Thursday, March 21, 2013

Exit Here in Bright Neon Lights: Part 3 When Limbs Break aTreeCallsonIt's Roots for Strength

If it wasn't enough to have these difficult driving experiences, it seemed that I was offered some perfect exits to this road which would lead me to the accident that would take my hands. Sometimes, even though the exit signs are in neon lights, the driver doesn't take the exit. I have sat here dumbfounded about how stupid I was not to take the exit and the only reasons I can offer for not leaving the trade were pride and family.

My father had a saying, "There are no such things as friends." Upon further investigation the saying comes from my grandmother. According to my eldest cousin, the full saying is, "There are no such thing as friends. Everyone is family." My father's saying sounds like something 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin would say and my grandmother's saying sounds like something that could come straight out of Jesus' mouth. I believe that naturally my father although he got the saying wrong he taught us the principles of my grandmother's saying.

As a child my father took me to work at his part-time job of cleaning movie theaters at the young age of eight or nine (my memory fails me in my old age). This usually happened somewhere between the hours of midnight to four am and only when we didn't have school. I didn't get paid anything except the coins I managed to find. Some days it was seven cents and some days it was up to three bucks. One day, I even found $100 bill but the rule was anything over five bucks we had to give to our dad. It was a bonus to find any money but my pride came from the greater cause of helping my dad get done faster so he could go to his other job less tired.

He started to bring the other kids along to help as they got older. The scariest part of cleaning the theaters was carrying the full bags of trash to the dumpster. It usually was dark and quiet except except for the gurgling of the creek that ran behind the theaters. I would get spooked from a bird taking off from it's resting spot. When my siblings started to come I chose to be brave because I didn't want my younger siblings to be afraid.

There were some days, when I got older, my father didn't have time to drive us children home. The plan came down that he would drop us off at the bus stop and we would catch the bus home. I remember one time being dropped of on a Saturday at around 5:45 am. The first buses on the weekdays came around 6:15 am to 6:30 am. This Saturday I expected the same thing but the bus on Saturday doesn't come until 9:00 am. After about 30 minutes of waiting in the cold, I grabbed a newspaper and covered myself with it as I laid on the bench. Looking somewhat like a homeless, I napped till the first bus came. Some people might look at this and think, "Whoa!!!! That's child labor!" I didn't think of it that way. It just brought me more pride for helping my family and more stories to tell.

Soon, my other siblings began to come. Knowing that the bus wouldn't come until 9:00 am, I would convince my siblings that we should walk all the way to downtown Salt Lake City. We were walking about 7 miles but we didn't know it. By the time we got downtown, the bus that we usually would transfer to, Magna 37, was starting it's first run. Often we would fall asleep and pass our stop then wake up at the end of the line. The bus driver would kindly let us stay on while he went on the inbound route. We all did it not for the money but for the team.

On memorial day this year, my sister took a phone call from a co-worker. She is the assistant manager at a gas station. The coworker had called in sick on a holiday and she took it upon herself to report in to work. I asked her, "Why in the heck do you answer the phone when you know they are calling in sick?" She snapped back, "Because if I don't the person there will have to stay a double shift." It hit me that she was doing it for the team. A team that in certain situations she considered family because she understood and could put herself in the shoes of her coworker.

During my apprenticeship, there had been several moments where I was scared for my life. I can think of three right now that could have been those exit signs in neon lights. The first one was in orientation. After a week or two, as a new apprentice in the trade, Mountain States Line Constructors Apprenticeship Training called me all the way back from Falcon, Colorado to Salt Lake City, UT for a one week orientation of class and climbing.

As usual in my life, I was good on the class part. It was climbing poles that was difficult. I had bought my climbing tools from e-bay. The belt was too small and the hooks weren't sharp. I kept stepping up the pole and "gaffing out." Gaffing out means that the pointy sharp thing strapped your feet comes out of the pole when you don't want it to in other words falling of the pole. Everyone else was getting climbing.

That week, blisters started forming on the insides of my lower legs from the friction caused by the pads on the apparatus used to strap the hooks to my feet. I kept going up and falling, up and falling and again up and falling. Quitting was not a very viable option to me. I had just left my two jobs to join the apprenticeship without giving two weeks. My current wife had been cheating on me and we were in the process of getting a divorce. I didn't want to come back to Salt Lake City and be around her or the rumors and the whispers at church, in the neighborhood, or the Polynesian Community.

Being cheated on is one of the most painful things I had ever experienced in my life. It felt as if my heart had burst or blown up. I had revolved my life around a person who was revolving her life around someone else. All of a sudden the center of my universe was gone. My heart felt like it only had a little piece of it left. With all that burden inside me, I still continued to try and climb the pole.

Slipping out of the wood and falling was a scary feeling. Hitting the ground from ten feet up was even more scary. I thought about quitting right then and there because I didn't have someone to climb for. Thoughts of returning home popped up in my head. Then I thought, "I can't go back. Not now." I thought of my mom and how I could help her and my dad and how I could help him. I had something to climb for. Although my heart wasn't as strong, it was there and I imagined the little piece that was left beating at the end of some twisted up veins. I stepped on the wood again and up I went.

Near the weeks end, we were to be tested on a pole. We had to climb over two cross arms to the top of a 55 ft pole. I would look at the top of that pole with the fear of god in me, during the week. We were told if we failed that test, we would be sent home. Friday came and it was do or die time.

For the test, we were tied to a safety, so it wasn't do or DIE physically, just literally. I began my ascent, with what felt like all the pressure in the world. Even though I had two safeties there, one connected to my back and the belt around the pole, at 20 feet I began to sweat and my palms were wet. I crossed an arm at 30 ft. To cross an arm, one must unwrap the safety belt, from around the pole, and crawl over the arm with all the trust in the hooks on your feet. These hooks ,that weren't sharp and were bought from eBay, weren't something I would want to trust my life with. I made it over and stood on top of the arm. With fifteen feet and one more cross arm to go, I took a break and looked at the Salt Lake Valley. It was beautiful from up there.

