Friday, August 3, 2012

White water kayaking

White Water Kayaking

            “White water kayaking is not dangerous,” said my good friend Ken Platner.  “How many people do you ever hear that get killed on white water?  And most people that get hurt, get hurt rafting and not kayaking.  You’re a helicopter pilot for God’s sake!  Piloting is much more dangerous than kayaking.”
            “What about that scar over your eye?  Didn’t you tell me that you flipped upside down and hit your head on a rock when you were kayaking on the Pigeon River?”
            “Ah, that was nothing, just a little bump.  I had a helmet on, so I wasn’t going to get badly hurt. And haven’t you ever heard that chicks dig scars.”
            “Yeah, I heard that when I was 18 years old.  I can’t imagine going down a river upside down and banging my head on rocks, with or without a helmet.”
            “That’s why you learn to roll.  We practice every Tuesday night at the Freedom Hall pool, so when you flip in the river, you roll back up.  Come on Tuesday and I’ll bring my extra kayak and teach you.”
            “Then why didn’t you roll in the Pigeon.”
            “Well every once in a while you don’t quite make it, so that’s why we practice.  Come on, at least try it for one Tuesday night.”
            Reluctantly I agreed.
            Ken was right, after one night at the pool, with his instruction, I was able to roll a kayak upright from an upside down position.  I couldn’t do it every time, but I could do it most of the time. And I rolled the last 7 times in a row.  I was feeling so confident that I agreed to kayak the lower portion of the Nolichuckie gorge with Ken and his friends on the following Thursday. 
            We drove three vehicles from Johnson City to Irwin and then snaked our way through the back roads until we came to our finish point on the river and left one of the cars.  The people from the cars piled into the back of Ken’s truck and we drove another 10 miles to our starting place.  The water bubbled over the rocks as we prepared to launch our kayaks into the Nolachuckie River.  Ken had brought me a complete kayaking outfit including lifejacket, rubber skirt, helmet and nose plugs.  I climbed into my kayak and sealed the rubber skirt over the lip that surrounded the opening and wiggled my way into the river, following the other experienced kayakers down the river.  Ken was in the lead.  At first, the current seemed pretty benign, but I could see that it was quickly gathering steam.  Dan Jorgenson, a man of about 60 years of age, took responsibility for me and allowed me to pass him, yelling instructions as I headed for the first series of rapids.
            “Keep the nose of the kayak straight and paddle as hard as you can.  If you turn sideways, lean down the river.  If you lean up river, you’ll flip….now, paddle, paddle, paddle!”
            I paddled as hard as I could. The kayak was hard to keep straight but somehow I managed to make my way through the rapids without tipping over.  My heart was racing with both excitement and terror.  The water slowed again and I was able to relax and catch my breath..
            “You did great,” Dan said.
            “That wasn’t too bad,” I answered.  “If they’re all like that, I’ll be okay.”
            “That was a small one,” he said.  “They only get bigger from here.”
            “Great,” I thought.
            But to my amazement, with Dan’s constant instruction, I stayed upright through the next 3 series of rapids.
            “Okay,” yelled Dan. “The next rapid is called radio tower.  It’s a pretty big hole, so you really have to concentrate on keeping the kayak straight.  There are rocks all around it, and if you hit one of those rocks, it will turn you sideways and you know what to do if you get turned sideways?”
            “Lean down river,” I answered.
            He smiled like a proud teacher.
            I looked ahead and watched each of the other kayakers row directly into the drop-off and disappear into the white foamy wake and then magically reappear about 50 yards down river.  I paddled as hard as I could, but right before the rapid my kayak hit a small rock and turned sideways and instinctively I leaned upstream and instantantly I was upside down.  For a few seconds I was in shock, not knowing what to do as I continued down the river upside down.  My head was like the keel of a sailboat that was run aground bouncing from rock to rock.  I had forgotten everything Ken had taught me about rolling in the pool and had only one thought on my mind, GET OUT OF THE KAYAK OR DIE!  I reached for the tab that attached the skirt to the kayak, pulled it and exited, surfacing about 50 yards from the rapid.
            The others scrambled to collect all my loose equipment.
            “You okay,” laughed Don.  “You’re supposed to go down the river with your head above water.”
            “Yeah, I think I’m fine,” I replied.  “Am I bleeding?”
            “I don’t see anything, you must have caught all those rocks with your helmet.”
            “I’m done.  Is there a place I can pull out and carry my kayak to the car?”
.           “Come on, only one more and we’re through.  Now listen to me carefully, if you do this right, it will be real easy.  You need to paddle hard to the right hand portion of the river because the rapid is much smaller on that side.  If you go left, there’s a small waterfall that is for experts only.  Do you hear me….for experts only.  There’s a rock that separates the two paths, so remember stay to the right of the rock.”
            “To the right, to the right,” I told myself as I scooted down the river.  I paddled as hard as I could to the right.  The current was picking up speed and I could see the big rock that separated life from death.   I paddled and paddled and even though I was pointed in the right direction, I just couldn’t overcome the current and make it to the other side of the rock.  BOOM!  I hit the rock with the front, left hand side of the kayak and turned sideways against the rock.  I leaned toward the rock so I wouldn’t flip over and waited for my destiny….it wasn’t good!  The kayak slid across the rock and the current spun me around so that I proceeded down the river backwards!  And what was worse, I was on the wrong side of the rock heading backwards over the waterfall.
            “Turn around, turn around,” came a chorus of screams, thinking that I actually had control of the kayak.
            Within a matter of seconds, I flew backwards over the small waterfall, and everything went into slow motion.  The kayak plunged into the surf like a lawn dart into soft dirt and I took a deep breath waiting for it to flip.  I disappeared under water and then resurfaced upright.  By some strange miracle, I didn’t flip.   I rode the current until it slowed down and then turned the kayak around.
            “Show off,” laughed Ken.  “Here, we didn’t even think you should go over that rapid and you do it backwards just to show us all up, and you were saying that kayaking was dangerous.  You’ve got this sport licked and it’s only your first time.”
            “It wasn’t intentional,” I squeaked.
            All the way home the kayakers laughed at my first day on the river.
            “Do you believe me now that white water kayaking isn’t dangerous?” asked Ken.
            I didn’t answer and just stared ahead.
            That was the last time I ever went white water kayaking. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Huka Lodge

