The Junk Whisperer. Part III

My folks had discovered an actual camera store in Dover, New Hampshire at some point and when I told them about the Brownie, they were kind enough to stop in and pick me up a couple of rolls, ready to meet my sander and get resized to fit. Now with everything I needed to go put this old beautiful box into action, only one question remained: Color or Black and White.


Black and White film holds a special and dear place in my heart. Many years ago, a much younger and substantially more awkward version of me could often be seen stalking interesting shadows and high contrast compositions with my trusty steel body Minolta. It had belonged to my father when he was young and now I had taken to it with enthusiasm. It shoots 35mm and though it only has one lens and is not a snazzy SLR, (i.e., Single Lens Reflex, meaning that the range finder lets you look right through the lens of the camera and not out a separate little range finder in the upper left corner of the camera) it still took the best Black and White photos I’d ever seen. I spent many a happy hour, late at night in the campus dark room developing and making prints of my black and white images.

Color though, offered another, special possibility.

In this crazy-fast, laser like perfected digital age, the phones we have crammed in our collective pockets can take pictures of stunning resolution and clarity and for some odd reason, this ability has kicked off the craze of the “retro-ing” of pictures. The ability to saturate the colors, fade the edges and fake a little light bleed at a corner here and there has become increasingly popular. I have to admit, I find it somewhat perplexing.

I’m looking at you, Hipsamatic and Instagram.

Without a doubt, the images made with these bits of software do indeed look genuinely old school and  the filters and effects used on each uploaded image are often dutifully stamped into the accompanying text of the Facebook post by the shooters.

Lens: Edward Q

Film: Kobe’s 1971

Flash: strobe

…Or some such thing.

I mean no offense to the legion of happy iPhone photographers out there, but when I see these images, my mind quickly drifts to of all the actual filters and lenses that still lurk to this day in dark and dusty, forgotten drawers and backs of closets in homes across the world. They sit unused and unloved and it somehow seems a cheat to let the computer oldify the photo if you have the tools to do it the right way from the very beginning. To me, it feels like buying carrots at the store, sticking them in the ground only to pull them out and call them homegrown. Sometimes, doing something the hard way makes the end product that much better.

To my mind, anyway.

It also makes me slower on the draw, so I guess victory can be claimed on both sides.

Carefully loading the black box with my precious eight frames of ISO 200, color film, I carried the Brownie out side, trying to look at the world with my dusty, rusty photographer’s eye. Something I hadn’t done in far, far too long.

What initially came thundering back to me was the realization that I had eight shots and that was it. For the first time in a long time, I had to really consider my shot rather than just blaze away. It was going back to hunting with a muzzleloader after having used what is essentially, a machine gun. I had become used to snapping off a double fist-full of pictures, looking at what I had, and the culling the duds. In the end, I’d still have three or four pictures that were worth keeping of any given object or situation. Unless your funds are limitless, it doesn’t work that way with film.

I thought about subject

I’m drawn to photographing stuff. I like stuff! It doesn’t move, it’s timeless and you can fiddle with it to get the best effects. The problem is that it can also be impersonal. A photo of a boat on a beach is great and all, but it doesn’t get coveted by your great grandchildren, it doesn’t solve a family mystery and it probably won’t be attributed to you if you’re not there to claim attribution. This time around, I was shooting for something to go in a family album. I was remembering the picture that Great-Grandma took of her child and husband

Scooting around in the flower garden next door, a fancily dressed fairy princess and a serious butterfly hunter caught my eye. My son, Shortstack is six now and his sister Lulu Belle is four and to our great relief and enjoyment, they are each other’s best friend as well as sibling. I also tend to have a slightly biased eye when viewing them. They were the perfect subjects

In this case, their near constant movement would only add to the image. It is how I see them nearly all times unless they are asleep. Blurry.

Holding the camera at chest height and looking through one of the range finders, I lined up my subject.

The shutter swings. SNAP!

What a sound.

I catch her again as she flies along at the edge of the garden.


After a few seconds of cajoling and kindness, I get both of them to stand still long enough to line them both up, capturing a moment of their youth to celluloid.

SNAP! Number three out of eight taken.

The day is beautiful and breezy as the chilly afternoon wind kicks up off the Atlantic and blows the treetops. The three of us head out for some adventure and the Brownie comes with us.

