Bits and Pieces

I was digging around in my old pics and came by this single shot taken with a cheap disposable camera I had clipped to my harness. It shows Tom rapping off of “Bits & Pieces” back about 1990-something. It was a butt-puckering 2 pitch 5.7 X route. It was notable only because of the X designation, due to it having only 2 bent, rusty 1/4″ bolts for the whole 1st pitch, with likelihood of death or serious injury if you fell and took a grounder.  It is located well off the beaten path on the backside of the most popular climbs at Smith Rock, Oregon.

I led the 1st pitch, clipping the 2 ancient 1/4″ bolts up to a decent size ledge. Unfortunately, there were no anchor bolts or cracks to get any cams or other protection in so I had to bring Tom up without a real anchor.  There were a couple of rocky knobs to brace my feet against… so I told him not to fall. 

Pic I found on the internet of the route today, with several shiny new bolts for pro.

He got up to the ledge and we looked at the next pitch with no bolts, still thinking this was our escape route… we saw no way to get pro in on the loose tufa of Smith Rock on the route above us and saw no other bolts.  Hence the X rating.

We decided to bravely run away…but there being no way to anchor off for the rappel, I had to become the anchor…not the best situation to be in.

Almost to the ledge…

He was super excited to rap down with nothing but me holding him up but we didn’t have any other choice since we didn’t bring my bolt kit.  Tom rappelled off using only me with my feet braced and a “see you at the bottom, one way or another”.

Tom nervously begins rapping off, using me as his only anchor.

I had him clip a sling back in to the top bolt as he passed it (there were only 2 remember?) so I would have at least a bit of psychological protection.  He let out a big sigh of relief when he got to the bottom

The bolt he clipped the sling back into was about 20 feet below the lip so I could down climb with at least the illusion of protection since there was no way for me to rappel down. At least if I fell, and the bolt held, I’d only have a 40-50 foot whipper 

The climb was in a mossy groove in the shade, well worn by water running down the cliff that becomes a waterfall when it rains. Since it got very little traffic due to the danger rating, all of the little pebbles and knobs used for holds are subject to freezing and thawing and popping loose over time.  

The  upper section of the cliff was very vertical, so I couldn’t see the footholds below me at all as I slowly backed and eased over the edge… Tom had to talk me to the knob holds, as I used my feet them to feel all over the cliff to find a big enough pebble to hold my weight. Once I had both feet on something, I could look down and plan my next moves.

To the uninitiated, down climbing is much more difficult than climbing up. Often it is hard to see footholds and you have to resist the natural urge to press yourself into the rock and lean back to see better.

Slowly inching my way down, Tom still offering advice from below, I made my way to the sling. That 20 feet of loose, mossy pebbles with a single manky bolt from when the climb was established in 1977 switched me into Wildman mode… smooshing my feet through the soles of my climbing shoes and onto the holds to make them stick to the rock.

I can’t honestly remember if I left the upper sling in place and continued down climbing or, being a cheap dirt bag climber, snagged my gear and just free climbed the rest of the way down with a puckered butt hole. Probably the latter…I hated leaving gear behind.

Having had so much fun with Bits and Pieces, Tom and I decided to conspire to have our buddy Jim lead the climb next time we were there, but alas, it never happened.

Looking at photos of the climb these days, it has been re-bolted with nice fat modern bolts and proper anchors at the top to rap down, making it a much tamer, relatively easy sport climb. Part of me is sad because it was one of our scary “classics” we always seemed to get ourselves into, but it would make it a nice, shady climb for folks trying to get away from the crowded cliffs at the main part of Smith. Time moves on, and those old bolts only grew more dangerous every year.

Rusty old bolt very common in my heyday…

This Oughta Do

I had one of those “sponsored” ads on Facebook pop up…the kind that seem to materialize magically after you have had a vague thought or clicked on something that triggers a Zuckerberg algorithm to crunch numbers like they were connected right into your brain. As my buddy Rick’s birthday approaches, I couldn’t help but think he had something to do with it from the great beyond.

This one happened to be a T-Shirt for sale that had “It’s All In The Reflexes – Burton’s Gym” with a picture of Jack Burton himself in the center holding a dumbbell in each hand. Of course I had to buy it…and then explain why.

It’s All In The Reflexes…

If you knew Rick you knew his two favorite movies of all time were “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”. Throw in Silverado and you had Rick’s complete movie collection.

Now, Rick was no Siskel or Ebert.  He could barely make it through a movie in a dark theater without passing out. If he wasn’t dozing off and snoring, he was trying to catch-up with what was going on in the plot by asking in a too-loud voice and getting hushed by both the other viewers and his friends. 

The first two are both terrible films in a critical cinematic sense, but great fun with a drink or three and right up Rick’s alley. For some reason they tickled his funny bone and he became almost evangelistic in trying to convince other folks that they absolutely had to watch them both.

Big Trouble In Little China

Big Trouble is a 1986 John Carpenter martial arts action-comedy starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun and James Hong. The film tells the story of Jack Burton, who helps his friend Wang Chi rescue Wang’s green-eyed fiancée from bandits in San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

They go into the mysterious underworld beneath Chinatown, where they face an ancient sorcerer named David Lo Pan, who requires a woman with green eyes to marry him in order to release him from a centuries-old curse. Along the way they fight The White Tigers, Lords of Death, The Three Storms, assorted wild monsters and ultimately have a show down with Lo Pan.

Lo Pan!

It was a commercial failure when it came out, grossing $11.1 million in North America, below its estimated $19 to $25 million budget. It received mixed reviews that left Carpenter disillusioned with Hollywood and influenced his decision to return to independent filmmaking. But, it has since become a cult classic, and Rick was a part of that cult, and by association, so am I.

Lo Pan’s henchmen, The Three Storms – Thunder, Rain, and Lightning

Now, I’m a big Kurt Russell fan to begin with, so it wasn’t too hard to get onboard with this one.  Maybe it has something to do with him being a carpenter named Dean Proffitt in Overboard…woodworking, last name and boating being three things that agree with my vibe. Captain Ron also happens to be one of my favorite not-so-guilty pleasures. But I have enjoyed Kurt’s movies since his young Disney days. I mean, Snake Pliskin, come on.

Captain Ron…

In Big Trouble, his character has a combination of arrogance, self-confidence and brawn that is balanced by him continually getting in over his head and screwing up as much or more than he comes through as a hero.  All of this is blended into a loose mixture of the history of Chinatown in San Francisco, mixed with Chinese legend and plenty of martial arts, that makes it an excellent dick flick.

Jack after kissing the girl…

It is full of craziness and outrageous characters that induced much laughter from us sitting around sipping whiskey. It doesn’t hurt that it is full of goofy-ass quotes and one-liners so great they filled our vocabulary for decades. These include:

“You just listen to the old Pork Chop Express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night when the lightning’s crashin’ and the thunder’s rollin’ and the rain’s coming down in sheets thick as lead. Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

“When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye, and asks you if you paid your dues; you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have you paid your dues, Jack? Yes sir, the check is in the mail.”

“Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president.”

“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”

“May the Wings of Liberty never lose a feather”

“It’s all in the reflexes.”

For Rick and I, these quotes would pop up at any moment in time, in any conversation, and release a cavalcade of quotes and Jack Burton mannerisms sure to induce eye rolls and embarrassment to those around us.   

For instance, if we both happened to get in an elevator that had a sign…any sign, it might go like this:

Les: [pointing to sign in elevator] What does that say?
Rick: Hell of Boiling Oil.
Les: You’re kidding.
Rick: Yeah, I am. It says “Keep Out.”

Les: “The Chinese have so many Hells, how should I know”

When sipping whiskey:

Les: What’s in the flask, Rick? Magic potion? 

Rick: Yeah. 

Les: Thought so, good. What do we do, drink it? 

Rick: Yeah! 

Les: Good! Thought so.

After a sip of potion (whiskey)…

Les: Feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… I feel kind of invincible.

Rick:  Yeah, me, too. I got a very positive attitude about this!

Once we got all wound-up, we sounded like Abbott and Costello or other corny comedic team that had been around each other for decades.  Friends that had heard it all a million times just rolled their eyes and ignored us or sighed that “here they go again” sigh.  But it had no real effect on us, we had the magic potion…we were invincible.

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man

On the other hand, there was Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, a 1991 science fiction Western biker heist buddy movie with Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson.  

This was a movie Rick embraced for who knows what reasons.  Maybe it was because it was an interpretation of the age-old “buddy movie” that he synced with. Perhaps it is because Harley and Marlboro are the type of guys who live their lives one day at a time with little thought about the future. Unlike Big Trouble, it took me years to warm up to this one…more like Rick just wore me down with it.

Playing Cowboys and Bikers…

These reviews from movie critics are priceless, and generally right on the money: 

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it “a mindless cobbling from countless buddy movies”.

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly rated it C+ and called it “a kinetic formula shoot-’em-up” that is “engagingly junky entertainment with a healthy sense of its own ludicrousness.”

Variety called it “a dopey, almost poignantly bad actioner about two legends-in-their-own-minds”.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Rourke and Mr. Johnson handle their roles with more ease and humor than can be accommodated by a movie so stuffed with mindless fistfights, gunfights, helicopter chases, explosions and leaps from tall buildings.”

Time Out London called it “utter rubbish, and badly dressed at that.” 

Kim Newman of Empire wrote, “For a while, its crassness is amusing, but as the plot sets in, it gradually turns into a stultifying bore.”

Both Johnson and Rourke have spoken negatively of the film. Rourke cited the film as the beginning of his decline in mainstream Hollywood. Johnson, while promoting the film, gave a tongue-in-cheek interview where he was quoted as saying “If you’re a fan of mindless action, if you don’t have a single brain cell in your head, this is the film for you.”

Perhaps this last quote sums it up well enough for Rick, who never liked movies with deep, twisted subplots that you had to really pay attention to. “Mindless action” was just perfect for him, so he could chatter away with no one hushing him up…after all, no one really minded missing a part of this flick. After a few requisite sips of whiskey to prime us for the show, we would be pursing our lips like Mickey Rourke and speaking in well-rehearsed, gravelly Don Johnson voices. 

This flick is chock full of cliches and absurdities.  Take the villians.  It’s not enough that Daniel Baldwin is the leader of the henchmen, with Tom Sizemore as their evil bank executive bossman…they have to dress them up in floor length black leather trench coats like they got teleported from the Matrix…which wouldn’t be filmed for another 8 years.  Maybe they were simply ahead of their time.

You know you’re in for it when one of the Baldwin brothers is involved…

The main quote I really remember from this one is from the Marlboro Man (Don Johnson)…he was always quoting his dead father with sayings that started with: “My old man told me before he left this shitty world” then waxing eloquent with some wise words like “never chase buses or women, you’ll always be left behind.” or “… there would be blue-bellied chicken shit bastards like you out there.” So, naturally, we just started our own sayings off with “My old man told me before he left this shitty world” and making up whatever fit the situation. Yes, we were comedic geniuses.

As mentioned, it took me a while to get onboard with this tasteless, trashy film with no real redeeming value.  But, gradually, I came to appreciate the pure entertainment value of its mindlessness, and it wasn’t too difficult to replace Harley and Marlboro with me and Rick…if one of us was a biker and the other a cowboy, and one of us was going to lose our bar and thought it a good idea to pull a heist on an evil bank.

Silverado

I’ll mention one more movie that Rick thoroughly enjoyed, particularly after we invented “Silverado Night”.  This was where we would watch the movie Silverado, a now classic 1985 American Western starring Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner. The supporting cast features the likes of Brian Dennehy, Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese, Jeff Goldblum and Linda Hunt. How can you go wrong with a cast like that.

