Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Warm Thanks

The other night, we came home to a cold house. The heater was supposed to be on, and the house was supposed 68 degrees, but it was only 60 degrees upstairs. Now, I know you people from Minnesota are laughing at me right now, but just bear with me. That’s cold for us Californians. Anyway, the thermostat appeared to be working, and it seemed to think that the heater was on, but it wasn't. I pushed it up to 75, and still nothing.

I announced to my wife that I would need to "go take a look at things" to which she rolled her eyes and groaned. She does that sometimes when I announce that I need to fix something. I never know why. Anyway, out I went to the circuit breaker panel and flipped the heater’s breaker back and forth. Nothing.

Unfortunately, that was all I had. I was out of ideas. Why hadn’t that worked? What now? Hmmm… There was one other thing I might be able to do. I could go look at the actual heater in the attic…

So, up the stairs I went, ladder in hand. My wife saw me with the ladder and immediately got that look in her eyes that you get when you see a sad-looking homeless dog shivering in the rain. It’s her “Marc is going up a ladder again,” look of pity. The look is always followed by her grabbing the phone and keeping her fingers poised over the 9-1-1 buttons. I pretended not to notice her lack of faith in me.

I set up the ladder under the access hatch, closed my eyes, tried to mentally block out all the previous ladder related falls, and then up into the attic I went. I made it up successfully, and flipped on the light. There it was. The beast, sitting docile, not making a sound. If you have never seen a forced-air heater in an attic, it resembles a large sheet metal box. There are no levers, no knobs, no digital readouts, and no hatches. There are, however, 200 wires that go in and out of the box from approximately 87 different places, but that’s it. There are absolutely no large buttons that said “reset” or "push here if the heater is not coming on when it's supposed to." Believe me, I looked. Those would have been helpful, but I guess heaters don’t have those. Since the act of staring at the heater had exhausted all of my HVAC repair knowledge, I was at a loss.

As I sat and stared at the unit some more, wondering what to do next, it rumbled to life. I had not touched a thing. I would like to believe that my superior mechanical troubleshooting skills were sensed by the unit, and deciding it was no match for me, it acquiesced, but who knows with this type of thing?

I contemplated my options. Now what? Do I take credit for this, or do I tell the truth? Since a lot of my fix-it projects end less than impressively, I could use a win. Most of the time, whatever I was trying to fix stays broken, and I end up inexorably damaging something else expensive in the process. So do I go down the ladder and score some serious man points? My wife knows far less about our heater than I do, meaning she is vaguely aware that we own one, and I happen to know a lot of impressive mechanical terms. I could march downstairs and announce that I have masterfully handled the repair. I had immediately recognized that the McGruder valve was sticking, the Johnson rod was off-center, and the dual-chamber mixing system was all out of whack. I took care of all that, and while I was up there, for good measure, I also recalibrated the framisator valve and oiled the falangee nut.

I could pull it off. I would look like a stud and she would brag about me. It felt wrong, though. Partially because my folks raised me not to lie, but more importantly, I had the distinct sense of foreboding that any claim of HVAC mastery would come back to bite me in the butt. I could picture being asked to take a look at one of our friend's heaters in the dead of winter, with their kids freezing in the house.

"The repair guy said it would be two days, but the baby is so cold he's looking a little blue."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll send Marc right over. He fixed our McGruder valve the other night in 30 seconds! I guarantee he'll have you warm again in no time!"
"Uh, honey... There's something I should to tell you."

After some quiet deliberation in the attic, morals and good judgment got the better of me, and I went downstairs to tell my wife that it was working again, and I had no idea why. She just said, “I’m glad you’re not hurt.”

Huh. I never know why she says stuff like that.

Anyway, my decision to go with the truth was validated big-time the next day when my wife called me to say it wasn't working again. If I had gone with the "I fixed it" charade, I would have been chastised for not doing an adequate job and expected to rush home and perform my magic again. Since I went the honest route, I was able to handle the situation with two simple words: “Call Al.”

