Kitchen Boy

In the summer of 1962 I got my second full-time job. The previous summer I had worked on the nearby Red Ladder Ranch*. But this next year, when I was fifteen, my friend Tom called me up and said that the University of Wyoming was hiring Kitchen Boys to work at their Recreation Camp.

The Camp was located about ten miles northwest of Centennial, Wyoming. It consisted of a dozen guest cabins, staff cabins, meeting rooms, and a dining hall with a commercial kitchen. It was nestled in the edge of the forest in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains.

The Camp did not offer programs of its own but it was rented out to various clubs, teams, and groups looking for a place to hold a retreat. No matter who was renting the place, they all needed to eat and a Cook and an Assistant Cook were hired to provide the necessary victuals. Forty to sixty campers can produce an awful lot of dirty dishes – not to mention food-encrusted pots and pans – so a couple of young boys were required to clean up after the cooks. And Tom and I got the job.

When we first applied for the job, Mr. Watkins, who interviewed us, told us that once the breakfast dishes were done, we could relax for an hour before beginning to work lunch. After the few lunch dishes were washed, we would have several hours to do whatever we wanted until it was time to go in and help with Dinner. For this we would get Room and Board, plus a check totaling Seventy-Five dollars every month. The previous summer I had been paid a total of $25. Of course, I had run an expensive piece of farm equipment into a fence post and bent it – but to my ears, which were clearly still-wet-behind, $75 seemed like a princely sum.

One of Tom’s first duties was to drive the old, green Chevy truck into Laramie and pick up Mrs. D, who was to be the Cook. Mrs. D was in her 60’s and morbidly obese. When she climbed into the cab of the pickup, the springs squeaked in quiet process and the truck leaned noticeably to the right. Mrs. D in her youth must have been a strong, strapping woman because after being coated in a thick layer of adipose tissue, her arms were enormous. Tom discovered one downside to this when, on the road out to Centennial, a wasp flew in an open window and Mrs. D, in Tom’s words, “started flailing those giant arms around and about wrecked us.”

My old friend Dave once told me his theory of institutional food. He said there were several huge underground vats near Topeka, Kansas that contained a light gray, gelatinous substance. Numerous pipelines ran from these vats to every large institutional kitchen in the lower forty-eight states. All those cooking stoves and refrigerators in university kitchens, hospitals, and assisted living centers were rarely used and mostly there for show. What was constantly in use was the pipeline terminal and the various molding, shaping, and coloring machines. These turned the gelatinous substance into green bean casserole, lemon meringue pie, and tuna surprise. There were no flavoring machines, hence the taste of the food. After the meal, all leftovers and scraps were scraped into another machine that turned it all back into gray gelatinous substance and pumped it back to the vats under Topeka.

Mrs. D. must have spent most of her working life running those shaping and coloring machines, because cooking was not an actual talent that she possessed. She covered this lack by using as many pots and pans as she could, frequently burning the contents, and leaving it all in stacks on the stainless steel tabletop next to the sink. Even without that, the job would have consumed a lot more time than Mr. Watkins’ sunny picture. But add Mrs. D’s proclivity to use five pans where two would do the job, and we were going into the Kitchen at 5:30 in the morning and not stumbling out until somewhere north of eight o’clock that night.

As well as the long hours, I had one other problem to deal with – the raging hormones of puberty. In a few short years, girls had gone from something to be teased or ignored, to these strange creatures who were simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. The Recreation Director, Gordon, who shared a cabin with Tom and I, had a record player that he’d let us use. Among the offerings in his small collection was Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits. I played this record over and over, memorized most of the lyrics, and began to sing along to the drippiest ones. Tom quickly came to hate the song “Misty.” He still does.

The first few groups that rented the camp had lots of attractive women to admire/ogle. The secret to ogling – especially when you are fifteen – is to not ever be caught in mid-ogle. A kitchen is naturally darker than the dining hall that it fronts on, so back in the shadows behind a post next to the potato peeler was a perfect spot to watch the girls eating the last of their lunches. Those first few groups, however, afforded no opportunities beyond ogling. The Church Campers were far too religious, the Square Dancers were far too old, and the Cheerleaders were far too unapproachable.

Then in late July came Band Camp. High School musicians came from all over Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. In the mornings they would gather in the dining hall, the meeting room, even some of the cabins to practice. In the afternoons they would go out in the Camp’s grassy field to march.

On the Band Camp’s first morning, as I was carrying a full garbage can out to the collection area, a pretty little blonde girl carrying a leather case asked me how to find Cabin Eleven.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said as I put down the can and hung my apron up on a tree branch. “Why don’t I show you the way?”

As we walked I learned that she was from Alliance, Nebraska, that she played the clarinet, and that, yes, she would like me to give her a little tour of the Camp after dinner. On the way back to the kitchen I could hear Johnny Mathis in my head singing “Wonderful Wonderful” as I told myself I must be the smoothest guy in Southeast Wyoming.

 The next couple of weeks were actually perfect for a budding, teenage romance. We could only find spare moments to be together and consequently didn’t have to actually talk to each other very much. There are desert plants in Wyoming that only thrive on a little sprinkle of rain now and then. This young infatuation was like that. We held hands and even shared a couple of brief-but-sweet kisses, then Band Camp was over and we parted with promises to write that we didn’t keep.

