Friday, September 23, 2011

Sledding, Innocent Beginnings

In my memory, my childhood is broken down into three sections. In many ways, these are three different people that seem almost strangers to each other, yet all of their memories are mine. The first are the early years that ended when we moved to Bemidji. These memories are spotty and disjointed, but the ones I still recall are very strong. The next phase is when we moved to Bemidji the summer I turned five until the divorce when I was eleven. The final stage starts after the divorce in the final months of the 6th grade, until I joined the Army 25 days after I graduated High School.
While the months leading up to the divorce were the worst of my young life, most of my time at the house on Lake Plantagenet was wonderful. We were only about eight miles outside of town, but in the 1970's for a kid under eleven, we might as well have been in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by more acres of woods than we could explore and had a lake and river within walking distance.
What made that time even more special, were my friends. Tom Wilson was a year older and his brother Dan was a year younger. They had two younger sisters, Becky and Sally that we would harass from time to time. The three of us were inseparable and this is a story about one of our favorite pastimes, sledding.
The Wilsons lived right across the road from us. Their house was on a steep hill that overlooked the lake. That hill was perfect for sledding and every winter we spent the majority of our time doing just that.
The bank of the lake was between three and four feet above the water, which made for a cool jump onto the ice at the end of our run. When the snow was thick on the lake, it was like hitting a pillow. When it was wind swept, it felt like our vertebra was being compressing. Of course, that didn't stop us. But as we got older, the hill lost some of it's power to thrill, and the three of us came up with more elaborate death defying games to feed our need for adrenalin. One such attempt was on their long wooden toboggan. It was large enough for all three of us, but it wasn't a sled you could steer. You had to aim it and hope for the best. Under normal circumstances, that would be fine, but of course, that was too boring for us. We took it about one hundred yards into the woods parallel to their house and aimed it downhill. Then we climbed in, said our feeble prayers and pretended we weren't scared so the other two wouldn't think less of us.
I read years later about phenomenon called Groupthink. This was a classic example. We pulled our legs in and pushed off. The sled was slow at first because of the deep untouched snow. My fear turned into disappointment as it seemed we wouldn't even get started let alone get up to dangerous speed. We rocked back and forth, digging our hands into the snow trying to get down to solid ground for purchase.
Without warning, gravity overcame the surface tension, and we went from grunting incremental frustration to an express freight train headed straight for hell via large trees that sprung in front of us so suddenly, we didn't have time to scream.
Tom yelled out instructions from the front and we tried to comply, shifting our weight right or left to avoid a head on collision. We bounced off the side of a couple of larger trees and went straight over the top of some brush all the while picking up speed. I was sure we were dead meat when finally we were through the trees and shooting up the ramp shaped bank. There was a feeling of weightlessness and we all had time to look around as we sailed through the air above the snow free ice.
Tom tensed. He seemed to have figured out what I hadn't. The bank on that section of the hill was a couple feet higher than where we normally sledded, and the solid wood toboggan had no shock absorption. We hit flat and hard on the ice. Pain shot up my spine and I saw stars. Momentum carried us a good twenty feet and then we came to a stop. I fell to my right trying to catch the wind that had been knocked out of me.
Still, we were all smiling like idiots as we stood up and looked back at the path we'd taken. Groupthink or not, we all decided that once was definitely enough.
The rest of the year, we stuck to our normal hill that lead down to where their dock was located in the summer. It was a well-worn path and plenty fast, especially in the early spring when the snow would melt a little during the day and freeze into a nice ice coating as the sun headed for the western horizon. Of course, once the ice started melting on the lake, we were supposed to stop sledding down the hill. After all, shooting down a hill directly toward a receding sheet of ice in March was not safe or particular wise.
Yeah you guessed it. We didn't just try it, but we soon created a sled version of chicken. We wanted to see which one of us could get the closest to the end of the ramp shaped bank without bailing off. To make it more interesting, we were using their metal discs because they were faster on ice and supposedly easier to bail off. It was getting dark and we'd all gone down twice. As you might expect, we ditched very early at first, but then we got gutsier, not wanting to bail inside the last person's mark.
I was wearing a pair of knitted mittens my grandmother had made me. We were all a little soaked from the melting snow, and it was getting cold as the sun sunk deeper. The sky looked like it was on fire as the sun eased behind the lazy clouds that dotted the sky like rows of white puffy tombstones. I gripped the two handles tight and swore I would beat Tom's mark. He'd bailed at the bottom of the hill, right before it started to go up again, barely three feet from open air. I gritted my teeth and shoved off. Each run, the surface became more ice than slush and my run was fast. I figured if I bailed right when I reached the bottom of the hill, my momentum would carry me past Tom's mark. Halfway down, my disc hit a bump and spun me around so I was going down the hill backwards. I couldn't see when to jump off and chickened out. I opened both of the hands and dove to my right.
Nothing happened. I was still sliding backwards and Tom was yelling something. My mittens, so caringly knitted with Grandma love, had frozen together, locking me to the handles. I was going to scream, but then I shot passed Tom's mark and was flying through the air as I had done countless times before. This time however, I didn't land on snow or ice, but skipped across the open water like a rock. One, two, three, then I was submerged as I fell back and the disc filled with water. I had just enough awareness to take a deep breath and I was under the surface and heading for the bottom. The water freed my frozen mittens, but my momentum and weight dropped me like an anchor.
I looked up as I sank and saw I had continued out as I went down and was now well under the shelf of ice. When I hit the silty bottom, I pushed away from the disc and tried to swim up to the surface. My water logged boots and coat held me down. I'd become disoriented and started heading the wrong way but I noticed it was black as death and I remembered the sun. I looked around and saw it was lighter to my left. I started to walk in that direction. I leaned forward and pushed with my legs as hard as I could, digging into the muck with my hands.
After an eternity, I was out from under the ice and there was light and open water above me. It was hard to think, but I knew I had to keep moving. A few more steps and my head broke the surface and I blew out hard and then sucked in the fresh sweet air. Tom and Dan were there to help me up the bank. I sat down to catch my breath.
"I'm sorry I lost your disc."
They weren't worried about the disc but we were all worried about getting caught. How in the hell were we going to hide this? I told them I would just head home and chances were good I could get past my mom and dad and into my room without being seen. Most times, I could do it. Dad would be watching TV and Mom would be making dinner. Half the time they never turned around when I came in. I thought my odds were pretty good. Tom and Dan looked dubious, but I was determined, so I started up the hill. From the edge of the lake to my front door, was about four hundred yards, mostly uphill. By the time I got to the end of the Wilson's driveway, I wasn't cold any more. I was sleepy, but not cold. It was full dark and my clothes had frozen hard. I couldn't bend my knees anymore and was forced to just shuffle ahead.
When I got close to my house, our front door opened and both my mom and my dad ran out toward me. I'd been in trouble before, but my dad had never run at me in order to give me a whipping. Instead of swatting my ass, he scooped me up like a sack of potatoes and took me inside. They were both chewing my ass but they also seemed scared. I'd never seen them like this and I thought I should be scared too, but I just didn’t care.
They finished stripping me naked and then they shoved me into a bathtub of what I thought was boiling hot water. I screamed and thrashed, begging them to let me out. My dad held me down. There were tears in my mom's eyes.
After another eternity of agony as all my nerves felt like they were on fire, they finally let me out and wrapped me in towels and rubbed me hard until I was completely dry. They explained that the water was room temperature. My dad had learned about frostbite and hypothermia in Kodiak Alaska when he was in the Coast Guard. Then they put me in bed with an electric heating pad and extra blankets. It was strange, but with all of those blankets and the pad, I felt cold for the first time since I'd left the lake. I shivered so hard I was sure I would shatter my teeth. It felt as if I would never be warm again. Sometime later, my dad said it was ok to let me sleep. I didn't think it would come, I still shook, but eventually it did. Before I drifted off, I heard them talking. Dad didn’t think I would lose any of my fingers or toes, but he would know for sure the next day if any of them turned black.
I dreamt of black, dead fingers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Billy and the AC, an EOD Adventure

