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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, October 26, 2008

As a Twig is Bent

[Originally posted May 4, 2006, but chronologically this story of the braided trees happened between Chapters 8 and 9 of "Unsettled." Chapter 9 coming soon.]

In the corner of our front entry, there's an old copper umbrella stand with a small collection of walking sticks.

The oldest one is the bent bamboo cane my wife's Grampa Sutton walked with out to his vegetable garden. It's thin, uncomplicated, and strong like he was. There's another one made of a hackberry branch (the one 2nd from the right with a thumb rest). Her father gave me that one the last time we were in Kansas. He used to hike with it a few years ago, but I found it abandoned in his barn. I told him with a little whittling and varnish it would look nice in with the others, and he was happy to let it go. The one with the antler for a grip is made from an ironwood tree I cut at our homestead last year. The corkscrewed stick (beside the stand in the picture) was cut the same day. In a sense, I started making that walkin' stick about 36 years ago, and only finished it today. Now how can that be true if I just cut it last year?

One Saturday back around 1970, my Dad and my brother Dave and I were clearing trails on "the Property." Dad's chain saw was howling away and spewing wood chips in the air. Dave and I were watching him work and doing a little of our own, swinging weed whackers—not the gas-powered kind (it would be years before we heard of those)—the old weed whackers worked pretty much like a five iron.

About every fifteen minutes or so, we'd haul a few wheel barrels full of cut wood off to the south side of the barn. During one spell from whacking and hauling, I got the notion to braid three willowy saplings together. I didn’t know what kind of trees they were—they weren't the same—but they stretched up from the ground about six inches apart, and as young trees do in the dense woods, they grew up toward the sparse sunlight with most of their branches high overhead. I braided them like three strands of rope, mindful not to uproot or break them. When I was done, I showed Dad. "Will they die?" I asked.

"Not right away I suppose, but one thing's for sure: In a few years, if they live, you won't be able to undo them." He picked up his chainsaw and started to yank the starter rope then added, "'As the twig is bent, the tree inclines.'"

I've thought about those words many times as an educator. Some things about each of us are a pretty set by the time we enter school. Not all things, of course, but probably more than we'd like to admit. Dad was quoting Virgil. I didn't know who said it until a few minutes ago when I tried to find it in the Bible. My search came up short. The principle is there, of course, in verses like, Proverbs 22:6 "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." But the quote itself is credited to Virgil from Rome's 1st century BC.

I forgot about the braided trees until thirty-five years later when we were selling off some of the property. I was getting sentimental about the old trails and decided to cut some canes and staffs for future "gifts." That's when I remembered braiding the saplings and walked to that part of the woods to see what had become of them.

When I got to the very spot, there it was... not three braided trees—just one tree holding the shape of the braid. The other trees had long-since rotted away. And in fact, this tree was also dead but sturdy in its place. I think it's hickory or some other hard wood (not oak). It seemed strange to see it there still holding every gentle twist I imposed upon it all those years ago. I have no idea how long it stood there in that dried state, but the wood is solid and strong. It's been in my garage for a year. Today I "finished it" for the collection. It took about two hours—two hours and thirty-six years that is.
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Sage and the School Boy

A lad came by the Fix-it Shop
with another broken toy.
“What is to become of us,"
the old man asked the boy.

What is?” the boy replied,
“we cannot know for sure.
My teacher says what’s truth
for me may not be truth for her.
And 'to become,' she’d say,
means what I want to be
and not, as you’ve suggested,
what God expects of me.
Of us’ the last words of the six,
there at the question’s end,
might mean our fates are shared
alike with foe and friend.
But since we cannot know
what was or is or is in store,
my teacher says 'we just exist--
we are and nothing more.'
And so, you see, your question
was faulty from the start.
If you had gone to school with me,
you might be just as smart.”

With that the lad took back his toy
and scampered out the door.
“What is to become of us?”the old man asked once more.
© Copyright -2008, TK, Patterns of Ink
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A Sage is a sagacious person, one who knows that the simplest, most penetrating questions of life often prompt the answer man wishes most to ignore.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Unsettled" Chapter 8: Two Buildings and a Bridge

Enough politics! I moved those last political thoughts and links to the post below. If you' read this chapter before Friday, you may notice that I've developed the thoughts about the Beech tree a little more since the first draft. Hope you enjoy the next installment of “Unsettled.” Review Chapter Six about the barn (since it ties into this chapter more than Chapter Seven). Click on photos below to see larger photos.
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I should clarify that the “barn” we built from logs does not look like a barn in the “farm” sense of the word. Other than a temporary chicken coup we slapped up beside it once (a project that began with a batch of Easter “chicks” Jimmy raised from peeps to the plate), we never kept animals there.

That's it there behind Dad's old trailer. Inside that black building is the log frame you saw in Chapter Six.
It's less of a "barn" and more of a machine shed, where we kept the tractor, cement mixer, chain saws, log chains, ropes, tools, and an ever-growing collection of used lumber that would someday become our house.

