Category Archives: Family

Two Boys, An Airplane, Plus Hundreds of Old Computers

“Was there anything you didn’t like about our trip?”

Jacob’s answer: “That we had to leave so soon!”

That’s always a good sign.

When I first heard about the Vintage Computer Festival Midwest, I almost immediately got the notion that I wanted to go. Besides the TRS-80 CoCo II up in my attic, I also have fond memories of an old IBM PC with CGA monitor, a 25MHz 486, an Alpha also in my attic, and a lot of other computers along the way. I didn’t really think my boys would be interested.

But I mentioned it to them, and they just lit up. They remembered the Youtube videos I’d shown them of old line printers and punch card readers, and thought it would be great fun. I thought it could be a great educational experience for them too — and it was.

It also turned into a trip that combined being a proud dad with so many of my other interests. Quite a fun time.

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(Jacob modeling his new t-shirt)

Captain Jacob

Chicago being not all that close to Kansas, I planned to fly us there. If you’re flying yourself, solid flight planning is always important. I had already planned out my flight using electronic tools, but I always carry paper maps with me in the cockpit for backup. I got them out and the boys and I planned out the flight the old-fashioned way.

Here’s Oliver using a scale ruler (with markings for miles corresponding to the scale of the map) and Jacob doing calculating for us. We measured the entire route and came to within one mile of the computer’s calculation for each segment — those boys are precise!

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We figured out how much fuel we’d use, where we’d make fuel stops, etc.

The day of our flight, we made it as far as Davenport, Iowa when a chance of bad weather en route to Chicago convinced me to land there and drive the rest of the way. The boys saw that as part of the exciting adventure!

Jacob is always interested in maps, and had kept wanting to use my map whenever we flew. So I dug an old Android tablet out of the attic, put Avare on it (which has aviation maps), and let him use that. He was always checking it while flying, sometimes saying this over his headset: “DING. Attention all passengers, this is Captain Jacob speaking. We are now 45 miles from St. Joseph. Our altitude is 6514 feet. Our speed is 115 knots. We will be on the ground shortly. Thank you. DING”

Here he is at the Davenport airport, still busy looking at his maps:

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Every little airport we stopped at featured adults smiling at the boys. People enjoyed watching a dad and his kids flying somewhere together.

Oliver kept busy too. He loves to help me on my pre-flight inspections. He will report every little thing to me – a scratch, a fleck of paint missing on a wheel cover, etc. He takes it seriously. Both boys love to help get the plane ready or put it away.

The Computers

Jacob quickly gravitated towards a few interesting things. He sat for about half an hour watching this old Commodore plotter do its thing (click for video):

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His other favorite thing was the phones. Several people had brought complete analog PBXs with them. They used them to demonstrate various old phone-related hardware; one had several BBSs running with actual modems, another had old answering machines and home-security devices. Jacob learned a lot about phones, including how to operate a rotary-dial phone, which he’d never used before!

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Oliver was drawn more to the old computers. He was fascinated by the IBM PC XT, which I explained was just about like a model I used to get to use sometimes. They learned about floppy disks and how computers store information.

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He hadn’t used joysticks much, and found Pong (“this is a soccer game!”) interesting. Somebody has also replaced the guts of a TRS-80 with a Raspberry Pi running a SNES emulator. This had thoroughly confused me for a little while, and excited Oliver.

Jacob enjoyed an old TRS-80, which, through a modern Ethernet interface and a little computation help in AWS, provided an interface to Wikipedia. Jacob figured out the text-mode interface quickly. Here he is reading up on trains.

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I had no idea that Commodore made a lot of adding machines and calculators before they got into the home computer business. There was a vast table with that older Commodore hardware, too much to get on a single photo. But some of the adding machines had their covers off, so the boys got to see all the little gears and wheels and learn how an adding machine can do its printing.

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And then we get to my favorite: the big iron. Here is a VAX — a working VAX. When you have a computer that huge, it’s easier for the kids to understand just what something is.

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When we encountered the table from the Glenside Color Computer Club, featuring the good old CoCo IIs like what I used as a kid (and have up in my attic), I pointed out to the boys that “we have a computer just like this that can do these things” — and they responded “wow!” I think they are eager to try out floppy disks and disk BASIC now.

