All posts by Tom Carroll

Some people come into the world with a message for the rest of us. I learned this years ago, on a beautiful spring day in La Grande, my hometown. This was the day Ken Kesey came to town.

The story starts with my friend Mike complaining about the over-use of certain phrases, rendering them clichés. As it happened, the cliché in question was: “Don’t Drink The Kool-Aid.” The way I remember, this warning would never have surfaced had it not been for cult leader, Jim Jones’s, and the massacre he orchestrated. Stuff that doesn’t need retelling here.

Before this, anyone who said anything about Kool-Aid, and meant anything other than, well… Kool-Aid, was speaking wistfully of events recounted in Tom Wolfe’s book. Enter: THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, and, Ken Kesey. Mike and I had read the book as had all our friends. But, “All,” in this usage is a small number given that we lived in small-town Oregon where ordinarily there wouldn’t be many counter-culture types. But La Grande was home to Eastern Oregon College, now EOU as the school has been granted university status. So, add our small group at the High School to the College population where everyone had heard of Kesey’s novels. Now you have an audience. This was about the time that Kesey’s second novel had made it to the big screen and few there were that hadn’t seen Paul Newman’s performance in Sometimes A Great Notion.

Where’s this going? On a whim, Mike and I decided to call Kesey and invite him to town. Audacious. Yes, for a couple of seventeen-year-olds it was a bold idea. But with the idea floating right there in the air between us we knew we had to give it a try.

Fortunately, those were the days of dial type phone books and operator assistance. With a little help from each, we found a number for his family’s business – The Springfield Creamer, East of Eugene, OR. These were more trusting days. The woman who answered gave us Kesey’s home number. Dialing, a little dizzy now – we must have been holding our breath – Ken picked up the receiver, and presumptuous as we’d already been, we plowed past the awkwardness of two kids calling a nationally acclaimed author.

As some may remember, prior to his appearance in Tom Wolfe’s book, Kesey had already written, “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” in 1962 and, “Sometimes A Great Notion.” in 64. The second of the two has made it to the big screen first, in 1970, and few hadn’t seen Paul Newman’s performance as “…”Great Notions,” Hank Stamper. All this added to Wolfe’s recounting of the escapades of Kesey and friends – Kesey was a Rock Star.

Our request was simple enough; Would Ken Kesey drive himself over to La Grande and speak at the High School? My guess is that on that particular morning he was feeling more like a bored farmer than a celebrated author. Apparently, Kesey was ready for a vacation from cow milking, hay hauling and all the rest that went with life on the farm, the dairy operation that supplied milk for the creamery. We just happened to be the best excuse for a road trip he’d received that week. So, the long and short of it – we invited, and Kesey accepted.

So far, all was shaping up well. No rumblings of decent -Amazing! Well, actually, not so amazing. The problem was that neither Mike or I considered, or were considerate enough to ask permission. I was president of the student body, so arranging assemblies was a regular thing. We’d invited this guy we knew of, and thought we knew something about – invited him to say a few words.

Never mind that our guest speaker was none other than the spokesman for the “Merry Pranksters.” As such, an infamous counterculture hero – one of the decades most celebrated and vilified psychedelic evangelists. Yes, we forgot to ask anybody. Simply slipped our minds. No, wait – we were only 17! We had yet to grow minds.

So we forgot – conveniently forgot right up till the point where we had to tell, “The Principle” – Dale Wyatt, that he needed to cut us a check for $250.00 in favor of, “Ken who?” Dale may not have known who Kesey was. But he knew Mike and I and knew trouble when he saw two of its local representatives standing in his office. We must have said something like, “Paul Newman starred in the movie version of one of his books! Ya, Mr. Wyatt, Paul Newman!” Whatever.

It was spring, just before graduation. I think Dale just rolled his eyes and figured he’d be rid of us in two months. So why not just wait and see what we were really up to. Part of me still wants to believe that the man found us entertaining – a source of variety and amusement in his otherwise predictable world. But that’s just speculation, something I’ll never know. “So long Dale… Hope your next gig has been more fun than this last one!”

If I had a conscience, I’d feel a little sorry about it all. Whatever he’d known or suspected, we had set out to fool a nice guy. Think about it. It was 1971 and Dale’s job was the social and academic care and feeding of several hundred kids. At which time, there was that war in S.E. Asia, and a related one in most homes in America.

Add to this mix – with the release of about a dozen albums, the Beatles had just ripped serious holes in six thousand years of recorded history, then walked off stage leaving the Stones – Jagger & Co, to mop up any resistance. In Dale’s mind, if not in fact – he stood on the front line, defending civilization. Representing the opposition – Mike and I looked him in the eye with the straightest of faces, assuring him that Kesey was coming to talk about writing and, “You know, good literature and…” So Dale signed the check. Yes! So much for feeling bad long after it makes a bit of difference. Add to this, on the “Bad Ass” scale, Mallory and I were the minor-leagues compared to what Dale had dealt with in his time.

