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My 5th Grade Field Trip (or How I Nearly Started a War with Spain)

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The last thing I ever expected to do on a fifth-grade field trip was instigate a trans-atlantic war. Then again, I doubt very many people are thinking seriously about intercontinental politics at age 10. Most of them are just thinking about cookies or something. At the start of this adventure all I was thinking about was hardtack biscuits.

Perhaps I should explain a bit of backstory. At some point, myself, my dad, and a bunch of friends joined an overnight trip to Baltimore harbor to stay aboard the U.S.S. Constellation (accidentally called the U.S.S. Constipation by a younger friend of mine who didn’t understand why that was funny.) The plan was for the ship’s crew (volunteers from the historical society) to show us around and teach us various nautical terms and concepts as well as fill us in on the history of the ship and its interdiction of illegal slavers. Then we’d pile into hammocks and cram together just like the real crew (there were like 200 people doing this, so it really was as cramped as if we were the actual ships crew.)

We started our misadventures immediately. My friend Gabriel unpacked his overnight gear in the hold where we were told we would be staying and then took it upon himself to sign our group up for night watch. Each group on the field trip had to take an hour up on deck to record random happenings in the logbook as some form of sadistic attempt to educate us about how much being a sailor in the old days sucked.

It got worse when they got to the part about having to put up with Kiera Knightly trying to seajack your boat.

Now, to explain the hardtack thing. My dad is a Civil War re-enactor in his spare time, which means that on weekends in the summer he dresses up in period-appropriate uniforms and goes camping with his buddies and their guns. Wait…that just sounds like he’s from Kentucky. What I mean to say is that he sort of takes on the part of an actor in a movie and steps into the role of a Civil War soldier for a weekend. As a by-product of this, one weekend my dad made “hardtack” a sort of bread/biscuit/cracker thing that served as rations for soldiers in the Civil War. In order to let it get to the appropriate level of authentic staleness, he let it sit in the garage for a week or so and then brought it back inside and stashed it in bags, and he always let my sister and I have one because we were young and thought that breaking teeth was fun as long as we got to eat something in the process.

When I arrived for the night on the boat, I got ahold of one of the schedules, and saw that dinner was “hardtack and stew.” I thought that meant I could finally stand out amongst my peer group as “hardcore” because I’d learned how to successfully eat the stuff without requiring hospitalization. All through the history lesson, all through the knot tying, and all through Gabriel’s sheepish admission of when we had to wake up, the only thing on my mind was the manly display of my chewing ability I’d get to show off at dinner.

Use your molars, ya pansy!

After bearing through all of the “educational” stuff people always ruin field trips with, we finally got to dinner. They brought out styrofoam bowls of some kind of beefy soup that came from a can and… saltine crackers? What the crap is this?! Saltine crackers. Oh, no buddy, this is NOT hardtack. I became very offended at the sheer guts these supposed “historical authorities” had in trying to pass off saltine crackers as the manliest cracker in the world. Not only that, but there is NO manly way to eat a saltine cracker! They embody “light tapas” and other words that don’t sound macho. My plan to impress my friends was ruined!

Hardtack. Bah!

After a few more nautical vocabulary lessons it was time for bed. Each of us had been assigned a canvas hammock hanging from the ceiling. Mine was near the aft of the ship (nautical vocab lesson: remembered. Oh yeah…) and unfortunately for me my immediate neighbor was some other kids mom, who slept with her head at my feet and the most unholy stench emanating from her feet, which she stuck in my face all night. Imagine if a fish was rotting, and then someone put lysol on it. It wouldn’t make it smell better, and after a while the lysol would smell like it was rotting too. That was what this woman’s feet smelled like. I tried to move so that my head was no longer near her feet, but by this point I was so crushed in by all the other people sleeping that I couldn’t move. I was trapped in a prison of stink.

By 1:00 in the morning, I was so thankful for my dad arriving to fetch me for watch that I fell onto a coil of rope in my excitement to get out of the hammock, scattering it across the floor and waking up a good fourth of the ship. Oops. The hour we spent on deck was pretty uneventful. Gabriel had a broken arm in a cast, so he spent most of the break writing what I’m sure was a novel in the logbook because he didn’t want to lean his arm on the rail. I took pleasure in making a nearby couple making out on the dock feel extremely awkward by peeking over the side of the ship at them every time they thought I was gone.

