1975/2020: A Better Christmas

(… the other Christmas story I re-run each December ( as opposed to the possible-reindeer-on-the-roof story I ran last week…and like I mentioned earlier even though life has seemed like a train wreck in slow motion 2020 has given us a much more fulfilling holiday.)

I have yet to utter my traditional Yuletide greeting (“I >bleep< hate Christmas!”) but I have found that sentiment to be drifting through my head as I have been drifting through that emotional wasteland known as December  – as I have every year since 1966.  You’d think with my sub-Arctic upbringing I’d at least like the weather, but I don’t. It just seems like the recurring irritants of life intensity during the closing of the year, things like:

  1. Financial strain
  2. Homesickness
  3. Disagreements with my Beautiful Saxon Princess over correct holiday traditions
  4. …the fact that every disaster in my life has happened during the closing-of-the-year holidays

I’m not kidding. Disaster seeks out my Christmas like a starving eagle circles a bunny burrow – and we’re not talking about minor things like a stubbed toe or getting the Power Droid instead of Carbonite Han Solo in my stocking. We’re talking major life-changing events such as:

  • My father dying
  • My mother dying
  • Narrowly avoiding death while totaling my dad’s car
  • Losing a job (more than once)
  • Disfiguring facial surgery
  • The unexpected end to an engagement
  • Revocation of flight status while on active duty

All these (and more) happened between Thanksgiving and MLK day, so please excuse me for flinching when I turn to that last page in the calendar.

It wasn’t always that way. I can remember Yuletide seasons in Little Shasta Valley and Anchorage that were truly wonderful but as I started into my teens the line on my Joyeux Noel Index started inching down until it hit rock bottom in December of 1973, the year I spent the holidays with my grandparents right after my engagement folded. Grandma and Grandpa had stopped the tree and gift routine years earlier so when I showed up at their doorstep on the morning of December 22d they really didn’t know what to do with me. Christmas consisted of dinner and a surreptitious glass of wine at my Uncle Roy’s vacation cabin on Donner Lake.

1974 wasn’t much better. I was in the seventh month of my “bicycle penance” – missionary service that by its innate spiritual nature was supposed to sew my broken heart back together, but it just wasn’t happening.  The city I was working had the same name as my former Best Friend (Lynn, Massachusetts) and I was training a new missionary with a bad attitude who took his frustrations out on me. The weather was also most uncooperative; I had envisioned a picture postcard New England holiday with white snow drifts blanketing cozy salt-box homes with colorful lights blinking in the windows; what I got was a gritty industrial city where rain came as often as snow, creating an environment that:

  • Soaked you to your skin in the space of minutes
  • Slushed up the roads, making just the act of walking around a chore
  • Gave those people we would tract out another great reason to slam the door

…all of which added to the extremely self-absorbed attitude I already had. We were also collectively balking at a new proselytizing procedure the mission president had just introduced so the result was a totally wasted Christmas. I spent the day grumbling around the apartment feeling sorry for myself and making the day a contender for the worst Christmas of my entire life.

Christmas of 1975 was a little different; sometime during the previous twelve months while walking the width and length of New England I’d grown up and became a little less self-absorbed.   I had just been transferred to the small country town of Littleton, Massachusetts and assigned a problem elder for a companion, though I soon learned that Elder Neyland’s problems were more a question of ability than attitude. He had multiple severe learning and social disabilities – to the degree that he would have not been called on a mission under the criteria used for today’s missionaries.  It was like being teamed up with a thirteen-year-old cousin – the one with Asperger’s Syndrome –  and within three days it was obvious that negotiating the last two weeks in December was going to be a bumpy ride. 

Still –  the morning of December 23rd didn’t seem all that different when I got up but then I really wasn’t interested in doing anything other than wasting the next couple of days away. Then as I was daydreaming at my desk the phone rang and pulled me back into consciousness by the voice of my mission president calling to confirm a day-trip I would be making to FT Devens in January to attend to an ROTC scholarship application. After exchanging information and confirming dates he hesitated for a minute, and then said, “While I’ve got you on the line I’d like to talk to you about your situation” I rolled my eyes – having President Ross rattle off the list my character flaws was not my idea of fun – “by this point in time you’ve undoubtedly that discovered Elder Neyland is a little different from most other missionaries.”

I groaned inwardly – “a little different” barely scratched the surface o but I continued to listen as President Ross went on to talk about Elder Neyland It was actually important information: Neyland was getting little to no support from his parents, he was functionally illiterate, and his personal challenges made him so difficult to live and work with that changes in companions and areas happened more often than usual for him. Ross went on: “As I was considering his situation in light of the holidays I realized that there had to be one individual that could get him successfully through his first Christmas in the mission field – and when I turned to the assignment board your tag literally fell off the wall.  I felt strongly prompted to move you to Littleton for the holidays.”

 At first, I felt mostly disbelief tinged with cynicism; up to this point in time President Ross and I had mixed together much like oil and water, but as a good portion of my aforementioned “growing up” entailed learning to simply shut up when needed, the balance of my conversation with the mission president was uncharacteristically productive. After ringing off I stayed sitting by the phone and thought through the situation very carefully. Since turning twenty my life had been a series of disasters and while changing that trend had been one of the major reasons I’d gone on a mission it still seemed like my road in life had more than its share of land-mines. I’d read once that the definition of insanity was the act of doing repeating the same actions yet expecting a different outcome. Maybe babysitting Neyland would change my luck.

My change in direction kicked off at 5:30 the next morning when I got up early and made Elder Neyland pancakes for breakfast. For most of the day we kept close to our regular schedule, but I made sure that we worked in the more heavily decorated parts of town and as we tromped through the slush I’d prompt him to talk about his family celebrated Christmas when he was a child.

 I continued cooking for him for both lunch and dinner, playing a cassette full of Christmas carols during both meals, then we spent the rest of the day taking cards and presents to people that we had been teaching. Upon our return home we helped our elderly land-lady trim her tree until 10:30 when I all but barricaded Neyland in his bedroom so I could set up Christmas for him in our front room.

 I was thoroughly exhausted when I turned in, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind, so I got up and sat at my desk and tried to alternately read scriptures and a facsimile copy of the first edition of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. That lasted all of seven minutes, so I traded the books for my two best friends; Messrs. Paper & Pencil. At first, I started sketching, but in between images of linebackers, Iron Man and the starship Enterprise I started listing some of the thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  • Teaching abstract theological doctrine might be a good part of my job description but it wasn’t giving me much job satisfaction in return.
  • In contrast, doing something for another person – rendering service – most definitely punched my job satisfaction buttons.
  • Giving service to someone I wasn’t too terribly fond of in the first place did an even better job of punching those buttons – and making it easier to be kinder in the future.
  • For the first time in months – maybe years – I felt happy!

I’d like to say that the clouds opened, and heavenly choirs stared singing praise to my faith and wisdom but all I could hear was the dog barking Jingle bells on our land-lady’s radio downstairs…and when I shoved my cynicism aside I had to admit that despite the lack of presents or attention from my own family it had been a good day

…and possibly the best Christmas of my life.

1969/2020 “Bah, Humbug!”

(This is one of two Christmas-themed stories I re-run every year. This time around it’s a little different in that I’m not nearly the Scrooge I’ve been in years past, I don’t know if it’s my age or a reaction to the insanity that has been 2020 but I’ve found myself really enjoying the tree, the cars, the scriptures and the music.)

Have I already mentioned that I hate Christmas?

My enmity to this time of year has little to do with the actual day but rather the personal history that surrounds it. Name a personal disaster or heartbreak in my life and odds are the event happened either in December or within 2 weeks north or south of that month. I’m not going to produce an itemized list but if you really want to know why I dread the twelfth month of the year, and why I am miserable to live with during that time send a private message. If I get enough a large enough response I’ll elaborate a bit and then you’ll know why my dear sweetheart deserves a six-figure cash bonus, the Victoria Cross and immediate translation for simply enduring my presence during the holidays, much less talk or interact with me in any way.

Christmas wasn’t always miserable for me. There have also been some very happy times associated with the holidays, but they are totally overwhelmed by the number and intensity of the negative stuff. That contrast is no doubt fuel for the fire as well; I’m like the hungry homeless man with his nose pressed against the window of a four-star restaurant tormented by the sights and smells of food he can only imagine.

