Friday, April 29, 2011


by Rob Watson

I have been in genuine fear of my life before. The memory of that event is as clear today, more than 30 years later, as when it was happening. I was riding with a drunk with one good arm, driving up the side of a mountain, sheer dropoff on either side. He had a beer in his good hand and drove with a stub of his left arm. I remember earnestly  praying to God, asking forgiveness for my sins, and preparing to die. The fear that I felt, and remember so clearly, from that event would barely hold a candle to the fear I felt when asking for my first date, nearly 50 years ago.

Our high school had eliminated the Junior-Senior Prom because of repeated indiscretions of some previous student bodies. This lead to our Football Banquet becoming the social highlight of the year. All of the football team, managers, and coaches, along with their dates would have a dinner and dance at the country club. The dinner would feature a speech by a former HomeTown football hero.

The fall of that school year I was a football team gofer. Also called manager. The speaker was H. T. Hero, leader of HomeTown's State Football Championship team, Heisman Trophy winner, and star running back for some professional football teams. It was to be the hot ticket item for the girls of HomeTown High School. The boys were under a fair amount of social pressure to bring a date.

One guy even asked his sister. At the time, my relationship with my sister was such that I would not have taken her to a dog fight, much less the social event of the season. (presumably, her social consciousness would not have allowed her to accept anyway) This left me in the unlikely position of surveying all the girls I knew and picking one to ask for a date. My first date, ever.

Actually, I don’t recall there ever even being a question in my mind as to whom I would pursue. There was a cute little girl in my fourth hour class that held my interest at the time. Now the pressure was on me to ask this target of my affection for the privilege of her company at the Football Banquet.

Step one was to learn the rules for asking a girl out. My mother had an old Amy Vanderbilt book on manners. That became my guide. A fair amount of what I read has drifted into the dark shadows of long ago, but I remember that for a big social event it was important to give the lady a week or more notice so that she could procure the necessary... whatever. And the guy needed to order the corsage.

Also, it was very uncool, at the time, to be driven on a date by one’s parents. I had no driver’s license. I was old enough, 15. That was back before all these repressive laws stressing teen safety. However the fly in the ointment was my parents requirement that I pay the $160 dollar boost in our car insurance before I could take the drivers test. I was earning 25 cents an hour working in the family store. $160 was a long way into the future for a less than frugal soul such as I was at the time. A $5 flower was to be a stretch. This unresolved issue was to haunt me throughout.

Asking for the date was a daunting and fear filled task. When to ask had a drop-dead date of one week in advance of the event. Anything more than two weeks was too early. How to ask confused me far beyond my planning and organizational skills of the time. Do you just blurt it out? Write a note? Start a conversation and casually drop in “Say, Would you like to attend the social highlight of the season with me?” At the time I had never even been so bold as to meet a girl at the movies.

Two weeks before ‘The Event’ anxiety gripped me every time I got near the object of my interest. Just saying “Hi.” brought on dry mouth and sweaty palms. Casual conversation sent my overtaxed brain into a dizzying spin and set my heart to pounding in my chest. If I said anything to her during that week, learning that what I said made any sense would be one of the big surprises of my life.

As each day lurched past, I tried to maneuver into a position to ask “the question”. My courage failed me every time. Opportunity after opportunity slipped from my grasp with ego pounding effect... until the last second of the last hour of the last day, exactly one week in advance of the event.

You may ask what was so awful to be feared? Rejection? Humiliation? Death? My brain never went so far as to analyze that question. Fear of the unknown has to be the retrospective conclusion.

With the clock ticking, I stalked the girl from the classroom. With pounding heart and addled brain I was almost completely disabled. By default, blurting out was going to have to be the only viable technique I could manage. Catching her at her locker, exchanging her books, I approached. I could hear no sound beyond that of my own heart. My peripheral vision had compressed into looking down a narrow silvery tube. All I could see were her eyes and part of her face. The clock had run out. the buzzer was about to sound. Boom! I blurted it out “... would you go to the Football Banquet with me?”

“Why, yes, I would like that.”

