Saturday, 9 November 2013

BROTHERS IN ARMS

During quieter times when I'm sort of killing (read: wasting?) time, I like to browse through sites like Google and YouTube and see what's out there. Being a pilot myself, and having an interest in vintage aircraft, I often search out old training videos on aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang or the B-17 Flying Fortress. One day I was on YouTube searching for a video on the B-17 that I had watched before when I came across an image that had been taken from a painting. It showed a B-17 in flight with a German Bf-109 fighter flying beside it. At first glance it didn't look all that significant but upon closer scrutiny, it was obvious that the B-17 had seen better times.

The bomber was riddled with holes from 20 mm cannon fire, flak and smaller caliber bullets. Huge craters had been punched all along the fuselage; half the rudder was missing with the remaining part in tatters. The rear portside (left) horizontal stabilizer had been almost completely shot off; with one engine shut down it was amazing that the airplane was still able to fly.

I clicked on the title and was presented with an ad for a book; a story that touches me deeply every time I revisit the site or pick up the book and read it.

December 20, 1943, and a bomber, piloted by 24 year old Lt. Charlie Brown had been on a run deep into Germany. They had received heavy fire and the plane was extensively damaged. The plane and crew were desperately limping home. Their tailgunner was dead and a couple of waistgunners had been hit badly. Lt. Brown was battling sluggish controls and doing his best to keep the plane aloft and get his crew out of Germany. Besides the airplane being so heavily damaged, there was still the German shore defenses to deal with but Lt. Brown was trying to cope with one problem at a time.

As he was fighting the controls he became aware of something off to the starboard side. He and his co-pilot gaped at the sight a Messerschmidt Bf-109E that had moved in and was flying beside them. The 109 pilot looked at them then lifted up and dropped down beside the portside of the bomber and he and Lt. Brown locked eyes.

Charlie would later recount that when he first saw the 109 he closed his eyes thinking that this was an illusion and would be gone when he opened his eyes again but there it was plain as day, an enemy fighter almost close enough to touch.

But the 109 didn't attack; it flew alongside the crippled bomber, escorting it past the German antiaircraft batteries with their bewildered crews staring at the two airplanes, and stayed with Charlie and his crew until they were out over the North Sea. The fighter pilot then waved and peeled away.

The B-17 was steadily losing altitude but managed to remain in the air until it made it safely back to England and was escorted to the nearest airfield. When they became Feet Dry (over land) their altitude was only 250 feet ASL. Luckily they were able to set the plane down without any further troubles. The wounded were taken away and the crew was debriefed. Eventually, the crew, along with two new members, would fly together again.

For many years nothing would ever be said about that German fighter pilot.

Some years later, Charlie Brown, now a successful inventor, was approached by a journalist to tell him about that incident. All that was in the report was that his ship had sustained heavy damage and they had made it back in (almost) one piece. Charlie was regarded as a hero who had managed to save the lives of all but one of his crew. He had flown a plane that had officials scratching their heads over trying to figure out how that plane flew at all, and gotten back.

Charlie responded saying that he wasn't a hero at all; the real hero was that unknown fighter pilot, who had risked everything to escort them out of Germany when he was duty bound to shoot them down. The journalist was rather astonished to think that Charlie was giving someone else, especially an enemy pilot, the credit. It was then that Charlie told him about the encounter; it was then, in 1987, that Charlie needed to find out who this pilot was.

It took him three years but Charlie Brown managed to locate the lone pilot, now living in Canada, after moving there some eight years after the war ended.

Lt. Franz Stigler had flown for over ten years; flown for the Luftwaffe for six. He had begun the war as a flying instructor, then was able to convince his superiors to transfer him to an actual battlefront. He was first stationed in North Africa then, when the tides began to turn against Germany, he was transferred back home to help defend the Fatherland.

Stigler's commanding officer was a veteran of the Great War. The man was a fierce warrior and an accomplished ace but he also fought by a code; a code of chivalry and honor. He told his pilots never to shoot at someone who couldn't shoot back. 'If I ever catch you shooting at a parachute, I'll shoot you down myself!' He told them, and they believed he'd do just that.

That was a code that Stigler would adhere to for the rest of the war.

As he would later recount, he first saw the B-17 fly overhead, in a northerly heading, obviously trying to get out of the country. He flew up to intercept it and that's when he saw how crippled the bomber was. He could see that there was no tail-gunner as the guns were hanging down. Along the fuselage were numerous jagged craters through which he could see crewmen attending to the wounded.

A quick burst from his 20 mm cannon would've ended the bomber's pitiful life right then and there but Franz made an important decision. 'It would've been like shooting at a parachute,' he would later say; he couldn't shoot it.

So he just escorted it out of Germany. He thought the B-17 would try for Sweden which was a lot closer but being a neutral country, the bomber crew would have no choice but to wait out the war. That might've been OK for Germany's plight but Lt. Stigler could see that the crew, even though badly beaten up, still had a job to do.

And this was not going to be their day to die. He just saluted them and wished them well.

Like Lt. Brown, he would never say anything about that incident until many years later.

Charlie and Franz met at a hotel in Seattle, Washington in 1990. There reunion could only be described as one of mutual respect and brotherly love. Charlie would recount that it was like meeting a brother you hadn't seen in forty years.

