The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Articles

Let It Shine

I rode alone, a Solitary rider, pushing a small sphere of light across the darkened landscape. I count the elements of night riding amongst my closest friends. The storms, the languorous moonlit sky , the chattering twinkle of starlight, we have ridden together many times.

But tonight, as I passed through the mouths of coastal valleys that reach inland like fingers, and the hills and ridges between, I could sense something important afoot, something much larger than the usual intimate setting. The clouds drift in a fractured, broken floe, holding together like pieces of a stained glass window. Their only color is a somber pale gray-blue of moonlight weeping through the broken sky. It forms jagged halos around the clouds, bathing the landscape .

The fields, that should have been brilliant with the festival of tonight’s full moon, lie alert, waiting, listening. This is not a night to talk, nor revel. Nor was it a languorous moon, casting a lazy respite from a busy day. This night, the council of all the land and sky attend to its own affair, all the smaller beings of the night – accustomed to being in itself with the moonlight in attendance, leave off their nocturnal intimacy of individual doings, and hearken to the celestial council.

The closest clouds only barely veiled the majesty of this night’s Queen. The nearness of the clouds made the moon’s light feel a little too close for the grave matters being weighed. But it was not the queen’s majesty that was the center of attention. It was the matter of a light, that had gone out too soon.

Some lamps, extinguished, are easily replaced or relit. But some shine in small but irreplaceable ways, in places that would destroy the average lamp and keeper. These are kindled by troubles, mistakes, and sometimes bear the soot of hell itself. They burn in a dank wilderness most would not go into, and many could not. Their service is not for the highway traveler, nor the seafarer. Nor does it announce a destination. It is a scarred, dim, smoldering outpost, mere yards from hell, the first ember guiding the unluckiest souls back towards home. The keeper of that light know little of highways, but everything of the twisting badlands beyond.

And now, this night’s council was set, a loss unexpected, a lamp had gone out too soon. Such a small lamp, but giving a critical service. It’s loss grieving all of nature. It’s replacement unknown.

This little light wasn’t a pretty one, unless you were a traveler lost in the dankest of swamps. But it’s keeper let it shine anyway.

This light wasn’t bright, but in that deep a darkness, he let it shine anyway, a salvation to those lost, even as he himself struggled

This light struggled to stay lit. He let it shine anyway.

If you have a light, Let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine.

 

The Paper Hat Parade

image Somewhere in the Caribbean:

The clouds come scudding across a timeless sky, an armada of impish children riding with the mysterious breath of unseen mothers, little boys with paper hats, Sailing from unseen waters, where those mothers gather of a Sunday morn, and blow their babies kisses, and blow all the joy in their hearts and lungs into these bassinets, and send them off to play, to grow, to age, and maybe in time to weep their sorrow and return home to their mothers, sunburned sailors, battle-worn soldiers, traveling wizards with the dew of life in their bosom.

And yet, today they are but children, and I dream here on an island in the midst of their silent child’s’ parade. I’ve sailed the place of their birth, I’ve traveled the lands of their death.

But here in-between, I watch them pass as a father, wishing to play with them, quietly laughing at their pretend severity, hoping for them to grow strong shoulders, wishing I could be with them as they frolic, and mature, tip and taunt the fisherman, plunder the earth, and woo Life Itself from the farmers seeds. I know their end, and want to weep with them as they weep their Last Sorrow, as if they were mine.

But I do not grieve. I make a paper hat, and stand face-on into the Mother’s-breath of this Sea, and wait.

Poseidon’s waves will carry their souls back to the Beginning, and they will be born and blown again, by laughing, loving, breathful mothers of the Sea, They will adventure again. I wish nothing but to ride in their midst for the adventure.

Lament for an Old Boat

USS Blueback SS-581-small 036

 

Am I the only one that dreams, sometimes

of putting together a crew of men whose seabags, buried deep in a back closet

still smell of brine, and diesel, and the hearts and souls of men

Who never thought of themselves brave

But thought with foul mouths, and big hearts, whose courage looked straight into the insanity of sinking a ship on purpose

Stared it down

and returned from the deep with Neptune’s cup, filled with a salty draught.

 

Am I the only one who sees an old boat,

tied, welded to a pier, dreaming of her glory days

while tourists boggle at things they’d never dreamed possible?

and plots in my mind to set her free, loosening the lines of that old boat

and with the tide waning,

sliding silently into the murky river water,

letting the open current caress her dark, sleek lines once more

And slip out of the river

And out of the harbour

And out, across, and into the open, watery horizon

Where together we dash her face with the brine of open sea,

bringing her senses back to her

 

I can already feel it, the sudden shuddering, firing of the diesel

The first burst of sooty smoke and then

The surge of life – feeling the innards course with life again.

Am I the only one whose heart is already going on a cruise in an old smoke boat?

 

Would we try to submerge it?

Damn straight we would!

 

Riding the lookout stand in the sail, feeling the communion of the sea coming on,

Binoculars around my neck, the wind tugging at my face, and my hat, urging me like a Siren to leave the confines of the boat, and be free forever.

But I am not here for the Sea

I am here for one last ride, to honor this boat

whose engineers, and crew, and officers, used her strength to defend themselves

and the ones they loved

To ride once more in her belly

So I go down, hand over steely rungs, in the familiar sway

that a submariner knows best, swinging my way down,

into a different world.  From topside to below, I might as well have transported to the moon.

Nothing of the open sea remains.

 

This place was my life, it’s no good to simply stand here, as a separate thing from the boat. I have to move away from the trunk, and away from the idea of being something distinct, myself, and to become only a part. I am ready to snuggle in to this weapon we called home, and listen to her churn, dozens of mechanical wonders quietly, subtly moving, breathing, pulse flowing. Every step I take, around the conn, deeper into the boat, I shed a layer of individuality, and am absorbed into the boat.

 

I can feel the machinery all around me, and the subtle roll of the boat at periscope depth. Can you sense the shift in the atmosphere when the hatch closes, and the boat becomes whole. A flurry of alarms, and activity gives way to a calm as the boat leaves the surface, suddenly still. The faint noise and subtle rocking of the surface are gone, and we are abandoned to the deep. I can still feel the gradual calming loss of dependence on the surface – facing that fear that has gripped sailors for centuries, is our purpose. We sink into the sea, no longer merely bobbing above it. The old familiar act of slipping on a set of headphones, of opening myself to the undersea world that few have ever experience, settles me in. I listen, for a time, to the whale’s call, the rain’s hiss, the distant fishermen’s boats churning against their load. And sometimes…every so often, sometimes, I still hear the whispers of other boats, the too-quiet silence in the midst of a pod of shrimp, the single metallic clink that has no reason to be in this chartless deep, and the sense of other men, straining to hear us, not knowing if we’re there, hunting, like us. Pursuing, like us. At home in the sea…like us.

