Dad’s wallet reveals a life

My Norwegian bachelor farmer uncle Donnie treated his wallet like a filing cabinet. He collected each year’s expense receipts in his wallet, which grew fatter with each passing week. 

Each tax season, he emptied the wallet for his tax man who sorted the receipts and paperwork to file Donnie’s taxes. Then, the wallet would slowly fill again during the year, making a continually widening bulge in his pocket. 

One summer – meaning the wallet would be about half full – Don lost it. While climbing a fence, or crawling under a farm implement, or sitting on a jouncing tractor seat, it somehow fell out of his overalls. 

Whatever money was in the wallet was an afterthought. He was distraught about all the records, receipts, his license and the agony of retracing all the lost transactions. His distress was well known to all the family, repeated over each Sunday meal and birthday cake.

Dad’s wallet was a pocket portfolio of his life, including pictures of his grandchildren and his Selective Service card from 1948.

About two months later, my cousin Dickie and I drove the pickup down to the furthest pasture to chase the cows back up to the barn for milking. All of 13-14 years old we parked the truck, climbed the fence into the field of alfalfa – a thick, leafy forage crop about knee high. Mutually lamenting poor Uncle Donnie’s lost wallet and the resulting decrease in the “wages” he generously bestowed on his nephews, I said to Dickie, “Wouldn’t it be something if we found Donnie’s wallet?”

At that moment, as if a star ripped a seam into the heavens to beam a shaft of light at our feet, we looked down and there was the wallet, seemingly set there atop the ground with a careful hand, with the long tendrils of alfalfa pressed aside. We looked at each other and screamed, jumped up and down, picked up the wallet and headed for the pickup. 

Now, as I said, we were several years too young to be legally driving a truck, but that’s the way it was on the farm. Don taught us how to drive because he needed the help. We relished the privilege and were always very careful drivers.

But now, I possessed not only Don’s long-lost wallet, but also what I knew was a get-out-of-jail pass to drive like a bat outta hell back to the barn. No matter how mad Uncle Donnie would be to see us bouncing and spinning up the dirt track like that, I knew that when I flashed the wallet, everything would be all right. 

And that’s exactly how it turned out. 

With credit cards and electronic records kept online and on cell phones, modern wallets don’t always carry the same identifying history they once did. I mean, goodness, some guys actually carry their wallet in the FRONT pocket now. My dad was more careful with his records than his brother, Donnie. But his wallet still was a valuable filing cabinet for him, and a treasure box of memories. 

My sister Linda sent me dad’s wallet last week. Dad died three years ago, after a fall on ice in Wisconsin, in the town where he was as much a fixture as Main Street. The town where I grew up and graduated from high school, in the same building in which I started first grade.

I was hesitant to delve into that historical trove at first. Going through dad’s wallet was sure to carry me back. How far, I had no idea until I dove in. 

Every part of the wallet’s contents prompted memories. Some items were much older than I would have anticipated. Of course, I was gratified to find pictures of my children, one taken when the youngest could barely sit up straight. Today he’s 36. 

My high school graduation picture was there, as well as an earlier picture of me and two siblings. So much of the content consisted of business cards for his various doctors and insurance carriers. In fact, those were the majority of the items in his pocket filing cabinet. 

Others included a driver’s license, good through 2018. It’s expiration date outlasted his own. 

Maybe most surprising was the presence of dad’s Selective Service registration card, dated Sept. 18, 1948. Maybe he kept it because a line on the bottom of the frayed card says, “The law requires you to have this card in your possession at all times for identification and to advise your Local Board of change of address.” Dad was a stickler for the rules. 

It helps me understand a little better his lack of understanding when I registered as a conscientious objector with my own draft board in 1971. 

Another card dated August 1949 declares dad’s draft status as 3-A – a hardship deferment from being called to service, “because service would cause hardship upon his family.” His first child was born the next month, when dad was 19 and mom was 18.

And then there was the final draft board classification card dated Aug. 24, 1965 that said his draft status was 5-A – over the age of liability for service. That’s a card worth keeping. 

Dad had in his wallet his Social Security card, and cards both for membership in the Teamsters Union and honorary withdrawal from the teamsters seven years later when he was no longer driving milk truck for Bancroft Dairy in Wisconsin. 

Dad’s wallet was a pocket portfolio of a life lived both honorably and dutifully. Thank you, Dad.

You won’t regret it, if you live

Next to a 5,000 lb. bale of cotton in eastern North Carolina

I ride a bike. A lot. I’m within spitting distance of 5,000 miles this year. 

