Cinderella’s Wedding 2

If you haven’t yet read “Cinderella’s Wedding 1”, I suggest you read that first. This will make more sense if you do.


There was a deep, rumbling vibration, the kind that is felt more than heard, and the sound of water gurgling under the floor. My mind tried to fit those noises into the dream I was having and failed, and I struggled into consciousness. I poked my head out from under the covers and looked around. Every detail that slowly came into focus only added to the disorientation. The room was triangular and the walls were thickly-painted steel. There were two windows, but they were round.

The tumblers finally clicked into place. Oh, yeah, I’m on a boat.

The ride was very smooth. The noises, now identified, became comforting. Through a porthole, I watched the mansions on Balboa Island slip by. Soon I burrowed back down into bed and fell back asleep.

The second time, things were quite different. The bed I was on suddenly dropped from under me and I woke up weightless and falling. A second later the bed rose up under me, caught and pushed me back up a foot or two, then dropped away again. I swung my feet out and onto the floor. Holding onto anything that presented itself, I lurched my way across the pitching and rolling funhouse floor to the far door.  Turning left, I fell into a bathroom. caught myself by grabbing a sink with both hands, and threw up into it.

I found out later that after we had gotten underway, it took about 45 minutes to traverse an inland waterway that was glass-smooth. But once out past the breakwater, the boat was suddenly in open ocean. That day there was a gentle 10-12 mile-per-hour Westerly breeze which was barely enough to create whitecaps on the waves it instigated. But these waves were enough to not only cause the boat to rock in the water back-to-front, but also, because the waves were hitting the boat at an angle, roll the craft side-to-side. To the average landlubber, this can be disconcerting. Suddenly the surface you are standing on is rising and falling, tilting and rocking.

I cleaned up the sink, washed my face, brushed my hair, threw up again, and shaved. I managed to get myself dressed and presentable with only one more dash to the “head” (I remembered the term from an old submarine movie). I picked up my camera, made sure it had a fresh roll of film, and headed back to the main cabin or “saloon”.

The night before I had mentioned to Cinderella that I had brought my little 35mm camera. She was thrilled. Evidently, Tony (“Don’t worry, Babe, I’ll take care of everything.”) had forgotten to hire a camera guy and suddenly I was The Wedding Photographer. I was charged to get pictures of everyone in attendance and the ceremony itself. Luckily for me, along with such wedding tropes as white dresses, Cinderella didn’t really believe in posed “pictures of the happy couple.” Candids would be fine. Wishing I had an official canvas vest with lots of little pockets to put things in, I set off to fulfill my responsibility.

The Saloon, which was in the middle of the yacht and the aft deck, one flight up, were where I found most of the passengers. Nearly everyone was seasick, despite the fact that the middle and rear of the boat were a lot more stable than my little room up front had been. I soon realized that I was comparatively lucky. Most of the people were ashen-faced and either clinging to the rail or suddenly pushing themselves out over it to heave.  I was among a smaller group of folks who’d suddenly get nauseous, run to the rail, let fly, and then feel fine afterward.  I mistimed one of these when the ship was swaying the wrong direction, and my breakfast splattered on the handrail next to a crewman. I shouted down that I’d be right down to clean it up, but he told me not to worry about it. I guessed that clean-up detail was part of their duties.

There were a few people on board that the motion of the ship didn’t affect in the least. One of these was Victoria whose natural perkiness had been turned up to 10 by the sun and the sea breeze.

“Hey Billy! Howareya doing?” she grinned, ruffling Bill’s red hair, “I heard there were some dolphins out there earlier. Did you see them?”

Bill pulled his chin off the rail, turned his pallid face and bloodshot eyes to her, and told her he would gladly throw her overboard if he only had the strength.

“You’re so funny!” she said, unfazed, and went to spread some cheer elsewhere. As long as Bill had his face up, I said, “smile!” and took his picture.

Cinderella had asked me to get pictures of as many of the wedding guests as I could. Although most of my subjects were not feeling, or looking, quite their best, I kept snapping away. At one point, I went looking for Nancy and Evie, Cindy’s mother and sister, and I was finally told that they had taken over the bathroom next to the saloon and hadn’t been seen for quite some time. On the pretext of needing to ask Nancy a question, I got her to open the door and was able to get a couple of pictures before they threw me out. I thought it would make a homey scene. A mother and her daughter, sitting on the floor on either side of the toilet, taking turns at the bowl.

In a deck chair near the rail, Ian sat stolidly. His face had a gray tinge, and his eyes were sunken and hollow. When I asked how he was doing, he replied, “I’m not going to get sick. I refuse.” Ian was and always has been one of the most competitive people I know. He had reduced his state to a battle of wills between himself and  Nausea. My recommendation that he just let it go and see if he felt better afterward was met with a stony silence. So I went off to take some more pictures and have fun with Tricia and Vicky.

At about ten-thirty that morning, the boat entered Avalon Harbor and dropped anchor.

There is one small city on Santa Catalina. It is called Avalon and for sheer loveliness it can give the Italian cities on the Amalfi Coast a run for their money. Little brightly-colored houses and small hotels climb up the hills that surround a circular harbor. At anchor, while we waited our turn in the little water taxi to go ashore, I watched the people who had just been terribly ill laughing and talking to each other. It was, especially in Bill and Ian’s case, like watching the dead come back to life.

We spent several hours walking around the little town, eating sandwiches in a small cafe, and going out to one arm of the harbor to see the Avalon Ballroom. In the Big Band era, pleasure boats would put ashore hundreds of dressed-to-the-nines couples to dance there into the wee hours with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

We did see Tony and his friends around an outdoor table at one of the local bars. While we had changed to shorts and casual shirts, the Lounge Lizards’ only concession to the weather was taking off their sport jackets and loosening their ties.  They returned our waves with a “who the hell are those geeks?” look and went back to hammering hard liquor.

As the end of the day neared, we were back aboard the boat which was chugging it’s way around the island to a secluded bay on the North side. As we were staying close to shore, the water was calm and everyone was healthy and excited about the upcoming  ceremony. Being the semi-official Wedding Photographer, I was allowed to penetrate the largest of the cabins where Cinderella and Victoria, her Maid of Honor, were getting ready. One of Tony’s friends, a tall, dark, nervous-looking fellow who was holding a trumpet, was trying to convince Cinderella to let him play a song on it as she approached the groom during the ceremony.

“I used to play this horn professionally, honey. I can play anything – you name it.”

“I haven’t thought about a song. Tony and I don’t have a song.”

“I can think of something. It’ll be perfect.”

“All right,” Cinderella relented. “Play what you want. Just as long as it isn’t the God-damned Wedding March or something like that, okay?”

“You got it, babe,” he said as he left the cabin fingering the valves on his trumpet.

Forty-five minutes later the boat was anchored, the sun was setting, and everyone was up on the aft deck to watch the ceremony. I noticed that Tony’s friend, the trumpet player, had climbed a short mast and scrambled into a small crow’s nest. There he stood, instrument in hand, waiting for the bride to appear.

At one end of the deck stood the ship’s captain in his dress whites. Standing next to him were Tony and one of his friends, wearing tuxes that would have made Sinatra proud. There was a sudden hush, and the people at the other end of the deck stepped back. Cinderella, in her beautiful purple gown, was standing there. Victoria, wearing a simple, yellow gown was beside her.

Cindy has always been a lovely woman, but in that dress, in the warm, end-of-day light, she was dazzling.

With a happy smile, the Bride began walking slowly toward her Groom at the other end of the deck. From the crow’s nest, a solo trumpet began to play. The song he had chosen? “The Impossible Dream.”



Cinderella’s Wedding 1

We watched the sun come up through the windows of our 1970 Ford Maverick as we approached St. George, Utah. There were four of us shoehorned into the little car. Tricia, who had the God-given gift of being able to curl up in the back seat of a compact car and sleep for hours on end,  was all smiles and chirping about the beautiful sunrise. The three men – Ian, Bill, and I – were weary, irritable, and wondering what sort of small, furry animal had crawled around on our tongues the night before.

This adventure had begun only a few days before when our mutual friend Cindy had called Tricia and invited her, and anybody else who wanted to come, to her upcoming wedding. The thorny part was that we were living in Laramie, Wyoming and the wedding was to take place on a boat that would be anchored off Santa Catalina. Yes, that Santa Catalina, the island off the coast of Southern California, 1200 miles away. The wedding was to take place in two weeks.

