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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

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 16: "Saturday Night"

The ride home the night mom put the automatic transmission in reverse at 50 MPH was the kind of quiet that makes you think twice before speaking. First of all, we were exhausted after all it took to sink the sixth crock. It was in many ways the most fatiguing day since we'd begun digging the well--even harder than the days we dug through clay. Partly because it came so near the end of being done. Projects that take nearly two months to do, and yet on the surface look pretty much the same each week, require a special kind of strength and perseverance, and about the time of the sixth crock this was true.

For me the day had begun with delivering the Detroit News, while Mom baked a banana cake. But from sunrise ‘til sunset, Dad and Paul and Dave had been digging and pulling and turning hundreds of buckets of wet dirt. Then there was that man who came through the woods and scoffed, “Tell your ol’ man he’s wasting his time—salt water’s all he’s gunna get.” Then Mom in the barn with her Bible verses about water. Then Dad pulling that tire from the bend in the creek. Then the avalanche inside the well and Dad screaming for us to pull him out. Dave’s torn and bleeding callus on his palm. Knowing we'd have to pull all that pea gravel out one bucket at a time the next Saturday. And then...after that long day... Mom drove slowly down the drive with the flashers on. Ruined transmission. Dad too exhausted to prolong his anger. Mom’s arms bleeding from her nervous habit of picking...

It had been quite a day and, as I said, the ride home was understandably quiet. A few miles down 23 Mile Road, Mom mumbled, “This is where it happened,” then shrugged as if to say but who wants to talk about it. And no one did.

Supper that night was left-over coleslaw and baked frozen fish sticks. They were crumby—literally crumby. The cookie sheet was covered in orange crumbs that fell from the long limp rectangles of fish-like “bars” that we gobbled up as if they were good. We slicked down the coleslaw, too. It was Grandma Spencer’s recipe and had a shelf life of three or four weeks. Lots of vinegar. Good stuff.

And then, starting with Dad, one by one, we took quick baths and got ready for bed. I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it before but Dad thought showers were a waste of water. He preferred that we all took baths instead. [Eventually, showers became common and baths a rare treat.]

When we were younger, the three of us boys would get in the tub together, but we had outgrown that years before and begun taking baths--Saturday night baths anyway--in order from oldest to youngest, which meant I was always the last one to get in the tub. By then, the tub had more rings than Saturn and some evidence of Uranus, as I used to tell my brother Dave. [Sorry, Ladies, but "boy humor" is just different than "girl humor."]

The bathtub rings and the fact that the hot water was only warm by the time I was filling the tub were the down side of bathing last, but the upside was I could stay in as long as I wanted.

I was fourteen but still short enough to lie outstretched from head to heel against the bottom of the tub with only my face above the surface of the water. Perfectly still so no ripple would reach my slightly open mouth, I'd sometimes rest like that for ten or fifteen minutes, suspended in time and space, lost in thoughts of who knows what, reliving the day or looking ahead to what the coming week might hold. About the time the water started getting cold, I knew I was clean.

Typically, by the time I got out of the tub, everyone else but Mom was in bed. Mom was usually still rattling around in the kitchen or digging through clothes in the laundry room to make sure we all had something to wear to church the next morning or cleaning the tub to her satisfaction. Seems always when the night was otherwise quiet, Mom was still looking for places to put the loose ends of her day. I don't recall a time when she was not the shadow who turned out the last light and whispered "G'night" at each door.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Touch of the Master's Hand

The Power of Written Words

There are a few chapters to go in the "Unsettled" series, but my laptop cord "shorted out" and I'm limited to the family computer, so it may be a few days before Chapter 16 comes. (I do my writing in a recliner with my laptop, often with my family sitting around the room, watching TV or whatever. The thought of sitting here at a desk in a room feels a bit too much like being at work for me to get the creative juices flowing.)

But I did want to take a minute to thank everyone who drops in here at POI for the encouragement of "readership." Knowing that others have taken interest in these chapters brings joy to the task of writing them.

In a post a few months back in the archives, I mentioned my reason for wanting to write the "story" of my family buying a piece of property back in 1968 and "settling" it through my junior high and high school years, (We moved into the house my sophomore year of college). That was a long time ago, and my siblings and I are now in the "unsettling" position of deciding what will become of the family homestead. If we were independently wealthy, we'd probably just keep it as a gathering place. I would love that, but suffice to say we are not independently wealthy. (If any of you are and would like to donate half-a-million to a very sentimental cause, please let me know. Ha Ha.)

Fortunately, we are not in a position that requires us to do anything in a hurry. But because we have all accepted the fact that someday in the years ahead total strangers may live in what for forty years has been our "home away from home," I wanted to write these chapters to self publish in a book that I will leave with a note in the telephone nook between the dining and living rooms. (It's there that our family library was before we divided the treasured books among us.) I will ask that the book be considered a fixture of the house, that it stay there even if the home is sold again. I think that’s a fair thing to ask.

If you were going to buy a house and land with not ghosts but memories wrapped all around the porch and fence posts and the paths and rope high in a tree, would you not want to know the story of how they got there? If you were being shown a house by a realtor, and you learned that there was a well under the basement staircase, would you not wonder how deep it was and what kind of work it took to put it there? If you were to unlock the door to a barn, smell the faint creosote that wafts out with the open door, flick the steel-box light switch and see that it was built entirely of native logs, would you not wonder about the man and the his sons who built it forty years ago? I would.

Worse yet, and this is my deepest dread about what lies ahead, if you were a developer--and developments have sprouted all around our land since the time of these chapters--If you were a developer who bought our land on which to build a half-a-dozen homes and for whatever reason you decide that the one that’s there is “in the way,” and the old barn that’s there is “in the way,” would you not want to know what you’re tearing down before you start the bull dozer? I would… and maybe… just maybe… reading these chapters would make it seem not so bad to have two extraordinary structures among perhaps bigger, fancier but ordinary homes which I dare say will not stand up as well as the solid brick house Dad built (or the log barn for that matter).

So what has this got to do with the title of this post? Two things.

First: I learned nearly everything I know about life from my parents, and they were “masters” in a simple sense.

Neither of them earned their “masters” degree—not the kind from a college anyway, but if being a “master at something” is measured by how effectively you accomplish your goals and teach those involved to do the same, and when there is a very meaningful tie that binds those goals and patterns of life together…and that thing is THE MASTER, Himself, you are a master indeed. So in that sense, my parents were masters. Imperfect, yes; broken and scarred, yes, but striving to pass along what they had learned from THE MASTER.

And second: During these chapters of my life, my mom often read us kids a poem she’d found called "The Touch of the Master's Hand." Her eyes teared up by the end every time. She was so grateful for the time she and Dad met the Lord (as she put it) a few years before we bought the land. It changed how they thought, how they acted, how they raised us kids… it changed everything.

“But, Mom, you and Dad weren’t so bad before that time,” I once said when she read the poem. “'Not-that-bad falls way short, Tom. And besides our story was far from over. We were heading down the wrong path. Totally lost, trying to do what was right as we saw it but fumbling all the way. We had a religious shell, but it was hollow. There was no relationship with Christ. We wouldn’t have made it, Tom. No one can. All our attempts at 'being good' fall short. I hate to think of what would have happened to us, our marriage, you kids. We were lost, Tom.”

