Stuff That Happened Long Ago

My best friend growing up in Starkville, Mississippi was John Briscoe. John was missing one of his big toes which made him the wonder of the neighborhood. He claimed it got cut off in the spokes of his bicycle, and I believed him. Shoes were strictly for church and school, not bicycles. John had an easy, gap-toothed grin and was one of those kids I classified as “having tongues too big for their mouths.” You know the ones I’m talking about: no matter what they are doing, part of their tongue is poking out of their mouth because there just isn’t enough room for it inside.

This unusual combination of ridiculous incisor spacing and overdeveloped tongue allowed John to do the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else at the time: spit long streams of saliva through his front teeth with pinpoint accuracy. John seemed to be able to produce a whole mouthful of spit at will, and nail any target of opportunity within a 15-foot radius.

Although we fought like cats and dogs, John and I were inseparable. I don’t know if it’s still done these days, but in the 1960s mosquito control came every week to our Mississippi neighborhood in the form of a fog-spewing DDT truck. When you are six years old, there are few things in the world cooler than instant fog. Honestly, the DDT man drew a bigger crowd of kids than the ice cream man did because DDT didn’t cost you anything.

John and I would lie in wait for the fog truck and then fall in right behind it on our bicycles for the entire length of Maple Drive. The object was to get as close to the DDT outflow (breathing in as much insecticide as possible) without rear-ending the truck and leaving thirty percent of our skin glued to the road. At some point hypoxia would shut down our brains causing us to break off the pursuit, though we were usually able to follow the back-trail of our own mucous and saliva to my house.

Even when we didn’t chase the DDT truck, we would still run out into the street after it had passed and dance around like idiots in the noxious vapors. I have waited for years in gleeful anticipation of the super powers I was sure I would receive as a result of my overexposure to a chemical now banned in even the most malaria-ridden parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but these have been slow to materialize. There were a couple of times as an adult when I thought I had changed the TV channel just by using my mind, but it actually turned out to be my wife sitting on the remote. Still, I’d think twice about pissing me off, if I were you, as my ability to levitate you into the next county could show up at any time.

John and I each had an older brother who were of an age and hung out together. Usually they spent their days either trying to ditch John and me or beating the absolute crap out of us when we insisted on following them around (or any time they had nothing better to do). Every once in awhile, though, Bill and Paul let us in on one of their projects, the best one being construction of The Tree Fort.

I think an explanation is in order here on the naming conventions of pre-adolescents in the Deep South. We tended to name things simply – as we found them. For example, there was a small pond just across the barbwire fence in our back yard known as “The Pond.” Surrounding The Pond was a small area of woods we called “The Woods.” Starting to see a pattern here? Just down the street was a limestone leech farm called “The Creek.” And at the edge of The Woods was a giant maple in which Bill and Paul caught a possum in a mail-order trap. Every kid in the neighborhood knew where The Possum Tree stood.

A quick note on possums: they are the meanest, nastiest, hissiest, bitiest, snot-bearing, God-forsaken creatures ever put on this world. They only have two settings: 1) fake coma, and 2) honey badger. Catching one in a trap is a one-way ticket to the emergency room for a tetanus shot and possibly a course of rabies vaccinations, because there is no way you will be able to resist the six-year-old impulse to stick your finger in his cage and poke him… repeatedly.

You would think that one bite from a vicious, snarling snot-monster would be enough to cure the average six-year-old of the desire to further annoy the crap out of an already furious marsupial. You would be wrong. The same paradigm applies to box turtles, snapping turtles, alligator snapping turtles, red-eared sliders, baby alligators, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, dogs, copperheads, cotton mouths, older brothers, parents and neighborhood bullies. More on six-year-old impulse later.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea of building a tree fort, but, once a scheme of that magnitude presented itself to the group, we immediately set to work without any planning at all. Planning was for adults. Kids don’t plan, they do. It’s why they end up in emergency rooms with missing fingers and toes. As the most gullible of the foursome, John and I were dispatched to “The New Addition” (where they were building new houses) to scrounge wood from the construction sites.

We walked right up to the first unfinished house we found, picked up an 8-foot 2X4 from off a stack, and proceeded to carry it off, all under the stunned gaze of the construction crew working on the house at the time. I think the sight of two kids walking up in broad daylight and boldly pilfering their building materials was so far beyond their experience that they didn’t know how to react except to watch in astonishment.

Being at that point in our young lives unfamiliar with the concept of “quit while you’re ahead,” we dropped the 2X4 off with Bill and Paul and went back for more. However, as any magician will tell you, a good trick rarely works more than once with the same audience.

As amazed as the workers were at our first daring theft, I think they were absolutely dumfounded that John and I had the balls to actually return for more. This time we were met by what was probably the foreman just as we were approaching the stack of 2X4s. Back then, any time an adult ever took the time to notice us, it was usually because we were in serious trouble. But you never ran away from adults in those days unless you had a damn good lead because they were allowed to beat you if they caught you. I saw several of the other workers grinning and nudging each other as the giant man hunkered down in front of us with a serious look on his face.

“Now, you boys shouldn’t be playin’ around these work sites,” he said softly. “You could get hurt around here.”

He looked down at our dirty bare feet.

“Why, you might step on a nail and run it clean through your foot. Do you know how bad that would hurt?”

I don’t think he was prepared for the vigorous, affirmative nods John and I returned in response to his question. Of COURSE we knew how badly it would hurt. We never wore shoes and routinely stepped on nails, thorns, shards of glass, pieces of barbwire, and metal propellers from die-cast toy airplanes. I once walked a good hundred yards and over two barb-wire fences to my house, not only with a nail stuck all the way through my foot, but also dragging the board I had just nailed it through before stepping on it. We also knew how badly it hurt when wasps and hornets stung us, but that didn’t stop us from throwing dirt clods or hedge apples at any nest we found.

So, yeah, we knew how badly it would hurt, but that was an acceptable risk and a fair trade in exchange for not having to take the time to think things through carefully before we did them. It was about that time I think that the foreman noticed John’s missing big toe and decided he might be barking up the wrong tree.

“Well, if one of these stacks of lumber fell over on you boys, it could kill you.”

Again he failed to make an impression on us. The average six-year-old in the 1960s had only the vaguest concept of death as an actual possibility except as it applied to very old people and German soldiers in episodes of “Combat” or “Rat Patrol.” This must have been apparent in our blank stares.

“And you can’t just walk up and take things off other people’s property, boys; that’s stealing.”

