Resolution #9

Let me get it right out there.

I don’t believe in ‘resolutions’. New year? Old year? Battlefield? Deathbed? Congressional? Doesn’t matter. Resolutions are for suckers.

Why the attitude? Simple really. I believe that personal change is not only possible, but is perhaps one of the most powerful, meaningful pursuits a human being can embark upon. But real personal change is about action, not laundry lists, good intentions, or talk.

Want to change your life? Great. Shut up. Stop writing. Avoid the urge to tape motivational quotes to your PC or desk. Don’t tell your friends about your grand plans. Don’t google ‘self help’. Don’t join a support group. For God’s sake, don’t buy anything glossy at the newsstand that purports to help you figure out how to change. And never, ever, ever ask strangers on internet messageboards for advice. Unless it’s a really special, mystical place 🙂

My alternative plan?

Think. Think long and hard. Get the hell away from places where you currently expend energy (meaningfully or otherwise). Isolate yourself. Take a trip to somewhere, maybe no place particularly important where upon arrival you have nothing particularly important you have to do. On the way there, think. Think about the brief little flicker, the eye blink in human time that you’ll occupy this world. Think about how you’d most like to spend that time, and whether or not it matters to you what occurs during that shutter click of life’s camera. Ask yourself, are you about ‘the moments’ of that journey, or is it a ‘legacy’ you wish to leave behind which might require sacrificing the ‘now’ of countless daily moments? Maybe there is a right or wrong answer to that internal debate. I don’t personally believe so. It’s simply about your vision of what matters to you. What kind of trophies do you want on your life’s shelves at career’s end?

Then decide.

What does a meaningful life look like to you? Are you living it? If not, what’s gotten in the way? Have you committed crimes of prioritization, actively mucked it all up, or simply allowed entropy and passivity to slowly, quietly steal control of your daily life’s decisions and direction away from you?

I had to go to West Virginia a bit ago. I could’ve flown, should’ve flown, 99 times out of a hundred, I would’ve flown. But I decided instead to drive. Somewhere in the dark-as-hell of a bitterly cold 6 hour drive through the mountains, I caught a glimpse of truth. I lost sight of the road in patches of fog that I suddenly found myself driving mindlessly through at high speed. It occurred to me that night that this is what I had been doing with my life for about a decade. I didn’t know where the road of my life was leading, hell, sometimes couldn’t even see it through the fog, and hadn’t given it much thought in a long time. I hadn’t stopped to enjoy the journey or even observed life’s beauty as it rushed past me, and really had no idea if the place I was headed to meant anything to me. That night, I just stopped driving for a few minutes. I thought and then I decided.

I decided to change my life. I reject cynicism as its proponents will tell you in a hundred different ways that ‘people really don’t change’. Bull****. Average people don’t change. Frankly, it just requires too much work. You might have to swim against life’s currents, or harder yet, carve out a brand new fork to reroute the stream that’s been stupidly sweeping you along for weeks, months, or years. I refuse to be average, and I refuse to be an empty vessel mindlessly carried by a current not of my choosing.

I’m not Gandhi. I’m not the Dalai Lama. Hell, I’m not even Dr. Phil or Oprah. I don’t have anything dramatic or mind-alteringly insightful to say. I won’t be copyrighting my mental slogan or slapping it on t-shirts or coffee mugs. But I have learned some important things. I don’t claim to know a thing that would be useful to you. Don’t listen to a word I’m saying – it could well be crap when it comes to your life. I could get you killed, or at minimum, get your knees skinned up pretty badly on the bicycle ride of life. But I am excited. I’ve changed my life before. It felt good. Really good. I just started changing mine again. I’m 46, have been mired in an extra-sized pool of sludgy life crap for awhile now, and woke up one morning a month ago and said ‘it’s time to be me again’. Being me isn’t perfect. It probably wouldn’t even get you into a decent Law School. But it beats the hell out of the imitation of me I’ve been performing for about a decade now.

In the Marine Corps, you can solve any dilemma, attack any hill, defeat any enemy, emerge victorious in any struggle with one simple tool – the 5 paragraph order. SMEAC.

S – Situation
M – Mission
E – Execution
A – Administrative and Logistics
C – Command and Control

Ask any Vietnam Vet – the most crucial thing in any endeavor is picking the right mission. During the past month, I figured out I’d spent a decade immersed in hectic, chaotic, driven daily life. I’d acquiesced and relinquished my right (duty?) to determine my life’s mission. Oddly enough, when I did set about mentally writing the 5 paragraph order to reclaim and accomplish my life’s mission, it turns out it’s the same one I’ve had for most of my life. Because I dig you in a big way, I’ll share:

  • Enjoy life.
  • Grow stuff. Green feels good and producing it has to provide some good karma. The world can always use a little more green.
  • Actively and aggressively love the lovable around me.
  • Forgive the unlovable but don’t waste a second more than you have to on them.
  • Be kind, always, and most of all to those that may not deserve it.
  • Connect with friends and family and stay connected. It matters.
  • Be physically strong and make getting there a part of my daily life so that I can be strong in other ways when I need to be. My body will never be a Temple – fahgetaboutit – you can’t have fun in one of those. But at least treat it like the lobby of a really nice hotel.
  • Work hard, because that’s who I am and who my father and mother raised me to be.
  • Remember that, for me anyway, work is not and never can be life.
  • Worship the great one, the immortal Alfred E. who implored of the heavens, ‘What, me worry?’ and try to live those words. Life is far too brief for worry.
  • Maybe most importantly, go outside weekly, look up at and hear the echoing refrain of boundless stars shouting down to us across eons that ‘very little in your tiny speck of a life matters, so we suggest you focus on that which does!’ Listen to them.

Those aren’t ‘resolutions’. I’ve always believed in them. I meant to always live them, I just got waylaid there for awhile. Now, the mission is reestablished. Maybe in a year or two, I’ll give you an after action report.

Wish me luck.

The Fickle Finger of Fate – Part I

How the hell did I get HERE?

We’ve all probably asked ourselves that question as we lived through the myriad twists and turns of our unpredictable lives.

It was 1987. I was a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and had decided I’d had enough of sleeping in the mud, and the misery, loneliness, and isolation inherent in the life of an infantryman. My plan was simple – serve out the last few months of my 5 year Marine Corps obligation, move back to my hometown of Alexandria Virginia, go to veterinary school, and marry my girlfriend. I had a roadmap ready for the rest of my life.

Fate, on the other hand, had other ideas.

I was serving out my last days of service as my unit prepared to wrap up a 6 month deployment to Okinawa Japan. I loved Okinawa. It was a recreational paradise with some of the best scuba diving anywhere in the world. And getting the chance to train at the foot of Mount Fuji, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, plus a few side trips to Thailand and Hong Kong, had made what I thought was my last deployment especially memorable. Looking forward to my new civilian life, all I had to do was get through another week or so of Marine Corps life, reunite with my girlfriend, and it was happily ever after.

One drunken Marine changed my life.