Some of my favorites were the old Unix systems, which are a direct ancestor to what I’ve been working with for decades now. Here’s AT&T System V release 3 running on its original hardware:

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And there were a couple of Sun workstations there, making me nostalgic for my college days. If memory serves, this one is actually running on m68k in the pre-Sparc days:

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Returning home

After all the excitement of the weekend, both boys zonked out for awhile on the flight back home. Here’s Jacob, sleeping with his maps still up.

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As we were nearly home, we hit a pocket of turbulence, the kind that feels as if the plane is dropping a bit (it’s perfectly normal and safe; you’ve probably felt that on commercial flights too). I was a bit concerned about Oliver; he is known to get motion sick in cars (and even planes sometimes). But what did I hear from Oliver?

“Whee! That was fun! It felt like a roller coaster! Do it again, dad!”

All Aboard

“Aaaaaall Aboard!” *chug* *chug*

And so began a “trip” aboard our hotel train in Indianapolis, conducted by our very own Jacob and Oliver.

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Because, well, what could be more fun than spending a few days in the world’s only real Pullman sleeping car, on its original service track, inside a hotel?

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We were on a family vacation to Indianapolis, staying in what two railfan boys were sure to enjoy: a hotel actually built into part of the historic Indianapolis Union Station complex. This is the original train track and trainshed. They moved in the Pullman cars, then built the hotel around them. Jacob and Oliver played for hours, acting as conductors and engineers, sending their “train” all across the country to pick up and drop off passengers.

Opa!

Have you ever seen a kid’s face when you introduce them to something totally new, and they think it is really exciting, but a little scary too?

That was Jacob and Oliver when I introduced them to saganaki (flaming cheese) at a Greek restaurant. The conversation went a little like this:

“Our waitress will bring out some cheese. And she will set it ON FIRE — right by our table!”

“Will it burn the ceiling?”

“No, she’ll be careful.”

“Will it be a HUGE fire?”

“About a medium-sized fire.”

“Then what will happen?”

“She’ll yell ‘OPA!’ and we’ll eat the cheese after the fire goes out.”

“Does it taste good?”

“Oh yes. My favorite!”

It turned out several tables had ordered saganaki that evening, so whenever I saw it coming out, I’d direct their attention to it. Jacob decided that everyone should call it “opa” instead of saganaki because that’s what the waitstaff always said. Pretty soon whenever they’d see something appear in the window from the kitchen, there’d be craning necks and excited jabbering of “maybe that’s our opa!”

And when it finally WAS our “opa”, there were laughs of delight and I suspect they thought that was the best cheese ever.

Giggling Elevators

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Fun times were had pressing noses against the glass around the elevator. Laura and I sat on a nearby sofa while Jacob and Oliver sat by the elevators, anxiously waiting for someone to need to go up and down. They point and wave at elevators coming down, and when elevator passengers waved back, Oliver would burst out giggling and run over to Laura and me with excitement.

Some history

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We got to see the grand hall of Indianapolis Union Station — what a treat to be able to set foot in this magnificent, historic space, the world’s oldest union station. We even got to see the office where Thomas Edison worked, and as a hotel employee explained, was fired for doing too many experiments on the job.

Water and walkways

Indy has a system of elevated walkways spanning quite a section of downtown. It can be rather complex navigating them, and after our first day there, I offered to let Jacob and Oliver be the leaders. Boy did they take pride in that! They stopped to carefully study maps and signs, and proudly announced “this way” or “turn here” – and were usually correct.

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And it was the same in the paddleboat we took down the canal. Both boys wanted to be in charge of steering, and we only scared a few other paddleboaters.

Fireworks

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Our visit ended with the grand fireworks show downtown, set off from atop a skyscraper. I had been scouting for places to watch from, and figured that a bridge-walkway would be great. A couple other families had that thought too, and we all watched the 20-minute show in the drizzle.

Loving brothers

By far my favorite photo from the week is this one, of Jacob and Oliver asleep, snuggled up next to each other under the covers. They sure are loving and caring brothers, and had a great time playing together.

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A great day for a flight with the boys

I tend to save up my vacation time to use in summer for family activities, and today was one of those days.

Yesterday, Jacob and Oliver enjoyed planning what they were going to do with me. They ruled out all sorts of things nearby, but they decided they would like to fly to Ponca City, explore the oil museum there, then eat at Enrique’s before flying home.

Of course, it is not particularly hard to convince me to fly somewhere. So off we went today for some great father-son time.

