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One of the first things I learned, when I went to visit my West Virginia Aunt Winnie, was how best to bake apples.  It wasn’t her recipe but belonged to the woman who ran the dairy farm down the river and a hayfield away.  One day when exploring the wooded paths that roughly connected the two farmsteads, I came out into a clearing, not exactly clear but covered with a tangle of blackberry canes.  The farm wife was there with her bucket, harvesting the plump juicy fruit that nearly filled it.  She said “Hi,” offered me a handful to taste, and suggested I join her in the berry patch.  I picked some but wasn’t as fast as she.  Besides I ate most of what I plucked.  “You hungry?” she queried.  I shook my head no, but she knew better.  “It’s time for lunch,” she announced, and breezed her way to a shady spot under a cottonwood tree along the riverbank.  She pulled a couple of wrapped apples from her poke and handed me one.  “Eat it,” she said.  “I never eat two anyway.”

Yet a teen with a ravenous appetite, I did as I was told.  It was still a time when portable food was wrapped in waxed paper, and as I tore it away a lovely sight was revealed.  There in my hand sat a “Golden Apple of the Sun” gleaming with succulence and dripping  a tiny bit with the buttered spicy brown sugar sweetness that packed its center.  It wasn’t naked but came dressed with a cap of crunchy graham cracker goodness that topped off the whole thing like a crispy hat.  “Yyyyyyessss,” I breathed, sinking teeth into it.  That was my first bite of a confection that was to become the favorite of the kinder I would bear to this friendly woman’s handsome son during the years that followed.  Her name was Garnet Taylor.  She and her husband, Ray Rex, owned and operated the Taylor Family Dairy at the head of Taylor Hollow, where the only thing that passed on through was Hughes River.  It was definitely Taylor country into which I had stumbled that day.  It was a good day, and the apple was a marvel.  It soon disappeared, leaving only a smile.

Garnet explained how to create them.  “Find six well-shaped green apples.  Golden Delicious is what these are.  Granny Smith will make them a little more tart.  Crumble twelve regular graham crackers—not them-there honeyfied ones—and mix in a solid-pressed half-cup of brown sugar, two level-teaspoons of ground cinnamon, and two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice.  Don’t mess it up with fake fluid from that little green bottle they label “Real-lemon.”  Then add a quarter cup of real honest-to-God butter.  If you use store-bought, that’ll be half a stick.  If you put in oleo, that’s what it’ll taste like.  Don’t ever fake a recipe.  It tells the truth just like you do when you look at me and I can see you have a good soul.  And don’t peel the apples.  They need those skins for integrity just like we all do.  That means you need to wash them good with Dawn.

“Mix up the whole mess and poke it into the apples.  You’ll fill up the holes where the cores used to be before you cut them out to make space for something better.  If there is too much, just mound little caps to cover the tops.  Then bake all six in an open pan at 375 degrees until they are just right.  Cook too long and they will get all mushy—just long enough and you can wrap them up and send them as a surprise along with the hay harvester’s lunches.”

Like almost everything Garnet ever told me, she was right. My kiddos loved this portable dessert and looked forward to it for many years added to school lunches, even after we left the farm and went to sort out the real world.  It was, like all our many remembered recipes, a piece of the old times we love to recall.  The oven summons it back with the true odors of butter, mixing it up with cinnamon being all it was ever meant to be, and it will be you making it happen once again.

My father Kelsey and his sister Margaret, older by five years, walked to public school every day to the town of Azle, where they were proud of their perfect attendance.  It wasn’t an onerous journey, only a little over two miles, but they liked to take a short cut through the woods that put them on the Jacksboro Highway where they, often as not, could pick up a ride into town.  Their path through the scrub oak, briars, and prickly pears was hard won, requiring some dedicated work with a machete and often scaring up opossums, jackrabbits or armadillos.  It was Margaret who did most of the hacking, while Kelsey carried his father’s coping saw, severing the bushes down low to keep the stumps short.  Their path widened over years of use, finally becoming Greg Avenue, a euphemism for the double-rutted wagon track through the scrub that dead-ended at the Reynold’s –Martin home place.  The road, now dedicated to the county of Parker, is a two-lane asphalt not-quite-scenic-by-way.

Margaret was a good enough student especially at arithmetic where she outshone all the girls—but of course not the boys—since she didn’t want to be a spinster.  But it was Kelsey who was the scholar.  He made straight A’s from the beginning, with Margaret playing little teacher to his precocious child.  They both received a lot of attention for their school work from their father, Harry Allen Densmore Martin, who was proud of his secondary school diploma and wanted his son, and daughter too, to enjoy the same benefits.  He worked the farm, not out of love for farming, but to make a life and a living; he played with ideas of what a grander vista might be like somewhere else, somewhere west like Oregon or California.  He was a tall, broad shouldered man, strong and capable at just about anything he put his hand to.  Most everybody knew how to slap together boards in those days, but he took some genuine enjoyment in the geometry of construction.  Over many years he became known as a finish carpenter and was always willing to take on jobs around Azle and environs just west of Ft. Worth.

In those days near every man worked a homestead but also needed to find a way to come up with spending money.  Harry had his carpentry which paid well but tended to be seasonal.  A blue norther could blow in with absolutely no warning and change all his best laid plans to wind up a job, so most of the work got scheduled for the heat of the year.  He wasn’t all that fond of chickens, but they were a good way to bring in some money in between the farm work and the carpentry.  He built a galvanized tin commercial building to house a hundred or so layers and began making a weekly egg run into Ft. Worth.  His wife Minnie Mae Reynolds-Martin always kept an assortment of chickens and a rooster to provide an endless source of fixin’s for Sunday dinners.

On any given Sunday, the designated hen would be cornered and caught amid a great cacophony of cackling until death restored silence.  Minnie used an axe for chicken whacking, but Harry with his burly right arm would swing the bird round and round like a sling, and then snap its neck with a twist of his wrist.  Harry’s way was better, avoiding the bloody mess of the chicken running round and round with it head cut off until it fell to the ground and even then kept running until it forgot what running was about.  Where had it been going anyway?  It is a puzzle why a snapped-neck-chicken would hang peaceably awaiting death, while an axed one made such a fuss.  Maybe getting swung in a circle beforehand made it dizzy.  It’s a mystery.

Something was always getting killed on that farmstead.  That’s probably true of most rural dwellings.  Where there’s lots of life, death tarries not far behind.  Field mice migrated in from garden, meadows, and pastures.  Snakes joined them, usually just garter, but all too often copperheads, a poisonous variety that often sent Grandma Minnie Mae running for her hoe.  She was a consummate snake chopper and never once got bit.  There were rattlesnakes too, but I never tangled with one of them except once on the far side of the milk barn.  It coiled itself up, commenced rattling, and set me on a ground covering run.  That old snake scared the bejesus out of me, but I managed to evade its fangs.  Black-snakes were common and liked to curl up in the hen nests hoping for a nice warm chicken egg to bite and suck dry.  They were five or six feet long, scary as hell, but not poisonous.  In any case, it was a good idea to inspect a nest before reaching in for an egg.  No need to scare yourself to death.

The autumn of every year was hog killing time.  Grandpa stuck and drained his own pig but hauled it to the commercial locker for dressing and packaging.  For a fee he could rent a freezer-locker and store the meat for as long as it lasted.  Grandpa’s sausage recipe was the best I ever tasted.  He was partial to sage, and was that sausage ever loaded!  A freezer locker represented a big advance from earlier times.  The old method for preserving pork was to smoke the hams and shoulders and to keep the sausage by balling and frying it, then preserving it submerged in its own grease, arranged in crockery pots.  That was primitive but always tasty.  Grease was an effective preservative for meats as was sugar for keeping fruit.  It was a relatively newfangled approach to canning food to seal it in glass Ball jars.  As I visited summer after summer, I was able to see the march of progress reflected in their kitchen and larder.

My earliest memories of being on the Martin farm were trips into town to deliver farm-fresh eggs, a stop at the drug store for a chocolate soda at the authentic fountain where Grandpa showed me off to his grizzly buddies, and a swing by the frozen food locker for a package of sausage for tomorrow’s breaking fast.  He loved to mention that I was his best grand-child, an odd statement since I was his only one.  When I asked about the incongruity, he only chuckled.  Once we stopped at the town library to talk to old Eula Nation, years ago a teacher at the school when my Dad was a student.  Mrs. Nation had in retirement decided to start a public library.  In those days, you could just up and do things like that.  Grandpa liked to parade me around as Kelsey’s daughter, from whom great things were expected.  That always made me start quivering in my boots.  I recalled how Grandpa had always called young and pretty Minnie Mae “the best.”  She too was “the only.”  Maybe that was his little joke on the women in his life.  I didn’t laugh.

It’s distinctly odd that the more I ruminate about this place, the more I sound like a Texan.  The words lose their self-conscious studied edge.  A drawl creeps in.  It’s the same with the chickens.  Years later, when in the turn of twenty-first century Virginia, I had a flock of hens, I wrote about their escapades in the same odd picturesque lilt and flow.  It, too, is a mystery. 

Daddy

“I want my Daddy!” dreamtime-me cries out to whatever enclosure encapsulates this happenstance.  It doesn’t answer, the only response a reverberation.  Night terrors are interesting bedfellows but do not substitute for the real people we miss, want, even need, to revisit.  I am desperate to write about that larger than life man but procrastinate with every excuse imaginable.  My stories resist telling about his shadow side, not that it ever wished me ill nor purposefully caused me harm.  Why then do I put this off, scribing snippets of the whimsical father at home, sharing family fun, tutoring daughter determined to walk in his steps, later nobly caring for aging mother?  That is easier than explaining how he forgot to divorce my own mother before he married, one after another, five other women, all while Mommy and I lived destitute.  She was stuck with a child to support, and no marketable skills beyond poetry and piano playing.  I was twisted into a love/hate conflict with a Daddy who was gone—long gone—fodder for night terrors.

