Author: Spencer Swalm

Christian. Colorado native. Husband to Marleen. Father of Byron, Lauren and Jocelyn. Grandfather to Bridget, Lucy and Caroline-hoping to have more on the way. Former member of the Colorado House of Representatives. Retired employee benefits broker.

Talkin’ Turkey


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Turkey Hunting with my son Byron and brother Steve

I went turkey hunting over Easter weekend with my son and brother in western Kansas and Nebraska.  (I didn’t intentionally set it for this weekend, but you know how Easter is: it can’t keep track of it’s own birthday.  Evidently, I can’t either.)

It was a guided trip by Mark Beamer; his hunting lodge is located near the state line, which makes a hunt possible in both states.  The trip was a full immersion experience in rural America.

The lonely, huge vistas as Steve and I drove across the high plains on US 36 through north east Colorado were beautiful-and sad.  Beautiful because they were so lonely.  Sad because they were so lonely:  rural America is being hollowed out.  The legions of men, women  and horses that were once required to farm these enormous expanses of land have been replaced by enormous (and enormously expensive) tractors and combines.  And other equipment that I couldn’t even identify.  Farm houses that sheltered a family now feature broken windows under sagging front porches; farmyards overgrown with weeds shelter coyotes and an occasional pheasant.  Towns like Anton, Last Chance, and Joes have dried up and blown away.

We crossed into Kansas and got to Oberlin late in the afternoon.  Its red brick streets, even if noisy, are a charming throwback.

While there, I got a call from my son, Byron, who was already at the hunting lodge-he drove over from Omaha.  He informed us that we needed to make sure that our Kansas hunting licenses were in order.  Mine was; Steve’s wasn’t.

We hustled over to the place where I had first learned about Beamers the summer before on a road trip to Omaha to visit Byron, Dale’s Fish ‘N’ Fun ‘N’ Gun.  We got there just as they were locking up, but they opened the doors for us, got on their computer, and printed off the form Steve needed from the Kansas Department of Wildlife. Real small town hospitality; drop in next time you’re turkey hunting near Oberlin.

We got to the lodge as the sun was going down.  Along with Byron, our two guides, Mark Beamer and his assistant, another Mark (I’ll call him “Jr.” for clarity, as needed), greeted us on the front porch that stretched the full width of the rustic, but comfortable structure.  Stepping inside, two easy chairs and couches were ranged in front of a flat screen TV that, as I soon learned, was always tuned to the Hunting Channel.  Apparently concerned that the TV functioned as a sort of 1984 telescreen and that animals on the shows might be able to see us, all the furniture was decked out in full camo.  The five of us usually had our camo gear on as well.

Dinner was an extension of the full immersion experience.  Our cook, Vanita, laid out a spread of venison burritos, canned green beans swimming in Velveeta sauce, and chopped lettuce surrounded by an array of Kraft bottles.  When offered the salad, Mark Jr. declined, saying, “I don’t eat salad; I eat the animals that eat it.”

Breakfast at 4 on Friday morning was Raisin Bran; it was the only fruit I had during the weekend.  Byron and I were out in the early morning chill with our guide, Mark Jr., by 5.  We were hunting in Kansas today.

It had rained the night before and was still misting. The gumbo roads were greasy as Mark drifted his pickup down roller coaster hills-and up the other side. Gouts of mud flashed through the headlights before thumping on the windshield.  Like Mark, I hadn’t buckled up when we left the lodge; discreetly, I did now.  And hoped that Byron had done likewise behind me.

Just after a barely visible wooded bottom, the road took a 90° turn to the right.  Mark negotiated the corner and switched on the parking lights. “We pull off right up here and walk down to the blind.”

Only discernible because the turn into the pasture on our right was a paler shade of black, Mark parked and put on a headlamp that cast a faint pink glow.  Quietly opening his door, he walked forward to open the barbed wire fence. Coming back, he poked in his head and said, “Here’s where we get out.  Grab your guns and be quiet.”

We did so and, imitating Mark, held up the handle while we closed the door and then gave it a final shove so the lock engaged with a barely audible click.

Between the double bull blind, the folding camp chairs, and the duffle bags crammed with decoys, Mark was loaded up like a pack animal as we followed his head lamp through the gate and down the the gentle, but uneven grade of the meadow.  Without prompting, Byron volunteered to carry both our guns.  Walking on a perfectly smooth sidewalk is difficult for me because of NPH; the dark, hummocky pasture was anything but perfect.   Despite his burden, Mark’s strong right arm was an invaluable assistance.

It was 6:30 by the time Mark got the blind up, set out the decoys 20 yards to our left, and we were all settled in our chairs peering through the slits of the blind.  We put on our camo face masks as the sky turned a paler shade of gray.

From behind us, Mark started talkin’ turkey.  Big time.

We listened intently.  Nothing came back through the gloom.  And didn’t as Mark continued to call with several variations on the same theme for the next forty five minutes.

Then, after the light had revealed the tree line that encircled our pasture 100 yards out, Byron’s low voice came over my right shoulder, “They’re coming in from our left.”  My side of the blind.

