The Abbotts defined dedication, and I got to play

John earned the shrapnel lodged in his legs, making them ache when the weather changed, when he labored in the fields. When he remembered.

As a battlefield chaplain during World War II, John Abbot worked among wounded and dying American soldiers in Europe fighting the scourge of Nazism. His was an active faith. He believed he incarnated Jesus as he walked, crawled and bled among soldiers who needed assurance that God loved them and that their destiny was assured.

Author as jack of all trades in Espanola, after the Army, before finishing college.

When he returned from the blood-soaked fields of Europe and as America shifted gears to embrace a new, wide open world of possibility, John applied to Southern Baptists’ missionary support agency responsible for “home” missions – or missions within the continental United States. He wanted to be a missionary in his native southwest, serving people, showing them the way of Jesus and leading them to faith.

He was a committed churchman in that denomination and after his service as a chaplain in the military, he assumed that he would be approved for support so he could turn his attention to the purposes of that agency: winning people to faith in Jesus.

Instead, he was denied support because he was deemed medically unsound, due to the shrapnel in his body, lodged there in battle. Disappointed, but undaunted and illuminated by his own vision, John secured support from some Texas Baptist churches where he was known. He bought farm equipment and set up shop in a converted dance hall in Espanola, New Mexico, a small town 25 miles north of Santé Fe.

The dance hall occupied a strategic corner on the main road between Espanola and Chimayo, a tiny town that houses one of only two places on earth that claim to contain healing elements. It’s the dirt in Chimayo, and the waters in Lourdes, France, to which pilgrims crawl. Discarded crutches, canes and bandages testify to the healing properties of the dirt in the Santuario de Chimayo. People have crawled from Santé Fe to Chimayo to do penance before applying the dirt to their injury or illness.

On the north side of the windy, two-lane road between the two towns perched a wooden church, little larger than a garden shed. It was the focal point of religious Penitentes, who marched in a single line, flagellating themselves, seeking forgiveness.

In that environment, John remodeled the dance hall into a church, office, classrooms and an apartment for him and his wife, Ethel, and he utilized the equipment to open doors among the small farmers in the dusty arroyos between Espanola and Chimayo. They could not afford individually field prep and harvest equipment that would increase their yields, and they welcomed the method and message of John Abbott to work among them, to share the work and to share his faith.

With hard work, ingenuity, faith and commitment, John and Ethel started and built a church which membership was primarily Spanish, descendants of Spanish invaders of the 16th century and Native American tribes.  They called it Templo Bautista – Baptist Temple.

Then one day in one of those freak accidents that make Christians wonder if God is paying attention, a piece of equipment that John was working under fell off its jack and crushed him. I guess he was medically unsound after all.

Ethel was suddenly a widow. Much of her livelihood disappeared because she could not run the equipment. John was the pastor, breadwinner, husband, visionary, guide, energy behind the entire effort. I don’t know how old Ethel was. She always seemed old to me, but I was just 20 when I met her. I’m sure I’m older now than she was then.

She promised God she would stay at Templo, would continue the work, if God would send her help. Because of her winsome spirit and compelling stories, Ethel received a fairly regular trickle of weekend or week-long helpers to lead special events and do repair work around the ancient facility. But she needed an everyday helper.

Her prayer and mine – what to do now that I’m getting out of the Army – clanged together in God’s ear and I became that first long-term helper. I was a pale, nerdy Scandihoovian from Wisconsin, knew zero Spanish and was new in evangelical faith. I’d been drafted into the Army after one year at Luther College and now I was out and at loose ends.

I started in November 1973 as a bus driver, youth minister, preacher, log splitter, painter, floor sander, week-night Bible study leader, and encourager. We called many of our members on Sunday morning to wake them in time to catch the bus I drove.

I brought them to church, preached at them and hauled them home. All this was done with sincere, naive spirit and within a profoundly knit community. The names “Ethel” or “John Abbot” opened any door in the county quicker than an electronic key.

I realize now the way we did church was paternalistic. We expected and required too little of members. There was an easy believe-ism in which membership at Templo eased seamlessly into whatever other influences they were weighing. Part of our motivation with activities was to “keep the kids out of trouble.”

But we slogged on. I went back to my home church in Colorado Springs to tell them of the work in New Mexico, and to raise money for Christmas goody baskets for the kids. One young lady was struck by the need, by the opportunity and by my wistful pleas. A few weeks later she arrived as a second helper, in the midst of a snow storm, as the children were trekking down the hallway in their angel and wise men costumes to present the Christmas story.

Her arrival on that snowy night declared that what I’d thought to be the first chapter of this story was merely prologue.

(First chapter to come)

When ‘Star Wars’ was Young

Writers enjoy the enviable blessing of leaving a trail through our history that we can follow back to the beginnings. Like Hansel and Gretel, our words are the cookie crumbs that prompt memories to lead us home. They bring back the people, smells, sights and energy of the moment when we recorded them.