She said lots more. I came to understand it for myself, but I try not to preach here at POI. I think less is more, when it comes to me trying to make someone else see the importance of a life-changing relationship. If I get "preachy" here, few would come back to read. So I try instead to write about life and love as I have experienced it, only now and then explaining why it was so. As Edgar A. Guest wrote, "I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day." I had the privilege of hearing good sermons on Sunday but more importantly seeing them during the week.

So here’s our little homework assignment if you feel like taking a few minutes to think about both the gospel message that is in THE WORD and also the power of written words, by human hands, without too many frills added.

Below is the text of the poem Mom used to read to us, "The Touch of the Master's Hand," by Myra Welsh. Read along as you listen to the simple clip above it of J.D. Sumner reciting it from memory (he's old and makes a few mistakes but the spirit of the poem is captured well). Below that is a an earnest attempt from some well-meaning group to “dramatize” the story. Below that are some related links that further illustrate that sometimes the written/spoken word needs little else.

I don’t mean to belittle any of the efforts to “tell this story” in various ways. I’m all for getting the Good News out, but as the apostle Paul said in so many words: Never underestimate the simple power of the written and spoken Word. All the “bling” we moderns have added to the gospel of Christ is sometimes just distraction.

The truth of the old adage “A picture’s worth a thousand words” depends on both the picture and the words. Sometimes less is more.

The text of the poem is below this first clip. Push arrow to start.



"Touch of the Master’s Hand" by Myra Welsh

T’was battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But held it up with a smile.

"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
"Who’ll start the bidding for me?"
"A dollar, a dollar," then, two! Only two?
"Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?

"Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
Going for three . . . "But no,
From the room, far back, a grey haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then, wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening the loose strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet
As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bid for the old violin?"
And he held it up with the bow.

"A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?
Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice;
And going and gone," said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
"We do not quite understand
What changed its worth?" Swift came the reply:
"The touch of a master’s hand."

And many a man with life out of tune,
And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,
Much like the old violin.

A "mess of potage," a glass of wine;
A game, and he travels on.
He is "going" once, and "going" twice,
He’s "going" and almost "gone."

But the Master comes and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought
By the touch of the Master’s hand.


Think about those words before you read on. I don't want to take anything away from that message. Play it again if you like.

Now... because I want to stress the importance of not taking away from the message, and because I know we so often do... Watch the clip below and see if a picture [or video in this case] is truly always worth 1000 words [or 269 in this case]. These folks meant well by making a movie based on the poem, but I’ll let you be the judge as to whether the words needed help.



ZZZzzzz... Wake up! There's more. Again, I am not criticizing the creative people who were inspired by this poem to “make something more” out of it. My intent is a reassurance, of sorts, to poets and writers: the power of images and metaphors and written/spoken words often need little help.

This poem has also been put to music. Hear the first version here. And at this link hear yet another variation (far to mirthful in my opinion).

See my point? So-so films and songs are fine, but they fall short of when I heard my mother read this poem to me as a kid, and they add no power to what Myra Welsh put to paper 90 years ago. It's that message about The Master, and not this homework assignment, that I hope you take from this post.

Go to this Myra Welsh link to read more of her story. And who is that old guy, JD Sumner, reading in the first clip. Well, he’s a guy I dare say who knew a little bit about being battered and scarred and changed by the Master’s hand. He used to be the back-up bass for Elvis Presley [this video clip proves it], but after Elvis died he returned to his pure gospel roots. JD Sumner died at age 78 and was on tour singing when it happened.

Additional links of interest:
Back in the Sixties, Jimmy Dean also recited the poem.
And the Cathedrals recorded a recitation with just a touch of music.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"When Things Become Automatic"

Chapter 15-C (last installment of this chapter)
Continued from previous posts...

The return trip that Mom began back to our house in Roseville was about 18 miles and typically took us just under 30 minutes to drive. Mom was about to drive 4 miles west on 23 Mile Road then 12 miles south on I-94 to the 11 Mile Road exit. From there she would zig and zag down tightly-woven streets lined with nearly identical three-bedroom brick ranch homes. It was only these last two miles that left any options at all, but in the two years of making the trip, a groove had pretty much worn in her mind and she always took the exact same streets without thinking. When you drive a certain route repeatedly, it becomes automatic, and you sometimes reach your destination without remember the trip at all.

Mom had begun her trip home just before the avalanche in the well. She had waved at us as she passed slowly by. It was a life-long habit of my hers to get every wave she could out of even a brief farewell. Through the decades to follow, I and my siblings (and eventually our wives and children) would wave goodbye on the same long driveway a thousand times, but those departures were a different setting entirely. For one thing, by the time we were married, there was a house and a front porch with a swing, with lamplight shining through the front window, amenities that were years away on the Saturday of the sixth crock.

But that wave… Mom's wave changed little through the years. There was always a smile and typically some mouthed words we could never quite hear from a distance. These were never simple words like “I love you” which can be easily lip-read. Mom would mouth or shout entire unheard sentences of seeming importance that either forced her listeners to come closer or prompted them to smile and nod as if they knew exactly what she said. My brothers and I often took the latter choice, because stopping for clarification would only generate a longer good bye.

Squinting in her direction, Dave said, "Sure thing, Ma," I asked him what she said, "I have no idea..." he muttered and waved with a smile.

On that particular July evening,as our mother drove slowly past in the ’64 Country Squire with the windows down (it had no AC), she was simply watching her three boys at a distance as she had that afternoon, and the same words came to mind though she knew we wouldn't hear them: “I remember you boys in the sandbox on Lapeer—now look atcha.”

We waved absentmindedly back at her.

At the end of the driveway, she turned right on the dirt road (where our mailbox would someday be) then left onto 23 Mile Road. Her mind was not on her driving. In fact, she was in a trancelike state. (It would be a frightening thin to know how many drivers stare down the passing road whose minds are miles away.) In this case, her distraction began with thoughts of the sandbox on Lapeer /Avenue, in Port Huron. She often watched us play from the side porch.

The house on Lapeer Avenue was the second house Dad and Mom owned, but it was the first one they lived in for any length of time (six years). Kathy and Paul were ages two and one when they moved in (but since they were not a year apart they share the same age for a month), and my brother Dave and I were born during the next two years. Lapeer represented our family's toddler years where Mom had two or three of us in diapers at the same time. It was from that house on Lapeer that all but I had gone off to school from that side porch door. Kathy was the first to go. She used to walk to kindergarten alone. Imagine walking four blocks at age five—unattended! She met up with some other kids along the way, but still… few parents would do that today, but Mom had little choice what with the three boys still at home. And now Kathy was going off to college alone like a grown-up kiindergartener. Mom knew she‘d be there at home when she arrived, probably sorting through the “college clothes” on her bed. First to go again. Mom didn’t want to think about it.

All these thoughts raced through her mind, but she was only three miles down 23 Mile Road. She adjusted the rearview mirror to see if Jimmy was still asleep in the back seat. He was, but the fact did not stop her from saying aloud, “I’m so glad God brought you to us, Jimmy. I don't know what I'd do without you.”

Having a toddler when you're 40 years old sometimes made her feel young, sometimes made her feel old, but it always made her feel, and that is a good thing.

