In God We Trust Our Catalytic Converters

On Friday, October 1 in the cover of dawn darkness, I launched the attack at the edge of the church’s Bicentennial Garden. 

A nest of in ground yellow jackets  had been making their presence known to  preschool students and other pedestrians who shuffled along the sidewalk that fronts the garden. 

On the previous afternoon, my reconnaissance had located the hideout for the swarming stingers. This morning, as I sprayed the fortress with the recommended insecticide—no yellow jackets emerged.

Next, I staged Trinity Hall for our weekly collection of food in support of two pantries. Then I went back home for breakfast. 

When I returned to church, I was focused on final preparations for a 2 p.m. funeral. 

Funerals do something to a church staff. In their own quiet way, funerals add a layer of stress in the pursuit of perfection for the grieving family. A checklist runs through the staff’s minds making sure that no details are overlooked.

By noon, I was ready to head back home to get cleaned up and make my attire more presentable. Just as I was leaving the Stuart Hall Road parking lot, I heard this loud rumbling roar coming from the Rock Creek Road parking lot.

I knew one of our members, Bob Argabright, was coming by to pickup the step van for a Saturday morning project at Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School. I sensed that never heard before sound had come from the starting up of the van.

Sure enough, when I circled back around to the Rock Creek lot, Bob had returned and parked the van. Bob confirmed the sound had come from the van. He guessed something wasn’t right with the exhaust system. We surmised the van shouldn’t be driven until we could have a mechanic determine its ailment.

Our other church van was available, so Bob took it for Saturday.

Late on Friday afternoon, I checked with our neighborhood mechanic, David, at the Mobil station down the street from the church. He suggested that I crawl under the van to determine if the catalytic converter was still in place. David’s experiences told him that the loud roar might be attributed to a stolen catalytic converter.

So early Saturday morning, I crawled under the van. I found a gap in the exhaust system of about two feet. The catalytic converter had been cut out with the precision of a surgeon.

I gathered information about the van and reported the theft to our  community officer in our county’s police department. Officer Phillips filed the report, and then followed back up with me.

Officer Phillips communicated that the police department believes they need state legislative assistance to combat this epidemic increase in catalytic converter theft. 

Currently, metal salvagers are not required to report when a person shows up to sell a trunk load of stolen catalytic converters. This is unlike requirements for pawn shop operators who are required to report their purchases.

 Also, catalytic converters do not have a manufacturer’s serial number. This prevents law officers from effectively tracking the  stolen converter back to the rightful owner. You can wager your last penny that thieves know these loopholes, and every thief also knows the precious metals in the converters are very valuable.

During my ten years of work at our church, this is the third theft we have worked through related to metals. The first was copper gutters, followed by a large brass coupling cut out of the controls for the landscaping sprinkler system.

I wonder what type of person/s comes out under the cover of darkness and steals from a church? What pushes a person to steal in the first place? Is the individual desperate for cash? Does the individual have an addiction problem?  Is  a family member in distress?

In 1957, the words: “In God We Trust”  were printed on paper currency in America for the first time. I’d be curious to know if the gutters, coupling, and converter thieves have any concept of trusting God in their daily living? Additionally, I’d be interested to learn if attending church was ever a part of their lifestyle?

We have made arrangements for the van to be repaired. But, there are no preventative techniques that could keep the same theft from happening again.

I guess I’ll leave that for God to work on. Maybe he can wear down the conscience of the catalytic converter stealer.

One of the precise cuts made to remove the catalytic converter. Photo by Bill Pike

Need some chaos? Call a squirrel.

As I have written previously, during the pandemic once every two weeks, we have a Zoom call with a dear group of college friends. 

Generally, we gather on Sunday afternoons at five. Without too many absences, Steve, Dan, Steve, Doug, Butch, plus spouses and an occasional pet join the calls.

My wife and I have enjoyed our hour long calls. This is a good way for us to stay in touch and learn how we are doing in the madness of the pandemic. 

While we hear about ailments, house projects, travel, grandchildren, and children, for me I’m selfishly present for the mental health of laughter. No matter how serious the conversation can turn, we have an abundance of self-deprecating humor. I usually feel better after that Zoom call.

On Sunday, September fifth, Dan and his wife, Judy, gave us a blow by blow account of dealing with an unwanted guest in their basement—a squirrel.

It seems to me that many people have stories about squirrel intrusions.

During Christmas celebrations where my wife’s parents lived in Connecticut, I remember multiple times my father-in-law furiously banging on the kitchen window. He was attempting to chase off an acrobatic squirrel that landed on a bird feeder.

Sometimes, in the drought of a hot summer, squirrels have ravaged our tomatoes for the moisture in them.

One spring, two squirrels found their way into our attic. Our son and I put on pants, long sleeved shirts, gloves, hats, and declared war. We were armed with pump action super soaker water guns. I had filled their holding tanks with ammonia. 

We were closed up in the attic. We made lots of noise and poking with long poles to rouse up the squirrels. Sure enough, they didn’t like the disturbance. Without any hesitation, we soaked the squirrels with the ammonia. They didn’t like our hospitality. 

Another time when I was out of town, a squirrel fell down the chimney into our fireplace. Luckily, the wire mesh and glass doors contained him. He croaked a couple of days later.

Once I saw firsthand the damage a squirrel can do in a house. A squirrel entered an elderly neighbor’s home via the chimney. She was away visiting family. That squirrel tore the place up.

For our college friends, they were lucky. Dan had gone into the workout room of their basement. As he entered the room, Dan caught a glimpse of something gray moving. 

At first, Dan thought it was their cat, Omar. But, he reasoned the door was closed, no way Omar could have entered the workout room, and next that gray flash was not Omar’s coloring. 

Dan has his private pilot’s license, plus he is certified to train people to fly, so his eyes were not playing tricks on him. As he surveyed the room again, Dan saw the head of a squirrel pop up from behind a pillow on the couch. 

Now the fun started.