The weather on the way was just gorgeous. We cruised along at about a mile above ground, which gave us pleasantly cool air through the vents and a smooth ride. Out in the distance, a few clouds were trying to form.

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Whether I’m flying or driving, a pilot is always happy to pass a small airport. Here was the Winfield, KS airport (KWLD):

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This is a beautiful time of year in Kansas. The freshly-cut wheat fields are still a vibrant yellow. Other crops make a bright green, and colors just pop from the sky. A camera can’t do it justice.

They enjoyed the museum, and then Oliver wanted to find something else to do before we returned to the airport for dinner. A little exploring yielded the beautiful and shady Garfield Park, complete with numerous old stone bridges.

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Of course, the hit of any visit to Enrique’s is their “ice cream tacos” (sopapillas with ice cream). Here is Oliver polishing off his.

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They had both requested sightseeing from the sky on our way back, but both fell asleep so we opted to pass on that this time. Oliver slept through the landing, and I had to wake him up when it was time to go. I always take it as a compliment when a 6-year-old sleeps through a landing!

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Most small airports have a bowl of candy setting out somewhere. Jacob and Oliver have become adept at finding them, and I will usually let them “talk me into” a piece of candy at one of them. Today, after we got back, they were intent at exploring the small gift shop back home, and each bought a little toy helicopter for $1.25. They may have been too tired to enjoy it though.

They’ve been in bed for awhile now, and I’m still smiling about the day. Time goes fast when you’re having fun, and all three of us were. It is fun to see them inheriting my sense of excitement at adventure, and enjoying the world around them as they go.

The lady at the museum asked how we had heard about them, and noticed I drove up in an airport car (most small airports have an old car you can borrow for a couple hours for free if you’re a pilot). I told the story briefly, and she said, “So you flew out to this small town just to spend some time here?” “Yep.” “Wow, that’s really neat. I don’t think we’ve ever had a visitor like you before.” Then she turned to the boys and said, “You boys are some of the luckiest kids in the world.”

And I can’t help but feel like the luckiest dad in the world.

Mud, Airplanes, Arduino, and Fun

The last few weeks have been pretty hectic in their way, but I’ve also had the chance to take some time off work to spend with family, which has been nice.

Memorial Day: breakfast and mud

For Memorial Day, I decided it would be nice to have a cookout for breakfast rather than for dinner. So we all went out to the fire ring. Jacob and Oliver helped gather kindling for the fire, while Laura chopped up some vegetables. Once we got a good fire going, I cooked some scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet, mixed with meat and veggies. Mmm, that was tasty.

Then we all just lingered outside. Jacob and Oliver enjoyed playing with the cats, and the swingset, and then…. water. They put the hose over the slide and made a “water slide” (more mud slide maybe).

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Then we got out the water balloon fillers they had gotten recently, and they loved filling up water balloons. All in all, we all just enjoyed the outdoors for hours.

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Flying to Petit Jean, Arkansas

Somehow, neither Laura nor I have ever really been to Arkansas. We figured it was about time. I had heard wonderful things about Petit Jean State Park from other pilots: it’s rather unique in that it has a small airport right in the park, a feature left over from when Winthrop Rockefeller owned much of the mountain.

And what a beautiful place it was! Dense forests with wonderful hiking trails, dotted with small streams, bubbling springs, and waterfalls all over; a nice lake, and a beautiful lodge to boot. Here was our view down into the valley at breakfast in the lodge one morning:

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And here’s a view of one of the trails:

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The sunset views were pretty nice, too:

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And finally, the plane we flew out in, parked all by itself on the ramp:

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It was truly a relaxing, peaceful, re-invigorating place.

Flying to Atchison

Last weekend, Laura and I decided to fly to Atchison, KS. Atchison is one of the oldest cities in Kansas, and has quite a bit of history to show off. It was fun landing at the Amelia Earhart Memorial Airport in a little Cessna, and then going to three museums and finding lunch too.

Of course, there is the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, which is a beautifully-maintained old house along the banks of the Missouri River.

