Posts Tagged ‘Stories’

Doing What It Takes: A Story

When you look up and see your own child at some distance away, standing at the very edge of a high place over a drop off that falls into deep water, your heart starts pounding in your ears, and you feel the adrenalin rush.  Almost every parent, for one reason or another, understands that anxious feeling!

Well, he was fine.  He was okay.  As it turned out it was no real danger at all; it was just a swim meet.  But my heart was pounding just the same – parents get excited about that sort of thing, don’t we?  We get excited because we actually watch our children face challenges,  and see first hand how winning or losing effects their attitude.

We had talked a lot at home with our children about setting goals, and some of the necessary action steps we need to take in order to meet them.  But that day when I arrived to watch a county swim meet, I was completely unaware that I was about to learn how the combination of attitude, activity and results are so cleverly intertwined, and inter-dependent.

Remember when we fell behind in school, our teachers would remind us we needed to “bring up our average”?  But so many of us really didn’t understand what exactly was required to do it.  My son showed me what was required.  He showed me by doing something I’d told him to do, without ever making it a habit to do so myself.  That was over twenty years ago, but because what I learned was so clear, I think about it all the time as if it were yesterday.

Among other sports, organizations and activities, all three of my sons were on the swim team in junior high and high school.  They only swam for the school during swim season, and not involved in any year-round swim program.  But some others were, and one boy in particular was a pre-Olympic qualifier.  His name was Bobby.  During my oldest son, David’s senior year, Bobby swam for David’s team’s chief rival.

On that day in the free style relay, I saw them lined up on the block right next to each other.  Leading off for his school, was poised my son David, one of the better swimmers in the county.  And right beside him leading off for his top rival was Bobby, one of the better swimmers in the western hemisphere.

Everybody, and I mean everybody there including me, knew my son David was not going to out-swim Bobby in that event.  Oh, there was a good chance that my son’s relay team would come in second, but we all were certain that Bobby’s team would place first.

At the signal, seven swimmers representing seven schools hit the water.  My son swam well, and I was proud of him, but exactly as predicted, he was second to Bobby in the first leg of the heat, and though it was close, David’s team came in second overall.

My wife and I sat there watching him across the room.  He was talking with his coach.  Then David looked up directly at us, and started heading over towards us in the bleachers.  When he got right in front of me, he just stood there for a moment with a towel around him, and I could tell he was thinking about something; thinking what to say.  I thought I already knew what he was going to say.  I was preparing to hear all the regular excuses, such as:

“I got a bad start off the block.  I messed up my stroke.  I missed my breathing rhythm and took in some water.  I made a bad flip-turn.  I misgauged my distance coming to the touchpad.”

But David didn’t say any of those things.  What he said to me was:

“Hey Dad, I got my time.  I more than beat my average time – I beat my best!  And I’m only nineteen one hundredths of a second away from making the cut for the state swim meet!  And I’ll beat that easy by the finals!”

You should have seen the smile on his face.  And, on mine, realizing that this teenage boy knew something very well that had taken me over four decades to figure out.  It didn’t make the six O’clock news, but it was the best thing that happened to my son that day, and to me.  You see, both of us were validated by the realization of a goal.

Sometimes you say something, and someone you care about listens, then acts on what you said.  And when it works…how powerful is that?  Yet as powerful as the moment was for me, and feeling very impacted by it, the faint question in the back of my mind was:

Will he remember the blueprint he used that day to continue to build those kinds of precious moments for the rest of his life?

Some of you might be waiting to hear how David came back in the finals to beat Bobby by a split-second.  Some Horatio Alger or Tortoise and the Hare story?   Attainable?  Yes.  Realistic?  No.  There was already a huge divide between their habits of practice, and a huge divide between what they both had already taught themselves to believe.

That day at the pool, however, my son David did have a goal.  He was reaching for a higher mark than he had ever reached or even tried to reach before.  And it was something he believed he could get.  Not to win the swim meet, or even beat Bobby, but instead, the goal was to qualify for state.  And by the way, he made the cut.

I believe you should set high goals for yourself, to push yourself, and go after your dreams.  But don’t set goals you don’t believe you have a chance of reaching, because if you think you can’t, you aren’t even likely to try.  You won’t shoot for the stars if you don’t believe you can get off the ground.

As a boy, I remember helping Granddaddy paint the outside of his house.  As I started up the ladder to the top of the second story, Granddaddy asked:

“Are you gonna be able to make it all the way up there?”

I answered:  “I’ll go as far as I can.”

Granddaddy came back with:

“You’ll go as far as you think you can.”

Years later, I heard my friend Chuck Russell speaking to a group, and he said:

“Nobody climbs up a ladder even one rung higher than they think they can go without falling.”

That’s what Granddaddy was talking about.  Now, I call that the freezing point.  And when you thaw out, if you thaw out, you’ll slowly start coming down to a place where you’re comfortable, and feel safe.

It’s the believing what you can do, or what you cannot do that makes all the difference in the world about what you’ll even try.  And by that, you will never get past that freezing point until you believe you can.  Believing is very powerful.

In a 1941 animated film produced by Walt Disney, Dumbo the Elephant could fly.  But he would never try until he believed.  For a long time, he believed in the magic feather which was just a trick played on his mind by a group of crows and a hapless mouse.  The feather never did have a bit of magic in it.  The magic was in the believing.

Eventually, Dumbo lost his grip on the feather, which was very frightening at first.  Up ’til then, he’d believed solely in the feather, even though there was no real power in it.  But with the feather gone, he now had to believe in something else, something real that was a part of himself.  He did, and that’s what saved him.

By the way, for those of you who will remember, what Dumbo believed became obvious by the course of actions he took, and not by anything he said he’d do, or even by anything he said he believed.  As a matter of fact, at no time in the story did he ever say a single word…out loud.  Elephants can’t talk, that’s impossible!

Impossible is a concept.  It cannot exist in you as an idea unless you believe something to be impossible.  While it may be impossibility in fact, it will not be the fact, but the thinking it is that will keep you from trying.

That’s the real point of the story about my son, David, at the swim meet.  Sure, there was something he thought was impossible.  But there was also something he believed he could get, and wanted bad enough to do what it takes to get it.  He knew it was not going to be good enough to just keep doing what he had been doing, because his average wasn’t good enough. Neither was his best.  So, not just to do the best he can, but to simply do what it takes.

And what it took was to make it a habit and a practice to every single day, work on incrementally improving his average to get well within reach of his best, and beat it.

I’m sure most of you remember hearing something Sir Winston Churchill once said:

“Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

But do you know why he said it?  Because up ‘til then, the best they had done had not been good enough to stop the advancing Army of the Third Reich.

How many of you before this month is over, will say to someone almost out of habit:

“That’s okay, you did the best you could, and that’s all anyone can expect of you.”

Well, quit saying that!  It’s not true.

Look at it this way: If you’re alone in a rowboat that sinks in the middle of a lake, and you drown trying to swim to shore, no one will doubt that you tried hard, and with great empathy might believe you did the best you could.  But nobody, not one person that really cared about you will even for a minute think those efforts were good enough.

Earlier I told you a story about a boy who beat his best, but he didn’t win the swim meet.  He beat his best, but didn’t get first place.  So, he didn’t win.  Didn’t he?

Some years later while still in graduate school, David accepted a teaching assignment in Special Education.  In so many cases, he was teaching children that everybody, including the parents, had given up on.  He was told the children on his list were not likely to learn very much, and that as a group, little was to be expected of them.  It was as if he should just supervise their behavior so that they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

But David saw the challenge differently.  As he got to know the children, be began to believe in some of them.  And because he did when nobody ever had before, they started believing in him, too.  Since David was just starting out, and not yet even a certified teacher, he was given a provisional certificate.

With such credentials as that, added to a burning passion in his gut to want to do the right thing for those children, averages started to improve; someone was raising the bar.  It was noted, and his principal and peers named him as the: “Teacher of the Year”!

After hearing this, his youngest brother said:

“That’s pretty cool!  My brother got teacher of the year on a learner’s permit!”

Now all of a sudden I’m remembering back.  What kept ringing in my head were words like:

“Hey Dad, I beat my average, and I beat my best, and my goal is so close I can taste it!”

He remembered.  He learned.  It was his attitude.  It drove his actions.  His activity generated his results.  His results kept driving his attitude higher, and higher and higher!

Only those who believe they can, will bother to make a habit of incrementally beating their average. And it stands to reason, if they do, sooner or later they’ll beat their best.  You see, it raises the bar automatically every time you bump that average up.  And it’s always within your believable reach, never frozen in the fear of the unreachable.

I won’t take the time here to tell you about David’s two brothers.  But I’ll close this segment by saying I’m very proud that all three of my sons are the kind of men who’ve had some notable experiences with beating their average and even beating their best.   And by recognizing what is required to do it, they all have some clear understanding of what it takes to…

 Reach For Their Dreams.


art & graphic design by

© Talent Management, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Mark Twain, Me, and Comets

‎”I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”  – Mark Twain

Mark Twain said he came in with  Halley’s Comet, and expected to go out with it.  I’m not so quick to be in awe of him as a prognosticator.  It’s easy to predict the storm when you can see the clouds rolling in.  And, you can set your clock by a train if you already see it coming into the station.  Sam Clemens knew his health was failing, and that time was running out.

At the advice of his doctor, he’d cut back to only ten cigars a day, which I’m sure Twain felt was hardly enough to sustain him for very long.  No doubt, these must’ve been much smaller and milder cigars than the one’s I’m using to orchestrate my suicide.  If I tried to smoke ten a day on any regular basis, I wouldn’t be able to talk by the end of a week.

My wife might see some benefit in that, but it would surely stink up the whole neighborhood.  Besides, I’m in no great hurry to attain progress in the matter of killing myself.  I’m sure the rate is slower than some friends might have predicted, and certainly slower than some enemies might have hoped for, but so be it.  As it is, ten cigars might last me a couple of months or longer, as long as February be one of them.

Twain’s comet was predictable, but mine so far has not been cooperative in that way.  It’s really hard for me to set my habits to a comet that is so wishy-washy, and refuses to be pinned down to an agenda, and considers uncertainty to be a moral principle.  I might as well speculate in the commodities market.  I was born with the Elipse Comet of 1948 (its proper name for tax purposes being C/1948 V1).

It just kind of showed up about the same as I did.  I have not been able to find any schedule of its return, and there is no promise that seats will be available for purchase this far in advance.  Well I hope it’s far in advance, but for all I know for sure, it could be just around the corner.