It was one of those days. Spring. Warm. Blue sky and not a cloud of doubt that all was well in our world. I was driving my dad’s jeep back from lunch at Nell’s, a local N’ & Out, burger place. Up N, and a left on 8th, climbing the hill by the Admin. Building with a right turn on to K Avenue put us directly across from the Eastern Oregon College Library. This was back before the University thing.

Anyway, glancing out the driver’s side window, I spot two guys sitting in a funky looking beige sedan. A Ford, a Dodge… an ugly car. But the guy behind the wheel was Kesey. I guess he and his pal were thinking that he’d been invited to speak at the college. Or maybe it was the first place they’d found that looked academic enough to be their destination. A better guess is they weren’t thinking. I have evidence for this last idea.

Braking fast and pulling to the curb, I was out the door with Mallory close behind – both of us loping across the street to make introductions. Kesey wasn’t exactly friendly. He wasn’t unfriendly either – just unimpressed.

Smoke from the joint the two of them had been passing drifted and curled out the window. Which brings us back to why he was sitting in a car a mile from the location of his big speaking engagement, looking totally unconcerned about his shabby car, his two new acquaintances or where he was supposed to be for the rest of his life. The joint between his thumb and forefinger – there’s my proof of the theory advanced in the previous paragraph.

Kesey looked at what was left of their smoke and glanced up at me. Apparently inviting, but he wasn’t he going to say the words. So I asked for a hit and passed it back to Mike. Big mistake. Two lung-fulls apiece was all it took for Mike and I to realize that before that moment, whatever we’d been rolling was closer to lawn clippings than a federally controlled substance.

Fortunately, the onset of effects took a few seconds. During which time we delivered directions, time and… that must have been about it. Mike and I drove away. Finding ourselves inside the high school building tried our best to figure out what was supposed to happen next.

let’s fast forward, because I don’t remember how we got through the next class and on to the assembly thing… the pledge of allegiance and an introduction. But I know it happened. Mike assures me it did.

Time passed, and the effects of the smoke began to dissipate. But there was still one more twist scheduled for our heads that day. After the preliminaries, Kesey took the stage and the microphone. Within the first few minutes, he’d also taken charge of the minds of everyone in the auditorium.

What did he say? I’ve got only the barest glimmer of a memory, and none of it translates well into English. I remember feeling that we’d all been dropped into the deep end and nobody seemed to have the sense to paddle to safety. Something shifted. By this time, Dale must have known that he’d made a mistake, a big one. Maybe something was shifting inside of him too.

Some people are very smart – smarter than the rest of us. More to my point; there are people who come into the world with a message for the rest of us. Kesey was no man’s fool, but his message wasn’t about being smart. It was not about being, “all you can be,” at least not in any conventional sense. Instead, it was about really being alive, and not being afraid to do whatever it took to figure out what that meant.

Comparing memories with others, it’s clear that we all heard something different. Just as everyone reading the previous paragraph interpreted it differently. The thing is, when a person who knows something about how big the human spirit really is – knows how far beyond conventional wisdom or perception – well, when somebody speaks from experience, whether you fully understand what they mean or not – it makes a difference. The shift.

Something happened on a beautiful spring day in La Grande. Kesey was the catalyst. What that was – how it may still be resonating in the heads and hearts of those who were present is impossible to specify. A blessing and curse – though in fact we’re doing and thinking pretty much the same things – we’re all convinced that we are different. Looking through a kaleidoscope, the patterns are ever changing. Stand back and see what’s in our hands? It’s just a kaleidoscope. The temptation to make distinctions ensures that we’ll never look at the same thing the same way.

We love it. We hate it. Still, few ever stop long enough to see the obvious. Those who do, say similar things. It’s all empty, incomprehensibly spacious, safe and infinitely peaceful. And one more thing, it’s funny. Too funny for words.






Here’s a story about The Fourth of July and a fireworks display from a perspective most people never have a chance to experience. A Pyro’s perspective – the close-up view.

Lakeview is forgettable, most people would say. A small town in Southern Oregon, Lakeview is isolated from the rest of the world by miles of lonely, two-lane highway and an ocean of sagebrush. Prospects seemed to change in 1955, the year Uranium was discovered nearby. Mining operations brought jobs and new residents. When the mine closed, people moved away, and Lakeview became forgettable again, by all but a few. I can never forget Lakeview. As a very young child, it was there that my imagination was ignited by fire on Independence Day.

