Schwinn, Part 3

in the last post I talked about how I’m probably not going to repaint the bike. There are some worn out parts on the bike that necessitate replacement. Obviously, the tires were completely unusable. I ordered the tires from an online bicycle store in New Hampshire. It turns out there are still companies like Kenda who make Schwinn whitewall replacements. This was good news. The rubber rim strip was completely disintegrating, so I found those and some new inner tubes. After a lengthy polish of the spokes and wheels, it was easy enough to replace the tires and I was well on my way through the restore.

New Pads on Schwinn
The front brake assembly with new pads.

I found new retro style brake pads on eBay. Needless to say, the old ones were  fossilized. The 10mm nuts holding them to the brake assembly were fused to the extent that I had to soak hem with WD40 to get them to release. Release they did, though, and now there are brand new orange break pads clamping down on newly polished rims. Here they are, just after they arrived and before I removed the brake assembly and cleaned the tiny pits of rust from the front fork.

Peeling Back the Layers

It is like an archaeological dig site, this bike. As I peel away layers of grime, I discover something older. Cleaning the grime from the chain with vinegar solution of 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water seemed to be the best approach.

Front crankset on Schwinn
The front crankset and chain.

The solution slowly breaks down the grease so that I could start seeing the chain. As the caked on grime melted away it revealed the dynamic blue hue of the outer links of the bicycle chain. The chain’s sharp edges finally peering out beneath the soft mounds of muck. I knew I would need something that would do a little better job going forward.

But it got me thinking about what I should use to oil the chain. So I did a search. It turns out there is a pretty substantial internet debate on the subject of what you should use to oil or grease your chain. In fact, so passionate is the argument, there is a debate about whether you should grease or oil your chain at all. Well, that seems silly and I don’t want to start a religious debate.

I Know About Friction

I know a bit about what friction will do to a bike, and more specifically to a bike chain, over time. When I was younger and got my first used 10-speed that I rode all around town, I pretty much wore away the chain and the cogs on that old bike. I saw what would happen to the cogs on a derailleur over time. The chain will gradually stretch and the pitch in the chain becomes wider and wider. The chain rides higher and higher on the cogs and the teeth will wear down until they are no longer effective and shifting becomes unpredictable or nearly impossible. Chains will break if not cared for properly.

It turns out there is a very effective solution to cleaning and lubing a bicycle chain which involves a clean rag, a cleaner/solvent called White Lightning Clean Streak and a medium-weight drip chain lube called Park C-1. Who comes up with these names for products. Genius. I wonder if this stuff is made from moonshine

Keep in mind, I ride in dry conditions. For this bike restore, I may not ride this bike at all except to make sure that everything is working properly. Here is some food for thought: Working on this bike has encouraged me to take better care of my own bike, a Trek 1100 from the early 90s. Yea, I’m vintage.

Schwinn, Part 2

My last post described my reasons for the restore of this old bike. The family connection, passing on an heirloom to the next generation and the sheer joy of seeing something brought back to life were just some of my reasons for resurrecting this old Schwinn. I have an ulterior motive. Gaining expertise in a field and sharing this expertise with others is just as important to me.

Practice Makes Progress

There was something that drew me to this bike, I think. Perhaps it was the story or the nostalgic look of an old Schwinn. Maybe it was the dangerous looking child seat on the back, in which my brother-in-law remembers riding, Maybe it was the battery powered light attached to the front handlebars. I’m not sure. It was probably some magical combination of all of those.  After those obvious attributes began to fade, I understood that this would be a journey that I could take some time to share with you.

Suffice to say that the bike is a dirty mess after sitting in a garage for what I can only imagine as a long time, but it spoke out beneath the layers of dirt and dust, the scratches and dings and found me and my willingness to restore it to greatness. My plan is to diverge from the story of my travels, for which there is still so much to post. Instead, I’m going to try and share the story of bringing this bike back to life.

The Bike Objective

front fender before
The front fender before cleaning.

My objective is to use traditional restoration techniques, where possible. First, cleaning with as many natural cleaners as is possible. Using elbow-grease and patience is preferred as solvents may damage the finish. I want to minimize the impact to the environment, too, I suppose.