           From 1995 through 2004, I visited 38 different countries as I helped my employer build the company they sent me to run from a $49 million business to a $117 million business.  The most memorable of these trips was my second visit to New Zealand in December 2003.  We had recently selected a new representative for the area, and we planned a tour to introduce our products and our new representative to all the helicopter maintenance facilities and operators.  My wife Mary accompanied me as did Paul Glibert, our new representative and their director of maintenance John Kilburn.  John accompanied us through the northern island of New Zealand, Paul the south.

“John, I want you to find us a nice place when we go down toward Wellington,” I said to John Kilburn.  I was concerned that Mary would be terribly bored, and wanted to make sure that she could crash at a nice hotel while John, and I visited the helicopter operators and repair stations.  I love the selling and visiting part of the helicopter business, because it is at the customers’ locations that you can see your products being used.  I continued with John, “My wife is with me, and we like to stay in nice places, and the company’s paying for it, so find us a comfortable place for the night.”
            “I’ll take care of it,” answered John nervously, wanting to make a good first impression on the two of us.
            Mary and I had flown into Auckland two days earlier and spent the remainder of the first day shaking off the jet-lag from the 17-hour flight and the second day visiting Hawker Pacific’s central helicopter repair center that distributed my company’s parts.  The agenda called for a two-day  tour of all the operators on the North Island and then a five-day  tour of the South island.   The north island trip would take us by car from Auckland to Rotorua and then to Taupo and finally to Wellington, from where we would leave by plane for the South Island city of Nelson.  We would then drive by car again down the entire southwest coast to Queenstown.
            The drive from Auckland to Rotorua was quite beautiful, and I used up the battery on my digital camera taking “road shots” of the beautiful rolling hills and pastures and sheep, lots of sheep.  John was extremely quiet and distant for some reason, and seemed to be avoiding eye contact with us, almost as if he were upset.  But, having known him for only a few hours and having had few conversations, I found it difficult to think of any reason that might make him angry with at us.  I wanted to ask him what was wrong, but I was distracted by the many road side stands where he stopped so that we could buy wool, and possum lined items.  In New Zealand, you can buy any type of wool or possum clothing or shoes, from giant puffy slippers to underwear.  
Often, we drove by a small mountain that looked like a partially sheared sheep, with portions of its trees shaved to the ground.  “Tree farming,” explained John.  “They can literally plan their income based on the time it takes for the trees to grow.  The farmers have huge pieces of equipment, like giant lawn mowers that cut the trees down, flat to the ground.  The lumber is sold overseas.  The only thing that can foil their plans is forest fires.  I knew a man who lost his life’s savings, when a fire destroyed all of his trees just three weeks before they were scheduled to be harvested.”
            To my surprise, Mary decided to visit the helicopter operators with us.  Our first stop was a tour company in Rotorua that flew people over the beautiful Huka falls.  We had a wonderful conversation with the owner who told us about his helicopter part usage and a recent crash.  He asked Mary where she was staying that evening.  “I think the name of the place is the Huka Lodge…isn’t that right John?”  John looked quite embarrassed when he replied, “That’s right.”  The reaction of the owner was quite pronounced.  “The Huka Lodge!  That place is really nice, the best of the best.  I’ve always wanted to stay there.  You know that’s where the queen stays when she visits?  And there’s been a bunch of other celebrities like Michael Douglas and Barbara Streisand.  We flew Mr. Douglas.  Do me a favor? Write me and tell me what it was like.
            Mary promised that she would.
            About 4 p.m., after a hard day of salesmanship, we drove down a secluded drive through a beautiful forest and into the well manicured grounds of the Huka Lodge.  The grounds were breathtaking, and the Waikato River was beautiful as it raced in front of the lodge towards the Huka Falls.  John pulled under a covered porch in front of the main lodge, and we were immediately greeted by a welcoming committee that consisted of three bus boys, the concierge and the executive manager.    
            “Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro?”  the manager asked.  “Mr. Kilburn?”
            “Yes,” we replied, and then we each reached out and shook his hand.
            He smiled and said, “I thought it was you.  Most of the other guests have arrived.  Your bags will be taken to your villa, and now, if you have a moment, I would like to personally give you a tour of the grounds.
            “That would be very nice,” answered Mary.
            John remained very quiet.
            The tour took us through the main lodge, which was a large two-story building with dark hardwood floors and moldings. The downstairs was the congregating area for the guests and had a large dining area with 2 tables big enough for about 30 guests, a living room with red leather chairs and green print couches that overlooked the Waikato River, and an office where they conducted the administrative duties of the lodge.    
            “All the meals are community style,” he said.  “Gives our guests a chance to meet one another and to discuss their days,” he explained.
Upstairs was a trophy room that was lined with the heads of beasts from around the world, a study, complete with library and computer, and a balcony with chairs and tables that overlooked the grounds and the river.  All the dark green and red tones blended with the dark woods to exude warmth that made us want to sit and relax.  After we toured the main lodge, our host took us to the wine vault, where he claimed there were 3500 bottles of rare wines.  My accountant brain made a quick count and told me that he was short by at least 1000 bottles.  He mentioned exotic years and vineyards, but not being connoisseurs, it was all wasted on us.  After the tour, we were led to our villa by a pretty blonde girl.
            Our villa was unbelievable!  It was at least 1200 square feet with a bathroom the size of one of our guest bedrooms.  It was completely private from all the other villas and was only about 50 feet from the river.    
            “This place is beautiful,” said Mary trying to absorb every ounce of it.
            “I bet it’s expensive,” I answered.  “How much do you think it is?”
            “I don’t know, maybe $400 a night,” she answered.
            I thought she was probably close.    
            “Let’s walk the grounds,” I suggested.
            We walked along the fast-paced river and found a friendly cat, which seemed to be part of the lodge.  We sat in big white wooden chairs in front of our villa watching the river, playing with the cat and enjoying the beautiful New Zealand weather.  After a while, we strolled back to the main lodge and saw John sitting on the deck with a drink and holding his head in his hands.
            “John, you did good,” said Mary.  “This place is great.”
            “How much does this place cost?” I asked.
            John remained silent.
            “$500 a night?” I continued.
            “More than that,” he groaned, but he would say no more.
            We meandered back down to the river and into our villa.  Mary filled up the Jacuzzi size bath tub, and I plopped down on the bed.  There was a knock on the door, and the same young blonde lady handed me an envelope with Mary and my name on it.  When I opened it, I received the shock of my life.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro,

            Please come to the main lodge at your convenience and settle your bill.

            1 Villa with 2 guests                $1,835
            Tax and fees                               176
            Total                                        $2,011

            We accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express (or your first-born…only kidding).

            “Who was at the door?” asked Mary.  “And why do you look so white?”
            “They brought our bill.”
            “More than what you thought?”
            I took it into the bathroom and showed it to her.
            “Oh my God,” she said.  “Surely this is a mistake.  Perhaps they think we’re staying here for a week.”
            “I don’t think it’s a mistake.”
            “How are you going to include this on your expense report?  You’ll get in trouble.  We’re going to have to pay for this ourselves.”
            We both had the same murderous thought: John!!!
            John was sitting in the exact spot we had left him about 30 minutes before.  He looked up and must have realized that we now knew by the look on my face and the speed and focus of my walk.  I started talking before I reached him.
            “John, did you know how much this place was?  I’ll never be able to put this on my expense report.  You should have known better than to put us in a place like this.”
            He pulled a chair out for me to sit down.  “You said that you wanted some place nice, and it’s a long story,” he said.
            John explained that when I said that I wanted to stay in some place exclusive, he called a few folks, and they all said that the Huka Lodge was the nicest place in New Zealand.  So, he told his administrative assistant to make reservations.  When he proudly told his wife that he had booked us at the Huka, she remarked that she thought it was quite expensive and then went to the internet and informed him that this was the prime season and the rate in prime season was $1800 excluding   general sales tax.  He told her to cancel the reservation, but when she tried, she found that there was a 24-hour cancellation policy!  All day long John knew that there would be a terrible confrontation when I discovered the cost, and he was fearful of his job. “If you think you got screwed, follow me,” said John.
            I followed John down a path to the back side of my villa.  He took out a key and opened a door that I thought led to a supply closet.  Inside was a double bed, a small dresser and a television with a rabbit ear antenna and a twist dial tuner.  There were no decorations and no window.
            “This is called an escort room.  Because I brought you to the Lodge, they let me have this room at a discounted rate.  I guess they use these rooms for nannies who come with families with children.”
            “They’re charging you for this?” I asked.
            He nodded his head.
            “How much?” I asked.
            He rested his forehead in his hand, “$875.”
            I couldn’t believe my ears.  $875 would rent a suite in a five-star hotel.
            “I’m so sorry,” he said.
            “It’s okay,” I replied.  “Let’s make the most of it.  Mary really likes it, and it does include dinner and breakfast.”
            “You’re not going to blow me in and get me fired?”
            “Nope, let’s enjoy it.  Weren’t you telling us on the drive up that you had just bought your daughter a used car?”
            “Yeah, a real nice Nissan.”
            “How much did you pay?”
            “Well guess what?  I’m going to be paying more for one night’s accommodations than your daughter paid for her car.”
            “That’s not funny, I thought you weren’t mad.”
            “I know it’s not funny, and no I’m not mad, but I’m still going to get my pound of flesh.”


            Dinner at the Huka Lodge is a very interesting communal affair.  During this time, we had the opportunity to meet all the other 50 guests of the lodge.  You may ask yourself, “What type of people would knowingly stay at an $1800 per night lodge?”  I soon found out that there are three different types.
  1. The Super Rich – these folks are generally elderly and can really afford places like the Huka Lodge, and think nothing about spending thousands of dollars a day on holiday.
  2. The Super Dumb – these are folks like me who make the booking and realize too late just how expensive it is and cannot cancel.  Thank goodness for large limits on VISA and American Express.
  3. The Super Sly – these folks use the Huka Lodge as a means to network with the Super Rich, often trying to find an angle to tap into their wealth.  It only takes them a second to separate the super rich from the super dumb.

At dinner, Mary and I were seated next to a super-rich man on my side, a super dumb couple on her side and a super sly father and son directly across from us.  The meal consisted of a five-course gout-inducing blend of appetizers, entrees and desserts.  Wine was a big seller at the table with the average bottle selling for about $1,000.  Those who ordered the wine refused to share and often one individual drank the entire bottle.  I was enamored of how the super sly worked their game with the super rich.  Here’s how it went:  after a few questions, the father and son directly across from us determined that we were “fixed income” people.  They used this term in a very derogatory way, and were very direct with us that we were “fixed income.”  The best I can understand is that “fixed income” means that my net worth was dependent on a salary, and because of that I was not worthy of their conversation.  The little old man on my right, however, proved to be a worthy game for them.  Their tactics were very good.  The father was also elderly, about the same age as the rich guy, and he worked the conversation until he found common ground through his experiences in war, with wine, or by dropping names like chum in the ocean until the man bit.  Once connected, they got drunk on a $1500 bottle of wine purchased by the super sly old man.  Once the friendship was secured, the father handed the rich guy over to the son to sell whatever it was that they were trying to sell.   And to my surprise, the old, rich drunk fools seemed to be falling for it every time.  It made me wonder how they got rich, or how they were able to stay rich.  With no one other than Mary and the other super dumb couple next to Mary to talk with, I soon became quite bored with the rich food and snooty conversation.
Finally, we were able to return to our villa and crawl into bed.  I jumped in first.  I stretched out my body and reached out my legs, until, until, I felt something furry….it was at the bottom of the bed….under the covers….I screamed as I jumped out of bed, “There’s an animal in the bed!”  Mary came running over.  Reluctantly, we pulled back the sheets.  There on the bottom of the bed were 2 furry things.  Mary grabbed one of them and started to laugh.
“These are just water bottles with a possum cover.  It must be for the old people that get cold feet.”
My heart was now racing a hundred miles an hour, and I couldn’t sleep.  Thoughts of $2,000 hotel bills, being “fixed income” and animals at the foot of my bed raced through my head.
After a nice breakfast, it was time to settle my bill and leave the Huka Lodge.  They gave Mary and me nice leather luggage tags to remind us of our stay.  I munched an apple as the valet brought around my car.  They loaded my luggage and opened my car door.
“Do you have a garbage can,” I asked as I stared at my rotting apple core.
The young female concierge cupped her hands.  “Give it to me," she said.
I put the brown core into her hands, knowing that these folks were trained to do anything for their rich, stupid or sly guests.
All over New Zealand I told my story about the Huka Lodge.  No one could believe how expensive it was and several wanted to see the bill.  A couple of people even made copies of it.  One side benefit of staying at the Huka Lodge is that they must have sold their guest list to a number of luxury retailers, because I began getting in the mail literature on Rolls Royces, islands for sale and fine jewelry, so at least I got to pretend like I was rich.  Was it the nicest place I’ve ever stayed…..yes?  Was it worth $2,000 for one night? No way!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Phlebotomist

