THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING I’VE EVER SEEN

My dad died when he was 62. Seemed a tad early since I was led to believe the average male achieves a lifespan of 75-89 years.

But Dad was alive with me when we saw the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Strangely enough, we happen to have been discussing that very topic. Dad asked me, “Son, what is beauty?” I looked at him with an expression that said, “Are you serious?!”

“You know” I said. “A sunset, a pretty woman, mountains,…”

He interrupted, “No, I know what examples of beauty are. I just want to understand what beauty itself is.”

My expression changed to one of deep contemplation and then to humility. I could not answer his question. I was unable to find the words. But the events that followed freed me from a necessity to explain.

We were making our way home, Dad was driving his pickup, I was in the passenger seat and we were only about a quarter mile from our driveway. We lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains and this was late in the afternoon, early in autumn.

As we came close to the rim of the last hill before our driveway, the cloudy sky above us turned red. Just a slight pink hue at first, but very rapidly the sky went blood red. My dad looked up. then I looked up. “Uh-oh,” Dad said. “That doesn’t look good.” He was referring to the threat of a forest fire… and in this case, one that was awfully close to home. We both cringed as we neared the crest of the hill where we would soon gain a full view of the valley below.

We crested the hill and… nothing. No giant flames, no sparks and embers flying in the wind. Just a peaceful valley beneath a brightly glowing crimson sky. We both looked up again, puzzled.

“What the heck is going on here?” we both said practically in unison.

Halfway down the hill, we passed our driveway and kept driving. We now had to know what was making the sky pure red. As we descended toward the bridge that crossed the creek at the bottom of the hill, we looked in every direction for the source of this scarlet surprise above us. But we saw nothing… until we crossed the creek.

Dry Creek meanders through the valley, crosses Frenchtown Road and flows out thru a green pasture peppered by pale-green lichen covered oak trees. Out there in that expanse of green, floating on the creek, was a bank of fog.  The fog was perhaps 20 feet high, 40 feet wide and followed the creek for about 75 yards. The bank of fog was pure red and glowing so brightly we could barely look at it for more than a few seconds. When we arrived and parked the car just past the bridge the fog was just going from a deep, deep red to a deep, deep magenta. It was easier to continue staring at when the magenta color came. It softened the glow just a little bit from sunlight intensity to something like car headlight intensity.

We were enraptured. There were no hard edges to the bank of fog. The red color gave way to the true colors around it with a subtle fade. It was as if red light had taken on the form of a terrestrial cloud and, while lying in the creek, was changing colors before our very eyes. The magenta began to change to bright orange and the transition created a color so vibrant and unusual that no existing phenomenon had ever matched it. The orange itself was so delightful that we were barely able to contain ourselves. As that bright orange finally faded to a pale pink we watched as all the light was suddenly drained from the fog and we were left with nothing more than a pale grey cloud lying in the creek as the sun went down far up the valley behind it.

Dad and I looked at each other, combing the surprised expression on each other’s faces.

“Well,” I said to Dad, “that was beauty!”

1,000 FEET PER MINUTE

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

OIL-GAUGEMemorial Day weekend…
The sky is ablaze with the morning sun and I’m feeling the urge to get out in it when the phone rings.

My friend Bill, who has never called before says, “How would you like a ride in my airplane in exchange for washing it?”

I always want to fly. From my first dream where I could fly with no visible means of support, I was hooked. And it just so happens, my calendar is clear today. How hard could it be to wash a private plane anyway? They’re not much larger than a car. So I agree.

The Brownsville airport is at an elevation of 1200 feet while standing on the ground. Brownsville, California is a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains where I grew up. The runway is pure dirt and gravel. So Bill’s plane,which is normally a light shade of baby blue, has a dusting of red clay and pulverized granite along the undercarriage. I make a note of the potential labor on my way into the passenger seat.

Bill suggests we fly over the Feather River Canyon scenic wilderness area which will be a 45 minute ride. I’m so excited I can barely contain myself.

Bill asks me to open the passenger door. He says it gets real hot while you’re waiting for the engine to warm up. The prop is blowing hot wind into the cockpit and Bill finally yells, “Okay, go ahead and shut the door.”

We taxi the runway and just before the airport gives way to a steep drop off, we are airborne. We’re climbing 2,000 feet per minute Bill explains.

I’m watching the pine trees shrink below us as my solar plexus registers the sudden elevation gain. I can already picture vistas off in the canyon country just eight miles away as the crow flies. I’m happy as a clam and I turn to see how happy Bill looks, but I’m sorely disappointed.