Some days on the bike are sheer joy. Like when the wind is at your back, the sun on your shoulders, fields’ fertile pheromones filling your senses as you flitter by, cars giving you a wide berth and hitting 45 mph on a nice downhill and you’re smiling so much you get bugs in your teeth.

Some days are agony. Getting caught in a cold rain, or dark descending before you get home, or a friend crashing or another idiot throwing his Dairy Queen cup out his truck window at you makes you glad to reach your own garage.

But when I get home safe and sound, my skin tingling, my legs gorged with blood, every sense in heightened alert I’m always glad I went. Witnessing my children and grandchildren at the moment they learned to defeat gravity with that one extra push of the pedal to stay upright, stick out among my happiest memories. 

I remember the day I learned to ride.

I must have been 8 or 9 years old. We had no bike at home and we lived in the country where I never really saw cyclists, so it wasn’t like I lived longing to swing my leg over a bike saddle. That is, until we were visiting some family friends who lived in a tiny town and all of Richard’s buddies and him were zipping around the neighborhood like cowboys around their herd. 

On a bridge over the New River near Todd, NC

They weren’t shackled to the picnic table listening to the adults chatting. My sisters were talking boys or playing dolls with Richard’s sisters and I was going to have a long, boring, lonely day if I couldn’t latch onto the guys on their bikes. 

As much as I was intimidated by their easy rider skills, I ventured that it would be better to risk and fail than to consign myself to the outside looking in. Because the Almes had lots of kids, there was a spare bike and Richard encouraged me to come with him. 

Not having yet adopted the mantra “fake it ‘til you make it,” I confessed I didn’t know how to ride. “We’ll show you,” he said. And they did. 

I think the potential embarrassment of failure prompted my determination to succeed and I knew they didn’t intend to waste their afternoon teaching me a skill they were itching to employ. So, within probably 20 minutes, I was gallivanting around the neighborhood with all the vigor, confidence and windblown thrills of the gang. 

My legs still tingle remembering that critical moment of revelation when I trusted Richard and pushed the pedal one more time as I was about to fall over, instead of putting my leg out to catch myself. Risk, push, success. 

In a moment, I went from a near knee-scraped, broken-armed failure to being a rider. That day remains one of my favorites. I rode the wheels off that thing and when the other boys went home, I didn’t want to stop riding. 

And now, many of my favorite memories involve a bike. Riding with my kids and grandkids, RAGBRAI, hitting 50 mph down a hill, organized charity rides with friends, packing a clean jersey and a pair of shorts and riding for six days to the North Carolina coast, watching the fields we pass regularly transition from fallow to plowed to planted to harvested. 

A bike will take you to places, at a pace, you simply can never achieve on foot because you can’t go far enough or behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle because you can’t go slow enough. On a bike you’ll smell the teeming, loamy fields and the fresh cut grass – and people’s dryer sheets – and feel the warm womb of a wet breeze that heralds a coming storm.  

Deer won’t know whether to dart in front of you or hang by the ditch. Kids on porches wave and shout as you pass. And car-bound mortals fuming at stoplights as dusk falls shake their heads behind headlights and windshield wipers and mutter insults at the women who gave birth to such crazy guys in garish garments.

Still, any day on the bike is better than a day on the computer at which I write this. I concur with Mark Twain, who said, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

What part of our one body are refugees?

“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” – Burley Coulter in The Wild Birds, by Wendell Berry

Across the globe two waves of people ebb and flow, washing up, then back into each other like waves at the beach, roiling where the water that rushed to the sand loses momentum and falls back toward the ocean, just as the next wave pushes past it. Water lemmings rushing to their own demise. 

These are the human tides rushing to get out of somewhere, and the waves of people rushing to get into somewhere else. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency almost 70 million refugees wander the world, including 41 million displaced in their own countries,  fleeing turmoil, famine, war, drought, disease. The very uncivil war in Syria spiked a large increase since 2011. 

Refugees may live in squalor for years, hoping for a new home that never materializes. (Getty image)

You’ve seen the images of frightened families lugging everything they can carry, dragging their chins and bins down dusty roads in a long stream, desperate to leave behind whatever demon is tearing up their lives. Where are they going? Away. Just, away. 

They’ve cast their lot on their god and on their hopes that the milk of human kindness will somehow give them succor in whatever crowded, dirty, hungry, dangerous camp they land in next week or next month when they “arrive” at this safe haven. 

That human teat is drying up. 