4 days before flying home to begin my new life, I was walking back to my barracks with some friends late in the evening. An innebriated corporal who I barely knew was returning from town. Sneaking up from behind, he stealthily launched himself at me in a sudden surprise attack. Slamming me to the ground with all of his 200 lbs, I immediately had that dreaded sensation of having the ‘wind knocked out of me’. Anyone who’s slipped on a throw rug, or had their feet fly out from underneath them as a child knows the feeling. Panic quickly strikes as you struggle and fail to take a breath. But within a few moments, I was able to breathe normally again, and hurl a few choice expletives at my attacker, promising payback would be a ….well, would be forthcoming. Back to the barracks I went, sore, but otherwise feeling myself again, falling to sleep to dreams of a glorious homecoming.

The next few days crawled by in agonizing slow motion. I was ready to be back home again, where cars much larger than necessary drove on the right side of the road, where I didn’t have to alternately freeze and fry out in the elements, or take sick pride in just how much physical suffering I could endure. Still – something didn’t feel right. I continued my Okinawa routine during those last few days. I ran a PFT (although I had a sub par effort in the combination pullup/situp/3 mile run test). I was in the best shape of my life and had worked up to 250 lb bench presses, but at the gym was barely able to do half that. Something was wrong. I felt a little short of breath and asked a Navy Corpsman assigned to my unit to listen to my lungs. ‘I don’t hear anything’ he said. Sounded reassuring to me. And, as it turned out, prophetic.

So, the day before my unit’s fly-out date, I awoke and headed to the community showers to brush my teeth and shave. Looking in the mirror, something bizarre caught my eye. My adam’s apple, normally imperceptibly and perfectly centered in my throat, seemed to be shoved all the way over to one side of my neck. It didn’t take a genius to know – this was not a normal or desirable state of affairs. And I felt bad. Not ‘not good’, but bad. I had a silent argument with myself. If I went to the base infirmary, and something was really wrong, I might not make the flight home the next day. On the other hand, something was clearly and indisputably wrong. Capital ‘W’ wrong. I fought my base instincts to gut out whatever this problem was and trudged over to the medical facility.

A brief physical exam and X-rays ensued. As I waited in the hall for a Navy MD to come talk to me, I couldn’t help but take a peek. The black film with stark white shadows meant nothing to me. But it didn’t take a radiologist to know, one side being filled with ivory detail, the other black as night, wasn’t a good sign. Even I knew, in this case, symmetry was what one was looking for. Before I could grasp the meaning of all this, I found myself being thrown on a gurney and propelled at high speed to a waiting ambulance. Sirens blaring, I was soon being driven at high speed towards Kadena Air Force base, home of the only hospital on the island.

I’d find out later that I had walked around with a collapsed lung for days until I developed ‘tension pneumothorax’, a life-threatening condition where pressures from the collapsed lung build up to a point where your heart chambers can no longer fill with blood. It was those pressures that had pushed my larynx to one side of my neck. Had I followed my usual stoic nature, ignored the obvious, and gotten on the plane back to the US, I wouldn’t have survived the flight. Instead, I got to experience the emergency treatment for a collapsed lung, having a physician stick a scalpel through my chest, open up the hole with a gloved finger, and have a garden hose shoved into my chest cavity, all without the benefit of medication or anesthesia. Now that’s an experience every one should have. Still I consider myself extraordinarily lucky for not getting on that plane.

So I wasn’t going home. I wasn’t reuniting with my beautiful soul mate. I wasn’t getting out of the Marine Corps in days. Plans had changed. I was in for a month of fun. A couple of my best friends from Weapons Company, 2nd Bn, 8th Marines, along with my Platoon Commander, Lt. Mabe, came by to bid me farewell on their way to the airport. All but one of them I would never see again. They brought me a present, a pair of ceramic Shishi dogs that sit on my mantle at home still, and wished me luck. And suddenly, I was alone. The next 60 days were interesting. Chest tubes were placed, chest tubes were removed. The process was repeated several times. Every time they pulled the tubes, my right lung would collapse again. Chest tubes are not fun. I lost 20 lbs in 2 weeks. I was up twice in all that time, forced to pull what looked like a tonka toy behind me, only this one was attached by tubes and filled with fluids coming out of my damaged chest. I found, when you come at people pulling nasty contraptions containing body fluids, they get out of your way.

When it became clear that chest tubes were not going to heal my damaged lung, I was scheduled for a thoracotomy and lung repair surgery. It was a simple operation. Step one – cutting my chest open from the middle of my back to my sternum. Step two – jacking open my ribs with a rib spreader. Step three – snipping the bottom and damaged lobe of my left lung away and stitching it up. Step four – scratching up the interior of my chest wall with gauze and acid to ensure the repaired lung would stick to the chest wall while it healed. And the final step, inserting 2 more chest tubes.

I vaguely recall weeks 3 and 4 of my stay. I was given copious amounts of morphine and Demerol. Watching Japanese television, bizarre enough straight dead sober, with a mountain of narcotics running through your veins – lets just say it’s something you really have to experience to appreciate. Somewhere in the haze of this stretch I managed to call my parents. In typical fashion for a highly efficient US Government operation, my parents had never even been informed I was in trouble, and my parents thought I was calling from my base in NC to tell them I’d be home soon. At the same time, I realized I hadn’t heard from my girlfriend in months, but wasn’t able to get through to her.

I received another shock to the system right after surgery, when an officer unknown to me visited to inform me that, sometime during the narcotic haze period of my experience, I’d been notified of my selection into the Marine Corps MECEP Program, an enlisted to officer commissioning program, and in a drug-induced state of mind, had accepted the offer (hence agreeing to at least another 5 years of Marine Corps service). The officer was there to find out which colleges I was interested in attending at Marine Corps expense. I have no recollection to this day of being informed that I had been accepted to this program, nor agreeing to accept the offer.

A drunken tackle by a casual acquaintance had rocked my world in more ways than one.

Declining a tempting offer from one of the hospital nurses to complete my convalescence at her apartment (she was married and her husband deployed elsewhere – even then I had some lines I would not cross), I was put in a cab and taken back to my former base. I had no clothes (not even underwear), no money, no unit, no friends. And no idea how I was getting home. I was restricted from flying – anywhere – for at least another 30 days. The Red Cross (to whom I am grateful to this day) bought me some clothes. I read books, tried to move without experiencing excruciating pain, and waited.

30 days later I was at Kadena Airfield. When told I ‘wasn’t authorized’ to fly back to the United States, I threw a fit right there in front of 100 strangers, and told them that if they didn’t put me on a plane, I was going to knock someone’s teeth out, and I didn’t really care who I started with. Whether they believed me, or just wanted to get me out of the airport, next thing I knew I was looking out the window at clouds and ocean, from a first class seat.

I knew where the plane was landing, but where I was going? All that had suddenly and inexplicably changed. And my crystal clear plan for the future was now as nebulous and ephemeral as the wispy clouds flying past the window.

The Fickle Finger of Fate – Part II

It was early May, 1987 and the 747 I’d hitched a ride home on from Okinawa, Japan skidded to a stop on the scorching tarmac at Washington National Airport. No longer attached to a Marine unit, I’d had to beg, plead, and threaten my way home. But I’d finally made it back.

A month prior, my plans had been well-laid and seemingly perfect. Gracefully exit the USMC, apply for veterinary school, talk the girl of my dreams into marrying me, and commence happily-ever-after. But a near-death experience and 60 days of surgeries, recovery, and drug-induced haze had blurred the lines of that roadmap considerably. Somewhere in the fog of those months, I’d apparently agreed to continue my Marine Corps career as an officer. I’d get a brief 30 day hiatus at home before having to head to San Diego for the summer to attend a Marine preparatory program, designed to ensure as one of the USMC’s prime investments, I didn’t flunk out of school when I got there.

