A Place to Call Home

Day 5

After the usual routine this morning, we hit the road at about 8 am. Our destination today was Wakeeney, Kansas and I don’t mind saying that I was really pumped up about it. Not the Wakeeny part, that’s just where the campground is. The going to Kansas part! Why, you ask? Well… I will tell you. My favorite rock band is the incredible group “Kansas”. I’m a big fan of “The Wizard of Oz”. I love the movie “Twister”. (I know… it doesn’t take place in Kansas, but it looks like it does.) And… ummm… I that’s about it. Anyway, here we go!

To get there, we needed to go through Missouri. I won’t bore you with all the movie stuff about “Big Mo” (“Search for Red October”, “The Missouri Breaks”, “Outlaw Josey Whales”) but I will tell you that as soon as we crossed the state line and got on Highway 65, everything changed. It was like road trips used to be. Shiny new billboards telling you about all kinds of interesting things like a restaurant where they throw dinner rolls at you. A place that gives you free chocolate candy if you stop by. The worlds biggest cave, the worlds most beautiful cave… there were all kinds of caves! There was even a place that was voted “America’s #1 new attraction”. It didn’t say what kind of attraction… just that it was number one.

Of course, we didn’t stop at any of them. But it was good to know that we could have. And food? Holy cow… you couldn’t trip and fall without getting a hamburger right in the face. Also, when it comes to naming things, the good people of Missouri apparently have a great sense of humor. We ran across a convenience store called “Kum and Go” (at least I think it’s a convenience store) A creek called “Little Sac” and another called “Dry Sac” and a town named “Peculiar”. The Main Street there? “Peculiar Way”.

Just before we crossed into Kansas, I asked Lori, who was navigating and doing all the song selection, to please play one song in particular when we crossed the border. It was awesome! As soon as we drove passed the Kansas sign, the unmistakable thundering beginning to “Song for America” by “Kansas” started playing. The lyrics to the song match up with our journey perfectly. It was one of those moments!

A moment that lasted 5 hours! I didn’t think Interstate 40 was ever going to end. And I’m not sure that I turned the steering wheel at all the entire time. I thought about just hooking a bungee chord to the steering wheel, because my arm was falling asleep! Instead, we killed some driving time by playing “find a tree”, discussing why the “Museum of Giant Insects” would be way the hell out here and by trying to coax our pouting dog Yogi out of the bedroom. He’s really mad at us for making him ride in a moving house. He’s so mad that I’m pretty sure he gave me the finger somehow.

But now we’re tucked in bed again… one big family in Wakeeny Kansas, whose tag line is (no joke) “Wakeeny. A place to call home”.

They’re right. We called home as soon as we got here.

We are what we know

It was quiet last night, except for the constant buzz of millions of cicadas. Lori’s cousin Lisa had visited us and her friend Tammie had generously left her pickup for us to use today for doing some exploring of the town before we were to meet her at a family potluck dinner at 2 o’clock.

So after taking Yogi for a walk and having some coffee, we drove to “the right Harris” and had a delicious breakfast at the Town House Café. It was in an old, worn downtown area that was obviously struggling. We walked around a bit after breakfast and then drove to an old grocery store that featured a giant, dump truck sized bull, high in the air above its sign. I have a lot of questions about this, but I guess I can just boil it down to, why? After grabbing a few things in the store, we went into an old pharmacy next door and looked around. When we came out we both realized that the old downtown, with its faded signs, abandoned buildings and the lack of something new was actually depressing us. Not that this town seemed much different than many others that we’d driven through on this trip, but we both decided to get the hell out of there and head back into the woods and the safe newness of the RV!

Yogi was glad to see us back at camp. So much so that he barfed a big wad of welcome grass on my bed spread! Poor guy. Riding in the motor home as it rattles and shakes around still makes him nervous. I guess all three of us are out our element. Hmmm… Our emotional state is easily affected by our surroundings and our surroundings are affected by our emotional state. Result? Puke on my bed!

As I was cleaning up our embarrassed dogs puke, our camp host stopped by on his golf cart. His arm was in a sling. “What’s up with your arm man?” I asked while rinsing out a dog puke rag. “Oh, this? This is to keep me from moving my arm. They put a pace maker in me cause I got this here A Fib thing.” He was a contractor before he retired and bought the trailer park, so we talked for a good 20 minutes about old guy medical stuff. Good times! I like that guy.

At dinner, I met some of Lori’s relatives on her moms side. They were a hoot! Really funny and great hosts. You know… I think they really like it in “the right Harris”. It’s what they know and it’s become part of them.

When we finished dinner we called Lori’s mom in Florida and tried to walk her through watching the live Facebook video we were broadcasting. That didn’t work, so we just went old school and talked on the phone with her and Lori’s brother David.

Right now Yogi is laying in bed next to Lori and I, snuggled against my leg. Safe.

Tomorrow… Kansas!

Small world in a big country

Day 3

After a meal of some great “Mississippi barbecue” last night and a good night sleep in a surprisingly comfy RV bed, we woke up this morning and were sitting outside drinking our coffee when another camper pulled up in his pickup truck and struck up a conversation. He asked about our rv, how the mirror visibility was, what kind of motor it had… you know… “rv talk”. Then he paused for a long awkward moment, looking straight ahead with his trucks motor running as we sat at our picnic table looking at him. Suddenly he turned towards us and said “Are you going to church this morning?” I’ve always been pretty quick on the draw mentally and verbally, but as I’ve gotten older, I find that I’m less prone to even filter something and more prone to just “cut to the chase”. In this case (and I kid you not) all of the following optional responses and many more “colorful” ones, ran through my mind in about three seconds: “What are you, my mom?” “That would be none of your business, pal.“ “I’m not quite drunk enough yet.” But, I could feel Lori looking at me, so I went with, “No.” He immediately drove off.  Ok, I know that we were camped squarely on the buckle of the Bible Belt, so maybe he was going to invite us to go to church with him or it was his way of seeing if we were “fellow Christians” or maybe he was doing some kind of mandatory Christian recruiting.  I certainly don’t  judge anyone for having their own religious beliefs as long as they do the same for everyone else, but this seemed like an obvious “Why aren’t you in church“,  So… I’m thinking he got off too easy.

