Archive for the 'Random memories' Category

Four eyes

For a blessed decade and a half from 1980 to about 1995 I wore no spectacles. I clearly remember the day when at 18 years old I carefully folded my glasses — “my glasses”, the phrase has been part of my brain’s cellular networks since before manned space flight* — placed them into their hard plastic case and put the case in the drawer of the night table between my brother’s bed and mine, where they remained for years.

I had had enough. Enough of the name Four-Eyes. Enough of having to pause on the cusp of jumping into a lake or a pool or even stepping into a shower, or doing anything acrobatic that might render my person upside down or spinning in quick circles, in order to remove my spectacles. Enough of being automatically disqualified as a candidate for adoration by the fairer sex. Enough of glare and fogging and enough of the painful pinching on either side of my nose and behind my ears.

What I got. Illustration of hyperopia and its correction by A. Baris Toprak MD, image licensed through Creative Commons.

Some people’s eyeballs are misshapen, so that the place where the lens of the eye focuses an image is not at the back wall of the eye as the design calls for, but forward or back of it. If the eyeball is too long front to back, the focal point falls short of the retina, causing distant objects to appear blurred — that’s myopia or near-sightedness. Hyperopia or farsightedness is when the eyeball is too short and the focal point falls behind the eye, causing near (and sometimes also far) objects to be blurred. An astigmatism is something else again, where a defect in the cornea causes two focal points to fall in two different places.

I heard various things over the years about my eyes, but the story is hazy in my mind. I never heard the word hyperopia, but I understood that I was farsighted, and I also remember hearing the word astigmatism, which I misheard as “a stigmatism”. I remember being told that one of my eyes wandered, and I think I remember that it was my left one, and I remember this because I found it confusing later, since my left eye is the sharper. Whatever the combination of problems was, I was fitted with glasses when I was two years old.

My next-door neighbor, Heather, and I, and my glasses: inseparable. We’re two or three years old here.

The caption written on this photo says “First ‘garden’ Age 3 Summer 1965″

Well, that’s the way it goes, and it’s water under the bridge. Life was hard for a lot of kids, and this was a mere inconvenience. I am lucky my eyesight was corrected. But it was no fun having glasses. They fell off my head more than once and broke, which was a disaster because glasses were not cheap even then and my parents had little extra money. I have a memory of this happening right out in the street in front of my house (we played in the street in 20th-century South Bellevue), which is not to say that it happened there, my memory having been proven to be a rat’s nest of crossed fibers. In this memory they broke at the bridge, and whether or not it happened where and when I remember it, I do know that my mom taped my glasses together at least once, so that caricature of the kid with glasses with tape on the bridge was a reality for me.

My eye doctor was Dr. Boyd. I liked him. His voice was comforting. I don’t recall Dr. Boyd’s face but I recall his voice. Its reassuring smoothness was a counterbalance to the cold metal of the phoropter, the eye-testing machine he pulled in front of me like a dragon’s head on a long, hinged neck and set on my nose. As I peered through it with my eyes watering, focusing on the eye-chart at the front of the room which always started with a large sans-serif E, he would test lenses in front of first one eye, then the other, flipping the lenses quickly each time and asking silkily which seemed sharper…”This one?…” (pause…flip) “or this one?” Sometimes the lenses would touch my eyelashes as they flipped and it tickled.

Perception is such a subjective thing. The phoropter.

The usual suspects.

In those days a visit to the eye doctor always involved dilation of my pupils via eye-drops to facilitate the search for any signs of disease in the retina. Nowadays they have other means of examining eye health, but I vividly remember the little cardboard sunglasses they gave you to wear for an hour after your visit. You’d leave the ophthalmologist’s office with your pupils owl-eye wide and unable to focus on anything. I’m surprised, when I think back on this, that this was not more terrifying to me. But I was more worried about what people would think when they saw me wearing those paper shades.

I remember when I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old, asking Dr. Boyd — my mom was there in the room — when I would be able to not wear glasses anymore, and I remember two words of his response, and they were “maybe” and “twelve”. I ignored the first and sealed the second on my heart like a promise. When I was twelve I would be done. I would be cured. I would be righted. I would be good enough. Normal. Whole.

Twelve came and went, and when I complained to my mom that I was promised that I would not have to wear glasses anymore when I got to be twelve, she could not remember any such promise. I don’t recall asking Dr. Boyd about it, but it didn’t matter; regardless of my expectations, I still needed corrective lenses. I believe this is the first thing in life that I recall having an active, conscious resentment about. The world owed me a life without glasses and that life wasn’t forthcoming. I didn’t think about it a lot, but when I did I felt let down. What had gone wrong? Why didn’t anyone remember that I was supposed to be done with glasses when I was twelve?

Twelve. With Mom and little brother Ben in the nation’s capital.

What can you do? Over the years I became one not only with my specs, but with the resentment and dissatisfaction I felt at being what seemed to me permanently defective. I sublimated all this, of course, because after all I had friends enough and lots of things to do. My aunt and uncle paid for oil painting lessons for me, which I took every week with my friend and neighbor-across-the-street, Mark, at the Ilona Rittler Gallery in Bellevue; and Jeff and Kip and I got hold of a Super 8 movie camera in a drawer in Jeff’s house and started making movies. Life was full.

Still, the damned things rankled. One day when we were in high school my same-age cousin Karen, whom I have always adored, told me that I had to “do something about those glasses”. I think it was one of those moments you never forget and you always see clearly. I remember exactly where we were standing in my folks’ old house, next to the refrigerator. She meant no harm, in fact she was trying to help. At that time I had those goofy glasses that tinted themselves when I went outside because my eyes were so sensitive to light and I was already prone to migraines. She was just calling a spade a spade.

I don’t know how long after this it was, but it wasn’t very long until I tucked my glasses in at the back of the drawer and went about my day with uncorrected vision for the first time in my entire life’s memory.

With Mark (left) and Kip (taking photo) on a camping trip at the Washington coast, maybe 1979 or ’80. One of the earliest photos I have of my glasses-free period.

My eyesight in those days was not that bad. I could see distance a little better with the specs on. Without them there was just a little softness to the world’s background details. After a few months I didn’t even notice this, and when I tried the glasses on again out of curiosity the world looked bent and strange. I couldn’t go back now even if I wanted to, I thought. But it was fine. I could read the small print on an aspirin bottle. I was excellent with a Frisbee. There was nothing I couldn’t do.

After several years, I went back to Dr. Boyd for a check-up and admitted that I’d abandoned my prescription. He seemed unfazed by my recklessness, and after hauling the phoropter over and measuring my eyesight he told me my eyes had actually gotten better. This was great news to me, but it made me wonder if I shouldn’t have rebelled sooner. Dr. Boyd said that as I aged, my eyes would get tired by the end of the day and when they did, if I had glasses it would be less of a strain. My choice. Go. Be free.

I could hardly believe my good fortune. My ophthalmologist had given me my walking papers. I could get glasses again someday “if and when I wanted them.”

Damn the uncorrected vision! Full speed ahead! Jeff and I on Ross Lake heading to camp at Dry Creek, c.1984.

Shooting downtown with Kip’s little brother Cal, early ’80s. Contrived? Sure, but at least I didn’t clonk my glasses against the viewfinder (or the window). Extra credit Q: what corner is this?

So began my blessed decade. I ran and jumped and climbed and flipped and dove and twirled and hung upside down. A lot. I developed a measure of physical heedlessness. The line across my nose disappeared, as did the impressions behind my ears. Shooting photographs was much easier without spectacles in those days before digital monitors, when you had to press your eye up to the viewfinder. I could wear normal-people sunglasses instead of my tint-o-matic glasses or even worse, the flip-up plastic shade attachments.

My young adult years featured a good measure of travel and adventure. At that decade’s beginning I went to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and packed crab. In its middle I worked on a farm in Germany and then toured Europe, and toward its end I assayed to reach the Sahara Desert through Morocco. Not that I wouldn’t have embarked on these adventures if I’d had to wear glasses, but the going was sure easier without them and there was a noticeable decrease in my drag quotient. I sped through life. At twenty-nine I went to Ohio and rode horses every day for more than a year in all kinds of Ohio weather, without having to wipe the rain off my glasses so I could see, or take them off and defog them after walking into the ranch house from the cold outside, or push them back up my sweaty nose while I bent over a horse’s hoof with a farrier’s rasp in the punishing afternoon sun.

Wheeling through ancient forests on a day off from my (admittedly light) farm chores, near Tübingen, (West) Germany, 1985. My hawk-eyed vision catches sight of something noteworthy.

