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Stories from the road

The Journey

We were on our way to somewhere. Traveling in a large RV through the countryside, we watched the sun dip below the horizon and the bright greens of summer slowly become shades of black. I looked down to see the gas gauge floating at half-full and I had not seen a gas station for miles.

Not knowing how far we were from where we were going, I turned to dad and said, “I’m going to stop at the next gas station I see to fill up. I’m a little worried about running out of gas.” Dad seemed lost in thought, but he turned to me and the familiar gaze indicated to me he hadn’t understood, or maybe had not heard what I had said.

“I’m going to stop for gas, soon,” I repeated louder. Dad nodded and smiled as if to acknowledge he had heard what I said this time.

A few miles later a white clapboard store appeared on the left. Several cars were on the lot in front and a neon “open” sign pierced the dusk. As I got closer I could see two old gasoline pumps in front of the store under a small canopy just large enough to protect the pumps, and maybe a customer pumping gas, from the day’s weather.

“I’m going to stop here, dad.” Dad just stared ahead and said nothing as I pulled in next to the pumps. I climbed down from the RV, opened the tank cap, pulled the hose off the pump, flipped the pump switch and began refueling.

It was dark now. The one fluorescent blub flickering above the pumps and dim glow from the store window was barely enough light for me to see the gallon markers slowly roll by as I refilled the tank. The steady click of the pump gave way to the soft sounds of frogs and insects calling into the night. I took a deep breath and pulled in the warm, sweet air of summer in the country. There were hundreds of lightning bugs in the meadow across the road and I wondered if I could catch enough in a jar to light my way home as I did when I was a boy.

The pump shut off with a loud click and pulled me back into the moment.

“It sure is a nice night,” I called up to dad in the RV as I replaced the hose. “The air smells so fresh and clean.” Dad didn’t respond. I was sure he hadn’t heard me.

I went into the store to pay for the gasoline and as I was walking out, I saw dad get into the driver’s seat. I ran toward RV, calling out for him to wait. Without ever looking at me, he started the RV, pulled away from the pumps and onto the road, and then drove off in the direction we were going. As I watched him drive away, I wondered when he would remember we were traveling together.

I pulled the phone from my pocket and brought up his contact card. I’ll call his cell phone or text him, I thought, before I remembered he probably wouldn’t hear his phone and if he did, he wouldn’t answer it while he was driving.  I put the phone back in my pocket and looked up to find the lights at the store and the flickering fluorescent above the pumps were off.

As my eyes to readjusted to the darkness, I noticed the night was clear and the sky was full of the brightest stars. The lightning bugs in the meadow across the road were gone and the frogs and insects were now silent. I walked back to the store and knocked on the door.

A voice answered from the other side, “Yeah? Who is it!?”

“I’m David Harkins. I was your last customer,” I answer. “My dad just drove off without me and….”

Cutting me off the voice said, “What do you want me to do about it?”

I didn’t know. If I could only remember where we were going, maybe I could catch up with dad somehow. Or maybe I could get him a message.

“Nothing, I suppose…,” I said. I turned around, sat down on the stoop and closed my eyes .  I wondered where I would sleep that night, whether dad would remember to come back for me, and how I would get home if he did not. As I thought about my situation in the silence of the night, I heard music in the distance.

The music grew gradually louder, like a car approaching with its windows down and the radio playing at its highest volume. A wave of relief flowed down my body. Dad must have remembered me! I wouldn’t be stuck tonight. I was so glad to know dad would drive again because I didn’t know where I was going! The music got louder and when it felt in front of me, I slowly opened my eyes.

Soft morning sunlight streamed through my bedroom windows. I took a deep breath, and rolled over to turn off the music now blasting from my alarm clock.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. The journey’s a little different without you.

An unlikely friendship

The teacher, Miss McCabe, had pre-arranged us alphabetically by our last name and taped a tag with our full name on the front of our desks. She had been a teacher for a long time, and this must have been her method of quickly learning the names and faces of her new first grade students. When we came into the room, she asked us to find our names and take our seats. It was our first test, and few of us received a gold star.

Since I only lived a half-block from the elementary school, I was one of the first kids in the classroom on that day. I was already fidgeting in my seat when she brought Kevin to the desk in front of me and introduced us. As soon as he situated himself at his desk, he turned around, and we started talking. I liked him immediately.

