Tuesday, August 9, 2022

In the Beginning...

I remember, vividly, the ride. The ambulance ride that took me to the hospital. The hospital where they saved my life. I remember the dark haired paramedic leaning over me. I remember the winding drive up the canyon road. I remember seeing the dark storm clouds, and I remember the sun breaking through the clouds. It’s almost like a…dream.

Actually, it was a dream.

It may have all happened this way, but I wouldn’t know — I was only a few hours old. But, as a young child, my mother often told me the story of the ambulance ride that I took, from LDS Hospital, in Salt Lake City, where I was born, to the hospital at the University of Utah. I heard this story so often, that, at some point, I must have recreated the events in my head, in the dreams of the night.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

There was nothing special about the day I was born. It was a stormy, cool Wednesday, in early October, 1972. I was born at about 1:30 in the afternoon — the most boring time of the day to be born, on the least exciting day of the week. In Utah. There was nothing auspicious about the occasion, and this is not foreshadowing. There’s no twist to the story here. I haven’t gone on to explore the stars, or cure cancer, or write the great American novel. I’m just an average human being, born on an average day, under average circumstances.

That’s not to say that everything went according to plan, on that rainy Wednesday. I came into the world a little damaged. I was born with a cleft palate and a cleft lip. And one big problem, which resulted in the aforementioned ambulance ride.

A few minutes after I was born, the doctors working on me noticed that I was the wrong color — not pink and healthy, but kind of blue. They rushed me from the room, much to the consternation of my mother. A short time later, they informed her that I was struggling to breathe, and they weren’t sure why. I was being sent to the medical center at the University of Utah where, hopefully, the doctors there could provide more extensive care. I’ve alway liked to think that they turned on the lights and sirens for that ambulance trip. In my dream they sure did.

Eventually, they discovered a cyst in my chest, about the size of a plum. It would fill with fluid, and collapse my lungs. As quickly as they would drain the cyst, it would fill up again. They couldn’t determine the cause so, they did what any doctor would have done — they waited and watched. For two days they drained this cyst, and watched it fill up again, and occasionally updated my parents on the situation. It was the 1970’s. Medicine was different then. Even after the exciting ambulance ride, there was still nothing that they could do for me.

Then, I was healed by a miracle.

My grandfather, and my uncle William, came to the hospital to see me, where William promptly passed out on the floor (he struggled with doctors and dentists offices). After William was revived, he and my grandpa gave me a priesthood blessing. They blessed my small body to heal.

The following morning, when my mom came by for her daily visit, there I was, lying naked on the table. No more wires. No more tubes. And, as it turned out, no more cyst. My mother didn’t know that last part yet, and assumed that I had died. Sometime during the overnight hours, between the hourly x-rays of my chest, the cyst disappeared. It was now late morning. No one had bothered to inform my parents.

The disappearance of the cyst caused no little stir and consternation among the doctors in the pediatric ward. There was no better medical explanation for the disappearance of the cyst than there was for it being there, in the first place. Two doctors, in particular, had been caring for me. One, of the same religious persuasion as my family, accepted and believed that God can and does interfere for good, in the lives of the faithful. He was satisfied. His colleague was more disturbed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He wanted to observe me, poke me, prod me, and try to understand what had happened. My parents chose to take the miracle, and their son, and go home.

This might be the first time I failed to perform to expectation. It wouldn’t be the last.

(Still not foreshadowing. Still haven’t cured the common cold. Still haven’t been to the moon).

Over the next couple years, as a result of my parents being young and poor, when I was taken to the “doctor”, it was often to some kind of free clinic. The thing about free medical clinics in the 70’s was, there was apparently not a lot of vetting when it came to the “doctors” whom they employed. It seems that these doctors were earnest, though. They earnestly wanted to find something wrong with me. I guess you can’t fix something unless there is something that needs fixing. My mother was told that I had water on the brain; that I would be developmentally retarded; that I wouldn’t be able to speak properly; that I would probably not hear well; that I would struggle all of my life.

At 12 months, I was given a crayon, and told to draw a straight line on a piece of paper. I drew the line on the floor. The doctors looked at me like a hopeless case.

At eighteen months, I rode a tricycle across the floor. The doctors said I shouldn’t be able to do that, yet. They were not pleased. They were irritated. I was still not performing according to expectation.

(Still no foreshadowing here. I still haven’t climbed Everest. I still haven’t solved world hunger)

My mother never left these clinics, except she was in tears. Eventually, my grandmother — a quiet, but simplistically wise woman — told her to stop going to the free clinics. Problem solved.

