Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why You Should Always Look Up

I don’t know how I’ll die, but being crushed in a roof or ceiling collapse must be high on the list of possibilities. I have escaped this fate three times in my life. The image of a bloated, sagging ceiling threatening to fall is one of the most common dream imageries I now have, next to my teeth falling out, not having the right books for class and not knowing what my schedule is or what classroom I should be in, and being unable to find my car in the parking lot.

The first incident is the one that would most likely have been fatal. My 4th grade school year was coming to a close in 1983 and I was 10 years old. As an end-of-year celebration, all the students were gathered in the gym for a program, the details of which I can no longer recall. Perhaps we had a sing-along or were given tips on how to stay safe over the summer. Hundreds of kids and their teachers sat in the bleachers on each side of the gym and in folding chairs on the basketball court. We sweated through the un-air-conditioned event and then were free to leave for the seemingly endless summer. But I was back the following weekend when my dance school had their recitals held on the stage of the gym. While I was not performing my ballet or tap routine (I did both), I would sit in the audience with family members and the rest of the students who were waiting their turn. The music for each dance number was loud and echoed through the gym, and no one suspected that the 60,000-pound steel mesh and plaster ceiling above their heads was poised to crash. Once again, the audience left and the gym returned to its quiet state, or at least if it were creaking and groaning there was no longer anyone around to hear.

Then, with the school abandoned for the summer, a little student marching band from Iowa was in the area and asked to use the gym as a place to sleep on June 20. It was 10:45 at night but the band members were not yet asleep. Some were playing outside in the cool night air but a few remained inside when they heard a rumble, looked up, and saw the ceiling trembling. They ran to the nearest exits and cleared the floor just as the ceiling crashed down, smashing pieces of the hardwood and twisting the basketball posts. No one was killed.

My second close encounter happened at my granny’s house in Texas. I was a high school senior making the annual Christmastime pilgrimage with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law to Austin to see my paternal grandmother and the rest of my dad’s side of the family. She lived on beautiful Lake Travis, back when the water level was neither shockingly low (as it was when I visited last November 2011, at around 60 feet lower than average) or tragically high (as it would be one year after my last Christmastime visit, in 1991 when the water rose 29 feet above average and swallowed my granny’s house).

But in 1990 the lake was still harmless. We visited with the relatives and went to see all our favorite familiar sites, including Pedernales Falls and Zilker Park. But on the morning of the last full day there, I woke with stomach pains. I felt nauseated and just wanted to sleep. So even though there was still a day full of activities scheduled, I was allowed to stay home alone and rest while everyone else enjoyed their last day of vacation.

My granny’s little lakeside cottage had only two bedrooms with two double beds in each room, so I was sharing a room with my sister and her new husband. I spent the entire day in bed, waking only briefly to roll gently onto my other side before nodding off again.

By the time my family came home that evening, I was starting to feel a bit better. My mom offered to make me some toast so I took her up on it, and she brought me a plate with one piece of toast smeared with a bit of jam. I ate most of the toast and then, instead of calling her in to get my plate, decided that I was feeling good enough to get up and walk to the kitchen to take it back myself. It was going to be my first time getting out of bed all day. I sat all the way up, scooched to the foot of the bed, which was just across from the doorway, and leaned forward with the plate still balanced in one hand as my feet touched the ground. At the same moment, I heard a loud noise behind and above me. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew I needed to run. I dove for the doorway as I felt something scratch across my back.

My family was there in an instant. I stood in the hallway with the crusts from the toast spilled on the floor about me and looked back into the bedroom. The room’s drop ceiling, just in the location directly over the bed I had slept in all day, had fallen in. I got away with only some scratches on my back and a need to find a new place to sleep for the night.

The last time I was nearly hit by a falling ceiling was in a dive apartment during my junior year of college. The ceiling in our kitchen had been dripping from the apartment above it and I had made numerous calls to the management company. But they didn’t come out and the ceiling began to crack and sag. The affected area was where the kitchen led into the living room. It was obvious that it was going to fall, so I set a chair underneath it to remind my roommates to walk the long way around, through the hallway and past the bedrooms, to get from the kitchen to the living room. But after the chair sits there a while, you get used to it.

