Category Archives: Fatherhood

We Swam the Mile Swim

I was 13 in the summer of 1977.  I had failed the 100-yard swim at scout camp the year before.  Now I was going for the mile swim.  Mist hung heavy on Lake Seneca in the early morning.  My dad lowered himself into the water with a cold shudder and swam out into the lake, while Fritz rowed alongside, with me a passenger.  Dad swam and swam and swam.  Fritz finally said he had swum a mile.  We hauled Dad in, and I jumped out of the rowboat for the long swim back.  The sidestroke was my savior as I swam slowly back to Camp Liahona.  As lake finally gave way to shore and I stood on firm ground, both calves cramped, and I fell to the ground.  Two men lifted me up and put my arms around their shoulders, congratulating me on my accomplishment.  I was proud to sew our seahorse patches on my merit badge sash.  We had done it.  What’s more, we had accidentally swum two miles each, Fritz having rowed us to the wrong landmark!  But we were proud and happy to have done it, and to have done it together.

We Swam the Mile Swim

You know that
patch on the back
of my old olive sash:
white with red
seahorse? I worked
for that patch: I swam
2 miles for 1 patch
2 miles
for the 1-mile swim

because the rower pulled to
the wrong landmark. Of course
I didn’t know
until the long swim ended
and two men shouldered
my dead arms after
both calves imploded
and the mile-swim boss
giggled Why
did you swim so
far? I knew all
along I could do it
no matter how far
because my dad had swum
out to that far landmark
and I had only to
sidestroke slowly
back while he watched
poised
over the gunwale
on Lake Seneca: still
steaming morning’s mist.

Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay

Starting the Old Chain Saw

I built this old wood shed as a raccoon pen, but Harvey sent his raccoons to live somewhere else–a good thing, probably, as the raccoons will have fared better, I fared better for not having raccoons to care for, and I now had a covered place for my wood stove firewood supply, all cut with a Husqvarna chain saw Reza lent me before he died, and spit and stacked with my children (see the photos after the poem).  That chain saw was complicated to keep running well and sharp, but I managed, and even taught my sons to use it, until I had to leave home.  And now the youngest must learn on his own, over the phone, and with his own considerable smarts.  I wrote this poem after yesterday’s phone call from Hyrum.

Starting the Old Chain Saw

Well, first you move the blue
lever forward (that’s the choke) then push-
squeeze the clear bulb

five times or so (you’ll see it fill with fuel)
to prime the motor,
and now you’re ready to pull the chord, but,

of course, you need fresh fuel in the tank
(old gas has water in it, and the motor won’t run with water in the gas)
and don’t forget the bar chain oil to cool and grease the chain.

Is the chain loose? The chain can’t be so tight
it binds on the bar, nor falling off neither,
but just loose enough. Pull and pull that chord,

and when the motor starts to putter,
ease that choke back and let that motor purr.
Ease that blade into that old cottonwood,

rock your way right on through.
You’ll know the blade is sharp if the sawdust flies in flakes;
powder means it’s dull.

I’m sorry I can’t be there to help you, son,
but I know you will figure things out:
you will cut the wood of your life,

make beautiful things,
beautiful things:
I will watch, and see.

And here are my children, splitting all that wood we cut in September 2015 and filling the wood shed.

Roger Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human heart.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Dad Leads Me on a Bullfrog Hunt at Dallenbachs

Dad and Me (ca 1969)

At dusk at the abandoned Dallenbachs quarry turned deep lake in East Brunswick, New Jersey, Dad and I turned our attention from the bluegills to the bullfrogs.  This was a new experience for me, and I was wide-eyed and expectant.  Enormous frogs croaked, a loud, deep, rumbling song.  Spying a bullfrog, Dad pounced just at the frog jumped under his shoe.  Dad felt so upset about hurting the frog.  I didn’t know what to do or feel.  I simply stood quietly, then followed, quietly, to the car.  Fifty years later, the memory has reappeared and found its way into this new poem.

Dad Leads Me on a Bullfrog Hunt at Dallenbachs

From reedy black bank-water emanated the rumbling
thrum that I knew, at four,
came from big bullfrogs. Even the bluegills

eluded our hooks, so we skulked the flank
because we could and because we were serious and excited
and on the hunt. I followed his point to two

gray spheres, an iceberg of frog flesh, its ears
metallic yellow discs just below. Two things
happened then, a concomitance in four

dimensions, the giant frog launching
a great leap, the big man’s
wet sneaker falling hard on the frog

sitting dazed, pink tongue bulging, while dad cussed
a grimace, I watched
and I listened and I knew both were

hurt, the soft body and the gentle mind,
and I did not move or speak
and I did not know what to feel

and I did not know how to help the bullfrog or
the father, hearing not a gravelly croak
on the long lake shore.

 

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

A Day to Rejoice!

I sat in my home recently, contemplating my blessings.  I could see quickly that they abound.  I felt to rejoice on that day and wrote this poem.  I thought it fitting to post the poem on Fathers Day.  I hope that you all find reasons to rejoice today and everyday.

A DAY TO REJOICE!

Today
is a day
to rejoice:
A Rejoicing Day!

Do you see
there
on that wall
those photographs
of young people who
consider
you their friend, who
trust
you with their hearts, who
love
you despite your imperfections, who
call after
you, papa, dada, pops,
smiling from their place
on that wall, who
forgive
you
today:
A Rejoicing Day!

What do you think of these
bratwurst,
tell me:
stadium brats,
beer brats,
smoked brats,
sweet Italians—grilled
on that Father’s Day grill
under flames leaping after dripping juice—
which do you like
best?
You like them all?
A Celebration Day!

No booby-trapped doors.
No roadside IEDs just waiting to rip off your limbs.
No bullets through your windows on a Sunday afternoon.
You can walk
to your church,
you can pray and sing
and lift your hallelujah hands to the heavens
and not get beheaded for it;
you can hold your grandbaby,
almost smiling,
and have
a reasonable hope
in her
prosperity and peace—
a reasonable hope.
Yes,
I declare it:
A Rejoicing Day!
A Rejoicing Day!!

Then
there
is
you:
your wrap-around hugs, tight,
your battalions of butterfly kisses, soft,
your letting go and letting God,
your dogged determination
to forgive
me.
I am permitted to dream,
am I not?
A Jubilation Day!

The sun shines.
The rain falls.
The garden grows its fruits.
The church steeple rises
toward the sun in heaven,
rises,
with your heart, in
a reasonable hope
that the world,
for all its cracks and chasms,
is a home worth living in
on this
Rejoicing Day!

 

(Note: parts of this poem are autobiographical; other parts are aspirational.)

Christmas Barn

 

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Amidst all the holiday gift-giving, certain gifts stand, gifts of more than things but also of the heart.  My son Hyrum’s gift to his sister Hannah was one such gift, a gift to always remember. Hyrum (14) conceived of the idea, drew the idea, and saved his money for the materials. Together we engineered the structure, bought the materials, and began construction.  His gift: a miniature barn with hinged roof.  This series of photographs shows each step of the construction process, culminating with Hannah (10) opening her gift on Christmas morning.  I think of Hyrum’s gift as a miracle gift, for he gave part of himself along with the present.

The base frame, 18″ x 18″, allowing for a two-story central main building with an attached lean-to on each side.

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Adding posts to support the main barn roof.

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Completing the barn and lean-to frames.

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The completed frame with the interior floor installed and the wall siding begun.

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Wall siding and lean-to roofing completed with lathe.  The roof frame sit, hinged, on the main barn structure.

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The completed hinged roof frame atop the barn.

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The completed barn, prior to painting.

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Hyrum painting the barn.

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And . . . the completed barn project.

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Most importantly, Hannah on Christmas morning opening her special gift, inside which Hyrum placed a wrapped bucket of perfectly-sized farm animals.