Here, on the front fender, I am using a baking soda/water mixture to gently erase the paint and scuff marks from the original paint. Of course, I don’t want to be too abrasive to the original paint and the nostalgia. The technique is somewhat painstaking. It is like scrubbing a gym with a toothbrush. While it does have its rewards, I’m finding that i am just slightly disappointed with the outcome.  There are still paint chips and scratches which detract from the overall look and feel of the bike.

Repainting and Refinishing

front fender
The front fender after cleaning.

I began research on repainting the bike or doing touch-up work on the numerous scratches and dings.  I don’t think that repainting or refinishing is the right decision. It comes down to character, in my opinion. The scratches and dings add to the history of this ride. The license stickers on the rear fender tell of a time when bicycles were commonly registered in the city of Minneapolis. I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic often, though. At some point I’m going to have to make sure that these scratches are primed in such a way as to protect the metal beneath.

I’m currently working on removing and cleaning the hand grips. It is slow work. Rubber and chrome seem nearly fused together.


The 1959 Schwinn Catalina

1959 Schwinn Catelina
The bike arrives at my garage

I recently acquired a Schwinn bicycle. It is my new project. As happens with these types of projects, the restoration itself sometimes decides the the path of the restorer. My plan is to restore the bike to some form of its original glory. It is increasingly evident to me that the bike has different plans. Even as this process begins, it is impossible to tell you where this journey might lead. This restoration is like hopping on a plane and traveling to another country because it reveals things about me that I had rarely given much thought. That is why I love story. A good story turns the reader’s eyes inward.

Show Me

With the risk of sounding like the main character in the movie Christine, the project has already begun to uncover some of my own shortcomings. Notice I’m hesitant to call the bike “old”, if only because it belonged to my mother-in-law. I joke about being “old”, myself, or “being on the steep end of my downward spiral into the grave”. Both of these are not yet true, but they would likely be true were I to start spouting off about this ancient Schwinn that my mother-in-law received from her mother when she was a teenager.

But here is the thing. My mother-in-law is at the stage in life where she is beginning to downsize into a more manageable home and quickly expunge years of inevitable clutter. Clutter that one accumulates over the course of their lives. In part, this makes me sad because I remember my grandmother beginning this stage in her life after I went to college. I remember how she took control having seen so many before her attempt to hold on dearly to the clutter that they had collected. I admired how she did this, but I remember the feeling of loss when she finally sold the home she had lived in for so many years. For a long time, she collected things. Now, she was simplifying.

In the case of this bicycle, my mother-in-law was ready to get rid of it.  On one hand, I don’t blame her. But, on the other hand, I just couldn’t quite let her do that. I started thinking about how nice it might be for my daughter to ride that bike knowing that her great-grandmother had gifted it to her grandmother. She may not appreciate this at the age of eight, but I have a hope that there will be a moment where she will appreciate it.


I have a sense of how important it is to be able to connect to the past and understand it in its context. I believe that family connection is important and being able to connect across generations reminds us of our roots. It reminds us that we would not be where we are today if not for the resilience of an ancestor who managed to survive long enough to yield to the next generation. The same strength and determination of those who made footprints in the dirt, cut paths through the wilderness, then built roads and bent steel is present in us today. It is in the contrast between our ancestors and who we are today that we understand where we are going and what we hope to become.

It is not so much the object itself as it is the fabric of what it represents. Knowing that I want my daughter to have some of the same strength and determination and resilience as her ancestors drives me to action. That my hope for her is that she continue to develop into a strong, independent, young woman. That she have the drive to make real change in the world and she remain steadfast in what she believes. That despite any failures in her ancestral line, that she will make a new way for herself that tips a hat to the past, but also continues to progress forward. For me, that is the importance of being connected. For this, I’m happy to be a supportive curator.

Schwinn’s a Beaut

On a side note, I originally began this post referring to the Schwinn with a feminine pronoun. I was going to try and justify the reference with the fact that it is a women’s bike. This sent me off on a journey about whether or not referencing inanimate objects as women is offensive. That taught me about myself, too, I guess. It taught me about how I am gradually being refined as a person. That, invariably, I still say things that probably unintentionally offend, It taught me that the world is like a course ball of steel wool constantly rubbing at my rough edges, claiming the layers of rust and grime and making unrefined parts of me gleam again. I hope that there is enough steel wool in the world for that.


