Fateful day half-century in the making

Sept. 13.

Fifty years ago today my dad wrapped his arms around me and said out loud for the first time I can recall, “I love you.” Then I turned toward the bus idling there to take me to Milwaukee where I was inducted into the U.S. Army.

With a draft lottery number of one, received a year earlier, this day was inevitable. But it arrived under a dark cloud of dread that wouldn’t lift for months.

I never doubted my dad loved me. I never asked myself if he did. I never wondered, pondered, considered, weighed or suspected his love. He showed me in many, non-verbal ways: working hard to provide for his family, being present, shooting baskets with me, including me with tasks we could do together, assigning me responsibilities like cleaning the barn or splitting the wood for our farmhouse furnace, then bragging about me to his friends when I worked beyond his expectations.

Primarily, my assurance of dad’s love and my subconscious security in my household growing up was how he loved my mother. Our dinner time was consistently 5:30, but no one sat down until dad arrived home from his gas route. He drove a fuel truck that serviced farmers in a four-county area, but he consistently arranged his days and route to be home for dinner on time.

Then mom would meet him at the door and the kids would have to sit at the table, waiting while they hugged and kissed and got all sloppy in the doorway.

Dad never fully grasped the implications of my lottery number. It didn’t penetrate his consciousness that radio announcing my birthday as No. 1 had changed the trajectory of my life. Nor did he comprehend my heart when I petitioned for and received status as a conscientious objector, willing to serve in the military, but not willing to bear arms.

To my surprise and delight, my basic training platoon at Fort Sam Houston consisted entirely of conscientious objectors of my same persuasion. We were all to be trained as medics. Logic was, I guess, if we weren’t going to carry a gun, we should run around with a target on our backs.

Religious belief was the overwhelming rationale for conscientious objection in my platoon. And not all represented religions were Christian. Consequently, our discussions were invigorating and affirming. Our attitudes were positive and our nascent friendships sincere.

Then, we graduated from basic. And our 40 men were divided among 10 other platoons of men who had just finished basic training that included weapons, and an indoctrination of “enemies” versus the right and righteous arm of the United States.

Suddenly, barracks were bellicose. An undercurrent of distrust and tensions ran through the room where long rows of bunks ran down both sides of the room, with lockers in the middle and footlockers at the end of each bunk. You never wanted to leave either open or unlocked.

One day I hung a pair of clean underwear on the hook while I showered. When I got out, mine had been taken and replaced by someone’s dirty underwear.

Discussions were not harmonious, but usually disintegrated into offensive and defensive positions on issues, especially religious and political. The most hard core guys could not wait to get to Viet Nam and “kill some Charlie Cong.”

Such was the atmosphere that debilitated my spirit one night when I walked to the bank of phones to call my dad for a word of encouragement. I know he loved me. But he still didn’t understand.

Depressed, I was walking back to the barracks to face another miserable night when my path took me past a base chapel. It was brightly lit and happy sounds were coming from it. I walked in. Why not?

There was a youth group on the platform getting ready to perform a musical. And I found a couple of my buddies from basic training there. After the musical, the youth offered to come pick up any soldiers who wanted to attend their church on Sunday.

Pretty girls populated the platform. I eventually dated one. My buddy Steve ended up marrying her sister.

Events of that night, and that group from Baptist Temple in San Antonio, opened the portal to the rest of my life which included a career among Baptists in communications, and marrying a girl I met at a Baptist church in my next station.

Fifty years ago. Today. As I’ve said many times since, it’s not something I wanted, nor would ever want to do again. But my life was set on course by having done it once.

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.

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. 

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.

March Basketball: More Magic than Madness

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to appreciate – at least a little – the frenzy around March Madness, when 68 men’s college basketball teams and 64 women’s teams line up in a three-week frenzy to chase a national championship.

I was a piddling part of the madness 20 years ago when my son Nathan’s team, the UNC Greensboro Spartans, won the Southern Conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Our reward was a trip to San Diego to take on Stanford, the No. 1 team in the country. 

UNCG featured Nathan after his selection as Academic All-American.

The story would be incomplete without recalling the dramatic way we won the Southern Conference championship. We led Chattanooga the whole game, until they scored a couple baskets at the end, including a length of court layup to take their first lead, with about two seconds left. 

The roar of Chattanooga fans’ delirious exuberance thundered through the gym like an Amtrac Express. They were sure they had just snatched a victory, the championship, and an NCAA bid. But, a 79-foot pass to our junior center David Shuck, who dribbled once and laid it in at the buzzer, snatched it right back and UNCG fans raised our own roar that would have collapsed the walls of Jericho. 

We won. We were champs. We were in. Shuck’s two-second trip down the lane validated all the turmoil, trauma, tumult and thrills of Nathan’s basketball career. It rewarded his work and sacrifice of 16 years, including midnight shooting practice in the cold rain after a bad game. 

