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.

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.

The Fire Next Time

I have been attracted to fire for as long as I can remember.  Like a moth to a flame, or a mosquito to a bug zapper on my parents’ back porch in the Southwest desert, I have always been pulled inexorably to fire as if by some sort of unnatural gravity.  Fire may be the devil’s only friend, as Don McLean assured us many years ago in the song “American Pie,” but the devil isn’t fire’s only friend.  It pains me to think that we have even that much in common, but I must face the truth of it;  I love a good fire.

From my earliest days, fire was usually associated with good, or at least not so bad, things.  My father was a welder and metalsmith in the Navy, and he made for us what he called a charcoal broiler, possibly out of scrap metal from his ship or else from somewhere in the Navy yard.  The squarish steel box, probably a foot across and about eight inches deep, stood atop a three foot pole fixed to two steel crosspieces at the bottom.  A grate rested on small ledges in the middle of each side of the box along the top.

Many, many burgers and hot dogs and steaks were cooked on that device, some in our back yard or at the beach or at camps and picnic areas in the Laguna Mountains and the desert, and it was always my duty to get the fire started and produce the bed of coals that was to get the meal cooked.  I was a terrible eater in my youth, so the payoff for me was more in the fire than in the food.

I remember having a bright idea one day; a way to save money on all of the charcoal that we were using.  I had read of Native Americans heating rocks and then dropping the glowing stones into pots of food that they wanted to boil.  “I’ll just throw some rocks in the broiler and heat them up.  It’ll save money”  I told Dad, and he knew of no reason why I shouldn’t try.

My plan worked great on the first try.  The stones heated up to a cheery glow and flawlessly cooked our dogs or burgers or whatever we put on the grate that day.  Basking in my father’s accolades, I looked forward to my first opportunity to repeat my performance.  That opportunity came quickly enough, and with it the flaw in my plan was exposed.

It turns out that there are fracture planes in many rocks, and that those planes are weakened when the rocks are heated and expanded, and then cool and contract.  They are then ready to snap apart the next time that they are heated.  The Native Americans knew about this and how to choose the right stones that could handle repeated heating and cooling.  They neglected to share that information with me.

I had no idea of what was coming until the first stone popped like a gun going off.  The chip flew off of the rock, bounced off of the side of the metal box and disappeared – – – somewhere.  I was mystified as to what had just happened and leaned over the broiler in order to assess what was going on in my fire.  At that moment another stone exploded, sending chunks of burning wood up into the air and several chips whizzing a couple inches past my right ear.

“*&%%#!” I yelled in this unguarded moment as I jumped back away from the infernal device which now promised pain and worse than pain instead of burgers and dogs and praise.

“Glenn!” came the stentorian voice of my father, calling me in, I knew, to have me account for the salty language that had just erupted from my mouth.  “Come in here.”

Dad’s bedroom window was not twelve feet from where I then stood, and his desk where he studied for his post-military college classes was situated directly in front of that window.  I knew that there was nowhere to hide.  The fear of exploding rocks and fire in my face was now replaced by my fear of the wrath of my father.

As I trudged into the house through the back door and then down the hall towards Dad’s room I pondered which of the two threats was the worse.  By the time that I walked through the door into his room I was still not sure of the answer to that question, but the fact that I had survived the first and had not yet seen a resolution to the second inclined me to consider the latter most likely to lead to definite discomfort.

To my surprise and relief, Dad was sufficiently impressed by the gravity of the situation to allow me to wriggle off the hook with no more than a mild admonishment to clean up my mouth.  I believe that he felt responsible for allowing a dangerous situation to develop on his watch, and although I couldn’t imagine how he should know any more about the lore of Native Americans on the subject of cooking with hot rocks than I did, I clutched my free pass with eager hands.  I felt like I had navigated between the Scylla of an exploding fire and the Charybdis of Pop’s judgement and emerged unscathed.  That was luck enough for me for one day!

