6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Taking A Hard Alee--In the Path of a Tempest

“And if some god wrecks me again on the deep, I will
endure it, for I have a patient mind. I have suffered
already many troubles and hardships in battle and
tempest; this will be only one more.” – Homer, The Odyssey

This morning I found myself transfixed to the TV screen. Hurricane Katrina has been updated to a Category 5 storm and is now predicted to pass over New Orleans tomorrow afternoon. Last year, my two youngest brothers, who live on the central east coast of Florida, had to contend with Francis and Jeanne. At first it was thought they were going to take a direct hit, but the storms went in a little further south than had been predicted. Still the area of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach received significant damage from high winds and flooding. My brother, Glen, still has a blue tarp on his roof, as he is still waiting for a licensed roofing contractor to do the work. Compared to the houses and businesses to the south of them, though, they were fortunate that they didn’t suffer a worst experience than they did.

When watching the TV, it is hard not to feel anxious about the in-depth reporting the news media provides. In light of the coverage on the war in Iraq, and other terrorist acts committed by Al Qaeda, I am convinced that the media’s eternal lacrimation of these kinds of events is indeed a sorry occupation. Unlike terrorist acts, though, the media does a much better job in its prediction of a hurricane, where it’s going, its intensity and size, and the impact the storm may have on people’s lives who live in communities that might be in its path. And as the storm progresses, the coverage becomes relentless in its analysis of the storm. News reporters create a context for what the potential of the storm might be, and then compare it to other storms in the past that were of equal intensity and followed a similar track. Their speculation, though, is quickly rephrased as a “But unlike. . .” “Unlike Camille,” for example, “ this storm is going to produce far more significant damage, especially if it comes in just southeast of New Orleans." From the map on TV, the storm appears as an angry red circle slowly meandering toward Louisiana. Looking at it you cannot help feeling fearful for the people who live there.

And then there’s the cutaway. Thousands of cars with thousands of people driving a slow march north at a pace slower than the hurricane that’s progressing toward them. A reporter gives a quick assessment of the catastrophe that’s about to befall upon the city of New Orleans. “The levees are only designed to withstand a category 3 storm. If Katrina comes in as a category 5, then the city could be under twenty feet of water by tomorrow evening.” And then the understatement. “The damage could be devastating.” Aside from the immediate impact that this storm is going to have on the people who live there, we are then told of the indirect impact it is going to have on the rest of us. “There are a significant number of oil platforms in that area of the Gulf, and a number of refineries just on the shore. A storm of this size could seriously disrupt production.” What’s that? As if three dollar a gallon gas weren’t enough, it seems as if the weather bureau has just given the oil industry its blessing to raise the price of gas to four dollars a gallon.

I turn the TV off. Its not only bad enough that we have Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists making our way of life difficult, but now we have this monster named Katrina to contend with. I shrug my shoulders, and grab Homer’s The Odyssey off my desk and head toward the kitchen. There’s nothing I can do about the storm anymore than I can do about the terrorists. It doesn’t do me any particular good to fuss about what’s not in my back yard just yet. I wish the people who live there well, and that they have sense enough to get out of harms way. At least with a hurricane, you know where the storm is going to hit before it actually does. The same cannot be said about Al Qaeda. All we do know is that that tempest is out there—waiting, lurking—but unlike any other storm, Al Qaeda can and will strike at will, and often times does so without any warning. Certainly New York, Madrid and London can attest to that. It will be a big step when our goverment can finally track their impending storms on our culture and way of life as well as the weather bureau does with a hurricane.

I make myself a lunch of Dr. Pepper and Triscuit crackers spread with peanut butter and topped with a slice of cheddar. Outside it is a pleasant 76 degrees with a light breeze coming off the ocean. After I finish with my lunch I take a stroll down on the shore, and find myself a rock to sit on for awhile. It’s a Sunday ritual of mine that helps cap the end of the week, and put things in perspective—a perfect prescription for meditation. The water stirs before me. I watch a cormorant dive continually under the water for its food, and reappear on the surface some distance from the point where it dove. A seagull flits above me making quite a fuss—as if I had taken its favorite spot. It lands on the rock twenty feet next to me. Like me it just sits there looking out across the bay. What thoughts it has as it contemplates its universe I do not know. What I do know are the islands across the way, the sun magically turning the surface of the water into a shimmer of diamonds, the solitary sailboat subdued in its easterly trek toward Isleboro.

