The Last Half Century

Grabbing Fear by the Tail

It’s pretty simple. I don’t like snakes. Some people have a fear of heights. I have a fear of snakes. I’m not exactly sure where this fear originated because I grew up in a colder climate where small garter snakes were the only ones I saw on our farm. I have a hunch it started when my dad bought some property in southern Tennessee.

My dad was a Navy veteran and he loved boating. The land he bought was on a river and he had this idea he would open a marina when he retired. I think I was 13 years old when my dad first took me to visit the property. “Watch for snakes,” my dad told me as we walked through tall grass near the river. “They have rattlers down here,” he added. My eyes instantly grew big as I recalled a picture I saw in the local paper with someone holding a large, eight-foot snake they caught in their garage. “That was no garter snake,” I told myself. My senses were on high alert.

The next day we visited the neighbors who had a house next to my dad’s land. I vividly recall sitting in their living room sipping ice tea as this older man in his 60s began to tell us tales of all his snake encounters. “I shot a big old copper head back in the barn there,” he said between sips of tea as he nodded his head toward the barn behind his house. “It was at least six feet long.” I wondered if the snake grew longer with each telling of the story. That trip made an impression on me.

Fortunately I married a nature lover who is not scared of snakes or most any critter. She rescued me many times after hearing my screams when I uncovered a snake in my garden or in the yard. “It’s just a garter snake,” she would politely smile and reassure me as she picked it up. “Yeah, but it’s still a snake,” I would remind her. Picking up a snake may have seemed like no big deal to her, but to me it’s a pretty heroic act. Pretty gutsy.

Just writing about my fear of snakes is making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It brings back memories of other snake encounters in the last half century of my life — like the large coiled one I almost stepped on when I was helping portage a canoe over a pile of rocks. Okay, that’s enough of that memory.

More recently I have been working on overcoming my fear of snakes. Last time I visited a zoo I actually walked inside the reptile house. I went up to the glass and forced myself to look at a big snake coiled up under a heat lamp. I looked it straight in the eyes and told myself, “You don’t scare me.” I’m not quite at the point where I would actually pick up a snake by the tail — I’m not sure I’ll ever get there — but I’m making progress. Sometimes you just need to face your fears head on and go from there.

Memories · The Last Half Century

A Penny Seed Packet Yields Life Lessons

Mid-summer in the MidWest. Hot, humid days, warm summer rains and fresh produce from the garden. It reminds me of the summer when I was a kid when my mom first gave me my own row in her garden and a special pack of seeds.

My mom was a master gardener. Each year she planted a huge garden so that she could can enough vegetables to last us all winter. In those days we received a paper seed catalog in the mail around January when the ground was frozen and still covered with snow. It was fun to sit and browse the catalog on a snowy day and dream about spring. Planning for her garden started around March when she ordered seeds via U.S. mail from the catalog. My mom would fill out a paper order form and mail it with a check to the seed company. Weeks later the seeds would arrive.

One year my mom pointed out that the seed company had a special mystery packet of seeds just for kids for one cent. The contents of the seed packet varied — you didn’t know exactly what you would get — which made it fun. I gave her my penny and she ordered the seed packet for me. I don’t think my mom realized that penny seed packet would challenge her gardening expertise.

When the seeds arrived, my mom showed me my special penny seed pack. I couldn’t wait to plant them. When the weather warmed, we set out to plant the garden. I had my assigned row and my mom helped me open the packet of seeds. She stared at the seeds in my hand for a minute. “I’m not sure what some of these are,” the veteran gardener remarked. I was surprised my little one cent seed packet stumped the expert.

My mom helped me plant my seeds in my special row and we waited for them to reveal their identity when they sprouted. Eventually, as the plants matured, my mom was able to identify most everything except one bushy plant that appeared to be a pumpkin or squash plant. When white, gourd-like, saucer-shaped objects appeared on the plant, my mom was mystified. To my surprise she admitted, “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

In those days there was no Internet to help us identify the plant. Even the seed catalog didn’t help. So we took our unidentified object to the 4-H fair where we asked one of the people judging vegetables. “It’s a summer squash,” a judge promptly told us when she looked at it. “What do you do with it?” my mom asked. “You slice it and fry it with some butter in a fry pan,” the judge answered. Based on the face my mom made in response, this was something new to her. I was learning my mom didn’t know everything about gardening and cooking.