The cleft palate resulted in a mouth full of crooked teeth, and the small hole in the roof of my mouth, that I have to this day. Thanks to that little hole, I can’t blow up balloons or play a brass instrument, as I can’t maintain air pressure in my mouth — all the air just comes out of my nose. And, once in a while, a potato chip gets lodged in there. Other than that, it’s business as usual. The cleft palate and lip (the hare lip, as my OTHER grandmother called it), were repaired, through plastic surgery, when I was about two years old. Speech therapy taught me to say my “S’s” correctly, and four years of braces took care of the crooked teeth. Mostly. Wear your retainers, kids.

Most of this I don’t remember. The hard parts — the ambulance ride, the surgeries — these were all before memory kicks in. But, as a young child, I was always told the stories: the way the doctors put me in a little jacket with tongue depressors in the sleeves, to keep my arms from bending, and touching the stitches on my newly fixed lip; the time in the hospital where I kept climbing out of my crib, and wandering the halls (they solved this with an old volleyball net from the basement of the hospital, tied over the top of the crib — not the most sanitary thing, but they were still smoking in hospitals back then too, what are you going to do…?); all the quacks at the free clinics, who told my mom that I would never be normal. I heard these stories, and they have stayed with me all my life. My mom never believed those things the doctors said about me, and she wanted me to know that. She wanted me to know that I was normal.

Normal, as it turned out, was never quite me…but, that comes later.

(Go ahead and consider that foreshadowing).

I’ve always felt challenged by those early events. I’ve wanted to prove — mostly to myself, I guess — that I wasn’t those things that the doctors told my mom that I was. I wanted the world to know that it’s first impression of me was wrong. It’s caused me to live my life with the impression that I am on borrowed time. I’ve always felt like I’m living a second chance.

But, of course, this will not be the part of the story where I tell you that I was put on this earth to do something grand. It won’t be where I tell you that the second chance paid off. Maybe my one big accomplishment in life was not dying at the beginning? I don’t really know, but, if that’s the case, then that’s ok.

I’ve had an exceptional life. An exceptionally normal life. Most of the things I have done, others have done before me, and probably better. I’ve learned things without realizing I had learned anything. Maybe that’s the way it is for all of us?

For better, or worse, I’ve followed the wind, like some kind of suburban gypsy. I chase passions and intuition and curiosity. Often it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. But, it’s rarely dull. I am, in the most literal sense, a whimsical person, meaning I am beset by whims. I’ve never known quite what was ahead of me, but my life, and it’s lessons, are much clearer looking back. And, in looking back, I see sign posts — billboards — some announcing what I have done, and some advertising what I have learned. And, what I have learned is probably pretty universal to what everyone else would learn from such situations. I claim no special insight. I just know what I know.

The path of my life has taken me over a long and winding course, through thorns and rose gardens, over a few mountain tops, down into a couple of very dark valleys, but mostly through sunny landscapes, and green meadows. At least that’s how it looks from here.

The stories of those earliest experiences, told to me by my mother, helped to form the core of the person that I would become — acutely aware of the things that were different about me, but determined not to be boxed in to anyone’s mold. And, I think it gave me a compassionate and empathetic nature, for which I am immensely grateful. A lot of times, that nature is the only thing that fights back the very imperfect and impetuous temper that came as an inheritance from my father. And, it doesn’t always win the fight. A good life is hopefully made up of more smiles than tears, and more love than loss, but it’s not a picture of perfection. That’s important to understand.

I have two brothers, but I’ve only had them one at a time. My older brother, Scott and my younger brother, Tim. Scott is, strictly speaking, my half brother, but we’ve never talked about him in those terms. Scott and I have different fathers. He came from my mom’s first marriage — an unhappy arrangement necessitated by a teenage pregnancy. None of which matters. All that matters is that I have an older brother, and after my parents were married, in 1972, my dad adopted Scott. He was no longer Scott Wells, he was Scott Thornblad. My brother.

My very earliest memory is of Scott.

It was Spring of 1975. There was a park, just down the hill from our apartment. It was a typical neighborhood park. There were swings. This was when parks still had swings — in 1975, we weren’t afraid of swings in parks. There were slides. They were the shiny, silver metal slides. They were the kind of slides that seared your legs, and lit your pants on fire, on a hot summer afternoon. And there was a big ladder made out of tires.

On this particular day, Scott had taken me to play at the park. I was two and he was seven.

The scene opens, in my mind, next to the swing set.

I don’t know if we were coming or going from the park, but I remember the crunch of the gravel under my feet, as I walked. This was before parks had rubber pellets, or shredded bark, on the ground. On the tire ladder there were two guys — climbing…lounging…I don’t know what they were doing. In my mind, they look like adults, but they were probably just older kids. And then, suddenly, there was a german shepherd. A VERY big german shepherd, and it was coming right at me. And then it bit me.

More precisely, it bit my pants.

