Friday, October 29, 2004

Hello Jimmy?

Growing up in first grade kids can be so cruel
And it is not so much the exception as it was the rule
And so we never let poor Jimmy play in any of our games
Instead we all teased him hurting him with our names
Hello Jimmy what became of you?

His hands were always bleeding from biting them with his teeth
It's the only thing he knew to do whenever he was teased
We never threw sticks or stones or broke any of his bones
But what we did was worse how could we have known
Hello Jimmy what became of you

Running laughing playing games making fun of Jim
Til one day he caught a boy and beat the crap out of him
They came and took poor Jimmy we never saw him again
We were only hurting him deeper instead of being a friend
Hello Jimmy what became of you

So please have some compassion if you see someone like Jim
Instead of making fun of them try and be a friend
Now I live with my consious of what I did to Jim
Knowing one day when I die I'll have to explain to Him
I'm sorry Jimmy for what I did to you

An Open Letter To Jimmy

Have you ever done something of which you are not proud? Have you ever done something of which the memory comes back to haunt you every now and then at seemingly random times? I was reading a blog someone wrote about driving by a little black boy waiting for the school bus and wondering what his story was when that memory came back again to haunt me. This time I am writing it down in hopes of healing old wounds.

I was seven years old and had to go to a daycare every afternoon after school until my mom got off from work and could take me home. During the warmer days, we used to spend all our time on the grassy playground running around being kids. We had paper airplane flying contests, played tag and soccer, and just did what kids do best. We played nicely together most of the time but once in awhile, things would turn uglier and switch to the game of teasing 'Jimmy.'

Jimmy was mentally retarded and when he was under stress, he would bite the back of his own hand, at times causing it to bleed. I can remember that ugly sore on the back of his hand that always seemed infected due to the constant reopening of the wound. Teachers always admonished us kids to not tease Jimmy in hopes that the wound would eventually heal but being kids the fascination of someone inflicting pain upon themselves out weighed any moral sense that we might have had.

One afternoon while out on the playground at the daycare center, we decided to go tease Jimmy. We chased after that poor kid calling him names while he ran away biting the back of his hand until it started to bleed. I don't remember how long we did that for but eventually he got tired and we had him cornered between two pieces of playground equipment. He turned around, dropped his hand from his bloody mouth, and grabbed the first kid he could. Jimmy proceeded to tear the shirt off that poor helpless kids and beat him into a bloody pulp as the rest of us stood there horrified. As Jimmy punched the kid over and over, he was sobbing in anguish and that is what really haunts me. Here was a kid who didn't want to be doing what he was doing but had no choice and finally had to stand up for himself in the only way he knew how. An adult finally pulled Jimmy off the hapless kid and led him into the school while the other kid, who didn't have any serious wounds, was led crying into the school for antiseptic and bandages. The rest of us remained on the playground shell shocked and this is where my memory ends.

We never saw Jimmy again but if we had, I don't think anyone would have teased him anymore. I think the incident, from that moment on, gave me a moral lesson that I never have forgotten to this day; don't pick on those you feel are beneath you because one day, they may rise up over you. In later years, I found myself on the other side of the 'being picked on' coin and I now feel it was God's way of balancing out the damage that I may have done to Jimmy with my words. I was called many names which made me teary eyed and wanting to rise up against those doing the picking but I never did. I bore the burden that had been placed upon me and went through life the best I could. All through grade school and junior high, I served my time for that one stupid act so many years ago and I still feel as if I got off light and haven't yet fully served my sentence.

What ever became of Jimmy? I wonder this every time that memory comes back to haunt me. I wish I knew but I don't. I wish I could find him somehow but the daycare center is long gone by now and I don't even know if Jimmy was his name. It is just a name that I felt fit when I wrote a poem about the situation some four years ago. (If I can find it, I'll post it on here later.) All I can say is, "Jimmy, if you are out there, I am truly sorry for what I did and I want you to know that because of you, I learned a powerful lesson that day. If I ever find you someday, I will be at your service until you feel that I have finished my sentence."