That thick book on my knee? It’s the Let’s Go Europe guide. Small print in there. Sailing the wine-dark sea with traveling companions on our way to Thira, 1985.

It was a John Barth novel that signaled the approaching end of that crisply outlined era. I was living back in Seattle and sitting one dim wintry day (I do not say a winter’s day, for it may have been a wintry day in summer, as happens frequently in these parts) at Diva Espresso, a coffee shop on Greenwood that relied on its big windows for daylight and on dark days was poorly illumined by overhead lamps. I was reading The Sotweed Factor. And all of a sudden I was unable to resolve the text. My eyes could not pull hard enough to bring the letters into sharp focus. I was about thirty-three or thirty-four years old.

An astonishing failure of my memory now presents, which is a stone bummer when you’re trying to wrap up a story of epic proportions like this one. I don’t recall whether I got glasses right away or waited a while. My wedding picture from 1999 shows me without them. I have very few actual memories of putting them on or taking them off prior to about the year 2000, when I was thirty-eight. At that time, I was using them for reading at work, and in subsequent years I remember that it became a requirement of the State of Washington Department of Licensing that while driving a motor vehicle I must wear corrective lenses. I remember putting them on while getting into my truck. But at some point I started keeping them on after getting out from behind the wheel.

At the ranch, 1992. I could see for miles. Photo courtesy of Brooke Trigleth, used with permission.

(It wasn’t my dog.) First snow at my little Snoqualmie redoubt, November 1993. I didn’t know it then, but my eyesight was going south.

My eyes have deteriorated in descending plateaus. I think I had a single prescription from the late 1990s until about 2008, a plateau of about ten years. But my eyesight tumbled another level last year. I was still a few months shy of my fiftieth birthday and I was dead set against getting bifocals until I had put a tidy half-century of living in my wake, but the eye doctor I went to said that the days of single lenses were coming to an end for me. He chuckled when I mentioned Dr. Boyd, and I was surprised that my old ophthalmologist’s name was familiar to him.

But Dr. Boyd is now infamous. He has not been seen in Washington State since 1995 and his license was revoked in absentia in 1997, according to an article in Eugene, Oregon’s Register-Guard in 2000, which cited his entry in the National Practitioner Data Bank: “Boyd transferred his assets to Lichtenstein and fled his $6 million mansion in 1995 — taking with him one of the world’s largest collections of medieval armor — rather than face an avalanche of more than 100 lawsuits alleging that he botched radial keratotomy eye surgeries.”

Angela and I, yet unwed, capering at a friend’s birthday, circa 1997. I had probably gotten a pair of glasses by now just for reading, but the glorious ride was about over.

At the perfect game with the perfect date, August 2012. My eyes are so bad I can hardly read the menu even with my glasses. Time to turn yourself in, amigo, consider bifocals.

So at age fifty I have ordered my first pair of bifocals. I could have gotten progressive lenses, a graduated solution with no lines so that no one can tell you’re wearing readers and mid- and long-distance glasses all at once. For a number of reasons I opted against that for now and decided to keep my distance glasses for walking around and driving and get a pair of bifocals that split between computer (arm’s) length and close-up book reading. But the story may not quite end there, because after two weeks of wearing them I went back to the glasses counter and told the people that I needed them to adjust it slightly because it feels like I have to hold books too close to my face while at the same time I find myself leaning forward slightly toward my computer monitor. They referred me back to the doctor and said that maybe, just maybe, a single lens adjusted between computer and book might be an option. My appointment is tomorrow so we’ll see.

“We’ll see.”

“Maybe.”

“When you’re twelve.”

As I said, despite the inconvenience attending my early life I was one of the lucky ones, and I now see that I was lucky in more ways than one. The surgery Dr. Boyd got sued so many times for was an operation he routinely recommended for myopia. But I didn’t have myopia. I had everything else.

*Absolutely untrue. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin went into space in April 1961, and we flung Alan Shepard into suborbit less than a month later, in May. As near as I can reckon, I was conceived a month after that.

Rolling with the ‘Boy Reporter’

When I was eight or nine or ten, before we moved to North Carolina, I met a boy named Cam when our family went over to his family’s house on Mercer Island for dinner. Our dads worked together at a property appraisal company in Seattle. I still remember that evening. There was a girl the same age as my older sister, and another girl the same age as my younger brother, and Cameron was my age.

They had cool board games and we played lots of them that night. They were a fun family. My sister and the older girl didn’t develop any subsequent friendship, nor — understandably though perhaps not necessarily — did my brother and the younger girl, but Cam and I hit it off and were tight from the start. It is one of the only preteen friendships I ever had that I can remember the start of. It was this evening on Mercer Island. A forced dinner that none of us kids wanted to go to. We probably arrived at their house bickering, slamming car doors, dad mashing out a cigarette in the ash tray and mom giving us the Look That Put Down Back-Seat Rebellions, but when we left that night it was with promises that Cam and I would soon be allowed to meet up again.

The entrance to Fletcher Bay was the perfect setting for teenage boys to discover Tintin. Click to enlarge. Image copyright Microsoft.

To make this part of the story shorter, I’ll just say I was invited to spend a week at their summer house on Bainbridge Island. Yes, this is the OTHER Bainbridge family I mentioned when I was telling you about my island adventures with Kip and his family (here). I didn’t know Kip yet, and the little beach house Cam’s family lived in all summer on the west side of the island facing Rich Passage was my first taste of island life. Cam and I played on the beach for hours, and if it rained we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made our own single serving pizzas out of bread, cheese and tomato paste. In the mornings we made French toast. Cam visited and stayed at our house, too, and even though I didn’t have a beach outside my bedroom window, we found stuff to do, and when it rained, we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made triple-decker PB&Js. I loved Cam. I prayed every single night for years, Dear God, please let Cam become a Christian. (Looking back, I doubt that this monumental effort of sustained supplication was necessary on Cam’s behalf.)

When my family moved to North Carolina, Cam wrote me and I wrote him. Details about additions to our train layouts, mostly. His family sold their house on Mercer Island and bought a permanent house on Bainbridge, at the mouth of a narrow inlet. When we moved back to Bellevue, to the same house we lived in before because it hadn’t sold by the time we decided to go back west, I was old enough to ride the bus into Seattle and catch the ferry alone. Cam and I still played board games, but now we also spent hours crafting model train buildings from scratch, sometimes models of actual ones we went and studied. We also spent lots of time on the bay. After World War II the Navy had sunk some surplus landing barges right out in front of Cam’s house, and during low tides we’d row out there. We designed and built glass-bottomed boxes that we could lower over the side and stick our heads into, and with the water thus flattened we could see the rusty gunwhales covered with sponges and starfish sticking up out of the sand. We fitted the boxes with flashlights for night use. We would row far up the inlet at ebb, then ship the oars and put our boxes over, he at one end and I at the other, and drift back down with the current, watching the crabs clamber among the seaweed strands and surprised flounders suddenly fluttering off leaving a trail of disturbed sand. Once during a wicked storm we saw someone’s dinghy heading out of the bay by itself, and Cam and I donned raingear and hauled our own dinghy down to the water and chased the runaway boat down in waves that nearly overturned us.

I didn't even realize at the time that there were English translations.

By the time we were about fourteen, we were loading up the dinghy with sleeping bags and other supplies and rowing the sixty yards or so out to their family’s little sailboat, which was moored not far from the sunken barges. Swirls of light trailed after our oarstrokes as we disturbed what Cam told me was “phosphorescence”. Cam taught me a million sciencey facts like that and introduced me to a lot of fun things. And one of the things Cam introduced me to — one of the items that went into the dinghy whenever we spent the night on the sailboat besides the snacks and flashlights and pop — were Tintin books.

Professor Cuthbert Calculus following his pendulum.

I had first encountered “the boy reporter Tintin” in Spanish class in seventh grade, when I saw a Spanish copy of The Adventures of Tintin: The Shooting Star among the magazines and other materials that were there for reading practice. Then one year, Cam had discovered them (in English!) and I got hooked, starting with The Secret of the Unicorn (not the first of the Tintin books but coincidentally the one that provides the story for a computer-animated Tintin movie being released right about now). We would take a few Tintins each out to the sailboat and read them by flashlight, snickering at the clumsy antics of the detectives Thomson and Thompson — such as when one of them stumbles going through a submarine hatch and gives a warning to the other, who carefully avoids tripping but bumps his head — or the mannerisms and English phrases we thought were so funny. Hergé, as you know, was Belgian, so his adventure comics were originally drawn and published in French, but their wild popularity since the appearance of the earliest ones in the 1930s* and 1940s demanded translation into many other languages.