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Hannah’s Christmas barn became my favorite Christmas gift, too.  I enjoyed working with my son for weeks to engineer, construct, paint, and wrap the barn.  I witnessed the joy on my daughter’s face (and on Hyrum’s face) as Hannah opened her special gift.

Life Ethic

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As a boy I collected butterflies. I hunted them, killed them, and mounted them in an impressive display case. I knew their names, their habitats, their habits. Over 100 species. Unhappily, worms destroyed my entire collection. I see now that my youthful intention had been to capture the butterflies’ beautiful essence. I have outgrown my need to capture butterflies. I am content to view them alive and free, awed by their living beauty.

Working in the yard one day I watched my son Brian, then 9 (now 26), chasing a butterfly with a homemade pillowcase net. “I caught it!” he exclaimed. I held my breath as he peered into the net to examine his prize. He soon released the butterfly to live another day. A smile of wonder lingered on his face. I breathed a relieved sigh to see him possess the maturity I had lacked at his age. I had taught him to love beauty. And he had learned. Learned to love beauty without needing to clutch at it, control it, kill it, and mount it on a board, only to lose it in the process. He had learned a Life Ethic. Here is the poem I wrote about that occasion.  (Happy birthday Brian.)

LIFE ETHIC

“I caught it! I caught it!” cried the boy
over my weed-whacker whir
after waving his pole-clamped pillowcase
across the sky.
Two wide eyes and a victory smile
raced to the porch where
two trembling hands
coaxed the delicate creature
through the screened bug-box door.
A bundle of awe,
the boy sat still and stared
at this astonishing bringing-together
of color and form,
at this life.
Father watched from the garden rows,
remembering his own youth’s hunt
for small, helpless prey,
whose fate was to rot
with a pin through the thorax,
and a tag with a name and a date.
But the magical fluttering rainbows had faded
fast behind their showcase.
“Nice catch, son,” father admired
with a pat and a ruffle.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“Well, I think I’ll watch him for a while, and
then I’ll let him go.”
Good boy, father sighed, as
a boy released his heart’s hold and
a captive rainbow again
graced the sky.

(I took the above photo of a Milbert’s Tortoise Shell in 2007 on the banks of Duck Lake in the high Uinta Mountains of Utah.)

No Diving

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Photo by Liddy Mills

I live in an apartment now.  My children come to visit.  Mostly I am alone.  But I have books, music, poetry, crock-pot dinners . . . and a hot tub.  My children and I sit in the roiling 110-degree water even when the ambient air is 20 degrees F, and the steam has condensed in frozen icicles hanging from the hot tub railing.  We talk about life, their soccer goals and rugby tries, sore muscles, ornery pimples, church dances, dates and the prom, stubborn cowlicks and bad haircuts, good books, good movies, hopes and dreams.  We flex our biceps and splash steaming water at each other and laugh.  Sometimes after work I soak alone, watch the steam rise, and write a poem.

NO DIVING

in the hot tub
three feet deep
no diving sign in the tile
ice clings to the chrome railing
steam, and contemplations,
billowing, billowing

Wood Lamp: Stone

Stone

Stone by Hyrum Baker

Though made of wood, Hyrum and I thought Stone a good name for this little gem of a lamp, perfect for an end-table or night-stand.  Stained a dark Jacobean, we thought its swirls reminiscent of cooling magma on some ancient volcanic seashore.  Note the brass electrical tube wound tightly with jute twine.

This was one of our early wood lamp projects, before we embarked on more ambitious projects like Waves and Smoke, both masterpieces envisioned by Hyrum (then 12).  Waves sold for $500.

Along with Reach, we traded Stone for in-kind services, provided by my journeyman friend Justin, to power my chicken-coop studio.  We had set the price at $145.

Wood Lamp: Little Guy

Little Guy

Little Guy by John Baker

Not all of Baker Brothers lamps are large (like Dolphin and Grace) or ornate (like Smoke and Waves).  Some are small and simple, but still beautiful, like Little Guy, pictured above.  Made from a fairly flat piece of drift wood, it resembles a small floating barc.  A decorative stone placed just so balances the lamp perfectly on the wood’s natural three contact points (don’t worry–it won’t fall over without the stone, just tip slightly, as if riding a wave).  The brass tube containing the wire and holding the shade is wrapped with jute twine for a rustic, seafaring look.

Little Guy can accompany you on your next maritime imagination adventure for $180, proceeds to fund the Bakers brothers’ attendance at the National Boy Scout Jamboree and their college funds.  (An assortment of lamp shades is available.)

Wood Lamp: Grace

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Grace

The piece of driftwood that became the lamp Grace leaned against my shed for about a decade, a temporary decoration with which I might do something someday.  It joined my other decorations, antiques, hanging from the shed by nails, though the wood lay on the ground, frequently obscured by weeds and grass.

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This lamp posed the special challenge of mounting its lithe and twisting form to the base.  At first I used a single nut and bolt, with washers at each end.  But no matter how tight, the lamp still wobbled.  Eventually, after staining and wiring, I added another bolt, and the lamp now stands firm like a ship’s mast to a ship.  While drilling such a lamp for wire would normally be a challenge, only minimal drilling was required.  The wire follows mostly natural cracks running down the back of the wood.

At 4.5 feet tall, a possible companion piece to Hyrum’s lamp Dolphin (4 feet even), we suggest a value for this lamp of $850.

Not just my sons have raised money for the National Boy Scout Jamboree.  I join them in both the fund-raising and the scouting efforts.  I attended in 2013 as an assistant scoutmaster, one of four men accompanying a troop of 36 Boy Scouts.  I will attend again in 2017 in the same role.  I am pictured here with my sons John and Caleb, in the Salt Lake City International airport, exhausted but happy after our three-week adventure.

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I will post pictures and stories of additional wood lamps soon.

Wood Lamp: Dolphin

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Dolphin by Hyrum Baker

Hyrum (14) and I have worked on Dolphin for the better part of a year.  This lamp began as an unassuming piece of weathered drift wood, distinguished by its beaver chew marks at both ends.

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Not owning an air compressor (yet), Hyrum devised an ingenious, low-cost method of cleaning the wood of sand and dust: a bicycle pump fitted with a ball needle.  Quite effective.

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Drilling this piece of wood, 48 inches from nose-tip to tail, was a challenge, due both to the length and the twisting curves of the wood.  We bored several holes with a long 5/16″ bit, then enlarged the holes with a 3/8″ bit.  Having the end of one bore meet the beginning of the next bore was indeed a challenge, but we made it work.

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For convenience, we decided to stain the lamp wood laying flat before mounting it to its base.

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With the lamp stained once, we were prepared to mount it to its base.  I learned the hard way on another tall lamp that a single bolt leaves the lamp wobbly, no matter how tight.  So we used two bolts, ratcheting the nuts down hard, with large washers on both ends, and with a little lock nut to keep them tight.  Black caulk filled the holes and covered the bolt heads.  We drilled and routed the base to accommodate the electrical chord.

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The next challenge was to thread the lamp wire through the several angled drill holes.  We first used a coat hangar to thread a length of electrician’s tape through the lamp, then used the tape to pull the wire through the lamp.

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With all the hardware work complete, we now applied more coats of Provincial WiniWax stain, then three coats of gloss polyurethane.  We often use different color stains for the base and the lamp in way that highlights the lamp (see Waves, Smoke, and Reach), but for Dolphin, a floor lamp, we thought using the same color stain for both was more effective.

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(Dolphin, in the final stages, is pictured in the background, with Grace in the foreground, and Smoke looking on from the sidelines.)

With black felt on the bottom and a simple but pretty shade on top, Dolphin is ready to swim into someone’s home.  We suggest a value of $850 for Dolphin (though we are confident that it would fetch more in many boutiques).  As a reminder, Hyrum is making these exotic wood lamps to fund his way to the 2017 Boy Scout National Jamboree, and then to college.

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Making these lamps together, while each one poses its own unique challenges, has been a true father-and-son joy.  I hope to continue our hobby into the future and Hyrum and his brothers become fathers themselves.