I was to return to the scene of previous academic crimes, the University of Virginia. My experience there 5 years before had left scars. Unlike seemingly everyone around me, I had felt lost, rudderless, and frightened. I’d had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I had never had to study and frankly, didn’t really know how to study. I did enough to get by while comforting myself with a hundred friendships and plenty of partying. Finally, after 2 and ½ years of floundering, the pressure of trying to preserve a scholarship, being a disappointment to my parents and myself, and just plain depression over my poor performance was too much. Instead of going home for Christmas my 3rd year, I stayed in Charlottesville, hiked to the Marine Recruiting Office downtown, and enlisted.

The Marine Corps saved my life. The ultimate meritocracy, all the Marine Corps asked of you was 100% commitment and your absolute best performance. You didn’t have to worry about direction, the Corps provided that for you. You just had to perform. So I performed. I dove into every training course I could gain entry to. When I was sent to a school, I finished first, whether there were 20 course members, or 200. I’d been failing for so long, excelling felt like salvation. There was no pressure. I was a US Marine infantryman. I belonged to the United States government, and believe me, in their eyes I was expendable. What I did with the opportunity mattered little to anyone except myself.

In a year I was a corporal. In 3 years, I was a sergeant running a mortar platoon. And now, I was about to come full circle, completing the circuitous journey back to where I’d started – back to the University of Virginia enroute to becoming a demi-god, an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

But first, I had some loose ends to wrap up.

In the Marine Corps, trust me – there’s no ‘woman in every port’. It’s lonely as hell. Even though I was involved in a serious relationship, I knew it would be tough if not impossible to sustain when you’re gone more than you’re ‘there’. During what I thought was to be my last deployment, things between her and I began to unravel. We’d barely held it together before my deployment. She’d written often, sent packages, all the usual expected stuff. We told each other we loved each other and would start over when I got back.

Now I was back. Back, but a mess. I’d lost 25 lbs. I had an incision from the middle of my back running to the edge of my sternum, and four healing garden-sized holes where chest tubes had been a month prior. And I had 30 days to get myself mentally and physically together before I’d be off to California and back in the Marine Corps fold.

I arrived home from the airport, greeted my family, and tried to relax. I knew I had to call her. She’d be home for the summer. After working up some courage, I made the call. She came over. She was as lovely as ever. We went out on the deck to talk in private. The one thing that has stuck with me all these years is that through the whole conversation, she never took off her sunglasses. She cried some, told me how much she had missed me, and asked me if I could have breakfast with her that Saturday so we could really talk.

I already knew what was coming. Joedy was his name. ‘Ain’t no use in looking back, Joedy’s got your Cadillac, ain’t no use in lookin’ down, Joedy’s got your girl and gone’. That’s the bastard’s name, and for 200 years he’s been swooping down in our absence and making our girl back home forget all about us. It’s what he does. And you know what? We never blame her. Who’d want to sit around waiting for a Marine to come home, knowing it’s only a brief respite from another long wait to come?

So Friday came, and sensing the train wreck of love barreling down upon me at high speed, hearing the tumultuous roar of a breakup’s approach, and almost feeling the excruciating agony of the collision, I made a decision. I packed up my Honda Civic that morning, kissed my folks goodbye for the summer, and drove west. It hurt like hell to leave, but I knew there was more distance between us now than perseverance or passion could bridge. By the time I got to Oklahoma, my heart was just a little less heavy. As I rolled into San Diego, I vowed I wouldn’t look back.

I’ve heard people say a thousand times ‘things happen for a reason’. I think it just as likely we’re at the mercy of dumb, blind luck. Or maybe, once in a rare while, God just throws us a karmic bone. The greatest gift I’ve ever received was about to be bestowed upon me. 6 months before, blind to its value, I might have given it back. I’d thought I’d found true love. But here I was, absolutely alone, without a friend within 1000 miles, and only the slightest of ideas how I’d gotten here or where I’d be in 10 years.

Then it happened.

I was 3 week’s early for my report date for prep school in San Diego. For lack of a better idea, I shacked up at an Econolodge and watched bad daytime TV, read books, and ate delivery pizza. After a couple days of that wholesome regimen, I felt stir crazy and decided to do some exploring. I took a taxi downtown, and headed out on foot to get the lay of the land. After a stop at a bookstore, and an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading, I decided to head back. As I turned a corner looking for a taxi, I ran right into a couple going the other way. I’d nearly knocked the gentleman over. As I looked up and prepared to apologize for not watching where I was going, I was suddenly speechless.

The guy I’d run into was Pete Reddy. Pete had been my roommate at Virginia and one of the best friends I’d ever find. He’d made it successfully through the UVa Marine ROTC program and was now an Air Defense officer stationed at 29 Palms, California. He and his wife had made a quick jaunt to San Diego to do a little shopping. And I had almost knocked him on his ass.

We chatted for an hour and caught up on each other’s lives. Then I remembered something I’d nearly forgotten over the past year – that Pete’s wife Lisa had roomed with a girl at Virginia who I’d always been very interested in. Her name was Valerie Hall. Valerie was a tall, slender brunette from South Carolina. She had the unforgettable slow southern drawl of a real South Carolinian, piercing brown eyes, and a smile that could light up a room and never seemed to leave her face. I’d approached her intermittently throughout my college days, but she was entrenched in a long-term relationship. Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind, Lisa said ‘You should look up Valerie when you get back to school! She’s living in Richmond now and she’s single. I’m going to tell her to call you!’

Running into dear friends out of the blue like that, in such an unlikely place, made the whole encounter seem surreal. I filed away the information about Valerie, but the thought of entering into another ‘relationship’ was the farthest thing from my mind. The summer moved on, I got through the Marine prep course, and before I knew it, it was fall and I was back in beautiful Charlottesville. Finishing up the move into my new apartment, I decided to give my sister Anne a call from a local payphone. Anne lived nearby at the time and worked at UVa’s hospital. We chatted for awhile and agreed to get together for dinner soon. As I was about to hang up, she informed me she’d had a strange phone call from a girl named Valerie who claimed to know me – did I want her phone number?

I wanted it.

I called. And a few days later, she was knocking on the door of my apartment. From the minute she walked in and we started talking, it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives. A year later we were engaged, and 2 years later, in a snow-covered church in Richmond, I married my best friend, the sweetest, kindest human being I’ve ever known. We’ve been together for 19 years this 9th of December. We have 2 of the most wonderful kids in America, and every day of my life I am thankful for the drunken idiot Marine who tackled me to the ground that night in 1987, sent me to the hospital, and almost cost me my life.

Were it not for the Fickle Finger of Fate, I never would have gone to that hospital. Had my drunken friend decided to target one of the other 5 Marines I was with, instead of me, I never would’ve stayed in the Marine Corps. I wouldn’t have had a reason to be in San Diego, wouldn’t have decided on a whim to take a tour of downtown, and wouldn’t have had a chance meeting with dear friends. I would never have known what happened to the girl I admired from afar in college, found out where she was, or reconnected with her. I wouldn’t have a beautiful marriage to a wonderful woman, or 2 amazing kids who bring me incredible joy and pride every day. I don’t know where I’d be, but I wouldn’t be here, where I most want to be.

