Author Archives: gdgdurden

About gdgdurden

I am an ultrasound technologist in the Pacific Northwest who grew up listening to the stories that the grown-ups told in living rooms and around fires. I love a well-told story and try to continue that art.

Diving In The Couve, Or Charlie And The Chocolatte Store

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”

 

 

Advertisements

Diving In The Couve, Part II

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATTE STORE

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”

 

 

 

 

Diving In The Couve

Charlie and the Chocolatte Store

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.'”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”

 

 

 

 

 

Diving in the Couve

What follows is the first of a series of conversations that I have with Charlie Hamer, an old friend of mine.  Charlie enjoys eating at restaurants, not as a food critic or a connoisseur, but as a simple working man who has learned to enjoy the pleasant things of life.  The title of this series comes from the idea of seeing the many places where a guy might get a plate of food in Vancouver Washington and surrounding areas, picking one and just diving in.  I hope that you enjoy the short stories and are inspired to try, or avoid, some of the places that Charlie mentions.

 

I had breakfast with my friend Charlie Hamer this morning.  That’s not an unusual occurrence.  Charlie is an old friend of mine who long ago paid me to help out on his construction projects.  I wasn’t much good at the construction trades but I poured a lot of energy into my work.  He paid me enough to attend and graduate from a community college with a degree in a much less physically demanding line of work than construction.  Charlie told me that he admired my dogged determination to be useful when it was obvious that the work didn’t come to me naturally, and I have been grateful for his generosity ever since.

Usually we meet at some restaurant or other around town.  Charlie loves to eat out, even though his wife, Carline, is a very capable woman in the kitchen when she has time to cook.  Charlie is best kept out of a kitchen.  He went through a couple of pretty rough years a while back, and a remarkable waitress at a remarkably unremarkable restaurant in downtown Vancouver played a big part in his process of rejoining the world of the living.  He has had a special place in his heart for restaurants, restaurant food, and the people who work in restaurants ever since.

On this particular day I had Charlie sitting at the small, square table in my small, square dining room.  I had cooked up some sausage and eggs, fried potatoes and collard greens.  Hey, I’m Southern, and that’s what you get at my place.  Charlie was just happy that I didn’t put grits and sardines on the table.

“I had some real food last night” he said, inferring that what I was serving him was not real food.

“Come on man” I retorted.  “You’re packing away my groceries fast enough, and this stuff is better than what Tank cooks for you down at Leroy’s.  I’ve eaten there once, and I know.”

“Don’t knock Tank’s grease and salt” Charlie said while pointing a fork menacingly close to my nose.  “I don’t know anyone else who can turn out a breakfast that you can either eat or use to lube your differential gear with equally gratifying results.  You oughtta show some respect.”

“Yeah, yeah” I said, and refilled his coffee mug.  “So where did you eat last night?”

“It’s a place called Rally Pizza.  It’s down in what used to be called Garrison Square.  You know, the strip mall that Caroline picked up for cheap back when we began dating?”  My blank look was all Charlie needed to see.  “It’s that place where we tore half of it down, restored the remaining half and rebuilt the first half from the ground up.  It’s called ‘The Mill’ now, and has a bunch of new restaurants and businesses there.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  It’s just west of Peace Health Hospital on Mill Plain, right?”

“Yeah, that’s the place.  Give me some more of those potatoes.”

“Man” I said.  “You got a hollow leg or something?”

“Shut up and give me the spuds” he replied.

I handed the bowl of potatoes to Charlie.  He spooned out the last of them onto his plate and returned to his main point.  “Anyway, there’s a pizza place there and I tried it for the first time.  Caroline and I took Lucas, her nephew.  Kid is a linebacker for Washington State and eats like a horse!  I ordered this thing called  Pizza Bolognese.  Lucas got a pepperoni and Caroline got a salad and some roasted vegetables.  She abstained from the pizza; said that she had to maintain her girlish figure.”

“Is the food any good?” I asked as I chewed the last of my sausage.