I had known Cindy since she was 13 years old. In 1968 I was one of a good-sized group of hippies that hung out together in Laramie. We called ourselves “The Family” as did, I suppose, nearly every group of hippies in every little town across America. There were two little girls, Tricia and Cindy, who would come over to our place after school and rant about being oppressed by the fascist faculty of Laramie Junior High. We thought the girls were so cute that we called them “The mini-hippies.”  Cindy quickly became “Cinderella.” Any pimply 14 year-old boy with big ideas about either of them would soon realize that this pretty little girl had a bunch of scary-looking big brothers that he’d have to deal with. As long as they hung around with us, their honor – and virginity – would remain intact. Whether they liked it or not.

Nine years later Tricia was living with her boyfriend Ian and they were both in school at the University of Wyoming. Cinderella’s parents had moved to Newport Beach in Southern California and she had gone with them.  So when her call came, four of us decided to go. Why? Three reasons – 1) We all loved Cinderella and wanted to be there on her Big Day. 2) In Wyoming, March is still Winter with its low temperatures, high winds, ground blizzards, and general bleakness. The temptation of sunny, warm days, white sand beaches, and palm trees was irresistible. 3) It wouldn’t be just a Road Trip, but a Road Trip with gold oak leaf clusters!

Bill was a Graduate Student in the Physics Department  at UW and couldn’t leave until Thursday Evening and had to be back to teach a class at Noon on Monday. So the plan was to leave as soon as Bill was ready, about 8 o’clock, drive all night, and arrive at Cinderella’s parents’ house in Newport Beach in the middle of the day on Friday. Best-laid-plans being what they are, we didn’t get out of Laramie until 10 o’clock.

Ten hours later we were crossing the State Line from Utah into Nevada. We had decided to wait for breakfast until we got to Las Vegas. Billboards along the highway were advertising lavish breakfast buffets for less than two dollars a person. Being young and knuckleheaded it didn’t occur to us that you couldn’t just stop, run in, chow down, and be back on the road in thirty minutes by doing this. The casino operators don’t put their buffet rooms near the doors. They practically hide them in the center of the building and make you thread your way through every gambling area they offer before you can finally get there.

“Whatsamatta, kid? Lost? Go back that way, put a few quarters in the machines on your way. Ya never know, am I right?”

When found, the buffet was as extensive as the billboards had promised. Again, not a good place if you’re in a hurry.

“This time I think I’ll try the omelet station – cheese and mushrooms please, and some of those huevos rancheros with guacamole and sour cream.”

When we finally left Las Vegas, with stomachs painfully distended, almost two hours had gone by. We were all concerned about the time, but after consulting the map and doing some math, Bill said that we should get there by four-thirty. This was a relief because Cindy had said that everyone would be gathering at her parents’ house until six o’clock, when we would all drive down to where the boat was tied up and get on board. We thought maps, pay telephones, and Cindy’s handwritten instructions could get us to the house okay, but if we got there after everyone had left, we hadn’t a prayer of finding this mysterious “boat” on our own.

Following I-15, we dropped down into the Los Angeles basin near San Bernardino in good time. Then we hit the Los Angeles Freeway System at rush hour. The Southern California Freeways were built to make travelling more convenient – for people who were already familiar with their intricacies. For four freeway-virgins from Wyoming, it was painful.

“Okay, the map says to turn right on Highway 91.”

“So I need to get over into the right lane?”

“Yeah, so you can turn around. We went past the Highway 91 exit a couple of minutes ago.”

“What is this? Why is everybody just stopped?”

“Okay, we’re moving again. No, we’re stopping again. How far did we get? 20 feet?”

“All right, finally moving again. I can’t believe that. Two guys pull over to change a tire and traffic grinds to a halt for miles. Now, are we supposed to be going North or South?”

“East, I think.”

It was nearly 7 o’clock when we finally turned onto the street in Newport Beach where Cinderella’s parents’ house was located. Our only hope was that someone had at least left a note on the door with directions down to the marina. Instead, the house was bustling with people carrying boxes and bags in and out, loading some cars and unloading others. Inside there were whoops of laughter and big hugs from folks that we knew, and greetings and handshakes from those we didn’t.

The Groom and his friends had been nearly as late as we were and they had most of the provisions, and the liquor, for the party that night on the boat. Cinderella, hiding her annoyance at his tardiness, introduced us to her fiancé, Tony.

Tony wore a mint green leisure suit over a wide-collared, dark green shirt. The top three buttons on the shirt were open to show a gold chain running through thick chest hair. His four or five friends were all dressed similarly in the best that the Polyester Industry had to offer. Tony looked us over through his aviator shades, seemed to quickly size us up as tired-looking, rumpled hicks from nowhere important, and after an insincere greeting, oiled his way over to where his friends were mixing drinks.

“Hey you guys!” came a familiar voice. We turned and there stood Victoria – Vicky to others, she would always be Victoria to me. Jumping up and down, she hugged each of us and told us how glad she was to see us again. Smart, funny, and cute as peaches, Victoria could break your heart and make you laugh at the same time. Since Cinderella was too busy to talk, Vick was happy to answer our questions as best she could.

Who was Tony? He was something of an enigma. He obviously had access to money, he had rented a boat big enough for 50 people to cruise out to Catalina and back, but no one was sure whether it was his money or someone else’s. At times he said he had stakes in several gold mines, other times he said he was in the Service Industry.  All anybody knew for sure was that he spent a lot of time hanging around Las Vegas with his Lounge Lizard friends.

Why did Cinderella agree to marry him? He was handsome, wealthy, charming when he wanted to be, and willing to cater to her sometimes eccentric desires. For example, she told him she always wanted to be married by a sea captain. So he paid for a 140-foot boat that came with its own crew and sea captain. She said she refused to be married in a white dress. So he gave her the money to go to Sax Fifth Avenue and buy a purple gown with a floral motif.

Later that evening, we finally got on board the boat to find a table full of sandwiches, which we gratefully ate, and a well-stocked bar where the liquor was already flowing copiously. At that time, I had been awake for 36 hours straight and my eyes were crossing with fatigue. After finding out there was a compartment with bunks – “Just go forward to the main stairs, down, then forward again as far as you can go.” – I said goodnight and found the compartment. It was triangular, the point of the triangle being the bow. There were bunk beds along both outside walls – or, as we nautical folks say, “bulkheads”.

I picked a bunk, unrolled my sleeping bag, and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.


Kick the Can

Judging by some old 8mm family home movies, I must have been about two when my parents bought a house on what was then the Eastern edge of Laramie, Wyoming.  There I am in grainy glory, sporting a topknot of blonde hair. Wearing droopy short pants, I am balanced precariously on little bow legs, trying to pull a wagon across the grass in front of this house.

Our house on Kearney Street had been built on a double lot. The house and garage were all built on the West side of this lot, leaving the East side for a huge expanse of grass. It was good for Freeze Tag or flying balsawood airplanes with rubber-band motors, but I think my three brothers and I spent more time mowing that big side lawn than actually playing on it.  Most of our growing-up time was spent on the West side of the house, on the other side of the lilac hedge that separated our property from a vacant lot.

The Vacant Lot featured dirt piles, rocks, broken glass and big, tall stands of ragweed. In the back, next to the alley, was an empty foundation where somebody had once tried to build a little house and then given it up. The foundation walls contained piles of cracked flagstones and broken chunks of concrete. In short, the entirety of the lot was a boys’ wonderland.

Some of my life’s Great Lessons were learned in that lot. I learned, for example, that if you and your brothers fill a glass jar with every strange and smelly thing you can find in the kitchen – vinegar, mustard, dish soap, Molasses, and Crisco among other things, then stir in toilet paper and call it Crushbones, don’t try to get rid of it by burying it in the vacant lot. Two months later when you and your friends decide to dig a foxhole, you will start digging right in the same place where you buried that jar of Crushbones and then forgot about it. The shovel will break the glass and the suffocating smell will be almost overpowering.

On the subject of foxholes, I would guess that over the course of my boyhood, any number of them were dug in that vacant lot and then filled in again. Since this all took place during the Korean War and the McCarthy era, these were invariably fortifications against “The Commies”. This designation usually included whatever rabble of neighborhood kids that hadn’t helped dig the foxhole in the first place. Some of these excavations were just simple holes in the ground where my friend Tommy D. and I could scrunch down with our broomstick rifles and try to catch a glimpse through the ragweed of the Chinese Hordes bearing down on us. Others were more elaborate.

One summer the annual foxhole became deep with a sloping entrance and a roof overhead. A nearby construction site had yielded boards and scraps of plywood which we put over the hole then covered with dirt. Four of us could jam inside and congratulate ourselves on becoming completely invisible.  Some of the other neighborhood kids came over and demanded a look inside. We called them “Commies” and drove them away with a barrage of dirt clods thrown through the entrance tunnel.

Our defenses became immediately suspect when they got on the roof and started jumping up and down. Boards began to bounce and shift. Rocks, dirt, and weeds fell on our heads and down our necks.  We scrambled out of the foxhole coughing and shaking the dirt out of our clothes. Harsh words were exchanged, threats made, more dirt clods were thrown. In short, a good time was had by all.

It is difficult to ponder the vacant lot without the phrase “bike jump” coming to mind. Long before custom-made BMX bicycles, we had our old fat-tire Schwinns with fenders over the wheels and chrome kickstands that were never used. Instead of designer concrete skate parks and ramps we had a board and a cinderblock. And instead of protective helmets and pads, we had only skin  – much of which was left on the gravel of our landing zone.

But the vacant lot truly came into its own on summer evenings when the neighborhood kids would gather to play “Kick the Can.”

To play the game, an empty tin can was set in the middle of a clear space in the vacant lot. One person was chosen to be “it” in a procedure that usually involved catching a tiger by the toe. While “It” would cover his or her eyes and count loudly to 100, the rest of us would go hide. Then “it” would begin to search, always keeping a sharp eye for lurkers. When someone was seen, “it” would run for the can, leap over it, and yell “One, two, three on Tommy N. behind the garbage can!” Tommy N. would then have to go sit in “jail” – usually inside the old foundation. The only way to avoid this was to get to the can first, and kick it. At this point, everybody in jail was set free and given time to hide again. Then “it” set out, once more, to “One, two, three…” all the players. If and when he succeeded, a new “it” was chosen and the rest of us scurried off to find the absolute, best hiding place in the known world.

At some point, the game would end, usually because someone’s mother was calling or it had gotten too dark to see. Then the “End Call” would be chanted. When the first group of kids who played this game in the fading twilight a long, long time ago called for the game to end, perhaps they yelled, “All In Free!”. By the time it had been passed down to the kids in my neighborhood, it had become the meaningless but melodic, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free-oh!”

When my time is finally up and I draw my last breath, I do not hope for a long, dark tunnel with a bright golden light at the end. I am not dreaming of Teutonic goddesses wearing bronze brassieres and riding flying horses appearing to bear me away. I want it to be a Summer evening in a little town in Wyoming, the last pink and purple light of sunset fading in the West, and a clear but far away voice chanting, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free-oh!”

Surveying for America 2 – Crazy Bill

Most everyone who knows me thinks that I have a fear of heights. The truth is that I’m not afraid of heights at all. I’m afraid of falling at high speed from those heights and even more terrified of hitting the ground. I once had a good friend who had a morbid fear of overhead bridges collapsing and falling on him. My dread was of being the guy driving over that bridge as it crumbled and dropped.  Earthquake-prone Los Angeles was not a good place for either of us.

People ask, “Are you afraid of flying?” Well, yes and no. Put me in an aisle seat of a big ol’ Boeing or Airbus and I’m fine. Smooth and steady all the way. But the mere thought of riding in the back seat of a little Piper Cub bouncing across the sky will make beads of sweat stand out on my forehead.

So you can well imagine how thrilled I was when the boss back in Casper called the Foreman of our surveying team in Utah to say he’d worked out a deal with a friend who owned Casper Flying Service.  No longer would we drive our trucks the 60 miles out to the field every morning, and then back again in the evening. Instead, we would leave the trucks parked near a dirt road close to the job area and a pilot would fly us out there. He’d land the plane on the road, and we’d jump in the trucks and start surveying our mining claims. The theory was that the time saved would more than pay for the plane rental and the pilot’s salary.

My options, at first look, were bleak. I could quit, I supposed. But then how would I get back to Wyoming? Would I want to get back to Wyoming in the middle of the Winter? Utah can be cold in the Winter, but compared to Wyoming  it’s Miami Beach.

I had a few gloomy moments before my natural-born optimism began to kick in. “Try thinking of it as a nice little twenty-minute flight twice a day.,” I told myself. “More than likely, it will be something quite peaceful – a relaxing ride with a great view. Yeah, that’s it. everything will be fine.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could take such an obviously-flawed pipedream and sell it to other people as thoroughly as I sold it to myself? If so,  I’d be on a yacht right now, polishing my Ferragamo slippers with hundred dollar bills as I cruise down to Barbados.

A week later, as we were sitting down to dinner at the Green River Cafe, a thin young man with dark hair walked in the door and up to our table.

“You guys are the survey crew, right?” he said. “I’m your pilot. My name’s Bill.”

All five of us introduced ourselves and he sat down. While we were waiting for our food he told us about himself.  Before Bill appeared, I had been picturing a calm, mature, laid-back professional pilot who delivered his passengers quickly and safely to their destinations. Sort of a limo-driver of the skies.  But Bill announced that he was an off-season Crop Duster. He had taken this gig to get him through the Winter until he could get back to his real love – flying under power lines and over fences to deliver clouds of poison gas to defenseless insects.

The next day, three of us were in the little Cessna 210 6-seater when Bill climbed into the pilot’s seat.

“See that white Chevy going out of town over there?” Bill asked us as he pointed out the car. “I saw four real pretty girls getting into it. This’ll be cool!”

Ten minutes later, we were airborne and instead of heading South toward Hanksville, we were following Highway 6 North toward Provo. Soon Bill spotted the white car all by itself on the road and dropped the plane’s nose.  The plane was flying at an altitude of about twenty feet when it roared over the car from behind.  Then he landed the plane on the highway, jumped out and danced a few steps across the blacktop, danced back to the plane, and took off.  He made one big, looping, 180 degree turn, came straight down the highway at the car head-on and buzzed them again. Finally, he turned the plane toward the work area.

When Bill decided to get cute and tricksy with the aircraft, it didn’t help that everyone on the crew loved it and egged him on. Everyone but me.

“How’d you guys like to do a few power-stalls?”

Four voices shouting, “Yay!” drowned out one little voice from the back saying, “No, really, I’d rather not.”

Bill opened the throttle and pulled the plane up into a steep climb. At a point, the climb was too steep, the plane was deprived of lift, and it dropped like a stone. All the hats, gloves, pencils, and cigarette butts from the ashtray floated up in the plane’s cabin and stuck to the ceiling, right next to my stomach. When the wings suddenly regained lift, all that stuff, including my stomach, dropped back into our laps. My moan of terror and dismay was drowned out by the roar of the engine as he pulled back on the yoke to do it again.

After he had dropped us off, and he was by himself in the plane, Crazy Bill, as we were all calling him by then, usually didn’t just fly back to Green River. He’d scout the countryside, mainly looking for somebody to buzz whether it was one of our four-wheel drive trucks bouncing across the desert, or a total stranger.

One afternoon several of us had brought one of the trucks into the little gas station in Hanksville for service. Lonnie and I were drinking cokes in the office when two local ranchers came storming in to talk to the station owner.

“You got any idea who that bastard is with the silver and red plane?”

Lonnie and I put our best “clueless and befuddled” looks on our faces.

“We were out looking for strays and the son-of-a-bitch comes over our heads at a hundred and fifty miles an hour and  so close you could almost read the writing on the tires,” fumed one.

“It was damned lucky for him,” said the other, “that my horse was crow-hoppin’ through the brush so bad I couldn’t get my rifle out of the scabbard.”

The story made Bill laugh when we told him that evening, but I didn’t hear of him again trying to buzz any armed cowboys.

Then came one day when I was headed back to the field after spending a couple of days in bed with stomach flu. My gut was still a little queasy, so I found an extra roll of toilet paper and brought it along with me. We were about ten minutes out of Green River when Bill says, “Hey, I found the coolest little canyon the other day, want to take a look?” My “no” vote was again drowned out by four shouts of “yes”. And Bill turned the plane further Southwest.

