Tag Archives: family

Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.

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Filed under Hobbies, Personal

Hand Family Christmas

For the first time in more than eight years, I had both of my sons home for Christmas. It has been a joy to have the house full with my sons and my grandchildren. For most of the past several years, Michelle and I have travelled to spend the holidays with our parents and siblings, which is always a great way to spend the holiday, although many times it was mourning the loss of a family member who was missed for the first Christmas since their passing. This year, we decided to stay home rather than travel. My eldest son moved in with us this year, so we had the pleasure of his company, but then Andrew also said he wanted to spend the holiday with us too.

With the holiday approaching, and knowing that Lindsey and the kids had another set of parents to visit, Michelle and I decided to do a Christmas brunch, rather than dinner. We decided to roast a ham, make a baked egg casserole and a hash brown casserole and have country green beans and Hawaiian rolls round out the menu. Michelle and I split the duties on the ham; she made the hash brown casserole while I made the baked egg casserole and the country green beans. The reaction of the kids made slaving over a hot stove while the kids played with their toys worthwhile. “Grampa, you and Mimi should open a restaurant!”

I didn’t realize how much I missed having kids around on Christmas morning. I love my family, and i love spending time with my mom and siblings, but having grown kids makes things different. Not worse, just different. But this Christmas, with the kids’ antics and the things they say, ranks right up there with the best in my memory.

Spending time with family is the best way to spend the holiday. Remembering the joy of giving is important, as is observing beloved traditions (even if it is beloved by only one person), but last night, after dinner and our traditional drive around to look at Christmas lights, I read from the second chapter of Luke to remind the children of the reason we observe Christmas. They sat and listened to not only that, but Grampa’s reading of “A Visit from St. Nick” before they headed off to bed. Zachary admonished his older brother and sister that they had to get right to sleep before midnight or else Santa would not stop by.

Even the typical sibling drama was minimized, from both levels, as everyone got along and had a great time. Now we can look forward to visiting with Great-Granny and Aunt Debbie starting tomorrow.

Merry Christmas all.

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Off The Beaten Path

I have mentioned in past blogs that my wife and I enjoy driving out of the city to see as much of small-town America as we can. We have been through most of the small towns around Houston, San Antonio and Austin and have thoroughly enjoyed those visits, but that means that now we have to venture out farther and farther. This weekend, we drove to Oklahoma and passed through a number of small and not-so-small towns, such as Harrison and Henderson before going through Kilgore and Longview. Our route took us along highway 259 to our destination in Idabel, Oklahoma, but not before detouring us along other roads on several occasions. Sometimes the best discoveries are made when one leaves the planned path.

The weather on this trip couldn’t have been better had we controlled it. While hot for a summer day in Texas, it wasn’t the hottest day of the year. In fact, for a late July day, it did not even break a hundred degrees. The sky was mostly sunny with just enough clouds to break up the blue expanse and also be interesting. I did read on my news feed that some parts of Houston got serious rainfall, but fortunately we missed it. Traffic was light and the drive pleasant as we jammed to our favorites playlist over the Bluetooth on the car stereo. Since we both have family in Arkansas, we have travelled highway 59 more than most truckers over the years, but once we hit Nacogdoches, this trip would have us veer off our usual course and onto highway 259. It was a beautiful drive for a federal highway. There were many beautiful homes and ranches along the drive, and the setting sun cast gorgeous diffuse light that brought the country to life highlighting warm yellows and ambers. As we drove along, we passed a large red barn, with horses frolicking in the setting sunlight framed by ripe corn fields waiting to be harvested.

After we passed Daingerfield, Texas, we were detoured onto highway 67 in Omaha. I had been looking for someplace to eat ever since we passed a Grandy’s in Longview. Michelle is not the Grandy’s fanatic that I am and she wasn’t hungry then. By the time we approached Omaha, however, she was getting hungry. I was near starving. We didn’t see many places to eat on Google maps that sounded good, so I said let’s keep an eye out and we might find something interesting. Now, in this day of technology dependence where people are afraid to venture out of their homes without internet access on a mobile device, most people rely on Google to show them where to go. I use the technology as well, but I am not dependent on it. And I will maintain that statement until the day my cloud drive crashes. Anyway, after we drove along 67 for a short time, Michelle saw a sign that made her chuckle: The Rear of the Steer. It was for a barbeque place just off the highway with a full parking lot.

