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The Pickup Criterion (2 of 2)

(Today’s post is part two of a two-part story. Part one is here.)

When we left Ken’s house, he leisurely drove us…directly to a supermarket. Although it was one I had seen before from the road, I had never been inside. Honestly, I never really even paid attention to it. It was kind of an upscale place on the edge of one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a smoker over on one side of the building. I pointed and said, “Hey! That looks like one of your smokers.”

It was a big, black and rusty metal, barrel-looking thing, welded onto a trailer frame, with a smokestack and a metal wraparound frame on top so you could cover it with an awning.

He said simply, “Yeah.”

When we parked and got out, Ken stood for a moment and looked around, like he was thinking about something. It was a lovely evening out, pleasant and warm. About 100 yards from where we were standing was the community’s city hall, police department and fire station. Two firemen were standing over a grill out in front of their station, flipping burgers, visiting casually.

I followed Ken into the market like an obedient dog—directly to the meats. He found the department manager and chatted him up for a minute, asking him a few questions about some mutual acquaintance of theirs. The manager said, “Well, he isn’t here right now. And, tell ya the truth, I haven’t seen him around in a while.”

Ken thanked him and said goodbye, then turned to me as we were walking out and kind of half-whispered, “That’s all I had to hear.”

As we climbed back into my truck, I said, “Sorry we missed your friend.”

He popped it into Reverse and said, “Not me,” as he backed us up directly to the smoker. He got it close and left it running. I joined him, a little disoriented, as he got out and slipped to the back of the truck. He grinned broadly as he set down his toolbox. “Looks like I guessed right on the hitch.”

I was confused. “Uh…What exactly are we doing here?”

“You were right. This is my smoker. But the guy who was smoking meat here hasn’t paid me for more than six months. He hasn’t been returning my calls, and he’s never here when I come to check up on him.” Gesturing toward the market, he continued, “I’m betting he probably owes them money, too, which means they’re gonna want to hang on to my smoker until they can get their money. But we’re not gonna let that happen…right?”

“Right?” I whispered weakly.

A Master lock was on the smoker. Because I’m an idiot, I asked, “Do you have the key?”

He opened his toolbox and said, “Sort of,” and produced a hammer. (It turns out there were maybe five things in that toolbox. I imagined it to also contain a single credit card—for jimmying a door lock—a slim jim, and probably a firearm. Maybe a Taser or a hand grenade.) Motioning his head toward the firemen, he said, “Kind of keep an eye on those guys for me, would ya?” And he went to work.

Did you ever see that old commercial on TV where they shoot through the center of a Master lock with a rifle, and it just stays locked? Let me tell you: That’s a preposterous scenario. The center’s not where the latch is. Here’s the precise moment I realized that fact…

Ken lopped up the side of the lock with a hammer. Whang!!! Nothing. Again, harder. WHANG!!! I peed. (But just a little, not so much that you’d notice).

He hit it again and again, louder and louder each time. He looked up at me with a big grin. “Man, this is a tough one!”

“So I guess you’ve, uh…done this before?” I whispered.

“I’ve had a lot of smokers over the years,” he said—as though that passed for some kind of answer—and he took another swing. And that was the one that snapped the lock. He kicked the chocks out from under the tires, attached it quickly to the hitch, and we were off. About seven hours’ worth of terror for me elapsed in less than two minutes.

When we were a few miles from the market and it was clear we had made not just a clean getaway—but more like pristine one—it was Ken who finally broke the awkward silence. “Does it smell like pee in here?”

Not exactly answering, I offered, “You know what? It’s such a nice night, we should roll down the windows.”

I had just taken part in my first repo job. I knew I was in the family now, and all that that implied. Once you’re in the family, you can never get out. The only way I was ever leaving that engagement or my impending nuptials was in a body bag.

(Today’s post is part two of a two-part story. Part one is here.)

How did YOU know you were “in” with your in-laws? Was it a rite of passage? Or just something boring like a wedding? Did you honestly think that your adorable little padlock would protect your stuff? (That’s so cute.)

