Almost talked my way into another job fixing the wireless network at the hotel in Spokane, but there were two things that scotched the deal: I wasn’t qualified and I didn’t want the job. But I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. That’s one of my best skills. It’s got me where I am today. Where I am today, however, is for another episode, this one is a retrospective on my stay with Bob and family in Colville, WA.

On the drive up from Spokane I reflected once again on how damn fortunate I am. I reflected on the convergence of both good and bad fortune that allowed me to let go of the rocks and let the river sweep me away. I could never have done it without a generous safety net; I’m not that brave. I could never have done it with paternal responsibilities. I could never have done it had I not stayed in touch with my close friends from school. None of us could have suspected that I would be freeloading off all of them two decades later, but the great thing is that we would have thought it was natural then and my friends have not forgotten that ethic in the intervening years. I hope they all come to Prague so I can repay them their hospitality.

Right. Good fortune. Driving calmly ever northward though lush valleys and the occasional small town, my head is in a really neat place. I am fortunate indeed. Yet the last three days have shown me that fortune takes many forms. Bob is also a very fortunate man. He never said as much, but I don’t think he’d trade his life for anyone else’s.

This was the first time on my trip that I stayed with a full-on family. The kids, the minivan, little league, swim team practice, the whole nine yards. I wasn’t sure what to expect – it seems like the last time I was in a situation like that I was one of the kids. I was a little nervous. I hoped I wouldn’t be too stiff and remote and freak out the kids.

The first one I met was Henry, the middle of the three. I met Bob at the ball park as little league practice was breaking up. Henry didn’t take long to get used to talking to me, but it was when he saw the car that he became enthusiastic. He rode with Bob back to the house, with me leading the way. I was following a van, and I had no idea that that was the other Formanmobile, and inside I was already the subject of conversation. Yes, a fancy sports car – especially a convertible – is a great calling card.

When the mini-convoy reached its destination and we all piled out of our cars, there was a tentative moment but then I was absorbed. More than absorbed, I was the eye of a hurricane. There began a competition for my attention that waxed and waned throughout my stay but never disappeared. I have to say that the three were in constant competition, but for all that they were also in complete support of each other. Helen, the youngest, perhaps had not learned the teamwork that her older siblings had, but there was an irrepressible enthusiastic joy in her that won me over in a heartbeat.

Each night we played family games while on the TV behind us the Mariners quietly sucked. The family had in place long-standing rules to equalize play so that all could have fun, but in my appraisal all the kids were plenty sharp enough to hold their own. Always competing, always sportsmanlike. (Well, almost.)

Rachael: smart as a whip, poised, and friendly. Thoughtful. Basketball, swimming, volleyball.
Henry: Passionate, imaginative, effervescent. Dreamer. Baseball, baseball, swimming.
Helen: Sharp, bubbly, enthusiastic. Sweetheart. Gymnastics, swimming.

I’d say those things even if their father wasn’t going to read this.

That’s where I’ve been the past three days. While they were at school I was working, trying to nail down my project once and for all.

Thursday evening was a little league game. The Lions, Henry’s team, were on a four-game winning streak but they were facing the undefeated Cardinals. This is the youngest league that has pitchers, so catchers who could keep the ball from reaching the backstop are golden. Stealing is also a big part of the game. Get on first, advance to third.

The Lions have a trick play. When there are runners on first an third, there is always a double steal. The runner on first takes off for second, and as the catcher throws to second the runner on third comes home. It always works. The coach for the Lions has a plan. On paper, it’s a good plan. Devious, even. When the little twerp on first breaks for second, the catcher throws the ball, but not all the way to second base. He throws it to the pitcher. The pitcher then hucks it right back to the catcher to tag out the runner coming in from third. I watched them practice the move on Tuesday, so on Thursday when the stars were correctly aligned (and Bob reminded me), I knew what to expect.