Anyway, soon we were  packed up and on our way to our next stop…Arkansas!

A half hour into the drive I pulled into a “truck stop sized” McDonalds and Lori hopped into the drivers seat to take her turn. She insisted on driving it once around the parking lot first, to get the feel of it and then she did an awesome job driving us for the next 3 hours, all the way to “Where the hell are we” Arkansas (My wife is awesome!) even with me… navigating? The question mark is not a typo.

I don’t know about the rest of you couples, but Lori and I have a great system. One drives and the other navigates. I know that leads to a lot of arguments for some people, but it has worked really well for Lori and I for 20 years now. Never any problem.  Today, I had the simple task of putting in our destination and repeating the directions so Lori could hear them over Thor’s Mighty Roar. Simple. Except an hour past the Mississippi River I realized that I had absentmindedly clicked on the “over helpful spellchecks” suggestion of Harrisburg instead of Harrison, Arkansas. As it turns out, even in Arkansas those are different places, however, luckily for me, the directions to these cities were identical, up to the point in our trip that I figured out that I had screwed up.

Despite my apparent inability to read, we are finally at the end of our six hour journey and set up at a great campground in the “right Harris”. When we checked in, we found out that the park is owned by a really nice couple who just moved from the same place that we’re heading to…Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s a big country, but a “small world”.

Tomorrow, we find out more about Lori’s Arkansas family tree!

The Mighty Thor and Tupelo Mississippi

After spending last night at the cabin in Hiawassee Georgia, we took the 3 hour drive to the RV rental place on the west side of Atlanta and were introduced to what would be our motorhome away from home for the next 14 days. The RV is a “Thor”.  “Awesome!” said my double dose of Scandinavia heritage.  I’m going to drive down the interstate with my head hanging out the window, yelling “Make way puny commuters! Behold! THE BALD HEADED GOD OF THUNDER!”  Yeah, Lori put the brakes on that.

After an hour of signing away our constitutional rights and showing us where the poop goes in and where the poop comes out and how to get in and out of the parking lot… we were off! Through the wrong gate. (And yes Fred! I was driving!)

Once we found the interstate and got it headed towards the west, the Mighty Thor proved to be a pretty nifty ride with great horsepower from its V-10 engine. It is the smallest Class A available, (24’) and it seems like it has plenty of room. (He said after the first 4 hours into a 2 week trip) Lori’s only critique so far is that there wasn’t an “Oh SHIT!” bar on the passengers side for her to hang onto… especially through Birmingham.

A couple of hours later we pulled into our campsite in Tupelo Mississippi. A place I would have never come to see otherwise. No offense to Tupelo, but there’s very few places that aren’t on that list for me. So, we’re plugged in, our bed is made (so that Yogi can get a good nights sleep) and dinners almost ready.  At least that’s what the “Tupelo to go” app on Lori’s Iphone says.

Ahhh! Camping!

The Rv to Colorado Chronicles: “Getting started getting started”

F84BD1BA-8E36-4AF1-8B4F-9DC9F310CABDIt sounded pretty simple a couple of months ago. “Let’s take an RV trip this summer to Colorado!” But then, my wife Lori and I started making plans. Where do we go? How do we get there? What are we driving? Where do we stay? What the hell do we do when we get there? And then the big one; what about the DOG!!! Oh yeah… and how do we manage to “sneak away” from our business and our family commitments for over two weeks.

I could write an entire book on all of those preparations, but so far as how well we prepared; the proof is in the pudding. (Is it Pudding? I’ve got to look that up later.) Anyway, the actual trip will be the best judge of that and because I like telling stories, my friends reading this blog can judge us too. Because that’s what real friends do!

It was our friends Kitty and John that gave me the idea to share the experience via a blog. They gave me a journal for my birthday! For you kids out there, it’s made of paper and you smear ink or graphite on it in “caveman font”. Anyway, with fingers crossed, my wife and I kiss, load up the dog and 1,500 lbs of stuff in the truck and we’re on our way.

“Do you have my keys?”

Why Fishing isn’t called Catching

A few weeks ago, while meeting with our Representatives in Tallahassee, I noticed a photo of a group of fishermen next to a large shark hanging in the hallway on the way to the Senate offices. I stopped in the crowded hallway, looked closely at the picture and then down at the legislative agenda I was carrying. The picture had reminded me of something I learned years ago when my friends and I would go “fishing” from the top of the New Pass and San Carlos Pass bridges.

I said “fishing” and not fishing because we didn’t actually expect to catch anything. Late in the summer night at the top of the bridge the tropical breeze was wonderful. There were no cars, no bugs, no noise and the moonlit view was spectacular. The tackle we fished with was only meant for extremely large fish, so the quiet of the evening was rarely interrupted. Yes, everything was great… until the night that we actually caught something.

That evening, my friend Billy and I were sitting on our coolers at the top of the San Carlos Bridge, our fishing rods leaning up against the railing, when to our surprise my reel start clicking rapidly. The line was spooling off fast, so I picked it up, checked the drag and set the hook. Luckily I was braced against the concrete railing because whatever it was on the other end of the line was big and fast and it slammed me right up against the rail. “WHOA… WE GOT ONE!” yelled an amazed Billy. Then, in the distant moonlight we saw something jump from the water. It was a large shark and for the next 10 minutes, as Billy shouted encouragement, I attempted to stop its run for the ocean. When I finally did start making progress and retrieving line, Billy suddenly got quiet and looked over the railing to the water, far below us. “Hey Nelson! How are you supposed to get him up here?” I glanced over at him. “How am I? What happened to we?” I looked around. Nothing but a lot of bridge both ways, with light poles and other obstacles mounted on the railing every thirty feet or so. I shook my head. We were prepared for “fishing”… just not for catching.