Eastern Utah was, for millions of years, at the bottom of a huge inland ocean.  Volcanic eruptions filled the skies with clouds of iron ash which settled to the bottom of this sea and accumulated over time in layers thousands of feet thick. When the ocean receded and the sea bottom became open-air desert, every little creek and stream and then river started washing away at these layers and cutting deep canyons through the rock. The iron in the rock oxidized and the canyons turned brilliant shades of red.

“Look at that,” Bill cried. “Flats all around and this deep little canyon out in the middle of it winding its way South.” He was right, it was an interesting Geological sight.

The plane was descending toward the rim of the small canyon. “The stream at the bottom is called Wild Horse Creek,” he said. “Let’s get a better look.”

I thought that meant he would fly at that low altitude just above the gash in the earth and every time the direction of it turned we’d be able to see down inside. Wrong again. Bill nudged the yoke forward and the plane dropped down inside the canyon.

I can’t tell you how long we were down in that narrow gorge with solid rock walls rushing by both wingtips and my heart dropping into my gut only to come leaping up into my mouth. All the time Bill was keeping up a tour-guide commentary while he banked the aircraft quickly left and right to follow the twists and turns of the canyon.

Finally he said, “Well, we could go further but I’d better get you guys to work.” And we were out into clear air once again.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it Pelton?” he said as he looked around and grinned at me. Then his gaze dropped from my pallid face to what I was holding in my lap.

“Toilet paper?” he cried. “Gimme that!”

Bill stretched over the corner of the pilot’s seat, reached back, and plucked the roll out of my hands. Then he pulled the yoke back and climbed the plane to the highest altitude he could. He slid back a little glass door in the window next to him and threw the entire toilet paper roll out into the wind where it quickly unrolled into a long paper streamer.

“Hang on!” he whooped and put the plane into a tight, spiral dive. He was banked over so far that the aluminum strip down the middle of the windshield was parallel to the horizon. A Hippopotamus was sitting in my lap and I couldn’t move. Then suddenly he snapped the plane back into level flight and cut the streamer of toilet paper in two. Before any of his fan club could cheer, we were back in that tight spiral dive, racing the paper to the ground. Then again another snap to level and we cut through it again.

Six times we did this maneuver, one dive after the next, until Bill left off and headed for the work site. “I could’ve maybe fit in one more, but we were getting a little close to the ground.”  he said. During the last go-around I was able to read the signs next to the highway below.

The sound of dirt grinding under my boot soles has never sounded as good as it did that day as I climbed my shaky self out of that airplane.

Two days later a check from the Uranium Speculators to our Boss had bounced and we were in the trucks driving back to Casper.  A week later and I was standing out in the middle of a windswept sagebrush flat near Douglas, Wyoming. It was forty degrees below zero, not even figuring wind chill, and the ground was so frozen I couldn’t push in a pin flag. I was feeling like the luckiest man on the prairie.



The Pelton Family Goes Boating 1 – The Inboard

It is true that certain diseases run in families. If your Grandfather died of a heart attack, and your father did too, you probably shouldn’t join the Obese Men’s Marathon Club. Our family was no exception. The malady we all suffer from is known as the “Somethin’ for Nothin” Disease” or more commonly “SFND.”

A person with SFND convinces himself that instead of buying a product that was designed and manufactured by experts, he can save money by cobbling a substitute together out of some old washing machine parts, twenty feet of bailing wire, a broom handle, and duct tape. And when that fails, does he admit defeat and buy the manufactured thing? Nope. It’s back to the junkyard for another wheelbarrow load of junk, more duct tape, and a can of WD40.

In the spring of 1960, The Old Man decided he wanted to be a Power Boat Guy. I don’t know if he saw pyramids of beautiful girls water-skiing through Cypress Gardens on TV, or studied some picture in a magazine of a handsome guy in a little yachting cap piloting his sexy runabout across a tree-lined lake. Whatever it was, it started a fire in him that smoldered for the rest of his days. Here was the hobby for him. It required no particular skill or coordination, no talent was necessary, and you could look cool doing it right from the beginning.

I think the first thing he acquired was the little yachting cap, the kind with two anchors and a life preserver embroidered on the front above a patent leather bill. Then he started shopping for a boat. The new fiberglass-hulled lightweight runabouts were all the rage at the time, but the prices asked gave him palpitations. Within a few days,  his SFND had kicked in and he went looking for a deal on something he could fix up.  What he found was a handmade wooden speedboat. It had an inboard engine and came with its own trailer. It was dirt-cheap and the guy selling it had soon convinced the Old Man that all he had to do was a simple ring-and-valve job on the engine and he’d be the hero of the docks. The seller even towed it over and parked it, on its trailer, in our driveway.

My older brother Chuck was the motorhead of the family. He and several of his grease-monk friends would spend hours working on a 20 year-old Plymouth with a Cadillac flathead V8 engine. It was a cool-looking hot rod that, unfortunately, had a warped driveshaft. At any speed above 40 mph the car would vibrate enough  to rattle your teeth.

Rather than pay a mechanic to rebuild the boat’s engine, The Old Man decided that Chuck and he could do it themselves. After all, the Old Man and several friends had kept a beat-up Model T running while they were in High School years before in Casper. Chuck, not immune to the ravages of SFND, was easily recruited and they set to work. During the two months of skinned knuckles, colorful language, and throwing of wrenches that it took them to do the job, The Old Man bought a used Ford Econoline Van that had been turned into a camper. He had visions of a moonlit night, the boat pulled up on a beach somewhere, him sleeping comfortably in the van, and the boys, in a nearby tent, peacefully snoozing.

The weekend after the engine finally came to life the boat, on its trailer, was hitched to the little van. The three oldest brothers – Chuck, my next older brother Lewis, and I – piled into the van. With the Old Man at the wheel, we set off for nearby Lake Hattie.

Far from the tree-lined setting of the Old Man’s dreams, Lake Hattie sits in the middle of the Wyoming sagebrush desert where trees are as scarce as warm days in December. There were some hardy souls who had built summer cabins there and others who’d brought trailers and parked them along the lake. The Old Man, smiling proudly, his yachting cap on the back of his head, paraded his new boat past the locals, then stopped at the boat ramp.

A boat ramp is a wide strip of concrete that descends down the bank and into the water where it continues for another  twenty feet or so at the same angle. The technique of launching a boat is to back the trailer down the ramp until the rear of the boat is in the water. Then you unhook the boat from the trailer and push it backwards until it is off the trailer and floating free. The boat is then maneuvered over to the dock, either by rope or under power, where it is tied up. This is followed by friends and family, carrying coolers, water skis, and life jackets, who jump in and soon take off for a day of boating fun.

By the time the trailer holding our new boat got into the water, the Old Man was already starting to seethe.  It is difficult to back a trailer under any circumstances, but trying to do so while looking through the window curtains on a camper van can be maddening.  It took him at least a half dozen tries before he finally got the trailer wet. When he thought it was in far enough, the Old Man set the brake and stepped out. The first thing he saw was a group of the locals lined up to watch. So he plastered a toothy grin on his face and tried to swallow the angry snarl that was trying to force its way out. His walk was somewhere between a saunter and a stomp.

In a faux-hearty voice he said, “okay, boys! Let’s push her off.”

All four of us each got a grip, put our backs into it, and heaved. The boat didn’t budge. Again we tried. And yet again. A couple of men from the small crowd watching came over to help but it was no use.  A boat that heavy would never slide out of that trailer. It was like trying to push a beached Sperm Whale back into the water. We would have to float it off.

The Old Man fired up the little van, put it in reverse, and slowly backed further down the ramp. When the van’s rear bumper was completely under water and the exhaust pipe was blowing bubbles, Chuck yelled, “She’s floating off!”

Within minutes we were tied up at the dock, the van and trailer had been parked, and we were jumping into the boat. Frustration forgotten, the Old Man practically whistled as he climbed into the seat behind the steering wheel and turned the key. After only a few coughs and hiccups, the big V8 roared to life, it’s deep rumble announcing to those watching that the Nautical Peltons had arrived.

The Old Man pushed the lever forward, pressed his foot down on the accelerator and with a throaty snarl, the boat mosied out into the lake. It didn’t hightail it into the lake, it didn’t zoom, or tear, or fly like the wind. It mosied. The Old Man had his foot pressed down to the floorboard, the engine screamed with all the fury its 200 plus horsepower could muster, great gouts of water were being churned up behind the boat by the propeller, and the boat itself was moving at about 12 miles per hour.

