Lost on Cougar Mountain

Lost on Cougar Mountain

“Just stay on this trail and I’ll be waiting in the truck at the end.”  That’s all the directions my dad was going to give me.  I was visiting my parents in Idaho with my daughter and I wanted to take her four wheeling, so my dad insisted on loading up his ATV and taking us to a trail near the edge of the Bitteroot Wilderness Area.  After we got our gear unloaded, my dad rattled off his directions and just started to drive off. I grabbed the trucks door handle and held on. “Whoa!  Wait a minute Magellan.  That’s it?”  My dad smiled his famous toothy grin. “What’s the matter?”  I patted his arm.  “Well, I have a few questions for you… like how long is this going to take us, what’s the trail like, and how will I recognize the place where we’re supposed to meet when I get there?”  My dad waved me off. “It’ll take you at least a half hour, but I’ll be there a long time before that, so don’t worry about it.  You can’t get lost.” And then as he drove away he yelled. “You might cross some logging roads, but just stay on the trail!”

My ten-year old daughter Megan and I had been riding four-wheelers for years, so she was already sitting on the ATV waiting as I watched the old boy drive off down the road. I mumbled a few choice words as I jumped onto the seat and hit the starter.  “Where are we going?” said Megan as the engine fired up and she grabbed on to my belt loops.  I breathed in the cool, pine scented, mid-morning mountain air and sighed. “I have no idea, Meg.” And off we went.

We had been rolling along through the dense forest of towering trees at a casual ten miles an hour for only about five minutes when we came to a road that crossed the trail.  I stopped, checked the time and looked around. No truck. So, we kept going.

Fifteen minutes later, another road and another decision to make.  The lack of actual directions was really eating at me.  I rolled my eyes and fought to hold in my favorite curse word. “Are you friggin’ kidding me?”  I turned around and looked back at Megan, who at ten was already smarter than me.  “Am I missing something?”  She was used to us wandering around in the woods on an ATV together so she just shrugged.  “I don’t think so.  Grandpa said he’d be waiting for us and we didn’t leave the trail.”  Again, there on the other side of the road was the trail, this time marked by a sign with an arrow pointing straight up.  “OK.  Let’s keep going.”  

The sun had burned off the morning mist and the air was becoming warm and dusty as we crossed the road and started onto the trail again. The terrain had also changed, the trail so steep now that we both had to lean forward, flat against the seat, to keep from rolling over backwards.  As we slowly crawled higher and higher; the trail began to tack back and forth at 45 degrees to the general direction we were heading.

We’d been gone a total of forty minutes, when I started feeling really anxious. “This can’t be right!” I yelled to Megan over the roaring motor.  “But we stayed on the trail!”  She yelled back.  Then, just after turning onto the next switchback, we reached the flat ground of the peak and came to a stop.  “Oh come ON!”  I yelled.  There in front of us were three different trails and an old sign that read “Cougar Mountain”.   Megan pointed at the sign and freaked. “Grandpa sent us to a place called Cougar Mountain?” Yeah, he did.  But that’s not all. On the way to dropping us off near the actual “River of No Return” he had told us a story about a famous old country store and bar in the mountains where two mountain lions had casually sauntered in one evening and taken a couple of hunting dogs to go, while the drunken, horrified patrons watched.  

I got off the four-wheeler and checked out the trails. The sun was really beating down on us now and it was down right hot. “Maybe we should go back.” Megan almost whispered as she looked around suspiciously.  I took off my hat and wiped the sweat off my forehead as I got back on the still idling ATV. It had been working hard and smelled like hot oil and burning paint. “Well, the trails are well marked so let’s go a little ways down each one.  We can always head back.”  And off we went, with my silent, frowning daughter scanning the area around us like a fighter pilot.