I continued my climb. At that point one must climb sideways and then proceed up because the next crossarm is 90 degrees around the pole. Again, I had to unbelt and crawl over the arm. This time, I only stopped for one breath. I wanted to be done with this test. I looked down at 45 feet and, on my first time at that height, people look like ants. "Self, don't ever look down again!", I told myself. I got to the top and did the task to pass.

Going down was even more scary because you have to look down. But I was in a relieved state of mind. Just like right before my accident, I had done the difficult part of the job and became slightly complacent. I took two steps down and slipped right out of the pole. When bad things happen, I'm a pretty fast thinker. The feel of free fall came over me but the safety on my back caught me and the momentum, that had swung away from the pole, switched and returned to the pole. I hugged the pole with all my might and stuck my feet back in. Quickly, I looked over to see if anyone had seen it. Everyone down there was looking away or down. It seemed they had pretended not to see it.

I had the feeling that I had just failed. When I hit the bottom, I was looking down, with my body language showing failure. The teacher approached me and said, "Congratulations Sam you passed the test." My eyes, hiding behind a pair of safety glasses, had the look of bewilderment. Then the teacher said, "Sam you ride with me back to the classroom."

In the car ride home, the teacher asked me where I was working and if there was any climbing on my job. Then he told me, "Whenever you get the chance, practice." I knew that he knew that I had fallen but I told myself I would practice.

The other apprentices there that day were for the most part having no problem. A year later one of them had commented to me, "Your climbing has gotten way better." Two years from then, another apprentice told me, "I have mad respect for you Sammie. I remember in orientation when you couldn't climb but you never gave up. Every time I looked over to see what you were doing, you would fall but then just go up again." What they didn't know was that, with all that was happening in my life, there was no turning back for me

The second time I was scared for my life was in the Cedar City, Three Peaks Substation. To a know nothing apprentice, sometimes things that are dangerous don't look dangerous at all. Then you learn some things, after a year, and all of a sudden things that aren't dangerous look extremely dangerous. In fact everything seems like it could take your life. In my apprenticeship I was at that stage where I thought every thing could possibly kill me.

On this particular day of work, they were going to pick a huge platform, like the one in the picture below, and put it on top of some 20 foot tall legs, made of insulators.

I didn't know how much the thing weighed, I just knew that it was heavy. The foreman had done a practice pick, the day before setting the platform, and  I remember seeing the outriggers come up on the other side of the crane. A tipping crane is one of the things an apprentice is warned about.

The crane picked the platform 20 feet in the air and swung it over the insulators. Our crew scrambled to tighten the bolts that would hold the platform in place. They got in their manlift baskets and jabbed their spud wrenches into the bolt holes. There was prying and grunting. More pulling and grunting. The platform was fitting right.

I began to fear for the workers safety. "Should I help?," I questioned myself. Then I thought if they are going to die then I'm going to die with them. All this self talk occurred in a matter of seconds as I sprinted to a manlift and donned my harness.

When a manlift drives fast, the boom bounces. There I was bouncing in the basket to the rhythm of the terrain, afraid of dying but afraid my crew was going to die. Tears came down my cheeks. I don't know if they were tears of courage or tears of fear. My foreman screamed, "I was wondering if you were going to show up!"

We finally pinned that platform down with a few bolts. Later on as I sat on a beam, tightening a bolt, I felt relief. I let down my guard. With another journeyman nearby, I pried on the bolt hole with all of my might to try and get the other holes to line up. Then, just as the day of my injury, my guard was down. I wanted to impress the lineman, again just as the day of my accident, so I pried with all of my might and the spud wrench cameout of the hole. All the force I was applying was suddenly released and suddenly I was falling off the beam from 20 feet in the air. Luckily, the lineman caught me from my fall. We went back to work.

The last moment I was scared for my life, during my apporenticeship, was the week before my accident. It is difficult to explain some linework to those that aren't familiar with it so I drew some pictures. Also I need to explain that it is not common for an apprentice to work alone on energized lines and neither is it common for a crew with less than three people to work on energized lines. In the town of Kremmling, Colorado, however it is legal for both an apprentice to work on a line by himself and to work an energized line in a crew of two.

I wasn't aware of the different  rules in Kremmling and when the other apprentice left to do his Journeyman's test. I thought for sure we woulkd either not work or do work that wasn't energized. My foreman ate breakfast with me at the Moose Cafe. This was unusual as he stopped eating breakfast with us a couple weeks ago but more surprising to me was when he informed me that we were going to energized work. Not only would we do energized work but we would do the most difficult pole on that particular line, the corner pole.

A corner pole is where the line makes a 90 degree angle, or corner. We would keep the line hot but take ou the transformer. Then we would move one side of the energized, or hot line, from the old pole to the new pole. Next, the other side would be moved.

The first side was the hard side because to keep the line hot, we would need to use a mechanical jumper that was long enough to reach the line when it was attached to the new pole (red line represents mechanical jumper or mack). Not only did the mack need to reach the line at it's new position but it needed to be coiled so that it didn't dangle and touch anything else. Then we would cut the actual jumper(light blue curved line touching both lines) which would send all the energy through the mechanical jumper.
I would put on my gloves and sleeves(orange) and then as the line went up, I would uncoil the mechanical jumper. In order to come off the new pole, a grip(purple), a device designed to clamp down on a line when force is pulled on the loop in the grip, was put on the line and a rope(yellow) tied to it. The rope went from the grip to a sheave(yellow circle), which redirected the rope down the pole. At the bottom of the pole was another sheave that redirected the rope to the towball on a pickup truck. Once the rope was pulled by the truck, the line would come loose on the rope end of the grip. I would unpin the wire from the insulator.

So I got a loose end of wire, uncoiling of a mack and to add to that I would attach a helper block with a grip from the wire to the new pole. When pulled, the helper block would take the line up to the new pole. In linework they call this a 'cluster f@#&'. I'm doing what seems like a million things at once while always keeping my eye on this dangerous rattle snake that could bite me with 14,400 volts.
Once the wire was released from the old pole and pulled up to the new pole, I woulkd pin the wire to the new insulator. At one point my foreman mumbled, in response to a question of mine, "You just want to do it your way because you think you are so smart." Little did he know that I was in a mini panic with all that was going on. I snapped back, "No I don't think I know everything! If you just tell me what to do I'll do it!"

