for her. And I was. I may have even overplayed the magnanimous card a bit because not only would I get to train on my own terms, but Cleo would get to run her race and wear her T-shirt with pride. It was what you’d call a Win-win.

On the morning of the race, I joined the huge throng of runners gathered in front of the Universal Studios’ front gates. When I registered, they checked to make sure my fees were paid, and then gave me a number and two safety pins to attach it to my shirt. I was official.

I went looking for Cleo. I finally found her in the company of her new boyfriend. His name was, of course, Chad or Tad and he was tall, sandy-haired, and had a well-tanned athletic body. If his running shorts had had pockets, the Cool would have been spilling out of them.  I shook his hand, wished them both good luck, and went off to find a place that was not nearly as intimidating to stretch out and get ready to run.

Fifteen minutes later, a crowd of more than nine thousand runners waited outside the just-opened front gates of Universal Studios. A voice on a loudspeaker said, “Runners, attention… Get Ready…” and a loud gunshot rang out. Slowly at first, the crowd started to move. Faster runners moved toward the front while the slower runners drifted back. I was just wondering if I should step it up a little or stay at my current pace when I came upon Cleo chugging along in her not-much-faster-than-walking stride.

“Hey Cleo,” I said as I slowed down to jog along beside her. “Where’s Chad?”

“As soon as the gun went off he said, ‘See you at the Finish Line,’ and sprinted off toward the front. He’s got this competitive personality thing going. He can’t help it.” Then she looked at me with those big, needy eyes and said, “Will you run with me, at least for a little while?”

What was I going to say? “Nope, sorry babe. I’ve got to get this thing over with so I can go knock ice cream cones out of the hands of children.”

Off we went together, slow-jogging through the big box buildings with huge doors and giant numbers painted on the sides. We talked about mutual friends, and work, and I told her a couple of stories about being a kid growing up in Wyoming.

Just as we got to the backlot of the studio she once again turned up the candlepower on those big eyes and said, “Tim, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I just keep thinking about how long it is and how tired I’m going to get.”

“Well, you can just forget that noise,” I told her. “You’re going to finish this race and get that T-shirt if I have to carry you. And believe me, you’re going to feel a lot worse after being jounced along over my shoulder for six miles.”

“Then you have to tell me a story. I want a long story with a beautiful and brave heroine – something to keep my mind off this stupid race.”

Relieved that she didn’t call my bluff about carrying her – I doubt if I would have been able to get another hundred yards before I bunged her into the nearest trash can – I began.

“Deep in the dark forest of Bumonia…”

“Bumonia? That’s a silly name.”

“Quiet, you. Deep in the forest lived a giant, golden-haired bear with long claws of tempered steel and teeth as sharp as sword-points…”

As we circled the pond where some of Jaws was filmed and Bruce the Shark still leaped out at tourists, I introduced the character of Princess Gwendolyn. As we trotted down the Chicago street that Robert Redford had strolled along in The Sting, Casimir the Dark Adventurer made his entrance into the tale, and the Evil Wizard Belshazzar was worming his way into the councils of the king as we passed the Roman villa from Spartacus.

When we passed a sign that said we were at the halfway point, Cleo was more concerned about Casimir who was out hunting the Golden Bear and had fallen into a trap of fire set by Belshazzar.

Two hours later, as the final climactic battle loomed between the forces of Good, led by Gwendolyn, the Golden Bear, and Casimir against Belshazzar and his evil minions, I was relieved to see the Finish Line come into view. I had been scraping the very bottom of my imagination’s barrel. Cleo was so thrilled to be finishing that she almost sped up into a slow run. Hand-in-hand and grinning like fools; we crossed the Finish Line together.

To his credit, Chad had waited for Cleo and was congratulating her as I went to check on our place in the order of finish. There were still a few people who had not yet crossed the Finish Line, but they were senior citizens who had walked the course. Of those entrants who were runners, we were… last. We were something like nine thousandth and nine thousand and first. I claimed my shirt, a tan-colored T with dark brown lettering, and went to say goodbye to Cleo. When I found her I noticed that instead of being thrilled and brimming with enthusiasm she looked thoroughly disappointed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Well, just look at this,” she said as she held the shirt up under her chin. “I can’t wear this. It’s not my color!”

Russian Training

It was October in Indiana, 1964, and from the back seat of the taxicab, I watched the piles of yellow leaves along the street swirl up into the air in the wake of our passing.

Early in the morning the day before, dressed in my Air Force uniform, I had climbed onto a Greyhound bus and left Laramie, Wyoming behind. There was a dusting of snow on the ground when I left and a cold, dry wind blowing that had tugged at my garrison cap.  Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the lowering sun still warmed the pavement. The humid air had a different odor. It had that earthy smell of things still growing, unwilling to finally give it over and slide into dormancy. It was a time for planting the kinds of seeds that would wait underground for months before finally breaking into the spring sunlight.

Being that twenty-four hours on a cross-country bus can turn your brain into overcooked meatloaf, it will come as no surprise that I have no memory of signing in, talking to anyone, or dragging my old suitcase up to my room. I was hanging uniforms up in the closet when a guy stuck his head in the door and introduced himself. He had been on the program for three months already, and I guess had appointed himself head of the Welcome Wagon for the new guys on this particular floor. He may have said some interesting things, but only one got through the afore-mentioned burnt meatloaf.

“People from Indiana,” he said, “are known as ‘Hoosiers.’ The Russian word that is pronounced ‘hoozheh’ means ‘worse.’ And that about says it all, man.”

After I had eaten and then slept for nearly ten hours, I began to feel somewhat human again and was able to process my surroundings. Bloomington, Indiana was a small Midwestern town surrounding a huge, Big 10 university campus. Thirty thousand young Hoosiers had come here to binge drink, have sex, and possibly even get an education on the side. They probably still do. On the edge of the IU campus at that time and covering about one city block, stood a small group of buildings belonging to the US Air Force. This was the USAF/IU Russian Language Training Program. Every three months about a hundred airmen fresh out of Basic Training would come in to replace the group that had just graduated. A year later, those airmen would leave the school having, if not fluency, then a fairly good ability to speak and understand the Russian language – especially the military terms.

During the thirty-five years that Stalin ruled Soviet Russia, more than three million Russians were forced to flee their country and find a life elsewhere. Compared to the twenty million who died from starvation, were executed, or froze to death in Siberian labor camps, the refugees were the lucky ones. From this long, nightmarish tragedy, one bright light did appear. Stalin provided native Russian speakers to teach American Airmen his language.

Long-term memory is an odd and interesting thing. In the more-than-fifty years since I was at that school. My Russian skills have all but disappeared. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “go to Hell,” and “I want to sleep with you” are about all that remain. And yet, I can remember several of the native Russians who taught us as clearly as if I left there just last week. Each of them had a different story about how and why they left their native land and the paths that took them, finally, to the United States.

Paretsky rarely talked about his adventures, only that he had been an officer in the Soviet Army and was assigned to a company guarding the Finnish border. One night, he packed a little traveling bag and walked into the forest. An hour later, he was knocking on the door of a farmhouse in Finland. More than that, he would not say. I think he felt he was still an officer and was not comfortable telling enlisted men about his life.

On the other hand, Marya Borisovna was as garrulous as Paretsky was reserved. She had been one of the children in a family of Kulaks. When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, nearly all the agricultural land in the new Soviet Union was privately owned. If you were one of these landowners, you were a Kulak. When the Kulaks were told that the government now owned their land, everything on it, and everything it produced, the Kulaks were understandably upset and tried to resist. So the local Commissars divided the Kulaks into three groups – those who were to be shot, those who were to be transported to Siberian labor camps, and those who were to be thrown out of the country. Marya Borisovna’s family was among the exiles.

I don’t know how they got the order, but I can well imagine some pompous little blacksmith’s assistant turned bureaucrat showing up at the farmhouse door and telling them to be ready to leave in forty-eight hours.

After a long train ride south, they were marched across the border into Afghanistan and dumped. They were allowed to take nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. Marya Borisovna told us that it was her mother’s foresight that not only allowed the family to survive but made it possible for them all to immigrate to the United States. During the few days they had between being notified of what was to happen and the actual rounding-up by the Red Army, Marya’s mother had gone through her jewelry and carefully removed every gemstone. Then she and the older girls wrapped each of the stones in cloth and used them to replace the buttons on the family’s clothing. They were stopped and thoroughly searched several times on their way to the border, but their guards never twigged to the fact that the women’s dresses and the men’s waistcoats were all fastened with slightly odd-shaped cloth buttons. By judiciously selling a few here and a few there, the jewels lasted until they were safely housed in an apartment in lower Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island.

