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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

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Difference between Compassion and Socialism

MONDAY, JUNE 29, 2009

The other day I was talking with one of my family members who had asked me the simple question: "The Bible asks us to look out for the widows and the orphans and to care for those in need so why do you get so frustrated each day when you hear about Obama taking money from those who have it to give to those who don't?" 

I answered as best I could by saying something like, "The Bible compels us as individuals to do those things voluntarily with the information we have on hand about those God brings into our lives. Scripture does not ask us to ignore all we know about human nature; it does not expect us to ignore all the wisdom found in the book of Proverbs about hard work and sloth and wise versus foolish uses of our resources. The Bible does not ask the same government that expels Him from its schools to create a dependent cast of society by keeping them on the dole. Scripture asks believers to do these things at a very local, individual basis, where a high level of accountability, love, and care can also be part of the equation. When a bureaucratic government attempts to do equalize the masses, that is a whole different process."

I did not have this parable to read at the time, but I think it would have answered the question even better. A friend sent this to me the other day. 

Dinner with Obama:
A Parable
Once upon a time, I was invited to the White House for a private dinner with the President. I am a respected businessman, with a factory that produces memory chips for computers and portable electronics. There was some talk that my industry was being scrutinized by the administration, but I paid it no mind. I live in a free country. There's nothing that the government can do to me if I've broken no laws. My wealth was earned honestly, and an invitation to dinner with an American President is an honor. 

I checked my coat, was greeted by the Chief of Staff, and joined the President in a yellow dining room. We sat across from each other at a table draped in white linen. The Great Seal was embossed on the china. Uniformed staff served our dinner.

The meal was served, and I was startled when my waiter suddenly reached out, plucked a dinner roll off my plate, and began nibbling it as he walked back to the kitchen.

"Sorry about that," said the President. "Andrew is very hungry."
"I don't appreciate..." I began, but as I looked into the calm brown eyes across from me, I felt immediately guilty and petty. It was just a dinner roll. "Of course," I concluded, and reached for my glass. Before I could, however, another waiter reached forward, took the glass away and swallowed the wine in a single gulp. 

"And his brother Eric is very thirsty." said the President.
I didn't say anything. The President is testing my compassion, I thought. I will play along. I don't want to seem unkind.

My plate was whisked away before I had tasted a bite.

"Eric's children are also quite hungry." 

With a lurch, I crashed to the floor. My chair had been pulled out from under me. I stood, brushing myself off angrily, and watched as it was carried from the room.
"And their grandmother can't stand for long."

I excused myself, smiling outwardly, but inside feeling like a fool. Obviously I had been invited to the White House to be sport for some game. I reached for my coat, to find that it had been taken. I turned back to the President.

Their grandfather doesn't like the cold." 

I wanted to shout- that was my coat! But again, I looked at the placid smiling face of my host and decided I was being a poor sport. I spread my hands helplessly and chuckled. Then I felt my hip pocket and realized my wallet was gone. I excused myself and walked to a phone on an elegant side table. I learned shortly that my credit cards had been maxed out, my bank accounts emptied, my retirement and equity portfolios had vanished, and my wife had been thrown out of our home. Apparently, the waiters and their families were moving in. The President hadn't moved or spoken as I learned all this, but finally I lowered the phone into its cradle and turned to face him.
"Andrew's whole family has made bad financial decisions. They haven't planned for retirement, and they need a house. They recently defaulted on a sub-prime mortgage. I told them they could have your home. They need it more than you do." 

My hands were shaking. I felt faint. I stumbled back to the table and knelt on the floor. The President cheerfully cut his meat, ate his steak and drank his wine.
"By the way," He added, "I have just signed an Executive Order nationalizing your factories. I'm firing you as head of your business. I'll be operating the firm now for the benefit of all mankind. There's a whole bunch of Erics and Andrews out there and they can't come to you for jobs groveling like beggars."

I looked up. The President dropped his spoon into the empty dish which had been his Creme Brulee. He drained the last drops of his wine. As the table was cleared, he lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. He stared at me. I clung to the edge of the table as if were a ledge and I were a man hanging over an abyss. I thought of the years behind me, of the life I had lived. The life I had earned with a lifetime of work, risk and struggle. Why was I punished? How had I allowed it to be taken? What game had I just played ... and lost?
What had I done wrong?

As if answering the unspoken thought, the President suddenly cocked his head, locked his empty eyes to mine, and bared a million beautiful white teeth, chuckling wryly as he folded his hands.

