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DATELINE: Monday, March 21, 2005

CLINIC DAY 1:

I woke up at 4 a.m. with something akin to a minor anxiety attack. I’m not usually an anxiety attack prone person, though I admit to having spent many an Hour of the Wolf worrying over things I have no control over. This one was no different. Instead of worrying about my first clinic, though, I was worried about my stupid cat back home in West Virginia. I could just imagine her curled up on the edge of the bed meowing pittifully to herself because we hadn’t come home. And she would have nearly two more weeks of that before we came back. I know it sounds sort of dumb in retrospect, but that’s how my head works. After lying there for nearly an hour fighting to get to sleep and failing because I kept hearing mewing in my head, I took a moment and prayed for the little beast. I prayed her time alone would not be painful and that God would lessen her anxieties as well as mine. After that, I went to sleep.

At 5:30, I woke up again and stayed woke up. I wanted to sleep longer, as I actually had until 6:30 before breakfast was served, but I also wanted to get up and grab any available water the showers might have. Sure enough, there was some. Evidently the water pump had found some life during the night and was able to send some water up to the hillside tanks above us. I used it to its fullest. It was so nice to be clean.

It was also nice NOT to be a walking pile of ache, as I had expected. Not even my feet ached, though, and they ache on most days.

Breakfast was pancakes and more fresh fruit.

Afterwards, we held our morning bi-lingual devotional with Pastor Douglas, during which he talked about the need to call upon God’s help for our clinics that week. We also had prayer in Spanish and English for the doctors and medical staff who would be ministering to the physical needs of the patients and for the missionary staff who would minister to their spiritual needs.

We all knew what kind of stressful atmosphere we were about to go into—or at least we thought we did. At this point, I knew I was scarcely prepared for the job I’d been assigned and knew how much of a seat of the pants operation our set up would be. The night before, I’d been happy to leave the clinic site with no set up just because I was hot and tired, but that was looking like less of a good idea today. I was just hoping and praying that we could set up our pharmacy before the doctors could see too many patients and send them to overwhelm us. Whatever the case, I knew that we were doing God’s work and he would assist us and lend us strength to accomplish it. We just had to keep our faith. (Always easier said.)

For our first week’s clinics, our WV team was originally to have three Osteopathic physicians, but one of them, Dr. Wadell, developed some rather nasty stomach problems days before the trip and was forced to stay home. We came with Dr. Allen and Dr. Lally. Assisting them would be three first year students (Carrie, Sarah, Dwan and J.C.). Our two fourth year medical students (my wife Ashley and her friend Flo) and third year med-student (Andrew) would be seeing patients on their own, consulting with the doctors as need be. The team from Wisconsin came armed with two dentists, a dental surgeon and several dental students. We also had two midwives, at least one nurse and a number of non-medical personnel, including Dr. Waddell’s wife Sandra and their daughter, plus the daughter of one of the dentists, quite a number of local missionaries and translators and one library assistant (i.e. me). All together our group was probably pushing 90 people.

Our trip back to the bus-station took around 20 minutes. On the way, we passed probably 50 people who were either waiting by the side of the road for a ride or were walking along the edge of the road on their way to work. So many people in the area have to walk everywhere they go. Or catch rides in the backs of pickup trucks. I don’t think we saw a truck that didn’t have at least ten people in it the entire time we were there.

We arrived at the bus station clinic around 8 a.m. Mary Ann and I, already apprehensive and prayerful, were horrified to find that our little green jail cell of a pharmacy contained none of our requested shelving. We didn’t relish having to jump from duffel bag to duffel bag, rooting through bottles and baggies of pills to find the drugs we’d need for each prescription. We needed shelving! I started searching the bus-station for some shelves. I found a ready supply of plastic lawn tables with removable legs. These had been given to the entire team for our use. I figured two of them stacked would make for half-way decent shelving with room for storage beneath. Four of them were even better. Of course, it would be kind of difficult to reach the meds on the top tier in the back, but some shelves were better than no shelves. Still we had an awful lot of drugs to store, so taller shelving with more actual shelves was still needed. I left the pharmacy cage and began searching again.

Before I could search very far, Butch came to tell us it was time to introduce the mission team to the crowd. Crowd? I hadn’t seen a crowd? Where was the crowd? Mary Ann and I left our shelf setup in the pharmacy cage and followed Butch, Dr. Allen and a number of other med-staffers down the long hall that made up the clinic proper and around the corner. There we found the rest of the mission team gathered for prayer. Afterwards we began filing through a doorway at the end of the corridor that led into the open market area of the bus-station where we found ourselves standing at the edge of several dozen locals seated in plastic lawn chairs. This was ostensibly the pre-waiting room for the clinic where the patients who arrived earlier and received a number card wait.

The way our medical mission clinic system worked was like this: potential patients arrived in the morning before the medical team. They were each issued a numbered card–essentially their “ticket” into the clinic–until all the allotted cards for the first half of the day had been distributed. (Probably 60 cards total. More cards were distributed later in the morning and even into the afternoon once it was clear what the patient turnover rate was and we could tell if there would be time in the day to see more patients.) At this point the patients were brought to the pre-waiting area where they are seated and eventually introduced to both the medical team and the mission team. One of the missionaries, usually Butch with Marcello translating, then explained the clinic/mission process. The patients were told how the entire med/mission team was there to minister to both physical and spiritual needs. On the physical side, the patients would be seeing doctors and the doctors would diagnose them and give them a prescription for medicine, all free of charge. The fact remained, though, that we could not give them a life-time supply of medicine and what we were able to give them would be gone within a month or so. However, the news of the gospel that the mission team was there to share did come in a lifetime and even after-lifetime supply. Every patient there would be given the chance to hear the gospel message. No one had to accept it or even listen to it if they didn’t want to. But every patient would be given the chance to talk one on one with a missionary. Regardless of their decision, they would still see a doctor and be treated. The missionaries were just there to offer more.

The only thing I really knew about the medical side of things was what I had heard from Ashley and from Dr. Wallace, (the physician who had been the medical team leader for Ash’s 2003 mission). Dr. Wallace contends that the only “real medicine” he ever gets to practice is when he’s doing mission work. When he’s in his office in the states, there are a myriad of do’s and don’t’s that restrict the way he can work. One naturally thinks of HMO’s and insurance companies and the many rules and regs associated with them, not to mention mal-practice insurance, but there are other pitfalls for the average doc too. For instance, if a doctor sees patients whose care is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, that doctor is extraordinarily restricted in what he can do for any other patient he sees. Let’s say the doctor sees a patient who is not on Medicare and does not have insurance to pay for their treatment; that doctor might want to cut the patient a break and treat them for free, but under Federal regulations legally cannot do so because he or she accepts Medicaid patients. Cutting a non-Medicaid patient a break while seeing other Medicaid patients is tantamount to Medicaid fraud and the doctor could be fined incredible amounts of money. A doc can get around that by simply not accepting Medicaid patients, but then they would be cutting out a good portion of their patient base. That’s just one example of the kind of things physicians in this country have to worry about that they don’t in Central America.

On a medical mission, such rules and regs are pretty much thrown out the window. Such rules are not as strict in Central America to begin with. And if the mission doc sees a condition that needs treating then and there, he’s not going to refer the patient to another doc more specialized in taking care of it unless one happens to be standing within 20 feet at the time. Teeth get pulled, bones get reset, wounds get treated, medicines get prescribed and emergencies taken care of, all by the clinic docs. Basically, the job that needs doing gets done with no red-tape. (It’s how things used to work for family practice docs nationwide.) Granted, some things are beyond the scope of a medical mission staff and have been known to get shipped to the nearest emergency room, but for the most part if it walks in to the mission clinic it gets taken care of there.

As we were led out in front of the crowd and Marcello introduced the group of us in Spanish as the mission team. We then each took turns introducing ourselves to the patients, saying our name and what sub-group we belonged to. It felt very weird to say I was on the medical team, but that was my role for the week.

I stood there in line with my fellow team-members and tried to be patient, but my mind was screaming at me that what I needed to be doing was setting up the pharmacy and finding shelves to aid in that search. I’d seen some shelves in a caged and locked cubby-hole shop before, but had been told they were privately owned and we could not borrow them. While I stood there before the crowd, at one end of the bus-station’s open air market, I spied at the other end of the market area a set of tall gray metal shelves. They were next to a cubby-hole shop that was actually open, but the shelves weren’t being used.

After the introductions were finished, Butch explained that the med team’s needed to leave to go prepare their stations. I made a dash for those shelves. They were perfect! Tall, metal and gray, about six tiers worth of shelving, seven if we used the top. However, I didn’t want to take them without permission. I tracked down Mrs. Hounko again and asked her about the shelves. They didn’t seem to be in use and were sitting out in the open where we could get to them. She said she would ask the manager of the bus station and see if we could.

Meanwhile, back at the pre-wating area, Dr. Allen had stayed behind to offer his testimony to the gathered patients. This was a daily occurrence during the clinics, with a different team member giving their testimony every day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for any of the testimonies the first week, because I was busy seeing to the pharmacy. During the second week, though, I did hear a few and found them very affecting. It’s always intriguing to hear how the people came to know Jesus. Often, they do so despite fighting against it for years. And it can be even more amazing when you knew the person before salvation and can see what a life-altering change is made following it. (My own testimony is very normal and not terribly exciting in this regard. I’ve had my share of on-again/off-again time with the lord, a problem that I still struggle with. I’ll probably share it before this blog has finished.)

Mary Ann and Ashley were back in the pharmacy cage, assembling the tables I’d found into makeshift shelves. We began stocking these with meds, starting with the A’s. However, our luggage full of meds was not arranged in any particular order, let alone alphabetical, so there was much running and searching of bags to find what we needed. And we always found something we forgot to stock later and had to make space for it. Also, while many of our meds were of the pre-bagged variety, that we’d dosed out the night before, there were plenty of others that had not been counted and were still in big bottles. We just stocked those too and worried about the counting part later. We could see, though, that we were quickly running out of room on our make-shift patio table shelving. That was when Mrs. Hounko came to the rescue. She arrived with two gentlemen who carried in our requested metal shelves, set them up in the open corner of the pharm-cage and even wiped them off for us. We started shifting stock quick. Even with the shelves, though, we didn’t have room for all the meds, but after relocating our vast vitamin supplies to the floor, we felt like we were still in good shape.

During this chaos, the two people who were to be our primary pharmacy translators for the trip arrived. Their names were Cynthia and Esdras. Both looked to be in their late teens or early 20’s. We didn’t have time to chat much with them, though, because we were under deadline to get set up. They both chipped in to help us out and before long we had our makeshift pharmacy mostly set up, or at least as set up as it was going to get before our first patient arrived.

The job of pharmacist was pretty intimidating at first. As I said, I know little of pharmaceuticals beyond household painkillers, so I was initially terrified that I would make a massive screw up and do someone harm. However, I soon came to see that, for the most part, I didn’t really have to know anything about the drugs to do the job. Being a medical mission pharmacist mostly involved dispensing drugs as per doctor’s instructions as deciphered from cryptic dosage codes written in bad handwriting on the back side of each patient’s history sheet. It was also good that Mary Ann, my partner in med-slinging, is a nurse who knows from bad handwriting. She gave me further pointers by writing out some pharmaceutical codes for me to follow, that the doctors would be using.

qd = one pill per day
bid = two pills per day
tid = three pills per day
qid = four pills per day
hs = bed time (or hour of sleep)

There were also symbols for the quantity of pills to take with each dose, ranging from 1 to 3. These look like Roman numerals, without the bottom bar and with the addition of corresponding dots above the upper bar. As long as I could properly interpret these and other such instructions I was fine. And when I couldn’t, Mary Ann usually could. In extreme cases, we sometimes had to go track down the docs themselves to see what they meant, but usually we had it sussed out pretty good.

These codes were also easily transferred to our non-language based instruction slips we brought with us and which we included in each baggie of meds. The slips consisted of four panels featuring a face with a pill being shoved in its mouth. In each panel, there was also a time indicator, such as a sun rising for morning, sun at mid-day for noon, sun setting for evening or a moon for night. We’d circle the morning face for once a day, morning and night faces for one pill every 12 hours, three faces for a pill every 8 hours, and all four faces for every 6 hours. Beyond that, we also had Cynthia and Esdras conveying the dosing instructions in Spanish to help explain our circled cartoons. It was a simplistic way of doing things, but that’s what the job required. The docs were each seeing between 40 and 60 patients per day each, but we were seeing ALL of them. And when seeing hundreds of patients, you don’t have time to mess around with complicated instructions unless the instructions are actually complicated. We had our moments for that too.

For instance, some of the meds, such as Amoxyl, came in powder form and required mixing and refrigeration by the patients themselves. The amount of water to be added to the poweder was not measured in teaspoons, though, but 74 milliliters. So we had to mark medicine cups for them at the 30 milliliter and 15 milliliter marks and show them how they would have to pour two 30 milliliter amounts and one 15 milliliter amount, (Yes, I know, this makes 75 milliliters, but lets not pick nits), into the bottle and shake it all up. Then we had to mark the medicine cup for the 1/2 teaspoon amount of mixed medicine they would have to give to their child. This is where the translators Esdras and Cynthia became invaluable to us, because after we’d explained it to them only a couple of times, they knew exactly what to tell the patients and from there on out we just had to pass them a bottle of Amoxyl and say, “This is the Amoxyl/mixing/refrigeration speech,” and they’d go right to it.

After only a handful of patients had come through, I started feeling more confident about the job. Ashley had stayed with us to help for the first 10 patients or so before being called away to start seeing patients herself. It was a little scary to me at first that she wasn’t there as our safety net, but I didn’t have much time to worry as more patients came flying at us. I tell you, having the experience of working Mondays at the library certainly prepared me well for the stress of the pharmacy cage that day. In fact, I daresay I’ve had worse days at the library. Just not for 12 hours straight.

Even with only Mary Ann and I inside the cage, it was still terribly hot. I was sweating profusely and constantly wiping it away with my arms so as not to soil my hands. Eventually, I went and found a wash cloth to use as a sweat rag, and I carried it everywhere I went. When I did manage to soil my hands, I was very careful to wipe them down with my ready supply of hand-sanitizer before continuing with the pills. I also made frequent trips to the bano to wash them with soap and water and then more hand-sanitizer. The patients didn’t seem to mind that we were sweating. They were sweating too. It’s just one of the realities of being trapped in a cage in a sweltering bus-station. Before too long into the day, Marcello brought in a fleet of oscillating fans to set up at each medical station. Our pharmacy cage power outlet wasn’t working properly, though, so our fan had to be set up across the hall and pointed toward us. Unfortunately, most of the wind was blocked by the patients waiting for their prescriptions. The fan wasn’t entirely ours, either, as Ashley’s doctor station was two cubbies down from us and she needed air too, so the fan oscilated between us. We were all pretty uncomfortable.

As I said, we still had pills that we needed to count out individually, because they had not been among those pills that were pre-dosed before. Mostly we had to do this with Naproxen Sodium and Cipro, two drugs that the docs were prescribing loads of. In some cases, like for children, the prescription required a smaller milligram dosage than the pills naturally come in. In such cases, we would have to cut the pills in half. Most of the time this was easy enough, as we did bring a pill splitter with us. The splitter only worked with round pills, though, so for long pills, like Cipro, we needed to use Mary Ann’s extry-sharp Swiss Army pocket knife. (It was a brand new knife, so it was clean!) I split those on a cutting board, cupping my hand over the pill as I cut it to prevent pieces from shooting out between my fingers. However, during one pill-cutting session, my cupped thumb wound up beneath the knife and when I chopped down on the pill it also chopped into my thumbnail, cutting into it at an angle from the tip down to about half an inch in. It didn’t hurt, but I immediately knew that I’d cut through the nail pretty deep. I was afraid I’d start bleeding, but other than a little blood beneath the nail, I was fine.

I was proud that, uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t start howling like a girl about my wound. I just slapped a Band-aid on it, acted like a real man and went back to my job. I became even more proud of this good behavior a few minutes later when a patient arrived at the pharmacy counter who had a wound far far worse than I pray I ever have or see again.

The wounded patient was a 73 year old woman, tiny, thin and frail-looking. She reminded me a lot of my Mamaw, only with long gray and black hair tied back in a pony-tail. She would have looked like any number of elderly patients we’d seen that day, but for one difference. Covering the right side of her face, around her eye, was a new white bandage that had been taped to her temples and brow. The woman had been led to us by Astrid, one the missionary translators who had been working with Dr. Allen that morning, who was holding on to the lady’s arm, steadying her and slowly guiding her to the counter of the pharmacy cage. (We didn’t yet know Astrid, but we would come to appreciate both her immense skills as a translator and her sweet spirit as the week progressed.)

As the lady passed her prescription to us, I first noted that it was written for antibiotic cream. Then, out of curiosity, I looked back up at the lady to her makeshift eye patch. The bandage didn’t quite reach all the way to her nose, and at the edge of it there I could see that part of the side of her nose was actually missing, just above her nostril. It was a crescent shaped wound but you could see from the size of the bandage that the visible portion of the wound was only a tiny part of the whole and that it likely extended across her entire eye orbit, if not onto her cheek itself.

I was only a little bit shocked at the sight initially, not having time to really consider the ramifications of such a wound. The lady didn’t seem to be in any pain, however. So I shrugged it off and started filling her prescription for antibiotic cream.

Most of our cream meds were in large tubes, which we parceled out smaller amounts from in little mini-zip-lock baggies. However, most of our anti-biotic cream came in little individual sample packets. The prescription didn’t specify how much cream to dispense, but I knew that if she was meant to put it on that wound for any amount of time she would be needing a lot of it. I loaded up a baggie for her with cream-samples and gave it to her. She smiled and thanked us and Astrid led her away.

Only after she had gone did I begin to wonder what had happened to the lady that could have caused such a wound? My imagination went into overdrive on this. One thing was certain, though: I knew that I would never again complain about having to stand in a hot and sweaty cage with a little self-inflicted cut through my thumbnail. Such things no longer mattered. That poor lady was living through far worse and did so with a smile. We would learn far more about this lady that evening.

We didn’t have time to dwell on what we’d seen. More patients and more prescriptions came at us fast and we were having to scramble. We could mostly keep up with it and didn’t have huge lines until one of us would run into trouble with a particular prescription. Usually our trouble was that the doc who’d written it hadn’t specified something that needed specifying, like how many pills should the person take and how often. Other times the docs would use the drug-name for the drugs and not the commercial name (for instance Ranatidine instead of Zantac) and I’d have to figure out what they meant. This affected me more than Mary Ann, who almost always knew which was which. I still had to go around making little duct-tape labels of all the different double named drugs we were commonly prescribing. And in other cases, we simply couldn’t find the medicine at all either due to our having misplaced it among the shelves or not having unloaded it from one of the four suitcases and shipping cartons in the first place. These stock-cases were scattered in different places down the corridor and we’d have to run and dig through them all before finding it. One of them, we discovered, had been left on the bus, so I had to find Oswald and his “bus key,” a.k.a. Marcello’s daughter, to help me fetch it. It went on like that all day long.

Just keeping up with the never-ending stream of patients bearing prescriptions was stressful enough. And even if I wasn’t going to complain about it, doing so under the conditions of heat, humidity and sweat made it even worse. In such an environment, tempers are apt to flare and I was afraid mine would be no exception to that. I’m well known in my house and sometimes at my place of employment for not dealing terribly well with stress. I have been known to growl and snarl and have on occasion been known to utter ear-blistering curses when under such stress. Oh, I keep it together pretty well during my solo Monday hell-shifts at the library, but prolonged exposure to such stress had me worried that I might crack. The entire mission team had been told to be on our best behavior and to always have a smile on our faces, because the locals would be watching us carefully. Here we were, ostensibly a group of Christians coming into towns to do work and help save souls. If we didn’t look the part, if we got angry or seemed unhappy at having to do the job that we’re doing, the locals would likely draw conclusions, maybe even correct conclusions, that we’d rather not have them draw. And I knew that the pharmacy was very important in this regard; after all, it would be the last impression most patients would have of our team and if we were short-tempered and growly, it would not be a good one. I had prayed at the start of the day for God to give everyone on the team strength in this regard, but especially me. I had known things were likely to get ugly and I wanted emotional backup from on high when it did. And I have to say that throughout the day, with very few exceptions, I remained blissfully calm and a smile—a genuine smile—was never far from my lips. I suppose I should not be surprised, for it was exactly what I’d prayed for. I think the entire team fell under this blanket of calm.

Another of the people on the medical team none of us had yet met was Emilio Salizar. Emilio was a 4th year medical student in Guatemala who looked like he was probably in his mid-20s. Sometime late in the morning he set up a clinic cubby-hole directly next door to the pharmacy. Emilio didn’t speak very much English, so we had to let Esdras do the introductions and interpreting. Much like my 4th year med-student wife, Emilio was there to see patients too. He had an advantage over the American docs, though, in that he didn’t have to have a translator on the patient end of things in order to do his job, so he was able to see far more patients far faster than most everyone else. The only real trouble came on our end, which is where the translation wound up shifting. Emilio would prescribe drugs with brand names we’d never heard of. And in Spanish. So most of the time we needed Esdras or Cynthia to translate the prescriptions before we could fill them. Often they would not be familiar with the drugs in question either and we’d have to go to Emilio himself and often consult Mary Ann’s PDA, which was equipped with Epocrates, a program for cross-referencing drugs and their international brand names. Emilio was wonderfully patient with us, especially the times he would come to ask us if we had a particular med and we’d just throw up our hands in classic “Beats me” pose. He would just grin and we’d start trying to help figure out what he needed. He became a familiar sight in the pharmacy during our clinics that week, often accompanying his patients, checking to see what meds we had on hand and then writing prescriptions right there. This didn’t bother us one bit. What ever it took to work things out was all fine with us.

Around 12:30 it was time for lunch. Since there were so many patients still waiting, we didn’t want to shut down the whole clinic for lunch so we were going to take it in shifts. Mary Ann volunteered to go second shift so she could eat with her husband, so I was to take first.

Lunch was served a few doors down from the bus-station itself, at what appeared to be an outdoor bar next to the local fire-station. We had a choice of either chicken sandwiches or hamburgers. My burger was pretty good, though I did notice the presence of a mysterious pink sauce on it that seemed to be a condiment. Our theory, upon later discussion, was that this was the Guatemalan version of “special sauce”, i.e. Thousand Island dressing. Only the ketchup to mayonnaise ratio seemed skewed more toward ketchup, making it pink instead of Thousand Island-colored. This would not be the last time I would meet this particular sauce during my time in Central America.

I didn’t hang around long after I’d finished eating. Though I did want a break, I knew the pharmacy was bound to be busy and Mary Ann would need relief. I also knew that once she and Dr. Allen went to lunch, the traffic would drop off considerably due to the fact that Dr. Allen wouldn’t be pumping patients through like the pro he is. And on this theory, I was right. Things slowed right down. I had time to talk to Esdras and Cynthia between prescriptions. Esdras gave me pointers on my Spanish. I’d been using a little that day, saying things like “Uno por dias” and “Dos por dias” for pill amounts to take. Esdras pointed out that I should actually be saying “Uno por DIA” as it was one per day and not days.

After Mary Ann & Dr. Allen returned from lunch, the clinic had its first emergency case of the day. It began with raised voices looking for Dr. Allen. I didn’t find out the details until later, but the emergency case was a man with a possible spider bite or scorpion sting on his leg. The wound had occurred some days before and had begun to redden and began to develop into cellulitis, an infection of the skin itself. The man had taken some Amoxicilin for it, which is an anti-biotic that’s available over the counter in Guatemala, but it’s not the right kind of anti-biotic to treat cellulitis, so the condition worsened. All the while he continued going to work, getting sicker by the day as the cellulitis infection spread through his bloodstream and made him septic until he collapsed that morning. When they brought him in he was burning up with a fever, dehydrated, delirious and unable to move his arms properly. Dr. Allen began treating him with a drip IV and came to us for liquid anti-biotics and other anti-biotic pills. Cooling him off was definitely part of the treatment too because at one point Butch came over and asked if he could borrow our fan. He said they needed it for a guy who was dying.

