What was that? Just an oak tree and a general

On the morning of Thursday, July 2, 2020, I was sitting at our kitchen table. I know it was after 8 o’clock.

A blue sky, bright sunshine, and a stillness filled our backyard as I skimmed the newspaper.

And then, there was an indescribable sound. A sound so sudden and quick that my brain could not immediately identify it. My wife shouted down from upstairs—“What was that?”

Within those few seconds, I started to figure out what was taking place. 

First, we had lost power, and when I looked into our backyard I could still see utility lines wobbling. As my eyes scanned to the top of the power pole in the back northwest corner, I could see that the main transmission line was down as it headed west into our neighbor’s yard. 

I could hear voices of neighbors as we scrambled from our houses to figure out what had gone wrong.

Without warning, a massive, specimen oak tree decided— I’ve hung around here enough, I’m out of here. 

This towering giant was in a backyard on Hollins the street behind us.

 It fell following the path of the utility lines into two other yards. The force of its weight, size of its limbs, and slow motion speed of its fall damaged tool sheds, other trees, and assorted backyard  stuff, but thankfully no human beings were in the tree’s path. 

But, there was a close call. A neighbor who was in his backyard near his now smashed tool shed, heard the sound of the crashing monster, and instinctively dove to the ground. He was covered in mud, but still breathing.

Once back in the house, I called Dominion Energy our power supplier. I reported the outage and pinpointed the path of the downed lines from our pole to the West.

Luckily, it was not an unbearably hot July day. 

By late morning, Penn Line, a tree company with expertise in dealing with trees and power lines was working to clear a path through the tree debris. This would allow the linesmen from Dominion Energy to assess the damage and start repairs.

After dinner, we took a walk over to Hollins. Interestingly, the family where the tree once lived had just moved into the neighborhood. That fallen oak created quite a welcome for them.

The fallen oak by Bill Pike

I’m always a bit sad when a tree like this goes down. My sadness is that no one ever wants to even think about trying to make lumber out of the trunk. That trunk gets chopped up and ground up just like the limbs and hauled away.

Back home, we settled outside on our deck and watched the sun casted shadows start to fade away. The hues of blue in the sky began to darken to the droning of generators.

As we continued to watch the encroachment of the darkness, we scanned the sky for stars. Slowly, our eyes began to discover these tiny specks of light against a canvas that continued to lose its shades of blues.

At some point, we had a couple of intruders in our backyard. These were good intruders. Their LED headlamps and flashlights indicated they were Dominion employees. One of them was carrying a long, yellow, insulated pole called a “hot stick”.

These technicians were scoping out the transformer at the top of our backyard pole. With lots of skill and practice, one of the technicians used the “hot stick” to reset the tripped fuse on the transformer. We thanked them for their work, and they told us our power should be back on soon.

And they were correct, within twenty minutes, we had power again. We were back to normal.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know very little about 2020 has been normal. 

Normal has been disrupted by a mean unwanted virus COVID-19, and our country’s inability to grasp, understand, and work together to try and solve lots and lots of issues related to social injustice.

These issues have been festering for years and the death of George Floyd reopened those painful, non-healing sores.

In our community, Richmond, Virginia, where we have lived since the summer of 1979, the Civil War statues on beautiful Monument Avenue have been a part of that agitation.

 That agitation, once again served to illustrate the divide between us. We were divided during the Civil War, and we are divided now in a way that I could never have imagined.

I respect history, but I have never understood our inability to let go of the Civil War.

For some reason, I think my foe fear has something to do with that.

On the front page of the Thursday, July 2 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch the headline read:  STONEWALL FALLS.

Under the headline is a stunning photograph by Times-Dispatch photographer, Alexa Welch Edmunds, of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. His statue on the previous afternoon had been carefully removed by a demolition crew.

The photograph allows the reader to see every sculpted detail of his bearded face. But, the General’s bronzed eyes catch my attention.

I have stared into the General’s eyes on several occasions since July 2. 

I wonder what the General was thinking with straps, chains, and ropes garnered around him as he was removed from the massive pedestal?

I wonder what he thinks about all that has transpired within his view during the last several days?

I wonder if he saw Monument Avenue like a battle field?

I wonder if time could have changed this thinking?

While a student at Virginia Tech, our oldest daughter, Lauren,  took a class about the Civil War. The professor was James I. Robertson, Jr.

Dr. Robertson was known as an expert, a scholar on the Civil War.

One Christmas, Lauren gave me an autographed copy of Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims. Dr. Robertson served as the editor of this book project.

On the top of page 86 is this maxim:

“You may be what ever you will resolve to be.”

So, I ask—America what do we resolve to be?

America—Do we resolve to continue down this same agitated, hurtful, divided path?

Or America, do we have the resolve to look deep into our hearts to find the courage to wrestle with the challenges that have wearied our living for too many years?

For the resolve that is left in my rapidly aging puny body, mind, and heart, I hope we find our courage. 

I hope we choose to wrestle with our challenges and our fears, and I pray we can rid ourselves of this hurtful division between us.

We can’t let fear and division consume us.

If fear and division win, then our failure will leave us like a fallen oak and general.

Empty pedestal Monument and Arthur Ashe Boulevard Richmond, VA by Bill Pike

#75 Happy birthday Mr. McGinty

My first job teaching English was at Hermitage High School. I started in late August of 1979.  That is when I met John McGinty who as an assistant principal at the time.

He had a legal pad way back then too. 

Seems I recall that he might have driven a lime green, VW bug convertible.

John knew how to get the attention of a young teacher. 

One day,  I remember being summoned to his office. When I arrived, John showed me a question that he had written on the legal pad:  How would you like to earn, and out beside the question was an amount of money. 

For a young teacher, pennies were important. John was looking for a tennis coach at Hermitage. I had played tennis with friends, but never competitively at any level. However, John promised to help me set up the tryouts and other details, and I took the assignment. Of course, Uncle Sam took most of the pennies.

