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DATELINE: Friday, March 18, 2005

After packing, unpacking, repacking and double checking our packing furiously all morning, my wife Ashley and I were finally ready to depart on our mission trip. The plan was for Dr. Allen and his wife Mary Ann to pick us up and drive us to North Carolina, to the home of my in-laws, where we’ll stay the night and rest for our early Saturday morning flight. We said goodbye to our cat, Winston, who we wouldn’t be seeing for two weeks. We always feel guilty leaving Winston behind by herself, but she’s an enormous wuss and would be even more miserable in a kennel. She had two giant cat-feeder/waterers, so she would be fine. We left the radio on for her, tuned to a country station, since everyone knows all cats love country music.

Dr. Allen arrived around 1:30 accompanied by Mary Ann and a first year med student named Carrie, who was traveling down with us. Dr. Allen brought his enormous Titan pickup truck with a crew cab, so we loaded all the luggage into the truck’s bed. Between Dr. and Mrs. Allen, Ashley, me and Carrie we have 12 full bags, consisting of large suitcases and duffle bags. This will be our check luggage. Most of our clothing is stored in carryon bags.

After loading up, we departed WV for Hildebran, NC. It’s a familiar route, as it’s the one Ash and I take when traveling to see family in NC. Unfortunately, we were so fully engrossed in conversation when we reached Wytheville, VA, that we didn’t notice that we’d missed our turn onto I-77. In fact, I didn’t notice it for another 50 minutes when I started seeing signs for Christiansburg. We had to back track. Dr. Allen was embarrassed for missing the turn, but I was even more embarrassed that I didn’t notice it sooner.

After a late supper at a Crack Barrel, we arrive at Ma’s house around 10 p. I had a few last minute journaling details to attend to, so I don’t actually get to bed until after 11p.

N EXT

Pre-Trip Jitters

With the start of our medical mission trip to Central America only three days away, my wife Ashley has become quite excited about it. Our house is a tizzy of packing and preparation and we have suitcases and supplies everywhere.

Me, I’m a lot more apprehensive about it all. This is mostly because I’ve never been out of the country, let alone on a full fledged mission trip, let alone on a full fledged MEDICAL mission trip before. I can barely put a Band-Aid on myself, let alone someone else, let alone a stranger, let alone IN SPANISH. But that’s okay. I have 10 qualified medical personnel and/or personnel in training, going with me on this trip who can handle Band-Aids and so much more. I’m there to be their go-fer, which is a job I can handle. I think. However, looming over me is the fact that while I don’t know precisely what I’m about to get myself into.

On a gut level I know it’s going to be heavy. It’s very difficult to remain unconcerned when people who would know keep assuring me that my life will never ever be the same again after this trip and that the things I will see and experience will leave me changed forever. Scary, huh?

For instance, in the library, a patron happened to overhear me talking to Ashley on the phone about our luggage situation.

“Headed out of town?” he asked when I’d hung up.

“Huh?” I said, not making the connection.

“Are you leaving town? You mentioned something about a carry-on bag?”

“Oh! Yeah. Er, no. I’m actually leaving the country.” I then explained where we were goning and why. He nodded knowingly and told me it would be an enormous experience and that I would be forever changed. Turns out he had been on several mission trips to Panama. He said when he returned stateside, he felt embarassed to have so much… stuff.

I too have a lot of stuff.

Don’t get me wrong; I think being forever changed by this experience will ultimately be a good thing. I know that my cynical, jaded self can use some perspective on the world and its true poverty not to mention a spiritual kick in the ass. However, being spiritually kicked in the ass still means getting kicked in the ass. It ain’t fun.

Just hearing Ashley’s tales from her trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2003, I realize I’m in for some serious heavy. We’ll be going to into places in Guatemala and El Salvador where the people have absolutely nothing. They’re far poorer than most of the lower class of this country and have no access to medical care for most of their lives. There, diseases that do not exist in this country because of our health care system go untreated for years and treatable injuries become life-crippling and often deadly conditions. This is particularly true for children, who often suffer from common childhood ailments or parasite infections for months on end due to a lack of medical care. It’s one thing to see it from a distance on television. It’s a whole other to be up to your neck in it and partially responsible for helping alleviate some of it, if only for a brief moment.

As you might imagine, going on a medical mission trip can be expensive. For a long time, that was my primary reservation toward us going on it. See, I’m the guy in charge of keeping up with finances in our house—some might say unwisely appointed to the position. I always feel it’s my responsibility to point out any unwise spending we may be about to incur when it can be foreseen.
Nearly a year ago, I pointed out to Ashley that we would soon be nearing the end of our med-school undergraduate year and would probably only shin deep in credit card debt—what business did we have increasing that debt to thigh or even waist deep by adding 5 grand we don’t have toward the base costs of the mission trip, let alone the medicines we’d need to take with us. Ashley sagely pointed out that when she went on the mission trip in 2003, we didn’t have the 2 grand it cost then either, but by the time she left nearly twice that amount had been donated toward her trip and she was not only able to pay for her trip in full but also help sponsor some of the other team members and purchase extra medicine. Ash also pointed out that before she went to India in February of 1994—the very trip during which she first realized it was her calling to become a doctor—she didn’t have the money to pay for it either, but by the time she left it had been provided. Her attitude then, as now, is that if it’s God’s will for her to do what she feels she’s been called by him to do, he will provide the way. That shut me up but good. I’ve seen God work in this way on many occasions and should know it by heart and simply have faith. However, as the guy in charge of finances, I always feel the need to point these things out for the record, knowing full well I’ll only get shown up by God once again.

Let me say, we’ve had an amazing amount of support behind us on this trip. Friends and family and people we don’t even know have been sending us financial support and supplies like you wouldn’t believe. A great deal of it has come from close family, but also from Ashley’s church back in Salcha, Alaska, who’ve always been big supporters of her mission work and have contributed greatly to each one she’s been on, including this one. We’ve also received support in the form of not only medicine and vitamins and medical supplies, but also toys, coloring books, crayons and candy which we will distribute at our clinic sites. Some of the story hour children at the library as well as children from a local elementary school class have also donated items for us to take to the children in El Salvador and Guatemala. And my sisters in-law, Amber and Caroline, spread the word throughout their communities, in South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, and came up with gangbusters support on that front.

While packing things up this week, Ash and I were going through a box of donations her sister Amber sent us. It was a box full of cute and cuddly little teddy bears and beanie babies and chalk and crayons and coloring books. As I was looking at one of the cute little teddy bears, one dressed in a little yellow sweater, I was struck with just how much some child is going to love that bear. Then I said something dumb.

“I sure hope the El Salvadorian kids like to color, cause we’re sure bringing them a lot of crayons.”

Ashley looked at me with a kind of How Little He Knows and How Much He’s About to Find Out expression, then smiled and gave me a hug. I understood that as much as we’ve gathered to take, it’s actually very little when you consider the numbers of children we’re going to be seeing. What we’re bringing as far as toys and even medicine go won’t get us very far. Ashley says that their 2003 mission team treated over 5000 people between Guatemala and Honduras.

“But you just wait until you see the face of some little girl when you give her two different colored crayons and a page from a coloring book,” Ashley said. “You’ve never seen such joy!”

“I’m going to spend this entire trip in tears, aren’t I?” I said, already welling up.

“No. You will cry. But there will be a lot of happiness too.”

Taking toys and similar things is not the primary focus of this trip, though. We also don’t have enough medicine. These trips never do. Even packed to capacity, with two 70 pound suitcases and a 40 pound carry on bag each, we’re never going to get enough medicine in to meet the demand. Fortunately, the huge swell of support we’ve been given also extends to the mission team as a whole. One of the clubs at Ashley’s med-school donated over $500 toward the trip and the alumni association donated $1000. We’re taking that with us as backup for when the meds we’re bringing run out.

I know I’m not prepared for what I’m going to be seeing. I’ve been told exactly what’s going to happen, but until I’m in it neck deep, I won’t really grok it. Plus there’s the language barrier to get around, which even having taken 6 semesters of Spanish in college is going to be an enormous hurdle. Especially since I forgot all my Spanish and am only coasting on the notion that it will somehow all come back to me. We’ll have translators, sure, but it would certainly help if some of us knew a few more words.

And then there’s the less than comforting threat of political turmoil.

Ashley’s mission team had a few problems, the last time she was in Guatemala. At the time, in late March of 2003, the war in Iraq had just begun. No one was certain what reaction there might be toward Americans, but no extreme reactions were expected–what with Guatemala not being a big Muslim country and all.

I’d only had a little communication from Ashley in the form of one brief phone call and a couple of e-mail messages during the first week of her trip. During the second I didn’t hear anything until Thursday of that week when I got a phone call from Mrs. Wallace, the wife of one of the doctors on the trip, who said, “There are riots going on and the team is getting out of the country on the earliest flight. That’s all I know.”

I had no idea what the circumstances or danger level were. All I could assume was the protests were due to the war and the unwanted presence of Americans. So there I was, with no idea what was going on, only able to assume things were bad and imagine even worse, for a whole day and a half. And it was a LOOOOONG day and a half. But there was nothing I could do but pray.

Late Friday afternoon, Mrs. Wallace called back to say she had been in touch with her husband’s secretary who’d spoken with him that morning. Dr. Wallace had reported that the team was still going to get out of the country on a late afternoon flight and they were headed to the airport, but first they were going to have breakfast. At that point, I knew they weren’t in great danger. I mean, who stops for a leisurely breakfast when on the run for their lives?

Soon after that, I received a cryptic e-mail from Ash saying she was fine and was coming home soon. She didn’t want me to worry. I wouldn’t know precisely what had happened to them until the team and Ashley returned, though, which they weren’t able to do until Saturday night and even then not exactly when or even how they were expected to.

I got word from Mrs. Wallace that the team’s flight was coming in to Roanoke at 9:15 p.m. and I was supposed to meet them there and help carry people back. So there I was at the gate at 9:15. Their plane arrived and all the passengers got off, none of whom were from the mission team. That seemed really odd to me. What was even odder was that Mrs. Wallace wasn’t at the airport as she’d told me she would be earlier in the day. A few minutes passed, though, and a couple of Ash’s fellow students arrived to help greet, including our friend Andrew Bright, (a fellow med-student who is also coming along on the trip this year). I figured I was still on good ground if other people were sharing it with me. I didn’t have the flight number and saw that a second flight from D.C. was arriving in a few minutes. It landed, and we the gate-greeters waited to see familiar faces disembark. They did not. At this point, Andrew, phoned Mrs. Wallace and learned what was up. Seems that with all the ticket purchasing and repurchasing and changing of flights that had occurred to get the team out of the country, the tickets from D.C. to Roanoke wound up not syncing up with the flight from Guatemala to D.C. So when the team arrived at Dulles, they found they had missed their flight to Roanoke by about 12 hours. Instead of fighting with the airline about it, they just rented a big van and were driving back to West Virginia.

I guestimated they would probably arrive around 3 a.m. and I was only five minutes off. As exausted as Ashley was when I met her at the school, she couldn’t help but tell me about the team’s adventures through the riots. I was a welcome audience to learn what had happened.

Some set-up:
Back in the early 1990’s, Guatemala’s government was attacked by guerilla forces attempting a coup. In order to defend the republic, the government conscripted thousands of male citizens to fight against the attackers. These citizens were not paid to do this, but did so at the behest of their government and they were successful at the job. After the fighting, these conscriptee soldiers went back to their normal lives.