For the next 18 years the two of them would share a friendship that would last until they were taken to their eternal rewards. They met often and attended air shows and programs all over the continent; they were hailed as heroes by veterans and families of veterans from both sides of the conflict.

Franz passed away in 2008 at the age of 94. His obituary would read that in addition to his wife and family, he was also survived by his special brother, Charlie Brown. Charlie would pass away later that same year.

Their story is recounted in the book, A Higher Call, by Adam Makos. It shows that no matter the conflict, there are good people on both sides. Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler fought on opposite sides; they took orders and carried them out with the hopes that the ones ordering them into battle knew what they were doing. But in the end, what really mattered is that the fighting stopped and peace reigned supreme.

Charlie and Franz became best friends despite the odds. So, on this Veterans' Day/ Remembrance Day, as I pause to remember those who gave everything in the fight for our freedom, I will also remember two fighting men who became brothers during a dark time in history when war engulfed the world.

May God bless them all...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

GLASS HALF FULL

I started life pretty much as a loner. There was close to three years between my older brother and I, and more than four between my older sister and I. As a result I got a lot of attention. I took to that like a fish to water. Life couldn't have been better until that fateful day in the early autumn of 1955 when my world shattered.

Well, I thought so at the time...

My little utopia was invaded by a little sister. Soon my world seemed to take a back seat to a lot of girl things. Dolls and cut-outs began to invade the space where cars and trucks and tractors once roamed free. Obstacles shaped like dollhouses and baby carriages became part of the landscape where construction and agricultural operations reined supreme.

Sissy stuff. And it was all because of that blond-haired sibling who was always laughing and happy. Her glass was perpetually half full and if it rained today, that was OK because the sun would be shining tomorrow. When would she realize that if it was raining today and the sun was shining tomorrow that the ground would still be muddy?

Glass half full...

Unfortunately I had to face the fact that this new bundle of joy wasn't going anywhere soon and I would have to find some way to pass the time away while she invaded my space.

Back in the fifties we had only one TV channel. CJLH TV, Channel Seven, started broadcasting in 1955. Sometime after that we got our first TV set and after a lot of frustration, Dad got the antenna positioned well enough for a signal strong enough to bring in the likes of Liberace, Ed Sullivan, Gunsmoke and Highway Patrol. In the morning it was Maggie Muggins and Friendly Giant. Unfortunately broadcasting didn't start until sometime in the morning, leaving the only choice to watch, the test pattern (often referred to as the boring Indian movie), which often offered some music. Before the test pattern came on, it was a scene akin to driving through a blizzard, accompanied by the uninterrupted sound of--noise.

Anticipating the oncoming morning programs, Diane would turn on the TV and then sit and wait, watching first the snow, then the test pattern, then The Nation's Business, and finally Friendly Giant. I found out that while the snow was on, I could sneak around the back of the TV, stealthily reach my hand around and with a quick flip of the wrist, crank the volume up to full, making the soft hissing a full fledged roar.

Diane would shriek and run to Mom, who would roust out the wayward troublemaker--me--and dispense severe (to me) justice, usually in the form of the wooden spoon across my butt many times, and followed by being sat on a wooden stool sometimes being forced to remain there until Friendly Giant was over.

Cruel and unusual punishment for sure. 

But somehow, through the years, the rivalry seemed to dissipate, especially when Diane's friends began to grow and mature, and actually become woman-like. Sometimes we would stay up and talk about dates until the wee hours in the morning. I guess it sometimes takes a long time for something good to come out of something not so good.

You could say that we eventually became best friends.

One thing I learned from this seemingly placid, even-tempered sibling was that she wasn't always that way. There were times when she wasn't so easy going. Some advice given to newly weds to determine how well the marriage is going to go is to put up wallpaper together; if you can accomplish that without killing each other, then the marriage has a better than average chance of succeeding. Well, we weren't putting up wallpaper together but Diane and Mom were. I came in at lunchtime and looked at their progress. Having a good eye for detail I noticed that two sheets didn't quite line up in a very remote corner of the dining room. I thought I'd mention it, just in passing. Not to be critical or anything.

That turned out to be a bad idea. Diane took offence to that little bit of criticism and unloaded a barrage of retorts, combined with a number of nasty words that would've made a sailor blush. I quickly took my leave and headed back outside before that long wooden pole she used to push that pasty paper high up on the wall got used as a weapon. To this day, I find myself thinking that if wallpaper does that to a woman's demeanor, the walls would best be left as they were.

Hmmm, bare plywood, or how about cardboard? Yeah, take the cartons that the new appliances came in and staple that to the studs? No paint, no wallpaper, just give all those who come to visit a felt marker and let them write some graffiti...

Fast forward a few years to when Mikenzie decided to put up wallpaper in our house. Let's just say that I would rather put up new shelves in the pantry, in the hall and kitchen closets, wash the vehicles, mow the lawn, get rid of the weeds, spread gravel, and drive uptown to purchase personal feminine products for her than help with the wallpaper.

And we got along just great!