But daytime memories are different: I open my front door and moan, “Just look at this mess.  There’s no way I’ll ever get it set to rights.  It’s impossible!”  That’s a lie we tell ourselves all too often when presented with a formidable task.  Of course a large and complex assignment is daunting.  Big jobs are like that.  They challenge; they intimidate; they terrorize— but they all have a secret weakness that is waiting to be exploited.  They can be subdivided into accessible units.  I learned this gem of wisdom from my genius inventor father, when during one joint endeavor I quailed at the prospect of turning a complex electronic schematic into a printed circuit board etch pattern.  “I’m not that smart,” I protested.  “It’s too complicated.”

“You’re smart enough,” Daddy insisted.  Anyway, you don’t have to be smart—just tricky.  He slid a pen from his always-at-the-ready pocket protector and began laying lines on the drawing.  When he was finished, the fraught circuit was understandable as several simpler, much less intimidating ones.  He labeled them for me so I could visualize how they interacted: Power Supply, Splitter, Invertor, Oscillator, Amplifier.  Suddenly I perceived the job as something doable.  Divide and conquer is more than an art of war; it can organize energy to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks.

Back to the mess, detritus of a human family doing what it does so well.  As I dealt with the inherent mayhem of parenting three small children, I often reached back to access practical guidance remembered growing up in a tech-savvy family.  Daddy analyzed everything; only then would he proceed with what must be done, but he always gave it his own special twist. 

A typical example was fly-catching in the Martin household.  When the annoying drone of the buzzing invaders reached exasperation level, Kelsey Martin fly-tracker beyond compare donned his safari hat, plugged in the Hoover Vacuum with its extra-long extension tube and set out on a small-game safari.  He delighted in this creative play, experiencing the thrill of the hunt, the suspense of creeping up on an oblivious prey, and the final denouement of the kill, one more dastardly house-fly sucked into oblivion.  He would crow with triumph at every winged trophy sucked into the tube, through the hose, into the dust bag of history, consigned to non-existence as an entity that had lived for the sole purpose of annoying Kelsey Martin.

This escapade always attracted a following.  As Daddy prosecuted his war on flies, we kids trailed behind, a rowdy retinue, cheering, jeering, getting in the way, tripping over power cord and vacuum hose, wanting only to be part of this Pied Piper’s parade.  It didn’t matter that there was only one vacuum cleaner; and that it was only Daddy who wore the cool hat; our merry band followed, laughing all the way.

Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun.  Perhaps most memorable and long reaching was putting on his pants.  I would have learned the best way to insert legs into trousers long before I was fifteen had I not been living with my aunt and uncle in Texas.  Soon after arriving at my new Long Island home, Daddy enlightened me with respect to the art of drawing on lower garments creatively.  “It’s an improved method,” he explained, “More efficient, easier on the low back, and fun to boot.”  He demonstrated: Sitting on the edge of the bed, positioning trousers waist agape, he folded knees to chest and leaned far, far back, as pants sailed aloft, he thrust both feet into their proper garment legs.  When he rolled forward into starting posture, his pants were as good as on.  All that was needed was to stand, draw them up, button, zip, and buckle.  “There,” he exclaimed, patting the buckle for effect.  “That’s how it’s done.  It works the same for under-drawers or panties.  Leaning forward, while you’re lifting legs one at a time, can strain your back.”

OK.  I got the picture.  During the ensuing years, I have, every morning, put on my panties, bloomers, leggings, jeans, shorts, or slacks, legs in tandem.  It’s impossible to daily reenact this bit of whimsy without a smile, as I remember my dad earnestly explaining to a wide-eyed adolescent; how taking a creative approach to even the mundane chores of life can be the birthright of even a lost-and-found daughter.

All these many years later, I still despise housecleaning.  It’s boring.  It has to be done over and over again day after day after day—a quotidian quagmire.  No-one asks you to take a bow for how well you scrubbed the floor or stacked folded diapers.  It’s a thankless task and not the least bit fun.  But then I invented “The Housecleaning Game.”  It changed everything.  Since it was a game, I convinced my children to play it with me, Tom Sawyer style.  That contrived to assure their cooperation, and it was easier and faster with extra hands.  I had learned from my Dad that work ought to be fun.  Any way a job can be structured to achieve that goal is worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.

So—I drew a floor plan layout of the entire house including furniture, and superimposed a grid over it.  Next, I labelled each grid square.  Those labels, I dulicated onto paper squares, and loaded them into a tall, pottery jug, along with additional whimsical assignments such as: Eat five M&M’s; Take a 30 minute nap; Mop the kitchen floor; Sing a song; Run around the house twice; Have a spot of tea; Share three of your many blessings with somebody you love a lot.

So far so good.  Each player must choose, eyes closed, a slip of paper from the dark interior of the jug.  There’s the possibility of being instructed to munch sweets or perform calisthenics.  More likely it will be a grid square number.  This is the point at which the player feel the weight of the impossible task lift from shoulders.  The player must address what is in that grid square and only that.  No work may be accomplished outside of that square.  Like an observant Jew savoring Sabbath rest, a player is relieved of the guilt that naturally accrues to not performing the whole impossible task.  Even God rested on the seventh day.  Must we humans do more?  I remember the fun of carefully making up the lower right quadrant of the bed, carefully eschewing the remaining three quadrants, which must, in the benevolent order of things, await their turn.

Like Daddy repeatedly said, “Most things aren’t impossible, only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.”  But having an endless source of vision can be daunting, as night after night’s dreaming attests and revisits.  My job is to integrate both fathers—the one in my dreams, and the one in my nightmares—into what is right and real.  Then he can indeed rest in peace, and so can I.  Memorializing my father can surely be accomplished as long as I tell his story one complicated chapter at a time, and be sure to have fun doing it.

Here we are again.  Sleeping.  Dreaming.  Getting ready for who knows what.  Nobody is saying, but here we are.  Mary, my long dead mother is central to whatever is underway.  Not as if she is calling shots or knows the strategy involved, but she is determined to be there, and do it there in my dream.  Water is a player.  It does what water always does, buoys, supports, lubricates, terrifies.  Then it provides a common denominator that cannot be denied.  It is the obverse of salt.

Suddenly I am in the water, sinking, fearing lack of breath.  Mary is already there, abandoned to the depths.  I must save her.  I find a fruited kelp on the seabed and put it to her lips.  She tastes of the salt, and that makes the difference.  With that sentient taste of truth, she knows that she can breathe the water.  All that is needed is to inhale and have faith.

With that knowledge in tow I dive, pluck my own salty fruit, bite it with loving abandon and breathe.  Then I understand that I too have died.  That’s all that was needed—to know that death was the salt that answered my prayer and gave permission to draw a different kind of breath.  My mother is helping me to make that frightening transition, and this repeating dream is rehearsal for what is sure to come and soon.

But then I woke to another day—a real day—showered off the sleep, and pointed my 2009 Equinox to the rising sun.  My wheels and I set off to stage a visit with my eldest son, the rural mail carrier in “Almost Heaven” West Virginia.  State Route 32 didn’t disappoint.  The eighteen-wheelers who have finally discovered its quiet charms mostly behaved, and the drive was pleasant, even shared with the roaring behemoths and their necessary loads.  Dale seemed pleased to greet my safe arrival, and the Memorial Day weekend began apace. 

His big surprise was his new toy, a monster he called a “side-by-side.”  I later found out that it had a proper name, being Kawasaki TERYX 1000.  Google hacked it up, and there it was, mimicking the real thing.  The mechanism seemed almost totally given over to suspension, with each wheel totally isolated and on its own to sort out gravity.  No matter how uneven the terrain, all four wheels maintain ground contact and traction.  He backed it out of its garage and didn’t ask if I was up to a ride.  He just said, “Climb in.”

I did.  There was even a seatbelt.  Country folk don’t believe in helmets, so I committed to the necessary reality of wind parting hair. Dale translated into the skeletal velocipede, and the savvy suspension dealt with the startling differential between our body weights.  No problem.  Then my head snapped back to impact the high seat-back, and it was full speed ahead—up, down, and around wherever pointed and gassed.  We were a noisy blur of Kawasaki green and black that went by fast—like come and gone. It was fun and more than exhilarating, but then he said, “I want to show you something.”  We clamber-rolled straight at a near vertical eight foot embankment and crunched to a stop with the beast’s nose poking right at the grassy wall.

“So?  Now what?” I croaked.

“Watch!” he said and flashed me a Dale grin.  A change of gear and it was straight up the bank.  No grinding,  hesitating, or slipping.  Just up, up, up, over, and away.  Then he charged into the woods at speed, whipping in and out between trees, scaling forested hills with no concession to the vagaries of terrain, skirting the edges of cliffs as we assaulted the pristine beauty of the Appalachian woodland.  That was when I caught a passing enlightenment.  I didn’t want to die.  I wasn’t ready.  Not yet.

“Be careful!” I squalled.  “I’m too young to die!”  I had thought that I had had enough of this getting old stuff, and any morning I didn’t wake up would be just fine.  But now I know better.  When rocking along the edge of a cliff-side aerie and facing the possibility of immanent extinction, I’m not ready.  There’s too much on my do-list.  A trip to Dale’s mountain hideaway is always good for putting things into perspective.  Breathing salt water with my sainted mother’s ghost will have to wait.  I’ve got a lot more living to do.

Acronymania

I was on top of the world.  At least that’s what it felt like, having gone as high as I could go in my chosen career field without more impressive credentials.  I poured myself a cup of engineering room brew, filled a chair in the Project Manager’s office, and settled down for a chat.

“Am I smart?” I muttered—a query more floated onto the air than asked.  Jack Cherne, our grand old man, chief engineer of the NBCRS (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance System) was the object of my question.  TRW (Thompson Ramo Wooldridge) had just successfully completed the DOD (Department of Defense) top secret program, and we were heady with success.  He shot me a smirk, leaned back, hands cradling the nape of his fuzzy old neck, and crossed his ankles.  Comfort arranged and assured, he proceeded to pontificate.

