Being the wife of a "My-bags-are-packed-'n-l'm-ready-to-go!" engineer has had its plusses and minuses--heavy on the latter! On the plus side, Ken's occasional absences give me a break from cooking and ironing, which allows me to get caught up on the neglected correspondence and photo albums. (Oh thrill!) Better, though, are the times when he goes his way and I go mine--like to visit our kids or my siblings. No complaints there, for sure!
The plusses, however, don't come close to balancing my comfort and security needs while my Travelin' Man is away! I hate not sharing my bed with a warm body--even if it snores--and I long to hear a male voice not silenceable by a remote control. And in my book, getting my back scratched starts and ends a perfect day as does being kissed by someone with only two legs and without a wet nose. (I love our neighbor's dog, but he doesn't hug!)
As far as I'm concerned, being left at home footloose and fancy free ranks right up there with ingrown toe nails, poison oak, migraines, earthquakes, and floods. Spare me the thought that my poor world traveler is having to deal with airline schedules, missed connections, time-zone changes, jet lag, and potential high-jackings. Sure I'm proud of him for helping solve the world's water and wastewater problems; and, yes, I do appreciate the bacon on my table, Liz Claiborne on my back, and roof over my head. I just have a tough time working up any sympathy for my Traveler's back-home-again-weariness when I hear he's stopped over in such places as Zurich, Paris, Zagreb, Vienna, Bangkok, or Singapore. Knowing he just happened to catch Fasching (Mardi Gras) in Frankfurt doesn't make my day any more than learning he found the red-light district in Amsterdam fascinating.
But, hey! There's another issue here about my avowed housemate's travels that far overshadows my loneliness and admitted jealousies of the things he gets to see and do--and I only get to live through vicariously. You see, almost every time he goes on a trip, you can betcher sweet bippy something strange or calamitous is going to happen to me, the state, or even the country he leaves me behind in.
Take, for instance, that morning in Atlanta when Ken left for Corvallis on business. Seeing his taillights disappear around the corner triggered a mechanism in my brain that seems, between his trips, to lay comfortably dormant. It's tied to a philosophy my mother taught about HARD WORK. It would, she promised, deaden loneliness, diminish frustration, and leave the body too tired to worry. That morning, I cleaned the upstairs and main floor rooms and was half-way through vacuuming the 4 x 5-1/2-foot Oriental rug in the entry when the vacuum died. Aggravated, I rolled it up, carried it out onto the second-floor terrace, and leaned over the wrought-iron railing to give it some mighty pops. On the second shake, I could've sworn my back had been hit by lightning! With Herculean effort, I made it back into the house where I collapsed in excruciating pain on the family room couch.
An hour or so later, I was startled by the CRASH of breaking glass coming from the basement. Two things flashed through my mind. The first had happened 2 weeks before. Arriving home from a meeting that I attended every Thursday morning, I was surprised to find our neighbor from across the street standing at the edge of our yard peering down through the thick jumble of bushes at our house. When I tapped my horn to get her attention, she jumped a mile, then came running to the car. "Julie!" she said breathlessly. "I'm so glad to see you! Your burglar alarm just stopped blaring." (The alarm sounded just like a police siren and would shut off automatically after 7 minutes.) "I can't see anything down there; but when I opened my front door to come down here, there was a van in front of your next-door neighbor's house--maybe their yard workers--but whoever it was, they drove away real fast! Anyway, Ken called to see if I could see anything going on down here. Oh dear! I forgot! I'd better go tell Ken you're home!" "Tell him I'll ring him back as soon as I check this out," I called after her as she ran back across the street. Figuring the perpetrators were long gone, I drove on down our curved drive and parked the car in the carport. Letting myself in the back door, I hurried to the kitchen and had just started dialing Ken when the shadow of someone on the terrace played on the sunny wall in front of me. Whirling around, I found myself face-to-face with a policeman peering through the window. Taking no chances that I might be the burglar, his gun was leveled at my pounding heart--an experience I'd rather not repeat! Sure enough, burglars had tried to jimmy our basement door!
