Monday, August 30, 2010

Roadside Angel?

Years back, sometime in the mid-70s, I was working at a charismatic conference in South Bend, Indiana. In order to save money on housing, I thought I could stay with my parents, who lived in metro Chicago; since, you know, South Bend isn't so very far from Chicago, right? (It hadn't really occurred to me to look at an actual map; I was 19 or 20, and still in the 'Learning Things the Hard Way' stage of my life) (It also hadn't occurred to me that I'd be finishing up in South Bend around 11PM, and that, even if my folks lived on the near side of Chicago from South Bend, I wouldn't get to bed until after midnight; but in fact, my folks live almost as far from South Bend as it is possible to live, in the Chicago metro area, so it was closer to 2AM) (Live and learn, right?). A friend of mine named Ron was also interested in saving housing money, so I arranged with my folks for him to stay with me at their house, too. Ron actually owned a car, so he became my transportation, while I was providing the housing, so it worked out well for both of us. In fact, since I was the one who actually knew how to get to my parents' house, Ron just tossed me the keys and had me drive, so at least in terms of available hours of sleep, it actually worked out a little better for Ron than me. Since I was thinking that it would be about an hour or so of driving from the conference to my folks' house, I was growing more concerned as the hour came and went, and we were just starting to come upon landmarks that I knew were still an hour or more from our destination. And I had an eye on the gas gauge, since we were obviously going to be putting on quite a few more miles than I had thought, and at hours of the night when open gas stations wouldn't be easy to find. Finally, we got to the freeway exit for the surface road which would take us to my mom-and-dad's house in just seven more miles, and with the gas needle showing about 1/8 full, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that we'd be able to fill the tank in the morning. We'd driven a mile or two of the seven when suddenly, the car sputtered, the engine quit, and we rolled to a stop on the side of the road, still five miles or more from our destination. Ron, who had been sleeping, stirred awake. "What's going on?" Uh, the car just stopped. "Oh, yeah; I meant to tell you - when the gas gauge reads 1/8 of a tank, it's really empty." (*dumbfounded stare*) Man, I wish I'd known that an hour ago, bro. . . "Sorry. So what are we gonna do?" (*sigh*) I have no idea. I suppose we could pray (We were just coming from a charismatic conference, after all). "What good is THAT gonna do? It's 2AM, we're out of gas, and there's no place open we could even walk to." You got a better idea? "No, I suppose not." And so we prayed. Before we had even finished our prayer (which, to the best of my recollection went something like, 'Oh, God - please HELP! Uh, amen.'), a pair of headlights appeared behind us on the road, and pulled in behind us. We were wondering if it might be the police, or someone like that. The door of the car opened, and the driver approached our car. He was a pretty dorky-looking guy, with a funny-looking haircut, a plaid sport-jacket, a bow-tie, and plaid pants that didn't match his jacket. I rolled down my window. "You guys need some help?" Well, uh. . . yeah. We're out of gas. "Oh. Okay. Hang on a second." He went back to his car and opened the trunk (it was difficult to see exactly what he was doing, what with the glare of his headlights, and all). As he walked back to our car, he was carrying a large can. When he got back to my window, he held up a 5-gallon gas can. "Is this enough?" Ummm. . . yeah! That's way more than we need, actually - we've only got to go five miles or so. "No problem!" Then he went to the fill tube and emptied the entire 5-gallon can into our tank, while I looked at Ron with a smug, 'and-here-you-didn't-want-to-pray' smile. We were still shaking our heads at the whole thing - us praying, and then Mr. Unmatched-Plaid-Suit coming instantly, the only other vehicle we'd seen since leaving the freeway, and he just happening to have a full 5-gallon can of gas in his trunk - when we noticed that our mysterious benefactor was gone. We hadn't seen him leave, he hadn't come back to speak to us after filling our tank, we hadn't gotten to thank him, we hadn't noticed his tail-lights continuing on down the road. He'd just done his good deed and. . . vanished. Ron and I looked back at each other, now with more of a 'man-this-is-really-weird' expression on our respective faces. Ron finally spoke. "Do you think. . . that might have been an angel?" I have no idea. But this whole thing sure fits with how I might imagine one. (Though, to be perfectly candid, I hadn't really imagined that an angel, if I ever met one, would be quite so dorky-looking; who knew?) I turned the key, and the car started instantly. A few minutes later, I was letting us into my parents' front door. The next morning (bright and early, you can be sure, now that we knew just how long it was gonna take us to get back to South Bend), my mom fed us breakfast, and (*ahem*) after filling the gas tank, we drove back to the conference. And the second night, we borrowed some floor space with other friends of ours, in one of the on-campus dorms. . .