The most imposing figure of the “White” Russians who taught us was a tall, craggy man with white hair and an ugly scar on the left side of his scalp that started at his hairline and went back a few inches. He carried himself with the kind of quiet dignity that comes from going through Hell and surviving. This was Boris Nikolayevich Dubkov. He had been in the Red Army during World War Two (The Russians call it “The Great Patriotic War”) and rose to the rank of Starshina which corresponds to our Master Sergeant. Dubkov served in a T-34 tank as driver and second-in-command. To get the full effect of G-n Dubkov telling us his story, you have to imagine a tall man in a well-tailored suit with a deeply-accented rumbling voice. He holds a cigarette backward in the Russian manner and waves it around as he talks.

”In Battle of Kursk, I drive tank out of forest. See Panzer tank. Blow up Panzer tank. Turn to right, see another Panzer tank. It has machine gun shooting. Bullets come in through viewing window. One bullet hit here (he points to the scar on his scalp). Second bullet goes in here (he points to the lower inside corner of his right eye socket). Bullet comes out here (he points to the inside of his left ear). Many months in hospital. I do not die. But in this ear, I hear nothing, only bells. All of the time… only bells.”

Father Belitsky had been a Russian Orthodox priest for most of his long, adult life. He was ordained shortly before the 1917 revolution. Though the Bolsheviks had closed the churches and outlawed religious ceremonies, Father Belitsky, by being very careful, continued to secretly provide religious services to the people who needed them. It wasn’t until after the War that an informant betrayed him and he had to leave the country or be arrested. After we had been at the school for a few months and had begun to understand a little bit of the language, Father Belitsky invited a couple of us, John Zavacky and I, to witness a Mass. He had made the living room of his little house into a small church by setting up three short rows of folding chairs and covering the walls with painted wooden icons of different saints. Afterward, John and I joined him at his little kitchen table for shots of vodka with black pepper and a part-English, part Russian, and part-pantomime conversation.

My favorite Instructor, mostly because he was such a character, was Teodor Petrovich Gunisovsky. He was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and was living in that Province of the CCCP when the Germans broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded in June of 1941. Having lived under Stalin for the past 15 years, thousands of Ukrainians thought “Anything has got to be better than this monster” and not only surrendered to the Germans but offered to help them defeat Stalin. G-n Gunisovsky was among these people. Had Hitler taken the deal, his combined army would probably have taken Moscow, and eventually the whole country, in a walk. Instead, he and his high command pronounced all Slavs to be “subhuman,” and tossed them into prison camps.

Gunisovsky and his fellow turncoats spent nearly two years in the German prison camp and were finally liberated by the counter-attacking Red Army in early 1943. But before the inmates could say “Dogi, ispolnyay svoy dolg!” (Feet, do your duty!), the Russian High Command realized who they were and threw them all into Russian prison camps. Gunisovsky spent another three or four years, barely avoiding death by starvation and frostbite, in several camps high in the Ural Mountains, a beautiful, but nearly trackless wilderness, about 1500 miles northeast of Moscow. Then one day he decided it was time to try to escape to the West. On foot. And he made it. The journey covered well over two thousand miles. It would be like walking cross-country from Chicago to San Francisco. Taking no main roads and avoiding anyone who looked like a Communist Party member, he depended on peasants for some food now and then and for a hayloft to sleep in. Here’s the kicker. While in the mountains, he had suffered snow-blindness so frequently that his corneas were permanently scarred. He was nearly blind.

Our names made as little sense to the Russians as their names to us. Most of them just relied on the plastic nameplates we all wore over our right breast pockets. But Gunisovsky preferred to make up nicknames for his students. One guy, for example, was “Red-Eyed Devil” because he was frequently hungover. Another was “Airman Bigboots” because of his enormous feet. I was “Yazychnik.” The word translates as “barbarian” but its root is “the tongued one.” When one of my friends told Gunisovsky that I could touch the tip of my nose with my tongue, he called me in for a demonstration. I complied and was immediately awarded the name. Soon after, he was standing in the hallway with some other teachers when he saw me, called me over, and had me show them. Then he said something in Russian which doubled the other instructors over. Later, he told me the translation. “The Post Office should pay him to stand next to the mail slot as a service to people with stamps and envelopes.”

It may have been that the Stalinist autocracy only drove the kind, big-hearted, fun-loving people out of the country and let only the cold and nasty pieces of work stay. But I doubt it. I think the folks at that school were a cross-section of what most all Russian people are like. And what are they like? They are very much like us.

Sagebrush in Chicago

Sometimes I think of my brain as more of a committee than a single entity. I picture a large group of them sitting around a big table. There’s Lazy Tim, half asleep; Comedy Tim, constantly making up the most god-awful jokes; and Logical Tim, trying to make sense of a bewildering world. Some seats sat empty for a long time before finally being occupied. Hard-Working Tim took years to finally show up. And some seats that were long-occupied are now standing empty. When Sexy Tim ran out of testosterone and had to fade away, all the others gave him a nice, little going-away party but it was pretty obvious they were relieved to no longer have to deal with all the trouble he caused.

There is one guy who has always been politely listened to but then usually ignored. This is Idea Tim. When solutions to small problems are needed he’ll sit there with a blank look on his face and contribute little or nothing. But then, every two or three weeks, a light will come into his eyes and he’ll jump up and wave his arms.

“I got it! I got it!” he’ll yell, “Buy or rent a vacuum-dredging machine, mount it on a truck, and spend the summer in the Colorado Rockies prospecting for gold!”  Or, “Cast cabinet knobs and handles in the shape of unicorns and rainbows to sell for little girls’ furniture!”

The others all put up with him because every now and then he does come up with a good one. If he hadn’t jumped up last fall and yelled, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! How about a blog?” you’d be wasting even more time on Facebook than you already do.

Unfortunately for me, those times when things go haywire and some good, solid, crisis thinking is needed are the times that Idea Tim is at his looniest. Instead of “Okay, with a little belt-tightening, hard work, and self-denial we can get through this,” it’s “I’ve got a can’t-miss scheme that’ll make big money and get everything back to normal in a week.” Here’s a case in point.

In 1977 I was living in Denver, I’d just quit working for an outfit called Code Signs, and I was doing some freelance sign-painting on my own. I was renting a room in the back of a house which included a parking space for my old VW van. On some weekends I’d drive up Laramie to visit friends. One Sunday evening I was driving back to Denver through a snowstorm. Just outside of Fort Collins I heard a loud “Bang!” from the engine compartment. I managed to wrestle the van over to the side of the road. And it refused to budge an inch further.

When you love old cars but can’t seem to remember to perform routine maintenance – like changing the oil – you end up frequently walking for miles through cold and darkness. I finally got to a phone and called my friend Joe who, bless his little heart, drove up from Denver and towed me back home. Steering a car attached to the end of a ten-foot chain behind a pickup truck that is going sixty miles an hour down the freeway is an experience I am happy to say I have never had to do again.

Back in my little bedroom, staring at the wall for hours, I wondered what I was going to do. The engine in my van was blown. I had about a hundred and fifty dollars to my name and it was going to cost $600 to replace the engine.

Up in the Committee Room in the back of my head, things were dark and gloomy. Lazy Tim had excused himself to go to the bathroom and never returned, Upbeat Tim was slumped in his chair looking mournful, Hard-Working Tim was idly picking clumps of sawdust out of his tool belt, and Logical Tim was shooting paper clips at a spot on the wall. Suddenly, Idea Tim sat bolt upright, jumped to his feet, and waved his arms.

“I got it! I got it!” he shouted, “There is sagebrush growing all over the prairie around Laramie, right? There are so many you never really notice them. But if you look close up, they are really beautiful and fascinating plants. Plus they smell good! All I have to do is rent some old jalopy, drive up to Wyoming, dig up about a hundred sagebrush and stick them in the back of the car. Then I drive to Chicago and sell them for six bucks apiece. It’ll be enough to get the car fixed.”

And I was sold! It was perhaps the most hare-brained scheme I had ever come up with but I was ready to give it my best shot. I found a newly-opened business there in Denver called “Lou’s Rent-A-Dent” that specialized in renting older, previously-owned cars. I caught a bus there and talked to a roly-poly bald guy who talked around his cigar. He was the eponymous Lou.

Lou steered me to a five-year-old Dodge Dart that had been converted from burning gasoline to propane. Perhaps because of the weird fuel set up, he gave me a hell of a deal – seven dollars a day, no mileage charge, and he would take a post-dated check for a deposit. I accepted his offer, wrote him a check, and was off to the sagebrush prairies of Wyoming.

On the way, I stopped at the University of Wyoming and after asking around I was directed to a professor of Botany who knew a lot about sagebrush. He was highly dubious of my plan but said there was a slim chance it could work. I took this as a firm endorsement.