I love a good saloon…

The whole point of our Silverado Night was to try and keep up with the whiskey drinking in the film shot for shot, which is a considerable undertaking. We would even switch between drinking regular rotgut when in a saloon and then switch to “the good stuff” when saloon owner Stella (Linda Hunt) offers Paden some of her secret stash from behind the bar. Of course he develops a taste for it, so did we.

Stella breaks out the “Good Stuff”

At first it’s not too bad, and it seems like it will be a cruise since everyone is out in the backcountry and it’s dry as a popcorn fart in church.  Then Mal (Danny Glover) makes it into town and heads to the saloon to quench his considerable thirst and all bets are off.

In our younger days we would use full shots, but after a few dances with the devil, we learned to pour lighter shots if we planned on making it all the way through the end of the movie.

And what would a memorable movie be without notable quotes to toss around? Well used favorites with this one include:

Cobb: “I was hoping you’d changed your mind about the job.
Paden: You didn’t tell me you owned a saloon.
Cobb: Oh, that ain’t the half of it, friend. Welcome to heaven.”

Paden: “What’s this?” 

Stella: “That’s the good stuff.” 

Paden: “Yeah? How good?” 

Paden: “Here’s to the good stuff.” 

Stella: “May it last a long time.”

Mal: “I don’t wanna kill you, and you don’t wanna be dead.”

Sherriff: “We’re gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first class hanging.”

Cattle Rustler: “I think there’s only two guys up there and this asshole’s one of them.”

And easily the most used quote by Rick and I: From when Emmett (Scott Glenn) and Mal (Danny Glover) are preparing to kill some bad guys, holds up a pistol and asks Mal if he wants to use it… Mal holds up a big Henry rifle in each hand and simply states “This oughta do”. This is a classic and can be used in almost any situation. If we said it once, we said it a million times.

“This oughta do”

We would, or could, only do a Silverado Night every few years…it was not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. As we got older and wiser, we tended to tap out sooner…you can really be put on your lips if you keep up with the shot count.

So to sum it up…if Rick had been banished to a desert island, these are the three movies he would be perfectly happy watching over and over.

Very few would agree with this particular assortment and Rick’s favorite story of comparison was that he was incredulous that a movie about an old guy just driving around an old lady (Driving Miss Daisy) could win multiple Academy Awards, when stellar material like his favorites won absolutely nothing. The would is just not fair.

While Silverado was nominated for Best Sound and Best Original Score, alas, they all went unrecognized by the big award ceremonies…but Mr. Ricky Baker loved them enough for everyone. Happy birthday buddy.

WWII Imperial Japanese Army Officers Sword

I have found out more information on the sword dad brought back from WWII. I have previously described it as an Imperial Japanese Naval Officer’s sword, as that is as close as I could get from researching similar looking swords.  

After much additional research, and purchase of a rather expensive, out of print book on Japanese military swords, I have found that the sword originated from the Japanese occupation of Korea.  These swords were authorized for military officials of the colonial government of Korea from 1911 to the end of the WW II in 1945. 

Japanese occupational troops in Korea

Dad’s sword was issued to a Hannin, or junior-level officer in the Japanese Army that was assigned to occupation duty in Korea prior to, or during World War II.  It is in great shape overall, with a beautiful ray skin covered handle and brass fittings.  

A similar sword that was for sale for $600. I found 2-3, selling anywhere from $600-$1200.

The style of the sword is kyu-gunto (roughly “old”, or “first” pattern military sword). Starting in 1875, a new sword was developed that became the first standard issue for the new army. It is a hybrid of European ideas and Japanese sword traditions. If you’ve seen the rather fictionalized “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise, you know the time period this sword was originally designed in. 

At the start of the Meiji Restoration, the Samurai were disenfranchised and the Japanese government began creating an imperial army along European lines, changing their military swords from the traditional Samurai style, to a more European style.

The hilt is very European with its guard and knuckle bow, with the sacred Imperial Chrysanthemum, or kiku, incorporated on the pommel. The chrysanthemum is the emblem of the Imperial Family. According to historical records, Emperor Gotoba and his three succeeding emperors enjoyed using chrysanthemums as a pattern. Although this crest was reserved to the Imperial Family, it was also awarded by the imperial court to other people who had shown excellence in service to the imperial household. 

Chrysanthemum flower on pommel

The sides of the backstrap have a Kiri emblem of the Paulownia Imperialis flower bloom, with a main 7 floret bud arrangement with 5 smaller florets on either side, signifying government service in Korea. 

Kiri emblem on hilt

The Paulownia is a deciduous tree that is widely cultivated in Japan. It belongs to the figwort family Paulowniaceae and it is also known as the “princess tree” or “emperor tree”. 

This tree was adopted as a crest motif because it symbolizes good fortune. In China, people consider it a lucky tree where phoenixes reside. It was also believed that these phoenixes sing “long live the king!” in the high, blooming branches of the tree.

Because of this belief, the paulownia tree became a pattern used in the emperor’s clothes and then later became a crest during the end of the Kamakura period. This crest is awarded by the imperial court to retainers. The retainers also awarded the crest to vassals who had performed exemplary deeds.

The blade itself is in the style of a katana, with an edge that turns up abruptly just before the tip.

Blade showing fuller and katana tip

Like older, traditional Japanese swords, the blade passes through a rectangular collar (habaki) which appears to be made of copper, and a flat spacer with a rippled edge (seppa) before entering the guard. 

Showing copper habaki and rippled seppa on hilt

The grip is traditional Japanese same-kawa, white ray skin, wrapped in typical European style with a triple strand of wire.

White Ray skin handle

The sword also has a folding leaf that is part of the cross guard that serves as a catch for securing the sword in the scabbard.  

Hinged leaf to lock sword into scabbard

The blade is just a little under 26 inches long.  It has a blood groove, more properly known as a fuller, running almost the entire length of the blade. 

Full length fuller groove

The scabbard is constructed of wood, with a thin lacquered shark skin covering.  

Lacquered shark skin scabbard

This has three nice brass fittings, two at the top that serve as hangers, and one at the bottom to protect the tip.  

Brass hangers on scabbard
Brass scabbard tip

In the definitive (and expensive!) Fuller and Gregory book “Military Swords of Japan 1868-1945”, they call the sword a “1911 pattern Hannin (Junior) Officials sword of the Government General of Korea”. They go on the say that the sword should be considered rare, and is considered a purely ceremonial sword.

The description in the book:

Japanese Chosen Hannin Level Official Dress Sword

This is a rare example of a Japanese Chosen (Korea) Hannin Level Official’s Sword that would have been carried by Japanese Officials assigned to the occupational Government. It is mounted with a machine-made blade that has a cutting edge measuring 25 3/4 inches in length.  The sword is 31 inches overall. The plain brass frames a beautiful white Same-kawa, a ray skin wrapping of the hilt, with its original twisted wire wrap still tightly in place.

How dad came to be in possession of this sword is a mystery, and most likely will always be a mystery.  It is very possible he picked it up somewhere on the battlefields of the Philippines or Okinawa where he was subjected to a number of banzai charges as the Japanese grew more desperate.   

Page from dad’s diary describing his first banzai charge

A Banzai charge is the term used by the Allied forces to refer to Japanese human wave attacks mounted by their infantry units. This term came from the Japanese cry “Tenno Heika Banzai” for “Long live the Emperor”, and shortened to banzai, and it specifically refers to a tactic used by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War. 

Banzai attack

Banzai was born of the militaristic government of Japan that had again adopted the concepts of Bushido to condition the country’s population to be ideologically obedient to the emperor. Impressed with how samurai were trained to commit suicide when a great humiliation was about to befall them, the government educated troops that it was a greater humiliation to surrender to the enemy than to die. 

During the war period, the Japanese government began disseminating propaganda that romanticized suicide attack, using one of the virtues of Bushido as the basis for the campaign. The Japanese government presented war as purifying, with death defined as a duty. By the end of 1944, the government announced the last protocol, unofficially named ichioku gyokusai, literally “100 million shattered jewels”, for the purpose of resisting opposition forces until the surrender.

Often, banzai participants drank large quantities of sake and beer to work themselves into a frenzy and give themselves additional courage to charge headlong into overpowering firepower.  It had to be terrifying on both sides of such a charge. 

As children, we, at least I, imagined exactly this type of situation occurring with this symbol of the most frightening kind of hand to hand combat…a crazed enemy emerging out of the darkness screaming banzai and swinging a three foot, razor sharp blade with a total disregard to whether he lived or died. 

Holding the sword, I imagined dad coming face to face with a wild-eyed Japanese soldier intent on running him through, surviving the melee, then collecting the sword as a trophy of battle.  It wouldn’t have been the first time in that war, as he had narrowly escaped a face to face run-in inside a Japanese bunker.

Although I asked dad how he acquired the sword several times, I never got a real answer. “During the war” or “Off a dead Jap” were typical responses.  He never elaborated, perhaps for good reason. It may well have been on the battlefield from an officer that had served in Korea prior to being posted in the Pacific But it may be just as likely that he picked it up wheeling and dealing after the surrender of Japan.

Dad was posted to occupy Korea right from the battle in Okinawa to help keep the Japanese under control and prevent the Russians from moving beyond the 38th Parallel.  

Army of Occupation Medal for Asian theater

So, he might also have picked the sword up from a Japanese POW in Korea, or from a pile of surrendered weapons, or he might have just traded a few cartons of smokes to another GI for a cool officer’s sword. 

Japanese soldiers being disarmed by US-forces in Korea

It wouldn’t have been easy packing a sword around in the jungles of the Philippines or the horrific monsoons of Okinawa. While they kept non-combat essential gear in rear areas, they were constantly on the move.

What I am sure of is that dad saw more than his share of charging Japanese infantrymen brandishing swords, bayonets and grenades, as witnessed by the shrapnel he carried in his body his entire life.

They were all trying to send him, as he wrote in the pages of his war diary, “to go see his honorable ancestors” before they saw theirs. I’m glad it took him eighty years to see them instead of just nineteen.

I grow stuff, and I know things…

Like most of us, the Covid quarantine has kept me home a great deal more than I have been used to. All that time at home has “allowed” me to give more attention to the yard and gardening.  The title of this article is more tongue in cheek than anything else…I saw it on a t-shirt on Facebook and thought about the simplicity of it all, but built on a lot of experience.

Growing things is not all that hard if you just let nature have her way. I can declare I’m going to grow the best crop of dandelions ever, do nothing, and my yard will fill with them…but figuring out how to bend nature to your will does take some knowledge and a bit of voodoo when dealing with picking seeds (surprisingly hard this year!), spacing, pruning, watering, fertilizing, powdery mildew, end blossom rot and all the other plant diseases, worms, bugs, beetles and critters, poor soil, and on and on.

As the oldest child, I spent so much time doing yard work in the horticultural chain gangs of my mother and father that some of it was bound to rub off, no matter how much I resisted. Whether by osmosis or having it beat into me, I picked up some “stuff” over the years.

Now, I have always had a love/hate relationship with yard work and gardening. Like many, I grew up being an indentured servant, doing yard and garden work for my parents for the proverbial room and board.  This of course turned it into a chore rather than an enjoyable past time. I have had full gardens, herbs in pots and boxes and everything in between, but I have always, at the least, thrown a few tomato plants in the ground.

I am not suggesting I am a master gardener by any means, and the incremental knowledge gained over time was almost imperceptible…but just how much I do know started coming into sharp focus after I joined several “garden groups” on Facebook, well, because that’s what you do on Facebook.