“Yes! Please! Go! Take it!” I said. I’m thinking, Don’t ask for the fan–just take it! He’s dying!

The man lived, but from what Dr. Allen said later it was a close thing and he might not have been out of the woods entirely. The man lay on a makeshift cot for much of the day until he finally woke up and by the end of the day he seemed pretty coherent as he walked the halls with his IV.

In the afternoon, Butch came to take my camera. Before joining Word of Life, he used to work for an IT department and is thus a fully wired dude of much computer savvy. He had brought his laptop, a speaker system and a video projector. (Butch was also never ever out of proximity to his PDA, on which he kept our daily clinic stats, syncing it up with the laptop every day.) Butch’s master plan was to collect all the digital cameras from the staff and download their pictures onto his laptop to save to DVD later. This way everyone on the team could have a copy of everyone’s pictures. It was a great idea.

Right around 4:30, my brain stopped working. It evidently had decided it had had enough activity for the day and was no longer going to function at peak capacity. The result of this was that I could no longer think clearly and everything I did took twice as long because I kept having to stop and refocus my brain on the task at hand. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated, so I chugged down some more water. Nope. Brain just stopped workin’ right. Of course, this is when we became the busiest.

Cynthia and Esdras dove in to help us out with the rush. By that time in the day, they’d seen most of what we were dispensing and knew the dosage amounts to circle almost better than we did. They jumped behind the counter and started dispensing, being certain to confirm with one of us that what they were doing was right. I never saw them make a mistake.

We were supposed to shut down the clinic at 5, but everyone knew this was an arbitrary deadline to be ignored. If we still had patients in the hopper to see, we’d stay until they were seen. The docs kept working and we kept dispensing until 7:30 p. Even after the last patient received their meds, we couldn’t really relax. So much of our medicine still needed counting and pre-dosing and we’d even run out of some of the dosed meds and would have to count out more from the stock supplies. We knew we’d have to haul a chunk of it back to camp to do later and after the draining day we’d already had, this thought nearly exhausted us. We proved this on the way back to camp, as several members of the team fell right to sleep, including Butch. Dr. Allen snapped his photo to give to Dr. Rich, who had fallen asleep at the church dedication the day before and had been photographed by Butch.

We got back to camp around 8 and learned that the water pump had been replaced during the day so the showers were running at full capacity. Yay! The transformer was still having issues, but as long as we only ran the one air-conditioner per cabin, we’d be okay. Sounded like heaven to me.

I dumped my stuff at the cabin and came down for dinner. Butch was at the pavilion setting up the slide show, going through and rotating the images so that everything was upright. He used a freeware slide-show program that allowed him to play the slides with music. The first song up was “Let my Words be Few” by Phillips, Craig & Dean. It’s a beautiful song and fit right in with the images that began flashing up on the screen above. I sat down to watch, seeing images of the medical team and dental team doing their jobs. Only then was I really struck with the incredible nature of what had taken place that day. Oh, sure, I had known in a kind of On Paper way that the mission was doing a lot of good, but I’d been trapped in the cage all day and had seen very little of the treatment, except on occasional bano breaks. Seeing it on the screen really brought it home and I knew that I had taken part in something far greater than myself.

Then the slide clicked over to a shot of the lady with the eye wound—only without her bandage covering it. As bad as I had imagined that wound to be from just the little glimpse I’d had of the edge of it, the reality was far far worse. Her entire ocular orbit was simply missing, from just above her nostril across her cheek and to the brow ridge. Gone. It looked like something you wouldn’t believe in a horror movie, yet there it was in full color. It was too much for me. The weight of the day fell on me hard and I began sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so very sorry for that poor old woman with half of her face missing. What had caused that? Dear, God, what had caused that? And all we had been able to do for her was give her a baggie of anti-bacterial cream.

I couldn’t take it. I walked away from the pavilion and into the darkness, down the hill toward the lake, and I just cried and cried. I had known my emotions had been close to the surface all afternoon, but now I couldn’t control them at all. I just stared into the darkness with tears streaming down my face while Phillips, Craig and Dean sang, “Jesus, I am so in love with you. And I stand in awe of you, Jesus.” And I found myself in awe. Surely there had to be some greater purpose in this woman’s life. Maybe she was meant to live as an example of goodness in the face of such a woeful injury. But what a price! It absolutely broke my heart.

I prayed then for the old woman. I prayed that God would take her home rather than let her suffer. Or if that was not his will, that God would make her the example of a beautiful soul shining through the tragedy that I hoped she already was. I just wanted her to have blessings in this life and to gain her deserved reward in the next. It was one of those moments in life that seem so incredibly unfair and make you wonder how God could allow such a thing to have happened. But the thing about God is, he knows what he’s doing. He has a plan and it will be carried out in his good time. That may sound like excuse-making to non-Christians, but I’ve seen it happen and I prayed that I had seen it in that lady’s face that day.

After ten minutes or so, I was out of tears. I could see Ashley sitting back at one of the tables beneath the pavilion lights. I wiped my face and went back up to sit beside her. She wasn’t in much better shape than me, emotionally, but she had a glorious smile on her face through the tears as she watched the slides from the day. She could see it too; the good that had been done by just a few people.

Later, Dr. Allen told us about the old woman. He had treated her. She is in her early 70’s and had received a burn to the eye from hot oil nearly 15 years ago. Her eye couldn’t be saved then and without medical care the surrounding tissue, starved of blood by the burns, began to slowly necrose. The wound has continued to increase in size since then and she was in horrible pain for many years because of it. But eventually, the nerves that were in the area died out and for the past two years she has had no pain from the wound at all. She keeps it very clean and washes it out every day. She had not even come in to the clinic seeking treatment for the wound itself, but simply wanted to know if we could give her a bandage to cover it because she didn’t like how it looked. Dr. Allen said he loaded her up with bandages.

I continued to be emotional throughout the evening, but I was far from the only one. As Butch read the stats of the day to us, we learned that the clinic saw over 500 patients that day and 117 of them accepted Christ, with many others reaffirming their existing faith. The medical treatment is definitely the draw that gets people in, but clearly some leave with much more. We had to give that an “Amen!”

We were up later than we wanted to be with our evening devotional, but we knew it was important. It was a time for people to share things they had seen throughout the clinic day and give thanks. The translators and local missionary staff seemed impressed at the energy of the medical team. We too were impressed by theirs. It may not seem like it would take much energy to translate languages, but it can be brain-taxing work. From all reports, the translators are fantastic and I already knew that ours were.

Afterwards, starting at 9:30 or so, we began the arduous task of pill sorting and counting once again. I really didn’t want to be there. I so wanted to go to the showers and then climb into bed, but I knew we had to keep plugging away or tomorrow would be far worse. Second day at any clinic setting is always busier than the first, because word gets out and word of mouth spreads fast. We had to have these things pre-counted or we’d be forever counting pills the next day. We had lots of volunteer help from the medical and dental team. As we started to work, Butch kept his laptop going and began showing funny little video clips he’d been collecting for years. The videos really lightened the mood and made the work go faster. I was still dog-tired, but at that moment I just felt great that we were laughing and continuing to work toward a larger goal that was bigger than any of us.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 1 STATS
Patients Seen: 525
Prescriptions Filled: 330
Salvations/Rededications: 114

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Sunday, March 20, 2005

My bunk house collectively woke up around 6 a.m. (Some before, some after, but that’s generally when everyone’s travel alarms began blaring.) I half expected my arms and feet to be throbbing limbs of pain from all the heavy-lifting the day before. Oddly, they didn’t. Such muscle pain usually doesn’t catch up with me for at least a day anyway, so I figured I’d be one giant ache, come Monday—just in time for clinic day.

I climbed out of bed and put on my flip-flops to go outside and have a look around in the daylight. The camp was gorgeous. Sure, it’s still very much under construction and there are plenty of signs of that—from the exposed rebar near the pavilion to the as yet unlandscaped red dirt to piles of rocks that will be used for paving pathways—but there was a lot of potential. And down the hill from the bunk houses and pavilion was a fantastic lake. The sun had just come up over a nearby hill, casting light across the surface of the lake and making the picture I was seeing of the men in boats net-fishing even more beautiful. Fishermen: It’s an appropriate image for our mission plans for the week.

I needed some bano time to freshen up from my night’s semi-sweaty slumber. I also needed to brush my teeth. This is something of a complicated affair for Gringos in Central America. You can’t trust the local water in most places that you visit. It’s only mostly okay for washing up. Sure, it’ll get the visible dirt off your hands, but any microbial contaminants in the water will stay on your skin and have a nasty habit of getting into your mouth the next time you decide to chew on a fingernail. Granted, we’d been told by Marcello that the water at the camp comes from a deep well and was thus most likely free from nasty biological contaminants, but we were still encouraged to use only bottled water when brushing teeth and always slap on some hand-sanitizer after washing hands. I did pretty good on my first go-round with tooth brushing up until it was time to rinse off my toothbrush. I’d already turned on the sink’s faucet to wash the toothpaste spit down, so naturally my hand plunged my brush beneath it to rinse it off too.

“Ahhh!” I screamed, quickly snatching up my water bottle and dousing the end of my brush as though it were on fire. My fellow bano-mates assured me that I was probably fine, but it was still a bad sign to me this fresh out of the mission trip gate.

Most of us dressed in our Sunday best for the church service we were to attend. The mission materials we’d been sent ahead of time stressed that for all church services the ladies would need to wear a skirt and a nice shirt and men to wear slacks with a shirt and tie. I brought a short-sleeved blue shirt and yellow tie which went well with my tan corduroys. When I went out to breakfast, however, all the higher-ups from WOL were dressed in light colored polo shirts. It turns out that the person who wrote up the rules for Sunday dress had cut and pasted them from a similar document designed for a European mission trip and never considered that such rules of dress would be woefully uncomfortable in Central America. I soon ditched the tie and the t-shirt beneath after the morning heat started to build up.

We had a breakfast of fresh fruit and tasty Zucaritas! (the south of the border version of Frosted Flakes. Somehow they’re tastier than Frosted Flakes because you get to call them Zucaritas! and say it with an accent.)

At our breakfast devotional, we met Pastor Douglas, who had come in on a late flight at 10 p the night before and had arrived at the camp in the wee hours. I must have been sleeping good, because I never heard him come in. Pastor Douglas is the minister for a church in Atlantic City, NJ. and was to be our primary minister for the mission that week.

The church we were to attend was in the nearest large town, of Esquintla, just under an hour’s drive away. (I didn’t hear Marcello’s time guestimation on this one, but I’m sure he probably would have told us it was 20 minutes away.) I didn’t mind being back on the bus at all. I wanted to see more of Guatemala in the daylight and absorb as much detail as I could.

We passed by field after field of sugar cane, mango trees, banana and plantain trees and sometimes coffee bean orchards. Mostly the fields were empty, though, save for some of the skinniest cows I’ve ever seen. Not starving, skinny—or, not usually—but still some very slender cattle. We also passed a scary-looking Guatemalan prison, which Oswald told us, via Michelle’s translation, is called “Hell”. It looked the part.

There were three volcanos in the area as well. For such massive geological features, they sure could sneak up on you. This was partially because it was so humid that the hazy sky became almost sky blue itself. So, there you’d be, sitting on the bus, casually looking out at what you thought was clear blue sky until you see this flattened volcano mouth sticking out of a portion of it a mile or two up in the distance. It’s the kind of sight that gives you chills up your spine. We saw three of them this way.

The church in Equintla was a picturesque white cement block structure nestled in a small neighborhood of shops. Inside, locals sang familiar praise songs in Spanish. The band and singers they had there were extremely good, too, and we found ourselves getting into the spirit of the music quickly. The minister of the church soon called attention to our presence and told the congregation that we were in the country to do free clinics in small towns. He asked them to pray for us that week and to walk back to where we were seated and lay hands on us as they all prayed. Now, I’ve been to several churches where the laying on of hands is a common thing. It’s spoken of in the Bible and Christians are called upon to do it on occasion when moved to do so by God. It’s not usually done in my particular church, but I understand it happens. The laying on of hands in this church, however, was far from strange. It was no charasmatic display, but just a natural extension of prayer. There was power in it too. I wasn’t expecting to be emotionally affected by it, but I suddenly found my eyes welling up with tears as we prayed. Something about the outpouring of affection from complete strangers moved me. Immediately I began to worry that this was a bad emotional trend to start this early in the journey, but I went with it.

There were scooters everywhere in Equintla and on our way to lunch Oswald and Alex had to do some fancy team-driving to keep from smooshing them. We traveled to the nearest McDonalds. Outside was another guard with a shotgun.

McDonald’s in Guatemala is almost exactly like McDonald’s in America, only in Spanish. They also serve a few unexpected things, such as fried chicken. I later learned that McDonald’s also has a delivery service in some of the larger cities. It was not uncommon in Guatemala City, for instance, to see a McDonald’s delivery driver on a scooter.

While at lunch, we noticed a beach shop across the street and Ash and I decided to go over and see if we could get her a towel. Only after we crossed the street and entered the shop did it occur to either of us that we didn’t know the Spanish word for towel. We instantly became the stereotypical Americans on vacation, trying to convey towel to the clerk by any means up to and including pantomime, all the while yelling “TOWEL… TOWWWELLLL!” It was horrible. This “beach” shop didn’t have any towels either, so it was even more horrible.

After lunch, we drove an hour to our next destination, which was another church. This was an old community church that had outgrown its facilities. The 2004 mission team had evidently visited it last year when the minister had first proposed raising funds to construct a brand new building. It had not taken them even a year to raise the funds, some of which came from connections made by the Word of Life team. The building had been completed and we were there for the dedication ceremony.

The new building for the church was a little ways down a dirt road that ran through a small neighborhood community. I say neighborhood, for that is what it was, but it did not resemble any neighborhood I’ve seen in this country. It consisted of very simple cement block houses on plots of land that looked around a fourth of an acre. Some of the homes had chickens in the yard, some had gorgeous fruit-laden banana trees, and near some, children were playing and watching as this line of sweaty dressed up Gringos walked through their midst on the way to the new church building.

The church building itself was a large cement block structure with windows open to allow the breeze to pass through. Inside there were row upon row of plastic lawn chairs and ceiling fans overhead. However, being at the hottest part of the day the fans didn’t do much against the heat. Soon many of us found ourselves nodding off as the heat and rhythms of the all-Spanish service lulled us to sleep.

After the service, we bussed up and headed out to visit and set up our first clinic site. On the way we stopped at a gas-station so everyone could have a bano break and pick up snacks. I went inside. I didn’t find much in the way of snacks, but I did find a towel for Ashley. No more pillow-case showers for her.

The clinic site was nearly another hour’s drive in a little town called Chiquimuilla. The site itself was in a former bus-station turned strip-mall. Actually, calling it a strip-mall is a pretty generous description. It was more like the bus station had been carved into aisles, which were further broken up into little cubby-hole shop-spaces with a footprint of around 10′ by 8′. Some of these cubby-hole shop spaces were completely open while others had steel doors or cages to keep the contents safe. However, few of these cubby-holes were actually in use as shops and most stood empty save for dirt and trash. In the center of the bus station was a maze-like area of more unused cubby-holes and beyond that was a much larger and mostly cubby-free area that was being used as an open air market. The mayor of the town had hired the usual guys with shotguns to stand guard over the place all night so that none of the team’s equipment was stolen.

On previous missions with Word of Life, one of our local WV pharmacists, Fritz, had come along to do the pharmacy thing. He was unable to come this year, however. So at some point in our trip thus far, it was decided that Mary Ann Allen and I would be in charge of the pharmacy. Mary Ann made lots of sense, because she is a registered nurse and knows the meds pretty well. The logic for including me was that since I work in a library I must be good at organizing and classifying things. I don’t know about all that, but I had come on this trip to be of whatever use I could and working in the pharmacy sounded very useful, albeit a good ways out of my field of expertise. Everyone kept assuring me we’d be fine.

The pharmacy itself was to be set up in a cubby hole shop with a green caged front with a fold up cage window and sales-counter area. It looked like the canteen area for a prison. It was also far filthier and spidery than most folks care for in a pharmacy. Fortunately, the manager of the bus station was on hand and Marcello convinced him to have a few of his guys clean out the cell and mop the floors for us. They did right then and there and before long it looked good enough to use. Being a cramped little cubby-hole, though, we wouldn’t have much room for storing meds unless we were able to do so vertically. We stressed to Marcello the need for lots of shelving to hold all the meds. He asked the manager and was told we would have shelves by morning.

With no shelving, there wasn’t much we could do to set up the pharmacy. It didn’t help us that most of the medication we’d brought hadn’t even been sorted into dosage baggies yet, either. We resolved to cart all the meds back to the camp and do some sorting and predosing that evening in something far closer to a sterile environment.

Most of the other equipment on board the busses came with the dental team from Racine. They had brought portable dental chairs, drills, compressors, sterilizers and all manner of dental tools, which had to be set up. They went right to it and were still plenty busy when Marcello told the rest of us to load back up to return to camp. We’d been told that our clinic site was only five minutes away from the camp. It was actually around 20 minutes, which was still pretty short. Gringo Time strikes again, though.

After the dental team joined us at camp, we had a fantastic dinner of chicken, rice and fruit. I’ve never eaten so much melon, pineapple and mango in all my life, and it’s all great! We all stuffed ourselves, then sat around and sweated while we began our evening meeting where we were introduced to the rest of the national staff of translators and helpers who had come in for the clinics.

We were also told that the water pump for the camp had crapped out earlier in the day due to being overloaded by the transformer problems. Rather than have us go without running water, Marcello asked the local fire department to come in and pump our water tanks full again. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where they sourced their water from, so it was likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria. We had to therefore be extra careful only to drink from bottled water.

After the meeting, we asked for help in counting pills. This, we thought, would be a long and arduous process in which our bulk medicines would be divided into dosage amounts, (usually a month’s supply, or however much it usually took to knock out whatever it was being prescribed for), pre-bagged and labeled in little zip-lock baggies. However, while it was a long process, we had nearly the entire camp volunteer to help, so the work went much much faster. It was still terribly hot and most of us were living for the shower we knew we’d be having after retiring for the evening.

While working, we left aside a third of the meds to take with us to El Salvador the following week. The vast majority of what we brought would be used in Guatemala, though, as we would have more docs available for the clinics there.

We wrapped up our counting near 11 p and I headed up the hill for my shower. Only, I walked into the shower-house to discover there was no water. Not even a trickle. The tanks were empty. I nearly broke down crying at the idea of having to go to bed sweaty and nasty from my day.  Then, upon returning to the bunk-house, I learned that due to the ongoing transformer problems, we were only allowed to use one air-conditioner per bunk-house. And it wasn’t the one nearest my bed.  (I know what you’re thinking: Poor Gringo. He’s visiting a country where many people have no running water let alone air-conditioners of any kind and he’s whining about only having ONE. Believe me, I’m just as disgusted with myself over this as you are. My only excuse is that it was still early in the trip and certain realities about the situation had not quite hit home yet.)

I climbed into my bunk only to find it gritty. My duffle bag had been sitting on the concrete floor all day and had picked up a lot of the dust that had been tracked in from outside. Now I was doubly filthy and still hot. I kept trying to tell myself that I hadn’t come here for comfort and that maybe there would be water in the morning, but it didn’t help much. Eventually, the air did cool off in the bunk house, though, and I fell asleep.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Saturday, March 19, 2005

After a mere three hours of sleep, I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the sounds of people moving around in Ma’s house. Everyone else was awake and getting dressed and gathering up their things. We’d left most of the luggage in the truck, so there wasn’t much to gather.

Ma and Pa were also up to see us off. They offered Cheerios and coffee to everyone, but we didn’t have much time for eating. The trip to Charlotte Douglas Airport from Hildebran would take about an hour, so we needed to hit the road. We needed to get there as early as possible since our luggage contained lots of things customs officials might be curious about.

We gave Ma and Pa a hug goodbye and told them we loved them. It makes me feel fatalistic to be saying “Goodbye” to people because in my mind I’m thinking that it might be the last time I ever see them again. I know it’s probably just me being paranoid, but who knows what might happen on this journey? We could die in a plane crash or be killed by guerillas. Or gorillas, for all I know. I don’t think it’s very likely, being as how we’re essentially on a mission from God. But as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett pointed out in their novel Good Omens, you can’t second-guess inefability, so I don’t know what God’s plan for us is. I just know that since beginning to prepare for this journey, I’ve been taking steps to ensure that things will be okay on most fronts if I don’t come back from it and part of that is telling the people that I love that I love them.

We arrived in Charlotte at 4:30 a.m.

Ashley and I used to live in Charlotte before departing for the mountain state so she could enroll in medical school and I in library servitude. We like Charlotte an awful lot, but don’t miss the sprawl and traffic very much. Fortunately, the airport is on the side of town we entered from and is easy to get to.

We parked in long-term parking and began hauling our bags to the enclosed shuttle waiting area. Within a few minutes a shuttle appeared. The driver was astounded that five people could have so much luggage and that it could weigh so much. The whole time we were hauling it onto the shuttle bus, he kept questioning us as to what we were really doing.

“You’re moving house, aren’t you?” he asked. “Yeah, you’re all on the run and getting out of town!”

We just smiled and said nothing to dispel this. I knew we must have looked very strange, though, each struggling with two 70 pound check bags and two near 40 pound carryons.

Inside the airport, there were lots of people sleeping. Some were sprawled in chairs, while others—sometimes entire families—had just plopped down on a section of carpet by the window for a snooze. I’ve heard Charlotte Douglas is a good aiport to sleep in, but had never before seen it put into practice.

We met another traveling companion inside, our friend Andrew Bright, now a third year medical student. Andrew has been on two other mission trips with Word of Life in the past, including the Honduras leg of the mission trip Ash went on in 2003. Now we were six.

It’s a good thing we arrived so early, cause we were first in line and had plenty of time to use the handy scale to make sure our bags were within their weight limitations. One of them was 71 pounds, so we took a few bottles of Ibuprofen out of it until it weighed in at exactly 70 pounds.

We were a little worried about another of the bags that contained $450 worth of Enfamil baby formula. Enfamil, for those who don’t know, comes in powder form in giant coffee-can sized tubs that aren’t very easy to pack. Instead of trying to pack them in their cans, Ash had just poured the white Enfamil powder into gallon zip-lock baggies. It made for easy packing, but also closely resembled bricks of cocaine. Ash had stowed the Enfamil labels inside the baggies to help identify them, but no matter the precautions it still looked like a suitcase full of blow. Granted, no drug-sniffing dogs would be attracted to it, but baggage x-ray technicians would certainly want a second glance.

The Continental Airlines desk didn’t actually open until closer to 5:30, but we were there and ready when it did. By then there were lots of other people in line behind us. We got through the line fairly quickly, fumbling in our cheap Wal-Mart passport wallets on strings to find our passports and e-boarding passes, etc. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann had swanky J. Crew passport wallets, but they had to fumble with them just as much. We then moved to the line to get through the metal detectors. Something in my carryon flagged suspicion and the x-ray techs had to run it through again. I still can’t figure out what they saw—maybe my odd-shaped hard-plastic water-bottle that looks vaguely like it might contain plutonium, or maybe the half-dozen juggling balls or metal Hotwheels cars I’d brought to give away—but the bag itself passed on second inspection.

