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)

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. 

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. 

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. 

‘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.

March of the Memories

One of the joys of examining the four boxes of clippings and slides I’ve carted through eight states since I started writing for newspapers and magazines in 1971 is the memories prompted by each. The bride of my youth has been after me for years to sort them out – an urging in which she redefines “sort” as “throw.”

In feigned sincerity, I’ve maintained I’m saving those clippings, notes, magazines, reporter’s notebooks and photos and slides as source material for my biographer. Now, realizing I’ve lived a nominal existence as driftwood in pursuit of a dry bank, I am fully confident, with no regrets, to know that no writer will be examining my life as subject matter for a biography. 

With the perspective of time, I realize the yellowed, crinkly clippings of old articles that were so vitally important to me for decades – so important that I carted them from house to house, move by move, state by state – are really no more significant than the cardboard boxes that hold them. 

And yet, each story I pull strikes chords, pinging my memory with the characters that marched through my life: their intrigue, character, flaws, political maneuverings under the cover of religion, the revelations. Each of them and all of this was so vitally important – then.

“The next story” consumed my daily work life. Some were as mundane as an 11-year-old girl boxer fighting the boys,  or a man’s toy train hobby, or the announcement of program personalities for the next national convention.

Other stories still give me a twinge of pleasure when I recount the events and the people involved: the man who wrestled his single engine plane from a fatal collision with earth just seconds before certain death; Baptists returning from negotiations with the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini;  death row interviews; Christian disaster response. 

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

The flying carpet of my memory whisks me back in time. A letter from Ronnie thanking my mission team for a life changing weekend; a congratulatory letter from Wisconsin Congressman Bob Kastenmeier for being valedictorian of my high school class ; my serviceman’s life insurance policy so President Nixon would know where to send the benefit in case the war he kept alive meant my death; my first Leave and Earnings Statement as a grunt in this man’s Army – $189, paid in cash, with which to go wild. 

I found the record of the first check I ever wrote: for $1,005 to Luther College  for my half of my first semester’s tuition, room and board. I also had a receipt for “drugs” from the Luther College health service…for 93 cents. Must have been for half an aspirin. 

I seemed to have a preoccupation with death and love, according to the poems in my journal and English papers. My freshman English theme on Virgil’s Aeneid, about “too much love” earned a note in red from my enchanting, young professor Dagney Boebal. She thrilled my besotted soul when she wrote, “An interesting and original paper.” Although she gave me an A minus…for spelling. 

There was a $4.35 receipt for oil and filter change, bearing my dad’s “preferred customer” imprint, since he managed the Farmer’s Union Co-Op  where I made the purchase. It’s not the nostalgic yearning for low prices that gives me pause. It’s seeing dad’s imprint on the receipt. He died three years ago.

I reduced four boxes of memories to one, and then tackled the slides. Oh my. They’d spilled out of their little boxes and jumbled 40 years of slides into one big gumbo. I’d reach into that mangle for a handful and hold the 2×2 inch transparencies to a reading light with no chronological reference to time and space. 

First, I’d see a Christmas picture with my kids’ grandparents, followed by disaster relief in the Caribbean, to Paris in 1983 to Petra in Jordan and ancient ruins in Israel, to children jumping dirt mounds on their bikes in Oklahoma. It’s disconcerting to go from an engagement picture to a 40th wedding anniversary shot in a minute.

It was dizzying. And delightful. 

I pulled fewer than one in 20 slides to scan into my computer. It will take me days. I’ll have Sue Ellen leave food and drink by my door. When I emerge, I may well feel it like Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years and missed the American Revolution. 

We may be in the midst of another revolution. I’ll participate when I get through these slides.

It’s going to be a Covid Thanksgiving

I just tucked my crying wife into bed. 

For months, we’ve been looking forward to seeing distant grandchildren and tonight we realized that Covid 19 restrictions will keep us from our visit.  They’re in a state with a sudden surge of cases – but aren’t we all.

We’ve watched the sad stories of isolated grandparents missing the hugs, kisses, smiles and simple touches of their grandchildren, and we’ve felt sorry for them. I’m a hugger and we’ve enjoyed that relationship with our local family. But now, “them are us.”