Fried squash was not on the menu in our meat and potatoes home. To her credit, my mom sliced the summer squash and fried it up for us, but it was not a hit. Me and my siblings picked at it with frowns on our faces that showed our displeasure with this new cuisine. It may have been the only time she didn’t make us eat everything on our plate.

That summer I think I harvested more than vegetables from my little garden row. I learned not to be afraid to admit I don’t know something even if I think I’m the expert; to not be afraid to seek another opinion; and that it’s okay to step out of a familiar meat and potatoes world to try new things. Sometimes lessons in life come from the places we least expect them.

The Last Half Century · The Work World

How a Stupid Typing Class Changed my Life

In 1975 I was required to take a half-year of typing during my freshman year in high school. “That’s stupid,” I remarked. “I’ll never need to use typing.” I could not see any reason to master a keyboard in a paper and pen world. Despite my grumbling, I endured the class and learned to type 25 words per minute (wpm) on a manual typewriter. At the time, I had no idea how important 25 wpm would be.

Six years later in college, I changed my major to journalism. I soon discovered one of the requirements to get into my first reporting class was to type at least 25 wpm with only five mistakes. Basically I had to pass the typing test or change my major. I knew I could type up to 25 wpm thanks to my high school typing class, but could I do it with five mistakes or less? I still remember the stopwatch ticking as I furiously pounded the keys on the manual typewriter, knowing my future was at stake. One minute later I passed the 25 wpm mark with seven mistakes.

“Do you think you can keep up in the reporting class?” The teaching assistant said as she looked at me after pointing to my seven mistakes. “You have to type stories in class,” she explained. “Sure,” I confidently replied, not really sure if I could or not. All I wanted was to get into that reporting class. She approved me for the class and I soon found out I had a lot to learn.

“I’ve been a reporter for more than 20 years,” my instructor announced the first day of reporting class. “I run the news bureau at the capitol.” I felt intimidated by his experience and immediately feared my mere 25 wpm would not cut it. “First rule of journalism,” he continued as he reached into a large paper bag next to the podium. “The newsroom runs on caffeine.” He proceeded to pull out a drip coffee maker and told us he would provide all the coffee we needed. He made a point not to provide stir sticks to mix in the powder creamer and sugar. “Use your pencil for that,” he explained. “And call me Bill.”

After we all had a cup of coffee next to our manual typewriters, Bill then asked us to type a sentence he had written on the chalkboard. The room instantly came alive with the loud racket of 25 manual typewriters— keys clacking, bells ringing at the end of a margin and the zipping sound of carriages advancing to the next line. The noise made it hard to concentrate.

I was one of the last to finish typing the sentence and when the room was quiet we all stared at Bill. “Did you hear that?” he asked. My fellow students and I looked at each other with blank expressions. “The typewriters?” A classmate finally offered. “Exactly!” Bill smiled. “You need to get used to working in a noisy newsroom full of typewriters, shouting and wire service printers,” he explained.

A few weeks later I entered the classroom before the start of class and everyone was at the windows staring outside. I joined them and immediately spotted the rising column of black smoke from a burning building on campus not far from where we stood. “Well, just don’t stand there,” Bill said when he entered the room. “Go get the story! Be back here in an hour and type up what you find out in an article that will be due at the end of class.” I felt sorry for the fire chief on the scene as 25 inexperienced journalism students descended on him with questions about the fire. We quickly learned how to work under the pressure of deadlines — that breaking news can change your plans in an instant.

The practical things Bill taught in that reporting class served me well throughout my career. He nurtured my writing skills, even though the first few articles I submitted were horrible. He taught me to have a natural curiosity about things, to thoroughly research a story as he challenged me to have more sources in the stories I submitted to him. When I worked in a rambunctious creative department in an ad agency, I thrived on the creative energy displayed in the noisy work environment. Each time I stirred my coffee with a pencil, I recalled Bill’s words from that first day of reporting class. I always appreciated the fact that somehow Bill saw my ability as a writer even when I doubted myself.