Scott put himself between me and the dog. At the same moment, the two geniuses on the tire ladder started yelling down at us. They were saying that everything was okay, that the dog was nice, that he wouldn’t hurt me. As far as I can recall, they never actually came down and got the dog. I’m sure they called it off, but the damage was done. I was traumatized. For the next ten years, not only was I deathly afraid of all dogs, I was REALLY afraid of them biting my pants. True story.

Scott took me up the green, grassy hill, and through the gate that led to our apartment. Then the memory fades to a bright white light.

The memory recalls, probably, no more than five minutes of my life. But, it was five minutes of life with my older brother.

Scott died that summer.

I know what Scott looked like. He had large brown eyes, and straight brown hair. I’ve seen pictures. But, I have no memory of his face. I remember him from the waist down. That’s how tall I was, in the spring of 1975. I remember his knees and his shoes. And, I remember his left hand because it was holding tight to my right hand. That was the hand of my big brother. That was the hand that was keeping me safe. That was the strong hand that led me safely home.

I have no other memories of Scott. But, I will always be grateful to that german shepherd, and those two guys on the tire ladder, and for the first traumatic experience of my life, because it seared the moment into my memory. And, if you only get to have one memory of your big brother, it should be a memory of your big brother doing what a big brother is supposed to do.

Sometimes destiny turns on a single moment. My life’s story is filled with laughter and adventure, and a lot of smiles and hope. But, after the slightly rocky start, the rest of the story begins with a tragedy when I was two years old.

The course of my life was set on an early summer day, in 1975.

June 22, the day that my brother died.

Coming home from a friend’s house, Scott had been chased on his bicycle, by some older boys, and frantically rode out on to a busy street. He was hit by a car, and three days later my parents made the most heart wrenching decision imaginable, and let him pass into the next world.

Following Scott’s death, a settlement provided my parents with enough money to allow them to do something they had thought was out of their financial grasp — it allowed them to buy a house. They decided to build on a street called Woodchuck Way, in a new residential area of a southeastern suburb of Salt Lake City, called Sandy. In 1975, Woodchuck Way was just about the end of the earth. Major roads, like Highland Drive and Wasatch Boulevard, literally ended in Sandy. They just petered out into dirt paths.

In November of that year, the house at 2508 Woodchuck Way became my home. And that changed everything. Across the street was a beautiful girl, my oldest friend. Up and down the streets, new houses were going up. About every third house looked like mine. Pretty soon, these houses would fill up with dozens of kids my age, who would become my lifelong friends. Everything in that neighborhood was a blank canvas. Foothills filled with adventure in potential, as yet unexplored. Streets un-walked by school children. Memories in embryo. And, up the street, at 2350 Woodchuck Way, lived the redheaded kid who would become the best friend I ever had — Aaron Ball.

Thanks to our friendship, my life has been filled with friendship and adventure and wonder and laughter. Because of Aaron, I did things that I never would have done on my own. Because of Aaron, I survived the breakup of my parents’ marriage. Because of Aaron, I moved to Cedar City, when I was twenty-one, where I met my wife, Sharon, on top of a pile of Aaron’s laundry. In a very real sense, I have no idea where life would have taken me, if I had never met Aaron Ball.

And, if my brother had not died, I don’t know that I ever would have met Aaron. We might have moved to Sandy, eventually. We may have come close, but not to that street, and not to that house, and not to those friends. The entire direction of my life may have been different, if Scott had not ridden out onto that dangerous road, on that day, in 1975. I don’t know what all of this means, if anything. It’s certainly a silver lining to a very dark cloud. It’s one of the surest signs I’ve ever seen, for evidence of a loving God, in my life. And, it’s an interesting dichotomy. I will not — cannot — be grateful for the loss of my brother, but neither could I be more grateful than I am, for a destiny that has led me to life of love and friendship. It’s irreconcilable. But, I guess that’s life.

I sometimes try to boil all of this down to one word, and it’s not easy. When I do, I come up with words like lucky or fortunate or charmed or favored. But, the word that seems to best capture the way I feel about my life, is blessed. For most of my life, even through the times when I’ve felt most undeserving, it has seemed to me that there has been a guiding hand, opening windows when doors are shutting, lighting up the good paths, and contrasting them with the dark corners — all of it coming together, to write an average story about an average life, that, looking back now, just seems…blessed.

This is that story.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Epilogue: How to end a story

It's been many years since I lived in Sandy.

I've lived away from Woodchuck Way longer than I lived on that street, and still it has more power than any place I've ever been, to pull me back.

It's barely recognizable to me anymore. The homes are older. The trees are taller. Even the shape of the streets themselves seem different. Only memories remain.

Places change, memories last.

And, I have to figure out how to end my story.

The story I've tried to tell, is the story of how my life has been shaped. It was formed, in no small part, by my childhood home. It was a magical place and time, and I don't use that word lightly. When I think about the streets I walked, and the friends I knew, and the adventures and experiences we shared, it feels deliberate. It feels like it was meant to be. It feels like it was written somewhere -- maybe in the stars.