The second thing that streaked through my mind when I heard the glass breaking in the basement was the fact that in Atlanta that year, 15 young boys had been murdered! That I was old and of the wrong gender didn't, at that precise moment, bring me consolation. Laying there in misery, whether it was a murderer or a burglar, my adrenaline kicked in even before I heard the second CRASH of glass. Rolling off the couch, I managed to crawl to the phone and dialed Ken's office; and I asked to have someone sent out immediately. Forty heart-pounding but uneventful minutes later, the culprits, two misguided chimney swifts, were disposed of. They'd flown down the fireplace chimney and gained entrance to the basement through the ash clean-out, the door of which had been left ajar. Probably thinking the reflected light off a shelf of glass jars was a window of escape, the desperate swifts had flown at them, knocking several jars onto the concrete floor-- CRASH! Of course, by the time Ken got home from the West Coast around a week later, I was walking almost upright again. I still haven't forgiven him for laughing at my killer birds, though.
While we were living overseas, things happened to me when Ken was gone that weren't necessarily scary but, because of cultural differences, were embarrassing and worrisome.
In the spring of 1982, we transferred from Atlanta to Alexandria, Egypt, where we rented an apartment on the second level of a six-story building. Our boab (pronounced beau-obb)--building caretaker--was Abu Wafa, a swarthy, pushy fellow who dressed in flowing gallabiyas and carried himself proudly. That he was always engulfed in his own garlic-tainted cloud probably kept him medicinally healthy during the three or four winter months when he, his wife Nadiera, and their four children slept on bedrolls in their dungeon-like rooms that opened directly into the garage. During the spring and summer, they slept on the roof along with their fattening array of chickens; perhaps a goose or rabbit; or, in anticipation of Ramadan, a lamb.
From the first day we met them, we liked Abu Wafa and his family. They would do anything for us; and, in return, we were generous with the monthly stipend we paid Abu Wafa as the boab as well as with our baksheesh, a form of tipping for other services rendered. At first, Abu Wafa's trips to our apartment, almost always made when Ken was at work, were strictly on business to do such things as changing our Butagaz (the Egyptian's word for Propane) tanks once a month--a necessity because of all the water I had to boil! Gradually, though, Abu Wafa's visits increased to almost daily social calls! He'd knock on our door. When I'd open it, he'd push on past me, gesturing grandly as he talked a mile-a-minute in Arabic while looking around. He usually headed for the kitchen and made a pretense of turning on a stove burner, or flipped on a light switch here or there, watching me and smiling surreptitiously. Then, just as abruptly as he arrived, he'd make a grand exit! Eventually, his impromptu visits made me so nervous I'd break out in hives! "I wish I understood Arabic," I complained to Ken, "so I'd know what he's saying." "Oh, we're the first Americans to live in this building," Ken assured me, "and he's just curious about how we live. Or maybe he's just showing you he's doing a good job for us so we'll give him more baksheesh." I didn't quite agree. Abu Wafa reminded me of the Bedouin camel merchant, an Omar Sharif look-a-like, who had tried to purchase me from Ken for 150 of his prize animals, fleas included! (Ken's hesitancy in refusing the deal was a bit too prolonged for my comfort!)
Then came the morning Ken had to leave on a 3-day business trip to Cairo. It was 5:30 a.m. when he kissed me good-bye--sending chills up and down my spine. No, it wasn't the old black magic--though I'll grant him his due. It was more a feeling of expectancy mixed with dread--a sneaking premonition that washed over me as I stood on our balcony waving as Ken's car disappeared down the sandy, garbage-strewn street.
I had just set up our portable typewriter on the dining room table and was beginning to type our regular letter home when a knock came at the door. Expecting Nadia, our maid, I instead found Abu Wafa, a smile bright enough to do the Osmond family proud, splitting his face from ear to ear as he, as usual, swept past me. Gesturing grandly, the faint smell of Purex (no Clorox in the Mid-East) wafted from the flapping sleeves of his fresh, white galabiyya--or maybe it was from the intricately wrapped tea-towel thing he wore on his head. Though I couldn't understand his spate of words, I'm sure he was telling me that he'd seen Ken leave. That made me furious! Fortunately, Nadia came trudging up the stairs at that precise moment. "Nadia," I pleaded in desperation while I pointed at the brand new hives I could feel developing on my neck, "Please explain to Abu Wafa that his frequent visits are making me nervous, and I don't want him coming up here anymore unless he is asked."