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day of the Turtles; And, a Count

This past Saturday, we had a family reunion, at my cousin's house, about an hour's drive from Our Town. My cousin and her husband have a great place, nestled into the woods in the midst of what is otherwise mainly farm country. Her husband Mick also dug out a small pond at the lower end of their property, which is fed by no less than two springs on their land, which he diverted to fill the pond. So, when we go there, some of the folks fish from the pond; he also has a little pedal-boat, and some of the kids like to just paddle around on the pond. And, he brought in a load of sand, which he dumped on a corner of the pond, to make a little beach for the kids to swim on. So, we always have a great time at this particular reunion, which is for the descendants of my paternal grandparents. Mainly, these days, that means my cousins and their kids and grandkids (and some of my cousins, who are only a few years older than I am, but married young and got right down to the business of begetting, are getting distressingly close to becoming great-grandparents). My dad is the only one of my grandparents' children still living, but his health hasn't allowed him to make the five-hour trip to be at the reunion for the last few years. One of his brothers' widows - the mother of my cousin who hosts the festivities - is in her 80s, and still comes to the reunion, but she is the only one from her generation who can still come. When I was a kid, I always loved the holidays, when we'd all get together at Grandma & Grandpa's farm, and play in the barn, and whatever else. I just really enjoyed my cousins, and the whole extended-family thing. But around the time I was in junior-high and high school, we stopped seeing quite so much of each other, for various reasons, some of which I'm sure I don't even know. But, around ten or fifteen years ago, possibly spurred by the growing awareness that our parents' generation was passing from the scene, several of my cousins started organizing a reunion, and it has been a very good thing, even recapturing some of the relationships that we had all those years ago, when our grandparents were still alive. My cousins have gone in various and sundry directions in their lives; some went to college, some didn't. Some have strong marriages, some have been through a succession of spouses and significant-others. But, when we get together, it's just us, and it's good. ------------------------- Last year, at this reunion, Mick (my cousin's husband, and our host) created a mild sensation by passing around, as a kind of show-and-tell, the shell of a large-ish snapping turtle that he'd caught out of his pond; it was about twelve inches across. He'd killed it, butchered it (if 'butchering' is what you do to a turtle), and, in the fullness of time, ate it. It was cool to see how the turtle's backbone was integral with the shell, and just passing it around and checking it out amounted to a small science lesson. Which was very cool, all in its own right; Mick is a carpenter by trade, and one of those 'outdoors-y' guys who hunts and fishes, and just generally lives 'closer to the earth' than us more citified cousins do. He's not 'educated' in the formal sense, but he's a story-teller, and I have learned all manner of fascinating stuff just sitting and swapping stories with him. Now, the idea of killing and eating a turtle just captured Jen's imagination, and she told Mick that, if ever it were possible, she would be delighted to partake of turtle at some future date. So, this year, Jen and I, and the three of our kids who came with us (5M, 6F, and 8M; the others were all otherwise occupied in various and sundry directions) arrived early, and were standing around the kitchen, talking with a couple of my cousins, and my aunt, when one of the cousins made some mention about the oven, and how soon the turtle would be done. Which caused Jen to perk right up - "There's turtle? You made turtle?!?" Indeed. So, when we were all seated around the tables in the garage (it was raining), partaking of our potluck feast, Mick came through with a small bowl filled with bits of meat. "Who wants to try some turtle?" Of course, he came first to Jen, and she took a couple pieces and sampled them. I was sitting next to her, so the bowl came to me next. I looked into the bowl; there were bits of light meat, and bits of darker meat. Some of it looked a bit gristly, but it was otherwise unremarkable. Mick said that, in general, the lighter meat was more tender, so I grabbed a bit of that. I looked at it questioningly for a second, popped it into my mouth, and began chewing it. And guess what? It tasted just like chicken (terribly, terribly cliche'd, I know, but it did). A tad chewier than chicken, but that was pretty much the basic flavor. . . I watched as Mick took his bowl of turtle-meat around the garage, and offered it to everyone there. Some folks (maybe a quarter of them) wanted no part of it, and passed on the opportunity. Most of the 'city cousins' had a reaction similar to mine - not quite sure what to expect, and not quite sure they really wanted to try it, but they were game to give it a shot. So, a real life experience there - I've eaten turtle. And I liked it just fine. . . ------------------------- A while later, the rain stopped, and the kids headed down to the pond, either to fish or to swim. 8M wanted to swim, so Jen and I, and the parents of the other swimmers grabbed seats near the 'beach'. Suddenly, a couple of the kids were jumping up and down, all excited, and they came to show us what they'd found - a baby turtle, with a shell about an inch across. It was pretty newly hatched, too, since its shell was still leathery soft. Within a couple days after hatching, the shell would be