At some point, Hermitage lost John to Godwin, and John was a success there too. Eventually, he became the principal, and even to this day John remains a legend in Eagle land.

Our paths would cross at principal meetings. He was always a good professional listening ear in our conversations. No matter where a person served as principal in the county, it was tough work.

 And John had to weather some storms at Godwin, and he did. 

I think John weathered storms because of a quiet internal strength deep inside of him, and I believe his heart was always a part of this thinking and decision making.

When John retired from Godwin, another interesting assignment was in front of him. He became the Headmaster at Benedictine High School in the city. In lots of ways, John was returning to his turf. 

Perhaps one of the craziest things John did during the latter part of his tenure at Benedictine was to hire me as a part-time freshman English teacher. John still had his legal pad with him at Benedictine, and yes, the Cadets loved and respected his leadership there too. 

Once a knucklehead senior cadet who had nothing better to do late on a Saturday night called my house as a prankster. Somehow, John tracked the senior down. An apology was given to me, and no more phone calls happened.

I think Bruce Bowen stated on Facebook that there are too many John McGinty stories out there to chronicle. I agree.

 I suspect that the volume of stories would require a new wing to be added to the Boatwright Memorial Library on the campus of the University of Richmond.  This would be especially true since two of John’s hobbies— fishing and golf really lend themselves to truth stretching.

No one enjoys a good laugh more than John McGinty. A highly reliable source once shared the story of the white dolphin with me. 

The setting was a local restaurant with a bar. John convinced his friend, a bright, seasoned educator, who was no rookie in this environment to take a shot of a distilled spirit. 

The mystique of this spirit was so clear and mellow that makers of white rum, vodka, and gin from around the world were envious. They wanted to know the skills of the distiller who had created a beverage with such clarity, strength, and smoothness.

Finally, his friend agreed to take the shot. John caught the eye of the bartender who of course, John knew. He ordered the white dolphin. 

The shot glass arrived. 

And only as McGinty could orchestrate, all eyes around the bar focused on his unsuspecting friend. His friend bravely hoisted the glass and gulped it down. The white dolphin was simply a shot of tap water. Folks around this scene erupted, and John’s friend did not clobber him.

So, John you are 75. Maybe, I thought you were a lot older. 

For some reason with your middle initial “B” I figured you might have been named after the elderly Bahamian folk song “The Sloop John B.” 

Perhaps,  the John B. naming helped you secure the teaching and coaching position at the Naval Academy. I think they know a little bit about water there. Who knows maybe those midshipmen know something about white dolphins too.

Wow 75, there is no way you are 75. I still see you as an ageless wonder from my first encounter at Hermitage.

I hope there are 75 more years ahead of you.

Pat Conroy wrote:  “One can learn anything, anything at all, I thought, if provided by a gifted and passionate teacher.”

John, I think that quote says a lot about you. 

You have never stopped learning.

You have always used your gifts to help people.

And you have always been passionate about your God, your family, your profession, and the people who have stumbled into your life along the way.

I’m glad I stumbled into your path. 

Happy Birthday my friend!

The infamous White Dolphin photo by Bill Pike

Yard work at church is good for your soul.

The announcement had been in the church newsletter for weeks. I had no idea how many people from our congregation might show up to work on the grounds of our church.

It was the second weekend of August, and even with COVID-19 still disrupting lives, I knew some people would be out of town. And, I knew that August can be brutal with a hot sun, along with high humidity and dew points. But,  I was still hopeful that a few brave souls would show up.

At the breakfast table on that Saturday morning, my wife asked me how many people did I think would be there. I think I guessed five.

Our church grounds are pretty, and they also require lots of attention. Natural areas, landscaped borders, trees, shrubs, flowers, lawn areas, parking lots, sidewalks, and weeds—lots of weeds.

We have an annual contract with a grounds maintenance company. Their employees really take care of our grounds, but we contract for very basic requirements—mowing, edging, some trimming, and most importantly for the fall gathering up of all our leaves.

I had spent time developing a list of areas to target for attention on Saturday. Plus, I had requested a load of mulch from a church member who runs a landscaping business. This load arrived late on Thursday afternoon. Friday, I organized tools, checked tires on wheelbarrows, and filled a cooler with bottles of water and ice.

Early on Saturday morning, I went to the church to organize the tools, stage the cooler, and make access to restrooms.

By 8:30, we were ready to start, and seven brave souls arrived. There were actually nine of us including my wife and I.

We had three weeders who tackled the front grounds facing Forest Avenue.

 On the Stuart Hall Road side, we had a team of three for mulch, and a mother and her teenage daughter who did masterful work with a weed eater and a power washer. 

I did some overdue trimming in the Bicentennial Garden and along the stairs leading to the back parking lot along Rock Creek Road.

The word of the morning was sweat. Within minutes, no matter our task, we were perspiring. August was being August, no one was spared. But, I never heard a whimper from anyone working.

What I saw was diligence, determination, and care. These volunteers worked in their designated areas like the grounds were their own backyards.

The weeders had keen eyesight. They did not miss a weed, nor did they dig up non-weeds.

The mulch team got the spreading depth right, and they knew how to top off their work with a touch of neatness. When a long stretch of a border was completed parallel to a broad sidewalk, a push broom and leaf blower were put to use.

Our teenager with the power washer had a tough assignment. She was working in the Memorial Garden, confined space with brick walls that over time mother nature had coated with all kinds of micro vegetation.

Her mom with the weed eater tackled a natural area that we work to keep from becoming overgrown.

Not everyone was able to stay until 12 noon, but every minute given by these volunteers with big hearts made a difference.

As noon approached, we found natural stopping points. We cooperatively returned tools, buckets, and wheelbarrows to their storage places.

I thanked each person and wished them a restful afternoon.

I am convinced that yard work at your home or at your church is good for your soul. I think we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves in those environments. I also believe it is a time to reflect.

Take weeds for an example, no question weeds are a nuisance. 

At times, I think people might see me as a nuisance, and I might be blind to my weed like shortcomings that annoy people. 

But, I wonder if weeds were God’s creation as he was developing his landscape plan. Or maybe weeds were the creation of another nuisance—the Devil. 

The closest I ever heard my father come to cussing was over his garden nemesis—wire grass. I can still hear him, “That durn wire grass.”

Maybe we need weeds to remind our souls that sometimes weeding is required in our personal lives too. I have lots of imperfections.

As pesty and pesky as weeds are to mess with during their growing season, they do have an admirable trait—resilience. 

If you don’t whack them out completely by their roots, weeds are going to grow back.

We need some resilience in our world right now. 

In case you haven’t noticed, we have lots of weariness all around us.

I wonder if we can sacrifice, can we adjust, can we change, can we cooperate, can we listen, can we bounce back, can we recover, can we right ourselves?

Answering those questions all depends on our hearts.

Maybe the most resilient heart in the whole world belongs to God.

No matter how weedy our lives might be, his resilient heart never gives up on us.

And right now, we can’t give up on his heart either.

Mulch pile and tools Stuart Hall Road parking lot Photo Bill Pike

Hey, God needs a day off.

Back on Monday, August 3, the media and weather forecasters had everyone along the East coast whipped into a frenzy over tropical storm/hurricane Isaias.

That day, I spent quite a few hours at Trinity checking out drains on roofs, window wells, and landings of exterior stairwells.

Mixed in that work, I kept wondering about our basement at home. I wondered if I should go purchase a new marine battery that served as the backup for our sump pump in case the storm knocked out power in our neighborhood.

Our neighborhood with its large, senior citizen trees is notorious for losing power even on non-stormy days.

Eventually, I decided to gamble on the five year old marine battery. By dinner time, some early rain bans were hitting us, and there was an occasional wind gust rustling through the trees. 

Our new one year old drainage system in the basement was working. Water was draining into the sump pump well, and the pump was dumping it out with consistency.

At bedtime, radar showed lots of rain still coming toward us, but there was some hint that Isaias could stray a bit more toward the East. If that happened, we might be less exposed to wind.

I don’t know how much I slept, but I was up early. We still had power, and yes, thank goodness the basement was dry.

A bit after 6:30, I received a text from the superintendent in charge of a renovation project at Trinity. He and his crew were planning to work, so I left the house to open the building for them. 

On Monday, we had decided to cancel our Zoom staff meeting for Tuesday, and told our personnel who had been coming into the building to stay home.

The only good thing about Isaias was its forward speed. It was moving up the coastline quickly. But, just before the storm made landfall near Ocean Isle, North Carolina it had increased in strength becoming a Category I hurricane with 85 mph winds.

That surge in energy allowed Isaias to wreak havoc for anything in its path. Just ask residents of Oak Island, North Carolina and communities where the storm spawned tornadoes.  Even my mother-in-law in West Hartford, Connecticut  was impacted. The retirement community where she resides lost power until late Friday afternoon.

But, after all, it is summer. 

I have lived in North Carolina and Virginia my entire life. Summer means heat, humidity, high dew points, mean thunderstorms, stretches of scorching heat with no rain, and hurricanes to keep us honest with God.

Now all of that is enough to make a person weary. But, toss in the mess we are in with COVID-19 and all the things related and not related to the virus, and we have another storm.

By 9:30 on Tuesday morning, sunlight and blue sky were starting to appear. I knew the kind folks over at the Sherbourne Food Pantry were counting on our delivery.

I went back to Trinity and decided to see if the bed of the church pick-up truck was full of water. It wasn’t, but as I was checking the truck, I took note of all the extra cars parked in the Rock Creek Road parking lot. These were cars of people from the neighborhood. They had parked their cars over night to keep them safe from trees that might have decided to topple.

I drove the pickup to the front of the Welcome Center and started loading up the 42 bags of groceries. I also had 100 frozen burritos to deliver courtesy of a Trinity member who has started a business making these.

Loaded pick up ready for Sherbourne by Bill Pike

The drive over was uneventful.

When I arrived at Sherbourne, I sensed a bit of weariness. Turns out Isaias had left a parting gift to the church—four inches of water in the old basement.

A Tuesday summer morning at Sherbourne UMC by Bill Pike

Dedicated members of the Sherbourne team had used their skills along with shop vacs, mops, and fans to clear out the unwanted guest. With that behind them, they were accepting and starting to organize the food for the clients that would be there on Wednesday for pick up.

A Sherbourne member asked how Trinity had fared from the storm, and I told him we were lucky—we had no problems.

I wonder what a problem free day in our world would look like?

We have become so accustomed to things going wrong, I’m not sure we would recognize a problem free day.

But, I’ll tell you who deserves a day with no problems and no troubles—God.

I wonder what he would do with a real day off?

A summer morning by Bill Pike

A ballerina and no brain

On Friday, July 31, the Commander Supreme and I were heading to Cary, North Carolina. The parents of a ballerina had invited us.

We met our departure time. I drove to the North Carolina Welcome Center on I-85, and then the Commander took over. There was lots of traffic for a Friday morning.

Being a native of North Carolina, I am still partial to the Belks department store chain. A long time ago, there was a Belks at Willow Lawn in Richmond, but not anymore.

So, we made a stop at the Belks store at Southpoint Mall. With our masks on, we entered, and were promptly greeted by kind personnel. Thanks to some deep discounts offered by the stressed COVID-19 retailer, we made a few purchases.

Now, we were headed to Cary, and thankfully, the GPS directed us. For some reason, I lose all sense of direction in this part of North Carolina.

We arrive safely at the home of our oldest daughter, Lauren, and her husband, Doug. The ballerina, Caroline, is playing quietly. Her brother, Hudson, is still napping. And for a few minutes that’s what I decide to do.