Three dark, sleek forms, by fits and starts, sauntered towards our decoys. Mark’s now slightly more insistent gobble occasionally came from over our shoulders.  “Be quiet,” he whispered, “and don’t move.” Inserting an assortment of semi-circular bits of plastic and cellophane between his teeth, Mark could produce an amazing variety of gobbles, cackles, purrs, yelps and whines.  The birds were as helpless as Ulysses before the Sirens.

In a tightly packed flock, the turkeys came to rest among our decoys.  My gun was already resting on the slit in the blind to my left; I raised the butt to my shoulder.  The safety came off with a metallic click that, to my ears, seemed to thunder through the blind; the birds still appeared clueless. “Wait until they separate,” whispered Mark into my ear, “you only want to get one.”

Finally, one moved further to my right and, craning his neck up to his full four foot height, presented a target that seemed much taller.  And too big to miss.  Aiming below his head and above the breast, I pulled the trigger.

I didn’t hear anything.  But, in the early morning gloom, a yellow ball of flame erupted that filled my field of vision.  And then-nothing.

Had I missed him?

Then, from behind me, “Good shot!”

Outside, the jake lay crumpled in an awkward heap, his wings and body still spasmodically convulsing.  The two other birds stood where they had been when their comrade was cut down.

“Those other two still don’t even know what happened,” said Mark.  “Watch.  They’ll climb up and start beating on him.”

Sure enough, less than a minute later one of them climbed aboard and started pecking.  But he and his buddy took off when we climbed out of the blind to retrieve the now dead bird.

It was 7:30. I was done hunting in Kansas.

Mark and Byron waited for a while before concluding that they would be more likely to be successful leaving the blind behind and stalking birds in another location.  Mark loaded up the decoys, Byron took both guns, and they headed back to the truck.  I hunkered down in my parka and tried to get comfortable in the camp chair.

Next thing I knew, there was a loud thump on the roof of the blind.   “You awake in there?” sang  out Mark.

“I am now,” I replied, surfacing from a deep and profoundly satisfying nap.  “How did you guys do?”

“Byron got his bird.  Let’s head back and get some lunch.”

On the way, Byron and Mark took turns recounting how they had gone to another tree lined creek bottom, took cover in some bushes behind the decoys, and how two toms had, again, succumbed to the siren call.  Mark captured the final moments on video here.  CAUTION: SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND THESE IMAGES DISTURBING.  OR IRRESISTIBLE.  OR AMUSING. OR ALL OF THE ABOVE.  (Remember, this bird stood a much better chance than the turkey that went through the slaughter house before landing in the frozen meat section for your last Thanksgiving dinner.)

After lunch and another nap, Byron and I drove the 30 miles to Norton, Kansas; I wanted to scout out churches in case I was done hunting in Nebraska by Easter Sunday.  Trinity Episcopal Church, a beautiful little structure just north of downtown, looked like it would admirably fill the bill.

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Easter Sunday on our hunting weekend at Trinity Episcopal Church

That night, the cigar smoke and talk on the front porch got a bit blue for my taste; I went inside to visit with Vanita as she cleaned up after dinner.  With a ready smile on a broad, ruddy face, she told me how still lives in the town where she was born, about 30 miles south of the lodge.

When she was scarcely more than an infant, her father had been thrown from his car in a roll over accident; the Kansas highway department had failed to adequately mark a road construction site.  Her uncle was one of the EMTs that had responded to the wreck. Her dad was moved without being adequately strapped to the stretcher; he wound up a quadriplegic.

“We never sued anyone.  My uncle still feels terrible about that.  My mom, who was only a girl at the time, left; she couldn’t handle it.  But,” she concluded, “my dad was a great guy.”

Her daughter, Jesse, who helped her mom some with the cooking chores over the weekend, ran track at her high school of about 50 kids.  She took first place in the pole vault at the next day’s meet.  I understood where Vanita’s deep suntan had come from.

I just realized that I underestimated how much fruit I had over the weekend; I had raisins again Saturday morning.  But breakfast was every bit as early.  Actually, earlier; it was a longer drive to our set up in Nebraska.

I won’t tell you about the jake I missed that morning at about the same range as the day before-because I can’t.  How do you miss a target like that at that range?  Simple: buck fever. Except, of course, we weren’t hunting bucks.

Nonetheless, I had my second and last bird by late afternoon.

Despite it being Easter, I confess to to the sin of smugness when I heard the other guys getting ready to head out at 4 the next morning.  But it didn’t last long; I promptly rolled over and went back to sleep ’til 7.

After my third serving of fruit (more Raisin Bran), I was on my way to Norton in plenty of time for the 10:30 church service.  In fact, I was so early that there was time to stop at the Town and Country Kitchen for a more substantial breakfast of eggs, hash browns, sausage and coffee.  The place was loaded with extra help; from what I could tell during my reconnaissance, all 12 churches in town started their services at 10:30.  Apparently, it was going to be a mob scene when church let out.

As I walked into Trinity, the priest greeted me warmly.  The congregation was small, but the church was snug and beautiful as I took my place in a well worn pew.  As is usual with an Episcopalian service, there was audience participation: plenty of up and down and kneeling.  And, for me, a difficult time keeping track of what was going between the bulletin, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Hymnal.  But it didn’t matter; I was blessed to be in the midst of believers celebrating the risen Lord.