 

The Big Game is long over for these old girls, They cannot compete with the modern boats – they are too loud, their equipment no longer superior. but couldn’t we just get one more ride out there, just to give her that one last run. I can see the familiar red-lit passageways. I can see familiar valves, the ones I had to memorize, whose handles taught me to trust – in myself, and in my shipmates who knew them as well or better than I did.

Some handles were cold, and jeweled with sweated condensation from the outside chill. Some were heated – water, air, oil all compressed, lifeblood pushed to its limit to make the ship’s systems function. The compartment hatches hung on thick, stout hardware, their weight enough to pinch off fingers. I can feel the unforgiving solidity of the hatchway, and the scar of the gash above my right eyebrow remembers – there is no give, at all, in a hatchway. Flesh gave way without question that day. The weight of the boat is immense.

 

The smells change going into the engine compartments. Oils, fluids, chemicals that aren’t of any use forward, but mark the territory of the heart of this boat, as surely as the musk of a bear marks its den. The thrum of the machinery beats against my head, and I can remember realizing long ago that talking to anyone was nearly pointless here, I sank into my own thoughts, accepting that outer thoughts were in vain. It was here, in nooks and corners of this cacophony of contained sound, nestled between pipes and cables, and bulkhead frames, that the shallow thoughts that battered my mind were drowned, and I could focus, memorizing diagrams, practicing valve line-ups, touching air outlets, finding fire hoses and flooding kits, remembering breakers, remembering valves, remembering.

Remembering.

Memorizing.

Learning.

Knowing.

I knew this boat.

And not just with my mind. My skin knew it. My bones knew it. My ears knew it. My nose could sense it. My heart knew it. Something that was beyond myself knew it – my crew knew it. No, I didn’t just know this boat.

I Lived this boat.

On the crews mess, we sat in predictable areas, the non-quals working through their learning, buzzing in and out of the crews mess with questions, and diagrams, searching for something they could feel but did not yet know. A couple of qualified guys always sat there, ready, either reading, or teaching the youngsters. Others among the qualified hung like a street gang in the torpedo room, sometimes plotting new mischief for the nubs, sometimes for each other. Always something was being plotted. And it was usually mischief. Or making fun of one another’s mothers. We waited for the next drill, or the next emergency, or the next exercise, or the next watch. Waiting to go back on battle-stations, and abandon our hope to the will of the gods. HA! No, never to the gods. The gods we knew there in the cold Deep could go to hell. And we’d send them ourselves if we had to. This boat was our turf, and no deity was going to tell us what we could or couldn’t do, because by Davy Jone’s locker, we had learned to take this boat deep into their turf, and wrest our own fate from their whim. It was in our hands now, in the hands of our knowledge, and practice, and memory, and in the unspeakably horrible weapons we carried. We spoke in the torpedo room of mischief, because we lived in such close company with it, it could not be left alone. We befriended it to keep a watchful eye, lest it try to scurry off and warn the gods of the deep of our coming.

This was what this boat was, an intricate lacework of steel, oil, cable, pipe, steam, electricity, and men. Each gave its identity to the boat. And in return, the boat became a single living being.

Where the Rubber Goes

Usually what you see here is a story, and today is no exception.  Except today, there are no words , just photos and music, a look back at the life of one simple part of a machine, and its significance.

i do a bit of riding my motorbike, and this weekend, my rear tire came to its noble end.  Installed a year ago, it has gone above and beyond the call of duty.  So I put together a slideshow with music, to celebrate its passing.

 

Does it sound strange to eulogized a mere tire?  Perhaps, but our mourning and melancholy, our celebration of life, death, and re-birth, is not for the fallen, or the departed, but for ourselves, who remain to find new life, and new meaning as the world around us changes.  relax, let go, and embrace the next, yet unknown adventure

.http://youtu.be/KlGUWf6Qi54

 

 

 

 

Taking refuge from Tyranny

I try, always, to maintain the habit of entertaining ideas without necessarily marrying myself to them.

 

I read something along those lines once in a cleverly captioned photo on facebook once, and decided it was a worthy maxim to live by. Could have been written by a complete lunatic whose only thirst was for my soul, I suppose.  I don’t know. But it sounds nice, and so I try to live by it.

Alas, as it often turns out, the attempt at self-righteousness exposes dirty little secrets sometimes. As it turns out, I’m not really that noble a creature.

I really do enjoy being able to banter and touch base with people I’ve known across the years. I do it to excess, sure, but then, my great-grandmother spent 3-4 hours a day writing letters, so…it’s in my genes, you might say. She would have been an early facebook adopter (she passed in the late ’80′s). She was incredibly literate, wrote letters, good gosh she knew EVERYONE. Her mailbox was almost always full (you know, that metal thing out by the curb).  She also wrote poems, stories (mostly religious in nature) collected news snippets and sent them to friends by clipping them out of newspapers, or magazines.  Her letters were always articulate.  Especially the ones where she sent me cash.  As a kid, I always understood those best.   She made notebooks of poems and sent them to all her grandkids.  Several years ago I remember showing my dad one she had sent me in high school.  He went and pulled out his, and told me all the kids, grand-kids, and great-grandkids had one – and each one was slightly different.  it was then I realized the scope of the volume of print that she produced.   She sent pictures every so often, although most of the photos she had were on slide film, and the only way to see the albums, which my great-grandpa fastidiously prepared, was to go over to their house.  I would alternately help grandma make popcorn and root beer floats, help grandpa set up the screen and projector, darken the lights, settle under a blanket beside the popcorn tin, and watch the slides while Grandpa tried to narrate the show. I say “tried”, because Grandma would more often than not correct him on details until he got so frustrated he would heave a sigh, say, “oh, dear” in a way that made you feel like he was going to set fire to the projector.

 

That’s how news, and history, and love, got passed around in my family. I still own a slide projector. Well, I don’t really, I borrowed it from my mom once, but unless she specifically asks for it it’s unlikely I’ll ever remember to take it back.

 

So this evening, as is my habit, I pondered a few posts by friends, and thought a little about what my great-grandma would think of what we have now, and of how I treat Facebook in a similar way to the way she treated having friends all over the world. She wouldn’t be much of a game-player…well, she’d be the ruling scrabble champion of course (she called it “anagrams”), but by now she’d have set all the records and the game would have locked her out.

 

My Grandpa, on the other hand, would have handled the politics crowd. But you’d never know it, because he’d read the posts, heave a heavy sigh of frustration and/or disgust, and go out and tend his garden. Gardening is the only really useful place to deal with manure.

 

And with this in mind this evening, I saw, as I often do, some of the political posts going around. I picked up one, something about a purported list of ‘ways to destroy the United States”, supposedly a list from no less than Vladimir Lenin. The list itself is a hoax. I’ve seen it before, and usually I go about debunking the hoax, and either leaving it at that, or bantering back and forth with the hoaxee, or their friends, who come to their defense. But in this case, instead I followed some of the links to links to links to links, to see exactly what it was Lenin seemed to have thought on the subject. I found one commenter in a forum who pointed out that while it was indeed a hoax, that the list was something Lenin addressed, more or less indirectly, not as a plan of his own but as an indictment of the elite of his day. And so, by that means, I found myself actually reading for some time the words of Lenin himself.

