Thanksgiving 2020: acorns, squirrels, and “if”

The Secretary of Agriculture for the squirrel population of America is elated. 

While the final tally hasn’t been released, the Department of Agriculture believes the fall of 2020 will record the greatest harvest of acorns since 1620.

I can assure you this isn’t a fake news headline. 

Our next door neighbor’s white oak tree was responsible for dropping 17,577,999 acorns on our lawns, driveway, and road surface. For weeks, those acorns pinged off of any hard surface they hit. 

At a press conference held at the corner of Foxcroft and Sweetbriar, Deputy Secretary of Squirrel Agriculture, Sebastian Squirrel, recommended that all humans who walk under an acorn loaded oak tree should wear a hard hat to reduce the risk of brain damage.

When a reporter asked the Deputy Secretary if squirrels should wear hard hats while harvesting and chowing down on acorns his answer was a surprising, “ No.”

A reporter asked a follow-up question, and the Deputy Secretary clarified his “no” with a scientific response: “From eating acorns, squirrel noggins have an extra shell of protection. This shell allows even the largest acorn to ping harmlessly off the skull of the squirrel.”

This prompted another question from a reporter who wondered if squirrels who were constantly hit in the head by wayward acorns might suffer like some professional football players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The Deputy Secretary affirmed that squirrel skulls are tough. But he did confirm their research found that squirrel skulls can’t withstand the weight of a road paver when a squirrel carelessly darts into the machine’s  path.

To which the reporter replied, “Wow, that’s a no brainer.”

And then a few days later, a more urgent health message was delivered to squirrels across America. 

This came from the Surgeon General of Squirrels who issued  a health warning about the abundance of acorns. 

The Surgeon General set recommended daily acorn consumption levels. Squirrels who over indulge in acorn consumption are more likely to flop when diving from tree limb to tree limb. This could be particularly dangerous to their health if this tree hopping takes place over roadways.

This warning from the Surgeon General was a disappointment to homeowners across America. Come this spring, they can expect to have a bumper crop of young oak trees sprouting up in their yards. 

That’s enough about acorns and squirrels.

Let’s focus on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. 

And without question my answer is grounded in food. 

That Thanksgiving spread has never disappointed me.

But, in truth there is another critical ingredient for Thanksgiving to be a real success—and that is family.

This year, thanks to that demon, COVID-19, travel and family gatherings are not recommended for Thanksgiving.

And as long as I live, I will always wonder “if” we could have pulled this Thanksgiving off. 

What might have happened earlier in this battle “if” we had completely committed to follow COVID-19 protocols?

“If” is a big word.

I wonder in the collective consciousness of our hindsight will we regret—would have, could have, and should have.

Hindsight can be an effective teacher. But, it is effective only “if” we are willing to learn.

I hope I am willing to be a continuing learner.

I was in a Zoom call the other day with church people from Methodist churches around the Richmond district. We’ve been meeting regularly to figure out how to help people during this pandemic.

As the meeting started, we were asked how we were feeling about the holiday season with COVID-19?

In truth, my response was grounded in thankfulness.

 No matter where I look, I note people who have been impacted by the cruel nature of COVID-19. At this stage, my family and I have been lucky. 

Is that because we have followed the recommended protocols or have we just been lucky so far?

Maybe the answer is a bit of both.

Yes, I am tired of covidography.

But, I am even more tired of our divided, selfish, inability to follow a few simple protective measures. 

Maybe Americans who have been unwilling to follow these measures should have a conversation with a family member from one of the 250,000 people in America who have died from COVID-19.

And then, compare those losses to another sad figure—58,209 United States military personnel were killed in the Vietnam War.

Ponder that for a minute or two.

Then maybe they should extend that conversation to first responders, hospital personnel, people who are responsible for setting up temporary morgues, people working around the clock to keep us supplied, and those who are developing a reliable and safe vaccine.

I am an imperfect human being. My wife has years of research to certify this fact. 

But, when our individual imperfections prevent us from helping to squeeze the life out of COVID-19 that is not good for any of us.

Perhaps, you have seen the movie Get Low. Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray are in the film. 

The lead character, a hermit, a loner, Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall decides he wants to have his funeral before he dies. Somehow he convinces the owner of the local funeral home, Bill Murray, to do this.

The screenplay written by Chris Provenzano, Scott Seeke, and C. Gaby Mitchell has some interesting moments.

One of those moments is at the pre-death funeral when Charlie, the African American minister, played by Bill Cobbs is speaking. We learn that years ago Preacher Charlie befriended Mr. Bush.

In his remarks, Preacher Charlie states:  “We like to imagine that good and bad, right and wrong are miles apart. But, the truth is, very often, they’re all tangled up with each other.”

Right now, we Americans are all tangled up with each other.

Our entanglement with good and bad, and right and wrong isn’t a healthy one. 

Somehow, someway, we must figure out how to untangle ourselves.

We can’t continue this way, and our hearts know it.

This Thanksgiving, I am sure squirrels are thankful about the bumper crop of acorns.

But, what about me this Thanksgiving?

Am I thankful?

Yes, I am thankful.

Here are some of my affirmations of heartfelt gratitude.

I’m thankful for people who volunteered to participate in vaccine trials.

And speaking of volunteers, I’m thankful for volunteers at food banks and for the people who donate food items every week.

For my parents and in-laws who taught me the value of traditions like Thanksgiving.

For grandparents in this pandemic who have suddenly become classroom teachers in the homes of their grandchildren while their parents work.

I’m thankful for my family and friends who tolerate me.

I’m appreciative of farmers and truck drivers. 

For all of the people who work behind the scenes of everyday life to keep us going. 

I’m thankful for practical thinkers who are trying to solve our challenges.

I appreciate this new breed of human sanitizers who attack grocery carts, card machines, and all things related to checking out.

I am grateful for the never ending energy of grandchildren.

And if he’s listening out there in the blue yonder—I’m thankful for the patience of God.

For some unexplained reason, he has kept us around.

Never let this Thanksgiving of 2020 escape your memory. 