I normally love Episcopalian hymns: they’re theologically and melodically rich.  And the little church was trying, but the accompaniment to our frail singing of the traditional hymns was anything but rich; a man in the back, manipulating a lap top, was putting out a thin gruel of synthetic organ sounds that were slightly off key and tempo.  When we went forward to the alter for the Lord’s supper, I understood why: a small pump organ, looking like it hadn’t been played for years, sat to our right. A thicket of pipes, some the size of drinking straws, gathered dust.

More technology hollowing out rural America.


At the end of a successful hunt where all of us got our limit, I was excited about two things.

First, that my daughter, Lauren, has expressed an interest in joining her husband, Haden, for next year’s trip.  He would make a great firearms instructor for her; he served, with distinction, during two tours in Iraq with the Marines.  I can’t wait.

And, second, that my daughter has become a fan of “TheMeatEater” show.  I found a great looking recipe on the site the other day for Wild Turkey Scallops, Lemon, and Baby Artichokes. My wife and I will never be able to eat even one of these turkeys ourselves.  I am really looking forward to having my daughter’s family and some neighbors in to help us get the job done right.







The Lucky Sperm Club

image1 (5)Until I recently heard it from John Philips, president of the board of the AllHealth Network, I’d never heard that phrase.  And when I did, John’s matter-of-fact way of inserting it into our discussion jolted my prudish sensibilities.  Despite our political differences (he ran a losing campaign as a Democrat for the same state House seat that I ended up winning as a Republican two years after he lost), John’s plain spoken ways also raised him a notch or two in my estimation.  Given that John is an estate planning attorney, he’s probably known more than his fair share of Club members.  And, if he doesn’t, he probably wishes he did.

But it was more than the casual reference to sex that jarred me.  The fact is, I’m a member of the Club-I just didn’t know what it was called.  So, when John threw the line across our breakfast of eggs and hash browns, I had to check to make sure that I hadn’t betrayed myself by snorting up some coffee or orange juice.  Thankfully, I hadn’t.

Which raises the question: why is it just as uncomfortable for me to talk about money as it is about sex?  I’m not completely sure.

But if I’m going to talk about money, it makes sense to me that I do it like pulling an abscessed tooth:  quickly and completely.  Here goes.  (And, don’t worry, no more about sex.)

My dad was a serial entrepreneur and a very successful business man.  I’m not.

By the time he died, he left my siblings and me very well off financially.  But that was a far cry from where he started.  His widowed mother was so impoverished that she had to put my dad in foster care when he was a little boy in the hardscrabble ’20’s of rural Idaho.  By the time he was about 13 years old, he was basically supporting himself.   And he never looked back.

I, on the other hand, and despite having a dramatic head start over my father, have never been very successful financially.  Yes, I’ve always been employed (almost always self-employed), but there’s a big difference between working for your self and making an income adequate to provide anything beyond the bare essentials for a family.  And relying on periodic hand outs from your folks for many of the non-essentials.

When our three kids were young, my wife worked hard as a nurse.  It was her employment that provided us with health insurance.  We couldn’t afford it on my income.

We drove cars until the wheels came off.  Once, we picked up a relatively low milage Camry at a bargain basement price-because it was generously pockmarked with hail damage.  I can imagine my folks cringing when I showed up at their house in that gem.

We missed house payments once in a while.  To catch up, I would have to take money out of an IRA that I had been able to contribute to in early in our marriage-before we started running out of money before we ran out of month.

Want to get discouraged?  Try getting behind on your mortgage-and get hit with a late fee and a threatening demand letter.  Then catch up by taking money out of an IRA.  And, when the next April 15 rolls around, see that the IRS also wants its pound of flesh in the way of a premature withdrawal fee.  The final insult?  See your IRA dramatically smaller than your wife’s due to the power of compound interest over the intervening decades since you took money out of your account.  And your wife didn’t.

But don’t get me wrong.  We were never going to be hungry or homeless.  It was just humiliating and depressing and stressful.

I suppose, by now, you get my drift.  My dad pulled himself a long way up from the bottom of the barrel.  I started a long way from the bottom.  And largely blazed a trail of downward mobility.

Was it because I didn’t try at all?  No.  Or try hard enough?  More likely.  But I know that I never really found my métier.  And that is a real problem.  (Which is a sad commentary in itself and the subject, perhaps, of another post.)

I got a law degree: you’d think you could make some money doing that.   In fact, like my breakfast companion, I also did estate planning.  But it was never more than an anorexic practice.   I always saw the law as a sort of incantation: if you didn’t string together the right combination of words, the magic wouldn’t happen.  And, like the paranormal, the results were highly unpredictable.  Lack of confidence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in potential clients.  In fact, they can sense it a mile away.  And stay just as far away.

We tried Amway; that was even worse (and, again, the subject, maybe, of another post).

I finally wound up in insurance, but it was only my father’s death that, ultimately, pulled our financial irons out of the fire.

And there you have it: one man’s story of what it’s like to be a member of the Lucky Sperm Club.




Two Tramps in Mud Time

IMG_0118My wife and I baby sat our two young granddaughters at our home recently.  They migrate routinely between their parents’ home and ours; they’re our peripatetic grandchildren.  We’re blessed to have them live so near.

Unfortunately, the event that occasioned the this particular visit was far from ideal; my son-in-law’s parents were badly injured in a car accident, so we were helping out.  Thankfully, both parents are now on their way to recovery.