Most of my experiences with fire were more benevolent that that however.  Dad and I played a game of sorts.   Whenever a fire was needed in order to cook outside it was my duty to produce that fire by the use of only a single match.  Whether it was at the beach or in the backyard during the summer, with an abundance of dry wood, good kindling, and no wind, or in the mountains in the dead of winter, surrounded by fields of snow and with a one-inch coat of ice over the grate of the stone and steel camp stoves provided at Green Valley Falls, my job was to get that fire going with the greatest economy possible short of rubbing two sticks together.

At first, Dad allowed the use of big strike-anywhere matches; the kind that you could light by scratching them on the zipper or the pant leg of your jeans.  Later, as I honed my skills, the challenge was made greater by limiting me to one PAPER match.  And no paper was allowed in the process, other than the paper of the match.  Paper was only needed by pansies.  Real Men, and Real Boys who wanted to think that they are men, took their knife and hatchet and produced a pile of shavings, then splinters, then sticks, until at last they had a pile ready to do the master’s bidding.

I never failed.  It never took more than fifteen minutes for me to have a roaring fire even on the coldest and frostiest and wettest days, days when I could hardly feel my fingers for the cold.  And the payoff was enormous.  Mom’s fried potatoes and bacon, eggs and biscuits, and the coffee that I loved to smell but did not yet prefer to drink were a prize beyond gold.

But even more than Mom’s breakfast I would enjoy Pop’s inspection of the blaze, nod of approval, and declaration that I had the makings of a man who could live off of the land, and that was heady stuff for a kid who was born and raised in the city, yet knew that there was a world closer to the way that things should really be out there in the fields and the forests.

Not all fires that I was engaged in were made by me nor under control however.  San Diego is a dry place, and in the 1950’s and 60’s the neighborhoods were laced with brush-filled canyons which led to dry creek beds that ran with water only when it rained.  And I mean rained a lot!

During the summers kids would play in those canyons, and while for some unknown reason I never started a fire in one, others were less cautious.  Many times we would hear the fire engines going down Fairmont Avenue, or Highland or Chamoune, or any of the numbered streets around us, headed to a canyon to put out a fire.

We might be throwing a football in an alley, or playing baseball at the diamond at Hamilton Elementary School, or just hanging out at the recreation center.  We would stop what we were doing, scan the horizon for smoke, and then upon sighting our quarry, mount our bicycles and pedal there as quickly as was possible.

The excitement which we experienced was palpable.  Residents on the fringe of the burning canyon would be out with their garden hoses, wetting down house and yard as much as possible in an attempt to protect their property in the event that the wind pushed the flames in their direction.  Firemen would already be on the scene, unlimbering hoses, connecting them to nearby hydrants, and plunging heroically into the heart of the inferno.

We boys would jump off of our bikes and find the first hose that looked like it needed an extra hand to drag its heavy self in the direction of the firemen, and we would then haul it into the canyon, allowing the firemen to worry only about fighting the fire.  For some reason which eludes me to this day, none of us got cooked for our efforts.  The firemen never let us get too close to imminent danger, of course, but they really did appreciate our help.  In retrospect I find it hard to believe that this was allowed at all.  In our current insanely litigious society, no fireman in his right mind would allow anyone, much less eleven and twelve year old kids,  to jump into such a dangerous situation.

And it truly was dangerous!  Many years later, while working on a construction job on Mira Mesa, a nearby canyon fire was my siren song once again, and I responded like the ten year old boy did over a decade earlier.  This time, thick smoke reduced my vision and I got turned around, and soon I was running like a jackrabbit only a step or two in front of Santa Anna Wind – driven flames.  It was the last time that I ever stepped up to help fight a canyon fire, or any other, fire.

The Cobra

We who work in the medical field know that we may deal with unpleasant realities on any given day.  People don’t usually come to the doctors’ offices or clinics or hospitals to prove that everything is right in their world.  In fact, most of the time the reverse is true.  As a result of this hard truth, we medical workers develop an odd sense of humor in order to deal with the stress, much in the same manner as law enforcement agents or military personnel or others doing those jobs that most people wouldn’t want to do.  Some call it ‘gallows humor,’ and I suppose that is as good a description of it as any other.