As I read through the various posts I became aware that I know a great deal about “growing things”, in no small part due to the influence of my parents. I would read a post and think: “good grief, any idiot knows how to do that”, but it became apparent just how much I had picked up from mom and dad over the years, as well as my own experience. Much of this I have taken for granted, because “you just do it” without much thought, as it has become a part of me.

As with all of my long-winded stories, I’ll start from the beginning.  Both my parents were avid gardeners.  Dad on the practical side with vegetables, and mom loving her flowers and decorative plants. Even while he was in the Army with our temporary housing, dad would grow at least a few tomato and onion plants.  

Me at Ft Knox in 1959 with my first pet. Dad’s tomato patch to the left behind me at Ft Knox.

I remember dad coming home one night at Ft. Benning after a neighbor had hacked his tomato plants all to bits chasing a black snake off our patio.  “It’s not even poisonous!” (with a few more colorful words thrown in) he said after seeing the decapitated snake.  “We told him dad, but he wouldn’t listen” we said…dad had, by then, explained the differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes to us many times.  

Me and Greg at Ft Benning, with the tomato patch that was destroyed by the snake hunter.

With our backyard bordering a swamp, we knew most of the local snakes already anyway. We thought dad was going to kill the poor guy because we got a butt whooping if a ball bounced into his ‘mater patch, causing damage or not.

My earliest memories of doing actual yardwork begin when I was six years old in 1965.  We had just moved to Ohio from Georgia when dad was sent off to fight in Vietnam, leaving mom, me and my two brothers and sister in a brand new house, in a brand new development, mostly still under construction. 

Barebones new construction 1965. The topsoil is spread and straw is keeping the new grass from frying in the sun.

Being brand spanking new, the yard was a blank canvas…well more like a clay and limestone moonscape where nothing was growing. Mom made it her mission…our mission, to whip the yard into shape and make things grow by the time dad got back.  

Sad looking back yard, no fence yet. Note the new apartment building going up in the background.

Making anything grow entailed having many dump trucks of topsoil delivered, to be spread on top of the insufferable bare clay left by the builders. Mom had me and my brother out there with shovels, rakes, and wheel barrows distributing the massive piles of topsoil evenly over the front and back yards.

I’m not sure how helpful we actually were, but I remember it being real exhausting work. This took many days in the hot Ohio summer of 1965…which then led to painful sunburns for all of us.

I still can’t stand the smell of vinegar as my mother’s homegrown prescription was to slap strips of vinegar soaked brown paper grocery sacks all over our backs and tell us not to move. We had blisters on our backs and blisters on our hands, but we eventually got all the dirt moved, spread with grass seed, and covered with straw to help it grow. 

Mom then created her first flower bed, a small round one, bordered with broken bricks we snuck from the apartment building going up behind us. Greg and I had befriended a construction worker over there and he told us it would be “alright as long as you don’t get caught by the boss-man”.

Hey, those flowerbed bricks match the big building behind us…

The bare clay yard was “landscaped” by the builder with a few minuscule Arborvitae shrubs against the house and two Silver Maple twigs in the front yard…just like every other house in the development.

Photo mom sent to dad in Vietnam to show her our hard work on the yard. 1965. Note the Silver Maple “tree” to her right.

Of course, the servitude did not stop with getting grass to grow…when dad got back from Vietnam, my parents decided the house needed a hedge around the entire front yard.  This required digging a trench a couple of feet deep in that same limestone filled clay. Since the dirt was so hard, dad’s preferred tools were Army entrenching tools, which he was very familiar with.  

Army “eTool”. Great for making blisters. The pick was very useful to pry out Ohio limestone chunks.

These could have the blade bent 90 degrees to get into the narrow trench.  One of them even had a pick on it for levering the large hunks of limestone out of the trench.  Little did I realize then that my experience digging that long trench would come back to serve me well digging foxholes in the Army years later.

After the trench was dug it had to be lined with peat moss, manure and top soil as the native gray clay was terrible for plants. Then all the hedge shrubs had to be planted.  This hedge was to be my bane for as long as I lived there, as not only did I inherit cutting the lawn as soon as I was deemed able, but also trimming the hedge.  I’m not sure what kid assumed those duties when I went off to the Army.

1972. The hedge has filled out and the Arborvitae have grown up. The Silver Maples are branching out and dad’s willow tree is growing fast behind the right one.

Dad trimmed the hedges himself for many years, as he demanded that they were perfectly level and flat and didn’t trust me to get it right when young.  He accomplished this topiary perfection by pulling a string tight, from one end to the other, with a string level on it to use as a guide for his hedge trimmer. The corners and openings had to have square-cut raised platforms to set them off.  

He sounded like the father working on the furnace in “A Christmas Story” when he found the neighbor kid and mailman were cutting through the hedge as a short cut and making unsightly gaps.  Using his military training, he strung some hidden barb wire booby traps inside the hedge to thwart the hedge violators.  After a few years though, the novelty of a perfect hedge wore off and it was handed off to me. Yippee.  

Woe to those that try to pass through my hedge…

In the meantime, mom was still on her mission to beautify the landscape.  She absolutely loved flowers and plants and had already filled the house with Violets, Begonias, Spider plants, Dieffenbachia, Philodendrons, Rubber plants, Calatheas, Air plants, Jade plants, Aloe, Dragon trees, Bromeliads, Snake plants, cactus, Hens and Chicks and numerous other succulents, and especially ferns…of all shapes, sizes and descriptions.  If she could beg, borrow or steal a start she stuck it in a jar to root and coaxed it to grow.

A few Spider plants, ferns and other plants in the living room. Every window sill was covered as well.

But she had more space outside, so she ordered the crew (me and dad) out to cut up the grass along the entire perimeter of the yard and driveway to make flower beds.  Again, the entrenching tools were perfect for cutting up the sod and rolling it up to go somewhere else.

Phil showing off the flowerbed along the driveway.

She filled these to overflowing with every plant imaginable.  Canna lilies, Day Lilies, Black-eyed Susans, Daisies, Oxeye Daisies, Peonies, Primrose, Poppies, Dahlias, Marigolds, Hyacinth, Sweet pea, Petunias, Snapdragons, Honeysuckle, Crocus, Daffodils, Tulips, Phlox, shrubs like Lilac, Pussy Willow, Forsythia, you name it…but especially her beloved roses that reminded her of her mother.

Laurie showing off the flower bad along the front walk.

Some of my personal favorites back then were Snap Dragons and 4 O’Clocks. Snap Dragons simply because they had a cool name and looked like tiny skulls when they went to seed.

Snap Dragon seed pods…

The 4 O’clocks I liked not so much because they looked pretty and colorful mind you, but because the seeds were perfect for using as GI Joe hand grenades.

Pull pin and throw GI Joe…

When the perimeter beds got full, she had us widen them a foot or two here and there…eventually adding large triangles to double the square footage.  Of course, all these flower beds needed weeding, so I got double my usual rate of nothing to keep these under control. The yard had become a jungle.

Fully matured jungle.

Growing up a farm boy, dad’s focus was always food related. In the meager space that mom allowed him around the house, he planted apple, pear and plum trees, a Concord grapevine, Rhubarb and even transplanted a Poke plant he found out in the woods for Poke Salat (caution, you need to know how to prepare this as it can be poisonous). Every year mom put up grape jelly and jam, frozen apples, apple butter, apple jelly, and pears…but dad could never get a good crop off the plum tree. He would go down to old homesteads by the river and cut off flowering plum branches to help the bees cross pollinate, but what we got back looked more like prunes than plums.

Dads very green lawn with the apple tree right behind our dog Inky. There is a plum right behind it and a pear tree along the right side of the frame.

He also liked Willow trees, and cut a small branch down by the Miami river, stuck it in the ground and soon it was a big tree in the front yard. Of course, seeing this wizardry, I started sticking Willow branches in the ground all over the neighborhood…until I learned that they make great switches to swat misbehaving butts.

Dad’s main focus for decades though, was his vegetable garden.  With a family of eight, keeping food on the table was no small task.  Around the house, he only had room for a small garden with a few tomato plants, a row or two of table onions, lettuce, a cucumber plant or two, a few bean plants and various herbs.

But he always managed to find a place for a big garden from a relative that had extra space and bartered back with the produce he grew. Whether it was over at the Shores by Aunt Jeans or behind my Aunt Gladys’ house, he planted every vegetable known to me and many I had never heard of, and in such quantities that the season’s bounty would tide us over until the next year with all the canning and freezing mom did. 

Unfortunately for posterity, the big garden was a place to grow food and hard work and there was no phone cameras or Facebook, so I can’t find any photos.

He would buy seed packets that filled his old ammo cans and started the finicky ones off from scratch in the house when it was still cold out.  He used egg cartons, butter tubs, cottage cheese containers…anything that could hold a dab of dirt to poke a seed in and filled the window sills down in the basement. 

As soon as the ground wasn’t frozen I would help him load his big rototiller in the back of the station wagon and haul it over to the “big” garden.  

This was brutal work with a big garden, but better than the mules he grew up with.

Then he would spend several days tilling up the soil to make nice, straight rows.  I got to run it once in a while, but it was a beast for a small boy and would try to run off with me. He wore out the tines and broke metal bits on it all the time.

Well tilled soil…

Dad would get the cold weather crops seeded…lettuce, peas, spinach, carrots, radishes, cabbage, beets, turnips, garlic, leeks, onions, broccoli, collards, and so on.  Then, when he was sure the frosts were done, he would plant row after row of corn, beans of all kinds, squash, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkin, cantaloupe, tomatoes…all of many varieties.  

Then he had stuff that I didn’t even know what you did with it, until I saw mom do something with it and she had to learn from Mamaw for some of it as well.  Plants like okra, dill, mustard, chard and horseradish. What the heck is an okra? Something that mamaw and mom put in vegetable soup and pickled, that’s what.

What the heck is an Okra?

Dad also had his failures, but they were few and far between, except for two crops. Watermelon and peanuts. He tried them many times, but always to disappointing results compared to the rich bottomland results he knew as a boy.

The watermelons turned out the size of grapefruit and he would barely get enough peanuts to put in a box of Crackerjacks. I remember him dumping bags of sand in the peanut rows to loosen up that clay, but nothing seemed to help.

Once all of this was in the ground it was a daily grind to go to the garden and hoe each row for weeds, pull the horn worms off the tomatoes and dust the cabbage and broccoli to keep the cabbage worms off of them.

In the driest parts of the summer he would haul water over in 5 gallon army jerry cans and dole the precious water out like it was gold to each plant. If I got sloppy with the hoe or water dipper I got chewed out, so I learned quickly that our food was serious business and to be respected.

One of these full of water is HEAVY!

As veggies grew to a pickable size there was a continuous flow of them while in season. Every night for dinner there was a bowl of cucumbers and onion slices in vinegar water, a plate of sliced tomatoes and another dish of small table onions and radishes.

This was in addition to the ever present giant green Tupperware bowl salad of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cukes, radishes and whatever else was good that day. You could have any flavor Italian dressing you wanted…and this was always already mixed in… kids couldn’t be trusted to dole out their own.

Once the crops started coming in in large numbers mom was soon overloaded with all the work involved with canning and freezing all that produce. Stuff piled up in the kitchen everywhere: hundreds of pint and quart Ball-Mason and Kerr jars, torn paper sacks full of jar rings and lids, pressure cookers and giant pots for cooking and blanching, paraffin and pectin for the jelly jars…it happened every summer.

Canning paraphernalia…mom had it all and more.

Tomatoes were probably the king crop…dad would bring home bushels and bushels of them, so many we ate them like apples with one of those big silver salt shakers.