So we began to walk to the west, periodically handing the rod and reel to each other around the light poles and other obstacles while the powerful shark tried to pull us into the water. Once on the Fort Myers Beach side, we planned to drag our catch onto the shore and cut the leader near its mouth, letting it go. Our chaotic journey down the bridge took thirty minutes. The “R rated” version is much better, but here’s just a sample of what it sounded like. “Get over on that side… NO! THAT SIDE!” “OK, OK…GEEZ!” “Now put your foot there.” “WHAT?? Oh, I don’t think so!” “OH FOR… Look… Reach around the sign. Now take it… TAKE IT!” “OK, OK, I’ve got it, I’ve got it! Let go. Let go! LET GO!!” “ARRGGH…I CAN’T! YOU’VE GOT MY FINGER!”

By the time the shark was near the beach, we were worn out and by the time we got the fish onshore it was dead. Billy and I stood there looking at the seven foot, 200 lb. black tip shark. “It’s dead? What are we going to do with it?” Billy asked quietly, obviously feeling as guilty as I was. I looked around at the beach. “Well, we can’t leave it here and it wouldn’t be right to just shove it into the water.” Then I saw my truck. “I know where to take it!”

Five hours later it was daylight and I was in front of the Everglades Wonder Garden with a stinking dead shark in the back of my truck. I knocked on the side gate and Lester Piper came out wearing a butcher’s apron covered in blood. “Yeah?” he growled. I showed him the shark and asked him if he was interested. “Naaah… I ain’t interested in buyin’ stuff like this. It ain’t worth it to…” “No, No!” I interrupted. “I wanna give it to you.” He immediately became a happier person. “OH! Sure, bring it on in here Ben Jr.!” On the way home, I decided that despite the adventure, my bridge fishing shark-catching days were over.

Apparently some lessons remain long hidden until needed, because before my next meeting in Tallahassee, I went over our project notes a few more times. I wanted to be sure that we were prepared for catching… not just fishing.

Horsing Around

I was in Tallahassee recently, when I noticed several men in business suits wearing cowboy boots.  I guess that’s ok…, but I’m pretty sure that boots were originally intended to be worn while riding a horse. And these guys certainly had not ridden to the capital or anywhere else for that matter.  I suppose if you asked them, they’d tell you the boots were comfortable and that they liked the way they looked.  Well… fair enough. But I think it’s also a way to pay homage to a particular lifestyle or tradition.  This got me thinking about some of the “old Florida traditions” that we hang on to or even romanticize about in connection with raising cattle, which has been a way of life for generations here in Florida.  As far as my family goes, I suspect that the “cracker cowboy” part of our family tradition may have ended with my father… and here’s why.
I know that many of you love horses and that’s just fine by me.  My mother loves horses too.  But me… not so much.  Although I am actually pretty good on horseback and I’ve got a lot of experience with them, those experiences have been laced with some pretty painful incidents.
I’ve been kicked, thrown to the ground, head-butted, bitten, stepped on and scraped off on trees by these… animals.  Don’t get me wrong, they are magnificent and powerful creatures and I really admire their stamina and beauty, but unlike a reliable and blissfully mindless jeep or ATV, they have a mind of their own.  A mind that delights in purposefully and without warning jumping sideways, leaving you like a flipped coin on your head, or on your tail, in the palmettos. They then stay just beyond your reach, pausing now and then to taunt you… leaving you to follow them like some kind of sand spur covered horse stalker.


They also demonstrate this equestrian sense of humor when you’re saddling them.  One of their favorite pranks is to simply stand on one of your feet.  They wait until you’re distracted, adjusting the saddle, then they casually side step pretending not to notice as you flail around, howling and shoving uselessly on their thousand pound bodies.  They will eventually let you go with an amused snort, but only so that they can set you up for their next “bit”.  As you chinch up the saddle (while standing on your one good foot) they swell up their belly so that despite all your tugging and pulling and putting your knee in their girth, the saddle will only get as tight as they want it to be.  The punch line generally comes about 15 minutes into the ride, when the horse exhales and you spin around upside down under his belly.  My dad used to stubbornly ride the horse upside down for a couple of hundred feet. I suppose it was an attempt to prove to the horse that my dad had purposefully swung around in order to inspect the trail conditions… with his face.

To my relief, we sold our last horse a long time ago, but periodically I still somehow get talked into going trail riding.  It’s actually something that many of you may enjoy and it’s a great way to experience Florida. The local outfitters are very competent and unlike me, they manage to keep well trained horses. But as my luck would have it, on my last family trip out west the outfitter had one horse that had ‘behavioral issues’.  As she was carefully matching up horses with riders, I quietly waited with my arms crossed for the inevitable.  “So are any of you experienced riders?”  Silence.  No one ever volunteers for this kind of mission.  Minutes later, I threw my hands in the air, finally surrendering to fate.  “O.k., o.k… go ahead and put me on “Psycho”.  Fifteen minutes later, as I rode upside down hanging from Psycho’s belly, I stubbornly stayed in the saddle, inspecting the trail with my face.


The family tradition lives on.

Seaside Manuscript

Night of the Raccoon

The morning of our community’s “Keep the Beautiful in Bonita” clean up this year, I thought that after a day of picking up assorted stinky discarded diapers and half consumed bottles of beer, it would be nice to be able to at least partially disinfect myself by taking a swim in our heavily chlorinated pool when we got home. Since my Floridian blood freezes solid in water anywhere below 87 degrees, I turned on the solar heater so that by the time we got home that night the pool would be just the right temperature for a quick dip. My wife Lori of course knew better. “You know you’ll never make it past the couch, right?”

And of course… she was right. That evening, as soon as I walked in the door I plopped my gross, garbage scented, exhausted body on the couch and in minutes was sleeping soundly… until I was awakened by the sound of the doggy door banging open on the pool deck. I sat up quickly… looked over at Lori and growled, smiling…”Raccoons!” You see, the Nelson family and raccoons have been feuding for decades and from the stories my father used to tell me about he and his brothers hunting the wily masked creatures… it’s fair to say that we had started it.

