Monday, May 25, 2009

Robot Birthday

Yesterday it was my birthday. I hung one more year on the line.* It ended up being sort of a robot-themed day, partially through coincidence, if you believe in such things. I had decided while watching trailers before seeing Star Trek that I wanted to see the new Terminator movie on my birthday (NERDS!!!). I did not know that my wife had already bought me this:

Inevitable, really. I've been fascinated with automation and figuring out how things work as far back as I can remember. The first symptom I remember came when I was about five or six and I picked out a Big Bruiser from the Sears Catalog for my number one Christmas present. If you are too young to remember the Sears Catalog in its heyday, think of it as a paper version of Amazon.

A year or so later I got an Erector set, and built a skyscraper with a working crane.

The year after that it was a crystal radio kit, which I still believe is magic. I mean, I put the thing together myself. I know there was no battery in it, but I could listen to the radio (almost) as well as people with batteries. That might be the first "What the Hell?!?!" experience I can remember.

Subsequent Christmases and birthdays saw a steady procession of telescopes, microscopes, chemistry sets,

rock collecting kits, crystal growing sets and dissection kits. That's right, kids. In those days you could buy something in the toy department that would help you carve up little woodland creatures that you might capture around the house. It came with a frog and a couple of bugs in formaldehyde**, but how long is that going to amuse a curious 10 year old boy with a scalpel, tweezers and low power microscope?

This was all in addition to the dozens of watches, clocks, toys, tools and household appliances that I took apart to see how they worked. Of course, this included many of the items mentioned above. In my defense, most were broken when I started, I got almost all of them back together with no pieces left over, and I actually fixed a few things.

Then I got older and put away childish things. Except for the year after I was married and got the Big Trak.

Oh, and then the rockets.

And the RoboRaptor.

The cats are pretty sure he is mentally challenged.

So, that's a roundabout and memory-filled way of saying I've always been a science nerd and a sucker for cool toys, and I suppose I always will be.
As for Terminator. It was good. Star Trek was better. Oh, and this is what I built with my robot kit:

I'll be back.


*With apologies to Paul Simon

** Kids today don't appreciate a good carcinogen in their toys like in our day. Nowadays you put a little lead in a toy car and everyone starts acting stupid. Oh,wait. Sorry.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

But I missed the shootout

My last post got me thinking about the way that very small (timewise) pieces of our lives can have an impact on us out of all proportion to their length (that's what she said). Before I made the eventual move to Dallas a few months later, I went down to stay in my brother's house in Lewisville, Texas to see if I could hang around long enough to get hired on at SHOWCO. Their hiring strategy tended to consist of waiting until they needed x people and then hiring the next x people that walked in the door, so it helped to make a nuisance of oneself.

These days Lewisville is just another contiguous piece of the sprawling monster that is the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, but in 1977 it was out in the country. There were farms and shit. And right next to the first of the two interstate exits that were Lewisville was the O K Corral. This was a particularly Texas institution, namely a steakhouse that seated about a thousand people attached to a bar that seated about 40. The whole reason for the bar's existence was to pass drinks through a little window to the thirsty patrons of the restaurant who had paid the five dollar "private club" membership that allowed one to drink in this particular restaurant. But after the dinner crowd thinned out the bar would crank up and fill with rodeo cowboys and their big-haired escorts -- or quarry, as the case may be.

The O K Corral bar was a darkly lit room of dark wood and dark moods momentarily lifted by alcohol. There was one of those "No Firearms Allowed" signs on the door, apparently because of a "minor gunfight" that occurred a few months before my arrival. The men drank red beer*. The women drank Brandy Alexanders by the pitcher. There was a bull rider -- we will call him Tom -- who came in every night with a cast from his fingers to shoulder, sat at the bar, ordered a beer and pulled out a 100 count bottle of black mollies**.

Since I landed in Dallas with approximately thirty-five dollars in my life savings, it seemed wise to seek temporary employment while I waited for the big break to come, so I got a job as a bar back at the O K Corral bar. The bar had a long and storied history, so the police would gather in the parking lot every Friday night at around 11:00 to wait for the inevitable. At last call, the manager (I think her name was Jo Ann), a diminutive woman in her very, very late forties, would stand up on the little ledge behind the bar and shout, "Everybody drink up and get the f*ck out", or something equivalent.