If I hadn’t learned typing in high school, I probably would’ve changed my major instead of taking a typing class in college. I would’ve also missed out on Bill’s wisdom and encouragement. Which also means I probably wouldn’t be blogging. Sometimes in life things that seem insignificant — things we are made to do that seem stupid at the time — can prove to be important to our life.

Memories · The Last Half Century

We Now Conclude our Broadcast Day

It’s hard to believe in our connected and always on world that there was a time when television stations would end their broadcast day. It was kind of a cool thing when I was in grade school in the 1960s to be up late watching television and to see the station go off the air when the program ended. I did not get to stay up late that often, but when the station stopped broadcasting content I went to bed.

At that time there were no other options — no streaming service, no VCR tapes, no DVDs, no 24 hour news station, nothing. There was no Internet, no social media or You Tube. In fact, like many homes at the time, we only had one screen in the house — a black and white television in a cabinet that was heavy and not portable. The station would end their broadcast day then static would abruptly appear on the screen.

Some stations were more creative in how they signed off. They would tell you they were about to “end our broadcast day,” then play a video recording of the American flag flapping in the breeze or some other patriotic sequence of images. The one I recall is of a fighter jet flying with alternating images of American landmarks — as if it was flying across America protecting us. Other stations were more abrupt and would just tell you, “Hey! We’re done for the day. Go to bed.” Okay, so they said it a bit nicer than that. If you search the Internet for “end of television broadcast day,” you’ll find a sampling of videos with these sign offs.

Sometimes I get a bit nostalgic for that simpler time when broadcast media would sign off for the day; a time when the phone stayed home and didn’t go with you everywhere. It seemed people accepted the fact that it was okay to be away from media for awhile; okay to be away from your phone. Sometimes I think we should have an “end of broadcast day” on social media where we sign off for the night and give everyone a break. Then again, maybe nostalgia is a sign of old age.

I’d love to hear your memories of “end of broadcast day” station sign-offs. You can share them by leaving a comment. Thanks for reading. I now conclude my blogging day. See you next week.

Memories · The Last Half Century

Instant Ancestors and Fake History

Years ago I was browsing in an antique shop when a saw a large collection of old pictures of people hanging on a wall. A sign posted in the middle of the collection read, “Instant Relatives.”’ I studied the black and white pictures with families and couples posing for the camera. The sign presented an intriguing thought. Afterall, who would know if I adopted the people in the pictures as my ancestors?

Intriguing as it may have been, I did not buy any of those pictures. But it did bring to light a dilemma for me. My kids weren’t around for the first few years of our marriage or when I was dating my wife. I mean, who is going to fact check the details if I embellish our personal history? “Oh no,” I consider how I might reassure my daughter, “Grandma and your aunts and uncles just don’t remember how it really happened.”

Okay, so I didn’t give into temptation and told the truth about our personal history, but I must confess there were times I came close to embellishing certain facts. Like the time when our kids were very young and one asked, “How did you and mom meet?” I recall those precious little eyes staring up at me, wanting to know how we became a couple.

There was a brief moment, a flash of temptation, a slight urge to fabricate an amazing story. At the time I knew this little one had no way to fact check my story. Wikipedia wasn’t a thing then and a dial-up modem was how we accessed the Internet. (If you don’t know what dial-up is, all you need to know is that it was slow, very slow.)

“Well, I was on this expedition in the Amazon rain forest with a Harvard research team and your mom was with a group from Yale conducting an anthropological study on indigenous people,” I considered telling them, but my conscious makes me reconsider. “Too many big words — they’ll never understand,” I told myself.

“Your mom was part of a mountain helicopter rescue team. She swooped in and saved me after I was caught in an avalanche while I was helicopter skiing in the Alps doing advance work for a James Bond film crew,” I considered telling them in a calm and cool voice. “Nah,” I reconsidered, “It would have to be advance work on a kids movie to make it believable.”