If you know me slightly, you might find this surprising. I spent some years in the submarine force, and am relatively staunch in my support and pride in these here United States. Sure, we have issues, but my pride in this country runs deep, and being a submariner during the Cold War makes reading Lenin akin to a minister reading Playboy. It’s just not done. If you know me well, however, you expected this. I’ll listen to anyone, spend a short time all agog at the newest ideas, but then as reason returns, I usually realize the futility of the hype. It’s a vicious cycle, but well…there it is.

It didn’t take long for me to realize the first of two major revelations. Lenin, in his defense of Marx, seemed to have done a lot of thinking about the interactions of the society in which he lived, especially in the dealings between the rich and the poor. As I have in my heart a soft spot for the disadvantaged, I found myself feeling a little sympathetic to his repeated tirades against the “rich”, and the system that makes them so.

And then I remembered my creed – to feel free to entertain, but not to feel compelled to marry. I stopped reading, and started ruminating.

 

Just yesterday, I finished watching a show on the life of Thomas Jefferson. He’s always been one of my favorite American Patriots. Somehow, the two men – Lenin and Jefferson – began a conversation in my head. It started with an ardent Lenin pointing at the wretchedness of his society’s condition, and the subsequent accusation of his country’s elite, the “Bourgeoisie” as he called them. Jefferson smiled in sympathetic understanding. Back and forth it went for a while, until Jefferson pointed at Lenin’s legacy, something that voices in my head can do that real, historic dead guys can’t. He did it in classic prophtetic style, even though it condemned himself as well:

“If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”

- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787

Lenin was a reasonably smart guy. He certainly was self-assured, and believed in his cause. What he had in gifts, however, was his downfall. Jefferson’s brilliance was not in his intellect, but his acceptance of the one fact that brings down every empire.

 

We are all jerks.

 

What Jefferson accepted was that sooner or later, every one of us can, and given the opportunity will, become a jerk, a tyrant, an abuser of other human beings. We will, given the chance, throw our fellow man under the carriage.

 

What Lenin observed wasn’t necessarily wrong, but his solution expects that a righteous cause will succeed simply because it is righteous, and that if the cause is righteous, the people under it can’t help but become righteous too. But his country became one of the most brutal regimes in modern history. Worse, in some ways, than the Nazis. Jefferson, and other patriots like Ben Franklin, realized that with all this talk of freedom and throwing off chains etc., that it had to be understood that no man was capable of remaining righteous in the face of the right temptation, and that as often as not a good man could be turned to bad when the avenging sword is a little too successful a weapon. The Holy Crusades were, in the end, still about men with swords killing innocent people to own a piece of land.

We hear a lot about the wonders of our modern society, of the pleasant aspirations of some in our culture who see a vision of peace and prosperity where weapons are of no use, where harmony abounds and poverty is but a fading memory, because we have managed to end it through ideals that work out neatly on paper.

 

But paper has a problem. It fades. It never tells the whole story. Every article in every clipping you can produce will only tell a portion of the truth. And as painful as it is to accept, the part that will almost always be left out of every epic conquest is how big a jerk the conquistador was, when that conquistador is the one telling the story.

I loved my great-grandmother. She read stories to me – a LOT of stories. She took my dad and I in during a tragic chapter of our lives, when I was very small. She always thought what I did was brilliant, everything was better than any other child in the history of childhood. I was a concert pianist. I was a master engineer. I was a cunning apple-thief, and by golly if I could steal apples that well, then I should have apple pie.

My great-grandfather, on the other hand, was a quiet, circumspect man. When I showed him my piece de triomphe, whatever it may be at the moment, he would smile, but little more. He would give me the dignity of looking it over with a critical eye – not a jaded eye, but an honest, critical, lets-have-a-look-at-what-you’ve-built-there kind of dignity, that neither guaranteed approval, nor betrayed any expectation of failure. His appraisals were gentle but honest, and held more value to me than the words of God himself to my child’s mind.

Men like my great-grandfather do not seek power. They do not run for office. They do things they believe in, but seek no glory for themselves, and never get it. What he wanted out of life was to enjoy the love of his family, the fruits of his labor (literally. You should have seen him tending his cherry tree). His contrast with the life of Lenin couldn’t be more stark. But make no mistake, had he been given the wealth of a lord, he would have been a different man. Had he been given the power of a king, he could have been a tyrant. What he knew to do, in order to remain a decent man, was to remain humble, to remain a man of modest but sufficient means, and to not seek the adulation of others.

 

My natural personality tends to draw attention to itself. I know, by this, exactly through what means the wolf will enter me. And as I turn my eyes to those who seek office, I remember that they too are quite likely the same, that the men who established the principles of this country expected them to be the same as I, and sought in the words they used to describe the powers – and limitations – of the government they formed, not to triumph with ideals, but to prepare us for the worst that mankind could offer. Lenin hoped for the best, and you know…good for him, it’s good to dream big. But he also planned for the best, and as a submariner, I can tell you…sooner or later that’s going to get you in deep, deep trouble.

Repeat after me:

  • I have within me the capacity to be an absolute tyrannical jerk
  • Given the opportunity, I will ride my fellow man’s back like a rented mule, yank the gold fillings from his very teeth, draw devils horns and a sharpie mustache on his sports team’s logo (unless that logo involves a devil, in which case I’ll draw a halo over its head and perhaps a cartoonish depiction of the virgin mary), steal his tropical goldfish from the pond in his back yard and eat his dogs if they try to stop me.
  • the first Patriots of this country foresaw this penchant of mine in their own time, and rather than write the constitution of this government with the hope of reaching a Utopian ideal, made sure that in the end neither I nor the myriad other jerks could really grow to full size.
  • While sometimes I want to konk my neighbor over the head for being an idiot, I’m glad I’m not allowed to make too big a fool of myself, after all. Turns out I’m not always as brilliant a genius as I think I am, and it’s nice to be unable to run too far with the fallacy that I am.

 

On Pistols and Boyfriends

 It is hard to imagine the power of inspiration that a crisp autumn morning can hold.  The kind that filters through the cobweb-covered windows of the dingiest of shops inspires curmudgeons like none other. It inspires them to do things – useful things. The most useful thing any curmudgeon worth his salt can do is clean his firearms. And so it was that I came to be sitting at my stool in front of my bench, basking in the wide panel of dirty, aged window panes filtering a panoramic view of a valley filled with pasture, contented dairy cows chewing various stages of grass, reflecting on my pride and joy: a reproduction .67 caliber Revolutionary War era pistol.

