People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. Welcome to From On High.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Roanoke's Finest

The alarm sounds. Conversation abruptly ceases. A scramble ensues. Controlled mayhem. Followed closely on by disciplined, practiced, unhesitating, focused preparation.

Preparing to do what they do best. What they're trained to do. What's expected of them. What they demand of themselves. Roanoke's finest.

Lives are at stake. In every case. On every run. Civilians' lives most importantly. Firefighters' lives always.

Not to mention exhaustion. Dehydration. The potential for smoke inhalation. Injury. Worse.

Every day.

It comes with the territory. It's all part of a firefighter's accepted job duties and responsibilities: Be prepared to save lives and in the attempt, be prepared to risk your own. While most of us complain if the company coffee maker is broken or the wastepaper basket wasn't emptied overnight, firefighters hope their oxygen masks don't fail them. We want our work environment to be comfortable, air conditioned, and brightly lit. Firefighters hope theirs doesn't include combustible materials or explosives or toxic chemicals. Projectiles. A good day for most of us is one in which the boss doesn't give us a whole lot to do. For a firefighter, it's being able to go home at the end of the day. To be able to spend time with the children. To look in their little eyes and resolve to never let them know of or to witness the horrific sights they've seen. The anguish. The grief. The heartbreak. The mangled bodies.

On this particular day, a fire erupted in a maintenance garage when a can full of gasoline ignited and set a bus on fire. When the fire department arrived, smoke was pouring from the windows and doors.

I've been witness to some building fires in the past. I remember one in particular, many years ago, that engulfed a faculty office building at the university I was attending. It was very cool. Exciting. Fun.

But I could stand at a distance with my classmates and watch the drama from afar. The smoke billowing up. The flames shooting through the roof.

I could stand by and take pictures of the raging inferno. Firefighters are trained to run into its midst. Selflessly. Without hesitation. Without regard to the many hazards in store. Lives deemed more important than their own - somehow - are at stake. They act.

I'm not sure I'm capable of such things. I doubt that most of us are. Sure, we all dream of performing an heroic act. Of saving a life. Of dragging the unconscious victim of that car wreck to safety. And of living to tell the tale on Larry King Live.

These guys risk everything every day. And Larry King pays no notice. But they do it anyway. With pride. Determination. It's a calling.

They deserve our everlasting and heartfelt thanks for being there and for protecting our loved ones - our children and grandchildren - from harm.

The firefighter, by the way, pictured above with axe in hand heading into the flames is my son, Jarrod Fuhrman, Station # 3, Roanoke Fire/EMS.

Photos courtesy of Lt. Rhett Fleitz, Roanoke Fire/EMS & Roanoke Firefighters
Click on images to enlarge.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On Veterans Day

(Originally published on November 11, 2011.)

This handsome young man, who - some say - bears a striking resemblance to his offspring, is being honored this day - Veterans Day - for his service to his country.

Harold Fuhrman, son of Heinrich and Ida Majeske Fuhrman, joined the United States army in 1942 and became one of the legenday "Screaming Eagles" of the renowned 101st Airborne Division - made famous in both the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," and in the HBO mini-series, "Band of Brothers." The 101st Airborne first saw combat action the night before D-Day, June 5, 1944, just hours before the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The division parachuted and glided into Normandy - northern France - behind German lines with the purpose of disrupting Nazi communications and preventing counterattacks when the naval assault on the Normandy beaches began the next day.

According to military planners, because of the nature of the task before them - night attack, units scattered across the Normandy countryside, powerful German defenses in the immediate area, no support from the naval assault taskforce for at least a day or longer - it was expected that the division would suffer horrendous casualties in the assault. And it did. 1240 men were either killed or wounded in a matter of a few days and a considerable number went missing. Included on the list of missing in action, a dreadfully long list, was the name Harold Fuhrman.

That assault proved to be Harold's one and only combat experience. He was captured near Ste-Mere-Eglise, became officially a Prisoner of War, and spent the next year being transferred from one German prison camp to another, all the while losing weight as a result of poor dietary conditions, losing some teeth as a result of unsanitary living conditions (eventually he'd have them all removed), but never losing his American spirit.

Harold Fuhrman was liberated from a hellhole of a prison camp near Küstrin
, on the German border with Poland in April of 1945 by the Russian army and, after walking from eastern Germany to the Black Sea in the Crimea in order to find transportation home, Harold made his way back to the USA.

After the war ended, like millions of other veterans, Harold Fuhrman returned home and went back to work. He married Lorraine Riehle and eventually raised a fine family - three sons and a daughter.

He rarely spoke of his war experiences. But when he did, the accounts were startling, the details sobering. He once related the story of the death of a soldier near him and the odd sound that a bullet makes when it impacts the human skull. Like a rock thudding into a pool of water.

He also - once - revealed a scar near his knee that resulted from a wound that he sustained in battle, one for which he received no Bronze Star or Purple Heart. No handshake from the President of the United States. No interview with the news media. By the time he made his way back to his unit after being liberated, it had been long healed and - as was the norm in that era - it was a minor wound, one that didn't rise to the level warranting a medal. Those were indeed different times. As William Halsey said back then, "There are no extraordinary men ... just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with." Harold Fuhrman's wound was ordinary - in that extraordinary era - and he thought no more about it. Life went on.

Harold also told the story of his trek across southeast Europe after he was freed and of his having come upon a field where a battle had taken place sometime previously. The field was strewn with the decaying bodies of German soldiers left to decompose where they lay; the Russians had more important matters at hand than to take the time to bury their dead enemies. Harold stripped the winter coat from one of the corpses and moved on. Such were the times.

Harold Fuhrman lived a long life. A good life. Though he was never recognized for his service to - or particularly for his sacrifice for - his country, he was proud of that which he'd been able to contribute. He never asked for recognition. He sought no medals. He considered his enlistment and substantial sacrifices as part of his duty to his country; the country that he held dear every day of his life - one for which he had tremendous gratitude, in which he had terrific pride.

Harold Fuhrman is dead now and buried in a lonely cemetery in rural Indiana. A military marker atop his grave simply reads, "Harold Fuhrman, 101st Airborne Div., WWII." It is as he would have wanted it. Simple. Unassuming. No embroidery. He served his country and that was that.

Even though he might have been embarrassed by it, his children decided to honor his service to the United States of America by placing a memorial - one tiny commemoration among thousands of similar remembrances - in the World War II Memorial at Fort Campbell, KY, home to the 101st Airborne Division. It is there for all the world to see and will be there for all time. Without his knowing it then, what he and his fellow soldiers did to preserve freedom for the entire western world has gone down in history. He and they are now honored by a thankful nation - and a respectful family - and will be forever.

