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My wife and I just got back from California. We went out to celebrate my aunt’s eighty-eighth birthday, and decided to stay a week to check out the state. My aunt is the last one of my mother’s siblings still alive. Nowadays eighty-eight doesn’t seem that old, but considering the curse of cancer and heart attacks that has plagued my family, it is very close to a miracle to get to that age. Although she still gets around, physically age has caught up with her, but her mind is still clear. I hope when I’m her age my mind is that sharp, but I doubt it will improve in the next few decades. When I asked how she managed to stay so youthful, she said, “Keep a positive attitude, eat good Bohemian food and keep enough Manischewitz in you to pickle King Tut.” (I’m joking. She actually kept saying, “It’s okay if I have one glass of wine, isn’t it?”)
We flew into Sacramento and drove up into the mountains where my aunt lives. The first thing we noticed is California doesn’t have a speed limit. Oh, they put up signs with speed limits, but those are just so the locals can make fun of the tourists who try to follow them. If you go the speed the signs say, joggers pushing baby strollers will pass you and give you the finger as they go by for blocking traffic. The real speed limit is how-fast-will-your-car-go-mph, and that won’t fit on a sign.
My aunt lives in the mountains in the Jackson/Sutter Creek area—around the area where gold was first discovered in California. It’s amazing that anyone even noticed the gold as beautiful as the area is. As a former pursuit driving instructor, I kept thinking how much fun it would be to take a crotch rocket or Corvette and see how fast I could go on those winding roads; it would be a blast. But as a lifelong flatlander, having to drive twenty miles on those roads to get to work every day would make me crazy(er?). We had a little gathering with my aunt and relatives from all over the country that I hadn’t seen for years. It was good to see everyone again, and not once did I ask, “And who are you again?”
It’s funny the things I noticed, the family resemblance in everyone. I saw a lot of my mother and grandmother in these people. Not so much looks, although that was definitely there, but their values, at what and how they laughed and their speech cadence. I guess those are the true legacies of families: the things people pass on to their children without trying—both good and bad. (Okay, that’s way too sentimental for this blog, so moving on.)
After we left the birthday party, we headed down to San Francisco for a few days. We took a ferry out to Alcatraz and climbed the sixty-three gazillion steps to the top of the island where most of the cell blocks are. If I had been the warden, I would have made the prisoners go up and down the steps twice every day. The ones who didn’t die would be too tired to try to escape. Of all the escapes that were attempted while Alcatraz was a prison, only three of the prisoners have never been accounted for. They are the three who built a raft out of rain coats and tried to swim across the bay. They told us while we were on Alcatraz that because the water is so cold and filled with sharks, plus a strong cross current flows out to sea, that they believe all three of them drowned and were washed out into the ocean. I believed them until the next morning when we met a woman who had just swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is almost twice as far as the distance from Alcatraz to the shore and against the current all the way.
That night we went on a night bus tour of San Francisco. We learned a lot about the history of the city. The tour was on a double-decker bus with an open top. They took us across the Bay Bridge at sixty mph when it was fifty degrees outside. That translates into a wind chill of two degrees below the temperature where oxygen freezes solid. Something like riding a snowmobile in a t-shirt. Hopefully by July I’ll stop shaking.
The following day we took a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city. Before we got off at Chinatown, our guide told us they expect you to haggle over the price in Chinatown. My wife’s eyes lit up. She loves haggling. She’d haggle over the price with a guy giving out free samples. (True story: The last time I went to buy a boat, my wife came along. After about a half hour of haggling over the price of a boat, the owner of the place offered her a job. He said, “I’d rather have you on my side then working against me.”) We stayed in Chinatown until a little Chinese woman said, “No more deal. You go home.” But my wife got the t-shirts she wanted.
I wanted to get off at the Haight-Ashbury district where a lot of great music and heroin overdoses happened in the sixties, but as we came to the area, there were homeless people sleeping all over in the streets, so we didn’t get off. We had a bad experience with a homeless person on the trip. As we came upon him, he was freaking out, screaming profanities at his girlfriend and threatening to beat her up. I think it scared my wife a little. I’ve been in law enforcement long enough to have seen numerous domestic situations, although I must admit that in Iowa you can usually see the woman.