“Stop!” I insisted. “Turn around. We HAVE to eat there. We can’t pass a place called ‘the rear of the steer’ and not eat there.”

After some debate, she agreed and pulled over to turn around. There was only one other car on the road, so we had no problem with traffic. Omaha is so small that it looked as though most of the town was already at the Rear of the Steer. Inside, there was a small line at the counter to order, but as most of these people were probably regulars, it went quickly. We ordered and sat in a place that looked as though it had been there since the 50’s. It was quite clean, and well maintained, but the décor was not retro; it was authentic.

So was the food. I had the hamburger steak while Michelle had the chicken fried steak and both meals were quite good. We sat and listened to some of the other patrons as they talked about their day, shared stories and jokes. One gentleman told his companion the story of how the place got its name. Evidently it is very well known for its hamburgers, and hamburger is taken from the Rear of the Steer. As this couple left the place, he yelled to no one visible “See you later, old man,” to which the reply “Take Care” came from an unseen voice back in the kitchen. Later, the owner of that voice would come out bearing several plates of food, looking very much like Mel, from Mel’s Diner on the TV show “Alice”, only dressed better. He said hi to everyone he passed and stopped to talk to more than one before hurrying off to the kitchen for more food.

We liked the place so much I bought a T-shirt. It was a great beginning to the weekend that promises more good times, especially if we remain open to leaving the planned path every once in a while. Which is kind of the point of the trip.

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Filed under Personal, Travel

Dealing With Tradition

This season is the time of year when people tend to gather together with family to reflect on their lives and give thanks for the blessings they have enjoyed.  My mom and both of my sons gathered with my daughter in law and grandkids and even my sister on facetime at my house for a very enjoyable thanksgiving celebration.  But not everyone took advantage of the opportunity to spend time at home for the holiday.  At the nearby Best Buy, a line of tents served as quarters for dozens of people who wanted to get the jump on the store’s black Friday sale.
I have to wonder why someone would forgo an opportunity to relax and gorge themselves while watching football with loved ones.  Yet, there they were.  One group of young people set up camp Tuesday night and they were about 5 tents back from the front door.  They said that the first tent was set up Monday afternoon.  Evidently, Best Buy is supposed to have a 42 inch TV on sale for a under two hundred bucks or so.  One young man, Anthony, is also looking for a 60-inch for his living room  for $1000 and a 50 dollar gift card for iPhone 5.  The group is not new to Black Friday camping.  They all spent last year doing the same thing.
They were not alone.  Diana and her family was in the tent in front of them.  She seemed a bit more sensitive about camping out.  “You’re not going to make fun of me are you?  Somebody already yelled at me ‘you’re going to be spending thanksgiving here?'”
But that didn’t stop her from setting up for the second year in a row. She also set up Tuesday at 5 pm and plans on getting the 40-inch TV and an Xbox and the smart blue ray player.  But she doesn’t plan on missing Thanksgiving.  Her whole family is going to be here. “We have a turkey thawing and we’re going to bring it.”
So with her plans to include the family in her deal waiting, she hopes to have her cake (or bird) and eat it too.  The deals make it worth it for them.  Since the significance of the holiday is–for the most part–a matter of tradition, these campers could be starting something new.  “We have the same neighbors. It has become a tradition,” Diana said.
Of course, as the day goes on, more people are sure to join the line as others who chose to spend Thanksgiving at home during the day, decide to get the jump on black Friday deals.  
So, while I cannot imaging spending 72 hours in front of a big box store just to buy a TV, others make the most of their deal seeking, even combining family traditions with their fellow line sitters.  I hope they remember to give thanks for their good line position.  Meanwhile, I enjoyed our meal and the time with the kinds, grandkids and mom watching the Texans give me a heart attack in their overtime win.  And, oh, was the pumpkin pie good.  I doubt it would have been as good on a lawn chair in front of a closed store.


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Noises Off!