It feels like magic.

And the most magical thing of all was finding a match and a compliment, to my own soul.

There are best friends, and then there are best friends. It's a hard relationship to explain to someone who has not experienced it. Aaron Ball changed my life. He shaped my life. He's not my neighbor. He's not just my friend. He's not my brother.

Those are inadequate terms.

Best friend is the best we've come up with, but it doesn't scratch the surface.

It's not enough to say I'd give my life for Aaron. If I get wherever we're going after this life before he does, I'll be saving his place in line, and he'll cross that threshold first. That's the way it should be.  I owe him that.

The story of my friendship with Aaron will never end.

But, when you write a story, there has to be an ending...

Are we like Butch and Sundance, going out in a blaze of glory?

Are we Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, receiving accolades and applause?

Or, does this story end like the end of a Peanuts Special -- with Aaron and I standing at a brick wall, reflecting on what we have experienced, and what we have learned?

Or is it like Pooh and Christopher Robin, reticent to to leave, pledging our unending loyalty to one other?

Actually, there is a perfect ending.

It's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

White washing the fence. Or chasing pirates on far away islands. Or lazily dangling feet off of a raft, in a cool river, on a lazy summer afternoon. Pledging blood brotherhood. It's mischief without the mayhem. It's never ending loyalty. It's forever looking at horizons, and dreaming of the next adventure.

Tom and Huck, barefoot on a dusty backroad...the sun shining bright...the sky deep blue...walking toward the future, and never quite stepping out of the past.

Leaving one story behind, just in time to start writing the next one.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Conclusion: Ghosts

I'm surrounded by ghosts.

They crowd around me as I write, and whisper about all the things I've forgotten.

When I go back to Sandy, they appear to me, and they follow me. The streets fill with children I once knew.  I see them as they would appear on a summer morning -- in cut off jeans, striped socks and tennis shoes. I can taste the acrid puff of smoke, from a cap gun. I can smell the pungent odor of a new rubber bike tire. I see a phantom apparition of the street I grew up on -- Woodchuck Way. The trees on our block in this vision are young. The yards of the houses are not fenced. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms, and the mountain breeze blows out of the canyon, and through my hair. 

I can hear the clink of empty glass soda bottles in garages, and smell that faintly dusty smell of an unfinished basement. All the colors are different. They are sun bleached, and faded. And they are colors we don't use anymore...rust and goldenrod and brown. I don't see any parents. I know they're there, but I don't see them. They're behind the doors and windows, doing things that grown ups do -- worrying, sacrificing, paying...and forgetting about us...

I can taste the light, empty flavor of Wonder Bread and Oscar Mayer Bologna and Kraft Singles and the tangy zip of Miracle Whip. I breathe in the powder of unmixed Tang -- I drank a lot of Tang, because astronauts drank Tang.

I can smell the very distinct vinyl smell of a newly opened Star Wars action figure.

Other times the ghosts are walking our long streets, on a dusky October evening. The western sky fades away, as the darkness in the east is pulled across the sky, like a blanket of clouds and stars. The last of the fallen leaves are kicked up by an autumn breeze. Skeletons and pumpkins and goblins stare down from the windows of the houses, with red eyes, on the hundreds of children letting screen doors slam shut behind them, on the way to the greatest trick-or-treating neighborhood of all time.

The ghosts fade in and out. Some are holding on to the bumpers of cars, as they slide down the street, on a slushy, snowy day. Others are walking to school, endlessly walking to school, day after day, in their own tribes. I see the apparitions of Cub Scouts and Brownies.

Houses disappear, and fields upon fields of sage brush and scrub oak grow in their place like the world is spinning in reverse. Kids on plastic wheeled roller skates, whir by on the sidewalk, and boys with dirt bikes jump the curbs. There is still a large boulder near the canyon, painted like an American flag. I can smell the briny odor of the Great Salt Lake, on the edge of a summer thunderstorm. I can feel green shag carpet between my toes. I can smell the tar from a repaved street.

I see girls and boys playing together. Games in the street. Hide and seek in the backyards. Kissing tag. Kick ball. I can hear the click, click, click of a plastic jump rope, hitting the schoolyard blacktop. I can hear the crunch of gravel, as pretty girls do cherry drops off of the monkey bars. I can feel the wind in my face, and strain of pumping my legs to go higher and higher, in the playground swings. Back when we weren't afraid of playground swings.

Sometimes the apparitions are somber. Images of families that moved away. Families that didn't stay together. Friends that left our neighborhood and our lives too soon, some for inexplicably sad reasons. The memories are bittersweet, but the faces of these friends are youthful, and smiling -- the way they want us to remember them. 