Climbing Wall

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For my son John’s 17th birthday he asked me to help him engineer and construct a climbing wall in our garage.  That was the gift he wanted from me, his father.  I let out a heavy sigh, knowing, as a lawyer, my engineering limitations.  I write contracts and ordinances.  I don’t build things.  But I couldn’t disappoint him.  Testing his commitment to project, I promised I would help him if he did all the research.  He spent hours on the internet compiling a book of various designs and techniques.  He had done his part, so now it was time to do mine.

We carefully drew out our plans, bought the materials, and got to work.  The first step was to assemble a kick plate and wall foundation to attach to and cover the garage footing.

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The most difficult step was designing two wall sections, the first at 20-degrees and the second at 40-degrees.  We began this process by cutting angled joists, the climbing wall’s ribs, if you will.

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The angled joists rest firmly on the kick plate/foundation wall, bearing much of the climbing wall’s weight.  This low wall is also where the climbing starts, with the climber in a sitting position.

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The angled joists were also secured to ceiling braces, screwed into the garage roof trusses.

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My good friend Paul (who is an engineer) instructed me that roof trusses are designed to withstand snow loads bearing down from above, not weight pulling down from below.  So I climbed up into the garage attic, crawled through fiberglass, and braced the roof trusses with 2x4s.  We also insert a portable vertical 4×4 post whenever anyone climbers, just to be sure the roof won’t fall in on the climbers.

Next came assembling the climbing wall surface.  Before we mounted the 3/4-inch plywood, John drilled numerous holes and inserted threaded T-nuts, into which the climbing hold would later be secured.

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With the holes drilled and the T-nuts set, we attached the wall to the angled joists.

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(Note the antiques with which I decorated my garage, several made by or belonging to my great-grandfather Nelson Baker.)

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With the most difficult work done, it was time for John to have fun planning his bouldering “problems” and setting the holds.  The climber completes the “problem” by touching the top of the climbing wall.

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2015-08-20 John

In this photograph, John is hanging from holds on a box he built on his own to add to the climbing’s wall’s challenge.  He also built the pyramid.

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Note the crash pads underneath the climber.  Crash pads are mandatory.  These are surplus martial arts mats, to which we add several foam sleeping pads.  (John is a third-degree taekwondo blackbelt.)

Weeks later, John removed all the holds and painted his climbing wall, adding sand to the paint to add texture to the wall.  He used paint scraps left over from previous house painting projects.  Tapes of various colors mark the different bouldering “problems” or routes.

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Building this climbing wall with my son John, though intimidating to me at first, turned out to be a most meaningful experience for us both.  We enjoyed working through the design and construction challenges together.  John learned that he can dream and make his dreams come true.  He, his brothers Caleb and Hyrum, and his friends spend hours in my garage bouldering through the various “problems” John has set.  Just one year after completing his climbing wall, John off on a month-long NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course learning real-life leadership and climbing skills.  He dreams of following in the footsteps of climbing heroes Alex Honnold and Chris Sharma.  John is pictured with Chris here.

John and Chris Sharma

*  *  *

The week before Christmas 2015, Caleb (16, also a taekwondo blackbelt and climbing enthusiast) whispered to me that he wanted to add to John’s climbing wall by building a “campus board” as a Christmas present for his brother John (now 18).  (Another sigh from dad.)  A campus board is an angleled wall with horizontal rungs cut for hanging and climbing, to strengthen the fingers, hands, and indeed the whole upper body.  Caleb designed it, and we set to work.

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Caleb used his great-great-grandfather Baker’s plane to shave off one corner of the 2×4 rungs so that they would be parallel with the ground, or angled slightly inward, making it possible to grasp with the fingertips.  I felt proud of Caleb for working so hard to bring his holiday plan to fruition, but mostly for wanting to make a meaningful Christmas gift for his brother.

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These are experiences and memories that we will always share as father and sons.

Shoe Shine Boxes

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ONB

When I was a boy, my father scrounged scraps of oak plank and made himself a beautiful shoe shine box, of his own design, with his initials “ONB” carved on one end and chiseled greenery on the other.  He made a similar box for me, bearing my initials “REB”.

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REB

As boys, my four sons often watched me shine my shoes, asking me if I would please shine theirs.  Then they began asking if they could use my shoe shine stuff to shine their own shoes. They have enjoyed using my shoe shine box during their boyhood years.

This Christmas I presented to each of my sons their own shoe shine box.  It was time for them to have their own, to carry on the tradition.  For lack of tools, time, and skill, I simplified the design.  But I still find their shoe shine boxes elegant.

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I had planned to make the shoe shine boxes over the Thanksgiving weekend while staying with my parents.  Caleb (16) asked if he could stay one night with me, so I decided to let him in on the secret and help.

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After Caleb left, Grandpa, the original shoe shine box carpenter, helped me finish the boys’ boxes.

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My sons may be the only living boys to have such shoe shine boxes, in a three-generation genealogy of shoe shine boxes, made by their father and grandfather.

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I hope my sons find years of enjoyment and pride in shining their shoes with their shoe shine boxes.  And who knows: perhaps they will make such boxes for their own children someday.

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I hope you will find a unique and meaningful way to connect with your sons and daughters, and to carry on the traditions of your generations.

Violin

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On summer evenings as the desert heat dissipated, we would open all the windows in the house to let in the fresh, cool air.  As I sat on the porch, or weeded in the garden, or fed the hens, the sounds of Erin’s violin would pour gently from her window, hovering above the quiet countryside.   Her music was like the smell of perfume from a Purple Robe Locust, or the flash of blue from a Western Bluebird, or the taste of ripe mango.  I haven’t heard Erin play her violin for several years due to her being away at university and missionary service.  But I can still hear the music in my memory and feel the soothing sensation of my mind and body loosening their many knots.  I miss her playing.  I miss her.  This poem brings Erin and her music back to me.

VIOLIN

Notes dance through the window:
cheerful young notes
tip-toeing prettily upon the air,
swirling soft, slow pirouettes above
Fall sunset’s deep-green grass;
a blanketing balm
come to rest upon
a tired brow,
a twitching muscle,
an anxious heart.

Youthful hand and hopeful heart
send the bow searching the strings,
like a songbird upon the breeze,
like a breeze along the tree branch,
like tree roots through the earth.

Cleanse me.
Lift me.
Bring me through.

Not Today

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More than any other child, Caleb’s bicycle tires always seems to go flat.  I would patch an inner tube one hour and have it be flat the next.  Those awful three-pronged “goat-head” stickers were his bane.  Caleb was too young to patch his own inner tubes, so he was constantly asking me to do so.  “Dad,” he would ask, “can you fix my bike?”  I grew weary of his frequent requests, and often put him off.  Each time I avoided the task, however, I could see the disappointment in his eyes and hear it in his voice: “OK, Dad.”  I would come around eventually, but my delinquency deprived him of many days of happy riding.  When I began to realize what I was doing to him, and to our father-son relationship, I started patching his tires more quickly, began to teach him to patch his own tires, and wrote this poem as a reminder to myself to exercise patience and love with my children.  (Note: each stanza diminishes by one line in length, symbolizing Caleb’s diminished faith in his father.)

NOT TODAY

On Saturday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad!
I ran over a sticker,
and my bike tire’s flat,
so I can’t ride my bike.
Can you patch it for me today?”
Dad sighed and then replied,
“Not today, son, can’t you see?
I’ve far too much work to do.
Maybe tomorrow.”
And Caleb said, “Thanks, Dad.”

On Sunday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad!
My tire’s still flat,
so I can’t ride my bike.
Can you fix it for me today, please?”
Dad sighed and then replied,
“Not today, son, don’t you know?
On the Sabbath day I cannot do such work.
Tomorrow would be a much better day.”
And Caleb said, “Thanks, Dad.”

