Mile Marker

Memory is a funny thing.

The first chill in the air after a long, hot summer snaps you back into autumn mode and a series of memories associated with the seasonal passage of time.  Another season prepares to turn. Another mile marker of sorts on the road of life.

Add in a specific task from the past with the cold, crisp morning air and the memory goes back to work.  The mind reaches back to assemble relatable images and fragments in order to present a usable flashback segment from this lifespan.

In this case, older me was driving to a swimming pool and the recall shuffled back several decades to younger me doing something very similar. Cold air and swimming find substantive space in my memories of high school swim team mornings.

I was always impressed by the teenage version of me for simply getting out of bed at 4:30 every morning for the late fall early winter high school season.  I would spend several  months crawling out of a heated waterbed into near frigid, rarified mile high air and then into an unreasonably cold recreation center swimming pool.

As an added bonus our coach insisted the team carpool as much as we could for bonding and accountability, team building, etc. Seniors on the team generally had to fit as many underclassmen as they could – or in some cases as many as they could stand, into their vehicles for travel to practice.

In my case, I was able to team up with Steve, my very good friend and fellow junior. A friendly face helped, but our driver was a senior who was not thrilled with the whole carpool concept.  His vehicle was a Subaru Brat. Our driver was Brad.  And Brad was a bit of a brat himself.  At least at the start of the carpool time.

If you’ve never seen a Brat, they are unique and in my mind, very impractical vehicles.  A micro pick-up of sorts, tiny in the front and a tiny open air ‘cargo’ bed fitted with a rear facing jump seat. On a high volume day, the car could uncomfortably fit two in the front and two more in the back.  During the first few weeks of travel to practice, me and Steve got the magical experience of the open air cargo area jump seat, while Brad was nice and warm up front.

Late fall and winter morning air, plus some windchill from a moving vehicle and there were some mornings when that unreasonably cold swimming pool was a welcome end to that journey to practice.  Eventually, Steve and I got to trade time up front with Brad, who eventually saw us as teammates and not cold cargo.  When it was snowing, we even crammed three of us into a space where three humans did not really fit. A mundane trip to practice becomes quite exciting when one has to quickly move their lower extremities out of the way of the driver’s hand trying to shift gears.

It was actually quite a bit of fun.  The whole swim team experience stays with me.  Many of us actually swam on two teams, the local city team and the high school team in order to push our conditioning to the limit.  At the apex of the season, we would hit five miles a day in the water.  I get tired driving five miles these days, much less attempting to swim such a distance.

Fast forward to today, and I still am able to be impressed by what younger me accomplished.  It brings out a series of memories and lifelong milestones or mile markers along the way.  Memories jump back to my first tackle in football, that first day of keeping my bicycle balanced to ride it on a regular basis, my first car, my first kiss, my first love, and my first time…well, like I said, memory is funny thing.  Flashes from the past triggered by a simple change in weather, like the morning with a chill in the air in any given year along the way.

I now hope the younger version of me is slightly impressed.  Three decades later I have found sanctuary again in moving across the water.  I am far slower than before, yet there is peace found in the rhythm of swimming at a reasonable pace.  I can think about what chores I need to get done, the stories I want to write and plan upcoming family events on an invisible mental calendar. And then I hit the wall and turn back, thinking more or less as I continue on my way.

It has only been two weeks back in the water, but it connects to all of those other times I spent moving from one end of the pool to the other.  In my head, five miles a day was once routine as we knocked out 5200-5600 yards in two hours.  Easy mode, right?

Well, old me nearly drowned himself topping 1100 yards in 45 minutes last week. Then I got to 1200 the next time in, then 1250 and this morning, there was something in the air.  It was more than a chill in the air.  There was an air of confidence too.

Young me was taunting the old man a bit.

After a brief warm-up this morning, old me crushed the timed lap by nine seconds compared to previous old guy workouts.  Take that younger me.

The pool this morning was a little bit colder than usual.  And I felt a little stronger.

I pushed along rather nicely and knocked out 1825 yards.  A mere 65-yards over a mile. But I’ll take it.