Our plane was one of the smaller jets in the Continental fleet, the kind with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other, with very little carryon storage. We even had to check most of our carryon luggage at the jetway so they could store it in the plane’s hold. Ours were the very last seats in the plane, right by the bathroom, with me and Ash on one side and Andrew on the other. I think our stewardess must have had the hots for Andrew, because she kept bringing him more food and beverages and asking if he was hot or cold. Since Ash and I were seated right there, she offered us some extra food too, just so she didn’t seem like she was playing favorites. We knew, though.

We flew from Charlotte to Houston International. I was somehow expecting to have the same hellish experience that I had at Houston Hobby a couple of years ago, but Houston International was a breeze. It’s still a huge airport, but in a comfy sort of way. Even landing 15 minutes late, we were easily able to take the shuttle-train to our next gate and were there in plenty of time. We still wound up an hour late in taking off from Houston, though, and my 3 a.m. Cheerios had long since run out. I needed breakfast and coffee pronto!

On the airplane, little TV screens popped out of the ceiling and we were shown the standard Do This in Case of Emergency film that no one ever pays any attention to. Only this time we saw it twice, once in English and once in lightning fast Spanish. In fact, every time any announcement was made by either the flight crew or the captain, it was made first in standard well-paced English and then a second time in Indy 500 Spanish. I hoped not everyone spoke Spanish so quickly on the journey, or my by-now vestigial Spanish skills would never wake up.

Once we were in the air, they served us a nice breakfast and showed us the movie A Cinderella Story. (It’s a cute enough movie, but I still gave it a C.) They also told us we could keep the little mini-headphones that we used to listen to the film’s audio track. I’m not really sure why they gave them to us, other than to get us to throw the headphones away for them, because the headphone jack had a double plug set up that most CD players do not.

Between bites of food and occasionally paying attention to the movie, I read up on Guatemala from the Lonely Planet entry on it I’d printed out. Like many Latin American countries, this one had seen quite a lot of turmoil in its time, even beyond the Mayans. It was also supposed to have a much higher rate of crime and listed violence against foreigners as a big part of that. Comforting. It was also said to be extraordinarily beautiful in places and had some pretty amazing archaeology on display in some of its older cities. The guide spoke of the Holy Week festivities in Antigua as being particularly of interest to travelers. I didn’t know if we would be anywhere near Antigua at that point, but this was Holy Week. Seemed a shame to come all this way and miss out on that.

Very quickly into our flight, I saw that we were above the Gulf of Mexico. Not long after that, I looked down to see that we were above Mexico itself. That’s when it finally hit me that I was no longer in the United States. Not since I left the island of Guam, where I lived from age 2 to 3, had I been this far from home soil.

The ground below looked very dry and red from my view from the plane. How would Guatemala look?

Within another couple of hours, I had my first airborn glimpse of Guatemala proper.

My first impression was: I only THOUGHT there were big mountains in West Virginia. The mountains I was seeing below us were enormous, and quite often volcanic as evidenced from the smoke pouring out of their tops. I could also see occasional huge fissures in the earth below, caused no doubt by the frequent earthquakes due to said volcanic activity. Things below looked kind of dry and arid too, but then March is in the dry season, so that was to be expected.

Soon we were flying low over Guatemala City itself. It was a pretty big place, though there were very few buildings of any major height. Mostly there were low buildings, spread up and down throughout the hills and valleys of the terrain. And the color! You fly over most American cities and everything is shades of gray and brown. Guatemala City, however, was alive with color. The buildings and homes were often painted in quite vivid shades of red and blue and green and yellow. There were also hundreds of bright red busses with as much chrome-plating as they could fit on around the red. Things looked alive down there.

As the plane landed, I was reminded of some advice given to me by my friend Shoshanna as to what to expect from the Guatemala City airport. She’s been there before and warned me that I would need to keep a very close eye on my luggage, since it would be a big target for thieves. She has had friends who were mugged at knife-point for their bags there.

Well, good luck to them if they try it on us, I thought. Any thief who thinks he can haul away one of these 70 pounders is welcome to try. I thought it would almost be worth blunting the wheels on the bags just to see someone try to drag one away and listen to the “Eeeeeeeeeee” sound as the bag left twin trails of black plastic in its wake.

After deplaning, we went through customs. It was no problem at all; just had to give them the forms we’d filled out on the plane, that stated why we wanted in the country and when we were planning to leave again, and we were through. The customs guy was even nice. Then we hurried to see to our luggage that was even then beginning to make its rounds on the conveyer belt.

The baggage claim area of the airport left little to the imagination. Most airports have the typical conveyer belt that slides out of a mysterious rubber-flap covered hole leading who knows where; a magic luggage spout, if you will. In Guatemala City’s airport, the conveyer belt was set into a giant glass window looking out on the tarmac itself. We could clearly see bag handlers unloading the bags from a truck and putting them on the conveyer belt on their side of the glass. I felt sorry for them as they struggled with our luggage.

We had tied strips of army green cloth to the handles of all of our luggage for easy identification. Andrew, Dr. Allen and I stationed ourselves at different places around the conveyer belt, ready to snatch bags off as soon as we could, then haul them into a pile back where the ladies were standing guard. Someone even found us a rolling luggage cart to pile the pile onto, so we wouldn’t have to haul them by hand. All but one of the bags appeared. That’s right, the Enfamil bag was nowhere to be seen. Now, I realize the Enfamil bag’s contents looked suspicious, and all, but who really tries to smuggle cocaine INTO Guatemala? We decided to write it off and hope it turned up later. For all we knew, it was still sitting in a customs locker in Charlotte.

Outside the airport, the weather was very comfortable and in the upper 70’s. I’d left North Carolina wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a hoody, but could see they would soon be a little warm. We were met outside by Butch Jarrel, one of the higher ups at Word of Life in New York. He lead us through the thick crowd of people waiting outside and told us we could put our bags on the WOL bus. It was kind of a curious thing, though. Having never met any of the local Guatemalan staff before, it was difficult to discern who was a genuine staff member and who was a potential bag thief trying to look like a staff member. It made sense to me that bag thieves might pose as sky-captains or cab drivers just to get hold of your stuff. Then I noticed that all the people helping move bags were wearing Word of Life T-Shirts, so they were probably okay.

There were two more flights arriving within the next hour, so we hung around to wait for them too. It was a great opportunity to people watch and meet some of the other staff members. Rick Brooks, another high-up from WOL headquarters in New York, was there. He welcomed us and told us the most useful phrase we could know in Spanish: Donde es su bano? (Where is your bathroom?)

Among the crowd were a number ladies in traditional Guatemalan dress. Ash told me that you don’t see it as much in the city as you do in the countryside. She’d seen more in 2003 when she was in the mountain town of Quetzaltananga. There were also children who came up offering shoe-shines, or selling fruit or were just asking people for “dollares”.

I was a little uncertain how to behave in the crowd. Part of me wanted to start snapping pictures of everything like a big gawky tourist. However, we’d been told that we shouldn’t take pictures of the locals without permission, particularly when it came to photographing their children. It is apparently a prevalent belief that westerners come to Guatemala to steal away children for rich families back in the States and anyone taking pictures of children can be suspect. From what I understand, this is not entirely untrue.

One of the other flights contained fellow West Virginians while the second was bringing in a team of dental students and dentists from Racine, Wisconsin. I decided to put on my Word of Life name-tag before offering to help move their luggage to the bus. It was a good idea too, as a couple of them wisely didn’t accept help until I’d flashed the ID for them.

Once all of the flights had delivered their passengers, we all bussed up and drove through Guatemala City to the home of Marcello Diez, the man in charge of all things WOL in Guatemala. The journey there was an interesting one.

As I’ve said, I’d never been in a foreign country until that point, so just seeing the way things worked was fascinating to me. You might not think it would be all that different. After all, big cities in America can be just as hectic and fascinating as in another country. However, there’s just sort of a different flavor to it that’s a little hard to pin down at first.

There was kind of a work-in progress feel to the city. It’s a lot like visiting a construction site and seeing all the bits of it that are sort of half-finished; like exposed rebar awaiting concrete or maybe a finished building awaiting paint or an older structure that’s seen quite a bit of wear and is probably next on the list for a face-lift; there are bits of trash lying around that the construction workers have dropped and won’t worry about picking up until final cleanup, etc. Except the whole city feels this way. I imagine with all the earthquakes that happen, there is a very good reason for all the construction and wear.

The cars were another difference. Sure, there were loads of the same sorts of vehicles you see in America and other countries, but there were quite a few I didn’t recognize at all. Some of the most obvious of these were in the form of miniature mini-vans, smaller still than even the smallest mini-van I’d ever seen. They also look like they’re constructed from pressed tin and live in perpetual fear of kids with BB guns.

The Mayan influence was also evident everywhere you look. I don’t even know from Mayan influence, and I could see it.

Like most big cities, there were lots of billboards to be seen nearly everywhere you looked. The ones I noticed the most were for things like Gallo beer, or ads for the movie Robots, but there were plenty of others. The architecture too was far different than I’m used to seeing. Almost all of the homes and businesses I saw were constructed like mini-fortresses. The businesses had gates that could be pulled down over the front of the store, much like some businesses in major U.S. Cities. Most of the houses were boxy and constructed of concrete block. Usually they were brightly colored, often covered with stucco. But they were not open in the front, to reveal the front door of the home itself. Instead, there was usually a high concrete wall topped with either razor wire or broken shards of glass set into the concrete itself, with a wide metal door set into the wall. Beyond that door lay either a front garden area or a garage, but the outside looked pretty tough to get through. I don’t know the true origins of this style of home, but keeping unwanted people out seems to be the definite theme.

Marcello’s house was no exception to this. Though he lives in a gated neighborhood, his house is still very much a lovely colorful fortress from the outside. Inside the metal garage door, there was a tiled floor garage area that was far cleaner than you’d imagine a garage to be. The actual front door to his home was in the garage too, as well as set of tall clear windows that gave a view into his side-yard. We also found a long table upon which a cold cuts tray and sandwich fixings are laid out. We’d not eaten since our breakfast on the plane, hours earlier, so we were hungry.

First things first, though: I had to find the bano.

I’d been holding my bladder since before we landed and had not sought out “facilities” up to that point because I did not wish to be waylaid in the airport bano by someone seeking to steal my carryon backpack. (This is probably a case of over-active imagination on my part, but that’s really all I had to go on at that point in my trip.)

One of the other things I’d been concerned about on the trip was the reality that bathrooms in Central America work differently than in the states. See, most Central American plumbing pipes are too small to accommodate toilet paper. So instead of flushing the soiled paper away after “making stinky” you have to put it into a small trash can beside the toilet or risk clogging up the works. The idea that stinky paper is to be left there to remain stinky is kind of an icky and alien concept to most of us Gringos. However, in practice, it’s really not that big a deal–at least after you manage to train your hand not to drop the paper in the pot, post-wipe. The thing about poopy paper is that it dries up pretty quickly and is thus no longer offensive to the nose. And most of the homes and places I traveled to while south of the border, (I emphasize MOST, as there were definite exceptions), were meticulous at emptying their bano bins on a regular basis. While I didn’t have to make stinky at that moment, I wouldn’t have minded doing so in Marcello’s bano. It was spotless, fragrant and well-ventillated.

After lunch and introductions, we all piled back in our two school-busses to head south of Guatemala City, toward the coast where the Word of Life (Palabra de Vida) camp property is located. We quickly discovered that though Marcello’s house was fortress-like, the busses themselves were not. Some theif had been aboard and made off with two backpacks while we were inside eating. These were only the first of the thefts that our collective 40 plus member team would experience during the week.

The driver of our bus was a man called Oswald. We would come to respect him greatly as both a person and a driver over the week, but our initial impressions were that he was a bit reckless. Driving regulations in Guatemala are a good deal more lax than in the states. I’m sure they have laws to cover it, but most of the time they don’t seem to be enforced. Oswald proved that point by hurtling our massive bus through busy city streets, weaving among the cars like an Indy driver, as we made our way out of town. And while it might have seemed reckless at first, we soon came to realize that Oswald had a great deal of skill when it came to maneuvering that bus. He was aided in this by one of the missionary staff named Alex. Alex was a funny man who was able to convey his humor despite his rusty English skills. Alex’s job was to lean out the door of the bus and make sure Oswald wasn’t running over anything important. They made a great team and no important things were squooshed.

Guatemala City was pretty smoggy that day. You could smell the pollution in the air. That gradually lessened as we left the city limits, moving down past past sprawling apartment suburbs of tiny little terra-cotta-colored-roof fortresses. We also saw some less fortress-like dwellings. They were shacks, really, clustered together in suburbs of their own, a reminder that the poor of Guatemala live far worse than most poor in the United States.

Before getting out of the city entirely, we stopped at a gas-station next to a row of toll-booths so that people could buy snacks and drinks and visit the bano one last time before we hit the open road. Standing guard in front of the gas station was a man with a large black and silver sawed-off shotgun. It’s very off-putting at first to see people walking around with shotguns in public, but this was a commonplace sight almost everywhere we went. From banks to little roadside mom & pop cocinas, guys with shotguns were the “in” dudes to have guarding your place.

We still had some daylight left to us as we left the gas-station and began traveling into the countryside.

Guatemala is quite beautiful. The geology of the place actually reminds me a lot of West Virginia; just mountains and rolling hills and trees and lots and lots of rocks.

Ashley and I talked a bit with the people on the bus, trying to get to know them. Seated next to us was a local missionary staffer named Claudia, who Ashley knew from 2003. Claudia was all smiles all the time. While her English was better than my Spanish, she still didn’t seem to speak very much of it, so our communication was limited to my Spanish and what we could send through interpreters. Our interpreter aboard was Michelle. She’s an American with the Racine dental team who spent some time in Mexico as an exchange student, years back, and picked up the language. I don’t know much Spanish anymore, but Michelle sounded flawless as she conversed with Oswald and Alex.

Marcello, who was driving the other bus, had earlier told us that the camp was two hours from Guatemala City. It was actually closer to three. This was our first example of a phenomenon we learned to call Gringo Time. Gringo Time, you see, is what we gringos are used to operating under. In Gringo Time, things begin when they’re scheduled to begin and when you ask how long it takes to get somewhere, a definitive and accurate answer can be produced. In Guatemala, things don’t work on Gringo Time, which means schedules are rarely followed very closely and everything takes twice as long to accomplish as you’re told it will. The sooner you are able to accept this the better off and much less frustrated you are. Oddly, I accepted it right away and was never bothered much by the delays. It’s actually a far more relaxed and leisurely way to live.

Very soon on our journey to the camp, we found a prime example of why life moves at a slower pace in Guatemala. For as we appproached sea-level, the comfortable temperatures of Guatemala City gave way to humidity and heat. By the time we reached camp, near 9 p.m. I was asleep and sweaty. The dirt road up to the camp property was very bumpy, but not too long. It was slow-going, though, and without the rush of wind through the windows, the heat really started to set in. The humidity felt like it was at full force at the camp. Mind you, I grew up in Mississippi, where July and August are just one big sweatbox, so I figured I could take it. This didn’t mean I had to enjoy it, though.

It was difficult to see anything when we stumbled off the two busses. This was due as much to the surrounding night-time darkness as to the blinding flood-lights on tripods stationed near the camp’s kitchen, which was the nearest building to the gravel parking lot. Beyond the glare of the lights we could see the shapes of some other buildings, further down the slope of a hill, as well as other lights coming from beneath a covered pavilion area. Beneath its roof were rows of covered tables and benches, as well as a couple of Foosball-style games and a ping-pong table.

Though we couldn’t really see much of the camp, it was apparent from the equipment, dangerously exposed sections of rebar right at shin-level and in-progress buildings that this camp was still under construction. We were to learn more about the overall camp project as the week progressed.

We unloaded the van of personal luggage and headed to the bunk houses. There were four bunk houses in all, two for the men up the hill and two for the ladies down the hill, with the pavilion and kitchen building in the middle. Each bunk house was equipped with two high-powered air-conditioners and rows of sturdy bunk beds. I chose a top bunk because I liked bunk beds as a kid and always made a point of taking the top bunk at Summer Camp. This felt as much like Summer Camp as I’d seen in quite a few years. There were even enough bunk beds available that a few of us were able to swipe matresses from the spare bunks to pad out our thin solo mattresses. We had all brought twin sheet-sets and bedding with us, because the camp did not yet have any on hand, so most of us set about making our beds. I’d not had room room in my luggage for a pillow, but found that my hoody jacket wadded up in a pillow-case made for a fine pillow. Andrew came in late and had to take the bunk beneath mine since most of the other spares had been pillaged by then.

In proximity to each set of bunk houses was a bano/shower house. Ours had very large and very fast frogs in it, one of whom I was able to photograph before he vanished in a hopping green blur. I didn’t mind the presence of frogs one bit. I figured if there were frogs in the bano there probably weren’t any snakes. Or bugs.

Before dinner at the pavilion, Rick asked the married team-members and a few other seasoned adult types to meet with him. He explained that the mayor of the nearest town had offered four hotel rooms for use of the mission during the week. Rick wanted to offer them to those of us who were married so that we could stay together if we wanted. It was a very generous offer on the mayor’s part, but it wasn’t one that I wanted to accept. Beyond the issues of having to travel 20 minutes to get to and from the hotel, it would put those of us in the hotel at even more of a personal distance from those in camp. Being away would not lend itself to getting to know the rest of the team and I think would have lessened the mission experience as a whole. (And as for being away from Ashley, I had spent four months in a row away from her while she was on medical rotations, so surely I could survive two weeks.) Fortunately, the other married couples felt the same way as Ash and I did. No one went to the hotel.

After dinner, we had our first meeting of the entire United States portion of the mission team. Marcello, Butch and Rick outlined some information about our itenerary for Sunday as well as telling us about the two clinic sites we would be at during the week itself. Half-way through the meeting, the power went off, plunging us into darkness. This was our first bad omen as far as the reliability of the local power transformer. Turns out that all those flood lights and air-conditioners were putting the hurt on the transformer and it would occasionally spit out a disturbing shower of sparks before losing the will to continue functioning.

Later, Ashley and I saw these sparks first hand while looking for our towels. See, we’d originally packed plenty of towels, but in our haste of packing and repacking, Ash had wound up taking all our towels out of one bag and not remembering to put them back in another. We didn’t know this, though, until we had searched all the luggage that was still aboard the van. This was initially hard to do in the dark, but then Andrew came by to help and brought a flashlight. Soon we discovered that the towels were not there. Now, as a good potential Hitchhiker of the Galaxy, I am never far from my towel and had a spare one stashed in my backpack in the cabin. I offered it to Ash, but she declined, saying she would use a pillow-case to dry off that first night. While we were searching, though, we saw the transformer sparking and then saw guys going up on ladders to fix it after it cut off. I was sure one of them would be electrocuted and we’d have our first injuries to treat, but nothing bad happened.

Andrew left me with his flashlight, which made seeing my way back to the cabin in the dark much less perilous. Only when I was back in the cabin did I remember that I’d packed my own flashlight too. It was a long stainless steel pen-light that I’ve had for a couple of years now and which is almost always with me in my backpack. I retrieved it and made a point to have it on my person at all times, least I trip on one of the many rocks and go tumbing down the hill onto some rebar. It’s good that I did, too, because I managed to misplace Andrew’s flashlight for several days.

During my first shower in the shower house that night, I was mid-way through washing my face and had my eyes securely closed so as not to get any water-born bacteria in them when I heard the distant whine of the air-conditioners cut out. I thought: When I open my eyes, it’s going to be pitch black. Sure enough, the power had gone out again, so I finished my shower in darkness.

The power went off twice more throughout the night, knocking out the air-conditioners and leaving us hot and sweaty until the transformer could be seen to. And please know that I’m not complaining about any of this. I knew things would be different in Guatemala and I’d not expected to have any air-conditioning at all, so having some was a blessing. I kept reminding myself that I had not come there to be comfortable; I came there to help with the mission.

That was a mantra that would be repeated and tested many times during the coming week.

 

NEXT

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.

NEXT

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.
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Don’t drink the water

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 the 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 antibiotics. Pretty much anything short of HIV and Hepatitis 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 any way 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 wondrous 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.  I hope you enjoy reading about what turned out to be a very harrowing and uplifting experience for us.

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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

The Talkin’ Mystery Anniversary Flight, Waiting for Dubya, Late for Zulu Blues (an extry long Horribly True Tale)

Shortly after Christmas this year, my wife Ashley began dropping hints that something was afoot concerning our impending wedding anniversary.  In the three years we’ve been married, I’ve become accustomed to such hints.  They’re an annual reminder that our February 5 anniversary is a little over a month away and it’s about time I start thinking about what I’m going to do about it.  Kind of handy, really.

“I think I know what I’m going to get you for an anniversary present,” Ashley said.

“Do you, now?” I said.  This is what I always say when I don’t have a similar declaration to make.

“Yup,” she said.  “You’re going to like it a lot.  But it’s going to be expensive.”

I take all statements of this nature very seriously.  As one half of a couple that is going mind and wallet-numbingly into debt to pay for medical school, I take all financial matters seriously.  I do admit, however, to having something of a blind spot when it comes to money being spent on me.

“What is it?”

“A secret,” she said.  I knew it was futile to ask, but I had to try because she pesters me to no end for hints whenever I have secret gifts for her.  Unlike her, though, I actually supply more of a hint than just stating I’m planning a secret present.  In fact, I’m very proud of my ability to come up with perfectly structured, even layered hints that tell both everything and nothing about the gift.  Nostradamus would have been proud to pen some of the hints I’ve given.  To date, Ashley has yet to crack one, even though I usually give her two or three beautifully crafted hints for each gift.  When it comes gifts for me, the hints get scarce.  I can only assume my evil powers of perception are too great a threat, preventing her from giving me anything but the barest of hints.

“C’mon!  Gimme a hint!”

“You’ll like it,” she said.

Great.

The trouble with a gift that’s expensive and likable, though, is that I feel obligated to come up with something similar for her.

Then, as if reading my mind, Ashley said, “Don’t get anything for me.  I’m going to share yours.”

Hey, I liked this present already!  Still, I wasn’t giving up until I got a decent hint out of her.

For most of January, I tried multiple crafty assaults upon her secret gift knowledge, all destined to failure.

“What time is class tomorrow?” I would ask in low, measured, semi-hypnotic tones.

“Nine.”

“What time will you get home?”

“Around four-thirty.”

“What do you want for supper?”

“Food.”

“What’s my anniversary present?”

“A secret.”

“D’oh!”

In mid-January, Ashley let it slip that the anniversary present was going to be a bit late in arriving.  I took this to mean it was on back-order and would be shipped later.  I began dreaming up notions of DVD players, DVD Box Sets, or—dare I say it—a Panasonic Replay Hard Disk Video Recorder so I’d never miss recording another episode of 24 or the Sopranos due to having a crappy VCR that refuses to be programmed again.  While these items certainly fit the expensive part of my provided hints, they didn’t seem likely.  Especially after Ashley said that under no circumstances was I to schedule anything for February 9-10, a Sunday and Monday, nor was I to look at our on-line bank statements for any large purchases, nor ask any questions concerning why.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Days later, while we were watching TV, Ash asked, “Have you ever ridden on a snow-mobile?”

“No,” I said.  Granted we had just seen a snow-mobile on TV, so the question wasn’t exactly out of the blue.

“Well, you might get your chance some day,” she replied with a knowing smile.

