The Florentine Horror!!!

I munched slowly, unsure exactly what type of meat I had placed in my mouth.  The rest of my family had called it quits many bites ago, the fishy taste far from what they were expecting.  But with two sandwiches purchased, I couldn’t justify giving up that easily.  Besides, why would it be the busiest vendor in Florence’s Central Market if it were that bad?  I mean, you had your choice of pizza, burgers, fried rabbit, seafood, pasta, porchetta, you name it, and people were lined around the corner for this stuff!

Lampredotto

“This tastes funny,” said my sister after her first bite.  Hey, that’s my line, used to say that all the time whenever I didn’t like something.  It was her idea to get this stuff in the first place!

“I’m sure it’s an acquired taste,” I replied.  “You just got to get used to it.  You know, be a little cultured every now and then.  Wthis stuff called again?”

“Lampradotto,” answered my mother, reading from the Wikipedia page.  “A typical Florentine dish, made up of meat from the…” a rapid grin began to grow on her face.  Oh, no.

“…The fourth stomach of a cow.”  Instantly, my face flipped.  I tossed the sandwich across the table and dimmed my eyes, settling into a deep, and hopeless stare into space while my mom settled into an uncontrollable giggle.  The more I fumed, the more she giggled, and vice versa, the bustling, public setting preventing a scene.  Cow stomach?  Are you freaking kidding me???  12 Euros down the drain!

Lampredotto Selfie

I went for my beer, half full of course.  For some reason or another, the Italians find it acceptable to fill a beer glass with a considerable amount head.  That crap wouldn’t fly in the states.  No way José!  Unfortunately, I’d have to buy another one, half full, just like the last.

Italy Beer

What a bull crap pour!

And to be honest, I don’t know why people lose their mind of the food here.  They have a tendency to skimp on the toppings, you know.  It’s like, two slices of peperoni, really?  Every restaurant you got is nothing more than a poor man’s Olive Garden, minus the breadsticks.  Speaking of Olive Garden, where the heck are they?  They’re supposed to be everywhere around here, like Starbucks!

Starbucks… there’s another thing I could use.  At least a cappuccino’s here are only a euro.  And check out the sweets!  Now that’s something you can’t get at your average Starbucks!

At least they got one of these places.

Italy McDonalds

The Fanta looks different here.  Tastes different too!

Fanta

I guess they got some pretty nice art, too.  I mean, check out these fancy schmancy churches, decorated with paintings and all!  My church was never quite this nice.  You think they’d spend a little less time on the art and a little more time on the food.  Cow stomach?  Give me a break!

Or the infrastructure while we’re at it.  Get a load of this tower.  The whole thing’s about to tip over!

Pisa 2

And check this one out!  This church even has this giant dome with a painting that has devils eating dude’s and stuff!  Sheesh, I’d hate to be that guy.  And at the top, God’s having a party and stuff!

Devil eating a dude

And what’s with this guy, standing around with his dingle all hanging out?  And everybody’s taking a picture of it too!  I can’t believe it!  For heaven’s sake, there’s kids watching!  This is most inappropriate, and people are just staring at him, like it’s no big deal!

David 1

At least he’s not this guy.  He got his hacked off!

And look at those abs!  That butt too!  I bet ya that guy did some killer planks back in his day.  Man, people must’ve worked out all the time back then.  No wonder so many people are taking pictures.  Why, dad’s even snapping away.  This is getting a little weird now.

There’s some cool things about the old country, I suppose.  Check out this place is right on the water!

And get a load of this guy.  Talk about a hunka-hunka-hunk!!!

Town pic 1

They got some nice views too.  Look at me!  I’m on top of the world!

Oh, and it turns out, I’m an uncle now!  Her name’s Lottie, and I think she likes me… and wine too!  Also, as a bonus, she ralphed all over my little sister.  Ahahaha, serves her right!

Lottie and the wine

I think we’re gonna get along just fine.

Me and Lottie

It was sad to see her go, though.  Not saying I shed any tears or nothin’.  Not sayin’ I didn’t either…

Lottie Sad

Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t!  Who cares?!?!  It’s not like I had a choice.  I had things to do, places to see, that type of stuff.

Like this London place people are talking about…

Why do we Stand?

It’s morning at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.  Welders, electricians, shipfitters, and engineers alike settle in to begin their day working to repair the pacific naval fleet.  The rain pounds the asphalt as I walk from my office to the machine shop for a work brief, ill equipped for the weather as usual.  It’s been this way for weeks now, as is the norm in the Puget Sound, with no signs of a respite.  Any second now, a trumpet will sound through the loud speakers, signaling the national anthem.  All that are inside are free to go about their business while the it plays.  However, those caught outside are instructed to stop what they’re doing and stand at attention.  I pick up the pace and walk briskly to the door, fast enough to make it in inside, slow enough not to bring about unnecessary attention.  I’m almost there, mere seconds from sanctuary—

“Badum, badum!” the trumpet plays.  Only a few steps separate me from the entrance of the shop.  I hesitate.  My mind goes into hyperdrive.  Do I sneak in?  I don’t want to be late for the meeting.  Besides, I don’t think anybody will even notice, and who would blame me if I did?  Nobody will ever see…

***

If you’ve ever spent an extended period of time on a military base, most likely you’ve had a similar experience, especially if you are stuck in extreme weather conditions.  Every morning at 0800, the Star-Spangled Banner rings throughout the base, and every morning, everybody who is outside stands at attention out of respect for our military, including me, no matter how many thoughts vacillate through my head.

So, it’s no surprise that several different emotions ran through me last Sunday as I watched players kneel during the anthem, or link arms to make a statement that didn’t seem to have much to do with the anthem.  I was angry, even furious at times.  The headlines on CNN, “NFL players take a knee in defiance of Trump,” didn’t make matters any better.  “How could somebody be so disrespectful to a country that has given them so much?” I thought or, “Why protest like this?  Why make a political statement at the expense of the American Flag?” or perhaps the most egregious, “What are they doing?  This kneeling crap’s going to screw up my fantasy team (which it did)…”

At the same time, I was sad.  Watching the demonstrations take place, it was almost as if I no longer recognized the country that I had grown up in.  I felt that I could never watch a game and cheer for a team I loved so much the same way ever again.  It was as if by a single gesture, all the excitement, the entire livelihood of the NFL had been sucked out of me.  Perhaps the worst part was that I didn’t see a single leader of the NFL, the coaches, commissioner, or any of the broadcasters have the courage to say what those players were doing on the field was wrong.

After all, standing for the national anthem is a practice that’s been entrenched into most of us since we were young.  It’s an anthem that often gives me goosebumps, and even a little swell in my heart after a beautiful and emotional rendition.  And I hate to admit, but during times of inebriation, I’ve admittedly sang the anthem at the top of my lungs like a jackass.  But if you’re anything like me, for most of your life, you’ve stood with your hand over your heart, many times just to go through the motions, never really stopping to ask the question, “why is it so important to stand for the national anthem?”

Many of the reasons the players chose to kneel were well expressed, most stemming from the that inequalities still exist in our country and that social justice must be attained before they choose to stand again, a viewpoint exacerbated by Trump’s recent comments.  And how much can I argue that inequalities don’t exist?  After all, we are a country that for better or worse, has been through a lot since its inception, born with its ailments, or foibles perhaps, that the founders knew couldn’t be cured with just the stroke of a pen.  They were shortcomings that would take years of pain, suffering, and intense battle to overcome.

“America is great because she is good.  If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great,” said Alexis de Toqueville, the French diplomat who had spent a copious amount of time studying democracy in the early years of the United States, eventually authoring, “Democracy in America.” The founders shared de Toqueville’s sentiment that the American citizenry consisted of a good-hearted, God-fearing people, and had faith that they could, and would carry out the dream of a free society if given the chance.  With this, they were granted the power to choose its leaders through a representative Republic, with the ability to form, to quote from our constitution, “a more perfect union,” of which many risked and sacrificed their business, riches, security, and in some cases, lives to fight against all odds, against the most powerful nation on the planet, so that one day, maybe, just maybe they could secure this dream for the American people.

We are a country that in order to remain united and survive past its infancy, had to accept the inhumane practice of slavery.  And although slavery existed, the founders knew the system of government they had set in place would allow the will of the people to eventually right its wrongs and put an end to the practice.  And with a war that cost the lives of roughly a million Americans, a great president, and nearly divided our country for good, we paid our debts and were able to overcome this evil.

We are a country that continues to fight against the evils of racism to this day.  During the civil rights movement of the sixties, people of all backgrounds fought against many powerful institutions to pronounce the treatment of a group of people based on their race is wrong, and it must be stopped.  And through peaceful protest, heavy persistence, and battling past the constant threat of violence, those who had fought so long for fair and equal treatment won the argument and changed the hearts of Americans alike.

We are a country who continues this rejection of prejudice to this day.  At the recent riots in Charlottesville, while many in the media screamed of fear and the rise of fascism, white supremacy and racism, I saw a swath of Americans who came together to take a stand against a vile display hate and anger.  The hundreds of demonstrators that came to protest that day were highly outnumbered by the voices denouncing them from all around the country, voices that aren’t afraid to speak out, not matter where the source of such evil comes from.

And when it comes to evil, we are a country who has had a proven track record against it.  On December 7th, 1941, there was little hesitation from our country to take action after the attack on Pearl Harbor, judging by the response of our leaders and the abundance of young men willing to join the military to take a stand against the Nazi’s and Imperialist Japan.  And like the soldiers of the American Revolution, Civil War, and other wars before them, they fought, risked, and sacrificed, from the beaches of Normandy to the islands of the Pacific, enduring the harshest of conditions and all horrors that come with war.  They fought to defeat this evil, for there was a belief that what they were fighting for was something greater than themselves, that although they may fall, their brothers would fight on to secure their way of life, that their sacrifice may result in a much better world for their friends, family, and the rest of the world.

