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.

‘I want to marry your daughter.’

It was Oct. 13, 1975 and I had two calls to make from my two-room apartment in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The first, was to Bob Carver in Colorado Springs. His time zone was an hour earlier than mine, but if I woke him up, I didn’t care. 

“Bob, this is Norman Jameson.” 

“Yes?”

“I’m calling for your blessing because I want to marry your daughter.”

“Which one?”

That’s not as odd a question as it might seem. Bob had four beautiful daughters. I had grown quite close to the eldest, Sue Ellen, when we both were volunteers at a Baptist mission in Espanola, NM a year earlier. But then we went our separate ways, me to Oklahoma Baptist University to finish a college career interrupted by the Army. Sue Ellen back home to live and work. Our contact was infrequent.

In the meantime, Bob’s second daughter, Leslie, had come to OBU as a student, more in pursuit of my roommate, Loren, than of a degree. But, she was there, and Sue Ellen wasn’t and Bob hadn’t yet learned of the sudden, unexpected reunion that I had with Sue Ellen the Columbus Day weekend she came to “visit Leslie.” 

So, when he asked, “Which one?” the question was legit. For all he knew, Leslie and I were dating. But, my answer was, “Sue Ellen.” 

“Do you love her?” 

“Yes sir.” 

“Ok then.” I think he was anxious to get back to sleep. 

The widow Ethyl Abbott ran Templo Bautista and stayed as long as the Lord would send her volunteers. Her first two volunteers married each other, on Dec. 27, 1975.

My second call was to Sue Ellen. I asked her over the phone to marry me and she agreed. We saw each other at Thanksgiving in Colorado. We married at Christmas in New Mexico. In that two months, Sue Ellen basically did all the planning and sewed her dress and her bridesmaids’ dresses. 

Army buddies from Texas and New Jersey stood up with me. My parents from Wisconsin met Sue Ellen for the first time when they came to the wedding. I don’t think mom fully believed I was getting married until she met Sue Ellen. Once she did, mom would have disowned and dismembered me if I had been fool enough to let her go again.

That was 45 years ago. December 27. Between semesters at OBU. Sue Ellen worked at a local bank to cover groceries and our $65 a month apartment rent. I edited the college paper and paid tuition with the GI Bill. 

A year later, she loaded the U-Haul while I made my senior marketing presentation to a local bank, then we drove into the night to Colorado Springs where I had an outside hope of landing a reporter’s job at the Gazette-Telegraph

We’ve made a lot of interstate moves for work ever since, each one supposedly improving our lot, moving from the newspaper to Nashville, TN where I started a career working mostly for Baptist entities. From Nashville to Texas for seminary, traveling now with two little ones. I didn’t know until we arrived in separate vehicles that Sue Ellen had cried all the way to Texas. 

Seminary was the most difficult time of our marriage. Working fulltime and going to school full-time. Leaving for the library at night with my son tugging at my leg. Discovering we had different goals for when we were finished.

One afternoon while agonizing in the combination porch-guest room-laundry room-study of our tiny rent house I cried out to the Lord for clarity of purpose and future. I heard clearly as if God had texted directly to my brain, “Stay in religious journalism.” Within 48 hours the editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger showed up out of the blue and asked me to join his staff. I could finish my seminary degree by extension classes at my alma mater, OBU.

So, it was back to Oklahoma before the fundamentalist effluvium seeped into that state convention and made it untenable for anyone who possessed a contrary thought. We “told” God not to present a professional opportunity that He didn’t want me to take, because I was grabbing the first one that would carry me out of Oklahoma. 

Then Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina called, and we crossed the Mississippi with three children. Our daughter was six and North Carolina was her fourth state. We figured to stay two or three years and make our way back west. That was 33 years ago.

We’re in our fourth North Carolina city, or sixth North Carolina house and am retired from my seventh North Carolina job. 

