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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part III

Since the late 1980s, nearly all cars (barring trucks and SUVs) are front-wheel drive, meaning the same front wheels that steer the car also power the car (like a tricycle).

But virtually all American cars through most of the 20th Century were rear-wheel drive (more like a bicycle than a tricycle). From Henry Ford’s first mass-produced Model T to the fabulous 1964 Mustang and beyond, the power from the engine under the front hood was transmitted (via a transmission and a driveshaft) through a long, high hump in the car floor to a differential between the rear axles which turned the wheels.

Why the brief primer in automotive design? Because many readers, including my dear family, know little about what makes a car go--much less how designs differ. And because a basic understanding of rear-wheel drive hardware is essential to this part of the story.
So let’s see… where were we. Oh, yes…

We were headed north on I-75 in the family wagon, a 1964 Ford Country Squire, tooling along in the right lane at 55 MPH, which as you may recall was the national speed limit from 1974 to 1988. It was imposed in the "oil crisis" caused by OPEC's embargo against the U.S. which sent gasoline prices to an all-time high of 59 cents a gallon! (It was half that just a few years before.) In response to such unthinkably high prices, the Feds demanded that we "Slow Down and Save."
So Dad was putting along; everyone else was dozing off or staring out the window. When all of a sudden, just outside of Berea, Kentucky, something in the rear axel snapped-- Kerplunk! Wham! Whup-whup-whup! Smell of rubber. Sound of grinding steel. The car rolled to a shaky halt on the shoulder of the interstate, leaning to the right, as we held our breaths in trembling silence.

“Is everyone alright?" Dad asked, "Did anything come up through the floor? Stay in the car while I go see what we hit.”

Mindful of the traffic, Dad slipped out his door around the rear of the car to my side. Shaking his head in disbelief, he motioned for us to get out and have a look. The tire was in shreds. Worse yet, the wheel itself was leaning at a 45 degree angle and pressed down in the gravel under the weight of the car.

“Oh, Don,” Mom sighed, “Can we put on the spare?”

“It’s not just the tire, Mom,” Dave explained as Dad shook his head, “The whole wheel is off.”

“We must have broken the axel,“ Dad added. “I don’t know how it stayed in the well like that.”

“I felt it pounding around in there right behind my seat,” I said.

“I thought it was going to come right through the car,” Jim added.

“So now what?” Mom asked trying to stay calm.

“So now I go up that exit ramp and see if that gas station has a tow truck. Dave, why don’t you come with me and Tom you stay here with Mom and Jim.”

Until that moment, I had not noticed that we were just a stone’s throw from an exit. We could see a faded Marathon Gas sign high on a pole, but not the station below it. Within a half hour, an old tow truck rolled across the overpass, came down the far on-ramp, crossed the “emergency use only” short cut, made a three-point turn on the shoulder and backed up to our car. Dad, Dave, and a large man about Dad’s age in dirty coveralls got out of the truck. The name “Clee” was sewn on his pocket.
The man nodded our direction but got right on the ground to see the damage. He shook his head, let down the hoist, and double-hooked the bumper. [This was back when bumpers were made of steel and actually up to such a task.]

“I don’t want to pull it on that bad wheel,” he said, “It’s pert-near off already. Likely drop right out when we lift ‘er up so step back.”

He slowly lifted the car onto its front wheels. Sure enough the broken wheel dropped to the ground. He and Dad picked it up and heaved it in the back of the truck.

“I can take you and the wife and him,” Clee said, pointing at Jim.