As summer lurched into August, we had a few days off. On one of these days, Gordon showed up with several old inner tubes that we inflated with a bicycle pump. We jumped in the camp truck and drove up Highway 130 to the top of the Snowy Range. Up there, rising up from Libby Flats, is Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in southern Wyoming. The Peak has a steep, rocky cliff-like face, but at the Western end has a more rounded appearance – like a shoulder. It had been an unseasonably cool summer up at the top of the mountains and there was still a long patch of snow and ice remaining in a protected corner of this shoulder. 

There are people in this world who love to climb up the sides of mountains, who need no other reason to do so than, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, “Because it’s there.” I am not one of those. I much prefer to sit in a comfortable folding chair at the base of the mountain with a cold drink in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. And yet, there I was, trudging up the side of that slope with an inner tube under my arm, quite willing to exchange a half hour of effort for fifteen seconds of sheer terror. Repeatedly.

As we saw our summer beginning to slip away, and we looked at the schedule, we realized that there were only going to be a few days at best between the end of this job and the beginning of school. And it didn’t take a math-whiz to figure out that we were being paid about fifteen cents an hour. The temptation to tell Mr. Watkins and the University of Wyoming where they could put their coolie-labor job was very strong.

But after mulling it over, I decided to stay and finish out the job. I’m not sure exactly why, probably equal parts of “I made a commitment and I’m going to see it through,” and “If I bag out now the Old Man will never let me hear the end of it.” After the last camper had left, I stayed an extra day or two to help winterize the place and get it ready for opening the following June.

Looking back through the softening lens of many years, I have come to the conclusion that after all the sweat and aggravation, that summer had been well worth it. I got to spend nearly three months in a beautiful pine forest, I experienced my first teenage crush, and I learned that when you’re mashing fifty peeled and boiled potatoes with a long-handled masher, it’s nearly impossible to get all the lumps out. Which is a good thing because all the vitamins are in the lumps.

***

                                                                                         Thanks to Tom Denniston

*Look in the Right-hand column for Tim vs. the Tractor

Jim Bridger 2 – Red Iron

If you ask me to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chip, my Foreman, had never read Edgar Allan Poe.  It was the autumn of 1973 and I was working as a Laborer on the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Point-of-Rocks, Wyoming*. One of the main responsibilities of the Labor Union’s members on that job was to sweep dust off the framework of the building before the Painters’ Union members could spray on a new coat of rust-resistant paint.

The framework of the building was made of steel I-beams that had been painted with several thick coats of scarlet paint and was therefore known as “Red Iron,” as in, “Hey, Pelton, I’m gonna need y’all and Swede to go up on the West end of Level 4 and sweep off the red iron on the walls and ceiling. The Painters’ Foreman will meet y’all up there and show you what needs to be done.”

Chip was from Alabama and his thick, Southern accent seemed to have a difficult time making its way past the wad of Red Man tobacco in one cheek and the smoldering stub of a cigar stuck in the other. At one point, he must have decided that he knew me well enough to start calling me by my first name. That would have been fine but he, despite me gently correcting him, consistently called me “Tom.” I only had to say, “Okay, Chop,” once and he went back to calling me “Pelton.”

One day Chip assembled his crew, there were about eight of us, on the Sixth Level of Building One. He walked us over to an outside wall that showed a narrow opening where a piece of sheet metal had been removed.  There was enough dim light inside the wall for me to see that it was hollow. A thirty inch gap between the inside and outside walls had been created by an intricate frame of eight inch red I-beams.

Chip said, “Sparky’s just about finished setting lights.” (All Electricians on a construction site are known as “Sparky”) He paused and dropped the butt of his cigar on the floor, stepped on it, than spat tobacco juice on it to make sure it was out. As he did so, an Electrician emerged from the opening paying out a long extension cord.

“All y’all have got safety belts on, right? So you climb up inside the wall up to the fire blocking on Level Nine, then work your way back down to here, sweeping off the red iron as you go.  When you get back down here, there’ll be a vacuum to clean up. Got that?”

One-by-one, the crew, carrying brushes and brooms, disappeared into the opening. I was the last, and as I stepped in I turned to Chip and said, “For the love of God, Montressor.”

Chip looked at me like I was insane.

“You know – Edgar Allan Poe. The Cask of Amontillado?” I looked for some sign of recognition. “A guy seals another guy up into a wall…”

“Get your ass in there, Pelton. Jesus.”

***

The one part I hated about that job was when I had to sweep off the large horizontal I-beams that spanned empty, open spaces. If you follow this blog, you probably know that all my life I have had to deal with basophobia . This does not mean fear of fish with large mouths, but fear of falling.** When asked to sweep off one of those big girders I would have been perfectly within my rights to beg off. But then I would have been assigned to one of the shovel crews digging ditches down on the ground. It was an interesting decision – did I want the relatively easy but scary job? Or the safe grunt work?

My decision was obvious because there I was – straddling an eighteen inch I-beam. My butt was on the top six inch wide web; my boots were on each side of the bottom web. Trying not to look down at the forty foot drop below me, I’d sweep the beam in front of me with one hand while I clung to the steel with the other. When I’d gotten about as far as I could reach, I slowly scooted forward a foot or two, then continued sweeping.