I took the bait.  Took it and ran with it.  Between myself and the ladies at the library where I work, we managed to spin this bit of information into a ski-trip.  Ash had often threatened to take me skiing, just so she could have the pleasure of laughing as I plummeted down a mountain, so it was feasible.  We even had our hypothetical ski-trip’s prospective destinations narrowed down to the Snowshoe Ski Resort, the closest and nicest of the four ski-resorts within driving distance.  Seemed like a mystery solved to me.  That is, until Ash dropped more information on me in late January.

“Look, I don’t want to spoil this, but I need to ask you about a variable in our anniversary present,” she said.  “We have a choice between something that will be very nice, but more expensive or something that will be nice but not quite as nice as the first, and less expensive.”

Ah ha!, I thought.  It’s a choice between staying at the ski-lodge or a private cabin. 

“It’s a choice between staying at a Howard Johnson’s or the Radison,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing my speculations had just been dashed.  I just couldn’t imagine Snowshoe having either a Howard Johnson’s or a Radison. 

“It’s a $60 price difference,” she continued, “but that’s on top of what the actual present costs.”

Intriguing.

“So the hotel is not the present?”

“No.  I wouldn’t have even told you that, but it’s a five hour trip to get there and if you wanted to stay someplace special we can do that.”

More intriguing.

“A five hour trip, huh?  In what direction?”

She seemed to consider denying me even this tidbit, but finally said, “North.”

“Straight north or north east?” I asked, already trying to mentally calculate the distance between Lewisburg and Washington D.C., where I seemed to recall Cirque Du Soleil possibly having a permanent station.  Maybe not.

“North, but slightly north-east,” she said.  Well, that put D.C. out of the way.  If there was a Radison in this mystery city, though, it would have to be a fairly large place.  Knowing how my mind works, Ashley immediately forbid me to go on the internet to cross reference Radison and Howard Johnson’s locations nor to dig out an atlas to see what cities lie to the north, but slightly north-east.  This didn’t prevent me from thinking about it, though.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 6, one day after our official anniversary, a great heap of snow fell upon Greenbrier County.  It was accompanied by a visit from Vice President Dick Cheney.  You’d think it would be something of an honor to have visits by such world dignitaries as the vice-president of the United States, and maybe it should.  Frankly, I think we’re all sick of it, because his visits cause nothing but problems.

You see, Cheney is a semi-regular visitor to the nearby Greenbrier Resort—occasionally with the president in tow.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Greenbrier, it’s a swanky, sprawling, complex of ornate buildings located in scenic White Sulphur Springs, WV.  The place has been something of a magnet for assorted world leaders and the rich and famous for the last century.  I’m not exactly sure why, as I’ve been in the joint twice now and while it is quite beautiful from the outside, its interior decoration looks as though it was designed by the unholy love-child of Rip Taylor and the Joker.  The attraction probably has something to do with the Greenbrier’s inherent hoity toitiness, five-star restaurants, obscenely expensive shops, a $500 greens fee-laden golf course, private bungalows, access to the refreshing natural springs of the area, and probably because there’s a massive,112,544-square-foot,  Cold War era bunker located within and beneath its West Virginia Wing.  This is the formerly secret bunker that members of Congress were to be stored away in in the event of nuclear war.  It was outfitted with the best radiation shielding, communications technology and heaping stockpiles of frozen food supplies 1962 had to offer.  To hear the locals tell it, they knew something weird was going on at the Greenbrier for decades.  Kind of hard not to when the Greenbrier’s excuse for digging up 112,544 square feet of earth amounted to, “We’re putting in an indoor pool.”  The bunker’s existence has only been widely known, though, since a 1993 expose in the Washington Post prompted the government to declassify and decommission it.  But the bunker is still very much there.

The trouble is, whenever either Cheney or Bush pop by for a visit, traffic in Greenbrier County becomes, to use a favorite military acronym, F.U.B.A.R.  They fly in to the Greenbrier Valley Airport which is 13 miles away from White Sulphur Springs and the Greenbrier Resort.  The quickest way to get from point A to point B is by Interstate-64, so in order to accommodate national security, that busy interstate must be completely shut down while our leaders play connect the dots.  Subsequently, any road that intersects I-64, or is just inconveniently close to it is also shut down.

Word at the library, a.k.a. information central, was that we were in for a double whammy weekend, for not only was Cheney flying in on Thursday, he was to be followed by President George W. Bush sometime on Saturday and they would all be departing on Sunday.  (Which leads one to ask just how secure our leaders are if a bunch of librarians have access to their itineraries?)

At last, Sunday, February 9 arrived.  Ash told me to pack only what I wanted to wear on the trip back since we would be leaving directly from church and would just wear our Sunday best to our anniversary present.  By this time I had pretty much concluded we were going to a concert, but was trying to imagine what kind of concert we would wear church clothes to?  I could think of very few acts from my CD collection whose concert I would feel comfortable wearing a churchy sweater and dress shoes to, unless maybe it was something from the classical section.

“By the way, are you afraid to fly?” Ashley casually asked as we were preparing to leave.

“Fly?” I asked.  “That depends on what I’m flying in.  If it’s a plane, fine.  If it’s a jetpack, not so good.”  This smelled like a red herring—something designed to throw me off an already badly marked trail.  In fact, her snowmobile line was fishy too.  Then again, you never can tell because my wife is a Tricksy Hobbitses.

Before leaving, I phoned our neighbor Beth and asked if she would come over and press record on my VCR that night, so I could tape the Simpsons episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio while we were gone.  This is the kind of thing people with crappy VCR’s and bad tech karma have to do.  As I stepped onto the back patio to walk around and give her a key, my foot slipped on a patch of the lingering ice from our recent snow deposit and I took a header into the yard.  Stupid dress-shoes!

“You know that ice is really slippery,” Ash said, after determining I wasn’t injured.

We left church early, around 11:40 a.m., because Ashley was starting to suspect our schedule might be a little tight otherwise. On the way out, we hit the ATM for cash and Subway for  grub, then headed toward the interstate only to run smack into the Presidential Traffic Jam.

A gaggle of state troopers had blocked off the junction of Hwy 219 and I-64.  Other than the troopers, there were only a handful of cars stopped ahead of us, so the jam had probably just begun.  If we’d been even two minutes earlier, we might have slipped by.  Instead, we were stuck, waiting for Dubya’s motorcade to pass on its way to the airport.

With the Greenbrier Resort only 13 miles away and no traffic in between, you’d think a motorcade would be able to book it right along at a nice clip.  Not so, evidently.  After all, when you’re the president, everyone has to wait for you.  For instance, in 1993 two runways at LAX had to be shut down for an hour, costing the airlines an estimated $76,000, all so Bill Clinton could get a $200 haircut aboard Air-Force One.  In essence, the schedules of several major airlines, not to mention the people flying on them, were thrown into chaos because Bill’s `do was a bit bushy that day.  Now I’d heard no such horror stories about George W. but really wasn’t in the mood to experience any when we were on a tight schedule ourselves.

During our forty minute wait I had plenty of time to consider the mind-boggling amount of money it must take for the president to go ANYWHERE.  Think about it.  He flies in to Greenbrier County aboard Air Force One, a jet with a fuel budget no doubt rivaling the GNP of most nations.  From the specs I’ve been able to dig up since, Air Force One has a fuel capacity of 53,611 gallons, which at current jet fuel prices of around $2 per gallon, would cost $107,222 for every fill-up.  Once on the ground, the president has to board a presidential limo, part of a presidential motorcade of at least three identical limos.  Those limos have to be either driven there (no huge trip from D.C. to WV, mind you), or flown in on a cargo jet.  (I happen to know these particular limos were flown in, days in advance, and stored at the White Sulphur Springs Fire Department.  Again, proof that small town libraries are Information Central.)  That’s the major cost right there, but factor in the salaries of all the people necessary to make such an event happen, plus the president’s staff, sundry entourage, air-force one crew of 26, plus the press corps and you’ve got another heap of cash to add to the pile.  Add to that what it costs to send in a dozen or so Secret Service agents and sniper-nest-spotters, days in advance, to make logistical plans, do background checks on local citizens of questionable loyalty and sort out any number of other security concerns, plus the cost of flying in official secret service helicopters to scout out the area for potential security threats and to shadow the motorcade when they’re on the move.  Now factor in that they had to do all that TWICE, both for Cheney and for Bush and we’re talking more money than most of us will ever see in our lives.  Then consider how much more it has to cost for either of them to travel internationally and you begin to see how easy it is for our country to be $6,414,708,153,391.81 in the hole.

Around 12:30, with no Bush in sight, I was beginning to wonder if he’d stopped off for a hamburger somewhere.  Then at last at 12:35 a Secret Service helicopter, official seal on the sides and everything, soared low over the area, circled around and then followed a line of big black cars headed north on 219 toward the airport.  I figured we’d be in for another twenty minute wait until Bush left the ground, but traffic began to flow almost immediately and we were able to escape Lewisburg.

You might think on a trip like this the last person who should be driving is the guy who has no idea where he’s going, but drive I did.  We headed west on I-64, passing into Virginia, then turning north onto I-81.  We continued north through the snow-covered countryside until we passed back into West Virginia, then into Maryland and finally across the Mason Dixon line and into Pennsylvania.

We rolled into Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania and our mystery destination, at around 4:45.  Ashley’s printed internet directions lead us right to our Howard Johnson’s.  (I chose to stay at Howard Johnson’s instead of the Radison because I’ve stayed in semi-swanky hotels before and beyond being a lot more expensive and having more associated fees, like $20 a day for parking, they’re not much different from a Holiday Inn.  Howard Johnson’s was more our speed and price-range and proved to be one of the more comfy hotel stays we’ve ever had.)

We settled in at the HoJo around 5 p.m. to wash up because, according to Ash, we had a long way to go yet, but didn’t have to be anywhere until 7:30.  Now her comment about flying didn’t seem as fishy to me.  If we were flying somewhere, though, where the hell were we flying to?  And at 7:30 at night?  The only thing that came to mind was some kind of air-tour of Pennsylvania Dutch country, but it seemed like this would be pretty crappy after dark—the Pennsylvania Dutch not being known for their spectacular ground to air light shows.   Maybe the hint about flying wasn’t to be taken literally.  The mystery event we were to attend might involve actors flying around on wires or something.  Perhaps she’d hooked us up with tickets to a Peter Pan revival.  I might even wear church clothes to that.

Over a tasty dinner at Doc Holliday’s, Ash offered to outright tell me what the present was.  I declined to know.  I’d waited over a month already, so I may as well not ruin the surprise now.  I did agree to her offer of a short series of yes or no questions, though.

“Are we going to a concert?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is the concert for a band, as opposed to a solo act?”

“Yes.”

“A band, then?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have a CD by this band?”

She thought for a bit.  “No.”

That threw me good.  Now I had to come up with a band that both she and I would be interested in seeing but which I did not own a CD by.

“Do you own a CD by them?” I asked, sensing a technicality.

“No.”

Damn.

“Is this band involved in some kind of musical production.”

“You mean, like a Broadway musical?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“No.”

There went Peter Pan, or my Plan-B choice of a revival of the Abba-member-spawned musical Chess.

We left for the mystery concert at 7:05, this time with Ashley at the wheel.  She said I wasn’t to look at the marquee or at any posters in the window once we had arrived at our venue.  She wanted me to be completely in the dark on the band’s identity until they hit the stage.

“Are you nervous?” she asked.

“No.  Not nervous.  Just sort of anxious, in a pit of the stomach, Christmasy kind of way.”  And it was true.  I hadn’t felt this level of anticipation about a present since I was a child.

We arrived in downtown Harrisburg around 7:15 and headed to the Market Street  Theater.  Even among the grid of one-way streets it was easy enough to find.  Empty parking spaces, however, were thin on the ground.  Ironically, there were plenty of vast empty parking garages, all of which were closed and shuttered.  We would have to park on the street, but doing that involved a lot of driving around the same three block area in the hope someone had vacated one.

At 7:22, eight minutes from the start of the concert, Ashley began to go into stress out.

“We have got to find a parking space!  The tickets say there will be no late seating!” she said.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t behave very well under pressure, particularly in cars.  So many of my life’s bad experiences have revolved around cars making me naturally inclined to lose my grip, get snippy and curse a lot.  It’s almost just as bad when I’m not driving, because my inner control-freak is convinced that things would be so much better if I was driving.  It’s not necessarily true, but it sounds nice.  This time, though, I realized I was slipping into stress mode too, a dangerous place to be when Ashley was already there ahead of me.  I didn’t want to start swearing about our situation and sour the evening before it got started.  But I could feel myself getting more frustrated that we seemed to be going around the same block over and over, trying to find an alternate entrance to the same closed and locked parking garage.  I also had to keep my eyes peeled for stray parking spaces while at the same time avoid looking at the Market Street Theater itself whenever we passed by it on another trip around the block.  Finally, three blocks away from the theater itself, across the street from the Pennsylvania State Capital Building, we spied an empty metered space.  We had no change to feed the meter, but all the other meters lining the the block read -9.57, just like ours, so we wagered we were in an after hours safe zone.

My car’s clock read 7:28, which I knew was at least 2 minutes fast, but that still didn’t give us much time to make it to the theater by curtain time.  We quickly walked past a series of expensive little shops, bars and coffee houses, all closed, before crossing the street to start down the next block.  There we caught a break because the corner third of that block was taken up with an open parking lot with plenty of empty spaces.  We were able to cut across it, saving valuable time.  In retrospect, I bet we could have parked there as the giant signs reading “Restricted Parking By Permit Only” probably only applied during the week.

By the time we had crossed the lot and retook the sidewalk I was outpacing Ashley by several feet.

“Slow down!  I can’t keep up with you!”

            Slow down? I thought, continuing to power-walk.  The idea is to get there as fast as possible.  You speed up!  But before I could unwisely put this into words, I was interrupted by a voice to my right.

            “Excuse me, sir.  Could I interest you in taking a look at something?”  The voice came from a man on the sidewalk beside us.  He was dressed warmly and was standing in front of what looked like bundles of incense, lined up in rows, leaning against the face of the building beside the parking lot.

“No.  We’re late,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“On the way back then?” he asked in a hopeful tone.

“Maybe,” I called back over my shoulder.

We hit the corner of the third block, across from which was the Market Street Theater itself.  The theater is a very modern structure that from the front looks like two multi-story, brownish, partially-glass-fronted boxes, with slanted roofs, sandwiching a third, grayish box, rotated on its axis at a 45 degree angle to the first two.  While gazing up at the theater, though, I forgot to avert my eyes and accidentally caught sight of a poster in the window before I could shift my gaze back to the sidewalk.  Oh, and the image was stuck in my head now!  Fortunately, the poster was for a Lewis & Clark IMAX movie, which didn’t sound at all like our concert.  I was probably still safe.

There at the corner, I waited for Ashley to catch up.  No use running ahead into the theater when she had the tickets.  As we crossed the intersection, I reached out to take her hand in order to gauge her mood.  She snatched her hand out of reach, which I took to mean she was angry at me for walking too fast.  Later I found out she just didn’t want me to drag her around the street at my top speed, risking a fall.  At the time, though, I was irritated.  This was supposed to be a happy, joyous evening but was starting to smell otherwise.  We already had enough problems with circumstances conspiring against us without getting mad at one another here in the home stretch.  It was enough to make a guy angry!

Through the glass doors of the Market Street Theater we could see a long line of people.  The line snaked through the lobby—or what I dared to see of the lobby, lest I accidentally spy another poster—and part way up a staircase where people seemed to be joining it.  I didn’t know if this was the line for reserved tickets or just to get in the door to the theater itself, but at least there were still people waiting to get in, so we wouldn’t be shut out after all.  I followed Ashley into the lobby and up the steps to join the line.  Then she stopped short and turned around to look at me.

“Oh…” she said in a whimper.  There was a mixture of shock and despair in her expression and her eyes had begun to brim with tears.  All of my previous irritation vanished.

“What?” I said.  Then it dawned on me what she was about to say before she even said it.

“The tickets…  They’re in my pocketbook… in the car.”

Now it had occurred to me, five minutes and three blocks ago when we were locking up the car, to ask about tickets.  However, since everything but the presidential interference and the quest for parking had gone to plan, I figured she already had them and I kept my gob shut.  As the power-walker of the family, I knew it now fell to me to go back to the car and get the tickets.  Even more disturbing: I knew I would never be back in time if I merely power-walked.  This was going to require something that I hate doing.  This was going to require running.

Let me just state, I’m not built for speed.  Never have been.  Other than holding the uncontested world record for repeatedly beating my cousin Cameron in a foot-race from his front door to my grandma’s doorstep across the street, I make no claims of being a runner.  Maybe in college, when I was at the height of my walking regimen and could take all three flights of Carpenter Hall’s stairwell (Now-With-Extra-Gravity-For-Your-Convenience!) without even breathing hard, maybe then I could have run to the car and back without stopping.  These days, though, I’m wildly out of shape.  The best I could hope for was to make it to the car and back without my heart exploding or any organs being coughed up.  As painful as I knew it would be, it had to be done.  My bride of 3 years had gone to a lot of effort on my behalf and I was going to be damned if we would have to listen to the mystery band’s concert from the lobby.

So began my actual anniversary flight.

Out the theater doors I went and down the side-walk I ran, at top speed.  Real runners would probably have advised me to pace myself for a while by merely jogging to the car and saving top speed for the return trip.  And had any of them been nearby to offer this advice, I might have taken it.  Instead, my logic suggested that the longer I could go at top speed, the closer I would be to the car.

“Now I’m late with no tickets!” I shouted to the incense peddler as I passed him.  My legs were already beginning to tire causing my pace to slow.  I was practically pooping out at the starting gate!

I came to the big parking lot, intending to cut across again.  Only as I reached the entrance to the lot, a car pulled into it and I had to stop to avoid being run over.  The driver slowed to give me a perplexed look before driving on past me at this new slower speed and proceeded slowly along the exact route I was going to take.  I was forced to detour between the rows of parked cars where I had to dodge piles of snow and near-invisible puddles of ice.

The lot’s exit put me at the half-way mark for the next block, shaving yet a fraction more off my journey.  I staggered across the street, blood pounding in my ears, my knees and ankles beginning to sob.  When I reached the sidewalk, my foot hit a patch of ice and slipped, but I was able to catch myself before falling.  Memories of my earlier header into the back yard returned and the sudden fear of falling, breaking my ass and having to drag myself to the car by my finger-nails gave me pause enough to stop blindly running.  I tried to downshift my legs into a power-walk, but that gear was slipping, causing me to lurch along awkwardly.

I turned the corner onto the block where our car was parked—at, of course, the opposite corner—and started down the last leg toward the mid-point of my journey.  I tried to start running again, but could only go for short bursts before sinking back into a wobbly stagger.

Finally, I reached the car and retrieved Ashley’s pocketbook from the back seat, but decided against fishing in it for the tickets because A) I didn’t have any time; and B) I’d probably see who the band was in the process.  I slammed the car door and began shambling back toward the theater.

As much of a party as it had been getting there, the return trip to the theater was even more miserable.  My knees and ankles were by then really feeling the stress of having to drag the rest of me along and they were protesting by becoming wobblier by the minute.  My lungs also decided to join in the protest by burning fiercely with each intake of frozen air.  By the time I had made it back to the half-vacant parking lot, I had given up all pretense of running and had broken into a less than solid hobble.

Mid-way through the parking lot, it occurred to me that I should have just driven my car over and parked in this lot, thus halving my journey and getting me back sooner.  It was far too late to go back and try this now, though, so I hobbled onward through the lot and then back onto the sidewalk.

I didn’t have the lung capacity to spare on any kind of quip for the incense peddler as I passed him.  I was more concerned with my schedule.  I knew that 7:30 had come and gone by now, so our chances for seating were entirely dependent on there still being people in line inside the theater’s lobby.  The line had been huge when I left, so surely it would take a while for the people in it to be seated.

No!  That was a rationalization allowing me to walk when I should really be pouring on the speed, I thought.  So I tried running again, but it seemed like far more effort than I was capable of expending.  I had to explain to myself that I was going to be in pain and misery at the end of my journey regardless so I may as well run now to end that journey as soon as possible.  This reasoning worked and I started moving a little faster—not in a run so much as a barely controlled, falling, stumble that carried me across the final street and toward the theater itself.  I kept my eyes on the ground, avoiding the giant marquee above me and any windows, so it wasn’t until I was directly in front of the glass doors that I could see that the lobby was now empty, save for Ashley.  She saw me stagger up and opened the door for me.

“We’re okay, we’re okay!  We’re not late,” she said.  “The tickets say 7:30 but the sign here says 8.”

I nearly collapsed then and there.  All that running.  All that effort.  And we weren’t even late.

“Ehh… huhhh…. huff… herrgh… eheeh… here…” I managed to say, thrusting the pocketbook into her hands, followed by my coat, which had suddenly become quite hot.

Ashley guided me further into the empty lobby, where everything was a dazzling white with occasional flashes of a pinkish hue as my eyes responded to the blood surging through my skull.  Ashley advised me not to mouth-breathe in front of people; we were, after all, in the North now.  She pointed me toward the bathroom where I could splash water on my face, then took our coats to the check counter.  Later, she told me that the check counter girl gave me the strangest of looks as I passed on my way to the can.

“He had to run back to the car for our tickets.  He’s not very happy about it,” Ashley told her.  Then, in unison, she and the check girl both said, “He’ll live.”

As we followed an usher to our seats within the concert hall itself, I could actually hear my heart beating.  This had nothing to do with finally getting to solve the mystery of who we were there to see, though.  My cardiovascular system was still in run-mode, I was still having difficulty getting enough oxygen and had returned to mouth-breathing as a remedy.  Then my brain noticed a strikingly unfamiliar middle-aged white guy on the stage.  Of course, there are thousands of strikingly unfamiliar, middle-aged white guys in rock & roll.  This particular one didn’t have any instruments, and was wearing a suit, but for all I knew he could have been one of the Moody Blues or even Peter Frampton.   I found it difficult to pay attention to what he was saying, what with having to crawl over nine people to get to our middle of the aisle but still comfortably close to the stage seats.  Once seated, lungs still a-heaving, I noticed that behind the fellow on stage was a giant sheet of cloth, hung from the theater’s fly system, on which had been painted a mural.  The central figure on the mural was a gigantic African warrior and surrounding him were depiction’s of the African countryside as well as such painted phrases as, “Land for all”, “Wozani Kwa-Zulu Natal”, “Free Mandella”, “End Racism”.  There was also a very telling phrase that read, “Ladysmith, 200 km”.

My mouth dropped open even further than it had been.  There was only one group in the world that was likely to have that painted on a mural at their concert.

I leaned close to Ashley and whispered, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo?”

She smiled and nodded.

“Coolness!” I whispered between gasps of breath.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the group I was beaming about, Ladysmith Black       Mambazo is a South African acapella group who sing and dance in style traditional to the Zulu tribes of the region.  They have incredible, vibrant harmonies that remain pitch perfect despite their high-kicking, tip-toed dance style, present on nearly every song they sang.  (And no lip-synching.  Take that, Brittany!)  It was a style suppressed by the South African government’s Aparteid policies of the 1980s.  They’ve been wildly popular in their homeland for decades, but only came to recognition in this country after their collaboration with singer Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland and in the subsequent tour.  (Ash’s hint that I didn’t own a CD by them was true.  Being my generation’s hugest Paul Simon fan, I do own Graceland, in L.P, cassette and enhanced CD forms, but it’s not technically a Ladysmith album.  And while I do own one of their albums, it’s on cassette so her hint was excused.)

By the time the opening act had finished, I was back to breathing through nostrils only and my pulse had slowed to a reasonable rate.  My lungs continued to burn well into the concert, but it was hardly even a distraction to my enjoyment of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance.  It was an amazing, funny, and touching show, particularly considering that Ladysmith’s leader, Joseph Shabalala, recently lost his wife, Nellie, in a shooting in South Africa.

