Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Louis L'Amour - The Wisdom of a Pulp Fiction Writer

"If you write a book set in the past about something that happened east of the Mississippi, it's a 'historical novel.'  If you write about something that took place west of the Mississippi, it's a 'Western'-and somehow regarded as a lesser work.  I write historical novels about the frontier."  
     - Louis L'Amour
Many is the time I found myself lost in the desert fighting the elements and other men for survival.  In fur and self-made clothing I have traveled the length and breadth of Siberia on foot.  I have descended into the kiva on a haunted mesa and entered the Third World.  I have stepped onto new shores, crossed mountain passes, and rivers.  Ancient cities have housed me.  I have built new towns and communities.  Treasure, love, and challenge have called out to me.

The power of Louis L'Amour's books are palpable.  His stories capture important aspects of the human experience.  They are simple stories about struggle, striving, failure, and triumph.  His plots are simple, yet direct.  To me they transmit important historical and cultural mores and values that define part of America and part of who I want to be.  A couple of his novels took place where I grew up.  It was easy for me to place myself in his novels of the west, of the frontier.  There, where I was a boy, the frontier was in the not too distant past.  Old roads and trails, dilapidated buildings gave evidence of the closeness of the wilder days.

L'Amour captured the American drive to become somebody, to create something of lasting value.  His characters were men and women who willingly suffered hardship, risk, and misfortune in the pursuit of something better.  They exemplified personal responsibility, ambition, and, in the midst of the wild, the value of civilization.  These ideas of civilization and the opportunity offered by the frontier today seem a paradox.  Many have given in to the pull of collective responsibility where risk is avoided, responsibility belongs to "them", and ambition is a sin to be covered and hidden.

While his plot lines may not have some of the complexity that we enjoy in our literature, he shared a vision and a sense of wisdom that is classic and, if applied, still valuable today.  For an entertaining and inspiring read, pick up a L'Amour.  Follow the story of the Sacketts, come to know Bendigo Shafter, learn of the difference between healthy ambition and unbridled greed.  There is something to be said for men and women who do, and those are the type of people that L'Amour created.

To whet your appetite here are few of my favorite quotes from Louis L'Amour.  (I have to admit that a number of years ago I started reading some of his books with a pencil in hand to underline a few things.)

"A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own.  The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time."

"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.  Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for."

"Up to a point a person's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and changes in the world about them.  Then there comes a time when it lies within their grasp to shape the clay of their life into the sort of thing they wish it to be.  Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune or the quirks of fate.  Everyone has the power to say, 'This I am today.  That I shall be tomorrow.'"

"The way I see it, every time a man gets up in the morning he starts his life over.  Sure, the bills are there to pay, and the job is there to do, but you don't have to stay in a pattern.  You can always start over, saddle a fresh horse and take another trail."

"Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble."

"Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen."

"We are, finally, all wanderers in search of knowledge.  Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are, something larger, richer, in some way more important to the world and ourselves.  Too often, the way taken is the wrong way, with too much emphasis on what we want to have, rather than what we wish to become."

"Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization.  They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost."

Finally, for all those stories that he took with him to the grave:

"I have told many, yet when I go down that last trail, I know there will be a thousand stories hammering at my skull, demanding to be told."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reed Van Wagoner: A Life of Service - More to Come

I’m having a difficult time with my father’s retirement as a police officer.  For thirty-three years he has been involved in law enforcement.  That covers the bulk of my life.  

Here’s a quick timeline of his service:

-       1981: Police Officer, Duchesne City Police Department (Who remembers when Duchesne City had their own police department?)
-       1983: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1988: Master-at-Arms, United States Navy active duty
-       1991: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1995: Police Officer, Provo City Police Department

He still continues to serve in the US Navy Reserve.  During all of his time in law enforcement he has been a trainer, an investigator, chief deputy, sergeant, and lieutenant.  For twelve years in Provo he worked as detective investigating sex crimes.  His conviction rate and service set a new standard for the City of Provo.  During those years he was activated and deployed by the US Navy Reserve three times, two of those to active war zones where Islamic militants rained mortars down on his installation.  He had one brief period where he worked in the private sector for a friend, but continued to serve as a reserve deputy.  Often during his career he did extra construction jobs and things on the side to bring in enough income to provide for his growing family.

When I returned from serving my LDS mission in Russia, another officer in Provo asked me if I was ready to apply to the police academy.  There was no way, I told him, that I could do what police officers do: shift work, working holidays, missing family events, dealing with blood and gore at accident and crime scenes, dealing with belligerent and foolish people on a regular basis, insufficient pay.  I think I made the young police officer question his decision to join the long blue line.  In short, I wasn’t willing to make the same sacrifices my father had to serve others.

I won’t attempt to speak for him regarding his career or for those he served and helped along the way.  I will share some of what I observed, experienced, and felt.

Being the child of a law enforcement officer is exciting, frightening, annoying, humorous and sometimes painful. 

It’s exciting because your father is out there protecting you and everyone else from the bad guys.  Growing up in the home of a law enforcement officer you learn that the bad guys are real.  You also learn about the fragility of life and the sadness that comes from accidents and sickness.  On a regular basis I was able to ride in his police vehicle with a souped up engine, flashing lights, and siren.  When he was a deputy sheriff in Duchesne County, he would prepare me for what could happen during the course of a shift.  He would make sure I knew where we were located in case something happened and I needed to call dispatch to get help.  I had specific instructions to hide if anything dangerous happened.  During those early years I mostly saw him pull over a few speeders, saw a few self-inflicted gun shot wounds caused by hunters who had decided that extensive drinking and firearms were a fun mix, and went on a few search and rescue missions. 