As a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph in 1977, my “beat” was anything the editor tossed onto my desk. Foraging through boxes of clippings recently, in an ongoing effort to “clean out stuff,” I came across one of my few movie reviews.

We’d heard a big new picture was sweeping the nation; people in California were standing in lines that reached around city blocks to get tickets to the new George Lucas film “Star Wars.”

Earning $140 a week I was always looking for a cheap date night, so when the editor asked who wanted to go see this movie and write a review, I volunteered. No one else really was interested.

I was fortunate the audience that night included a gaggle of legitimate science fiction writers attending a conference in town.

For those of you who are fans of the early Star Wars movies – and I would guess the number to be close to 100 percent – I offer some excerpts of my original review.

“Out among the stars many years ago, the galaxies all lived in peace and were controlled by a ‘force’ that flowed through every creature and held the universe together.

“Then one creature wanted more power than he was allotted and fell in with a band of like-minded rogues.

“With superior weapons, the boys in black took over more and more of the universe until only a die-hard rebel remnant of the original government remained. When the two groups collided, it was ‘Star Wars.’

“So much for the plot…”

As a nascent movie reviewer, I got hung up on plot and dialog, things that make a great play or book.

“The problem with the show,” I wrote, “is that despite a visual feast, the dialogue is so inane it makes the main course much less palatable.”

When a legion of Imperial storm troopers has the hero quartet of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and that extra from Planet of the Apes, Chewbacca, seemingly trapped, Leia sneers at Solo and blasts through a wall and to provide escape into the ship’s garbage dump.

“When the four are up to their knees in scrap metal and muck,” I wrote, “hero Han says, ‘It could be worse.’ Then a low roar sounds and he says, ‘It’s worse.’ Then comes the clincher. With the walls of the giant trash compactor closing together, the lunk pipes up, ‘I have a bad feeling about this…One thing for sure, we’re all going to be a lot thinner.’”

Ugh, right?

Science fiction writers I interviewed afterwards gave me some perspective. They had been writing around similar themes for years, they said. So, while Star Wars offered nothing new in plot, they were delighted to see “the technical realization of ideas developed long ago.”

Lucas, unknown to the general public before Star Wars, added the visual magic to science fiction ideas that were floating through space for decades.

Although I didn’t keep a clipping of the letter to the editor that criticized my review, I remember the comment distinctly. “Your reviewer must have had his head in a vise,” said the writer, who obviously loved the movie.

But, that’s how ideas work. One creative mind builds on ideas floated by another.

After Karl Benz invented his “motor wagen” Henry Ford added assembly line manufacture. While Whitcomb Judson worked with buttons and eventually built something he called a “clasp locker” it was Gideon Sundback who created the zipper.

Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse and his successors created the Magic Kingdom.

A zillion ideas are floating around out there, most of them better off lost to history, even lost in space. But, keep your eyes open. Maybe you’ll be the one to magically bring to life an idea that others will stand in line to witness.

By the way, well and properly educated to the sweeping social impact of the Star Wars trilogy, when “The Empire Strikes Back” showed up three years later, I was first in line.

The Dirtiest Job

One of the fun TV shows of the previous decade was “Dirty Jobs,” in which host Mike Rowe identified some of the most unappealing, but essential, tasks in the country, and then – with the supervision of experts – did them. 

Just a few of those jobs included animal rendering, artificial insemination, diaper cleaning, goose down plucking, mattress recycling and spider venom milking.

Lurking among these innocent looking stalks are the weeds, bugs, pollen and sweat that make picking sweet corn the dirtiest job I’ve ever had. Photo by Katherine Volkovski on Unsplash

Growing up in farm country Wisconsin I was tasked with many dirty jobs: dairy barn gutter scooping, manure spreading, horse stall cleaning, pig feeding, garbage dumping, stone picking, chicken plucking, etc. But my dirtiest job ever was picking sweet corn for the local canning company. 

I’d driven a large combine to harvest peas before, and that was dirty enough. Long tines on my combine scooping tangled vines into the massive drum on wheels behind me. Inside the drum was a slightly smaller drum made of nylon screens, which turned one direction. A wooden beam with paddles rotating quickly in the opposite direction beat the vines senseless.

The brutal action burst the pea pods and the fresh, round peas tossed about in the melee until they fell through the screens and onto a conveyer belt, on which they were carried up to a bucket, while the vine trash fell out the back end.

But nothing was dirtier than picking sweet corn. 

A corn picker works like this: Metal “heads” alongside the tractor work like funnels to guide rows of tall standing corn stalks between two ribbed, solid steel rods that spin rapidly toward each other. The ribs interlock like gears so there is no space between them and they grab the tough stalks and yank them down through a narrow opening, where another band of steel – called a cutting bar – snaps off the cobs. 