The few houses on that transformer finally got their power back after about six hours. My feet, which on a normal winter day in Kremmling were pretty cold, were sweating. My brain was probably sweating out my nose.

Of course I could have said, "No!" But for one I was an apprentice and an apprentice just does what he is told. The other thing was that when an apprentice says no there are repercussions. I was also raised to be a team member and put the team before me, just like my sister going in to work to help a coworker. Last but not least it is ingrained in me, being of Samoan descent, to be obedient.

There were many other times when I could have died but it seems like these three stand out to me as times when I did something scary and then let down my guard and had a near miss. These times that stand out as an exit sign in neon lights, where I could have seen the warning and escaped my life changing event.  The last one I shared was the scary part before my accident. After that day, I let down my guard a little bit and instead of a near miss, it was a hit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bad Omens: Part 2 of When Limbs Break a Tree Calls on It's Roots for Strength.

After being moved from Denver, I began to pray for three major things besides safety. The first was that my employer would let me go to my family reunion in Samoa. Second, my mother seemed closer and closer to dying so I prayed to be home when she passed. Lastly, because of all the moving around i hadn't been able to serve in my church so I prayed that I would be provided a job that would facilitate me serving my church. In fact I pretty much prayed that I would become financially independent that way I could spend all my time serving the lord.

Kremmling is a small town that lies in the mountains of Colorado, along the upper Colorado River. According to the 2000 census the population was 1,578. I can't imagine it has grown that much since then. The town has one super market, one hardware store, and a couple of gas stations.

Fortunately for me, one of my best line buddies, Keith, made friends with the owner of the hardware store's daughter. She rented me a room for $400 a month. The deal included all the small town hospitality I could imagine, so I was getting a pretty good deal.

As per normal (new man on the linecrew) procedure, I met the crew at the "show up". The "show up" was a place that is designated for crews to meet before the start of work. Usually line building material is stored there. This "show up" was actually located at the power company.

My foreman smoked a lot and talked slow and slurred but was very smart when it came to linework. He would say his opinion on how the work should be done but ultimately let the workers have the last say. His way usually was the better way and he would let you know through his mumbling, though from the bucket, the mumbling couldn't be heard. It seemed his method was to let the those in the air learn by doing. The only time he resorted to screaming was when something was going to put you in danger. Disappointment was expressed a simple shaking of the head.

The lineman on the crew was from southern Colorado. He talked frequently about leaving the crew, dragging up, to take a job closer to his wife because his relationship was on the rocks. For a lineman he was very patient and often would take the blame for my mistakes. Never once do I remember him blaming anyone for a mistake.

We had another hot apprentice, an apprentice qualified to work on energized lines. He was from Montana and engaged to be married and talked about his fiancé a lot. The other thing he talked about was his fifth wheel, or camper.

Everyone on the crew besides the foreman had at least one thing in common, we all wanted to get out of that town. Frequently they mentioned the other two linemen that left. One went back to Denver so he could spend more time with his kids and the other 'drug up' to take another job. The foreman couldn't work in Denver because he had been banned from Excel's, the power company in Denver, property.

The whole crew would leave town for their homes every weekend except the other apprentice who lived so far away that the expenses would outweigh the benefits. My linebuddy Keith would often ask when I would stay and fish with him on the weekend. The desire to play basketball at home in West Valley, Utah every weekend was addicting though and my desire to fish was nonexistent. I was at the peak of my game and the joy I found from being able to control a game was unmatched by anything at the time. In the back of my mind was a fear of never being able to play again.

Winter began to set in. Soon the lineman 'drug up' leaving us with a crew of three, one foreman and two hot apprentices. There were several incidents that could have been seen as signs from a higher power to quit the trade. I was enjoying life so much that I didn't think anything of them.

Besides this ever present fear way in the back of the mind of never being able basketball again, there was the knife incident.

On low voltage wire (120v-480v), there are three legs or wires. One of the legs is the neutral and the two other legs are energized. Each of the energized legs is coated with an insulating plastic. If the two legs touch it completes a circuit and electricity flows but there may be heat, melting metal and a numerous amount of things that happened when this flow is not controlled. At times it becomes necessary to strip the wire and connect new circuits.

This particular day, it was necessary to connect a circuit. The other apprentice and I were up about twenty five feet in the bucket. I was stripping one of the wires, with my blade stripping away from the body, when suddenly there was a loud bang, light, heat and smoke. My blade had went into the insulation of both legs at the same time. A chunk of the blade melted and because it was my foreman's knife, I owed my foreman a new knife.

There were the several highway slide-off incidents. The fastest and shortest route from Salt Lake to Kremmling is US Route 40. On that road, just after a town called Steamboat Springs, lies Rabbit Ears Pass. At an elevation of 9426 feet, it receives a lot of snow and can be closed at times.
Rabbit Ears Pass on one of my trips.
In fact I remember once approaching the pass in the dark of night. Snow was coming down sideways. I drove right by the tire chain-up area, thinking to myself, "I should put the chains on." Then I thought, "Nah it's too cold and wet outside." I remember looking at the dark road and thinking I had just began a journey on the Pass of Caradhras, from the movie and book The Lord of the Rings. My grip on the wheel tightened, knuckles white as the snow and palms sweating. 

There are two summits on the pass. I had made it over both of them and was headed down hill. My patience grew thin from driving 20 mph and I began a gradual let down of my guard. I coasted a little faster and pushed the brakes less. My speed increased to about 25 mph but a truck was riding my tail. I made the decision to pull to one side and let him pass. While slightly pulling to the right, I lost control of the car and slammed into the embankment.

I started to rock the car by putting it reverse and forward repeatedly. No dice, my car was stuck. I got a crazy idea that I could throw the tire chains on the tires while the car was in gear and hopefully it would get traction and move. With the car in reverse and the tires spinning, I jumped out and closed the door behind me. Unfortunately for me, the car door automatically locks when the car is in gear and the door is closed. 