It is not as exciting as becoming a father or buying that first car, but a literal mile marker in the pool once again. Be it a mile marker in life, or in the pool, I may be hitting a few more new goals in and out of the water.  And maybe I’m just getting warmed up.

You go old me.

Swim on…

 

Grateful Trumps Hateful

Let me apologize in advance.

There are days when I present my middle finger at you.

Not you personally.

I mean all of you at the same time.  As in the world.  There are days I still flip off the entirety of planet earth.  But not so much in a mean, hateful manner, my bird is out there in a fun, maniacal laugh sort of way.   I’m me, getting to be me all day, everyday, all year long and there is no one left to stop me.  The kind of defiance I lived my whole life to attain.

If I subscribed to the concept of regret, the bummer is I wish I arrived in this place far sooner.  However, part of the grand lesson is — life doesn’t work that way.  Pain, suffering, depression, anger, fear and hate will certainly dominate most human brains, until enough wisdom is gained to triumph over those very real life experiences.

If we’re lucky, we all start off in youth as happy, life loving kids ready to conquer the world.  My childhood was interrupted with some unpleasant years, but the other side of that adversity made for a tremendous set of teenage years.  Then six years of military service and a marriage to my dream girl and two really cool kids.

According the American Dream (TM) patent pending, I had won at life and the rest is puppies and rainbows, right?

Not so much.

So, here is the second admission.  My flipping the bird at you and the world wasn’t always in fun.  It used to be accompanied by rage.  Unending rage that the supposedly angry Incredible Hulk would be proud and envious to have.

The weird social expectations assigned to me at birth were not being met and I was not checking off very many of the required boxes.   Breadwinner?  Well, only for the first couple years of the marriage.  After the move to Wyoming, the Mrs. crushed the combined salaries from both the radio station and newspaper.  As a feminist, who always wanted his wife to succeed — I got used to the idea, but it wasn’t as easy as I told myself it would be.

I had always wanted to be a father, and that is far more difficult than I remember seeing on the old television series Father Knows Best.  I think I could have rocked that hat too from the old black and white series, but not much else in how easy the show made family life look.  Dad does not always know best, even when he thinks he does. Missed another expectation box.

Of course, there were financial struggles, relationship struggles and then the business failures kicked in. One was a really cool magazine where my business partner had to bolt at the very final moment due to family difficulties of his own. And then up next was a business partner who quickly misappropriated all of our family life savings.

George Lucas and Star Wars is really onto something with the Dark Side.  It is so real.

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering.

Most of the suffering is endured by everyone closest to you.  My friends and family, some of the customers at the comic shop I owned.  For about a five year span, I became a comparatively horrible person.  I apologized on occasion, and tried for some good days, but it takes falling pretty far before the wake up call lands on you.

I knew I was in trouble.  I knew for a while I was trapped in an angry spiral, and I felt powerless.  All of the expectations of what so much of world tells you to have, and nothing about the disappointment if you don’t meet those illusions of what life is meant to be.

Since there is no handbook for that, I leaned heavy into a lifelong hobby of reading philosophy.  It seemed like philosophers east and west were on the same quest as myself, trying to find meaning in a meaningless world.  I found a few of those new age philosophers that picked the best elements from existing ideas and repackaged them in smaller doses for people who don’t have time to break down Plato’s Republic one line at a time.

I read a bunch, but didn’t always get it.

The end of the tunnel happened when I realized that everyone I loved didn’t hate me for my anger spiral.  They just wanted me to be happy.  It sounds so easy, but it is tough to make that leap of faith, to leave the security of feeling sorry for oneself.

Being angry at the world is the easy choice.  People who are ignorant in your eyes, or hateful, or rude or simply don’t agree with you are super easy targets.  Anything that didn’t go my way was the enemy of that moment.  Blaming other people for my misery was a sport, and I was good at it.

Living in the light of unconditional love from an amazing family, super-human wife — she really is Wonder Woman, but don’t tell anyone her secret identity — fantastic friends and now the sun truly shines brighter.  And the moon too.

Now, I have unending joy and care for the world.  Sort of a sickeningly sweet love for people, an appreciation for the simple beauty in everyone and everything.  So sweet, that on occasion, my inner-Marine Corps voice says, “Dude, dial it back. Just a little.”