"You fool," he said. "You should have stopped me at the dinner roll!"

Friday, June 26, 2009

Chapter 28-A "There Was Magic in the Shoes"

[Three accidentally omitted paragraphs were discovered and added Sunday AM.]

The school year that followed the digging of the well--the year when Kathy was away at college--was the peak of my brother Dave's high school wrestling career, and by a wonderful twist of fate, with the help of some magic shoes, it became the peak of my career as well in a brief reversal of roles. But first... some background.

The term "middle school" has been in use for a few decades now. It refers to grades 6 through 8. But when I was a kid, they used the term "junior high," which was grades 7 through 9. There was only one school system that I knew of that had 9th grade as part of its high school and that was East Detroit.

(That city--at least that name--no longer exists. Back in 1992, the town fathers thought it would sound less like it was related to Detroit and more like it was a second cousin of Grosse Pointe if they changed the name of the city to Eastpointe, That's Pointe with an "e" on the end, which we all know makes it even ritzier. How cities and towns get their names is a fascinating study, but it's not the topic of this post. Suffice to say that more than a decade later, East Detroit/Eastpointe is still pretty much the same place. What's in a name?)
Anyway, East Detroit was the only school around that had a "freshman class" of 9th graders in their high school building. Had that been true of Brablec High School in Roseville, Dave and I would have gone to school together that fall of 1970. But as it was, Dave and Paul drove to the high school each day, and I walked a few blocks to Burton Junior High on 11 Mile Road.

[Back in the 90's, Burton was torn down to make room for a home-improvement store. It was a perfectly good school building, but the baby-boom was over and there were no longer enough students in Roseville to fill the two high schools and three junior highs it once needed. So it made sense to raze the school on the most marketable lot.]

The 70-71 school year would be my second at Burton without Dave, but he remained my "closest" brother in age and in common interests. One of those interests was the sport of wrestling--not TV wrestling--we'd grown up watching "Big Time Wrestling" with its collection of stars (Bo Bo Brazil and Leapin' Larry Shane were our favorite good guys while Dick the Bruiser and The Sheik were our hated bad guys.) That kind of TV wrestling was fake and we all knew it. (A peek at those links will remove any doubt that the old TV wrestling was staged and fell far short of the brutality of today's real cage fights.) No, the kind of wrestling Dave took up the winter of my 9th grade year gave new meaning to being his little brother.

The year before, when Dave went to the high school, George Ryder, one of his friends from church talked him into joining the wrestling team. Dave had been chopping wood and pulling stumps with Dad for a year by then. He was gangly and strong, and in excellent shape. Still it was not common to begin a career at the varsity level, but as luck would have it, the varsity senior in Dave's weight class had difficulty "making weight" (especially when slated to meet his toughest opponents). So right from the start Dave was varsity and faced some of the best wrestlers in the area, and while he did not win all of his matches, he gained experience in a hurry and chalked up enough "surprise" victories against unsuspecting more-experienced grapplers to earn himself a Varsity Letter his first year.

As always, Dad got involved in this process. His athletic background was league softball and Golden Gloves Boxing. Until wrestling came along, all of his training with us boys was on the ball fields of Huron Park or in the basement with the boxing gloves he'd given us for Christmas years before. (It was a time when most fathers considered it their duty to teach a son how to stick up for himself, not to pick a fight, but to know how to end one if it started. I'm not necessarily advocating this mind-set, just explaining how Dad had trained us when we were kids on the playground.) Those old boxing gloves were still in the toy-box downstairs, but our hands had outgrown them, and our ball gloves were tossed in the closet for the winter. But Dad took that same energy from teaching us those sports and began helping Dave with this one less familiar him.

On any given night of the week, if you looked through our living room window, you could see all the furniture pushed aside and Dad and Dave looking at wrestling books and practicing the moves. These sessions often turned into full-blown tussles that shook the floor and walls and prompted Mom to grab her knickknacks from the shelves. In time, I got involved, too. Though I was no match for Dave, I was not a bad "sparring dummy."

And so began my wrestling career. It was the winter of rug burns.

I adopted Dave's interest in this sport, and became the best "feather weight" in Roseville with the ribbons to prove it. I took first place in both of my wrestling annual tournaments at that included all three Junior Highs. Seeing my potential, Coach Nelson asked Dave to start bringing me along to the high school practices over the Christmas Break of that 70-71 school year. Wow! Me, a mere junior high kid weighing in at 96 pounds fully dressed, was invited to work out with the heroes I'd been watching on the mat for two years. I was both nervous and thrilled.

