I write a column that consists of short stories of community life. It is called "Life's Outtakes". I have posted some samples here. If any paper would have interest in running it, I can be contacted through my web site www.darishoward.com.
The Family Tree
Trying to be a dutiful son, I help my mother when I can. Thus, one day, when she suggested in passing that she really wanted a tree that was blocking her view removed, I made a mental note to do it for her. She talked about how she would like it dug clear out so she would not have the lawn broken up. I thought I would just go out there some day and do it to surprise her.
I have to admit that I was amazed that she wanted it removed because it did provide nice shade for the family reunions. But, I had to admit, that it did block the view from the window.
One day, I finally made it out there. I knew it wouldn’t take me all that long; why, it wasn’t more than 12 inches in diameter. I didn’t even pack a lunch.
I chose a day I knew she would be gone visiting her brother and wouldn’t be around at all. I started out by cutting the tree down. If a tree is leaning to the north, don’t assume that when it’s cut down that it will fall to the north. Trees have a tendency to fall in exactly the opposite direction you think. I dropped it right across Mom’s new picnic table. What the heck, we needed some kindling for our next cookout and I’m perfectly fine with sitting on the ground to eat.
Next I started digging around the roots. As I found more root I dug wider and wider. Soon I had a hole roughly the size of a quarry; a quarry the size of Rhode Island, and I turned the new lawn she planted there into a plowed hill.
I dug under the roots of the tree and all around them until I thought the tree had to be loose. I found an old rusty chain and chained one end to the bumper of my pickup and one to the tree. I pulled away until it was tight, then hit the gas. The chain broke and flipped forward smashing out the back window, of my pickup. That ticked me off. No tree was going to get the best of me.
I found a longer, stronger tow cable and hooked it to the tree and to my pickup. I pulled away until it was tight and hit the gas; my pickup died. I tried again with the same result. I decided I needed a run at it so I backed up and took off at high speed. There was a loud tearing of metal and I looked back, and instead of a tree out of a hole, my bumper was laying on the ground.
This was war now.
I grabbed my chain saw and started to cut through the roots. Suddenly my chain saw bound up and died. Who would have guessed that the phone cable ran underneath one of the trees roots? I’m sure Mom would enjoy the quiet of not having her phone ring all of the time, and it probably needed replacing anyway. I’m sure the waterline that ran into the house that I cut through did. Why, it barely broke the chain on my chainsaw. I did have to shut off the well pump and bucket out the water.
Now that my chain saw was broken, I found a hand saw and started cutting. Soon I had every root I could find cut, but the stump would barely budge. I dug, I cut, I dug some more, until the sweat was pouring off of me. I couldn’t even take a drink of water; the well was off. Finally the tree started to move and with a lot more coaxing and blisters I finally slid it out of the hole.
It was just in time, too, because Mom drove into the driveway. She walked over and, just as I expected, she was surprised. My heart swelled with pride as I announced I had removed the tree for her.
Finally, her shock subsided so she could speak. “That is the wrong tree!”
Through The Eyes Of Children
It was springtime and my two youngest daughters had been cooped up in the house all winter and were fretting to get out every chance they could. They were born after we thought we were done having children and they have complicated our household in many wonderful ways. They have also colored our lives with a tapestry of awareness that we should have had with our other children but did not always.
I helped them put their sweaters on, for even though it was May, it was still chilly. Each of them put a hand in mine and we stepped outside for an educational walk through the garden as I planned to show them the many wonders of spring.
The first thing we came to were the wild roses that bloom along the ditches and canals near our house. Their fragrance filled the air with a scent that tingles the nose. My two-year-old, Elliana, pointed to them. “What are those?” she asked.
Before I could answer, her four-year-old sister, Heather, jumped in. “Those,” she said, “are called noses. They are called that because they smell so good. But be careful because those sharp things on them are called pokies.”
A large orange and black Monarch butterfly landed on the bushes next to us. Heather pointed to it. “Oh, look, Elli, it’s a flutterby.”