On Monday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad.
I still can’t ride my bike at all.
Please, can you fix it, maybe, today?”
Dad sighed and then replied,
“Not today, son, I’m all tuckered out;
I’ve worked so hard all day.
Maybe tomorrow, or next week, sometime.”
And Caleb said, “OK, Dad.”

On Tuesday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad.
I’d really like to ride my bike.
Could you help me, sometime, fix my tire?”
Dad sighed and then replied,
“Goodness gracious, son, how you pester me so.
I told you I’d do it sometime. Not today.”
And Caleb said, “OK, Dad.”

On Wednesday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad.
Today’s probably not a good day, huh?”
Dad sighed and then replied,
“I’m afraid you are right, son, not today.
Today is definitely not a good day.”
And Caleb said, “OK Dad.”

On Thursday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad.
Do you think, maybe, tomorrow?”
Dad sighed and then replied,
“Sure thing, son—maybe tomorrow.”
And Caleb said, “OK, Dad.”

On Friday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad.
Tomorrow’s Saturday, right?”
Dad replied, “Last time I checked.”
And Caleb said, “OK.”

On Saturday Caleb said, “Hey, Dad.”
And Dad replied, “Hey, Son.”
And Caleb walked away.

Wood Lamp: Smoke

Smoke

Smoke, a lamp by Hyrum Baker

My son, Hyrum, and I made this lamp together.  For his first lamp project, in 2014, he chose a difficult piece of wood, which required drilling with long bits at awkward angles.  We rescued this Russian Olive root, standing about 36 inches tall, on a firewood cutting expedition.  Encrusted with mud, Hyrum worked for weeks to clean and sand the wood, filling the cracks with putty, and staining: he chose Sedona Red.  The putty didn’t stain well, so we used a matching barn-red paint to cover the still-pale putty, then stained over the dried paint, all for a rich rusty red result.  I am particularly proud of Hyrum, aged 12 at the time, for this excellent piece of artwork that happens to also be a lamp.  (I helped a little, of course.)  He named the lamp Smoke.  We suggest the value of this lamp to be $650 or more, depending on the market.  It is waiting to be taken to the perfect home.

Here is Hyrum pictured recently sitting at the bench of a federal district court judge during a recent scouting expedition for the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge.

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After visiting the courthouse and other state and federal buildings, we enjoyed sandwiches at the Boston Deli, a downtown Salt Lake City lunch spot featuring jazz vinyl records, instruments, and music.

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Chapter 46: Of Boys, Pigeons, and an Evil Rooster

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— You’re my big, bald buddy-boo.–
(John-3 to Dad)

As I readied to leave for my Rabbit Lane walk, I noticed a pungent odor from the little boy that hugged my leg.

“I’ll change him,” Angie offered.  “You go ahead.”

Little John (2) responded, “NO—Dadda,” and I felt the dubious honor of being chosen by my son for this special duty. Continue reading

Chapter 44: Of Death, Swords, and a Bear Hunt

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–Wow, Caleb, you have lots of brains.–
–No, I don’t! I only have one brain!–
–I mean, you have lots of sense.–
— I don’t have any cents, only three pennies.–
(Caleb-3 with Laura)

“I hate it when things die!” Erin (7) sobbed bitterly.

I have tried to teach the children not to hate because hating makes you feel hateful.  But I understood her sentiment: her pet goat had died.  She didn’t want to feel the deep grief of the loss of things loved.

“We never even gave him a name,” she lamented.  “We just named him Goatie.” Continue reading

Chapter 38: Black-Oil Pavement

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–Hold on by letting go.–

Toward the north end of Rabbit Lane, the ditch crosses the road through a 36-inch culvert pipe, where the water flows diagonally across Charley’s pasture in a shallow channel.  Charley was losing too much water through the informal channel and decided to install a new culvert a hundred yards or so further south.  He cut a new crossing in Rabbit Lane with his backhoe, dropped in a new section of black pipe, and backfilled around the pipe, restoring the road.  The water now flowed directly west in a deeper channel following a fence line. Continue reading

Chapter 37: Of Caterpillars and Birds

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–The Goldfinch is a splash of brilliant yellow against the white snow and brown earth.–

The ant hill is the sign of a delicate and sophisticated society, mostly unseen for its largely underground order.  The individual ant is tiny but far from delicate.  It is both formidable worker and fearsome enemy, taking on burdens and adversaries many times its size.  Yet its civilization is vulnerable to destruction by the careless shuffle of a shoe.

* * *

Every year we find Tomato Hornworms on our tomato plants.  The surest worm signs are bare branches, stripped of leaves, and large, barrel-shaped droppings.  When I find a fat caterpillar, I always call the children over to see.  Because of their tomato-leaf-green color and subtle markings, the hornworms are very difficult to see, even though they grow fatter and longer than my index finger.  Tracking them by dung and denuded branch is the quickest way to find them.

My grandfather Wallace, a part-time tomato farmer, detested these pests and hunted them doggedly.  Not needing to make a living from my tomatoes, I can afford to not mind a bare twig here and there.  In my garden, a bare branch is an occasion for excitement: a hornworm hides nearby.  The hornworms, earning their name from the stiff pointed horn on their tail end, don’t eat the tomatoes.  The children think the “callerpittars” are amazing, otherworldly creatures.  John (3) bravely held one in his open palm for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “He loves me!”

Unlike many moth and butterfly larvae, tomato hornworms dig into the earth to pupate.  They lie in the ground all Winter long and emerge in the Spring as tomato hornworm Hawk Moths.  Finding a hornworm, I have the children help me to prepare a shoe box with about two inches of loose, moist soil in the bottom.  We feed the caterpillars tomato leaves until their swelling, green bodies disappear to become dark-brown pupae in the soil.  We leave the box outside in a sheltered spot (where the cats won’t dig).  Occasionally we drip a little water on the soil to keep it from totally drying out.  In Spring, with the appearance of the first flowers, we put the box where it can warm in the sunlight, and we watch every day for the hawk moth to emerge.  To escape its pupa shell, the moth emits a liquid substance that dissolves a hole in the shell.  The new moth crawls out and spreads its wet, wrinkled wings and vibrates them rapidly in the sun’s warmth.  The vibrations pump blood from the moth’s body into the wing veins, causing them to spread open and smooth.  The wings quickly dry.  If this procedure is not completed successfully, the moth will never fly.

Hawk moths flit from flower to flower, sometimes chasing each other.  Their wings beat so fast that you see only the vague blur of wings.  The large moths look much like small Hummingbirds, and also enjoy the name Hummingbird Moth.  They feed while flying, like Hummingbirds, uncoiling their long, tubular, hollow proboscis to suck nectar from flowers.  Tomato hornworm moths are particularly striking, with soft red bands on their underwings.

We found a Hummingbird Moth floating in the children’s little wading pool.  We thought for sure that it was dead.  Putting a hand under it and lifting it from the cold water, I found that it moved its legs weakly.  We placed it on the sidewalk in full sunlight.  After a few moments, its wings dried and began to vibrate, circulating blood through the wing veins and warming the body.  The moth was a miniature, self-contained solar heating unit.  It suddenly rose from the sidewalk and flew away in search of nourishment.  We felt a hint of happiness at helping to revivify the moth.

I once gave a large Tomato Hornworm larvae, and a box with soil, to my nephew, Thomas (3).  Months later, he reported to me sadly that his moth had hatched.  Asking him why he was unhappy, he said, “I like the moth, but I miss my caterpillar.”

* * *

The children came running to me with alarm in their faces.

“A hummingbird . . . in the garage!” they gasped, trying to catch their breath.  Following them, I found the double-door up, the garage entirely open, yet the Black-chinned Hummingbird confounded and trapped inside.  Apparently, its instincts drove the tiny bird to fly always upward.  It buzzed around the garage with its beak to the ceiling, and could not see the obvious way out.  It stopped frequently to rest on the highest object it could find.  The bird looked at us nervously as we paced around the garage, but still could not discern the way to freedom.