We are a country who from the beginning, has always promoted science and innovation.  Not by force and coercion, but by allowing the pursuit of happiness to take its course, to let one take command of his or her own ideas, dreams, and visions of the world and watch them flourish.  Through this, we’ve built and powered great cities, from New York to San Francisco.  We’ve taken command of the internet, unleashed its power and provided an infinite catalogue of knowledge and the ability to connect with people thousands of miles away with just the click of a button.  All throughout our history, we’ve created thousands of other inventions most of which go unnoticed in the day to day grind: the automobile, airplane, iPhone with GPS capabilities, indoor plumbing and waste treatment, air conditioning, electricity, fresh drinking water, refrigeration, an MRI machine, Disneyland, Nintendo, Instagram, and the list goes on.  Thousands—millions of inventions that make our lives better, each and every day, most of which are taken for granted by everyday citizens, including myself.

We are a country that promotes the free expression of art, creative ideas, and different modes of thinking.  And through the advancement of music and motion pictures, artists continue to find ways to experiment and express themselves, creating art that touches our hearts and makes us laugh, cry, and at times jump up with excitement.  By watching films like the Godfather, Forrest Gump, Star Wars, or any John Hughes movie, or by attending your favorite band’s concert, whether it be Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Metallica, or Kenny Chesney, this art holds a deeply emotional and significant impact on our lives and has changed the way we view the world.

I mean, c’mon, we are a country that put a man on the mother f’n moon for God’s sake!  Excuse my language, but think about this for a second.  Back in the day when the Pilgrims came over, it took 2 to 3 months just to sail across the ocean, one way, and this ain’t your luxury Carnival Cruise we’re talkin’.  These trips sucked, and if you wanted to go and visit Europe, you best believe you were gonna stay there for a long ass time.  Then, America was born, and in less than 200 years, we flew a couple of dudes into space, traveled nearly a million miles, landed on the moon, and brought their asses back to Earth in a little over a week!  That’s incredible!  (And if you’re one of those people that believe the moon landing was a hoax, Buzz Aldrin will come and punch you in the face!)

Imagine Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson talking about this after they wrote the Declaration of Independence.  “You know Tom, after we get this forming a country stuff figured out, someday, we’re gonna walk on that big old moon up there.”  Forget about it.  It never happened!  And who could blame them?  The country they helped form was able to do something inconceivable, something that nobody in their wildest dreams could’ve ever thought possible, a feat no other country has ever been able to do, ever!  Man, if they were alive today, they’d be damn proud of what this country has accomplished.

Somebody once shared a quote from John Adams that has stuck with me, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”  These great men who set the foundation for this country, who did the heavy lifting and hard work in its early days, and those who, to this day, serve to protect our country, our freedom, and our way of life, who allow us to live peacefully without the threat of anybody taking that away, it’s these people who allow us to live our lives as we see fit.  It’s these great men and women who allow people like me to drink Rockstar energy drinks and share silly stories of my misfortunes when I should be studying mathematics and philosophy.  It’s these same people who provide artists like Kanye West the opportunity to share their crazy views while creating their amazing beats without the fear of censorship.  It’s these people who give us the luxury to watch, play, and celebrate a game in which two teams try to carry a pigskin across a field.

It’s these people of whom we are indebted to, of whom deserve our deepest gratitude.

And above all, we are a country that comes together during the tough times.  I’ll never forget September 11, 2001, watching on a 13-inch television set in Mr. Rayburn’s science class as a Junior in High School when both towers of the World Trades Center came down, knowing that the one and only world I ever knew would be changed forever.  And I’ll never forget the emotions felt during that time, the amount of pride I felt as an American, in my fellow countrymen, seeing almost every single person I knew set aside their differences and unite to heal as a country.

It’s a spirit of lending a helping hand to our fellow man that continues to this day, as I watch several strangers come together, donating their time, money, and efforts to provide aid and rebuild the lives of victims of the hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

I see the national anthem as an allegory for this type of spirit.  Played before times of intense battle and divisiveness, where fans will relentlessly jaw insults back and forth and two teams will spend 60 minutes pounding the crap out of each other, we all can take a moment to stand with our hands on our hearts, to remember that there are things in this world and in our lives that are bigger than us, bigger than Donald Trump, that there are principles we all can unite around.

We can take a moment to reflect on those great men and women, admittedly greater than myself who have served and those who have shaped this great country through art, innovation, risk, and sacrifice into what it is today, to allow us to partake in such coveted pastimes such as the NFL.  It’s a reminder that someday, through hard work, patience, and sacrifice, we too may become the great men of our generation.  It’s a reminder that though our country is not perfect, nor will it ever will be, we have the ability to change, to strive towards a more perfect union.  Our system of government allows it.

…It reminds us that America is great because she is good, and despite our differences, the flag and the anthem unite us.  It always has.  It is the single most unifying symbol we have.

If anything good has come out of the craziness of this kneeling fiasco, it’s given me a chance to reaffirmed my beliefs on standing for the anthem and the importance behind it.  It’s given me the opportunity to articulate my views so that others who do not know better may understand.  Never again will I question whether or not I should try to sneak in at the last second to avoid having to listen to the anthem for a minute on a military base.  And as long as America remains great, I will always stand at attention when the anthem is played, on base or at a sporting events, no matter the weather.  I will show respect for the American flag, and I ask you to do the same.

I ask you to set politics aside, and remember the reasons as to why it’s important to show this respect when our anthem is played.  I implore you to search within yourself, to look at the big picture, to remember that even with the present inequalities or injustices you may see in your life (and trust me, I have a list of my own), that there is so much more good than bad that has come about from this country and from the people living in it.

I implore you to stand next to me with your hand on your heart, unified.

Elizabeth Loraine Kolodzik Wohlers Bero

A month and a half ago, my mother, sister and I visited my Grandma and Grandpa at their retirement home.  While walking down the halls of her wing, we noticed that each resident had a one page story next to their room that told of their life experiences and how they ended up at the Touchmark Senior Living Center.  There was something strange when we got to my Grandma’s room however.  She did not have a story to share…

So that day, we interviewed her and began writing the story of her life, condensed into one page, and in a little over a week, she had a story to share at the Touchmark.  Unfortunately, a few weeks later, she was diagnosed with dementia, and for medical reasons was transferred to the hospital.  Although she can no longer live at the Touchmark due to her condition, her story lives on, and I am grateful we were able to share it before she had to leave.

This is her story.

***

grandma-young-2

It was the last thing Betty had expected on what would’ve been an ordinary day in Oshkosh Wisconsin, the town where she was born on May 13th, 1929, but for the strange man that had showed up on her doorstep. “Hello, my name is Hubert Wohlers, and I’d like to see Betty,” he said to her father, with hopes to meet who was said to be the biggest babe west of Lake Winnebago.  Much to her father’s reluctance, he called for his daughter.  As she approached the door, Hubert realized the rumors had held true.  Betty wasn’t sure what it was about the strange man that drew her attention: his bold approach, his courage, or perhaps his good looks?  Soon however, the man would no longer become so strange to Elizabeth Loraine Kolodzik, and on June 11th, 1949, Hubert Wohlers would take her hand in marriage.

 

grandma-and-grandpa-hugh-wedding

Through the values of love and hard work, the two built a house, life and family in Neenah, Wisconsin, together raising four children, Kathy, Mike, Debbie, and Mark.  Betty’s knack for socialization served her well as a cashier for National Foods and with friends while participating in some of her favorite activities, including bowling, volleyball, and golf.  Hubert worked as a head oiler for Kimberly Clark, using his skills as a craftsman to build a cabin in Boulder Lake of which they frequented and eventually another home for him and Betty in Freemont, Wisconsin.

grandma-and-the-kids

Grandma and Grandma with their Children

Although the two shared a mostly peaceful and loving life together, tragedy struck when Hubert passed away from a sudden heart attack in 1991.  Betty, and her family were devastated by Hubert’s death that seemed to be undeserving and much too soon.  Though she would always keep the bold stranger who swept her off her feet in her heart, another blessing was just around the corner…

grandpa-hugh-young

“Does anybody know Betty Wohlers,” Bill Bero bellowed across the room, followed by an eruption of laughter inside the Weymont Run Country Club on a bright Spring day in 1992.  Though a bit embarrassed by such a boisterous voice calling for her, Betty humored Bill with a round of golf (of which Bill admitted Betty was better).  One round turned to several more, and over time, Betty couldn’t resist Bill’s stunning wit, lighthearted personality, and strikingly handsome features.  In June of 1993, the two joined hands in marriage with a wedding so full of joy that some of her grandchildren dropped to the floor from dancing so hard.

grandma-and-grandpa-bill-wedding-2

 

grandma-and-granpa-bill-wedding

Let’s cut the cake!

kids-at-the-wedding

Kids at the wedding.  Thank you mom for the outfit.  I think I won the lamest dressed award at every major event in my childhood.

Nothing brought more happiness to Betty’s eight grandchildren like a trip to her and Bill’s lake house in Waupaca, Wisconsin.  Through the years, the grandchildren would revel with excitement each time they gathered together with fish fries, pontoon rides, dips in the lake, and long nights spent playing cribbage in their cottage.  As their kiddy cocktails turned into old fashioned’s, they realized the greatest blessing wasn’t a cabin by lake to party and play at, but the family that brought them all together to one of the most wonderful places in the world.

kids-at-the-cabin-young

The grandchildren in the 90’s

grandchildren-at-the-cabin-with-grandma

Grandma and the Grandchildren (2011)

grandma-and-grandpas-lake

Grandma and Grandpa Bill’s lake

Never shy about expressing her opinion, you can count on Betty to inform her grandchildren of her disapproval, whether it be with bad behavior or a poor choice of an outfit.  And she’ll definitely let them know they aren’t quite as handsome as Aaron Rodgers or her favorite president, John F Kennedy (who in Betty’s words, is a “Hunka-Hunka-Hunk!”).   Though it may be a brash approach, it’s a personality they wouldn’t have any other way.  It’s what they love about her, and why they cherish every chance to visit (and every now and then, even throwing a little tease back her way).