As the years continue their inexorable march toward oblivion, one notices certain differences in the way one lives. And with a nod to Sheldon Cooper, one can also get one’s self beat up in grade school by referring to one’s self as “one.” But I digress. When I was younger, I could bounce out of bed, bound down the stairs and bolt out the door without making a noise other than a “whoosh” as I passed my parents on the way out. I would laugh with derision at my 40-something parents who crept out of their rooms, grumbling and grousing as they headed to the kitchen for their morning caffeine fix. They seemed to move so slowly and carefully as if worried about hurting themselves by moving too fast. When they sat down, they made the oddest noises, kind of like an old car that didn’t want to start on a cold morning. Meanwhile, I was in a late model sports car that ran nice and smooth. Of course, I teased and, of course, karma cannot allow one to gloat with impunity. I am now 46 and I have had to face the differences in how my body works these days. I find myself watching the new models run past me and I can no longer bounce, bound or bolt anywhere.

In fact, if I try to bounce out of bed, I am more likely to bounce off the floor after falling over. The only way I know I can make it to a standing position is because our bed is high enough that if I put my feet on the floor, I am already halfway up. If I had to actually rise to a standing position from a regular bed, it would take me about 15 minutes of warm up exercises before making the attempt. After getting myself to a stooped standing position, I amble in short, halting steps until the blood flows enough to get my muscles working right. A process that takes longer each day; soon I fear it might last until the next morning.

But the stiffness of middle age is not the worst thing about being—well—middle-aged. It is the noises my body makes as I go through the day that are the real cause for concern. I was laying in bed watching TV the other day when my stomach started a conversation with anyone who would listen. Now, I was not particularly hungry, but my gastric system was on a diatribe that would make anyone think I was on day six of a five day fast. And it wasn’t those subtle little rumbles you excuse in polite company. No, these were gurgles and churns that marine biologists might expect to hear from the depths of the abyss. My stomach was speaking fluent whale! But wait. There’s more. Not only can my belly communicate with cetaceans, it also imitates drip coffee makers. I’m sure the mister coffee in the hotel room in which we stayed was confused by what it heard. I know I was.

Of course, my digestive tract is not the only noisemaker I have at my disposal. In fact, if I want to get the attention of anyone in a room, I merely have to stand up. The resulting pop from my knees would silence a room better than a teacher smacking a ruler on a desk. It doesn’t stop with just one pop either. Sitting or standing sounds like a stampede of kindergarteners in a bubble wrap factory. Even my dog looks at me when I stand as if saying “Dude, can you still walk?”

And my joints are not the only noise makers when I get up. I sound like a professional weightlifter groaning with the effort of hoisting a world-class barbell over his head—just from getting out of my recliner. I’m sure small children down the street must think our house haunted from all the moans and groans that come from just doing everyday chores. I can’t blame them for being afraid; I know I have scared myself plenty of times.

Making noises really isn’t as bad as I thought it was when I was younger, though. Sure, I teased my folks, but it was easy to do when you’re in a body that hums like a new car and they are driving along in late forties models that have been in need of a tune up for 20 years. But now I know that while my body is not a brand new, top of the line sports model (as if it ever has been) neither is it a rusted-out old clunker. I prefer to think of it as a classic. And all the noises it makes just add character. Besides, once I stop making noises, then it is time to be worried. Call it an early warning system. And if you stop by and hear something you didn’t expect, don’t worry. It’s probably just some part of my body saying hello.

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Filed under Humor, Personal

You Should See The Other Guy

I’m a tough guy. Oh, maybe not in the Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis way, but I can hold my own. I don’t jump bridges with cars or drive cars into helicopters, and I am not about to try to take out a gang of drug lords unarmed by myself, but I have been in some pretty tough scraps in my day. I even have the scars to prove it.

When I was 4 or 5, I kicked down a door. That’s right, I just kicked it down. OK, I knocked it down, well, ran through it actually. OK it was a sliding glass door and I was running away from a dog, but still it was my knee that took out that door. I even got stitches for my effort and a big ol’ scar running right across the top of my kneecap. I was supposed to be down for a nap, but I snuck out to go visit a friend who lived in the house behind us. His mom was Windexing the glass door and she closed it after I walked in—but I didn’t see her do that. When she went to go find my friend (I wish I could remember his name) the family dog—a mean, vicious Rottweiler, or maybe it was a Doberman Pincer, no…it had to be pit bull; (alright, it was a little yip yip dog)—came running around the corner and startled me. Remember, I was 4, so it seemed pretty scary to me. I turned and ran toward what I thought was an open door. Boy, that Windex does a good job of cleaning glass. It sure looked like an open door. Even the little pieces that lay on the ground after I broke it were clean—except for the pieces with blood on them. My blood on them. Ouch. That was my first set of stitches. It would be the first of many.