In the early 1900’s my grandparents had come to Florida to seek their fortune by homesteading on a section of prime water front property (swamp land) in southwest Florida. As it turns out, their fortune had a lot in common with starving to death so they would send their four sons out into the woods to forage for food. While the older family members were out looking for work, my father and his older, yet still preteen, brother Charlie were left alone in the woods to tend the cattle and to trap raccoons… by hand. To make things even more interesting the animals had to be brought in alive so everyone would know they were fresh. I guess the only thing worse than eating fresh raccoon was eating stale or rotten raccoon.

So, how hungry were they? This hungry… after a raccoon was spotted high in a cypress tree, my dad (being the smallest and easiest to bully) would climb up the tree with a stick. His orders were to convince the animal to jump 60 feet to the ground by swatting at it like it was a piñata. Sooner or later the raccoon would get tired of this and prior to doing a really bad flying squirrel imitation, the raccoon would first lighten his load by emptying the contents of his bladder, bowels and stomach… onto my father. This always delighted my Uncle Charlie who would be far below on the ground, laughing hysterically and shouting helpful encouragement to his little brother. “You’ve got him now Ben!”

Once the raccoon hit the ground, both boys would chase the dazed mammal until Charlie could bop it on the head with a stick, knocking him out cold. Being the big brother, he would grab the unconscious critter by its ringed tail and carry it proudly back home.

However, on this particular hunting trip, Mother Nature decided to show off her own sense of humor by waking up the boy’s un-amused captive. It immediately wrapped all four furry legs tightly around Charlie’s thigh and “commenced to chewin'”. The once proud hunter proceeded to try every dance, jump, roll, scream and evasive maneuver known to man in an attempt to dislodge the angry masked mammal from his leg. My father stopped laughing just long enough to put a hand on each side of his mouth and yell… “You’ve got ‘em now Charlie!” The raccoon soon lost his taste for the boy’s boney leg and took off for the deep swamp, leaving Charlie pretty much unharmed, furious, and running after his still laughing little brother.

So, in what could easily be considered raccoon karma, these hoodlums now tip over our garbage cans, slice through screens, eat the cat’s food and make funny faces and apparently insulting gestures at our dogs through the windows at night. This makes our dogs go crazy, and we of course then yell at the dogs, which delights the raccoons to no end, causing them to run away laughing their little raccoon tails off!

Recently, they discovered the doggy door into the pool area and how funny it was to make me run after them in my underwear. I do this for several reasons. Because I can’t let the dogs out with potentially rabid raccoons on the pool deck, because I’m not thinking clearly at midnight, and the ongoing feud between the Nelson’s and the much hated family of poop-on-your-head-before-they-chew-up-your-ankle-trash panda’s. So that night, I again exploded out of the door looking like a giant maniac baby, wielding the pool net high over my head as I ran after the masked bandit. As usual he ran into the bushes behind the spa, and as usual I jumped up on the edge of the spa and began poking the net into the bushes. As the dogs barked frantically from inside the house, I could hear Lori yelling really irritating logical good advice through the closed door, “Just leave the screen door open and he’ll leave.” But this, my friend… was war. Suddenly, the angry mammal shot up the palm tree and fastened itself onto the screen like Spider-Man just above my head. Without thinking (which actually, should have be the name of this story) I scooped the “much larger than I thought” raccoon off of the screen with the net like he was a giant pancake. As I watched him falling in slow motion directly in front of me into the spa, it dawned on me that the only way for the crazed mammal to get out of the spa was to climb over the top of me. And after hearing my father and my uncles stories I had no desire to have an angry raccoon crawl up my leg while I was in my damned underwear, so I decided on a different strategy. I turned and ran, screaming like an eight year-old girl. But just as I took my first step it became clear that I had, like a cartoon character, run out of solid ground and was for a split second running in mid air over the pool. Strangely enough, as I plunged into the dark black water of the pool my first thought was…”Hey, this water temperature is perfect!” followed quickly by… “ARRRGGH… AN ANGRY RACCOON IS ABOUT TO CLIMB ONTO MY HEAD!”

Fueled by fear, I quickly scrambled out of the water and grabbed my pool net again, and with my back to the French doors scanned the pool deck. “COME ON PAL! IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!” I bellowed mightily, standing there soaking wet in my now drooping “not so tighty whiteys.” As I stood there like the worlds worse Navy Seal, I heard a quiet “tap, tap, tap” on the window behind me. I turned to see my wife Lori silently mouthing the words “He’s right behind you!” Sure enough, there behind me was a wet, snarling raccoon with his back up against the wall. Our eyes locked for an instant and then we both came to the same conclusion… “RUN!” Luckily the masked intruder headed for the door leading outside where he belonged and I headed for the door leading to the couch where I belonged.

The raccoon has never returned to our pool deck, but as I nurse my pulled back muscles and suffer the disappointed looks on my dogs faces … I’m not so certain who won this battle. But I suppose that is the nature of a feud… no one ever really wins.

Rabid Prejudice
Look. I don’t want to come off like some guy who’s always doing battle in his underpants with some innocent mammal whose species has a vendetta with my family, but then… there’s bats. Yeah, yeah… I know. They are amazing animals (flying vermin) that eat… I don’t know… millions of tons of insects per day (suck your blood and give you horrible diseases) and are indispensable to the health and well-being of our ecosystem (and vampire movies).

I wasn’t born with this obvious prejudice against radar guided flying mammals. I remember a more innocent time when I was free of my preconceived notions about “winged rats”. I would sit in front of our family’s small black and white TV and watch The Andy Griffith Show as Barney Fife would get all bug eyed, freaking out about bats. He was certain that “Bats will lay eggs in your hair and make you go crazy!!” Yes… we all laughed and laughed. Ridiculous! Or… was it?

