Thank You, Gareth Hunt

NewAvengersTV

With chronic pain issues, sleep does not come easy to me, so I find that most of my television viewing happens late at night. There’s been some debate on the practice with most researchers coming down on the side of “NO” but I find that spending some time with Mike, Emma, Harry and Steve helps me simultaneously unwind from the tensions of the day and focus my attention away from the endless discomfort.

Mike, Emma, Harry and Steve?

Try Mike Gambit, Emma Peel, Harry Rule and Steve Zodiac – all characters from classic British adventure programs like the Avengers, The Protectors, and the dozen or so programs like Fireball XL5 or Space 1999  produced by Gerry Anderson, also a product of the United Kingdom.  While I thoroughly enjoy various domestic American classic television shows I find this particular group of British programs from the 1960’s and 1970’s to be (pardon the weak joke) just my cup of tea.

…but something else hit me last night as I turned off my little bedside DVD player. I had been watching one of the last episodes of The New Avengers and for some reason the thought occurred to me “No one intends to make only thirteen episodes of a TV series”. Everyone hopes that their show will be the next M*A*S*H or The Big Bang Theory with at least a decade-long run. Nobody plans to fail – but it happens.

For example – take The New Avengers in 1976-77.

I won’t say the show failed, but it wasn’t a smashing success either. It did gain enough of a cult following to generate brisk DVD sales when A&E released sets of both seasons in 2004.  It was put together by Albert Fennel and Brian Clemens, the producers of the original mid-60s series but New Avengers got much the same reaction as the younger sister of the hottest cheerleader in school – it was judged by an impossible standard. The show was always struggling for money and because of that it had to move production twice, first to France and then to Canada – which confused viewers even more so the show never made it beyond two seasons of 13 episodes apiece.

…but I like it, for the same reason I like my other “Brit” programs. The plots are interesting, the dialog witty and the “stronger” elements of the shows (sex and violence) stay within my comfort level. Bear in mind that genealogy on both sides of my family very quickly traces back to the British Isles so there is a family connection of sorts for me. It also gives me a chance to see a part of the world that I am intensely interested in but ever less likely to visit as time goes by.

However, it is the human element that interests me the most. In my creative career I have worked on several properties (belonging to both other parties and myself) that gave all the indications of being extremely successful…but weren’t. It’s hard to deal with; for example I spent most of 1996 devoting all my spare time to a proposal for a line of collectible figurines to be sold in gift and card shops.  The idea involved ethnically diverse mermaids based on sea creatures from those pertinent ethnic areas and I shopped it around to a dozen companies which was no mean feat in pre-Internet days. The project was well-received and garnered many compliments for the concept and quality but it was ultimately turned down – -everyone wanted a pre-sold property with a book series, television show or toy line already in place.  They all wanted to lead from the middle of the pack so that by appealing to the lowest common denominator they could avoid any risk.

It was hard to accept and I had to move on with my life – but as I was looking at The New Avengers DVD case the other night I had an insight. I had just watched one of the last episodes in which the character Mike Gambit is trailing a suspect. Even though at the time Gareth Hunt knew the show wasn’t going to continue, he turned in a solid professional performance – and I really had to respect that. I also felt a bit of kinship as well:  While shows like The New Avengers, The Protectors and UFO have their own set of fans, they are quirky and definitely do not appeal to the lowest common denominator…but their creators still gave their best.  .

I understand that better than I did when I was young – and while most of those creators have passed on, I still feel like they deserve some recognition for their creativity.

Thank you Mike, Emma, Harry and Steve…or should I say Gareth Hunt, Diana Rigg, Robert Vaughn and Paul Maxwell  – and the series’ creative teams – for giving your best shot despite the outcome.

 

Hello Reunion!

One of the aspects of keeping a blog that I enjoy best are the statistics that are compiled automatically when people visit the site. I take special interest in a little map graphic that depicts the  countries my readers live in, and today I was pleased to see that I have a reader living on the island of Reunion.

Reunion is  French island located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It caught my attention because of its remote location – one of the few places in the world that are even more remote than Sterling Alaska, where I lived as a boy/teenager. Living in a beautiful wilderness in Alaska was a mixed blessing – I loved being there but it definitely was isolated. We did have limited access to television and radio stations broadcast out of Anchorage,  daily mail delivery and weekly newspaper, book and comic distribution, but I always felt like I was at the end of a really, really long information pipeline and that a good part of what we were supposed to be receiving was getting lost enroute.

I imagine my reader(s) on Reunion feel the same way with the wonders of the internet and satellite communication, but at the same time I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. I hope whatever you’re getting out of my work is worth the time and effort negotiating your own information pipeline

1970: Kites

I loved being a Cub Scout. When I joined in the fall of 1962 membership in Cub Scouts was the studliest thing a nine year old boy could do, and while wearing the uniform added a certain savoir faire to my game, it was the activities in our weekly den meetings that were the real attraction. I liked learning field craft; I liked learning to whittle. I liked making things with papier mache and I liked making costumes and performing in skits. In short I liked – no, I loved the entire program

…except for kites.