“There are three kinds of sage in this area,” he said, “Black Sage, Big Sage, and Silver Sage. Of the three you’d have your best chance with Silver Sage. It grows up around Medicine Bow.”

My disappointment at having to drive 60 miles out of my way was tempered by the Professor telling me that of the three varieties, Silver Sage was the only one known to survive a bare-root transplant. This was wonderful news, as I had become concerned with how I was going to fit 100 sagebrush plants with dirtballs around their roots into the back seat of a Dodge Dart. The trunk of the car was almost entirely taken up by the added propane tank.

I left Laramie early the next morning with a back seat full of bare-root sagebrush plants in four black plastic garbage bags – 25 to a bag. I was headed to Fairfield, Iowa, 800 miles away. I thought I could get there by 8 o’clock, where I could find my friend Glenn, who was a student at a little University there, and get him to put me up for the night. Then the next day would be an easy 300-mile jaunt to Chicago where my long-time friend Patti would make me up a little cot in the basement. I had talked to Patti and made arrangements but had been unable to connect with Glenn. But there were only 700 students in this little school, how hard could it be to find him? Damned hard I found out.

I came driving into Iowa on the heels of a massive cold front that had dropped a foot of snow and had driven temperatures down to only a hair above doodly-squat.  The journey that was supposed to take 12 hours stretched out to 16. I hadn’t factored in missed exits, spending long, nervous stretches looking for truck stops that sold propane, and allowing time to empty my bladder and fill my stomach. When I finally came cruising into Fairfield, the big sign on the Bank said it was 12:15 and 14 degrees below zero.

I drove around the university campus hoping for some sign of life, but everything was as cold and dark as the inside of a well digger’s glove. I couldn’t sleep in the car and I couldn’t afford a motel. I was about to go find the local police station and ask them if they could put me in a cell, Mayberry-style, when I noticed a University cop car making its rounds.

“No, I can’t tell you where a student’s room is,” the patrol officer informed me. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

After I had explained the rock and the very cold hard place I was between, he took pity on me and told me there was a wing of one dorm that wasn’t being used, but the heat was being left on enough to keep the pipes from freezing. He could open a room for me but as for the rest, I was on my own. I thanked him profusely and was soon asleep on a bare mattress, still fully dressed, and snuggled under two garbage bags full of sagebrush.

In the morning I found Glenn. He got me into the cafeteria for a nice breakfast. Then we discovered the Dodge Dart wouldn’t start. Luckily, he knew someone at the motor pool who came and took a look and said that the propane had gotten too cold and until the whole car had warmed up well above freezing, there wasn’t enough vapor pressure in the tank to start the car. It took the rest of the day to tow, push, and grunt the car over to the motor pool garage where it would spend the night. I slept on Glenn’s dorm room floor that night and the Dart was ready to go the next morning. Glenn insisted on paying me for one of the sagebrushes and was installing it in a pot as I left.

Things were looking up! I had sold my first sagebrush and Patti was expecting me in Chicago. She had warned me on the phone that there was a serious snowstorm forecast for the city and I should hurry.

So there I was, driving into Chicago at the beginning of the worst blizzard in ten years. I found Patti’s Father’s house on the South Side, East of Cicero just as the wind-driven snow was getting almost too thick to see. All night it kept up and by the next day there was more than two feet of the white stuff on the ground and nothing was moving. Chicago was snowed in.

I spent the next day catching up with Patti and yelling at her father. He was a genuinely nice person but deaf as a post. I also designed a little tag to be tied around each of the sagebrush plants. The tag featured a cartoon cowboy holding a potted sagebrush and next to him was an explanatory paragraph:

“This is a genuine Wyoming Silver Sage. It is a desert plant so be very stingy with the watering can. Like the people of Wyoming, it thrives in adverse conditions. So when you mist your other plants, throw a little crushed ice at your sagebrush. When you talk to your other plants, cuss at your sagebrush.”

By the following day, the snowplows had cleared most of the main streets and I set out to sell my plants. I had a list of every florist and every wholesale plant dealer on the South Side.

Of the ninety-nine sagebrush I had with me, I sold a grand total of zero. Over and over I heard, “We only buy from people we know and have a track record. Sorry.” The few who I could get to even look inside the bags said, “These things are either dead or dying.”  All-in-all, as Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek said, “It was a magnificent catastrophe.”

Once again, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had only enough money left to either pay for the propane to get back to Denver, or to pay the rental fee once I got there, but not both. Patti then suggested that if we were to drive back to Denver together, she would pay for the fuel. Two months earlier, her father had had a health emergency and she’d flown back home to Chicago to take care of him. Now that he was feeling better, she could go back to Denver and pick up her car and some personal stuff.

Early the next morning I sadly dropped my bags of sagebrush into a dumpster in the alley before turning the Dart around and heading West. We took turns driving, sleeping, and telling each other long stories. We drove straight through, stopping only for propane, bathroom breaks, and food.

It was around noon the next day when I pulled the Dodge Dart into Lou’s Rent-A-Dent. Not knowing what was going to happen, I waved to Patti, who had followed me with her own car, screwed up my courage, and walked into the office. And I didn’t come out for a long time.

After I had been in there for more than twenty minutes, Patti began to get worried. Perhaps, she thought, Lou had lost his temper and punched me out. Or possibly he was making me sit there and wait for the Police to arrive. Finally, just as she was wondering whether or not to pick up a tire iron and bust me out as well as trying to remember what a tire iron looked like, I came out of the door.

With a sheaf of typing paper in my hand, I got into the passenger seat. She looked me over for bruises and, finding none, asked, “Are you okay? What took so long?”

“Sorry about that. He was a little taken aback that I’d driven it all the way to Chicago and back, but since I hadn’t violated the contract there was nothing he could do.”

“And that took nearly a half an hour?”

“Well, no. I told him I was a sign painter and I thought he could use a sign. He agreed and the rest of the time we spent making sketches and talking about prices.”

 I showed her the sheets of paper. On them I had drawn an approximation of the lettering on his business card and a cartoon of a sexy blonde woman leaning on the fender of a car. In each iteration the blonde’s breasts got larger as the scoop-neck top she was wearing got lower. In the final one with a red check on it, it was difficult to see how she could stand upright without falling over.

“How much will he pay you?”

“A hundred dollars for a full-color scale drawing. If he okays that, then $700 for the sign.”

“So after all this, you ended up with enough to get your car fixed after all.” And I did.

Scuba Diving in Wyoming

Sixty feet isn’t a long distance. It’s only about two-thirds of the way from home plate to first base. But when you’re sitting on the bottom of a lake that’s sixty feet deep, it can sure seem like a long, long way to the surface.

*******

My older brother Chuck joined the Air Force in the early ’60s and was assigned to Electronics School at Kessler Air Force Base near Biloxi Mississippi. While he was there he became friends with several other guys who were all crazy about scuba diving. In short order, Chuck had purchased a full scuba diving rig with tank, regulator, mask, weight belt, fins, and a wet suit. He enjoyed his time underwater with his friends and hoped that wherever the Air Force posted him, it would be somewhere with a lot of interesting scuba diving possibilities. The dear old Air Force, with its twisted sense of humor, posted Chuck to Diyarbakir Air Station in the middle of the Turkish desert.

Chuck, home on Leave before traveling to the Middle East, showed me where he had stowed his scuba gear in the garage and said that if I ever wanted to use it, that would be okay as long as I got Certified first.  I told him I was grateful for the thought but didn’t think I’d have the opportunity.

Then the family wished him Good Luck and Godspeed and he was gone. After returning, he told me a bunch of stories about his Turkish adventures, enough to fill at least a couple of these blogs, but those are his stories and you’ll have to get him to tell them to you.

Several months after Chuck left, it was early spring and my friend Tom-from-across-the-alley suddenly developed an interest in scuba diving. Since I have always been easily recruited – the madder the scheme the better – in very little time I was eager and ready to go. After all, I already had the equipment. Luckily for us, there were some divers already living in Laramie who had formed a club. Their leader, his official title was Divemaster, was a young man named Tom Atwell.

Under the auspices of the club, we neophytes learned about our equipment, passed our tests, and were given Certifications from some national organization. Thereafter there were club meetings and excursions to dive at nearby Lake Hattie. About half the time of the meetings was spent planning the big club outing in early June to Guernsey Reservoir. The other half was listening to Tom Atwell’s diving stories.