Yep, flying up the side of a mountain with a one arm drunk at the wheel... What do they say now? NO FEAR!

Two Hundred Words

Two Hundred Words
by Rob Watson

A few years ago I moved to State and found a job teaching. State issued me a temporary certificate to teach Science. I taught two sections of General Science to high school freshmen and two sections of Ecology to juniors and seniors. The freshmen had no choice. The juniors and seniors were either interested in the subject, or afraid of Chemistry and Physics, or thought they would get to catch fish by shocking them with electricity. (a popular lesson in the former teacher's class)

The General Science book was enormous. It weighed about 15 pounds. I tried to follow the built in lesson plans. They had been divided into two 45 minute lessons for each section. Each lesson had suggested activities and a suggested time allotment. It became immediately clear that the authors had never spent a minute in a real freshman high school class, nor had they made any real effort to test their activities in a real setting. Their 10-15 minute enrichment activities usually took an hour (60 minutes) out of a 85 minute class. I, early on, calculated it would take most of the year to finish Chapter One.

Please do not misunderstand. The lesson plans were thorough and well done. I would have loved to work my students through the whole thing. All I needed was twice as much space, four times as much time, and a couple of assistants to set things up for the activities. I stopped reading the "list of Materials" so I have no idea about how many other things might be needed.

The science teachers in that school system, junior high and high school, had gotten together and assigned subjects to be "covered" by each grade level there. My specific assignment was not quite clear to me. Mostly due to a lack of faith in those teaching before me... my freshman students demonstrated a thorough ignorance of science topics. I had a "lead teacher" whose task was to keep me on the right path. I always felt he was over-matched by my stubborn insistence in doing things my own way. (when I found scientific ignorance in a competent student, I felt honor bound to educate that student.)

In the classroom I tried to explain the topic and offer real examples of the application of the topic. By the "evaluator" of my teaching skills, this was called "lecture" and was thoroughly condemned. More "activities" were suggested. (see above under: please do not misunderstand).

My tests were mostly definitions in one form or another. I liked repetition, I tried to get each definition onto four tests during the year. (Remember the research that says you need to see an advertisement four times before it registers? Some years ago, professional educators roundly condemned a math book that did this. Because the math book did too much repetition and didn't "cover" enough different topics.)

As I made out my final test I was horrified to count only 200 words and definitions as the total of all I had taught. ( less than 1.1 scientific definition per 85 minutes of classroom time) With my real defects in controlling the classroom, the poor evaluations on my teaching style, and the guy I was suppose to replace staying on another year, the schools decision not to renew my contract seemed to be a good one. (There was also a serious lack of students)

Salve to my wounds came a year later when a tenured friend reported to me that my students had scored better on their "No Child Left Behind" evaluations than any previous class. Who would a thunk it?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Geothermal Senior Moment

Geothermal Senior Moment
By Rob Watson

A web search on Geothermal... whatever, usually generated twenty million hits on air conditioners. After going to the advanced search you can eliminate nearly half of them. What I am looking for is real information on using Geothermal heat to generate power.

You, and I, know that wherever you are, if you dig deep enough you find heat. The problem being, if you end up in solid rock and start drawing heat from it, the rock cools off. The eventual recovery rate of energy is equal to the rate of heat transfer into the area from which you are drawing heat, thermal differences, total area of contact, etc. etc. etc.

Having spent a few years in the oil exploration business, I recalled the seismic data reflections from underground formations. Unfortunately without drilling into the formation you could not distinguish oil and gas from water. The up side is there is a huge library of data (my former employer, Geophysical Service Inc. had ancient files in huge libraries.) that tells you where to look for pools of something. Checking the records should tell you where the drillers found oil, gas, and water.

If memory serves, these data plots recorded information for 6 seconds. At 5 miles per second (speed of sound in rock) that could get you down to the hot rocks. This brings up the question of how deep you can drill. My friends in Louisiana report BP has gone one mile through water and an additional 7 miles through rock. If memory of the thermal gradient in the earth is correct, that oil should be pretty warm.

