Monday, July 26, 2010

Dominoes Falling

My friend Lime has been blogging recently about some once-and-future home-improvement projects over at her house. Which, as it turns out, is a fairly current topic at our place, too. But of course, first you get the history lesson ('context setting', dontchaknow). . . ------------------------- We bought our current house a bit over ten years ago. At the time, we had lived in our previous house for 17 years, and the two of us, with seven kids, were just a bit much for 1400 square feet. We'd tried all manner of space-saving and space-multiplying expedients - I built a loft so that three boys and all their toys and clothes could more-or-less fit into a 12x12 room. Jen and I had even taken to sleeping on a hide-a-bed so that our 'bedroom' could function as the kids' play room during the day. I was just about to draw up plans to add a second story to the rear addition, and possibly even carve an office for myself out of some 'third-floor' attic space. That fall (which, coincidentally enough, was just after 7M's accident), the two of us went on one of our infrequent getaway weekends to a bed-and-breakfast Up North. We had a great, refreshing, relaxing time, but Jen was saving the real point of the weekend (at least, as far as she was concerned) for the drive home. "We need a new house," she said to me, very matter-of-factly. I started to explain about my plans for expanding on our then-current domicile, but she just shook her head and waved me off. Our older kids, by then, were in high school, and she was envisioning the day in the not-too-distant future when they would be marrying and having children of their own. "Our house simply isn't big enough to have any kind of extended-family gathering in it. We can add bedrooms, but the dining room will be just as tiny. It won't work. We need a new house." I couldn't argue with her logic, but I countered with the positives of our situation. Living, as we did, walking distance from the kids' school, and even from church, made for some nice efficiencies, which I didn't really want to give up. So I told her that if she could find a house of at least 2000 square feet (since it would hardly be worth moving for anything much less) and four bedrooms (five would be better), walking distance from school and church, for a price we could afford (I did some quick mental math to arrive at a dollar figure), I would buy it. But, I added - I didn't think she could (yeah, just call me Mr. Supportive). I should have known better than to throw that kind of a challenge down in front of my wife (or, you know, maybe I was dumb like a fox). Within less than a month, she found a 2300 square-foot house, four blocks from both the school and church (we had been two blocks away, but four was well within 'walkable' distance), with four bedrooms, and a little efficiency apartment carved out of the basement (which wasn't even counted in the square footage), for the exact price I had specified. The only thing that remained was to sell our old house, which presented a whole separate obstacle, both real and psychological. We had owned another house previously (the one whose neighbors were burned out, if you recall), and that house had nearly broken us, trying to sell it. It took two years to sell (in the mid-80s), and we ended up dumping it for a loss, just to get rid of the monthly payment. So I was not looking forward to selling another house. But lo and behold, in the year or two leading up to our latest need to sell, the real estate market for our part of town underwent a small boom, and we ended up selling for a fairly substantial profit. Which was a good thing, because our new house was a definite fixer-upper. The house had been abandoned to the government for unpaid taxes (and HUD was the mortgage-holder). By the time we saw it, it was the middle of winter, and abandoning a house in mid-winter does not do kind things to the house. It had hot-water heat, with the old-style cast-iron radiators. But the water had been left in the system, and all the radiators had cracked, leaking water all over the floor. Which was not as bad as it might have been, since the water mostly froze. So our first order of business was to install a new heating system. With a little research, we found that a new high-efficiency forced-air furnace was sufficiently cheaper than replacing the hot-water system, that we could also install central air for the same money. The house was also badly insulated, so we spent some more on tightening up the insulation, and upgrading some of the older wiring. By the time all was said and done, we ended up plowing all of the profit from the sale of the old house into improvements on the new house. ------------------------- Which is a really cool story, all by itself, but it's mostly just a long, elaborate lead-in to the story I started out to tell. . . When the cast-iron radiator in the living room of the new house broke, it spilled rusty water all over the living-room carpet, so that, by the time we bought the house, the carpet was badly rust-stained. Which was low-enough on the priority list that we ran out of fixing-up funds before we got to the carpet. So we just threw a nice area rug over the rust stain, and Jen was content enough with that arrangement. For ten years, anyway. This summer, one of Jen's friends (who is obviously fussier about her carpets than we are), decided to take the carpet out of one of her rooms. It was still fairly new and in good shape, and she offered us her lightly-used carpet, which was just slightly bigger than our living room. So Jen jumped at it, and I came home from work one day a month or so ago, to find all the living-room furniture moved to other rooms, and the carpet torn out. Strike while the iron's hot, and all that. Then, while she was considering how the room would look with new carpet in it, Jen thought to herself that, having taken the old carpet out, this was really the best time to paint the living room, while she was at it, so she went and got color samples, to work out the best shade for matching the new carpet. Good thinking, sweetheart. Then came the coup de grace, which requires a bit of explanation. Virtually all of the old houses in our neighborhood (which are anywhere from 80-120 years old) have lovely old woodwork in them - oak, walnut, cherry, maple; beautiful stuff. In about half of them, that beautiful old woodwork has been painted over (particularly if the house was ever a rental). And ours was one of the 'painted' half. Which might not have bothered us too terribly much; we could always just tell ourselves that it was pine, and not worth our trouble. Until one day, one of the kids, in one of those absent-minded bits of fidgety destruction that kids are wont to have, idly picked away at some loose paint on one of the door frames, uncovering some really beautiful old hardwood. So Jen and I sighed, and went ahead and stripped that one door frame. Which is quite lovely, but it has stood as a taunt to us that, look, all these other door frames and windows, and baseboards are just sitting there, at least as lovely as I am, and you know darn well you're gonna end up stripping them, too. . . But you know, raising eight kids just never quite seems to leave enough time to take on a decent woodwork-stripping project. But this summer, things are different - Jen tore out the carpet, so she might as well just go ahead and paint. And if she's gonna paint, she might as well just go ahead and strip the woodwork in the living room. Thus do the dominoes fall. So, for the past few weeks, Jen has been spending her days stripping in the living room (which, yeah, I'm not above grabbing for the obvious cheap laugh, so go ahead). And it looks really nice. And it'll look even nicer when it's painted. And when the new carpet gets laid. In the course of our married life (which is now closing in fast on 30 years' duration), I have greatly benefitted, on multiple occasions, from my wife's very high energy levels. Which, in conjunction with her occasional penchant for impulsivity, can end up getting some really nice stuff done, which might never get done if it was up to me to sit down and plan it all out. . . ------------------------- And just for the sake of setting the full context, while we were in the midst of full-destruction-mode on the living room, the garbage disposal gave up the ghost. Well, as it turns out, the disposal was OK; the ground-fault outlet it was plugged into died (which was actually a pretty nifty bit of trouble-shooting all by itself). So, as a short-term fix, we plugged the disposal into a surge-protected power-strip on the floor, and she was using the reset switch on the power-strip with her foot; sorta like a pedal-operated garbage disposal. Pretty neat. Then, last weekend, while I was out riding my bike, I heard a *pop*, and suddenly, my handlebars were all loose and floppy. I was able to finish my ride, but, without 'fixed' handlebars, it's hard to do the rhythmic, out-of-the-saddle climbing that is demanded by a few of the stiffer hills in our area. So I had to grunt up 'em in a low gear, which is decidedly less fun. And then I had to take my bike in to the shop for a new stem. And then, the brakes on my car started making a nasty-sounding grinding noise. Again, it's not that big a deal to get my brakes done, but with Jen fully-engaged in refinishing the living room, such a simple expedient as running the car in to the shop for brakes is considerably more disruptive than usual. (*sigh*) In the immortal words of Gilda Radner, it's always something. . . ------------------------- As a sort-of post-script-in-advance, I should mention the built-in china cabinets in our dining room, which, like all the other woodwork in our house, have been painted over. Ever since we first discovered that we had some seriously nice woodwork hiding beneath all that paint, we have known that, in the fullness of time, we would want to strip and refinish those cabinets. But it was just too daunting to think about all that wood, and the work that would go into bringing it to the light of day. But now, having successfully attacked the living room, which is a fair bit smaller than the dining room (at least, in terms of woodwork to refinish), we have a better idea of what-all would go into doing the dining room, and it's not quite so scary as it once was. So - this summer, the living room; next summer, the dining room? It's actually pretty cool to think about. And it just reinforces what I've known for years. . . I love my wife.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Big Water