hard, just like an adult turtle, so this was a pretty new one. As we held the baby turtle in our hand, one of the other kids came running up, with another baby turtle in his hand. And then another, and another. We had the kids take the babies down to the water, and let them swim. And before long, we saw a couple more, who were slowly making their way down the beach toward the water, with the unerring sense that has been programmed into generations of snapping turtles since the dawn of turtle-kind - get out of your shell, and head for the water. And not a one of 'em headed away from the water, either; they popped out of their shells, and they just knew where to go. And then, sitting back and taking the whole scene in, we saw a tiny movement in the sand. From a small hole in the sand, maybe an inch or so in diameter, a small head popped up. Six or eight pairs of human eyes watched in fascination as yet another baby turtle, his head the size of a pencil eraser, crawled out of the tunnel into which he'd been laid. He paused for several minutes as his head popped out of the hole. Perhaps he was adjusting to the bright sunlight; perhaps the presence of so many human creatures staring at him was the least bit scary. Or perhaps, as is the way of turtles, he just wasn't in that big a hurry. At length, he decided, for whatever reason, that he needed to get on with his business, so he pulled himself up out of the hole, turned toward the water, and crawled down to it. The parents who were on hand to view the baby-turtle spectacle, were all pretty well in awe of what they were seeing. But we were laughing because the kids, who were all 8M's age (eight) or younger, were no doubt thinking that this sort of thing happens all the time, and might even be disappointed if, at next year's reunion, there are no baby turtles going down the beach for the first time. . . ------------------------- Yesterday, I went out on my bike, as I am fond of doing during the warm-weather months (and even some of the not-so-warm ones). I planned on a 45-mile ride, which would put me over 1000 miles for the year, the fourth consecutive year I've made four-digit miles on my bike, and the earliest I've passed that milestone in at least the last 15 years. I was just past the 30-mile mark, when I ran over a sharp stone, causing my rear tire to go flat. I pulled off the road, and dug through the little gear bag on my bike, looking for the spare inner tube that I always carry with me. But alas, I had no spare inner tube. I called Jen on my cell phone, asking her to look around the house to see if there was a spare tube anywhere in the house. She looked around for a while, but there was no tube to be found. She hung up and called a couple of the local bike shops, to see if they were open on Sunday afternoon, with an inner tube she could buy for me. They were all closed. So reluctantly, I told her she might as well just come and pick me up, since my ride for the day was done. I snapped my cell phone shut, and stood by the side of the road waiting for Jen to arrive. A woman drove up in an SUV, pulling to a stop in front of me. She rolled down her window. "Do you need anything?" Not unless you've got a spare inner tube, thanks. "I've got one." You do? Well, it has to be a Presta valve (at this point, I should explain, as briefly as possible, that there are two types of air valves that are commonly used on bike inner tubes. The large majority of bike wheels are made to accept Schrader valves, which are the same as the ones on your car tires; the 'higher end' bikes tend to use Presta valves, which to the uninitiated, can seem like a fairly 'bike-snobby' thing; maybe it is, but the salient point here is that my bike needs a Presta valve, and Presta valves are not nearly so commonly found - if someone has a Presta valve, they don't have it by accident) "Yes, it's a Presta valve." And at that point, my jaw hit the ground. I don't know what the odds might be that a random person driving by might just happen to offer me a Presta-valved inner tube, but it would likely be on the order of one-in-multiple-thousands. And yet, here she was, my Presta-tube angel. She called her husband on her cell phone (it's occurring to me that cell phones are playing a rather prominent role in this story; I wonder how we managed to get home from flat tires in the days before cell phones), and within 10 minutes, he pulled up alongside me and tossed an inner tube to me. I tried to pay him for it, but he'd have none of it. We swapped a couple DALMAC stories, and he was on his way. I should mention that I was just able to contact Jen before she left the house, to ask her to bring the bike pump to me, instead of just taking me home. Because I've left myself a fairly gaping hole in my roadside-repair readiness. I carry a small toolkit with me, and a spare tube, but I don't have a frame-mounted pump. So if I get a flat (and this year, I've had at least three of them; I can't ever recall having so many in a single season; I've gone several entire years without ever having to fix a flat), I can get the wheel off the bike, remove the dead inner tube, install the new inner tube (assuming, that is, that I have one), and put the wheel back on the bike. But I can't inflate the new tube. (*sigh*) So that means that, three times this year, I've had to call Jen to bring me the floor pump that we have at home, just so I could pump my tire back up, after having done everything else. But for now, the major point is to count the incredible blessing of a passing motorist tossing me a thousand-to-one shot, just so I could finish my ride. Incredible. (And I didn't even get her name, or her husband's; if either of them happen to be reading this blog post, my gratitude knows no bounds. . .)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thank God for Mush Balls