But underlying that humor, we medical workers remember that we’re working on flesh-and-blood people; people who have lives and histories, families and connections and, probably most important, simple human worth.  We will work like fiends possessed in order to snatch a patient back from the grip of death, and if death has just been dealt too strong a hand we will sometimes cry and pound our fist against a wall when The Reaper wins the table.

It is with all of that in mind that I will now share a story from my medical career of over forty years.  I have no intention of making light of a person’s health crisis, and will refrain from stating the patient in my story’s age, medical diagnosis (which I never knew anyway), location, or anything else that could possibly identify this person or cause harm or pain to him or any living relative or acquaintance.  This is meant simply as a bit of humor; the humor that I and many who do work like mine use in order to keep our sanity.

This story is entitled ‘The Cobra,’ and it is with reference to the spitting cobra that is found in Africa and Southeast Asia.  It began when I was called to perform an ultrasound study of the abdomen on a patient in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital where I worked years ago.  As usual, I loaded gel and linen on top of my ultrasound machine and pushed it to the room where the patient lay.

Outside the door was a cart with gowns and masks and bonnets which are usually provided when the patient has some disease such as MRSA, Clostridium difficile, E. Coli, or any other such highly communicable disease.  As I was gowning up, the patient’s nurse came by and I asked her “What nasty bug am I protecting myself from today?”

“Oh” she replied.  “He doesn’t have any infectious disease that we know of.”

I looked at the cart and bright yellow gown that I was wearing and then asked the nurse “Then why am I wearing all of this?”

“He spits” she said.

“Pardon me?”

“The patient spits.  It’s a neurological thing.  We don’t even know if he’s aware that he’s doing it.  He isn’t aiming, as far as we can tell, and you’ll only get hit if you stray into his line of fire.  He just spits constantly, so this is for your protection.”

I had never heard of any such thing, and so with a mix of caution and doubt I pushed my machine into the patient’s room and set up to go to work on the right side of the bed.  I quickly sized up the situation.  The floor was indeed a swamp of spit.  His bedding had recently been changed, so there was only a general dampness to the sheets and blanket that covered him.  His head was turned to the left, so I plugged in my machine, pulled up my chair, lowered the blanket and raised his gown, and then began to scan according to my abdomen protocol.

“Left lobe of the liver; four pictures in the transverse plane, including the portal vein.  Now three views in sagittal, trying to capture the caudate lobe framed by the left lobe and the inferior vena cava.”

Just about as I snapped that last picture The Cobra, which name I gave to the patient as a part of the coping mechanism that I have explained above, began to slowly move his head from his left to his right, where I was sitting.  “Pffft!  Pffft!  Pffft!”  “Oh crud” I thought.  “They’re right!  He’s spitting and he’s turning toward me!”  

In Vietnam I had seen things coming my way; things that I had little or no ability to prevent.  In such circumstances I had to focus on survival, and so it was on this day.  “Think, Durden.  Think fast!”

The Cobra’s face passed the 90 degree mark and his liquid missiles were beginning to arc onto the right half of his bed.  My peril was undeniable and my reason nearly failed me.  At the last minute however inspiration broke through and took charge of the situation.

“Look” I said, pointing to the wall near the left side of his bed.  “What’s that?”

Gradually, by microscopic increments like slow motion on barbiturates, The Cobra’s head stopped its starboard progress and reversed course, and like a supertanker making a U-turn he began to roll his head to port in order to investigate whatever it was that I was pointing at, spitting all the while like a fireboat at a Fourth of July celebration.

I resumed my exam with a new sense of urgency.  Pancreas: Bam! Done!  Aorta: Bam! Done! Gallbladder: Well, sort of like a Bam!  Those things just take a little more time.  Then on to the right lobe of the liver, with many segments and structures, veins and ducts and such to evaluate.  The liver will slow you down, and time was not on my side.  Sure enough, before my last liver image was taken the fount of saliva began to once again track back to the right.  This time, however, I felt like I had a handle on the situation; it was that or I was cutting the exam short.

