I was on my way in to work early one March morning in 1981 when I heard the call over the radio. “All hands, respond to an oil spill at the west end of Kidder Road.” One by one, we acknowledged receipt of the message. I kept going. I was headed there anyway. Kidder Road was just a quarter mile north of the office.

There were only two ways an oil spill could have happened. Either a pumper truck had skidded on the icy road and gone off into a ditch, or one of the oil tanks had started leaking overnight. We had been drilling in the area for four years, not enough time for the steel in the tanks to corrode. I wondered which one of the drivers had gone off the road.

I was headed south on Meadville Street and could see the cluster of cars, pickups and pumper trucks ahead as I topped a rise. My boss Lynn’s red and white Bronco was parked on the side of the road. She must have headed into work early. I wondered if she was the one who reported the spill in the first place. I didn’t see a truck in the ditch so that theory went out the window. There was, however, a ten-foot high white steel oil tank with our red Cardinal Oil logo splashed across it sitting close to the road. I pulled off the road.

Ahead of me was a small creek running along the road, with the tank sitting on the other side. Jim, my partner, hustled out of his brown pickup and over to the creek. I joined him, and we looked at the mess together.

It turned out there was a third way for an oil spill to happen. At some point in the wee hours of the morning, the lock had been knocked off the valve that kept the oil and salt brine in the storage tank. Then the valve had been opened and the entire week’s production from one well flowed into the creek. The tank hadn’t been full, but the creek was flowing with a six-inch-thick layer of chocolaty brown Pennsylvania crude oil floating on top. We had to stop the flow before the oil reached the river a couple of miles downstream and caused an environmental disaster.

I grabbed Bob, one of the dozer operators, and told him to drive over to the shop and bring back an empty vacuum truck. Somehow, we were going to have to block the creek, skim the oil off the surface and pump it into the truck. It wouldn’t be the perfect solution, but it was the only thing I could think of at the moment. As Bob climbed into his pickup, I pulled a roll of black fabric silt fence out of the back. The silt fence was used around the drilling sites to keep the mud from running off into the ditches and killing the fish. I yelled for Jim, and we headed down to the creek to figure this out.

At the water’s edge, I was the first to slip and fall on my ass. I got up fast but was still covered with crude oil from boots to buckle. I knew I smelled like a refinery, and the laughter from the road stung my pride. Jim yelled at the guys from the location crew to cut it out and come down to give us a hand. We strung the silt fence across the creek with the intention of sweeping the oil back up to the suction hose of the vacuum truck. The water in the creek would flow through and under the fabric, but the close weave would trap the oil and keep it from going further downstream. There were wooden stakes attached to the fabric every six feet, so we had handles to hold on to. The creek wasn’t flowing fast, but it would be a struggle to hold the oil back.

The flaw in our plan was obvious as soon as we pulled the silt fence tight. There was no way to get the bottom edge of the fabric down below the surface when we were holding it from the shore. We could poke it down maybe two or three inches into the creek, but that left more than half of the oil to flow under it. I figured that since I was already covered up to my waist in oil, I would volunteer to go out to the middle of the creek to hold the edge under. We were all focused on getting the oil out of that creek, and any idea was a good idea.
Right about then, Bob pulled up in the vacuum truck, and we pointed him to a spot upstream about fifty yards. He parked and hooked up his hoses. All he had to do was keep the hose just under the surface, and he would get everything we could skim and sweep up to him.

I waded out to the middle of the creek, and the circus got under way. I held onto one of the stakes and pushed down. The flow of oil and water caught the fabric like a parachute, and it pulled tight. I could feel the cold water flowing under the fence and around my legs, but the oil stayed on the surface, and we started to walk it up toward Bob’s hose.

There was still a six-inch-thick layer of oil up around my waist. It took a lot of effort to keep my footing. The oil made a great insulator, so I wasn’t cold at all. I thought of those distance swimmers who covered their bodies with grease to keep from freezing on their way across whatever channel they found compelling. We got all the way up to the vacuum truck and then headed back down to start all over again. There was a hell of a lot of oil in that creek. Jim looked at me with a frown on his face and asked how I was doing. I smiled at him and said, “Just fine.”

We were about a third of the way through the second sweep when I went under. I don’t remember a thing. One second, I was holding the silt fence under the surface, and then I just disappeared. One of the guys saw me go under and jumped in to help. He flailed around in the water until he got a handful of my clothing and yanked me up and onto the bank. Later, the crew said I was as white as a sheet under the thick coat of oil. Someone thought it would be a good idea to get all of the oil-soaked clothing off me, so they skinned me down to my underwear.