Like all good husbands, he quickly called in reinforcements—his wife, Judy. Not wanting the squirrel to scamper up one of her legs, Judy came down wearing a dress and knee high rain boots.

All they had to do was shoo the squirrel through a door that empties into the backyard. Of course, the squirrel was having none of this. He countered every containment move with a more clever move. 

Perspiring and frustrated, Dan put out an SOS call for two of his neighbors to assist. They showed up with a fishing net, another type of netting, and adolescent humor. Noticing Judy’s attire, one neighbor commented she looked like a stripper. Luckily,  Judy didn’t clobber him.

So, now four frazzled adults are after this wacky squirrel whose nervous digestive track is dropping poop balls around the room. After more sweaty minutes and possibly lots of swearing, the squirrel makes the wrong move. Dan with help is able to pin him so that a thin board can be slid behind him for containment.

With more luck, they get him out of the basement into the backyard. The panting and the perspiration slow down.

The next day, the carpet and upholstery cleaners arrive. Dan determines that his chimney cap was worn and failed. The squirrel fell down the chimney into the basement where a wood stove had once connected to the chimney. The squirrel had chewed through the plastic lid covering the connection hole.

The chimney cap has been replaced, and with sheet metal, Dan formed a stronger cover for the previous stove connection in the wall.

Nothing like the chaos of a squirrel to turn a house upside down.

Perhaps, you know the Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway. Early in the film, Hanks portraying FedEx employee, Chuck Noland, is a passenger on one of the company’s huge cargo planes. On this trip, the plane encounters a monstrous storm over the ocean. The plane despite the crew’s efforts can’t handle the stress of the weather. Chaos ensues as the plane crashes into the ocean. Chuck Noland is the only survivor. His life is turned upside down. No one knows he survived the crash.

In our world, people experience chaos everyday, their lives are turned upside down.

Recent examples are Afghanistan, Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Ida, wildfires out West, and of course our on-going saga with COVID-19. 

At times, I wonder how much more chaos can people withstand?

And then I think, historically, chaos has existed in this old world since it was hurled together. 

Perhaps, we have become numb to chaos. We think it is normal for lives to be turned upside, lost forever, or wearied to the point that they can’t muster a comeback.

Think about how many people feel like that squirrel— trapped by their own regrettable split second decisions, or caught in vicious societal cycles that we as a country have failed to change.

Yet, as dismal as the results of the chaos appear, I will continue to hold on to hope.

Here’s why.

In our  Sunday Zoom gathering, I heard two examples of love that gave hope.

Butch, who was my college roommate, is also by training a pastor. He shared how a difficult conversation with a church member helped the individual to change. Over a period of time, and with help, this person made needed adjustments in a number of daily routines. Life is now better for this individual.

Dan, the squirrel chaser, talked about his role on a foundation that secures used musical instruments for school students. The work of the foundation reduces the financial burdens for families in trying to provide the instrument.

I’ll take those rays of hope in the chaos of daily troubling headlines.

When the world is really bad, I will confess I am quick to wonder where is God in this mess?  

Well, God is in the hearts of the people who will respond or have responded to Afghanistan, Haiti, Ida, wildfires, and COVID-19.

God is in the hearts of individuals who work to help those who made terrible life altering decisions, as well as those who are working to breakdown our malignant societal cycles.

And in a crazy way, God was at work with the squirrel trapped in the basement room. Dan and Judy have built relationships with neighbors. Dan knew he could make a call and help would arrive.

Maybe, that is how God thinks. 

Maybe, he knows in chaos, he can make some calls, and nudge some hearts into action.

Maybe, the real question is this—will you, me, we, take his call to assist when chaos overwhelms a person?  

Thanks to Mike at Pextels for the photo.

“ah oom dop didit” thanks Stephen Desper and Jack Rieley

Ok, I’ll make the confession early. 

I have been a fan of the Beach Boys for a long, long, long, time.

Writer Dave Barry talks about “brain sludge.” Mr. Barry defines “brain sludge” as useless information that accumulates in the brains of men. 

For many, many, many years, I have stored lots of “brain sludge” in my old noggin about the Beach Boys. That is why my Beach Boys’ “brain sludge” was excited to learn that Capitol Records on August 27, 2021 released the box set of recordings:  The Beach Boys Feel Flows The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971.

In 1961, the Beach Boys started their fire. Their early sound was unmistakeable—harmonies influenced by the Four Freshmen and guitar licks like Chuck Berry. Plus, they had a secret weapon—Brian Wilson. Brian was the chief crafter of their songs, their sound, their production. 

People in the know have called Brian a genius, but I have always loved his insight about that label:  “I’m not a genius, I’m just a hardworking guy.”

From 1961-1967, Brian was a hard worker. He could not be stopped. The Beach Boys records landed in the top ten on record charts, and they filled concert halls around the world. 

But, by 1967, that success on the record charts came to an end. Surfer girls, woodies, and surfboards from sunny California and the Pacific coastline were dead in the water, lost to the undertow in a shift of the pop music paradigm.

Yes, the Beach Boys continued to meet their recording obligations for Capitol Records, but there were no huge hits. The group survived by touring in England and Europe where they were still held in high esteem.

From 1967-1969, Brian’s involvement with the band in recording sessions dropped a bit. 

Interestingly during this time for the other members of the Beach Boys, hanging around Brian all those years in recording sessions had rubbed off. Brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, Alan Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and the Wilson’s cousin, Mike Love started to show their songwriting and production capabilities.

By 1969, their recording obligations with Capitol records were over. The band signed a new contract with Reprise Records part of Warner Brothers. This deal would allow the band to carry the group’s own Brother Records logo. With this new agreement, the band started to work on their first album for Reprise.

That album was titled Sunflower, and this recording captured a band in harmony working as brothers and friends. Sunflower features song contributions from every member including drummer Dennis Wilson who delivers four compelling songs. 

On Sunflower, the range of diversity in the compositions is staggering.  The pure lead vocals, the stunning harmonies are intact, but a song like “It’s About Time” might leave a listener thinking—wow I had no idea that the Beach Boys could write and play a song like this. 