Then there was the time I decided to go fossil hunting. I was going to be a paleontologist and discover the great T-Rex. The school arranged a field trip to a quarry for my fourth-grade class to explore. I announced that I needed the proper tools for my expedition—a shovel, a dust brush, a magnifying glass and the most important of all: a pickaxe. What paleontologist doesn’t have a pickaxe? Of course I needed a pickaxe. My mother, however, decided that a pickaxe was too dangerous and a shovel was too big so she gave me a more age-appropriate tool. Of course, it was a tablespoon. That larger utensil would make all the difference as I dug and prevent me from ridicule from all the other would-be paleontologists in the class. Not.

I was crushed. How could I be a serious paleontologist with a tablespoon? My mother had crushed my tough guy image. No one would take me seriously with a table spoon. And all because she thought a pickaxe would be too dangerous. She knew I would hurt myself or put an eye out with the sharp point. Well, I showed her the error of her thinking. I didn’t need a pickaxe to hurt myself. I can do it just fine with a table spoon.

While climbing an embankment, the gravel gave way under my shoe and I slipped. The handle of the tablespoon in my hand jammed into my chin, giving me a nice laceration which bled profusely and grossed out all the other paleontologists in my class. That one got me 7 more stitches, plus 5 bonus hidden stitches.

My mother tells her friends that I was so accident-prone that, by today’s standards, she would have been investigated for child abuse. I had more cuts and scrapes and sets of stitches than most kids my age. But it didn’t stop when I grew up.

While I was in the Army, I was doing night maneuvers in an armored personnel carrier while wearing Night Optical Devices (NODs—night vision glasses) and the hatch of the APC slammed into the back of my head. Luckily, I was wearing a helmet, so the hatch didn’t hurt me, but it pushed my head into the hatch rim, which pushed the NODs into my face. I got a cut over my right eyebrow from that one—5 more stitches.

Surprisingly, I never broke a bone. Sure, I have sprained an ankle or ten, but nothing broken. One time, when I was about 10 or 11, I fell out of a tree onto a root. The full force of the impact was taken by my forearms, which bruised nice and purple, but did not break. Sadly, that meant no cast. Cool tough guys in school had casts—and not the sissy purple or pink or green fiberglass casts that kids get these days. No, we had the 100-pound white plaster casts that could split a skull. All the other tough guys and the pretty girls would sign them. Oh, how I wanted one. That would prove I was a tough guy. But it was not meant to be.

Today I am sporting a new scar. I have a nice scab on my lower lip. I thought people would see it and ask about the fight I surely must have gotten into. I would give them a smirk and a pause and say glibly, “you should see the other guy.” But no, no one asked that. What they did say was “did your wife beat you up?” Kind of a deflating comment, that. Makes telling the real story even worse. I was boiling ziti and was going to taste it to see if it was done. Since ziti is a tube pasta, it holds water. Scalding hot water. This water squirted onto my lip and burned me. Not very tough, I know. But at least I didn’t cry.

Ok, maybe I’m not the toughest tough guy and I’ll never be an action movie hero, but I still have scars. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?


Filed under Humor, Personal

The Secret is in The Planning

In the time-honored traditions of middle-class America, we are on vacation this week. This is Spring Break for Houston-area schools, so we decided to take advantage of the time and get back to nature to unwind. There is nothing like communing with God’s creation to put one in touch with the basic joys of life. Yes, relaxing in the great outdoors can change one perspective, alright. Camping, hiking and fishing are such simple joys. Simple. Joys. It just takes a bit of planning.

We started planning this trip several weeks ago, having altered our original plans of a trip to New Orleans. In fact, my wife and I love to travel. In the three years we’ve been together, we have been all over the country and to Europe. We love nothing more than a spontaneous road-trip to some out of the way, small, historic town. We have even been camping a time or two.