We visited an aquarium, a WWII submarine and a wax museum, plus we ate way too much at way too many places. On the way back to Sacramento, we went through Napa Valley. It was nice and well-kept, but neither of us are really wine people. We got back home and I was glad to be here.
Just a few words about the people of San Francisco. The first day we were there, we were trying to find the place where we were supposed to go to take the ferry to Alcatraz. We had a small map of the area the hotel had given us, and we couldn’t even find the street we were standing on. A woman came by and just out of the blue offered to help us. She had lived in San Francisco all her life and showed us where we were—not even on the map—and where we needed to go, before she stole my watch and wallet (just kidding). On another day we were trying to find a certain coffee shop. By the directions we had been given, my wife thought it was about three blocks over, and I thought it was in San Diego. We finally stopped a young lady in a business suit to see if she could help us. She was very nervous and maybe a little afraid, but she told us where the coffee shop was before we stole her watch and wallet. The point is, as with all big cities, I think most people are generally nice. They just seem to live in their own little bubbles. They ignore everyone and don’t even look at anyone. It is as if they are on the street by themselves. Maybe that is the way it has to be, or you end up with homeless people screaming at you instead of screaming at invisible girlfriends, but I don’t have to like it.
When I was still in law enforcement, the most asked question I got was: “How come you belly hangs so far over your belt?” (“It’s where I store my spare ammunition.” Stupid kids.) The most asked question I got from real adult persons was: “How do you like being a cop?” Usually I’d say: “There are things I like and things I don’t like.” Which was true. What I didn’t say was, the thing I disliked the most was always having to be a cop and never really being able to take off the uniform. It wasn’t that I wanted to break laws of rob a bank—unless I was absolutely sure I could get away with it—but it would have been nice to have been just one of the guys.
Most people thought of me as a cop first and a person second. If they saw someone go through a stop sign without stopping, I’d always get the obligatory: “You better go write them a ticket.” (Sorry, I left my squad car in my other pants.) Or if I was riding in a car with several people, and the driver went a couple of miles over the speed limit, I was sure to hear. “He’ll be sending you a speeding ticket tomorrow.” (Sorry, it isn’t a calibrated speedometer, so I have no evidence they were speeding, even if I wanted to give them a citation, which I don’t.) I always heard about a wife, sister, brother, mother, father, cat, parakeet… that got a ticket for speeding and wasn’t speeding. (It didn’t happen. In twenty-six years of law enforcement and tons of speeding tickets, I never had one person tell me they weren’t speeding. Often they said they weren’t going as fast as my radar said, but they still admitted to speeding—so why would I make up a higher speed when they were already speeding?)
My wife and I once went out to eat with some other couples. Another couple rode with us and two other couples followed in a separate car. As soon as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot and stopped, the driver of the car behind us came running up to my car.
“If I was a cop I’d be writing you a speeding ticket,” he said. “Because I had you going fifty-six miles an hour!”
“I had the cruise control set for fifty-five all the way,” I said.
“That’s true,” the guy who was riding in my car said. “I watched the speedometer all the way, because if he went over fifty-five, I was going to say something.”
I wonder how they would feel if the police started writing people citations for going one mile an hour over the speed limit?
There are other occupations where you can’t take off your uniform even if you don’t have a uniform. I imagine people are always coming up to doctors, even away from the office, asking about an ache, pain or funny looking lump. If I was a doctor I could fix that rather easily.
Guy walking up to me if I was smart enough to graduate from medical school: Hey Doc, I keep coughing up this funny looking purple stuff. What is it?
Me, pulling out a rubber glove out of my pocket and snapping it on my hand: Turnaround, drop your pants and grab your ankles.
I think after a couple of times, the word would get around and people would leave me alone when I’m not in the office, but I’m pretty sure I’d get kicked out of Wal-Mart for life.