I don’t know if I believe ‘everything happens for a reason’, or that some deity oversees our lives and steers us to the course meant just for us.

But I think I may believe in Fate…

How could I not? 🙂

Surviving the 70’s

It’s a miracle I lived through the 60’s and 70’s.

As if Richard Nixon, Vietnam, mutually assured destruction, and really really bad fashion weren’t risky enough, I faced the daily threat of mass-marketed toys that could maim, wound, and disfigure. Mattel? Kenner? Hasbro? Whamo? Endless fun with just a hint of mutilation thrown in for good measure. The children’s playthings of my youth would never make the cut nowadays – but how dear they were to my heart way back when.

Toy’s of my childhood – how do I love thee?

Let me count the ways.

The Poisonous:
In the 20 years spanning 1960-1979, nothing said FUN like toxic chemicals and vapors. The Bubble Jet, a fancy water gun you shoved bubble-producing cyanide tablets into, was great recreation. Whether squirting the solution into a friend’s eyes or mouth, or your own, chemicals meant good clean fun. When you bored of the toxic bubble fun, you could relax with a couple of puffs from your Fake Cigarettes and blow (or inhale) some artificial chemical smoke. If smoking wasn’t your thing, it was time for some Superelastic Bubble Plastic. If the fumes from the blob of plastic goo you’d place carefully on the short straw didn’t fry some essential brain cells, the psychedelic colors of the finished bubbles were sure to blow your mind. And there was always the classic standby, the Chemistry Set, always full of poison potential. ‘Hey Mommmmm! We’re mixing up an experiment! (ie…mixing every damn powder and solution in the set together)’. ‘That’s great Johnny. Just don’t be late for supper. Johnny? Johnny? What’s that horrible smell?’

I find the smell of burning flesh intoxicating:
Once you’d worked up a healthy buzz from sniffing and snorting some of the good stuff above, it was time to get down to real business. If you weren’t holding a steel rod at 373 Kelvin, you weren’t having fun. I guess ‘Red Hot Iron Poker’ wasn’t very marketable. Instead they called this fun-filled item a Wood Burning Kit. Designed for the youthful artiste to trace lovely designs in the smooth face of a virgin wood canvas, we found it much more fascinating and gratifying to see which of our sister’s toys was combustible. The fun lasted until we ran out of things to ignite, or burned the hell out of one of our fingers. The Wood Burning Kit had the added benefit of giving off some more occasionally toxic fumes, a plus if the headrush from earlier fun had worn off.

One of the most memorable toys of my youth had the potential to deliver fun and 3rd degree burns simultaneously. Creepy Crawlers let you make your own multi-colored rubber bugs and reptiles by squeezing some liquid goo into a metal mold you then placed in an electrically heated bath of incredibly hot water. The mixture of high-voltage electricity, water, toxic goo, and blazing heat was intoxicating. I can’t remember what the hell we did with the rubber bugs, but making them sure was fun. If you were really adventurous, you got the Incredible Edibles version which combined the above risks with ingestion of the finished (supposedly ‘edible’) product, creating a high-risk toy twofer. What a bargain!

For the girls, there was always the classic Easy Bake Oven, which delivered the potential need for skin grafts using only the power of a light bulb. But the little brownies were really good, which did help take your mind off the burns.

Finally, for the truly ambitious kids, there were Estes Rocket Kits. You spent weeks carefully assembling the model rockets, inserting the real solid fuel engine, and then painstakingly preparing your rocketship for blastoff. 3 weeks of work was over in seconds as your rocket blast off into the great beyond, usually never to be seen again. After a few launches, we naturally progressed to the next logical step – laying the rockets on their side and launching them down the street. We were among the most popular kids in the neighborhood. Finally, we’d tire even of bothering with the rockets at all, and would tape the engines to handy household items (like empty glass Coke bottles), and fire them off that way. Good clean American fun!

You’ll put your eye out!:
We damn near did, on multiple occasions. Back then, the federal government was too busy alternating betweem idealism and corruption and fighting wars in obscure corners of the world to worry about what little kids were playing with. One of my elementary school playmates, Bonnie Higham, had one of her eyes put out with a dart thrown by her brother. As I recall, even for an elementary school girl, Bonnie was pretty hot, although it could be a little disconcerting to see her lovely little blue glass eye drift off in an unintended direction while the other one stared piercingly right through you. If the loss of an eye wasn’t gamble enough for you, you could risk full-on skull impalement with the big brother of the dart, Jarts, more commonly known as ‘lawn darts’. These bad boys were big enough to do serious harm, and were so tempting the adults usually absconded with them. Add in a little alcohol and adult klutziness, and you had a recipe for madcap fun or tragedy, depending on your luck.

And of course, we had that old suburban standby, the Daisy BB Gun. When we tired of shooting at squirrels, crows, and the windows of neighbors we didn’t like, it was only a matter of time before we turned them on ourselves. Lets face it. We had it coming.

There were other less forboding weapons at our disposal. The Fli Back Paddle was a personal favorite. It made a great weapon with a nice stand-off distance, giving you a headstart should whomever you were pummelling in the back of the head decide to counterattack. It also offered the risk of it’s hard ball slapping into your own face if you weren’t careful, or the rubber band breaking, sending the projectile off God know’s where, destined to break a family heirloom of some kind. If you wanted to take the hostility up a notch, you could call the Red Eye Ball into action. A modern day mace, its hard stubby prongs were nearly lethal when thrown at maximum velocity. Finally, a favorite weapon in many a childhood arsenal was the Johnny Reb Cannon, which hurled hard plastic cannonballs at those damn yankees with almost frightening fury. I wish I’d lived in a land of cotton.

I’ll call your eye out, and raise you a blunt head trauma:
It’s amazing any of us escaped our childhoods without traumatic brain injury. Even the most basic of toys in my day had the potential to maim. One of my favorites was the boomerang. Ironically, even then people knew that the boomerang was a traditional Australian hunting weapon, but you could still find one in your stocking at Christmas. It could take years to master the perfect boomerang throw, seeing it make its swift, sweeping, beautiful arc and begin to race back to you and its point of origin. It took only seconds to realize you had no idea what to do about it as it careened towards your head at 90 mph. Run for your life!

All of us remember the joyful glee of a slumber party pillow fight. So it was no wonder marketers of that era sought to capitalize on those misty memories with Sockem Boppers. The nostalgic rememberances of pillow fights past quickly faded as you were thrashed about the head and shoulders with a couple of thunderous right crosses from Brian Elkins, the big mean kid down the street. ‘Knock Em Senseless Boppers’ might have been a more descriptive moniker.

Sometimes, you didn’t need anyone else at all to experience major head trauma. In the pre-rollerblade era, a common instrument of death known as the Strap-on Skate could be spotted on almost any sidewalk in America. After the hour it required to apply the strap-on skates to your Buster Browns or Keds, using your special ‘skate key’ to tighten them, you were in for the ride of your life. Everything usually went just fine, until you happened to hit a rock or stick on the sidewalk, at which point all bets were off. The skates had an interesting tendency to simply come off at any given moment. The only saving grace was that the maximum speed obtainable with skates on was about what you could muster at a quick walk normally. Fortunately, all kids of that era were urged to always wear their special protective headgear when skating. We called them ‘baseball caps’.