Standing up, I take a hard alee from the doldrums and say a silent prayer. I give thanks for the joy of being able to live, regardless of how insignificant and illusive my life may be. That I live and feel alive, and have the good company of family and friends is all that really matters or is necessary. I head back up the road and turn for home.

BY S. L. Cunningham


A Mid-August Stroll

Today I’m much ado about nothing. Sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of strong, black coffee, I look out the window. The oak trees seem much fuller than usual for this time of year. But there are only a few more weeks of summer left, and it won’t be much longer before the lush green leaves turn to a yellow brown.

For the last couple of weeks Cindy Sheehan has consumed me with her misguided protest of the war in Iraq. I’m not one to usually offer an opinion on political issues as I’m generally indifferent to such matters, however, Sheehan quite literally had me tearing at the newspapers with her recondite arguments as to why President Bush should be impeached for his failed leadership policies.

Now that she has had to leave her post in Texas to attend to her ailing mother in Los Angeles, I wonder how much United for Peace and Justice and Michael Moore’s nematodes will be able to keep up with their effrontery to our sense of common decency. I wish Sheehan well, though. She has suffered a great loss, and I hope she is able to overcome her grief and find that quiet place in her heart where she can honor her son in death as she has honored him in life.

Work itself today was a battle. Most of our older students have been discharged from our treatment home, and in the last month, we’ve had four new “mad at the world” students come into our program--two seventeen year olds, and two slightly younger. As with most of our at-risk youth, they have experienced broken homes, alcohol, a variety of drugs, and incarceration for theft, possession, and probation violations.

I like to think my first name is easy to remember. After all, what could possibly be so difficult about remembering, “Scot.” Yet with the new students, it always seems to take a month or so until they actually become comfortable with calling me by my first name. When I redirect a new student—as I did today when I asked a student to find something less violent to watch on TV—the typical response is, “Shut up, asshole.” As I mentioned to one of my colleagues once, I think their epithet they refer to me by may be due to the fact that I’m bald. Sometimes when redirected, though, a kid will demonstrate he’s having trouble with the obvious by shouting, “You’re an asshole!” I just take it as a simple acknowledgement of my presence and the fact that I’m being complimented for doing my job, thus I usually respond by saying, “Thank you.” When I do, the kid will look at me with a confused and uncertain stare, and then get up and walk away shaking his head.

I get up from the table and warm up my cup with the last of the coffee in the pot. My cat is stretched out in his window seat as if to demonstrate he can out relax me any day of the week. Outside it’s sunny, with a few clouds—about 70 degrees. The Colonial Theater in downtown Belfast is playing “Finding Home.” I think I might head on down. It’s only a half-mile from where I live, and if I leave now, I’ll have more than enough time to stop in Darby’s for a char-burger, hand cut fries and a pint of Guinness draft. It’s a one, two, three combination that’s hard to beat, and is truly satisfying to the palate. Instead of walking, though, I think I’ll take a stroll.

There’s a distinct difference between taking a walk and taking a stroll. A walk is more of a point a to point b affair, whereas a stroll is more lackadaisical. The objective of a stroll is its leisure; a walk, its intention. On a walk the urgency is to get there now. On a stroll, however, there isn’t any urgency, for time and destination is of no consequence. Wherever we get to is where we are, and where we are is where we have arrived. It’s as simple as that. On a walk you’re more in your head than out. In your head you churn out thoughts about not having enough money from paycheck to paycheck, thoughts about never being to get ahead in life, the ever-nagging uncertainty of your life’s purpose or work. But on a stroll you’re blissfully out of your head and into your surroundings. When I stroll on down to the center of Belfast, I marvel how the ash trees—sixty to eighty feet tall—line and shade High Street with its cascading branches. I become pleasantly aware of the sonorous cry of the gull, the cackling of the crows, the cadences of the insects, sounds that affirm a late summer day.

