Archive for the 'Family and School' Category

Happy Birthday Smokey

March 15th, 2010

Have you ever met the good folks at your nearby fire department?  I have… went to a new fire house opening ceremony last year, and one of our Scout family parents is the fire chief in a neighboring town.    I also got to meet the local volunteer fire chief  for our area last week.  He’s a nice guy, only he didn’t plan on stopping by for a chat.

But I sort of insisted, after testing the effectiveness of fire on asian grass clumps.

If you’re curious, fire works very, very well to burn asian grass clumps.   A little too well perhaps.   And when there’s a few close together, it really makes a beautiful, big flaming mass of fiery heat.

The only problem was that the grass and leaves surrounding those flames were a little too dry.  The fire decided to march along the pond and up the hillside a bit.   I wasn’t too concerned at first as I controlled the fire…  I’ve had a bit of experience with fires of all kinds on board ships- mostly getting out of the way of the folks that had to fight them.  But I ended up in a few fire parties, and dealing with fuel fires on deck at times.  Those are downright scary when your only option is to get the fire out as quickly as possible.

When you’re new to the seafaring life you practice “blind exit drills” in order to learn how to get out of a ship, or to a safe (safer) place.   After being at sea a while, all it takes to renew the vigor of fire safety awareness is a shipboard fire with dark passageways filled with smoke, alarms blaring, smashing your shins on lower bulkhead openings and racing up or down ladderwells to wherever your supposed to go.  It’s an almost alien, surreal experience that opens your eyes to how tenuous life can be multiple decks below the surface in an emergency.

On an aircraft carrier, with thousands of people on board, there are fire alarms every day.  If it wasn’t a drill it was a real fire somewhere.  Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! Comparment 2-3-4L, port side! Away the fire teams away!” Clang! Clang! Clang!  And on for the next half hour or more with constant updates until the fire is under control.   It’s interesting the first few times you hear it.  Life goes on, the mission goes on, folks are still doing maintenance, training, cooking, planning, eating, flying, and doing what they do to run the ship.

After a decade or so, you actually sleep through it, marginally aware of a fire taking place somewhere, knowing the tenor of the voice on the 1MC and when you’ll need to get to your station or somewhere else.   You say a quick prayer for the folks doing their jobs (poor bas#&$@s!) as best they can while you scrunch up a pillow over your ears.

But I was just raking the edges of my little grass fire, and looked behind me to note its progress.   I was surprised to see the fire racing quickly ahead, leaping at each new tuft of grass, with a little breeze pushing it on.   “Hmmm,” I thought… “It’s not supposed to do that.   Either it’s going to go out by itself, or it’s going to continue to burn up past the trees and hit the neighbors 40 acre hayfield… and maybe get to the woods, and… Oh, crap!”

So then I got my exercise for the day by racing a hundred yards up the hillside toward the house and, for the first time in my life, calling nine-one-one.   I’d love to hear that recording; “Um, huh, hah, huh, there’s a fire, hah, huh, hah… near the pond, huh, huh, huh, at my address, huh, hah…”  “Are you all right Sir?”  “Um, hah, yes, sure, but hah, hah, they better come just, hah, hah, in case…”

I got more exercise as I raced to get the portable watering barrel with the golf cart and fill it up somewhat (I usually always have the water barrel nearby when I use the burn pile, and I’ve never needed it before… murphy’s law!).  The curious 9-year old poked his head out the door looking at me like I’m crazy.   “What are you doing?”     I explain the situation briefly…  “What fire?!”   He was watching tv, and didn’t even know while I’m racing all around.  There wasn’t much to do at that point.  Of course he wants to come out then, but nope, I don’t want him to get hurt.

So there I go back to the fire burning along the pond.   Using the hose, the water helped put out most of the fringe that concerned me, especially where two cedar trees stand.  If you’ve ever seen a cedar tree burn it’s an amazing sight.  Intense, fiery, hot and quick!   I didn’t want to see it right then…

So there I am, finally putting out the last of the fire with smoke billowing up near the pond as the fire chief and a small pumper head down the gravel drive.  He saunters down as the smoke wisps away, clearing up, and says, “Well, looks like you’ve got it handled, huh?”  followed by, “Dispatch, recall all vehicles…”

I then apologize profusely for giving them an impromtu fire drill, but share one of my lifetime axioms in terms of safety that, “If you’re in doubt, there’s no doubt!”  So I thought better safe than sorry.   He was very kind, and said he was glad I called if I was concerned.  For some reason they thought our barn was on fire, and started rolling two other big trucks.  Not sure where they got that idea! Honestly I really didn’t expect to get the fire out that quick… took me about 15-20 minutes I guess.  And I always wondered how long it would take the fire trucks to get to us…  so now I know,  it’s a good 20-25 minutes at best.