The cobs drop into an auger that funnels them up the elevator behind the tractor which drops them into a two-wheeled wagon. That wagon rises on hydraulic hoists so it can dump four tons of corn into a waiting truck. That’s 8,000 pounds of corn.

Because the elevator would swing away from the wagon when we turned around at the end of the field, we’d have to shut it off until the wagon was directly behind us again when we completed the turn. Sometimes, we’d forget to turn the elevator back on, but the augers kept turning and would grind the corn that backed up into mush. We called that “creaming a batch.”

We harvested the corn at its prime, those hours the kernels are tender and sweet, and when fuzzy tassels at the top of the stalks are laden with pollen. These tassels sit atop the stalks, 7-8 feet above the ground, the same height as my head when I’m driving through the rows, jerking the stalks violently down through the rollers, shaking the pollen laden tassels over my head – all day long.  This is July and August in Wisconsin, the weeks of heat and humidity. 

So, the pollen is sticking to my sweaty skin, along with a colony of tiny bugs, no bigger than a speck of dirt, which bite like scorpions. If I was lucky enough to spot them before they bit, I’d just squish them in my shirt or pinch them between my fingers. 

Sometimes, during a dry season, the corn cobs would be low on the stalk and we’d have to lower the picker head to capture them. But that put the rollers low enough to accidently wind tightly around weeds and grind to a halt. 

That’s when I’d have to raise the heads and crawl on my back under them, dirt sliding under my collar, to slash at the weeds with my pocket knife, disentangling them from the rollers, while bugs crawled up my shirt and corn juice dripped in my eyes.

But hey, what wouldn’t you do for a buck eighty an hour?

The last thing we did each night before leaving the fields as darkness descended, was to pick our buckets full so at 6 a.m. the following morning, the trucks would have a ready load to cart to the canning factory. 

So, each morning we’d dump our 8,000 pounds of corn into a truck, steam rising with the pungent scent of boiled corn left too long in the pot so the marketing men could advertise “fresh from the field to your table.”

A word of advice learned at the 6 a.m. classroom: never buy creamed corn.  

This is “field corn” being picked. Sweet corn stalks are not dried out when picked and the heat and pollen is much heavier.

Beautiful killer

This morning I saw the most beautiful fox ever. Larger than typical, with bright red fur, tail long and bushy, not matted by thorns. It looked fresh from a spa: fluffed, puffed, tufted, shampooed and blow dried. Eyes intense, intelligent, confident and controlled. Lithe, nimbly athletic, light of foot like a dancer. 

And I wanted to kill it.

Coming back from her sunrise walk, my wife heard the terrorized shrieking of chickens in the open range pasture just behind the cottage where we stay on my son’s property. She stepped quickly to the pasture where she saw a fox with a chicken in its jaws. When she shouted and clapped, the fox sprinted away. The chicken didn’t.

Granddaughter helped to bury the first two victims of the carnage.

As Sue Ellen told me what happened, she asked what to do with the carcass. “Make nuggets” seemed an inappropriate suggestion. 

Before we could fully get our minds around what had just happened, we heard the terrified squawking again. I rushed to the door and this time I saw the fox…with another chicken in its mouth. I threw open the door and for an instant was shocked silent by the fox’s beauty.   

But my anger at its audacity quickly overcame my admiration and I stepped out the door and shouted. It understood my threat and I was pleased to see it run away, leaping the fence as if the rails were a padded obstacle in tumbling class.

I grabbed my shotgun and followed the fox’s trail, knowing it would never show its head to me while I stumbled and tripped through its habitat. I felt better somehow, though, knowing I was “doing” something, at least dropping some “man scent” around so the fox would know who it was messin’ with.

The second chicken was still breathing, its legs twitching, eyes registering a resigned acceptance of fate. I dispatched it, then tossed it into the garden while I went to get a shovel. 

My seven-year-old granddaughter watched wide eyed the entire proceedings, dressed in the “farmer girl” overalls we’d given her for an early Christmas present the day before. 

Uncowed, she helped me dig a hole, her sudden awareness of the life cycle presenting her a sad, but not devastating new insight. 

The life cycle as presented on a National Geographic special sees the fastest lion chasing down the slowest antelope, and it all seems natural and normal, almost pristine, except for the dust. Eating a hamburger never makes me think of the feed lot on which the donor was raised. 

Yet, somehow, because we fed and cared for these chickens, tucked them in at night and gave them special treats from our vegetable shavings, it became a personal insult. 

Yes, they’re free range and hawks circle constantly overhead. Yes, the fox has to eat and yes, the prey/predator cycle is natural. But, the fox invaded my space with impunity, looking at me as if I was an inconvenient interruption at his meal, like a waiter who informed him he had an urgent phone call and he had to leave the cordon bleu to cool.

It was a sad morning, but only a prelude. 