Vehicles of Death!:
If you’re going to ride to your death, why not do it with a really bitchin’ set of wheels? That’s my life philosophy anyway. Having the misfortune to have turned 10 years old on 24 April, 1972 P.B.W. (Pre-Big Wheel), I was robbed of the opportunity of sporting a truly stylish and functional ride. Alas, our vehicles were lame, and generally dangerous as hell. The most hazardous of them all was the ominous-looking Skat Skoota. A set of 4 wheels, with 2 plastic red footprint pedals, Houdini himself couldn’t have successfully escaped its clutches. Besides, even if you did manage to traverse down the street on the thing without breaking your neck, you looked decidedly uncool doing so. Bummer.

Another classic mode of transport those days was the Hasbro
Inch Worm
. The vehicle itself was perfectly harmless. But if you were spotted riding the ridiculous thing, your safety could not be guaranteed. It could take until High School for your rep to recover. The only plus was the catchy inchworm jingle.

In fact, our choice of rides back in the day were so woefully inadequate, we were forced to create our own. In its lowest form, this might mean stilts made out of a couple of baked bean cans and some laundry cord. But my most memorable vehicular experience involved 2 childhood buddies, twins, David and Eddie Reynolds. Using plywood, and nails (lots of them), on top of a Radio Flyer wagon chassis, we erected a monument to transportation unrivalled to this day. We shaped it’s side’s like a lemon, even painting it bright yellow as the final glorious finishing touch. Carefully we hauled it up to the top of Larkspur Drive, which happened to be the steepest point in our neighborhood. Eddie, being none too swift upstairs (if truth be told) drew the lucky straw as our primary pilot. Into the lemon car he went. The fateful countdown began, and with a gentle push, he headed down the incline, gathering speed as he went. As our creation plummeted downward into the abyss, we suddenly realized our heady plan had but one fatal flaw. You couldn’t steer a Radio Flyer wagon. When the lemon car hit it’s max speed of 25 mph, it decided a 90 degree turn was in order. The plywood, nails, and Eddie Reynolds decided, however, to continue down Larkspur Drive. It was not a pretty finale. The lesson? We didn’t need toys to be dangerous. It came naturally.

I both rejoice and recoil at the typical childhood activities we embraced back then. When my brother turned 10, he got an archery set and target for Christmas. We routinely fired real arrows at high velocity past each other’s ears. Exhilirating, amazing, and ummmm….kind of stupid in retrospect. I’d never let my kids do likewise, but still wonder if they aren’t missing some essential life training from the safety of their X-Box and Play Stations. I’ve shared with you the hazards of my youth. Next time, I’ll regale you with tales of some of my favorite toys. Maybe if I’m really really lucky, you’ll share your memories too.

Anatomy of a Grub-Eater

I want to eat grubs.

No. Not grub.

Grubs.

It’s an odd component of my personality. But I find the thought of doing things, enduring conditions, that most human beings would find unacceptable, thrilling. Nothing appeals to me more than the thought of shedding the conveniences and comforts of modern life, and just living in a primitive setting.

As a young kid, I spent huge chunks of daylight in the woods. Our suburban Northern Virginia home backed up against a vast, overgrown section of woods. Sweet paradise it was. I would trek down the barely visible path to the creek and follow it’s meandering mysterious path until I was so far from the sights and sounds of suburbia, my imagination could really flex its muscles. The woods were full of mystical mile-markers: ‘The Cussword Tree’, a massive elm tree upon which countless other fellow travelers had, with expletive creativity, gouged their final words; ‘Frankenstein’s Tomb’, an above ground crypt, literally standing alone in an abandoned clearing, final resting place of God knows whom, and then there was ‘The Barbed Wire Fence’ cutting right across the creek, a boundary beyond which all of the kids in my neighborhood were instructed not to travel. The freedom we possessed, even as little kids, to explore our world in those days was amazing, and something simply not possible these days. Sadly.

In the lush thick green of the woods of 1970’s Franconia, I imagined myself a young Neanderthal, scouring the Paleolithic forests for roots, berries, and small game. I could be deep in the Amazon, eluding a vicious band of pursuers whose poison arrows might any second penetrate the bush and bring my demise, or a Native American boy, sneaking off into the woods to practice the skills that would make me a successful brave warrior. As it was, I was an 8 year old American boy, traveling alone and unsupervised through a strange, alien place: turning over logs to marvel at wood salamanders, stag beetles, millipedes, a garter snake or blue-tailed skink – one never knew what might lie there. Jumping into deep pockets of water to capture one of God’s most beautiful creatures, the common bullfrog; I marvelled at Nature’s construction, the wings of a pair of dragonflies as they mated in mid-flight, the sight and sounds of a gigantic hornet’s nest hanging perilously and threateningly from the branch of maple tree, or the beautiful craftsmanship of a crawdad’s hole in the muddy creek bank.

I was most at home in the woods. Born a hundred years earlier, I might never have left them. Born in a modern century, real adventure is elusive, more a fleeting memory than an opportunity.

I joined the Marine Corps at age 21, no doubt in part to some vague sense of missing self. I didn’t fit in at college. Unlike the trails I followed in my youth, none of the paths available there made sense. They felt artificial and wrong. I had no desire to kill or be killed in the Marine Corps. But I loved the Corps as it led me back to the woods again. Whether trudging through the swamps of Camp Lejeune, NC, or the jungles of Panama, Okinawa, Japan, or the Philippines, I thrived on long treks through nasty terrain, having only a minimum of food and water and knowing I might have to use my wits to secure the rest. The more difficult the environment, the more I loved it. The brutal and dangerous Desert Warfare School at 29 Palms, California, Survive/Evade/Resist/Escape (SERE) training in the High Sierra, Mountain Warfare training at Pickel Meadows at 11,000 ft in the Sierra Nevada mountains, these were the places I loved most. Even experiencing a combat environment in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the most compelling memories came from living for 6 months in a stark, alien, and brutally desolate desert.

Don’t get me wrong, much of my experience as a Marine Infantry enlisted and commissioned man involved pain, suffering, and what can only be described as misery. Living outdoors, in the rain, snow, at 20 below zero, or 120 above, staying awake for days at a time, with little to eat or drink, is difficult to fit within the confines of the definition of ‘fun’. But it was fun. Knowing that I was doing things most people simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t do, filled me with pride. Enduring, hell even thriving, in those conditions, surpassing the limits of even those around me, was my ‘forte’. I’d found something I was better at than almost anyone else. I never told my peers that it wasn’t a fair competition, that I’d spent most of my childhood perfecting those skills. In the Marine Corps, I walked 50 miles without rest, I ate things I found under logs, I caught and killed animals to survive, and I discovered where my limits were.

Recently, I re-read one of favorite books, Undaunted Courage, the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, written by Stephen Ambrose. Reveling in the tale of the 2 explorers, who with only a small platoon of tough, resourceful troops accompanying them traversed a virtually unexplored United States, I fantasized what it must have been like to be among them. Facing the unknown, with minimal resources, literally living off the land, with nothing but their wits, toughness, and courage to protect them, it must have been one hell of a trip. While recognizing and enjoying the benefits of modern life (I won’t die from a simple infection, be mauled to death by a grizzly, or freeze to death), I sometimes feel I was born in the wrong era.

