A normal person might be dead already, which means I must be special.


In 1970, I was a skinny teenager living on a farm in Maine under the roof of a new step-father. One of the big jobs each year was haying. Object: Cut and bale enough hay to keep your livestock fed throughout the winter. We had a fair amount of cattle and a couple of horses. Translation: We needed a lot of bales.

The cutting part was relatively easy. My step-father used a tractor with a big mowing attachment. It took the better part of a day to cut our property. Then the hay sat dormant for a period to dry out before we baled it.

Baling involved my step-father driving a tractor ahead of us, pulling a machine that scooped up loose hay, cut it into heavy rectangles, and bound each bale together with twine. At regular intervals, perfectly shaped bales spit out of a chute onto the ground as the tractor wobbled forward. An old rusty flatbed drove slowly behind the tractor. Two beefy hired hands walked alongside the lumbering flatbed and used super-human strength to toss bales of hay up to me, one after the other. I was like Lucy in the chocolate factory.

My thankless job was to remain standing on the flatbed and simultaneously stack hay bales as we wobbled along. I lost my balance and fell flat on my ass more than once when the driver hit a rut. The bales were heavy. It was hot out. I didn’t have gloves, so the cut dried hay was a little rough on my hands when I had to dig with my fingers under the tight twine to get a grip. Lift and throw. And the chaff? Oh, man. That was the worst. Every orifice I had was black by the end of the day from the chaff coming off those bales. I literally looked like a coal-miner from Kentucky. I itched all over my body. The itching was madness-inducing.

We were done in a few days. I couldn’t breathe right from day one, and a week after we’d finished haying, my nostrils had swollen so badly, I could only breathe through my mouth. In my day, parents were loathe to take you to the doctor. But I got so bad, even my step-father got scared and took me to an ear-nose-throat guy.

The doctor took one look at me and asked what I’d been doing.


“I see. Well, my guess is you have hay fever and you’re having a severe allergic reaction.”

Then came the exciting part. He reached into a stainless steel cabinet and came back with 2 flexible foot-long webbed strands of material shaped like oversized drinking straws. He sat down in front of me and explained that even though it didn’t look like these two long things would actually fit up my nostrils, he was about to make that happen. Like a magic trick. He mentioned it might be uncomfortable, but after the procedure, I would at least be able to breathe through my nose.

The nose is pretty tricky with nerve endings. That’s why the scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholson gets his nose slit with a knife is uncomfortable to watch. We all know how sensitive our noses are.

The first insertion seemed to go on for a while. He pushed. And pushed. And pushed. And I could feel this cylinder literally creeping its way into the nasal cavities behind my forehead. And then, it was over. I sat there with a big pipe-cleaner stuck up my nose. Then he put the other one in. Talk about feeling like you have a stuffy head. My head actually was stuffed. Then he slowly pulled each one out. This was almost worse than the insertions. But. I could breathe when he was done.

I went out the door with a prescription for Actifed and never had to hay again.


But just because I couldn’t hay didn’t mean I couldn’t work in my step-father’s chicken houses. He had 2 houses with 6 floors between them. Each floor could accommodate 10,000 broiler chickens.

If you don’t know how those broiler chickens you purchase in your supermarket are raised, I can tell you how we used to do it. I would like to think conditions are better now, but I doubt it. Drawn out on a bar napkin, the process is simple. 60,000 baby chicks are delivered during the night. Feed them water and grain designed to make them grow faster than normal. 6 weeks later in the middle of the night, crate up 60,000 broiler chickens headed for slaughter and subsequent delivery to your local grocer. Spend 2 weeks cleaning up the houses and preparing for the next 60,000 birds.

The first couple of nights after the chicks were delivered, it really was kind of magical to go out and check the feeders and waterers scattered throughout the floors that were layered with 6 inches of fresh smelling sawdust. Imagine the cheeping of 10,000 adorable little Easter chicks all at once. The floors were kept warm and the lighting was subdued. It was comforting in a child-like way.

