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Posts Tagged ‘Memories’

Torque

I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.

Yikes.

The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.

Torque

 

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Sometimes, an improbable thing happens, and you are left flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Such a thing happened to me, very memorably, about 10 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when my dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Europe for a few years. I attended a high school for U.S. military dependents in Stuttgart, Germany.

Living in a beer-centric country like that, and being a red-blooded teenager, I was an expert on the numerous breweries, biergartens, and gasthauses in the Stuttgart area. I probably knew as much about the local breweries — the products, histories, reputations, and relative merits — as the natives did.

Breweries were, and still are, ubiquitous in Germany. The German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, is home to some 175 breweries. Stuttgart itself has many dozens, the largest and most popular being the Dinkelacker brand. (In German, the word Dinkelacker means wheatfield.)

The improbable part of the story came about one weekend not long before I retired, as I was browsing through a local antique/junk store. On a dusty lower shelf, I discovered three brand-new, unopened 50-packs of bar coasters that advertise — I kid you not — the Dinkelacker brewery of Stuttgart, Germany.

I stared in disbelief at the logo so familiar in my youth. I was stunned, practically a-swoon. The fact that I, Rocky Smith, would find a huge stash of those particular coasters 50 years later on another continent — well, it was highly improbable.

It was absolutely thrilling, as well, and I gleefully purchased the three 50-packs for the princely sum of one dollar each.

I’ve been using the coasters freely around the house for the last decade. They hold up really well. Clearly, my remaining stash is a lifetime supply, and then some.

Dinkelacker

At some point, my thoughts about this unlikely occurrence turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, I was reminded of the “Infinite Improbability Drive,” which, according to the book, allows a starship to go anywhere in the universe instantly. A very convenient plot device.

Engaging the Infinite Improbability Drive, you see, suspends “normality” and means that, in theory, anything is possible. As explained here, however, there’s a catch:

But I digress. The discovery, by me, of those bar coasters in that junk store is a hugely unlikely thing.

Even random chance seems… highly improbable.

Normality

 

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ABC Package is a large and well-stocked liquor store in Athens, Georgia. From its convenient location on Atlanta Highway, it has served the alcohol needs of the University of Georgia student body for 25 years.

abc-1

ABC Package opened in the early 1990s, coinciding with the years my sons Britt and Dustin were students at UGA.

Both boys, it turned out, conducted business with surprising regularity at ABC Package. I learned this when I would balance their bank accounts (this being the old days, before debit cards and such, when writing checks was still a thing), and I would see checks payable to ABC Package.

Oddly enough, they both had the same explanation for this — five years apart, mind you — which they expressed to me with sober, stone-faced sincerity.

The conversations went something like this…

————

Rocky: Britt, I balanced your checkbook yesterday and made a deposit. I see you wrote four checks to ABC Package. Seriously?

Britt: Oh, that. Well, the thing is, ABC Package is the only place in Athens that will take a check for cash. I go there to get spending money.

Rocky: You don’t go there for beer or liquor or anything.

Britt: Nope.

Rocky: I see.

————

Rocky: Hey, Dustin, tell me about these checks to ABC Package. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?

Dustin: Dad, it isn’t what you think. ABC Package is the only place in town that will take a check for cash. That’s why I write checks there.

Rocky: So… you write checks to a liquor store, but not for alcohol.

Dustin: Correct.

Rocky: I see.

————

All of which reminds me of the classic question, “You expect me to believe that? What do you take me for?”

The correct response being, “Everything I can get.”

abc-2

 

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The 1995 folk song “Lake Marie” by John Prine is an odd one. It’s a beautiful ballad that combines three storylines — A Native American legend, the rise and fall of a marriage, and two gruesome murders — and weaves them together with sausages sssizzlin‘ on the grill.

Lake Marie is a real place in southern Wisconsin. Prine knew the lake from summer vacations there as a Chicago teenager.

He found the beginning of the song, the story of the Indian tribe, in a local library. The middle section, about good times at the lake and meeting a girl, is largely autobiographical. Prine explained the third section, the murders, in the late 1990s:

“The suburbs were kind of thought to be a pretty safe place at the time. And then some of these unexplained murders would show up every once in a while, where they’d find people in the woods somewhere.

“I just kinda took any one of them, not one in particular, and put it as if it was in a TV newscast. It was a sharp ‘left turn’ to take in a song.”