Sunflower was critically acclaimed, but it flopped on the charts. I would think in some ways the group might have been crushed. But, they kept pushing, and despite this set back, an unknown catalyst, a visionary, Jack Rieley entered their world. 

From late 1970 until 1973, Jack Rieley managed the Beach Boys. He changed their image, their direction. Jack Rieley was a risk taker, and this makeover worked. Gone were the late 60s matching stage attire suits, their hair was longer, and beards covered their once boyish faces. 

Jack Rieley most likely had some P.T. Barnum in his blood booking the group to play at unheard of places like the Big Sur Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall, peace rallies,  Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, and college campuses. Rieley and representatives from Reprise Records found an audience for the band’s evolving new sound on progressive FM radio stations.

This Jack Rieley energy created traction. People started to take notice again, and the band readied their second album for Reprise— Surf’s Up. If hopeful fans believed the title signaled a return to the group’s early foundation, they were to be disappointed. 

Surf’s Up had themes of ecology, health, love, social injustice, and more. If Sunflower quietly showcased Dennis Wilson, then Surf’s Up unveiled the the skills of the youngest Wilson brother, Carl.

On the sales charts, Surf’s Up had momentum reaching #29 at the peak of its activity. In comparison, the slighted Sunflower charted no higher than #151.

While Jack Rieley worked to thrust the band back into the public eye, there was another critical person working in the background with the Beach Boys— recording engineer, Stephen Desper. 

Mr. Desper must have had the patience of Job working with band members. Along with that patience, I sense Mr. Desper was blessed with keen hearing. Additionally, in combination with his skills sets as an engineer, he used the technology of the day to capture these recording sessions with an unsurpassed quality and richness.

 It is a credit to Mr. Desper that he was able to mix down Sunflower and Surf’s Up into their final editions. Because as the Feel Flows box set reveals, the Beach Boys worked through many different versions and takes of these songs. 

This box set might not be for the average fan. It is built upon five cds worth of music. The project was painstakingly compiled by the superb work of recording engineer Mark Linett and archivist Alan Boyd. 

 They had the responsibility of going back into the Beach Boys’ vaults and listening to miles and miles of tape. Mr. Linett and Mr. Boyd are a good team as they capture with this set of recordings a very special time in the history of the Beach Boys.

At the very least, if you love music, you owe it to your ears to listen to the original Sunflower and Surf’s Up albums. I believe your ears will be touched for lots of different reasons. But, I also hope that your ears might just think—whoa, these Beach Boys were really good at their craft.

And for me in that good, I always fall back to one Beach Boy, Carl Wilson. I’m sure you had your favorite Beatle, by comparison Carl Wilson was my favorite Beach Boy.

The box set is named after his stunning song, “Feel Flows” from the Surf’s Up album. Not only did Jack Rieley help to steer the band back to survival, he also was a lyric writer. He provided the lyrics for an assortment of songs during this era including “Feel Flows.” 

But, if you look at the history of the Beach Boys from Brian’s first breakdown and everything good and bad that the band lived through there was always the youngest band member, Carl holding them together.

Carl’s voice was a gift from God. Many times in my life his angelic  voice has made my eyes tear up. 

A masterful guitarist,  Carl lead the band with their concert performances, and he often was the final decision maker in the mix downs and inclusion of songs for each album. Both Sunflower and Surf’s Up are blessed by his work with his bandmates and Stephen Desper.

To cite a favorite recording or moment from this boxed set is impossible for me. But, for one minute and fifty eight seconds, I have never heard a song like Sunflower’s “This Whole World” with its “ah oom dop didits” and lead vocals shared by Carl and Brian.

And here is another fact worth considering, during this time frame, the Beach Boys were very good in concert. Numerous live recordings are contained here, but a 1973 performance of the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks’ song “Surf’s Up” is remarkable.

By now, you know me to be a low pressure writer.  But, I’ll make one more gentle plea, a good-natured nudge on behalf of your your soul—go listen to Sunflower and Surf’s Up, or even the entire box set.

Here’s why you should consider a listen—despite my biased Beach Boys’ “brain sludge,” my old soul believes your soul will feel the love in these songs.

And right now in this old world, we all need to feel some love.

“ah oom dop didit”

Cover of the Beach Boys’ boxed set Feel Flows provided by Bill Pike recording purchased 8/27/2021

MIA: rəˈspekt, ri-ˈspekt

Over the last few weeks, the following news headlines have caught my attention:

  • Vancouver Island, Canada as reported by CTV:  Mounties in British Columbia release image of man wanted for urinating on Dairy Queen counter after mask dispute
  • Tuscon, Arizona as reported by the Washington Post:  A school ordered a student to quarantine. His dad and two men confronted the principal with zip ties, official says.
  • Flushing Meadows, New York home of the US Open tennis tournament as reported by the Daily Skimm:  American star tennis player, Sloane Stephens, who is black, opened up about the over 2,000 threatening and racist messages she’s received since losing in this year’s US Open.
  • Gulfport, Mississippi as reported by Bill Chappell for NPR:  A Man Who Accosted A TV Reporter Covering Hurricane Ida Faces Assault Charges
  • Across America as reported by Carolyn Thompson for the Associated Press:  As School Board Meetings Get Hostile, Some Members Are Calling It Quits

For me, these headlines are confirmation that no matter where we live— respect is missing in action. Our inability to respect people who serve our public in any capacity is another indication of the unraveling of our basic human decency.

The people in the headlines who encountered these disrespectful behaviors, must feel exactly like comedian, Rodney Dangerfield’s famous line:  “I want to tell you, I get no respect.”

Just like I do not understand how a terrorist can strap on a suicide bomb, I do not understand how a customer can publicly urinate in a store because personnel asked him to put on a mask.

My wife and I raised three children. Yes, there were times when we did not agree with decisions made by teachers, coaches, and school administrators. However, we never were disrespectful, combative,  or threatening in those situations. 