Oh, that did it. We knew all about stealing from our Sunday School lessons and episodes of “Jot” and “Davy and Goliath.” It’s not that we felt bad about stealing – hell, we stole from each other and other people all the time. Our neighbor down the street, Mr. Berry, was lucky to have a single duck decoy left in his garden shed. No, we felt bad because an ADULT was talking to us about stealing – that we had been CAUGHT stealing – and THAT, my friends, opened up the real possibility of getting a whuppin’ with the belt or serving hard time in one of the numerous chain gangs you could still see from time to time cutting grass along the highways in Mississippi.

I had only one defensive reaction: I started to cry. It was the only weapon in my arsenal and still works to this day on my wife when she catches me trying to sneak a new table saw into the garage that I picked up at Lowes while I was supposed to be getting some milk and bread at the grocery. It was an effective tactic because adults always assume tears to be a sign that a kid has learned his or her lesson and is sorry. Plus, adults (and wives) hate crying kids (and husbands) and want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

“Okay, son, dry it up, now. You’re not in any trouble… this time. You can keep the board you took. What did you want it for anyway?”

Since I was still hitching and sobbing and smearing snot all over my face with the back of my arm, John explained that we were building a tree fort.

“A tree fort huh?” The man smiled as if remembering one or two tree forts he had built in his day. “I’ll tell you what: if you boys promise to stay off this lot, we’ll pile some scrap wood near the sidewalk, and you can take what you want from there for your tree fort… but nothing else. There’s going to be other scrap piles of stuff that you shouldn’t mess with, so only take from the one by the sidewalk. And don’t let me catch you around any of these other houses neither.”

We promised we’d stay off the lot. Of course we would have promised to climb Mount Vesuvius during an eruption if we thought it would keep us from getting in trouble. As we left I heard some of the other workers hooting and laughing and saying something about “makin’ that poor boy cry like that,” but I didn’t care. When we came back empty-handed, Paul and Bill wanted to know what happened.

John immediately piped up, “Some guys workin’ on the house caught us, but Dave cried like a little girl so they let us go.”

I pushed John into some nearby scrub where he lay cackling with his legs straight up in the air. Normally this would have been the cue for Bill and Paul to tease me mercilessly for being a crybaby, but they realized the important thing was that no parents had been called. Being the older brothers, they would have ultimately been to blame because John and I would have ratted them out faster than Sammy “The Bull” had turned on the Gambinos. “Bill told me to,” was my go-to defense back then (whether he had actually told me to or not). They eyed me for a second with what just might have been respect; possibly trying to think how they could work this apparent skill of mine to their benefit. I wasn’t a “made man” yet, but the potential was there.

“Okay,” Bill said. “We’ll go back and get the rest of the wood after they quit work for the day.”

Which is exactly what we did. Eventually we had enough lumber to start work, and there is little to tell of the actual building of The Fort save for a several mashed fingers, couple of bent saws, and a hammer left out in the rain to rust beyond all possible utilitarian redemption. The design was your basic three-tree-delta-shape fort consisting of an upper and lower platform. We had safety rails around each platform, and planned to put up real walls with gun ports and a roof to keep the weather out, but we never completed the project. At that age, you’re lucky if you can concentrate long enough to finish even part of whatever you initially set out to do. Our bedroom room was usually scattered with half-built plastic models and unfinished games of “Monopoly,” “Gnip-Gnop,” or “Mouse Trap.” All in all, though, it was a pretty sweet fort and an excellent spot from which to snipe each other with our bb guns.

//PAP!//
“Owww, you shithead!”
“Gotcha!”

Some weeks later John was up in The Tree Fort while Bill, Paul, and I stood underneath it, lighting rolled-up pieces of notebook paper, trying to smoke them, and generally looking very cool. All of a sudden I felt a runner of liquid skip right across the top of my head. As Bill and Paul seemed to be missing out on this spontaneous burst of precipitation, I figured John was using my head for target practice. I looked up and the words, “Stop spitting on my head, Butthole!” died on my lips. John was not spitting on me. John was peeing on me. There he stood, tackle-out, grinning like an idiot as he criss-crossed his stream of urine over top of me in order to ensure even coverage.

I do not know why John decided to pee on me. What I do know is that once gripped by six-year-old impulse, it would have been easier for him to cut off his own head with a spoon than to resist that impulse. I, myself, had yielded to six-year-old impulse on numerous occasions.

Earlier that summer, my brother, Bill, and I were throwing darts outside. Bill had just finished his throw and had gone up to retrieve his darts, when suddenly I wondered if I could wing a dart right by his head and have it stick in the dartboard next to his face. How cool would that be? I even imagined the “thock” sound it would make and the surprised look on Bill’s face. My brain had barely registered this wonderful idea when it noticed my hand and arm had already acted upon it. I watched in horror as the dart flew straight and true… right into the back of Bill’s neck.

Surprisingly, my first feeling after the dart struck home was not fear, but rather disappointment that dart didn’t stick straight out of his neck like an arrow in an old western movie; It flopped down and just hung there. Instead of running for my life, I stood rooted to my spot in mute wonderment. Bill didn’t even bother to pull the dart out, he simply rounded on me and punched me right in the face. And even as the blows began to fall, I still couldn’t concentrate on my well-deserved shellacking because I couldn’t take my eyes off that stupid dart, bobbing up and down in hypnotic fashion off the side of Bill’s neck.

So, while I do not know why John decided to pee on me, I do not hold it against him… now. At the time, however, I was furious. I didn’t realize I was frozen with rage until I heard Bill and Paul consoling me by bursting into outright laughter. By the time I looked up again, John’s survival instinct had kicked in, and he was shimmying down the back side of one of the trees like a squirrel. John hit the ground running, but righteous, white-hot fury had given me the speed and dexterity normally lacking in my ungainly youth. Within five steps I had caught John, thrown him to the ground, and the fight was on.

Normally, Paul would have stuck up for his little brother, but given the circumstances, he was content to merely cheer him on. I knew I had to work fast, though, because retribution has a statute of limitations. Playground Law dictated that I only had a few minutes to hurt John. Eventually Bill and Paul would break us up, so my punches had to count. To this day I can still hear Paul’s battle cry to his brother:

“C’monJohneesonlyagradeharnyoooooo!!!”

To those who do not speak Mississippian, this translates to:

“Tally ho, John, old sport, he is only one grade higher than you.”

While it’s true I was a grade ahead of John in school, we were the same size and same age. It wasn’t my fault he got held back.

John and I were normally an even match, but I bloodied him up pretty good, and, in keeping with southern dueling custom at the time, rolled him once (just once) through the nearest fire ant bed. Bill and Paul finally broke us up, and I jumped into The Pond to wash off because for some reason cow piss was less offensive to me than human piss.