I'm just over a week removed from my annual tour of duty at our community's Summer Camp. I've been to this camp virtually every summer since 1992, so this was my 19th camp. As I've done every time but one, I was the Camp Clown Music Director. Which just might be the best job in the whole camp. I get to sing and play my guitar A LOT (and this year, I even had some callouses built up in advance on the fingertips of my left hand, so the suffering quotient was less than it has sometimes been), and just generally provide random goofiness levity. And of course, the kids love me. I also do a couple other things at camp - I help with one of the boys' Bible Studies, and run the afternoon softball game, both of which I love to do. One of the other staffers, who was the Camp Director for several years, helps with the softball game; every year we have a light-hearted competition over whose teams win more games during the week. Every day, we pick new teams from the campers and staff who show up to play. Typically, I'll have the players line up against the backstop, and just count 'em off 1-2-1-2-etc. One day, we'll line up shortest-to-tallest; another day, by birthdays (January at one end, December at the other); another day, alphabetically by their middle names (which always seems to take longer than it should); and another day, alphabetically by their mothers' maiden names (I was a little leery of this, given how hard it was to line 'em up by middle names, but they did fine with it). 1's will be my team, 2's my buddy's (or vice-versa; I don't keep that close a track). In bygone years, we played with the tight, hard-ish softballs (which are still a good deal softer than a baseball), and those things would fly when we hit 'em well. I don't know the precise dimensions of our field, but the 'outfield' is surrounded by trees. If a camper hits a ball into the trees on the fly, it's a home run; if a staffer does, it's an out. So the pitchers will feed the heavy hitters among the staff a steady diet of 'meatballs', hoping to goad them into hitting the trees. And if a staffer's team is either ahead or behind by a large margin, he might just swing for the trees anyway, for the ego boost. There is an art to hitting the ball hard, but just short of the trees, so it won't 'draw green' as we call it, but will roll into the woods, which just about guarantees a home run, since it's pretty hard to get a clean throw out of the woods. In all my years at camp, only one camper has hit the ball into the trees during a live game - my son, 4M (*shameless proud-papa grin*). That's mostly because, the way the field is laid out, the trees in right field are a good bit closer than in left or center, so a left-handed-hitting kid who's had an early growth spurt (4M is both) is at a pretty good advantage over the other kids as far as hitting the ball into the trees. A few other kids have come real close to hitting the trees, including 3M and this year, 7M, who both missed by just a foot or two in their 6th-grade year (the oldest kids at the camp). And both of them, after the last game of the week passed without them having reached the trees, stayed after, and took 'batting practice' until they finally 'drew green'. One kid, who'd striven mightily during his camper years to reach the trees, without success, returned as a staffer when he was in high school, and hit the trees at last; even though he was out, he threw his hands in the air, and skipped around the bases anyway. Hitting the trees got a bit more difficult a few years ago, when we decided to switch from the tight, stiff balls, to 'safety' balls, which are spongier and a little bit heavier, and don't fly as far as the balls we used to use. I had no issue with the change; it really only made