Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts on Fuel and this blog

Soon after I began heating my shack with a small stove my view of wood, and in turn fuel, changed.   Experience alters how we think. 

We all know wood is fuel, contains BTU’s, and can get you through a cold winter day. But it rarely does.  We burn wood in campfires, bonfires, occasionally fireplaces.  We feel its heat from time to time but it’s a novelty, a show.  Wood serves us as building material, furniture, but rarely as a source of heat.

The fuel that sustains most of us through a Northern winter, keeps the pipes from freezing, allows our potted plants stay alive, heats the water, and cooks our food is invisible.  In my house its natural gas, piped in from who knows where, paid for monthly and automatically online.  It combines with oxygen very efficiently in a burner the size of a suitcase in the basement.  The exhaust escapes from a small plastic tube out my basement wall.  I do nothing but change the furnace filters.

Few people have big wood-burning furnaces in the basement, or wood burning stoves upstairs big enough to distribute heat throughout their homes.  For some its electricity, which might be sustainably generated by solar panels, a windmill, or something equally green but likely not.  Instead it too is likely produced by burning up some irreplaceable fossil fuel to make people warm and comfortable.  And we rarely think about it.  We just turn the thermostat up.

Like most things done small, burning wood in a tiny stove to heat a little building puts heat on an observable and easily grasped scale.  My Sardine stove, the smallest model made by Navigator Stove Works (NVA) on Orcas Island off the northwest corner of Washington State, is made mostly for sailboat cabins.  Turns out it works equally well in tiny houses.

The inside dimensions of the shack are 11’ x 11’.  I worried that if I installed a conventionally sized wood burner the heat would drive me out.  Plus I wanted to be efficient.  So I bought the small stove from NSV but only after a conversation with the owner Andrew Moore.  We talked on the phone.  As we chatted he looked up heating degree days in Ottawa, Illinois, ran some numbers, and figured if I built my shack with 2x6 studs packed with fiberglass insulation the Sardine would be big enough in the shack to keep me warm through most Illinois winters.  It’s dimensions are 12" x 12 "x 11".

He was right.  But it takes a while to get the shack warm when the temperature is below zero like it was this week.  Wednesday wasn’t easy.  Today’s not great.  I keep my coat on for a while.  Wear these gloves for starters when I write.

My right side gets warm first: cheek, shoulder, thigh.  The stove is on my right, up against the east wall which is a sliding patio door.  You don’t get instant heat, but when it warms up its damn cozy.

As for the efficiency of the stove, I offer this as an example.  Every other day I cut up a batch of split wood from the woodpile into stove-sized chunks and it lasts me a day and a half to two in the shack depending on the temperature.  In this cold weather I have been carrying a similar sized batch of logs into the house each night to burn in the fireplace.  We burn that same batch up in the house in three hours.  Stoves give you real heat.  Fireplaces let the heat go up the chimney.  If you’re serious about heating with wood buy a stove.

Here’s the thing with wood.  It takes work.  It has to be cut, split, stored, and dried.  It takes planning and preparation to put together a winter’s supply of wood.  It’s a year-round deal.  Even when its ready to burn you have to lug it to the stove and stoke it yourself.  And for this little stove, it has to be cut once again to stove sized chunks.  The top of the stove has only a 5-inch diameter opening.


Fortunately, I live on a double lot on the edge of a ravine and have a lot of trees.  So far, I’ve burned only wood that has been produced around me, mostly oak.  Oak is my main fuel, a hardwood providing most of the BTU’s.  It burns slow and long.  It’s great stuff.  But you can’t just throw a match into a stove full of oak and have a fire.

The fuel that starts the oak comes from everywhere it seems.  I kept all the scraps from building the shack in dog food bags.  Before I retired, when I moonlighted as a my own contractor, I shoved the bags under the building.  SPF (spruce, pine fir) 2x scraps, fir flooring, cedar siding, treated porch plank ends.  I kept it all.  It’s long gone, as is the dog,  but it was wonderful kindling.  All that finished dried lumber splits and burns great, especially the cedar.  It’s like butter.  I could go on.  Here’s the formula for a shack fire. 

