Down the Up Ladder

I recently spent some time up a ladder to paint the trim on the house. It’s an extension ladder that stretches to twenty-some feet and I’ve gotten fairly comfortable, even when I’ve climbed to a reasonably unsafe height. It briefly crosses my mind that something bad could happen without a lot of effort on my part. Nevertheless, I extended the ladder fully, leaned it against the front of the house, wedged the bottom into the lawn, and crawled up. Once at the top, I used a paint roller on an broom handle to paint trim at the peak of the house. By the time I had finished, there were paint drippings all over the front walk. It was a barely contained, minor disaster.

Eighteen years ago, I went for a wild ride on a ladder. It was roughly the same situation–painting the trim at the peak of the roof facia–except that I positioned the ladder differently. The foot of the ladder was on the wood deck, and it leaned against the gutter about halfway up the house. And up I went.

I carried a coffee can full of paint in one hand and the brush in the other. As I reached for the trim with the brush, my weight shifted over the fulcrum created at the gutter, and the bottom of the ladder moved. The ladder lost its grip on the wood deck, and it slid violently across the deck, blasting through the balustrades. Meanwhile, I plummeted along with the ladder towards the deck, going from a vertical position towards horizontal very, very quickly.

It was a situation in which time seemed to slow down. It’s a flash bulb moment for me in that I can recall specific details. I know that I consciously told myself to drop the paint can and brush and grab the ladder with my hands. I did this. I recall telling myself to hang on tight and get ready to hit the deck.

In a matter of about one second, the ladder slid across the deck, blasted through the balustrades, and (luckily) stuck into the soft ground beyond. My fall halted with the ladder about two feet above the deck, and me holding on tightly. I was looking down, through the rungs, at the deck, which was now, incidentally, splattered with the paint I’d dropped.

I remained there, suspended above the deck, until I had a chance to breath. I stepped off of the ladder, relaxed my hands, and decided that the clean up could wait until another time.

I walked inside and called it a day.

Smart versus dumb, right versus wrong

Kids are notorious for doing dumb stuff, but it’s only “dumb” in the way dogs can look dumb when you pretend to throw a ball and they chase after nothing. As kids grow up, though, they mostly  get better at  knowing when they look and fixing the situation. Still, it is pretty dumb stuff. I was no exception.

When I was three, I fit underneath the end table next to the sofa. With my legs tucked under, I was able to hide there unseen, essentially in the middle of the room. I liked the illusion of privacy it provided. And I thought it was funny when my mother couldn’t find me. But all that changed in mere seconds.

We lived in a small house. There was a basement and an attic, and in between (on the main floor) were four small rooms, a closet, and a bathroom. As my mother searched for me, she was never more than twenty feet away. She called in a sing-song voice and used her Slovak diminutive of my name, “Mikush”.Panic struck her when I didn’t respond, and her voice took on a terrified tone. It was dark out, and I had never stayed out late before (I was just three!). There was no reason for me to be out, and no one knew who I had been playing with or where. My older brothers thought I had been inside.

My mother had such extreme concern in her voice that I became frightened. What would she do to me when she realized I had been hiding in the front room the entire time? I didn’t want to find out, so I stayed hidden even as she yelled at my brothers to go and look for me.

They organized a search party. The other kids in the neighborhood were recruited and sent in all directions. Doors were knocked on, the playground was searched, and the donut shop was visited. Twice. My father ran to the creek at the far end of the park and walked the banks.

Being just a child, I had a distorted sense of time, but it seemed as if I had trapped myself beneath the end table for hours on end. Perhaps it was forty minutes. When my father returned from the creek, all the search parties had reported back. It was quite obvious to everyone that I had been kidnapped.

My father picked up the phone and began dialing the police. Back then, we had a rotary phone attached to the wall in the center hallway of the house. There was no 9-1-1. Instead, the phone number for the police was written in pencil on the wall, and my father dialed it out, the rotor winding back to its place after each digit.I couldn’t take it any longer, and cried out and began to sob. My legs were stiff and sore, I was hungry, and I was petrified that the police would come and take me away.

I was hugged and welcomed back to the family. My father also wanted to teach me a lesson, and reached for me so as to paddle my behind. My mother, however, protected me.”You can paddle him later,” she said.

Boat Stories–Setting Sail for a New Beginning

I grew up around boats, as I’ve mentioned before. They were fishing boats–small boats with outboard motors, suitable for small, inland lakes, and they were parked all over our back yard. My father took us out on Lake Erie in those boats, and once or twice we were caught in storms that are memorable to me because of their fierce intensity. I don’t want to be caught on Lake Erie in a storm in a boat smaller than twenty-six feet.