I had no proper warm-up gear to practice in. All the other guys were wearing sweats and layers of floppy cotton shirts, and I was wearing my official Burton Junior High P.E. uniform, This was back in the day when P.E. classes were very regimented. Show up on Monday without a freshly laundered uniform and a "strap" to pull out from under the right leg to "snap" when ordered by the teacher... and you got a swat with a wooden paddle right there in front of the whole class. The swat was bad enough, but the lingering proof in the shower room after class was the real punishment. We had never heard of "Red Square" in Russia. To us, the term referred to the big welt on the butts of kids who dared show up without their P.E. uniform or a jock strap on Monday.

I had never gotten a swat for no uniform and strap on Monday, and for all I knew high-school wrestling practice was the same way. Dave didn't give it a thought until I stepped from the locker room to the wide open gym where two huge mats lay side by side.

There I stood with white shirt emblazoned with a smiling bobcat head with white matching boxer shorts, white crew socks, and white tennis shoes. I looked like Mr. Clean Jr. on stage with the motley cast Dickens’s Oliver Twist. But the forty or so guys of all shapes and sizes were so busy rolling and sparring on the big rubber mats that they didn't seem to notice.

Dave came up and whispered, "I'll get you some warm up clothes for tomorrow, but don't worry about it. Nobody cares what we wear. Let me introduce you to the guys you'll be with today."

I spent the morning working out with other guys within ten or twenty pounds of me, and didn't do half bad.

After that first day of practice, I found a pair of old wrestling shoes in the trash. Did I say "old"? They looked like they had been accidentally drug for miles out a car door by the laces. These shoes were missing rubber and had holes from too much time on the matt, but they were only one size bigger than I wore so I took them home and sewed on denim patches with orange darning thread.

It was the 70's, and tie-died shirts and ripped jeans with patches were the latest craze. Sort of like they still are now--except now they no longer patch the rips... they just leave 'em gaping and kids pay fifty bucks extra for all the wear-and-tear. Back then, we had to wear-out our own clothes.

Anyway, I thought the shoes looked cool with their funky patches.

[If I had not found those old wrestling shoes in my mother's attic a few months ago while we were preparing for last weekend's estate sale, I would have forgotten all about them and this chapter would not have happened. If I had not found them and taken these pictures, readers may find it hard to imagine just what I began wearing with pride when I worked-out with Dave's team.]

Once Christmas Break was over and wrestling practice was after school, I had no way of getting to the high school from Burton, but working out with the team for two weeks gave me an unfair advantage in the Roseville Junior High Wrestling Tournament. I took home the blue ribbon for the second year straight.

It was a week later that Coach Nelson sent Dave home with some exciting news. They were going to face East Detroit the following week, and since that school began with freshmen, our school was allowed to invite 9th graders up from the "feeder" junior high schools.

"Me? Wrestling in a real meet against East Detroit? Of course, I'll do it." I smiled, but deep in my stomach, butterflies started clinging to branches.

I'll never forget the nervous feeling I had as Dave and I and Dad walked through the main entrance to East Detroit High. They were the shamrocks, and they had a big four-leaf clover emblem in the tile floor of their entryway. I accidentally stepped onto the shamrock, and a guy who was standing guard over the sacred spot told me step back not to cross over the shamrock. I did a little jig to side-step it, but it seemed like the floor of the front door was a pretty dumb place to put something so untouchable. I later learned it was only visiting teams that were not allowed to walk on the emblem. Still, my first step into the building only heightened my nerves.

To be continued...
Chapter 28-B will be posted next week as time allows.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Iowa Coach Changed Lives

A year ago, I wrote about a small town near our Iowa home that had just been hit by a devastating tornado. (That last link is a video story about how my friend's home vanished while she hid in the basement crawlspace.)

Yesterday, that same town was hit by a far more devastating disaster. If you havent' heard about it. Here is the story.

Aplington-Parkersburg was a school district that, before the two small-town schools merged, was in an athletic conference of small farm-community schools in which our school participated. Our middle school math teacher and volleyball coach lived in this town. (It was she who lost her house last year.) This school's football coach, Ed Thomas, was a legend. He played a major role in rebuilding the town's morale as they were literally rebuilding their school after the tornado. They named the new stadium after him.

This little community and Coach Thomas's football team has produced four NFL players in recent years. One of them, had this to say about the tragic murder of his former coach yesterday.