Two of the trails quickly ended at beautiful scenic overlooks, but since both of us were more interested in not being eaten alive than in sightseeing, we quickly headed down the third trail.  It was a steep descent down the other side of the mountain and since the trail was well used and we felt like cougar bait, we made good time, until we came to a densely vegetated cove at the foot of the next rise. We zig-zagged back and forth between trees for a while and then just after we popped out into a beautiful little meadow, we skidded to a stop.  Right in front of us lay a large, freshly killed, half eaten deer which was sprawled across the trail. The four wheeler had stalled, so except for the ringing in our ears and the subtle ping, ping, ping that the engine was making as it shed its heat, it was strangely quiet. “OH NO!” Megan yelled as she buried her face in my back.  As I stared at the carcass, the smell of fresh blood and gasoline found its way into my nose and I instinctively did a quick fight or flight risk assessment.  Flight won. “Alright, time to go home.” I said a little too loudly as I hit the starter.  Nothing happened.  “Crap, it’s in gear!” I groaned as I started stomping on the gear shifter and rocking the ATV back and forth, trying to get it into neutral. Megan was yelling a muffled scream into my jacket.  “It’s OK Meg. It’s OK!” I kept saying in my best dad voice.  She turned her head and looked frantically back and forth along the tree line behind us. “Dad? We need to go. NOW!”  A few more anxiety fueled, violent tugs on the handle bars and the transmission clicked, the green like came on and mercifully, the engine cranked.  “OK!” I panted.  “HOLD ON TIGHT!” I yelled as I jammed the scooter into first gear. My daughter was already welded to my back as I spun the four-wheeler around, showering the surrounding trees with rocks, and then tore back up the trail.

Visions of lions, cougars and cheetahs chasing down prey kept playing in my head as I drove the screaming ATV like a madman up and down the steep trails and between the huge trees. Past the overlooks and directly over the top of the Cougar Mountain sign.  “We’ll go back to where we first started, because that’s where they will start looking for us when we come up missing.” I said to myself out loud.

On and on we rode, until we finally burst out onto the very first road that we had crossed just five minutes into our trip.  There parked facing away from us, in the direction we had originally come from, was my dad’s damned truck. I could see his big, ham-hock of an elbow sticking out of the open window, and as we pulled alongside he casually turned and looked at me.  He was eating a friggin’ sandwich!  “How was your trip son?”  I shut the overheated machine off.  I was covered in dirt and I couldn’t feel my hands as I tried to shake some blood back into them. “Seriously?  How was my trip?” I said as Megan and I both scowled at him. He leaned out the window with his sandwich, turned and looked back at the trail where we had come from. “What the hell were you doing up there?”  I just shook my head and stared at him for a few seconds as he went on enjoying his picnic. “You know you give shit directions, right?”  He smiled and glanced at me.  “You weren’t worried were you?”  My eyes got wide and I nodded sarcastically. “Yeah.”  He looked back at his sandwich and finished it off. “Hmmpph!  That’s funny.  I wasn’t worried.” And before I could say something regretfully stupid, he quickly added.  “You know what the hell you’re doing.  Now load up; it’s Martini time!”  I looked back at Megan who hadn’t said anything.  She was smiling at me.

Boy, do I miss my dad.      

Perils of a Good Sense of Humor

When I first became involved in local politics a friend warned me, “You better be careful with that sense of humor of yours!” I nodded and thanked him for the advice. “Hey!” I said, looking just under his chin. “What’s that?” He looked down just as my index finger was coming up, “twanging” his nose. Yes, it was incredibly juvenile behavior. But the timing… was superb.

From the stories that my relatives have told me and from having personally experienced 55 family Thanksgivings, I can assure you that this is inherited behavior. My father and his brother Charlie in particular had brutal senses of humor… which made the harsh life that they experienced as kids easier to deal with. At a very young age they were often left alone in the woods to tend the cattle and also to trap raccoons to sell… by hand. To make things even more interesting these animals had to be brought in alive.

The process went something like this. After a raccoon was spotted high in a cypress tree, my dad (being the smallest and easiest to bully) would climb up the tree with a stick. His orders were to convince the animal to jump 60 feet to the ground by swatting at it like it was a raccoon piñata. Prior to doing a really bad flying squirrel imitation, the raccoon would first ‘lighten his load’ by emptying the contents of his bladder, bowels and stomach… onto my father. This always delighted my Uncle Charlie who would be far below on the ground, laughing hysterically and shouting helpful encouragement to his little brother. “You’ve got him now Ben!”

Once the raccoon hit the ground, both boys would chase the dazed mammal until Charlie could bop it on the head with a stick, knocking him out cold. Being the big brother, he would grab the unconscious critter by its ringed tail and carry it proudly back home.

However, on this particular hunting trip, Mother Nature decided to show off her own sense of humor by waking up the boy’s un-amused captive. It immediately wrapped all four furry legs tightly around Charlie’s thigh and started chewing. The once proud hunter proceeded to try every dance, jump, roll, scream and evasive maneuver known to man in an attempt to dislodge the angry masked mammal from his leg. My father stopped laughing just long enough to put a hand on each side of his mouth and yell… “You’ve got ‘em now Charlie!” The raccoon soon lost his taste for the boy’s boney leg and took off for the deep swamp, leaving Charlie unharmed, furious, and running towards his still laughing little brother.

