The Scout

Yesterday at lunch an employee of mine told me that all four of his children, all under the age of ten, each had their own IPad. Yep… that’s what I said too! “That’s NUTS!” He put his hands on his hips and looked at me like I was 100 years old and said “You know… it’s not just something to play with. It teaches them stuff too. How to solve problems, how to fix things…” But his voice faded into the background as I thought back to a time when my father gave me a gift that probably elicited a similar reaction. The Scout.

I was 10 years old when my dad gave me the small, green, 4-wheel-drive jeep type pick up truck made by International Harvester. It was good enough to drive in the woods but not legal to drive on the highway. Since I was in elementary school, this described me as well, so we were a perfect fit.

For the next few years I would drive the Scout around and around and around a self-made off road racetrack in the woods next to my parents hardware store on Old 41 (where Stan’s Subs and the Literacy Council are now), until the Scout would break down, catch on fire or get stuck. When it broke down, I would fix it myself, replacing broken axels, springs, the clutch, or whatever else was wrong… learning by doing. When I got it stuck or flipped it over on its side, I would work by myself with a shovel, scrap boards and a car jack for as long as it took to get it moving again. Although at the time I thought I was just having fun, I was actually learning valuable lessons in problem solving, the laws of physics and mechanical engineering, as well as building self reliance and confidence.

It also fed the inventive side of me, like when I attached a snorkel to the Scout, which allowed me to drive it under water when my buddies and I traveled in the swamps east of Bonita. The Scout would bubble along quietly while our grinning disembodied heads glided along the surface of the dark brown swamp water. But, being a preteen boy, I was also inspired to engage in some rather questionable creative behavior (don’t try this at home!) like towing one of my buddies little brothers behind the Scout on a piece of plywood.

In all fairness, I have to give a great deal of credit for this idea to my friend Billy. (You’re welcome Billy!) He came up with the idea and also supplied his little brother Danny as a test pilot for what he believed would be a new sport. Amazingly, while his big brother sat in the back of the Scout as spotter, little Danny managed to stay on his wooden sled, tied onto the back of the Scout with a thirty foot long rope, for over a minute before it plowed through a palmetto patch at twenty miles an hour and became airborne. When Billy saw his screaming little brother flying through the air clutching the piece of plywood, he realized that he had just invented the sport of parasailing, and in his excitement yelled WHOA! Now, I thought that WHOA meant stop, so I slammed on the brakes, which caused little Danny to make a perfect crash landing into the back of Scout on top of his brother. (Let’s see you do that with an IPad!) I thought this was hilarious… until the plywood came smashing through the Scouts back window. And although we had broken the window and possibly a couple of laws, I have to point out that we did not break Danny… at least physically. To his credit, Billy’s little brother never squealed on us. So to show our gratitude we let him ride inside the Scout… most of the time.

I’m not sure that my father intended the Scout to be a teaching aid, but as I type this story on my IPad… I do remember him nodding his head and smiling as he watched me crawl out from under the hood, turn the ignition key and bring the Scout back to life, one more time. Thanks Dad.

Night of the Raccoon

The morning of the Keep the Beautiful in Bonita clean up this year, I thought it would be nice to take a swim in the 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. As soon as I walked in the door I plopped 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. 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 because I can’t let the dogs out with potentially rabid raccoons on the pool deck and because I’m not thinking clearly at midnight. 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 through the closed door and the chaos, “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 just above my head. Without thinking (which should actually 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. I had no desire to have an angry raccoon attack me while I was in my underwear, so I decided on a different strategy. I turned and ran 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 GOING TO CLIMB ONTO MY HEAD!”

I 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 doing a really bad Navy Seal imitation, 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

I don’t like 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 laid 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 glass’s 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 scream 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, 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 shots you’ve always heard about? They’re REAL! She had to get them! Karma Shmarma, I don’t care if I do smack a random member of your family with a magazine, you don’t get to BITE MY MOM 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 little rubbery wings. And even though I know that I am irrationally judging the character of an entire species of millions, upon millions of law abiding, hard working 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.