Betty reminds us that sometimes, just the simple act of being yourself can make the greatest, most loving impact on people’s lives.

hip-grandma

 

That Time Ted Cruz Didn’t Endorse Trump, But Did…

A bead of sweat surfaced across my brow as I listened to his words come out of the radio.  The car had been shut off for minutes now, and though I knew full well the dangers of sitting in a hot car in the middle of Summer, I dare not move a muscle.  I feared the intricacies of modern technology may very well disrupt the flow of sound coming from the speakers.  The anticipation pumped through my veins as if it were the Olympic finals for the 100-meter dash, waiting for the starting gun to pop.  Will Ted Cruz Endorse Donald Trump???

It was a speech of substance.  I know it was—it always is.  That didn’t matter.  Not to me, and not to anybody else—the millions listening across the world.  There was only one thing we wanted to know, one thing we’d remember, and one thing only.  And as the words “vote your conscience” came out of his mouth and onto the attendees of the Republican National Convention, I must shamefully admit as a Republican myself, that an uncontrollable smile grew upon my face.  Sure, I knew the consequences of his actions and the blow back he’d face.  I knew the pounding he’d get from the party insiders and Fox News pundits.  But finally, we had a man of principle, a man who couldn’t be bullied, bought off, or persuaded to vote against his beliefs; a man who could stand in defiance to the establishment.  That night, as the deluge of boos rang across the convention floor, Ted Cruz proved that he was the most punk rock politician in America.

And then, last week, Ted Cruz caved.  He endorsed Trump, and disappointment set in.

***

I’m not entirely sure if it’s the fact that we’re dealing with Trump that I felt let down.  After all, I’ve come to a similar conclusion to Cruz’s in regards to my attitude towards him (which believe me, hasn’t been an easy journey, something I’ll continue to struggle with up until election day and probably past, especially whenever he opens his mouth), even though I once swore that I’d never vote for the man myself.  But in Ted Cruz, I saw something more.  Somebody better than the rest of us, somebody who was incorruptible, above the fray, a man who could do no wrong, certainly the closest thing to a Lincoln or Washington possibly in our lifetime.  And no matter how much the haters wanted to hate, they didn’t have an ounce of substance to back it up, for he was truly a man of principle.  He was the man who would eventually save us from the perpetual crash and burn.

It was almost as if it were a fairy tale.  Something too good to be true.

…Well, last week, I relearned a very important lesson: Ted Cruz, like the rest of us, is a human being.  One who’s occupation happens to be that of a politician.

Too often, we tend to get caught up in the excitement of elections, especially when it comes to presidential candidates.  And who can blame us?  They’re in our faces constantly, as if they’re the superstars that can do no wrong, people whom we accept as being bigger and better than anything in our lives, to the point where we’re willing to sacrifice anything just for the sake of their success.  It’s almost as if we hold them up to a God-like status.

But are they not made out of flesh and blood just like us?  Are they not bound to the same temptations that cause us to sin?  Why is it because they’re constantly in the public spotlight that we elevate them to a holy status?

Sure, it takes a lot of work to get to where they are; there’s no question about that.  People such as Cruz are brilliant in their work, and they certainly didn’t get to where they are by being lazy.  And hey, I’m sure most of them probably find enjoyment out of the whole process—campaigning, giving speeches, getting praise, all that stuff (I mean, why else would you want to do it—well, power, but I digress).  More power to them (no pun intended, seriously).  But in their line of work, their success is usually met with large amounts of compliment and adulation, where they’re frequently reminded of how great a job they’re doing, and how awesome they are for doing a job which in many respects is relatively simple—representing our interests.  It even seems like the most hated and polarizing of politicians somehow find a way to retain a relatively large fan base.

But what about the rest of us?  Could they do some of the work that us every day American’s do?  Are they actually harder workers, and do they perform more difficult work than us?  I can’t exactly say on the whole, for every person is different, but I’d be shocked to know of one who obtains the skills to rebuild a car engine or do major automotive repairs, something each one of them rely on in order to do their job.  Or what about the computer scientist working to create the next technological breakthrough for the world, or the farmer who quietly goes about his business, producing food for thousands and thousands of people that will never know who exactly it is that’s providing their sustenance of live?  Both are professions of extreme importance that go unnoticed by most of the population.  And the list goes on.  The audio technician who runs their PA equipment, the suit tailor who makes sure they stay looking sharp, the chef that prepares their food, the military personnel or secret service that keeps them safe… name your favorite occupation.  Chances are, their connected is some fashion.

And are they actually better people than us?  Again, that question depends on the individual, but can any of these politicians say they’ve made a sacrifice equal to that of a lifetime missionary, or a stay-at-home mom, people who are willing to give up extra income, success, and much more to be involved in the lives of children, whether it’s their own or others, to make sure they grow up in a healthy environment and have the best chance of growing into decent human beings?  Some of them might like to think otherwise, but I have my doubts (and serious ones for a couple of them).

The truth is, they’re more like us than we think, working just as hard or even harder to rise up and advance in our line of work.  It may just be that the passions and gifts we were born with may have led us down a different path that’s equally as important in the end, regardless of the credit we receive.

And like us, they make mistakes, they sin, and every now and then, they make decisions that they know in their hearts are wrong, but through the same weaknesses and temptations engrained in human nature, they chose accordingly.  I think as humans, we have a tendency to be a bit more harsh on ourselves for our shortcomings and inconsistencies than we do for others (at least I do).

This is not an excuse for them to mess up and make poor judgements in their line of work, however.  Quite the opposite.  How they decide affects our everyday lives, and the more we treat them like royalty, the easier it is for them to treat us like peasants.

It’s a reminder that we must be vigilant when it comes to holding their feet to the fire, especially from within our respective parties.  We must remind them that it is they who work for us, not the opposite.  That’s why they’re called “Public Servants.”

I’m sure many of you find yourself in the same predicament as I do, having to choose between two inferior candidates with a situation that I have a hard time articulating without using the phrase, “this really sucks.”  At the same time though, I can understand how you could be excited for your particular candidate.  Whether or not you believe in their cause or because they’re on the same side as you, it feels good to be part of a team, especially if at the end of the day, you’re team wins.

But ask yourself this.  After November, when the media blitz and the hoora of the campaign fizzles, when it’s all said and done, regardless of the winner, did America actually win?

There may yet to be an answer to that question.  Maybe the answer lies in us and our willingness to act long after the election is over?  Maybe there’ll still be tons of work to do?  Maybe the ones who told us they’d solve all of our problems were full of it?   Maybe it’s actually us who need to do the solving, not them…  And are we willing to put our egos aside, come together to make sacrifices and fix the problems when called upon?

***

If you asked me again, I’d probably still consider Ted Cruz to be the most punk rock politician in America today.  I mean, I still like the guy, and on the whole, think he’s a good person.  However, I know now that he’s not as punk rock as I thought he once was.

I mean, he is a politician after all…

Chapter 26 and the Epilogue: Wish You Were Here…

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. 

 …all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in the rain.

 -Blade Runner

 

At the edge of my parent’s porch I sat, watching the last remnants of a purified sky, once bright with light and unscathed from impurities now fading into darkness on the last night of my trip. Pink Floyd played through my headphones, the set of soft lyrics and mild chords leaving me with a myriad of thoughts circling around in my head, as was its intention. Thoughts of the past, thoughts of the present, and thoughts of the future…

 

***

 

It was in July of 2013 when the tradition began. The city of Spokane, Washington along with its neighboring towns had strangely become overrun by a massive yellow jacket infestation, Kanye West had just released his latest album, the highly acclaimed yet controversial “Yeezus,” and the one and only Bill O’Reilly was in town, quite possibly the biggest celebrity ever to step foot in Eastern Washington since Sarah Palin’s speaking engagement with Republic High School. And the best part, my mother had somehow managed to commandeer a few tickets for my dad and I to see him at the Spokane Arena! Thus, I made the venture home for the weekend, for there was no way I was passing this up, not with such high-demand items in our possession, especially when O’Reilly’s in town!

Apart from the weekend’s political punditry, all other affairs had been pushed aside for the time at the expense of a screenplay. Over the course of a year and a half, countless nights had been spent crafting my masterpiece, a well-entrenched story with twists and turns about an eclectic pair of police detectives on a quest to put an end to a cat burglar’s reign of terror—going from house to house around Brown County, Illinois and stealing his victims most treasured possessions… and then using their bathroom… and not flushing (I know what you’re thinking, how in the world did I ever conceive of such an idea?). Like many nights before it, “Turd Burglars” had once again sucked away the majority of my focus, deeming all other matters as insignificant.

My fingers typed ferociously across the keyboard, determined to meet my next self-imposed deadline, foolishly set to be the first of many postponements, a habit I fear I’ll never break as a writer. My mind ran on overdrive, fueled by the Pink Floyd kick I had developed a few months prior as my go-to choice for running music (there’s something about having the ability to explore the city and explore your mind all at the same time that creates stimulating effects…). Every part of me, heart, body and soul was set on it—this one goal, working overtime amidst an immanent bee assault, driven by the waning synthesizer rifts of “Have a Cigar,” and pushed by the answering guitar solos, a proclamation of war between me and my screenplay, that I shall continue to press forward into the late hours of the evening, that I would not stop until one of us was utterly and physically defeated.

It was a climactic and abrupt stop followed by a soft fade into nonsensical chatter. The song ended and my head shot forward, much like a diver would to catch his breath before sending himself back into the murky depths of treasure and discovery. In front of me was a bulge of orange light, the sun’s final stand against the overwhelming forces of night. “Hmm, that’s pretty,” I said with a shrug, ready to delve back into another writing surge.

I took a sip of beer and placed my fingertips back onto the keyboard—something was different this time. Goosebumps suddenly formed all over my body; my forearm hair stood straight like a thousand tiny needles pointed outward. I attempted to strike the keyboard, to input a series of legible keystrokes that would translate into prose; it was impossible. I was completely frozen, struck by the subtle and graceful guitar introduction to “Wish You Were Here,” and gazing into that same bulge of light I had tried to ignore a moment before, lowering itself against the scattered trees of the Dischmann-Mica valley. I sat back on the deck and succumbed to the power of the moment, any more attempts at writing would be useless from this point on.