Now, I come from a long line of campers. My grandfather and granny were both outdoors types. They raised my mother to be an outdoors type; and she, in turn, raised me and my siblings to be outdoors types. Some of my earliest memories are of camping. When my father, an Army officer, was transferred to a new command, we camped en-route. When we visited Disneyworld, we stayed in Frontier Land instead of the fancy new Contemporary Hotel with the Monorail going through it. That would have been such a cool place to stay—but no, we stayed in the Hotel Starcraft, the pop-up tent camper my parents bought. Not that I’m bitter or anything, I thoroughly enjoyed Frontier Land. Movies and cartoons in the amphitheater every night, listening to my mom real us to bed from the classics of literature like Moby Dick and other camp related activities are some of my most fond childhood memories. But to a 10-year-old—who loved science fiction—a hotel with a monorail is hard to beat. I was also in the boy scouts and went on every camping trip they had planned.

When I was in my twenties, I decided that minimalist camping was the truest nature of camping. Planning was simple: I took a tarp, a sleeping bag and a cooler and cooked over a fire. This served me well in the military, where they bivouacked in similar fashion. Now that I’m well into my 40’s, camping takes on a whole new dimension. I need an air mattress, a nice sleeping bag, a cabin tent, Coleman stove, cook table, lanterns, axe, flashlights, etc etc. Basically, I’m talking about a portable version of home. This involves logistics. This involves planning. This involves…stress.

My brother and I have planned several camping trips for our traditional male bonding expeditions. In fact, we are currently planning another one for this summer. I have also taken camping trips with my wife and others with my sons. Sadly, I haven’t been able to go camping without at least one trip to Wal-Mart at some point during the venture to pick up some forgotten supply. You know what they say: if you can’t get it at Wal-Mart, you don’t need it. One time, my brother took us an hour drive to another county to buy beer.

At any rate, we are camping at this very moment. Lake Millwood is in the southwest corner of Arkansas and I have a history here. My grandfather and Uncles built a cabin on this lake a long time ago, and we used to have family reunions there. The cabin is long gone now, replaced by a subdivision or some other development, and the lake is a now state park. It is very beautiful here though. The sun setting through the trees reflects off the still waters of the lake. The crickets chrip, the geese honk, the frogs croak and you can hear an owl hooting in the distance.

We just finished dinner—one-man meals (also known as hobo meals) with hamburger steak, potatoes and carrots rolled up in foil and set on the fire—having eaten while watching that beautiful sunset. I am enjoying a bowl of my new favorite tobacco while I write this and Michelle is just enjoying the evening. Such peace. Not the experience we had last night.

We arrived yesterday evening around 6 pm just as the sun was dropping to the horizon. I planned to set up our camp kitchen so Michelle could prepare a wonderful dinner of campfire stew while I set up the tents. Everything worked like clockwork and the site was up before it got too dark to see. But with nightfall came the north wind. It was cold. I was in shorts, having left Houston with 72 degree weather and it was dropping into the low 50s here. I have camped in cold weather and I have a good sleeping bag and I have learned a trick or two from all those Boy Scout camps and military bivouacs about staying warm. The secret is to wrap in a cotton sheet inside the sleeping bag. Helps retain the body’s own heat. This works as long as you’re in the bag. The problem arises when something compels you to leave to bag. Something that makes you walk over to the wonderful facility the most experienced camper always sets up as close to as possible for just such an emergency.

But when it is 40 degrees, that walk is the last thing one wants to make. Going from toasty warm in a bag (OK, my nose was freezing, but I can deal with that) to a teeth chattering, shiver of a walk is a miserable experience. So last night was far from comfortable. Now, tonight, after a trip to Wal-Mart for more supplies, hopefully, we can make it through the night without chattering the teeth out of our heads.

We are looking forward to tomorrow with a hike in the morning (to warm ourselves after what promises to be a cold night again—just check the forcast: 42 degrees—with exercise to get the blood flowing) and canoeing and fishing in the afternoon. The weather says no rain all week, so at least we have that going for us.

Yes, getting back to nature is a wonderful time that everyone should enjoy. Plan carefully, make a list and pack warm and make sure a Wal-Mart is not too far away.

