You’re Lucky To Be Alive!

Some time ago, my wife and I were having dinner at a restaurant with my sister.  As often happens, we started talking about the old days.  Memories can be painful, selective, incorrect, and lots of other things, but the memories I prefer are funny.  The actual experiences might not have been funny at the time, but the craziness makes them funny to talk about now.

We sat down in a booth, which I prefer, as opposed to a table out in the middle of the room.  In booths you have your own little house with two doors which can be protected from intruders.  At tables people can move all around you, which can be unsettling.  I noticed an older couple (older than us) sitting in the next booth, but didn’t think anything of it.

What makes most of our stories even funnier is that the things we did, some of which could have burned the house down several times over, went totally unnoticed by our parents, especially our father.  He was a guy who couldn’t see things right under, or even on his nose, but had a sixth and seventh sense about what we were thinking.  So, the answer was not to think.

In 1961, my grandparents came for a visit from California.  At the time, they had a beautiful 1956 Ford Fairlane, a spotless two-tone green and white classic.  Probably not so much to protect it as to make it easy for my dad to go to work each day, the Ford was parked in our one-car garage.  My brother and I decided to be very helpful, and wash Grandpa’s car in the garage.  So, using Comet cleanser, we began scrubbing the hood of the car.  We didn’t understand why our white rags were turning green, but we must have thought we were doing a great job.  This one didn’t go unnoticed, and the lights must have really gone out, because I don’t remember anything that happened after that.

We talked about the time I made match-head rockets.  I wasn’t outside, in a field, or a parking lot.  I was in the basement.  The rocket worked perfectly, shooting across the string I had stretched between two chairs, the exhaust left a blue cloud that filled the basement.  Who can’t smell a single match lit anywhere in the house?  No one asked about the blue smoke in the basement.

For a while, I was fascinated with chemicals, test-tubes, and bunsen burners.  When I didn’t have a real alcohol burner, I tried to make one.  I had an empty shotgun shell, put a piece of cloth in it, then used a capillary tube to take alcohol from a bottle and drop on the cloth as it burned.  What I didn’t know is that alcohol flame is invisible.  I didn’t see the flicker on the end of the tube as I put it back in the bottle of alcohol.  “Phoooomp!!” Nope, the bottle didn’t explode and set my bedroom on fire, my hair didn’t burn, I still had my eyebrows.  I just didn’t do it again.

I talked my mother into taking me to a store where I could buy some chemistry equipment, including a real bunsen burner.  My sister and I set up a lab, IN MY CLOSET, behind the clothes on a shelf that ran the length of the closet.  We were mixing chemicals, cooking them, with fire, in my closet!  (The house is still standing.)

I loved firecrackers.  I heard someone at school talking about taking gunpowder out of shotgun shells, so I decided to try it.  Standing over the shell my dad never missed, which I had taken from his unlocked ammo cabinet, I used a screwdriver to dig into the crimp and open the shell.  (That almost takes my breath away.) I poured the tiny BBs into the toy box.  I took the open shell still containing gunpowder outside and held a burning match over it.  The powder burned in a flash instead of a bang I expected.  I decided real firecrackers were better, so one by one, I took firecrackers from my dad’s dresser drawer.  He never said a word, even after they were all gone.

We laughed about my memory of shooting a model car to pieces, with my BB gun…on my bedroom floor.  I carefully picked up all the pieces, discovering that each shot left a dimple in the hardwood of my bedroom floor.  Impossible to miss, yet everyone did.

Fire was a recurring fascination.  My brother found a heavy black rock we were sure fell from space.  Bugs made homes in the many small holes in the rock so we decided to burn them out.   In the grass beside the back porch, he lit a small flame on the rock.  I decided to pour gas on it to keep the fire going.  From a metal sand pail, I poured gasoline which immediately ignited, going up into the pail, which I dropped.  My brother was kneeling beside the rock yet he didn’t get spashed with gas, and the bucket landed upside down. We quickly put out the flames, but there was a circle of scorched grass about three feet across.  I was sure we would die as soon as dad got home.  No one ever said a word.

