Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


As I write this, it seems that there are wildfires everywhere in northern California.

Everything has its price. If you own a beachfront home in Florida or Maui, a hurricane might take it out. Opt for the lower real estate prices in the Midwest, and you might lose your home to a tornado.

We live in the woods. Tornadoes are rare in this part of the country, and those in the know say we have no major earthquake faults in our area. But we have fires.

The Jones Fire of 1999 started just five miles from our home. According to the California Department of Forestry, it burned 26,000 acres and 954 structures. I was away at work, and Rhonda evacuated our home with two dogs and a cat in the truck with her, as well as five llamas in a trailer behind. The Jones Fire reached within a quarter mile of our home.

I watched the Bear Fire of 2004 as it began, in roughly the same area as the Jones Fire. Strangely, it happened in the month of March, well before fire season. A record snowfall had toppled many trees and branches in the area, which provided ample fuel for the wildfire. The Bear Fire burned 10,000 acres, and destroyed 110 structures.

Dylan was three and a half then. We were both home, while Rhonda was working. From our home, I could see down the canyon, and I could see that the fire was close to the Dry Creek watershed. Dry Creek runs through the bottom of our property. If the fire crossed Dry Creek Road, the canyon would likely funnel the fire to our home.

I turned on the TV to a cartoon for Dylan, and I tried to subtly gather some belongings. I wasn't subtle enough. Dylan asked, "Daddy, what are you doing?"

I sat down next to him. "Punkin', there's a forest fire in the hills a few miles from us. It probably won't reach our house, but we need to be ready to leave just in case."

Dylan looked scared. Damn. I was hoping to avoid alarming him. That was hard to do while in the hurry mode. I told him that I'd gather up a few things, and that we'd then wait. "The fire probably won't get here, Dylan, but we need to be ready just in case."

I scurried around gathering things. Dylan sat watching TV. "Daddy?" "Yeah Punkin'?" "Would you hold me?"

Oh my God. I was so concerned with things that I'd failed to notice how scared my little three year-old was. I picked him up and held him. "It's going to be okay, Dylan." "Will the fire get our house, Daddy?" I took a breath. What should I say? "Probably not. But we have to be ready to leave just in case." Tears started pouring from Dylan's eyes. "I don't want our house to burn, Daddy." "I know, Punkin'. It probably won't. But we need to be ready."

I carried Dylan up the driveway to the llamas' area. Holding Dylan in one arm, I was able to halter the llamas and lead them to the catch pen, where I could quickly load them into the trailer if necessary. The llamas seemed to make it easy for me, as if they knew that it was important to cooperate.

For the next two hours, I held Dylan. I forgot about things. We spent most of the time out on the deck, with a clear view up the Dry Creek drainage. Dylan felt better when he watched the aerial tankers and helicopters fighting the fire. Me too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Big Dork Dad in Waterpark

So here in Redding, there's a place called Waterworks Park. It sits on eight acres, with several water rides, along with tamer attractions for little kids and older folks.

Rhonda and I, prior to Dylan's arrival, never felt the pull of Waterworks Park. We'd instead opt for more natural water recreation at one of two nearby lakes: the huge Lake Shasta, with 370 miles of shoreline, or Whiskeytown Lake, with its beautiful quasi-alpine setting.

But, as any parent can attest, having a child changes things. Last summer, Dylan and Rhonda visited the park a few times at the invitation of our friend Sharyn and her two daughters. Dylan had a blast, so we bought season tickets for this summer.

Thus, Dad's initiation to Waterworks Park.

Last weekend, the three of us spent a couple of hours at the park. Dylan, Rhonda and I had a grand time plummeting down water chute rides. I was surprised when Dylan announced that he wanted to go down a ride called the Cyclone.

Dylan had announced on the way to the park that he would never, ever ride on the Cyclone. Not in his whole life. But after an hour or so at the park, he had a change of heart. He'd, ahem, mastered the three giant waterslides, and felt up to a bigger challenge. He wanted to ride on the Cyclone.

The Cyclone looks kind of scary. The rider climbs several flights of stairs, then plunges five stories down an enclosed tube into a giant bowl. It looks like a giant toilet bowl, in fact, complete with a drain at the bottom. The rider swirls around the bowl two or three times, then gets dumped down another steep chute. The ride ends with the rider being propelled through a waterfall and into a pool.

We picked up a two-person raft for the ride, then climbed the stairs to the top. Dylan showed no hesitation until we looked at the mouth of the chute. "Dad, can we go back down the stairs?" "Of course we can." We went anyway.

Yep, it was thrilling. Especially since it's dark in that tube. When we climbed out of the pool at the end, Dylan allowed as how he was glad he'd done it, but was in no hurry to do it again.

I should have left it at that, but for some reason, I got the bright idea that it would be fun to plummet down the Cyclone solo. I found one of the innertube-with-handles thingies for solo riders, and set off to face the Cyclone alone.

The young lady attending the ride at the top looked concerned when I approached. I'm not sure if it was because I was twice the age of the next oldest person waiting in line, or because of my size. To borrow a line from comedian Ron White, I'm between six-four and six-six, depending on which convenience store I'm walking out of.

"Sir, cross your ankles, and be sure to keep your feet down."

I'm a helicopter pilot. My working life is built on procedure. My life depends on adhering to procedure.

Unlike the two-person raft that Dylan and I had traveled down, the tube tended to rotate in the enclosed chute. I realized that fact at the very moment that it got good and dark in the chute.

"Be sure to keep your feet down." Mr. Helicopter Pilot, he with eleven thousand hours and thirty-three years of flying experience, he with thirty-three years of adhering to procedure, did not adhere to procedure.

Oh yeah, I kept my ankles crossed, but I didn't keep my feet down. As my tube rotated around, my feet brushed the wall of the chute. In a split second, I was flat in my back in the chute, head downhill, with the tube upstream. The tube and my body were serving as a plug against the rushing water. "This is not good," I thought.

Perhaps only a second passed until I could move my foot, wedged against the chute. Meanwhile, the wall of water had built appreciably. I plummeted again, only faster, and on my back, head downhill. "This is not good," I thought.

I began to tumble, and tumbled into the toilet bowl. The tube took its leave and plummeted down the last chute to the pool below. The water was no longer carrying me. I sat there in the toilet bowl for a moment, before sheepishly crawling to the final chute to the exit pool, and salvation. I suddenly remembered those dreams I had as a kid, those dreams where I'd find myself sitting in a classroom naked.

Rhonda and Dylan stood waiting for me, looking concerned. "What happened?" Rhonda asked. "The tube got away from me." I didn't feel like elaborating.

That night, Rhonda and I were in bed, almost asleep, when her voiced roused me. "Hal?" "Yeah." "What was that sound I heard when you were coming down the Cyclone?" "That was my body." She paused, then asked, "Your body?" "Yeah, that was the sound of my body tumbling through the chute. And the bowl." Rhonda began laughing, laughing hard. I heard her nose running. She was laughing so hard she was crying. She recovered for a moment, then asked, "What were you thinking?" I answered, "I was thinking, this is not good." Rhonda completely lost it. She was laughing so doggone hard the bed was shaking. I fell back to a slumber to the sound of my dear bride laughing herself to sleep.

It's wonderful to be loved.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sixth Grade Assassin

Three days into sixth grade, my three friends and I had already decided that we didn't like Miss Flemke. I think her voice was a big reason. When she addressed the class at large, she sounded pleasant enough. But, when she focused on transgressions by we boys, her voice seemed to take on a quality reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Although adolescence was still but a rumble on the railroad tracks, we all agreed that our teacher had one bitchin' body. We liked Miss Flemke's body. We just didn’t like Miss Flemke.

Miss Flemke once asked me to stay after school to talk. She felt that Alan, Doug, and Tim, the guys I hung out with, weren’t a good influence on me. “You should be better about handing in your homework. Those three never hand in homework. They’ll all probably be high school dropouts. Is that what you see in your future?”

I had to agree that she had a point. My three buddies didn’t seem destined for material success. But they were entertaining, and they were cool. I wanted to be cool too.

Miss Flemke seemed visibly disappointed when I kept hanging out with Alan, Doug, and Tim. Soon, when one of us got on her bad side, we all fell on her bad side. She started keeping us after school, with some regularity. My mom called to find out why I was kept late so often, and Miss Flemke told her, in unflinching detail.

Miss Flemke’s standing, in my eyes, deteriorated all the more.

Once, Alan, Doug, Tim and I spent an entire week staying after school. It really irritated us that Miss Flemke wasn’t even hanging around to release us. Instead, the male teacher in the next classroom, who appeared to be quite sweet on our dear teacher, would open the door, sneer at us, and bark, “YOU MAY GO HOME NOW.”

On the fourth day of our week of captivity, the janitor came in while we sat there biding time. When he left, I hatched a plan. “Hey guys, let’s give Flemke a good scare.” “How?” asked Alan.