"By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining big sea water. . ." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha)

I have lived virtually my whole life in the state of Michigan. And the dominant geographic feature of the state of Michigan is the Great Lakes. Michigan has shorelines on four of the five Great Lakes, and save only for Alaska, has more shoreline than any other state. In fact, there is no place in Michigan that's more than a two-hour drive from one of the Great Lakes (alas, I think these days I live pretty close to the point that is the farthest one can get from one of the Great Lakes in the state of Michigan. . .)

The lakes have featured large in my own young life. When my family moved Up North 'for good' in 1963, our house was about seven miles south of the city of Alpena, on the shores of Thunder Bay, which is part of Lake Huron. Which is to say that Lake Huron was our back yard. Which, for an 8-9-year-old boy, was a pretty good working model of heaven. Every day of the year, I could look out the back window, and see the big lake stretching to the horizon.

My favorite days were the breezy summer days with a clear blue sky, or maybe some puffy cotton-candy clouds, when the whitecaps stretched off to the blue horizon, and the onshore breeze blew in our faces. On other days, the sunlight and the clouds played on the water, turning it from deep blue to a softer blue-gray to a blue-green, or green color, the colors moving and shifting almost magically. On other days, we'd watch rain clouds out over the lake, their wispy fingers stretching down toward the water. Some days, especially in the spring and fall, when it was too cold to swim, we'd just stand on the shore and watch the freighters slowly travelling back and forth along the horizon.