There I stood, with snow flakes hitting my face, in a hooded sweatshirt, staring at this amazingly unfortunate scene. Suddenly, news stories of people burried in snow storms flashed through my mind. Adrenaline kicked in as I became irrationally delusional that this could be a life or death situation, when in fact it was highly unlikely that I would have died. I looked at the small triangle window, called the rear quarter glass (I had to google the name), and began to formulate a plan of action that included kicking in the quarter glass. Fully believing and visualizing the quarter glass breaking, I backed up and took two steps and kicked as hard as I could. 


The window remained in tact. My sweatshirt was beginning to become moist and cold. I slowed down and became rational. My mind reflected on the many times I had broke into my own car. I needed a long piece of wire. My eyes focused on the antenna and my mind thought of an old tv show called McGyver.

In McGyver the protagonist always comes up with a nifty way, usually involving chewing gum, to escape a near death and capture the antagonist. A plow came and stopped, the driver got out the truck and told me he was going to call the police and a tow truck to help. He stood there for a while, watching me trying to McGyver the truck. Unlike the tv show, this process must have been boring because the plow driver told me that he was going to go sit in his truck.

Eventually, I got that door opened and got pulled out of the jam. There were a couple more slide offs and other near misses but after each experience my resolve became greater and greater to become a lineman. Perhaps it was me being hard-headed. In fact, I know it was me being hard-headed as I remember my cousin from Hawaii urging me to quit the line trade and me insisting that a Matagi (my family name) is not a quitter!

Looking back at all those experiences, I laugh ,literally, out loud. As a child, we learned to laugh a lot after good times and bad. The important thing, I think, is not to laugh during the bad times but after, open that big Ol' bottle of laughter because like they say it's the best medicine.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

When Limbs Break a Tree Calls on It's Roots for Strength. Part 1

Sometime in 2008-2009, my extended family was planning a family reunion for all the children of Fatu and Puapuaga Matagi to be held in April of 2011. The reunion was an all expenses paid trip to Samoa for each of the children of Fatu and Puapuaga, my Uncles and Auntys. A generous Aunty and Uncle would sponsor the trip.

Fortunately for me there were clauses in the rules of the invitees. One of the clauses was that the spouses, if not willing or able to come, could be substituted. Another clause was that if the sibling was unable to attend, another person could be substituted. Like Charlie, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my sister, Selesitila, and I fell upon the "Golden Ticket." I was excited about this trip.

I prayed that somehow I could get time off for it and thought out a way that I would be able to go. This plan involved me becoming a journeyman lineman by April 2010. An apprentice is pretty much owned by the apprenticeship. I was taught a good one doesn't take time off for anything. Meanwhile a journeyman owns his destiny.

As a seventh step apprentice, I had taken the Journeyman's exam and failed twice. The written exam had been a piece of cake for me but the pole yard test, a test of putting knowledge into practical use while climbing an actual pole, had turned out to be rather difficult for me. Although it is difficult, it is absolutely necessary to be tested for the safety of self and coworkers.

One problem was my lack of actual "hot time," working on energized power lines. At the time I took my first stab at the test, I had 157 hot hours out of 700 needed to become a journeyman. The more "quality" hours an apprentice generally had the more likely an apprentice was to pass the test.

I belonged to the Mountain States Line Construction Joint Apprenticeship and Training program (MSLCAT). They, MSLCAT, are over five states: Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Utah. We, the apprentices, would receive assignments to anywhere in these states. If you lived in Utah, you could be assigned to Colorado Springs, Helena, Casper, or Timbuktu as long as Timbuktu fell in the five states. If you were what they called a "golden boy," you might magically be assigned to work in your hometown.

The line trade was a tricky thing for me because I didn't seem to fit in very well. I wasn't a "golden boy," I didn't buy beers for the foreman, nor was I good at brown-nosing so I didn't work much in Utah. When I did I usually worked with the 'misfit' crews aka the 'b' teams. The cliques seemed to be stronger in Utah and if you made one mistake, you could find yourself on the short list to be laid off.

Other than not working much near home, I didn't mind working with the 'b' teams because for one I have been on 'b' teams all my life. I was on the little league football team from nine all the way up to sixteen years old. In high school I would hang out at lunch with the 'b' team. I preferred in College to hang with the 'misfits.'

The second reason I didn't mind the 'b' team was that I always enjoyed being an underdog. I think I take it personally, when I am assigned to a 'b' team, to make that team compete with the 'a' teams of the world! Nothing delights me more than the underdog stories, teams and people coming out on top.

The problem with the 'b' teams is, during my apprenticeship, was that the 'hot time' was rare. When there are economic hard times, the power company in Utah pulls its distribution work, work done on the voltages coming from substations to the transformers that feed customers, from subcontractors in, to it's own employees and starts putting subcontractors on the building transmission lines, lines that transmit extremely high voltages from power sources to substations, and substations.

In short, I was 'b' teamer relinquished to building substations for most my apprenticeship. I failed my second test in Utah and the dream of passing the Journeyman's test seemed to be slipping through my fingers. At the time, I was working in Wyoming on a transmission line, of course I was on the 'b' team, and we would lay out materials, distribute the poles and components to each structure,  all day. There wasn't much learning going on. I almost felt like I was learning to be a trucker with all the semi driving I had been doing.

MSLCAT finally transferred me to Denver to get some hot time. The miracle of all miracles was that I was on the 'a' team. I learned a lot more than I had ever learned in my apprenticeship. My foreman was awesome and my lineman, a person certified to work on high voltage power lines, was green but good as well.

While in Denver, I asked my Uncle and Aunt, the same ones who were financing the Samoa trip, if I could live with them in their house in Boulder. Life was good, everything but the test was going as planned.

I reached about 400 hot hours and had been going to the Colorado classes. Although not required to attend, I wanted to pass the test so dearly that I was attending classes to get more familiar with the yard where the pole yard test would be and ask the instructors questions.