I could see the hummingbird’s fatigue and hoped that, if I could catch it, it would have sufficient strength to fly away to find food and not fall easy prey to an opportunist cat.  I grabbed the long-handled butterfly net that stood in the corner of the garage.  The net was new enough to have survived active children chasing chickens and cats with it.  I raised the net and cautiously approached the hummingbird.  It jumped from its perch and flew to another resting place.  I quickly followed.  After repeating this for several minutes, I began to get a sense of its evasion pattern, remembering my old butterfly catching days.  Anticipating its next jump, I swung the net ahead of the bird, flipped the net to prevent the bird’s escape, and brought the net quickly but carefully to the cement floor.

Reaching my hand into the net, I wrapped my fingers around the bird tightly enough to keep it from flying away but loosely enough to avoid injuring the delicate creature.  The terrified bird peeped weakly and tried to flutter its trapped wings.  Bringing the tiny bird out from the net, I held it up for the children to see.

“That’s so cool!” one child exclaimed.  Then they all began to clamor, “I want to hold it!  I want to hold it!”

“Go ahead, touch it,” I invited, instructing them how to carefully stroke the iridescent, green feathers and to touch the wiry, black feet.

We walked out of the garage into the Summer sun.  Each child placed their hands under mine, and on the count of three we released the little bird.  It hovered erratically for a moment, then, gathering its bearings and new strength, it flew off to the south.  The hummingbird stopped for a moment at the feeder hanging from the arbor, full of sweet liquid, then flew high into the sky until we could no longer see it.  The children (and I) were thrilled at having touched and seen up close such a tiny, wild, beautiful creature.  We felt happiness inside knowing that we had rescued it and set it free.

* * *

An injured Western Kingbird flopped wildly on the pavement of Church Road near the intersection of Rabbit Lane.  It must have been struck by a passing car.  As I bent to pick it up, it opened its black beak wide and squawked in terror in a desperate but feeble attempt to protect itself from what it could only perceive as the attack of a giant predator.  I carefully folded the injured wing and cradled the bird inside my jacket as I carried it home.

I awoke Laura (9) and invited her help to dress the bird’s injuries.  We swabbed the wounds with disinfecting peroxide.  The bird still pointed its open beak at our awkward fingers, but had stopped verbalizing its protests.  We then wrapped the bird so that both wings were gently pinned against its body.  When the bindings were removed, we reasoned, the strength in the mended wing would match the strength of the good wing.  The wings would gather new strength in concert.  Satisfied that this was the best chance the bird had to heal, we carried it outside to a small, protected pen and set it down upon its feet in the straw.  We hoped we would be able feed and water the bird long enough for it to recover.  We would have to catch bugs, since its diet did not include seeds.

Releasing the bound bird, it immediately fell over onto its face.  The bindings had rendered it completely helpless, like you or I would be if wrapped from head to toe with only our toes exposed for mobility.  It needed its wings for balance as well as for flight.  Discouraged, Laura and I removed all of our careful wrappings and did our best to splint the broken wing.  This less invasive treatment allowed the bird to stand and walk about, but the bandage wouldn’t stay on for the difficulty of attaching it to the wing feathers.

Despite our well-intentioned but fumbling efforts, the Kingbird died after three days.  Still, I was glad we had rescued the bird and attempted to nurse it back to health.  The thought of leaving the frightened bird in the roadway to be smashed by the next passing car saddened me.  Also, handling the small but proud creature, and working to heal it, had worked a change in us.  We felt a greater awe in nature’s wild things and a deeper grief at their loss.

* * *

An old Warbler nest hangs, swaying, from a low willow branch like a balled up, gray woolen sock.  It clings to the branch through the strongest of winds.  Gusts topping 80 miles per hour have neither torn it apart nor pulled it from its suspending branch.

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A lone Crow flies south behind a V-formation of Canada Geese.  It caws loudly despite a large parcel in its beak, defiant toward the fable of the fox and the crow.  This seems to be a smarter, more talented Crow.  Is this Crow lonely or content in its aloneness?  Do the geese communicate, or do they merely find comfort in their raucous propinquity?

A cock Ring-necked Pheasant croaks unseen in the tall grass, nervous at my approach.  When I stop to search with my eyes, he seems to suspect me of bad intentions, and flaps inelegantly into a tree, landing clumsily in its top branches, his feathers thrashing against leafy twigs.  On Rabbit Lane, feathers from a Pheasant hen lay scattered about, chestnut brown barred with beige.  Nearby sits a pile of spent red plastic shotgun shells with brass caps.

When the Robin appears, pulling at worms, I know that Spring is near.  Hummingbirds whir and zoom looking for early flowers.  They light in me a tiny spark of joy that has lain smoldering all Winter.

The Killdeer scream at me, draw me away from their spare nests that lie hidden in the rocks and gravel, flapping their striped wings as if injured.

In a chaotic, white cloud of winged, shrieking voices, whirling and churning around me, charging my senses, thousands of California Gulls descend upon a newly ploughed field next to Rabbit Lane.  I perceive no order in their loose, gregarious grouping, unlike flocks of geese following a leader in formation.  Milling around in search of upturned earthworms, the flock calls raucously, sounding like a thousand tuneless New Year’s Eve noisemakers.  Despite their awful sound, the birds are beautiful: sleek white feathers with gray tips, a red dot on each side of the creamy yellow beak.  In flight, their streamlined bodies and powerful wing beats propel them through the air, with their black webbed feet tucked into their downy white undersides.

At Boy Scout camp at Lake Seneca, New York, the older boys sent me to ask another troop for a left-handed smoke-shifter, then took me on a snipe hunt.  I found neither the device nor the creature.  Only after moving to Erda did I learn that the Snipe is a real creature, a water bird.  Smaller than an Avocet, the Snipe roams the ditches and wetlands, poking its beak into the mud for insects and small crayfish.  On many an evening I strained to discern the source of a soft, ghostly, reverberating sound moving over the farm fields.  But I never found it.  Explaining this mystery to Harvey one afternoon, he told me to look high into the sky whenever I heard the sound.  There, I would see a small dot, the ventriloquistic Snipe.  Flying high, the Snipe turns to dive and roll at breakneck speeds toward the ground.  Wind rushing through its slightly open wings creates the haunting sound.  The Snipe throws the sound somehow from those heights to hover foggily over the fields.  I hear it less and less as the years pass.

The water from Rabbit Lane’s ditch crosses Charley’s pasture diagonally, bogging at the northwest corner.  Twenty or more striped Wilson’s Phalaropes cackle harshly at me as I walk by, their long legs sunk in the bog and their long beaks searching for insects and invertebrates.

Birds twitter in the willow bushes by the irrigation ditch.  Birds sing from the Russian Olive trees.  Birds call and screech and chirp from bushes and branches, from the tops of cedar fence posts and in flight.  How does one describe the song of a bird?  My National Geographic field guide to North American birds assigns all manner of syllabic writing to bird songs and calls, none of which words approach a satisfactory description of the music.  In English, the Crow is synonymous with the “caw.”  These meager descriptions are like saying a note played on the piano sounds like plink, like a model-T horn shouts ba-OO-ga, like a baby’s cry is waaaa.  No euphemistic reduction does justice to the genuine song.  Thanks to Cornell University’s ornithology lab, new bird books allow the reader to push a button and hear each bird’s unique song, sometimes a humble peep, sometimes a glorious, frenetic melody.

The Western Kingbird’s song resembles chaotic, unpatterned electronica.  A Bullock’s Oriole splashes its ember-orange on a canvas of blue-green Russian Olive.

The Western Meadowlark sings frequently from the tops of cedar tree fence posts.  Even driving at 60 miles per hour with the window cracked, I can hear its piercing but beautifully melodious song.  Attempts to whistle the tune bog it terribly down and omit half the notes, each critical, resulting in a sometimes recognizable but always shabby imitation.

