Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Shooting Star

The sky is such a comfort to me
When the stars come out at night.
The moon smiles down,
"My son, you'll see,
Everything will be alright."

A shooting star is seen to glide
Across the sky
And then to hide.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Riding with Max the Cocker Spaniel

Young John Waldenthrottle rode his J.C Higgins ten-speed bicycle down the road with his new friends Albert and James, the gravediggers. He had originally planned to go home to eat his cold cut combo on wheat with pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, banana peppers and healthy helping of spicy brown mustard but he had met up with Albert and James and found them to be a quite interesting pair of gents, to say the least, and so decided to alter his previous agenda. After all, the afternoon was early and there really wasn’t much he felt like doing around his apartment anyway. His television was broken, which really didn’t matter because his power was turned off two days ago and he couldn’t plug in his extension cord at his next door neighbor’s apartment until she got home around five thirty. Besides, Albert and James had suggested that he might enjoy riding out with them to the cemetery and see how they go about digging a grave. He gladly agreed to their kind invitation as he rode right on past the entrance to his apartment complex.

Resthaven Cemetery was a forty-five minute bike ride past Young John’s apartment. He figured he could hang out with Albert and James for a couple of hours then have plenty of time to ride back home before it got dark. The journey was fairly uneventful and Albert and James weren’t either one much on conversation – minimal verbiage, basic fact, to the point, men of very few words. But Young John found them kind of cool. (He started to say to himself, “in a creepy sort of way” – but he didn’t.) So he just rode along behind the brothers riding two abreast in front of him – predominantly in silence.

As they rode up the slight incline about a quarter of a mile from the cemetery entrance, James veered closer to the right edge of the shoulder while Albert simultaneously veered to the left, almost into the actual traffic lane. They both pointed down and slightly ahead into the now widen space between them and in unison called out, “Road kill!” Young John also veered to the right as all three of them rode past the armadillo squished on the pavement then on up to the entrance to Resthaven Cemetery. The trio made the right turn through the gates and then took the first turn to the left to head down the hill toward the caretaker cottage. Melvin Curtis, the groundskeeper, having already seen the approaching bike riders through his office window, grabbed his clipboard off the hook behind his desk. He then walked out onto the cottage porch and a few steps down the sidewalk to greet them.

“Lovely afternoon,” Melvin called out as Albert, James and Young John brought their bikes to a halt.

“Yep. Sure is.” (The minimal verbiage, basic fact, to the point, in unison reply from the brothers.)

“I suppose you’re here to dig the grave for the nine o’clock burial service tomorrow morning?” inquired Melvin.

“Yep.” (The brothers once more in unison.)

 “Sad thing about that one,” he said as he shook his head. “Never did find the body you know. Here – I need one of you to sign this form – as usual.”  He handed the clipboard to Albert and with his other hand patted his shirt pocket a couple of times. “Aw heck!  I don’t have a pen. Any of you got a pen?”

Young John piped up, “Oh hey! I’ve got a pen. I got a whole box of pens here in this paper sack on the back of my bike.” Then he reached into his bag of office supplies, retrieved a pen and handed it to Albert, who, in turned, signed the form on the clipboard and handed it back to Melvin.

Melvin took the clipboard, gave it a quick glance then said, “Looks good. It’s plot K174. Back up the hill and then to the left six rows. It’s not too far.” He put the pen in his shirt pocket.

James, Albert and Young John turned their bikes around and started back up the hill. About that time, a Cocker Spaniel darted out of the cottage door and went chasing after the bicycles.

“Max! Get back in that house!” commanded Melvin. The dog abandoned the pursuit, turned and ran back into the house. Melvin followed him in and shut the door.

The trio continued on up the drive, turned left at the main road, went the six rows over, then got off of their bikes and walked them down the row of headstones until they got to plot K174. James and Albert unhooked their pickaxes and shovels from their rear racks then started outlining in the grass where they were going to dig. Meanwhile, Young John opened the sack on the back of his bike, extracted the cold cut combo on wheat, walked over to the large oak tree about twenty feet away and sat down to eat his sandwich as he watched the brothers go about their work.

Young John was about three-fourths of the way through his cold cut combo when a voice called out from behind him saying, “Hey, young man! Do you think you could help me?”

Young John stood up, turned around and found himself looking straight into the eyes of the winged white horse, Pegasus.  He replied, “Uh, help you with what?”

“I am trying to find my mother. I heard that she might be around here somewhere.”