Its handle was the sort of deep brown walnut that speaks of ages upon ages of history. It was first polished with care at the family table years ago – but not this family table. It was assembled when I was a young lad myself, under the watchful eyes of my parents. My dad had bought three Black Powder kits – ta Hawkins .57 cal rifle, and a Kentucky long-rifle, and this Thing of Beauty. We had sat amidst directions sheets, parts, chemicals of various sorts, and my wonderment at this device, whose thick barrel was tapered slightly in the style of a cannon. Indeed, at .67 caliber, it seemed like a hand-cannon. It hefted nicely in the hand, it imposed itself visually, its graceful curves and the innuendo of intimidating fire-power nestled well in the mind of a burgeoning young man. There’s something that speaks to the young man’s mind, the ability to control power.

A family friend often went into the hills to practice, and she took us along to debut our freshly completed projects a few days later. Craftwork – the assembly, the blueing of the barrels, sanding and more sanding, and finally staining and polishing of the wood-work, was familiar work to me and always seemed a little tedious. But now was the time for action. We had gone over the process for loading the proper charge, setting up the flash pan, aiming with the rudimentary sighting systems. I was pumped. I was primed. And now was time to make some noise.

We chose as our victim an half-rotted stump that jutted out from the clearcut hillside several feet, deep in the Coastal hills of Oregon. We tacked a paper target to the wood, and my dad fired his rifles first. To be honest, I hardly remember that part now. Every sense in my body was focused on this pistol, and I wanted desperately to be the one firing it. Wisdom prevailed however, and and our friend took on the responsibility of the commissioning firing.

We knew from reading that the effective range of the pistol was very short, and so she set herself up about 35 feet from the target. She set herself up, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Having listened to plenty of guns firing, I had in mind an idea of what I expected. What I heard…was a click.

And then another click

And then another click, followed by words I didn’t normally hear.

It seemed that the flint wasn’t adjusted properly, and so we adjusted the stone in its clamp, and tried again. Another click.

And then one more click, followed by, “aw, shoot, it just isn’t…” hssss-BOOOOM!

She had just started to pull the pistol back, when the flash-pan finally lit, and a lead ball the size of a large marble scribed an unseen arc over the clearcut hillside, never to be seen or heard again.

We all stood slightly dazed for a moment. No one had been ready for THAT. The delayed fire was unexpected, sure, but that BOOM! – it was unlike any other we had ever heard. Gerry stood, holding the pistol off to her side, the barrel still smoking, and we all looked at one another, stunned silence evolving into devilish smiles. That was…awesome!

And so we adjusted some more, reloaded, and fired again. It took 5 or six shots, but finally we got to the point where the hand-cannon would fire regularly, and could hit the target. We all took a turn, Gerry first, then my dad, my mother (who was none too thrilled, but took her turn anyway) and finally, me. I will never forget that moment.

There are some things I learned about this gun. The reason this pistol is so inaccurate is because the ball comes out very slowly, by modern standards. It is a huge piece of lead, and only has a few inches to develop its speed. When you pull on the trigger from 25 yards, what you hear is: “Click..hssss..BOOOOM…..thud.”

Yes, I could hear the ball hitting the target, distinct from the explosion of gunpowder. That firm, unyielding “THUD” served well to put the whole experience into perspective to my young teenage mind, the understanding that pulling that trigger would leave a mark in something.

Many a ball went downrange over the years to follow. It was, technically, my parents’ pistol, but eventually it became mine, and for a time I took it out as often as I could. Then it fell into some years of disuse.  The Navy shooting ranges didn’t seem to appreciate black powder.  I was able to take it up into the hills a couple times east of San Diego, but for the most part, it stayed in its box, wrapped in cloth, waiting.

But on this clear autumn morning, light streaming in through the window of my shop, I pulled it from its box, gently removed it from its oilcloth wrapping, and set about cleaning the barrel. I stood as I worked, wearing my heaviest coat to ward off the frosty air, and caressed the stock with oil. I then took a brush to the barrel, and held the piece against me as I worked.

As fate would have it, unbeknownst to me my oldest daughter had met her first romance just a few days earlier. She was an outgoing girl, to whom everyone was a friend, but finally the time had come to feel a little differently about someone. One of the groups she liked to hang out with were a couple of guys from her school, and I had made all the half-joking threats about her oncoming romantic interests I thought were possible. I knew these two boys, though, and knew that first, it was just friendship and second, they were good kids. I stood, working my large-bore pistol, with the thought of my daughters blossoming womanhood furthest from my mind, just focused on the revival of an old friend, when I heard my wife’s car returning from town. I knew it carried our four children, and began to extricate myself from my work, planning to set it aside for a while. But before I could quite finish, the door to the shop opened behind me.

“Hi daddy”, came the ever-cheerful voice of my daughter. “I have a boyfriend, I want you to meet him”.

The words drove into my heart, and summoned something dark that I had never felt, from down in its depths. It struggled to take over my mind, as I struggled to remain at peace. I would win this round, its only effect was to raise my left eyebrow – strongly. With this countenance upon me, and pistol still held in my hands, I turned toward the group, smiled a wan smile of politeness, and took in the scene before me. Her two other friends, both 7th graders, were staring at me in a way that did not register for a second. All three boys huddled against the doorway they had just entered, subtly trying not to be the one I would talk to first. It finally dawned on me that what they saw was a 6’4” man in a military heavy camouflage jacket, with one eyebrow raised in consternation, holding a hand-cannon. All three boys stood stock-still, staring at my hands.

The import of that moment never registered with my daughter. Still looking at the new member of the gang, I asked my daughter for the lad’s name. She innocently announced his name, her cheerful voice contrasting with the expressions on the boys’ faces. Intentions to watch football were announced, and the crowd was gone.

And in the vacuum of the moment they piled gratefully out of the shop and back into the house, I began to chuckle, and then laugh. I couldn’t have scripted a better introduction.

Many years have passed since this event, and the story has evolved into a family legend. It was perhaps 20-30 seconds, but every potential boyfriend of every daughter since then has endured the tale at some point. Boyfriends have been made and lost. Husbands have been married and welcomed to the family. All have been hazed through the various re-tellings, and the ones Worth Keeping have stood the test. It’s odd that an implement designed for intimidation and destruction should have turned into a proving ground for boyfriends not by their courage, but for their sense of humor. I still say I couldn’t have scripted it better if I had tried.