Diane and I worked reasonably well together. If sick animals had to be looked after, we did what needed to be done. She was a lot of help. But she was also a little vulnerable to some of my pranks. Diane had been up in the alley in the north part of the feedlot working with a couple of colts we had in a small pen up there when I called her over to help me sort some yearling bulls. After we finished that task Diane headed back up the alley to continue her work with the colts and I headed up to do some repairs to the mangers at the north end of the lot. The east wall of the alley consisted of an eight foot high solid board fence. It had been there for a while and the elements were starting to take their toll, the ever present west wind breaking the odd slab, leaving a window or two that allowed one to see into the northeast pen. Diane was meandering up the alley next to the board fence and I was on the outside. I guess she didn't really know my exact whereabouts and had other things on her mind anyways. I simply stopped right there and turned, my face in the opening. Diane walked by and saw something out of the corner of her eye. She stopped and turned, not recognizing me at first but seeing more of a strange person framed in the broken board.

You'd have thought she'd seen a ghost. At least the expression on her face showed that. I don't recall that she shrieked or not but she was caught off guard. Luckily her reaction wasn't as severe as the aforementioned wallpaper.

Diane's ultimate goal was to be a housewife and mother. To achieve that, she had to find that perfect man. She started with a couple of my friends, and I honestly thought she'd do alright with one of them. I might add that I was a little miffed when she dropped them like a hot potato when Grant entered the picture. Of course I didn't know Grant like I knew my friends. Sometimes new friendships need some time to grow and develop and as Diane and Grant embarked on a life together, I began to get to know Grant and soon I realized what Diane saw and appreciated in him.

And that dream of becoming a mother was multiplied, not only by six but by a continuing further generation that is truly a gift.

Diane and I kept in touch, even when she and Grant moved halfway across the country. That telephone shortened the distance and it seemed that something was missing when we didn't have our monthly conversation. Any time something new came into my life she was often the first to know. And, I might add, when things in my life derailed, she was also the first to know. Needless to say, there was no doubt that when Mikenzie came into my life, Diane was the first family member (after Dad) I introduced her to.

So now as I pay tribute to a wonderful sister and friend, I have to say thanks. Thanks for being there for me, even when I didn't deserve it. I am indebted to you. Happy birthday, Three-score, minus two. May you have many more.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

FED UP

It's with a bit of trepidation that I present this post. I originally wrote it over twenty years ago and it has been passed around some of my circles, all of whom enjoyed it, and have told me time and again that I should post it on my blog. However, when I started putting this together I became aware of many similar versions being told and retold in coffee shops and family gatherings, church socials and post offices, ranging from locations in Alberta to Montana, North and South Dakota to Saskatchewan, and Nebraska. Their origins were long before I was around. Since the story was told by a local handyman who hailed from Kansas, I'm using Kansas as the location of this story. I might add that there were some good things coming out of the Great Depression: a lot of good stories that were just as bizarre as this one. However, this story was first heard by JC in the local coffee shop in the fall of 1968 when he and Tude were taking a break from some earth moving chores. The story was originally told by Charlie, apparently a relative of one of the actual players, although so much water has run under the bridge in the intervening years that, everyone who is still living has forgotten just who he was related to. And he can no longer tell you, either.

Now, if I am treading on someone's toes, I am sorry. But it's about time this particular story was told.

So, here is the story, as told to JC (and the rest of Coffee Row who was there at the time) by Charlie, the local school handyman, and embellished (maybe, just a bit) by me. We'll call the leading character, Al, because it's short, easy to remember, and I can't remember what the original character's name was. Al's mother-in-law will be known as, Zelda, no explanation necessary.

Stories about mothers-in-law have run rampant since--well--there have been mothers-in-law. That (mostly fictional) overbearing, demanding, demeaning, meddlesome, parasol-brandishing blight on humanity has been the object of jokes and other stories in nearly every culture around the world. It has even made a great deal of mileage on radio and TV, being immortalized in popular shows such as The Flintstones and Bewitched. For years men (and women) have contrived to get even with that most notorious and undesirable part of matrimony, only to have the scheme backfire, leaving the triumphant mother-in-law waggling her finger at her son or daughter and uttering those four magic words: 'I told you so.' All in all, that beleaguered son, or daughter-in-law can get pretty fed up with those all-too-often encounters with their spousal matriarch. But did anyone pause to think that someone or something else might be just as weary, and just as determined to wage vengeance?

It was late spring, 1935, in the Kansas Dust Bowl. The Depression was still raging on with no end in sight but somehow people managed to get by. They worked together, played together, and helped each other out the best they could. As a result, the community was close, to the point of everyone knowing what everyone else was up to. The upside to this was knowing what others needed. And it was one of the things that attracted Al's wife to move out west.

Celeste came from Philadelphia, which like New York City, was the self-acclaimed cultural center of the United States. In other words, the elite considered themselves superior to anyone else, especially the peasants from the Midwest. Celeste's family could never understand why she fell for the likes of Al but then, they never knew how much true love could motivate a person. Misgivings were many but the couple built a life together.

Once a year, Zelda took the train out to Kansas and stayed--rather, endured the hillbilly lifestyle--for an average of six weeks where Al was largely ignored while Celeste was bombarded with how her life could have amounted to something if she had only heeded her mother's advice and married Alexander Schtuckupp or some other equally boring aristocrat instead of some back country hayseed whose idea of modern indoor plumbing was a pump jack over the kitchen sink, and a nocturnal visit to the bathroom required a lantern, coat and boots. And when Al's presence was acknowledged, he endured a continuous barrage of insults, demands and constant reminders about how he had ruined Celeste's--Zelda's daughter's--life.