Jump to 2003:
A man running for the presidency of Guatemala, (whose name, I’m afraid I do not know nor did I ever, being as how I’m a Gringo who is ignorant of the politics of the vast majority of countries throughout the world), made the pledge that if he were elected president he would pay those citizens who had been conscripted the equivalent of a year’s wages. The conscriptee army thought that sounded like a great deal, so they helped vote the guy in. As soon as he was in, though, the new president said the Spanish equivallent of, “What are you, crazy? We don’t have that kind of money!”

The conscriptees said, “Uh, okay, so what can you give us?”

To which the president replied, “Hmm, how bout a quarter of a year’s wages?”

“Eh, not so great,” the former army said, “but okay, we’ll take it.”

“Great. Will do,” said the president, who then proceeded to lose his shirt investing in Euros. “Uh, sorry gang, I don’t have ANY money to give you,” El Presidente then admitted. “See, I lost my shirt on Euros.”

“No? Okay, fine,” the former conscriptees said. “We’re shutting down your country til you cough something up.”

And they did. They “rioted”, but only in the nicest possible sense of the word. Instead of yelling and smashing stuff and walking around with placards, they just sensibly and collectively blocked off all roads leading between major towns and shut down all traffic between them, then they stood around holding sticks and machettes, looking peeved. Unfortunately, by the time the roadblocks were set up, Ash’s mission team was in Queztaltananga (Xela, to most folks) a small town way up in the mountains, several hours distance from the airport in Guatemala City. Seeing that they couldn’t go on to the even more remote villages they were scheduled to visit, the team decided to try and go back toward G-City and leave the country before the “riots” became less-peaceful. This proved to be quite difficult.

Dr. Wallace and Guatemala mission leader, Marcello Diez, kept explaining to the folks in charge at the roadblocks that they were a humanitarian mission team who just wanted to set up clinics and could they please be allowed to pass through?

“We have sick people right here,” the protesters protested. “You set up a clinic for us and we’ll give you passage.”

Sounded like fair trade to Dr. Wallace. After all, that was what they were in the country to do in the first place. Ashley said that by setting up that clinic, the team actually saw people who were far worse off than they were likely to have seen in the distant villages they were originally headed to.

After a day’s clinic, the protesters gave the team a piece of paper granting them passage through the next several roadblocks and they set out to try and return to the airport in Guatemala City.

About this time, late in the evening, the team met a reporter who was riding between towns on a motorcycle. He had free passage everywhere because the protesters wanted all the press they could get. He offered to go with them between the towns. The roads, however, were awful and were often so filled with potholes that the whole team had to exit the van so it could travel over the potholes without bottoming out. The going was very slow and soon it was 9 at night and the team found themselves on a scarcely-traveled road in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do. Dr. Wallace was quite worried because the last thing he wanted was to have a bunch of med-students trapped in the middle of who knew what dangers with no end in sight. So he asked everyone to pray that God would lead them out of there or to safety, whichever came first. That’s when the reporter banged on the window and told Dr. Wallace that he knew of a hotel nearby that he thought they could use.

Expecting the worst, the mission team followed the reporter. What they imagined was the Central American equivallent of a rat and roach infested fleabag motel. What they found instead was a five star resort.

After checking into the resort (which, considering the exchange rate, was still fairly cheap) the resort’s staff told them that their restaurant’s buffet had closed for the evening, but that they could whip them up some steaks and french fries if they wanted. So Ash got to eat steak and french fries and spend the night in a luxurious bed in the middle of Guatemalan riots, while I fretted and worried back home. She too knew this and sent me e-mail the following morning to tell me she was fine. The team had never been in any great danger, just in a few tense situations. And not only did they treat some incredibly ill people, but the missionaries were able to lead 200 people to Christ at that “riot” clinic.

The joy on Ash’s face as she told me this story confirmed for me what I had long since suspected: I should have gone on that trip and shared that experience. I also knew that if another opportunity came up to go, I would not turn it down.
NEXT

Don’t drink the water

That’s the advice everyone gives you upon hearing you’re about to travel abroad. It was also a chief concern of mine several months ago when asking my wife questions concerning our impending Central American medical mission trip, to occur in March of 2005. My wife Ashley, a fourth year medical student, has been on two foreign mission trips in the past; once to India over a decade ago and once on a two week mission to Honduras and Guatemala in 2003. She knows from not drinking the water. 

That the water would be a concern of mine is no small thing. For those of you who don’t know, Central American water systems are not always the most hygienic and you can get a wide variety of biological contaminants in your system from drinking water from them. The locals are pretty much immune, but wandering weak-stomached Gringos have no such treaty. Ashley assured me that I would be fine and that he mission team would have plenty of fresh water on hand for us to drink and, as a medical mission team, we’d be packing packing all manner of anti-biotics. Pretty much anything short of HIV and Hepetitis could be wiped out with the meds we’d have. That was a relief, but didn’t wipe out all of my concerns, (particularly since I was quite late in getting my Hep vaccinations).

See, I’d never been on a mission trip of any kind before. I’d never even been out of the United States–unless you count Guam, which no one does. So there was plenty I didn’t know about what I was getting myself into. I only had tales of Ash’s former mission trips and stories from well-traveled friends to go on, and some of those were pretty scary. Also, I was not entirely comfortable being a part of a medical mission trip, being as how I have no medical training whatsoever. That was my excuse for staying home in 2003.

Another concern: while I am a Christian and it is the calling of Christians to spread the gospel message far and wide, to my knowledge I’ve never actually done that in an active fashion. I’ll even admit to often living a poor example of how a Christian should. For one thing, I curse a good deal more than is healthy. For another, I pour all sorts of entertainment industry garbage into my brain. Sure, I haven’t killed anyone, but I still feel far more sinner than saint. However, when you think about it, that’s really not such a drawback. In fact, it’s kind of the whole bag with Christianity; the realization that we are not perfect and that we do sin quite regularly and it is only because of the sacrifice Jesus made taking our sins onto himself and dying in our place that we are at all worthy of salvation. Being a saint was not a requirement for going on this trip. Being willing to lend a hand anyway I could was and I already had that going for me. I wanted to go, to be of use and not be in the way. And quite fortunately, medical teams and mission teams always need support staff to help facilitate their mission. That would be my role.

This blog is a journal of the experience. I take it from my pre-trip misconceptions to the sometimes even stranger realities we encountered. Let me say up front that my words here can in no way equal the experience of the trip through this journal. If you read this, you will only receive a surface scan of a small portion of the overall trip, as filtered through my perceptions. I cannot adequately explain to you much of the wonderous nature of the mission. I cannot adequately tell you about all the marvelous people and new friends that I met and how special they have become to me. I cannot adequately convey the amazing nature of what the missionaries accomplished in these countries. I’m going to try to do some of it, but please be assured that however long you think this blog is, I’m leaving out a tremendous amount of material.

The events depicted here occurred between March 18 and April 4, 2005. I’ll post new entries quite regularly, datelined to the date on which they originally occurred. After each day’s entry passes into archive status, I’ll then change its posting date to reflect the original dateline. I hope you enjoy reading about what turned out to be a very harrowing and uplifting experience for us.

NEXT

 

The Talkin’ Fun-Loving Malibu Juice Blues

My little blue 1999 Chevy Malibu has been a good and faithful car for me.  For the most part.  It’s certainly treated me leagues better than my former vehicle, the blue 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic, referred to with heavy spite and ire as the Bent Turd.  Oh, sure, the Malibu has konked out on me on a few occasions and has had to have various bits of it replaced, such as water pumps, serpentine belts and the occasional alternator, but it’s been a good car all the same.

A while back, I began noticing a strange belt-squeaking noise beneath its hood, though and I decided it was time to get it checked out before I learned what was causing that noise the hard way.  I decided to bite the bullet and take it in to the local Chevy dealership for its 100,000 mile tune up.  I’d actually had mixed experiences with the dealership in the past and was once even yelled at by one of their employees who kept insisting that the keys he had handed me were my car keys despite the fact that they weren’t.  But again, they’re the Chevy dealership so ostensibly they would be the ideal place to take a Chevy.

We dropped my car off late on an early March Tuesday night. It was a carefully chosen night, because my wife Ashley’s medical rotation in March gave her Wednesdays off so she would be able to shuttle me to work the next day.

With snow falling on my head, I stood in the freezing wind and filled out the little after-hours drop off sheet.  I wrote there that in addition to the tune up, all belts should be inspected as one of them was making noise.  I also checked that I would need an oil change.

“Did you mention the grabby brakes?” Ash asked as I climbed back into her car.

“Uh, no,” I said. I’d forgotten about the grabby brakes. They’ve actually been grabby for quite some time, but the local brake place said everything looked good in them so we shouldn’t worry too much. Still, who likes grabby brakes?

The following morning, Ash called the Chevy place and told them about the grabby brakes. They said they’d check them. Meanwhile, they already claimed to have found a leaky engine intake that needed fixing to the tune of $700. Ash asked if this was something dire or if it was the kind of thing that might wait a few months. They said it could wait, though if it should spring an antifreeze leak we should bring it back in.

“Did you remind them about the oil change?” I asked.

“No.”

“Well, it’s on the form I filled out, so I’m sure they’ll get it,” I said.

Despite claiming they would phone us, the garage never called. So in the early afternoon, I phoned them and learned three things: 1) the Malibu needed new rear brake drums, which would stop the grabby brakes; 2) the mechanics weren’t going to do the tune up because it would involve replacing bits that would have to be replaced again once we decided to have the intake fixed and they didn’t want to do the work twice—fine with me, as I didn’t want to pay for it twice, either; 3) they couldn’t hear any belt squealing noises so they hadn’t done anything with the belts.  I told them okay on the brake drums and they said they would call when they were finished. Naturally, they did not and by 5 p.m. I was left with no other conclusion but that my car was not fixed.

The next morning, Ashley drove me to the Chevy dealership where I planned to wait for my car to be finished.  However, when I arrived they claimed my car had already been repaired the previous day.  I paid them for the drum replacement and noticed they’d also charged me for a lube job.  It was only after I was driving away that I noticed they had not replaced the little Oil Change in X number of Miles sticker on the inside of the window, leading me to believe they’d not actually changed the oil.

The car ran okay for several days, despite the continued belt squeal sound.  I could kind of understand them not being able to hear it because it only seemed to happen on warm days.

The following Sunday, the right rear tire began to make a horrible clunking sound whenever we braked at low speeds.  By Wednesday, we decided this wasn’t good so we took it back in to the dealership.  The man at the service counter seemed a bit angry about this. He also didn’t seem to want to accept the car at all as he was four mechanics short. We didn’t see how his lack of mechanics was our problem and told him we would much prefer it if they had a look anyway since we didn’t like driving with horrible clunking sounds coming from brakes they had allegedly repaired.  Dude wrote down a little of what we were saying, but wasn’t writing in near as much detail as I thought was required.

“Also, would you please have them investigate the belt-squealing sound that I’m still hearing in the engine,” I asked.  “Oh, and please change the oil, too.” This seemed to make the angry man even more angry, but he agreed he would try if they had time.

When I called them for a status report that afternoon, the Angry Man at the desk said they couldn’t hear any clunking noises coming from the engine nor any squealing noise from the tire. I corrected him that it was actually a clunking tire and a squealing engine.  He said they still couldn’t hear either and suggested I come in the following day to help them hear it.

So at work, Thursday morning, I gave the dealership a call to arrange the auditory aid session.  Angry man said they had driven the car again that morning and still couldn’t hear anything.  I asked if I could come by at noon and he said that would work.

At noon, a co-worker dropped me off at the dealership. Angry man was there but became still angrier when he saw me. He said all the mechanics go to lunch between noon and 1, so I’d have to come back later.