All summer long, we could walk out our back door and be playing in the waves in minutes. Some days, we'd just wander up and down the shore in the shallow water, looking for interesting stones or dead crayfish. Others, we'd wade out to where the water was about chest-deep. Depending on the wind and water currents, we might ascend and descend multiple sandbars on the way out; it always seemed like magic when the water, which had been belly-button deep, was suddenly only knee-deep, even though you were further from the shore. Chest-deep was about where the waves would start to break. We'd just jump and float in the waves, letting them crash over us, or body-surf them, for hours on end. Prune-skin on our fingertips came to seem like the most natural state for us.

Even in the winter, it was fascinating to watch the ice formations as the lake slowly, progressively froze over. My brother and I liked to walk out on the ice (which was a good bit more dangerous than we realized at the time), playing games around the ice hills that formed as the ice buckled and shifted. One time, we just kept going out on the ice until we encountered a huge ridge in the ice. Climbing up to see what was on the other side of the ridge, we saw open water stretching to the horizon. Very cold open water, which made the ice even more slippery than usual, and for which we were ill-prepared. Turning for the first time to look back to the shore, we realized how very far from shore we were, and for the first time, understood how dangerous our situation was, and how very afraid it was appropriate for us to be. We stayed closer to shore after that.

We lived in that house for two years. When my parents divorced, Dad and us two boys moved to a house in town, and we no longer had the lake for our back yard. Even so, for the rest of the time that we lived in Alpena (virtually until I graduated high school), I could hop on my bike and be on the beach in five minutes. Needless to say, I spent many carefree summer hours on the beach, while we lived in Alpena. When I was in junior-high, I had a paper route that required me to be out delivering papers at 5AM; part of my route was along the shore, so during the summer months, I saw many a spectacular sunrise over the lake. . .


So much of life in Michigan involves the Great Lakes, eventually. So much natural beauty here has the Lakes as its backdrop, be it Sleeping Bear Dunes in the northwest Lower Peninsula, the Pictured Rocks along the Lake Superior shore in the Upper Peninsula, Mackinac Island overlooking the strait (crossed by a majestic bridge) where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, and on and on, from Grand Traverse Bay wine country (and yes, Michigan does have 'wine country') to the Keweenaw Peninsula at the far western end of the UP, spectacular lakeshore vistas are in almost embarrassing surplus here. Heck, even Niagara Falls has nothing but Great Lakes water flowing over it.

I once attended Mass at a church in Oscoda (on Lake Huron, about 45 miles south of Alpena), where the entire back wall of the church was glass, overlooking the lake. When I got in line to receive Communion, I realized that I'd hardly paid attention to any of the Mass, having been mentally lost among the whitecaps. When I had my 'conversion experience' in my high school years, it was at a summer camp on the Lake Michigan shore, near South Haven, which included a prayer service on the top of a 200-foot dune, watching the sun set into the lake. At the end of the week, I was baptized in Lake Michigan.

When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm from Florida, and he took great delight in extolling the greatness of the ocean, and pooh-poohing our beloved Lakes. So one warm spring Saturday, a group of us 'kidnapped' him, tied him up with a pillowcase over his head, threw him into a car, and drove him over to a state park on Lake Michigan. Walking him down to the beach, we removed the pillowcase from his head, and showed him Lake Michigan, and the blue water stretching to the horizon. He acknowledged that indeed, standing on the beach, it looked just like the ocean (except for the lack of dead jellyfish, and the fact that you don't have to take a shower after you swim in it). Which was really the point we were trying to make in the first place. So we had a little beach party to celebrate his 'enlightenment'.


Jen also grew up about five miles from Lake Huron (not quite as close as I did, but she could still get to the 'big water' with a not-terribly-rigorous bike ride), in Michigan's 'Thumb', north of Port Huron (here is where I mention my favorite tease of my mother-in-law, who doesn't pronounce 'Huron' as 'hyer-ahn', like most Michiganians, but homophonically with 'urine'; I have not been above asking her if the water at the southern end of the lake has a more yellowish hue). The first time Jen took me to meet her parents, we went down to the lakeshore, and I was struck that we were a couple hundred miles from where I grew up, but it was the same lake I'd grown up looking at. . .