But it was only for six weeks. And who was counting?

Al's family car at the time was the battered remains of a Ford Model-A Open-Touring or Tub, as that body style was often referred. This one was even more open as the windshield was long gone; the only evidence that one ever existed was the two tarnished nickel-plated supports on the cowl which now led a new life as a place to hang a hat and coat whilst performing roadside repairs.

Six weeks over with and the day of departure finally arrived. Al wasted no time heading out to get the car ready for that eternally joyous six-mile journey back into town. Al even had a spring in his step as he fairly pranced around the car, checking the oil and topping up the gas tank. Everything was going so well, until he happened to see a large dark spot under the front of the car.

The radiator core had finally given up the ghost and dumped all of the coolant on the ground. Al tried to top it up but water just ran out everywhere; there must have been a dozen leaks. It looked like the only way he could keep water in the radiator was to have someone straddle the hood with a bucket of water and keep the radiator topped up that way.

'Oh, Zelda, Dear...'

But all was not lost. Al was a resourceful person and he'd get his mother-in-law to that train if he had to harness the milk cow and hitch her to the buckboard. Before he had to resort to that though, he still had some ideas on how to get out of his predicament.

Al used to drive a Model-T, the precursor to the Model-A. He also had an ultra-modern John Deere D Two-Speed tractor. Both of them had plagued Al with radiator leaks, which were quickly and easily fixed with a little American Ingenuity in the form of a few handfuls of rolled oats. Toss in some rolled oats, add water and give it time to circulate around while the water soaked into the oats and caused them to swell and clog the leak. Of course if one overdid that, the radiator tubes could be just as easily clogged.

A Model-A wasn't all that different from a Model-T--Was it? Well, the Model-A used the new sliding-gear transmission which meant that it always had a low and reverse gear, while the Model-T could leave you stranded at the bottom of a hill with both gears out. And when you rushed into the general store to pick up a pouch of tobacco, you could leave your Model-A idling in the street, to actually find it in the same place when you came out again. The archaic Model-T with its planetary transmission tended to creep away and eventually drive off without you. Many a Model-T owner was seen chasing his Flivver down the street and across the church lawn before the cursed thing attempted to make a new entrance through the side of the building.

Yes, I heard about the announcement for those attending Weight Watchers to use the new double-doors at the side of the building.

 Back to the Model-T versus the Model-A, the radiators were similar and they both had a fan; that was similar enough...

Rolled oats, it was. But Al suddenly recalled something that was said in the coffee shop some time ago regarding that repair procedure. 'Mix up a paste of rolled oats, and wheat bran,' somebody said, 'Start the engine then add the goop along with more water. That way there will be a better chance of sealing the leak without plugging up the radiator.' That sounded like good advice so Al did just that; he mixed up a paste of that sickly-looking gruel, started the engine and proceeded to pour it in with water from the rain barrel.

Just like they had with his old Model-T and the John Deere tractor, the leaks began to dissipate until they had almost stopped entirely. For good measure Al decided to toss in an extra handful of rolled oats, then filled a cream can full of water and set it on the floor in the back for the trip to town.

Zelda came out of the house, clad in her overstuffed, overpriced Navy blue travel dress with the white polka-dots. She also wore a gargantuan three-storey hat that must have dated back to somewhere near 19--0--Titanic. She constantly brandished her ever present parasol, which Al thought to be totally unnecessary as the hat itself offered enough shade to double for the big top at the circus. Al carefully secured Zelda's steamer trunk onto the rear luggage rack then set her three sizeable, well-filled carpet bags onto the rear floor beside the cream can. He politely helped his mother-in-law into the passenger seat then slid in behind the wheel and braced himself for the six remaining miles he still had to endure before dropping Zelda off at the train station.

And he prayed that the train wouldn't be late.

They hadn't made it out of the yard before Zelda started in. She should be taking her daughter and her grandchildren back to a life of culture. The very nerve of this Neanderthal sweeping her daughter off her feet and dragging her off to some desolate cowtown where there wasn't even a decent theater group. "Mark my words, those boys are going to end up just like John Dillinger or Clyde Barrow because they've got no guidance and no hope for the future!"

And on and on...  Maybe those boys would take a shine to a Thompson machine gun and use their grandmother for target practice...

Al could dream, couldn't he?

Al kept his peace, counting the minutes until he was finally able to turn this blimp with an attitude over to the conductor. Maybe a quick drink at the local saloon afterwards would settle his nerves and make this whole thing worthwhile.

The one thing that Al never bothered to consider between the Model-T and the Model-A was that the A was equipped with a water pump. Until then, Ford--and even John Deere--had been satisfied to let Mother Nature's law of Thermo-Siphon do the circulating. Water heats up in the engine block and cylinder head then naturally rises up through the upper rad hose to the radiator on its own accord. It cools off in the rad which makes it more dense and thus heavier, so it settles to the lower part of the radiator where it rises through the lower hose back to the engine and repeats the cycle. Suffice it to say that the water pump tended to hurry the process.

Unfortunately, in this case, there was something that didn't want to be hurried up.

