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Living the simple life

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Cold spell on the prairie

Another beautiful morning here on the prairie, and not quite as cold. The -10F is much nicer than yesterday’s -21F  (-23.3C and -29.4C). 

Went out early to feed the birds and take a few photos: it’s not often that the full moon is still above the western horizon as the sun rises in the east!  (I live on a hilltop near the Mississippi-Missouri Divide, with a wide open view of the sky, so I take lots of sunrise and sunset photos for my city-dwelling Facebook friends.)

I went for a walk around my acreage yesterday, just long enough to dispel my cabin fever. I was dressed in my insulated coveralls, two t-shirts and a hoodie sweatshirt, which was more than enough to stay warm. Right now it’s colder in Iowa than it is in Antarctica! I got a beautiful photo of the Iowa ‘frozen tundra’ covered in snow with the deep-blue skies above. Wish I knew how to post photos here on UM.

Getting ready for the 20-mile drive into town. I’m running low on the staples: bacon, eggs, hot dogs and chips. I may stop at the YMCA and walk a few miles on the indoor track, followed by a Double Quarter Pounder at McDonalds. Need lots of protein during this cold weather.



Chicken-fried Steak

Drove to Dexter, Iowa today to pick up some treats at Drew’s Chocolates. My sister Teresa is hosting Christmas dinner, and I thought a big box of homemade chocolates would be a special delight for dessert. Drew’s has been operating out of the same house, and run by the same family, for 90 years! 

Dexter was once home to Bonnie and Clyde, the infamous gangsters of the 1930s. They robbed a bank in the nearby town of Stuart on April 16, 1934. The bank later became the Stuart Police Station. Down the street is the turn-of-the-century Hotel Stuart, which bills itself as “strictly modern” (I assume in comparison to other hotels which are “easygoing modern”).

From there I went to the Waveland Cafe, a bar & restaurant combination in the tiny farm community of Booneville. There was an older guy with long, white hair and a bushy white beard sitting at a table on the patio out in front. Mind you, it’s only 22 degrees (-5 Celsius) and he’s sitting outdoors dressed in his Carhartt jacket and jeans, drinking a beer and looking like an Agri-Santa. I shoulda got a picture.

Let me tell you, the Waveland Cafe has the best chicken-fried steak on the planet. It comes drenched in HOT gravy with two eggs (sunny side up), wheat toast soaked all the way through with butter, and perfectly-fried hash browns. It’s comfort food on steroids. I enjoyed it so much, I even tipped the cooks.

Then, off to Trader Joe’s in West Des Moines to replenish my supply of organic Blackstrap Molasses, which I use to sweeten my morning coffee. I think I actually enjoy the molasses more than the coffee. Weird, huh?


Alone in the Desert

Dec 2. 2017

Beautiful  morning to wake up to: 32 degrees, light breeze from the north, a magnificent sunrise peeking over the treetops in the woods across the road.

I put on some water for tea, then went outside to sprinkle a cupful of sunflower seeds on my gravel driveway. Looking out across the prairie, I thanked God for his wonderful creation and then went back inside to sit by the window in my bentwood rocker and watch as the birds drop by for breakfast. The bluejays swoop in almost immediately; I’m convinced they watch from the trees, patiently waiting for me to feed them. I don’t know if bluejays can count, but they always appear in a group of four. They seem to live peacefully amongst themselves in their bird-community, but only to a point: they chase one another away as they jealously defend their one-square-foot of feeding ground.

Today is the first day of shotgun season for deer. The blasts from shotguns in the woods have been echoing off my farm buildings since early this morning. (If I go for a walk this evening, I’ll be sure to wear my orange vest.)

The deer follow a path that comes across the hilltop from the west and goes between the edge of my property and the neighbor’s cornfield. This morning I see a good-sized deer standing nonchalantly in the middle of the road, followed by two smaller ones making their way up the trail. I’m surprised they’re following the trail right into the woods. A few minutes later, I hear a volley of gunfire. My neighbors will have a freezer-full of venison to get them through the winter.

This weather is perfect for jet contrails. When the jetstream is calm, and the temperature at high altitude is around -34 degrees, the contrails can last for hours. I live on the south-to-north and east-to-west air traffic routes, so as the number of contrails increase they make criss-cross patterns in the sky, forming precise geometrical patterns and triangles. I sit in my rocking chair and drink tea and feel as though I’m watching an artist paint a picture on a canvas of blue sky.

Watching the airplanes sparks a memory. Shortly after moving to Salt Lake City in the mid-1970s I awoke one morning, threw some gear in my backpack, drove six hours south to Arches National Park and headed off into the desert.

Arches is a world so different from our everyday lives that you can’t help but feel as though you’re standing on Mars: towering red pinnacles riddled with sandstone arches; a desert floor of fine, red sand that imprints permanent red stains on your white tee-shirts and socks; and skies so clear and so deep-blue that you want to cry like that guy on YouTube who saw a double-rainbow.

The Viewing Area and some easy hiking trails are near the park entrance, but I wanted wilderness: I hiked deep into the 120 square miles of pristine desert that stretches to the faraway horizon. I followed the narrow trail that leads from the rocks to the flatlands, and then I kept on going: I hiked until just before sundown, and set up camp as the stars began to appear in a perfect dome of sky above me.

I didn’t have a tent, because it rarely rains in the desert, and mosquitoes are almost non-existent in the dry air. I found a flat area, moved a few rocks, and rolled out my sleeping bag. I sat down and ate some snack food, drank some water from my canteen, and then stretched out on my sleeping bag. The fading sunlight had long ago disappeared, and now the starlight from a billion galaxies cast a pale, eerie glow across the desert. I felt tiny, like a speck of dust in a vast universe, all alone and surrounded by deep silence. It was a kind of beauty that I’d never experienced before.

But then something unexpected happened: high above me, in the darkness between the stars, I saw the clearance lights of an airplane moving silently across the sky. I felt mesmerized, and my gaze became fixated on those faraway lights.

I thought to myself, “Wow, there are people in that plane.” I pictured the dim lighting in the airplane cabin, flight attendants serving drinks, and smiling passengers chatting with one another.

I began to realize where I was: alone in the wilderness, miles from civilization, far away from friends and family and strangers on the street, and waitresses in restaurants and fellow believers in church and the mailman who delivers the mail; and right then, like a bolt of lightning, I discovered a new emotion: I felt lonely. It wasn’t the loneliness that we feel in our normal everyday lives, where we can pick up a phone and call a friend. This was an abyss of ‘aloneness’ that went deep into my soul.

I began to feel desperate. I wanted so badly to see another person that I rolled up my sleeping bag, threw everything into my backpack, and began hiking across the desert in the darkness. Whatever the cost, I was determined to talk to another person…. I would hike back to the parking lot, jump in my car, and find a convenience store or a late-night restaurant and talk to someone, anyone…

….but I couldn’t find the trail. In the darkness everything blended together, a jumble of sand and rocks. I walked back and forth, up into the rocks and back down, feeling panicked and alone.

I finally gave up. I went back into the desert, rolled out my sleeping bag, and drifted off to sleep.

The sun arose in the morning, and I was okay again. The beauty of the desert and the warmth of the sun drives away the darkness on the inside as well as the outside. I took my time hiking back out, stopped to take a few pictures, and felt happy to be surrounded by nature.

Now, 40 years later, I’m planning another trip to the desert, to the same spot, but this time for three days. I’ve learned a few things, and I know what to expect. And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world”.











My Day in Winterset

Siri made me laugh out loud this morning. I got up early and drove 50 miles to Des Moines to have my misbehaving car checked out. Westside Auto Pros is in a weird location, so I used the MAPS app to ensure I didn't get lost. As I pulled into the parking lot, Siri announced "Arrived at destination, Westside Auto PROSS". It took me by surprise and I started laughing like a fool.

