March Basketball: More Magic than Madness

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to appreciate – at least a little – the frenzy around March Madness, when 68 men’s college basketball teams and 64 women’s teams line up in a three-week frenzy to chase a national championship.

I was a piddling part of the madness 20 years ago when my son Nathan’s team, the UNC Greensboro Spartans, won the Southern Conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Our reward was a trip to San Diego to take on Stanford, the No. 1 team in the country. 

UNCG featured Nathan after his selection as Academic All-American.

The story would be incomplete without recalling the dramatic way we won the Southern Conference championship. We led Chattanooga the whole game, until they scored a couple baskets at the end, including a length of court layup to take their first lead, with about two seconds left. 

The roar of Chattanooga fans’ delirious exuberance thundered through the gym like an Amtrac Express. They were sure they had just snatched a victory, the championship, and an NCAA bid. But, a 79-foot pass to our junior center David Shuck, who dribbled once and laid it in at the buzzer, snatched it right back and UNCG fans raised our own roar that would have collapsed the walls of Jericho. 

We won. We were champs. We were in. Shuck’s two-second trip down the lane validated all the turmoil, trauma, tumult and thrills of Nathan’s basketball career. It rewarded his work and sacrifice of 16 years, including midnight shooting practice in the cold rain after a bad game. 

Bounce, bounce, bang, rattle, swish. We woke to the sound of Nathan shooting on the garage rim after a rare junior high loss. “Tell him to come in out of the rain,” Sue Ellen said to me. I considered it a moment, then said, “Nope.” He was working toward March, eight years hence.

When he was being recruited, one of his considerations was to choose a school and team that he thought could make it to the NCAA. A couple schools he turned down made it there first, but as a four-year starter, he was instrumental in getting the Spartans their shot.

Winning any championship is a rare moment and I was incapable of fully absorbing its majesty, through the chaotic elation spilling through the shouts, laughter, hugs and screams of our fans. After a few moments immersed among them, I walked quietly to the other side of the floor, to observe it, to open the aperture of my senses wider, to get a wide-angle view of it all and etch it like a chisel into the marble of my memory. 

As I turned back toward the action, Nathan was suddenly there. He had followed me, pulling away from his teammates, fans and well-wishers to wrap his arms around me in a long, sweaty, exuberant embrace that was 16 years in the making. He’d been playing basketball in a uniform since he was six years old. 

It was our best hug ever, until 18 years later when – at a men’s retreat he facilitated – I discovered in myself and confessed to him what drove me through life to keep from being caught from behind. 

In fourth grade, in a new state, we walked into a gym full of strangers for the local county league “draft.” The coach who picked him said later that he’d seen Nathan walk into the gym and he “walked like an athlete.” By sixth grade Nathan was player of the year in the conference. By senior year of high school he was North Carolina private school player of the year and by senior year of college he was first team Academic All-American. 

One day I asked Sue Ellen to name her top three basketball memories of Nathan’s career. I knew what mine were. She named hers. We matched. 

First, the high school game in which, with his future college coach watching, he scored 27 as Wesleyan Academy beat rival Greensboro Day for the first time. 

The Spartan’s basketball program Nathan’s senior year implied this was the year to win it all.

Second, on a cold night with ice pelting the roadways, UNCG was scheduled to play at Davidson, a school that had recruited him early, then backed off because he was “too slow to play at this level.” Nathan’s wife, Robyn, had driven to our house so we could drive to the game together. Caution urged me to stay home, until I noticed Robyn’s Jeep in the driveway. Hmmm…Jeep. Four-wheel drive. Off we went.

We trailed by 15 in the first half as the falling snow seemed to freeze our shooters’ blood. As far as I could tell, in a packed Davidson on-campus arena, there were no more than six UNCG fans, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stands. In the end zone, a round, fuzzy haired, flush-faced Davidson fan kept pointing at us and laughing as we fell further and further behind.

After halftime, we kept edging inexorably back within range and with the clock racing all too quickly toward zero, “too slow” Nathan earned a defensive stop on their guard, so we got the ball back, and Nathan promptly hit a three. 

Under 10 seconds, trailing by one, we had to foul their senior captain in an attempt to get the ball again. Incredibly, he missed both free throws. We rebounded the second and our guard Courtney Eldredge took the ball down the court full speed and hit a three at the buzzer to win it. 