Billy was his name. Come to think of it, Billy is still his name. A couple of years ago we reconnected on Facebook and I was shocked that he was still alive. He was a few years older than me and made partying a lifestyle. In an Army full of people one bubble off center, he was bat shit crazy. He was a musician, an orthodontic technician and several other things that I can't discuss due to statute of limitations.  I'd hoped he was still alive, but considered it a low probability with prison being a strong second to organ failure.
Billy Hays started sometime around 1986 at the 6oth EOD at Ft. Dix, NJ. We were told he was our clerk. He was a bit more, but that is a much longer and different story. He was also one of the most unique individuals I have ever met in all my days.
I haven't seen him except in photos since 1988, so my description may be a bit off. That's okay, because this blog is about memories, not exact facts. I remember Billy as being about 5'6", thin and wiry. He chain smoked as if he needed them to survive and drank beer like it was water. Billy was and still is from Mobile, Alabama.
Before I reconnected with him, my strongest memory was his laugh. It was infectious. He truly loved life and wanted to share the joy as often as possible. We hit it right off.
The 60th EOD had a maximum number of 14 members, and I think we often had only 12. There were only 3-4 of us single guys and we were all on the first floor of the same building. Army barracks are Spartan. These were brick cinder block, painted some baby puke yellow and had no light fixtures. The only light in those rooms came from lamps plugged into outlets. There were bunk beds and two lockers per room, though over time, I ended up being the only one with a roommate, despite the fact that I was a sergeant. Of course Specialist Billy fucking Hayes had a private room across the hall.
The Army is a strange place. They have rules that defy logic and in some cases seem to be created intentionally to contradict logic. One such rule dealt with heating. There was no air conditioning in the barracks, but there were heaters. Regardless of what the weather conditions were, the Army in its infinite wisdom decided they would set dates for when the heat came on in the winter and when it turned off in the summer. It didn't matter to the officers in charge that it often got extremely cold before the start date, any more than it mattered that often times in the spring, it would get too hot outside for boiler operated heaters to continue to run. The dates were the dates, period.
The lack of air conditioning was especially cruel in the months of July and August. One of Billy's favorite stories of me was when he found me one day, sitting in front of a computer in my underwear, dripping sweat into an increasingly large pool on the floor. I was playing one of the first PC computer games and I was hooked. I had the window wide open and a fan going full tilt, but 95 degrees with 90% humidity is going to just plain suck.
One day that first summer, I heard from another soldier that he'd been to a place about an hour away that sold used air conditioners for less than fifty bucks. I asked Billy if he wanted to come along. He said sure and off we went. About ten minutes into our trip and I heard the very distinct sounds of a bottle being opened. My head spun hard to my right and there was Billy, drinking an ice cold bottle of beer. He looked at me and smiled.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"Drinking a beer, Gus, want one."
"No, I don’t fucking want one. I don’t drink and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it in a moving vehicle in the state of New Jersey."
We then got into a debate over the legalities and I informed him that not only would I lose my license, but I would then get busted down to slick sleeve private.  He considered the people that made such laws "savages". At that time, drivers in Alabama and Texas could have beer in their hand as they drove, with a rifle on the rack behind them.
He finished it fast and chucked the empty out the window.
"What am I supposed to do with the rest of them?" He asked, displaying three more bottles, the amount he estimated needed for the one hour round trip.
I told him to hold on to them and we would put them in the trunk when we got to our destination. He then proceeded to take out a cigarette and a lighter.
"Nope. Not in my car you don't."
"Jesus Christ, Scott. First I can't drink, now I can’t smoke? What the FUCK?!"
He only called me Scott when he was pissed, all other times, I was "Gus". I gave him the stink eye, and he rolled down the window. I wasn't sure what he was going to do, but I wasn't prepared for him to lean out at over 60 miles per hour and smoke. Sure, it took him awhile to light it, but he managed. I wasn't sure if he was really that angry, or if it was just the wind disporting his features, but either way, he didn't look happy. From that day on, if we went somewhere we took his car.
We got to the place just as a column of vehicles was leaving. All the drivers had Ft. Dix stickers on their windshields and they had picked over the less expensive inventory. Only two larger and more expensive units remained. I looked them over and asked the man how much they were. $65 bucks for either unit was the answer. I had exactly $50 dollars left until payday, which was only a two days away.
"Billy, do you suppose I could borrow $15 dollars from you."
"Sorry Gus, no can do."
I told the man I'd have to pass and without skipping a beat, Billy said, "I'll take one!"
He broke out a wad of cash and paid the man. The window unit was almost as big as Billy.
"Do me a favor, Gus and help me load this big mother into your trunk."
I was too stunned to react, so I picked up the other end and loaded up the unit. We couldn’t close the trunk and had to tie it down. We got back to the barracks and he needed help getting in the room and into HIS window. I went back to my room that was even hotter than when I left and stripped back down to my undies, sweat dripping into an ever growing pool.
About two hours later, there was a knock on my door.
"Jesus Christ, Gus, it's cold in there. Can I borrow some long johns from you? You could hang beef in there. I don't even need to ice my beer."
It was times like that that allowed me to live with the guilt of duct taping him a foot off the ground to a pole in the boiler room that was situated facing the street out from of the 60th EOD. What are friends for?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lemon Bars, A Tale of Misspent Youth