It was Saturday, and Al the HVAC guy couldn’t be there until Monday, so we were going to be without heat for two days. They turned out to be the two coldest days so far this year, where the temperature got all the way down into the mid 40’s overnight. (Insert Minnesotan laugh track here). Luckily, our California home was built with a decorative fake fireplace in our living room. It’s the kind of fireplace that is supposed to be used pretty much only when you have guests over for the Christmas party. It is permanently behind glass, has ceramic log-like features, and you light it by flipping a wall switch. Basically, it’s an indoor gas barbeque with a window. We fired that baby up, and it somehow managed to keep the lower part of the house livable (by California standards) for the weekend. We bundled up with extra blankets at night, and made it through the frigid weekend by the skin of our teeth.

Al arrived two days later, and the moment he stepped in the door, the heater came on and worked normally. Al, being a professional, said the same thing I did. “I have no idea what’s wrong.” He poked around for a while and said he would order a part, just in case. I think it was the McGruder valve… just as I had suspected. Maybe I could be an HVAC guy after all.

Al and the mystery part won’t be back until after the Thanksgiving holiday, so we’re on our own for the big weekend. We have lots of family coming to stay with us, so we have our fingers crossed for the heater to keep magically working, but I’m a little worried. It quit again yesterday, with the forecast for last night at 25 degrees. In sheer panic mode we managed to get it running again by flipping some breakers back and forth. We were warm last night, but I get the feeling that McGruder valve isn’t going to last much longer.

If it doesn’t though, we’ll still be thankful for the fireplace.

And the walls.

And the roof.

And each other.

And if we happen to get cold and start feeling too sorry for ourselves, we’ll just pause and remember those American men and women who don’t get to be home with their families this year.

Our soldiers are out there, on foreign soil, without heat or A/C in climates far more harsh than anything we have in this country. Even in Minnesota. None of them get to kiss their kids goodnight tonight, or share a good meal with their parents tomorrow, and many of them don’t even have walls or a roof, either. I tend to think about things like that a little more during the holidays, and it helps me keep our little heater “problem” in perspective.

I really don’t have a worry in the world.

So to all our soldiers out there, from all of us here in our lukewarm house, we say, “Thanks.” When we count our blessings tomorrow, you’ll be at the top of the list of things we’re thankful for. God bless you all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyclical Failure

I think if I had to boil down the essence of American fatherhood into one scene or activity, it would be the day out in the street when the father, running behind the child’s bike, lets go of the seat and watches proudly as his child rides a two-wheeler for the first time without the training wheels.

I could picture the scene in my mind. I would be sitting in my red leather chair in my study, wearing my crushed velvet smoking jacket and ascot, reading a classic novel. My son would knock respectfully at the door, and ask to speak to me about his bicycle. Having inherited my incredible balance and agility through his DNA, he would instinctively know he was ready to go from four wheels to two. He would beg me to remove the training wheels and I would ask him, “Are you sure you’re ready?” in that really cool fatherly way, where I know he’s ready, but I want to instill in him a sense of measured restraint and responsibility for his own actions, so I ask the question anyway in a concerned, caring, thoughtful, and deep voice.

He says, “Yes!” excitedly, because he knows all about my concerned, thoughtful voice, so he knows that I know that he knows that he’s ready. I give him a wink. Without saying a word, the wink says, “You’re turning out to be a fine lad, and you’re making me proud.” That one wink says it all. It’s a wink he’ll remember and cherish for the rest of his life.

We bound out to the garage where he sees that I have already removed his training wheels the day before, because I’m such an intuitive, thoughtful, caring dad that I can see these things coming. He smiles from ear to ear as he realizes how lucky he is to have me as his father. Out in the street, I run behind him holding the back of the seat for a few minutes, and then, using my innate dad skills, I recognize the perfect time to let go, and he rides off on his own, in a glorious display of two-wheeled balance and agility. I stand in the middle of the street beaming with pride as the neighbors erupt in applause for my son’s new achievement and for my superior dadliness.

