Tickets, Part I

Things had to be set in motion to make the dream a reality. The most critical of piece was securing the blessing from my wife. After hinting around in the subtlest way I could manage for well over two weeks, all my gentle prodding finally came to fruition.

As she sat in the living room chair one evening, the hoped for statement came rolling out as easily as a wave rising on the shore. “You know, why don’t you take Short Stack to go and see the next Shuttle launch.” Slightly bug-eyed, I tried to play it very safe. Now was not the time to screw things up by acting hastily.

Outwardly, what I believe I said at the time was, “Hmmmm.” as if I was mulling this thought over for the first time rather than the four hundredth and ninth. Inwardly, I’m pretty sure my brain broke into a sweat as I strained to keep from breaking into a spontaneous happy dance right there in there in the living room. It’s not that I didn’t think she would trust me with one of our children far from home and her watchful eye. No, nothing like that. It’s just that Action Girl is not one to voluntarily miss out on something fun. She can barely contain herself if she knows that I have a small gift for her birthday or even if I simply have an entertaining story to relate later on that evening. My wife has a lot of virtues but patience in the fact of impending fun is not one of them. Forgoing an actual vacation that would include palm trees, crisp bed linens, a swimming pool and possibly a beach… well, that’s like waiting for the IRS to send you a letter saying that, hey, why don’t you just keep it all this year. I suppose it might be possible, but you sure as heck don’t bank on it happening.

Even though I’d be going with my three, almost four year old son, it would undoubtedly be a vacation, as well. After all, I’m the stay at home parent in our household and under normal conditions have two miniature people causing chaos around me all day, ever day. Having to wrangle just one is almost like a vacation on its own. I can look back now at my pre-child days and laugh out loud at what I considered to be a busy day. Then we had Short Stack and I thought I knew what busy was. After Lulu Belle came along, I looked back at my time with just one child and laughed again at how I thought that was so hard to do. I’m wiser now. I barely have time to do anything fun and exciting such as sitting down, taking regular showers or making coffee. The idea of adding one or more children to our batch sends me scampering up the trees. Honestly, I know I could do it, but I don’t know how. Personally, I’d rather not think about it.

As I did my best to slowly, “come around” to this idea I cautiously checked her resolve in what might have been a moment of weakness. “Are you sure you’d be okay with this? You wouldn’t mind if I took just him to go and see the Shuttle?” Again, I tried to act as nonchalant as possible while my heart raced at lemming-on-its-third-cappuccino speed.

“Yah, it would be fun for you two. He’s bonkers on rockets and it would be something he’d remember for the rest of his life. I don’t think I’d want to spend that much time looking at rockets as you two would, so it would be better if just you two went. Besides, there aren’t going to be that many more Shuttle launches, are there?”

Here she was completely correct.

The Shuttle had been rolled out when I was just a kid, back in 1981. As a kid playing in the dirt of the school playground, what we were into were rockets. The last Apollo mission had been flown in 1972 and all we had to look up at was something called “Skylab” which sounded a lot like a place to do school work and thus, didn’t interest us much beyond the fact that al agreed that it looked a lot cooler than what the Soviets had with their bulbous Mir. Since the cessation of anything really wowable in the space race, we, the children of the Cold War, tended to look more to the latest high tech bomber or attack submarine for our chest thumping assuredness when it came to America’s ability and know-how. Then… we saw it.

On April 12th of 1981, something very, very noteworthy happened for all to see. STS-1 was launched. As children who were raised on a steady diet of anti-Soviet, Regan fueled, flag waving patriotism, to see this massive and undeniably beautiful spacecraft blast her way into space, well… it was like pouring sugar on an anthill. We all wanted to see it, touch it, ride it… FLY it! She was unlike anything we had seen before and speaking for the eight year old set at Saint Joseph’s Grammar School, we were impressed. Deeply so.

This was STS-1, the first launch of many to come. At the time, we didn’t know what STS stood for (Space Transportation System, by the way) or that this new “Space Shuttle” even had a name beyond the one we’d been told about on television and at school. We knew it as Colombia, but NASA called her OV-102. There had been another before this, OV-100, or in more common parlance, Enterprise but we hadn’t really been paying much attention to that. Enterprise was never meant to fly into space. Her entire job was intended to be as a test bed for what would later become the shuttles built later on. She was never even fitted with engines. The cool tie in name to one America’s favorite Sci-Fi TV shows aside, she just didn’t have the sexy. It was like looking at a full size model of a Lamborghini. Sure, it was kind of neat, but… so? Your average third grader needs more than that. We needed fire! Fire and smoke! Oh, and a really, REALLY loud noise!