No different than other small towns – like most of America in the 50’s – on the Fourth of July, Lakeview area residents came together for a picnic in the town park. After dark, cars load of with moms, dads, and the kids, packed into the local drive-in theater. With metal speaker boxes hanging from the car window, a couple of movies scrolled by while everyone waited for the main event – the fireworks show.

I was no more than four years old when following the films, I witnessed a column of purple fire rising into the night – a single hot burning comet attached to an aerial shell. These were words I did not know but would learn years later. The comets fire traced the path of the shell until the final moment – exploding with such beauty that this memory continues to burn the retina of my mind’s eye. Many years later, I ran a display fireworks business. When asked, I’ve always said that it was because of that purple comet.

Fireworks shows are shot year-round for a variety of occasions. Still, for those in the business, it’s all about the fourth. One day that makes it all profitable – or not. One long, very stressful day that doesn’t end with a grand finale, doesn’t end until all the equipment and gear is packed up and everyone arrives home safely. Still, along the way, there are moments that made the work and stress worthwhile.

On The 4th, I sent out crews of highly trained professionals, each loaded with all the fireworks and shooting gear needed to put on a show for towns around the area. It’s a wonder we never killed anyone. Yes, we were trained and had years of experience. But at heart, we were a bunch of overgrown kids, thrilled by all those fuses we’d soon lite – all the smoke, flame and concussion of shells lifting explosively from their mortars. It’s one of those experiences that defy explanation – a great big rush And you got paid to do it – usually. Once a year we did it for free. And gawd was it fun!

Early on the morning of the Forth, drivers converged from towns all around the area. After checking all the state and federal paperwork – being sure each lead pyro had a clipboard full, case after case of shells were transferred to a fleet of trucks and pickup beds.

Each truck displayed bright orange placards front back and sides – announcing that you were hauling 1.3G Explosives. Considering the time of year, and the day, those signs screamed, “FIREWORKS ON BOARD!” While on the road, the greatest danger our crews faced was other drivers staring at the signs – causing them to steer whatever they were driving right at us.

It was not uncommon for people to try to flag one of our drivers down, hoping that he would sell them something big. Something to toss into the BBQ and blow up everybody standing in the backyard. “Ya, Baby!”

Nice try, but not gonna happen.

After all the other crews were papered, packed and on the road, the storage bunker still sheltered forty, or twice that many cases of shells destined for Wallowa Lake or La Grande – sometimes both. As we often shot back to back – two shows, two nights in a row. Both with equal enthusiasm.

With no shame, I reserved these larger shows for myself and a group of friends. Members of this crew came from across the state. We had gathered for this single purpose for twenty years. Yes, we were friends, but we all knew it was about the powder. We were there to shoot shells!

These were the “free” ones. Throwing profit, and more in with the community fund – the result was a whopper show, far out-sizing any small towns budget. Civic organizers never understood. No matter, this was a worship offering – an attempt to satisfy the Deities. Well… maybe just our pyro lust. Never fully satisfied, we always wanted more!

Wallowa Lake is just outside of Joseph, Oregon. Glacier-carved, a lake surrounded by mountains, still snow-capped in July. Acting as a mirror – all that water again, a huge reflection pond, doubled the colorful effects displayed in the air. The setting could not have been more dramatic.

Heavy floating platforms roped together, gave us three thousand square feet of deck space. The lake, three-quarters of a mile wide at its northern end, provided the required safe distance from the crowd. These numbers exceeded specified requirements, giving us clearance for the largest shells on the market, measuring sixteen inches in diameter. Forgive the cliché, but if ever it was true – where fireworks are concerned, size matters.

Sadly, Oregon’s fire prevention authorities had pledged that we would never enjoy the ultimate thrill. True to bureaucratic small-mindedness – without regard for statutes or their own rules, year after year, our permits were limited to twelve-inch shells. They just never got it. And as concerns the big one – neither did we.

Forget the sixteens, and no one makes a fourteen. Still, a twelve-inch shell is nothing to sniff at. Particularly, the right ones, made by gifted Taiwanese craftsmen. Hard-breaking beauties, each a masterful composition full of high color saturation stars. And when called for, the longest duration glitter tails I’ve ever seen. Perfect over water.

After arriving at the lake and transferring all the equipment to the barge, we worked through the morning and afternoon, positioning, and securing the equipment. Racks holding hundreds of mortars – the tubes that contain the lift blast and direct the flight of the shells – all had to be braced and screwed to the decking. Nothing can be allowed to move when the show starts, and shells begin to fly.

With the equipment in place, shells were lowered individually into pipes of matching diameter. Depending on its location in a bank of racks, an individual shell might need a longer fuse. After adding extensions, these lengths of fast burning fuse, (quick-match), are draped and taped safely around the mouths of the other mortars, bringing each end to the front where it is securing taped to the lip of the rack.