Our sadness is intensified beyond this failed visit by the stark realization we may not see the distant grands for months yet. If a negative Covid test is required for admission, and we are unwilling to take such a test simply to travel, what does that say about when we might see them? What does that reveal about fear? Or about the blanket of paranoia draped over America’s frail shoulders?

Covid-19 is not a hoax. It is real. A million cases a week in the U.S. and 1.4 million deaths worldwide attributed to Covid are evidence that some virus is circulating in the human population…after living for untold centuries in animal populations – or for months in a Wuhan lab. Who knows? But, the virus is not random. Like any bully, it picks on the weakest kids in the room. 

We may all feel weak and susceptible to the bully, but in fact, we are not equally vulnerable. Statistically, 90-plus percent of those “kids” getting bullied have health weaknesses upon which the bully feasts. They already are obese, old, frail and with poor immune systems. Covid is a Darwinian herald, an ax wielding assassin rampaging through the human population, spotting these weaknesses and swinging its deadly weapon with lethal results.

In America, we make ourselves vulnerable by not paying attention to our health. We are pale and pasty from too many sedentary hours, eating food whose ingredients we cannot pronounce, demanding our doctors prescribe antibiotics for even the smallest sniffle. Or, we insist that they diagnose the undetectable, psychosomatic disaster that we’re sure will take our life before morning – unless we get a prescription for the miracle drug we just saw on TV.

If we are vulnerable, it is in large part because we delegate responsibility for our health to “professionals” – depending more on the cauldron of chemistry to correct our ailments, than on our own diet and exercise. 

On a visit to The Sixth Floor Museum dedicated to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I was struck with a curious itch while watching the newsreels of Kennedy’s 1963 arrival in Dallas. Something was different, a bit off. Examining the video, I finally saw it. Everyone in the video, from his security detail, to the airline personnel, to the police and virtually everyone in the crowds lining the parade route, was thin. You’d have to look hard to spot a person who looked like he was trying to smuggle a watermelon out of Winn-Dixie under his shirt.

The National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Center for Disease Control showed that 42.4 percent of U.S. adults were obese in 2018. Obesity is the petri dish in which countless illnesses multiply.

The constant advertising of Big Pharma for costly remedies (whose list of warnings exceeds its list of benefits) pounds into us the misplaced trust in chemistry over personal care. We’re deluded into thinking we don’t have to take care of ourselves because “there’s a pill for that.” 

Instead, doctors I follow advocate steps to promote a healthy immune system. Encourage gut health by eating whole and fermented foods. Roll in the grass, get fresh air and inhale the microbes in the atmosphere, play with your pet, or the neighbor’s. Stop sanitizing every surface  because you’re killing good microbes and creating an environment that keeps your babies from accruing immunity to simple illnesses.

A new Mayo Clinic study shows that infants who receive antibiotics before age two suffer long-term effects for anything from allergies to obesity because antibiotics kill good bacteria babies receive from their mothers in the vaginal birth process.  Yet, they are too routinely administered, like farmers administer antibiotics to chickens and beef to promote quick fattening.

We are a sick nation, which makes us more susceptible to Covid-19 than we should be. Our health care system is really a sick care system, because health is not profitable. Local hospitals are advertising “well visits” and warning us “not to neglect regular doctor’s appointments.” Our hospital systems’ financial health depends on a steady stream of people with real and imagined ailments, funded through a complicit insurance system that gets more impossibly expensive every year.

And yet, a hospital system for which I once worked, is bidding more than $5 BILLION to buy another hospital in the state. Tell me there is no money in non-profit health care. 

Covid-19 is opportunistic. A virus spread through the air, and by contact, it attacks the vulnerable. Cases of “healthy” people becoming ill from it are extremely rare. CDC data shows that Americans, regardless of age, are far more likely to die of something other than COVID-19. Even among those in the most heavily impacted age group (85 and older), only 9.4 percent of all deaths between February and September 2020 were due to COVID-19. 

