Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Death on the Rhine

My college was nestled on the Rhine River  just east of Schaffhausen, Switzerland.  Hanging willows dangled into the crystal clear water which stretched a hundred meters across.  Rowing enthusiasts often passed by our dock, causing the many swans to scurry towards the rocky banks.  Near the dock was the deck of a restaurant, surrounded by hanging flower boxes full of brilliant red blooms.  On a clear day, one could see the faint shadowy Alps towards the south.  It was one of the most beautiful places to sit with a good book and cup of coffee.
The water came from streams fed by melting glaciers, making it cold enough to chill my foot with a single swipe.  Swimming in the water was never my plan as I was an American who was accustomed to the warm waters of the local pool.  The European students, however, found a quick swim to be invigorating.  Each time they jumped in, they encouraged me to try it, but I never found the idea inviting.  One day, however, they changed tactics.
"You Americans probably can't handle waters this cold," said Siggy, a young Swiss teenager.  His friend laughed and the challenge was on.  It was one thing to consider me squeamish, but another to challenge my country's honor.  I felt obligated to prove that we, Americans, could jump into a glass of ice water as well as anyone else.
After retrieving my trunks (I was not about to wear a speedo), I joined them back on the dock.  They jumped off near the shore as they always did, but I had something to prove.  I jumped off the dock towards the middle of the river.  This was a huge error on my part.  The reason they stayed near the shore was because the current was blocked by the dock.  I jumped out into the full strength of the rushing Rhine.
The water felt like a thousand needles poking my skin.  I scarcely caught my breath before realizing my stupidity.  With all my might, I swam to return to the dock, but the strong current drew me towards the center of the river.  Within a minute or so, I was out of breath and already a good fifty meters downstream.  I was going to drown if I could not get out.
Panic overtook me.  I gasped for breath and slashed at the water to keep afloat.  There did not seem to be any hope for getting out of this stupidity.  Was I going to die because I was showing off?  How many times had I heard stories about kids who were killed because they had something to prove?  Now I was going to be an added statistic.
Just then, I remembered swimming in the pool back in Virginia Beach.  My Boy Scout leader told us "Swim to move, float to survive!"  I got on my back, and floated with as little exertion as possible.  It did not get me out of the current, but it helped me survive until I did.  When the river bent, I had rested enough to swim out of the middle and reach the shore.
I crawled out of the water, choked and panted on the rocks near a small garden.  Turning to my back, I stared up at the warming sun and wheezed a prayer of thanks.  Suddenly, the face of an old woman blocked the sun.  She did not utter a word, but just looked at me curiously.
"American," I said through a gasp.
"Ahh," she nodded, before returning to her gardening.
Her response told me that I was through defending my country's honor, for that day, at least.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Great Losers

It is amazing how many winning football teams existed years ago.  Most people I know played on one.  Yes, it’s mathematically impossible, which makes it all the more impressive.  My high school football team was, evidently, the exception.  Our record was a poor 3-7.  When looking at the season from only the angel of win-loss with winning being everything, then we were a bad team.  After all, aren’t scoreboards and trophies what matter?
When I look back on the season, I do not focus on the statistic.  We were part of story in which we got to be characters of nobility and frailty.  My senior year, our team was ten points away from being conference champs.  This is because we lost most games by 2 points.  The game against Winnetonka, however, is by far my most memorable game of that season.
Winnetonka High School was not only our conference rival, but our town rival.  We even split a Junior High School.  Half the kids from Antioch Junior High migrated joyfully to our school, Oak Park, while the other half was forced to attend Winnetonka.   This made our rivalry all the more fun, because we knew where the other lived!
The projected “stars” for the game were Loren Hadley for our Oak Park Northmen and Eric Hoskins for the Winnetonka Griffons.   Both were top of the line running backs with good stats in their junior year.  It was only the second game of the season, so both teams had great hopes that our stars would lead us to glorious victory.
The  Griffons’ offense was a throwback to Knute Rockne.  They ran the Single Wing, which was an offense created to confuse the other team with spins, fakes, and reversals.  Other teams would over pursue a fake only to find that the real runner dashed the other direction.  This worked against us and the Griffons scored first.  By the end of the first half, we were down 7-21.  Our defense shut them out in the second half and our offense went to work.  Loren Hadley rushed for 198 yards that game and we scored two second half touchdowns.  When the clock ran out, we were tied 21-21.  The momentum changed in our direction, so we thought.
To break the tie, each team was given the ball at the ten yard line.  We had four downs to score.   All second half, Pat Ryan and I had the advantage over our opposing linemen.  The guard and tackle on the other side were as good as we were, but they had to go against an all-state lineman named Eric Cheeseborough, so it was rough going to our right side.  Unfortunately, when the receiver ran in with the play, he accidently switched the numbers.  We ran right into Cheeseborough, who stomped us.   We settled for a field goal by Joe Zuber, but that was fine.  We were ahead and our defense had shut down the Griffons all second half.
The first play, we stopped them for a loss.  Yeah, we were awesome.  The second play, the spinner back pitched the ball to Hoskins.  Our defensive end, Pat Ryan again, had the outside contain and kept Eric from getting around the end.  I was headed right for Eric’s numbers; I was going to smash him to the ground for a huge loss.  Victory was in hand.  Suddenly, Eric reared back and through the ball.  It was a sweep pass.   While Eric was a great running back, his passing was less than stellar.  The ball looked like he had punted it.  Surely this was going to be out of bounds beyond the end-zone.  Well it would have been if not for the Griffons’ Matt Williams, an all conference high jumper who soared up and snatched the ball.  We lost in overtime. 
To remember that game as a loss is to miss the point.  We were characters in an awesome story.  Our team participated in a game that grabbed the hearts of fans on both sides and took them for a ride of excitement. 
Now, if you think we were losers, I’ll add this to the story.   Two players on the field that night, one from each team, went on to play in the NFL.  From our team, eight of our starting eleven went to college with football scholarships.   The Griffons won the conference championship, while we were 3-7, but I consider it a very successful season.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Shaving the Pooch