As we stood there watching the ‘flutterby’, a flock of geese noisily winged its way north in formation above us. Heather pointed to them. “Those are called gooses. The noise they make is honking.”
Elliana looked impressed with her big sister’s knowledge. “Why are they honking?” she asked.
“Because,” Heather answered with an air of four-year-old wisdom, “they are anxious to get home and the ones in the front are going too slow, so the ones in the back want them to get out of the road.”
As we continued our walk through the garden a pungent smell filled the air. Heather and Elli both sniffed and wrinkled their noses. Heather turned to her little sister. “That is called a ‘stunk’, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why it is called that.”
Our walk took us through the strawberry patch that was waking from the cold winter and was starting to put on flowers like a springtime snow. Heather pointed to them. “Do you know what these are, Elli?” Elli shook her head, so Heather continued. “These are called yum berries. That is their real name, but some people call them slow berries because they take too long before they can be eaten.”
As we continued our walk I just kept quiet and listened to Heather describe the world around us with her vivid imagery and imaginative way. I realized this educational walk was more of an education for me than for them, for God gave me eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to taste, and fingers with which to feel, but he gave me children to give me a reason to stop and look, to help me pause and listen, to remind me to take time out and smell the flowers, to help me be grateful for the flavors of the bounty around me, and to reach out enjoy touching what I see.
Thank you, God, for children.
The Story Of Santa’s Christmas Sack
Now and then one of my younger children will ask me how Santa fits all the toys in his sack. I tell them about a Christmas we had many years ago. It was a tough Christmas. We were a young married couple, going to college, with a brand new baby. There was hardly enough money for the necessities, like rent, let alone the luxuries, like food.
Besides the tuition and the many other expenses, we were making payments to the hospital -- we didn’t want them to repossess our baby. Sometimes gas for our pickup could not even be purchased, and I found myself riding a bike the six miles to the university through the snow and cold, with bits of cardboard stuffed in the bottom of my shoes to help keep the water from coming through the holes in them.
Our major source of income came from any job I could find on the work board at the university, but it wasn’t as constant as I would like nor were they high paying jobs. My wife and I made the decision that we could not afford Christmas presents, so, shortly after Thanksgiving, we took my five-month-old daughter’s favorite toys and hid them so we could wrap them up and at least have something for her to open on Christmas.
Just before Christmas I was hired by a carpet cleaning company. I worked hard, but every dime that came in seemed to be eaten away by past bills. The discouragement of hard classes, little money for my family, and long hours at work began to settle on me like long, dark days at the North Pole.
To find my way out of this dismal time, I determined I would find some way to save some money, any money, to buy my wife something for Christmas. I would save my tips or any little extra I could, even though I was still forced to use it at times. As I finished up my last job on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, I counted my change and barely had five dollars.
I wanted her surprise to be something Christmasy, yet it needed to be practical, so I hurried to a grocery store that closed at midnight. When I was young, the only time I got oranges or nuts was at Christmas, and they still put me in the holiday mood, so I decided that would be the gift I’d give her. At ten cents a pound I bought a forty pound box of oranges, about five pounds of nuts at the same price, and had enough left over for a candy bar.
I drove home with my surprise and left it all in my pickup. Our small apartment had one bedroom that wouldn’t fit both a crib and a bed, so we slept on a lumpy hide-a-bed in the living room. When my wife went into the bedroom with our daughter, I raced outside and hauled the loot in and stuffed it in the coat closet.
About 2:00 in the morning, when my wife and daughter were asleep, I snuck into the bedroom to retrieve one of my wife’s stockings. Now, in my defense, I must say that I grew up with almost all brothers and I knew very little about women or women’s things, so in the dark, when I reached in her drawer and pulled out a nylon, I figured it was as good a stocking as any.
I stumbled my way back to the coat closet and started stuffing oranges into it as fast as I could. Every once in a while I would reach into it to see if it was getting full, but the level of oranges never seemed to rise. At one point, my wife stirred and I was sure she was waking, so I quickly threw in my “I Love You Coupons”, 3X5 cards with things I had written on them such as, “One I Love You Coupon Good For Breakfast In Bed” and things like that. I also threw in the nuts and the candy bar.