My thought was to drill into the opposite ends of a formation, one down 20 or 30 thousand feet down, where it is nice and warm. Pump water from one well to the other and use this extracted heat to generate electricity. If the formation is large (tens of miles), now you have a huge surface area and an enormous fluid medium. Pollution is not a problem because the extracted water is returned to the source. And, the other problem of where to get water is also solved. (some former experiments pumped surface water into porous formations and had the water disappear... Real geologists know that some such formations could swallow the Great Lakes without yielding a bucket full of hot water) The worst down side is you strike oil and/or gas  instead of water. (now, wouldn't that be a heart breaker?)

Now remember, friends, when they finally find this is a practical solution to the nation's energy future, you heard it first here... I think.

Buzz Off, Short Stuff

Buzz Off, Short Stuff
by Rob Watson

Life hardly ever gifts most of us with a clever thing to say, and the courage to say it, at exactly the moment the saying would be appropriate. For myself, I can recall many instances where I stood open mouthed and silent for want of one or the other gift. But then I have also learned that silence in such moments, while far from satisfying, constitutes wisdom. Wisdom, as well as clever sayings and courage in socially awkward situations, is not a usual skill of mine. So, silence can work.

Last night, Wife and I decided on pizza for supper and went to a Pizza Hut. We were seated in a booth with high seat backs. In the booth behind Wife was a tall blond woman and her three or four year old companion. I say companion because the adult showed no parenting inclination or skills what so ever. The child was doing pretty much as he pleased in entertaining himself.

First the child played with the curtain that covered his window and part of ours. sliding it back and forth, leaving our window uncovered and the light streaming in. Then he crawled under his table and cavorted in the isle beside his booth and ours. On the other side, beside his booth, was a stair leading down into the basement dining room. The stair was blocked by two swinging half doors, which seemed to be latched together, The child swung on these doors for the few inches of freedom allowed by that latch. As uncharitable as it is, I found myself wishing the child and the adult would gain a hard lesson when the latch let go and sent the child tumbling into the basement. Alas, the latch, though tested, did not fail.

Last of all, the child climbed onto the seat of his booth and began leaning over just behind Wife. After waiting a minute or so for the adult to get the child out of my wife's ear, I caught the child's eye. Looking directly at him I said "Buzz off short stuff."

Wife, for reasons beyond me, found that enormously funny. However her barely controlled seizure of laughter destroyed my ill humor and I began to laugh as well. It was clear to me, the child knew he had been spoken to, and had no idea what it meant. After a short delay, the adult stood. She seemed to know something had happened involving her companion, but she was unable to grasp the meaning of the continuing mirth on our part. She looked at me for several seconds as I laughed. She looked at Wife for several seconds, who also continued her fit of laughter, collected the child and left, never once having made any attempt to control the child.

This brought up the story of one of my other social "successes".

A few years before Wife and I met, I worked for a large technology company, in their training department. I taught field service personnel and customers how to operate, troubleshoot and repair half a dozen different computers and a few of their peripherals. The department manager was obsessed with controlling the expendature of funds. She was good with smaller numbers. Big numbers, not so much.

Two years prior, I had been charged with entertaining a potential new hire at lunch. We went to a nice restaurant, had steaks and a bottle of wine and spent a total of $25 or so. On getting the expense statement, Manager was not happy. I was sternly lectured on the evils of overspending. We hired the man and he was a great guy and an excellent instructor.

After two years in the doghouse, I was again directed to entertain a potential new hire. As Manager gave me my directions, she was careful to again remind me of the evils of over spending. The supervisor of us hardware instructors heard of my task and took it upon himself, unknown to Manager, to entertain the interviewee and a handful of the other instructors. My cubical mate begged off. I knew he was going to the burger joint next door. I asked him to bring me back his receipt.