As my two dear children enjoy their time with some kites at a nearby field, I stand off to squeeze them into the tiny field of my camera lens.


Sun at my back and turning the Brownie on its side, I look through the landscape range finder and take one more picture, just to be safe.

SNAP! Number five.

The kids are very interested as I take each photo and are more than a little bugged that I can’t show them the image like on my phone. I wonder if they think I’m making it up. To temper them I take a few more with my digital and we talk about which ones came out best.

That evening, I can’t resist the siren song of low angle sunlight and I joyously give in and search out my last three images. These are for me.




In the end, it wasn’t that long a wait to get my film back from the photo place in town. The hardest part was just getting around to driving it over, and then back to pick it up. I had forgotten how exciting it is to open that little glued envelope. Things could go so wrong. You won’t know until you fan them out and see for your self. There is no going back.

The Garden Series:

The Kite Series:

The Boathouse:

There they are. All eight in all their glory.

I still have the roll of black and white, but that will have to wait for another time and a different method of printing. The photo place I had brought this roll to only develops and prints black and white about every six months, so I’m left with a problem. I could leave my used rolls of film with them and wait like a patient little soldier, or…

It’s a thought to terrifying to think.

Should I?

I know how, after all.

There’s really not that much to… developing it all… my self!


All I need is an enlarger.

Oh, and a developing can.

Well, I need the chemicals too. And lets not forget the baths and a timer. Not to mention tongs, a water supply, drying racks and a bunch of other minutiae I’m no doubt forgetting.

I wonder what corner of the basement would make the best dark room?


Uh oh…

Away We Go… Part II

In the days before we left, I had been busy in my little workshop in the basement. I fully admit that I’m a serial “Do it Your Self”-er and I had been cranking at full steam to get this particular project done in time for our trip.

Last Christmas, I had picked him up a little wooden Space Shuttle with magnetic boosters that clicked satisfyingly onto its bottom. From an aesthetic point of view, it’s quite nice and even came with a little truck you could use to pick up the boosters once they fell away after launch. From an accuracy point of view, it was totally wrong.

Guess what side Short Stack saw it from?

The first thing I was requested to correct was the obviously missing, orange, external fuel tank. I could see how that would bug him. It is, after all the largest part of the entire Shuttle Launch Vehicle. With the use of a very fat dowel, a belt sander, some screws for the magnets to stick to and some orange paint, he was in business. Then he started to notice other things.

“These boosters are very short, Daddy. Do you see how long they are in the picture? Mine are too short. Can you make me some that are longer and have a point on the top? Mine just are round, and that’s not the way they are supposed to be, see?” He held them about three inches from my face to make sure that I couldn’t possibly miss this undeniable fact. Instinctively, I pulled my head back so as to avoid any unintentional eye injuries. That, and my focal length isn’t what it used to be.

“Ah, Oh yes. I see what you mean.” Here, most normal folks might try and beg off and get the child to enjoy what they have, but I have an Achilles’ heal that gets me every time. I LOVE to build stuff… and Short Stack knows it. “Well, is that how you ask?”

“Puh.LEEEZE!?” The giant grin and toothy, “EEEEEEZE” part was all I needed. Back to the basement!

A little while later, things were looking better. The boosters were the right shape and size, the orange tank looked solid and correct and… “Daddy, look. This Shuttle is kind of flat on its nose. It should be rounded. And why doesn’t it have a vertical stabilizer?” As the son of an airplane nut, Short Stack has some vocabulary that falls outside of the normal four year old demographic, Vertical Stabilizer being a good example. What can I say? He makes me proud. He was also, again, correct. This was going to take some heavy thinking on my part.

Altering the little wooden Shuttle that he had was out of the question. It would have simply been too much to change. Nope. It was time to do my favorite thing and make it from scratch. In the end, it wasn’t as hard to make as I though and I was happily vindicated in my obsessive hoarding of every scrap of wood that I make as I work on our house. The wings are a piece of cedar shingle. The body is made from a bit of pine. The engine bump-outs and the much needed vertical stabilizer were fashioned from bits of ash and the rocket nozzles, from some old Chinese takeout chopsticks. Some grey, while and black paint, and it was ready for the finishing touches. These, I am most proud of.

