Water Witch

Diana and I were watching night three of the History Channel production, Hatfields & McCoys, when in one scene Sally McCoy predicted a future attack on their cabin by the Hatfields. Diana turned to me and said, matter-of-factly:

“She’s got the sight.”

Diana had such a dead-pan look on her face that I couldn’t help but burst into laughter, which I should know by now not to do when she’s being serious.

“What’s so funny?”
“She’s got the what?”
“The sight. She can tell the future.”
“Does she got the rheumatiz too? The palsy? Maybe she needs a poultice or a mustard plaster.”
“Don’t you mean-mouth me.”
“You really believe in that stuff?”
“I don’t know. But just because you can’t explain something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Remember, you used to not believe in water witching.”

She had me there. After the first 10 years or so of our marriage, I figured I knew everything there was to know about my charming southern bride. Over the years we had heard all the stories about each other from our respective families. Parents generally enjoy dropping a dime on the their children to their children’s spouses about what shit-heads they were when they were little. It’s small payback for all the crap the kids put them through growing up. Diana’s family had taken great relish in telling me about the time she and her cousin, Robby, started their own recycling business.

Up the road from their farm stood an old hardware/military-surplus/general store called the Country Boy Store. It was out in the middle of nowhere and sold a little bit of everything. If one day you woke up and decided, “dadgummit, I really need a shotgun, a claw-foot bathtub, a WWII pup tent, an old lawn mower, a cane fishing pole, a baloney sandwich, and a grape Nehi,” the Country Boy Store was your place. I could spend hours in there when I was young. It was the only place in the county I knew of that sold gas masks and jungle boots.

Diana and Robby had figured out that they could return empty, glass, soda bottles for money at the Country Boy Store. Money could then be exchanged for candy. So you can imagine their delight when they discovered whole crates of returnable bottles stacked behind the very store in which you could effect this magical conversion of glass to sugar.

After several trips from the back of the store to the front, Diana and Robby soon returned to Diana’s house, pockets bulging with their ill-gotten gain. Of course, they didn’t make it five minutes before one of the adults had noticed this bounty of treats and had wrung the whole story out of them. Soon the two of them were sweating the half-mile walk back to the scene of the crime, bellies aching from a sugar overdose, in order to apologize to the owner, Mr. Golladay, and make reparations.

Did they consider the moral implications of their introduction to supply-side economics? I doubt it, because, well… candy. That sort of thing is best dealt with at Saturday confession.

“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been a week since my last confession.”
“What are your sins, my child?”
“Predatory Entrepreneurial Capitalism.”
“Are you sorry for your sins?”
“Not really, because, well… candy.”
“Yes, well God forgives you. Make an act of contrition and say three Our Fathers.”
“Cool.”

All I knew was that I had something else to put into my ammo pouch should I need it later.

“David, I ate one of the cupcakes but left you the other one on the counter.”
“I don’t know. Can I trust you not to eat mine too, you little thief? I’ll bet there are still wanted poster for you and Robby all over Newstead.”
“You know, you’re a jerk sometimes.”
“I’m a jerk all the time, you just don’t always notice.”
“I notice.”

And, of course, Diana had heard all about my foibles as a child from my family, none of which bear repeating here.

The point is, I thought I knew my wife. But, an any relationship, there is room for the occasional surprise. During one of our vacations from England back to visit family in Kentucky, Diana’s Dad walked into the house with a Y-shaped tree branch and told Diana he needed her to do some water witching.

Now, you have to understand, I am a skeptic. I am Skepty McSkepticalface von Skeptinhoffer… the Third. When it comes to the invisible world and the supernatural, I require proof. I require science. If you come at me with a story about chupacabras, astrology, karma, ghosts, aliens, or how brown-eyed people are more loyal than other, recessive gene types, you damn-well better also be toting several Cambridge studies and a favorable Snopes review that backs your position. Incidentally, chupacabras? Coyotes with mange. Every. Damn. Time.

Coyote.

Mange.