I think there are others like me out there. Given the popularity of survival shows on TV, I know I’m not alone. These shows tap into deeply rooted instincts I think most of us have, to be prepared for and survive any challenge the natural world might throw at us. Some of us might groan, whine, and complain our way through them, like Les Stroud in the popular ‘Survivorman’ series. Personally, I’d like to think I’m a lot more like Bear Grylls in ‘Man Vs. Wild’ – who doesn’t just survive, but thrives happily in the most challenging of environments (camera crew nearby or not). So, faced with the prospect of a handful of grubs, and hunger – I’m a grub guy, through and through. I’d probably even lie, and tell you they had a pleasing aftertaste.

Someday, I may even prove it. That little kid, totally immersed in the beauty, solitude, and natural wonder of the woods, is still in there somewhere. I’d love to reconnect with the little guy, who is and always has been the better part of me. I’ve been thinking hard about taking a year or two off of ‘real life’ and following the wilderness path that Lewis and Clark traversed from 1805-1806. When my kids are grown, if I can convince my brother to come along for the adventure, I may well just do it. If I do get eaten by that grizzly, I won’t have the burden of knowing I left my kids unraised, and my brother will have an incredible story to tell.

The Witching Hour

Come in….Welcome…

The old white plastic AM clock radio flipped to 11:07 pm. Huddled under the covers in the corner of my darkened childhood bedroom, I braced myself for the sounds of evil. The creaking door, that harbinger of impending doom, was reinforced with bass, oboe, and muted high-pitched trumpet, shrill as a woman’s shriek. It was time for E.G. Marshall and the CBS Mystery Theater. It was time to be frightened, maybe even scared ****less, and there wasn’t an adult on Earth who could save you from it. Did it get any better than that? Me thinks not.

I’ve always been a night owl. Whether through some imperfection in my circadian rhythms, or the result of aberrant genetic code, adenine where there should have been guanine, I feel most alive from 9 p.m. until the wee hours. This tendency nearly drove my parents to distraction in my youth. My bedroom was directly across from theirs in our Northern Virginia suburban home, so nighttime activities required stealth, subterfuge, and cleverness. Listening to the CBS Mystery Theater at night wasn’t just a childhood preference, it was a prime imperative.

Real headphones in those days weighed 13 lbs and were usable only with the most sophisticated electronic components. My little Sears clock radio certainly didn’t qualify. If you were lucky, your radio had an input for a single earpiece. Looking something like a suppository, the high-tech 1970’s earphone was usually caked with the previous user’s earwax, hurt like hell to wear, and had a sound quality only slightly superior to 2 soup cans connected by string. Headphones, therefore, just weren’t an option. Achieving my nightly mission would require a more creative approach.

In order to get my nightly fix of terror, school night or not, I took a far more daring approach. Pulling the clock radio in bed with me, I’d put the volume on the lowest setting possible, and listen with my ear pressed to its cool plastic side. The possibility of being discovered by an outraged parent only made the experience that much more exhilarating. The witching hours weren’t just frightening, they were dangerous. Hearing the steps of my 6’4” Marine Colonel father stomping towards my bedroom door was something to be avoided at all costs.

As the ominous refrain of CBS Mystery Theater’s opening quieted, it was the deep and confident voice of E.G. Marshall who set the stage for the evening’s nightmare to come. Marshall had a singular talent – he could read a cereal box (my personal favorite was ‘Rice Honeys’) and make it sound dark, mysterious, and enthralling. But Marshall didn’t just introduce that night’s radio show, he connected the cosmic dots for his listeners.

CBS Mystery Theater wasn’t just entertainment – there were lessons to be learned if you paid attention – about life, about the Cosmos, about the dangers just under the surface of our everyday normal lives. Frightening lessons were waiting for us all out there, and if we weren’t very, very careful, we might have to learn them the hard way.

Night after night, year after year, for nearly a decade, I kept my 11:07 pm AM radio appointment with the macabre. I survived ghosts, murdering spouses, witches, warlocks, ancient curses, secret stranglers, and monsters both Earthly and other-worldly. I learned that mystery and magic can best be experienced, not with our eyes, but through our ears, and that there is no more powerful tool a human possesses than his imagination. The nearly 3,000 episodes of the CBS Mystery Theater scared the hell out of America’s kids (and probably more than a few grown-ups) from 1974 – 1982 when the show finally came to a close. Although the shows weren’t always award-winning in quality, they were consistently scary, exciting, and well-written. The characters we met were real, the danger genuine, and their stories sucked the listener in as surely and inexorably as a whirlpool.

The commercials and news updates that divided the show into ‘acts’ served as a sweet reprieve, reminding the young listeners that this was, in fact, just a radio program, and that they were still safe and protected in the sanctuary of their real American beds. But the reprieve was always brief, as the inevitable sound of an ominous oboe heralded the return of the show. More than anything I think, it was this glorious back and forth between what ‘was’ and what ‘could be’ that made the show so mesmerizing and memorable. I will never forget the end of each show, marked by my mad scramble to turn the clock radio off before having to hear the frightening closing words of E.G. Marshall.

Pleasant….dreams?

Sometimes they were, sometimes to the chagrin of my parents, not so much. But the nights of my youth were indelibly marked by this amazing show. I am grateful to have had the borders of my imagination forever expanded by the experience.

Learn more about the CBS Mystery Theater.

Join us at the Weekly Witching Hour to listen to episodes of the CBS Mystery Theater

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have a Homebrew

It’s the only credo of the home brewer.

Relax.
Stop Worrying.
Have a Homebrew
🙂

Ahhh. Words to live by.

Even as a wee lad, I was already a practicing home brewer. I liked mixing up assorted (and generally horrible) concoctions like some maniacal mad scientist. ‘Here – Mom – try it! Come on! Pleeeease!!!’ My early efforts weren’t very successful. But as an adult I’ve gotten much much better.

I’ve always loved a good beer. But why do we love the things we love? The taste for beer, as one can confirm by watching the face of anyone taking their first secret sip, is an acquired one. I acquired mine during the countless treks from backyard grill to fridge and back again, providing my Dad with desperately needed and vital fluids during his pitched Summer battles with the burgers, dogs, and steaks of my youth. My hard work was rewarded by the greatest gift of all, a swig from Dad’s Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon, or Budweiser can.

I didn’t so much like it, as appreciate what it represented, that I was my Father’s son and this was a tiny small thing we were sharing. Such upbringing today would result in calls to Child Protective Services from concerned neighbors, but things were simpler and people calmer in those days. The tinny, ice-cold bite of those sips of beer is as strong a memory as any I can muster up from the fog, maybe because it was a Father-Son ritual only he and I knew about, and something that bound us together like a secret pact.

When I hit my teens, and through my college years at the University of Virginia, I grew to first like, then love beer. As expected of a Wahoo, I minored in beer, although my studies were of a more casual nature, foregoing the history, romance, and true meaning of beer. At Virginia, at the time named Playboy’s #1 ‘Party School’, beer was the fuel that drove all things social. That may have been cool, horribly dysfunctional, or just the way it was in the early 80’s, but the beer flowed like torrential mountain glacier water in early Spring. In our beer selections, we frequently honored our country by declaring our patriotism one can of Red, White, and Blue at a time. Beer served a function, and served it well. Connoisseurs, however, we were not.

