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…And so there I was. Listening as a couple of fellow patrons enjoyed a happy conversation in Spanish. It occurred to me that I come from a familial and socio-economic background that has basically no culture of it's own. White, middle-class, native Southern Californian… I come from a clan of remora eels. We attach ourselves to the next sleek shark that offers an interesting view and the promise of cheap chow, detaching ourselves from whatever entertainment has held our attention for the last five minutes with an easy manner that truly says "I never really cared."
Today's shark is Spanish.
I need to start working out again. It's got nothing to do with how I look, or the weight I need to drop, or the fact that the medical term for the resulting condition of anyone unwise enough to let me sit in their lap is "pancaked"…no, those things aren't the problem. I just feel the need to push back at the repetitive sludge my life is becoming. The real curse of middle age is boredom…the absence of threat. Wrestling some heavy plates into the air directly above my face and holding them there with shivering arms seems about right.
While I have infinite respect for his talents as a soulful singer (when he wants to be), somehow the sound of Eddy Vedder's voice usually manages to piss me off. I don't know if it's because hearing a baritone whining in my ear feels kind of unnatural, or if it's because his lyrics seem to have a "let me tell you my problems" perspective. Ed, I've got problems too, pal… and you ain't helping. I can only go so far with the social commentary provided by a band that tried to call itself "spooge". Happy up….and get a groove on.
So here I sit on the Fourth of July. Ordinarily I'd be spending time with family, enjoying the refreshing breeze coming off the lake, and getting in some of the best naps to be found anywhere. Not today, though. Nope, my latest bout of "bad attitude" has driven me to quarantine myself so as not to infect anyone else. Late nights at work, long drives home, a week of feeling misunderstood…they've added up to one bad case of burnout. So I'm just going to cocoon at the ranch, put some ointment on my psyche, and hope for a quick recovery.
Things are a little better today. My diagnosis and treatment plan seem to be on track. The "good guy" in me may be returning soon. He'll have some new rules though. He won't be an advocate for the greater good of the work environment any longer…even when asked. When professional life becomes dominant over personal time and relationships, it's time to adopt the mantra "What would Balloo do?". That crazy bear has been my mentor during the best times of my life. It took quite a pal to remind me of that. We all need a little ‘Bear Necessities" sometimes.
Momentum. It's all about momentum. Move fast enough, and I become unstoppable. Small tasks fall from my "to do" list in a shower; the larger ones get some serious dents in them. But if I allow myself too much down time, getting started again feels like lifting a piano from my chest. In a weird and unfortunate way, that piano can actually seem pretty comfortable…a warm blanket of complacency. However, there is only today, and it's important to justify my presence here. So, I double-knot my laces, and start chasing down small accomplishments that have mocked me too long.
James Bond has the right idea. He knows what's really important, and lives that way. That's part of the appeal of the character, I think. Even though we know he must deal with the mundane, just like we do, he doesn't ever invest himself in it. His passion is reserved for things that are worth the effort. That kind of focus would be great to achieve. The ability to distill life down to its essential elements, dismissing the daily inconveniences, would leave room for some real appreciation. Being able to kick some ass now and again would be cool, too.
"Is it good?", my six-year-old nephew asked, "Living by yourself?". I hadn't really thought of it in awhile. Every time I do consider it, I usually end up at the same conclusion: no matter what state of existence one finds themselves in, there are always going to be things about it that are attractive, and things that aren't. I've been married, raised a son, been single, had roommates and girlfriends…pretty much had the grand experiment all the way around. You'd think I'd be able to answer his simple question. He looked up at me. "Is it good?"… I don't know.
"Should we call someone?" Chris asked. I thought about it for a second. A long second. We'd been tooling around the lake for a couple of hours, had made our stop at "bootie bay", and enjoyed a couple of tokes and a beer. My mellow was now being encroached upon by the sight of a rather large brush fire at the north end of the lake, and we appeared to be the only mobile-phone-bearing life forms around. "Guess we gotta", I replied. We both decided to pass on actually saying "What's the number for 911?", and made the call.
It took more than ten minutes to get through to a 911 operator. During that time, the fire really found its legs and took off. It occurred to us that getting the call on record might assist our defense if we were accused of arson, even though the fire was a rather inaccessible mile or two off the lake. There would really be no way anyone would think we set it, but our paranoid natures reveled in having something to worry about. When we finally reached an operator, she told us the fire had already been reported. "Thanks for calling."