Not only does he not look happy, he looks downright worried as he taps urgently on one of the gauges on his instrument panel.

Let’s see, I thought…
“Oil Pressure”
I wonder why he’s tapping on the oil pressure gauge?

Bill reaches behind him, grabs a headset and radios in to Sacramento (a good 80 miles to our southeast). “We’re at an elevation of 2,000 feet and falling about a thousand feet per minute. It looks like we’re going to have to do a field jump.” I hear Bill say. What the heck, I wonder, is a field jump?

Bill shares what is happening:
“We have no oil pressure according to the gauge. So I’ve shut the engine down. You can still hear it because the wind is rotating the propellers, but if the gauge is correct, the engine will soon freeze up.”

The steady hum of the engine, as though it was right on cue, goes completely silent and in it’s place, just the sound of air as our plane plummets toward the earth.

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the oaks give way to the pines and fir trees at about the 1400 foot elevation. From Brownsville (1200 feet) down the live oaks are everywhere. As far as we can see, when we get within 30 feet of the ground, the oak forests will shred the plane and us like pencil shavings.

So now it’s time. Time for my life to play a final reel of memories before I die. The proverbial “life flashing before my eyes”. I am not afraid, which is odd in itself, but what puzzles me is my utter disappointment in the life flash. One, it is too rapid, two, it barely has any substance, and three, it feels like someone else’s life. Very anti-climactic!

Out the front window the oak trees are getting closer. At two thousand feet and falling at a thousand feet per minute, we don’t have long before impact.

At about 35 feet, just five feet above the oak canopy the strangest thing happens. Suddenly a field of grass appears. Bill screams, “I can’t get the landing gear down. There’s going to be a bump.” I would normally laugh at his understatement, but my disappointment over the diluted life-flash is making me very serious and not in the mood for laughter. Besides, it’s time to die now.

The plane hits the ground on its belly. We can feel the jolt bend the metal of the plane as it continues its fishtail plowing through 14 inches of earth for a very long time. Finally the plane comes to a rest in the middle of the field of grass. I quickly open the door, hop onto the ground and step off the skid.

“75 feet Bill!”, I shout with great pride in my measuring skills. Bill is hugging the two passengers from the back seat, and upon my arrival, thanks me vehemently for not freaking out.

Bill uses a device in the plane to radio his son Skip and after sitting on a fallen oak tree for thirty minutes in stunned silence under a blinding sun, Skip arrives in his SUV. We climb in, super happy to feel the vehicle’s wheels in touch with the earth. Every tiny bump feels like a blessing as we rumble out of the field and onto the smooth pavement.

(My Lesson: Near death experiences are not as glamorous as they make them out to be. And; especially so when you’re not going to die anyway.)

MY COUSIN CHUCK

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

ChuckChuck was my dad’s cousin’s son.

We were close to the same age. Chuck had many faults but mainly he was too brave.

One bright summer day, in the midst of our childhood, Chuck and I were riding our bikes down by the canal.

In the Central Valley of California, canals were necessary for the massive amount of irrigation used to water the 22,500 square miles of orchards, fields, and farmland. Each canal, made from concrete, was roughly 15 feet wide, six to eight feet deep and ran for (literally) miles.

They made great places to swim in the heat of the summer. But we weren’t out for swimming on this day. We were out for the ultimate bike ride.

The “Swift Canal”, so named by us boys for its rapid current (easily 28 miles per hour) was the closest to our house. As we pedaled up on the bank, Chuck spotted a dirt pile very close to the canal’s edge. It might have been a foot high and maybe three feet around, Chuck declared it the perfect jump for crossing the canal.

I had doubts. And while I was telling him why I didn’t think it would work, he was busy getting a good run for it.

Maybe the right speed, I mused, would make up for the ramp’s severe shortcomings.

Chuck hit that mound pedaling like a jackrabbit ahead of a prairie fire. He and his bike were launched far higher than I had imagined possible.

I watched the scene play out in slow motion as Chuck held steadfast to his bike and began his descent toward the other side of the canal. All evidence pointed to a successful landing, but with his front wheel skyward, his back wheel hit the cement wall of the canal in such a way as to bounce him off in the opposite direction. Straight up and backwards, I watched him hang in the air for just a split second above the middle of the canal before he and his bike went straight into the drink.