I suppose the advice my friend was trying to give me and the lesson that my father learned from his big brother were the same. The transition from laughter to “Uh-Oh!” can come pretty quickly and the price for others not sharing your sense of humor can be painfully expensive.

Alone Under the October Moon

“Come on Joe… Let’s go camping this weekend,” I pleaded over the phone in my preadolescent voice. But Joe couldn’t. He was in trouble from our last camping trip. I was determined to go anyway, so I went downstairs into our family’s hardware store and asked my Dad if he would drop me off with my camping gear east of town and pick me up in the morning. He didn’t look up as he worked with a torch, rosining a new tip onto a fishing pole. “By yourself?” he asked, a cigar dangling out of the corner of his mouth. “Yep!” I said proudly. He nodded at the truck outside. “Alright… load it up!”

As we drove through the woods that evening I kept waiting for some advice, parental or otherwise, like “Don’t get eaten by a panther!” or “Don’t set yourself on fire!” That’s why my buddy Joe was in trouble. He had a habit of over tending a campfire by casually kicking the logs around with his bare foot. So when he returned home last weekend with one leg of his pants burned off, his mom seemed to think it was a pretty big deal. Anyway… Dad didn’t say a word as I unloaded my camping gear next to a dry creek bed. He didn’t even shut the truck off! “See you in the morning!” he said and then… he drove away.

I looked around and immediately felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. It was the first time I had ever been truly alone. It was just me, versus my busy little imagination. (Whoa… I’ve got to shake this feeling off. It’s OK… I’ll feel better if I get busy.) So I began setting up the tent, and starting a fire under the watchful eye of a huge yellow October moon rising in the east.

Before long it was dark, my belly was full of fried Spam and I was trying to keep myself busy, poking at the fire with a stick while I sat on the ground, my chin propped up on my knees. It was unpleasantly quiet and as I sat listening to my ears ring, my bored ten-year-old imagination decided to run amok. (I wonder what time it is? How in the heck did I get sand in my… Are those eyes over there?) “SNAP”! I froze. I couldn’t see past the light of the fire, so I crept off to the side to take a peek. The moon made everything look… suspicious. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was my heart beating. (It’s nothing… Just quit thinking… Quit thinking? How do you do that? I’ll just go to sleep.)

I climbed into the tent, zipped it up and lay there watching the spooky shadows of the fire dancing on the walls. The more I tried to calm down and distract my thoughts, the more anxious and alert I became. (Maybe there’s something wrong with me… no, I’m fine… but what if I‘m not?) I didn’t know it at the time, but I had worked my way into a full-blown panic attack. Fortunately I was still capable of making a calm, rational decision. “I’M GETTIN’ THE HECK OUTTA’ HERE!” Even though I was certain it was around three a.m., I decided to put out the fire and walk… well actually, run like a wild man towards Jones Mobile Village, where I could find a phone. When I finally burst out of the woods, I saw that the lights were on in the Jones’s mobile home. Surprisingly, when I knocked, Mrs. Jones opened the door immediately. “Ben Jr.?” I was out of breath but puffed out a “Yes ma’am.” She clutched the neck of her housecoat. “What in the world are you doing out here?” I skipped the details, “Can I use your phone?”

To my surprise, when I spoke to my dad on the phone he didn’t say much of anything. And on the ride back to the house he didn’t ask any questions… He didn’t even tease me! But the strangest thing was that when I got home… It was only 8:30 pm! I had only been in the woods for three hours!

My parents never said anything about my humbling experience under that October moon. They didn’t have to. Snug in my bed that night, I listened to the comforting sounds of family and home I had taken for granted, and that just a few minutes ago had seemed so far away… the television, my parents voices, dishes clinking, the humming of a fan… my dad burping loudly from the couch to the delight of my little brother who giggled from his bedroom. I smiled, closed my eyes and drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Patience with a Purpose

As I was walking out of City Hall after a particularly prickly Council meeting a gentleman patted me on the back and said “Mr. Mayor, you have the patience of Job!” It was a nice complement and I thanked him, but it is not a virtue that comes naturally to me, nor one that I am always able to access. But the patience that I do demonstrate is purposeful and calculated. A result of a great many life lessons; observations, successes and failures, quite often delivered by what I like to refer to as the “Hand of God.”