Dave and I walked to the station in as little time as it took Clee to wait for a long gap in traffic, make a slow, wide U-turn, and lumber up the ramp. I’m not sure which looked sadder, my parents and Jim squeezed into the front of that truck or the sight of the car itself being hauled off like road kill by the tail.
Standing there alone with my brother in the setting sun, I asked him the question that had been on my mind for an hour.
“Do you think it was all those neutral drops?” I whispered.
A “neutral drop” was what boys back then did to cover the fact that they were driving an uncool car that could not “burn rubber” [squeal the tires from a dead start] We would sometimes rev the engine in neutral and then drop it into gear so the tires squealed when you took off. The sudden jolt was extremely hard on every moving part involved. We never did the stunt in front of our house, of course, but it did occasionally happen when we were with a car load of boys headed to the beach. Dave did it more than I did, and we felt bad the summer before when Dad had to replace the universal joint (U-joint) in the drive shaft, which had developed a strange rattle. After that Dave and I drove the family car more gingerly--except the time when he wanted to see if it would go over 100MPH. It did. If the wheel had come off at that speed, I would not be writing this story.
I asked Dave the question again: “Was it all those neutral drops?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking the same thing, but it's been over a year ago since Dad replaced the U-joint. Besides this wasn't the drive shaft; it was the axel. And don't forget: Mom's been driving this car for a year without us. She's awful hard on cars," said the neutral drop king without even a hint of irony.
Crossing the road to the station, we agreed not to bring up the subject again, and to this day we have never talked about the possible connection between our foolish tire-squeeling and the wheel falling off that day. [In fact, it is only safe to write about it now because Dad is not here to read it.]
The filling station was small, just two pumps, but on the north end of the cement-block building it had a garage stall for repairs. Unfortunately there was a car in the stall up on the lift. Just beyond the station was a one-floor, long motel that looked like it had been built about the same time as the station when the interstate came through in the early Sixties.
Dad and Clee were looking at the bottom of the car while it was still in the air. There are some young men our age who would have walked right up to that conversation and joined in, but Dave and I decided to stay back just in case Clee was explaining possible causes of such a freak accident. Suddenly Dad smiled and thanked Clee who ran off to pump gas for a car that had just pulled in. (This was a few years before self-service at gas stations became the norm.)
"We're spending the night."It was a relief to see Dad smiling. "In the morning he's going to take me to the junk yard to get the parts we need and let me do the repairs myself."
"So whatever broke can be fixed?" Mom said somewhat in shock.
"Sure. Anything can be fixed on a car if you've got the parts."
"What about tools?" Dave asked.
"Clee says he's happy to let me use his tools."
"How much?" Mom winced. "We don't even know this man."
"Sure we do. His name is Compton. Friends call him Clee. He knows the guys at the junk yard and he says they'll take good care of us. He's calling the motel to get us the best rate, too. As soon as he lets down the car, we'll grab what we need and check in."
He said it as if we'd stayed in a motel before, but his nonchalance could not hide the relief that we were safe, this bad thing happened at a good place, and this problem--like nearly all problems in his life--was something he could fix.
Jim and I looked at the motel a short walk away. In spite of the circumstances, we couldn't help but feel excited about the fact that we were staying the night. It was then Jim pointed to the edge of the motel parking lot. There was an outdoor pool. We tried hard not to smile.
To be continued...

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Knee Deep in June Again

Today before I went to work
I sat half in and out the car
peeling off the old
and putting on the new
windshield sticker for our favorite beach.
I haven’t yet been home
in time to join the family there.
“Strange,” I thought
with razor blade in hand,
“to be knee deep in June
without the touch of sun or sand
or even a hint of having
nothing pressing for my time."

And then I heard
(without turning to see)
a ringing from across the road,
the sound of horse shoes
clanking into place against a stake.
"What a game!" I thought.
"There’s nothing like the sound
that says you've hit your mark
or come so near
that close still counts for something."
And in my mind I saw
eyes taking aim,
the slow and steady swing,
the touch that guides the Clydesdale cleat
through the thin summer air.
I thought of picnics at Pine Grove
near the rows of horse shoe pits
and heard again that jubilant clank
of ringers and leaners,
(the dusty thud of misses, too)
in the distance as we ate
and watched the water flow.
But that was long ago.