“Not bull-dozer intelligent—but clever.  I’ll grant you that.  A clever girl you are.”  He elaborated his contention, but I wasn’t listening.  I was busy fuming.  It was the kind of sexist, ageist, grandfatherly benevolent statement I should have expected, but given all that had so recently occurred, I had hoped for more.  Jack had seen it all, knew it all, and helped our team get through it all.  If I could get a straight answer from anybody, it would be from him.  I was forty-seven, hardly a girl, and more of me had adhered to development of the NBCRS sampler concept than any other program participant.  But I was a long way from being sure of myself.  I wouldn’t be arguing with Jack that day—or any day.

NBCRS as it relates to me, a very small fish in that pond, started with announcement of the program, to be proposed as a bid package to the US Army’s Tank and Automotive Command (TACOM).  When Bill King our department manager announced the proposal, everyone was jazzed.  He framed it as a design contest.  Any and all of us were welcome to submit ideas.  The task was to gut and refurbish an M-113 APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) so as to render it capable of entering a contaminated environment, collect samples, test them, and mark safe routes through any suspected death zone.

A well-connected whiz-bang design engineer, Colin Hart, had been posted to our team, with the assumption he would control the concept phase of the work.  But even so, King assured all of us that our input was solicited and would be given the credence it deserved.  Our group, always responsible for hardware design, caught the cresting wave of his excitement.  We departed the meeting deep in thought.  The next few weeks went by with several preliminary layouts rising to a level of interest but eventually set aside.  I thought a lot about the problem, spending many hours digesting the customer specification from TACOM.  That tome, even just paper bound, weighed nearly four pounds on the mail-room scale.  With all those requirements and parameters swimming in my brain, any possibility that fit seemed too complicated.  I futzed with the problem but scribed not a single line.  Some guys drew up a storm but were disqualified because they hadn’t read the spec.

Colin jumped right onto a computer terminal and began his layout, making the most of our CADAM (Computer Augmented Design and Manufacturing) system.  His layout took shape, looked impressive, and eventually usurped a table in the design bay— a full scale prototype.  I watched him assemble what seemed to be coming together as a Rube Goldberg joke, with way too many parts, that relied way too much on what produces falling apples.  This machine was to traverse a battlefield environment.  Gravity was not assured to be ever on our side in a conflict.  Finally a simpler better solution began to swim into my “clever girl” cranium.

On the day of our PDR (preliminary design review), I woke up early, buzzing with an idea that seemed like it could do the job and would leave nothing to the vagaries of falling fruit.  It was not yet committed to paper, but I was full to bursting with “possible.”  The breakfast meeting started on time.  I scored a seat next to the old man.  Getting the ear of such a power broker was something that didn’t happen to me—to people like me—a woman.  Maybe I gave luck an assist, grabbing that chair before somebody else beat me to it.  I don’t even remember.  But there I was; there all of us were.  The meeting played itself out.  We ate our eggs and Canadian bacon, drank a good many cups of Hyatt coffee, and commenced listening to a litany of endless tech-speak.  Surrounded by colleagues, I defended my well-positioned seat, and my eyes did not glaze over.  During the entire presentation, I was hard at work.

My breakfast napkin, flattened and smoothed, served as a platen for a coalescing concept.  A Hyatt logo pen sketched this graphic:  Two gear-rotated garage door style springs, mounted at the rear of the M-113, drag through a dirty battlefield.   Two flexible smooth silicone rubber ropes pass through the springs protruding to acquire contaminants while sliding along suspect terrain.  When one spring is up, presenting its sample to the on-board spectrophotometer for on-the-move analysis, the other spring is down, trailing along possibly contaminated ground.  The cycle assures that one spring or the other is always down, guaranteeing that no opportunity to sample contamination is missed.  The rubber rope is fed from two pre-wound cassettes, unrolling from their pockets recessed in the floor of the vehicle, played out continuously through the two reciprocating-arc spring arms.  After each sample is processed, an automatic cutoff severs that length of rope and jettisons it.  The entire cycle is automated under on-board command and control.

Satisfied with my sketch, I tapped Mr. Cherne’s shoulder and pointed to my busy napkin.  He glanced down, raised eyebrows, leaned in, and began puzzling it out.  He took the napkin and spread it flat between our two breakfast plates.  Nobody seemed to notice our quiet whispers.  Then he nodded, pocketed the napkin, and went back to following the blow-by-blow of the PDR.  I had no idea what he was thinking but he seemed mellow as he sat there smoothing his beard hairs.

The prepared PDR mostly described the plan to place a soldier in survival gear on his belly and working with gloved hands that protruded from the back of the unit, manually sampling what was passing below.  It seemed a cumbersome even dangerous  way to do the job, and I hoped they would stir about for something more elegant.

I sat, mentally castigating myself for being so late to the table of bright ideas.  Colin was all set to present his layout, and I was literally nowhere.  After several more managers had their say, it was Jack’s turn, as Program Manager, to make a summation.  He rose and bounded up to the speaker’s platform, his gait belying any assumption he might be operating past his prime.  He pulled the inked napkin out of his suit coat pocket and announced what was going to happen next.  His eyes sparkling, he waved my scribbled napkin and told a story of a girl with an idea—one he called amazing.  What he described was what we had just whispered about over bacon, eggs, and hash browns.  Had he called me a woman instead of a girl, I would have been ecstatic. 

The Bird Colonel, who was the planned recipient of all this information, seemed to enjoy the nerdy irony of it all, and approved the change of plan.  Poor Colin never even got to mount the stage.  His clunker disappeared and was never heard from again.  I was left to suffer with my guilt for having disadvantaged a good engineer who simply had a bad day, as well as delighting in my glee from selling my own bright idea.  Things are never simple.

The entire program was similarly and delightfully fraught.  It was concept development of the sort inventors dream about.  Every problem encountered was but an opportunity for another wild ride.  One of many examples was handling flag emplacement from within the sealed interior environment while dressed in Mop IV Gear (ie. sort of like a space suit.)  My gadget presented a single flag staff directly into the gloved hand of the operator so he could then poke that staff into a cleverly constituted base that when deployed would hopefully self-right onto rough terrain.  The flag shaft slid through the phallus-shaped shaft of my clever flag-staff presentation device and became an excuse for much ribald humor.

It’s interesting how often sexual ideation enters production of creative hardware design.  Male and female screw threads have ever been the subject of lascivious palaver.  I don’t know if this is a universal.  I can only attest to my own odd proclivity to grasp the connection and suffer attendant embarrassment.  My introduction to such inappropriate confabulation started in a 1968 organic chemistry class at the University of Dallas.  The professor insisted on investing every atom with a male or female gender identity depending on its plus or minus charge status.  He then would describe in prurient detail just what happened during the subject exchange.  I cringe in remembrance.

The NBCRS Surface Sampler was detailed precisely from my coffee-stained napkin sketch, which I quickly turned into a complete CADAM scale layout.  It was an education for me, a designer who was used to managing development of my giz-widgits personally.  Working in support of production always had offered opportunities for building bright ideas into hardware while shepherding the entire project through completion and implementation.  NBCRS was my first time stepping into design of actual product, not just tooling, for the military industrial complex.  I had to move over and share clout.  It wasn’t my baby—only my invention.

It was a different world.  Every item no matter how inconsequential had to be documented, specified, enumerated, sequenced, and controlled, as part of the system of military specification.  I had no idea how complex this was to be.  When my Dad and I had worked an idea, we just drew it, built it, tested it, and let ‘er rip.  This was something else entirely.

Every system, every assembly, every component, no matter how small, had its own drawing and number that defined and controlled it, positioning it in the overarching tree of military/industrial graphics.  Such stringent detail wasn’t my cup of tea.  TRW knew it; I knew it.  I didn’t complain when they gave me a quiet corner for dreaming up new ideas, more exciting stuff to prototype.  I was happy.  Some days I didn’t lay a single line—just stared down a blinking screen.  They were OK, as long as those wildebeest kept stampeding across my river.  Bill King let me change my schedule, coming in at six AM while the city slept, and I made the trip from Orange County to Redondo Beach and Space Park in a mere thirty-seven minutes.  The security guard got to know me as the lady who just couldn’t wait to get to work every morning. 

I soon understood the drill.  I was to produce scale layouts of concepts.  The detail drafting was swiftly assigned to drawing experts who had been generating military specs since first they hired on as career drafters.  They were amazing!  They grabbed my sampler machine scale layout and ran with it.  I, on the other hand, accepted the obvious: TRW was willing to let me do what I do.  I began managing the sampling piece of the NBCRS program.  Being involved at that level opened the way to a string of afterthoughts.  CADAM and I drew them up, and they were soon prototypes. I was having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.  At 2:30 every afternoon I got to leave for the day.  Life was very, very good.

It was too good to last forever.  We finally turned our completed NBCRS prototype over to the Army.  I would never know how it fared on the field of battle.  Just because the Sampler was my baby doesn’t mean I should be allowed to monitor its career.  My Top Secret clearance wasn’t enough.  “Need to Know” was also a requirement.  I had absolutely no need to keep up with its exploits on the modern battlefront.  I dutifully filled out the Invention Disclosure form, relinquishing forever whatever perceived interest I may have had in the machine, and that was that.

Other programs came and went.  For a while I had to figure out why the doors fell off the Peacekeeper missile every time it was fired.  It involved digging deep into controlling documents, analyzing the hardware they described, generating a CAD scale layout that proved how parts were failing to properly interact.  The U S of A cannot have the doors falling off its missile deployments.  I ended up with a box of drawing copies and an answer.  A letter to my department manager finalized the assignment, and I was on to the next thing.

Proposals were the best.  A group of creatives were chosen, isolated under security detail, and given budget and time to dream up a proposed design.  Proposal assignment was opening a door to possibility.  It was undefined.  That was understood.  A customer specification controlled, but it said what it must do, not how.  That was up to us.  We hashed that out among ourselves.  Each team member was expected to bring a certain area of expertise to the endeavor, but that didn’t confer any power or assign any territorial imperitive.  The strength of any idea was inherent.  I hung my concepts on the wall, in the spot designated for my part of the effort.  Once every day, the entire cohort “walked the walls.”  Anyone could ask questions; Anyone could answer them.  Anyone could suggest changes or explain why something might be a problem or how it might be done better.  I, a mere BS, could take to task a PhD or any level of manager if I could marshal my facts.