Nadia was none too fond of Abu Wafa anyway; and she obviously enjoyed great pleasure in relaying my message to the poor, shocked perpetrator. I thought that would be the end of the matter, but the saga continued a little while later. Nadia and I were both out cleaning the front balcony when Abu Wafa appeared in the street below us. "But I love her," he explained, crestfallen, a statement Nadia interpreted for me as I cowered out of his sight popping more hives. And their conversation went on and on! Here I must explain that the more important a discussion or message is, the louder an Arab feels it must be delivered. And this conversation was being carried out in voices just below the decibel level of a jet engine. Soon, Abu Wafa's sweet wife, Nadiera, plus a few other neighborhood kibitzers, were attracted to the debate. Nadiera, bless her, couldn't imagine why I didn't want her husband to visit me. "But he loves Miz Juleee! He loves her!" she pleaded in his defense. Never was I so aware of our cultural differences!
By the time Ken got home from Cairo, of course, I had managed, with the help of Ahmed, the company's administrator for Egyptian matters, to get the fiasco squared away. Ahmed had attended school in America--I think at the University of North Carolina--so he was able to explain the difference in our customs and soothe Abu Wafa's feelings. Though Abu Wafa wore a pathetic, hang-dog look for a month or so, he got over it and started acting his smiling, friendly self again--minus all the impromptu visits. When we left Alexandria, Nadiera cried copious tears while we hugged and did several sets of the customary two-cheek-kissing good-byes. A garlic enshrouded Abu Wafa did the same with Ken. Ken says I got the better deal!
From Egypt, we transferred to Amman, Jordan, where my transient Housemate's 13-day trip home to the United States caused the country to suffer a battering, 100-year storm. No kidding! It blew in the day after he left; and within hours, the temperature dropped to record lows. By the second day, the winds were gusting to 90 mph; and the phone and power went off leaving us with no lights, heat, or running water. Daughter Cheryl, who worked for Arabtech Engineering but functioned as Ken's secretary, was living with us then. The villa we lived in crowned the very peak of Jebel (mountain) el Weibdeh, one of seven on which ancient Amman is built. Our third-floor penthouse apartment wasn't anything to write home about, but it did have a broad verandah surrounding it that offered us a spectacular 270-degree view of the city marching up the mountains all around us and down into the valleys below. Cheryl, an artist, described the scene as a city of rectangles--squarish buildings with squarish windows topped by flat roofs adorned by square water tanks, derrick-like antennas, and thousands of clothes lines.
Standing at one of our picture windows listening to the wind, Cheryl and I debated whether or not it would be safe for her to walk to the office that was located on the back side of a different jebel from where we lived, a trek of 2 plus, very up-and-down miles. As we talked, two roof-top antennas not far from us were ripped from their moorings and tipped over. "I don't think you should go, Cheryl," I said worriedly, just as a tremendous blast of wind startled us. "Oh! Look at that one," Cheryl said in awe, as we watched, mesmerized, as the tall, steel, derrick-like communications antenna on top of the Italian Embassy next door to our villa began to topple toward us. With the agonized sound of twisting steel, its top came to a final rest in the tree tops about 15 feet from the edge of our veranda! The wind let up a little after that; so Cheryl left for work, reporting when she got home that the jebel where the office was located still had electricity so she'd been warm all day. I envied her. Dressed in layers of my warmest clothes and wrapped in a blanket, I had spent my day hand-writing correspondence and reading, things I was destined to do for several days to come.
Even without being sure of his airline schedule, I knew "His Nibs" was heading back to Jordan when the winds returned to normal, the sun came out, and just 6 hours before He landed in Amman the power was restored. By the time He arrived home, I'd made several trips to the souk (open market) to replenish our groceries, our apartment had warmed up to almost comfort-level, and we'd taken our first showers in a week. And then He walked in the door and before He had even hugged me properly, had the nerve to say, "Oh honey! I wish you'd been with me. I had some scheduling problems and wound up laying over in Paris and guess what? It was 86°, and the food was superb!"
It took restraint not to bop him!