Flash forward to the end of 6 weeks of abnormal growth. The birds are full size. Crowded. There is so much dust in the air, you can’t see from one end of the floor to the other. Loose feathers are everywhere. The chickens have defecated for 6 weeks on the 6 inches of fresh sawdust that is now compressed into a wet heavy mat about 3 inches thick. The smell of ammonia is overpowering. These were the conditions we raised your food in.

The 2-week phase before the next batch arrived was not easy work. The chicken house floors were large. My brother and I and others spent those cleanup weeks hand-shoveling compressed heavy sawdust that had to be broken apart just to be shoveled.

No masks.

Eyes and throats burning all day long.


I learned about silver recovery at my first Air Force duty assignment in the mid-1970s. We burned unraveled spools of 35mm film in a metal walk-in-sized tube-shaped industrial strength incinerator. A couple of us young troops would place the loose film in metal open-topped boxes with handles on either end. We lifted the big trays inside and torched them, followed by sealing and locking a large door during the cremation phase. After a while, you opened the heavy metal door and went inside. In the bottoms of the metal boxes were small amounts of silver. It was our job to recycle it.

The fumes coming off the silver trays were clearly toxic. Our nostrils and eyes burned.

Gas masks or any bio-hazard protections were not mentioned as options.


At around the same time I was being introduced to silver recovery, I was given a detail to do at the end of every day at the office. Empty the butt-can.

The butt-can was painted bright red to indicate danger – a fire hazard. The 5-gallon container was the receptacle for all of our ashtrays full of cigarette butts and ashes that were accumulated each day at a time when people were free to smoke in the office.

The detail was simple when drawn out on a bar napkin. Walk the can outside to the dumpster and empty the can. Except every time you did that, there was a backdraft of ashes which washed over your upper torso. End result: I would come home every night with my uniform smelling like an ashtray.

I was with my first wife at the time and she was tired of me coming home smelling like a stale cigarette. She said that since I didn’t smoke, I shouldn’t have to empty the butt-can. She advised me to talk to the Colonel and offer to take any other details, just not the butt-can.

I approached the Colonel the next morning and asked to speak with him alone. He made that happen.

“Sir, I’m not a smoker. And every day I empty the butt-can, and it gets ash all over me that makes my clothes smell. So I wanted to offer you a trade. I’m willing to do any other detail, just not the butt-can.”

The Colonel dragged deeply on his cigarette, blew a plume out to the side, and smiled.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep emptying that can.”

And then he walked away.


If you want to challenge your mind, go look up Helium. The write-ups contain phrases and descriptions I would probably never be able to understand even if it was an open-book test. Chemistry was never my thing. But there is one application of helium that I totally understand. If you’re not an impersonator, you can still sound exactly like Donald Duck after getting a whiff of helium.

I was at a party in a military housing unit. The host had rented a large helium tank to blow up balloons.

As I sidled over his way with beer in hand, he grinned and said, “Hey, watch this.”

He blew up a balloon off the tank nozzle, but instead of tying the balloon off, he inhaled about a third of the balloon’s helium volume.

He talked like Donald Duck. Instantly. Now Donald was never my favorite cartoon character. I used to get annoyed as hell at people who channeled him without the aid of helium, because invariably, they spit on you during the impression. But this was a clean form of Donald Duck with no mimicking skills required.

Of course I went for it.

And let’s face facts, I thought this was indeed funny and quite clever.

The only problem is the effect is brief. Like many gasses, helium’s effects die quickly in the face of fresh air. So it’s not like you can sing a whole song in Donald Duck’s tenor.

At the end of that party, myriads of attendees had spoken like Donald Duck. And it was really funny when you got a couple of big hulking guys doing it simultaneously.

We ran out of helium with only about 5 actual balloons inflated.