I will never forget the specter of a proposal manager consoling a BSEE (Bachelor of Science Electrical Engineering) as she sobbed and wiped her eyes following a walking of the walls.  She was irate that I had prevailed in my unique concept for an electrical network.  I had no right, certainly no electrical creds, but my concept was better.  I won.  It’s too bad that this work was so often a zero-sum-game, identifying a winner and a loser.  There ought to be a way to define it as just progress.  Even though I complain, we should celebrate such an altercation between two assertive educated women on such a once forbidden platform.  In spite of ourselves, we remained friends.

What goes up must come down.  A concept well accepted in aerospace.  Politics change.  Money disappears.  RFP’s (Requests for Proposal) dry up, and people like Bill King must spend their days conjuring make-work to keep their people busy.  Erstwhile program managers are spied pushing brooms down hallways.  I was given stacks of drawings to be itemized as alpha-numeric lists on computers also being kept machine-busy and budget-justified.  It’s hard to be patient with make-work, even harder to be grateful, since it was a sign they wanted to retain—not lay off.  Weeks might go by while I drew my full salary but did essentially nothing to earn it.  And I wasn’t learning a thing.  That was the hardest part. 

If I had been smart, I would have hung in there, been patient, where they liked my work and were willing to let me be more than a bit eccentric.  Sooner or later the next wave of work would come. But, like Jack Cherne maintained, I wasn’t smart, just clever.  After only five years at TRW, I decided to throw it all up and buy a book store—another adventure entirely.

******** THE END *******

TRW Inc. was an American corporation involved in a variety of businesses, mainly aerospace, automotive, and credit reporting.  It was a pioneer in multiple fields including electronic components, integrated circuits, computers, software and systems engineering. TRW built many spacecraft, including Pioneer 1, Pioneer 10, and several space-based observatories.

The company was founded in 1901 and it lasted for more than a century until being acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002.  It spawned a variety of corporations, including Pacific Semiconductors, the Aerospace Corporation, Bunker-Ramo, Experian, and TRW Automotive, which is now part of ZF Friedrichshafen. TRW veterans were instrumental in the founding of corporations like SpaceX.

In 1953, the company was recruited to lead the development of the United States’ first ICBM.  Starting with the initial design by Convair, the multi-corporate team launched Atlas in 1957. It flew its full range in 1958 and was then adapted to fly the Mercury astronauts into orbit. TRW also led development of the Titan missile, which was later adapted to fly the Gemini missions. (Wikipedia)

The gaze between persons is powerful.  I have watched it work as human persons process the possibilities of relating.  Because my mother taught me well how to read her eyes and face, I am adept at reading others’ faces.  I look at you and see you looking at me.  There is a lock.  I read your feelings, as I feel my feelings, now the products of our interactive gaze.  You read my feelings.  I read you, reading me, reading you, reading me—all the way to infinity.  There is bottomless depth in a gaze, like two mirrors reflecting between each other in endless imaging.  I am changed by what I see in your eyes.  I see that you perceive me to be an interesting, perhaps even capable, person.  I am inspired to become an even more interesting and more capable person.  You read my feelings of happiness and interest and appreciation and decide to like me.  I see that you read me, and I feel even happier.  You see my happiness and I see yours.  We are pregnant with each other’s happiness.  There is mutuality.  That’s how strangers become friends.

Beyond acknowledgement of gaze is its analysis.  Gaze is a combination of eyes plus surround.  A naked eye is only a stare.  Humans are revolted by stare.  They feel assaulted—visually raped.  A stare is looking without any softening hint of expression.  Nothing is as repulsive as an eyeball extracted from its socket and positioned on a neutral surface poised to watch—watch you.  It is a metaphor of perfect irony.  It sees nothing; in seeing nothing it sees everything. Contemplation of a naked eyeball makes it easy to understand how it’s the surround that defines nuance.  The soft texture of the face is a subtle canvas that offers as much to human apperception as does the rainbow of smell to the articulate nose of a dog.

What can be read in a face is mostly about the shape shifting of soft tissue, which explains why humans are so repulsed by the less-than-loving gaze of an insect.  The Praying Mantis is a favorite due to its fortuitous posture, not its soulful expression.  The common housefly, so universally hated, carries a cap of many eyes that see in all directions, wary of incipient swatters and wanting only to evade the precipitous denouement of the splat.  There is no facial nuance to accompany its approach to survival.  It’s all live; let-live is immaterial.

Bare skin is best constituted to convey expression.  Tender thin tissue that surrounds the eye most closely is associated with the gentle tension of “concern.”  It is there, waiting to be accessed by observing eyes—eyes that “want to know.”  The eyelids are less subtle but equally articulate.  They tighten with suspicion and report wariness.  While a dog, with its whole body covering of hair, excepting the occasion of raised hackles, is more circumspect about tissue tension projecting concern, the movement of human eyelids is near central for all to see and interpret.  Brows, whether bare or hirsute, contribute much to expression.  It’s easy to read “suspicion” in canine brow elevation.  It might even be underscored by a not-so-friendly growl.  Elevating both brows evinces surprise, while one brow lifted suggests a question is brewing at the center of things.  Our hoity-toity word “supercilious,” i.e. above the hair, speaks to a single brow raised in suggested irony.

Moving outward from the windows of the soul, nose sniffs ambient air and offers backup to lid and brow statements.  An odd odor twitches the nose while a cheek might lift to suggest something is perhaps amiss.  Even the chin gives a little jump to underscore the supposition.  If an odor is approachable but still ill-defined, the nares will expand; an indication that what is smelled is not wonderful but is not totally repulsive.  A deeper inhalation might resolve the thing entire.  All this activity is there to interpret for watchers who have eyes to see.

Mouth is second only to eyes as great communicator.  Not only does it conjure endless auditory signals but modifies its very shape to indicate whatever feeling accompanies what is being said.  So much is it utilized that its physical shape is literally formed by a lifetime of function.  Drawing lips back baring teeth advertises aggression as readily as it expresses sheer happiness.  No wonder mammals are confused in their communication.  Lips that self-posture in a petulant purse are seldom asked to express generosity of feeling.  Odd labial arrangements, such as the confusion of the Trump mouth, forever memorialized on Saturday Night Live, are excellent examples of this description.  The mouth is being used to advertise openness, while its corners are drawn up, completely at cross-purposes to what is portrayed, while the jaw, usually relaxed as an indicator of open honesty, in the Trump jaw is firmly clenched.  Who could believe any word that escapes from such a mouth? 

Even beyond the head, the entire body acts as a surround for the eyes, as meaning is conveyed—eloquently in some cases—not so much in others.  A speaker juggling the need to move on and dodge annoying questions, often conveys more than intended as hands paint an irrefutable picture of ”just wanting to move on—for God’s sake—why are you bothering me?”  Hands can say even as much as eyes and mouth.  They are supremely articulate, especially when the presenter is intelligent, sensitive, and insightful.  That makes a spectacular triumvirate of expression. 

Otherwise brilliant politicians sometimes suffer when their great policy ideas are derailed by wacky arm and hand gesticulations, waved amid calls for voter support not likely to be achieved.  Eyes that don’t give in to even an occasional blink are suspected of being just a bit too crazed to lead men.  Listeners who overdo eye-contact to the extent that the orator is put off by their gaze do a disservice to the orator.  Speakers do best heard by quiet balanced audiences who evidence interest in the subject but exhibit no involvement in the presenter as individual.  But politics is crazy; that’s a given.  I adore Elizabeth Warren as a policy wonk but fear giving her my vote.  Nowhere is reading of eyes and faces as important as in electoral politics.  How else are we to decide whom to elect?

Mankind has always feared the evil eye, inspiring cultish need to fight its power, never to express fervor of devotion.  There is no religion boasting of devotees dedicated to the eye’s worship and adoration, yet there is no protective fetish more ubiquitous than the one that promises to ward off its evil.  Traveling throughout Turkey, I saw everywhere items for sale warranted to protect the owner from its gaze.  A favorite fabric pattern displays a field of endless eyes—a universe of seeing.  These items are so well-accepted that they are an intrinsic part of the culture, bought and sold as near-currency.

Reading people’s eyes and faces can be discomfiting to subjects of such scrutiny.  Assuming we know what another is feeling is the ultimate arrogance.  Others pass through their days expecting to be fairly circumspect behind natural defenses.  Maybe blind would be better.  I am juggling several nasty ophthalmological diagnoses.  Maybe one of them could make me into a nicer person.  Who knows?

As a new resident of Blue Ash and trying to immerse myself in all the arts and culture it was advertised to afford, I was attending a summer concert in the park across from my senior apartment.  It was swanky to be able to just walk across Kenwood from my front door and enjoy symphonic performance.

Much later, walking home with the strains of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture still ringing in my ears, I allowed myself a touch of mania.  It was all just too wonderful.  I stopped to pull a stray weed from the flowerbed at the building entrance.  This was my home even if technically a communal residence to house elders.  I felt obliged to share in its care and upkeep.  Why should I not pull weeds and pick up bits of trash that were a part of a lived-in residence?  That same thinking led to my assessment of the look of the front entrance.  Having for many years done architectural design back in California, I was ever aware of appearance, a building’s beauties vs its flaws.  We were still fighting the frustrations of Covid, and I hated all that, especially the scruffy signs posted with an eye to keeping us old people alive and contributing to a functioning economy. Sure enough, right there on the front entrance, obscuring the well-executed plate glass design of the foyer, were two identical 8½ x 11’s instructing me to wear my mask.  These were the same copies that graced the mail-room, the elevator, and the laundry.  I was so very tired of seeing them, especially in duplicate, that I ripped one off the glass and stuffed it in my pocket.  I felt an instant remorse, but what’s done is done.  At least it looked better.  Back in my apartment, I disposed of the wad of paper, the weed, and the scraps of trash I had picked up from the parking area on the way into the building.

That should have been the end of that, but it wasn’t.  The next day there was a knock on my apartment door.  When opened, it revealed an irate building manager wanting to know why I had removed a posting from her front entrance.  How did she know?  I had returned from the concert at near midnight.  There was absolutely nobody that could have witnessed my dastardly deed.  But they had.  “Why,” she pressed.