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Filed under Humor, Personal

The Wisdom of Their Years

So today is Michelle’s Birthday and the other day we were trying to plan what to do when we realized that DJ and Lindsey had asked us over to dinner for the evening and when we accepted, it had slipped our minds that it was going to be her birthday. We decided that spending the evening with the kids and grandkids was better than any dinner out any day, so we kept our date with the kids. I made her birthday cake and got the presents together and we headed over to their house.

We had just finished dinner and the cake when Zachary, my youngest grandson, asked for another piece of cake. His mother told him that he didn’t need the sugar, to which the adults all agreed. In fact, with Zac, more sugar would have been like turning the heat up on a pot of boiling water. He didn’t need sugar solely so we could still have a coherent conversation. We didn’t need the sugar for vastly different reasons. To a three-year-old, the sugar is jet fuel, but to an adult metabolism, it is just more luggage. Reyna, my granddaughter, said that sugar didn’t affect her. I replied that was because—since she was a girl—she was already sugar and spice and everything nice.

Her father chimed in that most girls start that way, but as they get older, the sugar burns off and all that is left is spice. His wife and my wife both looked like they couldn’t believe he said that, to which I agreed. This drew raised eyebrows full of promise of something coming my way later.

Reyna turned to her father, and with genuine curiosity, asked “Is the spice the drama?”

We all died laughing. “Out of the mouths of babes” may be a trite and overused cliché, but it is one that is never untrue. “Kids say the darnedest things” may be an old TV show (with the grandmaster of TV Bill Cosby and I tell you there will never be another one anywhere close to his caliber on TV again) but it describes one of the great truths of our species.

Is it any wonder that families with small children are rarely dull? People, if you ever find yourself bored and wanting some cheap entertainment, visit a family with a three-year-old and a four-year-old in the house and you will not want for smiles, grins or belly laughs for the rest of the evening. Or at least until 8 o’clock when the kids’ bedtime comes around. After that it’s back to the club scene or a rented DVD for most.

I just wish I had a digital recorder trained on those kids 24 hours a day. Some of the pearls of wisdom they share should be captured for posterity. Somewhere, amid the endless recitations of Monsters Inc. or Scooby Doo, Where Are You, we will find the greatest truths of our age…from a three year old.

When my nephew Alex was about 6, me and my boys and my brother and his boys all went to the Nantahala mountains for a camping trip. During this trip, we followed my brother’s suggestion and went white water rafting. In preparation for the trip, we listened to the outfitter tell us of the put-outs and the different categories of rapids. He cautioned that we ought to put in by this one turn because of the other side of the turn was a set of Category 6 rapids. My brother said (quite facetiously I might add) we could do that. I added “We laugh at danger.”

Alex turned around with a pale, wide-eyed look on his face, obviously thinking we were serious, and uttered “No, we don’t.”

Never was a truer line uttered.

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Well, the year is coming to a close and 2010 is about to rear-end us if we don’t get out of its way. People everywhere are taking stock of their lives, measuring their accomplishments this year and making resolutions and plans for next year. Many will make the same resolutions this year that they made last year and probably every previous year as far as they can remember. One of—if not THE—most common resolution is to lose weight. It’s on my list to be sure; just as it was last year and the year before that. But resolutions aside, taking stock of the year is not a bad idea.

2009 would probably fade into nothingness for me but for the fact that this was my sister’s last year to be with us. I have a job that I enjoy and look forward to going to every (well—almost every) day. I have a lovely home with plenty of creature comforts to keep me occupied. I have a faithful dog who loves everything I do and even minds me when the mood strikes him. I have two sons who are making their own ways in the world; three grandchildren who light up my life when we get together. And I have a wonderful wife with whom I fall more in love each day. But these are everyday things. I feel grateful for them every day. They were wonderful in 2009 as well as 2008.

What can I say about 2009 that makes it stand out from past years? That is a good question, and one that I am struggling to answer even as I type this. Perhaps that is the lesson to take away from this exercise. It is not necessarily any one year that we need to remember. I mean, aside from birthdays and anniversaries, years run together in memory. What stands out are the moments, not the years. Every moment you have with those who love you and whom you love—well, friends, that is what defines you and that is what is worth remembering.