The Pickup Criterion

(Today’s post is part one of a two-part story. Part two is here.)

When Kendra and I first met, I was 19 years old, and she was 16. We dated for two and half years before marrying in 1991. (I used to like to tell people we had to get married ‘cause she got me in trouble—never mind that our first child would not arrive for six more years.) I had a GMC S-15 pickup, with an extended bed and a big V-6, which was an important criterion her dad was looking for in a potential mate for his eldest daughter. Evidently he had a lot of items that required towing and hauling, so a nice, sensible boy with a truck (and of course good parents) was just the ticket.

When I was younger, my mom had given me the excellent advice that when you’re considering seriously dating someone, a girl you think you might marry, you need to get to know her family intimately well. Because if she’s close to her family, you’re not just marrying her, you’re marrying all of them. My family was of the opinion that you don’t want to marry someone who’s not close to their family. Now, just to be clear, your mileage may vary. If your spouse’s family revels, for example, in getting hopped up on crack and moonshine and hunting endangered species with large, illegal artillery, probably it’s better if you guys maintain some healthy distance from those folks. (Just sayin’.) But my mom’s wisdom was spot-on for me.

I enjoyed hanging with Kendra’s family almost from the very start, from her mom’s perky exuberance and can-do attitude, to her dad’s viciously sarcastic sense of humor, to her tiny 8-year-old sister’s ability to plow through a dozen tacos in a single sitting—not unlike a commercial woodchipper, albeit one with long, blond hair and blue eyes. Kendra’s family and I were made for each other. And anyway, once I had fallen for Kendra, I had it baaaaad, and there was no turning back. Even so, I cannot lie: the fact that her dad owned at least four smokers and was himself an impresario of the occasional smoked meats extravaganza was a definite bonus.

I had already proposed to Kendra months earlier (as romantically as a clueless, inept 20-year-old boy knows how in an evening at the Olive Garden), and she had already foolishly accepted, when came what would become known to me as “the call.” Ken asked if I could come over and bring the truck. There was something he needed to go pick up. I said, “Of course.” And why wouldn’t I? (I had already made out with his firstborn, so it seemed a more than reasonable exchange.)

So I topped off the tank and headed over. ‘Cause that’s the type of sweet, innocent boy that I was in those days. When I arrived at the house, he had me park in the driveway as he shuffled around in the garage, looking for something. I innocently, dutifully obeyed and offered to help. “That’s okay. I’ve got it,” he said, as he came out carrying two trailer hitches and a toolbox.

He went to work attaching one of the hitches as I looked on, innocently. “So, what are we going to pick up?” I asked, rather innocently. He responded, perhaps not as innocently as would have made me most comfortable, “Oh, it’s a surprise.”

When he finished attaching one hitch after just a few minutes, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “We’re gonna take this other hitch, just in case. I’m not 100% sure the one I put on is the right size.” And he set the toolbox and the spare hitch on the floor in the cab. I started to climb in on the driver’s side, and he asked, “Hey, do you mind if I drive this time?” Of course I didn’t, so I tossed him the keys and walked around to the other side. And off we drove. Innocently.

(Today’s post is part one of a two-part story. Part two is here.)

If you’re married, what was your courtship like? What did you “bring to the party” that made you worthy of your beloved? How did you know they were “the one”? (Or “the two,” as my pastor is fond of saying.) Why do you think trailer hitches always have to be so flippin’ complicated?

Stop Sign Runner

You may not be aware of this, but sometimes people do foolish things when they’re kids. One of my best friends from childhood has a birthday coming up tomorrow, and as I was thinking about him this morning, I couldn’t help replaying in my mind some of the crazier things I let him talk me into over the years.

The area where we grew up in Oklahoma was wide open rural country. There could easily be a quarter mile or more between your house and your closest neighbor. While this made it awkward (and often unpleasant) when you required some neighborly favor such as to borrow a cup of sugar—especially on one of the 348 days of the year in Oklahoma when it’s either windy, freezing, raining, or blazing hot—certainly it also had its advantages. One of the greatest of these was that there was never much traffic around, even on the bigger roads. I can recall hours and hours of time I spent as a boy just riding my bike on major streets, for miles and miles, and very rarely seeing a car.

Of course I’m a parent myself now, and there’s no way I’d ever tolerate such nonsense. Whether it’s true that things actually are worse now than they were when I was a kid, or just that because of 24-hour news cycles and the Internet we’re more hyper-aware of kidnappings, assaults, and the occasional pelting of an innocent pedestrian with a watermelon thrown from a car, I have each of my kids outfitted with an elaborate homemade knockoff of Lojack. Furthermore, I’ve equipped each of them with great skills at screaming loudly and ferociously biting, kicking, scratching, pulling hair, gouging eyes, stomping toes, breaking fingers, racking, vomiting, urinating, and setting you on fire. (It’s what Jesus would do.) When I was a kid, I never thought about that stuff.

When a youngster comes of tender driving age, having so little traffic is a terrific perk. Back in the day, if your parents were cool, you had multiple opportunities to practice driving without all the accompanying anxiety that you were going to smash into somebody. Most of the roads had pretty level sides too, with lots of grass in the bar ditches on either side, so even if you had trouble keeping it centered, you weren’t gonna do too much damage.

Random Aside: When I was a little kid, I remember one of my dad’s buddy’s favorite “jokes” was: “You know why they call them ‘bar ditches’? ‘Cause that’s where you jump to when you see a ‘bar’ a-comin’!” “Bar” of course being a clever hillbilly rendition of the word “bear,” and thus the joke. Never mind that if an actual, live bear were to see you jump down into the ditch in front of him, it would in no way dissuade him from proceeding to maul and also subsequently eat you. Bad jokes often yield bad advice. Nevertheless, my dad’s buddy would laugh heartily each of the million and eight times I heard him tell it. But I digress…

Because of these optimal learning conditions, we country kids—most of us, anyway—became exceptional drivers. (An unfortunate side effect was that we also learned to speed at an early age, because everyone did and what did it matter, anyway? You weren’t going to hurt anybody but yourself because nobody else was around.) Another phenomenon resulting from minimal traffic is the magical stop sign “float.” When 99.98% of the time you arrive at an intersection with a 4-way stop and no other cars are present, one tends rather than to stop, more to slow to an appropriate speed and then to press gently on through. And out of this was born my genius friend’s magnificent combination scientific/philosophical discovery…

Johnny (not Johnny Davis, but Johnny Ward) figured out that when you’re driving in the country at night, you can see other people’s headlights coming from a great distance. Therefore, as you approach an intersection—say, two or three hundred feet out—it’s very easy to look both left and right and see if another car is headed your way. And if no one’s coming, you can “safely” gun it and just blast through the intersection, stop sign or no, at top speed. After he did this for a while, it further occurred to him that if a police officer happened to be sitting there in the dark waiting for the odd speeder or stop-sign-runner, he of course didn’t want to get caught. So his brilliant innovation was to turn off his headlights before blasting through. It was a stroke of genius that occurred at a magical time, and papers should have been written about it and presented at international conferences.

When he taught it to me and suggested I try it as well, I asked him what might happen were I to approach the same intersection from a direction perpendicular to the one in which he was traveling, and we both tried to blast through that same space simultaneously with our lights off. He tried to convince me that statistically the odds were in our favor. If you know me, you know my position on math. It’s not that numbers don’t impress me; it’s more so that I fear and loathe them.

Then he suggested that perhaps we work out an agreement where we only use the lights-out trick when we’re traveling on North-South roads, and not East-West. Again, those of you who know me know I can barely tell time on a clock with hands, let alone tell you what direction I’m going. So I practiced what I believe remains the best advice for teenagers to this very day: I abstained. Who (besides Johnny) knows what I was missing?

What were the craziest (like, most dangerous) things you did when you were a kid? Was there anything wild you wanted to try but didn’t and, looking back now, you regret? Why do you think that TV show “Real People” was canceled? It was great. (Plus, I had a super-crush on Sarah Purcell.)

Fast Food Napkins

As most of you probably know about me, I enjoy the occasional bacon cheeseburger—or pile of cheap tacos, or 18-inch long sub or chili dog, for that matter—just as much as the next guy. There’s an old saying, “You get what you pay for.” And most of the time, that’s true. But if you’re like me, a significant contributing factor to grabbing a quick bite at the drive-through is to fulfill a more basic need: I need some napkins.

Especially in my car. I try to keep a minimum of 300 fast food napkins in my car at all times, preferably stashed around in strategic places like the glove box, the center console, the storage bins in the doors, and if I’m really desperate, even some under the seats.

But it’s not just me. The Beautiful Kendra supports my habit, helping me hoard fast food napkins at our house like they’re going to prove more valuable than gold after the inevitable zombie apocalypse. (Anybody who’s seen Book of Eli knows that KFC wet wipes are a much better investment than any 401(k).) We have enough napkins to insulate a house—not a nice house, I’ll grant you. Occasionally when they start to get out of control, we’ll have these cycles where we use them at every meal. That seems a simpler solution than having to buy a bigger house.

I saw this article where this woman kept a Happy Meal for a year and it didn’t decompose. (I don’t possess that level of self-control. It would be a minimum of three months before that thing would be safe from me.) While that kind of longevity is of course a fine selling point in any food or food-like product, I’d honestly rather still have some of the napkins a year later.

Maybe napkins aren’t your thing. Lots of “freebies” and “extras” are off the menu at fast food places. You just have to look for them. They’re usually hiding around the soft drink refills station. We used to keep piles of McDonald’s ketchup and Taco Bell salsa packets in our fridge for safekeeping. Not to mention the odd extra straw in the silverware drawer. I’ve walked out of Subway with what some might call a fistful of toothpicks before. I consider all of these treasures kind of like the swag you can get at conferences, only far more useful.

But it’s always the napkins that keep me coming back. Fast food napkins are the Swiss army knife of the inevitable car mess. I always seem to need them, whether it’s to sop up a spilled Route 44 Sonic Cherry Limeade with extra real cherries or my Jamba Juice Orange Dream Machine with sorbet instead of sherbet with an energy boost. I don’t know how many times a couple of spare napkins have saved me when I’ve spilled ketchup on my pants. Unfolding one or two and laying them across my lap like a makeshift paper table is a great option when I need to have a slice of pizza or a calzone on the go.  But now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I wouldn’t actually need them…if I didn’t always have so much food in my car. Hm. Food for thought.

What’s your favorite free swag from “restaurants”? What do you hoard? Do you ever eat on the go, or are you one of those Commie Pinkos who think people shouldn’t eat in their cars?

Armadillo Terminator

A number of years ago, my beautiful wife Kendra’s magnificent Aunt Fran was a recruiter for Hardin Simmons University, situated in majestic Abilene, Texas. Her own three sons having attended Hardin Simmons, Aunt Fran was the ideal woman to tell their story of superior educational opportunities.

Aunt Fran loved her job, mainly because she believed wholeheartedly in their mission and purpose. But, as with every vocation, there’s always a downside. In Aunt Fran’s case, it was all the driving. Her position required that she tool all over the great state of Texas (and to parts beyond) to spread Hardin Simmons’ good news. She had this teeny little car. (I believe it was an Isuzu Impreza or some such, but honestly, it could just as easily have been a Toyota or Mazda. The point is, it was small and efficient, and apparently a joy to drive.)

One day, Aunt Fran was blasting somewhere through the Texas panhandle, across a desolate no-man’s-land populated primarily by mesquite. Oh, and also small critters. As is typical of that region of the State That No One Should Mess With, she hadn’t seen another car for probably 30 minutes or more.

She was barreling around a long curve, pretty much at full bore, when suddenly she locked eyes with a desperate creature: A lone (star) armadillo was standing, dumbstruck, smack in the middle of her lane. She only had an instant—not really enough time to swerve. And even if she could have swerved, it would not be possible to ascertain whether the creature had been appropriately trained by its armadillo momma what exactly to do in such circumstances anyway.