Harold Fuhrman's children - Steve, Randy, Suellen, and Jerry - take time out to remember their father this Veterans Day.

- - - - - - 

I lifted this photo from a video that's now available on youtube that was released at the end of World War II by the British press. Included is a Nazi propaganda clip that, at about the 10 second mark, has brief footage of Allied prisoners captured on and around D-Day being marched through the streets of Paris, heading towards POW camps further inland.

The tall soldier at left (circled in red) is my father, Technical Sergeant Harold H. Fuhman, 101st Airborne Division. He appears to be among a group of Canadian, American, and British prisoners being led by armed German guards and officers.
He spent the remainder of the war in prison camps around Germany and was liberated by the Russians in January, 1945.

The video - from British Pathé press - found here -


- also shows French civilians spitting on, and slapping those same prisoners as they passed through the crowd. The same French civilians who cheered the American liberators just months later (...).

- - - - - 

This account of the prisoners' liberation by the Red Army comes from Sergeant Gordon B. Pack, USA, January 31, 1945: 

"Soon, long columns of prisoners were threading their way along the snow filled road. Some pushing, some pulling sleds; others wheelbarrows, wagons and so on to haul their blanket rolls and the few odds and ends they were able to hang on to. Apparently there weren't any definite place it seemed to go to.

We had been traveling I suppose to the best of my estimation some 40 to 50 minutes, with not a word being spoken along the whole column, when all at once, all hell seemed to break loose up ahead. We were nearing a small village, and there were hails of leaden death streamed towards us. Machine guns were chattering their deadly song, as rifles cracked and bullets whined all around. Soon, the heavy 'boom' of a big gun, then the bursting a shell. Soon another, then another, another. They were all landing in the midst of us. Right where that would do the most damage. Shouts and screams of pain and agony were wrenched from men's lips that were hit by shell fragments and bullets and couldn't get away. 

Words cannot explain the horror and the blood chilling sounds that filled the air. I, myself witnessed a scene I shan't forget. Panic soon had its way, and men began running every which way, skimming across the fields of snow trying to find cover. One minute, I saw a head on a man's shoulder, the next, there was no head. This man kept going 15-20 yards, then fell to the ground a bloody mass of torn flesh and bone. During the excitement someone yell out, 'For God's sake, men, keep down!' But that cry had been better if not uttered. It only seemed to prompt them on. Half of us did manage to stay down, while the rest scattered the fields lining each side of the road. Some were jumping in holes, ditches, sunken places in the ground, behind the few scattered trees that were available. And some were placing their blanket rolls in front of their body for the little protection they offered; which wasn't very much. 

During all of this someone yelled 'Ruskies! Which means 'Russians', the 'Ruskies' are here! Someone make a flag, waved a handkerchief to show them we are unarmed. This was done by a sergeant by the name of Herman Curley. We all called him Curley for short. As soon as he had it finished, he rose and started toward the Russians which were about 300 yards from us. We were still unrecognizable at that distance. Curley started but never got there. A rifle cracked and he slumped to the ground a pitiful sight still with the flag of surrender in his hand. (This brave act that no other man had attempted to do should by every last one of us be remembered. For to my opinion, it saved our lives though it very near cost him his.)" 

It is reported that five POW's were accidentally killed by the Russians that day.

- - - - - 

by A. Lawrence Vaincourt

He was getting old and paunchy and his hair was falling fast,
And he sat around the Legion, telling stories of the past.
Of a war that he had fought in and the deeds that he had done,
In his exploits with his buddies; they were heroes, every one.
And tho' sometimes, to his neighbors, his tales became a joke,
All his Legion buddies listened, for they knew whereof he spoke.
But we'll hear his tales no longer for old Bill has passed away,
And the world's a little poorer, for a soldier died today.
He will not be mourned by many, just his children and his wife,
For he lived an ordinary and quite uneventful life.
Held a job and raised a family, quietly going his own way,
And the world won't note his passing, though a soldier died today.
When politicians leave this earth, their bodies lie in state,
While thousands note their passing and proclaim that they were great.
Papers tell their whole life stories, from the time that they were young,
But the passing of a soldier goes unnoticed and unsung.
Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land
A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?
Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife,
Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?
A politician's stipend and the style in which he lives
Are sometimes disproportionate to the service that he gives.
While the ordinary soldier, who offered up his all,
Is paid off with a medal and perhaps, a pension small.
It's so easy to forget them for it was so long ago,
That the old Bills of our Country went to battle, but we know
It was not the politicians, with their compromise and ploys,
Who won for us the freedom that our Country now enjoys.
Should you find yourself in danger, with your enemies at hand,
Would you want a politician with his ever-shifting stand?
Or would you prefer a soldier, who has sworn to defend
His home, his kin and Country and would fight until the end?
He was just a common soldier and his ranks are growing thin,
But his presence should remind us we may need his like again.
For when countries are in conflict, then we find the soldier's part
Is to clean up all the troubles that the politicians start.
If we cannot do him honor while he's here to hear the praise,
Then at least let's give him homage at the ending of his days.
Perhaps just a simple headline in a paper that would say,
Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died today.

Memorial photo coutesy of the 101st Airborne Division Assn.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Soldier's Story

Andrew Jackson Grayson was a miller by trade. He built and operated his place of business along Little Walker Creek here in Bland County, Virginia back before there was a Bland County. This area was sparsely settled and life was "hardscrabble," as it were. It is probably because his mill was frequented by all the farmers in the area who came to him to have their meager harvest ground into meal and he was, therefore, a familiar figure to everyone in the area, that when the Civil War broke out, Andrew Jackson Grayson was elected by the Confederacy's new recruits to the cause to be captain of the newly formed "Bland County Sharpshooters."

The victory at Fort Sumter had occurred only a month before and the South was a'risin '. All over the country the call went out for recruits to join the army and defend against northern aggression. Young men from the area packed what little they had and made the journey over the mountain to Wytheville, the only town in the area, and to Narrows in Giles County to enlist. When the company had enough recruits, its official designation became Company F, 45th Regiment, Virginia Volunteers. What an adventure it must have been for these boys, most of whom had probably never been far from home, to be given weapons and "accoutrements" (and an expansion of their vocabulary) and to find themselves on the parade ground in Wytheville learning how to conduct themselves in battle, and about "Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics." For the first time in their lives they were not only playing a part in something important, they were making history.

