Wednesday, July 23, 2003

A Straw Once Saved My Life

This story always begins when we are sitting in a fast-food restaurant (or at least sitting with fast food) and there are too many straws lying around. I pick one up and very emphatically state "A straw once saved my life!".

Usually this causes people to snort milkshakes up their nose, so I have to wait a few minutes while the spray is cleaned off of shirts, walls, and nearby toddlers. After that, someone usually asks about it. If they don't I just go through the whole starting routine again until we've run out of milkshakes to spray or someone asks. And if that doesn't work, I'll wait about 45 minutes until we are doing something totally unrelated and then shout " 'How?!?" You may ask!?!". That catches them with their guard down and I can launch into the explanation before they have a chance to run away.

First, you have to understand that I am 1/3 record holder for creating and drinking from The World's Longest Straw. Back in junior high school (when I had a lot of free time on my hands), Paul Roberto, David Goldfarb and I began a campaign to build the world's longest straws. This was primarily an excuse to grab handfuls of straws from the Greenview J.H.S. cafeteria and shove them in our (my) locker. We all thought it was loads of fun. That was until Mr. Makoroff called me out of class one day (do you know how weird it is to be a geeky goody-two-shoes and get called out? You figure someone in your family died or you've been diagnosed with terminal halitosis or something.) and walked me down to my locker. There, across the hallway, were scattered 517 individually wrapped straws plus one unopened box of 500 (we had conned one of the cafeteria ladies of selling us a whole box for $5.00). Next to the pile, looking bemused but concerned, was Mr. Makoroff.

I explained our plan, and he informed me that today was the day. On the condition that he never saw a straw peeking out of my locker again, we could use the cafeteria that afternoon. And so we were officially committed to our plan.

To make a long story short (too late), we assembled our straw and realized that the suction needed to actually pull water down 1000+ straws would immediately collapse the straw itself. But we still claim the title of record holder because face it, who is really going to check anyway?

After that, whenever I was in a fast-food restaurant, I would grab a handful of straws in memoriam to our valiant effort.

Which brings me to the "saved my life" part.

You see, at that time I was part of the YMCA "Leaders" club. We really didn't exhibit much leadership qualities, unless you count various charges of breaking and entering, loitering, or scamming cigarettes from the local Dairy Mart. But for some reason (I personally think payoffs by our parents was part of the equation) they let us kids into this group. The adults in the group (mostly a bunch of ex-delinquents and men with sordid personal lives and very few real job skills) kept us occupied by taking us on campouts to the Allegheny national forest. We'd leave on a Friday afternoon, get into the campsite around midnight. I use the term "campsite" loosely to indicate a clearing of trees where previous campers (or it could have been the original trailblazers, or perhaps a bunch of grizzlies who liked Bob Villa) had hammered nails on trees to make the backpacks more accessible to raccoons and squirrels.

Somewhere along the way (probably at the protruding tree root 30 feet back from where the camp leader announced "well, we're here!") our fuel line got punctured. Of course, we didn't know that. It was dark and we were tired. Or the camp leader was horny for whichever girl du jour he had brought with him. I was 12 and wasn't very quick on the uptake about those things.

We spent a blissful Saturday hiking, looking at scenery, throwing rocks at each other and peeing on things. Then we spent the evening trying to start a fire, swearing as a team sport, and aiming fireworks at each other.

By Sunday morning the camp leader decided it might be a good idea to see if the van actually started. It did not. After he had crawled around under the van for about an hour, we all determined that the camp leader smelled like gasoline, and maybe some had leaked out. Once we thought to look, it was pretty clear that the fuel line had been completely mangled. People began to talk about hitchhiking home.

Now I knew very little about cars and less about fixing things, but I knew that I was usually the last one picked for any team or activity. If the same rules applied to hitchhiking, I was in for a long walk. My brain kicked into overdrive. I was able to deduce that a fuel line was a tube that brought gas from the tank to some other magical place in the car. And I had some replacement tubes with me - also known as Burger King straws. A whole handful of them. I relayed this information to the rest of the group.

Being 12 and having a tenuous grasp on reality at the best of times, I envisioned using the plastic from the straws to somehow weld the hole in the fuel line. I figured we had enough lighters and matches, and we could re-use the plastic that dripped off. This, of course, is not how things work. You do not weld with Bic lighters and plastic. The stuff they make straws out of is not a material that easily adheres to any other surface. But the rest of the guys let me go off to "prototype" it. They let me keep 3 straws (I had 12) and one lighter (I had 6 left after the weekend) to do the job.

I never succeeded, but by the time I got back, they had cut the fuel line, slid the straw into both sides and taped the whole thing shut. The car started and we were able to get to a gas station, where we spent the majority of the day watching paint dry while they really fixed the van. The mechanics did not laugh quietly or with respect, as I recall.

But never the less, a straw once saved my life!

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