Back in the United States, after we moved into our new home in Philomath, we had months of almost constant out-of-town visitors. Then came a sunny Monday morning when, simultaneously, our guests drove away to continue their vacation and Ken left on a sojourn to Bangladesh! I was going to be alone in the house for the very first time! Not to worry, though. I knew how to dispel the lonesome blues: HARD WORK interspersed with fun projects like wallpapering! So I'd be guilt-free to play at the latter. Fifteen minutes after waving their taillights down the driveway, I had the beds stripped and was carrying an enormous load of sheets, blankets, towels, etc., downstairs to the laundry room. Unfortunately, I didn't notice that a sheet had come loose from the bundle and was dragging in front of me. Three or four steps up from the landing, my foot got tangled in it and, realizing I was going to fall and not wanting to pitch forward, I took a giant flying leap to the floor.
Not even at my most agile could I do the splits, but I must have done it then--or come mighty close-- because one foot landed on the rug at the bottom of the steps, which scooted out from under me, leaving the tangled-up foot behind me. The pains in both my groin and back were so intense it hurt to cry. And the jar to my body felt like it had disarranged all my innards. When the shock of my situation lessened and I could finally think again, I managed to--very slowly--pull my legs around together. Well, my hips can't be broken, I figured, relieved. I wasn't so sure about my back, though. I couldn't sit up--or even get up on my knees. What am I going to do? I wondered, remembering Ken wouldn't be coming home from work to find me.
But I didn't have a choice! I spent the rest of the day sprawled across the dirty laundry, probably the best thing I could have done for my back. Toward evening, I managed to scoot across the wood floors of the entry to the carpeted family room, dragging most of the laundry with me. I don't recall being hungry or thirsty; and I slept only sporadically that night, alternating positions between the floor and draped over the cushions. Don't ask about bathroom etiquette, ya don't wanna know!
The next day, I squirmed and scooted like an inchworm on its side into the kitchen phone intending to call my Good Doctor for pain medicine. It wasn't until I looked up at it that I realized the dialing mechanism was too high on the wall for me to reach. I tried to pull myself up, but bolts like lightning struck my spine driving me to the floor in tears. After awhile, still not hungry but knowing I had to eat something, I made my way to the refrigerator. Laying on the floor in front of it, I devoured several sticks of unwashed celery and an apple from the crisper drawer and some bread and jam from a lower shelf, all of which I washed down with Diet Pepsi. By the time I worked my way back into the family room, I was so exhausted I went to sleep.
The next day or maybe it was the one following (time ran together for me), I crawled into our library where I could reach the phone on Ken's desk. "Good Doctor is on vacation this week," I was told by the sweet, young voice. "Dr. So-and-So is taking his calls. I can have him call you." "But I need to talk to him now. Please!" I begged, barely holding back tears. "I fell and am in a lot of pain and need something for it." "I'm sorry, he's with a patient now," came the insistent voice who obviously didn't recognize excruciating pain when she heard it. "He'll have to call you back." And I laid right there on the floor until he did! Unfortunately, I had been to my Good Doctor only twice since moving to Corvallis; and there had been no need for him to prescribe pain medicine. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Bielman," Dr. So-and-So told me in a very flat voice, "but it's illegal to prescribe pain medicine over the phone. You can try putting cold or heat on your back depending on which feels good to you. Or you can call an ambulance." I had been dismissed. He probably thought I was a desperate druggie. After getting hold of myself again, I thought: Well, our heating pad is upstairs and I hate hospitals. Then I remembered the bottle of Advil I kept in the kitchen cupboard. I crawled to the pantry and got the yardstick and a broom off their hooks. After many failed tries, I got the cupboard door open and knocked the bottle down! I probably took more than I should have, but the relief was heavenly. After that, I improved daily.
Though still bent over at an awkward angle, at least I was mobile again when Ken returned home. He brought with him a newspaper from Bangladesh reporting nine people had been killed by Bengal tigers the week before he got there. The week after he got home a cyclone hit some of the outlying islands killing or leaving homeless better than 10,000 people.
It is my guess that had Ken been there, nothing would have happened.
Ken's next major trip took him to Copenhagen, Zagreb, Belgrade, Athens, Lamaca, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam. The day after he left, I barreled out the front door to water the petunias and came face-to-face with two masked men in space-suits. Well, they looked like space-suits. Actually, they were coveralls. One of them had just reached for the doorbell when I'd jerked the door open and it's anybody's guess which one of us was the most surprised. While my heart was trying to resume a normal beat, they quickly explained that they were our 2-week-tardy tree sprayers!
The following morning on our back deck, I turned on the hose to give the potted flowers a drink. From directly beneath my feet came an angry shout and the commotion of lumber being tipped over. A second later, a man ran out from under the deck--his head, shoulders, and blueprints dripping with water. It was just the carpenter who had been quietly figuring his lumber needs for Ken's yet unfinished woodshed, but it startled me so it almost caused me to need a change of underwear! (I was beginning to wonder if the flowers would survive without water until Ken got back in town.)
Three days later, through our library windows, I glanced out to see, just 10 feet away, two of the biggest, blond cows I've ever seen. I like cows--I'd grown up on a farm--but these humongous critters were standing on our brand new lawn, munching away on our new green grass! I ran outside windmilling my arms while yelling a few choice words in barnyard-ese. Splat! I stepped right in the middle of one of their grass-green environmental Frisbees. While I tried to scrape it off my white Reeboks, the beasts kept right on grazing docilely, now and then glancing up at me dolefully with their long eye-lashed eyes.
Finally, with a broom applied liberally to their back-sides, something I hated to do because they were obviously so gentle, I got them off the new, soft lawn. But instead of them going toward the road where I was trying to herd them, they plodded down around the house and eased themselves into Ken's partially-finished woodshed. Granted, it kinda looked like a manger but the cows were so broad-in-the-beam I was afraid they'd knock the 4 x 4 supporting posts down. I tried coaxing them out; but they just mooed softly, chewed their cuds, and ignored my persistent and eloquent pleas to take their bovine charms elsewhere. I finally called a neighbor to see if he knew who owned them, but he didn't and suggested I call the sheriff's office. I did. And when a young deputy arrived and saw the size of the cows he drawled, Well, I guess if we weighed 1,000 pounds we could pretty much do as we pleased, too!"
Between the two of us, we finally got the contented bovines out of their manger and over to our driveway. Then the deputy jumped in his patrol car and, sticking his head out of the window, zigzagged behind them until he had them herded about a quarter-mile down the road. The next morning as Cheryl and I were having breakfast in the nook I told her, "Ya know, I sorta miss those cows .... " "Well, they must have missed you, too. Look down there!" During the night, they had returned to their manger! I didn't want them to further mow-down and fertilize our new front lawn, so I spent hours that day shooing them over to the side lawns up and down the creeks. We'd left that area, which was nicely shaded by big oaks, in natural grasses that Ken kept mowed--when he stayed home long enough to do it--so it would look park-like. Before I went to bed that night, I went down to the manger and tucked my new friends in with a good lecture. On the third day, I took back the threat I'd made on the first day when I told the deputy I was going to fill our freezer with big, juicy steaks if the owners weren't found right away. He just laughed at me!
Alas! On the fourth day, the deputy found the owners who hauled their fatted cows away. "I sure hope you don't get any more four-legged visitors before / get back from my vacation in Tacoma," the deputy joked as he climbed into his car. "I used to live there," I remarked, "My sister still does!" Four or 5 days later, I got a call from her. "Jewell," she chided me, sounding very serious, "I hear you've been in some trouble with the sheriff's office down there." Turns out the deputy was visiting his cousin who owns the condo directly below Lilly's, and he was telling her about his rather bizarre experience with this crazy Philomath lady and her wayward cows. Knowing Lilly had a sister in Philomath, the cousin called her and they compared notes. Can you beat that? Small world, isn't it?
When Ken came home again, he wondered why there were spots around our yard where the grass was so much taller and greener than everywhere else. "And have you seen how tall it is in my woodshed?"
After 40-plus years at CH2M HILL, amid much ado and roasting, on January 1, 1990, Ken retired. At least I think that's what they called it. Three days later, he left on yet another assignment to the Mid East--to Istanbul, Turkey, and Amman, Jordan. Not surprisingly--at least not to me--several days later, the Corvallis area was hit by torrential rains and gusting winds of ±70 mph. No one was worried about me being alone up there at the end of the road in our big house. The storm was only cutting swaths through the area, so no one was really aware of which areas were being hit.