I think we probably talked through the first two times Miss McCabe asked everyone to pay attention because I distinctly remember her standing in front of Kevin and looking down at us while we talked. He seemed to feel her presence and turned around slowly with a grin.

One of the first facts Miss McCabe taught us was how to pronounce the name of our school, “Tiskelwah” (the “l” is silent) and its origin—Native America or “Indian,” which was the word we used in 1969. Tiskelwah, she told us, was what the Indians called the nearby Elk River and it meant “river of fat elk” in English. I remember snickers and Kevin getting a case of the giggles over a school named for fat animals when others were named for presidents and famous leaders.

Kevin and I became fast friends and were often class partners. Our abilities were complimentary, and we worked well together. Kevin was athletic, and I was artistic, we naturally took relative roles in the winter talent show that year. My first girlfriend Karla and I sang, Here Comes Suzy Snowflake, while Kevin danced throughout the cafeteria in a snowman costume my mom and grandmother made for him. I can still clearly see Kevin skipping around that room to our song the laughter of the parents.

Kevin and I were in classes together almost all through elementary school. Tiskelwah was a small school with only one class per grade for the lower grades. In the upper classes, some teachers taught split grades because there weren’t enough students for a full class.

In the fall of 1972, Kevin and I were in Mrs. Downey’s third-grade class. We were working as a team again, and our assignment was to write a short story with four or more characters. We had a small reputation as cut-ups in class; not so much that it got us into trouble, but enough for us not to complete our work at times. For this assignment, we were running behind, and I invited Kevin to my house after school one day to so we could catch up. We worked for several hours on our detective saga, choosing the name “Jim Coldspot” as our investigator. We were not so creative when it came to names, and many characters were named from the appliances in my parent’s kitchen.

My dad left work most days by 4:30 PM and mom had dinner ready shortly after he got home at 5:00 PM. We were still working at the table when she came in to start dinner, so she asked Kevin if he would like to stay. He said he would, but he would have to call his mom to ask for her permission. Kevin called home, and I continued to work on the story. I looked up when Kevin handed my mom the phone.

“She wants to talk to you, Mrs. Harkins,” he said.

My mom picked took the phone and listened for a moment, and then she said, “No. It’s okay. It’s really no problem. All right. Bye.”

As she hung up the phone, she told Kevin, “Your mom said you could stay for dinner, but you need to come home right afterward.”

Kevin and I danced around the kitchen. Such little things made us happy.

We remained close friends throughout elementary school. We spent one year in the same junior high, and then my family moved across town. Kevin and I saw each other as frequently as we could; many times, he would stay the night, which gave us more time to catch up. Our parents became friends, too, getting together on occasion.

In high school, Kevin became a big track and field star in our town. I watched his press and cheered him on from a competitive school. I lost track of Kevin after high school, but I thought of him from time to time.

Over the years, we’ve managed to stay in touch, as we were able. When I got married in 1984, Kevin was at my wedding. In the spring of 1988, Kevin called me to tell me he was getting married and asked me to photograph his wedding. We lost touch again for some years, but the Facebook explosion brought us back together. Even though I haven’t seen him in person for more than 20 years, I consider Kevin, a brother and would do anything for him.

At almost forty-three years, this friendship with Kevin is my longest continuing friendship. In 1969, it was an unlikely friendship in our hometown because Kevin is African American and parts of West Virginia were still in the heat of the civil rights movement at that time.

Many years later, my mom and I were talking about my friendship with Kevin, and she told me about her phone call with Kevin’s mom the night of his first dinner invitation. My mom recalled that Kevin’s mom was concerned about him staying because “many white people don’t want colored people in their homes.”

I’m thankful my parents were never “those kind” of white people.

Photo Credit: Tiskelwah Elementary School. Kanawha County Library Archives.

Super-fast shoes

She was four at the time, full of energy and excitement about the world around her. She was at my side constantly, often asking questions well beyond her years. At times, her insights made me forget how young she was and often caused me to have unreasonable expectations of her abilities.