Lynn called for an ambulance on the radiophone, and Jim hauled me into the back seat of the Bronco. The idea was to meet the ambulance half way to save time. Maybe the heat inside the truck would help, too. Lynn and Jim met the ambulance near the I-98 ramp. I was transferred to a gurney and then to the back of the ambulance. I woke up in convulsions. They had managed to pack my body with those heat packs you squish to make them get hot. I remember them feeling like hot coals searing my body anywhere they touched. I lost consciousness.
Jim said he stayed with me in the emergency room, and then waited outside while they worked on me. The doctors took my core temperature with a rectal thermometer about a foot long, the same kind that coroners use to estimate time of death in corpses. The form they filled out said that my initial core temp was 86 degrees. The only way to treat me was to run tubes from both ends and flush me with warmed water. While these indignities progressed, another tube was run down into one lung to flush out the crude oil I had aspirated, then repeated on the other side to keep me breathing.

I woke up the next day in a hospital bed, under an electric blanket and hiccupping fumes. I was as weak as a kitten and shivering. Jim was dozing in a chair and looked like shit with a day old beard. One eye opened when I tried to sit up. He rang for a nurse and just sat with me until the doctor came to explain everything.

It had been twenty-four hours since I collapsed in the creek. I was recovering from a severe case of hypothermia, with lipid pneumonia on top of that from inhaling all that crude oil. It seems that the water in the creek was sucking the heat out of my body all while I felt warm from the six inches of crude oil around my waist. Eventually, with the exertion from walking that silt fence up to the suction hose, my body had had enough and just shut down. When I went under, I gulped a good mouthful of crude oil down into my lungs and stomach. The doctor advised that I should stay away from cigarettes for a while or I might go up in flames. They were still trying to get the smell out of the ambulance.

I had to stay in the hospital for another twenty-four hours so they could be certain my body could maintain its temperature. My house was just around the corner from Lynn’s, so she elected herself to bring me home from the hospital. She gave me a week off, then a week working on maps in the office, and then it was back to the rigs. I was still burping crude oil fumes a month later.

When the gas glut came in 1983, the company went bankrupt like most oil companies in northwestern Pennsylvania. In the thirty years since, I have held many different jobs, mostly in New York and New England. These days, I’m a builder and handyman and married to a loving wife.

When working in the cold I inevitably forget my past and quickly end up with frozen fingers. The pain of thawing out is a constant reminder that the effects of hypothermia last forever. I will always be sensitive to cold temperatures, and to Linda yelling at me to “get away from that thermostat, dammit!”

Odd Man Out



It was the Chief of Staff who ended up running for the snack.  The evening address on climate change was imminent, and the President insisted that he would not go on without something to settle his stomach.  James Harsham, the President’s right hand man, turned in a 360 degree circle to delegate the task, but found everyone in the Oval Office involved in some part of the circus that is a Presidential address to the nation.  Seeing everything well in hand, he decided that a quick trip to the kitchen wouldn’t hurt.  Out the door, turn right, down the far staircase, through the intern’s office (a desk in the hallway), past the restrooms, left again, then right, and suddenly Harsham found himself enveloped in steam from the dishwasher at the back of the kitchen.  Stepping through the swinging doors, all conversation came to a halt.  Twenty heads turned to look at him, as though he was some alien.

The head chef came hustling up.  “Mr. Harsham, is there something that I can get for you?  Why didn’t you just call?  I would be happy to bring it up.  Are you hungry?  Does the President want something?  Why are you here?”

Harsham patted the air.  “It’s alright, it’s alright.  The President is going on in a few minutes, and he just wanted a small snack to settle his stomach.  Do you have anything basic?  Celery sticks?  Carrots, anything?

The chef whirled around and rushed to the walk-in fridge.  “A snack!  Carrot sticks is what he always calls for at night.  I’ll have a bunch for you in just a sec.”  In a flurry of knife wielding, he presented a perfect crystal dish of carrot sticks, neatly sliced into uniform pieces and fanned out.  Harsham grabbed the dish and retreated, and the chef collapsed against the edge of a sink, wiping his brow.  “A snack!”

Upstairs, the makeup person had finished and the sound man was checking the microphones.  The President spotted his Chief of Staff coming through the door with the carrot sticks and waved him over.  “Oh God, thanks Jim.  I really needed this.”  The sound guy nodded and backed away.  Carrot stick in hand, the President and his chief went over the talking points for the fifth time, selecting stress points and generally massaging the speech.

Five minutes later, the camera crew counted down.  At “And… five..”, the President swallowed his last piece of carrot stick half chewed.  At “..four..” the carrot stick lodged itself sideways in the Presidents larynx, blocking the epiglottis and preventing it from moving.  At “…three..” the President’s eyes started bulging, and his gag reflex kicked in.  At “…two…” someone in the back of the room said, quietly, “There’s something wrong.”

At “…one…” the President swung his arm and knocked over the glass of water at his side, spilling it across the papers on the desk in front of him.  As the crew member pointed to the President and the cameras went live to the nation, the President rose halfway out of his seat, coughed the carrot stick out of his mouth on live TV, and collapsed of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in front of the camera.  The spike in his blood pressure had burst a major artery in his brain, and he was dead in three seconds.  Blood flowing out of his ears and nose stuck the papers to the desk.

The President’s Secret Service detail immediately surrounded the body, picked it up and hustled it out of the Oval Office.  Armed White House security guards entered the room and told everyone to stay right where they were, and to remain calm.