Another deputy was killed while he worked for Duchesne County, shot on accident by another deputy.  It brought home the reality of the risks associated with his work.  More than once I saw worry on my mother’s face when my dad was late coming home from a shift.  At the beginning of my dad’s career we had a police radio scanner in the house.  It was fun to listen to it and know what was happening.  After awhile my parents got rid of it with the excuse that it was nice to take a break from work.  It was also nice to relax and not worry about what you were hearing when dad was on duty.  My poor mother was a dispatcher for a short period while my dad was working for Duchesne City or the County.  She listened on the phone while my dad was at a domestic dispute.  The caller kept telling her to call out backup because the officer was getting the crap beat out of him.  I think she moved on to something different shortly after that.  While all of us face risk going out the door every day, law enforcement officers face it even more, knowing that they might have to put their life on the line for someone else all while dealing with thoughts of their own loved ones at home.

Having a parent or relative in law enforcement in small town enhances the experience in some aspects.  You tend to find out a lot more about people than you really want to know.  Also, friends, neighbors, and others like to blame you for their troubles with law enforcement, especially when it was your relative who was involved.  I don’t know how many times I was told that my dad, and by association me, was a terrible person because he arrested so and so for doing such and such and it was none of his business anyway.  Usually I would just shrug it off, realizing that people don’t like to be caught doing something they shouldn’t.  Several of these types of complainers would assume that I knew what had happened…usually I didn’t until they informed me of all the wonderful details, some of which was occasionally incriminating.  In rare instances, I did feel that perhaps my dad had been too harsh with the offender and would ask him about it and he would patiently explain why he had take that course of action. 

Here is one of my favorite complaints from friends and others in the small town environment.  Duchesne is a small, mostly agricultural community with the occasional oil boom.  It is common for teens to start driving on the farm at a very young age.  Many of these teens and others, usually with their parents’ permission, will decide it’s okay for them to drive on the roads with regular traffic.  Invariably, my dad would pull these youth over and usually send them home with a warning and occasionally a written citation.  Once caught these people would whine and complain to me about how stupid and unfair it was that he would dare to stop them.  So, finally I asked him about it.  His response?  If they caused an accident driving before they were licensed, there would be serious consequences.  First, they might be delayed in getting their drivers licenses.  Second, their parents may have to pay for the accident out of their pocket with no help from the insurance company.  Third, unprepared and unqualified drivers are more likely to cause serious accidents that result in harm.  It wouldn’t fair to allow them to drive putting themselves and others at greater risk.  Anyway, I’ll get off of that soapbox now except to say that I never got to drive on the roads by myself before I had my license, so who had it fair?

Law enforcement officers interact with some of the most bizarre people and situations on a fairly regular basis.  Some of them are disturbing and some are extremely funny.  Listening to my dad’s stories is one of my favorite past times, especially when there are other officers there to share their stories.  Here are just a couple of stories that I remember.  (Of course, my memory may not be completely accurate.) 

I’m reasonably certain the first one happened to my dad.  If not, that’s okay because it’s still entertaining.  Back in the early 80s it was common to hear my dad tell stories of the latest arrests for DUI and public intoxication.  For one of these they had arrested a woman who was very drunk and larger than my father, who is not a small person.  In the booking room at the Sheriff’s Office, this lady backed into my dad and sat on him.  Before he could get up and before the other deputies could rescue him she proceeded to urinate all over him.  Good times. 

Another story I love occurred when he was in Provo.  He and another officer were called to a lady who was complaining about aliens performing experiments on her while she slept.  When they arrived she related how they were sending microwaves up through her floor into her bed.  Because of these microwaves she couldn’t sleep.  She wanted to be left alone.  My dad said,  “Now, I’m not saying I believe you and I’m saying I don’t, but I do know how to stop microwaves.” 

Thrilled that someone had finally listened to her, she asked, “How?”

“Do you have any aluminum foil?”


“Go get some.  We’ll lay it shiny side down under the bed and it will block the microwaves and reflect them back down.”

He spent the next few minutes helping her lay the aluminum under the bed while the other officer watched in disbelief.  As far as I know they were never called back to help with the alien experiments again.

Okay, we have time for two more stories that involve me directly.

As I mentioned I loved to ride along with my dad when he was on duty.  Sometimes he would have me wait in the vehicle while he ran into different places.  Often the wait would be extensive.  On one occasion he went into the Duchesne County Courthouse.  I waited forever and became bored.  Looking around I found a partial roll of breath mints.  My dad wasn’t a big breath mint person so I was sure he wouldn’t mind if I took one.  One wasn’t enough so I took another.  Finally, as I was unwrapping the packaging for a third one he got back in his vehicle.  He looked at what I was doing and smiled.

“Did you eat one of those already?”

“Yes, two already.  Why?”

“They’re not mine.”

“Who’s are they?”

“They fell out of the purse of the extremely drunk and dirty lady that I arrested last night.”

“No, it didn’t.”

Laughing, he responded, “Oh, yes it did.”

They tasted clean, kind of minty.

Fast-forward several years to when my father was in Provo.  I had been home from my mission to Russia for just a short time.  I was riding with my dad on the swing shift, which is when all the fun, crazy stuff happens in Provo.  Dispatch contacted my dad.  The night clerk at a local motel suspected that some teenagers were about to have a drinking party in one of the rooms.  We drove over to the motel to take a look.  The clerk pointed out the room.  Some of the teens saw us when they opened the door, and went back inside quickly.  As we were standing there, a case of beer was suddenly thrown on top of a solid brick fence on one side of the motel.  Putting his finger to his lips, my dad motioned me to follow him quietly to the wall.  Reaching up he took the case of beer.

A voice whispered, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” my dad whispered back.