Be safe, love, Bill Pike

Some of the bumper crop of acorns in our yard by Bill Pike

Survey Crew Ahead: Anyone Seen Noah?

We were on I-64 heading east.

 For miles we kept seeing these orange signs—Survey Crew Ahead. 

And for miles, we saw no surveying crew, and with good reason—it was pouring rain. Coming down in buckets, make that barrels, no make that water towers. 

To put it simply, Thursday, November 12 would have been a good day for Noah. His ark could have floated all the way to Duck on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Courtesy of our children that was our destination. 

They had planned a celebration to honor their mother, my Commander Supreme. My young bride was turning 65, and at the end of this month would be wedding anniversary 45.

Yes, time flies. It flies even when you are sitting still. Time is motion, a restless tick-tock, like the unsettled ocean always moving.

Having learned lessons in logistics from their mother, as we were paddling toward Duck, so were our children and grandchildren. 

They had planned this gathering, this getaway. Covidography be damned. We would make it to Duck come hell or high water, and right now rain water was winning the trek.

We twisted our way through construction zones, with retaining ponds full to the brim. Before and after the tunnel, the deep gray of the day kept us from seeing any of the Navy’s gray hulled ships anchored in solitude across the water.

As we surfed our way into the flatlands of North Carolina’s coastal plain the intensity of the rain picked up. The clouds became darker. Drainage ditches, parking lots, and driveways to homes were covered in water. The ground was saturated. This rich dark coastal loam could hold no more.

Near Jarvisburg, we stopped at the Weeping Radish, North Carolina’s first craft brewer. The building looked dark and deserted. 

But, the daughter of the founder must have felt sorry for a rain soaked traveler. She unlocked the front door. We had a good conversation about the challenges breweries are facing from covidography. 

I made a couple of purchases, thanked her for her hospitality, and took a shower getting back into the car.

We found our way back on to 168 and continued the drive toward the Wright Memorial Bridge. 

My grip on the steering wheel tightened  when we reached the bridge that crosses the Currituck Sound. Even in the dull light of cloud cover, the weather gods conspired to make for poor visibility. We slowed down.

Once we reached land again, we headed to the Aycock Brown Welcome Center. We parked, and waited for good news from our son’s wife, Kathryn. She had been negotiating an earlier entry time with the rental agency at the beach house.

I took another shower getting to the visitors’ center restroom. We sat in the car and watched as wind gusts rippled blasts of rain across the parking lot’s surface.  I reclined my seat and dozed off for a few minutes.

Rain drenched parking lot Aycock Brown Welcome Center by Bill Pike

At some point, a text was received. A new entry code had been issued. We departed the lot, crossed back over 158, and drove toward highway 12 that narrow ribbon of shoreline road. 

Along the way, we hit some large rainwater puddles that flew into air off the passenger side of the car. Soon, our turn on to Tide came up, and we pulled into the driveway of the ocean front house.

We figured out the code entry, unloaded the car, and explored the house. It wasn’t too long before the quietness was gone. 

The cars loaded with road weary grandchildren and their parents arrived. We unloaded what seemed like truck loads of kids junk needed to survive a three night stay.

Thank the good Lord, they all made it. And it didn’t take long for the playful energy of the children to take over.

Pizza had been ordered from Pizzazz Pizza.

Our children had surprised their mother with a video presentation of friends who had secretly sent video selfies to our youngest daughter, Elizabeth. She in turn compiled them into seamless heartfelt birthday wishes that were priceless.

The weather gods gave us a break on Friday. Clouds of gray still hovered around, but the rain had moved out. That meant we could move out too.

Gray Friday morning with an opening of light on the horizon Bill Pike

I prepped fishing rods, and then headed to Bob’s Bait and Tackle in Duck. 

In the shop, I found what I was looking for and bought some frozen cut bait. In my chatting with a couple of employees, I surprisingly learned that the store, despite COVID-19, had enjoyed their best year of sales since opening in 1982.

Back at the house, treks down to the beach had occurred. The grands submitted their observations about the sand, the waves, shorebirds, and shells.

I made my final preps for hitting the beach to fish. With my waders, wading boots, and all the other junk I gave the appearance of a fisherman. 

A fisherman who hoped to catch more fish than had ever been caught in Duck. But, the fish could see right through that facade. 

During my two day attempt, I saw one fish jump in the roiling surf. No matter what I tried, not even a nibble. Final score— Fish 1 Frustrated Fisherman 0.

Saturday was a charmer. Blue sky, lots of sun, but with a steady stiff breeze by the ocean. 

Sun rising on Saturday morning Bill Pike

That morning at 10, we were to experience the pursuit of perfection—the family picture. 

Our son-in-law, Doug, could probably be a professional photographer. Somehow, he survives the staging, the changing of lineups, and the coaxing of smiles.

After lunch, a group of us walked into Duck to explore a bit. 

Duck was at one time an annual trip for us every Thanksgiving. When my father-in-law passed, for whatever reason those trips stopped.

With our masks, we moseyed in and out of shops, and some purchases were made. I marveled at the new Wee Winks a longstanding convenience store in Duck.

As we started the walk back to the house, we made a detour. 

We stopped in an open green space called the Tap Shack. Someone had figured out how to use this open area behind shops and restaurants as a watering hole. 

The walk back to the house was quicker. As the sun started its slow descent into the Currituck Sound, the temperature dropped a bit.

We made it to the house. And once again, our children had some surprises. Photo prints of a once young couple outlined the fireplace, and a slide show of fun photos from the past were being shown.

And before we knew it, Sunday morning was upon us. We had to be out by the unheard of time— 9:00.

Of course, there was a flurry of activity in and out of the house. Somehow, we were packed and pulling out of the driveway a few minutes after 9.

Andrew and his family headed back to Richmond. 

Lauren’s family, Elizabeth, the Commander Supreme, and a scorned fisherman were going to make a stop at Jockey’s Ridge—mother nature’s sand pile.

Somehow, those mountains of sand survived our intrusion. I marveled at the ripples carved out in the sand’s surface by the wind. I would not want to be on these dunes when the wind is howling.