James Harsham tried to follow the Secret Service out of the office, but the door was blocked by a guard.  “Please, sir, it would be best if everyone just stayed here for now.”  Harsham spun around, gaping at the camera crew and his staff, and he collapsed into the President’s arm chair by the fireplace.  What now?  Reaching out, he grabbed a carrot stick from the plate at his elbow and took a bite.

An Oldster’s Om



“The last thing I want to know is what you did on your date!  Just shut up and leave me alone.  You guys are disgusting!”

The slamming of my daughter’s bedroom door was the punctuation to that tirade.  Teens.  You can’t live with them…

It had started out as just another observation over the dinner table. We had finally found a night when Jenny, our daughter, and Jessie and I were all available at last for a real traditional dinner.  Jess went all out.  There wasn’t a single microwaved item on the table.  There was the “How did your day go?” thread that we kept alive for ten minutes.  There was the “How was school?” thread that lingered for thirty seconds.  And then there was the “Your mother and I were thinking…” thread that stopped all forward motion for quite a while.

What we were thinking about was a weekend retreat held by a local Buddhist monastery that catered to the locals on the odd occasion.  A Zen Relationship workshop was coming up, and Jessie had asked me if I was up to putting a bit of spirit back into our relationship.  The fact that she asked with a slight leer in her voice and twinkle in her eye was all the prompting I needed.  She signed us up that night.

Did you know that Buddhists have websites?  I always thought they were on the far side of the Amish and Mennonites and Luddites and all of those.  Nope.  MacBook Pro all the way.  I began to think of carrying a begging bowl around with me if those are the results.  It was a real glitzy site.  High production values. The part I wasn’t too thrilled with was the 4 am rising time for meditation on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Then breakfast at 7.  Oh well.  It was one weekend.  I would survive.  And I was looking forward to the benefits.  I had a mental poster of that leer up on my psychic wall all weekend. I would have to look up the correct spelling and usage for “Ravish” when we get back.  I don’t think it’s supposed to be “Ravage.  That’s different.

We snuggled and played a bit Friday night after arriving at the retreat.  There was one sharp “SSHHHHHH!” from outside our room at about midnight, but we giggled it away and the band played on.

4 am. Do you know it’s still dark at 4 am?  I had slept for three and a half hours, and I looked like I had caught my head in a grackle’s nest.  My mouth tasted like a litter box, and one eye was glued shut.  Meditation was going to be a piece of cake.

We sat.  Cross-legged.  Jess kept me awake with the occasional poke until one of the monks came over and separated us.  After five minutes of snoring, he came back with Jessie in tow and sat her back down.  I believe the admonition was “Silent meditation.  Please.”  We survived.

Breakfast was wonderful.  Yummy food, eaten silently and just staring at my sweetie.  The intentionality of being wholly alone with Jessie was enough to deepen my feelings of love, respect, and desire.  By the end of breakfast and washing up, I was ready for a little nap and rolling around.  I didn’t get it.

We walked.  Around and around, with everyone else, for hours.  We stopped for food, and walked some more.  We stopped for food again, and more walking.  When it got dark, we sat and meditated, eyes open, eyes shut, but always together.  Then we slept.  No rolling around.

4 am.  It was getting better.  Another day of meditating and walking with my love, and then a silent ride home with loving kindness in my heart.  We stopped on the way for a bottle of wine.

Jenny was out when we got home, so we caught up on our nap time.  The rolling around was silent, and open-eyed.  We smiled a lot.

Just before dinner, Jenny straggled in.  We must have had that flush that you get after a weekend of deep meditation.  Like the rosy glow of good health, or a profound experience.  Or just deep contentment.  We just wanted to share our awareness and happiness with our daughter.  Our enthusiasm was cut short by her admonition.  “God, you guys, the last thing I want to know is…”





My father lay dying, gasping through the oxygen mask.  I admit I was hovering, knowing the end was near, and not comfortable with it.  He was my mentor, the patriarch of the family business.  He had taught me most of what I know, and this end was not fitting for him.

He beckoned me over with a finger twitch.  I bent over him, looked him in the eyes, and he smiled up at me.

“Joey, I’ve been waiting to tell you this for forty years.  Pay attention.”

His other hand came out from under the covers, trembling with the effort.  In it was his tool of choice in the family business.  A short steel scratch awl.  He held the wooden handle with confidence, even this close to the end.  The silver metal gleamed.  He kept it very clean, although I knew it was stained with the blood of at least two hundred thirty souls.  Business had been good.

“One day, Son, this awl will be yours!”  He cackled at me then, collapsing back on his pillow, gasping for breath and sucking in oxygen as fast as he could breath.  I gaped at him, not believing his wit and timing.

“You know where all the bodies are buried.  You were the only threat to me, and I taught you so you could be loyal to me and I wouldn’t have to work in fear.  I’m trusting you to keep the business going.”

He gasped at the end of this long speech.  His skin had a bluish cast to it.  The oxygen wasn’t helping.  Through the translucent skin I could see a vein pulsing, throbbing.