“Well, I sure wish you’d mentioned that on the phone before you told me it would be okay for me to come in at noon,” I said, very calmly.

Angry man flared.  “Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you who was right or who was wrong!” he said. “Let’s just go give her a drive now.”

“Sure thing,” I said, still remaining admirably calm.

He dug up my key and led me outside where he moved for the driver’s side door of my car.

“Would you mind if I drove?” I said. Angry Man did seem to mind, but didn’t really have any grounds to refuse me the wheel of my own vehicle. To make small talk while I started the car and maneuvered out of the parking lot, Angry Man started back in on the whole business about how the mechanics had already driven the car twice and couldn’t hear a thing.  As he was saying this, I applied the brakes until the car was at a very low speed.

“CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK!” said the back tire.

“Hear that?”

Angry man’s mouth dropped open. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. Anybody could hear that.” He then became incredibly angry at the incompetence of his mechanics for putting him in such an embarrassing situation.  I continued to drive the car out of the parking lot and down the road, both to try and get the belt to squeal and also to make angry man that much more uncomfortable at having to sit there beside me and take it after once again having been shown up. The belt never did squeal for me, but like I told him it usually didn’t do it when the weather was cold.

“Uh, you said you needed an oil change too, right?” Angry Man said as we drove back to the dealership. “Well, we did that when you brought it in last week.”

“Oh, really?  I thought maybe you hadn’t since no one replaced the mileage sticker.”

”Well… um… they’re supposed to do that,” he said.

We resolved to have them fix the clunk and I would save the belt squeal for a day when it was actually squealing.

Naturally, the Chevy dealership never phoned me to alert me to what the problem was with the clunking.  I phoned them, however, to learn from a very sheepish sounding Angry Man that they had replaced my original faulty brake drum with yet another faulty brake drum.  Wisely he didn’t try to get me to pay for the re-replacement.

Jump ahead two weeks. The wife and I go out of town for a medical mission trip to Central America during which time my car sits in my driveway. Upon our return, the belt squeal has not gone away, but has in fact gotten worse.

It sounded particularly bad on the following Saturday, when it did its best impersonation of a choir of crickets throughout my drive to work.  I made it to work okay, but on my way home, after having made it nearly up the giant hill that leads to my street, I hit a dip in the pavement and heard something beneath the hood give way and noticed that the power steering was no longer working.  As I reached my driveway, the engine died and the battery light came on.  I parked, called the wife down for a gander and opened the hood. Sure enough, the serpentine belt was completely off its track. And the reason it was off its track is because the alternator had broken off.

No, really. Broken. Off.

I’m talking, broken off from the engine block at the bracket, broken off.

“Well, that sucks,” I said, staring at it.

“Yes. That does suck,” Ashley replied.

“Those complete and utter morons,” I added.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. However, you’d think that when you go to allegedly qualified Chevrolet repair specialists at an automobile repair garage that deals specifically with Chevrolets and you tell them that your particular Chevrolet is making a sound that’s reminiscent of a belt being loose that they’d actually, oh, I don’t know, HAVE A LOOK IN THE GENERAL BELT AREA or something and maybe noticed that the bracket connecting the alternator had CRACKS IN IT!

MORONS!

I don’t say nearly often enough how much I adore my car insurance company USAA.  Genuinely love them.  In addition to being very good insurance, they also have customer service representatives that should be the envy of all other call centers the universe wide. When you phone them, you don’t get a huge hassle from any automated answering service that makes you jump through hoops to talk to a real person. No. You get to talk to a real person who’s friendly, empathetic and willing to help make sure things are as easy for you as possible. It’s one of the most amazing concepts I’ve ever heard of!

USAA not only arranged for a tow truck to come get my car and haul it to the nearest repair provider, which just happened to be within walking distance of my house, but they also commiserated with me over how much having one’s alternator fall off truly sucks. I think I’m in love! Even better, the towing is COVERED by my oh-so-marvelous USAA insurance! Glory Be!

The tow truck driver, arrived in 20 minutes and hauled my car down the hill.  I then gave it an hour before calling the conveniently located repair place.  I was expecting to have to explain why my car had been dumped on them and what I wanted them to fix and then have to wait upwards of a day for this busy garage to get around to doing anything about it. However, they already knew the whole drill about my car. In fact, they’d already been on the phone with parts yards looking for a new bracket for my alternator and expected to hear back from them any time. That wasn’t the truly shocking part, though.

“Did you know your alternator was missing a nut in the back?” my new repair guy asked.

“No. No, I didn’t,” I said.

Apparently, in the back of the alternator there is a bolt that helps hold the thing down and that bolt is supposed to be held in place by a nut. Without the nut, much vibration can occur which can and did cause the metal bracket of the alternator housing to weaken and eventually snap.

Now, I can’t say for sure that the Chevy dealership is directly at fault for that nut being missing, but they were the last folks that had anything to do with that part of my car since they’re the ones who put in a new serpentine belt several months ago.  A more conspiratorial soul might suggest they’d done it on purpose to get more business from me, but I don’t think so.  No, those folks seem to hate doing any work at all, let alone bringing more work down on their heads through sabotage.

A mere six hours later, my new repair guy PHONED ME to say the car was ready. Imagine that; a repair shop that actually PHONES YOU when your car is ready, rather than making you hire a Sherpa.  I walked on down the hill and picked it up with no problem. The bill was only $86, which didn’t strike me as too bad at all.  I think I’ve found my new repair shop.

Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Hauling Birthdays, Lack of Carrot Cake & Tooters, Mo’ Better Blues (a Horribly True birthday incident)

My wife Ashley recently celebrated a birthday.  I won’t say how old she is, cause she’ll hit me, but she’s two years older than I am and I’m 32.  You do the math.  (Hey, she was probably gonna hit me anyway.)

Since we left higher paying gigs in the big city to move to West Virginia, for med-school and library servitude respectively, we’ve not done any major birthday presents for one another.  We always get one another a birthday card and maybe something small, but nothing too expensive.

Still, at the beginning of the month in which Ash’s birthday fell, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with what I was going to do for her.  I knew she wouldn’t want anything huge, but I felt I still needed to do something.  Fortunately, Ash’s a fairly simple gal who cares not for diamonds, pearls or expensive fru-fru.  She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry—usually just her wedding set and a pair of earrings or maybe her favorite necklace that features a small gold nugget that was one of the only products of her father’s former Alaskan gold mine.  She does like shoes quite a bit, but not excessively so.

What to get her? What to get her?

Then I thought of it…

One of our last major purchases was a brand new clothes washer.  It’s a Big ol’ Kenmore, the kind with the porcelain on steel top—which somehow seemed an important option to take back when we bought it, but dadgum if I can figure out if that’s done us any good since.  We purchased the washer shortly after moving into the house we now rent, in April of 2003, and we love it as much as two people can love a major appliance. It’s nice and roomy and is so much more efficient at washing our clothes than the tiny apartment-style washer we had been using since we got married.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better washer firmly installed, we had the question of what to do with the old washer. We don’t own a truck, so we couldn’t just haul it off ourselves. Having dropped a lot of cash in the moving process itself, not to mention on the new washer, we also didn’t want to spend any more money in order to get rid of it; so renting a truck seemed out of the question. We called around to the local shelters and charity organizations, but while they would all have gladly accepted it, none of them had the capability to come and remove it from our home.  As a temporary measure, we rolled it into the kitchen and used it as an island for a while until we could come up with some ingenious way to get rid of it.

Months passed.

Eventually, Ashley got it in her head that she wanted to build a real kitchen island to replace the defunct washer. She marched right down to the hardware store, told them what she wanted to do

“I take it you’re the handyman in your house?” the hardware store man asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Ash said.

They then spent an hour or so drawing up plans and selecting and ordering the butcher-block top.  She bought most of the materials she would need from them, then got me to drive her to the nearest city with a Lowes for what the local store didn’t have.  She then spent all her spare time for a month sawing, sanding and assembling the island.  When she was finished, she had a beautiful and sturdy butcher-block island to call her very own.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better island firmly installed, we again had the question of what to do with our old apartment-style washer. We still didn’t own a truck, still couldn’t find any charitable organizations that did either and we were still too cheap to call U-Haul.  Ash was all for putting a sign out by the road or an ad in the classifieds to sell it.  Trouble was, while the washer does work it doesn’t work as well as you would hope a washer you paid good money for might.  It would do in a pinch, if you didn’t have one at all, but you would probably have to do the spin cycle a couple of times to get all the soap and water out of your clothes.  With no obvious solution, we finally just rolled the washer over into a corner of the kitchen, in front of our cookbook shelf, and began piling junk mail on top of it.

Months passed.  In fact, a year passed and suddenly it was early October and I’d started wondering what to do for her birthday. That’s when I hit upon the idea of getting rid of the washer once and for all.

“How would you do it?” you might ask.

Ah, I would rent a truck.

Hey, but I thought you were cheap, and stuff,” you might also say.

Sure am. However, I was going to spend $20 at the bare minimum for a birthday present anyway, so why not funnel that Yuppie $5 into renting a truck, getting rid of the devil-washer and securing myself a warm place in my wife’s affections for the effort?

I could just picture her coming home on Saturday, from her month-long emergency room rotation, in Princeton, WV, walking in the door and spying the 3’x2’x2′ patch of open space where the washer once sat. And on the floor, in the middle of the patch of glorious emptiness, would be the beautiful birthday card I had already purchased for her at a local downtown gallery. Sounded like a plan.

Trouble is, my surprises like this NEVER work out and I have a long and storied history of them not working out.

Why do they not work out?  Well, for one thing, I have a wife who insists on pestering me for hints about her birthday present until she gets enough to put it together. Doing this is one of her greatest joys in life. Preventing her from doing this is my eternal challenge—a very difficult one, cause she’s smarter than me. It also doesn’t help that I have a big mouth and let it be known that I had something planned for her.

So Wednesday night, the night before the actual move, she called from Princeton to interrogate me about her present.

“It’s green, right? You said it was green,” she said as a clever ruse to get me to admit to something.  I was steadfastly not admitting anything if I could keep from doing so. Should have just hung up right then.

“Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” she continued.

“Um… none of the above,” I said.  At its core, her present was essentially empty space, which is—subtracting the minerals, pollen, bugs and cat-hair that might be floating through it—none of the above. She didn’t believe this part and continued plying me with questions. I, in turn, continued being evasive and assured her that while she would really really love her present, she was never ever going to guess what it was.

After a goodly number of other questions, during which I let it slip that I’d had to make a phone call to make arrangements for her present, she asked, “Is this something that’s going to help me cook?”

I could guess what she might be thinking, which I theorized was that she thought I’d ordered her a Kitchen-Aid—a device she has always wanted and which I will one day buy for her when we have money.  However, it was still a perfect chance for a veiled hint, because once the washing machine was out of the way we would finally be able to get to the shelf of cookbooks its been blocking for the past year and a half.

“It might help with cooking,” I said. “It might indeed.”

Oddly, this was not the clue that tipped her off.  What tipped her was what I said shortly after she said she wished she could come home on Thursday instead of Saturday, as scheduled.  I became fearful that she might actually mean it, or worse yet, do it.  It would be just like her to have secured an extra two days off somehow and come home early.  She’s done similar sneak-arrivals many a time before and she never tells me in advance, allowing me to be happily surprised when she pops in the door, or scared out of my wits when she pops in the door in the middle of the night.  The idea that she might pop by in the middle of the washer moving process was not one I fancied.

“Uhm, well if you do come home tomorrow, make it tomorrow afternoon,” I said.  Stupid.