And then they went to war. Their first encounter with the enemy was on a hilltop in Nicholas County in what was about to become, as a result of the South having seceded, the state of West Virginia in a place called Carnifex Ferry. Here they learned the word retreat. For after inflicting serious casualties on the advancing northern force, the Confederate army under General John Floyd slipped away and moved south. There is no record of the company sustaining any casualties but here the company of Bland boys got their first experience with that which killed the greatest number of soldiers north and south - sickness and disease. Though the company of recruits wasn't there long, when they left Nicholas County, they left behind a freshly dug grave containing the mortal remains of their first fatality, a young man who succumbed to a nameless illness, who died, and was buried - alone and with but a stone to mark his grave.

Over the next four years the company of Bland boys saw war in far away locations in Tennessee, West Virginia, and finally in "the big show," in Virginia as a part of the Army of the Valley. They fought in many places that today don't even warrant mention in the history books. Places like Wolf Creek, White Sulfur Springs, Diamond Hill, Mossy Creek, and Talbot's Station. They also participated in many of the war's larger engagements at Winchester, Opequon Creek, Cloyd's Mountain, Monocacy, Fishers Hill, and Piedmont.

With each encounter, the Bland Sharpshooters counted more dead. Upon leaving each encampment, Company F, 45th Virginia Volunteers left behind sick, wounded, and dying youth. For four years the boys from Bland County endured unspeakable hardship and privation. They lacked proper clothing in winter, were denied proper nutrition throughout, and often went days without food of any kind at all. In most of their encounters with the enemy, they were outnumbered by an army much better equipped and armed.

But they endured. In the end, the company of Bland boys didn't go through the formal surrender ceremony that one reads about in history books or sees in famous paintings. When notified of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the regiment simply disbanded - and what remained of the Bland Sharpshooters went home.

Andrew Jackson Grayson enlisted in Company F on May 31, 1861 and became the company's captain shortly thereafter. When the company disbanded, "Captain Jack" was still the commander of the Sharpshooters. One wonders what history he made. In a war that saw so much attrition, it was not unusual for a private soldier to find himself being chosen for the rank of an officer and, as superior officers were killed off or died or went home maimed or broken, to be promoted again. And yet Andrew Grayson was Captain of Company F for all four years of the war. 

One wants to think that it was his decision to stay with "his boys" and that he chose not to take on greater rank. It could be though that his performance was recognized as being adequate enough to supervise the company but he was not considered capable of taking on greater responsibility. Or, as was the case with many officers in both armies, he may have been sick and in hospital too often to be considered for promotion. Or it is possible that Capt. Grayson and the 45th were, as was the case with many of the mountain regiments, inclined to be a bit too "independent" and could be counted on to fight like devils when called upon, but were impossible to control otherwise. 

We'll never know. As for me, I prefer to think he simply and honorably wanted to fulfill his obligation to "his Bland boys" and remained with Company F throughout. Even with all the diaries, memoirs, and regimental histories that were written about the period, nobody took the time to chronicle the life of Andrew Jackson Grayson. All we know is that when the war ended, he dismissed the troops and went back to his mill along Little Walker Creek.

There is one story, though, that is told in these parts about Captain Jack and his mill. In July 1863, while Capt. Grayson was "down the valley" fighting Yankees (and incidentally while Robert E Lee was retreating from a tiny town in Pennsylvania by the name of Gettysburg), a Union army was moving through Bland County on its way to burn the train station and railroad bridge in Wytheville. As became the norm in this horrific conflict, the Union troops wreaked destruction on the local economy and Confederate war-making capability as it moved south by burning barns and any manufactory along its route that could be used for making war material. This happened to include grain mills in that they often provided corn meal to the Southern army.

In this instance, though, luck was on Andrew Grayson's side. When the Union army came upon his mill and Yankee soldiers were about to set it afire, the Union commander ordered the soldiers to cease. As it turns out, he was a miller too and, despite the animosities and hostilities that had grown between the two sides, he decided to spare Grayson's property.

There exist remnants of Grayson's mill and dam along the creek today. Though Captain Jack Grayson's home is long gone. I can look out my window - and often do - at his homestead and think about Andrew Jackson Grayson and the boys of '61. What they went through. What part of history they wrote. What memories they had and shared in reunions in later years when they got together in town and reminisced about the war years. 

I have seen only one photograph of Captain Grayson. It was taken at a reunion of Bland veterans some time in the late in the 19th century. It was an assemblage of about fifteen elderly men, gray, bearded and bowed. There in the center of the group was Captain Jack. Try as I might to get a good look at him and to try to gain an understanding of his person, the photo was too unclear and was taken from too far away. He was just a small figure among small figures on a big hillside. I can only guess that their conversations about great battles and many triumphs were tinged with profound sadness - for most of the Bland boys who marched off to war in 1861 never returned. As was customary, many perished without even a marker to identify their remains. They vanished.

Captain Andrew Jackson Grayson was, in that sense, luckier. On a hillock that gently rises above Little Walker Creek that would have been a short walk for him from his home, on land that now includes my home, there is a solitary grave in a grass pasture overlooking his mill. There Captain Jack - miller, warrior, citizen - rests.

* Originally published on August 11, 2004

Friday, July 26, 2013

Kaid Becomes a Man

Two-year-old Kaid Fuhrman climbed up to my tree house this evening and, in the course of things, decided to relieve himself. He dropped his drawers and peed on the countryside below. Kaid is now a man. It brought tears to my eyes. Today peeing out of the tree house, tomorrow telling lies to some large-breasted woman in a smoke-filled honky-tonk. How quickly they grow up.

* Originally published on August 12, 2004.

Chaos and the Morning Feeding

"For the love of God. Make them stop!" Terror set in as I tried to escape the churning mass of feline savagery. There have been few moments in my long life when I felt that I was in great danger but this was one of them. A feeling of impending doom swept over me and caused me to retreat to the corner of the kitchen - until I felt the microwave countertop against my back and I realized that my escape route was cut off. It was at this point that I cried out for God's mercy and for the Bland County Rescue Squad to save me from what was assuredly certain death.

It was cat feeding time at the Fuhrman house.

I know. You think of them as fuzzy, cuddly, purring little darlings curled up in front of the fireplace. Step into my kitchen at 6:05 in the morning and you'll step back with a bloody stump where your foot was attached only a moment before. These little monsters have a schedule and, by damn, you'd better adhere to it or there's all hell to pay.