That’s when the panic set in. Two thousand “what ifs” trampled thru my brain like a herd of wild animals.

  • What if the current takes his bike?
  • What if the water’s moving so fast he can’t make it up to breathe?
  • What if he banged his head and passed out under water?
  • What if I have to jump in and save him?

None of the scenarios could prepare me for what was coming next. But just then I realized the 28 mph current might be sweeping him away. I hopped on my bike, racing along the canal looking for any sign of life.

Nothing. Just fast moving, dark green water. Where would I jump in?

When I saw hair come floating to the surface, I was seized by fear. But right behind hair, up came ears, then a sopping wet face, which turned to me and said, “Guess what I’m doing?”

I was pedaling as fast as I could go to stay even with the oddly floating head. “I’m riding my bike under the water!” Chuck yelled.

I had to laugh.

(My Lesson: We can imagine things way worse than they actually are. Better to use our imagination for the power of good. And; it is so hard to pedal 28 mph unless you’re being helped by the current.)

 

PYGME

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

PygmeMy grandpa, Ernest Earl Baker, retired from his work as an electrician for the railroad. Naturally the next step for a retired railroad electrician is to start up a pony ring. He bought a bunch of Shetland ponies and offered rides to kids in shopping center parking lots.

I got to know some of the ponies when I was seven. They had cool names like Spartan, King, Captain, and Joe-Jack. I’d ask them about their names and they would never, ever answer me. I figured there was a bit of a language barrier, what with them speaking Pony and me speaking English. They’d just stare at me with a calm, inquisitive look as they munched away on their barley and oats.

I never rode them because riding horses was not my cup of tea. Which is why I was surprised when Dad told me he’d gotten me a pony for my eighth birthday.

After I blew out my candles and we all had cake & ice cream he said, “Come outside, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

There he stood on the grass, with an unmistakable look of vicious wildness, trying desparatly to force his eyes open wider than their capacity.

I didn’t like the look of this one.

Dad said, “Hop on!”

I said,”What? Oh… no thanks. Maybe I’ll just pet him.” But inside I was saying, “Don’t pet him! Run away! Run away now!”

But then Dad insisted.
Dad had indicated on several instances that his insistence is not to be denied.

So I mounted the beast.

Dad said, “Ready?” and with every particle of my being I wanted to answer no, but that would just prolong my hellish dread, so I just said yeah.

Dad let go of his halter and Pygme forthwith bent his neck around backwards. I caught a glimpse of white teeth protruding beyond pink gums as he clamped into my leg with just over four thousand pounds of pressure.

Once he was positive I was in excruciating pain, he let go, did a wheelie and charged off out from under me, thundering off into the distance as I did a triple-gainer into the dirt.

I looked pitiful and Dad could see that now. So I was released from my obligation to pursue the joys of horseback riding.

(My Lesson: Intuition is always dead on. If you feel something is dangerous, run away. And; always remember ponies don’t speak English.)

SALLY

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

MeAndSally
In the fifth grade Dave Malone liked baseball. John Snyder liked hot-rods. And I liked Sally Howard.

But I didn’t know it until I heard whispered rumors that she liked me. In fact I didn’t even heed the rumors until I saw it written in pencil on the gym wall behind the bleachers. There was a big plus and on the top it read SH and on the bottom it read BB.

There was a period of confusion as I tried to decipher the glyph. I couldn’t tell if the initials were meant to be read vertically or horizontally. Maybe it meant SB + HB. Someone had to show me how it worked. Once I was sure it meant Sally Howard + Bobby Baker, I felt butterflies in my stomach.

Sally had golden brown hair, a sweet disposition, a warm, smiling face and a light smattering of strategically placed freckles. She sat across from me in Mrs. Austin’s class.

Dave Malone was far more excited than I was about the whole affair. Perhaps it was because he already had Bonnie as a girlfriend for quite some time. Maybe he knew about wonderful opportunities and benefits of having a girlfriend that I could not yet fathom. It was Dave who convinced me that I needed to invite Sally to the Swim Party coming up in two weeks.

I was somewhat confounded by his request since this was a school-wide event and certainly not “by invitation only”. Without ever saying it, Dave was trying to tell me I’d receive bonus points in the courting game if I went ahead and invited her as my guest. So I did it anyway. Seemed like sound advice, even if it still didn’t make total sense at the time.

I told Mom & Dad about the Swim Party and they said I was going to need a new swimsuit. Right on! Not only was I going to get to spend time with a pretty girl doing something I loved to do, but I was going to be doing it in a BRAND NEW SWIMSUIT! This felt awful good.