Half a brown paper grocery bag, a handful of pine or some other quick starting, fast burning fuel,  a couple chunks of oak, followed when you hear it roar by more oak.  Replenish throughout a cold day.  You can start that all happening and light a stick of incense with one match.  I’ve heard it said that all men are pyromaniacs.  However I think people are, men and women both.

It strikes me there is something wonderfully human about starting and enjoying fire.  Because once you start it you can sit back and reap the benefit of what you’ve done.  It’s immediate success or failure.  And the saving grace is if it doesn’t start the first time you get endless chances.  There’s no judging when you’re alone in a shack.

This winter a new friend of the family gave me garbage bags full of pine cones.  Pine cones make lovely fire starters.  I keep an old grease bucket off the farm filled with them.  I fill the bottom of half a brown paper bag, stick it in the stove, pile kindling on the bag, and top it with an oak chunk.  After the paper lights the pine cones they blaze big and take everything else along with them.  You can hear the fire crackle.

In regard to fuel I have an embarrassment of riches.  A fishing buddy gives me the wood scraps of an annual project he does in his wife’s store.  My brother the woodworker, a.k.a. cabinetmaker, fulfiller of family project requests, gives me wood scraps from his shop.  All manner of wood: chunks, slices, grooved surfaces, mistakes, ugly pieces, of every species.  I’m having a hell of a time burning the walnut though.  There is something wrong with burning walnut.  I find myself setting it aside, protecting it from the stove.

“David that walnut’s too small to do anything with.  Trust me, if it was bigger I wouldn’t have tossed it in the scrap bucket.”

“I know Denny but its walnut.  It’s too pretty and fine. “

“Too pretty and fine for what?  You going to make a miniature dollhouse?  Burn it.  It’s good hardwood.  It will keep you warm.  What’s oak then?  Oak’s a great wood and your burn it all the time.  Burn the walnut.  It’s not so different.  That’s why I give it to you.”

If I had walnut trees growing all around me I might feel differently.  But I have oak trees.  I just planted one.  Two have come up volunteer, planted I’m pretty sure by forgetful squirrels.  As the big oaks age the young oaks grow. I have a good feeling about burning oak in this stove.  Like it’s meant to be.  Burning walnut?  It still feels like a sin.

A very nice woman gives me corn cobs she picks up in her field.  Corn cobs are perfect for extending a fire when you’re at the end of your time in the shack.  Rather than firing up more oak I throw on corn cobs for a short burst of intense heat.  Among the fuels I use in the shack, cobs have the most passion.  They heat up fast, give you everything, and then they’re done.  And sustainable?  The number of cobs burned for fuel in America is infinitesimal.  If you live anywhere in Illinois outside Chicago there are acres and acres of cobs all around you.  The farmers ignore them, discarding them back on the field to enrich the soil.  All that good fuel, just laying there.  With a pile of cobs as big as one crib’s worth, a mountain of cobs like those produced when we shelled out the my Dad’s corn crib each year as a kid, I could heat this shack for three years I think.  I’ll never get the chance to prove that.

And so I have a good feeling about this stove, the future of the shack, and the sustainability of this little local system.  Cut wood, burn it, write in the shack when its warm.  This deal could go on way longer than me.  For example, as I type these words there is a sizeable dead branch hanging outside the very window I see through when I look above my computer screen.

At one time I would have looked upon it sadly as the diminishment of a once thriving tree.  Now when I see it I think of where I will put the ladder and make the cut with the chainsaw so the branch falls at the edge of the ravine, ready to be cut into pieces and carried to the woodshed.  It’s a subtle change in thinking but important.  What once was a tree is now stored fuel, ready to heat me up next winter.  Life is a cycle.  Too bad humans don’t serve some similarly useful purpose, stacked up and waiting, ready to provide someone benefit after they die.