As a trained artist, I have done a lot of detailed, fine work. I’ve painted carefully and skillfully at times and know what my limitations are. Replicating the miniature flags, NASA shield, escape hatch and cockpit windows… was beyond them. It was time to cheat a little.

For those of you who made plastic models as a kid, remember water slide decals? They came on a tiny sheet of paper and needed to be carefully cut out one by one. To shaky kid fingers, they were always a trial and knowing that they were also irreplaceable made it worse. After cutting them out, you needed to soak them in water for thirty seconds. What’s happening in that time is you are loosening the printed decal part from the paper backing. Once its time is up, you take them out and slide them onto the model. As a child, I remember stressing over the process and wondering why they couldn’t just make them peel and stick. The reason is, because the water slide ones look so much better! The awesome news is, you can now buy the blank paper and print your own, which is exactly what I did. With a little Google-fu, I managed to find some images of Space Shuttle decal sheets, pick the parts I needed, get it to scale for the model I made, print them out and attach them. A topcoat of spray poly over the whole thing seals them in for good and voila!

Naturally, I decided to make it Discovery.

I had finished it the day before with not a little stress. As I’ve said before, I seem to, regrettably, be at my most creative and focused when under the gun, time wise. I had presented it to Short Stack while the fumes were still detectible and he was instantly launching it into orbit from the living room couch. The Christmas Shuttle, with all its wrong glory was relegated to standby status and waits for less picky imaginations to take it on adventures. Oh well. There’s always Lulu Belle.

Now, as we arrived at our departure gate and claimed our spot, I reached into Short Stack’s backpack and pulled it out. Happily and with out a though, he established a launch site next to the huge picture windows in the departure lounge and, to the enjoyment of several onlooking adults, picked up where he left off back at home.

“10, 9, 8,… Ignition sequence start. 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. LIFTOFF of the Space Shuttle Discovery! Flying into space and missions beyond!” All of this is said with gusto, focus and most of all, sincerity. With his nose almost pressed to the external tank, the Portland Airport had its first Shuttle launch, Short Stack in command.

I had another surprise for him. Something I had managed to keep to my self until now. The something special I had snuck out of his room the night before.

“Hey, Short Stack. Look what I brought.” I dug into the bag again and he dutifully scooted away from his discarded solid rocket boosters to peer over my arm in an effort to see.

“Is it a rocket?” This is his de facto question for any surprise you have.

“Nope, but you can’t have a rocket with out one.” That got his interest! With a little flourish, I pulled out a single, old school LEGO astronaut and flag and handed them to my son. These particular pieces had actually been mine when I was a kid. Now, they were his.

Short Stack smiled.

I smiled.

Then he looked again. “Where are the rest of them?”

Ugh. Kids.

What he was referring to were the red, blue, yellow and black colored astronauts which I had not collected that evening and who now remained back home on his dresser. I figured that keeping track of all of them on the trip would be a nightmare and had opted for only the white suited one since he looked the most like a real astronaut.

“I just brought him. I though that would be enough.” I have to confess, I was a little taken aback by his reaction. Here, I had brought something special, something unexpected and personally important to me and my son was simply asking for more. I tried not to overtly show my disapproval and started to formulate a mini lecture in my head about being thankful and not always wanting. Just then, I was hit with that pure, laser like kid logic that can make you completely regret whatever you’re thinking.

“But he has no friends. He’ll get lonely.”

Short Stack: +1
Dad: 0

After taking a couple of seconds to think the worst of my self, I did my best to come up with an answer to satisfy my kind, sensitive kid whom I obviously didn’t give enough credit. Thank God they can’t hear you think.

“No he won’t, Buddy! He’ll be with us… We’ll be his friends.”

In a moment of guilt fueled inspiration, I decided to make the little LEGO man fully a part of our mission. To do that though, he needed to be more than just “LEGO guy.” He needed a name.

“Let’s call him… Neil.”

Short Stack’s nose crinkled up, squashing many of his abundant freckles in the process as a bemused smile spread across his face. “Neil? That’s a funny name!”

“Not really.” I assured, “Lots of people are named Neil. And one Neil is a very famous Neil. Do you know why?” A shake of my son’s head gave me the chance to play up the drama of the moment. “He… was the first astronaut to walk on the moon!”