Worse, we came home after dark that night and I went out to check on the chickens, to make sure they had put themselves up in the coop, where safety lay behind a closed door. I looked inside and there was not a single chicken in the coop. 

With a sickening dread, I cast my light over the field and the beam fell on multiple carcasses, each with the head and neck gone. The goats huddled in their own shed, witness to the horror. I followed my flashlight beam around the pasture, accounting for all the chickens but one. 

I found her in the far corner, shaken and shivering. She didn’t protest a bit when I picked her up and put her in the coop, behind closed doors. I don’t know what killed the chickens and I don’t know how this one survived.

We named her Lucky.

  

Living the John Deere Dream

I wake up each morning plotting my day around any task that will involve the tractor. 

I’m staying for extended periods on my son’s gentleman farm in Pennsylvania, the buildings and 20 acres of what was once a 500-acre dairy farm. All the homes that line Grubbs Mill Road sit on large lots carved out of this farm, which is more than two centuries old.

I try to order my day around tasks that will require me to use the tractor!

While staying in a cottage on the property – a cozy, one bedroom stone building converted some time ago from the dairy’s business office – I wake either to the rooster’s crowing, the goats’ mewling in the pasture just on the other side of my west facing patio doors, or workmen’s trucks pulling in to work on renovating the main house, built in 1811. 

Each day starts with a plethora of small jobs that challenge my brazen hubris that believes man can prevail against nature. 

The property has pastures to mow, fence lines to maintain, yards, flower beds and a garden to tend. House renovations leave rocks, tree limbs and shrubbery around the yard that need to go on the burn pile. Hurricane Ida piled debris along the stream and in the upper pasture; logs lay on the ground to saw and split. There is equipment to maintain and in the midst of it all, four grandkids to ferry to school and various activities. 

I love to drive the John Deere 5210 diesel tractor with front end loader. It takes me back to the farms on and around where I grew. The tractor on our 80 acres was a little Ford Ferguson. It must have been 25 years old when we got it. It didn’t have brakes then, and we never did get them fixed.

My Norwegian bachelor uncle Don milked 19 cows on his dairy farm and was always looking for help from his nephews. By age 11 I was driving his John Deere B that started by hand cranking a fly wheel, and his Allis-Chalmers and Farmall H tractors. I cut hay and pulled a baler, behind which Don loaded the bales. For four summers after I turned 16 I drove pea combines and sweet corn pickers for the local canning company.

Tractors rumble with power and when you sit atop one, with enough horses at your fingertips to pull a loaded wagon, or scoop up a load of rock, that power ripples through your nerves to give you the sense that you, too, are powerful. 

The Ford Ferguson I grew up with made up with a big heart what it lacked in muscle. 

Our fields laid fallow for several years, taking advantage of the government’s soil bank program, through which it “rented” farm land to keep it out of production – to artificially prop up commodity prices. Because our area was at the leading edge of a glacier eons ago, we were the unfortunate beneficiaries when it melted of all the rocks and stones it had scraped off the surface on its way south.

The annual freeze and thaw cycle pushed those stones to the surface and a regular spring job for farm kids in my area was “picking stones.” We had to get them off the fields to keep them from breaking plant and harvest equipment. 

Some of those stones were boulders as big as our little tractor. Their backs broke the ground like a blue whale about to surface. I’d dig around the boulder, wrap it with a chain and hook it to the tractor which would grunt and belch, straining to pull it out of the ground where we could pry it onto a “stone boat” – a sled of planks – and carry it off to a big hole in the woods.

Our little tractor pulled so hard its front wheels would rise off the ground. To keep the front end grounded and give us better traction, dad had me sit on the tractor’s hood, holding onto the radiator cap. My puny 130 pounds didn’t do much to keep the front wheels on the ground, but it was a fun ride. 

The workhorse John Deere on my son’s farm is a much more substantial tractor. But I had a similar “can’t keep the wheels on the ground” issue with it, this time with the rear wheels. I was using the bucket to try to lift a fence post out of the ground. 

When placed years ago, the post was seated in cement. Succeeding years saw tree roots grow around it. When I tied a strap to the post and pulled up on it with the bucket, I was shocked to feel myself sliding left to right in the air, my rear wheels airborne. It was a very insecure feeling, no matter how fleeting. I quickly lowered the bucket and my rear wheels returned to terra firma. From then, until the post finally broke off, my airborne rides were under conscious control.

My son’s family has been on White Horse Farm only a year. Seven-year-old Juliette describes them as the “White Horse Farmily.” Moving there from a big suburban house that bordered their school was intentional to give the kids a broader understanding of the life cycle, to give them meaningful tasks and thus the satisfaction of achievement, and to learn responsibility in a context where neglect may mean death of an animal.

Like John Denver, life on the farm “is kinda laid back” and that could be frustrating if finished product is the goal. The younger children, ages five and seven, come bright eyed, eager to learn and to help. But, their “help” sometimes prolongs the task and I cringe when dueling pitchforks threaten to knock out a tooth while getting new straw for the chickens.