Yesterday, I went to visit an elderly woman with a Shih-Tzu. Previously, the dog's hair had grown so long that it looked liked Cousin It's toupee. In order to stem the tide of overwhelming hair, the woman had a traveling dog groomer stop by to give it a trim. It appears the groomer used to cut hair for the Marine Corps, because the dog now looks like Jerry Garcia's head on a Chihuahua's body. And you thought you had bad haircuts?

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Chicken

There was a baby rooster that stood by a road staring intently at the other side.  A kindly hen strutted up and inquired as to the cause of the long face on the rooster. 
"Edna and her chicks went over to that side," exclaimed the rooster.  “She took my best friend, Rodney, with her!”
“Really?” asked the other, surprised.   “Why would she go over there?”
“I heard the crossing was merely a whimsical exercise in assertiveness.”
“That Edna always was a rebel.  There, there, I’ll lay you a new friend.”
“Thank you,” sniffed the rooster, “I’m so glad to have a friend that can lay eggs.  You have to have a hen before formulating embryonic fowls.”
“Yes indeed.”  After laying five eggs and taking appropriate steps to fertilize them, the hen perched upon her nest, warming the potential playmates of the baby rooster.
“This is grand,” said the rooster with a big smile.  “I will have five new playmates now.”
“Try not to get your hopes up, dear,” replied the hen, soothingly.  “We must not calculate the number of hatchings before they break though their shells.”
“Oh right you are.  I tend to forget that it is not wise to place all my hopes in a single wicker container.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Competitive Demon

"He was in bounds!  Are you blind?" I shouted as the referee tossed his hands to the side, indicating my nine year old running back stepped out of bounds on the way to a touchdown.   My face turned red and my voice growled like a Chucky doll as I hollered at the volunteer in stripes.  "That moron just cost us the game!" I spatted to my assistant coach, Rick, who looked at me as if I had just kicked a puppy.
"You're taking this a bit too seriously, aren't you?" replied Rick, with a half smile.
"What?  I...who side are you on?"
"The children's, of course.  It's for the kids, remember?"  My first impulse was to argue with Rick, but a rush of shame flooded my heart.  He was right.  My competitiveness turned me into a raging lunatic.  I was a horrible example for the young eyes which looked to me as an example.

Insecurity, inadequacy, and the need for recognition ran deep inside me as a young boy.  Rather than list all the reasons, I would rather state that these negative feelings dominated my youth.  Winning was not something that I wanted to do; it was what I had to do.  If I did lose, I would argue against some minor infraction of the rules or give some excuse why I did not land on top.  Someone else or some circumstance was always to blame.  If, however, there was a competition that I had no shot of winning, like the hurdles or hundred yard dash, then I would simply not enter.  Driven by this demon of number one, I often alienated those around me by my hurtful words or whining attitude.

When my days of college football were over and sports became a hobby, I thought my competitiveness was under control.  That was until I was asked to coach a little league football team.  Knowing little about coaching, I hit the internet and learned all I could about it as fast as possible.  The gurus on the net showed me exactly how to create a winning team.  Everyone would see my brilliant football mind!
Unfortunately, the kids on my team were not seasoned athletes.  Instead, they were, of all things, just a bunch of boys.  They did not follow orders and often just goofed off.  How could they be like that?  After all, they were on my team and needed discipline to win.  What was wrong with these nine year old?