In the 30s and even the 40s--with the exception of those more modern pressurized cooling systems--a radiator cap was a rather rare commodity. With one constantly having to top up the radiator to combat the numerous leaks, the cap was usually forgotten on the fender and subsequently fell off somewhere along the--usually dirt--road. Or else someone who had lost his own rad cap before and couldn't bear to be without one simply boosted a replacement from the car of some unsuspecting owner when no one was looking. Of course there was always a car with an unsightly piece of a shovel handle jammed into the opening as well. At any rate no one paid much mind to that minor inconvenience as that little wisp of steam that streamed back from the filler neck gave indication that the cooling system was full and functioning properly...

Sort of.

Three miles to go and Zelda was into her third tirade. After berating Al for being such a dismal failure and how he'd missed his golden opportunity to become some big steel tycoon in the east, instead of becoming a dirt farmer in the Kansas dustbowl, and subsequently depriving his wife--her daughter-- of the better things in life, she was now complaining that the wind had shifted a bit giving that wisp of steam from the rad a more direct line to her face. She was about to repeat herself, lest her son-in-law(?), no, that bum that married her daughter forget every word she said, when there was a deep gurgling sound from the depths of the radiator. A wisp of steam, somewhat larger than unusual, blew out from the open neck, spraying the hood and cowl of the car.

Then, as if Mount Vesuvius, itself erupted, a blob of yellowish oatmeal, water and rust blasted forth, the wind catching it and plastering Zelda in the face and running down the front of her fancy dress. Zelda, a mixture of surprise, shock and indignation, opened her mouth to really give Al a piece of her mind when another blob of piping hot baby vomit caught her squarely in the chops and added to that glistening mess that had already ruined her attire. Another attempted outburst netted the same result so the ever resourceful Zelda opened her parasol in an attempt to ward off the assault on her person. But another blob caught the edge of the umbrella and dribbled down into her lap. At the same time a gust of wind caught Zelda's flimsy shield, flipping it inside out and rendering it more useless than it originally was. Another biological mortar was propelled into that monstrosity of a hat of hers, forever destroying its cosmetic effect.

By the time they made it into town, Zelda was plastered in slimy goo from head to foot, giving passers by the impression that she'd been violently ill. That oversized hotel-convention center of a hat had been reduced to something reminiscent of dilapidated, flat-roofed tenement dwelling, slated for demolition. And poor Zelda had been miraculously transformed from something reminiscent of Taz, the Tasmanian Devil into a subdued, whimpering subservient shell of a human being. Despite Al's suggestion for her to see a doctor, she was not going to risk missing that train and having to remain one more day in this miserable wide spot in the road.

Much to the tremendous relief of her son-in-law.

The train was on time and Zelda, enduring the humiliation of boarding while still clad in that filthy outfit, was on her way back to the real world of theater, horse races, ballet, and pomposity.

Al did stop for that (celebratory?) drink at the saloon to steady his nerves; he might've even had a couple more. Surprisingly enough, that old Model-A's radiator never so much as let out a burp on the way home, and that makeshift repair on the radiator held up for the better part of a year when Al could afford to fix it properly.

The word quickly spread about Al's beloved tub exacting it's revenge upon a rather unwelcome passenger. Some of his friends even asked if they could borrow the car to transport their own mothers-in-law to the train.

Zelda? Well, the train's attendant successfully treated her for minor scalds to her face and hands. She recovered fully and never berated Al again. I might add that it would be ten years before she would be able to make the trek back out west again because of the war. Time tended to mellow her out but on the other hand, Al was able to become a successful farmer, successful enough to be able to build a new house (from the Montgomery Ward catalogue) with real indoor plumbing. He even bought a newer car with a closed in body and complete with a hood that covered the radiator and cap. Those acquisitions, plus seeing the kids growing and developing into responsible citizens, convinced her that just maybe she'd misjudged him.

Just a bit...

Saturday, 4 May 2013

DRIVE IN

In the decades following the war, people who bought new cars and trucks opted to drive them home from the factory. This practice, for a time, saved the cost of shipping the vehicles and offered the new owner an opportunity to see some other parts of the country; take a vacation if you will. JC's dad brought a couple of new three-ton farm trucks home that way, and even piggybacked a couple of new pickups home for the dealer in the process. JC's Uncle Woodie, who ran a thriving dealership in the home town, and a good friend, Ronnie, took the train out and drove a couple of new cars home. That particular event could almost make a story in itself. Suffice it to say that there were a couple of days when progress was rather slowed because of those buildings conveniently situated at the side of the road with numerous neon signs in the windows. JC's Uncle Alonzo, who could compete directly with Jack Benny for being frugal (to downright cheap), decided to save some money and made arrangements to pick up his new car at the factory.

It was in the late forties, somewhere around 1948, and Lonnie received word that his new car was on the immediate schedule to go down the assembly line. Lonnie took the train to Detroit, stayed overnight and visited the factory the next morning. He even managed to wrangle a factory tour in the process. Even for a cattleman, Lonnie was fascinated with how quickly a car went from the bare frame to an actual vehicle being driven off the line fully assembled two hours later. He was a little disappointed not to actually see his car being put together but he was able to see a lot just like it so that part of the trip was worthwhile.

Lonnie's car was processed, he was handed an envelope which contained all the necessary documents and, the most important thing of all, the keys to his new pride and joy. All formalities out of the way, he happily slid in behind the wheel of his new acquisition and headed for the highway.