“Yeah” Charlie replied.  Pretty good.  The crust is thin, and I’m used to thick crust pizzas.  The toppings are thin too, but I found that I liked the combo a lot.  I didn’t think that I would, either.  You know how I like a small mountain of pepperoni and sausage and shrooms and jalapeños and so on.  Well, I wondered how this pizza was going to fill me up.”

I looked at the last of the potatoes which followed the eggs and sausage patties that had proceeded them into the bottomless pit that was Charlie’s stomach and wondered how a thin crust pizza could fill that void.  “And did it?”  I asked

“Yeah, it did.  I ate the whole thing, to be sure, but it was light enough that I didn’t feel like I was stuffed, and filling enough that I didn’t feel like I needed any more.”

“Humph” I grunted.  “Maybe I’ll try it.”

“You could do a lot worse” Charlie said.  “Lucas’ pepperoni was a little more substantial, but the same thin crust and tasty sauce.  He killed his pizza too, and had half of Caroline’s roasted veggies.”

“She didn’t eat any pizza?” I asked.

“Naw.  She ordered a Market Salad, and they brought a big bowl of salad that was meal enough for her, and a nice helping of roasted veggies; looked like sweet potato and carrot and stuff like that.  She couldn’t finish half of the roasted veggies, and Lucas polished them off.”

I picked up an armload of empty plates and bowls and carried them to the sink.  A fresh pot of coffee sat in the coffeemaker and I brought it over to the table and refilled our cups.  “So” I asked.  “You intend to go back?”

“Yeah, I’ll go back there.  You know, it’s not like a flavor explosion in your face, but it’s a good, mellow pizza at a good price.  The service is good too.  Yeah, I’ll go back.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a shot” I said.

“I recommend it” Charlie replied.  “Good drinks and desserts too.”

After that Charlie gave off a loud belch (“That’s old Walt’s influence on me” he said) and we went on to a different topic.  I made a mental note however that I would soon go to Rally Pizza to check it out for myself.

 

A visit to the Monastery

Today I returned from three days at the Trappist monastery of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” located just outside of Lafayette, Oregon, and in literally feels like I have been crossing between two worlds.  Here, back home, I have shopped for the next few days’ meals, checked my Facebook app several times, spoken with a graphic designer about a cover for my soon-to-be-self-published novel (way to expensive!  Who does he think I am, Stephen King?), and washed a load of clothes.  You know, the usual routine.  There back at the monastery, well, it’s a whole different world indeed.

The setting is typical western Oregon.  Rolling hills, miles of vineyards and hazelnut orchards, new growth evergreen forests and leafless deciduous trees.  Our Lady is nestled at the base of a hill that climbs to 1,000 feet.  I know this because I climbed it.  The main buildings, from my visitors’ perspective, was the church, a place for group studies called the Bethany House, the office/book store/dining room, and the guest residences.  Hidden behind trees and fences is the world where the monks live, and what happens there I could only guess.

We rolled in, registered in the office, carried our gear into our residence, and then separated for the most part.  My wife is working on a curriculum for our church and I am writing my third book, and we had agreed beforehand that our time together would be minimal.  She had a small room in the upstairs of our cabin and I had one downstairs (the colder one!).  Bathroom and shower were on the middle floor, where the only outside door was located.

Once my gear was put away I did – nothing.  At 69 years of age and after a heart attack and bypass surgery three and a half years ago, I don’t have the horsepower that I once did.  I work thirty two hours per week and pulled a twelve hour shift the day before we left.  To state it plainly, I was exhausted.  In my room was a rocking chair.  I pulled it up in front of the window, rested the heels of my feet on the window sill, and allowed my mind and my body to be still.  Outside the window I could see another cabin, and behind that a forest of moss-covered deciduous trees and a variety of evergreens.  A wind blew through them, and the evergreens swayed softly while dead but stubborn leaves twittered on gnarled branches of the maples and other trees in my view.  I thought about the many decades that made up the lives of those trees and the mere season that summed up the life of the yellow and brown leaves, and thought about where my life would fit in such a picture.