“To quote Norman Bates,” replied Young John Waldenthrottle. “Well, uh - a boy's best friend is his mother!”

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Riding with Grave Diggers

Young John Waldenthrottle rode his J.C. Higgins ten-speed bicycle down Louetta Road, headed toward his house after having just left the roadside submarine sandwich wagon at Ella Boulevard. About half a mile into his homeward journey, two other gentlemen, dressed all in black and riding bicycles, exited from a side street and ended up riding abreast in front of him. Each of the two riders had shovels and pickaxes on the racks on the back of their bikes. Young John was quick to catch up with them and strike up a conversation.

“Hello,” he began, “My name is John Waldenthrottle. Most people refer to me as Young John. Not that I’m really all that young any more – but I used to be.”

The two gentlemen turned in unison, glanced back at Young John Waldenthrottle, nodded their heads, and likewise in unison said, “Good afternoon Young John - pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Then they turned back around to pay attention to the road before them.

Young John continued, “So what kind of uniforms are those that you are wearing? I’ve never seen uniforms like that.”

Without turning to look back at Young John, the man on the left replied, “Well Young John, these really aren’t uniforms. We just choose to wear matching black slacks and matching black long-sleeved shirts with black neckties. We think it makes us look kind of cool – in an almost creepy sort of way.”

Then the one on the right chimed in, “My name is James. That’s my brother Albert. We’re grave diggers. And Albert's right, we think we look cool dressed like this – in an almost creepy sort of way.”

“Wow,” replied Young John. “I’ve never ridden with grave diggers before. It’s sort of cool…”

Then, as if on cue, all three of them said, “In an almost creepy sort of way.” Then they all laughed together and pedaled on down the road.

Enjoy the Ride!


Meanwhile, out on the west side of town, Carl was enjoying the early-afternoon sunshine of his day off. Carl had been among the first group of employees to be hired by Subs-R-Us, a mobile submarine sandwich wagon company formed back in the late 90’s. He had started out kneading the dough for the bread at the downtown kitchen and then gradually worked his way up through the ranks to his current position – North Houston / Spring / Woodlands District Manager. Occasionally, once a month at the most, one of the normal wagon workers under his charge would need an emergency day off or something and Carl would typically take their place running their wagon in their absence.  

But this particular day happened to not be one of those days. In fact, it happened to be one of those weekdays that Carl didn’t have to even go to work at all because he had decided to take a personal day off. And he had taken a personal day off for two reasons. Reason Number One: He had his annual checkup scheduled for that morning – which he had gone to – and in which he was declared as being in exceptional health for a man of his age although he was told that he could stand to lose a few pounds. (But don’t they almost always give that advice?)  Reason Number Two: He wanted to visit his parents’ grave-site out at Resthaven Cemetery in the afternoon.

Carl drove to the cemetery in his classic 1956 Ford Country Squire station wagon. (Or as he liked to call it: his inheritance. He called it that because that’s all his parents left him when they died during a fast food establishment robbery gone wrong back in 1991. No, they weren’t the ones robbing the place. They were just the ones unfortunate enough to be the actual customers next in line behind the would-be robber who was holding his gun against the forehead of the clerk standing at the cash register when the bumbling, near-sighted cook came bursting through the double-swing kitchen doors firing his automatic rifle in a fit of anxiety or heightened adrenaline levels or something, and mowed all four of them down in a matter of seconds. It was in the news for weeks - cook kills robber along with co-worker and two innocent bystanders - the most exciting thing to happen in Marietta, Oklahoma in decades.) Carl parked alongside the road at the end of the row where his parents were buried and then walked the short distance to their graves. Standing in front of their headstones, he knelt down and replaced the weeks-old, withered flowers with the fresh ones that he had brought. He paused there a few minutes – not saying a word – just being an only-child visiting his parents and silently recollecting the good times of years long past.

After a few minutes, Carl stood up and headed back toward his car. He was about twenty feet from the Country Squire when he heard a strange noise coming from the woods off to his right. He stopped, turned his gaze to the tree line approximately a hundred yards away, and then began walking that direction to check it out.  As Carl drew nearer, the noise became a combination of demonic laughter, high-pitched shrieking, guttural growling and indecipherable babbling. Becoming more than a little too eerie for Carl, he stopped. He was about to turn around and head back to his car when all of the sudden he sensed movement from behind the trees. Before Carl could even think another thought, three women emerged from the woods. Three hideous women with horrid fangs, skin of scales and grotesque, venomous snakes instead of hair. It was the Gorgon sisters – Stheno, Euryale and Medusa.