There was also an old wood-burning, cast-iron kitchen stove and the Firestone refrigerator my folks bought in ‘51. The stove was used mostly for heat, but we did cook on it whenever we slept overnight there. By the end of spring, the barn was enclosed. The door latched at the top and bottom, had a crowbar-proof padlock, and a "secret key lock" behind a wooden flap--"That'll fool 'em," Dad joked when he installed it, knowing only an idiot would not spin the block and find the key hole.

Sometimes we’d go out on a Friday after Dad came home from work and spend the night in the barn. We also had Sunday School “roughin’ it nights” in the barn. Dad taught the high school class on Sunday mornings at church and about once a quarter, he’d organize events out at the barn for the guys with perfect attendance and weekly Bible verse memorization.

The winter sleep over was the best. There was sledding on the hill and ice skating on the creek, and good food stewing on the old stove, which we kept stoked all night to help fend off the cold. Four guys slept up in the loft six or seven were on the floor. I was not in high school yet, but Dad let me bring Bob and Randy who were in my class at church. We were on the floor about ten feet from the stove. By morning there were three piles of shivering sleeping bags, huddled together for warmth. Our teeth were chattering like stacked plates on a train, but no one complained. After all we were “roughin’ it,“ and that was half the fun. Dad created a breakfast specialty that I still make sometimes to this day. He put buttered bread with honey on the rack inside the stove and toasted it till the honey soaked in and was crispy on top. Sounds simple, but oh, what a delicacy after a night of chattering teeth. We'd sled the hill or skate the creek then run back to the barn to warm up by the stove. Simple pleasures are the best.

There was another building we build about twenty paces from the barn. The literature of life is often bereft of unmentionable functions, so I'll mention it. We got by without this building in the fall, but as winter approached, Dad thought it might be a good idea to have an outhouse. It was a single-seater with no light or heater--nuff said. A few weeks ago when I was at the homestead, I took some pictures of the old outhouse. It has not been occupied for over thirty years and has fallen into ruin. Actually, I should say it has not been used for thirty years because it is occupied.

A ground hog now lives under it, burrowed a hole right in front of the door that drops down to what was the honey pot. (Over the years, once we had plumbing in the house, we filled the pit with the building refuse, but still …talk about feeling down in the dumps.) I guess he forgot the three rules of real estate: “Location. Location. Location.”

During the first five years of working weekends with Dad, the barn and the outhouse were the only two enclosed buildings on the property. But there was another "structure" that Dad built at the end of our first summer of settling the unsettled land. Before I tell you what it was, there's one more thing beside the barn I'd like to point out:

When we were helping Dad build the barn, we sometimes had "stand around" time where we weren't much help. One day, I was standing on the west side of the barn with a hammer in my hand, and for no particular reason, I bluntly tapped a big gray Beech tree beside me. It was not a particularly hard hit. I was not trying to damage the bark, but to my surprise the ashen bark turned green where the hammer struck. It was a contusion of sorts, that brought pressed the thin crust into the softer layers below. I did it again and it worked again.

"Hey, Dave, look what happens when I tap the bark with the hammer." And in a mindless, systematic experiment, I began tapping the tree as if to make it look like a Dalmatian. I thought nothing of it. This Beech was one of thousands of trees around me in the middle of a "forest." I wasn't thinking ahead to envision it someday in plain view across the way from the back door of a house that existed only in my father's head.

Dad climbed down from the barn rafters in time to see me putting the last licks on the tree, "What are you doing that for?" He asked, more puzzled than angry.
"I don't know," I mumbled, feeling a scolding on the way.
But instead he simply said, "You do realize that tree will live with those marks long after we're gone."
"Gone from here today?" I asked.
"No. Gone from this Earth," he said, not realizing the casual remark dropped in my mind like a slab of granite on soft ground.

At that age, I did not give much thought to the fact that Dad or Mom or any of us would ever be "gone from earth." The facts of death I understood, but the brevity of life in the context of things that go on living fell with a thud and sunk deep. I could not get my fingers under that thought, much less lift it into place. Gone from this Earth.

In time, the truth hits hard enough to gently leave its mark. It's been forty years since I tapped the gray bark of that Beech, but those words stayed with me. Like the many things he taught us while we worked, the quiet lessons learned from Dad outlived a hundred sermons I've forgotten.
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After that day with a hammer and too much time on my hands, Dad was more inclined to let us take off in the woods when he didn't need us. There are two primitive "elements" that boys naturally love to play with: fire and water. Through the winter, we often burned brush and stumps, to keep warm, and Dave and I would tend the fire while Dad worked.

But in our first spring (1969), we noticed something we had not seen since purchasing the land. The little creek, called Fish Creek on the county maps, that separated the front nine acres from the back five, overflowed its banks and became about ten times wider than the brook we'd seen in the fall and winter. (That's me standing in the middle of the marshy spring overflow.)

Dad did not like the thought of a couple acres of land being under water each spring, so after the barn was done, he traded in the blue Ford tractor for an old two-cylinder John Deere that had both a front bucket and a back-hoe.