Now before you get all worked up… let me explain. What I’m referring to are simple little incidents when it appears that a “giant invisible hand” (possibly belonging to a being with a particularly wicked sense of humor) has rather abruptly interrupted something that I’m doing, simultaneously delivering a lesson in humility. For example…

More than a few decades ago, I was a young, energetic, demanding, impatient superintendent for a large construction company. I wanted things done… and done now. If there was a problem I wanted it fixed… now! I was a hard and tireless worker that believed that anything could be fixed by working even harder and bulling straight through to the conclusion. I was wrong. Fortunately, when I needed it most, I received “guidance.”

I was operating a large crane that was perched on top of a 40’ tall pile of dirt, right next to the water. The crew of men who were working for me out over the water on a barge, were attempting (in vain) to align the large pile driver that was suspended by the crane onto a piling. It was like trying to thread a needle with a sledge hammer and extremely frustrating. After what seemed like an eternity (two minutes) my patience had, as usual, vanished and I was furious. The men were 60’ out into the water and since the crane, pumps and other machinery were screaming louder than me, I slammed the brake pedals down, locked the machine in position and jumped out of the crane on a dead run down the steep slope towards the water.

About 10’ down the slope of clean fresh dirt, I felt something grab my foot and I was instantly airborne, flying just like Superman (without the super powers or good looks) towards the water. Flying along, about two feet above the ground, arms outstretched in front of me, I thought “Oh…this isn’t going to end well!” SPLASH! Luckily, the water was deep and since I had entered the water in Superman position, I was completely unharmed. Once under water, I decided to stay there for a while and take stock of what just happened. As I sat there on the bottom of the bay, I thought… “I wonder if anybody saw me do that…and if not, how was I going to explain to the crew my sudden and apparently “magical” appearance in the water?” This caused me to start laughing and then drowning, so I popped up to the surface.

When I did, the entire crew was still staring intently up at the piling, patiently waiting for the crane operator (me) to lower the hammer. Finally, the foreman turned around to see what the hold up was and saw me there laughing while treading water 60 feet away from the now unoccupied crane. After I told the crew what had happened… we all had a good laugh and as I made my way back up the slope with a relaxed, light heart… the solution to the construction problem suddenly and clearly came to me. I turned and looked at the spot where I had tripped. There was nothing there but smooth, clean sand.

Later on in my young career, building bridges and ship ports throughout Florida, I began to learn more about the art of knowing when to wait, when to act quickly, how to plan for multiple scenarios and how reacting calmly would invariably lead to better, quicker solutions. A year or so later, the owner of the company came down to the job site and found us removing huge steel I-beams that were driven deep into solid rock. A large crane was hooked to one of the beams and was sitting motionless, placing steady tremendous pressure on the beam. My boss, being even more impatient than I had ever been, wanted it out of the ground immediately and insisted on having us tug, jerk, pound and twist on the beam… but to no avail. As he stood there puffing impatiently on his cigarette, sipping on a warm can of coke, I told him “Let me show you something.” We hooked the crane back up, applied steady, intense pressure on the beam and then stood back away from the machine and waited. Five minutes later as we were leaning against my truck talking about the next job, the 40’ steel beam suddenly shot out of the ground all the way to the tip of the 100 foot crane boom, then thunderously crashed up and down like a giant bungee jumper.

Although my emotions do periodically get the best of me, the practice of using patience as an active force has proven invaluable to me over the years. Patience is confidence in the power of time. It encourages us to measure twice and cut once. To look before we leap. To face adversity calmly, with a light heart… because the cooler head will almost certainly prevail. It may be a concept that is difficult to accept for those who are anxious for change, for instant gratification, for continuous signs of progress, but the truth is that real progress often remains hidden from us until the goal is achieved and sometimes… you have to trip and fall before a solution presents itself.

The Thanksgiving Cruise

The Thanksgiving Cruise
copyright 2012

“I don’t think I’m going to have Thanksgiving at the house this year… It’s just gotten to be too much work.” I took the phone down away from my ear and looked at it suspiciously. My mother, on the other end of the phone was apparently offering to surrender the family tradition of Thanksgiving Dinner to someone else. Thanksgiving at my parent’s house has evolved with our family. Through the years this holiday has ticked off the changes in all our lives. My sister and brother and I had become adults, of a sort, adding spouses, kids and grandkids of our own to the list. And although the circumstances of our lives have changed along with our cast of characters, once a year we still sit down together and marvel at each others well entrenched quirks while Mom provides us with the same delicious dinner, the same sides, the same way, year after year at the same house.