Even though John went home looking like he had walked face-first into a wasp nest and I went home soaking wet and smelling like a cow pond, neither of us got in trouble over the incident that later became known throughout the neighborhood as “that time John peed on yor haid.” Both families seemed to feel that honor had been satisfied. They considered this sound parental management and were content to let us settle most of our differences without the aid of attorneys or law enforcement.

The next day I was in the back yard plinking away at a duck decoy with my bb gun. John walked around the side of the house and sat down next to me, apparently unconcerned that I would take the opportunity to shoot his eye out or widen the gap in his front teeth with the butt of my Red Ryder.

“Sorry I pissed on your head, crybaby.” John said and started scratching at his ant bites.
“Sorry I bloodied your nose, butthole.” I returned, and grinned.

Of course neither one of us was a bit sorry. We knew we were a law unto ourselves as long as we flew below the parental radar. Generally, we managed to work things out just fine. I would like to say that I no longer succumb to the sweet siren song of six-year-old impulse. But, as anyone who has ever played darts with me could tell you, that would be a complete lie.

How I Met Your Mother

While flipping through channels, Diana and I caught part of Cecil B. DeMille’s  The Ten Commandments. In the scene, Moses was enjoying the hospitality of Jethro, the Midianite, who was offering Moses one of his daughters as a bride by having them dance for him. I turned to Diana:

“Awww, that’s exactly how we met.”
“What?”
“Remember? I showed up at your house and saved you and your sisters from those robbers, and your Dad was so grateful he had you all dance for me and told me to pick one of you?”
“Really? And what dance did we do?”
“I think it was the Hustle because the Tootsie Roll hadn’t been invented yet. Anyway, after you had all finished, I pointed, and you squealed,  jumped up, and ran over to me.”
“Well, I could see you had potential as a husband.”
“Yeah, except I wasn’t pointing at you. But you were so excited, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. I just let it ride so I wouldn’t upset the laws of hospitality.”
“And just who were you pointing at?”
“Doesn’t matter, now. Everything worked out okay.”
“You have absolutely no idea where we first met.”
“Well, no, but I really like this version.”
“You were at school painting a backdrop for a dance. Sharon brought me over and introduced us.”
“Why did she do that?”
“She said you had nice teeth and that I should go out with you.”
“She was my dental hygienist, so she would know.”
“Also, I think she thought you were a ‘good boy.'”
“That’s because she never dated me. So did we hit it off right away?”
“No. You just looked up, said, ‘hey,’ and went back to your painting. It kind of hurt my feelings.”
“Yeah, well, I was shy. Besides, I was a senior and you were only a little freshman.”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember that.”
“I remember. I remember you had the boobs of at least a junior.”
“Lord, I wish I still did.”

Awkward Conversations with Naked Man

I finished my workout this morning rather later than I usually do. Why is not important. What is important is that it altered my routine. I am a man of routine; the older I get, the more I cling to routine. It has become my religion. When I ignore routine, things go wrong. For example, when I get home from work, the first thing I do is put my keys, my wallet, and my entry badge in a bowl on the kitchen counter next to the giant Charlotte Watson bread crock. If I screw up even one part of that routine, the next morning I will have an angry, sleepy Diana on my hands as I rummage around the bedroom in the dark knocking over everything on the night stand:

”David! What are you DOING?”
”I can’t find my badge.”
“Did you bring it up here?”
”No.”
“Then why are you LOOKING for it up here?”
“Because it’s not in the bowl, so now I have to search the entire house. I’ve already checked the garage, attic, and behind the refrigerator.”
“Well, why don’t you at least turn on the light so you can see?”
“Because I don’t want to disturb you.”
“Get out.”
“Just as soon as I check your shoe rack… and every single drawer in the bathroom.”

So, anyway, when I finished my workout today, I went to the locker room. There is a group of us retired military, all on our second or third careers, who show up when the base gym opens in the morning. We’re usually the only ones there until the active duty guys start arriving about an hour later. They’re all nice guys. I always speak to them and pass the occasional pleasantry – “Hey, did you see that Husker game last night?” – “Yeah, Polini lost his mind after that crap call in the third” – but, other than that, they do their thing, and I do mine. I don’t know their names, so I make up names for them based on physical characteristics or what little I know about them through short conversations: Bald Marine Guy, Long Shanks, Allstate Guy, Whistler’s Mother, etc.

These guys are all pretty ate up about their workouts, and I’m mostly just there to sneak the occasional glimpse of myself making faces and flexing in the big mirrors when I think no one else is looking, so I’m usually done and gone well before they are. But not today. When I got to the locker room, I removed my sweats, threw on a towel, shaved, then headed to the shower. It’s what I always do. I had just lathered up when behind me I heard:

“Hey, did you see that sign in the bathroom?”

I’m not a prude. You should understand that right off the mark. I spent 15 of my adult years in Europe with its “clothing-optional” sensibilities, boob-bedecked billboards, and naughty page-three girls. I’ve been to South Korea and the Philippines, and what I didn’t see done with a Ping-Pong ball in those two places probably hadn’t been invented yet, except maybe in certain border towns along the Rio Grande.

Also, communal showers and bathrooms were a constant in the military. I have no problem with them, in general, which is actually pretty amazing when you consider I come from a family who not only closes the door when they enter a bathroom, but also locks it, moves a large piece of furniture in front of it, and sings so everyone knows they are in there. But there are certain bathroom activities during which I’d rather not engage in lengthy conversation; pooping is one of them, showering is the other. Still, out of politeness, I responded:

“No, I didn’t see it.”
“It said ‘NO SHAVING IN THE SINKS.’ Can you believe that shit?”

I turned my head to look behind me, and there stood Bald Marine Guy. His shower was running, but he wasn’t showering. He was just standing there… facing me… talking… naked. At that point he was no longer Bald Marine Guy. He had become Naked Man.

I am convinced every communal shower facility has a Naked Man. Naked Man is the guy who refuses to put a towel on. He shaves, brushes his teeth, and walks around completely in the buff talking to everyone. There was a Naked Man at our base in Abu Dhabi during the Desert Storm. There were a series of Naked Men during my many deployments to Saudi Arabia, one who would set his junk on the sink while he shaved. Naked Man likes two things: he likes to be naked, and he likes to talk to people, preferably at the same time. I hate Naked Man, which is a shame because I always liked Bald Marine Guy.

Clearly, I had a conversation ahead of me whether I wanted one or not. With an inward sigh, I considered male shower protocol. Do I continue showering with my back to him? That seems rude. Or, do I stop and face him too? That’s just too weird, but my instinct is to look at people when I talk to them. I keep on showering, but I turn a little to the side so I’m not craning my neck behind me. There. Am I displaying too much? Not enough? It will have to do.

“No. I missed that, but it’s pretty stupid.”
“Yeah, it’s like saying, ‘DON’T PEE IN THE URINAL.’”

Naked Man launched into a diatribe of how poorly the gym facility is run and how he’s going to get it straightened out. He’s a retired marine and an Type-A personality. That’s what Type-A personalities do. They walk around naked and fix things. I’m a… whatever is not an A-Type personality. If someone sticks a sign up telling me not to do something I want to do, I just do it and don’t say anything about it. I pick my battles. At some point, I realize that while musing over personality types and trying not to look at this guy’s junk without obviously looking like I’m trying not to look at it, I have completely lost track of the conversation. Time for a platitude:

“Yeah, these guys have no idea what they’re doing.”
”You’re telling me. Hey, been working those triceps huh?”

Damn. Now he’s Naked Compliment Guy. Time to punch.

“Yeah. I’m trying. Well, later.”
“Later.”

I left the showers for the drying area. As I toweled off, I noticed that the bottom half of me was still covered in soap. Well, there was no way I was going back in to rinse off. I probably had only bare minutes before the rest of the guys showed up to stand around in the shower, naked, and discuss how poorly the gym is run. In the future, I’ll be sticking to my routine.

Powertool Birthday

I know (purely because it was a matter of survival that I learn) that certain wedding anniversaries are associated with certain gift items. The 1st anniversary is traditionally the paper anniversary, the second – cotton, 3rd – leather, 25th – silver. I have adhered to these traditions, more or less, whenever I have managed to remember my anniversary at all (which is seldom). What I did not know (and what some of you Yankees may be surprised to hear) is that certain birthdays in the South also are associated with specific gifts. Let’s see, the 6th birthday is the Crossman-Pellet-Gun Birthday, the 8th is the Crappy-Cowboy-Shirt-That-Matches-Your-Brother’s Birthday, the 13th birthday is the Motocross-Bike Birthday,” etc. I think I have the Hallmark list somewhere. Anyway…

I turned 40 shortly after retiring from the Air Force and moving back to Kentucky. A simple celebration was held in my honor by my in-laws, most of whom earn a pretty decent living raising crops and piloting farm implements the size of small cities. They let me drive the smaller tractors and front-loaders as long as I stayed away from the crops. Occasionally, I would climb up into the cockpits of the larger implements when no one was looking, turn the steering wheel, and make tractor noises while pretending to disc or combine, or whatever it is they do.

It was at that gathering that I learned that not only is the 40th birthday the Power-Tool Birthday, it’s the SEARS CRAFTSMAN Power-Tool Birthday! I was presented with a fine array of high-quality, manly tools. There was the Craftsman Easy-Fire staple gun, the Craftsman 18v cordless drill, the Craftsman 7 1/4 inch circular saw, as well as various ratchet sets, adjustable wrenches, and a crow bar (not a Craftsman, mind you, but every man should have a pry-bar of some sort).

Having received these thoughtful presents, I then had to suffer through three more hours of polite family chit-chat before I could get my tools home and play with them. Don’t get me wrong: I love my in-laws. I have no bad in-law stories because my wife’s family is annoyingly perfect. Still, it’s like giving a 16 year old a Maserati and then telling him he has to sit do crossword puzzles with Grandma for three hours before he can take it on a test drive. I sat fidgeting in such obvious frustration that at one point my wife, Diana, told me to go to the bathroom before I peed myself.

Once home, Diana sat on the couch watching television while I ripped through the packaging on my tools like a 5 year old on Christmas morning. The first thing I did was to plug in the battery charger for the drill. Then, while the battery charged, I picked up the circular saw and plugged it in. I hit the trigger for five or six good, long, loud, annoying bursts and began looking around for something in the room to cut in half. Very quickly my eyes met those of my wife and locked fast. She had that look on her face that told me in no uncertain terms that I was on the verge of losing a kidney. She shook her head:

“I’m trying to watch T.V. Take your toy out to the garage.”
“I can’t – I haven’t had a chance to replace the breaker box in the garage yet, so there’s no power to the outlets. And it’s not a toy!”
“Then put it away and read your instruction manuals.”

I stared at her with my mouth hanging open.

“Read what???”
“The instruction manuals.”
“Have you lost your mind? I don’t read instruction manuals.”
“Then it’s just as well we don’t have one for the bedroom.”
“Huh?”
“Look, I don’t care what you do – just unplug your little saw and put it away.”

I made an ugly face and then did as I was told. I unplugged the saw, then, in an act of manly defiance, squeezed the trigger a couple times and made loud power-saw noises in my throat. There is a subtle art to annoying one’s spouse just up to the point where she throws something heavy or pointy. If wife-baiting was a sport, I’m pretty sure I’d make a respectable showing in the U.S. Olympic trials.

Diana chose to ignore my sophomoric display, so I set the saw down and grabbed the Easy-Fire staple gun. I pulled out the staple loader and slid it back in. Then I pulled it out again and slid it back in. Out. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Then I loaded some staples. Then I unloaded those staples and loaded some bigger staples. Then I unloaded the bigger staples and loaded some even bigger staples. Then I looked around the room for something to staple. This time, I felt rather than saw the searing gaze of my wife burning a hole into the side of my skull. I tried to ignore it, but it actually hurt to the point where my eyes were drawn against my will toward hers.

“You are not going to staple anything in here. Put that away.”
“Stop reading my mind, sorceress.”
“It’s really not that hard to do. Put it away.”

I pulled an even worse face than before, slowwwwwwly and deliberately unloaded the staples, held the staple gun up to the light while admiring its beautiful lines from a variety of different angles, and then reluctantly set it down on the couch. I glanced briefly at the stack of operator manuals at my feet before deciding there might be just enough juice now in the battery to try out my new drill. I connected the battery to the drill, flipped the switch to “forward,” and squeezed the trigger. I was greeted by a whiff of ozone and the friendly whirr of the Craftsman’s 18-volt motor. I flipped the switched to reverse and squeezed the trigger. Then I put it back in forward. Reverse. Forward. Reverse. Forward. Reverse. Forward. Rever…

“You know, you’re going to have an awfully hard time getting your pants on tomorrow with that drill sticking out of your ass.”

Knowing a valid threat when I heard one, I sighed the sigh of every kid destined to wait until the spring thaw before trying out the new bike he got for Christmas, and set the drill down. Fortunately, I was an early riser and knew I’d have plenty of time to play with my tools the next day before Diana got up and spoiled it.

True to form, I was up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. I quietly closed the bedroom door on my sleeping wife and went into the living room. “Let’s see… what needs fixing around here?” I thought. “Aha! The couches!”