My wife asked me a while ago how I was doing. It was a beautiful summer day and I was at the grill flipping burger and cooking brats. I didn't put a lot of thought into my answer but I meant what I said.
"Baby, as long as there aren't wheels on my house or crackers in my burger, I'm good."
That sums up my view of success. I want to make sure my children are never hungry and they have a stable home with stairs on the inside and no wheels on the outside.
After my parents divorced, my dad moved to the south side of town and we moved to a trailer court on the north end of the lake. My mom knew that she would be trapped working crap jobs the rest of her life unless she got a degree, so she went back to school. She also worked a crappy job. I was a latchkey kid at 12 before I'd ever heard the term.
Money was very tight. Paydays happened, as they often do, every two weeks. By the end of those two weeks, there were times when the cupboards were bare and the fridge was empty. We were around $5,000 under the poverty line and one day my mom sat me down and asked me if I thought we should take welfare. We could get money and food stamps. I could tell that she hated the idea and even though I was not quite a teenager, I had been raised by a man that didn't believe in asking for help to do things you could do for yourself. I told her no. I told her I could work and she seemed relieved. She also told me it would be hard. She was right.
There were two exceptions to our decision not to take a hand out. The first was free lunches at school. I got a pink meal card instead of the blue ones other families bought with cash. During the school year, that one meal made a huge difference and I would often stay late and take advantage of the seconds that were offered at the end of mealtime. Most often these seconds were burgers or pizza, and on rare magical days, there were pizza burgers.
The other exception was butter and cheese. This was a program started by Reagan. The cheese came in five-pound blocks, and the butter in one-pound squares. Each family that qualified got one of each per month. I would like to believe that their choice of distribution locations was unconscious. I would like to but I just can't. They handed out the free cheese and butter at a building right next to Paul and Babe. We waited in a long line that stretched into the parking lot next to the main road that ran north and south through the town. People that didn’t need the free dairy handout would stare and sometimes honk, pointing. I hated that line, but I loved the cheese. I still have occasional cravings.
For those of you that are too young to remember, the recession back in the late 70's and early 80's was a real ball buster. We also had gas shortages and a long line of cars at the gas station was a common site, even in Bemidji. Those were scary times in America and the first major wake up call we'd had since before WWII.
That summer, I got my first job. It was at a restaurant washing dishes. I started off working mostly weekends, but got up to forty hours a week by the time I was fifteen. They didn't have a machine, and all dishes had to go through three large stainless steal sinks, the first with a harsh cleanser, then a rinse and finally plain water. My hands peeled down to the meat from the cleanser and I always smelled like a combination of detergent and grease. I would get a meal and minimum wage, which wasn't too shabby.  Still, there were times, especially during the week in the summers, were food got a bit scarce.
Those were the days when I would visit Bill's house around lunchtime. Bill's was a regular hang out regardless of the time of day and I don't remember ever making a conscious choice to go to Bill's in hopes of being fed. It wasn't a plan or a strategy. Or perhaps, I just wouldn’t admit it even to myself at the time.
There were no wheels on their house. It even had stairs, both up and down. That vision of "home", has stayed with me for the rest of my life and it is what I have tried to replicate for my family. We fall short of course, we aren't like Bill's mom, but even close is good enough. Bill's mother is one of the kindness, most generous women I have ever met. Her house was always meticulous and the overall sensation of her home was like being wrapped in a warm blanket of love. In retrospect, it's obvious that she knew about my situation. There are no secrets in a town like Bemidji, but she never let on that she knew and I'm pretty sure she never said anything to Bill.
It seemed that she was always baking or had just finished baking. There were always leftovers in the fridge along with fruit, snacks, cold cuts and Cranapple drink. The pantry was stuffed full of pasta, soups, crackers, cookies and chips. Bill's mom was always smiling, always welcoming and always offering me something to eat, especially her world famous lemon bars.