What was this parent thinking in Arizona? The school is trying to protect the health of your son, and your response is ok principal, my friends and I are going to punish you by restraining you in zip ties—unbelievable.

Without question, technology can be useful. But, when we use our technology to wound a human being with over 2,000 hateful, racist, threatening comments because Sloane Stephens lost a tennis match—this is beyond wrong— it is sickening. And the sad thing about these incidents is the brazen cowards who do this believe what they are doing is fine.

Hurricane Ida has just pounded the Gulf Coast. A reporter is giving an update for a local television station. The reporter and the crew are doing a live broadcast. Out of the blue, a guy from Ohio in a pickup truck stops. He approaches the reporter and starts yapping about how the news is reported. This man keeps yapping, and the reporter and his crew stop the live broadcast because of this misguided intruder.

In your news feeds, if you have not read Associated Press reporter, Carolyn Thompson’s story, about how school board members across America are being treated in public meetings, I encourage you to find the piece and read it. Truthfully, I’m not surprised at her findings, but reading these incidents touched me because I served on our county’s school board for fourteen months.

In my work as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and school board member, I had some bad days—days when my thinking could have been better. In those situations, I deserved criticism. However, in all those years of service, I can recall only a handful of times when I was scorched by another person’s disrespect.

Thanks to my college roommate, I’m currently reading The Called Shot. This book is about the 1932 major league baseball season.

The first chapter focuses on Rogers Hornsby, one of the best players of that era. After the death of his father, Hornsby’s mother moved her family to Ft. Worth, Texas. 

Ft. Worth at the time was a tough cattle town. Work was found in stockyards and slaughterhouses. Author Thomas Wolf describes Ft. Worth as a town with “pervasive wickedness.”

A Baptist minister, Frank Norris, nicknamed the “Texas Cyclone” was determined to reform this den of sin. Preacher Norris took a stand against this lifestyle. For taking his stand, this is how the preacher was treated: February 4, 1912, arsonist destroyed his church, one month later, his parsonage was burned down. (The Called Shot, Wolf, page 16)

America can’t deny that our past, our present, and probably our future is full of stories like the preacher experienced.

Why?

Well, that’s like trying to answer a multiple choice question.

Yet, I believe one of the answers is we have lost the internal capacity to respect ourselves. 

Another possibility is that people who are prone to disrespect others might just have a long history of being disrespected in their walk through life.

And there is one more, as we were growing up, being raised, what were we taught about respect? How was respect modeled by the adults in the home?

And here is another one to ponder, churches, houses of worship. 

For many years, people attended church searching for some type of spiritual, emotional nourishment. On Sunday mornings in sanctuaries, preachers could remind us to be kind, loving, caring, respectful. 

That church, the bedrock of community, with its capacity to touch stubborn souls like mine, is now rapidly fading into the landscape of our rearview mirrors.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this line of scripture from 1 Peter 3:8:  “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate, and humble.”

Good advice, but how do you sell it to people who think like this headline:  A Teen Called For Masks In School After His Grandma Died Of COVID— Adults Mocked Him. (NPR 9/10/21)

Grady Knox, a high school student in Rutherford County, Tennessee, had to stop his speech at a school board meeting. Knox, whose grandmother was a former teacher, died from COVID-19. He was urging the school board to implement wearing masks in the school system. 

Adults in the audience “mocked, jeered, heckled, and laughed” at his remarks. (Bill Chappell NPR)

That story only makes me worry more about America. 

And here is what really troubles me.

We all know in our hearts that the disrespect in each of those headlines is wrong, horribly, horribly wrong, and yet the wrong in those headlines continues to rumble across America.

What has and is happening to us?

It is clear to me that disrespect is driving a wedge of separation deeper into our American hearts.

Somehow, America must reasonably find ways to counter this unhealthy separation.

To do this, Americans must find courage in our like-minded silence.

We must nudge ourselves out of our fearful silence.

And the only way to do this is to humbly share our compassion and love with those who have lost the capacity to respect.

Respect can’t continue to be missing in action.

If we are not careful, then America could be missing in action.

Despite all of our imperfections, do we really want our country to become a vanishing speck in the rearview mirror of the world because of our inability to respect and love one another?

I want to believe that deep inside our stubborn, inconsiderate hearts, we know better.

Church and school leaders are you listening?

Without question, COVID-19 and its variant, continue to turn our world upside down. This pandemic has scarred us in ways never imagined.

Longstanding public, nonprofit, and private institutions have been repeatedly punched by COVID-19. Particularly, churches and school systems have been required to counter those multiple hits. For church and school leaders, formulating and implementing a response is challenging work. 

Often in their careers, church and school leaders deal with the unexpected. Yet, I doubt responding to a pandemic was in their preparation to serve the public. From my experiences in schools and a church, the key pivot factor for leaders is always people. 

Schools and churches are people centered. But sometimes,  people are the biggest challenge for pastors and school leaders. Why? No matter the decision— it is impossible to please everyone.

Our church is in the midst of a renovation project. Early on, a large dumpster was placed outside our preschool. 

After an outdoor worship service, one church member quipped— we should put a sign on the dumpster—Suggestion Box. I laughed, and thought— bet our congregation could fill it up. But, then I wondered, how are pastors and school leaders equipped to take suggestions?

Wilson Memorial Chapel in Ocean Point, Maine photo by Bill Pike 9/18/21

Daily, these leaders cull through ship loads of information and suggestions from staff. Communicating and implementing a practical user friendly response can be challenging.

Communication, appears simple, but it’s not. COVID-19 is not user friendly. 

 Thanks to the whims of the virus, a carefully thought out plan for Sunday or Monday can change in a blink.  If we survive this madness, I’m certain post pandemic studies of church and school leaders will reveal sleep deprivation and increased intake of antacids were significant.