"Coach Thomas was very special to me and many other young men from the Aplington-Parkersburg communities. His legacy for many will be identified with his tremendous success as a football coach. However, I believe his largest legacy comes not in how many football games he won or lost but in the fact that he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ. He lived his life trying to exemplify this faith and convey those values to those under his influence. His faith in Christ pervaded everything that he did and that is why in the midst of the heartache we all feel there is comfort in knowing he is with his Savior."
Aaron Kampman, linebacker for the Green Bay Packers.

My friends in Iowa tell me the entire state is grieving the loss of this fine man. Pray for this community as they pull together once again in the face of unimaginable loss.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Date to Remember...

One of the disadvantages of using a blog as a venue for unwritten chapters is that I rarely write about “current things” so as not to lose the thread of whatever storyline holds the chapters together. When I do write about current life, it’s usually by way of explanation for why I haven’t had time to write. In spite of this flaw in my current format, kind feedback prods me on in this pleasant pastime.

A few weeks ago, Quilly, our blogging friend in Hawaii, wrote this about Patterns of Ink:

"Those of you who haven’t been following this blog don’t know what you have missed! Tom is writing his family history, chapter-by-chapter and sharing it on the web. It is an enchanting and compelling story of a family of faith and their lives as they struggled together to build the family home that is now, sadly, for sale. Tom is not your typical blogger, nor is he your typical writer. His stories are definitely worth your time."

Thanks, Quilly, your endorsement read like one of those big-name quotes on the back cover of a book jacket.

I say all that to say that those "Unsettled" chapters will continue, but I simply cannot let a date I had with my wife last night go without mention here at POI.

In recent comment sections and posts, I’ve hinted that I have been busy with a big project in our back yard that has left me worn out by nightfall. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me it has been the kind of physical labor my brothers and I did on Saturday’s with Dad forty years ago, and the kind of back-breaking toil Dad still did at my age without the crippling side effects. Even now, my arms and hands are sore as I type. So it was very good that circumstances took me away from my “extreme home makeover” project.

Yesterday, Julie and I brought our youngest daughter to Chicago—directly to Midway Airport.—to catch a flight to Kansas where she will spend a week with her grandparents (Julie’s folks) in Kansas. It’s a highlight of her year to spend time with them and some of her cousins there. Anyway, since we had to go to Chicago, Julie and I decided to make a “date” of it. Here’s the exciting part….

Last night, we went to the Oriental Theater at the Ford Center and saw the stage production of Fiddler on the Roof. Wait… it gets even better…. Guess who’s playing the lead role of Tevye? Topol himself! Yes, Topol. If you’ve seen the film version of this wonderful story, you’ve seen the unbelievable Oscar-nominated performance of Topol as the talk-to-God-out-loud, cart pulling poor milk man from Anitevka. Well guess what, he is just as good on the live stage. (He is now 74, has performed this roll live now over 2,500 times in theaters around the world, but is now making his farewell tour.)

Julie and I were caught up in every scene and song of the nearly three-hour show, which we know by heart.

It seems like Fiddler on the Roof has been a recurring theme throughout our life. A few years after Julie and I were first married, her father bought a video record player. Not a VCR--this was just before VCRs hit the consumer market and long before DVDs were invented. A video record player was about the size of four stacked pizza boxes with records the size of phonograph albums. The users inserted the record into a slot in the front of the player. Julie’s Dad had only a handful of video records. The Black Stallion was one of them and Fiddler on the Roof was another. (Actually Fiddler on the Roof was a two-album set.). That is the way I saw this film for the first time—not at the theater—but in my in-laws living room.

[Most of that film, incidentally, was filmed in Croatia where our middle daughter Kim is on a TESL mission until August. It is Kim who is typically our reason for coming here to Chicago during the school year.]

Through the years, we watched that musical together many times at Julie's house. Her father could relate to Tevye. Not only is he a hard working pastor/farmer who more than once has had a lame horse, and pulled carts around their barnyard... he also had three daughters of marrying age, the first of which had recently married me. (In that sense, I guess I’m Motel, the poor tailor whose love for Tevye’s daughter saves her from an arranged marriage with Lazar Wolfe, the butcher.) [Years later, I too, had three daughters; and I too have one married recently. Now it is Keith who is the poor tailor.]

