Category Archives: Family

Memories, Father’s Day, and an 89-year-old plane

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things”

– John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

I clicked on the radio transmitter in my plane.

O’Neill Traffic, Bonanza xx departing to the south. And Trimotor, thanks for flight #1. We really enjoyed it.

And we had. Off to my left, a 1929 Ford Trimotor airliner was heading off into the distance, looking as if it were just hanging in the air, glinting in the morning sun, 1000 feet above the ground. Earlier that morning, my boys and I had been passengers in that very plane. But now we had taken off right after them, as they were taking another load of passengers up for a flight and we were flying back home. To my right was my 8-year-old, and my 11-year-old was in back, both watching out the windows. The radio clicked on, and the three of us heard the other pilot’s response:

Oh thank you. We’re glad you came!

A few seconds later, they were gone out of sight.

The experience of flying in an 89-year-old airliner is quite something. As with the time we rode on the Durango & Silverton railroad, it felt like stepping back into a time machine — into the early heyday of aviation.

Jacob and Oliver had been excited about this day a long time. We had tried to get a ride when it was on tour in Oklahoma, much closer, but one of them got sick on the drive that day and it didn’t work out. So Saturday morning, we took the 1.5-hour-flight up to northern Nebraska. We’d heard they’d have a pancake breakfast fundraiser, and the boys were even more excited. They asked to set the alarm early, so we’d have no risk of missing out on airport pancakes.

Jacob took this photo of the sunrise at the airport while I was doing my preflight checks:

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Here’s one of the beautiful views we got as we flew north to meet the Trimotor.

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It was quite something to share a ramp with that historic machine. Here’s a photo of our plane not far from the Trimotor.

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After we got there, we checked in for the flight, had a great pancake and sausage breakfast, and then into the Trimotor. The engines fired up with a most satisfying low rumble, and soon we were aloft — cruising along at 1000 feet, in that (by modern standards) noisy, slow, and beautiful machine. We explored the Nebraska countryside from the air before returning 20 minutes later. I asked the boys what they thought.

“AWESOME!” was the reply. And I agreed.

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Jacob and Oliver have long enjoyed pretending to be flight attendants when we fly somewhere. They want me to make airline-sounding announcements, so I’ll say something like, “This is your captain speaking. In a few moments, we’ll begin our descent into O’Neill. Flight attendants, prepare the cabin for arrival.” Then Jacob will say, “Please return your tray tables that you don’t have to their full upright and locked position, make sure your seat belt is tightly fastened, and your luggage is stowed. This is your last chance to visit the lavatory that we don’t have. We’ll be on the ground shortly.”

Awhile back, I loaded up some zip-lock bags with peanuts and found some particularly small bottles of pop. Since then, it’s become tradition on our longer flights for them to hand out bags of peanuts and small quantities of pop as we cruise along — “just like the airlines.” A little while back, I finally put a small fridge in the hangar so they get to choose a cold beverage right before we leave. (We don’t typically have such things around, so it’s a special treat.)

Last week, as I was thinking about Father’s Day, I told them how I remembered visiting my dad at work, and how he’d let me get a bottle of Squirt from the pop machine there (now somewhat rare). So when we were at the airport on Saturday, it brought me a smile to hear, “DAD! This pop machine has Squirt! Can we get a can? It’s only 75 cents!” “Sure – after our Trimotor flight.” “Great! Oh, thank you dad!”

I realized then I was passing a small but special memory on to another generation. I’ve written before of my childhood memories of my dad, and wondering what my children will remember of me. Martha isn’t old enough yet to remember her cackles of delight as we play peek-a-boo or the books we read at bedtime. Maybe Jacob and Oliver will remember our flights, or playing with mud, or researching dusty maps in a library, playing with radios, or any of the other things we do. Maybe all three of them will remember the cans of Squirt I’m about to stock that hangar fridge with.

But if they remember that I love them and enjoy doing things with them, they will have remembered the most important thing. And that is another special thing I got from my parents, and can pass on to another generation.

A Grand Adventure: Sailing the Springtime Sky

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

– Khalil Gibran

To be a pilot of a small plane is to be a scientist, a mathematician, and a poet. We read charts, analyze weather reports and forecasts, calculating what the headwinds will do to our fuel situation.

But in the end, the wise ones let the earth speak to us through these charts, and go where it invites us — where the skies are smooth and blue.

And so it was last week that we did not go to California as planned, but instead to the mountains near Santa Fe, a canyon near Amarillo, and a remote museum in far southwest Kansas — all the while hearing the delighted exclamations of “wow!” from our children.