Her breathing leveled out again, so I started throwing in more oranges. But they were now noisily hitting the nuts and the cards. She sleepily asked what I was doing. “Nothing,” I answered. “Go back to sleep.” That doesn’t work on Christmas morning and she rolled over and turned on the lamp by her bed.
There was her nylon, almost a full box of oranges in it, stretched wide enough you could wrap it around all the people from a third world nation. She covered her mouth, trying not to laugh, but finally could contain herself no longer without choking and chortled gleefully as I blushed in embarrassment.
And that, I tell my children, is why Santa’s sack will hold all of those toys. It is a made out of nylon.
Tinkertoys In My Cupboard
We have Tinkertoys in our cupboard. I’m not talking about the toy cupboard. I mean that sometimes I will pull out a bowl to put cereal in and, half asleep, pour in cornflakes and milk. I take a bite and receive 2000% of the unrecommended lifetime supply of fiber and plastic polymers. I really hate Tinkertoys in my cupboard.
“Who put the tinker-toy in my cereal bowl!” I holler, as I search for my missing tooth.
I really didn’t need to ask that. I knew who it was. It was a 22-month-old, little gremlin with blond hair, blue eyes, and piggy tails. She has taken a real liking to Tinkertoys.
Tinkertoys in the bowls, Tinkertoys in my bed, Tinkertoys in my shoes, and Tinkertoys stuffed in the floppy drive of my computer. If I get up in the middle of the night for a drink of water I am sure to step on a Tinkertoy and roll bruisedy, scrapity, crashity down the stairs. The last time that happened my hollering could have put any decibel meter off the scale. I woke the whole house and most of the neighbors for a half mile radius. I swore at the time I was going to take every Tinkertoy to the second hand store.
But that was then. My little, blond, blue-eyed gremlin has recently been sick. We spent three days in the hospital as her temperature soared to 106 degrees. She slept in my arms as I comforted her, keeping her from pulling on the IV that was giving her the antibiotic that was fighting the terrible infection. I would put cool cloths on her forehead. I didn’t dare sleep for fear she would leave me for good. I stroked her blond hair and comforted her, wishing I could draw the sickness from her and take it upon myself.
At times exhaustion would overcome me and I would start to drift off to sleep only to wake with a start and panic as I checked on her again. The three days took their toll on me as I sat in the chair, praying, with her in my arms.
Finally her fever broke and she was able to come home. Unshaven and unkempt, I carried her from our car and tucked her gently into her crib. She still didn’t want to do much and just laid there quietly holding “bankie” close. I would come home from work each day and open the cupboard hoping to see a Tinkertoy in my cereal bowl, but it wasn’t there; none in my bed, none in my shoes, none in my computer.
Then one day, coming in from work, tired and hungry, I did pull out a plate and to my great joy I found a dirty, chipped, unsanitary Tinkertoy. I turned around and my little blond gremlin was poking her head around the corner. Though she was still pale, her eyes had a sparkle I hadn’t seen in a long time.
I held up her Tinkertoy. She came to me and hugged my knees. She then took her Tinkertoy and toddled off, humming.
You know what? I really do like Tinkertoys in my cupboard.
As a faculty member at a local university I sometimes have students ask me where I live. I am leery of this, especially at Halloween time. Years ago, when I was a new faculty member, I had a colleague that enjoyed having students hit his house with toilet paper. He always felt it was a sign of their affection for him. Myself, I could do without cleaning up the mess. Thus it got so that when students asked me where I lived, I told them if they wanted an address I would give them one. The address I would give them would be his. I know this was misleading, but I didn’t directly say it was mine.
Inevitably he would come to work the next day and laugh, “Those little devils hit me again!” I would just laugh along with him, especially since I was not the one that had to clean the mess out of my trees. He was surprised at the increase in his popularity in those years and I was more than happy to let him revel in the joy of the students’ love for him.