“I want just one thing from you now.  It has been a long life, and I’m ready to go.  I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but it doesn’t matter anymore.  I’m tired, and I just want to sleep.  Take it.  It’s yours now.  I’m finished.”

It wasn’t my Dad’s life that was flashing before my eyes.  It was the faces of all the men, and the few women, who he had helped across the same divide he now faced himself.  There was no historical record.  I was the record.  He was leaving me behind as his legacy.

I bent over him again.  “I hear you, Pop.  I’ll do what you want.  You won’t be forgotten.”

He smiled, and his hand opened.  I reached out to him and took the awl.  The handle was warm.  He must have been saving it for me for quite some time.

I stood up, bent down to kiss my father on the forehead, and slid the awl into his ear and through to the left side of his brain.  His eyes widened, his body surged up slightly, and then fell back onto the bed.  I slid the awl out.  There was no blood.  That’s why he preferred it.  The fogging on the oxygen mask cleared.

I picked up the phone and dialed.

“Rhyerson’s Funeral Home. How may I help you?”

“This is Joseph Wickerson calling.  My father has just passed away, and I believe he made his funeral arrangements through you.  Could you tell me what I should do next?”

“My deapest condolences to you, Mr. Wickerson.  I talked to your father last week and he said that you might be calling.  We will send a hearse over immediately and take care of everything.  There will be some papers for you to sign, but you shouldn’t concern yourself right now.  It can be a difficult time, and we will do all we can to help you through it.”

I thanked the man, put the phone down, and slid the awl into my jacket pocket.  Then I sat and waited.

You have to eat a pound of dirt in your life.



This job went wrong from the beginning.  I got the word from the office that I had to be on a drill site and set up in the next twelve hours, or we would lose the client.  When you’re in the oilfield service business, losing a client, meaning one of the big oil companies, is a bad thing.  I put the groceries away, dropped the cat off with the neighbors, and hitched the trailer up to the pickup.  I had eleven and a half hours to get myself across Ohio and half of Pennsylvania, and here it was 9 am.  The word to describe that in Ohio-ese is ‘shee-it.’  That summed it up perfectly.

The drive over was one of those scenic trips on back roads that most people never experience in their lifetime.  I did it every couple of weeks.  It’s funny that they never drill gas wells on an interstate.  I wonder why that is.  Oh, well.  The back roads consist of green, green, and more green, plus the odd split rail fence with car hub caps on it for sale.  The hubcap scavenging business in the heart of the nation is going strong.  There are also tractors, deep brown earth and the smell of manure.  Old ladies in long faded dresses.  Men in bib-alls.  Matching kids, little girls in long faded dresses learning how to be good wives, and sons sitting on the fender of the tractor as it pulls the disc harrow, learning from their dad how to make the earth produce so you can live life.

The trailer behind my truck held a full geology lab, along with gas detectors and all a fella needs to tell the driller when to drill and when to stop, and whether the well will produce.  My background in geology was often scoffed at by the tool pusher and his roughnecks, but the company man from the oil company depended on me to keep him rich, and I kept getting the calls to come out and do my magic.

I pulled onto the drill site at 8 pm, with the sun down but not yet full dark.  I got the trailer spotted as close to the rig as I could get, but the site was a swamp from the rain a day or two ago.  Every step threatened to suck a boot off a foot, and it was wearying just to walk up to the doghouse to get my depth gauges hooked up to the derrick.  I did get a cup of pretty good coffee, and the tool pusher told me not to worry, they weren’t going to spud in until midnight.  That way the surface casing could be set tomorrow in the daylight and the Halliburton cement crew would be happy.  Seven hundred fifty feet of drilling in ten hours would be a chore for the roughnecks, but they were used to it and they knew things would slow down once we got into hard bedrock.

I got back to the trailer and pulled out all of my power cords and hoses and the gas detector head that would be connected to the shaker table where the drill cuttings got sorted out of the drilling mud.  And there was the problem.  The rig and my trailer were separated by the mud pits, two deep, plastic lined holes in the ground, twenty feet across each one, and a hundred feet long, dug out by bulldozer to hold the drilling mud that kept the bit cool and flushed the rock cuttings out of the hole.  I would have to string my lines across that no-man’s-land.

I knew I had enough power line and hose.  I’d be a fool to show up on a job unprepared for any eventuality. It was just a matter of getting everything across that swamp all by my lonesome.  The rig hands were busy and couldn’t help, nor would I ask if I needed to.  It was my job, not theirs.  Their job was to make me coffee, and to produce hole.  Oh, and also to harass me as much as they could.  They sure enjoyed their work.

I pulled a long steel cable out of the trailer and fixed one end to the rear bumper, back where my propane tanks were hitched for those long cold nights.  I grabbed the other end and headed through the soup to the rig, dragging the cable through the mud all the way.  By the time I got to the stairs up to the doghouse, I was covered in mud and it was nine thirty.  Two and a half hours to go. I got to the top of the stairs, and hauled on that cable for all I was worth.  It snaked itself across the lot, through the mud, and out over the pits.  I hauled as hard as I could, and the cable came out of the mud into the air to hang between the trailer and the rig.  Just fine.