Westside Auto Pros is a topnotch auto repair shop, with an odd twist to their service. It's like checking into a hospital: three reps seated behind a long counter, tapping away on keyboards, wearing rockstar headphones with wraparound mikes. "We'll run some tests. Help yourself to beverages in the waiting room".

Apparently my car is in very serious condition, possibly requiring an overnight stay.

So, I made the most of my complimentary rental car, starting with the Waukee YMCA. I walked 4 miles on the indoor track and worked out in the weight room. There was a toddler's gymnastics class in the gym, with about a dozen little kids hanging from bars and falling backwards onto the mats. The highlight was a rousing rendition of "Itsy Bitsy Spider".

Afterwards I drove to Winterset, home of the famous covered bridges of Madison County and the birthplace of John Wayne. It’s a cool little town, nestled in the forests and farm fields of rural Iowa, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. I saw a young kid with schoolbooks walking down the sidewalk. He waved at me as I drove by. How often does that happen? Made me feel like Jimmy Stewart.

I visited the home where John Wayne was born. It was kind of emotional for me, because my Dad was a big fan of The Duke, as were many from his generation. He represented the America we all long for, where the good guys always win with honor.

Then, after asking for directions from two different people, I drove the winding, bumpy, one-lane road through the woods to Clark Tower, a memorial to Caleb & Ruth Clark who were among the very first settlers here. From the top of the tower you can gaze across the hills and imagine life 150 years ago. A crowing rooster in a barnyard across the valley really set the mood.

And then Westside Auto Pros called me. They said they were still diagnosing, but for sure my car would have to remain under their care overnight. They sounded hopeful that my credit card would soon be maxed out.




On the road

I'm not sure how the conversation turned to hitchhiking, but today I started telling my coworker Laura about my youthful adventures thumbing rides across the country back in the early 70's. 


Hmm...I shouldn't say "my" adventures. They were "shared" adventures, with my friends Groovy Hoovy and Jan G.


I was 18 years old, just out of high school, working weekends at the VA hospital and paying $65 a month for a tiny red house with an outhouse and no bathtub on the north side of Des Moines near the Firestone plant. Showers were taken with the garden hose in the back yard. There was a wooded area behind the house that made a nice privacy screen, but we only had one neighbor so it didn't really matter.


It was a popular little house. Allan W lived there for a while, and Groovy Hoovy, and a hitchhiker named Dave who would move in occasionally and get a job, earn some cash and then disappear. A few months later he'd show up again and get another job and then disappear again, and so on.


Jan was just 17 when he moved in. He was taking an extended holiday from high school, living a carefree hippie life. Sometimes in the evenings, he'd take his guitar to the grassy area between the lanes of 2nd Ave. and sit crosslegged on the ground and serenade the passing cars. 


Late one night, about 11:00 o'clock, we were playing chess and Jan said, "Hey, do you wanna go hitchhiking and see how far we get?" I said, "Sure."


By 8:00 o'clock in the morning we were standing inside a gas station on the eastern plains of Colorado. An old rancher saw us there and asked if we wanted to help him bale hay, but we were just too exhausted from our long night of thumbing rides. I've always wished I'd just toughed it out and taken him up on his offer. I'm sure it would've been an amazing adventure.


Jan knew a family of ranchers somewhere out on the plains, so we thumbed a ride and spent the night there. We sat around that evening and discussed philosophy with the patriarch of the family. 


I had to get back home for my weekend shift at the hospital, so I left the next morning. Jan stayed in Colorado, enrolled himself in the local high school, and met a young woman named Phyllis. Later, after being introduced to Jesus, Jan became an Assembly of God minister and worship leader. Jan and Phyllis have been married for 45 years now. 


Not long afterwards, Groovy Hoovy and I hit the road. Our destination was the Jesus Festival being held at the Los Angeles Coliseum. And, there just happened to be a young woman in LA named LeeAnn that Hoovy had met in Des Moines while she was there visiting relatives. I'm pretty sure the Jesus Festival was a distant "second priority" for Hoovy.


We had good luck getting rides all the way to Salt Lake City, and then suddenly the rides dried up. Nothing. Apparently, Mormons didn't like hitchhikers. We stood on the entrance ramp with our thumbs out for what seemed like hours, until a highway patrolman chased us off. We waited a while after he left, and then sneaked back up the ramp. When the trooper showed up again and threatened to throw us in jail, we slouched away in defeat and sat in a Denny's Restaurant and cried in our coffee. Some friendly patrons warned us that we had a zero chance of ever getting a lift, so we counted our cash and went to the Greyhound bus station and bought tickets for LA.


As we neared LA, a young guy got on the bus. He saw our backpacks and sleeping bags, and he struck up a conversation. He'd just gotten out of prison. He was sort of homeless at that point, but he knew a good spot on the beach where we could all crash for the night. And he admired our new backpacks. He said, "I think I'll get me one of those backpacks."


We got to the beach and rolled out our sleeping bags. Our friend laid down on the sand, and we talked for a while as we gazed at the stars. I closed my eyes and was just starting to drift off when I heard a dog barking somewhere down the beach. I opened my eyes, and saw our friend staring right at me. That should have been an indication that maybe we should be more discerning about our new traveling companion, but fatigue won out and I fell fast asleep.


I woke up the next morning with the sunlight reflecting off the ocean and the warm sand under my back. I looked around and saw a set of footprints leading away from us. Our friend was gone, and so was my backpack and my shoes, and of course everything but the blue jeans and t-shirt I'd slept in. Bummer, man.


We went to the Jesus Festival at the Coliseum, and when I told a random stranger about the backpack incident people began giving me their extra shirts and things. Someone gave me a pair of leather sandals that I treasured for years afterwards until they finally fell apart. I was a brand-new Christian, and that incident was a revelation to me of the grace of God. I still get teared up when I remember the unselfish kindness shown to me that day.


A neat story about the festival: the Coliseum was sold out the first day, as people traveled in from all over to listen to a new genre of music: Christian Rock. The next day, the emcee told us that after everyone had left, the janitors found a piece of paper on the floor. It was the only trash left behind in the entire stadium.


Well, Hoovy stayed in LA for a few more days to visit with LeeAnn's family, but I headed out to Colorado to visit our friends Larry and Joe who lived in a cabin high up in the Rocky Mountains. They were part of a construction crew that was building water diversion conduits to help carry away the springtime snowmelt. When Hoovy showed up a couple of days later, Larry drove us through the canyons in his open-top CJ-5 Jeep. I was overwhelmed by the snowcapped mountains covered in wildflowers and aspen groves. (Just a few years later I moved to Utah so I could visit the mountains any time I felt the call of the wild).


After a few glorious days of campfires and crisp mountain air, we reluctantly began our journey back home to Iowa. We hitched a ride to the Kansas border, then another ride in a semi going to Missouri. It was late at night, about 10:00 PM, when a sleek, jacked-up GTO pulled over to offer us a lift. We threw our stuff in back, and piled into the front. 


The driver seemed friendly enough. He'd just gotten out of prison (yes, prison, just like our LA friend). He picked up his car at the storage lot and was takin' her for a ride! He chatted away, one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand holding a bottle of beer. We were on a narrow, winding, two-lane blacktop surrounded by woods in complete darkness. I glanced over at the speedometer. He was driving 120 mph.


He elbowed me in the ribs and said, "I saw ya lookin' at the speedometer. Heh heh heh." If I hadn't already had a 'Come to Jesus' moment in my life, I think I certainly would have had one then.


We survived, and he dropped us off somewhere in rural Missouri. We spent a sweltering night in the ditch alongside the road wrapped up head-to-toe in our sleeping bags to escape the hundreds of man-eating mosquitoes that were bent on devouring us.