It was the kind of spring day in Colorado that invited a trip to the backyard: warm in the sun, but chilly enough to require a coat for the kids.  My wife is a great one for picking up little toys to amuse her granddaughters; when we go out to the backyard, they appear as if by magic.  She held up a bubble wand that, when the breeze was right, sent a stream of iridescent globes scurrying across the yard with the older granddaughter, Bridgett, in hot pursuit.  (The younger one, Caroline, isn’t quite walking yet.) A pink vinyl ball that Bridgett is getting pretty handy at throwing around and trying to play catch.  Inevitably, there is plenty of chasing dropped balls and stooping over to pick them up.

One time, I bent over to pick up the ball and felt the warmth of the sun on my back.

That’s when it happened.  Again.

In a flash, a Robert Frost poem that I have thought of many times during my in years in Colorado came to mind.  It had been decades, probably a college English class, since I actually read the poem. But the few lines imprinted on my mind seemed to so perfectly describe a Colorado spring that it has always stuck with me.

My memory of the poem was, to be sure less than perfect, but it had something to do with the sun coming out from behind a cloud and springtime advancing to summer.

And then, when the clouds come back over and the breeze picks up, springtime retreating to winter.

I loved that imagery.  I’m not sure of all the places or times where the jumbled lines have hit me.  But I know they have.  Maybe backpacking over Arapahoe Pass above the 4th of July campground.  Or any of countless other gorgeous places in Colorado.

It took a lot of googling to find the lines from the poem; I never would have found it without the search engine.  (A tip o’ the hat to my son, Byron, who works at Google.)

My memory, however, wasn’t playing tricks on me:

Two Tramps in Mud Time

. . . . .

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”

. . . . .

That’s just the way it was as Bridgett chased bubbles around the backyard.  When the sun was out and the wind was still, we were two months on in May.  And, in the next moment, we were back in March.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Poetry is not my strong suit.  But that image has stood the test of time for me.

And, it’s funny how things work out sometimes.  When the sun warmed my back the other day and conjured up Frost’s words, I had no recollection of the title of his poem.

But, when I looked down at my little granddaughters, the title was also a perfect fit: two tramps in mud time.


Wet, whacky and wobbly

Large Luxury House

A large custom built luxury house in a residential neighborhood. This high end home is a very nicely landscaped property.

I first noticed it while going door to door in my fourth and last campaign for House District 37 in 2012.  Because the district was very competitive, every two years I always had to ring thousands of Republican and unaffiliated doorbells between April and election day in early November.

Under the best of circumstances, campaigning in this fashion is always time intensive.  If I got to 100 houses during an 8 hour Saturday, I was doing well.  Fewer on weekdays after work, even if I stayed out ’til is was nearly dark on the long summer days.

But after having done so much of it, it wasn’t hard for me to sense that it was taking longer to go from house to house than it had during previous campaigns.  True, it was never a short walk between houses because cutting across lawns was, according to my mentor and master campaigner, David Balmer, strictly verboten:  “It’s ok for the mailman.  But you don’t want to let your constituents see a politician walking across their manicured, suburban grass.”

So, I would take the sidewalk to the drive way, up the drive to where the walk forked off to the front porch, up (usually) a few stairs, and ring the bell.  Then wait to see if someone answered.  If they did, especially on Saturdays, they might want to talk for several minutes.  And then reverse the process to the next house.  Again, under ideal circumstances, slow going.

But try as I might, I couldn’t walk as fast as I had in prior campaigns.  It felt like there was stickum on the bottom of my shoes.  And, just as weird, was the fact that I wasn’t comfortable walking down even a few stairs unless there was a handrail.

“What was going on?  I was an expert alpine skier, wasn’t I?  I could ride my mountain bike on rugged single track trails.  I’d backpacked all over the state on rocky, rutted trails.  Heck, in my youth I had been a technical rock climber.  And now a few stairs were making me nervous?”

It hit me again with equal force when the session got underway the following winter.  Legislators interact with lobbyists routinely; I was no different.  Many of them are very professional looking women who work the marble hallways of the Capital all day (and sometimes late into the night) in stiletto heels; it looks brutally uncomfortable.  But, try as I might, I couldn’t keep pace with these women as we walked the 75 paces from the House chamber to my office.

A woman several inches shorter than I.  In high heels.  And I couldn’t walk as fast as they did.  What’s going on?  Frustration is scarcely adequate to describe my feelings.

I began talking to my doctors.

Maybe the titanium hip that had been put in several years before was going bad.  The orthopedic surgeon who did the implant x-rayed it and tested my blood for some sort of titanium poisoning.


The same result when I talked to my GP at an annual physical.

I see a psychiatrist about once a quarter for my bipolar condition.  I complained to him.  “Can my medication be making me walk like this and not feel secure going down stairs?”

He did a simple battery of physical tests, like balancing on one foot and walking a straight line down the hallway in his office while he watched.

Again, according to him, nothing.  (After we later learned what was really going on, he repeatedly offered a “mea culpa” for his oversight.  He’s a brain doctor after all.)

But after complaining a few more times in subsequent visits, he finally decided I needed to see a neurologist and gave me a referral.

It took a while to get in, but the appointed day finally arrived: my wife and I sat in the waiting room.