Thursday, October 28, 2004

'Lego' My Legos

Legos are the best toy money can buy and are largely responsible for me being an engineer today, maybe even for my marriage. I had me first real Lego experience when I was seven. By real I mean the tiny ones with hundreds of different shape and not the common large brick Legos. I was at a baby sitters house after school and her son (who was away at the time) had an unopened box of Space Legos sitting on a table. I opened the box and put the space fighter craft together with immense satisfaction. That is until the baby sitters son came home and saw what I had done. I don't remember what happened after that but I was hooked.

I immediately started begging my parents and all my gift giving relatives for Space Legos and soon they started pouring in for my birthdays, my brother's birthday and also Christmas. By the time our childhood was gone, we had two large suitcases full of probably 50 or 60 pounds of Legos. We would always build up the Legos into the required vehicle, station, etc. directed by the instructions but they would last for about a day before they were disassembled and added back into the general pile. It was then that our imaginations would kick in and the influence began for my career in engineering.

We'd build all kinds of things but the favorite of my brother and I was to build cars. We had a set of Lego gears and a motor with remote control pack. We would build a car and hold timed drag races across the living room. It is then that I learned the concepts of gearing rations, torque and power. This was further ingrained upon my brain when we build vehicles for 'pushing wars' in which torque was more desirable than speed. Strength was always a factor in my designs during these contests because the last thing you wanted was a car that fell apart allowing the other person to drive all over you.

Creativity was a huge part of having Legos. Like a blank piece of canvas to an artist, a pile of Legos in the middle of the living room floor just cried out for me to build something. As my parents can attest, I spent hours upon hours stirring the pile back and forth looking for that illusive small piece that I just had to have for my latest creation. The sky was the limit with our creations and we did them all. I have heard that some companies have a set of Legos for their designers to create models of their designs. I haven't found a company willing to pay me to play with Legos yet but if one of them is reading this now, I AM YOUR MAN.

Legos are at least partially responsible for my marriage. While sitting in an art museum in London talking to the woman who would later become my wife, we got to talking about our favorite childhood toys. Both of us had Legos at the top of our lists. I don't know what would have happened is she had said jacks but from then on, I knew we were meant for each other. I often wish that it was still acceptable for a grown adult to play with Legos. My parents still have the two suitcases of Legos at their house saving them for my children someday. But I am afraid a thirty one year old man playing with Legos would be looked on in a bad sort of way. But if I were alone in a room for a couple hours with a pile of Legos dumped out on the floor, you better believe I would be there on my hands and knees, stirring the pile looking for that dang illusive small piece that I need to complete my latest creation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Seeing an Old Fire Burn Again

Lately, my mind has been stuck on reminiscent mode of my high school days. I graduated from the smallest school in the state of Iowa where we had just shy of 200 people in kindergarten through 12th grade. In my class, there were eight regular students and one foreign exchange student from Denmark. We knew each other very well, most of us having been together all through school. That was over 12 years ago and with a couple exceptions, I haven't seen them since.

Two years ago, I was on my way home to my parent's farm and because of an errand, had gone a different route than I normally do. I needed some gas and stopped in at a gas station that I had never been to fill up. When I walked in to pay for my fuel, there was this woman standing at the register that looked familiar from my past. It took a few seconds and just when it occurred to me who she was, I saw recognition register in her eyes as well, we were former high school classmates. We said hello and made the normal 'how are you doing' chit chat for a minute but it was busy there and I had to go so that she could take care of the other customers. I walked back to my car and drove off with my mind flying a million miles an hour.

Back in school, she had been from a poor family who for generations, had probably only graduated high school with the men going to work at the local factories and the women marrying and raising large families. Before our last couple years of school, I had seen a fire in her eyes and thought that she might break the cycle and get out into the world to do something greater. She talked about it and I knew that she could do it but a unplanned pregnancy changed that. She got married while still in high school and soon had two more children. The dreams of college or moving out of the area collapsed as poverty sucked her back into its powerful grip. The toll of so much of a burden began weighing on her. She lost weight and looked haggard during much of her senior year which is a look that I have come to attribute to those in poverty. By the time graduation had rolled around, the fire had all but flickered out in her eyes. That was the last I had seen of her until ten years later at the gas station.