Even when thinking back as objectively as possible I cannot understand how I survived some of those times.  However those Yule seasons that seemed to be even more Yuseless than usual also happened to be times when I was blessed with an “adjunct angel” an individual whose words and deeds were vitally important to my continued mental health ( at one time to my life)– yet probably had no clue of the service they rendered.

There have been many such individuals ranging from a college instructor whose timely letter of praise and understanding drew the venom out of a heartless betrayal in a rebound relationship following the most crushing break-up of my life to a flight school buddy that refused to shun me when my medical disqualification made me invisible to the rest of my classmates (maybe they though vision problems were contagious). However, one of the most heart-warming may have not been a person at work – but rather circumstances; what we call “tender mercies”

.  It was Christmas Eve 1969; my sister Holly and I were up in my attic bedroom listening to some distinctly un-holiday rock music on my stereo and commiserating about how there was no “joyeux” in the “noel” when you weren’t a little kid. There was a lull in the music as the changer dropped another LP onto the turntable – and that’s when we heard the footsteps. Yes, footsteps on the roof just 10 inches on the other side of the ceiling of my attic bedroom.

We couldn’t tell exactly what kind of footsteps they were – there was a chinook (mid-winter warm front passage) going on which always brought on a chorus of humming, whining and moaning as the wind ran past the T.V. aerials, their supporting masts and guy-wires. It didn’t matter though – we looked at each other in wide-eyed shock, then Holly shot down the ladder to her bedroom while I shut off the light and dove under my covers.

There were no hoof-sprints or skid marks on the roof the next morning – but there was also very little snow after the warm winds of a Chinook.

 Had our cats running around the attic?

Had my dad on the roof adjusting the living room TV antenna?

 Did a sleigh park on our roof that night?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, just like I don’t know why selected friends over the years have chosen this time of year to perform life-changing acts of kindness for me.  While footsteps-on-the-rooftop didn’t have the heavy emotional weight of some of the other incidents I’ve shared, the event did have a life-changing, softening effect on my personality at a time when as a sixteen year old I was making important choices about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. The timing was perfect.

…and as I was thinking about this post it came to me that timing has also been very effective with this whole holiday curse mindset. It’s cleverly turned my expectations about what should be a happy time into a subtle but non-stop attack on my faith.  I’m just very fortunate that at the same time those little attendant holiday miracles have been just as clever and even more effective in bolstering my faith.

Merry Christmas!

2020: Early Morning Ritual

4:00 AM

It was a whisper so quiet I almost missed it for the hum of the ceiling fan and the wind in the trees outside our bedroom window.

“Papa, I want to be down here with you and Nana” –  followed almost instantly with, “Can I use your tablet?” signaled the arrival of my grandson Jayden. I mumbled the usual assent mixed with admonitions about excess noise then drifted into my never-ending quest for more sleep.

Microseconds later a strident BEEP-BOOP-BEEP-BRRRRRT!! startles me into an (almost) sitting position while simultaneously triggering a semi-intelligible URK!1 The wee little voice with the endearing lisp calls out in the dark, “Torry Papa. I will turn it down,”  and instantly dispels my expected growly response and I roll back over to drift off as well as I can with patterns of light from the aforementioned tablet dancing across our ceiling.

“VROOOOMMMMM”

I stagger-stumble out of bed, visions of out-of-control vehicles heading for our front porch filling my imagination only to find my grandson with my tablet in hand, transfixed and terrified by his grandfather-turned-grizzly-bear careening around the bedroom floor and bouncing off bedroom walls while his grandmother struggles with the polyethylene clasp of her CPAP mask in an effort to sit up as well.

“JAYDEN!”

“Sorry Papa. Sorry Nana”.

At this point the tablet is turned off and put away before I once again embark on my fitful journey to Slumberland, but just as Little Nemo takes my ticket…

BA-THUMP…THUMP! BA-THUMP…THUMP!

“Hey Papa! I can jump reawy high! Watch me!”