A minister is another line of work where you can’t take off the uniform. You can’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, it’s my day off. I think I’ll go do a little sinning today. Nothing big. None of the seven deadly ones. Just a couple little thou-shall-nots.”
Okay maybe that’s not how it would go. But I think they get tired of being at a ball game and someone blurts out the f-word, and then seeing the minister they say, “Sorry Reverend.” The minister probably thinks: Why are you apologizing to me? I’m off duty, and I didn’t make the rules. I just follow them like you’re supposed to.
To update you on my writing, I put aside the novel that I posted the opening for a few weeks ago. I still don’t like the voice, and until I get it right, I’m going to work on a different one. It’s darker than anything I’ve done before. Yesterday I drowned a guy. Or maybe not.
It is interesting to know one’s heritage, especially if that one is me. My great grandfather on my father’s side came over from Germany. My grandfather was the first person in his family to be born in this country. The family came through Ellis Island and family legend has it that they didn’t have a penny to their name at the time. The Ellis Island guards were going to refuse them entrance because they were so poor, until one guard said, “Watsa matta? Dey got five boys in da famlee. Dey all get jobs, and dey’ll be fine.” Since Ellis Island is in New Jersey, I figure the guard probably spoke with a New Jersey accent.
As soon as they were admitted into the country, the first thing my great grandfather did was to change the spelling of the family name. My father said it was because of the pride his grandfather felt at being in this country. He wanted to Americanize their name so everyone would know they were Americans, but my grandfather said it was to confuse the bounty hunters. That grandpa, what a kidder…I think.
I have a younger brother who tried to trace our family heritage on our father’s side back to the old country. He got to the part where they reached Ellis Island, but he couldn’t find much about our family in Germany— except for a few old wanted posters. He even checked land ownership records and found nothing. You’ve heard of being dirt-poor? My family was poorer than that. There are not even any records of them owning dirt.
My mother was Bohemian—they say Czech a lot nowadays. I once had a guy call me a Bohunk. He meant it derogatively, but I’m at the point if you call me any kind of a hunk, I’ll take it. Where I live now there aren’t many Bohemians. Not like it was where I grew up back in South Dakota. Back there you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Bohemian, and usually they’d pick it up and throw it right back at you. My brother tried to find out about my mother’s family and didn’t have much more luck than he had with my father’s family—remind me not to hire him as a private investigator. My mother’s family has been in this country longer than my father’s family. They were here before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but don’t blame us for that. We all have alibis.
I guess when it gets right down to it, the past isn’t as important as what is inside you. And of course I’m referring to the food. A couple years ago my wife and I had my brothers and sisters over for a Bohemian celebration. We had all the Bohemian things we remembered eating when we were growing up: sauerkraut, potato dumplings, prune, peach and poppy seed kolaches and homemade ice cream. (Okay, it’s not Bohemian, but we like it, so sue me.)
I have a sister who had to have some genetic testing done. The genealogist told her from the genetic markers that it was likely we had some Jewish blood flowing in our veins. There’s a rabbi in the woodpile? It’s possible. I do like chicken soup and bagels, and we did have a great uncle die at Auschwitz—he fell out of the guard tower. (Okay, it’s an old joke but I’m an old guy.)
Next month I’m going out to California to see my mother’s sister. She is the last surviving sibling of my mother’s family. Many of my cousins will be there. Maybe they can answer some of the questions about my heritage that have perplexed me for so long, such as why is my second toe longer than my big toe? Some of these people I haven’t seen in maybe fifty years. I’m sure I won’t recognize them. They won’t look the same as they did the last time I saw them, and if they do I’m going to figure they’re vampires, so I’m leaving.
As always I am currently working on two novels. One is probably the darkest novel I have ever written, and the other is a coming-of-age novel which has more humor in it than any book I have written. I’m about thirty thousand words into the coming-of-age novel, and I still do not have the opening right. I have rewritten the opening four different times in four different ways from four different points-of-views and starting in four different places. It is one of those books that may never see a publishers desk, but sometimes you write things just for your own amusement. Below is my fifth attempt at an opening.