We lost out first game 7-0.  That's OK, I thought, we would just have to get the offense in order.  The second game, due to my son's power running, we actually won 14-12.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  We were on our way.  Unfortunately, our way was to lose every game for the rest of the season.  It was the boys' fault, right?  No matter how many times I stormed the sidelines, wondering why my brilliant plays were not executed correctly, the boys never got it perfect.  They did well of defense, but the offense could not score unless someone on the defense fell down.
I was so angry with the season that in the last game, I tore into the referee with a barrage of insults.  He should have kicked me off the field, but he took it in stride.  The teenage ref was the bigger man.

Rick's words pummeled my soul for the next few weeks.  Whether or not the team won or lost, I was being a pathetic loser.  My self-image was tied to how well the boys did on the field.  If that was my mark of success, then I missed the point of youth sports.

Following that season, I began to curb my competitive attitude.  When they asked me to coach basketball, I initially declined.  Yet the lack of volunteers brought the athletic director of the community center back to my door.  Reluctantly, I accepted the role of coach.  Once again, I hit the internet to learn how to coach.  That season, however, I learned to be at peace with results.  My mark upon the lives of the kids on my team needed to change.  Instead of teaching them to win, I simply taught them the game and told them to have fun.  We rejoiced in every basket, every steal, and every good pass even if it did not lead to a score.  We had fun.  Our record was 4-5, but for me, it will always be a winning season.  From that time forward, I learned to enjoy games in spite of outcomes.  I released the demon of competitiveness and embraced the angel of fun.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing to Write

Some days, I find that I have nothing that I actually want to communicate.  There is no story bubbling under the surface or some issue that I am desperate to address.  Sure, the world is in crisis economically, but so many write about this that I would rather read about it then put my thoughts on paper.  It is at this juncture that a writer makes a decision.  We must write.  Even if it is a colorful retelling of the days shopping list, words must be carved.  Working through the layers of apathy, frustration, and confusion is what makes a writer more than just someone who can type.
I do not like working out at the gym.  Some love it.  So many of us decided to get fit for New Years, but we have already abandoned it.  One day, we got up and did not want to go.  After procrastinating, we found something more "pressing" that gave us an out.  The next day, we did the same until it became easy to "just say no."  Man, I wish I was in better shape, don't you?  Yeah, right.  The difference between those in great shape and the rest of us is that they work through their lack of desire and push into the "get it done" imperative.  Once they push past the initial negative feelings, they remember why they enjoy working out.
Writers must do the same thing at a keyboard.  We must work through the lack of desire to get into the work even on days in which we just do not feel like it.   After a few paragraphs, we will remember.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Rockin' the Basement

Nothing smacks a kid harder than entering high school.  Giant upper class-men roam the halls with their make-up clad ladies on their arms.  Most of these look upon the underlings with either disdain or sympathy.  At least that's how I thought it was going to be.
It was the summer before I entered the doors of OPHS in Kansas City and fears of not measuring up swam through my thoughts like piranha at a swim meet, devouring my aspirations.  I needed to prepare myself.  As a football player, this meant lifting weights.  Three of my friends were also gearing up for the passage, so they joined me at my house to pump iron.  Well, "pumping plastic" is more like it, since my weights were concrete covered plastic donuts.
Great goals often fall short at the point of execution, I've heard.  Our little gym certainly proved this.  Somehow, having everyone over on a hot summer day did not inspire us to diligently hit the weights.  Imagine that?
One Wednesday, as we worked on our budding biceps, I heard Keith yell "Crank it up!" as Scott needled my sister's Journey album.  "Wheel in the Sky" flooded the furnished basement as we played air guitar, drums, and pantomimed singing.  Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic" flopped onto the turn-table, which halted our work-out yet again as we jumped on the sofa, hung from the iron circular staircase, and swung from the floor beams in rockin' jubilation.  Fortunately, my parents both worked, so we were free to fly through the house on the wings of Boston's "Don't Look Back."
"You know what we should do," said Scott, "we should come over hear some night and have a concert."  At first, I thought he was kidding.  After all, spontaneous air guitar is one thing, but a contrived air band?  He was serious, well as serious as a kid talking about faking a band can be.
"Yeah, that would be cool," replied Keith.  "We could do it some night when your parents go out!"  When his twin brother, Craig, concurred, they all looked at me for confirmation.
I quickly contemplating the damage versus fun factor in my head.  If we cleared the lamps and various breakables, it should work out, right?  "I think they'll be gone this Saturday to a church party,"
"Great," said Scott.  "Let's do it!"
Our first concert date was set, but we needed to prepare.  The following day, Scott and I dug through some of our family treasures for junk to use.  First, we needed a guitar.  I had an old Montgomery Ward guitar with no strings, so Scott peeled off the little smiling sunshine emblem and put black electrical tape all over it so it looked like Eddy Van Halen's.  Finding a base was easy.  We simply borrowed an damp sponge mop that my mom stuck in a corner.  Two clothes hangers that used cardboard tubes for bottoms were quickly stripped down to make drumsticks.  My dad, being the gadget king of Gladstone, had some old microphones, so we taped those to broom sticks which we propped up with weights.  The concert hall was set.
I cleared our concert with the brass by telling my parents that my friends were coming over to listen to music and stuff.  The "stuff" was vague, I suppose, but parents would never understand air bands, so it was best they rolled with "stuff."
When Keith and Craig arrived, Scott and I had already cleared away the breakables into my room and moved the sofa back to the wall.  This worked out well, because it gave Scott a perch on which to play the drums.  Keith, being the wilder of the twins, took the guitar in order to lay down some fiery air licks.  Craig, definitely the calmest of us all, took the mop bass.  Grabbing the microphone, I became the lead singer.  I was no David Lee Roth, however.  The  only way I could do the splits was if you gave me ice cream and bananas.
First song cued.  "Riding the Storm Out" from REO Speedwagon.  It was from a live album, so we heard the crowd cheer as we commenced rocking the house.  Blasting song after song, we though the evening with perfectly precisioned air excellence.  We heard nothing but the blast of the music and the ringing in our ears.  Suddenly, a pair of feet appeared on the circular staircase.  I quickly realized it was my father.  Keith flipped off the music and we stood there with stringless guitar, mop, and hanger bottoms in our hands.
"What on earth are you doing?" asked my shocked father.
"Nothing," we replied.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Body Checking the Ice