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As we sailed along up there in our flying machine, down below we saw the rugged, craggy mesas of New Mexico, here and there punctuated by a lake, a little town, or an isolated airport — each a friendly sight in its own way. Our boys read some books, and sometimes pressed their noses to the windows, while little Martha mostly slept and sometimes played or ate — she enjoys flying more than driving.

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Mountains have a way of reminding us all that the earth is larger than we are. We drive around them, fly around them, and even on a pleasant day they make the air bumpy. But once down on the ground, Oliver got out of the plane, and looked at the mountains all around us. He couldn’t stop saying “Wow! Dad, wow! Amazing! Look at that!” Jacob was more excited that an American Airlines plane was taxiing by right where we had been a minute before.

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The boys helped us plan our trip. They’re the ones that chose for us to head southwest, and the #1 thing on their Santa Fe agenda was riding the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. So, despite a strong and cold wind, ride it we did, all the way to Albuquerque for pizza, then back to Santa Fe. When they weren’t busy listening to the “meep meep” sound the doors make when they’re about to close, they were excitedly reading the timetable or taking in the world as it whizzed past their window.

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Martha, too, took in the train — though she still enjoyed her chew toys. Those things out the window don’t fit into a mouth so easily.

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Up in the mountains, the Puye Cliff Dwellings brought home the history of the place. The stories of the peaceful people that lived there, told by their descendants, members of the Santa Clara pueblo. Our guide Elijah picked up a shard of pottery, many of which remain on the mesa. He explained why there were no intact pottery examples up there. When his ancestors were done with a pot, then would throw it on the ground, shattering it — to give it back with thanks to the earth from where it came. One gets the sense that these ancient peoples knew quite a few things that our modern societies have not yet learned.

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After a full day, a cool evening in our hotel was welcome. Our room had a wood-burning fireplace, burning the pinyon pine that gives Santa Fe such a distinct sweet smell in the winter. Jacob would gaze into the fireplace for quite awhile.

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I have never seen a photo do justice to Palo Duro Canyon. As you drive along the desolate, high Texas prairie, complete with tumbleweeds, all of a sudden you go around a corner and the earth opens up. It’s the “painted canyon” for a reason, and even though we’d been there before, as we rounded that bend, I heard exclamations of “Dad, this is AMAZING” from the back seat once again.

The vastness of the place cannot be captured on a screen. How can one capture 60 miles of color, ridges and gorges stretching out into the horizon, in a few inches?

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The boys were excited, bubbly, and bouncy as we hiked along some trails on the canyon floor. They’d make up games to play, most of which involved teasing me in some way.

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Oliver particularly loved to tease me.

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Jacob insisted I take a picture with him and Martha.

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But even these excited, bubbly kids would stop to reflect sometimes. Sometimes Jacob would say, “Dad, I have GOT to take a picture of this!” And sometimes they would just stare, maybe even with a mouth agape. Children know beauty, too.

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The three siblings delight in each other, too. Oliver would play a version of peek-a-boo, saying “I’m alive! Horse pill!” (he’d say silly things, and whatever made Martha laugh he’d keep saying.)

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All told, we traveled over a thousand miles by air, spending some 7 or 8 hours in the plane. Had we attempted to drive it, it would have been more than 30 hours. There’s something amazing about seeing so much of the world in such a short amount of time.

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Perhaps this is why many pilots secretly give their plane a little pat after a long journey. After all the smiles, laughter, the memories, the feeling of being part of sky — if you pay attention, it truly is more poetry than physics.

And that is why, though it is always nice to return to our home, in my mind’s eye, the hangar door is always open.

The Big Green Weasel Song

One does not normally get into one’s car intending to sing about barfing green weasels to the tune of a Beethoven symphony for a quarter of an hour. And yet, somehow, that’s what I wound up doing today.

Little did I know that when Jacob started band last fall, it would inspire him to sing about weasels to the tune of Beethoven’s 9th. That may come as a surprise to his band teacher, too, who didn’t likely expect that having the kids learn the theme to the Ninth Symphony would inspire them to sing about large weasels.

But tonight, as we were driving, I mentioned that I knew the original German words. He asked me to sing. I did.

Then, of course, Jacob and Oliver tried to sing it back in German. This devolved into gibberish and a fit of laughter pretty quick, and ended with something sounding like “schneezel”. So of course, I had to be silly and added, “I have a big green weasel!”