Our classroom had a sort of stand-alone walk-in closet in the middle-back of the room. It had a roof over it, and a door that was usually locked, at least when we four reprobates were serving our time.

“I’ll put a chair on the top of the closet, with the backrest handing over the top of the door," I continued. "If she doesn’t see it, it’ll make lots of noise when it hits the floor.” “What if it hits her?” asked Doug. “Even better,” answered Alan. We all laughed. We were not be trifled with. We were some baaaaaddd dudes.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. An image of the chair falling from the top of the closet and onto our teacher’s head kept running through my mind. I told myself I was being silly, that even as short as Miss Flemke was, she’d surely see the chair. Hey, it was just a joke.

“That chair could break her neck,” said a small, scared inner voice.

Usually, when insomnia would strike, I’d turn on the bedside lamp and read. Instead, I got up and sat in the living room, trying to keep the image of a hospitalized Miss Flemke out of my head. I jumped a foot out of the chair when my mom said, “Honey, what’s the matter?” from behind me. “Nothing, Mom. Can’t sleep.” “Well, don’t stay up too late,” said Mom as she walked to the kitchen to get a glass of water. When she walked back through, she stopped at my chair. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

And yes, I did want to tell her. I wanted to tell her about that chair, hanging over the doorway of the closet. I wanted to plead with her to drive me to the school, so I might leave a warning note for Miss Flemke.

I said nothing.

The next morning, it took great effort to avoid betraying a sense of relief when I saw our teacher, alive, apparently well, and walking about without a neck brace. Alan, Doug, and Tim looked relieved, too. Still, Miss Flemke acted reserved through the day, and seemed to avoid looking at us. Then, at the end of the day came the announcement we expected. “Alan, Tim, Doug, and Hal, stay here after the class is dismissed.”

We knew that it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to determine that one of us had put that chair on the closet, but we had sworn a solemn oath to each other that none of us would turn rat. Then, all three male teachers in our school walked through the door, looking very serious, and very angry.


I looked at our teacher. She was weeping. Then she left the classroom.

“She’s supposed to be mad,” I thought. Yes, mad was what we were looking for. Not . . . wounded. Not scared.

For the next two weeks, the male teachers tried to get us to spill who’d actually lifted the chair onto the closet. I expected them to zero in on me, since I was the tallest in the class, but instead, they seemed to focus on Alan. Alan had spent time in juvenile hall for shoplifting, and had been the only kid in our school to get caught smoking on the grounds. He was, understandably, the prime suspect. I felt both relieved and guilty that Alan had become the most likely suspect, while Alan seemed to revel in the attention.

One day, after several days of after-school interrogation, we walked to the corner together before heading our separate ways. Our ordeal was getting really tiresome. “Look guys, this has gone on long enough,” I blurted, not really knowing where the words were coming from. “I’ll tell them I did it, and get this over with.” “Hell no,” answered Alan. “We’ve stuck it out this far; f**k giving up now!” Tim and Doug agreed. I felt proud of my friends for sticking by me, and relieved. But, I felt all the more disappointed in myself, because I’d let a chance to make things right slip through my fingers.

That night, while in bed, I cried tears of shame. Still, I felt a renewed determination not to break. I wanted to keep the approval of my friends.

I don’t believe that Miss Flemke felt that Alan was the prime suspect. There was something about the way she’d look at me, a knowing look that seemed to say, “you’re not fooling me.” Yet, it wasn’t anger I saw in her eyes. It was more of a pained confusion, and sadness. It was much worse than anger.

The teachers gave up. We got one last stern talk--including how lucky we were that the police hadn't been involved--before the teachers gave up on sweating the truth out of us. In the aftermath, we became heroes among the badass loser clique at our school.

Alan, Doug, and Tim went to different high schools, so I didn’t see much of them after junior high. I never heard much about Doug, except that he’d dropped out of high school. Tim also dropped out, went into the Air Force, and was kicked out after a year.

Alan graduated from high school, but he was arrested for stealing a car the summer after graduation. He did jail time, and then was arrested for raping a young woman a few months after his release. The charges were dropped. He committed suicide at the age of twenty-one.

I'd like to tell you that, years later, I sought out Miss Flemke to confess my misdeed, and to offer a heart-felt apology. I did no such thing. Instead, I told myself that I’d just been a dumb kid, and the whole episode hadn’t been such a big deal.

I would believe myself, too, until I remembered that look in her eyes.