Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Your Fraidy Hole?

The conversation dealt with fear. It took place between the Missus and I over a plate of scrumptious ribs and beans at the Rib Crib. Umm, umm umm. Thinking back on your life, what time or place or incident struck fear to your very core? Was it an important academic test? A close call on the highway? An encounter with a criminal element? Was there something that left you gasping for breath or shaking in your boots. I’m sure everyone, at some point, had something quite unexpected happen that you will always remember and maybe have nightmares about. For the Missus, her scariest time was childbirth. What’s yours?

In keeping with the theme of the novel Fraidy Hole where poor Melissa struggles to stay alive, I invite you to submit your scariest moment. I will reprint it on my blog, keeping it anonymous if you prefer. To start if off, here’s mine:

I was in my third year of enlistment in the good ol’ U.S of N., The United States Navy. Instead of some exotic port in the Far East, I had the misfortune of being assigned to duty at Chase Field, Beeville by Gawd Texas. It was a Naval Aviation training facility, VT-26, where fresh young ensigns, just out of the classrooms and propeller trainers, were taught how to fly an actual jet airplane, the F11F. I, being a lowly 3rd class Petty Officer, had the title of Aviation Electronics Technician. My job was on the flight line, the tarmac, where dozens of planes went off to the wild blue yonder on a daily basis. Any radio or navigation instrument problems on the airplanes were my responsibility to fix… and as quickly as possible.

The scary day happened when I heard a call on the line shack radio that plane #301 (I’ll never forget that number) had a problem. It was the lead plane, the instructors. in a flight of four. All were fired up, engines on idle, ready to take off and serve their country, but there was a problem, the radio was dead. You can’t teach young men how to fly with the birds if your radio doesn’t work.

I pulled out the ladder steps on the side of the airplane—directly in front of the jet intake where hundreds of razor sharp turbine blades sucked at your body—and asked (yelled at) the pilot what was wrong. He pointed at the microphone and gave me a thumbs down. No transmitter. There wasn’t time for a whole lot of trouble shooting, not with four jet engines sucking gas, and I decided to go ahead and swap out the radio with a good one that I always had on my little yellow vehicle.

The way you got to the radio was this: Under the plane and just behind the nose gear, there was a panel with a latch and a hinge. The radio was mounted on the back side of that panel. Working as fast as I could, I removed the connectors, the antenna cable, and the safety wire that kept the lockdown screws in place, and made the change out. It took about five minutes. I come out from under the plane and the pilot now has his thumb up. All is well and the flight taxies to the end of the runway. Here, the ordinance boys load them up with live ammo for today’s target practice.

It was on the way back to my work station that had I this awful little thought. “Did I shut the hatch after I finished up…or not?” With that hatch open, the nose gear could not retract and when the hydraulics meet an immovable object well, nothing good could come of it. I dash into the line shack where they have communication with the tower and told him to hold 301 until I could check it. But his radio wasn’t working right and he’s not getting an answer and when he finally does get through… “Too late, they just took off.”

I’m sweating bullets. Did the ammo guys catch the problem? If there was one? All seems normal. No excited SOS calls on the radios. Nobody  is screaming “EJECT, EJECT!” I had just started to breath again when I hear the sirens from the emergency vehicles start up. Oh shit.

Have I just caused a million dollar aircraft to crash? And OH MY GOD, what if the pilot is injured or… no, I don’t want to think about that. At the very least, I’m going to the brig, twenty, thirty years? If there was ever a time when I wanted to go AWOL, that was it. There was nothing I could do but stand there, heart beating out of chest, and wait. The flight circles the field and, one by one, hit the runway while the fire trucks watch. Then I see it, old #301 taxiing to his designated spot, the plane captain directing his movements. The emergency trucks are still on the runway, ready to deal with some other potential problem but 301 is safely home.

Of course that happened many years ago. I doubt this old heart could beat that fast and hard again and not spring a leak somewhere. The flashing red lights would be coming in my direction.

Now, what’s your scariest moment?

The F11F Tiger Cat

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rodeo Clown

Is there any time in your life quite as unique and blissful as that period between high school graduation and the realization that you might have to actually find a job? It’s the endless summer, a garden of Eden, a carefree lifestyle filled with sunshine and fun that you hope will last forever.

It was just such a scenario for yours truly, way back in the summer of ’58, when an aunt an uncle arrived in Oklahoma for a visit with my parents. Tommy and Cora had a farm in southwest Missouri, but their real love was for the rodeo. No, Tommy didn’t ride bucking broncos and Cora didn’t do the barrel races; it was their children, Bill and Joanne, and their trick riding act that brought smiles to their faces. My cousins were about the same age as I, Bill one year younger, and Joanne a little older. They’d been doing their act at rodeos across the country for several summers and were quite good at it with contracts extending into the next season.

I can’t exactly remember how the subject came up while we were all sitting around the dinner table that evening, but uncle Tommy casually made the suggestion that I accompany their family and the act for an upcoming string of rodeo appearances. He explained the itinerary; they would be going north, up though Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota before heading southward for the next show at Wichita, Kansas where we would meet up with my folks and that would be the end of the tour for me.