My younger brother caught the Tintin bug from me and began, under my tutelage, to channel every character in the books — the humor was an uncanny match to his temperament. And hitting him just when it did it went deep into his young psyche. To this day if you listen carefully you’ll notice that Ben does not say three sentences in a row without inflecting his voice à la Tintin or Captain Haddock or Thomson (and/or Thompson) or our old favorite, Professor Cuthbert Calculus.

Cover of the German version of "Prisoners of the Sun". In Germany Tintin is called "Tim".

Ben collected almost the entire set of Tintin adventures in English. For some reason I did not own any in my teens (or maybe I did but Ben ended up with them), but I picked up a few German translations in Brussels long ago when I was a traveler — Der Blaue Lotus and Der Sonnentempel —  and they’ve been kicking around my bookshelves ever since. Mara discovered them a few weeks ago and has become spellbound by them. She is not reading much on her own yet; she can sound out words and write a few things, but the font and the length of the words in the Tintin books are a challenge for her. And, oh, they’re in German. But she sits and stares at the pictures for long periods of time, studying the physical humor and facial expressions and gleaning much of the emotional subtext of the stories this way.

I was secretly thrilled. Setting aside the fact that the Tintin books are nowadays universally acknowledged to be a bad teaching tool for children because of flagrant racial and cultural stereotypes — Africans look like Al Jolson, for one thing —  I am glad she is interested in the Tintin oeuvre. It provides a solid education in humor both subtle and slapstick. We can discuss the racial depictions with her, and we will. I’m less worried about that than I am about the violence that fills these cheery little books, the endless punching and gunfire. Mara has been pretty protected so far from images of weaponry and its use. We don’t have television reception, and we’re careful about what movies she watches. She’s lately gotten to be pals with several young boys, though, and playdates at Logan’s or Silas’ house are occasions of much zapping and whacking. She loves it all.

Tintin and Captain Haddock discover a stowaway! A page from "Red Rackham's Treasure". Click to enlarge.

Oh well, so did I. I loved my little green army men and my pistol-packin’, rifle-totin’ Johnny West. I watched Batman and The Rifleman on TV and was weened on the visually addicting violence of Warner Brothers cartoons.

I took Mara out a few nights ago to buy her her first very own English Tintin book, Red Rackham’s Treasure (forgetting that it is actually the sequel to The Secret of the Unicorn). I have an idea that if she stares at the pictures long enough and is curious enough about the text, she’ll start sounding the words out and the books will actually be an enticement to start reading more on her own. Especially since she has such an infallible memory for exact phrasing. I read the book to her once (taking care to explain the comic conventions, such as: sweat drops = alarm; whirly lines above someone’s head = dizzyness; curly lines behind someone = scurrying) and she is already repeating whole sections of dialog.

Off on another adventure! Tintin and Snowy head for the door again.

I’m eager to see the fun Mara has, and then someday Millie, discovering the books’ best delights, how Tintin’s forelock only stays wet for a frame or two after he hauls himself out of a river and his clothes are likewise instantly dry, and how successive frames often contain little running gags, like the piece of “sticking plaster” that adheres to various passengers throughout a plane trip to Djakarta in…oh shoot, hey Ben, which one was that?

I just realized how nutty it’s going to be around here when Uncle Ben visits and Mara picks up his Tintin vibe. Oh well, as Tintin says “there’s nothing for it!”

*The first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was actually published in 1929.

Missing the Perseids

I’ve missed the Perseids again. Again. I haven’t seen them in years, but there was a time when I saw the Perseid meteor shower every single year.

I’m thinking of this now because of several things I noticed in the heavens two nights ago. First, the moon came up red as a tomato. I knew it would. I had been watching for several evenings and since it rises a little later each day I figured it would come up just after sundown when the sky was still bright. I saw it peeking over the horizon and called for Mara to get out of bed and come have a look. This is strictly against protocol, so she was tickled pink getting to go out on the deck with me, where I held her up by her armpits so she could see through the trees east of the house to the spot on the horizon where the old cheeser was hoisting himself above the Cascades.

The Perseids' namesake. Edward Burne-Jones' 1888 Perseus in high-tech actionwear rescuing Andromeda, who likes him a lot but is not as into fibers as he is.

Then later on, when the moon was high and glaring white, I noticed that a fairly bright planet — my guess was Jupiter — was trailing behind it. Even if it had not been hideously bright, I would have known it was a planet because as a kid I learned to find and name all the First Magnitude stars in the northern hemisphere and that celestial map has never left me, so I can instantly spot the migrants. The stars all sweep across the night sky in fixed relationship to one another. If it’s summer, you’ll see a great triangle directly above you at 10pm or so formed by the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb. If you glance up on a winter night, it will be a large circle topped by Capella and including Sirius (Alpha Centauri), the closest star to our solar system. But the planets are migratory — they move, as do the sun and moon, among these stellar groupings and come into and out of alignment with the stars and each other in different ways at different times.

I peered through my Tasco 8×21 birding binoculars, which were just strong enough to satisfy me that there were no rings visible, so…not Saturn. Anyway, Saturn even at its closest is not so large in the sky. Mars would likewise be smaller, and would be redder. Venus is bright and large like that, but a little cooler looking and anyway never so far from the sun. Jupiter, then.

I think I grunted, because aside from these two headliners and the three First Magnitude stars of the Summer Triangle, I could see nothing but void, and that’s a shame, because I know there’s so much up there. Living in the city, our view of stars is occluded by the haze of light bouncing off of everything, what’s called “light pollution”. A city at night is not a dark place at all to those who have seen nature’s dark. The darkest place I ever was was a remote and stormswept island in the Aleutians called Unalaska. In that southwestern string of tundra-covered hills reaching out into the Bering Sea, the blackness on a cloudy night is disorienting, maddening, fear-inducing. Your eye wants to fall upon something, but it can’t. You feel a little nervous like you did when you were crouching in the living room coat closet in a game of hide and seek, but there’s no reassuring brush of wool sleeves against your cheek.

Once Angela and I were driving home from Leavenworth in my old truck, up over the mountains on a night in September. As we headed up the pass, the darkness outside the car was disturbed only by the occasional glaring headlights of cars coming down the pass towards us. The forest on either side of the highway formed a dark corridor, and I craned my neck to see upwards to where the blue of the night sky would be lighter by comparison to the forest. I was startled; the sky was a riot of silver-white light, the night absolutely clattering with stars. At that instant a fortuitous coincidence occured: we were passing a turnout and there were no cars coming down the hill toward us. So I pulled off the road at about 70 mph and brought the old buckboard to a heavy stop amid flying specks of dirt and turned the headlights off and shut off the engine so that even the dashboard would emit no light. Angela did not know what had happened and was in a flutter in the sudden silence and dark. “What is it! Why are you stopping!”

“Quick! Get out of the truck!” I said, jumping out and racing around to her side. “Look up!”

She looked up and she gasped. She made a real, honest-to-gosh gasping sound as air rushed into her lungs. “What is that?” She had never seen stars so numerous and bright before. There were stars in every single point of the sky. There was no place where there was not a star. The whole sky radiated like phosphorescence in the wake of a nocturnal oarstroke. And it wasn’t just the Milky Way coincidentally lining up with the gap in the trees. It was clear mountain air and the absence of light pollution. You could have read the New York Stock Exchange figures by that light.

Minus the green glow, an August night in my childhood looked a lot like this. Note the several shooting stars. Photo licensed according to Creative Commons.

When I was a kid, my neighborhood friends and I would “sleep out” as many nights in August as our parents would allow. Over the years the group included a number of kids, but usually it was Mark and Chris and me, sometimes my young brother Ben, too. We almost always slept in my front or back yard, though I recall a few nights over in Mark’s front yard and a few in the tree fort we built in his back yard, and even a time or two at Chris’ house at the far end of the street. We slept in sleeping bags under south Bellevue’s open sky, which at that time was still far enough away from Seattle’s light pollution that we could see myriad stars all night. We spread a big polyethylene tarp on the ground to keep moisture from the ground from seeping into our bags overnight and provisioned ourselves with comic books and Cragmont Grape Soda (what we in the west called “pop”) and, if one of our moms was in a generous mood, popcorn. Ribby from down the street turned us on to some sinister radio theater (almost certainly CBS Radio Mystery Theater), macabre little morality plays that we listened to on a little handheld transistor radio. My dad would always come out and check on us once, make a little small talk. I remember him telling us that the things that looked like slow-moving stars were satellites. I remember too some notion we had that the satellites that moved west to east across the sky were “ours”, while the ones that moved north to south belonged to “the Russians”, though now that I think about this it doesn’t seem very likely. Maybe we misunderstood my dad or maybe he was pulling our legs.

