Old Cars, Stories Told

1972 Chevrolet K/5 Blazer CST: Don’t mess with Grandma!

(First published 8 August 2016.) You didn’t mess with my grandma. She was barely 5 feet tall, but she swore like a sailor and drank like a fish. And she always drove 4-wheel-drive trucks. One of them was an orange 1972 Chevrolet K/5 Blazer CST very much like this one.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer d

Grandma was so short she had to grab the steering wheel and pull herself up into the cab. That had to really work her biceps! I’ll bet it gave her a mean right cross. But had she ever needed to defend herself, she would have instead reached for the .22 pistol she always kept in her purse.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer b

My favorite place to ride was the front passenger seat, and I called shotgun as often as I could. Even though SUVs weren’t common in the 1970s like they are today  — we didn’t even have the term “SUV” then — riding around in that seat didn’t exactly give me the rooftop view of traffic that you might think. Grandma lived in rural southwest Michigan, where serious winter snow and unplowed side roads meant almost everyone owned four-wheel-drive trucks. I was used to looking at tailgates ahead as we rolled down the road.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer f

Grandma preferred the lightly traveled gravel back roads to the highways, though, and so I got to take in a lot of Michigan’s beauty while riding with her. Even when I had to ride in the high and upright back seat, I had a good view. That seat also sat a good distance back from the front seats, giving unbelievable legroom. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I think GM should have moved that seat a foot or so forward to give more aft cargo space. It was pretty tight back there.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer c

Grandma and Grandpa had been a one-truck family (a 1972 Dodge 100 Power Wagon) until the grandkids started coming to visit for extended stays every summer. Riding four abreast in Grandpa’s truck worked while we were all very little, but as we grew the cab became too cramped and so Grandma bought the Blazer. We ran around all over southwest Michigan together running errands and visiting various taverns for lunch or dinner and, for Grandma and Grandpa, always a beer. I knew then that back home in Indiana I wasn’t allowed in taverns. Maybe Michigan’s laws were different. Or maybe it helped a lot that Grandma and Grandpa seemed to know every law-enforcement officer in six or seven counties. Perhaps Grandma’s smile, nod, and words of greeting to any deputy who stopped in were enough to secure us. We were certainly less uptight about such things forty years ago.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer a

After Grandpa finally retired, they sold both trucks and bought a top-trim 1978 Bronco in gold with a white top. The CST package meant Grandma’s Blazer was top-trim too. This is what passed for luxury in an SUV in 1972. Today, these big body-on-frame SUVs are all but gone out here in rust country.

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Sophie

Sophie in the window
Kodak EasyShare Z730
2007

I was looking back through old photographs and found this one of Sophie, who was my cat for a short time after I was divorced. Read Sophie’s whole story here. This blog was just six months old when I made this photograph. I was still reeling from my divorce. I deliberately avoided writing about it here — I wanted to use this blog as a way to move on and look forward. So I seldom told stories about my life as it was happening then.

I routinely left windows open for Sophie when I went to work so she could enjoy the breezes and the outside smells. She loved this window in particular because she could stretch out in it. But I guess fleas jumped in and onto her through the screens, and soon I had the worst flea infestation I’d ever seen. They got into the carpets; as I walked through the house I could see and feel them jumping up and bouncing off my legs. I had to spray flea killer through the entire house three times, each time sequestering poor Sophie to a crate in the garage all day. I never opened a window again, and never saw another flea.

Sophie needed more time and attention than I could give her. Long story short, I gave Sophie to my ex-wife and she gave me the dogs we’d had while we were married. Each of us still maintains we got the better end of the deal. The dogs were a Rottweiler named Sugar and a Golden Retriever-Chow mix named Gracie. Read Sugar’s story here, and Gracie’s here. Since Gracie died in 2013, I’ve remained petless.

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Photographs, Stories Told

single frame: Sophie in the window

Reminiscing about Sophie, a cat I used to own

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Stories Told

Rock shows

Who have you seen in concert? Something the disk jockey said on the radio this morning started me thinking about the concerts I’ve been to. I was surprised that I couldn’t remember them all! It’s not like I’ve seen that many shows, and I certainly wasn’t smoking any dope at them to fog my memory. I wrote down what I could remember and Googled to fill in some blanks. You would not believe the detailed tour information people have cataloged on the Internet! I was shocked to learn that I’ve seen hair-metal band Dokken. Good Lord, shoot me now.

Megadeth in 2021

My first show was Al Stewart at the Westport Playhouse in St. Louis. You know, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” My second show was Iron Maiden at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. You know, “The Number of the Beast.” Talk about a change of pace! The Iron Maiden show was so loud that my ears rang for three days. I’ll never forget the newspaper review the next morning: “About as subtle as a baseball bat to the forehead. But to these kids, all zonked to the rafters on Clearasil and beer, it was probably poetry.” It was.