To the couple’s great relief it was soon time to return to our hammocks. I rebelled at the notion of a return to my prison of olfactory torment, so I instead opted to sleep on the floor of the ship (or, as the pros called it “the deck”) Several uncomfortable, but thankfully odor-free hours later I awoke and was treated to more saltine crackers and some oatmeal for breakfast. Whoopee.

By now you’re sick of hearing about my tiny woes, and instead are aching to hear how exactly a 10 year old boy managed to nearly start a war. Well, it began at about 10:00 that morning as the crew was teaching us how to load and fire the “parrot gun” or tiny cannon at the back of the ship. You may begin to see where this is going. Previously, they’d made the mistake of not wadding newspaper into the barrel to muffle the sound and had broken several windows on the Hyatt Hotel across the street. This time, they taught us to carefully pack lots of newspaper  into the barrel to prevent the sound from becoming too loud. This also had the effect of creating a giant flaming ball of newspaper that disintegrated before it hit the ground, but nonetheless looked like an enormous fireball had been fired from the cannon.

Pictured: 5th Grade History

This is normally ok, but in the excitement of the crew to shoot the cannon (apparently they’re as much pyromaniacs as historians) they forgot to look where the cannon was pointing when it went off. There was a (still) deafening “BOOM!,” a fireball went arcing through the air, and 100 Spanish dignitaries went diving under the luncheon tables on the Ambassadorial ship immediately in our line of fire. Plates spilled, exclamations of surprise were shouted, and suits were gotten dirty.

To my 10-year-old mind, we’d just declared war. Every story I’d ever heard of ambassadors getting shot at had ended in beach landings, bombing runs, and old people in congress giving impassioned speeches about everything. This was not exactly how I saw my field trip ending, so I spend the remainder of the trip worrying about the best ways to dodge the age requirements from the military. Not until years later did I realize that if I had joined the army I would have been killing people for something that was totally my bad. Oops.

Maybe using this would mitigate the problem?

 

 

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Pre-Adolescent Street Cred: Whatever the Cost

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Some of you may remember my previous post about criminals, which I opened with the words “Criminals are dumb.” Since writing that post I have come to quite a serious conclusion. This decision is the product of a lot of thought, and a lot of soul-searching, but here it goes.

Little boys are even dumber.

I know I’m classifying myself for a lot of my life as being dumber than people who roll joints in front of a SWAT van but I can’t in good conscience let the little blighters off the hook. My primary reasoning for this comes from the way in which the two groups choose to build up proof of their “street cred.” Criminals generally have a wealth of tattoos detailing what prisons they’ve been to, what gangs they’ve run with, and in some cases the sorts of crimes they’ve committed. No hardcore criminal is going to believe you’ve done time in Sing-Sing unless you’ve got the tat.

This one started young.

Admittedly, this is really stupid, since one of the easiest ways for the cops to ID you is if you have a sign literally etched into your skin declaring “I’M A FELON!” (note that I’m not saying all tattoos mark you thusly, just specific ones that you are hopefully unlikely to accidentally impose upon yourself.) Despite the inherent stupidity of this system, however, little boys have them beat cold on the stupid-o-meter. How do they do this? Little boys refuse to believe a story is true unless you have a scar to prove it.

Think about that for a second: the “pics or it didn’t happen” of the prepubescent and even adolescent boy is “bodily disfigurement or it didn’t happen.” You literally have to have injured yourself to the point that some part of you couldn’t grow back right to obtain credibility with these gremlins. And that presented a major problem for me, because I don’t scar.

The tribulation inherent in being a boy who does not scar plagued me all the way through my younger days. In fact, I think I ended up being even more self-abusive than most little boys in my reckless quest to kill myself just to prove I’d done it. No matter what I did, I couldn’t raise so much as a little skin discoloration to prove that I had, in fact, caught a metal drainage pipe with the lawnmower and sent shrapnel into my shin.

Over time, I developed a strange sort of background psychological complex bent on sabotaging me to the point that I just had to get a scar. I started at about 8 when within a week of moving into a house with brick stairs out front, my legs tripped me up and slammed my forehead straight into the corner of one of the stairs. Huge gash, no stitches, perfect conditions for scarring. The doctor even said it was going to scar up quite nicely. What do I get? A little tiny crease in the corner of my forehead if I crinkle my face up just right and the humidity isn’t too low.