I went through most of the Cub Scout rank and arrow-head requirements like a freight-train until I hit the requirement to make and fly a kite, at which point the aforementioned freight train became completely derailed. While the handbooks had nice diagrams of both traditional diamond and box kites accompanied by precise measurements and suggested materials, every attempt I made at kite construction failed. No matter how hard I tried, my kites looked nothing like the graceful soaring creations depicted on each page. No, my kits always ended up a tangle of sticks, paper and string that looked less like a graceful soaring eagle than something an eagle would upchuck after a week-old road kill feast. The kite failure was the only blot in my Cub Scout copy book and it drove me crazy. You know that closing scene of Mary Poppins were everyone is happy and singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? My reaction brought about ejection from the Fourth Avenue Theater when I threw my Seven-up at the screen in frustration.

To be honest it wasn’t like I had any talent for creating effective instruments of flight to begin with. I was an instant bolo from the moment I first discovered flying toys and models at the age of six. No kid ever wanted to make something fly more than I did – and no kid was ever more luckless in the attempt – I loved airplanes and the idea of flight but I couldn’t keep anything in the air.  It was bad enough that I failed with store-bought kites just as badly as I did with my Cub Scout project kites, but unfortunately the Icarian curse didn’t involve just kites – every paper airplane I ever folded immediately augered into the ground and there wasn’t a balsa glider made that wouldn’t split into slivers during my ham-handed attempts at assembly. No, I had to be content with assembling scale model plastic kits and wistfully watching floatplanes fly over our house enroute to the Lake Hood seaplane base.

<Fast-forward to 1970>

I think of my junior year as being my “lost year” of high school. I lacked the large group of buddies that I had the year before and the academic schedule itself held no events major enough to be considered a milestone of any sort. Most of the year involved marking time while I slowly approached my senior year and those unavoidable decisions that definitely would shape the rest of my life. Even popular entertainment seemed to be a washout with little in the way of music or television shows holding any interest for me. My only escape from total boredom was Donny.

Donny and I had first become friends six years earlier when my family moved to the Peninsula, but the two year gap in our ages put us worlds apart once I hit puberty. By the time of this story we were both in high school which held enough in common (marathon “Risk” games and girls) to sustain a renewed friendship, and as time went by a very similar sense of humor and wicked parody provided additional fuel for our relationship as well – but it wasn’t until a third ingredient was added that our buddy-ship was clinched.

It was the last fifteen minutes of church one Sunday during break-up and I was looking out the window and scowling at the typical March weather of south-central Alaska: Wind and rain gusting off the mountains to the east. I was muttering about the wind eliminating any chance for doing something interesting later on when Donny whispered “great day for kites”.

I made a face and mumbled a snarky comeback but Donny cut me off: “no – I’m not talking about those crappy newspaper things in Cubs. There are these new kinds of kites that look like birds and don’t need tails. They launch straight up and fly great.”  Hmmm.  I figured nothing ventured – nothing gained so we cleared a sleep-over with our respective sets of parents as we usually did on just about every other Sunday, but this time a kite and string accompanied the Risk game in Donny’s baggage.

I wasn’t totally sold on the kite idea as we walked out to the north pasture after dinner,  but I figured that if nothing else it would be nice to get outside for at least a couple of hours of daylight, especially as  the rain had tapered off. . Donny was of a different mind completely – he was bouncing from foot to foot with excitement as he assembled his kite and connected it with the string on his reel. I was immediately taken with the design; it was a delta-shaped airfoil made of polyethylene that in early 1970 Alaska was very unique.  As it rustled and popped in the wind I started to get excited as well – and by the time I took my position about ten yards away I was bouncing on my toes as well. Ever the showman, Donny grew quiet then momentarily balanced the kite’s wooden keel on the tips of his fingers before suddenly snapping his arm up and sending the kite in the air.

As I tried to track the kite’s path skyward my head snapped up and back so hard that the momentum made me fall backwards into the slush. I had never seen anything shoot so far or so fast and I was so delighted that Donny’s typical mocking laughter bounced right off my emotional hide.  My whole world had just changed.

Donny and I spent the next dozen Sunday afternoons flying kites under the most perfect kite-flying weather ever. At the time we were only 13 years out of a massive forest fire that had burned away the heart of the Kenai Peninsula so the winds off the Chugach Mountains to the east had little to slow them down.  We were also blessed in that the surrounding trees were either burned-out snags or short(er) post-fire new growth which offered little obstruction to kites or the strings, but to stay on the safe side we started using the flat roof of one of the sheds for a launching area as it gave us an additional ten feet clearance over close-in obstructions.