One evening, years later, I had just gotten the kids to sleep. As I lay there in bed, reading by the light of a small lamp, I kept hearing something… something fluttering. I sat my book down and looked suspiciously over my glasses around the room. Nothing. Then, I saw what looked like a large moth fluttering along the ceiling. I tried to ignore it, but finally as it flapped its way overhead, I stood up in bed and swatted the winged irritant off of the ceiling and onto the floor. After I jumped down off the bed and turned the main light on, I bent down closely over the moth so I could get a better look at it. “Hmmph!” I said out loud to no one. “What kind of bug do we have here?” I reached down to turn it over, but just before I touched it…

You never really know how you will react to unusual circumstances. But apparently, when a moth spins its fuzzy head towards me, opens its mouth and growls with a full set of nightmarish teeth, I jump back up on the bed and shriek like a little girl. Ok… It really wasn’t a growl, it was more of a sharp “ping”.

Fortunately… no… ironically, I keep a bat next to my bed (a baseball bat) so I snatched it up and stood like a samurai ready to do battle… with an animal the size of a large butterfly, in my underwear (of course!), armed with a Louisville slugger. It didn’t take long before a couple of things became clear to me. First, the miniature mammal wasn’t going to attack me and second, Barney Fife had been right! The Bat had obviously made me go crazy, even without laying eggs in my hair.

In the end, I simply scooped the hapless creature up with the same magazine that I’d smacked him with and then set him gently outside. After all… setting him free was good karma, right? WRONG! Not even a year later my mother called one evening from Idaho. She had been sitting in her easy chair, minding her own business, in front of the fire, watching Gunsmoke, when a rabid bat snuck up on her and bit her on the big toe! And you know those infamous multiple rabies shots you’ve always heard about? They’re REAL! So, Karma Shmarma! I don’t care if I do smack a random member of your freakish, rubber winged family with a Discovery magazine, you don’t get to BITE MY MOM ON THE TOE AND GIVE HER RABIES!

That was ten years ago. Ever since then I have watched the evening sky (and bedroom ceiling) with narrowed suspicious eyes. Even though the time has passed without any further bat related incidents, it has not tempered my mistrust… my dislike for the entire bat family. I continue to scowl at them as they flap and swoop around at night on their skin covered wings. And even though I know that I am irrationally judging the character of an entire species of millions, upon millions of law abiding, hardworking bats and that I’m doing so based upon the actions of two misguided hoodlums and the hysterical rantings of an infamously cowardly T.V. character… I find it hard to accept them as fellow productive creatures with nice little bat families and bat fears of their own. But since I do know that prejudice is based on fear, anger, mistrust and misunderstanding… and because my daughters favorite thing in the whole world is (ugh) Batman, I have promised her that I would conquer my possibly irrational prejudice with an open heart, an open mind…and at night… tightly closed windows and doors.

Law and Disorder
OK, I admit it. I seem to spend a lot of time running around in my underpants. But, in my defense, I believe I can provide evidence that wearing nothing but briefs can save your life!

Years ago I walked over to my neighbor’s house after work (NO, not in my underpants!) to ask him for a typical neighbor favor. “Hey Jim! I’m going to the Keys for the weekend. Could you keep an eye on my house while I’m gone?” Since my friend Jim is a one-man neighborhood watch and we suspect, peeping Tom, he was really happy to take on the responsibility of doing what he does all the time anyway. Spying on my house. Just ask any pizza delivery person… no one (not even me) gets down our street without an I.D., passport, a note from their mom and a thorough questioning. So I always feel secure about leaving our house when we go on vacation.

That particular night, after packing our bags and doing last minute preparation for the next mornings’ road trip, I put the kids to bed and walked around the house checking all the doors and motion lights before I set the alarm clock and settled into bed for the evening. I was just starting to doze off when I noticed a mysterious light moving around outside, shining through the curtains. I sat up in bed, completely awake. “What the fuck… there’s someone outside with a flash light walking around the house! Wait… there’s TWO people!” Moving like a ninja, I slipped silently out of bed. “BAM…FLOP!” (UGHHHH! YOU MOTHER FUCKER!) I whispered to the bottom drawer that was left open that I fell over. I slithered over to the window on my belly and slowly peeked out through the curtains. It was pitch black outside, so all I could see were flashlights. Then… I heard the screen door open. (Holy Shit… they’re trying to break into the house!) I was ready, because I’d been through this situation a thousand times. Well, never really… but in my head. I slowly backed away from the window, stood up and deftly moved through the completely dark house like a cat. “OWWW!” I quietly cursed as I hopped on one foot after stepping on a deadly friggin’ lego.
Limping quietly and quickly, I made my way over to the sliding door to the porch and then leaned back against the wall. The lights on the porch swept back and forth; searching… but they could not see me because I was like a shadow! A shadow camouflaged in (I looked down) bright white underwear? (OH GREAT! too late to put some pants on. Wait… I’m going to fight two burglars in my whitey-tighties!?) As I started feeling more and more vulnerable, my adrenaline fed ninja powers began to fade. But then, the intruder’s flashlights crossed each other’s bodies and I caught a glimpse of them. I stood up a little straighter. “They’re Sheriff’s Officers?” I recognized them both and was relieved, but apparently still stupid. So without thinking I turned the porch light on, shoved the sliding glass door open, jumped onto the porch and said cheerfully “Hey guys!” This was a REALLY bad idea. In the blinding light both officers completely freaked out, spun around and began frantically trying to get their guns out of their buttoned down holsters. Luckily for me, before they could get their guns drawn they got a good look at me and then froze. “Soooo… what are you guys doing on my porch?” I said, forgetting I was half naked. I have to admit, their next response was completely appropriate and I suspect, a little better than getting shot. They both started laughing hysterically. Sure, it might have been the sight of me in my underwear, but maybe they were just relieved that they weren’t going to be involved in a gun battle with a crazy half naked ninja?

After about thirty seconds of them laughing uncontrollably, holding their chests and trying to get their breath I had had enough. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. “OK, OK… very funny! Now… what’s going on?” The one officer sighed a deep breath. “We’re sorry Mr. Nelson, but your neighbor called and said he heard noises at your house and that you were gone for the weekend. So, we came by to (he snickered) take a look.” The other deputy choked back a laugh, put his arm around his partners shoulder and just before they turned to leave said, “Well, I think we’ve seen enough here!” They both laughed again. “Goodnight Mr. Nelson! Sorry to disturb you!” I slid the door shut behind me, narrowed my eyes and sneered my neighbors name. “RENFRO!”
Anyway, white underpants… wear them! You never know.

