Man of Many Hats by Elmer Kauk by Elmer Kauk - Read Online

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Man of Many Hats - Elmer Kauk

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I dedicate this effort to my dearly departed Mom and Dad who realized the need to increase the number of children in their family after moving from Oklahoma to Montana with eight children in the fold. The author is happily, number nine, the lone Montanan in the bunch. My parents struggled to survive during those difficult years and no doubt did not receive enough credit for their fortitude. Success is ultimately decided by the end results and they did a fine job of raising those children to be respected and responsible citizens of the world, each in their own way. I also would like to dedicate completion of these writings to the love of my life, Susie, my wife of forty-three years who has helped me through my moody times while compiling this book and through the difficult years of my journey through life.

Elmer Kauk

December 2010

Chapter 1 – A Memorable Day

This day, like every other day, at least for the past several weeks, started out as usual. Each morning started with this rather strange buzzing in my head. I had gone to have my eyes checked but nothing turned up so I ignored the symptoms and went about getting ready for my usual workday routine.

The day turned out to be anything but ordinary; in fact, it turned out to be a life-changing day in my life.

The date was February 15, 1979 and at that period of my life I was making a run at being a premier homebuilder. We were located in the booming bay area of San Mateo County just south of San Francisco, California, off the I-80 interstate corridor. My wife, Susan, daughter Kerri, just six years of age, and I were living in Atherton at that point in time on a beautiful acre with a live stream spanned by a railway flatcar bridge that led to a beautiful 18 x 36 ft. pool highlighted by a rock waterfall. The house was old and in disrepair. We had bought it just two years earlier as part of an upgrade to my growing business. At that particular time, we were building spec custom homes in the San Mateo County area of California. We were set to tear the old house down on this property, after we developed plans for a new spec home. Although the house on site was something of a disaster, Susan turned it into a home by adding her talented touches, and we were living quite comfortably. Business was good and the future looked even brighter.

The new home we were planning was to be our first venture into the one million dollar sales bracket. We were excited about the prospect and I had drawn preliminary plans for a spec home to be built on the property and presented the package to a local Savings and Loan for review; the first step in the funding of a construction loan. We had been through the process multiple times, all successful, so it was just a matter of time and planning and we would be on our way to making a big splash in the custom home building market. Atherton, California was the ultimate location for such a venture.

Having said that, I do not want you to think the old house, as described above, was not a pleasant place to live. Susan had a knack, a real talent, for making each home we lived in a comfortable, happy place. Married only 12 years at this time in our lives, this residence was now our fourth destination, all brought about by the home building business. In retrospect we really had already attained our dream destination. All I had to do was slow down the workload and lower the expectations and goals that had collected in my determined German head over the years.

I did not do that, however. I maintained an attitude that you must always strive to better yourself as you journey through life.

And now, the rest of the story.

On this day, a bright and sunny day, I started on my normal routine of arising about six am, having my coffee and a quick breakfast, then setting off to check progress of on-going work on a new home we were finishing in nearby San Carlos. The home, located on Majorca Court, was an architect-designed home and the fourth home we had built in that location. My two employees at the site: Lee, my nephew, and Ron Bush, his partner, were on the job and the three of us went over a to-do list.

I then headed over to an older area of San Carlos, where we had just finished framing an addition to the home of a retired Navy Admiral and his wife, and there I met up with my oldest son Mitch. He and I were waiting for delivery of windows and doing work on this project. I strapped on my gear (carpenter’s leather pouches full of tools) and started up a ladder to show Mitch how to place shingles around a skylight opening at the peak of the roof. Buzz, that nasty feeling in my head started giving me problems, but I shook it off and made my way up the ladder to a position on the roof, next to a skylight opening that was covered only by building paper to protect the interior from the elements.

Son Mitch was in the process of becoming a physical therapist at the time. He was supplementing his income with on-the-job construction training to help pay his college costs.

I made my way up the ladder, feeling a tad light-headed, but shook it off and stood next to the skylight opening waiting for Mitch so I could show him how to shingle around the skylight opening. We were interrupted, however, by the arrival of a truck delivering our windows for installation on the new addition. I told Mitch to go out and help the delivery guy bring the windows in.