sense, if we were gonna have 250-lb adults and 50-lb third-graders playing together on the same field. And really, as far as the staff is concerned, a lower likelihood of hitting the trees means a greater likelihood of actually reaching base safely. The 'mush balls' do tend to bounce strangely, especially on fly balls to the outfield (think about balls bouncing over the outfielders' heads in the old Minnesota Metrodome) (better yet, don't think about that), and they have a few other annoying properties, but in general, we've accepted them. ------------------------- So this year, I was struggling a bit at the plate, at least in the early part of the week. These days, I don't play a whole lot of softball anymore, so sometimes it takes me a game or two to get my 'hitting eye' dialed in. Plus, I tend to overswing at first, which results in a lot of weak popups, instead of line drives to the gaps of the outfield. As I relaxed a bit, and just concentrated on making contact, and not on crushing the ball, the line drives returned. And so it was that on Thursday afternoon of camp week, I came to the plate. I'm pretty sure my team was behind when I came up, and we had a couple runners on base. The shortstop for the other team was a 5th-grader named Juan Pablo, who was one of the better players among the campers (which was not unrelated to why he was playing shortstop); he could hit well and field his position, and so we didn't have to worry about 'hiding' him somewhere he wouldn't get hurt. (*sigh*) So I came up to bat, thinking I just needed to make solid contact, and put the ball in play somewhere. The pitch came in, and I swung, not trying to crush the ball, just hit it 'down-and-hard' as we say. And the ball shot off my bat like a rocket, probably the hardest I hit a ball all week. And it hit Juan Pablo right in the face. The ball was so 'hot' that the kid, as good a player as he was, didn't even have a chance to deflect it with his glove, and he went down like he'd been shot, while everyone looked on in horror. The guys who got to him first said that he was never unconscious, so that was good, but his nose was bleeding like a faucet. One of the other counselors scooped him up and took him over to the nurses' station. The nurse got him cleaned up, and induced his nose to stop bleeding. Then she did some basic checks to determine if his nose was broken (she was pretty sure it wasn't), or if he had a concussion (she was pretty sure he didn't). She kept him for observation for an hour or so, and when he was alert and breathing freely, she turned him loose, and a few minutes later, he was horsing around in the swimming area, with a purplish bruise across the bridge of his nose. While all the staff who'd been at the softball game exhaled. It occurred to me that the mush ball had probably done exactly what we'd switched to it for in the first place. If we'd been using the old, 'tight' balls, it would've come off my bat even faster, and instead of mushing onto the bridge of Juan Pablo's nose, might've broken it, or given him a concussion. I shuddered to think of how many games we'd played in the past with those balls, and perhaps how fortunate we'd been that there hadn't been previous Juan Pablos sent to the hospital. As a camp, you always hate to tell a kid's parents that little Willie is in the hospital (much less that a hefty staffer had smashed a softball off his face). . . On Saturday, when we turned the campers back over to their parents, I made a point to seek out Juan Pablo's dad and tell him what had happened, and encouraged him to talk to the nurse about the basic evaluations she'd done. Dad thanked me for telling him, and mostly laughed that he'd be working with Juan Pablo to be quicker with his glove next time. . .