One of the benefits of serving overseas with the military was going through the tear gas drill. We were lined up in a bunker-like room and told to put on and seal our gas masks which we did as we had been trained to do. The instructor set off a small amount of tear gas in the room. He ignited something in a coffee can and we saw little heat waves waft above the can, similar to what the horizon looks like on a hot hazy day. But there was no cloud. Indeed, the amount we were being exposed to was minimal.

The object was to not only make you appreciate the utility of a properly sealed gas mask, it was also to provide some unanticipated laughs, mainly for the instructor who got to keep his mask on. One by one, we were asked to step up near the coffee can, remove our mask and give the instructor our full name and serial number.

Seems easy enough. But tear gas is bad ass. Even the small amount we were inhaling was enough to choke you, make your eyes burn and blind you, and make every exposed pore of your skin feel like it’s on fire. And then of course, there is the mucous. Your sinuses dump almost instantly. Clear mucous trails just run out of your nose uncontrollably. So getting through the short process of spitting out your name and serial number gets a little complicated.

After getting out my info and only inhaling once, I was free to run outside into the fresh air. Fresh air makes the toxic effects dissipate almost immediately.

Then your only problem is locating a wad of tissues.


Freon is being phased out as a refrigerant. Partly because it helps to destroy the ozone layer.

In the mid-1980s, we rented a small house in the small town of Massenheim, Germany. It was a cozy time. It was where Judy and I first lived as a married couple and it’s the first home we brought Ivan into.

We lived there for a few years.

Our kitchen was tight, but it was one of our favorites when we look back through rose-colored glasses. On the right as soon as you entered was a compact fridge with a miniscule freezer compartment. You could take the entire fridge unit and put about 4 – 8 of them in one of today’s behemoths.

Plus it was old. It did not have a defroster for the freezer. But it got introduced to a defroster named Doug Bari. And Doug Bari was wielding a hammer.

At first, I tapped it lightly and little flecks of ice powdered off. So I tapped harder. A couple of ice shards broke free exposing the Freon tube.

Tapping away at more ice crust, I slipped with one of my taps and hit a naked part of the tube.

There was hissing. Escaping of gas. Accompanied by a face full of frosty mist. Akin to the effect when the Penguin would use his umbrella to spray Batman and Robin with sleep gas in the 1960s.

I was right at eye-level with the blast and couldn’t avoid getting a maximum discharge into my facial orifices.

I called the woman who owned the house. She agreed the fridge was old and probably was going to be replaced when we vacated anyway. She sent a German repairman to fix our problem. I didn’t mention to her that I was the cause of the problem.

The German repair guy didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak German – at least not words revolving around refrigerator parts.

In broken German, I wondered out loud what could have caused all the Freon to leak out.

In broken English, the repairman told me I shouldn’t have hit it with a hammer.

I made an attempt to demur. “Me? A hammer?”

He didn’t demur at all.


Then he did a hand gesture which read to me like, “C’mon, you know you did it.”

He finked on me to the homeowner.

I ended up paying about $100 to replace that goofy unit. And on that day decades ago, I kicked myself for not just waiting a few hours for the box to thaw out.

But now I look back and think, “Not everyone has a Freon story to tell.”

I’m one of the lucky ones.


It’s called laughing gas, but it didn’t amuse me.

In the early 1990s, I was in a new dentist’s office having a procedure done. Some dentists are in it for the money and this one was. Straight away, he offered up nitrous oxide. $20 extra. He grinned and told me I should think about the option of being totally relaxed in the chair.

I’d certainly heard about laughing gas, but had never been in its presence with the ability to sample the goods. I agreed to try it.

They hooked me up with a nasal cannula. Since I’m thankfully not walking around with an oxygen tank yet, I had to look up what that device is called. It’s the little 2-pronged thing they stick in the base of your nostrils connected with a small tube placed around your head.

Laughs are supposed to ensue.