That rooftop was the site of one of our crowning achievements a month later when we were able to get a thousand feet of string out on one of our kites. It had already been a memorable afternoon; that prevailing wind was still quite chilly as it blew off the mountains but we were finally getting enough sunlight each day to get you warmed up a bit if you were able to get out of the wind. The breeze changed several times between northwest and southwest and it seemed like every time the wind moved us towards the setting sun we’d let out more string to clear obstacles we couldn’t quite see. By this time my younger sisters had climbed up to cheer us on but after the fourth time we pivoted to follow the breeze they all stopped talking. Moments later Holly quietly asked “Gussie, how much string are you using”?  I glanced over to see that she was holding four wrappers discarded during our frantic “string reloads.”

Handing the reel to Donny I took the wrappers and read the labels: each individual roll held 300 feet of string.  We’d started with a half-reel  ( 100 feet?) so with the four we’d added there had to be between 1000 and 1200 feet of string separating us from the kite. I looked up – there was no way that kite was a thousand feet up in the air, but when I started checking out chimneys, power poles and other landmarks to the left and right it was obvious that my rough calculations were correct, we had over a thousand feet out on that kite, though the distance was almost as much lateral as it was vertical.

It was a glorious achievement nonetheless and was a record we never surpassed. It never bothered me though because records and markers weren’t the reason I had grown to love my kites. Kites entranced me for the same reason that I preferred cross-country skiing to driving snow machines, or why motorcycles never held the same appeal to me that bicycles did. It was that Zen quality of the moment when everything came down to me, the kite and the wind. No break-neck bouncing and whirling. No sputtering four-stroke internal combustion engines – just the thrum of the kite string and slow dance that comes from manipulating the string to gain altitude or change direction.

It’s not a hobby that everyone enjoys – a lot of people love recreation that consists mostly of the elements I seek to avoid. I’ve never been able to explain the appeal or describe how it feels when I’m flying a kite. At best it is kind of close to what I thought flying an airplane would be – before I found out how structured civil aviation is and how much hard work controlling an aircraft really entailed.  The best insight I can give is tell you to listen to “Sailin’ the Wind” a song on the “Full Sail” album released in 1973 by folk/rock duo Loggins and Messina – that song comes closest to describing the whole  kite experience.

As the years have gone my involvement with “sailing the wind”  has waxed and waned like those winds off the mountains, reaching a peak in the late 1980’s when my young family and I went back to Sterling to house-sit for my parents while they served as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. That time I was equipped much better than I had been in 1970; top of the line nylon kites, high test line and a special reel that made it much easier to take up line quickly when the wind dropped. I even got a small parafoil kite that I kept tucked away in whatever shoulder bag or tote that happened to be using at the time so that whenever I would encounter a decent breeze and an open area I could have a kite launched and soaring at altitude within minutes.

…but it wasn’t the same. For one thing the intervening seventeen winters had been fairly mellow which meant the trees on the homestead could quickly grow much taller and closer together than they had before.  I was also flying alone – though Donny and I  spent the early part of every summer from 1970 to 1974 “launching fabric “, by 1987 he was no longer Donny – he was Donald, a  high-powered attorney with much more important things to do with his time than fly kites.

I was different as well. While I freely maintain that no amount of money in the world could ever coax me into reliving my teen-age years, there was a mental freedom that I had at the time that I really miss. At seventeen I could lose myself completely in whatever I was doing at the time; whether I was drawing, assembling a model, working in wood or tossing around a ball, I was totally focused on the matter at hand and could forget that the rest of the world existed.

It’s just the opposite now. At any given moment I have numberless major concerns that fight for my attention, including:

  • How can I make our household budget balance out?
  •  What’s going to happen at my doctor’s appointment on Monday?
  •  How long can I hold off getting that cracked molar fixed?
  • How long can I keep putting off getting the brakes relined on my VW?
  • Are my students fully grasping the point of my lectures?
  • Will I be able to walk when I wake up tomorrow morning?
  • Will mean Mr. Asthma finally get that choke-hold on me before I can even try to walk?

No, I’d never want to be a teenager again, but I would give you everything I own to ditch that list above and spend an hour with nothing weightier on my mind than getting another hundred feet out on a kite string.

 

My Daughter….

JaydenMickiOCT2016
Most of what I have been posting has been pretty grim lately – but this time I have something very positive to say.
Between the damage from the extensive Mohs treatment under my nose, the repeated extractions and the seemingly endless respiratory infections the simple act of eating can sometimes be a challenge. Tonight it was more than that – I just barely beat the Reaper on this one – or rather my daughter Meghan beat him for me.
I was eating some of Lori’s superb beef stroganoff when suddenly I felt a kind of scratch at the back of my throat, then again close to my windpipe. In a flash of terror I realized that if I hadn’t aspirated some rice I was dangerously close to it.
I bent over and tried to cough my windpipe free but it seemed to get more and more constricted. The terror got worse – I’ve struggled with breathing problems since infancy and I was living my worst nightmare. I bent even further over and kept coughing but it just got worse….I started to barf and figured I’d aspirate some of that too and that this was the last night of my life….
Then suddenly it got better. My throat was still very scratchy but the congestion was gone.
…and it was at that point that I realized that my daughter Meghan was pounding her fist on my back. It wasn’t a Heimlich maneuver applied with textbook-precise technique but it did the job and dislodged whatever the blockage was.  Had she not been there I would have never stayed conscious enough to take care of myself.
I wouldn’t be writing this because as of sixty minutes ago I would have been dead.
I love my “baby girl” simply because she is my “baby girl” – but when your kid saves your life….
MickiAndDaddyBoy2000

Marking Time and Chillin’ Out

2017-06-02b XF85 Goblin ColorGetting through the last month has been a stressful process – there has been too much to accomplish with too few resources over too short a time span. I’ve been able to survive such periods in life only by the use of coping mechanisms such as  primal scream  or percussion therapy, but at this stage of my life I find that my stress is best relieved through one of two specific activities: service and drawing.