Our dad was a salesman and his work often included entertaining clients, which sometimes meant my parents were gone overnight.  It was great fun for my brother and I since our little sister spent the night with our grandparents.  We watched endless TV and cooked or baked whatever we wanted.  One time we each made our own cake, but since I was using the oven, my brother put his in a broiler, which only made a crust on the top.  He ate the crusty layer then returned it to the broiler again.  I called my grandparents in the middle of the night with a terrible stomach ache.

In the restaurant, we ate, drank coffee, told stories, and laughed a lot.  Probably laughed a little too loud (that was me), and what we didn’t know was that the elderly couple next to us was enjoying every minute of it.  When we stood to leave, with laughter the lady said to us, “We want you to know we really have been entertained by your stories!”  She looked at me and said, “And you’re lucky to be alive!”  We all laughed together again.

Speaking of coffee…

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Just to make sure I don’t get nailed for copyright infringement, this is obviously a photo of the “Muppets Christmas Carol” when Marley and Marley come to heckle Scrooge. I love the part in the movie when Scrooge is apprenticed at Fozziwig and Mom’s Rubber Chicken Factory, and Fozziwig was going to make a speech. The two old hecklers in the balcony hollered, “It’s time for us to take a nap!” Fozziwig’s speech was something like, “Merry Christmas to everyone!” The Marleys said, “That was dumb! It was short! We loved it!!”

You often hear about the Christmas season being one of the most depression-causing times of the year. There are statistically more heart attacks on Christmas Eve than any other day of the year. What the heck?! It’s probably easy to figure out why.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time, maybe unconsciously, trying to recreate all of the cherished feelings of Christmases past. I think I’m not alone. It becomes exhausting, trying to make everything just perfect, like our memories faithfully recall, so that we can relive all of the best moments once again. The problem is it’s impossible. The past can’t be brought back, recreated, or experienced again. Every moment and experience is brand new, nothing is exactly the way it used to be. That’s not negativity or sarcasm, it’s the truth. And the longer we spend and the energy we waste trying to do something that can’t be done, the more likely it is the actual result will be depression and maybe worse.

Enough therapy, it’s time to remember some fun things.

Most boys at some time want a BB gun, and I was no different. Our dad was an avid hunter, so I naturally wanted to follow. I think I was ten when my wish came true. On Christmas morning I first opened a heavy box that was filled with little packs of BBs that looked like shotgun shells. That was the neatest thing ever. The BB gun I received made an annoying “pinnnggg” sound that was supposed to be like a ricochet. It wasn’t. But it was a BB gun, and I loved it. We spent Christmas Day in the basement shooting at plastic army men with the backdrop of a big box with a quilt folded up inside to catch the BBs.

Another great gift my brother got was a slot-car race track. With super-realistic video games that put you in the driver’s seat of a race car, it’s hard to imagine kids today being interested in slot-car racing, but back then it was the best! We had that track for many years and wore it out.

A gift my sister and I still laugh about was her EasyBake Oven. How I loved it! Yes, I meant to say “I”. My young sister, obviously, had to be shown how to do everything, so I did it for her. We made all of the goodies that first Christmas Day and just about made ourselves sick eating all of the little pies and cakes. (I just thought of something. That EasyBake Oven is probably why I love baking so much and now have people hollering “enough already!!” because all the sweets I made will probably last til April).

Reading back over the paragraph about the BB gun reminded me of the year, I think I was seven, that I received two six-shooters in a holster, designed after the old TV show, “Have Gun Will Travel”. Oh my gosh!! The basement was blue with smoke from the rolls of caps we shot at each other all afternoon! I’m amused how often I see six-shooters like that in antique stores. Until I finally got a BB gun, I took my holster and six-guns on hunting trips with our dad.

One last favorite. When I was fifteen I received my first HO scale train set. For the unaware, HO actually means “half-O”. O scale is the size of Lionel trains. I prefer HO, because, to me and many others, it’s more realistic, and doesn’t take up as much space. That Christmas was fifty years ago, but I still love HO trains, and am getting ready to build another big layout in the basement of our new home. And, by the way, we model railroaders do not “play trains” and we don’t care how fast they go, so don’t ask! They are not train sets, they are layouts. Now that we’ve settled that, I’ll move on.