I took up sailing this summer  after dabbling with the sport a few times before. I’m rather fascinated by the techniques involved, and it’s a blast when things go right and the boat courses along. Before committing to something like a boat of my own, I decided to take a class and learn how to handle a large boat on one the Great Lakes. The class was a good thing, and I recommend Fair Wind Sailing to anyone interested. That was not one of my mistakes.

We learned how to handle a twenty-six foot boat with a main sail and a jib. There’s a lot going on, which is why people “crew” on sail boats. An extra set of hands is always welcome. After passing the test, my friend and I decided to charter a boat.

Because of scheduling difficulties, we couldn’t get back to the lake until October. Here in the midwest, October can have very pleasant weather, so we hoped for the best. That was the first mistake. August and September are notoriously beautiful, and Lake Erie in particular, because it’s so shallow, warms up in August and holds that heat into September. The sailing can be spectacular–or so I’m told.

The first day we went, it was overcast and breezy, but there was a good chance of a couple of hours for decent sailing. We motored out of Battery Park marina in Sandusky, where there’s an interesting view of Cedar Point Amusement Park, and immediately noticed that the wind had picked up a bit. The temperature dropped, and it began to rain, and visibility dropped to around one hundred feet. We couldn’t see Cedar Point, home of some of the largest roller coasters in the world, and we could just barely make out the marina. Still, we were determined to sail.

I climbed up on the deck to raise the sail. The boat pitched in the swells, and the wind began to lash the rain against us. Everything that seems easy when an experienced captain shows you on a warm summer day is not easy at all in the cold and the wet while you cling to the mast in high seas. We abandoned our plan, gunned the motor, and returned to the marina.

We tried again two weeks later. The good news is that it did not rain. The bad news was that the winds were far stronger, and the waves much higher. Determined again, we took the boat out into Sandusky Bay. When the wind gusts hit forty miles per hour, the boat was twisted around, exposing it to higher waves on its side, and again it took all my concentration to hold onto the mast while I attached the halyard to the main sail. Given the challenges, I don’t think I could have tied a bowline to save my life–and some time I may just have to do exactly that. Once more, we abandoned our plan, gunned the motor, and returned to the marina.

We may try again next year, but the real problem is that we had no flexibility in our schedule. There have been spectacularly pleasant days this October, but not on the days we chartered the boat.

Adventures in Misalignment–Chemistry Class

I did not want to study chemistry in college. I had been accepted to the College of Engineering, and it seemed to make sense (economic sense) to pursue that, but the closest to technical subjects I wanted was computer programming. To stay in Engineering, I had to take one Chemistry class. I didn’t want to do it, but I convinced myself I had to.

My experience at college was no different from high school. I was bored. My mind wandered, and I didn’t put in the effort to understand the formulas that defined the concepts. The laboratory work was the worst. My work was shoddy at best.

I had an “E” during most of the semester. I think my subconscious was against my success because what I truly wanted was to write, or study English, or even write about studying English. What I didn’t want to do was study Engineering. My conscious self was frightened that if I failed Chemistry I’d have to return home a failure, and I’d be nothing but a failure in my father’s eyes. My father was an Electrical Engineer. The closest I came to being an Electrical Engineer was that the first letter of Electrical is “E”, and I was getting an “E” in Chemistry.

Because this was an introductory class, there were hundreds of us in the lecture. The professor had authored the text book, so it was definitely his class. He also had two interesting gimmicks for grading–first of all, only two of the three test grades counted toward your overall grade; secondly, a later test grade could be duplicated for the previous test. Basically, it meant that if you got an “A” on your second or third test, you would get an “A” in the class. I see the wisdom of this approach now that I’m older. For instance, pick-up lines at bars would be less stressful if the second or third one had the power of erasing the previous two if it worked. With those rules, I might have actually had sex at some point; but I digress.

I got a “D” on the first test, and an “E” on the second. For the third and final test, I studied as much as I could. It was to be a test covering the entire course, and I was thoroughly worried and expecting failure. Perhaps I was even secretly hoping for failure. Failure might mean leaving Engineering, probably leaving college, and finding my own way in the world. I might have done exactly what I wanted, then, had I failed.

The test was multiple choice. I know I understood some of it, but I also guessed on one or two of the questions. I got an “A-” on the test, and thus I also got an “A-” for the class. My career in the College of Engineering was extended, and my secret plans to be a writer were forced to wait a while longer.