It didn’t strike me as odd until later, but the doctor didn’t have his nurse escort us to an exam room for the usual preliminaries.  Instead, he personally met us in the waiting room and watched me get out of my chair and walk across the room.

I’m convinced he knew what I had even before I got across the room.  Of course, some tests had to be run to confirm his impression:  brain imaging followed by a spinal tap.  (Take it from me, you haven’t lived until you have had an evening to think about a spinal tap before it’s done the following morning.)

But sure enough, the initial diagnosis was right:  normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH).   Sometimes referred to as the “wet, whacky and wobbly” syndrome because of the most common symptoms. I’ll simply say that I had the first and the third.  And add that I hope to be able to avoid the second.

The usual treatment was what was prescribed for me:  another hole in my head to implant a shunt to drain excess fluid from my skull to my abdominal cavity where it is reabsorbed.

Has the shunt been a miracle cure?  Not hardly.  In fact, I have sometimes been resentful when I read stories of others in my situation that do seem to experience full recoveries.

But there is no doubt that the shunt has slowed the progression of the condition.

Thankfully, the wet has definitely improved.

Am I whacky?  I suppose some might say so.  But I contend that I’m still cogent.  At least I hope so.  And hope to continue so for a good while beyond what is my 66th year.

Unfortunately, I’m still wobbly, especially going down stairs; I religiously cling to the hand rail when one is available.  But I work out regularly and vigorously, including twice a week with a trainer.  He hounds me mercilessly on my posture, virtual posture Nazi.  And how could this possibly do anything but help?

NPH has made me more observant of the old people around me (I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.).  The stooped posture.  The shuffling, wide gait.  The caution at the curb.

It took the doctors years to figure out what was wrong  with me.  And I am certainly not alone.  The Hydrocephalus Association estimates that of the 700,000 American with NPH, less than 20% receive an appropriate diagnosis.  NPH is commonly misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.  Or simple aging.  But the facts are that it is one of the few causes of dementia that can be treated.

The penultimate take away?  If you, or a loved one, is wet, whacky, and wobbly, don’t rest until you get answers that make all the pieces of the puzzle fit.

And the last take away?  This getting old stuff isn’t for sissies.





“No, I got a D in calculus.”

image2 (2)Our son, Byron, is a smart guy.  But, growing up, he was not big on school.  He much preferred to spend his time reading books.  I don’t know how many times he read the Civil War epic, Rifles for Watie.  And he almost certainly doesn’t either.

It drove us, and particularly his mother, nuts to be aware of his wasted potential.  We tried a private, alternative high school for a while.  It was a goofy waste of money.  I suggested that we send him to a military academy in Kansas-my wife vetoed that idea.

When he got older and could learn to drive, we thought that preventing him from getting his license might motivate him.  Wrong.  He sat in his room and read.  And brought home, at best, uneven report cards.  Some A’s and B’s, a sprinkling of D’s and F’s.  We gave up on the license thing when it dawned on my wife that if he didn’t learn to drive before he went to college-if any of them would accept him-he would be learning to drive from other college kids.  Probably not the best teachers.  We surrendered, he won.  But he never seemed to really be all that interested in driving anyway.

He ended up going to Miami of Ohio-talk about a university with a geographic identity crisis.  Why a school of its caliber would accept him I don’t know.  Well, actually, I do: they wanted our money.

As he did at Cherry Creek High School, he played in the marching band.  We went back for parents’ weekend and were there for the homecoming football game.  Those were the glory days of RedHawk football-Ben Roethlisberger was the quarterback.  So we got to see our son march at half-time.  And Big Ben win the game.

But it was all pretty much down hill from there.  Toward the end of the spring semester, we got a letter from Byron’s room mate informing us that he almost never went to class and did very little besides stay in the dorm room playing computer games.  The room mate also reported that he had to work to pay his way through school.  The kid was justifiably angry that Byron was not even warming a chair in class while he was working his fanny off.

When I picked up Byron at DIA that spring I showed him the letter.  “What do you have to say about this?  Is this what’s going on?”  My voice quavered with anger as we drove along Pena Boulevard.  He didn’t deny the contents of the letter.  I told him, “We’re done with this.  If you want to keep going to school, you’re picking up the tab yourself.”

A few minutes of stoney silence passed before he said, “I went to see the Navy recruiter recently.  I think I’m going to join the Navy.”

“Right,” I replied, still upset, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“I actually took the the military IQ test, the ASVAB, and got the highest available score.  They’re recruiting me into the Navy’s nuclear program.”

“Well,” I replied, “that sounds like it could be a good plan.  But you’re going to have to prove to us that you’re serious.”

But, skeptic though I was, a few weeks later a couple of impressive, ram rod straight Naval recruiting officers were sitting around our kitchen table.  I was a pretty easy sale.  My wife was tougher; she was afraid that they would pull the old bait-and-switch on him and he would wind up chipping paint on old hulks.  Nonetheless, a few months later, and after an emotional going away dinner, the recruiters showed up late one evening to take Byron downtown to be sworn in.

The next we heard from him was a frantic call from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center:  “I’m here.  I’m ok.  And I have to go.”  Click.

It was demanding, but he did well in basic training.  The fact that I was only seconds from missing my flight to Chicago to see him graduate from basic still haunts me, but I made it and the ceremony was suitably impressive.  We enjoyed a great weekend in Chi Town together.