That was all it took. Short Stack immediately picked him up and started telling me the adventures that Neil was off to. In no time at all, he had Neil walking on the moon again, riding on rockets and floating in space. Neil and he were inseparable and the little LEGO man was once again finding himself the central figure in the playful imaginings of a child.

For Neil, unnamed until now, it had been a long wait.

Looking Up.

Under Short Stack’s bed sit his large collection of earth moving equipment, gathering dust. Next to the forgotten dump trucks, excavators and front loaders are his personal, private sea going fleet. A car carrying ferry, two landing craft made especially for him in my workshop, and a small selection of tugs, barges and whatnot, carefully painted and ready for duty. If they were not made of wood, they would be rusting at their moorings.

I blame They Might Be Giants.

These toys that have kept him happy for hours on end for most of his imagination filled life have been swept aside for a new, all consuming passion.


The passion of a four year old.

It all started with the arrival of a gift from my blood brother, The Doctor. An educational DVD by the singing duo of John and John that is punchy, fun, well paced, highly factual and was more than an instant hit with our little resident red head. It was all he ever wanted to watch and he would sing the songs with glee. Some were better than others but one came out as the clear winner. The one about the Solar System.

He’d sing about it, ask questions about it, draw pictures of it and then sing about it all over again. For a treat, Action Girl and I took him to a planetarium a while back and I think that might have cemented it.

We didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!

The notion of space in general has totally overridden all his other interests now and no boat or bulldozer has the gravitational pull of a gas giant or the light of a solar flair. They just can’t compete.

At this very moment, my wife is upstairs with him, reading bedtime stories to him before lights out. He gets to pick the book and her words, drifting down the stairs, are as predictable as they could be.

“The Earth is ninety-three million miles away from the sun and completes a rotation on its axis in just one day. Mercury, on the other hand, rotates much, much slower and…”

Our little island library has a good set of kid’s books on the planets, the sun and other celestial bodies and we’ve been systematically going through the collection over the last few months. We’ve done the books on Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Stars and Jupiter. The biggest issue I have is convincing him that we shouldn’t take the whole lot of them out at once. It’s a tough sell.

I don’t know how many times Action Girl and I have read these little space-fact books to him but I’m willing to bet he knows the text by heart at this point. I’m also willing to bet that we could “read” them to him with our eyes closed. Hey, maybe he should be reading them to us!

Then there are the rockets. Ahhhh, rockets.

Belching flames, roaring noise and awaaaaaay they go! What’s not to love?

What little kid wouldn’t get cranked watching a video of that? The object of his purest enthusiasm is for the soon to be retire Space Shuttle. For Christmas this year, “Santa” got him a little, wooden Space Shuttle that came with two detachable rocket boosters and it was far and away the biggest hit of the day and now, though only a few months old, bears the scars of high action missions throughout the house. His only objection was that it was missing the big, orange external fuel tank. For whatever reason, the manufacturers had left it out, which bugged him to no end.

“But daddy, why didn’t Santa make the orange tank? Doesn’t he know?”

“Ummm. I guess he doesn’t Short Stack. Maybe the elves don’t know about the tank. What do you think?” A long pause as he considered this brought him to an unavoidable conclusion.

“I don’t think Santa knows as much about rockets as I do.”

This statement wasn’t said with the smug satisfaction you’d expect to hear from an adult, but rather with a pained, almost regretful edge to it. Santa was missing out. How sad.

Then, the buoyant solution that brought his smile back in a flash. “Maybe I could tell him about them!”

“I bet you could, Buddy.”

To remedy this egregious oversight on St. Nick’s part, he rummaged around in his play kitchen set and came out with a wooden carrot, which made a reasonable, if not vegetable substitute. The Space Shuttle made regular launches from our living room floor, carrot and all, for about a week before I couldn’t stand it any more. One afternoon when I could safely make a racket with a variety of power tools without waking any nappers or be remiss in my munchkin watching, I pounded down stairs with the mission of making a better fit for his space exploration vehicle. A few well placed screws and magnets, and his ship was complete and correct, thus making two detail nerds very happy indeed.

The solid rocket boosters aren’t correct, but it’s what it came with and honestly, he doesn’t seem to mind, so I’m letting this one go. For now, anyway.

