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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Odd Jobs on the Road: Random Thoughts About Family, Time & Money

I'm a child of the '60s and '70s. I come from a family of five. My mom raised us kids by herself. Four girls and me. My dad (who fathered three of us), a wealthy business man who lived elsewhere and spent more time deciding which house or boat or car he was going to buy than with us kids, never paid a dime of support. While we walked around in patched clothes and duct-taped shoes and our bellies growled, he lived a life of leisure moving between his houses, buying cars for cross-country road trips, and motoring the Gulf of Mexico in one of his pleasure boats.

Growing up we weren’t just poor, we were nearly penniless. My mom worked odd jobs when she could, here and there. She wasn’t an educated woman, but she tried and did what she could. During my childhood, that (mostly) meant cleaning rich people’s houses for less than half of minimum wage and sometimes a holiday bonus of $10 if we were fortunate.

What it was though was cash money. Cash money that (mostly) helped to keep a roof over our heads, if not always food in our bellies. My mom was too proud and stubborn to accept welfare or charity. I think she felt that if she couldn’t do it on her own, those things we didn’t have, even if it was food for our bellies, didn’t matter.

I thought it did though and even though I had older siblings who were gone as much as they were present, I felt it was my responsibility to help where I could. The first real job I remember working was when I was nine. My little sister helped sometimes, but mostly she just followed me around like little sisters do. My first job was easy: collecting soda bottles and junk other people discarded. The soda bottles went to the store for a refund on the deposit. The junk went to a neighbor who collected and fixed things. He paid cash money if I found something good, so I always looked for something good. His dimes and quarters were gold in my pocket.

By ten, my older siblings were out of the house and I was in the business of washing cars, raking lawns, cleaning windows and mowing grass when I could, and I remember being paid in quarters—when I got paid at all, because sometimes I just did things for free so I might get paid the next time. Those quarters, I took them to the store and bought a loaf of bread or a bag of flour when we had no food in the house to eat. Flour was something that was cheap and went far. (Mix flour with water and pour it in a skillet and you have an inexpensive pancake. A pancake that fills a belly.)

By twelve, after we moved from the city to the country, I worked with my mom at auction houses and flea markets on weekends, holidays and during the summer and sometimes as a gardener’s helper. I loaded, packed and unpacked, fetched, did odd jobs for the auctioneer, my mom and others. At times, it was rather like my junk collecting business. My mom collected things, much bought in cheap, auctioned lots and sold as odds and ends at flea markets. Odds and ends that helped make the difference between having a roof and food, and not.

At fifteen, I got my driver’s license and drove around my mom’s old station wagon until I found work in a town a few miles away. I worked 20 – 30 hours a week until I graduated high school. Two things happened during high school that changed my life.

The first: My dad took a sudden interest in me and invited me down to the Gulf Coast to work for him. He was in the construction business and wanted to teach me the trade.

I suppose I should have been angry with him for all the lost years, but I wasn’t. I worked with him and his work crews the whole summer, doing roofing and siding. Long days in the unrelenting sun, up at five, quitting at sunset. But boy how we lived because when the sun got too hot to work outside--and it often did--we would go out to eat lunch at a restaurant. And when we came home in the evening, we came home to ready meals and plenty of drink all around. Weekends were events. Fishing rodeos. Road trips. Barbecues. It was a wild, rich life.

At the end of the summer, my dad gave me a 1970 Dodge truck, which he said was mine to keep as a bonus for the work I’d done. The truck though came with strings. He wanted me to stay and not return home to Wisconsin. Tempting as it was to stay, I couldn’t leave my mom and little sister behind.

I took the truck and drove the 960 miles home. A friend from my dad’s work crew went with me and we took turns driving. Getting the truck home meant I could get to work without taking the family car, and that let me work more hours.

The following summer, my dad invited me down to the Gulf Coast again. He said he’d bought me a car. A beautiful, black ’73 Ford thunderbird with a massive V8 engine—a classic car for the time (1982). It was any sixteen-year-old kid’s wet dream and it was mine too.

I worked with his crews doing roofing and siding, up at five, down at sunset. And we lived like kings. After the summer though, my dad again didn’t want to let me return home. He wanted me to stay and live with him. I couldn’t do that, but this time I was less worried about my mom than my little sister. I was the one who protected and watched out for her, and I’d already left her behind for two summers.

One morning, I went out for a drive and drove the 960 miles home. After that, I didn’t go back to the Gulf Coast. I stayed at home in Wisconsin and worked and went to school.