I thought it the most exciting idea I’d heard in a long time. My dad was more than willing to get me out of the house, but mom was concerened (as mothers always are.)  More talk eased her fears. The great adventure had begun.

Now I had lived on a farm until I was twelve years old and knew one end of a horse from the other. I even had my own pony for Pete’s sake. But that limited experience qualified me for the job I assumed on the road, feeding the horses, cleaning out the stalls and horse trailers, as well as being the all around go-fer.

It was fun, exciting even, a sort of showbiz atmosphere with big crowds and dozens of cowboys riding huge bulls, bucking horses, and roping calves. I loved watching my cousins perform, bounding on and off their horses, twisting and spinning, all at full gallop. Joanne did a trick called the Death Drag where she hung backwards off the saddle with her head only inches from thundering hooves. Bill’s specialty was a Roman Ride, two horses, one foot on the back of each, while he raced around the arena. The people loved it, showering them with enthusiastic applause at the end of their act.

But it was the Wichita show, the single rodeo that will stay in my memory as long as I have a memory. Somewhere between Minnesota and Kansas, uncle Tommy came up with an idea, a new twist for the act. At the end of the trick riding, Joanne would emerge out the top of a round platform shaped and decorated like an Indian tom-tom. Like many young girls of that era, my female cousin had taken lessons in dance, ballet I think, and would showcase her abilities while dressed in a white Indian princess outfit of leather and colored beads. The idea was that Joanne would represent the final vision of a wounded and dying Indian warrior played by cousin Bill. At the conclusion of the dance, the warrior was to fall off his horse, graveyard dead, with a fading spotlight representing his spirit on its way to the Happy Hunting Ground (people were more easily amused in those days). There was one final detail. Tommy wanted someone to hold the fallen warrior’s horse as smoke bombs (ignited by my someone hidden inside the drum) erupted, signifying the end of the act. That someone, as it turned out, would be me. Tommy insisted that I also wear Indian regalia in keeping with the theme of the act. Now, picture a skinny (135 lb) white kid, without so much as a summer tan, wearing a loin cloth and moccasins, standing in the middle of a crowded rodeo arena, under a spotlight, trying to pass as an Indian. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Ridiculous. It got worse.

Some local carpenters made the drum and we did a quick rehearsal the morning of the show with only minor problems. It was simple enough. What could possibly go wrong?

That night, all was going well. The trick riding went off without a hitch or a fall. The arena went dark for a minute while rodeo cowboys carried the so called drum to center stage. Joanne did her dance…beautiful. Bill was nearby, astride his horse, head down. The horse with its back bowed and hooves together, hit the stance seen in the familiar western sculpture, End of the Trail, by James Earle Fraser ( the same guy that designed the buffalo/Indian head nickel.)

The Indian princess finishes her dance, the mortally wounded warrior falls to the ground, the geeky white kid holds the reins. That’s when the smoke bombs went off. I don’t know if the horse had missed that part of the rehearsal, but it acted as if a volcano had suddenly erupted under his belly. The horse reared, and much to the delight of the crowd, jerked the skinny white boy completely off his feet. It hopped. It spun. It pulled against the reins.  Thank God, I was able to hold on to the beast and avoided being drug halfway across Wichita. It was the end of my rodeo career.

Oh, did I mention that while in Kansas, I got to meet Jay Silverheels, the guy that played Tonto in the Lone Ranger show? If Mr. Silverheels had witnessed my embarrassment the previous evening, he had the decency and class to not bring it up. I always did like Tonto.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ewww! That's Disgusting!

It never fails. Whenever you’re the most vulnerable, fate somehow finds a way to kick you in the pants. As the saying goes, if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Consider:

It was a dark and stormy Friday night. Well, not so much stormy as cold. Temps were in the mid-twenties as a gusty north wind blew across the plain. The young grandson was here. Good kid, great kid, but he has this maddening tendency to overload the commode with excessive toilet paper. When I heard an ominous gurgle from the bathtub drain, I knew it had happened again. A near overflow from the stool confirmed it. No dish washing, no flushing, and no showers. The forecast was for severe cold and snow. Plumbers charge more for Saturday calls than six months worth of Social Security checks. It was time for action.

With one arm in a sling from shoulder surgery, I was among the handicapped. (Yet, not one medical person had offered me a blue mirror tag for the best parking spots.) Under normal conditions (for a two-armed guy) the solution is to open a clean-out vent just outside the house, stick a hose down in it, apply water, problem solved. Not this time.

With the Missus holding the flashlight, I shoved the hose in even further than usual, the thinking being I could push the blockage on out and into the tank. Wrong! I encountered zero resistance (uh oh), but when I went to retrieve the hose, it hung up. No amount of tugging would work it loose. I could visualize the knot in the far end, tangled and jammed against the discharge pipe, covered in you know what.

Luckily I had marked the access opening to the septic tank with a stick and the dirt was easy to dig. At least that’s what the Missus was saying as she laid the shovel to it. She said some other things as well but they will not be repeated here.