If I am angry/anxious/scared/perturbed I find that doing something for someone  else is the shortest path to peace. It doesn’t need to be a major production – sometimes something as simple as holding a door open or  letting another driver transit first through an  intersection is enough to reduce your blood pressure and bring a smile to both faces.

The other way I can reduce stress in my life is to lose myself in drawing.   That might not seem like a stretch for a creative professional but making an image  not subject to another person’s parameters can be so nice. I like to draw classic aircraft dating from the turn of the century to the end of World War II, a process that is even more fun when dealing with obscure- hardware or alternate histories. For example – take the image in this post: what’s the proper  designation and why would it be painted in this particular color scheme?

See – now you’re “chillaxing” as well…

 

 

Shadows and Light

The first words to come to mind were “shadow dancing” – but then I remembered that was the title to one of Andy Gibb’s few chart-busting songs during the Disco Crisis.  I was trying to think of a name to the way sunlight and shadow slowly travels in circular manner around the room as the sun rises and the day goes through its cycle. Unfortunately at that point the Andy Gibb tune got stuck in my head and the resultant irritation led me to conclude that  “shadow dancing” didn’t fit anyway as the light’s progression is much slower and more stately.

Earlier on I had gurgled awake with with some sort of stomach virus  and was forced to spend the first couple of hours of the day alternating between my papa chair and the loo. I was so weak that I could do little besides watch those shadows and light slowly pirouette over the course of the day.  Luckily Jayden spent an hour or two curled up in my lap while we watched Octonauts and of course my beautiful Saxon Princess was sitting in her Nana chair next to me the entire time.

The stomach aches were not much fun but in the end it was a good day for me. Despite disability I find ways to stay busy during just about every waking minute of the day and it was a good break for me to just sit, think and appreciate all that I am blessed with.

“Shadows and Light”

Very basic but a good term for the way the light’s movements around the room today.

(A good term that also happens to be the title of one of my favorite Joni Mitchell albums.)

1984: Invisible Badge

BW76AudiFoxWagon

Given my razor/laser memory it may seem odd that I don’t remember much about 1984  but then there wasn’t much during that year that I feel like savoring. It was a very difficult year – I had left a good career as an Army officer and was encountering more difficulty than  expected  getting my freelance illustration career up and running. Before I left the army I had lined up several paying projects but six months into my new career I had run out of work and was having trouble finding more.

It didn’t help that I had been out of commission with a severe case of bronchitis during the late summer when most of the fall’s work in the gaming industry was assigned.  We also had some unexpected major expenses that played havoc with our family budget, a budget that was already in trouble when I wasn’t able to secure a pay-slot as a captain with the Reserves. I probably don’t recall much about that year because most of my spare time was spent struggling with depression, dividing my “down time” between deeply regretting leaving the Army and being unbelievably homesick for Alaska.  I was able to continue only because I had my beautiful Saxon princess to sustain me and two delightful sons – I could never keep a good funk going when they were crawling all over me playing He-Man and Skeletor. We had also made some good friends, a difficult task at best for non-Utahans living along the Wasatch Front so every couple of weeks we’d arrange a joint Family Home Evening where we’d play board games with another couple while our collective rug-rats would play He-Man with other kids for a change.

Such was the case when  we shared a Family Home Evening with John Taylor and his family. John was a senior non-commissioned officer serving the in the 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN), a National Guard unit that was taking an excruciatingly long time getting me assigned to a pay slot as the battalion S2 (intelligence officer).  John was one of the few members of the unit that had readily accepted my presence so it was heartwarming when he and his wife opened up their home to us one January evening. The night passed pleasantly as we played games with John and his wife and it seemed too soon when it came time for us to be on our way home. It was a foggy, frosty cold night so Lori and I bundled the boys up in our little Audi Fox station wagon then sped out smartly on the interstate, hoping to get home as soon as possible…

…only to have the engine of our car stall and die on the interstate about five miles from the house. It wasn’t a total surprise; we had been driving the car at (close to) sea level for the previous four years and it was not running very well now that we were at an elevation that was at least 6000 feet higher. The frosty weather was also a factor; unless I regularly added a gas dryer to my fuel tank ice would form, then melt into water that contaminated the gas which in turn made the engine run poorly.  Luckily the car had stalled at the top of a long slope with an exit ramp at the bottom so we coasted down and pulled to a stop so I could fix the situation.