Usually I begin by taking in a deep breath, the air pungent with the smell of the ocean. I appreciate how unique and significant Belfast looks--its buildings architecturally designed during the 1800’s in the federalist, Italianate, and Greek Revival style.

When I look at these houses--these grand homes--that were built during this time, I begin to get a sense of how prosperous this place was that is so indelibly tied to the sea.

There’s the Thomas Whittier House, built in 1803, that later became a popular inn for drinking, dining and dancing. My favorite is the Italianate style house built in 1859 for Charles B. Hazeltine, who had made his fortune by supplying California ‘49ers during the gold rush.

And often as I saunter down Primrose Hill, I notice little things: a toy shovel left by a mound of dirt next to the front steps of an apartment building, Black-eyed Susans growing against the base of an old maple with a ragged crown, and the gray, life-sized wood carved elephant that stands on the edge of the roof of the Colonial Theater.

I rinse out my coffee cup and set it on the counter. And so much ado about nothing, I put on my New Balance shoes and cinch up the laces. Grabbing the Pounce cat treats from the top of the refrigerator, I feed a couple of tidbits to my cat. I’m not sure why I do this except that it’s become a customary thing to do each time I go somewhere. I think perhaps I do this to reassure him that I’ll return.

I put on my long sleeve shirt in anticipation of a cool night, grab my hat, and head out the door. When I finally do arrive at Darby’s and sit at the table, I know I will find myself relaxed and eager for that first slow sip of Guinness. It’s days like these that make me realize that perhaps things aren’t so bad afterall.

By S. L. Cunningham


Cindy Sheehan’s Protest - A Mockery of Civil Disobedience

S. L. Cunningham

“The generations of men are like the leaves of the forest.
Leaves fall when the breezes blow, in the springtime others grow;
as they go and come again so upon earth do men.”—Homer, The Iliad

What perhaps started out as a desperate attempt by a mother to call attention to her grief over the loss of her son now seems to have evolved into a shameful act of debauchery. Partly because of the continuous press coverage, but mostly because of the extremist group, United for Peace and Justice, who have embraced Sheehan as their cause. That she has now become the mouthpiece to espouse their agenda as to why we should not be in Iraq, and to paint the President as a failed leader who has led us into an unnecessary and unjust war, shows a disconcerting rift in our moral fabric.

As such I have to wonder, would a Cindy Sheehan have been tolerated during WWII after our troops landed on the shores of France to begin their march toward Germany? I think not. What’s ironic, though, is that the political climate then wasn’t all that vastly different from our time now—considering that WWII was the war that no one wanted, nor even had expected—but once Americans did become committed, however, they also became very clear as to why our armed forces were there, and what was needed to be done to pull together to make sure that as a nation they prevailed, no matter what.

As to Iraq, WWD was the initial argument for invading that country, but it was not the only one. But not finding any WWD’s does not necessarily make our cause unjust. Saddam Hussein was a dictator: a tyrant who ordered the systematic slaughter of thousands of Kurds, the torture and killing of thousands of innocent people and their families perceived to be political enemies, the harboring and training of terrorists groups—whose main intent was and still is to destroy our way of life, and the Food for Oil Program he used to increase his personal wealth while the people of Iraq where left to go hungry and sick.

Dismissing any of those reasons for being committed in Iraq is not only naïve, but dangerous. If Americans had not remained steadfast as to why we needed to be in Europe in 1943, imagine what the outcome might have been. With enough Cindy Sheehan’s, Hitler might have prevailed in conquering Europe and Britain, and if we continue to encourage and embrace her misguided rhetoric that’s being written for her, we are in danger of undermining our reasons for being in Iraq, and worse, demoralizing our men and woman who are serving there. With the fall of Hussein, Iraqis are in the process of reshaping and redefining their country as a democratic nation governed by the rule of law. Our job will not be done until this has happened. Thus to answer Cindy Sheehan, this is why the war is being continued. President Bush does not need to apologize to her or to the UFPJ that has turned her into a mockery of civil disobedience.