A fuse running over the mouth of a mortar can result in a shell being jerked prematurely from its tube. Given the speed that everything is happening, in the middle of a show, a loose shell’s lift-charge is going to ignite at your feet. With nothing to contain the charge – comparatively little pressure – this is a usually not a big problem. Then again – it could ignite fuses hanging nearby, ruining a particular sequence. If luck is with you, this does not happen. When the shell itself ignites, there’s the same chance that other fuses will ignite. This loose shells, three to four-second time fuse already half burned as the shell rolls on the deck. Time left is best spent turning to look in some other direction. Exciting! Painful, when shell components whack you in the rear end.

Two rules can never be violated. The first being; Never expose any part of your body to the mouth of a loaded mortar – nothing that you are not prepared to live without. If everyone does what they’re supposed to do, “exciting,” is as bad as pyro ever suffers. A heads-up crew watches other crew members and takes sophomoric delight in busting each other – even when there’s no way to avoid the infraction. It’s irritating. It saves lives.

In this way and others, by late afternoon I’d offended every crew member. It was part of the ritual – me telling and re-telling them things they already knew. My strategy was to repeat safety instructions until everyone was totally fed up – but highly aware and on point. Everyone executed their jobs flawlessly, and no one ever got hurt.

4 pm. If we were on schedule, three, four, five and six-inch racks full of loaded mortars ran the length of both sides, and down the middle of the barge. Shells and fusing secured – it was time to take a break to admire the set-up. It was time for an early dinner. Time to get back at me.

Dinner provided time for everyone to tell their funniest, “Tom’s an Idiot,” story. They had plenty of material to work with. Now we’re a tribe re-gathered. Bonded by years of similar experiences, we grinned at each other with nervous anticipation. All of us riding a river of adrenaline in anticipation of the semi-controlled madness soon to erupt around us.

The crowd, our audience had been building all day. Long before dark, the park had filled with thousands. Late-comers now lined the highway and rocky shore. Blankets, coolers, and kids filled every flat and almost flat spot for as far as we could see. This included the lawns of hill-side and waterfront homes. The concept of private property was ignored – trampled under-foot. And all with a remarkable minimum of in-civility. You made lots of new friends if you owned a house near that lake.

8 PM. Heavy ropes straining, a towboat eases us away from shore, beginning the slow trip to where we lowered anchors into that beautiful lake, as the days last light fades. Still, there are two hours to wait. Waiting for full dark to descend. We put the time to good use.

With our barge positioned and secure, we burn the time, re-checking every fuse and brace. This main barge holds muti-shot, tube clusters angled out over the water and the body of the show – shells up to six inches in diameter. We hand-lite everything with railroad fuzees. It’s safer to do it all with electric, now computer-controlled systems, but not nearly as fun.

But we were there for the rush – a proximity thrill. Meaning that, more than approximately, shooters stood next to the action. When you hand-fire a show, you’re standing in a shower of sparks and burning debris – nose to nose with towers of flame. Over and over, the body absorbs the shock, as lift powder ignites, accelerating each heavy cylinder to a couple’ hundred miles an hour in fractions of a second. Did I already tell you it was a rush?

Yung Feng shells – made by those Taiwan guys, these deserved particular attention, and that’s what we gave them. During the show, a deep, low-throated note signaled that one of these shells has lifted. This is a moment for the crew to stop everything and watch. In silence, eyes followed the orange glow of an ignition fuse tumbling, end over, as a shell rises to altitude. What happened next varied according to the specifics of the shell in the air. But it was always great – particularly if it was a Nishiki Kamuro. These were the ones we remembered and talked about later – and the year after that. I’ll explain a little more about them later.

The largest shells and a complement of all the other sizes were secured on a smaller floating deck, an eight by ten-foot platform dense-packed with mortar racks and stand-alone, steel guns – holdovers mortars from the bad old days when we shot everything from back-breaking, steel pipe. Over the course of twenty years, we got smart and fabricated lightweight paper – then, high-density, polyethylene mortars. But for anything with a diameter of eight or more inches, steel was still the material of choice.

Even this small barge was an impressive sight anyone who knew what they were seeing. With ropes attached, each heavy shell had been lifted to the lip of its temporary mortar home, and gently lowered into place before attaching the electric matches and insulated wiring that connected each shell to a radio-controlled firing panel. Comets fans and more muti-tube, finale boxes ringed racks of four and six-inch mortars – an assemblage of pyro pave’, linked to radio transmitter/receiver – each shot, just a button push away.

Initially tethered beside the main barge for loading, now the finale deck is towed farther out and secured to the lake bottom with cement anchors and couple hundred feet of rope. One of a thousand details – it was imperative that this platform could not twist with wind and waves. Cold air flowing from high mountain ridges usually calmed by our ten pm – our scheduled shoot time. But outflow from the lake created a slight but steady current. Placing anchors on the “high” side of the drift and waiting for the ropes to pull tight – we dropped a third anchor off the other end, pulled in most of the slack – most, not all.