As I started to take my tools out of my belt and go to work, I blacked out and my day was over.

The rest of the story was told to me after my recovery.

When Mitch returned moments later, he glanced over and wondered why I was laying on the floor with my head dangling into the crawl space, not moving. His immediate reaction saved my life as he turned me over, cleared my tongue from my throat, and yelled at the deliveryman to call 911. There just so happened to be a San Carlos motorcycle cop going by. The officer immediately stopped and gave professional assistance in the form of chest resuscitation. I mean this officer really put the pressure on my chest, leaving a black and blue rib cage. His quick response did, however, get me breathing again and he also made an immediate call for medical transport. Fortunately, his efforts, along with Mitch's quick action, saved my life. Sequoia Hospital was nearby, so away we went, behind a screaming set of sirens.

Officer Cross filed a report on his response several days after the accident. During my stay at the hospital, Susie went down to the Police Department where she met with the Chief and thanked Officer Cross for his efforts. He was subsequently given a commendation. His efforts along with son Mitch, without a doubt gave me 32 more years of life and I shall always be grateful for that.

Susan, ironically, was at our doctor's' office with Kerri who was recouping from an emergency appendectomy. Our little girl, at just six years of age! They were notified and immediately went to the hospital as did Doctor Jim Buckley, one great doctor!

My family was called in and a neurosurgeon, Dr. Koenig, was called in to confer with Dr. Buckley. For some reason, Susan and I had discussed life support prior to this day and we both agreed that it would not be an option should either of us face the dilemma of making that decision. Seems the fall had broken my C3 through C6 upper vertebrae and the prospects were slim for recovery. However, slim is all my Susan needed to hear to tell the docs to stabilize me without operating and hope for a 72-hour improvement. Dr. Buckley concurred and devised a procedure for attaching a harness with a 25 lb. weight to my head to completely immobilize my body. Actually, at that moment there were no movements from me.

The neurosurgeon then proceeded to drill holes in the side of my hard German head and attach the 25 lb. weight. Directly after that procedure, I was on a gurney headed up to my room. I do remember being pushed by the EMT guys while in this miserable state and I do remember the neurosurgeon sitting on my gurney and saying, He won't feel this as he attached the screws to my skull. He was right, I didn't feel it, but did make out that much of the conversation and faintly remembered my surroundings. I also remember the ambulance EMTs had a hard time maneuvering the gurney into the hospital when they made the entry to the ER. Maybe I drew two rookies for the trip because they almost dumped me into a planting area. Not a good thing! It is not the norm in situations like this to remember anything, I'm told, but I can testify from personal experience that it is truly an example of living in the twilight zone.

The following day brought good news and bad news. I was still with the living and my vertebrae were all aligned into their normal, but fractured, position. The attached 25 lb. weight had served its purpose and I was kept in a comatose, immobile state overnight. An x-ray showed my vertebrae had come back into alignment and my spinal column was spared any permanent damage.

The bad news; I was now paralyzed and the only thing that worked was my mouth and I do mean the only thing. Within a day, I was strapped to a Stryker frame on a rotating gurney and then wheeled to ICU. The best way to describe the Stryker frame is to imagine yourself in a barbeque rotisserie, not unlike a hot dog you see at the fairground celebrations. There was absolutely no movement in any of my limbs, except that mouth of course, and my eyes taking in the tubes, lights, and paraphernalia that surround the walls of every ICU room; a very cold and unforgiving sight.

The Stryker frame is used to immobilize your body and allow the attending nurses to medicate you and turn you over each hour to control fluid build-up in your lungs. Now I know what a hot dog feels like on the rotisserie. I was, to say the least, not a happy camper and my advice to everyone is to avoid situations that put you in this helpless state. Hurts like hell too!

I did survive the ordeal because of the wonderful support from my positive, never give up wife, Susan, and my family and friends. Susan actually made a trip to the ICU at 3:30 in the morning to cheer me up. In a panic I had asked the ICU nurse to tum me up (I was upside down, strapped in my Stryker, staring at the floor) and medicate me but this little nurse lay on the floor, slid under my hanging body, and told me I would have to be patient for another half hour. That's when my working mouth started uttering unmentionables and calling for my wife. The nurse, against hospital protocol, did call Susie and she came to the ICU at that ungodly hour and got me out of that panic attack.