My breath steamed before me as I gazed down the hill at the frozen pond.  Loren, Craig, Keith, Shane, Scott and I were at Oak Grove Park in Kansas City.  February's chill brought snow and hopefully a solid place to play hockey with sticks and a can.
"Do you think it's solid enough to walk on?" I asked, looking down the three foot embankment.  Loren was never one for many words at that age.  Instead, he preferred a more direct approach to problems.
"Why don't you jump and find out!" he yelled.  No sooner did the words leave his mouth than he shoved me hard in the back.  Suddenly, I was plummeting towards the ice.  To my surprise, I landed on my feet.
"Yep, it's solid!" I called, ignoring the fact that had the ice been thinner, I would have been Popsicle.
"Cool," shouted Keith as they all ran around to the easier entrance.  "We need some goals."  This was an interesting problem.  In football season, we would just chuck our coats on the ground for goal lines, but it was too cold for that.
"How about those tables?" said Shane, pointing to some picnic tables near the pond.  To thirteen year olds, this seemed like a perfect fix.  We'd simply drag them onto the ice, flip them over, and have perfect goals.
"Great," replied Craig, "let's do it!"
Although the big municipal tables were heavy, there were enough of us to get them onto the ice.  Flipping them over was another matter.  The metal legs on the table were rounded and we couldn't get enough traction to turn them over.  I had the brilliant idea of holding the bottom with my foot, but, instead of stopping, the table simply ran my foot over.
"Just leave them like that," said Keith.  His twin brother, who looked nothing like him, concurred.
"Fine," I said, limping back to the others.
We smashed an old Coke can and began our game.  Every time the can went under the table, it was a goal.  Since we had odd numbers, we played three on two with the odd man playing all time defense.  Of course, I was the odd man.  For over and hour, we knocked the can all over the ice with our twig hockey sticks.  It was great fun until we heard the roaring of an engine.
"Look, it's the parks people!" shouted Loren as he raced from the ice.  He promptly slipped on the ice.
I did not know if we were doing anything wrong, but when a roaring Parks and Recreation truck is speeding towards you and a friend yells "run," then you run, right?
I dashed towards the opposite side of the pond and ran as quickly as I could through the snow covered grass.  Keith and Craig stampeded though the trees just north of me, while Scott ran like a jackrabbit a few yards ahead of them.  I flew the six blocks to my house and burst through the door to the garage.  Panting, I looked through the window.  There were no park people on my tail, whew!  For the next hour, I sat tensely in the living room with one eye on the television and one looking out the window.  I was sure we were going to be caught, my parents would ground me, and life as a care-free eighth grader would be over.

What I did not know until later was that when Loren fell, he thought he might get caught alone, so he tackled Shane.  The park workers got out of the truck and approached the boys as they lay in the snow.
"Those benches will fall through the ice when it thaws.  Help me get them off, boys," said the old man who drove the truck.  Loren and Shane looked at each other in disbelief.  None of us were actually in trouble.