Go ahead, make my day – just try and push the old buttons.  If you don’t agree with me on something? Fine or grand as my Irish kin would say.  My team doesn’t win every game, or any game, they’re still my team.  Politics? Hah, no one ever wins that discussion.  Story doesn’t work, write another one.  If someone I love has a bad day, there will be a better tomorrow.  If it rains, every storm eventually ends.

I wake up, write and appreciate the chance to be the real me.  The once happy kid who was ready to conquer the world is back and really awesomer now.  It isn’t weird, and I don’t care what the world’s expectations are anymore.  Wisdom reminds me it doesn’t matter.  Love the ones who love you back and life will sort itself out.

If you see me through the window of my house, and I’m running around with that middle finger extended, it’s not for you it’s for me.  I’m just a big tease at this point anyway…

More Than a Good Day to Shop

Ah, Memorial Day weekend.

The first long weekend of spring, the promise of warmer days ahead, vacations and as I got older, it was a signal for bargain shopping time. All of those meanings throughout many years were all Memorial Day was for me.

I’ve been fortunate, my brother returned from his 14-month assignment in Iraq for the U.S. Army.  Not everyone gets back, and I understand that now.

I didn’t always get it.  I signed up for the military and still didn’t get it when I was putting that pen to paper.  Of course I knew the potential ultimate sacrifice anyone may make during their time working for Uncle Sam, I had just not thought a whole lot about those who came before me.

Sure, I talked a good game as history high school student, yet reality shifts during those days I was learning what it was to earn the title of United States Marine.  And yes, those drill instructors will call you everything else under the sun but you don’t get the honor until graduation day.

Boot camp is its own world.  There are no days off to hang out in town like they showed in some older movies.  There was no television during those three months.  Sometimes newspapers could be read a few moments on Sunday mornings, but really the outside world vanished for most of my time there.

Except for one Sunday.

Up until that particular day, Sunday mornings were the one bit of respite we were allowed during training.  We did laundry, got to read our mail and we got to go to church.  It was presumably a choice, but our senior drill instructor strongly encouraged everyone to go, as there were plenty of options to choose from.  Catholics, Protestants and those of the Jewish faith primarily, but they had one additional formation for ‘other’ and those guys got to hang with someone as close to their beliefs as possible.

For me, the youngest recruit in the platoon, I very much enjoyed marching to church each Sunday.  I leaned very hard on my faith during that duration and in particular, the day we heard the news.  Again, without much of a news source, we didn’t expect an update during the homily, but it did involve the Marine Corps.

I knew something was up when we got there, the clergy were generally upbeat, but they were somber.  They told us 220 Marines had been killed the day before in Lebanon. It was October 23, 1983.

Understandably, there was an audible gasp from the recruits.  As it should be, it was the most Marines lost in action in a day to that point since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

I couldn’t imagine what had to have happened for so many to fall.  I didn’t have to wonder for very long.

The quiet march back to the squad bay ended with a strange sight – all three of our drill instructors were in full uniform, waiting for us.  On Sundays, we never saw more than one D.I. And they were more than unhappy.

Our senior drill instructor, a man I think could conquer Russia in single combat, was wiping a tear away from his eye.  There were nine names on the chalk board in  what was called the ‘classroom’ part of the barracks.  It was just some open floor space next to the ‘hut’ or office where the instructors would sleep.  We were told to sit on the floor, as usual in a classroom gathering.

Sergeant Sheriff — even his name fit the job and the Corps — pointed at those names on the board.

“You think this shit ain’t real?” he began.

He then explained these were names of the kids that were here just a few weeks before us.  They were recruits he trained, Marines he made.

They were dead.

They were among the Marines lost in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission during a time of civil war there.  It was done in a way and by people we are all too familiar with in today’s world.  It was a truck bomb that crashed the gate and killed Marines who were sleeping.  The group that ultimately took credit was the Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran to fight for their interests in the region.

I for one always understood what I was signing up for, although that reminder served as excellent motivation for our entire platoon.

At the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, everyday was Memorial Day. Well, every base I ever served as well.  Taps is the old bugle song played every day at dusk to remind us of the fallen.  An appreciation I respect now, more than ever before.  All assume the same risk, but not all of us make it back.