A Black-chinned Hummingbird perches on a strand of stiff barbed wire, surveying vast fields of grass.  Its black beak points as straight and as sharp as the silver barbs, yet the bird possesses a softness and a beauty incongruous with the hard wire stretched tight.

A Field Crescent flits from place to place on Rabbit Lane’s asphalt, flying a low dance around my walking feet, making momentary spots of brightness against the ubiquitous gray.

On Tuesday

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The arrival of new animal life brings incomparable happiness to children, both exhilaration and tenderness, as this poem portrays, written from the perspective of my then 8-year-old daughter Laura.  The ducklings pictured above are being raised as I post by Hannah, my youngest (with a little prodding from Dad).

ON TUESDAY

On Tuesday
Dad brought home the chicks:
six day-old ducklings
in a little cardboard box:
2 yellow-green,
2 green-brown, and
2 black.
And 2 turklings!
Dad says we’ll eat the turkeys
when they’re grown,
so I’m not allowed to name them.
But the ducklings are my very own.
Already I have named them:
Pumpernickle and Blackbeak,
Wingers and Fuzzles,
Nester and Dandylion.
They paddle prodigiously in the bathtub,
with water not too cold and not too warm.
They shiver and protest at
being wrapped up tightly in a towel.
They huddle under the heat lamp
and peep when I approach.
They bustle about my feet as
I sit in their pen on a cinderblock stool.
They don’t complain when I pluck them up,
but nestle comfortably up under my chin,
as if I were their mamma.
My ducklings are my friends.
They tell me they like me
with their peeping peep peeps.
They tell me they accept me
as they cuddle and becalm.
They tell me they’ll miss me
by the way they look at me
as I walk away for the night.
“Don’t worry, little ducks,” I tell them.
“I’ll be back
Tomorrow.”

Chapter 34: Of Ducks and Geese

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–Away I must fly.–

From over a hundred yards away, I hear the enormous sound of what surely is a hundred geese cackling in loud cacophony.  I cannot see them in the pre-dawn darkness.  But in the growing light of my return walk, I make out the small gaggle of only a dozen very loud domesticated white geese as it mills under the venerable Cottonwood in Craig’s pasture, making its only-as-a-goose-can-do honking. Continue reading

My Child

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When small children are feeling hurt–on the inside or on the outside–they need to know that they can turn to someone for comfort, acceptance, and love.  They need to know that there is someone they can trust.  With our big-person problems, it can be challenging to find patience for a little child’s hurt.  But we must.  We must show our children that they can trust us and that we will be here for them when need us.  Otherwise they turn to others, often less trustworthy, or attempt to bury their pain deep inside, where it festers.  I wrote the poem “My Child” when Erin first went to a church nursery class at 18 months old.  I sat on the floor in the corner of room, keeping as low a profile as possible while she interacted with the other children and adults.  Erin came to me a time or two when her anxiety overcame her tranquility.  When she felt safe, she ventured off to play again.  She has now ventured off into the wide world, though she checks in once in awhile.

MY CHILD

Small child
clinging to me.
Soft cheek against my roughness,
delicate arms draped over my drooping shoulders.
Soothe your fears.
Let your tears fall and
wet my sleeve.
Let your love flow and
seep into my craggy heart.

Soon healed, your troubles forgotten,
release and turn away to play,
a smile on your small-child face,
a greater love in me.

Chapter 32: Snow Angel

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–Sweetness: that which induces a slow rolling of the tongue, a gentle closing of the eyes,
and an escape from the lips of a sensuous, sighing, “ahh.”–

Two young girls rode their bicycles down Church Road coming from the direction of Rabbit Lane.  Working in the yard, I looked up just as one bicycle, ridden by the younger girl, slid on a gravelly patch, and she fell face forward onto the asphalt.  I ran toward the crying girl, about six years old, with my concerned children following close behind.  Blood oozed from abrasions on the girl’s knee and elbow and cheek, and a tooth was broken. Continue reading

Moonlight

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Caleb (2) and I, lying together on his bed, looked out the window at the moon, talking quietly.  He asked rather suddenly, “Would you write me a song about the moon?”  Well, I thought, I guess I could try.  The notes came quickly, and soon I was humming a tune to him with occasional key words rising up.  As the song came together, I imagined the moon and the stars being living entities giving their light to the universe under the direction of benevolent gods that also watch over sleeping children.  Here is the link to the sheet music for Caleb’s lullaby, Moonlight.  (See this lullaby referenced in the post Chapter 30: Good-Bye Harv in the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.)

Shoes 2: Son on Sunday

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An empty, dusty pair of shoes has seen nearly every step of the life of the wearer: Sunday services, basketball games, dinners at home and away, airports, bedrooms, offices, funerals, weddings, and the resting place of all shoes, the closet.  Seeing my son’s dress shoes one Sunday afternoon prompted me to reflect on the boy he was and the man he was quickly becoming.  I ached and hoped for him as the days trudged on and the years flew by.

SHOES

Black dress shoes, slightly scuffed,
stand on the bedroom floor,
purposefully aligned:
size 4½.
The house is empty now;
so, the shoes.
Each once possessed
a boy—once eight—
who laughed and ran,
who sparred with wooden swords and sound effects,
who worked in the garden along side his dad.
Each once held a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy,
with a noticeable underbite,
who wanted only to please,
only to be favored
with a warm smile and a twinkling eye.
The house is silent now;
so, the shoes.
Each once held a boy.

Chapter 25: Shining Shoes

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–Knock, knock.–
–Who’s there?–
–Shampoo.–
–Shampoo who?–
–Made you look! Made you look! Made you eat your underwear!–
(Caleb-3 to Dad)

As a four-year-old, Caleb loved cowboy boots, though he didn’t have any of his own.  Somewhere he found some hand-me-down boots, one brown and one black, different sizes, both for the left foot.  He wore them everywhere, without socks, running in shorts and a t-shirt around the yard, whooping and hollering, digging in the garden, shooting his stick rifle, tromping in the pig pen.

My dress shoes hold their shine quite well for several months.  But eventually the time comes when I need to polish them.  Shining my shoes quickly becomes a family affair.  It seems that the moment I open the can of polish, the strong smell runs throughout the house, as if summoning the children, and they in turn come running, each with at least one pair of their own shoes.  They watch me patiently for a minute or two.

“Can I help you shine your shoes, Dad?” they each ask.  Next, “will you help me shine my shoes?”  Then, “Can I shine my own shoes?”

In the 1970s, before I can remember him doing it, my father made himself a wooden shoeshine box.  He made one for me at the same time, with my initials carved artistically in one end: REB.  The ends of the shoe box are shaped like broad spades; the sides slant inward and down to form a narrow bottom.  The wide lid is hinged, and a cross bar connects the tops of the two spade handles.  The box is stained a rich walnut.  Inside the box sit various cans of polish: dark brown, light brown, tan, cordovan, ox blood, white, and two cans of black.  The black polish gets used up the quickest, because I use it on every shoe to dress up the sole and heel edges.  Mixed in with the cans are various old gym socks and toothbrushes.  My favorite item is the wood-handled horse-hair brush made in Israel.  Over more than 30 years of polishing shoes, the horse hairs have slowly shortened to about half their original length.  But the hairs remain just soft enough and just course enough to give a perfect shine.

I formerly used the old gym socks, wrapped around my fingers, to apply the polish.  But I grew tired of dark stains on my fingertips where the polish seeped through the socks.  Now I use old toothbrushes to wipe the thick polish out of the can and work it into the leather.  When I’m done, the toothbrushes go into the socks to keep the box clean.  The polish dries and flakes inside the toothbrush bristles, so I vigorously work the bristles back and forth against the inside of the sock, both when putting the brushes away and when retrieving them for the next job, so that I don’t scatter specks of dried polish that stain my clothing and the carpet the next time I pull them out to polish.