After a few hours of resting body, soul and mind, I rose up to attend my first mass.  I won’t pretend to know much about Catholic practices, but I’m pretty certain that when they do something official in the church it’s called a mass.  The masses have names, too.  There’s Vigil and Lauds which are done in the early morning, and Vespers and Compline and something else that eludes my memory that are done in the afternoon and evening.  There appears to be some variation in the quantity of masses from one monastery to another, because when I spent a week at a Benedictine monastery in northern New Mexico several years ago there were more masses, especially in the dark hours.

There was no rule about attending those masses.  Not, at least, for us ‘retreatants.’  We could go or not, as we chose.  I chose to go, but I quickly learned that there was an entirely different thing going on than I was accustomed to at my Protestant church.  A group of mostly older men shuffled into their area in the western end of the church building and sat on opposite sides, facing each other.  The handful of people observing this mass sat on some very hard wooden benches on the east side of the building.

I quickly noticed that many of the men were badly bent over.  One old fellow literally shuffled along at a 90 degree angle!  I’ve seen some rather severe cases of scoliosis at the hospital where I work, but I would say that between 15 and 20 percent of the monks that I saw showed some degree of the deformity, and that is a far higher percentage than one would expect to see in the population at large.

As I recall, the monks at the Benedictine monastery did not show any such large percentage of that deformity.  Frankly, I don’t recall seeing it at all.  This observation jogged my memory as to some medieval art which portrayed monks and other religious figures as having their heads at odd, unnatural angles.  I originally chalked that up to a primitive, two dimensional art style of the time, or perhaps the result of monks being hunched over a candle, copying and saving ancient manuscripts for hours on end in cold and dark stone monasteries.  But here I was seeing this in the first half of the twenty first century.  Is this a cultural thing with this group?  Something that announces the attainment of some maturity?  Or sanctity?  I don’t know and I didn’t ask.  It is whatever it is.

The Catholic masses which I witnessed at Our Lady were very different from anything I know.  In northern New Mexico we were given ‘songbooks’ (if what those monks chanted could be called a song), and we retreatants could join in if we were so disposed.  At “Our Lady” we occupied the role of witnesses rather than participants.  At least, that’s how I perceived it.  I wondered about that observation.  We were clearly not viewing a performance.  The monks chanted out of tune, mostly, and the organ player was clearly third string.  No, it wasn’t about observing an event.  Was it about joining the monks as a partner if we so chose, but at some level other than the physical?  I can probably carry a tune better than what I heard there, and in a day or two could put in a better performance on the organ.  But this wasn’t about voice or instrument.  There was something here that connected ages and cultures.  Did I want a part in that?  I wasn’t sure.  It was quite foreign to me.  It was relaxing however, and felt like I was entering into a very ancient river with a soft current that ran strong nonetheless.  I am still thinking about it, trying to get a handle on the whole thing.

I had lots of space and lots of solitude and lots of bad food and coffee.  The Trappists are not big on creature comforts, and when I went into the dining room and saw a jar of instant coffee crystals, I know that things could get dicey.  Here in the Northwest, when I go to a restaurant and order something made with beef, I want to know the name of the cow it came from and whether or not that cow had a good life.

Well, no sweat there at the monastery.  I only saw one serving of meat my entire three days there, and that was fish.  Not even a Portland hipster expects people to name their fish.  There was lots of bread, none of which was baked at the monastery I believe, vegetables, soups, beans and so on, but it was as plain as you can get.  Plenty of it, but really plain.  And if you don’t eat it all at supper, you’ll get it heated up again for dinner (or is it the other way around?).  We brought a bag full of snacks and grazed out of it liberally.

It was too cold and wet to do much walking around for most of our visit, but I did take a morning hike on the second morning there, to a ridge on the hills to the east of us.  The weather looked promising so I took an umbrella, just in case, and struck out on a trail which led eventually to a shrine at the top of the ridge.  Almost from the beginning the trail was an uphill climb.  Only at a few scattered places on that one mile long and one thousand foot climb was it flat.  And that only meant that it was muddy.