“Why is that?” she said with justifiable suspicion.

“Uh… cause the… um… dancing midgets might not be gone by then,” I lamely said.  “They, uh… they gotta practice for your party, you know.”

There passed a long silence.

“I know what you’re going to do,” Ashley said with a sudden assurance.

“You… you do?”

“Yep. I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you because it will just piss you off.”

I could tell by her voice this was not a bluff. Somewhere in that long silence, understanding had dawned on her and I had no doubt that she had figured it out. I don’t know if it was a stray phone-routed psychic signal from me or just that she’s smarter than the average she-bear.  Bottom line: she knew and now I had to know for certain that she knew.

“No, go ahead and guess,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” she said.  There was a dangerous pause.  “You’re getting rid of the washer, aren’t you?”

I cursed, loudly. As she predicted, I was instantly pissed. Once again my big surprise was ruined due to my own stupid mouth and her woman’s intuition. Why? Why can’t I just shut up about it all and keep things a surprise? Why do I have this Blofeld-like need to show off with crafty clues? Why do I let her draw me into these hint-sparring matches in the first place? Why, WHY, WHYYYYY?!

Ashley laughed and laughed as I ranted and cursed some more and pounded the couch cushions. When I was finished and had calmed down, she told me that it was a very thoughtful and sweet present that she did love. And not only was it a very nice present, but it had the added bonus of allowing her to guess what the present was through constant pestering, which she really really loves and is frankly more enjoyable for her than being surprised in the first place.

So the next day, I went and picked up the U-Haul, hand-trucked the washer up the ramp and hauled it down the hill to the charity second-hand store. (And, yes, I did warn them about the washer’s somewhat wonky working-status—I’m not so much of a cheap jerk that I would foist an unreliable appliance onto a charity organization with no warning.)  At the end of the job, with mileage and a few gallons of diesel factored in, my total price came to around $30, which I figure is a respectable amount to spend on a birthday present.

At the moment, there is only stray cat food in the space where the washer once stood, but I’ll soon have that cleaned up and her card in its place, ready for her arrival tomorrow. She may not be surprised, but she’ll be considerably less cluttered.

EPILOGUE

Back before Ashley guessed what her birthday present was, she asked if I was going to make her a birthday cake and buy tooters. I hadn’t actually considered either a cake or tooters, but decided that at least one of those was a good idea. She even suggested I make the fantastic carrot cake recipe she’d found on the internet.  And after Ashley ruined her own surprise by guessing her present, the only thing I had left going for me was possibly surprising her with cake.

I’d never actually made a carrot cake before, but figured it couldn’t be too hard so I dug out the recipe. It had lots of other yummy stuff in it, like raisins, crushed pineapple, dates, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, pecans and a cream cheese icing. I had a lot of the ingredients on hand, but did have to go to the store to pick up dates and carrots all the same. I also decided to cheat on the homemade icing and just buy some Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It’s good stuff and I probably couldn’t make better by myself.

Friday night I started preparing it. It’s kind of a three bowl affair with a dry ingredients bowl, a wet ingredients bowl and a fruit, veggies and nuts ingredient bowl. You mix the first two together then mix in the third, slap it in the oven and take it out in an hour. Well I gathered what I thought were all of my ingredients and put them in their respective bowls, mixed them in the proper order and poured the mixture into the first of two floured cake pans I’d prepared.  I was supposed to fill the pan to 3/4ths from the pan’s top and I did this, but I had no cake batter left over afterward to fill the second pan.  I had somehow expected there would be more batter than that.  How the heck am I supposed to make a double layer carrot cake if I’ve only got one layer?

Oh, well, I thought. It’ll work out. I slapped it on in the oven.

Can you guess which ingredient I left out?

That’s right: THE CARROTS—only the MOST important ingredient of a Carrot Cake.

I’d been trying so hard not to screw it all up and had been very careful to set out all of my ingredients ahead of time, except, apparently, the stinking carrots, which remained in the fridge. I only realized my mistake when removing the cake from the oven, whereupon I surveyed its beautiful brown surface and thought to myself, “Oh man, now that’s going to be one badass tasty carrot ca–aaahhhhhHHHHH!!”

In the end, though, it turned out just fine.  We learned that you can make a carrot cake without the carrots and it’s still absolutely delicious.  It had plenty of other nummy ingredients to make it interesting.  Sure, it was a little bit drier than we might have liked, but still just… Mwahh!

In fact, here’s the recipe.  Go try it yourself and see if I’m not right.

JUICE’S LACK OF CARROT CAKE

Preheat Oven to 375 degrees

In first bowl mix
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

In second bowl mix
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup corn oil

In third bowl mix
3 cups shredded carrots *
1 16 oz can crushed pineapple
1 box dates (shredded)
1 cup flake coconut **
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup raisins

Thoroughly mix first and second bowls, then stir in ingredients from third bowl. Pour into floured cake pans until the pan is 3/4 full. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.

* Optional
** If you leave out the carrots, you might put an extra cup of coconut in. I think I did by accident and my cake was scrumptious.

Cream Cheese Icing
4 cups powdered sugar
28 oz cream cheese at room temp
1/2/ cup unsalted butter at room temp
4 teaspoons vanilla

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’, Electric Coma, Ghost of the Bent Turd, Three Heaps of Itis Blues (Two Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tales in One)

Somewhere out there, my former and unlamented vehicle, the 1985 blue Chevy Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd, has died.  Not that the death of the Bent Turd would be surprising; it was on its last legs when I owned it, so how much better could it really be treating the poor bastard who had the misfortune of buying it at a bulk car auction?  I figure the first time it broke down, or made that horrible Velociraptor through a jet intake noise that caused me to get rid of it in the first place, its new owner probably sold it for scrap and it has since been compacted into a nice blue and rust-colored metal cube.  Until recently, however, I didn’t actually have any clinical evidence that the `Turd—a devil contraption that left me stranded, powerless and full of utter desperation on far more occasions than I care to count—was indeed no more.  That is, until its ghost up and possessed my new car.

Last month, on a Friday, my wife Ashley returned from her month-long pediatrics rotation with what seemed like at least two different illnesses.  They say no medical student gets out of a pediatrics rotation without contracting at least two handfuls of walking crud, and this would seem to be true.  The snot-nosed, Junior Typhoid Marys in Princeton are spreading contamination in every direction their uncooperative little heads can turn.  Ash firmly believes that if, as a child, she had ever thrown a spitting tantrum and refused treatment in a doctor’s office, like some of the kids she’s seen, she would not have survived the beating her mother would have given her in return.  Alas, parenting skills in Princeton would seem to be low priority. As a result, Ash had been given some pretty heavy symptoms that looked as if they would take more than a couple of days to shuck.

Almost as if mirroring Ashley’s ailments, my 1999 blue Chevy Malibu began giving off congested sort of sounds as I turned the key in it, Saturday morning.  A pang of guilt rose in me, as I’d been procrastinating about taking it in for a much-needed oil change for the last thousand miles or so.  But as my day progressed, this pang grew into a full-fledged guilt trip.  It seemed that every time I tried to start her up, the Malibu’s engine had more and more difficulty coming to life.  At one point, it failed to start on the first try and I had to do it again—a first time occurrence for this particular vehicle.  By Sunday night, it was obvious that I needed to take this car in and soon.

My theory—and I speak from years of experience as an automotive dumbass—was that the car’s engine had very little oil in it or, at the least, very old oil in it, and was having difficulty starting due to lack of proper lubrication.  It could have been ignition gnomes for all I really knew, but I imagined the whole thing would soon seize up and become a chunk of fused metal unless I took steps to prevent that.

Monday morning neither Ash nor the car were feeling much better.  The car started, albeit hesitantly, and drove me across town to my favorite service station, near my library workplace.  I left it with them and walked to the library, spending a couple of hours there before returning to collect it.

“We checked all your fluids and replaced the oil,” the little old man who runs the station said.  Then, almost as an aside, he asked, “Did you have any trouble starting it this morning?”

“Yeah.  I assumed it was caused by old oil.”

The man gave me a funny look I wasn’t sure I liked.  “Wasn’t the oil.  It was your battery,” he said.  “We had to jump it off just to get it in the garage.”

Ah ha!  The battery!  That at least made sense.  This car hadn’t had a new battery since I bought it, so it was probably about time for this four year old, high-fallutin’, Duracel to kick off.

It certainly didn’t sound up to snuff when I started the engine in the service station parking lot.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew my battery issues would come to a head soon very soon.  Sure, it could probably get me home, but there was no guarantee it would start the following morning and I might once again be stranded at the hands of a blue Chevrolet product.  It was time to change the battery.

Now what I should have done was leave the car with the service station and ask them check it out and replace it.  Instead, I drove the car to work and let it sit all day while I contemplated my next move.

The last time I changed a battery was in the Bent Turd after it went into an electric coma in a grocery store parking lot, back when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi.  My buddy Joe had been visiting me at the time and it was only with his assistance and chauffeuring skills that I was able to get the dead battery changed and retain my sanity.

Back then, my automotive tool box consisted of a broken crescent wrench and a hammer, so Joe first had to take me to Wal-Mart for both the new battery and a ratchet set with which to install said battery.  Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the ratchet bits in my new kit actually fit the bolts of my battery cable clamps.  A semi-nearby autoparts store sold us a correct sized battery-clamp-changing bit.  However, while the new bit fit the standard bolt on the black cable clamp it did not fit the metric bolt some damn genius had seen fit to install in the red one.  Back we went for a metric bit.  Back we went again for a metric bit that was the correct size.  Then, to our horror, we figured out that all our trips to the autoparts store had been a waste of time since the metric bolt had actually fused with both the cable clamp and the battery post and no amount of ratcheting was going to pry it loose from the battery anyway.  The people at the auto-parts shop, whose facial expressions had clearly been downgrading our intelligence with each successive visit, were more than happy to sell us a pair of cable cutters, a new cable clamp to splice onto the end of the cable once we’d cut it, and the most expensive roll of electrical tape outside of the Air Force.  In the end it would probably have been easier to build a new car around the battery.

Such problems were to be expected with the Bent Turd, but not the Malibu.  I should have known something was amiss right away.

I called Ashley and told her of my plan to replace the battery while the replacing was good.  She said it was a good idea and that she’d been to the doctor herself that day.  She’d been diagnosed with the triple-threat of conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis, most of which were manifesting in her left eye.  The conjunctivitis and sinusitis she had no doubt caught from a leaky toddler, but the tonsillitis lay firmly on the doorstep of her own childhood physician who, for unknown reasons, refused to take hers out.  Bastard.

Leaving the library parking lot wasn’t fun.  I turned the key in the Malibu’s ignition.  The dash lights flickered and the engine gave a couple of dry-heaves.  I turned it again.  More heaves, then more flickering.  But, on the third try, the engine heaved once then started up and stayed up.  Brilliant!  I put her in gear and immediately drove to Advance Autoparts, the only auto-parts place in town that I knew was both able to diagnose my turmoil and open.

At Advance Autoparts, a young guy named James wheeled a battery testing cart out to my car and began hooking it up to the battery.  The test computer made several painful little sounds.  James adjusted the clamps on the battery posts and pressed some buttons.  The sounds continued.

“I think it’s dead,” James declared.  “No, wait,” he said, watching his display as the test computer made a somewhat less-distressed whine.  “It’s not dead.  Says you have two volts left in it.  You’d need twelve to start the car.”

“Take me to your batteries,” I said.