My inner Cro-Magnon starts a growl rumbling deep in my chest but chokes it off when I note the time on my phone AND the growing light of dawn through the curtained window. I take comfort in the fact that if nothing else Jayden’s early morning calisthenics do not include PLFs2 off the dresser or a dive, tuck and roll over the bed with the two of us curled up comfortably and still sleeping…but mostly the knowledge that his predawn antics are a small price to pay for sharing this time in his life.

I’ve lived almost ten times as long as Jayden has and in all those years I’ve treasured my steadily evolving caretaking role as elder brother, uncle, father, and grandfather. I was never the type of dad who lived and longed for the day he would become an empty nester and the departure of each child was a little death for me. I suspect it will be the same when Jayden and his parents finally get a place of their own, but for now I will keep my tablet charged up and tuck the covers a little tighter when I turn in at night.

_______________________________________________________________________

Notes

1.  Which in my mind is perfectly understandable as “ See here young man what is this untimely commotion?”

2. Parachute landing fall.

My Beautiful Saxon Princess

October 1976

I figured we had just enough time to get to the show before curtain time but a recalcitrant shoelace thought otherwise. As I ducked back into my room to change footwear my date eyed a bookish looking folio leaning against my stereo and read the title aloud:

“‘Home before the Leaves Fall’. What’s that?”

I sighed ( it was at best eighteen months since the fall of Saigon) and answered: “It’s a combat simulation of the opening moves of World War One. A war game. Part of my studies in ROTC”

“Ewww”

Even the wrinkle her nose took with that mild expression of distaste failed to disturb the grace of her Princess Diana profile, but I still knew there was no real future as a couple with her.

October 1976 (Two weeks later)

In a low-grade flash of déjà vu I was again rushing to replace reluctant footwear in an effort to beat curtain- time when my new acquaintance spied the same the same slip-cased volume and echoed previous date’s inquiry:

“‘Home before the Leaves Fall’. What’s that?”

I sighed even deeper as realized I either had to do a better job of housekeeping or forego a social life then answered (again) “It’s a combat simulation of the opening moves of World War One. A war game. Part of my studies in ROTC”.

She paused, picked up the game and said “Last summer I made a model of a British 6 pounder anti-tank gun

I was in love!

When we first met my Beautiful Saxon Princess she seemed so familiar that I thoughtlessly scanned past her in search of new faces, figuring we’d talk at the next Alaska/Ricks/New England themed get-together. When I finally realized that the closest we got to a previous acquaintance was studying art under Richard Bird at Ricks College during two widely separated times I began to fret that maybe I’d lost to another hometown suitor. She was gorgeous with a combination Linda Blair/Lynda Carter vibe and was blessed with a cascade of light brown hair, pale blue watercolor eyes and a pert, upswept nose that easily passed for a transplant from Diana Rigg’s face

(…and yes, I did watch far too much TV)

In the vocabulary of the day she was a total fox, but she either didn’t know it or didn’t care. She was just so basically good and sweet-natured that as our relationship developed I was concerned at how she’d fare in the company of the hot-tempered, razor-tongued Celtic mob that is my extended family but that innate goodness has served as a force field against the sarcasm-that-is-graded-for-effectiveness that prevails at my family’s infrequent gatherings.

I’m frequently asked why I don’t write more often about my Beautiful Saxon Princess and why I routinely use that title instead her name – and in answer there are two main reasons for the practice:

  1. Though they are blessedly few in number I do have my detractors and I don’t want them calling her the names and making the attacks they’ve made against me.
  2. After the last forty-four years we’re almost close enough to be one word (“davidandlori”)

…and she is my treasure. Every day I am reminded that I am lucky to be with her and that I married so far above my station that I should be getting nose bleeds.

1977: D.C. Bound…

Third in a series of courtship stories. I look back from 43 years further down the road and I get tired from just reading about running/driving/flying all over the western hemisphere…

David R. Deitrick, Designer

united 727

Time moved at glacial velocity when I was a kid but at some point between age 20 and 22 I was ambushed by a chronological fruit-basket turnover. That endless wait from Christmas to Christmas suddenly shrunk – glance down to read the newspaper while the Super Bowl is on TV /   look up and the puppets from “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” are dancing across the screen. When Lori and I first discussed marriage it seemed like we had all the time in the world but the third week of April 1977 unexpectedly nudged its way into my life while I was otherwise occupied with final exams and portfolio reviews.