The prospects of it are not known and some think it has an orbit pattern of about eighty four thousand, eight hundred years.  If that is so, it’s possible that my calendar could run out first.  I’d certainly not try to amortize it, or buy an annuity on such terms.  I’ll leave such idiotic financial arrangements as that to The United States Congress.

One distinguishing feature of a comet over a lot of other cosmic objects is the presence of a tail.  Such a thing as that does not set either me or Mr. Twain apart from the rest of humanity, so I’ll not get carried away with details.  What might set us apart instead, would be the tales.  Without trying to compare them by quality, we’ve both been known to come up with them; his being different from mine, and mine different from his, and together not to be confused with anybody else’s, especially textbook authors.

What do people remember about Mark Twain?  For one thing, they remember the stories he told.  One that has stuck with me for a long time was about a boy faced with a conflict about doing the right thing.  The written rule was for Huck Finn to turn Jim in for being a runaway slave.  But as Huckleberry came to terms with Jim’s humanity same as his own, he found his salvation, even though he was certain he’d have to go to Hell for it.  Where do we ever see such integrity as that even among our bravest adults?

For half a century I’ve thought about that tale, and I could never separate it from Mark Twain himself.  So, it’s often the story that brands you, be it sad, funny, or frightful.  I’ve often told some of his other tales, but in order to be any good at it, I’ve had to become him on occasion.  I told a friend once that it is interesting sometimes, to be a caricature of a man who was often a caricature of himself.

So what story brands any of us?  What story brands you?  It isn’t always the easiest thing to know which story is the best one to tell.  But after years of looking at the evidence left all over the place by hundreds of wonderful writers, I think the best story is when nobody else but you could’ve told it.

That isn’t always the case with a song, is it?  Sometimes it will be sung much better by someone other than the composer.  Yet at other times, the ballad carries better in the arms of the one who knows the tale best.  And that is true with a lot of our stories.  In many cases, if they are to be told at all, we have to tell them.  Yet in spite of that, it sometimes amazes me how many folks wait their whole lives hoping someone else will tell their story for them.

There is nothing wrong with wanting others to tell your story.  To get them to want to do that, your story will have to connect with them in some way.  But it will have no chance unless you tell it to them, or show it to them.  If you don’t think you can put it into words, then put it into actions.

How does your story treat the folks who hear it; the folks who see it, or are otherwise effected by it?  Do they laugh or cry?  In what way are they to carry your story with them?  What will make it last?  The poet Maya Angelou is credited for saying:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Then if that’s the case, perhaps best way to tell your story might just be to live it.  But if you decide to tell it in words, be sincere about it.  If you don’t, the only thing folks will remember will be the insincerity.  A moving star with a tail on it might get their attention, but unless it makes them feel one way or another, they just might not remember it at all.

A Storm Passes

“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms…” – Mark Twain

As I write this on March fourth, I am reminded that long before this day, many have marched forth before.  A lot has happened since the first of the year to keep me preoccupied, so there has not been a dawg letter now for three months.  But let’s not blame it on the dawgs, or at least on the ones in my backyard.

The other day, I noticed clouds moving in quickly, but that’s to be expected since we live at the bottom of a hill.  I’m sure the wind would travel slower if it were to turn around and go back uphill, but it didn’t.  The dawgs were being fairly still moving only slightly to grab small pieces of the passing breeze with their noses.  A nose is quite a remarkable tool for a dawg.  It’s how they read their newspaper.  It lets them know what has happened around here recently, and what is presently happening that might be of any interest to a dawg.

It also is used to predict the future.  A storm was brewing, and they both knew it.  I could see signs of clouds gathering to block the sunlight; the movement of branches in the trees, a noticeable drop in temperature, and feel the wind against my face.  But they could smell it.  My coming out onto the patio seemed not to disturb them, as they were able to ignore me as if I were just a speed limit.  Usually, they’d rush right over presuming my appearance might be connected with a treat or permission to engage in some kind of fun, but not today, or at least not at that moment.

The March wind was stripping pink blossoms from dancing plum trees ruining the chances of them becoming fruit.  It was just as well, as my small family wouldn’t be able to eat that many plums, anyway.

I lit my pipe, putting on quite a show considering how the wind was kicking up.  But the dawgs paid no mind of it even though I went through half a box of matches and a vocabulary list that would normally cause a sensible dawg to want to hide under a bed.  The matches were having trouble staying lit long enough to ignite the tobacco, but several of them flipped out of my hand quickly enough to  burn my face.  One landed with pin-point accuracy in the corner of my eye, causing a sermon to erupt.

Ashley Cooper and Cosmo Topper continued their vigilance with not so much as a nod or a tail-wag in my direction.  So with little else to entertain me, I just stood there looking out across the yard.  The clutter included bits and pieces of a fallen tree, some of last year’s leaves, sticks, the skeleton of a lawnmower that had been savagely stripped of dignity and any hope of revival by a couple of curious boys, what may have once been part of a magazine, and an old sock that would never again comfort a foot.

At the first clap of thunder, the dawgs shifted gears.  With no small sense of urgency, they both began to move towards the house.  As a finger of lightning switched on some unseen shower head, it began to sprinkle.  Topper and Ashley followed me into the den, and laid down without bothering to thank me for holding the door.  I’m sure they both thought my doing it would’ve been the only reason I’d come out there in the first place.