 One story was about the first time he came face-to-face with a sea bass. The creature was so ugly Tom nearly spit out his mouthpiece and drowned. Or there was the one about the time he and another man were paid the almost unheard-of sum of a dollar a minute to dive into a local reservoir in the winter to fix a clogged outlet. Or there was the story about the time he was diving in Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody. The Buffalo Bill Dam, at 360 feet high, is the tallest dam in the United States. So the water on the other side of it is about 300 feet deep. Up near the dam, so deep they had to use powerful underwater lights, he and another diver saw Rainbow Trout that were easily 6 or 7 feet long. Had spearfishing been legal, they could have fed a dozen people on one of these monster-sized trout.

Now, there are two problems with scuba diving in Wyoming. One is that the water is cold. The top few feet may have been warmed by the sun enough to swim in without protection. But as you go deeper you enter layers where the temperature suddenly drops substantially. These are called “thermoclines.” A lake of any depth usually has three. In Wyoming, the top layer is “cold,” the middle layer is “really, really cold,” and the bottom layer is “Yikes!” To combat this, a diver wears a “wet suit.” This is a close-fitting neck-to-ankle neoprene suit about three-eighths of an inch thick. It soaks up the cold water like a sponge and then holds a very thin layer of it against your skin. Your body heats that film of water up and suddenly, miraculously, you are warm.

The second problem is that most of the smaller, shallower lakes in the State are murky. The inflow and outflow of water create currents and the silt never has a chance to completely settle. And that was the reason for the expedition to Guernsey Reservoir. All that spring, as the snow in the mountains melted, the reservoir had been slowly filling up. But the farmers downstream traditionally don’t need irrigation water until the middle of June or later.

“If we can get there no later than the second weekend in June,” Tom the Divemaster told us, “we’ll have crystal-clear water to dive in.”

And so it turned out to be. There I was sitting on the bottom of the lake next to the boat anchor and looking up the anchor line. I could clearly see the bottom of the boat floating on the surface sixty feet away and divers entering the water by rolling backward off the boat.

Being deep underwater with a scuba tank on your back is an amazing thing. If you’ve balanced the flotation of the wet suit with your weight belt, you are neutrally buoyant. You neither float up nor sink down. A push of your hand or a kick of your flippers and you are headed in any direction. Fish swim by with minor curiosity, then go on about their business. Plants and rocks on the bottom of the lake become mysteries that must be explored.

After what seemed like only a few minutes of this, my breath became harder and harder to draw and I realized I was running out of air. A single scuba tank being used at 60 feet will provide enough air for about half an hour of diving time. Rather than leaving me in deep water unable to breathe, the equipment designers provided a safety measure called a “J Valve.” Along the side of my tank, there was a wire with a loop on the end that, when pulled, would give me the five more minutes of air that I would need to get easily to the surface.

I pulled the valve, took a couple of deep breaths, and decided that rather than go back up to the boat it would be more fun to paddle back to the shore along the bottom of the lake. I must have lost track of time again because it was surprising to be once more running out of air. There was no second J Valve to pull. With a thrill of fear, I kicked toward the surface. But what had seemed like very little air in my lungs steadily expanded to become plenty of air as the water pressure decreased. My head broke the surface only about twenty yards offshore.

Although I went on a couple more diving trips to some of the nearby murky lakes, due to a newly-acquired Summer Job it was not possible for me to go on the rest of the club’s major diving expeditions that season. And then, just as luck had brought me to Scuba Diving, the currents of my life shifted once more and I was to never again find myself bubbling my way through deep water. But I will never forget the joy of it.

It would not do to end this ramble without telling you my favorite of Tom Atwell’s stories.

Tom and several of the club’s more experienced divers would, during the long Wyoming winter, get the urge to go underwater. Since they couldn’t afford to fly to Cozumel, they would drive out to Lake Hattie, chop a hole in the ice, and dive in. Actually, when proper preparations were made, doing this was feasible. A little crazy, yes, but definitely feasible.

The main danger involved in diving under the ice is not, as you would expect, the risk of heart failure when you first jump into the icy cold water. It is that once you are in the water more than a few feet down if you look back up toward the hole you can’t see it. All you see is your lifeline going up into a general glare. This rope that is firmly tied to you becomes literally what its name implies. If it is broken or lost you can only feel your way around under the ice sheet hoping to find the hole before your air runs out.

To dive under the ice, one first has to have an extra thick wetsuit that includes a hood, gloves, and booties. Tom and a couple of his friends were so equipped. Just as he was preparing to jump in, Tom recognized an ice fisherman, a friend of his Father’s named Frank, who had set up his stool next to a hole in the ice about 50 feet away. Frank had had his back to the divers the whole time and didn’t know what was going on, so Tom decided to play a little prank on him. Tom took a careful compass reading of the ice fisherman’s position and then entered the water.

With an eye on the compass, and after his body temperature had normalized, Tom swam down to the bottom of the lake and picked up a handful of waterweeds that were growing there. Tom’s diving glove was black neoprene with a bright yellow line that ran around the tips of each of its three fingers. Wrapping the weeds around his left hand, he checked the compass again and kicked upwards.

Tom proceeded slowly under the ice sheet, feeling his way until he found Frank’s ice fishing hole. Chuckling to himself, he put his left arm up through the hole and patted it around on the ice. Then he put his head up through the hole, pulled his mask off, and prepared to say, “I gave you a start there, didn’t I?”

The stool was knocked over, the pole and tackle box were left on the ice, Frank was about 70 feet away and running as hard as he could go.

Skating with Shirley

When you live in Laramie, Wyoming – where it is, essentially, winter for 8 months a year – you tend to accumulate a lot of Winter sports equipment. On one side of our garage, there was a corner reserved for skis, poles, and ski boots. We put toboggans, plastic saucers, and regular sleds in the rafters overhead (I have never understood what possible purpose the steel runners on a sled serve. If the hill you’re trying to slide down is covered with anything more snowlike than a half-inch of glare ice, the runners just sink in and stop. “Rosebud” my butt.) And the odd-shaped, little storage space under the laundry room steps was where we kept the ice skates.

There were several places around Laramie to go ice skating. One of the Old Man’s friends was a rancher who kept a trout pond on his property. We were welcome to skate on the pond whenever the ice was solid enough. Because the wind moved the surface of the water around while it was freezing, the ice on the pond was bumpy and caused you to fall down a lot. Another option was on the Northside of town where there was a large pond affectionately known to the locals as “Stink Lake”. When Laramie was in its early days, the pond had served as the town’s sewage lagoon. Many years later, it gave off very little odor but still kept the name. By Halloween, the pond was frozen over. After that, the town fire department would periodically come out and spray water on it, thereby making a pretty good skating surface.

But the best place to go skating was the Laramie City Skating Rink at Undine Park. The Rink was built like a stockade with 10 foot high, weathered wood walls around the perimeter and two big poles that came up out of the ice in the center. Instead of a roof, there were 2 foot wide strips of heavy muslin hung overhead like sheets on clotheslines. Attached to one side was a “warming hut” that included the main entrance to the rink.

The patrons, usually with their skates hung around their necks by the laces, would come in, pay their 25 cents, then find a place on the several rows of benches to remove their shoes and put on their skates. There were heavy rubber mats on the floors and out to the rink so you could walk around – ka-lunk, ka-lunk – with your skates on. Then it was through an inner door, across a porch, and out onto the ice. In the daytime, the muslin overhead blocked the sun’s direct glare and gave the place a nice, subdued illumination. But at night, there were floodlights that made it seem almost magical.

Most of the people would skate clockwise in a large oval around the outside of the two poles. If you were a pretty good skater and wanted to show off a little, you could skate in the center of the rink. Here were the people who could skate backward and do little leaps and spins. There was a scratchy PA system and over the constant sound of steel blades scraping on the ice they would play all the old chestnuts like “Roll Out the Barrel,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” and, of course, “The Skater’s Waltz.”

By the time I was in the last couple of years of High School, I had nearly stopped going to the Rink. I found that I preferred skiing to skating for winter fun. Skiing was considered to be “cooler” than skating, and when you fell down, packed snow was a lot easier on your rear end than hard ice. Instead of having to stay balanced on 1/4 inch blades, I had a full 3 inches of ski to stay on top of, not to mention stiff, plastic boots clamped to my feet that took my weak ankles completely out of the picture.

When I was a Senior, a pretty little Sophomore named Shirley caught my eye and we began to return each other’s smiles in the hallways between classes. She was cute, with a generous spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks and she wore her hair in a long braid that hung down well below her waist. In a short time, we were dating.

In a little Wyoming town in the winter, there isn’t much to do on a Friday night except go to the movies. So on our third date, we arrived at the Wyo Theater on the East edge of town expecting to see The Pink Panther. Unfortunately for us, they had, just that day, changed the feature to a schlock horror movie. Instead of Inspector Clousseau, we were being offered The Night of the Living Corpse Bride.  Neither of us was thrilled.

“There must be something else we could do,” I said. “But I can’t think of anything. Have you got any ideas?”