Thoughts About The Blog

To be honest I hesitate to write about Dave in the Shack.  The blog is nothing but a digital chimera that carries these words.  I suppose I could care less about the details and structure of the blog, but I can‘t imagine how.  My kids encouraged me to write it, not that it took much encouragement.  Aside from the name of the blog, and the picture of the shack, Dean and Maureen chose the colors, the font, and the template.  All I do is write my thoughts, copy and paste a Word file into the blog, insert a picture or two, and post it.  Then you read it.  Which is only right.  All that matters is the writing and reading, just as in music it is playing and hearing.  writing is a personal human interaction, and an important one at that.  The vehicle doesn’t matter.  Although digital beats paper all to hell I must admit.  I wouldn’t be mailing this to you at 49 cents a pop that’s for sure.

I know how many blogs I write and how many people open the link to it through a digital report I get each week from Blogspot.  This is my 32nd blog post of  2017, down from 44 posts each of the two previous years.  Readership varies widely.  I always make triple digits, besting 99 readers.  My highest read blog before a few weeks ago was “A Week Away” about fishing in Canada.  963 people opened that link to supposedly read that Ontario tale.  I have a sneaking suspicion from the comments that piece made it to younger readers, who share things on FaceBook more readily.

That was the most read blog post until I posted “Food and Shelter” the week before Thanksgiving.  Something amazing happened with that post.  It was shared on FaceBook 50 times or so and has so far been opened by 10,057 individuals.  That’s shocking.  That post about homeless people and homelessness is ten times more popular, if you gauge popularity by supposed reads, than anything else I’ve written in five years.  Heck let’s face it, anything I've written ever.  If only one day each of those readers would buy my book.  But I’m making progress.  I doubt more than ten people ever read any grant I ever put together for YSB.

If I knew what was so compelling about that homeless story I would write more like it, but I don’t.  Thank you however for reading it.  The next post, “Getting the Tree”,  had my second highest readership ever at 1,303, and now the blog is returning to normal.  I have a good feeling about you though, one of my loyal regular readers.  The relationship we have feels sustainable, not unlike wood.  But for those readers who sometimes still ask if it’s OK to share my writing, let me say once again loudly.


I’ve learned two things about writing.  Nobody likes your stuff more than you, and every writer wants more readers.  If you think your friends would enjoy one of these posts by all means share it.  More is better.  That is what the internet is for.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end.  I hope the new year finds you filled with hope.  The past 365 days were wonderful for me.  I hope both you and I have a similarly great 2018.  It’s the year I get published I think.  But then I said that last year. I hope everything you desire happens in 2018.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Ted's Last Christmas

If you've been reading Dave in the Shack for a while you've read this story before.  I haven't hauled it out in a couple years.  It's had several titles.  The story comes from the days I worked at a nursing home and a man I met there.  Every Christmas Eve I think of Ted. 

I hope you're with family or friends and have good memories of this evening too.  Enjoy.

I was the only male nurse’s aide in the place.  They assigned me most every day to the segregated men’s wing where I made men’s beds, helped them shower, took them to the basement dining hall, emptied their urinals and  bedpans, persuaded them to sign over their Social Security checks, brought snacks to their room, did all the things nurse’s aides do.  It was the 70’s.  I was back from a trip to South America and profoundly broke.  The nursing home job came available first.  I took it and learned a lot there.

One of the things I learned was the depth to which people can be alone.  One of the guys on my wing was Ted Becker.  Ted was a bachelor farmer whose parents were both dead.   When Ted was sixty, years after he had moved out of his parent’s farmhouse due to its poor condition and into a mobile home by the machine shed, he suffered a debilitating stroke in his tiny trailer living room.  At the time Ted was morbidly obese.

The story, as told by the other nurse’s aides (which well could have been rumor) was that the EMT’s had a difficult time getting him out of the trailer.  Ted couldn’t walk, they could barely pick him up, and the gurney, with Ted on it, wouldn’t fit through the door.  They used a power saw to enlarge the doorway.  Those are the kind of indignities I hope are never rumored about me.  When Ted left the hospital following his stroke he came to the nursing home, recovered somewhat, but never returned to normal life.  That was four years before I came to work there.