I’ve learned though, that the most important thing is not the finish. As my son reassured me, working with the kids is not about efficiency, it’s about process. And we’re in the process of growing up, growing together, learning and living in an intergenerational context. 

And tomorrow I get to hook up the brush hog and cut the pasture. With the tractor. 

Sometimes you bite even when you know there’s a hook

Pardon me for a moment, while I pull the hook out of my cheek. Ahhh, there. 

The tractor had no good place to store my cold drink cup and I forgot about it sitting on the floorboard while I brush hogged the pasture last week. Suddenly I heard a clunk behind me that rang an octave lower than the screech of hitting a stone hidden in the thick, tangled mass of long grass. And, it was an octave higher than when I ran the mower over a concealed limb deposited in the same tangle by the floods of Hurricane Ida. 

I looked back quickly to see a gray metal mass skittering across the mowed grass, having been kicked out by one or more of the nine blades spinning beneath the mower deck. My cup. Drat. 

My wife has for the past year been making what she calls fauxbucha – a homemade kombucha…which for her is a vinegar, cayenne, honey and ginger drink that does wonders for our digestive systems and cures a host of ailments: among them constipation, fungus, the national debt and likely the heartbreak of psoriasis.

I drink at least one glass of it a day – over ice from my cold drink cup – which is now a mangled tangle of cheap Chinese metal laying in the field. 

I’m prone to make myself suffer the consequences of my stupidity, so I wasn’t going to rush out and replace the cup. But Sue Ellen knew I wouldn’t be as faithful in consuming her magic elixir if I didn’t have a cup to take with me. So, the hunt. 

We drove to the Walmarts, where she had purchased the original doomed chalice. But, we could not find an exact Walmart brand replacement. Instead, there was a similar Coleman cup for twice the price, or, a Walmart brand cup with a different lid.

Cup, with the important lid.

You might not think the lid makes much of a difference. But, the patriarch of our family is prone to spills and the cup I lost had a magnetic, snap closure over the opening where the drink came out. This one just had a hole. It cost less than the original, but…the lid had just a hole. A juggle or jostle would splatter the drink over my jeans, or Sunday-go-to-meetin’ shirt.

I wasn’t about to get it. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

About to give up, Sue Ellen spotted a display of snap close lids…made specifically for the cup I wanted – the very lid the original cup had featured. Now sold separately, for just $2.74. In what world would a product’s favored feature be removed and then offered as an option at additional expense? Oh, yeah, in the American marketing world. 

I knew I was had. I felt like a fish eying a dangling worm, knowing a hook lurked inside, but too hungry to care. I resented my hunger. I resented the marketing ploy to put undesirable lids on the cup and then charge extra for the lid I wanted. 

But, I mentally added the $6.94 for the cup with the unacceptable lid, and the $2.74 for the lid that would make the cup acceptable, and found the $9.68 total still to be six dollars less than any other option and I bit the hook. 

Who knew fauxbucha would sting on an open wound?

Re-entry after a week of RAGBRAI

It probably started when I forgot to flush. 

Then, my wife looked baffled when I drank a beer at 10 a.m. She was downright befuddled when, at 11 a.m., I ate a piece of blueberry pie, and asked at noon if she had any apple pie in the house. 

When I wanted a big, juicy, fried pork chop to eat while standing under a shade tree, she was bewildered, but she finally blew up when I went for ice cream at 1 p.m.

“You’re not on RAGBRAI anymore!” she declared. 

It’s true. Spending a week on my bike with my three adult children and my best buddy from the Army – and 10,000 of our closest friends – riding across Iowa in the oldest, longest and largest group ride in the world does recalibrate my sense of propriety.

Seven days of riding over 470 miles ends with a tire dip in the Mississippi River in Clinton, IA.

I mean, who flushes after using a kybo? (Kybo is the RAGBRAI term for a porta-john, coined by Australians, or, as the acronym that Boy Scouts appropriated for it, Keep Your Bowels Open)

And, a beer by 10 a.m. is appropriate because by then we’ve ridden 40-50 miles and the temperature already is 90 degrees with humidity approaching sauna level.

Pie? Pie makes the world go around, and provides the dietary fruit necessary to make kybo visits regular. It seems every church on the route has conscripted their resident grandmothers to make pies to raise money for roofs, mission trips or video equipment. 

Mr. Pork Chop is one of several food vendors that position themselves each day at a distance from the start appropriate for their particular specialty. You could always find Farm Kids in time for breakfast, and Beekman’s homemade ice cream was near enough to the day’s finish to justify a satisfying stop. 