Boy, did we get it!

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Tool Junkie

As I looked into the empty, steel box, a very faint memory flitted through my head, just at the edges of my ability to reach it, like an escaped pet that manages to stay just beyond your grasp. In the box, there should be an electric saw perfect for the construction job that I was neck deep in. Instead, a terrified spider stood guard over a few burned out blades and the ancient sawdust left from previous battles waged with my house. The saw was nowhere to be seen. In my mind’s eye, I could envision handing it to a grateful someone who turned down taking it with its carrying case and saying something about getting it back to me later.

The problem here it that I can’t for the life of me, remember who this individual was.

Normally, I take care to reclaim tools quickly and write my name all over them as a precaution lest they be enveloped by some other tool chest and taken as its own. This time around, I had neglected these steps and since the moment of its lending happened well over a year ago. All I am left with now is the metal box and no saw. I think I can safely guess that the saw and whomever I loaned it to are both gone for good. That’s a common issue with the island we live on. The houses here are often in need of extensive repair and the people who live in them tend to come and go as they discover that planning life around a ferry schedule isn’t all that simple. They put the project up for sale and move on. I’d be willing to bet a bag of doughnuts that my saw isn’t even on this island anymore.

Tools are something that I have a weakness for. Places that sell them call to me like the sirens to Ulysses and ever since we bought our first house, I’ve been pursuing my ultimate goal of owning them all. Every tool out there. All of them.

toolchest

Some, I’ll need two of.

Or possibly… three or more.

My tool love was magnified by the fact that I used to own a business in manufacturing that required a pretty sizable array of toolidge, which I happily indulged in. It was kind of like telling a caffeine addicted barista that they had to sample each and every pot of coffee every morning.

The only thing better than shopping for a new tool, is shopping for a new validated tool!

When I sold my shop last year, the contents of the toolbox were not part of the bargain and it all came home with me to happily overflow my basement. I have two complete wrench sets, two each of two types of drills (two battery powered and two half inch corded), two circular saws, two drill presses and more measuring tapes than the mind can comfortably explain the need for having.

Some of these duplicates have gone to my parent’s house to clutter up Dad’s workbench and they have been happily received. For him, it means that he finally had some power equipment that he’s been unable to justify buying and for me it softens some of the guilt I feel for all the hand tools that I borrowed from him in my youth and then lost in the back yard, the woods or simply secreted away to my own house. I’m sure some of his as well as my own tools live, lost and forgotten in various closed up walls or behind built in cabinets with the spiders and old shopping lists that seem to lurk there and reproduce in abundance.

Though I’m a sucker for motorized tools, my real love is with good, old fashioned, cast steel ones. Hand tools have a spirit about them that you just don’t get with anything else. A cruise through a few of my bench drawers or tool boxes will yield you a healthy example of wrenches, screw drivers and saws that are rough, darkened with age and grease and quite old. They date back three or four generations now and some have been used by my family, some still alive, some long gone now. The marks left on them by their past projects are imprinted on each tool like scars of honor.

Many years ago when my Grandfather knew he was dying, he made a request of my Father. He wanted to make sure that he’d take the tools. My Dad was his only son and it was important to Grandpa that his tools continued on in family hands. Naturally, he agreed and didn’t really understand what he said yes to until after his father had passed. Grandpa had worked with his hands his whole life and his years at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Western Electric Company and the farm he had, made him a solid, “fix it your self” kind of person. He had amassed an impressive stable of hand tools as well as a few electric ones (including a truly intimidating looking half inch drill that has to date back to the fifties or sixties). Bringing it all back to our home turned my Dad’s normally well organized work space in the basement into a huge collection of dark, heavy iron, ancient coffee cans filled with various drill bits and boxes of unidentifiable and obviously specialized bench mounted equipment. Later on when my wife and I bought our first house, Dad and I started to transfer some of them to my place.

As you look around the clutter choked area I call my workbench, you might notice that the most used tools are kept within easy reach. My Grandpa’s grey toolbox sits only an arms length away and I paw through it often. When I do, I often whisper through a smile something like, “Ok, Grandpa. Lest see if you have… needle nose pliers / a pipe burnisher / a 5/16ths wrench”… or something along that line. I value the connection it gives me and using his tools makes him feel close by just like it does when I use one of my Great Grandfather’s tools or one of my Dad’s that I have snuck off with when he wasn’t looking. I’ll get it back to him later.