From then on, they were singing about big green weasels. It wasn’t long before they decided they would sing “the chorus” and I was supposed to improvise verse after verse about these weasels. Improvising to the middle of the 9th Symphony isn’t the easiest thing, but I had verses about giving weasels a hug, about weasels smelling like a bug, about a green weasel on a chair, about a weasel barfing on the stair. And soon, Jacob wanted to record the weasel song to make a CD of it. So we did, before we even got to town. Here it is:

[Youtube link]

I love to hear children delight in making music. And I love to hear them enjoying Beethoven. Especially with weasels.

I just wonder what will happen when they learn about Mozart.

The Yellow House Phone Company (Featuring Asterisk and an 11-year-old)

“Well Jacob, do you think we should set up our own pretend phone company in the house?”

“We can DO THAT?”

“Yes!”

“Then… yes. Yes! YES YES YESYESYESYES YES! Let’s do it, dad!”

Not long ago, my parents had dug up the old phone I used back in the day. We still have a landline, and Jacob was having fun discovering how an analog phone works. I told him about the special number he could call to get the time and temperature read out to him. He discovered what happens if you call your own number and hang up. He figured out how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” using touchtone keys (after a slightly concerned lecture from me setting out some rules to make sure his “musical dialing” wouldn’t result in any, well, dialing.)

He was hooked. So I thought that taking it to the next level would be a good thing for a rainy day. I have run Asterisk before, though I had unfortunately gotten rid of most of my equipment some time back. But I found a great deal on a Cisco 186 ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter). It has two FXS lines (FXS ports simulate the phone company, and provide dialtone and ring voltage to a connected phone), and of course hooks up to the LAN.

We plugged that in, and Jacob was amazed to see its web interface come up. I had to figure out how to configure it (unfortunately, it uses SCCP rather than SIP, and figuring out Asterisk’s chan_skinny took some doing, but we got there.)

I set up voicemail. He loved it. He promptly figured out how to record his own greetings. We set up a second phone on the other line, so he could call between them. The cordless phones in our house support SIP, so I configured one of them as a third line. He spent a long time leaving himself messages.

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Pretty soon we both started having ideas. I set up extension 777, where he could call for the time. Then he wanted a way to get the weather forecast. Well, weather-util generates a text-based report. With it, a little sed and grep tweaking, the espeak TTS engine, and a little help from sox, I had a shell script worked up that would read back a forecast whenever he called a certain extension. He was super excited! “That’s great, dad! Can it also read weather alerts too?” Sure! weather-util has a nice option just for that. Both boys cackled as the system tried to read out the NWS header (their timestamps like 201711031258 started with “two hundred one billion…”)

Then I found an online source for streaming NOAA Weather Radio feeds – Jacob enjoys listening to weather radio – and I set up another extension he could call to listen to that. More delight!

But it really took off when I asked him, “Would you like to record your own menu?” “You mean those things where it says press 1 or 2 for this or that?” “Yes.” “WE CAN DO THAT?” “Oh yes!” “YES, LET’S DO IT RIGHT NOW!”

So he recorded a menu, then came and hovered by me while I hacked up extensions.conf, then eagerly went back to the phone to try it. Oh the excitement of hearing hisown voice, and finding that it worked! Pretty soon he was designing sub-menus (“OK Dad, so we’ll set it up so people can press 2 for the weather, and then choose if they want weather radio or the weather report. I’m recording that now. Got it?”)

He has informed me that next Saturday we will build an intercom system “like we have at school.” I’m going to have to have some ideas on how to tie Squeezebox in with Asterisk to make that happen, I think. Maybe this will do.

The Joy of Exploring: Old Phone Systems, Pizza, and Discovery

This story involves boys pretending to be pizza deliverymen using a working automated Strowger telephone exchange demonstrator on display in a museum, which is very old and is, to my knowledge, the only such working exhibit in the world. (Yes, I have video.) But first, a thought on exploration.

There are those that would say that there is nothing left to explore anymore – that the whole earth is mapped, photographed by satellites, and, well, known.

I prefer to look at it a different way: the earth is full of places that billions of people will never see, and probably don’t even know about. Those places may be quiet country creeks, peaceful neighborhoods one block away from major tourist attractions, an MTA museum in Brooklyn, a state park in Arkansas, or a beautiful church in Germany.

Martha is not yet two months old, and last week she and I spent a surprisingly long amount of time just gazing at tree branches — she was mesmerized, and why not, because to her, everything is new.

As I was exploring in Portland two weeks ago, I happened to pick up a nearly-forgotten book by a nearly-forgotten person, Beryl Markham, a woman who was a pilot in Africa about 80 years ago. The passage that I happened to randomly flip to in the bookstore, which really grabbed my attention, was this:

The available aviation maps of Africa in use at that time all bore the cartographer’s scale mark, ‘1/2,000,000’ — one over two million. An inch on the map was about thitry-two miles in the air, as compared to the flying maps of Europe on which one inch represented no more than four air miles.

