the flea-bitten flatlands of hell

I rose to check the weather for our trip in the dim hours between dawn and Captain Kangaroo. It was Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, 1994, and Ben K was on his way over to pick me up for two calm and restorative days of backwoods hiking in Arkansas. A quick glance at the Whether Channel (to determine whether or not we’d be heading out) stopped my last-minute packing. Excited reporters showed video of intense and angry storms that were sweeping southeast through Oklahoma, straight toward our intended stomping grounds in Ouachita State Park. I had visions of being swept through the mountains by a tidal wave of Arkansas flotsam, beer cans and spent shotgun shells as I fell back into—lawd, forgive me—my uneasy chair.

Upon doctor Ben’s arrival we made a snap (i.e. hasty) decision to drop the plans for driving northeast and instead head west for parts unknown. So I kissed Marci goodbye, and both Ben and I repeated after her in the traditional Oath of Stupidity: “I promise not to do anything stupid like I did last time. We tossed the gear in Ben’s 4Runner, grabbed a Texas Parks map, put pedal to the plastic and headed for the highway. We knew only this: we were headed away from the storms, and we’d figure out the specifics en route.

“Fort Stinkin’ Desert, here we come!” As Ben drove us west by northwest, I surveyed the possible state parks that lay near our route. We settled on Caprock Canyons, a good six-hour drive, and the only park on our map that mentioned primitive camping.

Ben was hopeful. “Should be dry as a bone by mid-day,” he declared, defying the weather gods as we fled the splattering rain and gathering storm clouds of Dallas. Sure enough, as morning gave up the ghost, the beautiful grasses and wildflowers of our tiny highway yielded to scrub trees and the cracked, burnt orange desert soil of west Texas. The sun and the mercury soared in the cloudless sky, and dust devils churned the black plowed fields to our left and right. This part of Texas is apparently big business for dust cultivation and dirt farming.

At one point we pulled the car to the edge of a field to pick some cotton, just to see what it was like. I don’t recommend it. The reason cotton balls are so soft and white is that they remove the thorns, comb through the dirt, and bleach out all of my blood! 

For a long time during the drive there wasn’t much to look at. Highways in north-central Texas are a poor place for sightseeing unless you’ve been suffering from a lack of horizons. After hours of endless Nothing, we were on the lookout for Anything. In Turkey, Texas, a bustling one mile metropolis (if you round up), we settled for…Something.

Bob Wills, the late “King of Western Swing” and leader of the Texas Playboys, is memorialized in Turkey by a statue that from a distance resembles a thin grain silo, or spare parts from pre-NASA attempts at putting spiders in orbit, or one of those Rocket popsicles from our childhood for which we had risked our lives chasing the Ice Cream Man. At the side of the main street in Turkey, the statue’s tall octagonal granite base is surmounted, possibly in an afterthought, by a thin shaft of tin capped with a stunted viola that was probably intended to be a violin. Etched in the polished stone of the base are the immortal accomplishments of Bob Wills, and as they are immortal, I shan’t repeat them here. I will now create a sense of suspense, and leave you to travel to Turkey, Texas and see for yourself.

And while you’re at it, visit the Bob Wills Museum in room 103 of the old high school. If the museum is closed, you can while away an hour looking at class pictures going back to the early 1900’s. Let’s just say that Turkey in the early 20th century was not a net exporter of Hollywood-style paragons of beauty. But if you’re looking for big ears and buck teeth, look no further than the old black and whites on the walls of Turkey High.

Ben and I arrived at the Caprock park station in the early afternoon. The ranger, a dried up coughing hag we subsequently named Beulah, suggested we hike the old train track trail into the canyons. The trail wasn’t in the park, but was on a narrow strip of park land, part of a “rails to trails” conversion. Since hiking the rail trail was the same advice I’d been given over the phone by another park ranger we later named El Diablo, we turned the truck around. We headed away from the ranger station toward the trailhead several miles outside the park, down a dusty dirt road that scraped its way through flat and scrubby ranch land.

We slathered ourselves with sunscreen, filled five canteens from the water jug in the truck, donned hats, boots and bandannas, and hauled our packs onto our backs. Stepping onto the trail, a now tie-less railroad from the 1800’s, we looked down the mounded black strip of crushed volcanic rock. It stretched absolutely straight through the flat desert to a perfect vanishing point on the far horizon, like an illustration from an art primer on How To Draw Perspective.

Smarter hikers would have reconsidered at that point. But Ben and I began walking, crunching across the pumice plain like stomping through piles of Cheerios and bone shards. The map showed that we would have to walk four and a half miles before reaching a long train tunnel, gateway to the promised canyon lands beyond. Within minutes we were soaked in sweat, the surprisingly humid heat murderously intensified by the black rock of the trail. Generous portions of liver-killing insecticide helped keep the hordes of blackflies at bay. Nevertheless, we can both attest the blackflies were indeed of a biting variety, and apparently drawn irresistibly to sweaty young men in much the same way that young women are not.