The next morning, after hours of nearly fruitless hitchhiking, we called our friend Jimi in Des Moines and sort of begged him to come pick us up. He didn't hesitate to offer his services, and he arrived a few hours later with his Dad. Jimi had had his wisdom teeth removed the day before, and was too sore and swollen to drive himself. Thank you, Jimi!


Hoovy and LeeAnn were married shortly afterwards, and they've been happily married for 39 years now. 


So I guess the moral of the story is: if you're single and you want to get married, just go hitchhiking with simplybill. 


















Bear attack

I just wanted to share the link to this fascinating story. Mr. Orr's experience makes the bear attack scene in The Revenant look like child's play!

Years ago, I was backpacking on Death's Head trail in the Tetons, in an area where a man had been severely mauled by a bear.  The man's hiking companion went down the mountain to summon help, but before the rescue team could make it back up the mountain to the campsite, the bear returned and killed the poor guy. 

The night we were there, we camped right beneath the famous Teton peaks. We didn't use our tents because the weather was perfect and the stars were glorious.

Even though it was a beautiful night to sleep under the stars, I had a hard time getting to sleep because the friend I was hiking with was a loud snorer, and all night long I kept waking up in a panic thinking we were being attacked by an angry bear. It was one of the longest nights of my life.


Hue 1968

I'm looking forward to reading the new book from Mark Bowden, 'Hue 1968' (He also wrote Blackhawk Down and Killing Pablo).

I was in Hue, Vietnam in 1993, just a few days before the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. Various members of the Vietnamese family I was traveling with would point out bomb craters or damaged buildings, then somberly nod their heads and say, "Tet". The Offensive is celebrated as a great achievement by the Communists, but the citizens of South Vietnam probably see it as the beginning of the end of their freedom. 

The Tet Offensive lasted for 24 days. The Communists took advantage of the fireworks explosions of the Tet holiday, and attacked U.S. facilities in the South. In some places, it took hours for people to realize the explosions were coming from bombs and bullets and not just fireworks.

According to some historians, as many as 30,000 North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong guerrilla fighters were killed during the attacks, compared to 3000 U.S. fatalities. Following that battle, many Americans became disillusioned with the war, and celebrities such as Jane Fonda became involved in the anti-war movement.  (I may have to change the casualty numbers after I read Mark Bowden's book. When I first wrote about Tet following my 1993 trip, I came across those numbers in my research.)

We "toured" several of the ancient palaces around Hue, which was the former Imperial City of Vietnam. When I say "toured," I mean we paid a small entrance fee, and then walked around inside the buildings and the palace grounds. No tour guides, no roped-off areas or beautiful landscaping, no crowds. What should have been national treasures were basically just large abandoned buildings. That was the nature of Communism (out with the old ways, in with the New Ways!) before they realized that tourism could bring in a lot of foreign cash.

During Imperial times, each Emperor would have a new palace built for himself. I think it was the palace of Emperor Gia Long that had a huge wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mirror in what I suppose was the Royal Reception Room. That gigantic mirror was gifted to him by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800's.

In a moment of pure vanity, I walked up to the mirror, pulled my comb out of my back pocket, and combed my hair. But really, what else is a mirror good for?




I came home from work a few days ago to find my beautiful ash tree broken in half by a windstorm. I'm going to miss that tree. I actually have a lot of good memories tied in with it. I cut up the broken half with my chainsaw, and now the power company will finish up so the power lines don't get damaged.

The branches that I cut are strewn across the yard alongside my gravel driveway. I've been surprised by how this has changed the behavior of the birds and animals that I feed. Every morning I spread sunflower seeds and corn on the driveway, then I sit in my rocking chair and drink coffee while watching the critters eat breakfast. Apparently the branches make them feel protected, because there are twice the number of birds than I normally see. I've seen as many as three red-headed woodpeckers, five blue jays, four goldfinches, doves, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, meadowlarks, squirrels, ground squirrels, and rabbits. It's like watching a parade.

We've had a lot of rain here. The mineral block that I put out for the deer has completely melted away. I'll have to put a 'cap' on the new one somehow. The deer actually lick the ground around the block instead of the block itself, and the hole they've dug is about a foot deep and full of rainwater. 

I went outdoors late last night and I heard an animal noise that I've never heard before. It was a single high-pitched shriek, about once every ten seconds. It may have been a fox. During mating season they sound like a crying baby. When I first moved here, (a city boy new to the country) I went outside late one night with a flashlight looking for the baby in my neighbor's cow pasture. 




I woke up this morning feeling worthless. That's the price you pay at times when you're a recluse such as I am and there's no one around to offer encouragement. One becomes acclimated to loneliness in the same way one becomes acclimated to the cold of winter or the heat of summer, but today was different. I felt as though my foundation had disappeared from under my feet and I was looking up from inside a deep pit. As I lay there in bed, I contemplated quitting. I searched my soul, and I couldn't think of anything in my life that was worthwhile to other people, I felt like nothing I did was making me a better person.  

I counted the cost of what my life would be like if I simply gave up and let hopelessness devour me. First off, of course, I'd start drinking again; then I'd neglect my home and my yard and my health, and soon I'd be just another old drunk with empty eyes. I almost said the words: "God, I can't do it anymore. I give up."  

And even as I prepared myself to say those words, a thought came to me: "Why are you giving up on yourself, when God hasn't given up on you?"  Hmm.... 

I went downstairs and made coffee, checked out things on the Internet, and slowly got ready to make the 50-mile drive to the 'big city' to run errands and go to Sunday night church. I tried to encourage myself by thinking I'd hear a really good sermon at church that would:  Set  My  Feet  On  A  Mountaintop!!   But those chains of worthlessness weighed me down all the way into town.

After a haircut, and a visit to Sears to buy a couple of pairs of blue jeans, I went to the Walmart near my church. I picked up some cucumbers and bell peppers and balsamic vinegar, and stood in line at the Express Checkout. The cashier was a young black woman, maybe 25 years old, with tightly braided hair, a smooth complexion, and a strong build. But her eyes were sad. The family she was checking out was having a hard time getting their credit card to work, and the line was at a standstill. The cashier waited patiently, without even a hint of annoyance, maintaining her stoic look with those sad eyes. The next people in line also had credit card trouble and the cashier quietly smiled at them.

When my turn came, I tried to guess her accent. South Africa? Eritrea? Her nametag said, 'Kang', a name I'd never seen before. As she began scanning my groceries, she picked up the cucumbers and asked "Cucumbers?". I said yes, then she picked up the bell peppers, and started to look at the picture chart. I said, "Bell Peppers". By now I was overwhelmed with curiosity. I asked quietly, "So, where are you from?" She looked at me with just a little bit of apprehension, and said "South Sudan".  

The Sudanese have endured centuries of civil wars and military coups, starvation, and slavery. In recent years, three million people have been displaced, six million people are at risk of starvation, barrels of gasoline with detonators attached are dropped from helicopters into villages of grass huts, and slave-trading is rampant. It's a terrible place to live, and the outside world has done little to intervene.

Kang has won the lottery: she has come from a living hell to beautiful, peaceful Iowa and has a real job, nice clothes, and the glorious freedom of America. With all the weight of those thoughts racing through my mind, I looked at her and said, "Congratulations!!"  

I'm not exaggerating when I say that Kang was transformed before my very eyes. She appeared to be a little girl, her eyes brightened as though they were lit from within, she looked at me and said, "Thank you!!"  As she handed me my grocery bags, she looked directly in my eyes, smiling with joy, and said "Thank you!!" a second time.

Needless to say, I drove home with tears in my eyes. This mountaintop feels pretty good.   