I usually have enough patience to polish three pairs of shoes.  The number reduces to two if the children are clamoring to help.  Allowing a child to participate in shining shoes complicates the process significantly.  I place the can carefully on a rag so that the helping child doesn’t smear polish on the carpet or furniture.  I make sure he doesn’t scrape too much polish onto the brush to prevent globs from falling onto the carpet.  I see that she doesn’t fill the crevices and holes in the leather with polish, like putty.  I double check that every bit of leather has a film of fresh polish.  I let them help with the polish for a little while.  What works best is for me to apply the polish and to let them shine the shoes with the horse-hair brush.  Nothing can go wrong with shining.  Shining works best by placing one hand inside the shoe and passing the brush over the shoe with even, swinging strokes with the brush hand.  The in-shoe hand turns and angles the shoe to allow the brush to shine every part of the shoe.  I show the children how, then hand them the shoe and the brush.  Their little hands don’t fill the shoe like mine, making it harder to hold the shoe steady in the face of the swinging brush.  But when their hands grow, they will know how to hold the shoe steady for the best shine.  Their feet will grow, too, and their hearts and their minds, and will fill larger shoes than mine.

Many times after church and our mid-day meal we take a family walk on Rabbit Lane.  I sometimes forget (or am too lazy) to change out of my newly-polished shoes.  Back from our walk, I see that fine dust from the dirt road has settled upon my shoes, covering the polish.  A few strokes with the horse-hair brush usually restore the shine.

I find myself shining my shoes less and less over time.  As my shoes age, I feel less motivated to keep them looking nice.  I wear them scuffed, unpolished, and old.  Some lawyers I work with never seem to shine their shoes.  If the polish gets significantly scuffed, they simply buy new shoes.  I wear mine until they are worn out, polishing them (or not) for years.  Even an old shoe assumes new respectability with a fresh coat of polish.

I like the pungent odor of shoe polish: it reminds me of my childhood home and the aroma of my father’s regular shoe polishing.  He kept his wooden shoe shine box in his walk-in closet, with his initials carved in the side: ONB.  But not everyone enjoys the strong odor.  I fret that if I polish my shoes in my closet, it will smell up my wife’s clothing.  Maybe I should polish my shoes on the porch, or in the tool shed, or in the chicken coop, where the smell won’t bother anyone.

Chapter 24: Remembering the Day

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What I like best is being with you.

The hour was 10 p.m., long after the children’s bed times.  I had come home late from city council meeting, and had settled into the sofa with cookies and cold milk, Grandma Lucille’s crocheted afghan over my lap, and a book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries in my hand.  Finally, it was time for a little quiet enjoyment. Continue reading

Chapter 19: Porn

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–The Sego Lily is the most delicate and elegant of chalices, a veritable grail.–

The state highway traverses the valley three-quarters of a mile away, perpendicular to Church Road as I approach Rabbit Lane.  In the dark morning, a long line of white headlights travels north toward the Great Salt Lake, becoming red taillights as I pan from south to north.

Where do they all go? Continue reading

Slop Bucket

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Piggie, our pet black pot-bellied pig, has lived long enough for all of my four sons to bring him his daily slops bucket, made up of peelings from daily meal preparations and unwanted meal leftovers.  At first the boys thought it was cool to feed the pig.  But then Winter came, and the slops bucket needed to be taken out every day in freezing temperatures (usually at night because they had neglected to do it during the day), and the water bucket froze and the ice needed to be broken every day, and I insisted that the smelly slops bucket be rinsed out before being brought back inside to its place under the kitchen sink, the chore became less glamorous. Piggie lives on.  On occasion a family member hopes out loud that the pig will choke on an avocado pit, but only in jest.  (This poem tells of the slop bucket chore from the John’s perspective ten years ago, with me, his dad, looking on.  Hyrum took the photo today.  The poem relates to the post Chapter 13: Of Goats and a Pot-Bellied Pig on the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.)

Slops Bucket

The wintry day was gone,
the frosty night full on,
and Dad held the slop bucket out.
“You forgot your chore, son,
and the pig is hungry.
You’ll have to go out,
though it’s cold and it’s dark.”
I stomped and I cried;
I begged him not to send me out
into the fog-filled frosty night.
But Dad just handed me the brim-full bucket.
“I’ll keep the porch light on:
you’ll be fine.”
Dressed for the cold,
I heaved on the handle,
and stepped into the night.
My skin all goosebumpy,
I followed the frozen-mud path
through the tall, stiff iron grass.
A low rumbled grunt
made me start, and then shiver,
and look warily around
at dim shadows and darkness.
Pig stood at the gate in patient anticipation.
“Here pig,” I snorted, and dumped the warm slop.
As pig smacked and slurped,
a white vapor rose like a phantom,
and I turned to run the way I’d come.
On the porch, in the light, stood my dad,
in his slippers, arms crossed in plaid flannel.
He smiled at me as I came.
I warmed, then, because
I knew I’d done good;
so did he.
I knew I’d done right;
so did he.
And I knew I’d grown up just a tad.

Chapter 15: Of Foxes and Hens

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You are my best friend and my big buddy.
(John-3 to Dad)

The day-old chicks arrived at the store in a box delivered by U.S. mail.  While I had ordered only half-a-dozen specialty breed pullets, they came boxed with two dozen unsexed White Leghorns for cushioning and warmth.  I had hung a heat lamp—a warm if impersonal surrogate for their mothers’ downy breasts—in a makeshift pen because the chicks were too tiny and frail to generate enough of their own body heat against the chilly Spring nights.  The hanging lamp radiated light and heat downward to make a spot of warmth in the straw where the chicks gathered close to rest.  I don’t think they ever fully slept, for the light.  But they were warm and safe and comfortable. Continue reading

Our Pet Goat Died Today

The deaths of dear pets have hurt my children’s tender feelings many times over as many years.  The sad fact is: pets die.  Sometimes from neglect; sometimes from sickness; sometimes from old age.  From tiny hamsters to guinea pigs, and from chickens to full-sized goats, each death raised in the children’s innocent minds anew the questions of why things die, and why did their heart have to hurt so much when saying good-bye to friends.  I grieved for them and with them as they grieved their losses.  The day one of our pet goats died, Erin and Laura cried and cried.  I didn’t know how to comfort them.  But I stayed with them and talked with them and did my best to sooth them.  I wrote this poem about the occasion.  It isn’t a great poem, but it expresses poetically the bitter-sweet experience of losing our pet goat.  You can read more about our pet goats in Chapter 13: Of Goats and a Pot-Bellied Pig post in the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.

OUR PET GOAT DIED TODAY

Our pet goat died today.
We noticed he was sick:
gasping for breath;
struggling to raise his head off the ground.
Big hands placed him in the November sun;
little hands rubbed him warm,
coaxed him to suck from the bottle, but he wouldn’t, or he couldn’t.
Then he was dead.
He was our friend, and he was gone.
I held him and gathered my little children close around,
where they wept as death and loss seeped into their reality:
“I don’t want him to die,” they sobbed.
“I’m sad too,” I said.
Daughters chose the burial place,
near Diamond, last Spring’s kitten.
Father and son dug deep in the hard clay.
Old chicken straw made a bed and a pillow and a blanket,
to keep our goat warm and comfortable
in his resting place.
Fall’s last roses placed around his head
would bring him pleasant smells in Winter.
A child’s graveside prayer,
trusting an unseen wonder,
would protect the goat and comfort their sad hearts.
“Daddy, where do goats go when they die?” they asked,
knowing that I would know the answer.
I looked in my heart for sweetness and truth:
“I’m sure God loves goats just like he loves people, so goats must go to heaven.”
Through tears they asked hopefully, “Will we see him again?”
“I hope so,” I said. Then, “Yes, I’m sure we will.”
Worried at the thought of the goat covered with earth, they asked,
“What will happen to his body when he’s buried?”
Searching again:
“This is the goat’s resting place, and you have made it very special
with your flowers and prayers.
He will just rest here awhile.”
One last scratch on his nose to say good-bye.
My son works to fill the hole.
My daughters gently place the reddest rose petals on the mound.
Then they run off to play,
and I hear the scared bleating of a lonely goat.