Of all my children, she is the one who has inherited the more complete package of my traits. Her inquisitive nature, quick wit, vivid imagination, and impulsive leanings are a near match for mine, and something I began to notice when she was four. I knew then these were also the traits that would cause conflict between us later in life.

We were living in northern Florida at the time, and the summer heat had finally retreated for another year, giving way to pleasant fall evenings perfect for leisurely strolls through the neighborhood. Our house was in an older part of the city, and our street wound its way by the St. Johns River. There were places along the circle where friendly neighbors living on the river opened their docks for fishing or quiet evenings of watching the Manatee at play.

She loved to walk with me around the neighborhood. It gave us a chance to talk about things that were on her mind, but mostly I think it was so that she could have some private time with me. She didn’t like the idea of her older sister or baby brother joining us on these walks. She saw this as our time and practically broke down in tears when others wanted to tag along.

With dinner out of the way and dusk coming one evening, I called to her from the kitchen to ask if she wanted to join me on a quick trip around the circle. She came running from the family room, sliding across the kitchen floor in socks and stopping just before me.

“Yes! Let me go put on my super-fast shoes,” she said.

Super-fast shoes? What are super-fast shoes, I thought as she raced to her bedroom. In less than a minute she was back at my side wearing a new pair of Nike® sneakers my mom had given her and that ever-present Barney® cap, worn backward. She looked up at me and smiled.

“See this thing on the side of my shoes, dad? That means these shoes are super fast,” she explained.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me to through kitchen door. She raced down the driveway, and when I caught up, we began our walk. In her super-fast shoes, she would run ahead for a while to explore, then run back to grab my hand and ask me questions, or to bring me things she had discovered a few feet away, or to tell me where she would like to go next as we moved around the circle.

Super-fast shoes have taken her many places as she has grown up. I know there are times when those shoes took her faster than she was ready to go, but she still managed to figure out how to make the speed of travel work to her advantage in the long run. She still does. She makes great memories, and she doesn’t seem to live too much of her life in the blur that I thought those shoes would create.

Since she put on that first pair of super-fast shoes, she’s been moving much faster than I would like to see her go through life. Even so, with each new adventure and no matter how far she runs out in front of me, she always comes back to share her world and brings with it the same wide-eyed excitement she had at four.

An honor of the humbling sort

I immediately noticed the biker when I walked into McDonald’s with the production crew. He sported a full, unkempt gray beard, stood just shy of 6-feet tall, and had a barrel chest. The red felt hillbilly hat he wore seemed out of place with the patch-covered black leather biker’s jacket, camo-print shirt, combat boots, and the cut off green fatigues that stopped just below the top of his boots.

I watched him add something—cream, sugar, or both—to his coffee, and then settle in alone at the table near the window.

While the rest of the crew waited for their food, my friend Marc and I walked back to the table across from the biker. Marc stopped at the biker’s table, turned to me and said, “Let me introduce you to this gentlemen. He’s the guy who is loaning us his bike for the shoot.”

The biker stood up, flashed a big smile, stretched out his hand, and said, “Pleased to meet you.” He had a firm handshake and looked me in the eye as we shook. We talked briefly, and I thanked him for loaning us the bike.

“I’d do anything for you guys. That’s a fine organization you work for,” the biker said.

He sat down again and was joined by the actor who would ride his bike briefly in the video. They talked about motorcycles while we all ate and rested briefly.

After lunch, the biker rode to the set location on an older model Harley Davidson Fatboy, personally customized with hiking sticks, tent poles, and a leather rifle holster—complete with a what I think was a fake rifle—attached to the handlebars. A real Tomahawk hung on the left side of the bike, attached to the saddlebag. With his large goggles, the skull helmet, and his decked out bike he looked menacing when he pulled onto the set. His license plate read, “AT WAR.”

He got off the bike, took off his helmet and said, “If you need me to take anything off the bike, I don’t have a problem with it. Just let me know what you don’t want.”

Before I could answer, Marc said, “Let’s take off anything that looks like a weapon.”

The biker stripped the bike of all weapons and weapon-like things, and then he reached into the right saddlebag and pulled out a cantaloupe. He took out the large, fixed blade knife that was hanging from his belt, sliced off the top of the melon, and cut out the seeds. He wiped the blade on his pant leg and returned it to the sheath on his belt, reached into the saddlebag again, and took out a serving spoon.