Could never have too much salt on a ‘mater

They would soon be covered with zillions of gnats, driving everyone crazy. The ‘maters were processed whole, turned into sauce or paste and fried up green before they turned red and after the frost hit the vines.

They were the foundation of the ever-present kid food: elbow macaroni with tomato sauce and hamburger that seemed to be served every other day.

Greenbeans were probably second in stature…they accompanied almost every meal during the winter from the jars mom put up. It was a typical chore in the summer to be sitting watching TV and snapping beans in the big Tupperware bowls. If they had runners you’d have to have a paring knife to slice the end enough to pull the runner off and then snap them into bite size pieces.

So many beans…

Green beans were canned and also frozen in quart freezer bags. Once you had a big bowl or two they would be dumped into the big blanching pot for a quick dunk then either put into the freezer bags or jarred up to put in the pressure cooker. It was a common and reassuring sound to hear that pressure cooker relief valve dancing around all day long…it meant we would be eating that winter.

While I liked green beans, especially with a hunk of bacon or pork in them, I liked other types of beans as well…kidney beans meant big pots of chili, so I wanted as many jars of these put up as possible. But there were also white beans, lima beans, pinto beans, black beans and so on.

These dry beans were easier to work than snapping green beans: you just ran your thumb up the dry hull and spilled them into your bowl, you didn’t even need to look away from the TV.

A pot of soup beans with a ham bone might have been my dad’s favorite food. He would pour some pepper juice in them from a jar and be in heaven with a big hunk of buttered corn bread.

Ham and beans with cornbread…mmmmm good!

While I ate them just fine, I was not a fan of sauerkraut and pickling season. As mentioned, I had a negative Pavlovian reaction to the smell of vinegar from mom’s sunburn treatments, still do. And the entire house smelled like vinegar for days when mom processed the dozens and dozens of cabbage heads into Kraut. I still have nightmares about shredding the skin off my knuckles and fingertips from grating the cabbage for kraut.

Cucumbers were turned into every kind of pickle mom could find a recipe for from mamaw or other relatives. Dad provided all the dill and other pickling spices from the garden. Mom then made the cukes into brine pickles, bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, sweet pickles, relish, you name it.

Pickles galore…

She left them whole, hacked them into spears, sliced them into chips and other ways. Add to this pickled corn and okra, pickled peppers and beets and assorted other pickled vegetables and I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible…to avoid the work as well as the smell. But I did enjoy eating them, except for the beets and sweet pickles…blecht!

With a big family, we always had two freezers down in the basement: one filled with a side of beef and a whole hog from Uncle Chet and Aunt Shirley’s farm, and the other filled with all the frozen produce and store bought stuff. If there was a power outage you were not to open the freezers under penalty of death lest all the food thaw out and spoil.

We also had a pantry room in the basement to serve as a root cellar. It was full of shelving for all the jars of produce, empty jars and canning equipment as well as cool storage for potatoes, onions and squash.

The old pantry room just before we cleaned it all out to sell mom and dad’s house. Wonder how old those beans are?

Thinking back on it all, our primary sources of food were relatively unprocessed, but hardly entirely organic. While he did use a lot of manure and composted everything, I remember dad powdering tomato, cabbage and broccoli plants with Sevin, but he probably also used other insecticides to combat the various types of pestilence that descended on his precious plants. Hornworms were the devil…they could chew an entire tomato plant to dust overnight.

The Devil…a hornworm on a tomato plant.

You knew when he found one as he would cuss up a storm and graphically squish the daylights out of it. One of my early tasks was to systematically go down each row and check closely for these spawn of satan, but while I was a dead-eye on these vermin I was also prone to putting one or two of them in a jar to see if they turned into moths, which grow quite large.

Hornworm moth…

This of course, was consorting with the enemy in dad’s eyes, after all, he was raised in the tobacco fields of Kentucky where these things took money from the family’s pockets and food from their mouths. His decree was “show no mercy”. After all, it was about feeding his large brood, not feeding the critters.

Whew, that took a while...so?

That long-winded summary is an explanation of how gardening seems to come fairly naturally and makes sense to me, even as I have studiously avoided it over the years for more adventurous pursuits.

Whether by repetition by watching my parents, unconsciously by gradual osmosis, or perhaps there really is a genetic element from so many years of ancestors growing their own food, I somehow know what to do to coax life out of the earth, and it still brings much satisfaction.

As mentioned, I joined a number of Facebook groups having to do with gardening, partly out of boredom, and I have realized just how much I do know by watching the endless hordes of new gardeners failing to get anything to grow and the amazing amount of bad information given out on social media.

Some of this researching and navel gazing over gardening was also caused by not being able to buy seeds and plant starts from the usual suspects this year due to Covid. Everyone seemed to be sold out or on a huge delay by people doing the same thing I was.

Wanting to get plants going sooner rather than later, I bought some seeds on Amazon. One set of seeds was supposed to be for an entire garden of 20 different vegetables for $18.00. Open-pollinated, heirloom, non-GMO…such a deal!.

Note there is no indication of Chinese anything. At the time there were no ratings…the 2 stars have come from people like me complaining about the Chinese instructions.
An entire garden…complete with Barbie sized tools and watering can…All in Chinese!

I was not thinking for a moment that every Amazon seed pack I got would come from China. Most of these arrived with all the information written in Chinese, or with no information at all. Some I still have not received, even though I paid for them.

Still haven’t arrived 7 months later…

Not to be thwarted, I got out my trusty iPhone and Google translate app to decipher this mess. Some of them were straight forward translations:

Leeks I can understand…

Other translations were a bit more concerning…I decided maybe I wouldn’t plant this one:

West’s Corpse? That can’t be good.

Others intrigued me, but not enough to plant them…at least not yet:

Chicken Feathers? Is that a real thing? Szechwan style?

In any case I ordered them all in March and April and they didn’t start showing up until late May. I was pretty sure my season was a bust until a friend (thanks Terri P!) offered up some tomato, pepper and pumpkin starts. I hastily accepted and I’m very grateful. I did plant a bunch of starts from the Chinese seeds though, as I didn’t have many options at the time.

Chinese Seed starts production…

Meanwhile, among many other Covid projects, I had wanted to build some new raised beds for several years. The ones I had were rotting out and it so happened I had a pile of cedar 2×14’s that have sat unused since I decided on a gazebo rather than a pergola for my deck.

2- 10’x4′ raised beds down, 2 to go.

It took no time at all to cobble 4 big raised beds together, but getting them filled with soil took over a month for delivery due to Covid. I ordered the topsoil/mushroom compost mix and waited. And waited.

Finally! My soil has arrived!

I wasted no time in planting my starts once I filled the beds up.

Dirty work done…
Starts in the ground!

While gardening is, at its most basic, a straight forward and relatively simple endeavor, toss seeds in dirt, water, weed…I am a nerd at heart and need to reach the Nth degree with most things I do. I read voraciously on whatever subject or glittery object has caught my eye…every single time.

So where dad just piled everything in a heap, called it compost and turned it once in a while, I bought one of those “fancy” compost tumblers to keep the critters away from my inviting kitchen scraps and recycled Liam’s old playpens into compost bins. Very colorful.

Compost row…I can hear my dad chuckling now… “you spent money to make compost?”

But that wasn’t enough of course…if I’m going to do it I’m jumping in with both feet. These tomatoes are going to cost $100 a pound by the time I’m through.

So I also bought soil test kits, PH test meter, watering timers, more soaker hoses, hose manifolds and splitters. Doing my part to support Amazon, FedEX, UPS and the Postal Service.

I have long looked at yard work and gardening simply as necessary work, something you just do to maintain your property or get some better tasting produce, or because that’s “just what our family does”…but the situation this year has given me the time, wanted or not, to get back to my gardening roots and again find enjoyment from simply watching all of it grow.

I have never bothered to take photos of my garden in the past, and neither did my parents. It was just part of life. It seems crazy to me that so much of my parents time was devoted to growing things, and there is so little record of it other than these memories.

So snapping photos of my efforts along the way to serve as a record of what happened for next year has been a bonus…it’s pretty cool to look back and watch it all come together and compare then and now pics. Maybe it will serve as motivation for next season when this pandemic is over and life returns to “normal”…whatever that might look like. If nothing else I have done more than my part to feed the bees and squirrels.

The Big Road Trip and surviving the first year in Washington

I was fresh out of the Army in the winter of 1981, and staying for a while at my parents’ home in Ohio.  I still had a case of wanderlust after traveling the world and resolved to leave Ohio and head back out to Washington State. I had served out there from 1977-1979 at Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, and had often regaled my buddy Rick with many stories of climbing and skiing the beautiful mountains, hiking in the massive old growth forests, fishing the clear clean rivers, the power of the Pacific Ocean, beauty of Puget Sound and the open desert country on the east of the mountains.  

It was where I had decided I wanted to live and play, and Rick was all in.  By April of 1982, Rick and I had both received our paltry tax refunds to serve as grubstakes and we were keen to hit the road to Washington.  I loaded my ’65 Plymouth Valiant and Rick and his girlfriend Bonnie loaded his fairly new (compared to mine) Datsun Kingcab pickup. 

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My $600 special…of course, mine was 17 years old.
Rick and his rig

They were packed full of all of our worldly possessions and high hopes of an adventurous life out west. Waving goodbye to our tearful mothers and families, we excitedly headed off.  

The three of us spent over a month on the road, doing the classic cross-country road trip.  My poor overloaded car (I had removed the back seat in order to haul more crap, including very heavy books) started overheating immediately upon getting on the highway in Ohio.  We limped along through Indiana, stopping at almost every other rest stop to refill my radiator.  It was not an auspicious start to a cross-country journey of several thousand miles.

We eventually made it across Illinois to Rick’s grandmother’s house in Alton, along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.  Having a place to relax a bit, I tried get to the bottom of my overheating Valiant situation. 

His grandma was a character…she would have us get the burn barrel going out in the field and continue bringing items out one by one. I swear she was pulling Kleenex out just to watch them burn. She had several dogs, a chihuahua she allowed in the house, and a small herd of mongrels that ran around in the yard.  They would commence to barking for one reason or another and she would light a firecracker and toss it out the door to hush them up.

She fed us with homemade cooking and let us spend a few nights with her.  I quite enjoyed our conversations…she did like to talk.  I see where Rick got it from.

But the Plymouth was still a problem. I dug in my trunk for my trusty old Motor’s Auto Manual, going through every possible solution they listed troubleshooting overheating engines.  I literally tried everything in the book. New thermostat, radiator flush, replaced the hoses and on and on.  I eventually took it to a local Alton mechanic that recommended replacing the radiator. I bought a used one at a junk yard and got back to work installing it.  

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My test drive route after each attempted “fix” was to drive from Rick’s grandma’s house, past the famous Piasa Bird pictograph (why it’s famous I have no idea, but Rick went on and on about it), and finally down along the Mississippi River along Great River Road and continuing up to the “Our Lady of the Rivers Shrine”. 

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This shrine became the “Holy Mother of Overheating Cars” to me, as no matter what I did the car would start heating-up about the time I got there, forcing a turn around.  I can’t tell you how many times I drove that route over the several days we were there. 

Our-Lady-of-the-Rivers-Shrine-Near-Confluence-of-Mississippi.-Missourri-and-Illinois-Rivers

Exhausting all the trouble shooting steps in the Motor’s manual, our plan became to simply drive only at night, during cooler temps.  Waving goodbye to Rick’s grandma as she threw another firecracker to quiet the barking dogs by scaring the shit out of them, we hit the road again. 

It was quite the experience trying to stay awake driving all night.  Rick had Bonnie to help him, but I resorted to screaming songs at the top of my lungs and sticking my head out the window.  There seemed to be an overabundance of country stations in the Midwest.