After checking to make sure that Lori and both boys were snug and warm I got out of the car and went to the emergency kit in the back of the Audi to fetch a bottle of HEET® gas dryer.   I had just started to pour the solution into the gas spout when I was startled out of my wits by the blast of an truck’s air-horn that seemed much too close – and when I spun around I was met with the glaring headlines of a commercial tractor-trailer rig that was barreling down the off-ramp, heading directly at our little Audi which must have been hidden from the truck’s driver view by the thickening fog.

(At this point I went into Tardis-time – when outside events seem to move at a snail’s pace to what I was thinking and experiencing inside…)

The truck was headed directly for my car where my two sons and my sweetheart weren’t just sitting in but were securely buckled into. There was no way that I could get to them and get them out of the car before the truck hit, but I personally had time to dive into the drainage ditch at the side of the road and safety. My decision took no time at there was no way I could/would save myself without my family so  I leaned back against the tailgate of the wagon, folded my arms, and waited for the impact…

…which didn’t happen. At the last minute the truck swerved to one side, passing us so closely that I was scattered with gravel and knocked off my feet by the displaced air from the truck’s passage. I waited for a moment or two to let my heart beat slow down a bit, then finished pouring the HEET® into the gas tank, got back into the driver’s seat and turned the key one more time. Our little marvel of Teutonic engineering started right up and we drove happily home, singing Primary songs with the boys and conducting a post-game analysis of the evening’s SCRABBLE®.

Between the late hour of our return, the cold night air and a cozy, toasty warm water bed I had little trouble falling asleep that night. I had almost dozed off when I realized with a start that I wasn’t as depressed as usual.  For a second I was baffled, but then I remembered the near-miss with the big truck. I’ve spent my life earning badges – emblems of what I held to be external indicators of my personal worth  – my letter in football, my jump wings or art show ribbons that all somehow never filled a void in my lift. That night I had performed the single most courageous action of my life by choosing possible death over life without my family, but no one would ever know about it and I certainly wouldn’t be getting any sort of badge – at least one that anyone could see.

It didn’t matter. It was OK – and my life was better for it.

 

1969: Amber Skies

Every autumn the air over Clarksville is permeated by a slight aromatic amber haze; a seasonal smoke that is a holdover from the days when Big Tobacco was a lot bigger than it is now. The smoke comes from tobacco leaves being processed by local farmers ; even though in these more health-conscious times there aren’t as many plants to handle, the burn-off is still there and you can’t help but notice it when you first go out in the morning. However, that tinge of smoke and the amber cast to the sky means something very different to me – it takes me back to the Kenai Peninsula and the summer of 1969 when it seemed like forest fires were blazing everywhere. Fires were nothing new for us on the Last Frontier – our homestead was in the middle of a barren stretch of land from a major fire in 1947 – but that summer it seemed like there were more fires burning for longer periods of time and threatening a larger number of people.

One large fire took a big chunk out of the middle of the Kenai Peninsula Moose Range, stretching from the Swanson River oilfield all the way across the middle of the Peninsula to the city of Kenai1. The fire eventually reached a point about four miles from our home and when the winds came from the west it would sometimes carry flaming embers to our homestead. Since only the smallest embers were light enough to be carried that far, they weren’t really much of a threat, but we’d had a dryer-than-usual spring with little precipitation that transformed trees and other vegetation into amazingly dry tinder, so we weren’t taking any chances. Under those conditions my primary family chore was to keep the garden hose handy and soak anything that looked “hot”, even to the point of climbing up on top of the house and hosing down the roof daily as a precaution.

It was a scary summer. The sky was always tinted amber and there was a constant whiff of smoke in every breath you’d take. I’d get that good whiff as I’d leave in morning for the Neighborhood Youth Corps2 job that had me working at a little museum just off of what is now the intersection of College Lane and Kalifornsky Road3, and while I certainly liked having a job, leaving the homestead to go to work each day was a little nerve-wracking. At every break I’d check radio reports for any fire news and while I was actually working I’d keep an eye on the sky in the direction of my home just to be sure. The end of the work day brought little respite; as I hitchhiked home every driver I’d meet seemed unable to talk about anything but the fires and how they seemed to be getting worse.

Stress for me didn’t peak until the end of summer when funding for my NYC job ran out and I had little to do other than hang around the homestead waiting for school to start. Rumors of evacuation were thicker than the summer mosquitoes and were often accompanied by unofficial reports of looters stealing from houses left unattended by people giving the evacuation order a head start. I was less than thrilled when Mom decided to leave me to guard the homestead against looters real or imagined when she took my little sisters to Anchorage to shop for school clothes. Looking back, there wasn’t much else she could do – they needed to make the trip but Dad was gone, having hired on with a local guide to cook for a hunting expedition in a mountain range up in the Interior…and for some unknown reason he was staying to finish the trip rather than come home to deal with the fire threat so it fell to me to take care of the place in Mom’s absence.4

 I was restless the first two nights alone  as I curled up on the front-room hide-a-bed with Dad’s 12 gauge shotgun and .38 revolver close at hand.  When it became clear that I wouldn’t be fighting off hordes of looting zombies I felt comfortable enough to divert my attention to spending more of my time reading while listening to the epic Blood, Sweat and Tears album and thinking thoughts more serious than usual.