Her mind again went back to Lapeer: Us four older kids like stair steps on the porch smiling at Mom’s camera. Kathy playing “dress up” with a wedding veil in the driveway. Paul, the reluctant groom, sitting beside her, smiling as if he knew he'd someday regret being in that photograph. Days in the sprinkler or at the beach, and finally having only Tom with droopy diapers to change. Always taking pictures and saying "smile." Even now in the car her thoughts were so interlaced with her favorite pictures that the memories themselves seemed to be in black and white fragments of time.

She looked again at Jimmy in the mirror and remembered summers long past when she had four kids in the old ‘39 Ford (the same car in which Dad taught her to drive). Sometimes after a long day at the beach and the ten minute drive home we'd all be conked out by the time she turned onto Lapeer. The thought of it made her smile....

It was then it happened. The car violently jolted as if it had run over a railroad tie that was still lodged under the car. It was as if the engine exploded and the car slowly ground to a halt in the right lane of 23 Mile Rd. A Car behind her beeped and swerved around her.

What happened? She was frozen rigidly in place, her left hand gripping the steering wheel, her right hand on the column stick shift, which she had just downshifted to a lower gear to turn into the gas station ahead on the right.

But wait a minute. The little thingy over the steering wheel had an orange thingy pointing at the letter “R.”

“Oh, Don!” she screamed, “What did I do?”

In all the commotion, Jimmy had rolled to the floor off the back seat and was now standing groggily on the big hump that ran down the center of the car. “It’s okay, Jimmy. Go back to sleep. Mommy just broke the car a little bit.”

"What have I done," she whispered, now in tears, but the answer was in the “column stick shift” still clenched in her right hand. This was not the old '39 Ford; it was a '64 Ford Country Squire with an automatic transmission. She'd been driving "automatics" for years. She knew that she just put the handle thingy in “D” for drive and the car did all the rest automatically. Not since the mid-Fifties, had she driven a car with a manual shift on the column. What had she done? She now knew the answer: she had shifted the car into “Reverse” at 50 MPH.

Just under the huge bump in the floor beside her right foot was an automatic transmission, a few hundred pounds of metal gears, servos, and fluids. [The huge center bump disappeared with front-wheel-drive cars.] Those gears were now hopelessly ground down and broken off from a ten second attempt to mechanically change directions at high speed. All but “second gear” was ruined and had the car not stalled, it too may have been lost.

Mom put the car in park and turned the key. It started. She moved the control arm to “D” but nothing happened. She moved it down to “1,” and nothing happened. She put it in"2" and to her surprise the car began to roll forward. She turned into a gas station on the corner intending to turn around and drive back to the property. She knew involving any kind of “paid help” would upset Dad. The only problem was that when she put the car in “R” [Reverse], that gear did not work. The car could only go forward in 2nd gear, and fortunately she was able to drive around the back of the station and back onto east-bound 23 Mile Road. The RPMs of the engine began to whine at around 15 MPH, wanting to do no more damage, Mom went no faster.

Twenty minutes and two hankies later, Mom was pulling into our long two-track dirt drive and idling slowly toward us, just as the sun was dropping out of sight and we were “calling it a day” at the well.

“What’s Mom doing back?” I asked.

“I don’t like the looks of this,” Dad sighed, walking toward the slow moving car. He turned back toward us, held one finger subtly upward, and whispered, "Not one word about what happened in the well."

Inside the car, Mom was crying and Jim was waving from the back window.

“I’ve really done it this time, Don,” Mom cried out the window on Dad’s side.

"What did you do, Bev!" Dad said in a descending whine, trying hard not to add "this time" to the end of his question, but it still came out in the tone.

"I don't know? The gears won't work," she sobbed.

It was not her intent to lie. She knew what she had done to cause the problem, and she would eventually get to that part, but having already "shifted gears" abruptly that evening, she wanted to ease into her blame.

"What do you mean 'the gears don't work'?" Dad moaned.

"I don't know. This is all the faster it will go, but it's my fault..."

"Wudjadu, Bev?" he slowly slurred.

"I was going along fine. Everything was working. Then I shifted gears and... it was bad, Don. It felt like something exploded under the car."

"Wuduyamean 'you shifted gears'?" Each question had the same melodic moan of defeat. "This is an automatic, Bev. You don't shift gears while you're driving."

"I know, but I forgot and downshifted—or thought I downshifted—but I put it in "Reverse."

"You what?" there was no melodic moan.

"I put it in "Reverse."

"What? How fast were you going?"

"I don't know. It was right there on 23 so I guess around fifty."

"What? You didn't. Tell me you didn't."

"I did, Don."

"Get out of the car, Bev!" Dad demanded, "You boys take the stuff to the barn."

Dad did not want an audience as he tested the gears which of course didn't work, I walked backwards watching as Dave and I carried the ladder.

"Second gear works. That's good." she sobbed.

"Bev, it's an automatic. It WAS an automatic. Now it's a one speed."

"I'm sorry, Don..." Mom cried, walking beside the car as Dad drove it slowly back to the barn.

"What did you do, Bev?" he shouted again.

"I told you, Don." The banter continued up and down the crest in the two-track beside the barn.

By the time the Ford rolled to a weak stop in the spot where it would sit for the next three weeks, Mom stood beside the car repeating apologies and picking with her right index finger at the back side of her upper left arm. It was then I saw drops of blood from scabs near her wrist and right forearm as well.

"Mom, It's okay." I said, not knowing whether or not it truly was, and fully aware of the risk I was taking by butting in.

"Okay?" Dad said turning off the car and slamming the door. "Okay, Tom? The transmission is ruined! This is the car we were going to take on vacation. We'll never get it fixed by then. Do you know how much a transmission costs? Okay? Do you know we'll lose a day just fixing this thing? Okay? Do you have any ide..."

Then he saw the blood on his wife's arms, and stopped mid-rant.

"Bev..." he started, but no other words were there, "Bev..." he started again then released a heavy sigh that summed up this grueling day. Finally he said, "It's getting dark. We'll leave the station wagon here. I'll call around about a used transmission, and we'll get to it when we can. I ... I'm sorry." He pointed at her arms and added, "You need a hanky there, Honey. Please don’t pick."

Mom reached down the neckline of her blouse to the upper edge of her bra where she almost always tucked one of her many hankies. And though we'd seen her pull a hanky from there a hundred times, Dad acted as if it were funny and “faked” surprise, which made her laugh as she blotted the blood from her arms. It was not a true laugh, but a "thank you for making me smile while I'm crying" sort of chuckle, followed by a sniffle, followed by a blowing of her nose.

It was then she took a deep breath and attempted to explain that she had momentarily thought she was driving a column-stick like the old '39 Ford. It was an explanation none of us bought at the time, but we were young and had never seen a "manual shift on the column" much less driven one.

For years after than night—make that decades—we joked about Mom putting the car in "R" for "Race" while going 50 MPH. Mom always laughed right along, and when she could finally get a word in edgewise she'd begin her earnest explanation thinking for a moment it was the other car, the first car they had, the one she drove when we were all little. Yeah, right, Mom.

Only as an adult, when I had children of my own, and days began to blur too smoothly into years, and the patterns of life and the ebb and flow of living became more and more automatic—some time after age 40, when I reached for a light switch in my house that wasn't there (and never was because the place I reached for was where the switch had been in the house in Roseville)...only then when it was almost too late to matter... only then did I know how utterly believable Mom's explanation was.
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Three chapters to go. Chapter 16 coming next weekend.