Over the weekend I was checking up on Another Man’s Meat, a blog written and maintained by Phil Dillon. Reading his post of August 9, 2005, I was stunned by his essay, “To the 425th,” which he wrote to the 425th Transportation Company, Emporia, Kansas two years ago as they were preparing to leave for Iraq. It is a cogent, heartfelt plea to the soldiers to be mindful of their call to duty; to the values they represent as Americans, but above all else, a reminder of the “moral imperative” to liberate a nation of people who have lived under a repressive regime so that may experience the gift of freedom. Read it once. Then have a cup of coffee or tea, and read it again.

To the 425th
Phil Dillon

I learned today at church that 48 of my fellow Emporians, members of the Army’s 425th, are being deployed to the Persian Gulf in a few weeks.

Like many Emporians, my wife and I prayed first, that war might be averted. We also prayed, that if it could not, that these brave men and women would go reflecting the best of America, and that, in the end, they would all come home safely.

After church, I reflected on those being called and the task ahead of them. Who are they? What values do they represent? What, if anything, could be just in the cause they may be called on to vindicate in battle?

I reflected, first, on my own experience. I went to Vietnam in the summer of 1964 as a soldier and as a “New Frontier” Democrat. John Kennedy’s words, spoken three years earlier, were fresh and alive in my heart and mind - “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Like many, I went believing that our task was to advance the cause of freedom.

I recall vividly, years later, watching the fall of Saigon. As North Vietnamese tanks rolled down the boulevards of the city, many South Vietnamese desperately attempted to flee. They clawed at the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound. Some attempted to board already overcrowded helicopters on the Embassy roof. Most failed and resigned themselves to their fate. They were being “liberated.”

In the days and months that followed, the media gave us all an occasional glimpse of overcrowded “junks” floating aimlessly in the South China Sea. They carried a desperate human cargo, willing to risk their lives to either flee something or to find something else. “What” I wondered, “are they so desperately trying to escape?” “Freedom?” “Justice?” Equality of opportunity?” “America?” “Where were they trying to go?”

Even now, some thirty years later, I’m occasionally haunted by the memory of what might have been. I’ve been told that I take it all too personally. I’ve been told that I, and my country, can’t cure all the world’s ills. When I hear, I just nod and turn away. Their words bring neither answers nor comfort. I know they mean well, but I’m still haunted by the vision of millions of faces now living in the grip of tyranny. My “comforters” mean well, but two sentences, however well meant or placed, will never be able to overpower those faces.

Why, if my thoughts are with the 425th, am I even mentioning my experience? How could it possibly be relevant to them and the task before them?

I write to encourage them with the knowledge that they go supporting principles Americans have always been willing to give their lives for. They go supporting principles that we have, in a very unique way, embraced since we declared our independence in 1776. In his book, Making Patriots, Walter Berns notes that “the terms Americanism, Americanization, and un-American have no counterparts in any other country or language.” That is, those principles we Americans treasure – justice, equality of opportunity, and freedom from tyranny – rise above us and call us to act nobly in their support. Being an American, as Berns puts it, “Expresses the conviction that American life is uniquely founded on a set of political principles.”

Why is it so important that you know this as you go?

If war comes, so will difficulty. If war comes, voices will bellow from the “seat of the scornful” – “It’s all about oil.” “The administration just wants to make war.” “It’s all about American imperialism.” The voices will rise. They always do.

In his first inaugural speech, Abraham Lincoln pleaded for the preservation of the American union. While he spoke to all Americans, he spoke primarily to those determined to retain the obscene institution of slavery. Many in the American south were well aware of Lincoln’s views on slavery. He was the one who had, years earlier, said that a nation could not endure “half-slave and half-free. Many viewed him as an aggressor out to destroy an institution and a way of life. The voices rose up. If there was to be war, he was going to be the one responsible. Lincoln closed his address to the nation with these words – “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors.”