The Phlebotomist
I hate needles!  When I was growing up, I told my parents they would never have to worry about my becoming a drug addict, because even the sight of a needle makes me queasy.  Every time I have to take a physical, I stress about the needle.  I’ll worry about the blood test a full day ahead, and I usually don’t sleep well the night before.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s a prick on the finger (still a needle) or an inch long needle in the main blood vessel, I still hate needles!  I imagine them going in, coming out, and if I feel anything, I come close to passing out.
            What made matters worse was that In the 12 months from 2004 to 2005, I had 5 physicals, all for life insurance.  It was my own fault, because I kept changing carriers or adding policies.  By the time I came to physical number 4, I was a nervous wreck and had a little talk with my agent, Jim Wapner.
            “Jim, you don’t know what you are asking me to do. They’re going to need another blood test, aren’t they?”.
            Jim rubbed his bald head, “Come on, don’t be a baby, it’s only a little prick.  Plus, if you want insurance while you’re flying your helicopter, you’re going to need it. Think of your family.”
            He spoke like a true salesman, and I knew that I had no choice.
            “Okay, but can you find me someone better than that group of roving nurses who show up at my house or the office.  They are like gypsies and just seem to be in a hurry to get to the next job.  I need a clinic, where I can lie down, get relaxed and be done with it.  And one more thing, I need an experienced nurse who’s going to be sympathetic and gentle.”
            “I’ll see what I can do,” answered Jim.
            The next day Jim called me all excited.  “You’re going to love me!  I found you the perfect person to take your blood.  Her name is Amy Dawson, and she has her own clinic in Kingsport.  She’s been taking blood for 20 years and she says that she deals with squeamish people all the time.  All the doctors rave about her being the best phlebotomist in town. You have an appointment with Amy tomorrow morning at 6 a.m.”
            “Thanks Jim.  You’re a good man.”
            I woke up early the next morning and made the 30 minute drive to Kingsport.  Amy’s clinic was tucked away in a business park.  When I drove up, most of the lights were still off in her building.  The door was open so I walked in and sat down in the lobby.  After a few minutes Amy walked in.
            “Good morning,” she said cheerfully.  “You’re the first appointment of the day.  If you would, please follow me into the examination room.”
            I sat in a state of morning drowsiness.  Amy was not what I imagined.  She wore pink scrubs and was heavy set, but she also had the thickest pair of glasses I had ever seen.  They were an old style trifocal, probably from the seventies.
            “Are you coming?” she asked motioning to the door.
            I got up and followed.
            She picked up a clipboard and pulled it close to her face, to make sure she had the correct form.  She continued staring at it intently, as if she was still not sure what it said and then began.  “Now, I need to ask you some questions and you need to answer them truthfully.”  She pulled the clipboard about 1 inch from her face and squinted.  I could see that she was struggling to focus.  “Have you been with a prostitute in the last 6 months?”
            “No,” I answered and then I watched her check a box.
            “Have you had sex with another man in the last 6 months?”
            “No,” I answered.
            She checked another box.
            “Have you ever been diagnosed with HIV?”
            “Blood in your urine?”
            “How about in your stool?”
            The questions continued until she had finished her checklist.  The phone rang.  “I’ll be right back,” she said.
            I picked up the clipboard and scanned the questions.  I was aghast when I saw that she answered every question the opposite of my answer. So, according to the form, I had slept with prostitutes, men, had HIV, blood in my urine, stool and so forth.  When she returned, I pointed out her error.  She pulled the form close to her face again and answered, “Nuts, now I’m going to have to fill this all out again.
            “Give me a form,” I asked.  “I can fill it out quickly.”
            “It’s not allowed.  I have to ask you the questions and then fill it out.”
            She got a fresh form and began again.  On 2 occasions I caught her checking the wrong box.
            “I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I just don’t see like I used to.  The old eyes are giving out.”
            It took nearly an hour to have the survey completed to my liking and the moment of truth had arrived.  I was thinking of only one thing, the needle.  “If she can’t see well enough to fill out a form, how is she going to be able to see well enough to stick a needle in my vein?”
            “Lie down over here,” she said pointing to a small clinical bed covered by a white sheet of paper.  She pulled out her medical kit and fumbled with the needle and the series of usual vials.  “Now just relax, Jim said that you are a little nervous.  It will be over in a flash.  Make a fist…..there we go.”  The last thing I remembered was a hard jab.
            I woke up 30 minutes later with her sitting beside me. 
“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” She asked.
I looked up at her a little weary.  “No it wasn’t.  Did I fall asleep?”
“Yep, you’ve been out for about half an hour.”
My arm was throbbing so I looked down.  To my horror there were about 6 holes in my arm, a couple of them still bleeding!  “What happened?”
“I had a little trouble finding the vein.”
“But I have big veins.”
“They were a little soft and I had to do a little digging.  But I’m going to wrap up that arm and you should be fine.  She came back with a bottle of antiseptic and gauze.  “This may sting a little.”
 I screamed as the antiseptic bit into the wounds.
“We’ll have the results in a couple of days,” she said matter of factly and left the room.
Still a little woozy, I struggled to my feet and made my way to the door.  As soon as I was in my car, I called Jim Wapner and told him the story.
“I only heard good things about her,” was his response.
“Now I’m worried that she’s going to get my blood mixed up with someone else and God knows what the insurance company will say.”
“Well I’m glad you called, because I won’t call her again. Oh, for your disability policy they’re going to need another blood test.  Do you want me to call the gypsies?” he giggled.
“Can’t we just use the results of this test?”
“Different company.”
“Anyone but Amy, please.  Can you make sure they have 20/20 vision?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Can you wait a couple of days for my arm to heal?”
“Did she poke both arms?”
“Then one of them is still good.”
            Fortunately the next test was uneventful.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ultimate Trouble - Story #5

