Category Archives: childhood

Grandpa’s straw hat . . .

I never remember my grandfather Rufus in public without a straw hat. As a bald man, it was an essential part of his wardrobe as he went out into the blistering, radiant sunshine of the deep south. For him, it was always an off-white straw hat. I never remember him in a dark hat. Then again, in the deep south, with the heat and sun bearing down most of the year, perhaps straw, as long as it was winter white, passed muster year round. Unlike my grandfather, for the last few years my fall and winter look includes felt fedoras.  The Midwest cold and wind require it.  Still, my summer haberdashery is missing my grandfather’s straw look. Straw was an essential addition this year.

I bought a straw hat on the island of Mykonos this summer. While the location of the purchase may be a bit exotic, to find the perfect straw fedora was a essential goal of summer. What can I say; I happened to be in the Greek isles and there it was.

Many times I imagined the hat. Something distinctive but not as stiff and formal as grandpa’s. I wanted a strong textured hat with a broad brim and a distinctive band. As I turned the corner on the very narrow stone paved street of Mykonos with its white-washed buildings with brightly colored trim and terra cotta roofs pressing on me, I was instantly smitten. There, on the street vendor’s rack, were two, one with a black band and one with a deep, inky blue band. They were strong, durable hats, yet still a bit floppy. The hat lady thought I wanted the black band (more conventional I suppose). “No,” I objected, “I want the inky blue one, it will always remind me of the Aegean.” I asked for her best price. She stumbled a bit and then gave me a few euros off. I was satisfied (I would have paid full price; this was THE hat). My new hat made me smile and remember fondly my grandfather, the man after whom I am named. It was a perfect!

While walking about Knossos on Crete the next day, I saw a silhouette on one of the ancient walls. To my surprise and joy, it was not my shadow; instead, I say the shadow of my grandfather, hat and all, looking back at me. Walking about the ruins of this Bronze Age civilization, imaging the peoples who walked those paths 3500 years ago, it was a joy to realize my grandfather was walking with me. If I had known it only took a hat, I would have bought one long ago. On the other hand, maybe it was not just any old hat. Maybe it was this hat waiting for me to find it on an island in the Aegean.

Back in the sunny Midwest, his shadow still walks with me.  Grandpa is 117 years old this year.  I am pleased to report his shadow still has a spring in its step.


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Filed under childhood, farm life, Grand parents, grandparents, Hats, Memories

The Good Lie

This past Monday, I had the privilege of viewing the first public screening of the forthcoming Warner Brothers’ movie “The Good Lie,”  a movie about the civil war in Sudan and the story of the “Lost Boys” (and girls) orphaned by that war.  I was the driver for a group of South Sudanese, many of whom are associated with this diaspora from Sudan.  By luck of association, AMC Theatres invited me to view the movie with them.  With six of my brothers and sisters in Christ from South Sudan, I watched an amazing and painful movie about their lives.  I cannot even begin to imagine how painful it must have been for them.

I know much of the history of the Sudanese Civil war of the 1983-2005.  I know the story of the “Lost Boys” (and girls).  I know many of these men and women here in Kansas City.  Yet sitting through a well made and relatively accurate depiction of the childhood experiences and hardships endured by these men and women to my left and right was difficult to bear.  Driven by faith and the need to keep their stories alive, my friends, as children, endured suffering the likes of which no child or adult should ever need endure.  Here I was, sitting with adults who were these children.  It was a painful memory dramatically resurrected on the big screen.  For me, I felt shame for the brokenness of humanity that perpetrates and allows such atrocities, especially when they involve children.  In the darkness, we experienced the paradox of two moments in history colliding.  Now living in the relative comfort of Kansas City, the South Sudanese adults were children back in the bush and they could do nothing to change their memories revived by the horrors filling the screen.  I was helpless to relieve the pain and sorrow of their past.  I could only sit and be with them.  In the darkness, we wept.

Never before have I experienced a movie in this way.  This story was and remains a testimony to both our capacity for malevolence and our capacity to offer hope and welcome to those who suffer.  I am appreciative to those who made a film to tell this story.  It was a privilege, albeit painfully so, to watch the film with my Sudanese brothers and sister who lived this story.

“The Good Lie” is a movie about children who were the victims of violence and abuse of the most extreme sort.  On foot, they traveled far seeking safety.  Some things never change.  Be looking for the general release in late September or early October.