Lonnie had never been to New York City and since Detroit was a lot closer to the Big Apple than the sun bleached prairies of home, he thought he might just as well take the time and see what NYC had to offer. He made the trip in good time, the new car purring right along, running better and better with each passing mile. A couple of days on the road and he was in the famous city.

It was after dark and Lonnie got a room in a hotel just off a rather narrow street near the top of a steep hill. He had no choice but to park his car in the street, facing downhill. Taking the necessary precautions, like leaving the transmission in low gear and turning the front wheels into the curb, he locked the car and went into his room to retire for the night.

Being an early riser, Lonnie was up and ready to face the day. He was one of the first to enter the coffee shop where he was shown to a table near the windows. Out of habit he picked up a copy of one of the local newspapers and took it to the table with him. He was always one who wanted to be kept informed on current events, even the local ones. Who knew, there might even be something to take home to Coffee Row.

Apparently there had been a car accident on one of the city's streets the night before and the paper had the full story plastered across the front page. The driver of a small delivery truck had misjudged the corner as he turned down a steep hill. He was unable to avoid bumping into a car that was parked at the curb. The report mentioned that it was merely a bump, which didn't inflict any initial damage but still exerted enough force to cause the car's front wheels to jump up and over the curb.

Back in those days, car engines didn't have a lot of compression so it didn't take much to get them spinning over. Add to that the steep hill, and even a dead vehicle could get rolling at a fair rate of speed.

Well, here it was, a car innocently bumped from behind, jumped the curb and rolled for a short distance down the sidewalk. Since the wheels were turned to the right, the car tended to continue in that direction, eventually veering right over and crashing through the front window of a store. By the time it came to a stop, the car was completely inside the premises with only the rear bumper and the taillights sticking out.

Lonnie read the article and shook his head in sympathy for the victim. 'Poor bugger,' he thought, 'one helluva way to start his day; somebody crashing into his car and wrecking it.' He studied the picture some more and to his mild surprise, he noticed that the license plate was from out of state; in fact the car was registered in Lonnie's stomping grounds. 'Coincidence,' he thought as he read on, 'I'd hate to be in that guy's shoes, this far away from home and somebody wrecks his car.'

He finished his breakfast and checked out of the hotel. Bags in hand, he proceeded outside into the late fall weather. As he walked down the hotel's wide sidewalk, he glanced over to the curb where he thought he'd parked his car. He was sure that he'd left it up the street from the hotel's entrance but not that far away. But then, it was fairly late, so it could've been further away.

Too bad remote keyless entry hadn't been invented yet.

Down the street, three or four places down from the hotel, there was quite a commotion. A couple of police officers were directing traffic while a tow truck was dragging a late model sedan, glass shards littering its roof, out of a building. 'Must be the car from the paper,' Lonnie thought as he watched the progress. He was surprised that he didn't hear the racket from the accident the night before as his room faced the street.

The tow truck finally had the car clear from the building. 'Damn! That's the same model as my new car,' Lonnie thought. He then gazed at the empty space at the curb where he had thought he'd parked his car. It was then that he noticed black tire tracks on the sidewalk. They continued over to the yard of a neighboring building. Ruts in the yard formed a trail into the next yard, through a low hedge and into the fourth yard where they headed right up to the front of that store. A sickening feeling began to take over as Lonnie realized what had just happened.

'Damn! That's my car!'

Yes it was Lonnie's new car that had been the victim of last night's accident. Fortunately the damage was mostly superficial and, with the exception of having to get a wheel alignment, the car was driveable. It would later be fixed in a shop at home. The company that owned the delivery truck assumed responsibility so at least Lonnie wasn't out of pocket for the damages. Unfortunately he had to stay in town for a couple more days than he'd planned to, but he was able to make the trip home without any more collisions.

And Lonnie, he opted to pay the freight charges on his next new car and stay home.  

Saturday, 16 February 2013

THE SURPRISE PARTY

JC married late in life. Into his early thirties anyways. When he did enter into that (back then) act of lunacy the greater majority was left wondering just what the heck he was thinking of. Actually no one thought that marriage was wrong for JC; they just thought his choice of companion left something to be desired. Like, she clearly wasn't a match for JC and she had a couple of kids who were no doubt victims of a turbulent past. Consequently they had problems of their own, the worst, thinking that the world owed them a living. Although his then better-half initially attempted to keep a peaceful co-existance, things soon fell to pieces.

Surprisingly enough, it did last almost fifteen years which was quite an achievement as previous attempts (for her) hadn't made it past five. Of course that could also mean that the first family patriarchs were smarter. Anyways, the marriage from hell was over and JC was quite content to live the rest of his days on his own.

That is, until the cupid shot a real arrow (this time) and JC suddenly found himself in a romance that would forever change his life.

Mattie was the type of woman that JC only dreamed of sharing his life with, but that was as far as it went. It seemed that JC's friends were the ones who were lucky enough to find a woman like Mattie. So when the real Mattie came into his life, JC found himself wondering if this was really happening to him, or if it was some sort of a mirage.

But Mattie was (and still is) JC's devoted wife and JC became her foremost priority, as Mattie became JC's.