Backing down the drive
I turned to wave
at what I thought would be
two men at play
and saw instead a young man...
changing a flat tire in the driveway.
Clank! Again he dropped the tire iron
against the hard cement
then looked at me and shook his head.
Who knew that such a dreaded task
could sound so like a game?
I sighed and headed off to work
knee deep in June again.
Happy First Day of Summer!
"Father Far and Away" Part III coming after a Sunday trip to Chicago to put my 13-year-old daughter on a plane to Kansas. From there, she'll be heading to Oklahoma for a rafting trip with her grandparents, friends, and some counsins..

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part II

May, 1975. Dad, Mom, and my little brother Jim (age 7) had driven twelve hours south to pick my brother and I up after my first year of college (Dave was a junior, but did not have a car.). We hadn't been home since Christmas Break.

It was great to see the folks; it was great to see my little brother who had become my little buddy when our siblings had gone off to college without us. Now I, too, was away for most of the year, but we had three wonderful months waiting on the other end of a long, winding haul up I-75 to Michigan.

We carried our things from the dorm to the back of our Ford Country Squire. [Dad had sold the VW bus in 1966.]

Dave began loading his things in the folded down rear of the long station wagon, but Dad soon pulled the items out and re-packed them.

My brother stood back with a shrug, swallowing the urge to explain why he had packed the items as he had. He was only two years older than I but much closer to the rites of manhood, much more eager to take the lead, much more confident that he could pack a car without Dad's help. All this was in that subtle shrug my father did not see.

I was nineteen, but as the fourth-born child I was all too willing to stand back and let Dad do such things. After years of pitching tents, clearing land, building a barn, digging the well, and building our family home, I had learned both how to work and how to step back when Dad was in "I'd rather do it myself" mode.

This was a happy scene, but Dad's smile momentarily faded as his eyes assessed the mass, density, and breakability of each box and duffle bag we handed him until it was all as snug as a chick in an eggshell. Flipping up the tailgate with a thud, he raised the electric window with the twist of a key. His smile returned. Mom kissed us "hello" as if for the first time as we climbed into the car, and we were off. The plan was to drive all afternoon and evening with no stops except to grab some burgers and change drivers as needed.

In the five years prior to this trip, Dad and Mom had enrolled four children into college. Dad had purchased this 1964 Ford from his brother Bob a few years before. It had been a good car, one of three in the family fleet of old cars, each with well over 100,000 miles on them. My father's motto with cars was, "Use 'em up; wear 'em out; make 'em do; or do without." It was his intention to drive each of our cars until the wheels fell off. In some families that is just an expression, but I’m here to tell you that on that day in May, about halfway home in the late afternoon, on northbound I-75 just west of Berea, Kentucky.... the right rear wheel of our Country Squire station wagon literally fell off and began tumbling violently around in the well just behind my seat.

Fortunately we were in the right lane, the slow lane, the gas-saving lane, so the vehicle veered itself onto the shoulder of the interstate and Dad brought the lame thing to a halt. We were about to spend our first night in a motel.

To Be Continued...

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part 1

When I was growing up, my family NEVER stayed in motels. Dad could not see spending a month's house payment for a few nights in a little room with two beds. We vacationed all across northern Michigan and Georgian Bay, Canada, but always stayed in tents, and none of our family road trips were more than a day's drive from home. By the way, Dad's definition of a day's drive was what he could do himself from dawn to dark with as few stops as possible.

When I was nine, we loaded up our VW bus and began a "day's drive" to a family reunion at my Uncle Roy's house in Lancaster County, PA. Our route took us across Ontario, Canada, to Niagara Falls. It was our first time to see this landmark and we ended up staying longer than planned enjoying both the American and Canadian side. Dad knew we could not make his brother's house in what was left of the day so he decided we’d spend the night.
“Wow! Are we staying in a motel?“ I asked.