“Well… we could go skating,” she suggested.

A goofy grin lit up my face. I thought that was a great idea. We could get bundled up and hang on to each other as we giggled our way around the rink. Maybe a stolen kiss in a dark corner followed by a cup of hot chocolate in the warming hut. “This,” I thought, “would be fun.”

My house was closer so I left Shirley in the car with the heater on while I went in and rummaged around under the back stairs for a pair of skates. I’d grown out of the pair I’d used the year before, but my brother Lewis’ skates would fit fine if I put on an extra pair of heavy socks. I grabbed a hat, a muffler, and some gloves and I was out the door.

My old Plymouth had one continuous bench seat, which may not have been very comfortable, but allowed your girl to snuggle up next to you as you drove – a major plus. We crossed the viaduct and went to Shirley’s house on the West side of town. Being more polite than I was, she invited me in to talk to her mother while she got ready.  Having covered the weather, and how did I like school, her mother and I were straining to fill the awkward silence with small talk when Shirley reappeared. She had put on some warm leggings and a short wooly skirt and had wound her long braid of hair into a large knot on the back of her head. Instead of a pair of skates hanging around her neck, she was carrying a little suitcase.

In the warming hut, we sat down to put on our skates. She had hers out of the little suitcase, on her feet, and laced up in the time it took me to put on the extra pair of socks and get my feet into Lewis’ skates. When I went to tighten them up, one of the old, frayed laces snapped in two.

“Why don’t you go ahead,” I suggested. “It’ll take me a while to fix this.”

She smiled, said “Okay,” and left me to it.

Having knotted together the ends of the broken lace and rethreaded it through the eyeholes, I finally managed to tie the uneven lengths into a serviceable bow and I headed for the door out onto the ice.

My skating style was to kind of run in place until I had some momentum and then glide for a few seconds. After I had built up a little speed,  I could push off from the inside edge of one skate, then glide a bit balanced on the other skate. Then I’d push with that one. I was a little wobbly and due to my unsteady ankles I had a tendency to catch an edge and go careening off in an undesired direction from time to time, but I could mostly keep up with the stream of people skating around and around.

After about half a lap, I pulled over and looked for Shirley among the oncoming skaters. I didn’t see her for a while and began to wonder where she’d got to when my attention was drawn by the higher-level skaters in the center. There was Shirley, gliding along on one skate, arms out to her sides, as graceful as any swan. She wasn’t just good, she was really good. She went into a little spin, and then took off backward, leaped up, made a full turn in the air, and landed smoothly on one leg. Setting her skates on edge, she suddenly stopped, sending a little shower of snow across the ice.

My hopes of silly fun, holding hands, and skating around together to the “Blue Danube” evaporated. I made my way back around the Rink to a long bench next to the warming hut door where I sat and watched Shirley skate. She looked for me once or twice and came over to ask me if I was okay. I told her yes, I’d been skating, how impressed I was by her skill, and that I was enjoying myself just watching her.

Later, I took her home, kissed her goodnight, and then never asked her out again.

Why not? I’m sure I had some rationale at the time, but the truth was I was intimidated. I was struggling just to get a few leaves up above the soil and she had already begun to blossom.  Since that time, I have been close to more than a few folks who were extraordinarily gifted in one way or another (the woman I am married to, for example, has spent the majority of her life developing her innate talent as an actor) and never once has anyone asked or demanded that I disregard the path I am following to help them follow theirs.  But I was young and insecure with a generous dollop of foolishness. Perhaps I did us both a favor and perhaps I missed out on a great adventure.

A few years later I heard that Shirley had auditioned for the chorus line in The Ice Follies and had gotten the job. Good for her. She probably has grandchildren now. I wonder if she takes them skating.

Sluggo? Is That You?

In 1992, when I was “between wives,” I began a relationship with a woman named Leila (pronounced Lee-ai-la). She was more than 10 years my junior and quite scenic. But her beauty wasn’t what attracted me to her, it was her personality – she was quirky bordering on neurotic, unfiltered, unpredictable, and very funny. She was like that hot little sports car in the showroom. The one that grabs a man’s imagination and makes his heart beat fast, the one he has to take out for a test drive, and the one that goes back into the showroom when he drives away with the sensible mini-van.

Leila was a cat person. She had an orange tabby that she doted on and almost from our first date, she was after me to get a cat of my own. When we were in my little house she would show me where my new cat’s dishes would go and where was the best place for a litter box. When we were in her apartment she would make me pet her cat and tell me how much better off I’d be if I had one. Finally, after all the kitty proselytizing, I allowed as how I might consider it.

“But,” I said, “I’m not interested in just any cat. It has to be a particular cat, okay? I want a male that’s calico-colored. I want a kitty who’ll grow up big and stocky and have a take-no-crap attitude. His name will be Sluggo and he has to fit it.”

She was as pleased as any missionary with a new convert and said that we should start looking that weekend. I smiled and tried to put on the face of a man who’d just seen the light. I looked forward to spending a lot of time with her, driving around looking for addresses of people with kittens to give away, playing with lots of cute little squeakers, and then going home afterward seemingly disappointed and ready to be cheered up. For I knew something she did not. Calico cats are always female.

For a while, things went perfectly. We lived in a little Iowa town of 7,000 souls called Fairfield and Leila kept her eye on local bulletin boards and newspaper classifieds. Several times a week she’d find a “Kittens looking for a home” notice and the next day we’d be ringing their doorbell.

“Look at this one,” she’d say, holding out some little fluffball. “Isn’t it adorable?”

“Very cute,” I’d agree and skritch it between the ears. “Too bad he’s not a calico,” or “too bad she’s a girl.”

One evening I had just pulled a nice little rib steak off the barbecue and was sitting down to eat when Leila walked through the back door with a folded newspaper in her hand.  She sat down next to me and, without a word, drilled me with a disgusted look. I was well aware of her strict vegetarianism and so happily continued my meal, ignoring her attempts to drown each bite with guilt. I confess I even smacked my lips as I ate and grunted with pleasure.

Being able to stand it no longer, she yelled, “LOVE ANIMALS, DON’T EAT THEM!” Then she flounced into the living room (which, in my little place, took about two steps) and plopped herself onto the couch.

I had to take a little time for my ears to stop ringing before I could finish the last bite. After I had scraped, rinsed, and stacked my dishes, I turned and said, “Hi Leila! Nice to see you. How have you been?”

“You’re despicable, “she said, “I detest the ground you walk on. But I’m also very fond of you for absolutely no reason I can think of.”

“Well, that makes us even, because I’m fond of me too. So what’s up?”

Suddenly excited again, she held up the newspaper she’d brought.

“I got a copy of the Ottumwa Courier. Look in the classified ads.”

She turned the paper to a back page, folded it over, and handed it to me. Under “Miscellaneous” an ad had been circled with a pen. “Calico Kittens to give away. Big litter. Lots to choose from.” Underneath that was an address and phone number.

“Feel like taking a drive to Ottumwa?” she grinned.

Ottumwa is about 25 miles East of Fairfield. In every geographical area in this country, there is one town that the surrounding communities all make fun of as “The place where the stupid people live.” In Southeast Iowa, the butt of these jokes was always Ottumwa.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m off work,” I said. “How about we drive over after lunch. That’ll give me time to get some aluminum foil to make hats for us.”

“Whatever for?”

“Brain protectors,” I said with as straight a face as I could muster. “No use driving into Ottumwa if you’re not prepared.”

***

The homeowner, Margaret, introduced herself and led us around to the back of her house where a high-sided cardboard box sat on a wooden picnic table.

“We had them in a shallower box for a while, but the little boogers kept climbing out so we put ’em in here.”

We looked into the box and at the mass of little fuzzy bodies therein. Most of them had white, orange, and black spots all over. What with the constant motion it made it almost impossible to count them. There was one gray kitten and one black.

“Look at this one,” I said to Leila as I picked up one of the kittens. “It’s got a patch over one eye like a pirate.”

She didn’t answer as she had a kitty in each hand and was burying her face in them. “Don’t you love how the little meemers smell?” she said as she pulled her face away.

Margaret said, “The gray one and the black one are the boys.”

“You don’t have any boys that are calico?” Leila said, a little crestfallen.

“Heavens no, dear,” came the reply. “All calicos are female, didn’t you know that?”

As we drove away I was all innocence and surprise. “Well. that’s bizarre,” I said. “No wonder we haven’t been able to find Sluggo.  He doesn’t actually exist.”

She gave me an appraising look and decided to let it go. “I feel like a cup of coffee. let’s look for a place.”

While I waited for the coffee, she excused herself and was gone for a lot longer than the average trip to the bathroom. When she returned, she had a slip of paper in her hand.

“I noticed a laundromat across the street. They always have good bulletin boards,” she said as she dropped the paper in front of me. “Check it out, Sweetie.”

scrawled on the paper was the following notice, “We got a bunch of kitens to give away.”

I found a payphone and a deep, spooky voice gave me an address. It turned out to be a shoddy doublewide trailer with a weed-choked lawn. There was an old pickup on concrete blocks instead of wheels in front. As we walked to the door I was thinking I should have made those tinfoil hats after all.

The woman who answered the door was missing some teeth, but very friendly as she offered us some lemonade.

“Oh no, thanks anyway. Where are the kittens?”

“They’re just all over. You’ll have to look around.”

They had blankets hanging over the windows so even though it was a bright, sunny day, inside that trailer it was a twilight world. Luckily her husband – tall, gaunt, and pallid – was watching a game show on television and the reflected light allowed us to see a few kittens as they ran around and climbed the furniture.

Leila had found an orange kitten under the toe kick of a cabinet and was bringing it to me to look at. At that moment I saw a dark shape with a little bit of white run out from under the coffee table and hide under a rocking chair. I got down on my knees and fished him out. Yes, it was a “him,” I checked. I held the kitten up and looked him in the face. He had a small nose and mouth, big eyes, and giant ears. Then that “small” mouth opened into a huge cavity and a plaintive little squeak emerged. At that moment, there was a connection.

“Sluggo?” I asked. “Is that you?” He began to purr.

If a person could hurt themselves by smiling too much, Leila would have had to put her chin in a sling for a week. The little guy went to sleep in a fold of my jacket as we drove back home to Fairfield.

Standup

It was sometime near the beginning of 1967 that I first fell in love with the idea of becoming a standup comedian.  For some people, just the thought of standing all alone on a stage in front of a big group of people and saying things that you hope will make them laugh would be the worst nightmare imaginable. To me, it seemed like my dream job.

How did this love affair begin? It was a conversation I fell into with a couple of guys in the University of Wyoming Student Union.  They’d sat down to talk to a mutual friend and happened to mention an audition they were preparing for.

“What sort of audition?” I asked.

“Every year the University sends a sort of variety talent show called “Wyo Days” out on tour around the state. They stop at High Schools and do shows,” one of them said. “The purpose is to get kids excited about enrolling at dear old Yewdub.”

“Bill and I play guitars and sing folk songs, like The Brothers Four minus Two, or the Kingston Duo.” the other added.

I laughed appreciatively, then asked, “What kind of acts are they looking for?”

“Just about everything but Contortionists and Clog Dancers. There’s a poster out in the lobby. Check it out.”

I quickly found the poster in question and looked it over carefully. There on the list of acceptable acts, in between “Singers” and “Musicians of every kind” was the word “Comedians.”  Fifteen minutes later I had booked an audition time for myself.

Now you’re probably wondering what a person who’d never done standup comedy before was going to use for material. First, I should say I had done it before – at parties and in front of small groups of friends – and what I had used for material then was what I planned to use again. And that was Brother Dave Gardner.

When my older brother Chuck was in the Air Force and stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi he went once to a club to see a comedian called Brother Dave Gardner. The guy made him laugh, so he bought his album and eventually brought it back home to Laramie. Brother Dave was a Southern comedian. Very Southern. He had a thick Southern accent and told jokes and stories about the South. Consequently, nobody in the North had ever heard of him. So I shamelessly stole from him everything I could. I rewrote some of his Southern vernacular into “Northernese.”  “Stewed tomato and okra sammiches” became “Deviled egg and mashed potato sammitches.” And his statement, “The other day I was in Hot Springs Arkansas where I saw them stupid, ignorant Southerners sellin’ water… to them brilliant Yankees” became “The other day I was in Thermopolis where I saw those stupid, ignorant Thermopolians sellin’ water… to those brilliant tourists.”

I did ten minutes of Brother Dave’s material at the audition and was invited to join the tour.

The auditions were held a couple of weeks before Winter Finals and rehearsals began a few days after the beginning of the new term. One of the requirements for being included on the tour was that everyone had to have at least a 2.0 Grade Point Average. When grades for the previous semester were released, two people had lost their places. The Tour Managers asked me to stay behind after the next rehearsal. It seemed that one of the losses was the Master of Ceremonies and the other was the bass player. They asked me if I would be interested in taking over the MC’s job as well as keeping my own standup slot.

“Sure,” I said. I have always felt that the best way of determining whether or not the water was over my head was to jump in first.

“By the way,” I added. “I was the bass player in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands in High School. I have a bass. If you can find me an amplifier, I can probably fill in for you there as well.”

Full disclosure: I wasn’t very good at playing the bass and I had no idea how to be an MC. I just thought, “I’ve been watching Ed Sullivan every Sunday night for years, how hard could it be?” What I found out was that it isn’t hard to be adequate, but it’s very difficult to be good. And as for my bass playing, they really only needed a bass player for the Herb Alpert song “Tijuana Taxi.” They had me wear a big, bouncy sombrero and dance around. When it came time for my solo – the five notes at the end of every verse that are followed by an Ooga Horn – if I flubbed it up I could just pull a funny face and let it become part of the act.

At the end of our little two-week tour, I came back with stars not just in my eyes but running out over the tops of my socks. Of course, I was not taking into account that I had been working in front of some of the easiest audiences on the planet – once I’d poked a few insults at the school that was their biggest rival, they loved me.  No, I only heard the raucous laughter as it had washed back at me from those crowds. I was ready to go out, grab the world by the lapels and say, “I got some jokes you’re gonna love!” I only lacked one thing: the courage to try.

Perhaps in the quiet caverns in the back of my brain, I was waiting for a little group of sycophants to come along who would help me, buck me up, write material for me, and be my biggest fans. What I didn’t realize was that when you have done all those things for yourself and no longer need anyone to do them for you, that’s the time when all those people will show up.

It was in the spring of 1989, more than twenty years later, that I packed up the Blue Goose – my old Dodge Van – and headed for Southern California. I had been regularly appearing at a small club in Denver that was trying out Comedy Night one night a week and I felt I was ready. I had vowed to stop cribbing from Brother Dave and had written about 10 minutes of original material. These jokes had not gone over particularly well in Denver but I convinced myself that they were just too “cutting-edge” for the Denver bumpkins and would “kill” in Los Angeles.

So I began a two-year journey through the grim and terrifying Pits of Hell that were the Los Angeles comedy clubs’ open-mic nights. Most LA comedy clubs give the slowest night of the week over to amateur comedians looking for a break. Whether it was The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, The Hollywood Improv, or the Icehouse in Pasadena, the routine was the same. The amateurs line up and take a number, then wait. First come professional comics who want to try out new material, and then newly-minted professionals hoping to impress the management of the club enough to consider taking them on as a regular. Finally, around 10:30, the beginning comedians are introduced and take the stage one-by-one. By that time the audience has mostly gone home leaving seven or eight people who are either too drunk to leave or who enjoy heckling nervous amateurs.

I was told it was helpful to record all your performances, even the ones that bombed, for there might be a few good nuggets that worked and that you could use again. I found one of those old tapes years later and it was painful just to listen to it. First would be my voice telling a joke, then a period of absolute silence broken only by the sound of a chair being scooted out. Then a nervous giggle from me, then another joke told with a quavery voice. And on from there.

I absorbed nearly three years of this punishment, all the while telling myself that I just had to stick it out a little bit longer and learn a little bit more. Eventually, I had to admit that this was another one of those things – like learning to play the piano – that I would never be able to do. What finally began the process of pushing me out the door was a comedian named Danny Mora, trying to be helpful, who told me the secret to stand-up comedy.

“The secret,” he said, “is your Comic Attitude. You have to find out what is the Point of View that makes you funny. What is the attitude toward the world that makes people laugh with you? Once you find that, strip everything else away and build your material around it. Look at Rodney Dangerfield. For years he banged around the LA clubs doing his one-liners and getting nowhere. Then one day he came up with “I don’t get no respect!” and suddenly his voice, his gestures, his jokes all fell together and he took off like a Roman Candle. To put it another way, you have to have such an obvious Comic Attitude that a skilled mimic can see your act 2 or 3 times and be able to do a spot-on impression of you.”

And I couldn’t do it. I could tell jokes, pull silly faces, and do crazy characters in funny stories. But as far as my own special point-of-view I was clueless. I lurched about town for a few months, trying different things out, until I finally realized that all these efforts were little more than Cheez-Whiz – something inauthentic concocted from mostly non-organic ingredients.

So with a heart much lighter than you would expect, I finally bid goodbye to the dream of spending my nights in smoke-filled bars telling smutty jokes to drunks. And I moved to Iowa.