Testing time came. Again, I failed. I came back to my Uncle and Aunty's house and told them. I remember that my Uncle asked, "So what will happen to you now?" I remember I responded, nearly crying, "Either I'm gonna get kicked out of the apprenticeship or I'm not going to be able to attend the reunion because I'm not a journeyman."

I called my instructor and e-mailed the director that night because I felt that I had been failed unfairly. They had said I should have reported my pole partner for using a tool incorrectly and not using a rubber blanket on the arm. I had been taught that on a certain voltage, a blanket would not be necessary and using a tool incorrectly to me was not a matter of life and death and I was supposed to report my pole partner in matters of life and death. They both fought for me.

I began to think of the alternatives. I wrote a message to my brother and cousin who had been in the trade, asking each for advice. MSLCAT called me and asked me to appear before the disciplinary board, as they have done for all people who fail the test three times. The board decided I could stay in the apprenticeship and would not rescind the grade on my poleyard test. I would not be able to test again until I got all my hot hours.

I returned to work relieved that I was still in the apprenticeship. Soon after my foreman was informing me I had been transferred. To this day, I wonder if that was a disciplinary transfer. I found it funny that I was being transferred to the mountains, while everyone was trying to get out of there. The transfer happened too close to my protesting the test for me to not question it.....

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Audacity of Hip-Hop

When I was about eleven years old, one of the more highly regarded older kids asked me what kind of music I liked. I didn't know what to say. My parents usually had the radio tuned to the oldies station but I wasn't going to embarrass myself and say, "Oldies!" So instead I said, "Michael Jackson!" I still got made fun of because in Utah most kids were into heavy metal.
During my public education years, the diversity in Utah was nearly non-existent. I remember only two other Pacific Islanders that were my age in grade school. As a child I listened to music either according to what my parents or friends listened to but the music didn't really connect with me, I mostly liked it because of peer pressure.

My childhood and teenage years were a much different experience than nearly all of my peers and my musical tastes tended to coincide with those same experiences. In my life experience I really wasn't worried about love, cars, parties etc. My top concerns were helping my parents make enough money so we could eat. There wasn't any genre of music that related to that experience until I heard hip-hop.

Not only did the subject matter connect but the beats as well. The beats hit hard like life. Then if they threw in horn samples, I felt like Rocky when I listened to them.  Sometimes they had an eire treble to them which somehow connected to me because of how strange my life was. I used to subconsciously bob my head with them. While driving, people would constantly be staring at me bobbing my head in the next car. Sometimes they would even mock me by mimicking me.

I remember one day I had called my father and told him I wanted to go on a church mission for two years. He advised me that I should graduate college first. I couldn't disobey him and felt ashamed of all that I had done wrong in my life. I drove to First Dam in Logan and parked. Staring at the stars through the sunroof, I cried to God. The mix tape I was playing suddenly started to play 'Juicy' by Notorious B.I.G.

When Biggie, aka Notorious B.I.G., started rapping, "Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I'd never amount to nothin'…
and all the brothas in the struggle, you know what I'm sayin'?" I felt like he was talking to me. Biggie continued on, "Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner." With all the sardines, or pilikaki as my dad called it, that I ate in my lifetime I felt like dis dude and I connected. Then the chorus came on:
"You know very well who you are
Don't let em hold you down, reach for the stars"

There I was staring at the stars, praying and this lady was singing to me 'reach for them.'

That song hit me in the right place at the right time. Over the years hundreds of different lyrics and hip-hop songs have connected to me like that night. I remember Nas saying, "that buck that bought the bottle could have struck the lotto." Those words said to me to have a positive attitude and not wallow in the sadness of a bottle. Wu-Tang had a song called 'Triumph' that most the rappers just bragged about their skills. I remember feeling their passion and feeling how I could triumph over anything. Phife Dawg, on the song called 'Wordplay', said, "cuz if I don't say I'm the best who the h@$# will?" After hearing that a young unconfident kid from West Valley started to gain self-esteem to the point where he could write to the University newspaper and express the unfairness that his hip-hop CD got kicked out of the weight room stereo for a 311 CD.

To me the old, true hip-hop is underdog music. I feel like my whole life is an underdog story. I find it hard to relate with the privileged, entitled or coddled. Hip-hop music, to me, is always at it's best when the artist is so hungry that all the passion and emotion comes out.

My father went to prison and I quit school to go on a mission. While working to save money my brother and I had previously both formed a hip-hop group, ATP or Afakasi Posse(we thought afakasi was spelled afatasi). Now we both wrote a lot and battled each other on the mic a lot. It will probably sound lame so I'm going to edit some in order to not get too preachy but here are some of the lyrics I wrote during that time of struggle:

Since the day I was risen/ pops had us under oppression/...
foolish pride had him wreckless/ he held the whole family strangled and breathless/
the media set forth a lifestyle/ of big money bling-bling and high profiles/
Had him captured in the chains of hell/ nearly dragged to an eternal fell
Taking down the family as well/ the youngest had courage to rebel/ as the heavens started to swell
With prayers and tears to fill wells/ ... My pops was soon alone in a cold cell
After the nuclear explosion/ and destruction by erosion
Rises the phoenix from the dust/ with eyes lowered and wings tucked
This constant opposition/ got my muscles ripplin'
An' I'm ready to start fire/ runnin' on straight desire

It might seem lame but to me it signified to me that even through the tragedy we would all arise out of it, like a Phoenix out of the ashes.

Fast-forward to February '11, without hands, driving down the street in 'Ol Betsy, I found myself in the toughest underdog situation I had ever experienced. One song that hit me hard was 'All of the Lights' by Kanye West. 
When this song came on my immediate thoughts were to tell everyone to turn their spotlights on me because I'm about to do something amazing. I'm about to make a comeback from loosing my hands. For the most part the words that stand out to me are, " turn on the lights in here babyTurn up the lights in here, baby
Extra bright, I want y'all to see this
Turn up the lights in here, baby
You know what I need, want you to see everything
Want you to see all of the lights!" I vowed while I cried right there to show everyone, just put the lights on me.

The other song that connected with me was 'The Show Goes On' by Lupe Fiasco. Most of the lyrics hit me but the third verse particularly:
"So no matter what you been through
No matter what you into
No matter what you see when you look outside your window
Brown grass or green grass
Picket fence or barbed wire
Never ever put them down
You just lift your arms higher
Raise em till’ your arms tired
Let em’ know you’re their
That you struggling and survivin’ that you gonna persevere
Yeah, ain’t no body leavin, no body goin’ home
Even if they turn the lights out the show is goin’ on!"

It says to me that the playing field may be unfair but the last thing I'm going to do is quit. Again, while tears streamed down my face I was inspired to keep pushing even when it got hard.
Hip-Hop's origin is that of coming out of adverse conditions and when it comes out there are sometimes diamonds in it. Those diamonds brang hope to a hopeless me and deserve partial credit for any success I may have achieved.

That is why, even when on my mission with companions that despised hip-hop, I defended it. It is why when a young man gets up in front of the congregation and says all hip-hop is evil, I instantly say to myself, "that kid doesn't know what the hell he's talking about!" It is why when I hear a prominent African-American, who sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, say, "99.9% of all hip-hop is bad!" in front of a large audience at the tabernacle, I
instantly reject that thought. Because sometimes hip-hop or music can give someone a power that, in my opinion, is second only to love, hope. That is one of the powers of music.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Car named 'Ol Betsy the War Machine

When I first came out of the hospital, my license was temporarily suspended, rightly so. In order to get out of the house I depended on rides. I became that annoying pre-sixteen year old or license-less person begging for a ride.

The first time my sister, Selesitila, asked if I would like to go to the supermarket to do the shopping, I jumped at the offer, just to get out of the house. Her driving was too slow for me. The shopping was too slow for me. Everything was too slow for me. To have to do everything at such a slow pace was saddening and maddening at the same time.

My life before the accident had become a scene out of the Jungle Book. I was Baloo the Bear. My mantra was found in the song 'The Bear Necessities.' Which reads like this:

Look for the bare necessities,
The simple bare necessities,
Forget about your worries and your strife,
I mean the bare necessities,
Of mother natures recipies,
That bring the bare necessities to life.

Wherever I wonder,
Wherever I roam,
I couldnt be founder of my big home,
The bees are buzzing in the trees,
To make some honey just for me,
When you look under the rock for plants,
Take a glance at some pantsy ants,
Then maybe try a few.

the bare necessities of life will come to you,
they'll come to you.

look for the bare necessities,
the simple bare necessities,
forget about your worries and your strife,
i mean the bare necessities,
thats why a bear can rest at ease,
with just the bare necessities of life.

now when you pick a paw paw,
or a prickly pear,
and you prick a wrong paw,
well next time, beware,
dont pick the prickly pear by the paw,
when you pick a pear, try to use the claw,
but you dont need to use the claw,
when you pick a pear of the big paw paw,
Have i givin you a clue?

In other words my life was easy. I roamed from here to there not to worried about much. All that seemed difficult had become easy. Self care was easy. I could fly across the United States with one carry on suitcase and not worry about a thing. Saturday morning basketball was a piece of cake.

After the accident, nothing was easy. Even grabbing the remote to turn on the television was extremely difficult.It was like I was reborn and had to relearn everything that had to deal with hands all over again but in a different way. The only thing different was that I had known what it was like to have had hands. This was the most frustrating part of the whole ordeal.

Learning everything all over was tedious. I had a new Occupational Therapist when I got home. His name was Marc Rosello and he was an A or red type personality. I have never gotten along with this type of person, ever. In fact his second time here, he made me cry. He was requiring all kinds of homework of me. When I hadn't done any of it, he began to say I need to keep track of every appointment in a red type personality kind of way. I told him I do keep track of it on my iPad. He said, "Well, where's your iPad?" I went to grab it and broke out in tears. My sister comforted me.

There were many things I did as an escape. One of them was a Superbowl party. The Greenbay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers were matched up for the Lombardi Trophy. There was some kind of avocado dip, candy, chips and oh yeah 'the Superbowl Explosion

We'll call it 'the SBEI' for short. It went down like this; My sister and I were watching the 2011 SB, when the doorbell rang. It was my neighbors grandson. He started to explain his story in nice manner, saying,"My girlfriends car had been hit and the scratch marks were white...." Up to this point I was calm.

Then out of the blue, he says, "Then I'm looking around and I see your car is white and all smashed up. So I want to know what the F#%^ is going on." At that point I started screaming, "WELL I WANNA KNOW HOW THE H%#£ I RAN INTO YOUR GIRLFRIENDS CAR WHEN...." At that moment, I was taking my prostheses off and spiked it in the ground and screamed, "I DON'T EVEN HAVE HANDS!" He shrunk away from his accusations and left. I walked in the house and started balling from all the emotions and frustrations coming to the surface. My sister comforted me again.

My older sister and I have a relationship where we protect each other. When I was one year and several months old, my sister who was nine months younger had somehow managed to crawl out on the roof. My mom says I went out on the roof and picked her up and brought her in. From that moment on we had each others back.

When my dad went to jail, I as the eldest would need to step up and help out financially. She stepped up for me and made it possible for me to serve a mission. I also believe there were higher powers aiding her but to this day I still feel the need to return the favor. When it was time to leave the hospital, I had the choice of living with both my other siblings but I chose her. Partially because I feel like I want to help her and partially because I feel most at home in her house.

Eventually Marc Rosello, the OT, and I got a driving ring. The driving ring is in the folloiwing video. He let me drive in a Driver's Ed car. I remember being so nervous that I was perspiring to the point of dripping armpits. It was just like when I first learned to drive with my dad at the age of sixteen.

I passed the driving test and started driving. My car actually has a name, 'Ol Betsy The War Machine, and a personality. Driving her was like reacquainting with an old friend. I remember one of the first things I asked for when I came into full consciousness was my car. The business director went and retrieved her from the city of Kremmling. I felt comforted to know she was near.

Driving was an incredible feeling because here I was, without hands, driving with everyone else. Nobody treated me any different than anyone else. In fact, one of the best things was that there wasn't too many people that could tell that I was any different than anyone else. I felt a part of the community.