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I was amused to find this hanging in the county historical society museum:

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One fascinating find is a Regina Music Box, popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It operates under the same principles as those that you might see that are cylindrical. But I am particular impressed with the effort that would go into developing these discs in the pre-computer era, as of course the holes at the outer edge of the disc move faster than the inner ones. It would certainly take a lot of careful calculation to produce one of these. I found this one in the Cray House Museum:

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An Arduino Project with Jacob

One day, Jacob and I got going with an Arduino project. He wanted flashing blue lights for his “police station”, so we disassembled our previous Arduino project, put a few things on the breadboard, I wrote some code, and there we go. Then he noticed an LCD in my Arduino kit. I hadn’t ever gotten around to using it yet, and of course he wanted it immediately. So I looked up how to connect it, found an API reference, and dusted off my C skills (that was fun!) to program a scrolling message on it. Here is Jacob showing it off:

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The Simple Joys of the Plains

We love to go exploring as a family. Last year, we gave Jacob and Oliver a theme: “find places older than Grandpa.” They got creative really quick, realizing that any state park counts (“dirt is older than grandpa!”) as did pretty much any museum. Probably our hit from last year was the visit to the tunnels under Ellinwood, KS.

Beatrice, NE

This year, our theme is “places we can fly to”. A couple of weeks ago, Laura had a conference in the beautiful small town of Beatrice, NE. So all four of us flew up, and Jacob, Oliver, and I found fun activities while Laura was at her conference.

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We walked around Beatrice a bit, and I noticed this rails-to-trails area. Jacob and Oliver were immediately interested (since it was railroad-related). They quickly turned it into a game of kick-the-dandelion, trying to kick dandelions off their stems and see how high in the air they could get them. The answer: pretty high.

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Of course, you can’t go wrong with swimming. Here’s Oliver getting ready for some swimming.

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Right near Beatrice is the Homestead National Monument. Of course, the bales decorated like a minion got their attention.

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Like the other national parks, this one has a junior ranger program. You complete a few things in an activity book and take a pledge to protect the park, and then you get a badge and some stickers. Here’s Oliver proudly taking his pledge, holding the new raccoon he bought in their gift shop.

Canyon, TX

Laura and I have been to Canyon, TX, twice — the first was for our honeymoon. Yes, we did get some strange looks when we told people we were going to Amarillo for our honeymoon. But it was absolutely perfect for us. We both enjoy the simple gifts of nature.

We kept thinking “we’ve got to take the boys here”. So this weekend, we did. We flew a Cessna out there.

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Almost every little general aviation airport seems to have a bowl of candy, a plate of cookies, or some such thing for people that are flying through. I often let Jacob and Oliver choose ONE item.

They hit the jackpot when we stopped at West Woodward, Oklahoma for fuel and a break. Two whole fridges stocked with stuff: cans of pop in one, and all sorts of snacks in the other. In typical GA fashion, there was a jar in the fridge asking for $1 if you took something. And it clearly hadn’t been emptied in awhile.

They also had a nice lounge and a patio. Perfect for munching while watching the activities on the ramp.

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After landing at the beautiful little Tradewind Airport in Amarillo, we ate dinner at Feldman’s Wrong-Way Diner in Canyon, TX. Oh my, was that ever popular with the boys.

The eagerly looked around to find anything that was “wrong” — a plane hanging upside down from the ceiling, a direction sign saying “Tattoine – 30 parsecs”, movie posters hung upside down, whatever it might be. The fact that model trains were whirring past overhead certainly didn’t hurt either.

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They had a giant bin of crayons by the entrance. Jacob and Oliver each grabbed a fistful, and decided it would be fun to do some math problems while we wait. Oliver particularly got into that, and was quite accurate on his large addition problems. Impressive for a first-grader!

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Of course, the big highlight of the area is Palo Duro Canyon. Jacob and Oliver were so eager to explore the canyon that they were just about bubbling over with excitement the night before. They decided that we should explore one of the most difficult trails in the canyon – one that would take us from the bottom of the canyon all the way to the top and back, about 2.5 miles each way.

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And they LOVED it. We’d stop every few minutes to climb on some rocks, smash up some pieces of sandstone, munch on a snack, or even watch a lizard scurry past.

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At the “trading post” in the canyon, both boys explored the gift shop. Jacob happily purchased a Texas magnet and Palo Duro Canyon keychain, which he carried around the rest of the weekend. Oliver loves stuffed animals, and he bought a cuddly little (but long) snake. When we got back to the hotel, he tied a couple of knots in it, and it became “snake airlines”. Here is the snake airline taking off.

He named it “Rattletail the friendly snake”, which I thought was a pretty nifty name.

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The hotel’s waffle maker made Texas-shaped waffles, clearly a hit!