There was no other sound but the soft melody of the song, no other soul around to break the concord, and no other movement but the slow fade of the red summer sun fighting against a pure sheet of darkness until its very last breath. I watched in peace and silence, and I remembered…

So… so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell
Blue skies from pain,
Can you tell a green field,
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell…

 

***

 

Cambray and Lauren watched from a stumped log as I waded knee deep in the water, the sun’s reflection sending an ever-changing fuchsia glaze over the lake’s surface. Soft ripples broke its plane, the last account of a flash rainstorm that had left Lauren’s side of the tent drenched and the raging winds that made paddling through Sawbill Lake nearly impossible, a small sample in a number of mishaps that nearly defined our rookie Boundary Waters trip, including a failed attempt to hang our Duluth Bags out of the reach from bears. But now, nearing the end of our journey, looking out across the lake of which I stood, saturated with an array of purple haze over a stilled marriage of wood and water, we were given a new definition.

Me in the boundary waters

The constant sound of breaking water drew louder with each push, a warm presence closing in on my position—Cambray and Lauren had joined me. Bantered words were exchanged amongst us after a few splashes and missteps had caused a squirm that wetted the tips of my cut-off shorts. I assessed the damage, scanning the areas of clothing I had failed to keep dry after so much care was given, then to the source of my failure. There was something different in the water, an evident aberration—a sudden diversion to my attention. Something had overcome; something had turned.

The water gave off a blood orange tint, a counter image of the sky. A heavy build of clouds moved across it, covering the girth of the setting sun. Not to be outdone, the sun sent out beams of light, pultruding beyond edges and piercing through at any point possible. We watched as the rays widened, bursting through the cloud cover and pushing them aside, revealing a message:

BW night shot

“Welcome to the End of the World.”

In an instant, blood orange turned blood red, and the clouds regrouped, darker, denser, and ready to charge, to eradicate all of the hate, evil, and destructive forces plaguing the world for so long—further proof that God was good on his word. We stood that evening in the middle of the Boundary Waters, amongst a most beautiful sunset placed at the edge of our world…

…And we welcomed it.

Me in Boundary Waters Canoe

***

 

“I wish they were here to see this,” I thought to myself as the song’s chorus progressed. It had been two years since that evening in the Boundary Waters, and it was certainly a travesty that they, or anybody else for that matter weren’t able to see the potential on display, possibly the reason why it was so personal. Fortunately, it would only be a matter of weeks until our next reunion, where we would once again be surrounded by the unspoiled beauty that had been so captivating two years prior. I smiled a simple smile, for we were on the eve of another Boundary Waters trip.

Nearly a year later I found myself in the same position, gazing out at a similar sunset. Nate, one of my best friends from my childhood had just gotten married, following a weekend that consisted of bibulous behavior during a bachelor party (at least on my behalf) and a wedding scenario of which I got suckered into becoming a Star Wars Jedi Knight. With “Wish You Were Here” playing through my headphones, thoughts of the past swirled through my head—our many sleepovers staying up to conquer games from the many iterations of Nintendo consoles, building and destroying our creations in SimCity 2000, devising plans to cheat our way into a win at Monopoly, feasting on Pizza Hut pizza and drowning ourselves in Mountain Dew while drawn to a perfect TGIF lineup, and what kind of sleepover would it be without sneaking in a quick viewing session of the nudey scene from Titanic?

I thought about the present, how much fun it was to reunite with old friends, and wondering how in the world I got snookered into the whole Jedi Knight routine. And then there were thoughts of the future, where I was, where I was headed, and how I was going to get there. “How is my story going to play out?” I sat and wondered, watching the sun dim like a candle on its last cord of wax while listening to the simple, yet elegant progression of chords fade out, attempting to piece together another part of my life. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile.

And now, here I was, another year passed, sitting in the same place with the same tune in my head after a long journey, with much to ponder…

 

***

 

Upon my arrival to my parent’s house two days prior, I learned that a memorial service was being held for an old friend I had met in college. It had been a while since I had seen Jon; moving away occasionally causes that sort of thing happen. However, you could always expect a hug and a smile from the man, no matter the amount of time spent apart, and as an accomplished, raspy-voiced blues guitarist with a skill set that always left you in awe (and with a hint of jealousy I must admit from time to time), there was a good chance that I, as well as many others would be graced with an original song or two whenever there was a get-together of sorts. Knowing the kind-natured spirit that Jon was, coupled with the fact that I was in the area, attendance to his memorial was mandatory if there was any shred of honor left in me after such a notorious trip.

A man with a heart of gold trapped in the body of a brute, there were very few people in the world that could say they didn’t like Jon at first sight, and those who did (if any) were most likely of the bro-type, envious of his striking resemblance to a Nordic Viking. Much was the case with our first meeting.

In a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho, where an eclectic group of skateboarders and University of Idaho students were gathered, in walked Jon to the spectacle of a strange boy singing the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Can’t Stop.” For some reason or another, choosing to heed to the song’s advice instead of affording our newly arrived guest the proper etiquette he deserved, I continued with my obnoxious singing (something that never happens. I mean, c’mon!). Any normal person would’ve countered walking in on such odd behavior with a look of disturbed perplexity, but not Jon. With a stroke of brevity, he immediately stepped up next to me and began beatboxing the bass rhythm of the song. From there and for the next couple of minutes, we performed a near perfect, and well-received number for everyone in attendance, neither one of us skipping a beat, as if we had spent years in preparation for this moment. Within a matter of minutes, we had become friends.

At the young age of 28, Jon had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one that despite a fierce battle and multiple efforts to fight on, ultimately took his life a few months later. So on that Saturday in mid-July, I traveled to Princeton, Idaho and joined an already large gathering in honor of our late friend.

While some expressed excitement upon my somewhat surprise arrival at the Teeter Manor located on the outskirts of the small Idaho town, Mike Gibson brandished a look of disappointment as I drove passed and motioned his foot as if he were about to perform a curb stomp on my car’s frame with the intention of causing permanent deformation. The violent gesture put a smile on my face like no other person was capable of doing.

Arthur, an old skateboarding friend (and quite possibly the closest living reincarnation to David Bowie) started the memorial alongside Jon’s father with a procession of songs. About a hundred of us, friends and family listened as they played their guitars and sang with passion, songs about life, friends, and memories that emphasized Jon’s influence. The crowd favorite was a song about how you can “drink the beers to make it all go away,” an original written by Jon himself.

After the songs were over, a group of his closest friends, Jaired, Henry, and Destry joined Arthur to share a couple stories and their thoughts about the type of man Jon was—somebody who would never betray your trust; a man who took a promise to heart, who understood the sacred conviction of “your word.” He was quick to forgive, yet not to forget, as to ensure you were held accountable for your actions, for the better of your soul. And most of all, as elegantly reaffirmed by his mother, he was a man who always put others before himself, who would make your wellbeing his number one priority, even as he neared death.

As the evening came to an end, we made our way to the edge of the manor that overlooked the west, home to hundreds of acres of forest, rolling hills, and colorful farmland spread across an area of the Washington/Idaho border called “The Palouse.” Jon’s father led us in one last song, “Que Sera Sera,” a song that Jon would end each set with whenever he performed a show as we watched the sun set over the Palouse, bringing an even more vibrant string of colors to the already unique plot of country.

“To a life… lived without compromise!” They were the last words spoken during the sun’s final descent, a mighty and powerful toast given by Jon’s brother Mike, of which everybody accepted and drank to.

It was a celebration of life, and celebrate we did, well into the wee hours of the morning. As it had become widely known over the years in the Moscow area, there was a certain set of individuals who had developed a somewhat “infamous” reputation for partying during their tenure at the University of Idaho. Although some would view that behavior as nefarious, I contend that it simply amounted to a group of friends who enjoyed each other’s company, and expressed their sincere adulation for each other with an elevated sense of generosity whenever they were in the presence of alcohol. Many of those people happened to be in attendance, and being that Jon was a calm and collected individual, he wasn’t exactly one to participate in such outlandish behavior after a couple drinks. However, he was a friend to all and could tolerate the antics with love, no matter how unorthodox the night’s festivities would get. So the tradition continued on Jon’s behalf. As instructed by the words of his most popular song, “we drank the beers to make it all go away…”

But perhaps the thing that stood out to me that evening after all the haziness had settled were a few thoughts Jaired had shared about his late friend.

“…Jon was such an amazing person; somebody who wasn’t content with just settling. He was somebody who wasn’t afraid to follow his dreams… There were many nights that we spent out here at the manor. Jon would come sit outside for hours with his guitar, and he’d… he’d create some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. Music about life… his friends… and about living. We’d sit out with him, and we would just listen…”

 

***

Those words went through my mind as I sat on the edge of the porch that next evening after the memorial. To Create… It’s an integral part of living, almost a duty for being human. The very essence of nature demands that we create in order to survive, the most basic of these being sustenance, shelter, and tools to progress our lives.

But beyond that is a drive; an ambition to go beyond, to do things the world has never seen or even dreamed of, to prove the impossible as possible. It’s a drive that inspires revolution and ideas, ideas that turn into invention and art, the fundamental parts of us that make us human—that separates us from the rest of the animals. It’s a drive that allows us to create life… and a drive that above all, creates memories.

I couldn’t help but look back on the time I had just spent on the road, even if it were in some God forsaken place such as a Motel 6 in Rock Springs, Wyoming. What I would give to be sitting next to Shaun with a 40 in my hand, no matter how disgusting the beer was, or to be taking Saki Bombs with Eric in a new-age sushi bar in Denver. How awesome would it be to sing just one more song at the 1029, or completely drench another dress shirt in sweat by means of dance. It was barely two weeks ago that I had left for my trip, and I was already missing the very moment we had said goodbye to Megan Mills in Boise.

I missed it all; the sharp, snow-capped tips of the Gran Tetons, the comforting feeling of contentment nestled in the cornfields of Kansas, the slew of hotel antics intentionally and unintentionally pulled, the beautiful sights, the glowing stars on the crystal clear nights, and all of the magical places of which we made a solemn vow to someday make our return. Even more so, I missed the people that made those times even more special; Beth, Blake, all of the gatherings of friends and family in America’s dairy land, Cambray and Lauren, aka the Boundary Babes and everything they embody (Oh how I miss the Boundary Babes!), and especially Bill, my partner in crime through the whole thing. I wished they all were here, sitting next to me and sharing the same complication of thoughts rummaging through my head.