This photo appeared in the local San Carlos Enquirer after the accident, showing Susie and me rapping about the day's events; my mouth was the only thing working at the time.

Upon returning to my room after a few days in that dreary ICU, free of the Stryker restraints, Susan and my family and friends brought in pictures from home, endless get well cards and made frequent visits. They all came with a big chocolate cake to celebrate my first stand alone effort a few weeks after checking in. Daughter-in-law Christi brought her guitar and they filled that room with happy music. I received get well cards from Kerri's grade school class, family, friends, and people I'd never met before.

Before that happy occasion, I lay in bed for days and nights with nothing but that mouth operational. One day, however I received a visit from a friend in the construction business who actually laughed at my predicament. He had served in the army in the Second World War in a combat zone in Europe and a buddy of his was caught in a blast that left him paralyzed. This friend told me that all you have to do is totally concentrate on a single part of your body and you will start moving again. He suggested that I do it during the long, dreary nights. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital will attest to the long, dreary, lonely nights. I followed my friend's suggestion, made the big toe on my left foot my target body part, and after a period of time found out that your mind is a powerful tool indeed. In time, my big toe wiggled back at me! At least that working mouth had another member to follow suit.

The doctor's minions placed me in a body cast encasing me from my waist up and over my head, leaving my face open to operate that working mouth. The prognosis; I would not walk again. They also prescribed daily sessions of physical and occupational therapy, fed me drugs, and said they would transfer me to a Veterans Center for rehabilitation. The consensus of all the Doctors for recovery was negative and I was told that my chances of complete recovery were slim, which did not make me a happy camper. I mean, one day I'm an active construction guy and here I am in therapy putting wooden rings over wooden pegs and trying to walk between support bars with a therapist holding me and I must admit, doing a terrible job with both routines. Really, really, not a happy camper!

The doctors’ consensus and final diagnosis for my blackout fall focused on my breathing habits. I was working alongside a young crew in my construction company -- all in the 20-year age range -- so I could not, or would not, let them get the best of me. I was told I had developed bad breathing habits by holding my stomach in when I breathed (trying to emulate those young guys with the 26 inch waists) and carried that bad habit through to nighttime sleep, depriving my brain of an ample supply of oxygen.

A device was strapped to my head overnight and indeed, they confirmed the cause of my blackout and fall. Voila! No more head buzzes and I have since learned how to breath. My longevity will attest to that. I'm still with the program, with no more buzzing in my head, some 31 years plus after my ill-advised 14 foot high dive, with no water to break my landing!

At that point in time, facing a future stay in still another hospital, Susan and I escaped from Sequoia Hospital, my unhappy home for the past six weeks. I was still encased in a cast from my waist up over my head and getting around in a Susie powered hospital wheelchair.

Much to the consternation of the hospital staff, we headed for home after calling the admitting doctor /surgeon at 11 pm. The neurosurgeon was the one we rudely awakened at that late hour so he could sign us out. Sequoia Hospital had been my home and savior but we unanimously decided we wanted no more of that life or any other hospital care. None.

My improvement at home was slow, but steady. With the help of Susan, Mitch, the soon to be physical therapist, and other family members, I was able, barely, to walk into that same neurosurgeon's office some six weeks after leaving the hospital. Against Doctors instructions, we had removed the body cast at home prior to the appointment and poor Doctor Koenig nearly had a heart attack! I do have to admit I nearly had a heart attack when the cast was removed; I just knew my head was going to roll on the floor. We both recovered.

Then came the slow, learn-to-walk-again recovery project with Susan constantly by my side and Mitch pitching in to help. The recovery process was not all doom and gloom, however.

I had prepared a vegetable garden on our Atherton property prior to my unscheduled dive and as part of the healing process I decided to practice some therapy by working in the garden. I picked up an eight pound hammer and tried to install a stake to support a row of beans, a simple task of the past. When I lifted the eight pound hammer to drive the stake, I fell over; not unlike the little guy on Laugh In (the little dude in the TV program who used to ride his tricycle, only to fall over at the end of each ride). That futile effort was witnessed by my ever-watchful Susie and we had a good laugh together. No harm done, except perhaps to the poor stake I mutilated.