“Look” I said again, and with greater urgency this time, just in case he was catching on to me.  “What’s that?”  Again I pointed to the left and again, after almost getting my outstretched right hand spat upon, his head returned to a leftward arc, dousing that side of the bed, the floor, and the wall with a saliva rain.

Now I knew that I had this one in the bag.  I finished the liver and right kidney and began to shut down my machine.  This process didn’t take long and before The Cobra could turn to anoint the right side of the room I was outside, peeling off my isolation gear safe and dry and feeling pretty good about myself.

“How did you manage that?” asked a nurse as I snugly dropped my dry gown and gloves into the appropriate receptacle.

“Manage what?” I asked, being a confirmed and determined smartass.

“How did you stay dry?  Nobody else has done that.”

“Hey, no problem” I replied.  “Desperate times, desperate measures.  I used a decoy.”

I left the nurse scratching her head as I descended to our department to develop my film and show a pretty good study to the radiologist.

The Price of Vanity

As I sit in a chair on my driveway in the afternoon shade while watering my lawn and shrubbery, I look down at the healing wound on the inside of my right heel and the blister that is scabbing up on the back of my hand.  To do this I must peer over the pale flesh of my abdomen; flesh that has passed many a month since it has seen the face of the sun.  The condition of these three parts of my body, hand, heel and belly, is intimately connected.  The pale flesh of the belly, untouched by the rays of the sun for so long, is my belated attempt to avoid further damage to my skin; damage exemplified by the recent biopsy of a mole on my heal and the freezing of the remnant of known squamous cell carcinoma on the back of my hand.

If you grew up in San Diego as I did in the middle of the last century, you had a high regard for the sun tan.  In fact, after the explosion of the surfing culture around 1960, the degree of one’s status and social attainment was greatly assisted by the quality of their tan, and I did everything that I could think of to get a tan.  One of my personal favorites, as I reflect, was the application of baby oil while I would lay under the open sun at Pacific Beach or some other sun-drenched spot where I could properly cook myself.

Baby oil, we teens were guaranteed, was the magic elixir that would turn even a melanin-challenged northern European like me into a bronzed god.  I do not remember who it was that issued that bogus guarantee, but their sales pitch was effective to the utmost.  I would roll over every so often, basting myself anew each time.  The only guarantee that was fulfilled was the unspoken one that I would cook myself like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“The West Coast has the sunshine, and the girls all get so tan – – -“ goes the lyric in a well known Beach Boy song, and the girls did their best to imitate art with their lives.  Twenty years later little had changed.  “I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun.  You got the top pulled back and that, radio on baby.”  At least three times in that song Don Henly mentions his wayward lover’s brown skin, and unless she is derived from an more melanin-rich lineage than mine (or Don’s, to judge from when I have seen him on TV) that suggests that the girl spends a lot of time working on her tan.

But I’ll not point my gnarled finger only at the beach culture.  One fine day while enjoying a burger and coffee in a roadside squat-and-gobble restaurant somewhere west of Albuquerque I heard a waitress tell a regular customer that her affections would be reserved for a man with that “weathered look.”  Several ranchers and truckers in that joint filled her description to a tee, their tough, brown-to-red skin dried out and creased by deep wrinkles that looked eerily like the gulches and dry arroyos of that sun-blasted land.  The Marlborough Man had as much to fear from the sun above him as he did from the carcinigous death sticks that he liked to suck on.

But let’s bring this story back to my favorite topic:  Me.  As I stated earlier, I tried desperately to get my uncompromisingly white skin to take on some color.  I would broil under the sun at the beach all day, or roast in the desert at Yaqui Pass, Tamarisk Grove, or any of a score of unnamed (as far as I know) springs that could be found up valleys and ravines on the east slope of the Laguna Mountains, in search of the elusive tan.  My record of “success” tended mostly to a glowing redness that never quite matured into that coveted bronze tan.  Rather, it frequently evolved into full blown blistering.