Slow Day

Slow morning on the farm. Woke up to four deer milling around in the yard. Now that hunting season is over, they feel it's safe to come out of the forest and chew on the trees and shrubs in my yard. Apparently forest trees don't taste as good. 

I put a mineral block behind my house to give the deer some salt and micronutrients. I figure the hunters can taste the difference in their venison roasts and deer jerky. One of my neighbors gave me a pound of deer sausage one winter after the local butcher shop processed his buck. I made a batch of deer sausage chili in the crockpot, and it was hands-down the best chili I've ever eaten.  

The deer don't normally lick the mineral block itself. They prefer to lick the dirt around the block. I don't know why they do that. It's like going to a Las Vegas buffet and licking the tablecloth.

Not much traffic on the gravel road in front of my house. Most weekday mornings, during rush hour, I count at least three pickups speeding by on their way to work at the John Deere dealership or the plastics factory in town. This being a work holiday, I've only seen one pickup. If my calculations are correct, that means a 2/3 reduction in traffic flow. 

I almost had another kitchen disaster this morning. I made the coffee too strong, so I poured some more water into the coffeepot reservoir, forgetting there was still some coffee in the carafe. Fortunately, I recognized the sound of coffee boiling on the hotplate and I ran to the kitchen to rectify the problem before it got out of hand. After years of living on my own, I've become very adept at handling kitchen disasters. 

Well, Happy Day Two of 2017 to everyone!


More Than Routine

This morning I attended the funeral for the mother of two of my friends, Russ and Jim. In his eulogy, Lillian’s son Russ told us how his mother’s life was built on routine: A cup of black coffee to start her day, followed by breakfast and puzzles: Sudoku, Jumbles and the Challenger. Russ held up a well-worn, old devotional book with dog-eared pages, another part of her routine for many years.

The church Pastor told of Lillian’s routine in the church: year after year, she sat in the same pew with family and friends, she sang in the choir, and most importantly, her gentle nature blessed the people she worshipped with every Sunday.

When Lillian was a little girl, her father used to sing a hymn to her in Swedish: "Children of the Heavenly Father". It was her favorite hymn throughout her life. Jim searched for and found the hymn on Youtube, sung in Swedish by a Swedish tenor. He played the video for his mother after she was hospitalized with severe health problems.

After their dad passed away in 2007, Jim had breakfast with his mother three times a week, every week, and Russ called 2-3 times a day from his home in Boston.

It occurred to me that Lillian’s story was more than just routine; her life was built around faithfulness, and when someone is faithful to God, He returns His faithfulness to us. Lillian was blessed with two sons whose own daily routines included showering their mother with love and affection.

As I drove home, I saw what we believers affectionately refer to as a “God-Wink,” one of those moments that remind us that God is never far away: the sunset was mesmerizing. I stopped and took pictures and thought, “I hope Jim and Russ are seeing this!”

Psalm 248 - Tryggare kan ingen vara Jag tror att det är Bertil Boo som sjunger, men jag är inte säker. Texten är skriven av Kar­oli­na W. San­dell-Berg. En

One Refugee's Story

A few days ago a poster mentioned how the schools in Vietnam separate the children into different classrooms according to gender, and the smartest kids are sent to schools with tougher scholastic standards.

That’s how my friend Tuyvan ended up in a refugee camp in Kansas when she was 12 years old. 

Her family lived in Hue, just south of the border between North and South Vietnam. Her father was a respected martial arts instructor who owned five martial arts studios; they even had a car and a chauffeur, which was rare in those days.

Tuyvan’s uncle lived 600 miles south in Saigon, where he worked for the U.S. Military. Being the smartest kid in her family, Tuyvan went to live with her uncle’s family and was enrolled in a private school.

The Paris Peace Accords treaty was signed on January 27, 1973, ending the Vietnam War, and shortly afterwards the U.S. military began withdrawing troops. The treaty didn’t last long. On March 25, 1975, North Vietnamese troops crossed the border and overran the city of Hue. Tuyvan’s family lost everything: their home, the car, the five martial arts studios. The invasion continued southward, and by April 27, Saigon was surrounded by 100,000 enemy troops. The remainder of the U.S. military and embassy employees were evacuated by helicopter. Tuyvan and her cousins and her aunt and uncle were flown from the roof of the American Embassy to a ship in the South China Sea. The 6-day journey to Guam is a memory that Tuy-Van is reluctant to talk about. She has mentioned that every meal on the ship consisted entirely of canned beans. To this day, she refuses to eat canned beans.

After being sent to a refugee camp in Kansas, Tuyvan was enrolled in a public school. She learned to speak English and began tutoring other Vietnamese kids when she was just 14 years old. By the time she was 16, she was tutoring American kids in Math. She’s now a flight attendant at a major US airline, she's married and has a son, and lives in Colorado. She uses her airline passes to visit her parents and siblings in Vietnam.

I went with Tuyvan to Vietnam in January, 1993, just before the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. It was her first time seeing her parents and siblings since her escape in 1975. If I can find my notes from the trip, I'll share the story. It was quite an adventure. 





Too Much Excitement

I celebrated Thanksgiving on Tuesday with my sister and two of her boys, Ryan and Seth. Ryan lives in a group home in the northwest corner of Iowa. The home puts on a really nice Thanksgiving dinner for the families of the eight boys who live there.

I met up with my sister at the Hy-vee store in Carroll, then we rode together for the three-hour drive from there. It’s a nice drive, not much traffic, and the scenery is always beautiful. In the summertime it’s fun to stop in LeMars for some Blue Bunny Ice Cream. The ice cream factory is right there in town.

On Thanksgiving Day, I went for a long ride in the country. I was driving along at my usual pace of 20 miles per hour when I saw a small, black-and-white, terrier dog trotting toward me on the gravel road. He was carrying in his mouth a fully-grown Rhode Island Red chicken. I stopped and rolled down the window. The dog stopped next to my car and dropped the chicken, and we stared at each other for a while. He had red feathers stuck to his face, which made him look like a clown-dog. I couldn’t help but laugh. I reached for my cellphone to get a picture, but he picked up the chicken and ran up the road and over the hill. It would have been a great picture.

I stopped at the Casey’s store in town to buy gas and get some cash from the ATM, then drove south out of town to 140th Street and turned west toward Atlantic. I passed a farmyard that had a dozen sheep and a dozen chickens roaming around freely in the yard. As I drove by, they all panicked and ran off. The sheep stayed together as a flock, swerving across the yard and making a beeline for the barn, but the chickens scattered pell-mell in every direction. It was quite a sight.

I went to the Walmart for groceries, early enough to avoid the Black Friday Sales Event that inexplicably begins at 6:00 PM on Thursday. They had row-after-row of merchandise wrapped in plastic and guarded by watchful employees. No one was allowed to rummage through the sale items until precisely 6:00 PM. There were very few customers in the store, and I felt sorry for the employees who were mostly just standing around in their guard positions, or pretending to rearrange the merchandise. To lighten the mood, I smiled as I pushed my grocery cart up and down the aisles and I said funny things like: “Calm before the storm, eh?” or “Gonna get crazy here in a few hours, eh?” I think they appreciated my efforts, though it was hard to tell from the looks on their faces.

I arrived home and had my own Thanksgiving Dinner: the ham sandwich was good. Dessert was just okay; I probably should have splurged and bought some good Blue Bunny ice cream instead of the cheap Walmart stuff, but I had already had enough excitement for one day.





Memento Mori

Saturday morning musings:

Somehow we've begun expecting our candidates to be Messiahs, when in reality they are merely ordinary men and women. Messianic adoration is toxic for anyone, but especially for politicians. To paraphrase Lord Acton's quote: "Adoration tends to corrupt, and absolute adoration corrupts absolutely." It is absolutely impossible for mere humans to live up to the Messianic expectations that campaign managers use in promoting their candidates.