I felt the vibrations of footsteps and I looked up to see a Boilermaker Foreman coming toward me. He was walking along the top of the beam like it was a sidewalk. He looked up from his clipboard and saw me directly in his way. I don’t know if it was the pallor in my face or the white of my knuckles where they gripped the red iron, but he just rolled his eyes, said something like, “Aw shit,” turned around and walked back the other way. If I thought this display of nonchalance about height was impressive I had only to wait a few weeks for the real show.

In the meantime, I heard one day that The Laborer’s General Foreman wanted to see me. With some trepidation I sought him out and he told me that Chip had decided to drag up. In the parlance of construction workers, to “drag up” was to quit your job, pack your bags, and hit the road, usually for another construction site with greener pastures. In Chip’s case, he came out to his truck one morning and had to scrape a layer of ice off his windshield.  The next day he was on his way to a nuclear plant being built in warmer and closer-to-home Arkansas. Since Swede had also left the week before, I was the senior man on our crew and he asked if I’d take over being Foreman.

As I put those little vertical orange stripes on each side of my hard hat, I found I had two things to be pleased about. I would be making an extra thirty five cents an hour, which would make it that much sooner that I myself could drag up and head for Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training. The other thing is that a Foreman is not expected to do any actual work, which would mean I could tell other people to scoot out there on those big girders and clean them off while I remained on solid footing. With hand rails.

From then on, once I had the crew all lined up with that day’s jobs and the various paperwork done, I could take a little time and go stroll around the project for some sight-seeing. There were four units in total planned. Each Unit contained a huge coal-fired boiler that created enough steam to power a massive turbine generator. At the time I was there, the first unit was well along in construction and would come on line in about a year. The second unit was about half-built; and they were still fitting the skeleton of the third building together with tall cranes moving enormous steel beams around like pieces in a jumbo erector set.

The buildings that house the boilers are over 250 feet tall. I was very curious as to how they joined the ends of those beams together. I couldn’t really make out the process from the ground and there were no windows in the steel sides of Unit 2. Then I noticed that there was an exterior fire escape on the side of the Unit with doors at every level. Each door had a good-sized reinforced glass pane installed in it.  If I could make my way to the particular door that was the same height as the upper reaches of the frame across the way, I would have a ringside seat.

I first checked with my crew to make sure they were okay, and then went up to take a look. I was expecting to see a good-sized team working on an elaborate system of temporary platforms, scaffolding, and jacks. Each beam represented tons of steel swinging through the air and I felt it would take some engineering brilliance to corral it, position it perfectly, and then attach it. What I saw was one iron worker wearing a tool belt with deep pockets sitting at a L-shaped joint in the frame.  A crane was lifting what I guessed was the next horizontal beam toward him.

I found out later that this guy was a member of a particular subset of the Ironworkers Union. They are called “Connectors”.

The Connector, using only hand-signals to the crane operator, guided the end of the beam into close proximity. When it was within inches, he locked his legs around the steel he was sitting on and wrestled the new beam into position. He pulled a spud wrench out of his tool bag and shoved the pointy end through the bolt holes, lining them up. Then he put in about three of the necessary twelve bolts, capped them with nuts, and then took out two more long-handled wrenches and tightened the bolts down. Then he stood up and walked along the twenty foot length of the new beam to the unconnected joint at the other end. Even from my window I could see that the metal he was standing on was slowly swaying in the wind. In between him and the dirt below was nothing but 180 feet of thin air. He calmly sat down on the end of the swaying beam, twiddled his fingers to get the crane operator to drop it a couple of inches, then wrestled the two pieces together and repeated the bolting process.

When the Ironworker relaxed and lit a cigarette while he waited for the next piece, I realized I’d been holding my breath and let it out with a whoosh. I was cold with sweat and my heart was hammering. I have been to circuses and I’ve seen high-wire acts with spotlights and drum rolls and all the slathered-on faux-drama the management can muster, but I’ve never been as terrified-from-a-distance as I was by that one Connector just doing his job.

***

*Go to the right-hand column and click Building Power Plants for America.

**Go to the right-hand column and click Crazy Bill.

Building Power Plants for America

After spending six months with my mother in Puerto Rico*, then a year with her  in Albuquerque, which she never really took to, and then helping her move to Manitou Springs in Colorado, I was finally free to relocate my own path in life and to follow it wherever it led.  I had started practicing the Transcendental Meditation program in 1970 and not long afterwards I decided that what I really wanted to do was to learn to be a teacher of the technique. So there I was, several years later with the desire still smoldering in my breast. I think that’s what it was. Or else it was the longest-lasting case of heartburn in medical history.

In order to become a TM Teacher you had to attend and pass a three-month Teacher Training Course. They were held in Europe. Between course fees, plane fares, and other expenses, I would need about $2000 which was $1995 more than I had to my name. I was going to have to look for a job.

I asked around and found out that a couple of my friends, Dave and Randy, were working on the Jim Bridger Power Plant which was under construction 35 miles east of Rock Springs, Wyoming. I called them up and they explained not only that the project was hiring and how to apply for work, but offered to share a house trailer they were renting in the little hamlet of Superior not far from the plant. All I had to do was make my way to Rock Springs, find the Laborers’ Union Hall and sign up. After that was done, Randy would meet me and give me a ride out to Superior.

