I have an arrangement with life. Every once in a while I do a Three Stooges thing. I say, “OK! When I nod my head, hit it!” And life goes right ahead and does it. I’ve already told you about the time I bit down on a screw that had 110 volts on it. Best 4th of July fireworks ever! But I’ve managed to outdo that a few times. Like the time I T-boned a 1951 Chevy, and didn’t go back to the hospital after they released me even though my neck hurt like mad and my head felt it was going to fall off. Remember me telling you that? Yes? So do I, Johnny. My neck was broken. You would think that anyone who had earned a trick neck that way, one that had a nasty habit of getting stuck looking up or down would take good care of it. And I tried. I avoided looking up and to the right or down and to the left. It helped. Getting your head stuck looking up is very inconvenient, and spending a day or two contemplating your navel is boring.
A few weeks back I mentioned that Mom and Mary Hein were best friends. Mary Hein lived just three houses up the street on Brook Street from us on Staten Island in New York City. And I swear that no two women on this planet have ever been closer than Mom and Mary Hein. They watched over each other and cared for each other like two loving sisters.
Some years at Thanksgiving, it can sound a little trite as we once again say we have a lot to be thankful for, but I genuinely believe it, and I’m going to do my humble best to show you why. There’s a lot wrong with this world, and with our country as well. Some of it makes us very angry, so angry we get so caught up trying to fix the things that cry out for fixing that we overlook the blessings we have. That’s natural enough. If we didn’t focus on the things that need fixing, we’d never get them fixed. But once a year we really ought to do what our ancestors did in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in November 1621. We need to turn aside from our cares and thank God for the good things we have.
I’m just like you. I sometimes get so %$#@ angry with the Forest Service I could strangle somebody. But some reading I’ve been doing lately has made me think. Maybe they have something. Maybe they’re so all-fired worried about letting us in the woods because they’ve read some of the same stuff I’ve recently read. Could it be they are worried that if they don’t keep their eyes on us, you and I might go out there in the woods and eat up everything in sight?
If anyone ever asks me which moment of my 79 years was the scariest, there is no doubt in my mind — none at all — that the night of February 16, 1941, tops the list. Nothing before or since has even come close. On that night I learned something, though I didn’t understand it until years later. There can come a moment when fiction crosses the line into reality.
I count myself lucky. By the time I was 10 years old, I had learned something that some people never get a chance to learn. I didn’t learn it because I did anything special. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that I didn’t learn it at all. I suppose I absorbed it through my pores. All I know is that when I was young, something happened which gave me a respect for people — all people — that has really helped me enjoy life, and has made it easy for me to understand a few things. Things I might otherwise have not have understood at all, or only dimly.
I was driving up from Payson two months ago when I found myself at the tail end of a slow-moving convoy. And for once, I am not using a word facetiously. It was an actual convoy. Of boats. Traveling at a brisk 15 miles an hour. The Queen Elizabeth XXII and her escort vessels. Sixteen scows, two pontoons, and a jet ski. From where I was at the back of the pack I couldn’t get a look at the monster up front until we hit the four-lane, but as I passed it, I took a look. I can only describe it one way.
People who read the words of Álvar Núñez De Vera Cabeza de Vaca in his La Relación, his report to King Charles V of Spain, immediately realize they have been granted a rare glimpse into the mind of an extraordinary individual, someone able to look fate in the eye, accept what he sees without time-wasting complaints, and think his way through from where he is to where he has to be.
I left off last week at the point where Pánfilo de Narváez, who had lost an eye to a crossbow bolt, was appointed adelantado of Florida by Charles V, King of Spain. The appointment meant that he was governor of Florida — provided he could conquer it. I hereby appoint you governor of Mars, Johnny. Go get it! So, from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, near Cadiz, on June 17, 1527, sailed five ships containing de Narváez, 600 men, and 80 horses.
While attending college I ran across a book that led me to believe that Pánfilo de Narváez, one of the conquistadors, either made a lot of bad choices or was cursed with very bad luck. I found the book quite by accident in the university library, a place I really enjoyed. Having access to a large, several story high library stocked with books I hadn’t read made me feel like a kid who’d been let loose in a candy store.