Questionable Gardening advice
Speaking of helpful neighbors, when you’re new to an area, it can take a while to become familiar with the strange vegetation and creatures that inhabit your yard, so most neighbors will always be willing to help. Not necessarily because they’re nice people, but because it’s so much fun for them to watch you try to implement the screwed up bogus advice that they just invented.
Lori and I were just starting to fix up our little place in Georgia, planting trees, mowing and such, when our dog Molly, and I had our first experience with paper wasps. It took a while for my wife, who was watching us from the safety of the porch, to figure out what the hell was going on. All she could see was Molly and I running for our lives, spinning around, snapping and swatting at the air like cartoon characters. Of course, Lori’s laughter turned into sympathy and then anger when she saw Molly’s golf ball sized swollen, upper lip. “Ahhhh… Look at her.” She said looking right at me, ignoring my gigantic red ear. “You’ve got to get rid of that nest!” (YES, I thought… a mission!).
Three trips to the hardware store and sixty dollars later, the hornets were not only still alive, but really mad. Empty cans of spray were scattered everywhere and the pear tree was soaked with poison. Obviously I needed some local advice if I was to avenge our fat lipped Terrier and my damn ear and take back our yard from those flying fuckers. This, my friend… was WAR!
Since our cabin is in the wooded countryside in the mountains, our neighbors are pretty far apart, so I jumped on my four wheeler and began driving from neighbor to neighbor, taking a poll regarding the best way to get rid of a paper wasp nest. “Just sneak up on it and then slip a bag over it. Then you can just carry it away!” said one neighbor, who had obviously always wanted to see someone try it. “Just knock it out of the tree with a stick!” said another while partially covering his mouth with his hand to keep from laughing. “Oh, that’s hilarious!” I said in my best Pee-Wee Herman voice. “I’ll knock you out of a tree with a stick.” I mumbled to myself as I walked away. Neighbors!
Finally I went to see Old Billy, whose family had been in Georgia so long they had likely evolved there from the very possums they now hunted. Billy, whose favorite expression is “Right between the eyes!” leaned over and spit tobacco juice out, then, eased back in his rocking chair and said “Ben, you gotta’ put the fire to it! Wait til’ it’s good and dark out, then get a long stick with a kerosene rag on it, light it, stick it up under there and burn em’ up!” Finally!… an idea that made complete sense to the teenager that still resides in me. As I rode back to the house I thought how perfect this plan was. It involved fire, angry hornets, running around in the woods in pitch-black darkness while carrying a long stick and a can of kerosene. It was perfect! I mean… What could possibly go wrong?
When night fell… I was ready. Having already lost one battle and an ear to the wasps, I decided to wear protective clothing for the mission. No whitey tighties for this mission! I put on sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt (white), rubber boots and gloves. Then, I cinched the hood tightly around my face and put goggles and gloves on. Ready! After I got everything else together, I snuck up on the sleeping wasps, lit the torch at the end of a 12 foot long pole and then held the flame under the nest. It was soon engulfed in flames. Of course, so was part of the tree. “Collateral damage of war” I thought to myself as I watched it burn. Then I turned towards our house, hooting loudly and waving the still burning torch over my head in victory; my wife and our fat lipped dog watching in the darkness, both of them shaking their heads.
It was then, in mid celebration that I noticed there were several cars stopped out on the road, watching me. (Neighbors!) Torch in one hand I pumped my fist in the air and yelled (again… obviously without thinking) “DIE WASPS!” They all immediately sped off throwing gravel with their spinning tires. “Well that was kind of weird,” I said to myself, as I put down the torch, took my goggles off and slipped the white hood off. I looked over at our house and shrugged, but then turned to look at the pear tree. It was engulfed in flames right where the trunk and two branches intersected… in the shape of a burning cross!
Since that night, we get very few visitors in Georgia anymore… mostly just Billy. For some reason, he’s always ready to help.

For the Love of Cheetos
Which brings us to dogs. (Hey, keep up, Segway!) Every morning I wake up and let our dogs Molly and Winston outside. Not because I want to… but because they MAKE me! As I try to wring out an extra 15 minutes of sleep… Molly sits next to the bed… staring at me, growling. Then, every minute or so, she’ll jump up and punch me, kangaroo style with both her little Jack Russell hooves. Like any responsible pet owner I try to wave her away, my face still buried in the pillow. It finally takes Winston (a.k.a. Mr. Buzzard Breath), to wake me up. One lick on my face and a strong exhale from him and I’m awake… and nauseous.

As soon as my feet hit the floor both dogs become the happiest creatures on the planet… smiling little doggie smiles, spinning around in circles, running at full speed through the house. No, not because they have to go outside… but because they get two dog biscuits when they come back inside. Personally, I just don’t get. Dog biscuits are hard, dry as dust, and taste like they’re made out of dried mud and straw. (Yes, I tried one.)

But to our dogs, biscuits are ambrosia! They love and crave them beyond all reason, and without knowing or caring what they’re made of. As they come barreling in the house after their frantic tour of the backyard, they spin, jump, beg, walk on their front legs, do card tricks, ride unicycles… whatever it takes to get a biscuit from me. Once they snap the precious cardboard flavored bone out of my fingers they rush off to opposite sides of the house so they can crunch up their rock-hard cookies in private, all the while making little yummy noises of delight. It actually makes me a little envious. What must it be like to love and crave a treat that much? Especially one that’s not exactly food. You guessed it… this is where the Cheetos come in.