At the time, we lived in an old farm house with nice oak hardwood floors. Unfortunately, the couches had wooden legs and tended to slide around those floors. Over time, the couches would walk the length of the room if we didn’t constantly push them back up against the wall. I decided to solve the problem by stapling strips of thick rubber mat to the bottom of the couch legs. That should hold ’em!

I measured and cut several strips of rubber, carefully flipped one of the couches on its back, lined up one of the strips, and began to staple. Suddenly the whole house was alive with the machine-gun staccato of my Easy-Fire. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam! Bam! I had just finished the two front couch legs, when from seemingly far away I heard a tiny, sleepy, severely pissed-off voice:

“Daaaaaaaaaavvvvvvviiiid.”

I put the staple gun down, eased open the bedroom door, and tip-toed in. Diana was still face down on her pillow. This, of course, was a ruse. I knew damn well that she could reach out at any moment, remove my spleen without my ever seeing her hand move, then fall right back into the sleep of the innocent. I had watched enough shows about crocodiles on Animal Planet to know to keep my distance and have an escape route already planned out.

“Yes, Dear?”
“It’s 5:30 in the morning. What are you DOING?”
“Well,” I stammered, “You know how the couches are always sliding around? I uhhh… well, you see… uhhh, I figured I’d go ahead and fix them.”

Then, in the sweetest, most alert voice I believe has ever passed human lips, I heard:

“Honey, did you staple our couches to the floor?”

Even after 20 years of hazardous flight duty in the Air Force, I don’t think I have ever been in such danger of death or dismemberment as I was at that moment. This was a trap. I had to explain quickly and I had to get it right on the first attempt.

“No, no, no, Honey, I was stapling rubber strips to the bottom of the couch legs to help them grip the floor better.”

I heard an audible sigh, and suddenly her voice grew sleepy again.

“If I hear another sound before 9:00 I’m making you give all your toys back.”

Realizing I was going to live after all, I kissed Diana on the back of the head, quietly closed the bedroom door again, gingerly gathered up my new tools, and headed down the road to my father-in-law’s farm shop, where tool use was not only accepted – it was encouraged.

Gadgetry

Diana and I don’t exactly ride the wave of cutting-edge technology. I kept my 8-track collection so long that I completely missed the era of cassette tapes, and I finally sold off all my vinyl at a garage sale to a little old lady in England well after CDs had peaked in popularity. She said her 18-year-old grandson would love them, though I was curious if he had actually ever heard of Deep Purple, Pat Travers, or Con Funk Shun, much less had the equipment to play the albums. Still, I took her pounds sterling with a smile and the assurance that little Nigel would be very surprised with her loving gift of timeless music.

It’s not that we fear change… okay, we fear change, but it’s not that we only fear change. We are also extremely lazy. Whenever we do buy something new (which is rare) we only bother to learn its most basic functions. I can put a Blu-Ray disk into the player and watch the movie, but that’s about it. I’m not interested in the extended bonus features. That’s just extra button-pushing and stress I don’t need in my life.

But now that I have this new car, I swore a solemn oath – calling down the everlasting darkness on me if I failed to learn how to use all the crap that came with it. I began with the “hands-free” calling system. I slapped the DVD owner’s manual (yes, the car has a freakin’ DVD player and view screen in the dash!) into the slot and skipped around until I found the part about syncing a cell phone. It turned out to be surprisingly straight-forward, and in no time I was calling our house phone. I believe we are one of seven families in Nebraska who still have a land line. Cox Communications is frustrated with us because we refuse to give it up, and they can’t end the program until we do. The phone rang and rang, but eventually kicked to voice mail, so I hung up and called again. This time Diana picked up:

“Hello?”
“What are you wearing? Are you naked?”
“You dork! What do you want?”
“Why didn’t you answer when I called a minute ago?”
“I didn’t recognize the number. You never call from your cell phone.”
“Guess where I am?”
“I don’t know.”
“Guess where I am!!!”
“I don’t care.”
“I’M IN MY CAR! I’M CALLING YOU FROM MY CAR! I SYNCED MY PHONE TO MY CAR!!!”

What I was actually doing was leaning forward and yelling into the steering wheel because I wasn’t quite sure where the microphone was.

“That’s nice, honey. I’m glad you got it to work.”
“BRING ME YOUR PHONE AND I’LL PROGRAM IT TOO!”
“No.”
“COME. OUT. HERE!”
“Hhhhh…. Fine. I’ll bring it out during the next commercial.”
“NO! I CAN”T WAIT THAT LO….”

//CLICK//

Eventually Diana came out to the garage with her phone. We synced it up with my car, and she was mildly impressed with my technological skills. Then she grew bored and went back inside. As I sat there, I suddenly remembered Diana’s car had little phone buttons on her steering wheel. Could she possibly have the same untapped communications feature in her car? It’s a 2007, so the chances were good. I hopped out of my car and into hers with her phone. In no time I had fumbled through the Bluetooth feature, dialed the house phone again, leaned forward, and prepared to yell into the steering wheel.

“Hello?”
“What are you wearing? Are you naked?”
“Dammit, Honey, I’m trying to watch TV.”
“Guess where I am?”
“Your car.”
“NO! I’M IN YOUR CAR!!!! I FIGURED OUT HOW TO HOOK UP YOUR PHONE IN YOUR CAR SO YOU CAN CALL HANDS-FREE JUST LIKE ME! COME OUT HERE!”
“No.”
“COME. OUT. HERE!”
“Dang it, Hon. Okay, hang on.”

Diana came back out to the garage. I had her sit in her car, showed her what to push, and got back into my car. Then I called her cell phone.

“Hello?”
“What are you wearing?”
“Okay, this is pretty cool.”
“I know, now hang up and call me. I’m the first preset.”

So, there we were: two old people sitting side-by-side, each in our own car in the garage, leaning forward and yelling at our steering wheels. Diana again grew bored after a few minutes and went back in the house. I stayed out there awhile playing around with the satellite features and checking the current gas prices at the nearby stations. Suddenly, my dashboard started to ring.

“Hello?”
“What are you wearing? Are you nake…”
“I’ll be right in.”
“No, wait. I was just kid….”

// CLICK //

We Couch a Car

Diana and I both suffer from a strange combination of painful frugality and reckless impulsiveness. We tend to keep things for decades, then suddenly buy a new thing when we weren’t intending to. We call it “couching,” after an incident in England.