If there is one thing that gives powerboating its thrill, it would be the principle of “planing” or “getting up on the plane.” At a certain speed, a boat hull will rise up out of the water and skim along the surface. The heavier the boat, the more speed, and therefore more power, it takes to achieve the effect. But some boats are just too heavy and have to make their way slowly pushing through the water rather than rising up on top of it – tugboats, barges, garbage scows, and the Old Man’s new toy.

As long as we were out there, we tried to water ski. But a water skier needs a certain minimum speed to get up on the plane as well. The boat wasn’t quite doing it. Each of us tried skiing, each of us got worn out quickly just fighting the water, and each of us soon gave it up.

Getting the boat back on the trailer and out of the water was even more of an adventure than floating it off had been.  Again the Old Man had to nearly submerge the back end of the van to get the trailer deep enough that the boat could be floated back onto it. When it was on and strapped down, the Old Man climbed into the van, stepped on the gas, and let out the clutch. The little van shuddered and strained under the load. It was actually moving ahead, though very slowly, when it began to smoke and smell. Afraid the engine was on fire, the Old Man turned the key off and shut it down. Being familiar with the smell, Chuck told him It was the clutch plate that was burning. And now, since its exhaust pipe was under water, the van would not start. The Old Man had to suffer the humiliation of seeking out Joe, one of the locals who owned a big, four wheel drive Power Wagon and asking him to come down and pull us out.

We found a big tractor tire inner tube that we could pull around with the boat and that was enough fun to keep us going back to Lake Hattie that Summer. But between replacing fried clutch plates and having to go find Joe with the Power Wagon, the Old Man was beginning to hate the little van.

    Basic Training 1 – Sergeant LaCroix

    There were about twenty of us who’d climbed off a bus in the Texas darkness and were being herded into a large room containing several rows of folding steel chairs. My Recruiter back in Denver had warned me to bring only a small suitcase with one change of clothes, some extra underwear, and a small shaving kit. I was feeling smugly superior to several other guys who’d brought large, and obviously heavy, suitcases with them.  We were told to sit quietly and wait.

    On February 9th, 1964, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and the course of my life was suddenly and irreversibly altered. For good or ill, one thing led inexorably to the other and six months later I found myself newly sworn in to the United States Air Force and sitting on a metal chair in a holding room at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

    I was a short fellow with an oversize nose and a receding chin. A year before  I had given up on ever getting my hair to slick back into some kind of fashionably acceptable ducktail hairstyle and had let it follow its own inclination, which was to fall straight forward over my forehead.

    So, in one February night I went from being “that funny-looking kid” to “my God, you look exactly like Ringo Starr!” I even got kicked out of High School and told not to come back until I had gotten a haircut. Suddenly, not only was I wearing the face of a celebrity, I was a rebel to boot. Girls who would formerly walk right by suddenly found me amusing and irresistible. I went from being an easy out at the plate to reaching second and even third base with ease.

    With tight, pegged pants and black velvet Beatle Boots, I partied my way through the last few months of my Senior year.  The  C’s I received in my classes were more gifts of charity rather than grades I had earned.  And I drifted into a Summer of water-skiing with my family or my friends and driving down to the Colorado state line for 3.2 beer.  My future was as free of goals and ambitions as a cloudless, Wyoming Summer sky.

    But there was a part of me that took a dim view of this hedonism. This was the part of me that was anxious to crawl out of the cocoon of childhood and spread its wings. This was the part of me that wanted to be  a “man”. After a night of carousing, a drunken friend and I decided we would join the Marine Corps together on the Buddy System. In the sober light of the next day I found I was having some second thoughts, so in a letter to my older brother, Chuck, who was serving in the Air Force, I asked him what he thought. He wasn’t a big fan of the idea.

    “In the other branches of the military,” he wrote back, “they will train you in something you might be able to use after you get out. In the Corps all the training you get is how to knee someone in the groin without ruining the spit shine on your boots. In the other branches of the military they give you some choice as to what field you want to be trained in. In the Corps the only choice you have is which side of your butt you want to get kicked on.”

    Needless to say, I didn’t join the Marines, but I knew if I went on to College, I’d just have a good time and flunk out. The University of Wyoming’s policy at that time was to accept any student from any Wyoming High School regardless of grades.  And my grades had risen only occasionally out of mediocrity into the dizzying heights of lukewarm.

    In August I told my parents that I wanted to enlist in the Air Force. The Old Man was disappointed. He wanted me to go to College, join the ROTC, and become an Officer – mainly so he could sit around the Lions club and brag about his son the Officer. But my Mother heard what I was saying about wanting the Service to “make a man of me” and signed the forms.

    For several hours my fellow recruits and I sat in the holding room smoking cigarettes and talking in low voices. Periodically, a bus would pull up and fifteen or twenty more young men would be told to join us. The two Airmen with “AP” armbands and Sam Browne belts who watched over us tried their best to be quietly intimidating.

    Then an angry man wearing an impeccable uniform walked in and began to shout. He demanded that we immediately get out of our chairs and stand up straight. He said he was Sergeant LaCroix and he was “pissed off at having to get out of a warm bed and come down here and look at your ugly-ass faces.” After reaming out a couple of new recruits – one for having the temerity to leave a hand in his pocket and the other for briefly glancing sideways at the fellow getting blasted for leaving a hand in his pocket – Sergeant LaCroix lined us up in a double file and marched us out into the night.

    We walked for several blocks past dark and sleeping barracks buildings, then across an expanse of blacktop, then down the middle of a wide strip of concrete between two more rows of barracks. Suddenly all Hell broke loose. Bugle calls at high volume blared from speakers  as lights flashed on and people began to shout. Within a minute or two, uniformed men were running out of every door and hurriedly lining up.

    “What the Hell is going on?” I thought. “Why is everybody getting up and running around in the middle of the night? Are they insane?” To my horror, I soon found out that this pandemonium in the pre-dawn darkness is how everyone in the military is expected to start their day.

    Later that morning, the good Sergeant gave us our “orientation lecture.” The main purpose of this was to remind us that when we signed our names and took the oath, we had forfeited any and all rights to basic respect and fair treatment. Furthermore, we were now officially human scum. Or as Sergeant LaCroix put it, “a Basic Trainee is so low that whale shit on the bottom of the ocean looks like clouds in the sky.”

    He told us that on nothing more than his personal whim, we could at any time be set back to a Flight that had started days or weeks after we had. In effect, be made to start over.

    “The easiest way for y’all to get through Basic Training,” he said in his thick, Tennessee accent, “is for me to never know your name.  But if y’all screw up and make me look bad – make this Flight look bad – I’ll get to know who the fuck you are. And then every time some little shit detail comes along, guess who’s name I’m gonna remember.”

    Not but twenty minutes later I was tucking in the blanket on my assigned bunk when I heard the click of heels approaching  down the center aisle. As I renewed my efforts to get the blanket tucked in tightly, I heard the clicking stop.  I glanced up to see Sergeant LaCroix eyeballing me as if I were a newly-noticed insect swimming in his coffee.

    “You know what, son?” he sneered. “You look like that silly God-damned Ringo Starr. I think he’s a fuck-up and I think you’re a fuck-up too. So I’m gonna call you ‘Ringo.’ And I’m gonna remember it!”

    But he didn’t remember my new name in the same way he’d christened me with it. The name soon became “Ringoyousillylittleshit” as in “Y’all see that? It’s a God-damned cigarette butt on my sidewalk. Ringoyousillylittleshit, get over there and police up the God-damned area.” Or “The following troops have KP tomorrow. Anderson, Jefferson, Kowalski, and Ringoyousillylittleshit.”

    Sergeant LaCroix was not yet done with me, nor I with him.

      Surveying for America – Pipeline

      In the Spring of 1968, The University of Wyoming informed me that they were no longer interested in including me in their student body. After two years of hard partying, bad attitude, and a general lack of effort, my 1.4 grade average was considered well below “snuff” and I was shown the door.  Suddenly, I needed a job. A college friend told me that his father, who was a licensed Land Surveyor in Casper, had just gotten some pipeline and mining contracts and was hiring. I applied and was assigned to Mike Munkers’ crew.