That didn’t happen.

For starters, I don’t have a study, an ascot, or a son who knocks respectfully on anything, let alone a door. My wife and I have three boys, and crashing through doors head-first is about as restrained as they get. Anyway, my oldest son, Number One, as we refer to him, is about to turn six years old. I felt that it was about time he learned how to ride a two-wheeler, even though he had absolutely no interest in doing so. His younger brother, Number Two, is four and a half. He had plenty of interest in learning to ride a two-wheeler, but a distinct lack of balance, grace, agility, and good sense. He does have, however, a heaping helping of persistence.

I asked Number One to try.
He said, “No thanks.”
I told him we were going to take his training wheels off and give it a shot.
He cried.
A half-hour later I finally convinced him it would be a good idea, and he said, “OK.”

I tried to hold his seat.
He fell over.
I tried to hold his shoulders.
He fell over.
I tried to hold the handle bars.
He ran over my foot. Then he fell over.
He said he was finished.
I said, “OK.”

I limped back to the garage.
Number Two announced that he was ready to give it a spin.
I iced my foot.
He begged.
I said, “Maybe later.”
He pleaded.
I said, “OK.”

I took the training wheels off of Number Two’s bike and out to the street we went.

I tried to hold his seat.
He fell over.
I tried to hold his shoulders.
He fell over.
I tried to hold the handle bars.
We ran into a parked car.
He asked me to stop helping him.

Number One looked at me and said, “Dad, you’re really bad at that. You dropped me every time, and you ran him into a car.”

I had no argument in my favor. Now, in my defense, they were completely leaning to one side, not pedaling, not steering, not helping in any way, but the end result was, in fact, that I had ran Number Two into a car. The results speak for themselves.

I gave up and went inside. Number One went back to playing tether ball, but Number Two was not to be deterred. He decided that if his dad couldn’t help him, he would just have to figure it out on his own. For the next three days, every opportunity he had, he was out on his bike without training wheels, trying to learn to ride. Occasionally I would offer helpful advice, and he would give me a perfunctory “OK, Daddy” that really meant, “I’ll take it from here, old man. You may go now.”

When I returned home from work the next day, I was greeted by a positively beaming Number Two, who was tearing up and down the street on two wheels. He had done it. And, he had done it all by himself! I found myself more proud of him than if I had helped. He had overcome the giant hurdle of a useless coach and won the game on his own. He was truly an all-star.

He was also very, very aware of the fact that he could now ride a two-wheeler and his older brother couldn’t. So aware of that situation that I began to question his true motives. Had he done it so that he could accomplish a personal goal, or had he done it to stick it in his brother’s face? Hmmm.

The answer began to clear up at dinner that night. Our boys know that bragging is forbidden at our house, but, if you don’t mind me saying, they’re smarter than average in my opinion. My four-and-a-half-year-old knows that stating facts is not necessarily forbidden, so he decided to make some observations.

“Hey, Dad.”
“I’m four and a half.”
“Did you like how I rode my two-wheeler today?”
“Yes I did. I was very impressed.”
“Hey, Dad.”
“He’s almost six.”
“I know that.”
“I like riding my two-wheeler.”
“That’s enough.”

Can you guess who asked me to remove his training wheels that night? Two days later, Number One was back on top, no longer the kid whose younger brother could out-ride him.

I set out to teach my boys how to ride a bike. Three days later they had learned absolutely nothing from me, but I had learned a valuable lesson from them. Sibling rivalry is going to be a wonderful tool for me. It’s way more effective than anything I can say. Number Three doesn’t stand a chance!

As Number Two zoomed up to me that evening on his super-cool green motocross bike, I gave him the knowing wink. That one wink that says it all.