Later in life I somehow managed to not notice that in attempting to remove some cornbread from the oven I had somehow pressed the inside of my left arm against the extremely hot metal side of the oven and burned an ugly little crescent into the side of my arm (it was the really bad kind of burn). Doctor’s opinion? “You’ll have a scar there pretty much for life. Three years later I had a tiny patch of slightly lighter skin and the first time I got a suntan it disappeared completely.

Since when does ultraviolet radiation heal you?

Over the next few years I ran the gamut of physical imperilment. I got myself hit in the face with an aluminum baseball bat going full speed, I slashed my foot with a metal grate, I even shot myself in the foot that only days earlier I’d had a 2 inch piece of wood removed from! (A good story, for another time perhaps) Nothing worked. No matter what I tried the boyhood equivalent of street cred eluded me. I’m like the convict who always gets caught by the guards every time he tries to start inking himself.

My absolute worst attempt, which I was positive would work, requires a little set up. You see, partly out of my masochism and partly because it was absolutely awesome, I was an avid street hockey player all through my childhood. We even lived in a cul-de-sac where not only did we have the perfect place to play, but also an abundance of kids and adults as into it as I was.

This next part is completely disconnected from the previous paragraph. When my mom was a kid, she was late for some sort of important event and so was running down the stairs of her house toward the front door. Unfortunately, what she thought was an open door was actually a plate glass storm door, which she managed to get her entire arm through before she realized the damage she was doing to herself. She was now stuck in the storm door, and began to try and pull her injured arm back into the house to get treatment. At the sight of this, my grandmother, in a moment of panic, screamed “NO! Go outside, you’ll bleed on the carpet!” My mother has never quite forgiven her for this.

So, back to me, one day I was out playing street hockey sans any kind of padding because I was a cocky little snot and was too good for any of that stuff. It just got in the way of my style. For the most part I actually was good enough that I didn’t fall down and since we didn’t have any kind of boards to check against, I was safe from being smashed up against anything. However, this day God decided I needed a good humiliating to make up for all my smirky smugness. While going as fast as I could the tip of my roller blade hit a tiny little pebble, which sent me flying. I landed on my (bare) shins on the asphalt pavement and proceeded to skid for around ten or fifteen feet. My legs were literally hamburger, but somehow I staggered back inside my house. I limped gingerly into the kitchen and started to make my way toward the living room, where my mom and grandmother were having a conversation.

“Mom?” I ventured, weakly.

“STAY THERE! DON’T BLEED ON THE CARPET!” she responded.

Immediately upon realizing what she’d said she turned as white as a ghost and clapped both hands over her mouth.

Rather like Macaulay Culkin, actually.

My grandmother, in spite of herself, busted out into uproarious gales of laughter at my mother that she couldn’t control for at least  five minutes. After bandaging myself, I started to silently rejoice. Here was finally an injury that couldn’t help but scar. For good measure I even accidentally got the injury dragged through a patch of poison ivy by my manic dog a few days later, which developed nicely into a tormentuously itchy, skinless patch of pain. The only thing that got me through all of the pain cheerfully was the surety that finally I’d have that longed-for cred amongst my peers, who would no doubt examine my mutilated legs and nod sagely to each other in admiring approval.

Nope. Nothing. Not even a little change in skin color. Heck, the hair even grew back after the new skin did. After failing to scar yet again I decided to give up on my insane quest and just accept that none of the awesome stories I had to tell would ever be believed by anybody in my peer group.

I’d love to say that I moved past that and realized how dumb the whole thing was. I’d love to say that the wisdom age has brought me has allowed me to renounce this frankly stupid form of validation. But then I realized that I just wrote an appeal to the internet to believe all the stories I tried to get my freinds to beleive as a kid.

And no, I still don’t have the scars to prove them.

How I Went to Extreme Lengths Not to Touch the Floor

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One of the things you expect when living in an apartment that was never actually intended to be permanent housing is that things will go wrong. What you don’t really expect is to have your kitchen floor inflate like a balloon when the air conditioner turns on. Such was my experience with my apartment and after attempting to feed myself within this culinary moon bounce several times I called to get a new floor put in. What happened next is a cautionary tale, demonstrating the dangers of poor prior planning, combined with an irrational respect for the power of police tape.