It's all my wife's fault. Paula thinks she is doing the world a favor by bringing stray cats into the home and providing for them in a manner that all the children of Sub-Saharan Africa would envy. She doesn't just feed them and wipe their tiny butts (OK. I'm exaggerating a bit).
She has a schedule.

And they know it.

I should probably take the time to introduce the individuals who have turned our loving, nurturing home into San Diego Zoo East. I'm not sure I know all their names and Paula, being the sinister person that she is, sometimes sneaks new cats into the pile without telling me. If it weren't for the fact that I can now recognize each individual shriek they emit, starting at 5:55am, I wouldn't be able to tell one from another. That plus the fact that each has a discernable butt (I learned the hard way. If the shriek didn't work at 5:55, they do this odd butt rub in my face at about 6:00). 

But the ones I know of are named Tigger (Yes, I know. And the names only get worse), Lucky, Phobie, Mosby, Wheezer, Pippin, and Frodo (you'll never guess where those last two names came from; they were recommended by my daughter, another human hating cat loving she-devil who only brings cats home so as to bring torment to my poor son-in-law). If she were reading this, Paula would criticize me for misspellings. Fine. And for forgetting some cats. (No. I'll save the discussion regarding the BARN CATS for another day.)

Now you would think that the stampede - and I do not exaggerate - don't be in their path - that runs from our bed to the kitchen at 6:05 would ease up AFTER A FEW YEARS once the little bundles of burning love come to realize that breakfast will be served on time - just as it is every other freaking day of every year. But no. They gallop. You'd also think, based on their velocity and over-all-obstacles trajectory, that they are starved for sustenance. Please. It's just that the TUBS of Kibbles and Bits and Kit and Kaboodle that are filled throughout the day are only cat meal. At 6:05am it's MEAT. See how the bloody stump comes in to the story? They want MEAT. They'll accept any one of your appendages.

There was a point in time not long ago that Paula decided to go to Louisville to see her mother and sisters. She was going to be away - I swear - for a few days. The storage capacity on my Compaq computer is 80 gigobytes. All books ever written could be stored on 80 gigs. By the time she was done composing my instructions (I prefer to call it a treatise) on the proper-feeding-and-care-of-my-cats-while-I'm-gone, the hard-drive was exhausted. Leo Tolstoy would have been in awe of this document. NASA scientists who wrote the instructions on how to build Apollo IX would have bowed before her out of respect for her detail and clarity.

You see, you don't just feed the cats. You can't just slop meat into a bowl. Each cat has a personality and, more importantly, a disposition. Some, like Phobie, will wait impatiently. Others (Lucky!) will climb your leg to get to their MEAT. So the instructions outline the proper method of positioning the seven bowls (You didn't think they would actually eat from the same container!), and correspondingly, positioning their little writhing bodies (Why try? That's my question. Trying to set a cat in a special position is like trying to organize popping popcorn) before the first spoonful of MEAT is dished out. The instructions also define carefully the order in which each cat is fed. Lucky and Wheezer go first and...on down the line.

It all sounds so reasonable. Me? I scooped out the first glop of MEAT, set it in front of Lucky, and as quickly as lightning there were six faces in the bowl (Phobie always keeps her distance. She says, "I'm not getting in the middle of that."). I grabbed a cat, tossed him toward what is designated as being his bowl (trying to follow my instructions like a good husband) only to find that same cat leap back in the middle of the swarming mass before I could turn around. Then I had a dilemma. Each cat is supposed to get an equal amount of MEAT in the morning. At this point, I couldn't see the bowl. I couldn't tell if the MEAT I tossed toward it ever even made it into the bowl. I certainly didn't know who ate it. All I knew was that I could hear this loud hummmmmm emanating from the heap. Somebody got it because the purr was unmistakeable. That's a good sign, I thought. At least one of her cats won't have starved to death before Paula returns (She tells me that they will truly starve if they have to survive on only six pounds of Kit and Kaboodle each day.). The one saving grace, I found, was that if you can get a small amount of MEAT in each stomach, this teeming gang of hell's spawn calms down enough to organize the group and to get each cat to work from their assigned station.

Then the real problem arose. My instructions called for me to dish out a half can of MEAT to seven cats. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. It was gone in less than a minute. But I still had the other half of the can (officially designated to go to the BARN CATS - another set of instructions) but Paula wasn't there and I was desperate. So I tossed the other half at the them, thinking - like a beanbrain - that this would placate them. It did - for just one more minute. Then their little bowls were empty. And they turned on me.

I have a dog. I could beat her with a stick and she would look at me and say, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?" Dogs can be trained. Dogs are civilized. Cats only allow you to coexist so that you are there to provide MEAT - and to clean up their frequent cat-urps.

So now I found myself out of MEAT and backed up against the microwave countertop. If I hadn't whistled for the dog, I can only imagine what would have happened next. Oh, dogs have one other attribute. They hate cats. Beezer - short for Beelzabub the Hound From Hell - came bounding into the kitchen in response. What those cats did to poor Beezer next was the kind of thing you see in your nightmares. But no matter. The distraction gave me the time to make my exit. Beezer was expendable. And if she took down a few cats with her, well, that would be okay too.

That was the one thing I was counting on as Paula's car pulled up outside. I figured if I couldn't keep track of the army of felines in my house, maybe she couldn't either.

Fat chance.

* Originally published on August 9, 2004

Thursday, July 25, 2013

They Own the Night

You're driving along a winding gravel road. The road itself undulates through a seemingly endless countryside. Your headlights scan skyward and then plunge toward the ground as your car crests atop one rise and begins its descent into the next valley. Except for the headlights, and the trees, weeds, and rocks illuminated by them, you see ... nothing. A landscape devoid of any distinction. Total uninterrupted darkness. You hear the crunching sound of tires on gravel - only. Nothing else. The darkness and accompanying stillness are reminders. You know you are alone.

The only exception can be seen far off in the distance. You almost have to know where to look because the pinpoint of light is so faint as to be illusory; the more you try to fix your gaze on it, the more your eyes convince you that it is not really there. In part that is because the tiny beacon emanates from high upon a mountain three miles away and is the only sign of human habitation in a wall of blackness. On a moonlit night, the faint silhouette of the moutain itself - my mountain - can be discerned with some effort. On most nights though, when the evening mists form and the clouds take their sleep around the summit, nothing save the tiny glow from the porch light can be seen - for miles.

My porch light. My home.