I’m not down too long, and my pal, Hudson, is coming for me. For the next two hours, we play nonstop. We toss balls, roll balls, race tiny vehicles, put puzzles together, putt plastic golf balls, act silly, and sometimes chase Caroline.

Eventually, I make it upstairs to the playroom. It is a disaster zone, but a good one. Toys are everywhere. I am given a tour that often includes commentary.

But when I take a seat on the couch, Dr. Caroline, and her physician’s assistant, Dr. Hudson, take over. 

It is a very thorough exam, blood pressure, temperature, ears, heart, bandaids, and a shot. Yes, Dr. Hudson took great pleasure in giving me not one, but several shots. And he giggled with delight when I cringed and pretended to cry.

But, the most startling news came from Dr. Caroline. Her exam had concluded that I do not have a brain. I accepted her diagnosis, and told Dr. Caroline this would confirm what her Nahna had known for years.

Then there was a great scurry to get ready for the recital. The pursuit of perfection took over as Lauren, the Commander, and our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, started running through their checklist. 

We made it out the door in plenty of time. We were driving along when the Commander thought out loud— I wonder if Lauren has Doug’s camera. Doug was meeting us at the dance studio.

A call was made to the car ahead of us, and of course, the camera had been forgotten.

Now, the urgent scramble started:  turn around, grab the camera, and make it to the dance studio on time. Somehow, we made it with an assist from the traffic light gods.

The dance instructors had done a nice job of communicating to the families of the dancers. 

We all wore our masks, getting into the building was carefully choreographed and timed out. Each room we entered had a purpose, and kid friendly backdrops had been staged for professional and family photos.

Our little ballerina seemed fine at each stage. Her performance would be solo without any of the other students from her class.

For whatever reason, when it was her time to perform her routine and charm her family audience—she wasn’t buying it.

Despite lots of kindhearted coaxing, our ballerina held fast to her decision. Her uncharacteristic balk left the adults puzzled. Maybe Hudson sensed this too as he initiated a micro melt down during the negotiating with our ballerina.

In the end, the  caring adults gave up, and eventually, thank you and best wishes were communicated, and we headed for home.

Much like a loss after an athletic event, the post-ballerina analysis started to unfold. 

Post-game analysis dissect a defeat from lots of perspectives. Everyone is trying to figure out why. 

Sometimes fingers of blame are pointed. And in certain situations, we might even make God the scapegoat. After all, both teams usually pray and ask God to lead them to victory. 

Maybe a fan’s analysis might go like this: “I guess God didn’t want my team to win today. I can’t wait to get to that communion rail on Sunday morning. I’m going to give God an earful.”

Being God must be tough work.

 Being a parent is tough, tough, tough work. The learning curve with each child is different. Children push parent brains into overtime and overdrive. 

No wonder Dr. Caroline stated I have no brain. After being a part of raising three children, I’m pretty sure what was left of mine is gone.

When I was a very chubby kid in elementary school, my parents made me, that’s right they made me, be in the children’s choir at Davis Street Methodist Church. 

I loved the practices and rehearsals. But, I never sang a note in live performances. I was too busy crying. I could not handle being in front of people.

To my parents credit, they never backed off. They just gently kept prodding. Today, whenever I am in front of a group of people, I’m still a bundle of nerves, but I know I can get through what I have been asked to do.

In the years that lie ahead of us, and when we reflect about 2020, we all know COVID-19 is going to bear lots and lots of blame for everything that went wrong that year. And, I think that is fair, because COVID-19 in all of its meanness also disrupted routines—even for ballerinas.

Even though I barely remember them now, Caroline’s mother had some balky moments when she was growing up too. We all did.

And in those early formative years, if a person had told me—you know your daughter, Lauren, is going to do a summer internship in the inner city of Los Angeles during college— I would have laughed at the person. But Lauren did, and she would probably tell you that internship was a highlight in her life.

I hope someday in the future long after I’m gone, Lauren, Doug, Caroline, Hudson, and their Aunt Elizabeth will be sharing family stories.

Someone will say—do you remember the COVID-19 dance recital?

My guess is their eyes will catch each other with a quick glance, and then in the next second they will all burst into laughter.

Yes, learning curves with each child will be different. Parent brains will be challenged. 

But at the end of the day in a quiet moment, if a parent can reflect back and chuckle just a smidgeon, then that parent has a chance at surviving.

Plaza outside public library in Cary, North Carolina photo by Bill Pike

Holding On

Holding On by Bill Pike draft started 6/14/20

 “What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?” Job 6:11 (NIV)

Today’s Reading 

Luke 13:6-9

Thought For The Day

By trusting the good Lord, holding on becomes manageable.

The hydrangea bush was a gift. 

It came in a small container with instructions for planting and care.

My wife found a good location for planting the bush. I planted it in the middle of a border at the end of our deck.

With time, the bush enjoyed its location and rapidly grew. Soon, the hydrangea produced beautiful blue blossoms.

Even though our care for the bush was consistent, one summer the hydrangea did not bloom. The next summer, we encountered the same.

Like the vineyard owner in Luke 13, my wife became impatient. She was ready for me to dig up the hydrangea.

But like the caregiver in the scripture, I asked for more time. The following summer the bush filled out with green leaves. But, we saw no signs of blooms. 

Late one evening we had a heavy rain shower. The next morning I was working in the yard. I stopped to look at the hydrangea, and sprinkled throughout the bush were the beginnings of tiny blossoms.

We live in an impatient world. 

Sometimes in life, our impatience makes us want to give up too soon. Holding on can be challenging.  

We even might feel like Job and wonder why should we be patient?

But, it can be in the holding on when we learn the patient caregiver the good Lord is with us.

And that can be the moment when we feel the extra strength and hope we need to hold on.