I got back to the trailer covered in another layer of mud and tied the power cable and the hoses and depth gauge line together into a long umbilical using electrical tape every five or six feet.  I spliced a spare power cord to the end, and used shackles and twine to hang that sucker to the cable hanging over the pits.  Then back to the rig, another layer of mud, a coffee while the rig hands laughed their asses off and hosed me down with the rig washing hose.  I probably should have been grateful, but I couldn’t show it.  It would upset the balance of the universe.

I had brought that extra power line with me on my last journey, and I started to haul on it, oh so slowly.  Foot by foot, the umbilical was pulled the eighty or a hundred feet out over the pits and up to the doghouse door.  The tool pusher stood there, admiring my ingenuity and trying hard not to show it.  He did this by spitting chewing tobacco as close to my boots as he could without hitting me, something which he had practiced somewhere.  I got my lines strung, smiled, and set in to connecting to the rig.

Hooking up the power line and depth gauge took all of fifteen minutes, but the gas hoses had to go out to the shaker table, and that took another forty five.  I got it done, though, and headed back to my little trailer.  Now for the real killer.

The gas collector is a metal can with a motor on top of it and a hose connection for the gas hose.  It’s stainless steel, and weighs about fifty pounds.  I had to lug this sucker through the mud, around the pits, under the rig and up to the shaker table so I could set it up and connect it to hose and power.  I headed out.

Now, it was late, and I had been working a bit here, and I was tired.  I slipped and slid my way across the site and was skirting the pits when I hit a soft spot under a corner of the pit liner.  I was close, but thought I would be all right.  Then that soft spot gave way just enough and down I went, hard on my ass with a fifty pound gas collector on my shoulder, and damned if I didn’t slide right into the first pit.  I let go of everything and twisted myself around and grabbed that plastic liner with both hands to stop my slide.  I was waist deep, but I stopped.  The gas collector slid by me and I heard it go under.  I hauled, and I came back up to a standing ovation from every single rig hand and the tool pusher.  They had seen the whole thing.

I went back and got the spare gas collector, and this time took the long way around.  Hooking it up was the easiest thing I did all night.  By midnight, when the diesels started roaring and the first joint of drill pipe was hauled up to spud in the well, I was hooked up and running, dry and warm in my trailer.  I recorded the first foot of hole drilled and smiled.  The coffee might have a bit of mud in it, but that was all right.  So did I.





The fire started innocently. A bottle fallen out of the trash barrel landed on its side, rolled to the edge of the parking lot, and came to rest up against a pile of pine needles swept into a row by the rain and wind. A strong sun shone through the clear glass, and the light was refracted and focused, becoming a hot line upon the needles. Heat grew, smoke rose.

“Air one, turn right ninety degrees, come along the ridge and make your drop at Cooper Mountain peak. We’ll need a fast turn-around on this one. We have a hotshot crew down there.”

The incident commander turned back to the ground crew chiefs gathered for the mid-day meeting. The fire had recently jumped two lines and was headed straight for the town of Washaw.

“Okay, everyone, listen up. Crew priorities are this:   One, stay safe. No one under me dies. Two, the fire lines have to go from fifty yards to seventy five. That means more dozers to come into the area, and the ground crews direct them as needed. Until the weather breaks, we’re fighting to slow the spread, not kill it. Three, stay safe. All crews are equipped with shelters for a fast rollover, but if they are caught in the middle of this, we’re looking at memorial services, and that will piss me off plenty. Situational awareness by all crew commanders, and keep me informed of any need for extractions. Choppers can be anywhere in five minutes.”

The meeting ended on a positive note, with an anticipated drop in the temperature during the week. That would slow the fire down enough to control it. Maybe.

Deep in the middle of the mountains, right on the shoulder of an un-burned ridge, a hotshot crew was prepping their equipment and getting ready for another day of fun in the sun. The fire was strong today, but the dozers had been busy overnight and they were tasked with cleaning up fire breaks to keep the blaze contained until it burned itself out. Ten men and women, many veterans, were doing their best to help beat back the fire that had been burning through the dry mountain forests of eastern California.

Hand tools, Pulaskis and machetes, shovels and McLeods were wielded by experienced hands. This was the third year this crew had been together, and they worked as a team.

They spread out in a long line along the scar the dozers had left for them. The fire, when it reached them, would come to a broad gap in the trees with nothing but ground slash and dirt left to it. The fire, without fuel, would die in less than fifteen minutes. The crew members set to work clearing the slash, splinters of wood left by the D-8’s and D-9’s as the big dozers swept in tandem back and forth across the hill.

Chris Murphy was the first to hear the fire approaching. Morgan Fairchild was the first to smell it, and Angela Dickson was the first to die. The fire came at them in a running line, fed by a copse of conifers hidden in the valley. Angie yelled, had time to key the mike on her radio, and was enveloped by a tidal wave of flames. Chris heard the squeal of the mike as it melted, Angie’s hand curled tightly around the button.