So fond were we of this story's plot line, that sixteen years ago, when Julie and I lived in Iowa, we took a trip up to Chanhassen, MN, (famous for its dinner theater) to see it performed live on stage. It was an excellent production, and it stirred a desire to direct the play myself the following year at our school. I was teaching high school English at the time, and had been directing annual stage productions for over ten years, but none so ambitious as Fiddler on the Roof.

I had a remarkable talent pool in the seventy or so students who each year tried out for our productions. And I had a perfect couple who I thought I could talk into the lead rolls of Tevye and Golde: Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Nelson. Bruce was our band director and his wife taught music in a neighboring district. I’d heard them sing together and knew they could pull it off. I had never used adults in a previous production, but in this case the other lead rolls were also huge and I needed their talent and experience to anchor this huge reach for our small school with only about 150 in the high school.

Bruce and Bev agreed to the performance months before I announced the title to the school, and they secretly began working on this daunting task. By the time rehearsals began, the two leads had their parts well in hand, and the entire cast knew they were a becoming part of something that would be really good. It was during these months of preparation that I grew the beard I have had ever since. You see, I was Bruce’s understudy. I knew the script by heart. I knew the character. I could sing (not as well as Bruce but so-so), and I stepped into the Tevye part whenever Bruce was not at rehearsal. The students rose to the occasion as well, performing far beyond the level of any high school production I have ever seen anywhere from schools many times our size. I know I was very close to this situation, but I believe that is an objective statement of fact. All three nights of this sold-out performance got standing ovations. It was the biggest show I ever directed. (I should add that Julie was always my assistant and another friend, Renee, always helped with music and choreography whenever we did musicals.)

Of course, “directing” a play in a small school means you also oversee every aspect of the production—costumes, lighting, ticket sales, and set design and construction. It is this last aspect that ties into our “Unsettled” chapters.

I was still finishing the construction of some set pieces when Dad and Mom arrived to our Iowa school from Michigan. They always made the trip west to see our school plays. I’ll never forget it. I was building the trees for the background silhouette scene of the song “Little Bird, Little Chavela.” [video clip at end of post] I looked up and there was Dad smiling down at me on the floor.

“Still makin’ sawdust just two days before opening?” He chuckled.

I got up and gave him a hug. They had arrived a few hours ahead of schedule and came directly to the school rather than to our house a few blocks away. It gave my father great pleasure to see me using the tools he had introduced me to in such creative ways. This was the first time he had arrived early enough to see me in the last phase of set construction, but each year he always helped us “strike the set” after closing night.

It will come as no surprise to those who read here that it gave me great personal satisfaction to have my mom and dad witness this part of my job each year. It’s true that we should all do our jobs well for many reasons. Teachers especially should strive for their personal best each day for the sake of their students, but I confess… knowing my parents would be there to see the productions my students and I put on each year was a huge motivation for making them the absolute best that they could be. Seeing my Dad work with kids he barely knew (he always knew some of them from the years before) as we took down the set was always a joy. And seeing my mom, always the talker who knew no strangers, interacting with the cast during that same process, always made my students feel like they knew the real me… the part of me that was once a kid, the part of me that had parents…. not just the "grown-up" teacher part of me.

I was 39 the year we did Fiddler on the Roof. Little did I know it was the last play of mine my father would ever see. One year later, with just a few weeks left of rehearsals before opening night 1995, I got the word that my father had died of a heart attack. We went home for the funeral, and a few weeks later my cast pulled off a wonderful performance of Charlotte’s Web. Needless to say, the scene where Charlotte dies was very hard for me to watch from the back of the auditorium.

It was because of this trip to Midway Airport in Chicago that we could not be at the last day of the estate sale at our homestead five hours the other way (near Detroit).

A few hours before curtain, I had called my siblings who did spend some time at the sale. They said it went well, and yes, there were mixed feeling as they watched things being carted off.

So on the evening of our estate sale of all evenings, you can imagine what a profound experience it was for Julie and I to sit in one of the most beautiful theaters in America to see Topol himself performing in this musical that seems forever entwined in our life... to be reminded of the importance of tradition and faith and change… and moving on… leaving home… leaving the “things” of life behind while holding tight to those around you. All this and more was going through my mind as I held my wife’s hand in that dark theater. It was truly a date to remember...

We’re staying in Chicago an extra day… so it may be a couple more days before the next chapter is posted. Thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, enjoy these two clips from the film version of this musical. Topol is just as good 38 years later.

If you want to watch other scenes, see “related videos” at this Youtube page.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Perhaps It's Just as Well...