My boyfriend and I were watching TV in the living room and I had gone into the kitchen to get a snack. On my way back I decided to chance it and darted under the sagging ceiling past the chair. I made it no problem, sat down on the ubiquitous college futon to finish watching the show, and two minutes later heard a crash behind me.

So now you will forgive me if you see I have a tendency to look up. Not just outside for my nerdy pastimes of astronomy and meteorology, but indoors too. My inner chicken little knows that there’s nothing wrong with claiming that the sky is falling, because sometimes it really is.

"Lake" Travis, November 2011

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Day the Circus Came to Town

            The summer of 1977 was coming to an end. It was Sunday, August 28, and I was a mere four years old. My sister Kris, who had turned eight that month, would be headed back to school soon. But things were going to be different this year, because I was officially a big kid now and would be going to nursery school some mornings. No longer would I have to sit on the sidelines. Big things were in store for me. Real big. You could even call them “elephant-sized”. I just didn’t know it yet.

            The summer held one last hurrah for us. The circus was in town and would be putting on a show that night. My dad was working at the golf course that day, as usual, and my mom was out in the backyard, weeding her vegetable garden. If Kris and I were well-behaved, we would get to go to the circus that evening. So we spent the morning out of my mother’s hair, making forts out of the cushions and blankets in our living room.

            Our house was the same size and shape as every other house on our street. It was tract housing from the early 1970s: a squat ranch consisting of a two-car garage, living room, kitchen with “dinette”, three bedrooms and a bathroom. It looked not unlike a bomb shelter painted white with black shutters. In the backyard my mother had cordoned off a large section of the yard for growing vegetables. She had rows upon rows of carrots, tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, squash, okra, and other vegetables that completely disgusted me. I would eat the carrots and carve the cucumbers into boats that my sister and I would float down the rain-filled gutters after a storm, but that is where my interest in the garden ended. Plus it was generally understood that many of these vegetables were for my dad, so he could concoct his strange southern dishes that the rest of us were forced to smell but not eat.

            Kris and I were busy shining the flashlights under our newly constructed hut when we heard my mother’s screams through the screen door.

            “Girls! Girls! Get out here!”

            We jumped up and ran toward the backyard and met my mother just as she reached the patio.

            “He’s in the front now!” she hollered. “Go to the front door and look out the window!” We rushed to the other side of the house in time to see an elephant emerge on our street. Unfortunately, our neighbor didn’t see him. He had just backed out of his driveway and was now facing down the street away from us and slowly accelerating. The elephant, in an obvious state of agitation, followed the little red pickup truck and placed its enormous front feet onto the truck bed. From where we were, we could see our neighbor shift slightly in his pickup, which was suddenly lower to the ground in the back, and peer through his rearview mirror. And then we heard a horrified, high-pitched scream that would have broken the windows had they not already been open.

            If this weren’t enough of a peculiar scene for a small Wisconsin farming community, it was about to get weirder. A gang of shirtless black men in dreadlocks wielding long sticks and whips materialized on the street behind the elephant. The men were running behind the petrified pachyderm, brandishing their assortment of tools and chains, shouting to each other and the elephant in a language not familiar to this continent, much less this county.

            The elephant stepped off the back of his ride, which was not accelerating fast enough to assure him a safe escape, and veered to his right. Across the street from our house is a large open field owned by the school system. It may not have been an African savannah, but it was spacious enough for the elephant to gain some speed as he barreled away from the hordes now chasing him.

As we watched the elephant tear away from us, my mother had time to relay the scene she had witnessed in the backyard. She had been bent over her plants, plucking the little weeds by the roots when she heard a crashing noise coming a couple houses back. She stood up in time to see a black man running through the side yard. She said to herself, “There’s no basketball game in town today,” before witnessing a great gray form emerge from beyond a neighbor’s garage. It was an elephant, and definitely not pink, so therefore unrelated to last night’s half a beer she had with our taco dinner.

We would later learn that the elephant was a female named Barbara who had been spooked while helping erect a circus tent. The pole she was righting dropped with a clatter, causing the skittish elephant to flee, with her front legs still in chains.

            We had a clear view across the field to watch the scene, although at a distance. Here and there a face would peep out the door lining the street by the field or a car on a side road would suddenly hit the brakes. My sister and a neighbor used binoculars to get a better look as the elephant crossed the equivalent of a couple football fields before finding what lay at the opposite end from us: Maplewood Nursing Home.