Witness the wave of wanderers who washed up on the beach of the Mexico-American border and are now hunkered down waiting for a chance to present their plea for asylum to a skeleton crew of U.S. judges, operating under a “first, deny” mandate. Or the governments – and citizens – of Greece and Turkey who are saying “no more.” Stemming the easy movement of refugees from any European Union nation to another is a significant – if unspoken – element of the vote for Britain to leave the EU. 

Post-racist societies? I think not.

In October, for the first time in years, an entire month passed with no refugees officially resettled in the United States. None. The U.S. has been generous in the past with refugee resettlement, although not as generous per capita as some other nations. Under the current administration, the cap is 18,000 per year, a historic low at a time when the number of refugees is at a historic high.

This, as thousands wait for their applications to be considered. Many are huddled in squalid camps in the shadow of ports of entry, wondering where their children are, from whom they’ve been separated. Others wait in camps on the other side of the world, victims of conflicts in which we meddle – to keep the oil safe, and our access to it, secure.

Resettlement agencies, funded per capita by the number of refugees they resettle, are laying off workers and some are closing altogether. If/when our country is more open to welcoming “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses” whose industry has helped to make this country strong, resettlement agencies may not be well positioned to gear up smoothly to start again conducting their business. 

Veteran’s Day prompts such thoughts. I’m one of America’s last draftees, destined for the Army in September 1972 when my draft lottery number came up one. First. Uno. Clarity. 

America has been involved in global conflict for my entire life. Every day, if you count the unresolved status of the Koreas. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance,” we sang as students, marching Easter morning while Viet Nam still raged. 

Of the 195 countries in the world, we have troops in 177.  Some would say the presence of American troops IS giving peace a chance. Others would say the presence of our troops in other countries is the seed that grows the tree of resentment, whose fruit is conflict.

Geography is a wicked stepmother.  I’ve stood with my foot on the spot where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. An inch or two either way and I’m in another state. 

A baby born on the south side of the river is Mexican; born on the north side is American. The pregnant wife of a Russian oligarch flies to Miami to have her baby and suddenly an americantsky grows up in Moscow.   

As Wendell Berry’s character Burley Coulter says, “We are members of each other,” whether we know it or not.  

Somehow the attitude that “I’ve got mine, too bad about you,” seeped into the mantra of humanity. Freedom isn’t a pie, where there is less for me if I give you a slice.

When we close our arms, our doors, our hearts the body suffers. How many of the 5,000 children in American custody – separated from their parents in a misguided and cruel effort to discourage people from South America from trying to come to the U.S. – will never be reunited with their families? Some are too young to remember their own names, to say nothing of their parents’ names, or from what town and fear they fled.

            We are members of each other. As the Bible says, we are members of the same body. (Romans 12:4-5) 

            Today, my heart part hurts. 

Lonely at the Lake

A dip in Hyco Lake saved the day.

Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue. – John Eldredge

Of all the great memories from my cross-state bike adventure with my friend Mark,  the most lasting image came from a moment off the bike. 

It was our second day, and hottest. The bank sign said 96 degrees when we rode past. It seemed we climbed all morning and early afternoon as we left the NC mountains and navigated around bodies of water, racing down to them, then slogging back up to level ground. Now, we were crossing Hyco Lake on a short, flat bridge when we looked longingly at the dark, calm water. 

“Every time we cross a lake on a hot day, I want to jump in,” Mark said. I shared the sentiment and when I saw a cabin with a “For Sale” sign on it at the far end of the bridge, I rode into the short driveway, intending to walk unnoticed to the end of its dock and jump in. But, as we rode into the cabin site, the owner came out to attend to something on his deck. 

Unthwarted, I rode up and asked if we could take a dip into the lake from his dock. Skeptical at first, he said, “Go ahead.” 

Mark, hoping tryouts are still open for Olympic underwater dancing team.

Mark stripped to his bike shorts and jumped in. I didn’t want to ride the rest of the day in wet shorts, so I got nakie and jumped. Oh my goodness. Given the day, the ride, the heat, the perfect water temp, the freedom, it was heavenly. 

After we’d gotten refreshed, we air dried a bit. I wiped myself down with my sweaty jersey, put on my dry shorts and walked back up to the cabin. Mark squished his way up to where the owner was back out on the deck. We chatted long enough to learn that he was from Massachusetts and had bought the cabin three years ago to be near his son and grandchildren, who lived about an hour from there. 

“That must have been great,” I said. “Lake house, grandkids, lots of fun.” 