I went to see the Old Man to ask if he could give me $30 to cover my bus fare and a few days’ living expenses until my first paycheck. He and I had not been on the best of terms when I left town two years before, but I thought that with the passage of time his feelings might have mellowed enough that he could be convinced to part with the cash. Especially since it would mean that I was actually getting a real job and that I would be leaving town again. It was good that I was not expecting an open-arms, return of the Prodigal Son-type reception; because the gimlet-eye and a few harrumphs were all I got.

After hearing my spiel, he replied with a few thinly-veiled slurs on my character. Finally he told me that he supposed he could see his way clear to the thirty dollars, but it would not be a gift, only a loan. Not, in his words, being able to trust me farther than he could kick an anvil, he had me sign an IOU for the money. I then proceeded down to the Greyhound Bus station and purchased a ticket for Rock Springs.

The Bechtel Corporation is the largest construction company in the United States. They built Hoover Dam in the early 30’s and have been involved in nearly every megaproject in the world since then. They had won the bid to build a huge, coal-fired power plant in South Central Wyoming in the early 1970’s. The facility was to be called the Jim Bridger Power Plant. It would have its own nearby strip mine and produce 2,110 megawatts of electricity – enough to power more than 2 million homes.

The Bechtel Corporation is fully unionized. Every person who did any physical labor on the project belonged to one of the many construction unions. Each of these unions had responsibility for one particular phase of the construction process and anyone from another union was forbidden to do any work outside of this “job description.” If it was made of metal and directly attached to a motor, only a member of the Operating Engineers Union could touch it. If it was metal and not attached to a motor, only an Ironworker could put his paws on it. If a Pipefitter was caught nailing a small chunk of plywood over a hole in his work shack, the Carpenters’ Union could call a wildcat strike and all hell would break loose.

The Laborer’s Union Hall – a cramped office, one flight up in an old, creaky building – was a short walk from the Rock Springs Bus Station. Usually, someone just joining the Union has to wait until all the available jobs have been taken by more senior union members. If there is nobody else waiting, then you get the job. The demand for Laborers at the new Plant was so strong that I was instantly hired and told to report to work the following Monday. Randy picked me up that evening and took me out to the trailer house in Superior.

The trailer was old, saggy, and funky, but it was cheap and had three little bedrooms as well as the smallest bathtub I have ever seen. It was more than adequate for the purpose and I was grateful.

On Monday, at the Bechtel on-site office, I was given a yellow hard hat and a roll of ½” orange tape. I was told to put a loop of the tape around the hard hat, give the remainder back, and then go and find the General Foreman for Laborers. He would be on the ground floor of Unit One and also wearing a yellow hard hat with orange tape around it. But his hat would have two vertical orange stripes on each side.

After several days of sweeping up and fetch-and-carry, I began to notice the similarities between working on a large union job and being in the military**. The people who worked for the Bechtel Corporation directly all wore clean dress shirts and white hard hats. They were the Officer Class. They gave the orders, but never got their hands dirty. The Union guys were the Enlisted Men. We all wore yellow hard hats with colored tape, each trade with its own color – red for the Pipefitters, blue for the Teamsters, green for the Ironworkers and so on. The Crew Foremen were the Corporals with a single vertical piece of colored tape on each side of their helmets… er, hard hats. The General Foremen, with two stripes, were the Sergeants. For an example of how this works, picture a crew of Pipefitters running a line of pipe along a high ceiling on the Ninth Level and finding a small pile of trash in the way of their rolling scaffolding. After reporting this to their Foreman, they then sit down and break out the coffee and donuts. The Pipefitters’ Foreman contacts his General Foreman who in turn locates the Laborers’ General Foreman, who tracks down the closest Laborers’ Foreman and tells him the situation. This Foreman then sends two of his men, in this case Swedish Tom and me, up to the Ninth Level to clean up the pile.

When we arrive, probably about 45 minutes after the call went out; we find the Pipefitters all sitting around slurping coffee and telling rude jokes. As we start to move the pile, one of the ‘Fitters gets up and saunters over to us.

“Hey guys,” he says all friendly-like, “we appreciate the show, but there really ain’t no need to bust your asses over this. Relax, lunch isn’t for an hour yet.”

We shrug him off and continued at the same pace. The most important thing I learned on that job is how to work. Find a good pace and stay with it. Don’t get in a frenzy to finish, but don’t spend your time looking for opportunities to screw off. To a loafer, an eight hour day can seem like twelve.

Working man’s humor can be rough but also hysterical. One day in October I was riding up the Lift – a temporary elevator attached to the side of the building to move men and material – and couldn’t help overhearing two Pipefitters on the same elevator. They were grousing about the lack of safety precautions on the job.

“Yer right, Carl,” one of the two pronounced. “This job is about as safe as wipin’ yore ass on a broke fruit jar.”

His point was born out only a few days later when a skid-steer loader, called a Bobcat, slid off a temporary road and rolled down the embankment. It landed in soft dirt completely upside-down. Everybody within running distance came to help and a small crowd quickly gathered around the overturned vehicle.

“Halp!” came a voice, “get me outta here!”

“You okay in there? Anything busted?”

“I’m just goddamn dandy! I’m hangin’ bottom-side-up by the seat belt.”

Just then a cherry-picker crane truck pulled up and started telescoping the boom out and dropping the hook over the accident. Hanging from the hook was a steel-wire choker cable. Common on construction sites, a choker cable is about four feet long with a permanent loop at each end. To use it you push one loop under a sturdy part of whatever you want to pick up, and then drop both loops over the crane’s hook. A piece of pie. Easy as cake.