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Saturday, we explored the absolutely massive Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. (How does something that huge wind up in Canyon, TX?) Both boys enjoyed spending hours there. Here’s Oliver in Pioneer Town (an indoor recreation of a 1900s town) sending a telegraph message.

Oliver wanted to help with the plane. He helped me tie it down in Amarillo, helped check it over during preflight, basically got involved in every part of it. Jacob studied aviation maps (sectionals) with me, planning our flight, figuring out how fast we’d go. I loaded Avare (an Android app) on an old tablet for him, so he had aviation maps in the cockpit just like me. He would be telling us how fast we were going every so often, pointing out landmarks, etc.

When it was time to head back home, both boys wanted to stay longer — a sure sign of a good trip. They wanted to hike another trail in the canyon, go back to the museum, and “eat at Feldman’s 18 more times.” (We got there twice, which was plenty for Laura and me!)

On our drive home, Oliver said, “Dad-o, will you teach me to be a pilot? You should be my flight instructor. Then I could fly everywhere with you.”

Now that just makes a dad’s day.

Free cars, sunsets, and Kansas

“Will you have a car I can borrow?” I asked.

“Sure. No charge. There’s a sign telling you where to find the key.”

It is pretty common for small airports to have a car for a pilot to borrow when flying in. This lets a person go into town for lunch, or visit friends. And it’s usually free, with a can to donate a few bucks or a polite request to fill up the tank when you’re done.

Still, when I had called ahead to ask about flying into the airport in a small town in north-central Kansas, I hadn’t expected to be told to just waltz into the place and take the key. But they had no staff at the airport most of the time. So, to me — another person from a small town — it made perfect sense. Somehow, because of that phone call, this town I had visited once, maybe 25 years ago, seemed instantly familiar.

My mom grew up in a small town near there. She wanted me to see where she grew up, to meet some people that meant a lot to her. As it’s quite a distance from home, I offered to fly her there. So, Laura, mom, and I climbed into a Cessna one morning for the flight northwest. We touched down at the airport, and I pulled the plane up to the little terminal building.

Smith Center, KS airport terminal

After I took care of parking the plane, I went to find the car. Except the car was missing. Some other pilot had flown in the same day and was using it, according to the logbook on the desk. I called the number on a sign — which rang to the sheriff’s office — and they confirmed it. According to the logbook, this was only the third time that car had been driven since Thanksgiving. Were we stuck at the airport a few miles out of down?

Nope. Mom called the people we were going to meet, a wonderful couple in their upper 80s. They drove out to pick us up. I’m rather glad the car was gone, because I had such a great time visiting with them. Norris told me about the days when the state highways were gravel — how they’d have to re-blade them every few days due to all the traffic. I heard about what happened when the people in that community heard of some folks in Africa in need of car equipment — they modified a tractor to fit in a shipping container and shipped it to Africa, along with a lot of books, blankets, supplies, and anything else needed to fill up a huge shipping container. Sounds like something people around here would do.

We drove around a couple of the small towns. The town my mom grew up in has seen better days. Its schools closed years ago, the old hotel whose owner gave her piano lessons is condemned, and many houses have been lost. But the town lives on. A new community center was built a few years ago. The grain elevator is expanding. Every time a business on Main Street closes, the grocery store expands a little bit: it’s now a grocery store with a little hardware store and a little restaurant mixed in. “The mall”, as the locals jokingly call it. And, of course, two beautiful small churches still meet every Sunday. Here’s the one my mom attended as a child.

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We drove past the marker at the geographic center of the contiguous United States. Norris saw some other visitors, rolled down his windows, and treated them — and us — to an unexpected story of the time thousands of people banded together to completely build a house in a single day, just down the road. Smiles all around.

So here I was, nearly 200 miles from home, in an unfamiliar town – but one where I could just feel the goodness. After spending a few hours with these people, I felt like they were old friends.

As I flew us home, I spotted one of my favorite Kansas sights: a beautiful sunset. From the plane, it almost looks like the land at the horizon turns blue like the ocean, and above it the last hint of sun paints the canvas-sky.

In this week of controversy, politics, and reports of violence, it reminds me that we all get the privilege of sharing this beautiful Earth. I didn’t ask anybody on that trip about their politics, religion, or opinions on any of the divisive issues of the day. Whether they agree with me on those things or not is irrelevant. I got to spend a day with good-hearted and delightful people, so I flew back with a smile.