45 years later, the years truly are golden and the mystery of oneness remains worthy of continual examination

I say all that to say Happy 45th Anniversary to the bride of my youth who has followed me, encouraged me, supported me, bore our children and taught them how to live, provided incredibly valuable insight and wisdom, sacrificed her own dreams for those of her family and laughed with me to keep me from crying. She’s been a rock, always trusting in the hand of God on our lives, and in me. She makes me a better man.

And she no longer answers her phone to an unidentified caller.

What I wanted for Christmas: To Be Found

The strange church emptied quickly in the little town where my family was visiting grandpa and grandma at Christmas. Although at age 5 I didn’t really know them, my cousins, aunts and uncles comprised a large portion of the town’s population of 788. We were all at Redeemer Lutheran for Christmas morning service.

At its conclusion, everyone donned coats, scarves, hats and gloves (it was Wisconsin, after all) and headed out the door for the holiday meals and spirit that awaited. Thankfully, although there were lots of Norwegians in town, the traditional meal was still turkey and ham, and not lutefisk and lefse. 

I wandered about the pews, looking at the garland and poinsettias, not noticing that the sanctuary was rapidly emptying. When the room grew quiet, I turned to see I was the only one left. The only one. Five years old in a strange church, a foreign town. 

It’s no wonder I felt secure. Here, at five, with my dad, Marvin, in 1957.

Even at five I was too secure in the love of my family to panic – much. Surely this was an aberration and someone would drift back into the church to collect me. Dad probably just went out to warm up the car.

Nope.

The furry fingered fear of abandonment started to close around my throat just as organist Olive Shultz, who was closing up the building, came around the corner and spotted me. Since it was only her and me now, she knew I was as misplaced as a snow shovel at the beach.

A large woman, she rustled down the aisle and side-stepped between two pews, leaned over asked, “What is your name?”

 “Norman,” I said with some measure of certainty. 

“Where are you supposed to be?” she asked.

“Grandpa’s.”

Not enough clue for her, she asked if grandpa had a name. I wouldn’t know grandpa’s name for years but I offered that he was “Grandpa Jameson.” 

Given the size of the town and percentage of its populace occupied by my relatives, Olive knew immediately where to take me. She led me to her car and drove briefly down Hwy. 16 to the farm my Norwegian bachelor uncle Don rented, and where he lived with his parents – my grandparents.

I was relieved and grateful as I walked into the bustling living room, a joy that lasted only as long as it took me to realize everyone had just figured out I was not among them, and were arguing about who had get their winter garb back on and go get me!

The next year we moved to that little town, Rio, WI where the population stayed at 788, my dad told me, because every time a young lady had a baby, an older man left town. 

Eventually I graduated from high school there, in the same building where I started first grade. But, more about that, later.

You thought THAT was scary?

A friend posted a Facebook question recently asking for the scariest movie we remember watching as a kid. Nearly instantly, I recalled the horrific, blood curdling, heart racing, bone chilling scene in which a ferocious whale chased a young boy frantically rowing a makeshift raft through tidal waves of terror in … Pinocchio. 

Pinocchio. Compared to the horrible horror movies kids watch today, Pinocchio’s terror temperature is akin to watching the struggle of male penguins sitting on an egg. 

To the same question, my wife recalled the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz,  and I agreed those monkeys kept me awake the night I first saw it, too. Then, since my mind was attuned to the subject, I recalled the ape figure on the airplane wing in Twilight Zone. 

In that episode, a man returning home from a stint in the mental hospital looked out his airplane window to see what appeared to be an ape trying to tear metal sheets off the wing. That episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” is listed on at least one website as The Twilight Zone’s scariest episode in its five-year run.  

William Shatner played the mental patient, well before his Star Trek fame. And the climactic moment, after he failed to convince anyone else that what he saw was real, came when he steeled himself to take one more look, to verify others’ doubts. He took a deep breath, pulled back the curtain quickly, and there was the beast, his face pressed firmly to the glass. 

I lived upstairs in an old farmhouse at the time. Each night after I kissed mom goodnight I’d climb the stairs to my room. In the dim light of a single bulb I’d pull down my shades over my south and west facing windows. The night I saw that episode, it took every ounce of courage in me to walk to my windows and pull down the shades. 