A few minutes later the bouncers would start issuing personal invitations for people to leave. Some drunk and belligerent cowboy would invariably say something like, "Bitch! I ain't finished with my mo%!@#&*$^ing beer!" Well-intentioned but ill-fated friends would attempt to herd the wayward cowboy to the door, which would result in -- well, you've seen it in the movies. Tables were overturned, glass would fly, punches would be thrown, and the police would put down their pastries and come on inside to gather up the worst offenders. We would stand behind the bar wielding empty beer mugs for self-defense, and then clean up the mess.

On Saturday, most of the same crowd would be in, but chastened, bruised and hung over, they were very little trouble. This little scene repeated for most of the five or six weeks that I worked there, until my brother came to town one Thursday, said he was moving out of the state that weekend, and I was out of a place to stay. It was a short adventure, but I can still see the place in my memory today.

* A concoction of beer and tomato juice that seems to be a favorite of rodeo cowboys. I think it's how they got their vitamins. That, and cigarettes.

** This was before rural America discovered that you could make speed right in the trailer. Oh, and I don't know what those are.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lost in Time

I've talked a little about my days as a roadie, back in the day when shorts were small and socks were tall, but it's been a while since I've thought about what I gave up to take that job. I had wanted to work for SHOWCO ever since I knew there was such a place, and had already made one ill-fated move to Dallas to try to get hired on. In fact it was the fallout from that move (long story best left untold) that found me living in Fayetteville, Arkansas in the Fall of 1977, sharing a studio apartment with a part time accident photographer and working various food service jobs to make my half of the $125 per month rent. (That's not where most of my money went, believe me.)

About two months after moving to Fayetteville I met Anne. She had attended the college where I met my roommate, and they apparently renewed their acquaintance when both moved to Fayetteville. Anne was tall and blond and beautiful -- I mean really beautiful -- and for some reason she seemed to like me. The next six weeks or so comprise one of the most amazing periods of my life. Without going into detail, let me just say that we enjoyed each other a lot. A lot. A lot. She taught me to drink spiced tea with milk and honey. I don't know if I taught her anything. I don't remember a cross word passing between us. She got frightened once and I was the one she called. We went everywhere together. No wait -- we didn't. We went where we wanted when we wanted and we both seemed good with it. It was perfect.

And then the first week of November I made the call. Every time I called SHOWCO they always told me to check back in a few months. So I would call and they would tell me they didn't have anything and I would live another chunk of my life. Except the first week of November when I called, they had just lost someone and needed a replacement and the RCO All Stars are playing in Fayetteville tonight so why don't you go down and talk to this guy Buddy Prewitt and he will tell us whether we should hire you or not. And I did and he did and they did and I was gone two days later.

And just like that Anne was out of my life. Well, not just like that. We talked of her moving to Dallas after I got settled, and for a couple of months I really thought it might happen. But she got a job she wanted in advertising and our relationship did what long distance relationships tend to do, and within a year or so I had completely lost track of her.

Since then I have evolved really mixed feelings about those weeks. I don't think Anne ever knew how close I came to turning down that job. If it had not been my life's dream* I probably would have stayed where I was. She also has no way to know how long I pined for her, or how close I came to packing it in on multiple occasions that first few months, when I was lonely and homesick and the new job wasn't what I expected. I had some pictures of her that would almost (but apparently not quite) disqualify someone from being Miss California, and I kept them for far longer than was appropriate. My ex-wife finally threw them out during a move about a decade later. No one would ever have suspected how much time I spent looking at her face in those pictures, though the other parts were good, too.

On the other hand, it was six weeks. Almost all good relationships are good for six weeks. And I don't even know how much we really had in common. I'm sure we carried the seeds of our destruction, and if I look close enough I can almost see them. There was probably a sad or bitter or fiery end in our future, and we just never had to live through it. I think in some ways we were too much alike, which I only found out was bad many years later.

Or maybe that's all just rationalization. The entire weight of my life since then conspires to ensure that I am happy with my choice. Either way, the direction of my future balanced on a knife point one day many years ago, with two of the best things I can imagine on either side. I chose. What else can we do?

In the end I decided to treat those six weeks as sort of a capsule, like a great book or a favorite song**. Those weeks are almost completely disconnected from the main thread of my life, no longer food for regret or wistfulness or nostalgia. At the same time those weeks embody for me a feeling of love and relaxation and good fortune that is as personal and private as anything can be. It is without cause or effect or consequence, except to remind me that I have been blessed. Wherever Anne ended up, I hope she remembers the time half as fondly.

*I know. I was 20. Shut up.

** Or the time when I was fifteen and an eighteen year old girl I had never seen before stuck her hand down my pants on the Silverton railroad. It was a really good day.