How I spent my Alumni Weekend
The trip began innocuously enough. I headed out on schedule, stopped by the Safeway to get some soda, beer, condiments and chips for the Saturday party I was hosting. I picked up my seven long-sleeved business shirts from the cleaners, light starch. I climbed into the RV and proceeded northbound on I-95 happy as the proverbial clam. Traffic was a little heavy for what one would expect from a Thursday night, and as I got closer and close to Maryland, things slowed and slowed. Once on the northernmost part of the Washington Beltway, things slowed to a crawl with stop-and-go traffic being somewhat the norm.
At one point, I had to stop short. You know how that works, you’re behind some guy and yeah, I was probably going a tad faster than I should have, and he slams on his brakes. Well, I had never had to perform such a maneuver with a 31-foot long big rolling turd.
I slammed on the brakes and it wasn’t enough. I pushed harder and still the inertia of the RV and all the liquid in the water tanks propelled me forward. I stood on the brakes with both feet and only THEN did I feel the BRT begin to slow. That’s good. Very good.
However, anything in the RV that WASN’T stowed came crashing forward. In fact, so short was the stop that the cabinet drawer with all the pots and pans in it ejected itself from the cabinet and ran screaming along the floor finally coming to rest because of the friction of the carpet it encountered along the way.
Relieved to have avoided a collision with the car ahead of me, and yet surprisingly calmly, I continued up 95 toward Baltimore stopping once along the highway to put everything away that had come flying out in the near miss. (Didn’t George Carlin do a bit about “near-misses”? A near miss constitutes a hit, he says and I’d agree! A near-miss should technically be called a “near hit.”)
Anyway for the next oh, I dunno, thirty miles or so, everything was just fine.
Until I got to the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore.
Was at the toll booth just about to pay my $2.00 or whatever it was to head through when I saw it. A sign, lord a sign! “Recreational Vehicles exit at Such-And-Such Street Before Tunnel.”
Shit. Damn. Oh, crap, my GPS battery is dead!
So I get to the toll booth and talk to the young and rather attractive toll collector asking her how I get where I am supposed to go. She tells me that there are signs (A sign, lord, a sign!) that will instruct me in the proper route to get back to a more appropriate crossing place. I sigh, and thank the comely young toll collector and proceed to the exit for Such-And-Such Street. I make a rolling stop at a stop sign and realize that there’s a big truck facing me down attempting to make a turn onto the street from which I am turning.
Like dogs at a dog park, when the bigger, less fragile Peterbuilt wants the road, my meager Tioga does precisely what’s expected. The RV equivalent of rolling on your back and surrendering. I backed up, shot the trucker a rather sheepish smile and a wave and allowed him to pass first. I am sure that if he would have had one hand free, I would have received a greeting in return, but I suspect it would have been a lot less friendly in nature than my poor attempt at an apologetic gesture.
I follow the alternate route signs, but they quickly disappear. But in their place, a regular sign for I-95 appears and so I get in line with the rest of my Thursday night travelers and head towards Delaware.
Not so fast, kemosabe.
Yeah, THIS line is the line for the Fort Mc Henry Tunnel along I-95. Sigh. Shit! Sigh. (Verb. Expletive. Verb. Just to clarify the middle one is NOT a verb.)
No toll booth in sight. No one to remind me that I can’t go through the tunnel with propane in my tanks until I get to the other side. Hmmmm… Yeah, the fuel trucks go through this tunnel all the time! What’s the big deal? I am already stressed out, feeling wary of travelling without the benefit of the TomTom GPS software on my phone, I decide to brave the elements, damn the torpedoes, and remember the Alamo and proceed. And proceed I did.
Paid my couple o’ bucks at the toll booth on the other side of the tunnel and accelerate toward Delaware confident that the worst is over.
Not so fast, kemosabe.
I get about 50 or so miles – without a GPS how the hell would I know – and make it to Maryland House service plaza. I pull off, pull up to the gas pump and fill up with around 20 gallons or so of fuel and proceed. Just not very far.
The Susquehanna River ran very close to my neighborhood when I lived in Harrisburg, PA back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So I know it’s a really big river at its best, and thank goodness the State of Maryland saw fit to put a bridge across its part of the river on I-95. What was unfortunate is that the State of Maryland chose my Thursday night to perform some sort of maintenance on the span. So traffic was slimmed down to one lane from the usual 3. That also created a commensurate increase in travel time from the bridge to ME from about 12 minutes to… Well, it was about an hour, but it seems as though it was already Labor day.
Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat, PRN.
Finally get through all that and it’s an uneventful trip to Radnor, PA, just another hour and eleven minutes from the Susquehanna River Bridge.
Radnor? I was going to Wayne, not Radnor. So yeah, you have probably already figured out that, just like in the Star Trek movies, the adventure continues.
I zip through Delaware and on into Pennsylvania and up the Blue Route about 12 miles through the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia. By this time, I have successfully recharged my cell phone (Technically found an extension cord to I could run it off AC from the RV’s on board generator.) TomTom tells me to get off at Route 30, Lancaster Avenue and proceed straight under the railroad bridge and on to the school a couple miles away.
For those of you in the audience who are from Philadelphia, you’ll already know that the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built roughly straight west from Philadelphia. Over the decades, this area has become known as the Main Line. My school, Valley Forge Military Academy is located on the Main Line. But to get to the ol’ Alma Mater, I have to cross the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road.
There are multiple bridges which carry the former PRR, now probably part of CSX or Conrail or AMTRAK or God only know who knows what government-subsidized conglomerate owns the right of way that used to be the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Those bridges are old. VERY old. And not much clearance for taller vehicles to get through. I had anticipated this and figured that one of them would be just fine for my nearly 12-foot RV to pass underneath without incident.
Just not the one in Radnor.
A sign, lord a sign!
“10 feet , 7 inches.” As usual, that wasn’t the exact response I was hoping for with my little impromptu appeal to whatever gods there might be.
I make a hard right into an alley of some sort which services the Radnor station of the commuter train and just as the wheel is spinning back to the straight ahead position, I realize there’s no way to pull through. I’m trapped with my only possible exit strategy to back out onto the street unguided and risk getting plowed into from someone less cognizant of their surroundings screaming under the bridge from the blind approach on the other side.
I slowly begin to back down the alley past the parked car without a problem.
“Hey, I am getting pretty good at this!” I said to myself and here’s where I made the significant error in judgment.
I stop the car, still VERY wary about backing out into traffic and inspect the situation. The alley is really fairly wide with a low curb on the right. No obstructions. Hmmmm. I’ll bet I can make a “K” turn here and if I am careful, set myself up to nose-out of the alley none the worse for wear.
Good initiative. Bad decision.
I hop back in, swing the wheel right and begin moving the tail of the vehicle over toward the open area ever so slowly. Gently. Listening for every little peep of a sound which would indicate some obstacle to the swift and safe completion of my task. Or a curb. A curb would be good.
Awright. I can now start to go the other way. The “K” turn evolves into a “ * ” turn. I am making progress, though, just like Austin Powers did in his golf cart in one of his movies. It’s just really slow progress. Ok. I am all set. The next time, I will be clear up front. Then I can swing the steering wheel hard left and pull out and find another bridge. Gently I accelerate. Veeeerrrrrryyyyy gently.
Not so fast, kemosabe.
Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat. Yeah, now’s the time. It’s definitely necessary.
A longer vehicle such as an RV does not have the rear wheels at the very end. So when you turn the front end to the left the back end turns to the right commensurately. In this particular case, against one of those old, creosote covered telephone poles.
Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat.
I’m suddenly feeling less like the confident RV owner I am and more like Will Smith in “I Am Legend” when he keeps saying “I can still fix this!” Matter of fact, I think in between the fortieth “Sigh.” and the twentieth “Shit!” I actually said it out loud, though I successfully expressed the urge to shout “HELL no!” as Will does in just about each of the movies in which I have ever seen him.
Assess damage. Shoot, I am already scuffed up where the pole rubbed against the back right corner of the RV. I almost made it, too – just a couple of inches more and I’d already be parked with a cold beer soothing my deflating ego. (Think the Hindenburg’s legendary deflation, here, and you’ll get a sense of it.)
Sit in driver’s seat. Ease her forward until she’s loose, then cut ‘er hard left and we’ll be good to go. In gear. Inch forward. Endure horrendous scraping sounds as the telephone pole eliminates any surface imperfections on the last few inches of the RV’s right side.
Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.
I turn the wheel hard to the left ready make my exit. Touch the accelerator ever go gently. No resistance. Good. Moves forward an inch or two.
Not so fast, kemosabe.
Meeting a little resistance, but I am by golly fully committed to this obviously dubious course of action.
Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.
This time, I really AM clear and roll the RV ahead in the shadows of the furiously swinging power lines which were attached to my opponent, the telephone pole.
I find a suitable crossing point, hold my breath, drive underneath with no collision whatsoever and make it to my destination where I finally set up camp and went to bed.
Next morning, I discover that the second little bit of resistance that I encountered as I wrenched myself free was the pole catching on the passing rear bumper, which now presented a subtle but definite misshapen appearance. Eh, what are you gonna do?
The rest of the weekend continued without incident, except for one other time when my fellow alum and I broke a metal piece to the support structure of the awning we were trying to stow. But to offset that little gaffe, which took about fifteen minutes to fix, I DID get the automatic retractable step working again by tapping ever so gently on the actuator switch causing it to un-stick and begin performing its designed mission again. I told myself that’s like offsetting penalties in football, so really there was only one incident not two as you’d think from casual observance of the weekend.
Oh there was ONE more little thing. It didn’t involve the RV, or contracting some strange disease or anything truly tragic. But people will be talking about it for a long time, I hear.
Fridays of homecoming weekend, the alumni are encouraged to line up and march with their respective organization at second mess formation. (Second mess is lunch, for the uninitiated.) Former Bandsmen are invited to play with the band and march along for old time’s sake. I was the drum major, so I politely asked the Bandmaster and the current drum major if I would be able to lead the band and they all agreed this would be cool.
So at the appropriate time, I position myself in front of the band, the regimental commander orders “Forward, March!” and off we go.
One thing about being the band’s drum major is that your routine is so well practiced and you do it so often, you remember precisely how to do it all, just as everyone allegedly remembers how to ride a bike. I start out with what we called curling, moving the mace in time with the beat of the march. As I approached the reviewing stand I started to spin the mace, stopping it with a satisfying snap into the vertical position, grab it at the top near the ball of the mace and execute a salute as if I had been doing it every day for the last 35 years:
Spin out of it. Take a few paces. Stroll. That’s where you walk with the mace using it more like a walking stick than anything else, I guess. Next, two column lefts bring the band back around just as we should so that they can reposition themselves in front of Wheeler Hall as the rest of the Corps passes the reviewing stand. Kind of like the marching version of a legal U-turn. After this second column left, we always gave the mace signal for a “forward march” and the band stepped off in unison to their final destination.
Not so fast, kemosabe.
I knew that the mace manual that we did back in my day was very different from what the bandsmen now know. What I DIDN’T know was that our old signal for “forward march” was the current band’s signal to “halt.”
And halt they did.
I’m doing my thing, executing the forward march just as perfectly as I had back in 1975 or so. I’m out there curling away keeping time with the music, just having a grand old time. But the music is suddenly getting quieter. That’s odd.
I sneak a look over my right shoulder to see what was going on and it was at this point that it became apparent that somewhere along I had goofed. Well, actually, no one had goofed. I did what I was supposed to do. Precisely. Magnificently, if I may brag a bit. I just wasn’t speaking their language.
I had signaled forward march and the band stopped right where they were, leaving me to lead oblivious to the fact that the bad had jumped ship about 50 feet behind me. No one was more surprised than I. The bandmaster, a fine Englishman by the name of Phil Evans explained to me that the band had followed my command not knowing that I meant something else. You say “tomato.” I say “tomahhhhto.” That sort of thing.
Anyway, it was all that anyone talked about when they saw me for the rest of the weekend. It was an honor to be able to be in front of the VFMA band again after 30-some years away. And even though I screwed it up, I think people will remember that alumni drum major who lost his band for years to come.
All in all, it was a fabulous weekend filled with friends, fond reminiscences and fantastic camaraderie. I saw people I haven’t even thought about in 35+ years, and bringing up all of that was just absolutely delightful.
We had a tailgate party Saturday night at the RV, and even though the weather was cold and damp, the spirits were anything but.
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