The Good Lie trailer

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Viva la vélo

peugeotI do not recall my exact age, but I do remember the exhilaration of getting my first bicycle, even if fully equipped with two necessary “outrigger” training wheels.  Though a bit insulted by my father’s presumptive conclusion I needed these extra wheels, my first wobbly attempt down the sidewalk proved his foresight.  

The sidewalks in the housing area at Fort Ben Harrison outside Indianapolis seemed endless to me.  I realized quickly the training wheels were a drag on my speed and dramatically limited my range.  I longed to greater adventures than just wobbling down the sidewalk in front of our apartment.  It was not long before I convinced my father it was time for the outriggers to go.  I remember the moment clearly.  Dad removed the wheels and positioned the bike on a long, flat straight section of sidewalk.  I hopped on the bike and he assured me he would hold me steady as I peddled.  At first he trotted beside me, steadying me as I wobbled from side to side.  His encouraging words propped up my sagging confidence as I clearly could not stop the wobble.  He trotted along telling me I could do it.  I was not so sure.  I focused as hard as I could, looking straight ahead.  Something broke my trance, I looked to my side, and dad was not there.  I looked over my shoulder and realized he was about thirty feet behind me; I was riding without aid!  Of course, I promptly crashed—a heap of boy and bicycle in the grass.  Encouraged by the realization of my success, I popped up, raised the bike, stepped with confidence on the peddles, and off I went free to explore the “miles” of sidewalks all around me.

In a few years, I graduated to a larger, single-speed Huffy.  It was red and white with shiny chrome fenders and giant balloon tires.  It was an amazing set of wheels for a 7 year-old.   With this much larger bike, my range expanded tremendously, even beyond the boundaries established by mom and dad (which, of course, they never knew).  Not only did I become very familiar with all the neighborhoods around me, I even explored the military post where my father worked.  I loved to ride, the further the better. 

When it came time to move to France, the Huffy came too.  We lived in Chartrettes, a small village over-looking the Seine.  I learned a single-speed, heavy steel bike was no match for the hills around our house.  Nonetheless, I traveled the roads of our village and regularly visited my two Canadian friends who lived in small chateaus nearby.  They both had bikes with alien equipment, derailleurs.  Not sure what this strange set up was, I realized quickly I was working harder than them as we raced around the countryside surrounding Chartrettes.  

I saw my first bicycle road race on the country roads of Chartrettes.  I was amazed!  As the peloton zoomed by, I jumped on my Huffy and tore out after the race.  I learned two important lessons that day: 1) my Huffy was not a racing bike, and 2) jumping into a bicycle race, even at the end of the peloton, does not win friends among the French.

My eleventh birthday nearing, I approached my dad with issues I was having with my Huffy (it really was too small for me by this time) and the magical capacity of derailleurs.  I had done my research and when dad inquired what I thought the solution to be, I quickly replied, “What I really need is an 18-speed Peugeot road bike.”  I figured I would shoot for the moon since he was asking.  Even so, I was pretty sure the best I would get would be a three-speed Schwinn.  After some time passed (just to keep me wondering I suspect), Dad took me shopping for a bike.  I figured we were on our way to the Post Exchange to order a Schwinn.  Much to my surprise, we drove to the village and pulled up in front of a French bike shop.  There I was outfitted with a deep green, 18-speed Peugeot road bike! I was stunned!

We moved to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio from France.  Equipped with my amazing French road bike, my riding adventures took on an entirely new dimension.  Sometimes I would ride as far as I could in the morning and then turn around and find my way home by a different route.  In 1964 and ’65, in San Antonio, I knew the freedom of going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted to.  That dark green, 18-speed Peugeot road bike took me to every horizon.

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Filed under Army Brat, bicycle, childhood

Once when I was very young . . .

tree by stream 2

Once when I was very young, grandpa took me on an adventure . . .

Grandpa was a very big man.  He had strong hands with thick callouses.  He had a deep belly laugh and a broad smile that would lighten the darkness.  He had a bald-head that always seemed to shine.  He usually wore a straw hat to cover his head.

One day he took me on an adventure . . . 