I am a nervous Nellie in the chair. I had early dental experiences that marked me. Even though I currently go to “the dentist that dentists go to,” I still get a little taut just sitting down.

The assistant controlling the flow of the gas sat down beside me and guided the process.

It must be the resistant redhead gene or something, but I never got any effect at all.

About halfway through the procedure, I asked the assistant when she was going to apply the funny stuff. She said she already was. And had been. For 20 minutes. At maximum dosage.

“I’ve never seen anyone have no reaction like this,” she observed.

My experience with that dental office was short-lived. Just like my experiment with the laughing gas that did not amuse me. I was really hoping for a clown-funny moment.

When I looked up nitrous oxide, it mentioned its relaxing and pain-relieving attributes, but it also mentioned it’s used in rockets and racing cars. The Brits started having laughing gas parties as early as 1799, describing the effects as euphoric and hallucinatory.

Hmm. Really. Well, not for me anyway.

I know a lot of Brits hate redheads.

So either they upped the dosage at those parties or there weren’t any redheads invited.


Asbestos is made of fibrous crystals. Each visible fiber is in turn made up of millions of microscopic fibrils. There’s been a ban on asbestos for many years. Asbestos has numerous applications to include being used for sound absorption and insulation, but was primarily used as a buffer to resist fire, heat, and electricity. For much of the 20th century, asbestos was used extensively in buildings as a fire retardant.

Those little microscopic fibrils can lodge in your lungs and cause deadly effects. Lung cancer, specifically. Maybe you’ve seen the ambulance-attorney commercials about mesothelioma. It can take decades for fibrils to blossom into cancer. And all it takes is one. Uno.

I hate to say it, but I’m due, okay?

To quote Talking Heads: “And you may ask yourself ‘Well, how did I get here?’”

In the late 1980s, I worked in a government building that had asbestos in its ceilings. Even though the substance encased in the ceilings was inert and stable, the decision was made to comply with government safety standards.

Here’s how the government pulled that off.

The workforce was advised in advance that the asbestos in the building was going to be removed. We were told the process would be completely non-toxic because of the precautions they were going to take.

The precautions seemed like they weren’t completely baked before they came out of the OSHA oven.

To begin, the massively long hallways were lined with clear thick plastic so you could walk down the hallway without breathing any fibrils. The plastic was formed into a tubular shape to walk through. The only problem was the seal on the plastic. It was all good until they cut big entrance ways to offices all along the hallways.

Even the stupid people at my work saw through this and piped up.

No problem. The safety people tried to smooth our feathers by announcing they would set up air-quality monitors in the hallways and put weekly particle content updates on the bulletin boards.

I don’t remember what the “safe” level of asbestos dust was. Let’s say the number was 4.

At the end of the first week, all the folks on my floor checked out the report posted on our bulletin board.

Safe level: 4

Current level: 27

There was more than just me elevating to the same reaction level.

“Excuse me?”

The safety people were asked about the disparity.

Nothing to see here. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

The end of the second week yielded different results.

Safe level: 4

Current level: 35

The problem was fixed before you could utter the phrase “What the hell?”

We didn’t get an update the 3rd week of asbestos removal. Because they removed the monitors. And let us work in that environment for months with no air-quality measurements at all.

I finished working in that building about 1995. Mesothelioma used to be advertised as being able to afflict you for up to 20 years after exposure. So I got a little cavalier about 3 years ago when I hit the 20-year mark and my doctor said my lungs were clear. The commercials would come on late at night and I’d laugh in their faces. Yep. Dodged that bullet.

That bullet and all the other ones. The chaff. The chickenshit. Toxic silver fumes. Butt-can ashes. Helium. Freon. And a little laughing gas thrown in that didn’t seem to do anything to my redheaded persona.

Thought I was safe despite the odds.

Except now they’ve come out with data that says mesothelioma can hit you at the 30-year mark and even beyond.


Well, at least I know what a fibril is now.