The second: During the early spring of my senior year, my mom moved away upstate with her new husband who she’d been dating and my little sister, leaving me to fend for myself. I lived with friends and others where I could until I graduated. Even though I was a straight-A honor student who loved biology, physics and calculus as much as computers, I had no prospects after high school. I spent the summer after high school living with friends and sometimes in my car and working whenever I could.

In the fall, with nowhere to live and no means, I joined the Air Force. Along with acing my SATs in high school, I’d also aced the ASVAB (the military aptitude test), scoring the highest the recruiters had even seen: 98’s and 99’s in every category tested. So the military seemed a rather logical path for me to take when the choice became either live in a car or do something else.

A few months after I signed up, I drove the 176 miles up to Green Bay to visit my mom and sister, and to deliver what few possessions I had, mainly my car. The dodge truck, they already had and were using as their primary means of transportation.

Although I was supposed to head off in short order, I was able to delay until February. After boot camp, I attended the Defense Language Institute and specialty training in Intelligence that took me through my first 19 months in the military. From my paycheck, I sent home what I could to my mom (who was now divorced again). My first duty station was in Japan, so every few paychecks I also bought something I could send home. Things I knew my mother would love: fine china cups and plates, collectibles, and more. Everything my mother always liked from the auctions we worked together when I was a child, but much of which, I think, was later sold off little by little to pay for what was needed.

A problem with my mother was she didn’t know how to say no. If someone needed something, she gave what she could even if it sometimes meant going without herself. It was always like that though and even though I’ve helped pave my mother’s way for nearly all of my life, she still lived the meager life she always had before. Everything I gave her always seemed to be going out somewhere else, usually to one of my siblings who even when I helped pave their way still went to my mother for more to pay the rent or this or that bill or for airline tickets or to fix a car. I’ve always wondered where the takers thought the money came from—the money I sent my mom for her needs. Money enough to have bought houses and cars that is gone. Just gone. 

More musings next time on the Board of Education and Crazy Things My Mom Said That I Believed.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please share or comment.


Robert Stanek

Monday, March 9, 2015

From the Incubator to the Crib: When Joy Turns to Heart-Wrenching Sorrow and Sorrow Gives Way to Acceptance

Raising a child with disabilities requires patience, compassion, understanding. The difficult circumstances made my wife and I question having other children. Still, when my wife got pregnant unexpectedly, we saw it as a blessing and a joyful surprise. Even more joyful was later news that everything with the pregnancy was proceeding normally.

A normal pregnancy is a term doctors use, as opposed to an abnormal pregnancy. This time, all it took for me to fall in love with our child, was an ultrasound picture taken at about six months, showing our child’s beautiful face and cute, little fingers. Until that picture, I had doubts about whether this really would be a normal pregnancy for my wife and our child. I wished it to be, but that doesn’t make it so.

I could tell my wife was just as relieved as I was and we seemed to be in the home stretch, until everything went terribly wrong. My wife was rushed to the hospital in preterm labor. The doctors did what they could and gave her medication to try to stop the labor.

It was a tense 24 hours, with lots of pacing and hair pulling, but my wife and child made it through and the preterm labor was halted. My wife was sent home from the hospital and ordered to stay in bed for the next few weeks.

Bed rest isn’t something we were unfamiliar with. My wife was prescribed bed rest several times during her previous pregnancy.

Bed rest worked until it didn’t and my wife was rushed to the hospital about a week later. This time, the doctors were unable to stop her preterm labor. My wife gave birth in a hospital room swarming with doctors and specialists.

At barely 32-weeks in utero, our child, who we later named Jasmine, was born way too early. Jasmine was tiny and blue, and she wasn’t breathing. She was handed off immediately to a neonatal specialist who tried desperately to clear her lungs and get her to breathe.

I cried, and I’ll admit to crying to whoever asks, when she finally breathed. But I never got to hold baby girl Jasmine that day and neither did my wife.

My wife and new daughter spent several days in the hospital together. At barely 4 pounds, Jasmine was in the neonatal care unit, inside an incubator, and my wife was in a hospital recovery room.

When my wife was finally discharged from the hospital, I’ve never seen anyone look sadder than she did when she had to leave baby girl Jasmine behind.

Day after day, week after week, we visited our baby girl in the hospital, watched her in the incubator. My wife would stay all day and often into the evening.

Several weeks passed before we could actually hold baby girl Jasmine. Eight weeks would pass before we could finally bring her home. Those days and nights were an agony, but nothing compared to the heart-wrenching moments when Jasmine wasn’t breathing.