Carl took one look at the three sisters... and turned into solid stone before he hit the ground.

So much for a clean bill of health from the doctor.  

So much for losing weight.

(Next Chapter)

(Previous Chapter)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My First MS-150 on a Tandem - by Bertha Ashtabula

This time of year – Houston to Austin MS-150 time – I am always reminded of back in the mid-90’s when I decided that I was going to do the ride on a tandem. I had ridden it on my single bike the two years prior and I didn’t fare too well. But then again, not too bad considering I rode it on my Schwinn 6-speed Cruiser Deluxe. I referred to those years as my MS-60 years – because that’s about how many miles I rode each year – total for both days!

Anyway, I was determined that I was going to actually complete the entire ride that year. I was positively certain that it was my bike that was the culprit for my prior failures. I definitely needed something with more gears.  Six just wasn’t cutting it. By my reckoning, six gears were getting me about a third of the way through the journey, so in order to complete the entire 175 miles, I was going to need at least 18 gears. And with that mathematical philosophy in mind, I set out for my local bike shop to find a replacement for my trusty Cruiser Deluxe.

I walked down the aisle of the bike shop – looking at the road bikes, the mountain bikes, the hybrids – all with a healthy amount of gears to pick from that could easily satisfy my need. I had pretty much decided that I was going to purchase one of the comfy looking hybrids when all at once my gaze was drawn to the corner of the shop – and there it was – hanging by its rear wheel from a hook in the ceiling – beckoning me to come closer. The bright red Schwinn DuoSport tandem bicycle – complete with 18 awesome looking gears!  Once again doing some quick math in my head – if 18 gears will get me through the additional 66.667% of the course, two drive trains should get me through it twice as fast. Basic math – right? I bought the bike right then and there.

Next obstacle: Find someone willing to ride it with me.

I won’t mention how many people I asked who not only turned me down on the offer, but were able to turn me down while A) laughing hysterically; B) trying desperately to control their laughter while at the same time trying to think up some nice story to tell me as to why they couldn't; C) shooting coffee out of their nostrils and D) dodging me for days on end because they had already heard that I was wandering around looking for a tandem partner for the MS-150. Those reactions pretty much applied to everyone except Danny Downtube.  Danny had just returned to the office from being on a two-week trip to Southeast Asia and was still suffering a little from jet-lag when I caught him at the coffee bar during our morning break. I remember being shocked when I asked him if he wanted to be the stoker on my tandem bicycle for the MS-150 trek to Austin and he immediately replied that he thought it would be a great idea. (Although he did confess to me a few days later that he swore I had asked him if he wanted to play some poker and make a random mess with ice cream on the 1:50 train to Boston – which made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever but then you gotta remember that the guy was still a little jet-lagged – not to mention sort of a dufus. But hey, he said yes – and he was honorable enough not to change his mind once he actually understood what it was that I had asked him to do.) 

Finally, the big day arrived and Danny and I showed up at Tully Stadium ready for our tandem journey to Austin – and I with high hopes of finally making it all the way there without riding in a SAG wagon. I had done the math. I had increased the gears. I had doubled the horsepower. Danny and I had trained on the tandem and we were like a well-oiled, smooth-running, fine-tuned cycling mechanical marvel. Okay, well maybe we forgot about that part. I mean, I’m sure we could’ve been a well-oiled, smooth-running, etc, etc, if we would have remembered to do the “training on the tandem” part. But you know, he was not available when I wanted to ride and I was busy doing other stuff when he had time to ride not to mention we each had our own favorite TV shows that we had to watch – and I mean, really... what’s the big deal about riding a tandem? It’s just a bicycle – right?

So anyway, as it turns out – Day One of the MS-150 and Danny and I have absolutely zero training miles on the tandem together. Danny thinks that he is going to be the captain and that I’m going to ride in the back as the stoker. I set him straight on that right away. His only argument being that he is the man and “the man is the Captain!” I quickly informed him that it was my tandem and that he agreed to be the stoker regardless of what he thought I had originally said. Plus, at the time, I outweighed him by about 75 pounds (yes, I was quite a bit heftier back in those days) and I convinced him that the International Tandem Rule Book dictated that the heavier person, whether they be male or female, needed to ride in the front and be “The Captain.” (And he bought it. Enough said.)