Merry Christmas.

I think it’s time for coffee.

Tell Your Children!

Someone said grandchildren are God’s gift for not killing your children.   We did our best with our children, and in spite of our efforts, they still turned out wonderfully.  We are so proud of all of them!  And now, with six grandchildren, the oldest, fifteen, the youngest, under a year, we are enjoying the amazing experience of watching our own children raise children.

This morning we saw an interview with Michelle Obama on one of the morning shows.  Something she said really hit me.  She said she grew up with constant encouragement and was influenced to believe she could become anything she chose.  Reinforcement was constant.  While I know very little about Mrs. Obama apart from being the former First Lady, anyone paying attention can tell the message she received when she was young had a tremendously positive impact on her life.

My own experience was much different.  I did not grow up with that kind of encouragement, or anything close to it.  What I learned was fear and insecurity, which led to a constant sense of anxiety that has lasted throughout my life, to this day.

What I endured back then would be called abuse today.  Psychological, emotional, and physical abuse.  Giving my father the benefit of any doubt, his purpose was to demand obedience.  What he actually did was protect himself from ever being shamed or embarrassed by his children’s behavior.  Never hearing “you can do this,” or, “you can be anything you want to be,” or,  “believe in yourself like I believe in you,” brought crippling results.  Instead of learning what was possible for us, we learned what would happen to us.

My dad lost his own father when he was a young teenager, just when he needed him most.  His father left home and never returned.  As a result, my father became skillful at keeping others from hurting him, especially those in his own family.

One of my earliest memories of my dad was being afraid to stay with him when my mother was leaving the house.  Years later in the 7th grade, I delayed giving my father a report card because I was afraid he would be angry.  When I finally brought it home he laughed and teased as he looked over the report.  I said, “I got this a month ago.  I didn’t bring it home because I was afraid you would be mad.”  He exploded in rage. Removing his belt he screamed, “If you didn’t have a reason to be afraid before, you sure do now!”  He began hitting me with his belt and kicked me in the shin with his “wing-tip” shoe, leaving a big knot on my shin.  “You’ve got a lot of confidence in your dad, don’t you!” he yelled.  I didn’t understand then, and I’m not sure I do now.

In December of 1989, my father died from cancer at age 62.  I never had the privilege of an honest, strong, confident, reciprocal relationship with him.  Were we loved?  Yes.  Did he provide for his family?  Yes.  None of that overcame the fear that reigned in our home.

Now, with adult children and grandchildren of our own, our kids will laugh about the look on my face and the things I said when it was time for discipline.  I love it.  It’s funny and embarrassing to hear them mimick the way I was as they were growing up.

Once when I was going to be away,  I had a serious conversation with my three boys.  I said, “Hey, guys, I want to ask you a question, and I want you to be completely honest.  I won’t be angry no matter what you say.”  Then I asked them, “Are you happy when I’m not here?”  I explained that I was excited when my dad was gone.  The pressure was lifted, it was vacation time while he was gone.  I wanted to know if my boys felt the same way.  I was relieved to hear them say, “No!  We don’t like it when you’re gone.  We miss you, it’s more fun when you’re home.”  I tried not to instill the same fear and doubt I had, in my own children.

Why have I shared all of this?  If you have children, please, please, encourage them!  Praise them!  Tell them they can do anything and become anything they want to be, even if there’s not a chance in the world they can actually do what they’re dreaming.  Who knows?  Can you see the future?

Kids will be kids.  They’re going to upset you, they’re going to make mistakes, maybe big ones.  But don’t ever lose sight of them being YOUR children.  You are shaping them, and they will shape others who will shape others.  That is a huge responsibility!  Speak affirming, not shaming words to them.  Don’t say, “You know what you should have done?”  Tell them they did a great job.  Tell them you believe in them.  Tell them they can, whatever it is.  Say continually, “I am so proud of you!”

The effect of you, their parent, whether you are a single parent, step-parent,  guardian, aunt, uncle, or grandparent, believing in them will last a lifetime!