My mom's (I'm talking about my 'stepmother' here) father had spent some time before he married, working on the lake boats, and he grew to love the Lakes. He bought a five-volume set of books on the history of the Great Lakes (one for each lake, dontchaknow; and those of us who live in these parts use the acronym HOMES as a mnemonic to help us remember the five Great Lakes). When he died, my mom inherited the Great Lakes set. Sometime in my 30s or so, I asked her (with a degree of fear and trembling) if I could have them; she looked at me long and hard before saying I could (so long as I kept them in the family, and never sold them), and to this day, they sit on my bookshelf, both reminding me of my grandfather, and teaching me more about the beautiful Big Water that has bounded my life. . .
Sunrise over Georgian Bay, in Ontario; taken from the back porch of our vacation cottage in 1985

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cars: The Early Years

It seems like lately, almost all of my new posts are inspired by something one or another of my blog-friends (usually, it seems, Lime or Suldog) has posted recently. And this post is no exception. Lime recently posted about a clunker she and her husband drove back when they were living in Trinidad. And that provoked a few of my own memories. And, well, you know how I enjoy telling stories. . .


One summer when I was in college (I think it was the summer of '77, when I'd finished my bachelor's degree, and would start grad school in the fall), I was living in a house with six or eight other guys. We all had summer jobs, and transportation to those jobs was somewhat of an open question. A couple of the guys had bikes (of the 'clunker' variety), and most of the guys could use the buses, so even if getting to work wasn't quite as convenient as it could possibly be, it wasn't a huge problem, either.  But one day early in the summer, one of the guys (I'll call him Z for our purposes here) came home with a car - a '71 Gremlin with 45,000 miles, for which he'd paid $50. We were all a bit bedazzled that he'd managed to snag actual working transportation for such a cheap price; it hadn't occurred to us yet to ask whether the price might (or might not) correspond to the value. . .

The little Gremlin ran pretty roughly, but it ran. So we set about working on turning it into something that ran more smoothly and, we hoped, more reliably. Now, mind you, we were a group of college boys from here, there and everywhere, and none of us had particularly spent any time working on cars up until then. So one of the guys went to the library and picked up a basic Troubleshooting Guide, which became our textbook.

The first thing in the book was to check the air filter. It showed us how to remove the lid from the filter unit, and take out the filter ring. "Hold the filter ring up to the sunlight," it said. "If you can see light through the folds of the filter, it can be re-used." So I held the filter ring up to the sunlight. And dirt fell from the filter onto my face. So, OK - change the air filter. And the car ran a little bit better after we did that.

The next thing was an oil change, and that seemed easy enough. We got hold of a pan, placed it under the engine, and removed the drain plug, so the old oil could drain out of the engine. Only nothing came out. That is to say, no old used oil came out of the drain. Nothing at all. After a minute or two, a black glob of tarry sludge appeared at the drain hole. The sludge-glob slowly grew into a sticky black teardrop before breaking loose and landing with a *splat!* in the pan. A minute or two later, another sludge-glob appeared and did likewise. Well, that just didn't seem like the way it was supposed to be - it seemed like the used oil should flow a little more freely than that. The Guide said that we should look for a sticker, which in those days was usually placed on the door, near the latch, telling us when the car had last had its oil changed, so we looked for the sticker. But there was no sticker. Nor was there an oil-change sticker anywhere else on the vehicle. Which didn't necessarily mean that the car had never had its oil changed in 45,000 miles, but it wasn't a hopeful sign.

At this point, the Guide recommended that we run some engine-cleaning stuff through the engine as part of the oil change. So we did - put in an engine-detergent something-or-other, and drove the car for 10 miles or so. Having done that, we pulled the drain plug again, and this time, black fluid came out the drain-hole, so we were satisfied that we'd cleaned out the insides of the Gremlin's engine, and it was safe to put fresh oil into it. Which we did.

After that, though, the car, if anything, ran worse than it had before. We asked a friend of ours who knew cars better than any of us did, about what had happened, and he told us that the black sludge had probably been keeping things 'sealed up' in the engine, and that by cleaning out the sludge, we had actually opened up some of the internal leaks in the engine which the sludge had kept sealed. At that point, we started to think that keeping this car running wasn't going to be quite the simple matter that perhaps we had hoped it would be.

After that, the car suddenly wouldn't start one day. Z got hold of a battery tester, which confirmed that, sure enough, the battery was dead. So he and I went out and bought a new battery, and set about installing it in the driveway. Of course, in the course of installing a battery, you get a fair bit of dirt and crud on your hands, and whenever our hands got too grungy, we'd wipe them on our pants. Installing the battery wasn't terribly difficult - it took Z and me, working together, about an hour, and most of that was just because we were learning as we went. We finished installing the battery, and gratifyingly, when Z got in the driver's seat and turned the key, it fired right up, even if it still ran about as smoothly as a diesel locomotive.

Suddenly, we both noticed that the fronts of our thighs were burning. I looked down, and my jeans were in tatters. I rubbed at my legs to try and relieve the burning sensation, and as I did, the legs of my jeans disintegrated, leaving me with an impromptu pair of short-short cutoffs. And bright-red, throbbing thighs. It was around that time that the words, 'Battery Acid' crept to the forefront of our minds, and we mentally slapped ourselves (being careful not to physically slap ourselves with our acid-laced hands). So we tossed our pants in the trash, and ran off to the shower, to try and wash the acid off our legs. Even so, it was a few days before the burning abated. . .