A significant cadre of doctors not linked to the machinery of hospital systems, Big Pharma and insurance companies, warn that closing the country down, sentencing elderly to die alone, killing the dreams and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of small business owning families, subjecting millions to unemployment, hunger, depression, increased suicide rates and general malaise, will have longer term negative health effects on the population than will the virus. 

I have dear friends in the high-risk category. They are basically not healthy, either from long-term illness or age or obesity or some combination of comorbidities onto which Covid-19 loves to latch. I care for them as they stay secluded in what they hope is a safe bubble. But, I miss them. 

And I miss my grandchildren. 

Extra Money

For decades into our married life, my budget-faithful wife Sue Ellen would ask, “When are we going to have extra money?”

As frugal as she is, she never willingly accepted my answer: “We will never have ‘extra’ money,” I said, “if by ‘extra’ you mean funds beyond what we require to take care of immediate needs and future retirement.”

In part because my career was in non-profit and denominational work, and in larger part because of my upbringing, molecules of frugality bang around in my DNA loud enough to keep me awake should I spend a dollar frivolously.

My parents first met my wife when they came to our wedding. No great story of family dysfunction in that fact, just issues of time and distance. I lived in Oklahoma. Sue Ellen lived in Colorado. My family lived in Wisconsin. And, we married in New Mexico after just a two-month engagement.

So, the summer after our wedding I brought my new bride to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. My wonderful, doting mother offered us a Pepsi, back in the days when we disrespected our bodies enough to drink carbonated sugar water. We said, “Sure,” and mom dutifully divided a single soft drink into four glasses, one each for me, Sue Ellen, mom and dad.

Later, mom offered a candy, from a bag of pink Brach’s mints. And gave us each one.

In the days when the only telephones were connected to each other through an intricate – and reliable – system of land lines, long distance calls were considered expensive and mom recorded each one made, to check it against the monthly bill. After a visit during which I had to make a call or two, mom sent me the bill for those calls – about 10 dollars.

I grew up on a farm with several out buildings, one of which mom transformed into her storage shed. In it were lawn chairs that needed re-webbing, a grill with rusted bottom, various non-functioning toasters, umbrellas, coffee pots, and kitchen appliances. She wasn’t recycling, she was storing these items against a day when they would miraculously spring back to life.

My dad, who once sprung for a brand new 1959 Ford Galaxy, later bought the more elegant Mercurys that our local leading businessman sold after he’d driven them a couple of years. Our little Ford Ferguson tractor, which never had working brakes, dated from the 1940s, was probably 20 years old when dad bought it and he used it at least 30 years – when it started.

When the 1948 Ford pickup I learned to drive on gave up the ghost, dad had the box cut off and made into a trailer – which I pulled with the tractor for countless hours while picking up stones in the fields.

When I needed to drive that trailer and tractor without brakes down the road to the dump, I learned to manipulate the throttle and gear shift to slow sufficiently enough that I never ran into anything that didn’t need to be run into. 

So, my frugality is well earned.

Consequently, when my young children sang their relentless chorus of “I want, want, want, need, need, need, please, please, please,” my most frequent response was, “No, we can’t afford it.”

Admittedly, that excuse was my fall back to avoid drawn out explanations of our standards, versus the Joneses because in some instances we could have made the purchase. I just didn’t want the kids to be caught up in that “gotta have it because Suzy has it” burn cycle.   

The best pizza we ever ate in our house was the weekly Friday special Sue Ellen made to devour while we watched a movie in the wonderful world of VHS and Blockbuster. There was no TV during the week for us, so when we popped in Karate Kid, or Back to the Future or Flight of the Navigator, it was a special time made more special by the rectangles of crispy thin crust topped with pepperoni, hamburger, cheese and jalapenos.

On rare occasions, however, I’d give Sue Ellen a break and splurge for a ready made pizza for our Friday night extravaganzas. It was a splurge, but one night when I was feeling especially generous I ordered bread sticks to go with the pizza. I realized that night how our kids labored under the wet blanket of our frugality when the oldest son saw the bread sticks and exclaimed, as surely did Aladdin when entering the Cave of Wonder, “Wow, dad must be doing really well.”

I long for the days when I could impress my kids for a buck.

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.