This was my fourth RAGBRAI and first since 2013. What made it special for me was riding it with my kids, who live in three different states, and my Army buddy, who lives in Nebraska. We covered nearly 500 miles in seven days, starting at the Missouri River in Le Mars on the west side, and riding a serpentine route east to Clinton, where we dipped our tires in the Mississippi River

Beekman’s Speciality ice cream was always a popular afternoon stop.

Iowa possesses its own beauty. The relentless corn fields roll endlessly to either side of us, their golden tassels wafting in the breeze like small waves in open ocean. They also provide handy a kybo experience for those who can’t make it to the next town, given the likelihood of a long waiting line. Just be sure to go at least four rows deep. 

When my daughter yelled, “Keep going, Dad,” another rider at the rest stop sprayed his mouthful of pickle juice all over the grass. Some guys need to go deeper than others. 

Each night thousands of RAGBRAI riders pitched their tents in villages with populations dwarfed by our swarm. It seems every town had railroad tracks on which ran trains whose engineers enjoyed sounding the piercing whistle way too much.  

A couple of nights featured local infantile knuckle draggers screaming past the campgrounds, blowing air horns and shouting some nonsense about what idiots we were and what nasty things we supposedly did to our mothers. But the joke was on them. The trains already made sure we weren’t sleeping, anyway.

The week was exceptionally hot, in the high 90s every day until the last. One day our campsite was in an open field, just across a gravel drive from a graveyard where a big shade tree held open its arms.

Our little clan erected five tents beneath that tree, in close proximity to graves. The practical temperature in the sun was 106 degrees and it was more like 90 under the shade. We were grateful, and heard no complaints from our immediate neighbors. 

The lone shade in Waterloo turned out to be off limits.

But, someone who didn’t like us there protested to someone they deemed to have authority and that someone asked us kindly to move. We refused. When he asked if we’d prefer to get the police involved, we said, “OK.”

Slinking five minutes later into our shade, while the complainers sat in their car 10 feet away with the air conditioner running, the young policeman obviously hated to hold the conversation we forced him to have. We bantered cordially back and forth about rules, property,trespass, and lease agreements, neither of us convinced of the other’s position.

He pulled out what he thought was his ace in the hole when he asked, “How would you like it if it was YOUR mother or grandmother here and you were camping at their gravesite?”Simultaneously, all five of us said, “They would LOVE it.”

Ultimately, we decided a night in jail – even in an air-conditioned cell – wasn’t worth the hassle, so we moved our tents across the drive, 20 feet. We needed to get cool, so we decided to hitch a ride to an air-conditioned restaurant in Waterloo. After several quizzical looks by drivers who wondered how in the world we thought FIVE people could catch a ride, one lady in a big red pickup stopped. She had just come from the same cemetery where she was visiting with and praying for her recently departed husband, and she was curious about what the hundreds of people and tents were doing there.

When we said we were riding through Iowa and were staying there that night, she said, “Hallelujah, David will have some company tonight.”

It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

As great a time as I had with my kids and buddy, riding 70 miles a day through several small towns, each of which threw us a party, the highlight came the last day as we navigated the rolling hills approaching Clinton. My team, The Jameson Jockeys, was riding close together and I punched it on a long downhill, tucking in and rolling past my oldest son.

Eastern Iowa on sixth day of riding.

He later told me he saw “an old guy” riding past him down that hill, which was his first surprise. But then he thought, “That guy has a bike like dad’s.” Then he realized, “It IS dad.” And my ride, day and week were made.

This is just the tip of what a week of RAGBRAI is like, not to mention the miles and smiles, temporary friends and cornfields that never end, the heavy heat and rough streets. There is no way to explain it, even to a long-suffering spouse who is doing her best to help me through re-entry into normal life. 

But, she did put her foot down when I programmed the white noise sound track in our bedroom to be a train whistle. 

Things that make you go “Oops”

Grandkid joke: What’s brown and crooked and looks like a stick?

Answer: A stick.

Oops.

I thought it was just a stick that got tangled in the bird netting around our blueberry bushes and paid no attention to it for weeks, until one day I saw more white than brown. 

“Oops,” I thought, looking more closely and realizing it was a snake skeleton. I figured the 12-inch snake had slinked along the edge of the blueberry patch, looking for whatever prey might hang around the bushes, and it meandered through a couple of the nylon links of the netting. 

If a snake has the capacity to think, I imagine this one was thinking much like the fish who ran into a cement wall beneath the water and said, “Dam.”

I imagined those dreadful final hours, even days, the snake spent trying to wriggle out of the netting, each slithering movement only entrapping it further in the interwoven, nylon mesh meant to keep birds from stealing my precious blueberries.

And I thought of other “oops” moments in life, those unintended interruptions when you’re suddenly aware that you don’t belong in the spot where you’ve just interjected yourself. Fortunately, most are not fatal.

Like opening the wrong door when looking for your meeting room, and seeing the instructor’s slide explaining to delivery room nurses the anomaly of a baby being born with genitalia of both sexes.