Update on this post: We had a small party for Natalie yesterday during which we "skyped" Kim in Croatia and all sang "Happy Birthday" together. Why do I feel like I have awakened in a cartoon episode of The Jetsons ? ... First day of the estate sale went well. Today is the "everything must go" price-down.

Now back to the original Friday post. Next chapter should be posted by Monday.

So sorry I haven't posted this week. I've had no time to write but the next chapter was basically written two months ago. I just have to finish it and so far that has not been possible. It's 12:01 AM June 19. This is a very special day. On this day two of my three daughters were born. Yes, the second two share a birthday on June 19th.

Today is also the first day of the estate sale at the house that these "Unsettled" chapters will eventually describe. Julie and I have done our share of shopping at many estate sales, but never have we been to one at our own homestead. Because we have to take my youngest to the airport in Chicago, I will not be at the sale itself.

Perhaps that's just as well... My siblings and I have had hours and hours of closure on our "work days" at the house this year. All the business that remains is the work of an auction/estate sale company. I just know if I were there I'd see more things that I'd hate to see sold to strangers, so maybe it's just as well...

I wonder if any of the people going through the house on Friday and Saturday will see the penny I put in the living room wall back in 1973. I have a chapter all about that wall, but there is much to tell between now and then.

First there is the pending post; then comes the part about us tearing down a small YMCA building in Mt. Clemens to get the wood to build the house. Yes, that beautiful house in these pictures is made from wood we salvaged and "de-nailed," and the bricks are from an eighty-year-old building in downtown Detroit, but I'm getting ahead of myself!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Chapter 27 "The Empty Spot at the Table"

Dad never told me about how he felt when he and Mom dropped Kathy off at college and began the 700-mile trip to Michigan… but Mom told me how it went. They drove in silence for over an hour. Mom would occasionally try to speak, but each time she had to grab another crumpled hanky from her purse. Then somewhere around Knoxville, before getting on I-75 north, Dad pulled off to the side of the road and just started bawling.

Mom always said she’d never seen him cry like that. I’m trying to think of a time when I saw Dad cry. I’m not saying he never did cry, just saying that I can’t recall a time when he cried openly in front of us kids. (Later on in life he’d get teary eyed when he talked about God and Christ and his faith or when we’d sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” I remember that.) So it was no stretch for Mom to say she’d never seen him cry like that time on the side of the road.

He just pulled out his handkerchief and wept. By then, Mom had two or three wet hankies wadded up in her hands. (This was not before the invention of Kleenex, but it was a time when Dad still considered Kleenex a waste of money. After all, handkerchiefs were reusable, and Kleenex were only good for one blow. For as long as I can remember, Dad had a folded handkerchief in his back pocket and mom had half a dozen crumpled hankies in her purse.)

After that good cry in the car, Mom says Dad didn’t cry again all the way home.

So there you have it: my brother Dave’s account of his tears in the classroom; my story of Jim and I crying under his blanket; and now Mom and Dad crying on the side of a road somewhere in Tennessee. (Who knows, maybe I’ll get Paul and Kathy to tell us their version sometime. I can assure you that both share the soft hearts of the rest of the family.)

Come September, we got back into our routine of getting up, eating breakfast together at the table, Dad reading out loud from “Our Daily Bread,” and heading off to school, learning stuff (I guess), and coming back around the table for supper. The biggest change was that empty spot at the table. There to my left, by the exploded spot Mom had burned into the Formica, was Kathy’s empty seat. We pulled Jimmy’s highchair up closer to help fill the gap.

Every Sunday morning before church, the phone would ring and the nasally voice of a telephone operator was on the other end:

“I have a collect call for a Mr. Jack K____. Do you accept the charges?”

“No, Jack is not here.” Dad would say, and politely hang up. He would then dial the number of the phone booth on Kathy’s dorm hallway. You see, this was way before cell phones and each dorm floor had only two pay phones in little wooden booths by the center stairway. Long distance during the week was about 30 cents a minute, but it was about half that on weekends. “Collect calls” were very expensive, but there is no charge if the call is denied. So each Sunday, Kathy would get in the same booth, attempt a collect call home for Jack, and we declined the call. It was our signal to dial the number in the phone booth.

You might be thinking that this was “cheating” Bell out of a collect call.

Not according to Dad. There really was a Jack K_____, it was his brother (my Uncle Jack), and had he been there when Kathy called, we would have gladly accepted the charges. But he lived in Bad Axe and was almost never with us on Sunday morning. In fact, strangely enough, not once was Uncle Jack ever there when Kathy called. Remember: Dad worked for Bell Telephone, Mom had been a Bell phone operator back in the fifties, they both assured us that “signal calling” was acceptable among the tight-knit world of telephone workers. It was all part of the true meaning of the "Bell System."