Things I’m Thankful for Today

I am thankful that life matters—that we have the freedom, in this country, to acknowledge our own lives in any way we choose.

I am thankful that real freedom comes from elevating others, and–as my 8 year old son said just last week– putting yourself in another’s shoes.

I am thankful that we don’t have to agree with one another to defend one another’s right to believe in what could be.

for the right to stand up, or sit down, or kneel

for the warriors who sacrifice on soil and on the sideline

that it is the responsibility of all to create a place where we are compelled to stand for one another.

to sometimes sit and yield our own needs to the disenfranchised

to kneel and ask ourselves, “What can I do to change the world?”

that building up is better than tearing down.

I am thankful for the continued freedom to invent, and reinvent. Myself.

for the brisk morning air, the sun that comes up each morning like a promise

the spring rain that brings life

for the faith that, with all the bad that comes in the world, the hope that good will prevail

for children laughing, and playing

for dancing

for joy

that I weep uncontrollably for those we have lost to death

but can, with joy, pass the good that I have learned to my children

that I feel sadness from not being heard

and joy at hearing others

that I am compelled when I hear the cries of others

and joy at their satisfaction

that I am afraid of what is to come

but I embrace my fear with anticipation

because it is better

with You

Customer Service Lesson

Cleanup in Aisle 3I have had a job since I was in 6th grade, but when I turned 15 I got my first hourly position with the grocery store up the street. It was a right of passage. I got the job by being persistent. When I accompanied my grandmother on her weekly grocery run I simply asked the store manager if I could work there. I stood at the customer service counter and asked who I needed to talk to about a job.

Soon, the manager would pop out of the back room, and after a couple of questions, the inevitable response.  “Naw, kid, you are only 15. You have to be 16 to work here part time.” I finally got the job by wearing him down, I think. It was after a couple of months, and several eye rolls,  that I remember him saying, “You must really want to work here. You will have to sign some forms and you can’t work past 8:00 p.m. until you are sixteen.  Fill out this application. You start the day after school is out for the summer.”

I’d like you to know at four in the morning
Things are coming mine
All I’ve seen, all I’ve done
And those I hope to find

Blue Collar
C.F. Turner, Bachman–Turner Overdrive

Until this time I delivered papers twice a week for the local newspaper. I used to love the six to twelve bucks a week I would get for delivering the weekly paper and the shopper. It was enough that I could usually buy something at the gas station or at the local Ben Franklin. Now, I was going to move up to the big leagues. Minimum wage. In four hours, I could make as much as it took me a whole week to make at my previous job.

That was my first life lesson regarding pay and an early economics lesson. It was a fixed pay rate at the newspaper. You were paid on the number of papers you delivered.  The only way to make more money was to deliver more papers. I quickly learned that one could only deliver so many papers on foot, and you could only handle so many newspapers on a bike. My wage had been capped, so I knew it was time to try something else. The grocery store seemed as good a choice as any. There was no shortage of work to be done.  If you worked harder than your peers, there was some degree of stability.  Once you left the store, you were ‘off’.  Well, aside from the occasional mandatory break room meeting,

I learned many work and life lessons in the break room of the grocery store, but one lesson about customer service stuck with me.  If someone asks you for the location of a product, it is your job to take them to it. That means: Stop what you are doing, let the customer know that you can help them find the item, and take them to it. It was your job to take up the search on behalf of the customer. The search ended when the customer was satisfied that you had done everything you possibly could to assist them– If that meant searching for it yourself, all the better.

Some of my coworkers at the store failed at this task. They would tell the customer that the item was in aisle 3, then glance back down at what they were doing. The customer would continue their search, only occasionally locating what they were searching for.  The odds of making that sale were slim.  Our boss understood that if that customer can’t find it, they can’t buy it.

He also understood that, for the part-timers, customer service was just as important as knowing the products in the store.  It was our job to know where things were. Fortunately, I had a good memory. If I didn’t know where something was, I was going to spend time stocking shelves until I did. I loved the gratitude people showed when you quickly found something that they had spent ten minutes looking for.

My boss considered the customer first because he knew that caring for the customer would help his business.  He would say. “We aren’t in the grocery business. We are in the people business. People just happen to eat.”  He cared enough for his employees to convey that message and did everything he could to help his team emulate it.