Kid breaks for second on the pitch. Catcher jumps up and throws. “Go! Go! Go!” shouts the adult third base coach to the kid in front of him. The pitcher catches the ball and reasonably quickly is ready to throw back to the plate. The kid on third base is still standing there, oblivious to the strident urging from his coach to go go go. And so the trick play fails, just because the kid on the other team didn’t listen to his coach.

That happened twice that game. Coach says “Go! Go! Go!” Kid doesn’t go. Trick play fails. I had a good laugh about that with Bob while we were watching the game, the clever plan being foiled by inattentiveness on the part of the runner. but since then I have to acknowledge that there is another explanation. It could be that the kid on the base was not playing blindly by rote – when the catcher throws you run – but instead recognized the pattern in front of him and saw the trick. In his little gut maybe he knew he had the luxury of watching the ball pass the pitcher before he committed.

You know when that same kid ignores his coach and something bad happens, he’ll hear about it. I wonder if the coach said to him after that play, “Good job, Tiger. You did the right thing not listening to me.” I doubt it.

Which brings me back to Bob, Bob’s family, Bob’s wonderful life, and the difference between fortune and luck. Bob has made his life. He has worked hard – maybe even as hard as Jeni – to teach his children fundamental values that go beyond simple right/’wrong choices to include teamwork and self-reliance (and why those are not contradictory). I walked into that house afraid of being overwhelmed and I leave remembering fondly being overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed is putting it mildly. The whirlwind when they got back from the dentist and had so many stories to tell and so much loot to show will stick with me always. Or at least until I forget. I wonder if the kids will remember me next time I see them. Rachael will, I expect, remember me as some kind of phantom best man with a scruffy beard and a cool car. Henry, probably. He’ll remember the car more than me, perhaps. Helen, who knows? She won’t remember me reading her a story about dinosaurs, but maybe she’ll remember some guy with a beard. I’ve met people I’m told I should remember. That sucks. I may be an extreme example when it comes to remembering, but with Helen I just hope to be a vague happy memory. Maybe when I’m at the toothless table at her wedding I’ll come up with some good stories.

Hey, did you catch that prenostalgia there? I was looking forward to looking back on something.

Yep, I was the center of the Universe for a few days. “Jerry! Jerry! Look!” “I want Jerry on my team!” “Jerry! Did you see?” “Jerry! Jerry! Look what I can do!” The exotic stranger. That’s me. It’s what I do best. Luckily for the parents, none of the kids asked me for advice.

4 thoughts on “Colville

  1. Ah, yes, the magic uncle. Every family should have one. The magic uncle is a firend or relative who at least seems not to be so old or stuffy as the parents. He tends to be male, generally isn’t occupied in a regular job, doesn’t have a spouse or offspring, and always drives a cool car.

    In our family, it was Ed, who at the time went by the nickname Dupes (it’s a long story). He didn’t turn into Ed until he got married (at the age of 39) and became a parent.

    In my husband’s family, it was Chris, who did make a brief try at wife-and-family stuff in his 30s, but didn’t really succeed until his second attempt at about 50.

    Magic uncles are valuable because they’re cool. They don’t hand out discipline the way parents do, and they usually do hand out treats, both physical, like ice cream, and emotional, like the comments you made about Bob’s kids.

  2. Now I’m getting really disappointed. Surely, ours isn’t the only family that has Magic Uncles. So come on, all of you, admit it — you’ve either had a Magic Uncle or been one.

  3. Been out of town, this time to Egypt. Have to say the Magic Uncle that first comes to mind is my Uncle Warfield. He was always fun to see, a bit of a switch from the rest of the Arkansas relatives.

  4. Actually, Warfield doesn’t count as a Magic Uncle on at least three counts: He’s married and has kids; he’s very solidly gainfully employed; and he doesn’t drive a cool car. Part of what makes a Magic Uncle magic is that he doesn’t fit into what your parents tell you is a proper lifestyle.

    On the other hand, a Magic Uncle doesn’t have to be an actual uncle — he can be some other relative, or no relative at all but close to the family.

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