Dirt Clods and Snowballs

When I was growing up in the little Wyoming town of Laramie, the kids in my neighborhood liked to throw things at each other. Some things were harmless – handfuls of leaves in the fall, grass clippings in the spring, cut weeds in the summer,  fluffy snowballs in the winter.  But for the most part, if whatever you had in your hand didn’t have the potential to do at least some harm, it was hardly worth throwing.  If you threw a slushball – a wet snowball with some hard chunks of ice in it – and were lucky enough to bounce it off your friend’s head and make him yell, you felt like Dead-Eye Dick for the rest of the day.

There was, however, a fine line, an unspoken agreement, not to throw anything specifically meant to wound. Rocks, for example, were never thrown. If you threw a rock at someone, it was an admission that although you wanted to hurt them, you didn’t have the courage to walk up close and throw a fist. The same went for pieces of metal, broken bricks, glass, and chunks of concrete. Tears were expected, even hoped for, but blood was not.

High on the list of ammunition-of-choice were dirt clods. Dirt clods are the by-product of digging a hole in Wyoming soil. Whether the digger was a nine-year-old boy excavating a foxhole in the vacant lot*, or a whole crew of men digging a foundation for a new house, when the hole was finished there would be a pile of dirt next to it. Some of the dirt was just that, dirt. But much of the soil still clung together in clumps. These, especially the ones that were between the size of a golf ball and a grapefruit, were God’s gift to boys intent on defending their side of the vacant lot from the kids on the other side.

An ideal throwing dirt clod has enough fine roots in it to hold it together in flight and embedded within it are enough small pebbles to sting if it hits its target.

Since our neighborhood was a relatively new one, there were new houses going up every year from the time the ground thawed in May until it got too cold to work the following December. And since we were in Wyoming, nearly every house had a full basement and for good reason. To keep your foundations from heaving, you had to put their footings below the deepest frost level. That required digging a hole at least six foot deep. As long as you were going that deep, you may as well go a couple of feet more, put in a full basement, and double your usable space. The result of this was a large pile of dirt sitting next to every foundation hole. This pile just sat there, beckoning to the neighborhood children, until the house was nearly built. Then some of the pile was used to backfill the foundation walls and the rest was hauled away.

In the meantime, after school and on weekends, that dirt pile was “Pork Chop Hill.” Two or three kids would start on each side of the pile and start climbing to the top, flinging dirt clods over the summit as they went, hoping to deter the other side from getting there first. Once you got near the top, you stopped throwing and started grabbing and shoving, hoping to make the other guy fall over and roll down the pile. “Pork Chop Hill” quickly became “King of the Hill” as teammates were forgotten and every boy was fighting only for himself.  Afterward, sporting various scrapes, nicks, and fat lips, we all walked home together. We’d stop periodically to empty the dirt out of our shoes and congratulate ourselves on our hand-to-hand combat skills.

In the winter, when the ground is frozen hard, dirt clods are forgotten and a young man’s thoughts turn inevitably to… snowballs.

Here’s an interesting question for you. If it had snowed in Galilee, would Jesus have gotten into snowball-throwing trouble with the kids his age? I don’t mean just lobbing a few softly-packed snowballs in somebody’s general direction, but pressing and shaping the snow into a compact sphere about the size of an apple, then winging it at a passing merchant, hoping to knock the turban off his head. Would He decline and risk being mocked by his friends? It’s hard to build a ministry when you’re known as Jesus the Weenie. I suppose He could throw and intentionally miss, but wouldn’t this entail a bit of out-of-character duplicity? I like to think He’d choose a more forthright approach by rearing back and drilling the old guy right in the ear, then falling to His knees to beg for forgiveness and absolution. Perhaps this is the reason God chose that part of the world to incarnate his only son – it doesn’t snow and the soil is too sandy to make a decent dirt clod.