The gym crashed totally silent except for six UNCG fans screaming like maniacs. I hugged the woman next to me, whoever she was. Then I hugged Sue Ellen, looking over her shoulder for the flush-faced Davidson fan in the end zone. I laughed and pointed at him and he was so mad I thought his head was going to come unscrewed and zip through the gym like a balloon suddenly untied. 

The third best memory, of course, was the championship game. As Nathan recalled in a retrospective published by UNCG this month, it can’t possibly be 20 years  since that incredible game, that amazing experience. But it has been and to all those kids who are playing this month for their “one shining moment,” God bless them all. 

I know what it took to get there, and it’s an experience they’ll always remember.

Watching Below Zero – From Florida

I grew up in Wisconsin, which to many, means i shoveled snow through April. It wasn’t that bad, as typically by April the spring sun cleared the roads and driveways, without benefit of shovels.

I live in the mid-south now but still keep track of the Wisconsin weather because it feeds my smug, self-congratulatory perception that i was smart enough to move away.  In fact, I spend a couple of the coldest months in Florida, where my emotions waver between guilt that i’m more concerned with sunburn than frostbite, and joy that i’m at the beach with sand between my toes, instead of in Wisconsin with snow up my nose.

Not really, there’s no wavering. I’m glad to be at the beach, especially when previewing next week’s weather at my hometown. Yes, next week it is predicted to be 17 degrees BELOW zero. If you go out in that cold, which you shouldn’t, your nose hairs will freeze solid and break off when you feel your face to see if your nose is still there. Any colder and your nose itself would break off. 

The last time I was in Wisconsin for Christmas, it was 13 degrees below zero — which is WHY that’s the last time i was home for Christmas. We traveled there from Oklahoma with three little kids, who couldn’t wait to get outside and play in the snow. We spent 30 minutes wrapping them up tighter than cellophane around last night’s lutefisk

We pushed them out the door and barely got it closed behind them when they were back, whimpering to be let in. 

But, the native Scandahoovians in Wisconsin are a hardy lot and they cope with the frigid temps by changing their greeting from “Ya think it’ll rain before the hay is in?” to “Cold enough fer ya?” When it gets that cold, some of them close their windows.

Growing up there, I once endured a week of minus-50 degree windchill. Dad’s job at the time was to deliver gasoline and home heating fuel to houses and farms in a four-county area. The cold snap burned fuel faster than normal, so people were running out way ahead of schedule. Dad burned the midnight oil all week and was exhausted every night. 

Starting his truck in the mornings was an adventure, and critical for the people running out of heat. He kept the truck in good shape so the engine actually cranked, but the screeching and howling it made to turn over played like the soundtrack of a Stephen King horror flick when the cats fell into the industrial fan.

At least with temperatures like that, it’s too cold to snow. The moisture evaporates before it hits the ground. You’ve heard of “freeze dried” goods? Before we had an electric dryer, we’d use that method for our bedding. 

I’d shovel a path through the snow to mom’s clothesline so she could hang the sheets. Later, she’d carry the sheets into the house, handling them like a section of sheetrock.. She’d set them against a wall, and after a few minutes in the warm house, they’d wilt into a cotton puddle, all dry and smelling fresh.

Some winters had less cold and more snow. When snowplows filled ditches to the brim, massive snow blowers would spray the snow higher and higher until in some places, the mounds were high enough to create snow tunnels. 

This made driving quite dangerous, as traffic signs were covered and we couldn’t see to the left and right. Locals knew to approach intersections very cautiously, in case those unfamiliar with the roads were out on them when they should have been  home shoveling their sidewalks. 

When I first moved to the south, mom told me, “You’ll miss the snow.” I asked her to send me a picture. 

It’s been sufficient ever since.

‘I want to marry your daughter.’

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

“Bob, this is Norman Jameson.” 

“Yes?”

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

“Which one?”

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

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

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

“Do you love her?” 

“Yes sir.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I wanted for Christmas: To Be Found

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

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

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

“Grandpa’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

March of the Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was dizzying. And delightful. 

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

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

You thought THAT was scary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, my frugality is well earned.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Be a spark or get tossed

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

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

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

But this week Oskar died. 

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

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

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

I still use the bag. 

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

We still use the cooler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

Didn’t you used to be somebody?