Time had passed and so had many changes but I didn't know of them until I stopped by the gas station a month later with the intention of catching her at a slow time so that we could talk awhile. I found that she had gotten divorce and remarried. Life had obviously become better as she looked healthy, vibrant and very beautiful. She was leaving her job to move with her husband overseas for a couple years while he served in the military. I could see that fire burning in her eyes again and I was truly happy for her. We talked for ten minutes this time but even on a slow day, she had work to do and we parted ways. I haven't seen her since.

That incident got me to thinking about what changes had gone on in the lives of my other former classmates over the last twelve years. I have heard one is a registered sex offender, another almost died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and a third works as a registered x-ray technician. The others have simply vanished off my radar. I think more often of trying to find all of them and arrange for some sort of class reunion just to catch up and relive our 'glory days.' Maybe after I get my new house fixed up, I will begin the search and invite them all over. Maybe they are just as curious to learn about me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Shiny's Big Bike Jump

One particular instance in my childhood has remained with me with such clarity that I often wonder why. Unlike other thoughts, it doesn't seem to fade away to a major theme without details. The details have always just stuck and so I relate them to you.

For a year while living in West Des Moines, our neighbor had a kid named Shiny. Shiny and my younger brother were friends and so I hung out with them having no friends around my age. One sunny afternoon, we got the idea to make a ramp and jump our bikes. We quickly congregated at the base of a small but extremely steep hill behind the apartment building where the builders had evidently run out of money. There was a sidewalk at the top of the hill and one at the bottom but just a steep washed out dirt path connecting them where a steep flight of steps should have been.

We scrounged up a couple of cinder blocks and a short length of board from which we fashioned a crude ramp. The ramp was angled up at about a forty-five degree angle and right at the base of the steep hill. As an engineer now, I can see the folly of our setup but as a kid, I just knew it was going to work. Shiny, who was probably only 4 or 5 at the time, became the first and as it turned out, only guinea pig.

Shiny wheeled his bike down to the beginning of a straight stretch of sidewalk above the hill before turning around and mounting it. With a look of determination, he started cranking at the pedals for all he was worth, building up a full head of steam as he rode towards the top of the hill fifty feet away. He was at full speed when he left the sidewalk and went over the crest of the hill, pedals still turning though the wheels of the bike had left the ground. The bike arced through the air making contact about halfway down the hill and picking up even more speed in it's suicidal plunge to the bottom. When Shiny and his bike reached the bottom and started up the short but equally steep ramp, the laws of physics kicked in. Shiny's body still had downward momentum while his bike now had upward momentum. They collided and then bounced apart as they neared the top of the ramp having imparted their kinetic energy on each other. The bike headed off the ramp and crashed immediately to the ground while Shiny sailed up and over the handlebars like an airplane taking off.

Shiny's arms were stretched out in front of him and his legs following behind as he reached the apex of his climb and started his downward decent into his final approach with the sidewalk below him. Oomph! Shiny touched down on his belly like a plane without landing gear and the wind was forcefully ejected from his lungs. His forward momentum carried him forward on his stomach down the sidewalk until friction robbed him of his forward momentum and he stopped nearly twenty feet away from the ramp. As Shiny rolled over on his back gasping for air, I saw that the front of his shirt had been sanded away by the sidewalk and all that remained was a scratched up and bloodied belly and chest, his two arms protruding through the shirt sleeves and a flap of shirt in the back. His jeans suddenly had four or five news holes ripped into them. The sidewalk contained a ten feet skid mark containing bits of shirt, denim and blood that ended where Shiny now lay.

Shiny eventually regained his breath and sat up as the rest of us lost ours in gasps of laughter. I don't remember any of the aftermath of the jump because my mind blanks out at this point, but whenever I think of Shiny's big bike jump, a smile never fails to steal across my face.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

A Government of the People and For the People

Political ads, political rhetoric, political parties political promises, political lies, political corruption...... our political system is broke and it isn't going to get any better without some radical changes. It is no longer of the people or for the people. I have mulled over several ideas over the years and I am just going to throw them into the blog-o-sphere and see how they look in print.
Eliminate political parties. In my government there are no republicans, democrats or anything in-between. You are an individual and don't cater to anyone else. This means that our election process has to be done differently and I've got ideas for that.