I suppose we all have our own ‘dog biscuit’, and yesterday, as I stood alone in the supermarket checkout line, I realized what mine was. Cheetos… the crunchy kind. I casually looked around. There were no witnesses. I snagged a bag off of the rack and quickly laid them down between the sad looking salad mix and almond milk. Once I was safely in the car I ripped open the bag and wolfed down crunchy, salt loaded handfuls of the florescent orange, extruded then fried…I don’t know… Corn guts? Whatever! I really didn’t care… they’re delicious! As I upended the bag and poured the tasty last crumbs into my mouth, I made a little yummy sound and then felt a twinge of guilt. I knew they weren’t good for me and that if my wife found out that I had eaten an entire bag of Cheetos… I was in big trouble! I stuffed the empty bag under the car seat and began licking my paws like a cat while driving down the road. I know… it’s disgusting behavior… but I also know that some of you understand and know that it was the right thing to do!

Pulling into our driveway, I quickly checked my clothes for orange crumbs, grabbed an armload of bags and then headed inside. “Hi Honey!” I said, plopping the grocery bag up on the counter. My wife Lori stopped folding our never-ending laundry and looked over at me. “So, did you enjoy your Cheetos?” My mouth dropped open. (I mean really! How the hell does she do that?) I started to protest, but then I realized that I was sporting bright orange fingers and lips.

Now, I can argue the merits of a case with the best of them, but trying to justify eating an entire bag of Cheetos, is apparently beyond my capacity, so all that would come out of my throat was a choked and feeble “errr…Ahhhh.” Of course our dogs… Mans Best Friends… were sitting there next to Lori (traitors!) with their smiley dog faces, anxiously waiting to see how I would earn my Cheetos.

Unlike the dogs, (which I’m not able to say very often)I am no longer capable of walking on my hands or ride a unicycle without serious injury to myself, or the furniture, and since I seriously suck at folding clothes… I got to make supper and empty the dishwasher. An impressive trick to the only person that counts. Lori.

Standard Oil
So far as I can remember, my addiction to salty treats started in elementary school. Not far from my house on Old US 41 is a building that used to be a Standard Oil gas station. It was my and my buddy’s bus stop and favorite place to hang out after school. We would each scrape up enough money to buy an ice cold coke and a package of peanuts, then sit together on the raised concrete stoop in front of the station and watch the world drift by while we goofed on each other, laughed and prepared ourselves for home.

It was the fall of ‘63 and as I plopped down next to my friends it seemed like just another typical day after school. I ripped a corner off a package of Lance peanuts, dumped a dose of salty deliciousness into my mouth and closed my eyes as I quickly crunched them up, chasing them down with the ice-cold tangy sweetness of a King Sized Coke. I swallowed, savoring the fizzy combination of flavors. “Ahhhhh…” I said looking over at my buddy Paul Fisher. As usual, he had immediately gulped down half of his coke, tore open his bag of peanuts and haphazardly poured them into the bottle, like he was loading a BB gun. I shook my head and wrinkled up my nose. “Man… are you friggin’ strange!” Billy, sitting on the other side of him agreed. “Yeah, what the hell’s wrong with you Fish Lips?” Paul put his thumb over the end of the bottle, frowned and began shaking it vigorously. “Shut up!” Paul said without looking up. (He was pretty damn cool.) He then held on tight as the coke went through a controlled explosion, spewing some of the soda and peanuts all over him. As soon as it stopped fizzing he tilted the bottle up, poured whatever the hell it had become into his mouth and then chewed calmly while he sat there staring straight ahead. “You guys just don’t know what’s good.”

Although the station was owned and operated by Mack Alverez, an old fart named Ted seemed to be there all the time. He occasionally pumped gas for people, but we couldn’t tell if he actually worked there. He mostly sat around telling bad jokes and attempting to freak us out by saying weird shit. This particular day, Ted, who was the oldest looking person I had ever seen, hobbled over and then just stood there hunched over looking down at us. We all stopped talking and stared up at him. He had about three teeth, so it was always difficult to tell if he was grinning or sneering. (I think he was sneering this time.) As he looked back and forth at us, his freaky little fishing hat pulled too far forward on his head, he pulled out a tiny little pocket knife, opened it and made what were evidently meant to be threatening gestures at us. Then he turned towards me. “You want me to slice your tongue and run your leg through it?” Because he wore old bent up wire rimmed glasses that were about an inch thick and you couldn’t really see his eyes, I wasn’t all that sure he was talking to me, so I swallowed my last sip of soda and pointed my thumb at my chest. “What…you mean me?” He made a lame little lunge towards me and swiped the two-inch long blade in the air. “YEAH, I mean you!” I stared at him for a moment with a puzzled look on my face then shook my head. “Nope!” Then I turned towards Billy and casually motioned towards him with my empty bottle. “But Billy was just talking about how much he wanted your knife!” “WHAT???” yelled Billy, immediately jumping up. Paul started to laugh, which would have been fine except his special snack mixture hadn’t quit made it to his stomach yet and as Ted began making his way towards Billy a stream of coke and peanuts suddenly began fire-hosing out of his nose.

Apparently, this took the old man by surprise, because he began stumbling backwards… a look of horror on his face that even his hat, glasses and lack of discernible teeth, couldn’t hide. Neither Paul nor Billy got to see Teds reaction, because Billy was already half way home and Paul was in a panic… frantically trying to dislodge the jet propelled peanuts that had lodged themselves in his nose.

I don’t doubt that Paul and Billy remember this story differently, but Paul has had sinus and migraine problems his entire adult life. I’m betting they are peanut related.

Knowing Your Audience

“Is THIS your card!!?” The young magician asked the reluctant volunteer that he had coaxed out of the small crowd that surrounded him. My wife and I were visiting the Asbury Park Boardwalk on our visit to New Jersey. It was a beautiful day and as we strolled along people watching, we came across a street performer/magician surrounded by a small crowd of people. I love magic acts (even bad ones like this) so I eagerly stepped up to the “magic rope” that he had laid on the ground and watched as he a rather awkwardly tried to get the crowd on his side. I was having a great time and as he would joke with everyone and stumble loudly to a tricks conclusion, I was supportive by politely clapping and cheering… a bit. Periodically he would spot other people watching from a safe distance and would yell at them to come closer to his rope and his woefully empty tip bucket. Soon he spotted my wife, who hates being the focus of attention. “If you’re going to watch just walk right up here!” Most people will dutifully follow these instructions, for fear of embarrassing the performer or themselves. But not Lori. “No thanks!” She said politely. “It’s easy, just use your feet!” The magician taunted sarcastically. I smiled and thought, Good luck Pal! “Yeah, I know what feet are for!” Lori said and then turned and walked way. The magician had misread his first audience member.