Getting Sunday morning calls from Kathy was one of the new patterns in our life.

Weekends were still spent working with Dad out at the property, but following that the unforgettable project of digging the well, I don't recall just what we did out there the rest of that fall and winter. I think Dad tinkered around with some more trees and excavated the rest of the basement for the house, but it would be spring before we poured the foundation.

Tom, you’ve gotta be kidding me. At this rate the house will never be finished. I know, I know… whoever heard of building a house over the course of years rather than months? There was a lot involved that I didn’t know at the time--things that never occurred to me.

As a family, we never talked about money or the lack thereof. I never knew how much my father "made" for a living. I never knew how much the used cars we owned cost. By this time, we all just lived frugally as a family, and I’m not sure that would have changed had Dad somehow become a wealthy man. But what I didn't know until much later in life was the fact that the house was being built at the pace Dad could afford to pay cash for the next phase. He had made it a goal not to borrow a dime for the house and not to use any “credit” for things along the way. Living on his Bell Telephone income alone, it’s a wonder the house got built at all, but it did, and I promise to retell the highlights in the weeks ahead.

Chapter 28, however, is a funny highlight of my 9th grade year that has nothing to do with the house. I'll try to post that next weekend.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Missing Kim

This has been a busy week and next week looks even more busy with a small construction project in our back yard.

Julie and I just returned from taking our daughter Kim to the airport. She is a TESL major: "Teaching English as a Second Language,"and will be teaching English for the next two months in the region of Slavonia in Coratia. This two-month mission trip involves teaching children and adults and is part of the field experience required for her degree.)

She'd only been home from college for three weeks. We miss Kim already. In fact, on the way home, we stopped by Countryside Greenhouse and bought a lilac bush in her honor. It seemed a perfect idea since the exact type of lilac sums how we'll feel until she returns in August. It's called: "Miss Kim Lilac."

Lots of open houses this weekend, but I hope to post Chapter 27 in a day or so.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 26 "Under Jim's Blanket"

It seems that no matter how much a summer held for us boys—no matter how much work; no matter how much play—there came that day when we crashed headlong into reality. You know the day; it happens to all kids everywhere: that day when the first dreaded "Back to School" sign springs up in a store window. Dave and I would be soaring blissfully along like two robins enjoying the wide outdoors and discovering a new place they've never been, dart toward the sunny reflection of their world in a big picture-window and—DOINK!- DOINK!— they're sent stunned and reeling back to earth.

"Back to School" signs were like that wall of unseen glass, and once the reality had rocked our bearings, it was hard to fly on toward Septemeber with carefree abandon.

It’s not that we hated school. We loved it. In fact Kathy and Dave and I all became life-long teachers. Let’s face it, there is magic in the promise of the first day of school, that wooden whiff of a just-sharpened #2 pencil and the smell of an unused pink eraser remind us there are pages to be written and mistakes that can sometimes be undone with only a shadow of regret.

In that sense, school is not-quite life—it’s preparation for life. School is a wonderful thing, but so is summer, and it is a love for both that keeps teachers ready to do what they do year after year.

In the summer of 1970, only my sister Kathy knew she wanted to be a teacher, a lower elementary teacher to be exact. It was something she knew with certainty since we were all little kids playing “Penalty Lady” in the garage. This was a made-up game where her three brothers along with some other neighborhood friends would sit in rows while she tried to teach us something, and she would create humane consequences for the trouble we managed to get into during her lesson. Kathy called the game “school,” but we boys created the more memorable name. We laugh at these memories now, because after nearly 100 collective years as educators (between Kathy, Dave, and me), we now fully understand the natural balance of ideas and consequences… but in that summer it was only Kathy who intended to be a teacher for the rest of her life. To do that, she had to go to college and had chosen one where some of her friends had already gone, which was 700 miles away.

And so it was that in those last two weeks of summer, after the tent had been put away and the slightly yellowed patch of grass beneath it had turned green again, after Dad with the help of our Uncle Bob had dropped a new transmission in the car Mom put in “Reverse” at 50 miles-per-hour; after the Back to School signs had done their damage…

Kathy’s room was a neatly stacked with boxes and suitcases and a laundry bag full of things that would not wrinkle. She was ready to leave for school.

