Saturday, February 28, 2015


PEOPLE WATCHING:   The Skill of Character Development

A Call to Grow Up.

                 When people ask my brother, Andy, what he recommends to new writers, he usually says three things:   (1) keep writing – write about anything and everything,  (2) visit new places – keep traveling both near and far,  and (3) study people – pay attention to the people around you and take note of what they say and do.  This week, I’m still talking about the benefits of people watching.
                 From my earliest days, one of the people I watched most closely was my Dad.  I have many memories of Dad, but one sticks out in my mind from my high school senior year in Trona, California.  Dad was the only dentist in town and active in community service.  For many years, he served on the local school board.
                Trona is an isolated, small town, located deep in the Mojave Desert.  The principal employers in the area are the local mineral processing plants and the railroad.  The surrounding desert is studded with old mines and active prospecting sites, where stashes of dynamite have been abandoned, ready for the taking by curious teenagers.
                During one school board meeting, the recreational use of dynamite by high school students became a hot issue.  Recently, someone had blown up a small bridge at the Trona golf course.  (It wasn’t me.)  The local golf course was just one big sand trap.  It had no grass, but Dad sometimes played it.  In that board meeting, Dad waxed a bit hot under the collar on what should be done about this problem, until another board member interrupted to say, “AlDean, your son is one of the ringleaders.”
Looking West From Trona
Past the Old Trona Golf Course
Toward T Mountain in the Argus Range
                That stopped Dad cold.  Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that I might have dynamite.
                I confess.  I was guilty as charged.  For several years, my friends and I had collected dynamite.  With the hard caliche layer in our desert soils, the use of dynamite was common both in construction as well as in mining, and dynamite didn’t scare me.  I had researched the use of dynamite in a large university library while I was staying on campus at a week-long, youth conference for high school kids.  Along with learning the basics of setting a blast, I had researched safety issues.
               What could go wrong?
                I was late that night coming home from football practice.  We lived in Pioneer Point, north of Trona.  As I walked in, I saw Dad sitting on a straight-back chair in the living room, facing the front door, staring at me.  This was unusual.  I had never found him waiting for me before.
                “Come here and sit on the couch,” he instructed curtly.  “We need to talk.”  His unblinking eyes were stone hard, and I could see his cheek muscles tensing as he gritted his teeth.
                 Uh-oh.  My thoughts raced as I tried to think of what I might have done.
                “At the school board meeting tonight, someone said you were one of the kids using dynamite around town.  Is this true?”
                “Yes, but I never blown up anything around town—just out in the desert.” I never lied to Dad.
                He proceeded to tell me what a numb-skull thing that was.  He said I would get myself killed or, worse yet, kill someone else.  “What are you thinking?” he finished.
                “I never blow up anything that is worth anything to anyone, Dad.  Just big rocks out in the desert and old abandoned cars and other desert junk.  Things like that.  And I am always careful.”
                Dad glared at me, shaking his index finger.  “Do you have any dynamite right now?”
Looking East from Pioneer Point
Toward the Searles Dry Lake Bed
And the Slate Range Mountains
                “Where is it?
                “Hidden out in the desert.”
                That stopped him for a moment.  “Well, get rid of it.”
                “Dad, how am I supposed to do that?  I can’t just put it out on the curb for the trash collector to pick up on garbage day.”
                Dad stared at me for a second in thought.  “Well, this weekend, go out into the desert and blow it all up.  Just be careful!  And, don’t get yourself killed.”
                “Okay, Dad.  I’ll be careful, and I’ll get rid of it.”
                His face relaxed a little, then stiffened again.  “And do not tell your Mom about any of this!”
                I’m not sure now who came with me that Saturday.  It might have been my good buddy, Ed Rockdale, who lived just down the street from me, but that weekend we had a blast blowing up 50 or 60 sticks of dynamite in some of the largest explosions we had ever engineered.
                A good dynamite blast is a real science.  Depending on how well the charge is set, the blast can range from just a loud boom with a sharp shockwave to a spectacular explosion throwing debris hundreds of feet into the air and significantly altering the face of the landscape.  The size of the explosion doesn’t necessarily depend upon the number of sticks of dynamite used if the charge is set deep in a confined space.  We usually rationed out the dynamite, but that Saturday we experimented with new variations on our normal blasting procedures and were rewarded with some spectacular results.
                Saturday evening, Dad asked me if I still had any dynamite.
                “It’s all gone,” I answered truthfully.  I did do more dynamiting while away at college in another state, with dynamite purchased from a construction company, but never again at home.
                After that, Dad never brought up the subject again.  In Dad’s economy of words, the topic of dynamite was forever behind us.  He was never backward about letting me know when I had messed up, but then, once the issue was resolved, the subject was in the past forever.  Dad didn’t hold my mistakes over my head, and even as a teenager, I felt he truly respected me.  I know I truly respected him.
                As I grew into adulthood, with a family of my own, Dad became one of my best friends.  I always valued his wisdom and advice.  I miss him a lot, now that he is gone.  I know that everyone thinks they have the best Dad, but I’m pretty sure that I did.


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