I revisit this lesson often. There are successes and failures. Every situation is different. If I could sit with him now, I would share the relevance of that philosophy today.

Sewing Day Camp

It was the summer before 4th grade that I went to a day camp in which I was forced to learn how to cross-stitch.  From what I could remember, I didn’t really want to cross-stitch.  Actually, I though that knitting or crochet would be much more practical.  Also, I couldn’t think of a single time in my life I would ever need the skill of cross-stitching.  Cross-stitch is a thankless endeavor.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen beautiful heirloom quality creations with cross-stitch.  I just wasn’t planning on making something colorful to hang on the wall, or some fancy pillow for one of my siblings.  My younger brother was much too smelly for that, and as luck would have it contracted head lice at the beginning of that school year, anyway.  I am pretty sure that my mom burned all of his bedding and shaved off most of his hair as a result.

But there we were, my campmates and I forced to take up needle and thread and all follow the same pattern each day for the 5 days of our day camp.  There were groans each afternoon.  Needle pokes.  Unintended knots.  Bleeding.  Muttering.

All that pressure got you down
Has your head spinning all around
Feel the rhythm, check the rhyme
Come on along and have a real good time

Le Freak
Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, Chic

Each day, I carefully followed the pattern in which we were to spell out the words “Empowered to Love”.  By the end of Wednesday, I was on the ‘w’ thinking that I would never be able to finish by the end of the camp.  I had done the math.  5 letters in 3 days.  So I asked to stay a few minutes extra to finish a couple more letters.  It was the first time I remember setting goals and rationing my work as to finish before a certain time.

I remember my grandmother being there that Wednesday waiting for me and talking to the teacher.  I can’t remember what she said exactly, probably something to the effect of “He is quite a stitcher.”  My grandmother just smiled at me.

When we got in the car I asked her if I could ask her a question.   “What does ’empowered’ mean?”, I asked.  She told me that it means that you are “able to”.  That you are “filled with power” and she gave me this analogy.  The car we were riding in.  The tank of this car is filled with gas and the gasoline gives the car the power to move us from place to place.

On Thursday, a few more.  On Friday, I completed the whole word ‘Love’, much to the needling and prodding of my other campmates.  Pun intended.   They were saying stuff like “You are a girl.”  or “Sandy Seamstress” or some other needless adolescent chiding.  Little punks.

Anyway.  On Friday, I looked around and none of my other campmates had finished.  There were probably 25 of them.  I was the only one.  The teacher trimmed the edges of my creation and stuck it in a little frame and I got to take my framed creation home intact.  The other kids got to take home pieces and a pattern and the urging to finish what they started.

It was years later when we cleaned out my grandmother’s apartment after she passed away and I found this little framed cross-stitch.  I started thinking about one of the final days that we sat in that apartment together and I sewed a button back on her nightshirt.

I believe that we are all empowered to do great things.  Many never realize this.  They sit in the shadows and fail to embrace what they could become.  For some, empowerment is a little flower waiting to blossom.  For others, it is a raging fire that cannot be extinguished.

Only you can decide where you are along that road and if you are going to let old habits die.  But I will tell you this.  I see you come in and work hard every day.  There is fire in the elite.  You are the elite.

Two Giant Leaps of a Lion

I have an appreciation for dreams.  The dreams that you have when you are asleep and the dreams you have when you are awake show you things about yourself you did not know.  They illuminate the direction you are going.

As far as sleep dreams are concerned, I had this dream one night that I had an alpine slide in my back yard.

For those of you who have never ridden an alpine slide, I’ll let my friend, Wikipedia explain what this is.

It is a long chute on the side of a hill, usually built by ski resorts to supplement summer income. A wheeled cart is used to navigate the slide. The ride is similar to a bobsled ride, except that it rolls over a smooth track — generally cement, stainless steel, or fiberglass — rather than sliding on ice.

Near the village the peaceful village
The lion sleeps tonight
Near the village the quiet village
The lion sleeps tonight

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
-Solomon Linda with the Evening Birds

Anyway, in my dream, I wasn’t going very fast down this slide.  I must have been breaking or something.  It was all very slow.  That is the way it is in dreams sometimes.  It can be slow, then speed up.  Then slow down again.  I call these the’ DVR dreams’ because a whole night seems to go by very quickly in my DVR dreams.  They are on fast forward.  Generally, they happen when I sleep on the couch, too.  But that is another matter all together.