Until next time

Robert Stanek

Monday, January 19, 2015

Raising a Child with Disabilities: How Love, Compassion and Understanding Can Conquer Tragedy

After the birth of my son, Will, my wife had another difficult pregnancy. The medical recommendation was an abortion, or how the doctors put it: “A premature ending of the pregnancy using a surgical dilation and curettage.” That was the day my wife and I learned our child had genetic defects that could bring lifelong problems including congenital heart problems. That was the day my wife and I chose life instead of death and asked the doctors to stitch her uterus so she could try to carry our child to term.

NOTE: This post is a follow up to Tragedy, Hope and New Beginnings, which discusses the effects of toxins and poisons military members and their families are exposed to.

The doctors told us if we did this there would need to be more testing, other procedures, and that we likely would still lose our child. The doctors told us of a life of medical expenses, hospital visits, and likely more surgeries. My wife and I allowed the procedures that would ensure our child’s health but we never wanted to know the results of the tests. We never wanted to know the exact, devastating diagnosis.

Why? Because our child was more important to us than the devastating diagnosis or how such diagnosis could be used to help us “make the right” decision. The right decision to us was to have our child, as long as our child’s health and my wife’s health were not in danger.

Until that moment, I thought I’d lived through difficult days. As a child, I’d been hit by a car while riding my bike and dragged beneath it. I’d seen my step-father die in an explosion and soon after, my sister, Bridgette, from an undiagnosed brain injury suffered in the explosion. I’d been deployed to conflict zones and survived numerous combat and combat support missions.

But that moment—that day—was one of the most difficult of my life and it was followed by months of difficulty, with the pregnancy, with stress and worry. That year was also the first of many to follow where our medical expenses topped $30,000.

There were many more scares during the pregnancy and times when our child was almost lost to us, but six months later, my daughter was born. I took one look at her and named her Sapphire, because to me, she was as precious and wonderful as the gemstone which is her namesake.

The doctors saw only her devastating diagnosis as they whisked her away. I saw five fingers on each tiny hand, five toes on each tiny foot, beautiful brown eyes, and a cute button nose. I saw Sapphire, my daughter, who I loved instantly and unquestioningly.





Until next time,
Robert Stanek

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Joys and the Dangers Untold: Suicide & the Holidays

In 2011, I lost a close friend to suicide due to relentless online attacks that were thoughtless, hateful and unwarranted. The target of the attacks wasn’t my friend but me, and it became very personal and caused much stress for myself and those close to me for a very long time. I never knew how personally some of those around me took these attacks until it was too late.

I’ve written about these attacks on many previous occasions. Although these hateful activities began in 2002, the first time I spoke publicly about them was May 2007 . I didn’t say anything more about these matters publicly until October and November 2009. More recently, I’ve been blogging about these problems and related issues at Read Indies. My posts on these matters include:

Unethical Competitors, January 2013
Authors Who Trash Competitors, March 2013

Authors Who Are Trolls, September 2013

Whoever said time heals all wounds was wrong. Absolutely wrong. It’s only now some three years later that I can look back and let myself truly mourn the loss. But the wound created by the loss? It’ll never be gone. Such a tragedy should never have happened—and those responsible are still at large, likely seeking other targets to harass and terrorize simply because they believe they can get away with it without consequences. 

This wasn’t the first friend I’d lost to suicide. I’d lost another years before. She’d taken her own life on Christmas Eve. You’d think that it couldn’t be possible for anyone to kill themselves during such a joyous occasion or the holidays in particular, but you might be surprised to know that instead of declining during the holidays suicides actually spike.

The holidays are a joyous time but they can also be a stressful, strenuous time. Losing someone close to you to suicide is something you never get over. You wonder what you could have or should have done. You wonder if the pain of loss will ever go away. Take it from someone who has searched and searched for the answers, I don’t think the pain ever really goes away because I still feel it as acutely as I did before.

Some suicides I think are utterly avoidable, especially those related to online attacks. The online world makes it all too easy for bullies, trolls and other hateful persons to make anonymous attacks on anyone for any reason or none at all. But all it takes to stamp out hate is kindness, compassion, consideration.

Show kindness for any reason or no reason at all. Show compassion simply because you can. Show consideration because it reveals the truth of your humanity. For those who can’t manage kindness, compassion or consideration, at the least try to show empathy. A little empathy and common courtesy go a long, long way. They really, really do.

This holiday and every day, make sure those around you know what’s in your heart. Don’t be afraid to share and care. Don’t be afraid to give and receive. And don’t ever forget that during any occasion, joyful or sorrowful, holiday or not, there may be those around you who are so torn up inside with pain and hurt that suicide seems the only way out. For them, your simple act of kindness, consideration or compassion might be what gets them through the dark hours of the longest night of their lives.