I climbed up through low-hanging clouds, through deciduous and then evergreen forest, and finally to the crest of the hill.  I came at last to a clearing where a brick and wood shrine rested.  It was covered with moss and a tiny roof protected a picture of a woman who I assumed to be “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  I stood in front of her, trying to control my breathing and sensing a headache that was trying to blossom behind my watering eyes and running nose.  “I’d be happier to see Our Lady of CPR” I thought.

Even so, although I couldn’t connect with the spiritual aspect of the shrine and those who left necklaces and candles and seashells and such there, I was aware of an intersection between the seen and known, and that which was felt and believed, and I was glad that I had made the muddy, sloppy, exhausting trip up there.

In the end, I succeeded in what I set out to accomplish.  I finished reading a book that I had been working on for some time, and wrote two chapters in the book that I hope to complete.  Alone in the Bethany House, or in the common room near our cabin, or in my rocking chair with my feet in the window sill, I read and wrote and meditated, and generally refreshed myself.  It was obvious that I missed a lot of what was going on because I have no background knowledge of Catholic practices or spirituality.  That was never a problem however.  I was received there as a respected outsider and was welcomed without reservation.  I could not hope for better than I experienced.

The Fire Next Time, Part III

Fire played a large part in my early life, and I was never far from one.  Sometimes my experiences with fire were frightening, as I have mentioned in the previous parts of this story, and sometimes they were humorous.  In Part III I am going to describe three instances in which fire was exactly what fire should be, and that is simply warm.  These stories were times when fire warmed the soul as much as the body, so much so that the glow of those fires continues to burn low even today.

The first story took place at Silver Strand, a beach on the narrow strip of land that connects the town of Imperial Beach, on the Mexican/U.S. border, with Coronado Island.  I have no idea why my father preferred to take us to Silver Strand, which was much farther away from our home than were the more popular Ocean, Mission and Pacific Beaches.  Perhaps it was the ubiquitous Navy presence in that South Bay area that drew my very Navy dad to choose that spot.  Ultimately it didn’t matter much.  He was driving and Silver Strand was his preferred beach.  Sand and water and waves were the only things necessary to me, and I spent many a wonderful, sunny San Diego day at Silver Strand.

One of the things that I liked most about the Strand is that it had concrete fire rings.  These circular pits were about four feet in diameter if my memory serves me correctly, and were raised about eight or ten inches above the surface of the sand.  The logic behind those rings was that if people’s beach fires were contained within visible and enclosed areas there would be fewer people stepping onto a smoldering beach fire left covered only by a thin layer of sand.  This happened often at other beaches and could result in painfully burned feet.  I never had the dubious pleasure of stepping in any such unintended booby trap, but I can’t believe that it was anything like a pleasant experience.

As I have written before, starting the fires was always my job.  On our visits to the beach I did so as speedily as possible so that I could get into the water as soon as possible.  My brother Fred, who had no such pyrotechnic contract with our father, was always in the water first, and so I poured my heart into plying Prometheus’ gift in order to join Fred as quickly as I could.  Once the fire was securely established I would turn it over to Dad and fly straight as an arrow into the waves.

At this point it is necessary to explain something about the water off the beaches of San Diego, and also about my juvenile physique, and how the two came together to shape this story.  Although San Diego has a warm, mediterranean climate, with palm trees and stucco houses hidden behind hedges of hibiscus and bougainvillea, the water flowing south past those beaches did not originate anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea.  The North Pacific Gyre draws water from the chilly northern reaches of that ocean and then impels them past the Washington and Oregon and Northern Californian beaches, until they finally arrive off the coast of San Diego.

In addition to the continuous flow of chilly northern Pacific water past our beaches, a phenomenon called the Ekman Spiral conspires with the Coriolis Effect to draw the warmer surface waters westward.  This, in turn, causes colder deep waters to well up from their abyssal depths to replace the surface layer, ensuring that nobody without a wetsuit of some kind will spend extended periods of time in the water without getting thoroughly chilled.