      Mike, a short, sturdily-built man with glasses and thinning hair, was given a thick pile of detailed USGS maps of the Wyoming countryside. Each of the maps had a red line drawn on it that ran generally from South to North. Starting on the first map which depicted an area near Guernsey, the route ran nearly 180 miles North to the oilfields near Gillette. This was to be the route of a new oil pipeline.

      Over the next two months we put a line of pin flags – red plastic squares each attached to a thick piece of wire – in the ground, one every 100 feet over the course of what would be the pipeline. Mike kept a log of each day’s progress, noting not only how far we’d come, but the positive or negative degrees and minutes of inclination between each transit set up. The engineers back in Casper could then plot out an entire cross-section of the full 180 miles of pipe.

      We would begin the day with Mike setting up the transit directly  over the last lath that Walt, the Lead Chain, had pounded into the ground the afternoon before. A lath is a rough piece of wood about three feet long that is sharpened at one end and has a strip of bright red plastic tied to the other. Walt was a tall and lanky kid with large, protruding ears. Mike said he looked like a cab coming down the street with both doors open. The “chain” was actually a flat steel tape with marks at the beginning and the end of it that were exactly 100 feet apart. In the past, chains were made of actual chains, with links, and when the tool modernized, the name did not.

      Once the transit was set and leveled, Mike would sight the scope back at the previous lath usually about a quarter mile away. He would lock the instrument down so it couldn’t turn, then flop the scope over. Instead of looking back the way we had come, the scope was now looking along the exact same line at the way we would go.

      Walt, with a hatchet and a new lath in one hand and the leather lanyard that was attached to the head of the chain in the other, would start walking.. I would stand next to the transit and when the end of the chain was getting close I would pick up the tail lanyard and hold it, which would stop Walt.  Walt would hold the tip of the hatchet handle at the zero mark and I would hold the end of the chain at the lath at the 100 foot mark. Mike, looking through the transit, would signal left or right until the hatchet handle was right on the cross hair. When Mike waved his arms, Walt dropped the hatchet and put a pin flag in the depression that was left in the ground.

      I’d then drop the chain and start walking. Walt would turn and also start walking, the chain trailing along behind him. At the first pin flag I would pick up the tail lanyard and we’d repeat the process. When Mike could no longer see Walt’s hatchet, whether a hill had intervened or he was just too far away, he’d signal that it was time to pound in the lath. When the lath was sturdily in the ground and dead on the line, Walt and I would have fifteen or twenty minutes of down time while Mike loaded the transit into the four wheel drive truck, drove down the line of pin flags to the new lath, and set up the transit once again.

      Walking across Wyoming turned out to be a pleasant way to spend a couple of Summer months. The Eastern side of the state is the Western edge of the Great Plains. There were no mountains to climb or rivers to cross, just undulating grassland and periodic areas of flat rock. In our first week, when we were loading up at the end of a day, Mike told us to hurry up get the equipment in the truck.

      “There’s something here you’ve got to see,” he said  as we took off.

      When he stopped the truck after a short drive he said, “Get out and take a look.”

      We looked around, puzzled. “What?” we asked.

      “Look at the ground.”

      The ground was actually a flat sheet of rock with weeds growing out of the many cracks in it. Across this expanse two parallel grooves about three inches deep, five inches wide, and five feet apart  had been scored into the stone. They ran fairly straight from the Southeast to the Northwest.

      “That, guys, is the Oregon Trail. When we came out here to figure out a starting point, Mr. Gilson showed it to me. Imagine thousands of wagon wheels with iron rims rolling over this rock one after the other.”

      I stood between the timeworn ruts in the rock and looked both ways. And I wondered if I had lived more than a hundred years before and had had the chance to go, would I have done it? The almost unimaginable courage it must have taken to put everything you owned into a wagon and start walking West was, to me, nearly overwhelming.

      Silent and humbled we drove back to our motel for the night.

      A month later we had run our miles-long line of pin flags to just south of the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Our muscles had adapted to walking 4 or 5 miles a day and we had learned how to work together efficiently so we were, consequently, a day or two ahead of schedule.

      At breakfast Mike announced, “we’re going to take the day off today. The transit and some other equipment all need to be adjusted and cleaned. You guys can clean out the truck and wash it, then we’ll drive over to Bill and see my Dad.”

      Neither Walt or I had any idea who Bill was or why Mike’s Father was hanging out with the man and Mike was being deliberately coy about it. We took a dirt road over to State 59 and turned north. Not long thereafter we saw a little general store off to the left and then a highway sign that said, “Bill” and we understood.

      Mike introduced us to his father. Dean Munkers, like his son, was compact and sturdy, the only differences being 30 years, a pot belly, a beard, and a stained cowboy hat. He was not named Bill, but had bought the place from the son of the original Bill. That man, a WWI veteran and evidently a card-carrying misanthrope, had built himself a little place 40 miles from the nearest human being.

      The Original Bill was happy in his solitude for a few years, then the State of Wyoming built a 113 mile-long dirt road from Douglas to Gillette that just happened to go right through his front yard. His first thought was to pull up stakes and move, but instead he built a general store, put in a gas pump, and put out an “Open” sign. Civilization quickly followed in the form of a wife, children, and a request from the State to name the place for the purposes of local mail distribution. He named it after himself.

      Inside the general store, as well as the expected shelves stocked with grocery and hardware items, there was a case containing guns and ammo, a telephone booth, and a cash register counter where the owner sold cigarettes, candy, and gum.  Above the single US Post Office window hung a large, lettered sign.


      Population      1

      Mayor………………. Dean Munkers

      Police Chief……….. Dean Munkers

      Postmaster………… Dean Munkers

      Drive carefully. The life you save may be Dean Munkers.

      By the first week of August we were crossing the oilfields that surround Gillette. The beautiful, empty grasslands had given way to barren, low hills criss-crossed with bulldozed roads, oil derricks surrounded by mud wallows, and pump jacks everywhere looking like giant, metal insects bobbing their heads as they sucked the blood out of the ground.  To a wealthy oilman, I’m sure it looked like money and power, but to a penniless kid on the back end of an Engineer’s Chain, it was an ugly blight.

      They say that in time the oil wells will all run dry, the machines will be torn down and sold for scrap, and the land will be left to slowly return to its natural state. But some wounds can never fully heal. I wonder sometimes if, a hundred years from now, our descendants  will look at those old scars and be moved like I was moved by the wagon tracks of the Oregon Trail Pioneers. Will they stand in awe of our grit, ingenuity, and perseverance? Or will there be some other emotion?

        The Pelton Family Goes Boating 2

        It was the last week of  August in 1961 and I was just getting my 14 year-old self home after spending the Summer working as a Kitchen Boy at the University of Wyoming Recreation Camp located in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains. That job and that Summer were both major turning points in my life. But this is about boats and lakes and such. So the story will have to wait for a later post probably called Kitchen Boy.

        My brother Lewis, who’d driven up past Centennial to pick me up, pulled his little Fiat over to the curb in front of our house. I jumped out, reached back in to grab my duffel bag full of dirty clothes, and headed for the front walk. But then I stopped. There was a big, round-fendered, high-off-the-ground, bright yellow, GMC truck parked in front of the house.

        “Where did that come from?” I asked.

        “That’s Dad’s new truck,” Lewis answered. “He traded the van in on it. Mom calls it ‘the Two Ton Canary.”

        The Old Man, with nearly two boating seasons’ worth of embarrassment to egg him on, had overcome his SFND (Somethin’ For Nothin’ Disease), and bought the big four wheel drive Canary brand new.

        It took some effort the next weekend to get the cup of the trailer hitch up over the ball that was just under the Canary’s rear bumper. The big truck  was designed with plenty of ground clearance, enough so that when the trailer was finally hitched up, the boat was angled backward at a fairly steep pitch. After checking the tie-downs to make sure the boat would not slide off, the Old Man decided that the angle would only make it that much easier to launch and we all got in the truck for a day at the lake.

        A few of the Lake Hattie locals stopped what they were doing to see the big new truck pull up to the boat ramp. When they realized it was the Peltons, everyone came out to watch. The Old Man was trying to maneuver the trailer down toward the water, when one of the onlookers walked up to talk to him. Together they  walked to the rear of the boat, squatted down, and had a conversation.