On the calmest of nights, small waves caused the platform to sway gently. Anchor ropes pulled too tight could pull one end or the other underwater. Even with a sheriff’s patrol boat standing watch, one or two spectators watching from their boats could be counted on to dash us to get a last daring look at the “works.” More wave action – more strain on the anchors. One more chance that the small barge could drift out of line, leaving me blind to the control lights. Not fatal – but an additional stressor that I didn’t need.

Propelling a heavy shell to altitude requires a lot of black powder, creates a tremendous recoil. Tens and twelves were positioned as close to the middle as possible to prevent flipping the whole deck. More than once we watched as lift energy shoved the small barge completely underwater, leaving us staring helplessly – wondering if the electrical system would live to ignite the next shell. Amazingly, it always did.

By this time, all was secure as we could make it. Short of some unavoidable, but now, improbable event, the lights on the firing panel will be visible from anywhere I might stand on the deck of the main barge. Now I was ready to insert the key on the receiver side of the radio-controlled firing panel.

Panic! “Where are the Keys?” Somewhere among my many pockets. Pants, vest, cover-alls? Before leaving the house early in the morning, I carefully pocketed all the keys – even spares for the trucks. Right now, I needed one of two special keys – the one that armed the receiver out here on the finale barge. Where did I? What did I do with that key? Not a year went by that I did not experience a few moments of terror. Precious little keys among a mountain of gear. Each year at this critical time in the day – here I am again, wondering if I had dropped them somewhere between home and the middle of the lake? Madly searching – never for more than a few moments – but an agony. And there they were, safely inside a zipped pocket next to my pounding heart.

Inserting the key, I hold my breath and twist it to the first position, watching anxiously as one after the other, firing circuit lights blinks on. A failed indicator light would mean that a fragile wire or connector had been broken or pulled loose – easy to do when so much has been packed into a small space. Tracing the wiring would take time. Once again, I need not have worried – everyone had done their job well. All the firing lights are on. With a final twist, and the key locks into place. The receiver’s, Ready Light, a green LED begins to flash. Breathing again, I relax as Karl unties the mooring line and casts off.

The short trip back to the barge is one of the days bench-mark moments to savor. All the parts and all our people were ready and willing. We were about to pull it off again.

Nine pm. With float jackets squeezed under our coveralls and a fast-little boat manned and ready to pull anyone to safety, we were ready. Both ends of the barge were always left open, these being our escape route, and access to the fire extinguisher – that lake full of cold water.

Some bled off nervous energy walking up and down the rows of racks, looking for imperfections. Some stood quietly, looking at all the lights, indications of the activity on the shoreline – thousands of spectators equally anxious for the show to begin. All of us were repeatedly flicking glances at watches, willing the minutes to tick by.

Ten pm. With that one last look at my watch – the show begins. Rushes and single shells. Another rush followed by flights of two and three. Working our way up and down the rows of mortars – fast burning fuses flashing – shells lifting – surrounded by a fiery hot rain, concussion and dazzling light. Time means little with so much adrenaline surging through the body. We are transported. We are fire dancers in Carhartt’s and heavy boots – a ballet for daemons.

As the last flights of shells lifted from the main barge, it was time for the finale. Reaching for the transmitter, I prayed, once again that it’s key – the second of two – hadn’t fallen out or the transmitter in the middle of all the mayhem. Thankfully, it’s there. Twisting this key to final arming position, a finger poised above firing switches… But wait! We need to revisit the whole sixteen-inch shell thing.

Those really big shells – the ones that got away? We doubled our finale shots, beginning with two eight-inch Kamuro’s. 8 + 8, there’s our 16! Following these, came the last of our ten-inch shells – a single Yung Feng Chrysanthemum, gigantic ruby-red flower. Bureaucrats – you can’t fire them, but you can screw’m with the math. 12 + 12 = 24! Surrounded by flights of four, six and eight-inch shells, stood two large diameter mortars, each holding Nishiki Kamuro’s. Both Twelve inch. Add pre-fused, finale boxes and a-hundred salutes – a very respectable finale shot.

With a successive push of buttons, their away. First, the eights framed by multi-tubed, finale boxes. Next, the Ten preceded by flights of smaller shells. And with a flick of a switch, the twelves lifted with a roar. Beginning a long ascent – they gracefully arched away from each other before a perfect, simultaneous break. When shells of this size perform at altitude, time goes side-ways again, as burning glitter stars spread to some eminence diameter in apparent slow-motion, the effect caused by the altitude – the unusual height of the shell break. There’s one last button to press, causing salutes to rise and hammer the sky somewhere near the mid-point of Kamuro sparkling glitter.