He continued to excel through the various training schools.  The nuclear power training school curriculum is enough to make my head explode-you look at it and decide if you think you can pass.  I couldn’t have.

From there, he opted for submarines and helped run the reactor for several years on the USS Nebraska, a ballistic missile sub.  I joined the Big Red Sub Club and, in that capacity, was able to go on a one day ride along as the submarine returned from one of its 77 day patrols to its base in Bangor, Washington.

After eight years of outstanding Navy service, Byron finished as a Petty Officer, First Class.  The letter his mother and I received from his commanding officer announcing the promotion is impressive and, framed, hangs in my office.  He has a shadow box laden with commendations, medals, ribbons and pins.

On the strength of his naval record, and the recommendation of a fellow bubble head, Byron got a job with Google at their data center near Omaha after he mustered out of the Navy.  Again, regular promotions.  They’ve sent him around the country and from Finland to Ireland on various assignments.

I used to like to tell folks that “The only class that our son passed in college was marching band.”  And then go on to tell them how well he had done in the Navy-and now at Google.

However, one time Byron heard me say that and corrected me:  “No, dad, I got a D in calculus.”

I stand corrected.

On Pins and Needles

I served on the Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee when I represented Centennial in the Colorado House.  One of the many bills we heard dealt with ear acupuncture.  The testimony, which I initially took with a grain of salt-actually, a truck load of salt-was that sticking pins in the ears of someone suffering from mental illness could effect a cure.  Or at least relieve the symptoms.

But I began to sit up and take notice when the witnesses, including a woman named MK Christian, began talking about the work they were doing at the state mental hospital in Pueblo.  She made it sound as if they were having considerable success.  And, when more conventional, allopathic doctors supported their claims, it really got my attention.  They said it helped the patients sleep better and reduced their dependence on medication.

I am bipolar.  As is fairly typical, I originally manifested the illness as a young adult in my early 20s.  While Churchill’s black dog of depression was my more usual companion, I had bouts of mania as well.  External events often contribute to and exacerbate the mood swings, which was certainly the case with me.

In my early 20s I broke up with a long time girl friend.  I was desperate, suicidal, broken on the rock of my sin.  I wondered into a church and, less than an hour later, came out as a newly minted Christian.  It was as if someone had popped the top of a champaign bottle; I was effervescent.

Unfortunately, a few days later I went on a pheasant hunting trip with my father and some of his friends.  Believe it or not, guns and mania don’t work all that well together.  No one got hurt, but my father, understandably, was deeply concerned with some of my bizarre behavior.  On our return to Denver, my folks had me involuntarily committed.  I was driven to the Mount Airy Psychiatric hospital in the back of a Denver sheriff squad car.

It was, no doubt, the right thing to do.  But I felt like a blood brother to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  They put me on medication, I was compliant in the “group” sessions, and met with the psychiatrist, Dr. Walker, whose testimony had convinced the probate court to commit me.  But when I got out two weeks later, I’d had enough of the drugs.  And didn’t believe I need more counseling.  In fact, I really thought that it was my parents that should be seeing a shrink.

So, like many in my situation, I quit taking the medication.  And seeing Dr. Walker.

It was a very long and winding road from there to the point when, in my 50s, that I finally was willing to admit I needed help.  It began with another bout of mania that reduced my two wonderful daughters to tears.  Which, predictably, was followed by a visit from the snarling black dog.   But it was still a struggle for my long suffering wife to persuade me to try to find a psychiatrist. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for my former partner, he had a son with similar, but even more severe problems-so he was able to refer me to a Dr. Jay Carlson.  Smart, with a gentle and yet probing sense of humor, it didn’t take Dr. Carlson long to get me on a course of medication that worked-most of the time.  And which didn’t have too many side effects.

So, by the time that I heard the bill on auricular acupuncture,  I certainly knew enough about the illness to be aware that adequate sleep was an important component to keeping the beast at bay.  When the testimony was over, I found MK in the crowded hallway outside the committee room and asked for her card.

Within a few days I was  in her quaint old Victorian on Franklin Street, laying face down on a table, staring at the floor through a head rest while she kept up a reassuring patter as she put needles in my scalp, ears, neck, back and ankles.  “There,” she said with what I soon learned was characteristic enthusiasm, “that will be a good treatment for you, guy!  Now, you rest!”  With that, she dimmed the lights, put a heat lamp on my feet, and turned on some soothing music on the Bose.

I woke up about an hour later.  I don’t think I was drooling-or snoring-that time.  But I know that on subsequent treatments I have done both.

How does it work?  I have no idea.  I’m not really convinced that MK does either.  My daughter, when she couldn’t get pregnant, was referred to an acupuncturist by one of the high tech, high cost infertility clinics she and her husband had begun seeing.   They got pregnant with acupuncture instead.  And now they have a second little daughter-and this time without any intervention.  One time, I asked MK,  “How does acupuncture help with infertility?”  Her answer?  “I’m not really sure.”

Has acupuncture “cured” my bipolar?  No.  I still take daily medication.  And, especially in the dark days of winter, the black dog can still nip at my heels.  But I do think that it helps me sleep better.

And, by the way, on a wall of her clinic there is a picture of MK looking over the shoulder of Governor Hickenlooper as he signed the auricular acupuncture bill into law.