But I guess in a funny way, they were. And they always would be…

And only because it wouldn’t have been the same without her, and not to make a big deal out of it or anything but I, uh, I… Oh God, I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this… I kind of, sort of… miss Gretch… I mean, not like a lot or anything, don’t get me wrong! She dragged us through hell and back, almost killed us a few times, said naughty things—look, all I’m saying is that there was a lot we went through, and maybe we grew a little because of the experience. Besides, I don’t think you necessarily have to like somebody to miss them—in fact, you can probably hate em’ and still miss em’ at the same time! I’m sure it happens with people all of the time! And it doesn’t have to mean a lot either, just a thought that you keep in the back of your head every now and then to keep you on your feet, so I wouldn’t say that I exactly miss Gretch, but it’s just—

Ah, who am I kiddin’? I really miss Gretch… big time.

And while we’re at it, I might as well go out and say it. I even miss Ben Wood—

Screw that. Nobody misses that kid.

 

***

 

I think it’s natural to feel a little sad and emotional at the end of a trip, to look back at all you’ve done and created along the way. But it’s memories that remind us why life is worth living, especially through the dark times. Though they can never be recreated, they hold potential, they encourage us to move forward when the opportunity presents itself. Within weeks, I was to return to Wisconsin with the rest of my extended family to celebrate my grandpa living 90 years on the Earth, and a few months later, I would be back again, this time to Green Bay with my mother to watch the Packers finally beat the Shi—I mean, Seahawks (I swear, one of these days I’ll get it right) after years of unjust torment!

Mom and I before and after the game.

There was even another wedding on the books in Bend Oregon, another chance/excuse to drink, dance, hang out with babes, reunite with old friends, and meet new ones, all in the name of celebrating the love between our friends AJ and Lauren, and the years of memories in the making because of it.

“Wish You Were Here” had faded, and the sky was black now, with only the glittering of stars shining through as light, millions of them a million miles away, fragments of a large puzzle that would take an entire lifetime and beyond to solve. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile, feeling as though I had just solved another piece.

 

***

 

Epilogue:

 

A number of text messages were waiting for me the moment I entered the lodge at Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Northern Idaho, each one setting a more frantic tone than the one before it. I had only a few minutes to check them and make a failed attempt at a call before my phone died, the cold weather preventing the battery from staying charged properly. In walked my friend Brian, having made the unanimous decision to end our day of snowboarding with a mix of beer and college football, giving me time to recharge my phone and wonder what it was that was so important. An hour passed before I was able to make the call.

“Hey Cambray, what’s going on?” I asked.

“Where are you?”

“At a ski resort, what’s wrong?”

“…Call me when you get home. It’s better if you hear this when you’re alone…”

“…I understand. I’ll call as soon as I can…” I didn’t understand, and my imagination further intensified the severity of the situation, a fleeting thought that ran through my head during the 2-hour drive back to Spokane. I kept my composure, playing the urgency off as if everything was all right, hoping for the best, yet furtively planning for the worst.

The thought went through my head as a worst-case scenario—multiple times in fact. However, such a thing just didn’t seem plausible, and surely it wouldn’t be as bad as my mind had built it up to be.

My heart pounded a little faster than normal the moment I shut the door to my room and dialed Cambray’s number, the ongoing dial tone feeding my anticipation. Then, she spoke and my heart stopped. I took the news in shock, barely able to express any emotion whatsoever; nothing could’ve prepared me for what I had just heard. Like millions of others across the world, I too would find myself spending New Year’s Eve in an over-indulgence of alcohol, but not in celebration…

That evening, I learned that Lauren had suffered from a cardiac aneurysm. She had passed away that morning.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until the next day when the reality of her passing fully sunk in. My mind had run itself into an inextricable knot, unable to interpret—even process what had just happened. None of it seemed real—It wasn’t real… So I did the only thing I knew how to do. With Pink Floyd playing in my iPod, I ran, escaped into the forest, away from everybody and everything, looking for answers.

My feet sank with each step through the deep layers of snow, the heavy exertion of force used to trudge through quickly alleviating the chilled effects of a 14-degree New Year’s Day. The eerie introductory tone of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” converted the convolution of thoughts and frustration into propulsion, pushing me deeper and deeper into the forest. I worked on pure, animal instinct, up and over fallen trees and debris, slipping up and down slopes, breathing, sweating, moving my arms and legs back and forth, furiously and repeatedly; not thinking—just acting… moving, farther and farther away from reality, farther away from sanity.

The music progressed, as did my body, now a robotic being, its purpose pre-programmed, working with mechanical movements that could outlast any and all elements. I ran, inching closer to some unknown destination without an operator to stop the machine, running and waiting for a major breakdown or an expended fuel source, the only two logical events that could stop the madness.

The final hill was a grueling affair, one ignored by the limitations of my legs. Somehow, they kept pushing, finding ways to move passed each obstacle and gather traction through the dense and snow-packed areas of forest. I moved, faster and harder, until I reached the top where a clear opening was exposed.

I stopped and looked out across an immense valley as though the changing of songs on the album had simultaneously flicked my body’s “off” switch. Above me was a bright, cloudless sky of pure blue. In front the air sparkled, thousands of water vapor molecules frozen by the stagnant chill of a winter day, and beyond it laid a fresh blanket of snow covering the Dischmann-Mica valley of Spokane. I let the cold penetrate my skin, bringing about a strange sense of comfort as I gazed out in amazement at a sight filled with pines, firs, spruces and junipers, all buried under the white powder and lining the edges of a valley that spanned for miles, all of it untainted by any human existence except for a set of tracks I had made behind me… and I imagined she was there.

I could imagine her standing right next to me, looking out at a sight of natural beauty that no eyes had ever seen, able to realize the extraordinary view in front of us that so few had that ability to appreciate, just like we did those many years ago when we set foot in the Boundary Waters for the first time. I imagined her beside me with a radiant smile spread across her face, a reflection of a perfect sky shining over an untouched indent of the Earth. I imagined she was there, seeing exactly what I was seeing…

The well-recognized guitar introduction from “Wish You Were Here” started to play through my headphones. Suddenly, I was swallowed by reality…

…I would never have the chance to show her this.

Tears filled my eyes as my neck and face tightened. I let out a whimpered burst, followed by a string of choppy breaths that battled against my body’s natural reaction to weep. The shallow tears accumulated, turning into a steady stream that fell down onto my rosy cheeks, and I cried. Deep in the forest, miles away from the nearest form of civilization, I cried out a series of embarrassing cries—cries of desperation, cries of hopelessness… cries out to God in an attempt to find any sort of reasoning, that maybe I could find him, somewhere in the depths of the valley. “How can a world so beautiful be so unjust?” It was the first of many unanswered questions. “Why?” I simply put. “God, what must her family be thinking?” I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“…What do I do now God…?” I asked, feeling as though my life had lost all purpose, that every piece of the puzzle had been blown apart, unsure of where to start again… unsure if I wanted to start again. “What do I do now…?”

I stayed out in that open area of the forest for several minutes, staring out at the sunny, snow-covered valley, and letting the music repeat itself, waiting patiently for an answer. I remained outside, waiting until the combination of sweat and tears had formed frozen chunks onto my head and beard; my sweat-drenched shirt was only a few minutes behind. I returned home that day, having received no answers; unsure if I ever would…

 

***

 

The night of her passing I stepped out onto the porch as I had done many times before with an old fashioned in hand. It was the third one I’d had that night, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I stood out in the cold, alone, staring out into a black, lifeless night, letting the crystallized air molecules pierce my lungs like a thousand tiny needles, attacking my body with each breath—jeopardizing my survival in the bleak and frozen world. Every now and then, it takes the threat of mortality to remind us we’re alive.

There was no other sound except the occasional rattle of ice from my alcoholic beverage, no movement anywhere within the spread of the forest but for the precipitation of breath, and absolutely no soul to disturb me in my silent remonstration of justice, the still air doing nothing to untangle the web of thoughts muddling about in my head. In acquiescence to the freezing temperature, my hands dropped into my coat pockets where they clasped around a thin, metal frame. It was my iPod, a possible catalyst for clarity; at that moment, I was desperate for anything.

I pressed the home button and swiped the screen with a potential album in mind, but a song was already playing. I’ll never know quite for sure why that particular song happened to be playing at that time, whether it was by miracle or a malfunction caused by a pair of sports headphones that had been the root of frustration during my most recent runs. I contend that it was a little bit of both.

I placed the headphones in my ear and heard the soft stroke of guitar chords playing behind a familiar, raspy voice, each plucked string from the guitar cutting into my heart unlike it had ever done before. For a brief moment, I was brought back to a simpler time, a time of warmth and love; two friends singing their hearts out, an ode for a fallen friend unto an audience filled with fans, strangers, lovers, and most importantly, Boundary Babes; a complete antipodal from which I stood… a time where two friends unknowingly embraced the true meaning of life and what it meant to live…

…Two friends, simply living in the moment without fear, without apprehension… without compromise. For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…

Ain’t it funny how the night moves,
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose.
Strange how the night moves…

 With autumn closin’ in…

For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…

How lucky we are to be alive. How blessed are we to know the people we know in the places we’ve been…?

…What an opportunity we have…


 

Chapter 25: Out of the Vein, Part 3

It sounded like snickers coming from outside, but there was no way of confirming, at least not at this time. Alone I sat in the bathroom, once again forced to purvey over violent expulsions, a chronic theme that held the potential for serious medical attention, tremendous and erratic with each blow; a reaction over the abundance of booze and beef that had entered my body the night before—it had to be. There was no other explanation, not for this early morning episode—ugha—not again!