Moreover, it seemed that the printers of the African maps had a slightly malicious habit of including, in large letters, the names of towns, junctions, and villages which, while most of them did exist in fact, as a group of thatched huts may exist or a water hold, they were usually so inconsequential as completely to escape discovery from the cockpit.

Beyond this, it was even more disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: ‘UNSURVEYED’.

It was as if the mapmakers had said, “We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousands of acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won’t know whether it is mud, desert, or jungle — and the chances are we won’t know then!”

— Beryl Markham, West With the Night

My aviation maps today have no such markings. The continent is covered with radio beacons, the world with GPS, the maps with precise elevations of the ground and everything from skyscrapers to antenna towers.

And yet, despite all we know, the world is still a breathtaking adventure.

Yesterday, the boys and I were going to fly to Abilene, KS, to see a museum (Seelye Mansion). Circumstances were such that we neither flew, nor saw that museum. But we still went to Abilene, and wound up at the Museum of Independent Telephony, a wondrous place for anyone interested in the history of technology. As it is one of those off-the-beaten-path sorts of places, the boys got 2.5 hours to use the hands-on exhibits of real old phones, switchboards, and also the schoolhouse out back. They decided — why not? — to use this historic equipment to pretend to order pizzas.

Jacob and Oliver proceeded to invent all sorts of things to use the phones for: ordering pizza, calling the cops to chase the pizza delivery guys, etc. They were so interested that by 2PM we still hadn’t had lunch and they claimed “we’re not hungry” despite the fact that we were going to get pizza for lunch. And I certainly enjoyed the exhibits on the evolution of telephones, switching (from manual plugboards to automated switchboards), and such.

This place was known – it even has a website, I had been there before, and in fact so had the boys (my parents took them there a couple of years ago). But yesterday, we discovered the Strowger switch had been repaired since the last visit, and that it, in fact, is great for conversations about pizza.

Whether it’s seeing an eclipse, discovering a fascination with tree branches, or historic telephones, a spirit of curiosity and exploration lets a person find fun adventures almost anywhere.

A new baby and deep smiles

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A month ago, we were waiting for our new baby; time seemed to stand still. Now she is here! Martha Goerzen was born recently, and she is doing well and growing! Laura and I have enjoyed moments of cuddling her, watching her stare at our faces, hearing her (hopefully) soft sounds as she falls asleep in our arms. It is also heart-warming to see Martha’s older brothers take such an interest in her. Here is the first time Jacob got to hold her:

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Oliver, who is a boy very much into sports, play involving police and firefighters, and such, has started adding “aww” and “she’s so cute!” to his common vocabulary. He can be very insistent about interrupting me to hold her, too.

Time, Frozen

We’re expecting a baby any time now. The last few days have had an odd quality of expectation: any time, our family will grow.

It makes time seem to freeze, to stand still.

We have Jacob, about to start fifth grade and middle school. But here he is, still a sweet and affectionate kid as ever. He loves to care for cats and seeks them out often. He still keeps an eye out for the stuffed butterfly he’s had since he was an infant, and will sometimes carry it and a favorite blanket around the house. He will also many days prepare the “Yellow House News” on his computer, with headlines about his day and some comics pasted in — before disappearing to play with Legos for awhile.

And Oliver, who will walk up to Laura and “give baby a hug” many times throughout the day — and sneak up to me, try to touch my arm, and say “doink” before running off before I can “doink” him back. It was Oliver that had asked for a baby sister for Christmas — before he knew he’d be getting one!

In the past week, we’ve had out the garden hose a couple of times. Both boys will enjoy sending mud down our slide, or getting out the “water slide” to play with, or just playing in mud. The rings of dirt in the bathtub testify to the fun that they had. One evening, I built a fire, we made brats and hot dogs, and then Laura and I sat visiting and watching their water antics for an hour after, laughter and cackles of delight filling the air, and cats resting on our laps.

These moments, or countless others like Oliver’s baseball games, flying the boys to a festival in Winfield, or their cuddles at bedtime, warm the heart. I remember their younger days too, with fond memories of taking them camping or building a computer with them. Sometimes a part of me wants to just keep soaking in things just as they are; being a parent means both taking pride in children’s accomplishments as they grow up, and sometimes also missing the quiet little voice that can be immensely excited by a caterpillar.

