A Few Shorter Stories


I've been to the edge of the middle of nowhere

My trip wasn't quite over. About three and a half hours from home, something on the dash caught my eye. I looked down to notice that the temperature gauge had jumped to 'very hot', Angelina Jolie hot. I looked up - an exit ramp was just ahead. I took it, unsure of what was going on, but I didn't want to be on the Interstate with a hot car. I slowed onto a dirt road coming up to the service road from the south. It was a beautiful day. The sky was bright blue, there were only a few wispy white clouds in the sky, and one could see for miles over dry farmland. I stopped admiring the scenery and walked to the front of the car and popped open the hood. There was a bit of steam, so I let the engine cool. Meanwhile, I called the Dodge Roadside Assistance number that was stored conveniently in my phone. It was Sunday and I was in, well, I wasn't sure where I was. Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle. I had left Amarillo about an hour earlier and was not yet at the Oklahoma border. I don't know what the middle of nowhere looks like, nor have I been to the boondocks or Bumfuck Egypt, but I do now know what the plains of northwest Texas look like. Flat fields of some khaki-colored crop.

The Dodge national service operator was no help since she couldn't find me on a map and couldn't find a Dodge dealer open on Sunday. About then, coming up the dirt road, in front of a plume of road dust, was a pickup truck, the Official National Vehicle of these here parts. The driver stopped at my car. He really had very little choice since I stood in the middle of the road and blocked his path. He was just what you would imagine a seasoned Texas plains farmer to look like. Yep, just like that. He was an absolute Google of information. He knew exactly where we were, what towns were nearby, where the closest Dodge dealer was, hotels. You search for it - he knew. I now had the name, Fenton Motors, of my best repair option. But it was 28 miles away. Due north, up Texas Highway 71, to the town of Pampa. By this time, the car engine had cooled off and it started right up. We agreed that I might be able to drive on for 30 minutes or so, stop, let the engine cool, and move another 30 miles. That would get me home by early evening. Since we couldn't reach anyone by phone (Sunday afternoon in nowhere Egypt), that seemed like my best option.

He drove on and I stayed on the service road to the next entrance ramp. But, just as I was about to enter I-40, the temp needle jumped to Angelina again. I stopped right there. This plan wasn't going to work. This time, there was a scary grinding sound coming from somewhere in front of me. I looked back to see if, maybe, the farmer was still close by, but the dust trail confirmed that he was on his way and out of sight. I called Fenton Motors in Pampa, Texas to listen to the recording on the far end of the telephone line. The voice stated that if you needed a tow, to call Delaney Brothers. Brilliant move for a car dealer out here. Have a special Sunday and evening recording that guides people in need. I called the number the voice recited on the recording. But, it was still Sunday. It rang a couple of times, and then, a human voice. Not a recording, a person. It was Harley. He took my location and said he'd be there in about 30 minutes.

30 minutes is not long, even on the plains of west Texas. I had just spent a two full days driving back to Oklahoma from Los Angeles. I had gone out there to visit a friend, an actor who you may have seen on Geico commercials, who just got married. I took my dog, which meant having to drive. But that's okay, I like road trips and this one would take me over parts of old Route 66, Albuquerque in time to see the sky filled with hot-air balloons. In LA, I spent a day at Disneyland, 54 years after my first visit there in 1956. Then I moved to a hotel on the beach in Venice so we could walk the boardwalk along the ocean. Other highlights were an evening with my friend and his wife and a tour of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The trip home was more 66 exploration and an evening at the Grand Canyon. Then on to Tucumcari, New Mexico for dinner at Denny's and a night's sleep at Motel 6 (they have a liberal pet policy). The next morning was sunny and I was filled with anticipation to get home that afternoon. But, the trip would not be over quite so soon. I was now walking with Manhattan along an entrance ramp.

A family in a white pickup came down the ramp to ask if I needed help. They turned around in the grass between the ramp and the freeway and went back up the shoulder of the ramp. I thanked them and made a mental note of the kindness of these strangers who went out of their way to make sure I was okay. I opened up the back of the Dodge Nitro, a type of SUV, and let my dog, Manhattan, out so she could walk around a bit. She was being very patient and accommodating during these stops in our trip. She probably sensed the tension in my voice and actions. Harley soon arrived and winched the Dodge up onto the ramp bed of his rather large tow truck. I hoisted Manhattan up into the bed of the truck and climbed up myself. We towed the car on to Pampa, 28 miles north of I-40, but it felt like much longer - we shared little, Harley and I. While I love to travel to other cultures and parts of the country and the world, Harley had probably never left this part of Texas. But, he was a good guy. He mentioned that he normally didn't work on Sundays, but happened to be in the office to pick up something when the phone rang. He took my call. If he hadn't, I am not sure what my plan would have been? Hitchhike (with a dog) to Pampa or Amarillo? But, he did tale my call. And I was very glad to be riding up in the cab of that truck, looking out over the fields of the panhandle. I did learn about new hay baling techniques. Harley called his girlfriend and asked her to call a motel and make a reservation for me for the night. There was only one motel in Pampa that accepted pets. She did. He took me to that hotel and waited patiently while Manhattan and I climbed down and I checked in. I settled into the room and took Manhattan for a walk.

Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, to Nora Belle and Charles Edward Guthrie. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, soon to be elected President of the United States. When Woody was 18, he joined his father in Pampa where Woody sporadically went to high school, learned to play the guitar, and got married. I might never have learned all that if my car hadn't broken down. I walked a couple of blocks to a CVS (Convenience, Value, Service) store for dog food and then to McDonald's for a lunch salad. After a brief motel rest, we took several walks. I was uncomfortable. How serious would the car repair be? How long would it take? What if they had to order parts from another dealer, in another city? I made some contingency plans. I could stay at the motel for another night. I could rent a car and go home in order to be able to teach class on Tuesday.

After a Taco Bell dinner and some mindless television - my thoughts were too focused on what might happen the next day, I tried to get some sleep. I wasn't too successful. I woke up early and got some breakfast from the motel's breakfast buffet in the lobby. The dealer opened at 8:00 am. I waited until 8:10 before calling. The service rep was very nice and had already taken my car from the fenced in lot to the shop for diagnosis. She said she'd call me as soon as they figured out what was wrong with the car. I thanked her and waited, staring at the phone every few minutes. Where would I be tomorrow?

She called back - it was just a broken water pump and they have one in stock. The car should be ready by early afternoon. Hallelujah. I'll be on my way home.


© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2016

Fire & Ice
There is not much better, on a cool crisp evening as the sun has finished it's set, than to stand around a yellow orange campfire enjoying the warmth and in the back of your mind knowing that s'mores are on the evening's agenda. After a few such campfire evenings over the years I realized I was a pyromaniac. I love to look at fire. I love to start a fire. Stoke a fire and see embers sparkle up into the night sky. I'm also pyrophobic - I hate fire. I hate the destruction and how it can totally destroy a home or a forest. That feeling won out in October 2020 (a pretty awful year to begin with) when an ice storm blanketed the metro area. The front yard was littered with limbs, branches, leaves, and ice. In the back yard, a branch the size of a medium tree turned upside down and dove headfirst towards the icy ground, stopped only by the electrical wire feeding the house. It pushed the wire down so hard that it pulled the insulator away from the top of the pole, bent the conduit pipe coming out of the roof, snapped the steel support cable, and completely severed the ground cable. The two live wires were still attached, but suspended in limbo - the lack of the ground wire didn't allow them to complete their circuits in the house: appliances, outlets, and lights.

There were a couple of exceptions, however - the refrigerator was working although struggling and the heater in the home office building was working. Pretty strange. How come a couple of electrical appliances were getting juice but the rest were dead. The best explanation the electrician presented was that those appliances had found another route to ground themselves, thereby completing the circuit.
That powerful surge of juice found a path along the buried cable line, ran in a flash towards the house, and surfaced at the cable junction box. A loud pop. A flash of light and white smoke. I was sitting just inside and was startled by the tree crack, the whoosh of the branch in flight, the pop, the flash, and the smoke. I stepped outside to see - whoa, there were flames on the back wall. The pyromaniac panicked. Do I call 911 or do I put the fire out. I remembered advice to call 911. But there was a fire right there. The voice in my brain firmly stated, “You big lug, put the fire out!” I knew where the extinguisher was. I got it, pulled the pin out, and aimed the white powdery spray at the flames. Some plastic from the cable was dripping down into the bed of reeds and flaming there, also. I doused those areas too.

Still pacing anxiously, I made phone calls:
1. 911 - the operator said the fire department was too busy and would likely not come since I had put the fire out. Okay, That makes sense.
2. Cable company - they put me on the schedule, but also warned me it would be at least a week since cable is out for thousands of customers.
3. Electricians who had worked on the house before - they would stop by in the next day or two to assess the damage.
I sat down and was able to calmify a bit. I still had fears of fire in the wiring in walls and attic. That night I kept vigil. There were more branch cracks all nite. From the airbed on the floor of the office, I watched the house in fear of another fire. Off and on sleep. Loss of more limbs on the large old trees.
I lost some trust that my house would not catch fire.