He mentioned another neighbor down the road having a similar experience the week before on his dairy farm, nearly burning up his field.    He said “We don’t mind coming out and not getting dirty one bit… especially when we even get to go home early!”   I laughed, and could understand that for sure.   We talked a bit more and he described how he conducted controlled burns, but he said he usually has two or three other guys to help him.

Lessons learned:  Don’t assume recently frozen, wet ground is damp enough to not burn… Take that water barrel or fire extinquisher with you every time…   Chop those darn asian grasses down, or burn them in the rain!  :)  And if you think you need the fire department, then you probably do!

And did you know it’s Smokey Bear’s 65th birthday?  How appropriate.

I was reminded of a few other things that were very practical:  When was the last time you checked your fire alarms?  Or thought about gas cans in the wrong places… or what you might do in case of a fire?  Talked with the kids lately?   Or if your fire extinguishers (if you have any) are still charged up?   Lots more there, but you get the point. I showed the boy around the day after. He was impressed with the size of the area burned.

I also learned that the fire trucks may not be able to get back to our barn very easily.  And that although they don’t carry much water in total on board, they can throw a trash pump in the pond and string hoses a few hundred feet to the house if necessary.

And that if it takes them that long to get here, and find water, it probably won’t be necessary anyway.   Which is why our insurance rates are a lot higher than folks who live close to a fire hydrant or station.

That was my big adventure for an afternoon.  I recommend finding other ways to entertain yourself.

Life Lessons and Snow Fun

February 17th, 2010

I know it must be spring somewhere… quite a few latitudes south to be sure. I hope you’re enjoying the weather down there. One of these days we need to come visit.   Ah, but lovely February in Missouri. Where would we be without a little cold and snow?  Okay, it’s colder up north- you guys have me there.   I think I’m just ready for the next season.

I went looking for daffodil tips the othere day, trying to find them poking up through the ground. Too much snow yet to see them, but I know they’re there! Besides, in just a couple of weeks it will be March already. How weird is that?

The weekend past was spent enjoying some new fallen snow, and plowing the driveway.   Finally.  It’s under the snow where the Shiba is sitting… the wind drifted it up a little.


Our cars do fairly well considering the “big dip” in the middle of the driveway.  But it’s a slippery affair. Once last week I was taking a good run back in the driveway with the car squirming all around, steering wheel spinning like four-wheeling through the mud and just barely gaining traction. From the back seat the boy yells, “I feel like a chicken on skis!”  I smiled and complimented him on his description of our ride.


So I finally rigged up the old 6′ blade behind the tractor and got busy. It cleared a wider swath of snow than the little bucket could.   But you can only do so much with a gravel drive if you don’t want to ruin it. There’s going to be a lot of packed down snow no matter what, and most cars do just fine.  This was before we got another 4-5 inches.   You can just see the sunset reflection in the house’s window in the distance.


Besides, the next day it gave us a chance to get out the Flexible Flyer! Surely some of you remember sledding long ago, or perhaps not so long ago? Seems like we had more snow when I was a kid, you know, like when we walked two miles through it to school?  Maybe like everything seemed bigger as a kid, everything seemed snowier too… 

But in the winter I think I lived on the sled. This is one of them… it’s over 35 years old now and the boy is just getting to try it out.



You need some good packed-down snow for it, and the driveway was just the ticket.  At least the icy parts around the gravel patches.   So there we go- on the far side coming back down the driveway. “Get on,” I tell him as I lay down. He climbs on my back and I demonstrate how to properly steer one of these things. “Wheee!” and away we go.

It was pretty fun… except for the part with the yellow lab running right in front thinking this is some new game for him… we weren’t half way down the little hill and the dog, running alongside as we zoom by, reaches out and snatches my hat off my head and runs away! “Bring that back!” I yell but he’s having too much fun. We roll to a stop with the boy laughing and the dog shaking my knit cap like a rag doll.