To say that Paula and I live in isolation is no exaggeration. On a sunny day you can stand on our front deck and look down upon a vista that is right out of a JMW Turner landscape. Far off in the distance you can see the village of Bland with its distinctive Lutheran church steeple and nearby courthouse tower. Around and beyond the cluster of dwellings and small businesses, you see rolling pasture lands, punctuated with frequent woodlands and meandering ravines. Further away, you see an imposing Brushy Mountain. Directly behind our house rises our mountain, completely forested, uninhabited, since the beginning of time undisturbed. The Jefferson National Forest. Save for a few neighbors down below, we live alone.

Except for a host of other creatures. If we cohabit during the day, they own the night. Paula was walking next to the stream that flows down the mountain and across our property the other day when she noticed something unusual laying on the bank. It was a claw. A large, curved, grayish brownish claw. At first, when she brought it to the house and showed it to me, I thought it had come from a bobcat. Although rarely seen in the area, I had spotted one last winter, when the snow was its deepest high in the mountains. He - or she - had come down to my neighbor's farm looking for food, I expect. I watched it trot across a snow-covered pasture, its long, sleek silhouette unmistakable against the pure white background. It was there and then it slipped into the woods; gone.

But when I got to looking at it, I recognized that the claw had probably come from a bear. There are quite a few black bears in the forest above; so many that there is a hunting season established to keep the population down. One of them had come down to scavenge along the stream, perhaps. How the claw came to be there? Noone will ever know. Living in the wild, we witness considerable carnage. Red-tailed hawks and kestrils killing and eating doves and finches, insects eating other insects. The bear may have met up with a bobcat and the bobcat walked away from their confrontation. Last Spring, just after the snow thawed, I found along the same stream a rather fresh scattering of bones of a small fawn, probably caught and killed and eaten by coyotes. Out here you learn to read bones. Species. Age. Their fate sometimes.

It's the coyotes that signal to humans on warm summer nights that we are not in control, if only for a matter of hours. You never see them. But you can hear them howl. And there are times late at night when you can pick up what sounds like a pack of coyotes playing with one another, seemingly yipping and racing around in the blackness on the edge of dark pastures below. Occasionally you also hear screams. Primal last breath cries of anguish. Rabbits sometimes. Squirrels. You didn't know that rabbits can scream? It is more of a shrill squeal. Very brief. And then the interminable silence of the night closes in again.

Coyotes are not the only creatures that hunt around our house at night. I've heard, and on a few occasions have seen, owls swoosh by overhead; huge birds of prey. And there are many foxes, grays and reds. And bats out to get their fill of insects. Racoons. Possums. Mice. Bobcats. And there are the many creatures that move about in absolute silence, move about for the same purpose - sustenance. Snakes of assorted colors and sizes, many of which I stumble upon during daylight hours when they are resting from the previous night's hunt. And feral cats.

Once, several years ago, Paula and I were in the house, it was late at night, when we heard what sounded like a scream - almost human - from not far away. Only one short, loud cry that eminated from some creature that was confronting impending doom, and then silence again. Somewhere out there in the darkness. We looked at each other and we realized that I needed to go out and investigate. All I was wearing at the time were my shorts and tee shirt, it was Summer as I recall, and there was a heavy mist coming down outside. So I donned my "safety orange" jacket, grabbed a flashlight and my trusty baseball bat and went out to find the source of the...sound.

I walked the perimeter of our yard, found nothing, and decided to explore the woods behind the house. Knowing that there was a clearing deep in the forest, and deciding that the quickest and easiest way to get back to it was to traverse the edge of the cornfield that abutted the treeline. I headed in that direction. The only sounds I heard by now were those of millions of tiny droplets of mist collecting on the tree leaves, forming larger drops, falling down to leaves below, and raining down to the ground. Visibility by now was poor. The fog had rapidly obscured my vision of the house and I was unable to see anything beyond corn stalks and trees.

As I began trudging along the muddy furrow between the corn rows, shining my light on the path ahead, listening for sounds coming from the woods, a feeling came over me. A feeling of foreboding like I had never experienced before in my entire life. Something was watching me. Not someone. Some thing. I had this overpowering sense of consternation take hold. As I moved now, I tried to shine the flashlight in all directions, particularly behind me. I knew that, whatever it was, it was going to attack from behind. The thought went through my mind, "Stop it. You've been watching too many slasher movies." But the sensation did not go away. And the memory came to me of the bobcat tracks that I had seen in the snow the previous winter within yards of this spot. Large paw prints the size of my fist. It was not an agreeable thought. I knew that I needed to focus.

And I needed to get out of there.

So I turned back. Reentering the yard outside the house where I had the porchlight on to illuminate the surrounding area, I felt safe enough to turn and peer into the mist to see what it was that had been hunting me. But there was only silence, save for the dripping sound of mist plummeting from nearby leaves. And my line of sight ended at the edge of the forest, where the mist and darkness took over. I don't know what it was that I came close to confronting that night. But I learned a valuable lesson from it. During the day, my presence is tolerated.

They own the night.

Slipping the Surly Bonds

While I'm on the subject of flying, I wanted to mention the experience I had at 35,000 feet above the earth last night. Our plane had taken off from Greensboro, headed toward Atlanta. The sun had set by the time we had reached altitude but the western horizon was still aglow. The skies were clear except for a slight haze barely detectable off in the distance. It was a wondrous sight. One you can only find when you're soaring high above the earth.

A poem came to mind that I had seen displayed many years ago at the air force museum in Dayton, Ohio. It is entitled, "High Flight," and was made famous by President Reagan in a speech to a grieving nation after the Challenger disaster in 1986.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. 
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The author, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a pilot, was killed - at the age of 19 - during World War II.

* Originally published on September 1, 2004

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


I wrote a few weeks ago about the bond that exists between a man and his tractor. I likened the relationship to that which existed between a cowboy and his horse back in the days of the wild west. In my effort to wax poetic about my beloved farm machinery, I failed to mention another bond that exists - that between a man and his dog. In this case, my little sidekick, Beazer. She came to us via the local dog pound probably 14 years ago as best Paula and I can remember. And she has been at my side - in spirit if not in body - every day for those many years. Until today.

I buried Beazer this evening.

Beazer is short for Beelzabub, the hound from hell. She was built like a pit bull - only she was smaller - and had the look of a bird dog. She was mostly black with a few white splotches and a white tip on her tail. We called her pedigree "All American Shorthair," which means, translated, that she was a mix of about every breed imaginable. She got her name because of her attitude toward strangers and her obstinacy. She had a particular hatred for the UPS man, and, in her younger years, I had to pull her away from him many times. Beazer didn't care for the vultures that soared past our windows here on the mountain either. Or the raccoons. Or possums. Or stray cats, chipmunks, squirrels...