On a winter morning in Wyoming, when a kid wakes up and finds it has snowed the night before, the first thing he wants to know is how much came down, and the second is how wet is it? If it is light and dry, it will be easy to shovel, but won’t pack into a snowball that’s worth half a horse patoot. On the other hand, a heavy, wet, early-spring snow can be easily pressed into a hard ball that would make Whitey Ford pink with envy. The drawback to that wet snow is that it will break your heart trying to shovel it. And shovel it you must.

I would bet that every young Wyoming father’s first thoughts as he looks lovingly down at his newborn son are, “I’ll only have to hang on eight or nine more years and then I’ll never have to shovel snow again.”

As the family’s designated snow remover, you may be able to put off shoveling that newly-fallen wet snow off the sidewalk for a few hours, but as soon as you get home from school the job will be waiting. All day long, passers-by will have been tromping the snow into slush.  This is not fun to shovel, but at least it moves off the concrete. If you duck out and leave it unshoveled, it will freeze to glare ice overnight that will have you fighting back tears of frustration as you chip away at it the next day.

Oops. I seem to have wandered off-topic. What were we talking about? Oh yeah – dirt clods. I think every neighborhood in America that has kids in it also has the Neighborhood Grouch. This is the guy who comes out on his front porch and yells, “Get off my lawn!” or who chains his dog up on the front porch on Halloween Night to keep the trick-or-treaters away. In our neighborhood, it was a woman named Fauniel Fellhauer**. She had, at some point, married a rancher named Tony.  But she was evidently miserable on the ranch and vocal enough about it that Tony built her a house in town. After that, they were rarely seen together. Although she did make a few appearances in a bathrobe out in front of her house yelling at kids, more often she was on the phone to the Police.  If the Laramie Police Department had a list of cranks who’d call them up at the drop of a propeller beanie, I’d be surprised if Fauniel Fellhauer’s name was not at or near the top.

It was a nice summer afternoon and Tommy Denniston and I were standing in the vacant lot pitching dirt clods at some empty pop bottles twenty or thirty feet away.  In our imaginations, they were Commies just peeking their heads up over the edge of their foxhole and getting ready to charge. Suddenly, Tommy pointed up in the sky and I froze in mid-windup. A large airplane was in the air high overhead. A rumor had gone around that Spring that if you saw such a plane it might be a Russian bomber preparing to drop the A-bomb on our little town.  The only way to know was to study the plane. If you saw a flash of light from its belly, then you had about fifteen seconds to live. After a few minutes, the plane had gone by. No flash, no mushroom cloud. If it was the Russians, then they had decided to avoid Laramie, fly on over the hill, and flatten Cheyenne. And who really cared about that.

During the pause, the bloodthirsty Commies had turned back into pop bottles and we had to either reset the game or come up with something new. Then I caught some movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned and stared.

“What is it?” Tommy asked.

“I think I saw something up on Fellhauer’s roof.”

After a few seconds, it moved again.

The vacant lot was on Kearney Avenue right in between our house at 1717 and the Fellhauer’s at 1713. The Fellhauer’s house was made of brick – two stories in the front and a single story in the back. The kitchen was in the back of the house on the vacant-lot side. All houses have various kinds and sizes of pipes that stick up through the roof. There are plumbing vents, water heater vents, furnace stacks, and, above the kitchen stove, the exhaust hood vent. Tony Fellhauer must have had trouble with the wind blowing cooking smoke back down the vent pipe because he had equipped their hood exhaust pipe with a wind-directional cap. It moved on the pipe whenever the wind changed a little. Of course, as a nine-year-old, I could grasp none of this. But I had recently seen Bill Holden in Submarine Command and I knew what I was looking at.

“It’s a periscope.”


“Up there!” I pointed. “She’s looking at us.”

As we studied the mechanism the wind shifted slightly and it was pointing directly at us.

I can’t remember if I yelled something like, “We’ve gotta knock it out!” or if we both just spontaneously started heaving dirt clods up on the Fellhauer’s roof. After a couple of minutes of this, the wind shifted again, the vent turned away, and we decided we needed some Kool-Aid. Twenty minutes later we were in my house setting up the Parcheesi board when my brother Lewis came in and said there was a Police car out in front of the Fellhauer’s. We went to the window and could see Fauniel out next to her house gesticulating angrily to a pair of policemen. There were dirt clods scattered around on her kitchen roof.