Sand ripples Jockey’s Ridge Bill Pike

Back in the parking lot, we said our goodbyes. 

As we worked our way out on to 158, the Commander Supreme made a request—let’s get off the highway and take the shore road up to highway 12. So, we did. 

We saw hotels and motels, shops and restaurants, new and old cottages, some pristine, some battered by all kinds of weather. 

In some spots, we noted the encroachment of sand dunes right to the edge of the road. And, we caught glimpses of sun diamonds sparkling on the ocean’s surface.

The ride back to Richmond was dry. This day would not have worked for Noah and his ark. 

But, it was a windy day. A day when untethered gusts of wind shook the car and blew swirls of leaves into the windshield. I imagine that Wilbur and Orville would have been intrigued by the wind.

The same Survey Crew Ahead signs appeared as we barreled west on I-64. Maybe they’ll be surveying on Monday, or maybe someone forget to take the signs down.

But, in truth those signs made me think—deep inside of our souls, we all want to know what lies ahead.

I wonder if Noah thought about that—what lies ahead.

At this very moment, probably more than in any other time in the history of America, we want to know what lies ahead.

Can we sacrifice and push back COVID-19? 

Will the coming vaccines work? Will people take the vaccine? 

Can America rediscover the consistency of unity instead of more spiteful division? 

I don’t know.

But, I am intrigued about what drove Noah to act. His faith must have been unwavering.

Maybe that’s what we need is a dose of faith. 

Faith that we can right our hearts—our souls.

Isaiah 58:11 states:  “The Lord will guide you always.” 

I think my heart, my soul, my faith needs some guidance. 

How about you?

Early morning sun over the Atlantic Ocean with shorebirds Duck, North Carolina Bill Pike

disruption

At the corner of Allen and Broad in the city of Richmond, I see what I think are disrupted lives. When I make the left turn on to Allen, the sidewalk along the old Sears building and across the street along the sidewalk behind the BP gas station are men.  

These men appear to be homeless or at the very least unemployed, or maybe both. Rarely on my trips to Lowes have I seen those sidewalks deserted. If they are abandoned, I still see the presence of the men. Empty bottles, food containers, scraps of clothing, plastic bags, and maybe a lost shopping cart.

When I see these men, I wonder what went wrong? How did they end up in this situation? What are their stories? Have they attempted to pull themselves out of this environment?

But, never in any of my trips to Lowes have I ever stopped to offer one or the whole group any assistance. 

Why is that?

Well, I have lots of excuses. 

For starters—fear, safety, and I’m not streetwise. 

In reality, all it would take is one wrong decision on my part, and I could be in the same set of circumstances as these men. That’s how quick life can change.

Word had trickled back to me about a battered pickup truck that was parking overnight in our church parking lot. I too had noted the truck. I was trying to figure out when the truck departed each day.

Finally, on a foggy October morning, I saw a person emerge from the truck.  Quickly, the person entered the driver’s side and started the engine.

I parked my car near the truck. I unsnapped my seatbelt, opened the door,  and walked toward the pickup.

I got the driver’s attention, and with some nervousness and hesitation the driver’s side window came down. To my surprise, the driver was a woman. 

Initially, I don’t think she wanted to talk with me. But, as calmly as I could I explained who I was and my reason for approaching her.

My explanation was grounded in safety.

I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I needed to let her know that the consistency of her parking here had caught our eyes. In this day and time, we have a responsibility to understand the need for showing up in this lot.

With a dose of courage, this lady explained to me that she was homeless, and basically unemployed. The parking lot had on some nights become her temporary home. She noted without explanation that her sleeping had improved in this corner of the lot.

We talked for a few more minutes. She explained a bit about her dilemma. I listened. I gave her my card with all of my church contact information. I told her it was fine for her to park here until a different arrangement could be made.

I probed a bit about trying to find her some shelter, I referenced a couple of Richmond nonprofits who work with the homeless, and she expressed some interest. 

And, I inquired about her job searching and her skills. I asked if she had access to a computer, and she acknowledged she did. I learned that she has a resume, and she promised to send it to me.

Finally, she told me her name, and thanked me for taking the time to talk with her. Then, she drove off.

Several days passed. 

I wondered if my conversation with the driver had scared her off. No resume appeared in my e-mail, and the truck had not been seen in the parking lot. But over the weekend, an e-mail was received with the promised resume attached. 

This lady had two college degrees and lots of employment experiences in her field of expertise. I wondered what went wrong.

I responded to the e-mail. I noted a couple of employment opportunities that had surfaced from staff members. And I had plans to speak with a friend who serves on the board of a local agency who works with the homeless.

More days passed, and then out of the blue I took a phone call. It was the owner of the tired pickup truck. She wondered if I might be willing to meet with her. She wanted to provide clarity about her resume and her employment experiences.

I responded with a yes. We set up a time to meet at the church.

One thing, I have noted in my brief interactions with Martha ( that’s the name I’ve given her) is how quickly challenges related to being homeless and unemployed can escalate. If one fracture in the foundation of your life occurs, then all of your life can come tumbling down on you.

In truth, on the morning when I first questioned Martha,  she disrupted my life. I had come by Trinity early to check on some items for the day. My plan was to return home and go for a run. 

For some reason that didn’t happen, and like always, I’ll blame God.

Maybe what he was trying to get me to see is that not all of the challenges of the homeless and unemployed gather at Broad and Allen.

No sometimes, needs appear in a church parking lot.

Intersection of Broad and Allen early one morning in Richmond, Virginia by Bill Pike

Veterans Day 2020: “feet wet”

Union Civil War General Willam Tecumseh Sherman is credited with this simple three word assessment:  “War is hell.”

I believe General Sherman was correct. 

Somewhere in America today one of our Veterans will commit suicide.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is unemployed.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is homeless.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is fighting an addiction.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is fighting to rehabilitate a body debilitated in war.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is in post-psychological anguish from the trauma of losing a fellow soldier in battle.

Somewhere in America today parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends search for healing in their hearts because their loved one did not come home.

Somewhere in America today, a quiet, humble Veteran will die alone.

Yes, General Sherman, war and the remnants of war are hell.