Chapter 13: Of Goats and a Pot-Bellied Pig

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–Our garden is going to grow because of this beautiful rain!–
(Caleb-3)

Caleb (2) loved to feed the goats.  We kept a bucket under the sink into which we scraped all the table scraps and vegetable peelings.  Each time Caleb saw the bucket, he cheered, “Goatie, goatie!”  I carried the bucket in one arm and the boy in the other to the goat yard, dumping the bucket’s contents into the lopsided plywood manger I had made.  At 14, one of Caleb’s daily chores was to empty the scrap bucket into the pig pen, and it was no longer an occasion he looked forward to. Continue reading

Across the Day

Each morning as I leave for work I cross paths with my children.  They each require a hug (or two or three) as I run out the door.  I am often late and anxious to get away.  Sometimes I protest, “Just let me go, guys” or “You already hugged me once” or “I’m just going to work.”  When I slow down and live more mindfully, I stop and put my briefcase on the floor to give them a genuine embrace and a smile and a kind word, perhaps “I love you” or “Have a great day”.  If I really pay attention to these moments of connection, I notice a subtle but distinct feeling of goodness and happiness, a sense that something in life has changed for the better.  This poem is about one of those moments when I suppressed my natural tendency to hurry on to the next task and allowed myself to slow down and see what really needing doing.  See the related Chapter 12: Worm Sign post of the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.

ACROSS THE DAY

Down the stairs he stepped,
pulling up a pant leg
to expose to me
yesterday’s skinned knee
and today’s unabashed want
for tenderness.
“It still hurts,” he whimpered
as I flew toward the door
with my briefcase and bagel.
“And you forgot.”
With guilty remembrance, I stopped
and lifted him to a counter top.
With guilty haste I rummaged through a drawer
for a bandage and soothing ointment.
“It feels better already,” he sighed,
his smile following me
out the door, down the highway,
and across the day.

Generations

So many times I have caught myself reflecting on the fact that I am as old in a given moment, involved with one of my children, as my father was when involved in the same way with me: camping, throwing a baseball, swimming and sailing at scout camp, choosing not to spank a stubborn child, asking about girlfriends, counseling through challenges, on bent knees begging for a child’s welfare.  I often sense a melding and shifting of the generations, from me being the child to being the father of a child, and yet I remain the child.  I muse on this time-defying phenomenon in this poem, Generations, and on the Chapter 11: Austin post listed in the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog.

GENERATIONS

I am the center and the circumference,
the present and the past.
The generations are one before me,
the memories of years
a single infinite scene,
shifting and stirring within me,
slowly moving to embrace the future
even as it becomes the past.

I am at once a boy and a man,
a son and a father,
my child: my father: myself.
I gaze at my child
and see
my father gazing at me
and feel
a father’s agony,
as I look to my father,
and my child looks to me.

Sun Has Gone

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Hannah (8) has added me to her bedtime routine.  “I was wondering,” she begins, “if you could maybe sing me a few short songs tonight.”  I sit on the edge of her princess bed and sing her one of my little songs, or a song from my 1970 Mister Rogers’ Songbook, a prized if tattered possession.  A song only takes a minute.  But many nights I feel burdened and tired.  The thought of answering to one more child’s needs sometimes overwhelms me.  It’s just one song, I say to myself with a sigh, and succumb.  From the first note I feel glad that I didn’t give in to the excuse of being weary.  A song only takes a minute.  Here is one of my favorite songs.  I wrote it years ago in response to a child’s request for a song from Dad.  It is sweet, calming, and, best of all, short.  The perfect lullaby for nights when Dad just needs to say “good-night” and go be by himself, or go to bed.  I hope that you will sing it to your little ones.  If you are so inclined, sing it through twice.  A song only takes a minute.

Sun Has Gone

Little Baby (Lullaby)

Brian, my firstborn, suffered typical colic from about six weeks to about six months of age, always beginning at 6:00 p.m., it seemed.  A second year law student (and struggling with the stresses of law school), I frequently paced the living room floor trying to sooth the crying baby with gentle bounces, soft shushes, coos, and random soft melodies.  In Brian’s moments of calm slumber, I looked on his beautiful face and felt overcome with feelings of love, peace, beauty, and gratitude.  In these serene moments I began to compose a lullaby, metered to the my rocking arms.  Although Brian is now a 6-foot-4 24-year-old, I think of his once tiny form every time I sing this song.  Here it is for you to enjoy.  While I have titled it “Little Brian Baby” in my own book of music, for you I have titled it simply “Little Baby” and have added brackets in the lyrics indicating where you can insert the name of your child or grandchild as you sing. Enjoy this lullaby as you rock your precious little ones to sleep.  (To see the score, click on the link below.)

Little Baby

Chapter 9: Witch’s Tree

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–Desire teased spawns vice.–

My boots crunch loudly on Rabbit Lane’s loose gravel.  The noise reverberates in the air and in my brain and distracts me from the peaceful quiet of my surroundings.  I imagine the noise to be similar to that of chewing crisp carrots with tight earphones on.  I find myself wandering within the roadway in search of the path of least noise generation potential.  Part of me doesn’t want to startle the wildlife, which in turn startles me with a sudden rustling of wings or splashing of water.  I also don’t want to interfere with nature’s soft voices.  A bigger part of me simply doesn’t want to draw attention to myself, not even from the animals.  On Rabbit Lane, at least, I can be free of critical eyes and voices.  Still, even here, alone, I instinctively avoid the noise that would bring the attention of looks and whispers in other places. Continue reading

Chapter 8: Tracks in the Snow

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–Wherever I am, I find that the road stretches both ahead and behind.–

From the airport lighthouse shine alternating beams of white and green light, ghostly sweeping columns in the crystalline air against the undersides of low-hanging clouds.  Here, walking in this desert, I imagine a lighthouse perched on a craggy rock cliff, overlooking ocean waves beating themselves in ferocious crashes against the rock, and ships with trimmed sails rocking, taking on water, close to sinking, with frantic, frightened sailors looking to the light as to a savior, the only thing in the world they can cling to, trust in. Continue reading

Chapter 6: Harvey

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–Small acts of kindness soften the soul.–

“Let’s go over to Harvey’s,” I suggested one Sunday afternoon soon after moving to the country house.

“Who’s Harvey?” asked Brian (8).

“Harvey is our neighbor,” I explained.  “You’ll like his place.  He has lots of animals.”

We walked down Church Road toward Rabbit Lane, past Russell’s arena, and turned up the dirt drive to Harvey’s log-sided house.  No one answered my knock at the door, but I thought it would be alright if we looked around at Harvey’s animals.  We smelled the animals before we saw them: skunk.  No doubt about it.  A wrinkled, water-stained sign wired to the cage read, Stay Away. Continue reading

Good Night My Dear (Lullaby)

I wrote this lullaby for Erin, my second child, to comfort her in her nighttime fears.  (See Rabbit Lane: Memoir page, Chapter 4: Desert Lighthouse post).  (To see the song score, click on the link below.)

Good Night My Dear


Roger Evans Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The non-fiction book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  Rose Gluck Reviews recently reviewed Rabbit Lane in Words and Pictures.

Chapter 4: Desert Lighthouse

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–Only small people seek to make other people feel small.–

Our first night in the country house, the children all slept in mom’s and dad’s room.  We offered this arrangement until they felt comfortable sleeping in their own rooms.  One night several weeks after moving to her own room, Erin (5) couldn’t sleep.

“Daddy,” Erin called in a loud whisper.

“What?” I moaned groggily after a moment.

“The lightning is keeping me awake.”

“What lightning?” I yawned.  “I don’t hear any lightning.”

“No—look—it’s flashing right now, without thunder or rain,” she persisted.

I pushed myself up onto an elbow with a groan. Continue reading