Short Stack has always been interested in getting thing just right, and he wants to know everything he can. I’ve been quizzed on the details of the Apollo landings. I’ve had to scrape my personal memory banks in an effort to dredge up information on the Mercury missions. I’ve explained to the best of my ability how the Shuttle works and the work that is does, and Short Stack, he just wants more.

And more.

And more.

In the past, when the questions finally wore me down, I’d come back at him with a correct but highly detailed answer in the best science speak I could muster. Normally, he’d just stare at me for a few seconds with a look that said, “ I know that what you said answered my question, but I didn’t understand it” and then go wander off to ponder. With space, that strategy isn’t working. When I try my old method, he just stops, thinks about it… and then ask me to clarify.

Possibly five or six times.

I try not to start crying.

It’s been since some time back in November that space exploration took over our son and it shows no hint of releasing. His room, once a haven for heavy equipment and books about bunnies is now bent in devotion of the physical heavens. A picture of a rocket, painted by his own hand, hangs on a wall and just last week, a full set of three dimensional planets took their place, hung in order and radiating away from a suspended tennis ball playing the roll of “The Sun.” The books on the floor are almost universally devoted to objects in the sky.

He’s obsessed. He’s also deeply appreciative for what ever you can tell him about it. Anything. Just get it right.

That brings me to my master plan.

The Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired permanently at the end of this year and since the latest budget proposal has come out, it looks like the end of NASA powered, manned space travel for a long, long time. Like it or hate it, it is most defiantly the end of an era.

Short Stack’s birthday is just around the corner and with my deeply indulgent wife’s nod; I have something special in mind. Tonight, this very night, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is to take off on what will be the last nighttime shuttle launch. I would love him to see that and considered flying to Florida with him so he could watch, but it’s scheduled for lift off just after Four in the morning. The prospect of getting him up at that hour is to horrible to consider. Waking a four year old at two am for a four AM launch? Do I look THAT nuts?

So, I’m shooting for second best.

Tentatively scheduled for the Eighteenth of March, the Shuttle Discovery will be blasting off at around One in the afternoon. That, Short Stack can swing and so, that’s what I’m planning. I’m just waiting for the launch time to firm up so I can buy the airline tickets.

I haven’t told him yet because I don’t want to disappoint if it doesn’t work out for what ever reason. Even once the two of us go, I’ll keep mum about the launch, lest it get scrubbed. I’ll build in a few extra days and see what happens. He’ll be bonkers about visiting the Kennedy Space Center and inspect each and every display with a multitude of questions, I’m sure.

He’ll want to KNOW.
I’ll try not to break down, begging for help after a few days of this.

It’s an ambitious move on my part. I’ll be solo with one of my children, far from home and without a net. He’s a great kid and I trust him to do well. Honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this adventure if that weren’t true. Still, you just never know how these things will play out until they do.

In the end, his contagious excitement is enough to make me want to do this. For him, it’s about the love of the thing. It’s what fills his dreams at night and powers his play all day long. It’s worth the risk. And someday, he’ll be able to tell his children or grand children, “You know, I saw the Space Shuttle launch when I was just a kid. My dad took me there to see it.”

With some luck, they’ll be interested to hear more.

With some real luck, they might even put down their toy trucks and boats and be impressed.

Wish me luck.

I’m nuts, aren’t I?

Building Up Steam

My son, Short Stack is really getting fun. He’s three and a half now, but a mature three and a half. He might even be clocking in at a wholesome five or six when it comes to being aware of the world around him and concerned with his impact on it. I can say with all chests puffing pride that he really tries to be a good boy and it comes naturally.

What his behavior and general demeanor means to me is that I can put things in his hands that most adults would never, EVER consider. Like, say… a two hundred and fifty dollar model train that was a gift to me from my grandparents over two decades ago. Now granted, he’s three and needs to be supervised, but I have no worries that he knows to be gentle and careful. As I carefully set the heavy locomotive in his tiny hands, the awe that spreads across his face like morning light, far out weights the risk of accidental train-icide and I am vindicated by his exaggerated caution as he turns it over to examine the detail.

Like most children who have access to oxygen and some form of video entertainment, my son has been thoroughly sucked into the world of Thomas the Tank Engine and this, in my opinion, is not even a mixed blessing. To be frank, Action Girl and I really, really, REALLY do not care for the little, blue train and his friends.