“Are you sure Mom?” I asked. She sighed. “Yes… I think so.” I thought for a moment… just not long enough of a moment, and then suggested “Hey… how about we all go on a Thanksgiving cruise!” Long story short, the entire extended family was soon booked on a 5-day cruise to Mexico or somewhere… I don’t know. (As it turns out, that part wasn’t important… what was important is that it was my fault.)

Months later, there we were aboard ship. And at our appointed time, all thirteen of us met in the main dinning area at our carefully pre-assigned table for ten. For a long moment, we just sat there, elbow to elbow, awkwardly squirming in our formal wear and looking at each other. Then “it” began. I picked up a small cup of whipped butter, smelled it and made a face. My very proper and polite sister, Julie was predictably concerned. “What’s wrong?” she said sweetly. (Excellent!) I smelled it again… then held it out to her. “Does this smell alright to you?” Julie, with her perfect little pointy nose, bent over to take a whiff. As soon as she did, I shoved the cup straight up…cramming butter in her nostrils. “ARGGGH!” She yelled as she searched frantically for the napkin that I had hidden from her. The kids and I all laughed hysterically as Lori calmly handed Julie a napkin and looked at me with that “really?” look.

My mother though, was busy checking out the arrangements. She looked back and forth a little nervously and for a moment I thought she was going to go back into the kitchen and take charge. “Are you all right mom?” I asked. “Oh… (she paused)…yeah.” It hadn’t occurred to me, but this was probably the first Thanksgiving in about 45 years that she was sitting instead of cooking. She was obviously feeling a little out of place.

But then, without missing a beat, my brother Tim came to the rescue. He finished off his fourth piece of bread and then explained in detail how he had made the origami towel creation that the cabin attendant had left on his bed… anatomically correct. Tim chuckled as he watched everyone around the table react to his famous brand of “shock and ugghh…” humor. “As usual my mom just giggled and said “Oh Timmy!” I could tell that we were almost in full Thanksgiving mode. Then my Dad called the waiter over. “Buddy!” (His name wasn’t Buddy) “Yes Messier?” the very French waiter replied. Dad proudly looked around the table at the family that he had created and provided for…his living legacy. Arms outstretched, he proudly ordered… “Bring us a bottle of your cheapest wine!” Thanksgiving was here at last.

On the way out of the restaurant that night, my Dad and mom hugged us all and as we were heading off to our rooms my Dad took me by the arm and pulled me close. “The turkey wasn’t as good as your moms. Next year… our house!” My Dad loved Thanksgiving Dinner, but he loved it “Mom’s way.” And that was that.

Our lives have continued to change since that Thanksgiving Cruise. My Dad has passed on and we’ve all taken on different jobs and different responsibilities in our lives. But at my mom’s house this year… she will work all day cooking, my brother will tell stories and jokes to his nephews and niece; my sister will dutifully help mom with the dinner and I will try to get her to fall for the butter in the nose trick again. And as laughter fills the house we will sit down together and remember Dad’s Thanksgiving Blessing…”For what we are about to receive may we truly be thankful… Pick up and eat!”

A Fish Tale

Yesterday, I was standing in front of the building on Old 41 where I grew up. What used to be our family’s Hardware store on the first floor is now a bakery. The second story, where we lived for many years, is now abandoned. The building has been remodeled several times over the years and doesn’t look much like it did, but somewhere on the face of the building, beneath the layers of paint, is a beautiful 10′ tall painting of a fish jumping from the water.

In 1960, my father had an artist paint what was essentially the “Heddon” fishing lure logo above the bright red “Nelson’s Hardware” sign and for decades the bass, with fishing lure hanging from its wide open mouth, remained there high in the air between mine and my sister’s bedroom window, watching the world slowly go by on the Tamiami Trail. It watched as drunken cowboys threw each other out of the windows of the Dome; As long lines of traffic sat waiting for the matinee at the dog track; As hurricane Donna rolled a house past our front door; As my father fearlessly ran off a drunken man who was threatening his employees with a shotgun.