Hours, miles and canteens later, Ben stopped, looked at me and in a dry croak I’d not heard before, rasped, “Doug, I believe we are in Hell.” By this time, our locale had long been renamed “Craprock Canyons.” But as the sweat-soaked map had promised, we eventually came to a series of heat-blasted low hills that sat like buttocks in the sand, and a bend in the dusty trail that led us toward a cliff face, and the gaping maw of a black tunnel stretching far into darkness. With no sight of Cerberus, three-headed canine guardian of the underworld, we staggered into the tunnel and into deepening shadows. The temperature dropped to subterranean levels and we could smell the pungent guano that indicated we were not alone.

As the rock-walled train tunnel grew darker, the ground became soft beneath our feet and we could hear squeaks and the whisper of tiny wings in the roof high above. Brave fools or lazy adventurers, we had neglected to dig out our flashlights in the delirious glee of being temporarily free of the heat. As the sound of the bats grew louder, the tunnel grew darker. Our lights were buried in our packs, our feet buried in guano, and all buried in a tunnel deep beneath the mountain. The weight of the rock felt as heavy as our packs, and we were keenly aware of being in a deep, old tunnel that was no longer used, and probably ill maintained.

The light behind us faded to nothingness, as if blotting out the past several hours. But just before the tunnel fell into complete darkness and forced us to grope blindly for our flashlights, we rounded a slight curve and could see the glimmerings of daylight ahead. We went toward the light, making the obligatory near-death jokes as we went. Disturbed by our voices, pigeons nesting in the rafters took flight. The beat of their wings ruffled our hair as they made strafing bomber runs past us toward the exit.

Like the travelers in Lost Horizon, Ben and I emerged into a transformed land. The trail led around ledges in the hills, and to the left the ground dropped away into rolling valleys of trees, grasses and grazing land. In the distance below us, a tiny silver ribbon of flowing water wound its way across the valley floor. We rested in the afternoon shade and refilled our canteens from a water tank provided by the park department. Hiking onward, we found the first suitable spot for our tent about a mile down the trail, on an area of flat ground at the edge of a steep valley wall. We set up the tent under a “No Trespassing” sign riddled with buckshot holes. The view down into the canyon was tremendous. With no sign of human habitation in sight, we cooked dinner over a small camp stove.

In the evening twilight, Ben and I ambled down the trail, looking at flowering cacti and watching the buzzards circle lazily overhead. We perched on the edge of a precipice, watched the sunset and harmonized twangy cowboy melodies. In the absence of romantic female accompaniment, we greeted the loveliness of the first evening stars with a belching contest, and pissed off the cliff.

When it was time to return, we got an early morning start. So did the sun and the heat. A fiery furnace blast greeted us as we exited the tunnel to continue the long march back to the truck. After walking an hour or so, the distant profiles of horsemen appeared in the shimmering heat mirage, where the ceaseless black trail vanished into the unending brown horizon. As the travelers approached, we counted four men astride four horses. Not a good sign.

The midday light blazed so bright on their hats that their faces were hard to see as they halted before us. I got right to the point and panted, “You fellas don’t happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”

“Depends on what you’ve been smoking, I guess,” replied the one we assume was Pestilence.

Death looked down at us from his pale horse and asked where we were from. He cracked a weathered grin when we answered, “Dallas.”

“Y’all didn’t come out all this way just for this,” Death said. “You must of but had other business in these parts.” 

Yeah, that’s right. We had to come visit Quitaque to see the Sidewalk Museum that stretches across crackled and broken pavement down the full 100-foot length of Main Street. We had come for the half-pound charburger and sodden “potatoe” fries at the Restaurant With No Name that we had “surely read about in the Dallas paper.” We had passed through Turkey to see the tall tin and granite erection raised in honor of the town’s favorite son, Bob Wills, who had not been born there, did not die there, and was not buried there.

The four horsemen continued onward and Ben and I finally reached the truck, soaked our heads in the remains of our water, and motored back to the state park to let Beulah and El Diablo know what we thought of their rail trail. Sadly, neither was in attendance at the ranger station, having been replaced by a kindly Angel of Mercy. We settled for writing in the park’s log book, “A fine trail for bikes and horses. Never never never never NEVER BACKPACK this trail in the summer!!!”

Before the long trip back home, and after an exhausted debate as to whether it would be worth the gasoline, Ben and I drove deeper into the park, which we had previously skipped at the advice of the rangers. Oh, supreme twist of the triple-sided knife of fate! Oh ironic gods, bellowing a final dusty laugh at our expense! The park was beautiful beyond compare! The ground cracked open and dramatically dropped away. Majestic walls plunged deep into the earth, yielding a miniature Grand Canyon with all the colors of the desert rainbow.

We were too tired to hike the well-maintained trails to the overlooks, too weary to look over the scalloped edges of the beautiful cliffs. We left Caprock Canyons with salt-crusted skin and black and blue feet. As Ben asked in the air-conditioned Toyota as we u-turned and headed back across the flatlands towards Dallas, “Why do we always have to end up with a good story? Why not just an excellent vacation?” Of course, if I have ever enjoyed a flawless trip, it’s been forgotten long ago, drowned out by better tales of mistakes and misadventures.