More likely, I’ll use it to fix something in his house at some point soon. I’ll try to remember to leave it on his bench after.

Tools are special to a fixit guy. A wrench stops being just a wrench once you’ve used it long enough, bled on it, carried it in your pocket until the jeans rip where it goes and the metal goes dark with age. It represents the projects you’ve completed and the problems you’ve solved. Its loss would be keenly felt and its replacement would always be just that. A replacement.

There’s a story I’ve heard about a man talking with a farmer who he spotted chopping firewood. The man makes a comment about the farmer’s rather abused looking axe and mentions that he ought to get a new one.

“No sir! This is the best axe I’ve ever had! I’ve been using it for most of my life. I’ve put three new handles on it and two new heads. I just love this axe!”

As you can see, it’s the spirit that carries on. The story is a joke, naturally, but to be honest, I identify one hundred percent with the farmer.

After a trip into town and then to the tool store, I had parted with a sizable chunk of money but joyously clung to my new purchase. In my arms I held not simply a new Sawzall, I held MY new Sawzall.

sawzall

It’s far better than the one I lost and I’m thrilled to state that at the time of this writing, it is already dinged, dirty and well broken in. It’s earned its cookies and an honorable place among the family tools in my workspace.

It won’t last forever, naturally. It’s a power tool after all. You can bet that the motor will eventually over heat and fail or the bearings, filled with the grime and sawdust of a hundred projects, will someday seize, but in the mean time, it’s going to see a lot of work, and it makes me happy! When its day does come, I’ll toss it out and start shopping for a new one. The old hand tools will still be there though and work just as well as they always did and I’ll be working them just as hard.

All I need to do now is figure out a way to keep my own kids from nicking them before I’m finished with my own projects. I’ll probably have to build some sort of giant, locking tool chest and to do that, I’m going to need to pick up some new pieces of equipment!

Hmmm… I’ll need a joiner, a new router, some clamps… lots more clamps! Hmmm….

Frog Racing

Needing to know how mechanical things work has always haunted me. I was never the kid who took the perfectly good pocket watch apart or removed the family car’s carburetor, but that was solely for fear of screwing things up and getting in trouble. If something had the audacity to actually break on me though, well then, that was a different story! I positively reveled in the excuse to bring what ever it was down to the basement and get the screwdrivers out and start the post mortem. Sometimes, I’d just get a view of perplexing circuit boards and I’d put things back as I found them. More often than not however, I’d get what ever it was, running again. Perhaps it didn’t work JUST the same way that it had before, but hey, it DID work now, right?

My proclivity for voiding warranties followed me as I grew and my patients got more and more complex. Building plastic models and fixing dysfunctional toys was fun and all, but I was looking for a challenge. If this challenge could ultimately provide me with something that I could then play with, well… so much the better! I knew what I needed. I wanted a radio controlled car.

I had owned a handful of cheap radio controlled gizmos, usually created in the image of pop culture icons of the time. There was the Cylon Raider spaceship, the miniature R2-D2 and a few others of less notable stature. These little toys could go forward and reverse and turned only as they backed up. Though appreciated, they were far from what I was looking for as I grew. When I was eight, navigating them across the kitchen floor was a hoot. As a thirteen year old, they just wouldn’t do. A real radio controlled car was a work of art. It was something to be proud of. It made your friends jealous. It also cost a bundle to get into. I would have to save long and hard for this one.

The first thing that set these toys apart, other than the sticker price, was that you had to build them. They didn’t arrive assembled and ready to go. Far from it. For your one hundred and fifty or so dollars, what you got was a box filled with hundreds and hundreds of parts, bits, pieces, nuts and bolts. It wasn’t, “some assembly required”, but rather, “all assembly required.” That was the point.

While I was aching for one of these cars, Mom and Dad were more than a little dubious. My track record for, “projects started vs. projects finished” wasn’t the most stellar. I have a tendency to get distra… HEY! Look! A penny!