I was also a laugh a minute in the swimming pool with the best moving part still being that mouth which is probably the least necessary part of the body required of a swimmer.

Susan also saw to it that she and I would go out to lunch on occasion, back to some of our favorite haunts, even if she had to help me walk and prop me up in a booth. On one particular occasion we had lunch at a shopping center and I was paying the bill and having difficulty getting my billfold out of my back pocket and fumbling to put my change back. That finally accomplished, as I stepped on the escalator to leave, a guy bumped into me, said, Excuse me. and went ahead of me. That bump did not register at first but when I reached the bottom of the escalator, I discovered my billfold was missing. Pick pocket at work! He apparently had been watching me fumbling at the cashier's desk and decided I was an easy pick. We reported the incident to security to no avail and went home.

The next day a lady from Redwood City called. She saw this guy running while looking into a billfold, which she thought was strange so she chased the thief, retrieved the tossed billfold with my ID intact, and called the next day with the news. She was all heart, wouldn't take a reward, and said when she chased the guy it made him so nervous he went for the money and cards and threw the billfold away. Actually, the guy was lucky Susie didn't see him!

One other good thing happened that day, a construction friend showed up on our doorstep and handed us a $50,000 check to help out till I could get back on my feet. I did get back on my feet somewhat unsteadily and I did repay him. Talk about a helpful friend, he was one; Reno Greco was his name.

My Brother Richard, who hardly ever left his Montana ranch, came to see us and cheer me on. There is nothing like the love of a family and friends in times like this! My good friend, Don Hageman also came by to visit with Richard whom he had met on one of our Montana hunting trips and the two of them shared a couple of cold ones to celebrate the reunion. I could not accompany them. Damn! Their visit did a great job of cheering me and Susie up.

This photo was taken after my return home; Richard didn't like the looks of my constraints; to tell the truth they were a bit uncomfortable.

The unfinished construction jobs we were in the process of completing were finished by Mitch, Lee and Ron Bush. They included a big remodel of a home in Atherton that belonged to Wayne and Kai Lee Huang. That one was finished with me viewing the final in a wheelchair, but my capable crew did the honors and the contract was completed.

Now we had to face life at a standstill. No more construction work, no more income, no apparent future. In the meantime, I struggled to recover my strength and conquer my deficiencies, with the awesome help of my family, of course.

The following year, after I gained some mobility, we made the decision to sell our home in Atherton, pull up stakes and start a new life with the proceeds of the sale. Ironically, the Savings and Loan Company I had submitted the request for a construction loan for our proposed spec home to actually came up to my room while I was in the hospital with papers to sign and a commitment. That dream was over, but at least I had the privilege of turning down a lender rather than a lender turning me down.

The home sale process brought with it its share of downers. We had entered into a transaction with a well-heeled local builder and were in escrow to sell our Atherton property when we got the Dear Elmer call. All of my tedious background checking on the well-heeled builder turned out to be an exercise in futility. Even the Vice President of his bank rated him first class. The dude backed out of the deal just before closing and here we were, in a quandary, with boxes packed, ready to roll.

Time to reconnect with reality!

Susan and I had started searching for other areas to live in from the wine country up North to the foothills in the East. We finally settled on a home in the small foothill community of Meadow Vista and had made the offer subject to our sale in Atherton. We were waiting for a call to sign final papers and that's precisely when the dude backed out!

Not deterred, we went ahead with our purchase in Meadow Vista in the hopes that we could sort things out, put the Atherton home back on the market, and survive. Thanks to the sale of the newly completed San Carlos home on Majorca and the remodeling projects finished by my crew, we went ahead with the move, but not without concern.

The Meadow Vista home was a new home located on a lakeside acre; a very peaceful retreat where the sound of croaking bull frogs replaced the traffic din of life in the Bay Area. Our dream location in Atherton sat vacant and we were on our way to the next stop in our lives, but certainly not without heavy hearts.