He just stared at me blankly. Oh, well.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Hero's Scrambled Eggs

My older sisters and I grew up eating a hero’s breakfast, only none of us knew it at the time – not even the cook himself.

On special occasions, my dad would cook us breakfast. His normal household duties did not include meal preparation, and for that, we were all grateful. (Just kidding, Dad.) His go-to morning meal was something he called “Van Inwegen’s Special.” With a last name like Schmatjen, it’s almost impossible that we would be eating something called “Smith’s Homefry Special,” or “Johnson’s Grits.” We go in for the weird names.

Van Inwegen’s is a skillet-type affair consisting of scrambled eggs mixed with ham, potatoes, cheese, and assorted vegetables. It’s heavenly.

My dad learned how to prepare this enticing dish while in the Air Force. He was stationed with Earl Van Inwegen, and in their spare time, these steely-eyed missile men did what all tough-as-nails, ice-in-their-veins fighter pilots do when they’re not going Mach-2 with their hair on fire – they traded recipes. I’m not sure what Captain Schmatjen had to offer as a trade, but Van Inwegen’s sure was good!

Years later, my dad was reading Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography, and came across the story of a hero. Early in the Vietnam War, Schwarzkopf was the commander at a forward fire-base called Duc Co, with American and South Vietnamese troops. They had taken heavy casualties, they were surrounded, and no one they could raise on the radio was willing to come help them. They could not care for their wounded, and the situation was looking grim.

The following is the passage from the book:

We were surrounded. In the space of two days, more than forty paratroopers had died and at least twice that number were seriously wounded. We radioed Pleiku and asked for medevac. “We’re sorry,” the response came back, “we can’t fly out there. Too risky.” Duc Co was in a basin, and airplanes trying to land had to come in over a high ridge where the enemy was dug in. But an Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Earl S. Van Eiweegen, heard about us that night in a Saigon bar and volunteered for the job. The next morning we carried our wounded on stretchers to the airstrip and waited.

The instant his two-engine C-123 turboprop appeared, the enemy opened fire. I didn’t think Van Eiweegen and his three-man crew would make it. By the time the airplane touched down, it had been shot full of holes and was leaking hydraulic fluid from three or four places. The crew tried to lower the tail ramp, but it wouldn’t go down. So we loaded the men on stretchers through the doors on both sides of the airplane as Van Eiweegen kept the props turning. Meanwhile the airstrip came under mortar attack. More people were hurt, and we threw them on the airplane, too. Van Eiweegen sat in the cockpit with his copilot, waiting patiently until I gave the signal. Then he turned the airplane around and took off over the same ridge, getting shot up some more. Even though the plane was seriously damaged, he bypassed Pleiku and took the wounded straight to Saigon, where he knew they’d receive more sophisticated care. His flight was the most heroic act I’d ever seen.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
The Autobiography
It Doesn’t Take a Hero

You may have noted the slightly creative spelling of Earl’s name in the General’s book. All I can say about that is, in an article by Schmatjen, citing a book by Schwarzkopf, in the passage about Van Inwegen, someone’s name is getting misspelled! I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat. My dad joked that when he flew with Earl, they were the only self-encrypted air crew. No Russian radio officer would ever believe Schmatjen and Van Inwegen were their real names.

All spelling aside, when Norman Schwarzkopf says your flight was the most heroic act he’d ever seen, that’s really saying something!

My dad was surprised to read about his old friend in Schwarzkopf’s book. Not surprised because of the heroism, but because it was the first time he had heard the story. He was stationed with Earl Van Inwegen AFTER this had happened, and in all their time together, he had never mentioned it, even in passing.

The internal fortitude, courage, and selfless sense of duty that makes a man like Earl volunteer for a mission like that - and complete that mission in such a manner - is the stuff that made this country great. You will find that stuff, more often than not, in our nation’s veterans.

They call it by different names – duty, honor, service, commitment. I call it heroism. And I’m more grateful for it than I will ever be able to show them.