My car was a lot like my sister. Even after 200,000 miles, she continued to want to work to get my back. We have at least a hundred adventures together. That same year, I thought there was no way to pass my inspections. Through a miracle I found someone to pass her and we had one more year of adventures. She is in the twilight of her years now so I made some tribute videos of her so you can check them out. One thing I know is that she will always have my back.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Somebody Stole DREAMLAND from a Supposed Bandit

Last night I went to a Utah Jazz game. This one was pretty special because my brother, my Uncle Molo and my dad came. It's always fun to watch my uncles interact. We stayed up way late and after I got home, I continued to stay awake until about 2:30 am. It was completely detrimental because this morning I had a training to be to that necessitated that I be up by 6:40 am.

The training was a long grueling 8 hours but I made it through that. My friends from the hospital asked if I wanted to eat and I had planned on stopping at McDonald's anyway to get my free Big Mac and so we hung out for another hour. I arrived home wanting to take a shower but too tired to do even that. I lay on the couch, the same couch that I had slept on for 4 months during my recovery from electrical injury, and fell quickly and soundly into a deep sleep.

Remember that dreamland, from when I first went into the hospital until now, is a place that I so longingly remember but could never get to. On special occasion I am able to reach it but for a long time the only thing I seemed to achieve was what I call 'the blackness'. 'The Blackness' is a deep darkness. I liken it unto being in the darkest cave you can imagine and then multiplying that by 100. 'The Blackness' was so dark the air was heavy.

The reason I longed for dreamland was it was an escape from reality. 'The Blackness' did not suffice for anything but to pause the phantom pain. Phantom pain is the phenomena of the brain still sensing the severed part of the body and at times the trauma that may have caused the need for amputation. In my case it feels as if I have slept on my hands and they are numb due to the loss of circulation. I can barely move my phantom hands and along with numbness they fill cramped up. There sometimes can be a burn and always they feel as if they are sweaty palms to the point of being wrinkly dish washing hands.

In the hospital I would wake up to the driest mouth on earth. 'The darkness', for having heavy air seems to be very arid. My tongue would be so dry that I would drink one glass of water that would be absorbed just by my tongue alone and one for actual thirst. This dry tongue continued as well for a long time.

After about 6 months, I have my first encounter with dreamland. I don't want to wake up because I have hands, as I am oft prone to do while in dreamland. Often I get kicked out of dreamland by phantom pain. As the dreamland fades away the pain fades in. The pain goes from non-existent to it's peak presence and then calms down once I get medicines in my body.

It seems that one of the aids in my ability to achieve dreamland is my level of non-medicated exhaustion. Today, with only four hours of sleep in a 32 hour period, I have hit that requirement. I sink deep into my couch and it seems to envelope me in a lighter form of 'the darkness.'

Slowly the darkness concedes to dreamland! I find myself in room with three men. The one says absolutely nothing and seems to be consoling the other. The other is Brin (names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty). He found out his wife has been cheating on him. I am in a counselor role. Why am I in a counselor role I ask myself?

The investigative reporter in me finds out that I was sought out because Brin knows I was formerly married to this woman, who we will call Kosy, and the same thing happened to me. Surprisingly to me, because I thought if offered the chance I would have tried to do the most vengeful things to Kosy, I tell Brin to forgive her and they can work things out.

Enter Kosy stage right. I pretend to be sleeping on a chair, reclined on two legs but not supported by anything but the two legs, that is suddenly surrounded by a curtain. I can see out of the curtain(which I now think it was odd to have been pretending to be asleep) but they can't see in. Kosy begins to grovel, at Brin's feet, for forgiveness. He accepts the apology.

She now enters the curtain with my leaning chair. I continue faking to be asleep. It seems she wishes she could say something but doesn't have the courage to do so. She kisses me on the mouth. I remain motionless and emotionless. Flashbacks of a watermelon gloss come to my mind.

Suddenly, dreamland takes me away to Brasil. I'm a missionary that's deeply entrenched in the mission. We meet up with old friends and discuss what is going on in the area. Then we go out to preach.

While with Elder Silva (name remains the same as while there it seems everybody's last name is Silva) I see this glimmer on the road. I run after it, up a steep hill. The hill seems to be the steepest road I have ever run up. I reach the glimmer and it seems to be a reflection of some sort. This leads me to the source of the reflection which in turn leads to another and another. I reach the top of the hill only to find out its all coming from a series of reflectors in the road designed to mark lanes at night.

Elder Silva catches up to me and says, "I was wondering when you would follow that." He points and we look across a valley and through a sandstone arch to see a very beautiful scenery of mansions and cliffs. I'm in absolute jaw dropping awe of the whole picture.

My mouth is open and dry. It's dark and the pain returns. It's 11 p.m. It seems like it had been years but I had only been sleeping for five hours. I write about the whole thing and now it's 1 a.m.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Mother's Love.....

Funeral Feb 25, 2012
In 1996 I was in my third year at Utah State University. I have no idea what I was studying. Neither did I have any idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Because of that I don't call it a junior year. It took meunix years to graduate so I call it the beginning of my sophomore year. The only thing I did know at the time was that I was a part of the Polynesian Student Union. PSU, as we called it, gave me a chance to serve. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it was through service that I met one of the most unselfish women I have ever met,Tuali'i.

L to R top row Tua, Anne Keiaho, Tonga, Sau
L to R Lisiate Keiaho, Kamilia (Sau's daughter) me
after performing for an old folks home in Brigham City
Back then, she was married to a man by the name of John Halloran. She worked at a dental office as a dental assistant, while her husband worked as an engineer. They lived in the most affluent neighborhood in the small city of Logan. Although they were very well-off, all were treated like a brother or sister to her. Tua, short for Tuali'i, had this enormous heart that allowed everyone in as a great big family. In fact, I had slept in their guest room many times and for some reason I don't doubt that many whom she called 'bro' or 'sis' have also recieved of her hospitality.

I have this uncanny ability to play practical jokes, tease, say the rudest and most sarcastic things to the point that people get offended or in the least get angry at me. Tua would just laugh and smile and say, "Shut up Sam!" I can only remember one time that she yanked my ear a little bit. Because she didn't ever do that it was way more effective than when others did it.