It was exciting and kind of spooky to see a satellite, because they didn’t move very fast, they just kept plodding until they were out of sight over the horizon, and it was strange to think that they were big machines we had put up there ourselves. But the real thrill was the Perseid meteor shower, what we called “shooting stars” or “falling stars”. We would lie wide-eyed on our backs in our big, square flannel-lined sleeping bags, which when rolled up were each the size of a refrigerator, and we’d watch for the quick bursts of light — terrifying for their absolute and utter lack of sound — meteorites entering and burning up in the earth’s atmosphere at speeds we could not even imagine, much less follow with our eyes. “There’s one!” one of us would shout, but by the time you rolled your eyeballs around or turned your head it was too late. You almost never saw one that someone else saw unless — and this happened at least once every year — a meteorite shot clean across the middle of the sky from one end to the other, like a knife slashing the dark curtain of night from a brightly lit room behind.

The expectancy was exhausting and invigorating both, and after a while my mates would quit talking and silently drop off lucidity’s edge into the clutch of Morpheus. I was always the last one awake — the obsessive compulsive, desperately seeking the blessings from on high. If I woke up early or stayed awake all night, I remember that moment of visually realizing that the sky was no longer absolutely black, that it had become a dark blue, and that the stars had lost their sharpness and some had even faded already. The transition was impossible to see happening; you could only recognize that it had happened and, moment by moment, that it had continued to happen. Our pillows were always wet in the morning from the dew, and usually there were muddy cat prints across them too.

For Christmas one year my Aunt Vivian gave me a book called How to Read the Night Sky by W. S. Kals (Doubleday, 1974). It was one of those rare gifts that come zinging into your life at exactly the right time. As a teenager I was already a stargazer, what with the sleeping out since I was a young kid and a Sears telescope my folks had bought me years earlier. Though undisciplined and lazy, I have always been smart, and somehow this book activated the self-learner in me. In clear, simple language with lots of illustrations and charts, this book organized the heavens for me and explained how to calculate sidereal time and figure latitude, among other things. In the back were charts that showed what constellations and asterisms the planets would be hanging out in for the next ten or twelve years (well into the ’80s!). But what grabbed me the most was the mnemonic devices by which the author made me memorize the names and locations of the northern hemisphere’s 13 First Magnitude stars. These are the stars that are the brightest.

"Vegetable alteration denied." Image borrowed from the Society for Popular Astronomy without permission.

You had to imagine a sailing ship preparing to set out to sea, and one of the seamen making the following report to the captain. “Captain, all de rigging seems properly polished”. This sentence contains aural reminders of the names Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon and Pollux (Castor’s twin). If you look up to the zenith of the night sky on a winter evening, Capella is the bright star there at the top. The others form a large circle going around to the right, clockwise. Rigel is the left foot of Orion (assuming he’s facing Earth). Sirius is low and bright and blue, part of the Dog constellation. Pollux, at about ten o’clock in this great circle, is at the head of the eponymous twin of Castor, whose capital star is close by but slightly dimmer.  

Trouble is afloat, however, for the cook on board our imaginary ship, as he prepares the crew’s food with “regular spices and arsenic”. This phrase is the key to the next four stars, which are grouped in a low, broad-based double triangle that  is visible during the spring: Regulus, Spica, Antares, and Arcturus. Antares means “the opponent of Ares (or Mars)” and you can remember this because it competes with the red planet in color. It is a slightly warmer looking star. If I remember correctly, Antares travels a very low arc in the sky and so is very seldom seen, especially if there is light pollution or smog or haze of any kind.

Finally, newspaper headlines telegraphically express the unremorseful plea of the cook, who has been accused of poisoning the crew after they all get sick: “Vegetable Alteration Denied”. The stars corresponding to this last phrase are Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the largest stars in the constellations Lyra (the lyre), Aquila (the eagle) and Cygnus (the swan). The large triangle these brighties form on summer nights is unmistakeable. Vega and Deneb delineate a side near the top of the sky, and the long point of the triangle ends at Altair, toward the south. This arrowhead swinging across the summer night represents the only First-Magnitude stars in the dome of the sky until Capella and Aldebaran arise many hours later. Jeff and I once were caught far from camp when night descended on our annual Ross Lake adventure, and lots of little cumulus clouds were scudding across the sky, densely packed together. But I only needed to see one thing — a First Magnitude star peeking through one of the momentary holes in the cover — and I was able to assure myself where south lay. At that time of year that single bright star could only have been Altair.

The "Big Bear". Ursa Major in Johannes Hevelius' 'Uranographia', 1690.

I have a memory earlier than all of these, of being in my dad’s arms at night in the back yard, on the brick patio where, later, he would build his shop. He was as tall as a tree and I sat on his left forearm as though it were a sturdy limb, looking up to where he pointed. I remember him telling me that there was a bear up there. I peered into the night but couldn’t see anything but stars and darkness. I imagined that two of those stars might be the bear’s sparkling eyes.

I have not stood outside at night in my old hometown for many years, but now that Bellevue is a city of high-rise buildings and 130,000 residents, I wonder whether those stars I used to study from my back yard would even be visible. I wonder how far out of town you’d have to go to see the bear up there.

With honesty in my heart

Angela always tries to keep Mara enrolled in some physical curriculum. I think I mentioned before that Mara has taken soccer and dance classes and lately she has been taking a Tae Kwon Do class at our gym. Wednesday we realized it was the last class and I had not yet got to see Mara participating, so I bagged out of work early and caught a bus. Angela brought the camera and I met up with them there. Mara was excited that I was coming. She had shown me her Tae Kwon Do uniform weeks ago, but seeing her in it, seeing her make her kicks and punches, was a moving experience for me.

Reciting the pledge.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was afraid of Roger M. and tried to avoid eye contact with him. Roger had long yellow hair, the longest hair of anyone in school, and a big wide mouth that was always smiling or yelling happily. Looking back now, I realize just what a jubilant character he was. He liked to have fun. He was not a grumpy or vengeful person, and not menacing. He was like a popper filled with confetti. He would not think about you unless he saw you, and if it occurred to him to exercise dominion over you in some festive, experimental way, he would just go ahead and do that. I sat at the same table as Roger in Mr. Llewellyn’s class. Once while I was eating my ham and cheese sandwich, trying to be invisible while Roger and the others at the table talked and joked, he up and smacked the sandwich out of my hand, and laughed heartily, as though this were an experience we would both enjoy sharing together. The sandwich separated into its little triangular parts as it flew across the room. He did not hurt me. I cannot say that I suffered from extreme hunger that day. But it was that kind of sudden, explosive, violation of my personal space that kept me in terror of him.

Roger had a loose band of cronies that went about at recess destroying school property or hanging other kids on hooks by their jacket collars. One day, for reasons that never existed or that I have forgotten, I found myself being carried by Roger’s thugs to a large mud puddle that lay near a large fir tree in the southeast portion of the playfield. The talk was all about throwing me in. I remember the fear. I did not fear mud puddles. Indeed, try as she might, my mother could not by any means keep me out of them when I went outside to play on my own street. I feared the indignity, the loss of my power, the embarrassment. I used to think I hated Roger, but looking back, I see that it would have been impossible to hate him. He was like a cheery pirate. He was dangerous. I feared him, and I was storing up a vast quantity of rage at that time of my life against injustices such as this, but I believe now that my anger was at God, for not protecting me.

Before Roger and his henchmen could release me into the quagmire, I was rescued by Mark H., a tall, popular, hero-shaped person who was similarly attended by a number of hangers on. Mark’s men appeared and demanded my release, and Roger’s men stood down. It is impossible for me to remember this exchange accurately because I see it as cinema. The thugs chuckle and make some cracks about just having a little fun. The righteous savior issues a stern reprimand, the thugs shuffle off.

I do remember that as recess ended I was walking back with Mark’s contingent, they surrounding me as though I were a president who had just nearly been assassinated. They didn’t know me or care that much about me, but the moment was a high one; they had been agents in averting an injustice, and they were all feeling pumped. Ken P. was walking beside me and he said I should take Judo classes. He said he did and it taught him how to defend himself. I could take them at the Bellevue Boys Club.

Learning the moves.