Our state senators and representatives would be elected by a modified jury system. Keeping the same districts, a jury pool of randomly selected people would be chosen to represent the state. They would be given one month to create a resume and to write out their views on various issues. The rest of us could research into their backgrounds for any reasons why we don't want them as part of the government. At the end of the month, by popular vote, the general populous elects two senators from the state wide jury pool and each district also selects a representative from their district jury pool. These senators and representatives would get to serve the same length terms as currently and at the end of the term, one month before the general elections, would undergo a "am I doing a good job vote?" It the majority says yes, they would serve their second and last term. If no, the jury pool is randomly selected and the process starts over again. These jurors that do get elected to office would naturally receive some perks. They would get paid their current salary or current congressional salary, which ever is higher, as an incentive. They would be provided with a place to live in Washington DC free of charge along with all their basic needs. Their employer would be compensated and the employee guaranteed a job when they returned from 'duty.' Their current residence would be taken care of by a housekeeping service and their rent or mortgage payments paid. People would always have the option to take themselves out of the jury pool for family, medical or other reasons and could resign at any time. They would be replaced by a backup juror.

Presidents would be elected similarly. Out of all the state elected jurors, their first job would be to select a pool of potential presidential candidates from their ranks. They would be given a set allotment of cash, TV and radio time, etc. from the government to research their political views and cabinet candidates (which don't have to come from the jury pool) and present their cases to the public. Not one dime from political interest groups, political party groups would be given to the candidates. A popular vote of the general populous would elect the president for a four year term. Another "am I doing a good job vote" would be held with the same results as the congressional jurors. If either the congress person or president fail to garner 50% favor in the "good job vote" they could not run for a second term for any reasons.

I think this method could work all the way down to the city government level. It eliminated months of lies and having to vote for corrupt politicians who make a living from being a politician. We eliminate the influence of the rich or everyone else in the form of political interest committees and having the money to finance a campaign. Most importantly, we return our government to one of the people and for the people.

Friday, October 8, 2004

The Cost of War

Today, two of the young men where I work said goodbye before they report to military duty tomorrow. They will train for a couple months before heading off to Iraq after the first of the year. Even though I didn't know them personally, I looked them both in the eyes, shook their hands, and wished them good luck. I hope they come back safe and sound.

War is a terrible thing. Sending our young adults off to fight a war of adult principles is not something that should be taken lightly. They are the future of this country and so far, over one thousand won't make it back. The next great invention or medical breakthrough may be bleeding out in the sands of a foreign country. I am a pacifist by nature and think war should always be the last resort. If the last resort comes, and it has before in our past, then we must go to war with the objective of winning and bringing our soldiers back home alive.

When we are at war as my country is today, I think it is the civic duty of every adult citizen to understand the true cost of the war that is being waged. People need to see for themselves as individuals, the price in blood being paid for their freedom. They need to see the flag draped coffins being unloaded from the planes, of which pictures are being suppressed by our government. They need to see the anguish of those that are left behind when their son or daughter gives their life for our freedom. They need to see the images of war broadcast on the nightly news and published in newsprint.

Now with the internet more prevalent in our lives during this current war, a new form of showing this high price for our freedom has come about. People who aren't human, have taken to beheading and executing individuals on camera and publishing the video online. While I think all care should be taken to shield the relatives of those that are executed from seeing this video along with all minors not yet old enough to fully understand, I think all Americans and Iraqis should see these videos to truly see the price of war and why we are fighting one.

As part of my civic duty, I have viewed these videos from Daniel Pearl to the most recent and soon I will view the latest one of British citizen Kenneth Bigley. Every time, right before I hit the play button, my stomach rolls up into a knot and stays that way for hours, sometimes days while the images haunt my mind. I know the price we are paying to fight this war. I will never forget it and I think anyone else who sees these images will not forget either. If the whole world was full of people who had truly seen and understood the cost of war, I believe the world would be a much more peaceful place.

Thursday, October 7, 2004

Four Lane Bastions of Evil

Four lane roads started out as Interstates and as their name implies, were for travel between states. Now it seems as their main purpose if for commuting to and from big cities and the outlying suburbs. This is readily evident if you have ever lived near a big city and can witness the direction and amount of traffic as it changes with the time of the day. Before these roads were built into the hearts of our cities, people lived closer to their jobs because commuting on clogged smaller roads was just too difficult. As a result, cities were able to sustain viable second-class and upper-class neighborhoods. But we humans love to tinker with things to make them better and roads were no exception.

Four lane roads are being built everywhere and it is almost impossible to live somewhere where you aren't affected by the construction or widening of these roads. These roads not only provide easy access to the city but they also are draining the life from them. These larger roads make it easier for people to flee to the suburbs and then to further suburbs and finally out into the countryside which is really a suburb waiting to get built. People are commuting farther and farther distances and not thinking twice about doing so. Everyone wants to flee the city to their peaceful neighborhood or remote country cottage.

But not everyone can afford to do so and thus lies the problem. Upper-income and middle-income residents are moving out of the cities leaving behind the old and the poor. Businesses are forced to follow the money and also leave for the suburbs. What remains behind, cash starved and slowly deteriorating, are essential services such as hospitals, schools, etc. Finally, even these are strangled of life and close leaving behind a city of decayed ruins.

Our cities are dying. Pollution is increasing as people are forced to use more energy to commute too and from jobs. Our dependency on oil is increasing to record levels. Stores within a short walk from home are being replaced by huge supercenters surrounded by a sea of parking lot miles from your home. Entire suburbs are being built without a single sidewalk forcing people to walk in the streets if they do try to go somewhere. Is all this really better?

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Joe Philippines Part 3

What do you get when you cross a Jeep with a mini bus? Although that question had never entered my mind, I discovered the answer while in the Philippines. What you get is called a Jeepney. The front end has the same grill, lights and shape of a Jeep but with wide flared fenders and the back end looks similar to a mini bus. They are everywhere in the Philippines and are a widely used source of public transportation.

Most Jeepneys had routes that they followed with a sign listing both end points. Once you found the vehicle going your way you just climbed in and gave them your money, which is really harder than it looks. The entrance to these vehicles is located where an emergency exit door would be on a school bus. Once inside, the distance between the roof and the floor was about four feet with one bench seat running along each wall from the driver to the door. Filipinos, being of small stature, could just hop right up and take a seat. Me being six foot two inches tall, had to scrunch down to get through the door and do a odd sort of duck walk to make it to my seat much to the amusement of everyone else. Once seated on the low benches, my knees would end up being near my ears because I had to fold my long legs nearly doubled just to keep my legs from taking up the entire narrow aisle.

You would pass your money (usually around $0.05 or $0.10 US dollars) to the driver and away you would go. There were two bars bolted to the roof that provided handholds for each of the bench seats. I soon learned that if you didn’t grab on to these, you would end up sliding down the seats and possibly squishing a whole row of Filipinos. I’m sure this wouldn’t be looked upon kindly by their culture.

Quite often, there wouldn’t be enough room in the Jeepney for all the passengers and so the last people would grab a railing and hang off the back end. If they were going for quite a ways they might just climb up on the roof until their stop. If you knew where you were going, (which I never did) you could just yell when you wanted to stop, otherwise, the customary way to signal the driver was to beat on the roof. This worked whether you were inside or on top of the Jeepney.

The outside of a Jeepney was something in which the driver took great pride. It was brightly painted, adorned with lots and lots of chrome, and festooned with about any ornament or decoration that was humanly possible. Each Jeepney had some unique name but generally fell in one of three categories; religious, luck, or sexual. Some of my favorites were Hail Mary, Two Guys a Girl, and Last Chance.

Chance was always something I felt I was taking when riding a Jeepney. On one four-hour ride to see the rice terraces, the driver appeared to have just made puberty the day before. When I mentioned this to my hosts, they said he probably had been driving since he could see over the wheel, which didn’t reassure me because that couldn’t have been, but a week ago. Never the less, he skillfully sped us to our destination over some of the bumpiest roads and paths that I can imagine.

Overall, my Jeepney experience was pleasant merely for the fact that I never plunged over a cliff in one. If I had, I’m sure I would have been riding in the one that was named Last Chance and not the one named Hail Mary.

Monday, October 4, 2004

Under a Harvest Moon

My wife and I spent Saturday helping my parents with the fall harvest, more specifically, shelling corn. My job for the day was to bring the loaded wagons halfway home where I would switch with my father and then take the empty wagon back to the field. It is a job that I love because it gives me plenty of time to reflect on life and let my mind roam. I listened to the radio for awhile but the same dozen songs kept playing so I turned over to talk radio stations but they were all covering the Hawks game which bored me to tears since I am not a sports fan. So I was left with the smells, sounds and sights of mother nature.