Sleep deprivation and heartburn are not limited to leaders. Congregations, students, parents, and teachers aren’t immune from these health concerns. On the surface, these people might appear fine, but a significant undertow is at work—morale.

Morale can’t be overlooked by leaders. 

 “Toughest year of my career” is what a high school teacher told me after a June graduation. I wonder how many other teachers felt the same?

Monhegan School on Monhegan Island, Maine photo by Betsy Pike 9/19/21

Comparably, if pastors were polled, I believe we would hear—“my toughest year as a pastor.”

If it was a tough year for teachers and pastors, think what the year was like for students, parents, and congregations. Mental health and morale wears on the people being served by churches and schools too.

During the pandemic, the infrastructure of technology has helped churches and schools reach their communities. However, technology isn’t a substitute for that most critical infrastructure—human relationships.

We should not be surprised that student test scores from  Virginia’s Standards of Learning are down. Education researchers have documented the significance of the instructional relationship that a teacher develops with a student. Building those relationships within the confines of a computer screen is difficult.

Additionally, no one should be surprised that churches continue to struggle to meet needs of congregations. No matter the quality of an on-line worship service, congregations like students need human interaction. 

So do pastors and school leaders need to have suggestion boxes installed in their buildings? Probably not. 

However, these leaders would be wise to assess their listening skills. In assessing their skills, they should also be asking what mechanisms are in place for congregations, students, parents, and teachers to be heard.

The first step in rebuilding and developing relationships is taking the time to listen. 

Church and school leaders might be surprised with their take aways from interacting with the people they serve. Those take aways can be very valuable with this asking—“don’t tell me what I want to hear, tell me what I need to hear.”

Church and school leaders, listening is an opportunity to learn.  Failure to listen reduces transparency and increases distrust. 

With the uncertainty of COVID-19 still lingering, no leader can afford not to listen.

Atlantic Coast Conference, don’t forget Greensboro’s loyalty

The headline in the August 27 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch stung me:  League weighs move of N.C. HQ. 

Translation— new Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner, Jim Phillips, has authorized a study to determine if Greensboro, North Carolina is worthy to continue as headquarters for the conference.

Since the league’s founding in 1953, Greensboro has been the headquarters. During those 68 years, the original founding universities developed a league that became famous for its college basketball. Eventually, the conference’s tournament became just as prominent with other athletic conferences copying its template.

Much has changed since the founding of the conference. Without question, money has driven the conference to expand. Logical geography hasn’t been a part of inducting new schools into the league. Money, market share, and visibility have even pushed the annual tournament to other cities considered to be more glamorous than Greensboro.

With permission, Commissioner Phillips contracted with two consulting teams to conduct what he calls “a holistic and transparent review” of the conference. A study like this cost lots of pennies, and I wonder if included in the review is an assessment to determine if Commissioner Phillips is of sound mind?

Commissioner Phillips certainly presents himself well in sound bytes and print interviews. But perhaps, adjusting to North Carolina’s summer conspirators of heat, humidity, and dew point, or a sip of some unfiltered high octane moonshine warped his thinking.

I grew up in Burlington. I did not graduate from an ACC school. But, from the first basketball shot I took on the dirt court in my backyard, the league’s teams, players, and coaches never left my heart.

Yes, I agree this is a bold move by the commissioner. It is wise to assess daily operations, assets, and to peer into the future. But, suggesting that Greensboro might not be the best fit for future growth is irresponsible. I guess Bentonville, Arkansas hasn’t been a good fit for Walmart.

Change is always a challenge. No one wants to be pushed out of his/her comfort zone. And while the goal might be to keep these assessments neutral from an emotional stand point, that isn’t possible. Why? People. 

Since 1953, the people of Greensboro have put their hearts and souls into collaboratively constructing with conference leaders a successful league. That history, legacy, hospitality, work ethic,  and support ought to count for something. If these attributes are not taken into fair consideration with the evaluation teams, then their findings will be pointless.

Instead of focusing these assessments on media opportunities, alignment with Fortune companies, corporate sponsorships, branding, and making more money, why not use the studies to help solve challenges the league faces? 

For example, how could the medical schools in the league conduct research to reduce injuries for all athletes? How might athletic directors find ways to reduce the impact of powerful alumni? How could university leaders work to insure that coaches apply integrity and honor in recruiting and developing relationships with student athletes? How can travel costs be reduced?

Perhaps Commissioner Phillips knows of the Wieners Circle, a hotdog stand, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  While their charbroiled hot dogs are delicious, customers also seem to enjoy the sometimes snarky attitude of their employees, and the profane quirkiness of the messages on the restaurant’s marquee.

What does the Wieners Circle have to do with the ACC?

Truthfully, nothing, except for one critical ingredient—people.

Since 1983, despite snarky employees, and a wacky marquee, people keep coming back to the Wieners Circle—why?

 The answer is grounded in their location, a quality product, and management that understands the pulse of the people they serve.

Comparably, Greensboro is an ideal geographic location, the city offers quality support, and without question the city’s intelligent, visionary, and loyal people have sustained the ACC through a wide range of challenges.

In our fast paced, impatient world, loyalty is often overlooked. In this process, Greensboro’s loyalty can’t be overlooked.

Commissioner Phillips, I hope your heart understands loyalty.

If you need any help in grasping loyalty, you might consider consulting with Bass, Campbell, Fife, Lawson, Pyle, and Taylor in Mt. Airy. They know quite a bit about loyalty.

Commissioner Phillips, leaders are supposed to look forward into the future. It is tough, necessary work.

In doing this work, it is also necessary to understand the heart, the pulse of Greensboro. Greensboro’s heart has always been loyal to the ACC.

The real question is whether your heart believes in Greensboro’s loyalty.

Photo supplied by Bill Pike

We are not all. We are “me”.

I call them early summer morning simmering sinner runs. Thanks to a Bermuda high anchored off the coast, the temperature, humidity, and dew point miserably conspire. From these conspirators, by the end of the run, I am soaked in perspiration. I think this is a good way to get the meanness out of my old body.

With these occasional early morning treks, my mind wanders. I don’t know about you, but I have a weariness in my noggin. I think quite a bit about America, and often, I conclude from “sea to shining sea” we are a mess.

If we really think about it, I don’t believe this is new news. Our struggles are well documented. Despite our good intentions, America has been internally wrestling with itself for a long time. 

I am no historian, but I think quite a bit about World War II and how our country responded to the challenges in Europe and the Pacific. Despite our imperfections during that time, what strikes me was our unity, sacrifice, commitment. 

I often ask myself where are those qualities now? Why don’t we want to defeat COVID-19 with the same determination?

Maybe Asbury Pruitt has some insight on those missing qualities. Mr. Pruitt was one of the Tangier Island watermen in Earl Swift’s book, Chesapeake Requiem. Mr. Pruitt perceived that the waves from the Chesapeake Bay were having an impact on the island’s shoreline.

On January 8, 1964, on the western edge of the island, Mr. Pruitt drove an iron pipe into the marshy ground. Next, he measured the distance from the pipe to where the water lapped against the shoreline.

Each year on January 8, Mr. Pruitt returned to the iron pipe and measured the distance to the waterline. For decades, he measured and recorded his findings. During the first seven years of tracking, Mr. Pruitt found an average of twelve feet of shore was eaten away by the bay. 

In 1974, ten years after the start of his research, the Chesapeake eroded away thirty-seven feet of the island. Personally, I believe a similar type of erosion has been wearing on America. Inch by inch, foot by foot, we have been slipping away from our unity, sacrifice, commitment.

Most obvious in this deterioration is the selfish, stubborn emergence of “me.” “Me” appears to thrive in creating incivility, havoc, disunion. That type of thinking erodes us further away from we and all— the good of the cause.

I try to be an optimistic person. 

But, I really struggle to understand why individuals smarter than me will not take the vaccine. I have the same question for medical personnel, police officers, teachers, firefighters—the backbone of our country who refuse to comply. My guess is that “me” has blurred their ability to reason out the facts and find the truth.

With the opening of school upon us, I do not understand the pushback for requiring students and teachers to wear masks. What doesn’t the “me” in our elected public officials and parents understand about the 647,361 Americans (NYTimes 9/4/21) who have died thanks to COVID-19? Does this mean the “me” in them wants to jeopardize the health of more individuals?

Sadly, even within the holy walls of houses of worship, “me” skirmishes occur over masks and vaccines.

I’ll be honest. There is me in me too. I’m imperfect. I can be stubborn and selfish. 

But, with COVID-19, why can’t we be we and all, not “me”? Where might America be now if “me” had been more compliant with masks and vaccines earlier? 

Before departing on my simmering sinner runs, I record the current weather data including visibility. Most mornings, the visibility is ten miles. Some rare mornings, the visibility falls below ten.

During this battle with COVID-19, I think our vision has been undermined. That makes me think about this quote from Helen Keller:  “Better to be blind and see with your heart, than to have two good eyes and see nothing.” 

In responding to COVID-19, the “me” in our current vision is not working. We can’t continue this way.

Asbury Pruitt’s vision and subsequent findings about his cherished island eroding into the Chesapeake were not grounded in “me”. His findings were grounded for the we and all on Tangier.

If we have any chance of defeating COVID-19 like we pushed back our enemies in World War II, we must change the “me” in our hearts to we and all.

A pretty church and our American flag Carpinteria, California 8/8/2018 photo Bill Pike

August, not my favorite month

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that just as soon as school ended on June 11, I started to hear advertisements for Back To School sales.

  During June, July, and August, we receive phone calls in the school office from retailers who would like a copy of the school’s supply list for students.  I wonder how the caller would respond if I asked what would be the school’s cut for sharing this list.

Maybe retailers should put together a Back To School sale for parents, or teachers, or even principals.  I can see the principal’s ad now— a year’s supply of Tums, Maalox, or Prilosec your choice depending upon your daily heartburn rating scale.

I’ll be honest, August does raise my anxiety level a bit.  There’s the rush to make sure that everything will be ready for the return of the teachers. This is quickly followed  by the arrival of those precious little creatures, our students.

But August raises my anxiety for another reason. August is the month that took my parents.

During the last week of August, my memory rolls back to their final days.

I remember the Sunday afternoon in 1992, when I had my last visit with my mother before I drove back to Richmond.  A few days earlier she had been released from the hospital.  Her doctor had told us that she might see the leaves change in the fall, but I don’t think the Hospice nurse was as optimistic.  The cancer was taking its toll. All we were trying to do was to keep her comfortable.

On the morning of Monday, August 31, I was at work early at Hermitage High School getting ready for the start of another school year. Then the call came from my father in North Carolina, the cancer won.

The summer of 2002 found my sister and me focused on our father.  His health both mentally and physically was starting to wear him down.  Physically, his heart was misbehaving, and mentally some of his thinking was starting to catch our attention.

 Knowing that we were putting him and ourselves at risk if he continued to live alone, we visited several assisted living facilities in the area.  But,  before we could commit to one with his blessing, he was back in Alamance Regional Hospital.  His heart was a roller coaster.  That roller coaster eventually earned him an ambulance ride to Duke Hospital.

I don’t think I’ll every forget Saturday, August 31, 2002, but one thing I remember distinctly was how restless my father was.  He could not get comfortable.  No adjustment worked.  He might have slept for ten minutes, fifteen at the most during the day, and his chest rattled with pneumonia.  

Somehow he made it through the day, and as my sister and I watched the hospital staff start to prepare him for a hopeful night of rest his vital signs rapidly went down hill.  It was sometime after midnight when his heart sent out its last beat.

That’s why August isn’t my favorite month.

  And while I miss them a lot, and I wish they were still here, I try to think of the positive.

  My mother didn’t have to continue to battle the cheap shots thrown at her by the cancer, and my father never had to give up his independence by being forced to leave his home.

As I reflect back over these last twelve years, I believe my parents would be pleased with the foundation they instilled in my sister and me.

From their perch in the wild blue yonder, I’m sure they have learned that my sister earned her National Board Certification as a special education teacher, and that her husband has been recognized nationally and internationally for his friend of the environment management style.

For my family, I’m certain that despite my driving her nuts sometimes, they recognize that Betsy is the absolute best mother that our three like night and day children could ever hope to have.  Lauren’s mission work, Andrew’s Eagle Scout, and Elizabeth’s creativity with art for sure have caught their attention.

As for me, I think the one thing that would flutter their angel wings the most is that I have a church family.  You see for many years I didn’t have a church family, and I know this worried my parents.  But my parents should be at ease now, because I have the best church family that any person could ever hope to have.

On one of those dreary cancer laden August afternoons, my mother shared with me her main request from the good Lord.  It was very simple—  she only wanted to live long enough during her life to see her children grown and successful. 

Small in stature, but feisty in spirit my mother’s prayerful request only served to remind me of the sacrifice and commitment our parents made in providing for my sister and me.

And I know this will sound crazy, but sometimes when I’m working out in the yard on a warm, humid August day, my peripheral vision will project a fuzzy image to the screen in my brain. It is like someone has walked into the backyard.  I quickly look up to see if a neighbor has come over to visit, but no one is there.

During these moments, I wonder just for a minute if that fuzzy image was a wayward parental angel making sure that my weeding was up to par. Who knows, perhaps it was just another reminder that my eyesight isn’t what it used to be . 

When you lose your parents, life will never be the same. But, you don’t lose everything with their passing because you still have memories.  

Luke 6:21 is kind of an awkward verse, but with time, it makes sense to me:  “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.” 

For sure tears came when I lost my parents, but in those tears I also hear the shared laughter they found through their families, friends, and their church family. 

When life hits you with the challenges of a personal loss, your family, friends, and church family will with time help you find and hear the laughter in the tears. 

But, don’t be like me, when for years I had no church family. Without them, I’m not sure I would have found and heard the laughter in the tears.

My parents on their wedding day, photo copy Bill Pike

Let us pray:

As we walk through each day of life, help us to appreciate the extensions of our families where we find support and love to sustain us in our ups and downs. In your name we pray, Amen.

Author’s note: This piece was written in 2004, and I believe it was shared with the Outreach Sunday school class as a devotional during the month of August, but I’m not sure of the year.

Reflecting Back With Doe-Wah-Jack 1971

I didn’t deserve the diploma I was handed from the faculty and staff of Walter Williams High School in Burlington, North Carolina on a spring evening in 1971. Academically, I never applied myself, socially except for attending football and basketball games I wasn’t there, and I was a complete zero in terms of being part of giving back to the community.

Yet, 50 years later from that evening, some how, some way, I landed on my feet and found a path forward.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 18, 2021, my wife confirmed that our high school and college yearbooks were neatly tucked away in a plastic storage box on a shelf in our basement. I found the the Navy blue 1971 Doe-Wah-Jack with its musty scent, and I walked into the next room, sat at my desk, and thumbed through it.

From the 1971 yearbook

Immediately, I was taken back into that sturdy building, a fortress, constructed from real durable materials, by craftsmen who understood the importance of applying their skills with a respect for quality. 

If only the building could talk. I’m certain every piece of that imposing structure and its grounds has a journal of stories. Stories about people because that is what school buildings are grounded in— people. 

I know a bit about school buildings and the people in them. For 31 years, I served the public schools in Virginia as a teacher, coach, administrative aide, assistant principal, and principal. During my career, I had the good fortune of serving in a high school, middle school, and elementary school. And no matter where I was assigned, any success I found came not from my abilities, but by the people who surrounded me.

In the yearbook, I looked into the seven faces of the school board  members. No women on that board, and one African American. I can only begin to imagine the discussions they had when the courts ordered the school system to integrate. 

But, that is a significant part of the history of the Class of 1971. Closing the historically black high school, Jordan Sellars, and sending the school’s students to Walter Williams and the new Cummings High School was quite a bold move. Once again, people thinking, putting together the logistics of a challenging puzzle.

Athletics aside, I was amazed at the number of extracurricular clubs that were available for students. We even had a Bible Club. But, back to athletics, I saw no sports for girls—only cheerleading and PE classes.

There was another interesting photo—the school system hired students to drive school buses. What an amazing trust the hiring adults had in those students.

The faculty at Walter Williams was a wide range of characters, but for sure the yearbook dedication in 1971 was perfect—Coach Barry Hodge. He was all heart. Every school has a teacher and coach like him. Those all heart teachers and coaches have the rare ability to reach the hearts of unreachable students. Teachers who reach the hearts of students hold a special place in heaven.

In my 50 years since graduating, I attended only one reunion— the fifth year. Yet, I have sort of followed Burlington from a distance as my sister, Lisa, and her husband, Eric Henry, still reside in Alamance County.

Thanks to the internet and Facebook, I have reconnected a bit with the class. Celia Touloupas, Denise Guthrie, and Marie Coble stumbled upon an op-ed I wrote that appeared in the Burlington newspaper a couple of years ago. Tinkering with words is one of my favorite things to do. When I make a post on my Word Press blog site named—Might Be Baloney, sometimes Celia, Denise, and Marie read the post and comment.

A few years ago, I worked on a lighting project at our church with another member of the Class of 71—David “Daisy” Coleman. At the time, David lived and worked in Richmond, Virginia. He still looked like the three sport athlete that he was in high school.

 Richmond, specifically, Henrico County is where my wife and I settled in the summer of 1979 to start our family and eventually raise three children.

From the Class of 71, I have kept in touch with my life long friend, John Huffman. That friendship started in the fourth grade at Hillcrest Elementary School. John, his parents, and siblings were like a second family to me as we grew up. I will always admire John’s sense of humor and his ability to make people laugh. Lord knows a good laugh is good for our souls especially in this challenging world.