So I’m rolling down this long slide and the end of the slide is at the back door of this long ranch style log cabin with an elevated deck where one of my kids is standing waiting to greet me as I get done with my ride.

I look over to my left down this long hill into an enormous valley and I see a rather large mountain lion.  Of course, as in all good horror movies where the main character is about to be devoured by some large animal or plant, something was about to tip off the antagonist.  In this case, it was the screeching sound of me breaking  at the end of my route which was the lion’s dinner bell alerting this majestic animal that his lunch had arrived.  Of course, just my luck that I was being served on a nice rolling platter– ready to be consumed.

This is where the fast forward effect is really vivid, because it didn’t take that mountain lion but two giant leaps to get within just a few feet of the end of this slide.  It was as if I had skipped over that commercial for the ‘wonder chamois’ and landed right at the start of my favorite program.   Only, in  this case, I’m about to be eviscerated, so that isn’t good.

It was in that moment facing this mountain lion and looking at my child standing on the deck that I thought about the two choices I had.  I could stand up and raise my arms and look as big and as mean as I possibly could, or I could lay there and hope that I made a big enough meal to forever satisfy this enormous beast.  A meal large enough that the little morsel standing on the deck wouldn’t be as appealing.  I am a pretty big guy chock-full of lean succulent meat, so in my dream state this made perfect sense to me.

So that is our message to you this week.  Keep your eyes fixed on the prize and your attitude and emotions in check.  Stand up.  Raise your arms.  Look as big and as mean as you possibly can.

The Confession Wall

I was early in 3rd grade when I did something that I, still– to this day– am ashamed of.

I kicked a hole in a wall at school.

In my defense, it was an accident.  It was one of those things that you do when you are a kid, and you don’t really even think about it.  I don’t recall being particularly angry, and I don’t remember being particularly strong in 3rd grade, either.  Ok.  Let me frame this for you.  I was a wuss.   I was the kid that the kids who got beat up–well, I was the kid who those kids beat up.  I was at the bottom of the totem pole.  I was the last in line.  Of course, some of that may have been because my last name started with a ‘Y’.  But, still…

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher, leave them kids alone

“Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)”
-Roger Waters, Pink Floyd

I remember standing in line and just kicking toward the wall.  It wasn’t my intention to kick a hole in it.  I figured it was cement.  How could little ‘ole me possibly put a hole in a cement wall?  It wasn’t cement.  It was plaster, and the plaster gave way, chomping down on my tennis shoe like a smallmouth bass clamps down on a lure.  But I yanked my foot loose like nothing had happened and swam back into line with the other kids.

No one saw.  My classmates had not seen me actually kick the wall because they were all gabbing and moaning about whatever we were going to be doing that day.  Only one of them even realized I was out of line.  It was just about then when the teacher came to the back of the line and asked what had happened.  All were shocked and horrified and claimed innocence.  I made my best no-guilt face.  “I don’t know.”, I said.

The only problem was, I did know.  Suspicion quickly turned to me.  I just shrugged.  We went on with our daily activities.  Gradually that blame escalated until I found myself in the office with my teacher.  Instead of owning up to what I had done, I picked the path of denial, and I was able to even convince myself that, “Certainly, it was not me.”

Oh how I wish it only escalated to that “Christmas Story” moment when the teacher announces, “I’m sure those of you who put Flick up to this know your blame and the guilt you feel is punishment enough!”  However, It could not be that.  She was out for blood.  She poked at me with her long fingernails, and spoke with a wicked-witch voice.

“Be honest with me, did you do this?”  It was her last-ditch effort to withdrawal a confession from me.

“No.” I said.  That was the end of it.  My interrogation was over.  The overhead lights were turned back on.  The spotlight ceased.  I returned to my desk.  A week or so later the hole was patched and repainted.  But not so perfectly patched and repainted that I couldn’t see it each time I walked to my classroom.  The raised edges of the spot glared perfectly off of the light in the hallway.

I looked at that spot on the wall every day.  Some days I would think about my denial.  Other days I would think about the consequences I avoided.  Occasionally, I would think about our custodian smoothing plaster over the hole, waiting for it to dry, then painting over it.  Every time I would look at it I would picture my toe deeper and deeper inside that wall.  I would imagine the last day of school when the wall would finally just swallow me up and imprison me.