My last review was scheduled just a few hours before my flight to Washington DC to get married and in an ironic twist of fate the session went overtime when heretofore disinterested faculty members started asking complex questions about my work. Unfortunately as…

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Music: Abandoned Luncheonette

This fits in nicely with the courtship stories from 1976-77 that I am in the process of reblogging…

David R. Deitrick, Designer

Consider the following terms:

  • algorithm
  • dichotomy
  • paradigm
  • ubiquitous

I don’t think I heard any one of these words prior to 1987 – and I didn’t learn the correct definition of any of them until long after that date. You see, unless the context absolutely demands the use of a “ten-dollar term” I prefer using less-ornamental language, which is why I think we did well enough with the alternate phrases like:

  • steps in solving a problem
  • contrast between two things
  • a model or pattern

…but I make an exception to the rule when using ubiquitous instead of “found everywhere”  as in “the music of Darryl Hall and John Oates was ubiquitous in the Seventies and Eighties!” because it was the absolute truth at the time that their work and faces were found everywhere. They were on the covers of magazines at newsstands. I couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing “

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1977: SCOPES

It’s always been a challenge for the army to train realistically for war. In medieval times young men would hack at each other with wooden swords but practicing with live ammunition can unfortunately produce unfortunate results similar to the “getting just a little bit pregnant” scenario that happens with inept sex education. It wasn’t until the introduction of MILES gear in the early 1980s that truly realistic training exercises started to happen. Training with MILES (a.k.a. the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) gave a wake-up call to units that were accustomed top scores under the old system of using blanks accompanied with bang-bang-you’re-dead-you-missed-you-stupid grunt; squads breezing through evaluations with a 10% loss were shocked  when the unforgiving lasers and sensors in the MILES system assessed 60-70% losses for the same exercise.

For the first time outside of actual combat troops started getting serious about cover and concealment.

Just prior to the introduction of MILES the Army experimented with a stop-gap system called SCOPES, which used low power scopes mounted on M16’s and camouflage helmet covers bearing low-contrast numbered discs that were extremely hard to read without the aforementioned scopes at distances more than a yard or two. When opposing squads made contact soldiers would aim at an opposing troop, squeeze off a blank round and call off the guy’s number to one of the lane graders who would then assess casualties, the helmet covers having been issued in a totally random manner to prevent soldiers from calling out random numbers and eliminating opponents without really taking aim.

It was under those conditions that my squad went through a series of tactical problems at FT Lewis Washington in July of 1977. We took turns as squad leader and were each given a simple mission to accomplish such clearing a path, making contact with an adjacent friendly unit or setting up a hasty ambush. I breathed a sigh of relief when my number came up and I was charged with leading the squad to a downed reconnaisnce aircraft to retrieve a film canister. At first glance it seemed that my biggest problem would be maintaining squad integrity while moving through the dense vegetation of the temperate rain forest covering this part of Washington state, but mostly I felt relief at what looked to be a walk in the woods.

Any elation I felt quickly dispelled as I started leading the squad in a wedge formation through terrain that sloped slightly downhill and into ever-thickening brush. We’d gone no more than ten yards when I lost sight of my two outermost flankers but I figured that between yelling at the top of my lungs and two dependable fire-team leaders I could still keep things going.

“Hey – I’m running into concertina wire” It was my guy on the left. I stopped the squad and went to check the wire, which was strung three strands deep and angled in towards our front, forcing me pull that side of the squad in before resuming efforts to “bust brush”… but with within a few short minutes a faint voice on my right chimed in with “Hey there’s razor wire over here too”, a development which prompted squad members on that side to also draw towards the center of the wedge creating a tactical formation known euphemistically known as a “Charlie Foxtrot”. Internal Stukas started dive-bombing the length and breadth of my abdominal cavity and I desperately searched for a tactical term that I couldn’t quite remember as we broke through the brush into a cleared area bordered on each side with triple strand razor angling in and meeting at a small gate directly ahead of us.