We went back inside and looked up what kind of battery I would need.  The best one they had cost $109.  This seemed a little steep to me, since the battery I’d bought for the `Turd had been around $45.  I paid the $109 anyway.  Turned out to be the best money I’ve spent all year, because Advance Autoparts offers not only free testing of your vehicle’s battery but free installation of a new battery should it come to that.  In essence, they saved me from the following tribulation.

James wheeled his tool cart out to the Malibu and began the process of unscrewing the cable clamps.  While he was doing that, I regaled him with the above tale of the Bent Turd’s battery change.  James agreed that it was a horrible experience to have to go through and pointed out that fortunately both bolt heads on the Malibu’s old battery were of standard measurement.

I should have kept my mouth shut.  I’d been thinking of that earlier incident throughout the day, so the `Turd was already in my thoughts.  And if there’s anything I learned during my time with the Bent Turd it’s that you can never say its name because that only gives it power.  At that moment, the evil spirit of my former vehicle perked up its ears, heard its name taken in vain and bit down hard on any chances of an easy repair.

James had already taken off the black cable clamp and had started on the red one when he found it mysteriously wouldn’t budge.

“Bolt’s kinda tight,” he said.  He sprayed it with some WD-40, waited and tried again.  Nothing.  He repeated.  Still nothing.  James scratched his head.

Over the course of ten minutes, various sized bits were tried, none of them effective.  James then went for his pair of vice grips and attacked the bolt with them for a few more minutes.  All this accomplished was to further strip the bolt head.

I stood by the car, thankful that I wasn’t the one who had to deal with it and thankful that I had thought to dress warmly that morning.  My fleece vest, long sleeve shirt and overcoat were nice and toasty while James’ hooded sweat-shirt looked awfully thin.  There was fear in my heart, though.  What if James couldn’t change the battery out?  What if I was left stranded in the Advance Autoparts parking lot, waiting for the tow-truck to come and haul my poor possessed Malibu off to—dare I even type it—the dealership!  There was no way in hell I’d get my car out of there for less than $200, and that wasn’t including the battery for which I’d already spent $109!  Damn you, Bent Turd!  Damn you!

“This is the worst battery I’ve ever had to change,” James said, just to further erode my confidence.  “I better go get Cliff.”  James returned a few minutes later with Cliff, who was evidently the resident veteran battery changer.  I was rather hoping for Max von Sydow, from the Exorcist, but Cliff didn’t even have a crucifix.  Instead, he took a look at the battery, smiled and picked up James’ pair of vice grips, taking glee in his belief that he was about to show James up.  Cliff, however, had never met the ghost of the Bent Turd.

Over the course of the next forty minutes, the two men struggled bitterly with the battery cable.  James’ original set of vice grips were abandoned—nay, hurled back into the toolbox—in favor of a brand new pair from their selection of tools inside.  The new grips certainly gripped better.  They also ground the head of the bolt into a nearly smooth condition much better than the previous pair too.

Twenty minutes into their battle, through sheer brute force, Cliff managed to pull the bolt and its terminal out of the battery entirely.  However, the bolt was still fused into the terminal itself, which was now dangling at the end of the cable and which still couldn’t be attached to the new battery until the bolt was removed.

“We need another pair,” Cliff said.  And back inside James went for yet another brand new pair of vice grips.  When he returned, Cliff clamped his grips on one side of the bolt and James clamped the new ones to the other side.  They then spent another twenty minutes struggling.

During this time, I paid only marginal attention to what they were doing.  Sure, I was having to wait a long time, I was having to stand in the cold with threatening-looking rain-filled clouds hovering overhead, I hadn’t had any supper, but I was warmed and filled by my own personal internal sun of thankfulness that I was not the guy having to do any of this work.  And I was pretty sure neither of them would give up until they’d finished the job.  This was personal.

Eventually, even the immortal spirit of the `Turd must have grown weak, for with a great triumphant cry from James and Cliff the bolt finally turned and came free.  Cliff grinned, clapped James on the back and then, with his job well done, retrieved his jacket from within the store and went home to the Missus, leaving James to mop up the last of it.

“I’m real sorry you had to wait this long,” James said.  “It’s the damnedest thing—`scuse my language.”

“Please,” I said.  “You’re not putting me out at all.  In fact, you guys just saved me from the biggest headache I can imagine.  If you hadn’t been here to do this, it would have been me and my wife having to do it in my cold driveway back home.  And she’s got conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis!”

“Ouch,” James offered in sympathy.

I suspect the spirit of the `Turd was not been fully exorcised by the Advance Autoparts staff.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I drove down to my in-laws’ house in North Carolina to meet up with Ash, who was visiting her parents and still trying to shake off her various diseases.  About mid-way through the trip, I tried pass an 18 wheeler and was startled by a sudden loud flapping sound from somewhere within the car.  I thought it was a tire at first, but there was no loss of steering control and no emergency lights came on.  In fact, other than the flapping, everything seemed fine and after a couple of minutes, even the flapping stopped.  I hoped that what I heard was merely a tie rope that might have come off the 18 wheeler, wrapped around my axle and flapped itself to bits against the road.  Hope being a powerful thing, I drove the rest of the way to NC and didn’t think much more about it.

Ash suggested I might have lost an engine belt of some sort. I figured it was probably the air-conditioning belt and not the drive belt, since I’d had no problems driving and hadn’t had the air-conditioning on at all.  Seemed logical.

Turns out, it was the drive belt AND the air-conditioning belt, since a `99 Malibu only has one belt for all of its various systems.  Only about half of my belt was still in the engine, but it had fortunately split down the middle, rather than snapped entirely, so there was still a bit of belt to keep everything running.

We determined pretty quickly that replacing the belt ourselves was out of the question, even with my industrial mechanic father-in-law helping.  It seems a special non-metric and non-standard tool is required—a tool which cannot be found even at Advance Autoparts—not to mention the ability to detach the motor itself from the frame of the car in order to thread the new belt into it.  In fact, according to the mechanic who was nice enough to replace our belt for a decent price, and on a Saturday no less, the whole belt issue is really a conspiracy between the dealerships and the manufacturers, who are trying like hell to produce cars that are impossible to repair at home.

While the ghost of the Bent Turd may have struck again, and may yet still be with me, I’ve come to a rather surprising conclusion about it: I think I like it.  Sure, its presence may have caused my car to break down, but in both of the above instances it didn’t strand me and actually went out of its way to see me to my destination.  Maybe it feels bad for all the crap it gave me while it was still alive and is trying to make up for it in the afterlife.  Maybe it’s holding my car together, Blues Brothers style, at least until I can get within paying range of a qualified mechanic.   Maybe God sent it back, like some great big blue and rust-colored Della Reese, to become my car’s guardian angel. Or maybe blue Chevy’s just suck.  Whatever the case, it’s almost… ALMOST… good to have it back.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

 

The Talkin’ Med-School, I Can’t Get Into Things Without My Keys, Furlough from the Crazy Hospital Blues (Another Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tale)

My wife is in her third year of medical studies with the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.  In third and fourth year, the students are no longer chained to a desk in a classroom, forced to endure hours of lectures that ostensibly are for the students’ benefit but which sometimes amount to a professor reading his lecture notes, which he’s already given to the students, verbatim.  Instead, the students are set free into the world to rotate between various hospitals in various states where they can study the various disciplines of medicine on a more personal and hands-on basis.  They’re also able to schedule vacations between rotation sessions.  And it was from just such a week long vacation, spent resting and relaxing on the beach without me, that my wife recently returned home.  She had two weeks of vacation scheduled, so she had spent one at the beach and then was spending one with me to make up for my not being able to spend the one with her at the beach.  Unfortunately, this final vacation week was scheduled to coincide with three days of pre-testing her school was planning to unleash upon the third year class to help them survive the upcoming OSCE national exams.  So all of her fellow third year classmates had returned to the area from their far flung rotations like birds to the roost.

On Thursday evening of that week, the wife phoned me from the school.

“Poo, can you come pick me up.  I’ve lost my keys.”

I hopped in the car and headed over to find my the wife traipsing up and down the drill-field of the school, looking for her keys in the freshly mown grass.  (This school used to be a military academy, which explains the presence of a massive and otherwise unnecessary drill field in the center of its campus.)  She was pretty sure they’d fallen out of the pocket of her sweater when she was walking between buildings, but the grass had been mown that afternoon and she was none too hopeful that she would find her keys in once piece.  We both searched for a while, but didn’t even find any bits of them.  We gave up and went home, content that if the keys hadn’t been shredded they would turn up at lost and found the next day.

It troubled the wife that she’d managed to lose her keys after so many months spent not losing them.  My wife, you see, used to be an Olympic champion-level loser of keys, perhaps even beating out Paula Mabry, my high school drama teacher, who lost her keys at school on a daily basis and for whom we had to pool money and buy one of those key chains that will beep when you whistle.  The wife’s key loss ability mostly stems from the fact that she hates carrying a purse, barely tolerates a pocketbook and doesn’t always wear clothing that equipped with proper pockets to store her keys in.  That and her habit of laying her keys down in a different place every time she comes home has lead to many a key vanishment and much teeth gnashing on my part.  I used to beg her, in the name of all that’s holy, to please just put her keys in the same place every time so that she would always know where they were.  I don’t know how she finally managed it, cause she still sets her keys down in a different place every day, but the wife eventually developed some sort of system that kept her from losing them cause it had been a couple of years since the last key-loss incident.  (Either that, or she just wised up and stopped telling me about them.)

Sure enough, on Friday evening we got a message that one of her fellow students had picked up a set of keys by mistake.  Unfortunately, the student discovered this only after she was back home in Ohio.  Still, no worries, the student said she would mail them to us.  In the meantime the wife would use the spare house and car keys we have so she would still be able to drive to her psychiatric rotation scheduled the following week up at the crazy hospital in Weston.

The following weekend, The wife braved the two and a half hour trek and soaring gas-prices to return home from Weston.  She didn’t much relish spending the whole weekend locked in the student apartment in the crazy hospital.  (“Let me tell you,” she said, “those people are crazy.”)  Another reason for coming home is that I was scheduled to sing in the spring concert of the Greenbrier Valley Chorale at Carnegie Hall, WV, on Saturday night.  It’s a grand affair, requiring me to get tarted up in a tuxedo and highly uncomfortable shoes.

Saturday afternoon, while putting on my tux for the gig, I decided that my giant wad of keys would thoroughly trash the lines of my pants.  To remedy this, I removed the sub-ring containing only my house key, car key and the key to the universe.  (Yes, I do have the key to the universe.  It’s an over-sized skeleton key that has, over the course of the 15 years it has been in my possession since I purchased it from Wal-Mart, tarnished and lost much of its original gold veneer.  At some point I’m hoping to find the lock to the universe, and when I do you will all rue the day, I assure you.)   This slimmed down key system fit nicely in my pants pocket without being lumpy.  For the same fashion reasons, I left my wallet, checkbook and watch in the car.

The concert went brilliantly.  The wife said it was her favorite of all the ones she’d seen so far and that she was terribly jealous that she didn’t get to sing in it because of her topsy-turvy schedule.  Afterwards, the chorale held a wine and dessert reception downstairs in the Old Stone room of Carnegie (which is another oddity, as the room appears neither old nor to be made of stone).  The wife and I were planning to be good and stick to our low-carb lifestyle at the reception.  However, there were no diet soft-drinks to be had.  My logic suggested that if we were going to have to be “bad” and drink something with sugar and lots of carbs, it may as well be wine, so I grabbed a couple of glasses and went back to find The wife.  Turns out she didn’t want any wine, so I was forced to drink both glasses on my own.  Having not had much to eat for the past few hours, the wine immediately went to work on my head and soon I was feeling rather pleasant.  Shortly thereafter, we stepped over to the dessert table on the premise that we would allow ourselves one small treat from it, but of course came away with brimming plates full of sugary goodness upon which we feasted until our hearts and bellies were content.   I then suggested to the wife that she drive us home, as I was too euphoric and tipsy to attempt it myself.  I gave her my keys and home we went.