But it didn’t.

Yes, I had learned how to fool everyone around me and wallow in denial, but I understood– after walking down that hallway for a few weeks– that I could not fool myself.

The Mice and the Tornado

I probably wasn’t much more than 7 years old when a tornado struck our trailer in Iowa.   I lived on a small farm.  We were poor growing up.  Of course, it is impossible to remember exactly how poor, until I look at the pictures of our home.  We lived in a small trailer.  There were very few trees and my then stepfather worked the field as a farmer.  My father had already gone to prison for robbery and my mother divorced him.  I remember a few things about the trailer.  I remember the floor plan.  I remember how the north wind used to blow right through the building, or so it seemed, as there was no protection up on the hill away from the trees that shielded my then stepfathers former home just up the road.  His daughter lived next door.  Needless to say, it was not a peaceful neighborhood.

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I remember the tractor tire filled with sand and how I used to watch the sand fall through my hands and sift in ever smaller grains in the wind.  How the remaining chaff would blow into the dirt road that led to the front door of the trailer, swirling into mini vortexes  until they became invisible in the backdrop of dusty roads and weeds and stones.

Ain’t no people on the old dirt road
No more weather on the old dirt road
It’s better than a mudslide mamma when the dry spell come, yeah
Oh oh oh old dirt road

“Old Dirt Road”
John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, John Lennon

I remember, too, riding on the tractor with my stepfather.  I picture it now as John Deere 2010, but it was probably an old Farmall 560.  Either way, it was from the early 60s.  It seemed almost new, but was probably nearly 17 years old by then.  I can’t remember if it was green or red.  Time has a way of making us either color blind or etches these memories into our very fabric color and all.

One day as we were mowing hay, we happened upon a mischief of mice.  I just like saying it that way.  First, technically, it is correct.  It was a small batch of field mice.  Second, I am sure that mischief was what we were about to get into.   My prankster stepfather seemed to think that it would be a good idea to take these field mice under our wing, place them inside of a small cardboard box and have me bring them home with us.

I had a feeling what my mom would think of that.

But he did it none the less, and before long I had a much expanded home for field mice complete with cardboard box walls and nesting material right outside of my mom’s front door.

Now, my mom isn’t the kind of person who gets upset by a few field mice.  But she also doesn’t really appreciate vermin being brought to her front door to live, either.  She voiced her dissatisfaction, and having seen the rather unstable walls of the outdoor field mouse kennel, she both voiced that dissatisfaction to my stepfather and then conceded.  Likely knowing that I had trapped them within a bird of prey dinner plate and it was only a matter of time before the movement of these little mice in their corridor would tip the interest of a hawk.

So we left them there and took off to repair something or buy feed or do the countless things you do on a farm to keep it running.  We returned, or course, to no more mice.  Only birds circling the driveway searching for an additional morsel.  Thankfully, I was unaware of this until much later.  I was told that they simply escaped.

It was not more than a year later that my stepfather found out he was sick and passed away.  It was not much longer after that the spring rain and strong winds came for a visit in the form of a tornado.

I don’t remember much about the tornado that hit our trailer home other than the rumbling and howl of the wind.  It came upon us so quickly that there was really no where to go.  We were trapped inside of this long wooden and metal structure.  I heard the tearing at the windows and the shattering of glass as we ducked under the bed.  I prayed and counted the moments until I would be carried into the storm and whisked away never to be seen again.  I prayed for that moment and I feared it.

I thought of the mice and how I wished someone would come and grab me from this place.  That they could pluck us from the wind and the howling rain and the hail that pealed back the roof of the trailer like a can of sardines.  Pluck us out.  I dare you.

I was not plucked out.  I was not devoured by the storm.  What remained was the last of what we had and as we emerged from under the bed it was one of the first times I remember my mom crying.  I looked outside through the hole in the wall which was once a window and saw hail covering the ground and cornstalks drifted against the fence.  Pieces of our trailer had been scattered every which way like chaff in the wind.  My mom and I and my brother were the big stones in the sand that remained.