Cell phones were nonexistent back then, so walkie-talkies would have been nice, but we developed a workable signal code with headlight flashes and turn signals when someone needed gas, to stretch or a potty break.  

On our way in earnest once again, we stopped at any and all places of interest along the way.  These included all National Parks and monuments as well as tourist traps like the Corn Palace and Wall Drug.  

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We worked our way quickly through the flatlands of Nebraska and Iowa, spent more time in the Badlands of the Dakotas and mountains of Wyoming, winding up at Yellowstone Park, which was still covered by late winter conditions with ample snow on many of the roads.  There are a number of individual tales along the way that I will break out in the future.

Leaving the Grand Tetons, we were weary of living on the road… tired of eating pork and beans with generic white boxes of mac and cheese and doing laundry at out of the way dive laundromats. 

We decided to power our way through to Washington and drove north on the side roads up to I-90 in Montana.  We wound up in a late season blizzard as we crossed the continental divide.  It was a total white-out blizzard and we ended up following closely behind the bumpers of the only other folks crazy enough to still be on the road…long haul truckers. 

We tucked in behind a convoy, barely able to keep their tail lights in view in the driving snow.  Somehow, we were able to keep moving until we hit the WA state line and drove straight thru the dry desert side of the state to the rain forests of Mt Rainier…the promised land!

We spent a few days poking around there and as it started growing crowded leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, we headed off to Tacoma.  Unfortunately, my Valiant decided it had gone far enough by making it to Rainier…heading up one of the passes, it finally gave up the ghost.  I found out later that the oil pump had failed, and the engine was seized. Best $600 I ever spent.

Not to be denied, I broke out my least favored climbing rope and tied it to the bumper of Rick’s Datsun. Any climbers will note that this was a poor choice, since a climbing rope is meant to stretch excessively to help reduce the force of a fall, but it was all we had.  

Stretching and snapping the rope many, many times, we somehow made it to Tacoma with Rick pulling me around the mountain curves like a water skier in tow.  He had a shell on the back of his truck that I couldn’t see past, so I would creep out into the oncoming lane to see what was ahead and dash back over for on-coming traffic.  Some exciting moments, broken up by the constant repairing of the tow line.

We pulled into A+ Auto Repair…it was the first one in the phone book on Pacific Highway.  Being Memorial Day weekend, I just left it there to talk to the owner on Tuesday. 

We then went down the road a few blocks to find the Calico Cat Motel.  It was a seedy looking dive, but in our price range.  It had a locked-off kitchen suite so we picked the lock so we could cook our Mac and cheese in style. It was eventually closed down in 2016 after a murder happened there and all the rooms test positive for meth. Yeah, that kind of joint.

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The flea-bag motel…

While at the Calico Cat, Rick and I decided to ride our bikes down to Pt Defiance, a local park right on Puget Sound. I had some survival vest water bags which we filled with the cheapest Lambrusco we could find. We made it out to the pier and continued sipping our wine on the hot day and then headed back. On the way up the long hill, heat took its toll on Rick and he hurled Lambrusco over the rail onto the traffic on I-5. But that didn’t stop us from stopping at an air conditioned bar at the top of the hill and having a nice cold pitcher of beer to cool down before going back to the motel.

An Army buddy of mine, Ed, who had been a crew chief on a Huey, had lived in a trailer park in Olympia before I left.  We decided to drive down to Olympia and take a look to see if he was still there…he had married a local woman, Teresa, and even though it was three years later I thought there was a chance they might still be there, as he had gotten out of the Army around the same time that I left Ft Lewis for Korea. I had not seen, or even heard from him, since I left Ft Lewis and Washington in July of 1979.  

As we pulled into the shabby looking trailer court, Rick and Bonnie expressed some misgivings, but we continued on in.  The court was called “North End Manor”, a deceptive name if there ever was one.

As it was told to me, the place had been the site of a long-gone road house along the old main highway, now overshadowed by nearby I-5.  This trailer court was bulldozed at least 25 years ago and is now where a Costco gas station is.  I refuse to buy gas there as it is probably cursed with bad juju. 

What did remain at the “Manor” were the single room cabins closer to the road that had served as flop-houses behind the main road house.  These were for the working ladies catering to lonely loggers and truckers.  These were now rather dilapidated and the trailer park, equally or even more dilapidated, had sprung up behind them.  In Ohio, the place would have been prime tornado food.  

I spied the old trailer where I had partied with Ed and company many times when I was in the Army, so I knocked on the door and sure enough, his wife Teresa answered.  I was looking pretty scruffy after being out of the service over 6 months…and had let my beard and hair grow out as many do upon exiting the service.  I really didn’t expect her to remember me without an explanation.

She looked at my face and screamed “Profitt!  I remember those eyes in that hairy-ass face!  She was as extroverted as her hubby Ed was introverted.  We explained we had just gotten into town from our long journey from Ohio and were looking for a cheap place to live as neither Rick or I had a job yet.  We were existing on our tax returns and what little savings we had.

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It was a hairy-ass face.  Les in the den of iniquity trailer with what remained of the tow rope.

She immediately said she could get us set-up in the trailer court, no problem,  and started rattling off all of the available mobile homes in the park.  She took us by the hand and practically ran us to the office building.  She grabbed keys for the available trailers, many of which might have been more properly condemned, and by the end of the day we had moved into a small two-bedroom trailer.  You couldn’t really call it a mobile home, because if anyone had tried to make it mobile and move it someplace else it would have surely self-destructed. 

The one we chose could at best be called rustic, but livable.  Rick and Bonnie claimed the larger bedroom in the back, and I threw my stuff into the 2nd bedroom…this was more like a small walk-in closet.  With a single bed in there I had maybe a foot of space between the bed and a tiny closet.  The kitchen had an ancient gas stove that always gave off the odor of escaping gas from the pilot light, lovely vintage orange carpeting with mushrooms growing in a corner and a pocket door on the bathroom that gave everyone fits until you learned how to jiggle it around to open and close it.  Home!

Looking toward the kitchen of the trailer
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You can see our beer recycle pile in the corner, Rainer and generic Beer beer. We knew we could get a case of the cheap stuff when it was as tall as us.

We drove back to Tacoma and grabbed all my stuff from my car.  The garage owner had told me whatever the mechanical problem was, just don’t abandon the car here as he had dealt with that too many times.  When I called and found out the prognosis was that the car was DOA, I still had every intention of retrieving it…but it eventually was abandoned with the lack of money and distance to Tacoma. 

It is one of the few actual regrets I carry around, as I promised the guy and shook his hand that I wouldn’t leave it there, even though he probably made a few bucks junking it after the headache of going through the title issues.  OK, maybe I regret leaving my old Army Nomex flight suit and sturdy motor pool coveralls in the trunk the most.

Ensconced in our luxury mobile home, we immediately began looking for work.  If you are young or have a poor memory, this was not a good time to be looking for a job.  Lasting from July 1981 to November 1982, an economic downturn triggered by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, had sparked a large round of oil price increases.  

Trailer Park 82 1
Trailer park looked best at night.

Tight monetary policies by the Federal Reserve, in an effort to tame inflation, had the effect of squashing any economic growth.  In fact, prior to the big 2007-09 recession, the 1981-82 recession under Reagan was the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression.  But we were young and dumb, oblivious to politics and economic policies and determined to scratch out a life in our new home.

Rick dropped resumes off at all the hospitals and clinics from Olympia to Tacoma.   Without a car, I walked as far as I could to find anything close by.  Bonnie found work at a daycare. Not finding anything close, I started selling Fuller Brush products. 

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What I felt like every time I went out…

Going door to door with my brown vinyl-covered cardboard sample case, I handed out free combs to bored and lonely housewives and extolled the virtues of various cleaning products and magical housewares.  I still have a few of those blue combs I handed out to everyone that opened their door. 

Please buy something…anything!

Rick got a job within a few weeks at Memorial Clinic in Olympia, and with cheap rent we made it through the summer.  My Fuller Brush gig was really only making beer money, so when Ed said he was fed up with working as a laborer for an old well driller that lived in one of the old flop houses… Roy McGill.  

I jumped at the chance to make some real cash.  I went along with Ed when he told Roy he was quitting, but pointed to me as a healthy young buck to keep you in business.  Roy cursed Ed every which way, calling him a quitter, no account, lazy good for nothing and plenty of more choice words.  He calmed down a bit, looked me over and told me to be at his place at 6AM.  I tried to shake his hand and he shook his head and told me I would have to earn his handshake. Oh boy.

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Now, Roy was a cantankerous old roughneck and roustabout from the Oklahoma oil fields that had gotten too old and infirm to deal with the rough physical work on the oil rigs and so had created his own business in Olympia drilling water wells. 

Everything he owned was as old as he was and twice as beat up.  Off the job he was just a skinny, well behaved, soft-spoken Okie that liked to get his western duds on and go “belly-rubbin” with the ladies at the local country line-dance saloons. As I recall he had been married and divorced several times and now lived alone in his little shack.  

Drilling rig like Roy had…

He was extremely independent and I think he resented the fact that he actually needed a young hand to deal with the more physical tasks associated with drilling…and there were many.  Everything from the well pipe, and bags of bentonite to the drill bits was big and heavy.  

One benefit of working with Roy was that he liked to start the day by buying a hearty breakfast at one of the local greasy spoons on the way to the drill site. This was great, he joked and told stories like someone’s grandpa while we were eating, but as soon as you were on the clock, he became a demon from Irish folklore.

He looked like a drunken leprechaun with a hardhat but had quit drinking because his ulcers were eating him up.  He drank Milk of Magnesia like it was water and nibbled soda crackers all day long.

I knew absolutely nothing about drilling, and he was only too happy to tell me in extremely colorful language how stupid I was and that I “wouldn’t be a real driller until I lost some meat down the pipe”.  Roy, of course, was a “real driller” and was missing  a few fingers, with several more that had grafts of his “belly meat” on his thumbs and other fingers where he had lost bits and pieces. 

It was an almost daily occurrence to tell him he was bleeding all over everything, as he had lost all feeling in most of his fingers and constantly snagged and cut himself around the rig.  He would just cuss, wipe it on his overalls and wrap some tape around it.

If there had been at least one other person on the crew to commiserate with, it might have been very amusing, but being alone as the sole focus of all the constant berating, complaining and cussing for eight hours, I could see why Ed had quit.  

I was determined to get out of this job before I “lost any meat down the pipe” or got my head bashed in from an old man swinging big drill bits around.  

I had been ruminating over college, as I had put money away in the Army and the VA doubled it. I had purchased a fairly nice camera at the PX when I first got to Ft Lewis and over the years had thought about photography as a career.

I happened to walk past a booth at the Puyallup Fair late that summer and saw a brochure on a two-year course in Professional Photography that might be covered by my GI Bill.  I talked to a counselor there and he said that it was not too late to join the program even though it was a couple of weeks along.

I went to Roy and gave him the bad news…of course, I received the same verbal thrashing Roy had given Ed, but he soon had another guy from the trailer court going off to breakfast with him.  I would love to know what happened to that old guy.

The idea of doing only 2 years of study in a field I was deeply interested in appealed to me.  I went through all the steps to getting VA assistance started and signed up for the course.  I soon had monthly GI Bill money coming in for school so just needed a part time job.  

Ed happened to be taking an airframe course at the same school in Tacoma, so I had a ride back and forth to class every day.  Future, full speed ahead.

I showed up for my first class and was introduced to the rest of the class.  By now, the class had been going on long enough to form the various cliques and groups natural in any of these types of situations.  

