Stories Told

The day, aged five, I lied to my ophthalmologist

When I was born, the doctor used forceps to pull me out. He misjudged, caught my right eye instead of my right temple, and did some damage. I had surgeries on my right eye at six months and three years to repair that damage.

I remember a little about the second surgery. I was badly frightened by the black mask that was brought down over my nose and mouth to put me under. When I woke up, I was in a crib in a room, and I was instantly angry because I was a big boy who slept in a bed. Dad came in and gently picked me up. I vividly recall floating through the air up to his shoulder; resting there was a great comfort and calmed me. I don’t remember this part of it, but Dad told the story frequently: at his shoulder I proclaimed, “They’re never going to do that to me again!”

Once a year I visited the ophthalmologist who performed the surgeries, a grandfatherly man named Hall. He looked around inside my right eye to check on things. He also checked my vision while he was at it, and it was always 20/20.

After the first surgery he patched that right eye, I’m guessing to let it rest while it healed. Here I am wearing my patch, aged about two in 1969, with my brother and my great grandma Grey. I have a vague memory of often pitching my head back like that, as it was easier to focus on subjects that way.

I think my parents and Dr. Hall were concerned because my left eye tended to wander toward my nose, especially when I was tired. I was concerned too, because the kids were all calling me cross-eyed. I think Dr. Hall was also working to help my eyes work in concert so I would have three-dimensional vision.

At some point Dr. Hall switched the patch to the left eye. I don’t remember why. Here I am with my brother at age three, at Easter in 1971, on my Grandpa Frederick’s garden tractor.

It’s hard to remember everything from those years as I was so young. But I remember well the day I lied to Dr. Hall and my parents.

I was five, or maybe four, at an annual visit to Dr. Hall where there was talk about whether my eyes were working together yet. I think Dr. Hall did some tests trying to figure that out for himself.

My eyes weren’t working together, and I knew it. I used one eye at a time, and I could easily switch between them. I favored my right eye. But whichever eye I was looking out of, the other eye let the view be wider, and provided peripheral vision, but that was it. When I looked out of my left eye for too long, I felt some strain. My right eye was strong and I could use it all day. But I was okay with all of this. I could do everything I cared to do at that age using my right eye. I was sick to death of wearing the patch, and of the other kids all teasing me about it.

Dr. Hall asked me if I saw out of both eyes together. With as much enthusiasm as I could pull together, I said yes. Dr. Hall and my parents didn’t seem convinced. One of them asked, “Are you sure?” With seriousness, I said yes again. They backed off, and after that I didn’t have to wear the patch anymore. Mission accomplished!

As a result, I’ve never had full three-dimensional vision. I’ve adapted well to a mostly two-dimensional view of the world as it’s all I’ve ever known. But there have been a couple of distinct drawbacks.

The first was in sports. When a ball was headed my way, I usually couldn’t track its location well as it came near to me. I missed catching a lot of footballs because of it. Worse, I got hit in the face by a lot of basketballs. That was especially problematic during the years I wore braces. Basketballs to the face tore my inner upper lip to shreds. Fortunately, I didn’t enjoy sports much and wasn’t that athletic anyway. I just gave up sports.

The other is in driving. I can tell I’m getting close to something because it gets larger. Occasionally I misjudge a little and either brake too early, or have to brake hard. The biggest challenge is the vision test at the BMV. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve had to put my eyes up to a viewfinder in a little machine. When you peer inside, you see a few rows of letters and numbers that you’re supposed to read aloud. But the machine is sneaky. Some of the letters appear for only the left eye, and some only for the right eye. To pass the test, I have to silently read each row with one eye and then the other, put the letters in the right order, and then recite them from memory!

I’ve had one unexpected benefit of being able to switch between my eyes. In high school my vision went nearsighted, my right eye considerably and my left eye slightly. Long story short, I’ve worn a gas-permeable contact in my right eye for going on 40 years. After taking out my one contact lens at night, if I want to watch TV before bed I do it with my left eye. My left eye also lets me find the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Telling that lie so many years ago had lifelong effects that I couldn’t predict then. So far, I haven’t regretted them. I hope that as I pass out of middle age I don’t start to.