The helicopter flew over first. It was a new Blackhawk just purchased by the county. They'd nicknamed it the "Firehawk". It came in low over the water, rising up to follow the terrain as they scouted the fire. It looked awesome. I love military technology, and seeing it applied to peaceful and constructive purposes really resonated with me. They made their first pass, decided on their drop point, and came back over the water. They dropped down enough to lower an intake hose into the lake, sending spray everywhere as they filled the belly of the machine. It was beautiful.
A few minutes after two Huey helicopters joined the Blackhawk, a police boat came out to us. We were still the only boaters at that end of the lake, and were thoroughly enjoying the private display of air attack firefighting to which we were being treated. As the cops approached, we were sure they were going to eject us from that part of the lake. So we had a nice surprise when, obviously having a good time themselves, they told us a "Super Scooper" had been called in. "Now you're really gonna get a show!", they said. They were right.
It starts off as a low drone, kind of quiet, but you can still hear it even over the engine noise of three helicopters circling overhead. You hear it long before you see it. They come in low enough that the hills prevent any sighting until the airplane is right over the water and already dropping in for a load. The Canadair "Super Scooper", red, gleaming, and aggressive, appears to be diving straight at you. You know it's just an illusory effect caused by the open expanse of water, but you haul ass to the side of the lake anyway.
So we're supposed to be mature men. We've raised kids. Kept decent jobs long enough to call ourselves "professionals". While we may not have contributed much, we've done our best not to degrade society. But when that giant plane flew over us at only about 50 feet, we were grinning like complete idiots. We knew we were in for a few minutes of entertainment. Beer appeared. Turning our baseball caps backward in preparation for wind and speed (the only time anyone over 25 should turn their hat backward), we chased the Super Scooper down the north finger of the lake.
It's amazing how little wake the giant CL-215T "Super Scooper" creates while it skims the surface of the water, gathering more than sixteen hundred gallons of water in a single pass. As the water comes aboard, the plane gets much heavier, and the roar of the motors increases to accommodate the extra weight. One can only imagine the skill and sensitivity the pilot must possess, to not only keep the huge plane from burrowing into the water, but to maintain the trim necessary to continue to pick up its load. I was just hoping for some gnarly wake to jump.
We spent the next hour or so following the firefighter's plane around the lake. Since the low hills blocked our view of the water drops over the wildfire anyway, we dashed back to the area where we knew they'd make their pass when they came back for a refill. I was thirteen again, trying to match pace with them. Forty miles an hour on the water is enough to generate a little excitement. I was totally in the groove. It was one of those days that reminded you what life is supposed to be about. Fire, water, machines, and beer.
Homework. That's what it feels like right now…homework. I was given this relatively easy assignment to write 100 words each day, and I've let eight days slide by. On every one of those days, I said, "I'll get to it first thing tomorrow. Really. It'll be no problem." Now I'm staring at 800 words, and feeling a little light in the topic department. I thought about just typing out the words "one" through "one hundred"…but that seems pretty lame. I know I have a better hook. I'm just going to finish writing about not writing and call it a day.
I was just over half done mowing the front lawn when the power went out. At first I wasn't surprised. It's been unusually hot and muggy, and I've been running my air conditioner right alongside my neighbors in a three day marathon of climate controlled excess. So when the mower shut down without my help, I figured I'd blown a fuse or tripped a circuit breaker. No such luck. Instead, I got a reminder of how deeply my life is connected to electrical power. It makes me feel a little vulnerable. And half of my front yard can prove it.
Coffee is good. Very good. When I was younger, I didn't get that. I didn't comprehend its power and beauty. I was much too busy, of course. Dashing from one superficially important pursuit to the next, there was no time to sit still and dawdle over anything as stationary as a cup of hot brown water. But that was back when thinking, in any form, was not a part of my day. Now I understand how having a plan can make one appear kind of smart. Coffee has become an essential tool in plotting the downfall of those around me.
People don't know what they want until you show it to them. It seems as if the ability to think conceptually, to articulate the shape of things desired but not yet in existence, has completely escaped our collective toolkit. "What if" is too frequently replaced with "I can't"…and "I can't" is losing ground to "You can't". So certain are we that our life experience has taken us to the edge of every border imaginable, we discard the option of dreaming. The blueprint of reality is not fixed. Modifications are possible. We possess the pencils and erasers of change. Use them.
I don't know why I like the car so much. It's old, noisy, and Lord knows it ain't pretty. But it's something different, and my world view changes when I drive it. Things are framed in a way that's not yet mine. The sound of the motor is still foreign. The way the air is pushed around the body at sixty miles per hour is unique and entertaining. The sun reflects off the malt colored paint and makes me tilt my head like a confused puppy. It's very lack of beauty and sophistication are the gritty elements of substandard perfection.