Prayer:  Father of us all, help us to be patient in our holding on. Amen

Submitted to the Upper Room for consideration 6/15/20

Rejected by the Upper Room 7/16/20

“America, you look lost.”

Mothers have an intuitive nature about their children. I think they can sense when something isn’t quite right with a child.

Perhaps in a different way, people who are responsible for taking care of a building might be intuitive too. 

Last week, when I walked into the church where I work, I heard a pump running. It was one of the pumps that helps keep our Sanctuary cool on these blistering hot July days. I knew the thermostat was turned up past the 80 degree mark. No way that pump should be running.

Turns out a tiny relay switch decided to misbehave. Truth is the switch was wearing out. That allowed it to send out just enough electricity to make a pump or an air handler run without reason. 

Thankfully, the technicians from the HVAC company who take care of our building tracked down the out of sorts switch. Our electricity bill would have been even higher if the pump or air handler had run for days unnoticed.

For me the last scene in the movie, Cast Away, has always been worth noticing. The film stars Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt. And one line of the dialogue in that scene has stayed with me.

The character Mr. Hanks portrays was given up for dead after the Federal Express plane he was in goes down in severe weather out over the ocean. Just in case you haven’t seen this 20 year old movie, I will not tell you anymore about how he endures.

But in that last scene, Mr. Hanks pulls his SUV over in a flat Texas cross road. He is looking at a road map on the hood of his vehicle trying to figure out where he is going.

A young lady in an old pickup truck sees him and stops. Her first comment to him is “you look lost.” 

I love that line. Because it makes me reflect about times in my life when I have been lost.

Now, I wasn’t lost, but a few nights ago that scene hit me as I was a few steps away from my bed after a 2 a.m. potty break.

And in terms of being lost the first word that popped into my brain as I tried to return to sleep was America. I thought to myself—“America, you look lost.”

Personally, I think America has been lost for a long, long, long time.  And I think the most frightening part of being lost is our stubborn unwillingness to admit that we are lost.

When  our presidents announce that the “state of the union is sound,” a voice deep inside of me always wants to whisper out “our union isn’t sound.”

  If we are sound why do we have so many problems and challenges? Why are we in such denial about these on going issues? Why can’t we solve our problems and challenges?

Perhaps, the answer to that question is found in the National Extremes. 

Not everyday, but quite often I note that section on the weather page in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The National Extremes are the high and low temperature readings for the 48 contiguous states. 

I am always amazed when the national high and low are in California. Recently, Needles was the high at 111 degrees while the low was 28 at Bodie State Park. If you ever have the chance to visit Bodie, go—it is a ghost town.

According to Google Maps, the distance between Bodie and Needles is 449.1 miles. Truthfully, one of my fears about America is distance, the distance between our hearts, our souls, and our thinking. 

Why are we so far apart? Why is it so hard for us to find common ground and work for the common good? Where is our courage? Where is our sacrifice?

I know there were differences of opinion in World War II, but if our Greatest Generation had been this far apart during the war, might the unimaginable have occurred?

Right now, we Americans are reluctant to make the simple sacrifice of wearing masks during this pandemic. When I think about the sacrifices families made during World War II to support our country, quite honestly I am ashamed of our current inability to sacrifice during this crisis.

Drew Willson is a Methodist minister. He is also an accomplished songwriter, singer, and musician. His second album, Ritual Matters, contains a beautiful song titled “Between the Fences.” 

I am drawn to the last two stanzas: 

Now who will take a place between the fences?

Who will make this no-man’s land a land for you and me?

Now I’m yours and you’re mine

We reject the battle line

Now we’re making peace in places in between

Now I’m yours and you’re mine

Break the bread and pour the wine

Come on, set the table in the in between

Why are we afraid of the gap, the place between the fences, the no-man’s land, and the in-between between us? Why can’t we reject the battle lines? Why can’t we make peace in the places between us?

Bernard M. Baruch once stated:  “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Maybe that is our problem—we have failed at listening.

If my ears can hear the muffled sound of a pump that should not be running through layers of concrete and steel, then why can’t my ears hear the brokenness of my fellow man? 

What is wrong with my listening skills?

 In his book My Losing Season, Pat Conroy wrote:  “The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life.”

Jesus was one of those great teachers. And maybe his best pedagogical skill was his ability to listen.

That is Jesus in Drew Willson’s lyrics.

Jesus knew the turf in between the fences, he knew the people in the no-man lands, and the places in between. And in all those situations Jesus stopped and listened.

Why can’t I?

Fear.

I am afraid to go between the fences, into the no-man lands, and the places in between.

And if fear is really driving me then that means I am ignoring these words from Joshua 1:9:   

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Yes, I believe my country is lost.

If I want to help America find its bearings, then I must improve my hearing, drop my fear, and understand the people between the fences.

And I must never let go of hope.

And I must trust that the good Lord hasn’t given up on you, me, we, and America.

A cross road in my neighborhood

Grumpy’s Summer Vacation: Prepping for departure

I have been to this part of the North Carolina coast at least six times now. 

My first visit I was a chubby kid in elementary school. I can remember taking a ferry across Bogue Sound. We stayed in a cinder block beach house. My parents, my sister, and my mother’s mother, Granny, made the trip.

 I spoke with my mother’s niece, Lora, a few days ago. She confirmed my memory about the ferry and the house where we stayed. Lora knew the family we rented the house from that week. Eventually, Lora and her husband, Graham, purchased a lot, and put up a home on the sound side.

From the Virginia and South Carolina borders, the North Carolina coastline offers a lot to its residents and visitors.

Somehow, these narrow strips of barrier islands and shorelines continue to beat the odds and hang on. At times, I ask how this fragile land withstands all that we humans toss at them. 

I wonder what the wildlife thinks about our presence.

 Maybe the cackle of the laughing seagull is really a laugh of dismay as they take in our appetite to gobble up every square inch of the coastlands for development. 