The secretarial staff, of a dozen or so, occupied a large open area. As Manager was guiding her boss (a really nice guy) through that area, I stopped her. "Manager" says I, "you will be really proud of me." I handed her the Burger receipt for $1.89. The receipt had the company name boldly printed across the top. Manager examined the receipt for a second before a horrid expression enveloped her face and a horrified "Nooo, Rob, you didn't!!" escaped her mouth. (I had winked at Big Boss to let him know something was afoot) "But, Manager" says I, in a voice feigning surprise and ignorance, "you told me to not over spend." Big Boss seemed to catch onto the joke and smiled. Manager didn't catch on until Supervisor turned in his expense statement for six steak dinners at the nice restaurant.

I was never again asked to entertain a new hire for lunch. If you are over fifty, you will recognize the prices of the late 1970's. One practical joke every forty years or so, can't be too much, can it?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Good Idea

A Good Idea
Rob Watson

Life has a way of trapping us into awkward situations. Looking ahead and good planning can go a long way in reducing these situations. Nothing ever eliminates them. Over time one can build up a tool kit for dealing with them... a joke, a smile, a jesture.

A college professor with a PhD had the nick name "Happy". He preferred to be called that. He was uncomfortable when addressed as "Doctor". People who were not familiar with the good doctor, beyond his title, would call him that on first addressing him. He would stick his finger up his nose as if digging for a booger, then, with finger still in his nose, look at the person and reply "Yeeesssss". Perhaps not the most graceful tool, but it had the desired effect.

At large gatherings, where long lists of presentations and honors are announced, the first guy being awarded "Dog Catcher of the Year". gets a great hand. The 20th person, being awarded "Humanitarian of the Year" gets a smattering of recognition. Applause always seems to dwindle after five or six awards. One MC limited the applause to three claps per person.

Every awards dinner has a built-in awkward moment. Dinner is over. Everyone is chatting with their neighbor, and the host needs to get everyone's attention to move on, Some ding on a glass with a spoon.  Some clear their throat into the microphone. Some just start talking. And, of course, the person near you just has to finish his story.

Today, attending an area wide church event, I encountered a pleasant, graceful attention getting device. The new Bishop was about to speak. He began to sing, softly at first, a familiar church hymn. As the people began to catch on, he sang louder. The assembly joined in until everyone was singing. The persistent talkers had to join as well. I could do that myself... should I get to be bishop.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Boy Heaven

I have not read Time magazine at any time in the last 50 years. The other day, because of my interest in the "War of Northern Aggression" (being a Southerner by birth and temperament) I spotted an article on the internet by a Time editor. He proposed to illuminate the cause of the Civil War. His argument was that slavery in the South and abolition in the North caused that tragedy. As hard as it is to admit that a Time editor, and Yankee to boot, might have a thought of any value, I came away convinced by his arguments.

Finding someone who agrees with me on anything is rare enough. Finding one worth reading is almost unheard of. So, I looked him up and started reading some of his offerings. I liked what I read.

Forth or fifth in the list was "The Myth About Boys". He begins by outlining how current opinion says boys in the American society are being reduced to ruin. Then he argues "'taint necessarily so". After some 4000 words on the subject he strives for a conclusion. He describes "Boy Heaven" and finishes (quoting a woman there): "When no one's looming over them, they begin making choices of their own," she says. "They discover consequences and learn to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. They start learning self-discipline, self-confidence, team building. If we don't let kids work through their own problems, we get a generation of whiners." But, then girls, lovers, wives, and mothers have always thought they knew what was best for us boys of any age.

I have always thought I grew up in a sort of Boy Heaven. The very earliest memory of my life was of discovery, on my own. The second was of moving from one place to what I now think of as home. The third was of, again, adventuring on my own. Here I met my first and oldest friend.

My parents owned a small, marginally successful business. Keeping tabs on me was not a priority. For the years four and five, I experienced nearly absolute freedom. I was told to be careful crossing the road and never to go with strangers. I cannot recall any other restrictions placed on me at that time. I remember adventuring around the house we lived in and the store my parents operated. I was "watched" when the store was closed and when my brother, twelve year my senior, was not in school. Kindergarten was a diversion, the only part of which I liked was when we were given a half a graham cracker and two ounces of orange juice. Nap time was an absolute bust. I still like Graham crackers and I learned, much later, to like naps.