They say you can put an egg on the ground and a legendary Crane Operator can drop his choker cable right on it without cracking the shell. This Operator was nearly that good as he had placed, within seconds, his hook and cables in perfect position over the Bobcat’s rear axle.

Then somebody looked around and said, “Is there an Ironworker here?”

Everyone looked around in vain for green tape on a hard hat. Then they shrugged their shoulders and sat down while someone shouted to the luckless Bobcat driver, “None of us are Ironworkers so we can’t touch the choker cable. A man’s gone to find his Foreman and he’ll talk to his General Foreman. Don’t worry. Somebody will be here soon.”

So while the muffled voice of the Bobcat driver kept up a steady stream of angry invective, the small crowd of men sat down on the embankment, lit up cigarettes, and waited for an Ironworker.

By mid-November I was feeling a little bit down. In the four months I had been building Power Plants for America I had saved only about $500. Winter was coming and I didn’t want to be cleaning up piles of trash for those next few horrendously cold months, let alone for another year which was what it would take to reach my goal. That was when I got a phone call from my good friend Deb. We had both started TM at about the same time, but in different parts of the country.

“Tim,” she bubbled. “I’m going to Teacher Training in December and you have to come too!”

“I wish I could, Deb, I really do. But I don’t think I can make it.”

“Why not? We have to enlighten Wyoming. Just think of the good we can do.”

“Turn ‘em all into yogis? Yeah, that’d be cool. The spirit is willing but the wallet is weak. Of the two thousand bucks I think I’ll need I only have around five hundred. So I’m going to have to put it off for another year.”

“Put it off, my foot!” was her answer. “I have an extra 1500 that I’ll loan you and you don’t have to pay me back until after we’ve enlightened Wyoming. What do you say?

“I say YES. Absolutely. And thank you!” After I hung up I was doing a little happy dance around the kitchen which made my roommate Dave’s eyes roll.

“I don’t mind you being pleased with something,” he grumbled over his pancakes. “But do you have to act so damned silly?”

Six weeks later, wearing my only sport coat and tie and clutching my beat-up suitcase, I arrived at the Zon en Zee, the Hotel in Westende, Belgium where my Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training Course was just beginning.

*Click and read Coqui in the column to the right.

**Click and read Basic Training 1: Sergeant LaCroix in the column to the right

Swimming the Butterfly

The fact that I can swim I owe to the Cub Scouts and to a gentleman I can only remember as Mister Rardin. When I was seven years old I joined the Cub Scouts of America, not because I wanted to but because my older brothers had and because my Mother was a Den Leader. None of the fathers in my neighborhood had the time or inclination to handle a group of hyperactive seven-to-ten year old boys every week and so the neighborhood Moms filled in. Kay Denniston, Fran Lemley, and even Mrs. Northen from across the alley took a turn.

The Cub Scouts had made an arrangement with the University of Wyoming to use their swimming pool every Monday Night to teach the little boys to swim. So every Monday evening my two cousins – Bob, who was about my age, and Ken, who was a year younger, and I were dropped off at the door to the University of Wyoming pool and picked up again about an hour later.

Let me put in here that I can’t imagine how this could work today.  Just imagine – it’s cool fall weather and getting dark outside. Cars pull up, little kids 7 or 8 years old get out and, by themselves, make their way into the locker room where they find an empty locker, hang up their clothes, and then scurry through the shower room and out to the main swimming pool for large, group swimming lessons.  And there is not a bathing suit among them. Got the picture? About 50 naked, squealing little boys and two or three grown men trying to teach them, en masse, how to swim.

Most of these kids are in the shallow end of the pool, some hanging onto the side and kicking their feet, others practicing blowing bubbles underwater. There are a few advanced kids paddling about in the deep end and one little boy, sitting against the wall, completely dry, and looking unhappy. That little boy would be me.

I was afraid of the water. To be precise, I was terrified that some cruel person would throw me in – either one of my older brothers had threatened me with this or I had watched such a scene in a movie sometime – and because I could not swim I would end up struggling and gasping for breath for a few minutes before drowning.

One of the swimming teachers was named Mister Rardin. To an 8 year-old boy, all grown men have the same first name – “Mister.” On the first day, when everyone else jumped into the pool and I hung back, he told me if I didn’t want to go in, I didn’t have to. And he made sure everyone else knew not to push me.  I stayed out of the water for the entire time that evening, even during the last twenty minutes which were “Free Time.”

A week later, it was pretty much the same, but Mr. Rardin did tell me that if I wanted to sit at the edge of the pool and get my feet wet during Free Time, that would be okay. So I did that and I kicked and splashed a little bit. After a couple more weeks of this slow approach I was in the water not only during Free Time but during Instruction Time as well. I was kicking my feet, windmilling my arms, and blowing bubbles like the rest of the kids.

Two months later I could push off from one side of the shallow end and thrash my way across the pool to the other side. I could swim. And it was due to the kindness and patience of Mister Rardin.

*****

In the summer of 1962, in between my Sophomore and Junior years, an indoor swimming pool was added to Laramie High School. It was very exciting news and, along with most of my friends, I was determined to get into that pool as soon as it was ready. Since I had learned to swim, my swimming experience was in beaver ponds, in mountain lakes so cold you wanted to get out as soon as you jumped in, and in motel pools on sporadic family vacations.