“We’ll see,” Mom said, and Dad shot a perturbed glance her way.
Dad was a firm believer in not getting our hopes up, and Mom had a habit of raising faint hope with the words “We’ll see.” It was one of the constant but bearable tensions of our shared life.

I leaned over to Dave and whispered, “We’ll see means no.”

Dad did stop by a few motels while we waited in the car, but each time he came out with the dazed look he wore whenever something was not only out of our budget but out of the question. It was a look I did not understand at nine but would respect by nineteen.

That night the six of us slept at the far end of the parking lot behind Louis Tussaud's wax museum, which incidentally we never did get to see. “It’s just a bunch of people made out of wax,” Dad explained. [Years later as an adult, I paid the admission. He was right.]

Dad slept with his back to the door, feet stretched to the far floor. Mom curled on the front bench seat with her head against his chest. Kathy was on the middle bench, and Paul and Dave shared the rear bench with their legs sprawled in every direction. I was over the engine compartment in the back. Other than the fact that the prickly mat came right through my clothes, it wasn't a bad place to stretch out. In the middle of the night I woke to a single snore, peeked up at the silhouette of Dad's head leaning back like a PEZ dispenser, and fell back asleep.

It was not until ten years later that I stayed in a motel with my parents, but it was quite by accident.
To Be Continued...

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Close Call at Mom's House

Updates At the Bottom and in Comments

Two posts ago I told you about my friend Carmen's house being carried off by a tornado before her eyes. Today her town of New Hartford, Iowa, is being evacuated due to flooding.

Then in the comments of that post I mentioned a black wall of storms was in our rearview mirror as we headed east from Iowa to Joliet, Illinois, to put our daughter on a train to another Chicago suberb.
................... Click on photo to enlarge. Scroll left-right-up-down to view.
Four tornados hit the greater Chicago area just after we left. That storm system included southern Wisconsin and continued east across Lake Michigan to my county. It began pounding Interstate 35 with high winds and flood waters. In fact, I-35 was closed under two feet of water in Holland, Michigan, just a few hours after we passed through. Early the next morning, just south of Holland in Saugatuck, two people were killed in their vehicle as it was swallowed up in a forty foot sink hole caused by flood waters under the roadway.

That night's winds and rain knocked our power out for six hours. By afternoon the second string of the same storm system hit and moved east across the state to our family homestead, taking down four large trees. Our land is full of oaks. This one on the south side of our Mom's house (in background) just missed taking out what used to be my little brother's bedroom.

Bob sent the picture today. I mentioned that he is moving north to Port Huron and his new house is not surrounded by towering trees. As you can see this particular oak was hollow and snapped off. The others were uprooted.

On my way to work this morning, I was detoured around a twenty foot deep "sink hole" in the middle of our road just two miles from home. The road is gone similar to what happened in Saugatuck, but thankfully no car drove into it.

The flood warnings are in effect until further notice.

Update: Wednesday , June 11, 2008: Additional tornado activity is spreading across Iowa. Four Boy Scouts were killed at a camp. An additional 6 inches of rain is expected tonight in areas already under floods at 100-year levels. Areas of Waterloo, where we were a week ago, have already been evacuated. The photos in this slide show were taken before this new system came through.

Update: Thursday , June 12, 2008: The video below was taken after the Wednesday night storm. Cedar Rapids is 45 minutes south of Waterloo. I learned today that the favorite Italian restaurant where we ate a week ago tonight is under water. Sad news for our friend WSL (Wisconsin Sandwich Lady) in the comment section: this system moved east into Wisconsin.

The photo of the tornado was taken by Lori Mehmen from outside her front door in Orchard, Iowa, Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 9:04 p.m. All but a few tree tops in the photo SURVIVED the near-miss of the funnel cloud!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Painted Palm Trees

If life were a cartoon, I’d be sitting poolside in paradise.