“They only came twice in three years,” he said. “And my relatives from Massachusetts never came.” So, he’s selling the place and moving in with his sister back home. 

I can’t get the image out of my mind. He’s not a rich man, he said. The lake home wasn’t a vacation spot. He planted his life there so he could be near his son and grandchildren – an hour away. They came only twice in three years. 

No one visited from Massachusetts. Not once. It costs 80 bucks to get the yard mowed, and his boat looked like something you’d put your supervisor in, hoping to create a sudden job opening. He couldn’t stay. No reason to.

He was a lonely man, lonely enough to leave his grandchildren and move in with his sister back home. We thanked him, wished him well, and took off – up the hill away from the lake and on to Roxboro. 

I don’t know the family dynamics. Maybe he was hard to get along with, maybe he mistreated his son’s mother. But to uproot your life in your retirement years, move 700 miles to be close to your grandchildren, and then be ignored – that just struck me as too, too sad.

There are lots of lonely people out there. For lots of reasons. Don’t let some of them be your grandparents. And, don’t be afraid to say hello to strangers.

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

Mother’s Day 2019

HS graduation

Mom, left, at my high school graduation. Sisters Denise, and Linda, and Dad.

I know special remembrance holidays are fabrications woven to sell cards, flowers and candy. But this Mother’s Day is Sunday and something today about the beautiful weather and lunch with the mother of my children made me pause and remember my own mother, Barbara, who died at age 64 in 1996.

She was a lovely woman and a wonderful hostess, always ready for company no matter how late or how unexpected. I realize now we didn’t talk a lot, but she was always ready if I wanted to open up, not that she ever did. I never knew how ill she was until 19 days before she died.

Our night time ritual was for me to give her a kiss when I headed upstairs to bed. She was usually reading on the sofa and had a toothpick between her lips. She’d somehow make it disappear into her mouth while we exchanged a quick peck on the lips and then it would reappear.

I can still remember the night – and the look on her face – when I decided I was too old for that ritual. I had thought about it for a while and I agonized all day. Somehow, I knew what it meant. When I headed toward her, I saw her pop the toothpick into her mouth.

But, then I turned to go upstairs. Surprised, she said, “No kiss?”

“Ummm, no,” I said. She never mentioned it again but I think dad caught her eye and nodded, acknowledging silently that I’d climbed another rung on the ladder toward adulthood.

Mom was very prudish, embarrassed if anyone talked about body parts and she certainly didn’t tolerate her kids walking around in any state of dress that would not be considered “fully clothed.” On the day of my wedding she took me aside and confessed she probably ought to tell me about the birds and bees, “but you probably know more about it than I do, anyway.”

That, in its entirety, was her version of, “the talk.”

So, it was quite surprising when eight months later I brought my new bride home from Oklahoma to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. On the first night in my childhood home as a married man I found an apple on the bedside table. I picked it up, looked it over, shrugged, and put it back.

The next morning, I asked mom why she’d put an apple by the bed.

“It’s a contraceptive,” she said.

I laughed. “Was I supposed to eat it before…or after?”

“You were supposed to eat it instead,” she said.

I told that story in her eulogy. At the Lutheran Church in Rio, WI where we all grew up, population 788. My dad told me the population stayed at 788 because “every time a young lady has a baby, an older man leaves town.”

I delivered dad’s eulogy in the same room, 21 years later. It was the room where I preached the youth sermon – from the wrong pulpit, I learned later. In our divided chancel, only an ordained minister got to preach from the big, ornate pulpit that was high and lifted up. I could use that one legitimately now, if I ever get invited to preach there.

It’s the same room where I acted in Christmas plays – vying to be a speaking star, or an announcing angel and not just a silent, costumed figure filling out the scriptural cast. It was the room where I wore the costumes mom made, and later the coat and tie she picked out.

It was the room where she sat as the bride’s mom when my sister married, and as a grieving daughter-in-law when my grandparents were buried.

When I was a high school junior, I came home from a dance after the football game and woke my parents up to tell them, “I’ve committed the ultimate sin.”

They shot straight up out of bed and took a second to compose themselves before mom – who gave birth to my sister before age 18 – asked me tentatively, “Um, and what was that?”

“I asked a freshman to the homecoming dance,” I said, not understanding until later their audible expulsion of relief.

I know special holidays like Mother’s Day are made up. But, at least it’s a reminder to do or say something special to your mom at least once a year. Take advantage of it.

By the way, kids, Father’s Day is June 16.

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.