Once upstairs, I went back to my television.  Some things in the news had taken over a part of me, and I couldn’t let it go, no matter what time of the day or night it happened to be.  Saddam Hussein of Iraq had ordered the invasion of Kuwait late last summer.  It didn’t make sense.  Watching the television didn’t help it make sense.

At the beginning during a news conference, General Colin Powell was asked about his strategy.  He said:

“First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”

The strategic would position itself for what would become tactical.  The coalition forces moved quickly to do just that.  But as they moved closer to Bagdad, a good bit of the Iraqi army laid down their guns and disappeared.  I watched little else on television for a while, then it was over.  And for some folks, I’m sure it was.  But for others, it might go on a spell.  Some children live and die never knowing much else, but there is nothing new about that to the human race.

A good bit of the news had been about how the coalition against Iraq would fall apart if Israel was brought into the conflict.  The Americans and British had to convince Israel to stay neutral, and that they guaranteed their defense.  The agreement seemed made with the contingency that all bets were off if Israel was attacked.  Such prospects as that appeared to be requisition for a real mess.

On the evening of January seventeenth, I was backstage preparing to address an audience as Mark Twain.  I had intended to close with the prose/poem piece Samuel Langhorne Clemens had written in protest of American military intervention in the Philippines.  It had been turned down for publication, and never made it into print in his own lifetime.  But with some effort, I’d decided to keep it alive during mine.

Right before I walked on, the stage manager, who’d been listening to a radio with headphones, told me Iraq had just launched missiles against Israel.  She knew how my speech was to end, and wanted me to consider how an anti-war piece might be received at this time.  It was hard news.  With great misgivings,  I decided not to delete it, even if they would lynch me afterwards.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, with the precedent of all the brilliant decisions I’ve witnessed by people wrapped in their emotions, it did seem like a possibility.

I stepped in front of the audience with a heavy heart, not so much about how I would be received,  but with thoughts about three young sons in a world rolling out of control towards chaos.  I had a memory of another war not so long ago, and remembered how all that I thought it would be could not match up to the ugly face it wore when I saw it up close.  If I had a prayer left in me, it was for my children to never have to see it.

But that night I had to move my mind quickly back to over a century ago, and wrap myself in the persona of a man of letters.  In his image and person, I had to be witty, to be thought provoking, and be entertaining.  Somehow it wasn’t about me at all, but about the people out front and what they’d paid to come to see.  When it came time for the last story, there was a lump in my throat so big I thought it would choke me to death.  Later on, I was pleased to find out the audience didn’t see it, so some credit was due to the large tie I wore, or perhaps to my former acting teachers.  It was a huge lump, so it had to be something other than my own doing to cause it to go unnoticed.

The audience was kind to me that night.  The next day, the kindest thing was a phone call from a teacher who’d been in the auditorium the night before, and wanted to know if I knew about the missile attack before going on stage.  I said I did, expecting to be chastised for my undiplomatic decision.  Instead, the teacher said:

“Good.  I think that took courage, and I’m glad you went ahead with your program.”

A day or so later, I received a note from another teacher who’d attended the performance.  It read:

“If every student I teach could spend time with your Mark Twain, I believe that they would understand the beauty and depth of Twain’s words.  How lucky you are to be Mark Twain for an hour or so; I envy you.  Thank you for a wonderful evening.”

That note was the best thing that could have happened to me, and the flavor of it took away the bitter taste of self doubt that was dissolving my soul.  Is it normal for folks who say they pray for peace to feel guilty when they speak against war?  Less than a month before that program, people far and wide were singing songs of “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” all over the place.  But right then I feared a desire for such as that in the face of “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” was about to be seen as an awful thing, and it worried me.  So being fearful of condemnation, this is not the confessions of a brave man.

Until getting that nice note, I thought perhaps it would’ve been more courageous to consider the feelings of the people in that town, and conjure up other material to end the program.  Though I had lots of other stories and material in the pigeon holes of my mind, maybe going on as rehearsed was just the easy way out.  Because of the news received just moments before walking on stage, it wasn’t my decision to go ahead and deliver “The War Prayer” that was so hard, but just staying in character.  It became one of the more difficult things I’ve done in a long time.

When arriving home that night, my dawgs were glad to see me.  They of course had no idea where I’d been, or of the concerns I may have had, and they had no idea about war.  They could hold their noses into the air to tell if a rain storm was coming, but other storms far away caused by a different kind of cloud wouldn’t make any sense to a dawg.  And I suppose it is no grand compliment to the human race that it should claim to make sense of it, either.

The Joy of Replacing the Mailbox Post

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.  They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor” – Albert Camus -and in order for Sisyphus to be seen as an absurd hero, “…one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Recently, a section of the fence needed repairing due to a tree falling on it, but our mailbox post fell down without needing any such forceful encouragement.  Perhaps it was just a passing breeze, or maybe a leaf blew up against it.  At any rate, it just slammed to the ground barely missing the cat by inches.  The bird she was stalking got away.  Since I was in the yard and within sight of the cat at the time, I felt sure to be punished for it in some way.

I knew the post was old, and nothing lives forever.  I’ve just not given much thought to the life span of a mailbox post before.  Closer inspection showed it was rotten.  In fact, it was so rotten that had it been a tooth, it would’ve been pulled years ago.  There was not going to be any point in trying to stand it back up; it’s time had come.  Pointless was no deterrent to my son, Nathan.  He attempted to prop it up with some rocks, but it didn’t hold.  It took on the appearance of my politics, leaning too far to the left and too far to the right all at the same time, depending on your point of view.

Two kinds of projects tend to undo me: those I gladly take on, and those forced on me due the a sense of urgency felt by others.  This was not the premeditated kind that I’d been saving up for with any anticipation.  No, this was an interruption, and according to my wife, it was also to become my most immediate concern.

In her eagerness to get me going on this right away, she went with me to the hardware store.  Her intent was I not get down there and become overwhelmed with all the options, and end up buying something ugly or inappropriate.  She would want something plain, yet tasteful that would not in any way cause postal route carriers to look like they were having to force-feed some wild animal backwards.  I’m sure that sometime in the past, I must’ve shown some enthusiasm and pleasure in seeing some comically novel mail boxes, and perhaps remarked how nice it would be to have that sort of thing, I don’t know.

The new wooden posts were made of treated lumber, and I’m sure the old one was, as well.  But treated for what, I can’t be sure.  Maybe it was stain or water resistent, wind resistent, or lightning proof, but whatever the “treatment” it had turned out to be absolutely delicious to termites, as what was left of it wouldn’t make good cardboard.  Besides whatever pre-treatment the old post had received before it was placed in the dirt, there had been additional on site treatments as well.  But apparently many applications of the salt treatments associated with years of Cosmo Topper and every other dawg in the neighborhood stopping by to pay their respects, also did no good.  The post was beyond rot.

After looking at several different kinds, I decided to just get a 4 X 4 that I could place in the ground and remount the old mail box to it.  Besides that, I’d get a set of post-hole diggers, which is not what you’d call an impulse item.  Nobody wants post-hole diggers.  All they want is a hole in the ground.

Instead of just a post, Brenda wanted one of the pre-built kinds that went up to an ornamental knob at the top, and had an arm extended out to the side to provide over-kill support for a simple metal box.  And, we were going to have to get a new box for the simple reason that Brenda was in the mood for one.  It was going to be my Christmas present.

So, we settled on a post that was a lot like an iceberg–extremely long, but most it was intended to remain below the surface.  The post she picked out came with a kit including a steel tapered spike attached to a square bracket to bolt onto the base of it.  The bolts were not included, but lucky for us, they had some just the right size for sale on the very next isle.

Though the bolts were not a part of the kit, it did have a steel striking plate intended to protect the cosmetics of the ornamental top of the post while you gently tap-tapped it into the ground.  The kit was advertised as a “ten minute solution” to what might take reasonably skilled people a couple of hours to complete without it.  It sounded simple enough, and that should have been a clue for me right there.  Nothing I’m allowed to do turns out to be simple.

Looking at the striking plate caused Brenda to remember the handle was broken on my sledge hammer at home, so we should get a new one while we were in the store.  That’s when I realized the purpose of the striking plate more than anything else, was to sell sledge hammers.  

By the time we finished our shopping, the store manager came over and declared my wife to be the “customer of the month”, and told her she’d be entered into a drawing for coupons.  I think it was for 50 cents off on a riding lawnmower.  Luckily I was able to get her out of the store because she knew she’d never have need of such a thing as that.  Besides, we were already about four or five hundred percent over budget on this project, and I was beginning to feel like a government contractor.

Once we were back home, and not able to convince my wife of any benefit of postponement, I went to work.  The exact spot where the old post stood would not do.  Not that there was anything wrong with it position-wise, but that the ground underneath it appeared to be solid rock.  How the first post ever got put there is mystery to me unless they’d used dynamite.  Three other adjacent areas were tested, but still solid rock.  I tried a fourth spot, and believe I found the base of Stone Mountain which up ’til now was thought to be about thirty miles away.

My brand new post hole diggers were now all crumpled at the tips, and would be useless in a sand pile.  The bedrock was the hardest stuff I’d tried to dig since trigonometry.  I tried prodding the ground with the tapered spike until I found a place where it would go in a bit deeper, and finally selected  new home for our post.

That was the easy part.  The reason the ground was softer there was due to it being in the middle of a huge fire ant bed.  I gave up on the post hole diggers, since they were useless anyway, and decided to just hammer it into the ground.  It was stubborn.

After a while, the striking plate had been beaten up so badly that it began to look like a bowl, and not a pretty bowl at that.  Neither one of our dawgs cared much for the sound of it, and Mason said it was making them nervous.  The fact that they were a bit high strung right now was probably due more to Ashley Cooper being in heat, but It was okay for me to let Mason think it was the racket.

Even with Brenda’s help, I was making little progress towards getting the post properly into the dirt.  Best we could do was not good enough, unless our mail carrier was nine feet tall.  So we decided to pull it back out of the ground and move it a couple of inches.  Surely the fire ants were able to dig there, so we were convinced we could, too.  In the meantime, though fire ants are generally not active this time of year, we managed to get the attention of a few of their forward guard who wanted to investigate the commotion and submit a formal protest.

Brenda and I pulled and pulled until our backs hurt, and stood on each other’s toes along with anything in the area that resembled a flower or a shrub.  Finally got it moved.  Then the hammering went on continuing to violate the integrity of the striking plate, and eventually splintering the top of the post well beyond any benefit of trying to save the ornamental knob.  You would’ve thought I was trying to make toothpicks.

Though we’d started this “ten minute” enterprise right after lunch, it was now after dark.  It was past suppertime, which we didn’t stop for, and all but the professionally mischievous would be in bed.  Fire ants though perhaps thought to be hunkered down for cold weather, are not to be deterred by social politeness or curfews.

By the time we began to gather our tools, or at least the ones we could find, the children had figured out a way to get something to eat, feed the dawgs and the cat, and were already in bed if not asleep.  As we looked around not quite finding everything we’d used on the job site, it became apparent that one of my good wrenches and a pair of vice grips were most likely buried under the mailbox post.  Don’t ask.

Seems my enthusiastic hammering had managed to cause the main shaft of the post to split, and that the arm intending to support the mailbox itself was going to fall off if not reinforced by steel bands.  All manner of scrap metal that any sensible person would’ve thrown away years ago became valuable.  This caused Brenda some concern that it might encourage my packrat hoarding habits, but that night she was too tired to talk about it more than mention it a few times.

After equipping the post with orthopedic braces, I’d climbed up on a stool to get a better angle between the hammerhead and the top of the post.  The stool seemed to enjoy tipping over each time I swung the hammer, and had I owned a step ladder, I would’ve used it instead.  A few neighbors, evidently awakened by the clang clanging and colorful language, were gathered up the street to watch.  And though it was an improvisation, they were no doubt getting a show like you cannot buy tickets for anywhere in a civilized country.

Although the striking plate now had some curvature to it, it would not remain in place when clobbered with the sledgehammer.  It would fly off into the darkness, but by then we had a flashlight out there so I could see where to hit.  After retrieving the plate a dozen times, we tried taping it to the post.  All we had was a roll of Scotch tape, and that turned out to be silly.

Best I could do was get it into the ground leaving the part where the mailbox would rest still a few inches higher than the U. S. Postal Service might find acceptable, but I left it tilted forward a little bit so they could reach it.  It was going to have to do, as we were both exhausted.  We had taken on the assignment with vim and vigor, which as it turns out, has something to do with the perspiration that forms all over the body of a rented mule.

As we headed towards the house, too tired to even realize how tired we were, Brenda mentioned that we needed to clean out the garage.  Having done it before, I knew when the time comes, and it wouldn’t be the next day even if we could still move, the entire family would be enlisted to move everything out of the garage, sweep the dirt and dust around a while, then put everything back inside about where it was before.

Once inside, I went to the den to play musical dawgs one more time.  Both Topper and Ashley needed a chance to go out, but not at the same time.  Taking everything this household might need into consideration, puppies are not on the list.

Finally in bed and almost asleep, Penny Lane moved in quietly, and with sharp claws finding a portion of a kneecap poking out from under the cover, let me know that she was certain the mailbox falling so close to her was my fault, and that I’d done it on purpose.  Right about then, I only wished it had hit her.  Then she curled up next to me and purred, which is the only time in history that a cat is known to have ever let go of a grudge so quickly.


Humpty Dumpty Had A Great Fall: Meeting Eueal

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and so did one of my neighbor’s trees that had stood for so long right next to the fence that went around my back yard.  It was a reasonable thing for a tree to do whenever it decides it had stood for about all it could take, and evidently, it had.  Unlike Humpty, however, the tree didn’t shatter into pieces on its own.  No, it was going to have to be coaxed to pieces…with a chainsaw.

It was late in the fall.  Fall happens every year, and has been occurring regularly ever since Adam and Eve set the example, what with the apple being mature and ripe.  The thing I have in common with Adam is I did not plant the tree, though I felt injured by it perhaps as he might have felt injured by the one in his story.  The difference being that instead of being forced to leave my garden, I was forced to stay and come to terms with it.

Further, like Adam, I wanted very much for circumstances to be somebody else’s fault.  In this case, it was.  It was an old tree, and even if it had remained standing, it would have never again put out new leaves.  Besides being dead, the tree was huge, and possibly older than me, though my children cannot imagine much of anything being so old and out of touch with the times as I must seem to them on occasion.

The seasons, especially fall, are appropriately named.  Various hickory, maple and oak trees had let loose a fine collection of airborne organic mulch this year as has been their tradition, and it was falling all over the place.  Leaves were collected into piles in time to be scattered by the wind before we could bag them, which gave us the opportunity to rake them again, and again, and again.

Luckily, we have a fence.  So the leaves could not escape into the adjacent woods.  No, they remained in the yard so we could rake them.  I’m beginning to think it would just be easier to pick them up one at a time and place them into a bag in the first place rather than chase them with an awkward leaf rake for hours just to have to pick them up, anyway.  As it turns out, a leaf rake’s primary purpose is to cause blisters to form in the palms of your hands.  They have very little other practical utility.

There is also the factor of leaves falling at a rate faster than we were retrieving them.  Two of my sons had pointed this out a month ago, and suggested we wait until the trees were finished casting off.  I’m sure I muttered some response at the time that was not wisdom, nor was it likely to have been taken as such.