The best performance I’ve seen was Eric Clapton on his 1994 blues tour. His guitar work was as skilled as you’d expect, but it was also unexpectedly emotional. The best show I’ve seen is, believe it or not, Ozzy Osbourne on the 1992 tour that was supposed to be his last, but wasn’t. He may have only three functioning brain cells, but he sure knows how to work his audience. It’s hard to call the worst show I’ve seen, but Ringo Starr and Van Halen totally phoned in their performances, and Metallica was badly off their game when I saw them play in the rain in 1994.

I’ve seen Heart six times, Iron Maiden and Metallica five, and Anthrax three. Rush, Megadeth, Lamb of God, Eric Clapton, and Pokey LaFarge had me in their audience twice. I’ve seen Paul McCartney, my all-time favorite, just once and wish I could have seen him again and again. But last few times he toured, tickets were outrageously expensive and I just wouldn’t pay it.

Here’s the list I’ve pieced together, in chronological order. Headliners are listed first. You’ll see that I gravitated toward heavy-metal shows, and then gave up on concerts altogether for nine years while I was busy with my young family. And then when my kids were older and my time was more my own, I saw Heart a bunch of times, and a couple indie bands I found on YouTube — but mostly I went to heavy metal shows. It’s funny, because I was far more a metalhead in the 80s than I am today. But so many of the metal bands I loved back when are still touring, and when they come around I want to see them!

1986: Al Stewart

1987: Iron Maiden, Waysted | Eric Clapton, The Robert Cray Band | Heart, Mr. Mister

1988: Iron Maiden, Anthrax | Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, Kingdom Come | Metallica, The Cult | Grim Reaper, Armored Saint

1989: Anthrax, Exodus, Helloween

1990: Motley Crue, Whitesnake | Paul McCartney | Rush, Mr. Big

1992: Ozzy Osbourne, Slaughter

1993: Heart | Aerosmith, Jackyl

1994: Rush, Primus | Metallica | Ringo Starr | Eric Clapton

1995: Megadeth, Korn, Flotsam and Jetsam, Fear Factory

1997: Metallica

2006: Heart

2007: Heart, Head East

2012: Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper

2013: Pokey LaFarge | Heart, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience

2014: Heart

2015: Pokey LaFarge

2016: Iron Maiden, The Raven Age | Lake Street Dive, The Brother Brothers

2017: Iron Maiden

2018: Anthrax, Killswitch Engage, Havok

2019: Metallica | Slayer, Lamb of God, Anthrax, Behemoth, Testament

2021: Megadeth, Lamb of God, Trivium, Hatebreed | Pokey LaFarge

I’m sure I’m still overlooking a band or two. But now tell me who you’ve seen! Leave a comment, or blog about it and link back here.

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Stories Told

My 9/11 memory

I’ve meant to tell the story of my 9/11 experience for years. As I’m sure it is for most Americans, the memory comes with considerable sadness and some pain, so I keep putting it off. Now here’s the 20th anniversary of that terrible day and I still haven’t done it. So I’m writing it now. I am sure the telling will be rough and uneven — I usually work on a story like this little by little for a long time in advance, including several editorial passes to make it just right. I’m not doing that today. I’m just getting the words out there. Perhaps on 9/11 anniversaries to come, I’ll revise and republish this story.

After 20 years, some details of even such a momentous day get lost in the tangled web of memory. Some elements of this story might be flat wrong, but they’re as right as I can make them. This is another reason to write this story now: so I don’t forget even more of it.

Twenty years ago this morning I awoke in a bed with my children in a motel room we’d rented for the week. Because of serious problems draining water in our home, we were having all of the plumbing under our house replaced. It was wicked expensive. It’s remarkable how much you take for granted being able to flush a toilet, take a shower, or pour water down the drain until you can’t do it anymore. It makes a house a lot less useful. I was still married to my first wife then, and she was sleeping in the house overnight with our dogs, who weren’t allowed in the motel.

I got the kids up, fed them breakfast, and took them home. Their mom had arranged with neighbors to use their bathrooms when necessary. She would cook on our gas grill for lunch. She had a strong survivalist bent and had recently ended her time in the United States Army — she was fully in her element, figuring out how to make life work under challenging circumstances.

As I pulled into the parking lot at work the radio played a quirky album rock station that was on the air here in Indianapolis then. I was only half listening to their regular newscast when it reported that a plane that had apparently flown into one tower of the World Trade Center.

It defied belief. I didn’t look to this radio station as a real source for news, so I punched the button for the city’s primary news station to find that they were running the ABC radio network feed, a very unusual move for that fiercely independent news station. ABC reported the same thing.

I raced into the building and upstairs to my desk, where I the phone was ringing. It was my wife, anguished, crying. She was watching Today and had seen the first plane hit. She had been talking to the lead plumber in our living room, and he was a Vietnam vet. When he saw the plane hit, he had a full PTSD meltdown in our living room. I don’t remember the conversation in detail anymore but I do remember that she was deeply torn up that she had recently exited the Army, as she believed her place was to be in service to her country at this critical time. It cut her to the quick that the phone was not ringing with an order for her to report.

I said I’d come right home; she said stay right at work, as there was nothing I could do and she would push through her feelings.

