A year of rumination….me and my Dad

As a young boy I was “drafted” by my Mom and Dad into a program for boys and teens called the “Cadets” where we wore grey shirts and “kerchiefs” and were subject to “inspections” or review of our attire, uniform and posture at each meeting. Kerchiefs were a square of cloth worn around the neck We would recite our creed and stand at attention to say the pledge of allegiance. I remember standing straight and hoping my shirt was tucked, zipper up and kerchief securely lynched to my neck. The “head counselor” would walk the floor like a drill sergeant carefully inspecting each cadet for violations. This was a man who would do everything by the book. Everything was scheduled, in its place, spotless clean and accounted for even in his personal life. The lawn, windows, garage and vehicles at his house were meticulous. There would be some sort of “demerit” comeuppance if you forgot your kerchief, a common occurrence. If not dressed to code you would receive a “de-merit.” We were young and impressionable and recited the cadet code every week. I can still recite it some 50 years later.

A Cadet must be:

Oh that’s all? Why don’t we throw in dauntless, fearless, astute and gregarious while we’re at it. Looking back that’s quite a lot of pressure on a 10-year-old kid. Even at the age of 59 I’m struggling on quite a few of those to be honest with you. I remember thinking OK I’ll give it a shot but don’t count on a 100% score. The demerits alone are going to tamp down that final score.

When you earned a badge your Mom would sew it on your shirt so you could display it proudly at the next inspection. There was pressure on her too as there was proper placement protocol and attachment criteria. The pressure was compounded by a young boy’s proclivity to wait until just before you’re going to leave for a meeting to ask her to sew it on. Don’t be late. You’re liable to get a “de-merit” and arrive to inspection with your kerchief askew. I lived in fear of de-merits. As I advanced in the program I would proudly wear the stripes on my sleeve as I moved up the ranks. Looking back as a kid I was less into “kerchief” and more into “mischief” which in my year of rumination Operation Rumination Book I have learned comes from my Dad. I’ve always known him to have a streak of mischievous playfulness and creative bent that he passed on to me. He loves to tell stories. 

It was in those childhood “Cadet” days my love for photography began as each boy was loaned a “brownie” camera and we learned how to manage and develop film in a dark room.The Brownie was a long-running popular series of simple and inexpensive photo cameras made by Kodak. It introduced the point and click snapshot to the masses.Brownies were extensively marketed to kids like me, with Kodak using them to make photography popular. They were also taken to war by soldiers. As they were ubiquitous, many iconic shots were taken on Brownies. I can still smell the aroma of the strange chemical bath agents we floated the film in while operating in the dark hoping our black and white prints would be a success.We were playing with ammonium thiosulfate and sodium thiosulfate in the dark as children. I was operating in the dark literally and figuratively making it up as I went to earn the coveted merit badge. I didn’t want to be exposed for my questionable skills. I remember a thermometer at the ready to gauge the temperature in the tray. I inadvertently licking it off to clean it while focused and working in the dark. I thought I was going to die but I didn’t tell anyone. I survived. Obviously.

The highlight of my years in the ranks was when we could jointly as a team build a motorized go-cart. We would craft a metal frame and position the remnants of a metal lawn chair seat in the center as we devised a cockpit. With the help of our counselor we would secure a used lawnmower engine and steering wheel from the local rummage lot. Still a few years removed from our driver’s permits and high school, this was a big deal for a 13-year-old. It represented freedom. The open road. A passage into manhood. From the start I questioned the integrity of that grease soaked engine but our counselor was on a budget and he got it cheap. Must be the dues collections were a little short that month. We bolted that symbol of Henry Ford’s combustible imagination to the rear of the frame and wired the control components to the cockpit. Weeks turned to months but finally this modern marvel of 20th century junior automation was ready to launch.

Due to my rank exhibited by the stripes on my sleeve and lack of personal de-merits I was designated the “John Glenn” distinction of manning the maiden voyage. I took off the kerchief and with the help of jealous onlookers was strapped into the cockpit. This would be my finest moment in front of my fellow cadets. We were young men from the Apollo generation and failure was not an option. It was 1972 and our heroes were the likes of Neil Armstrong. Instead in my little world it was a near disaster like Apollo 13 and I would miss my “Fra Mauro” while avoiding personal ruination. A teenage operation “ruination” of sorts.