I hope someone a lot smarter than me can figure out a balance. A balance that will protect this precious coastline for many generations beyond me.

If a person makes a visit to this part of the North Carolina coast without making a drive over to Beaufort, then I think this person should be banned for life from the old north state’s coastline.

Beaufort is a postcard. 

It is a charmer. 

I think all of the adjectives in the dictionary have been used to describe Beaufort by travel writers and tourist industry promoters.

My favorite place in Beaufort is the Fishtowne Brewery. It is unique. 

The brewery is located in a narrow, compact building about the length and width of your pinkie finger. Even if you are not a beer drinker, you should poke your head in the door to admire the ingenuity of how the architect created this space.

We made three drives over to Beaufort during our stay at Atlantic Beach, two for dinner, and one just to mousy around.

I imagine that Beaufort with all of its charms isn’t immune from challenges.

Just a short drive out of the waterfront, local shops, and historical homes the landscape changes. That is the story for a lot of American cities and towns—the landscape changes as we move out of the pretty places that attract us.

Those landscape changes, gaps continue to trouble my heart. These very real gaps are more than the differences in the separation of city blocks.

 I see the gaps between us in who wears a mask and who doesn’t. I see the gaps in the flags blowing on boats that pass along the Beaufort waterfront. 

And I think about the engineering feats of the bridges in these coastal flatlands. They carry us to the barrier island beaches without too many problems. But, we still struggle to build personal bridges in our communities to help us with our on going challenges.  

On Friday, I took a part and cleaned up my fishing equipment. I walked over to the dock where the stunt fish lured me, and I unloaded my remaining shrimp. The gulls on the dock pilings were thankful. 

Two sad looking teenage boys affirmed for me what I had already learned—the stunt fish and bait stealers had conquered them too.

While the Commander Supreme and Elizabeth were in their happy place down on the beach, I took a long ride. I poked along the succession of beach towns south of Atlantic Beach. I made one stop to walk through the new Publix. My gosh that company must have deep pockets.

I took the B. Cameron Langston Bridge to carry me over the sound. Years ago that ferry I took as a youngster probably chugged through these same waters. My how the world has changed.

Soon, the bridge and the sound are behind me. I had only been on the mainland a few seconds when I note to my left a wide, long border of sunflowers growing in the hot July sun. They were spectacular.

 At the intersection, I made a right turn on to North Carolina 24. This was a quiet ride back into Morehead City. And I thought about the people who live on either side of NC 24. I wonder how often these people take time to enjoy Bogue Sound and the beaches along North Carolina 58? Maybe they go when the tourists are gone.

Tomorrow is Saturday. That means packing and departing, and wrestling again with my travel friend the rooftop carrier.

Organizing for the packing went well. On Saturday morning, the rooftop carrier and I were on friendly terms. This time I made sure I snugged up the flailing straps.

Repacking the car went well. 

We stopped at the Atlantic Beach Surf Shop for a quick walk through. This was a really nice store.

Next, we dropped off the keys at the rental office. Elizabeth navigated across the traffic to head us toward the bridge over the sound and into Morehead City. I noted a bit of disappointment from the driver and co-pilot as they took one last look at the sound in all its summer glory.

On the way out of Morehead City, we stopped at the Friendly Market. This is a dangerous stop as the store is loaded with all kinds of homemade items and in season produce. The cooler had been carefully positioned in the back of the car for loading up the yummy purchases.

Even though I was reluctant to make this trip, I enjoyed being away from home and work.  Beach trips are hard work. But something keeps drawing us back to the sand, the restless waves, the salt air, and the best friend of all dermatologists—the sun.

Maybe next year, Lauren’s husband, Doug, and our son, Andrew, his wife, Kathryn, and their girls Josie and Ellie will make the trip.

We made it back to Raleigh, and eventually Richmond.

No blue lights pulled the heavy foots over.

I’m sure months from now a daydream will tug at me. 

And that tug will take me back to the beach. It will temporarily remove me from the challenges and distractions that are consuming me. 

And for a few brief seconds, life will be as calm and peaceful as the effortless glide of pelicans riding thermals over the constant churn of the breakers.

I’ll take that glide. 

And at the same time, I will ask— why can’t we find the pelicans’ peaceful glide within ourselves and those who we encounter everyday?

The sun rising over Bogue Sound photo taken by Bill Pike on my iPhone

Grumpy’s Summer Vacation: Fishing is a conspiracy

I brought three fishing rods with me on this trip. I seriously thought about bringing none.

But my internal voice talked me into going on-line to purchase a North Carolina saltwater fishing license. Now, I had to take the gear with me.

My father-in-law introduced me to saltwater fishing. I learned a lot from him. Luckily, he was always patient with me. A high percentage of the fishing gear in our basement came from him and the Commander Supreme’s brother.

For this trip, I decided to take two lightweight rods and my fly fishing rod.

 My fly fishing mentor, the Commander’s brother-in-law, Art, has been patient with me too. Art has tried to convert me to fly fishing. I am sure this is a decision he regrets. But, on the bright side, my ineptness with the fly rod has brought Art some good laughs.

I think on Monday morning I rigged up one of the rods with a lure.  I had not been to Tight Lines the local fishing store where I usually buy some bait. Anyway, the light rod worked well. Casting out past the breakers wasn’t a problem, but I had no nibbles. 

A fellow fisherman down to my right was fishing with bait. Eventually, I noted that he caught a fish. At some point, I walked over to ask what he was using for bait. He responded with a sharing kindness—shrimp and mullet.

I made a drive to Tight Lines to buy some shrimp. That boating dock on the sound side looked like a good place to fish. I now had all three rods rigged up—one with a lure, one to use with the shrimp bait, and the fly rod with a fly that I thought would tempt fish to bite.

For two days I fished early in the morning and later in the afternoon. 

The only thing I caught was over in the sound. 