Swimming Team

The fact that I can swim I owe to the Cub Scouts and to a gentleman I can only remember as Mister Rardin. When I was seven years old I joined the Cub Scouts of America, not because I wanted to but because my older brothers had and because my Mother was a Den Leader. None of the fathers in my neighborhood had the time or inclination to handle a group of hyperactive seven-to-ten-year-old boys every week and so the neighborhood Moms filled in. Kay Denniston, Fran Lemley, and even Mrs. Northen from across the alley took a turn.

The Cub Scouts had made an arrangement with the University of Wyoming to use their swimming pool every Monday Night to teach the little boys to swim. So every Monday evening my two cousins – Bob, who was about my age, and Ken, who was a year younger, were dropped off at the door to the University of Wyoming pool and picked up again about an hour later.

Let me put in here that I can’t imagine how this could work today.  Just imagine – it’s cool fall weather and getting dark outside. Cars pull up, little kids 7 or 8 years old get out and, by themselves, make their way into the locker room where they find an empty locker, hang up their clothes, and then scurry through the shower room and out to the main swimming pool for large, group swimming lessons.  And there is not a bathing suit among them. Got the picture? About 50 naked, squealing little boys and two or three grown men trying to teach them, en masse, how to swim.

Most of these kids are in the shallow end of the pool, some hanging onto the side and kicking their feet, others practicing blowing bubbles underwater. There are a few advanced kids paddling about in the deep end and one little boy, sitting against the wall, completely dry, and looking unhappy. That little boy would be me.

I was afraid of the water. To be precise, I was terrified that some cruel person would throw me in – either one of my older brothers had threatened me with this or I had watched such a scene in a movie sometime – and because I could not swim I would end up struggling and gasping for breath for a few minutes before drowning.

One of the swimming teachers was named Mister Rardin. To an 8-year-old boy, all grown men have the same first name – “Mister.” On the first day, when everyone else jumped into the pool and I hung back, he told me if I didn’t want to go in, I didn’t have to. And he made sure everyone else knew not to push me.  I stayed out of the water for the entire time that evening, even during the last twenty minutes which were “Free Time.”

A week later, it was pretty much the same, but Mr. Rardin did tell me that if I wanted to sit at the edge of the pool and get my feet wet during Free Time, that would be okay. So I did that and I kicked and splashed a little bit. After a couple more weeks of this slow approach, I was in the water not only during Free Time but during Instruction Time as well. I was kicking my feet, windmilling my arms, and blowing bubbles like the rest of the kids.

Two months later I could push off from one side of the shallow end and thrash my way across the pool to the other side. I could swim. And it was due to the kindness and patience of Mister Rardin.

*****

In the summer of 1962, in between my Sophomore and Junior years, an indoor swimming pool was added to Laramie High School. It was very exciting news and, along with most of my friends, I was determined to get into that pool as soon as it was ready. Since I had learned to swim, my swimming experience was in beaver ponds, in mountain lakes so cold you wanted to get out as soon as you jumped in, and in motel pools on sporadic family vacations.

The pool was first opened to the public in October. My friend John and I were among the first people to swim. And we had a blast. Actually, we had a blast for about an hour. Then our eyes began to burn so painfully we had to get out. A lot of chemicals had been dumped into the pool the day before, probably on the basis of “if a little bit kills off most of the bugs in the water, think what a good job a LOT will do.” On the way home, John and I had to pull over several times because our eyes were stinging so badly we couldn’t see the road.

A few weeks later, notices went up on school bulletin boards that Laramie High was going to field a competitive Swimming Team and tryouts would begin the following Monday. This was to be, of course, a boys’ team. All you had to do was to take a look at the baggy, frumpy gym outfits the girls were required to wear to know that putting teenage girls’ bodies in tight-fitting swimsuits was out of the question.

I should pause here to talk about the Old Man’s vicarious dreams of athletic glory. He grew up in Casper and was a skinny, myopic, and unathletic kid. It is, I think, part of the human condition that we all feel, at one time or another, somehow “less than.” Despite the fact that he was well-liked, witty, and imaginative, and had good, close friends that would be loyal his whole life, I think that his teenage brain harbored the thought, “If only I could be a football hero, I would be happy and fulfilled.”  And he never was and he never really got over it. By the time he was a grown man, a successful small-town Doctor, and had sons of his own, this feeling had not gone away. Instead, it had somehow morphed into, “If one or more of my sons could be a sports hero, then, at last, I would be happy and fulfilled.”

As each of us progressed into and through the halls of Laramie Senior High School, we each were subject to suggestions, hints, and periodic sarcastic jabs that we “ought to try out for the team.”  Perhaps because there were no inherited genes from either side of the family that pertained to Athletic Competition or perhaps out of sheer stubbornness on our part, not one of his sons chose to contend for the dear old Maroon and White.

So it was with mixed emotions that he received the news that I intended to try out for the Swimming Team. On the one hand, he was thrilled that at least it was an organized team of some kind and disappointed that pigskin was not involved.

One of the things that attracted me to the team was that none of the boys trying out had any competitive swimming experience. We were all just paddlers and nobody had a leg up. After Coach had eliminated the guys who couldn’t swim two lengths of the pool without stopping to catch their breath, there remained about twenty-five of us. We had a month to learn the different strokes and techniques before he would cut the squad to the final twenty.

I don’t think Coach knew very much more than the rest of us, but he’d read books, been supplied with diagrams, and had even located a few instructive films. So we began to learn. First, there was the Australian Crawl also known as Freestyle. The difficult part of this stroke for many is that you have to trust the mechanics of the stroke in order to breathe. You blow out air underwater.  Just when your lungs are empty, you turn your head to one side and there will be a pocket of air to breathe under your arm. Once you’ve got that rhythm and trust it, all you need to do is pull and kick through the water. Or, in my case, flail and churn.

The Australian Crawl was followed by Breaststroke and Backstroke and finally, the dreaded Butterfly Stroke. I’m pretty sure the last was devised and named by some sadistic soul who tossed living butterflies into the water then studied them as they frantically struggled to get to the shore. Instead of your arms coming out of the water one at a time, they both have to come out and plunge back in simultaneously. At the same time, you must keep your feet and knees together and kick with a long, rolling motion that starts at the lower back and hips. Only one of us, Glen, was able to accomplish this with some grace without appearing to be suffering from repetitive seizures.

As the days went by, team members with different skill sets were settling into various categories. Guys who were not fast swimmers but had staying power were moving toward the distance specialties. The guys with quickness were pointed toward the sprints. Some were better backstrokers and some were better at the breaststroke. A couple of guys were learning flips and twists off the diving board and they were obviously headed for the two Diving spots. I looked around me and, with a sinking heart, realized that I was bad to mediocre at everything. Rejection is painful at any age, but it is especially sharp when you are sixteen.

It wasn’t that I loved swimming so much, but more the desire not to be cut, that induced me to walk up to Coach and say, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to work on Butterfly.” Bemused, he agreed. And from then onward, whenever there were exercises like wind sprints and everyone else would do them in their chosen stroke, Glen and I would Butterfly.  Since in every meet every team is expected to provide two competitors, I made the team as the Second Butterfly Specialist.

Then we began a series of Swim Meets with other high schools in the area that had teams – University Prep, Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, and Casper. Because the competition was so limited, we swam against each of these teams several times. The question was never whether or not we were going to win – being a first-year team we always lost – but if we were able to make a little better showing than the previous time. I would like to say that I surprised myself and everybody with my swimming prowess, but that was not the case. The best I ever did was third place. It was a four-man race and one of the other guys accidentally touched his feet to the bottom of the pool and was disqualified.

The Wyoming State Swim Meet was to be held in February 1963. Because Laramie had a brand new facility, the meet was held in our home pool. I told my family about the State Meet and even when  I would be swimming. Because there were a few other towns in Wyoming such as Thermopolis and Sheridan that had teams, in Butterfly there would be two preliminary heats, the top three finishers in each heat would swim in the final.

Some families are the “rallying around” kind. If one of their children is in some performance or athletic competition Mom and Dad are there to cheer their offspring on. Afterward, whether the kid has won or lost, they are there for emotional support. This was not my family. I was, for example, in Little League for three years. Neither of my parents ever came to a game.  My brother Lewis and I were in plays, science fairs, and speech competitions that our parents did not attend. After my High School Graduation ceremony, as all the other kids’ families gathered around to give congratulations and take pictures, I went out to my car and drove home alone.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came out of the locker room to warm up for my heat to see the Old Man sitting in the middle of the spectators’ section. Not wanting to spoil my concentration on the upcoming event, I did not look at him or try to catch his eye. Once or twice I glanced over there just to make sure it was really him.

When the call came to “take your marks,” I mounted the block and felt the edge of the tile with my toes. “Set” came and I leaned forward, ready to dive. A pistol shot rang out and I hurled myself into the water, did a few dolphin kicks to get back up to the surface, and began the stroke.

A high school swimming pool is 25 yards long. In a one hundred-yard Butterfly race the competitor has to swim four lengths of the pool, two down and two back. I had drawn lane one, which happened to be the lane closest to the spectators’ seats. At the end of the first length, I was already behind but not by much. At around fifty yards I began to tire. As I approached the wall at the far end on my third length I could hear the crowd cheering as the other swimmers were finishing the race. When I made my turn I glanced up into the stands and I saw the Old Man’s face. It was glowing a bright, cherry red.

I clumsily swam the last twenty-five yards all alone as all the other swimmers had finished and were climbing out of the pool. When, at last, I hauled myself out and looked over at the stands, the Old Man was gone. That evening he did not mention that he had been there and I did not ask.

Washington Park and the Bandshell

When I was about two – so I am told, I remember nothing – my parents bought a house way out on the East edge of Laramie, just across 18th Street from a City park.

The land for the Park was reserved in the early half of the 2oth Century. At first, it was just sagebrush and occasional tufts of wild grass, indistinguishable from the prairie land that surrounded it. But over the years the brush was pulled out, the land was graded, water pipes installed, and trees and grass were planted. By the time we Peltons had moved into the house at 1717 Kearney, the big, empty space had become Washington Park.

As I grew, the City Parks Department made just the improvements that I needed. When I got old enough to hang by my knees from a horizontal steel pipe, a playground was added with monkey bars, teeter-totters, a merry-go-round, and swings. When I got to be ten, Little League came to Laramie and the Eastern end of Washington Park was turned into two back-to-back baseball fields. I was to spend the better parts of the next three Summers sitting on benches next to batting cages and chanting, “Hey batta batta! Swing batta batta!”* When the baseball season ended we scrounged up a football and choose sides for games after school and on weekends. Obligingly, the Parks Department flattened out the hump that had run down the middle of the park where the old water lines had been laid.

I started to wonder if they had an employee keeping track of my friends and me just to see what the next thing we might need would be. The air went quickly out of that pompous theory when they put in a six-inch-deep wading pool.

*******

In the Spring, “a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love” but a young boy’s fancy turns to kites. For 15 cents you could buy a kite kit – two balsa wood sticks and an elongated diamond-shaped piece of paper printed with a loud, colorful design. Fifty cents more for a couple of balls of string and some strips of cloth from the rag-bag and you were ready to become the Master of the Skies.  It took 10 or 15 minutes to assemble a kite – there were always instructions printed on the kite itself – and this included the time to tie together those 4 or 5 strips of cloth for a tail. Once it was together you were off to Washington Park to get that puppy airborne.

The picture or cartoon of a kid holding onto a string, running like a madman, and dragging a kite behind him on the ground is pretty much a cliché in most parts of the country. If you have little or no wind, you try to make do with muscle power. In Laramie, lack of wind was never a problem. All you had to do was pay out about fifty feet of string and then have a friend pull the kite back until the string was taut and let it go. The ever-present wind would immediately lift the kite into the air. The main concern was that a sudden, strong gust could snap the string or wreck the kite. Then you would find yourself running and shouting, “No, no!” as your kite fluttered toward the trees and power lines at the far end of the park.

Getting the kite into the air was exciting, but once it was up there, well, things got pretty monotonous. You could pull the string this way and that, hoping to get the kite to dive, or pump the string trying to make it climb higher, but all that had little effect. The kite just floated up there waving at you stupidly. Now when one is standing there, bored and holding onto a stick to which one end of a kite string is attached, one of the best things you can hope for is to see a Young Father walk into the park with a little kid or two in tow and a kite in his hand.

Young Fathers always seem to have a problem reading directions. Perhaps they don’t want to let their offspring know that The Old Man is, in truth, not some variety of omniscient god. To make a kite fly properly, you must tie a piece of string to one end of the horizontal cross-stick, then pull it tightly enough that this stick bends into a bow before you tie the string to the other end. This is explained in detail in the instructions that the Young Father disdains to read.

Once the Young Father’s kite, minus the necessary bow-string, is in the air, it spins around in a couple of big circles before crashing into the ground. We ten-year-old kite-flying veterans, stony-faced, sidle together and give each other elbows. After several of these whirling crashes, the Young Father comes up with a solution – add more tail! I have seen kites whirling helplessly in circles with twenty feet of torn rags tied into a long tail, one end of which is attached to the kite and the other end is dragging on the grass. And the Young Father is looking speculatively at his son’s T-shirt.

*******

When kids get together, some type of game will almost invariably start up. In our end of town, if it was a game that didn’t require a lot of real estate, like “Swing the Statue” or “Freeze Tag,” someone’s front or side yard would usually suffice. But if you needed space, you went across the street to the Park. If you didn’t have enough kids for a pickup baseball game, you could play “500.” One guy would hit balls fungo-style to two to five kids standing about 100 feet away. Catching a ball on the fly was worth 50 points, a one-hopper was 30, a two-hopper was 20, and a grounder was 10. Whoever got to 500 first took over the bat.

If there were enough kids to put together two teams (a minimum of five on each side) then we’d use the concrete-and-stucco structure known as the Bandshell as a backstop.

In 1940 the Works Progress Administration, the largest and most ambitious of FDR’s New Deal programs, built an Art Deco-style bandshell on the Southwest Corner of Washington  Park. The structure consists of a 3-foot high semicircular concrete platform with a curved back wall like a section from an eggshell (hence the name). A high elliptical arch fronts the shell and acts as a proscenium. The whole thing is sturdily built and faced with a thick, white stucco. That this structure was built nearly 80 years ago by mostly unskilled men using only hand tools is something of a marvel.

When I was 11 and 12, I played baseball in two different areas of Washington Park. On the Eastern, Little League, end of the Park I learned not only the rudiments of the game but also some of its nuances. I learned things like hitting the cut-off man, bluffing the runner back to the base, and the Infield Fly Rule. On the Western, sandlot-style end of the Park, I learned how to cuss. I learned what adjectives went with what nouns, what words would get you a laugh, and what words would get you a fight. Now as an adult I can watch a game on television and thoroughly enjoy the subtleties of a game that others might find tedious. And if an umpire makes an obviously terrible call against my favorite team, I can scream at the TV set in Technicolor.

*******

Every Summer, from June through August, Tuesday night was Band Concert night. The Band consisted of male volunteers who had played instruments in marching bands in High School and College and though they were engaged in a variety of other occupations, still had that itch to play. I should say that I don’t remember ever seeing a woman upon the bandshell stage tootling out her part of “Lady of Spain.” More than likely, when it came to brass bands and social norms of the time, the only instrument a female participant was allowed to hold was a twirling baton.

As the sun was setting on a typical Tuesday afternoon, people carrying blankets and picnic baskets began staking out areas of grass in front of the bandshell. At the same time, musicians appeared on the bandshell stage setting up chairs and music stands. As the last warm light of the sunset faded and the blue of the skies turned to purple, the musicians, in black suits and white shirts, were in their chairs and ready. The Conductor raised his hands and the music began. Out on the lawn, about 200 people sat quietly and listened. Behind them, 30 or 40 kids did neither.

When you’re an adult, it requires a certain amount of self-discipline and responsibility to stop sitting quietly and to get up and run around. When you’re a kid it’s just the opposite. We had just spent an entire Winter trying to sit quietly in school and it was finally summer. We ran everywhere. While the adults sat on their blankets and listened to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Blue Danube,” behind them the kids were running the four-minute mile with Roger Bannister and being American jets dive-bombing the Commies. Being ever agreeable to us kids, the Laramie Parks Department had scheduled Monday as the day the grass on the West end of Washington Park was to be mowed. A small tractor pulling a gang of reel-type mowers reduced the quickly-growing grass to a level surface. And all that recently cut grass was left lying on top of it. By Tuesday night, these clippings were perfect for scooping up and throwing.

That a handful of grass would not pack together snowball-fashion meant only that a kid had to be much closer to his target. Two or three feet away and running at full speed was optimal. During all this, a cheerful attitude was important. Anyone who got angry or vengeful could find himself being held down while his T-shirt and pants were stuffed with itchy clippings.

Finally, and always too soon, the band would strike up “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the concert would come to an end. While the adults folded blankets and picked up sleeping toddlers, we kids would be shaking the grass clippings out of our clothes as we headed for home. As we walked, we talked about the next day- what we could do for fun and how we could avoid the chores that our parents were undoubtedly scheduling for us.

*******

*Watch for an upcoming post called “Little League”