(I suspect armadillo madre likely smoked a little “wacky weed” with special rolling papers from time to time—or at the very least engaged in some other miscreant behavior—having never had the good sense to teach her precious armadillito that it was sheer folly to stand in the middle of the highway in the first place. In fact, if my own life experiences with armadillos offer any indication, I find it highly unlikely she was even married to her offspring’s daddy. Not that I’m judging.)

But all of that is I suppose irrelevant. Whether it was mommy’s lack of parenting skills or his own stubborn rebellion which placed him in that most unfortunate situation, results are all that matters. And the immediate result was that Aunt Fran plowed right over him at circa 70 MPH—although honestly it’s impossible to know for certain her precise velocity at the time, as she was mercifully slamming on her brakes.

She came screeching to a halt. Slowly, with great sadness, she lifted her eyes to check his condition in her rearview mirror. What she saw was a little gray ball rolling for several moments in slow motion, until his body finally came to a full stop, limp, arrested there in the center of the highway. Saintly Aunt Fran sat panting, her heart still pounding within her chest, her eyes locked on the motionless crumpled heap. And then it moved.

It wiggled just a little at first. Then he fully unfolded, clearly bewildered, and began staggering drunkenly toward the side of the road. Her heart sank. He was wounded. He was suffering. And she felt responsible. So she did what any merciful human being with the love of Jesus fully alive in their heart would do:

She cranked that little car into reverse, threw her arm up on the passenger seat, turned so she could see out the back window, hammered the accelerator, and plowed clean over the top of him again, this time going backwards. It was the right thing to do, of course. It was pure mercy.

Wha-bam-FWUMP! Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump!

She screeched to a stop again and watched out the front windshield, waiting. Again he rolled. Again he fell limp and lay still. For much longer this time. And again he twitched. Again he unfolded. Again he began to stagger. Only this time more desperately. With greater conviction. Very likely wracking his tiny armadillo brain, thinking,

“My…God! Who IS she?!? What did I DO?!? She’s trying to KILL ME!”

Did he owe her money? Was she part of the Jackrabbit Mafia who controlled this region of the panhandle? Was she being initiated into a gang? “Why, God? Why?!?”

And of course Aunt Fran knew: “The poor little thing! He’s just going to suffer and suffer and drag himself off somewhere into the mesquite and die a horrible, painful, long death… Unless…
I can get to him first!”

CLUNK!–DRIVE–HAMMER DOWN–SKREEEEE!!!–SMOKE BILLOWING FROM THE FENDERWELLS

And she steamrolled right over him a third time, mashing the brakes once again as soon as she had cleared him…checking the rearview.

But this time was different. He made it! She caught him in the mirror clawing desperately into the brush. Apparently, he had escaped her murderous intent. Or so he thought…

She backed up to where she thought she had seen him leave the road, got out, and searched all around for him. She says it was because she just felt so bad for him, and she couldn’t bear the thought of him suffering. I don’t know what she was thinking she was going to do. I mean, did she have a baseball bat in the trunk or something? Was she planning to just finish him off?

I picture him crouching under a mesquite bush nearby, still able to see her, tucked just out of sight, panting, bleeding, sobbing softly, trying to keep quiet, thinking,

“Ohmygod-ohmygod-ohmygod! Please-please-please-please! Why? Whyyyyyyyy?”

Fortunately for both of them, Aunt Fran never found him. She got back into her little car and continued on. And the question that haunts her—haunts us all, really—it is in fact the question that drives us:

If Aunt Fran had run over him just the one time, would he have survived?

DISCLAIMER: This is a story told from memory, without first conducting my usual rigorous interview process, which I routinely use to maintain historical accuracy and veracity. For this reason, I reserve the right to one day revisit this topic for corrections. I’m actually going to see Aunt Fran today, so I’ll run it by her and see how she remembers it.

What’s the most vicious, pernicious animal you’ve ever attempted to off with your car? (Let’s assume they had it coming.) Have you ever been to the Texas panhandle? If so, for the love of God—why? How do you think armadillos have survived the Interstate onslaught?

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