Nothing quite tickles my nose like the smells of fall. The clear crisp air seems to enhance and magnify all the smells ten fold so that even the most subtle smell can seem like a symphony. It was a beautiful sunny day and the odor that can only be associated with corn harvest filled the air. When inhaled, it is like a steroid as the lung inflates and seems to transfer those very smells into the blood stream as energy. Nothing seems impossible on days like those.

A slight wind was blowing so when the combine was out of earshot, I could hear the rustling of dried corn leaves dancing. Some people have wind chimes to sooth their ears but for mine, there is nothing better than leaves blowing in a light breeze. At periodic intervals, these sounds would be replaced by the throttled power of a combine as it made it's way back towards my end of the field. It grumbled and growled but continued to shuck the corn and store it in the hopper leaving behind a cut "lawn" of corn stalks. Much later when we are gathered tiredly around the supper table, the sun long gone, the muted talk is still filled with happiness and nobody is complaining of how tired they are. The crops are bountiful, the weather is good, uncertainty has been replaced by certainty and for that, everyone is thankful.

Perhaps the sights are what I enjoy the most of fall. I like the golden browns that has replaced the greens of summer. I like seeing fields that have been shorn of the bounty of grain and will lie dormant until spring when the once again sprout to life. I watched a hawk looking for food, glide for over a half hour without one single flap of it's wings. It circled, dove, rose and stalled in an endless pattern before it finally disappeared beyond a hill, still with nary a flap of his wings. A rabbit hopped about keeping a wary eye for hawk shadows on some mission indecipherable by me. A doe and her two almost fully grown fawns, walked across the field always alert for possible signs of trouble. The two fawns stayed focused on finding dropped corn fully trusting their mother to keep watch and alert them in danger. A shadow slid across the stubble right in front of my tractor and I looked up to see the hawk gliding about again but this time obviously on a mission. He tightly circled as he dropped lower and lower finally disappearing behind some unharvested corn at the far end of the field never to be seen again by me. Bon appetite Mr. Hawk!

Friday, October 1, 2004

Morel Madness

Armed to the hilt with empty bread sacks, my mother took me on my first morel mushroom hunt at the tender age of nine. Like a typical nine year old, I had absolutely no interest in looking for mushrooms, which I knew, would taste disgusting. We kids are born with this information that the likes of mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, etc are the equivalent of kryptonite to Superman when eaten by little kids. So why on earth would I want to find more of them? But that all changes when my mother held up a morel to show me what they looked like.

I don’t know exactly why I loved searching for those elusive spores that only grow for a couple weeks a year. Again, I think it has to do with some instinct born into children, which makes them love to play hide-n-seek and search for Easter eggs. I was addicted to the hunt and every spring, I looked forward to the warming of the temperatures when we would arm ourselves with some empty bread sacks and head out for the patch.

Like moon shiners, marijuana growers, and gold miners, morel hunters guard their patch in a thick cloud of secrecy. Everyone loves to brag about how many mushrooms they found but whoa to the person who asks where. A heavy silence will fill the room followed by a polite laughter that means nice try for asking. If an answer is given it usually goes something like, “we found these around in some woods.” Nobody has ever to my knowledge every repeated that question.

Although I was forced to eat foods that I didn’t like as a child, my parents never forced me to eat mushrooms. They always offered, but when I refused, they would just divide and consume the mushrooms between themselves. Finally after a few years of this, I decided that I wanted to try one. I might of shot up with some drugs because I was just as addicted after that first mushroom. I was enveloped in a morel madness that to this day has never left.

Morel madness has consumed my family and has helped to coin such terms as ‘Mushroom Machine’ when referring to a dying elm tree ripe for mushrooms around it’s base and also the ‘Mushroom Mother Lode’ when referring to a large quantity of morels every where you look on the ground. For two or three weeks a year, the rural population of SE Iowa is found stalking through the woody draws looking for ‘mushroom machines’ in hope of finding the ‘mushroom mother lode.’ Now excuse me while I fry up some tasty morel morsels to eat before I go stark raving mad!