I figured that if the fire got any worse there was at least a 50/50 chance we would be moving. I was going into my third year of high school putting me perilously close to adulthood and starting my life’s work. The draft was on and the war in Viet-Nam was in full swing so it looked like I was being herded into a decision, the first big decision in my life that I couldn’t weasel my way around or “out of”. The thought of moving was so unnerving that I closed up the hide-a-bed and retreated back to sleeping in the comfortable surroundings of my little attic bedroom where I’d drift off to slumber while my stereo was still playing…

…Blood, Sweat and Tears.

 It was my first “album-crush” My initial reaction to it was indifference, but through a combination of physical distance from the record player and sheer laziness I sat through it a couple of times and found that I really, really liked it. It was one of the first serious records in my collection, serious as in it wasn’t  just a collection of greatest hits, and I found myself listening analytically, savoring each note and pause. Rather than simply conjuring up memories connected to each song, the music prompted new thinking.5

….then before I knew it Mom and my little sisters were back from Anchorage, followed closely by Dad returning from his hunting trip, so I was free to go to Youth Conference. Normally one of my favorite events, Youth Conference that year was kind of a miss; mostly because I had to join in mid-stream after the activities had started. It felt a little “hollow” to me as well – none of my past Youth Conference friends were in attendance…and it was also difficult to feel much concern about what workshop to take or which girl to dance with when a week earlier I had been going to bed wondering if I’d still have a home to live in the next morning.

2017

There was a happy ending to this story: The fires were contained and never came too terribly close to our home on Scout Lake Loop Road. The forest has grown up to be very lush and full around the house, giving it quite a different look from the flat, open space that existed there when I was young. The move away from the Peninsula never happened, in fact nearly fifty years later there are still Deitricks living on the homestead now, my sister Heather and her son Jesse having moved in when they came to care for my mom in the last year of her life.

As I write this it is the wrong time of year for Clarksville’s version of amber skies – it’s spring rather than autumn, but I find that I am feeling the same unsettled feeling that I had all those years ago. In two weeks I will turn sixty-four which places me right in the middle of the 55-to-dead demographic and if that wasn’t unsettling enough I’ve lost many dear ones, including my mother and my dog in the last nine months. I find it difficult to shake off a mood of finality similar to what I felt when the threat of losing our home loomed and I have to wonder how long do I have before that other, more profound unavoidable issue of “moving” will confront me.

I won’t have much latitude in that decision either.

——————————————————————————————————————————-

1: Not everyone ended up as lucky as we were. Several of my friends from school got burned out – including Glenda, a most foxy freshman girl sitting in front of me in typing class. Our first assignment was to type our name and address, but as we all start hunting and pecking away she started to sniffle, and then explained that she didn’t have an address any more.

2: NYC – Neighborhood Youth Corps: A federal jobs program for teenagers put into place by President Nixon. Similar in aim and operation to Depression era programs like the WPA or CCC, the NYC provided work to a lot of kids during the late 60s/early 70s. The jobs paid $1.75 an hour for 30 hours a week and ran for 90 days in the summer and usually involved maintenance of government and community projects.

3: Back then it was spelled “Kalifonsky”. Sometime in the early 1980’s borough planners restored an “R” that had been somehow deleted when the road signs were made in the pre-borough, pre-pavement days 25 years earlier.

4: Had Dad known the situation he would have returned immediately, but the guide he was working for didn’t want to lose a prime cook, so he “censored” any fire reports out of the news from home.  It was the last time Dad cooked for him.

5: Well, there was one song that definitely brought happy thoughts of times gone by. I had spent two years too nervous to test any link to Sonya Alexander past the “just friends” point, and during the last week of school I had asked her out – and she accepted! You’ve Made Me So Very Happy had been released as a single off the album and was getting heavy air-play at the time we went on that date, and I found that listening to that song brought back some nice memories.

1968: Confidence

WilliamSmithActor

There are many character actors in Hollywood who specialize in playing “heavies” but to me the most intimidating thespian in Hollywood is William Smith. Anthony Falconetti in the 1970s television mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man is his best known role but Mr. Smith’s career includes over 300 feature films and television productions, my favorites being the 1960s Texas Ranger drama Laredo and 1985 Disney Western Wildside where he was cast against type as good guy gunslinger/deputy Brodie Hollister.

He is an incredible man in both a mental and physical sense, holding several advanced degrees and speaking several fairly difficult languages…while at the same time being able to curl his own body weight. He is very scary looking; a big body-builder blessed/cursed with a dark piercing cold state you’d expect to find on a mafia hit man – TV.com describes him as the greatest bad-guy character actor of all time.