At work, at first the atmosphere was of shock and disbelief. Nobody had a television, and the Internet was neither as rich nor as reliable as it is today. It’s hard to believe it now, given the ubiquity of these things, but nobody had a smartphone and there was no Wi-Fi. The company did, however, have a high-bandwidth wired connection to the Internet, and given our work as software developers we all had powerful computers on our desktops. I searched the Internet for news. In those days, streaming video was in its infancy. But I found a live stream of, I think, ABC News on the Web site of, I think, Channel 6 in Indianapolis. I let it play all day. I have a memory, one I can’t verify, of watching the second plane hit and, later, the towers falling, live. It’s hard to remember for sure, and I’ve seen video of both events several dozen times since.

Many in the office were not able to connect to live streams, not even the one I had found — such was the state of streaming then. People came and went from my cubicle to watch the story unfold. As it unfolded, I became numb to it. I got no work done that day. I imagine few, if any, of us did.

The executive team was away at a retreat and planning session amid a challenging business forecast. Our small software company had gone public during the dot-com bubble, which burst in 2000. The stock-market decline that followed put the pinch on our company’s valuation, and if I recall correctly the economic situation led to falling sales.

They returned the following day, having abandoned their retreat. They said that they accomplished nothing, and sat watching the news together all day.

I remember this as a turning point in this company’s future. Sales continued to miss the mark. We had already had a couple of layoffs, and they continued every quarter. In January of 2002, my number was up in one of those layoffs. A private equity firm bought the company in 2003 and later merged it with a few other companies in similar lines of business; the resulting company still operates today.

At the end of the work day on 9/11, I no longer remember whether I went home or met my family at the hotel. I no longer remember what we talked about or how we felt. I do remember the incredible feeling of national unity that followed; it lasted weeks, maybe months. I wish it had lasted for years. I regret how divided an fragmented we have become in the 20 years since.

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Stories Told

Summer’s denouement

I first shared this story on 14 September 2008, and have shared it three other times since. I also shared it in my book, A Place to Start — click here to learn more.

During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive. August 1976.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes. We squeezed in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, always organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get-together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”). And then the Jerry Lewis telethon was on everybody’s TV. It was Labor Day weekend, and we all knew it was over.

Rabbit Hill in 2010. The house I grew up in is on the right side, white with blue trim.

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. Kids have been back in school for weeks already. The grass hasn’t grown much lately because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home.

I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter. Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Stories Told

A good used car

To help one of our sons launch into independence, we decided to buy him an inexpensive used car. The criteria: Under $3000, four doors, cosmetically and mechanically okay, a couple years of life left in it.

You’d be surprised how many cars at this price are clapped out and beaten up. Darn good thing we weren’t in a hurry, because it took us about a month to find this 2005 Ford Escape. We paid $2600.

Escape

It had nearly new tires on it. They’re some off brand I’ve never heard of, and I’ve already found them to be so-so on wet pavement. I’m sure they went to some tire store and said, “Put on the cheapest tires you’ve got.” Regardless, I was happy to see them when we went to look at this car. These tires probably cost $500, a large percentage of the car’s purchase price.

Tire

I’m not an expert in buying used cars. I did pay for a Carfax report, which revealed just two owners and no accidents. I checked the car for things I know how to check. When I stuck my finger in the tailpipe, it came back grey and sooty, which was good. The oil was dirty, but it wasn’t foamy or low. The belts I could find were old but not dry or cracked. I grabbed the top of each front tire and pulled and pushed hard, looking for loose front-end linkage. They didn’t budge. All the switchgear worked, and there were no lingering idiot lights on the dashboard. The car drove and stopped straight, and had good, smooth power all the way up to highway speeds.

Dashboard

A couple minor issues were evident, however. The headliner is starting to separate from the roof where it meets the windshield. One of the hinges for the hatch glass was broken. I replaced the hinge myself — it’s incredible the car parts you can buy on Amazon and the instructions for repairs you can find on YouTube. I let the headliner go.

XLT

Whenever you buy an inexpensive used car, Murphy dictates that it will need some sort of repair shortly after. So I drove it for a couple weeks to shake it out, to keep our son from having to deal with it. Sure enough, one day I pulled into the parking lot at work and found the oil light to have just come on. My mechanic said that the valve gasket cover was leaking ever so slightly, and that there was a temporary plug in the oil pan, neither of which is great. But he said that for a car this old with this many miles, he wouldn’t invest in those repairs, he’d just drive it like that. He replaced the oil pressure sensor and couldn’t get the oil light to come back on, so we both declared it good.

One headlight

It’s been only in the past few years that I stepped up from driving old cars much like this one. I know very well that after a certain number of miles, you live with some issues that you choose not to fix because the return isn’t worth the investment.

Ford

This Escape has 175,000 miles on it. I remember a time when a car with 100,000 miles was used up. But despite this Escape’s issues, I’ll bet it has at least 25,000 miles left in it — maybe 50,000 with good care and good luck.

I forget which camera I used to make these photos — it was one of my 35mm SLRs, probably with a 50mm prime lens. The film is Ultrafine Extreme 400, which I developed in the last of my LegacyPro L110, in Dilution B.

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