And so I did. I took Judo lessons so that I would be able to finally not be picked on. I would tear mine enemies into bits, and when I trod the playground great would be the trembling of them, and their knees would smite one against the other. We had to kneel and bow all the way to the ground before a framed photo of some Asian man. I’m embarrassed to say that to this day I do not know who it was. I imagine him as the Emperor of Japan. Having been raised as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, I felt uneasy about what felt to me like outright worship, but I bowed with the others. For me, there was no disaster worse than not fitting in.

We practiced falling safely, which we achieved by rolling a somersault over one shoulder and then slapping the mat. We also paired up and practiced flipping each other by grabbing our opponent by the lapels of their white Judo suits, turning, squatting and guiding them through the inevitable path overtop of our lean and lethal frames.

I hated going. I was no good at this and I feared the matches. I was tallish, but I was practically weightless in 1975. I had no mass to leverage against my opponent. I went to matches and consistently lost. Other kids I knew moved into the colored belts — yellow, orange, green — but I remained a white belt. There was a neighborhood bully who taunted me across a thigh-high wooden fence one day, he standing on the downhill side and me the up. You can see, I’m sure, the inadvisability of attempting to hoist over your shoulder an opponent who is standing downhill on the other side of a fence. But that was the moment I chose to unsheath my Judo skills on the battlefield. I engaged him, we grappled, and he ended up pulling me over the fence and depositing me in the moist, soft, mossy lawn.

Mara loves to "rough-house" with me, but I'm going to start having to wear padded clothes.

Mara loves Tae Kwon Do because it is physical and fun, and because she is attracted to an order internal to it that is revealed in the person of her instructor, Ms. B. It was a marvel to hear the children shout “Yes Ma’am!” after every instruction she gives them. It is a marvel to watch them slap their hands to their sides and bow sharply and with grace. It is a marvel to see how the children, especially Mara, understand the tensions and bracings, the physical logic of the stances. It is all joy. I know nothing of Tae Kwon Do, and I don’t even know if there is ever an opponent as there is in Judo. At this stage it is mostly individual movement with occasional outside stimulus. Near the end of the class, Ms B. wore big pads on her hands, asked the students to queue up and approached each child in turn pinwheeling the pads alternatingly, left, right, left, right, low left, high right. The children were to use their fists to bat the pads away. She was gentle but persistent. The students, some of them younger and much smaller than Mara, loved this pillow fight. One boy could not stop giggling as Mrs. B. pummelled him.                

My favorite part was the pledge that the children repeated at the open and close of the class: “I promise to be a good person, with knowledge in my brain [here they point to their heads], honesty in my heart [cross the forearms over the heart], strength in my body [present strong arms], and to make good friends [here they make a handshake motion].”

I never internalized any such promise to myself or anyone else in my young Judo days. I brought my fear to it, and my fear bred more fear, and finally a sense of failure. I learned to avoid physical fights but, to my detriment, I also continued avoiding discipline and effort as well.

The tae kwon do robes give the illusion that these children are not perpetually smeared with tomato sauce and egg-yolk. Until they wear wedding gowns, this is about the only time you'll see them clad so cleanly white.

Imagine my surprise when Roger asked me one day if I would accompany him to an afterschool Bible camp. I couldn’t imagine why he, whom I regarded as a soul bound exuberantly for the Pit, was attending a gathering of Christians. Maybe he couldn’t either, but he said he would get a prize if he brought someone else, and since he knew I was already a Christian I was the only one he could think to ask. I rode my bike to his house, which I had never before visited and would never have believed that I would ever want to, and we rode — of all places — to Mark H’s house. It turned out my faith tribe included Mark H., or at least his family, who were hosting the camp.

It made sense, the hero rescuer would be among the Saints. But in truth, I never felt any kinship or even friendship with Mark, and in seventh grade he found out about a crush I had on the eighth-grader Carolyn D. and shamed me in front of my entire Spanish class with a big grin on his face. I don’t know what ever became of him.

Roger grew up and started a landscape business, which I found out years after I had worked in nurseries and become a plantsman myself. Like me, it seems, he loves shrubs and trees and flowers and being outside. Anyone can surprise you, given enough time. There is kinship in the strangest places. I have hope that I have cultivated some honesty in my heart, because now when I think of Roger, instead of remembering the day he cornered me on the way home from school and used my upper arm for punching practice, I mostly see him riding his bike ahead of me on the long, deeply potholed private drive through the Beaux Arts neighborhood on the way to Bible camp, turning his head back to address me with his corn-colored hair flying and that wide and ebullient grin, and shouting “Hey look! We’re on the holey road!”

Shooting Emma

Note and Warning: This post contains a graphic description of a life ending and may be an uncomfortable read. I considered changing all the names here in case anyone might be hurt by this story, but instead decided to report it as truthfully as I am able and with an emphasis on my own experience, which nevertheless is only one person’s and told through the haze of nearly twenty years. For the photos in this post (don’t worry, the images are of other moments) I am indebted to Amber MacPherson, who was a camper at the Ranch before, during and after my sojourn there, and who, besides having turned out to be a photographer with a creative eye, had good horse-sense at the time and was a genuine asset on a roundup. 

Maybe it was breakfast-time, I can no longer recall, but at some point early in the day, before the horses and ponies had been saddled up for their day of well-intended abuse at the hands of Ohio’s youth, “Uncle” Bill approached me as I crossed the ranch house lawn and drew me aside to talk out of the hearing of the young campers. I tried to stay as far away from Uncle Bill, who was not my uncle, as my volunteer work on his 4400-acre F– Ranch would allow. It was uncommon, however, for him to approach in hushed tones; usually his complaints and pronouncements, however manipulative they may have seemed to me, were uttered plainly and openly. It signified something unusual.

It was Emma, he told me. Sometime during the night or that morning she had tried to push her way through the closed gate between Lake and Ring pastures, among the bent metal bars and the mesh of wire. She had gotten one of her hind legs caught and it was broken. Perhaps she had fallen on it. “She’s still tangled,” he said, and when he said this I turned my head instantly to cast my vision over the lawn I was standing on, over the near paddock next to the greyed barn, over the deep and mostly treeless valley of Ring Pasture to its far ridge, where I could see a pony-sized speck of stillness standing at the gate to Lake Pasture.

Ring Pasture. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson.

We would have to put her down, Uncle Bill said. He didn’t want the young campers, who were attending a horsemanship clinic at the Ranch that weekend, to even know about this turn of events lest they be upset by it, so he wanted me to divert the morning’s trails, which usually would be led through Ring Pasture, through Thoroughbred and Lower Barn instead. For lack of an applicant over the age of 20 that year, Bill had appointed me stablemaster, so it was my job to make sure things went smoothly in the stables and on the trails.

It was one of the rare moments that Bill and I were able to find any level on which to connect and meet. We disagreed about almost everything, but his furrowed brow and look of disquiet told me he felt this loss deeply, and what’s more, he knew that as a sensitive (he might correctly have thought “mollycoddled and entitled”) West Coast yuppie who had only learned to ride a handful of months ago, I would be crushed by the loss of one of my charges.

“We’ll wait until the campers are at lunch downstairs,” he said, looking at the ground. “I”ve asked Don to bring one of his guns. You don’t have to be there if you don’t want to.”

I hadn’t taken my eyes off of the little brown speck half a mile away. I stood on the grass between the ranch house and the barn, with the red cowboy neckerchief that Bill required all the staff to wear fluttering under my chin, my misshapen straw hat bent low in front over my eyes, which were always bothered by the brightness of the Ohio sky. What would F– Ranch be like without Emma?

The Ranch was a chaotic place, and you were always rushing around trying to gather up all your horses and ponies and get them saddled, and when a trail came back into the stable you got the riders off and put new ones on and sent them out again. You needed every single critter. I didn’t want to find myself saying “where’s Emma?” and not being able to remember because she had simply disappeared, had ceased to show up at her little spot on the rail in the stable. I felt that watching Don shoot one of my ponies was almost more than I could bear, but it would be worse to have to forever imagine it, to not have that moment of closure and finality.

“I’ll be there,” I said.

The thing about Emma was I didn’t like her. She was the pony I liked least of all. I don’t know if anyone actually liked her, although I and a generation of young campers respected her. She was a cute little pony that didn’t care much about the agendas of humans. Most ponies were that way, I found. Their short legs and general compactness enabled them to dig in and resist. They were like furry boulders. Emma was the worst of them. On a trail, with a child on her back who either was terrified to have an animal underneath them or was reveling in the delusion of communion with the animal world, she would stop suddenly and lower her head, jerking the reins loose from her rider’s hands, and eat grass. All of the horses did this whenever they thought they could get away with it, or if the trail had to stop for some reason, such as the opening of a gate between pastures. But Emma excelled at bringing the sweetest kids to tears. Other ponies had other vexing habits. Joshua and Velvet would actually hide in the ravine when we rounded the horses up in the morning to bring them into the stable. Emma was just stubborn and ornery.