        When the Old Man stood up and walked back up the ramp, I could see his jaw muscles clenching and a bright crimson color starting to rise up his neck from his collar.

        “Hey! You kids!” he yelled at us. “Get back in the truck! Don’t ask questions, just get back in the truck!”

        Mystified, we obeyed. On the way back to town he cooled off enough to explain. The boat was at such an angle that the brass propeller had been scraping on the pavement all the way out to the lake. A large, flat spot had been ground on the end  of one of the propeller blades. The helpful guy at the lake had told the Old Man that if we tried to run the boat, the shaft would vibrate and probably damage its bearings.

        Over the next week the Old Man had a step-down hitch welded to the back of the new truck and a new propeller mounted on the boat.

        We went out to the lake a few more times before the water got too cold and on those trips the Old Man seemed, if not to love, at least be satisfied with the Canary, though I don’t think he ever really forgave her for betraying him on what was their honeymoon together. The thing that he began to look askance at was the boat.

        Over the Winter, the Old Man read and reread the issues from his monthly subscription to Boating Magazine. He spent time looking at pictures of the light, fiberglass-hulled, outboard-powered runabouts. He pored over comparative reviews of different hull designs.

        By the end of April, he could stand it no longer. there were buds on the pussy willows, the grass was growing, and the ice had melted from the lake. The Old Man took the heavy, wooden  inboard boat away and in its place he parked a new, Glastron  18 footer. It had a 60 horsepower Johnson outboard motor and the dealer had thrown in half a dozen orange lifejackets.

        “It looks brand new,” I muttered to my brother Lewis. “I was expecting him to buy an old one with a hole in it that he could try to patch himself.”

        “I think it’s like the Canary,” he whispered back. “They haven’t been making them long enough for there to be any aging, cheap ones.”

        Again we drove out to Lake Hattie, this time having no trouble sliding the new, lightweight boat off the trailer. The Old man had the Canary, now pulling an empty trailer, halfway up to the parking lot when he heard people screaming. He stopped the truck and craned his head out of the window to see what all the noise was about.

        Lewis was running toward him, splashing up the ramp. “The boat is sinking!” he yelled.

        It was quite obviously true. The bow of the boat was angled toward the sky and the rear transom was already half under water.

        “Jesus Christ!”The Old Man wailed. “God dammit. No!”

        He slammed the truck in reverse and lurched back down the ramp. After a few feet, the trailer began to jackknife in the wrong direction. He swore and straightened it out, then tried to calm himself down enough to concentrate. Finally, he’d got the trailer into the water deep enough that Lewis and I could guide the boat onto the rear rollers while Chuck fixed the winch’s hook to the eye in the bow.

        Turning the crank in teams, the three of us were able to slowly winch the half-submerged craft up onto the trailer and clamp it down. A stream of water shot out of the bilge-hole at the bottom of the rear transom. This is a hole that you take a plug out of at the end of the day to drain any water that might have splashed in over the sides. The next time out, before you put the boat in the water, you must replace this plug. Admittedly, we Peltons sometimes have a hard time with the rules, only learning them “the hard way.” Other times, we never learn them at all and just keep blundering on, hard way or no. We never did sink a boat, but we frequently came close.

        Suddenly, we could water ski, and water ski we did. I still remember the first time I stepped out of one ski and put my free foot into rear cup on the remaining one. I was on a single slalom ski, carving a big turn through the water on one side, momentarily airborne as I crossed the wake, and into another big turn on the other side. The joy of it roared in my ears.

        The Old Man had a great time as well that Summer. Or would have, had it not been for two problems. One problem was that a man with a big, pot gut should probably keep his vanity in check. But The Old Man wanted to cut a dashing figure as he skied around the lake and so refused to wear an appropriate, orange, Mae West-style lifejacket. All the cool water skiing guys wore neoprene foam belts, so the Old Man bought several in large sizes. Because of his weight, one belt wouldn’t keep his head above water. Two did, but barely.

        So when he was in the water and we were maneuvering the boat around to pull him up on his skis, his loud, profanity-laced directions were interrupted by coughing and spluttering each time a wave washed over his head. When we succeeded in pulling him up, the rolls of fat squeezing out, over, and between the belts cinched around him made him look like the Michelin Rubber man.

        The only other raincloud on the Old Man’s horizon was that he did not like to get wet, especially if the water was cold. And this was Wyoming – the water was always cold. His ideal trip on the water skis was to be pulled up from a sitting position on the edge of the dock. After a good ten or fifteen minute ride, he’d  circle one hand over his head and point, which was the “whip me off over there” signal. The boat would make an angled approach to the beach, then quickly turn away. At the right moment he’d let go of the rope and his momentum would carry him in close to the beach. When he stopped and sank to the bottom, the water would be only calf-deep.

        One day that Summer, we took a boating trip to Glendo Reservoir, about 30 miles North of Wheatland. We brought along my Uncle Paul and his two sons, my cousins Bob and Ken. Uncle Paul  had contracted Polio when he was a young man and could not walk without the use of leg braces and crutches. But he was, at heart, an Outdoor Guy so he really enjoyed driving the boat. While Mom and my Aunt Martha prepared lunch, and Lewis and Ken and I looked for stuff on the beach, Uncle Paul, with Bob as Spotter, prepared to pull the Old Man around the lake.

        The Old Man, sitting on the end of a small dock, holding the handle end of the tow rope, yelled, “Hit it!” and Uncle Paul pushed the throttle forward. As the boat accelerated, the slack pulled out of the rope and at the right moment, the Old Man stood up. The boat whisked him away on his skis into the lake.

        A few minutes later, they came by us on the beach and everybody waved, the Old Man looked silly with his two belts cinched around his overlarge waist, but also very self-satisfied. After a nice ride of about fifteen minutes, the Old Man let go of the tow handle with one hand, made two quick circles over his head, then pointed to the beach. Cousin Bob relayed the request to his father who made a big circle around the lake before coming by our little spot on the beach again. But he stayed twenty yards off shore where the water was deep and cold.

        Everyone waved again, but the Old Man’s grin looked forced and mirthless. Shortly thereafter he repeated the “whip me off over there” sign and once again, Paul made a big circular tour of the lake and came by the beach in the deep water. By then the Old Man must have realized that he hadn’t run through the necessary hand signals with Uncle Paul. Instead of “whip me off over there,” his sign was being interpreted as “once more around the lake and then cruise by the beach.”

        Faced with such a situation, the logical thing to do would be to let go of the rope, sink into the lake, and float there until the boat came over to pick you up. But the Old Man refused to give in. In his tiring state, desperation took over and he decided, like an American tourist in a foreign country, the solution to not being understood was to get bigger and louder. He made huge, sweeping circular gestures which only made Uncle Paul operate the boat in ever-bigger circles. He screamed instructions which, due to the engine noise, the occupants of the boat could not hear. The people along the shore could hear him, however. A man on skis being towed past them bellowing, “Whip me off! Whip me off!” made them roll their eyes and check behind the bushes for Rod Serling.

        Finally, more out of exhaustion than arriving at the right conclusion, The Old Man let the tow handle slip out of his grasp and he sank into the frigid embrace of the lake. Uncle Paul turned the boat around and even with Cousin Bob’s help, the Old Man could barely heave himself over the side.

        That evening, Mom drove us in the Canary back to Laramie. She had to. The Old Man could not lift his hands out of his lap.

        Perhaps it was during that ride that the Old Man began to wish for a truck with a camper on it. With something like that, we wouldn’t have to drive, exhausted, through the darkness back to town. We could just camp out there on the beach.

        “Ooh, yeah, good thought,” the SFND virus might have said back to him. “And we could get an old truck and fix it up and buy a used camper to put on it for next to nothin’.”

        “Yeah,” repeated the Old Man, half asleep. “Good thought.”




          About Me

          I grew up in a little Wyoming town called Laramie. At about the age of Eight, I learned one of my life’s Great Lessons: “Even the meanest, most sadistic kids on the playground have a sense of humor. If you can make them laugh, they won’t hurt you.” So  I began to memorize jokes. Just as a kid who loves baseball and practices his game will eventually get better at it, so I practiced at the fine art of poking fun without getting poked in the nose. Then the second Great Lesson came to me: “A true story will always get a bigger laugh than a made-up joke.” I was fortunate to have come from a family of characters who seemed to lurch from one minor disaster to the next. Add to those my bumbling and callow teenage self and I had a goldmine of eye-rolling stories to choose from.  As I grew into young adulthood, my life got crazier, not the reverse. Either I was fated to repeatedly stumble into odd and humiliating situations, or I was deliberately setting myself up – subconsciously hoping that good story might come out of it.