After the show, as we walked very slowly back to our car, passing by the capital building and enjoying the winter beauty that downtown Harrisburg has to offer, Ashley leaned close and whispered, “Was it all worth it?”

“Yes.  Yes it was,” I replied.  “It was a wonderful present.”

“Happy anniversary, Poo.”

“Happy anniversary, Swee.”

We then climbed into our car and proceeded to get horrifically lost trying to find our way back to the HoJo.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Bad Tech Karma, Idling Chip Fan, Beaver Dispatcher, Further revenge of the Power Ass., Fun with Fed Ex Blues (a Horribly True Tale, Special Delivery)

Karma is a strange thing, especially technological karma.  Most of my friends have bad-tech karma to one degree or another.  My friend Marcus Vowell has bad tech karma which causes every new piece of technology he buys to arrive pre-broken, a syndrome he calls Marcus Got The Broke One.  Spends an awful lot of time on the phone with warranty clerks.  My friend Joe Evans has bad car tech karma and can’t seem to keep a car for more than three years without it self-destructing in wildly creative ways.   My friend Matthew Jamison has bad personal tech karma which, combined with some rather freakish body chemistry on his part, causes his body to drain all the power out of wrist-watch batteries within hours of putting one on.  As for me, I think my tech karma is merely flawed, resulting in what I call Eric Can Never Have Nice Things Syndrome.  I have nice things, sure, and while they’re not exactly broken, there’s always a but.  My car is nice, but the windshield washer fluid chamber leaks like an SOB.  My stereo is nice, but it skips every 20 seconds when playing CDs.  My VCR is nice, but it refuses to let me program it anymore.  My Dish Network system is nice, but it keeps deleting some of my network channels and it can’t make the VCR do my bidding any better than I can.  And don’t even get me started on my former vehicle—the blue, 1985, Chevrolet Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd—nor its many radiator problems.

I used to think that this flawed tech-karma was a result of my being a cheap bastard and my refusal to buy quality technological components in favor of cheaper, crappier ones that fell off of trucks.  After some research, though, I found that it doesn’t matter how much I pay for something, or how few trucks it may have fallen of, there’s gonna be a flaw in it regardless.  This is especially evident in my computer.

In 1999, before I left Tupelo, MS, I purchased a new computer, though I didn’t do it all at once.  My cohorts in crime, Gordon Carskadon and the aforementioned Matthew Jamison–fellow charter members of the Manly Bladder Club and the two people who had served as almost full-time consultants for all my old computers–planned out a new and better system for me that they would assemble from new parts.  They listed off all the parts I’d need and told me where to get them.  A short time and several successful Fed Ex and UPS deliveries later, I had a new and wonderful computer system that left my old one in the dust.  Gordon had even gone so far as to overclock the Celeron chip so that it worked even faster than it was designed to.  Sure, it did need a special cooling fan, fitted snugly to the chip itself, in order to keep it from overheating, but that’s standard procedure among us computer geek-types these days.  Didn’t matter.  I just knew that for the first time in recorded history I owned a computer that surpassed even Matthew’s in speed and coolness.  I had finally broken my flawed karma curse.

Nine months later, in my then new home of Charlotte, North Carolina, the hard-drive started crapping out on me.  I ran diagnostic programs from the manufacturer’s website and the bad news was that the drive had less than a month to live.  Fortunately, it was still under warranty so the manufacturer sent me a new one for free.  Unfortunately, I must have caught a case of Marcus Got The Broke One, because the new drive came pre-broken for my convenience; a fact I didn’t learn until after I spent several days and nearly $300 in phone calls to Matthew attempting to format the new drive and install Windows 98 on it.  The manufacturer had to replace it again, and I had to start over.

About two months ago, in my new, new home in West Virginia, my computer began making a kind of odd, repetitive noise that sounded like a 1987 Ford Festiva engine idling.  It sped up and slowed down and sped back up again but never quite went away.  Matthew and Gordon suggested I check the cooling fans, cause if they were bad I needed to replace them before anything overheated.  Sure enough, it was the Celeron chip cooling fan, clogged with two years worth of dust and debris.  I bought a can of compressed air and cleaned it out good, but it still sounded a little off.  After another month, it began to sound less like a 1987 Ford Festiva idling and more like a Ford F-350 Lariat, that’s thrown a couple of rods, idling.  It was time to buy a new chip fan.

Last Monday, I ordered one and I wasn’t playing around this time.  I picked out a Celeron Slot 1 Heatsink with Dual Cooling Fans—which my wife contends will just be twice the parts to break, but bigger is better in my book.  In order to have the fan in my computer as soon as possible, I paid $9.90 for Fed Ex 2 Day Shipping.  (This is the part where Shirley the pianist plays a scary chord.)  Within an hour, the parts company had e-mailed me an invoice with my correct shipping address, phone number, e-mail, etc., and said the order had been processed and would be shipped shortly.  I figured the fan would probably be in on Wednesday… Tuesday at the earliest.

Here is a reconstructed diary of the week’s events:

DAY 1, TUESDAY

Not much going on.  Fan still idling noisily.  Have taken the cover off the CPU case to allow the cold, January, West Virginia mountain air that is constantly seeping in through the cracks around our windows to flow freely through the computer’s guts.  Had to go to my library workplace at 1, but wasn’t expecting Fed Ex today anyway.

DAY 2, WEDNESDAY

Off from work today.  Sat around waiting for Fed Ex but they didn’t show.  My heart skips at the sound of every truck on the road, but it’s never them.  Perhaps the parts company didn’t get it shipped until Tuesday morning.  They were only in Ohio, though, so the new fan should be here tomorrow.  Hands cold now.   So very cold.

DAY 3, THURSDAY

Still no Fed Ex.  Had to go to the library for work at 3, but sent e-mail to the parts company asking for the tracking number.  Not sure if it got through, because I replied to their auto-responder message from Monday.  Tried again before bed, sending message directly to the company’s official e-mail address.  Need to find electric blanket.  Damn base-board heating!

DAY 4, FRIDAY

Parts company still hasn’t written back.  Busied myself making a broccoli chicken casserole for the potluck dinner we’re attending tonight at the home of one of my wife’s med-school anatomy professors.  After the party, we’re supposed to go to the alumni center for dancing and booze (read, watching medical students get outrageously faced and stumble around the dance floor for four hours.  And since the wife is a designated driver, we’ll have to stay till the bitter end.  On the upside, at least I can take snapshots for use in future blackmail schemes.)

At 4:30, I got sick of waiting for the parts company to write back, so I phoned them.  A very nice lady named Marlene answered.  She said they were having e-mail server troubles, explaining their lack of e-response.  She confirmed my fan had been shipped on Monday and should have been in my hands long before now.  “We could have sent it ground mail and it would have been there sooner!” she said.  Marlene gave me the tracking number.  Fed Ex’s tracking website said my package has been in Beaver, WV, for two days.  It said something about there being an incorrect address issue.  Damn straight, since I live in Ronceverte and Beaver is 40 miles away.

At 5 p.m. I phoned Fed Ex to ask why my fan was in Beaver.   The operator lady explained that Beaver is their local hub, so it would make sense for it to be there.  She further explained that there had been some sort of mix up and that they had tried to deliver the package to the wrong address.  I told her I was a bit put out that I paid $9 for two day delivery and still didn’t have my package and was wondering what sort of compensation Fed Ex was going to offer.

“Well, I don’t think they’ll pay for this,” she said.  “In these cases, our drivers have until 7 p.m. to make the delivery before we consider it late.  So the driver will probably be by to drop it off to you before seven.”

“That’s all well and good, but my 2 day delivery package was shipped on Monday.  Today is Friday.”

After a moment of doing the math she said, “Oh.” She then apparently looked at her screen again.  “Well, this says that they tried to deliver it on Wednesday the 9th, but no one was home.  Did they leave a door tag?”

Was she just making this up now?  She had just told me that they had the wrong address in the first place.

“No,” I said, after fuming for a moment.  “They did not leave me a door tag.”

“Well, since there was no door tag, you can probably fight this and get compensation.”

“I would hope so.”

Ms. FedEx explained she would contact the Beaver Dispatcher and that he would phone me for directions to my house so the delivery could be made by seven tonight.

“Well, that’s going to be a problem,” I explained, remembering the dinner party.  “I’m leaving shortly and won’t be home until late.”

“Would it be okay for the driver to leave your package there?” she asked.

“If he can find the address, sure.”

“Oh, that’s right. He’ll need directions.”

“Yeeees,” I said, nodding my head.

Ms. Fed Ex seemed at a loss for what to do, so I suggested that I leave the directions as the outgoing message on my answering machine so the Beaver Dispatcher could phone and get them.  She agreed that this would probably work, but that if my package wasn’t to me before seven then it would definitely be here some time on Saturday and that the Beaver Dispatcher would be calling me for directions then.

“And who do I call about the compensation?” I asked.

“Well, first the package will need to be delivered, then we’ll reimburse the shipper who can reimburse you.”

I’m happy to report that when I called Marlene back to let her know this, she had already spoken with her boss and they were going to refund my shipping charges regardless of whether Fed Ex reimbursed them.  They certainly didn’t have to do this, but it sounded like good business to me.

The dinner party was very nice and great food and booze were had by all.  However, the evening was clouded for me by the fact that Fed Ex was being such a skid-mark in the underwear of my life.  I decided to skip the post party drunken dancing session and head home to see if my fan had indeed arrived.  It had not.  Nor had either of my two working caller-ID boxes registered ANY phone calls while we’d been away.  The Beaver Dispatcher hadn’t even attempted to call.

DAY 5, SATURDAY

Bad omens from the get-go.  While helping clear out our extensive collection of paper piles, I stumbled upon an uncashed refund check for the amount of $6.25 from the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass.  It was dated October 21, 1997 and paid to the order of my wife.  Already the monolithic corporations were insinuating themselves into my day, even rising up from the far buried past in which I briefly didn’t exist.  This did not bode well.

After spending the entire morning off the internet so as to allow free flow of incoming calls, I phoned Fed Ex to find out what was going on.  Ms. Fed Ex #2 told me, in what I detected to be a haughty tone, that the Beaver Dispatcher had noted in my account that he had phoned me Friday night and that I had not been home.

“Uh, no.  He didn’t,” I said.

“Yes.  It says right here that…”

“No.  He did not call because if he had it would have registered on my caller ID and there were no calls on it between 5:15 and 8 p.m. last night.”

“Oh,” she said.  She looked at her screen again.  She confirmed my phone number to make sure they had it right.  They did.  She tried again…  “Well, maybe he just didn’t listen to the answering machine message for the directions.”

“That might have been the case, had he called at all.  But, as I’ve mentioned twice now, he did not call.”

Ms. Fed Ex #2 said she would send a message through to the Beaver Dispatcher telling him to call me immediately.  If he hadn’t phoned within an hour, she said I was to call Fed Ex central back.

I gave him an hour and a half before calling back.

Ms. Fed Ex #3 sounded like a force to be reckoned with.  This was no namby pamby Fed Ex operator.  She had the voice and demeanor of a large black woman who, very politely, wasn’t taking any guff from angry customers.  Every time she sensed that I was getting pissed off, which was pretty much the whole call, she’d slam on the breaks, with varying degrees of success.  Having worked in a call center myself, I could respect that.  Still, I launched into my tale about the bastard Beaver Dispatcher and stopped only when she interrupted to make a point.

“Fed Ex doesn’t deliver to your area on Saturday.”

“Do what?”

“We don’t deliver to your area on Saturday unless you specifically requested it.”

“I did!” I shouted.

“I don’t show that here, sir.”

“But I called yesterday and was told…”

“There’s no need to shout, sir.  I show that you called yesterday and when your local dispatcher called you back, you didn’t answer your telephone.”

“NO!!  He never called!  I’ve got two caller ID’s and there were NO CALLS!!”

“Sir, I’m not going to get into an argument with…”

“I don’t care what he wrote there!  He didn’t call!”

“Sir, I will not argue with you on this…”

“This thing was supposed to have been here Wednesday!”

“And I’m trying to explain to you that we don’t deliver to your area on Saturday, unless by request.  Now did you request Saturday delivery?”

“At this point, I’m requesting that it be delivered at all.”

I briefly ranted more about being promised Saturday delivery by the last two operators, but Ms. Fed Ex #3 explained that Ms. Fed Exes #1 and #2 had evidently been talking out of their asses and had not checked the local hub status or they would have seen that not only did the Beaver Hub not make deliveries on Saturday, but that it was not even open on Saturday.  Bastards!

DAY 6, SUNDAY

Went to church.  Prayed for patience with those more incompetent than myself, prompt delivery of my fan on Monday, and that the new year will bring a lot less Terry Bradshaw during TV commercial breaks.  In other words, a miracle.

DAY 7, MONDAY

Week two of Fed Ex’s 2 Day Delivery Service, begins.

At 10 a.m. I hopped on the Fed Ex tracking site and saw that my package was still sitting on a shelf in Beaver.  I wanted to call Fed Ex and yell at them.  I wanted to hold the receiver into the open guts of my computer and scream, “Do you hear that hideous noise?  That’s the sound of my computer slowly dying because it’s Celeron chip is over-heating!  Sure, I’m the moron who keeps using it anyway, but that’s beside the point.  Is it too much to ask that when you pay for a guaranteed delivery time of two days that you get it?  Is it too much to ask that I not be repeatedly lied to by some guy in Beaver?  It’s not like I had my package shipped by the U.S. Post Office, which openly admits their 2 Day Delivery service is merely an unrealistic goal to be ignored.  You’re Federal EFFing Express!  You’re supposed to be the Mack Daddy when it comes to getting people’s shit to them on time!  Now somebody up there needs to get a boat, go get Tom Hanks’ and his volley ball off the damn island and bring him back stateside so he can whip your doughy asses back into shape!  If this goes on any longer, I’m gonna order a new fan and have it send two day UPS and we’ll see which one gets here first, 7 day head start be damned!”

This I did not do.

Instead, I opted for the nice approach.  When Ms. Fed Ex #4 answered, I asked for the status of my package.  She took my number and scanned the now lengthy adventures of my non-delivery.  According to her screen, the lying Beaver Dispatcher had not only added a second attempted call to Friday evening’s activity, he’d also touched up the record to include a failed delivery attempt at 5:41 p.m. on Friday.  According to him, the delivery didn’t go through because “customer not available or business closed.”  Someone was trying to cover his ass.

I informed Ms. Fed Ex#4 of his treachery.  I was even diplomatic about it, suggesting that he may have had the wrong address and phone number.  Nope.  She rattled off the correct contact information to me, which I knew she would, again proving me vindicated.  By the end of the call, Ms. Fed Ex #4 said that her screen showed my package had been loaded on a truck and was headed out for delivery.  She would, again, have the Beaver Dispatcher call me with an ETA.  She also took down the directions to our apartment and said she’d forward them as well.  While that was great, it still meant I was stuck in the house all day, with no access to the internet, least dispatcher bastardo actually phone and find the line tied up.  I couldn’t even leave the house for lunch at my favorite Chinese buffet, but then I remembered that they had been closed down recently because someone found a tooth in the food.  A human tooth.  With pulp.  A mixed blessing, really.

By 4 p.m. I had a headache from plotting my revenge against Fed Ex.   Just as well, since I had to leave to pick up the wife at school.  I left a note for the Fed Ex guy, giving him permission to leave my package there, as it would be just like them to turn up or call during the ten minutes I would be gone.

When I got back there was still no caller ID appearance and no package.  The wife needed me to follow her as she drove her car to a nearby repair shop to get a new clutch installed–further proof that bad tech-karma is contagious–but I didn’t want to go.  Fed Ex had probably let me leave once to lull me into a false sense of security so they could drop by as soon as I went out again, then refuse to deliver my package.  They’d probably leave a door tag telling me to drive 40 miles to Beaver to pick it up.  Why not?  They weren’t making any money off this anymore, so what did they care?  The wife saw the crazed look in my eyes and decided to ask a neighbor to help her.  It was a good thing too, because they weren’t even out of the parking lot when the phone rang.  It was Mr. Fed Ex Driver.  Finally!

The driver said he was on my road, albeit still not in the correct town.  I laughed maniacally at him and then gave him proper directions to the house.  When he arrived, I was almost surprised that he wasn’t the embodiment of evil I’d been expecting.  He certainly did seem put-out that he had to trek down our narrow, winding, WV back road to deliver a package to a mere residence, though.  No doubt I was a sight to behold, stalking to the door in my robe and slippers, unkempt and unwashed hair jutting in every direction, greedily snatching the package away from him.  And while I was tempted to pelt him with some old UPS boxes I had lying around, I let him go back into the wild, unscathed.  No use further tarnishing my karma.

There are now two codas to this story.

By the following Friday, I had pretty much settled back into my usual schedule of not obsessing about my hatred for Fed Ex when tragedy struck.  I went in to the library at 1 p.m. and had not been at work for 20 minutes when a familiar face walked through the door.  Yes, it was Mr. Fed Ex Driver himself, coming in to do some internet surfing on his lunch break.  I logged him onto the computer and quietly pondered the many ways I could make his day a little crappier, were I the kind of guy who went around doing things to make peoples’ days crappy.  His big ol’ Fed Ex truck was sitting right outside, with easy access valve stems on its tires.  But that’s just not me, man.  Ruining his day would in turn ruin the days of the dozens of people across the county who had stayed home from work to wait on their five-day-late 2 day deliveries, and Fed Ex is perfectly capable of screwing that up without my help.  I gritted my teeth and behaved myself.  I didn’t even snoop to find out what sort of porn this guy might be surfing for.

Temptation to commit unethical acts was not through with me, though.  Mr. Fed Ex Driver left the library a half hour later, but managed to leave his wallet behind in the process.  (Them online porn sites is `spensive!)  For one brief moment, I held in my hands the power to put a severe kink in dude’s life.  Again, though, that’s just not me.  It’s not like he was the Beaver Dispatcher himself, or anything.  This was just some schmoe workin’ for The Man like the rest of us.  I put his wallet in the safe-box and put thoughts of revenge out of my head.

An hour or so later, the wife came in to visit and I told her of the destruction I could have wrought, were I the kind of guy who wrights destruction. We and the library staff all stood around, laughing and loudly discussing Fed Ex’s incompetence for several minutes until Mr. Fed Ex Driver startled us by suddenly coming back.  The room became suspiciously silent as the subject of our little bitch session stood before us, looking a little nervous about having obviously walked in on something not for his ears.

“You, uh… You wouldn’t happen to…”

“…have your wallet?” our librarian finished.  “Sure.  Right here.”

Mr. Fed Ex Driver looked incredibly relieved when we handed it back to him. After he’d had a moment to search through it he said, “Wow!  And all my money’s still there!  I didn’t expect that.”

Perhaps he was just doubtful of society’s good intentions.  Perhaps he thought we were laughing about having lunch on him.  Or perhaps I’m not the first to have contemplated exacting revenge on this lowly minion of the Beaver Dispatcher.

The second coda to the story is that during the time it took to compile this tale, the radiator of my near perfect Malibu developed a leaky gasket or two and the scent of antifreeze is once more a familiar one around Chez Fritzius.  We’re taking it in on Monday.  Fortunately, this car’s still under warranty.  And I can always use the Power Ass. check to help pay the deductible.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Der Stuka, Joe Factor, Slow Food, Drunken Midget Blues (a Previously Unrevealed Horribly True Tale)

It’s Monday, July 23, 2001. My wife and I have exactly one week to get all of our material possessions stuffed into cardboard boxes in preparation for yet another life-upheaving move to another state and I’ve only just begun to pack. We’re hitting the road once again because after years of struggle, pain and rejection, my wife has finally been accepted into medical school at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg, West Virginia. This means for the second time this year, we have to move. And not just across town, like last time, but up a frickin’ mountain. Across several frickin’ mountains, really. And with a squalling cat, no doubt. It’s a great opportunity, though, and one we’ve been working toward for a long time. However, it does mean I have to go back to being unemployed until I can find work in my new town; a new town that is located in a particularly economically depressed area of one of the nation’s most economically depressed states. Also not boding well is the fact that whenever I say “We’re moving to West Virginia” to anyone, the universal reaction I get is one of sorrow and pity. Not exactly sure why, as Lewisburg seems to be a really nice little town, but that whole economically depressed thing might have something to do with it. Our adventures there will no doubt provide fuel for Horribly True Tales for years to come. So while waiting for bad stuff to happen, I thought I’d take a look back at some bad stuff that already happened in a previously unrevealed horribly true tale. It’s the story of the time my former beloved vehicle, the Bent Turd, broke down due to an elemental force of malfunction known as Joe Evans. This particular tale begins in the spring of 1998, mere weeks after the radiator shattering events of “The Talkin’ Utter Desperation Bent Turd Blue Tub Blues.” It may be helpful to peruse the Rules of Joe before reading this story, just to familiarize yourself with how dangerous messing around with the power of Joe actually is. You can find it at:

Joe Evans is many things to many people.  But you know that already.  To me, though, he’s a fellow member of the Manly Bladder Club; my former co-host for Juice & Joe’s Four Colour Theatre, our celebrated, award-deserving radio show about comic books; my fellow co-star in such classic dramatic productions as Damn Yankees, The Boys Next Door and The Disposal; and he was a former roommate in our collegiate collective residence, back in Starkville, MS, which he christened “Da Crib.”  (Many many horribly true tales could and will one day be written about Da Crib.  Not just yet, though.)  Yup, Joe’s been one of my best friends for the past ten years or so.

Back in the late 90’s, when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, it was a rare occasion that I got to hang out with Joe.  Even though Tupelo is only an hour north of Starkville, the highway between them is such a boring desolate stretch that making the drive regularly can be taxing on the soul.  It can also be taxing on the auto-repair bill, especially when one’s mode of transportation is an ailing `85 Chevy Caprice Classic that drives, as I seem to recall mentioning before, about as well as a bent turd.  As it so happens, mine was.

One Summertime Friday, I was blessed to learn that Joe was planning to brave the soul-sapping trek from Starkpatch for a much needed weekend of card-playin’, Babylon 5 watchin’, indiscriminant cursin’ and Outback Steakhouse eatin’ revelry.  This plan was marred only by the fact that, as part of my job as morning show DJ at Sunny 93.3, I was scheduled to do a radio remote broadcast in Houston, MS, that evening.  The remote broadcast was at Splash Pool & Spa, of Houston.  It was a fairly important event as the Splash people were holding a drawing for a $1000 spa and the qualifiers in the contest had to be present to win.  This promised to be a mad circus, but possibly an enjoyable one.  Because Joe had been in radio for about as long as I had, albeit in non-commercial radio, I figured I’d drag him along and let him see what a real commercial radio DJ had to put up with during a remote.

Joe arrived in town without incident and we whiled away the afternoon goofing off.  I had calculated that the hour of 4:05 p.m. would be a good time to start pestering Joe to hurry up so we could leave, but my actual target departure time was 4:25 p.m., as I knew from years of experience that it would take at least 20 minutes to get him to actually move.  That would leave us plenty of time to hit the ATM, hit a fast food restaurant, get over to the radio station to pick up the Sunny 93 van at 5 and get to Houston by 5:45 with plenty of time to set up for our 6 p.m. remote, the first on-air break of which wasn’t until 6:17.

I learned several valuable life lessons that day.

Lesson #1:  Never calculate anything based on the predicted behavior of Joe.

At 4:35 p.m. we were only just stepping into the driveway in front of my festering hellhole of an apartment.