Oak Mountain

            I couldn’t sleep trying to imagine what it would be like, a real ski resort, with real ski runs and real ski lifts.  I was only eleven years old, and though an accomplished downhill skier, I had never been to a ski resort.  My friends and I were extreme skiers, hiking to the top of different foothills in the Adirondack Mountains with our Frankenstein-like ski boots and our skis over our shoulders, and then racing each other to the bottom.  Often the ungroomed, unchartered trails were treacherous, filled with every natural obstacle conceivable such as tree trunks, hidden rocks and thorny bushes that would rip our clothing or dig into any exposed flesh with one swipe.  But we were never deterred, even though we usually had the physical and mental stamina for only one such run a day. 
            Being carried to the top of a mountain by a machine called a “T-Bar” was unheard of in my little circle.  Trails without natural barriers seemed even more absurd.  But tomorrow the mystery would be over, my sixth grade class was taking a school trip to Oak Mountain, a small ski resort in Wells, NY.
            There were about thirty young boys and girls who loaded into the yellow and black bus that would take us on our class trip.  Mr. Stafford, an athletic coach and history teacher, was our chaperon.   He barked out orders like a drill sergeant, “Place all your equipment in a pile behind the bus….if anyone misbehaves on the ride to Oak Mountain, they will not be allowed to ski….Skip, if I see you grabbing Jennifer one more time, I’m going to call your mother to come and get you….Once we arrive, we will pile your equipment outside the bus; you should find your own equipment and wait for the group.  We will all enter the resort together…” the ordering and barking went on and on.
            Everyone was so excited about the trip that we were all on our best behavior, everyone except Skip Johnson, who continued to grab at and irritate Jennifer Lawson.
            When we arrived, I couldn’t believe the sheer size and majesty of Oak Mountain.  The runs were clearly cut through the woods and looked like white ribbons on the head of a beautiful girl.  The peak was so high that it was not visible through the clouds.  Giant machines were twirling, taking people two at a time up the various ski runs.  I couldn’t wait!  I had to go to the top of Oak Mountain!
            Unfortunately, I had to wait.
            The first run of the day was down the smallest of the ski runs.  Coach Stafford wanted to see our ability, before he released us to the main portion of the mountain.  So, one at a time, all thirty of us grabbed the “rope tow” and proceeded to the top of the “bunny hill”.  It took Skip Johnson, Charley Legero and me about fifteen seconds to conquer this little hill, and Coach Stafford gave us the green light to proceed to Oak Mountain Run, an intermediate level run that was the most popular ski trail at the resort.  Initially our biggest problem was mastering the “T-Bar” that would take us to the top.  The “T-Bar” was a piece of wood shaped like a “T” that was connected to a wire that extended and retracted out of a large lanyard.  The lanyard was connected to a huge metal cable.  When it was our turn, two of us would scurry into position and the attendant would grab hold of the bar, pull enough wire out of the lanyard, so that the two portions of the “T” would go behind our two little butts.  The “T-bar” would then drag us up the mountain.  It all seemed very simple.  However, it took us four or five tries to make it up the mountain. We would either tip over with the initial jerk when the cable started to pull, or we would lose concentration somewhere along the way to the top and cross our own skis, get our skis tangled with each other, or simply lose our balance and fall off.  This proved quite humiliating, especially because there were always classmates coming behind us, with brutal comments. 
I still remember Buddy Brown yelling, “Hey Johnson, you sissy, why are you getting off here, all the girls are on the top of the mountain?”
Skip retaliated by taking a large dead tree limb and throwing it across Buddy’s path. This caused not only Buddy but the next eight “T-Bar” riders to go down.  It became a multi-skier pile-up that was so severe that the attendant had to shut down the whole lift for about twenty minutes. Skip hid in the bushes and snuck unseen through the woods.  Fortunately, they never found out who had thrown the branch or we would have probably been thrown out of the resort. 
It took us most of the morning, but soon we mastered the “T-Bar.”
            Once on top of the mountain, we were on top of the world.  We looked down and saw the scores of skiers zig-zagging effortlessly down the slope. 
This was different from what we had experienced.  We only knew one way of skiing, full speed.
            “Let’s start the first heat,” said Skip, “The person with the most victories at the end of the day will be the Oak Mountain champion.”
            Charley and I nodded in agreement.
            There was also another incentive for being the first two down the hill.  Third place had to ride the “T-Bar” with a stranger and this proved quite difficult when the stranger was an adult because their butt was so much higher than ours, placing us at even more risk of falling off the “T-Bar.”
            “Three, two, one…go!” yelled Skip.
            We all dug our poles into the hard packed snow, assumed our downhill racing “tuck” and proceeded straight down the mountain.  The snow was hard packed and icy in places, much different and much faster than the thick powder we were used to.  Our skis rattled on the ground.  Soon we picked up an incredible amount of speed.  I would guess that we were going somewhere between forty and fifty miles per hour and climbing.  Our steering ability was crude and barely existent.  Like arrows shot through a crowded street, we flew past the other skiers, with several near collisions.
            Charley won the first heat, Skip came in second and I was third.  We decided that after lunch, it would be time to impress the girls. 
By 11:15 I was absolutely starving and couldn’t wait to eat lunch.  I had gotten up early and made myself a fried egg sandwich, grabbed a bag of chips and an apple.  Unfortunately I had left my little brown bag on the bus, and had to get Mr. Stafford to help me retrieve it.
            “Ha, ha,” I thought as I watched my friends open up their typical bologna and peanut butter sandwiches, “Wait until they see what I have.”  I pulled it out of the sack, unfolded the wax paper and took a big bite….or tried to take a big bite.  It was frozen solid!  I rapped it on the cafeteria table and it made a loud knock, completely inedible.  I tossed it on the floor and we kicked it around like a hockey puck, until Mr. Stafford yelled at us and I threw it away.  I ended up having to use two of my hard earned dollars to buy a hot dog and some fries.
            It was time for the afternoon festivities.  Skip had gotten three girls to agree to race us down the hill.  The only stipulation was that they would start at the halfway point and we would start at the top.  It would be difficult to win, but not impossible.  We would have to go faster than ever before.  They agreed to wait seven minutes from the time they exited the “T-Bar” to give us the opportunity to make it to the top.  We scooted immediately from the “T-Bar” into full racing mode.  I got the best jump and was in the lead.  Faster, faster, faster I went.  I could feel the wind pull at my cheeks and my eyes tear.  I could see the girls up ahead.  I was going to catch them….until….a middle aged man turned directly into my path.  There was no way that I could get around him, so I buried my chin into my chest and braced myself for a nasty collision.  The top of my head hit him in the middle of his left thigh, and my momentum picked him right up off from the ground.  For a few seconds, I was carrying this two hundred pound man on the top of my head.  It was an amazing feat of physics. The collision and weight of the man altered my course and forced me towards the woods, through several patches of thorny bushes, and a bunch of dead trees.  This was much more like the skiing I was used to.  A small forest of pine trees finally stopped the man and me. 
I looked him in the eye and could see only terror and pain. He was gasping for breath.
            “Sorry, mister,” I said picking myself up and making my way back to the trail.  I felt bad that I had maimed this man, but realized that I had lost valuable seconds and had to get back into the race quickly if I had any possibility of winning.  I stumbled through several pieces of his equipment as I followed the tracks back out to the main trail.
            Once on the trail I resumed my racing form, but finished dead last in the race.  Apparently the crash took more time than I thought.  Skip, Charley and the girls waited at the bottom to mock me.  I did much better in the next race.
About twenty minutes later the ski patrol came down the mountain pulling someone on a toboggan.  I recognized the man I had crashed into.
            “I always wanted to ride in one of those things,” said Skip.
            “Me too,” I repeated.
            The rest of the day was spent exploring all the different trails at Oak Mountain.  We even started turning a little, using the snowplow. 
On the way home Mr. Stafford complimented us on our good behavior.
            “Thank-you,” he said, “for being a proud representation of Mayfield Elementary School.”
            “You’re very welcome,” repeated Skip, Charley and I, together with the rest of my sixth grade class.    It felt very good to be included, for once, with the good kids.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ultimate Trouble - Story #4