Or when you see a friend in a small circle of others, so you pop in to say “hi” and realize they’ve been talking about you. Oops.

Or when you go back to the college from which you were drafted into the Army to see if your scholarships are still in place; and they tell you, “No, you have to start applications all over.” Oops on them and goodbye.

Or when you’ve worked up your courage for weeks to plant your first kiss on the lips of a girl you’ve dreamed about, and she turns away.

Or when you drive your dad’s gasoline delivery truck to your summer job one day, and end up backing it into a barn. 

Or when your sister takes the car when she’s not supposed to and ends up stuck in a marsh. Oops.

Or when you take your wife to the theater to see a nice little rom-com and discover it’s no longer showing, so you pop into “Silence of the Lambs” instead. 

Or when you’re hired on staff by the last moderate leader of a Baptist state convention, and he leaves months later. Oops.

Or when you’re a televangelist preaching against sins of the flesh and reporters follow you to your favorite New Orleans hooker.

When we moved into a new house, the bathroom door lock wasn’t working properly and my wife opened it, only to find a very large mover sitting on the toilet. Oops. Some things you can’t unsee.

Some of the above examples are from my own life; I’ll let you guess which ones. None of them had the same, fatal consequences that the poor, squirming serpent endured.

When I saw the snake’s skeleton among the leaves, entangled in the mesh, I couldn’t help thinking about the line from Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The snake wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. It was doing an honest snake day’s work, looking for something to eat. It just got tangled in a web from which it could not escape, even unto death. Oops.

You’ve likely had many “oops” moments that led to embarrassment or temporary discomfort or even revelation. Sometimes you can’t unsee or unhear something you learned in such a moment; a gossip shared that hurt your feelings or someone’s who you love. But you’ll survive.

Own the moment. Walk away proud. 

Don’t be like George Costanza from the TV show “Seinfeld” who was changing from the pool when a woman walked in on him just as he’d dropped his swimsuit to the ground. Her laughter and his mortification was a classic oops moment. 

But remember, the water was cold.

Moments planted yield the fruit of memories

Members of the Rio, WI high school graduating class of 1971. Not a bald head among them.

Confession up front: before my 50th high school class reunion in June I looked over my year book to reacquaint myself with the names – and cherubic faces – of those from my class who might appear. 

Having delivered our graduates’ speech as valedictorian of our 53-member class five decades earlier, I was asked to “say a few words” on this very convivial night, decades past the gateway to a dream that seemed to open to us in 1971. We’re also decades past having to color our palette of life, careers, marriages, successes or failures in hues that confirmed that we’d “made it.”

So, I talked about “making it,” and memories.

Members of our class were born in 1952 or 1953. I mentioned notable characters born in those years, including Vladimir Putin, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson, George Strait, Floyd Mayweather, Mr. T and Roseanne Barr, Hulk Hogan, Cyndi Lauper, Pierce Brosnan and Tim Allen.

We remember these politicians and entertainers because in our minds and in our culture, they “made it.” They are rich and famous, at the top of their respective fields. Say their names and people know who you are talking about. 

“Did we make it?” I asked. “Are we making it?” 

I was pleased to hear an immediate “Darned right,” from Jerry, our star athlete who was an all-conference football player in college and who has concluded his career in insurance, primarily among farmers in two counties.

No matter what we think “making it” means, I know we all have a different perspective on that than we did 50 years ago – or even 20 years ago. Success? Riches? Fame? Security? Family? Love? Inventions? 

My 1971 high school graduation picture. Naive, hopeful, eager.
Fifty years of sandblasted life later, mostly in Baptist communications.

Except for seven months, I’ve never lived closer than 600 miles from either my parents or my in-laws. My quest to “make it” took me from state to state. I’ve lived twice in Texas, twice in Oklahoma, twice in Colorado, in Tennessee and now North Carolina. My daughter was six when we moved to North Carolina and North Carolina was her fourth state to live in. 

I came home annually to visit – and as long as my dad lived, Rio was always “home.” For the longest time, I thought “making it” meant anything away from Rio, population 788. My dad always told me Rio’s population stayed at 788 because any time a young woman had a baby, an older man left town. 

Looking across the room I saw vibrant senior adults, many of whom never left the area, and all of whom have “made it.” They stayed, invested themselves, coached the local teams, served on the school board, nurtured the children of other families, and offered their voices of wisdom among their peers. They’ve been important to many lives. 

Reunions are the fertile soil in which the seeds of memory planted much earlier blossom and flower. We harvested those blooms at our 50th.

We remember moments, rather than days, as philosopher Cesare Pavese said. We all have memories of high school. Some we share, others are unique because none of us lived the same life. And the best part of those remembered moments are the people we shared them with.

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said, “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me.”

And we want to be known. And remembered. Someone has said you die twice: first, when your heart stops and you’re buried. The second time you die is the last time someone says your name… whether it’s a year, a decade, or a century.