All morning as we worked our horses in the ring I could look across Ring Pasture to the gate atop the opposite hill and see Emma — a small immobile dot — standing and waiting, probably in a lot of pain I thought, but standing nonetheless. It seemed absurd.

At lunchtime I set out on foot down through the deep bowl of Ring Pasture and up the other side. I wanted the short journey alone in order to pray and prepare myself for watching death, and because I knew I needed to cry. I also wanted a few minutes with Emma before the posse showed up. For once I was grateful for the stupid, feckless company of the collie dogs, which formed the satellites of a busy little solar system of which my legs, heavier each step up the far hill, were the center. I saw the station wagon circling around Ring Pasture at the front of a little comet of dust, heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels. Old Arden, who as  farm manager singlehandedly saw to the needs of maybe sixty head of cattle and as many sheep, followed a ways behind on a tractor, on whose front forks he had laid a large piece of plywood.

Co-wrangler Rebecca on Holly, a larger pony whom I never knew. Emma was about the size of the littler ponies in the background. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson.

I had come to the ranch having no experience with horses or with the hard decisions and actions that a life on the land necessitates. Actually, I did have one childhood memory of being on a large horse in a covered ring. My older sister Jeni was on a horse in front of me, and we were in a line of horses, all with children of varying ages and varying abilities on their backs. I was young, inexperienced and terrified. We were all supposed to keep our horses standing still in the line and, one by one, when the instructor told us to, we were to induce our mount to walk forward around the perimeter of the ring and stop and join the line again along the opposite wall. Each rider complied. When it was my sister’s turn she moved off around the wall so that I was now at the head of the initial line. While the instructor followed beside Jeni and her horse, giving praise, criticism and encouragement, my own horse decided there was no reason to wait behind. It knew where it would be asked to go, and so it went. I froze in terror on its back as the gentle creature plodded around the edge of the ring, the huge muscles rippling beneath my legs. When Jeni had joined the back of the other line and the instructor turned around and found me already more than halfway around, she yelled at me, asking the kind of rhetorical questions that are pointless to ask frightened children, such as what I thought I was doing, and whether or not I had heard the instructions, and had she asked me to go yet. At that point I cried and the memory goes dark. I’m sure I embarrassed my sister.

It was perhaps that memory of being humiliated and (as I experienced it) terrorized at the hooves of a creature I had been led to believe would be my friend that made my gorge rise one day when Emma was pulling similar stunts underneath a little boy who had come to F– Ranch for the weekend with his school or church group or scout troup. We were in one of the lesson rings that give Ring Pasture its name, an oval in the grass with a fence around it. I had earned several certificates that supposedly qualified me to teach the first levels of Western saddle. I had my charges all lined up and was moving them through the basics of starting and stopping at a walk, but Emma wouldn’t go. The little boy could not make Emma go. I told him to use his heels to kick her sides if she would not respond to the clucking sound. Children do not like to kick ponies, or any animals, but this fellow gave Emma a gentle nudge with his heels, insufficient in Emma’s case to rouse her from her daydream. I told him “harder!”, and he was unable, and Emma stood still until the boy began to cry.

I am about to paint for you — in the very next paragraph — what I consider to be my worst moment as a human being. If you know me and believe that you can reference an instance when I behaved badlier, please let me know in private.

My head was boiling. I’d had enough of crying kids and stubborn ponies. Instead of sympathising and giving the kid a break, which would have been, in effect, forgiving myself for my own failure to control my horse all those years before, I repeated history. I ran over and shouted at the kid to get off of Emma. He dismounted directly (Emma was only two and a half or three feet high at her shoulder). I sat down on her and raised my feet off the ground and started kicking the heels of my boots into her sides. She started off smartly at a quick trot, no doubt alarmed at this strange behavior, but I pushed at her and yelled until she broke into a choppy little canter. Because I was the stablemaster all the horses knew me, my voice, my smell, my walk, and because of this familiarity they were able to trust me, but this behavior on my part was a breach of the contract. Some of the kids sat in quiet horror in their saddles, rightly perceiving that a terrible anger was at work in this place. Others nervously laughed. I can only imagine how ridiculous I looked, like an angry man beating on a tricycle. Emma tried to break the canter and slow down to a trot several times but I forced her on, kicking her thick sides until she had circled the ring at a run.

I got off and handed the reins back to the boy, who looked doubtful that this exposition would be of much help to him. If I had hoped to prove to him that Emma would go if you made her go, what I actually achieved was to shame him. Emma stood sweating and breathing hard. It was not worth her time to be angry at me, or even to figure out what my problem was.

She stood now enveloped in a calm. She could not walk or lie down, her cannon snapped and twisted and held on only by skin. She stood without a sign of pain. I petted her neck and looked into her eyes, brown and unfathomable, for the last time. Maybe even the first time. She was an old pony and had had as good a life as a pony can have. She was my least favorite, but I was struck by how any death, the loss of any life at all, must be such a grief to God as I envision God. In that moment the ten inches between our faces might as well have been the entire universe of space because each of us dies alone, apart from all other created beings.

I find death unacceptable. At these moments, some deep part of me resists belief in a resurrection and fears that this is all there is, this fragile life — mine and this pony’s — and that the only immortality we can hope for is to be remembered, whether ill or well. This is my most disbelieving and wayward self. But it is as real a part of me as the me that rises each day with a prayer on my lips. In fact, more real in a way. Because I pray for my own benefit, most often. If I know or am known by God it is not through any right doing or thinking or believing. If entry to heaven were guaranteed by the keeping of ten simple commandments, I would break them still. Or one commandment, I could not keep it. If my soul’s salvation were dependent on any action or restraint or effort of my own will, then were I surely hellbound. No, I never loved God or man or beast because I was told I had to. I cannot obey. I cannot do as I am told. I have only loved, and loved late at that, because the world is lovable. And it is only grace that has made me able to see this.

I could not help Bill and Arden and Lew, an old cowboy who had come for the weekend to teach advanced riding classes, and Don drag Emma quickly — roughly, it seemed to me — away from the corner she stood in to the board, on which she fell and lay still. They were not bad men, but they were not sentimental about ponies. Having grown up hunting game and dealing with instances of irreparable harm to livestock they regarded Emma as just an animal, which is what she was. And it was not they who had sworn at her and kicked her with all their might. It was I who had done those things. They were here to do her the service of freeing her from the mortal coil, because that was the job at hand.  

I hope that ponies turned out for the last time continue to move through our world just like this morning mist over Upper Barn Pasture. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson.

Still, I could not watch Don pull the trigger. I looked over my right shoulder, back over Ring Pasture toward the west. The shot pushed in on my eardrums, loud but with no echo — the report just rode the breeze away into the sky.

I looked then. I needed to see that she was dead. I acknowledge that my presence there was mostly for selfish reasons, some of which I may never be aware of. Emma did not need me for anything. She quivered after a moment or two, and then convulsed, her hooves clattering for a second on the board, and then lay still, and blood poured out dark and thick from the hole in her forehead. I could see in her glassy eyes that she was instantly gone, returned to nature, ungathered, turned loose into the flow, into the greater.

I walked back thanking God for the gift of life, vowing not for the first time and not for the last that I would never again waste any moment of my own.

“A straight little car” Part II

[Part I is here]

My parents did not say “I told you so”. That was not their way. My dad having done his best to discourage me from buying a Volkswagen, and my mom having put the frown on, and I having done what I would do, they moved on. They must have figured that being a quarter of a century old I was entitled to make my own blunders. The news that my new purchase was overheating and the engine had to be pulled just to find out whether or not anything could be done about it, and at what astronomical cost, came as no shock to them.

But my parents are not cynics, and they are generous people in all ways, and where family is concerned there is never a question of not helping. And too, Little Nemo was a car everyone loved. It was impossible to not love Little Nemo. My parents loved Little Nemo already, not yet even a full season in the family. My dad appreciated the simplicity of the thing, and the fact that you could reach everything on the engine without dental mirrors and a ten-foot wrench. My mom loved it because it was mine, and because it made a crickety sound when I came up the steep hill of SE 18th Street after my late shift at the Mini Mart, a sound that was both reassuring and unmistakeably Nemo’s.

Lee J. Cobb argues his point.