“What do you want to take?  The Turd or Der Stuka?” Joe asked.  Der Stuka was the name of Joe’s Volkswagon Golf, christened so because its many engine and suspension problems combined to make a horrifying noise that was not unlike the German fighter plane of the same name.  Being a Volkswagon Golf also meant that while the German automotive craftsmanship of its air-conditioning system was a thing of efficiency, power and beauty, door handles that actually opened from both the outside and inside of the car weren’t as big a priority for its designers.

“Let’s take the Turd,” I said, proud that my vehicle was still driving impressively well after its recent radiator replacement and catalytic-converterectomy.  By my count, we still had plenty of time to hit all our planned stops even with our delayed departure.

One of the unfortunate side effects of a visit from Joe, however, was my car’s tendency to self-destruct in his presence.  Perhaps it’s due to the Joe Factor; that mysterious field of energy that surrounds Joe in which normally stable objects are likely to spill, explode, combust, spoil, fall apart, spill, receive nerve damage, spill, break, spill or begin speaking in tongues.  The last time Joe had come to town, the Turd’s battery went into a coma in a grocery store parking lot and we were forced to spend a blistering four hours replacing it.  My confidence that we would not have any automotive problems on this visit was ill-founded.

While getting moolah at the ATM, I caught a familiar whiff of anti-freeze.  Couldn’t be coming from the Turd, I concluded.  I’d had that radiator fixed already.  It must have been coming from one of the other cars at the drive-through teller tubes, I reasoned.

Lesson #2: It’s always the Turd.

A quarter mile down the road, just as I was pulling onto the entrance ramp of Hwy 45, I noticed a loud clicking sound that seemed to be coming from the engine of the Turd.  I tried to come up with some rationalization for the sound, other than it being the same hideous clicking noise that it made the last time it overheated due to having no coolant in its radiator.  The engine temperature light conspired to dash my hopes.  By this time, we were already more than half way to the radio station so I figured maybe, just maybe, I could make it all the way.  Nothing doing.  The car was starting to over-heat and was driving slower and slower and slower as we went.

“Should we pull over and check it?” Joe asked.

“Hell no!” I shouted.  From my overheating experience a few weeks back I knew if I stopped to check anything the car would never start again and we’d be stranded for sure.  If I was meant to be stranded, it would have to be a lot closer to the radio station than we were, engine-wear be damned!  Amazingly and against all expectation, we made it up the exit ramp for Green Street, which lead right to to the radio station’s home street of Gloster.  We had nearly made it to Gloster when the Bent Turd gave up the ghost and shut itself off.  I coasted the Turd along the side of the road until we reached the gravel drive of Patrick Home Center, in which we rolled to a steaming halt.  Sure enough, the engine was just hissing with heat and stink of burning oil.  Up to this point, I’d been cursing like an Admiral on the U.S.S. Tourettes, but as I looked down at the pinging engine I found I didn’t really have the energy to say more than a few half-hearted blistering curses.  I slammed the hood and began stomping down Gloster toward the radio station in silence.  Joe followed.

Sunny 93’s production director and afternoon DJ, “Clark Kent,” was waiting outside as we came wheezing up the hill, ten minutes later. (And yes, everyone, including Clark, is fully aware of how completely lame that choice of on-air names is.  Marginally moreso than my choice of Erik Winston.)

“Hey, where ya been, Erik?” Clark asked.  “You know you’ve got a remote, right?  I tried calling your house to remind you, but you didn’t answer.”

“Car… broken… Stalled on… side of…  road…. Walked here…” I managed, stomping past Clark, who was still asking questions.

I hadn’t pre-loaded the van earlier in the day, and there’s a heap of stuff we have to take to remotes.  I’d been making a laundry list of it in my head during my run/hobble: I needed advertising copy, the station’s ancient bag cell-phone, the ancient bag cell phone’s power supply box, bumper stickers, T-shirts—both for giveaways and one to replace the one I’d sweated through during said run/hobble—the ice-chest, and a couple cases of two-liter bottles of woefully flat soft-drinks.  I would still need to buy ice for the ice chest, though, not to mention which was yet another delay in an already dissolving master plan.  We threw everything in the van and hit the road.

“I’m hungry,” Joe said.

“Me too,” I said.

There was a Hardee’s on the way to Houston in the little town of Verona.  We decided to pop in there real quick.

Lesson #3:  Hardee’s is never quick; Hardee’s in Verona even less so.

We pulled in behind a truck at the drive-through line at Hardee’s.  After a couple of minutes we decided that it was pretty strange that the driver of the truck wasn’t actually giving his order to the speaker, but instead seemed to be waiting to be asked what he would like to order.  Another minute passed before some noise was emitted from the speaker and the man began to order.  The ordering process was taking an unnecessary amount of time considering that he’d had at least 3 minutes to make up his mind already.  Finally he pulled around to the next window and we pulled into his place.

For a long time nothing happened.  No garbled voices issued from the speaker nor was there any indication that Hardee’s even knew we were there.

“Hellooooooo?!” I shouted.  After a while there was a very very low sound from the speaker.  I could barely make out the words but was pretty sure they were “Hold on.”  The low voice eventually returned to the speaker and said something that might have been “May I take your order” but might also have been “May a diseased rat crawl out of our freezer and die in your ass” for all I could tell.  I didn’t care. I just wanted food.  We gave our order to the speaker and waited.

“You get that?” I shouted.  A low noise sounded from the speaker but no words could be heard.  I took that as confirmation and drove around to the pickup window where our friend in the truck was still waiting for his food.  A bitter, curse-bejeweled eight minutes later and he still didn’t have his food.  As far as I know, he’s still there waiting for it, cause I wasn’t sticking around there any longer.  It was already 5:15 p.m. and Houston was at least 40 minutes away.  I pulled around the truck and, with teeth bared, waved like a madman at the Hardee’s employee in the window as I sped out of their parking lot.  I hoped they would be terrified of the bad publicity I could potentially bring them as a powerful media personage, but rather doubted they had ever had any good publicity to compare it by.

Now there are several ways to get to Houston, but since I’d only been to there once and had taken the Natchez Trace to get there, that was the way I decided to go.  To get to the Trace, I made a right turn in the middle of Verona.  We drove for a couple of miles until we came to a giant “Bridge Out” sign that was physically blocking the road.  It might have been helpful to have included a similar sign, two miles, back in Verona, preventing people from going out of their way to learn this information.  Evidently, signs is `spensive so no one had done so.  There were no obvious detours, so we turned around and headed back to Verona.  Before we could get there, the big giant bag cell phone rang.  It was Gwen, the general manager of Sunny 93, calling to inform us that we needed to get to Houston as quickly as possible because Doug, the ad-sales guy in charge of the Splash Pool & Spa account, was going to be late because he had to go pay a visit to one of the station’s many delinquent clients.

“What a coincidence, we’re gonna be late too,” I said.

“What?  You’d better not be!”

I explained the situation with the bent turd, our run/hobble to the station and our mad dash to leave town, our inability to get to the Natchez Trace and the fact that after a solid 20 minutes we were still in EFFing Verona.  (Of course, I omitted the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food we never got at Hardee’s in Verona.)

Lesson #4:  Always omit the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food you never got at Hardee’s in Verona.  You can save time by simply saying you went to Hardee’s in Verona and everyone will naturally assume that you never received food.

Gwen said she’d call Doug and tell him to skip the delinquent client and book it to Houston pronto.  Someone had to be there to assure the Splash guy that all the dough he was dropping on this remote and drawing was not going to waste.

Meanwhile, I had 30 minutes to drive at least 40 miles, I didn’t know exactly how to get there and I still had to buy ice!   Earlier in the day, Clark had suggested I go to Houston by way of Okolona (“Where the Wind comes Sweepin’ Down the Pain!”), some 20 miles to the south of Tupelo.  I wasn’t exactly sure which road to take to Houston once I got to Okolona, but I was gonna worry about that later.  Just getting there was more of a chore than I had hoped.  Being around 5:30 on a Friday meant that there were plenty of people on the road.  None of them seemed to be in any kind of hurry.  Despite this, we made it to Okolona in record time.  There were, of course, no signs in Okolona telling how to get to Houston, so I stopped at a convenience store where I hoped to find ice and directions.  Joe found the ice while I found a clerk who gave me the impression that she was just passing time as a clerk until her appearance on Rikki Lake came through.  Her directions for how to get to Houston consisted mainly of pointing a finger in the general direction of the four way intersection outside and saying “Go that way.”  She asked why my radio station was going to Houston, as opposed, presumably, to staying in scenic Okolona.  I told her.

“Splash Pool an’ Spa?” she said with disdain, stopping short of actually ringing up my ice.  The clerk turned toward a large woman sitting behind the chicken heat-lamp case.  “Hey, Patricia.  Ain’t that where you got yore pool?”

“Whuuuut?”

“I said, ain’t that where you got yore pool?  At Splash Pool and Spa?”

Patricia was silent for a moment. “Yayuh.  I think that was them.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them folks,” the clerk assured me.  “Patricia’s been having all kinds’a trouble with her pool and they won’t send no one out to do nothing about it.  Wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah.  Beats all I ever seen.”

“Crooks!” Patricia said.

I hoped she was wrong, because if there’s one thing I hate doing it’s shilling for crappy businesses.  The chances that she was mistaken were actually pretty strong, since there are like four pool places in Houston, though.

The clerk finally rang up my ice, but only after I loudly dropped it on the counter to provide an audio reminder that there was business to be transacted.  After further dire warnings of the crooked, dog’s butt deficient nature of Splash Pool & Spa from both the clerk and Patricia, Joe and I bolted for the door and hit the road that presumably lead to Houston. Fifteen miles later, we found ourselves stuck behind a drunken midget.

Okay, he might not have been a midget, but he was at the very least a short drunken man and at the worst a drunken child.  Whichever the case, the drunken midget wannabe was swerving his beat up Lincoln all over the road at the breathtaking speed of 40 miles per hour.  There was a second car between the drunken midget and our van and this guy was having an impossible time passing the drunken midget due to all the swerving.  We didn’t fare any better because we couldn’t even pass the guy who was trying to pass the drunken midget.  It was an infuriating situation for a variety of reasons, but—and perhaps I should be ashamed to say it—the only reason I gave a damn about at that point was that he was making me even later than I’d already made myself.  Eventually the drunken midget swerved off the road and, coincidentally I’m sure, onto another road, freeing us to violate the speed limit.

As we were approaching the Houston city limits, at 6:04, the giant bag cell phone rang again. This time it was Clark wondering if we were set up yet for our first break, scheduled at 6:17.

“No,” I said.  “We’re not even in Houston yet.”

“You’re not in Houston?”

“No.”

“Well where are you?” Clark asked, ever the voice of calm.

“We’re… close to Houston.”

“What road are you on?”

I clenched my jaw.  “I have no idea!  We’re close to Houston, all right?!”

“This is the reason we tell you to leave early for remotes.   You’re supposed to be there at least a half hour before they start.”

Now I knew good and well that I was at least partially responsible for our lateness due to my foolhardy attempt to wring food out of Hardee’s.  But that was where it ended.

“That’s right, Clark.  My car overheated and I ran a half a mile to the station, hit a fallen bridge and then had to drive behind a drunken midget the whole way for my health!”

“Say what?”

“Nevermind!  I’ll call you when I get there!”

Lesson #5:  Never deal with Clark when you’re pissed.  He can always find a way to make you even angrier.

After reaching down-town Houston, I began to regret not having paid attention during Doug the Ad Guy’s seminar on how to find Splash Pool & Spa.  I remembered a landmark or two, but neither of them really looked like they did in my head, so I drove past them.  If it hadn’t been for the mass of people standing around a spa, practically in the middle of a side street, I might have missed the place.  Doug the Ad Guy was already there, running interference with the client and the herd of qualifying listeners.  I breathed a sigh of relief, backed into the parking lot and tried not to run over anybody.

It should be understood that Sunny 93’s out of town remotes are accomplished through no great technical means.  Essentially the DJ phones the radio station on a cell-phone, which is then piped through the sound board and sent out over the airwaves.  We don’t actually need the big speakers and antennas and road rack sound system at all.  That stuff’s pretty much just a glorified stereo system that lets us play our signal at the remote for ambiance and to let the DJ know when the commercial breaks start so he can get ready to call the studio.  To do that, though, he needs a working cell phone.  Sunny 93’s big clunky bag phone came with a plug-in power supply the size and weight of a fat brick.  The power supply plugged into a standard power strip attached to an extension cord which had to be plugged into a local power outlet in order for any of this to work.  The tricky part is that there are TWO such power supply bricks at the radio station, only one of which actually works more than intermittently.  They’re identical in appearance, are unlabelled and are almost always in proximity to one another on the storage shelf.  You can guess which one I grabbed on my way out the door that afternoon.

Joe and I dumped the contents of the van on the ground and I began hooking up the phone while Joe searched for an outlet.  I hoped  to have everything working by the time my first break hit.  By my internal clock, I had two minutes.

Lesson #6:  It’s always less than two minutes.

It was sticky and hot outside the van.  The contest qualifiers, who were presumably valued listeners as well, were watching the whole process, fanning themselves with whatever paper they could scrounge.  I tried to look pleasant and smile and not appear at my sweaty wits end as much as possible.  One of the qualifiers came over to say hi.  I recognized his voice before he could finish introducing himself.  He was Lloyd the Über Listener.  Lloyd loved Sunny 93 and listened to us all day, every day.  He won nearly every contest we had, as often as we would allow him to.  And while such listening habits are the stuff of a programming director’s dream, actually meeting someone who does nothing but listen to the radio all day is not without a high degree of creepiness.  After all, it takes people of a certain stripe to be so devoted to soft hits format radio.  Lloyd was their king.

I had just hooked the cell phone into it’s power supply brick and then plugged the brick into the van’s power strip, for which Joe had found an outlet, when Lloyd shambled up to shake hands.  Unfortunately, despite having plugged everything up correctly, the little light on the power-supply brick had not turned on and no sound was coming from the van’s speakers.  Something was very wrong.  I couldn’t tell when my break was about to start without our signal through the speakers, and I couldn’t have the speakers nor the cell phone without power.

Lloyd was still trying to press his hand into mine and I realized that being a polite, smiling, friendly DJ and getting my equipment running before the first break were probably mutually exclusive concepts at my stage of sanity.

Lesson #7:  Always be polite, smiling and friendly to your listeners.  Unless they really piss you off.

I quickly shook Lloyd’s hand and asked him to excuse me while I went back to plugging cords.  So far I was remaining calm, but I so wanted to launch into my usual fit of cursing.  How could I, though, what with God, Lloyd and everyone else watching.

Lloyd, was not only an Über Listener but an amateur radio engineer as well.  He was attempting to be helpful by asking if I’d hooked up our microwave antenna yet.  As he understood it, that’s how things were done now-a-days.  We didn’t have any such creature.  But even if we had, we didn’t have any damn power to run it with.

Fortunately, Joe was there.

I know, that’s a rare combination of words to be associated with Joe, but his presence, despite the Joe Factor, was actually helpful.  He noticed that a cord had come loose from the back of the road rack and that fixed our sound problem.  The speakers came to life and we were in the middle of a commercial.  Hearing commercials was my cue to call the radio station and be ready for my break, which occurred after all the commercials had played.  Sunny 93 was mostly run by satellite feed and timing the breaks properly was essential and not easy to alter at the last moment.  If I didn’t call in, we could easily wind up with a minute of dead air and a pissed off Spa guy who was paying out the nose for that time.  And because I’d grabbed the broken power supply brick, the phone was dead and I couldn’t call in.

Most DJ’s faced with this situation would have simply unplugged the bag phone from the power supply, walked around to the driver’s seat, plugged the phone into the cigarette lighter jack and then turned the van on and called.  Not me.  My first thought was, “Doug’s got a cell phone!”

I dove past Lloyd and into the herd of listeners who were glutting the parking lot and the store’s doorway.  I had to practically fight my way through them, no longer caring if they found me polite, friendly or smiling.  I was expecting at any moment to hear the remote tones play over the speakers signaling my first failed remote break of the day.  Inside, Doug was behind the store’s counter, using his cell phone.

“DouggetoffthephoneI’vegotabreakintwentysecondsandIcan’tcallthestationfromthevan!” I shouted.

“What?”

“I need your phone!  Now!  My break is in under 10 seconds!”  I didn’t actually have any idea how many seconds I really had, but it might have been less than 10 for all I knew.  Doug got the gist if not the actual message and hung up on whoever he was talking to and passed the slim little phone over.

I made a break for the van, where I’d left my page of remote copy, frantically dialing as I ran.  I fully expected that with my luck the phone line would be busy.

It was.

Dammit, Clark was probably trying to call the van phone and was tying up the line.  I hit redial and this time it began to ring.  At the same moment, I heard remote tones play over the van’s speakers followed by silence.  The break had started without me!  Then, from the phone’s receiver I heard a click.  I hoped that click meant Clark had flipped the switch that opened the call to the airwaves.

“Sunny 93.3, this is Erik Winston broadcasting live from Splash Pool & Spa in Houston…” I cheerfully said into the phone.  My voice came out of the van’s speakers at the same time.  Whoo hoo!  Clark had opened the connection just in time!  Granted, it was a bit of a gamble on his part, since it could have been any old yahoo calling in and not me.  For all he knew, it could have been Lloyd.  Still, it had worked and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for Clark’s gamble that I nearly lost my ability to speak coherent sentences.

The rest of the remote went pretty well once I’d had a chance to cool down.  Lloyd, it turned out, was not nearly as creepy as he could have been.  And while he didn’t win the spa, he was happy enough to drive away with a Sunny 93 T-shirt, which he would no doubt put in a drawer next to the half dozen or so other Sunny 93 T-shirts he had won over the years.  The store’s owner was also very happy with the remote and struck me as the kind of businessman I might give a dog’s butt for after all.

After the remote was finished and we had packed up the equipment, Joe and I retired to the Hardee’s of Houston, where we received our meals right on schedule and grill fresh.

As for the Turd, rather than attempting to fix it ourselves, we had it towed to my usual mechanic the following morning.  The mechanic said a radiator hose had come loose but that the engine was no more worse for wear than usual.  He fixed it up and gave me a knowing wink that said he knew I’d be back to see him before long.

Lesson #8:  Owners of cars that drive like bent turds always come back.        

Copyright © 2001 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ I Am Just An Ordinary Guy, Burnin’ Down The House, (non-Talking Heads version) Blues (A churnin’ burnin’ Horribly True Tale)

I’m starting to think that maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to be a home owner.  Or a home renter.  Or be allowed in other peoples’ homes.  Or, for that matter, be allowed to own appliances that are capable of generating heat of any kind.  It’s a realization that has been slowly dawning on me for the past few months, though the evidence has been startlingly obvious.

This year marked the first Thanksgiving as a married couple for Ashley and me.  It also marked the first time that either of us had to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, almost exclusively by ourselves.  Family and friends were brought into our home and fed what turned out to be a pretty scrumptious meal, right down to the three pumpkin pies I made while attempting to make two.  We couldn’t have asked for things to go any smoother, except maybe for the incident involving one of Ashley’s friends pouring every last drop of our leftover gravy down the sink.  I had to go to the store on broth runs no less than five times, once on Thanksgiving day itself, to make that damn gravy, and down the disposal it went on the premise that “gravy doesn’t keep well.”

After a couple of days of gnawing on leftover Turkey sandwiches, (dry turkey, mind you, as we had no gravy; see above,) it was clear that the time had finally come to make the traditional post-Thanksgiving kettle of turkey soup.  Ashley began the process of boiling the turkey off the bones one morning just before leaving the house to go Christmas tree shopping.  Before she left, she informed me of the bird on the burner.  Now, I presumed she told me this because she didn’t want me to freak out if the house were suddenly filled with the aroma of cooking turkey.  She, on the other hand, presumed that by telling me this I would take the initiative of checking on the turkey and make any necessary burner temperature adjustments before I left for work.  We both could not have been more wrong.

By chance, I did wind up in the kitchen before leaving and did note that the large, bird-filled, cast iron kettle was just a simmering away and emitting a not entirely appealing turkey smell into the air.  The burner was set on medium, which seemed a little hot to me for something that was presumably going to be cooking all day, but since Ashley always knows what she’s doing in the kitchen, and because I’ve screwed up her master plans by meddling in the past, I was not about to touch the oven and risk having to sleep on the guest bed.  I did turn on the ventilation fan, though, so the house wouldn’t smell of stinky bird when she came home.  I went to work, safe in the knowledge that I’d done right.

An hour or so later, Ashley called me.  It seems that when she returned home from Christmas tree shopping she was greeted by a house filled from floor to ceiling with thick black smoke and the incredible stench of charred bird carcass.  How the cat survived, we’re still not sure.  Ashley was furious with me for not turning the burner down before I left, especially since I had turned the fan on so I had obviously seen that the kettle was too hot.  However, in the face of never actually having told me to do anything to the turkey in the first place, and due to the fact that she was well aware of my status as a complete goob long before she married me, she wasn’t able to back her emotions with a solid accusation.  I too could not get justifiably angry with her for running off and leaving the kettle on medium because I had clearly seen that it was too hot and had not done anything about it.  It took two days to air out the apartment, and nearly a month before  the noticeable char-broiled turkey stench stopped sucker punching us in the nose whenever we walked through the front door.  And still, on particularly humid days, it returns from within our furniture to haunt us further.

That incident should have been a valuable life lesson never to be repeated.

Last night I went to make some tea.  Simple enough.  I took out my favorite mug, selected a fine bag of Philosopher’s Blend tea, filled our new, stainless steel, whistling teapot with water from the tap, set it on a burner atop the stove, turned a burner on and scurried back to the living room to watch the X-Files.  A short time later the sound of gently boiling liquid could be heard from the kitchen and I knew my tea would soon be ready.  Sure, I could smell something burning, but I chalked this up to there being some grease on the burner from the meat-loaf dinner we’d consumed earlier.

“Do you smell something burning?” Ashley said, a couple of minutes later.  Now that she mentioned it, something really did smell like it was burning.  In the middle of standing up to see about my tea, my mind flashed back to when I first turned on the burner.  To my horror, my mind’s eye saw that the burner I had turned on was not the one beneath the tea kettle, but was actually the one beneath the Corningware dish from the meat-loaf within which had been resting a plastic spatula.  Before I was even fully upright, I was scrambling for the kitchen, uttering my favorite mantra of panic, which rhymes with “muck a funky.”  Already, there was thick smoke and the flicker of flames within the kitchen.  Sure enough, the spatula in the Corningware had partially melted and caught flame.

There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of the HBO series The Sopranos where mob-boss Tony’s mother, Livia, overcooks some mushrooms in her kitchen, starting a grease fire.  As the flames grow higher, she just stands there looking at them, powerless to do anything except scream “Oh, the flames!  It’s burning!”  When I saw that episode, I wondered how anyone could just stand there and let their kitchen burn?  How can you not have common sense to do something about it?”  Of course, as I stood in my own kitchen, watching the flames creep higher and higher from the Corningware, the only thought in my head were the words “Fire!!!! Fire!!!! Fire!!!!”  No rational impulses as to what to do next, no notions of reaching for the handy extinguisher, only “Fire!!!! Fire!!!! Fire!!!!”

After a few moments, I developed enough presence of mind to realize I needed to act, so I reached for the non-burning end of the spatula and pulled it from the Corningware.  The burning end was, however, still burning as were the remnants of it within the Corningware.  Great!  Now I had two fires to put out.  Starting with the fire that was slowly burning toward my hand, I began flapping the spatula in the air to shake out the flames, using much the same principle as shaking out a match.  This worked, but only because it flung all the burning, molten bits of the spatula throughout the kitchen like little blobs of napalm.  These decorated the walls, the counters, the microwave, the refrigerator, the floor and me, but I didn’t notice them right away as I was then trying to figure out what to do about the flaming Corningware.   Again, my solution was to turn on the ventilation fan.  The fire didn’t go away, of course.  In fact, it was probably burning brighter now that fresh oxygen was being sucked into the room.  I then turned off the burner, but that didn’t have much effect on the fire either.  About this time our smoke detector, which isn’t even two steps from the kitchen door, finally got around to noticing the smoke and went off.  Fortunately, Ashley, who is a trained fire-fighter from back in her Emergency Medical Technician days, came to the rescue, first by removing the smoke detector battery then by walking into the kitchen and calmly placing a big metal cookie sheet atop the Corningware.  The fire’s oxygen supply now cut off, it died.

