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.

Written with Indelible Ink

I ruined my favorite shirt by failing to secure the cap on a pen I stuck in the pocket, and the ink stain was indelible. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t soap it, bleach it, scrub it, cut it or cover it.

Memories are like that. And the funny thing is, often it’s not the significant, dramatic, big events that wedge their way into the dendrites and axon terminals of your neurons, but little things that might have come and gone without comment or impact at the time.

My friend Tim Fields talks about that in his memoir “Indelible Ink: Adventures of a Baby Boomer.” You would like it. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll like it a lot. He shares 16 events written in indelible ink in his memory, each of which shaped his life.

What makes a memory stick?

“Sometimes a simple comment from a parent to a child or from a teacher to a pupil can have a profound effect on someone’s life,” he writes in the foreword. “Even a smile, a frown, a wink or a raised eyebrow can dispense indelible ink. A congratulatory pat on the back or a punitive slap on the cheek can remain in a person’s psyche for life.”

I want to reemphasize the power of the right word. Little comments, angry words, insults, incautious words spoken at the wrong moment or secrets spilled worm into our memories in ways and with permanence we cannot explain or anticipate. Heartfelt, sincere positive words can just as actively attach themselves to our memories and have a much more beneficial effect.

I can point to a dozen memories, good and bad, that stick in my psyche half a century after they occurred, which at the moment seemed of no consequence. Some were throwaway comments by adults, directed toward me, or toward another adult that I overheard.

As a high school basketball player, I wasn’t tall, but I was slow. Because I could shoot the ball, I was on the starting five as a senior, but sixth man Sid was making a strong play for my spot. In the era before a shot clock, our strategy for the upcoming game against the league’s top team was to slow it down, just keep dribbling and passing out front, trying to keep the score close so a break at the end might fall in our favor.

Coach told me Sid was going to start in my place for that game because we needed his ball handling. That’s all he said. My interpretation of what he said was, “Norman, you’re a lousy ball handler.”

Consequently, when I did play in the game I was terrified of getting the ball and played poorly. Until then, as the team’s best shooter, I was all about having it in my hands.

I remember hearing my dad brag about my hard work when I split all the firewood piled in the backyard that would heat our house that winter. And my mom telling a friend that she didn’t really expect me to stick with the dreadful job of cleaning out cow stalls in the heat of summer after they had been unused and neglected for years. But I did.

I also remember Dad admonishing me for not wiping down the shower door in our one bathroom after he’d asked me to do it. When I told him I HAD done it, he pointed out a wet streak. I pointed out the rest of the shower, all dry, and said, “I wiped it down. I just missed a spot.”

When peach fuzz appeared on my cheeks, I used dad’s razor to scrape it off. After several months, he asked me if I was using his razor, because he’d noticed it not staying sharp as long. When I said, “Yes,” he asked, “Why? You don’t need to shave.”

“How would you know?” I asked him in one of the very few times I ever talked back to Dad. “I broke my glasses and held them together with white medical tape and it was two weeks before you noticed they were broken.” I saw hurt flit across his face.

I shot at some birds sitting on a telephone wire, not understanding the possible consequences of buckshot meeting wire. My grandpa Julius worked for the telephone company and it fell to him to come fix the line because the phones up and down the road weren’t working.

When he finished hours later, he came up to me and said it looked like someone shooting at birds had hit the wire. He paused, my heart hit my boots. Then he half-smiled, nodded, and went into the house to get a drink.

Of course, zillions of memories lurk in the crevices and canyons of my mind. Some can be called up instantly, others require the sharp impact like a boot to the brain when my ears snare some comment zipping randomly through time.

Whether we recall them clearly or not, the cumulative impact of comments positive and negative has a great deal of significance in shaping who we are. Remember that the next time your first reaction to a child’s silliness or clumsiness is to yell or say something hurtful.

It’s just words, but like an arrow they pierce. And like feathers from a busted pillow, you can never call them back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.