Still, the car ran terribly, so we continued to work our way through the Guide. We pulled the spark plugs, only to find that four of the six plugs had their element completely encased in a little ball of carbon - no spark at all was getting into four of the Gremlin's six cylinders. So we replaced the spark plugs. Better, but the car still wouldn't start reliably. One of the guys studied up on how to troubleshoot the starter, and sure enough, he discovered that the starter was shot. So Z went out and bought a rebuilt starter, and we replaced the starter. By now, we were thinking that 'Gremlin' was a pretty darned appropriate name for this car. And Z was lamenting that he'd spent four or five times what he'd paid for the car, just to try and keep it running.

The crowning achievement of our Summer of Automotive Education was when one of the guys discovered that we had a bad engine mount, which meant that there was a huge vibration whenever the engine was running. So he went out and bought a new engine mount, and we installed it.

Now, we didn't have a hoist or anything, with which to lift the engine so we could remove the old engine mount, or situate the new one in its place. So we had four guys grab hold of the top of the engine and lean back (a little bit like sailors acting as 'outriggers' to balance a sailboat), to lift the engine off the mount, while another guy crawled up underneath to pull out the old mount, and put the new one into its place. The whole procedure only took a few minutes, but the engine was pretty darned heavy, and after a bit, the guys holding the engine up off the mount-pad were straining, and a tense dialog ensued, with the holder-guys urging the mount-placer-guy to hurry up and finish his stuff, and the placer-guy getting momentarily confused about the proper orientation of the new mount, and yelling at the holders not to drop the engine on his fingers, while the holders yelled back that they couldn't hold on much longer, etc, etc. Until finally, he yelled, "OK, it's there!" and we dropped the engine on top of it. Not exactly OSHA-approved, I'm sure. . .

By the end of the summer, the little Gremlin was running semi-reliably, although it still wasn't capable of reaching freeway-minimum speed. One of the last times I rode in it, before I moved out of the summer-house into the place I'd spend the school-year, Z was driving, and hit a pothole. And the rear window fell off. And by that time, with all that we'd been through with that stupid car, all we could do was laugh.  Looking back, though, as much of a hassle as it was to keep that silly car running, all of us in the house got a tremendous education in auto-maintenance that we probably would never have gotten otherwise. . .

For a $50 initial investment, we got Z's money's worth of education, for sure. And I think Z drove that car for maybe another whole year before he finally got rid of it, so even with all the repairs, I don't think it turned out to be a terrible investment for him. . .


I know this post is already a bit long, but I also want to mention the first car I ever owned - a '79 Chevette that I bought when I got my first 'real job', after college. I bought it in the first place, mostly because it was cheap, and got good gas mileage (actually, those two qualities have figured large in several of the vehicles I've bought, over the years). I recall the salesman, when I told him I was a freshly-graduated engineer, talking me out to look at all the fancy cars parked in the front of the lot, but I just kept shaking my head, asking to see something a little less fancy, while we moved progressively toward the back of the lot. Finally, with a note of disgust in his voice, he said to me, "The only thing I've got below this is a Chevette." So I asked him to see it, took it for a drive, and told him I'd buy it. While he rolled his eyes. . .

The Chevette was actually a pretty good car for me, and, once Jen and I were married, for us. It even provided us a night's lodging on our honeymoon, when there were no rooms available within 30 miles of Munising, and we went to see the Pictured Rocks. Yes, you read that right - we spent a night sleeping in a Chevette on our honeymoon. I'd recommend that you not spend any more time on that mental image than is absolutely necessary. . .

I drove the Chevette for six years. When 2F was born, and all the seats were filled with Jen and me and two kids, the handwriting was on the wall that we wouldn't be keeping it much longer. The final blow came on a rainy night when Jen and I were on our way to a friend's wedding. I don't know how many of you ever owned a Chevette, but a common flaw in all the Chevettes of those days was that the floorboards would rust out. There was even a 'standard repair kit' for Chevette floorboards. A small hole appeared, and if I hadn't had a rubber floormat, we could have watched the pavement passing by underneath us as we drove. The hole in the floorboard was right where my heel rested while my foot was on the accelerator pedal; with the rubber mat, it was even kind-of comfortable, and I didn't think all that much about it, figuring that I'd be getting rid of the car soon, so why bother fixing the hole in the floorboard?

So, as I said, Jen and I were on our way to a wedding on a rainy evening, and dressed accordingly. Our route to the church took us to a place where the roadway dipped down to pass under a railroad track. The trough under the tracks was poorly drained, and in heavy rains, it would often fill up with water, which was the case on this night. Without thinking, since I'd come that way many times before, I drove on through the deep puddle at the bottom of the trough. And water sprayed up, away from the car as I did. And also up through the hole in the floorboard. And, since I kept the hole covered with a rubber mat, it deflected off the underside of the rubber mat. And completely drenched Jen from head to toe. Dressed as she was to go to a wedding.