Usually those episodes of trying to imitate a bratwurst on a tailgater’s grill would result in peeling that made me look like a snake shedding its skin.  Perhaps that was my body’s way of getting me to put on some protection.  Clothes applied to cover up my pseudo-leprosy also sufficed to block the next round of damageing sun exposure.

San Diego was not the only scene of my crimes against my own epidermis.  In Texas, Vietnam, northern California, New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest I chased that unreachable symbol of sun-blessed health.  It wasn’t until my third round of biopsies and freezings and lectures from my dermatologist that my addled brain at last allowed the thought that this might not be in my best interest to squeeze through into my consciousness.

So here I sit, writing this sad tale.  However, it’s not really all that bad.  Yeah, my belly’s white, but I’m sitting in the shade on my driveway, drinking some wine, watering the shrubs, and staring at the grass which I currently abide above instead of below.  At long last I understand that life is worth more than a tan, and I believe that I would like to stick around for a little while longer.

Proverbs 5

PROVERBS 5

     I have been pondering Jake’s sermon on Proverbs 5 and Wisdom for a couple of weeks now, chewing on it and trying to put it into a context that I can deal with.  Here’s where I stand in this endeavor at this point.

I was instantly bothered by the format of a father warning his son to stay away from the adulteress who was seeming lurking around every corner.  It sounded like little Shimron could hardly walk to the 7-11 to buy a couple of fig cakes and some new wine in a new skin without at least a couple or three adulteresses hitting him up on the way home for a little hanky-panky.

What I couldn’t help feeling is that it would probably be far more necessary to issue such warnings to daughters than to sons, when you consider the precarious position of women in that patriarchal society.  Now to be fair, women enjoyed far greater status in Hebrew culture than they did among the surrounding peoples, from being declared to be created in the image of God in Genesis 1, to gaining legal rights in Numbers 27 (the Daughters of Zelophehad) to being treated equally with men by Jesus.

Still, nobody can reasonably say that women were likely to be the sexual aggressors in Israel in Solomon’s day, or for that matter anything like equal.  So that issue bothered me from the beginning and perhaps distracted me somewhat from the main points of the sermon.  That left me to fill in my own gaps, which is always a dangerous thing.

But I did just that, and this is the result.  So far.  My first move was to put down my twenty first century lenses and stop trying to view the Bible as if I was a twenty year old sophomore  at Harvard fleeing to a safe space.  Proverbs 5 was written at the beginning of the last millennium before the birth of Jesus and the Middle East was then, as it continues to be to this day, a male world.  So if it sounds a little androcentric, like, duh!

What struck me though, once I began to consider the book for what it is, is that the woman who really counts is Wisdom; Sophia.  She is wise, she is ancient, she is almost omnipresent, if not indeed omnipresent.  She was present at the creation of things and danced with joy as God the Father did Their work.  Wisdom is calling to you, ready to give you insight that will benefit you in every way if you will only come to her.  In fact, it seems as if she is more likely to waylay you on your way to the 7-11, and try to knock some sense into your head before you buy any of those hot dogs that go round and round in the little countertop ovens. You know, maybe she should be called She; She is sort of like a feminine Jesus, but I don’t know about my theological foundation on that one.

What I’ve decided, however, is this:  Chapter 5 of Proverbs is providing a contrast; the Way of Wisdom and the way of folly.  Both ways are presented in a female form; it’s not like “Be like the Smart Dude and stay away from the Ho.”  No, to me its more like “Take the smart road and not the stupid one,” and nothing more than that.

Something I haven’t quite sussed out for myself however is whether or not God used the feminine gender for His portrayal of both wisdom and folly in Proverbs 5 in order to hint to the very masculine culture of the day (and just about all succeeding cultures to this day) that their androcentric views might be off of God’s tracks a little bit.  In that chapter both the Way of Wisdom and the way of folly are female; there’s no Great Male Way offered.  Was this an early act of God, pressing forward the process of reconciling men and women in equality and respect, a process that is taking a distressingly long time to bear fruit?  I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about that some more.

