I walked among the buzzards at an estate sale today.
An estate sale is where a house filled with the relics of a life is picked over like road kill by vultures, tugging and pulling remnants of his memory off the skeleton and carting them off to cars.
Under marital duress, I joined the kettle of vultures who gathered well before the scheduled 9:30 a.m. viewing. Senior adults almost exclusively, none of whom needed anything being offered inside. All of us curious about what we’ll see, about how this man lived, what he’d considered important enough to collect, gather and keep through his final days.
Curious to see if anything in the house was a treasure his children didn’t know of, something we could “steal” for a few dollars and store in our own lockers for our children to offer in our future estate sale.
I chatted up other vultures, most of whom were in good humor, happy to spend a morning picking at the carcass of a deceased man none of us knew personally. We weren’t hungry, really. But if we found a morsel we’d happily chew on it.
And besides, in the cycle of nature – birth, life, death – weren’t we doing our part? Just like real vultures keep the highways clear of road kill carcasses?
I learned our guy was 95 and died after living in the house 30 years. His closets, cubbies and cupboards were filled as if he’d just stepped out for lunch, telling the house, “I’ll be right back.” But now, except for how the estate sale team had arranged and tagged everything, it stands as a cavernous crypt.
I wandered with the flock, poking, pecking and prodding. He loved Christmas music and books on history and architecture. His shirts were once expensive – but dammit, too large. The tools in his garage were well worn. His china cabinet held fine crystal too delicate for me even to want to examine.
It was the bathroom that arrested me. The sink counter was covered with personal care items that revealed an individual vanity, as would all of ours – how he cared for his teeth, his hair, his nails and skin.
Inside the tiled shower stood a collapsible walker, tight and forlorn against the wall. Available. Unused. The walker had wheels on the front two legs, so he could lift the back two legs and roll it along, dropping the back to the floor to rest or stand when he’d gotten to his destination in the house.
The walker – alone among all the mementos of a long life – stood in mute testimony to the infirmities at the end of a long life. And it moved me from carnivore to compassion. I left silently.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
“I’m calling for your blessing because I want to marry your daughter.”
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?”
“Ok then.” I think he was anxious to get back to sleep.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.