Pressure mounted from the inside, building and begging for a release, testing the structural integrity of my internal components, and nearing the threshold. I took my time, as would any logical test conductor; a clean discharge depended on it. Sweat poured out from my face, my breath’s deep and heavy, yet composed—always cool under pressure, that’s my motto. Steady now, no need to rush things. My muscles relaxed. Nice and slow, allow the natural order of things to once again take its place—

Whoa! Disaster struck at the sound of a thunderous boom; a colossal movement of eradication, leaving in its wake a heaping pile of destruction. The aftermath was just as curious. Strange noises could be heard, a relapse of imminent catastrophe, the combination of snickers and choking, oddly following the reverb of each push, and continuing to do so throughout the duration of my agonizing ordeal.

“What could it be? It’s 8 in the morning, no way could Bill and Gretch be awake. Impossible!” I shrugged it off, realizing it was the least of my worries at this point and refocused my efforts on the enormous struggle ahead of me—there was nothing else I could do.

It was another 20 unpleasant minutes before the rest of the chaos could be ultimately expelled, a process that involved large excretions of unwanted sweat and unnecessary energy, as well as a heavy clean up effort at the end. Ok. Just flush, slip away quietly, and nobody will be the wiser. Nobody…

I pulled the lever and watched as the toilet pushed a large mound of disorder deep into the catacombs of biological waste. Down it went, swirling and mixing into an eventual disappearance, moving closer towards it final resting place. Good. Keep going, keep going—wait, what’s going on? Don’t stop! Why aren’t you moving? Go down—down, not up! No! Stop, please… STOP— “Ohhhh no!”

An explosion of laughter burst through the walls of the bathroom, a full frontal assault on my privacy. I shot my head back and forth in a panic. What the—where’s it coming from? I looked to the door; locked. No way they’d get in through there. I lifted my head, then faded up towards the ceiling, and hauntingly remembered. The walls. They don’t reach the top of the ceiling! We’re connected… Oh God, they heard the whole thing—

“What’s going on in there?” hollered Lea from a distance.

“Uhh… nothing—nothing at all.” I darted back and forth in desperate search of some saving grace. “Say, you wouldn’t happen keep a plunger around the cabin, just in case something bad happens, would you?”

 

***

 

Any issue with a clogged toilet died quickly; nothing a few plunges couldn’t take care of. Besides, there were much more prudent issues facing us on that somber morning that trumped getting worked up over some stinkin’ toilet. I was going home, and this time, I was leaving my travel companions behind… for good.

I took my time packing my bags, holding out on the inevitable by ensuring absolutely nothing was left behind, anything I could do to delay the eventual goodbye. Strewn clothes scattered about the floor, another peculiar and perpetual theme of the trip that brought about flashes of the La Quinta Inn debacle and the rush from the Dude Rancher Lodge back into my immediate recollection, also aiding in my prolonged departure. I walked back and forth across the room, picking up each article of clothing one at a time, an excuse to observe all of the antiques sitting on the nightstand and hanging on the walls. Their presence provided momentary solace, artifacts that sparked a nostalgic reflection, becoming more captivating with each pass.

Pieces of jewelry passed down from generation to generation sat, having been around many necks of many family members throughout many decades, or clasped onto ears of different shape, size, and age; beautiful gems worn on occasions of love, celebration, heartbreak, and tradition amongst a host of others, many of those surely spent at the Pony Bar during a good portion of the 20th century. Pictures ranging from old to not so old spread between family heirlooms, scattered in a random, yet natural arrangement, a historical timeline of the Dutcher heritage. It was as if they were connecting Bill, Gretch, and Lea with past relatives, waiting for their deeply rooted traditions to be passed on to future generations, so they too could continue the story, as did their ancestors before them.

And now, for a long moment I stared, deep into the old family pictures, stuck in a trance and ignorant of any possessions or action occurring outside the bounds of that room. For that long moment, the commotion inside the cabin, the quiet commerce of Pony, the stresses of work, life, and the millions of problems plaguing the world, all of it became non-existent in the face of Medusa, leaving everything in that room frozen but for an idea, a glimmer of hope left floating in my head and barely hanging on, just enough to make me believe. I’ll make time stand still. Right here, right now, forever. I’ll never have to leave. And why can’t I? If only just for another long moment…

 

***

 

Lea, Gretch, and Bill lined up perpendicular to the doorway where my bags lay. I walked back from the refrigerator to confront the trio having retrieved the last of my coveted possessions, a final Rockstar for the ride home, beginning the awkward process of saying goodbye, something none of us wanted any part of, not even Gretch.

“Lea,” I began, having to take a deep breath before continuing. “Thank you for the hospitality—for letting me call this place home. I heard so many good things through the years and… I’m just glad I finally got the experience.”

“Oh,” was all she replied before delivering a smile coupled with the placement of her hand on her heart in a sign of flattery. “We had so much fun.” We went in for a hug. “You take care of yourself Zack. Thank you for looking after those guys this whole time.”

“It was the very least I could do…”

Gretch and I now stood face-to-face, careful not to show any sort of emotion towards each other. “Gretch,” I said, exaggerating the schwa in her name, a particular habit in Appalachian dialect I picked up over the years from conversations with my east coast relatives, as my parting words had not yet entered my head. “I just… I—“ What in the—there’s that stupid lump in my throat again! What the hell? “I think that—“ Oh my God, you’re choking up. Knock it off—get a grip, man!” “I’ll see ya,” I quickly said in a forced confession, giving her a quick pat on the shoulder. C’mon man. “I mean… I think I might—maybe I’ll… I’ll miss you.” My words somehow broke through her emotional armor, revealing a genuine smile for the first time, followed by a hug. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a genuine smile on my face either.

But something hit over during mid-hug. There was a revelation, similar to a message from God, only much stronger. My mind turned to mush, letting the unnatural presence take total control of my body. My jaws moved up and down, involuntarily instructed through a manipulation of muscles working to force out an unfamiliar language of spoken tongue, and succeeding quite magnificently, moving so fast that by the time a coherent thought could be sorted and analyzed through my head, the next one was already spoken—ultimate diarrhea of the mouth.

“Hey Gretch, I don’t know what you’re doing next month, or the month after, or even the month after that, but if I’m in Boise, which I might be, maybe we should get together for a drink, kind of like a date—well, not a date, but I guess it could be—I mean, with Bill’s permission of course—I know, we can go to Applebee’s! And I’m buying—that is, as long as it’s on the 2 of $20 menu—and only if you want to, which I’m sure you will—I know how you guys can’t pass up a free drink, heheh—“

“Oh my God!” Gretch scoffed and brushed the incident off, retreating to the den to act as if she was embarrassed by what had just taken place. Lea watched the interaction, shaking her head with a smile of pleasant disbelief that permanently stuck to her face.

I turned to Bill, delivering unto him a shrug of the shoulders and a sheepish grin. He took in a deep breath that lifted his entire upper torso, leaving on his face a sheepish grin of his own. “You need some help taking anything to your car?” he asked.

“Yea… yea I’d like that.”

 

***

 

I squeezed my suitcase, a case of beer, and enough old fashioned ingredients and whiskey to kill an elephant into the trunk. Bill placed my backpack and a few other items in the backseat and shut the door, leaving nothing but strands of overgrown brush bent by a warm gust of wind between Bill and I, two friends standing in silence in the essence of continental America’s final frontier. “Well, I guess this is it,” he said after a long pause, not knowing what else to say. I was thankful he spoke, for I didn’t have the words either. I hardly ever do, especially during moments like this.

“It’s been one hell of a trip,” I said to him, meeting him in a handshake that eventually turned into a hug.

“I’m really glad this happened. You don’t think this is the end, do you?”

“I don’t think so—no, it won’t be. But if so, for some God forsaken reason, I guess you can say we had one hell of an ending.” We shared a chuckle and then once again stood apart from each other, wishing we had more words to share. Nothing came to mind. In the absence of dialogue however laid a recognition, one too difficult to explain in a single goodbye. Something had changed during that two-week venture through the heartland of America and back, a growth between two men, an ultimate culmination of brotherhood. Something we can’t quite explain, but will never forget.

“I’ll see you soon my friend. Message us when you get home.”

“Will do. Take care Bill.”

 

***

 

The lyrics of Third Eye Blind played through the speakers of the Benz as I made my departure from Pony that late morning with a full can of Rockstar in hand, leaving me with much to think about on the drive to my parents’ house in Spokane, Washington.

I drove the coast just to see you
Why’d you take so long?
And I get that you know that I miss you and I
I know something’s wrong…

And then you speak to me
And everything is easy…

I’ve yet to come across anybody who can accurately describe the feeling one gets the moment an adventure is over in a single word or phrase. It’s like a turning point or a crossroads where a false known awaits you. There’s an intriguing element around the corner, yet a sorrow that exists over what you’ve left behind, and what you have to come back to. And whatever sorrow you’re feeling is partly overcome by a sense of accomplishment, taking part in something not many have attempted before you, something proudly displayed like a medal of honor. It leaves you in a state of ponder, encouraging you to continue your search, to understand the mysteries of life; eerily familiar to what was felt at the onset of your adventure.

Whatever that feeling was, I had a lot of time to figure it out during the 6-hour drive to Spokane.

But I guess if I had to put a label to it, it feels like you’re running out of the gate at your heart’s command… almost like you’re running out of the vein…

 

Chapter 23: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 2 – Dad Bods

The livestock vastly outnumbered the locals during my morning run. However, none of those animals came close to affording me the type of courtesy received from each car as I ran several miles up a gravel road on yet another gorgeous, sunny day in Montana. Each person who passed greeted me with a smile and a friendly wave, a pleasant rarity for someone from the city, and the same mountainous landscape that had captivated me a day earlier was again on full display, overlooking the exotically named ranches on the outskirts of town. I had a good feeling we were in for another adventurous day in Pony.

Bill was already hard at work fixing the finer details of his stone-made grill upon my return. It was pertinent that it be designed to his meticulous specifications—that night’s dinner depended on it. I walked around the yard, noticing a higher than normal weed to grass ratio, and remembered that Lea had even made mention of her dissatisfaction over the abundance of weeds that had suddenly appeared since their last visit. Looking for ways to be helpful, and being that I was already a sweaty mess, I cracked open an ice-cold Rockstar from the fridge and went to work.