Adventures in Misalignment–Pumping Gas

Being a kid ain’t easy, and figuring out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life is the most important thing you’ll do. It takes some people decades to reach the correct decision. But when you’re fifteen, figuring out what to do after school or on the weekend can be debilitating in spite of its apparent simplicity. The influence of your friends battles with the influence of adults in your mind. Choices become nuanced and reveal more about the person presenting the situation than they do about the situation.

My baseball coach approached me one day during lunch and asked me if I wanted a job. It sounded simple enough–the gas station near my house needed someone to pump gas. The coach was friends with the owner, and the owner asked my coach to recommend someone for this plum position. The position was for four hours each day after school, and four more on the weekend. It paid minimum wage, which was about $2.75 back then. The way the coach explained it, he had been asked to recommend someone reliable and smart who could be trusted to run a cash register. The coach left no doubt whatsoever that he was doing me a great favor in this, as he could have chosen Eddie the first baseman, Marc the shortstop, or Jeffrey the pitcher (his favorite) but he thought I was the best. Had I been thinking clearly I would have realized that I lived closest to the station. I would be reliable because I only had to cross two streets to get there. But I wasn’t thinking clearly.

When my coach approached me, I was not thinking about pumping gas. I was thinking about the fact that I had gone one-for-eighteen at the plate, and I was paranoid I would never be allowed to swing a bat on his team again, and that to disappoint him with this was to seal my fate on his team. I was not the most self-confident of teenagers; in spite of my sarcastic countenance, I was mostly a push-over, and avoided confrontation. I simply did not know how to say ‘no’ to my coach. So I said ‘yes.’

The gas station was at the Southwest corner of Cleveland, just across the border (an intersection) from my quiet little suburb. We were a small community, and overshadowed by Cleveland’s problems. I grew up during Cleveland’s post-industrial death spiral; I was born the first year that the Cuyahoga River caught fire; and the race riots of 1969 cemented attitudes that had been forming for the preceding seventy years. That intersection probably had as much traffic as any corner outside of downtown Cleveland, and there were gas stations on three of the four corners. When I showed up for my first day, the boss showed me what was expected during a rush of cars that never slowed down.

Back then, all gas stations were full-service stations. They all had at least one repair bay and the owner was likely a mechanic. The attendants would pump gas, check the oil, check the washer fluid, and put air in the tires if needed. You tell the customer the cost of the gas, take their money, return their change. Repeat as needed. With their traffic, there would be no breaks.

I knew two of the other attendants, but they were not what I would call friends. I never did anything with those guys. I was kind of afraid of one of them, and had nothing to talk about with the other. It was also winter. For hours after school each day, I’d pump gas and give other people’s cars the once-over. It was winter, in Cleveland, so it would be dark and cold.

I played hockey then. The baseball coach had reasoned that hockey practice was in the morning, so my afternoons were free. I would be spending two hours before school on the ice, and then four hours after school outside in winter. Only Eskimos spend so much time in the cold, and they can’t help it because they lived in Alaska. I had options.

As the gas station owner repeated my duties, I felt the urge to cry. I hadn’t felt that urge since first grade, when I cried every time it rained. Dark clouds were like a trigger for an anxiety attack. What sort of attendant would I be if I cried every time a car pulled into the station? It’s the same thing with prostitutes–if you cry, the sailors on liberty call won’t give you any money.

When I had mentioned the  job to my parents, they thought it was nice I’d have a job, but hadn’t really commented beyond that. All of a sudden, as the owner explained the duties, I wanted to talk to someone about my job, but I didn’t want to talk with the owner about the new job. He had told me plenty already about the new job, and he was biased.

At last he said, ‘Do you have any questions.’ I blurted out that I had changed my mind, and I didn’t want the job. I walked home in the cold and watched the six o’clock news.

My mother got home a few minutes later. She had gone to the station to have her son fill up her car and check the oil. Instead, she was met with a look of incredulous disbelief when she demanded that her son service her car. Granted, it wasn’t like she had gone to the Vatican to be blessed by her son, the new Pope, only to discover he’d abandoned the Papacy and run off to find a virgin once he realized he was the only one in Rome. But still, she was embarrassed.

In the spring, the coach brought up a sophomore to bat for me. I became the catcher who couldn’t hit. I don’t know how Karma really works, but that coach was struck in the right testicle by a baseball that year, and spent two months recuperating, and I eventually got a chance to swing the bat before the season ended.

So much of life happens to you simply because of what happens to be around you. For instance, if it had been a brothel, rather than a gas station, just two streets away, maybe I would have been a little more interested in the work. Then again, there may have been more to the job than just pumping gas. But I have to believe the tips would be better.