The pool was first opened to the public in October. My friend John and I were among the first people to swim. And we had a blast. Actually we had a blast for about an hour. Then our eyes began to burn so painfully we had to get out. A lot of chemicals had been dumped into the pool the day before, probably on the basis of “if a little kills off most of the bugs in the water, think what a good job a LOT will do.” On the way home, John and I had to pull over several times because our eyes were stinging so badly we couldn’t see the road.

A few weeks later, notices went up on school bulletin boards that Laramie High was going to field a competitive Swimming Team and tryouts would begin the following Monday. This was to be, of course, a boys’ team. All you had to do was to take a look at the baggy, frumpy gym outfits the girls were required to wear to know that putting teenage girls’ bodies in tight-fitting swimsuits was out of the question.

I should pause here to talk about the Old Man’s vicarious dreams of athletic glory. He grew up in Casper and was a skinny, myopic, and unathletic kid. It is, I think, part of the human condition that we all feel, at one time or another, somehow “less than.” Despite the fact that he was well-liked, witty and imaginative, and had good, close friends that would be loyal his whole life, I think that his teenage brain harbored the thought, “If only I could be a football hero, I would be happy and fulfilled.”  And he never was and he never really got over it. By the time he was a grown man, a successful small town Doctor, and had sons of his own, this feeling had not gone away. Instead, it had somehow morphed into, “If one or more of my sons could be a sports hero, then at last I would be happy and fulfilled.”

As each of us progressed into and through the halls of Laramie Senior High School, we each were subject to suggestions, hints, and periodic sarcastic jabs that we “ought to try out for the team.”  Perhaps because there were no inherited genes from either side of the family that pertained to Athletic Competition or perhaps out of sheer stubbornness on our part, not one of his sons chose to contend for the dear old Maroon and White.

So it was with mixed emotions that he received the news that I intended to try out for the Swimming Team. On the one hand, he was thrilled that at least it was an organized team of some kind, and disappointed that pigskin was not involved.

One of the things that attracted me to the team was that none of the boys trying out had any competitive swimming experience. We were all just paddlers and nobody had a leg up. After Coach had eliminated the guys who couldn’t swim two lengths of the pool without stopping to catch their breath, there remained about twenty five of us. We had a month to learn the different strokes and techniques before he would cut the squad to the final twenty.

I don’t think Coach knew very much more than the rest of us, but he’d read books, been supplied with diagrams, and had even located a few instructive films. So we began to learn. First there was the Australian Crawl also known as Freestyle. The difficult part of this stroke for many is that you have to trust the mechanics of the stroke in order to breathe. You blow out air under water.  Just when your lungs are empty, you turn your head to one side and there will be a pocket of air to breathe under your arm. Once you’ve got that rhythm and trust it, all you need to do is pull and kick through the water. Or, in my case, flail and churn.

The Australian Crawl was followed by Breaststroke and Backstroke and finally, the dreaded Butterfly Stroke. I’m pretty sure the last was devised and named by some sadistic soul who tossed living butterflies into the water then studied them as they frantically struggled to get to the shore. Instead of your arms coming out of the water one at a time, they both have to come out and then plunge back in simultaneously. At the same time you must keep your feet and knees together and kick with a long, rolling motion that starts at the lower back and hips. Only one of us, Glen, was able to accomplish this with some grace without appearing to be suffering from repetitive seizures.

As the days went by, team members with different skill sets were settling into various categories. Guys who were not fast swimmers but had staying power were moving toward the distance specialties. The guys with quickness were pointed toward the sprints. Some were better backstrokers and some were better at the breaststroke. A couple of guys were learning flips and twists off the diving board and they were obviously headed for the two Diving spots. I looked around me and, with a sinking heart, realized that I was bad to mediocre at everything. Rejection is painful at any age, but it is especially sharp  when you are sixteen.

It wasn’t that I loved swimming so much, but more the desire not to be cut, that induced me to walk up to Coach and say, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to work on Butterfly.” Bemused, he agreed. And from then onward, whenever there were exercises like wind sprints and everyone else would do them in their chosen stroke, Glen and I would Butterfly.  Since in every meet every team is expected to provide two competitors, I made the team as the Second Butterfly Specialist.

Then we began a series of Swim Meets with other high schools in the area that had teams – University Prep, Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, and Casper. Because the competition was so limited, we swam against each of these teams several times. The question was never whether or not we were going to win – being a first-year team we always lost – but if we were able to make a little better showing than the previous time. I would like to say that I surprised myself and everybody with my swimming prowess, but that was not the case. The best I ever did was third place. It was a four man race and one of the other guys accidently touched his feet to the bottom of the pool and was disqualified.

The Wyoming State Swim Meet was to be held in February, 1963. Because Laramie had a brand new facility, the meet was held in our home pool. I told my family about the State Meet and even when  I would be swimming. Because there were a few other towns in Wyoming  such as Thermopolis and Sheridan that had teams, in Butterfly  there would be two preliminary heats, the top three finishers in each heat would swim in the final.