The clincher for me was when my friends Charlie and Mike both got cars of their own. My burning desire for one of these had become incandescent. The hobby shop in town was owned by a good hearted fellow and I routinely came in to drool on the car kits and discuss the merits of each model with him and his infinite patience. It was he who introduced me to the concept of layaway. I bit at the chance and gave him my down payment. With saved birthday money and hoarded allowance cash, I picked up my very own car kit shortly after. It was called, “The Frog.”

frog-box

The picture on the box showed a tough looking dune buggy bounding into the air as it rocketed off a rise in the land with a slogan painted on the spoiler reading, “No Guts, No Glory!” The ride home from the hobby shop just about killed me with the anticipation of getting at it. When we arrived, I cleared a large spot on the floor in an out of the way room, dragged my record player and speakers down from my room and put on Van Halen’s “1984” It was time to build!

The directions, though lengthy, were no harder to follow than the average plastic airplane model and I dove in with gusto. I remember being surrounded by little piles of nuts and bolts, all arranged in order by size and type as I made a zillion trips to my Father’s bench for tools, the kitchen to forage for munchies and to my record player take off the current record and put on some ZZ Top or, more aptly, The Cars. I was in heaven.

It took me a day and a half to finish it but in the end, it was a thing of beauty. Ugly, ugly, beauty. Naturally, all the parts you needed were not included in the kit and had to be purchased separately, but I had seen to that. For my birthday, I had asked for and received a radio transmitter to control my new car and I had scraped up enough cash from piggy banks and squirreled away stashes to purchase my battery charger. The rechargeable battery itself, I had to beg Dad for. It was twenty bucks, More accurately, it was twenty bucks I didn’t’ have. I can still see his face, mulling over whether to get it for me or not. In hindsight, I doubt seriously that he would have said, “no”, but his pause and measured suck of air through closed teeth made me appreciate it all the more when he said, “Okay”. I was in business!

As it turned out, driving “The Frog” wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. It was WAY, WAY more fun! There is something compelling building something your self and the pride that I took in the finished car made me highly protective and eager to show it off to my friends and the guys at the hobby shop. The place where I had bought my car also put on radio controlled car races every other Sunday and I did what ever I could to make it to them. Again, my Dad was an integral part in all this since the little battery pack for my Frog only lasted about fifteen minutes before it needed recharging. Since the races were outside, the only way to recharge was with the battery under the hood of the family car. I may never have taken the carburetor apart, but I did get to know the car’s electrical system pretty well! My Father would sit with a book or the paper in the running car as I carefully adjusted the load from the charger, hooked one end to my twenty dollar battery and the other to his car. I tried very hard to make sure to thank him for this. I bet he could’ve thought of a hundred better ways to spend his Sunday mornings rather than in a parking lot, waiting to watch me race. He’s a great dad, that way.

I was down in my basement yesterday and noticed a familiar shape hanging from its bumper on a beam. Its looking a little worse for wear after Lord knows how many hours of being driven at break neck speed over all sorts of terrain and then gathering dust for nearly two decades. Taking it down and cleaning it off reveled that things seemed to be in working order despite the years of neglect. I fiddled with it a bit, greasing up a part here and there and applying WD-40 as needed. As I got reacquainted with this old but hard won distraction, I realized that the only part it really needed was a replacement battery. The original was now far too elderly to hold any appreciable charge.

I ordered its new battery today along with a set of new tires to take the place of the elderly, cracking ones currently clinging to the rims. It feels like I’m thirteen again and waiting to make my last layaway payment. I can’t wait for the new parts to arrive! My son will no doubt be confused and enthralled, all at once when get it out in the snow. I’m betting that it will take about a minute and a half before he’ll want to drive it himself. That ought to be a hoot. At least I don’t have to worry about his feet being able to reach the pedals.

Back in that room, so long ago, I never would have guessed that some day my own kids would get a chance to drive my little off road buggy. You might think I’m crazy, but I hope Short Stack doesn’t mind listening to The Cars while I get it ready to run.

For What It’s Worth

I went out to the movies with my Dad last night. It was a rare and happy opportunity for both of us to get together and just be guys. Mom had gone to stay over night with one of her sisters and Action Girl had taken the kiddos up to her folk’s house for a mini-vacation. Dad had a conference to go to and I had work to do so we had stayed behind. That evening, we were left to entertain our selves.

I’m very close to my Father and the fact that with adulthood comes fewer chances to do things with him has been hard for me to take at times. We really are good friends. This was a great chance to play!

So, decided to go out and do something that our wives might not want to do. In this particular case, Action Girl was a little bummed by our choice since she was up for this particular adventure. Well… adventure might be pushing it. We went to the movies to see explosions and silliness. We went to see “Tropic Thunder”.

For those of you who might be living in a cave in the Antarctic, Tropic Thunder is a goofball movie about a bunch of goofballs trying to make a movie. As one of the characters puts it, “I’m the dude, playing the dude who looks like another dude”. Oh, yah! We’re talking about quality here. Funny in a lot of places and full of explosions. What more can you ask for in a “guy” movie!?

The quick and dirty backstory is that they are filming a movie about the Vietnam War, in Vietnam. It follows them as they wander off into the jungle and wind up being mistaken as U.S. drug enforcement agents by a local heroin processing gang. Hilarity ensues. So do fart jokes. Oh! And did I mention the explosions?

Here’s where this gets interesting for me. I have never been in the military. That’s something that I’ve always sort of regretted. I’m not sure why. My Dad, however, was. He was extremely lucky, being assigned to a unit that just completed a tour. Before the next deployment came around, things changed. The troops were being pulled out, not put in. Considering that he was trained as a combat platoon sergeant, it’s a minor miracle that he stayed State side for his entire time in the military. He did however train, live with and know a lot of guys who did go over. His best friend had joined the Marines, was a 30 cal. man, and somehow managed to make it through at least two tours, though it cost him dearly. He came home a very different person and it took years for him to put his life back together. Several of my Dad’s friends didn’t come home at all.

Tropic Thunder was about humor, but it was kind of uncomfortable at times to sit there next to my father, knowing that he was looking at the movie in a different way than the director intended. There were some moments of uneasiness for me as I watched. At one point as the uppity actors are being dumped into a jungle clearing by helicopter to “experience” what it was like to be In Country, the camera pans over a swampy area and catches the faded and wrecked tail section of an old huey, lost “for real”, during the war. I know it was a prop on a set, but it yanked me violently out of the show on the screen and bothered me deeply. Suddenly, it struck me like filming a comedy at an old death camp. It colored my view of the rest of the movie.

I was born too late to have understood what was happening in Vietnam when the war was in full swing, but it loomed large in my later childhood, none the less. Our dads were the vets who didn’t want to talk about it, or the protesters who felt that they could finally rest. Comic books didn’t touch the subject much. It was still a taboo subject at that point. I remember vividly, my Dad, the gentlest man I knew, dressed head to toe in olive drab, sergeant stripes on his shoulders, cap under his arm and those big black boots. I remember sitting on our steps and not wanting him to go away, even though I knew he’d be back soon. By the time I was old enough to understand, he was out.

They wanted him to stay, naturally, but he had had his fill and was eligible to leave. He hung his boots in the cellar and there they stayed for a long time. They were a fixture for most of my childhood. Eventually, they disappeared during a basement clean out.

The war of my generation was the first Gulf War. If I was going to go, that was the one that I would have been been part of. I was in college and not inclined to join George the First’s party in the sand. I’m too old for service now. Even if I asked to join, they wouldn’t take me. The interesting thing is that Vietnam is still the one that strikes home to me. It’s the one that I feel a strong personal connection to, even though the history buff in me tends to study the First and Second World Wars the most. I may find them fascinating, but they don’t resonate like Vietnam does. I’m not sure why. I don’t even read much about that war in south east Asia. It just feels too close.

Though all war is a horrible thing, Vietnam was a truly hideous war for all parties involved. It was the one where what it meant to be an American started to unravel and splinter. It changed our world view and changed the way we were viewed by the world. It was also the one that claimed the lives of so many of my Father’s friends. Years ago, just the two of us went to the memorial in Washington D.C. I stood back a bit as I watched him look for the names he knew and tried to both be there for him if he chose to point them out, yet distant enough for him to remember in peace. It was a hard moment for both of us.

So, the movie ended on a crechendo of explosions and foolishness. The good guys get away, the movie gets made and the bad guys get nothing. All is good in Hollywoodland. The two of us went out for fish and chips and split a side of muscles. We took advantage of the rare time alone and chatted about all sorts of stuff, but not the movie. I never really gave it another thought until this morning as I was racing around, being industrious. Suddenly, the little music box that lives in my head started playing Dusty Springfield and it stopped me cold. I went over to my computer and looked through my music list and started arranging. In a few minutes, I had built what is to me, the music of the Vietnam War. To be honest, it’s what you’d expect, but it’s made me think long and hard about it again. Memories that are not my own but personal enough to make my vision blurry.

I think I’ll go someday and see that far away place for my self. I don’t know what I’m looking for in the war zone of my Father’s generation, but I’d like to try to figure that out; wether to settle the dust in my mind or stir up the ghosts.

Either way, I think it will be an important moment.

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