The scene I see from above, is a constellation of homes, shining brightly. They are the houses that I knew from floor to ceiling. They are the houses where friends lived. The brightest star is the one at the end of Woodchuck Way, where a red headed, freckled force of nature lived.

The ghosts beckon me to stay, and I think I want to...

It's tempting to think that things were better in the past. Time softens our memories, and rounds off the sharp edges. We know that we didn't fully appreciate what we had. We thought everyone had it as good as we did, and now we know that not everyone did. We have learned that our neighborhood, and our friendships were extraordinary. We have come to know the worth of our treasure, and we feel it's lost, stuck in a memory, caught between worlds.

Like a ghost.

But, the truth is, it's never been far away. Those ghosts that gather around me to whisper about the things I've forgotten, also show me that what is most important never left me. The treasures of greatest worth are the ones that become a part of you.

We are the sights and sounds and smells of our childhood. We are our memories. We are sculpted by the experiences we have, and even more, by the friends with which we surround ourselves. We are the product of one another and we are each other's greatest masterpieces.

I like to visit with the ghosts, and I love to hear their stories, but the greatest treasure of my childhood is the story that is still being written. The story of friends who are still friends.

The story of friends, born in a new world, raised in optimism and innocence, who played and laughed and ran and jumped...who saw the world as a big, wide opportunity.

It's the story of friends who will always be friends.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Icons: The Painted Rock

Early on, in the history of our neighborhood, there were only two ways in or out -- you could go west to the freeway, or east to Wasatch Boulevard.

Going east, meant climbing the steep incline of 9400 South, which leveled off as it approached the small community of Granite. This was the gateway to the canyons and the ski resorts, and La Caille -- the french restaurant so expensive and swanky that no one who lived within twenty miles of it could afford to dine there.

Actually, Aaron and I went there for senior prom (not just with each other...we had dates), and all we could afford was desert -- twenty bucks a person. There's quite a story here, but it's rather embarrassing for me to tell, because it involves the awkward hormones of a teenage boy, and the revealing french peasant girl costumes of the female servers at La Caille...

Incidentally, La Caille means "The Quail."

Go figure.

But, I'm derailing my own train of thought...

As you traveled east, before you got to the canyon, and just past the road that led to Granite Elementary, and the little chapel on the right...just on the left, where the road bends, there was a giant boulder. This boulder was not just a rock in a meadow, it was a community sign post.

You couldn't miss it. It was painted -- not with graffiti (per se), but with pictures and messages. And it changed, sometimes frequently, and sometimes it stayed the same for months. I never saw anyone paint it. I assume that it was done clandestinely at night, but I could be wrong about that. I don't think anyone was necessarily trying to hide the fact that they were doing it.

It wasn't vandalism, it was a genuine, organic piece of folk art.

We called it the Painted Rock. Because we were clever like that.

The images I remember most clearly revolve around the holidays. It was the perfect shape to paint into a giant jack-o-lantern. On Independence Day you would often find a flag. In 1976, it was painted as a flag, with the a 76 in the field of stars. I assume it was probably an Easter Egg and a Turkey too. The Painted Rock was always someone's art project. But, it was more than that...

The rock was a community billboard. This was where the newlywed and the newly born were celebrated. This was where those returning were welcomed home. It's where important things were remembered.

After some digging, I found that there is more to the story than I ever knew. Ten years ago, a man from Granite, named Allen Bishop, wrote the story (all of the pictures here are from his article). It was his father who commissioned the first paint job -- while trying to relieve the boredom of some of the young men under his watch, as the bishop of the ward in that area. Bishop and his friends were often the ones who painted the rock, especially early on -- including the Bicentennial Rock. That first paint job was in 1964.

Allen Bishop was writing in 2002, after the rock had been unceremoniously dumped in a hole and buried by a local developer, with little input from the community. His story was an exercise in civic government, and an attempt to explain to the local city council that the rock was a community treasure, and deserved to be exhumed. More than eighty percent of the locals polled agreed. The county government (as well as UDOT)  got involved, and agreed that the rock could be exhumed, provided the people paid to dig it up, and found a different place to put it. All of that was accomplished...and yet...

Twelve years later, the Painted Rock remains buried where it fell.

There are no plaques to commemorate the rock, or what it meant to the people of Sandy and Granite. There is no memorial of this treasure, or to the people who cared so lovingly for it, for 38 years. Graffiti was not unheard of on the rock, but it never lasted long. Someone would always make it beautiful again. I wish there were more pictures, or a book to commemorate all that this boulder meant to so many.

The Painted Rock was as much a part of our community as our homes and churches, our schools and our grocery stores. It was identifiable and unique. Returning from anywhere, it was the Painted Rock that always signaled to me that I was almost home -- including in 1991, when my best friend Aaron, and I assume his merry band of vandals, welcomed me home, from my mission. It was a treasured piece of us, but sometimes treasure is taken for granted...