Some families are the “rallying around” kind. If one of their children is in some performance or athletic competition Mom and Dad are there to cheer their offspring on. And afterwards, whether the kid has won or lost, they are there for emotional support. This was not my family. I was, for example, in Little League for three years. Neither of my parents ever came to a game.  My brother Lewis and I were in plays, science fairs, and speech competitions that our parents did not attend. After my High School Graduation ceremony, as all the other kids’ families gathered around to give congratulations and take pictures, I went out to my car and drove home alone.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came out of the locker room to warm up for my heat to see the Old Man sitting in the middle of the spectators’ section. Not wanting to spoil my concentration on the upcoming event, I did not look at him or try to catch his eye. Once or twice I glanced over there just to make sure it was really him.

When the call came to “take your marks,” I mounted the block and felt the edge of the tile with my toes. “Set” came and I leaned forward, ready to dive. A pistol shot rang out and I hurled myself into the water, did a few dolphin kicks to get back up to the surface, and began the stroke.

A high school swimming pool is 25 yards long. In a one hundred-yard Butterfly race the competitor has to swim four lengths of the pool, two down and two back. I had drawn lane one, which happened to be the lane closest to the spectators’ seats. At the end of the first length I was already behind but not by much. At around fifty yards I began to tire. As I approached the wall at the far end on my third length I could hear the crowd cheering as the other swimmers were finishing the race. When I made my turn I glanced up into the stands and I saw the Old Man’s face. It was glowing a bright, cherry red.

I clumsily swam the last twenty five yards all alone as all the other swimmers had finished and were climbing out of the pool. When, at last, I hauled myself out and looked over at the stands, the Old Man was gone. That evening he did not mention that he had been there and I did not ask.

10K With Cleo

In my fifty-odd years of sailing about the country I’ve dropped anchor in Southern California several times. I was there for a summer in the early 70’s, again in the early 80’s*, and once more in the mid-90’s – that time to stay for 20 years. The fads and fashions of Los Angeles and environs are subject to constant change, but to one who just drops by periodically certain things seem to remain the same. One of those never-changing qualities is the continuing Quest to be Cool. Most of the population of Los Angeles is engaged in this pursuit.

As soon as some pastime or interest has been pronounced to be “Cool”, within days seas of humanity up and down the Southern California coast are involved. And then, within a few months or a couple of years, the fad is suddenly gone, leaving its most dedicated practitioners flopping like fish in the mud of a recently drained lake. Imagine a fellow in the late 70’s who spends hours and hours practicing with his quad roller skates. He gets to be good at it enough to head to the beach and dance on skates to disco music coming from a cassette-powered boombox. He is Cool. But then quickly he is not cool. The cool dancers are breakdancing, the cool music is punk, and the cool devices are portable CD’s.

In the Los Angeles Garden of Cool, most of the plants are Annuals. They sprout from seeds, grow and flower quickly, and then die just as fast. But there are some Perennials there too. An abundance of money will always get you into the Cool Club. The Entertainment Industries – movies, television, and music – don’t follow trends; they make them, and therefore will forever be Cool. Another of these Perennials is physical beauty. Being stunningly beautiful or ruggedly handsome doesn’t guarantee you a place in the School of Cool, but it certainly can get you in the door.

It’s not difficult to spot this frenetic competition for the hollow and pointless exercise it is, and many of my friends during my early 80’s run in LA refused to participate. But one young woman I knew was driven to forever try scaling those cliffs of Cool.  Her name was Cleo.

Cleo had the attractiveness part down cold. Beautiful of face, she had dark hair, dark eyes, long legs, and the slender, almost boney, look that professional models starve themselves to obtain. Clothes hung on her exactly the way the designers had pictured they should. She had an amazing eye for shape and color and made a decent living as a Graphic Designer. What she really wanted to do was be a celebrity shopping consultant.

Unfortunately, for the time I knew her, Cleo never achieved her place on the heights of Cool. I think it was because she had a warm heart, a lively intelligence, and a soft spot for goofy fun instead of an icy disdain for those who were not cool. She loved nothing better than to hang out and laugh it up. I was proud to call her my friend.

While I was in Los Angeles, a passion for physical fitness was sweeping through the city. Jane Fonda was “feeling the burn,” Olivia Newton-John in a headband and leg-warmers was challenging people to “get physical,” and an Austrian bodybuilder with a toothy grin was Pumping Iron. Even the slightly less-than-cool such as myself were getting inspired to get in shape.

One day I ran into Cleo and told her I had read about an upcoming 10K foot race that I wanted to enter. The LA Weekly, the local lefty birdcage-liner, had not only run a story about a race to be run through Universal Studios following its tour route, but a calendar-specific plan to get your lungs and legs in shape in order to run in it. When I told her that all participants who finished the race got a free commemorative T-shirt, her eyes lit up.

“I want to do that too!” she said.

“Can you make the commitment to train?” I asked. “You can’t just show up on race day and expect to run more than six miles.”

“Six miles?” she blanched.

“Six point two to be exact,” I said. After a moment’s consideration I added, “If you really want to do this, we’ll train together. We can encourage each other. It’ll be fun!”

And so we began to train for the big race. Since I had a little apartment on Santa Monica Beach, we did most of our training running barefoot together on the damp sand just above the reach of the highest waves. At first Cleo seemed to be a very slow runner, but that was understandable as we were just getting started. After a few days, I began to feel a bit stronger and so decided to pick up the pace. She did not. It soon became very clear that to her pace was similar to a wad of used bubble gum on the pavement – not something she would ever want to pick up. If you’ve ever seen a jogger pausing at an intersection until the light changes, you’ve seen Cleo’s running style – bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet without much forward motion.