When I was twelve, I was visiting my aunt and uncle. They'd recently moved into a third-story apartment. Not having had much experience in multi-floored buildings, it was an exciting novelty to ride the elevator. My five- year old cousin and I explored the grounds, and I decided to show him how to stop the elevator doors from closing by placing my arm between them. I was expecting them to open immediately when the bumpers hit my arm. They didn't. I was stuck. Twice I felt the floor above contact my arm, pushing hard as we ascended to startled freedom.
In 1953, my father was a Flight Engineer in the U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue unit stationed in Morocco. He was only 19 years old, in an environment epitomizing the word "foreign". At this time, the Moroccan fight for independence from France was taking place. Tension was high. The base he was stationed to was actually a German facility, with a contingent of French commandos assigned there as well. Their presence inevitably caught the attention of the nearby civilian population. During one of the longest nights of his life, my father was literally at the edge of civil war.
Intelligence strongly indicated that an attack on the air base was imminent. The plan for defense involved posting personnel in concentric rings around the perimeter of the camp, which was protected by a simple chain link fence at its furthest reaches. Those least trained in ground combat were assigned to the outermost positions, while the more experienced ground forces manned stronger, more tactically defensible sectors closer to the center of the formation. The strategy was to present increasing levels of deterrence to any hostiles that may attempt to overrun the base. Flight Engineers found themselves at the chain link fence.
They were deposited around the fence by what was called a "tailgate bailout"…jumping from the back of a troop carrier as it drove slowly along the deployment line, but didn't stop. These were tall, three axle trucks. The bed was somewhere around four or five feet above the ground. It's a pretty good drop. The correct disembarking procedure was to face the gate, step over it one leg at a time while grasping the gate top for support, and spin yourself around as you stepped so you ended up facing the gate again, but now you were outside the bed.
He pushed himself from the back of the truck and hit the ground, trailing the still moving vehicle with a couple of quick steps. He pulled the rifle from his shoulder and gave it a quick check… just to make sure it was still there, more than anything else. The magazine of eight bullets he'd been given seemed a bit insufficient. Command had reasoned that if the hundreds of angry Moroccans decided to come through the fence, it would be best to not give them too much ammunition if they were able to take weapons from the ill-trained perimeter guards.
They dropped from the truck every thirty yards. The man posted before him was on station. He looked to his left to watch the guy after him leave the truck. His young eyes widened in horror as he saw his fellow guard jump straight from the bed, instead of stepping over as procedure called for. He didn't leap far enough, and the rifle slung over his shoulder snagged on the edge of the truck bed, sending him sprawling. When he finally settled into the dirt, one leg was bent in a way not intended by nature. The truck continued on.
The fresh weakness in the line boosted the confidence of the agitated mob, and they began sending personal insults and jeers at the injured man. My father helped him to a sitting position, and was rewarded with the attention of the crowd for his trouble. Things were getting worse. He was no longer an anonymous post, he had no radio to report their condition…and the truck would not be coming back. There was limited ammunition, a man who couldn't run, and an unrealized threat to consider…crossfire from the French machine guns set up at the fallback line. He needed options.
Their orders were clear. If the crowd breached the chain link fence at the perimeter of the base, they were to fire the eight rounds they'd each been allotted, and run like hell for the trenches of the fallback line. There, the French commandos had prepared machine gun nests, and would provide covering fire as the perimeter guard retreated. The next ring of defense was made up of German regular army and the remaining American forces. Finally, the German base security forces protected the base commander and American and French leadership at the center of the formation. A simple plan.
Feeling every bit of his young age and lack of ground combat training, he endured the taunts and threats of the crowd on the other side of the fence. Many were armed with old-fashioned ‘blunderbuss' rifles and swords, and they new exactly who they had opposing them…children and chain link. His mind worked feverishly, developing a new plan of action every second. On one hand, he wasn't sure if he could bring himself to pull the trigger on someone. On the other, he knew he'd do whatever it took to survive…and that the survival instinct would resolve any moral paradox.
Fortunately, the night passed without incident. But the experience shaped his decision-making process for the rest of his life. All options must be considered, and ultimately the correct way to do something will be determined by the one thing you forgot, so be prepared to adapt. For the most part, this philosophy served him well. He didn't make many missteps. The hours spent wedged between a hostile mob and French machine guns under that Moroccan sky forged the single most important lesson he attempted to teach us…think things through. You never know who or what may depend on it.
The Tip Jar