“We met on a blind date,” I finally confessed to my daughter. “A friend of ours set us up.” Her face lit up with a pleased look. “Cool,” she smiled. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit that our life story is actually more interesting than the people we read about in the news.

Memories · The Last Half Century

GTO, OPEC, MPG and First Love

It was love at first sight. I was a 13-year old boy minding my own business when I spotted her flaunting her beauty. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at her. I was mesmerized by the Pontiac GTO parked in my parent’s driveway with its copper-colored steel body resting on racing slicks with raised white lettering.

A minute later I watched my brother’s friend climb into the car. As the engine roared to life, he turned and waved at me from the open window in his door. He looked so cool in that car. A second later he left in a cloud of dust as he spun the rear tires on our gravel driveway. I watched in awe as he raced down our road and quickly disappeared from sight.

“What a time to be a teenager,” I thought. It was the early 1970s when big engines propelled fast cars with cheap gas. I was living during the heyday of the American muscle car. But I could only admire it from afar. I was too young to have a driver’s license. The next best thing for me was to leaf through the pages of Hot Rod magazine and dream about the day when I would look cool behind the wheel of a GTO. Little did I know my dreams were about to be shattered by something called OPEC.

The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 caused a dramatic rise in gas prices. Soon a 55 mph speed limit was put into effect and suddenly gas mileage became more important than 0-60 mph acceleration times. It caused the death of muscle cars with monster engines and raw horsepower. By the time I graduated from high school, I had traded my GTO dreams for MPG.

I remember driving out of the dealer lot with my Plymouth Horizon into adulthood. It wasn’t exactly the GTO moment I had dreamed about. When I punched the accelerator, I could barely get a chirp out of the tires. It had half the cylinders of that GTO and zero cool factor, but it did get a cool 34 MPG on the highway. I reassured myself I was saving money commuting to college in it as I mourned my dream of owning a GTO. Yet I never dreamed what would happen next.

I now look back on my first car with fondness as I recall taking my wife on dates in it. I vividly remember proposing to her in the front seat right before I dropped her off at her college dorm. It was the car we took on our honeymoon — a three-week, cross-country trip to the Pacific Coast in Washington state. Riding in that car with the love of my life was a dream come true. That’s a dream I’m still living.

Technology · The Last Half Century · The Next Half Century

Future Self Meets Past Self

I was thinking the other day about what it would be like if my future self visited me when I was in my twenties back in the 1980s. I imagined a conversation something like this:

“Hey, I’m your future self from the year 2020.”

“Whoa, dude! What’s up?” (Apologies to Bill and Ted and their “Excellent Adventure.”)

“Do you want to know how your life turns out?”

“Not really. That’s too scary. How about you tell me something else.”

“Okay. In the future we have smart phones.”

What are you talking about? How can a phone get smart?” My 1980s clueless, land line phone self asks.

“It’s a touchscreen phone that lets you use apps, take pictures, text and surf the Internet.”

“You can surf with your phone in the future? Wow, that must be a pretty big phone.”

“No. You surf the Internet with it.”

“What’s the Internet?”

“Well it’s this global network that let’s you connect with other people around the world.”

“Oh, like making a phone call?”

“Well, you can still do that, but you can also use social media.”

“Social media? In the future the government takes over the media?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. You use online platforms like Facebook to communicate.”

“Facebook? Why would you use a book instead of a phone to talk to people?”

“No, its online social media.”

“The future sounds very strange,” my 1980s self remarks.

“Maybe it’s better if I just leave and wait for you to catch up with me in a few decades. It might be easier to learn this stuff as you go.”

“Yeah, it sounds very complicated. Maybe the world will all make more sense in a few decades.”

“Well…” my future self hesitates.

“Well what?” My past self says with concern.

“Yeah sure, everything will make a lot more sense in a few decades,” my future self responds with a fake smile.

“Well, that’s good to hear,” my 1980s self says. “Things are pretty confusing now. I’m still trying to figure out how to record TV shows with my VCR.”