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by. A week ago tonight I wrote about Coldplay and shocked some of you that some of their songs struck a chord with me. Perhaps this post sheds some light on why the words to "Fix You" seemed like a haunting reprise of past moments in my life when I either encouraged or was encouraged by my mother at some low point (like that night she put the car in "Reverse.".

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"Unsettled" Chapter 15-C

"When Things Become Automatic"

In the early evening of the sixth crock, we paused for a piece of banana cake, which that day was the reason we were late for lunch. It was the perfect snack to tide us over until supper. Better yet, the conversation put to rest the fear that the well would be full of salt water.
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As we pushed back from the table, Mom covered what was left of her cake with some tin foil, careful not to let it touch her butter cream frosting.

“I think I’ll walk the creek before we sink the rest of that crock,“ Dad announced, “Anybody want to join me?”

“The mosquitoes are coming out. I'll just stay here and read a little more,” Mom said, “But give me a hand dropping these leafs. I have a hard time reaching those props underneath.”

Dave took one side and I took the other. The two side leafs of the old Duncan Phyfe were bigger than the un-opened tabletop itself. They were held in place with two locking brackets that were hard to reach, and we practically had to get under the table to press them both upward at the same time letting the leaf ease down on our backs.

“Watch your fingers,“ Mom winced. “I’m always afraid I’ll pinch my fingers in those things.”

Dad thanked Mom for bringing lunch and the cake, and kissed her goodbye.

“I’ll see you before I go won‘t I?” Mom asked.

“If you look down the well you will.”

“Don, you’ve been digging all day. Why don‘t you quit?”

“With only a foot to go? Are you kiddin‘?. Then next week we sink the last crock and we’re done. You boys comin’,” Dad said standing in the barn door.

Jim stayed with Mom while Paul and Dave and I joined Dad on his walk. At some point every Saturday, we always walked the creek. Before Dad built the bridge and the road along the water’s edge it was “hard walkin’” (as Dad always called a bad path), but once the road was done, the walk along the creek--especially in the summer--was almost like a stroll in the park. At least, it could have been if Dad were not the park ranger. It was true that Dad enjoyed these little jaunts, but there was always an element of work involved.

Each week it seemed that broken branches would either fall in the creek or be tossed there by kids we never saw on weekends but whom Dad was convinced came when we weren‘t there just to throw things in the creek. One good sized branch in a creek will snag every other twig that idles by and before you know it, the things dammed up, and it‘s a lot more work to clean out. So one walk at a time; one branch at a time, Dad kept “his creek“ clear every week. Creeks and Rivers and such, of course belong to no one. Even if you own the land on either side, as we did, the water itself was public domain for people in a canoe or kayak (or snow-mobile in the winter when it’s frozen). In spite of this fact, Dad considered the creek “his” and cared for it accordingly.
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Fish Creek meanders generally to the south downstream where it meets the Salt River about ¾ of a mile from our land. It then continues out to Lake St.Clair. We knew each twist and turn well from having ice skated many times out to the lake and back. At our north lot line, the creek bends west by a meadow (that we did not own), and then bends north again at the foot of the sledding hill. As we approached the foot of the hill, Dad stopped in his tracks.

“Now who would do a stupid thing like that!” he said with his jaw barely moving.

There in the water, just below the surface but already ensnared in other debris was an old tire. This first bend in the creek was a place where all sorts of things gathered over time, things that washed down stream were understandable to Dad, but when tires, or old wagons and such showed up, he knew it was “some kid” who rolled ‘em down the hill just to see them splash, and then they’d just leave their junk there to dam up the creek at this its most shallow spot. Dad grabbed a branch to hook the tire with.

“One of these days,” Dad mumbled through his teeth, “I’m going to see the squirts who do this stuff and make them get jump in and pull it out.”

Oh, how I was glad it was not Dave and I who had rolled the tire into the creek. Had I not grown up with Dad; had we boys not helped him dig out all sorts of wreckage from the silt in that very spot the year before; had I never known how irksome such an act was to the person who had to clean it up… the truth is: I could totally understand the fun of watching a tire roll down the hill, bounce over the rise in the bank, and then splash right in the middle of the creek. Someone‘s pleasure is almost always someone else‘s pain.

Dad hauled the heavy wet tire up the hill, and we took turns rolling it around the ridge road back to the barn, understanding that if we left it anywhere in sight, it would end up in the creek again. As we came down the rise of the hill toward the barn, Dad picked up the muddy tire so it wouldn’t roll down the slight hill. We saw that Jim was asleep on the back seat of the car with the door open for a breeze, and Mom was sitting on the front seat with her legs crossed out the door. She was reading again.

Knowing he looked a sight from the mud and the “treasure” in his hands, he smiled and said, "Hark, hark the dogs do bark,"

“And the beggars have come to town.” Mom laughed. “Don’t come over here. You’ll bring the mosquitoes. What on earth have you got?”

“Well, what’s it look like?” Dad shot back.
[When men and women talk, men tend to take the meaning of a remark quite literally which then begs extra and sometimes unkind banter in daily dialogue. Had mom asked this same question to another women, the hearer would know that she clearly recognized the shape of the object and was actually asking what purpose other than its previous design was still in mind for the tire. By knowing what each other mean to say, two women carry on conversation for hours with very little sarcasm. This is not the case when boy meets girl. Nor was it the case when Mom saw a tire in Dad's hands and asked, "What on earth have you got?"]

“I know it’s a tire, Don, but what are you going to do with it. Is it any good?”

“I don't know if it's any good. Probably not. That's probably why some kid rolled it in the creek."
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"Why do we need it?" Mom said with just a hint that Dad sometimes kept things he did not need just in case he might have an idea for it in the future. This was ironic coming from a woman who kept things for the sake of keeping them (which afterall is the pure meaning of keepsake).
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Dad took a deep breath then muttered, "We’ll throw it in the pile next time I burn brush.”
And with that he rolled it to the front of the inside of the barn, where it remained for about a year. Then sure enough, we did burn it, which is now against the law and for good reason. The plume of black smoke could be seen for miles.

“I’m just going to read a minute longer while Jimmy sleeps," Mom smiled, "Then I’ll go home and start supper.” She said it as if she were not entitled to some down time. This feeling was heightened whenever we were working and she was not, but there was little she could do to be of help out there in the woods. Bringing lunch, and having a hot supper for us when we came home late at night: this was her primary role on Saturdays for many years.

There was still three or four hours of daylight. We pumped out the water that had gathered since we’d left the well, and pulled up the big hose.

“Here we go again,” Dad joked as he climbed backward down the ladder.

Pulling the heavy wooden ladder out of the well was always harder in the evening because our arms were tired. It took both Dave and Paul to do it. Extension ladders are designed to be pulled up to full height with a rope and locking latches that catch at each rung. This works great when leaning against a tree or a house, but there is no way to “extend” a ladder down into a well. We extended it at ground level and tied the overlapping rungs at the end securely with a rope, and then the whole wobbly thing was lowered into place. The scariest part was pulling the heavy thing out while Dad was down below, and it took all of Paul and Dave’s strength to do it.