“I’ve got some bananas in there, too,” he said with a grin while motioning to the saddlebags with his shaking spoon before digging into the cantaloupe.

He stayed with the production crew for about four hours as we shot the video. Sometime during the shoot, the heat got better of him, and he took off his vest and shirt. I saw a large American flag tattoo covering most of the right side of his chest and noted that he was in pretty good shape to be a man who I guessed to be about 60 years old.

“I graduated from high school in 1966,” he told me. “I served in the military; did over 200 jumps. The National Guard has been good to me and my family.”

“I tried to get them to let me do a little cameo part in your video, you know. But, they just weren’t interested,” he said smiling.

“Where are all the pretty girls?” he asked. “I don’t want to touch them or anything. I’m happily married. I just like being around them.” He laughed, and his eyes seem to twinkle at the thought.

He asked what I did again and why we were making the video. We made some more small talk, and as we were wrapping-up the shoot, I went to my car and picked out an extra branded t-shirt and a couple of patches to give to him as a small token of thanks.

“I don’t suppose you’re much of a t-shirt wearer are you?” I asked as I handed him the shirt and patches.

“No, but I’m not going to turn down your generosity. Thank you. You know, I put all my t-shirts in a box, and my kids take them out and wear them. They’ll get good use. These patches I’ll put with my collection.”

I pulled a Good Turn coin out of my right pocket. I explained how and why it’s used and I gave it to him as I thanked him for his good deeds that day and his service.

“Oh, it’s your coin, huh? What’s your name again?” he asked.

“David Harkins,” I said. I remembered his name.

“David Harkins,” he repeated slowly.

He put his hand in his front pocket and started fishing for something.

“I have a pocket full of condoms,” he said. “I’ve already called my wife and told her to expect a party when I get home.” He let go of a belly laugh so full and loud the crew recording sound 200 feet away shushed us and reminded us we were on a live set.

He pulled something from his pocket, took my hand and pulled it forward from my side.

He said, “I want you to have this David Harkins,” and with respect, he placed an object in my palm. When he took away his hand, I saw his challenge coin.

The front read, “The Green Berets – To Fight So Others May Remain Free” and the back carried the Special Forces Airborne logo and 2b Bn 19th SFG (A).

It’s said that challenge coins were originated by the Army Air Corp and were used as a means of identification and allegiance when Airmen were caught behind enemy lines without identification. I understand these coins are mostly ceremonial now, used to recognize achievement and support or to enhance morale. Still, it’s considered an honor by those in the military to receive one, especially when presented by a high-ranking officer.

I never asked his rank or where he served. It didn’t matter. In that moment, a military veteran—a Green Beret—with over 200 jumps to his credit and one who had likely faced things in his life I will never dream about, thought enough of me and my service to America’s youth that he wanted to thank me using a tradition that held significant meaning to him.

I was so moved I could barely thank him. I’ve never received a greater honor from anyone.

I’m not sure I ever will.

The power in knowing

I don’t share this story often. But, it has been on my mind lately and a message exchange with a friend this evening made me think it’s time to share it in writing. This is the streamlined version.


In the fall of 1991, my 18-month-old daughter began to tilt her head a little to one side after a long car trip. At first it looked like muscle stiffness from the ride, but a few weeks later she started having difficulty maintaining her balance and then she stopped walking.

Her regular pediatrician didn’t seem too concerned, but her mother and I knew something was wrong. Our next stop was an orthopedic surgeon and although he didn’t find any muscular or skeletal abnormalities, he agreed that something was going on. He recommended a second opinion from different pediatrician, one whom within moments of seeing her saw pressure within her eyes and admitted her to the hospital for an MRI.

A neurologist confirmed our fear a few hours later—a golf-ball-sized tumor in the right ventricle of her brain. A neurosurgeon arrived the next morning to prepare us for surgery and to talk about options for ongoing treatments. In his words, “I have not ever removed a tumor this size, from this part of the brain that was not malignant.”

The surgery took nearly eight hours.

When the surgeon came into the recovery room, we were relieved to learn the tumor was benign—a Choroid Plexus Papilloma—and he had reduced it to the size of pea, successfully cut-off its blood supply in hopes of killing it completely over time.