There was one small problem. Bill was not exactly appreciative of his friends coming over and eating his food. You see I wasn't the only one. Jason would also show up at opportune times. We seemed to be able to sense or perhaps we could smell the lemon bars from miles away.  Bill loved those bars more than life itself, as did we all. Resentment began to build, though it was never malevolent. Bill's mom insisted that he be a generous host even if she wasn't around, but she never said he couldn't play dirty. We all loved games, war games especially, and at some point, Bill invented his own game. The goal was simple. Find something that Jason and I didn’t like to eat. This wasn't a fast game, oh no. This was a strategy game that spanned years.
While he mounted his campaign to find food we would refuse, he tried to achieve smaller victories, some that succeeded and some that failed. It was common for him, to hide the tray of lemon bars. Like bloodhounds though, Jason and I could track the scent and find the tray. His love for Cranapple drink was legendary, and there was always a gallon jug in the refrigerator and a back up in the pantry.  His mom made it clear that he couldn't refuse our requests to share the tasty beverage, but she wasn't always in the room with us, and on those occasions, he would pull out a juice glass so small, that it was just the next size up from a shot glass. Then he would fill it just over halfway.
In the larger campaign, Jason was the first to fall. His Achilles heal was Raman noodles. Bill was not put off by his earlier failures. Instead, he evolved his tactics. He read the ingredients to Jason. They included pig intestine. Jason said "No thanks." And Bill smiled. Every time Jason came over near a mealtime after that, Bill made Raman noodles. He'd won his first round and I could tell by the look on his face the next time I showed up that he was sure he had the magic bullet to take me down too. I hadn't heard about Bill's victory and came over while he was preparing the noodles. He asked if I would like some.
He smiled and read the ingredients.
"Sounds yummy, serve em up."
It was a small loss, but he took it well, sure he was only one or two food choices away from finding my weakness. Two years later, and it was the summer after our senior year. I'd forgotten about the game and my mom and I were doing better financially. We still qualified for welfare, but we had figured out how to make ends meet and how to stretch the food budget. Our meals were basic, with cod and rice being a staple. When we splurged on burger, it was what is now called 80/20 with a higher fat count and even then only when it was on special. Those were also the days of cheaper generic brands and our house was filled with them, which is one of the reasons I love the 1984 movie Repo Man. A half-pound of burger, mixed with a lot of generic brand crackers, stretches into a pounds worth in size if not actually by weight or substance.
The point was, that I had made a tactical mistake in a strategy game that had lasted more than five years. I literally wasn't as hungry for victory and I'd gotten lazy to the point where I believed I’d already won the game and it was over. But it was never over for Bill. It was a day much like other days, except that I had about a month before I went off to basic training. It was lunchtime and with a resigned sigh, Bill offered to share his tomato soup with me.
"No thanks, I can't stand tomato soup."
He smiled, and there was a look in his eyes that I didn’t recognize. That is until I came over two days later. He offered me some lunch as a gracious host does, as his mother insisted that he always did. He offered to share, his tomato soup. The look was there and this time I recognized it. It was victory.
He'd bested me at last, and just in time. He savored his victory as much as he savored his soup that he ate with brand name crackers. Right then, in that kitchen a month before basic training, I knew.
Most times we don’t appreciate what we have when we have it, especially in our youth. I was as guilty as everyone else for most of my youth, but at that moment in time I knew I would miss that kitchen. I would miss the love and the smells and the comfort. I would miss watching Bill practice the piano while I waited impatiently to hang out. I would miss listening to Garrison Keillor and The Doctor Demento show on the radio. I would miss his basement and the games of chess, miss making his normally reserved father laugh out loud and miss his mother's beautiful smile. I would miss feeling like I had a brother and was part of a family where the mom and dad were still married.
And I would miss the lemon bars.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Way Home, a DLI adventure