And you know, Ben and I went back to Caprock early the next spring, and we ignored the rangers’ repeated advice to see the rail trail, and we hiked all around the park. And the weather was cool and perfect, and the park with its hiking paths through twisting riverbeds, majestic rocky vistas and steep canyon descents was amazing, and it was an incredible camping trip. And there’s not a damn word I can think to write about it.

my dance of pants

Early June, 1990. Marci and I were on our honeymoon in Italy, thanks to a gift of miles from my folks. We hadn’t been there long, and had just arrived in sunny and lovely Florence, our second stop. We were walking with our backpacks down the old cobblestone streets toward the part of town where we hoped to find lodging, and it was time to replenish our diminishing cash reserves. So when we saw a bank that had been built into a row of old shops, we decided to go in and cash some travelers checks.

The bank was a small storefront, about the size of a fast food restaurant. Facing the street sidewalk was a dark and thick smoked glass window, through which it was dimly possible to see the interior. To the left of the window was a granite wall of several feet separating the window from the bank entrance, a deeply recessed doorway of the same thick smoked glass.

Marci and I stepped up to the doorway and pulled, then pushed at the shiny chrome handle. The door did not budge. We checked the hours displayed on the door of the bank. Through the dark glass of the door, we could see customers and bank tellers, so we knew that the bank was in fact open. The door that wouldn’t move was a mystery.

We examined the entrance closely. There was a sign affixed to the door with a paragraph in Italian, which I attempted to translate. It appeared to be saying something about magnetism. Indeed, upon closer inspection, there was electrical apparatus both in the door and in the door frame.

We realized that the bank must be using a metal detector system similar to those in the airports: metal items in our backpacks must have been preventing the doors from opening. It was quite an ingenious system for increasing bank security. So Marci and I walked a few steps back around the door entry to the glass window, and dropped our packs. I left Marci with the packs and went back to try the door again.

Unfortunately, it still failed to open. I remembered that the metal I was carrying had triggered the metal detector at the airport as well, so I went back to Marci and gave her my keys and my pocket change. Still, the door would not open.

I returned to Marci and gave her my watch. Reluctantly, I took off my still-new wedding ring and handed it to her. Back to the door. Dammit, the thing still would not budge! I stood before the door rather frustrated. Then I recalled that I was wearing my typical travel pants, using my old belt with its metal belt buckle that never failed to set off airport alarms.

So, feeling rather foolish, I once again walked back over to Marci and sheepishly handed her my belt. My pants instantly started dropping, so holding them up by sticking my hands in my pockets, I walked back over to the bank door as nonchalantly as I could.

Holding my pants up with one hand, I grasped the handle with the other and gave a mighty tug.

And a mightier push.

And a tug and a push and a tug. Nothing happened.

As I stood there, keyless and watchless and coinless and beltless, holding my pants up with one hand and feeling about as stupid as stupid can get, an attractive Italian woman came up behind me to enter the bank.

“Hello,” I said to her in English, partly to clue her in that I was clue-less, and partly because in my nonplused state I’d forgotten even basic manners and all my Italian stock phrases. I put one hand nonchalantly on my hip and surreptitiously hooked my thumb through an empty belt loop. She smiled and said hello back in liltingly accented English.

“The door won’t open…” I offered, about to tell her of my apparent magnetism. Me and Magneto.

“Oh,” she said, “there are too many people inside. As soon as someone leaves, they’ll open the door.”

Red-faced, I hoisted my pants, retrieved my belt, my pack and Marci, and left without seeing anyone leave the bank. To this day, we don’t know how well the patrons and employees on the other side of the door could see my dance-of-pants, through that dark and smoky Doug-proof glass.

you stabbed my mother in the arm!

You probably have a list of your own: Things I Shouldn’t Have Said. My list has a different title: Things I Shouldn’t Have Gotten Away With Saying. This these are not intentional slights or meanness. Sometimes words just slip out on their own.

The summer after our freshman year in college, Ben K and I went to New York City for a vacation. I don’t remember why we decided to go there, but we had a great time wandering around SoHo and Greenwich Village day and night, seeing museums and Big Apple weirdness. I remember a couple of things very vividly about that trip. One was a nightly battle with Gray Booger Syndrome. If you’ve ever been in a polluted city during a temperature inversion, you’re probably familiar with GBS.

I don’t remember what the other thing was. It was a long time ago.

One late afternoon, while walking around the downtown streets feeling like ants at the feet of giant stone monuments, B and I stopped in front of a closed science fiction bookstore. It was full of Star Trek and Star Wars and Star This That and The Other paraphernalia and movie posters and gore-dripping comic books and Fangoria magazines. Perfect place for the two of us. I’d say there was a life-sized Yoda mask in the window, but although I enjoy Star Wars as much as the next eternal adolescent I’m aware that it is a work of fiction, and that creatures such as Yoda do not actually exist and therefore masks of them cannot really be described as “life-sized.”

See what I mean? Perfect place for us.

At this point, Ben and I were just resting in front of the store as the afternoon shadows crept down the sidewalk, when two oddly-dressed women sidled up to us and stopped. They were painfully thin, with no makeup but long metal ear foliage and jangling metal wrist wrings. Wearing some sort of rumpled black gowns, their long straight hair was dull and trickled down their backs, and they carried stacks of pamphlets advertising one of those cults that seem to pop into the public consciousness every so often when the members start killing themselves off with spiked Kool-Aid in order to ride imaginary spaceships to Valhalla.

“I see you’re interested in other worlds,” said one of the space vixens.

“I see you’re interested in my d**k,” I returned.

I shouldn’t have said that, of course. And as it turned out, I didn’t. Actually, I said it, but I said it to Ben as the women wandered off in disappointment that we didn’t take them up on their offer of attending their 6 PM prayer circle.

“You’ve never seen anything until you’ve been with 100 of us in a circle of love, chanting the Pramaloona Pooka Pooh.”

Ah, life’s little regrets.

I could have written that anecdote in such a way that I actually said those words, but it would have been a mean thing to do, and I’m not a mean guy, not way down deep where it really counts. And besides, it would have been a lie, and I want you to trust me because what happened later that night actually happened the way I’m about to relate. I’d be tempted to doubt it myself, but Ben K was there and he’ll back me up.

We had left my Uncle Al’s apartment, where we were staying during our trip, to walk around the city for the evening. We’d heard of a great place to have pizza in Greenwich Village and we wandered in. The place was packed on a Saturday night, and after a long wait we grabbed a small round table and ordered a large pizza. Usually a large pizza is about right for two hungry college guys, but the enormous pepperoni-covered wagon wheel that arrived at our tiny table would have been enough to stuff a Paraguayan lion tamer, some Irish coal miners and a couple of Trappist monks. The pizza was larger than the tabletop—in essence, the pizza became the tabletop—and we tried to avoid the eyes of any potentially amused New Yorkers as we carefully ate from opposite ends of the pizza so as to maintain the precarious table-pizza balance and avoid tipping everything over.

We were embarrassed about ordering a pizza large enough to weigh anchor and sail to New Jersey on a sea of its own tomato sauce, so we had them crate up the remains and we hauled the leftovers out with us. By the time we reached the street it was close to midnight, the witching hour. The streets were thick with people walking and talking, some to each other and some to themselves.

Today it can be hard to tell an autoverbalist from someone talking on a cell phone earpiece, but back then the crazies were much more clear. Can you hear me now, invisible voices? There were quite a few homeless people sitting on the sidewalk, holding up the storefronts with their backs, begging for change. We donated our pizza box to alleviate world hunger and walked on down the street.

Out of nowhere, a frighteningly huge and disheveled man leapt up at us out of the darkness, poked his finger straight in my chest, glared down at me with wide, wild eyes, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I KNOW YOU! I KNOW YOU!


Our hearts stopped beating–our brains went into shock and four legs froze.

“YOU STABBED MY MOTHER IN THE ARM!!!” he yelled again.

Without thinking or missing a beat I yelled back, “I’m sorry–I didn’t know she was your mother!!!” A miracle of comic timing, wasted on the insane.

There are moments of absolute clarity, and apparently there are moments of absolute unclarity. Luckily for us, the former instantly followed the latter: Ben and I looked at each other and yelled, “Aaaugh!” and started running, continuing far down the street until we were sure we weren’t being pursued by a nightmarish horde of pizza-wielding lunatics.

Another critical moment leaps to mind, a moment of unclarity when I said something that could have gotten me smashed into a small pulpy lump. My college roommate Richard L and I had gone to see Pink Floyd in concert during our senior year at the University of Texas at Austin. We had good floor seats, obtained by standing in line extremely early in the morning on the opening day of ticket sales. At least I think it was extremely early in the morning. It was probably before noon.

Richard and I were waiting for the concert to start, and the two seats to my right, which had been empty, were now overflowing with a couple of sweaty, unwashed knuckle-walkers. The behemoth beside me was a giant t-shirted beer-bellied mono-browed hairy-foreheaded pork sausage who must have been six-foot-four and upwards of 300 pounds. I’m sure his mother loved him, once. She certainly fed him a lot.

After sloshing me with beer and popcorn, the Incredible Bulk lit up a large joint and, out of consideration for his pasty friend, coughed the sickly-sweet smoke down at my head.

“Hey, excuse me,” I said, “but could you please not blow smoke in my face?”

“What’s a matter,” he rumbled in a thick Texas drawl that sounded like Gomer Pyle transposed down a couple octaves, “you don’t smoke pot?”

“No, I said. “I’m allergic. Just blow your smoke up or away if you don’t mind.” Blow it out your ass is what I thought, but I didn’t say that although I was getting pretty steamed.

“Well, F**k Me, Rachel!” he announced loudly, taking another drag and furrowing his brow-ridge.

“No thanks,” I said, “–and my name’s Doug.”

In a sudden, smooth and fluid motion, my friend Richard leapt up on my left and said, “Uh, I’ll switch with you,” and he pretty much pulled me over into his chair and slid into mine before H. neanderthalensis had time to consider.

Later, Richard told me he thought I was going to get us both killed.