Now add to that picture my physical stature at that time.  To say that I was thinly built is like saying that Kim Jong Un has a really bad haircut.  I ate very little when I was young, and that fact was demonstrated by my spindly  frame.  Compared to my childhood form, Richard Scarry’s Busytown character Lowly Worm looked like the Incredible Hulk, all of which is to say that I had very little spare tissue to protect me from the usually cold water of Silver Strand.

I would persist, however, and stay in the water, getting the stuffing knocked out of me by waves and generally having a ball.  When I could no longer stand the cold I would emerge, blue and with teeth chattering, and return to our picnic site next to the blazing fire.  Mom threw a blanked around my shivering shoulders while Dad would scoop a trench in sand that had been warmed by the sun.  I would then forsake fire and blanket to lie down in the trench.  Pop would cover me with the warm sand and I would lie there like a corn dog, warming up from without and within.

Fred would usually come in about this time because my retreat from the water to my sand bed would normally signal the beginning of our meal.  Hot dogs were skewered on long steel forks that Dad must have fabricated in the metal shop at the Navy base.  They were then held over the glowing coals of our fire and quickly cooked.  Bell Brand potato chips and ears of corn and cold sodas and beer were brought out to make the feast complete.  Then, my body heated by sand, sun and fire, and my belly filled with all of the goodies mentioned above, and my ears ringing with Mom’s admonitions against going out too soon lest I get the cramps, or fall to rip tides, stingrays, Godzilla, and a hundred other threats and terrors that the deep had to throw against a ten year old boy (Mom was a bit of a pessimist), Fred and I would race down the beach and plunge into the frigid water, eager to do the whole thing over again.

My second remembrance of this trilogy took place somewhere around 1964 or 65 at Highland and Landis Recreation Center in East San Diego.  The Rec Leader, Mrs. Shumway, had decided to stage a week long summer camp for the younger children of our neighborhood.   She devised a plan to use the older teenage kids who made “The Park” their hangout as her assistants.  Those with intimate knowledge of what a gaggle of misfits most of that group was would have declared Mrs. Shumway to be out of her mind to even consider it.  Events proved instead that she was a genius.  But that’s another story.

For one week us teenagers arrived, helping with paper constructions or officiating games and the myriad other duties necessary to keep a hoard of young children busy and happy for several hours each day.  At the end of that week the parents, children, and helpers were to be treated to a feast.  A business run by Pacific Islanders was contracted to come in and cook a pig in a pit.

I had never heard of anything like this before, and I had serious doubts that any such thing could be done.  On the evening before the feast however, a bunch of really big guys showed up and dug a pit right where we would high jump.  The next morning they were there early with a pig; yes, a real, whole, dead pig, wrapped in banana leaves.

I don’t recall all of the details of the process.  Perhaps a fire was made, the pig laid on the coals and then covered with dirt and a second fire lit over it.  Maybe some other means was used to cook the now-interred pig.  I couldn’t tell you.  I was leery of the whole deal though.  I mean, bacon and chops and ham came out of plastic wrappers that Mom bought at the commissary on the Navy base.  I didn’t eat dead things buried in a burning pit where, by all that was right, we should be high-jumping.

The funny thing is that my attraction to fire overrode my antipathy to buried and burning pigs, and as the time approached to remove the pig from the pit I was sucked into the excitement which everyone else was feeling about the event.  In short order the pig was produced and, in spite of everything that my offended sense of propriety told me about this abomination, the meat which the cooks began to slice off and serve looked and smelled irresistibly good.

At last, with the pig looking accusingly at me through sockets from which the eyes had melted out, I accepted a plate of the pork and soon sat with Terry and Dennis and Eugene and Mack and Emilio and a dozen other boys and girls and ate a meal that tourists now pay hundreds of dollars to enjoy when they visit Hawai’i.