The Qualification of a Submariner

The last evening of our patrol started the moment I got off watch. My usual routine was to leave the Sonar shack, get something to snack and some coffee, and head for a quiet corner to study my notes, and from which to wander the boat, putting my hands on valves, breakers, panels, emergency lockers – anything to strengthen my memory of the working systems of the boat. For nine long months I had devoted every spare moment to learning every feature of this old boat, one of the S-girls, the USS Shark. As a part of a submarine crew, I had to be able to respond to any emergency that may crop up where I stood at any given moment. Should a fire start, or a pipe burst, or any of the intricate survival, power, or weapons systems go awry, there was not always time to assemble systems experts to discuss the problem. Action had to be taken immediately, and the person standing next to the emergency had to be able to respond intelligently. That person’s knowledge could be the only chance the rest of the crew had. In Russian Roulette, the empty chamber is the one that wins. In a submarine emergency, the empty head standing next to it is not just death for one person, but for a hundred. The last thing anyone wants at that moment is to be the guy that can only stand there in fear, with no clue what to do. To wear the coveted “Dolphins”, the insignia of the qualified submariner, is to bear the trust of a hundred men. Names were to be had for those who hadn’t finished the qualification process yet: Nubs, FLOB’s (Free-loading Oxygen Breathers), Non-quals. If you were behind schedule in your qualification, you were a Dink (Delinquent) and hounded mercilessly. A submarine crew has as much mercy for for slackers as the 400 feet of sea above us had for our tiny tube of steel. Any weakness would be crushed.

 

Tonight, however, my schedule was different. I had finished my qualification card, a series of interviews and signatures that I had amassed in the nine months since my arrival on the boat, interrogations given by qualified crew-members considered experts on their respective systems. I had been grilled about the air systems, the hydraulics systems, the electrical, the emergency equipment, the reactor, the propulsion, weapons, small arms, the waste systems, the atmospheric monitoring and maintenance systems…every aspect of the boat had been put to question to me. I knew about spaces on that old girl that made her blush. Any given interview had taken days to learn, and sometimes hours to finish an interview before a signature was given. I had failed interviews for lack of a single answer, given “lookups”, and another day’s studying before return. And I had done this all while also learning my job as a Sonarman, learning the acoustic traits of friend and foe alike, learning how to tease detection of those traits from an array of hydrophone sensors, connected to dozens of cabinets full of electronics, memorizing numbers representing the characteristics of propulsion systems and churning screws of all sorts of water craft, tuning my ear to hear the difference between mechanical and biological noise sources. And I had learned to repair this equipment when it malfunctioned, learned to maintain it on a prescribed schedule to keep it tuned and calibrated. For nine months, I had worked three jobs. But tonight I was going to rest.

 

I turned over to my relief, briefing him on the happenings of our watch so that he could, from the moment he took the headphones, be on top of any development that may come from the contacts we held. Tonight was a busy night, acoustically, but the traffic topside was all commercial. We approached our surface point, from where we would transit in to port soon. It was expected that we would pull in in the morning, and I planned to catch up on sleep, and be ready for going home to wife and children tomorrow. I took the five steps from the Sonar door and turned, sliding on my hands down the ladder rails and navigating automatically through the twisting path to the crews’ mess coffee pot. I had spent much of the last nine months in front of this machine, making and fetching coffee for the sonar watch team as the nub of the division, its most junior man. In under fifteen seconds, I hovered over the pot in a ritual stronger than the call of my rack, drawing in the strong brew’s aroma. I was jarred from my reverie by the 1MC announcing circuit crackling to life.

“Station the Maneuvering Watch” came a bland announcement. As sweetly as the anticipation of the luxury of sleep had come, it now departed with the snap of the release of the microphone over the speaker. I turned, and returned to my station in Sonar. A month at sea with endless weapons drills, engineering drills, fire drills, flooding drills, had made the dejection of another lost sleep opportunity almost automatic. I numbly accepted this new schedule, that in another hour we would tie up to the pier, and that I was on duty tonight. There would be no wife and children until later tomorrow.

The lines were thrown over to the pier by the last light of the day, and with brisk efficiency the boat was tied, secured, and the same bland voice finally announced, “Secure the Maneuvering Watch”. I knew the officer that made the announcement. I marveled at his ability to mimic a Being with no soul. I wondered silently if Officers’ training included this, or if he was truly a transformed hound from hell. Two-thirds of the crew were all ready to depart, lurking in various spaces between berthing and Control Room, the path to the outside. The past month’s exercises were behind us, and these men were ready to see their loved ones, to breathe fresh air, to stretch in every direction, and to think nothing of the sea for a while. I, on the other hand, as part of the remaining crew on duty, had to spend the night. I picked up my dreams of sleep, dusted them off, and put my plan for sleep back into action, securing the sonar systems and opening the thin, aluminum-framed door once again for my well-worn 80-step path to bed. My Senior Chief stood outside the door, hand on the knob I had just pulled from his grasp. He smiled the smile of a man about to exact revenge for a lifetime of annoyance and tribulation. Moses smiled this smile when he realized that the Israelites, after they passed through the parted sea before them, would be wandering through the desert wearing nothing but sandals.

“Qual board in 20 minutes, Roesener. Make me proud.” And then he disappeared through control, and out the hatch, following the exodus of men dragging sea bags up and to the pier.  He had a gift for brevity.

The Submarine Qualification Board: This dreaded and coveted interview represents the end of a long list of lesser interviews. A single, big interview, administered by an assembly of four crew-members, including one officer. These shipmates are designated by their reputation for knowledge of the boat. Every board is different, depending on which men are available to serve on the board. The length of the interview can range from a couple hours to several, depending on the proficiency of the candidate’s answers, and his attitude. If you’re certain of your answers, give quick, pointed, and complete responses, and show a respectful eagerness to take on more questions, they often keep the interview short. If you seem uncertain, they will probe you for your weakness, and exploit it until you fail. Get too cocky, and they will batter you just for the pleasure of it. Like sea pressure, they never stop.

I was already half-asleep, the rocking of the boat on the surface lulling me into a pleasant drowsiness, to which I had already half-surrendered. To come back from this point in the sleep cycle was going to take decisive, dramatic action. I lurched towards the coffee pot.

I spent my twenty minutes alternately blazing my way mentally through bits of anticipated questions, and devising ways of cooling coffee down enough to ingest more than my share of volume in less than my share of time. 4 cups later, I sat in the control room of the submarine, in the swiveled seat of the helmsman, with the hum of 400hz equipment providing background ambiance for four slightly irritated men who had also dreamed of sleep.

By the time the formalities of beginning the interview was over, I was beginning to feel the jittery effects of too much caffeine on too little sleep. The first question, posed by a machinist’s mate, was a classic question:

“You are a drop of sea-water. Make the light in your rack light up.”

I had prepared for this one. The question is simple – a nuclear submarine uses a steam turbine to generate it’s electricity. The answer, however, requires intimate knowledge of several subsystems. Intake valves, seawater pumps must be named by number and location. Piping needs to be described. The process through the development of steam from nuclear power must be explained both in theoretical detail, and described by location of equipment, safety shut-offs, control panels, etc. Once the generator has been turned, and electricity developed, then electrical systems, busses, breakers, panels, and wires are named by number designation and location until the generated electron has been pushed through the ballast of the small flourescent light inside each bunk, and in particular mine, and then passed through to ground for a complete circuit. I was ready. I opened my mouth, articulated my response at length, and then finally drew a deep breath, slouched back in my chair, still jittery from the coffee, and broke the ice.