Thus educated, the boy proceeded to have a little fun.  Even with the limits of our little hill.  He tried the bigger slope to the pond.  Alas the snow wasn’t packed down enough. Then the sled got away and almost ran out to the pond alone. Fortunately a tree stopped it short. Reminded me of my own youthful adventures….

I was ten or eleven years old and liked testing myself.   One snowy weekend morning my brother and I (he a year younger) joined a throng of other exuberant souls at the top of a big hill near some woods. The goal was to see who could start the highest up, and then go down the fastest off a big ramp or jump, fly through the air and then continue all the way through the trees to the bottom.

After watching a few fainthearted boys try their luck, and older ones too, I marched up higher than anyone had gone and stated those fateful words that evey co-pilot dreads, “Watch this!”

Away I went, zooming like mad headfirst toward that ramp looking at the trees beyond.  I was enjoying every second and smiling at the sheer speed, blissfully unaware of the total lack of control I was about to encounter.  Then all at once I knew, with some primeval instinct, that I was about to enter uncontrolled flight….  I hit that ramp and went soaring high into the air, parting with my sled and feeling mad at myself for not figuring it out better as I hurtled toward a huge tree. 

I just remember an enormous “Crash!!!” and the yells of the other kids.  I think someone asked, “Is he dead!?”

It was a long walk home, what seemed like a half-mile but was probably less.  I cradled my right arm to my chest trying not to cry but it hurt like crazy. I looked at it and told my brother I broke my bones in my arm. “How do you know?” he said. “I just do!” and I was more worried about what my parents would say. Finally we arrived home, meeting the folks outside and I let loose, crying that “I broke my arm!”

“Oh, it’s okay, don’t worry… you probably didn’t…lets take a look…” said Mom or Dad… followed quickly by, “Oh! Umm… well lets get the car and go to the hospital…”

That day provided a good lesson. Something about showing off while doing something you really had no idea about. In a strange sort of way I remember the gleam in the other kids eyes as I was about to launch myself down the hill. I remember the yells and screams… and I remember liking that.   And then feeling pretty stupid afterwards too.  I think it provided some measure of a data point for the things I would do, and the things I would not do later on.   As much as I’ve always enjoyed speed, sports and fast machines, that single day gave me a bit of experience for how things can turn out differently than you thought.

It wasn’t the last of my youthful lessons by a long shot.   I was pretty lucky a whole bunch of other times… and I’ll probably write about them too.  I wish I could data-dump some of them to the boy… share my stories and mishaps so he doesn’t have to learn them quite the same way. I think Benjamin Franklin once said, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”  I appreciate his point, and think there’s a lot of wisdom there.

Yet while I’m a big believer in academic learning, mentorship and helping others avoid the hard lessons… most of us seem to have our own stories to tell, and our own scars to mark our experience.   You can only teach someone so much, and our experience is priceless.  It shapes us in so many ways.   Which makes it one of my parenting goals… trying to put it all together so that what shapes the young one as he makes his own choices, isn’t quite so rough along the way.   Time will tell.

Remembering How Life Happens

February 4th, 2010

Well, it seems I’ve struggled with the written word the past few weeks.   I’ve been trying to catch up in so many other areas and somehow a quote by Allen Saunders comes to mind that,

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Yesterday I was outside in the sun with the boy, and he said it felt like spring already.   I think he’s on to something, even though it’s pretty cold and another storm is around the corner.  I had that first twinge of spring yearning too, and the knowledge that it’s going to come quickly now.  Time to get those seeds ordered that we don’t have, and get some planted for starts.   Soon we can even put potatoes in the ground.    After I clean up the garden that is.   And the shed, the bees, the barn, maybe some chickens, the engines…

Today is a chance to look back a bit though.  It’s the anniversary of my father’s passing five years ago.   So many thoughts come to mind, and it would be nice if I could share some brilliant journalistic form and a few pictures to mark the day.   It was a difficult time though, and he could have come through just fine.  But he didn’t.

In his last years he had several operations for replacing hips, fixing a heart valve and a widening in his aorta.    He grew strong again in those years, enough to enjoy his family, his beloved golf and the ability to work on the property.