The final move did not come without its own set of problems but by now we knew that there was absolutely nothing that we could not handle. As a construction company, we had acquired a lot of stuff associated with the business as well as household items so we planned a huge garage sale prior to our departure. Garage sales were, and are, a favorite place for people dedicated to buying bargains and this one was no different. At seven am we found people crawling under my truck which I had parked across the gated entrance advertising a nine am opening hour.

We did sell quite a few items; one in particular was our treasured rosewood Steinway Grand piano. I had found and brought home this instrument some three house moves ago. It was indeed a classic, but too much to move and in need of repair. We also sold Kerri's treasured antique bed and household items galore and still ended up with two pickups, a one-ton dump truck, a family car, all the tools of the trade and a couple dozen potted plants, favorites' of Susan. To solve the logistics problem we called on the family and once again, they were there. Brother Bob volunteered to drive the one-ton old dump truck to our new digs. That was indeed an achievement since the brakes were faulty, the steering was suspect, and it was loaded with two layers of Susan's favorite plants. He made it! On top of that, we hired a huge moving van and ended up with a wild convoy to our new home some 120 miles east, up to the Sierra foothills and Meadow Vista.

I can remember during the get-well process and several weeks before the decision to move, Susan and I were returning to our home in Atherton. Just before we got there, a little pooch ran out into the road, obviously lost and disoriented. This scared little creature jumped right in the car. After a futile week-long effort to find her former home, we adopted her. We named her Toodles after my childhood puppies and she became a member of the household.

I am telling this because my first venture at driving (after the accident) took one year. That was the time we found that little pooch. She was a toy terrier/Chihuahua mix and I had owned two just like her when I was just a lad. This find must have been a good luck omen because she turned out to be a family favorite.

On this day, Toodles and I were in the caravan on our way to our new home in Meadow Vista. We were in one of my construction trucks, loaded to the gunwales with personal items. Toodles was riding shotgun and we were bringing up the rear and had almost reached our destination. I looked down at Toodles and said out loud, although no one was there to hear it, Toodles, what the hell are we doing? She, of course, answered with a shiver and a tail wag, as we arrived at our destination with the moving trucks and, of course, that great family, all gathered at our new home, filling the driveway, eyed by curious neighbors.

I opened the door with a shivering Toodles tucked under my arm and was greeted by a big hooray and wouldn't you know it, Susan had spaghetti and meat balls on the table and nearly everything was in its place, bringing up the old adage, There's something good in everything, especially since I didn't have to lift a finger during the entire unpacking process!

I had ample time on the trip from Atherton to Meadow Vista to reflect on the past year of my life. For the first time in my life, it was a year without work. That was all replaced, by necessity, with the rehabilitation process, with most of it coming from the at home efforts, such as Mitch strapping a belt around my waist and helping me learn to walk again. Susie would arm me with a couple of 16 ounce cans of vegetables and walk me around. After I had gained sufficient strength, she purchased a wooden mallet and a couple of carving tools to bring muscle back into my skinny arms and started me out in my woodcarving hobby which I still follow some 31 years later, and counting. The entire family was a source of support and now, thankfully, Toodles had made this journey with me, with complete trust for a new start for all of us.

Do not think that am writing the details of my tale of personal history to complain about the accident or say, Why me? but I am hoping that any member of my family who reads this will learn from my mistakes. I recognize that stress in your life can hurt you in untold ways. Did I make that mistake? Probably, but I also learned, should a tragedy occur, to never give up hope.

Remember that as you chalk up the years of your journey through life.

Now I'll crank this story back to the beginning of my life.

After all, at this date, 1980, I have only recorded two years of my life in this tale and have reached the age of 50, tenuous at times, with a lot of help from my family and friends.

Now we will take a trip way back in time and tell the rest of my life's journey. I've been talking about writing this story for a long time so have patience dear ones; my eldest daughter asked me point blank, When are you going to finish your book?

My answer; date undecided. After all, the journey is not yet over.

Chapter 2 – Family History

Almost everyone at some point in their lives has a question that keeps coming back into their thoughts and that is, Where did I come from? Now of course I’m not talking about the Birds and the Bees tale, but our heritage.

Even as I sit here laboriously doing my hunt and peck (on this computer-age keyboard), I find it interesting that my thoughts stray back a couple of generations and even at the age of 80 (at the present time) not only wonder where I came from, but