“So…is that the best you’ve got?”

I’ve had better tactical moments. I sat in front of four men, all of whom were keenly attuned to the fact that we, returning sailors from a month at sea, still sat aboard our boat, unable to go home until the morrow. They had thought of their sleep as a means to while away the remaining time until they could go topside, to the fresh air and greater expanses of the world. I had just provided them with the one thing more appealing to a submariner than sleep. I had provided them a target.

8 pupils dilated slightly and focused on my face. 4 mouths curled wickedly into mischief. Four bodies bestirred themselves, shifting in their seats with the unspoken phrase erupting in unison from each one, “WELL now…”. As one, they all sat up and leaned forward in fresh anticipation.

And so it began. For six hours I sweated through questions regarding every imaginable point between the bow and stern of that submarine, inside and outside the pressure hull, and explored the connections and implications of all of them. I discoursed on procedures, on the history of those procedures, on the fate of the boats from whose history those procedures had arisen. I explained at least three quarters of the theories of modern physics, as they pertained to maintaining a submarine in the sea, providing life-support for it’s men, detecting it’s enemies and delivering it’s weapons. I answered obscure questions, convoluted questions, devious questions designed to generate the dreaded “Lookup”. My bladder filled and drained twice. On each trip to the head, all I could think about was the time I was giving the group to secretly consort and design new torturous conundrums into which to hurl me. I rued my words like I had never rued an act in my life. Oh man, did I rue. A deep and abiding rueing of the day, combined with caffeine overdose rush, is an experience never to be forgotten. I predict that at the end, my own death will be delayed by the time it takes to shudder, once again, as that last memory passes through my expiring mind and sends one last shiver of horripilation through my inert body.

 

And in the midst of all of it, I was finally asked one question I could not answer. That question remains as fresh in my today as it was that night 27 years ago.

Where, oh where do I recharge an expended PKP fire extinguisher. And yes. I know the answer.

If pumpkin spice lattes ruled the world

 

A friend of mine’s brief description of her morning reminded me of things I love about Autumn, and inspired the following.  It’s still early in the season, but never too early to write about coffee!

The cold grey gloom of the dawn sky matched perfectly with the tarmac and smooth steel beams reflecting in the tungsten lights, to create a cloud of gloom over a small group of people huddled around the airport coffee shop. They stood, mindless, still dazed by the bustle of the early morning security gate check, vaguely hoping to collect themselves with a cup of something warm. The gigantic windows opening to the twin terminal wings presumed to give patrons something to look at. On this morning, grey planes on a dark grey tarmac with a weeping grey sky backdrop was more than any human wanted to endure.

She arrived on this gloomy scene with the stoic anticipation of a traveler embarking to tropical places. The anticipation that had fueled her excitement for a week now slowed, like a semi toiling over a final grade before the descent into the big city. She was fleeing the gloom, but it stood there, in her path, weaving it’s coils around her mind. Her last thought as she stepped up to the entirely-too-perky-for-this-morning-can-I-get-something-started-for-you-does-it-show-that-I’ve-already-had-six-cups-of-my-own-brewed-to-perfection-coffee Barista was that surely they must have something to help. Her foggy mind deflected most of the Barista’s assault, but she realized she could now read the menu. Or at least one line of the menu. Pumpkin Spice Latte. That would do.

The bustle behind the counter swirled, in stark contrast to the rest of the coffee lounge. Wide padded benches under a fifty-foot ceiling invited people to take in the airport experience in three-dimensional grandeur, to forget about the world and become part of it all at the same time. People sat, lost in their paper, in slow conversation, in gripping determination to make it out of there. Others, who were further into their morning coffee rituals, talked in small pockets of conversation, becoming aware and then trying to distract themselves from the growing dreariness outside. She found a seat open between two of these groups, conversation on one side, sullen silence on the other, and dropped down just long enough to unload her bags, and to hear her number from behind the counter. The dissonance between the sudden relief of unloading and having to get right back up again made her forget herself. She left her bags momentarily unattended, realizing this with a pang of angst as she reached out to the counter for her coffee. The sudden fear of non-compliance disrupted her so badly she nearly abandoned her reach to rush back to her bags, and fought down the panic by focusing on the warmth of the cup. She sat back in her seat again, sighing with relief that no one called security, and tucked her purse and travel bag close against her left hip, nesting them between herself and the end of the bench. She checked the time, mentally gauged just how relaxed she had time to get, and then settled in to her coffee and surroundings. Her awareness of the gloom outside returned.

 

Her internal commentary slowly turned to the irony of traveling to the tropics on a cold autumn day like this, and she inhaled deeply of the aroma curling from the cup. She found herself transported through a magic portal, suddenly thinking about the things yet undone for winter – the next leaf-raking, the turning of her garden, and draining her garden hose and packing it into its winter place in the garage. Another sip of her coffee enveloped her mind, flavoring her thoughts with notions of how things should be in this season. She thought about November, and how things would be when she returned. Slush on the night streets, lights glaring off the wet pavement. She thought about the blanket of leaves that would lay overher small yard, covering it up to its chin for its winter’s sleep. The bustle of costumed children trampling up to her door on Halloween echoed in the back of her mind. Her cat’s warmth as she sat in the evening reading, and being with this companion, while the winds of November howled in vain outside. Her favorite chair and side-table, with books she liked, called to her from through that portal. She found herself hoping she wouldn’t miss it.

She inhaled deeply of the thick spice steam that lingered in the cup after the last was gone. The grey of the morning brightened from its predawn gloom , she could begin to see the pattern of the rain outside on the tarmac. And with the smell of autumn still swirling around her head, almost…almost she turned back to the exit, to hail a cab, and to go check on the sleeping bulbs in her garden.

It was a cool spring morning in the spring of 1911. Well, to be honest, I don’t know what the weather was like. I don’t even know if it was spring. No one still living knows. But sometime in that year, my great-grandpa Keller made a decision that has echoed through 4 generations. He took a job. Not just any job, he was only thirteen, and the job he found was one of the only ones available to his circumstances. He became a messenger for Western Union in Indianapolis, Indiana.

 Delivering messages across that sprawling city required speed, and to give him that speed, they gave him one of the newest ways of getting around quickly in a crowded city. They put him on a Thor motorcycle. In doing so, the company set in motion a chain of events that would span 4 generations of riders. Just last week, I came face to face with the legendary bike that started it all.

The event was the Coos Art Museum Exhibit in Coos Bay, Oregon. For 45 days in June and July, they exhibited some of the rarest motorcycles in existence, including a 1909 Thor similar to my Great-Grandpa’s. And this last week, with my father riding down from Tillamook, we went together to take a step back into our own personal history, and the history of the world of motorized cycling itself.