During World War II, my father’s family experienced that hell. His oldest brother Boyd was killed while serving his country on the USS Simms a Navy destroyer. That ship was attacked by Japanese fighter planes in the Coral Sea.

I remember looking into the faces of the Pate family at Davis Street Methodist Church after they lost their oldest son, Robbie, in the Vietnam War. I don’t think the sadness ever left their faces, and I know that loss never left their hearts.

And, I recall one Christmas gathering of the Pike family during our terrorists wars in the Middle East. My cousin Stuart’s oldest son, Adam, a Marine described how in clearing a house in Iraq, he had a close call. He came within one click, one pull of a trigger to losing his life.

As required, I registered for the draft during the Vietnam War. I was a college student, my draft number was never called. I have no idea what I would have done if I had been drafted. 

But over the years, I have developed a deep respect for Veterans. And in that respect, just like in me, I know there are imperfections in their service and careers. Yet, still I believe their service and sacrifice is why America is still hanging around.

And as an American, I will tell you that I was disgustedly ashamed when then presidential candidate, Donald Trump, bashed Senator John McCain for being shot down in the Vietnam War. 

Senator McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years. I don’t understand how anyone could say or embrace such warped comments about a prisoner of war.

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy is one of my favorite books. In the book, Mr. Conroy writes about his senior year of playing college basketball at The Citadel. To develop the book, Mr. Conroy finds his former teammates and interviews each one.

But one of the most moving interviews was with Al Kroboth. Mr. Kroboth served in the Vietnam war as a navigator in the A-6 jet fighter. During a mission, the plane was attacked by the North Vietnamese. Somehow, Mr. Kroboth was able to bailout before the plane crashed.

I do not know how Mr. Kroboth survived his barefooted march through the jungles of Vietnam with broken bones, infections, and hostile treatment, but he did.

In the interview, Mr. Kroboth, his wife, and Mr. Conroy wept many times as they learned about Captain Kroboth’s experiences.

But, when he was released, Captain Kroboth described what it was like as the POWs waited at the airport in Hanoi to prepare for departure. 

As the C-141 taxied to the gate,  what caught his attention was the tail of the plane. It featured the largest American flag he had ever seen. When Captain Kroboth saw that flag he wept.

As the POWs boarded the plane, Captain Kroboth described an eerie quietness as they prepared for take off. The pilot told them to get seated. He was concerned about low cloud cover. But, he was determined to get them up, and out of there.

That quietness remained among the POWs as the plane rose and climbed for altitude.

Minutes ticked. 

When the voice of the pilot returned over the speakers, he stated: “feet wet, feet wet.” That meant the plane was out over the ocean, they had cleared North Vietnam airspace. With those words, the hushed cabin of the plane filled with cheers.

I hope on this Veterans Day, you will find a Veteran and thank that  man or woman with all your heart.

And I pray that I will always remember that I’m still hanging around today because in the hell of war Veterans got their “feet wet” for America.

American flag West Hartford, Connecticut October 2020 Bill Pike

Heart work in grocery bags

Around nine on the morning of Tuesday, October 27, the fog had started to lift. I guess a hidden sun was working behind the scenes slowly burning it off. 

Earlier this morning out at the Richmond airport the visibility had been recorded at 0.06 miles. Normally, the visibility is listed as 10 miles. But, then my internal voice reminded me— this isn’t a normal world anymore.

I was headed over to Sherbourne United Methodist Church in north Chesterfield County with a pickup truck load of groceries for their community food pantry. Our congregation has been supporting this food pantry for many years. 

But, as you might have guessed COVID-19 has increased the activity at food pantries across America. The need for food in our communities has seen a significant rise, and this need isn’t going away.

I had two able loadmasters from our staff, Ronnie Johnson and Kim Tingler, help with the loading of grocery bags and boxes into the bed of the truck. Our congregation has been remarkably consistent in dropping off food every Friday since late March.

By now, I think the old pickup truck could make the drive to Sherbourne blindfolded. But, I will not try that especially as traffic merges on to the Chippenham Parkway.

For some reason, my eyes were distracted by a banner hanging from the roofline of the large hospital complex that sits off the parkway. The banner was red with white lettering. I’m sure some marketing person would be excited to learn that my old eyes were drawn toward the sign. Luckily, my old eyes could still see and read the following words:  We heal the most hearts.

Ancient grumpy grouch that I am, I wondered how the hospital determined that they are the leader in healing hearts?

Maybe, I should give them a call and ask for a statistical review of their data compared to the other hospitals in the Richmond area that work on hearts. But, knowing my luck, I could have the Fred Sanford big one, and end up at this hospital. 

I can see the doctor peering down at me ready to work on my ticker when a marketing person bursts into the operating room and exclaims: “Stop! Don’t touch that patient! This is the old grumpy grouch who questioned our healing the most hearts banner.”

You know lots of beautiful heartfelt music came out of Detroit, Michigan via the Motown recording company. I’m sure you have a list of your favorite Motown artists and their songs. But, there is one song—“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” that has always resonated with me. 

The song was written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean. Recorded in 1966 by Jimmy Ruffin the ballad reached into the top ten charts in America and England.

In truth, sometimes I hear this song, and I tear up. My eyes water, the lyrics pierce my heart. 

And then I think, this song should be in church hymnals. Or at the very least performed in churches. After all, Psalm 34:18 states: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

I am thankful for doctors who have the skills to medically save a human heart.

But as we all know, matters of the heart can’t always be solved with the competent hands of a surgeon. And sometimes, I wonder if hearts can ever, ever, ever be healed.

Maybe during the roar of news stories during the past couple of weeks you heard the name Samuel Paty. 

Mr. Paty was the teacher in France who was beheaded. 

Apparently, in a class about freedom of speech, Mr. Paty showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of this, Mr. Paty received threats, and one 18 year old young man made the threats a reality. Now, two families have broken hearts as French police shot and killed Mr. Paty’s murderer.

This horrific situation has also created more “division” in France.

What becomes of the brokenhearted in these senseless acts of rage?

Where does this rage come from?