“Ted was morbidly obese?” I asked.

“That was before we put him on a diet” one of my co-workers said proudly.  “He was over almost five fifty when he came in.”

I looked at Ed down the hall, slumped and scrawny in his tall back chair.  He couldn’t have weighed more than 160 pounds soaking wet.  That would explain the huge folds of skin that draped from his body in the shower.  Though undoubtedly healthy it also struck me as cruel somehow.  The tall back wheel chairs had a tray fixed in front that kept the patients confined or safe depending on how you looked at it.  Ted couldn’t have gotten up by himself anyway, but the tall chair, in addition to trapping him, did help him sit straight.  Ted slumped to his right side.  I straightened him up several times each day.
Everything on his right side-face, hand, arm, leg, foot-were fairly useless.  The stroke had taken away his speech.  Occasionally he would grunt but not often.  He got a lot done with his left side though.  He could get his left foot just beyond the lower platform of his chair and propel himself slowly down the hall.  If he could get the left side of his chair to the rail that ran the length of the hall he could pull himself even faster.  Try as I might I could not picture Ted as a fat man.

“I guess that explains why he’s so hungry,” I said.

Ted was beyond hungry.  He was ravenous.  You had to have a strong stomach to watch Ted eat.  Think Labrador Retriever and a bowl of dog food. The guy was crazy to eat.  He absolutely coveted the snack cart I brought around mid afternoon.  You had to watch him like a hawk.  If you did you would see him inching towards it, pushing against the linoleum with that left foot, slowly, deceptively.  Ted, sly and furtive, snuck so slowly towards the snack car, agonizingly slow for him I’m sure, I could barely detect it.  Ted betrayed himself by looking at me intently and smiling, something he rarely if ever did.  If Ted succeeded in getting within reach of the cart with his left hand, it was a swift and all out attack.  Within seconds it was furiously rapid movement, left hand filled with food directly to a gaping mouth.       

It wasn’t only food.  Ted would stuff toilet paper in his mouth.  Try to eat Kleenex.  The guy would eat anything.   Before you know it his mouth would be absolutely stuffed with whatever was within his reach.  He was in constant danger of choking.  Unashamed, constant, ravenous gluttony defined Ted’s existence there.  Without speech, the means to express himself, or the ability to walk food became his currency, his goal, his life’s desire.

I soon realized that no one visited Ted.  The nurse’s aides from the area thought he might have had a sister that moved away, but no one knew anything about Ted’s family.  And Ted couldn’t tell us.  So he lived his days in the nursing home as a solitary soul.  The meaning of that didn’t fully sink in till Christmas. 

Except for the Alzheimer patients and those with severe dementia, nothing brightens the life of a nursing home resident like visitors, presents, or mail.  Christmas was a time when all those things increased.  Around the holidays residents went to their family’s homes, and if that was not possible the families visited, brought food and brightly wrapped presents, decorated their rooms, sat and talked, and brought the grand kids, most of whom looked bored and scared at the same time.  But Ted got none of that.

In addition to in person visits, the old people in the nursing home who were lucky got cards from family and friends, old neighbors, you name it.  I did mail call for my guys on the wing and I’d walk that sad hallway down and back each morning handing out envelopes, opening them for the guys if they could not.  Every day Ted looked hopefully from behind his tray.  The skin on Ted’s face sagged and made his eyes look bigger.  He had soulful blue eyes.  He looked up hopefully.  There was never mail for Ted.

“Not today Ted.”

The few days before Christmas were the heaviest card days.  I had a big basket of mail to pass out.  When I came to Ted’s room he was there, slumped over in his chair wearing a plaid flannel shirt with drool on it, khakis, and his black Chuck Taylor high tops.  The Chucks were good for Ted because he was incontinent at times, and when he had accidents we could easily wash the canvas shoes.   I had dressed him.  His eyes were glued to the mail as if it was a pan of brownies.

 “Ted you got a card.”