Mom and Dad were driving her there and would stay for two days to get her “settled in.” The four boys were not going, but our good-byes would not be there at home.

Mom had made arrangements for Paul and Dave to stay at Grandma and Grandpa Spencer’s house, the same house where Mom was born in 1930 and lived in until the night before her wedding in 1951. But that house had only one spare room, and Mom thought it best that Jimmy and I stay with her sister, our Aunt Jackie and Uncle Neal, in Croswell about 45 minutes north of Port Huron.

Paul and Dave had it made. We had grown up treating Grandma’s house as our weekend home just a short walk from the beach at Lighthouse Park in the shadow of the Blue Water Bridge (The beach was a short walk from the literal shadow, but in any given day we swam at both the beach and the river beneath the bridge.)

Grandma's house had a covered back porch that faced Riverview Street, so named because three blocks away was the mouth of the St. Clair River. As we walked down the sloped pavement of that street, Grandma always stood on that porch shouting, “Stay by the life guard!” There was a palpable anxiety in her voice as she repeated the imperative over and over until we were out of sight. We, of course, waved and nodded each time she said it, but we never quite gave verbal promise to fulfill the impossible condition she imposed. We enjoyed swimming in both the river and Lake Huron. I can say with confidence, however, that we were never more than half-a-mile from that mysterious young man in sun glasses perched high in his stilted timbered bench.

That was the carefree life that Paul and Dave anticipated while Dad and Mom took Kathy down south.

My next three days, on the other hand, would be anything but carefree. It’s not that I did not love going to Aunt Jackie’s. We’d been spending either Christmas or Thanksgiving there for years. Croswell is a wonderful old town, and Uncle Neal’s floral shop was just a few blocks from the famous “Swinging Bridge” that spans the Black River. But while Paul and Dave were having fun in the sun, I was a fourteen-year-old in charge of his two-year-old brother.

It was not the days with Jimmy that concerned me. He and I would often spend entire days playing together but never under these conditions. I had little experience at being away from home without family. I’d been to church camp twice—each time with Dave (and my friends Bob and Jeff), but that was about it. Worse yet, Jimmy had never been away from either Mom or Dad for more than a few hours, and when he was, Kathy was always there to be a second “mom.”

So you can imagine why our days were anything but carefree. I’ll spare the details beyond the first and most difficult night at Aunt Jackie's…

After supper, I was sitting in a wingback chair beside the empty fireplace with Jimmy in my lap. It was approaching his bedtime, but he was crying inconsolably. Aunt Jackie reached down to lend a motherly touch, but Jim was whimpering with homesickness and clinging to the only thing that felt like home, his brother.

“I want Mom,” he’d sob in his little voice. “I want Kathy.” His inhaled breath stammered and shook his whole body in my arms. “I want Dad,” he sighed.

These were not bratty demands but whispered supplications behind brimming eyes. It was his first taste of the grief that comes from separated love. I looked around the room at my aunt and uncle and cousins, sitting on the couch across the room, hopelessly watching the two of us in that chair. I did not have the nerve to tell them to leave and to just let us be alone, but when he repeated his “I want Mom. I want Kathy. I want Dad,” I whispered in his ear “So do I..” And the confession broke whatever veil was holding back my tears. Without thinking I pulled his blanket over both our heads.

It must have looked absurd, but under that blanket we cried together. I kept putting my finger to my lip to let him know it was okay to cry but best to do it quietly. Keep it all safe inside this secret place for just us two. I wiped his eyes with his flannel blanket, and wiped mine, too.

As our quiet sniffling continued, my nose was in need of a handkerchief, and then it happened. A snot bubble grew from my left nostril. Jimmy had never seen one before and it made him laugh and point at my face.

“What?” I said, not knowing the snob bubble was growing and shrinking with each breath.

“Bubble” he said.

It popped when I touched it, and Jimmy laughed again and held up the corner of his blanket. It was his favorite blanket, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Without the concern that under any other conditions would prohibit such an act, I wiped my nose and smiled, then wiped our eyes with a clean section.

There were twelve years between Jimmy and me, but never were we closer than that night in that chair. After listening for sounds beyond our cotton sanctuary and hearing none, we slowly pulled it from our heads. The room was empty, the hearth at our feet, that place where holiday gatherings flickered in a warm glow, was dark and swept free of any ash, but I stared into it 'til Jimmy fell asleep. My arm was soaked with the perspiration of his head, as I carried him down long hallway to our bed.

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