We then realized that our own oxygen supply was doing none too good either.  The poisonous fumes from the burning, non-stick plastic had filled up the kitchen and had begun to fuse in microscopic particles to our nose-hair.  We held our breaths and ran around opening windows before fleeing the apartment, Amityville-style.  We stood in the freezing cold corridor in our sock feet and jammies until we thought the place had aired out sufficiently.  It was only after returning that we noticed the little blobs of spatula napalm stuck to nearly every surface in the kitchen.  Fortunately, they had mostly extinguished on impact and were no longer a threat to life, limb and countertop.

That my lesson had still not been learned after the first incident bodes rather ill for the future.  Especially considering that we will soon be leaving the special comforts of the Sailboat Bay apartment community for what we have judged to be much better digs in a much better area of town.  And where Sailboat Bay was an immense trade up from the Festering Hellhole I lived in Tupelo, our new digs will be an even better trade up from the Bay.  We have agreed to move into what used to be a swingin’ bachelor pad the likes of which would near rival Austin Powers‘ London flat.  It’s a two bedroom, above garage apartment, complete with giant wooden deck, spacious living room, an enormous kitchen, walkthrough closets, shelf space for days, cable TV available in every room including the tile-laden, jacuzi-tub-filled bathroom and is located in a neighborhood where you’re unlikely to find strangers masturbating at your back door, unlike here in the Bay.  Complicating the move, besides my newfound fire-bug tendencies, is the fact that the new pad in question is also owned by my employer. I burn that sucker down, I lose home and job all at the same time.

Copyright © 2000 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Nazi Pep Boy, Death of the Bent Turd, Frickin’ Cursive Blues (A Frickin’ Horribly True Tale)

It’s been a complete surprise to me, but the state of North Carolina has treated me remarkably well these past few months. Not the state’s government, mind you, who ran me through hoops to get a simple driver’s license in my last Horribly True Tale.  No, what I mean is, it’s been unexpectedly pleasant, living in the big NC.

When I first moved here, I’d rather been expecting an upsurge in material for new and more horrific Horribly True Tales.  After all, you don’t just uproot and move all your stuff 600 miles to a state where you don’t have a job and expect everything to go smoothly for you.               I eventually began to wonder if I needed to take up writing non-whiny, bright happy tales of romantic bliss, since nothing bad seemed to be happening to me that would make for a good horribly true story.  Even my wedding day–which, if you’ve ever been through such a thing you know how stressful and accident-prone they tend to be–went of with very few hitches.  Sure, we probably needed the wedding equivalent of Cliff’s Notes since we had no rehearsal and were pretty much winging the whole thing.  And sure, the minister dropped Ashley’s ring in the middle of the ceremony and had to cover for it by switching his own ring into it’s place, which might technically mean I’m married to him now, but the audience was none-the-wiser and that’s the point.  And the car known as The Bent Turd, my beloved 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic and our departure vehicle for the honeymoon, got us to Gatlinburg and back in once piece and didn’t drop any of its pieces on the way.  It’s also made numerous trips as we began moving our things from Hildebran into our new apartment in Charlotte without stranding me on the side of the road even once. In fact, other than having one of its taillights smashed when Ashley’s cousin backed into it with her truck, the Turd had been running in tip top condition the entire time I’d been in the state.

I think we all know where this one’s going next.

One day, a month or so after my wedding, as I was driving around Charlotte in the Turd, I happened to notice the distinctive smell of gasoline fumes coming from the air vents.  My theory on this, brilliant mechanic that I am, was that I must have flooded the car while starting it and the fumes were simply lingering from that.  Never mind that I had no recollection of flooding the car, that was my theory.  The next evening, as I was going to the grocery store, the Turd stalled out in the apartment’s parking lot and I couldn’t get the engine to turn over at all.   Ash also figured I must have flooded it, since she could smell fumes too, and she suggested that the car had some sort of gauge that shut off the starter if there was gas nearby.  I thought that sounded a bit more sophisticated than `85 Chevys are generally known for being and figured it was most likely a starter problem.  Then again, there were the fumes to consider.

The next day, we had it towed to Pep Boys, which I chose since I like their TV ads featuring the large craniumed cartoon mechanics, Manny, Moe and Jack, (one of whom, Manny, I think, looks a lot like Hitler with wire rim glasses.)  We told the Pep Boys that we thought the starter had gone bad and that we smelled gas fumes and they went to work on it immediately.  They called back shortly and said that in no way was this a problem with the starter since they had done some diagnostics, i.e. turned the key, and it started right up with no trouble.  The peeps at Peps thought it was either a fuel problem or an electrical problem. Ashley told them that we really thought the starter was having problems too, but they took this with the kind of skepticism reserved for people who they don’t know are the daughters of mechanics.  A few hours later, they called and said it was a fuel pump problem.  Another few hours later, they called to say it was fixed and we could pick it up.

There’s a reason Manny Pep Boy looks like Hitler.  Hitler couldn’t fix a car either.

The next morning, exhausted from my third-shift disk jockey gig where I basically sat on my ass and surfed the internet all night, I turned up with a groggy Ashley in tow to pick up the car.  After paying the bill and waiting several minutes for my car to be brought around from the garage, I decided to go around to the garage to see what was holding them up.  In the garage, was my car, still parked, its hood open and a mechanic underneath attaching a portable jump-start charger to the battery.

“Battry’s dead,” he said.

“I doubt it,” I replied.  I let him unsuccessfully try to start the engine, before mentioning that the whole reason we’d brought it to them in the first place was because it wouldn’t start.  I invited him to try the lights so he could see that it was not the battery at fault.  They worked perfectly.

The mechanic scratched his head and said “Was we finished with it yet?”

“That’s what we understood when we were called and told we could pick it up.”

The mechanic just shrugged and then pretended someone had called him from the front office and left.  I decided to go talk to someone in the front office too.  The manager type on duty, whose name tag proclaimed he was called Dick, seemed plenty perplexed by it all too.  Dick assured me that he would put a man on it when “a man” showed up at ten.

Meanwhile, Ashley had long since ditched me, figuring I could take care of things on my end and drive the repaired car home.  She had to go upstream through morning rush traffic to get back to pick me up.  While I was waiting for her, I eavesdropped on the conversation between Dick and another Pep Boy in the lobby.  A customer had come in for a tune up and they told him that his car would have to wait until a bit later in the day because they didn’t trust “the man” they had coming in at ten to do the job.  Wait a second, I thought.  This guy can’t do a tune up, yet they’re trusting him to figure out what’s wrong with my car?!!  What the hell?  I was way too tired to throw a fit, though, so I let it slide, hoping that they were talking about a different “the man” than “a man.”

Turns out, it didn’t matter what “the man” coming in at ten could or couldn’t be trusted to do, because no one actually told him to look at my car when he got there.  At 3:30 in the afternoon I phoned for a progress report and found there was no progress to report.  No one had even given the car a glance.  Dick was no where to be found and the manager on duty, Don, hadn’t been informed that anything was wrong with my car, so he just let it sit in the garage with its hood up, untouched all day.

“That’s odd,” I said.  “Dick told me he was putting a man on it at ten.”  If I was gonna have to put up with this crap, at least I could get Dick in trouble for it.  Don assured me that he was gonna start throwing mechanics at the car until one of them stuck and would call back as soon as they knew anything. Not too long later, he phoned back to say that, lo and behold, the starter was bad.  Don said that since they’d dropped the ball on that one, they were gonna throw in a “new” starter for free.  We just needed to pay for the labor, which was another $72.  I gritted my teeth and agreed to it. After all, it would have cost us more than that had they figured out the starter problem from the beginning and had to replace it and the fuel pump at the same time.

When they were finished replacing the starter, Don called back and said he’d like to keep it over night because he wanted “to see how it starts after sitting cold for a few hours.”  Here’s how Don’s flawed theory worked: When the car was first brought in, it had started just fine due to it being all warm and toasty, never mind that it had sat cold all night and was towed over to Pep Boys without having its engine started at all.  Later, after having been “fixed,” it started up just fine, cause it was warm then.  But, after sitting cold in the garage all night it was unable to be started in the morning cause it was cold.  Now Don wanted it to sit cold for yet another night, with its new starter, which did work, to see if it would start in the morning.  I told him on the phone that I much preferred to have my car now since Ashley was working late and couldn’t drive me to work.  He didn’t much like that and said he’d rather keep it.  When I showed up in person and asked for my car he didn’t put up a fight.  The car started fine.  It got me to work, and in the morning, after sitting in the 57 degree chill all night, it again started just fine.

All this car activity, or rather frequent inactivity, spurred in me a desire to finally own a car that didn’t crap out on me quite so often.  The following weekend, we went car shopping.  My hope was to find a good, low mileage, mid to late 90s vehicle in the five to seven thousand dollar range.  However, after shopping around at several dealers along the Car Dealership Strip, we discovered this was a pipe dream.  We’d either have to pay a lot of money for a really good used car that fit the above criteria, or settle for a Kia Pet.  (Kuh kuh kuh krappy!)  Then, just as we turning into yet another pricey used car lot, the Turd up and died before we could even get to a parking space.  Once again, the engine wouldn’t turn over at all.

Our insurance company said it would take two hours for the tow truck service to get around to us, so we called Pep Boys.  They seemed skeptical that our latest breakdown could have been at all their fault, but said they could get a tow truck to us in half an hour.  However, it turned out they were using the exact same tow service as our insurance company, and had just elected to lie to us about the time, so two hours it was.  Fortunately, we were in the midst of used car central, so we could at least use the time to shop.  Unfortunately, we were on the sharky used car salesman side of the road and after an hour of fending them off with sticks, we bravely crossed the four lane to get to the Saturn dealership on the other side.

I’ve always heard good things about Saturn and how their company is set up, (completely employee owned, big emphasis on customer service and no haggle prices.)  Seemed pretty good to us.  No sharky salespeople came at us with teeth bared.  Instead, a guy named Calvin came up and showed us their selection of used cars.  Our eye was instantly caught by a `99 Chevy Malibu with a V.6 engine and only 29,000 miles on it.  We took test drives.  We liked.  Ash got her mother on the cell phone and had her look Malibus up on the internet.  Turns out they’re good cars with great safety ratings.  Better and better.  The only reason we didn’t stay and hang out with the Malibu for the rest of the evening was that the tow truck finally showed up.

If you’re ever stranded in Charlotte, Ace Towing service is the way to go.  My car was parked in a position that would normally make it impossible for a tow truck to get in front of it to pull it onto the tow bed without smashing up the front glass of the dealership we were stranded at, but this was no problem to the Ace man.  Instead of pulling the Turd onto the tow bed, he backed his entire truck up under the Turd with a  remote control system on the side of his truck.  I had no idea they could do that.  Out of all the times that car’s been towed, this was by far the most impressive.  Even more impressive was that the Ace man drove us home after dropping the Turd off at Pep Boys.

The next day, Pep Boys called to inform us that the rebuilt starter they’d put in the Turd, to replace the original bad starter, had itself gone bad.  They would be replacing it again, free of charge, and would reimburse us for the towing charges.  They assured us that our experience was in no way a typical one of Pep Boys customers and hoped we would consider darkening their door in the future.  He’s probably right about the atypical experience part, but I still had to resist the urge to Zeig Heil to Manny on the way out.

Over the next few days, we went to other used car places and took other test drives, but each was compared unfavorably to the Malibu we’d tried at Saturn.  Still, we’d never find that bargain car if we didn’t keep looking for it.  That logic kept us going for another day or two, until one morning when I stopped at Bruger’s Bagels to pick up breakfast and, after coming out with my food, attempted to start my car.  When I turned the key I was met with a high-pitched roaring sound, kinda like how I imagine a velociraptor would sound while being sucked into a jet engine intake.  I immediately turned off the ignition and removed the key.  The engine stopped.  The high pitched roar continued at full volume.  Evidently, I’d set some horrific process into motion and the Turd was about to go “Christine” on me.  I grabbed my bagels and got the hell out.  Pep Boys could come fight the car themselves if this was how their replacement parts were going to behave!  Before I had the chance to call them, though, the roar died off and the car went silent.  After enough time had passed that I was fairly sure it wasn’t a cunning trick, I snuck back over to it and it started up just fine.  However, the writing on the wall was clear: The Turd knew I was about to get rid of it and it wasn’t happy.  Action must be taken.

Buying the Malibu was a pretty easy process.  We just had to answer a whole bunch of financial questions then sign our names on 452 separate documents.  This was easier for Ashley, who writes naturally in cursive.  I don’t.  I abandoned cursive in the sixth grade after enough teachers complained that they couldn’t make out what the hell language I was trying to write in, let alone grade it.  I said screw em and became a staunch and even militant user of print.  (The complaints about my handwriting never actually ceased following this decision, but at least I felt like I was taking a stand.)  The only use I have for cursive these days is my signature, and even that’s debatable. Over the years it has evolved into little more than a wild scribble, resembling the words “Eric” and “Fritzius” about as closely as it does “Orville” and “Reddenbacher.”  But, as I’ve detailed in a past Horribly True Tale, the state of North Carolina is not happy with only your first and last names, whether it’s at the Department of Motor Vehicles or a Retailer of Motor Vehicles.  No, you must supply as many names as you can come up with, have verifiable photo-proof in triplicate and a signed letter from God.  And don’t even think about just putting down an initial.  That initial could mean ANYthing!  You would think that the word Wade would be a fairly easy name to write in cursive considering that the letters involved are some of the most straightforward to produce in that form.  However, after a couple of truly pitiful attempts at writing Wade in cursive, I again said screw em and from that point forth signed the Eric and Fritzius in my pseudo cursive scribble and the Wade in plain print.  It looked incredibly stupid, but I have my principles, dammit!

Unlike many car dealerships, our only negotiation in the purchase at Saturn was deciding how little money we would be willing to take in trade for the Bent Turd.  You might assume I’d practically give it to them after my scare in the Bruger’s parking lot.  But the process felt a lot like deciding how little money you’d take in trade for an elderly, perpetually ill, irritable, yet very dear friend.  Sure, this old friend might live for years to come, but there would be a lot of snot, vomit and passing out to deal with along with any good times.  I knew the Turd wasn’t worth much cause I’d looked it up on the Kelly Blue Book website last year. In mint condition, it would go for perhaps less than $1500, so what chance did my rusting hulk with three working doors, nearly 200,000 miles, a faulty oil light, a still questionable starter and a penchant for belching blue smoke have on a trade?  Saturn’s appraiser looked it over, gawked at the mileage, drove it around the parking lot for a bit, asked a few questions and then secluded himself in his office to formulate a way to let us down easy.  He came back and explained that few car dealerships do trade-ins based on Kelly Blue Book and usually rely on what they could get for them at wholesale auction.  He pointed out that three `85 Caprice Classics went for $50 each in such auctions in the past few months.  He then asked what figure we were hoping for.  Just to start the haggling off, I threw out a figure that I would be willing to accept, but which I didn’t figure I’d get, $500.  He blinked for a while and pointed out the whole $50 auction price again, and how he could easily wind up losing money on the deal even at that price.  He counter offered $100.  I explained that it would hurt my very soul to sell my car for $100, especially since I just spent $300 to get it in enough working condition to drive it over there.  We told him we didn’t want him to lose any money over this, and if necessary we’d just take the Turd over to CarMax and see if they’d give us a better deal.  Dude then offered us $250.  We shook our heads, and told him there were really no hard feelings on our part.  If Car Max couldn’t come through, we could just put an ad in the paper and try to sell it that way.  Finally, dude went off and made some calls, then came back and said he’d give us the $500 for it.  (Technically, he was only giving us $200 for it, but Saturn agreed to knock $300 off the price of the car just so we’d be happy and wouldn’t have to be bothered with taking it elsewhere.)  We were elated, not just for the money, but that we’d also wound up being hardball negotiators without even trying.

It was an emotion churning experience, saying good-bye to the Bent Turd.  Sure, it wasn’t much to look at, and broke down a lot, but there were many times that it had held up for me, in conditions when I couldn’t have blamed it for breaking down.  I transferred the jack and the can of Fix-A-Flat from its trunk to the new car’s trunk, then gave the Turd a pat on its roof and said good-bye.  May it live on to infuriate other people for years to come.

A week later, I thought I had a Turd sighting.  Ashley was having her hair cut at a little salon in a strip mall near our house and I was puttering around the various shops in the area while waiting for her to be finished.  Exiting one store, I came face to face with the Bent Turd.  At least, I thought it was the Turd.  It  was the same model and shade of blue as the Turd.  It had the same patches of rust above each door.  It’s hood ornament had been half destroyed by years of weather, just as the Turd’s had.  Its wind-shield seemed to have the requisite number of cracks as well.  I was even more shocked to see that it was being driven by a young couple with a small child.  Oh, my God, I thought.  Some poor couple had been tricked into buying that piece of shit!

I sprinted over to the salon and, in front of God, hairdressers and everybody, shouted “The Turd’s out’s there!  I just saw the Turd!”

While Ashley explained her husband’s madness to the hairdressers and customers, I pressed my face to the glass to see if the Turd was still there.  It was!  In fact, it had been parked and the family who now owned it was walking toward the salon.  I was at a complete loss for what to do.  On the one hand, I wanted to warn these poor fools that their dreams of a cheap affordable family car were all for naught, for they had been woefully mislead by some shady used car dealer and had been sold the Queen of the Lemons.    And on the other hand, I wanted to ask them how much they paid for it, cause I was betting it was more than $500.  Mine was not a comfortable situation to be in, though.  It was a lot like that story where the poor girl’s father buys her a used dress so she can go to the prom, and she excitedly does only to be ridiculed because the dress used to belong to one of her rich snobby classmates, whose mom put it up for consignment.  I didn’t want to be the rich snobby classmate.  I kept my mouth shut, continuing to cast side glances at the car through the window.  It’s a good thing I didn’t say anything, cause it wasn’t the Turd after all.  Upon closer inspection, the mock Turd turned out to have different hubcaps and lacked the huge scrape along the back left door that the real Turd acquired while I was attempting to back out of Marcus Vowell’s booby trapped driveway in the dark.  It was not the Turd, merely one of its near broken brethren.

As for the new, as yet unchristened, Malibu, it’s sweet!  It’s a very “Eric” sort of car, with all kinds of safeguards against things that used to cause me problems in the Turd—like alarms that sound if you accidentally leave your keys in the ignition, or an ignition that won’t turn off if you’re trying to get out of the car while it’s still in gear, or headlights that turn on and off automatically, saving me from running down my battery, and a low oil warning light that it’s perpetually on.  And the whole thing’s painted almost the same shade of blue as TV’s Babylon 5, so there’s a big plus in my book already.  So far there have been no major problems with it.

Just in case, though, we bought a huge extra warranty.

Copyright © 2000 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ No Cavities, Soakin’ up the Novocain, Tasha Yar and Evil Dr. P Blues (a well-brushed Horribly True Tale)

Seems most everyone has a horribly true tale about going to the dentist.  One is spun by a friend of mine who tells of the time he regained consciousness in the middle of a wisdom tooth removal and how it took two large dental hygienists to pin him to his chair and keep him from destroying all the equipment with his mad thrashing.  That one will send chills down your spine.  Until recently, however, I had no such tale of my own.  For you see, all my life I have had nice teeth.  Great teeth, really.  Fantastically perfect teeth with nary a cavity to be found, naturally straight and with plenty of room to spare.  If I really committed to it, I could probably fit another couple of teeth in on both sides with no trouble.  (And if my wisdom teeth keep creeping down, like they are, I’ll probably get the chance to try.)  The ironic thing about it, though, is that I have been able to achieve this state of dental perfection without succumbing to the tedious notion that my teeth had to be brushed after every meal, or even every day.

Growing up, most of my friends had crooked teeth and in order to fix them they had to spend years in braces, retainers and, in one particularly sad case, head-gear.  These chaps were forever leaving their retainers on their cafeteria trays, in full sight of everyone, just to put as many people off their lunches as possible.  Then, they would forget to put them back in their mouths after lunch and would wind up having to dig through bags of cafeteria garbage to find them again.  They were also the death of fun at sleep-over parties, because their moms had forbidden them to eat anything that might damage their expensive dental work, such as chips, popcorn, pan pizza, candy and just about anything else we non-crooked-teethed types might want to eat.  They would have to sit in the corner and eat mashed potatoes while we lived it up on Doritos and jawbreakers.  And oh what cavities they had!  Root canals by the time they were 14.  And their moms forced them to brush 8 times a day just to head off any incoming Cavity Creeps.  Didn’t help them in the least.

The way I saw it, my friends’ downfall probably stemmed from all that brushing in the first place.  The enamel is there to help protect your teeth and if you brush it all off then you’ve left yourself open to attack.  This was not a problem for me.  In my house, with its single-parent dad, brushing was expected but not so strongly enforced.  Still my teeth might not have been especially clean, but they were straight, braceless and strong.

Annual visits to the dentist during my teen years were cookie-cutter affairs.  Each time, the dentist would examine my teeth, do the X-rays then tell me that despite the fact that I didn’t have any cavities whatsoever I still wasn’t brushing my teeth enough nor correctly.  And every year I got a new log of dental advice thrown on the pile.  First I wasn’t brushing them enough.  Then, after making an effort to brush them more often, I wasn’t brushing behind my front teeth enough.  Then, after brushing more often and behind my front teeth, I wasn’t brushing the sides of my back teeth enough.  Then, after brushing more often and more thoroughly, the following year I was told I needed to brush them at least twice a day, preferably thrice.  With that, I was fed up.  I’d done everything the dentist had told me to do, more or less, for years and it was never good enough for him.  Rather than take it for another year, I told him as much, ending my diatribe with, “Brush twice a day?  Doc, you’re lucky if I brush once a day. Don’t push it.”

“Now, now,” my dentist persisted.  “True dental health requires that we take the necessary precau…”

“How many cavities do I have?”

“…precautions in order to maintain a state of true…”

“How, Many, Cavities, Do, I, Have?”

“Well… none,” he was forced to admit.

“Exactly my point.”

That was probably my final visit to that particular dentist.  After I started college, these annual visits didn’t occur nearly that regularly.  I found that once you ignored one or two of their little “friendly reminder of your upcoming appointment” post cards they stopped sending them.  After college, when I had moved to another town and took a job without dental insurance or high wages, it seemed a bit on the expensive side to go bounding off to the dentist just to have him tell me that I didn’t have any cavities and needed to brush more.  So I didn’t.

Years pass, I get married, and my wife turns out to be a tooth brushing freak of nature.  She’s in the bathroom brushing her teeth at least half an hour out of any given day and walks around dry brushing the rest of the time.  Does she have perfect teeth because of her fanatical brushing habits?  No.  Throughout her life she’s had dental problems that would make my friend with the headgear weep bitter tears of sympathy.  If you don’t believe me, just let her tell you about the time they had to cut a hole in the side of her cheek to get a better angle for retrieving a drill-bit that had broken off and lodged deep within an abscess.  Her harrowing dental history makes her ever the more protective of my choppers.  Every night, before bed, the mantra rings out: “Did you brush your toofies?”  Naturally, I haven’t, but am forced to get out of bed and go do so under the threat of no smooches.  One day, she decided to extend her original threat to related romantic subjects if I didn’t schedule an appointment for a tooth tuneup, as she had been asking me to for months.  This is how I found myself in the clutches of The Evil Dr. P.