“It was a duplicate and was obscuring our lovely entrance glass,” was all I could offer as explanation.  It was honest truth.  I didn’t apologize, but promised to never again tinker with management postings.  I have kept my word, trying hard to not think of the common areas as extensions of my premises where I might entertain the lovely delusion of ownership, no matter how well-intended.  It is good to know that I live in a building that is protected by hidden cameras that can catch scurrilous intruders as well as residents in the act of rule violation.  I am a model tenant, having programmed my rent to be electronically paid on its due date and making sure to perform well for camera recording at all times in all common areas.  The thought crossed my mind that a landlord so enamored of cameras might place one or two inside my apartment, but I dismissed the concept as delusional.  Claims of perfection can’t be asserted, however, because I was once taken to task for attending a social group meeting in my stocking feet, a violation of rules.  The entire building interior is carpeted and seemed to me to be “home.”  I was in error.  Also I learned that I must be totally and completely dressed as to appear in public before exiting my domicile.  I fanaticize about the excitement of throwing on a robe to cover my L.L.Bean pj’s and dashing down the hall to move wash load to dryer.  It’s just a dream.  I’ll never do it, but its fun to titillate my fright zone.  I’m too superannuated to get evicted for improper haberdashery in my apartment residence hallway.  That would be bothersome, and it’s not fair to ask my sons and grandsons to move me yet again just because I can’t behave.

Writer

Thea addressed her Underwood, fingering its keys but not choosing any to strike.  Glancing up she looked out the window, past the oak tree and saw a car moving round the bend, emerging slowly from beyond the fringe of willows where the bridge crossed Mill creek.  It was an old sedan, faded green, dust from the roadway etching a soft haze on the window glass.  The greybeard driver wore thick round glasses, maybe a result of cataract surgery.  In 1963 intraocular lenses had yet to be invented.  He stretched and squinted, peering over the too-tall steering wheel.  An oncoming vehicle had hesitated curbside to chat with a neighbor, and the old man was confused.   His decision wavered, and he veered to the right, off the asphalt, onto roadside gravel.  He didn’t see Melanie who had spied a pretty pink stone and reached for it.  Time slowed, then crept forward, like the old car.

Thea stared out the window, unseeing. Instead, she huddled, suddenly a snippet of thought, imagining herself safe in a crook of the oak tree, where lowermost branch met trunk.  It was a good place to be, the breeze sorting through fluttering new spring leaves.  It reminded her of her tree at Grandpa’s house, where she could swing higher and higher, pretending she was flying with the wind right into a great blue bowl of sky.  Her mind reached for the hard center of the oak tree and she mouthed, “I am here.”

“I feel you”, breathed the oak, rattling his branches.  “I know you and your three younglings.  You love them more than life.  But you aren’t seeing them.  Look! The car comes closer.  It approaches your precious girl.  Don’t deny what is real.  You think you ought to stop it, but there is nothing you can do inside this slice of time.  Nothing at all.”

“Humans are strange and wonderful creatures.  I have always known them since first I split that acorn husk.  They are good, for the most part.  But they don’t know themselves, don’t have the courage to really be who they are.  Maybe it’s because they aren’t firmly planted like me.  See my roots?  You can see how strong they are even as they dig into solid ground.  Well now, humans get to move about.  With no roots they must have a hard time knowing they belong any place at all.  Isn’t that true?” 

The old oak sighed, leaves rustling softly.  He sensed the young woman standing by the window, her eyes first wide with terror, then dead with denial.  A firm understanding with the earth was for him a source of substantial pride.  But conversely he envied the woman her ability to freely walk upon the earth, to move and act and accomplish.  “No wonder she toils at her little typing machine,” he groused.  “I wish I could write a poem, or a story.  God knows what a tale I could tell.  I’ve seen so much, felt so much, and remembered all of it.  My heart shelters hers,” he noticed, arching his branches over the spot where her soul huddled, a refugee from what had become much too real. 

“Oh Thea!” moaned the North Wind, gusting through tree’s topmost branches.  It sent chills rippling down the striations of his bark, “You know what is happening to Melanie.  You do know.  If you deny that you will be split from head to feet like a tree shattered by lightning.”  Thea shuddered, her center of knowing dancing a phosphorescent jig on the tree limb.

“I know,” she said and dived off the branch, tumbling over, and over, and over, steadying at last into a glide.  She banked to the right, side-slipped a tad to the left, willed herself up, up, just clearing the roof, and landed on the lip of an eaves-trough.  She clung to its metal edge, reeling from what she had let herself learn.  She could see her oak tree, far across the yard standing stable and still, and missed his firm center.  As she visualized the heart of the oak, she became that strength and reached for truth.

“If indeed you are strong and brave, and have good eyes, you can see all things from here”, a crisp voice beside her pontificated.  Startled, she turned to face the corner-most clapboard shingle whose edge pointed toward the road where the green sedan approached crunching roadside gravel.  The shingle gathered up his importance and nodded.  He inspected this fragment of a human, feeling xenophobic to address a consciousness so foreign, albeit just a disarticulated thought.  He brushed the edge of empathy, but skirted it.  “She wants to see,” he mused.  “Needs to, if I am correct.  But won’t allow herself to, if I am equally correct.”  He gazed past the lost thought and watched as the car rolled forward, bumper nudging the girl’s shoulder, spilling her onto the roadway.  The right front tire caught her shoulder and rolled over her head, gently crushing her skull as it passed.  “You saw,” he said.

“I saw,” Thea gasped, and pitched forward, tumbling off the eave and dropping to the walkway below.  The consciousness that was Thea spiraled and coiled, spinning into itself until it was a ball and rolled slowly down the walk, bouncing down, down, down the steps, out to where the child lay sprawled beside the road.  It nudged a small pink hand and stopped.
         
The road rumbled to the ball, “Why are you here?”  She waited for an answer, and hearing none, stretched herself from East to West, and from West to East, on around the bend and across the creek.  It felt good to stretch, since it was what she did best, extending in her mighty concrete and asphalt web from sea to shining sea. 

The road was a well-grounded entity, more in contact with the earth than even the oak tree with his venerable roots.  The road rolled over the land as far as forever.  She perceived more than any human could ever hope to see or know.  And she did even more.  She understood.  She knew why the sphere of anguish hid beneath the child’s still and cooling hand. 

In that moment she pitied the woman, frozen beside the window, having sent her soul alone to acknowledge what she herself could not.  The road smoothed her mighty lap and accepted the child as she lay ruined, her blood slowly pooling about her head while the siren from the approaching ambulance wailed louder and louder. 

The road groaned, touching the pain of the woman and the child, one of body, one of mind.  And in the touching was born an understanding shared by the woman and by the road.  Thea turned from the window and progressed—first one foot—then another—back to her writing desk.  She sank to her chair and began—began to type…

Human mating is something that nobody understands.  I suspect there are as many hypotheses concerning the subject as there are questing minds that consider copulation of our binary species.  I dread turns of conversation which require me to confess I have been three times married and divorced.  This exposes the conservative underbelly of my nature that I do my best to deny and conceal.  In the hidden heart of my world view, man and woman were meant to love one another.  The best people are the ones who can enjoy one long and healthy marriage.

My inability to live up to that value must mean that I am inept at selecting a man who just might keep me forever-after happy.  I blame myself for this dilemma, since I have reliably been the one to end marriages.  My husbands have been, if not blissful, at least willing to declare the coupling viable and to keep on keeping on; it was always I who wanted out.  My three choices were excellent examples of good decent men, ill-matched with a well-meaning woman who just didn’t quite understand how things were supposed to work.

First there was James Charles Taylor, a West Virginia farm boy who joined the Navy to see the world.  A stateside leave for his ship’s company coincided with a trip to hillbilly country for me, during my high school rising-senior summer vacation.  I played at being Daisy Mae on a neighboring farm, while a guest of my step-mother’s aunt and uncle.  I was no stranger to farm life, having visited every summer with my paternal grandparents on three-hundred or so gentlemanly tilled and pastured acres west of Ft. Worth.  Cluck-clucking neighbor farm wives wasted no time introducing James and me, and soon a well-worn path through scrub brush wound its way along the river bend that demarcated the two farmsteads.

It was an enjoyable summer for both James and me.  I knew enough about the charms of rural life to preclude being terrified, and actually enjoyed being allowed to help with chores on both the dairy farms.  Jim was certifiably handsome, with his hay-harvest tan and authentic muscles acquired pitching bales and wrestling livestock.  I devoured the attention of a boy who seemed to think I was even a little bit pretty, unlike my dorky classmates back at school who resented being bested at math and science by a girl.  All that was left behind in snooty Westport, and Jim didn’t even know that I, with my penchant for trying too hard at everything scholarly, was probably the least popular girl in my school.

There was the hint of fireworks between us, but it was 1954, and one thing our divergent cultures shared was strict moral codes.  It wasn’t until the night before my departure, having staked out a private spot on the grassy hill overlooking the Fourth of July small-town fireworks display, that we explored the possibilities of a smooch. It was my first time to really kiss a boy without valid intercession from a party crowd and a spun bottle.  We parted, I to prep for college, he to fulfill his commitment to the US Navy.

Then halfway through my first year at Carnegie Tech, my father’s business went bankrupt, and I completed the year by re-upping for the debt myself.  My stepmother filed for divorce, and Daddy was staying in a serial progression of motel rooms, so I had nowhere to go.  Recalling the charms of West Virginia, I crawled to Aunt Winnie’s to clean house, cook, milk cows, and make commercial butter in the mornings; I learned to drive tractor, harvest hay, and work the garden in the afternoons.  Evenings were for reading and writing letters to Jim.  Ever since that idyllic summer vacation, he and I had corresponded.  When, months after a maiming shipboard accident he proposed by air mail from Portsmouth Naval Hospital, I accepted.  I was horror-struck, but what kind of person would have said no?