I had some disposable hospital gloves and I put them on to work with the tangle. The sights and smells were as nasty as nasty gets but the kink was quickly taken care of and removal was a snap from that point. There was just one problem; the clog was toward the house, not the tank. I was still unflushable. I had a plunger, one with a small pipe size opening and a bellows, and I used my one good arm and slightly overweight body to deliver some pressure per square inch to the plumbing. With a great whoosh, the pipe cleared while I did the quick step to avoid the overflow.

As I looked at the aftermath; a pile of dirt, the stained hose, my obscenely gross gloves, I suddenly had this insanely wicked idea. I would walk directly to the bedroom where young grandson was languidly watching Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ( I swear it’s true) and draw up a few diagrams on his clean white belly explaining the science of water, mass, and volume.

But I’d had enough trauma for one night and opted for the shower instead. Some things are better thought of than done.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Paraguay Plot

It was the summer of ’57, between my junior and senior year at good ol’ Will Rogers High in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the most part, it was a typical summer for a sixteen year old kid with too much time on his hands; sleeping late, hanging out with your best buds, and cruising the streets at night to pick up chicks although I can’t remember actually finding any chicks that agreed to be picked up. The best we ever did was to get a few smiles (you silly boys) and an encouraging wave now and then.

I had a car, a very cool ’49 Ford, baby blue with whitewall tires and matching fender skirts. The Ford had a healthy V-8 (I have no idea the horsepower) but it would burn rubber and make a little smoke and that was the important thing. Gas mileage was not a problem—the average price at the time being around thirty cents a gallon. It was the transmission that frequently kept me afoot. It was not uncommon for lower priced cars of that era to have manual transmissions (automatic was for the rich) and I had this problem of keeping first gear intact. I became quite skilled at easing away from stop signs in second. Fortunately, my father was a mechanic and had been most of his life. He worked nights at a Gulf station on east Eleventh Street. I stopped by the station often, either for gas or seeking a free repair on my latest transmission casualty. My dad, bless his heart, would simply shake is head and say “Put ‘er on the rack.”

During the times when my ride was in the Gulf hospital, I rode shotgun with my friend Huey. His given name was Hughes but I think the only that person that ever called him that was his mama. Huey had part-time access to his daddy’s car, a Buick, a big Buick with portholes on the sides, fins in the back, and get this…an automatic transmission.

Huey was, and still is, the only guy I’ve ever known to get a traffic violation for speeding…in reverse. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin”. I was with him, saw it, and can testify to it. One of Huey’s other high points during his high school days was the incident forever known as “playing airplane”. Seems Huey and some other boys were out one night on a backwoods gravel road, when they came across a sharp, short, and very steep incline. Huey immediately saw the possibilities. He backed up to get a run at it and hit the rise somewhere around 65 miles an hour (or so I’m told. I missed out on that one, damn it). The big Buick went airborne, sailed for an impressive distance, but the landing…well. I don’t know the actual number of car parts that were dislodged or permanently damaged from the undercarriage of the big Buick on that particular evening, but Huey’s daddy did.

Now, both being without wheels, Huey and I had a lot of time to hang out, talk, and while away the days of summer. It was during one of those talks that the subject of our poverty came up. In truth, Huey’s folks had a little money, his dad being a professor at Tulsa University, but apparently there was no trickle down to Huey’s pockets. We were broke.

“I got this idea I’ve been thinking about,” Huey said. “We’ll get rich, have power, and live like kings.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“We’ll overthrow a country. I have one in mind, Paraguay.”

“Sounds good. But why Paraguay?”

“I’ve been doing some research at the library. (Remember this was before the Internet) For starters, the government has always been unstable, one coup after another. One more won’t be a big deal. The way I see it, all we have to do is find some rebels, make a lot of promises, take over the radio stations—there’s only five—and gain control of one major river that goes down the middle of the place.”

“Uh, Huey, don’t they speak Spanish in Paraguay? We don’t speak Spanish.”

“That’s where you come in. Take a Spanish class next year. Simple.”

“Okay, but won’t we need a little money to overthrow a government? What about that?”

“I think I’ve got that covered. As you know, I am now the president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship in Tulsa.” (It was true. Huey was into the church thing.) “It’s a national organization you know. All I have to do get elected as top dog.”


“The MYF has funds dummy, lot of funds. I’m talking embezzlement here.”

“That’ll work.”

It didn’t of course, the fantasy and dreams of wealth and power died along with the autumn leaves of Fall. Huey went on to become a loved and respected preacher, presiding over several churches in his lifetime. We lost Huey way too soon, a victim of heart problems. But before he passed, we exchanged a series of e-mails, one in which Huey extolled upon the virtues of the then President of the United States, George W. Bush.

I replied: My Dear Friend Huey. I think George W. Bush may possibly be one of the worst presidents this country has ever seen.

The preacher responded immediately.

Dear Warren,

You are full of shit.

Your friend Huey.

I miss my friend Huey