“Why?” you might ask, abject horror etched into you visage at the thought that I, could in some way dislike the deeply loved characters, created by the Reverend A.W. Audrey, and whom are known by name by most of the global population under three feet tall. It’s simple, really. They crash. A lot. With great regularity, actually. I’d have to guess that Thomas and the other engines spend roughly a quarter of their days getting pulled out of ditches, canals or other non-train friendly environments. Short Stack, being a little sponge in his own universe, has now taken to using his own little, wooden train set to stage various Casey Jonesesque mishaps, often with great enthusiasm and accompanying sound effects. I don’t mind action in play, but it’s rough on the toys, and I refuse to replace or repair anything smashed intentionally. Also, the locomotives in Thomas have a tendency to act in a way they refer to as “being cheeky.” To more accurately describe the behavior in American english, I’d use the words, “mean” and “rude.” These are not words I would use to describe my kids and i don’t appreciate the show modeling it for them.


I needed an antidote to Thomas.

When I was a kid, there was a fantastic toy store on Main Street, aptly named, “Toy City” and by happenstance, it lay directly between my grade school and the school where my Mother taught. After I had finished a fun filled day getting grilled on spelling, math, religion and penmanship (or my lack of), visiting Toy City on my walk to get my ride home was a huge plus in an otherwise academia infested day.

When you walked into the store though the old and ornate set of oak double doors, directly to your left was a glass case filled with beautiful and expensive electric locomotives, I was never a huge train fiend, but these things were a work of beauty. Couple that with the strange lust that most young boys have to control a toy without touching it, and it was enough to make me desperately want one of these jewels. They would gnaw at my brain and I never walked out of the store with out looking them over and dreaming.

My parents, taking in the less than subtle hints I handed out for some years, got me a starter set for Christmas and I happily assembled it and made my little locomotive pull long lines of cars in perpetual circles. It was basic, but it was fun and made me want to add to it. Add as much as I could! The problem I had was one of experience. I had none and my Father, though always enthusiastic to dive into a project, didn’t have much to lend on the topic of toy trains. I knew I had to find out how to build it all.

One day, my Father took me for a drive with the promise of seeing something special. We wound our way through suburbia and eventually pulled into an unfamiliar driveway. This was where I met Mr. Mellish, Bob, as Dad knew him. He was someone Dad knew from business and this man,… LOVED trains. As we all walked into his basement, and the lights came on, I thought I was seeing things. The entire space was filled… totally filled!… with one massive labor of love. The train layout was of such a size that it actually disappeared around the corner. The level of detail was mind blowing and working on it with Mr. Mellish would become my Wednesday afternoon ritual for the summer. Once a week, my father would drop me off after work and, happily munching on a sandwich provided my Mrs. Mellish, I would wiggle under tables to run wire for impossibly small street lights, poke up through access holes to install miniature trees and naturally, drive the trains! It was a train heaven.

My Father and I started a set in my basement as well, but sadly, it never really got that close to completion. With a draw like the set at Mr. Mellish’s house, it was hard to drum up enthusiasm for my own little sheet of plywood and I tended to save my train energies for the visits to my steam guru’s house. I did manage to build up a nice little collection of track, rolling stock (cars) and a few locomotives over the years, but they saw limited use in my own home. Eventually, they were boxed up and became part of the load of baggage that I’ve schlepped from living space to living space. Other than a few times when the box was opened to see just what the heck was in there, they haven’t seen daylight in easily fifteen to twenty years.

You can guess where this is going, can’t you? Tonight, after Lulu Belle had been put down in her crib with a bottle and roughly ninety stuffed animals, Short Stack and I ventured into the basement. On the concrete floor, I had set up the bits of track that I still had and hooked it all up to make a loop. The look on his face was one of pure joy. Within a few minutes, he had grasped how to run the trains and was happily and carefully sending them around in circles, complete with narrative as to what was going on. No crashes, no cheeky behavior. Just happy train driving.

After an hour or so, I broke the news to him that it was bedtime and we headed up stairs to get the evening abolitions out of the way. Once the stories were done and the kisses handed out, he stopped me before I could leave.


“What is it kiddo?”