Concerned about our big oak trees and their proximity to the house, and wanting someone to know I was alone in case the storm worsened, I called several neighbors. No answer. They were still on holiday. I'll call Bev (Ken's brother), I thought, starting to dial. The phone was dead! A few minutes later, a gust brought down a huge limb the size of a small tree. Much too big for me to move, our driveway was blocked! For several hours, until it got quite dark, I watched through the water-streaked windows, cringing in dismay as limb after limb thudded to the ground. The wind was whipping the rain so hard against the kitchen nook windows that it sounded like hail, but still I decided that room would be as safe a place as any to wait out the storm. Needing to keep my mind busy, I set up my typewriter on the dinette table to do some writing. But it was hard to concentrate, so I decided to fix something to eat. I'd been sitting with my feet resting on the rungs of my chair. When I put them on the floor, they splashed! Looking down I saw that a big puddle of water covered the floor under and all around the table! What on earth? I wondered, before seeing that water was cascading over the sill of the middle bay window, and running down the wall and over the outlet where my typewriter was plugged in! Not thinking, I reached over and pulled the plug! Then I remembered that, standing in water like I was, I might have been electrocuted. (Do you believe in guardian angels?) After mopping the floor and diapering the window sills with big towels, I moved the typewriter and all my papers to the eating island. I had just finished having a bite to eat and had begun to type again when the power went off. No lights, no heat, no typewriter--and because we had a well activated by an electric pump--no water, either. I shouldn't have been surprised by the wretched turn of events, of course. After all, Ken was traveling again!
I'm not sure why I didn't have some candles ready, but I didn't. And it took a while before I located and lit one--also getting out several fat, long-burning ones, just in case. Because the candles didn't do much for the ambiance of the kitchen, and I couldn't see to write by hand, I went to bed. Besides, the house was getting cold! I didn't sleep much, though, because I had to keep mopping up the water in the nook and re-diapering the window sill. I just prayed I'd have enough dry towels to last until power was restored. Outside, it was pitch dark. In fact, there wasn't a familiar landmark light to be seen anywhere in the valley--not from the saw mills, the airport beacon, or from traffic. Nothing! Talk about a lonely feeling! Had I been able to open the electric garage door and gotten the big limb off our driveway, I'd have gone to a cozy motel in town. The next morning, I was shocked to see that branches and limbs covered nearly every square foot of our yard and driveway. It was cause for celebration when the wind and rain shifted directions, and I didn't have to attend to the bay window any more.
For 3-1/2 days, I was a captive of my own frigid environment. But it wasn't a particularly unhappy time, at least not during the days when I expected the power to come back on at anytime. And having been brought up resourceful, it was kind of fun seeing just how adept I could be in dealing with the survival problems. My baths were accomplished with astringents and lotions--albeit applied with icy hands. For warmth, I dressed in layers, even wearing gloves to bed. My diet consisted of cold cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers and cheese, and a whole bunch of apples. After running out of bottled water (purchased for the iron), I drank the grandkids' soda pop and seriously considered dipping into Grandpa's supply of fire-water! While it was light enough to see, I filed away 5 years' worth of loose recipes and caught up on the photo albums.
The long, dark nights were the worst, of course; and I was already in bed and asleep when, at 10:00 on the third night, the batteries of the burglar alarm system started dying which, in turn, set off the loud indoor alarm system. I must have jumped a mile! I really didn't think there were burglars, but still my hands shook as I lit my bedside candle and groped my way down the stairs. Good! I thought when, after a few failed tries, I finally punched in the proper code and got the alarm shut off. I had just reached the top of the stairs when CLANGITY-BLARE ... it went off again. And it went off repeatedly over the next 4 or 5 hours--until the batteries were all the way dead! The sound was so unnerving I finally drug a kitchen bar stool into the entry and sat right by the key pad so I could punch it off as quickly as possible.
It must have been an eerie scene--me wrapped in a big blanket pulled up to my ears, the house creaking and groaning under the onslaught of the battering winds, and the flickering candle flame dancing weird shadows around the octagonal walls and ceiling. I couldn't help wishing for my trusty, old manual typewriter. It would have been the perfect setting to write a mystery story with that overworked but apt beginning, "It was a dark and stormy night...!"
Of course, the weather was back to normal again by the time Ken got home. It always is. I keep telling him the world and I would be much better off if he'd just stay home. I'm a little worried at the moment. My Travelin' Man will soon be heading to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates of Dubai.
Batten down the hatches, stock the larder, and get out the candles, folks. This could be the BIG one!