 

Walking the Dog

“Here I am, at the start of my hike up Dog Mountain. I got here at six thirty in the morning in order to beat the throng. I’m told that crowds begin to converge on this trail early, and the only way to get a parking spot at the trailhead is to beat the rush. It looks like I managed to do that. There’s a dozen or so cars here and all of them are empty. People must already be on the trail.

I guess I’ll get on the trail too. Rumor has it that it is a very difficult climb to the top of the mountain. There was one woman who said that it is not so bad as people say, but she’s an animal who could run to Albuquerque just to get a bowl of green chili stew and then run back before the evening rush hour, so I’m not putting to much stock by her description of it. Well, here goes.

 

Phew! It’s been only ‘up’ ever since the first step! And I really mean UP. The trail is not very wide and it is easily a forty five degree slope going up one side of it and a forty five degree downslope on the other. I have taken frequent rest stops, leaning on a walking stick that I made out of a young maple tree that was growing just across the backyard fence in my neighbor’s yard. He doesn’t care, and I hate having maples grow so close to my house. Their seeds and leaves clog my gutters, and the shade encourages moss growth on my roof. Yes, it serves much better as a walking stick; keeps me vertical when walking on the loose rock and helps me to propel myself forward and upward.

I was surprised by the number of people who passed me by. It’s not that I’m a mountain goat or anything like that. Heck, I’m 69 years old and I’m amazed that I’m this far up the hill in the first place. No, it’s the raw number of hikers that surprises me. Where do they all come from? Is anybody left in Portland or Vancouver? By ones and in groups they stream past me, and I step aside to let them pass. Actually, I appreciate the rest.

I haven’t gotten out of the trees yet, but I’ve found a wide spot in the trail where I can sit down on a log, drink some water, eat a handful of trail mix, and appreciate the fresh forest air and the silence. Well, sort of appreciate the silence. The tinnitus that sings constantly in my ears prevents me from enjoying true silence. I cannot hear the cars on Highway 14 far below me however, and if a train has chugged by on the tracks that run along the Columbia River, I didn’t hear it. Only the birds, the occasional rustlings of what I presume to be small animals in the undergrowth, and the breeze blowing through the trees which surround me make any noise at all. And those are soothing noises, so that’s all right with me.

I’ve seen some wood anemones growing among the vegetation between the trees. At least, that’s what I think they are. They’re delicate little white flowers. I’m told that there are many, many more flowers further up the trail. I think I’ll get up now and go have a look-see.

 

Oh, good Lord! This stinking trail really does just go up. The leg of the hike that I just finished was a longer version of the first one, but I’ve finally found a proper place to take a breather. I’ve come out of the trees and found a cluster of boulders on an open spur of the hillside. A young couple was leaving as I arrived, so I have a sweet little spot to sit on with a magnificent view of the river rolling to the west.

I’ve got no idea how high I am but I’m looking down at the tops of some hills, and a barge on the river looks pretty small. There is a train on the Oregon side of the river that looks like one of those really little model trains; what are they? I think they may be H O gauge. I don’t remember. But it’s really small.

My legs are burning pretty good, but it’s a nice burn. The quads, which I know is actually a group of four muscles in each thigh, have not worked like this for a very long time; not since before the heart attack and surgery that I had three years ago. I’m happy to have made it this far, and if it doesn’t get any worse I should make it to the top in pretty good shape. My hip joints can get a little balky sometimes, but so far so good.

There is a profusion of yellow flowers that completely surrounds me. They grow straight up the hillside behind me, and straight down the hillside in front of me. They are quite beautiful but I have to confess a bit of disappointment. Long ago my brother and I were traveling through Arizona in the springtime and we pulled off to the side of a very rural two lane road, literally somewhere south of the middle of nowhere, to sleep for the night.

When we woke up the next morning we found ourselves surrounded by a riot of flowers of all shapes and colors. It reminded me of the room that the river of chocolate flowed through in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You know, Willy Wonka. The Gene Wilder version. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since. I kinda thought that I might see something like that here, but I didn’t.