I once sat on a board down in Mesa Public Schools headed by an assistant superintendent who had a genius for slicing through the arguments flying around a room and getting to the heart of the matter. One time we were just about to make a decision when someone objected that if we gave the people involved what they wanted they would want something else, something they didn’t have.
The bad news? The Forest Service screwed up. Again. The good news? Wasn’t our Forest Service. Nope. Wasn’t ours. Was the Argentinian Forest Service. So why are we worried about it?
In case you missed it last week, my answer to the question in the title of this column is, “Depends on which island.” I have spent about one-quarter of my life on one island or another, a total of 20 years on Staten Island, Iceland, Japan, Okinawa, and England, though I don’t really count Japan and England as islands. They were so big they lost the island “feel.”
If anyone ever asks me if I would like to live on an island, I’ll have to answer a question with a question, “Which one?” “Why so cautious?” you might ask. Hey, I’ve lived on an island, so I can tell you there are islands and there are islands. All they have in common is ... water. To have an island you have to have water. But beyond that, Johnny, look out. The place could be paradise or purgatory.
Last week I told you how I became interested in the 1948 presidential campaign. I was 16, so elections were not high up on my list of things I couldn’t miss. But when Senator Bob Taft of Ohio strolled into the bus station in New London where I was having a cup of coffee, sat down, shook my hand, and began to talk to me as cameras clicked and reporters ran around ... I will say, that got my attention. So I listened to some of the 1948 election campaign. On radio. They say that was the first presidential campaign ever to appear on television, but you can’t have proved it by me, Johnny. Never saw a minute of it.
It could not have been a more ordinary day. Just another quiet, sunny afternoon in New London, Connecticut in April of 1948. New London was like that. I was 16 at the time, and had been there since I was 11, but if anyone had asked me to describe the town, I suspect that “not much going on” would have been high up on the list of descriptors.
I’ll tell you honestly I am not into insults. Anybody can be nasty. Takes nothing except a big mouth and a bad attitude. Maybe that’s why I love it when somebody takes a mouth full of smart-aleck comments, chews on them for a minute, and spits them back in the face of someone who genuinely deserves it. Which brings me to one of my favorites.
A few weeks back I told you what an uplifting experience it was to be a drill instructor. And it was. But I left something out. I told you about all the serious stuff, but being a DI wasn’t all serious. In truth, it was one of the happiest and most relaxed periods of my life. In fact, there were a couple of times when I laughed so hard I almost split a gut. There were some downright crazy things that happened.
A few weeks ago we took a look at iron men, wooden ships, and multiple ways to die. But I had to leave out and I felt bad about it — the trips that made it without killing off half the passengers and crew. Were they an important — but also not so great — part of sea travel? I’ll let you judge that.
I left off last week at the point where I was having what I count as my last exciting childhood experience: The day I decided to cross a cliff face by standing on a very narrow ledge while my hands clung to another ledge just above eye level. Trouble is, I disturbed a big old black snake sunning above me, and the snake thought it might be a good idea to peer over the edge and see what kind of nut was crossing a 100-foot-high cliff. I was the nut, of course, but not for long. I let go.
Interesting, isn’t it? If someone had asked me about my most exciting moment when I was a kid I’d have answered in a second.
In June, 1752, Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment to find out whether or not lightning was akin to electricity. His experiment was a success, in fact a resounding one. But what has not been a success is getting the media to get the story straight. It has been — let’s see — 259 years since Franklin conducted his experiment. And Franklin was careful to record what he did, writing it down so accurately and in such simple language that anyone who reads what he said about it can go out today and repeat it.
I have to admit it, I’m jealous. Some people not only lead great lives, but they also manage to depart this life with words that are long remembered. Not me. I’ll probably say, “Hey! Who turned out the da — d lights?”
something you never know where it will end. And start something I did. Back in 1954 I started the engine of a 1935 Chevy four-door sedan, and here I am, 54 years later, still thinking about the drive I took that night.
For someone who at times in his life quite literally did not have two nickels to rub together I have been to an incredible number of places. When someone mentions places as far apart as Beaumont and Bangkok, Layton and London, Portland and Paris, Tempe and Tripoli, Venice and Vacaville, or even New Bedford, New Delhi, or New London they aren’t just names to me. They are places I know, and perhaps even love. But you know what, Johnny?