We passed the rock every time we went up the canyons. I drove past it every day, on the way to high school. It was always there. It always would be.

And then, I took my eyes off of it, and it disappeared.

As the years wore on, the painting became less artistic, and more of a mess. I don't know when I saw it last. One day, it wasn't there anymore.

Maybe it was right to bury it. Maybe progress has to progress. Homes are built, and streets are widened. Maybe it was a piece of history that lived it's life in a simpler time. Maybe something as quaint as the Painted Rock has no place in our world today.

And maybe we should have appreciated it when we had the chance.

And then again, maybe we did.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Sev

I know it by the smell. 

If you took me into a 7-11, blindfolded, I would still know where I was. They all smell the same inside, every one of them. And they always have. 

Our little neighborhood in Sandy was a developing residential area. We didn't have a main street, or a shopping district. There were no small town stores or movie theaters or comic book stores or fire stations or barber shops -- just houses, a few churches and a couple of schools. If we needed groceries, there was a Smith's Food King, out on 9400 South -- the main road that bordered our neighborhood on the south side, but that was a little farther than young kids dared to venture -- you had to cross a vast dirt field to get there by foot. 

Which means if we, as kids, had some birthday money, or weekly allowance, to blow, we had only other option....

Attached to the last street of our neighborhood, like a barnacle, or a growth, stood the 7-11. 

The Sev, we called it. 

In those days, our 7-11 was a small town American Main Street rolled into one location. 

It was our malt shop -- our soda fountain. In the 70's and 80's, malts were Coca Cola flavored Slurpees, and Big Gulps. You could have the 32 oz. Big Gulp, the 44 oz Super Big Gulp or, starting in 1988, the 64 oz Double Gulp. The last one was so big, that at first it came in something resembling a milk carton. 64 oz doesn't seem so big these days. That's kind of sad, now that I think of it...

It was our corner candy store. And the candy was the kind to catch a kid's fancy -- Fun Dip. Nerds. Wax Cola Bottles. Tootsie Pops -- supposedly the Indian and the Star got you a free sucker (or bag of suckers, depending on which urban legend you subscribed to...I never got a free sucker). Candy necklaces -- it's hard to eat something you're wearing. Pixie Stix. Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum. Bubble Yum Bubble Gum. Big League Chew. Fruit Stripe Gum. Jolly Ranchers. 

And the most taboo candy of all: candy cigarettes (you couldn't pretend to "smoke" for very long, because they were pure sugar, and dissolved instantly in your mouth. 

The 7-11 was our book store. Or at least our magazine store. Ok, our comic book shop. Right there on the rack next to Us Weekly, People Magazine and Soap Opera Digest, sat the latest comic from Marvel -- The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones. Or Spiderman. Or Superman. Or the Archie gang. 

It was also our arcade. There were always two video games in the corner of the store, back by the cooler, just inside the front window. Pole Position. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Pac Man. Galaga. And, my personal favorite, Karate Champ. 8 bits of electronic glee!

It was our delicatessen, and our bakery -- though I could never bring myself to try one on the hot dog like items, turning endlessly on the heated rollers. I'm not convinced they were actually hot dogs...they were so dehydrated and shriveled that I'm not sure you could actually bite through them. 

And, maybe most importantly, the 7-11 was where we got free air for our bike tires. 

The one thing as ubiquitous as kids in Sandy, was the ever present sticker -- the Tribulus Terrestris, also known as the Goat's Head thorn. 

This weed was everywhere, and it produced a nasty, spiky little thorn. We got them in our feet. We got them in our hands. But mostly, we got them in our bike tires. Every kid in Sandy learned to patch a bike tire, and after you got the patch on, you pumped in just enough air to get you to the 7-11, because there you could inflate your tires to twice the recommended PSI. Even if you didn't need air in your tires, if you were at the Sev, you let some air out, so you'd have an excuse to use the hissing air hose. 

Hey, free air. 

On a hot summer day, a trip to The Sev was almost a given. We'd start out, and often pick up friends on the way, and there was a good chance once you arrived at the 7-11, any number of other friends would be coming or going. You stopped and chatted. Swapped candy and stories. 

The 7-11 was the closest thing we had to a social gathering place. It was where we went to feel like grown ups. It was where we satisfied our sugar cravings and got a head start on the root canals of later years. It was where we drank in the taste of summer, and caught up with the latest news and gossip. 

I've never quite figured out what it is that makes a 7-11 smell the way it does, but maybe, just maybe, that is the smell of small town America, with a suburban 1980's twist, sprinkled with Slurpees and free air, and the tangy metallic taste of a quarter dropping into Karate Champ, intermingled with Grape Bubble Yum, and candy cigarettes, topped off by the fragrance of kids in various states of cleanliness and the odor of ten day old hot dogs. 

Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's it. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Three is a magic number: Ami

I've alluded to this, but it's time to put it into words.

I have a lot of friends. I always have. It's a natural result of genuinely liking almost everyone I've ever met. If you ask me what the secret to a happy life is? It's a simple answer.

Just one word: friendship.

Friends celebrate the victories and milestones by your side, and carry you over the crevasses and through the dark hollows of life. The highest compliment I have in my vocabulary is the word friend -- not because it's something special to be my friend, but because of the privilege it is for me to know you as a friend.

I have one friend, that I've known longer than any other -- even longer than Aaron Ball.

Ami Quintero (now Jackson).

It is one of the great privileges of my life, to have known Ami as a friend. Both Aaron and I have talked about this at length. In every picture of the great experiences of our childhood, Ami is there. It was the three of us. It was not right, if it wasn't the three of us. When one of us couldn't be there, the other two just sort of milled around and waited...

Of all the things we did together, one moment in time became legendary. I suspect all three of us remember it like it was yesterday...

The scene: 1980; The Quintero's carport -- it wasn't a garage yet.

In these days of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and G-Force, our imaginations were fertile ground. We craved adventure, and the greatest adventures we could find were within our minds. At the time of this story, our current project was making up our own radio dramas (for lack of a better term), and recording them on a tape recorder. Very recently there had been a television special called Battle Beyond the Stars, which I don't think any of us saw, but we co-opted the title -- with a twist.

Title: Battle Beyond Space. 

All of these dramas were made up on the fly, and stuck pretty close to the same script -- the three of us in a space ship, or on some far away world, battling alien armies. We were going on eight and nine. It was just as good as you imagine it was. We did our best to edit on the tape recorder as we went, but there were a lot of pauses and ums and a whole lot that made no sense at all.  Everything we recorded was on a tape recorder that Aaron swiped from his dad, and a handful of Bonneville tapes that we found laying around his house. As you can imagine, despite our earnest attempt at creating believable science fiction, our budget for special effects was non existent.

Which is what makes this story legendary (in our minds...)

On this particular day we were telling the story of a spaceship battle. We were locked in mortal combat with aliens from a distant galaxy. Our little band of three stood between the alien menace, and the loss of freedom in the universe. It was a desperate struggle. Shots and tense glances were exchanged. The outcome was in doubt, and as we fought, high above an unknown planet, our ship took a direct hit...

At this point, Aaron exclaims into the microphone:


And, at the perfect moment -- as though there was a director of screen yelling "Action!" -- a very noisy motorcycle went tearing down Woodchuck Way, and our little tape recorder picked it up...

I remember distinctly all three of us stopping, and staring at each other.

Did that really just happen...?

Then we all went for the tape recorder at the same time, everyone's fingers going for the rewind button.





That ship was going down in flames! Never had three people been so happy to be aboard a crashing spaceship. To our seven and eight year old ears, that sounded like a big time Hollywood sound effect.
It sounded like something we would hear in Star Wars.

We stopped right there. That was the end of the story -- our heroes went down in flames. I don't know that we ever recorded another show, but for days afterward, we listened to that ten seconds of tape so many times, that the moment is burned in my memory forever.

(Ami, I don't know if we ever told you this, but about ten years later Aaron and I found an old box of Bonneville tapes in his room, and started listening to them. We found this recording. It was as magical to us at seventeen as it had been at seven).

There are more memories of Ami than I have words or space to write. She was there in the snows of Hoth, and the forests of Endor. She transmuted with us aboard the Fiery Phoenix. She trekked through the scrub oak "jungles" of the Dirt Hills with us, as we played Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ami even made up words to the Raiders March (Main Theme, from Raiders of the Lost Ark), and here they are (you know the tune):

Here comes Indy -- ana Jones
And his wi --ife, Mari -- uh-un too
Not to mention, little tots
And they're off to adventure,
And happiness
Eh-eh-very where!

I can't listen to the music from Indiana Jones without hearing those words. :)

My life is infinitely better for knowing Ami. She was a softening influence on two boys, who were all boy. Because of Ami, I am a kinder and gentler person. When I think of her, I think of drinking shasta on my back patio, and jumping on the trampoline with the sprinkler underneath. I think of eating plums off of the tree in her back yard. I think of turning over our bicycles and churning the pedals to make "ice cream." Eating the worst cereal of all time on a Saturday morning and watching The Super Friends.

She was the pretty girl across the street, with the brown eyes and the long dark hair, and the exotic name: Aminta Christina...the first girl I ever kissed (when I was all of about six), in my bathroom, with the door shut, on my tiptoes, because she was six inches taller than I was...