His eyes grew big.  I straightened him up.  He fumbled with the envelope with his one working hand and when he couldn’t open it I opened it for him.  It was a card from the nursing home administrator.  Everyone got the same cheap card.  She had her signature stamped inside.  But to add a personal touch she wrote “Ted” before the cheesy Christmas message. 

“Look Ted, she wrote your name.” 

Ted looked up at me and his eyes filled with tears.  He cried openly.  Stroke victims will do that.  Ted had gotten a Christmas card and he was crying for joy that someone remembered him.  It was from a nursing home administrator who rarely left her office and didn’t know Ted from a bale of hay.  But it was everything to Ted.  I think that was the moment I knew I had to get out of that job.  It was just too sad.

Thankfully on Christmas Eve I didn’t have to work.  I had bought a few presents and got ready to drive to my parent’s farm house in Danvers.  My parents were both alive then and I was looking forward to seeing my brothers and sisters and the nieces and nephews.  Christmas on the farm is a whole other story but I love Christmas more than any other holiday.  Before I left town I got gas on the South side near the nursing home.  It was before you could pay at the pump so I went inside to pay with cash.  There was a candy counter there.  As I was paying I looked down through the glass top at the candy bars and as the kid was handing me my change said

“Give me a couple of those Snickers too, would you please?”

It was dark when I parked on the street by the nursing home and walked across the yard to the side door.  I made my way up the back stairs to my guys’ wing. It was that quiet time after dinner but before lights out.  I went down the hall to Ted’s room.  He was slumped in his chair, sleeping.  Ted didn’t have a TV like most of the guys.  He didn’t have anything really but clothes.  His one and only Christmas card was thumb tacked to his otherwise empty bulletin board. 

I turned on Ted’s bed lamp rather than the overhead light.  The rooms then were bright and stark; florescent overhead lights, white walls, shiny linoleum floor, hand cranked metal bed, metal nightstand, and a Formica tray on a stand that rolled over the bed.  To make things worse it was too hot in those rooms, radiators cooking, air not moving, and always the smell of urine.  Christmas Eve in the nursing home.  May we all be spared such a fate. 

“Wake up Ted I’ve got something for you.”

I gave him a minute to open his eyes and get used to me being there before straightening him up in his chair.

“Ted I’ve got something for you but have to cooperate.  It’s not on your diet and I don’t want you telling a bunch of people I’m giving you this.  But you strike me as a guy who can keep his mouth shut.  Can you do that?”

Ted may have gotten the joke but could smile only crookedly so I couldn’t tell.  I had his attention however.   When I took the Snickers out of my coat pocket his eyes lit up.

“OK Ted, I want you to eat this slow so you don’t choke, you understand?”

When he realized what was about to happen he literally began to drool.  I got some Kleenex out of his night stand and wiped his chin.  With my Swiss Army knife I cut a small piece of the Snickers and put it on his tray.  His left hand flashed out and the chunk of candy bar was in his mouth almost before I knew what happened.  He stared at me as if I was going to dig it out of his mouth as I had done so often with other things before.

“Ted I want you to chew that slow and swallow it before I give you more.”  He did.

I cut off another piece.  We repeated that five times with the first candy bar. 

“You feel OK Ted?”

Ted nodded enthusiastically.

“You don’t feel sick do you?”

Ted shook his head vigorously in the negative.  I wiped his chin with the Kleenex again.

I took out the second candy bar.  We did it again.  I can’t say he slowed down much, but I think he began to savor the bites a little more.  That could have been my imagination.  I wiped his chin once more. 

“This is the last piece Ted and then I have to go.”

I laid the remaining piece of Snickers on his tray. He didn’t take it.

“What the hell Ted, aren’t you going to eat that?”

He just stared at me.

 “Ted it’s yours.  Eat it.  I brought it for you for Christ’s sake.” 

He didn’t move.  His left hand hung down by his side.  Then he brought his hand up, pointed his finger at the piece of Snickers, and pointed to me.  I couldn’t figure out what he was doing.  He kept pointing at the candy and then pointing at me.  Then I realized he wanted me to have the last piece.  The guy who would eat the envelope his only Christmas card came in was sharing his candy bar with me.  I was dumbfounded. 

I ate it.  Just Ted and I in a barren nursing home room with a single dim light.  He looked at me closely as I chewed the Snickers, his eyes bright.  I looked back at him.   

I think people that don’t or can’t talk; babies, those who don’t know your language, stroke victims, all those lacking words, try to express themselves with their eyes.  And sometimes if you pay close attention they succeed.  Or is that just us giving words to their expressions?  We don’t know.  I thought that night Ted talked to me.  I think he said thanks.  I think he wished me a Merry Christmas too.  You could see it in his eyes, his poor old big blue eyes.

“Merry Christmas to you too Ted.

I thought he smiled.

 And thank you.”

That was my only Christmas in the nursing home.  I left in the spring.  Ted died later that fall.   Choked on not one but many stolen ham sandwiches.  I suspect someone didn’t watch the snack cart closely enough.  I never forgot Ted, or the kindness in his eyes that Christmas Eve.  If we let it, Christmas brings out the best in all of us.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Santa is Such a Ham

I ran into Santa one Sunday afternoon at church.  He was in the choir room waiting to make an entrance at the community Christmas Song Sing Along.  His instructions were to pop up on the altar when the crowd was singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”  Such a ham he is, Santa.  I know him.  He was itching to put on a big show.  Hit ‘em with the big smile and the booming Ho Ho Hos.

“Hi Santa. Long time no see.”

“Dave right?  Yeah it’s been a while.  I think I saw you last at the YMCA.  Boy that was a night.  Big line of kids there.”

“You look good Santa.  Little thinner maybe.”

“Yeah.  The mortals, they’re telling me losing the extra pounds will be better on my joints.  I just humor them.  I mean, I’m just a little shy of 1800 years old.  The knees have made it so far.  But it’s a little easier in the chimneys I have to admit.”

“How’s this year looking Santa?”

“Not bad.  I’m having a little difficulty with global warming.  I put retractable wheels on my sleigh, hidden behind the runners.  Lots less snow to land on.  You’d be surprised, even up North.  But really except for that, the routes don’t change all that much year to year.”

“Don't politics ever get in your way Santa?  Seems like here in the U.S. politics has made its way into everything we do.  Screws up the holiday meals, people arguing at the table, dreading to see each other because of how they know they vote.”

“No it doesn’t.  Know why?  Cause I concentrate on the kids.  Kids don’t judge you for what you think, what policies you support, what you believe.  They react to your smile.  They respond to kindness.  They pay attention to what you do and how you do it.  I do the same pretty much with adults.  It gets harder I admit.  But I’ve learned to get along with everybody.” 

Santa went on.  Get him talking sometimes and he’s hard to shut up.

“This is your church isn’t it Dave?"

“Yes it is.”

“How’s it doing?  Seems to me there’s been some changes around here.”

“How do you know that Santa?”

“Come on Dave.  Do you think I just keep track of naughty and nice?  Brothers being mean to sisters?  Not going to bed on time?  Sassing Mom and Dad?  I know stuff.  It’s my job.  You changed the name of the church, have new people attending, moved things around, offered new programs.  How are those changes working out?”

“They’re real satisfying.  We made a conscious decision to stop simply serving each other, I mean ourselves as members, and to turn our attention to the community.  Give them something they need.  We sponsor a weekly group for gay kids and their friends, or kids that aren’t sure where they fit in gender wise.  It’s been a big success.  Kids from all over the area come, sometimes upwards of twenty. 

Next we’re going to host a support group for parents of gay kids who need to know more, accept more, learn from each other, and develop understanding.  Probably monthly.  Turns out it’s an area where church can really help.”

“Sounds like you’ve put out the welcome mat.”

“Good way to put it Santa.  Extravagant welcome.  Extravagant acceptance.  Everybody’s welcome.  We even have open communion.  No strings participation.”

“Open table right?  Your new name?”


“Still doing that free lunch every second Sunday?”

“Yep.  Still doing it.  That’s what got us started stepping outside ourselves.”

“Good name then, Open Table.  Sums up what you’re doing pretty well.”

Santa checked out his beard in the mirror on the door where the pastor used to keep her robes.  Santa is pretty picky about his beard.

“So Santa the times don’t bother you?  You’re not worried about the future?”

“Not exactly.  I have a lot of times to compare these to.  It’s easy to forget how much the past sucked.”

“What were your favorite times?”

“I really liked the 1960’s.  It was crazy, which I’m sort of drawn to.  But besides that there was that open yearning for peace and love.  People said it.  Hippies lived it.  There was a belief it was possible.  It’s still alive now of course, in places like your church here, but the cynics and the pessimists drown it out.  Open belief in the possibility of peace and love is hard to come by.  But it never goes away.  That’s why I’m here actually.  I want to spread that joy.”

He looked through the doorway up into the sanctuary at the big stained glass triptych facing the park and got a kind of faraway look in his eye.

“By the way I really liked the 1560’s too.  Michelangelo was still working, Shakespeare was just born.  Europe was coming out of the dark ages.  Music, art, discovery and a belief in the goodness and beauty of mankind was flourishing.  God, it was a great time, the Renaissance.  If you weren’t a slave or a serf that is.  But really, you should have been there Dave.”

“Hey, one more thing about the church.  Did you land on the roof?  See anything new?”

“No.  Hell no.   No roof landings this trip.  Driving an open sleigh powered by reindeer around the world in one long 24 hour night is plenty for me.  For the pre-Christmas promotions I drive.  Take off the red velvet and blend in on the highways.  I love it.  Nothing like a good road trip.  In North America I keep a old used Buick available.  One of those big ones that still has that 3.8 liter 6 cylinder engine.  Best ride on the road.”

“Well, if you landed on the roof you would have seen we have all new shingles.  We had just enough tornado damage in February for the insurance company to replace all our roofs.”

“Yeah,  I knew about that Dave.  I’d say you were pretty lucky.  In fact, I may have had a hand in that.  I’ll have to check my notes.”

“Had a hand in it?”

“Well, there’s lots of ways give out gifts.  Know what I mean?”

Santa winked.

“Oops.  There’s my song.”

The piano was just starting the chords to “Santa Claus is coming to Town” when Santa stuck out his hand.  He had a firm handshake.  There’s something about being close to Santa that’s special. 

“Merry Christmas Dave.  Hope I see you again next year.  Maybe one of these days we can have a drink together.  You're a bourbon guy right?"
"Me too.  Well, gotta fly."

And then he was gone.  I watched him as he stood dead center at the front of the church.  Gave ‘em the big smile, spread his arms out like he was going to hug them, gave off with the big ho ho hos.  Thing is, it all seems so genuine.  It’s not an act for Santa.  That’s what makes him special.
He walked down among the pews, passing out candy canes, joking with the old ladies, patting the little kids on the head, working the crowd.  I hope I do see Santa again next year.  I’ll miss him when I’m gone.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Getting the Tree

I’ve been stopping at a Christmas Tree place across from an old style gas station, where they still work on cars and sell you tires, kitty corner from a big Catholic Church, for thirteen years at least.  We quit cutting our own trees when the kids were out of the house.

Twenty years ago maybe we added a room with a high ceiling onto the house and began buying tall trees. Frazier Firs come tall, so it was usually one of those.

The guy on the lot selling trees all these years was the same guy.  Sometime soon after Thanksgiving, I would stop and there he was.  Although we talked but once a year, we were always glad to see each other.  At least I was glad to see him.  I’m pretty sure it was reciprocal.  We talked about our families, sort of recapped our years.  One year he had his grandson working with him.  Quietly he told me

“He’s going through a rough patch.  I’m trying to help him out some.”

After that I always inquired about that grandson’s well being.  In turn he was amazed to  learn that my kids spent time out of the country.  He  always asked where they were and how they were doing.  Come to think of it we rarely talked about ourselves.    