The Evil Dr. P is not actually evil.  He’s a guy in his mid 30s who’s only been in practice for six years and who is just starting to develop gray hair at his temples.  He’s a nice guy.  His office is nice.  His receptionist is nice.  His dental hygienist is nice.  His dental assistant is nice, and has the added bonus of looking exactly like actress Denise Crosby, TV’s Tasha Yar from the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Come to think of it, she might be Denise Crosby.  Ol’ Denise hasn’t been getting a lot of acting gigs lately.

“How long has it been since your last checkup?” Dr. P asked upon getting me in his chair.  I didn’t want to give the man more gray hair by telling him that the last time I remembered being in a dentist’s chair was while playing Seymour in a high-school production of Little Shop of Horrors.  So I lied.

“Oh, uh, it’s been a while.  Probably around seven… or eight years.”

I should have lied better, because Dr. P frowned and gave Tasha Yar a look that read like a coded message.  She immediately began stuffing my cheeks with large pieces of cardboard origami in preparation for the 18 X-rays that were to follow.  Then Dr. P came back into the room and started prodding my teeth with hooks while Tasha took notes.  I observed with no small satisfaction that none of the tooth prodding hurt at all.  Surely, if I did have any cavities they would hurt when poked, right?  Then one of Dr. P’s hooks came down in a back molar and he seemed to have difficulty disengaging it from the tooth.

“Going to need a red resin 30 on b-18,” Dr. P told Tasha.  This alarmed me.  One doesn’t speak of needing resin for healthy, cavity-free teeth.  And as the examination continued, Dr. P mentioned needing resins of varying color classification four more times.  When he was finished, they shuffled me off to the nice dental hygienist to have my teeth sandblasted and the remains sucked out through a hose.  After that, Dr. P came back with the bad news: I had five cavities that were going to require filling, in addition to anything else he spied once the X-rays were developed.

My wife could not have been more gleeful.  This was vindication for all her months of griping at me to brush my teeth.  She practically danced when I told her the news.  Afterward, she took great pleasure in describing the tooth-filling procedure I was to undergo in explicit detail, lingering on the part about the long Novocain needle stabbing deep into the hinge of my jaw and the part concerning the disgusting smell of teeth being ground up by The Drill.

I managed to put all such thoughts of pain and discomfort out of my head, until 2 a.m. the night before the procedure, when the word NEEDLE appeared in big bold letters on the backside of my eyelids.  Not much sleep after that.

It was a Wednesday, at 8 a.m., when I groggily returned to Dr. P’s for the first dental repair of my life.  The nice receptionist gave me coffee and Tasha Yar came out to usher me to my dental chair.  Presently, we were joined by The Evil Dr. P himself, who described what he was going to do to me, pointing out the locations of my five decaying teeth on a computer screen diagram.  He then reclined me in the chair, told me to open wide and quickly stuck something silver into my mouth.  I assumed this was the needle and braced myself for the stab of pain in my jaw, but none came.  There was a pressure in the hinge of my jaw followed by an odd taste in the back of my throat.  Not too unpleasant, though.

“Was that the needle?” I asked, hoping it had been and not just some sort of jaw tenderizer.  Dr. P assured me it had been the needle and I was quite relieved.  The needle had been the only real dread I’d had in the first place.  After all, I’ve had ingrown toenail surgery before and that was pretty painless once my toe was numb, but the anesthetic needles hurt like a mother.  Now, with the needle-part over, they could drill all they wanted as long as my jaw was numbed up.

Dr. P finished my injections, raised my chair upright and he and Tasha Yar left the room to allow the Novocain to take effect.  The left half of my jaw, the side with the most injections, slowly went numb.  I could feel that the left side of my bottom incisors was definitely numb while the first tooth on the right was not quite so numb.  Kinda neat.  My tongue, too, was starting to feel all tingly at its tip.  I sat there and played with my face for about ten minutes, testing and poking to get the experience down, until Dr. P and Tasha returned.  They reclined my chair, wheeled their tool trays within reach and busted out the drill.

The first tooth, one of my upper right molars, filled just fine.  The drill went in, ground out a hole in it and I didn’t feel a thing.  Regardless, I was calm and collected during the drilling process, with my hands draped casually across my stomach.  I would not be one of those patients who held a death grip on the armrests.  I wanted Tasha Yar to comment on my pleasant demeanor when it was all finished.

Dr. P left the resin in the first tooth to cure while he moved on to an upper left molar for more drilling.  I knew something was very wrong as soon as the drilling began.  This time the drill definitely felt cold and if I could feel cold then it stood to reason I wasn’t completely numb.  Having never had this done before, though, I couldn’t really say if what I was feeling was unusual.  That is, until the drill poked through the tooth’s surface and into the nerve.

“Aarrrhhhhhh!” I growled as pain resonated through my entire skull and down my spine.  I could tell that it was not nearly as painful as it would have been without any Novocain, but it was not something I ever wanted to feel again.

Dr. P stopped drilling immediately and he and Tasha appeared very surprised.

“I felt that,” I said.

“Looks like that tooth’s not quite numb,” he said, reaching for another needle and stabbing me in the hinge of my jaw.  “We’ll just move on down the line and give that one time to numb up.”  However, his idea of moving down the line didn’t mean moving to a different and number section of my mouth.  He meant moving on to the very next tooth.  As he started drilling, the feeling of cold was still fully present.  I silently prayed that this was a normal feeling, but knew that it felt exactly like it had just before he hit the…

“AARRRHHHHH!!!!” I screamed as the drill again struck nerve.

“Whoah!  Hang on there guy!  What’s the problem?” Dr. P asked.

“Na rollm ithaan Ah ahb a druh bouihh inna mah nub!”

“What?” he asked, now removing the drill from my mouth.

“The problem is that I have a drill boring into my nerve!”

Dr. P was very apologetic as he broke out more Novocain needles and started stabbing again.  “You growled like you were going to bite me or something,” he said.  “Big guy like you must have absorbed some of the Novocain.”  Great, I thought, not only is the guy doing his best impersonation of Lawrence Olivier’s Nazi torture expert in Marathon Man, but now he’s calling me fat.

“That really hurt,” I told Tasha Yar after Dr. P left the room to give me time to numb.

“It wasn’t supposed to,” she said.  “We were really surprised it did.  Don’t worry, you’ll be numbed up good and it won’t hurt anymore.”

If only.

I won’t go through the rest of the procedure in detail, but apparently a “big guy” like me can absorb Novocain at an astounding rate because we hit nerve two more times, once so bad that I jerked around in my chair nearly causing Dr. P to drill a nice trench through the rest of my teeth.  I question whether he really believed he was hurting me at all, because he kept saying, “Now if it feels cold, just raise your hand and I can stop.  Don’t jerk around like that!”  I wanted to respond, “It doesn’t feel cold!  It feels like a small piece of spinning metal is boring a hole in my nerve!” but to have done so would have required the ability to speak clearly, which seemed to be the only thing the Novocain had numbed.  As if this weren’t bad enough, Dr. P discovered a 6th cavity that he’d missed during my first examination and had to drill and fill that too.  By the time he was finished, I’d been injected with so much Novocain that I had no feeling at all in my lower jaw, I couldn’t close my mouth without unknowingly gnawing gashes in my cheeks and I had clawed deep indentions into the armrests with my grip of death.

On the way home, I noticed my reflection in the rearview mirror.  My lips were hanging in a limp frown that made me look both angry and lobotomized no matter how I tried shaping it with my fingers.  Even my nostrils were numb.

My wife was surprisingly sympathetic to my story of pain and torture at the hands of The Evil Dr. P and Tasha Yar.  However, she made sure to twist the drill in my back by reminding me that I’ll think twice before giving her any lip about brushing my teeth in the future.  I don’t see that happening any time soon.  From now on, just sign me up as the Mentadent poster-boy and pass the floss cause I never want to see a drill again.

Copyright © 2000, Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd.

The Talking Disgruntled, Lost License, DMVictim, Mojo Nixon Blues (a Bureaucratic Nightmare of a Horribly True Tale)

A few months after packing all my crap and moving from Tupelo, MS, to North Carolina, I find myself in a Sears, in a mall in the town of Hickory.  I was just casually hanging out near the men’s section while my fiancée, Ashley, was off looking for pajamas, when I happened to notice some really nice chenille sweaters on sale.  Now, I’m not a huge clothes shopper, and frankly I don’t know chenille from shinola, but I know what I like, and what I like are nice thick comfy sweaters and cheap.  To my delight, these thick nice comfy sweaters were 50 percent off.  It was a sweet deal, and I was easily able to find two sweaters that fit the above exacting standards.  With my newfound prizes under one arm, I made what can be argued as either a fortunate discovery or the biggest mistake of the day, while attempting to pay for them.

These days, retail cashiers are not only assigned the task of taking your money in exchange for goods and services, they’re also charged with the unholy mission of being walking talking telemarketers.  It’s not enough that you’re purchasing something from their store, they must see to it that you become indebted to their store as well.

As I attempted to pay for my sweaters with a credit card—already revealing my willingness to become indebted—the cashier informed me that were I to sign up for a Sears charge card right then and there I would be able to save a whole ten bucks on my purchase.  Usually, I view such offers with the same attitude I save for actual telemarketers, which is: I don’t want your stinkin card, nor did I ask for it, so hang up and leave me alone, you cruel and heartless monsters.  However, being a cheap bastard, it seemed fair enough to trade a little of my time and some space in my wallet for a free sweater.  Against my better judgment, I agreed.  While the cashier was firing up the credit-approval engine, she asked to see proof of my identity in the form of a driver’s license.

I should point out at this juncture that, having been in North Carolina for the better part of four months, I still had not swung by Ye Olde DMV to pick up a North Carolina driver’s license.  Partially, this was because of the blood-curdling tales I’ve heard about the NC DMV, but mostly this was because I haven’t gotten enough use out of my old Mississippi license.  For you see, when choosing the date of departure from Tupelo, I thought it would be cool and maybe even ironic to leave on my birthday, September 2.  Easy enough to do, except that my Mississippi driver’s license happened to expire on that date as well.  My father pointed out to me that if I was to be within the law while driving a moving van filled with all my crap across country, I needed to get a new one before I left.  At the time I figured the $10 it cost would be a good investment.  That is, until I showed up at the Tupelo DMV and discovered the state had raised the price to $20.  I gritted my teeth, paid them their money, had the required really awful photo taken and left with a new license.  To make matters worse, I didn’t even get pulled over on the way to North Carolina, so it was hardly money well spent.  I had secretly vowed that I wouldn’t set foot in a DMV again until I’d gotten my $20 worth out of that stupid card.

Back at Sears, I dug out my crusty old brown leather wallet and dug out the thick sheaf of plastic cards stored in one of its pockets and began leafing through them in search of my driver’s license.  I passed credit cards, video store membership cards, a Sam’s Club card, a United Blood Service card, some phone cards, my social security card, gas cards, a J.C. Penney credit card, a bank card, two Media Play gift cards and lastly my old expired Mississippi driver’s license—which had not been taken from me back at the Tupelo DMV.  Didn’t see the new license in there, though.  I must have missed it.  I flipped back through the cards again and still came up empty on the new license.  Next I methodically went card by card, turning each over no matter how certain I was of its identity to make sure it wasn’t my new license.  No dice.  Then I started searching through other pockets in the wallet, and then in the money section, and then back through the cards again and still couldn’t find it.  This was not good.  If it wasn’t in there, then I’ve been driving around illegally for God knows how long.  And I couldn’t get my free sweater!

Ashley came to my rescue by agreeing to take on the potential debt of a Sears card so that I could get my discount and my sweaters.  Minutes later, the cashier informed her that she would also have to take on actual debt on that new card since they couldn’t let me pay for my sweaters and get the discount, nor could she put it on one of her other cards.  Fine.  Whatever.  It was the least of my worries, because I was fretting about my missing license.  For in order to get to my place of employment, I have to drive an hour to Charlotte, NC, through highway-patrol invested roads.  I needed a driver’s license and had no idea where my new one could be if not in my wallet.  It looked like a trip to the DMV was in order.  But what of the horrifying tales I’d heard about the kind of arcane requirements the NC DMV forces upon the driving public?  Such tortures as requiring you purchase a North Carolina license plate and inspection sticker before granting you a drivers license were common rumors.  I didn’t have any of that stuff and getting it would likely involve trips to the circuit clerk’s office and they would probably require a valid driver’s license before handing them over, no doubt.  Ash suggested we drop by the local DMV and actually ask them what the requirements were before we worked ourselves into a froth.

In most DMVs I’ve been to, there is a perpetual crowd of miserable people filling the lobby, all waiting their turn on the medieval rack.  Oddly, though, there was only one guy waiting in the Hickory DMV, and he might have been a custodian.  One of the DMV clerks, a bald man in the standard blue highway patrol uniform, left his desk and swaggered over to the counter to get a gander at the two jerks foolish enough to darken his door.  As Ashley explained that we were from Mississippi and wanted to know what the requirements were for getting a North Carolina driver’s license, the man’s mouth slowly cocked to one side in an ugly smirk.

“You’ll need to have proof of insurance and take both the written and eye exams here,” he deadpanned.  “And, of course, you’ll need a Mississippi driver’s license.”  Was it just me, or did he hike his smirk up even more for the part about needing a license?

“Well what if we’ve lost our license?” Ashley said.

“You’ve both lost your licenses?” he said, smirking higher.  I decided to step in at this point, because it was my lost license, after all, and because this guy probably thought we were trying to obtain a license under false pretenses—like criminals were really breaking down the DMV’s door to be given the 5th degree like this.  I explained what had happened at Sears and how I had only my expired Mississippi license to show for it.  Officer Smirk seemed a little perplexed at this.  After a while, he asked to see the expired license.  I dug it out of my wallet and gave it to him.  He turned it over a couple of times, smirked at it, read the fine print on the back, checked to see if I was in fact the same guy in the required really awful photo, then smirked at me.

“This only expired in September,” he opened.  “It’s not been expired for over a year,” he reiterated.  “We can take it if it’s not been expired for over a year,” he summed up.  I was starting to think this might not be so bad.  After all, their requirements didn’t seem extreme.  I passed a written driving test twelve years ago, so I surely could ace one again.  Plus, I had insurance and could prove it if necessary.  No worries.

“But,” Officer Smirk said, breaking my reverie.  “I’m gonna need to know what this doubleyew stands for.”  He was pointing to the W in the Eric W. Fritzius on my expired license.

“Sure thing,” I said.  “It stands for Wade.”

“Well now,” Officer Smirk said, with more evil satisfaction than absolutely necessary.  “I’m gonna need some form of identification for that.”

In this country, the most common form of photo identification, surpassing even the passport, is the driver’s license.  My expired Mississippi driver’s license plainly stated what my name is, what I look like and did so in a handy, difficult to illegally alter format.  And now the good word of my expired Mississippi driver’s license was not going to be enough for North Carolina?  Not good enough for a state that is frequently behind Mississippi and even Arkansas in standard of living, teen pregnancy, literacy and domestic abuse rankings?  I very nearly growled at the man, but instead dug out my wallet and began the Quest for Wade.  It was, naturally, futile.  None of my cards had anything more than an initial.  Not my bank cards, my insurance cards, nor any of my credit cards—not that Officer Smirk would have accepted them anyway, as he only so readily pointed out.  Even my Social Security card carried only a W.  Now if an initial is good enough for a federal agency like the Social Security Administration, then what kind of audacity and stickuptheassedness does it take for the Hickory, NC, DMV to demand otherwise?  As a last ditch effort, I went out to my car and got the registration from the glove compartment, brought it back and pointed out the three places on it where it clearly stated “Eric W. Fritzius,” demonstrating that even the motor vehicle registration people didn’t give a rat’s ass about initials.  Officer Smirk looked at it unsympathetically and shrugged.  It occurred to me to point out to him that this sort of thing was the very reason why folks go nuts and start shooting up civil services agencies.  Before I could, though, Ashley stepped in.

One of the most fortunate aspects of my relationship with Ashley is that when the need presents itself we operate a lot like tag team wrestlers.  During stressful moments, when I’m just on the verge of verbally tearing some poor soul a new orifice, Ash tags me out and jumps into the ring in my place.  She can then proceed to verbally tear them a new orifice in such a calm, polite and non-vulgar manner that they often don’t notice it until the next time they use the bathroom.

“Okay,” Ashley told Smirk.  “None of his ID has the Wade spelled out.  How are we supposed to fix this?”  Now this may not read like a blistering verbal attack, but it was said in a tone of voice that stated, in layers of subtlety unlikely to be perceived by one such as Officer Smirk, that not only was he a complete, mouth-breathing, moron but so was his dog and so were the guys who had come up with this policy in the first place, and their dogs too.  It was an award-worthy performance, and we both patiently awaited Officer Smirk’s response.

We only thought he’d been smirking before.  Now the left side of his mouth lifted clean up over his brow, nearly obscuring the look of demonic glee in his eye.  “Well, you could go up to the Social Security office and have them give you a printout of your file,” he managed to say through his wildly contorted lips.  His tone too held many depths.   They stated that even though Officer Smirk was very good at his job as an unhelpful DMV clerk, he actually aspired to be an unhelpful Social Security Administration clerk, where they really had being unhelpful down to an art form.  He was only too happy to give us directions how to get there.

It was nearly four o’clock by the time we reached the Social Security office.  The enormous crowd of miserable people I’d been expecting at the DMV had apparently been sent ahead of us to the S.S.—and it’s not called the S.S. for nothing.  The lobby was a cramped, dingy-beige-painted little room filled with rows of mis-matched vinyl-covered chairs that were probably new during the Johnson administration.  Against one wall was a little table above which were several posters of fine print and a small cardboard display holding some kind of forms.  Near the table was a wooden podium atop which was a small basket full of plastic cards with numbers printed on them.  Next to the basket was a sign instructing us to take a number temporarily, but not to keep it and take it home with us.  Beyond the podium was a door leading to, from what brief glimpses I could get over the time that followed, a brightly lit room full of desks and worker-bees.  Set into the wall by the door were three ticket-booth style windows, only one of which was open and contained a female Social Security clerk behind it.

We took a number and joined the enormous crowd of miserable people.  Our number was seven.  After about ten minutes, the clerk called “Number one!” and one of the miserable people stood and went to the window and conversed with the clerk lady for quite some time.  The miserable people around me were muttering about how slow the service was and how long they had been there already.  Others freely passed stale sandwiches, and thermoses full of cold coffee to each other and then unrolled their sleeping bags in preparation for the frigid night ahead.

After a very long time, one of the other ticket windows opened and a second clerk lady appeared behind it and called “Number two!”  Opening a second window seemed like a pretty progressive move.  Like when grocery store managers saw how many people were waiting in line and add a second cashier to speed things up.  Alas, no.  As soon as the second lady appeared, the first one went on break and disappeared.  I didn’t care, though, for I was mercifully distracted from my pain and misfortune because Mojo Nixon had just walked through the door.

Okay, it probably wasn’t actually grizzled, folk-rock, troubadour Mojo Nixon, the famed singer behind such classic hits as “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child” and “Don Henley Must Die”, but damn if he didn’t look exactly like him.  Mojo took a number and then a seat and served as a source of entertainment for my fevered imagination as the minutes droned on.

Numbers 3 and 4 were called within a ten-minute period, and the first clerk lady did eventually come back from her break.  Number 5 was actually one of the mumbling complainers from the row in front of me.  What I gathered from the mumbler’s conversation with the clerk was that her mother had been having problems with her Social Security service.  The mumbler had already called several times before, but had been told she would have to come there in person.  As it turns out, though, the Social Security office had actually meant for the mumbler’s mother, a near blind, deaf and bedridden woman, to personally come to the office and schedule an appointment to come back later.  The mumbler—no longer mumbling—explained to the clerk about the whole bed-ridden, blind, deaf thing, the impracticality of such a suggestion, and that the reason she herself had been calling them so frequently was to inform them of this so they would stop sending letters insisting that the mother had to turn up for an interview.

The clerk lady listened to all this, then said, “Well, she’s going to have to make an appointment.”

I lost track of that conversation because I was being scared out of my wits by someone else.  This someone else was a very disgruntled looking fellow who came through the door wearing a knitted skull-cap and a big black leather jacket.  The scary part was that one of his hands was thrust deep into the side pocket of the jacket and the pocket looked roomy enough to carry both his hand and large caliber firearm quite comfortably.

Oh damn, I thought.  These twisted bureaucrats have finally pissed off the wrong guy and it’s just my luck that I get stuck here on the day he’s gonna rain hot liquid death upon all concerned!  He’d probably already cleaned out the DMV!

The man didn’t start firing immediately, though, but instead took a seat directly behind mine.  Great!  Now I wouldn’t be able to see the hot liquid death before it was rained upon me.

“Number Seven!” the clerk lady called.

“That’s me!  Right here.  Me,” I said, leaping to the counter.  I explained the situation with Officer Smirk to the clerk, hoping I wasn’t staring in the face of further hassle.  I was wrong.

“You’ll have to fill out a form,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the cardboard display of forms on the table.  At that point my ears shut down and I didn’t hear any more of the clerk’s words.  All I could think was: A fudgin’ form?!  I’d had plenty of fudgin’ time to fill out a fudgin’ form during my half hour wait with the miserable fudgin’ people.  Perhaps if there’d been a sign letting DMVictims know that they had to fill out a fudgin’ form then maybe I’d have fudgin’ filled the fudger out ahead of time.  And now I’d probably have to take another fudgin’ number!  Fudge!  (Okay, so I watched all 12 hours of A Christmas Story on TNT this year.  Mind your own fudgin’ business!)

While I was still ranting inwardly, Ashley pulled me away from the window and toward the table with the forms.  I thought maybe there would be a specialized form for DMVictims, but there wasn’t.  Anything you wanted to take up with the Social Security administration was done using one stock form.  The form merely wanted you to fill in your life story complete with every name, address and number of yourself and anyone you’ve ever met.  Strangely, it only took me a few minutes to fill out.  And we didn’t even have to take another number to turn in the form.  The clerk lady let us cut in front of Mojo Nixon, who seemed only slightly put out by it, and she quickly gave us a print out of the necessary information Officer Smirk wanted.

When we got back to the DMV, there was, of course, another enormous crowd of miserable people in the lobby and all the DMV clerks, including Officer Smirk, were busy.  We had to take a number and wait.  Fortunately, it was number 1, and a very nice DMV clerk lady called us over within thirty seconds of sitting down.  We marveled at our good fortune of having somehow broken the laws of time, space and bureaucracy by jumping ahead of all the miserable people.  And even though this seemed unfair, we weren’t gonna drag ass getting to the counter.

We got everything taken care of promptly.  I took my eye test and my written test and passed with 83 percent correct, so my record as a solid C student remained untarnished.  The nice lady had me sign my signature on a card and take the required really awful picture and within a few minutes I had a crisp new driver’s license.  For some reason, my normally illegible signature not only remained illegible on the card but had partially disappeared in the shrinking process.

“Hope you don’t have any problems with that signature,” the man who handed over the license said.  His tone suggested he knew I would have trouble and that it was somehow my fault that their machine had eaten half my signature.  We asked him what sort of trouble we should expect.

“Well, you’re supposed to sign your first and last name,” he answered.

“That’s what I did!”

“I dunno,” the man said.  “It could be you’ll have problems…  But maybe not,” he added ominously.

“Well at least we’ll know who to sue when we do,” I said, and we walked out the door.

Copyright © 1999-2002 Eric Fritzius