In 1962, Bon Homme wasn’t much different from most small South Dakota towns of that time, except for the eight-foot granite muskrat statue that greeted everyone coming into town from the west. The statue had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Nobody could say for sure where it had come from or why it stood guarding the west entrance to town. The oldest residence of Bon Homme, Seth Robinson, thought he remembered his grandfather saying something about the statue having been commissioned by either President Pierce or Buchanan, but he couldn’t remember which one or why. Zeke Johnson, Seth’s roommate at the Sisters of the Cross Nursing Home, was adamant that giant muskrat-looking aliens had once ruled over Bon Homme, and they’d left the statue as a reminder that one day they would be back to again enslave the good people of the town. Zeke also believed tapioca pudding was a mind-control substance invented by the government, and the nurses at the home often found him in the mornings buck naked in the aviary, flapping his arms and crowing like a rooster to attract the female finches, so nobody paid much attention to his theory.
Twice every year, homecoming and prom, the Bon Homme High School Senior Class would make a run at defacing the statue: a red clown’s nose, painted on genitalia, Mickey Mouse ears taped to the head …. Every time it happened, Bon Homme’s street department, Matt Bailey, would dutifully clean it up, because an eight-foot muskrat statue might be ridiculous, but by golly it was their eight-foot ridiculous muskrat statue. In a town of less than a thousand people, you grabbed whatever uniqueness you could find and clung to it. The high school’s nickname was the muskrats and the second weekend in July they celebrated Muskrat Days in Bon Homme. They had muskrat races, muskrat tossing contests, muskrat bingo, muskrat sculptures carved out of butter and the merchants gave away free hot dogs–they called them musk dogs. People came from as far away as Yankton, and for those two days the town tripled in size … until they ran out of hot dogs.
Other than Muskrat Days there wasn’t much to do in Bon Homme. The bars and churches were the only social clubs. Some people belonged to both clubs, even the Baptists—if two Baptists ended up in the bar at the same time, they had an unspoken agreement to pretend they were invisible.
The churches played an important role in the town. Many people thought of God and the church as interchangeable. Some put the church above God. Some even made the church their substitute for God, or at least that’s what Donnie Hanson’s father said on the way home from church one Sunday as he gave his usual after-the-sermon sermon and told the family how wrong the minister was about everything. Donnie’s father had considered being a minister at one time. Donnie thought he would have been a good one, because he knew a lot about the Bible—except he used a lot of swear words, especially the F-word. It would have made for an interesting job interview with some church deacon board, Donnie thought, but probably not a successful one.
Donnie liked living in Bon Homme, giant muskrat and all. He’d lived there his entire thirteen years of life so he had nothing else to compare it to. He could have been living in Hell, and he wouldn’t have known the difference. But there was always plenty for kids to do in Bon Homme. They had their own social clubs, but not the churches—churches were places parents made you go.
The girls used the bandstand in Main Street Park as their social club. They played jacks in the afternoons, talked about boys and did whatever adolescent girls do—Donnie didn’t know and didn’t want to know. The boys had Hoch’s Creek.
Hoch’s Creek flowed about a mile west of Bon Homme snaking its way to the Missouri River. It provided a daytime gathering spot for the boys in town. They went there with the pretense of fishing, but it was a boy’s club where they played army, hunted frogs and turtles, fished and even camped out when the begging got so bad that the parents relented just to stop the whining.
We have a bird feeder in our backyard. When I first put it up, I hung it by a wire from a tree branch. The squirrels took turns walking down the wire like The Flying Wallendas, and would empty the feeder in less than an hour. Not to be outdone by an animal with a brain the size of a black olive, I mounted the feeder to the top of a small metal post. The squirrels shinnied up the post quicker than they’d gone down the wire and emptied the feeder. A few of them did fall off the feeder from laughing so hard at my feeble attempts to stop them. (My wife said the problem is, to outwit a squirrel you actually have to be smarter than a squirrel.)