However, he got older and left us. At first I was at a loss as to what to do. But it wasn’t long until a new faculty member joined our department. I nonchalantly asked him where he lived and then memorized his address. Soon his house was getting hit by an exorbitant amount of certain squeezably soft personal paper products.
It was at this point I made a big mistake. One Halloween, when the students asked me where I lived, I put my colleague’s address on the board. I got busy with class and forgot about it. As my lecture was ending, before I had a chance to erase the board, he walked in to prepare his class. With shock, he asked what his address was doing on the board. My students looked at me and grinned, and no matter how I tried to gloss it over, I knew I was in trouble.
That particular year we owned a beautiful, female Great Pyrenees dog. We had borrowed a male Great Pyrenees to have her bred. He stood almost eye level with many people while he was standing on all fours and when he put his paws on the fence he looked down on almost everyone. He was especially intimidating as he protected the female, roaming diligently around our yard that nearly encompassed our house.
We heard a ruckus in the yard late on Halloween night. The male dog started going crazy. There was a loud commotion, a van door slammed, and then the van zoomed off, leaving us wondering what it was all about.
The next day my students approached me about turning their assignments in late. They said the server my colleague was in charge of was not working. I didn’t question them further, but told them to get the assignments in as soon as possible.
Later in the day, one student came in to confess that it wasn’t a server problem. He then told me that my colleague had picked up a whole bunch of students in his van and then he drove to the store. He went in and bought a whole bunch of the largest packs of toilet paper they had. They had driven to my house to teach me a lesson, but had been driven away by the dog.
The student told me that when my colleague brought them back to town and dropped them off, they took all of his toilet paper with them. Then, in the early hours of the morning, when they were sure he was asleep, they went and hit his house with the toilet paper he had purchased. There was nothing wrong with the server. He knew who had done it and he had locked their accounts.
And thus was fulfilled the scripture that says “They shall fall into the pit which they dig for others”, though my colleague might question the validity of my interpretation.
Uncle Hickory and the Model T
Being asked recently to make a presentation about journal writing at a genealogy conference made me think about my own genealogy. I remember a quote by a famous politician. He said there was no reason to go to the work of doing your genealogy. You could just run for political office and then those who were opposed to you would do it for you.
In that vein I have at times found interesting stories in my own ancestral past. I noted one recently about a great uncle and a great aunt. If it hadn’t been for the guilt two young men felt for what they knew was an undeserved gift from my great aunt, the story probably would have remained untold.
For anonymity I will refer to my great aunt and great uncle as respectively, Aunt Hazel and Uncle Hickory, because some might say they were nutty. However, Uncle Hickory and Aunt Hazel were good, down-to-earth people that everyone loved. Uncle Hickory did have one well-known bad habit. He drank too much. In fact, he was fondly known as the town drunk. Everyone knew of his habit and on the most part tended to overlook it due to Uncle Hickory’s pleasant nature.
As one story goes, an early snow storm struck the area the first week of October. Imagine that here in Idaho. Anyway, two young men, who had been up country hunting, were fighting their way home through the blizzard, only to find Uncle Hickory lying snookered beside the road. Knowing they couldn’t leave him there, they tossed him into the back seat of their Model-T.
Those old cars were light and they slid all over the road, eventually landing in the ditch by the road. Although the car was light, it was too heavy for one person to push out while one drove, and Uncle Hickory was too soused to be roused. The young men could get no traction and there was nothing in the great white expanse that could be used to give the tires the grip they needed.
Finally, thinking they all would die if they didn’t do something, they struck on an idea. They pulled Uncle Hickory out of the back seat and stuffed him under the tire. With the extra grab and one pushing and one driving, the car inched its way back up onto the road. Once they were finally into safe territory, and the tire had passed clear over Uncle Hickory, they carefully brushed him off and tossed him back into his seat again. Then they much more carefully headed on their way.
The young men took Uncle Hickory home and delivered him to Aunt Hazel who put him to bed. The next day the young men received a wonderful, home-made pie with a note from Aunt Hazel. It said, “Thanks so much for giving my husband a ride home. I’m sure he would have never made it on his own. He was so stiff and sore the next morning he couldn’t even walk.”