That was husband number one.  Number two was an equally twisted choice.  At Varo, Static Power Division, I was working as a production engineer.  Since the product being manufactured was an electrical device, the electrical engineering department called most of the shots.  Electrical engineers were the top of the heap.  Mechanical and manufacturing engineers were just a bit less in that work environment.  It’s odd to experience how power stacks people up in an organization.  With my recently completed BS in Divisional Science, I was a lowly also-ran, with a crush on Varo’s Electrical Engineering’s resident genius, Brian McGuinness, who looked so much like my dad it was weird.  While I chased him, Larry Duker chased me.  Larry liked to lean out his office door when I walked down the hall and ogle my retreating passage.  It was the legs.  He admired the gams, built from hiking West Virginia hills in search of errant cattle and pirouetting on green hilltops.  I noticed the attention and paid him enough credence to find out that he was tech savvy.  He knew a mountain about the nuts and bolts of electrical enclosure design, and I soon began to spend time with him just to pick his brain.  Larry had his own problem with credentialing.  He hadn’t finished college, but had joined the Navy, not to see the world, but to decide what to do with his considerable talent.  He had been coasting on his own brilliance.  US Navy in-service testing sent him to technical school immediately, advancing on completion to the highest rank possible without holding a university degree.  He finally mustered out as Chief Petty Officer, honorably discharged.  Then he went to work as an engineer—a good one— but without a university degree his pay was chicken scratch.

When he asked me to go out, I said no, but later agreed to just one Saturday and only the  afternoon.  He picked me up in his MG Midget to the delight of my sons Dale (10) and Lane (6).  They were all over him with demands to go for a spin in his red hot convertible.  They got their ride, and then they began pestering me to marry its owner.  That was nuts!  I refused and remonstrated in every direction, but then we began singing soprano-tenor duets on my apartment balcony after the kids went to bed, and slowly all the parts of our friendship began to adjust to each other.  It felt natural to snuggle into Larry’s tutelage, truly valuing his mind and his ability to share knowledge.  Larry was a born teacher.  We married, but even after such an auspicious beginning, things devolved—a sad and tawdry ending. 

I was triply careful with respect to choosing husband number three.  Eleven years my senior, he fit the pattern of father obsession, Kenneth Howard Ibsen was a brilliant researcher at University of California Irvine Medical School.  His subject was biochemistry, MD candidate’s most challenging area of study.  In spite of the frightful nature of his subject matter, students every year voted him top medical school professor.

I would have never noticed Dr. Ibsen had I not attended a Parents Without Partners extravaganza one night at the Irvine Community Center.  Two hundred or so upwardly mobile, yet viable but romantically unaffiliated, heterosexual adults gathered to hear about the wonders of the Kiersy Temperament Sorter.  Everybody grabbed a test, checked the requisite boxes, and waited for instructions.  Boxes totaled and cross-referenced scored me an “intuitive feeler”—and at the dizzying apex of that scale.  So what does that mean?  The leader pointed to the four echoing corners of the gargantuan ballroom, assigning to each a definitive personality type.  Then she asked everybody to gather in the quadrant that matched their scored personality.  The entire assemblage clotted in three of the quadrants while only Kenneth Howard Ibsen and Dorothy Jeanette Martin stood, a solitary couple in the fourth, exchanging phone numbers.  The rest is an exercise in the obvious—as well as the oblivious.  The brochure’s fine print suggested that people would do well to choose partners of complimentary traits, not matching ones.  Hardly anybody read the fine print.

Traits aside, I seemed to prefer men with gargantuan problems.  Ken fit that bill.  He was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic defect that caused the sclera of his eyes to glow blue and the cartilage of his entire body to disintegrate.  Mercifully the male organ is not in the least cartilaginous, so paternity boded well.  He had spent most of his childhood in an adult hospital ward waiting for assorted bones to heal.  As soon as he would be declared good to go, he was out and about, but then the next fracture would land him back on his back in his favorite hospital.  Luckily, he had a mild case of OI so that he didn’t suffer the usual grotesqueries but only matured as shorter than his genes would normally have been expressed.  Instead of 6’-4”, like the men in his family, he stood only 5’-6.”

Spending all that time in bed with books, and verbally jousting adult intellects had the obvious developmental effect.  Ken was bright and articulate.  He chose biochemistry to study and researched OI for his dissertation.  For many years he enjoyed the status of being that genetic anomaly’s leading expert.  His personal position at the nexus of the problem no doubt contributed to his notoriety.  Who wanted, after all, to challenge such a position?  Googling “Kenneth H. Ibsen,” alas, still brings up numerous scholarly articles tagging Osteogenesis Imperfecta, but fewer ones concerning his research and invention of the first chemical marker published for breast cancer.  OI is more fascinating than breast cancer.

When Ken got around to calling me, he suggested a meal at what was my favorite Japanese dinner house.  We met there and began sizing each other up.  He was passably good-looking in a professor sort of way, was fantastically well educated, and was a certified expert in my favorite subject—biochemistry.  I swooned!  Unlike most guys, he didn’t hold forth loudly mansplaining all the things the little woman must surely not understand.  He looked at me with those deep intelligent eyes and liked what he saw.  It was reciprocal.  He answered my questions to the level of my understanding, just like my father always had—a dear deep drink of cool water.  He handed me the menu and said, “Order anything you want.”  I trusted him and asked for a romantic steak for two that would be cooked tableside on sizzling rocks and divided between us by a lady in a kimona.  It was the start of something intense.  He told me later that I was the only date who had dared to order any but the least expensive entrée, hoping to be seen as a cheap date who might extrapolate into an economical wife.  Ken felt like home to me.  I had finally met a man I could admire and honor.  I must have cast him in God-like proportions, since when finally he proved himself to share the frailty of men the world over, I was affronted and disappointed.

Three, they say, is the charm.  Who am I to argue?  It has long been apparent that dreaming the thing is what casts the spell.  The building of it is where it disappoints.  A stupid tactic prattles about what glory waits as future amazement.  Better it is to hold a silent happiness to your breast until you make it an actual thing that can be seen and wondered at.  Otherwise it becomes an obligation to perform and mayhap disappoint.  The energy to create takes its vigor from the shivering delight of possibility.  Actuality rips that to shreds. What is, is, and can never return to the giggly dream of what if.

I have learned to faux consummate the bliss of marriage bed, a recent example being my repeated trysts with that scruffy old coot Eustice Conway.  I’m not the first to image the smooth softness of buckskin trousers against bare shaven leg.  Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a whole book about what it is to be The Last American Man.  I can taste the honey dripping off her tongue as she describes his twenty-something lithe body, what it can do, how, and why not.  Now I must have my daily fix of Mountain Man on INSP cable.  Eustice teaches me some wonderful new thing every day, something I can use if I get stranded in a winter wood and need to keep on living to mark another sunrise.

The worst thing of all would be to stumble into Eustace alongside that snowy track and have to follow him home where he would, no doubt, expect me to perc up a pot of camp coffee, and like Yentl, darn his socks.  No—I prefer the Eustice of my imaginings, burly, bright, and beautiful, rising to every occasion and ready to plug the gaps in my own woodland understandings with his own twice lived lore.  If he’s the man I think he is, he would darn his own socks with a carved bone needle or conjure a new pair out of deer gut casings.

The best aspect of such matrimony is that the Mother Church holds no purview over its enchantment.  No priest is required to bless the soft pine boughs of my marriage bed.  The cleric must articulate his unique thesaurus of delights.  Mine is mine alone—and maybe Eustace’s—if I can sort out proprieties, tenses, and logistics, not to mention pronouns: him/her, his/mine.  Like MMWG’s Michael Kelly, Eustace Conway is out to save the world.  I hope they succeed so Volodymyr Zelenskyy can live another day to glorify Ukraine and for me to dance all twitter pated about his triumph, after I achieve some polite disposition of Putin’s cold, stiff, and silent carcass—the one I dispatched in my head.  Should his corpus face the rising glory of the sun or the vivid beauty of its setting?  Is six feet an adequate depth, or would six miles be a safer more satisfying distal measure?  Dream up your own shovel.  Mine is already firm in hand.

Certificated

Power organizations exert control over the output of creative lives.  While that power stultifies, it also fulfills a legitimate purpose.  It protects an innocent public from bad actors who might pawn off poor work and endanger the end users of their intellectual product.  There are always two sides to this quandary.  This one takes place in Mono Lake country.

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Mono Lake is a saline soda lake in Mono County, California, formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake in an endorheic basin. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. These salts also make the lake water alkaline. This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and alkali flies.  The most unusual feature of Mono Lake are its dramatic tufa towers emerging from the surface. These rock towers form when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the waters of the lake, which are rich in carbonates.   (Wikipedia)

~ ~ ~

When my husband Larry and I blew into Mono County, California in the spring of 1977, our only option was to punt.  His father had changed his mind about inviting us to build a home on the lakefront property Larry and his brother would one day inherit.  We didn’t, however, give up on Lee Vining and its fantastic environs.  It was that unique location that had called to us with such clarity.

The family-owned property was a chunk of the Mono Lake shoreline bristling with tufa towers and underlayed with salt flats that offered an endless source of mineral crystals available for harvesting and marketing.  The Duker clan had bottled and sold the salt for many years and enjoyed its health enhancing benefits and reliable profits.  It routinely performed miraculous feats of physical healing.  I have found nothing so soothing to my irascible nasal pharynx.  One of our best friends claimed that after he was told to report to the hospital for amputation of a gangrenous foot, he instead spent an entire summer ritually soaking it in Mono Lake, 2 ½ times saltier than the ocean.  His foot completely healed.  Long a professional skier and tour guide, he was able to return to his important and necessary career.  The US FDA always looked askance at Mono Lake salt.  Since it is apparently innocuous, nobody is likely to sue anybody, but since there is no big money to be made, nobody is likely to investigate the science behind its ameliorative affect.

The entire lake and surround has since been reclassified under eminent domain and gleefully ingested by governmental organizations, but in 1977 it was still very much a private entity.  Larry’s dear but crotchety old man, Martin Duker, had for many summers parked his pickup camper on the property and enjoyed the clear briny sea air, at 6785’ elevation, on the shore of California’s prettiest salt lake.