Pinocchio is a kid’s movie. Wizard of Oz is for the whole family. I had no idea it was already 20 years old when I first saw it, being produced in 1939. When those monkeys took to the air to find Dorothy and when the hour glass was draining its last grains of sand, my heart was racing, my pulse pounding. 

Pinocchio, Oz, and even The Twilight Zone were basically benign. I cannot imagine how young people watch the horror shows being produced today. Nor can I fathom how parents let them. I’m not a fan of the genre, I admit. I see nothing entertaining, redemptive, encouraging, instructive or beneficial to exposing children to things that will make them unable to sleep at night. 

We made that mistake with what I thought was a suspenseful movie – not classified as “horror” – when my daughter was young. We took everyone to see Jurassic Park, the box office smash of 1993 . Erin was not quite 12, plenty old enough to separate fiction from reality, we thought. Yet, she slept at the foot of our bed for a week afterwards, afraid because the velociraptors HAD figured out how to open a doorknob!

Horror movies may be your thing. I just don’t get it. There’s enough scary things going on every day in real life to keep me awake at night. I mean, just think…what if Donald Trump were to get a second term?

I need younger friends

It’s a vital part of “church” to be involved with people beyond Sunday morning. When the outside activities of the Bible study group my wife and I were involved with seemed awfully tame, we started a class that targeted a younger demographic – those 55-65 years old. 

Our activities would take us beyond local restaurants and dinner theater. We “youngsters” hiked at Hanging Rock State Park, rode bikes down the Virginia Creeper Trail and canoed the New River

One Sunday morning a sweet couple visited our class. When Sue Ellen noted the ages indicated on their visitor card, she called the church office and suggested John and Mary might find the older class more suitable. She was told no, they specifically asked for our class. 

We weren’t going to shut the door on anyone, even though they were the age of many of our parents. And what a wonderful addition they were to our class. Ironically, Mary, who had a teaching doctorate with a specialty in English as a Second Language, had recently worked in Colorado for a man who was a young boy in the same church where Sue Ellen and I were members years ago. 

When we learned that John and Mary’s ministry careers were primarily among students, we understood why they wanted to be in our class, among people a generation younger. They’d always worked and lived among young people and we were a touch stone to that earlier era. Being around younger people made them feel younger. 

They could not physically do everything we did, but if they attended a game night they gave it everything they had.

And goodness, their insights from a life in Christian service at home and abroad enriched us all. When they moved to Tennessee recently to be closer to their son we showered them with a surprise and rousing send-off with class members and friends holding signs and singing hymns. 

I’m at the point in life where some of my friends are turning…old. My army buddy Steve turned 70 today. When I rode with him last summer in Omaha he took another spill on his skinny tired road bike. He’d only recently healed up from a previous spill that broke some ribs and bruised him ugly. 

At his wife Linda’s insistence, Steve recently purchased a hybrid bike as his main ride. Now, Steve is a guy who hikes, skis, swims in the ocean and likes to ride his road bike long distances. He’s on no medicines and gets synapse collapse in his brain when he sees the number 70 pop up in relation to his age.  

This hybrid bike has fatter tires, a smoother ride and more stable (read: forgiving) handling. But, in his mind, it’s like he traded a Mustang convertible for daddy’s Buick. 

“I’ve never felt so bad about a purchase in my life,” he said, when I called him to wish him happy birthday. “I felt like it was the first step toward turning in my car keys because the kids don’t think I’m safe to drive anymore.”

After a shared laugh he said, “I felt it was like going to the vet to get fixed.”

Of course, he made sure Linda felt his pain. But 44 years of marriage has coated her sympathy nerve with a layer of Teflon, which is to say she wasn’t hearing it. 

He confessed that after an initial “getting acquainted ride” he likes the bike a lot. He even says it just might be nimble enough to use for RAGBRAI next year, in riding across his home state of Iowa. 

Between John and Mary and Steve the lesson for me is clear: I need younger friends. 

Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen.