CAMPING WITH KIDS & OTHER ACTS OF COURAGE
I grew up among stiff-necked people who saw change as an enemy to be stamped out before we lost control of life. For this reason, every summer since our family settled in Pennsylvania, the second week in August was spent with Aunt Helen and the cousins at the New Jersey shore. Both fathers stayed home and worked, because that was just the way it was done. One year one of the girl cousins “went bad” and went to the mountains in July with two of her friends. We heard rumors of skinny-dipping in lakes, campfire singing, and hiking through the pine-infested woods of Maine. The next Christmas she was allowed to sit at the table, by then she was heavy with child. I remember she named him Jesus, although with a Spanish pronunciation, thus insuring her acceptance by Aunt Helen.
It wasn’t until I married my late wife Viola that I became aware of camping as a family activity. She bragged that her family went “real camping” in tents that leaked, slept in bags on rocky ground, and cooked over a campfire. She scoffed at pampered people in waterproof trailers with indoor toilets, microwave ovens, and real beds. When we wed, I had no idea she was doing penance for an unnamed offence or was a member of the Davy Crocket Society. My friend Clayton saved our marriage by selling me his popup camper for $200. She found she could live with a “tent on wheels.”
For our first five years, on the second week in July, we headed to Nickerson State Park in Cape Cod. We camped on the blacktop parking lot for three days until our name was called allowing us temporary citizenship. Our kids played baseball for 217 innings, had fist-fights, defended our spot against newcomers looking for a space, and hung around the bathroom looking for snakes. At times I sneaked away to press my face against windows of trailers, where folks were watching television. I drooled when families ate big steaks, fries, and biscuits from the oven. Meanwhile I smacked mosquitos the size of baseballs on my sunburned neck. We were living the good life, as one of the other dads shouted one night at 2am, then threw a beer bottle down on the blacktop.
We eventually learned to erect the popup in ten minutes, cook hot dogs on a stick, love s’mores (graham cracker sandwiches made with a chocolate bar and toasted marshmallow), tell ghost stories so vivid we didn’t sleep all night, and convinced the youngest a big owl in the tree would swoop down on little boys if they went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, so he’d better hold it. We climbed mountains in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montana. We fished in Virginia and learned to make campfires that did not call forth a warning from Park Rangers, make pancakes to die for, visit great museums when it rained, and live together as a family.
Our last camping trip was to Yellowstone National Park. Like my father’s generation, I didn’t want to go. I worked heavy construction at the time. Summer was 50% of my income. The entire time we camped, my wife Viola was fighting cancer, seldom complaining, while I seemed to have made complaining a way of life. She cut me short this time saying, “I don’t know how much time I have left. I want to see Yellowstone Park and share it with my family before I go.” These many years later, as I write these words, tears still fall. I can’t believe how I could be like my father. She was right; we had a great time, but we never went camping again. The next year she was gone. I wish she had lived to see the fine sons she had raised.
Decades later there are summer days when I watch a line of campers wind through the streets of my town, a caravan heading toward the north woods. I reach back to remember a different time of my family sitting around a campfire with the smell of pine needles on a faraway mountain. It was a time when we were a blended family coming together to heal our losses with the beauty of nature, and the love of a small woman with a big heart which held us together and made us whole again. I watched how through the years how this learned love was passed on to their families.
Until the next time; the story continues with my meeting Sweet Nancy. We raise four more children, and we reach the advanced camping level that I call “Adult Camping in Half a Trailer.”
Codger Tom and Sweet Nancy, censor and editor
OUR UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Every year, from the Washington Mall to small town America, we celebrate the founding of our country on the 4th of July. Our state, New Hampshire, was one of the original colonies to sign, an act of the act of courage and commitment. For years our country did not celebrate the signing as a national holiday, primarily due to the resistance of Federalists who saw it as “too French and anti-British.” It took the combination of Federalists losing political power and the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the same day, July 4th 1826. Both had campaigned long and hard to have the 4th of July proclaimed a national holiday. Yet that did not happen until 1841, almost one hundred years later. It seems that our differences are woven into the fabric of our country. What is missing in the present day is the desire to follow guidelines set forth by our forefathers for their resolution.
In the beginning when our nation was formed, the Declaration of Independence, a unique document, set forth the principles that underlie our country’s beliefs. In the second paragraph these important guidelines appear: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This fits perfectly with our state Motto “Live Free or Die.” Our men, in our citizen army, chose to fight and to die in order to defeat the forces of King George. The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights make us special among the nations of the world. They are the core beliefs of who we are.
Lately the world “great” has taken on political overtones. If you look up the word’s definition, you will see descriptive words like “remarkable, superior character or qualities.” If you delve deeper into what this looks like, you might note we are consistently among the top five countries in charitable giving, fourth this year behind Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and right in front of Ireland. We are a nation that not only assists our sister states after a national disaster, but send aid and people to other countries. We are good people, made great by our caring.
The 4th of July, the people's celebration when we come together in unity to celebrate and remember the legacy left to us for all those who have gone before us. So this year, Sweet Nancy and I will search for a local parade, find a firework display, and join with our people to honor this nation we have built together. It belongs to you and me. I learned that from our Constitution, the law of our land. It’s not perfect, but it fits me like no other.
Until the next step on our journey,
Sweet Nancy, Editor/Censor
To my people:
“You don’t grow old, you grow old by not growing.”
………..Baptist philosopher, Connie Leathers
As I gather the years, I find it hard to find time to write my column.
Today I strolled down the hall to my writing space-
On the way I spied a book on the floor-
Upon opening it, I noticed it was from my friend Bob-
I wondered what happened to Bob-
I picked up my cell phone to call him-
There was a text from my daughter-
I picked up my glasses from the table to read it-
There was a note nearby from the library-
My book had come in-
I went into the mudroom to pick up my car keys-
On the way I returned the book to the floor-
I started the car noting that I needed gas-
After filling the tank, I went in to pay-
Next to the counter was a magazine rack-
I paid for the gas, a newspaper, and a magazine-
Arriving home I realized I was really tired.
Yet the column wasn’t written, I had not called Bob,
I had not answered the text from my daughter, and
I had not picked up my library book.
I’m trying to grow, Connie.
It’s just things get in my way.
Right now I need a nap.
Tomorrow ……another day.
Until the next step on the journey,
Sweet Nancy Censor/Editor
THIS WAS NOT MY IDEA
“My God, Hank, you look like something from the Dollar Store discard bin,” growled the tall, gray-haired man, as he leaned his weight against the door of the Wait Awhile Café. At the bell, the waitress wiping the counter looked up, “The usual? ” He nodded and shuffled to the booth where a round baldheaded man gave him a half smile, shook his head, and pointed his thumb down saying, “At least when I was born, Momma didn’t call the dog pound to see if they were taking ugly strays. How are you Smokey?” They both laughed.
This was the language of men whose friendship had walked the ground together for decades. It began in Little League, traveled through high school when Smokey was a fastball pitcher and Hank was his catcher. When they married, each was the other’s best man.
Hank became a high school math teacher and coached baseball, a sport he still loved. The kids he coached stopped by to show him their kids, helping him remember their time together. He retired at sixty. Smokey started out a rookie plumber, but quickly built his reputation, so by retirement he employed a fleet of plumbers. He now does house repairs for his grown children, as he and his wife Gloria visit them across the country. He is always welcomed with a long list of repairs and warm hugs from the grandchildren.
Every Monday at seven am they meet for breakfast. There were other places to eat, but the waitress at the Wait Awhile never hurried them as they talked the slow talk of old men loaded down with memories. They talked of friends lost, the high cost of medical care, the latest glory of their grandchildren, and how the world was so much better when they were young. They laughed about how their once fit bodies snapped, crackled, and popped when they moved. They stopped saying how lucky they were to have such tolerant wives after Hank’s wife Sue Ann died.
“So, Hank, where have you been for the last two weeks? I called you and left messages.” Hank looked into his empty coffee cup for an answer. Smokey let the silence hang in the air for a time. Then again, “Well?”
“Look, Smokey, this was not my idea. I have things to do.”
“Like what? We have been getting together for years. I never heard you were too busy before.”
“I can’t remember,” Hank said in a whisper. “I can’t remember Sue Anne’s face. I tried, but I can no longer remember my own wife’s face.”
Smokey spoke softly barely above a whisper. “Come home with me. I’ll get you a coffee and some cake Gloria just made. I have some faded photographs that will help. I have to warn you of one thing though.”
They all have an ugly guy with a weird smile looking for attention. Pitiful!”
Hank punched him in the arm and followed him out the door.
Until the next step on the journey,
Sweet Nancy, Editor/Censor
To my people:
Recently a story in the news said the real purpose of selling Girl Scout cookies is to teach young girls skills that can be used in the future business world. Who knew? I have been buying stacks of cookies for years because I have a cookie addiction and to stop late night phone calls from parents claiming to be my very distant relatives asking me to buy cookies. Buying cookies when my granddaughters were involved was an act of love. My friend George purchased so many cases he had to hide them in the garage, so his wife couldn’t find them. He claimed to be under the spell that a teen-aged scout from Georgia cast on him when she asked, “Say, Sugah, do you want to buy mah cookies? Pull---ease?” His wife did not believe him either.
I don’t know how boys today learn employment skills, but in the last century, I thought that a newspaper delivery route was my path to acquiring my first million. I was twelve when I was given a porous canvas bag, a fake leather money pouch, a blurred, mimeographed map of customer location, and 28 papers of the Home News, published in New Brunswick, New Jersey. My scattered route took ninety minutes; over two hours if it rained, snowed, or iced over. My pay was six dollars for a six- day week. I had to deliver papers despite biting dogs, illness, and dark third floor walk-ups. Think the post office, except I did not have a retirement plan.
I stayed two years due to limited job opportunities in a small town. I learned to like the people, but I never expected to learn life lessons. Reaching back these many years, I remember Frankie who lived in a store-front apartment. He sat in his wheelchair by the window, wearing brown shorts and a tee shirt that said US ARMY on the front. He had met an angry land mine on the other side of the world that changed his life, but did not damage his wide smile. Sometimes I’d sit on the stoop by his front door captured by the spell of a master storyteller. At the end he’d finish with his words of wisdom, “Hey kid,” he’s growl, “count your friends, not your money,” or “stay away from wild women, they’ll break you heart and your paycheck.” Sometimes when my life is hard, I think of Frankie.
Mrs. White comes to mind because she had a huge head of snow-white hair. She was my first grade teacher. When she became my customer, I was surprised that her name was Bernice, and that she wore trousers, sneakers, as well as tee shirts. I had remembered her in long dresses and sensible shoes floating down the hallways like a kite with a long tail of children weaving and bobbing behind her. She made each child feel like her special friend. In my short pants days, I was content to walk in her shadow. She always gave me a tip telling me hard work should be rewarded. In the summer, I mowed her lawn with a push mower, and in winter, I shoveled a path from her front gate to her house. She paid me forty cents an hour at a time when gas was eighteen cents a gallon. She told other widowed ladies about my work, thus teaching me about networking.
Most of my customers were hard working people who treated me well. The lesson I learned from those who didn’t treat me well was: when people don’t pay their bill, someone else often pays the price. I learned the hard way to cut my losses. I learned that a smile and asking, “How are you today?” made life easier for all.
The last time we had a paper delivered our delivery person’s name was Virginia. She had three kids and an old car belching blue smoke. You could hear the hole in her muffler all over the house as she pulled up to the mailbox. Sometimes she’d leave a note telling about the animals she caught in her headlights that morning. Sometimes it was a printed care saying, “Jesus loves You.” I never met her except through an exchange of notes. Something has been lost. I wonder if young boys could buy into a cookie franchise to sell huge, manly cookies or sell ice melt in the winter. I’m just not sure that using your fingers on a smart phone is a job requirement.
Until the next step on the journey,
Sweet Nancy Censor/Editor
EVERY WRINKLE A MEMORY
To my people,
One afternoon back in a corner of my memory, I sat in a doctor’s waiting room----waiting. Across the room there was a little boy perched on his grandfather’s ample stomach, squirming. “Poppy, I like to sit on your pillow; it’s soft and warm.” Grandpa just smiled and reached down, lifting the little boy over his lap. The boy crawled up until he was nose to nose. “Poppy, why do you have so many crinkles?” he said as he traced the deepest one with his finger. The man laughed, “They aren’t just crinkles but memory lines; that one was when your father was born. I had no idea how to be a father, but somehow I learned. Do you see the smile lines on each side of my mouth? They were formed when I met your grandmother; they are still there these many years later. The joy lines on the edges of my eyes were created when you were born. Those pockets under my eyes have filled with tears when a good friend passed into heaven. It seems that if we live long enough, we have great happiness but also deep sadness. It’s just a part of life I guess. When Grammy comes out, let’s go for a milk shake, ok?”
Inspired, I had a tee shirt printed with the words “EVERY WRINKLE---A STORY.” If we live long enough, some of us own an etched road map of the story of our lives. I am very aware that in the United States we spend over a billion dollars on anti-aging creams to hide our well-earned crinkles as we age. It feels so much better to look in the mirror and see the image of a long, well-lived life, with stories to tell to those who have time to listen. When I wear my tee shirt, women just smile, but sometimes a long-lived man like me will stop and in a few minutes share one of his stories, and I get the chance to tell one of mine.
The little boy? The last time I saw him he was curled up on Pappy’s stomach staring at his crinkled hands. “Pappy, where did all those brown spots come from?” Grandpa smiled and said, “I think of them as signs of wisdom, kinda how smart you get when you get older. The more spots, the more you know. But this is a secret between men, so don’t tell your Grammy. Ok? She might feel bad.”
Most life lessons aren’t on YouTube, in a book, or from a video. Often times it’s as simple as watching a little boy and his grandfather while we are just waiting on a winter afternoon.
Until the next step on the journey,
Sweet Nancy, Editor/Censor
IS HIBERNATION A SEASON IN NEW HAMPSHIRE?
I have decided not to spend much time outside until the temperature is higher than the age for retirement. Sweets thinks my battle with cold is due to my medications.
I think I need to eat more ice cream. I’m not sure I stand with the majority in this part of our world.
There are some folks in my town that love the snow and cold air. Just after Christmas I had my tires changed, and a guy dressed only in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and sandals walked in from outdoors and a 15 mph wind, smiling! On the way to the garage, I passed a white-haired woman running on the snow- covered road, singing. She wore light pants, vest, and snow sneakers. Some people in town will tell you to move and where to go, if you moan about the cold.
This year winter ignored the calendar and came early, although not as early as the year it snowed on Halloween, when all the kids dressed as snow people. Since my surgery I cannot touch the snow blower, so I sit on the couch with a blanket over my head in a pool of guilt. During the first snowstorm Sweets assured me she needed the exercise. After the third storm when the power went out, and avalanches of snow crashed down on the driveway from the roof minutes after Fantastic Fred, our snow blower man, left for the day, she picked up her prayer shawl, kicked my blanket, slammed the door to the bedroom, and didn’t come out until morning. I remained on the couch until the first rays of sunlight filtered through windows almost blocked by snow mounds. Fred came, so we were able to use our front door. We put out a distress call to a kind younger man who liked to shovel snow paths.
Some years winters are more difficult, depending on the ice storms and power failures. One year during an ice storm that left us without power for a week, we huddled in front of the wood stove rewriting our wills to benefit those who brought us hot food and blankets. We thought of divorce but couldn’t figure how to tell the grandchildren. Like many of you, we made it though those frost-filled days, weakened, but resolved to hang in till spring, which I believe came in May that year.
In these cold winter days, we might discover unread books, or perhaps this is the time to finish knitting the sweater started last year, while your husband finally finishes the repairs in the bathroom. The long cold days can give us special moments when neighbors became friends during those times spent drinking something warm, while we walked through pages of our memories. Some moments brought smiles, others tears when we spoke about losing another old friend.
This year if you are brave enough, call someone one bone-cold day and take time to catch up on your lives. Feel the warmth when you make a small space that reaches out into this cold winter world.