Not a chupacabra.

Learn it. Know it. Live it.

So when it dawned on me that Diana’s dad was wanting her to dowse for water, I opened my mouth to crack wise about it. But Diana has a special look for me that she reserves for emergency situations, and since she only uses it when necessary, I almost always respect it. She threw me the ‘this-is-not-the-time-to-be-a-wise-ass’ look. I shut my mouth. Now, I was curious.

Across the road from the farm is a depression in the landscape that was once a nice spring-fed pond. Diana’s father was thinking about bringing the pond back and was wanting her to find the underground spring so he could tap it.

I followed them across the road. By that time I had gotten enough courage to start voicing my skepticism. Unfazed, Diana’s family began explaining the science of dowsing to me. According to their lore, every family has at least one person who is a water witch. Branches from fruit trees work best – peach tree if you have one. You aren’t allowed to take money for your service, otherwise you might lose the ability to perform it. I watched in fascination as Diana walked a rough grid pattern, holding the tree branch vertically, one end in each hand. I expected her to hold it horizontally like I had seen in the movies, but apparently there are varying techniques.

As she crossed a certain point along the depression, the branch would swing to one side. After a couple of steps, the branch swung back forward. It always swung the same direction no matter which direction Diana was walking. Diana’s dad explained that it pointed to the direction the underground spring was flowing. They set out marker stakes along points where Diana indicated there was water.

Once we got back up to the big house, I began making dousing jokes, so Diana walked around the house and found all the water lines running to it. At one point, her older sister (who is NOT a water witch) walked the same path as Diana holding the same branch, but nothing happened. Then Diana walked behind her with her hand on her sister’s shoulder. When she did that, the branch swung over the underground water lines just as it had when Diana walked it. To be honest, it was a little spooky.

Her family said every well on the farm had been found by dowsing, and at least one of them by Diana when she was a kid. Later, when my Dad heard about it, he had her come out and see if she could find all the water lines around his house – which she did, and the septic tank. I still refused to acknowledge the reality of my wife’s ‘gift’ for many years after that , and would bust on her about it at regular intervals. Then we moved back to Kentucky after I retired from the Air Force and occupied a nice, old farm house on the family compound.

One day I discovered we had no water in the house. This was before we had county water, and everything ran off a well. I went out to the well house, but couldn’t find anything wrong with the pump. I figured we had a broken water line and did not relish digging up the yard trying to find it. There was no surface water indicating where the break had occurred, so the pipe must have been buried fairly deeply. Having no other options, I swallowed my pride and went to find my witch.

“Our water’s out.”
“Did you check the well house?”
“Yeah, everything’s working fine.”
“So what do we do?”
“I think there’s a break in the line to the house.”

Diana smiled her sweetest smile.

“Well, good luck finding it. Do you want me to call Daddy to come out and look at it?”

No, I did not. It was tough enough being a townie among a bunch of mechanically-gifted farmers. Shortly after moving back to Kentucky, Diana had bought me a big, John Deere, zero-turn-radius mower with a 5-foot deck. The first time I went to sharpen the blades on it, I couldn’t budge the nuts holding them to the mower deck. I went up to the farm shop to ask Diana’s Dad’s advice. He went to the back of the shop and returned with what looked like a length of iron pipe.

“Here. Stick the end of this over the handle of your socket wrench. You should be able to turn it then.”

Thinking this was some special John Deere tool, I asked her Dad what he called it. He smiled and said,

“Well, around here, we call it ‘torque.'”

Turned out it was actually just a length of iron pipe. Thereafter, any chance I had to avoid looking like a complete idiot in front of Diana’s family, I normally took advantage of. It was important to me to show them I was both handy and manly, and to not go running to Diana’s dad every time something went wrong with the house.

“Yeah, ummm, no… I was thinking…”

Diana’s smile grew broader and even sweeter.

“Say it. It’s okay.”
“Hhhhhh… dammit. Would you help me find the where the water line runs to the house?”
“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Yes it was.”
“Of course I’ll help you, Darling. Go down and get me a branch off of one of Daddy’s fruit trees.”
“Okay.”