Running A-Muck

Running A-Muck

Being a Marine contractor, I sometimes get the opportunity to push a barge from one job to the next. It’s a real treat for me to not be in a hurry for a change, to enjoy the beautiful waters around our area at a leisurely five mph. But not everyone is out for a peaceful cruise, so the opportunity for conflict is often just around the corner. Continue reading

Where every parent has gone before

My 34-year-old son Nick called me yesterday from his home in Orlando. “Hey buddy… what’s up!” I said juggling my phone between the side of my face and my shoulder while looking through paper work. He mumbled a half-hearted greeting back that let me know something was very wrong. I took the phone in my hand. “What’s the matter son?” His son Gavin had broken his arm while playing and as a result Nick’s parental confidence had eroded. “Dad, I just keep thinking about all the things you went through with Neil and me when we were kids. You were always calm and in control like “Captain Kirk.” I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed being “Captain Kirk” for about two seconds, but then I proceeded to tell him what it was really like for me as a young parent and how I had experienced the same feelings he was feeling. I had for many years raised my sons on my own… and there were many times when I did not feel or act like the model parent, much less a Starship Captain.

One such time was when I took my ten-year-old twin boys on a two-week trip out west to Yosemite and Yellowstone by myself. Despite the fact that all of us acted ten years old as we stood too close to 4,000 foot cliffs, scrambled on gigantic rocks, slid down waterfalls, posed next to irritated buffalos, ignored roped off areas and warning signs about bears or the “Danger of Death” due to (whatever) and drove down countless narrow winding roads, while video taping… we all survived. Not a scratch. And then, when we finally arrived home from the airport, late at night and exhausted, I put my sleepy sons safely in their bunk beds, tucked them in, turned to leave the bedroom, and “CRASH!” The bunk bed collapsed. As I sorted through the twisted rubble we were all laughing hysterically until I discovered that my son Neil’s leg had been split wide open by the bed frame. It was a hideous wound. I immediately grabbed the 8” gash and held it together and poor Neil immediately freaked out. On the way to the hospital, Neil continued to inisist that he was on deaths door while his brother Nick kept poking his head over the seat, excited about the opportunity to see inside his brother’s leg. “Neil. Neil. NEIL! Let me see it!!” As I drove way too fast, all the way to the Downtown Naples hospital, I swung my arm around blindly behind me in an attempt to keep Nick in the back seat, alternating between telling Nick to “SHUT UP!” and Neil to “Stop looking at it! Just hold the two sides together… you’ll be fine. And stop saying that… you’re not going to die!” “Nick… SIT DOWN!” Five hours and twenty-eight stitches later, we were “safely” back home again, together on the floor in sleeping bags. Although I didn’t panic during the ordeal, for years afterward I was haunted by guilt because all I could remember feeling was irritation and exhaustion.

But every parent/child incident offers new opportunities to experience the full range of human emotions. When my son Nick was five-years-old, he was sitting on my bed when suddenly; he leaned back and fell off. I was about 10 feet away at the time when he luckily landed on his shoulders and neck and then somersaulted back upright. I kneeled down next to him and he looked at me with a wide eyes. “Whoa!” I said to him chuckling. “That was quite the trick… Are you OK?” Then… he collapsed. As I scooped him up, his body was as limp as a rag doll. My parent’s brain immediately translated this into… HE’S DEAD!! So, instinct took over and I began to revive him with “Captain Kirk CPR” which apparently involves shaking your child violently and screaming his name in terror like a little girl. “NICKY!!!!!” Despite the whiplash and a thorough brain sloshing, he instantly woke up. Luckily, a friend of mine was there to drive us to the hospital; me clutching my now confused son tightly in my arms the entire way, babbling “It’s OK, It’s OK…!” At the hospital that night, our family doctor looked at my son very briefly and then turned his attention to the person who really needed acute medical care… me. Not my finest hour… or was it?

For my son, I summed it up like this… “I know that you feel that you’re going “Where no man has gone before,” but you’re going “Where every parent has gone before.” Everyone feels doubt and fear. But Captain Kirk never gives up. He just loves his crew and does the best that he can… so will you.”

An Investment in Trust

In 1980, at the age of 26, I bought the family construction business.  The deal came complete with hefty payments and several pieces of heavy machinery that were well beyond their useful life.

The machine that I relied on most every day was also the one in the worst condition.  The 1959 Bantam Truck Crane could mightily and safely dig dirt, and set seawalls and dock pilings on a job site, but it was a smoking, sputtering, rusted out hulk on the highway.  I know, I know… it was totally irresponsible on my part, but it was all I had to work with at the time, so I used it… until the State Department of Transportation pulled me over at the corner of Old 41 and Bonita Beach Road.