In East Anglia in the late 1990s, we were running errands on an air base just north of where we lived, when Diana decided she wanted to look around the furniture store located there “just to see what kind of couches they have.” Our then current couch was bought in 1983 after we first got married, and it didn’t have a decent spring left in it thanks to Diana’s habit of always climbing into it feet-first before setting her butt down. I think it’s some kind of nesting behavior like cats and dogs exhibit. But, as the old couch was still roughly couch-shaped, neither of us had any intention of getting a new one yet.

“We’ll just look.”
“Okay.”

Reassured in our determination to just look, we entered the store.  But after twenty minutes of laughing and jumping from couch to couch…

“Holy crap! This one has a fold-down center console with cup holders!”

… we found ourselves owners of a new, forest-green, velour monstrosity (with cup holders and a fold-out bed!). We were so excited we refused to even wait for them to deliver it the next day, but made two trips in the Aerostar to haul it ourselves. We have done the same thing with clothes, pets, tools, kitchen appliances, and there are probably some very interesting security videos out there of us shopping for mattresses. So, we are impulsive, but it’s a weird impulsiveness that can lie dormant for years at a time.

Last fall, one of the local car dealerships loaned Diana’s bank branch a new truck to drive in the Bellevue Parade. Diana came home impressed after looking it over.

“David, you need a new truck.”
“I don’t need a new truck. The Ranger runs fine and hauls what I need it to.”
“Honey, your Ranger is 14 years old.”
“So?”
“So, in our 32 years of marriage, you have never gotten a new vehicle just for you. It’s either been a family car that I got to drive while you rode your bicycle to work, or you took the old car and let me get the new one. It’s your turn.”
“I don’t need a turn. We’re not in kindergarten.”
“Well, it’s a nice day to drive around. We’ll just look at trucks and see what’s out there.It will be fun!”
“Okay, but we’re just looking, we’re not couching this.”
“No. No couching, I promise. We’ll just get an idea what’s out there, do our research, and then see what we can do at the end of the year when the new models are in.”
“Fine.”

It was Saturday evening, and all the dealerships were closed, but we walked around the lots and looked as Diana solicited my opinion, then proceeded to ignore completely.

“What do you think of the Chevys?”
“They’re expensive as hell, but I really like them.”
“Well, I don’t like these square wheel-wells. Let’s go look at Fords.”
“Ummm… okay.”

Diana liked the Fords better, but I couldn’t get over the prices. I’m finally getting to the age where I’m starting understand my grandparents a little better:

“Watcha got there, boy?”
“It’s a super ball I got out of the candy machines at the IGA. It bounces really high.”
“You spent a quarter on that?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Why, in my day you could get two mules for a quarter and still have enough change to buy controlling interest in Carnegie Steel.”
“Uhhhh… okay… I’m going to go play with it on the porch.”
“Don’t you bust my window, boy.”
“No, sir.”

So, yeah, sorry, Grandpa. I used to think your tales of surviving the Great Depression by wearing clothes made out of tree bark and eating any children born after 1929 were just hyperbole. I get it now. Anyway, eventually Diana and I returned to our house. I went to bed leaving Diana sitting at the kitchen table with her calculator – which is exactly where I found her the next morning when I got up. She had been up all night scheming. When she saw me, her eyes were alight with sleep deprivation and mild insanity.

“I have a plan.”
“You have a problem.”
“No, look: we’re not paying hardly anything for taxes or insurance on the Ranger. We’ll just keep it so you can haul plywood or whatever, and you can get a nice new car just for you. You can drive the old truck in to work once in awhile to keep it running. Thursdays would be a good day for that.”
“Thursdays?”
“It’s the least exciting day. You wouldn’t want to drive a new car to work on Thursday.”
“You’re delirious. Go to bed.”
“Okay, but wake me up in a couple of hours so we can go looking for cars.”
“Okay.”

Of course I had no intention of waking her up, but I think she instinctively knew this and managed to wake herself up after a couple of hours.

“Just let me get my bath, then we’ll go. This is so exciting!”
“Okay.”
“I don’t think you’re as excited about this as I am.”
“I’m not.”
“It will be fun!”

We spent Sunday going to different dealerships. Diana had clearly lost her mind, because she was looking at Lincolns and Cadillacs. Again, the sticker shock was killing me, and I didn’t understand half of the features on them.

“Well?”
“I don’t know. I want something four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive for the snow.”
“Okay, let’s go look at Jeeps. You’d look good in a Jeep”
“Well, yeah, that’s certainly my primary concern in a vehicle – how I look driving it.”

We went to the Chrysler place in Bellevue. I looked at Jeeps, but quickly decided I liked the look of the Chrysler 300. It was kind of poor-man’s, entry-level luxury, with a nod to 70s muscle cars in the body style. And it had AWD. We decided to come in the following Monday and talk to a salesperson.

On Monday, we met at the dealership after work. We test-drove several 300s, and I liked them, but the salesman kept pushing us to a John Varvatos edition. I liked the exterior. It was all murdered out like a Grand National, but I really didn’t care about the hand-stitched dashboard, panoramic sunroof, pink gauge lights, or heated/cooled cup holders. However, Diana thought with the 2016s coming out, they’d be willing to deal on the ridiculous designer price tag (50K MSRP but listed at 41K). Besides, she really liked the heated/cooled leather seats. Then she said:

“I want to do the negotiating.”
“Okay. But if you want your lady bits heated and cooled, it’s going to cost you.”
“I know that.”

Since Diana is super cheap, err… frugal, I was happy to let her do her thing. We sat down with the salesman, who, to give him credit, was really a nice guy, ready to write a check for the whole amount of the car right then and there as long as Diana was happy with the price. The salesman began his spiel.

“Well, what’s it going to take to get you folks into that car?”
“Thirty two – five.”

I don’t know what he was expecting, but he was not expecting that.

“Really?”
“Really.”

My initial thought was, “holy shit, way to low-ball him, Dear,” but I was curious to see how it would play out. I assumed the guy would start explaining all the features again, make a counter offer, or have the sales manager come over and we’d work our way to an agreement. The guy’s eyes widened.

“Well, let me go talk to the sales manager.”

He came back after several minutes:

“Wow, I can’t believe it, but he told me to write it up.”

Well, crap, I knew they wouldn’t take that offer. This was pure car-salesman theater. But instead of just sitting down and talking to us, they went through this ridiculous process they learned in Dealership College; the goal being to keep us in the dealership as long as possible so we feel like we’ve wasted time if we leave without getting a car.

The salesmen typed away on his keyboard, got up, and returned 5 minutes later with a piece of paper.

“Okay, this is your offer to us, and I just need you to initial here saying that if we can come to an agreement on price, you’re willing to close on this vehicle today.”

I finally jumped in.