Bounce, bounce, bang, rattle, swish. We woke to the sound of Nathan shooting on the garage rim after a rare junior high loss. “Tell him to come in out of the rain,” Sue Ellen said to me. I considered it a moment, then said, “Nope.” He was working toward March, eight years hence.

When he was being recruited, one of his considerations was to choose a school and team that he thought could make it to the NCAA. A couple schools he turned down made it there first, but as a four-year starter, he was instrumental in getting the Spartans their shot.

Winning any championship is a rare moment and I was incapable of fully absorbing its majesty, through the chaotic elation spilling through the shouts, laughter, hugs and screams of our fans. After a few moments immersed among them, I walked quietly to the other side of the floor, to observe it, to open the aperture of my senses wider, to get a wide-angle view of it all and etch it like a chisel into the marble of my memory. 

As I turned back toward the action, Nathan was suddenly there. He had followed me, pulling away from his teammates, fans and well-wishers to wrap his arms around me in a long, sweaty, exuberant embrace that was 16 years in the making. He’d been playing basketball in a uniform since he was six years old. 

It was our best hug ever, until 18 years later when – at a men’s retreat he facilitated – I discovered in myself and confessed to him what drove me through life to keep from being caught from behind. 

In fourth grade, in a new state, we walked into a gym full of strangers for the local county league “draft.” The coach who picked him said later that he’d seen Nathan walk into the gym and he “walked like an athlete.” By sixth grade Nathan was player of the year in the conference. By senior year of high school he was North Carolina private school player of the year and by senior year of college he was first team Academic All-American. 

One day I asked Sue Ellen to name her top three basketball memories of Nathan’s career. I knew what mine were. She named hers. We matched. 

First, the high school game in which, with his future college coach watching, he scored 27 as Wesleyan Academy beat rival Greensboro Day for the first time. 

The Spartan’s basketball program Nathan’s senior year implied this was the year to win it all.

Second, on a cold night with ice pelting the roadways, UNCG was scheduled to play at Davidson, a school that had recruited him early, then backed off because he was “too slow to play at this level.” Nathan’s wife, Robyn, had driven to our house so we could drive to the game together. Caution urged me to stay home, until I noticed Robyn’s Jeep in the driveway. Hmmm…Jeep. Four-wheel drive. Off we went.

We trailed by 15 in the first half as the falling snow seemed to freeze our shooters’ blood. As far as I could tell, in a packed Davidson on-campus arena, there were no more than six UNCG fans, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stands. In the end zone, a round, fuzzy haired, flush-faced Davidson fan kept pointing at us and laughing as we fell further and further behind.

After halftime, we kept edging inexorably back within range and with the clock racing all too quickly toward zero, “too slow” Nathan earned a defensive stop on their guard, so we got the ball back, and Nathan promptly hit a three. 

Under 10 seconds, trailing by one, we had to foul their senior captain in an attempt to get the ball again. Incredibly, he missed both free throws. We rebounded the second and our guard Courtney Eldredge took the ball down the court full speed and hit a three at the buzzer to win it. 

The gym crashed totally silent except for six UNCG fans screaming like maniacs. I hugged the woman next to me, whoever she was. Then I hugged Sue Ellen, looking over her shoulder for the flush-faced Davidson fan in the end zone. I laughed and pointed at him and he was so mad I thought his head was going to come unscrewed and zip through the gym like a balloon suddenly untied. 

The third best memory, of course, was the championship game. As Nathan recalled in a retrospective published by UNCG this month, it can’t possibly be 20 years  since that incredible game, that amazing experience. But it has been and to all those kids who are playing this month for their “one shining moment,” God bless them all. 

I know what it took to get there, and it’s an experience they’ll always remember.

Pickleball: Funny name, great game

I was first exposed to Pickleball, four years ago when I stood in line at a local school to vote. Through windows into the gymnasium, I saw some old folks whacking a plastic ball over a net using an oversized ping pong paddle. 

I asked someone what those white-haired men and women were doing, and was told they were playing Pickleball. Odd name. Fun game.

Pickleball, which advocates claim is America’s fastest growing sport, is like a ping pong game in which you get to run on the table! Given the rate of Pickleball court construction, and tennis court conversions, they may be right. 

It’s played on a downsized tennis court, the same as that for badminton, and the ball is like your childhood whiffle ball. The paddle is hard, solid plastic, double the size of a ping pong paddle.

Last winter on vacation in Florida, my buddy and I watched Pickleballers and agreed it looked like fun, even if not quite as athletic an endeavor as we considered appropriate for us. We agreed we’d continue to play singles tennis until age 70, then doubles tennis until age 80, and then, well…Pickleball.  

In preparation for our January vacation this year, I bought a couple cans of tennis balls, packed my rackets, and threw in a Pickleball paddle in case we wanted to piddle around with that. 

My tennis rackets were never unpacked and we played Pickleball two hours a day. What a blast!