The ancient Romans viewed this Messianic syndrome as a fatal error. They started the tradition now known as "Memento Mori," or "Remember you will die" to remind their war heroes to remain humble following a great victory on the battlefield. According to Wikipedia, a slave would follow a triumphant General along the parade route as he was applauded and praised. The slave would repeat the Latin phrase, "Respice post te. Hominem te memento," which roughly translates to "Look after you, to the time after your death, and remember you're only a man."

The Book of Proverbs has a similar warning about relying on a leader's inflated view of himself: "Plans succeed through good counsel; don't go to war without wise advice." Proverbs 20:18 (NLT).

My prayer for President-elect Trump is that he will understand the dangers of basking in Messianic applause, and will surround himself with wise counselors who will respectfully remind him of his mere humanity.


Waking early

I woke up at 3:00 AM full of energy. I have no idea why. Maybe because I recently switched from fake honey to raw honey.
I discovered I had left the back door leading into the basement WIDE OPEN after walking outside yesterday afternoon. I didn't find any stray raccoons, but I did have a basement full of singing crickets.
-----A tip for those of you who also leave your doors WIDE OPEN overnight:
If you have a cricket in your house and it is fraying your nerves with its nails-on-a-chalkboard chirping, aim a floor fan in the direction of the chirping. The chirping will stop in just a few seconds. I have no idea why. Maybe they think it's a tornado. 
So what have I been doing since 3:00 AM? I folded laundry, packed my bags for my next trip, put some chicken thighs in the crockpot, washed dishes, bid for my October work schedule, transferred all of my passwords to the 'contacts' section of an old cellphone so I don't have multiple random slips of paper in my desk drawer, and fed the birds. All of this before 7:00 AM.
If I had this much energy every day, I would soon be as rich as Donald Trump.

Late in the evening

Beautiful night to fly into the Windy City. ATC had us do a wide circle: over Lake Michigan, north along the Gold Coast, and back around south to Midway Airport.  The city lights reflected off the wing of the plane as it tipped into the turn.  I've never seen Chicago look as beautiful as it did on this moonless night. 

Too nice outside to stay indoors. My neighborhood is near the area where several of my coworkers have gotten mugged, though I felt fairly safe walking along Archer Ave. I kept an eye on the smokers hanging around in front of the bars. There was only one guy that I focused in on; he had that prison walk. 

I passed a Chase bank that has three ATMs inside a glass-enclosed area. All three ATMs had people standing there withdrawing cash. Who goes to an ATM on the South Side of Chicago at 10:00 o'clock at night?  Too scary for this farm boy. 

Went to Shop-n-Save to buy Polish candy bars for my crew tomorrow morning. If you haven't already, you really should add Polish candy bars to your bucket list. They're that good.


2 Degrees of Separation

During my college years, I became good friends with an older woman who was the assistant manager of a restaurant where I worked. She was one of those free spirits who make a point of hanging around with younger people; she used to say, "It keeps me young!"  After she moved into an assisted-living facility in Tucson, Arizona, I continued visiting her when my job took me there. We were friends for nearly 40 years.

Irene never stopped being a social butterfly. She made a point of really getting to know people, almost to the point of being nosy; but who doesn't like to talk about themselves? She knew every resident in the facility, and all of the staff. Sometimes on their days off, the employees would bring in their children so Irene could meet them. One time she pointed to a man sitting on the other side of the courtyard and told me that he had invented colored bowling balls (at one time, all bowling balls were black). 

Another resident was an elderly man who had spent a lot of time during his youth searching for Indian arrowheads and tools in the dry washes around Tooele, Utah. As elderly people often do, he was giving away some of his prized possessions to people that he thought would value them. I was given a set of small arrowheads that were used for hunting birds. The arrowheads and a small scraping tool were carefully displayed on a piece of foam inside a container with a see-through lid.

After our visit, I returned to the hotel, which was near a Trader Joe's store. I stopped to pick up some frozen oatmeal for breakfast the next morning. I borrowed a salad bowl from the hotel bar, put the oatmeal in the small refrigerator in my room, and went to bed.

The next morning when I opened the box, I discovered that the oatmeal was in a hard plastic container that was impossible to open with my bare hands. 
 'Disappointed' doesn't describe how I felt! I had so been looking forward to eating that oatmeal. Suddenly, I remembered the sharp-edged scraping tool in the arrowhead collection. I removed the scraper, sliced open the hard plastic container, and microwaved my oatmeal. I was a happy man.

And then it struck me that here I was, in a modern hotel in a large Southwestern city, using a primitive, centuries-old cutting tool to make my breakfast. I pictured a Ute Indian man dressed in deer-leather clothing, chipping away at a piece of rock, shaping it into a tool, and then using that handmade tool to scrape a deer hide that would be made into a robe, or perhaps a floor covering in his tepee.

When we think of "Six Degrees of Separation", we normally think of our connection to people around our modern world. As I ate breakfast that morning in Tucson, I felt connected to the native tribes who, hundreds of years ago, hunted the mountains and deserts of Utah. I'm still in awe when I think about it today: one of those tribesmen helped me cook breakfast. 


Support for the Brotherhood of Blue

The airline I work for is helping to transport Police Officers to Dallas to attend services for their fallen brethren. This morning we flew a number of NYPD officers in. As we taxied to the gate and I did my usual announcements, I added a few words: "I want to give a shout-out to the officers that are here to attend services today." There was a round of applause, and I said, "May God bless you and protect you, and may God bless America." Several people thanked me as they left the plane. 
We still live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, though we need to return to the fountain from which freedom and courage flow.
God bless America.


Rated R for Violence

In the last five months, three of my coworkers have been robbed at gunpoint while walking to work in the early morning hours. Another coworker avoided being mugged by retrieving his concealed weapon when he saw two men wearing ski masks approaching him. They saw the gun in his hand and made a hasty retreat. Those were frightening moments for my coworkers; maybe 'traumatizing' is a better word. I had some similar experiences in my younger days, though I wouldn't say I felt traumatized; I was startled and stressed out, but because of the way the situations played out I felt that I had some emotional and physical control over the outcomes.

Both situations occurred while I was working for a warehousing company in Utah. I worked with a good crew and we had some good times. Thursdays were our easy night on the night shift: we worked five or six hours to finish up the week’s orders, then all of us single guys headed over to the Silver Cloud on 9th and State to shoot pool and listen to the band. I eventually transferred to the Produce division to drive trucks on the day shift. Late one Thursday night I was in bed when I heard a loud knock on the door of my tiny ground-floor apartment. I thought, “Uh oh, it’s the night crew wanting me to hang with them.” I ignored the knocking, and then a loud “Boom!” catapulted me out of bed. Why was the night crew breaking down my front door?

I have a certain voice that I call my ‘scary voice’. I’ve only used it four or five times in my life because it has a startling effect on people, probably because I look like Mr. Rogers but my 'scary voice' sounds like Godzilla. Anyway, I stuck my head into the living room and said “What’s going on out here?” (paraphrased to meet family-friendly standards).

Three young men I didn’t recognize were frozen in place, arms stretched out toward my television, stunned looks on their faces, backlit by the streetlamp in the parking lot. We stared at each other for a second, then all three bolted for the door. Their getaway driver burned rubber out of the parking lot, not even waiting for his buddies. The roar of the engine probably awakened the entire neighborhood.

I called the police, gave my report, and went back to bed, feeling a bit vulnerable because the door jamb was completely busted and I couldn’t lock the door. (The landlord fixed the door the next day.)

It was the roar of the engine that disturbed my sleep for the next six months. Every time a car with a loud muffler drove by during the night I instantly snapped awake, fully alert, listening for sounds of danger. Eventually I had to move away from that neighborhood just so I could get a good night’s sleep.