Lummoxed to death at the Pink Floyd concert, I thought. Well, f**k me, Rachel!

he had a face like chipped beef, like a tray of bacon

Back before the now-time began, and well before the world ended, Marci and I were lovers. Now we’re married, so even though we’re still lovers it doesn’t count. We’d been working “starter jobs” the year after college, and when those came to an end (or rather, when we decided to end ’em) we went on a six-week driving trip through the Great American Southwest, starting in the ‘burbs north of Dallas, Texas, where we both grew up.

Among the images I remember clearly from the day we left:

One: Marci turning around in the front seat as we drove away from her parents’ house to look back at her mom and dad. Her father was holding up three fingers: three weeks. Marci shook her head and responded with extra fingers: six weeks. I had to marry her after that. Not in the shotgun sense, of course. I just had to! Couldn’t get enough of her company. That was twenty years ago. I still can’t get enough of her. Crazy, huh?

Two: we stopped by my folks’ house. Said goodbye. Told my dad, “Westward, Ho!” and then had to turn back to him as M and I walked to the car. “Uh, which way is west?” Dad laughed and pointed. We made it to California.

Anyway, skip forward nearly a month into the trip. Marci and I had left off from camping in Yosemite on the return route from San Francisco and had driven up over the cold Tioga Pass, where the snow at the end of May was up to our waists. And that’s no exaggeration: we hopped out of the car and jumped around in waist-deep snow. We’d spent weeks in the desert prior to that, so deep snow was quite novel. We were headed from the forests and high mountains back down to the desert on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Within the course of that morning we had traveled from the forests of Yosemite Valley up and over the high and frozen Tioga pass, and eventually down the jagged range toward the hot desert flats. We were headed south, roughly in the direction of Las Vegas, with no real destination in mind for the night, and no sign of humanity on our two-lane highway. Over the course of about an hour, our crackling car radio noise resolved itself into music and voices and a message called to us, transmitted from some distant oasis and beckoning over the invisible airwaves.

The message was this: All You Can Eat Pizza Buffet!

Our car glided toward the source as if traveling on a giant Ouija board, up a steep mountain ascent to the small mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. We had never heard of Mammoth Lakes, but it’s a popular winter ski destination for Nevada and California folk. Marci and I drove around the town, high up in the mountains, and set up our tent in the campgrounds at the edge of town. Over lunch, we met some locals who gave us directions to a natural hot springs.

We found the hot springs at the end of an unmarked road in the desert several miles out of town. Jumping into our bathing suits, we climbed down the steep steps to the spring. Ropes were placed to keep people away from the most dangerous areas; good thing, since otherwise I would have dived right into the rapidly boiling water pools ringed with sulfurous steam-farting mud fumeroles.

The swimmable areas were deep and hot, and the water was high in minerals and made our skin tingle. Where our feet could touch the bottom we could feel a rumbling beneath the ground, as if thundering herds of pachyderms were heading straight for us. It was unnerving, like standing above an underground nuclear test site not knowing when the next bomb blast would blow.

There were a few others at the hot springs, and we all talked about the experience of hitting so many wildly different climates within a single day: cool forests to snowy mountain passes to desert hot springs.

Back in Mammoth Lakes we drove around the deserted town looking at the pricy winter chalets until heading to the promised pizza land for the dinner buffet. When night fell in Mammoth Lakes it fell hard; the temperature dropped and shattered on the ground like broken icicles. We weren’t ready to nod off or face a few hours in the cold tent, so we drove through the town in search of night life. We couldn’t find any. There wasn’t a movie theater, and there didn’t seem to be any bars or restaurants open at night. The streets were deserted by 8 PM.

M and I wandered around the local grocery store, the only place that seemed to be open apart from one self-serve laundromat. We made small talk with the two employees, who asked us if we were in town to go skiing. Mammoth Lakes is so high up that even though ski season was over and only the locals were left in town, the upper reaches of the mountain remained open. So Marci and I decided that we’d tarry a day and go skiing.

That night we gained valuable camping experience and learned some interesting lessons. For instance, we learned that a cheap tent and sleeping bags and thin foam pads don’t keep you very warm when the temperature drops into the low 20’s. And I learned that when the temperature gets that low, and you have to get up to pee at 3 am, you’re going to be really sorry that you left all of your clothing outside the sleeping bag. Apparently, blue jeans freeze at about the same temperature as water.

The next day, clad in jeans, caps and work gloves, we headed up the mountain to rent skis for the day, The rental area was at the base of the lift, and the man working there… Hmm, I’m not sure how to describe him. There are tales told around the campfire, stories to scare children that generally end with someone being grabbed. He could have been featured in one of those stories.

He had some sort of skin condition. He looked like he’d been burned all over his body. The sun couldn’t do it alone; he must have been through a kiln. His skin was in tatters, peeling off of every exposed surface. He looked like chipped beef, like one of those trays full of bacon that you see in brunch buffet lines. He was extra crispy. As he fit Marci for boots, she suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, wide-eyed, “Oh! I forgot the sun screen!”

That’s about the end of this part of the story. Except for the poignant scenes where Marci and I skied together. Twice, as my father used to day: the first time and the last time. When she said she could ski, I thought that meant she could ski. A miscommunication: Marci thought those little bunny hills constituted skiing, and I thought that skiing was skiing. So when we got to the top of the mountain, where that late in May only the upper blue and black slopes remained open, and Marci found out that she could not actually do the type of skiing that involved actual skiing… well, it wasn’t pretty.