So on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, when we take time to honor our nation’s veterans, remember the story of Earl’s flight to Duc Co. And remember that he volunteered to go get those men. I know General Schwarzkopf won’t ever forget that, and neither will I.

That kind of quiet, humble heroism is indicative of our nation’s finest men and women, who volunteer to serve, and who deserve our utmost gratitude and respect.

Thank you all for your service, and God bless every one of you.

And thanks for the recipe, too, Earl. Those eggs are delicious!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Rat's Tale

Halloween has come and gone, and you probably heard some scary stories. But I’ll guarantee I have one that tops anything you’ve ever heard. Bold claim, you say? Well, read on, my friend, and know that this story is only scary because it’s 100% true.

It was a day like any other day. I was at the office, and heading into the men’s room to take care of some important corporate business. We have a small office, and the bathrooms are “one-holers.” As I stepped through the doorway and flipped on the light, I caught some movement out of the corner of my left eye. I looked down mid-stride, and just milliseconds after my left foot hit the floor, a large, black rat coming at a dead run out from under the cabinet ran directly over the top of my shoe.

Every muscle in my body reacted at once, and while emitting an involuntary, yet very manly, high-pitched yelp of surprise, I recoiled in an impressive reverse long-jump back out of the bathroom. Carl Lewis would have been proud. My right hand was still on the door handle, and the door slammed shut as I vaulted backward to safety.

Our bathrooms are located in a small alcove that connects our offices to our manufacturing shop area. There is a men’s room and a ladies’ room side-by-side on one wall. There is an open breezeway-type door into the offices on the adjacent wall, and a door out to the shop opposite the breezeway.

My extremely masculine exclamation of surprise combined with my acrobatics in the alcove brought two of the salesmen over to see what all the fuss was about. I explained that I had just inadvertently trapped Goliath, the killer rat in the men’s room, and he now needed to be extracted.

We went out to the shop and enlisted John, the shop foreman, to help with the rodent removal. Being steely-eyed men of action, we quickly devised a simple plan. The two salesmen would man a large piece of cardboard in the breezeway, to keep Jumbo from getting into the office and wreaking havoc. John would hold the shop door open, and I would steady my nerves and go back in to the restroom and drive the beast out.

In I went, ready for anything. Our two bathrooms are very simple, consisting of one toilet, one wall-mounted sink, and one short, moveable cabinet on wheels. He was nowhere in sight, so I knew he was back where he had started, under the cabinet. I grabbed the long-handled plunger and gave the side of the cabinet a solid whack. Out came Jabba-the-Rat, bigger than I had remembered, and brandishing long, sharp teeth. He saw that I had a weapon, however, so he made his escape out the door of the men’s room and into the alcove. To his left was a solid wall of cardboard. To his right, an open door to safety. So, naturally, he made a hard right, and ran directly into the ladies’ room.

John, thinking fast, slammed the ladies’ room door shut. We had successfully herded an enormous rat from one bathroom to another. We had a few laughs as we contemplated ending our quest there. The potential ramifications of that decision, however, seemed more dire in the end than another encounter with the beast, so we forged ahead.

We went with our same simple plan, but with one change. We closed the other bathroom door this time. In I went, armed with my plunger of death, ready to do battle with a scared and angry Frankenrat. The ladies’ room is laid out in a mirror image of the men’s room, with the same sparse furnishings. He was not scurrying around on the floor, so he was obviously back in his favorite (and only) hiding place, under the rolling cabinet. I gave it a whack. Nothing. Another whack. Nothing. With nerves of tempered steel, I rolled the cabinet away from the wall, plunger raised, poised to bludgeon the largest rat in the world.

He was not under the cabinet. He was not in the cabinet drawers. He was not behind the toilet tank, which was the only other possible place to hide, if it was even remotely possible that at twelve pound rat could fit in a half-inch space. He was not in the bathroom. Four sets of eyes had seen him enter, yet he had vanished.