Surprised By History

My wife and I are in the process of purchasing a condo in Silverthorne, Colorado.

The paperwork is enough to make my head spin.  Maybe not as alarmingly as the scene in The Exorcist.  But plenty enough for me, who is a real coward when it comes to scary movies-and to reams of incomprehensible legal forms.

I was plowing through the title insurance documents the other night.  The title dated all the way back to a hand written land grant signed by President William McKinley on January 10, 1901.  An anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated McKinley in September of that year.

But while this was was interesting, it was not what caught my attention.  It was an assignment of wages from a Charles and Laura Anthony to an E.A. Theobald that caused me to sit up and take notice.

I went to Graland Elementary school with a Robin Theobald.  And I knew that his family had roots in the Breckenridge area, just up the Blue River and across Lake Dillon from Silverthorne.

I knew that the Theobald in the land deed had to be one of Robin’s ancestors.

I remember very distinctly a “hobby fair” that we had in second grade.  The assignment was to bring to school a display of what you did as a hobby.  Since I really didn’t have one other than reading, I was at a loss as to what to do.  Then, in desperation, I stayed up until the wee hours the night before the fair putting together a card board diorama of our school library and hammering out a couple of book reports.  One of which was “Stuart Little,” complete with my childish drawing of Stuart’s sail boat gliding over the Central Park pond with little “v” shaped gulls floating overhead.  I still feel that, somehow, I pulled one over on the judges when they awarded me second prize.

First prize, hands down, went to Robin.  He had a display of mining gear that would have done many museums proud:  old picks and shovels, head lamps, pans, sluice boxes, candle holders, cast iron skillets, gas masks and hard hats, rock drill bits, worn rocking chairs.  It really was impressive.  And he collected it in his summer rambles through the hills of the Breckenridge gold mining district.

So, I googled Robin.  Sure enough, in the Summit Daily there was at least two articles about him and his wife Patty; they still live in Breckenridge.  In fact, they pretty much seem to run the place.  He has done everything from working in an underground mine, to managing the local radio station, to restoring historic buildings, serving on a local planning commission, and organizing 4th of July fireworks.  A real home town guy, and proud of it.

I plan to look him up when we finally get this crazy loan closed in Silverthorne.




12 Gallons

I made a whole blood donation again at the Lowery Bonfils location last week.  As I left, the lady at the front desk gave me my 15 gallon lapel pin.  Boy, did I ever feel dizzy after that donation!  (And, if you don’t know I’m shining you on, do I ever have a bridge in Brooklyn you’re going to like.)

Fifteen gallons.  Eight pints a gallon.  That’s 120 donations.  And, since they don’t allow whole blood donations more frequently that every two months, that’s at least 20 years.  And, in reality, a good deal more than that since I missed my every other month blood letting, for one reason or another, on a fairly routine basis.

I can actually be a good deal more precise about how long it took me to get that 12 gallon pin because I didn’t start donating on a regular basis until I met a woman in the D.U. law library named Barbara Euser in about 1977.  That’s 40 years ago.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I know that she now calls Greece home and that she is a very active in group devoted to protecting a body of water named Vatika Bay.  And the oceans in general.  And, at least judging by her Facebook “likes,” it is safe to say that we have diverged philosophically nearly as far as we have diverged geographically.

To help pay for law school, Barbara worked behind the check out counter in the library.  For some reason, she told me that she occasionally donated blood a few blocks away at the old Denver General Hospital.  That, along with her extensive mountaineering experience, impressed me.  And, not wanting to be shown up by a woman, I was a push over for opening my veins; I was filling out the requisite paperwork at the Denver General Blood Bank before the week was out.

The form in those early years was innocent, simple and fit on a 3×5 inch index card:  name, address, weight, when did you last donate, do you feel well today?

It wasn’t long, however, before the questionnaire grew into a multiple page, legal size form. And took an ominous turn, asking questions about, what at the time, seemed to me astonishingly intimate details of the potential donor’s life:  sex with other men.

The AIDS epidemic had arrived in Denver, my home town, a place that I still regarded with a sort of willful naiveté.

The form continues to morph and metastasize; the latest questions are about the zika virus.  Now, on a hand held electronic tablet, it takes me at least 10 minutes to power through all the questions, even though I have been through them . . . . how many times?  And, rather than a donation room about the size of a walk-in closet off the main lobby at the old Denver General, Bonfils now operates out of its own, multi-story, state of the art facility at Lowery.

Yes, I still look away when the phlebotomist tells me the needle is about to go in.  But when they say “Slight poke,” I have never had reason to take issue with their prediction.

Bonfils latest branding slogan is, “You’re just our type.  Be a hero today.”  Well, hero may, in my estimation, be a bit of a stretch.  But there’s no doubt that someone, somewhere needs your blood.  So, if donating will make you feel like a hero, please be my guest.




The Christians.

My wife was out of town recently visiting our daughter’s family-especially our little grand daughter-in Spokane.  And, as the saying goes, “When the cat’s away, the mouse will play.”  I saw Lucas Hnath’s play, ‘The Christians‘ at the DCPA.

I feared that this would be yet another heavy handed depiction of sanctimonious, knuckle dragging Christians that is the usual fare at “high brow” theater.  But, I reasoned, at least I could be pretty sure that it wasn’t going to be the Evangelical treacle that Hollywood is occasionally churning out now.