During 10 challenging years in the United States Marine Corps, I nourished my budding love affair with beer. I began, not just to grope and salivate over her, but court her seriously. I met her parents and most of her relatives. Plans were made for the future. Adapting to the nearly celibate life of the Marine Infantryman (a well-kept secret among recruiters), Marines gravitate to beer like it was a comfort food. The celebration of the misery that is, all too frequently, typical of Marine Corps life, could reach pinnacles of depressed ecstasy after indulging in numerous doses of that thing called ‘beer’. We had no women. We had no chance of finding women. But beer? Always. We danced with, sang to, and sometimes bedded down with our beer. Semper Fi!

Eventually, having somehow managed to escape death by Marine Corps (ie..shrapnel, bullet, helicopter crash, drowning, torture, friendly fire, or training accident – there were so many possibilities!), I moved on from my military career, married a woman my Dad described as ‘a lot nicer’ than me, and started a family. I still found time for the occasional brew, but it had been relegated to just another beverage. I had to become, gasp, responsible. Although married family life was sweet, good, wonderful, I couldn’t help but sense an empty space in my chest – one no O’Doul’s could fill.

It wasn’t until 2002, tailgating with friends at a Washington Redskin’s game, that I experienced an epiphany and was reunited with my beloved. One of the tailgaters was a home brewer who’d brought some of his wares to the game. The first cold swig of that ‘dunkelweisen’ (a sweet dark intoxicating wheat beer) brought forth that holiest of questions, one shouted to the God of Beers in the sky since time immemorial.. It was barely audible, but filled with uncertainty and hope. ‘You…made..this?’

Yes. He had (my friend, not God). And over the next couple of weeks, through email, the sharing of some web links, and more than a few generous and patient tips, my new friend taught me the basics of how to make amazing beer. And learning about it brought roaring back to me memories I’d buried and long forgotten. The smell of beer on my Dad’s breath as he made me kiss his scruffy cheek at bedtime. Those secret swigs out at the family barbecue pit. Mixing secret ‘concoctions’ and ‘recipes’ out of the most exotic of ingredients in our kitchen. And as a teenage boy, sharing a secret beer (sorry Mom!) with my Dad after a long run or bike ride along Washington’s Potomac Parkway. The idea that, like Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington (who I hear made a bitchin’ Porter, the recipe for which is still available at the Library of Congress), I could make beer from nothing more than grain, hops, water, and yeast, fascinated me.

So, as I’m prone to do, I dove in with maximum passion. Like most beginners, I began my beer making journey using near idiot-proof ‘extract kits’. Extract beers use pre-manufactured malt syrups to take the grunt work and difficulty out of the process. Although one can make wonderful beers from extracts, to me, it’s like mixing up a glass of Tang, and swearing it’s ‘just as good’ as orange juice squeezed from homegrown fruit. It’s not the same. Something about the idea of making a beautiful beer, using the same techniques they used 200 years ago, intrigued me. After making a couple of perfectly acceptable ‘extract’ beers, I decided to step off the cliff into the mysterious perilous void known as ‘all grain’ brewing.

After plopping down starter money for some basic all grain equipment, I read up on the topic, and dove in. I soon found the sense of romance and history I knew was there all along. The language of beer-making – mashtun, sparging, lautering, vorlauf, wort – spoke of foreign lands, timeless traditions, and skills honed throughout history. I began making beers, all kinds of beers, unbelievable beers. Ales, IPA’s, lagers, wheats, porters, stouts – I’ve made nearly every style out there. I’ve made pumpkin beer with real pumpkins, a blueberry wheat from fruit I collected in my backyard, and a dark porter with oak, fresh vanilla bean, and Maker’s Mark that was so delicious, I barely got more than a sample myself. I’ve never made a beer that, even when imperfect, wasn’t infinitely better and more meaningful than every commercial beer I’ve ever purchased.

Although, as in most aspects of my life, I’m a homebrew loner, it doesn’t have to be that way. Homebrew clubs are everywhere in the U.S. In fact, a good friend of mine, and member here (if he ever shows his face), was President of Battleground Brewers, the local club in my part of North Carolina. These clubs meet, share recipes, talk beer, sample each other’s brews, and even make beer together. If you want to get into the home brewing thing yourself, it’s as simple as buying a starter kit on the web (I’d highly recommend Northern Brewer, both for their equipment and starter kits). If you have questions, they even have a very popular forum where you can get answers from newbie basics to the most complex beer making techniques. Many towns and cities in the US now have homebrew shops, so you may be able to find one locally where, more than likely, they’ll not only be able to set you up with equipment and supplies, but will probably want to teach you to make beer as well. Home brewers tend towards fanaticism, but in a good way.

I’d encourage anyone who has a little spare time, and loves a wonderful beer, to dive on in and try home brewing. The satisfaction of making something truly wonderful, just as our forbearers have for centuries, and sharing it with friends, is truly rewarding. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll bring back some truly fond and warm memories as an added bonus.

The beer is pretty damn good as well 🙂

The History of Weird

Childhood memories – those seminal, bittersweet moments of our youth burned indelibly into our consciousness.

Few things in the running timeline that is our ‘life’ burn with the intensity of our early memories. I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in a typical Northern Virginia suburb on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. In those days, you got your entertainment wherever you could find it. For the grown-ups, there was Redskins football (if you were lucky enough to be a season ticket holder or, pre-Ebay, know enough of the right people to get tickets). There were a wealth of bars and restaurants, and a handful of museums and cultural tourist attractions. Born in a fiscally conservative household, we settled for Washington Diplomats season tickets. The Diplomats were an NASL (North American Soccer League) soccer franchise who played at RFK Stadium, whenever the Redskins weren’t using it that is, and when no major swap meets needed the space. It was a poor substitute for Sonny, Billy, and George Allen, but we enjoyed the likes of Alan Green, Sonny Askew, and Johan Cruyff all the same. If you were a kid in D.C. in those days, the options were less exotic, although for the imaginative, nearly limitless.

In the Winter, most of our days and nights were spent praying for snow. It rarely came, but even an inch or two was enough to gleefully paralyze the Fairfax County Public School System for days, and create a bread and milk shortage of epic proportions. Few things rivaled the excitement of expectantly listening to local radio stations for the announcement that school had been cancelled. When it did snow, there were life threatening rides down steep ice-covered hills in ‘saucers’ or ‘flexible flyers’, which continued until frostbite set in, or someone hit a tree, whichever came first. It was the pre-acid rain era, so we’d run out in the front yard at night, scoop up a bowl of the white stuff (we hoped it was white anyway), and adding vanilla and milk, make ‘snow-cream’, which to an 8-10 year old, was the nectar of the Gods.

In the Summer, we caught insects. None of us really knew why. It just seemed like the most entertaining option. In fact, catching bugs was such a popular activity among 1960-1970’s era kids, you could actually buy bug-catching kits at Toys-R-Us. We didn’t mess with beetles, potato bugs, or other ‘boring’ bugs. Bee’s were what we were after, because, lets face it – we were growing up on the mean streets of Alexandria – danger was our middle name. My personal favorites were bumblebees. They were black and green, looked like space aliens, and got really pissed off when you trapped them in your empty mayonnaise jar (or if you were a lucky little bastard, a Toys-R-Us official bugcatcher!). But really, any bee would do. I don’t really remember what we did after catching bees, but it was a thrill we never tired of. The pinnacle of bee-catching achievement was to catch multiple bees in the same container, increasing exponentially, the odds that either you or an innocent bystander, would be stung. Heady stuff. I even remember the strange alien smell of insects, something I wonder whether today’s kids would even recognize? When the bees weren’t buzzing, there was the less politically correct alternative – roasting insects alive with your magnifying glass.