Now, one of the first things that a speaker, entertainer, the chairperson of a board, or a mayor, in my case, figures out is that you need to get to know your audience. Information like their mood, their sense of humor or lack thereof, what their interested in or if they’d rather be somewhere else. Which brings me back to our young magician friend.

As he felt the audience slipping away, he became more aggressive and more than a little obnoxious, grabbing young ladies by the arm and pulling them forward, making people’s money he had “borrowed” disappear and then not giving it back. One young man who obviously couldn’t afford to lose ten dollars was trapped into hanging around just to see if he could get his money back at the end of the show. He was definitely losing me because I instinctively stopped clapping and crossed my arms tight against my chest… the universal sign for “Please don’t mess with me.” Not exactly the kind of body language you want to see as a performer. Unfortunately for him, his attention was drawn to me anyway. “And for my next trick…” he said loudly, wadding up a small blanket, looking straight at me standing there in my obviously unamused state. “Creepy Guy!” he yelled. “Catch this!” And he threw the neatly folded blanket straight at me. In the second that it took the blanket to fly through the air to me, I went from fairly supportive audience member to an unamused critic. My eyes didn’t leave him and I didn’t move an inch as the blanket bounced off my still folded arms like Superman. There was a long silence as I stood there glaring at the ex-magician. He then slowly walked over to pick up the blanket, cleared his throat and tried to regroup, but before he could talk I loudly interrupted. With mock surprise I pointed at my chest. “Oh! I’m sorry… were you talking to me?” We were in New Jersey, so I thought this was the appropriate response. My wife, had seen this look on my face before so she began to move towards the front, feeling that it may be time for us to go. I stepped over the magic rope on the ground and walked towards him talking loudly as I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket. “You know kid, when I came up here, I was on your side and I really wanted you to succeed. But then you started being rude and obnoxious to all these good people and to cap it off, you insulted me, the one audience member that was willing to applaud and support you.” But despite all that, I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to show you a magic trick.” I held up the bill in front of his face, then turned and held it up for the crowd to see. “First, I’m going to put this five dollar bill into your little bucket…” Slowly I lowered the bill into the bucket, then did my best magician nothing up the sleeves move. “And now, I’m going to disappear.” And then I turned and walked away, arm in arm with Lori. The over confident mouthy magician and the small crowd totally silent behind me.

Magician or politician, you better know your audience… or you better know actual magic.

A Dogs Life

me and willieThe first day of school! All the distant memories associated with sending my kids off to school for twelve years came back to me when two of my employees told me that they were taking the day off so they could see their children off on their first day. I thought it was great that they could take the time to do this, because it was something that back in the 1980’s, I wasn’t able to do. I did however have my best friend Willie, who every school day from elementary through middle school escorted my twin sons Nick and Neil to the bus stop. And at the end of the day, regular as clock work, he would patiently wait by the side of the road so he could walk them safely home. Even though Willie never had any children of his own, he obviously considered Nick, Neil and Megan his kids and loved them unconditionally. He was one of the best friends I will ever have and a credit to his species. Willie was a Golden Retriever.

I know that it sounds a little irresponsible to put a dog in charge of your kids, but this was back in 1980’s in Bonita Springs, when it wasn’t that unusual to see a dog running around, and Willie was smarter than most of the humans around him and way more dependable. After the kids got on the bus, Willie would trot off to work. His day consisted mostly of eating an occasional gopher turtle, crunching cans up into little pieces, checking in on our neighbors and sleeping in the dirt.

When I would come home after work, Willie would run up to the door of the truck and sit looking up at me with those big brown eyes, waiting patiently to report in on his activities that day and to get some well-deserved hugs. Through all the turmoil surrounding that time in my life, he was always there, and we went along pretty much without a hitch until the boys got older and started walking to Bonita Middle School.

The boys were at the age when they were a little embarrassed to have a parent or guardian, especially a four legged, slobbering, hairy one, walk them to the door of the school. So every morning they would try to fool Willie into neglecting his job. But Willie saw through every plan, every bowl of yummy treats, and would end up catching the boys before they got to Old 41, about three blocks away. This was a dog that I swear, without formal training, could understand English. So when the boys were yelling “Go home Willie!!” He knew exactly what they meant. But he also knew what his job was… to take care of his kids. Once they were safely inside, he would hang around for a bit to make sure they stayed there, and then run home, carefully looking both ways when he crossed Old 41.

But the older the boys got the more they would try to get Willie to stay home. Apparently, this caused Willie to react like most parents would. He got a little needy and embarrassingly protective. Soon it wasn’t enough to just drop them off at school. He figured out their class schedule and began stalking them! The boys would be sitting in a classroom and suddenly one of their classmates would yell out “Hey, there’s Willie!” and the entire class would start laughing. Nick and Neil would be mortified because there he would be, sitting there at the window watching his kids carefully. It was endearing and a little creepy at the same time. The teachers and principal never complained or called the dogcatcher. Like everyone else, they had gotten to know, love and trust Willie.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, the boys soon started high school and since Cypress Lake High School was a little out of his range, Willie’s paternal attention was redirected to my daughter Megan. He watched over her for the next several years, as he and I both grew older and grayer. Then, way too soon, Willie passed away.

Dogs have been watching over humans for thousands of years, but no matter how dear they are to us, they are only here for a brief time. For a while, I felt it wasn’t fair that fate had taken him from us and left us on our own. But then Molly, Murphy, Winston and now our lovable dear friend Yogi picked up where Willie left off, somehow finding their way into our lives to watch over us. I think George Carlin was right… in many ways “Life is a series of dogs!” If it is, then life is truly good.