I knew I was in trouble when, through the thick smoky haze in the driver’s compartment, I saw blue lights flashing behind me.  Thankfully, the roar of the un-mufflered, sputtering engine drowned out all my comments as I allowed the 15-ton rusty wreck to coast to a stop on the side of the road.  Not that it had bad brakes… it had NO brakes.  So, as I sat there waiting to go to jail, I watched the officer walk slowly along side the machine towards me.  He was looking up and down at the truck like it had just landed there from another planet.

“SHUT OFF THE ENGINE!” he yelled as he adjusted his sunglasses.  I gave my best forced grin and yelled over the roar of the sputtering motor. “I CAN’T!  IF I SHUT IT OFF… IT WON’T START AGAIN!”  He put his clinched fists on his hips and yelled… “WELL…THEN OPEN THE DOOR!”  As I fiddled with the door handle I mumbled a dejected (“If you say so…”) and then slammed my shoulder into the perpetually jammed door.  As it popped open, rust flew everywhere… everywhere on the neatly pressed uniform and polished shoes of the now fuming lawman.  He slowly looked down at his rusty speckled outfit, but before he could comment, his anger turned to amazement as he noticed that there was no floor in the vehicle.  My seat just hung in mid air over the front tire, supported by a single piece of rusty steel.  He leaned forward and pointed with both hands. “WHAT THE… WHERE’S YOUR FLOOR?”  I shrugged. “Well… uh… ”  He was actually hopping up and down now, still pointing. “YOU’RE JUST HANGIN’ THERE OVER THE TIRE!”  Then he looked down at the tire and I closed my eyes.  “WAAHHH??  THERE’S NO AXEL HOLDING YOUR TIRE ON!  GET OUTTA’ THAT THING!”old crane

Now, I knew if I got out the engine would quit and then there would be an all day scene right there on US 41. Everybody I knew would drive by and wave… uggh!  “OFFICER?  IF YOU LET ME DRIVE ANOTHER 1/2 MILE, I CAN SHUT IT OFF!  THEN I’M ALL YOURS!”  He took his hat off, looked around, while wiping his brow.  “ALL RIGHT!  BUT I’M NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS… AND REMEMBER, I’M RIGHT BEHIND YOU!  I smiled a bit “DON’T WORRY… I PROMISE NOT TO LOSE YOU!”  He didn’t laugh.

When I got to the parking lot I shut off the motor and hopped out.  He was right there with a fresh ticket pad.  “Okay, let’s start with the lights.  Hop in there.”  I shook my head.  “Sir… I can save you some time… nothing works.”  He looked over his glasses.  “Well… how about the turn signals.” “No Sir… nothing!” “The brakes?” “No Sir”  “THE HORN?” he yelled, frustrated.  I looked down at my feet and then back at him shaking my head slowly.  He stared at me for a bit, obviously sizing me up and then he put his ticket pad in his pocket and began talking slowly.  “If I ever… see you… in this thing… on the road again…”  “No sir! You won’t! I promise.”  He nodded, got in his car and left.

Every so often, I meet people in positions of authority that for one reason or the other won’t swerve an inch from the rules; that won’t weight information that’s not “in the book”. Perhaps they feel they aren’t allowed to or they don’t trust their own judgment or people in general.  I don’t know why the officer gave me a break, but I’d like to think that his instincts told him that the young man in the greasy cloths was a hard working young person that deserved his trust. If we should ever meet again, I hope that he finds that his instinct to trust me was a good one… and that what I’m driving actually has a floor in it.

Sixteen Crayons

Out of paper!  I got up from my desk and snagged a brand new legal pad from the storage closet.  As I fanned through the crisp new leaves, I was struck by the familiar smell of fresh ink and paper.  I smiled.  The first day of school! The beginning of another school year meant new things.   New paper, new pencils, a notebook, clothes… Everything was different, even me.  I was taller, skinnier, my ears were bigger and my hair shorter.

Fourth grade was Mrs. O’Conner’s class at Bonita Springs Elementary.  She was tough I heard… so I wanted to be ready.  My Mom had taken me to the department store and I had filled the required supply list enthusiastically… except for the crayons.  A box of 16 is what was “required,” but then there on the shelf was the new “Crayola” box of 64… with a built in sharpener!  Being a budding artist, I saw no point in limiting myself to 16 colors, but my mother said Ms. O’Conner had other ideas and she placed the puny box in the cart.  As I rode home, sulking next to my mom, I tried to think of a reason that someone would even create a rule that limits how many crayons you could have.  I finally blurted out.  “I just don’t get it…Are you sure it’s a rule?  I mean, it sounds like a suggestion, because why would she make it a rule?  Does she think having too many colors will confuse kids?  Shouldn’t we be able to color whatever color we want?”  My mom rolled her eyes. “Look, I don’t know why it’s a rule… it’s just a rule, OK?” I looked out the window with my arms crossed, watching the water filled ditch next to the Tamiami Trail go by.  I mumbled.  “Well it’s a pretty stupid rule.”  My mom just stared straight ahead and drove a little faster.  Apparently I would have to argue my case to the teacher.