And between these more interesting times, it patiently observed our normal everyday activities as my sister and brother and I grew up. Every morning before school, we went down stairs into the hardware store to “take the stuff out”… which was what we called pushing, pulling and riding all the lawn mowers, bicycles and anything else with wheels that had been crammed into the store overnight, out the door onto the concrete patio out front. Day after day, year after year, we took them outside and then nine hours later we took them back in through the front door beneath the fish. It watched. It watched as we became teenagers and then adults, as one by one we left home and the safety of its wide-eyed gaze. Then, as if to signal that its work was complete, my father painted over it… and it was gone. I didn’t think much about it at the time. Life was happening… jobs, marriage, and kids. My sister moved to New Jersey, my parents built a new house off of Terry Street and my brother and I built homes of our own, as keeping the ground floor of the old building rented became my Dad’s favorite project. But upstairs, our old home remained vacant.

About eight years ago, I tried to talk my dad into selling the old building so my parents could be secure in retirement. The timing and the prices were right, so at a meeting, after he had informed a group of potential buyers to name an as yet higher number for the fourth time, I took him aside. “What are you doing Dad?” I asked sternly at low breath. My dad smiled a mischievous grin and whispered. “I don’t want to sell it… I just want to see how high they’ll go!” I got flush with anger. I didn’t understand. “Cut them loose Dad… This isn’t right!” And I walked away.

Later that day I was still stewing (it’s a Nelson art form), but I had promised to take him to get his truck, so I drove quietly, him sitting next to me. Finally he broke the silence. “I can’t sell it. It’s my legacy. I want it to live on for my children.” I looked over at him. He was looking out the window… avoiding eye contact. “Dad… WE are your legacy. You created us, watched after us and built us as surely as you built that old building.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Sell it and you and mom spend it having fun. Julie, Tim and I are going to be fine because of what you taught us.” It was a touching moment… But he still didn’t sell it.

Now, three years after dads passing, I’m standing here trying to help manage some of my dad’s legacy… this old store, and my tendency to become irritated. That’s when I suddenly realized that somewhere unseen, under the paint, the fish was still there watching over me. I sighed, put both hands on top of my head and started to contemplate where to start the repairs… I looked up at the sky and chuckled. For somewhere unseen, under that painted sky, I was sure that my dad was still watching over his legacy as well.

Blessings of a Bad Memory

The beginning of the New Year is usually the time when we reflect upon the events of the previous year, at least the ones we can remember. Although our memory can be persistent, it can also be persistently unpredictable. Sometimes it seems that the harder you try to remember something the further it slips away. And our ability to recall information often seems to have an inverse relation to the importance of having to do so. So we can all remember some pretty useless trivia while watching Jeopardy, but then in front of a large crowd of people the name of someone we have known for 40 years eludes us.

When the name of someone like… Oh, I don’t know…. one of our kids, escapes us, we always have the option of referring to them as son, honey, sweetie or some other handy generic name. Yes, I know it’s rude, but when you’re in a tight spot and no one will throw you a rope you will grab hold of just about anything. This was my Dad’s method of dealing with a forgotten name.

Once at the “Flea Market Wine Tasting” (no… I’m not kidding) my father was approached by a friendly fellow that knew him and struck up a conversation over a plastic cup of his homemade strawberry, apple and bacon/mulberry sort of wine (it was a blend?). Dad had no idea who the fellow was and as they wrapped up their conversation and the last of the wine Dad patted him on the back, turned to go and said, “Well, See you later buddy!” The guy smiled as my father walked away and then turned to me shaking his head. “Your Dad is amazing! I haven’t seen him in years and he still knows my name!” I started to give Buddy the bad news, but it seemed like a good time for me to just nod and take another sip. After all, if both Buddy and my Dad were happy, why ruin it for them.
For some reason complex memories like this one about our family and friends from years past can last a lifetime, brought back to life by a familiar sound or smell. But the everyday things in life like names, dates, or where we parked and why we came to the darned store in the first place can easily avoid us. Unless you’re one of those people that puts a tennis ball on your antenna or that just pays attention. The rest of us end up having to pretend that we are just out for a casual walk in the grocery store parking lot.

And if you can remember the name of kid who sat in front of you in the first grade 50 years ago but you can’t figure out why you are in the front yard with the TV remote in your hand, don’t feel bad…old “what’s his name” next door is probably having the same problem. So to all of you “May auld acquaintance be forgot and …” umm…well anyway, Happy New Year!