“Good.  Hurry, take it.”

Quickly they set several more cases on top of the wall.  We took them, setting them quietly on the ground.   Finally, one of the two young guys handing us the beer jumped up on the wall to help carry the beer to the party.  As he looked down at my dad, his eyes got huge.  He looked at us and at the room where his friends were staring through the window at what was happening.

Still whispering, my dad asked, “Is that all of the beer?”

The kid on the other side, who hadn’t seen us, whispered, “Yes, that’s all of it.”

Coming to his senses the kid on the wall slid back over before my dad could grab him and yelled, “Run, it’s the cops.”

We didn’t even try to chase them.  Calmly, amidst our laughing, we put the confiscated beer into my dad’s vehicle while the kids watched from the hotel room.  Before we left he went to the room of crestfallen, would-be partiers.

“It looks like you won’t be having the fun you had expected.  Hopefully you didn’t lose too much of your money.  I suggest everyone go home now or I’ll start calling parents.”

My dad loved to serve and help other people.  That was why he loved being in law enforcement.  His goal was to keep people safe and help them wherever he could.  He was never quick to write a ticket or arrest someone if it wasn’t necessary.  He would rather give out friendly advice than a ticket.  Friends and neighbors knew they could ask him for help at any time.  It was a life that impacted me deeply.  Because of his service, I joined the Air Force and served for a short time.  His example causes me to question my motives on a daily basis.  It makes me want to make a difference in the lives of my family and in the lives of others. 

A quick word about my mother.  I don’t speak or write about her publicly very often.  She is a private person and I get emotional when I speak of her.  For almost forty years of marriage my parents have supported and loved each other.  I think of all the nights and days when my mother was on her own with her children or by herself.  I think of those times when my father was called out in the middle of the night to go provide aid to someone else even as they dealt with their own struggles.  While she wasn’t always quiet and cheerful in her support, because that’s not who my mother is, she made him a better person and allowed him to bless the lives of so many other people.  They will be off to new and exciting adventures that will involve more service.

One of the last times I rode with my dad was just after he had been promoted to lieutenant.  It was a couple of years ago.  An elderly neighbor from his ward called to ask him if he could help find his daughter, a middle aged women with a disability.  She was due to return from a trip on a bus but didn’t arrive on the bus.  They had no idea where she was and had no way of getting in touch with her.  My dad promised to find her.  For the next couple of hours my dad went to the various bus stops where she may have gotten off early.  We asked people if they had seen her.  Finally, we pulled into the McDonald’s just off of University in Orem and saw here sitting in at a booth.  She was frightened and scared.

As we walked in my dad called her name.  She looked up and her face brightened.

“Reed, you found me!  How did you know to look here?”

“We just kept looking until we found you.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

World Protests and US Influence

To date 2014 has proven an eventful year on the international stage.  Two events bear mentioning again.  First, the Maidan protests in Kiev.  In response to dissatisfaction with their president over the debate between ties with EU or Russia, the people managed to pull down the president and change the government.  Tumultuous results have followed as Russian and Ukraine have struggled for control of territory and of the message regarding events and intentions.  Second, is the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong.  The people are demanding the right to elect a new leader in the city.  Naturally the Chinese government is refusing in order to maintain control of the situation.

Occupy Central


The Russian government and media has made bold claims that the US government is behind the movements in Ukraine and now in Hong Kong.  Looking into my crystal ball, I am unable to determine to what extent the US has had a hand in directing or causing events to happen in these places.  It’s possible that the Russian government has sources that know more than I do.  By making this claim the Russian government is giving the US a lot of credit.  To begin with, I don’t think that our current president is that interested or devoted to impacting events in foreign countries.  His statements and his actions seem to be more of the hands off type of policy rather than the engage to make a difference type of thinking.  The Russians are giving him credit for something that I don’t believe holds his interest.  I’m not claiming we’ve been hands off completely in these areas, but I don’t think we have enough influence to make something of this magnitude happen.

Next, President Putin and his fellows are making claims that would require us to believe that leaders and people in some of these countries have a lot of trust in President Obama to support them.  Again, his word and actions have indicated that under his watch the US will be largely hands off, trusting the rest of the world to deal with events on their own.  If protest leaders in Ukraine and Hong Kong were acting under the direction or influence of President Obama’s Administration, they were taking a significant and unwise risk in assuming that US support will be available in a meaningful and timely manner.

Finally, the Russian government gives the US credit for being much more effective than we ever have been in the past at starting and controlling major international events.  Perhaps they forget how surprised we were when the Soviet Union imploded.  In fact, around that time President Bush the First was calling on the people of Ukraine to remain a part of the Soviet Union in order to avoid bloodshed and uncertainty.  They didn’t listen to us then.  If the Russians truly believe that we are that effective in instigating events around the world, then they should be extremely terrified of us.  Instead they seem quite willing to poke their thumbs in our eyes, knowing that we won’t do much about it, except maybe throw down a sanction or two.

I do, however, believe that the US is largely responsible for what happened in Ukraine and what is happening now in Hong Kong.  I don’t think this is happening in any way because of what our government representatives have said or done.  Rather, I think that many of these people are emboldened by the idea of the United States and the freedoms that we hold dear.  They, as well as us, recognize that the United States is not perfect.  Our pull instead is in the pathway to a better life, a better existence, one in which people are allowed to be responsible for themselves and to impact the government.  The people of Ukraine grew tired of living in a country that fit the pattern of a former Soviet State where they had a limited ability to impact the decisions and direction of government.  When the president defied the wishes of the majority in attempt to align Ukraine with Russia, the people had enough and demanded the right of self-determination.  In Hong Kong, the people have known freedoms that come from the tradition of the United Kingdom and the United States.  Now they are facing the loss of those freedoms.  They know what they mean and are refusing to let them go without a fight.

President Putin and Minister Lavrov, you are correct.  The idea of the United States and other free countries is the cause of the discontent in Ukraine and Hong Kong.  They want similar freedoms.  They desire the right to have elections that mean something.  They want government officials who answer to the people.  They want freedom and diversity of the press.  They want economic freedoms.  The idea of the United States and freedom, unfortunately, is seen as a threat to the security of the government in Russia.  It is the clash between two separate ideas:

-  That it is the right and responsibility of a select few to determine a course for the many with little to no input from the people.  That it is the right of all the people to select a few to do their will in setting a course of the country.

The United States is unique and exceptional.  So is the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Australia, Canada, and so many other places because the people have a voice in shaping and directing their government.  In these countries government officials live in uncertainty regarding their future.  In other places, the people live in uncertainty because the government is free to do whatever it chooses.

See also:
Ukraine: The Delayed Civil War

Government Regulation: Lowering the Bar

For eleven years I was an employee of the Federal Government.  Eight of those years I was an active duty office in the Air Force and for three years I was a civilian employee of the Air Force.  My work, and those of my colleagues, was very satisfying.  My efforts, in particular, contributed to the training of Air Force pilots and future officers.  It should be no surprise to anyone who has experience with the government, especially the military that I experienced the frustration that comes from the inefficiencies inherent in a large organization.  At times those inefficiencies and contradictions were overbearing in their nature, but a necessary mission and sense of team offset them. 

Since leaving the Air Force four years ago, I’ve worked for two different companies.  The first worked primarily with local and state governments, providing them software as a service.  My current employer provides workforce training.  Much of the funding for our students comes from local, state, and federal agencies.  As a result we are required to go through extensive licensing processes and regular audits and evaluations.  The experiences of the past four years have highlighted the inefficiencies that exist at the state and local level of government as well.  I understand that if we are going to rely on funding from any organization, then we must abide by their rules.  It’s reality.  If I give money to one of my children, often I will tie certain requirements to that money.  It’s the cost of dependence. 

It amazes me how some states and municipalities make doing business difficult, if not impossible.  Somehow we’ve reached the point that it feels like the state is granting us a favor by allowing us to pursue a livelihood.  Now, I understand the arguments for regulation…protecting the consumer, standardization, etc.  I’m not convinced, however, that the benefits of regulation outweigh the costs, at least not to the extent to which we regulate.  How many businesses are never started because of the red tape in front of them?  How many businesses shut their doors and let their employees go because of ever more restrictive and costly regulations? 

Deeper than these costs is the cultural shift.  This shift is towards greater dependence on the government to look after our interests and welfare.  As a result, I believe we are suffering the following consequences:

First, we have been reduced to the lowest common denominator when it comes to many of the services and products businesses provide.  This is especially true in areas where the government has a heavy hand such as education and healthcare.  So much time, effort, and money is spent meeting the requirements set by governments that little is left to pursue innovation and excellence.  Just enough to meet the requirement set by government bureaucrats is sufficient.  These government bureaucrats in most cases are not experts or experienced in the areas where they are setting regulations and guidelines.  As a result the regulations often increase inefficiencies as solution is developed to fit everything or everyone has to meet multiple, often harmful regulations.  We are becoming accustomed to lower qualities of service and products because that’s the best we can get with the government protecting our interests.

Second, as we become dependent on the government to determine who is qualified to operate a business, we fail to take the time and effort necessary to make good and informed decisions.  When something goes wrong, instead of holding ourselves accountable we blame the government agency responsible for regulating that business.  If the business was in compliance, then we demand more stringent regulation.  As more stringent regulations are put in place and enforced, more companies and providers shut their doors, decreasing competition and lowering the common denominator further. 

Dependence dulls our ability to make choices and it reduces our overall choices while lowering quality.  While I sit here wishing for less government regulation, increased competition, and improved quality, I’ll see if I can finish figuring out how to put this license packet together for the state.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Power of Shared Experiences

Humans love to have shared experiences.  It gives us a sense of belonging.  This desire for shared experiences will cause us to invite others to join us; or, it will lead us to join with others.  Some join in experiences that are positive, creative, and beneficial.  Others join in experiences that are negative, destructive, and harmful.  Most of us cross back and forth between the two to one degree and another.

Often we seek out and reach for others who have experienced difficulties, trials, obstacles, and sorrows similar to ours.  We may invite them to join with us to some degree.  Not all of these are intrinsically negative experiences.  Many of them produce overtly positive results.  But, the journey through the experience may be painful.  That pain can be alleviated when it is shared with others, when we realize that we are not alone in difficulties.  Often we don’t want to be alone.

In high school I had an experience that brought this home to me in a humorous way.  It was one of those rare days where I didn’t have anything scheduled and I hadn’t come up with some spontaneous activity with my friends or family.  In fact that morning, all of my family was out of the house and many of my friends were busy.  After a quick visit to the local grocery store in my small town, I found a rental movie I hadn’t yet seen.  It was a small miracle since my friends and I had seen almost all of the decent movies that were available.  The title of the movie slips my mind, but it was some sort of modern western that looked slightly promising.

Back at home I put together a few snacks and went to the basement to watch the movie.  It started out fine.  The acting was mediocre but the story line held my attention.  A mystery developed throughout the movie, driving my curiosity.  Despite the overall below average quality of the movie, I was anxious to get to the bottom of the mystery, to get the answer that would bring it all together for the characters and for me.  To my utter disbelief and consternation the movie, in spectacular fashion, failed to answer any of the questions.  Rather, it recycled to the same scene at the beginning of the movie. 

I was physically angry because of the ending.  I felt that I had been cheated of satisfaction and of the time I had spent watching the movie.  I was certain that producers and director of the movie had laughed at the viewers’ expense, knowing that we were angry at our loss of time and money.  Admittedly, I took consolation in knowing that not many people would be fooled into spending time and money on their movie.  Then, I became angry and remorseful, realizing that I was one of the “select” few to do so.

Sitting there seething, looking at the popcorn I had thrown on the floor, I pondered what I should do.  I felt compelled to act.  An idea entered my head and I smiled.  Running upstairs, (because we didn’t have personal cell phones or even a cordless at the time), I called one of my best friends. 

“Hey, guess what?  I just watched an awesome movie.  You should come over and watch it.  I have popcorn.”

Soon he was in the basement with me.  This time, instead of watching the movie intently, I watched his reactions.  The build up of anticipation was evident in his face and body language.  By the end of the movie he was anxious to know the mystery.  He was verbalizing some of the same guesses I had thought to myself earlier.  Then, the ending scene recycled to the beginning scene without giving any answers.

“Wait,” he said, “What happened?”

Then the screen transitioned to the ending credits and his anger blossomed fully.

“What kind of movie is that?  That was stupid.  A waste of my time.”

As he spoke, my own tension eased.  I no longer felt alone.  A friend had experienced the same trial and disappointment as I had.  The world wasn’t a perfect place, but it felt a little better.

“I can’t believe you made me watch that.  Why did you call me over to watch such a stupid movie?” 

The anger in his voice was answered by my smile and twinkle in his eyes.  I said nothing.  Then a similar smile spread across his face.

“Let’s call so and so to come and watch the movie with us.”

We did.  Two other friends joined us to watch the movie.  Their reactions were the same.  Anger followed by a desire to share.  After they watched it we took another trip to the grocery store to replenish our snacks and then called to invite more friends to watch an “amazing” movie.  By day’s end, actually a bit into the night, I had watched that move at least five times.  At the last showing we had around a dozen or so people in my parents’ basement.  The final set of victims or newbies, whichever term you prefer, were upset that we didn’t have time to reach out to anyone else.

The day was amazing.  Each time the movie would end, those who had seen it previously would laugh out loud, congratulating one another on expanding the size of our group.  The new group would transition from anger to a degree of acceptance and belonging.  This is one of my cherished memories from high school.  It took me years to realize why I enjoyed it so much.  It wasn’t the movie.  The movie was terrible.  It wasn’t being mean to my friends.  It was doing something with my friends.  Enjoying an experience with them.  It was seeing how much they enjoyed being included in the group, knowing that when we wanted to share it with someone, we thought of them. 

While I enjoy quiet and solitude more than I did before, I still relish the joy that comes from shared experiences, even if we share them at different times.  I love to talk about my children with other parents.  I love to run races with people and to talk to people who train for and run races.  I love to talk to people who have experienced military training, who know what it means to by TDY or to PCS; or to have to complete something NLT than COB; or to have to go to the MPF to enter someone into DEERS.  I love attending church with family and friends.  I love to be invited to participate in activities with others.  I love to invite them to participate with me.  I love when someone trusts me enough to let me know about their struggles and concerns in life.  I love when I can trust someone enough to share mine.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Looking Back: One Little Neighborhood

Today is my 39th birthday.  It seems amazing to me that time has gone by so quickly with no way to slow it down.  In my life I have loved looking forward to what comes next and to the great and wonderful things I can do and experience.  Since one of the next things in my future is the age of 40, I think I’ll spend some time looking back, way back—not for too long, just long enough to affirm how wonderfully blessed I am.

When I was a very young person my parents moved from the Salt Lake Valley to the small town of Duchesne in eastern Utah.  Duchesne, for me, is a magical place.  Honestly, I can’t think of wanting to grow up anywhere else.  It’s comforting to a young boy to feel like he knows almost everyone around him and that everyone knows him.  In that small town environment I wasn’t restricted to the house or the yard except when there were chores, homework, or I had misbehaved.  Oh, and generally on Sundays I stayed around the house.  

Duchesne, UT

After living in Duchesne for a couple of years my parents bought their first home in what was referred to as the subdivision on the southeast side of town.  Looking back I like to think that I lived in the ‘burbs.  It was a great place to live.  With lots of houses there were lots of children my age.  The Strawberry River surrounded the subdivision on two sides.  A small mountain range, part of the Tavaputs Plateau, ran along the south side.  A piece of land belonging to a local construction company was on the east side.  Truly it was a playground fit for a young boy and all of his friends.  In that neighborhood alone we had bike trails, two tree houses, a sledding hill (used for sledding and jumping bikes), and several hiking trails leading up into the mountains.

The sledding hill was a major attraction for the children, both summer and winter.  In the winter we would gather with our sleds and tubes to slide down the hill, clearing the jump at the bottom with as much speed as we could muster.  Steering was always important.  Too far to the left and you would land in a Russian Olive Tree with its unforgiving thorns, thorns just as likely to tear apart a tube as flesh.  Plastic sleds and toboggans were fun, but dangerous.  They didn’t pick up much speed and they were impossible to steer.  The round ones were fun because of the excitement and danger.  Often they would spin so you would go down the hill backwards and they were faster than the other plastic varieties. 

For speed, the best option was generally the old flyers, wood sleds with metal rails.  By far they were the fastest and they could be steered.  Speed was the danger…that and the hard edge and sharp edges of the sled.  More than one child lost control, crashing into others, flipping, or landing in the Russian Olive Tree.  Whenever there was blood on the sledding hill, there was a good chance a flyer was involved.  Invariably the flyers won the jumping contest.  They could fly further than any other type of sled.  Unfortunately the wrecks following the crashes were some of the most exciting.

Old tire tubes were the most fun and safest option.  If you brought a tube, you were expected to bring the wax for the bottom as well.  Wax was the secret to speed on those tubes.  The wax had to be reapplied on a regular basis to keep the friction down and the speed up.  Tubes were the high occupancy vehicles of the sledding hill.  If one was coming down, you got out of the way because there could be anywhere from one to eight people on it.  It always paid to be friends with someone who brought a sled.

Fun at the sledding hill was the type that stuck to you and wouldn’t let you leave.  I would stay for hours at a time, as long as I could stand the cold.  Usually I wouldn’t leave that hill on Saturdays until the dark forced us off or my mother called me home.  Usually while I was on the hill, climbing up and sliding down, I didn’t notice the cold.  As soon as I would get home and pull off all of my wet winter clothes, the 10,000 pinpricks of pain would course through my fingers, toes, ears, and nose.  Tears would fill my eyes and I would whimper while I sat next to our big, black fireplace in the front room changing into dry clothes.

During the summer months, we would meet on occasion at the sledding hill to jump our bikes.  Enough speed could be generated coming down the hill to jump an amazing distance at the bottom.  For a couple of years I was too cautious (chicken) to take any serious jumps off of the hill.  I’d watch in awe as my friends and older kids went faster down the hill and jumped further and further.  Part of my fear was failing miserably in front of all of my friends and peers.  One day I was the only one at the hill for some reason.  I climbed the hill with my bike and coasted down, gently gliding over the bump at the bottom.  Several times I repeated the process, increasing my speed by increments.  Eventually I was making substantial jumps.  Finally I reached the point where I would pedal all the way down the hill and pull myself into a lengthy jump at just the right time.  I couldn’t wait to show my friends. 

On my last jump, although I don’t think I planned on it being my last jump, I decided to do a few tricks in the air.  For this inaugural occasion I decided to turn my handlebars one direction and then straighten them out just before I landed.  Speeding down the hill I hit the jump and pulled back with all my might.  It was my highest jump yet.  In the air I turned my wheel and looked down.  Sadly my timing was off and I landed before I could turn the wheel straight again.  The last thing I remember was my turned wheel hitting the ground and flying over my handlebars head first into the ground.  I know it knocked me out simply because I remember waking up.  My face was a little scraped up and something felt loose in my jaw.  The bike lay on the ground about ten or twelve feet in front of me.  Slowly I picked myself up and rode slowly home.  It would be another year before I was willing to try the jumps again.

I miss being a child in that neighborhood.  Countless times I knocked on friends’ doors to ask, “Can so and so come out and play?”  Countless times my friends knocked on my door to ask, “Can Jarad come out and play?”  Often a friend would show up while I was in the middle of stacking firewood or weeding the garden to see if I could join them on some adventure.  Trying to leave before the work was done was pointless.  Usually they would join in to help me complete my job.  I did the same.  In that neighborhood I knew that at any time another adult there could stop me in my tracks for any improper behavior.  When they did I hoped they would correct me on the spot without feeling the need to inform my parents.  Sometimes it was serious enough that they felt it necessary to speak with my parents.  Luckily I never got into too much trouble.

The Subdivision

Oh, the hours I spent with friends in the mountains.  We would hike and explore for hours.  There were two Devil’s Soup Bowls on the face of the mountain.  One near our neighborhood and one near the County Fairgrounds.  The debate always raged about which one was the real Devil’s Soup Bowl and which was the fake.  In those hills we built huts, tracked animals, looked for Sasquatch, avoided snakes (usually successfully), checked out the television tower, and once hiked several miles up Indian Canyon.  One time someone even managed to spray starter fluid in his eye from a rusty old can.  Poor kid ran screaming all the way home, up and down hills for about two miles.  By the time we got there we had to explain to his mother what had happened because he still couldn’t speak a coherent word.

I have so many wonderful memories from those hills.  One day I was hiking on the face of the mountain with a friend.  I had my brand new cowboy hat, recently purchased at the fair.  We were up above the fairgrounds, kind of close the fake Devil’s Soup Bowl.  A sudden gust of wind blew my hat off of my head and over a cliff.  The cliff stretched too far for me to climb around, so I took out my rope and tied it to a large rock.  My plan was to repel down the face of the cliff to my hat and climb back up.  I had seen it happen on the television set so many times that I was sure I could do it.  The cliff was only ten to fifteen feet high.  I’m not sure how I planned on getting back up. 

As I prepared to go over the edge, my friend kept trying to talk me out of it, but I was committed.  With the rope wrapped around my waist I leaned back and prepared to go over.  Before I could take a step I distinctly heard these words, “Jarad, don’t do it!”

I shook my head and slid down further to the edge.  Again, I heard distinctly the words, “Jarad, don’t do it.  Stop!”

“Did you hear that?” I said to my friend.

“Hear what?  I didn’t hear anything.  But, I don’t think you should do it.”

Looking down at the cliff, I considered it one more time.  Again the words: “Jarad, stop!  Don’t do it!”

That was enough for me.  I remembered all of my lessons from Primary and sacrament meeting.  I untied my rope, stashed it back in my backpack, and abandoned my hat.  Several hours later at home, my dad grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “It’s a good thing you didn’t go over that cliff.  Your rope didn’t even reach the bottom.”

Confused, I asked, “How did you know about the cliff?”

“We were watching you from the backyard.”

“How could you see me?”  It was about a half a mile or more away.

“With the binoculars.  Why were you trying to go over the cliff?”

“To get my cowboy hat.  The wind blew it off.”

"Was that you telling me not to climb off the cliff?"

"Yes.  I was yelling as loud as I could."

So many more memories.  Dirt clod wars.  I believe we had three of them and usually some blood was involved.  Working for Porter Merrill on his farm and in his garden.  Fishing the river.  Camping out in tents or under the stars for nights on end in the front or backyard.  All of that and more in one little neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Great Haircut Stories

For the past several weeks, perhaps months, I’ve been busy with family, church, work, and a larger writing project.  Today, to help me unwind, I decided to share some important experiences related to my development and upbringing—important haircuts in my life.  For those of you who are kind enough to read my blog on at least an intermittent basis you may have read about my friend Brett’s amazing haircut experience in China during a beer festival.  If you haven’t read it, here’s a link to that adventure: “Living on the Edge: Brett, the CulturalWarrior, in China”.  I don’t think any of my experiences approach his in terms of raw shock and awe, but I think they’re informative, entertaining, and impactful.

First Haircut
Of course I don’t remember my first haircut.  I just remember my parents talking about it.  It’s been several years, maybe even a decade or two since they have mentioned it, but I remember it still.  The conversation between them would go something like this:

Dad: “Remember when you took Jarad in for his first haircut.”

Mom: “Yes, I remember.  You were so mad when they cut all of his curls off and they never came back.”

Dad: “He as so cute with curls.”

Mom: “I know.”

They would both sigh and look at me with a bit of regret in their eyes and shake their head sadly.  I’ve always wondered how cute I would have been if I had kept my curls.  Would I have been more successful, more personable?  Would I have had more friends?  Perhaps I would be a successful third term politician by now.  Instead I grew up missing the cuter Jarad I never really knew.  I like to think the loss of the curls made me a stronger person, that I was forced to work harder for what I have received.  My natural intelligence and work ethic were forced to the forefront of my personality as my natural good looks were somewhat diminished.  Like my parents I still sigh when I think about those lost curls.

Naval Junior Officer Training Corps and the Flat Top
As a young child I once talked my dad into giving me a buzz cut.  My mom hated it (probably because it reminded her even more of my lost curls).  Other than that one buzz cut I went years without an exciting haircut.  It was the same every time, with the perfect part on the one side.  If I got my part wrong, my mom either used a sharp-toothed comb to fix it or made me go try again.

Life changed when I entered the 8th grade.  My dad decided to up and join the US Navy at the ripe old age of thirty, pulling our family from quaint little Duchesne, Utah all the way across the country to Pensacola, Florida.  Eighth grade in Florida was painful.  Nobody really liked the kid from Utah with huge glasses and a perfect part in his hair.  My favorite places that year were in my dreams and at church. 

When summer rolled around I tried out for the freshman football team at the high school and was selected to play outside linebacker.  In order to fit onto the team and to deal with the hot, humid summer, I cut my hair quite short, not a buzz, but you know, very short.  It was nothing exotic, but practical.  As school started I was excited to register for the NJROTC classes, sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps and learn a little more about the military.  The NJROTC instructors were amazing.  They managed to convince me, and others lest you think I was alone, that it would be cool and patriotic to wear a uniform to school once a week while keeping a short haircut. 

Shortly after school started I was warned by one of the instructors during our weekly inspection that my hair was about due for a haircut.  My dad decided to take me to a local barber he had been seeing for a few months.  An older gentleman named Ivan owned the barbershop.  He had two other ladies who worked for him. 

As I sat down my dad smiled and said to Ivan and to me, “What do you think about a flat top?” 

Never before had I really considered a flat top haircut, but I liked the idea.  Ivan responded before I could.

“I think he would look great with a flat top.  He would have to get a special flat top brush to train his hair and to make it work.”

Ivan proceeded to describe the process of training hair to stand up.  As a new member of the NJROTC I was thrilled at the prospect of doing my own training.  Quickly I agreed.  It was refreshing to have the sides of my head shorn of hair.  Ivan used an old-fashioned straight blade razor to clean up the appropriate spots.  It took him some time to get the hair on top to the right length and even.  When he was finished, I thought I looked pretty good.  In short order I had my own flat top brush.

In fact, I still have a flat top brush to this day.  I think I’ve owned a total of two flat top brushes.  The last one I bought, and still use today, was purchases after I lost my first one when I was fifteen or sixteen years old.  My sisters think it’s a little gross that I still have the brush, but I love it, missing bristles and all.

For the next two years I met with Ivan and his straight blade on at least a monthly basis to keep my flat top in good working order.

Wild and crazy in the Basin – Or, Making It Up as I Go
After my sophomore year I moved back to Duchesne.  I kept my flat top for a while, but it wasn’t considered as cool as it was as it was in Pensacola, so I slowly let it fade.  Plus, it wasn’t a great haircut to have during the cold winters.  My first winter back, I went over to Roosevelt for work and decided to stop in for a haircut at a local barbershop on Main Street.  I had never been there before and didn’t really know anybody.  When it was my turn I sat in the chair, not sure what I wanted.  Looking up I saw that the place was full of fathers and sons waiting their turns.  None of them had anything too crazy, outside of maybe a lingering mullet, which was not considered extreme at the time (or even still).

I must have been bored and wanted to entertain the crowd because I told the barber I wanted something like a high and tight, but I didn’t want the hair shortened on top.  In fact, I wanted him to leave a distinct line like a bowl cut with the longer hair coming down to a point on the back of my head.  The barber asked me several times if I was sure that was what I wanted and if my parents would approve.  I told him I was spending my money and that they wouldn’t care, too much.  Also, I mentioned that I was from Duchesne and that I doubted my parents would come over to give him a hard time for giving me a crazy haircut.

It was obvious he was excited to do it.  I doubt he had ever given such an exotic haircut.  All of the boys and their fathers leaned forward in their chairs to watch, making comments to one another about what the barber was doing to me.  Some made it clear they didn’t approve of my deviant behavior.   Some of the boys, especially those younger than me, started to ask if they could get a similar haircut.  Discussions went back and forth as the barber did his work.

When I was finished I paid and walked out the door with fathers and sons still discussing the option of getting the same haircut and wondering what mom would say.  I hope some of them were brave enough to try it.  Of course, my dad didn’t love the haircut, but neither did I.  All of the joy was in being the center of attention and causing a little controversy.  Within a few days I had the back of my head fixed and the rest of my hair shortened a little.  I believe that was the only time I was considered a trendsetter in my life.  Whatever happened, I think the barber was excited to try something new.

The Russian Sporteevni’ and Karma
Learning to ask for a good haircut in a foreign country in a foreign language is a true challenge.  As a missionary I worked hard to make sure that I knew how to describe what I wanted.  By the time I needed a haircut I could explain how long I wanted it on the various portions of my cranium.  (For some reason all of us missionaries in Russia, at least the elders, loved to go to the beautician schools so we could get our hair cut by the young, pretty female students.)

At the time I was in Russia, the sporteevni’ cut was all the rage with the young men.  Basically, it was just a buzz cut.  Of course they loved to give buzz cuts because it was easy to do and easy to satisfy the customer.  Unfortunately a buzz cut did not fit with the grooming standards for missionaries.  We had to figure out how to describe what we wanted.  Failure to do so accurately could result in serious mistakes.

When I had been in the country for a year one of the newer missionaries asked me for instructions on how to get a haircut.  Honestly, I gave him the correct instructions and the correct vocabulary.  A week later we met up at a baptism.  We were standing outside the school, where the baptism would take place, in the cold winter air.  He was wearing his shapka and I could tell he wasn’t happy with me. 

Finally, he pulled his fur shapka off of his head and said, “Look at this!  Look at what you did.”

His hair, what was left of it, looked terrible.  I’m not sure what he told them, but my guess is that as he realized they weren’t doing what he wanted, that he kept trying to correct them.  The result was horrendous.  I apologized, trying to convince him that I had given him good instructions.  He didn’t believe me, but he did think it was kind of funny.

Skip ahead several months.  I was nearing the end of my mission.  The long Russian winter in Yekaterinburg finally had come to an end and I wanted a shorter haircut to match the weather.  Completely confident in my language abilities I went to a nearby barbershop and gave my customary instructions.  The girls asked if I was sure that I didn’t want a sporteevni’.  I assured her that I did not and gave my instructions again.

As she started to cut my hair, I relaxed.  The room was warm and the hands on my head felt good.  Within a few minutes I was mostly asleep as she cut.  Suddenly I realized she was asking me a question.  Without thinking too deeply about what she had said, I replied with a hearty, “Da, da!”

Immediately she ran the clippers across the top of my head.  Apparently she had asked one more time if I wanted the sporteevni’.  She must have been watching for a moment of weakness, probably because she had made some mistake.  Unfortunately the next day I spoke in a sacrament meeting the next day with our mission president in attendance.  I had to explain why my hair was not within mission standards to all of the missionaries, several of the members, and to the mission president.

I still fall asleep during haircuts sometimes.

What did you want?  What are you giving me?
I have worked at the Air Force Academy on two different occasions, as an active duty officer and as a civilian.  Both times I kept basically the same short, military style haircut.  There was a small barbershop in Fairchild Hall, the academic building.  It wasn’t manned all of the time, so you had to get on the schedule in advance in order to get your haircut.  One of the regular ladies in there was a bit on the eccentric and loud side of things.  She liked to complain loudly about everything in her life.  More than once I walked away when she was working, preferring to keep long hair for a day or two to the verbal assault.

One day I was down at the community center and decided to drop into the barbershop there to get my haircut.  Looking in I saw one of the other barbers, a guy who did a good job.  There was only one other person in front of me so I took a number and sat down.

The eccentric lady walked in and set up at her station.  She called my number.  Somewhat reluctantly I went and sat in her chair.  Before I was even sitting she and the other barber were in a heated discussion about coworkers and their upcoming schedule.  She didn’t say a word to me as she wrapped my neck in tissue and draped the cape over my shoulders.  I was waiting for her to ask what I wanted, when she just started to cut my hair with the clippers.  Within a minute or two, most of the hair on the sides of my head was completely gone. 

Suddenly realizing what she was doing, she stopped and asked, “What did you want done with your hair?”

Smiling, I asked in turn, “I don’t know.  What were you planning?”

She thought for a minute and said, “Well, I’m not sure but what do you think about this?”

Quickly she described what she had in mind, which luckily was almost exactly what I usually asked for anyway.  I agreed and she continued to cut, never apologizing or pausing again in her work.  Her conversation with her coworker picked up right where it left off.

It was kind of exciting not knowing what my hair was going to look like.

Where Has All the Excitement Gone?
I had my haircut this weekend.  It’s been the same for several years now, a military style haircut—short on the sides, with just enough length on top to comb it forward.  My mom’s part on the one side, like my curls, is gone.  I still enjoy having my head touched, rubbed, and scratched when I get a haircut.  Nothing exciting is on the horizon.

No, the most exciting thing this time and likely the next time is when I tell them that I have a mole on my head that they may want to avoid.  Always, they are so thankful for the heads up.  Sometimes I ask them to thin my thick hair, but I haven’t had to do that for a couple of years.  That kind of worries me.

Maybe one day I’ll shave it completely bald.  Going grey isn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be, although the pace of conversion from brown to grey is picking up speed.