Monday morning I decided that before any workmen arrived, I needed to give my abode a serious cleaning. Months of accumulated papers, electrical gadgets, power cords, plastic cups, and books coated every horizontal surface and several of them that were nearly vertical (I impress myself sometimes with my ability to make my own life both more interesting and vastly more difficult simultaneously). The majority of the day was spent tidying things, re-organizing the bookshelves, vacuuming (or “hoovering” for all you quaint British readers out there), and doing my long overdue laundry. At the end of a long day I was finished, and quite satisfied with the results.

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Like this, only far more masculine and bereft of pink rubber gloves.

Within twelve hours it was all for nothing, however, since the men replacing the floor needed to get all of the kitchen appliances out as well as clear out the closet I use to store things that I may (but probably won’t) ever use. This meant that the apartment I had so thoroughly cleaned the day before was now covered in first aid kits, plastic bags I wanted to re-use in a vain attempt to be “eco,” and assorted miscellany I threw in the closet to avoid having to decide what to do with.

All this leads us back to the kitchen floor. Previously, the floor had been covered with a sort of vinyl faux-lineoleum which looked like wallpaper for the floor. This time, however, it was being replaced with actual tile, which meant that I was going to be banned from the room overnight while the cement-mortar stuff they use to stick tile to the floor (obviously I am not a very “handy” person, or I’d know what it was called) dried. At this point it would be a good idea to mention that all of my food is stored in a closed that is almost as far away from the door as you can get along the wall to your left as you come into my kitchen. Now, any normal person with a fully functioning whatever-the-part-of-the-brain-is-that-controls-prior-planning would have simply thought “I should get out all the food and dishes and such that I need to eat for the next day and a half before the workmen get here.” I, instead, thought “I should grab some grapes.” And so I did.

The next morning the work crew arrived and began dismantling the kitchen. My refrigerator was moved outside and plugged in on the porch, like the way rednecks do when they want to have a refrigerator used entirely to store beer. The stove and table likewise ended up outside and any food left in the kitchen was either in the closet or on the counter (also on the far side of the room) in the case of things like bread. At no point did the thought cross my mind that this was a problem. Instead, I sat happily on the couch and munched on grapes like a Roman Caesar.

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With exactly that facial expression.

Several hours later, the majority of the work was done and the workmen began to pack up for the night. However, the floor seal was still wet, so to remind me not to walk around on it, they put police tape across the door to the kitchen. About the same time they left, I ran out of grapes and it began to dawn on me that I was an idiot. Over the next several hours a small voice began to nag in my head, reprimanding me for not bringing more food out of the kitchen before I let the workmen in. This small voice gradually evolved until it became exactly like this herd of condescending cows.

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"All 5 food groups, fool!"

I began to contemplate ways to retrieve food from my kitchen. The problem was, all I could conceivably get to was the food on the counter, since the closet was likewise sealed off (to keep the food from walking on the floor?) I surveyed my options. A sack of potatoes? Useless without something to cook them in (or on). A bunch of bananas? No more fruit, I’d had enough of that. What I was really craving was…yes! There, on the counter was a loaf of bread. And right next to it, unplugged, was the toaster. A plan began to form in my mind…a really stupid plan.

I grabbed the longest thing I could find, which was a stubby broom handle about 4 feet long, and to this device I affixed a paperclip, which I had bent into the rough shape of a hook. Thus armed, I approached the tape. Prying two strands of the police line apart, I stuck my head and one arm through and began to reach for the bag containing the loaf of baked goodness. Due to the shortness of my tool, however, I failed to reach it. Thus began about a ten minute process of doing everything within my power to reach the bread. It was pretty much one of those moments any good film editor would just relegate to a montage.

Finally, I snagged the bread on the tip of my paperclip and managed to wrangle it through the tape and into my arms. I took a moment to celebrate quietly by silently dancing (after making sure all the windows were shuttered) and then set about retrieving the toaster. By now I’d worked out a strategy by which I could reach the counter with my hookbroom. I leaned up against one side of the doorframe and propped myself up in the air by pushing my leg against the opposite side of the frame. I then held on to the top of the frame and leaned as far as I could into the kitchen. On the first try I snagged the toaster and yanked.

I had forgotted about the crumb tray. Toast crumbs spilled everywhere as I pulled the toaster into my arms. The workmen would think I’d been in the kitchen. They’d send disapproving glances in my direction the next morning when they came back! I had to act. I snagged my vacuum cleaner from behind me and began shoving the hose through the police tape to suck up all the crumbs. The last two feet of floor space I had to use the hookbroom to sweep the crumbs close enough for the vacuum to get them, but in the end, I managed to get all the crumbs.