I was pleasantly surprised all around. Yes, it depicts a day in the life of a mega-church.  But it takes a sympathetic look at all sides of a bruising church split.  It was anything but saccharine. But nor was it judgemental.    Instead, it was thoughtful and thought provoking.

It began with the stereotypical, impeccably coiffed head pastor enthusiastically praising the Lord-and his congregation-for successfully completing a huge fund raising campaign to retire the debt on their equally huge church.  The choir and “praise band” provides suitably upbeat musical accompaniment throughout.  And they really were good-I, along with most of the audience-occasionally joined in with song and clapping.

But then the story takes a very unexpected turn.

The pastor goes to the pulpit and declares that he has had a revelation and that “all roads lead to God.”  Yes, Jesus is the Savior.  But so is Mohammed. And the Buddha.  And any other deity you care to mention.  And, for those so inclined, no deity at all will do.

Before the sermon is even over, the fault lines of the impending schism break into the open.  The assistant pastor comes to the mic and declares, that while the head pastor played an instrumental role his own salvation, he can’t abide what he considers a clear deviation from Scripture.  A few minutes later, after an impassioned defense of Orthodoxy, he walks out of the sanctuary.  And the life of the church.

The head pastor comes back to the pulpit and fires up the praise band again.  But the dam is beginning to leak.  During a question and answer session that follows, a single mother (who has been tithing 20% of her meager income) asks the pastor if “My young son dies, will Hitler be with him in heaven?”

“Yes, I believe he will.”

It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  More and more of the congregation begins melting away.  Including the pastor’s wife, who admits in a congregational meeting, she doesn’t side with her husband. And never believed that all roads lead to heaven in the first place.

In the final scene, the head pastor, deflated, slumps on the stairs of the platform that had been the scene of so many high energy triumphs.  The sanctuary is empty and dark.

The play ends.  No pat answers for the audience.  Just an invitation to contemplate the questions that rattled around our heads as we, too, file out of the empty “church.”

“The Christians” run at the DCPA is over.  But should it come back around sometime, I recommend that you take it in.  I don’t believe that you will be disappointed.






Brother, can you spare a dime?

This last Sunday evening I made a quick trip to our local, suburban grocery store.  As I left the nearly empty parking lot and waited at the red light to turn on to Arapahoe Road, a young/old woman stood to my left holding a worn cardboard sign that read, “Single mom need help.”

I quickly went through the usual mental gymnastics:  are you really a single mom?  If I give you a dollar, will it just go up in smoke-or something worse?  Or really help the kids?  That she was a woman cinched it for me; I don’t give money to men standing at stop lights.

I pushed the down button on the passenger window and said, “Hey, I have something for you.”  I hurriedly pulled a dollar from my wallet; the light could change any time.  She acted like she hadn’t heard me; she could hardly see my car, let alone me, with the sun blasting into her eyes just above the mountains to the west.  I tried again, louder,”Ma’am, here’s a dollar.”

She heard me this time and took off the dark glasses that were doing a poor job of protecting her from the glare.  “Sorry,” she said, coming closer,  “I couldn’t see you.”

She reached into the car; I handed her the bill.  She thanked me and backed away.  The light changed. And I pulled onto Arapahoe.

What is our city, and country, coming to?

I grew up in Denver.  The only memory I have as a youth of panhandlers is one I would like to forget.  In high school, some friends and I went down to skid row, which, believe it or not, was where Larimer Square is now.  We brought some pliers, some dimes, and some matches.  And had a “great” time watching the wretches on the sidewalk burn themselves as they scrambled to pick up the coins that we pitched out the windows.

But aside from that shameful experience, I have no recollection of begging in this town back then.  But now it is common place to see one, two, or even three ragged souls at intersections holding up limp cardboard signs throughout the city.  Even in quite suburban areas on a quiet Sunday evening.

Do I know what to do about it?  No.

But I do have some thoughts on causes.

First, broken families spawn broken people.  In a whole range of ways, virtually every study agrees that divorce or bearing children out of wedlock negatively impacts everyone involved.  Divorced parents and single mothers are more likely to be in poverty.  Which, of course, spills down to children.

But the problems kids face go beyond poverty.  Children in these scenarios are more likely to do poorly in school, be involved in crime, act out sexually, and abuse drugs.

Will a stable marriage solve all these problems?  And mean that we see fewer panhandlers on Denver streets?  Almost certainly not.  But how could it hurt to set it as a goal?

Second, undiagnosed mental illness often plays a role in panhandling and homelessness.  And this is something I am qualified to speak about from personal experience.  I am bipolar.  In my early 20’s I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks and put on medication.  But, like many in my situation, when I was released, I quit taking the medication.  “I don’t need that stuff.”

And for the next thirty years I was on a roller coaster.  Sometimes maniacally high.  But much more frequently in the grip of the black dog of depression.  True, I was never homeless; but I was suicidal many times.  But, I was blessed to be surrounded by a supportive family that was more than enough reason to keep living.   Now I see a psychiatrist quarterly and take daily medication.  But take it from me, mental illness is debilitating.

I can see how someone can wind up on a street corner holding up a “Single mom need help” sign.  But what to do about it is another matter.