            Maplewood is a brick one-story structure consisting of four patient wings. As the elephant continued across the road and into the front lawn of the nursing home, she had to make a decision. Continue forward where the two wings of the building were now funneling her, or turn around into the arms of her captors. She chose to go forward, and then suddenly she was gone.

            From where we stood, the elephant seemed to have just disappeared. But through the binoculars my sister could relay that the elephant had pushed her way through a window into one of the resident’s rooms. The trainers didn’t even pause before jumping through the hole in the wall after the elephant.

            For a while there was calm on the streets, if you don’t count the growing number of people and cars that were swarming the area now that word was out an elephant was on the loose.

            At the time we had no idea what was going on inside but imagined mayhem of all sorts. Somehow the elephant miraculously steered clear of injuring anyone, not even a heart attack or understandably scaring someone to death. After going into a room that was unoccupied because the residents were at lunch, Barbara turned and went down one hallway and then another. She was about to go into another resident’s room, that of Harley Hanick, 63, who was watching football on TV. According to the local newspaper, Hanick reported the event as only a colorful local could: “It sounded pretty near like a tornado, all that goddamn racket and all. I went to see just what the hell was going on and walked over to the door and then this elephant sticks its head in. I slammed that door pretty quick and changed her direction fast enough, you bet.”

From our point of view on the other end of the field, a couple of frightening minutes passed in which we imagined senior citizens being rudely awakened from their late morning naps and interrupted during the customary main event of the day, The Price is Right, before another shattering of glass signaled the elephant’s exit out a door at the end of one of the wings. Barbara continued her rampage down the street to the north, behind some trees and then out of sight.

            The beleaguered trainers, certainly exhausted from their plight and risking their lives every step, followed the elephant down the street, pointing to people to stay away. So we did what any other reasonable person would do:  We jumped in the car and took off after the circus parade.

            Meanwhile, other circus workers were following with a second elephant, and in an empty lot a couple miles down the road, the elephants met up, allowing Barbara’s handlers to coax her into a truck to join her pachyderm pal.

I have to believe that nowadays this story would have had a much different ending. Like the dozens of exotic animals gunned down in Ohio after they were set free by their keeper, I imagine that in order to save the lives of innocent bystanders, the police (who were quickly on the scene but let the trainers round up the elephant their way) would have shot the elephant multiple times in front of all the elderly nursing home residents and locals who’d come out to witness the free show. But in fact, no one was hurt or killed by Barbara, and Barbara was allowed to leave the city without any charges being pressed.

            To this day, a yellow-and-black Elephant Crossing sign can be found hanging on the wall of Maplewood Nursing Home. A statue of a little elephant marks the center of the building, from which the wings all radiate. And interspersed with large sepia toned photos of people from the area from the early 1900s are two framed newspaper articles of the one day in 1977 when Barbara came for a visit.

            The incident left an elephant-sized impression on my four-year-old mind. Over the years I have thought of Barbara often enough that it’s not really the incident itself I remember but previously recalled memories of it, with additions and subtractions made from other witness’s memories and newspaper accounts. Yet the feeling I had that day has never left me. Even now, on warm summer mornings when the wind blows just right, I swear it smells like “elephant weather” to me.

Sign on the nursing home wall

An elephant statue reminds residents of Barbara's visit.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Blogging about Nothing Is Blogging about Nothing

A while back (okay, a LONG while back), I wrote a blog titled Blogging about Everything Is Blogging about Nothing because I was unfocused and unsure of what I wanted to say and what I wanted to do with this blog. Therefore, I didn't really blog at all. Then I had the idea that this blog could be about how I am progressing in my writing. The only problem with that is if I have free time to think about my work in progress, I want to be writing the story and not anything else. And again, I didn't really blog at all.

So, I have another idea. There are things I want to write about that are not related to any of my works in progress or other freelance assignments. What if I wrote them here? Little tidbits that amuse me and that others might also find amusing, or shocking, or what have you ... can all go into this blog. I already have a list of true stories that I would like to write about on my iPhone in the cute little yellow legal pad "Notes" app. Not only would this be FUN to do, but on days when my other work isn't flowing, writing something else, anything at all, will at least keep me headed in the right direction.

Wish me luck! I think this could be the start of something meaningful. And because I never like to post a blog without a photo, this one is just because.