I moved all the way up to the East Bench where the rich people lived. In years past, my apartment had been the servant’s quarters in a beautiful home owned by a woman who, in her younger days, had been an internationally-acclaimed concert pianist. I had my own outdoor patio with a panoramic view of the Salt Lake Valley. It was quite a change in my environment.

Ah, but sometimes trouble follows.

One Sunday afternoon I got a phone call from Anzio, a fellow truck driver, asking if I wanted to go downtown and shoot some pool. Anzio was kind of a thug. He was a martial artist, and had taken 2nd place in judo competition in his home state of Washington. He had long hair, a small scar on his face, and that smug look that over-confident young men have when they think they’re invincible.

We played pool for a couple of hours, had a good time, everything was cool, but when we walked outside to the street Anzio saw someone he knew and the trouble began. Anzio walked up to the guy and said, “Where’s my money, bro?” and shoved him.

So there we were in downtown Salt Lake City on a Sunday afternoon with traffic whizzing by, and Anzio and the Bro are doing the monkey dance. I wanted nothing to do with it. I leaned against the building and pretended to be just another innocent bystander.

They had shoved their way half a block down the street when suddenly I heard Anzio yelling, “Help me! Help me!” I ran toward them and saw the Bro bent over in a fighting stance and holding a razor knife. Anzio was holding his right hand over his left bicep and blood was running down his arm onto the pavement.

When interrupting a violent attack, one must be prepared to go 'all in', and continue until the threat is eliminated. I yelled at the Bro, “Drop the knife!”. He remained in his stance, holding the knife firmly in his hand. I guess my instincts took over then, because I landed a solid kick to his solar plexus and he dropped like a rock. I’m not proud of my next move, but he still held on to the knife: I kicked him in the face, and then held him to the ground as I pulled his right arm back and up behind him. I told him that if he didn’t drop the knife I would dislocate his shoulder.

Right then a police car drove up to the curb. The officer got out and smacked his baton on the sidewalk a couple of times. Anzio and I retreated, I warned the officer about the knife, and then I started assessing Anzio’s injuries: he’d been cut seven times. His left bicep had been sliced nearly in half from his shoulder to his elbow. I took off my shirt and made a tourniquet to apply pressure and stop the flow of blood.

After a few hours in the Emergency room, Anzio and I drove back to his apartment and I gave him a good talking-to. “Man, you gotta quit acting like that! What if he’d hit an artery? You’d be dead right now!” I don’t know if he took my advice, because shortly afterwards he moved back to Washington. The Bro’s assault charges were dropped when Anzio didn’t return for the trial.

To add another perspective to those stories:

I had a health club membership at the Spa Fitness Center in Salt Lake City. Bodybuilding and steroids were in their heyday in the 70‘s, and sometimes I felt like I was walking through a minefield of ’roid rage' while working out. One club location attracted a lot of ex-cons. Greg Johnson, for example, (not his real name) had spent most of his life in and out of prison. He was the most frightening man I’d ever seen. When he was in the gym, there was a pall of fear in the room; when he was incarcerated, he ran the prison. One of his trademark fear tactics was walking up to a random inmate and knocking him out, just to remind everyone that he was the top dog. Believe me when I tell you that the man exuded evil.

I didn’t see Greg for a number of years, and then one day I saw him sitting outside the basketball arena downtown. He appeared to be waiting for someone. It was one of those unguarded moments when you get a glimpse of the real person behind the mask: Greg looked like a broken man. His youthful exuberance had faded, and he just seemed to be sad and lonely. Even the most violent of criminals may become contemplative in their old age. The people we were in our youth may be very different than the people we become as our conscience wakes up.

The Bible has a lot to say about violence and our reaction to it. I think there’s a difference between the “turn the other cheek” type of offenses, and the grievous offenses that cause injury and trauma: we want justice, reparations, and a show of remorse by the offender. Often we're left with only a helpless rage that threatens to consume us. When that happens, the only thing we have in our control, the only thing that has the power to break through the rage, is forgiveness. The answer is the same for any offense, be it a verbal insult or a serious assault with injuries: Turn it over to God, forgive, and continue to choose forgiveness with every remembrance of the violent act. Whether it takes just a few minutes to forgive, or the offense is so grievous that it requires years for forgiveness to finally take root in our hearts, always choose forgiveness. When all is said and done, forgiveness pays better dividends than bitterness does.

“Every warrior is happy when his enemies flee before him, but much more blessed is the man to whom his fiercest enemies can come with confidence, knowing beforehand they will be received with love.”

Richard Wurmbrand in “Reaching toward the Heights.”


An Unfortunate Incident

I've spent much of my life traveling. I drove trucks for about ten years when I lived in Utah. I was blessed to spend my days driving through the mountains and flatlands of Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. One of my favorite memories is the time I parked in a turnoff at the top of Sardine Summit at one o'clock in the morning. I shut down the engine, rolled down the windows and ate my brown-bag lunch while listening to the wind in the trees and gazing at millions of stars in the sky.

I went from truckdriving to "flight-attending". 27 years as a flight attendant and I still love my job. I often ask myself, "What did I do to deserve this?" Yes, there are trying moments: Weather delays, the occasional lavatory smoker, severe turbulence. Passengers sometimes ask, "Don't you ever get scared?" The usual response is something like, "Well, you know, flying is the safest way to travel!" spoken in a cheery voice.

But there are things that scare us. Decompression, for example. Now, a Slow Decompression is pretty uneventful. You feel a bit light-headed and then "four oxygen masks drop from the compartment above you." Very standard stuff.

A "Massive Decompression" is another matter entirely. If a plane flying at altitude suffers a catastrophic event, the fuselage may completely disintegrate. As one of my Initial Trainers said to our class, "No one survives a massive decompression."

And yet, there's another event that we flight attendants fear even more: the massive decompression of a Coke can on a hot summer day. Just recently, I was working in the aft galley when such an event occurred. In the warmer months I often ice down some soft drinks in an empty beer kit. One hot, muggy morning I bent down to put a can of Coke in a kit, and the can slipped from my hand. It fell about a foot to the floor. A mere 12 inches.

Immediately, time slowed to a crawl even as my mind began to race.

At eight inches from the floor, I thought: "I hope it doesn't blow."

At six inches: "This could be bad."

At four inches: "Lord have mercy."

And then the sound and the fury reached me....A huge, brownish cloud filled my field of vision, a noise as though from a cannon stung my eardrums, and my mind said, "Wow, this looks just like a nuclear explosion."

The impact was catastrophic. In one millisecond, the sugary syrup penetrated my freshly-ironed uniform shirt and it drenched my hair, my face, my chest and my arms. I ran to look in the lavatory mirror and recoiled at the sight of my brown-freckled face and spiky brown hair. I was hideous.

The boarding process had just begun. I called the "A" position flight attendant to report my unhappy incident. And then, inexplicably, an elderly couple that had pre-boarded walked all the way to the back of the plane to sit in the very last row. The sweet little old lady said to me, "I heard you had a little accident back here." I managed to suppress the first response that popped into my head and I merely said to her in a cheery voice, "Oh, it made quite a mess!"

Well, I cleaned up my face and the galley walls and the ceiling and all 74 of those stupid red latches and I retrieved a clean shirt from my roller bag. I somehow got through the safety demo looking only a little bit wrinkled and spiky.

So next time you're on an airplane, please be kind to your flight attendants. You never know what frightening events they may have suffered beforehand.


Two Lives

I once knew a man who slapped Adolph Hitler.

I met him back in the 1960s, during my high school years, when I stayed a few weekends at the Catholic monastery in Colfax, Iowa, doing chores and spending time with Father Sean and the Brothers.