Beazer and I had a special relationship. I can't explain why. I was always tougher on her than either my wife or my daughter ever were. And Paula often accused me of ignoring her when Beazer came looking for some attention. But Beazer always came. If a number of us entered the house together, after having been away for a period of time, here Beazer would come to greet us. She had this annoying, ear-splitting yelp, yelp, yelp when she came up to people she knew - well, perhaps not so annoying anymore. But she would always come looking for me. She would work her way through the crowd, even as others were calling out to her, to greet me first. Only then did she devote time to the others.

And there was another bond that Beazer and I had, although I'll not be able to explain it. She and I could go up the mountain together and, as dogs often do, she would disappear into the forest. I would lose track of her but keep on going. It was fascinating that, no matter in which direction I went, she would always find me. She was always there with me. When I sat here at my computer, she would come in and lay on the carpet next to me. If I moved into the living room, she would get up and move with me.

There came a point several months ago when Beazer was no longer able to make it up the mountain. She got too feeble. Truth be known, I quit going up the mountain too. As you could imagine, it was because I couldn't leave ol' Beaz behind, knowing how much she enjoyed the adventure and knowing that she knew where I would have been heading. She always knew. And I couldn't disappoint her. Her health began to fail recently, and we knew the end was coming.

I think this will be the last time I ever think of Beazer in her final years. From this point on, I'm going to remember her when she was young and in perfect health. When she could easily outrun me. When she ran in the yard in circles as I pretended to try to catch her. How she loved the attention. That I guess, when you come down to it, is what cements the bond between a man and his dog. I appreciated her companionship; she craved my attention. I am struggling with that thought as I write this.

It's easy at this point to say something like, "Well, life goes on." But that doesn't quite work for me tonight. A part of my life is - forever - buried on Big Walker Mountain.

* Originally published on July 18, 2004

Twistin' To Toby's Toe-Tappin' Tunes

Paula and I were doing a little Texas two-step the other day with our twin two-year-old grandchildren, Jayla and Kaid. They were having a blast swayin' to the poundin' sound of Toby Keith and his Easy Money Band playing "I love this bar." I'd like to think they were laughing hysterically out of sheer delight but it may have had more to do with seeing their "Jeramps" mixing a few country moves with some disco that Travolta and I perfected a number of years ago. But they did have great fun. To the point where they wouldn't let me quit. So we danced until I was finally completely out of breath.

I had thought for a moment that we should have gotten out the video camera and recorded the moment. But then that age-old adage came back to me and I decided that maybe it was best if we didn't. "White boys can't dance."

"We got winners, we got losers/chain smokers and boozers/And we got yuppies, we got bikers/We got thirsty hitchhikers/And the girls next door dress up like movie stars/Hmm, hmm, hmm, I love this bar."

* Originally published on September 13, 2004

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Paula Declares War

It takes a lot to get Paula angry. Since our children grew up and moved on, she rarely has need of raising her voice - except at me of course, when I step out of line. With the exception of the occasional fist-wave at semi drivers who decide they are going to seize her space on I-77 while she occupies it, she is very even-tempered. Meak. Docile. Centered.

But you don't want to provoke her. You've heard expressions about the Biblical wrath of God? Well, Paula learned from the Master.

And now she's mad.

You see, it has to do with these three dogs. And Paula's effort to save the world's cat population. It began several months ago when Paula was driving by an abandoned house on the turnpike leading to our home. There on and about the sagging porch, scurrying in all directions, were several tiny furry newborn kittens. I will agree that they were cute. Way too cute. The saving grace from my perspective was that they were just old enough to know their station in life, for they were also feral kittens. We couldn't get near them without their running under the old house. To me, this was a good thing. We already warehouse ten formerly abandoned cats (make that formerly abandoned former kittens). We sure don't need more.

I remember the last time we went through this. I was leaving for work early one morning and was racing along the gravel turnpike, heading for Bland and the highway that was going to take me into the world. The road crosses Little Walker Creek below our house and there, just as I came to the bridge, something on the side of the road caught my eye. I looked over and saw a little gray kitten. Its funny, looking back to that day, the only image I maintain of that first glimpse was of a mouth full of teeth. For this little kitten was about as forlorn as one of God's creatures could be. It had obviously been abandoned by one of God's lesser creatures, probably someone who had driven there from the city and tossed him from the car. I have this vivid memory of his teeth probably because this kitten was so upset, his mouth was so wide-open, it was the only part of him that I could see.

But I've learned how to deal with situations like this over the years. If I were to stop and pick up the animal, it would immediately become a permanent member of the family. A burgeoning family. So I did what I trained myself to do. I drove faster. And left the little screaming kitten in my rear-view mirror.

But then that little angel that one occasionally finds sitting on one's shoulder appeared and said, "You know you can't do this."

"Oh yes I can," says I.

"No. What would Paula say?"

Damn angel.

So I grabbed my cellphone and called Paula. I told her about the tiny gray kitten at the bridge and hung up. There was a day when I would have said something like, "Now, if you think we are going to keep this animal, I will pack my bags and ... whatever ... " I went to work knowing that a new addition had come to the Fuhrman family.

Something odd about that kitten though. When I got home later in the day, I immediately noticed that it had gained a couple of pounds. I know Paula can work magic with animals but even she couldn't grow a cat that much in a matter of hours. Something was wrong.

Then it came to me. This wasn't the kitten I'd seen at the bridge. Even though Paula said she found him right where I had told her to look, the one I saw was a good bit smaller than this one. And it came to me that if this isn't the one I saw earlier, the one I saw had to be...

So we got in the car and drove to the bridge. No sooner did we stop the car and get out than out of the weeds came the frightened kitten, teeth bared, mouth wide, as if crying, "Help me. Help me."

So we ended the day with two additions to the burgeoning Fuhrman household. Say hello to Frodo and Pippin.

Getting back to this other batch of kittens, Paula decided that if she couldn't bring this brood home, she would feed the cats there at the abandoned house. So every day she would take a bowl of Kibbles and Bits or Bitsy Bibbles or whatever that crap is called, along with a jug of water to the house and leave both there for these wild kittens.

And then a neighbor's dogs got wise to the fact that there was food at the abandoned house. Dogs apparently like Kibbley Diddley too. So they began showing up as soon as Paula left and ate all the cat food.

Paula was peeved. So she took the bowl of food and the other containing the water and slid them under the sagging porch. Problem solved? No. Dogs, she found out, can crawl under the porch as easily as Paula can. They continued to eat the cat food.