“No.”
“No?”
“Look, We’re telling you we are willing to buy this vehicle today. You don’t need my initials because it isn’t legally binding in any way. I can initial that paper then walk right out the door without buying anything.”
“Well, yes, but…”
“I know you’re doing what the company has trained you to do, but my wife has given you an offer. Accept it or give us a counter offer.”
“Just a moment.”

With a creased brow, the salesman got up and disappeared. We waited… and waited… and waited. Finally, he returned with the sales manager: a  glad-hander with all the greasy, reptilian charm of washed-up Vegas lounge singer. I didn’t expect them to take the offer, but I figured he’d at least sit down and work with Diana, politely. He didn’t. He stood by the desk, and in a dismissive manner said:

“We can’t accept this. I’m not going to pay you to take this car.”

Then he coolly glanced at me as if I were the boss of my wife instead of the other way around. At this point Diana’s hands started squeezing the arms of her chair and I could hear the creak of chromed steel as it started to bend. If it had been just me, I would have given him a hearty “f*ck you” and left. But since Diana was there I had to intervene in order to save this moron’s life. He will never know how close he came to death that day.

“Well, thank you for your time. We’re going to go outside and discuss it.”

The thing about Diana is that once you piss her off, she is done with you – forever. You can can yell at her, call her names, insult her ancestry, and she will still smile and calmly work through the situation. But if you patronize her, God help you. She will kill you and everything you love. She is a champion grudge-holder from a long line of champion grudge-holders. Once back in our car, I tried to ease her out of her homicidal rage.

“You okay?”
“That guy was a dickhole!”
“Yes, Darling, he was a dickhole. I’ll be honest, you hit him with a pretty low offer, but he didn’t handle it well at all.”
“I’m not buying anything from them.”
“I know.”

I thought that was the end of it and that I could relax for another year or two with my truck, but later that same night Diana was on the laptop pricing Chrysler 300s.

“Oooh, here’s a new 2014 300 S in silver like you like. It’s over at the dealership in La Vista.”
“Honey, do still want to do this? Let’s just use the e-price thing in their website and see what they want for it.”
“They don’t close until 9:00 and it’s only 8:30. Let’s go look at it!”
“It will take us 20 minutes to get there.”
“We’re just going to look.”
“Okay. No couching.”
“No couching.”

So, we show up 10 minutes before closing. I walked in with my hands up and a sorry-my-wife-is-making-me-do-this look of helplessness on my face.

“Hey, I know y’all are about to close, but we’re just going to be outside looking at a car we saw online. You don’t have to worry with us.”

I was immediately pounced upon by an eager salesman.

“Oh, that’s no problem, I usually stay late. Which car were you wanting to see?”
“The silver 300 S, but, really, you don’t have to put yourself out.”
“Oh, hey I wasn’t going to do anything anyway but go home alone to my apartment and play video games.”
“Uhh… okay, then.”

The salesman’s name was Jorge, and he was a nice young man, originally from the Dominican Republic. Diana liked him right away and proceeded to call him “George” over the course of two days. He showed us the car and all its features, and let us test drive it on an empty straightaway where he told me to “punch it, dude!” I did punch it. I liked it. A lot. We came back to his desk. Jorge was ready:

“So, what’s it going to take to….”
“Okay, wait. Who is your sales manager?”
“That’s Kevin, he’s right over there.”
“I don’t want you to print anything up. We fully resolve to buy this car tonight if we can come to an agreement. We are the only customers here, so go get Kevin and let’s talk.”

Jorge was a bit discomfited being taken out of his routine like that, but left and returned with Kevin – another nice guy, but without the smarm of previous sales manager.

“Kevin, we want to buy this car. You would not believe the day we have had at your other dealership in Bellevue,” (I than summarized my afternoon). “It’s 30 minutes past my bedtime. For the love of God, please just give my wife something so she can walk out of here feeling like she got a deal.”

Diana was just sort of staring at me. I had forgotten myself and begun negotiations without her. Still, that was the price she paid for making me leave the house at night. Kevin started typing in the computer.

“Okay, let’s see… are you military? Because Chrysler offers a….”
“Twenty years in the Air Force. Here’s my I.D.”

He typed some more.

“How about $2000 under the sale price out there?”

I looked at Diana. Kevin looked at Diana. Jorge looked at Diana. She grinned her Diana-grin and nodded.

“Kevin, that sounds great.”
“Well, can we do anything else for you?”
“Yes. I want a full tank of gas, I want the car detailed, and I want the windows down and the Beats Audio system blasting ‘Ridin’ Dirty’ when you bring it out to me.”

Kevin burst out laughing. “I think we can handle that… at least the first two. We’ll see about the third.”
“Fair enough.”

We picked the car up the next day. It took us four hours to hand them a check, no doubt because they wanted us to look around for another car for Diana and to sell us some after-market crap. We just wanted the car. During that time Jorge told us all about the Dominican Republic, and Diana finally figured out she had been calling him by the wrong name for two days. On the way back, Diana came to a sudden realization.

“Oh my God, we “couched” a car.”
“Yes, we did.”
“We’ve never done that before.”
“I’m happy with my car.”
“Well, you look good driving it.”
“You know, I really do. When I was young, I used to think nice cars were wasted on old people. Now I have to take that back. Young people need to just be satisfied with their lack of any responsibility, maintaining firm bodies while living off a steady diet of Taco Bell and Mountain Dew, and the ability to get an erection lasting over four hours without having to go to the ER about it.”
“Yes. Yes they do.”

The next day, Diana sent nicely-worded thank-you cards to both Kevin and Jorge. It was a completely Kentucky thing to do. Some time later, I was in having software in the car updated, and both Kevin and Jorge told me that it was the first time anyone had ever sent them a thank-you card for purchasing a vehicle.

“Well, that’s Diana. She’s the smartest, sweetest person I know. And If you treat her with respect, she’ll write you a nice note, bake you cookies, and do business with you again. If you don’t, she’ll burn your village to the ground and kill everyone as they come running out of the flames.”

Their smiles faltered just a bit.

“I’m serious.”

Rommel and Me

 

It was my freshman year in high school, and I was talking with one of my friends in the hall between classes when another friend, Greg, saw us and decided to join in the conversation. With my back to him (and therefore completely oblivious to his approach) Greg decided to announce his arrival by kicking me square in the ass. This was, and remains, a typical greeting method among males between the ages of six and roughly eighty six. Had the roles been reversed, I have no doubt I would have attempted to greet him in the same manner.

And while Greg’s strategy was sound, his timing was terrifyingly flawed. Just as his leg was starting its downward arc, the bell rang, and I made an abrupt about face so I could get to class. As I turned around to see Greg standing there, my conscious mind couldn’t quite put together what it was seeing. My subconscious, however, had already begun throwing clothes and a toothbrush into a suitcase in preparation for what it realized was going to be a long trip.