The location transmogrified everything it encountered.  Even the local Indian bands, offshoots of the Paiute tribe, that gathered to populate that indigenous habitat, became themselves an oddity.  They camped at agreed upon times of the year along the lakeshore, harvesting the larvae of the flies that populated the salty flats, and collected the nuts of the many pinion pines that grow heartily throughout the area.  There wasn’t much else to eat except an occasional rabbit, chipmunk, or pronghorn antelope, slow enough to get caught.  Maybe it was the limited and peaceful diet that urged the Natives toward a gentle attitude of acceptance of White Man’s law.

By the time we arrived, most of the fly eaters had been absorbed into the dominant population, working for LA Department of Water and Power (DWP), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or just squatting extra-legally on BLM managed tracts of public land in army surplus tents, teepees being passé even among indigenous cultures.  Interactions were colorful.  Our favorite example was Cecil.  He got around by limping along the highway, feigning incapacity.  As soon as we would pull over to ask where he was headed, he would shove his Army issue metal crutches under one arm, punctuate the moment with an exuberant war whoop, and sprint for our Land Cruiser.  We didn’t mind.  It was a charming prevarication.  His opportunities were limited, and we appreciated how hard it is to control out-of-control circumstances.  He was always good for a yarn or two, knew most of the local history, and gladly shared it.  I was sad to hear years later that after one hitchhike into Lee Vining to get liquored up, he succumbed to a nap underneath a parked car and froze to death.

Even as the location had dictated the evolution of local indigenes, so it worked its will on Larry and me.  He took his new BS degree in Industrial Arts recently earned from North Texas State University to the local building department, was pressed into service as a Mono County Building Inspector, and began to earn an almost decent income.  I was bored and confused about what to do without tech employment, and not wanting to stagnate into a resentful domesticity.  So, when a knock on the door announced the wife of a local architect, I agreed to see if they could do what they promised— teach me how to design buildings. 

With our three sons, Dale (19), Lane (14), and Kurt (3), Larry and I stumbled onto a colorful old house just around the shoreline from the Duker enclave.  We decided to give it a try.  The house, slapped together by a local eccentric named Pat Kelly, nestled among the tufa formations, and was bereft of electricity.  A gasoline generator provided direct current for whatever was cunningly wired to run when the engine was chugging, punctuated by occasional backfires.  Otherwise the site was powerless and mercifully silent.  We approved the independent lifestyle the home stood for.  A propane refrigerator kept things cold; a wood stove kept things warm—at least warm enough.

Pat Kelly had found a hollow tufa tower and set up a toy wood stove inside where on the occasion of pleasant weather he tufa-camped.  It was the only tower with a stovepipe.  Lane, a confirmed romantic, moved his bedroom furniture right in and set up housekeeping.  All went well until he awoke nose to nose with a creature he didn’t recognize.  He moved back into the house at sunrise.  In the town of Lee Vining, he took Mono High School by storm, became a star running back on the football team, later moving to starting Quarterback and then Team Captain.  During his junior year he auditioned and won lead in the school play, but in spite of all that notoriety, he followed Dale back to West Virginia to matriculate as a Mountaineer.

In Mono County Dale got a job with June Mountain Ski Resort where he groomed the slopes with Thiokol Snow Cats.  Later he signed on with Cal Trans (California Department of Transportation), driving their monster snow movers.  They let him take the high-country-snow-specific driving test even though he was blind in one eye, so as not to fault their system for handicap discrimination.  The test consisted of negotiating an oversized truck through an orange cone array under the critical eye of Cal Trans certified experts.  They were sure he would fail it, since depth perception requires two good eyes.  But he aced the test, outscoring the other applicants, overturning not a single cone, and was hired on the spot, but after a while he missed West Virginia and headed back to country roads and mountain mommas.

Kurt, supremely confident, adored his preschool teacher, but became the first kid in Lee Vining ever to flunk kindergarten.  He, with a great deal of patient forbearance, explained to his kinder-mentor that he intended to be a race car driver, and as it follows, would not be needing all that adding and subtracting stuff, much less those a’s and b’s and c’s.  I was confident the future would sort all that out.  It did. 

We loved our scenic views of the lake and respected its changing weather patterns.  One morning we were horrified to witness emergency crews recovering four unfortunate drowning victims who had ventured out onto the lake during questionable weather.  The rescue equipment moved slowly and respectfully past the Kelly house, bearing the bodies to their stricken relatives.  The victim’s boat had capsized, and there was nothing left to do but grieve and console.  “Careful” became our operative code—our watchword.

I began commuting to Bridgeport, Mono’s county seat, to work for the architect who had invested in three professional drawing tables to outfit his attic office.  Since I knew the rudiments of technical drawing, thanks to Carnegie Mellon, and could do axonometric as well as perspective spreads, there was hope we might do some serious work.  Mono County was a down-to-basics kind of place, and certified though he was, Rufus Hale didn’t do the whole architectural package.  There was little market for it.  Local building contractors wanted only a good plan-set and any necessary calculations, in order to win project approved from the Building Department up in Bridgeport.  He gave them what they wanted.  He was a Registered Professional Architect, so his stamp was all the “legal” that was needed for the Department to certify his plans.  It was a good place to learn how to live by the pencil, one sheet at a time.

The Hales taught me, as I figured out how to scribe a standard plan set.  Making like a sponge, I learned what I needed to, interviewing the clients—mostly building contractors— and serving their individual needs.  As soon as I could do the work, the Hales let me.  I enjoyed the creative work, and the beautiful scenery laid out along the daily commute from Lee Vining to Bridgeport.  That took me across Conway summit at 8143 feet, the highest point on US Route 395.  It is truly God’s country.  The Indians called it the place where the Great Spirit dwells.  The beauty was all the religion I needed.  Every trip was a prayer.

It could have gone on that way forever, but Mrs. Hale began repeatedly showing up with bruises,  black eyes that she tried to cover with makeup, and odd hitches in her gait.  I asked her if she needed help, and she broke into tears.  Rufus, it turned out, in spite of the “his and hers” underwear blessed by the local certified Mormon official, that was supposed to purify marital thoughts, was venting his existential frustration on the body of his beloved spouse.  It was a remote location, where I was enclosed eight hours every day with a big man who had a problem with his temper, and his wife whom he was beating.  I was frightened for her, and also for myself, having never subjected myself to testicular violence.  Both my husbands could yell, but never raised a hand against me.  They knew that would never play.  When I explained my fears to Mrs. Hale and apologized to her for having to move on, she pleaded with tears plying down her cheeks, “Please don’t leave me alone with him.”  What could I say but no?  I urged her to consider that it was past time for her also to depart, and I was out of there.

Larry supported my decision and restricted his time as building inspector to nine-to-five, making himself useful to my growing need to learn about construction in the Mono Basin.  He had gained expertise on the job, and was happy to share that know-how.  After hours he worked with me on our one drafting table, and set it up in Kelly’s old attic, centered in a shed dormer that gave plenty of light as it overlooked the back yard.  The fenced and leveled enclosure out back was gigantic, so we made a serious kitchen garden, an opportunity to appreciate what a grown man can do with a shovel.  I drew a plan, bought seeds, located and set seedling plants.  After all those years eating from a West Virginia kitchen garden, I knew how to make the most of California’s fertile topsoil, but couldn’t do it with woman-power alone.  It was a time to celebrate man muscle.  Having made it through our first sierra winter, we settled in to enjoy our first rolling harvest at its bountiful best.  After watching the sun rise, I would scribe lead in the dormer until eleven o’clock, then go out and find whatever looked good to eat and was ripe for the picking.  Bringing it in, I would prep it for pot or wok.  The result was epic.  I had never experienced such freshness, such vibrancy of taste sensation. 

Each evening brought another opportunity to pluck comestibles, often to accompany meat scored from Lee Vining Market where, having certified to provable income, I could say, “Put it on my account.”  It was good to be financially viable again, now states away from engineering jobs that had paid so reliably.  After dinner, Larry and I would climb the stairs to the drawing dormer, and scratch away at our single drafting table.  I drew on the front; he drew on the back.  We each announced intent to erase, so the other could lift pen or pencil before the board commenced shuddering.  With a shared sense of humor, we managed.

I had not thought to continue to draw for income after departing the architect, but several of his clients, having liked my odd-ball approach, followed me to Lee Vining, and I was in business.  I charged only a smidge less for plans than area architects since I had to hire a Registered Professional Engineer at my expense to provide a stamp whenever required by law.  Larry was great at doing engineering calcs, but wasn’t certified to sign them.  Any residential span over 25 feet needed a PE signature and stamp, as did any commercial building.  Larry’s figures were good as gold given his aerospace engineering background, familiarity with local codes, and experience interpreting the Unified Building Code (UBC) that covered anything we might dare to undertake.  But he couldn’t legally sign, and he had no stamp.  I could and did do structural calcs, but took little creative joy in them.  Larry’s were more consistently accurate. 

Bear Engineering—actually a great black-bearded bear of a man who had a magnificent and friendly Black Labrador named “Bear” and an engineering stamp that read  “State of California Registered Professional Engineer “—was just what we needed.  We hired him; we hired his certification.  Whenever a design exceeded 25’ free span, or waxed a bit too bizarre, Bear (the man) would verify all calculations and impress his big round stamp onto the drawing set.  He earned a fee; we were verified as competent—if not registered.  Liabilities were covered all around.  Clients could afford buildings and residences without the steep fees of a Registered Architect doing the whole gamut of the work, most of it essentially beneath his spectacular pay grade.  We got to pet the dog for free.

Much of what an architect would have provided was of course not included.  Clients had to choose their own fixtures, interior materials, finishes, and sources.  With clients who were mostly Licensed Building Contractors, we did only what was needed to get the building legally built.  We served a need.  In an area destined to be ever a frontier, we made construction almost affordable.  I would specify carpet; client would specify type, brand, source, and estimated cost.  I would identify and position a toilet; client would indicate brand, color, etc.  We didn’t offer scale models, architectural renderings, luxury offices, or wining and dining of clients.  We had no liability insurance, whether due to ignorance or poverty, it was a tossup.  We could hardly have afforded it given the reasonable level of our fees.  We must have done a credible job since we were never sued.  At that point in my career, I didn’t know about liability insurance.  I suppose we were what lawyers call “judgment proof.”  We had nothing but each other and love.  Why bother to sue us?  Its effect would be only punitive, netting nothing to the aggrieved.