Besides leaf retention, the fence had a supplemental advantage.  It was the business of keeping our dawgs in the yard, while keeping other people’s dawgs out.  We also had dawg pens made of additional fencing materials inside the fence itself.  The utility and benefit of such a configuration is tremendous when you have two dawgs, one in heat, and the other patriotically in the pursuit of happiness.  In fact, I was proud to have a fenced in back yard, but as you know, pride cometh before the fall.

The crashing tree traumatized the fence and the dawg pen.  And though it missed hitting Ashley Cooper by inches, I suspect she felt somewhat traumatized by the experience.  One of the boys thought she had been hunkered down in a meditative position right next to where the tree fell.  The crack and rumble and the ensuing thud may have increased the rate of her meditations, I wouldn’t doubt it at all.  And perhaps she probably had no need to meditate anymore for the rest of the day.  Hours later, she seemed still spooked by it, so she’ll probably break out with the mange again.

Cosmo Topper, thank goodness was inside the house scratching himself and putting fleas into the carpet at the time, so he missed seeing it happen.   But I’m sure he heard it.  So did my two younger sons who were also in the house at the time.  Immediately, both boys thought the other had done something terrible that would be difficult to explain to their mother, and rushed down the hall to find each other.  Once the truth was discovered, together they had the presence of mind to bring Ashley Cooper into the den before she could escape through the easement created by the tree pushing the fence to the ground.

Then, it was time to call Brenda at her office, and tell her the news, because both Nathan and Mason agreed this was the kind of thing she’d want to know about right away.  Nathan placed the call, and being the diplomat he is, said:

“Better sit down, Mom.  This is a big one.”

Well, you can imagine how such a phrase as that must have put her mind at ease.  Before Nathan could say another word, she’d imagined every worse-case scenario in the book, and several that haven’t been thought of before.  Once she was told that a tree fell across the fence, she waited to hear some explanation.  She was sure they had either cut the tree down as a part of a homework assignment gone awry, or that Mason had just bumped into it causing it to fall.  You’d have to watch Mason bump into things in order to fully understand how his mother might jump to that conclusion.  And together with his brother Nathan, there is a powerful potential always prepared to assist things with the business of falling and breaking.

David was the last one home from school.  His younger kinsmen met him in the front yard to give him the news.  They used the same delicate tactfulness used to reassure and calm their mother, so before David had heard what actually happened, he mentally made plans to run away from home.  He thought quickly of a few places he might hang out until Brenda and I had been given plenty of time to be assured of his innocence in whatever calamity had occurred in the house.  I’m glad his brothers finally got the truth across to him, as we’ve grown accustomed to having him around.

Later I pulled into the driveway without knowing a thing about what had transpired.  I was met by all three sons, each of them with a solemn look on their face.  My mind raced through a series of tragic circumstances, and I must’ve sat in my car at least several extra minutes, none of which helped calm me down one bit.  Dread is a good word.  I’m sure in spite of curiosity and worry, I didn’t want to hear whatever it was they were going to tell me.

I glanced about for ambulances, police cars, and firetrucks, and not seeing any, I finally got out of the car.  It’s hard to explain the absolute joy I felt knowing that the catastrophe was just a tree down across the fence.  Nobody was dead or injured, not even the dawgs.  The house didn’t have any walls or windows missing, and the sewer wasn’t backed up into the living room.

After a few deep breaths, my elation dwindled as reality set in.  The fence had been the last remnant of anything in the yard that the dawgs had not already chewed up.  And being a part of the property included in the mortgage, the fence was not what you’d call “paid for”.  This was going to be expensive.  It looked like I might need all the king’s men, whether I could afford to pay ’em or not.  Additionally, I was afraid if I wasn’t careful, all the king’s horses would run away before we could get the fence fixed.

Why is it that unanticipated expenses always show up just a few weeks before Christmas?  What a mess!  I almost felt a little disappointed the tree hadn’t fallen on me instead of the fence.  We managed to keep the dawgs inside but separated that night, considering Ashley Cooper’s condition not being such that we’d want her to have the company of the male.  But in spite of the dawgs and because of them, I knew I would have to deal with that tree first thing in the morning.

Two of the King’s men are Neighborly

A family had just moved into the house across the street.  I had met the lady briefly to take them a small gift and say welcome to the neighborhood, but that was all.  Now it’s fair to tell you it has been my practice to never have the right tool available whenever some work might require it.  And not being an extremely bashful man, a declaration totally unnecessary for those of you who know me well, it is also practice to ask to borrow such a tool instead of buying one, should there be any prospect of them being available to borrow.

I had noticed a pickup truck in the driveway across the street.  That meant two things: the man of the house, it being his truck, was probably home.  And, having a truck, he might also have other tools.  I learned to speculate this way from having studied the theory of relativity, which I’ll explain simply:  you can sometimes look at the weather and determine whether you’d enjoy a picnic or a hike in the woods under relative conditions.

Well, this was a bleak and overcast, drizzly kind of a morning, relatively speaking.  Not only was it discouraging for a picnic, but for doing anything outside you didn’t have to.  You can relate to that, can’t you?  So I figured he would have no serious recreational plans with his chainsaw that day whether he owned one, or not.  And, with a large tree down across my fence and yard, it seemed appropriate that I should raise the question.