Man, it was an awesome exhibit! The 1909 Thor, was, according to my dad, the same kind of bike that my great-grandpa rode as a western union messenger in the early 1900′s, but it was in rough shape. There was a lot of rust, and I doubt if it ran. I wanted to take that poor forgotten thing home and give it some decent treatment. It had curiously long, tall cylinders, very straight, with very simple heads. I thought that seemed kinda odd compared to the strangely shaped heads and the tapered cooling fins on all the other bikes on display. 



Across the museum floor from it, a 1914 Cyclone (featured in the promotional online video for the exhibit) had the coolest engine, with external valves, and levers, and tubes going to the strangest places. There were parts that looked more like saxaphone components than an engine. I felt like if I could just get that machine into my garage, I could watch those valves – that machine, clicking and clacking all day long, puttering along with its guts out on display. I’d probably sit there with an antique oil can, poinking away periodically just to feel helpful. The leaf springs were absolutely whacky, it almost looked like they had taken a model T’s springs, cut them into segments, and placed the sections strategically around the bike – a spot up front for the front forks, another spot vertically in back for the swing arm, and what seemed to be the center section wedged under the saddle. There were a few mechanical curiosities I couldn’t figure out, such as the apparent pump knob on one of the openings on top of the tank. I finally realized it was a pressurizing pump and cap, kind of like Coleman camp stoves, to pressurize the dry sump oil system. 



In addition to the Thor and Cyclone, there was a 1920 Indian of the same era as my Grandpa (Great-grandpa Keller’s son) first rode as a teenager and fell in love with the wind. I had a chance to sit with my Grandpa just two months ago, stopping by to visit while returning from a cross-country ride to Quebec. I asked him how he got started in motorcycling. It seems he had a friend whose dad had a car dealership, and they wound up with this Indian one day. His friend asked if he wanted to ride it, so they went out into the country, and the friend set him up, told him how to steer, and sent him off. What he didn’t tell him was how to use the clutch, so Grandpa was free to ride – but couldn’t stop completely. So he rode for miles until he found a wide place on that country lane where he could turn around without stopping. And he was hooked on the wind from that day on. Even at 90, my grandpa’s face still reflects that moment of joy like it was yesterday.

They had a fine collection of Harleys across a long span of years, starting with the first motorcycle we saw as we paid for our admission, a grey 1911 with leather belt and a ratcheting lever for a clutch. My dad and I spent some time re-living the heady times when this idea of engaging a motor to push you along the ground with a lever – it was like being kids again. I decided at some point that my dad and I would have been awfully good friends if we’d been kids at the same time. A couple other guys were walking through and sort of got caught up in our time-warp conversation. Pretty soon there were 5 or 6 guys imagining themselves with elbow-long gauntleted gloves and leather overcoats gadding about the streets of a city without traffic lights. I know that if truth were told, at some point every one of us flinched our left arm pulling that imaginary lever. Just a lever – and yet so much behind it.



And then there was the ’42 Flathead that my dad said was one of the models Grandpa had when my dad was a kid (again, not great-grandpa, but grandpa). My dad recalled that his sister always got to sit on the outside of the sidecar because she was older, and his mom sat on the back, so he was stuck up against the engine unable to see anything. His only revenge was winter, when he was the only warm one of the bunch. I looked hard at the area by the motor there between the back tire and the seat, where he would have been up against as a little boy, and could feel the pain of being so close – and yet so far – from the summer wind whistling through the Indiana countryside. And I glared at my aunt in my mind, for being so lucky – and so oblivious to her fortune. 


The 1920-ish Harley with double headlights was one of my favorites. As we were looking at it, it struck me that the only gauge was an ammeter, which read, left to right, from -10 to 0 to +10 amps. I said to my dad, “Ah, gone are the days when the single most important piece of information needed to be given to the rider by the machine was not just whether or not amperage was being produced, but how much, and in which polarity”. Apparently there was no speed possible that warranted an indicator to tell the rider of his accomplishment. That would have to wait a few more years.

My dad nudged me a couple bikes down from there, at the 1930′s Harley track bike. My Great-Grandpa Sutton had gotten his start in racing on just such a bike. He went on to be a prominent Sprint car builder in Indianapolis, and even built an Indy-car once. But motorcycles was where he started.



There were a couple of very interesting Royal Enfields, including the “Flying Flea”. This bike was made for wartime, and came with its own steel tube crate, and parachute. We got a kick out of the name. The exhaust manifold pipe, where it left the exhaust port, bulged curiously, and we thought hard about the reason for that for a few minutes. As near as we could deduce, it bulged to give extra room for the quickly exhausting gases, sort of a buffer zone for extra capacity. Honestly, we didn’t really know, but the 5 minutes spent bantering about the possibilities was a lot of fun. Sometime, years from now, I’m going to find out just out of the blue somewhere, and I’m going to call my dad up at that very moment and let him know. I hope he’s still around to take my call.



In the very back there was a 1958 BMW with its sideways-rotating left-side kick start, and a lever that had to be a gear shift, down under the rider’s right leg. I imagined myself having to hang on and clutch with the left hand, while reaching around below my right leg to shift. It would have been a challenge. To be honest, the rear seat on that one looked as comfortable as anything we saw. I love the shape of the boxer engine, and there was nothing hiding its glory.



In addition to the truly antique, quite a few of the classics from across the years were present. One of my favorites was the ’79 Honda CBX. A friend of mine had one of those up at Walla Walla where I went to college. He’d let me go riding through the rural roads through the Wheat Country on weekends. Dang, those were good times. Six cylinders and rolling hills of farmland. Oh…MAN!! What a blast that bike was.

After we’d seen everything, we stood near the entrance, not really wanting to leave, but not having anything more to see either. So I turned to my dad, and said, “Ok, I’ve got a shoe box with all the keys to all these bikes in it. You get to pick out two. Which ones?”

It was clearly a struggle for him, but in the end, it came down to the ’48 Indian, with the wrap-around fringe treatment on everything, bright yellow paint, and full wheel fenders, and the 1911 Harley with its belt-clutch. Then he reversed the question on me.

I went with the Thor.

And the 1920 Harley with its twin headlights and ammeter.

And maybe…well, maybe the ’58 BMW…
But that 1914 Cyclone that would entertain me just sitting in the garage running…
and the ’42 Harley Flathead. I would always make sure every kid got to sit in the wind…
But that ’50-something Vincent, with its knobs and levers and the sheer mechanical-ness of it, oh yes! I live for something to adjust, and that thing would let me adjust EVERYTHING!



So which did I come away with?