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Bach, Dot Matrix Printers, and Dinner

Dinner last night started out all normal. Then Jacob and Oliver started asking me about printers. First they wanted to know how an ink jet printer works. Then they wanted to know how a laser printer works. Then they wanted to know what would happen if you’d put ink in a laser printer or toner in an ink jet. They were fascinated as I described the various kinds of clogging and ruining that would inevitably occur.

Then these words: “What other kinds of printers are there?”

So our dinner conversation started to resolve around printers. I talked about daisy wheel printers, line printers, dot matrix printers. I explained the type chain of line printers, the pins of dot matrix. “More printers!” I had to dig deeper into my memory: wax transfer printers, thermal printers, dye sublimation, always describing a bit about how each one worked — except for dye sublimation, which I couldn’t remember many details about. “More printers!” So we went onwards towards the printing press, offset printing, screen printing, mimeograph, and photocopiers. Although I could give them plenty of details about most of the printers, I also failed under their barrage of questions about offset printing. So I finally capitulated, and said “should I go get my phone and look it up while you finish eating?” “YEAH!”

So I looked up the misty details of dye sublimation and offset printing and described how they worked. That seemed to satisfy them. Then they asked me what my favorite kind of printer was. I said “dot matrix, because it makes the best sound.” That had their attention. They stopped eating to ask the vitally important question: “Dad, what sound does it make?” At this point, I did my best dot matrix impression at the dinner table, to much laughter and delight.

Before long, they wanted to see videos of dot matrix printers. They were fascinated by them. And then I found this gem of a dot matrix printer playing a famous Bach tune, which fascinated me also:

I guess it must have all sunk in, because this morning before school Jacob all of a sudden begged to see the fuser in my laser printer. So we turned it around, opened up the back panel — to his obvious excitement — and then I pointed to the fuser, with its “hot” label. I even heard a breathy “wow” from him.

The Train to Galesburg

Sometimes, children are so excited you just can’t resist. Jacob and Oliver have been begging for a train trip for awhile now, so Laura and I took advantage of a day off school to take them to the little town of Galesburg, IL for a couple days.

Galesburg is a special memory for me; nearly 5 years ago, it was the first time Jacob and I took an Amtrak trip somewhere, just the two of us. And, separately, Laura’s first-ever train trip had been to Galesburg to visit friends.

There was excitement in the air. I was asked to supply a bedtime story about trains — I did. On the way to the train station — in the middle of the night — there was excited jabbering about trains. Even when I woke them up, they lept out of bed and raced downstairs, saying, “Dad, why aren’t you ready yet?”

As the train was passing through here at around 4:45AM, and we left home with some time to spare, we did our usual train trip thing of stopping at the one place open at such a time: Druber’s Donuts.

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Much as Laura and I might have enjoyed some sleep once we got on the train, Jacob and Oliver weren’t having it. Way too much excitement was in the air. Jacob had his face pressed against the window much of the time, while Oliver was busy making “snake trains” from colored clay — complete with eyes.

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The boys were dressed up in their train hats and engineer overalls, and Jacob kept musing about what would happen if somebody got confused and thought that he was the real engineer. When an Amtrak employee played along with that later, he was quite thrilled!

We were late enough into Galesburg that we ate lunch in the dining car. A second meal there — what fun! Here they are anxiously awaiting the announcement that the noon reservations could make their way to the dining car. Oh, and jockeying for position to see who would be first and get to do the all-important job of pushing the button to open the doors between train cars.

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Even waiting for your food can be fun.

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Upon arriving, we certainly couldn’t leave the train station until our train did, even though it was raining.

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Right next to the train station is the Discovery Depot Children’s Museum. It was a perfect way to spend a few hours. Jacob really enjoyed the building wall, where you can assemble systems that use gravity (really a kinetic/potential energy experiment wall) to funnel rubber balls all over the place. He sticks out his tongue when he’s really thinking. Fun to watch.

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Meanwhile, Oliver had a great time with the air-powered tube system, complete with several valves that can launch things through a complicated maze of transparent tubes.

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They both enjoyed pretending I was injured and giving me rides in the ambulance. I was diagnosed with all sorts of maladies — a broken leg, broken nose. One time Jacob held up the pretend stethoscope to me, and I said “ribbit.” He said, “Dad, you’ve got a bad case of frog! You will be in the hospital 190 days!” Later I would make up things like “I think my gezotnix is all froibled” and I was ordered to never leave the ambulance again. He told the story of this several times.