It was at that point that I remembered the elusive term:

Canalizing: the act of restricting an opponent’s tactical operations to a narrow zone by use of existing or reinforcing obstacles

It was also at that point that the machine gun’s opened fire, one to each side of the gap in the wire, prompting lane graders to start calling helmet numbers and eliminating everyone in my squad but me and one of the flankers. I was safe for the moment in a shallow depression but it was only a matter of time before one of the bad guys achieved a better line of sight so in the interest of playing the game I crawled over the closest casualty (AKA my buddy Doug), rolled him up on this side and used his body as a parapet shield before expending all the blanks in both my ammo pouches and those belonging to my now laughing protective barrier.

Any concerns over my tactical decisions during the critique were dispelled as the lead lane grader issued an outstanding spot report for me for my enthusiasm and unique tactical sense .Unable to hold his tongue any longer my human parapet Doug weighed into the conversation with “yeah, nice move but I began to wonder what you were really thinking when you started going through my pockets looking for my wallet and lighter!” to which I shot back with “ just trying to win in an unwinnable situation” but was startled when our lane grader abruptly broke back into the conversation with a quiet but firm “You weren’t supposed to win” that instantly changed the tone of the critique and shut us all up.

As a Special Forces qualified Master sergeant who’d started his career as a rifleman in Korea and spent two tours of duty in Viet-Nam our evaluator was definitely someone to listen to carefully. The lines on his face traced a map of every one of his twenty-seven years as an infantryman though the wrinkles around his eyes were as much the product of good nature as evidenced earlier that morning at the beginning of the exercise when he stressed that his personal motto was:

“Don’t run if you can walk

Don’t walk if you can ride

Don’t go if you don’t have to!”

He went on to tell us about an infantry school study that had shown that new platoon leaders in Viet-Nam often found it “easier to die than to think”, and that just as much emphasis needed to be placed on initiative and imagination as doctrine when training new lieutenants.

“That’s why we scattered problems like this in the syllabus – to get cadets to use their imagination when needed”

“Sometimes you just can’t win”

…which is the point of my story. As I’ve written in the past I have ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease much like rheumatoid arthritis. It is progressive, incurable, irreversible, very painful and getting more so as time goes by which is why insurance underwriters put it in the same “dread disease “category as lupus, multiple sclerosis and others. It’s going to be with me until I die and at best all doctors can do is alleviate the symptoms…which gets more and more difficult to as time goes by. It’s also the reason my writing has been so sporadic this last year. Lack of flexibility brought on by A/S was a major factor in a tumble I took down our front room stairs that in turn caused me to spend a good part of the fall of 2019 flat on my back followed by a slow-down-in-general since then.

Because the disease didn’t come with a missing limb or change in pigmentation it’s not readily apparent which can often lead to judgmental comments of which “You don’t look sick” is the most prevalent and as the topic has not appeared here lately my Beautiful Saxon Princess has been gently elbowing me into crunching some words on the subject so:

 Please understand that your friend or relative or co-worker with the not-overly obvious disability is not fishing for sympathy or trying to figuratively steal your wallet and lighter through disability/insurance fraud. We’re just trying to cope with an extremely difficult situation and we’re just doing the best we can…and just as was the case in June of 1977 I’m still trying to win.

1976 Beads

It just seemed like a good time to run this one again. While these “year-link” posts were all written to be used as chapters in a book there weren’t originally published here in chronological order. We’re getting closer to publication so I’m re-posting a couple of them in proper sequence to give you an idea of what is coming up.

Thanks

d-

David R. Deitrick, Designer

Kenai Central High School was not on the leading edge of popular culture in the 1970’s, but I had no idea how benighted we were until the Yearbook Issue of National Lampoon came out in the spring of 1971. It featured a parody of a 1950’s high school yearbook and as we leafed through the pages I was surprised to see that the Eisenhower-era fads, slang and dating customs Lampoon was mocking were the same ones we participated in. Even though television had been showing us how to look like other American teenagers of the time, our behavior was twenty years out of date.