MS-150 Day One (quick summary):

  • 11 times The Stoker wasn’t ready at all when starting from a stop and took a sharp slash in the shin or the calf from the rear pedal as The Captain swung the front pedals around to start.
  • 5 times The Stoker nearly got catapulted off the back of the bike because The Captain forgot to call out railroad tracks.
  • 9 times The Captain and The Stoker clipped out of the pedals with opposite feet and fell over at stop lights. (Yeah – We’re cool!)
  • 24 times either The Captain or The Stoker tried to coast without calling it out and 24 times one of them nearly got their ankles twisted off in the process.
  • One time The Stoker thought The Captain was coming to a stop and decided, for some reason, to grab hold of a NO PARKING sign post – and quickly exited off the back of the bike.
  • 2 times at rest stops The Captain kicked the crud out of The Stoker because The Captain swung her leg around to get off the bike and The Stoker was still sitting on the saddle.
  • One time, at about mile 52, The Captain and The Stoker and the tandem called it a day and got in the SAG wagon to La Grange.

Day Two

After a good night’s rest and a fabulous pancake breakfast, Day Two was off to a good start. Danny was getting more comfortable and accustomed to his role as The Stoker on the back of the tandem. As The Captain, I was realizing what I needed to call out in order to communicate to The Stoker, who can’t see most of what is coming up because I, The Captain, am blocking his vision. We both are learning to communicate little things we take for granted when we are riding our single bikes – like coasting, raising up out of the saddle to stretch, and even changing gears. We were getting there. Still a little rough at times but a major improvement was noticeable within just a few miles from the Day Two start.

Things continued to improve until we found ourselves coming up to – The Smithville Hill. We’re not talking about an uphill here – we’re talking one heck of an exhilarating downhill. I had done the awesome downhill of the Smithville Hill on my Cruiser before and it was a blast. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of speed we could reach going down that thing on a tandem. As we approached, I picked up the pace. Danny, strictly from sensing my increased effort, started pouring on the power. By the time we were starting the steep decent, we already had the tandem at about thirty miles per hour. Then we really started accelerating!

I had already shifted into the highest gear and I was not letting up on the pedals.  I kept them spinning faster and faster to keep up with the increasing speed. Danny, behind me, still giving it everything he had – but obviously oblivious to what was still to come. In fact, it was probably about the time that we were just hitting 80 miles per hour that Danny must have peered around my shoulder and caught a glimpse of the expanse of downhill still in front of us – because that’s about the time I heard him scream, “BERTHA! Slow this blankity-blank bicycle down RIGHT NOW!”

But hey. I am The Captain!

And as The Captain, I kept the power to pedals. The computer on the handlebars flashing the numbers: 81, 82, 83, 84, 85 as quickly as counting off seconds. 86, 87, 88, 89, 90. Ninety! We were doing ninety miles per hour down Smithville Hill on the tandem! We were flying past every other cyclist on the course. I could feel that Danny was fighting the pedals as he was screaming his fool head off – but I wasn’t about to let up. It took a couple of seconds but we hit 91 then 92. After a few more seconds, 93. Then finally, 94 showed on the computer readout.

It was precisely at 94 miles per hour that Danny discovered the brake cable running along the top tube of the tandem that operated the rear brakes. Without letting up on his insane shrieking, he reached down with both hands and pulled as hard as he could on the cable. The rear brake pads immediately engaged against the rim and started slowing the bike. There was nothing I could do about it – he had seized control of the rear brake. I started fighting the handlebar to control the bike. Danny was like a madman on the back – pulling harder and harder on the brake cable. The brake pads were squealing almost as loudly as Danny. Smoke started streaming from the rear wheel. Within a matter of seconds, the squealing rubber started to sound more like the scraping of rocks against metal. The heat from the pressure on the brakes had morphed the rubber brake pads into sold rock. Sparks were now flying around the rear brake calipers. The bicycle had slowed to approximately 40 mph when the rear tire caught fire – which, in turn, caused the bag on the rear rack to catch on fire – which, in turn, set Danny’s jersey on fire. As we slowed to about 30, the rear tire blew out. At that same moment, Danny unclipped and went flying off the back of the bike, doing 30 mile per hour cartwheels and somersaults in the ditch alongside the road until he finally collapsed to a stop in a mud puddle that was just wet enough to cause his fire to fizzle out. Meanwhile, I was still battling the tandem and trying to regain control while at the same time I had a burning glob of rubber with rocks for brake pads on the back wheel fighting against me – not to mention two big tubes of Chamois Butt’r and a container of sun block fueling the fire inside the burning rear bag. 