My final tale involving fire took place primarily at Green Valley Falls campground in the Laguna Mountains.  I loved camping there as much as I loved anything else when I was growing up in San Diego, and on this occasion Dad took my friend Mike and I for a weekend in the great outdoors.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about camping at Green Valley Falls was the weekend campfires that the rangers would organize for interested campers.  A fire pit was constructed in a safe area and logs were placed in a concentric semicircle, providing seating for the campers.  In the evening, as daylight faded into dusk, the fire was lit and a large, cheerful blaze hissed and popped while the ranger gave a talk on the fauna or flora or geology or other related topics concerning the natural history of that corner of southern California.

During this particular trip Mike and I discovered, to our delight, that the campsite adjacent to our own housed a family which consisted of a father, a mother, a young boy, and Clarice and Marcia.  I never knew the names of the father or the mother or the boy while we were camping.  All of my attention was on Clarice and Marcia.

The girls were roughly our age.  Marcia was the younger and they both seemed to be as interested in the two boys next door as those boys were interested in them.  We spent as much of the days together as we could, and on Saturday evening we managed to sit close to each other during the rangers’ campfire discussion.  I confess that I learned little that evening about the Black-headed Grosbeak, the incense cedar, and rocks such as the Julian Schist.

As we walked back to our camps after the ranger’s presentation, Mr. and Mrs. Madsen – that was their last name – allowed their girls to walk home with Mike and I, with my father trailing at a respectable distance.  We sat on an outcrop of boulders that separated our campsites and talked about anything and everything until the girls’ parents called them into their camp to prepare for the night’s sleep.

Sleep is something that I didn’t do much of that night.  I was very shy as a youth, and although I knew and counted as friends many girls from my neighborhood and from school, I had never before experienced a spontaneous and mutual attraction such as this, and it left my head spinning with possibilities.

But there was one complication; they lived in Norwalk, which is somewhere around one hundred miles north of San Diego.  Still, true love conquers all, so the next day as we were all packing to go to our respective homes, I procured Clarise’s address and promised to write, a promise that I fulfilled with great excitement and hope.

To my chagrin however, Clarice’s family was in the process of moving.  Now, instead of one hundred miles north, they were going to be more than five hundred miles away.  True love might conquer all, but my puppy love was crushed by this development.  I groaned at my bad luck and then turned my mind to resuming my normal activities of hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood, but now without even the semblance of a girlfriend.

As a postscript, I visited with the Madsens a few years later.  My Army basic training took place less than two hundred miles from Petaluma, where they now lived.  When I was able to secure a weekend pass I bought a bus ticket to that town, and upon arrival found their phone number and gave them a call.

I was treated very royally by that family, although Clarice and Marcia had their own lives and friends and were not overly excited about my visit.  I have concluded that my welcome was more likely the result of Mr. Madsen’s experiences during World War II and his understanding of where I would be going and what I would be doing in the very near future.

This concludes my reminiscences of fire in my life as a youth.  More stories abound, heaven knows, and I could write for a year and not exhaust them all.  I hope that you have enjoyed reading them, and I hope that you will take the opportunity to (safely) light a nice fire and create some new memories of your own.  These have come to be among the fondest that I have.

The Fire Next Time, Part II

In Part I of “The Fire Next Time” I wrote of one instance involving fire that was warm and fuzzy and two that could have ended badly.  In Part II I will share three more stories; one which ended badly, one which could have ended badly but did not, and one that left me scratching my head.  My first story, the one that ended badly, is the story of Hank Snell.

All of us kids loved to play with fire when I was young, and some of us were more inquisitive and adventurous than others.  I don’t know who it was that first learned about holding a lit cigarette lighter in front of a can of hairspray to create a serviceable blowtorch, but it wasn’t long before everyone was doing it.  In no time at all spider webs and model towns made out of popsicle sticks and plastic model airplanes and automobiles belonging to siblings were being incinerated by a horde of little fire starters who were imitating Carrie White decades before Steven King wrote a novel with that incendiary young lady’s first name for a title.