The Marble Shower

            The new wood floors looked great!  The floor installers had ripped all the nasty rust and blue colored carpet from the concrete slab, put it in the back of their old pick-up truck and replaced it with the most beautiful oak flooring we had ever seen.  We had endured the sights and smell of that carpet for over five years and the hardwood floors sparkled with their fresh polyurethane coating.  This was the first phase of a major remodeling project to our home in Arlington, Texas, which began with the wood floors and continued with a brand new kitchen, including new cabinets, countertops and a new tile floor and would end with a marble shower in the bathroom.  I coordinated everything with the subcontractors and carefully priced and planned each phase of the project.  Mary and I stood spellbound admiring the beautiful hardwood floors.
            “Have you ever seen anything like them?” I asked.
            “Gorgeous.  I’ve never seen one thing improve a house as much as these floors.  Was the carpet really that hideous?”
            “It really was.  Did you see all that dust and dirt that came out of it when they dragged it away?  I don’t ever want to have carpet in this house again.”
            “I agree, but we have to take care of these floors if we want them to keep looking this good,” said Mary.
            “I’m one step ahead of you,” I replied as I retrieved a mop and a bottle of special polishing spray I had bought from the flooring store.  “It’s pretty simple.  You spray a little of this on the head of the mop and it turns the mop into a magnet that attracts the dirt.  And at the same time it polishes the floor.  I’m going to do this every evening.”
            “We’ll see,” answered Mary as she rolled her eyes.  “And what are you going to do about the dogs?  Aren’t their claws going to scratch the floor?”
            “I thought of that, too.”  I went into the bedroom and retrieved a bag containing 4 baby booties and 4 pieces of Velcro.  “I’m not too worried about Shasta, because dachshunds have pretty little feet, but I have something for Chewy.  Chewy, come here,” I called.  Our black Chow Chow suspiciously stuck her head around the corner, questioning what was going on.  I lured her to me with the promise of a butt rub; then I put the pink booties on her paws one at a time and then velcroed each in place.  “Pink goes well with her, don’t you think?”
            “You’re a nut case,” answered Mary.
            At first Chewy skated around the house on the slippery floors like a child on their first pair of ice skates, but in a few days she got the hang of them.  Not once did she try to take them off and soon it became a daily ritual putting them on her in the morning, taking them off when she went out and putting them back on when she came in.
            “I’m surprised you don’t spray that polish on Chewy’s booties so that she can polish the floor as she walks around.”
            “That’s a good idea,” I replied.
            Every night I was true to my promise and polished our floors.  Afterwards, I would sit and admire how beautiful they looked in our home.
            Over the next 3 months, the other home improvement projects progressed well and the new kitchen exceeded our expectations and our budget.  All that was left was the marble shower in our master bedroom.  Mary and I had visited several homes with synthetic marble showers and decided that although expensive, they were the best alternative because of looks, durability and maintenance.  There were not many marble plants, and we decided on Precision Marble in Fort Worth, Texas, based on a recommendation from a builder.  The salesman at Precision explained all the displays in the showroom before leading us into a small room with a desk, 2 chairs and a catalogue.  Mary chose the color and style.
            “So, you would like the beige marble with a bench?”  said the middle-aged man who, by the size of his stomach, liked to drink beer.
            Mary looked over at me, knowing that it was the first I had heard of a bench and said, “Don’t look at me like that.  You have no idea how hard it is to shave your legs standing up in a shower and I’ve always wanted a bench.”
            “How much more is it?” I asked.
            “$750,” answered the salesman.
            I debated all the options and realized the best one was to succumb.  “No problem,” I said.
            “Do you want us to take out the old shower, or are you going to do that yourself?” the salesman asked.”
            “How much?”
            “What do you think honey?” I asked.
            Knowing my long history of disasters with home projects she answered quickly, “We’d best leave this to the professionals.”
            When it was all said and done, I signed a contract for $5,200.  But, it was a once in this house investment, and we did plan to stay for a while.
            “When can the crew come out to remove the old shower?” asked Mary.
            The salesman looked at his schedule and then answered, “How about Tuesday morning?”
            “That will work for me,” answered Mary.
            “All right then and how about we start putting the new shower in on Thursday?”
            “That quick?  That’ll be great!”  answered Mary.