“Good luck with that,” my future self remarks before he leaves. “See you later, much later.”

“Later dude!” My past self replies as he plays an air guitar.

Perspective · The Last Half Century

Inspiration from an Empty Tin Can

My dad grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s where he learned to be resourceful. He was the one who taught me that the simple tin can has far more uses than just holding food. Later I learned an empty can also holds some life lessons.

On our farm when I was a kid, empty cans were put to good use. Flattened cans adorned the occasional rodent hole in the wood siding of our barns. An empty soup can with the bottom cut out wrapped perfectly over a hole in an exhaust pipe on a car or truck. But the predominant use of empty cans on the farm was to store all kinds of things from nails to bolts to spare parts.

For me and my siblings, the best use for a large empty can was for a game of Kick the Can. (If you’ve never heard of this game you can find descriptions of it on the Internet.) It’s amazing how much fun we packed into an empty can, especially when my cousins would visit. The larger the group of kids, the greater the fun.

As an adult I learned another side to the story of the enduring tin can. Early in my writing career, I worked as a copywriter at an ad agency in Cleveland. One day I was given the task of writing a brochure for a coating used to help seal the inside of cans. Until that fateful day, I thought all cans were alike. The brochure featured the resilient, bright golden finish of the coating layered inside the can and it’s superior sealing properties. I wondered if that was the secret to the enduring qualities of the can.

Now when I empty a can I find myself looking inside for that golden finish. It reminds me that there are so many things I take for granted — like the people who make coatings that seal cans so we can store food on our shelves for months; that there is more than one way to look at things; that common household things can provide a lot of fun; that sometimes resilience is not evident until we’re emptied and look inside for that bright golden finish.

© 2020 CGThelen

The predominant use of empty cans on our farm was to store all kinds of things from nails to bolts to spare parts.
Memories · The Last Half Century

Action Movie Star

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be one of those tough guys in the movies. You know, the guy who wears mirrored aviator sunglasses and casually escapes the burning car before it explodes. Well, when I was 16, that dream came true. Unfortunately, there was no film in the movie cameras to record my debut. In fact, there were no cameras. To be honest, there wasn’t even a crew on site to record my daring exploit. Shoot, I wasn’t even wearing mirrored sunglasses when I escaped a burning vehicle. Let me explain.

Every spring on the farm where I grew up, it was my job to mow down the corn stubble left in the field from the fall harvest. I would drive our small Massey Ferguson 35 tractor, with a large rotary cutter attached to back end, across large fields, shredding the dry corn stalks into small pieces. This made sure that when the field was plowed, the equipment would not get clogged with large corn stalks.

It was a pretty straight forward job, but unfortunately I discovered it was also dangerous. In the process of shredding the corn stalks, small pieces of stalk would accumulate in a pile on top of the mower — dry pieces that made excellent kindling. Then there was the fact that this tractor had a muffler that went underneath the tractor — which is great if you’re driving it in a barn with a hay loft above, but not so great in a field with pieces of kindling flying all over.

So if this was a movie, this is where the dramatic music would start in anticipation of something horrible happening. The scene cuts to a closeup of a piece of corn stalk starting to burn on the muffler underneath the tractor. The piece falls to the ground and soon the field is on fire. Cut to the panicked look of the driver (without mirrored sunglasses) as he looks back and realizes the corn field full of dry corn kindling is now on fire. Of course I’ve already told you this was no movie, this was real life.

When I saw the burning field behind me, I immediately stopped the tractor, jumped off and ran to the burning stalks. I tried to stomp out the fire with my work boots, but the fire was spreading too fast. That’s when I thought of the tractor. I turned to see flames leaping up from the rotary cutter attached to the back of the tractor. This was my stuntman moment. I had only one thought, “Dad’s gonna kill me if that tractor burns!”

I sprinted back to the tractor and plopped myself on the driver’s seat. I slipped the transmission into high gear and drove away from the burning field. A second later I realized the breeze from the moving tractor was fanning the flames and the fire on the back of the tractor was growing larger. That’s when I noticed pieces of corn kindling below the clutch, brake pedals and under the seat. I realized the flames would soon be under me if I didn’t do something fast. I had to make a split-second decision as I thought about the fuel tank mounted just ahead of the steering wheel.