(Ami, you may not know this either -- Aaron and I used to stage boxing matches in his basement. The prize was always a girl -- and often it was you. No doubt, you're flattered :)

In my memory Ami is sunshine and smiles and sweetness. She's Leia and Wonder Woman and Princess. She's softness and sleepovers and space ships. I remember laying out on her back porch, on summer nights, when the only care in the world was making sure that tomorrow's adventure was better than today's. We would look up into the blackness of space -- the place we all longed to go -- and watch the blinking stars. We would trace the constellations in the night sky, and talk late into the night, until slowly, eventually, we'd drift off to sleep.

Then morning would come, and we'd start it all over.

Ami and I have followed paths that have led us far from each other, for many years. But, in the years she lived across the street from me, she became one of my best friends.

And, in my world, that means that you're never far away.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mixing it up

And, while we listened faithfully, hour after hour, for that one song -- the perfect song -- sometimes you just need a certain song, at a certain time...

The right song at the right time is the difference between a great moment and a legendary one.

A moment is not simply a measurement of time, it's snapshot of life. It's a memory, and we know that the more of your senses you employ in creating a memory, the better chance it has to last. Think about that dance from when you were a kid. You know the one I mean...

You see the whirling lights, and the girl there before you (this one is mine, sorry).

You see the crowded dance floor.

You see the fog machine.

You feel the hardness of the gym floor, beneath your feet.

You feel her close to you.

You feel her hand in yours.

You feel her head on your shoulder.

You smell a potpourri of perfume, cologne, hairspray, sweat and whatever that smell is from the fog machine (I swear they were blowing deodorant onto the dance floor...).

But it's the song that ties it all together. The melody moves you. The lyrics inspire you. It's the song that takes you back there, even now.

And that's the power of the right song, at the right time.

It's immortal.

Before iPods, before play lists, before itunes and napster, there was the mixtape...

Let me back up and get a running start at this, for anyone reading who maybe unfamiliar with what a tape is. A cassette tape, to be precise:

Cas*sette (kuh-set)
1. Also called cassette tape. A compact case, containing a length of magnetic tape that runs between two small reels: used for recording or playback in a tape recorder, or cassette deck. The word came into usage in the 1950's, and is derived from the french casse, meaning box.

Basically it was like carrying around your own reel to reel tape machine. It was revolutionary. It could record music. It could be erased and re-recorded. We didn't buy records, or albums, or CD's -- we bought tapes. It could get tangled, and then things went south fast. It could break, and if you were very careful, it could be repaired. Most importantly, it was portable.

Recorded sound had been around for roughly a century, but until the cassette tape, it was never more portable than the clunky phonographs of the previous generation. (We're not going to mention 8 Track Tapes -- even though I may, or may not, have spent hours listening to an 8 track recording of Debbie Boone singing "You Light Up My Life." Don't judge me). But the small size of a cassette tape enabled you to carry music everywhere you went -- in your car, in your boom box, in your Walkman (that's a whole other post -- a Walkman was a primitive iPod, for the uninitiated).

After portability, the next best thing about tapes and tape recorders was the ability to create a personalized collection of music, from all of your individual tapes.

The Mixtape was born.

You could put Van Halen and Kool and the Gang on the same tape. Why you would do that is beyond me, but that's beside the point. The Mixtape could be anything. It was a declaration of independence.

The Mixtape was freedom, and freedom is the overarching theme of youth.

The Mixtape was created by, and, in a very real sense, is almost exclusive to, Generation X. Our grandparents had the giant, cathedral-like radio, in the corner of the living room -- it was, literally, a piece of furniture. Our parents had phonographs. Our children have iPods. But anyone who uploads a 300 song playlist on to their MP3 player, owes a debt to the teenagers of the 1980's.

A mixtape might be a collection the biggest hits of the day, or a mass of songs, that fit a certain mood or style -- ballads, head bangers, glam rock, new wave (gag me with a spoon).

A mixtape often was a love letter. If you couldn't compose your own sonnet, let Steve Perry and the boys do it for you.

And when you couldn't depend on the DJ at K-whatever-station-you-listened-to to play the music you wanted to hear on a regular basis, your best bet was the Mixtape.

And it wasn't easy to make. Here's the problem: Tapes came in basically two lengths -- 60 minutes and 90 minutes, but every song is a different length, and you wanted to fill up as much tape as possible. No one wanted a length of silence at the end of the tape, you wanted the music to end, right as the tape did. This required precise calculations and timing.

And you thought math would never come in handy...

It would take hours of rewinding and fast forwarding (remember rewinding and fast forwarding?) and synchronization to create the perfect combination of music.

A great mixtape is like a great meal -- timing, seasoning, the right ingredients and everything prepared just right. C'est Magnifique!

And, whether you were breakdancing or slow dancing, rocking out, hanging out or making out, or sitting on the hood of your car, watching the sunset across the valley from Zarahemla Drive, with mixtape in hand, properly queued up to the right song (or combination of songs) you were ready to face the world.

You were ready to create a moment that would last forever.