“Where’s Gretch?” I asked Bill as I tugged at the base of a large weed deeply rooted into the ground. It was imperative that I pull both the weed and root in order to ensure the weed’s elimination once and for all.

“Haven’t seen her since I got up?”

“Hmm, that’s weird. I wonder what’s going on?” With one last pull, the weed released its grip on the soil, causing me to nearly fall to my backside from an excessive amount of unabated force once the roots gave way. I gathered my balance and tossed the weed, adding it to an already impressive looking pile.

“Hey guys, what’s going on, heheh?” We turned to investigate the familiar voice coming from the deck. Gretch stood there in her pajamas, holding a freshly opened can of Coors light. “Were you guys having a snoring contest or something last night? I’m lucky I got any sleep, haha,” she continued, letting out a shameful, cringe-worthy chuckle in the process. I stared back at her unimpressed with the back of my wrist resting on my hip while I used the other free wrist to wipe away the combination of sweat and dirt that covered my forehead. “Gee, it looks like you guys are breaking a little sweat. It’s about time, heehee!” Bill kept shaking his head, doing his best to ignore. Like me, he was growing much more exasperated with each subsequent syllable leaving her mouth. I worried that it would soon hit a breaking point, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d be on the receiving end of a major eruption. “Well, you guys are sure doing a great job… sort of. Keep up the good work!” Gretch walked back inside (thank God) while Bill and I turned the other check and went back to work on the yard. There was just too much that had to be done in order to get the Dutcher Estate into tip-top condition, are number one priority for the present, and getting worked up over Gretch wasn’t going to do us any favors.

A few seconds later she bursted back out of the cabin, unprovoked. “Ok, ok, I’ll help you with a couple weeds. Sheesh, no need to get all worked up over it.”

Another half hour of weed pulling and grill tinkering provided us with enough satisfaction to head in for a mid-morning breakfast. Bill and Gretch grabbed a bagel that Lea had toasted for them. I opted to pound the rest of my Rockstar, grab a change of clothes and claim first dibs on a shower.

 

***

 

A deflated piece of plastic film hit me in the chest as I stepped out of the bathroom, fresh and clean, right off of a hot shower. Bill looked at me with a mysterious grin spread across his face, the assumed origin of the plastic projectile. “What is this?” I asked.

“Blow her up. We’re floating the Madison today.”

I examined the tubes solid, pink background that had outlines of flowers drawn over it, obviously a product intended for 6-year-old girls. “How do you expect me to float down the river in this?”

“Don’t worry, me and Gretch have the same kind.”

“But I’m like 100 pounds heavier than you guys!”

“Well, we were going to get some bigger tubes, but these were only 97 cents each!” mentioned Gretch, gleeful in her response.

“Yea, no way we were gonna pay 4 bucks for the other ones!”

“Well gee… thanks a lot.” I shook my head in disbelief and began the arduous task of blowing through the plastic valve on the side of the tube.

“Are you guys almost ready? I need to take care of some things around the cabin while you’re gone,” said Lea.

“Well, me and Bill are,” said Gretch.

“Wait, I still have to get my shorts on!” I pleaded.

“Well, hurry up then,” said Bill.

“Here, finish blowing this up then.”

“No way! You slobbered all over it!” yelled Gretch. “It’s got your germs all over the place!”

“Just do it really quickly,” suggested Bill. I began to blow, really quickly, just like Bill suggested.

“You guys, I keep blowing, but nothing’s happening!”

“Just keep it up, it’ll start!”

“But, I’m… I’m starting to get a little dizzy—“

“Less talk, more blow!” snapped Gretch.

“She’s got a point. The more you talk, the less air that goes into the tube.”

“But I think I’m hypervent—“

“Zack! Just blow!” blurted Gretch again. I blew, fast and hard, and the faster and harder I blew, the faster and harder feeling left my body. “Geez, we’ll never get out of here at this rate.”

“Yea, Zack. I hate to say it, but you are blowing kind of slow.”

“Kind of slow? More like I could make a quilt faster than this slow.” It was yet another baseless insult hurled from Gretch’s mouth. My face turned beat red, wanting to respond so fiercely, yet bound by the pressure of blowing the stupid tube up in a timely manner, partly for Lea’s sake, but mostly motivated to put an end to the abuse.

By the time I had a fully inflated tube, their words were barely decipherable, my body a mere seconds from collapse. I struggled to cap the tube shut before falling onto a chair, dropping the tube on the ground beside me. “Not bad,” said Gretch during her examination. “Not good either, but not bad. I guess it’ll do. Now go get your shorts on. We’re already late.”

I looked up at Bill in desperation, a giant plea for mercy. Please.

“Zack, I’m sorry but we… we gotta go!”

“Did you fill the backpack up with beer Bill?” asked Gretch.

“I thought Zack was going to do that.”

“ZACK!”

 

***

 

We traveled 7 miles up the Madison River from the recovery ramp where the Benz was parked, looking out at the rock formations scaling the sides of the river and the 100’s of other patrons who braved the float. The intention was to make our way the entire distance back to the car by tube. I prayed we had enough beer to last the entire journey.

“Ok, you kids have fun. Do you have everything you need?” asked Lea. “Don’t forget to put on sunscreen!”

“We wont,” I replied while we grabbed the necessities out of the car and stripped down to our shorts. “Bill, hand me a cold one, and while you’re at it, lather me up!” Bill reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of sunscreen and a ‘cold one,’ which wasn’t really that cold anymore.

“Ok, I’ll see you boys back at the cabin. Hurry up now. Gretch is waiting,” said Lea before leaving us to set sail on our voyage down the Madison River.

“Ok, get my back and then I’ll get yours.” I told Bill. I turned around and felt a cold mist fall over my backside. Bill handed me the spray bottle and I returned the favor.

“Give yourself a good spray and then hand it back so I can get my belly,” he said.

“Haha, you’re gonna need a lot of sunscreen for that then, heheh.”

“Speak for yourself tubby!”

“Who you callin’ tubby, porky?”

Porky? Look at you.”

“Look at you!

We looked down at our bellies that bulged over our shorts before giving each other a long stare down, starting from the bare belly and up to each other’s blank face, shocked and appalled at the sight in front of us. Two weeks worth of burgers, brats, beer and booze had taken its toll, and the results were devastating.

“We… we have…”

“Dad bodies…”

“You guys coming or what?” Gretch’s voice was faint as she called out to us, already wading in the river.

“…Yea, Gretch. Be right there…” said Bill. We walked out into the water, our heads and bodies buried in shame; a shame that was buried deeper and deeper with each sip of beer, our solution, our temporary escape… the primary contributor to our ultimate demise.

 

***

 

“Hey, this river isn’t as deep as I thought it’d be.” I said. “I’m barely to my shins!”

“Maybe that’s why people like floating it so much. I guess you’re not gonna die if you get too hammered and fall out of your tube!”

“Good point.” I placed my tube down and sat in the middle. “Hold on Bill. I think I’m stuck.”

“I’m stuck to. Here, just push off and find the current.”

“I’m trying, but I think I’m too heavy! I just keep on sinking and hitting the ground!”

“I knew we should’ve gotten the 4 dollar tubes!”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Gretch thought it was a waste of money.”

“Well, where is she right now?” We looked forward. 100 feet down the river was Gretch, relaxed and floating with ease, having been picked up by the current and rapidly pulling away from us. She nodded at us, smiling a large smile that bordered mockery.

“GRETCH!”

 

***

 

“Hey Bill, what’s this green stuff at the bottom?”

“It looks like algae, or an underwater Christmas tree or something. But it’s like—alive…”

“Gross. I dare you to touch it?”

“Screw that! You touch it.”

“It’s too far down. I can’t.”

“Look you guys, it’s not that bad,” said Gretch, holding up a long piece of the slimy green stuff she ripped off the bottom. It wrapped around her forearm and dangled off her elbow, flapping around like a live tentacle.

“Oh Gretch, that’s disgusting!” I yelled. “Bill, hand me another beer. I can’t handle this.”

Bill reached out, holding in his hand a fresh can of Coors Light to meet my outstretched hand. “Hold on, you’re pulling away.”

“Well, what’s the matter?”

“I’m stuck on a rock. Stop for a second.”

In my path the water turned a shade lighter, indicating that shallower water was up ahead. I steered my tube towards it, eyeing down at the bottom for a rock to hold onto. The color of the surface went from blue to brown as the water became shallower. I threw my legs down, ready to anchor myself into position. “Almost ready Bill, I think I have something.” I looked down, feeling a slight tingling sensation brushing against my toes. “What the—“ The ground was no longer a rocky brown, but a solid sheet of living, parasitic, soul-sucking green fungus. “Uh, Bill… I don’t think I can stop right now…”

“What do you mean? It looks shallow where you are—“

“Um, dude, more like I think I’m in some real trouble.” The water became shallower and shallower as I nervously looked from side to side, surrounded by the slimy, green, plant-like invasive species at bottom of the river. “Uwha!” I screamed as I felt its appendages brush against my bottom, edging my backside up out of the middle of the tube. “It’s all around me man!”

“Just stay above the water, you’ll make it!”

“I’m trying man! It’s brushing against my tube!” My breaths increased in frequency and severity. I flung my legs straight out in front of me, raised high above the raft and pushed my body up off the tube, supported by my elbows, anything I could do to keep away from the field of mutant mold lying below. The friction between tube and surface became rougher and rougher, decelerating the tube towards a slower pace. “Oh God Bill, it’s slowing… it’s slowing… it’s—“

It all happened so quickly. The green scraped against the bottom of the tube like Freddy Kruger’s claw across a wall, his signature gesture before slaughtering his next, unsuspecting victim. It brought the tube to a crawl, until it was only me, stuck and stranded, and wedged atop a peak of green, solidly formed mucus. “Bill… help.” I leaned my elbow against one side, a tactic that put a heavy amount of stress on one side of the tube, hoping the pressure would create enough force for a press off, an all too risky proposition; an act of desperation, for Bill was taking way too long. “HELP—“

The tube shot out from underneath me like a fist slamming on a tube of toothpaste. My body hit the water with a splash, sending my back through the barrier of water and onto the bed of fungus. There were thousands of them, crawling, clinging onto my back with their slimy appendages, sucking the life and infecting me with a grotesque poison of which there was no cure. They worked their way up my back and onto my sides, where my abdominal muscles once lay. Soon they would wrap around my torso, my legs; my entire body, turning me into a mutant pile of scum that would forever dwell at the bottom of the Madison River.