Thank you for reading,

Robert Stanek

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lots of Books Require Lots of Effort: Writing & Releasing Books Into the Wild

Often, it takes a very long time to work books through the writing, editing, review, and publishing processes. Recently, my publisher and I re-did the interior layout of all the Bugville books for new digital editions to accommodate the improved standards of today's e-readers.

There are 100+ Bugville books. They re-released at the same time to all markets after 18 months of hard work from a dedicated team.

I started work on the Bugville books 20 years ago. Most of the Bugville books are created from full-size watercolors (paintings). No one created thousands of original watercolors in a few days or wrote 100+ stories in a few days, but when we released the new editions, we released them to all markets at the same time.

Even with the original releases, many of the Bugville books ending up being released at the same time. Why?

In 2005, I was finally able to publish the first two sets of books, 15 in all, after years of work and waiting. Although the books were written and illustrated over a period of years, the digital rendering, text layout, editing, review, and final publishing processes all came together at close to the same time.

Over the next 9 years, I've published the original works I created over many years along with new ones until finally I caught up and released everything I'd created. 100 illustrated books created over 20 years is a rate of 5 a year, but many of the books came out in batches because that's how they worked through all the processes to get to official release dates.

Over the years, there have been many readers favorites. Here are a few of them, as well as a few of mine:

Bugville Critters Explore the Solar System was a runaway hit from its first release. In the Book, Buster has a dream where he pilots a rocket ship through the solar system. I often hear from readers about how much they love the story and its beautiful watercolors.
Talking about healthy eating habits doesn't have to be a bummer and it's one of the reasons Bugville Critters Visit Garden Box Farms was been a reader favorite for years.

Bugville Critters Go to School is another perennial reader favorite. Kids love the story of Buster's first day of school and how he overcomes his jitters.

Pirates Stole My Booty is laugh out loud fun, complete with a pirate dictionary. It's always been one of my favorites and a favorite of readers.

Another reader favorite is Start Summer Vacation. This book tells the story of Buster's last day of school before vacation.
Hope you enjoy these favorite reads!

Robert Stanek

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tragedy, Hope and New Beginnings: A Story That’s Not in My Military Memoir Stormjammers But Perhaps Should Be in My Next

My wife’s second miscarriage was a clue that something was terribly wrong. I thought it was the stress of being a combat flyer’s wife, constant deployments, or the subsequent ever-changing schedule when I worked inside the secretive underground facility known as the Tunnel. I never imagined that it was due to the air we breathed, the water we drank or the soil beneath our feet, but it likely was as lead from lead-based paints had leached into the soil we used for gardening and other toxic substances were throughout our base housing and the places we worked.

No one tells you when you join the military you’re risking not just your life but your health—and that of your family and even your unborn children. As Newsweek said in its July 25, 2014 cover story, the US Military is supposed to protect the country’s citizens and soldiers and not poison them.

Throughout the United States, there are 141 military bases and related Department of Defense facilities on the Environmental Protection Agency’s superfund list and the National Priorities List for cleanup—and that list of 141 isn’t all inclusive by any means. It is simply a list of the worst of the worst, bases and facilities with toxic contamination so bad that the EPA has assigned them its highest priority for cleanup due to unacceptable risks to human health.

Many of the worst facilities are closed or closing. However, it’s not like the toxins in the soil and ground water are going to stay where they are. They’re going to continue to pollute and contaminate adjacent facilities until they are cleaned up once and for all. What’s waiting beyond the 141 highly toxic bases and facilities? Well, the Department of Defense has identified 39,000 contaminated locations so far, from areas as small as a building to as large as an airfield, and those locations are spread across many of the 4,127 DOD installations located in the United States.

As a soldier who was deployed overseas for many years, I was stationed at Department of Defense facilities all over the world and I can’t help but wonder what toxic nightmare is lurking at the thousands of Department of Defense facilities that are located outside the United States. What I suspect is that there are likely as many contaminated locations and highly toxic sites at Department of Defense facilities located outside the US as there are inside the US.

All those years ago, I didn’t know about these issues or that toxins were possibly changing my life and my family, but I guessed there was something going on beyond stress. I started asking questions, and a healthcare worker who treated my wife suggested I look at environmental factors in our home and workplaces.

In our pre-World War II base housing, lead paint often was prevalent and possibly other toxic substances. We dug up the garden which was alongside the house, stopped drinking the tap water, and made other changes. With these changes, our overall health seemed to improve. Months later, my wife got pregnant again and this time, she carried the pregnancy well and my son, Will, was born.

Will arrived a few weeks early, but healthy. For us, it was a new beginning and a hope for the future of our family.

Until next time,
Robert Stanek