I’m almost 99% positive that the SAG wagon driver at the bottom of the hill who had stopped to help a rider with a flat tire never knew what hit him.

And that, dear readers, is the exciting tale of my first MS-75 - on a tandem.

Enjoy the Ride!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Riding with Office Supplies

Young John Waldenthrottle rode his J.C. Higgins ten-speed bicycle down Louetta Road, headed for the mobile submarine sandwich cart that was usually parked down near Ella Boulevard on weekdays between eleven and about five o’clock.  As he approached the mobile eating establishment, he noticed that there was a Manticore just walking up to the cart to place his order.

Young John stopped a few feet from the cart, dismounted his cycle and lowered the kickstand to stabilize the bike adjacent to the curb. He took a quick sip from his water bottle and then, after returning the bottle to its cage on the bike, walked the few steps toward the cart just as the Manticore began placing his order.

“I’d like one of your twelve inch cold cut combos on wheat,” said the Manticore, “complete with lettuce, tomatoes, black olives and banana peppers.  Oh, and a good healthy amount of yellow mustard.”

Agnes, the lady who normally works the sandwich stand, except on those days when her sister, a professional masseuse who usually works out of her own house, has to go to a client’s house instead, in which case Agnes, who lives with her sister, has to stay home to take care of her three-year old niece and in turn has to make arrangements with the central submarine sandwich office just north of downtown Houston to get a substitute to run the Ella/Louetta wagon – that usually ends up being Carl – but this happened to not be one of those days, so it is actually Agnes on this particular day who reached into the little oven under the counter and pulled out a twelve inch wheat bun and sliced it down the middle to start the preparation of the Manticore’s sandwich.

The Manticore, as well as Young John Waldenthrottle, watched intently as Agnes arranged the assortment of meat on one half of the open bun, paused then asked, “What kind of cheese?”

“Ya got pepper jack?” inquired the Manticore.

“Sure do,” replied Agnes as she threw about four slabs of it on top of the meat, then followed up with lettuce, tomatoes, black olives and banana peppers. She then reached over and grabbed the bottle of spicy brown mustard and laid a thick layer all along the top of the sandwich innards then folded over the bun.”

The Manticore, with a shocked expression commanded, “WHOA, WHOA, WHOA there young lady. I distinctly asked for yellow mustard – not spicy brown mustard. You gotta start that sandwich all over.”

“I’m sorry but we are all out of yellow mustard,” replied Agnes. “Besides, most all of our customers absolutely rave about how good the cold cut combo tastes with spicy brown mustard. In fact, our yellow mustard kept going bad because everyone was always choosing the spicy brown.”

“Well I don’t give two hoots about what everybody else likes or raves about – there is no way I’m gonna pay for a sandwich with that awful spicy brown mustard on it, let alone eat one of the disgusting things!" With that said, the Manticore turned around and stormed off down the road.

Agnes and Young John both stared down the street as they watched the Manticore stomp away in a huff. After a moment Young John turned, walked up to the cart and said, “If it’s alright with you ma'am, I’ll go ahead and buy that sandwich you just fixed for that horrible beast.”

“I’ll tell you what,” offered Agnes, “not only will I give you this fine sandwich; I’m going to give you this fine sandwich for free.”

A big, wide grin stretched across Young John’s face as Agnes continued, “And what’s more, I’ve got something else I’m going to give you for free.” Then she bent over slightly, reached under the counter and came back up with a brown paper grocery sack in her hands.

OH MY GOSH! What is that?” exclaimed Young John.

“This is a bag of leftover goodies that I was passing out to the little Trick-or-Treaters last Halloween,” answered Agnes as she reached into the bag and started pulling out staplers and tape dispensers and a two-hole punch and a three-hole punch, assorted pens and pencils and rulers and a big box of stick pins and paper clips and a whole packet of different sizes of yellow sticky note pads. And some correction tape.

Young John Waldenthrottle was miles beyond excited as he put all of the goodies back in the brown paper sack and then strapped it down on the rear rack of his J.C. Higgins ten-speed. He walked back over to the sandwich cart and got his twelve inch cold cut combo with spicy brown mustard on wheat, thanked Agnes about half-a-dozen more times, then jumped on his bike and went riding back down the road toward his house with his sandwich and his office supplies.