Paula was mad. So she decided to confront the neighbor. Now in matters like this, I take the Rodney King approach to life. That being, "Can't we all just get along?" Or in this case, I looked at Paula and said, "What, are you nuts? Those dogs may not belong under the abandoned house but your butt doesn't belong there either. You can't very well tell a neighbor - one we don't even know - that he is to keep his animals off your - er, make that - off someone else's property."

So Paula changed tactics. She decided to perform a bit of urban renewal on that old house. Or a facelift, if you will. A remodel. She decided to prevent the dogs from getting to the food by propping boards against the sides of the porch to keep the dogs from crawling underneath. And by wedging other boards under the porch supports. After a number of architectural changes, she seems to be satisfied with her latest design. Call it Gothic Pile of Boards Against Collapsing Porch.

But for now it seems to be working. Paula shows up and feeds the cats. The whole time she's there, the dogs are watching from a distance with a look in their eyes like, "Just you wait. You think you've outsmarted us but we will find a way..."

And Paula stands guard. She feeds the kittens and waits in her car. Watching. "Damn dogs."

And she called me today (I'm in northern West Virginia) and told me that when she went to feed the kittens their meat today (I said to myself, meat? What's this about meat?), she said two of the kittens came out and ate at her feet. She was full of rapture. Bliss.

And I said, "If you think you are going to bring these animals into my home, I'll pack my bags and ... "

Oh for the love of God.

* Originally published on November 9, 2004

The Meanings of Christmas

You hear a lot of talk this time of year about the "true" meaning of Christmas. There are the faint voices of a family of the faithful who believe - and celebrate that belief - in putting Christ back in Christmas. The holiday is to most people, however, a time to spend money on gifts, to make money off the the spenders, and to wake up on Christmas morning and receive from the spenders that which they purchased. I really don't have a big problem with this. It may be lamentable but you can't make the non-believer believe.

But there is another side to the Christmas holiday; one you cannot fathom unless you have an ever-increasing number of years behind you. It is only with age that the melancholy side of the Christmas holiday grows profound; as more and more of those you love and had celebrated the holiday with in the past leave this earth and are no longer there to be with you to decorate the tree or to prepare the Christmas candy or string the Christmas popcorn - or to open gifts on Christmas morning. Ever again. Grandparents. Father. Friends.

The ever-growing list includes, as well, the names of loved ones who were never able to be there to celebrate even one Christmas with you but who you've kept close to your heart - if not in your conversations - and for whom you had a lifetime of plans that were cut short. A daughter.
I remember when I was very young, my grandmother would come over to our house to celebrate Christmas with my two brothers, sister, and me. The night before Santa came was a special night because she would help bake cookies and pies for the next day's feast. In the course of preparing the various foods for the Christmas dinner, she would take out a sifter and pour flour through it before using it to bake bread. It's funny how your memory holds on to tiny flashes of the past. It may have something to do with the fact that the sifter - and my grandmother - are fond memories. Cherished memories.

Life is like that flour sifter in a way. When you're young, you gather an abundance of people around you with whom you hope to celebrate. As you age, however, more and more of your loved ones pass - like flour through the sieve - and become ... cherished memories.

This is the melancholy side of Christmas. Along with the joy that I feel knowing that I'll be able to be with my wife, children and grandchildren on Christmas, I also long to celebrate - just one more time - with an ever-growing number of those from my past; those who are gone from this earth forever.

And I look forward to the day when we will all be together as a family once again and celebrate Christmas as we did so many years ago. Grandparents, Dad, Jeri. What a celebration it will be.

By Morton Bryan Wharton
I am thinking tonight in sadness
Of a Christmas of long ago,
When the air was filled with gladness,
And the earth was wrapped in snow;
When the stars like diamonds glistened
And the night was crisp and cold,
As I eagerly watched and listened
For the Santa Claus of old.
The forest was robbed of its treasures,
The house was a mass of green,
And I reveled in Christmas pleasures,
At the dawn of Aurora's sheen;
Some talked of the Savior's mission,
But I of my pretty toys;
Some knelt in devout petition -
I romped and played with the boys.
We went to the pond for skating,
To the stable to take a ride,
And we found new joys awaiting,
To whatever spot we hied;
But the climax of my story
Was that evening's fireworks show!
Went out in a blaze of glory -
That Christmas of long ago!
But in sadness I think of that Christmas,
For many then happy and gay
Have gone to the realm of silence
And sleep in their beds of clay;
The hands that filled kindly my stockings,
I shall grasp in this world no more,
But when at Heaven's portals I'm knocking
They'll open the beautiful door.
They will lead me in tenderness clinging,
And place me before the throne,
Where the choirs angelic are singing
And the heavenly gifts are strown,
And there in the realm of glory,
With my loved ones at my side,
I'll repeat the old Bethlehem story
And join in the Christmas tide.

May you and all your loved ones have a very Merry Christmas

* Originally published on December 12, 2004

A Man and His Tractor

I sometimes feel sorry for you city boys. You are destined to go through life unsatisfied. Even with your many accomplishments and all those degrees and awards, when "the role is finally called up yonder," you'll grudgingly admit that there was - your entire life - something missing. You can't define it because you've never seen it. You've never been able to verbalize it because it has always been ill-defined. Ethereal. But you know that there was something lacking in your life. An imbalance. A dark void in your being.

And I know what it is. You see, I am centered. Among the many triumphs that I can look back on now and take pride in, and along with the wonderful family that God has been kind enough to bestow upon me, and with the worldly wealth and good physical health with which I am truly blessed, there is one event that towers above all others, and that has made me the man that I am today.

I bought a tractor.

They say that in the days of the wild west there was a special bond that existed between a man and his horse. Well, I have no way of knowing whether that was true or not, but I can relate the fact that there is an attraction between me and my tractor that transcends time and space. Wherever I go, my tractor is near me - in spirit if not in reality. And I take care of it just as in those moments, after a heavy rain or snow, or when the grass in the pasture is knee-high, or when I've got some heavy lifting that needs to be done, and I call upon my tractor for help, it has always been there for me.