My counselor put his foot on the rear of the cart and gave the pull cord on the engine a yank. It sputtered. The head counselor with arms crossed watched from his perch on the front steps of our meeting building. Jolted by his successive pulls the engine belched and finally with a puff of black smoke it roared to life. Roar would be exaggeration but it was functioning none the less. Over the din of the engine directly behind my seat I heard him say “Good luck and Godspeed” as he stepped away from the frame. It was a fall evening and the parking lot we were in was dark and damp at the end of an October day.

Taking a deep breath I released the brake. Throttle up. I had underestimated the life that remained in that old lawnmower engine. Lurching forward I was quickly up to full speed. The parsonage of the church that shared that parking lot was dead ahead and I was closing fast. I knew I didn’t want to be a news item in the following Sunday’s church bulletin so I pulled the wheel hard left. Skidding along the wet pavement I fought the wheel to coax the frame from impending disaster.

Managing the turn at high-speed I tried to brake. No brakes. Fighting the G forces on my second turn I reach for the throttle. It was stuck. I manage a third turn and the crowd of onlookers scramble for cover. I see my “counselor” running towards me and yelling something unintelligible. He can’t catch me due to my rate of speed and his 3 pack a day Marlboro habit. I can’t hear him due to the din of the engine. I surmise I could fight the G forces and continue to make turns until it runs out of gas. That could be more than an hour. The shuddering frame could break apart from pressures. I think Abort! Abort! Abort! I can’t reach for the buckle, I have to keep both hands on the wheel to fight centrifugal force. I realize at this point my only recourse was to take the hurdling mass into the wall. To take one for the team.

Suddenly I see an outcropping of parking lot bumper blocks. I make a snap decision to use them instead of the north wall of our cadet building. I could reduce my “demerits” by slamming the approaching curb bumpers instead of the building where the head counselor resides. I hit the first row at full speed and much to my surprise and chagrin it sent this pilot and his craft airborne. The second row of bumper blocks brought the errant mass to an abrupt stop as the frame lodged on the concrete. The engine was still at a full roar. By then the rescue cadets arrived to hit the kill switch on the engine while I pulled to unlatch my seat buckle. The physical pain was far less than the hurt feelings as I was subject to uproarious laughter stepping away from the smoking wreckage. The head counselor was still standing on the steps with arms crossed. I could picture him tearing off my stripes at the next inspection. My fellow cadets are bent over in laughter at my misfortune as I emerge from the cockpit. I had failed, was told so, and would never live down my crash landing. But just like my dark room chemical experience I had survived it and lived for another day.

I was also taught knot tying under the guise it would come in handy someday and earn me a “merit badge.” It was certainly safer than chemical formulations and internal combustion engines. We would struggle to craft the clove hitch, square knot, bow line and other knots and upon completion mount them on a varnished board in the shape of a shield to hang on the wall. We would use the old clunky label makers called “Dymo” label makers to identify our knots and accept compliments from family and friends, mostly Mom and Dad, on our ligature prowess. We varnished the knots to a harden state because if I untied them today I would never be able to re-tie the knot. Looking back I would say the only benefit I derived from the experience and kerchief conundrum is a life-long skill at tying a crisp clean professional necktie on a clean starched business white shirt.

Even today anyone who knows me well knows I can tie a great necktie but if my car breaks down I’m lost. Looking back I think that experience was the foundation of my disdain for small engine maintenance and repair. Small engines are handy around the home but if my lawnmower, generator, snowblower, leaf blower or weed whacker won’t start on the first or second pull I’m pretty much out of luck. I would open the hood and look for a big on/off switch that was switched off. If I can’t find that I’m out of luck. Thank goodness for the advent of cell phones.

The thought of knot tying two half hitches and a sheet bend knot for merit badges return to my memory as I ruminate on my childhood while writing Operation Rumination.

Operation Rumination Book

Denouement is a French word for “untying” or “unknotting”, as in untying a knot; it’s the metaphor for a climax, where the plot is unraveled. Years after my childhood, memories come rushing back as I ruminate on events long past and how they influenced my paths in later years. You carry memories with you, snapshot memories tied up in the cobwebs of your mind. You never know when something will untie them years later and produce a smile on your face. Recently my Dad had a stroke and is recovering from it approaching the age of 90. I will be 60 this year. We talked about his memories of the “Hunger Winter” of 1944/45 and how different his childhood memories were from mine. Each of us with stories to tell, and snapshot memories of days gone by. All the more reason storytelling is so important…..keeping the memories alive. And I’m thankful my Dad made me a story teller. Even today as I have the opportunity to do a live radio show each week or write books, I think of painting pictures with words and the story telling “theater of the mind” I inherited from my Dad.

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