Well, to back up a bit, JC hit the half century mark alone. He would be closing in on 51 by the time he met Mattie. 'I didn't mind hitting 50,'  he told Mattie one time, 'I just didn't want to celebrate it by myself. But it looks like I did, and I survived.' That comment got Mattie thinking and what she came up with was something no one is likely to forget for a long time.

It was nearing the end of September. JC's brother was coming up from Montana and his sister was headed down from Edmonton. Since Max and his lady friend were never far away, and the weather was nice, JC and Mattie thought it would be a good idea to have everyone come over to their house for a barbecue.

They planned it for the Friday when everyone would be in town and little else was said. Of course Mattie was into it full throttle, buying groceries and doing up a large kettle full of chili, not to mention salads and everything else that goes with an outdoor barbecue party. They had picked up a couple of beef tenderloins, chicken breasts, weiners and hamburgers, and JC, who had become quite skilled at grilling anything non-vegetarian, cut up steaks and prepared everything for the grill.

Surprising how JC never clued in on things like that tremendous pot of chili, or when he and daughter, Kammi, sampled it for lunch one day, only to have Mattie get after them for not saving the chili for the get-together on Friday. However, she simply made up another batch, added it to the existing one and nothing more was said.

I guess in retrospect, JC did think it was a little strange as to why there was such a gigantic kettle of chili when there was just Max and Shirley, LB, his brother, who brought Sara, his daughter. JC's sister, Dana, and her husband, Grant, rounded off the guest list with the rest being Mattie, Kammi, and JC. There was going to be a lot of chili left over for lunches...

Friday came around soon enough. JC came home from work and found Mattie, other than being glad to see him, spiriting him off to the bedroom to at least change his shirt that perpetually reeked of diesel fumes. JC did as he was told and came out clad in a clean work shirt. Mattie scooted him right back into the bedroom with instructions to put on more of a party shirt. 'You're home now, wear a nice Hawiian shirt; save those drab old gray work shirts for work.'

JC did as he was told and came out, clad in a loud golf shirt. No comment to the contrary so he headed out to the deck and fired up the grill, allowing it time to warm up before the guests arrived.

Max and Shirley were the first on the scene and JC kept up a lively dialogue with them whilst checking the grill to make sure that it was ready for the meat. Dana and Grant showed up soon afterwards and since they'd be staying in the spare room downstairs, they stashed their luggage in the room and came right upstairs to join the rest.

Somewhere between trips out to the deck, a couple of local friends, AJ and Olga, showed up. 'We were driving by,' AJ said, 'we just decided to stop in.'

JC was more than happy to see them; they had been there when JC's life had derailed a few years before and were still there when JC and Mattie were getting together. 'We're just about to barbecue some steaks,' he said. 'Stick around and I'll get them on.'

Back out to the deck. The grill was ready and JC came back in for the meat. The doorbell rang just then. 'JC, would you mind getting that?' Mattie asked sweetly. 'I'm busy with this salad.'

JC muttered something about having to get the meat on the grill but went to the door without much complaining. He opened it to find lifelong friend, Dennie, and his wife, Dolores, along with Gord, who had been JC's classmate/co-class clown from first grade right through till high school graduation, standing on the step.

JC was caught completely off guard. Dumfounded would be a more suitable term. Here were three of his best friends from his old home town, people he hadn't seen for years, showing up right in the middle of a family party. Is this a bad time? Gord asked.

Now I have to interject right here and let everyone know that there is a difference of opinion as to exactly what happened next. JC claims one thing and Mattie insists that it went somewhat differently. I suppose they'll never completely agree on it but either version is bizarre to say the least. Let's start with JC's version:

'Uh,' JC stammered, 'uh--we're just having a family get-together and... Aw, hell! I don't send my friends away--ever! Come on in.'

JC and Mattie hadn't been together all that long and he wasn't sure if Mattie was all that interested in seeing JC's friends, especially those showing up unannounced like this. In a previous life JC's friends (and his family for that matter) though they were always welcome at any time in as far as JC was concerned, to his former spouse, they were about as welcome as a tax audit. There had been occasions when his former had simply locked herself in the bedroom leaving JC to entertain his friends alone. Then he got the third degree for days afterwards. Consequently JC was nervous at the sight of his friends. The ultimate question: Would Mattie be upset if JC invited his friends who were fifty miles away from home, standing on his doorstep at suppertime no less, in for supper and a visit? JC made a decision and that was for his friends to stay...

Now for Mattie's version:

'Uh, JC stammered, 'uh...'

'JC,' Mattie said. 'This is a party...'

'I know,' JC responded as if he was in a trance.

'This is a surprise party...'

'I know,' JC repeated himself, still being the deer in the headlights.

'This is a surprise party for you; I invited all your friends.'

Upon hearing that, JC turned around. He saw the decorations that had suddenly sprung up everywhere in the house. Dana had put them up on the walls, the bannister, the furniture and almost on the people who were already there. 'For me?' he said almost incredulously. 'Oh my god!' To his friends, he said: 'Come on in. I never turn my friends away.'

JC insists that whichever version is used, he said: 'I never turn my friends away.'

Some claim that Mattie's version is funnier but JC is still pretty sure his version is more accurate. However, it seems that those who were there tend to favor Mattie's story...

The guests continued to stream in until the house was almost bursting. Mattie's sister, Jill, showed up with her family. Her son, Jonas, took over the grilling chores thus preventing JC from hiding his embarrassed self from the rest of the crowd.