I returned with a nice Y-shaped peach branch. Diana walked a grid between the house and the well while I staked out points where the branch swung to the side. Suddenly, Diana stopped.

“Here’s where your break is.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do. You’ll save a lot of time if you dig here first.”
“Fine.”

After she finished, I got out a shovel and started digging where she told me. The line was buried pretty deeply, but eventually I got down to it. Sure enough, there was the break in the old, galvanized-iron pipe. Instead of trying to fix the old pipe, I ended up digging the whole line up and replacing it with PVC. After that, I don’t know that I completely believed my wife could find water in the ground, but I didn’t make fun of her about it either. To be honest, I was a little scared of her, and decided not to argue the merits of precognition as it applies to historical television dramas.

“I’m sorry, honey. You’re right. Sally McCoy clearly has ‘the sight.’ I should know by now not to doubt you.”
“You’re forgiven.”
“After all, it takes a witch to know a witch.”
“I’d quit while I was ahead if I were you.”

I did quit. When you are married to a sorceress, it’s unwise to test her powers until you’re absolutely certain what those powers are.

Your Favorite

Last Friday, Diana and I went to Sam’s Club to return some embarrassingly undersized lounge pants she had purchased for me. From time to time, she will buy something for me that I don’t want, but that she thinks I want (and because it’s on sale), and I must tread a fine line between discouraging the behavior and hurting her feelings.

“Look, David, I bought you this nice V-neck sweater that was on sale at Kohl’s.”
“Thank you, it’s nice… but…”
“But what?”
“Honey, I really don’t like V-neck sweaters.”
“What do you mean? They’re your favorite. You have three or four V-neck sweaters.”
“Right, and how many times have you ever seen me wear them.”
“Well…”
“Exactly.”
“But, when I bought you the first one, you said it was nice.”
“You were so excited when you showed it to me that I didn’t have the heart to tell you I didn’t want it.”
“But you would look so good in them.”
“Not if I don’t wear them… which I won’t… because I don’t like them.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because of the face you’re making right now.”
“What face?”
“The ‘you-just-killed-my-dog-and-ate-him‘ face. Besides, I figured if you never saw me wearing the first one, you’d make a huge withdrawal from the First National Clue Bank and not buy any more.”
“Well, I’m sorry you hate it. I’ll return it. I just really thought you’d like it.”
“Honey, I don’t hate it, I just won’t ever wear it.”
“No, too late.” I won’t buy you anymore V-neck sweaters.”

The thing is, her heart is in the right place, and she really is just trying to make me happy (and dress better). I don’t know how she gets into her head that something is my “favorite,” but, once she does, she has a tendency to smother me with it.

“I got you blueberry Special K.”
“Oh, uhhhh…. thanks.”
“I thought you liked the blueberry.”
“It’s okay.”
“But blueberries are your favorite.”
“When have I ever said blueberries are my favorite?”
“But you like them.”
“They’re okay.”
“But you always get excited and buy that stupid BooBerry cereal when it comes out around Halloween.”
“That’s different. That is pure nostalgia. Plus, I’m pretty sure no actual blueberries are used in the cereal-making process.”
“Well, I’m sorry you hate it. I won’t buy any more. I just really thought you’d like it.”
“Honey, I don’t hate blueberry Special K. But that’s all you’ve bought for the past year. Some strawberry or regular Special K would be nice once in a while – maybe some Apple Jacks or Captain Crunch.”
“No, too late. I won’t buy anymore.”
“Hhhhhhhhhhh… ”
“Did you just sigh?”
“Maybe.”

Same thing with the lounge pants. I don’t wear lounge pants. They’re too much like pajamas and I feel vulnerable when wearing them. If I have to go up against an intruder in the middle of the night, I don’t want to be wearing pajamas. This is why I normally sleep in BDU pants. Also, I have bad memories associated with pajamas.

When I was in my teens, my next door neighbor, Brad Boaz, and I worked our way through most of a fifth of Old Grand Dad while sitting in his Camaro in the driveway. Then we wandered down the street to a friend’s house who was having a party because his parents were out of town. Things got pretty fuzzy after that, but I do remember at one point frantically trying to force an entire serving of pasta I had just thrown up into the drain of one of the bathroom sinks. Judging by the new nickname I received the next week – “Spaghetti” – I’d say I wasn’t completely successful in the effort.

The next morning, I woke up feeling like crap with no memory of the previous night. I looked down. I was wearing pajamas. That wasn’t right. I hadn’t worn pajamas since I was nine. Something bad had happened. Something very bad. Apparently, I had taken the scenic route home, because Mom later said I stumbled through the house covered in mud. Things didn’t go well after that – things that included a shower and pajamas. Ever since then, I have always associated pajamas/lounge pants with pasta and memory loss. Weird, but there you have it.

But I was willing to accept the lounge pants in order to avoid hurting Diana’s feelings, as long as they fit. They didn’t.

“What size are these?”
“Medium.”
“They’re not going to fit.”
“The tag said 32-34 waist, and you’re a 33.”
“I don’t care what the tag says, they won’t fit.”
“Well, try them on.”

I tried them on.

“Oh you’re right, those don’t fit.”
“If I try to sit down, I’m going to cut off what little supply of testosterone I still have left.”
“Well don’t do that. Take them off and I’ll return them for a large.”
“Or…”
“Or what?”
(Or we could just take them back and return them for shop towels or a socket wrench set) “Nothing, that sounds great.”

We went back to Sam’s. After we got out of the car, Diana grabbed my hand. Even though I’m in my 50s, I’m still kind of embarrassed to hold a girl’s hand in public. It’s probably some leftover teenage notion of it not being cool. I was never public-display-of-affection guy, but I always take her hand because it makes Diana happy. A young lady in her late teens passed us.

“OH MY GOD! You two are SO ADORABLE holding hands.”

I immediately started trying to shake off Diana’s hand, but she had a death grip on me, so we ended up looking like we were doing some kind of 1980s, break-dance, arm wave. Diana laughed and looked up at me.

“Oh, no. We’re that couple.”
“What couple?”
“The cute, old couple.”
“I don’t want to be the cute, old couple. I want to be the hot, young couple that does it on the kitchen table.”
“Darling, I don’t think our kitchen table would hold us.”
“You’re probably right, and we can’t afford a new table right now.”

Once we got inside the store, Diana grabbed a cart and let go of my hand so she could turn her full attention to shopping. When she is in “shop mode,” she loses all sense of situational awareness. I have to spend most of my time running out ahead of her, screening and protecting other patrons so she doesn’t run them over. When Diana shops, she’s the only being in existence.

“Honey… Diana… Stop. There’s a four-year-old right in front of you.”
“Well, where did she come from?”
“She was standing there when we first turned down the aisle.”
“Oh, I never even saw her.”
“I know.”

Diana found a larger pair of lounge pants in the clothing section. I turned to head toward the check-out since we had clearly accomplished the purpose of our trip. I wasn’t quick enough.

“Oh, Honey, you would look so good in this. You always look good in fall colors.”

I turned around, and Diana was holding up a browny-orangy thermal shirt… with a V-neck.

“Ummm… it’s nice… do they have them in crew-neck?”
“I thought you liked V-necks.”
(Oh, for the love of…) “Well, V-necks are good on sweaters, but I think with these I’d rather have the crew neck.”
“Okay, fine, here’s one.”
“Thanks.”
“We also need some cereal. I saw they had blueberry Special K on sale.”
“Well, blueberries are my favorite.”
“Yes, I know.”

Later, as we walked back to the car, I figured that if the worst problems in my life were V-neck sweaters, a wife that won’t let go of my hand, lounge pants, and an overabundance of blueberry Special K (and those really are the worst of my problems), I don’t have it so bad.

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 //