If this was a movie, this is the part where I would calmly leap from the tractor a second before it explodes in a ball of fire. I would then roll on the ground and stand up without ever losing my mirrored sunglasses. But, as I already mentioned, this wasn’t a movie. In that split second where I had to decide whether to abandon the tractor, I spotted a huge pool of water that had collected in a low spot in the field. I immediately shifted the tractor into high gear and headed straight for the water.

I still wish there had been a camera there that day to film the tractor as it plunged into the pool of water drenching me with flying mud, cinders and water. The tractor stalled, coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the pool of water. All I could hear was the sizzling of hot metal cooled by mud and water. I sat in the driver’s seat for a moment and let out a sigh of relief. “That was quite the stunt,” I told myself as I started the tractor, drove it out of the puddle and headed back to the farm.

As I pulled up the driveway and parked the tractor near the house, my mom and dad came running over to me. Apparently someone driving past the burning field drove to the house and told them the field was on fire and I was trying to stomp out the flames. They were about to go rescue me when I pulled up.

“Someone told us the field was on fire and you were trying to put it out,” my dad said as I climbed off the tractor. He paused a moment and looked at me standing next to the tractor soaking wet, covered in mud, corn stubble and cinders. “What happened to you?” he exclaimed.

“The tractor caught fire so I drove it into the water in that low spot in the field,” I explained.

“You should’ve let the tractor burn,” my dad snapped back with a panicked expression. “And you should’ve just let the field burn.”

“I guess,” I nodded, realizing I wouldn’t have felt the heat from my dad for torching his tractor.

“But that was good thinking,” my dad smiled.

“Why don’t you go get cleaned up,” my mom said.

I nodded in agreement. As I walked to the house I thought, “Good thinking? Man I totally rocked that stunt scene!”

© 2020 CGThelen

The Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. Note there is no exhaust stack on top — the muffler runs underneath the tractor.

© 2020, CGThelen

Memories · The Last Half Century

Teaching Respect with the “Board of Education”

When I was in second grade my teacher had the Board of Education to reinforce her discipline. I’m not talking about a table full of people who regularly meet to operate the school; I am talking about a board of wood that my teacher used to educate us on matters of behavior. And yes, it actually had printed on it, “The Board of Education”.

Now before you think I grew up in some kind of primitive civilization with ancient, barbaric customs, paddling children to discipline them was not uncommon in schools in the 1960s. As a second grader, I feared the board that sat on the chalk rail in front of class. No student wanted to be humiliated by “The Board of Education” applying its discipline in front of the rest of the class. It was incentive for us to behave. Once, and only once, did I face that humiliation.

During recess I was innocently playing marbles when my classmate John started picking on me. I told him to stop it, but he persisted. After this went on for a few minutes, he took the marble I was playing with and ran. I pursued him and when I caught up with him he abruptly stopped, turned around and hit me in the gut. It wasn’t a hard punch, but enough to motivate me to hit him back. We scuffled on the far end of the playground for a few more minutes until the bell rang to signal the end of recess and our fight.

When we returned to the classroom I told the teacher sitting at her desk in the front of the class, “John hit me at recess.” Immediately the teacher called John to join me at the front of the room. I waited for the moment that justice would be served to John for picking on me. What came next caught me by surprise. The teacher had John tell his side of the story, which he promptly told how I hit him. I was cross examined and then admitted I did hit him, however it was in self defense. My teacher had a different opinion.

“I won’t accept this kind of behavior from either of you,” she exclaimed. “You both need to respect each other and treat each other the way you want to be treated.” At that moment I knew we were in trouble. John and I received “The Board of Education” on our backside in front of the entire class. We went back to our seats humiliated as the whole class laughed at us. John and I never fought again.

Sometimes I think of my second grade teacher and what she would have to say about society today. I wonder if she would use more than words on some people to instill a little respect for one another.

© 2020 CGThelen