I was cloistered in a small room with eleven angry men who were cloistered in a small room with Henry Fonda. Lee J. Cobb argues his point.

My parents parked their cars in the street and lower driveway that week so that I could get Nemo into the driveway’s only flat spot, up next to the house. The plan was, I would jack up the car high enough to drop the engine and pull it out from underneath, then wrestle it into my dad’s shop around the back of the house to work on it. I would put the screws and nuts from every piece of shroud in a plastic baggie and label the baggie with a black Sharpie, and put the baggies in a large cardboard box. I would clean all the engine parts by hand and hopefully find something to replace that was broken.

Really, now that I think about it, it was a fool’s errand. I think my dad sensed disaster; he had to work days so he would not be able to offer much real-time help, but he cleared his piano workings from the center table in the shop so that I would have maximum space to spread out and gave me leave to use all of his tools. Mom let me take an extra black-and-white TV they had out there, because I was going to be holed up for a long time. I don’t recall why it was thought this would be a help, but I remember watching old classic movies every day on channel 13 while I carefully keyed out and executed, step by step, the engine disassembly procedures for my particular year in the book.

Muir’s guide, colloquially known as the Idiot Book, walked you through every preparation and every detail, even reminding long-haired readers to put their hair in a pony tail before addressing a running engine or it was liable to “yank you hankless”. Here is how one blogger, eulogizing the illustrator of Muir’s book, Peter Aschwanden, summarized what the Idiot Book meant to Volkswagen owners:

“I was living on Canyon Road in Santa Fe in 1970, sharing a house with 3 women and another guy. One day he decided to rebuild the engine of his VW bus. He was sort of a small guy, maybe weighed 120 pounds…but this didn’t stop him from taking the engine out of his bus by himself. The bus was backed up against a wall. He got in there behind the bus, undid 4 bolts, grabbed the engine with both hands, and pushed the bus away from the wall with his foot. He was left holding the engine, which he carried into the house and set on the kitchen table. He opened up his Muir book and rebuilt the engine right there.”

I would think this description unbelievable except that my own experience was similar. I removed the nuts (only three on the Bug) and lowered the engine onto a little hydraulic jack on wheels, then wrestled it onto a handtruck and pulled it around to the back yard. It was about as cumbersome to dolly along in this way, I imagine, as if it had been an Aldabra tortoise. I manoeuvered the thing through the door of the shop and then wiggled it off the handtruck and onto the bottom of a makeshift ramp — a plank of 2×10 that my dad had lying around — and then pushed it up the board and onto the table, where I began the slow process of taking it apart piece by interconnected piece.

Peter Aschwanden's illustration of the VW engine was worth the price of the book.

Peter Aschwanden's illustration of the VW engine was worth the price of the book. Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

The trip into the heart of a VW engine is a marvelous journey, and you begin to see how the engineers were thinking. These were German engineers from the early 1930s, the Chancellor’s people. You know who. The design had not changed significantly since then, and I could begin to see how everything had been thought out. It was so simple, so sensible and efficient. So Deutsch. And yet at the same time there was give. The VW engine is designed to leak a tiny bit of oil. When it’s cold, the seams are a little sloppy; when it gets up to running speed, the heat expands the case and other parts to an optimal tightness. I had never studied anything like this before, never cared. But the logic and beauty of it gripped me now as I peeled back each layer and finally got to the center. It made me wonder what advances might have been if these minds had been engaged by Roosevelt’s WPA instead of the quest for Lebensraum.

The camshaft had extra holes in it. A mechanic took one look at it when I brought it in and said “Yeah, somebody tried to make a race car out of it and bored these extra holes. Also, that’s a ’66 camshaft, not a ’67.” I don’t recall where I found this mechanic, but he also rebored the whatchamacallits for the camshaft bearings — the places in the crankcase where the bearings sit. I’ve forgotten the word now. They were worn to an odd shape. But the real problem — finally! — was that someone had put the wrong oil pump in it. The thing couldn’t keep oil moving through the engine at a sufficient rate.

None of these things was a horribly expensive problem now that I had the engine out and disassembled. I took the rebored crankcase and new camshaft bearings and new oil pump and new camshaft and went back to my dad’s shop, and after scrubbing the char off of the pistons, reversed the disassembly process according to Muir’s book.

It is a well-known and commented-on phenomenon of Bugdom that each time you R&R the engine, you end up with parts left over, no matter how carefully you work. There will be extra bolts, shroud screws, nuts and washers, maybe even a cotter pin. It’s a mystery no one has ever satisfactorily explained. You keep them forever because you know they came off the car and belong with the car, but you’ll never use them, and there will be more the next time. These parts are like the basketfuls of fish and bread that Jesus and his desciples gathered up after feeding the throngs.

Once I had put the last shroud on and boxed up my extra parts, I put the engine back in the car. It was Sunday evening, the day before school started. Dad helped me slide the engine down the 2×10 and onto the handtruck, steadied it with me as we pushed it back out to the front of the house, lowered it onto the jack, and slid the jack underneath the car, which had been sitting with its back wheels absurdly cambered three feet in the air for seven days. I lowered the car and raised the engine until the three studs in the chassis met the three holes in the engine case, nutted them down, and started hooking up the accelerator cable and electrical wiring, which I had taken care to code with tape. Oil had to be put in. It was almost dark.

Little Nemo back when the road was wide open.

The trip to Umatilla. Little did we know that disaster was less than a micrometer of aging rubber away.

Mom was calling us in to dinner, and dark had descended, but Dad stayed outside while I grunted underneath the car, fir needles imprinting themselves against the skin of my arms. Dad did not ask if he could go now, bless his large and forgiving heart. He was curious. I was too. The moment of truth came when I sat on the front seat, half in and half out, and put the key in the ignition. Dad stood near the open engine compartment, a few feet out of the way of potential harm.

I paused. It dawned on me suddenly what a fool I was to expect anything to happen when I turned the key. What was I thinking? A million things could have gone wrong. All those procedures, all those tight fits, all those parts. All those leftover parts! Most of Nemo’s cardio-pulmonary system had been reduced to a cardboard box full of plastic bags. But I had done all that I could do. I had done what the book said. I pressed the gas pedal once, then let it up and turned the key.

The engined turned over and fired up immediately. Vigorously. Happily, even. Its cheerful chatter sounded as though it had merely been interrupted in the middle of a convivial conversation. My dad and I whooped and hollared.

I’m not sure that what it says about my life is flattering, but this was one of its proudest days. There have not been many times when I have gone into something with only willingness and wits and what leverage I could generate with my own limbs and emerged utterly triumphant. The experience was a validating high that stayed with me for years. And Nemo responded well to my ministrations. It became de rigeur, when changing Nemo’s oil, for me to slide under and give the valves a tweek, and during the nine years I owned the car I pulled the engine at least four or five times — to replace the clutch, the transmission boots, even once a tiny, 50-cent clip. I replaced one of the rear axles after it sheared off while I was driving up the parking donut at SeaTac Airport (an airport my grandfather was convinced was “designed by an idiot and built by a committee”, though that’s neither here nor there), a terrifying event that stopped my forward motion immediately and forced me to back down the spiralled ramp with cars blindly hurling upwards behind me. 

I took care of Nemo, and it must be said, Nemo took care of me. Once my buddy Jeff and I decided to drive to the other corner of the state to see what the Umatilla National Forest was all about. We camped on Misery Mountain (no lie, and my half of the tent flooded so I ended up sleeping in Little Nemo most of that miserable night) and the next day, after we had driven back over the Cascades and I had pulled up in the driveway and stopped, a popping hiss issued from underneath the car and the brake pedal oozed to the floor; a sharp cotter pin had slowly, over the years, been scraping away at the rubber casing of the brake line, but Nemo had managed to hold his arteries together long enough to get us safely back home in the driveway before succombing to the most dangerous malfunction a car can have. 

The winter we spent in Ohio, Nemo turned 25, but in Bug years, that's middle age. I had to send to Seattle's Bow Wow Auto Parts for a few gaskets.

The winter we spent in Ohio, Nemo turned 25, but in Bug years, that's middle age. I had to send to Seattle's Bow Wow Auto Parts for a few gaskets.

In 1989 or so I gave Little Nemo a new paint job. “Medium Cabernet Solid”. I once said those three words to a police officer who was writing me a ticket during what by nightfall had already come to be called the Inauguration Day Storm of 1993. Nemo’s windshield wiper motor had chosen that auspicious, rainy and windy day — the day of President Clinton’s swearing in — to give up the ghost as I drove from my mountain redoubt in Snoqualmie to Seattle to interview the owner of Beall’s Roses. The officer paused in his scritching, stepped a pace back, wrinkled his nose up and looked from side to side to assess the Color of the Vehicle. “What is this, maroon?” he said, and continued writing. It was not really a question, but I answered, “Actually, it’s Medium Cabernet Solid.” I suppose I was lucky that he did not even seem to hear this correction.

Nemo and I spent most of our time together knocking around Washington State. This was back when Regular was regular and regular was cheap. In 1991 we braved several mountain ranges and Wyoming’s High Plains in the snowy dead of winter to travel to a children’s ranch camp in Ohio, where I volunteered as a farmhand and wrangler for a year. Little Nemo immediately won the affection of many of the campers and several of the counselors, one of whom regularly occupied her campers during the summer by setting them to work making daisy chains and festooning the car with them from front to back. It was fitting livery for a car hatched during the Summer of Love. A hoof pick that I used at the ranch and once tossed on the floor of the car remained there on the passenger side for years after I had returned from Ohio.

It may have been there when I eventually sold the car to a kid named Corey. He needed a car badly and loved Nemo at first sight, even though the aging Bug had nearly bald tires, suffered from chronic electrical issues, no longer jumped out of the gate when you stepped on the gas, and was rusting in many places. I had replaced almost every working part on the car, and I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I couldn’t keep up.

My dad had been right. I was always underneath that car. So had my mom. I didn’t know anything about fixing cars. But I proved myself able to learn, and one of the best things about my whole adventure with Little Nemo was hearing my dad, more than once, say in conversations where the subject happened to touch upon Volkswagen Bugs, “Those are neat little cars. You know my son has one. Does all the work on it himself.”  

“A straight little car” Part I

The 1967 Volkswagen Sedan represented, for many fans of the “Beetle Bug”, the meeting point of the best of the old and the best of the new. Among other things, it was the first year that the Bug had a 12-volt battery and the last year that it had a metal dashboard. Up until 1966 the car had had to get by with just 6-volts, and in 1968 the metal dash was replaced with vinyl, which faded and cracked with a few years in the sun (and didn’t hold magnets). The ’67 was the pinnacle of that car’s engineering and design.

My first car was a 1967 Bug that I christened Little Nemo after Winsor McCay‘s cartoon character. After classes during my college years, Nemo and I often went out and beat up the old highways that ran through the little Snoqualmie Valley towns of Fall City, Stillwater, Carnation, Duvall and Monroe, turning off to explore little backroads where whim dictated. I had not yet grown up, and as many young men do I thought of my car as an animate object. Since my human friends had all moved away to colleges elsewhere, Nemo became the buddy that went everywhere with me. In fact, I was like the the cartoon boy Nemo and my car was like his bed, which was the vehicle that carried him on most of his adventures.

Bound for adventure. Image used according to Wikipedia Commons.

Nemo

I was 24 and living at home again, working my way through my second sprint of college years, when I announced at the dinner table that I wanted to buy a VW Bug. Both of my parents had the same reflex.

“Those things are always breaking down,” said my dad, upon hearing of my plan. “You’ll always be underneath it.”

“You don’t know anything about fixing cars,” worried my mom, her face darkened by a frown.

To my knowledge, my dad did not hold any particular loyalty to Ford over Chevrolet, or vice versa, but he was decidedly unfond of things made offshore; distrusted them and preferred to buy American, especially if we were talking about cars. (I see an irony in the fact that I now make a point of buying “local” whenever possible.) Dad’s older brothers had fought in World War II to help beat back the Hun and Emperor Hirohito, and we had been magnanimous enough as a world power to help the defeated nations get their economies started again, which was the right thing to do perhaps, but we didn’t have to buy their cars. And besides, they were bound to be inferior. Growing up, I had ridden in the back seats of a 1957 Chevy Station Wagon, a 1964 Chevy Impala, a Ford van of some species, a 1968 Ford Galaxy 500, and a 1976 Chrysler Volare station wagon, all (excepting of the last, which had been bought expressly for my mother to use) with my dad behind the wheel as the proud beneficiary of American automotive engineering superiority. All, too, were periodically pulled up close to the house with their hoods open and my dad bent over their engines.

Memories of standing in the rain holding a wrench for my dad while wishing I was over at my friend’s house were as painful for me as I imagine the disappointment at not having been able to instill in me a sense of responsibility about cars was for my dad. I didn’t understand that he got real satisfaction out of repairing and maintaining these marvelous machines, and in saving money that way; that it gave him a sense of agency that I now recognize as a hunger in my own present life, a sense of engaging the physical, tangible world and altering it, mastering it. I was a daydreaming teenager as yet unoppressed by the routine of a workaday world and saw nothing compelling about that activity. I also didn’t recognize an opportunity to bond with my father in silent (or at least non-verbal — there was plenty of grunting) side-by-side combat against the absurdities of Detroit. Standing next to the driveway twiddling the needlenose pliars while my dad slew unseen dragons under the hood felt like a chore, just like taking out the garbage and cleaning the cat box. I’m sure my feelings on the matter were patent to all (“Dad, can I go now?”). After a time, he only asked me to come out for specific momentary needs, to step on the break or the gas, or to help him lift something heavy.

There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself while standing in the road, but I am curiously absent in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

Little Nemo in the Snoqualmie Valley, the year after I fixed the engine. There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself, but even at high-res I cannot find myself in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

The double vote of no confidence felt terrible, but it was not like my folks were vowing to disown me if I bought a VW. In fact, despite their reservations they cosigned my first loan from a bank. I don’t remember exactly what the loan was, maybe two thou, but I believe the car was $1450.00. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to establish credit. At 24, I had never bought anything more expensive than a Bell and Howell Super 8 sound movie projector, which was the matter of not more than three hundred dollars. I took out a loan, which I paid on monthly for the next three years.

I responded to an ad for a car for sale by a young man named Eric S–. I remember loving its curves immediately as I pulled up in my folks’ Volare and saw Little Nemo sitting against the curb in the street outside Eric’s parents’ house. The exterior had four different colors: basically tan with a blue hood, a primer-colored front apron, and one rust-colored fender. The sleek back fenders looked like the haunches of a cat. It had running boards. (Running boards!) Eric and I drove it around and he told me a little about the car. I remember nothing of what he said. He then let me drive it away to have a mechanic look at it before I made up my mind.

The mechanic I took it to ran a small garage on the Eastside called Motorworks. I forget his name. He looked the car over approvingly, poked around and under it, measured and inspected.

“Straight little car,” he said. Then I gave him the keys and we got in. He brodied around through back alleys along Bel-Red Road, putting the transmission through its paces and listening to the engine.

“Yup,” he repeated. “Straight little car.”

I was to hear this exact phrase many more times over the years. It was the kind of statement said among people who could appreciate, under the rough exterior, a reliable machine that had been designed well and well cared for. It signified that in choosing this car, I had showed good sense. I probably overpaid for a 19-year-old box of tin, but everybody who knew Bugs who ever looked at it said it was “a straight little car.” It wasn’t pretty, but the interior had been redone with plush, fur-like seats. And really, what mattered to me was that I’d be able to drive across the lake to my classes at the University of Washington instead of catching two buses with a long wait between, or walking a mile and catch one bus) and I would not have to borrow the Volare to go to work at the Mini Mart, also in the University District. The car meant independence. It was a bonus that when you stepped on the gas, the whole car lifted up and WENT. It looked like an old dog, but it acted like a young horse.

The first month I drove it that hot summer of 1986, I kept seeing the little orange oil light on the dashboard flickering on. That couldn’t be good. I added oil, but that didn’t help. Something was wrong. Initial probes by a mechanic suggested I would have to submit the car to an R&R (it stood for “remove and replace” or “remove and repair” — mechanic’s lingo for “in order to find out what’s wrong we’ll have to take the engine completely out of the car, and even if we don’t find anything wrong we’ll have to put the engine back into the car”), a round trip for the engine that would cost an estimated thousand dollars by the time all was said and done. I was stricken. School started in a week. If I ignored this problem, my engine could blow up on the Evergreen Floating Bridge, and I’d be that guy.

Would it really be this easy? Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

Would it really be this easy? Illustration from Muir's book lifted from Amazon and used without permission.

I didn’t have a thousand dollars. I had a copy of John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I had fearlessness, being young, and a notion that taking apart a meticulously designed and precisely manufactured piece of mid-20th-century machinery should not present insurmountable obstacles for a person who was willing to get his hands dirty. I had parents who would let me park my disabled car in their driveway.

And I had one week…

 


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