Actually I'm at an indoor pool at the end of our motel hallway in Iowa, but the muralled walls around me show huge arching palm trees swaying in an Island breeze. It's not quite Destin but this is as tropical as Iowa gets. Kudos to the artist for resisting the temptation to use John Deere Green to paint the leaves.

To my surprise there isn’t another soul here at the pool. (We have friends in the same motel and they were down here with their children a little while ago. I came down here to watch them get pruney but just missed them.) Oh, here's a picture I borrowed from the motel's web site. See? Doesn't that look tropical? Ha Ha.

We had breakfast this morning with another old friend whose children my wife taught in second-grade about 25 years ago. I later had them in my high school English class. He is perhaps the most gifted “people person” I have ever met. I feel pretty up-to-date on the two generations of Iowans in our circle of friends out here--not a moment too soon since we’ll be spending the evening at a wedding / reception with many of them.

(Incidentally, this friend and dozens of others we’ll see tonight work at (or retired from or ride on a) John Deere so just in case some of them eventually read this, let me add that the palm trees around this pool would have looked just fine had the artist used John Deere green.)

Two bits of news: The Detroit Redwings had a victory parade this morning in Motown. I’m not a huge hockey fan, but I become one when the Redwings are in the Playoffs. Stayed up until 1:00AM Monday night to watch them lose in triple overtime so they had to clinch the Stanley Cup in Pittsburg. Detroit could use a shot in the arm since the Pistons dropped out of the playoffs last Friday night and the Tigers are roaring only in spurts.

Second bit of news is that we had tornado sirens going off at 2:00AM this morning. Our friends in the motel woke up to it and told us about it at breakfast. Julie and I slept right through the whole thing. I guess the sighting was about twenty miles south and west of here. Strange weather lately that’s for sure.

Julie ran up the road to the Super Target (ours at home is just a plain Target, so hey...) Me? I'm going to take a dip in this quiet pool and enjoy the faux shade of these Iowa palm trees.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Summer Plans? Hmmmm....

Last friday was the last day of school for students ( and graduation for our seniors). Today was the last day for teachers. I was asked in a meeting if I had any plans for summer and was momentarily stumped. What does this summer hold? Compared to our last summer with Emily and Keith's wedding, it seems calm. I remembered the fact that we're going to a wedding in Iowa this weekend. That will be nice, but it doesn't quite qualify as summer plans.

(Truth is I always have a tinge of melancholy when we go back to the Iowa town where we lived for 18 years. We have many close friends there. The sights 'round every turn are so very familiar that my head spins with recollection. I am the kind of person who drives to each house we lived in just to sit and stare for a while. I do that in all of my “home towns.” From our motel window, I'll be able to see the smoke stack of the hospital where all of our children were born. All of these things provide a non-stop monologue in my mind whenever I return to Waterloo.)

Summer plans? At some time yet to be determined my siblings and I have to spend several days sorting through the family homestead. Bob, Mom's husband, bought a nice place in Port Huron and is gradually moving his things there. I'm happy for him. I'd do the same if it were me, but I'll miss the thought of knocking on Mom's front door and being invited in for a cup of coffee. Even since Mom's been gone, there has been something comforting in the two times I've sat in her living room. I wish it could somehow stay the way it is, but I am much too old for such wishes. I do not want the house to be empty, and hope we do not have to sell it right away. (I do hope to bring home the Duncan Phyfe from the barn. Julie is thrilled. =)

Summer plans? We hope to go camping as often as our schedule and the gas tank will allow. I'm truly looking forward to that.

I hope to have some time to write again. Here are some things you may read here this summer:

I'll be writing some chapters about the home we built in the 70's, the same house we'll be "closing." I particularly want to tell you about how we dug our well in 1972. I also hope to begin a series on the value of working "jobs" that have nothing to do with one's eventual career. I've lots of those. And in my next post, I hope to share a draft I started last summer called "Climbing Through the Milk Chute."

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