Even now there are some who would blame a war, if it comes, on George Bush or Colin Powell or Condaleeeza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld. They believe that if war comes, it will come because of a failure on our part to be reasonable or a failure on our part to act in good faith. It can be averted if we only listen to the voices of reason in our midst. They will, by their superior wisdom, show us the way out. They will mention, in passing, that Saddam is a brutal tyrant, but in the end, if war comes, it will be our fault. They will never agree to the idea that the answer to the grave question of war or peace resides in Baghdad. When the sound and fury begins you will need to rise above the call to abandon the sacred trust set before you. You must oppose tyranny. You must support the cause of freedom and justice.

There are some, even now, who say that war will come only because we want it to come. Here, in our local newspaper, for example, there is an on-line survey with the question “Do you think the U.S. should go to war with Iraq?” There are no conditions outlined in the survey question that would lead to war. The question is simply, “Do you think the U.S. should go to war with Iraq?” The question could just as easily be, “Are you a war-mongerer? A yes response would mean that the respondent just adores war and is itching for a fight. A no would mean that the respondent is a reasonable, intelligent, peace-loving person. Of course, as a member of the military you know all too well that no sane, reasonable person wants war. You understand that you may be called upon to give your life if war does come. You’re not a war-mongerer. You’re someone with a family you love. You have noble goals in life. You want nothing more than to live in peace. And you are, thankfully, someone who is willing to serve so that the principles that guide your life may be afforded to those who are denied them.

Some will tell you that this is all about oil. It’s a very effective myth. What they fail to tell you, though, is that nothing could be further from the truth. If all this was about is oil, then we could just leave Saddam alone to bully the Middle East and brutalize his own citizens. All we’d have to do is just leave him alone and we’d have all the oil he can pump out of the ground. We could leave him alone and we’d have, for a while, the illusion of peace. But, in the end, we’d come to see it for the devil’s bargain that it was. Hopefully our eyes would be opened before it’s too late.

If it’s not about oil, then, what is it about? Some years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, a young woman was attacked by a predator in a lower floor hallway of the New York City apartment building she lived in. She screamed and cried for help, but none came. Neighbors heard the screams. Some put pillows over their heads to muffle the cries for help. Some even turned their radios up to overpower the desperate screams. Some just ignored what was going on, believing it was none of their business. The tragic fact was that no one did anything. No one called Nine One One. No one attempted to help. The assailant even left the scene of the crime for periods of time and came back again and again to continue his assault. Morning came and the woman’s body was found and taken away. When her neighbors were asked why they hadn’t helped the answers ran the gamut. “I was hoping someone else stronger than me would help her.” “It was none of my business.” ‘What was I to do? “He might have killed me too?”

In a matter of weeks the incident was forgotten and life went on.

The people of Iraq today are much like that woman who was brutalized years ago. And, to say that intervening would only be about oil is as obscene as a neighbor saying, “It was none of my business.” We are the neighbors who can hear the desperate screams for help. We are not only citizens of a nation, we are citizens of the world. And, like those neighbors years ago, we have a moral imperative to act. In fact, if we fail to act, we in essence would be abandoning principles we say we cherish. We would be frauds whose only considerations would be our own safety and comfort. We can choose to ignore the screams, but the nightmares will surely follow. If we fail to act, that failure will hang from our collective necks like an albatross. We’ll be haunted by the faces of Kurds whose faces, in death, reflect the brutality of the “justice” meted out to them by Saddam. We’ll be haunted by the screams of Iraqi children being tortured in front of their parents.

You see, there is a moral imperative here. It is the people of Iraq.

In Lincoln’s day some tried to frame the issue of civil war in terms of “states’ rights.” In 1863, though, the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation gave the Union cause its true meaning and its proper moral imperative. Thousands of Americans gave their lives to preserve the Union and to emancipate fellow human beings who were treated as property and denied human dignity and freedom. What American, living today, would not be willing to die for such a cause? Who in America would not be willing to gladly lay down their life so that another might live in freedom?

