Campfire Lessons

There’s nothing more relaxing and thought provoking than sitting around a campfire in the night. On many a cool calm Southwest Florida winter evening my wife Lori and I will sit in our comfy deck chairs for hours and watch the flames in the fire pit calmly flicker in the dark. Of course, it took numerous trial and error experiences for us to finally figure out the right set up and despite what our stubborn smoky smelling friends think, for us a propane fueled pit is perfect. It’s clean, smoke free, easy to light, and except for the initial heart stopping explosion and loss of arm hair every time I light it… pretty safe when compared to your stock, wood munching, smoke following you no matter where you sit, burn the woods down campfire. I suppose that “burn the woods down” comment deserves an explanation and since the statute of limitations has likely kicked in and I was not an adult at the time, here it is.

In the mid 1960s my father and several of his friends were avid hunters and the area in east Bonita south of Bonita Beach Road that is now Hunters Ridge, Worthington, Palmira, Quails West and several other gated communities was one of their favorite pristine wooded areas to hunt. It was very old Florida, thick with pine flatwood and cypress swamp alike. I say that they were avid hunters, but I don’t actually remember them shooting anything but beer cans or an occasional watermelon, neither of which are exactly hard to hit with a shotgun.

One weekend my dad and I loaded his pick-up with the homemade canvas camper and headed into that wilderness with Robert Lawhon Jr., his son Joey and another fellow following in their jeeps. When we arrived at the camp, the first job was to start a campfire. Being wintertime, it was really easy work because of all the lighter pine and other dry wood laying around and so once the fire was roaring, it was agreed that one person should stay in camp while the rest of us went wandering around “hunting” until dark. The woods were thick and beautiful, with trails winding every which way, so it was pretty great.

My dad and I were about two hours out when he stopped and stood dead still. He sniffed the air and then turned and looked over at me with a raised eyebrow, a wrinkled nose and a frown. My young brain went to familiar territory. “Hey! It wasn’t me!’ I said defensively. He held his hand out and looked around, somehow not laughing. “NO… I smell fire!” Then he turned and looked up at the sky behind us. It glowed a bright, blazing red. “Holy… ” my dad yelled as he flew past me on a dead run back towards the camp.

When we finally got back it looked like the world was on fire! No one had thought to stay with the fire and it had quickly jumped out of its pit, consuming everything on the west side of the camp in the thick woods. Now the smart move would have probably been to get in the “non burned up truck” and escape with our lives. I thought this was a great plan and that there was never a more clear time to choose flight over fight! But the three adult men quickly decided that we had to put out the fire.

Soon we had all split up and with nothing but shovels and axes began fighting what was now a 20 acre fire… with three men and two twelve year olds. Long story short, I don’t remember much about the battle, but six long smoky, sweaty hours later the fire was contained! The rest of the evening until daybreak everyone stood watch over the smoldering remains. We stood together, dirty, hot, sweating and smoky… leaning on our shovels, looking at what was left of the woods. No one smiled or spoke but it had become clear even to my buddy and me. Since we were using this place to hunt and camp in, we were responsible for it… to take care of it, at any cost. No one ever said that… but you could see it in their eyes.

So tonight, as I watch the gas fire pit’s flames gently lick the air, I think about how my friend Joey had become a fireman in Bonita and I had become a Councilman and now Mayor of the area that we once fought to keep from burning to the ground. And as I get up to go inside for the evening, I bend over and shut the fire off. Perhaps that unspoken lesson of how important it is to take care of the places, people and things that are left in our charge, had sunk in.

School Bus Lessons

If you were a junior high or high school student in Bonita Springs In the 1960’s and 70’s, chances are you went to school at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers. Depending on where your bus stop was (mine was at the Dome Tavern) it was a good 45 minutes each way, basically adding an hour and a half to your school day. Because of this, it was next to impossible to participate in after school programs or sports. Not that participating in typical high school sports was in the cards for me, because my after school activity was working for my dad. But although I learned a great deal working for my father, the hour and a half on the bus every day taught me very little. The trip to Fort Myers was awful. It was hot, loud, bumpy, and boring, making it impossible to do homework or even read. Besides, most of the time everyone on the bus was either tormenting someone, (flicking the guys ears in front of them, focusing a magnifying glass on their neck or just bopping him in the head with their math book) or defending themselves from attack. There was never any of the real fighting or violence that you see sometimes on the internet these days, but some of the younger students did spend a lot of time stuffed under a bored senior’s seat or being passed around like a Frisbee at a rock concert. There was plenty of really interesting and bizarre behavior, so I spent a lot of time just observing the weirdness, pulling friends out from under seats and sweating. I don’t think you could consider this time well spent or constructive in ANY way… but you had to get to school somehow.
Six years of Junior High and High school added up to a LOT of time on the bus, especially for the poor bus drivers. Through the years I noticed that some handled the stress of the job a lot better than others. As a general rule the ones who tried to maintain order via vigilance and discipline, their eyes continually darting up to the big mirror, their sweaty faces red from perpetually yelling, emotionally melted down within a few months. Generally, their tour of duty would end with them pulling the bus over, quickly standing up (usually banging their head on the mirror) and facing the back of the bus. They would then stutter, shake and scream for a while before they flung the door open, got off and walked around the bus for ten minutes, hands waving as they talked to themselves. Some of us felt bad for them, but others just jeered. It was pretty awful. But then there was one driver who no one trifled with…

Billie Gunn drove us to school for three years, cigarette hanging from her mouth, never looking at the young terrified faces in the mirror as she drove at ten miles an hour over the speed limit, hitting bumps so hard that it flipped us all like pancakes and taking corners so fast that you either slid out of your slick plastic covered seat onto the floor or were crushed against the side of the bus by the two other kids in your seat. I’m not sure that she meant to keep order this way but we were all so busy holding on for dear life that we had no time for anything else. Then, as exhausted well shaken and stirred kids gathered their scattered books and made their way off the bus, Billie, with her cigarette still wagging on her lip, would pop the door open and with her gravely yet happy southern voice say “Bye Babies!” I think she actually cared about us… maybe even liked us! And despite having a bit of a lead foot, she was an excellent driver… tough and unfazed by anything or anybody!

One year, I suppose because the trip wasn’t long enough, the school system rerouted us through Fort Myers Beach. Billy threaded the needle through heavy traffic over that dangerous bridge day after day until our luck ran out and she met an oncoming semi-truck in the middle of the narrow span. There just wasn’t enough room and the buses outside mirror vaporized on the side of the bridge. As she pulled over and stopped the bus, cursing under her breath, no one said a word. After she had sat still for a moment, she looked up in the mirror and said, “I’m sorry babies!” Then, she cried.

I suppose you never know what’s really in someone’s heart until they show you.

Standard Oil

At the Northwest corner of Terry Street and Old 41 is a building that used to be a Standard Oil gas station. It was my and my buddy’s favorite place to hang out after elementary 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. We just thought we were having fun, but our experiences there changed who we would become… in ways we could never imagine.

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 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 strange!” Billy, sitting on the other side of him agreed. “Yeah, what the heck’s wrong with you Fisher?” Paul put his thumb over the end of the bottle, frowned and began shaking it vigorously. “Shut up!” Paul said without looking up. He 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 heck 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, a fellow 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 stuff.

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 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 see his eyes, I really 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 little lunge towards me and swiped the 2″ 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 I bet Billy would like that!” “WHAT???” yelled Billy, immediately jumping up. Paul started to laugh, which would have been fine except he had a mouth full of his special snack mixture 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.

Driven by a Memory

“BORN IN THE USA!!!!!” (What?? Why is Bruce Springsteen screaming at me?) Waking up from a deep sleep, I roll over and switch the obnoxious clock radio off and check the time… 6:20 in the morning again. Time to go to work, again. Sitting up in bed I rub my eyes and think about how many times I’ve done this… same time, every workday, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I stretch and get up, tripping over the dog and stubbing my toe on the dresser, cursing as I hop with one foot in my jeans on the way to the bathroom… again.

Staring at my morning face in the mirror (ugh) I think about how lucky I am to be able to work and to have work to do. But, I know that I am compelled to do so, not entirely by survival, money or gain… but by an incident that is carved deep into my mind and heart.

I think that, although it has remained hidden from their memory, many people have been crafted by an incident in their distant past. But I have never forgotten the moment when the force that would drive me through life was put into place. For me, it is a force of nature, like gravity, pulling me out of bed, to work, to yet another project, towards ever more responsibility. Causing me to place more weight on my shoulders, compelling me to stay perpetually busy and at work in order to feel complete and content.

I was three years old when I took a small piece of wire and stuck it into an electrical socket. (No! That’s not what’s wrong with me!) Instead of electrocuting me the wire immediately melted, burning my small hand. I don’t have any memory of this incident, (probably the electrocution part) but my mother says that I kept my bandaged hand clenched tightly shut for weeks, so much so that she was afraid that it would never heal.

Soon after, my father was going to take me to work with him for the first time. I know that it’s pretty rare to remember something from when you were three, but it is a vivid memory that never fades, a movie that is always ready to rewind and play. I remember… my dad standing by his truck. I’m running towards him across the lawn as fast as I can. I feel the excitement, the joy and then… I trip and fall face first, catching myself on my burned hand. I sit up on the grass, clench my burned hand and cry. Then… as I watch, my angry, disappointed father gets into his truck and drives away to work without me. The mold was set at that moment. I would not get left behind again and I would spend the rest of my life, shrugging off injury, personal trauma and fatigue in order to get to work… I have always known why.

I have never held it against my father. He was a good man and driven by powerful forces of his own. And although I have talked about that day with my mother, I never discussed it with him. Strangely enough, my resulting manic work ethic has mostly served me pretty well over time, because thankfully I have learned (with the help of my wonderful wife, children and friends) to temper and control my compulsion, so that now I can actually relax on vacation, even periodically enjoying doing nothing, without the nagging guilt of not being at work.

Like many men, it is my father that, even though he has passed away, still remains the psychological fuel that drives me forward. But it is my mother, the person that worried over and healed the three-year-old boy with the burned hand and the broken heart, that has helped me to understand my father and who I am as a result.

So as I got to work this morning at 6:45 and begin figuring out how to do all that I have planned for the day, I know that it was my dad who gave me the power and fuel to drive myself as fast and as hard as I can go, but as I delete one task to allow time to have lunch with Lori and then schedule myself for a trip next month to the Keys with my wife and our friends, I know that it’s my Mom, who ever so subtly gave me the encouragement and ability to steer myself onto my own path to happiness.

Thanks Mom… Happy Mothers Day

Mr. Taylor’s Unremarkable Resurrection

I was at the Bonita Springs YMCA yesterday, thinking about how different it was growing up in the “old days”.  As kids, it wasn’t uncommon for us to play outside without any adults around the entire day.  The only thing that could bring me inside was the faint sound of my mothers voice in the dusk calling me to dinner.   Well… except that one time. Continue reading