I had to improvise different ways to physically challenge myself, such as running backwards or in circles around her as we went up and down the beach. I also found a track at a nearby Junior High that I could run solo on in the evenings. I had made a commitment that I would help Cleo through this, to help her earn that T-shirt she could sport around in, so I was disappointed after a few weeks when her enthusiasm began to wane. She began to miss running sessions or say she could only run for fifteen minutes because she was busy.

When there were still three weeks to go, Cleo called and asked me to meet her for coffee because she had something she wanted to tell me. I was a little down-hearted because I had a strong feeling that our days of running together were probably over.  I was going to miss our sessions on the beach, however slow and odd they were, and I really wanted her to get that T-shirt.

Over a new kind of coffee, called a latte, she surprised me. She had recently begun going out with a handsome, young stockbroker who loved to go running. Once he had heard that she was training for this 10K, he not only wanted to run in it too, but wanted Cleo to train with him. Cleo being Cleo, she was afraid she might hurt my feelings and was relieved to hear that I was very happy for her. And I was. I may have even overplayed the magnanimous card a bit because not only would I get to train on my own terms, but Cleo would get to run her race and wear her T-shirt with pride. It was what you’d call a Win-win.

On the morning of the race I joined the huge throng of runners gathered in front of the Universal Studios’ front gates. When I registered, they checked to make sure my fees were paid, and then gave me a number and two safety pins to attach it to my shirt. I was official.

I went looking for Cleo. I finally found her in the company of her new boyfriend. His name was, of course, Chad or Tad and he was tall, sandy-haired, and had a well-tanned athletic body. If his running shorts had had pockets, the Cool would have been spilling out of them.  I shook his hand, wished them both good luck and went off to find a place that was not nearly as intimidating to stretch out and get ready to run.

Fifteen minutes later, a crowd of more than nine thousand runners waited outside the just-opened front gates of Universal Studios. A voice on a loudspeaker said, “Runners, attention… Get Ready…” and a loud gunshot rang out. Slowly at first, the crowd started to move. Faster runners moved toward the front while the slower runners drifted back. I was just wondering if I should step it up a little or stay at my current pace when I came upon Cleo chugging along in her not-much-faster-than-walking stride.

“Hey Cleo,” I said as I slowed down to jog along beside her. “Where’s Chad?”

“As soon as the gun went off he said, ‘See you at the Finish Line,’ and sprinted off toward the front. He’s got this competitive personality thing going. He can’t help it.” Then she looked at me with those big, needy eyes and said, “Will you run with me, at least for a little while?”

What was I going to say? “Nope, sorry babe. I’ve got to get this thing over with so I can go knock ice cream cones out of the hands of children.”

So off we went together, slow-jogging through the big box buildings with huge doors and giant numbers painted on the sides. We talked about mutual friends, and work, and I told her a couple of stories about being a kid growing up in Wyoming.

Just as we got to the backlot of the studio she once again turned up the candlepower on those big eyes and said, “Tim, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I just keep thinking about how long it is and how tired I’m going to get.”

“Well you can just forget that noise.” I told her. “You’re going to finish this race and get that T-shirt if I have to carry you. And believe me, you’re going to feel a lot worse after being jounced along over my shoulder for six miles.”

“Then you have to tell me a story. I want a long story with a beautiful and brave heroine – something to keep my mind off this stupid race.”

Relieved that she didn’t call my bluff about carrying her – I doubt if I would have been able to get another hundred yards before I bunged her into the nearest trash can – I began.

“Deep in the dark forest of Bumonia…”

“Bumonia? That’s a silly name.”

“Quiet, you. Deep in the forest lived a giant, golden-haired bear with long claws of tempered steel and teeth as sharp as sword-points…”

As we circled the pond where some of Jaws was filmed and Bruce the Shark still leapt out at tourists, I introduced the character of Princess Gwendolyn. As we trotted down the Chicago street that Robert Redford had strolled along in The Sting, Casomir the Dark Adventurer made his entrance into the tale, and the Evil Wizard Belshazzar was worming his way into the councils of the king as we passed the Roman villa from Spartacus.

When we passed a sign that said we were at the halfway point, Cleo was more concerned about Casomir who was out hunting the Golden Bear and had fallen into a trap of fire set by Balshazzar.

Two hours later, as the final climactic battle loomed between the forces of Good, led by Gwendolyn, the Golden Bear, and Casomir against Balshazzar and his evil minions, I was relieved to see the Finish Line come into view. I had been scraping the very bottom of my imagination’s barrel. Cleo was so thrilled to be finishing that she almost sped up into a slow run. Hand-in-hand and grinning like fools; we crossed the Finish Line together.

To his credit, Chad had waited for Cleo and was congratulating her as I went to check on our place in the order of finish. There were still a few people who had not yet crossed the Finish Line; but they were senior citizens who had walked the course. Of those entrants who were runners we were… last. We were something like nine thousandth and nine thousand and first. I claimed my shirt, a tan-colored T with dark brown lettering and went to say goodbye to Cleo. When I found her I noticed that instead of being thrilled and brimming with enthusiasm she looked thoroughly disappointed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Well, just look at this,” she said as she held the shirt up under her chin. “I can’t wear this. It’s not my color!”

*****

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