We decided it would be a good afternoon to stay inside.


  • *Go to the right-hand column and click Kick the Can.
  • **Go to the right-hand column and click The Rock and Roll Kid.

Video Symphony

We’ve been out of them for eight years now and I still don’t know how to refer to the first decade of this century. The “aughts?” or the “twenty-ohs?” or maybe the “zeros?” All these terms have one thing in common –they sound wrong.

Anyway, back then, about ‘04 or ’05, I was in my usual work position – down on my knees on someone’s kitchen floor – when I tried to stand up. And I couldn’t do it. My knees were not willing to comply. I had to use the line of cabinets I had just installed as a kind of monkey bars in order to pull myself up to my feet.  That was when I started thinking that it was time to look for a new occupation. But what?

In my spare time, I had been writing screenplays – as was every other person in LA. Despite a few minor successes, a couple of free options here and a Producer/Director who liked my work there, nothing was really happening. So even though I liked writing (and, obviously, I still do) I was not going to make a living with a comfy chair and a word processor.

So for months my wife and I made lists, did research, and talked it over. As we did so, I continued to work in people’s kitchens and my knees kept reminding me that my days of crawling into cabinets were numbered. The ironic thing was that as the certainty of the end grew larger, I was getting better at the job. People were saying that they didn’t want anyone working in their kitchen but me and even the term “Master Carpenter” was being thrown around. Even though I had raised my rates a couple of times, I was still booking six weeks to two months out. Of course, these were the heady days before the Great Recession dropped out of the sky and flattened everybody in the housing business.

In the midst of all this, I made my decision. I would learn to be a Video Editor. This job seemed like it was custom-made for me. It was a sit-down job that required a lot of computer skills (which I didn’t have but could learn) and a generous helping of creativity (which I flattered myself that I already possessed). And being so right-brained that it’s surprising I don’t list to starboard when I walk, it was not surprising that I was attracted to such a visual skill.

“Age?” said the salesman in answer to my question, “No, it’s really not a problem. In other areas of the business, yes it’s a factor, but in the Editor’s chair they like to see somebody older, somebody with the calm and steady attitude you only get from years of experience.”  With me being nearly sixty at the time, this was cream for the cat.

We had found several trade schools that taught Video Editing. This one, Video Symphony, was the closest to home. It was also, bigger, flashier, and more self-assured than their competitors. It had been setup as a high-end training facility while the other places we looked at seemed more like, ”Yeah, we put in a school in the back room.” Video Symphony had more than eighty computer workstations divided among eight large classrooms. When they told me that they had set up a program dedicated to working people and were offering classes on evenings and weekends, I was patting my pockets for a pen.

Thirty thousand dollars in school loans was, admittedly, a huge pill to ask my wife to swallow. I guess she bought my argument that once I had a job as an editor I’d be bringing in enough money that we could make the payments on the loans and still not have to move into a cardboard box under the underpass. Either that or she looked into my big, pleading eyes and just couldn’t say no.

Once again, I became a student. When you’re sixty and going back to school, your approach is very different. When you look speculatively a nicely-tanned, attractive female classmate, it’s only because you’re wondering if she understood that part about “drop frame rates.” Instead of wondering if you can skip a class without missing too much, you’re wondering when you can come and do some extra hours on a workstation just so you can keep up with some of the young hotshots in your class.

The principal software that Video Symphony trained people on was Avid. At the time, and probably today, 98% of studio feature films are cut on Avid. Ditto with high-end network television. It’s a big, expensive software package that will only run on big, expensive computer work stations. We also learned Final Cut Pro, but at Video Symphony it was treated as the red-headed stepson of Post Production Software.