What kind of heart could behead a teacher or any human being?

What has become of our world?

Why are we so divided?

What is wrong with our hearts?

Maybe in that same roar of the news you have recently heard the name of Mitch Couch.

Mr. Couch and his family are from Lemoore, California. Mr. Couch has gained some national media coverage because he with the assistance of his family have been making desks for students.

Thanks to our pestilence COVID-19, schools across America are teaching students via a virtual format. For his family, Mr. Couch realized his children needed desks for their school sessions. 

So, he made a desk for his daughter. Next, Mr. Couch put together a step by step video for constructing the desk. That video has inspired other wood workers across America to build desks. At this point, Mr. Couch and his family have built and donated over 60 desks, and they are still building.

I love that story. 

It is a good story—a good heart work story.

And yet, Mr. Couch’s good heart makes me wonder—why and how can our hearts be so different?

What pushes a heart to violence? 

What pushes a heart away from love?

That person in “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is real.

Every description in those lyrics is an experience of real life.

That person is searching for healing.

In our current circumstances, I don’t sense that our hearts are searching for healing.

Why is that?

Well, maybe,  we are not listening to that puny little voice in our hearts. 

That voice is crying out to us. 

It is trying to get our attention. 

That voice is saying:  “Hey, Bill you knucklehead, there are many brokenhearted people in your community who are hurting. Put your heart to work. Start the healing. Don’t wait. Time isn’t on your side. The big guys in the blue yonder can’t do it all. Get busy.”

So, I’ll ask—What is that puny voice in your heart saying to you?

Is it like mine?

 My heart is annoyingly plucking at me daily. I sense it will continue to pluck at me.

And in that plucking, my heart is saying to me—Contrary to the hospital banner, it’s not about who heals the most hearts.

It’s whether I can use my heart to help the heart of one person heal.

I’ll take one heart at a time.  How about you?

In every bag of groceries in that old pickup truck is a heart—a heart at work.

And in every recipient, there is a heart that depends every week on that heart in a grocery bag. 

That’s one grocery bag, one heart at a time. 

That’s what the guys in the blue yonder need from my heart.

They are the puny voices plucking in my heart.

Do you hear them?

Groceries headed to the Sherbourne UMC food pantry, photo by Bill Pike

Part II: Yard work is good for your soul

All week the weather had been October perfect. 

No temperature complaints, humidity not noticeable, and a blue sky not matched by anything created by a paint chemist in a lab mixing colors. Toss in some tree leaves starting to change their attire, and you have what I believe is God’s best month—October.

But by Friday, the weather gurus at the National Weather Service started tossing raindrops into the forecast for Saturday, October 10.

That was to be our second yard work is good for your souls at Trinity.

When I checked the radar early on Saturday morning, I could see the rain creeping toward us. Retrieving the paper from the front lawn, the sky was gray with those low, thick clouds just waiting for water to be squeezed from them like a wet dish rag. It looked like rain, felt like rain. Unless there was an unexpected delay by the weather angels, it was going to rain.

We were scheduled to start working at 8:30. By 8:00, raindrops had started to fall.

I told the Commander Supreme, I was going to Trinity to put signs on doors—stating that the work day was canceled.

But, she said, “Why?”  And she followed up with, “Some people might like working in the rain, if it isn’t coming down in buckets.”

I liked the logic. I grabbed a hat, an old raincoat, and headed to church. 

Quickly, I staged bottled water, access to restrooms, and a few tools.

By 8:30, four brave souls had found their way to Trinity. Pat Satterfield, Callie Stuart, the Commander, and David Priest were present and dressed for the weather. The three ladies worked in three different sections weeding and trimming, and David with his power washer tackled a section of curbing and sidewalk on the Stuart Hall Road side of the building.

A mountain of mulch awaited me in the front parking lot along Forest Avenue. Previous weeding and edging under dogwood trees and butterfly bushes were now ready for mulch.

I had an old piece of laminated particle board to use as a ramp for curb jumping. If I was lucky enough to dump and spread mulch in that first round of targets, then the next area would be the Veterans Memorial Garden.

The rain came down gently. This was what a farmer might call a soaking rain needed to quell a long dry spell for a thirsty earth. The raindrops didn’t pound the ground and run off. No, those drops hit softly, and slowly slid down toward the roots below the weedy turf.

Once again, church member, Mike Hildebrand, provided the dark rich mulch. Load by load, the pile started to shrink a bit.

At some point, I took a break to check on our waterlogged team. They were all in good spirits. And their handiwork was quite visible. By 10:30, the ladies were ready to call it a day, but each promised to return on one of those postcard October days.

David and I kept at it a bit longer. I’m always amazed at how different sidewalks and curbs look after an encounter with a power washer. Like the ladies with the weed eating and trimming, David had the magic touch.

Mulch was now spread under the dogwoods and butterfly bushes. Multiple loads of mulch had been dumped in the Veterans garden. I would work on the spreading next week.

I looked up at the American flag in the Veterans garden. At the top of the flagpole, it too was rain soaked. The flag was draped around the pole, listless and resting. But even on this no sunshine day, it was an undimmed splotch of color against a gray backdrop.

What I thought was going to be a washout, a day of work to be rescheduled, turned out to be a nice surprise. 

Four good hearted people said to heck with the rain, I’m going out there anyway. And in their own unique way, their commitment was a bit of unselfish sunshine.

We all are going to face gray, rain dampened days in life. 

But unbeknown to us, sometimes our capacity to weather those days are found in the hearts of quiet souls. They show up when least expected. But, they are like a ray of sunshine when life has just about washed us out.

Rain dampened flag Veterans Memorial Garden Trinity UMC photo Bill Pike

covidography

Michael Martin Murphey is a very gifted singer and songwriter. 

Perhaps, you might recall his first hit single “Wildfire.” The song was about a pony, and the inspiration for crafting the song came to Mr. Murphey in a dream.

But in 1990, Mr. Murphey chose to reinvent himself with the release of the album Cowboy Songs. This was a compilation of traditional songs and some new ones about the real lives of real cowboys out on the wide open ranges west of the Mississippi River.