I had heard a big splash behind me toward the shore. I turned to see the ripples of what was left of the splash. So, I made a short cast with a lure toward the shoreline of the salt marsh. 

As I was reeling back across the water, the lure snagged up on something below the surface. I tugged, but there was no movement. I adjusted the position of the rod and gave a gentle pull, and the line lurched free.

But, I could feel weight on the end of the line. I kept reeling in the line, and soon I saw my prized catch—a small clump of oysters.

Those oysters were encased in a blackness from years of living in that inky muck that was as dark as spent lawn mower oil. Gently, I unhooked the bi-valves from the lure, and let them gracefully fall back into their home.

These two days of fishing only served to reaffirm for me that fishing is a conspiracy.

From my casting point on the dock, I saw beautiful fish jumping. Sometimes, a singular fish would jump in multiple succession like an acrobat or a gracefully leaping ballerina. I would get all worked up, and cast perfectly into that area just knowing that a fish was going to take my bait.

But, that never happened. Those fish are what I call stunt fish. They are part of the conspiracy. 

Stunt fish are professional jumpers and leapers. I’m convinced an audit of the bookkeeping practices of all the bait and tackle stores in this part of the North Carolina coast would find a special ledger entry—stunt fish school.  These fish are trained to tease fishermen.

For store owners, these stunt fish generate more revenue. How so you might ask?

Well, to begin with fishermen like myself are not wired properly. Fishermen are driven to catch fish at all cost. 

So with the teasing stunt fish in mind, a fisherman will make countless trips back to the bait and tackle shops. There the fisherman will describe to the expert clerk all of the jumping fish he has seen. 

And, the clerk will be smiling inside saying to himself another sucker, thank you stunt fish. The fisherman will leave the store with mass quantities of bait, assorted lures, and the assurance from the expert that fish will be caught.

I am convinced that if Congress had the courage to launch an investigation, they would find secret training facilities for the stunt fish, a trail of cash bidding for the best jumping fish, and kick backs from lure manufacturers to retail shop owners. 

This could be a conspiracy as wide sweeping as the cahoots uncovered between milk and bread suppliers when snowstorms are forecast for Southern states.

Even though nibbling fish or crabs always  took my bait, and I lost two flies casting with my fly rod, I’ll stop my whining.

Because here is the trade off for not catching any fish.

When casting into the ocean’s surf, I marveled at the clarity of the water around my feet that allowed me to see minnows in tidal pools and shells tumbling in the undertow. I can see people up and down the beach who at that very moment in their lives seem to be content, and far, far away from any troubles.

Over on the sound side, I can see the life cycles of the tide. 

I watch a singular great white heron stalking for a snack against the healthy green background of the marsh grass.

 I observe the happy team work of a father and his daughter as they pursue the elusive blue crabs in the murky water around the pilings of the dock. 

And one afternoon, I’m treated to rainbow colors on the eastern horizon as the sun’s rays thrust into the sudden burst of a rain shower.

Yes, I will go to my grave convinced that there is a fishing conspiracy. 

And who knows, maybe my fishing skills will improve or luck will find me the next time I have the privilege of fishing here. However,  this would cast doubt on the conspiracy theory.

But in truth, I am thankful for the conspiracy theory. 

Here’s why: it gives me more than fish memories.

Grumpy’s Summer Vacation

Part I: unhinged packing

During the week of June 29, stuff started piling up in different places of the house. That was the early warning signal.

 On the afternoon of Friday, July 3 just a few minutes after five, my unhinging started with the rooftop carrier. Beach chairs, my suitcase, a traveling booster seat, an inflatable pool, a bag full of required beach items, and a case holding a fly rod were to be stuffed into the carrier.

The installing of the rooftop carrier started quietly. But, by the ten minute mark, I snapped. 

Perhaps, it was the heat and humidity of the afternoon. Or maybe weariness from a long day of chores was the reason. Or maybe, it was my alter ego, the beach grump who took over. 

Getting that rooftop carrier properly positioned, secured, and loaded correctly was driving me nuts. My use of non-seminarian words ricocheted off the carrier and the items being packed. I was as repulsive as a prickly sand spur on hot beach sand.

My fear with roof top carriers is at some point during the trip, I’ll look into the rearview mirror, and I’ll note all of this debris sailing down the highway. Drivers of vehicles behind me will be swerving to dodge items that suddenly look quite familiar to me.  

Eventually, an ounce of sanity returns. The skirmish with the rooftop carrier and its contents are over. Properly positioned, secured, and loaded, that is one less item to deal with on Saturday morning.

Part II: on the road

For Saturday, July 4, the goal is to be on the road by 8 a.m. Surprisingly, we make that goal.

But, as we are leaving Richmond, I have to pull over at the River Road Shopping Center.  A couple of straps on the rooftop carrier are being a nuisance. They are slapping harmlessly against the side of the carrier. But, it is the type of continuous tapping that will drive me nuts. So, I stop, and retie the loose straps. 

I drive us to the North Carolina Welcome Center. Then the Commander Supreme takes over the drive. I think she could qualify as a NASCAR or Indy driver. She makes up time on the ground just like an airline pilot tells passengers he/she will make up time in the air for being off schedule.

We will drive to Raleigh, stop at the home of our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, and load all of her beach junk into any openings in our car. Sweet as she is, Elizabeth never has been and never will be a light packer. Pretty sure, she learned from me.

No blue lights trailed us into Raleigh, but the second round of packing pain was about to begin. Don’t ask me how, but all of Elizabeth’s beach junk found a spot in the car.

Elizabeth took over the drive from Raleigh to Atlantic Beach. The Commander Supreme was her co-pilot. I was assigned a six by six inch  square in the only back seat available. Elizabeth has her mother’s heavy foot. Cramped like a stowaway, I closed my eyes, and white knuckled anything I could hold on to for the ride to the beach.

My eyes did squint open enough to admire the flatness of the coastal plain of North Carolina. Rich farmland, and dense, thick forest scamper along beside us. I wonder if some of those forest are the same as they were hundreds of years ago, and I wonder how many generations of families have farmed the same acres of land.

As coastal plain towns disappear in the rearview mirror, soon we are on the outskirts of Morehead City. We merge with the traffic heading toward Atlantic Beach. The bridge carries us over Bogue Sound. It is low tide, and the sandbars of the sound are popular stopping points for boaters and their families.

It is probably a miracle, but we are able to pick up the key for the condo early. We find the place, figure out how to unload via stairs and an elevator, and then we collapse.

But, that collapse was short. We were scheduled to drive over to Beaufort for dinner at the Front Street Grill at Stillwater.

Wearing our masks, we find an open outside table at the restaurant. The staff is complying with all of the COVID-19 safety protocols.

Maybe, we felt a tiny bit safer sitting outside, but to tell you the truth, I really did not want to go on this trip— my reason COVID-19. I don’t trust it. No matter how compliant I am, I don’t trust this virus, and all of its mean characteristics.

I worry while we are here that we might unknowingly be exposed. I could not live with myself if that happened for my wife, our children, or grandchildren.

But, I’m here, and I will try not to be too grumpy.

Part III: invaders approaching

Saturday night was pretty quiet. The Commander Supreme and Elizabeth took the short walk to the beach, and from there, they could see multiple firework displays.

On this Sunday morning, July 5,  I promised myself to go for a run. I decided to go what in my mind is south along West Fort Macon Road. The town of Atlantic Beach has done a nice job of providing sidewalks and boardwalks along this busy road.

Eventually, my sidewalk runs out, and taking in the sights, I missed my crosswalk cue to move to the other side. I jog facing the oncoming traffic, I eventually find a cutover and get to the boardwalk path on the sound side.

I keep going, but not that much further. Just short of the entrance of the Hampton Inn, I decide to turn around and head back. This time, I don’t miss the crosswalk, and I work my way back to the Dunescape Villas where we are staying.

For cooling down, I cross over the main road to the parking lot across the road. This is the overflow lot for guest parking.

 Our oldest daughter, Lauren, and her two children are driving down from the Raleigh area later this morning. So, I wanted to check out the lot for her just in case all the guest parking spaces were taken near the condos.

While there, I note a singular swing and a picnic table. This is all under the shade provided by a pretty live oak tree. I also find a nice boardwalk that starts out under a canopy of live oaks. The boardwalk leads out to the sound where there is ample dock space for boaters, but also a good spot for fishing and crabbing.

On the walk back down the boardwalk, I recall a car I had seen on my run. The car was parked in a hotel lot. On one of the side window panels of this large SUV were these handprinted words: Jesus Lives along with a cross drawn in beside it.

I’ll be honest with you. In this crazy world of ours, I find myself wondering if the words—Jesus Lives— are true.

If he lives, why isn’t Jesus down here straightening us out?

Maybe Jesus thinks we are too far gone.

Somedays, I agree—we are too far gone.

But, then I remember, if I’m any kind of a human being, Jesus should be living through me.

And if Jesus is supposed to be living through me —what am I doing wrong?

Part IV:   Irreplaceable

From the time they arrived about mid-morning on July 5 until they departed on Wednesday morning, July 8, everything we did focused on our two grandchildren, Caroline and Hudson.

Can you say the word spoil? That was all that Elizabeth and the Commander Supreme did to Caroline and Hudson during their time with us.

It was a treat to have them and their Mom here.  We’ve seen more of Lauren, her husband, Doug, and the grandkids since their move from Chicago last summer. Having started a new job, Doug wasn’t able to join us.

The grands wasted no time getting ready for the beach. Lathering up, chairs, towels, toys, and numerous other necessary items were all hauled down to the beach.

Wave jumping, hole digging, forming sand towers, hunting for shells,  and wading in tidal pools became part of the daily routine.

Now, I rechecked the calendar to confirm that today was Sunday, July 5, but right at 9 that evening, the Fourth of July returned. 

Not sure who the sponsors were, but for a good 15 minutes fireworks were erupting again. We just knew Caroline and Hudson would hear all of those booms, but remarkably they slept.

From time to time, Caroline and Hudson are early risers. A bad habit probably inherited from me. On Tuesday morning, they both were up just as the sun was rising. So, Lauren and I quickly organized a short walk for them over to the sound side.

We crossed the quiet road, moved across the dry parking lot toward the start of the boardwalk path. As we worked our way along the boardwalk, we noted tiny crabs scurrying across the weathered gray timbers.

At some point, Caroline picked up on the low tide aroma of the salt marsh. She didn’t like it, but maybe someday she’ll appreciate those life sustaining ecosystems in all that muck.

Out on the boat dock, the new morning was still. The water’s surface was a flat mirror reflecting patchy clouds to the east with a bright sun coyly peeking behind them.

As we headed back to the condo, we stopped so Caroline could take a ride on the singular swing that was hanging from the sturdy limb of a live oak tree.

Live oaks are such beautiful trees in these coastal towns. I wonder why developers are so drawn to putting the non-native palm trees in so many places. Why not plant more majestic live oaks? They offer so much more than an out of place palm tree.

Our routine at the beach continued that morning, and the afternoon brought a treat—ice cream. 

We took a short ride to the AB Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe. For a grumpy old guy, there is nothing like a small cup of coconut ice cream on a hot and humid summer afternoon. And I’m assuming for grandchildren, not only do they like the ice cream, but they also appreciate whoever invented sprinkles.

Wednesday morning arrived too quick. Before we knew it, we were helping Lauren repack her car for the drive back to Cary. I was going to miss my two pals and the paces they put me through down on the beach. 

Now the condo would be different. 

The kid chatter, and the patter of bare summer feet on vinyl planking was gone.

Our entertainment had departed. 

And they were irreplaceable.