There were first year students, who were studying the basics of black and white, such as composition, lighting and other technical tasks like film development and darkroom work. There were also the 2nd year students, that were going into color development and printing and advanced techniques. 

Our classroom that first year was in an old control tower building next to the airfield in the middle of the campus.  The school was constructing a fancy new building, but it wouldn’t be ready for a while, so the run-down old tower kind of matched my new trailer life.

There was already a pecking order… starting with the upper-class students of varying talent, descending down to the first-year students that had shown some natural ability with composition and technique. They all looked at me with a rather jaundiced eye as the newcomer, but there were a few that offered friendly encouragement and welcomes.  

Our text books were the Ansel Adams series, so we learned the Zone System from the master along with how to work all the crazy buttons and controls on 35mm, medium format and even 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras. I was in hog heaven. 

My first real camera, a Canon AE-1, had been a constant companion for several years in the Army and I had also done a bit of darkroom work as a hobby when I was in Korea, so I wasn’t totally lost.   But I had to catch up with the photo assignments that had already assigned, so I practically lived with my new Canon A-1.

I got to know a couple of guys that were commuting from Olympia as well, 1st year student Doug and 2nd year student Tim.  Doug had a sporty little Mazda rotary engine sports car we called the Mazdarati and Tim had a little blue Vega beater that he drove like a mad man.

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Doug and Les at Clover Park Tech Institute in 1982

We got to chatting and decided we would form a carpool to share gas money.  Over time, we became good friends driving to school every day and having lunch with each other.  

Doug and Les hamming it up in the studio…

Back on the home front, Bonnie had gotten back in touch with her religious roots with some folks where she worked and decided she either had to be married or move on. 

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Bonnie and Rick 1982

I distinctly remember her telling us we were reprobates and needed to change our ways or we were going to Hell.  We weren’t sure what a reprobate was, so we had to look it up in the dictionary, but after seeing what it meant…

Reprobate:

noun: a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person: a drunken reprobate.  A person rejected by God and beyond hope of salvation.

adjective: morally depraved; unprincipled; bad.

…Rick and I decided we pretty much had to agree with her.  Her ultimatum on marriage fell on deaf ears and she soon moved out to more holy ground.  

The trailer park itself was a true den of iniquity.  While Ed and Teresa were fairly “normal”, there were some real characters in this place.  We got along well with everyone in the park, but it was pretty wild there. Among them were several young married GI families that barely made enough money to stay afloat.  

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Party time at the trailer. Cheap booze in large quantities.

One of the GI’s, while his wife worked at a nearby burger stand to bring in some extra cash, would go door to door selling off her macramé hangers, houseplants and anything else not nailed down in order to buy a six pack or parts to his beat-up hot rod.  They had a toddler, which he was allegedly responsible for when his wife was working. 

A favorite method of his baby sitting style was to put him in one of those round, walker things that looked like a bumper car and leave him to his own devices while he tinkered on his hot rod.  I saw that poor kid tumble out the door and down the stairs of their trailer on several occasions and wondered if he would have any brain cells left by the time he started school…not that there appeared to be much genetic material to work with from his parents.

This guy had an Army buddy named Dewey that looked like he was straight out of central casting for one of those horror movies where the kin folk lived way back in the holler and maybe had too many sister-mothers.  He chugged a whole bottle of Jack Daniels one night on a bet and promptly fell flat on his face and broke his nose.  Pretty much standard behavior for infantry. 

An older Indian couple were just as entertaining.  The guy would come around half-lit offering to “pawn” his shotgun for $5 so he could buy more beer.  He also would come around selling us those good old blocks of government free cheese…I think they were like 5 lbs boxes and he would get a bunch of them them and sell them around the court.  We ate a lot of government cheese. 

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Remember this stuff? Gov cheese

I also bought a small woven basket his wife made, which I still have, for the usual $5 “pawn” fee.

I still have the pawn ticket…

His wife once passed out in their station wagon in the middle of the park on some kind of binge.  I don’t know what she was on but it was a very hot day and Rick and I worried that she might get heatstroke, so we tried to move her into their trailer…she was a very large woman and was totally out of it. 

We couldn’t manage to move her out of the car, so we told their kids to get some blankets and sheets to put over the windows to give her some shade and wetted down some towels to keep her cool.  Her hubby was pretty fried and was little help. She survived to party another day.

Another wild character was a crazy redhead that lived 2 trailers down.  She seemed to have a new boyfriend every week and would get hammered, walk to the center of the park in the middle of the night and throw a hissy fit… screaming at the top of her lungs how unfair life was and what an asshole her current beau was. 

One time the sound of breaking windows and screaming was so bad Rick and I ran over to see if someone was being killed only to have her turn her wrath on us.  She apologized the next day when she was sober, but she was always a mess.

Some of my favorite stories are about the family that ran the trailer park.  This older couple had 2 sons, Steve and Danny, that lived there as well, one-on-one, either wasn’t too bad and we got along well with all of them.  When they were drinking and together, they would often get into crazy fights with each other.  Now, our trailer door was almost always wide open, and denizens of the court would stop by at all times of the day or night to shoot the shit or party. 

To be clear to everyone in the court…I put a baseball bat by the front door and declared to all that entered that our space was to be considered neutral like Switzerland…don’t start no shit and there won’t be no shit.  You make trouble and the bat will start cracking heads.  It worked pretty well.

Around Christmas time, one of the brothers, who always seemed to be doing 5 days here, 30 days there in the county lock-up for various transgressions, came around drunk with a Santa hat on giving everyone nicely wrapped presents.  It was a bit unusual to get anything from him, but hey, it was Christmas time, so we thanked him and dutifully waited to unwrap them for Christmas.  

When we opened them, the gifts made absolutely no sense at all.  There were things like dolls and toys and socks for tiny little feet…come to find out, He had jumped the fence at the back of the trailer park and had broken into a house that bordered the park…and stolen the family’s entire pile of Christmas gifts, just like the Grinch in Whoville. 

He had no idea what was even in the wrapped packages when he passed them out. Of course, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to determine who the perpetrator was since he had handed out these odd-ball gifts to half the trailer park, and he was soon back in lock-up.

Another time some kids went to this same guy with their cat that had been hit by a car…he decided the cat was not going to make it and the best path was to put the poor kitty out of his misery.  He got a ball peen hammer and knocked it on the head and then took the kids down to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, down the road a few miles, to bury it and give it a funeral.  

All was well until the cat showed up a few days later, looking like Bill the Cat on a bad day, all covered with blood and dirt and missing an eye. The poor thing had dug itself out of the grave, crawled all the way up the Nisqually hill…a 2-3 mile trip…back to the trailer court and home.  A responsible adult took the sad looking kitty to the vet… the poor cat recovered as best he could, but always limped after that and was blind in one eye.

At some point, we discovered that Rick’s cousin Roxanne was living nearby with her husband who was stationed at Ft. Lewis.  They became regular visitors to our humble party abode, along with some of their friends and I have many fond memories of good times that year.

As photography school progressed, I would often have to do a photography assignment and bring a bunch of equipment home to do what Rick began calling “Studio Trailer”.  

We moved everything out of the living room and set up strobes, backgrounds, light stands, and tripods to shoot all kinds of stuff.  One assignment was to do a classic Rembrandt lighting portrait, so I put Rick in a 3-piece suit that I had custom made in Korea. 

I was taller and larger than he was, so I used clothes pins and tape to make it fit, but it still received the lowest score I ever got…everyone said he looked like a holier-than-thou televangelist as he was looking up to heaven.  Rick vowed to never again be one of my subjects…of course, hanging out with me that vow was quickly broken whether he wanted to participate or not.

Roxanne had her turn as well…I needed to do a high-key portrait, so she wore her white duds from work…this one received good marks and Rick was sure it was because he wasn’t in it. 

Roxy
Roxy

We threw a Halloween party and for special effects I cut out black construction paper bats and hung them on thread from the ceiling, threw some colored cloth over the lamps and voilà, party city.  

The night proceeded in grand style, maybe a few firecracker incidents but nothing life threatening, until there were just a few of us left.  We had been pulling on a bottle of 151 and killed it off.  Rick and I decided to walk down to the corner store for more beer to finish the night in proper style.  When we got back, my buddy Doug had passed out on the couch and could not be revived.  

I got into my first aid kit and snapped a couple ammonia inhalants.  I waved them under his nose to zero effect, so I crammed them in his nostrils.  I know, but this all made sense at the time.  This didn’t work either, so he became an art project, with us taking markers and decorating his face, sticking a cigar in his mouth and darts in his ears and other juvenile distractions of young men.  

When we were done with our art project, we opened up our hide-a-bed couch to put him to bed.  This thing must have been used for the inquisition.  It was missing many springs, had a mattress about an inch thick and had crossbars right under the important parts of your back.  I had tried to sleep on it once and had moved to the more comfortable floor after waking up with a major pain in the back.

Rick and I grabbed Doug, who by now resembled the dead guy in Weekend at Bernie’s, by the arms and feet and started swinging him back and forth to toss him on the couch-bed. Being rather inebriated ourselves, this ended in disaster with a loud ooof out of Doug as he landed half on, half off the bed, with a cross-bar in his back.  The rest of the springs blew off the bed and he went straight through to the floor.  Mission successful.

Rick staggered off to bed and I ended up passing out on a love seat in the living room where Doug was.  A few hours later I hear an awful racket and pry one eye open to see a buck-naked Rick shoving a staggering Doug back up the hallway.  Doug was trying to get into the bathroom to pee but that damn pocket door was jammed closed and was not cooperating. 

Rick thought Doug was going to blow chow if he couldn’t get to the toilet, so he was pushing him back towards the front door so he wouldn’t barf in the house.  Through my one bleary eye, what I saw was two drunks dancing a tango, one buck naked and the other barely able to stand…both of them trying with all their might to go the opposite direction and mumbling gibberish.  A good time was had by all.

Soon, Rick had a new girl friend from St Pete’s hospital, Marta. By December of ‘82, Rick moved to a new trailer and I moved into a townhouse across town with Doug.  Doug’s mom worked in a bank as the real estate manager on homes the bank had repossessed.  Doug was working for her doing miscellaneous repair work, landscaping and other handyman jobs as needed.  

As the recession was in full swing, there were plenty of repossessed /defaulted homes, so Doug asked if I was interested in partnering up and so we began working on homes together in the Olympia/Tacoma area.  We did it all and saw it all.  It was truly eye opening to see how people treated their homes once they had given up hope.  I should say mistreated, as we saw some unimaginable stuff that we had to cleanup and fix. 

One of the worst was a place we nicknamed “The Turkey House”, as the first time we saw it we looked over a fence in the back yard to see a sheep and a turkey wandering around freely.  We saw signs that people were still in there, so we let the Sheriff do his thing which took a couple of weeks. 

When we came back, the critters were all dead in the backyard, as the sheep had scarfed all the grass down to dirt within the circle of his leash and no where to be seen, and the turkey was a big pile of maggots, bones and feathers.  The guy had apparently had a glass repair/window business, so he had taken out his frustration by breaking all the window glass he had stored in his side yard.  It was a massive pile of glass that took many pick-up truck loads to the dump…but that wasn’t the worst of it.  

Entering the house, we were immediately assaulted by hordes of fleas and a nasty smell.  We backed out quick, slapping the fleas off,  and went to a store to buy six-packs of flea bombs and duct tape.  We took the tape and wound it around our pant cuffs to hopefully keep the fleas out.  We took a flea bomb and coated our pants legs with the spray and went back in the house like we were doing a door to door military assault.  

We went room to room, popping the flea bombs like grenades and got to the great room and our jaws dropped.  Now, this had been a pretty nice old house at some point.  Oak floors, sunken great room with a big white marble fireplace, nice fixtures and so on.   