Brother Stanislaus was old and small and thin, and he was very quiet, almost invisible. He raised pigeons in a large pigeon coop behind the monastery. The only conversation I remember having with him was on the summer afternoon when he gave me the grand tour of his pigeon coop. He pointed out individual pigeons and told me how they’d come to be in his care. His quiet humility made me feel as though I was in the presence of a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi.

A couple of years later, I turned on the TV at home and saw Brother Stanislaus being interviewed on a local news program. I was surprised to see him on television, and even more surprised by the story he told.

During WWI, Hitler joined the Bavarian Army, serving as an infantryman and messenger. Stanislaus, as Hitler’s superior officer, had a confrontation with Hitler which resulted in him slapping Hitler across the face. I think we’re all familiar with the strict discipline that the Germanic people are known for, but I’m sure that whatever infraction Hitler was guilty of, a slap in the face was the highest level of punishment that Stanislaus would deliver.

It was odd picturing that quiet, serene Catholic monk, Brother Stanislaus, dressed in a military uniform in the midst of one of the most horrific wars in the history of the world. The 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment fought in the First Battle of Ypres, known in Germany as the Kindermord bei Ypern, the “Massacre of the Innocents”. In twenty days time, 40,000 newly-enlisted soldiers died in battle against Allied forces.

Think of the paths that those two men took in their lives: one rose to power and waged a war against the world and his own people, resulting in millions of lives lost, while another became a servant to the people who came to the monastery for spiritual counsel and quiet meditation.

“….put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience….” Colossians 3:12



Vacation is almost over, and I’ll soon be returning to work. I can always tell when I’ve been home for too long, because weird and mundane things take on greater importance than they should.

Yesterday, for example, I was preparing a delicious meal of liver-and-onions for the crockpot (a favorite of mine, as I’m sure it is for everyone). I poured olive oil into the pot and chopped the onion, but when I took the package of liver from the fridge there was an unseen hole in the package. I turned around and flung puddles of bright red blood across the floor. My kitchen looked like a murder scene. It’s probably a good thing that I live in a remote area because if a nosy neighbor had happened to stop in for a visit, it would have earned me a one-way ticket to the Nancy Grace Show.

I cleaned everything up, and then realized that I’d missed an opportunity for a great Facebook photo: me on the floor, puddles of blood all around me, the butcher knife at my side, and a cleverly-worded caption about kitchen disasters.

Today was slightly more exciting, in a mundane sort of way. I awoke at 5:00 AM and ran downstairs and immediately started a pot of black tea, fearing that a lack of caffeine would dampen my enthusiasm. I almost forgot to put the carafe under the brew basket, as I have done a couple of times before and the coffee overflows from the basket and spreads across the counter. And there again, both times, I forgot to take a photograph before cleaning up the mess.

After combing my hair and shaving and making a pot of strong coffee for my travel mug, I drove to the YMCA (it‘s a 20-mile drive, so coffee was required instead of tea). I was there a good long while, doing my regular routine and walking three miles on the indoor track, sort of killing time until McDonald’s started serving their lunch menu at 11:00 o'clock.

After leaving the YMCA I stopped in at the nearby Salvation Army store, taking care to park my ‘98 Mercedes ML 320 far away from the front door so I wouldn’t be judged a pretentious snob by the other shoppers. With my nose in the neutral position, I wandered aimlessly throughout the store until I was delighted to find a Mr. Coffee carafe for 79 cents. A few years ago I broke my carafe at home while cleaning it, and I was forced to buy an entire new coffeemaker. Apparently at Walmart they don’t sell the carafes separately. Now I’m good-to-go if I have another carafe disaster.

After my Double Quarter Pounder with fries and a Coke at McDonalds, I headed over to Walmart to buy groceries, taking care once again to park my ’98 Mercedes ML 320 in an inconspicuous parking stall. I have to admit that I was swaggering a bit as I strolled down the aisles, still pumped-up and macho from my workout, but my ego was deflated when I returned to the parking lot: right next to my ‘98 Mercedes ML 320 sat a gigantic, shiny-black Cadillac Escalade with chrome wheels and those cool skinny tires. Somehow, the gleam from the Escalade accentuated the gravel dust and the rust spots on my little car. I felt humbled.

At times I dream about retirement, but then I have a couple of days like this when I realize, if I retire, I may be overwhelmed by mundanity.


A Mis-Adventure

It's a good day to stay indoors and do some writing. Lots of wind and snow. I've gone outside twice to clear away the snow from the garage door, just in case I run out of hot dogs and ice cream and I have to make a trip to the grocery store.

But what to write? Aside from the fact that I feel narcissistic when writing about myself, there's also the feeling that maybe my adventures are less about adventurism, and more about foolishness. A wiser man may have avoided the situations I've found myself in.

One example is when I moved into a "bad neighborhood" in Salt Lake City. I'd gotten a job in a frozen food warehouse, and I found a small apartment just six blocks away so I could walk to work and save up for a car.

The warehouse was kept at -10 degrees year round, and at lunchtime we sometimes went for takeout food while wearing our insulated coveralls when it was 90 degrees outside. We looked funny, but there was no sense in changing clothes, and then changing again. I suppose we were just being lazy.

The warehouse was near the infamous "2nd South" where the prostitutes hung out. The girls that could afford cars would park in the empty lot next door, and on hot summer days I would bring them frozen popsicles. My co-workers would line up on the loading dock, and the girls would smile and wave at them in appreciation for their popsicles.

I lived in a tiny, ground-floor apartment on Jackson Street, which was about as wide as an alleyway. The houses and apartments were close together, and the big, overhanging trees made the street feel like a tunnel. I was in the end unit of a four-plex, just a few feet from the road.

Some gang members lived directly across the street from me. I don't know what they called themselves, but there was a crudely-painted Puerto Rican flag on the outside wall of their apartment. Gangs in Utah are kind of strange, mainly because of the Mormon influence. The Church sponsors people from all over the world, and they often stay in their own groups for "protection". It's not unusual for a gang member to be arrested with a gun in one pocket and a Book of Mormon in another pocket.

One day I was stretched out on my couch reading a book. It was Labor Day, not normally a big day of celebration, so I was surprised to hear firecrackers outside. I pulled back the drapes and looked out, and there, ten feet away, were two guys with guns wildly shooting at another guy. One had a revolver, the other had a rifle. The guy they were shooting at had a cast on one leg, and was hobbling away on his crutch as fast as he could. Then, for some reason, the crutch guy turned around and began hobbling back toward the two shooters, waving his free arm and yelling. The shooters resumed shooting, the guy hobbled away, and then AGAIN he turned around to continue yelling and waving.

By this time, I was down on the floor peeking over the edge of the window sill, worried about a stray bullet crashing through the window. But when I saw the crutch guy turn around a THIRD time and walk straight toward the shooters, I almost ran out to the street to yell, "RUN AWAY!". I really didn't want to see the guy get gunned down in front of me. (My common sense kept me from doing so, or perhaps I wouldn't be here writing this.)

The police came in like an army, surrounding the entire neighborhood. I've never seen so many guns and uniforms in one place. I walked outside and saw the crutch guy surrounded by police, and a little ways down the street there was a body stretched out face-down on the ground. He wasn't moving, and later I was told that he'd been paralyzed by a shot in the back.

According to the newspaper, the neighborhood gang had gone to a party a few days before, and someone at the party had gotten stabbed. Their rivals had come to our neighborhood for revenge.

About two years later I went to visit a friend in another part of town, and when I walked into his house the crutch guy was standing there, right there in my friend's living room. It turns out they were working together coaching a Little League baseball team. "Louie" had apparently changed his ways, and was trying to be a good family man. I hope he's doing well.