October Timeline
• Tuesday 27: sleet, iced trees; 2:00p: pop, flash, smoke, fire; sleep in cold: Brooklyn in coat, me in sweats.
• Wensday 28: set food outside in plastic bin, cleared driveway of branches to get the car out; searched motels for the next few nights (closest one was 50 miles up the interstate in Perry.) lunch with neighbor who had power, Jeopardy, dinner; set up bed in office.
• Thursday 29: CFA: bkfst, charge, buy ice chest; electrician assess; read, office sleep.
• Friday 30: CFA: bkfst; Electrician 12:30-2:00, del taco lunch,, power on; move back into house; clean house & office, dinner, read.

Outages
- Power out: 3 days Tuesday 2p 27 - Friday 2p 30
- Refrigerator out: 8 days: Tues Oct 27 - Wens Nov 4
- Internet/TV out: 9 days Tues Oct 27 - Thurs Nov 5
- Trees trimmed and stacked: Sat Oct 31 - Tues Nov 3

Conflict issues
• Pyrophobia - house fire, angst - fire in walls, wiring
• Long-term damage from limbs, accessing the car
• Disruption of routine, comfort, familiar environment
• Angst - virus, unstable government with madman in charge, unsettled election and response, Ginsberg death, daylight savings switch

© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2020

The Miracle Pen
On a flight to Las Vegas, I worked on sudoku and a crossword puzzle. I was always conscious about where I set down my pen - a favorite Space Pen. Sometimes I put it in my bag, sometimes in a crack in the armrest. As we prepared to land, I could not find the pen. I thought I had put it into a zippered compartment in the outside of the bag. While waiting on the other passengers to head up the aisle, I searched frantically all through that bag pocket. It had some folds where things had gotten lost before so I checked all those. No luck. Checked my pocket, the seat pocket, the floor. No pen. Nowhere. Oh well, not the first time I've lost one of these pens. I lose so many, in fact, that I bought several backups and even packed a second pen in my luggage. I let it go and moved on out of the plane. That was Thursday evening.

A few days later at the conference, two people were talking behind me. It was distracting, rude, and inconsiderate. I wanted to glare at them, hush them, or and ask them to keep it down. I wanted to control those around me just to suit me. Yikes. How disgusting. Instead, I thought more deeply and realized my life would be better (and theirs) if I just accepted what was happening, adapted to the new environment, and turned my attention back to the conference speaker. Those previously annoying voices now just became part of the environment, like air conditioning noise, coughs, rustling of papers, and scooting of chairs. That makes so much more sense. I felt so much better. Why, I wondered, was I conditioned to try to control so much around me? Seeking some control is normal and healthy for survival. Seeking to change threatening situations or those that impair good things from happening for the society is probably good. But there's a limit. Sometimes it makes the most sense to just accept, adapt, and move on.

On Sunday, the final day, I took the bag to the conference to carry my laptop. I accessed the bag several times throughout the day. About 6:00p, after the last speaker finished, I opened the bag pocket and there was the lost pen - sitting right in the middle of the pocket where I thought I had put it. I was amazed. For a moment, I believed it was a miracle. Then, I accepted that God is just not likely to play games with me and a pen. But, for just a moment, I considered the possibility that it was a miracle. This probably happens to many people, but instead of searching for a rational explanation, they just go with 'God must have done it'.

Seemingly normal people able to shed their childhood beliefs in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus, are unable to do the same when it comes to their belief in God. Continued belief in any of these other childhood fantasies would be considered a sign of mental illness in adults. However, when the same magical thinking is used to maintain a belief in God, it becomes sacred and not open to discussion. Belief in God and its accompanying myths relinquishes personal responsibility and opens the door to potentially abysmal behavior. Fundamentalists are a danger to non-believers and those who believe differently. They are willing to kill in the name of their God to protect their religious dogma or to attain personal spiritual goals. The terrorism now being perpetrated by extremists is not much different than the atrocities committed by the Israelites in the Old Testament or the centuries of mass murder carried out by Christians during the Crusades and the various inquisitions. When world political or religious views are not based on logic and reason, the resulting behaviors are likely to be neither logical nor reasonable, as I learned from Richard Dawkins. The pen quite likely got stuck deep in a crevice and was dislodged when I carried the bag out of the room or set it down on the conference table. But, who knows?

I am confused by the name, Little Bo Peep. Did Mr. & Mrs. Peep name their tiny daughter 'Bo' or did they name her 'Little Bo'? Is Bo even a good name for a girl? The Peeps? This kind of stuff baffles me. Here it is 2:30 in the morning and I'm awake and confused by this name (and why would anyone name someone Humpty Dumpty).