“Hmmm, new boots,” I thought, and then all consciousness fled as his foot connected with my groin and I hit the ground like a sack full of cinder blocks. It’s entirely possible that my soul hovered around for awhile looking down at my lifeless body, but I’m pretty sure even it had been knocked out by the force of the blow.

When I came to, I discovered I had been propped splay-legged against the tiled wall of the boys bathroom. I had no idea what had happened or how I got there (or where my right shoe had disappeared to). I felt like vomiting and tried to stand up, but only succeeded in making my head roll from side to side and bang against the urinal next to it. The rest of my body refused to answer whatever confused signals my brain was sending out. It was at that point I noticed my friends squatting around me, anxious looks creasing their brows.

I knew that look well. They were busy calculating the odds of getting expelled if I died. I didn’t begrudge them their uncertainty. I had worn that same look many times, like the time I rode John Briscoe down Maple Drive on the handlebars of my bike and dumped him on his face at roughly 20 miles-per-hour. To their credit, they did decide to stay and help. I opened my mouth and discovered, to my surprise, that I could form words:

“What happened?”
“Greg kicked you in the nuts, man.”
“It was an accident, man, I swear!”
“Where’s my shoe?”
“Man, your whole face is green, are you gonna puke?”
“Where’s my f*cking shoe?!?!
“I don’t know, man, it must have fallen off while we were dragging you down the hall.”
“You dragged me down the hall?”
“Yeah, by your feet.”
“Shit! Did anyone see you?”
“Yeah, man, it was class change, pretty much everyone saw us.”
“Oh, Jesus.”
“Can you stand up?”
“I could if the room would stop spinning.”

I got to my feet with their help, and limped over to the row of sinks. The first order of business was to check the damage. Now, I knew at the time that the body’s natural reaction to trauma is to swell up to protect the injured area, but I was not quite ready for the combination of instant elephantiasis and internal bleeding of the groin I was greeted with when I opened my pants and looked down. I almost passed out a second time, but was brought around by the sound of Greg’s voice over my shoulder.

“Oh man, that’s GROSS. You are seriously messed up.”
“Stop looking at my nuts, weirdo! And it’s your fault, buttweed!”
“Yeah, sorry, man. Hey, we got to get to class.”
“You guys go on. I can make it by myself.”

Due to the nature of the injury and my own adolescent insecurity, my subsequent actions were both physically painful and psychologically devastating. After my friends left, I limped on one shoe to the school nurse’s office. Everything was really starting to swell now, so I looked like I was trying to walk with a grapefruit between my legs, which, I suppose, I was. Fortunately it was a slow day in the world of high-school medicine.

“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, uhhh… I uhhh… I got kicked in the nuts.” (I couldn’t remember the polite medical term for them.)
“Oh, my… Ummmm… well…”

The nurse paused, looked around the room for inspiration, then decided to punt.

“Would you, ah, would you like to call your parents?”

(Good, I wasn’t going to have to my goolies!)

“Yeah, I think maybe I should.”

A few minutes later I was on the phone in the office calling my mom.

“Hello?”
“Mom, it’s me. You have to come pick me up from school.”
“Why?”
(Urgent whisper) “I got kicked in the nuts.
“What?”
(Much louder) “I. GOT. KICKED. IN. THE. NUTS!”

At this point, everyone in the office looked up at the same time, eyebrows raised and mouths hanging open like some sort of synchronized amazement team. Then, just as quickly, they looked away as if they hadn’t heard a thing. I didn’t care. Plenty of people had seen my friends dragging my lifeless carcass through the hall by my feet. News of that magnitude travels at roughly the same speed as light. If someone hadn’t heard about it by now, they soon would.

“Okay, but you better not be faking.”

Once home, I had, of course, to prove I wasn’t faking… and explain why I only had one shoe. At the time I would have told you that there was nothing in the world worse for a teenage boy than to have to show his mom his family jewels. Later, I would see just how wrong that statement was. Three “OH-MY-GODs” later, I was in the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser heading for Ft. Campbell U.S. Army Hospital. That 455 Rocket V8 could get up when you needed it to.

Once at the hospital, we navigated the complex Army triage process: knife wounds from bar fights on the right, vomiting babies and all others on the left. The interesting thing about this type of injury is that it tends to get people’s attention. I was immediately whisked into an examination room where a doctor began inspecting the damage. By this time, internal bleeding had turned my whole groin area a rather fetching shade of lavender. Doc took one look and turned to the attending nurse:

“Are those students still around?”

(Students? What students?)

“Yes, they’re in exam room 3.”
“Good. Go get them. We don’t see groin injuries of this severity very often. It will be good training.”

Ten minutes later I was spread-eagle on a table, surrounded by some 15 medical-type people while the doctor maneuvered my tackle around to give everyone the most advantageous view, spouting phrases like “subdural hematoma” and “potential reproductive dysfunction.” This is probably the one point in my life when, if I’d had a gun, I would have used it on myself. Well, I’d have used it on someone, anyway. Did I mention my mom was still there?

The doctor decided to consign me to a ward full of G.I.s for several days with nothing between me and my dignity but a medical codpiece and a Ziploc baggy filled with ice. The other patients were a tough group of grunts, all recovering from various injuries received at the local strip clubs. This was during the Cold War, so there really wasn’t a lot of shooting going on back then. Still, they felt that certain sympathy only males can feel for other males in my predicament.

Once a day a volunteer would traverse the ward with a trolley cart full of books, magazines, and plastic models. Each of my fellow inmates took a model kit and began working away on it. As soon as a soldier finished his Panzer, ME-109, or Kummelwagon, he would quietly approach my bed, place it reverently on the tray holding my pitcher of ice, then turn away quietly with a tear in his eye. Seriously, you’d have thought I was dying. I started to wonder, myself. By the time I was released from the hospital I was surrounded by Rommel’s entire Afrika Korps in 1:32 scale and was seriously contemplating invading Tunisia.

Eventually, I was forced to return to school and endure the endless testicle jokes from friends, strangers, and even a couple of teachers.  After a couple of weeks, though, everyone forgot about it. That was the big lesson I took away: people forget shit pretty quickly.

Mom made me go to the lost-and-found to see if someone had turned in my shoe. Nobody had. I never understood that. What would someone want with one shoe? Anyway, I had come to one of those defining points in my life. I really had only two choices as I saw it: learn to laugh at myself, or join a monastery. “Besides,” I thought, “this has to be the most embarrassing thing that will ever happen to me.” Time, as it so often does, would prove me wrong about that.