I tried putting every slippery, slimy substance known to man on the post to stop them from climbing the post: petroleum jelly, baby oil, axle grease, STP, lawyers and politicians. All it did was keep their little paws from getting rough and chapped while they contemplated sueing me and went on taxpayer-paid fact-finding junkets to the Caribbean. Finally I drilled a hole in the bottom of a plastic flower pot, inverted it and ran the post through the hole then hung it so the pot was halfway up the post. It stopped them from climbing up the post, but one of them turned into Rocky the Flying Squirrel and jumped from a tree and landed on the top of the feeder.
I moved the feeder so it wasn’t close to any trees and that stopped them—although the flower pot now has rough edges from the squirrels climbing up the post and trying to chew through it. I’m thinking about marketing the flower pot idea. I’m getting offers from companies on a daily basis—most of them are for credit cards, but it’s only a matter of time until the word spreads about the flower pot idea.
Just like it is with most things, as soon as I solved one problem with the bird feeder, another one popped up. This time it was the birds; they kept eating the birdseed. Granted, that was actually one of the reasons I put the feeder up in the first place, but whoever said, beggars can’t be choosers, never met a blackbird. They would sit on the feeder picking through the seed, flipping the stuff they didn’t like out of the feeder like a skinny girl going through a box of chocolates.
Nope, nope, nope, nope. Ooh, chocolate cream. Nope, nope, nope.
In about two hours the feeder would be empty with the ground around the feeder littered with two inches of birdseed, and the squirrels on the ground giving the blackbirds a big thumbs up. Now I fill the feeder with sunflower seeds. The birds still flip some of them out, but I only have to fill it up every couple of days, and the squirrels still get something to eat.
There is a blond squirrel that keeps coming to the feeder. It’s a bully. It runs off the other squirrels when it comes to eat. The blond squirrel doesn’t live in our yard. I see it in the mornings coming over the roof of our neighbor’s house across the street. It’ll jump off their roof onto a tree, come down the tree, run across the street, climb up a tree in our yard, jump on our roof, run across it and jump onto another tree before it comes down under the feeder in our backyard and runs off the other squirrels. It’ll stay all day in our yard until right before sunset when it reverses the route and goes back home. You would think it would find a little three-bedroom ranch squirrel house closer to our house so it wouldn’t have to commute so far. Stupid squirrel.
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Every now and then I’m bitten by the travel bug. I usually get a big red welt, my arm swells up and my face gets all puffy. I think I’m allergic. My wife and I have been thinking about retirement a lot lately. (I’m actually already semi-retired. My wife says I can call myself anything I want, but if she has to get up and go to work every morning, I better be getting up, too.) My wife wants to do some traveling when we retire, and when I say some I of course mean never actually staying in our house again. There is an old show tune that goes:
Home is made for comin’ from,
For dreams of goin’ to.
Which with any luck will never come true.
For dreams of goin’ to.
Which with any luck will never come true.
It pretty much sums up my wife’s idea of the perfect retirement. Home is just a place to store all the junk you acquired while you were traveling—drop it off and head out to get some more junk. I think it’s hereditary. Her mother was the same way: always wanting to be anywhere but home. My wife has that gene. My kids and I have a running joke that it’s always Mom’s job to turn off the lights after everyone has gone, because she’s always the last one to leave. Her whole family is like that. She has a brother who sold his house a few years ago. Now he lives in a motor home and travels south in the winter and north in the summer–Hell for me would involve living in an RV forever.
I’m a homebody first and foremost. I like sleeping in my own bed and using my own bathroom. Oh sure, we’ve taken trips; fishing, camping out west, and we even spent eleven days in Alaska a few years ago. Even then my wife had to keep me busy doing things so I wouldn’t notice I wasn’t at home. Sort of like the way you wave a shiny object in front of a dog so it doesn’t notice you’re expressing its anal glands.
I’m sure part of my problem of not wanting to travel is also hereditary. I remember taking exactly one family vacation when I was little. We went out to the Black Hills of South Dakota. I think my mom might have held a gun on my dad the entire time we were there in order to get him to stay for the whole week.