When we moved from Kentucky to the Detroit area in 1996, I left my beloved Ford 9N tractor behind, prompting my need for a new one when we got settled. After a short search, I came upon this Ferguson TEA20 in Ortonville, Michigan that the owner had fixed up and was attempting to sell. I say "fixed up" because it looked like it had been used as a battering ram over the years and was in pretty rough shape. I used the term "over the years" because the tractor was built in 1952. As any vintage tractor man can tell you, you are able to determine the age of your tractor from the serial number on the engine block (assuming the block has never been replaced), and thank God for the internet, there are sites from which you can find the year your tractor was built based on that number. The downside to owning this particular tractor was that it was built in Coventry, England for domestic (make that European) use. Which meant all the screws, nuts, bolts, etc. are metric (my guess is that the tractor was exported to Canada where they have no better sense than do the English when it comes to weights and measures). You can imagine how hard it is to come by parts here in the USA for a 52 year-old machine that was intended to be used in Europe.

But a bond was quickly formed. As my wife can attest, the only vehicle that I own that is never exposed to weather is my tractor. It has its own building at the entrance to my property and is never left out at night. Unlike my trucks, ATV, and car, the mechanics of which I make no great effort to understand, I know my tractor. I know carburetion. I know hydraulics. I know the charging system. I know the starting system. And I've learned - begrudgingly - the metric system. In the eight years that I've owned it, I've completely rewired it, I've repainted it, I've upgraded parts on it, and I've kept it in excellent working order. And I've found joy in the process. I remember the time when I wanted to mount a rear tail light on the tractor - the original one had disappeared at some point in time in the past - and so I did what any self-respecting vintage tractor man does, I went to Ebay. Low and behold, somebody who had no idea what it was that he was selling (fool!), had listed one for sale as a "car brake light." I recognized it immediately for what it was - a taillight for my 1952 Ferguson tractor. I gambled with an opening bid of $4.00, being fully prepared to go a lot higher, but nobody else seemed to be interested in an old light. Go figure. So It was mine.

Now my tractor can be ornery. The carburetor needs seasonal adjustments. I don't know why. And I think the oil pressure gauge is sometimes playing tricks on me. And it's crying out for a new leveling arm. But when I am in need, my tractor is always there for me. Plowing snow. Grading the driveway. Mowing pastures. Harrowing. Hauling.

So if you have an overwhelming feeling of angst or feel like you are drifting through life without purpose, take my advice. Go out and buy yourself a brand new 1952 Ferguson TEA20 (gasoline) tractor. Your world will never be the same. Your life will be complete.

* Originally published on September 20, 2004

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Christmas Spirit

Helle Dale writes this morning in the Washington Times:

Many of us long for simpler times, the days when you could wish your friends and family a "Merry Christmas" without a disclaimer of a hint of irony. Days of glowing lights, nativity scenes, full-throated caroling, collections for the poor, sermons about the infant Jesus bringing hope, joy and light to a world of darkness. Back then, actually not that long ago, Christmas seemed so uncontroversial. Fortunately, the above Christmas spirit has not disappeared entirely from view. It still exists in many communities across this nation.
It sure does. Right here on Big Walker Mountain.

We had a gathering of family - our first this holiday season - here at home on Sunday. My son, daughter-in-law, and the twins, Jayla and Kaid. Our son-in-law and little Chase. Paula was there as coordinator, referee, and chef; I provided the entertainment.

We got together here to begin the celebration of Christmas a bit early because Paula and I wanted the grandchildren - all three are two years old - to see the house all decorated and lit up. They are at an age when Christmas, as with all other aspects of their lives, is full of wonder. And learning. They are in varying stages of potty training and consider their successful use of the toilet to be ... a wonderful thing. That is what they are told anyway. And they accept the praise. 

Ask their mothers. To them, it is certainly a wonderful thing.

We will all be over at my daughter's house to actually do the gift exchange on Christmas Eve. We won't be getting together on Christmas Day because my son will be on duty - he is a Roanoke firefighter and will, unfortunately, be very busy that day - and we chose to assemble when all members of the family could be there.

But we wanted to get together at Gramps's house too because my home is - as it should be - a magical place to the young ones. A place for them to play and to have fun. A place to explore. A large home for them to run in and to wrestle in and one where they could dance. Kaid said, after being here only a few minutes, "Want to dance, Gramps." He remembered having been here a few months ago and dancing with Jayla and me to Toby Keith's CD, I love this bar. So we danced around the den for a few minutes and then it was off on some other adventure.

As you could imagine, the festivities were organized around the interests of the young ones. We ran - Chase loves to run and is fast as lightning. We played with cars in the Christmas village (What good is a room full of St. Nicholas Square buildings, figurines, sleighs, bridges, trees, ponds, boats and animals, if you can't play with them?). Greg and I took the three little ones outside (even though it was very cold and the wind was enough to make your face crack) and had a snowball fight. I must say that I probably won - if you measure success by the number of snowballs that connected - but Chase, Jayla, and Kaid won too, as children who are enjoying themselves can. Despite the bitter cold, they laughed and ran and threw missiles at their Gramps as fast as Greg could make them. I retaliated with snowballs of my own, always being careful to land a hit on their little backsides so as not to hurt them. I asked a number of times if they were getting cold. They would barely take the time to answer no, before running to get more ammunition. We played and played. That's what makes Christmas a special time.
Greg decided after a while to go on a hike. So he and I, Chase, Jayla and Kaid climbed the hill behind the house and converged on the tree house. The four of them climbed the ladder up to the platform in the trees and proceeded to bombard Gramps with sticks. They had great fun watching me dodge their throws or to hear me howl in anguish when one of their sticks actually hit me. This lasted for a time and then we went back to the house to get the little ones out of their wet clothing and to warm up in front of the fire.

And that's how the day went. Paula fixed a great meal. We all gathered in the living room in front of the fireplace with its relaxing warmth. We talked. And the grandchildren played. Jayla showed off her new skirt and sweater. Chase and Kaid wrestled on the floor with my son. I took pictures of those in attendance, including a wonderful shot of Paula and Jayla in matching sweaters, sitting in the recliner together, with that look of Christmas joy that one only sees when the family gets together, intimately.

When they had left to go back home, I turned to Paula and told her how I thought the day had been perfect; just as I had hoped it would turn out. My intention was for the grandchildren - and children - to have fun. They did. Will Jayla, Kaid, and Chase remember this day twenty years from now? No. But did the day contribute to their understanding of what Christmas is all about? 

You bet. It is a day when the family gets together and shares their joys and hopes and love and laughter. Right now Christmas is a time of wonderment to the young ones. Soon - too soon for me - they will have their own children and will be teaching them the joy that is Christmas at their own homes. And Gramps will be left to chasing Nana around the house on Christmas. Just the two of us. That, too, is as it should be.

May Jayla, Kaid, and Chase - and their children and grandchildren of the future - all have many Merry Christmases together. Paula and I will be celebrating with you.

* Originally published on December 22, 2004