Until the next step on the journey,
Codger Tom, Sweet Nancy Editor/Censor
CODGER TOM RETURNS
Recently I took an involuntary tour of area hospitals, beginning with my hometown of New London, moving to the campus of Hotel Hitchcock in Lebanon, and then transferring to rehab at Alice Peck Day Hospital down the road in Lebanon. Finally I came to rest in the care of Sweet Nancy, retired nurse. So I have been kicked out of three of our finest health care facilities in a short span of time. I had what is known as a “cabbage with a patch,” a triple bypass with a heart valve replacement.
Things have changed since I worked in a NJ hospital decades ago. When did nurses give up white uniforms? Today some have beards and wear camouflage scrubs with red shoes. When did they put cartoon circles with a scale of one to ten on the wall? This is a pain scale, to which everyone referred each time he or she walked into my room, including the cleaning crew. Once when asked, I answered I had a 14 and soaring toward madness.
There is hospital time and time in the rest of the world. In the hospital they woke me from a deep sleep at midnight and again at six am, right after a stranger drew six vials of blood for testing. You don’t go into a hospital for a rest! If you request something from a caregiver, he or she will tell you, “I’ll be right back.” This may mean toward the end of their shift.
There are young women with a granddaughter smile from PT who walked innocently into my room to lure me into the hall for the “march of hurt,” sometimes called the Bataan Death March. What felt like two hours later, they returned my sweaty body to my bed and promised to return in the afternoon for more fun.
The above is written with a huge exaggeration. I write humor when I am afraid, when I’m confused, and when I lose hope. It helps me deal with difficult situations. Most of the health care professionals who cared for this cranky old man were more then kind, competent, and went out of their way to make me comfortable. They found time in the middle of the night to calm my night terrors, knowing just the words to say to a man who had a close brush with death.
One thought kept recycling during the endless nights I spent in the hospital: I have been given the one more day that many people long for. How do I want to spend it?
I have already begun. I am going to tell those family members I have taken for granted that I love them. I am going to apologize to anyone whom I may have hurt with sharp words, and also those to whom I have not listened. It’s a start.
I have become aware there are fine giving men in our life. I am not allowed to lift over 8-10 lbs. Therefore all responsibilities have been picked up by Sweets and by men who have taken care of our lawn and leaves, taken and picked up the snow blower, removed snow from our driveway, did repairs and fixups, and sat with me in the hospital while Sweets had other appointments. Thank you sons, Steve and John, neighbor Steve, friends Paul and Steve, and my best friend from Germany. A special thanks goes to Fred who keeps returning to clean our driveway.
Finally to my people for their get-well thoughts, prayers, and phone calls. You’ll never know how grateful we are to have you in our lives. Sweets has taken over my care, and I am amazed at her skill level as well as her endless patience. In my 80 years I have never felt such love. Until the next time.
Sweet Nancy, editor/censor
THE LAST CALL
Sweet Nancy and I live in a small town on a short street in a state that ranks forty- first of fifty in population size. We have breath-taking autumns but bone chilling long winters. We need each other to huddle for warmth and to watch over our old people, so they don’t fall on ice or walk too close to snow covered metal roofs. I now qualify as a certified old man in need of watching.
Years ago, soon after one of our world class ice storms, I was checking our generator. Walking in the hall in the dark, I flew through the air of an open door to the cellar and kissed the cement ripping out my rotator cuff and fracturing a couple of ribs. It was 3 am when the ambulance took me to the hospital.
The next day our neighbor, Paul Diekmann, an ER nurse at New London Hospital, came over and asked, “Why didn’t you call me?”
“At 3 am?”
“Yes, call me next time. I am across the street. I can get here faster. Call me.”
Under her breath Sweets muttered, “If he does it again, I’m calling the undertaker.”
For the next month Diek blew our driveway clean of snow and regularly checked on our well-being, and helped us when needed. In regular times, Paul always knew just the right carpenter, plumber, or any other craftsman we might need. He showed me how to fix a hole in the driveway, gave us a self-made trap to catch rodents, and sometimes he just fixed the problem himself. He and Sidney gave us produce from their garden, raspberries, blueberries, and the tastiest Kennebunk potatoes ever to cross our lips. Through the years he became our first responder and guardian angel wrapped up in one big bearded guy.
We tried to pay him back, only to hear, “Don’t worry about it.” So instead we invited him and Sidney for dinner, dropped off something we baked or cooked, or when I carved something I made out of wood. We didn’t want to be a burden or overload his life with our problems, yet always he said, “If you need my help, call me. I’ll come as soon as I can.”
Sometime he came without being called. Once I overfilled the oil in my lawn tractor, and black smoke filled our yard and blew into his. He came running. After making sure I was not on fire, he checked the oil. Then he went home and came back with a device he had made, a tube he dropped down the fill shaft. He removed the excess oil and with a grin said, “I bet you won’t do that again.” I have a long list of times when he saved us from disaster. Without pay, a well felt, “thank you so very much,” seemed enough for him. He would always end with “Catch ya latah. Call me if things don’t work out.” I knew he answered calls from others, but I did not know how many until two days after he had helped us once again. He went to bed and did not rise the following day.
Sweet Nancy, a minister, was asked to lead a spiritual service, since she was his friend. Through tears she told stories learned from family and friends. I read a poem written for my friend. Family, friends, and coworkers told of Paul’s kindness, humor, love of family, and how they called on him again and again for help and support. The police, first responders, fire fighters all knew his name and, unknown to me, he had been a part of their service to our community for decades. Now I knew why he had a police scanner as part of his living room décor. At the end of the service, a voice crackled from a police scanner in the front of the church, and called “Last Call for Paul Diekmann,” and thanked him for his years of service.
Thank you, Paul, for being a daily part of our lives, for watching over us all these years, and for being a beloved friend to us and the town we have grown to love. It is because of you and others like you in our small town, only a phone call away, that make life worth living and the winters a little warmer.
Codger and Sweets
NEWSPAPERS, THE GLUE OF COMMUNITY
To My People:
A newspaper is more than a wrapper for fish or a sponge for Old Blue your retired hunting hound. It is a center where a community decides what’s important and informs their people. It tells you who was born and who has died. It prints a picture of your granddaughter when she scores the winning goal; you buy a dozen to send to your relatives in far flung places and then claim bragging rights to your friends.
As a young man my shoes had wings and my bag was always packed. Each time I set down in a new city or town, I bought a newspaper. The front page featured important issues of the area, antics of the political arena, bits and pieces of national news, and at the top their slogan: “Voted the Best Newspaper (i.e. ONLY) Serving ANYTOWN USA and Surrounding Area.” Inside I found an editorial page, letters to the editor, want ads for jobs, the size and scope of sports, business and religious announcements. Within an hour I was able to hold lively conversations with the customers at the Doughnut Delight and to ask Judy the waitress for her recommendation for fun places to visit.
That was yesterday. Now my travels are closer to home, but when I do go away, I discover people have let their newspapers wither. Those remaining are owned by corporations who know how to make toilet paper, or by a wealthy individual in a far off city, often in another state, who talks funny. People walk the streets with their smartphones unaware of what was lost. Getting the news only from electronics is like sitting at the table when you are hungry, and getting crackers when only a full meal slowly digested will satisfy. That’s why we can’t put the phones down; we’re still hungry! I feel proud when I can cut out a photo of a graduating grandchild so that I could give it a place of honor on the fridge. I have tried social media, but there is too much advertising. I have concluded that using the net to communicate to others is futile. There are too many people in need of a crash course in manners 101 along with a mandatory sentence for anger management.
Sweets and I live in newspaper paradise. I am able to drive three minutes, and for a dollar or two I can choose from two local daily’s, one state wide, four national, and about five weekly newspapers. The clerk, Paul, will smile through his beard and say every time, “Have a great day, enjoy your paper.” If my name is not listed in the obituary, I can ignore bad news, look for the Rotary Club Barbeque, or turn to the Life section where I read an eighty-five year old man climbed to the top of Mt. Tom to celebrate his birthday. Buy a paper, use your phone this week only to send and receive calls. You may discover something wonderful about this place we call home and the people in your community.
Until the next step on the journey
Codger Tom and Sweet Nancy, Editor/Censor