“Will you go back down cellar and play with the trains?” His face was earnest and I wasn’t sure what the right answer was here.

“Um… I don’t know. Why?”

“Can you drive them while I’m asleep?”

This caught me off guard and I smiled. “Do you want me to?”

“Yah, Daddy! I do! And then I will play trains with you again tomorrow.”

After making my promise, I walked back into the basement and I tried to imagine it with a more permanent track set up. Nothing the scale of Mr. Mellish’s to be sure, but something fun. Short Stack seems to be thrilled that we have an avocation in common and I, for one, am not going to let it slip past me. It’s going to take some digging and shuffling to make room, but I’m willing to try.

Time spent enjoying life with my kids and getting the chance to play with some of my old toys is nothing to overlook. Besides, I might finally get to build that layout I always dreamed about as I gazed at my little plywood train table in the cellar of my childhood house. It seems that all I needed was the help of an enthusiast whom I was yet to know.

It just took longer than I expected for me meet him.

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.”


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.

You Can’t Get That From Here.

Some time ago, Action Girl and I were headed off on one of our trips, backpacking through various European towns. One of the issues that always proved problematic were the cats. We had two at the time and obviously, could not leave them unattended for two weeks while we gallivanted off on adventures. Try as I might, neither one of the kitties seemed to be able to get the knack of using the can opener. I blame this on the lack of opposable thumbs and having brains the size of a walnut. This meant that we needed a house sitter. Well, cat sitter, actually. Considering the neighborhood we lived in, having the house occupied would also give us a better shot at coming home to a house full of all of our stuff, rather than an empty shell. Our house was nice, where it was located was… well, lets just say that you didn’t get bored keeping track of your belongings.

Out house/cat sitter was a good friend and was happy to do it for free. All she wanted was something cool from Europe. That sounded easy. Off we went on our adventure and we had a great time as you’d expect, but one problem persisted. Finding something to get our house sitter that she couldn’t get in the States was getting impossible. Everything we seemed to find that looked promising to one of us, the other would inevitable remark that, yes they had seen that back home. It was getting really infuriating. It seemed that the world had finally shrunk to the point that there were no longer any real cultural oddities that you could bring back from Europe to the States that would “wow” the folks back home.

The only thing that we could finally come up with that you couldn’t get back home, was the Smart Car. If you haven’t seen one of these, then you are really in for a treat. “Cute” doesn’t come close to describing it. They are itty bitty, two seater cars (yes, I know that they make a four seater now) that you see fairly often over much of Europe now. They are made by Daimler AG so you know that they are both well made and crammed full of a gazillion little parts that would take a watchmaker to replace. The interesting part is that not only are they tiny, sporty and make you smile almost immediately when you spot one, but they are also quite safe. I actually had a friend in England who owned one. At one point he managed to get into a high speed accident going down the highway. He bounced off the guard rail doing about eighty MPH, zinged across traffic and off the road, into the trees. The Smart Car was toast. He had a broken wrist and ankle. Not bad for a car you practically strap on.

So, though we needed to repay our house sitter, a car was a bit out of our price range, even if it did have a fair chance of fitting in the overhead compartment for the flight home. On the last day of our journey, I spotted the perfect thing. While we waited at the train station for our ride to the airport, sitting in a gift shop window I spotted our “thank you” gift. Kinder Eggs. Lots and lots or Kinder Eggs. These were perfect. Kinder Eggs are the size of a regular hens egg and wrapped in foil like a Cadbury Creme Egg. They are Chocolate, like a Cadbury Creme Egg. The chocolate is hollow, again like the Creme Egg. There are two major differences. The interior of the Kinder Egg is lined with white chocolate. “Big deal”, I hear you say. Ahhh, but, the real fun is the yellow capsule inside. In that capsule is a toy, usually needing assembly. They are often perplexing, sometimes really fun but always random. They do offer “themes” that go with promoting various movies or TV shows, but for the most part, it’s a crap shoot. You just don’t know what you’ll get, AND you couldn’t get them in the U.S.

There’s a FDA rule that you can not stick an inedible object into a food stuff. You can kind of think of it as the “crunchy frog” clause. The capsule is far to big to be eaten by accident but it seems that the FDA felt that American kids were just far too stupid to notice the avocado pit sized, yellow, plastic thingie in the center of the egg. You couldn’t import them for sale back home!