The following morning, we decided to be heathens and skip church.  We rarely do this, but there was a lot to be done—laundry, plant-watering, plant-planting, plant-repotting, etc—before she could return to the crazy hospital.   I helped her with the chores and she was able to leave by mid-afternoon and shortly thereafter I settled back in for another week of a semi-bachelor lifestyle, (i.e. a steady diet of bad food and bad TV).

At noon on Monday, I decided it was probably time I left the house.  I needed to mail some packages and hit the grocery store for more hamburger patties and pepperoni.  Plus, the rest of my week was pretty booked solid.  In addition to my grueling three-day work schedule, I was starting rehearsals for an upcoming play Monday night, with further rehersals Wednesday and Thursday nights, plus I was also scheduled to be out of town for most of Tuesday for library software training in Union, WV and Tuesday night brought a second concert with the chorale in an opera house up in Marlinton, WV.  If I was to get any errand running done, it would likely have to be Monday afternoon.

Imagine my horror when I went to pick up my keys to leave and found only half of them there.  Missing was my ring of car, house and universe keys… a ring last seen in the possession of my wife the key-loss tri-athlete.

Not to panic.  She had probably just laid them down in a random place in the living room when she came in.  Only when I searched the living room, they were nowhere be seen.  They also weren’t to be seen in the kitchen, nor on the dining room table, nor atop her dresser, nor my dresser, nor the bathrooms, nor my office, nor her office, nor, once again, the living room.

Where the hell had she put them?

Maybe she gave them back to me and I just forgot and left them in my tux pants, I thought.  Nope.  My tux was hanging in the closet with pockets upside down and there were no keys in them nor in the jacket nor on the floor beneath.  Well, maybe they’re still in her clothes then, I thought.  I tracked down what I thought were the pants she had worn on Saturday, but they contained no keys.  Then again, she had tried on a similar looking pair before we left Saturday night, so these might be the doppleganger pants instead of the real ones.  However, the only other pair of similar looking pants seemed to be missing from both the closet and the laundry.  My as yet unspoken fear was that she had taken the pants and my keys with her to Weston.

No, don’t panic yet!  They had to be somewhere else.  The alternative was to horribly true to consider. 

The car then?  I didn’t know whether to pray that they were or weren’t.  My wife did have a habit of leaving her own keys in her car, on the logic that no one in their right mind would want to steal a beat up 1991 Ford Escort Station Wagon.  But would she have left the keys to my 1999 Chevy Malibu in it—a vehicle no longer pristine and semi-possessed by the evil spirit of my former vehicle, known as the Bent Turd?  Of course, if the keys were still in the car then chances were excellent that the car would also be locked.  Come to think of it, my wallet, checkbook and watch were still hidden in the car too.  I ran down and checked the car.  It was unlocked, but no keys were within.

This left only the horribly true alternative of the keys remaining in The wife’s pants, now with her at the crazy hospital.  I would be trapped in the house during my week without a single free-night to spare.  I would have to bum rides just to get to work.  Or to play practice.  Or to the concert in Marlinton.  And the true irony of it all was that if we hadn’t skipped church in the first place we would have figured this out on Sunday when the keys were still in town.

All search avenues exhausted, I picked up the phone to make the fateful call.  Even before I dialed the number, I was convinced it would bring nothing but sadness and frustration.  The wife probably did have my keys, which was a complicated prospect of which I didn’t even want to think about the full ramifications.  I saw many phone calls to my insurance company and possibly to Fed-Ex in my future.  And even if she didn’t have my keys, she wouldn’t know where they were here.  Heck, she’d probably be hard pressed to tell me where HER keys were, let alone mine.

“Hello?” The wife answered from her apartment in the crazy hospital.

“Um, Swee…” I said.  “Um… do you know where my, uh… my keys are?”

“Your keys?”

“Yeah.  The one’s you… uh… last had when you drove us home Saturday night?  I can’t find them anywhere.”

“Oh,” she said, and I could hear the full weight of understanding behind her voice.  In that one word, she had comprehended the entire situation down to its fibers and extending to its unpleasant consequences.  “No.  I don’t know where your keys are.”

“They’re not still in your pants are they?”

She thought for a minute.  “No, I don’t think so.  I’ve already unpacked everything.  I don’t know where they are.”

At this almost all hope fell away from me.  She didn’t know where they were.  They weren’t even with her there, which meant they were hopelessly lost here.

“Unless, maybe they’re in the chair?” she added.

“Huh?” I said.

“The chair…” she began again.  “Yeah.  My keys were on the back of the chair and when I picked them up I thought I heard another set fall.  They might be in the cushions.”  I raced down the hall with mobile phone in hand, running to get to the big, overstuffed green chair in the living room.  I reached it and started yanking overstuffed green cushions.  At first, I saw nothing.  Then, from deep within the ass-crack of the chair, I spied the tarnished, formerly golden edge of the key to the universe.  I was saved!  Hallelujah!  Once again, the sweety had come to my rescue and  saved the day!  And from the crazy hospital, no less.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Baked Goob, Toxic Bread Blues (a wintery Horribly True Tale)

I’m such a goob.

I was off from work last Wednesday, so I spent much of my day cooking.  Actually, I spent a small portion of the day in food-preparation after which the crock-pot and the bread-machine spent much of the day cooking beef stew and whole-wheat bread respectively.

We’re not exactly sure what went wrong with the bread.  Might have been too much yeast added due to some confusion in my mind over the difference between tablespoons and teaspoons.  Might have been the naturally organic yogurt I had used in it, which might have gone bad due to the fact that, the night before, I’d accidentally left the refrigerator door cracked just enough for the no doubt 100 watt fridge light to remain on, partially cooking our perishables. (And once again, thank you very much, previous apartment tenants, for your gift of 100 watt bulbs in every socket in the place, including those with little signs on them specifically forbidding you to insert 100 watt bulbs into the sockets.)  Like I said, though, I’m a goob.  I didn’t even notice anything was wrong with the bread until my wife Ashley came home.

“What is that horrible smell?” she said upon opening the door. This was not at all what I wanted to hear after a long hard day of cooking.

“Well it should smell like stew and bread!” I said, rather defensively.  Nothing smelled bad to me, but then again I’d been soaking in the various aromas for most of the day and no longer really noticed them.

Ash sniffed again.  “Well, I can smell the stew, but there’s something funky in here too.”  She went right for the bread machine, which was still 20 minutes away from finishing its job, and lifted the lid.  A moment later, she coughed and backed cautiously away from the machine, as though it might go for her throat.

“WHAT did you put in this bread?”

“Bread stuff,” I said.

“It’s making my eyes water.”

And indeed, upon sticking my own head above the open bread machine, my sinuses were instantly attacked by an unseen toxic force.  This was worse than the plastic particle fumes from that time I incinerated the non-stick spatula on an unattended burner.  My eyes began pouring tears and I had to slam the lid shut and run away.

“Okay, that’s poison bread,” I said between gasps.

We agreed that the best thing to do would be to get my loaf of concentrated evil out of the house as fast as possible.  We took the bread canister out of the machine by its handle and set it outside on the back patio table.  This didn’t seem good enough to me, though, so a few minutes later I went out on the patio, shook the loaf out of its metal canister and then hurled it as far as I could over the back fence into the cow pasture beyond.  It struck ground and rolled down the hillside a bit.

I kept an eye on it over the next few days.  The cows of the pasture would have nothing to do with it, but the birds seemed to appreciate my gift and regularly fought over it.  Of course, birds can eat poisonous things that would kill a human, so this was no real surprise.

Last night it snowed.  Not the car-burying blizzard that was predicted, mind you, but there was a good dusting covering the ground this morning, accompanied by lots of bitterly cold wind.

Being Wednesday, again, I am once again on my day off and having to contemplate possibilities of dinner.  Before deciding what to cook, I remembered that our church was having a potluck dinner that evening and that I’d agreed to make a loaf of my legendarily good garlic parmesan bread for it.  I gathered up the ingredients, plugged in the bread machine and removed the bread canister from within.  Only then did I notice that the gray mixing paddle was not in its usual place on the spindle at the bottom of the canister.  To my horror, I realized that I’d neglected to remove the paddle from the bottom of the poison bread before hurling it into the pasture last week.  The birds have long since eaten all the bread, presumably leaving the paddle, but due to its light gray color and the dusting of snow I’ve had absolutely no luck in locating it.

May have to wait `til spring.

 

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

Horribly True Hate Mail

All right. Which one of you sent this in?  I mean, this has GOT to be a joke. If not, it’s a horribly true tale in the making.

I just received my first three pieces of hate mail concerning my page Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker.  It appears that a mom and her kid were surfing the web at 3 a.m., a couple nights back, did a subject search on truckers and happened upon my page. Not usually a bad thing, except mom is apparently the wife of a trucker and evidently she made a few massive assumptions after reading only the TITLE of my page, became enraged and began firing off angry one-sentence missives to me concerning her perception that I’m somehow badmouthing truckers. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the end results of her mistaken perception are pretty funny. These are possibly even better than the angry letters I got from a nine year old WebTV user condemning my old cat games page.

Here they are verbatim, albeit with slightly altered email addresses….

—– Original Message —–

From:Horseyfied____@aol.com

To:efrtzius@gmail.com

Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2002 3:00 AM

Subject: y u talkin bout truckers

 

it ain’t true abot truckers cause they are true 2 the fact

Not exactly sure what Horseyfied feels ain’t true “abot” truckers. My guess is she thinks I’m calling them all a bunch of drunks since the page is titled Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker.  An honest mistake, I suppose, assuming she read only the title and NOTHING ELSE ON THE WHOLE PAGE.  If she had read further, she should have noted that truckers are barely mentioned and never disparaged. They only turn up in The Secret Origin of the Drunken Trucker section and in The Talkin’ Utter Desperation, Bent Turd, Blue Tub Blues, and in no way are they ever called drunks or even accused of drinking at all. What I actually said is that many JOURNALISTS are cranky and have alcohol problems, and that some of them used to be drive trucks BEFORE becoming journalists. But I clearly make the distinction that they didn’t actually become drunks until they quit driving trucks and took up the journalism. (And this seemingly exaggerated claim is based on actual research revealed unto me during Bob Arnett’s HISTORY OF MASS MEDIA class, at MSU circa 1990, which stated that the profession with the highest number of alcohol-related problems in the United States was that of newspaper editor. Didn’t say nothing abot no truckers drinkin’, though. In fact the whole trucker angle came about after a fellow journalism major, one David Smith, drove a truck for while before landing his first journalism job. Last I heard, he’d given up the profession to become a youth pastor.)

One message from Horseyfied was not enough, however. Her second follows…

—– Original Message —–

From:Horseyfied____@aol.com

To:efritzius@gmail.com

Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2002 3:03 AM

Subject: truck driver

 

my husband is on the road plus he’s always a #1 dad always try that

Oh, great. Not only has she sussed out that I’ve called her husband a drunk, but now I’ve evidently called him a bad father to boot. I’m foreseeing an ass-kicking in my future. (Crap!  I didn’t put my home address anywhere on the page, did I?)