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Love of My Life - 30 Years and Counting

Today is Jen's-and-my 30th anniversary (and on the auspicious date of 8-9-10, no less). In honor of the occasion, I tried to think about what I could say about her, and our marriage, that I haven't said before. And I'm sure there must be something wonderful about her that I haven't said before - her wonderfulness is certainly greater than my meager powers of description. But, the best thing I could come up with (I'm still pretty tired from summer camp, I guess) is a pair of re-posts (the ol' Two-for-One Anniversary Special); which I hope you'll all enjoy. . .


Our Flashy Wedding

I have many memories of our wedding day. I remember washing my car in the morning, more to kill a couple hours until I had to be at the church, than because my car was so dirty (this ‘what to do until you have to be at the church’ question is a major one for grooms; I’m given to understand that brides don’t typically find themselves at quite such a loss for how to fill their wedding-day mornings. . .)

Once I arrived at the church, there really wasn’t all that much for me to do. All my groomsmen showed up in a timely manner, my brothers took their places as ushers, and I just took some chill time in the sacristy, as the guests started to arrive.

About a half-hour or so before the wedding was supposed to begin, my head-usher, a guy I’ll call ‘Tom’ for purposes of this story, with whom I’d shared a house while I was in grad school, came into the room where I was relaxing, a concerned look on his face. “Ummm. . .” he began. (I don’t know; it just seems to me that your head usher coming to you a half-hour before your wedding, saying “Ummm. . .” might not be a good thing). “Ummm. . . there’s a retarded guy out in the parking lot, exposing himself to the guests as they arrive.”

I just stared at him, blankly. “So, what do you want me to do?” he asked, as I contemplated the image of my grandmother being greeted in the church parking lot by a mentally-challenged flasher. The fact that it was a Catholic church parking lot is probably worth noting, because my family is not Catholic, and some of them, possibly including my grandmother, held less-than-flattering opinions of Catholics and Catholicism, even apart from any consideration of parking-lot flashers.

“Huh?” I replied, quickly grasping the gravity of the situation.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Tom,” I replied, with all the mellowness I could muster at that point, “I asked you to be my head-usher so I wouldn’t have to think about stuff like this. I’m sure you can figure something out.”

For a couple seconds, he stared back at me. “Right,” he finally said, and hustled off. I’m told that the police were called, and our flasher friend was relocated away from the church parking lot before too many of our guests’ retinas were seared with images of his genitalia. The wedding proceeded without too many further glitches, Jen and I were well and thoroughly married to each other, and the rest, as they say, is history. . .


The Love of My Life

A few years back, a blogger wrote me an e-mail, in which she said, among other things, “You entered into marriage with the love of your life.” And I know what she was talking about. Jen is indeed The Love of My Life, and blessed am I because of it.

A few years ago, Jen had a little daily tradition - when I would come home at the end of the day and she heard the back door open just before dinner-time, she'd call out, “Is that The Love of My Life?” Which was wonderfully heart-warming for me. I'd usually respond by saying, “I sure hope so!” And as time went on, the younger kids joined in the fun. So that, when I opened the back door, 8M would often come running; when he saw that it was me, he’d run to Jen, calling out as he went, “Mom! It’s The Love of Your Life! The Love of Your Life is home!” It doesn’t get any better than that, let me tell you.

But, truth to tell, I didn’t marry the Love of My Life; I’m married to the Love of My Life, but she wasn’t that when we got married. Some of you actually did marry the Love of Your Life – your high-school sweetheart, maybe, or someone whom you just knew, within minutes of your first meeting, would end up sharing your life with you. That wasn’t the case for Jen and me. When we got married, I was marrying a very good friend, someone with whom I shared several important life goals and aims, with whom I got along very well, and whose company I enjoyed enough to think that we could actually have a life together. She agreed with me enough to accept my proposal (heck, the two of us getting married was probably her idea, before it was mine); we got married, and la, la, how the life went on.

It’s almost funny to look back on it now, but Jen still tells people that our first year of marriage was the worst year of her life. Her adjustment to the new ‘life-together’ was a bit harder than mine, I guess. . . But, somewhere along the line, over the ensuing years (30 of 'em, now), she became the Love of My Life. We put in the necessary work, we shared our lives, we suffered together, and in the process of all that, our two lives became one, to the point that I can’t imagine my life without her. This woman, whom I liked and admired way back when, has proven to be even more solid, more admirable, and more amazingly wonderful than I thought she was. . .


Happy Anniversary, Sweetheart. Spending the past 30 years together with you has been a joy and a privilege.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Gone Fishin' (Except I Don't Fish Much)

Jen and I, and six of our kids, will be gone to Summer Camp all week. We'll see you all when we return. Until then, here's a photo from last year's camp, to remember us by:
(Tie-dye socks and napkin head-scarf by Lime)