L to R top row Tua, Anne, Sau
bot row Samoana and Lisiate
at Sau's baby blessing of Mosiah
In 1997, somehow, the Polynesian Student Union and community in Logan saw fit to elect me as president of the PSU. I knew it was an undaunting task but I also knew that my two friends, Sau and Tua, who call me little brother, had my back 100 % and with their help I would not fail. Now they weren't the only ones. There were the Keiaho's, the Pauni's, Walter Mila, the Ka'ilis, Mele Lauti, Wayne Ngaluafe etc.

Somewhere during that school year, the Keiaho family joined in our little group and formed what I call the Logan family. The Keiaho's had two of their five kids super involved and the very youngest was super excited to join in when he got old enough. I still consider Sau, Tua and the Keiaho's family to this day.

L to R forgot her name Sau, Tua, Anne
performing at my family reunion
The club, with the most rookie of rookies as their leader, somehow managed to put on the clubs main event, a luau, by the skin of my teeth. At the same time Sau, Tua, the Keiaho family and I created a bond that was inseparable. Whenever one of these brothers or sisters in this bond needed help we were all there for them. They have come and danced for my family reunion, my sisters wedding, old folks homes, a troubled teens school, etc. With Tua being so well-off, she needed us least and in turn gave the most.

At the end of that school year, in 1998, I decided I wanted to serve a mission for my church. Tuali'i, who at the time was a member of a different church, supported my decision full-heartedly. I remember her giving me a check that amounted to more then everyone of my family members had given me. She was at the farewell and the gate for the airplane as I began my journey out of the country.

Sau, baby Mosiah, Anne and Tua having a sleep over at my
house with irons out to flatten hair
Of my Logan family, the one I recieved a letter from the most was Tua. In fact when I needed something from the states, I wrote to either my mom or Tua. One time the missionaries decided to put on a luau for a missionary activity. I was going to teach my fellow missionaries some dances and show a movie of other dances. It would necessitate a cd and a VHS cassette. I wrote to Tua. Not only did she send me all of the above but she went beyond and sent me an Aloha shirt.

My sister Selesitila and Tua at my little
sister's wedding
I returned from Brazil and she and Sau were there at the airport. Tua and Sau were always trying to hook me up with a girl. The first thing Tua did was have a party with some of the new PSU members, all with the aim of introducing me to a girl. I remember distinctly that there was food and drinks and even boos for those that drank alcohol. She was the greatest of hosts because she always thought of what the others wanted.

Her marriage to John ended and she moved away to Salt Lake City. In a couple of years she married Papu Enosa. She had a kid named Katelin Eventually she was baptized in the same denomination as I. I wasn't present for any of those events, which I regret.

I would see her occasionally at flag days, a celebration of the Samoan culture. We would chat for a bit and then be on our merry ways. The last time I saw her before seeing her in her deathbed was in the summer of 2011. She was taking care of her primary duties. We talked briefly, then she returned to her duties serving in the primary.

Later on I found out she was fighting cancer. Just like her to not even mention that she was fighting cancer. She was too unselfish to burden anyone with that knowledge. Tua would rather carry her burdens in addition to any other burdens her friends had. Rumor was that every night she was sick to the point of throwing up.

"Call ASAP", was the text message I recieved from Sau, on February 11, 2012. She broke some bad news to me, telling me that Tua was sent home from the hospital and that she was on her deathbed. We planned to visit her the next day.

It's a very humbling experience to visit someone who is going to die. What do you say? What do you bring? I wondered if she would even recognize me. Sau had told me she couldn't talk. When we went she talked to Sau a lot.

She looked at me, her eyes lit up. Her eyes lit up and she said, "Samoana!" We embraced. I asked her about the dumbest question you can ask, "How are you doing?" Obviously, she was not doing well. She gave me a long frown.

My guess was the long frown was her version of crying. At her funeral we had found out that due to dehydration the Doctor had said she wouldn't be able to cry. She, however, did later on cry one more last tear.

We found out she had allowed her significant other to go to the rugby sevens tournament. To me it showed that even on her deathbed she thought of others before herself. But it also made me mad and sad, as we left, to know this.

I visited again with some of the Keiaho family, my mother and my sister. To know that my sister and mom visited showed me how much she had done for my family. My sister is a homebody and my mom is pretty much homebound because she has dialysis three times a week. We all began breaking out with our fondest memories of Tua. I asked Tua if there was anything she needed me to do before she passes away. She kept saying no as if she had forgiven everyone on this earth.

The Divine Heritage Choir came to sing to her on Thursday. I regretfully wasn't able to go but had planned to go again on Sunday. Unfortunately for me, I didn't get to see her as she passed Sunday morning.

The funeral came the following Saturday. I attended with hundreds of other people. The gym was packed with people who's lives had been touched by the warmth of her love. There were touching testimonies of her love and selflessness.

One of her close friends shared, to me, the most touching testimony of all. She told of Tua's last moments on earth. Early in the morning, Tua started breathing fast. Her friend said she could tell that Tua wouldn't make it much longer so she grabbed Katelin, Tua's daughter, and brought her in front of her mom to see her last breaths on Earth. She said Tua's breaths slowed down to a very slow pace. Tua looked over at her daughter and with her last breath a tear came out of her eye.

Something tells me she had been saving that tear for her daughter. Although the Doctor, a learned man, and his years of schooling would say, "She will not be able to cry," the Doctor couldn't account for a mothers love for her child. Tua, a person who was selfless and always serving, ultimately spent her last breath serving.

I can't help to notice the similarity between Tua and my mother. My mother goes to dialysis three days a week. She has outlasted everyone of her colleagues at dialysis as they quit and pass on or just pass away in the chair. Dialysis is a grueling process that involves needles and bruises, the feeling of being light headed, sore bones, and throwing up. I feel like what drives her is her love and selflessness for her children.

Hopefully one day I can be found with that same love because I know it will be good with me in the next life to posess it. Moroni 7:47 47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.