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"Phew!" is right, you odd little skunk-reindeer thing.

The next morning, happily munching on unfortunately butterless toast (you take what you can get, I guess.), I greeted the workmen, who were none the wiser to my bizarre adventure the night before. They put the kitchen back together, and now I’m free to eat once again.

I got another bag of grapes and went back to Caesar-ing.

The Quest for the Perfect Couch

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Earlier this August most of the residents of the block of apartments I live in moved back to dormitory housing for the start of their college school year. I was one of three people in the whole block that wasn’t moving, and as a result I got my pick of the random stuff left behind by the people moving out (EPIC LOOT!). Apart from the several pots, pans, toasters, bookshelves, and spatulas that I scrounged, I was particularly interested in acquiring a second couch. At the time I had one couch and an armchair that my housemate had left behind when he moved out to go to Florida for Law School. He obviously expected to only need beach chairs where he was going, since the armchair was rather nice and I wondered briefly why he would leave such a nice piece of furniture behind. However, as anyone who’s ever had people over to watch a movie or play a board game knows, one couch is never enough. One couch creates an awkward crush of humanity squeezing onto the couch, isolating the people on either end from each other, and usually ends up with the host (read: me) sitting on the floor so that there’s room for all my guests to be comfortable. Now, I don’t particularly mind sitting on the floor, but presented with the chance to rest my hindquarters on a more agreeable surface for the duration of a motion picture I will definitely choose to sit on it.

Also, the floor is lava.

 

Faced with this dilemma, I set out to find myself a smallish couch. I had 2 major criteria for couches, and they were (I thought), rather simple ones.

1. The couch must be free of insects.

2. The couch must not be smelly.

Unfortunately, I had chosen the two criteria that fit approximately zero couches in the world owned by single college students and graduates in the halfway-house that is my apartment block. I hunted through building after building, room after room, desperately trying to find one couch that didn’t play host to colonies of bugs. I at one point almost settled on a tolerable colony of moths before I realized that there were wasps hatching out of the dead ones. I hate wasps. Anything that is born by punching through the body of its host after feeding on them for their whole gestation period is quite freaky to me. And yeah, I know I’ve just labeled anyone born by C-section creepy. Just don’t tell me about it if you’re one of them and we’ll get along just fine.

Anyway, my second criterion was also impossible to meet. Every couch in the whole block seemed to have held on to a strong odor passed on to it by its previous owner like they were a possessive relative desperately trying to hold on to something to remember a dead loved one by. BO, Doritos, girly perfume (not objectionable in and of itself, but not something I want to smell like after sitting on my couch), and even what I suspect was probably baked beans emanated from couches across the block.

Then… I saw it. A white couch, with no bugs living in, on, around, or next to it. It smelled like sweet nothing. I nearly cried. I placed it in my apartment, smiled with satisfaction, and sat down.

About then my housemate called and said that the armchair he’d had in our apartment actually belonged to a friend of his who was coming by later to get it. As soon as I hung up with him said acquaintance walked in the door and reclaimed his chair. Upon turning to leave, glanced at my new couch and stopped. I, being quite pleased with my new furniture, was about to recount my harrowing tale of couch-questing when he laughed and said “Hey, awesome! He grabbed my couch for me too!”

I needed several hours to compose myself after he left.

The next day I decided to try one more time to find the couch that I so desperately needed (which basically meant at this point that I was so tired of failing that I wanted to give myself one last chance to succeed. I’m like a couch gambler.) I spent about an hour looking everywhere I could, and finally decided that I was just fated to sit on the floor for eternity. Just then, one of the other 2 people who hadn’t moved out came out of their apartment. “Hey man,” he said in a voice I can only describe as angelic, “do you want a couch? I’ve got a spare I’m about to get rid of.”

It didn’t stink.

It had no bugs.

It was sort of blue.

I said yes, thanked the man profusely, and then dragged the couch back to my apartment. My ex-housemate called a few hours after I put the couch in. I, fearful he was going to tell me another friend of his was about to come and steal my couch, let him go to voicemail.

Sorry, Tim.

I'm stil too afraid to listen to the voice mail.

The Poster I WANT To Put Up

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Dedicated to all the kids who break our elevators, and who are subsequently stuck in them.