That is also what should model your resolutions. Resolve to keep loving your loved ones (maybe even love them more, if that is possible). Resolve to find joy in everyday life. Resolve to be productive in your work. Resolve to make life better; not just for you but for those whose lives you touch. And eat less. No, really, I mean it. We all eat too much.

I just volunteered to cook Chicken Parmesan for dinner tonight, which means a trip to the store to get the needed ingredients, and a good amount of time in the kitchen cooking for the in-laws. Not that I mind cooking for my in-laws—I actually enjoy spending time with my wife’s family and I love cooking. That is my problem. I like cooking too much, I think, and by extension, I like eating. So with a meal of chicken parmesan and spaghetti topped off with either a chocolate meringue or lemon icebox pie for desert, I am setting myself up for my great resolution struggle.

But since it is still 2009, I can make this my last heavy meal of the year (no, seriously, I mean it…I really do) and kick off 2010 with my resolution to lose weight beginning anew. And to make sure I do this, I will create a blog specifically to track my progress; this way I can be held accountable by the two or three people who actually read this blog. So, my resolutions are the ones above: to love my loved ones even more, to find joy in every day, to be more productive, to make life better for those around me, and to lose weight. Hopefully, with diligence and support, I can make my rear-end small enough that 2011 won’t hit me on its way in next year.

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Painting a Different Canvas

The battlefield was torn asunder with the tracks of combatants after being weakened with torrential rains. The sky was gray with approaching thunderclouds and the air was thick with moisture from the impending storm. Four men swallowed the apprehension of the coming battle as they triple-checked their weapons before combat commenced. Two would fall. Two would emerge victorious.

My brother and I stood at the ready, our hoppers filled with ammunition and our pods full of refills were at the ready. Our battle masks were checked and in position and we had found our cover and concealment to protect us from the enemy: my two nephews. This was my first time participating in the event. Some call it a sport, and while there is definitely a physical aspect to it, it is more of a game than a sport. Drew, my eldest nephew had been playing several times and my brother, Dean, and his youngest Alex had played at their last post in Hawaii.

The referee, a young man about 19 or so, checked if we were ready before blowing the whistle to start the game. Dean and I fired several rounds in the direction of the enemy lair before moving rapidly to a new firing position with greater field of fire and more cover. Several balls whizzed by my head as my nephews tried to draw a bead on my movement. I saw movement from the enemy stronghold and fired several rounds as Drew dove for cover. Paintballs are very low velocity (even still they sting something fierce) and the wind can carry them off target pretty quickly. Needless to say, on that engagement, Drew was not hit. But I kept him pinned down as my brother tried to get into a better location while firing at Alex.

On the next round, Dean and I fired at the target just as one of them was leaving their shelter. Neither Dean nor I aimed, nor intended on hitting anyone. We just laid down cover fire. But no sooner had we fired did someone holler “I’m hit.” Call it chance, call it luck, it resulted in a kill for us, so we call it providence.

We played something like 10 rounds and got fully covered in mud and paint (though some of us more than others). I was shot in the eye of my mask twice. It is a surreal experience to watch at a kill shot arc right into your face; more so the second time. I will admit there is a sense of satisfaction watching your enemies get splattered with paint from your gun.

Hostilities were ended when all the ammo was expended. I was covered behind a large tire waiting for Drew to lean out too far from his cover and Dean was trying to draw Alex into his line of fire. Dean was hit and left me pinned down on two sides. Paint was flying past me on both sides and it was all I could do to keep them from getting a lock on my position. Fortunately, Alex ran out of ammo and had to leave the game. Drew and I faced off and I knew I had less than half a hopper left. I tried to make Drew shoot and miss, hoping he would run out. I even jumped out and danced a jig trying to taunt him into firing. My ploy worked and he fired several rounds before hollering “I’m out.” We one without one single kill shot in the final game. Kind of disappointing, but a victory is a victory.

We recapped the game as we cleaned up. Alex constantly wondered out loud (and loudly) how we were able to hit them so consistently. My brother just retired from 20 years of active duty Army, and I was a 9-year Vet when I got out in ’93. We were trained for combat. As much as my nephews may play video games and even paintball, nothing prepares one for combat better than combat arms training with the real guns. We won. But we won by one round. Chalk that up to youthful vigor and endurance. All I had was experience and skill. Enough to win, though, so take that youthfulness.

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