College brought me a little more up-to-date, though attending the University in Fairbanks, Alaska still had me on side roads instead of the cultural freeway… My hair got longer. I dressed a bit differently and when I fell in love I did something I thought I…

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1969: “Party Hearty…hardly”

I’m slowly working up to a second book and re-blogging this post is part of that preparation.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

One of the first things you learn when starting a running program is this:  The best runners don’t compete with other people – they compete with themselves. Rather than trying to best another person, they try to beat their own time. It’s a good idea in general to set personal standards to measure success. I’ve applied the concept several times in my life, but the most useful personal benchmark has to do with “getting in trouble” and by that I don’t mean life-altering hardship, setbacks or personal challenges – “trouble” as in “Awwwmmmm – you’re in trouble. Mrs. Blinzler wants to see you after recess.”1

In early 1969 I helped organize a party that got me into so much trouble I’ve used it as a gauge for the rest of my life. How did it come about? The same way normally rational people get in unforeseen trouble: Life became…

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1975: Dinner at The Miller’s

One of the first lessons I learned in life is that nothing’s as bad or good as anticipated, that in life there can be quite a gap between the ideal and reality. Nowhere was that deduction more valid that it was in missionary service. As I started my two-year bicycle penance I imagined that my service would include:

  • Working in tandem with equally motivated companions
  • Spending the bulk of my time teaching truly inquisitive individuals
  • Fitting into each community as a recognized and accepted member of the clergy

Reality was somewhat different as the work routinely involved:

  • Struggling to motivate culturally backward companions on their first experience away from the Intermountain West.
  • Spending many, many more hours knocking on doors than teaching people
  • Surviving the social food chain, spending an inordinate time avoiding dogs while knocking on the aforementioned doors.

It was one-third of the way through my mission that I learned another great life lesson:  Any form of illness seems infinitely more serious when you’re three thousand miles away from the family doctor. Such was the case when I contracted the Port Chalmers strain of the flu shortly after I transferred to Skowhegan, Maine early in the winter of 1975. Getting sick right after the transfer was very disorienting as the move to Maine had been most welcome – after eight months in Lynn, Massachusetts life in an urban area had worn thin and I was eagerly anticipating both a change of scenery and an opportunity to recharge my spiritual batteries while turning a new leaf in my service.

I had actually anticipated this new area as I already knew a little bit about Skowhegan after dating a young lady from the area while I was enrolled at Ricks College six months before starting my mission. I was also delighted with Skowhegan’s more northerly location and abundance of trees and snow which made the area feel like my home in Alaska, a similarity that extended even to the floorplan of the local meetinghouse (identical to the one back home) and the rustic nature of the service projects the congregation engaged in. For example each Saturday morning we would cut and haul firewood for less fortunate members and it was during one of those charitable expeditions that I became aware of the family doctor life lesson referenced above.

The day had started nicely enough as we chopped and hauled away, but when I developed a queasy stomach and slight temperature my companion and I headed for home long before our normal 12:00 noon quitting time. By evening my temperature had soared to 102° and I was making regular trips to our bathroom to engage in what is alternately referred to as

  • Barfing
  • Doing the Technicolor yawn
  • Worshiping at the porcelain altar.

I threw up so many times that at one point I began wondering if I needed to check for a lung or some other organ coming up with everything else. Unfortunately, the projectiles kept projecting until early Monday morning when my misery eased for approximately thirty minutes as my body changed gears (and orifice) and I began to deal with:

  • Montezuma’s revenge
  • Rocky Mountain quickstep
  • Trouser chili

The misery went on for another four days, my only respite coming about early Wednesday evening when I collapsed on the hallway floor, dehydrated from the non-stop hurling. Fortunately as the week progressed the intensity of my visits to the bathroom began to ease off and by the following Saturday it looked as though we’d be able to honor a dinner invitation extended to us by the Miller family, stalwart members of the local congregation and parents of the aforementioned young lady I had known at college the year before. Ever the trencherman, my companion was relentless in his insistence to make it to that dinner appointment no matter my condition, but even before the illness I had been hesitant as their daughter had expected more out of the relationship than I, and ended up with bruised feelings…so I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get in their house.

(The fact that their other child would be at dinner and happened be one of the toughest highway patrolmen the state of Maine had on its roster may have been a factor in that reluctance as well.)