          I recently decided to write a bunch of these stories down in a blog. Welcome! These stories have been my social capital for years. I sometimes wonder, when they’ve all been written down, if I will have anything left to say. Or will I sit quietly in the corner, suck my teeth, and make rude noises like most other old men?

          Basic Training 2 – A Letter to the General

          “Tell me something,” the Air Force Recruiter asked. “Are you interested in foreign languages?”

          “You mean learning a new language?” I said. “Sure, I guess so.”

          This was not entirely true. I loved learning foreign accents much more than the languages. I loved the guttural sounds of a French accent rolling from the back of my tongue. Or the militant bark of the German. But the actual conjugate-this-verb-in-the past-tense learning of a language didn’t exactly make my heart beat faster.

          “Great,” said the Recruiter. “Because what the Air Force is really looking for right now are people they can train to speak Russian and Chinese. Does that sound interesting?”

          “Well, yes, I guess it does.”

          “When you’re in Basic Training they’ll call you for a test. If you pass it, you’ll be in the program. Just check ‘General’ here and sign there. Since you’re still seventeen, you’ll have to take this Permission Form for one or both of your parents to sign.”

          The Air Force let new recruits choose what area they would be trained in from four different categories, Mechanical, Clerical, Electrical, and General. Those who checked the “Mechanical” box ranged from the men who were trained to rebuild and service jet engines to the guys who crawled under the old trucks in the motor pool to change the oil. The recruits choosing “Clerical” were trained as paper-pushers, bookkeepers, and bean counters. The third choice, “Electrical,” included anything that needed current running down a wire – radar, microwave communications, radio. The final category was “General”. This was the grab bag, take-a-chance choice that covered everything the first three did not. There were some elite and interesting specialties like Intelligence, as well as some not-so-elite or interesting jobs like Air Police and Food Preparation Specialist.

          My mother was intrigued by the thought of me learning Russian or Chinese, and signed the form.

          So here I was in the first few weeks of Basic Training and the only foreign language I was trying to decipher was the one Sergeant LaCroix was screaming into my face. English spoken with a thick, Southern accent, if spoken at an average or slower speed, is not only perfectly understandable it is even charming. But English spoken angrily – fast, loud, and laced with expletives – may as well be Inuit or Farsi.

          Also, I am not someone who works well with an irritable presence looking over my shoulder. Normally competent at performing normal tasks, all I would need was the sound of Sergeant LaCroix’s boot heels clicking by and my brain would start wobbling and my fingers would get thick and clumsy. Then I’d hear, “Ringoyousillylittleshit, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

          “Sir, I uh… I was…”

          “Drop and gimme twenny!”

          Twenty pushups later and me back up and standing at attention, I’d hear, “Now I’m gonna tellyuh again, God dammit. You put the rossifargle up ovah the glammalgoap, then you pull the framistrad up agin the tolfahdle and lock it down. You got that?”

          Only a fool would not yell, “Yes, Sir!”

          Then I would side-eye what the guy next to me was doing and try to do the same.

          One morning we were assembled outside the barracks, ready to be marched to the Grinder for Drill exercises. Sergeant LaCroix consults a clipboard and bellows, “Listen up! The followin troops ah to report to Buildin 570 at 1330 owahs tomorrah. Andason, Crawley, Foahman, Ledbettah, Paylton, Toahbuht, Wahkleman. That’s at Buildin 570 1330 owahs tomorrah!”

          I thought there was a good chance that my last name was included on the list, but I had never heard him actually say it out loud before and I knew better than to raise my hand and ask, “Excuse me Sergeant LaCroix. Did you say ‘Pelton?”

          So I kept my head down and my mouth shut and decided to let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.

          A week later, the bugles of Reveille were blasting out of speakers and into the darkness . My bunkmate had had to pull me bodily off the top bunk and I woke up in mid-air. I was still buttoning up my fatigues as I ran out the door. Then I realized I’d forgotten my hat and had to fight traffic to get back inside to get it. When I ran back out, everybody else was in formation and standing at attention. Sergeant LaCroix watched me silently as I scurried into the open space in the line of men facing him.

          After a furious tirade from the him and about 60 pushups from me, the Sergeant leaned into my sweaty face and said, very clearly, “Ringoyousillylittleshit, if you fuck up one more time, just once more, I will set you back so far you’ll be ridin’ in on the God-damned bus from the Airport.”

          Most of the rest of that day was taken up first by classes and then rifle qualifying, and I was able to stay out of Sergeant LaCroix’s line of sight.

          The next morning, when we all were lined up outside the barracks, a different Sergeant was standing there looking us over. He was thinner and taller than Sergeant LaCroix, but wore an equally starched-and-pressed uniform down to the spit-shined boots with the little steel plates set into the heel.

          He introduced himself as Sergeant Brown and said that Sergeant LaCroix had gotten a call in the middle of the night that his Mother was very ill and near death. Granted emergency leave to fly back home, Sergeant LaCroix was already on his way back to Tennessee. Sergeant Brown said that he would be taking over our training.

          And just like that I became anonymous. I was known to my new Training Instructor as “Airman Basic Pelton, Timothy J.” I was no longer “Ringoyousillylittleshit,” or even “Ringo.” I was just another face in the line. I almost ambled through the last few weeks of training.

          I was informed of what specialty I would be trained in, and put on “Casual Status” while I awaited orders. I called my Mother with the news.

          “Hey, Mom, guess what specialty I got picked for?”


          “Reconnaissance Photography Specialist! Basically, I’ll be riding in the backseat of an airplane taking pictures of what’s on the ground. Probably for Intelligence guys to pour over with their magnifying glasses. Pretty cool, huh?”

          “But what about Languages?”

          “Yeah, I messed up there. My TI read off a list of names one day but because of his thick Southern accent I didn’t hear my name being called and it turned out to be for the Languages test.  But it all worked out because the photography thing sounds really interesting.”

          She sounded disappointed, but I did my best to jolly her up and by the end of the conversation, she seemed okay.

          Five days later a runner brought a message to Squadron HQ that I was to report that afternoon to a Sergeant Bricker at his office in Building 342.

          Sergeant Bricker turned out to be someone who was very unhappy with me missing the Languages Test. He kept me standing at attention in front of his desk for fifteen minutes while he railed at me for my bad attitude, laziness, and failure to take initiative. One would think that I had betrayed the whole Air Force. Finally, with angry reluctance, he pushed a sheet of paper across his desk at me. I was ordered to report two days later to Building 570 at 1330 hours to take the Languages Test.

          The test turned out to be a challenge but an interesting one. We were given a group of vocabulary words and a few basic verbs in the Macedonian language to memorize. Some simple Macedonian grammatical rules were passed out before they gave us a list of sentences in Macedonian which we were to translate into English as best we could.

          I must have done fairly well on the test because two weeks later I received orders to take two weeks leave, then report to the Air Force detachment on the campus of Indiana University where I would begin Russian Language training.

          While I was at home I told my Mother about Sergeant Bricker and his hostility. A little shame-faced, Mom told me that after our conversation, she had gotten worried about my safety. This was the Fall of 1964 and the Vietnam War had just begun. My Mother, being an Artist, had a very vivid imagination and could see me in the back seat of a jet flying over Hanoi. Just as I begin taking pictures of the City’s defenses, a surface-to-air missile hits the jet I’m riding in. Shrapnel rips through my body and I am dead before the plane hits the ground in a huge fireball.

          “So,” she continued, “I sat down and wrote a polite letter to the Commanding General of Lackland Air Force Base. He wrote back and apologized on behalf of the Training Command and promised to see if they could rectify the situation. Wasn’t that nice?”

          I told her I thought that, yes, it was very nice. Inside I was totally mortified. Now I could understand why Sergeant Bricker was so incensed.

          When I arrived at the USAF detachment at IU and began to take Russian classes, I found it ironic that in a completely male-dominated Service, it was due to two women that I was here at all. My Mother, who wrote the Letter to the General, and Sergeant LaCroix’s mother, who had contracted some unknown-to-me terrible disease. God bless ’em both.