I swear, some folks just WANT to get upset regardless of whether anyone’s given them a valid reason.  I mean, even if she had read only the title, it still doesn’t even say anything bad about truckers in general.  The page is called Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker, not Horribly True Tales From All Truckers Are Drunks and Bad Fathers

I, of course, would never jump to massively incorrect conclusions based on scant amounts of information and proceed to make an ass out of myself as a result.  (Have I mentioned October is National Sarcastics Awareness Month?  Oh, cause I thought I HAD!!!)

Next up, I get one from her son, Jaren…

—– Original Message —–

From:Horseyfied____@aol.com

To:efritzius@gmail.com

Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2002 3:04 AM

Subject: this is jaren

 

my dad mite be on the road but he’ ]s always on the phone & e-mailing us 2!!!!!!!!!!!

Oy!  Now I’ve upset the kid as well. Probably caused irreparable damage to his psyche requiring years of therapy. Check the time code, though…  I’d probably think my dad was pretty cool too if he let me stay up til 3 a.m., surfing the web on a school night.  When I was a kid, if my butt ever got caught up at 3 a.m., the house had better have been on fire.  Maybe Horseyfied woke him up to come defend dad’s good name. Who knows?

At any rate, they certainly told me off but good. I feel all guilty, and stuff.

So let me just state for the record, in case there are any more doubts, that I in NO WAY think truckers are a bunch of drunks who are not #1 dads not, nor do I think they neglect their children and don’t call or e-mail them. From all I’ve heard about truckers, they are indeed true 2 the fact.  (Newspaper editors, though, I’ve got your number.)

Now, normally I don’t respond to the few items of hate mail that I get. (For instance, I didn’t respond to the 9 year old WebTV cat-lover after her savage review of the Cat Games page, not only because she was 9 years old but also because picking on WebTV users is like making fun of the handicapped.) However, when an adult takes the time to wildly misconstrue something I DIDN’T say in the first place and send me three angry e-mails about it with more exclamation points than are absolutely necessary, I feel a polite response is required. Thus, I have replied with the following:

Dear, Horseyfied and Jaren,

 I’m a little taken aback that you seem to have been offended by my page, Horribly True Tales From The Drunken Trucker.  You seem to be under the impression that I have something against truck drivers. This is not true.

 I hope by now you have actually read a bit further down my page and have seen that it is actually a collection of humorous tales about my life and not a condemnation of truck drivers. Beyond the appearance of the word Trucker in the title of the page, truck drivers are hardly even mentioned and, when they are, are not accused of any wrongdoing. In fact, in one of my stories I actually point out that it was a truck driver who once gave me a lift to the nearest phone after I had been stranded on the side of I-55, after my car overheated and its improperly self-repaired radiator blown up during a 104 degree summer in Mississippi and without his assistance I might have suffered heat stroke and died. He might have saved my life, so I’m really not sure why it is you seem to think I’m making fun of truck-drivers.

 Now, if you had been angry at me for making fun of journalists, Maury Povich, rock `n’ roll groupies, telemarketers, or employees of Delta Airlines, the Tombigbee Electric Power Association, Federal Express, the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Skyline, Mississippi, Volunteer Fire Department, I might be able to understand as there’s plenty of that to be found on the page.  But by and large, I’ve nothing bad to say about truck drivers.  As far as I’m concerned, interstate commerce, as assisted by the truck driving community, is pretty much the backbone, or at least a vertebrae, of the United States economy.  Without truck-drivers, our system of life would break down, Wal-Mart would close and we’d all be plunged into a new era of misery and feudalism in which we could not get a decent Quarter Pounder With Cheese.

 In closing, I have nothing against truck drivers. 

 Yours truly,

 Eric

———————————————–
ERIC “Juice” FRITZIUS
efritzius@gmail.com

     “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must
      begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

       — Benjamin Franklin

 

The Talkin’ Med-School, Infinitely Bad Seizing Kitty, George Jones’ Devil Nuggets Last Summer Break Ever, Filthy Cat Crate Blues (a Horribly True Cat Tale)

Medical school is the kind of rigorous experience that, should you survive it, most people you meet afterwards will be instilled with a sense of confidence that you know what you’re talking about.  They will begin calling you doctor and will start coming to you for advice on issues that Band-aids and Ibuprofen don’t seem to be helping.  They will also pay you money for that advice—or rather, their insurance companies or whatever HMO they happen to be shackled to will pay you.  (Maybe.)  But again, actually surviving medical school is the key issue.  This is why, after your first year of med-school, the administration goes round and makes sure all the first year students have removed their old pizza boxes and sleeping bags from the corners of the study rooms and then they boot the students out into the real world for what will likely be the last summer vacation of their professional lives.  The students are told to rest up and relax in preparation for being hurled into the raging river that is second year.

It was with the above in mind that Ashley, my first year medical school survivor wife, and I decided to leave our West Virginia mountaintop home and head down to the beach for a week.

Going to the beach is something of an annual tradition for us—in fact, it was during a trip to visit Ashley at the beach that our romantic relationship first began.  We usually go to Holden Beach, NC, where we stay at Ashley’s grandmother’s house along with Ash’s parents, sisters, their husbands, their kids and whoever else turns up for these mid-summer mini-family reunions.  Everybody dedicates themselves to the leisure activity of their choice.  And every day, we follow the throng of nieces, nephews, siblings, parents, cousins and various in-laws to sit on the beach until we are all horrifically sunburned.  Then we trek back to the house where we slather our baked skin with aloe vera and adhere ourselves to the couch.  It’s a vicious cycle that we seem powerless to resist.  However, there are some other annual traditions that accompany this process of beach-going, one of which involves our cat.

Winston Churchill: The Infinitely Bad Kitty—so named because, like most babies, she looked exactly like the former British Prime Minister as a newborn—is  mostly finitely bad these days.  She is still often bitchy and quite a bit catty, but I guess that’s to be expected.   As I’ve chronicled in past tales, Winston does not travel well at all, even when sedated.  I know this because I’ve had seven different apartments during Winston’s ten years of life and she always makes it her business to turn moving place to place a living hell for all involved.  Taking her on vacation with us is therefore not an option.  Boarding her locally would also be a traumatic experience for her, considering what an enormous wuss she is.  Instead, we find it best to leave her in the house with a well-stocked cat-feeder/waterer and hope the place doesn’t burn while we’re gone.  We’ve found that the real trick to leaving her behind, though, is to somehow pack all our stuff in the car and depart with the cat remaining in the house.  Simple on paper, not simple in reality.

As soon as Winston sees bags being packed, she begins plotting her escape and has on more than one occasion proven herself the rival of Harry Houdini.  Winston has escaped from bathrooms, leashes, harnesses and once managed to disappearate from a closed and securely fastened cat-crate, an event we have yet to explain.  Such extremes are usually unnecessary, as it’s much simpler to just slip out the door when we’re not paying proper attention.  Once outside, she goes right for the most inconvenient place to hide, say in a junk-filled, flooded basement or beneath a neighbor’s utility shed.  In these cases, we have no alternative but to try and coax her out, usually by opening a can of tuna upwind.  Winston’s been through that drill so many times, though, that she usually just sniffs at the tuna vapors from well out of arm’s reach and then trots off to hide again.  In the end, one of us has to make a leap, snatch her up by whatever bit of her we can grab, then fling her and the can of tuna into the house, slam the door and run for the car.

Shortly after we awoke, Winston sensed something amiss and began lurking.  I saw it and immediately gave Ashley my pre-packing warning speech about being extra careful going in and out of doors.  It’s another of our annual traditions which I continue because Ashley’s annual tradition is to let the cat slip out anyway.  She began packing while I went downstairs to the kitchen to see what food was likely to go bad within the week.  This is where Ashley found me, twenty minutes later, with the back door wide open as it had been for the ten minutes since I’d opened it to fling a rotten grapefruit into the cow pasture behind our apartment.

“Don’t you think you ought to close the door?” she said, an evilly sweet smile upon her lips.  I started to ask why just before it hit me.  Oh the anguish!  The cat had probably escaped yet again and this time it was actually going to be my fault!

Before going for the tuna reserves, I figured I’d better take a cat inventory.  She wasn’t under our bed, so I tried the guest bed.  It’s more difficult to tell who’s under the guest bed, as it has no frame but is merely a mattress and box spring resting atop two footlockers between which are stored a maze of long comic book boxes among which Winston likes to hide.  The cat refused all calls, but I suspected she was under there anyway.  Rather than waste valuable time coaxing, I just lifted the mattress and box spring up from one end and took a look.  Sure enough, Winston was there, shocked that her ingenious hiding place had not only been discovered but was much more accessible to the humans than she had thought.  I put the bed back down and mercifully she stayed underneath it, sulking until after we had departed.

Vacation went great.  We loafed around the deck, getting sun, reading books and leisurely snacking.   And for once no one got horrifically sunburned.  This we attribute to the fact that instead of having a house packed full of assorted children all yammering to go to the beach at high noon, this year there was only one child who we were able to bully into waiting until after 5 to hit the beach.  In fact, the only horrific burning that occurred was when I stuck my hand into a microwave oven and was surprised to find that I’d seared my knuckle on the heating element.  Why, you might ask, would a microwave oven have a heating element in it when most microwave ovens tend to heat food using microwaves and not glowing hot tubes of metal?  I asked that same question.  I don’t recall the specifics of the answer, probably because I was busy suppressing my usual string of curses to keep from unleashing them in front of Ash’s grandmother.  Much aloe vera followed and the knuckle is nearly back to normal.

On the way back home, we swung by our old digs of Charlotte, NC, to pick up my sister Alison, who was flying in for a week of loafing, movie-watching and snacking on our back patio.  My parents were supposed to be coming in as well, but at the last minute my dad developed something of a heart condition involving a dilated aorta and had to stay home.  Much aloe vera followed and he’s nearly back to normal.

Winston was happy to see us when we got back, though she was reluctant to admit it.  She usually tries to punish us for leaving by pretending not to recognize us for a while and meowing non-stop.  But this time we’d brought Alison, who is one of the few people Winston actually likes, so we were forgiven after only a few minutes.  One look at the furniture told us that Winston had shed a whole second cat’s worth of her orange fur during the week.  We had to rub her down good with our cat-grooming glove before we could wear dark clothing again.  Also, as usual, she had eaten nearly half of the contents of her cat-feeder, which takes her at least a month when we’re home, and I won’t even go into detail about the status of her litterbox.

On the subject of cat food: We feed Winston Kit N’ Kaboodle, the feline equivalent of Kibbles N’ Bits, but without the bits.  It’s just about the only brand of dry cat food she’ll tolerate.  During college, I used to experiment with whatever cat food was cheapest and made the error of buying a heaping 8 pound bag of George Jones’ Country Gold kitty feed down at the local Sunflower.  (Yes, the same George Jones responsible for such country songs as “White Lightning”, I Always Get Lucky With You” and “Beer Run”.)  It only cost me $5, so already I thought it was great stuff, but it wasn’t as popular with the cat.  She would eat it only as a last resort and got progressively thinner as the days went by.  I thought she was just being finicky, figuring how bad could it really be?  Finally, I bought a small bag of Kit N’ Kaboodle and did a taste test myself, much to the amusement of my roommates.  (I come by this behavior naturally, as this is exactly how my dad earned the nickname Mr. Alpo among the other kids in my neighborhood, growing up.)  So I ate a piece of Kit N’ Kaboodle and it wasn’t too shabby.  I’ll be proud to choke down a few bowls of it after I’m old and feeble and everyone’s Social Security has run out.  Then I tried a piece of George Jones.  You know that line in the movie Weird Science that goes, “How about a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?”  Well, I could have used one of those to wash down my nugget of George Jones and it would have been a refreshing palette-cleanser by comparison.  I spit out as much of it as I could, rinsed repeatedly with Listerine and have spent the intervening years trying to erase the memory of that foul and unholy substance.  (Which wasn’t easy to do, considering my first job out of school was at a radio station in Tupelo, MS, located next door to the Sunshine Mills Petfood Distillery where they make George Jones’ Country Devil Nuggets.  On rainy or otherwise humid days, the area was haunted by the distinct aroma of the ghost of cat food eaten past.)  Afterwards, I felt obligated to hurl the offending bag into the dumpster and profusely apologize to my cat, promising her only Kit N’ Kaboodle from there on out.  It’s far from the most expensive stuff on the market, and I’ve always scoffed at the kind of pet-owner who spend upwards of $20 a month for those tiny little bags of Science Diet from specialty pet food stores.  I buy in bulk and I buy Kit N’ Kaboodle.