I grew up in a mill town. Two mills actually, A lumber mill and a paper mill had control of everyone's life. Even mine. The mills had whistles that blew, and could be heard for miles... shift change... lunch hour start and finish... end of day... 7am, 8am, noon, 1pm, 4:30. Who needed a watch, or even a clock. Neither of the banks in town put up their time and temperature signs until after the lumber mill closed and we lost half our whistles. My parents bought me a self-winding watch about the same time.

The noon whistle summoned me to the store for lunch. I usually was not far away for that. In the early years, lunch was a sandwich. One slice of balogna or pressed ham, two slices of bread, mayo or sandwich spread. 8 ounces of milk. Later I got two sandwiches and a 16 ounce glass of milk. (One should never think my mother deprived me of food. She was a wonderful cook and prepared her family great meals for breakfast and supper. Sunday dinner was best of all. Many years later [Bar-b-cued Chicken was one of her many great offerings] Mama told me she always planned a whole chicken for me.) I was in college, living off campus and 20 years old before I even tried to make a sandwich any other way. Huge discovery! Lettuce... sliced tomato... chopped sweet pickles... slice of cheese... two, count them, two slices of pressed ham.

Four thirty was the time for me to come to the store. After we built a new building money got tight. My parents sold the house and we moved to the back of the store. Four thirty became the time to come home and do school work. HA!

The definition of "adventure" comes from the play "Matchmaker" (Hello Dolly was the musical) "An adventure is when you are in the middle of it, you wish you were home safe in your own bed." I knew the truth of that statement the moment I first heard it, in high school lit class. This somewhat formal definition came long after I had experienced many adventures.

I can track my adventurous years by the building the store was in. The old store was a corrugated sheetmetal structure. It was old when we bought it. It is still standing 60 years after we got it. The new store was concrete block... across the street... next to the creek.

My wanderings brought me into contact with various characters around town. An old magician had a photo tent near a friends apartment. He would pull a peppermint stick from your ear or a dime from your hair. An old gypsy would come every summer and park on a vacant lot near our old store. He was always trying to make friends, but I gave him a wide birth. He didn't know any magic tricks. Gone in the fall. Back next summer. On Tuesdays and Fridays another old man pushed a cart around town selling hot tamalies. As a Catholic, the no meat on Friday seemed an awful imposition. The negro employees of the various businesses got to know me and my companions. One old man from the furniture store, for many years afterwards got a huge laugh from reminding me of an adventure, that need not be recounted here. I have called all these "old" but when you are six or seven, everyone else seems ancient. These and a dozen more.

My companions, I should call them in order that we met. F1 I met about the age of three or four, He is two years younger. Neither of us remembers how or when we met. Our families went to the same church. We contact each other every 20 years or so if it is convenient. We joined a group of classmates for a cruise last year.

F2 and I met, we claim, crawling through the same trash box. The one of many that littered the alley between our parents stores.  I was maybe five, he six months younger. Throughout my life I have always referred to F2 as my best friend. From earliest childhood to old age we continued to share adventures. He was the one person with whom I could sit for an hour and never feel the need to entertain or even speak. Now that he has died I find a loose thread in my life. No best friend.

F3 lived near F1 for a time. When F2 was working in his parents store, F3 was my usual companion. Not long after F3 entered high school, and F2 had moved to another town. F3 was motivated to punch out his band teacher and was invited to leave the school system perminently. After fifty years, I found him again. We exchanged life stories.

F4 lived in an apartment next to the old magician. we probably met there. for two years we were close friends. Then his dad got a job in another town. I never saw him again.

By the age of eleven I had gotten into organized things. F2 and I were in Boy Scouts and organized baseball. Friends too numerous to enumerate played Pee Wee football... well we practiced anyway.