Morgan had the time to call all team members into a central retreat zone, and was calling for extraction when the fire found the edge of the clearing. Everyone had their aluminized shelters deployed, but they stood together watching the spot where they knew Angela had been clearing. The fire had become so intense with the fuel from the pines that it swept across the clearing, fueled by the turpentine vapors heated to plasma and saturating the air. The crew died standing close to their shelters, smothered before they were incinerated.

In the Fall, the seeds released by the burned pine cones sprouted, fed by the autumn rains.

Blower Bentley

1930 Blower Bentley


The old geezer’s garage looked like a train had hit it, but the inside was immaculate. He led the way past a pile of tires ten feet high, and a chrome radiator from an old Rolls Royce. The cap was still on it, with the Winged Victory still flying. He turned toward me and beckoned to the far corner.

“There she is,” he said. “I haven’t started her up in dogs’ years, but you’re welcome to try if that will help you make up your mind. I’ll leave you to it. If there are any questions, I’ll be on the porch.”

He looked old in that sort of way where he tottered when he walked, but you could imagine him still re-shingling his own roof, just ‘cause that was what you did. I smiled and waved, and turned back to the reason I had come calling.

I grabbed a corner of the old tan tarp and lifted. A dark green fender saw the light for the first time in over thirty years. A chrome headlamp followed, and I almost fainted when the front of the car was revealed. The bulge of the supercharger on the front was the secret to it all. I knew then that I would be in debt for a while and eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and dinner. I pulled further, and the second headlamp came into view, followed by the long bonnet and the windscreen. There was dust, a lot of dust, but what was under it was a 1929 Bentley 4 ½ Liter Blower, the legendary Blower Bentley from England. It was the supercharger that earned it that name, the ‘blower’ that had been developed way before turbo’s had come into the common lexicon.

I pulled the tarp off fully and stood back to study what had become my life’s obsession. I first saw one in a book when I was a kid. I loved it then, and carried that vision throughout my life. When ‘The Avengers’ came on the TV, John Steed drove one, and it didn’t take a whole lot of effort to stop looking at Emma Peel in her skin-tight leather. Oops, I lied there, just a bit. The Avengers was on when I was an adolescent in full overdrive, and even a Blower Bentley couldn’t distract me from fantasies involving Emma Peel.

The dark green, later known as “British Racing Green,” was the perfect color for the car. It was a huge beast that would force you to sit upright as you motored along the lanes of Surrey or the Cotswold’s. A gentleman’s car. I grabbed the door handle and twisted it around ninety degrees. There was not a bit of pitting in the chrome, and the door swung open with minimal squeaking. This was a car you climbed up into. I settled into the leather seat. Wheel on the right side, as is only proper. A spare tire just ahead of the door, nestled into an indent in the front fender and tied down with leather straps and buckles. I grabbed the wheel for a few minutes, and as I climbed down, my eyes were wet.

Angus Meriwether was waiting for me on the porch. He had a pitcher of lemonade out, and a glass for me close to my chair.

“Come up and sit,” he said. “We’ll talk.”

And talk we did. I drank lemonade with Angus, and called him Mr. Meriwether. He admired my youth and enthusiasm, and we reminisced about our good old days, mine not as old as his. He told me about his dad bringing the car back from the War To End All Wars, and I told him about my reluctant service and the friends I had made and lost. I asked how the car had come to be covered up in the corner of the garage, and he told me a long rambling tale about his wife of fifty seven years and her passing. He talked of his love for the hills, and a reluctance to move down to a town. He told me of his trip to the old doc’s house down the road a piece and his impending reunion with his one love. I got that wet feeling in my eyes again, and steered the conversation back to the car.

“Is there a price you have in mind?” I said.

“Well,” he said, “there was. I’ve kind of changed my mind since you came up, though. I’m sorry to say I can’t sell the car.”

I was struck dumb. After all this, what had I done? Was it my fault?

“But I can give it to you if you promise to love it and think of me and my wife now and again. I think I’d like that, and I suspect that she would too.”

I wept. Openly, and without care. I thanked him, and promised to drive the Blower Bentley with him in mind.

When I finally drove her down off the mountain, Angus and his wife were sitting proudly in the back seat, all dressed in their finery. And I sat upright, on the right side, because that was the proper way to do it.


My Family Supper



I didn’t know that I loved squid until my mother served up a hot plate of fried calamari one night. We were still in the era of “You’ll eat what your mother cooks”, so all of us just pretended it was little onion rings. It was Danny, the youngest, who ruined it all. He had found an un-cut conical tail and stuck it on his fingertip. The little squidlet became a finger puppet named Pepe, and Danny was conversing with him in his little five-year-old voice. As he played, however, the breading slowly fell away, revealing the true nature of our dinner that evening.

I know that faces were slowly getting paler and paler as Danny continued to play with Pepe. It would have gotten really bad if our father hadn’t been watching Walter Cronkite on the news, but had instead been focused on making sure we all cleaned our plates. Something must have been going on in the Deep South or over in the Southeast Asia region, because he was riveted to the black and white TV that lived in the corner of the dining room.