            On Tuesday morning 3 grungy, overweight workers dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans came to the door with a sledge hammer and a box of garbage bags.  Mary pointed them to the shower and they walked through our master bedroom, across our new hardwood floor and the destruction began.  I came home from lunch and couldn’t believe my eyes.  The entire house was a dust cloud from the broken ceramic tile.  Pieces of tile covered the bathroom floor and vanity like shrapnel.  And then there was my new hardwood floor.  There were shards of tile all over it that had apparently leaked from the garbage bags that the crew was dragging across it.  It was an absolute nightmare!  And then instead of cleaning up the pieces, they walked over them, grinding the jagged pieces through the beautiful finish of the floor and into the hardwood!  I couldn’t contain myself.
            “What are you doing?”  I yelled.
            The lead man replied, “We’re ripping out your shower.”
            “But look what you’re doing to my new floor!”
            He looked down and didn’t see the significance.  “We’ll be done in a couple of hours and then we’ll sweep it off.”
            “I mean the scratches!  You’re scratching it all up!”
            “Hey, calm down.  I ain’t got to take you yelling at me.”
            “Get out!”  I yelled. “I’m calling you’re manager.”
            The lead man signaled to the other two and they made a few grunts as they walked across the shards and then left.  I pulled out a broom and a heavy duty vacuum and started cleaning up the mess.  The new floor was a disaster with scratches every few inches and dust permanently packed into every nook and cranny.  The old shower was only partially removed, but they had worked long enough to knock a hole in the ceiling and into the attic allowing cold air to pour in.
            Mary and I looked at the mess.
            “Maybe you should have let them finish,” she said.  “Now we have even a bigger mess.  And it’s supposed to go down below freezing tonight.”
            “They’ll finish all right!  I’ll get a different crew out here immediately.  I’m going to call the manager of that tile place right now!”
            The phone call made its way to the owner of Precision Marble and it did not go well.  I demanded that he come and see the damage his men had done to my new floor.  He evidently received a different story from his crew and was very defensive, but agreed to come to our house.  While I waited, I took a package of post-it sticky notes and placed a yellow note with an arrow pointing to each scratch.  When I was finished, the floor was carpeted with yellow paper.  The owner knocked on the door a few minutes later.  He was a nice looking Hispanic man, in his mid-thirties.  He stared at all the sticky notes in disbelief.
            “It was a brand new floor,” I said.  “And they ruined it.”
            “How much will it cost to refinish it?” asked the owner.
            I quickly calculated.  “It will cost about $500.”
            “Fine, I’ll send you a check by the end of the week.”
            “And when are you going to send a crew to finish the job?” asked Mary.
            The owner looked directly at me and said, “We’re through with you.  Find someone else to do your shower.”
            “What do you mean?” I asked.  “You’re not done and you put a hole in my ceiling.”
            He looked at me and smiled, “I mean, I’m going to pay you $500 and I don’t want anything more to do with you, now good-day.”
            Mary and I looked at each other and were horrified.
            “What are we going to do now?” she asked.
            “We’ll just call another marble shop.”
            I looked in the yellow pages and there were only 3 other shops in our area.  I gave Gerry’s Marble and Granite a call.
            “Yes, I would like for you to complete a shower for me.”
            The salesman took all of our specifications and then asked me to hold while he priced the job.  After about 10 minutes he came back on the phone.  “The owner doesn’t want to do your job.  He said something about a nut-case with sticky notes all over a wooden floor.”
            “That’s because Precision Marble spilled tile all over the floor and then walked over it.”
            “I guess that’s the reason,” he continued.  “Precision Marble is our owner’s brother.”
            I tried the next shop and received the same answer.  I soon realized that all of the marble shops were divisions of the same family and no one would complete my job.
            That night, a blue norther brought icy temperatures to Arlington, Texas, and the wind and cold whistled through the hole in my ceiling.  Mary and I snuggled to keep warm.
            The next day I continued calling marble shops until I found a shop not related to Precision Marble.  They were nearly 100 miles away and I had to pay a 15% premium and wait almost 6 weeks.  The check came to repair the floor, but I waited until the new shower was done to have it refinished.  
When the remodeling was complete, we felt as if we had survived a small war.  Unfortunately, within the next few months my employer relocated me to Tennessee.  And, of course the house that we bought needs a new shower. But this time I think I’m going to go with fiberglass.