We had been married about five years by then, so (I am eternally grateful) I had the momentary presence of mind to pause before reacting. It was, objectively, hilarious. But I knew that, if Jen was traumatized by it, that I didn't dare laugh. So I waited for her response; would she laugh, or cry? For a few seconds she just sat there, stunned. Then she turned to me and broke into hysterical laughter. While I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. My wife is an amazing woman. . .

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Midsummer's Miscellany

So, did somebody at NASA, or someplace, decide that it was just too crass to pronounce 'Uranus' as 'Yer-Anus' (which did, after all, make for a whole line of, um, 'earthy' humor)? OK, I suppose maybe I can sorta see their point, kinda; but did they really think that pronouncing it as 'Urine-Us' was a major improvement? Just, you know, wondering. . . ------------------------- I don't know what it's like where any of the rest of y'all are at, but around here, the corn on the 4th of July is more like 'me-high' than 'knee-high'. Seriously, when I go out riding my bike among the cornfields around Our Town, it's at least as tall as I am. . . ------------------------- Spent the holiday weekend visiting my parents, and it was a really good time. Dad is doing well, but it's good for him to have visitors from time to time. We spent some time working on some new information we've recently gotten on the family tree, and he gave me copies of some wonderful old photos that I'd lost track of. I had probably the best visit with my mom since she's been in the nursing home. Several times, in response to some little bit of humor, from me or one of the others (I went with my brother, his wife, and their two daughters), Mom just burst out laughing. At the appropriate time, and everything; like she understood and got the joke. Even though it wasn't apparent that she even knew who I was. . . ------------------------- Yesterday, we spent the day clearing out the debris from the maple limb that fell in our yard a couple weeks ago. And I do mean we spent the DAY. And it was a really, really HOT day, pushing 100F if it didn't actually quite get there. Jen and I and the younger kids, along with Pat and John, a couple of teenaged neighbor kids, spent the morning trimming and binding up all the 'small' branches (ie, the ones with leaves on the ends of them), using an assortment of nippers and loppers and hand saws and axes (the teen boys - and 7M, who's 12 - really liked swinging the ax) (so yes - ax-swinging lessons were given). In the afternoon, 4M and 5M came out, and our other neighbor Jim came over with his chainsaw, and we cut and carried away the big stuff. I wish my digital camera were working better; the photo-sequence from beginning to end would be pretty striking. In the morning, it was like we were working in a jungle - we could barely see each other's heads through the dense foliage. By dinnertime, we pretty much had our yard back. And all it cost me was a new chain for Jim's saw, and a six-pack of beer for us to share. And we all slept really well. . .

Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Life With Baseball

In recent months, I've made the acquaintance of one Mr. Suldog, a blogger of sterling reputation, who shares with me a love for baseball/softball (something that none of my other blog-friends have particularly shared with me before now). Often, when I read his posts, I am reminded of my own experiences on the diamond, of which I have not written before. Then, a little while ago, my dear friend Lime posted about her own baseball experiences, and I knew the time had come. . .


My family first moved to Alpena in 1960, when I was four years old. We only stayed about a year, before moving back to the 'downriver' suburbs of Detroit. In 1963 - in fact, the weekend following President Kennedy's death - we moved back Up North, and this time, we stayed almost ten years, just shy of my high school graduation. I loved living in Alpena. Most especially because it sits on the shore of Lake Huron, and every summer, for as long as we lived there, I could be in the Big Water for the price of a five-minute bike ride (there was a period of a couple years, before my parents were divorced, when Lake Huron was our back yard; and that was a pretty good working model of Heaven).


Alpena was also a baseball town. I'm not sure exactly what-all goes into making a town a Baseball Town, but Alpena was one. Our Little League team challenged every year for the state championship, which is a pretty good feat for a town of 15,000 or so souls (including all of Alpena County, the population is something like 30,000), and one year, when a kid named Lowell (he'll appear again later) was a 12-year-old, they came within a single game of playing in the Little League World Series. I went to high school with a guy who went to college on a baseball scholarship (his college team would play against the team from my school, and I'd always go down to the field to say Hi), and eventually made it to the major leagues, playing three seasons with the Cubs and Indians.