Way more than a shopping day, it is just one more chance for me to be thankful of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  Memorial Day has meant much more to me since that Sunday morning.

Absolutely celebrate our freedom with barbecue and fireworks whenever possible, but a thought or two for those who provide and maintain it is always a nice thing.

A 12-year Old Walks Into a Bar…

I whipped open the glass door and sauntered in with my usual sixth grade swagger, the bartender recognized me right away.

“Yo’ Donny, how you doin’?”

I gave the standard head nod of cool, a move I perfected the year before, “Pretty good Bobby, you?”

He slid one of those little square cocktail napkins on the bar in front of me, “Same old, can’t complain.  The usual?”

Another head nod.

Bobby grabbed a glass, slung in a little ice, worked his magic and started to hand me the glass and then stopped.  He knew he forgot something. Bobby turned, grabbed a maraschino cherry out of big jar behind the bar, plopped it in the drink, then turned back and set the glass down on the napkin like he did so many times before.

“You off today Donny?”

“Yeah.”

“Can’t keep you outta dis place.”

“How else I gonna learn the ways of the world Bobby?”

“Sittin’ here, on that barstool, not so much Donny.  You should be out, hanging wit your little friends. You know, out doin’ stuff.”

I didn’t hold back, I took a huge gulp of my Roy Rodgers, and Bobby did it just right. There was not too much of the cherry flavored stuff on top of the cola.  He was a good bartender that Bobby.

He was also my little league football coach.  And the bar was located within a restaurant, one of my all time favorite places on the planet. I washed dishes there on weekends to help out, it was one of my first jobs.  I got the gig, not because of Bobby, but my Mom worked there all the time, trying to save money for college and feed her four sons.

It is gone now, the “World Famous” Colacci’s restaurant in Louisville, Colorado.  It really was famous and celebrities traveling around the west often found their way into the little place on Main Street.

The town was founded as a coal mining town, and a number of the Italian immigrant families that settled in the area were still around.  My own little Italy.  My own batch of Goodfellas, who didn’t necessarily throw around the accent heard from New Jersey or the Bronx in New York, but they had the attitude, and it carried over onto my little Irish mug from time to time.

Like the movies, everybody had a nickname or their name had to end in a “y” or an “i” – and there were a lot of head nods.  A lot. You know what I mean?

My dark hair gave me a little bit of chance to pull off being Italian too.  I won the school Halloween contest the year before dressed as none other than Rocky Balboa.  Sly Stallone ain’t got nothin’ on me.

When a number of the women who worked at Colacci’s gathered to gossip, it was like a scene right out of Goodfellas. The spot in the film when the wives gathered at a hair saloon.  The movie was years later, but it was fun having a major deja vu moment, flashing back to all the good times I had the few years I lived in that town.

Stereotypes aside, it was a tight community.  Most folks went to church, it was truly all about family and people really looked out for each other.  As long as you was on the right side of the tracks, you know?

They played hard, worked hard and fought hard, and there was always a sense of joy, regardless of the hardship and setbacks that were all around us everyday.  Bobby was pretty hard on me most days, he was an old school, Vince Lombardi tough guy coach.  But it made me a better player.

He was a different guy at work, like I earned some kind of unique respect working for a few bucks at that young age at the restaurant.

“Hey, Bobby, I keep washing them dishes good, maybe someday they let me work the bar out here wit you?”

“You ought to get out more Donny.  Go play wit your little friends, go to school or something’. Get outta here.”

And then he messed up my hair.  That happened a lot back then, something about messing up a kid’s hair.

I finished my drink, and slowly pushed the glass to the edge.  I found four quarters and slapped them onto the bar for a tip.  No way Bobby ever made me pay, so a tip was the best way to say thanks.

I only felt slightly rejected about him not wanting me to grow up and be a bartender. Working that place on the weekend didn’t look like any kind of picnic anyways.  Besides, it was a nice day — and it was my day off.  So I got outta there. It was good times though, good times.

I think I’m still a little bit Italian by osmosis.  Like something rubbed off.  You know what I mean?