As they leaned the ladder against the big oak north of the well, Mom drove slowly by with a wave. Jim was still asleep on the back seat and could not be seen.

Dad convinced us we could drop the last foot in less than two hours, and he dug at a faster-than-usual pace to make sure he was right. He almost always had private goals that drove him in his work, but sometimes he said them out loud to put the pressure on and help promote a team effort. This was not one of those tricks parents do--“Son, take out the trash during the commercial. I’ll time you.”--because he was the one digging away. We were simply pulling buckets up double time in the rotation that by now had become automatic.

Paul lowered the bucket down the well, but Dad did not begin digging. “Anything wrong?” Paul yelled down the hole that was becoming darker with the sun so near to setting.

“Seems like she ought to be dropping,” he hollered up. “I’ve got about a foot cleared out.”

He was referring to the fact that each time we dug out six inches or so from the base of the stacked crocks, the whole “sleeve” of crocks dropped down in place with a loud and slippery sounding thud. The ring of pea gravel around the outside of the top crock also disappeared into the ground with each drop. We then shoveled more pea gravel around the top to keep the “ball bearing” effect working from the top to bottom of the shaft. It was these incremental drops that rewarded us throughout the day and let us know we were doing more than hauling dirt. But for some reason the crocks had not dropped since we began this last shift of digging.

“Put the log across the top and give it a tap.” Dad suggested.

There were two logs--beams really--cut from a tree about five inches around. Each was about six feet long. Sometimes when the crocks did not slip down in place, we put the one of the logs across the top of the well and gave it a firm tap with the other log. Usually a tap or two and “THUNK” down the whole thing went. But this time something else happened.

To help imagine the physics involved, imagine that executive desk toy that has the five suspended balls hanging in a row. You let one ball hit at one end and only one ball bounces off the far end. Let two balls hit at one end and two balls react at the other and so on…. Well, for some reason when we tapped the top crock like we’d done the few other times it needed prodding, instead of the whole stack dropping, only the bottom three crocks dropped down to the bottom, leaving a one foot gap about six feet over Dad’s head. This had never happened before; nor had its consequence occurred to Dad.

An avalanche of pea gravel began pounding down on Dad, and there in the confines of his four foot cement cylinder, and understandable panic swept over him.

“Pull me up!” he screamed, grabbing the dangling rope.
More than twenty feet above him, we, too, were in a panic. And for all the talk we’d heard about super-human strength in frantic times like these, the three of us boys pulling on that rope could not seem to lift him one bit. The scaffolding was strong enough, but the pulley we’d been using was not a block and tackle. There was little mechanical advantage, and the rope was only half-inch hemp--strong enough to hold Dad’s weight but very hard to pull with that much resistance far below.

“Pull!” Dad screamed again. He had begun trying to climb the rope, but its narrowness and inconsistent tension with us tugging above made it impossible. The falling dirt and gravel was now up to his calves, and he kept trying to keep his feet free, knowing he’d be fine if he could somehow keep from being buried by the falling gravel. Just as he pulled his feet up from what was now about knee-deep gravel, the deluge or stones trickled down to a shower and then silence. Only then could he look up. He was now on his hands and knees atop the loose layer of small round stones.

“Are you okay?” Paul shouted down. “We tried to pull you up.” His voice cracked. Dave was shaking. He looked at his palms and a callus that had formed weeks before from a blister was ripped off and bleeding. I was speechless and trying not to cry.

“Well, boys, you gave ’er a tap just like I told you to.” He laughed, and the laugh rose up the well in an echo that broke the silence above, and we all began to laugh with him. “Put down the ladder. Gently! Try not to hit the side of the well. I don’t want it coming down until I’m out of here.”

Dave and Paul carefully inserted the towering wobbly ladder down the center of the well as if playing some giant version of “Operation,” that game that makes you to pull things our of holes without touching the sides with the tweezers. [“Remove funny bone.”]

Once Dad was out of the well, we pulled out the ladder, and he gave the log a couple of very firm taps and down it went. Nearly all of the pea gravel that had lined the way for the upper three crocks had fallen into the well. It took nearly all of the remaining pile of gravel to fill in around the outside again. The upper ring of cement was about two inches above the ground.

“Well, we sunk the sixth crock,” Dad joked.

Looking back on it now, I know it is a natural thing to laugh at near-death experiences once they are clearly past; once the adrenaline has coursed through our body and the nerves endings are no longer flapping in the breeze; once the earth feels firm again. We laugh because to do otherwise may remind us of the thread we dangle from each day we get out of bed and merge into the mercy of God.

“Let’s cover her up and call it a day.”

“What about all that gravel down there.” Dave asked.

“We’ll get it next week. That will be easy to dig out, but we’ll really have to haul to get that out and the last crock sunk. Then just think… we’re done.”

“And off to Georgian Bay,” I added with a smile.

“Yes. That’s right. The next week we’re off to Canada.”

Before we owned the property, we lived for the summer vacations that Dad typically took in August. And Dad himself could think of little else in the weeks leading up to our camping trip at Killbear Point in Ontario. But once our weekends were spent on the land, there was always the pressing “next thing to do” so we could build our house, and vacations almost snuck up on us. They were more needed than ever, but it was harder than ever to get Dad to pull away from work--not his work at Bell in Detroit--he loved getting away from that job. But pulling away from the countless things that “had to be done“ out at the property was very hard indeed.. This was a good moment to think two weeks down the road, when the well would be done, and we’d all be piled into the family tent under aromatic pines.

We had covered the well and put the cement blocks on the lid, and were loading up the wheelbarrow when a pair of headlights turned into the two-track drive and crept toward us. The flashers of the car were also on. It was Mom. She had left about a half hour before. What was she doing back?
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This day was far from over.
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Chapter 15-C "When Things Become Automatic" to be continued...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Unsettled" Chapter 15-B


Silt

The clock beside the bed
chimes and sets a tempo
that I step to half asleep,
beginning with that clumsy reach
for a light switch on the wall
that's nearly always there
and only rarely seems to disappear
just as my hand finds nothing
but smooth and painted plaster,
for the switch that I recall
is on another wall—
in a house I lived in long ago.
How strange to feel without thinking
where the thing should be
in this the house where life is now
and fixtures must be present
if they're to work at all
beyond the world
where forgotten dreams
and long-lost things
lie just below the surface
of the skull,
debris of memory
in a slow moving creek
where past
whirls strangely into current
each time
a puff of settled silt is stirred
or whispered words from nowhere
go unheard.
© Copyright ,2009, TK, Patterns of Ink

Chapter 15-B "When Life Becomes Automatic"

The rest of this chapter really is coming, and these lines do pertain. It's been a rough week with little spare time at night.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Coldplay in My Head

As I’m trying to finish Chapter 15-B, I had 60 Minutes on (which I don't typically watch) and at the end of the story about pilot Chesley Sullenbergert and the Hudson River Miracle, I was equally intrigued by the story about Coldplay that followed. Based on what you know of me from this blog, you're probably wondering why I have any interest in this band.

A year ago my daughter downloaded some songs on my laptop for me to “remember her by” when she was away at college. Her taste is a bit eclectic but there is a common thread in most of her “favorites” (at least in the songs she left there for me). Her choices tend to be lesser- known-but-up-and-coming artists who truly know music and sing intelligible songs. The lyrics are thoughtful new works or tasteful “covers.”
(Sometimes "new" is a generational thing. Having now seen some clips from live Coldplay concerts, "lesser-known" is something only an old gray-haired guy would say.)