As the day progressed the tummy rumbles lessened but did not cease, so ever the erstwhile ROTC cadet I carefully planned the quickest route through town on our area street map. Skowhegan straddles the Kennebec River at a point where several highways merge to cross the waterway by way of a set of bridges connecting mid-stream Skowhegan Island to each river bank. In addition to those road bridges there are two foot bridges, one a former railroad bridge in the center of town and another connecting the Island with the southern bank at a location some distance to the west of the automotive bridge. To reach the Miller’s home we would be walking from our apartment on the northern side of town to the first island bridge, then after crossing we’d veer to the right to the footbridge which conveniently connected to the southern shore not more than 100 yards from the Miller’s home.

I figured it would take us no more than a half hour (45 minutes at the most) but as we started walking a sobering thought came to mind, no doubt jostled loose from my memory by the military aspect of my pre-walk map reconnaissance. It was a quote from the 19th century Prussian strategist Moltke who opined that “No plan of battle ever survived contact with the enemy”. Having been holed up in our apartment for the week neither one of us had a sense for what the weather had been like so we were both surprised when instead of negotiating either freshly plowed or snow-free we would be trudging through sloppy slush that could easily double our walking time.

Unfortunately, dwindling finances required a trip to the post office in the hope that a check from my dad had arrived, a detour to the east that added a further fifteen minutes to our journey, however true anxiety didn’t set in until we slushed off from the post office and  I felt the dreaded URK! in my lower tract that I had hoped to avoid, so we picked up the pace only to be stopped by our district leader just as we reached the first bridge. He and his companion were on their way home after spending the day at a leadership meeting in Augusta and in his zeal to avoid spending seventy-five cents on a toll-call later that evening he took the opportunity to briefly pass on an important change in our weekly reports (something about ink color), “brief” being defined as “forty-five minutes.” When they finally drove off to the east it was colder, darker and I’d already been through three butt-clenching URKs! while we’d been standing shivering in the snow, and as we stepped out smartly across the first bridge the rumbles continued.

Midspan I knew I wasn’t going to make it as the URKs increased in both intensity and frequency. For an instant I thought about turning around but I didn’t know of any bathrooms available before we got home.  Prospects for immediate relief were bleak at best as the few structures on the island consisted of a volunteer fire station, a small park, and church with an attached residence, all of which were closed and dark save for a single light burning above the fire station’s front door. With no other comfort in sight I veered toward the station but as I turned toward it there came an ominous double URK! from my midsection that my companion could hear ten feet away.

I knew I was doomed.

In a panic I turned towards the clergy house set to the side of the church and tried to trot as quickly as I could with my fourth-point-of-contact tightly clenched. Not a light was burning in the place but as I slowly bounced closer I could see that the basement garage door was ajar so I adjusted my trajectory accordingly.

 What followed as I reached the garage door happened in split-second increments:

  • I stepped through the door into the dark basement
  • Located a stack of firewood against the wall
  • Concluded that stack of wood was a reasonable substitute for an outhouse seat
  • Launched myself towards the nearest stack
  • Reached for my belt buckle

….at which point my luck (and sphincter control) ran out.

For the next week arguments ensued in town: Had there been a sonic boom from a low-flying jet or had there been an explosion in one of the mills?  I was just very thankful that no one had been home in the house above my improvised rest stop and that it was both cold and dark as we walked back to our apartment. During the entire trip my companion never ventured closer than ten yards to me and when we did get home I went straight to the bathroom, stopping only to ditch my wallet and shoes before stepping straight into the shower fully-clothed.

The aftermath

Since the seventies, polyester (“double knit”) clothing has endured no small amount of criticism for the use of colors not found in nature and for having all the breathability of Saran Wrap. People forget the fabric’s ability to hold a crease forever, to resist wrinkles and (in this case) repel stains while cleaning up with soap and water. As nasty as I looked (and smelled) that night I was able to wear that same suit the following week with no ill effects…or odor.

Never long on empathy my companion grumbled about the meal we’d missed during the long walk home and continued to snivel until the Millers appeared at our doorstep with covered dishes holding our dinner. When I called later to thank Sister Miller we had a pleasant conversation that put to rest the worries I’d had about the abortive romance with her daughter the year before. I also learned from an article in the newspaper she’d used to cover our dinner that my case of the flu had probably run its course and I needn’t worry about a recurrence of symptoms.

Nevertheless at my first opportunity I sat down again with a street map and marked the location of every public restroom within city limits

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