The next morning I was on my way to school, with a new “crew cut”, complete with a single butch-waxed tuft of hair on my otherwise barren head, a huge brand new pair of dark blue jeans that “had room enough for me to grow into” (they fit great now!) and my new school supplies, including 16 stupid crayons.  On the bus, as we were all comparing our supplies and I was taking a ribbing for my disproportionate head to ear ratio, I noticed that one of the boys had the 64 pack of Crayons.  “Arrrgh!” I yelled grabbing at the hair on top of my head that I still don’t have.  “You can’t have those!  You’re supposed to get the 16 pack Joey!” Joey shrugged as he put them away.  “They’re just crayons man.” I looked at him like he had two heads.  “What? You don’t care?”  “Nope.” said Joey casually shrugging.  I sized Joey up for a second and then instinct kicked in and I became… my father!   “Okay Joey.  But, how do you feel about… IRON MAN!”  And I pulled out a brand new comic book from my note book.  “Whoa!” said every boy on the bus.  (I’d seen my dad “horse trade” in the store hundreds of times.) I dangled the comic by one corner.  “Joey, I’ll trade you this comic book and my box of crayons for your box of crayons.” Joey jumped at the deal, which made us both happy.   Now all I had to do was to convince Mrs. O’Connor.

For days I waited for my opportunity to argue for “crayon freedom” and then finally as she was slowly circling the room inspecting our work, Mrs. O’Connor stopped at my desk.  I kept coloring, looking down, my giant box of Crayons sticking out like a sore thumb on the top of my desk.  “Nice job Benny.” she said.  (Wow, I’m in the clear!) I thought and then she tapped gently on the crayon box.  “Are these the Crayons you traded with Joey for?” I turned slowly and glared at Joey who was slouched in his chair, his face red as a beet.

Although my interpretation of Mrs. O’Conner’s “guidelines” had been correct, Joey’s parents apparently didn’t attach the same value to “Iron Man” as their son.  So, I ended up with a dog-eared comic and a box of 14 blunt and broken crayons.  My parents weren’t exactly happy, but they must have had some appreciation for my impassioned argument, because I finally got a brand new box of 64 crayons.

Sweet Crayon Freedom!

Fear and the Frog Dive

We all live with a certain amount of fear, both rational and irrational.  Learning to differentiate between the two is tricky.  Fear’s original purpose I suppose, was to keep us alive long enough to produce offspring that were, hopefully, a bit smarter than we were.  I’m not sure how well that has been working out, but fear could certainly have prevented us from petting a cute little baby Saber Tooth Tiger or failing that, provided us with the super charge of adrenalin needed to out run its 1000-pound mother or at least the caveman running next to us.   Continue reading

Just What the Doctor Ordered

waverunner2I know that waverunners make you angry, buzzing noisily around your boat while you’re trying to fish or flying back and forth past your favorite relaxing sunbathing spot, but I will make you a bet… no matter how much you hate them, as soon as you get on one, open up the throttle and go skipping across the waves you will automatically smile.  It’s a complex phenomenon called… fun.  I know, I know!  They are evil, stinky, dangerous, devil machines that many people think should be outlawed… but I’m just saying, they are fun and will make the meanest old poop grin like an eight year old.  And there in lies the problem.  They also have a tendency to make you act like an eight year old.  Case in point. Continue reading

The Reluctant Golfer

golfGolf.  Some people love it and it consumes every facet of their lives.   Me?  I am a “hacker”.  I’m simply not very good at it and although I used to play more frequently, I now play about, oh… once a decade.  For me, being on the golf course early in the morning, the dew sparkling on the beautifully kept grass surrounded by a park like atmosphere, is breath taking.  So, to the irritation of whomever I’m paired with, I am perpetually distracted by the sprawling vistas and the wildlife, content to sit in the cart with my feet propped up, arms behind my head, eyes closed… enjoying the summer breeze and a cool beverage.  I basically turn into “The Dude” from the “The Big Lebowski” on the golf course. Continue reading