Friday, March 26, 2010


Today while I was cutting firewood in the backyard, I began reminiscing about my job at the sawmill, over thirty years ago. The fresh Douglas fir sawdust flying from my chainsaw smelled the same today as it did back then. I began to hear the sounds of the sawmill. The pounding of logs on their way to the head-rig, the tearing of saw blades, the rip of the planer, the slapping of lumber coming off the green chain. I could feel the building shake, and I began to see their faces again. Phil, Bob, and Jay. Mark, having a laugh with Cho and Kim. Patty with her leather gloves tucked in the back pockets of those tight blue jeans. Glen and Old Throp, grading and stamping the lumber. Ken, high on speed, keeping up with the best of ‘em. And Ray.

Today I wished I could go back to that mill just one more time. Back three decades. Back to the night before Ray died. I’d sit by him at the lunch table and say “Ray, don’t come in to work tomorrow. Take your wife and kid out for a drive in that new truck you’re so proud of. And when you come back, don’t wear those steel toe boots. They’re not safe. They’re more dangerous that you could ever imagine. And from now on, don’t climb up on that machine of yours anymore when it’s running. And when boards get caught in the rollers, don’t ever try to kick them through with your foot. When boards get caught like that, turn off the machine Ray. Turn off the machine.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Driving Lessons with My Father

When I was a kid my father drove a jet black 1965 Pontiac GTO, and I just couldn’t wait to drive it someday, but by the time I turned 15½ and was ready to get my drivers permit my father was driving a pea green 1962 Ford Falcon Station Wagon. "Deep sigh."


My first driving lesson (in the old Ford Falcon) began in an open field near the Tacoma City Dump back in 1974. “Slowly let out the clutch and apply the gas” dad said. “Slower, more gas.” Clunk! “Okay, let’s try again. Ease the clutch. More gas!” The car began to lurch and stop, lurch and stop. "Clutch, gas... more gas!” The car began to fight back, and violently lunged forward. Without seatbelts it was hard to stay on the seat. Squeak clunk, squeak clunk! By now the car was bucking as though I’d just planted a pair of silver spurs deep into her rear fenders. Then after what felt like at least 8 seconds, but must have been less because I didn’t hear a horn blow (or see any rodeo clowns run in front of the vehicle) the bucking gave way to rocking as the engine wheezed, coughed, and finally died.

With a pine tree air freshener swinging in circles from the rear view mirror (no doubt trying to hide the smell of fear in the air) and my outnumbered two feet stabbing at the three pedals on the floor, I heard dad say “Start it again ..start it again.” After a moment of silence I replied “I can’t find the keys." They’d been thrown from the ignition while I was busy hanging on for dear life. "What do you mean you can't find the keys?" "They’re not in the ignition" I said. More silence. After getting out of the car and searching, the keys were finally found hiding under the front seat, probably looking for an escape route. I was looking for one too.


A couple days later, after perfecting the art of engaging the clutch, I was now ready to hit the open road. Oh look, there goes the old Ford Falcon now, with me driving and dad navigating: “Turn left here. Go straight. Take a right at the light.” So far so good “Now take the next right.” “What?” I gulped to myself, “the next right?” The next right would take us over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or more specifically: The Tacoma Narrows Bridge version 2.0. The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge (version 1.0) also known as Galloping Gertie collapsed and fell into Puget Sound in November of 1940. God rest little Tubby’s soul (the cocker spaniel who was the only fatality of that famously filmed event.)

While this Tacoma Narrows Bridge (version 2.0) didn’t sway in the wind like its predecessor, it was indeed very narrow (unlike it is today with its version 2.1 updates.) Back then it was a two-way four-lane death trap famous for its frequent head on collisions. However, thanks to the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge (version 3.0 built adjacent its 2.1 updated sister bridge in 2007) each bridge now transports one way traffic too and fro from Tacoma to Gig Harbor, making for a much safer crossing.

But back to 1974: “Take the next right.” “Okay” I said as I turned the wheel, and there it was jutting out of the icy waters of Puget Sound, appearing to be at least a thousand feet tall and approximately four feet wide, The Tacoma Narrows Bridge! Over a mile long, but less than a half mile away, the giant green Leviathan was coming right at us. If I were prone to hyperbole I might call it a bridge of peril in a fog of misfortune spanning a sea of cold and certain death, but I’m trying hard to stick to the facts here. Toward the bridge we went. The first sign on the approach to the bridge read “CAUTION: SEVERE SIDE WINDS AHEAD.” The next sign read “CAUTION: DO NOT CHANGE LANES ON BRIDGE,” and with the last sign my fate was sealed. “NO U TURNS!” So there I was ....the Ford Falcon was but a bullet in the chamber of a cocked gun, pointed right between the eyes of destiny. BANG!

The first thing you notice while driving on the bridge is that the lanes immediately narrow to make room for the one foot wide metal grates that separate them. These grates were designed to allow wind and rain to pass harmlessly through the bridge deck, but they also allow car tires ignore steering wheel instructions whenever they touch them. To protect human lives however the grates running down the center of the bridge had been painted yellow, and in later years even had little orange plastic tubes clipped to them. Being made of rubber and therefore subject to melting, tires naturally fear the colors of fire (mainly yellow and orange.)

Not willing to trust life and limb to my tires natural instincts, I chose to drive in the outside lane. As I was tight-roping down the concrete strip at 45mph I became uncomfortably aware of the steel pipe mounted eight to ten inches off the pavement to my imediate right, just between the road and the sidewalk (Note: the version 2.1 update replaced this pipe with a sturdy thirty inch high guardrail.) I noticed that the pipe didn’t seem high enough to nudge me back into my lane if I were to hit it. Rather it appeared to be the perfect height, if I were to strike it at the proper angle to launch the car up and over the bridge's outer handrail, and into the dark churning waters two-hundred feet below.

“Don’t touch the grate, stay away from the pipe” I repeated over and over in my mind. By the time we reached the first suspension tower I was squeezing the steering wheel so hard that the car was beginning to turn blue. “Don’t touch the grate, stay away from the pipe.” Mercifully the second tower finally passed by. We’d traveled nearly a mile on the bridge and were almost to the other side. Blood was slowly returning to my fingertips. “Take the first right turn after the bridge” dad said. Now until that moment the last thing on my mind was doing this again anytime soon, but “take the first right turn” could only mean that we were going to loop under the highway, and get right back on going the opposite direction. Couldn’t we just take the 110 mile trip around the water to get back home? What’s the big hurry?

Then I heard the instruction again. “Turn right up here.” Slowly removing my left hand from the steering wheel, I grabbed the turn signal lever and pulled up on it. Adrenalin is a funny thing. Sometimes it's very useful, but when you’re learning to drive it usually isn’t. For the next several hundred feet with the right turn signal blinking away, I was caught in an awkward predicament. I couldn’t let go of the turn signal handle to re-grab the steering wheel. Well I could have, but it would have fallen to the floor and I thought I might need it again. Seeing only one thing to do in this situation, I reached over and handed my dad the turn signal lever that I had just ripped right off the steering column of his car. I won’t quote to you what I heard next. Let’s just say it was an emphatic expression of disbelief. Apparently in all my father’s years of driving, he had never (not even once) torn off a turn signal lever, nor had he ever seen anyone else do it. Well what’s a son for if not to teach his ol' dad a new trick every now and then?

I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear that we made it home safely that day, and I even got to practice using my hand signals, to warn everyone within striking distance which way I intended to turn next.

To view the fate of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge click the link below: