Jun 282015

I think this essay qualifies as an outright self-indulgent dive into personal nostalgia. Thankfully it’s ~pleasant~ nostalgia.

When I was a teenager in the 70’s, the brand of tennis shoe one wore was an overt display of how cool one was. The boys I associated with all seemed to have an understanding of how much certain models of certain brands cost, and the more expensive the model the better. I would imagine that process is still active today, but I can’t be sure. By the mid 70’s, Adidas seemed to be the dominant brand, much cooler than any sort of cheap Keds or even Converse Chuck Taylors. As I recall, there was an Adidas model with red stripes which was the cheapest, and to wear those was a bit un-cool. I think I had some, as my mother had grown up in the depression, and was VERY unwilling to spend money on ANYTHING that seemed extravagant. That said, I accept responsibility for my own poverty, as I really didn’t have the gumption to obtain any sort of part time job for myself while in high school. My friend Jeff had various jobs, and not surprisingly, he had more than one pair of clearly “cool” tennis shoes.

The weird and giant breakthrough for me came when my mother allowed me to buy a particular model of Adidas; the “Stockholm.” These had a blue suede upper, and a thin gum rubber sole. They were unbelievably supple, probably because the suede was so soft, and because the sole was so flexible. No one else had this model, and I don’t recall it gave me much social cache, but I didn’t care, as I believed I had found the ULTIMATE tennis shoe. They looked super cool to me, and more importantly they were the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever owned.

Being an impertinent youth, I didn’t treat them with the respect they deserved. I had always insisted on walking outside in the winter in tennis shoes. My father even commented on this, and I felt confused, as I didn’t have enough of my own spending money to go out and buy proper winter boots. I suppose I could have complained to my mother, but honestly I simply felt more comfortable in tennis shoes than boots. I think I rationalized that I was not harming the tennis shoes because “I was walking on top of the snow.” By now I think you see where this is going, as water and snow is death to suede. Indeed, the shoe’s flexion point beside my little toe on my left foot turned into a hole. I decided I liked my Stockholm shoes too much to just get a new pair. I used a product intended to waterproof heavy boots called Huberd’s Shoe Grease, which I see is still made. This was a product NOT intended for suede, but I used it anyway. Not surprisingly, it blackened the beautiful blue suede, and turned it weird and greasy.

I still had a problem, though, as there was still a big hole beside my little toe. Again, I tried my own “creative” solution, which was to sew a patch over the hole. Instead of using some sort of thread, I decided to use WIRE. To this day, I’m not sure what my thinking process was on that issue.

During this time in high school, we had a PE class that involved playing table tennis. This I quite enjoyed, then as now. One day in the class a ping pong ball rolled toward me, followed by a boy attempting to retrieve it. The ball came to rest against my greased and wired Stockholm shoe, and his hand touched my shoe as he grabbed the ball. I believe he noticed the weird greasy feel to my shoe, as he gave me a strange, silent, quizzical look as he stood up. At that point I realized how deeply weird it really was to grease my pair of blue suede shoes…

Not surprisingly, I had to abandon that pair, and move onto others. I wanted to get another pair of Stockholms, but they were not to be found! I was shocked, as I couldn’t imagine how something so cool could simply vanish! Didn’t other people venerate these shoes as much as I did? My frustration went on for years. In the early 80’s my brother visited France for a time. I asked him to buy a pair of Stockholm shoes if he saw them for sale, but he never did. Stockholm Adidas became one of those cool things from my childhood that went away forever, sort of like Quisp cereal and Space Food Sticks.

Many years later, I realized that shoes could be purchased over the internet. I never cared for shoe shopping; all the waiting around, being fitted by unctuous sales men and women, and pretending to know if they fit well by walking in them a few steps. On a lark, I searched Amazon for Stockholm Adidas, as I had “heard” that certain models were being re-introduced as a sort of retro style flashback. Amazingly, Stockholms were again available! And they were blue suede with a gum rubber sole, just like in the 70’s.

Adidas Stockholm

I ordered a pair in my size from Amazon. As I recall, they were ridiculously expensive, over a hundred dollars. I think they were shipped from Hong Kong. Alas, nostalgia has a way of exaggerating details in the mind, and when I wore these ULTIMATE shoes, I discovered they sole was actually ~too~ thin, and didn’t quite offer enough padding. The suede uppers were as supple as I remember them, but these days I simply need a thicker sole for more comfort. I’m also vain enough to worry about wearing expensive shoes, even tennis shoes, out into the real world, lest they get scuffed!

The most recent pair of shoes I bought were also Adidas, but from Costco, for only 30 dollars! Because the uppers are a synthetic mesh, they “breath” nicely, unlike even thin leather. They are running shoes, probably the cheap “trainers” but the soles are thick, especially in the heels, and provide a nice feeling of “rolling” forward when I walk.

Costco Shoes

I will always have fond memories of those Stockholm shoes, and will doubtless wear the pair that I now own, but I must concede that my nostalgic mental model is better than present reality.

 Posted by on 06/28/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on My Ultimate Pair of Tennis Shoes
Jun 222015

While waiting at a stoplight recently, I began thinking about working a clutch, and more generally, how I learned to drive.

I grew up in Montana, where one could obtain a driver’s license at age 15. A “learner’s permit” allowed one to drive at age 14 if accompanied by a parent. I had heard through word of mouth that kids even younger than that were allowed some sort of special dispensation if they lived on a farm, and operated farm vehicles, but I never followed up on that claim and I don’t know if it’s true.

Back in the 70’s, our high school offered “driver’s ed” or driver’s education, if one chose to learn how to drive through conventional means. This was one of the few classes that kids looked forward to, at least in considering it a legitimate means to an end, as opposed to something like algebra class. Over the years I recall learning that high schools do not offer driver’s ed as routinely as they once did, but I don’t know this as a fact.

I was lucky, in that my mother saw fit to teach me how to drive even before high school driver’s ed. We lived in Missoula, which encompassed Fort Missoula, just on the outskirts of town. Its grounds were open to the public and had wide, flat roads between buildings. The buildings were either not in use, or were used by few people, so the place was largely deserted. My mother and I drove out there in our metallic aqua Ford Galaxy station wagon. Not surprisingly, this vehicle had an automatic transmission. I’m firmly of the belief that one should learn how to drive with an automatic transmission, simply to master the basics of starting, steering, stopping, signalling, and basic control before attempting the tricky business of working a clutch. Frankly those lessons were so prosaic I barely remember them. I probably drove no more than 25 MPH on dry, flat roads with few stop signs and no traffic.

My mother didn’t care for our big Ford station wagon, as it was something of a boat; she regularly drove our Renault 12. She and my brother were Francophiles, and had previously owned a Renault Dauphine, which must have been one of the smallest four door sedans ever made. The Renault 12 had a clutch, and I needed to learn how to work it.

For those who have never driven a clutch car, it’s tricky learning how to engage it without stalling the engine, especially when starting from a stopped position in first gear. The clutch pedal is first depressed all the way to the floorboards, then slowly “feathered” out while simultaneously pressing the accelerator pedal just a bit. Perhaps others had an easy time learning this task, but it vexed me significantly at age 14. Inevitably I would “rev” the engine a bit too much, and “pop” the clutch pedal out too fast, and kill the engine. My mother was remarkably patient in allowing me to try this. She was also remarkably tolerant in allowing me to try this without even a learner’s permit!

One time our Renault was parked over at my grandmother’s house, which was only about two blocks away from our house. My mother gave me the keys and allowed me to walk over and drive the car back. I was thrilled she would let me try this! I walked over, got in the car, and tried to start it. I couldn’t! The steering wheel had a locking mechanism that was becoming popular in the 70’s, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it. In retrospect, this was a bad idea on the part of my mother’s as there was a stop sign on the road between my grandmother’s house and our house. A vehicle driven by an unlicensed driver stalled in the middle of an intersection would have been a foreseeable outcome with a driver still learning how to work a clutch…

I remember finally mastering the clutch; again with the Renault parked at my grandmother’s house. Again my mother allowed me to attempt driving solo. This time I knew how to work the locking steering wheel, and managed not to kill engine while feathering out the clutch pedal! But what now? I drove into the intersection in first gear then pulled a big U turn and drove back. Instead of parking across the street from where I started, I decided to park on the same side from which I started, facing the wrong way. I came in WAY too sharply for reasonable parking, and managed to hit the front wheel on the curb! Amazingly, my mother was not particularly upset by this. I dodged a couple of bullets on that day…

Eventually I took driver’s ed class at Hellgate High School. This involved a combination of classes and supervised driving. The cars used to teach students were big sedans with automatic transmissions, and brake pedals for the instructor in front of the front passenger seat. All in all the instruction seemed quite reasonable, except for the “Link Simulator.” This was one of the most absurd and insane wastes of money in the name of education I’ve ever seen. It was contained in a semi trailer parked in a parking lot on the south side of the building. Inside was a movie screen at the front of trailer, with the rest of the space given over to weird driver consoles that sort of duplicated a car interior with a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal, turn signals, a brake pedal, and probably a seat belt. Being the 1970’s, there was no feedback between what the “driver” did behind the wheel and what appeared on the movie screen. This was not a video game. The movies were relentlessly square, Leave it to Beaver – Readers Digest Americana, with scenes of picket fence neighborhoods navigated by cars driving about 10 miles an hour. We were told that somehow our “scores” were being recorded, as allegedly the Link Simulator could tell if a driver over corrected with the steering wheel, or failed to brake at the correct time. When I was a student we were never given these “scores” and I have to wonder if we were simply being lied to in an attempt to keep us from completely screwing around. Imagine if you were being taught how to throw free throws, or hit a tennis ball using a video game in which there was no feedback; it’s an insane idea from an educational standpoint.

Eventually I got my learner’s permit, and drove around a few times under the watchful supervision of my father. I turned 15 in August 1977, and very much looked forward to getting my real driver’s license. I dimly recall taking the “practical” portion of the test, which involved parallel parking. I must have passed, as I was given my license. I recall driving the Renault 12 by myself all the way through Deer Creek and Pattee Canyon that day. A genuine adolescent rite of passage!

I moved to Seattle in 1987, and was shocked to encounter people who either didn’t own cars, or who didn’t know how to drive. I couldn’t fathom how young people wouldn’t WANT to own their own cars and know how to drive! Personal power and freedom felt so good, why didn’t everyone want this?

Sometime in the late 80’s I was involved with a woman who didn’t drive. I decided to teach her how. At the time I owned a 1987 Dodge Daytona.

Dodge Daytona

Unfortunately for teaching purposes, this vehicle had a clutch, so my poor student had to learn this to start with. One night we drove out to Northgate Mall, as I believed wide open parking lots would be a good place to start. Not surprisingly, this episode didn’t go well, and we never repeated it. There’s a great scene in Breaking Bad in which Walter White tries to teach his son how to drive in similar circumstances. It’s a cringe worthy scene, and reminds me of my own attempt.

As I mentioned at the start of this essay, I recalled my clutch history while waiting at a stoplight. I realized, decades after it could have helped, that actuating a clutch is MUCH easier if the car is already in motion, and the easiest way to do this is by gliding down a slight hill. Jebus, such a simple tip; why didn’t I think of this years ago, or learn it in driver’s ed?

 Posted by on 06/22/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Learning to Drive
Apr 192015

I remember a strange incident from my childhood which involved what might be called an improvised weapon.

This must have happened when I was in about the 8th grade, which would have been the mid 70’s. I recall it occurred in the springtime, as it was light out after dinner, but not summertime. I was at home, and I began to hear an unusual sound outside. It was strange “foomp” sound, a loud and occasional percussive noise. Eventually I went outside to investigate. I saw several boys I knew gathered at the corner. They had constructed a cannon of sorts, which could shoot tennis balls into the air.

It consisted of a number of steel soda pop cans, each ganged together in a vertical stack with tape. Back then pop cans were made of steel and not aluminium. The bottom can of the stack had its bottom intact, but its top was crudely punched out with a tool, probably a screwdriver, resulting in a plate of mangled metal. The bottom of the next can in the stack was similarly punched in both the bottom and top. The top can in the stack, which was probably 5 or 6 cans tall, had the very top carefully removed, I think with a can opener. The can at the bottom of the stack had a small hole punched in the side, just above the very bottom. A tennis ball was placed in the top can of the stack, which fit just perfectly.

The boys would squirt lighter fluid into the small touch hole at the bottom, insert a tennis ball at the top, and shake the stack. In retrospect, the use of the crude tool to mangle the tops and bottoms of the middle cans instead of using a can opener was rational, as it increased the surface area inside the cannon, enabling greater vaporization of the lighter fluid. The cannon would be placed vertically and a match or lighter would be brought to the touch hole. A great “whoomp” sound would be produced, and the tennis ball would be shot perhaps 50 feet into the air.

You would think that an activity like this would become insanely popular amongst boys back then, but I only saw it used the one time. Years later, I built one myself with my friend Tim Cridland. I’m not sure what sort of can I used, as this would have been the late 80’s, and steel cans were becoming harder to come by, but not impossible. As I recall, I got it to work, but the novelty of the creation was gone, and it wasn’t quite as amazing as seeing it for the first time.

The stimulus for writing down this recollection was drinking canned Asian coffee recently, which made me recall the days when soda pop was packaged in steel cans. I’m not even sure if tennis balls are packaged in steel cans anymore, or if they would provide a tight enough fit to make such a thing.

 Posted by on 04/19/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Tennis Ball Cannon
Apr 152015

When I was a child I had a wild friend that I’ll call “R.” I’ve written about him before, and he was the subject of many of my wild and dangerous childhood adventures. This adventure started out prosaically, with a shopping cart.

R told me that he knew of an abandoned shopping cart, stashed under a building near the Clark Fork River in Missoula. This would have been the early 70’s, when stolen shopping carts were not as prevalent in the world as they are today. Back then I never saw a homeless person with a shopping cart. R suggested that we could transform this ordinary shopping cart into a go-cart. This sounded like fun to me, and we set about to do it.

Arriving at the building I discovered that R was speaking the truth; there was indeed an abandoned shopping cart under a building which I believe was used for cutting grave stones. We used wrenches to disconnect the wire basket from the underlying frame and wheels. We left the basket there and took the frame back to R’s house. Seen from the side, the shape of the frame was a sort of “J” shape, with the “J” laying on its side. From the rear, there was a gap between the two rear wheels. About 12″ above this gap was a cross-bar, which formed the curved part of the “J” shape. I could see the legitimate fun this vehicle could have, but it was clear that a board needed to go between the gap between the two rear wheels. We found a board, and I recall it was either bolted down or in some way firmly attached. Not surprisingly, there was no adult supervision during this process…

From here things began to get weird and dangerous. I imagined that one should ride this go-cart by kneeling on the board while holding on to the crossbar. R suggested that one ~sit~ on the board, and use the crossbar as a “roll bar.” We quickly tired of simply pushing each other along, and decided to take it to the next level. We enlisted the help of our friends John and Chris. We headed for Mt. Sentinel which as you can see by the photo on the Wikipedia page is largely grass covered. Of all all four of us, R was the only one of us crazy enough to actually try riding the go-cart down the hillside. R insisted on sitting on the wooden plank, which made “bailing out” virtually impossible. We tried launching R down the hillside several times, but each time the clumps of grass which covered the hillside stopped his progress. The wheels of a shopping cart are small, and easily stopped, sort of like how a small pebble can stop a skateboard wheel. On the final attempt R gained escape velocity, and began to roll down the hillside on his own. Soon enough the clumps of grass plus his “roll bar” proved his undoing and he began to lose control, first in great bumps, then by CARTWHEELING down the mountain side. Eventually his cartwheeling stopped, but he was still sliding down the mountain, face down. We ran down after him as fast as we could, but we couldn’t catch him. He managed to stop just a few feet before a small cliff.

Thankfully R was more or less unhurt; no broken bones or bleeding that I remember. Needless to say, that was the last time I remember using the go-cart. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how kids use their free time these days, but I suspect this sort of thing doesn’t happen too much during modern supervised “play dates.”

 Posted by on 04/15/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on That’s How We Rolled.
Apr 132015

When I was a child our family experienced a strange series of events involving a telephone. I was probably about 10 when this happened so it must have taken place in the early 1970’s.

One day I answered the telephone in our house. Our phone was a landline, probably a model 500, and owned by the “phone company.” The caller hung up immediately. Not an uncommon experience, of course, but it began to happen several times a day, for days on end. It became obvious to all of our family members that we were the victims of some sort of crude harassment. One of my parents, probably my father, decided to contact either the police or the “phone company.” To their credit, Mountain Bell took action, and put a “tap” on our phone line. Here is where the story gets weird.

The representative of Mountain Bell told my father that what we must do upon receiving any phone call was to pick up the receiver and immediately put it on a pillow. From there we were to make no noise in the house at all, and in fact whisper as we spoke. We were to keep the phone on the pillow for several minutes, at least. A bit of a hyperbolic over-reaction in my opinion! I don’t think telephone receivers have ever been that sensitive. We had to call all our friends and ask them to cease and desist from calling our house for several days. In some way, the relative silence of the open phone line would facilitate the “tap” of the phone to determine the caller. In the end it turned out to be a female friend of my mother’s, a woman who we believed had become mentally ill.

The really strange part of the episode is that the Mountain Bell representative told my father that the “tap” occurred almost instantaneously, and that the receiver-on-the-pillow protocol was essentially overkill. The weirder thing about this was that the Ma Bell rep told my father that this was “secret” information, and that we should keep it a secret!

This makes total sense, as if one made a long distance phone call back in the old analog days, the “phone company” would need to know the number to which the call was made, and the duration, to properly bill the caller. Back then “long distance calls” were a BIG FUCKING DEAL as they were expensive, and not to be utilized frivolously.

For many years, I’d watch TV or movies in which the “bad guy” made a telephone call and had to be “kept on the line” for some dramatic amount of time, though he usually delivered his key lines just before the “trace” was made. Complete and total bullshit, of course, but it goes to show how effective the corporate propaganda of Ma Bell was back in those days. But why would they engage in such a propaganda campaign in the first place? Why would Hollywood voluntarily go along with it? It’s the same sort of thing as not showing a tension wrench used to pick pin tumbler locks. Perhaps some taps recorded the caller’s voice, and could be used in court as damning evidence above and beyond the originating telephone number. Perhaps Ma Bell chose to err on the conservative side, and promoted the fiction that ALL tapped called needed to be of a substantive duration.

For those in Seattle interested in analog telephones and switching equipment, there is a telephone museum in South Seattle, though they do a terrible job of self-promotion.

 Posted by on 04/13/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Wiretap