Yung Fang Kamuro’s are special. Their primary components being huge, long duration, glitter comets. After the initial break, they develop into spherical perfection – the canopy. No gaps, no ragged, deformed edges before beginning an equally, slow motion decent. The glitter composition, microscopically porous charcoal infused with chemical mysteries, continues to burn – near weightless, particles hang in the sky motionless to the eye, as the comet bodies descend, an umbrella now, still perfectly uniform – hundreds of feet in diameter – glittering, drifting to earth. Each thick, fiery tendril still vibrant and full, from top to bottom. As this performance ends, a single, remaining ring of stars winks out simultaneously, only to reappear – a red flash a few feet above the surface of the lake.

Two gigantic shells accompanied the salutes – heavy concussions. Just before the last, mesmerizing moments of Kamuro glitter, and It’s over.

Totally K-I-C-K Ass!

Embers, smoldering bits of paper littered the deck as hot mortars continue to smoke. Occasionally, a shell, having failed to fire but still hot, will lift with no warning. Nobody wanted to be near when that happened so we’d all sit somewhere out of the way, mixing the last of the adrenaline sloshing through our systems with cold drinks and cigarettes – whether you were a smoker or not. Nothing could have felt more satisfying.

The towboat guy took his time, slowly guiding the barge to shore as we floated our way back down from pyro heaven. Nobody stayed up there – no one was hurt. Ever. That’s the perfect part.

At some point the father of a kid who had seen one of our shows related how his boy reacted to a particularly lovely finale shell that we’d shot during some other show. “He fell over backward with his mouth hanging open when that thing went off, his dad said. As the man continued to tell the story I could see the boy in my mind – leaning and leaning farther, brilliant stars spread as only they can from a really big shell, ever wider until they’ve filled your field of vision. Finally, his dad told me, gravity caught up with his bo, and the kid fell over backward – though never for a moment breaking focus with that huge ball of fire. “All he said was, “Wow!”

His dad and I smiled – thinking of his boy and remembering our own, “Wow” moments. Recalling a particular purple comet – I’m pretty sure I know exactly how that kid felt.

Tom Carroll. July/2010




My friend Bryant and I were talking last night, trading Facebook posts which is often the closest thing to conversation nowadays. He’s posted a clip of a Big Bad, Brazilian rodeo bull, named, The Bandit, an animal nobody had ridden successfully. Bryant has this stuff in his blood – rodeos, bull riding. I knew little about the sport, other than the obvious – that it’s a dangerous thing to do. Bull riding in general – a ride on the back of The Bandit, in particular. Bryant agreed.

“Ya,” I say, “but if it weren’t for the dangerous part, they wouldn’t have as big a payday when things go right.”

Bryant says, “Those guys aren’t making that much compared to the docs putting them back together.”

He’s got a point – a big one. But he’s also stimulated a memory. I remembered that I’d heard about all this before – from someone who knew the story from both sides of a bull – the top and bottom.

I met Jody Tatone in Pendleton, Oregon. For those who don’t know the place, think, Pendleton wool – their blankets and shirts. Then there’s Pendleton whiskey and a hundred years of big-time rodeo!

Tatone, it turned out was an aspiring attorney and professional bull rider. An odd mix, but it was working for him. He had recently qualified for the National Rodeo Finals – something he’d done several times already. At the moment, he was riding a wave of regional fame. I didn’t know squat about bull riding, but I’d heard about Jody and was surprised when, given the chance proximity in the bar, he introduced himself.

A short guy – he looks tough. He was also funny and a genuinely humble guy. Humble, in spite of the hub-cap sized trophy he was wearing, the kind that doubles as a belt buckle. The bigger the prize – the bigger the hub-cap.

I learned a few things about the sport that evening. Not surprising, bull riders are adrenaline junkies, which explains why many don’t stop after multiple body parts are smashed, shattered or both. A lucky bull riders body is a walking demonstration of a wide range of serious injuries. Unlucky riders no longer ride or walk.

Tatone told me stories of his encounters – explaining, (I knew this), that cows fall somewhere between dumb and not very smart. Bulls are the males of the species lucky enough not to have been castrated early in life. Their neutered brothers live quieter, but shorter lives, hanging out in beautiful meadows and eating grass just long enough to make a good steak. Bulls are four-legged testosterone factories with horns. Their bodies pumping rivers of hormones, rodeo stock is selected and prized for temperament. The meaner, the better.

Even with this selection process, Tatone talked about how different rodeo stock can be. According to Jody, each animal is unique. “Some are bored,” says Jody. others act board, he explained, only to surprise everyone, including the rider, when they explode from the chute, twisting a mans spine unmercifully before throwing him into the air, where the rider spins, ass over belt-buckle before slamming back to earth.