I never knew his name, but for the longest time he would see me walking towards the little shack on skids that served as his office, and before I could say hello, I would hear his voice boom out

“Mr. McClure!”

Maybe he remembered my name from the checks.

One year as he and I struggled to get a big tree on the roof of one of the old Buicks he came up with an idea.

“Why don’t you let me just throw this big bastard in the pickup and bring it to your house?”

“That would be good.  I didn’t know you delivered.”

“I don’t.  But it would be a lot easier.  I mean after all, you’ve bought a lot of trees from me.”

“Come to think of it, I have.  I think I’ll take you up on that deal.”

We shook on it and smiled.

That had been our deal for a long time.  I also bought pine boughs from him and made a wreath for the front of the garage.  I’m not sure he charged me.  He’d just give me a price for everything.  One nice transaction as the holidays approached.  One small ritual to which I’d grown accustomed.

I pulled up yesterday and there appeared to be no one there.  I walked cautiously to the little shack, poked my head in, and encountered a young man texting intently on his smart phone.  I cleared my throat.  He looked up.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah.  I need one of your tall Frazier Firs.”

“Those are tall ones up front.  We got a few laying down up there too.”

He put his phone down, pulled on his jacket, and walked with me to see them.

I never know how to describe old people anymore, especially to people younger than me.  I’m on my way to 67 and still don't identify as old.  Nothing else but to say it I guess.

“I expected to see the old guy.  He’s been here every year.”

It has to be very ironic to hear the words “old guy” come from a person with a white beard and obvious age.  The young man looked at me seriously and said

“He’s no longer with us.”

“Not selling trees?”

“No.  Passed away.”

“Is that right?”

It didn’t seem right to me at all.  Twelve months ago he was an energetic healthy man not much older than me.  Big smile, fat cheeks, bright eyes. 

“What did he die of?”

“I really can’t say.  I just know he’s gone.”

We walked to where the big trees were.  They were not exactly what I wanted, either real tall or too short.  I bought a tall one figuring I could shorten it up with the chain saw.

“Do you have a truck?”

“No.  I was hoping you’d deliver it to my house.”

“We don’t deliver.”

“I know.  The old guy always delivered it though.  Is there any way you could do that?  I’d pay extra if you want.”

“Well I don’t have a truck, but his son Ronnie does.  He’s going to be here this weekend.  Yeah, I guess we could.”

He wrote down my name, address, and phone number.  I was starting over with a new tree guy who knew me not at all.

I have a steel ring up in the garage attic I get down and tie  pine boughs to with wire.  To that I  fasten lights and a bow, get on the extension ladder,hang it under the peak of my garage roof facing the street, run an extension cord to it and light it up.  It's nice looking at night.  I’d get the kids in on the project.  I missed a couple years when they couldn’t get home before the holidays.  I’m not sure the kids care much but my elderly neighbor across the street is always disappointed when she sees its missing. 

I noticed they were selling wreaths.

“Give me that big wreath with the red bow too.”

As I age I spend more and more on convenience.

Everything changes all the time.  I’ve always known that and embraced it.  I thrive on change in a way.  At work I always looked for change and tried to stay ahead of it, urging my staff to accept it as opportunity and growth.  I pride myself on adapting to what life offers. 

But pride, which some call a deadly sin, can come back to haunt you.  Of all the agents of change, the biggest and most profound is death.  Death is the ultimate change.  Intellectually I know that people die every day and more are born to replace them.  The planet swells with people.  The community changes.  Our friendships and acquaintances change.  Life goes on.

But the impact of death to those close to me and even those not so close continues to surprise me.  Small and large doses of grief visit me and stay.  I’m doing my best to get used to it, but I have to report its not going well.  Death may be part of a cycle of change that is inevitable, but it doesn’t feel that way.  It feels like loss.  Straight loss.  Some are comforted with the belief that people don't die but simply change form.  That doesn't help me.

Next year at the tree place will be better.  I’ll know what to expect.  But I hope I never stop missing my friend, even though I don’t know his name.  He meant something to me, and I didn’t realize how much till he wasn’t there.