I love that album. I would want it with me if I was washed ashore on some isolated island. The songs on the album made me laugh, cry, and ponder. 

I especially like Mr. Murphey’s version of “Tying Knots In The Devil’s Tail.” This song is actually based upon a poem written by a real cowboy from northern Arizona, Gail Gardner.

The song describes two cowboys who decide they need a break from working with cattle.

In fact one of the cowboys, Sandy Bob, declares:  “I’m tired of this cowography and allows I’m going to town.”

They go to town, get wound a bit too tight at the saloon, and on the way back to their cow camp they encounter the devil on the trail. 

Needless to say, the devil made an unwise decision to challenge two cowboys that late afternoon. Sandy Bob and Buster Jiggs didn’t finish him off, (too bad they didn’t), but they did leave a lasting impact on the devil.

Right about now, I can identify with Sandy Bob when he declared: “I’m tired of this cowography!”

Just maybe, you might be ready to shout out like Sandy Bob, in your loudest outside voice:  “I’m tired of the covidography!”

I can’t imagine anyone from any corner of the world who has not grown weary from the devilish impact of COVID-19. It is a mean demon— a robber of life, a master at disruption, and a divider.

Being a natural born worrier, covidography worries me. 

I worry about my family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, and strangers. 

I worry about those who have lost loved ones. 

I worry about people who have lost their employment and the tidal wave of hurt this has caused for them. 

I worry about how lives have been forever altered, and because of these changes people might not ever, ever recover.

I worry about the scramble to develop a reliable vaccine. I worry  that much needed protocols will be skipped or ignored in the race to find a profit.

I worry about the mental health of every person who is in the trenches with COVID-19 during all their waking hours. 

I worry about the mental health of people who are at their wits end trying to figure out how to survive.

I worry about students in school systems who will continue to fall behind in this environment.

I worry about the morale of teachers.

I worry about the capacity of churches to meet needs.

But, out of all of my worries related to covidography, here is what worries me the most:  division.

A long, long time ago, I can remember hearing a principal in a faculty meeting asking as the meeting was wrapping up—“Does anyone have anything for the good of the cause?”

Yes, I do. 

At this very moment, I fear that we have lost our collective desire to be a part of the good of the cause.

And to that, I want to be like Gomer when Barney issued him a ticket for making an illegal u-turn. 

When Barney hands him the ticket, Gomer mutters something under his breath. 

But, sparked by his frustration, Gomer shifts his demeanor and shouts at Barney what he had previously mumbled: “You just go up an alley and holler fish!!”

I want to holler at our covidography division something more vile than Gomer’s uncharacteristic outburst.

Where is our unity, our sacrifice, our good of the cause against this out of control tormentor? 

Why is it so hard for us to comply with a simple request like wearing a mask?

The non-Einsteinian answer is this:  selfish.  

I know I could be wrong, way, way wrong, but during World War II, if our leaders said to America—“we need your help, we need you to wear not one, but two masks outside your home at all times.” My heart believes Americans would have complied.

What’s the difference now?

We are selfishly divided.

We are not thinking for the good of the cause.

I will confess to you I have many, many, many selfish moments in my life, and I suspect I have more in me too. 

But, why would I want my selfishness to continue to allow covidography to have a trouble free path of destruction?

Don’t you, me, we, us want to be a bit like Sandy Bob and Buster Jiggs in their encounter with the devil?

Don’t we want to rough up COVID-19 by making its path more difficult?

Maybe we should ask the families of the 220,000 Americans who lost a loved one? Would that number be different if we chose to be more compliant rather than more selfish?

Here is another worry I have—what are we going to learn from covidography, what will be our takeaway?

What will be different the next time America is faced with such a crisis? 

Will we have the courage to see covidography as an opportunity to learn?

 Or, will we do like we have done with other troubles— barely survive, forget the good of the cause, and move on?

I pray the takeaway is more than this observation—you know whenever I wear my mask with my glasses on— my glasses fog up.

If that is our only takeaway, then we’re as good as dead—both now and in the future.

We can’t let that happen.

Sandy Bob and Buster Jiggs did not retreat from their encounter with the devil.

Currently, our selfish non-compliance encounters with covidography are not working. This unacceptable mentality will only allow for more death, disruption, and division. 

I am a poor mathematician, but in Hebrews Chapter 11, I count the use of the word “faith” at least 25 times. I too am a poor student of the Bible, but that chapter cites examples of faith in the lives of all kinds of people.

If America is to push back covidography, we need to find a way to renew our faith in each other.

Faith that we can work collectively and cooperatively for the good of the cause.

Sandy Bob and Buster Jiggs came together for the good of the cause.

Sandy Bob and Buster Jiggs had faith in each other.

They were not divided.

The devil could not handle the skills and tactics of those two cowboys.

Doesn’t covidography deserve a dose of what the devil experienced out on that trail?

I know the answer and so do you.

Our selfish division must stop.

Covidography loves our division.

Covidography can’t handle an America with faith and trust in each other. 

We are overdue to commit to the good of the cause.

Masks for covidography by Bill Pike

Hey God, I have proof.

Thursday, October 8 appeared to be a normal day at Trinity.

HVAC technicians were working on ductwork, vents, and ceiling tiles on the renovation of the Mastin Room.

Our grounds crew was mowing, edging, and gathering up leaves.

Trinity member, Mike Cross, was going to do some power washing for us. His wife, Teresa, volunteered for a tough assignment— weed patrol in borders along the Stuart Hall Road side of the building.

I was going to work on prepping areas on the front lawn for mulching. If the weather holds, we have some volunteers coming on Saturday morning to help with this project.

It took me a bit of time to get organized, but I eventually  started.

The beds under three dogwood trees needed to be edged and weeded before mulch could be spread.  From that work, I gathered several loads of turf debris in a wheelbarrow. 

As I wheeled those loads by the preschool students on the playground, a few would say:  “hi” and some would ask “what are you doing?” Sometimes, when I hear that question, I respond with—“I’m having fun.” I love seeing the puzzled looks on their faces with that answer.

My work continued into the midday Preschool dismissal. I witnessed the precision of this routine. Guided by Preschool staff, the parents and grandparents waited patiently as their precious cargo was handed off to them.

Seems,  it was after 12:30 when the tide of the day decided to shift. 

I had come into the building to check on a few things. I was walking back into the Preschool wing.

Just as I was on the first floor hallway, I thought I saw our Preschool Director, Katie Swartz, hustling out the exit door in the stairwell. It sounded like she yelled out my name, but I wasn’t sure.

I went to the next stairwell, and walked down into the basement floor of the Preschool. Now, I understood what had actually been the frantic holler of my name.

Water. 

Lots of water was quickly covering the floor in the girls restroom. 

The flush valve on one of the toilets was stuck.

Rushing water was moving at such a force that it was spilling out of the toilet. 

Assistant Director for the Preschool, Mary Jones, and another teacher were there. They had taken old towels and constructed a dam. This was an attempt to keep the water out of the carpeted hallway.

To stop this flood, I needed to remove a metal cap. This was normally a simple unscrewing of the cap. I twisted the cap it kept turning and spinning.

I left the restroom, found our building caregiver, Ronnie Johnson, and asked him to get a carpet machine for removing the water.

I made my way to our tools. I grabbed pliers, a rubber headed hammer, and a large flathead screwdriver.

I hustled back to the restroom, the water continued to pour out. There was easily two inches on the floor.

I hit the area of the flush valve with the rubber hammer to see if that might stop the deluge. There was a nano pause, but nothing else.

I kept working on that spinning  cover cap.  Something told me to pull. I did, and the cap came off.

Now, I had access to the stop valve. I took the flathead screwdriver, inserted it into the head, and turned it clockwise as quick as I could. Thankfully, the water stopped.

Quietness returned as I sloshed through the water. Someone asked me if needed anything, and I said, “Get me a for sale sign for the building.”

Ronnie arrived. He helped me get started, and then he left to finish his cleaning checklist.

It took a while, but eventually all of the water was sucked up. All of that water wasted.  I thought some parched farmland or a firefighter out west would have loved that water.

Too bad that old bathroom didn’t have a floor drain. There is a floor drain in the HVAC closet beside the bathroom. 

I guess I could have grabbed a sledge hammer and knocked a hole in the base of the wall. But that would have taken more time and created another mess. 

After I mopped the floor with a disinfectant, I placed a box fan at the entrance, and started working to put tools and machines away.

For some reason, I am starting to believe that God doesn’t think I was properly baptized. Over the years, I’ve had some interesting encounters with water in this old building. 

Maybe, I should fax or e-mail him a copy of my baptism proof from Davis Street Methodist Church in Burlington, North Carolina. 

As unexpected and frustrating as this flood was for me, this little outing for ducks was nothing compared to what other people are trying to work through.

I think about the church member who was recently diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. She only has weeks to live.

Then there is the church member who is in the ICU at a local hospital with COVID-19. He is on a ventilator. His current prognosis is the uncertain day to day.

And there is the friend whose many years of marriage has unexpectedly unraveled.

And here is one more heart-tugger, a friend from high school who is quarantined with COVID-19 while her six year old grandson battles a brain tumor.

A misbehaving flush valve dumping water is nothing compared to what those nice, kindhearted people are experiencing.

So, God even though I can prove my baptism, you have made your point. 

Thanks for the help you gave me this afternoon, and thanks for the people who helped me. 

But, just as your son in a boat with his disciples stilled the waters from a chaotic squall on the Sea of Galilee, I would pray that in some way your presence might touch those friends I referenced here. 

They need you more right now than some old grump cussing a flush valve.

The infamous toilet with the stop valve cover resting on the radiator. Photo Bill Pike

“mute”

My itty-bitty brain believes the “mute” button on the remote control for our television might be one of the greatest inventions.

I’m sure you are as curious as Curious George to learn why I believe this.

Well, it is simple.

It is the only time in my life when I have complete control over any politician running for office.

 When a political ad pops up on the screen, my quick draw is incredible.

My squelching of the mute button is so fast that it can’t be timed.  

Zap, the politician is silenced.

I want to counter the advertisement with these words: “I’m Bill Pike, an American, and I disapprove of this ad.”

In an article written by Mark Murray for NBC News, Mr. Murray states: “The latest projections estimate that $6.7 billion could be spent on advertising in the 2020 election.”

That’s correct, I’m not making this up 6.7 billion dollars.

I don’t know about you, but I think we have lost our minds.

And what is sad about this absurd amount of money is that some of the candidates spending these big dollars will not be elected. 

I assume that the companies who make these political advertisements are laughing  all the way to their bank accounts.

Bill Foster was a gifted college basketball coach. He coached Jim Valvano as a player at Rutgers. Before Coach K at Duke, Bill Foster in 1978 got the Blue Devils to the NCAA championship game against Kentucky. After Duke he coached at the University of South Carolina and Northwestern.

After his passing in 2016, I watched an internet tribute to Coach Foster. Lots of his former players were a part of acknowledging their appreciation for him.

One South Carolina player shared a story from a practice session. The second string players were scrimmaging the starters. Nothing was going right for the starters. They could not hit any of their shots.

Coach Foster noted this. He called time out, and asked for the ball. At that point, Coach Foster took the ball and dropped  kicked it high up into the empty tiers of the coliseum. Then he said, “Something is wrong with the ball, get another one.”

That’s the way I feel about our election process—we need a new ball. 

Here is my first recommendation—political advertisements can only air on television from 12 midnight until 6:00 a.m. I’m sure the mute button on our television remote will appreciate this break in action.

Next, we must stop spending 6.7 billion dollars for advertisements. With all of the real problems we are facing in America, can’t we find a better economical path?

As a part of the content in the ads, we must consider eliminating  the mudslinging. I think the mudslinging only serves to contribute more to our already negative incivility. 

Perhaps politicians, their advisors, and the production companies who create the ads need to take a course in Mr Rogers.

And while I’m whining about political advertising, I will whack at mailings and robocalls.