Added to the mix of bored, and the, “ready to fake you out” animals, there’s a third variety. These are ones that seem to be as scared as the riders. Frightened as they are, they give a rough ride, adding to the possibility of higher scores. Another plus – after dumping you, as the bull almost always does – these animals run harmlessly for the far fence. A rider lucky enough to go the full eight seconds slides off as gracefully as possible, picks up his hat. Whacks it on a leg, to knock the dust off, he walks casually back to the gate, watching the scoreboard, hoping for a big pay-day.

The head-nod. Every rider has chute rituals – a unique and personal system of rope synchs and superstitious rituals, practiced and carefully executed in preparation for the one move common to all – a single nod of the head. Very, “Old West.” Why say a single word when a nod of the head will do? Pitty the rider who’s wife picks these final moments to ask, “Did you make that health insurance payment?” or worse, “Do you love me?” No head-nod, and he’s screwed. Offering a head nod to preserve his marriage – he’s out the gate prematurely and screwed. So – the head-nod. It’s used once and for one purpose – the only gesture that will open the gate.

As Jody was telling it, a scared bull can be a good bull. But the boring ones can wreck your dreams. Riders who draw one of these are given an easy ride, resulting in a low score. The sport is about drama and danger. You could ride a bored animal all afternoon, and the judges would still hand you low numbers.

According to rodeo legend and Jody’s stories, there are also some killers, bulls known for what passes convincingly, as hatred for the man on their back. We’re talking about animals weighing fifteen hundred to two thousand pounds, up to a ton of mindless anger. These are the ones with an ever-growing repertoire of tricks they execute with blinding speed, each intended to visit pain and injury, if not death to the rider.

Fortunately, it’s rare for a human male to have his testicles clipped. But there’s is an argument in favor of the procedure. Case in point – after visiting with my new friend, and bull riding finalist – even after hearing him tell stories of his painful injuries – his encounters with killer bulls, I still wanted to ride a great big rodeo bull. Again, fortunately, I never got the chance.

So, my friend, Bryant is right. Careers cut short by injury and doctor bills ensure that very few bull riders are rich bull riders.

And I’m right; blood sports pay big bucks. The current, all-time money earner is a guy named J.B Mauney. I bet they pronounce it, “Money,” as J.B’s earnings top seven million bucks. Proof that money and blood run in the same veins.

Mauney may need every one of his millions and more when his riding days are over. News reports tell of his injuries at the Calgary Stampede. Apparently, he’ll only be out of the game for six months, (from the time I write this). But add em’ up – this most recent, compounded by past and future injuries; “Save some of the money, J.B. My friend Bryant is right. Doctors are expensive.

Late one rainy afternoon in the parking lot of my bank I dropped a gold nugget. It had been in a wooden box with several old pieces of jewelry. Rings, one raw nugget and a nugget studded stick pen.

There were also tie clasps and cuff links from another era and an assortment of broken chains and other bits and pieces, some solid and others gold plated. They were things that I had no use for but which still held sentimental value  and with the rising price of the metal I’d decided to put them all in a safe place.

Getting out of my car and turning to close the door, the box slipped off the top of a stack of papers I carried. Being November and just before closing time, daylight was already slipping away as the little box slid off into the air. I could only watch as it sailed forward and hit the asphalt, its contents flying away from the point of impact. Continue Reading

“Open your heart,” he said, at the same time using both hands to pull from the center of his chest – as if pulling ribs to expose – to “open” his heart. I watch unmoved by the words and gesticulated reminder of Hanuman – mythological Hindu deity who rips his chest open to reveal Lord Krishna seated in the mystical heart.

Smiling now, he does it again while repeating his words. Hands posed as if gripping, pulling. Ribs parting, tearing flesh, bending bones. Intention without reservation. “Just open your heart!”

Continue Reading

New York City, the intersection of Greenwich and Liberty. We’d just walked through the Twin Tower Memorial. The recessed fountains, rimmed as they are with brass – engraved with the names of the dead. Water, ever flowing. Down and down again.

Years have passed. That bitter ache no longer rises. Something of a milestone. Here of all places, I thought. Yes, time had done that thing that time does – making hard things easier. I felt it, yes – body memory moved things inside. But the intensity has faded. I wasn’t there… could count, with just a few fingers, the times I’d been in the city. I knew no one who had died. Still, there was all that emotion – we all felt it, all had things to say, and we said them – repeated them again and again. Like most of us, I was nowhere near when the towers fell. Still, like so many others, I took it personally.

Then I turned it off. I was tired of feeling it. All I might think I had to say was foolish and shallow by any comparison to the experience of others.