So, one dozen Kinder Eggs in hand, we happily headed back to all out belongings and a happy house sitter. The cat’s had steadfastly refused to use the can opener. Good for them, she had been there!

A month or so ago, I went into a local fancypants food import store and there on the counter next to the Ritter Bars and the Nutella was a display of Kinder Eggs. I quietly called the manager over and mentioned that I believed that these were not legal to sell in the U.S. To my surprise, she told me that Kinder Egg had managed, after many years of lobbying, to get a special dispensation. They could sell them in America at long last. I was both relieved and a little sad. It was the one of the last things that was uniquely foreign. Some weeks later, as I drove to work I spotted this…

Yes, it’s a Smart Car. You can get them here now as well. This one in particular has been modified for the Lindt Chocolate Company. The bunny ears are not for sale with the standard model. It did strike my fancy though. Some how the idea of both the Kinder Egg and the Smart Car done up as a chocolate bunny goes hand in hand. I wonder if it runs on plastic Easter grass?

Hi Ho, Hi Ho….

So today was the big day. Action Girl is back at work and back on the water. After about eight months of being a “stay at home” mom, she’s put her ditty-bag back together, grabbed her charting tools and notebooks and is back piloting sea craft and transporting goods and passengers. Going back to work has loomed large on her horizon for months now and the pressure has been building. We, and everyone who knows her, understands that she’s not the “stay at home” type and though she has had a great time with the kiddos, she’s happiest when she’s hard at work, out on the water. As a bonus, deckhands follow orders better then two year olds do and conversation revolves around topics other than just toy trucks and peanut butter toast. Not always… but more often, you understand.

It was a bit of a mad house this morning as the two of us worked to get the four of us ready for the day. Short Stack was headed to a house with an ample supply of plastic dump trucks, blocks and kids his age whom he knows. Lulu Belle was off to a new place for more hands on, one on one care. Being a two months old, all she really needs are the necessities of life and someone to be attentive. In some ways, she’s the easiest though not the fun one.

I dropped Action Girl and Lulu Belle off first so the baby sitter could get the full, panicked parent rundown. I’d swing back after I dropped of The Boy. Action Girl leaned way back into the rear seats, wiped the peanut butter off one of Short Stack’s cheeks to make a clean spot and gave him a kiss along with wishes to have a great day. After the door was closed, I drove the rest of the way to where he would be spending the day. As he munched happily on his peanut butter pancake, he pointed out various objects of interest.

“Dat car is parked. It’s not going. Da rain is making the car all wet. Dis is a fast road. Cars go fast.”

I slowed down a bit.

We arrived at the house and I pulled him out along with his bag of goodies. He still happily munched away and continued the commentary about the various piles of fresh dirt, the scattered toys and the rain dripping from the trees. As we walked through the door, he immediately started to wiggle.

For half a second, I was afraid that he wanted to leave. I had been found out! He was on to me and knew that I was leaving him!… No. He had a HUGE smile on his face and wanted to get down and dive in to the cluster of kids playing on the floor. I just managed to get his shoes, hat and coat off before he blasted away like a wobbly rocket.

The last minute tips and instructions were given to the sitter and I went to leave. Short Stack was in the thick of it and laughing already. As much as it hurt to not get my last, last, LAST hug and kiss before I left him, I decided it was best to slip out unseen and avoid any tears. Just as I opened the door, his head shot up and he dashed through the scrum to jump up into my arms clamping me in a big hug. After I bent down and returned him to the floor, he was back into the pack of kids in seconds. I effected my quick escape, a much happier Dad.

The car was very quiet when I picked up Action Girl and drove us to away. It’s a very strange feeling to not have our kids with us or at least with a relative and it’s going to take getting used to. Lulu Belle won’t be able to relate her day to us later this evening, but I bet we’ll get an earful from Short Stack.

I hope Action Girl has a good first day back. It’s a little rainy, but the wind isn’t blowing. She has a good crew whom she knows and likes and the runs for her today are nice and simple. I’ll be heading back to my shop and get caught up in my own work. The real trick will be staying until I should. The temptation to come home early is already gnawing at me… and it’s only nine in the morning.

Hmmm… Maybe if I just work through lunch…

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