Five days later, she came home from the hospital. After three days at home, a high-fever took us back to the hospital late one night.

After hours in the emergency room and multiple tests, a young intern successfully diagnosed her with meningitis. She was immediately transported to the Children’s Hospital across town where intensivists and infectious disease specialists converged on her room. We waited for several hours in the waiting room before the doctors shared, her meningitis was caused by the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium, and they had never successfully treated an adult with this strain of bacteria, let alone a child.

Six weeks in an intensive care unit with many touch-and-go-moments, a shunt, hours of physical therapy, and another shunt two months later, finally put her on the road to recovery. There were difficult times as she grew up but today at 22, she’s a college student and learning to drive. She’s kind-hearted, determined, and a truly amazing young woman who strives to overcome the challenges life sets before her every day with a smile. She knows her limitations, but more importantly, she knows what she’s capable of achieving.

Life is not always easy.

Still, knowing and understanding our own personal limitations today should not limit who we become tomorrow. Instead, armed with this knowledge we should consider ourselves empowered to find new ways to achieve success and happiness in our lives. Best of all, we understand that we should not define ourselves, or be defined by others, on assumptions of what we cannot do; we do it anyway, just differently than everyone else.

Knowing such things about ourselves emboldens us and allows us to live, love, and pursue happiness on our own terms.

I can’t think of any better way to live. Can you?

____

Her favorite doll at the time was Red Fraggle from Fraggle Rock. The picture above shows Red in the hospital bed. Red received extra special care after surgery, too. Note the bandages on her head and hand.

Hot dogs and donuts

P200I believe there are more donut shops per capita in California than in any other state.

A simple hot dog, on the other hand, was impossible for me to find.

My selection today at Dynamo Donut, the candied orange blossom, explained it all.

Experimenting with donut flavors is fun and adventurous. But, let’s just keep avocados off the hot dogs.

P.S. “T-shirts” on the menu, is not a flavor. 😉

Seals, sunsets, and an interview with a vampire

I’ve seen spectacular sights this week; baby seals, mountain vistas, giant redwoods, beaches, and some of the most amazing sunsets.

My butt is sore from the 1,000+ miles I’ve driven, the nights have been late, and I’ve had way too much coffee.

All of which, I think, contributed to the dream I had last night about reading an interview with Dracula in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It began:

NYT: So, what do you think about all of these vampire movies? Recent reports say the average vampire in a movie is making upwards to $387,000 a year.

Dracula: Seriously?! $387,000…dollars?! A year?! The only vampire I know making that kind of money is my son, Ricardo Montalban. He’s a very efficient vampire, but his acting talents leave something to be desired. Go figure. You know, he’s not really dead.

NYT: What about Robert Pattison?

Dracula: Don’t even get me started on that boy and his movies. What’s this business about a vampire fathering a child in, uh, let’s say, “a conventional manner?” Give me a break…

Apparently, all this time in California has my subconscious thinking about a career change. I’m not so sure I’d make a great vampire though.

At least not at $387,000 a year.

In awe of giant things

I spent this day outdoors.

I walked a short trail to see giant redwoods.

I retraced the path of the landscape photography giant, Ansel Adams.

Above all else, I was reminded of the giant scale of God’s handiwork.

 

To each, his own

P157

I like the idea of the beach.

The soothing sounds of crashing waves, steady ocean breezes, and taste of salt in the air are all appealing to my senses; salt water and sand, not so much.

Still, who can pass a beach without putting toes in the water?

Bare feet are not required to experience the idea.

A dog, a trail, and a lady in white.

I sat quietly on the trail above the cave, watching the waves crash while I drank my coffee and enjoyed a wild, blueberry muffin.

A bird flew in and perched on the rock in front of me, presumably to watch the waves, too.

A dog passed, followed by its owner.

Moments later a lady in white, clutching the Sunday New York Times Magazine passed from the opposite direction. I made the mistake of looking up when I heard her talking, thinking she was talking to me instead of herself.

Her five-minute rant about dogs running loose, exposing themselves to people with allergies and pooping on the trail almost sounded lyrical with her eastern European accent.

The dog had clearly ruined her day.

She, the dog, and the bird, just made me smile. And I took another sip of coffee.

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