Although no one could truly envision it, we all knew there was one other possibility of escape from the bathroom. The very reason for the bathroom does indeed have a hole that goes to the outside world. As we all shook our heads in denial of the only remaining scenario, I walked over and peered into the toilet. There, sitting at the bottom of the bowl, perfectly visible against the stark white porcelain background, was a single, solitary rat poop.

I laughed a nervous, half-scared laugh. The others crowded into the bathroom to gaze into the toilet. They laughed the same shaky laugh of doom. The rat had been in the toilet. Now it was not in the toilet. There are only two ways out of a toilet, and we knew he hadn’t come out the easy way. None of us could really wrap our heads around it. We are intelligent men, and facts are facts, but this was too ominous to fathom. After some thought, it was clear. There was just one thing to do… Flush.

I hit the lever, and we watched the tiny rat poop swirl away. John was the first to speak.

“He’ll probably pop out of the men’s toilet.”

We all looked at each other. Naw. No way! But we had just come to the half-hearted conclusion that the giant rat had gone down a toilet. Why couldn’t it come up? After all, the two toilets were in essence back-to-back on either side of a common wall, sharing a common sewer pipe.

We hustled out of the ladies’ room and I flung the men’s room door open just in time to witness a huge, jet-black, soaking-wet, mad, scared, holy terror of a rat rocket two feet into the air, straight out of the men’s toilet bowl.

I stood frozen in the doorway as he landed back in the water with a sickening splash. He scratched and clawed out two full circular laps around the inside of the toilet bowl until he had enough speed to launch himself out onto the floor

When the dripping wet rat hit the linoleum, all hell broke loose.

I jumped/fell/careened backward out of the doorway waving my plunger in a desperate attempt to fend off the evil beast. He came out through the doorway, and made another hard right turn past the scrambling salesmen who were yelling incoherent epithets and making a desperate attempt to hurl themselves through the breezeway and back into the office. The hell-rat appeared to be trying to make his way back into the ladies’ room, but unfortunately for both of them, John was standing in the way.

The soaked rat was heading straight for John’s right leg. With his leg now being controlled by the primal instinct that is hard-wired into the back of man’s brain, John kicked out, hard and fast. His steel-toed boot caught the freakishly oversized escaped lab rat square in the face, lifting him off the ground and sending him flying across the alcove, slamming into the opposite wall three feet off the floor, leaving a wet, smudgy rat silhouette on the sheetrock. He hit the wall hard and fell to the linoleum… not the least bit fazed.

Up he came with a wild, crazed look in his eye, still running, this time toward the closed shop door. I let the plunger come crashing down toward him in a tomahawk fashion, missing him by mere inches, and leaving a two-foot-long black rubber streak on the door that we would later not be able to remove. The mange-ridden beast made a wild, slippery u-turn and picked up speed heading straight at the breezeway. The second salesman had just rolled onto the carpet, free of the doorway, when Lucifer, the New York sewer rat scrambled through the breezeway behind them and made his way unfettered into the office.

John and I gave chase, as the salesmen scrambled to their feet. As we poured into the office area, we caught sight of our quarry, but Ratzilla was moving quickly. The enormous rat from the bowels of Hades was now twice as fast and agile on the claw-friendly office Berber carpet. He made a right turn into the engineering department, and in a really personally offensive move, disappeared behind MY desk.

That was the last we ever saw of him.

We searched behind every desk, cabinet, workstation, and credenza in the entire department and never again laid eyes on the wet, slimy, massive, bulletproof, degenerate, mean-spirited rodent from hell. We have no idea where he went.

If Houdini did something we don’t know about that angered God, I’ll guarantee He sent him back to earth as a big, black rat. He had vanished into thin air only three minutes after I had first set eyes on him while entering the bathroom to use the facilities.

Funny thing, though. I didn’t have the urge to go to the bathroom again for a whole week!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
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