So, I named the seven members of our class who are with us no longer. They remain alive in our memories. 

Then we had fun recalling not only the names of our teachers, but some of their idiosyncrasies: the teacher/coaches who helped athletes with grades; the biology professor we called Bernard the Monk because of his curly bowl haircut and demeanor; the English teacher who the girls always felt was peeking up their skirts.  

Gas was only 33 cents a gallon at Bleigh’s service station during high school. I’d drive across town to the Farmer’s Union Co-op if it was 32 cents there. Of course, “across town” was less than a mile, with one stop sign.

Janis Joplin was singing “Me and Bobby McGee” and “The French Connection” competed with “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Dirty Harry” for your $1.50 movie admission. 

Living in the south now, I told the class every region has its rednecks, but southerners are special. You know you’re a redneck in the south when you take your dog for a walk and you both use the same tree. Or, when grandma’s wish list includes ammo. Or when you think “The Nutcracker” is something you do off the high dive.

One anomaly I noticed was that not a single person in the room was bald. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, male pattern baldness at some level affects more than 50 percent of all men.  It stands to reason that someone would be bereft of hair. 

Perhaps humorist Garrison Keillor’s observation of his little hometown of Lake Wobegon – the model of which easily could be Rio, WI – is right. There, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

For all of you who are having reunions and special functions, blessings on every classmate and friend who has “made it” this far. May you have many more years to be a positive influence in your children – who always need their parents – and their children, who more desperately need the positive influence of grandparents now than ever before. 

These are the people of our lives, thrust together by time and circumstance, calling up the memories created by moments together. I’m grateful for them. 

How much does that cost?

My grandkids are of the age where they want to know the cost of everything.“How much did you pay for that, Papa?”They’re making a few bucks and are probably calculating subconsciously how many weeds they’d have to pull to earn enough to buy whatever “that” is. 

If we go out to eat, they scan the menu for cost – not that they buy low to save me some money, but they like to know how much Papa is willing to pay to feed them!

“Can I have sprinkles, and whipped cream, and two scoops?” says the clan when not considering the cost of their ice cream treat!

My youngest local grandchild, CJ, suggested this week that I could buy two Tesla automobiles. “My parents say they could afford one, and you have more money than they do, so you could buy two.”

CJ and his siblings are in a stage where they want at least one of everything they see. Whether it’s a car, truck, gun, bicycle, house, shoes, computer, camera, watch, lawn mower or the crumbs from a chocolate chip cookie left on the counter, they declare “I want that.”

To their great credit, their parents, Erin and Benji, don’t fend off the wish whines by saying, “We can’t afford it.” That’s the handy, but shallow, phrase I employed when my kids leaned over the same deep well of wishing.

The truth is, then as now, we could afford some of the shiny baubles the kids see and agitate for, but we’re not going to buy them for a variety of reasons. Primarily, we know the sparkling object that captures their attention today will be fish wrap tomorrow. They don’t need it. It’s not a priority, even if we could afford it. It’s not healthy, or good for you. 

I used “We can’t afford it” because it was simple, and even a kid can understand it. It quickly ended most begging and whining. But, I realize now, it also ended rational discussion about needs versus wants, cost versus value. And, it left the impression on their young minds that we were poor. 

But Erin, a school teacher, and Benji, a fireman, don’t blow off their kids’ accumulation fantasies like that. For some things, they agree and say, “That would be nice, but it’s not in the budget now.” 

Or, “We could afford to get that, but it’s not a priority. We have other things that are more important.” They know that today’s “gotta have it now” item will have a new identity tomorrow.

I remember when I learned my dad made the astounding figure of $250 a week. It was the mid-1960s and I was with him after hours at the local Farmer’s Union Cooperative, where he managed the store. Trying to comprehend the magnitude of that dramatic weekly windfall made me wonder why I always felt we lived marginally. 

“That’s $50 a DAY,” I exclaimed. “What in the world do you do with all that money?”  

While I remember that moment clearly, I also remember it as a rare instance in which dad appeared upset. He didn’t yell, but his jaw was set as he realized for the first time I had no clue about money and the cost of living.

Rather than explain in detail why $250 a week, with four kids at home, really wasn’t that much money, he mumbled something about my failure to understand currently, “But you’ll learn.”

With seven grandchildren – like the computer network in the Terminator movie – becoming “self-aware,” I’m having plenty of opportunity to rationalize just how much to share about the cost of things, how much to help them fund their own little projects, how easy or hard to make it on them to achieve their goals of saving for “this” or “that.”

Ultimately though, my primary role is not to help them understand the cost of things, but to support their parents in guiding them to understand their value. Some things that carry a great cost, have little value. Some things available for small cost have great value. 

All future is uncertain and I don’t “worry” about what it holds. I know that any child who learns the value of things will have no problem in bearing their cost.