Even though Burlington like all cities had and still has its imperfections, I would not trade anything for growing up there. My parents, God bless them, never stopped loving me or believing in me no matter how boneheaded I was. I know they were thankful when that undeserved diploma was firmly in my hand.

For any classmates in the Class of 1971, if I offended or disappointed you  with my words, actions, or inactions I apologize. I know I could be snarky like Eddie Haskell to my teachers at times. But, somehow I avoided being sent to the office.

Looking through the yearbook is an opportunity to reflect, and I know for sure that I could have been better in lots of different ways, and I guess that is what living now is about for me. How can I attempt to make this old world better before my time comes?

I thank Mrs. Barnwell, my senior year English teacher, for exposing me to different literature. I have never forgotten Catcher In The Rye or Black Like Me. Maybe that is what put me on the path to majoring in English during college.

A long time ago, when I first thumbed through my crisp, clean copy of the Doe-Wah-Jack, I was surprised to find in the early pages the lyrics to the Beatles’ song “In My Life.” Perhaps no truer words have ever been crafted by a songwriter, and yes, I was a diehard fan of all things Beatles. A special thanks to the staff for including those heartfelt lyrics.

In looking through the posts on the Class of 71’s Facebook page on Wednesday afternoon, I was saddened to read the names of classmates who have jumped into the wild blue yonder. Good, good people who made an impact no matter where they landed.

Despite the pandemic, I hope all goes well on Saturday evening for the 50th reunion. I appreciate the leadership of the organizers. That’s tough work.

I’ll leave you with these words from my favorite writer, Pat Conroy. Sadly, Mr. Conroy is also up in the wild blue yonder. 

At the age of 68, I think about these words quite a bit. 

Who knows maybe you will too.

  “I want you to know how swift time is, and there is nothing as swift—a heartbeat, an eye blink. This is the way life is. It is the only great surprise in life.” From Pat Conroy’s commencement speech at The Citadel May 12, 2001

Class of 1971, be safe, God bless, 

Bill Pike Richmond, Virginia

Photo courtesy of the Henrico County School Board

The State of Our Hearts Is Not Sound

On Tuesday mornings, groceries collected at our church are delivered to the Sherbourne Food Pantry. Each week, we take the same route passing a large hospital. On a banner unfurled from the building’s facade, I read these words:  “We heal the most hearts.”

I don’t know if this hospital leads Richmond hospitals in medically healing hearts. But as a rapidly aging, grumpy, geezer, I will assert that I worry about the non-medical state of our American hearts. 

Our Presidents proclaim in the State of the Union Address that our Union in these United States is sound. I’m sorry, but I beg to differ. I do not believe the state of our country to be sound, nor do I think our hearts are sound.

It seems logical to me that if our Union and our hearts were sound, then by now, we would have solved many of the societal challenges that continue to garner headlines every day in every state. 

We continue to shoot and kill each other. According to Gun Violence Archives as of August 16, 2021–12,779 Americans have died from being shot. 

 Our mental health needs exceed our capacity to help. Sadly, in some instances seeing no mental health solution to the strain of living suicide becomes a remedy. In 2021, data from Gun Violence Archives reveals that 15,048 Americans have died from suicide by using a firearm.

People continue to die from drug overdoses. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that more than 93,000 people died in America from drug overdoses. Sadly, this is a new record.

An expanding economic divide continues to create challenges with housing, employment, education, health, food, and equity.

Toss in division, incivility, impatience, injustice, mistrust, selfishness, and fear, and America is a mess.

Former United States Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, speaking at the Richmond Forum in January 2012 stated: “The United States faces threats from extremists and unstable regimes around the world, but it’s the nation’s own political incivility that poses the gravest risk.” 

Almost ten years later, Mr. Gates’ words have come true.

Why?

Well, there are many possible answers.

But, let’s start with fear. Fear drives us more than we might realize. Fear has the capacity to frazzle a weary nation. This is especially true when we can’t agree on the truth.

I sense that neglect is another part of our risks. Despite good intentions, we never truly solve the issues that have nagged us for years. Band aiding our long standing neglect isn’t a solution.

Something has happened to our internal wiring linking our brains and our hearts. A selfish, stubbornness grounds our thinking.We tend to pivot more for our individual selves than we do for the collective good of the cause. Vaccinating and wearing masks for COVID-19 is only one example. 

Perhaps most concerning in all of this is our hearts. 

Have our hearts lost the capacity to love our neighbors?

At times, I wonder if my heart is capable of loving my neighbors. 

How do I love the individual who openly spews a profanity laced phone call in public, the driver who dangerously ignores the rules of the road, or a long time friend who vehemently disagrees with my thinking?

In those real life encounters, if I form my impulsive response without listening to my heart, then I only add to the negativity of the moment. 

Earl Swift’s book Chesapeake Requiem accurately captures how over time islands in the Chesapeake Bay have disappeared. Often, these islands contained flourishing communities.  A variety of factors contributed to their vanishing into the bay’s waters. 

But deep inside my heart, I worry that a similar erosion, a comparable wearing down of America is taking place right in front of us. Leading this deterioration is our division. Whether we like it or not, we must solve this disunion.

No one can deny the remarkable medical advancements made in repairing hearts. Yet, despite these improvements, we struggle to transform our hearts in non-medical settings.

Recently, my wife and I spent time trying to keep up with two of our grandchildren. One day, our three year old grandson, showed me a tiny car. In a matter of seconds, with quick twists of his wrists, he transformed the car into a different vehicle.

That interaction made me think about our hearts—why does it take us so long to transform our human hearts? Why can’t we with a couple of quick twists and clicks make the proper adjustments to change our hearts?

Perhaps, the answer is very simple—we are too stubborn. 

Our hearts are impaired by our inability, our unwillingness to talk, listen, compromise.

While my heart is discouraged, I will hold out for hope.

Hope that we can find the courage within us to change by understanding the incivility of division is not good for our Union or our hearts.

Photo Bill Pike