After the museum closed, we ate supper. Keep in mind the boys had been up since the middle of the night without sleeping and were still doing quite well! They did start to look a bit drowsy — I thought Oliver was about to fall asleep, but then their food came. And at the hotel, they were perfectly happy to invent games involving jumping off the bed.

Saturday, we rode over to Peck Park. We had heard about this park from members of our church in Kansas, but oddly even the taxi drivers hadn’t ever heard of it. It’s well known as a good place to watch trains, as it has two active lines that cross each other at a rail bridge. And sure enough, in only a little while, we took in several trains.

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The rest of that morning, we explored Galesburg. We visited an antique mall and museum, saw the square downtown, and checked out a few of the shops — my favorite was the Stray Cat, featuring sort of a storefront version of Etsy with people selling art from recycled objects. But that wasn’t really the boys’ thing, so we drifted out of there on our way to lunch at Baked, where we had some delicious deep-dish pizza.

After that, we still had some time to kill before getting back on the train. We discussed our options. And what do you know — we ended up back at the children’s museum. We stopped at a bakery to get the fixins for a light supper on the train, and ate a nice meal in the dining car once we got on. Then, this time, they actually slept.

Before long, it was 3AM again and time to get back off the train. Oliver was zonked out sleepy. Somehow I managed to get his coat and backpack on him despite him being totally limp, and carried him downstairs to get off the train. Pretty soon we walked to our car and drove home.

We tucked them in, and then finally tucked ourselves in. Sometimes being really tired is well worth it.

The Time Machine of Durango

“The airplane may be the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

– Brian J. Terwilliger

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There is something about that moment. Hiking in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, with Laura and the boys, we found a beautiful spot with a view of the valley. We paused to admire, and then –

The sound of a steam locomotive whistle from down below, sounding loud all the way up there, then echoing back and forth through the valley. Then the quieter, seemingly more distant sound of the steam engine heading across the valley, chugging and clacking as it goes. More whistles, the sight of smoke and then of the train full of people, looking like a beautiful model train from our vantage point.

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I’ve heard that sound on a few rare recordings, but never experienced it. I’ve been on steam trains a few times, but never spent time in a town where they still run all day, every day. It is a different sort of feeling to spend a week in a place where Jacob and Oliver would jump up several times a day and rush to the nearest window in an attempt to catch sight of the train.

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Airplanes really can be a time machine in a sense — what a wondrous time to be alive, when things so ancient are within the reach of so many. I have been transported to Lübeck and felt the uneven 700-year-old stones of the Marienkirche underneath my feet, feeling a connection to the people that walked those floors for centuries. I felt the same in Prague, in St. George’s Basilica, built in 1142, and at the Acropolis of Lindos, with its ancient Greek temple ruins. In Kansas, I feel that when in the middle of the Flint Hills — rolling green hills underneath the pure blue sky with billowing white clouds, the sounds of crickets, frogs, and cicadas in my ears; the sights and sounds are pretty much as they’ve been for tens of thousands of years. And, of course, in Durango, arriving on a plane but seeing the steam train a few minutes later.

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It was fitting that we were in Durango with Laura’s parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. As we looked forward to riding the train, we heard their stories of visits to Durango years ago, of their memories of days when steam trains were common. We enjoyed thinking about what our lives would be like should we live long enough to celebrate 50 years of marriage. Perhaps we would still be in good enough health to be able to ride a steam train in Durango, telling about that time when we rode the train, which by then will have been pretty much the same for 183 years. Or perhaps we would take them to our creek, enjoying a meal at the campfire like I’ve done since I was a child.

Each time has its unique character. I am grateful for the cameras and airplanes and air conditioning we have today. But I am also thankful for those things that connect us with each other trough time, those rocks that are the same every year, those places that remind us how close we really are to those that came before.

Willis Goerzen – a good reason to live in Kansas

From time to time, people ask me, with a bit of a disbelieving look on their face, “Tell me again why you chose to move to Kansas?” I can explain something about how people really care about their neighbors out here, how connections through time to a place are strong, how the people are hard-working, achieve great things, and would rather not talk about their achievements too much. But none of this really conveys it.

This week, as I got word that my great uncle Willis Goerzen passed away, it occured to me that the reason I live in Kansas is simple: people like Willis.