The entry alcove to our house features glass panels on either side of the solid wood door. It’s a nice touch that enables me to see who is at the door before opening it. The panels also provide a tall, narrow view to my neighborhood and at least twice a day I find myself standing by them, peering out. 

I say “find myself” because I didn’t really intend to go over there like some watcher in the woods. The world outside the glass just drew me. I watch nature’s cycles on the maple tree, from buds, to leaves, to color to bare again. 

Sometimes I see people out there: kids waiting for the school bus, adults getting into cars on their way to work, someone putting a card or letter or bill payment into the mailbox and flipping up the red arm that reminds the mailman not to pass by this box. Often there is a dog walker with a small, warm bag dangling from his hand as if he had just discovered a treasure to which only his dog could have led him.

Mustard’s mug, retired at the local diner, along with his brother Marv’s — my dad — and everyone else whose funerals meant they no longer needed the mugs.

My uncle Donnie – Mustard, to those who knew him from youth – was a Norwegian bachelor farmer right out of Garrison Keillor’s tales from Lake Wobegon. He scratched a living from the sandy loam of southern Wisconsin where he raised corn, alfalfa and oats to feed the 19 head of dairy cows whose milk fed him. 

He didn’t always trust God and nature to do their jobs after he’d worked so hard to prepare the soil for planting. He’d give God a few days to breathe life into the corn seed and then, if he saw no green shoots, he’d nervously walk down to the field, look for the little arched rows of dirt left by the planter, and scratch away the soil just to reassure himself.

Maybe the planter wasn’t working. It put the seeds directly into the ground so you didn’t really see them being distributed, unlike a grass spreader that sprays seed so you know it’s going where it needs to be. Maybe this year the seed was bad. It’s never been bad before, always come up before. But this year, maybe the seed is bad. 

And it’s been dry. Has the seed dried up before a good rain could come germinate it? Or, it’s been really wet. Maybe the seed has drowned. Donnie would scratch at the earth until he found the seed and reassure himself it had gone into the ground and was just fine. From then on, he had to trust. And God never let him down.  

When I stand at my window I feel like Uncle Donnie checking out the field, making sure everything is as it ought to be. I spotted a service man walking around the neighbor’s yard once when no one was home, and I called the neighbor at work to tell him about it. It was OK. He had an appointment and the neighbor was late. 

This morning, on my birthday, I looked out the window and wondered if I would be there to look out the same window in 20 years. If so, I’d be the age of my dad when he died. How would my life be different in 20 years? That’s not a long time. 

I’m reminded of the cartoon my wife and I, both fitness advocates, posted for years on the refrigerator. A couple, about our age, were exercise walking and one said to the other, “What do you say? Two more years and we’ll let ourselves go?”

I don’t intend to let myself go, but stuff happens. I consider myself exceptionally healthy because at age 67 I eat well, take no medicine and can still ride my bike 100 miles in a day. Then I remember I’ve had two emergency surgeries and a broken neck and cracked skull. My mom died of cancer and my dad had a heart attack and bad kidneys. 

I’m also old enough to appreciate my father’s wisdom. When he was finally retirement age I was in the thick of raising my teenage children and spare time was more rare than spare change. I told dad he must appreciate the way days surely linger for him now that he’s older, with fewer responsibilities. 

Instead, he told me, “The older I get, the faster time goes.” I didn’t believe it then. I do now. 

Someone speculated that time goes faster as we get older because each unit of time is a smaller portion of our life than it was when we were young. That last month before Christmas for a five-year-old is a huge, slow moving portion of his entire life. He’s only had 60 months. A month to wait for a 60-year-old is but a blink. He’s had 720 of them. 

I think of my older friends whose social calendar revolves around doctor visits. It’s their excuse to get out and it’s a time when someone important is looking for them, expecting them, preparing to receive them. 

And I think of my friend Cliff who had a very significant career in church ministry and administration across several states. Visiting him at age 92 in the sad, shared room of his nursing home after his wife died, he looked around at his narrow bed, the few pictures taped to his wall, the closet with just a few items hanging there, and said, “I used to be somebody.” 

We assured him his life mattered, that it had counted for good in the lives of his children and in the many he touched through his work and devotion. 

I think of that this morning, standing at my window, staring out at the corn rows of my neighborhood, and wonder if in a few years my friends and neighbors will look at this house, scratch their heads and try to remember the somebody who used to live there.