She tried her best, and I really felt for her. Actually, she did okay on the left turns, skiing ever so slowly across the steep and icy slopes. And then she fell on each and every right turn, dropping on the same spot on her hip as the snow soaked through her jeans. Eventually she got so tired and frustrated and black and blue and sore and wet that she started crying and I was getting impatient waiting for her to Get Up! since it was obvious to me that the only way down was down. Since then we’ve been able to laugh about it with a standing joke about such situations: Stop Crying! Roll!

We gave up that night, and stayed at a motel. The next morning, we cooked breakfast over our camp stove-on the pavement by the motel parking lot. Ah, roughing it. Since then, Marci’s gotten “back on the horse” so to speak: we’ve gone skiing together several times. She takes lessons while I attempt to break my legs skiing well above my limits. Well, you know what they say: if it doesn’t kill you, try try again.

the electric kool-aid pregnancy test

My parents often said they were as lucky in pregnancy as they were lucky in love. Perhaps they said this more often than they should have. They used to tell us about it with some frequency, especially when they returned from vacations. Greg and I would pick them up at the airport and ask, “How was your trip?” and Mom would start talking about making beds creak and chandeliers sway. We didn’t really need to know that. 

Dad would invariably be off at baggage claim, talking to some distinguished businessman he’d met on the plane, when Greg or I would march up and announce, “Hey, Pop—we hear the sex was great!”

Anyway, Mom claims that nine months before I arrived on the scene she said, “Gerald, I think it’s time we had a b—” and instantly she was pregnant. My father, who claimed to be able to foretell the gender of unborn babies, said that he called my grandmother that day to say that her daughter was ten minutes pregnant with a firstborn son.

My wife doubted the veracity of that story. But then again, she doubted that my grandfather the urologist performed his own vasectomy, until my grandmother—who had been his nurse—confirmed the tale. Some things are just too cool to make up.

The circumstances surrounding my conception, appropriately enough, took place while my then-future parents were on vacation. Mom and Dad had gone to a resort in New Mexico that didn’t quite live up to its exciting brochure. The few other guests at the “dud ranch” were triple the age of my young folks and didn’t put in much of an appearance. The swimming pool hadn’t seen water in years. The golf course had completely reverted to nature, and the cuisine was of the canned variety.

So the big bop that resulted in my existence after Mom’s oft-repeated sentence interruptus had a boost from boredom. That doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, when I eventually came to grips with the idea of having a child of my own, about six months after my wife broached the selfsame subject with a similar sentence that I was kind enough to allow her to complete, I suggested that we start our family the same way: with a vacation.

This was five years into our marriage. Marci and I had planned a terrific vacation in Spain, and we thought it would be a great time to get started, but we reconsidered after reading that morning sickness can start as early as 10 days post-conception. That could have made Marci miserable on the last part of the vacation.

So we discussed starting our family atop a mountain during a camping trip. I said it would get our firstborn off to a good start and produce a strong child who shared our outdoor interests. I didn’t really believe that, but I thought the idea possessed a certain poetry. It’s important to schedule vital life choices around story opportunities: it makes the really important stuff easier to remember.

As it happened, we went the opposite topographic direction and planned a trip with eight of our friends to go caving deep in the limestone of the central Texas Hill Country. During a wonderful weekend at Colorado Bend State Park, tent camping by a beautiful river with our friends, we donned frayed, muddied and dissolving jeans; knee and elbow pads; helmets and head lamps, and climbed, crawled and slithered deep into the bowels of the earth. The most intense of these crawling cave tours ended with a long and difficult climb back to the surface, pushing our way through a rock tube so narrow that your arms had to remain by your side. We wriggled our way upward to sunlight through this birth canal, our helmets scraping the wall.

As romantic and suggestive as this underground adventure undoubtedly sounds, you may be surprised to hear that it didn’t lead Marci and me to immediate heights of passion. We remained somewhat muddy during the weekend and camped within ready earshot of our fellow mole-people, and so contented ourselves with gritty nighttime snuggling.

However, two hours after returning from the trip, I called my mother-in-law to say that Marci was ten minutes pregnant.

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. That Sunday afternoon was in fact the first time it would have been possible for our chromosome carriers to meet (for the usual slip covered reasons), but we certainly didn’t expect results the first time out. In fact, due to Marci’s bout with cancer some years earlier and the radiation that got her through, we weren’t sure that we would be able to have kids at all.

But shortly later came the morning when Marci expected to have her monthly visitation. You could set a watch by Marci’s menstrual cycle. 7:30 AM, regular as clockwork. By 8:00 that Tuesday morning, we had begun speculating. I went to work that day thinking I was going to become a father. We didn’t tell anyone, of course. Most people don’t suspect that they’re pregnant as early as we did, and many pregnancies end without having much of a beginning.

A week or so later, I headed to a company conference in San Francisco to do product demonstrations on stage in front of excited hordes of computer geeks. Marci picked up an Early Pregnancy Test at the grocery store the day I left, and I made her promise to leave that little pink and blue box closed until I returned.

How could she wait? On Halloween night I called when I got back to my hotel room. It was 11:30, Dallas time. I sat on the bed in my dark hotel room, looking out the window at the downtown San Francisco lights, and Marci took the EPT test while holding the cordless phone to her ear with her shoulder. I made her promise not to sneak a peak at the results until our long three minutes of waiting were up, and we tried to think of things to talk about while we waited during that short eternity.

“It’s lines,” she said softly into the phone, “there are three pink lines…you’re going to be a daddy!” We both lay back on our beds and cried in happiness, and held each other as best we could; I would have crawled through the phone. Over a thousand miles apart, yet so close in that moment.

After we said goodnight and I hung up, knowing that I couldn’t tell anyone I knew, I walked the night-lit but never empty streets of downtown San Francisco. Bursting with emotion, I released my news to passersby, to strangers in a bar, to panhandlers on the street, and everyone I met that night seemed to reflect a warm glow.

Are you reading this, my son?

* * * * * * *

We Announce Our Fetusness

The night I returned from California after Marci’s positive pregnancy test, we went straight to the bookstore. By the following morning I had read the baby manuals from cover to cover and was ready to face the next nine months. For eight weeks, we discussed how to tell our families that Marci was pregnant. I had a reputation to uphold, and wanted to find a really good way to surprise everyone. In the meantime, we’d agreed not to tell anyone. Not our siblings or parents or friends. Nobody.

So I just told my friend, Ben. And Marci told her friend, Karen. After all, you gotta tell your wedding party. But we didn’t tell my brother, and we didn’t tell Marci’s sister. So apart from the two of us, and Marci’s doctor, and Ben and Karen, and assorted complete strangers I’d encountered on Halloween eve in San Francisco, nobody knew.

We decided to let our families know during Thanksgiving dinner, when we would all be gathered together at my parents’ house. For weeks, we managed to keep the secret under wraps. It therefore came very much as a surprise one morning when Marci hung up the phone after a terse conversation with her sister Gwen, turned to me and said, “She knows!”

“What do you mean, ‘she knows’? Did she say she knows?”

“No, but I know she knows.” Sisters are like that.


Brief digression. Ever heard of kishka? It’s a Ukranian/Polish/Yiddish dish. Years earlier, on one of our first dates, Marci and I had found ourselves in Katz’s Deli in Austin, Texas, at about 3 AM. I saw kishka on the menu and pointed to it.

“What’s kishka?” I asked. I’d never heard of it.

Marci struggled for the words. “Oh, you know, it’s…um…it’s like this.” Skilled as she is in sign language, she gestured with her hands by way of explanation, holding her right thumb and forefinger together to make an ‘o’ and repeatedly shoving her left forefinger through the ‘o,’ in the international sign language symbolism that indicates of course that kishka is a sausage-like dish of beef intestines stuffed with a spiced filling. 

“I’ll take it!” I said, brightly.

Years later, when she brought home a stray Russian Blue, I acquiesced to keep our new kitten if I could name it, and chose the name Kishka.


So back to my wife’s oblique conversation with her sister. A day earlier, Marci had taken Kishka the cat to the vet. We had read about toxicoplasmosis, a virus commonly carried by cats that gives the mother a short bout of flulike symptoms but can be very hazardous to a young fetus. As soon as Marci told the vet that she wanted Kishka tested, Dr. W asked if Marci was pregnant.

“Well, yes. But my family doesn’t know yet. We’re planning to surprise them. So if my sister or mother brings in their cat this week, be sure not to let them know.”

Dr. W. promised to be discreet. He asked Marci if he could just take a picture of her with Kishka for his picture wall.

“Because I’m pregnant?” she asked.

“No, I just like to have pictures of my patients and their people.”

The Polaroid went on the wall with other pictures of people and their pets, and Dr. W. and his office staff promised again that they wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. So Marci and I were understandably dismayed when Gwen called the very next morning to engage her in the aforementioned conversation.

“I took Mitzi to Dr. W’s office this morning. She hasn’t been eating.”

“Oh,” said Marci. “Is she all right?”

“Yeah, she’ll be fine. By the way, I saw your picture on Dr. Ward’s wall.”

That was pretty much the verbal part of the conversation, but Marci could tell Gwen knew Marci knew she knew. Marci called Dr. W’s office immediately and told them what had happened. Did they say anything to Gwen?

“Oh, no. We wouldn’t do that! Oh, no. We didn’t say a word.”

But truth will out. Gwen stopped by the house. “Out with it,” she said, after another few moments of pretense. And Marci confessed that she was indeed carrying an as-yet-unnamed embryonic lump.


Gwen had gone to Dr. W’s, and had noticed the picture on the wall of Marci and Kishka. Gwen pointed this out to Dr. W.

“Oh, yes—she’s pregnant. 

“She can’t be pregnant,” said Gwen, “she’s been spayed.”

But before Dr. W. could cover his tracks, the women working in his office exclaimed, “Dr. W! You weren’t supposed to tell her!” So our cover was blown.


Marci and I planned to tell the remainder of the family at Thanksgiving dinner. Since my brother wasn’t able to come in from Los Angeles, we set up the video camera to record the evening. We regularly did this for Greg’s benefit at the family events he wasn’t able to attend, so this was not unusual. At one point in the dinner, I led the family in a rousing greeting. Turning to the video camera, I raised my glass of wine and asked everyone to repeat after me:

Hello to Greg!
Hello to Greg!

We’re doing fine!
We’re doing fine!

Wish you were here!
We wish you were here!

Marci’s pregnant!!!
Marci’s pregnant!!???

There was a moment’s stunned silence before everyone at the table erupted into screams and laughter and jumped to their feet to embrace us and start in with questions. We still have the videotape, of course. It’s hilarious to watch the delayed reaction of everyone around the family table that night as they all go nuts.

All except Granddad, down near the far end of the table, who busily continued eating without looking up from his plate, and never broke stride. He shared the family joy, of course. You could see it in the way he chewed. Much later, we wondered if that was one of the early signs of his dementia. But at the time, it was just funny. And now that he’s gone and only the videotape remains, it’s funny again! Time will do that.

* * * * * * *

Hey, Son! Welcome To The Planet!

People will tell you that nine months passes very quickly. These are of course people who have already given birth. But for us, time did fly. Marci was blessed with an uneventful pregnancy devoid of morning sickness or other complications. The growing lump in her belly had been given a nickname, a special fetus name: we called it Mogo Pogo.

About a year earlier, Marci had a dream that she was pregnant with twins named Mogo Pogo and Pancake. So Mogo Pogo it was, and our families called our baby-to-be by its fetus name for nine months, as we stuck to our guns and refused to divulge Mogo’s actual name pre-birth.

By our calculation, Mogo Pogo was due to be born around the 4th of July. Marci’s doctor calculated the due date as June 27th. And we had read that often first babies are late.

On the evening of Father’s Day, at least two weeks before either expected due date, we were at my aunt’s house for dinner with the family. I had been working extremely long hours at the office to finish up a big project in anticipation of missing work for a few weeks, and as the evening was winding to a close I called the office and reached one of the engineers I’d been working with. I was surprised that he was at the office so late, but he said he was almost done with a feature and needed me to polish off the last details with him.

Michael and I were the only ones there that late on a Sunday night, and we worked in his office so we could use two computers side by side to get our work done in sync. By 1 AM we were starting to wind things up. We were getting rather punchy from being tired, working while listening to old Monty Python comedy albums.

As Marci entered the home stretch of her pregnancy, she had picked up a Baby Beeper for me, which I carried at work and whenever I was away from her. It had never occurred to me that because I hadn’t intended to be at work that evening, I wasn’t wearing the beeper. It never occurred to Marci either, so when her water broke at about 12:45 AM she paged me several times without realizing that the pager lay on my bedside table, turned off to conserve the battery (so I’d be sure it would work on the one occasion that justified its existence).

Marci had already called me at the office, but I hadn’t heard the phone ring since I was down the hall listening to the Parrot Sketch. In a message on my voicemail, which I heard several weeks later, she calmly said, “Hi, Doug. Please call me immediately.”

Apparently, she had called back a few minutes later, and sounded a little more concerned. “Doug—you need to call me right now!”

There was a third call on my voicemail. Marci’s voice was shaking. “Doug, my water broke and I don’t know where you are and I don’t know what I should do and you need to come home RIGHT NOW!!!”

Michael and I had reached a quiet point in the Monty Python album and I had momentarily stopped banging the computer keys. “Did you hear something?” I asked him. “I think I heard my phone ring.”

It took about six tenths of a second for me to go from “I think I heard my phone ring” to realizing that it was 1 AM and there was only one person who would call me and ohmygod I wasn’t wearing my beeper and by the end of that second I was already out of the chair and dashing for my office.

Marci said she was fine and wasn’t yet in active labor, though her water had broken. The hospital had told her to come on in. I ran for the car.

Normally, it took about 18 minutes to get to my house from the office. At 85 MPH, it takes considerably less time. As I sped homeward, I realized that I still had the Blockbuster movies in my car that we’d intended to return that evening. I’m glad there were no police around that night. I’m sure they would not have believed me that I was driving 70 through the Blockbuster parking lot in order to return videos so they wouldn’t be days overdue because I was in a hurry to get home so I could take my wife to the hospital to have a baby.

For that matter, Marci couldn’t believe it either.

I hope she thinks it’s funny now. She didn’t at the time.

i woke up laughing

This hasn’t happened in quite a while: I woke up laughing, having dreamed a joke. Considering the economy lately and what it’s done at the office, my dreams of late have been anything but funny, so this was a pleasant surprise.

I was talking with an old friend; I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We were catching up about our kids. He has two, just like me.

“Do you have pictures of them?” I asked. Not really a Guy thing do do, but hey–it was a dream. Could happen.

He reached into his wallet and handed me a dollar bill. I turned it over and looked at it in puzzlement.

He said, “My older son, he has a round face, curly hair and a strong-willed disposition. He looks just like George Washington.”

“Ah,” I said. “And your other son?”

“He has a triangular face and ONE BIG EYE!”