Maturity brought on responsibility. Before the age of eight I was hauling feed from the railroad to the store. I could throw a 25 lb sack several feet and lift and carry 50 lb bags... several pounds more than I myself weighed. In the Spring, busy season in the store, I would help serve customers by weighing out products and carrying out sacks. We had chicken houses. 5,000 to the house. I help feed them and cleaned their waterers. When the summer came, I helped paint the roofs of the houses with aluminum paint. I helped catch the chickens when it was time to move them to market. I was probably of limited use here. Each adult caught 9 at a time and 18 went into each cage. At the age of 6 I could only hold 2 in each hand. they had to keep a separate cage set aside for me until I caught my 18.

My earliest uniform was a pair of khaki shorts. No shirt, no shoes. The hot tar roads and the sharp rocks on the gravel roads taught me to wear shoes and socks. I have never been able to wear shoes without socks. Even sandals. For those who comment that sandals are worn without socks. I just tell them I am eccentric.

What did I do with my freedom? Whatever pleased me. I learned the rules by irritating adults, or just plain making them mad. I was siting on the porch of the old store with my new store-bought slingshot. As a car passed I took a shot at it. The driver's window was open and the object zipped right in the window and passed just inches from the driver's face. The picture is as clear today as the second it happened. The man came back and told my dad. Daddy whipped me, a couple of sharp whacks on the butt. The real pain came when he took my slingshot and broke it in pieces and threw it away. Lesson one: Don't shoot at anything that it would be best not to hit. Lesson two: don't get caught if you do. Actually I have been mostly a rules follower. Learn the rules, follow the rules... mostly.

The local park was huge attraction. It had a bandstand in the early days... they built a new one recently. It had swings, tennis courts and a wading pool and sandbox. Most attractive of all was a swampy area where natural springs originated and formed a tiny stream, with crawdads and minnows and frogs and tadpoles. If you don't know what to do with the above... well use your imagination. I was once warned not to go in the wading pool but I accidently fell in anyway... another whipping. Lesson one: obey your parents. Lesson two: or don't get caught.

I have been a lot like the chicken that crossed the road. What is the mystery here? I crossed the road to see what was on the other side, like the bear that went over the mountain, to see the other side. Or just because it was there. I went to be going. walking just to walk. Running just to run. Riding a bike or motorcycle or car just to be going somewhere. Got that from my mother.

Money was never a problem. If I had it I spent it. An unfortunate habit that persists today. I I have money, I tend to leave it at home. One way or the other I would not have it long. If I needed money, I earned it. My parents paid 25 cents an hour for me to work in the store. That was back when you could get 5 candy bars for a quarter. Had to wait for Saturday payday for that money. For quick money, we would pick up cold drink bottles and exchange them for the two cent deposit. Five coke bottles got you two candy bars, Or child's admission to the Saturday movie.

Shoplifting seems to be a phase for boys. I don't remember actually stealing anything but I went with others who, I knew, were going to steal and did steal. The last such adventure happened in the 8th grade. The other guy stole a candy bar. I made him put it back. He was not happy. End of that friendship. For the record I was caught in the snair three or four times when others stole. Not a pleasant experience. Lesson learned: don't steal the price is too high and the price is not punishment, it is in loss of self respect and loss of pride in who you are as a person, a price paid even if you are not caught.

A huge change widened my adventures when my parent decided I was responsible enough to have a BB gun, then later a pellet gun. (Their faith was well placed except for one small weakness. I shall not tell about it as the evidence remains to this day... I checked on it not long ago.) I now had a reason to go to new places, bird hunting. I think, for the thousands of BBs and pellets I fired, I only hit one bird with a BB and one with a pellet. I actually hit a kid once as well. Never knew who it was. He and his friends wanted to have a BB gun fight with me and my friends. Just a friendly BB gun fight. The consequences didn't seem relevant until I took careful aim and hit the kid square in the forehead. The others got mad because one of them was hit. Lest you think them stupid, they came up with a brilliant response. They left.

My confession here is far from complete. However I must confess to one more thing. I really hate to admit that a Yankee and editor from Time, and a woman, goodness forbid, could agree with me, that it takes a Boy Heaven, somewhere, sometime to make a boy into a man instead of a whiner.