Anyway, among the many songs she left me were some from an English band I’d never heard of at the time (though they are currently the #1 band in the world). The titles were “Yellow,” and “Fix You.” [Lyrics here.] It was that last song that especially struck a chord with me last year at this time and again last week. Watch it on the screen below. [The original video clip can be viewed at this site.]
"Fix You" by Coldplay


When you try your best but you don't succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep
Stuck in reverse

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
COULD IT BE WORSE?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

And high up above or down below
When you're too in love to let it go
But if you never try you'll never know
Just what you're worth

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

Tears stream down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
Tears stream down your face
And I

Tears stream down your face
I promise you I will learn from my mistakes
Tears stream down your face
And I

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you.

But the Coldplay song that has been in my head this week was not in Kim's collection last year. My youngest daughter and I listened to it on the way home from school Monday, so I googled it to try to figure out what it was talking about. It is called Viva La Vida, which is a RISE AND FALL story much like Shelley's "Ozymandias." Though the song does contain Biblical images, it seems more Napoleonic than ancient.

This catchy tune has become the most "downloaded" in history. (I say that as if the history of downloading stretches far back in time.)

I typically don’t watch “award shows" and don't plan to watch the Grammy's tonight (too much "culture shock" for one sitting, and besides, I'd rather write), but Coldplay is supposed to do very well with the following song. (Update: They did. See picture added at top.) I suspect many of you will likewise spend the evening in more meaningful pursuits... so I thought I’d post these Youtube clips of a band that has a surprisingly "clean" reputation--hope they stay that way. (Just as power currupts kings, Fame has a way or ruining artists.) The first clip looks like a really cheesy, low budget “before they were famous” video of the last video clip. [Hit "refresh" to stop a video.]

"Viva La Vida" by Coldplay (the lost Cheesy Video Version)


Less Cheesy Video of Same Song
(Lead singer Chris Martin is married to Gwyneth Paltrow)


I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing:
"Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!"
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt, pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
Once you go there was never, never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in.
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People could not believe what I'd become
Revolutionaries Wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
(Ooooh Oooh Oooh)
Hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world


Update: In the comment section, LGS recommends another Coldplay song, "The Scientist," which seems to be an earnest plea to God (Lyrics here). It sort of reminds me of a poem I wrote ten years ago called "Wonder."

Chapter 15-B coming soon: "When Things Become Automatic."

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Unsettled: Chapter 15-A

Life Is Not a One-page Book

There is a word that repeats itself in my writing and in my conversations with people. It’s not deliberate and hopefully not too obvious, though once I mention the word, it may seem blatant, considering the title I’ve used for many years.

The word is PATTERNS. It’s a good word, and the meaning behind how I typically use it is good for tracing and tracking the human condition. We understand the presence of patterns in art and music but sometimes overlook them in life.

Sometimes when I talk with the faculty and staff at school, I remind us that, beyond the books, we are working with the home to help students form good patterns of life (and avoid getting into bad patterns). This simple reminder helps moderate our responses to the routines (and, yes, rules) we are expected to follow. Anyone can be tardy, but is it a pattern? Anyone can not complete an assignment, but is it a pattern? Anyone can say a cross word, but is it a pattern. When we choose to focus more energy on patterns than on single incidents, we become people who RESPOND to incidents rather than REACT to them.

This does not mean that single events don’t matter, they do, but they deserve far more attention when they become patterns. Determining whether or not something is a pattern requires the passage of shared time and space, which is the context for the best kind of learning. Shared time and space and the assumption we will meet again tomorrow is the essence of relationships that matter. Life is not a one-page book.

Let me say that again because it hit me as I wrote it: "the assumption we will meet again is the essence of relationships that matter. " When we assume time is shortly shared or that we'll never meet again (even if it's true) we diminish the importance of current interaction and its impact on our future. I'm sure the percentage varies from setting to setting, but relationships dictate much of perspective and productivity. The more we observe patterns of life rather than snapshots in time, the more inclusive the context of our relationships. The more inclusive the context, the more thoughtful the response; the more thoughtful our responses, the more pleasant and productive the patterns of life. [This paragraph added 2-20-09]
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Our goal as a school is to maintain not a problem-free setting (no such place exists) but a setting in which the "problems" that are to be expected in a fallen world are responded to appropriately. .

Nobody likes “gotcha” moments. You know what I mean: those times when you get nailed for doing something that is not typical of you, not a pattern of behavior, and yet you did it and the one time you did--GOTCHA!--comes from someone who has the power to make you regret it. Whether it’s a referee on the basketball court, a policeman at a speed trap, a teacher at the door when the tardy bell rings, a boss who watches the staff parking lot ten minutes before quitting time... GOTCHA is an unpleasant world to live in.
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We’ve all heard the term “knee-jerk” reaction, which refers to actions that by-pass the brain. A knee-jerk reaction is fine on the doctor's examination table after that little red-triangle hammer taps the knee. It means the patient is alive and well. Dealing with the human body, however, is not the same thing as dealing with human beings. Knee-jerk reactions when dealing with people are never helpful. It’s never good when a “REACTION” to people by-passes the brain (or heart).
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We've all knee-jerked before, and we all know people who tend to be in such patterns. Sometimes they've learned to excuse it with statements like "Well, at least people know what I'm thinking," but reactions typically reflect impulse rather than thought. Or "Well, at least people know how I feel," which should never trump how what was said makes others feel. Given the chance, most people would rather learn from thoughtful "responders" than impulsive reactors.

Even in an emergency, a quick-thinking mind and body that RESPONDS appropriately is a better bet than mere REACTING. Well-trained emergency professionals, heroic pilots, or Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks may look like they’re reacting without thought, but they are more likely directing their agility and intuitive responses as repeatedly practiced.

Understanding the patterns of life and of people is one of the best ways to avoid knee-jerk reactions in a GOTCHA world. To whatever extent I model these thoughts in my dealings with students, parents, and the teachers I serve it reflects my understanding of God the Father. Oh, how I'm glad He does not run a GOTCHA world. He is long-suffering. He sees the big picture and the road ahead. He is far more concerned with the direction of our path, than a slip along the way. His path for us is not random; there's a plan; there's a pattern to follow.

My parents were far from perfect, but in the shared time and space God granted us as a family, I learned to sense the rhythms of life, the ebb and flow of events, the patterns of meaning, and the meaning of deviations from those patterns. The following chapter is just one example of such a lesson.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 14:

"A Man Came Through the Woods"

We were late, but late is a relative term. Most people consider noon to be "lunch time," and so did Mom. It is in that sense we were late. But since Mom typically arrived with lunch about an hour after noon, we were right on time. That’s how it mostly went. Why not just decide that lunch time is 1:00PM? Sounds logical, but if the agreed time were 1:00, try as she might to honor it, Mom’s day would be such that she’d arrive with lunch around 2:00. It was just that simple, and the fights about it had faded long before in the endless ebb and flow of married life.

So through the years we spoke of lunch at noon but set our stomach clocks for 1:00. And on this particular day, since Mom was coy enough to carried her banana cake with butter-cream frosting first from the car to the old Duncan Phyfe in the shade of the barn, there was nothing but smiles from Dad.