Kind of like my friend Will Satathite

High school did not start out as a happy place for me. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, speed and coordination equal to that of my classmates only as the academic year was coming to a close. Running was less locomotion that it was a series of barely controlled stumbles and my voice cracked so bad in choir that the teacher routinely sent me on errands to the school office while everyone else was “warming up”. It should be no surprise that within two weeks of school starting I was being regularly pummeled by bullies. Within four weeks my older sister left school to get rather precipitously married, leaving me to explain the situation to all of her friends and classmates. When the ensuing conflict between loyalty and literal honesty was combined with the stress of getting used for a human punching bag, my body was unable to cope and I came down with mononucleosis.

I didn’t make a full recovery until after Christmas and even then life wasn’t that much more pleasant. However, as I got back into the swing of things I made an interesting discovery: While the upscale kids could be extremely judgmental and socially conscious, the thugs would be friends with anyone, provided there weren’t any “personal issues” involved. While he was not necessarily a thug, Will was definitely a tough guy and I found that if I stayed in reasonable proximity to him I was safe from the aforementioned punching. The price of such safety was the occasional shove from Will himself but for the most part any aggression from him involved glaring looks rather than swinging fists.  I was willing to swallow my pride and cower a bit if it meant less punching.

As winter slowly turned into spring, my life became less precarious –and as the second half of the academic year played out, I was able to build a normal life. I could come to school in the morning and be sure that I could retrieve text books from my locker without getting stuffed inside it. I was reasonably sure that I would be able to eat my entire lunch without someone snatching it out of my hands or walking across it with work boots. Waving to a friend in the commons wasn’t an automatic invitation for a punch in my stomach the minute I raised my hand, and I could walk out to the bus at the end of the day without the icy sensation in the pit of my stomach that came with a bully waiting for me in front of the door.

Summer came and school let out. I was fortunate to get work over the summer – a lot of work. I subcontracted for the post office janitor while he took a month long vacation in Texas, I worked as a stocker/bag boy at a local supermarket for another month and at various times over the entire three month break I dug, pruned, filled, and tied back branches as a freelance landscaper and handyman.

I had never had so much money in my life, but what I didn’t realize was that I had gained much more in other areas. My height went up a couple of inches, my waist drew in a couple more and I finally caught up to the level of strength and co-ordination that my peers had all achieved much earlier, though I didn’t realize it right away.

…and before I knew it the summer was over and I would be >gulp< Going Back to School. For the first eight years of my academic career going back to school in the fall had been a wonderful experience but it seemed that during the first few days of my sophomore year there were too many ghosts in the hallways, too many terror-filled memories of the bullying and beat downs…but during those first couple of days I found out something interesting.

No one tried to punch me. No one tried to knock my books to the ground or steal my lunch. I knew that times had changed but I’d passed it off as the side-effect of having a larger circle of friends than I did the year before – but then one day while I was on the way out the back door the enroute to one of the portable classrooms I was startled by a reflection I in the glass. It was me…only a much larger “me” than the self-image I had stored in my mind. I quickly compared that reflection to other reflections in glass (getting to the portables was rarely a quick trip) and I was shocked to see that I was as large – usually larger – than the other kids around me.

Hmmmmm.

That revelation came at just about the same time that I realized Will sat behind me in study hall. I half-consciously slid back into the side-kick role I’d played the year before, resigned to my fate. I would get very little done during any study hall shared with Will, the time instead being spent taking the occasional arm-slug and cowering in his shadow just enough to avoid being noticed by the punchers.

..but then something interesting happened.

It was about a week into the semester and I was trying to get my geometry homework finished but Will was making it difficult. I tried to reason with him, my voice blessedly staying a notch or two above the level of a whine when Will interrupted me with the following:

Deitrick – you’re a big guy. Be bad!”

It took a minute for the message to sink in. Sometimes it was easy to forget that behind the tough facade Will really was a nice guy and it was at this moment that he was demonstrating that friendship. The fact that I had gained size and strength over the summer had never really sunk in for me and Will was acting as what we’d call a life-coach in the decades to come, helping me establish myself socially. For the rest of the day and beyond I contemplated his words and the thought behind them, then slowly scaled back on cower-factor while turning up the machismo just a little bit.

At that point I found that the guys around me began to be a bit more respectful…

The next week

The day wasn’t starting out well. I had to change a flat on the way to school, I left my geometry book at home and someone horked my lunch which included the ever-so-rare roast beef sandwich. By the time I got to my seat in study hall I was in a foul mood; just how foul became apparent when Will started messing with me by moving my seat around while I was trying to sit down.

“What’s the matter Deitrick? Having a bad day? Are you going to start crying?”

My response was out before I even had time to think about it.

“>Bleep< you Satathite! This is turning into a real >bleep< day! I don’t need any of your >bleeping< >bleep< right now so just go >bleep< yourself!”

I froze. In vain I tried to snatch the words back but Will had already heard them. He transfixed me with that cold stare, leaned forward in his desk and growled.

Had I burned one of the few bridges in my life? The answer was not long in coming.

“Pretty good, Deitrick!”

“You’re coming along nicely!”

1975: Attack of The Casseroles!

It was a marvelous opportunity to start over, to re-energize myself. After spending close to eight months (a third of my mission!) dealing with the challenges of missionary work in Lynn, Massachusetts I was finally being transferred to Skowhegan Maine. That little mill town would prove to have its own set of challenges and rewards, but I loved being there, if for nothing else because people both in and out of the congregation seemed to latch on to me as well. I’d like to think the esteem came from my excellence as a teacher and diligence in the work, but looking back it probably had something to do with pity and the fact that I came from one of the very few parts of the nation that could get colder than Maine.

When I first arrived I was a I was a little unsure– as I left Massachusetts everyone told me that “Maniacs” were very stand-offish and that I would not be accepted for at least the first three months…which kind of confused me when the first Sunday in town had me praying for an arm sling after being rather energetically greeted with energetic handshakes by everyone in the congregation.  I was a bit confused because the members of the Skowhegan congregation were every bit as friendly as the ones I had left behind in the Lynnfield (MA) ward.

The light dawned after my companion and I had been working in the area for about a month and our arrival at meetings on Sunday began to resemble a VJ day ticker-tape parades down Madison Avenue. The nay-sayers in my first area had been correct and my reception had been a bit cool when I first arrived; it’s just that the Maine version of standoffishness had the same warmth as the Massachusetts version of high regard.

…and it wasn’t just the congregation. The townspeople in general were just as warm; merchants would give us discounts, post office personnel would make sure we got our packages quickly, and clergy from other faiths were more likely to trade funny sermon stories than contend with us over scriptural interpretations. There have been very few times/places where I felt so loved, but there was one time when I was almost loved if not to death then to a state where I wished it.

It was in the early spring at the second of two evening events at the church space two weeks apart. The first was a general dinner/social event but the second was an open house than Elder Miller and I had organized. This open house was the proverbial Big Deal – we’d worked overtime the preceding month preparing displays, inviting speakers and scheduling musical numbers, all of which was happening in conjunction with the dinner I was missing while conducting the event.

As I said I was well-loved in that little congregation and shortly was beset by a cluster of Relief Society sisters, each one holding their casserole and ladling a portion of it onto a plate that had mysteriously appeared in front of me. I didn’t want to offend anyone so I took of bite of each one – and I have never encountered such a wide array of tastes before in my life. Most of casseroles had a basic savory taste but some were salty, some were very tart and some obviously prepared by a cook of Italian extraction. A couple of them had an odd, almost gamey taste that I had heretofore only found in venison, but in this case was mostly likely TVP1. I bolted the contents of the plate as fast as I could after which my Miller and I wound up the event, took down the displays, cleaned up the multipurpose room and went home.

I was so tired that I was asleep the minute my head hit my pillow…but less than two hours later I was awake – awake and doubled up with the worst stomach ache I had ever had in my life. The stomach ache soon morphed into nausea and threw up so hard I thought I saw my socks come up. Then the “distress in the lower tract” started and I spent thirty minutes out of every hour on the commode.

It wasn’t until the Relief Society President checked on me the next morning that I figured out that I had contracted food poisoning. It had to have been one of the casseroles at the open house the night before so we checked around to make sure no one else had shared my fate…and fortunately no one had. We considered other possibilities but it always came back to the open house and when we got a second call from the Relief Society president the mystery was solved.

When women in the ward would prepare a hot-dish or casserole for a social they would cook it in a bread pan.  I’m not sure how the custom started; it may have been a cost-cutting measure but then I’d often see a family bring in more than one bread pan so it may have been a way to inject some variety into the meals. It certainly was a savior for families with several small squirmy children that would have had real trouble transporting a full sized casserole dish at the same time.  Lastly, it also may have been a tactic to speed up serving because so many pans could be heated in the meetinghouse oven at the same time.

…which is how my tummy trouble came about.

When everyone arrived for the regular church social two weeks earlier they all placed their bread pan casseroles in the oven, but when it came time to serve the food one of them was left behind – and sat in the unheated oven for two weeks until our open house. At that point the oven was again filled with the small pans, but this time ALL of them were removed and the contents served, including the one that had stayed behind a fortnight.  To my misfortune I was the only one to each part of that dish – I had to eat so quickly that evening that I passed off unusual smell or taste to (again) TVP.

I really couldn’t blame anyone for the incident. The members of the congregation were guilty of nothing worse than enthusiasm and I probably should have paid closer attention to what I was eating. Unfortunately I am by no stretch of the imagination a gourmet of any type. For me food is simply fuel and my idea of haute cuisine is extra vinaigrette sauce on my Jimmy John’s #5 so a moderate difference of aroma raised no warning flags.

The bottom line was that everyone really liked/loved Elder Deitrick – and if two hours of tummy trouble was the price for that esteem I would call it the bargain of all bargains.

———————————————————————————————————————–

1 TVP Textured vegetable protein – an economical meat substitute that was very popular during the recession-ridden Seventies