Centuries ago, St. Augustine addressed the issue of whether or not war could ever be justified with the following words (from City of God) – “For better is it to contend with vices than without conflict be subdued by them. Better, I say, is war with the hope of peace everlasting than captivity without any thought of deliverance. We long, indeed, for the cessation of this war, and kindled by the flame of divine love, we burn for entrance on that well-ordered peace in which whatever is inferior is for ever subordinated to what is above it. But if (which God forbid) there had been no hope of so blessed a consummation, we should still have preferred to endure the hardness of this conflict, rather than, by our non-resistance, to yield ourselves to the dominion of vice.”

To my brothers and sisters of the 425th I close with the words of the sixth article of the American Fighting Man’s (or Woman’s) Code of Conduct:

I will never forget that I am an American fighting man (or woman),
responsible for my actions and dedicated to the principles which made my
Country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.

May God be with you. May He vindicate your just cause. May He bring you safely home to us.


Have Cause; Will Travel - Extremists For Hire

In March 1973 I was honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps. After landing in Boston from Los Angeles, I took a Greyhound bus to my hometown of Pittsfield, Mass. When the bus pulled into the depot, I observed a rather large crowd across the street with large signs protesting the Vietnam War. One sign said: “Make love, not war.” Another sign depicted Uncle Sam in a wheelchair. “I Want Out,” was its proclamation. But one sign just about made me feel like getting off the bus right then and there and grab the puny, candy ass puke by the throat who was holding it: “We Refused To Serve; So Should Have You.”

It seemed peculiar that people would still be protesting a war that was basically over. When I stepped off the bus in full uniform, I was not prepared for what happened next. The crowd began chanting, “Baby killer, baby killer,” in rhythmic succession. These people knew nothing about me, never met me, didn't know whether I actually served in Vietnam or not, but because I was in uniform, they carried on as if I were the enemy. And then somebody hurled a beer bottle that just missed me. I hurriedly threw my duffle bag into the trunk of the cab, and headed for home. It was not the kind of reception I had expected, and I didn’t quite know what to think of being referred to as “a baby killer,” let alone having something tossed at me. After I got home, I quickly changed out of my uniform. Whatever pride I had felt in serving my country was gone.

With the event of 9/11 it is good to see that attitudes have changed toward our young men and women who serve in the armed forces. The year that followed 9/11 ushered in a wave of patriotism that showed to the world our determination to remain steadfast and resolute as a united people. It was a determination of a people not experienced since WWII, but unlike that time it seems that we are beginning to weaken in our conviction to stay the course, no matter what. Indeed it seems that perhaps we are not a patient people after all, and with continuous reporting of servicemen and women killed in action, we are beginning to show a weakening in our courage to finish the fight that was brought to us with the attack on the World Trade Center.

Lately I have been watching the news, and following the updates on Cindy Sheehan who has camped herself just outside of President Bush’s Crawford, Texas home to protest the death of her son. I sympathize with her loss and can only imagine her grief. The death of a child or loved one is the most painful human experience of all. However, her grief has not been a quiet protest, and as such, she now has over 50 people who have taken up her cause by camping out with her, and helping her with her protests. They have planted little white crosses by the roadside to emphasize how many of our young people in the armed forces die each day as they fight “the war on terrorism.” And as I watch the people who have taken up her cause, the people who stand next to her red, white, and blue bus emblazoned with the slogan, “Impeachment Tour,” I am reminded again of how I felt that day I returned home in 1973.

And just as back then, the angry voices of the anti-war protesters begin chanting: “W killed her son! W killed her son!” But as there was nothing tragic or heroic about the protests of the Vietnam War, neither is there anything tragic or heroic about Sheehan’s protests, nor her cause. What’s worse is that it’s a pathetic display of a mother’s tragic loss. Instead of honoring her son’s death, she instead blames the President ad hominum by declaring him to be the “biggest terrorist of all.”