I was not plucked out.  I was not devoured by the storm.  What remained was the last of what we had and as we emerged from under the bed it was one of the first times I remember my mom crying.  I looked outside through the hole in the wall which was once a window and saw hail covering the ground and cornstalks drifted against the fence.  Pieces of our trailer had been scattered every which way like chaff in the wind.  My mom and I and my brother were the big stones in the sand that remained.

1000 Miles

My life is an amazing sequence of miracles separated by miles.  It was the summer after my Sr. year in high school and I had just turned eighteen and spent the last two years living with my grandmother after she rescued me from a juvenile shelter in Ames and took me into her home.  It had long been foretold by my grandfather that she would one day end up taking care of me.  He had long since passed, but there I was working through whatever it was that was next.

So, this is the story of two people from different generations who really needed one another more than they probably would ever admit at the time.  I needed a place to live, and she, at least in the most basic sense, needed the company.   Her husband, my grandfather, had passed away in the 70s and she had spent much of the last 10-15 years alone, except when my brother and I came to visit.  Once, when I got the Chicken Pox, she got Shingles and gracefully we nursed one another back to health.

It may be on a Sunday morning
It may be on a Tuesday afternoon
But no matter what the day is
I’m going to make it my business to get home soon

“A Thousand Miles Away”
-James Sheppard and William H. Miller, The Heartbeats

So, when the court placed me with a 67 year old woman and the only family that I had who would take me, I don’t think that it was under the premise that it would bring her new life.  I simply wanted to change my environment.  I was running from abuse and an environment where lies and deception were the norm.  I was running to sanctuary.  It was an oasis where at least as much as she could give it, love was the norm.  I responded to that in a way that anyone would, I think.  Yes, it was gradual.  Even today, I think that I have only begun to realize the full effect of that love through the molding and shaping of my own children.

The summer after my Sr. year my grandmother asked me to accompany her on her last road trip.  We decided to plan a trip, a drive, to see my aunt in Mobile.  This is the kind of thing that movies are made of.  So she scheduled the trip and we were to leave.  It was 23 years ago this last summer.

Now, in those days AAA had a service where you could send away for a map of our route when going on a road trip and they would reference possible stopping points or overnights.  I helped by sending away to AAA for a map of our route.  The packet that arrived was thrilling.  We were to travel the 1000 miles to my Aunt’s home along some of the back routes through Missouri.  We take these things for granted now a days, but that was the 1989 version of the Internet.  You made a phone call, or sent a letter.

It was this summer that I had been taking a literature course at DMACC.  It was just to get my feet wet, as I was going to go to U of Iowa in the fall.

We spent weeks planning this trip, but it had not occurred to me that I would miss my literature final.    So, ignored my literature final to take this trip with my grandmother.  Looking back, I bet that this was unnecessary.  I probably could have taken the final early or made other arrangements.  But I was an academic misfit, to some extent.  I didn’t really know how to make those types of arrangements.  I was good with maps, though.

So, we set off on the 1000 mile journey.

We were just north of Cairo, Missouri when the car, a 1986 or 88 Chrysler LeBaron sputtered a bit.  Soon we were alongside the road playing a waiting game, trying to determine what to do next.

It wasn’t long before someone pulled up alongside us and asked if they could lend us a hand.  Of course, we had AAA, so we were in pretty good shape as far as getting a tow truck.  But, these were the days before widespread cell service.  So I hopped a ride with a stranger into town and used the nearest payphone.  Grandmother stayed behind with the car, in case a truck happened by, I guess.  Also, there wasn’t much room in this person’s truck.  He had a couple of others with him.

I often have the brief thought on the occasional times I have gotten into cars with complete strangers, about whether or not I am actually going to be just taken somewhere and murdered.  How ironic, I thought.  Killed at the hands of my savior.  And then, my dear old grandmother would be sitting there, waiting for me.  She would be irritated, too.  That was the last thing that I wanted was for my grandmother to be irritated.

I made arrangements, and graciously accepted the ride back to the vehicle to wait out the arrival of the tow truck.

Before it came, however, my grandmother announced what I could only imagine would be the inevitable.  “Well, shoot”, she said.  “I have to pee.”  

“Surely you could hold it”.  I said.  I knew that she couldn’t.  However, there weren’t too many options.  We were along side a small rural highway in the middle of nowhere and only a barbed wire fence separated us from the fields stretched  out as far as either of us could see.  Only I didn’t realize that there was barbed wire.