Days passed at home and we settled into a new routine of lounging around, reading books, listening to tunes and being generally unstressed about anything.  The same could not quite be said for Winston, who after venturing outside one day, was startled by a neighbor’s dog and fled to one of her outdoor hiding places.  As usual, she turned up only after dark when it was safe to come out and mew at the back door.

The next morning, while Alison and I were sipping coffee and contemplating breakfast, Winston strolled in, crouched down and began trying to heave on the kitchen floor.  Nothing was coming out of her but her sides were billowing in and out and she was making definite gagging sounds.  At first we were content to just let her throw up, because it’s much easier to clean up in the kitchen.  Winston must have realized that too, for she immediately ran to the living room carpet to continue throwing up.  I was just getting up from the table to try and stop her when Alison spoke up.

“I think she’s having a seizure!”

We ran to the living room and found Winston convulsing on the floor with a glazed look in her eyes.  It certainly appeared to be a seizure to me, and I speak as the former owner of an epileptic German shepherd.  It was horrible enough to watch, but I had the added knowledge that one of the local cats in our apartment complex had recently gotten into some kind of chemical that nearly killed him.  He’s okay now, but the local vets had to ship him off to Charleston for kitty repairs.  My fear was that when Winston hid out the day before, she managed to get into the same poison and was now experiencing the early stages of its wrath.

After standing there, cursing and pulling at my hair in panic for a bit, I came to my senses and realized I needed to do something.  There are no cat EMS units around here, that I know of, so we would have to rush Winston to the vet ourselves.  While Alison watched the cat, I ran back through the kitchen, out the back door to the patio to retrieve Winston’s blue plastic cat crate.  It was absolutely filthy, caked with dirt and leaves and bugs, having been exposed to the weather for the past ten months.  I snatched it up and was on my way back in when Winston, who had by now come out of her seizure, caught sight of it, knew she was about to be transported and fled up the stairs.  We rushed after her, hoping to cut her off before she could hide, but she had already dove into the maze of boxes under the guest bed.  Once again, I lifted up the mattress and box spring to expose her hiding place at which point she bolted past us and back down the stairs.  I dropped the bed and we tore after her, but upon arriving in the living room we found it was empty.  At first I thought she had run out the back door, but even in my earlier panic I’d managed to close it.  That left one other place: The couch.

Even before the day I bought it, my couch had a gaping hole in its side.  I don’t normally make it a practice to buy furniture with gaping holes, but I was offered a great deal on this one and couldn’t pass it up.  Sure, some might argue that buying an Army-green canvas covered sleeper-sofa with lime green piping is never a good decision, even if the store throws in a matching overstuffed comfy chair and knocks off a couple hundred dollars on the pair because of an oh so tiny gaping hole.  Perhaps not, but at the time I had very little furniture at all, even less money and was living in a festering hellhole of an apartment in Tupelo, Mississippi.  It was therefore my policy that if sacrifices were to be made they would be made in the department of good taste rather than the department of Eric doesn’t get to eat this week, so the couch got bought.  It’s not pretty and it’s not even particularly comfortable but it’s mine.  One of its major drawbacks, though, beyond the whole Army-green thing, is that the cat adores the easy access to the interior through the gaping hole.  We used to cover the hole with boxes and have even stitch-witched it shut a time or two, but like an ugly old war wound the hole always reopens.  Recently, we purchased slipcovers for the couch and chair that make them quite a bit less Army-green and cover up the holes at the same time.  However Winston has learned how to lift up the edge of the slipcover and get in anyway.  What exactly she does in there we’re not sure—it’s  what we imagine her doing in there that worries us and she’s strictly forbidden from it, not that this stops her.  Winston knows we would have to expend an undesirable amount of effort to get her out and are far more likely to just leave her alone in there instead.

“Dammit!” I shouted.  Actually, I shouted my new favorite phrase involving water-fowl plus a word that rhymes with the particular type of bird in question and the combination of concepts therein.  I knew I was going to have to take apart the couch to get at the cat, but doing so is the kind of Herculean task you really need to work up the effort for gradually.  To procrastinate, I decided to phone Dr. John, the much-favored veterinarian of our friend and neighbor Beth, owner of two elderly, hyper-spastic, hypochondriac dachshunds, just in case he wanted to be standing by with kitty crash carts, or whatever.

“Yes, hello,” I told the guy who answered the phone.  “I don’t have an… an account with you, but I have a cat that’s having a seizure… or, had a seizure a few minutes ago… and I’m just calling to let you know I’m bringing her in.”

“Um.  We don’t have any veterinarians here today,” the guy said.

No veterinarians?  How could they not have any veterinarians in?  They were a veterinarian’s office.  Having veterinarians in was their whole raison dêtre.  This was like calling McDonald’s and being told they had no tasty, fatty fries.  This was like calling Super Wal-Mart and hearing they were no longer pimping the coupons of other grocery stores in an effort to derail their sales.  This was like Raiiaaaaain On Your Frickin’ Wedding Day!  Why did this guy even bother to answer the phone if there were no vets on hand?

“What?” I asked, managing to wedge the above paragraph into my tone of voice.

“Um, uh, Dr. John’s on an emergency call and the other veterinarians are off today.”

“Well, do you have any suggestions, then?”

“Um… I, uh… um…” said intern boy, nervously.  Then he put down the phone to confer with someone else in the office.  I could hear him describing the grand mal seizure my cat was having in far more detail than I had actually provided.  Then he came back to me with the suggestion of the Seneca Trail Animal Hospital.  I hung up, dialed them, asked if they had any vets about and, if so, would it be okay for me to pop in with my cat unappointed.

“When were you planning to bring the cat in?” the receptionist asked.

“Well, she’s stuck in our couch at the moment, but as soon as we can get her out we’ll hit the road,” I said.  The receptionist said that was fine.  One set of directions later and I hung up and turned back to the problem of the couch.

I yanked off the slipcover and began hurling couch cushions in all directions.  I then gingerly unfolded the sleeper bed, so as not to maim any ill-placed kitties within, further compounding an already problematic day.  We peered down into the couch’s innards for any sign of Winston.  An orange tail was soon spotted extending from beneath the arm-rest on the side of the couch with no hole, but the tail was retracted before either of us could get near enough to grab it.

“Dammit, cat!  You’d better come out now.  I’m not above tearing a new hole and coming in after you!”  And I meant it.  What did I care if the couch had a few more holes when we had a slipcover to hide them.  I was about to go get a kitchen knife to begin carving when Alison was somehow able to coax Winston out enough to gently scoop her up.  Besides being a bit scared the cat looked fine.

We manhandled her into the filthy cat crate and were headed for the door when I made two startling discoveries.  One, I was still barefooted because I definitely felt the squish when my foot came down in the cat puke where Winston had been seizing earlier.  There wasn’t much of it, but I did spy a single blade of grass on the carpet.  I snatched it up and put it in a glass container in case the doctor needed a sample of stomach contents, or the poison, or whatever sample the doctor was likely to need if I didn’t have it handy.   I grabbed flip-flops, then the crate and then made my second startling discovery.  Like most cat crates, mine is made to come apart for easy storage by removing a series of plastic bolts holding the top and bottom halves together.   Except my crate seemed to be missing its front right plastic bolt and the weight of the cat had pulled apart a vaguely cat-sized opening between the halves.  So that’s how the little monster had escaped from it last time!  I fumbled for the corner before the cat could squeeze through it and had to carry the whole thing to the car with both hands.

We had not even left the parking lot before the wailing began.  This was actually comforting to me, though, for if the cat was busy wailing she could hardly spare any time for seizing.  She squalled all the way to the Osteopathic school where Ashley was busy at her work-study job analyzing monkey videos for one of the anatomy professors.  (Monkey raises his hand, mark it down.  Monkey picks another monkey’s nose, mark it down.  Monkey takes a dump, mark it down.  Rewind.)  I had to run up three flights of stairs to get to her lab, which in the shape I’m in took the wind out of me.

“Cat… seizing… Dr. John… useless… Taking her to… other vet… Coming?”

A few minutes later, we arrived at the Seneca Trail Animal Hospital.  I was somehow expecting to be greeted at the door by waiting vets ready to take Winston right in for immediate treatment, bypassing any waiting room triage.  Nope.  Just the mildly concerned receptionist, who didn’t even stand up to pass me the clip-board of paperwork I’d have to fill out before they would even take a look at the cat.  Since Winston seemed mostly okay, I didn’t make a stink about it.  I was already feeling a bit embarrassed that my cat crate had shed leaves and dead bugs on the counter.  Meanwhile, the paranoid portion of my brain (a fairly large section that I’m beginning to suspect may be planning a coup on the rest of my brain) began imagining that somewhere, behind mirrored one way glass, the vet was watching me and checking off “Filthy Cat Carrier” on a list titled Sure Signs of Animal Abuse, before calling the police.

After more waiting, we were finally ushered in to see Dr. Sylvia, a very nice motherly type of lady who gently pulled Winston out of the crate, poked her in the stomach a bit and pronounced that my cat was suffering from a hairball.  It was a relief and a let down all at the same time.

“But what about the seizure?” I asked, trying somehow to negotiate myself into a position in which I wasn’t the moron who just broke his ass getting there for a damn hairball.

“Well, these little beasts can put on a quite the scary show when they’re trying to cough one up.  Their sides will pump in and out and they’ll roll around trying to twist it free.  Once or twice a week, we get somebody rushing in here thinking their cat is dying, but it’s only a hairball.”

Nope.  I’m the moron.

In my defense, I’d never seen Winston do anything like that before, but I figured Dr. Sylvia knew what she was talking about.  She had, after all, survived medical school.

Dr. Sylvia asked what we fed Winston and suggested that Kit `N’ Kaboodle was probably not the best.  She recommended we invest in an expensive, unleaded cat food made for treating hairballs, explaining that it didn’t contain the kind of filler material—I’m imagining cardboard—and pretty coloring cats can’t see anyway.  She also gave us a tube of meat-flavored paste that was supposed to help with the hairballs.  Meat-flavor or no, Dr. Sylvia said Winston probably wouldn’t willingly eat the paste so we should just cram the nozzle in her mouth and give it a good squeeze.

Ten minutes later and fifty bucks lighter we departed Seneca Trail Animal Hospital, one noisy cat in hand.  Our first stop on the way home was the Expensive Specialty Pet Store where we picked up a stout wire-bristle cat brush and our first tiny bag of Science Diet with added pumpkin fiber for hairballs.  They say you mock what you fear and you become what you mock, so I guess I’m living proof.

It’s not so bad, though.  I figure if Winston has been able to survive 10 years of living with me she deserves the best food I can give her.  Plus, she only eats like a pig when we’re gone, so we’ll save money as long as we never leave the house again…

….for the rest of our last summer break ever.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

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