It has become increasingly clear to me that politicians or maybe the people who work for them have a difficult time reading. 

On three separate occasions this fall, I have requested in writing that my name be removed from a mailing list. Despite my diligence, political mail still appears. I do not read mailed political ads. They are tossed in the recycling bin.

We all know there is nothing quite like a robocall. I love their tricks. Like using our area code to make me think— oh, this might be someone I know. 

But, what is even more interesting to me is the cowardly nature of these calls. If I attempt to redial the number, I can’t be connected, the number isn’t available.

The other day I listened to the beginning of a call. It started: “Perhaps you know this is an election year.” 

Are you kidding me? The only way I could not know this is an election year is if I was frozen and buried in Antarctica.

And yet somehow, despite all of its shortcoming, imperfections, and blurred vision, I am still an American who wants me and my country to wake up.

What is even sadder to me, no matter a person’s political party affiliation, and no matter how a person will vote, deep inside our hearts we all know that what I am spouting off about is the annoying truth.

I am not the brightest guy in the world, but I worry about our inability to see this.

In William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I love his words: “inexhaustible, endurance, heart, soul, compassion, duty, honor, and sacrifice.”

America, we must relearn these words.

We can’t “mute” them.

Flags of America, Virginia, Henrico County by Bill Pike

The Chipmunkshank Redemption: “That joker was fast!”

September 30 was stunning. Overnight, a front had brought wind and rain. The front pushed out lingering warm, humid air a leftover from summer.

At 10, I was scheduled to meet with our Kids Director, Jen Williams. She was in the initial stages of planning a couple of community events for young families with children. 

The morning was so beautiful, I asked Jen if she would be opposed to meeting outside. She agreed, and we sat on the front steps to the church’s Welcome Center. We socially distanced in the cool fresh air.

I had left the middle door to the Welcome Center propped open. Our meeting was going well. Jen’s plans would be a good alternative for families with young children.

But, in a blink the productiveness of that meeting changed. 

My body was positioned toward Forest Avenue. I couldn’t see the open door. 

Out of the corner of her eye, Jen had seen a chipmunk scamper across the brick pavers and enter the doorway.

She calmly stated to me, “I don’t know if you want to know this, but a chipmunk just entered the building.”

I got up, and thought in my mind this is just what I need today. I entered the Welcome Center. Sure enough, the intruder was present. 

I took a couple of steps to my right, and he took off heading toward the Preschool. He quickly crossed the threshold of the double doors entering that wing.

Student artwork drying on the ancient carpet rustled as he rapidly skirted over these freshly created masterpieces.

He made a sharp right turn into Room 200, and with his heart pounding, the chipmunk hid.

Luckily for me the room was empty. The students were out on the playground. I can only imagine the chaos my new friend would have created if the room had been full of students.

I stood frozen at the door way. My brain trying to figure out what to do. I wanted to sprint a way to get help, but if I left the room I would not know if he decided to stay put for a few minutes or escape to a room that was full of kids.

Finally, my brain told me to call the church office. I needed the bravest chipmunk searcher in the world, our chief building caretaker, Ronnie Johnson. 

In our office, Kim Tingler took my call and located Ronnie. And Diane Ladd notified the Preschool Director, Katie Swartz. It seemed like hours before they arrived at the room. 

Once we had a body to keep an eye on the room, I sprinted to get a dust mop. I figured the head of the dust mop would cover the door entrance. We could shut the door, put the mop head at the base to create a barrier in case our friend bolted toward the door. I was thinking containment.

So, we set that up, and Ronnie and I entered the room. I had the broom handle, and I used it to poke along the walls of the room where all sorts of hiding places existed. 

As I poked, I clanked against things making noise. Sure enough, a poke into to the back right corner of the room sprung the chipmunk. He was a blur, a streak of lightning.

The chipmunk zipped along the wall parallel to Forest Avenue, but he finally gave us a real break. The chipmunk entered the tiny restroom. 

However, he had plenty of cover in this space. A trash can, two cumbersome wooden steps, and the toilet created an obstacle course for me. I moved, and he countered my move.

Ronnie handed me a trash can to align on the floor in front of the door. I was in perfect position. I could see him, and he could see me. 

I was ready to nudge him into the trash can when that chipmunk disappeared. He vanished. Poof, he was gone.

Neither Ronnie nor I saw him scoot by us. It was like the floor had opened or a guardian angel for chipmunks had received a text from God:  “Hey swoop down into Room 200 at the Trinity Preschool, two old geezers have one of your lads cornered in a bathroom.”

Ronnie and I were stunned. We never saw the chipmunk come by us. 

We decided to recheck the room again. We poked. We moved furniture. We tilted and lifted things. But, we never saw the chipmunk.

If he was in that room, the chipmunk must have put on his nerves of steel. Or maybe, he was thinking—ok, I’ve got this. These two old slow geezers will never trap me. I’ll just let them think that I am Houdini or that God did send down a guardian angel to rescue me.

In truth, our evening building caretaker, Bobby, spotted the chipmunk back in the Welcome Center late in the afternoon. Bobby opened the same door the chipmunk had entered earlier in the day. However, Bobby can’t confirm that the chipmunk like Elvis had left the building.

I have rethought this intrusion quite a bit. 

I have asked myself what could I have done differently?

Well, for starters, I would have kept that door shut.

I wish I had grabbed a pair of gloves and a broom. Maybe I could have captured the chipmunk with those confidence builders.

But, the intruder has also made me laugh. 

That bathroom scene was a classic. I moved, the chipmunk moved. Ronnie was behind me coaching me. I would have liked to have seen our faces when that chipmunk vanished from the bathroom.

And, I will never forget Ronnie’s comment—“that joker was fast.”

Sometimes in the speed of life, we feel trapped.

No matter where we look—we see no options, no solutions, no way out.

Who knows, maybe the good Lord was using this encounter to point out to me—Hey, you knucklehead, there are lots of people out there who feel like a chipmunk trapped in a restroom. 

What are you going to do about it? 

How are you going to help them?

Maybe all they need is an open door, and an open heart.

The chipmunk’s point of entry, photo by Bill Pike