Willis was a man that, through and through, simply cared. For everyone. He had hugs ready anytime. When I used to see him in church every Sunday, I’d usually hear his loud voice saying, “Well John!” Then a hug, then, “How are you doing?” When I was going through a tough time in life, hugs from Willis and Thelma were deeply meaningful. I could see how deeply he cared in his moist eyes, the way he sought me out to offer words of comfort, reassurance, compassion, and strength.

Willis didn’t just defy the stereotypes on men having to hide their emotions; he also did so by being just gut-honest. Americans often ask, in sort of a greeting, “How are you?” and usually get an answer like “fine”. If I asked Willis “How are you?”, I might hear “great!” or “it’s hard” or “pretty terrible.” In a place where old-fashioned stoicism is still so common, this was so refreshing. Willis and I could have deep, heart-to-heart conversations or friendly ones.

Willis also loved to work. He worked on a farm, in construction, and then for many years doing plumbing and heating work. When he retired, he just kept on doing it. Not for the money, but because he wanted to. I remember calling him up one time about 10 years ago, asking if he was interested in helping me with a heating project. His response: “I’ll hitch up the horses and be right there!” (Of course, he had no horses anymore.) When I had a project to renovate what had been my grandpa’s farmhouse (that was Willis’s brother), he did all the plumbing work. He told me, “John, it’s great to be retired. I can still do what I love to do, but since I’m so cheap, I don’t have to be fast. My old knees can move at their own speed.” He did everything so precisely, built it so sturdy, that I used to joke that if a tornado struck the house, the house would be a pile of rubble but the ductwork would still be fine.

One of his biggest frustrations about ill health was being unable to work, and in fact he had a project going before cancer started to get the best of him. He was quite distraught that, for the first time in his life, he didn’t properly finish a job.

Willis installed a three-zone system (using automated dampers to send heat or cool from a single furnace/AC into only the parts of the house where it was needed) for me. He had never done that before. The night Willis and his friend Bob came over to finish the setup was one to remember. The two guys, both in their 70s, were figuring it all out, and their excitement was catching. By the time the evening was over, I certainly was more excited about thermostats than I ever had been in my life.

I heard a story about him once – he was removing some sort of noxious substance from someone’s house. I forget what it was — whatever it was, it had pretty bad long-term health effects. His comment: “Look, I’m old. It’s not going to be this that does me in.” And he was right.

In his last few years, Willis started up a project that only Willis would dream up. He invited people to bring him all their old and broken down appliances and metal junk – air conditioners, dehumidifiers, you name it. He carefully took them apart, stripped them down, and took the metals into a metal salvage yard. He then donated all the money he got to a charity that helped the poor, and it was nearly $5000.

Willis had a sense of humor about him that he somehow deployed at those perfect moments when you least expected it. Back in 2006, before I had moved into the house that had been grandpa’s, there was a fire there. I lost two barns (one was the big old red one with lots of character) and a chicken house. When I got out there to see what had happened, Willis was already there. It was quite the disappointment for me. Willis asked me if grandpa’s old manure spreader was still in the chicken house. (Cattle manure is sometimes used as a fertilizer.) This old manure spreader was horse-drawn. I told him it was, and so it had burned up. So Willis put his arm around me, and said, “John, do you know what we always used to call a manure spreader?” “Nope.” “Shit-slinger!” That was so surprising I couldn’t help but break out laughing. Willis was the only person that got me to laugh that day.

In his last few years, Willis battled several health ailments. When he was in a nursing home for a while due to complications from knee surgery, I’d drop by to visit. And lately as he was declining, I tried to drop in at his house to visit with Willis and Thelma as much as possible. Willis was always so appreciative of those visits. He always tried to get in a hug if he could, even if Thelma and I had to hold on to him when he stood up. He would say sometimes, “John, you are so good to come here and visit with me.” And he’d add, “I love you.” As did I.

Sometimes when Willis was felling down about not being able to work more, or not finish a project, I told him how he was an inspiration to me, and to many others. And I reminded him that I visited with him because I wanted do, and being able to do that meant as much to me as it did to him. I’m not sure if he ever could quite believe how deeply true that was, because his humble nature was a part of who he was.

My last visit earlier this week was mostly with Thelma. Willis was not able to be very alert, but I held his hand and made sure to tell him that I love and care for him that time. I’m not sure if he was able to hear, but I am sure that he didn’t need to. Willis left behind a community of hundreds of people that love him and had their lives touched by his kind and inspirational presence.