We called ourselves “High Country Drafting.”  If we had advertised “Engineering” we would have been shut down before week’s end.  We could have named ourselves “High Country Design.”  That would have been legal, but we didn’t want to have to go to court and defend the name, just because people couldn’t agree what “design” means.  As long as we advertised only “Drafting,” we were perfectly legitimate.  What we did wasn’t as important as what we advertised.  Odd and ubiquitous.

After we satisfied several contracts, and saw them translated into viable structures, we could finally afford to establish an office.  We moved into town, into the building now occupied by the Mono Lake Committee, the guardian of all things Mono Lake.  We fixed it up so spiffily, that it was fun every morning to come to the office and open the front door.  We paneled one wall with Peg-Board, and painted it to be a three-dimensional mural, whereupon mountains rose to the heights and snowflakes made of mini-marshmallows fell (glued) onto a painted clear blue sky.  Fluffy white painted clouds floated here and there.  It was pure whimsy.  Then we hung all our drawing implements onto the peg-board, close at hand, ready for use.  Clients loved the display as much as we did, smiling at the blatant creative play it evidenced.  Kurt came to work with us after he finished his kindergarten mornings.  His favorite spot for his afternoon nap was on the floor under my drafting table, snuggled into his best buddy blanket.

Both Dale and Lane managed to inveigle their way into ownership of four-wheel-drive vehicles.  On the occasion of good weather it was delightful to be surprised by a knock on the office door and open it to find the two young men clutching sacks of hamburger fixins wanting to go make lunch at the Tarns.  I would locate Kurt, lock up, and hop in one of their trucks.  A ten minute drive put us on top of the world at Yosemite pass where no matter which way we looked we could see forever.  It never took long to gather wood and stoke a fire.  Burgers sizzled and singed as the fat dribbled into our little fire.  Before long they were perfect.  Captured between sliced buns, each one suffered the unique application of toppings applied to whosever masterpiece it happened to be perfecting.  Thick, tasty, and juicy, they didn’t last long.  We sat together on the bare sod, munching, happy to be there—together.  Reaching back for the memory forty years long past, it is there waiting for me.  As I looked out beyond the crest of the Sierra I knew a quiet assurance: This is surely the apogee of my life.  It was.

We began designing some interesting houses for Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes, along with the occasional commercial structure.  We even completed a passive solar shopping center for a Carson City contractor.  Bear played a strong hand on that one, having acquired a Nevada certification.  As soon as I departed the twitchy fisted architect, I had more work than I could handle.  I eventually had to lure Larry from his job at the Building Department to work beside me full time at High Country Drafting.

Soon we bought two professional drawing tables equipped with V-Tech Drafting Machines and Bruning electric erasers.  We bit the bullet and invested in a Blue-Ray Blueprint machine and set about providing our own architectural copies to clients ready to apply for a permit or to break ground.  For such renderings we could bill handsomely.  I could never shake the feeling of having just way too much happiness—a good thing—having learned from my Dad that work ought to be play.  Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun, and however a job could be restructured to achieve that goal was worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.  “Most things aren’t impossible,” he insisted, “only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.” 

It was an exciting time to be knocking about in the building design business.  The magazine Architectural Design featured a now-famous article on double-envelope passive solar design just as we really got rolling.  The concept coupled the house interior with the earth’s stable 55 degree core temperature, hung lots of south-facing glass, provided serious insulation, and allowed natural convection to pump air throughout the construct.  Key to the double-envelope concept is a south facing greenhouse where air heats and rises into the attic.  There it cools and tumbles down the double north wall space where it joins the fifty-five degree insulated under-floor cellar, and trickles up between greenhouse floor slats to stir the greenery and perpetuate the cycle.  Given that formula, any energy exchange must work against the fifty-five degrees, not so much against the less-than-zero-degrees blustering about outside.

We signed up a local pastor, Roger Landon, to provide him and his wife Cindy with a double-envelope solar house plan, to be stick built from scratch by a local contractor.  The residence stands even now in June Lake Meadows, outside look blending with the local flavor of things.  The first winter, the entire four-bedroom home made it through to spring on less than a single cord of firewood.  We stuck slavishly to the construction concept described in the magazine.  It worked!  For several years, designers of many stripes skirmished pro vs con about the relative merits of double-envelope.  Many people claimed it couldn’t work.  Others called it the final best solution.  But it cost a bit more than ordinary construction and never really caught on.  I just smile.  I know it works, but in that initial custom iteration, it wasn’t conducive to mass production.  If I could ever build a custom home for myself, there is only one approach I would take: Double-envelope passive solar!

One idea that I played with but never brought to completion was a double-envelope tiny house that would be mass produced to replace the trailer houses we all love to hate.  I still have my preliminary drawings stored in Kurt’s basement studio.  I called it “Sun Spot.”  Several years after I had to bury it in storage, I heard that a similar tiny house had been introduced in Denmark as government subsidized manufactured housing.  I hope that in some parallel universe I will get to tinker with that concept yet again, with a double-envelope passive solar twist to the Danish.

Eventually a local Mammoth Lakes developer, Reef Siler, decided to try High Country Drafting on a short string of projects.  Larry did Siler I, a good-looking straight-forward cabin design that proved to be easy to build and was super cost-effective.  I did Siler II featuring a corner faceted facade (before New York’s Trump Tower zig-zag was even conceptualized) that won a local newspaper’s “Building Design of the Year Award.”  Mr. Siler set Larry to work on more of his profit intensive multi-construction efforts. He set me to work designing his own personal dream home in the fashionable heart of Mammoth Lakes Village.

He went nuts on his list of requirements.  He wanted five bedrooms, a massive living area to display his taxidermified marlin over an ostentatious fireplace, more-than-enough south-facing glass, and an underground garage that would accommodate work and personal vehicles, plus a dedicated RV pulling a trailered boat.  The whole residence was to have a glass-enclosed elevator running from the bottom level garage to the top level widow’s-walk.  The building lot he settled on required a massive engineered retaining wall that stratosphered the cost of absolutely everything.  I’m not privy to the total of his outlay before he got his occupancy permit, but it must have been a Moby Dick of a number.  I was glad our invoice had already been honored for a job well done.  Bear, too—daddy of the retaining wall—had been to the bank with his High Country Drafting paycheck and returned chuckling.  I heard, years later, that Reef Siler had filed for Federal Bankruptcy protection.  I hope it wasn’t the gargantuan house that did him in.  It’s still pretty, sitting there with all that south-facing glazing, and the glass elevator screaming “Money!”  My pictorial front elevation featured a bronzed eagle landing right on the dramatic apex of the roof’s main gable peak, but I don’t remember if he ever actually installed that prideful detail.  At least I got to savor the idea.

Once at a local construction trade show, a Mammoth Lakes architect came swaggering up to Larry, grabbing his hand and pumping it.  “I’m so glad to meet you,” he growled, lowering the register of his voice to signal a man to man encounter.  “I was highly impressed by that faceted facade you did for Siler II.  You know—the one that won the “Design of the Year Award.”

I smiled, pressed closer, and waited for Larry to give me my share of the glory.

“Why thank you,” Larry acknowledged, preening his pleasure.  “I’m so glad you liked it.”

As the guy meandered away, something inside me died.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask Larry why he took credit for my achievement.  Siler II, after all, was my baby.  Days later, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I dug out my pastels and began turning feelings into images.  By evening, I had portrayed a severed scrotum nailed to a wall with painstakingly convoluted blood vessels, cilia, and gathering contusions.  From it hung, all in living dripping color, several varieties of effluvium.  I named it “Balls to the Wall” and stored it between questionable vellums in the bottom drawer of the flat file.  I don’t know what ever happened to it. 

We rattled around in Mono County, buying a home, completing a goodly number of projects for several years, until interest rates went up and most everybody had to cancel construction contracts.  That brought building to a screeching halt.  There was nothing for it but to go south to LA and find engineering jobs.  Larry went first.  Since we had been away from engineering for several years, he was concerned that he must surely be out of touch, so he decided to seek only a technician position.  It paid poorly, and he wasn’t able to cover our expenses, so I had to sell our home and join him trekking the LA head-hunter circuit.  When I went job-hunting, I took stock of all I had learned and the executive experience I had gained as co-owner, designer, and project manager for High Country Drafting.  I applied for a position as senior engineer/project manager and was able to choose between two competing offers.  I didn’t rub it in, but that chain of events was a killer for Larry.  He never got over that final outcome.  He deserved much, much more.  Later as an entrepreneur with his own building design outfit based in Washington State, he more than made up for that one miss-step.

I tried to share this story with a new friend who had graduated from Harvard’s School of Architectural Engineering, but she proved herself to be only an arm’s length friend.  She didn’t seem to understand how it was possible to do what we did without being padded-cell certified.  It was a different world back then—forty years ago.  I’m deeply thankful we had the chance to give it a go, though it’s hard to translate it into present day understandings of what’s possible—and legal.

One of the dearest people we met in Lee Vining was a crusty old accountant who had had a near-death experience.  Having been pronounced dead, experienced an afterlife, and then suddenly awakening inside a living body, he wanted only to help people who really needed and deserved what he could do for them.  After interest rates went up, and our business income evaporated, we were facing a terrifying turn in our road.  He analyzed our financial position, sorted out our taxes, and helped us stay afloat for several months until our LA jobs could save us.  He wanted no pay—just a bottle of Jim Beam and the satisfaction of helping a couple of “poets” get over a rough spot.  I don’t know why he called us that—something to do with our excessive idealism maybe.  It’s possible he was really an angel, certified by a seraphed Michael.  It’s odd that he thought we were worth the saving, since we weren’t credentialed to do anything certificated at all.  Even so, it’s crazy-wonderful how much fun we had just doing it anyway.