Last week we left off in 1771 as Captain James Cook and his crew barely escaped death on the Great Barrier Reef stretching along the northern coast of Australia. But death by drowning when a sailing ship was driven aground on a reef or a rocky shore by “contrary” winds was just one of the many things men and women faced in the day of the square-rigged European ship. There are worse things than drowning, Johnny. Read on.
My first, and only, experience handling a sailboat came during my junior year in high school. For a kid my age it was high adventure. I got up in the middle of the night, dragged out my old bike, and pedaled through the night to Niantic, Conn. And there at anchor in the dawning light sat the Karakal, a 21-foot sailboat my friend Earl had named after the Tibetan mountain that towered above Shangri La in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon.” Twenty minutes after I dropped my bike in the dew-wet grass beside the Niantic River, the Karakal was scudding across the bay, plowing through rolling surf on a windy October day. And what a day it turned out to be! One of the best of my life.
Last week I mentioned that I became a DI by talking my way into GIS, General Instructor School, not because I wanted to go to that school, but because I had wriggled my way out of something else and had to enter a tech school ASAP or get dragged back in.
If anyone had told me while I was young that I was going to be a drill instructor I’d have told him he was out of his mind
A few weeks ago I ended a column by saying “the best learning experience may be the one you never have.”
As a young man I knew someone who seemed as ordinary as the rest of us, but wasn’t. I had known Fredo for a long time and I thought I knew him well, but one day I happened to mention a name and I saw a part of Fredo that surprised me.
Last week I explained why Reykjavik, Iceland, was not my favorite overseas city, it being a contender for Icebox Of The Universe, among other things.
Except for two things, I would have called this column, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Four times in my life a few words have lifted me off the path I was on, turned me, and plunked me down on a new path.
Four times in my life a few words have lifted me off the path I was on, turned me, and plunked me down on a new path.
Last week I mentioned that candy stores were everywhere when I was a youngster. And I mentioned that although we called them candy stores, they sold a lot more than candy.
One of the musical’s my beloved wife Lolly likes to watch is “On Moonlight Bay” with Doris Day and Gordon McRae.
Some weeks ago I mentioned that I stayed awake thinking most of New Year’s Eve because I knew the bottom was going to drop out of the thermometer and I was worried that something might happen to Lolly. That was time well spent.
I’m willing to bet that there are some things about your life you can remember as though they happened yesterday. And I’m also willing to bet that, like me, you would be hard put to explain why you remember them.
Last week we talked about life as an un-learning experience. We took note of the fact that we may start out as the center of the universe, lying on our backsides, stamping our feet, messing our diapers, and wailing until we get attention, but there comes a time when all that has to be unlearned.
Want to know who you are? Who you really are? You won’t learn it by look
If somebody asked me what impressed me most about any of the places I’ve lived, either here or overseas, I would have a hard time picking out just one thing. Oh, I suppose it would be easy to choose one for some places.
Last week I told you how I arrived at Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany in June, 1970, and found it to be a drab, empty place. I was there teaching classes, facing nine weeks away from home, and missing my family.
I’ve mentioned before that my duty assignment during my last seven years in the Air Force required me to travel from base to base teaching other people how to teach.
About a year ago I was talking about what it was like to live in an open-bay barracks with weekend warriors who have just been called to active duty, most of them just out of high school.
Last week I mentioned that my job in the Air Force for the last seven years was teaching NCOs how to take their hard-earned skills and pass them on to the young men and women who were going to take their place.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not. Never tried it, so I can’t say. But what I can say is that it is downright difficult to teach an old dog how to teach someone else new tricks.
Last week I said that many people who are alive today have no idea how blessed lucky we are to be able to buy a television set, take it home, plug it in, hook up cable or dish, turn it on, and watch just about anything we want.
Most people living today have no idea how blessed lucky we are to be able to buy a television set, take it home, plug it in, hook it up to cable or dish, turn it on, and watch — what is it now? — 40 million channels?
Last week I said it sometimes appears that coincidences rule the universe. Maybe that’s not true, but they certainly aren’t shy about changing the life of an important human being — and thereby changing history.