I first saw the light of day in Gila County General Hospital in Globe, Arizona 85501. Arizona could be called the almost last frontier. Arizona was part of the last bit of land in the Continental United States snatched up by the land hungry colonists pushing the borders of this great land. The Gadsden Purchase, the last acquisition of land in the continental United States was just south of my home town. Arizona was the last continental state to enter the Union. The land was vast and untamed. The people were the descendants of the gunslingers, horse thieves, and the prostitutes that made this land great.
Arizona was a great place to carve my initial mark in life. We lived in a house my father owned with a clear title since he was in his twenties. Our yard had a garage that was dug into the desert hillside running up the thirty degree slope that was our yard. In isolated areas around the house we had the rusting hulks of odd construction equipment. We could play submarine in the mixer drum out by the feed trough. Some strange contraption had projections that were similar to wings. To this day I still don’t know what type of equipment our flying machine actually was, but it represented hours of play unbounded by anything but the limits of our imagination. We had a cattle trough with beautiful green water. The hillside behind our back yard had prickly pears twenty-eight other species of barbed cactus and rattlesnakes sunning themselves to their delight in our playground. One time my grandmother told us to be careful about the snakes up the hillside. My brother Tim replied, “If I see one of those snakes, I am going to hit it with a stick!” I still have visions of my Grandmother crying, “No! Little honey don’t do that!” One of my earliest memories was my screaming for mom as two feet of my brother Tim was hanging from ten feet of our garage that was dug into the hillside. You could walk up the side of the hill and hang over the concrete projection of the dugout garage. This was perhaps the greatest outcome of a dare to date. Sometimes I think it was a miracle I made it to seven.
Grandpa’s place was even better. Grandpa had a fully blown construction company out his back door. It was about a hundred feet back to the office. Each year we would go to the closet and pull a new hard hat from the shelf in the storage room. We would take the Dymo label maker and after using about twenty five yards of material I would press out “Sidney Dean Hagen” in raised white letters in ½ inch tape. The office had blueprints and pictures of past jobs that represented the glorious conquests of the Hagen Construction Company.
Grandpa had batch plant that was built into the side of a hill. Aggregate made a voyage up a conveyor belt to this big metal contraption. The top end could be loaded from overhead with great gravel piles that were stockpiled somewhere between the house and the shop. They would let us go down into the belly of the beast of the batch plant, but the rule was that we had to stay in the plant while the concrete was being mixed. The control room had a wall of switches and buttons and lights. The sound of a mix was terrifying and exhilarating. We would cover our ears as sand, gravel, and Portland cement would fall in carefully mixed quantities until it would be dumped into the awaiting concrete trucks on the way to tame another eight yards of the Arizona landscape.
Then there was the shop itself. The shop was a big metal building constructed to make asbestos filters to filter the blood of soldiers fighting in World War II. The shop had a crane that ran on a track across the entire length of the building. The crane had a control box that was in easy access of kids wanting and adventure. We managed to grab the hook of the crane and use the control to hoist us dangling by the hook into the bed of a dump truck. This was any kids dream. The shop had several ancillary buildings out the back including a paint shop that supplied me with ammunition to paint my little wagon with so many coats of red and survey stake orange that the wagon was hard to pull. The valley behind the shop housed a rock crusher and a feed station that supplied the conveyer belt to the batch plant.
Now I live in a world of safety belts, airbags, and pictograph warning labels on everything. I can’t begin to describe how much potential danger was found in the life of a kid who played with his Tonka loader in the same rock pile with a real Caterpillar loader loading a semi-truck bound for parts unknown. Somehow we never hit a rattlesnake on the head with a stick. We knew that climbing on the pile of gravel fines over the conveyer feed was like quicksand. We knew that we should watch for trucks and loaders, and we had this great adventure that a fifty one year old man looks back at with fond memories.
Be it an airplane, a truck, a loader, a track-hoe, I never look at a piece of equipment without the thought that I would like to try to operate that. In my life I disassemble equipment, bid on work just to get the chance to master some type of mechanical dinosaur, and dream of one more adventure on the bucket list. Reality is that there is nothing that safe in this world. I have found that the exhilaration of life played without a net is far more valuable than a life spent playing it safe. Ten minutes in a convertible with the top down is worth a lifetime spent without rolling the windows down because you will waste the Air-conditioning.
This is the point where I wax nostalgic. Life is full of synthetic risks tossed at us these days. Adventure is hitting the LT button as you hit the right arrow to invoke the magic spell that will defeat the alien on the video game. If it doesn’t work out wait thirty seconds and you will respawn and try again. If the dream multilevel marketing campaign doesn’t work out Daddy War bucks will come to the rescue. “Reality TV” is being one of sixteen competitors flown to an exotic land while they make alliances and do immunity challenges to be the one that walks away with the million dollars. In the meantime we know that the moment the contestant steps on a snake or gets a nasty infection the producers will spend tens of thousands of dollars to whisk the contestant to twenty-first century medicine.
Is reality that sterile? Every time you give the kid the key to the car you risk the midnight visit from the policeman. Cast a bid a job that has the potential to return a decent profit and realize that it might cost you for the privilege of work. Punch the clock daily to an employer with benefits, and see if that is an immunity idol that prevents them from laying you off in your fifties.
My parents somehow seemed comfortable with the risk and the adventure that helped form our adventuresome spirit. We could have been crushed by a loader, caught in a conveyer belt or bitten by a snake, and yet somehow we escaped with only minor scratches and wonderful stories. We grew up to wander for miles through the woods, and learned how to find our way back home. We went on to raise kids who knew that if they didn’t tie their ropes right as they climbed a cliff they could fall to their death. I helped my son make a cast out of Sheetrock mud and fiberglass tape because he fell hard on a snowboard. My kid will work for twelve hours in the blustery winter cold because he knows that four days of gutting that out will produce more profit than two weeks on the line in a factory.
My kids knew that their wagon wouldn’t be replaced if they left it behind the truck. My own painted wagon from Grandpa’s shop was crushed in my own yard and not replaced. They have had adventures that make their own fifty year old man turn green with envy, and shake is his boots with fear.
It is too bad they aren’t contestants on “Reality TV.” Their grasp on reality is so real they would find the whole thing a bore.