In the middle of my turmoil, a glimpse of every tragic event that had ever occurred in my life up to that point flashed through my head: Failing my Driver’s Ed test, my date to the senior prom barfing her brains out and not making it to the dance, falling off a 12-foot rock onto my head and almost dying, waking up in intensive care and having the doctor remove the catheter, watching the Shi—Seahawks beat the Packers three times in a row… but this—this one second, down at the bottom of the Madison river amongst a company of a thousand jumbo-sized, protozoa-like creatures… this was the worst—hands down.

“OH GOD BILL, GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!” I yelled and screamed, rolling around in the water as if I were trying to put out a fire. “It’s all over me! What do I—“

“Quit rolling around, you’re getting it all over you! Get up and—YOUR TUBE!” All of a sudden I was up on my feet, driving forward, powering out of the vile platform I had mistakenly stumbled upon with a new, immediate purpose in life: get the hell out of there. Nothing else was of importance.

The water level dropped and I stepped forward, sinking into the river, face first. As quick as I was ungraceful, I popped back up, pushing through the current, only to be thrown back down into the shallow depths of the Madison once again, and again, until my body waded against the rough current above my knees, looking onward at a pink ring of polyurethane radiating against the pastels of the rocky Madison River landscape and accelerating several feet away from me with the pulling current. A new goal simmered into my head, entrapping my mind to prepare for another mad dash. I pushed off the rocky floor and high-stepped it down the river, running as fast as I could to catch the tube that was in peril of being forever lost to the mercy of the treacherous Madison. I drove through the river, my legs pushing against the current and my belly fluidly jiggling up and down, left to right; man versus a nature whose viscosity was hell bent on holding me firmly in its control. Nearly an arms length away, I reached out for the tube, only to swat at a handful of air. I trotted forward, but the force of water, now past my thighs was just too much. Spent from the hardest 100-yard dash of my life, I could only watch as my prized 97 cent possession floated away to the whims of the roaring Madison. “I didn’t work this hard for—screw this!”

I bent down, expelling every working muscle left inside of me and lunged into the air. I dove forward with my body spread, hoping meet a bed of soft plastic, but realistically anticipating a belly flop. Below me was water and rock, and then a mix of pink and white overtook my direct line of vision. My arms, head, and upper torso fell through the donut hole, flipping the tube over and under my body, and together we floated down the next stretch of the river. Finding myself back on top in the proper tubing position was a struggle just as difficult, and even more time consuming.

After several minutes of precise positioning I was back in business, my arms and legs sprawled out across the edges of the tube and my butt sunk into the middle of the hole, looking as though my entire body was being sucked down by an underwater tractor beam, an unforgiving weight that left the tube deformed—Homer Simpson style. I panted, and wheezed between spurts of water coughed up from my lungs. Looking clumsy was the least of my concerns at this point.

Another tube of lime green and white floated up next to me. I tipped my head over, also laying victim to the effects of the tractor beam, giving the impression that I had been prescribed with a heavy dose of anesthetics. It was Gretch, looking down upon me with an aura of comical condescendence. She was trying not to laugh; I know she was. I pressed my head forward, foregoing any further contact, and held my mouth taut over my tense face.

“Looks like you need a beer,” she said to me after heavily studying my depleted demeanor. I afforded her another look. She held out her hand. In it was an open Coors Light. Don’t fall for it. It’s empty. She’s playing a trick; I know she is. Another few seconds of hesitation went by. Ah, what the hell?

To my surprise (and pleasure), the beer was mostly full. I pressed it to my lips, using both of my hands as a little child would a sippy cup and took a giant swig, an action that would’ve produced a smile if it weren’t for my severe state of exhaustion. I let out a great sigh of relief and tipped my head back.

“I mean, it wasn’t like you really need a beer or anything with that dad belly and all—“

“Oh, shut up Gretch!”

 

***

 

In time we all managed to meet up and float down the river as a friendly trio, and for miles, we held ourselves together in close proximity, talking the issues of the day and marveling at the natural architecture surrounding us. Flat meadows of brush, level with the waterline stood side by side high, rock walls with ridged edges against the river, serving as coves for the weary tube traveler around each river bend. For over an hour we basked in the sun, so relaxed and so full of carelessness that the logical thought of recoating ourselves with sunscreen dissolved into oblivion, joining the rest of the worries in the world that were obliterated by a blissful drift down a short passage of the Madison River in the heart of rugged Montana.

“Hey Bill, can you pass me another beer?” asked Gretch.

“This is the last one,” he replied, holding up a full one above his head in the ‘cheers’ position.

“It can’t be—that’s impossible!”

“You’ve been drinkin’ em all up. There’s no more left!”

Gretch hesitated for a moment, a switch of tactics. “Please Bill, can I have it?”

“Dude, Gretch, I’ve had like two, maybe three this whole ride, not to mention you dropped the last one in the water and wasted the whole thing.” It seemed as though her plan had failed.

“Just… let me have a little bit.”

“Sorry Gretch, this one’s all mine,” replied Bill, motioning his beer around with his hands like he was about to open it.

“Just let me see it, for a second.” She stuck her hand out, reaching over towards him.

“Stop it Gretch!” She didn’t stop. She kept grabbing, working hard to snatch the beer from his grip.

“Gretch, be careful! You’re going to fall out of your tube!” She didn’t listen, insistent on the beer in Bill’s possession, thinking by pressing hard on one side on the tube, she could successfully balance herself on the tube while fighting for the beer at the same time.

“Bill, gimme—“

With one big swoop, the tube slipped out from under her, flying forward as she made a daring lunge for the last full can of Coors Light. Into the water she went, sending a harrowing splash that resounded down the depths of the Madison. I stuck my hand out as the tube flew past me—well out of reach. It blew down the river, picked up by an aggressive current and gaining speed with no signs of stopping.

“Haha Gretch, serves you right,” said Bill. “You got greedy and look what you got, another mile to go with no tube! Sucks to be you…” he rambled on with the insults as Gretch stood there, watching her beloved tube as it was thrown across the river by the rapids and bashed against the protruding rocks of the Madison, unrelenting with its penchant of sending light objects down the river and thrashing them about all along the way, something I had witnessed first hand. Her face turned droopy and her arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from her defeated body. It wouldn’t be long before a swell of tears broke through the barrier around her eyes.

“Don’t even think about it—why are you thinking about it?” My heart tore and twisted at the sight, like staring at a little boy as he watched his puppy run away from home. “She screwed up, it’s her own damn fault!” I watched the tube move down the river, 200 feet away… 250 feet away… 300 feet away. I looked back at Gretch; her demeanor took a turn for the worst. “That tube meant so much to her, and she’d be devastated if it was forever lost. It’s now or never—it’s never! She doesn’t deserve it!” Bill continued his relentless attacks on Gretch, only exacerbating the situation. I shifted my head down river, then back up river, and down again.

“Ah, hell!” I set my feet and dove forward onto my tube, paddling and kicking against the rough and shallow waters of the Madison in pursuit of a tube that was thought by conventional wisdom to be long lost. “I can’t believe I’m doing this… again!” There was no thought of the shear difficulty of retrieving such a silly object that for some reason meant so much to Gretch, or the amount of stress and strain that would be exerted over my body throughout the arduous journey; my concern was directed towards one goal—reclaiming that stupid 97 cent piece of plastic.

 

***

 

They emerged around the bend a quarter mile up the river. My dripping, wet body stood, battered but not broken in a steady pant, in through the nose and out through the mouth, focused on my two companions making their way towards my position. In one hand was Gretch’s tube, held high above my head, a prized trophy, a representation of will and determination over nature and adversity. The other tube was wedged against the weight of my body and the rolling river, finding comfortable leverage as I sat through the donut hole, waiting for them to finally catch up. “I got it!”

“Bring it back over here,” hollered Gretch. No offer to come to me and pick it up? Not even a simple offer of thanks? She expects me to walk all the way back there for her? News flash to Gretch: I didn’t even do this for her! In fact, the only reason I did this was so our vacation wouldn’t be ruined with her stupid pouting and cursing all over the place. This was for us, and that’s it! I don’t want to put up with that crap! I’m dealing with it! If this is how it’s gonna be, I’m not coming down anymore! And she’s got another thing comin’ if she things I’m coming back to her!

“No Gretch, you can come and get your tube yourself,” I yelled back, the distance between us calling for an unintentional screaming match.

“But I don’t want to walk that far. I might spill my beer.” Oh gee, she got her beer after all. How convenient.

“I’m not walking back there after all of that. You come here. You come here now!”

“What’s the big deal? It’s only a couple of feet. You walked all the way there, and now you can’t walk back? Sounds pretty lazy to me.”

“Gretch, I’m not going to ask you again. Come over here and get your tube.”

“Don’t be selfish… Please…”

I couldn’t take it any more. I stood up, using what was left of my worn-out body to send her a final, stern message.

“HEY! YOU GET OVER HERE! YOU GET OVER HERE AND SIT ON YOUR TUBE!” My head shook, my eyes beamed with madness, and the veins bulged out of my neck while my arms pointed in all different directions, directing orders just in case my words didn’t get the point across. “GET OVER HERE GRETCH! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I SWAM ALL THE WAY OVER HERE AND GRABBED YOUR TUBE FOR YOU AND YOU’RE ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL—“

A gust of wind blew past me and the contact felt between the tube and my buns disappeared. I turned around and watched as a 97-cent piece of pink and white plastic flew down the river, forever lost to the depths of the Madison. My face turned droopy and my arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from my defeated body. I stared out at my prized possession as if I were a little boy watching my puppy run away from home; 50 feet… 75 feet… 100 feet…

“Can I have my tube back now?” asked Gretch. I looked back. She was right behind me.

You can’t be serious…