I’m not sure exactly what is wrong with me, but after the most monumental life achievements, have always been followed by a hallow feeling. This was never truer than when I finally graduated from the Russian basic course at the Defense Language Institute. The battle was won, honor regained, but now the question loomed. What next? This was especially true because the outcome had been so unsure. I didn’t expect to graduate any more than I expected to fail. I knew I had to try and I hoped I would succeed, but I was realistic enough to know that the odds were against me. I knew going in that it would be hard, though even then, I underestimated the difficulty.

Just to be clear, I didn't dominate at Russian language school. I scrapped by in the lower third of my class, my fate in question every one of the 52 weeks including the last. I am not a gifted linguist. In fact, my learning disability inhibits my language abilities, specifically in the case of rules. Grammar rules as well as mathematic rules that are required to solve equations starting in algebra. My specific disability is that the neural pathways that people build up over time through rote memorization in the area of mathematics and language simply don't hold for me. If I manage to keep at something like language, where it’s an immersion course as the one at the Defense Language Institute, I have a chance. I can maintain the pathways with daily work. Once abandoned, even for a short length of time, and they degrade.

I knew this going in, though I didn’t fully understand it the first time I went to DLI in 1984. Even with this obstacle, I managed to survive for 5 months. The second time, in 1991-92, I crossed the finish line just before they took down the tape. Was it vanity that drove me to try again? I've asked myself why many times, before, during and after. The answer that I came up with was this. I felt as if I needed to correct a mistake. I wasn't prepared the first time to meet the challenge. This was my fault alone. I screwed off in high school and failed to learn English grammar because it was hard for me. Before I returned in 1991, I’d finished two years of college and learned what I needed to know. I went back, prepared. I needed to right a wrong I had done to myself. I’d damaged my confidence in myself and needed to get it back. Not to feel as if I had gained or accomplished something great, not to boost my ego, but simply to get back to a state of even. To be able to start fresh without the shame I felt for the initial failure.

After walking across the stage in Monterey in the spring of 1992, I drove back home to finish my Bachelors degree in Russian Area Studies and hopefully move on to a rewarding career. Two things about my trip home were very different than my trip out a year earlier. First, I decided to take the safer southern route as to not temp fate in the mountains again, and second, I wasn't alone. A good friend of mine had been to DLI a few years before and a friend of his had road tripped back to Minnesota with him. He wanted to pay that favor forward by traveling with me. He had friends and family in California so he got a one way ticket and after his visit, I picked him up and we headed home via the southern states.

This trip was going to be different. No blown tires, no deadly mountain passes, no 1,000 mile days, just a leisurely cruise home with a stop off to see the Grand Canyon. The Camaro of Death had a sweet sound system to entertain us on our journey. I had an Alpine tape deck/radio with one of the first 6 disc CD changers in the trunk, 6x9's in the back and an amp under the passenger seat. The sucker would shake the whole car and couldn't be played at full volume without ear protection. Mark had come prepared. He brought a lot of great tunes that I’d never heard before, my favorite being "Jesus Built my Hotrod" by Ministry. We stopped when we wanted to and did take a side trip to see the Grand Canyon. It was a canyon and I guess it was grand, but without the time to really explore, it only added to the anticlimactic funk I was in. Only seeing home again would buoy my spirits, so even though I had the time, I picked up my pace and focused on eating away the miles.

We followed a simple path, staying on I40 until we hit Oklahoma City, then we swung north on I35 all the way home. After our side trip to the Canyon, we spent the night in a cheap motel in Flagstaff, under the names Harry Canyon and Peter Schlen. Schlen being Russian slang for penis and Harry Canyon was a character with a funny sounding name from the movie Heavy Metal. We left the following morning after a greasy truck stop breakfast, and it wasn't until that night when I popped out my contacts that I realized I’d left my glasses at that motel.

Somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, I got caught behind a convoy of truckers. After watching Burt Reynolds movies, I thought truckers pushed the speed limit, but these boys seemed hell bent on going about five miles under the limit in multiple lanes. When I got an opening, I moved to pass the flat bed. Just as I got close, a large chunk of 2x4 came loose and landed right in front of me, too close to avoid. I could see the nails that decorated the wood and prayed my tires would miss them.

No such luck. I guess I should be grateful that it wasn't a blow out like my trip to California the year before. My rear tire was punctured, but managed to stay inflated as long as I was moving. We pulled off at the next exit. Luck was with us, since not all exits are equal. We pulled into the first store, one of the many variations of Gas and Go's that peppered the landscape. I could just make out the sign of a real garage a few blocks away and went to work jacking up the car to remove the tire. Mark went in for some pop, or soda as it's known in other parts of the country. He came back and it was my turn to use the restroom and clean up a little.

Halfway to the door, I was blocked by a group of five Native Americans. They seemed friendly enough and asked if I had any spare cash. They said they needed some gas money to get back to the reservation. I didn’t hesitate or even give it much though, I just reached in my pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill that was left over from my last purchase and handed it to man that spoke for the group. I went inside, cleaned up, grabbed some road food and went back to the car. I caught the last part of the conversation where Mark was informing them that he was sorry, but he didn't have any cash. It was true and for that matter, I had just barely enough to make it home and cover gas and cheap motels. The group voiced their disbelief and unhappiness with Mark for not donating. The mood was getting ugly until I came up to stand next to him. I hoped the fact I had given them some cash and Mark and I were riding together would be enough to take away their steam. It didn't. They started to get very aggressive and began to threaten us with bodily harm. The trunk was still open and I reached in and pulled out my S&W model 645 and handed the .454 casull revolver to Mark. That was enough to make them leave, but we were pretty sure they would be back.

I got the flat off, tucked my auto in my waistband and rolled the tire down to the garage. It was a sidewall leak and the mechanic didn’t want to patch it, but I begged him. He told me it wouldn’t last for the life of the tire and there was a danger of a blow out. I assured him it would be fine and he did the job in about ten minutes. I could just make out Mark keeping watch at the car. He was still alone when I rolled the repaired tire back as fast as I could and pulled pit crew record time getting that sucker back on the Camaro. I started her it up and aimed for the highway entrance ramp.

Just as we left the quickie mart parking lot, we spotted two pickups approaching fast on a dirt back road that ran behind the main drag of the exit.  Each truck was loaded with at least five shooters in the back, all carrying rifles. Our welcome had expired and I leaned on the small block 350 and launched onto the highway. I exceeded posted speed limits and didn’t let off until a hundred miles later when I was sure the two trucks were no longer in pursuit.

The rest of the trip was uneventful with the exception of some negative physical reactions to truck stop chili. A week later I got a small package in the mail. It was addressed to Peter Schlen and contained my lost glasses from the motel we'd stayed at in Flagstaff. I was home, and I was whole again.