Both Mom & Dad accompanied me on my swimsuit quest. It was epic. I found a neon green and pink striped pair of trunks that looked like it was made from foam rubber. It was the weirdest (and therefore coolest) swimsuit in existence and Mom & Dad (possibly against their better judgement) got it for me.

The party came and went swimmingly except for the fact that girls apparently flock like birds at social gatherings. I therefore saw very little of Sally that day.

But I saw her the following Monday at school and she never looked so radiantly beautiful. We ate lunch together and that’s when she revealed that her father was our landlord.

We rented a house from Mr. Howard that was located smack-dab in the middle of a bunch of peach orchards. He was a peach grower and he was the first person I’d ever met who had polio. He walked with a limp and held a cane.

When I got home that afternoon, I was overcome by an intuitive desire to create something for Sally Howard. Sometimes desire, inspiration, and resources come at exactly the same time and I knew what I must create.

I grabbed an old piece of wood and a bunch of small nails and a scrap of metal. After nailing the scrap of metal to the wood, I used a larger nail to punch holes in the metal in the exact shape of her name. It looked right nice because the small nails had round heads which looked like rivets.

I wrapped it in fine paper with a lovely ribbon and set it aside for the proper time to present it. The proper time was that very Saturday.

She came by with her dad and while the adults talked about grown-up things, we took a walk thru the orchard.

There in the warm shade of the trees, the air sweet with the scent of peach, and Sally Howard holding my hand, I reached into my back pocket and gave her the gift. She opened it like a school of hungry Piranha. She took one glance at the apparatus, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me directly on the lips. It was the best feeling I ever had. We kept our lips together for an extraordinarily long time. Neither of us wanted the kiss to end.

One week later we moved 200 miles away. I never saw Sally Howard again. But I never forgot that look in her eyes right before we kissed.

(My Lesson: Don’t try to build a future with the object of your affection in order to assure more oncoming love. That always hurts when it doesn’t work out.
And; remember to feel love as often as you can while it’s right there “on the hoof”.)

EMBARRASSMENT

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

Gingerbreadman1
In the third grade our teacher was Mrs. Lee. I only remember that because the bigger kids called us Lee’s peas.

One day Mrs. Lee told us to bring a styrofoam meat tray to class the following day. Mom was weirded out by the request becuase meat is apparently dangerous if any residue from it is left on a surface. So we washed it thoroughly… three times.

I took it to school the next day, dying of curiosity about how it would be used. When Mrs. Lee told us we were going to make a gingerbread man, the response was luke warm. But after we got started, it became very enjoyable.

When we finished art, it was time to head for the bus to go home. I had a jumble of books and papers that I had to carry. They hadn’t invented book bags yet. I struggled trying to figure out where to put the gingerbread man. Finally I opted to hold it in front of my armload of books.

What the heck, I thought. Maybe someone will see it and admire its craftsmanship. I was proud of my work on it.

On the way to the bus, a girl from sixth grade said, “Oh isn’t that cute? Holding up his little gingerbread man for all to see.”

It was sarcasm in it’s most extreme. Spoken in a sing-song tone with emphasis on the “T” sound in the word “little.”

I was horrified. I tried to be mad at the injustice of the embarrassment, but she had called it like she saw it. And I was guilty as charged.

I got over it fairly quickly, but something told me sixth grade girls were not to be trusted.

(My Lesson: Sometimes people accuse us of doing things we are actually doing. It’s a lot easier to get over the embarrassment when the accusation is not false. And; sixth grade girls usually turn out all right after all.)

FRIED

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

FryingMe
I was about six years old.

I was up in the corner of the kitchen when I saw the kidnapper drag me in and hang me on a hook with a rope and pulley.

I watched him hoist me up and tie the rope off.

He took a knife and skinned me. I watched him cut me into small pieces throw them into a hot frying pan with plenty of oil and I saw my flesh and bones cook up like a porkchop.

When I woke up, I didn’t feel a thing. No fear or disgust or anything.

I was up in the corner of the room so I felt nothing with my body. I was clearly witnessing the crime rather than being a victim of it, so I was not emotionally alarmed either. It was just a curious scene happening in my presence.

(My Lesson: There are two different forms of consciousness in each of us: one who plays out the drama as an actor in a play who forgets he’s acting, and one who simply observes it all taking place. And; from the point of view of the observer, all is well.)