Anywhere, at any time of the day or night in my neighborhood of East San Diego, one might see a jet of flame piercing the air, making an alley or the Park or somebody’s back yard when their parents were away at work look like flares erupting from a Saudi refinery.  When I look back on the kids that I hung out with in my neighborhood, it’s a wonder that nobody ever got torched by an errant eruption on the part of a careless associate.  Hank was the one exception to that history however, and it was Hank himself who turned out to be his own worst enemy.

In the course of time we all grew tired of the buzz that we achieved by lighting up our San Diego neighborhood with Spray Net and Aqua Net blowtorches.  Something had to be thought up to take that trick to the next level and, sure enough, somebody did.

I don’t really know who that somebody was.  Maybe that person saw a circus act on television – I’m not aware of a real circus, other than my neighborhood of course – coming to San Diego.  Maybe they saw a sideshow at the County Fair featuring a human flamethrower.  I know that I saw a sword swallower and a fire eater there, so a flamethrower is possible.  In any case an evolution of the hairspray trick was needed and a cadre of intrepid teens in our neighborhood, which included Hank Snell, stepped up to the plate.

The new trick went like this.  A person would get a mouthful of rubbing alcohol, light their Zippo cigarette lighter, and blow the flammable liquid through the pilot light to create a human blowtorch.  The trick was sometimes successful but oftentimes it was not, so an improvement was made right away.  That improvement came in the form of taking in a mouthful of lighter fluid and then repeating the established steps.

The result was electric!  On every attempt, the highly flammable lighter fluid would blaze into an impressive bloom of flame as it was ejected forcefully through the lit Zippo.  Several kids found the courage to do this trick, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that several kids simply lost what few marbles that they had left.  Either way, it was an awesome display and none had a more spectacular delivery than did Hank.

Maybe he was just full of more hot air than were the rest of us, or maybe he tricked us and employed gasoline in his act.  I don’t know, but Hank could create a fireball that looked a lot like “The Gadget” which was exploded at Trinity in New Mexico in 1945, just before it’s two siblings were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But all good plans have a fatal flaw.  Hank’s fatal flaw was that he failed to take into account the wind.  Therefore, one fine day he was demonstrating his oral pyrotechnic prowess to a group of friends and blew his blowtorch straight into the wind.  The wind returned the favor and blew the flames right back into Hank’s face.

Hank got cooked like a deep fried turkey, or at least he looked that way.  Eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, but luckily the skin of his face did not burn into the dermal layers.  He looked plenty well done however, so his friends helped Hank to get home and then bailed out as soon as his parents took him off of their hands.  They had no interest in waiting around and having to answer embarrassing questions.  Hank was transported to a small hospital on El Cajon Boulevard; Hillside Hospital, I think it was, but I’m not sure about that one.  There he was treated with state of the art aid and, on the next day, received visitors.

I wasn’t with that group, but a friend of mine was.  He told me that Hank looked like the Mummy with all of his dressings, and that patches of red and blistered skin, all slathered in some sort of shiny salve, was visible.  Maybe a blister or two was dozing something for good measure.  I can’t testify to the truth of this account, but the story went on to tell of Bill Killman, one of the biggest, meanest and craziest kids in the neighborhood, passing out at his first sight of Hank’s face, and cracking his head open on the foot of Hank’s hospital bed.  I have heard that story from enough sources to believe that it is probably true.

On another occasion I experienced an episode that could have gone bad but somehow didn’t.  Jeff Brained and I were fooling around with matches close to the wall of the garage behind his house.  Jeff lived in the middle house of the three that were tucked in between the church on the corner of 44th and Wightman and the Park.  When they build the Park, or the Highland and Landis Recreational Center as official types preferred to call it, they took out most of the houses on that block, and Jeff lived in one of the few that remained.

I don’t remember what we were burning; it could have been just about anything.  The problem was that we didn’t find a place to burn that was sufficiently far from the weeds which had grown up after the scanty rain of spring and summer, and were now a foot or more tall and dry as a bone.  Predictably, the fire got into the weeds and was soon spreading towards the garage and the alley behind it.