Yes, national pride, national sorrow. Shared anger – all that stuff. Still, not long after, I was making an effort to avoid any mention of the event. There was nothing I could do, and it felt horrible. I shut it down, turned it all off. Whether from some weakness or self-protective stance in the face of overwhelming feelings, I allowed myself to think only so far – as far as it took to wonder how long. “How long until these ugly emotions begin to fade?”

I guess it took about fourteen years. This was the first time I’d come to see and remember. Max, Karen and I walked around all of it, looking at the new building and the memorial to the old ones. Sure I felt something, an ache welled up, as if looking for a way out of me. But it was so contained, minimal by comparison. So, fourteen years. I guess that’s about how long it took.

We were walking away when I saw Fire Station No. 10. It’s location, the proximity. The implications snagged the edges of…

“Oh shit.”
“So close.”
“Too close!”

I tried to walk past, actually made it another thirty steps before stopping to look back. Two fire guys stood talking where the big bay doors met the sidewalk. Cutting across the street, they watched as I approached. Another out-of-town’er. Sorry, I thought, but here I come. No telling – no way to count how many times they’d had to talk with people like me.

“Was this station here then?” My first words – hoping they would say no.

“Ya, right here. Always have been,” The implication unmistakeable. “Have been.” As in, “We.”

Just like that – just those few words were all that were necessary. The whole story. End of story.

I felt, saw my hand rise involuntarily – an attempt to shield my mind from horror, our eyes meeting for only a moment before my head bowed. It all came back. But through their eyes, their memories and emotions. I turned almost immediately and walked away. A dozen questions had flashed to mind, but I wasn’t going to ask them. “I’m sorry,” rose in my throat but never made it past my lips.

Was I sorry? As sorry as they were? Not a chance. Feeling like a fool, I turned and walked away.

“Thanks.” Just a few steps into my retreat I heard one of them say it. “Thanks,” or, “Thank you.”

Thanking me for what? I’ll never know for sure. Maybe it was rhetorical. “Thank you, you ass-hole, for not caring enough to ask after our dead friends!” No, that was just my projection – me feeling so small in the face of the facts.

“Thank you,” one of them had said. I think what he really meant was, “Thank you for not asking those questions. The ones we have to answer a hundred times every day. The ones we have to hide our hearts from because the answers stare us in the face. Right there. Right across the street.”

Ya… it was a national tragedy. Yes, what we felt in every town, in every state – what we felt was genuine.

But there at the corner of Greenwich and Liberty streets in lower Manhattan, it was personal.

“Hey, you two, I’m – I really am sorry!”

I can say it this way – write it here. I didn’t feel like I had the right to say it to their faces. By comparison, I had no idea what sorry really meant.


#911 #WorldTradeCenter #NewYorkCity #FireStationNo.10

The Wooden Bowl Revisited

I beg your pardon, if I’ve I dropped my fork. Smile with me please, as my feet stumble and I trip over a word and miss when reaching for a thought! What follows is a story and the same story revised, such that you may have heard parts before. Together, they leave the reader with a mixture of feelings, depending upon your point of view – your own thoughts and actions.

The original is attributed to a great man, Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Intending no disrespect, I’ve added some thoughts that turn his tale upside down at the end. Tolstoy’s version goes like this: Continue Reading

The postman left a box yesterday but I was napping on the couch and didn’t hear the screen door open or close. So it was not until this morning when I gathered the nerve to brave the morning chill and ran to the car for a book that I had left, that I noticed the delivery – a package sitting on the porch. Passing it on the way out the door… mentally, I ran through the possibilities. I was not expecting anything ‑ nothing ordered. Nothing left in Sandpoint that had to been mailed down. Then it came to me. It was the week after Thanksgiving ‑ There was a fruitcake waiting on my porch! Snatching it up on my pass back through the door I used a knife to slice away tape, freeing the box flaps and foam packing. And there it was, protected and perfect with a card on top.

Christmas cards are nice, and yours was the first, waiting neatly on top of your ‑ I mean ‑ my fruitcake! But not an ordinary greeting card. This one was hand made and featured that old, black and white photo. Continue Reading

HERITAGE – An Award Winning, Cinematic Short – Written and Directed by Davy McCall
A Review and Commentary.

It’ short – short like a knife. Yet, seventeen minutes tell the story of countless generations. The story of a family divided by their misdeeds. One family – now two distinct cultures, and still together – bound to each other by conflict. In seventeen minutes, Heritage tells the story of two men – each driven to violence by acts of violence. McCall uses a mixture of his characters individual experience and collective, cultural history of loss to bring two men and the audience to a startling realization – one that changes everything. It’s an understanding that could reconcile bitter enemies. However, this realization is fragile, easily subverted by anyone with anything to gain from violence – those who hide themselves and silence their enemies with guns and knives. Continue Reading