I remember talking with him while cooking steaks on the grill, and looking over the pond.  He was 77 years old, and he said more than anything he was so thankful that he could still work around the house and do things that mattered.   He made it to one more birthday a few months later, and a few weeks after that.

He was outside working a bit when he had a pain in his chest, and Mom took him to the hospital where he was transfered to another.  I met him there that afternoon, and he was in good spirits.  I said, “You’re a turkey…”   and he said, “I am a turkey…”  Our little joke for the challenges he was facing again.  We talked and I told him I loved him, and he told me the same.  I saw him again briefly that night while Mom stayed with him in intensive care, getting ready for surgery.

Early the next morning he was on the operating table and actually came though the operation, almost.  When they gave him more blood as the surgeon was finishing up, somehow there was an allergic reaction and they couldn’t correct it.   Mom called me while I was picking up the boy at preschool.   I took him to the park, and we talked about his Bepaw going to heaven.

A couple of weeks later I remember cooking breakfast early one morning while the little boy was getting dressed upstairs for school.  He took a little longer than usual, and I remember calling to him.   “I’m coming…” he yelled back, and shortly came walking down the stairs.  I was surprised as he already had his socks on which was usually a struggle for him at four years of age.

I told him that was great as he sat down to eat, and he said “Well Daddy, guess what?”  I said “I don’t know, what?”   And as simply, and earnestly as could be he said, “Bepaw helped me put my socks on this morning.”    I didn’t really know what to say, but after my heart skipped a beat I smiled and told him “That’s nice…”

I asked him about it once a few years later.  He didn’t really remember, but thought it was neat.   It was, and I can only wonder.

Dad was a good man, a good father… and one of the good guys in so many ways.  I’ll probably share a few stories about his life in the years ahead.


He’s sitting with Justin, our late Basset Hound in the picture above.  They were buddies, and went everywhere together in the little golf cart for a couple years while we were overseas.   This picture was from July 4th in 2004;  Justin was scared because of some fireworks, and snuggled up to Dad to hide.     I figure they’re off somewhere together romping around a bit, probably on a golf course.

Life still happens, just about every day.  I’m trying hard not to miss too much of it, and to remember the things that make it beautiful.

Growing Forward, Happily

December 31st, 2009

The garden sits bare in the snow… waiting. I remember what has grown there, and what didn’t. The fun of picking vegetables, the frustrations and impatience. Hands in the dirt, mysteries and suprises, butterflies and birds. So many memories through the years. And my imagination looks forward!


The garden waits for all the things I’d like to grow and share, opportunities and change. Somehow the seed and farm catalogs know it. They’ve started coming in the mail already, just in time to whet my appetite for planting and growing something in the spring. Ah, but what’s a winter for if not the chance to dream about warmer, growing seasons?

A day or two of sunshine is just enough to warm the spirit however.


Even though the cold will be a constant for a couple more months, somehow I need that time.  Maybe it’s a time we can look inward, or catch up on a few things at home.  A chance to look behind at the year past, and welcome new things.


It’s the last day of the year… as certain as that is, it still surprises me a little. Where has the time gone?! Some may debate when this decade really ends, but all I can say is “Welcome 2010!” Somehow each year brings hope… a time for change and a renewal.  Perhaps we make vows, or decide that this year it will all be different.  It might.  Where it counts, I hope so.   Sometimes too, things are the same no matter how the years pass, and that is as it should be.


I wish you all a year of great joy and promise, good health, love, friendship and prosperity, and most of all… a Happy New Year!

Two Moments, One Day

December 24th, 2009

A scary thing happened today. We took the day to head to the big city and tour a few fun places.  One of which offers kids a chance to climb, crawl and explore among inumerable manmade caves, walkways, ladders, staircases and other creative devices.  It’s actually built throughout an old shoe factory, and is an amazingly fun place to visit. You may know it, and I won’t name it because that’s not the point or my focus.

While exploring the wonders of this place, we were deep inside trying to dodge dozens of other kids and adults, and to keep up with our own.  Some of the tunnels, crevices and walkways were only big enough for small kids to get through.  Most of the adults had to find less claustrophobic ways to keep up.   