“Okay, it’s another mountain, big deal. We’ve all seen pictures of presidents before. Now put the pistol down so we can go home.”
Part of my problem is as a writer I can go anywhere I want in my head without ever leaving my house. I can be rich and eat lunch in the finest restaurants of Paris, travel to Rome for dinner and still be able to sleep in my own bed at night. I can live in the Old West and still watch my TV at night from my comfortable recliner. Oh sure, often people end up getting killed, but I get to use my own toilet, and that’s what’s really important.
I’ve always had a high tolerance for pain. Several times I’ve stubbed my toe and hardly cried at all—although hang nails still leaving me weeping uncontrollably. I’m joking. I’ve had broken bones, and several operations, and I took exactly one pain pill. It didn’t do much, so I didn’t take them. The last few times I never even filled the prescription. (I’m a child of the sixties. If you take the pill and still know who you are, why bother–I’m joking.)
Some people can take pain and some can’t. I know a man who had his tonsils out and compared it to having a baby. He made two mistakes in doing that: first, I’ve known eight year-old girls who had their tonsils out, ate a couple bowls of ice cream and were out playing the next day; and second, as a lowly man you are never allowed to compare any pain you might experience to childbirth. You could have your legs run over by a bulldozer, and while you’re lying there, a wild Sasquatch could rip off both your arms and start beating your chest in with them while a rabid wolverine chewed your face off, and if you have two manly brain cells to rub together, your response will be: “At least I didn’t have to give birth.”
Child birth seems to be the barometer people use to gauge pain. The late Erma Bombeck once said that before a woman has her first baby, she goes to natural childbirth classes, because she doesn’t want to subject her unborn baby to drugs. For the second child, she doesn’t go to the classes, because she knows there is no way she’s going to do it without drugs. And for the third baby, she’s asking for an epidural in the fifth month.
Being a lowly man, I have never experienced the great joy of having a baby rip out of my body like a creature from the movie Alien. My wife—who says she’s going to pass out if she gets a paper cut—did it three times. And it was her idea to do it after she had the fun experience the first time. Either there was a boatload of endorphins going through her body that dulled the pain, or post-traumatic stress disorder kicked in and gave her amnesia about the previous times. One way or the other, I appreciate her doing it. I also appreciate her not slapping me silly every time I said we had a baby. All I did was watch, and that was plenty. It really didn’t look like much fun, and it’s got to smart.
In my life I have experienced my share of physical pain—although nothing close to childbirth. I’ve had injuries, broken bones, operations and infections that took awhile to heal. For overall pain, nothing can compare to having a cast cut off my leg. One day when I was playing softball, I slid into second base and broke my ankle. I knew instantly it was broken. It sounded like a cannon going off inside me. I still can’t believe people can break a bone and not know it. The doctor put a fiberglass cast on my leg that ran from just below my knee to my toes.
Six weeks later, I went to the doctor’s office to get the cast cut off and get x-rays to see if it had healed. The doctor took out his little circular saw and started cutting. It was easily the worst pain I have ever felt at any one time in my life. I couldn’t believe they expected a human being to go through this. I squirmed and cried with tears running down my cheeks and sweat soaking my shirt. By the time he reached my ankle I was wishing he’d just cut the leg off at the knee—it would have been a lot less painful. I could see the look of disgust on the faces of the doctor and nurse. I know the doctor was thinking: I cut casts off five-year old girls, and they don’t act this badly. And of course the nurse was thinking: Good thing he can’t have a baby.
When they finally got the cast off, I had second and third degree burns from my knee to my toes. The saw blade was dull and had heated up. It was like having a hot iron slowly dragged from my knee to my toes. But I survived the experience, although I know I never would childbirth.
I’m working on my fifth and sixth novels while I try to find a publisher for my fourth. I started both of them in first person point-of-view and then switched to third person. I just think I’m a rather boring person and thinking of me as a character doesn’t seem interesting.