The Shovel

My father was a good man… And a hard worker. But as I discovered at a very young age, He was never afraid to get someone else’s hands dirty. I’m not being disrespectful, because he was really proud of it. One of his favorite shirts had written across the front “So much to do… So few people to do it for me!” It’s a funny shirt… Unless you were, like me, one of his “chosen few”.
The youngest of four tough “cracker” brothers, he learned at a very young age that if you were the smallest… Then you better be the smartest.
Life on the family homestead in the woods of S.W. Florida in the 1930’s could be brutal and the brothers all had to earn extra money by working part time for local farmers. So on one particular day, the four brothers and two of their friends took a job “hoeing okra”. As the grizzled old farmer handed out brand new red shovels to all the boys, he told them “I’m going into town, but don’t you worry… I’ll know who did the most work! And I’m gonna give that feller’ an extra dollar!” Now my dad realized that he had no chance of competing in an all day shoveling contest and likely wouldn’t get paid at all, no matter how hard he worked, so when the farmer left, the small boy scratched his chin and thought for a moment before walking over and sitting down under a nearby tree. His brother Charlie, who was already hard at work, looked over at the boy under the tree. As he flipped another shovel full of dirt over he yelled “Look at poor little Benny! He ain’t gonna get paid nothin’!” All the other boys chuckled… But my dad just pulled his hat down over his eyes and relaxed further back into the tree.
Eight long hours later, just before the farmer was due back, my Dad sat up, grabbed a rock that he had carefully selected and casually started scraping the paint off the shovels blade. This struck his brother as particularly bizarre behavior and as he took the rag out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his eyes he yelled “What the heck are doin’? Are you touched in the head?” After a few minutes all the paint was gone off the shovels blade and without saying a word, my dad stood up and started digging furiously. When the other boys saw this, they just stood there with their heads all cocked sideways…until suddenly, the farmer rounded the corner in his model A truck.
He crawled out of the dirty black buggy and then hollered for the youngsters to gather around him. “All right… Let me see the ends of them shovels!”. As he went down the row, he finally came to my dads apparently worn out garden tool. The old farmer slapped his hands together and hooted “Dang boy! You might be the smallest but you shore gave these other boys a lesson!”. He surely had, because the other boys said nothing, when my dad, as he was walking off, turned, tapped the side of his head with his finger and grinned that big grin.
As I think back to my Uncle Charlie telling me this story just a few years ago, with my dad sitting there next to him grinning from ear to ear, I wonder exactly what the real lesson might have been. The farmer, my dad and his brothers all came away telling the same story but they probably had different takes on what they had learned. One thing is pretty clear… you should never judge a book, a shovel or person by their cover.

Driven by a Memory

“BORN IN THE USA!!!!!” (What?? Why is Bruce Springsteen screaming at me?) Waking up from a deep sleep, I roll over and switch the obnoxious clock radio off and check the time… 6:20 in the morning again. Time to go to work, again. Sitting up in bed I rub my eyes and think about how many times I’ve done this… same time, every workday, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I stretch and get up, tripping over the dog and stubbing my toe on the dresser, cursing as I hop with one foot in my jeans on the way to the bathroom… again.

Staring at my morning face in the mirror (ugh) I think about how lucky I am to be able to work and to have work to do. But, I know that I am compelled to do so, not entirely by survival, money or gain… but by an incident that is carved deep into my mind and heart.

I think that, although it has remained hidden from their memory, many people have been crafted by an incident in their distant past. But I have never forgotten the moment when the force that would drive me through life was put into place. For me, it is a force of nature, like gravity, pulling me out of bed, to work, to yet another project, towards ever more responsibility. Causing me to place more weight on my shoulders, compelling me to stay perpetually busy and at work in order to feel complete and content.

I was three years old when I took a small piece of wire and stuck it into an electrical socket. (No! That’s not what’s wrong with me!) Instead of electrocuting me the wire immediately melted, burning my small hand. I don’t have any memory of this incident, (probably the electrocution part) but my mother says that I kept my bandaged hand clenched tightly shut for weeks, so much so that she was afraid that it would never heal.

Soon after, my father was going to take me to work with him for the first time. I know that it’s pretty rare to remember something from when you were three, but it is a vivid memory that never fades, a movie that is always ready to rewind and play. I remember… my dad standing by his truck. I’m running towards him across the lawn as fast as I can. I feel the excitement, the joy and then… I trip and fall face first, catching myself on my burned hand. I sit up on the grass, clench my burned hand and cry. Then… as I watch, my angry, disappointed father gets into his truck and drives away to work without me. The mold was set at that moment. I would not get left behind again and I would spend the rest of my life, shrugging off injury, personal trauma and fatigue in order to get to work… I have always known why.