Besides the lake, summers in Alpena were marked by roving bands of boys gathering at various vacant lots around town for pickup baseball games. We'd call each other up, or just knock on each other's doors, and meet at whichever field we decided to play at that day. If we had 16 or 18 kids, we'd just choose up two full teams and play. If we didn't have a full complement of players, we had various ways of covering the shortage. Maybe the hitting team would provide the catcher, but we didn't prefer that, because it seemed to compromise the integrity of a possible close play at home. Sometimes, we'd play without a right-fielder, and if the batter hit the ball to right, it just counted as a foul ball. If we only had twelve kids or so, we'd play a game we called 'Work-Up' - nine kids would take positions in the field, and the rest would hit. When the hitter made an out, he had to go play in the field, and the other fielders would 'work their way up' - the outfielders would rotate counter-clockwise (right-center-left); the left-fielder would move to third, and the infielders would rotate clockwise (3rd-short-2nd-1st); the first-baseman went to pitch, the pitcher went in to catch, and the catcher became one of the hitters. It was a great way to play, especially for kids, since you got to play a new position every few minutes, getting progressively closer to the action; and once you got in to hit, you could stay there as long as you didn't make outs.

Summer evenings (a couple of 'em every week, at any rate) were for 'organized' games. In the early spring, there would be try-outs, and hundreds of kids would gather at the fair grounds to throw and catch and hit, under the watchful eyes of the various and sundry coaches, who would take notes on what they saw, and then hold a draft to assign players to teams.

The Little League played in two divisions, designated 'minor' and 'major', analogously to the professional leagues - the 'minors' were mostly 8-10 year-olds, although if a kid hadn't made the 'majors' by the time he was ten, he might not get selected by a 'major' team when he was 11 or 12, since the coaches preferred to develop younger players. That was the fate that befell me. As a young kid, I was pretty much a sedentary nerd. I didn't even play when I was eight; when I was nine, my dad basically told me I was gonna play, whether I wanted to or not. That year, I was pretty much like the kid in the Peter, Paul & Mary song 'Right Field', "watching the dandelions grow", except the ball never accidentally landed in my glove. I don't remember if I ever got a hit that year, or not.

When I was ten, my dad remarried after his divorce, and I acquired a step-brother who was pretty much a complete jock. So I got more into baseball, and sports in general. And that summer, my skill level increased pretty dramatically. By the time I was eleven, I was That Kid - the Oversized Hormone Case that made the other kids' moms cry, and their dads demand to see my birth certificate. I probably should have been on a 'major' team, but none of the coaches knew who I was, and besides, they preferred for their 'rookies' to be younger, so I stayed in the 'minors' to terrorize young, un-coordinated kids. And the same when I was twelve. I hit a bunch of home runs on balls I didn't even hit that well.


There was one coach in the 'minors' who seemed to take particular delight in agitating me, perhaps because I was the biggest kid in the league, and his was one of the better teams in the league, and we ended up competing for the 'minor division' championship. He always demanded to see my birth certificate, and even half-heartedly accused my dad of doctoring it once (although why my dad would doctor my birth certificate for me to play in the 'minors' never quite made sense). And whenever I came to bat, he would have a few needling remarks, to try and get under my skin, I guess. I tried to ignore it, and just play the games, but after a while, it kinda pissed me off.

He had a pitcher who was probably the best pitcher in our league, another 12-year-old who probably should have been in the 'majors', but had gotten good too late. The kid could throw hard, especially for a 'minor-league' pitcher, and most of the kids in our league had a hard time getting around on him. So, we were playing this team, and he was pitching. The first time I came to bat, the coach was up to his usual games, making little needling remarks almost under his breath, but loud enough that I could hear him. The pitcher was extra cranked-up, trying to get me out, and he was throwing even harder than usual. His first pitch, I was really late getting around on, but I hit it square, sending a screaming line drive into their dugout. The poor coach never saw it coming; it hit him square on the nose, breaking it, and splattering blood all over his face. He ended up having to leave the game, which we ended up winning, when I got around for a home run off their ace pitcher.

The next time we played their team, the coach actually accused me of having broken his nose on purpose. I wish I was that good, but not many twelve-year-olds are quite adept enough with a baseball bat to put a line drive on somebody's nose when they feel like it. Which isn't to say that I didn't feel like it. . .


When I turned 13, I moved up to the Babe Ruth League, for 13-15-year-olds. There were no 'divisions', so I was playing with and against kids who had been in the 'major' division (mostly those kids, since fewer of the 'minor' players were motivated to move up to the next level). As a 13-year-old, I was a 'rookie' again, playing against kids my own age and older. But I was still 'Big for My Age', so some of the disadvantage of being young was mitigated by also being big.

One of my first games in the Babe Ruth League, the pitcher for our opponents was Lowell, the kid I mentioned above who had led his Little League team to within a game of the World Series. At 15, he was still something of a local legend for the speed with which he could throw a baseball. Had someone put a radar gun on one of his pitches, I have no idea what it would have said; as far as I was concerned, it was just 'Faster Than Hell'. Lowell was fast, but he was almost as wild as he was fast (rather like a young Nolan Ryan, maybe). In fact, the first time I stepped in to face him, he drilled me right square in my left ass-cheek. Which didn't hurt as bad as it might have, had another part of my body received the blow, but it still hurt plenty. And it also planted in my brain the idea that Lowell was not a guy you could really dig in against (the self-preservation instinct being what it is).