With that old yellow tractor, he dug out the creek, making the bed about five feet deeper with high clay walls from north to south border of our land. He was onfident that this much deeper creek bed with banks now two feet higher than the ground arond it would contain the next spring's high waters. In time the creek banks looked "normal" again.

Dredging the creek took every Saturday of June and July. But once it was done in August, Dad was free to take on the project that required a reliably narrow creek, his bridge to the back five acres. Now mind you, on the other side of the bridge was nothing. Not a road, not a path, just trees, but in order to blaze such a road, he needed to get the tractor across the creek, and that's just what he did.

By fall that year, the bridge was done. Made like the barn but with bigger timber from the land. One crisp October night, at the end of a long day, we all stood on the bridge in the glow of a harvest moon. In the distance, we heard the faint sound of southbound Canada Geese becoming gradually louder until the cacophony was just overhead. Looking up, we saw a long "V" of flapping silhouettes sweeping past the orange moon. No one said a word, but when they were gone, Dad told us of their amazing migration rituals, how they rotate leaders and rest and feed together. To this day, when I hear geese in the night sky, I think of that night on Dad's bridge.

Years later, from up in a tree, I took this picture of Dad crossing the bridge in the spring (some oak leaves never let go through the winter). As you can tell, the deeper creek worked until a particularly rainy spring about six years later, when gathering sticks and fallen limbs dammed up against the bridge in the night and washed it away.

That summer, Dad built a second bridge in its place. This time he used cement. Not poured cement. Oh, no, that would be too easy (and costly). It just so happened that thee miles away Interstate-94 was being torn up into strips of concrete about ten feet long and three feet wide. Driving by the slabs of concrete one Saturday, Dad got an idea, and he stopped to talk to the road construction crew. He asked them if, rather than going to the land fill, they'd mind dropping off a couple truckloads of those concrete slabs down by the creek on our land. (What he didn't use for the bridge he later used for the driveway.)

With his back hoe he then dug out the both banks and laid the slabs like Lego blocks cemented together in a multi-layered cantilever arch. It took several weekends, but Dad enjoyed it. This sort of work was his secret passion, and he loved telling people his land was connected by "I-94."

This quaint bridge was shade in the summer when we swam in the creek and our favorite resting place when we skated in the winter. The opening is narrower than his first bridge, but it's much higher and the ramps on either side (under the snow in the picture) held several tons of concrete slabs. The high water flowed through every spring with no problems... until 2004.

Dad's second bridge lasted over twenty-five years, and then in May of 2004, Macomb County was hit with some of the worst flooding in the Midwest. The 100-year flood levels were reached. (See video here. This was nine years after Dad passed away.) Like many of the bridges and roads built by the real engineers, by the time the rushing waters of 2004 subsided, the base of Dad's bridge (on the right side of that photo) eroded away and we had to remove the portion that remained. I have pictures of it somewhere as it last appeared after the damage, but I prefer to remember it as it was: the place we had to duck when skating through, where we sometimes swam or held a fishing pole, and where one night we stood with Dad and saw the geese against the moon.
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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Faith

Sometimes a plank
..... in the bridge
.......... gives way
though the beams are strong
and the structure sure,
for the span was tied quite long ago
and Time undoes the things
man touches most…
And so it seems that just when all feels
save and sound—
..... a plank
.......... gives way..
and we who tread
are frozen fast with fear…

‘till Time (which touches not the soul)
and Eternity (which does)
..... gives Faith
.......... to cross again.
© Copyright October, 1995

“The Swinging Bridge” in Croswell, Michigan, is a suspended footbridge that spans the Black River. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

We used to play on this bridge whenever we visited my Uncle Neal and Aunt Jackie and their boys. It ‘s over 200 feet long and has been there for over 100 years. Its name comes from how it sags and sways in the jostling undulations of its traffic. We’d sometimes stop in the middle and cable as others passed, we’d hold tight to the cable, bobbing like clothes pins on an empty line. It was enormous fun.

One spring, however, I bounded down the wooden swag, heard a dull crack under my foot, and clenched the side cable as I stumbled to a halt. One of the 2-by-8 planks had broken around a not and was dangling by the lower cables. The river was about ten feet below. I was too frightened to take another step.

Everyone on the bridge stood still in empathy except my father who stepped toward me, stretched out his hand and said, “It’s all right, Tom. We’ll just step over it.” I held my breath and slowly continued up the other side. We laughed as we stepped past the moorings and descended down the steps to solid ground, but the bridge was unusually quiet the rest of the day.

They say deaths come in threes, and in 1995, my father passed away in April, my wife’s grandfather (who had lived with her parents for many years) died in August, and then in October Julie’s father had a severe heart attack and after surgery remained comatose for three days. We truly did not know if he would pull through, and on the most uncertain day, that feeling of the broken plank on the bridge rushed over me again.

(By the way, my father-in-law fully recovered and continues pastoring his church to this day. The sign over the bridge says "Be Good To Your Mother-in-Law" and that has never been a problem. She and "Dad" have been second parents to me for over 30 years.)

Note: The full meaning of the poem relies on the dual meaning of the word "plank," the word "cross," and on an understanding of what span was tied quite long ago.

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