Grandpa raised cows.  The big cows followed him wherever he went.  In the spring, when he had to tag the newborn calves, he would calm the frightened calves and play with them.  Once he asked me to catch a calf.  I ran and ran and ran.  I could never catch the calf.  Laughing to his toes, grandpa stepped forward.  In an instant, he caught the calf.

 In the evening, I would help grandpa feed the cows.  With a mischievous grin, he would fill a five-gallon bucket with grain and send me across the barnyard.  I think the bucket of grain weighted more than me.

One day he took me on an adventure . . . 

In late summer, grandpa let me help in the fields.   Sometimes I would ride the tractor as we cut the hay.   Sometimes I would ride the truck as we gathered the hay to the barn.  To this day, I like the smells of the tractor, the field, and the freshly cut hay.  I liked being so completely tired at the end of the day.

One day he took me on an adventure . . .  

Sometimes we would go fishing in the big pond.  Usually we did not catch any fish.  But we enjoyed sitting on the bank in the shade of the willow trees doing nothing together.  On really hot days, we would go into the woods behind the barn and swim in the cool water of the bubbling creek.  At the end of the day grandma would come to the back door of the house and shout grandpa’s name as loud as she could, “RUUUFFFUUUSSS!”  No matter where we were, we could hear her.  If we wanted a hot meal, we knew we better hurry to the house and get cleaned up 

One day he took me on an adventure . . . 

It began like this . . .

One night, just before bedtime, grandpa told me he had a special place to show me.  We left early, walking into the bright morning fog.  Except for the soft whoosh whoosh of our boots on the dew covered grass, quiet surrounded us.  Past the barns, through the field, to the edge of the woods, Grandpa said not a word; I did not know what to say.  We pushed through the bushes and briers.  We walked down a hill to the creek.  It was making bubbling and gurgling sounds as it flowed quickly over rocks and logs.  As we walked, bullfrogs jumped from the bank, turtles dropped from their log perches, and salamanders slithered through the wet leaves.

We walked deeper and deeper into the woods, deeper than I had ever been before.

We came to a wide part of the creek.  Grandpa said we would have to cross to the other side.  I wondered how.  As we turned a bend, I saw a huge fallen tree crossing the creek.  It had been there a long, long time.  Grandpa jumped onto the log and crossed quickly.  He turned and called for me to follow.

I was afraid.   Grandpa encouraged me.  Unsure, I climbed up on the log.  With all the courage I could muster, I stood and slowly inched across the log.  With relief, even a sense of pride, I jumped down on the other side. Grandpa had a twinkle in his eye.  He patted me on my back. 

We continued to walk deeper and deeper into the woods, following the creek.  As the rising morning sun shot beams of light through the canopy of leaves, the woods began to awaken.  Birds were flittering about in the branches.  Squirrels were scurrying from limb to limb in the treetops, barking as we walked past.  An occasional rabbit would dash out of the briers.  We even saw a raccoon by the clear creek, busy catching a breakfast of mussels and crawdads.

Finally, we came to our journey’s end.  Before me was the biggest oak tree I had ever seen.  Even its lowest branches were higher than the surrounding trees.  Gnarled root knuckles extended from its base in every direction.  Deep, velvety-green moss surrounded the tree making a soft carpet all around.   A large crystal-clear pool of water extended from the base of the tree.  I could see fish swimming everywhere.  On one side of the tree, bubbling up like a fountain, water was shooting from the ground filling the pool and sending a mist wherever the wind blew.  The creek was born here. 

Grandpa helped me up into the lap of one of the gnarly roots.  He set in one next to me.  In the dark cool shade of the giant oak tree, sitting in its lap, listening to the gurgling of the creek, watching fish, squirrels, and birds, grandpa and I set together for a long, long time.  The only words he spoke, “It was time I showed you my special place.”

 Grandpa died many years later.  We never went back to his special place. The woods and the farm have changed.  Once I tried to find the big oak tree and the birthing pool.  I could not.  I am not even sure they exist.   Nevertheless, in my mind, wherever I am, however I feel, if I close my eyes

I smell the moss

I feel the cool mist on my face

I hear the gurgling of the creek

I even see a salamander slithering across my hand

 as I sit, half-awake, half-asleep in the lap of the big oak tree.  I see grandpa’s smile and feel his calloused hands.  I understand now why he wanted to take me on an adventure that day when I was very young.

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Filed under childhood, children, episcopal, grandparents