A Mountain Adventure

A Mountain Adventure

As a kid growing up in Iowa, I read every book in the library that had anything to do with Mountain Men. Though many of the stories may be more folklore than fact, it was all fuel to the fire for my young imagination. I was fascinated by the lives of legendary scouts and fur trappers such as Jeremiah Johnson, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. I still own an old paperback book about Jeremiah Johnson, the “Crow Killer.” The legends say he acquired his nickname after a hunting party of Crow Indians murdered his wife and unborn child, and he took revenge by waging a personal war against the Crows. He is said to have earned the nickname “Liver-eating Johnson” due to his habit of cutting out and eating his victims’ livers! The Crows believed that intact body organs were necessary for entering the afterlife, and Johnson wanted the Crows to know he meant business.

As John Muir famously wrote, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” I moved to Utah in the fall of 1976. Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains: the Wasatch Range to the east, and the Oquirrhs to the west. Just a few hours drive south are the Canyonlands area and the red sand desert. If you know where to look in the desert, you can find undisturbed petroglyphs carved into the rocks by Native-Americans hundreds of years ago.

Soon after arriving in Utah, I went exploring. I awoke early one morning and packed a small backpack and my fishing pole, and drove to a trailhead just below the “S” curve in Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was hours before sunup, but a brilliant full moon lit up the trail. I didn’t even need a flashlight.

Just off the trail, under the aspens and evergreens, it was dark and deeply silent: the wind in the trees, the gentle gurgling of a mountain stream, even the sound of one’s own footsteps have a way of deepening the silence, reminding you that you’re just a tiny creature in a vast, dark wilderness. And as I hiked up that moonlit trail in the cold mountain air I realized something:

I was a Mountain Man. I was Jeremiah Johnson. My boyhood dreams had come true.

And then suddenly, just a few feet away in the dark woods, something began thrashing about. It was big and loud and it was terrifying, and fear shot through my veins. It was a bear. I just knew it was a bear. It was an angry grizzly bear that hadn’t eaten for days, probably an entire herd of grizzly bears bent on tearing me to pieces and eating my liver.

I did what any mountain man would do: I screamed “YAAAAAA!!!!” at the top of my lungs and I kept on screaming as I ran as fast as I could up the side of the mountain until I was out of breath and I couldn’t run any more. I stopped, heart thumping in my chest, blood pounding in my ears, listening for the sounds of pursuit.

Thankfully, the mountains were silent again, only now the silence was a little less romantic and a little less nostalgic. Oh, and it was probably just a little mule deer.

So, I calmed down, and continued hiking towards my goal: Cecret Lake, near Sugarloaf Peak. I had taken the long route to get there, from mid-way up the canyon instead of the shorter route through Albion Basin Campground. I was ready to sit on a rock by the lake and catch some fish.

The sun was rising, filling the mountain basin with purple light, but the wind had picked up and the cold breeze blowing across the lake had a fierce bite to it. I thought I might find shelter in the rocks and build a campfire to stay warm until the sun was higher in the sky, but I decided instead to continue upward to the peaks. I re-attached my fishing pole to the side of my backpack and started walking.

I walked for a couple more hours. When I finally crested the last hill, I looked down and saw Snowbird Ski Resort several hundred feet below me. I was on the edge of a high cliff, and I could see, on the road below, tiny vehicles the size of Matchbox cars. I was at the top of the world, and the view was breath-taking. I sat down and ate the lunch I’d packed at home, and reveled in the glory of the mountains: deep blue skies, giant white clouds, and tree-covered mountainsides as far as the eye could see.

After lunch I began thinking about the long hike back to my car. At this point, I had already walked for about five hours and I was getting tired. Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea: I would climb down the side of the cliff and hitch a ride back through the canyons to my car! I peered over the edge of the cliff: I could see lots of easy handholds and footholds and it wasn’t any more than four or five hundred feet to the ground below....I got pretty excited, thinking of how I was probably the first mountain man ever to have done such an outrageous thing. I hefted my backpack onto my shoulders, looked over the edge to map out my route to the bottom, and started climbing.

It’s a funny thing about mountain climbing: when you’re at the top looking down, it looks real easy. You see all the handholds, you picture yourself prancing nimbly like a mountain goat from ledge to ledge, perhaps waving to admiring spectators on the road below. “Look at him!” they exclaim. “He’s like Spiderman!”

But it’s really not like that. I started down, moving slowly from rock to rock, handhold to handhold, side to side, carefully planning my route ten feet at a time. It was easy at first, until I came to places where the cliff curved inward and I had to lower myself into empty space, searching with my toes for a foothold. I couldn’t lean back and look below without letting go of the rock that was keeping me from falling. I realized I‘d bitten off more than I could chew. “Well,” I thought, “at least I tried.”

When I looked back up above me, I started to get worried. From the top looking down, the handholds were clearly visible, but looking up from below it all appeared to be smooth stone. I wasn’t sure where to go. I thought for a while, mentally retracing my steps. OK, no problem. I leaned into the mountainside, and pushed up with my legs….

….and something pushed back….

…..and my fingertips began to slide off the rocks and I started teetering backwards.

I somehow managed to get stabilized, but I was completely bewildered. What had just happened? I’d never experienced anything even remotely close to being pushed off a cliff, and I don’t think my mind was able to process it. I began thinking it was just my imagination, so I calmed down, gathered my thoughts, and tried again. I leaned into the mountain and pushed upward…..

….and again, something pushed back, firmly and aggressively. I teetered backwards, my fingertips digging into the rocks.

The earlier incident with the imagined grizzly bear was frightful, but what was happening now was sheer terror. I’m a good climber. Most of my childhood was spent in the tops of elm trees in our yard. The kids in my neighborhood had contests to see who could climb the fastest. I was fairly confident in climbing, but no one had ever tried to push me out of a tree. Now here I was, three hundred feet up the side of a cliff in Utah, and something was trying to kill me.

I looked all around me; above, to the sides, and back over my shoulder, and there it was: my fishing pole. Earlier I had fastened it to my backpack and it was sticking up over my head. When I leaned forward and pushed upward, my fishing pole got caught on the rocks above and forced me downward.

So now I knew what I was dealing with, and I slowly and carefully made my way to the top. Whew…

I don’t remember anything about the long walk back down the mountainside. Maybe the emotional crash following the “fight-or-flight” adrenaline release anesthetized me. I got to my car, drove home, and went straight to bed. I think I slept for most of the next day.

But what an adventure! I wouldn’t trade it for anything.


A quiet adventure

I had a day of discovery and adventure on "The Road Less Traveled" today.

To start with, I was pleasantly surprised when the receptionist at the YMCA only charged me $5 instead of the usual $7 for a Day Pass. I asked her, "Is this because I just turned 62?" She said yes, and I enthusiastically replied, "If I keep this up, I'll be coming in for free!" She gave me a huge smile...well, actually a small grin...okay, it was a weak, sickly grin, as in, "Run along old man." ...So I left her to her business and went and had a great workout, spurred on by the joy of having an extra 2 bucks in my pocket. (Yes, I'm kinda nerdy that way)

On my way home I turned on to a gravel road I hadn't yet explored, which then turned into a "Level B" dirt road. Level B roads take you 100 years into the past: abandoned barns, rusty old windmills, and one-lane wooden-floored bridges. As I passed the road sign on the corner of Troublesome Creek Road and Great River Road I jumped out of the car for a picture. I was intrigued. What sort of trouble did the early pioneers encounter there?

I drove around for a couple of hours with the windows down, 20 miles per hour, overwhelmed by the beauty of the Iowa prairie.

Someone once said that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation". Well, it may have been true for that fellow, but you know, if one nurtures a heart of gratitude, life can be a quiet adventure.

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