While the game is a blast, my buddy and I discovered the Pickleball community is the best part of the game. Just novices, we grabbed our paddles and were walking toward a court to figure out the game together when we saw a bunch of players already on another court. We simply asked if we could join them and they welcomed us immediately. 

If you have any eye-hand coordination and are athletic at all, particularly if you’ve played tennis, you can pick up Pickleball quickly, which is one of its attractions. And the characteristics of the game and equipment are a skills equalizer. We played with folks a decade older and 30 years younger. 

Pickleball has its own set of quirky rules and score keeping but the players patiently guided us through some initial games. I’ll not get into “the kitchen.”

In this community, bad shots are rarely criticized, or even commented upon, unless it’s, “That’s the right idea,” or “Good try,” or “Darn wind.” Good shots are complimented – by both partner and opponent – and if you manage to hit one, you’ll feel like a million bucks. 

After a rally of 10-12 quick shots, both sides appreciate the “good point” whether they won or lost it. As one player said, “No one remembers who won the last game.” Players switch partners and play another game. Suddenly you’re playing against a person you just played with, and it’s all good. 

If you’re waiting for your turn on the court, you volunteer to gather up the balls lining the fence that are out of play.  

The “poc, poc, poc” of a plastic ball caroming off a solid, composite paddle is a different sound from the “thunk” of a tennis ball off a strung racket. The Pickleball ball doesn’t bounce as much, which gives you an extra step to get to it. A windy day makes it even more interesting, as the ball is light, and it provides everyone a built-in excuse for a shot that flies awry. 

Like the promoters say, the game is fun, fast and friendly. Leagues pop up everywhere and I’ll bet you have at least one in your community. If not, just wander by the once-seldom-used tennis courts and listen for the “poc, poc, poc” of a whiffle ball. Hang on the fence looking like a hungry child and you’re almost guaranteed to be welcomed in to play

Would that all life’s interactions could be so pleasant. 

Watching Below Zero – From Florida

I grew up in Wisconsin, which to many, means i shoveled snow through April. It wasn’t that bad, as typically by April the spring sun cleared the roads and driveways, without benefit of shovels.

I live in the mid-south now but still keep track of the Wisconsin weather because it feeds my smug, self-congratulatory perception that i was smart enough to move away.  In fact, I spend a couple of the coldest months in Florida, where my emotions waver between guilt that i’m more concerned with sunburn than frostbite, and joy that i’m at the beach with sand between my toes, instead of in Wisconsin with snow up my nose.

Not really, there’s no wavering. I’m glad to be at the beach, especially when previewing next week’s weather at my hometown. Yes, next week it is predicted to be 17 degrees BELOW zero. If you go out in that cold, which you shouldn’t, your nose hairs will freeze solid and break off when you feel your face to see if your nose is still there. Any colder and your nose itself would break off. 

The last time I was in Wisconsin for Christmas, it was 13 degrees below zero — which is WHY that’s the last time i was home for Christmas. We traveled there from Oklahoma with three little kids, who couldn’t wait to get outside and play in the snow. We spent 30 minutes wrapping them up tighter than cellophane around last night’s lutefisk

We pushed them out the door and barely got it closed behind them when they were back, whimpering to be let in. 

But, the native Scandahoovians in Wisconsin are a hardy lot and they cope with the frigid temps by changing their greeting from “Ya think it’ll rain before the hay is in?” to “Cold enough fer ya?” When it gets that cold, some of them close their windows.

Growing up there, I once endured a week of minus-50 degree windchill. Dad’s job at the time was to deliver gasoline and home heating fuel to houses and farms in a four-county area. The cold snap burned fuel faster than normal, so people were running out way ahead of schedule. Dad burned the midnight oil all week and was exhausted every night. 

Starting his truck in the mornings was an adventure, and critical for the people running out of heat. He kept the truck in good shape so the engine actually cranked, but the screeching and howling it made to turn over played like the soundtrack of a Stephen King horror flick when the cats fell into the industrial fan.

At least with temperatures like that, it’s too cold to snow. The moisture evaporates before it hits the ground. You’ve heard of “freeze dried” goods? Before we had an electric dryer, we’d use that method for our bedding. 

I’d shovel a path through the snow to mom’s clothesline so she could hang the sheets. Later, she’d carry the sheets into the house, handling them like a section of sheetrock.. She’d set them against a wall, and after a few minutes in the warm house, they’d wilt into a cotton puddle, all dry and smelling fresh.

Some winters had less cold and more snow. When snowplows filled ditches to the brim, massive snow blowers would spray the snow higher and higher until in some places, the mounds were high enough to create snow tunnels. 

This made driving quite dangerous, as traffic signs were covered and we couldn’t see to the left and right. Locals knew to approach intersections very cautiously, in case those unfamiliar with the roads were out on them when they should have been  home shoveling their sidewalks. 

When I first moved to the south, mom told me, “You’ll miss the snow.” I asked her to send me a picture. 

It’s been sufficient ever since.