I think it was Michael who bolted for the bathroom first. The thought of eating an octopus was just too much for him. He was the one in the family most fascinated by Jacque Cousteau, and had seen the divers teasing the rubbery blob of tentacles and head sack fifty feet underwater. The thought that he had just swallowed any part of that blob was enough to initiate projectile vomiting. Thank God he had the sense to bolt away from the table first. I’m certain that we would have all followed him within a split second.

It never occurred to us kids that perhaps Mom was just doing what she was told to do by the TV every day when we were all in school. Cook a healthy meal for your family, and slowly introduce the fascinating foods of international cuisine to spice up your meal time. In the early 60’s, I was still suspicious of Brussels sprouts, and spent most of dinner time trying to find what was at their center by peeling the leaves away one at a time. That level of curiosity came to me naturally, mostly because Michael had once told me that there was a worm in the middle of each of the tiny little baby cabbages.

With Michael away from the table and woofing in the bathroom, and with Dad distracted by the goings on in the world, I followed Danny’s lead and decorated both hands with the rubbery rings on my plate. I was still at the monoculture stage of life where I could live for months on nothing but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. My mother knew this, Dad was oblivious to this, and the others teased me mercilessly for this. Anything breaded and fried was in the good column, and if it could also be played with, that was even better. I chewed the rings off my hand, one finger at a time, and as long as the world was going to hell on TV, I could get away with it. I suspect that Mom was just grateful that I was eating something on my plate and not asking her if she could make me up a bowl of pasta.

We all got tired of dinner slowly, and one after the other, we asked “May I be excused from the table?” Mom sighed and took this as a sign that her efforts had hit a dead end. I was actually the one who ate the most. Every other place at the table had a plate tilted crooked from the calamari secreted beneath it, or a cat beneath the chair gnawing on a still-warm ring of rubber. When Maureen stood up, the entire load that she had hidden in her lap fell on to the floor at her feet, which were already running for the living room and the big TV. It was probably time for Ed Sullivan and we all knew that Maureen was Topo Gigio’s biggest fan.

It was my turn to help clear the table, and I got to ask Mom about dinner that night. “Mom,” I said, “was that really an octopus we ate tonight?” She smiled that tired smile of hers, and nodded. “It was seafood, just like when we have fish sticks. You really like them, don’t you?”

I tottered into the kitchen with two plates carefully stacked together. “I think I like octopus,” I said. “Mostly the outside, but the inside part was like onion rings, and I kind of like those now, too.” Her smile was all the reward I needed to feel good about this meal.

I got to the living room just in time to claim the spot on top of the heater register in the corner by the big rubber tree plant. It was the warmest place in the house in the winter. We, the kids, had a fierce battle going on for claiming our favorite spot to watch TV. Sometimes, we even got strategic and claimed a spot that wasn’t our favorite, but we knew that one of the siblings loved it. Depriving someone of a favorite spot was better than claiming your own favorite spot, and was certainly worth more points on the kid scale of annoying the sibs. Claiming the heater was best because you could shift sideways and lift up the register grate and look for neat stuff that had fallen in during the week. There were always a couple of pennies or game pieces mixed in with all the dust balls. When you’re one of five kids, every point counts.

Western New England, Present Day

Town Hall Meeting


The Town Meeting was called to order by the moderator, who also happened to be the town clerk. After dispensing with minutes and administrative what-nots, an agenda for the night was read. First item on the list was controlling student behavior in the downtown area after hours.

Bart Phelps promptly strode to the microphone and made a motion to strike “after hours” from the agenda item. The motion was approved with a very small margin of “yea’s”.

After Bart cleared the microphone, Angela Bellows asked to be recognized and went into a long diatribe against the use of police power in dealing with the youngsters. She actually kept calling them youngsters throughout her time at the mike. Angela was famous in town for inviting individuals from the town’s homeless population to sleep at her house overnight so they could be more comfortable. So far she has lost a big screen TV, her toaster oven, her mother’s afghan, and one of her cockapoos. Some of the fading lost dog signs are still visible on poles throughout the area.

Angela was on the third iteration of her “We were all young once” speech when time was called by the moderator, and you could hear the entire room heave a great sigh. She yielded the microphone reluctantly.

Angela’s arch-nemesis, Frank Maser, approached the mike and actually asked to be recognized. Since everyone in town recognizes Frank anyway, he was asked what was on his mind. Frank was no fan of the local police department, due to several run-ins involving the first, second, fourth and tenth amendments to the Constitution. He was one to stand up for himself, that was for certain.

Frank proposed that the town and university police be issued Tasers and stun grenades to be used at the discretion of the officers. His five-year plan for wresting control of the streets back from the little bastards was greeted by the town folk with stunned silence for a second, and then a lone resident toward the back of the meeting room applauded quietly before being hushed by his better half. With thirty seconds left on the clock, and being one to not waste a chance to rub anyone’s nose in it, Frank got at least the rudiments of corporal punishment and stoning in just before the buzzer sounded. He was smiling as he sat back down in his seat. The seats on either side of him had been quietly vacated while he’d had his say at the lectern.