His wife came to the door, and I asked to speak with her husband.  That’s when I found out he was working night shift, and was in bed sound asleep.  I told her not to wake him, but when he got up, tell him I wanted to borrow a chainsaw if he had one.  I explained why I thought I might have need of such a thing, and the look on her face let me know she understood.  She didn’t say he had a saw, but said she’d tell him.  I thanked her, and went back to my house to see if Brenda had come up with a good plan “B” yet.  She had not.

The sensible thing to do was to have a second cup of coffee, and study on things for a few minutes.  I was prepared to study on it for hours if I could get away with it, which is a thing that would’ve surprised any of my old professors from school.  Those professors had no first hand knowledge or any suspicion whatsoever that I might spend hours studying anything.

I walked out back to see if staring at the tree would do any good, when I noticed a man standing at the front gate of my fence.  He was wearing a camouflage baseball cap, a housecoat, pajamas and bedroom slippers.  In one hand was a gasoline can and a coffee mug.  The other hand held a chainsaw, and a cigarette was smoldering in the corner of his mouth.  I walked over, introduced myself, and thanked him for letting me borrow his saw.  His name was Eueal.

Other than tell me his name, he didn’t say another word for a while.  When I opened the gate, Eueal came right in, walking briskly towards the fallen tree.  It became quickly apparent he had no intention of loaning me his saw.  He walked over to the damaged fence, and with the cigarette still burning between his lips, fueled up the saw.  I could tell right away that this was not his first rodeo.

After adjusting the choke and with a few rapid pulls on the cord, the chainsaw came to life with a roar.  I’m sure I said a few things, but it was a one sided conversation.   Other than the noise of the saw, Eueal worked in complete silence, and soon the tree trunk was off the fence.  He looked about at the several huge chunks of limbs and trunk in my yard, took a long pull at his coffee cup, and then he finally spoke:

“Want me to cut up some for your fireplace, Mr. Brown?”

I’ve seldom known anybody so eager to help somebody else even when they knew each other.  But I’d never even met this man before.  I stared at him, and feeling a drizzle of rain, I thought it might be best to minimize my selfishness.  He stood by in his pajamas and bedroom slippers seemingly prepared to work for as long as I would ask him to.  I told him my immediate concern had been to get it off the fence so we could keep our dawgs from getting out.  He  gave a gander to the fence, and it was obvious that more work than just cutting the tree would be required.  Without another word, he cranked his saw again, and cut up a small stack of firewood before leaving, even though I didn’t ask him to.

I think if I’d asked him to fix the fence, I honestly believe he would’ve done it.  But since I didn’t yet know him, I was worrying that more than firewood was piling up, and I sure didn’t want a huge pile of debt to accompany it.  So I thanked him, and walked with him back to the front gate.  We shook hands and made eye contact.  I thanked him again for the seventh or eighth time, and even offered to pay him.  But Eueal said it would be way too expensive if I had to pay him, so we’d just let it go.  As I started to thank him one more time, he interrupted:

“Any time Mr. Brown, any time,”  and walked on across the street never looking back.

After watching him walk silently back to his house, I went back to the pile of firewood, and thought about the fact that the tree wasn’t my property.  It didn’t belong to me.  So, I thought the only proper thing to do was to call the man behind me, and tell him about it.  He was not even aware that the tree had fallen, and came out to take a look.  He gave it a good hard stare, and said a few words of prayer over it.  I guess it was a prayer, as I do recollect he called on the Deity a couple of times.  Then, he told me:

“Tree was on my property, so I’m responsible for the damage.  I’ll call my agent and take care of this.”

And, he did.  The next day, he called to tell me a man would be out monday to fix my fence, and that he was sorry for any inconvenience we’d had because of it.  Some time later, I found out his agent said since the tree was already dead, it would not be covered by insurance.  My neighbor had paid to have my fence repaired out of his own pocket.  Being a generous man myself, I offered to share some of the firewood with him, but he said he had plenty on his side of the fence.

We spoke very little after that, as he pretty much kept to himself, so I seldom saw him.  Not too long after that, they moved away.  Though I don’t ever see him at all now, I’ll always remember that he never tried to shirk any responsibility for damages caused by his tree falling on my fence.  I hope I never have to follow his example, though it was a worthy one.  If one of my trees were to fall onto a neighbor’s property, I’m sure I’d deny ever having seen it before, and swear it must’ve snuck in during the night from somewhere up the road.

I did get to know, and became fast friends with the man who showed up in his pajamas with a chainsaw.  I’d mentioned earlier having met his wife to welcome them.  Back on that day, I’d taken a basket of fruit and a bottle of wine my wife had bought for them as a gift.  The lady across the street accepted it, and said “thank you” before disappearing into her house.  I did not see her again until I came over wanting to borrow a saw.  After a time when we’d gotten to know them better, she told us what Eueal had said when she’d told him about our little gesture with the basket:

“Well, looks like they might want to be neighbors.  We’ll just keep an eye on ’em, and see whether they do or not.”

We did, and they did, and I found out he was not a man to call up markers for favors done.  Turns out, he rather enjoyed helping people.  To have any kind of a friendship, folks have to make some investment in it.  But in this case, while they waited to see if we wanted to become “neighbors”, he went ahead and made the downpayment.