I have never held it against my father. He was a good man and driven by powerful forces of his own. And although I have talked about that day with my mother, I never discussed it with him. Strangely enough, my resulting manic work ethic has mostly served me pretty well over time, because thankfully I have learned (with the help of my wonderful wife, children and friends) to temper and control my compulsion, so that now I can actually relax on vacation, even periodically enjoying doing nothing, without the nagging guilt of not being at work.

Like many men, it is my father that, even though he has passed away, still remains the psychological fuel that drives me forward. But it is my mother, the person that worried over and healed the three-year-old boy with the burned hand and the broken heart, that has helped me to understand my father and who I am as a result.

So as I got to work this morning at 6:45 and begin figuring out how to do all that I have planned for the day, I know that it was my dad who gave me the power and fuel to drive myself as fast and as hard as I can go, but as I delete one task to allow time to have lunch with Lori and then schedule myself for a trip next month to the Keys with my wife and our friends, I know that it’s my Mom, who ever so subtly gave me the encouragement and ability to steer myself onto my own path to happiness.

Thanks Mom… Happy Mothers Day

Coconut Angel

In the 1960’s, Mildred Johnson lived with her family at the northern most part of Bonita Springs in a place called simply, “Coconut”. Their modest home, elevated on posts, was surrounded by other Johnson and Weeks family homes and as far as I could tell at 10 years old, little else but commercial fishing nets, mangroves and fiddler crabs. It wasn’t the easiest place to live… but “Coconut” was their home and they loved it.

The Johnson’s children were my friends and school mates growing up, but there was an especially strong, respectful connection and friendship between my parents and Mildred. I had no idea at the time how our family’s had become so close, but my dad and mom were always “Uncle Ben” and “Aunt D” to Grady, Bobby and Joseph Johnson and to my brother, sister and me, Mildred was always “Aunt Mildred”.

As the years passed, I began to realize that there was something very special about their family. Although the Johnson boys were rugged young men, they were amazingly genuine, kind, polite individuals. But then, they came about it honestly. Aunt Mildred was a strong and confident individual with a giant heart that cared for and watched over everyone. It wasn’t until my parents 50th wedding anniversary party that I discovered the source of our families bond and how Aunt Mildred’s courage and kindness had likely saved my fathers life. It was at the end of that party when, with tears in her eyes, she took my hand and with her beautiful southern accent said “Benny… Sit down here youngin’. I want to tell you ’bout your daddy.”

Years ago, Mildred went to school with my father and lived about four miles away. Mildred’s mother and my dad’s father had passed away within a year of each other, leaving Mildred to take care of her dad and all her younger brothers and sisters. My father’s brothers on the other hand, had all enlisted in the service, leaving him alone with his new step dads constant mistreatment and his mothers neglect. “That poor boy had nothin’!” Mildred cried. “Benny, they was so mean to him. It broke my heart! When his daddy died, his momma and step daddy gave him nothin’ but rags to wear.”

She looked around and leaned forward. “Why one time, they left your daddy out there on Pine Island all by himself for six weeks while they went out west.” She leaned back away from me and shook her head. “Son, that ain’t no way to do nobody! They left that poor boy with no money or food. He ’bout starved to death.” She wiped her eyes and sat up straight and proud. “So I told him to ride his horse on by our house in the evenings and I’d sneak him some table scraps out the window from our dinner.” She shook her head and laughed. “If my daddy had caught a boy hanging around outside my window, he would have whipped us both, but I couldn’t let him go hungry.” She looked over where my dad was sitting to be sure he wasn’t listening. She smiled and put one hand to the side of her mouth. “One evenin’ your daddy got into his step daddy’s whiskey. Well, he’d never had a drink before in his life and after a while he got to feelin’ real sorry for himself. So he got on that old horse of his and tried to ride it to my house in the middle of the night. I looked out my window and there he was just sittin’ there cryin’, covered in sand spurs and mud. He’d fell off his horse so many times that the horse had got tired and trotted off back home. I handed him some food out the window and then sat there while he cried and picked sand spurs off himself until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told him “Benny, you stop that carryin’ on! You’re gonna be just fine! But you gotta learn to take care of yourself!” Aunt Mildred leaned to one side and looked past me; then took me by the arm and turned me gently towards my father. He had his arm around my mom and was surrounded by dozens of family members and friends. “Your daddy… he done alright.”

I travel to the end of Coconut Road quite often these days and despite how much it has changed my thoughts always return to Aunt Mildred and the Johnson family. Time and people pass on, places may change, but the strong connections born of simple innocent friendships and the compassion, kindness and encouragement of extraordinary people are with us, always.