Val, Gord's wife, showed up with a gigantic birthday card she had made for JC and backdated it to his fiftieth birthday (JC had a reputation of not being a hurry for anything anyways). Using numerous candybars for props the card told a funny but true story about JC's life and how it intertwined with his friends. Everyone enjoyed it.

The food was dished up and quickly consumed, including the chili. Mattie brought out a cake, the frosting of which bore a picture of JC. How she had managed to keep that out of sight, JC will never know.

The party went on till late that night. Everyone had a good time although JC was still in a state of shock, which, I might add, he is still in to this day. Afterall, no one ever threw a party for him.

Until then...

JC kept the giant card and even though the candy has long since been consumed, the wrappers remain in place to tell the story just the way Val wrote it. To this day, he still endures the occasional dig about the time he almost sent his special friends away from his own surprise party. And, to this day, he still argues about it.

But on the other hand, it was a surprise party, and there's nothing better than a party that surprises everyone.

TO CATCH A THIEF

In pre 80s small town America, cafeterias were nonexistant and lunchboxes/lunchbags were mandatory, unless the student could go the entire day without something to eat. Starting somewhere in middle school, then progressing into high school, the usual corps of lunch thieves established itself then grew into a perpetual machine all its own. Keeping a watchful eye for the most likely sources of goodies, the squad of vultures (usually 2 to 3 in number) scanned the lunchboxes as they were secured into the lockers then, at the most opportune moment (i.e. when the victim was out of sight), they swooped down devouring everything, leaving only the wax paper and the paint on the lunchbox. Lunch thieves were a fact of life and most got dealt with in one way or another. JC once caught a guy, red-handed, rummaging through his lunchbox. He promptly showed the thief the error of his ways by making a dent in the locker door with the thief's head.

Cross JC off the list of possibles; he's too dangerous...

About ten miles up the road was another community which contained a school complete with all the things to ensure the usual pecking order within the student ranks. And that included the gang of lunch thieves.

Monte was a little small for his age but lots of hard work on the farm made him tough and wiry beyond most of his peers. He didn't stand for any fooling around but, like so many others, he was powerless to stop the rampaging lunch thieves as they, being the cowards they were, struck when no one else was around. Bette, Monte's mother, was a good cook and baker and always supplemented her boys' lunches with fresh baking in the form of cake, cookies, butterhorns and brownies. Unfortunately that made the boys' lunches, especially Monte's, a prime target. Sometimes Monte would come home ravenous because the thieves had stolen his entire lunch.

One could assume that Monte was a tough kid but one of the worst mistakes that the thieves made was underestimating Bette.

Bette came from a large family of tough, hard-working kids and she also went to school where she learned what it was like to have her lunch stolen. When her treats repeatedly disappeared, her mother made some blueberry tarts then got word to the teacher and principal, telling them that there was a problem, adding how to identify the perps. Like everything else the tarts were stolen but the teacher simply made all the kids stand up and smile.

Blue smiles--busted...

What do for her own kid? Bette smiled as an idea began to formulate. She went into the kitchen, clad herself in full battle regalia (apron and spatula) and got to work. She got out the mixing bowls, the pans, the ingredients and started mixing. Eggs, butter, white sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, all purpose flour, a dash of salt and even some chopped walnuts went in to make this the best batch of brownies ever. While the oven was preheating, Bette went into the bedroom and emerged with that special ingredient that would make this batch stand out like no other. She unwrapped the foil packages and dropped the dark cubes into a saucepan, heated them until they were completely melted and folded them into the mix, stirring it well, then poured everything into the pans which were promptly put into the oven. While the batch was baking she even mixed up a chocolat frosting into which was mixed more of that extra special ingredient.

The boys came home from school and were immediately greeted with the smell of fresh baking. They ran to the brownies and were told not to touch them as that batch was for a special occasion in town. They were then directed to a batch that was just emerging from the oven.

Brownies one day, Toll-house cookies the next; chocolate cake after that. Over the next three days Bette packed Monte's lunch and cautioned him not to eat the treats and that she'd bring in some fresher ones before lunchtime. When Monte questioned her she just told him that the batch already in his lunch was to identify the thieves once and for all. Well, each time Monte went for his lunchbox the brownies were gone but the perps had at least left his sandwiches. But Mom came to the rescue because just as the kids were leaving for lunch break, she was there with a package for Monte.

A few days later, Bette was in the supermarket. She ran into some other housewives/mothers from her home town and it was interesting how the conversations went.

'I had to keep Dennis home for two days so far. He's got Diarrhea so bad...' '...I'm going to have to take Trent to the doctor. He woke up in the middle of the night with the Hershey Squirts; he couldn't even make it out of bed before his system erupted. Now he's so dehydrated...' '...Kristen won't come out of the bathroom; she's so sick...' 'Well, Justin couldn't even make it from the bus to the house; ...it was running down his legs...'

Gross!

Bette just kept as straight a face as she could. 'My boys are fine but I just keep telling them not to accept any food from anyone else; you just never know what ailments kids might be bringing from home.'

As the old saying goes: Exlax cleans like a white tornado. Maybe Bette should've used only one packet instead of the whole box. But then, if kids don't remember the consequences of their actions, they are forced to repeat them.