What we saw was a massive pile of garbage and trash piled almost to the ceiling, and these were the big old high ceilings.  It smelled awful and included rotting food, dog crap and God knows what.  There was a black ooze coming out of the bottom of the pile, staining and warping the 100-year-old oak floor.

They had obviously tried burning trash in the fireplace for a while as it was covered with soot and ash.  They had cracked the marble at the top with the high heat from the trash burning but had obviously just given up at some point and let the pile grow. 

It looked like what Arlo Guthrie described in Alice’s Restaurant when the Hippies that lived in the old church had so much room they just threw their garbage in a big pile in the old church.  I wish I had photographs with circles and arrows showing the horror. 

They had obviously been pissed off, as they had randomly broken fixtures, mirrors and porcelain along with the plaster walls.  I’m just glad the water, gas and electric had been turned off or who knows what we would have had to deal with.  That place took us a good month or two to clean, working into the night after school. 

By this time I had caught up in class and had become one of the top students in the 1st year photography class, along with a beautiful young woman named Terri, but that’s another story…

Who had the best hair?

It’s a Pirate’s Life for me…

I have had more than a few people ask why I seem to have a preoccupation with Pirates. The simple fact is, like many an actual pirate, I was shanghaied from a very young age into the life. The port of call I grew up in, West Carrollton, had the pirate as their mascot. So it was that I were a pirate from the first grade all through the receipt of my parchment.

Me alma mater’s mascot…

12 years before the mast as a pirate, at such an impressionable young age, leaves a lasting black spot upon your soul. Alas, it would be many a king tide until I commandeered a vessel of me own, the noble Rogue.

The waxy seal of fate on my salty preoccupation though, may have been the first chance I had to earn my own chest of gold while still in school. Me closest swabs, Bald Rick and Nod-off Steve, had signed on to crew at Long John Silver’s, a shady pirate establishment known for vast platters of seafood, peg legs and planks.

Treasures aplenty, at a price even a powder monkey could afford…
Eat hearty, me hearties…

They put in a good word to the captain of the Shoppe, although they may have told a crusty tale or two…and soon I was deep frying with the best of them. The crew uniform of the day was right out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which would not be filmed for another 6 years.

Harrrgghhh…

The look started with a stylish white polyester smock, big and baggy with a corrugated finish to better hold onto crusty batter and grease, and fitted with a horizontal striped dickey to give it a proper salty appearance. These were tossed at you still smelling of fish, grease, malt vinegar and the last unfortunate crewman that had walked the plank.

Waitress version. Wenches were not permitted in the galley at Long John’s back in the day….

Black pants of your own supply were de rigueur of course, so that every speck of batter and dirt was highlighted admirably. This lovely haute couture was topped off with classic pirate haberdashery…the finest cardboard pirate hat money could buy. I am truly sorry to not have an image of us in our finery, but alas, iPhones were still decades away.

Only the finest cardboard for this crew…
Our wenches handed over the booty with a smile…

The vittles were grand…the Big Catch platter was more than an able bodied seaman could (or should) stomach in one sitting. It started with codfish fillets, with onion rings or fries, and crispy hushpuppies — all deep-fried, of course, with a garnish of coleslaw and topping out at 1,320 calories. Slather that with Long John’s own malt vinegar and you had yerself a proper salty meal…I’m not kidding, there was over 3,700 milligrams of sodium in it.

Add shrimp and a plank for a Captain’s platter!

The competition for first mate was fierce…we had crew battles to see who could drop the most cod into the vats of whale oil the fastest, without damaging the batter. A right proper gun drill it were.

To do this right, you needed to have a thick coating of batter on your hands, so you could dip your fingers into the 350 degree oil and let each fillet slide in without splashing the batter off. Only the bravest and most daring swabs could pull off this feat without scorching the hide off their digits.

But we did it all for the pretty wenches and little swabs…it did our black hearts a world of good to see them shoveling all that deep fried deliciousness down their gullets and wait for them to ring the bell.

Eat it all or ye’ll be swabbing the deck!

There were always long lines well out the door on Fridays and especially during Lent. We endeavored to give each passenger a meal fit for a King…or at least a King’s crew. We lived to hear the peal of the ships bell when each party disembarked, but cursed their black hearts when they did not ease our torment.

Ring the bell or we’ll cut your hearts out next time ya scurvy bilge rats…

The quartermasters were the overseers of every watch…each one carefully trained at his majesty’s elite “Cod College” down in Lexington. There they learned their trade in cutting the cod just so, weighing each slab and slice, keeping the crew from mutiny and ensuring all the gold was carefully scribed in the ships log as to make the King of the Pirates rich beyond compare.

The special booty was kept track of very closely, lest the captain break out the cat o’ nine tails and commence flogging. These treasures included shrimp and the wee pecan pies. These delicacies seemed to vanish into thin air faster than a mug of grog on a Friday night.

You see, it was not unknown for a crewman to suddenly hear a siren’s call for an order of shrimp to be put down in the fryer, only to find a patron lacking to cover such an expense when piping hot and ready. We gladly ate them to keep them from going to waste and saved the Quartermaster the embarrassment of logging the transgression.

The call of the Siren was powerful…

But all was not sweating and slaving away in the galley. When the last bell had rung and we locked the hatches down, we filled our Super-size grog cups up with the finest ale we had on tap, and merrily drank it through a straw lest the quartermaster find we were imbibing on watch.

This often caused more merriment, whence we would pull the cutlasses and pistols off the wall and begin sword fighting across the tops of the dining tables…much to the dining wenches dismay, as they had already scrubbed the planks down. But we were pirates with our pirate ways, and not to be denied the pleasures of the wicked after a long watch.

Avast and heave to ye scurvy dogs!

It was a glorious time and seemed to last forever, but our service with Long John’s was only a matter of a couple years, as Nod-off Steve and I were conscripted to serve in the Kings forces after schooling, and Bald Rick was off to fry the souls of the infirm with X-Rays.

But it wasn’t long before I once again heard the call of the pirate from Captain James Buffett…Bald Rick and I listened to his shanty’s and tropical sounds of the Caribbean and were lulled back to the brotherhood of piracy, our theme song became a Pirate Looks at Forty.

Captain Jimmy sings…Mother mother ocean, I have heard you call…wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall...

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late…

But not too late to go to sea! A score of years after schooling I tasted saltwater and felt the snap of sail in a fresh breeze and knew in my blood I was still a pirate…and have flown the Jolly Roger ever since, pillaging, plundering, and swashbuckling along the way…captaining ever more powerful vessels until I had enough gold to gain my flagship Rogue…I’ve salt in my veins, and it didn’t all come from those Captain’s Platters.

Rogue sitting pretty on her moorings…
If the Kraken or Kings men ever catch up to me, I’ll go to Davy Jones locker with a mug of grog in one hand and a cutlass in the other…

Nanny and Floyd Proffitt

My great grandfather, William Floyd Proffitt, known as Floyd, was the son of Jacob Floyd Proffitt, my great-great grandfather, who went by Jake, and his wife Martha Corena Dennis. 

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Floyd’s parents…Jacob Floyd “Jake” and Martha Corena Dennis Proffitt

Floyd was born on January 12, 1882 when Chester A. Arthur was the 21st president and the outlaw Jesse James was shot in the back of the head and killed by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri,

To set the stage of the times a bit more, here are a few other notable things that happened that same year;  polygamy was made a felony, the world’s first trolleybus began operation in Berlin, Roderick Maclean failed in his attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison flips the switch to the first commercial electrical power plant in the United States, and The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law that restricted immigration into the United States.

While Floyd had no brothers, he did have six sisters… an older sister named Martha, and five younger sisters; Linnie, Ida Mae, Liela Lee Rowe (who died at 25), Mittie and Mary.

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Jake and Corena Proffitt & Family Left to Rt back row: Martha Francis Blevins, Floyd, Ida Mae Sons, Linnie F. Igo, Mittie Ethel Hawthorne, Mary Adeline Barnett, Front row: Jake & Corena Proffitt

In their rural farming lifestyle of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, being the sole son would have put a lot of hard physical work on him and his father.

Young Floyd

I remember my father talking about how, as a young man, he and his family used to plow tobacco fields behind mules, and Floyd would have been two generations earlier, in even more primitive conditions.

Denton Egelston with his mule team. Dad on the right.

I remember traveling to Frenchburg for family reunions in the 60’s and having my delicate suburban values challenged by relatives still using outhouses, as they still hadn’t “brought the plumbing inside”. I was sure spiders, snakes and rats were going to attack any hanging meat and often tried to stave off bowl movements until the last second.

Classic outhouse

In the 1900 census, at the age of 18, Floyd is noted as being a laborer for the railroad.  At this time he was still living with his mother and father in Rothwell, a few miles west of Frenchburg proper, in their rented house.

Looking at old documents, it looks like a rail line was extended about that time from the Mt Sterling Coal Road line to McCausey Ridge, where many Proffitt’s lived.

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During the time that further expansion of the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy RR was delayed in 1872, another railroad, the Mt. Sterling Coal Road, was built between Mt Sterling and Rothwell in Menifee County. It was originally built as a narrow gauge railroad to bring lumber and coal to market. It opened in 1875.

From Mt. Sterling, the Mt. Sterling Coal Road ran southeast through Gatewoods, Coons, Spencer, Oggs, Walkers, and Johnsons Station (Hope). It continued on through Menifee County with stops at Clay Lick, Cedar Grove, Chambers Station (Means), Sentinel, Cornwell, and Rothwell. Around 1898 it was extended to McCausey Ridge and Appearson.

A man by the name of McCausey had a large lumber camp there and employed many loggers. Local farmers in that area shipped hides, ginseng, snakeroot and chickens back to Mt. Sterling.

In 1882 the line came under the ownership of the Kentucky & South Atlantic Railway and later the C & O Railroad. The line was discontinued in 1911 when standing timber in that area had been depleted. Source: Ghost Railroads of Kentucky By Elmer Griffith Sulzer

At the age of 19, he married Nancy Jane Clair, known as Nanny, when she was 17.  Nanny was the 4th child born to parents Thomas R Clair and Suphrona Elizabeth Coldiron on November 3rd, 1884. Several census’ report she only went to school through the 4th grade, but could read and write…something it was noted that her parents could not do. We take so much for granted these days.

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Floyd & Nancy Jane Clair, very likely their wedding photo around 1901

By the 1910 census, Floyd is shown as owning his own home in Menifee County in Leatherwood.  Today, Leatherwood is no longer recognized as a town, but as an “historical place name”…it was made extinct by the damming of the Licking River to form Cave Run Lake, northwest of Frenchburg. Although many farms and homes were displaced, this didn’t take place until 1965, with the lake filled by 1973.

In 1910, Floyd and Nanny are farming, with 3 children; Maezella, the oldest at 7, John M, my grandfather, who was 5, and 1 year old baby Dolly, aunt Dot.

Maezella, John M, Dolly and baby Obie with Floyd and Nanny 1911

In the 1920 census, 37-year-old Floyd is still farming in Leatherwood.  By now, Maezella was 16, John M 14, Dolly was 10 and there were 4 more children; Obie 8, William 6, Claude 5, and Ray 2.

Floyd & Sons 1920, Floyd Proffit, John M, Obie, Clay, Claude, Ray

Floyd died on July 20th, 1923 at the age of 41. My father was born 2 years later on the very same day…July 20, 1925, so he never knew his grandfather Floyd.

Nanny with her boys at the Indian Creek farm after Floyd had passed. Nanny is holding Shelby, with John M, Obie and Clay in the back. Pete and Ray are in the front. Missing Maezella and Dolly.

Tax records show land that was owned or farmed by “William Floyd heirs” through the 20’s and into the 30’s.  This consisted of farmland on Indian Creek as well as the family farm plot.

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Tax bill 1938

The 1930 census shows 45-year-old Nanny as the widowed head of a rented household.  They are listed as farmers living on Scranton Road in Frenchburg.  Children remaining at home were Obie 19, Clay 17, Claude 15, Ray 12 and Shelby 8.

Curiously, they are listed as having no radio set, so entertainment must have been pretty simple on the farm.

Floyd’s mother Corena died in 1930 at the age of 70, his father Jake died in 1938 at the age of 81.

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Nanny re-married to a man named George Snodgrass after 1930 but before 1935 sometime. Later in life, they went by “Mammie and Daddy George”

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Nancy and George…Mammie and Daddy George

George had been married previously to Clara Armitage. George and Clara had at least 5 children of their own: Albert Courtney, John Chester, Lilian M, Garner Clay and Elmer Roger. Clara had another daughter, Doris, born about 1923. The 1930 census shows that Clara moved back to Indiana before 1930 with Elmer and Doris.  She remarried to a man named John L Alexander before 1935.  She died in April of 1978.

By 1940, the census shows 55-year-old Nanny and 64 year old George living alone together on McCausey Ridge, just south of Frenchburg.

Nancy & her adult kids on McCausey Ridge. Back Row: Clay, John M, Ray, Shelby, Claude (Pete) Front Row: Obie, Dot, Mamie, Mazella 1946

Another interesting tidbit is that at the turn of the century, oil was being discovered in Menifee and the surrounding area.  Many oil companies were in competition to buy oil and gas rights all over the county.

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In 1942, this notarized document transferred oil rights on 125 acres on Meyers Branch, part of Indian Creek, from the heirs of William Floyd to a Detroit oilman named Joseph Thomas for $45.  Note that Asa Little, another relative, was the Sheriff  at the time. The notary, Zella Wells, is probably related to the Wells in our family also.

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I remember a number of family reunions down in Frenchburg…Nanny was of course the matriarch that gathered everyone together there, as many of her children had migrated to Ohio in search of work.

Nanny and George on the front porch of their last home. Mom and dad drove down to show me off at my 1st birthday. Aunt Maxine is holding me on the left on the 4th of July 1960.

George died on December 31st, 1968.  Nanny died a year later, November 21st, 1969, at the age of 85. 

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John M, Clay, Obie, Ray and Shelby sitting on the porch of Nanny at her funeral in Kentucky, 1969

Great grandma’s passing was the first death of someone close to me.  I vividly remember walking up to her casket at the service and thinking she looked like a doll or mannequin.

Children of William Floyd and Nancy Jane Proffitt gathering for Shelby when he had cancer: Back: Pete, John M, Obie Front: Maezella, Shelby and Dot

The Local Family Watering Holes on Miami Chapel Road

 

Way back in the 60’s and early 70’s, when my Mamaw and Papaw lived on the Westside of Dayton on Miami Chapel road, there was a small strip of blue-collar bar & grills just down the block, right across from the large Delco Moraine plant and caddy-corner to George’s Barber Shop.

My cousin Rhonda reminded me what the names might be, and I managed to find them in old Dayton City Directories and Newspapers.  Mamaw and Papaw lived at 1010 Miami Chapel, and Matty’s Tavern was right on the corner at 1100 Miami Chapel, and The Sportsman Bar and Grill was next door at 1116 Miami Chapel.

A number of my relatives frequented these watering holes, along with many other factory workers, as they were close to their employment at Specialty Paper and Delco.

Specialty Papers Co 1958 The Specialty Papers Company was locacted at 802 Miami Chapel Road, just down the street from Mamaw and Papaw’s house.

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In those days, it was not unusual to have a couple of beers for lunch along with a nice greasy burger or patty melt.

My memory doesn’t allow me to fairly rate which was the nicer of the two, but judging by newspaper accounts, the Sportsman seemed to be in the news more for being robbed and robberies performed right outside their premises.  These joints could easily be called dive bars, but they were a second home and family for many.

Here’s a shooting in their back parking lot:

Sportsman Shooting 25 Aug 1970

They also got shut down:

Sportsman Permit Suspended 20 Jun 1957
Sportsman Permit Suspended 20 Jun 1957

A break-in:

Sportsman Robbery 5 Dec 1955

Both of them advertised for Bar Maids and Porters on a regular basis.

Sportsman Bar Maid Wanted 20 Apr 1955

Matty’s Waitress wanted 17 May 1951

Darkly lit, with multiple neon and spinning bar signs for locally made brews like Bavarian, Wiedemann, Hudepohl, Burger and Schoenling.

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TV ads back then were full of beer slogans that made their way to these signs on the walls of the bars.  These included:

“Vas You Efer in Zinzinnati? (Burger)

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“It’s Too Good To Be Beer” (Little Kings Cream Ale)

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“All the Way with 14K” (Hudepohl)

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“It’s registered pure” (Wiedemann)

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“Bound to Be Better” (Schoenling)

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“A Man’s Beer” (Bavarian)

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“It’s Happy Hudy Time” (Hudepohl)

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Tax returns even show that Mamaw worked at Matty’s for several years, at least from 1956-1959…she may have quit when the owner she knew decided to sell the bar in ’59:

Matty’s for Sale 19 Jul 1959

Papaw was one of the grand patrons of both bars after Mamaw stopped working at Matty’s.  I think his allegiance may have varied based on where his tab was lower or whichever bar maid was being nicer to him at the moment.

After retiring from Specialty Paper, he was at one or the other quite often, as a man of leisure.  As grandchildren of some of their best customers we were fawned over by the bar maids each time we went in, either with papaw or my parents, getting a bottomless fountain coke full of maraschino cherries to spear one at a time with a swizzle stick.

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Top me off with your finest coke bar maid!

We usually got scooted away from the serious bar talk by being bribed with a few coins to go play the electric shuffle board bowling game or pinball machines in the back. These are the type of games you only see in old “retro” arcades these days, but they were king back in the 60’s.

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One time I remember thinking that if a little corn meal made the puck slide better, a whole can should be just the thing to create a rocket-speed puck slide. The bar maids did not agree.

Dump plenty of cornmeal on there!

Food was typical greasy-spoon bar food consisting of burgers and patty melts, with maybe a roast beef sandwich and some kind of daily special like meatloaf with a soup of the day.  A particular kid favorite was just a big plate of french-fries covered with ketchup.

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There were also the usual displays of beef jerky, pretzels & chips, Slim Jims and big jars of pickled eggs and sausages that somehow became appetizing when you were drinking…as long as you didn’t think of how many hands had dipped into the jar.

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Reach in there and grab a pickled egg son…

As times changed, bringing kids into smoky bars became much less socially acceptable, if not illegal, not to mention that we had gotten older and more adventurous and there were a lot more of us to keep watch over.

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We were then condemned to sit out in the old blue Chevy station wagon on the street, waiting for mom and dad to finish having their fun.  Can you imagine leaving a car full of unsupervised kids outside a bar in West Dayton these days?

The West side eventually got too racially charged and dangerous for the rest of the family to allow mamaw and papaw to continue living there. Pawpaw was mugged walking between the bars and his house, at least twice that I remember, getting beat up pretty bad and hospitalized in one instance, so they eventually moved back down to Moraine, in Miami Shores, where they lived until they both passed away.

 

 

Holy Holey Socks

Holey simply means full of holes. Holy has several definitions: 1. sacred, or associated with a deity; 2. worthy of worship; 3. saintly; 4. deserving reverence.

I suppose #4 applies the best to these particular socks, although they are certainly holey and may also be considered sacred and perhaps even worthy of worship.  I just keep them in my sock drawer.

I wear them again today on Christmas even though the elastic may be a bit saggy and the Redwing Boot logo has long faded away. The cotton is in remarkably good condition for being almost 40 years old and still in use.

To most, they look like a pair of ratty old socks, but they were a gift from my buddy Ricky Baker‘s mother 37 years ago and I could never toss them now.

Rick and I had moved out to Washington State together a few months before, and being the motherly type, Marie dutifully sent her son a care package for Christmas with some cookies, beef jerky snacks and of course practical things like underwear that she couldn’t trust Rick to buy on his own.

What touched me, and still does, is that she included 2 pairs of socks for me as well, so that I would have at least one gift under the tree. I’m sure her motherly instinct played a part there as well…as a man-boy I couldn’t be trusted to buy myself practical things when there was beer available.

I was impressed. These were not just some run of the mill, Kmart, 5 pairs for a dollar special…these were expensive Red Wing boot socks that you had to go to a Red Wing shoe store to purchase.

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She sent a pair of white ones and these gray ones.  I must confess, I wore the white tube socks much more often and they were worn to shreds years ago.  Now, my mother was still sending care packages as well…and we supped like kings for a few days on all the baked goods and snacks…but it meant a great deal to receive those high quality socks from her.

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Marie, “Ernie” at Olympic Hot Springs

By the way…Red Wing still sells socks and they start at $16.99.  Worth every penny.

 

 

 

 

Shackleton’s Spirit Penguin

Back on December 23, 1986 and on our way to Antarctica, Terri and I found ourselves strolling through the ghost town of Grytviken on South Georgia Island.  South Georgia is an island in the southern Atlantic Ocean that is part of the British Overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The population consisted almost entirely of elephant seals and penguins.

Remnants of the whaling fleet

 

When we visited Grytviken, an old Norwegian whaling station abandoned 20 years before in 1966, it only had a small outpost of British soldiers acting as a deterrent after the station was captured by Argentina during the Falkland Island War a few years earlier in 1982.

Processing a whale back in the day

This small conflict aside, the main claim to fame of Grytviken may be that it is the last resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the legends of polar exploration. His epic leadership while overcoming unimaginable hardship during the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 is a tale of greatness.  Against impossible odds, he didn’t lose a single man in his crew, who fondly called him the Boss.

It was here, in 1922, on his way to yet another Antarctic expedition, that Sir Ernest died of a massive heart attack aboard his ship. He was eulogized in the small company church, and buried in the station’s cemetery, facing south, the direction he was so drawn to.

Grytviken Whaler’s Chapel

 

We had already been regaled with many tales of Shackleton on our journey to Antarctica, so it seemed impossible to think of leaving South Georgia without paying homage to Sir Ernest at his grave.

Looking at Grytviken from the dilapidated wharf

So, we decided to hike over to the small whalers cemetery containing Shackleton’s grave just south of the station. This grave yard mostly holds the remains of fallen Norwegian whalers that lived a hard life far from civilization.

We headed out through the slushy snow and about half way there we came across this King Penguin heading the same direction…not wanting to frighten it, we stayed back behind him as he waddled, slipped and slid through creeks and mud holes all the way to the cemetery.  This was quite some distance for his tiny legs and the little fellow looked like he was on a mission.

Looking back at Grytviken on our way to the cemetery

As we got to the cemetery we expected him to continue on past towards some other penguins in the distance…but he circled all the way around the small fenced cemetery to the gate opening, entered, and walked right up to Shackleton’s grave stone. We followed along behind him as he then stretched up straight,  pointed his beak upwards, flapped his flippers a few times and gave several loud penguin cries as if that was exactly what he came to do.

Shackleton’s spirit animal?

I snapped this photo and he then turned, walked out the gate and headed back the same way he had come.  Terri and I looked at each other with wide eyes like “what the heck just happened here”?  The whole experience was so extraordinary we decided that little King Penguin must have had a spiritual connection to Sir Ernest. Wild!

Paupers amongst Antarctic Kings