To say that it was confusing at times is an understatement, but we found out how quickly our lives could change.  I was coming around a dark corner, emerging into a small open area with a spiral of conveyor bars reaching what seemed to be a hundred feet high…

Looking up at the climbing spirals


If you looked the other way, there was an opening that dropped for at least sixty to eighty feet straight to the bottom rocky area below.  I took this all in as I walked around the corner, marveling at the imagination it took to build it all.   And then I saw him.

As I looked up I saw that the boy, about ten feet above us, was climbing on top of the spiral ladder with a great big smile on his face, asking me where it led.  And then my heart leaped… immediately I knew something was wrong.  Just a few feet away, the bars dropped off to that hole, with nothing to hold on to.  He wasn’t supposed to be there.  It wasn’t a ladder but a tunnel or slide of sorts, with open bars above, even though it looked like a lot of the other climbing areas.

Yet he had climbed over a waist high bar and started climbing up on top of the tunnel… I simply said “Stop” and thank God he listened.  People wonder sometimes why you must teach kids to listen, and that was one of those times.  I’ve talked with him before that if I ever say things like that, to really listen… he did.   

I walked quickly to the spiral looking up at him and said “You’re not where your supposed to be, but just move up a bit more to your right and keep holding on carefully…” and that moved him away a little so in case he slipped he wouldn’t fall right off and I might at least have a grab at him.  A million things go through your head in moments like that. 


Harmless looking spiral tunnel slide, except that edge at the bottom of the picture drops off more than sixty feet below…

I muttered something else about staying there- no one else could have helped us at the time.  We saw that there were only two places to get him- at the back where he would have to step down and to the right more than I wanted, or I could climb up and hold on to him, and make sure he got down safe.  That was my first thought wanting to make sure I blocked his fall path, so I ran around where he got on to try and climb up myself.   But as I put weight on the bars they seemed too springy for me, maybe not even able to support my weight and I didn’t want us both to tumble down.  My wife liked the backside option and I agreed- it really seemed the safest thing we could do besides having him climb down himself… right along the edge.  No way.

So I had him move carefully right and slightly down (just above the top of the picture) and grabbed an ankle like no tomorrow… and then we were helping lift him down (behind that picture above).   It was over in a minute really, like nothing happened.   He didn’t even seem to realize what the big deal was until I showed him the dropoff, and where he was.   He wondered why it was so easy to get up there… (me too).  

It seemed a really a poor design with a bunch of kids running around… he thought that for himself.  Perhaps most folks wouldn’t have climbed over one of the bars to get there.  Who knows, so much of the stuff the kids were climbing around looked similar.  

All I know is that someone’s usually going to find a way to get in trouble or find a weakness with the designs of man.  Today was our chance. 


After a lunch break I found a manager and talked about safety. They actually had a program in place to take suggestions and try to make everything as safe as possible.  We found our way to the place and I explained what happened, and what I saw as design flaws. They were amazed no one had thought of that and put a work order in immediately to modify the contraption to prevent someone else from climbing up or falling off.  I felt better.

It’s amazing what can happen in a moment.   It brought me back thinking about those moments where my own life and others have hung in the balance.  I used to teach younger pilots to land on aircraft carriers, and while at sea to make sure aircraft got aboard safely.   The difference between life and death was often mere seconds.   Too many stories there, but maybe I’ll share a few sometime.

For today we went back to having fun, a little more sober for the experience, and the boy got a few more hugs than usual.


Then a funny thing happened later on, in a different sense.  Well, not funny so much as fun to see.  I was circling a parking lot out in an empty area at a department store.  Way down one of the rows I saw a thirty-something woman pushing a cart, hurrying quickly toward a lone car far out in the lot.  Then I realized she wasn’t quite hurrying, but instead was walking quickly and stepping up at the back of the cart while enjoying the rolling glide down a gentle slope.  Grocery cart skating we used to call it!   Her hair was blowing out gently behind her, and she had this big, amazing smile on her face,  obviously finding such joy in a private moment.

As she coasted quickly to a stop at her car, I couldn’t resist driving up and rolled the window down, smiling too and simply told her it was fun to watch her enjoying the moment with the grocery cart.  She laughed, a little embarrassed, but said it really was fun because she was alone and not worried about all her kids, and she probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.  We wished each other happy holidays and waved as I drove off.   She was still smiling.

Two moments.  One day.  And I’m thankful.  

May you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and time enough for reflection and enjoyment for the little moments along the way.

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