Editing, to me, was just another form of construction. When one begins to build a house, all around the lot there are piles of boards, plywood, nails, siding roofing materials, windows, doors, and a myriad of other things. The builder cuts boards to the exact length needed, attaches them together, stands them up in the proper place, and moves on. An Editor is, essentially, doing the same thing. Every scene has been filmed or videoed, in its entirety, four or five times. All from different angles. The Editor takes a moment from here at this angle and a moment from there at that angle tweaks them back and forth to get both the audio and the video to work seamlessly, then goes on to the next set of moments.  One of the main differences is that, in construction, you don’t have the Architect and the Interior Designer sitting on a comfortable couch right behind you and watching you work. “Can we see this room again only with that wall three inches longer, and this window opening six inches to the left.”

One thing the school, the teachers, and a little bit down the road, the students had to contend with was the constant innovation of technology.  When I began in 2006, for example, everything arrived in the editing room on tape cassettes. The higher the quality of the show, the bigger the tape cassettes got, not to mention the size and price of the tape decks needed to capture all the video and sound. We were taught, retaught, and drilled on the workflow to digitize those tapes and get them into the computer’s memory and the Avid’s usable files. By the time I’d completed and passed ingestion of taped media, production houses and studios were trading in their old tape cameras for ones that shot on hard drive. Within six months of my graduation in 2009, tapes and tape decks were as out-of-date as flip phones and CRT monitors.

I had been in the school for a couple of years before someone finally came out and told us the truth. Graduates of Video Symphony were not being hired directly out of school as Editors. The few that were actually editing were working on no-budget indie productions for “exposure.” The paying jobs that we were eligible for was Assistant Editor.

Going back to our Construction analogy, the Builder has minions working for him that cut, code, and stack all the raw materials and get everything ready so when he walks onto the job site he can start whacking things together immediately. The Editor has Assistant Editors that spend all night ingesting all the dailies into the Computer’s memory, going through them and throwing out all the blown takes, then precisely coding each take at each angle and ingesting these marked clips into the Avid’s files, ready for cutting. A one-hour show might need five to seven hours of raw footage in clips. Then the next day the Editor saunters in, cracks his knuckles, and begins putting the show together.

During my last year of school, 2008-09, I had taken on as many small freelance editing jobs as I could squeeze in. The bottom had fallen out of the kitchen remodeling business and I had more free time than I wanted so I did what I could to build up my resume. Then I went looking for work.

After I had been sending out resumes for only a couple of weeks, I got a request for an interview with a small production house that was looking for Assistant Editors. I interviewed with the boss and, with a big grin and a handshake, he offered me a one-month Internship. I would work there for free for a month, and after that, if they liked my work, they would pay me fifteen dollars an hour. This was about what restaurants were paying experienced dishwashers.

I turned it down. This offer had come so quickly, I told myself; surely others that were a little more reasonable would soon follow. Au contraire, mon frère. This would turnout to be the closest I ever got to a regular Post Production job.

In hindsight, I had three things going against me; any one of which could have, by itself, swamped my canoe. Together they were like taking a torpedo amidships just below the water line. One was the Recession. Everyone was feeling the pinch, even the entertainment industry. Financiers and Producers were suddenly looking for ways to save money by downsizing. The second blow was the advent of Final Cut Pro. This software was relatively inexpensive, ran on any regular computer, was fairly easy to learn, and could do almost everything Avid could do. Kids across the country were buying a copy of FCP, a laptop, and an instruction book. Shortly thereafter, hordes of them began showing up in LA willing to work for minimum wage. The third, and maybe the biggest blow, was that most people in the Los Angeles area who were looking for an Assistant Editor were men or women in their thirties. And nobody wants to hire their Dad to be their assistant. Somehow, yelling out, “Hey, run down to craft services and get me a cup of coffee and a bagel, wouldja? And this time don’t put so much damned sugar in it!” at a nice old guy with gray hair just makes the yeller look and feel like a jerk.

After many months of banging my head against that particular wall, I threw in the towel, stopped mixing my metaphors, and went back to the kitchen cabinet trade. People who needed their old cabinets repaired because they could not afford new ones began calling. It wasn’t much, but I was able to pay a few bills and start chipping away at those ridiculous school loans. With luck, ibuprofen, and steroid injections, I was able to make my knees last for another seven years until I could finally retire.