And yet, all four of us are so excited and eager to welcome a new life into our home. We are ready. I can’t wait to hold the baby, or to lay her to sleep, to see her loving and excited older brothers. We hope for a smooth birth, for mom and baby.

Here is the crib, ready, complete with a mobile with a cute bear (and even a plane). I can’t wait until there is a little person here to enjoy it.

Family Spring: A Story in Photos

This has been a spring with times to relax, times to be busy, times of anticipation of a new baby, and times of enjoying our family.

Rather than write a lot of words about it, I’m telling the story in photos.

To view, click here, then click Show Info in the upper right to see captions. You can pause it with the button in the lower left, and use arrow keys to advance.

Alternatively, there’s a captionless slideshow available here.

Here’s one photo to get you started:

Happy about the little sister on the way

Flying with my brothers

Picture one Sunday morning. Three guys are seemingly-randomly walking into a Mennonite church in rural Nebraska. One with long hair and well-maintained clothes from the 70s. Another dressed well enough to be preaching. And the third simply dressed to be comfortable, with short hair showing evidence of having worn a headset for a couple of hours that morning. This was the scene as we made a spur-of-the-moment visit to that church — which resulted in quite some surprise all around, since my brother knew a number of people there.

For instance:

Pastor: Peter! What are you doing here?

Peter: [jokingly] Is that how you greet visitors here?

And then, of course, Peter would say, “Well, we were flying home from South Dakota and figured we’d stop in at Beatrice for fuel. And drop in on you.” Followed by some surprise that we would stop at their little airport (which is quite a nice one).

This all happened because it was windy. This is the fun adventure of aviation. Sometimes you plan to go to Texas, but the weather there is terrible, so you discover a 100-year-old landmark in Indiana instead. Or sometimes, like a couple of weeks ago, we planned to fly straight home but spent a few hours exploring rural Nebraska.

The three of us flew to Sioux Falls, SD, in a little Cessna to visit my uncle and aunt up there. On our flight up, we stopped at the little airport in Seward, NE. It was complete with this unique elevated deck. In my imagination, this is used for people to drink beer while watching the planes land.

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In South Dakota, we had a weekend full of card and board games, horseshoes, and Crokinole with my uncle and aunt, who are always fun to visit. We had many memories of visits up there as children — and the pleasant enjoyment of the fact that we didn’t need an 8-hour drive to get there. We flew back with a huge bag of large rhubarb from their garden (that too is something of a tradition!)

It was a fun weekend to spend with my brothers — first time we’d been able to do this in a long while. And it marked the 11th state I’ve flown into, and over 17,000 miles of flying.

Singing with Kids

For four years now, we’ve had a tradition: I go up to the attic one night, make a lot of noise, and pretend to be Santa. The boys don’t think Santa is real, but they get a huge kick out of this anyway.

The other day, this wound up with me singing a duet with my 7-year-old Oliver, and seeing a hugely delighted 10-year-old Jacob.

All last week, the boys had been lobbying for me to “be Santa”. They aren’t going to be able to be here on Christmas day this year, so I thought – why not let them have some fun. I chose one present to give them early too.

So, Saturday night, I said they could get ready for Santa. They found some cookies somewhere, got out some milk. And Oliver wrote this wonderful note to “Santa”:

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That is a note I’m going to keep for a long time. He helpfully drew arrows pointing to the milk, cookies, and even the pen. He even started Santa’s reply at the bottom!

So, Saturday night, I snuck up to the attic, pretended to be Santa, and ate some cookies, drank some milk, and wrote Oliver a note. And I left a present.

Jacob has been really getting into music lately, and Laura suggested I find something for the boys. I went looking for something that could record also, and came up with what has got to be a kid’s dream: a karaoke machine.

The particular one I found came with two microphones, a CD player, audio recording onto SD card (though it’s a little dodgy), and a screen for showing words on any music that’s karaoke-enhanced.

Cue gasps of awe and excitement from the boys when we came down in our PJs and sweats at 6:45 Sunday morning to check it out.

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Jacob excitedly began exploring all the knobs and options on it (they were particularly fond of the echo feature), while Oliver wanted to sing. So we found one of his favorite Christmas songs, and here he is singing it with me.

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When you have a system with a line in, line out, and several microphone jacks, you can get creative. With a few bits of adapters from my attic, the headset I use for amateur radio worked with it perfectly. Add on a little mic extension cord, and pretty soon Oliver was pretending to be an announcer for a football game!

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Then, Oliver decided he would act out a football game while Jacob and I were the announcers.

Something tells me there will be much fun had with this over the next while!

Just wait until I show them how to hook up a handheld radio to it in order to make a remotely-activated loudspeaker…