After a short adjournment for refreshments, and to allow those who still partook to step outside to vape on their e-cigarettes, the meeting launched in to a rollicking discussion of the merits and/or futility of the proposals. Most upright citizens of the town didn’t want to do anything except either move or make the students disappear quietly in the dark of the night. Frank leapt to his feet to volunteer, but was hauled back down by a police officer sitting strategically behind him. He launched into a discussion about the suppression of his rights, but was met with a bland uncaring stare by the officer who turned out to be the only one in the crowd who was armed.

When it all wound down, the meeting adjourned without decision. It had gone the same way for the past five years. No one in the crowd was sane enough or brave enough to propose something rational, so the polar opposites of Angela and Frank kept leaping to their feet to berate their town for not caring enough to do the right thing.

On the way out, many of the crowd walked past the downtown bars, witnessing the behavior that they all wanted to contain but lacked the collective will to act. Many forgot to scrape the bottoms of their shoes before getting into their fuel-efficient cars and turning on the evening jazz. The smells of the students would linger and serve to remind the people of the town that there was something they had forgotten to do.

Hell’s Half Acre



There was a reason that it was called Hell’s Half Acre. It was mid-August, and the heat shimmering off the desert floor looked like the waves on the ocean a thousand miles to the west. The only water I could find was beaded on my forehead or soaked into the red bandana around my neck.

I knew there were parts of western Wyoming that probably still had some snow, way up high in the Tetons or huddled beneath a dirt bank on the north face of a canyon. Little good it did me there. I was here to test myself, walking away from the drilling rig on my week off, going walkabout in my own mind, going stupid in the eyes of my co-workers. The rig’s tool pusher had tried to voice his concerns, but I pulled rank on him and headed out anyway. I had my hat, my vest, and a head full of too much knowledge. I wanted to get rid of that part of me that wasn’t true. This was the only way I could think of that could fit in seven days.

That heat shimmer on the horizon wasn’t a mirage of some far off water body. I was facing east, and there was no water in that direction for a couple of hundred miles. I wasn’t planning on going that far, though, so it was find it or die. I was right at the beginning of day two, and had survived so far on stored fat and confident stupidity. I did know that I had to start looking in earnest pretty soon, or the rig crew would be short-handed.

The land around me wasn’t totally barren. There was scrub a-plenty, and the occasional gray tree forcing it’s way up from some rock ledge. I could have tried following the cracks down into the ground, but the tree roots were skinnier than I was, and the rock just about as hard. I took heart in the fact of my sweat. The drop on the end of my nose told me that I was still hydrated, and I had some bit of time ahead. It was the pallid dry skin that I was afraid of, and I thought that I could probably make it to day four before I had to contend with thoughts of heat stroke and vultures.

I moved forward in a steady walk, heading away from, not toward anything. My outward destination was just day 3.5, when I would decide to turn around and head back, hoping for a glow in the sky on the far horizon that was the 90 foot tall rig that I was calling home these days. I slumped my way down a shallow gully and pushed my way back up the far side. There was dry grass, but I just bent over and steadied myself with my hands on the hot dry sand.

Coming up the far side of the gully, I came face to face with the open mouth of a fat gray rattle snake, and I pulled away in shock. The snake had been sunning itself, and pulled itself back into a coil, alarmed at finding such a big fool rising in front of him. I turned aside quickly, and the springing snake thudded to the ground before me. My boot stomped forward, and I had dinner, and just a bit more fluid to go into my poor parched soul. My only regret was having to sit in front of a fire to cook it. I suspected that any gain I would make in fluid intake would be baked right back out in sweat. I ate that snake, from right behind the head to just before the rattle. Waste not, want not. The rattle went in my pocket.

On day 3.5, I was looping back to the rig and came upon a low, fat cactus that seemed way out of place. I sat down before it contemplating its existence, and my own. I figured the cactus was here first, so I moved over a few feet and began to dig down through the hardpan with my sheath knife and hands. Plunge the knife in the ground, twist it around to break up the crust, and scoop the sand out of the hole. Repeat as needed. The hole got to be about two feet deep, and the edge was getting perilously close to the cactus when the bottom started to get damp. I was tired, dusty and thirsty, but the feel of cool sand on my hands brought a stupid smile to my face. I slid a handful back across the back of my neck for relief from the sun. It stung, then cooled me and spurred me on. Another foot down and digging away from my savior cactus, and there was a tiny trickle of water in the hole. I pulled another handful out, and bent down to wet my bandana in the clear pool that formed. I sat there for an hour, happy as a kid in a mud puddle, sucking on my bandana and glad to be alive. I knew then that I would be back at work next Sunday. I pulled my knife out of the sheath and bored a hole through the snake rattle. I threaded a string through it, and tied it around my neck as a totem.

Good luck charm? No, just thanks for the journey.