After lunch, we took some swings on the rope [which I wrote of two years ago but really should include in these chapters] and then went to the well.

In the forty-five minutes we took for lunch, over a foot of water had seeped into the well. We lowered the long hose, pumped it out, lowered the long wooden ladder, watched Dad descend, pulled out the ladder, and lowered the shovel and bucket with the rope.

[By the time we were six crocks down, the well looked very much like this photo of another well. Ours did not have the ladder built into the side.]

“Wow, Dad’s got it all cleaned up around here,” Mom said.

“He did that last week when we were gone,” said Paul, pulling up a bucket. “Next one’s yours, Tom.”

He dumped the bucket out a few steps away where a small pile was already forming from the morning work. Walking back with a smile, he handed me the empty bucket. I hooked it to the rope. “Heads up”I hollered down the well, and let the bucket’s weight free-fall with the rope half-way down and then squeezed the rope to let it slowly pass Dad and thud in the wet dirt at his feet.

[I've shown this drawing in previous chapters, but just as a reminder, our bucket system looked something like this. Our well was twice as deep, and we were lining it with cement crocks as we dug. There was a pile of pea gravel beside the well that we kept shoveling around the upper perimeter of the cement sleeve so the gravel would act as "ball bearings" as the stack of crocks sank into the ground.]

Dad had the digging down to a science. While the bucket was up, he’d turn shovels of dirt, stepping backwards in a tight circle around the narrow perimeter of the cement culvert. Then when the bucket was there, he simply scooped up a dozen or so shovelfuls of the loosened dirt into the five-gallon bucket. Step back and yell, “Okay!”

I pulled the heavy bucket up knowing my brothers were watching to see if I had the strength to do it as smoothly as they did all the way to the top. I did.

I rested the bucket on the edge of the top crock and began to unhook the rope.

“Nope!” Dave said, grabbing the bucket handle. “We do it different now. Put the bucket on the ground and then unhook it. Dad’s deep enough now that if you accidentally dropped the un-hooked bucket… that would not be good.”

He lowered the bucket to the ground. “Okay. Now unhook it.”

“Did something happen?” I asked.

Paul and Dave’s eyes met and they motioned Mom’s direction to shut me up. Mom was about ten steps away watching Jim playing with some sticks.

“Tell you later.” Dave whispered, but then he added, “It didn’t happen but we had a close call, but we’re not going to talk about it. Just unhook the bucket on the ground from now on.”

Up from the well came the rhythm of steel cutting into gritty, wet dirt. The sound stopped momentarily as Dad caught his breath. I dumped the bucket and handed it to Dave.

“Head’s up” he said flatly, letting the rope slip through his loosely gripped hand, then squeezing it to slow the bucket past Dad, and another round began.

I looked Mom’s direction and knew she could not hear us.

“Did you guys almost drop a bucket on Dad?” I whispered. Paul just smiled. Dave looked Mom’s direction then turned his face from her and closer to me.

"Paul and I were fighting over whose turn it was to pull,” Dave said, “Dad kept yelling up ‘Okay’ but we weren’t pulling. He was getting mad so I went ahead and pulled it up, rested it on the edge, and told Paul to dump it.”

“I wasn’t about to dump it because it was your turn.” Paul insisted, “But I wasn’t going to keep Dad waiting so I went ahead, and just as I unhooked it. Dave grabs for it…”

“I still say it wasn’t my turn, but I didn’t want to hear about you bein' one ahead of me all day. Anyway, my hand hit the handle resting on the side of the bucket but I missed the handle and the bucket slipped off the lip of the crock.”

My eyes widened.

“But I grabbed the top of the bucket long enough for Dave to grab the handle. It was close. If that had dropped down on Dad-- Gsheesh!”

“Did Dad see what happened?” I said still whispering. They shook their heads ‘no,’ and the three of us looked at Mom who happened to look at us. We smiled as if to change the subject she had not heard.

“What?” she laughed. We just kept smiling. “Look at you three. My little babies all grown up.” She reached for Jim’s hand, “I remember when you were all this age, playing out in the sand box on Lapeer. And now look at you. Still playing in the dirt.” She laughed.

Dad hollered up “Okay!” and Dave began to pull.

As he put the bucket on the ground to unhook it, I thought of what he said, and it occurred to me for the first time the enormous amount of trust Dad had in us boys at the top of the well. I can’t think of a more vulnerable position to be in: twenty feet down a shaft with very little room to move. If anything fell down the well, it would almost certainly hit him. And because looking up was a risky thing to do (for almost always bits of dirt were dropping from the bucket above) there would be almost no way to get out of the way. It would be best, I reasoned in my mind, if the contents of a bucket spilled and rained down on him than for a full 40-pound bucket to hit him in the head. I shuddered at the thought.

“Would that kill you?” I asked Dave, as if he‘d been listening to my thoughts.

“Would what kill you?” he said.

“If a full bucket hit you in the head from up here.”

“Probably not,” he dumped the bucket and handed it to Paul. “Unless..." His eyebrows rose as if with a brilliant idea.

"Unless, you were resting your chin on the top of the shovel handle when the 40 pounds hit--WHAM!-- squarely on the top of your head. That would force the handle up through that soft part behind your chin,” he grabbed my chin and pressed his thumb up into the spot he meant, “Right here. Then it would go up through the tongue and soft palate and the sinuses and into the brain... That would kill you.”
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I stood speechless. Dave always had an uncanny knack at describing weird ways to die, but in this case, I was equally impressed by his grasp of anatomy and physics. [Many years later, Dave would become a high-school science teacher who could regain his student’s attention with vivid tales of freak accidents that all ended with the line…“That’s the one thing you don’t want to do!”]
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Then as if inspired again he added, “You’d be dead instantly but probably stay standing ‘cause the shovel handle jammed in your head would kind of prop you up.”

“Enough!” Paul laughed, lowering the empty bucket.

"Good thing Dad never rests his chin on the end of the shovel," I whispered.

"Hello," Mom said looking past us. It was as much a warning as a greeting because she could tell that we had not yet seen a man coming through the woods toward us. If the man heard Mom, he chose not to wave.

This was no one that we knew. In the three years of Saturdays there at the property, we had gotten to know all the men who might happen by. We could also tell who they were from a distance. Mitch lived north of us and had a club-foot limp. Russ lived across the road and always came down the two-track with a wave and toothy grin. Harry owned the land south of us, but we always saw his parked car if he was there. This man was a stranger, dressed too warm for summer it seemed to me, with a ratty army jacket and his hands hidden in the patch pockets.

"Hello," Mom said again as he approached. The three of us boys just stood in awkward silence. Strange that Mom, because Dad was out of sight, by default became the spokesperson, while three teenage boys stood gawking. The man nodded his head and began to veer around us as if avoiding conversation, then stopped and looked directly at Mom, who by then was standing beside us with Jimmy in her arms.

"You don't mind if I pass through here, do ya?" He spread an unshaven smile. His eyes had the shallow gleam that comes from a bottle.

"No, go right ahead," Mom suggested, and he took two steps just as Dad hollered "Okay" up the well.

"What the..." He stepped toward us. "You got somebody down there? I wondered what the..." he censored himself. What are you doin'?"