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Stories Told

Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

On this Independence Day, I’m republishing this story I told in 2018 in which I reflect on patriotism.

Arlington National Cemetery

My dad was in the Navy, as was his dad before him. At enlistment age I was college bound, but Dad asked if I’d at least consider Navy ROTC. I said no.

That had to be hard for my Dad to hear. In his family, men served their country, period. Looking back, I’m surprised now that he didn’t insist.

I was excited about building a future in software engineering. I didn’t want military service to stand in my way.

Also, I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. I was not sure I had, and I felt sure I could not build, the physical toughness to serve. I have always been far more of my mind than my body. I remain unathletic, even clumsy.

I have also always had a hard time blindly following orders. In my younger years I needed to internalize the logic behind an order to execute it wholeheartedly. Even today, unless I am all-in on something I struggle to do it well.

I was sure these barriers would lead to military misery for me. Middle-aged hindsight tells me that ROTC could have helped me overcome these physical and intellectual challenges. If nothing else, it certainly would have paid for engineering school.

Yet refusing to serve my country led me to question my own patriotism. Did I love my country? To what lengths would I go to support it in a time of need? Could I fight and die if necessary?

I had a long conversation with my uncle Jack about it. He was always easy to talk to at a time when Dad often wasn’t. I could fight and die, I allowed, in a war where our very nation was threatened. I could not fight and die in the only kind of war fought during my lifetime, which I judged to be about policing foreign interests. Jack listened carefully and affirmed my concern. He then reminded me that whether I had already enlisted or if I were drafted, Uncle Sam would not care about my feelings if he needed me to fight. He also said that if I skipped to Canada as some had in that last conflict, that I would be turning my back on my country and I should never return. I left that discussion grateful to have been fully heard. But I had no better answer than before.

When the first Gulf War began I was out of college and working in software engineering. My anxiety spiked — I was draftable and this conflict looked serious.

By then I’d grown up enough, and Dad had mellowed enough, that we could talk about the most serious matters. So I called him. I could hear it in his voice: he, too, was deeply worried that his sons might be called up. He wouldn’t fully admit it, but I caught a whiff in his words that he wasn’t sure he liked his sons being drafted to a conflict that wasn’t clearly about protecting our nation. His patriotism remained firm, however. He gently reminded me that when your country calls, you simply go. On that call I reconciled it in my mind and, finally, agreed with him. It gave me a sort of peace.

But then no civilians were called. Since then, no other conflicts grew serious enough that the draft was a possibility. And now I’m well past the age when my country would require me to fight.

Lately I’ve become deeply interested in 20th-century history, and as our family trip to Washington approached I had coincidentally been watching a Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It told the war’s story through the memories of several soldiers and some of their family members. I came away from it feeling hell yes, that was a war worth fighting and  a cause worth dying for. And so, so many men died.

Those thoughts and feelings still filled my mind when Margaret said she wanted to go across the river to the National Cemetery. Exiting the subway we realized we had to rush to make the next changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried up that hill, arriving seconds after the ceremony began. And what a ceremony, filled with every ounce of somber precision a soldier can muster.

Until then I had thought high military ceremony to be cartoonishly ridiculous. But as I watched the changing of the guard I realized how much training and practice are needed to achieve that polish and perfection. And I saw how it was this very effort that made the ceremony an appropriate honor. That unknown soldier had given his all, and so we offer our utmost in tribute. A long-lasting tribute, as a guard has been posted continuously since 1937.

It brought fully back to me what I had been taught from the time I was a boy: the good life we enjoyed in the United States existed not just through our natural resources, hard work, and ingenuity, but also because many people stepped up to protect it when it was threatened. It was good to be reminded, and to remember those that died in that protective service.

One more changing of the guard remained that day, and we lingered to see it begin. I had moved into a position directly across from the tomb, where I saw how all of America stretched out before it.

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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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