I was a little shocked when she said, “I’m going over there.”

“What if the truck comes?”

“Well, if you know what is good for you, you won’t leave me.”

“I wouldn’t do that” I said.

And so she made her way through the knee high grass, assumingly to her destination.  I wasn’t sure at what point she was going to drop her drawers and let the sweet urine flow, and perhaps I had assumed that it was sooner than she did because I looked away.  I could hear the rustling of grass through the open window.

“Be careful”, I said.

More rustling.  Then the crackling of sticks.  I really didn’t want to think about my grandmother dropping a load next to a fairly busy highway.  

“Oh, for crying out loud.”  And then, “Oh!”  She had gotten hung up in the barbed wire while trying to climb over it.  I had never heard of a 70 year old woman attempting to scale a barbed wire fence, so I was both proud and a little concerned that I was going to have to go get her.  What if there were snakes?  What if I had to help her pull up her pants?

“Are you ok?”

Yea, I’m fine.  And then another, “For crying out loud.”  And then a sigh.  And then some more rustling.

And then, what emerged was a pathetic and somehow victorious display.  It was as if she had been attacked and sprayed by a rabid porcupine and wrestled it to the ground.  I still remember this as if it was yesterday.  She was covered in dirt and grass and urine.  I could barely bring myself to ask what had happened when I saw that her calves were covered in scratches and oozing the crimson blood that soaked neatly into the puffy top of her old lady socks.

“I’m fine.”, she repeated.  I pulled some napkins out of the back seat and we got her cleaned up as much as possible.

The truck came and towed us to Columbia, Missouri.  In the process of towing, the operator had torn up both of the CV boots and damaged the front axel.  We didn’t know this until the final diagnosis, though, that afternoon.

The repair was going to take several days.  The manager of the dealership brought us into his office to relay the bad news.  We were going to be there for a few days.

“We can’t do that.  We are on a vacation.  My grandson is driving me to Mobile.”  She explained.  “What about a rental.  There has to be something you can do for us.”

The man explained that he couldn’t rent a car and have it driven by an 18 year old.  “There is just too much liability.  We can’t let the car go out of state.”

And there it was.  My grandmother sitting in the chair across from this middle aged man who was telling her that there were very few options for her at this point.  The cuffs of her pants were stained with blood and every once in a while you could still catch a whiff of pee.  She had burrs in her shoelaces which I am certain must have been digging into the tops of her feet by now.  But she spoke calmly and surely.

“This is what you are going to do.  You are going to rent me a car today.  You will find a way to do it.  We can stay in town tonight, but I want that car ready to go in the morning.”

“Let me…”  he said.

“and, when we leave, you aren’t going to pay any attention to who is driving it.”

“Yes, mamm.  Let me see what I can do.”

Then he came back with the rental contract.  They took her information and worked out the fees and the other necessities.

“We should have your car repaired by the time you get back from Mobile”, he explained. ” Everything is on order.”  I sat stunned.

She thanked him and we moved our stuff over to the Dodge Spirit. 

“That is quite a grandmother you have there, son.”, He said.

I nodded.  “Full of piss and vinegar.” I thought.  I didn’t say it.  But she had used those words herself several times.  I don’t think she ever used them about herself though.

The next morning, we would continue the journey.  

That is the way it was with my grandmother.  When she faced different obstacles and her life encountered trials, she would move through it.  It was as if, when the rain came, instead of retreating indoors, she had simply put on a raincoat and grabbed an umbrella.

I got a ‘D’ in literature that summer.  I didn’t think that it would ever matter.  I was going to go on to the U of Iowa and would get a different degree, anyway.  But this last year when I decided to take some more classes at DMACC, that ‘D’ was still on my transcript.  What I had thought would never be a big deal, stood between me and a goal that I have to get my Master’s Degree.  The only way to replace that ‘D’ was to retake the course, and so, 23 years later I retook the course and achieved a 98% in the class.  The grade propelled me into honors territory that fall, and is just one more rung on a ladder I am climbing to my goal.

Sometimes, things do come full circle.  My Grandmother passed away 10 years ago.  She would be 102 today.  In many ways, because of the time we spent together she lives with me even today.