All of them. All of them, wrapped up in my head. Every time I look in the mirror of my ’08 Road King, all those bikes are looking back at me, just above where the print says, “objects may be closer than they appear”. When I grasp the handles of my ’77 BMW R100/7, and push it off the center stand, out of the garage, and out around the 10-mile country loop I use to test adjustments, they will be there following me, making sure I remember that it’s ok to be broken down sometimes, that there’s something normal about the quiet side of a back road, with the breezes blowing through the grass and the faint whine of cars on the distant highway, and the clank of an unexpected drop of a wrench to punctuate the silence. That hand lever will stick in my mind in that place where “things I should grab to engage the engine” sits. The low, swept-back handlebars will always seem right somehow, regardless of how many times I reach for my own raised bars. If I sit very quiet on my stool in front of the workbench and look out at the empty space in my garage, a Cyclone will always be pumping its valves up and down. In his place in my heart, my 13-year old Great-Grandpa Keller, desperate to grow up and make a living, will be making these mechanical marvels become practical. Grandpa Keller, with his love of the wind, will always be whispering in my ear to get rid of the windscreen and throw it in the corner. Great-Grandpa Sutton will always be pushing my bike to be faster, and better, to tinker with it until I figure it out – and then tinker just a little more. And my dad, whom I learned to lean with in the corners when I was just a child riding with him on the back of a Honda 350 scrambler on the back roads of southern California – he and I will always hold a special scorn for those who don’t appreciate the outside seat in the summer.

On Datsuns, Egg Nog, and happiness dependencies.

Once, years ago, my dad made a statement that really took me aback. He was telling me about his Harley, and a particular ride along the coast that he enjoyed nearly daily, and told me how he found happiness in that ride. Well, being the young, audacious, and spiritually superior man that I was, and not having a shiny Harley myself, but an old beat up BMW, I saw a challenge to be made there. It saddened me a little bit that he should be stuck in a place where happiness was to be found on an expensive piece of machinery.

So I challenged him. I said, “But, could you drive that particular drive in a 1973 orange Datsun B210 with Automatic transmission, and still be happy?”

I might as well have squirted 20,000-mile old axle grease into his breakfast bowl. Either the juice from a thousand lemons had reached into his psyche somehow, or… there was not going to be any happiness found in a 1973 orange Datsun B210 anywhere, any way, any how.

Now, you must understand, a 1973 Orange Datsun B210 with Automatic Transmission is much more than a machine. It is an evil, swirling cosmos of fast-food refuse infused indelibly into the smell of cheap plastic upholstery, mold, grease (in addition to the burger grease on the steering wheel) and Unnamed Evils worked into the carpet, wrapped into possibly the most inept application of transportational machinery ever contrived, wrapped in the most gaudy, hideously offensive, in-your-face look-at-me-I’m-a-poverty-stricken-idiot-who-not-only-can’t-but-wouldn’t-if-I-could-afford-a-more-decent-conveyance acts of aggressive stupidity ever foisted upon humankind. Yes, it’s that bad.

And that’s coming from a guy who owns three old VW’s, all of which have, somewhere on them, holes connecting the cockpit to the outside formed by rust.

And in my mind, I was at once sad, and smug in the knowledge that I had a Deeper Peace, that I could find happiness in an orange Datsun B210 if I had to.

A couple months ago, however, as has happened far too often over the span of years, my illusions of philosophical superiority over my father were shattered. And it started at the refrigerator.

There, in the dark confines of the fridge, there abode a carton of Egg Nog, waiting to contribute to the sumptuous satisfaction of Morning Coffee. Egg Nog Coffee is a seasonal delicacy around here, and its season is welcomed with rejoicing. It is a celebration of home and family, the comforts of settling in from a raucous, wild, hilarity-filled summer to the quiet comforts of inside voices. It is the celebration of impending visitation from the children, and grandchildren, and the chaos of family coming together cooking, eating, making merry with one another in a way only possible when a group that big is compressed into the confines of a winter-storm-sheltered home. Egg Nog Coffee brings its own aroma, but somehow also conjures the baking of pastries, the long-simmering savory-ness of large birds cooking in the oven, of cinnamon rolls baked late at night by the visiting sons and daughters each vying to prove they have the Best Recipes. Egg Nog Coffee, wherever you drink it, it takes you to your front window, where you look out the window early in the morning, at the evidence of cold – frost-patterned windows, icicles, gloomy days of coastal rain, with the warmth of the fireplace at your back, radiating inward through something woolen. Egg Nog Coffee, on any cold, miserable, lonely, semi-conscious morning, is Magic.

And on this morning, having poured the coffee, I reached into the darkened cavern that lights up at my approach, but its lamp did not shine on the Egg Nog. Because the Egg Nog was not there.

It would have been one thing to simply be out of Egg Nog, to be denied the joy for one day. But there, one shelf down, was the 1973-orange-Datsun-B210-with-automatic-transmission of creamers. I was staring at my own private horror, and nothing I could do was going to avert the spiritual train-wreck about to happen.

I suddenly, with horrification washing over me, found myself standing alone, in the kitchen, with a bottle of Vanilla Caramel non-dairy in my hand.

And all I could think of was a Datsun, with Automatic Transmission, with rust-highlighted colors.

It had been a long time since I have sported a wan smile. I don’t know how well I did at it, as there was no one but the dog to judge, and he just looked at me with lips that have virtually no muscle control, and said, “Hey.” That’s all he ever says. I then tried a sheepish grin, and since it had dual application in realizing the folly of my philosophy, and the folly of expecting a dog to judge me by appearance, I think I probably did well at that.

As I poured the vile substance into my equally vile cheap coffee, I realized that I, like most of us probably, am made up of a lot of illusions, and that quite frankly, illusions aren’t bad things in and of themselves. But if we cling too tightly to them, that’s where we get ourselves into trouble. Vanilla Caramel creamer is vile, so…why did I even have it in the fridge? Well, I didn’t, it was someone else’s choice. But why am I writing this essay with coffee flavored with vile substance in my cup at my side? I do it because writing in the winter, without coffee no matter how vile steaming at my side, would seem wrong somehow in this cold autumn season.

I don’t know if it was the Evil of the coffee concoction or what, but pretty soon I was thinking in spiritual terms. The funny thing about the things God has told us to do – they don’t just pertain to how to “behave”. They aren’t things that, if we could hide our other deeds, would really matter if we only did them in His presence. They seem, often, to be principles that work best when employed throughout our daily life. I wonder if my dad hasn’t discovered in his own way an application for the concept “Ye shall have no other gods before me”. Perhaps what God wanted us to learn was not to accept miserable engineering, or cheap imitation substitutes. Perhaps He wanted us to hold out for the best, and in doing so not to encumber ourselves with those things that only satisfy our illusions, and allow us to only dream about the reality that lies behind them. Egg Nog coffee? It has nothing to do with frosted windows, or woolen things. Those pleasures, if I want to experience them, are just a closet door and front door away from me, should I need them. Egg Nog is a reminder of those times, something that keeps me close to them. When it becomes a substitute, then I have a problem. And when I’m prepared to ingest Vanilla Caramel as a substitute to the substitute, then I have a dependency problem.

I wonder if my dad will be able to fully appreciate my sheepish grin over the phone? Maybe I should ride the Harley up to see him this afternoon.