Well, time to pick it up. I’ve chugged down some more water and trail mix, and a couple of chunks of bison for a little protein. My legs are still tired but I think I have a little more left in them. Here goes.

 

Oh, man. I’m whipped! The last leg was insane! Most of the grade was steep, as it has been since I first set foot on the trail, except for one section about two thirds of the way through it. That one was steeper. And there were no switchbacks on that leg. It was a beast, and that’s what I called it: The Beast. The damned thing just went up. And up. And up. There were a few trees growing next to the trail that I could lean against in order to let other hikers pass by, or simply because I couldn’t take another step without rest.

I thought several times about cashing in my chips on The Beast. I mean, I’m not trying to prove anything here. Or am I? I have to admit that there’s a little pride at work here. I really want to say that I’ve mastered Dog Mountain, and this may be my last chance to do it. But first I had to master The Beast, so I’d rest and walk, rest and walk, rest and walk.

About two hundred yards down the trail from where I now sit I broke out of the trees and onto a vast sweep of the mountainside that was thick with a carpet of the ubiquitous yellow flowers. I took one picture of the hillside that included a tree, for the vertical perspective, and the horizon for the horizontal. The angle is easy to see, and it’s mind blowing. I’m now seated on a chunk of concrete on another small level area. Someone said that the chunk was a remnant of a Forest Service observation platform, and I guess it probably was. But how on earth did they ever get the materials up here?

More water, more rest, more bison and trail mix. The view is positively stunning. I am well above many of the hills and mountains in the Columbia River Gorge and the river itself is a blue ribbon running far below me. The sun has climbed in the sky and has grown rather warm, and I’m glad for my hat with a broad brim and a flap down the back of the neck, and also for the big, poofy long-sleeved hippy shirt that a friend made for me. My skin has been damaged by the years that I spent trying to put a tan on skin that refused to be tanned. I don’t do that any more.

The breeze is very pleasant. It flows up from under my shirt and out through the open neck and the long poofy sleeves, cooling me down and helping me to prepare for what I’m told is the last leg before the summit. The worse is over, some of the other hikers say. I certainly hope so.

 

Ah, the top! Indeed, the last leg was easier than The Beast, and otherwise quite doable. The only problem was that I am nearly spent from my earlier exertions. Man, am I tired! But here I am, on a rather small knob on the top of Dog Mountain. The summit is jammed with people, many of whom look as if they have just been out for a Sunday stroll. That somehow just seems to be wrong. I’m pretty sure that I would be exhilarated if I wasn’t exhausted. But the view from up here is beyond belief, and also beyond my pathetic ability to describe it.

The top of a very good-sized hill adjacent to the River is seen far below me. The Wind River meanders through its valley on it’s way to join the Columbia several miles to the west. You can feel the elevation, see almost all the way to Portland, over fifty miles away, and smell only the clean air blowing either up or down the Gorge. It’s hard to say exactly which way it’s blowing because of the swirls and eddies it makes as it curls around hills and mountains and bends in the mighty Gorge.

The best part of this has been that I have not experienced one iota of chest pain, and no more shortness of breath than one would expect for any other sixty-nine year old. Or a thirty-nine year old, for that matter. I’ve put my rebuilt ticker to the test, and it looks like my surgeon’s work is holding up just fine. I don’t take that for granted. Not one little bit. God and Dr. Martin have given me a few more years to run at peak performance. I’m thankful to both and determined to make the most of it.

 

Hah! Back at the trailhead. I’ve just made a seamless push to get from the peak to the parking lot, and at last I’m here. Downhill is almost as demanding as uphill. Almost. In fact, it can be more hazardous. I slipped in one pile of loose rock and fell right on my tush. I could feel my hip begin to tighten up immediately, and that made me nervous. It loosened up however, and the trip down was somewhat easier than the one up. The path back down is longer than the one that I took up, so the grade was easier, and that was a bonus as I see it.

And now it’s time to drive home, although a beer and a burger in Stevenson sounds good too. I may be sore as the dickens tomorrow but I won’t really care. From this day forward I will be able to truthfully say that I walked the Dog, and that makes it all worth it.