Occupying that special strata between actually having disposable income, and not having it, my parents were the proud and fortunate owners of an above ground pool. Constructed with aluminum siding and paperclips, this miracle of 1970’s engineering seemed always on the verge of collapsing. Water in our pool mysteriously defied the first law of thermodynamics, its temperature staying at a near constant -20 degrees Fahrenheit, even smack dab in the middle of the infamously hot and humid DC Summers. When our lips had achieved maximum blueness and we had lost feeling in our extremities, we would escape our arctic refuge, and lay ourselves down, with a satisfying sizzle, on the concrete and metal sewer lid in front of our house. This alternating freezing and frying cycle killed a lot of time in my youth, and likely most of my neuroreceptors. As an adult, I generally no longer perceive temperature.

Once in awhile, when the Gods of Summer and good fortune shined upon us, we heard a noise that sent us into fits of anticipatory glee. The jingle of the ‘Good Humor’ truck could be heard by our young finely tuned ears at least 8 miles away, and sent us into a frenzy like no other (comparable, perhaps, only to the reaction of teenage boys at the beach to the news that an adult female had lost her top in the surf). Depending on how much change you could beg, borrow, or stealthily abscond with, you might enjoy any number of delicacies: a red-white-and-blue rocket pop, creamsicle (the flavor of which still cannot be explained nor replicated by modern science), or if you were especially lucky, the pinnacle of Good Humor offerings, the chocolate eclair or strawberry shortcake.

The rest of the year was less exciting. We built forts in the woods in the most politically incorrect manner possible. Sometimes we just dug giant holes in the ground. Sometimes we built lean-to’s with rotting logs and squatted in them. Good times. But the most favored form of fort-building involved climbing to perilous heights while nailing 2×4’s and plywood onto beautiful and previously unmarred trees, thus creating the secret sanctums of our youth. The building of forts wasn’t just about material conquest, but required the creation of secret organizations, passwords, secret signs and handshakes, and sacred alliances. The building of a fort was naturally and inevitably followed by the tearing down of said fort by other would-be fort builders, usually for no apparent reason whatsoever. This cycle of creation and destruction taught us perhaps the most important life lesson of them all. No matter how beautiful the things you create in life, there will always be some asshole that won’t be happy until they find a way to mess it all up. Life is fort-building.

When we tired of building forts, and when all other seasonally appropriate forms of recreation were exhausted, we threw **** at each other. Apples, homemade spears, rocks. It didn’t much matter. Throwing **** at each other was fun. The most desirable and auspicious form of ‘throwing stuff’ was unquestionably the ‘dirt clod battle’. As an aged and wise philosopher once scrawled with his last dying word ‘dirt clods are God’s way of telling us he wants us to pelt each other with ****’. Okay – I’ll confess I made that up (although I believe Ben Franklin may have said something approximate) – but there was no denying, a dirt clod battle was good old-fashioned epic battle fun.

Northern Virginia, experiencing a home construction explosion during that time, may well have been the dirt clod battle mecca of the Universe. The rules were clear and universal. Find a construction site. Find an enemy (i.e…anyone else you either didn’t know or didn’t like who happened to be a kid and there at the time). Commence throwing dirt clods. The objective was clear – create drama at any cost. Sometimes this could be achieved by making a particularly spectacular throw, sometimes by managing to gain control of the precious high ground, from which to dominate your opponent and pummel him into submission. The battles never ended until it got dark, or someone ran off bleeding and screaming. If the supply of dirt clods was exhausted, the fun could continue, as clod battles could morph into equally stimulating sessions of ‘King of the Mountain’ and ‘Smear the Queer’ (it was the 60’s and 70’s – there was no such thing as ‘politically correct’ – sorry!). The opportunities for good old American fun were endless. No doubt our best military leaders of the period honed their skills on the field of dirt clod battle.

I’m not exactly sure what our parents were doing while these healthy childhood activities were going on. Mostly, they seemed to smoke, drink, argue, cookout, and do yard work. Despite a seeming lack of responsible parental supervision, we somehow grew into relatively normal (*cough*) functioning adults despite our rather adventuresome recreational activities. Today I wonder if perhaps the sometimes rough and tumble exercises of our youth weren’t the perfect training grounds for the challenges of the adult workplace. I can still dodge a good dirt-clod and deliver a well-aimed strike when one is sorely needed. 🙂

But in the 1960’s and 70’s, America’s youth yearned for nourishment, not just of the flesh, but of the mind, and I was no exception. Fortunately, Washington DC had 5 channels of television to satisfy our burgeoning intellectual curiosity. I was a big fan of Channel 20 (you had to turn to that particular channel using a separate UHF dial, a clear indicator that it was ‘special’). My parents dug Channels 4, 5, and 9. No one I knew watched Channel 45. Channel 20 offered a veritable treasure chest of offerings. Where else could you see Will Robinson and Robot traverse the dangers of the galaxy and the diabolical Dr. Smith? What other source of knowledge and wisdom could provide the life lessons encapsulated in the adventures of Ultraman and Speed Racer? Channel 20 was a portal to unlimited information and experience, where I met and fell in love with Herman Munster, Marine Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and countless other important world influences. And Channel 20 was the only television station that had its very own spiritual leader, Dick Dyszel, who taught kids everything they needed to know as Bozo the Clown, Count Gore De Vol, and ‘Captain 20’.

It was at night however, during the witching hours, that the TV of my childhood shared its darkest and most meaningful secrets. 11:30pm was a magical moment. Either with parental knowledge, or without it, huddled around the 15″ black and white television with its directional telescoping antenna extended and pointed for maximum reception clarity, we were ready to be thrilled. And thrilled we were. I spent a good portion of my youthful weekend nights transfixed by the horror classics as presented by the previously mentioned Count, or by another of my childhood favorites, all the way from Detroit, Sir Graves Ghastly.

Both wonderful and horrible, the classic movies of my childhood still dominate my childhood memories: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing, The Night of the Living Dead, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Leech Woman, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Wasp Woman, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Haunting, Black Sabbath, The Gorgon, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, and countless others…So enthralled with late night fare was I, that my parents began fondly to call me ‘old weird John’. What they didn’t see were the valuable life-lessons I learned while they slept. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes it’s smart to run. When you hear voices in your house, get out! Never hitchhike. If it’s dark, and you’re in a lightning storm, something bad’s about to happen. Nothings more scary than the everyday. Monsters are real – its just that grownups are too stupid to see them. And old people are creepy.

Some might look on my childhood in the DC suburbs as strange, warped, or dysfunctional. But to me, it was magical, memorable, an utterly amazing chapter of my life. Whether endangering my own or someone else’s life in an epic dirt clod fight, defending a newly established fort in the woods as our code of honor required, or staring transfixed at this week’s horror beaming to me live from the Channel 20 studios, my childhood was one to remember. Some say they learned everything they needed to know in kindergarten. But not me. I learned everything I needed to learn when my parents weren’t watching. And I enjoyed every second of it.