Amid the chants and the mother’s protests, it seems that the real story that should be told here is being completely ignored. After volunteering to go on a patrol with seven other men to help rescue 19 men whose convoy had come under attack by Iraqi insurgents, her son, Casey, was killed during an ambush. He didn’t have to go; he chose to go--to heed the call of duty. Now there’s an interesting concept but not one easily grasped or understood in a culture of people who expect drive-through results with their convictions. And so when the media attention begins to wane and people have decided they have read and heard enough of Cindy Sheehan, who will the extremists find next, vulnerable and willing, to have their cause taken up.

By S. L. Cunningham


1964, I’ve Got Your Memory (Walkin’ After Dinner With My Grandmother)

Tonight I’m listening to Patsy Cline’s The Definitive Collection. As always when I listen to her songs, I find myself reminiscent of the time I lived in Seffner, Florida when I was ten years old. When she sings “Walkin’ After Midnight,” it’s 1964. My mother, who had separated from my stepfather, moved me and my three younger brothers from our house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Tampa, Florida. We first lived with our uncle before my mother found a place to rent in a trailer park in Seffner just outside of Tampa. We didn’t stay in that park very long. The trailer she had rented was still occupied, not by the previous tenants, but by the biggest reddish black, armor plated bugs I had ever seen, crawling out of a box of Cocoa Krispies.

Conceding to the palmetto bugs, my mother found another trailer park that was owned by an elderly couple. We lived there for most of that summer before my mother started to look for another place to rent that she felt was more suitable to our needs. And so it was just around August when we moved to our third trailer park that sat up on a hill bordered by orange groves and pine trees. The trailer we rented was adjacent to the playground of the old wood framed Seffner Elementary School that had closed the previous year and had moved to a brand new facility where I attended fifth grade.

It was during this time that my grandmother came to live with us to help my mother take care of us boys while she worked. When September came it was time for school. Having to get up early wasn't easy, but there was always a bowl of hot oatmeal waiting for me at the table. The walk to school was a little less than a mile, and most days I made it to school on time, but some mornings I’d be quite late. My imagination full of mysteries to be solved sometimes would get lost amidst the Spanish moss that draped the oaks that lined both sides of the street.

What I liked most about that time when I lived there was the after dinner walks my grandmother and I would go on. Seffner was just a small town that featured a general store, a gas station that closed at 5 p.m., and a café that made the best cheeseburgers and fries around. The gas station was just about a half mile away, but we took our time getting there, and seldom did we ever take the same way. We had about five or six routes, depending on which streets we chose to go down or crisscross that would eventually lead to our final destination.

Most evenings, though, we would take the “pig route.” It was the long way around to the gas station, but the last street we walked down to get to the highway lead by this house that had a back yard with a chain link fence. It was a small house weathered gray with a front porch that had a curious bow in the middle. As we started to walk past the back yard we sometimes would get a King Kong size whiff of “pig poo.” And there in the far corner of the back yard was the white Pig, the enormous white pig with black splotches. On one of our walk-by’s we stopped to gawk at the pig. The old man who lived in the house came outside to greet us. “How you like my 320 pound porker?” he asked.

“Just fine,” I replied.

He then made this shrill noise that sounded like a car horn that shorted out. No sooner than that, the pig came running, snorting and squealing at the same time. “Say hello to Elmer,” the old man said. “He’s kinda like a big dog. You can reach over and pet him if you’d like.”

I looked at my grandmother for reassurance. “Go ahead,” she said, “It’s okay.” Petting Elmer, I marveled at how bristled its hair was. My grandmother thanked the old man and we continued on with our walk.

When we finally got to the gas station, she would open her pocket purse and take out two dimes and give them to me. I would then go up to the soda machine, slip a dime into the coin chute, open the door, and pull out a ten-once, ice-cold Coca-Cola and hand it to her. After getting mine, we sat down on the chairs that were in front of the gas station office and talked a spell. It was she that always initiated the conversation by asking, “So, how are you feeling today?”