"That's my Dad," I said as Paul pulled up the bucket, "We're digging a well. It's almost done."

"Lemme see..." He stepped closer to the cement crock but did not touch it, leaning slowly toward it until his eyes were past the brim. "What the...?" He leaned away from the well as if afraid of heights. "He's a way down there. That's for sure. But you can't dig no well 'round here."

Mom and I walked away from the well, hoping he'd follow and be on his way.

"We don't mind if you pass through." Mom said again. "That road there will take you down to the Fish Creek. There's a bridge over the creek and a path on the other side. Looks like that's the way you were headed."

"Yep. I'm headed east a couple more miles, but don't you know nobody has a deep well like that 'round here. The water's no good."

"What?" Mom asked.

"Mom, I'm sure Dad knows what he's doing. It's okay. This man's in a hurry."

"I'm goin' boy," the man winked. "Just warnin' you that's all. That well's no good. All you'll get is salt water. All the water 'round here tastes salty. I'm headed to the Salt River right now. Why do you think they call it the Salt River?"

"I don't know. But we've gotta have a well. Where else'll we get our water."

"They say city water's coming in a couple years. Just wait for that."

"We can't wait for that. We're building a house." Mom said as if some sort of discussion could change these facts if they were true. The man turned to me.

"Tell your old man he's wasting his time, boy." He turned and walked away, "Salty water," he laughed. We watched him until he disappeared over the rise in the hill.

"Paul, go make sure he doesn't snoop around the barn." Mom whispered.

"I'll go, too," Dave added, "Tom, come get the bucket."

"Don't tell Dad a word he said, Tom," Mom whispered, and I agreed.

A moment later, Dave and Paul came running back.

"He's already across the creek--didn't even look at the barn." Dave said.

"Did he see you watching him?" I asked.

"No, he didn't even turn to look our way--just kept walkin'" Paul said.

"Good," Mom sighed. "I was just telling Tom that we're not going to say another word about this. Don't tell Dad a word he said."

"He was probably drunk," Dave suggested,"Looked like there was a bottle in his right pocket."

"I saw something in there," I added, "but I was afraid it was a gun."

"Oh, he's just a drunk know-it-all passing through," Dave said, "There's guys like that at school. Never actually done any work but always in a hurry to act like your work is a waste of time."

"Dad knows what he's doing, Mom." I said once more. Jimmy who had pretty much just observed this whole thing added, "Dad knows," with a big smile. And we all laughed and went back to our rotation.
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"You boys keep an eye on Jimmy for a while. I'm going to clean up the table and put out a snack for later on. Then Jimmy and I are going home to make supper. Why don't you see if Dad wants to take a break in a half hour or so before I leave?"

About an hour later, we talked Dad into that break, and we all walked back to the barn. Mom had dragged the table inside the barn under the bare bulb by the stove. It wasn't dark outside, but it was around 4:00 and the mosquitoes were starting to get bad. (The last thing Mom needed with her skin-picking issue was mosquito bites.) When we got to the table, she was seated there reading her Bible. (She often carried her Bible with her in the car whenever we went to the beach or the property, in case she had time to read.)
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"Look, Don," she said, "Listen to this." And she read Proverbs 9:17 "'Stolen waters are sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.' I'm not kidding, Don, I opened my Bible just like this and put my finger down on a verse, and that's the verse it was. So I said, 'Okay, Lord. That might have been coincidence.' And I opened it again without looking, dropped my finger on a verse and it said--well, here, let me read it. I marked it, but it wasn't marked before. Listen 'Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.' Look at me! I've got goose bumps! It says that right in here James 3:12. Isn't that something?"
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Dad just stood with a big smile, not wanting to take the wind from her sails but also not having a clue why those verses mattered in that moment. So mom turned to us boys who did have a clue and added. "You know why I'm so happy. Can you believe this?"
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"You sure you didn't use a concordance?" Dave joked.
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"No, David William, I didn't!" Mom said indignantly, "It happened just like I said, so I know the man was wrong."


"What man?" Dad said, no longer smiling.

"Mom, I thought we weren't going to say anything," Paul warned.

"We weren't, but now this... now I know he was wrong." She looked at Dad, took a deep breath and said, "About an hour ago some stranger walked past us up there at the well."

"I think he was drunk," Dave added, and we all nodded as Mom went on.

"He said that the well was no good. That you were wasting your time because the water around here is salty and that's why they call it the Salt River."

"He said that?" Mom nodded. "That the water was salty?" She nodded again.

"But I don't believe it, and that's why the Lord gave me these verses." Mom said.

"Bev, I'm not so sure you can just use the Bible like a Weegee Board --just opening and pointing. It doesn't work like that. I mean... it did in this case for you, but..."

"Don, I wasn't using the Bible like a Weegee Board. Don't even talk about those wicked things. I prayed for a verse and there it was, and I did it again and the second one was even better."

[Mom knew very well how to properly study scripture, and she knew this was not the way, but neither was it the last time she was blessed by a random, point-to-print, passage in a time of need.]

"Okay, Bev, I didn't mean it like that, but I'm just wondering why you put any stock at all in what some stranger said." He walked over to the pitcher pump and filled a glass of water and drank it down. "I don't know why they call it the Salt River, but it's sure not salt water, and besides--it's downstream from here. We've been drinking from this little well in the barn for a year and it's not salty."

"I know but that's just a shallow well. I was afraid the deeper well was what he was talking about. He looked down at you and said something about it being deep where the water's salty."

"But, Bev, every morning when we come out here, that well is full to the top. And if the sun's up and the light's just right you can see all the way down to the bottom. It's crystal clear. And before we pump it out, we can scoop up a bucket of it and drink it. It's cold and good, isn't it, boys? Best water you've ever tasted." Dave and Paul agreed.

"Well, why didn't you boys tell me it wasn't salty?" Mom pleaded.

"You said we weren't going to talk about it." Paul said.

"You said 'not a word,'" Dave added.

"Well, you picked a fine time to obey!" she laughed.

"I didn't say anything because I didn't know, "I said apologetically, "I've never been here in the morning when they pump it out. I just figured Dad knew."

Mom looked down at her open Bible. "Well, I've underlined 'em," she smiled, "And I'm still going to claim them. I was a nervous wreck this whole time until God gave me those verses."

"Honey, I don't doubt that a bit," Dad said, washing his hands at the little pump. He was moved, I think, that Mom cared enough to worry. After all, in the middle of this hard summer with all her mixed emotions about everything, she could have shrugged it off... but she cared enough to worry, and pray, and find these verses.

"Read the first one again about the sweat bread," he said as he took a knife and cut six pieces of banana cake, Mom read it again, and he put the pieces on plates and passed them around. "And what's that verse in Psalms that we all learned a few months ago. 'O taste and see that the LORD is good," he began, and we all joined in, "blessed is the man that trusteth in him."

To be continued...The Day was Far From Over. Chapter 15 coming next weekend.

Time for the Super Bowl. I'm pulling for the underdogs, Kurt Warner and the Cards. He used to stock groceries in the Cedar Falls Hy-Vee grocery store in "our home town" back when we lived in Iowa. Post game update: Rats! Arizona lost a close one, but they clearly disproved all the hype, and I was proud of the way Kurt Warner conducted himself before, during, and after the game.

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