And it works very well.

prine-j

Lake Marie

By John Prine, 1995
Written by John Prine

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Many years ago, along the Illinois-Wisconsin border,
There was this Indian tribe.
They found two babies in the woods. White babies.
One of them was named Elizabeth.
She was the fairer of the two,
While the smaller and more fragile one
Was named Marie.

Having never seen white girls before,
And living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes,
They named the larger and more beautiful lake ‘Lake Elizabeth.’
And thus, the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as ‘Lake Marie.’

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Many years later, I found myself talking to this girl
Who was standing there with her back turned to Lake Marie.
The wind was blowing. Especially, through her hair.
There was four Italian sausages cookin’ on the outdoor grill.
And they was sssizzlin’!

Many years later, we found ourselves in Canada,
Trying to save our marriage.
And perhaps catch a few fish.
Whatever came first.
That night, she fell asleep in my arms,
Hummin’ the tune to ‘Louie Louie.’
Ahh, baby. We gotta go now.

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

The dogs were barkin’ as the cars were parkin’.
The loan sharks were sharkin’.
The narks were narkin’.
Practically everyone was there.
In the parking lot by the forest preserve,
The police had found two bodies.
Nay, naked bodies!

Their faces had been horribly disfigured
By some shhharp object.
I saw it on the news.
The TV news.
In a black and white video.

You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. Shadows!
That’s what it looks like.
All the love we shared between her and me was slammed
Slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.
Marie!

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.

Ahh, baby. We gotta go now.

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More random photos I’ve taken over the years that still make me smile.

couple-on-bench

plaster-cow

shades

no-vechicles

reindog

 

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I was there. I threw some of the snowballs. I know what happened.

Hold that thought for a moment.

As I’ve documented here a few times, I grew up a military brat, the son of an Air Force officer. From birth to college, I was uprooted every couple of years to move somewhere else.

So it was that, just before I entered 10th grade, Dad was assigned as the Air Force Liaison Officer to 7th Army headquarters, and we moved to Stuttgart, Germany.

It was there, on a wintry Saturday night, that I threw the aforementioned snowballs. Specifically, at a passing car.

Winters at Patch Barracks, the Army post where we lived, were harsh. Lots of snow, lots of plowing, lots of ammunition for snowball fights. It was a commonplace activity among us kids.

Early on, we learned to assess each snowfall by the type of snow it produced. We understood that wet snow is better than dry snow because the snowballs pack more easily and are heavier.

I mention this because, on the Saturday in question, the snow on the ground was a dry snow. The snowballs we made that day were so lightweight and ineffective that your opponents hardly bothered to duck.

Why a friend and I were still outside after dark throwing snowballs at cars, I don’t remember. We had spent most of Saturday at play around the post, and, for whatever reason, the fun continued into the evening.

The two of us crouched behind a row of hedges near the entrance to the family housing for officers. When a car drove by, we let fly with a few snowballs. They would skip off the roof, or plow into a side or rear window, always exploding harmlessly into powder.

I should mention that we never snowballed a car unless it had American license plates. This was the late 1950s, only a decade after the end of World War II. In those days, it would have been imprudent to assail a passing German.

Sometimes, the driver would tap the brakes or the horn, but no one stopped. Clearly, it was just harmless fun by some silly kids.

We, meanwhile, had ducked back behind the hedges to have a good laugh and make more snowballs.

But, eventually, as fate would have it, our luck ran out.

This time, when we pelted the passing sedan with a volley of snowballs, the driver braked suddenly and stopped. The door flew open. A man emerged in a huff.

“Hey, you kids!” he yelled angrily, “You broke my window!”

He stood behind the vehicle, pointing to the rear window. “Look what you did! I heard it crack!”

My friend and I looked at each other. Those snowballs weren’t capable of breaking glass.

Moreover, as the car had passed from left to right, the snowballs struck the side of the car, not the rear. That, I knew with certainty.

This guy was lying. He was trying to dupe a couple of kids into paying for a window that was broken under other circumstances.

And the scheme was working. We were nailed and defenseless, and we knew it.

Meekly, my friend and I came out from behind the hedge. We stood there under the streetlight as the man, a Sergeant First Class of about 40, fumed dramatically about the situation. Then he instructed us to fetch a parent.

I went back to our apartment and found Dad. On the way back to the scene of the alleged crime, I managed to lay out the true facts. Dad told me to keep quiet and let him handle things.

Dad listened in silence to the sergeant’s account of the incident. He didn’t defend us or offer an apology. He presented his contact information and told the man to send him the bill.

On the way back to the apartment, Dad told me he knew the sergeant by reputation. He said the scam the guy pulled was not surprising.

The subject of throwing snowballs at cars did not come up.

Some weeks later, I asked Dad if he had received a repair bill from the sergeant. He had, indeed, and the bill was paid.

“But,” he added with a sly smile, “I got even with him.”

At that, I came out of my chair. This was huge. I was desperate to hear the details.

But, in spite of my best pleading and whining, Dad would not explain.

“Son,” he said, “I’d rather not say. We’ll just let it be my secret.”

Once or twice in later years, I mentioned the incident and tried to get Dad, finally, to come clean.

He never did.

snowball

 

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On a balmy day in June 1964, I was handed two documents: my college diploma and my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the latter courtesy of ROTC.

Within two weeks, I was ordered to active duty. Before July ended, I was in uniform, serving at a base in New Mexico.

In those days, as you may know, the Vietnam War was at its height. One of the reasons I took ROTC in college was to avoid being drafted, handed a rifle, and sent into the jungles to my doom.

Yes, I dodged being drafted. But to my dismay, the Air Force still had plenty of chances to send me into the war. Fortunately, I was just a non-flight-status lieutenant, first an Administrative Officer and later a PR Officer. They decided they didn’t need me over there.

But plenty of my contemporaries got the call. How it was done was frightfully efficient.

In the Air Force, the usual practice with support personnel was to send you overseas on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment for three months. One day, everything was normal. The next day, you got the TDY orders. A few weeks later, you were in Vietnam.

What you did when you got there depended on your career field. If you were a Supply or Personnel Officer, you worked in Supply or Personnel. Had I gone, I would have remained in admin or PR.

My mentor and boss Major Walker was an experienced pilot. His Vietnam orders assigned him to fly military transports that sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange. Major Walker didn’t come home.

But in most cases, the person returned from TDY safely, greatly relieved to be back, praying that someone else would be sent next time.

However, there were exceptions. There were a few who salivated to get their orders. Who ached to be in the middle of the action.

One of them was my fellow officer Smokey Ellis.

In my experience, the non-flying junior officers were obliged to stick together. Most of us were young and single. We worked, lived, and socialized together because, as a group, we were disdained by everyone else; to the senior officers, the pilots, the NCOs, and the enlisted personnel, junior support officers are useless.

Smokey was an Air Police officer and a decent guy. He was cocky and loud, had a bit too much of a John Wayne swagger, but essentially, he was good-natured and good-hearted.

(Smokey had been his nickname since childhood. He was born Francis Charles Ellis. When he reached adulthood, because he was who he was, he had his name legally changed to Smokey Francis Charles Ellis.)

By the time I knew him, Smokey had a burning desire to get into the war while there still was one. And it wasn’t mere bravado. Like Mr. Roberts two wars earlier, he genuinely longed for his shot at glory.

He submitted Volunteer Statements. He sent letters up the chain of command. Nothing worked. There he sat, languishing in New Mexico.

Finally, he did something about it. He arranged to give up his Air Force commission and enlist in the Army.

Apparently, the Air Force saw no reason to turn him down. Knowing Smokey and his intense passion to be in the fight, I suppose it was the right decision.

Smokey left us rather hurriedly. He consented to a brief going-away party, but you knew his thoughts were elsewhere.

I last saw him in front of the Bachelor Officer Quarters as he walked down the sidewalk toward his car. Two large duffle bags were slung over his shoulder. He turned back toward us once, grinning and waving. You had to be happy for him.

We didn’t hear much from Smokey after that. There was talk that he was accepted for Green Beret training, that he went to Vietnam.

And eventually, the rumor went around that he had been killed in action.

Maybe the scuttlebutt wasn’t true. 56 soldiers named Ellis are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and neither Smokey nor Francis is one of them.

Maybe he met his fate in Thailand or Laos in some clandestine operation. Maybe he survived and is now a retired dude enjoying his grandkids.

Your guess is as good as mine.

the-wall

 

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