So the next time I stepped in against Lowell, I was considerably lighter on my toes (and readier to get the hell out of there, if need be) than I had been previously. He threw me five pitches, each of which was past me before I could hope to swing at it. Two of his pitches were strikes, and three were balls, and I couldn't muster up a swing at any of them. The outfielders, sensing the extent of my out-classed-ness, all moved in by several steps, until they were only a few steps beyond the infield dirt. As I awaited the full-count pitch, my butt was reminding me of how my previous turn at bat had ended. Lowell went into his windup, and he threw the fateful pitch, as I tensed up.

Then suddenly, I saw it. For some reason known only to God and Lowell, his full-count pitch was a change-up, right down the middle of the plate. Perhaps he was just being overly cautious, not wanting to risk walking a fat 13-year-old who couldn't hope to hit him anyway; I don't know. But I do know that my eyes got real big, and the thought flashed through my mind, "Hey! I can hit this!" So I swung, as hard as I could. And I crushed it.

Those of you who have ever played baseball, if you've ever really crushed a ball, you know that that sweet, smooth feeling that passes from the bat into your hands when you hit the ball really, really well is just one of the coolest things you ever experience in a baseball game. And right along with it, is to see the outfielder freeze in his tracks as the ball takes off like a rocket over his head, and then to see him turn his back to the infield and just run like a bat out of hell after the ball you've just hit. Yeah, that's just what it was like. Alas, I was still a slow 13-year-old, so even though the ball bounced off the center-field fence, I could only manage a double out of it. But I had crushed a ball off the mighty Lowell!


Another feature of life in the Babe Ruth League was night games. There were fewer available full-size fields, and so there would be two games each night, the second one being played under the lights.

Now, the lights on our field had an interesting feature, in that all of the lights were aimed down, toward the field. Which is to say, none of them were pointed upward, to even the smallest degree. So that, when the batter hit a fly ball, the ball itself was in the lights for the first 50 or so vertical feet of its flight, and then again, when it came back down. So, being an outfielder, I got pretty adept at judging the flight of the ball from the first, visible part of its trajectory; I would run to where my visual/mental calculations told me the ball was headed, then look up into the black sky for a gray dot descending out of the darkness. Then, when the ball descended back into the lights, I could catch it, and proceed normally.

I got better as I went along in Babe Ruth League play. I was never one of the league's all-stars, but I didn't embarrass myself. Except once. I usually played one of the corner outfield positions - right or left field, most often right. Twice, I threw out a batter at first from right field. The first was a guy who was one of the league's better players; he could hit the heck out of the ball, but was pathetically slow. He smoked the ball straight at me; I fielded it on one hop, and seeing that he wasn't even halfway to first yet, I threw the ball in and got the force-out at first. Pretty cool.

The other one was the last game of my 15-year-old season. A pudgy little 13-year-old came up to bat; we pulled all our fielders way in. The kid swung late on the pitch, and it cleared the drawn-in infielders. It rolled to me, and without even thinking, since I was practically an infielder where I was playing, I picked it up and threw the kid out. I didn't think much about it until after the game, when we were in the handshake line, their coach took me aside and said, "I know you didn't mean anything by it, but that would've been his only hit this year." Which made me feel like the world's biggest jerk.

When I was 15, I got one of my first looks at a curve-ball. Fortunately for me, it was another 13-year-old, who didn't throw particularly hard, but he could throw this big bender that got a lot of the hitters off-balance. I recall facing him for the first time, and he threw this big roundhouse curve to me that came in big and slow, with a big neon-flashing "Hit Me" sign. As I saw it coming, I remember thinking to myself, "this must be what a hung curve-ball looks like; I can see why people talk about crushing them." So I did. By then, I was 15, and pretty close to my full adult dimensions. The field we were playing on that day didn't have a fence. There was a drainage ditch that ran along the side of the road beyond the outfield, maybe 150 yards or so from home plate; the ball cratered itself into the mud by the edge of the ditch.


When I was 16, I went out for the high school team, and I made the JV squad. But I didn't play very much. By now, I was playing against guys who were also in their full adult bodies, so the advantage I'd had when I was younger was gone. I was regularly hitting against guys who could throw harder than I could get around on. Which was bad enough, but most of the pitchers also had real curve-balls, too; not the big round-houses that I'd seen before. I vividly remember stepping in against one of the better pitchers we'd face all year, and he threw me two fastballs that I heard more than saw. And then, ahead of me two strikes in the count, his next pitch came blazing right straight for the ear-hole of my helmet. I couldn't get myself out of the batter's box fast enough, and as I fell backwards, I saw the ball break sharply, crossing right across the heart of the plate. The umpire bellowed and punched me out, and I walked back to the dugout with the sure knowledge that I'd gone as far as I was gonna go as a baseball player. . .