Up until my mother had separated, I thought I was a “Dunham,” but after moving to Florida, my mother broke the news to me that I was actually a “Cunningham.” The man I knew as my father was my stepfather, and my three younger brothers were not my brothers, but my stepbrothers. At that age I could not find the words to express how confused and suddenly lonely I felt, but my grandmother sensed what I was feeling and helped me talk about it. Even though I had a new identity, it didn’t change the fact that my mother still loved me and that my stepbrothers were still my brothers. “Nothing in life is always perfect or fair,” she would say. “All we should accept of ourselves is to do the best we can.” Six months later my mother and stepfather reconciled, and we moved back to our house in Pittsfield, Mass. All had become almost right with the world again, just as my grandmother said it would.

I drift back into Patsy Cline singing “She’s Got You,” and I’m struck by the line: “I've got your memory, or, has it got me? I really don't know but I know it won't let me be.” 2005, 41 years gone by. I get up from my chair to get a can of Coke from the refrigerator. Opening it, I thank my grandmother for the time she spent with me as a young boy then, and for helping me later in life with my son after I became divorced.

It was February 28, 1998 when she went on what would be her last walk. After returning home, she sat down to watch T.V. with a bowl of soup that a neighbor had brought over for her. At 84 years old, she fell asleep and never woke up.

It’s after midnight. I decide to go out walkin’ just like we use to do.

S. L. Cunningham


Got To, Get To – Change The Way Your Family Thinks


I recently heard a story that has literally changed the way that I, and my family, think about life. The story is as follows:

There was once a high-powered woman in her 30s who ran her own company and was massively successful in business. Yet every single day, at 10am, she visited her elderly mother, who was in an old peoples’ home. When asked if she could attend meetings at that time, she would reply, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to visit my mother”. She sometimes resented the commitment and was occasionally ridiculed, but nevertheless answered, “No, I’m sorry, I’ve got to visit my mother.”

One day her mother died. Soon afterwards she was asked if she could make a meeting at 10am the following day. She started to reply, “No, I’m sorry, I’ve got to visit my mother”, but of course quickly realised that this was no longer the case. Sadly, she realised that for many years she had been saying, “I’ve got to visit my mother” when what she should have instead been saying was, “I get to visit my mother”. She would never "get to" visit her mother again.

So how does the story relate to other situations? I have been surprised by how many times the story has seemed appropriate since I heard it, just a few weeks ago. It applies to so many different aspects of family and working life, from the large to the mundane. For example, I first told my son the story when he was complaining about some extra French classes he was having at weekends (“I can’t believe I’ve got to go to the French tutor”). I explained that he is lucky to "get to" have the French classes: lucky that we care enough to notice he needs them, and lucky that we can afford to pay for them.

I thought of the story last night when my little girl was using every delaying tactic in the book about going to bed, and just refused to settle down. I caught myself thinking, “Oh no, I’ve got to go upstairs, miss the end of the television show I’m watching, and calm her down and settle her into bed” … but quickly replaced the thought with something along the lines of “I’m lucky that I "get to" spend 5 quiet minutes with this funny, amazing little girl, even if I am tired and could do with some rest!”

And I thought of the story again just this morning when the beeper on my tumble dryer annoyed me into emptying my clean washing! I turned some very negative, lazy thinking around by reminding myself that I was lucky to have a tumble dryer, the clothes to put into it, and the family to be washing them for! It was still a chore but somehow it didn’t seem such a bad one anymore.

My husband reminds himself of the story when the alarm clock goes off early in the morning and he struggles out of bed and to the train. He "gets to" go to work. Many people don’t. And I think of it when I am sitting, uninspired, in front of my computer, wishing that I didn’t have admin or website chores to do for Activity Village. The thought doesn’t last long. I may have admin and website chores to do, but I also "get to" provide activities and inspiration to parents, teachers and children around the world every week. How lucky can I be?

Lindsay Small is the creator and editor of Activity Village.co.uk - providing the ultimate one-stop resource for parents and teachers looking to educate and entertain their kids. Visit the website at http://www.activityvillage.co.uk/
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"Article reprinted from SimplySearch4it! Articles Directory"