Jeff and I were not very different from most of the other kids that we knew; that is, a couple of tacos short of a combo plate.  But soon even we could see that the situation was getting entirely our of hand.  We began to try to stamp out the flames, but with zero success.  Then we tried to kick an area free of weeds between the fire and the garage and weed-choked alley (which did not run the entire length of the block, and was therefore little used and thick with weeds), but that too was a futile endeavor.

At this time something happened to me for the first, but not the last, time.  On occasions of extreme stress I would sometimes sort of lose touch with reality.  I would go onto some sort of auto pilot, and while I still functioned in a normal manner at those times I would simply lose the memory of what had transpired.  This happened once or twice again in my teens, a few times in Vietnam and a few times in the first years after I returned to San Diego and civilian life.  It’s weird, and it hasn’t happened again for a long time now, but it happened the first time in Jeff’s back yard.

I think that Jeff ran and got the garden hose while I continued to thrash away at the flames, but I don’t really know that for sure.  One moment I was imagining the garage and perhaps more than that going up in flames, and the next I was standing in a patch of blackened soil, the fire thoroughly out.  I know that I had kept stamping at the fire because my tennis shoes were sort of melted and my jeans were blackened and singed.  Beyond that I didn’t then and still don’t know what happened.  If I ever run into Jeff I’ll have to ask him.

The final story of this round of tales took place in my own back yard.  I was probably twelve years old and, as I often did, I had a small fire burning in the middle of our back yard.  Now, I may not have been the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I knew how to keep a safe fire.  Well, my own back yard at least.  Anyway, I had a small fire going and I was sitting on a big chunk of wood and tending my blaze while I daydreamed of pleasant things.  I still do that, by the way.

At some point the sound of sirens from a fire engine broke into my consciousness, and I began to think of putting out my little fire and riding my bicycle to what certainly must be a bigger show.  I scanned the horizon for smoke but saw none, so I resumed paying attention to my fire and my daydreams.

The siren grew louder and at last I decided that something seriously exciting was happening nearby.  Once again I looked all around for smoke, and once again I found none.  Getting back to my fire and my daydreams however was now out of the question.  The sound of the siren grew until it seemed like it was very nearly on top of me.  There was a good reason for that; it very nearly WAS on top of me.

The siren was turned off and moments later three gigantic firemen in full uniforms, with boots and thick clothes and those big, wide-brimmed fireman helmets on top of huge heads with scowling faces, came thundering around the corner of the house, burst into my back yard, came to a dead stop, and then looked around for the fire.

The only fire was my little affair, hardly big enough to cook a hot dog over it.  I stood by the fire, stunned and stupefied, looking for all the world like I had no idea what was happening.  This, no doubt, was because in fact I had no idea what was happening.

“Where’s the fire” one of the firemen asked me.  I looked around, hoping that a neighbor’s house was burning.  Alas, all that I could see, besides every kid that I knew running from the Park and lining my back fence, pointing at me and beginning to laugh, was my little Boy Scout blaze.

Pointing at my weak flames, I told him “I guess that’s all the fire that there is around here.”

Fifty seven years after the fact I can still remember the look of disgust on the fireman’s face.  “Well” he said.  “We got called to put out a fire, so let’s put out a fire.”

They brought a hose into the yard; not one of those big canvas affairs, but rather a smaller rubber hose which nevertheless had a good deal of pressure.  The fireman pointed the brass nozzle at my fire, pulled a lever, and blasted my little blaze out of existence.

Later, when my mother got home from work, she quickly figured out that our next door neighbor was the party who ratted me out.  She was a little bit odd under the best of circumstances, and she virtually never operated under the best of circumstances.  She was certain that I would eventually burn the neighborhood down.  I suppose that I might have gotten a little ash on her laundry once or twice, so that didn’t help things much.  My brother was in the house at the time, and he said that she was looking out from a bedroom window as the firemen ran up our driveway.  He said that she had a smirk on her face.

Which brings me to the end of Part II of this account of my early love affair with fire.  In Part III I will share two or three more stories that revolved around fire, and then put the topic to rest.